Clans and Plans
Not once in his life had he ever dreamed. It was said that only those with foresight would dream, and even then there would only be brief glimpses of the future. The course of time could change within a second, and even one with the gift to see ahead wasn’t always correct.
Dolen’s thoughts awoke even as he slept, and he was flying. There was no other word for it. He saw glimpses of the sky as he gracefully dodged trees and branches still covered in snow, the darkness around him apparently no barrier. When he awoke as himself, Dolen sat up with a sharp gasp, his eyes focusing quickly to the fading light. He had slept through the day and was only now waking up as the sun slipped below the horizon. It was unusual that he took so much rest after a trip, even one as long as they had taken. Although, it could be blamed on the fact that they had spent most of the time outside of Tarragon, in air which was said to have a draining effect on the forest’s life-giving forces.
Sighing softly, he moved to sit up, looking around his small home in the darkness. The heating rocks were barely lit in the corner, and the rest of the room was strewn with supplies and clothing he’d cast aside upon his return. His bed had never looked as inviting as it had that morning, and his need for it had been much more important that anything else. He had not even undressed.
Dolen slid his fingers through white hair on either side of his head and stretched his legs, allowing himself to fully wake. He did his best to remember what had gone on outside of the human kingdom, and tried to swallow the fact that there was nothing more to be done. He could do no more than wait. Even Ta’llevny had not given him another job to start on, so really, Dolen had nowhere to be.
It was not exactly a settling feeling. The white haired elf got to work on changing clothes and cleaning the wooden floor of his tree-bound home, folding his cloaks and placing them on shelves, setting his small assortment of bows, arrows and knives into a small closet he had built specifically for them. He sprinkled the proper herbs around the stone pile and knelt to pray aloud. Not much of the magic within Tarragon required herbs or prayers, but this was a simple ritual that all elves knew of. Even the least gifted in magic could bring heat to the stones; they only needed to ask.
Once the single but spacious room began to heat up, Dolen took a seat in his chair, which was layered enough in furs and saddle pads to make it the most comfortable of the three in the room. It was not usual for him to have visitors, but he figured he might as well be prepared for them. Finally, he was at ease once again, his thoughts wandering over what it was he needed to (or maybe even wanted to) do. All thoughts of the dream were forgotten until he heard the flapping of wings outside his home. The same white owl settled onto a perch within the elf’s sight range and began preening itself, obviously having caught and eaten its dinner.
Dolen’s leaned forward in his seat, resting elbows on his knees as his eyelids lowering in a frustrated but curious manner.
“What do you want with me?” he asked aloud.
The owl stopped, looked, and blinked at him before returning to his preening.
The male elf gave another sigh and shook his head again. The owl was not doing any harm. If anything, it was keeping him company! Besides, his thoughts had moved on to the subject of dinner as well. He was lucky that he kept stores up in the small cottage with him, since he was not in the mood to dig through the snow for anything at the moment. In fact, he was not really in the mood to leave the warm area at all.
When he sat back down, gnawing on a piece of hard bread, he caught sight of something that struck him still. Leaning against one of his cabinets, nearly invisible against wood coloring of its own kind was a tall, cylindrical instrument; One he had learned to play years before. It had strategically placed holes that aided in changing tones when covered or released, though the sound the instrument made was always a warm, deep bass.
Dolen chewed the bread thoughtfully, his eyes taking in the familiar musical tool. He stood once again, lifting the instrument that was nearly as tall as he, and weighing it in the hand that was not holding a piece of bread. It brought a clear reminder to his mind that it had been too long since he had played it. What better time than a lazy day such as this one to brush up on old skills?
The vibrating tones and soft nuances did not seem to bother the owl. Even as Dolen moved on to louder, more complicated rhythms, the owl only stared, watching as if fascinated by the strange occurrence. The elf hoped it was a testament to his playing skills that the bird did not simply take off and never return.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Swinging a sword not only relieved stress, but it kept one’s muscles moving. It also kept the heart rate up, the blood pumping, and the adrenaline running if you were serious about it.
Silna had been going through the motions of her usual practice routine several times over. Though she had slept well, her mind was still running too fast for her to follow. She had waited for her parents to get into a particularly interesting conversation, and then slipped out, making her way to the wide expanse of a paddock and clearing herself a space to work in the snow.
Without an escape, she surely would have been given things to do. There was food to prepare and move, supplies to gather and set up, and even foreign residents to welcome. Several jobs were to be carried out between now and the Winter Festival, but Silna was in no mood to be around anyone right now. The horses suited her fine, whether she could hear them or not. That depended on the individual, as it did with elves. Some animals had the ability to communicate mentally, some did not. That was the reason the paddock existed in the first place. On this morning, she was particularly glad to be surrounded by quiet minds.
Her attention was settled on a particular tree, which she had covered with an old saddle pad and was attacking with care. Careful steps, twists, lifts and jabs were involved in swordsmanship, but Silna performed them all with the grace of a dancer. Her body was heated to a point where the snow on the ground nearby looked welcoming. Elves did not sweat as humans did, but they also had a much higher tolerance of temperature. Silna directed her deep blue gaze upward, moving a few strands of hair out of her eyes as she gauged the time.
“Yes, you have been at that too long. You are glowing, Silna,” her mother’s voice carried over the snow to her.
It was not a happy tone, either. Lae’ra approached leading two saddled mares, her eyes portraying a particular annoyance that Silna had almost grown familiar with.
“You left footprints,” she said shortly, handing a pair of reins to her and mounting her mare easily. “Best be glad I brought this for you, otherwise I would have insisted you leave that here.” Lae’ra said, indicating the sword sheath with her eyes. She pulled a delicate looking shawl out of one of the saddle bags and handed it to her daughter. “Put that on, and let’s be off. We are due to greet families from the Tree-borne clan until the sun sets.”
Silna cursed in Rowena’s tongue and mounted, sheathing her sword and pulling the shawl on over her head. As the two began at a slow walk, Silna slowly removed the bulky bracers on her arms and shins.
“Tree-borne? But why not your family?” Silna asked after they had made it to one of the trails, following the few foot and hoof prints already left in the snow.
Silna began braiding her hair as she waited for an answer, figuring she might as well look presentable. Out of the four main clans of Tarragon (Tree, Blade, Trail, and Mind), Tree-borne was the most elusive and respected. Their talents carried far and wide throughout the forest, and most of the homes shared by all clans had been sculpted or built by one of theirs. Ta’llevny was originally Tree-borne, which showed well in the make and look of his home.
“Aizel will be greeting them and his own,” Lae’ra answered, her mood slowly lifting from annoyance as they made their way along the trail.
It was not often that a clan or group of outland Tarragon residents were greeted or brought in by anyone other than a family member. Most of both Lae’ra and A’dair’s family came from the Trail-borne clan, who specialized in tracking and living on the ground, or not very far from it. A’dair had shown more talent in mind magics and things of that nature so he had moved to the outskirts of Tarragon, their current home, which to outsiders was known as the clan of the Mind-borne.
This was the most populated area in Tarragon. Such was the home of the great Ta’llevny, his esteemed riders, and therefore what many would call the heart of Tarragon’s magic. Most of their neighbors and fellow residents were mind-magic users, so abilities that came easily to them, such as mind-speaking, did not come so often to members outside of their clan.
Although Lae’ra herself had come from the Blade-borne clan, she had shown more proficiency in tracking, which is what led her to a life of sending and receiving messages. Silna was said to have been fully gifted with her mother’s family’s talents. She had often wondered if she would eventually make her home with the Blade-borne clan. Although her mind magic was fair, her passion for the sword was something her mother often told her was unique. The move would be a drastic one, though, and it was one she did not want to make for some time.
They picked up their pace to a trot, and Silna silently wondered if Dolen would ride out with Aizel to greet the Trail-borne. He was primarily from that clan, and had only come to Mind-borne territory to pursue a career as one of Ta’llevny’s riders. That was a little known fact; One he did not readily admit to others. Regardless, he had managed to acquire his current job through Ta’llevny, although it was one not quite as well-regarded. On second thought, she had a feeling that he would not do more than hole himself up in some tree and wait for the festival to start.
It would be a decently long ride, and Silna’s thoughts ranged far and wide during that time. Her mother was exceedingly learned in the politics of the different clans, and served her peers well. In addition to that, she had made sure Rowena and Silna were as skilled as they could be in the same subject, which was likely why she had chosen her daughter to accompany her to greet the guests.
‘That, or simply to annoy me,’ Silna thought with a dark look.
The snow was getting deeper as they went, proving that they were pulling further away from their home. Living amongst the Mind-borne clan was a blessing in most ways, since they were able to protect their territory from any overwhelming outside effects, such as harsh weather.
“We cannot expect many of them, being that they have so far to ride,” Lae’ra seemed to wonder aloud, her eyes focused ahead of her.
“I don’t think any of the clans empty their communities to attend our festival, no matter how important. They must have their own provisions to protect, just as we do,” Silna said in reply, almost glad to have her mind set on one subject.
Her hair was braided, twisted and tucked in a much more elaborate way now, and she had to stop herself forcibly from continuing any more. The fact that they rode at a halting trot through a foot of snow made it hard for her to lift her hands beyond the saddle.
“We shall see, I suppose. I only believe they chose me for this because I understand their accent as well as any other,” she replied with a smirk. Though closely related, the different clans of Tarragon had slightly different dialects.
The two rode well into the depths of the forest, avoiding drifts and piles from tiny avalanches let loose by weighed down tree branches. Silna, despite her own apt riding skill, began to tire early. She had spent the entire day before on horseback, and looked to be spending this one in the same position.
“Mother, at this rate I’ll be too sore to perform any kind of dance at the ceremony,” she groaned, shifting her position.
Lae’ra only smiled and continued riding. By the time they reached their destination, Silna forgot her soreness in favor of polite surprise. The Tree-borne clan had sent many more than they usually did, with an almost suspicious amount of magic-users included.
One had to wonder how far news of a possible human invasion could have traveled.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Not here either, sir.”
The voice echoed down the wide expanse of the stable walls. Footsteps followed, unmistakably the hard, purposeful ones of the high prince.
“That doesn’t leave much. Not in her room, not in the stables, not in the dining hall.”
The steps slowed down and one of the horses in another stall snorted, stamping hard on the floor.
“Where ever could our foreign ambassador be?” Ferin’s voice lowered as if he were hunting, his steps slowing until the sound of a door slamming open broke the near silence once again.
This time several horses made varying noises in reply to being startled.
“It’s after dusk! Neither of those meddlesome stable boys are in sight, and my lazy brother isn’t around either,” Ferin’s voice rose again, his steps harder as he paced. “Something is definitely going on with that little group.”
“Lord Ferin, might we check the taverns?”
A scoff in reply. “Taverns? Vance? I think not,” the steps slowed and came closer. “The Lady wouldn’t care for them either, I’d imagine,” he trailed off. “Oh but what a fine piece of equipment this one is,” the drawling voice was louder now, and the stall door clicked and was drawn wide open. “Looks like she could use a run.”
The white horse he had opened the door for merely stood, staring at him. After a moment, she stepped forward and pulled the stall door closed, shutting herself inside again.
“They must... train them where she is from, sir,” the servant’s voice sounded surprised, despite his attempt to calm Ferin.
Silence for a moment, and then scraping footsteps leading back out at a quick pace.
“Where she is from, we don’t know. Which is why we need to make sure she chooses me and mine as the envoy from White Phoenix,” Ferin’s voice was much more frustrated. “We’ll check the entire palace again if we have to.”
“Sir, we checked everywhere...” the voices faded as the two left.
After another long silence, the sound of shifting hay drifted through the stables.
“Everywhere but in a stall,” Dale said as he brushed his legs off.
Lora, Cameron, Rowena and Vance stood around Spirit as the horse eyed them all.
“In a stall and in the taverns, apparently,” Vance eyed the hallway before stepping out and holding the door for the rest of them.
“We should take the back way out, just to be sure,” Lora suggested, closing the stall door behind Rowena.
All of them brushed themselves off and pulled hay from each other’s hair as they walked the length of the stable, speaking in low tones.
“Spirit will let me know if they come back, and I made sure Wylden keeps an eye on them too,” Rowena said in a whisper, feeling strangely criminal as they blatantly hid from the rest of the court.
“We can go to the tavern Dad usually sits at! He’ll probably be there now, you know,” Dale put in, eyeing them all.
Lora nodded in thought, and Cameron did the same before speaking up.
“I think you ought to meet him, Master Vance. He speaks very well of you,” he said, his siblings nodding in reply.
“I’d like to meet him as well, actually,” Vance voiced his thought aloud, remembering that he should probably apologize for putting the man’s children in such trouble. Or bringing them that close, anyway. “I’ll need someone’s cloak, though. I’d rather not be recognized.”
“Prince Vance in a tavern! That’ll cause a stir,” Dale mused.
“I can’t believe he tried to let Spirit out,” Rowena mumbled, her brows drawn low over her eyes as she studied the ground in front of her.
“Ferin still acts like a child when things don’t go his way,” Vance said. “I don’t think he planned to do that until he got a bit frustrated. Ridiculous, really,” he sighed and pulled on a cloak, lifting the cowl over his head to shade any view of his face. “Which is exactly why we need to take matters into our own hands.”
The four of them made their way through plowed paths in the snow, eventually joining a milling street crowd that covered their retreat quite well. Rowena received a few odd glances, but otherwise they went unnoticed, even as they stepped into the warm, well-lit tavern that Dale and Cameron had mentioned.
The boys immediately sequestered a table that sat them all comfortably, including their father. He was obviously an older man, but a well learned one. One glance at his calculating gaze and workman’s hands would tell that about him. He stood as tall as Vance, with gray hair kept short and combed back ,and the same green eyes his children all bore. He walked with a limp, but it didn’t seem to pain him at all.
“Dad, we’d like you to mee-” Dale began, but Cameron quickly shushed him into a low whisper. “We’d like you to meet Lord Vance,” he finished carefully. “Vance, this is our father, Charles.”
The two shook hands soundly, and the elder man sat back, eyeing his children in an amused fashion.
“I do appreciate that you’ve introduced me to your employer,” he said in a deep voice. “However, it looks to me as if you’ve left someone out.”
“Oh hell. That’s Rowena, Dad! The emissary from Tarragon Forest,” Lora cut in, whispering over a piece of hard bread.
She took a bite a moment later, smirking and shrugging when her father made a comment about her language. Once introduced, Lora, Dale and Cameron made sure Rowena and Vance both briefed Charles on their situation. They trusted him enough to let him in on the next day’s happenings, but not enough to explain that Tarragon’s fables were real. Still, he sat back after listening intently and nodded, thinking to himself as he sipped at a steaming cup of cider.
Finally, after the noise around them had risen up in loud conversation, he leaned forward and spoke in a soft tone.
“Lord Prince, it seems as though you are going to have trouble, no matter which road ya take.”
Vance ignored the use of his title and nodded solemnly. His dark eyes moved downward in thought, but shifted back up as Charles continued.
“However, I may be able to help you in some small way,” he said, eyes glittering with what his offspring knew to be anticipation. “Ferin, as you may well guess, is not favored by many outside of your grand home. There are many here who'd rather see him as a page than a king, and a few even willing to... take care of him. More than willing, if you ask me,” he said, rolling his eyes to check for listeners. “I can assure you that if there's any kind of uprising between the two of you, more than half of this kingdom’s people would side with you. Second Prince or not.”
Vance’s eyebrows contracted at this news. Sure, he knew Ferin was not well liked, but to side with him? The mention of an uprising also brought an entire slew of possibilities to his mind. They had spoken earlier in the day about how Rowena’s envoy would be chosen, but they still were not sure of what to do. Ferin could somehow weasel his way in, and then how could he not expect to see inside of Tarragon? Even if Vance could find a way to play envoy, how could he fake the signature of a foreign king?
Rowena had promised to at least relay the message to her leader, an elf by the name of Ta’llevny, but there was no guarantee that he would not simply ignore it. In such a case, both his father and brother would insist on an invasion, which would lead to an eventual battle.
“I don’t understand, he finally admitted. “The people of this kingdom do not know me. Ferin may make himself and all of his flaws known, but I’ve done my best to stay unseen,” he smirked in irony as he fingered the hood of the cloak, still pulled over his face despite the heat.
Charles set his cup down heavily and leaned forward, fixing Vance with a steady gaze. “Son, and forgive the lack of a title, but I’m proving a point,” when Vance nodded and motioned for him to continue, he did so. “These people understand you whether you know it or not. You’ve spent years hiding from your palace duties, but where did you go? Out here, amongst the common folk. However much you tried to hide your status, it was known. And if you’re like your brother in any way, it’s in that you’re clear as glass. We can see right through to your heart,” Charles lifted his chin and poked himself in the chest. “You’re a good man. I’ve said it for years, and I’ll keep sayin’ it.”
Vance nodded and swallowed, shaking his head once. “I can’t-”
“You don’t have to thank me or anyone else who thinks the same way. Just keep doin’ what you do. No one knows how you got past your family’s ill-raising, especially after your mother died,” the elder man shook his head and made a religious sign with his hand. “Great woman, she was.”
Vance lifted a hand at the mention of his mother and nodded once, sobering Charles for the moment. “I’m grateful, and I’m heartened to hear that so many people within the kingdom see me that way, but that won’t take me anywhere in the palace, ” he said honestly, frustration knotting his brows. “My father’s word is law. If he sees fit to march on Tarragon, he’ll do it,” he wished he could go on and explain exactly what his father would be ruining by doing so, but he stopped.
“I think he’s trying to tell you that you’ll have an army at your back, Vance,” Lora interjected, ignoring Cameron’s sharp glance. At the prince’s questioning look, she continued in a whisper. “If you choose to go against your brother in anything, you will have more than two allies and a pair of guards.”
Vance could only lift his brows at that, while Dale and Cameron drank their cider with identical smiles on their faces. It looked as if, for once, they agreed.
“Do you think I will be allowed to choose who accompanies me back to my home?” Rowena finally spoke, looking uncomfortable with interrupting.
“If Ferin has his way, no. Though the usual tradition is to let the emissary choose. Just choose me, if so. I’ll put together our party here, and we’ll be on our way,” Vance said in reply, lifting his hand to indicate the other three.
“He’ll follow us,” Cameron said, his eyes set on Vance’s.
“Not if father actually gives him some sort of job to do. If he does...” Vance shook his head and sobered, as if realizing that Cameron’s statement would likely come true. “We’ll just have to find a way to muddle his plans,” he sighed and put his elbows on the table to lean in, looking exhausted. “Ferin is the least of our troubles, truth be told. Father isn’t known for his lenient treaties. He’ll likely want a trade, a meeting of some sort, and to set different boundaries,” the prince shook his head and sighed again. “I do not foresee your leader acquiescing to his proposal.” he glanced to Rowena, who simply looked down.
“These are all bridges you have’ta cross when you get to them,” Charles cut in, placing an empty cider cup back on the table. “Right now you just focus on the next step.”
Nodding once, Vance sat back again. “We need to make sure that I am White Phoenix’s envoy.” he said, and the rest of them nodded in agreement.
“Tell you what, I’ll take care of the lesserfolk around here. Talk you up a bit, let them know that they might have to make a choice sooner than later,” Charles put in, standing and stretching.
Vance smiled and stood with him, offering his hand. “I truly appreciate your efforts, sir,” he said with nothing but honesty, shaking the firm hand and returning the smile.
“Just trying to keep ourselves in good hands, is all,” Charles nodded to them. “I’m off for the night. You three, keep your heads on straight or your mother’ll have vapors again.”
The three of them nodded, grinned and saluted respectively. Charles made his way out, and Vance sat back down heavily.
“I suppose we’ll have to prepare for the possibility of a long trip,” Cameron stated, though his tone questioned.
Vance nodded in reply. “I think so. We should all make our way back soon. Separately, though. Rowena should go with Lora, you two back to the stables, and I’ll travel back as discretely as possible.”
Cameron looked a bit perturbed at leaving Vance to travel alone, but he nodded, nonetheless.
“I will find a way to let you know if we are the chosen envoy tomorrow.”
“If need be, I can just send Wylden. He should be able to portray a positive or negative answer, at least,” Rowena offered with a quiet smile.
“Please do!” Lora grinned and sat up straight. Her affinity for Wylden was not something she needed to hide.
The group stood to leave not long after, all making their ways up separate paths to the palace as the sun set.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The king sat in his receiving room, surrounded by expensive furniture, a burning fire that kept the place warm, and a myriad of gifts sent by relatives and court leaders alike. Although the room was comfortable and well kept, the king looked anything but rested. His graying hair was sticking out as if he had just risen from bed, his eyes were surrounded by wrinkled skin as he squinted behind glasses, and his posture was rigid against the plush chair he sat in.
“Father this is a game! All of it! Can’t you see the way Vance has been acting?” Ferin was pacing the room, his energy apparently much more roused than his father’s. “He goes off in a huff to flit around that old forest, and returns with this beauty of a girl. Suddenly he’s at council meetings, looking all serious and concerned as if he actually cares.”
“Vance is learning a hard lesson in politics and structure, Ferin. It’s high time your brother caught an interest in such things,” the king’s voice was low and tired, yet he still suffered his son’s presence, doing his best to relax back into the chair. “You didn’t expect him to give the throne a wide berth all his life, did you?”
“The throne?” Ferin stopped pacing and fixed his father with a deadpan stare. “When did this discussion turn to the throne?” his words were careful, slow and annunciated. Still, he didn’t let his father answer the question. “Vance is second prince. He won’t get a chance at the throne.”
“Should you fall, Ferin, he will. Illness, war, and things of that nature can affect you as easily as it affects anyone. Your brother will succeed you if you fall,” the king stated, lifting a hand and giving his son a wry smile. “He will succeed me if you somehow fail to live up to a kingly standard.”
The king seemed almost amused as his son sputtered. The prince’s face flushed deep red, and his light eyes sparked in the firelight.
“You cannot be serious! Vance is a child!” he took a few steps toward the king’s chair and knelt down. “You cannot be serious.”
Shaking his head, the king merely chuckled. “You boys are but a few years apart. Vance is no more a child than you.”
Ferin stood again, pacing and running a hand through his hair in a very similar habit to his brother’s. Calming himself visually, Ferin turned and tilted his head in a strange form of restraint.
“I don’t trust Vance, father. He’s hiding something. Just... just let me be the ambassador of White Phoenix,” he implored.
The king stared at his son, pursed his lips and shook his head, eyes shifting away from the light. “You will get your answer tomorrow,” he said with finality, only now leaning heavily on one of the arms of the chair, a hand going to his own forehead. “I have a headache, Ferin. Have my page bring in some more of that tea.”
That was an order to leave, and Ferin took it accordingly, bowing in a short manner and closing the door softly behind himself. He delivered the message to his father’s page, giving the younger boy a look that told him not to dawdle.
Ferin walked heavily down the deserted hall. The courtiers would be smoking on the balconies or gathered in one of the many game rooms. Palace activity rarely stopped until well into the night, particularly after especially harsh weather. Cabin fever seemed to run rampant in the area around this time of year, and Ferin was usually one of the focal points of such gatherings.
However, the first prince took a left rather than the right that would take him down into the entertainment quarters. A cold draft slid easily through the fabric of his clothing, and he hissed through his teeth, glaring at nothing as he made his way down and down flights of stairs. Finally, he reached the bottom and reached out to grab a conveniently held cloak, fixing it around himself as he walked at a brisk pace. Footsteps at his side did not surprise him.
“Are they gathered?” he asked.
“Yes, Lord. The group is waiting in the servant’s dining area.”
Ferin nodded and continued on, a determined look in his eyes. “I do hope they’re ready for a long trip.”