Missions of Good and Bad
Traveling at night was not something Vance and his companions were used to. Although it was quite literally the middle of the night, all four humans sat ramrod straight in their saddles with wide eyes, as if waiting for something to appear before them. Nothing did, of course. Tarragon’s trees were filled with nothing but rustling branches, calls of nocturnal birds, and the soft light that Wylden and Frisle gave off when they chose to. After some time of silence, the group found themselves on the edge of Tarragon Forest.
“I will cover your tracks for as far as I can,” Tey’ven promised. “Ta’llevny bids that you do not stray from each other while within the human kingdom,” When both Rowena and Silna lifted their brows, he shook his head once. “There are no details, but he fears one left alone is one targeted. The humans as well.”
“How are we to stay together when Lora and her brothers have duties?” Rowena wondered aloud. “We certainly cannot follow the prince everywhere he goes,” she said slowly, wondering why Tey’ven was trying to warn them.
The esteemed rider only shook his head again and took in a slow breath through his nose. “I can only relay my master’s messages, not decipher them.”
He gave Silna a passing glance and handed her a small white bundle before turning Whisper away from the clearing. “You should be off.”
“What was that?” Rowena whispered, watching as Silna observed her gift.
The white-haired elf smiled, leaning over in the saddle and fiddling with one of her boots. “He seems to think I cannot properly arm myself,” she said, and Rowena caught a flash of metal as a white knife slid into a small sheath.
“I’m sure he is just making sure you stay safe,” Rowena said as the two girls rode after the group.
“Long ride?” she sent to Windwalker.
She smiled when the horse lifted his head, the long silver-grey mane floating around her legs.
“Yes,” he said to her, and though she felt trepidation as well as excitement, she knew that was as resolved as her old friend got.
The group made a stop after crossing Tarragon’s border to allow Rowena to visit her old human home. The rest stayed mounted and silent as she knelt on the snow covered stone and said her prayer and paid her respects. Once she was finished, they rode at a decent pace in the direction of White Phoenix, the moon shining clear in the sky to light their way.
They rode for hours until Vance finally deemed it necessary to camp, and stopped just as they sky began to gray with dawn’s light. It seemed odd to be camping during the day after traveling all night, but Vance wanted to arrive in White Phoenix while the sun was still high in the sky. He was sure that they would cause a spectacle upon their return, and he wanted no confusion over who was with him.
They dismounted and Dolen lifted his arm to send Snowsong into a patch of trees. The owl had ridden on his arm for the latter half of the trip, unaccustomed to both the land outside of Tarragon, and the length of the flight. By the time the sun peaked over the horizon, they had set up camp within a small patch of trees.
Dale and Cameron were asleep as soon as they laid down. Dolen moved away from the group as they made a fire, busying himself with brushing Talon down. Although wary at first, Rowena finally found herself sitting by the fire, soaking up its warmth gladly as the wind picked up around them. Silna sat by her, while Vance and Lora sat across from them huddled under their cloaks.
“I wonder how he cares so much for a horse he cannot speak to,” Silna said, meaning no harm in the statement as she observed Dolen.
“Talon enjoys silence as much as Dolen does,” Rowena explained. “He does not take riders who insist on keeping conversations,” she smiled, shrugging slightly underneath her cloak. “They are a good match.”
“He speaks to the owl, though?” Silna asked again, her blue eyes reflecting the firelight.
Rowena nodded. “I do not know how he came across such a friend, but Snowsong will not leave his side.”
“Sometimes the fates send us gifts in strange forms,” she murmured.
She idly flipped the small knife Tey’ven had given her over and over in her hand, avoiding the sharp blade without even looking at it. The weapon and it’s matching sheath were beautifully carved; all white with delicate curving designs.
“We should sleep,” Vance piped up in a soft voice.
Rowena and Silna met his eyes, noticing that Lora was slumped against his side. She had apparently taken his advice a bit early.
“If we leave when the sun reaches it’s peak in the sky, we should be able make it to White Phoenix some hours before it sets.”
“Are you sure your father will not find it rude that we bring back two more representatives? I fear he only expected you four to return,” Rowena admitted, moving to the base of a nearby tree to being making her bed.
The snow was easily brushed away in the spot she chose, and she went to work on making up her bedding as she carried on the conversation.
“He will have no choice. It is considered even more rude to put a noble visitor out into the streets because they come unannounced. The castle holds many unused rooms.”
“And what if we are not found to be noble?” Silna asked softly, the final word a bit clumsy on her tongue.
Vance smirked, speaking in a low tone so as not to wake Lora.
“You practically emote it. One does not need to look anywhere beyond your clothing and mounts to see that you are.”
When both girls seemed sated with that reply, he went to work on gently laying Lora back onto her cloak, arranging it into a makeshift bed by the fire. He laid out his own not far from hers and took a long breath before settling down.
“We will need someone to keep watch,” Dolen’s voice was a near whisper as he approached.
“Spirit will,” Rowena concluded, looking out of the trees to see a ghostly white equine form standing on a hill.
She squinted her eyes and caught what she thought was fairy light; One blue, the other red. Both Wylden and Frisle were apparently perched on Spirit’s head.
“She thinks you should rest,” Rowena said after a moment, turning her gaze back to Dolen.
The male elf sighed, but began laying out his own bedding, unable to go against his own body’s demands. Still, Rowena thought he would remain alert until the last of their companions were asleep. He was a Watcher first and foremost, so his instincts would prevail. That, and Dolen could be stubborn.
The fire’s light died down as the sun rose, concealed by sparse cloud cover over the hours. With arms thrown across their eyes, or faces buried under their cloaks, the group of humans and elves slept soundly, despite the sun’s presence in the sky.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“The king does not fare well.”
“And what perfect timing, with all of the rumors spreading about Lord Vance.”
“Not all of the rumors are bad, you know. Ferin has his own slew of rumors going about.”
“Ferin’s are likely true, and told by right sources. The ones following Lord Vance seem to be ill advised.”
Charles sat back in his chair and brooded. The group of men at the large table were all bright eyed, invigorated by the morning’s fresh breeze and the sun’s light that melted the snow outside. He was too worried to be in such a mood. All three of his children had been gone for nearly a week, and while he trusted the second prince, he hoped that whatever news they returned with was good.
“Do we have a number yet?” he asked in a tired tone, and many of the eyes around the table found him eagerly.
“All of my sector. The farmers do not favor the king. A few are wary that Lord Vance is young yet, but they all know that he is his mother’s son,” a raggedly dressed man replied.
He, like many of them, had traveled a long way to report his news, and Charles had made sure that coffee and sweet rolls were available to the men after such a ride.
“There are a few families who seem to want to keep with the king, but the majority are in favor of Vance,” another admitted.
“Indeed, those I spoke with do not enjoy the notion of battle, but they all agree which side they will fight on if it comes down to it.”
A sound came from the side of the table, and Charles looked to see a demure looking man waving his hand in the air dismissively.
“All this talk of battles. You know it will come to no such thing. Not with Van Reston looming on the horizon.”
“But it will, William. Don’t you see?” another more smartly dressed man broke in. “The king is bedridden. Even if he recovers, he will be bedridden again in a few mere weeks. Ferin is first prince, and will succeed him in all of his duties, unless we do something about it.”
“Of course, of course,” William replied. “But battle? A war between our own people? I do not think such a thing is necessary.”
“I still say that we should simply bring this issue to council as we always have. If the people do not see Ferin as a fit king, he should not rule,” the third, and most richly dressed of them all, spoke up.
“That is where you don’t understand, Nigel,” Charles finally cut in, speaking slowly. “We respect you because you see things from our point of view, but there’s times we can’t see it from yours. The court is a rich place, and its people don’t know the hardships that the workers who live outside of these walls deal with. The king burns homes if taxes aren't paid, Nigel. He sends men with torches in the night. He gives no warning to the families before he sets their homes aflame.”
“I know this,” Nigel replied, still calm. “Ferin will continue such things, and act on his own whims without learning a thing about what it takes to run a kingdom. But I do not see-”
“Who’s gonna listen to us?” another roughened man interrupted. “Who’s gonna listen to the poor folk? We can’t just waltz up into the council room an’ say, ‘Oi, we don’ want Ferin as king.’” he argued, a heavy workman’s accent slipping into his words. “They won’t listen to us. They’re Ferin’s lot!”
Charles simply nodded. “You and few others of your status see things the way we do. It’ll not be easy for you to go against so many other council-folk who either wish Ferin king, or just want tradition to keep its place.”
“Running at the castle bearing arms will not promote Vance well either,” William commented, though he did look sullen now that the others had spoken. He appeared to have taken their points to heart.
“We have a different plan than that, actually,” Charles said, sitting up straighter and taking a long sip of his coffee.
His wife seemed to appear with more and he sent her a soft smile. Just before he continued, however, the sound of thundering hoof beats filled the small sitting room. Most of the men stood suddenly, as if worried they would be caught in something illegal. Charles made his way to the window and peered out of the beige curtains, watching as a handful of riders went past at a gallop.
“They’ve passed us,” he said.
Nigel moved immediately out the door and squinted at the retreating figures, his eyebrows drawing down in a thoughtful manner.
“All black attire. They look like bandits.”
“Coming from the castle? Bandits don’t ride in this close to the castle’s outer walls for fear of being caught by the royal guard,” Charles replied, his voice wary.
A small group of them stood in the open doorway watching the riders disappear from sight. Finally, Charles turned and herded them all back inside.
“Right, let us discuss our plan. I have a feeling that the prince will be back soon.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
After a week in comfortable breeches and tunics, a corset and skirts were cumbersome. Lora frowned heavily as Rowena finished lacing up the corset, lifting the skirts to tiptoe her way over the snow and to her mount. There she stood, remembering that actually mounting the horse would be a much harder task with so many fabrics hanging from her body.
She let out a sigh of frustration and hung her head for a moment, leaning against the saddle. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a flicker of light and when she looked, both fairies were floating in midair, wings causing blurs of color behind their backs. Frisle and Wylden were more heavily dressed than usual, in what looked like tiny little winter outfits that would keep their bodies warm. Wylden grinned at her and said something that she could not understand. Though, she did catch the word for beautiful. After a moment, she smiled and nodded to him in thanks.
“Beauty has its setbacks,” she said softly, knowing that neither fairy would understand her words.
“Do you need a hand up?”
Lora turned and took in a sharp breath at Vance’s voice. She had not heard his approach. Dejectedly, she nodded, taking his offer and hefting her skirt covered leg to the other side of the horse. She took some time arranging herself before smiling down at him, but started at the look he was giving her.
“You could wear your brother’s clothing and still be beautiful, Lora,” he said without hesitation. When she blushed openly, he did not stop. “I know you liked it there, and I wish I could make it so you did not have to wear such things, but-”
“I’m fine,” she interrupted in a breathy voice. Her back straightened just as her resolve did. “If you’re to lay yourself on the line in front of your brother and father, the least I can do is strap myself into a dress and play the proper lady.”
Vance looked at her for some time, as if trying to see straight into her mind and read her thoughts. He stared at her for so long that she thought she could memorize the brown and green pattern of his hazel eyes. Then, all at once, he gave her a wistful smile.
“You deserve more than that.”
He had walked back toward the others, and was straightening Dale’s armor by the time she thought to whisper her reply.
“So do you, Second Prince.”
The fairies broke her reverie and she lifted reins in her hands. Her horse seemed to find its own place in the small procession, and she took a deep breath of cold air (well, as much of it as she could in a corset). It did feel good to be home, even if the ride was another hour or so. This was the land she had always loved. The sprawling countryside, with patterns of snow melting on harvested fields. Small houses with a single stream of smoke lifting into the air in the distance. It might have been a lonely existence, but she thought a close knit family might find peace in such a place.
“It is quiet here,” she heard Silna comment.
She turned to smile, but noticed that the elven girl did not look happy. In fact, her eyes were narrow and her brows dropped low. The group entered a fairly thick patch of woods that might have belonged to a farmer. The trees were shifting slightly in the breeze, but otherwise there was no sound. Then, there was flapping, as Dolen lifted his arm and let his great owl take flight. The bird seemed to disappear, and once again silence took over. Tension washed over them all.
“Is something wrong?” Lora whispered, looking between Rowena and the elves, and back up to where her brothers rode.
“We are being watched,” Dolen responded in halting Common.
Lora was about to smile and compliment him when he strung a bow and pulled it back quicker than she could blink.
The horses all came to a halt, and Lora heard the soft shriek of metal on metal as Dale and Cameron unsheathed their swords. A moment later ,an arrow embedded itself in a tree trunk not far from Cameron’s head. It took all of her strength not to scream. The horses shifted in place, muscles straining against their own urge to bolt.
“Death-” Dolen let out a frustrated sigh and scowled before speaking again in his own language.
Rowena took in a short breath and directed the question to Vance in a whisper.
“Do you want them dead or alive?” she translated breathlessly.
Vance made a noise, paused and shook his head. “Alive,” he said at last. “We punish our criminals.”
Lora thought she saw the pupils of Dolen’s bright eyes focus before he let loose the arrow. A moment later she heard a scream, and then a sudden crash of hoof beats and the crack of a whip.
“Back!” Vance yelled, wheeling Treasure about so that he, Dale and Cameron were in front of the rest.
Rowena and Lora urged their mounts back behind the group, while Silna moved hers to stand beside Vance. The elven girl unsheathed an elegant, curving blade of the finest metal Lora had ever seen. Dolen’s stallion stood still as a rock as he knocked and fired a second and third arrow in lightning quick succession. More yells were heard, and Lora saw that it was not only she, but Rowena who seemed transfixed by the entire ordeal.
All at once, black-clothed riders broke through the trees and came at them with weapons held high. There were four now, one with an arrow in his limp arm and a sword in the other. They went at the group without stopping, and Lora thought they aimed for her brothers as they came at them. She yelled, unable to do much more than watch as Dale and Cameron both deflected the initial attacks with swords upraised. Rowena was pulling at the reins of her horse, and she had to turn and follow at a canter. Tears rushed to her eyes as the cold air stung them, her dress was pulled and ripped on the sides as the two cut through the trees and dodged low hanging branches.
“No wait, we can’t just leave-”
“Shhh!” Rowena shushed her as she pulled her gray stallion to a halt.
The two turned and stared wide-eyed at the trees beyond, listening to the distant muffled sounds. Lora urged her mount forward slowly, the need to protect her brothers overwhelming her. Deep down, she knew she could do nothing to help them, but a fierce urge to stay with her family was suddenly clawing at her from the inside. She heard Rowena behind her saying not to go yet, but she still pressed her calves into the horses flank, trying to get the spooked beast to go back to the fight.
Rowena’s yell cut through her thoughts just before she felt a hard blow to her gut. The wind was knocked out of her, and she struggled to breathe even as she struggled to pull herself free of a hard arm around her neck and twisting heaps of fabric around her legs.
Lora landed somewhere. Against a tree, or on the ground; She had no idea. Her world spun, and sounds of a struggle, muffled yells and blows filled her ears. She scratched at the thing that held her, and felt herself jerked to the side just before she was hit again. After that, all sound and sight faded.