A Slightly Hindered Return
Dolen found it almost hard to merely incapacitate his attackers. The blatant hate in their eyes as he dodged their blundering blows seemed to pierce him to the core. He wanted to douse that fire; make their eyes sightless and soulless. Still, he steadied his hand, making specific cuts with his small knife and sending direct blows to the head in order to send them into unconsciousness.
Vance, his guards, and Silna seemed to be holding their own. Even as another attacker appeared from their side, Silna turned and met his blows easily. All four were still mounted, their horses turning in even movements as they fought the black clad riders. Dolen had prepared himself for the possibility of helping them, but it seemed they would not need it. He had dismounted and was fighting hand to hand when he saw a flashing scene in his mind’s eye, no doubt Snowsong’s doing. It was an aerial view of two females on horses, and three men moving in from all sides of them. How stupid of him to think they would only attack from one side! Wild-eyed, he turned and ran, knowing Silna was more deft with a blade than he, and their quarry was nearly beaten. Now he raced in the direction he had seen Rowena lead Lora.
Just as Rowena screamed, they came into view. One of the black-clad attackers already had Lora on the ground, the other two were coming up behind Rowena. Her horse wheeled on it’s feet, and Dolen sent his short knife flying with out breaking his stride. It struck home at the junction of one’s neck and shoulder, blood spurting eagerly from the wound. Without stopping, Dolen pulled his bow and knocked an arrow, letting it loose toward Rowena’s remaining attacker just as the girl slid out of the saddle, landing heavily on her side in a blind attempt to avoid whomever had come up behind her. He didn’t stop to see if his arrow struck, but pulled his bow around and caught Lora’s attacker across the head just as he looked up. All three were down, but Lora lay just as limp at his feet.
His chest was heaving, but he caught his breath and focused, his pupils receding from their dialated state as he forced a calm upon himself. Another flashing thought showed the humans and Silna moving in their direction, and he knelt by Lora.
“She’s hurt,” Rowena’s voice reflected her emotions as clearly as a still lake.
Dolen held out a steadying hand and she took it, pulling herself closer as she crawled to his side and lay her other hand on Lora’s head.
“Lora, please,” she pleaded in a whisper, tears leaking freely from her eyes as she fought for her own breath.
“She still breathes,” he heard himself say, his own voice carefully concealed.
“Get back,” Vance’s voice commanded.
Dolen understood the words, and found himself helping Rowena to her feet as he watched the human male’s actions with something akin to fascination.
Vance had blood on his clothing, and his hair was pulled from the loose tail so that it spilled out around his face. Unlike Dolen, he was still fighting to catch his own breath, and his eyes still held the bloodlust from battle. He looked positively wild. However, he softened at the sight of Lora. The prince knelt heavily by her and whispered something in his common tongue, and Dolen unconsciously gripped Rowena’s hand when she fought back a sob.
Dale and Cameron bounded into the clearing behind Silna, but she held up one arm as Dale yelled out. The two halted at her silent command and watched as Vance lifted their sister, one arm behind her neck and the other at the small of her back. Dolen stood still as the human prince carried her with careful hands, away from the scene of the battle and back through the trees. He did not utter a word as he passed by, but his eyes spoke volumes.
“We need to gather the horses,” Silna said in Elven.
Dolen carefully let go of Rowena’s hand, only now realizing that she gripped the bottom of his tunic in a tight fist. Turning, he looked down at her, catching her eye and using both of his hands to slowly uncurl her fist. She seemed to stir from some sort of reverie and shake her head quickly, nodding to both herself and him before stepping back.
“I will get the horses,” she finally said, still looking nervous.
She turned and moved toward Windwalker, who had stood his ground well. Rowena stood before the stallion, staring into his eyes. He could only guess that she was speaking to him, confirming that he, too, had fared well in the attack.
Dolen turned then, glancing down at the shifting body at his feet.
“Get them,” he said, eyeing Dale and Cameron.
He had spoken in his own tongue, but it was not hard to translate his words in this case. The more serious of the two nodded after a moment and began to pull the bodies of the unconscious men into a pile. The three who had attacked Lora and Rowena had to be pulled back into the area of the original attack, as well as the three writhing bodies of the men Dolen had originally shot. In all, there were eleven. Only three still remained awake, and one was dead, having bled out from Dolen’s knife wound to the neck.
“I am sorry,” he said softly in Common, his eyes moving from Silna to Cameron, and finally to Vance as he pulled the knife free to the dead body.
He slid the blade through a thicker portion of snow and sheathed it again.
“We have enough of them to get a confession,” Cameron replied in kind, his usually talkative brother stood stark still at his side, looking a bit sick.
Silna translated what Cameron had said and Dolen nodded, lifting his arm and picturing Snowsong landing on his hard leather bracer. Another moment later, the great owl did so, back-winging to get his balance before settling in. His head shifting nearly all the way around as his wide eyes took in the scene.
“Do humans often attack each other thus?” Silna asked Rowena when the girl finally appeared, leading Windwalker, Lora’s mount, and Dale’s mount back toward them.
Spirit came only moments later, with Cameron’s at her wake. Talon and Treasure had both stayed nearby, an unearthly look upon their equine faces. Dolen thought he would have to ask Rowena about Treasure’s mind when he had the chance.
Rowena only shook her head in response to Silna’s question, another tear slipping from her eye as she leaned heavily on Windwalker. The gray stallion stood still, and Silna turned and said something to Vance. Dolen caught a few words in Common and thought that she had repeated the question to him.
The prince did not respond. He still cradled Lora, but he sat against a tree, holding her in is lap as a parent might hold a child, his hands carefully brushing the hair back from her face.
Dolen watched his actions with careful scrutiny, and his head shifted as he heard an intake of breath just before Lora let out a soft noise.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
He only stopped grinding his teeth when he began getting looks from the other council members. Ferin had sat quietly through the meeting, allowing his father to slowly speak from under a the mountainous covers of his bed. The council had literally been called to a meeting at the king’s bedside, and to their obvious dismay, he had begun to prepare them for the very real possibility of his death. Ferin had, of course, felt the stomach dropping fear and remorse as any son would when their father spoke of death. Even despite his sickliness of late, Ferin had thought his father was hardy enough to live another twenty years. Now, he watched him laying haggard and helpless under his covers, the king’s face pale and his words fighting to come out clearly. Of course, when the subject had turned to Vance, all remorse and fear had been replaced by a burning anger that thrust itself back up out of his core.
Ferin barely heard the rest of the meeting. There were pointed comments about not sending a party out to look for the second prince just yet, and orders to allow them time to return. The king repeated the order that the council was to meet upon Vance’s return, and then matters moved onto land orders and tax issues. Ferin ignored them. Instead, he watched the eyes of the council members as something in the back of his mind alerted him to a problem. He became aware of glances and stares, and took note of a certain glint in a few sets of eyes that made him more than uneasy.
The king’s running boy was also present, keeping a cold compress on his father’s forehead, and giving him sips of water in between words. The boy’s presence unnerved him as well, for it was rare that he noticed servants. Something about the lanky young man made his skin prickle. Guilt mixed in with Ferin’s torrent of anger and sadness and fear. He had sent out a party of bandits just that morning, having figured that if well paid, they would simply take care of Vance and his small party of lesser born. The group had been surprised to take orders from the first prince himself, but a group such as that took payment for just about anything. Ferin had failed to mention to the group that it was second prince Vance they were after. He hoped that his brother kept to his habit of dressing as a commoner. That would make it all the easier-
He pulled himself from his thoughts and found that the room was just about empty. It was Gordon, his personal servant, who had spoken to him.
“I think you are in a need of a proper meal and some rest. We do not need you taking ill as well.”
Ferin took in a long breath and nodded, doing his best to focus on simpler things.
“Have it brought to my siting room,” he said, standing and straightening his tailored shirt. His blue gaze fell once again upon his prone father and he turned abruptly to leave. “Call for Lord Zane as well.”
He walked steadily toward his room, smiling politely at those he passed, and even sending a promising smirk to a woman in a low cut dress that bowed to him as he walked by. His room was still and calm, except for the crackling fire on the far wall. Ferin approached it and sat heavily, slipping pieces of fruit between his lips and doing his best to relax his nerves. It was a short time before Zane came through his door, bowing in a flourish.
“At our service, my liege,” he said in an exaggerated fashion. His hair was mussed and his cheeks red. In fact, he was in the midst of buttoning his shirt, even as he bowed. “At least give me a drink if you insist on pulling me from my bed so early.”
Ferin scowled and gestured toward the bottle of wine and glasses on the table. He watched as Zane slumped into his seat and poured himself a large glass, sipping it an lifting a sculpted brow.
“What is it that you had to pull me from a lovely lady’s arms?”
“As if you even know her name,” Ferin took Zane’s thoughtful look as an answer. “I’ve sent bandits after Vance.”
Zane nearly spit out his second gulp of wine. His eyes were wide and he swallowed forcedly, coughing around his words.
“Are you mad?”
Ferin stared hard at the fire and breathed out through his nose. “If they succeed, my brother will no longer be a worry.”
“And his village of beautiful foreigners?” Zane asked. Ferin scowled.
The blonde had gone on and on about the beauty of the white haired female he had seen at Tarragon’s border. He had assumed immediately that the rest looked like her, and professed his utter pleasure at having a treaty with such folk.
“Even if the bandits fail, I will assume no responsibility,” Ferin finished.
“Oh, surely those guards will protect him,” Zane said in a bitter tone, carefully sipping his wine and examining his thin shirt for stains.
After a moment, he looked up and gave Ferin a confused look. “Why did you tell me this?”
Ferin sat still awhile longer, asking himself the same question. The answer was simple. Speaking of the act had a way of draining the guilt. At least for the time being. As with talking about a nightmare, it somehow eased the pressing emotions swirling in his head. Of course, he did not say as much.
“If you are to be my advisor, I must know that I can trust you in all confidence,” he slid his narrow gaze to his handsome companion.
Zane’s surprised look was quickly covered with one of importance. If Ferin had not known him for so long, he may not have caught it.
“Well, I advise you to have a drink with me. With you stuck behind these walls, there is not much more we can do,” he smirked and poured another glass of wine, offering it to Ferin.
The first prince looked away from the fire long enough to take a sip before turning his gaze back to the flames, his own eyes seeming to burn more brightly than the actual flames.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Vance wondered how the elves could remain so indifferent as they trussed up the bodies of their attackers. Even Rowena seemed unaffected as she lead the bandit’s mounts back so that the bodies could be laid across the saddles, and the horses tied to Cameron’s saddle. They moved through their work as though it was an every day thing, and though it was done efficiently, Vance wondered if they were always so emotionally detached. He watched as Silna sent a blow to the temple of a particularly squirmy one before hefting him up onto a horse. Silna, who had fought better than any he had seen with a sword, and who had deftly bound up Lora’s twisted ankle before carefully sliding a boot on over it. Dolen had also kept calm, even as he fought hand to hand with a human, and even as he saved both Lora and Rowena’s lives. Vance had not met more than three elves, but it seemed that their emotions were as much of a skill to them as their fighting.
He took in a slow breath and worked on calming himself down. The group would need to keep their cool as well as their pride when they rode into White Phoenix. He allowed his face to brighten considerably when Lora limped back into view, once again dressed in the exotic clothing of the elves. She was smiling, despite a heavy bruise shading her eye, for there was a flash of blue on one shoulder, and a flash of red on the other. Unlike the elves, the fairies had apparently not been so brave. They had appeared well after the battle, cautiously approaching, and watching Lora come out of unconsciousness with wide eyes.
“I have decided,” Vance started, as Dale and Cameron came to their sister’s side. “that as Lady Rowena’s escort, you could very well have adopted her code of dress as a show of acceptance to her people.”
Lora smiled and shook her head, looking down at the white pants and top that were meant to both hide and accent her body.
“I’ll be a laughing stock, but I do feel much better to be out of that dress.”
“Up, then,” Cameron ordered, offering his sister a hand into the saddle.
Normally, she would have refused, but the hand kept tight around her middle showed that she was in more pain than she let on. Vance held back an offer to ride with him. It was silly, to think of the looks he would get if he rode back into the kingdom with Lora behind him in the saddle.
The fairies flew circles around her once she had mounted and settled carefully into the saddle. They chittered in their own tongue while pulling carefully at her hair. Vance watched transfixed as they arranged it in a way that it mostly hid the bruise on her face.
“Lord Vance, we need to move on if we mean to make it to White Phoenix before dusk,” Cameron said, shifting his armor.
His face was nearly as hard and impassive as Dolen’s. Dale’s was a complete contrast. He had not said a word since the attack, and had not done much more than stand close to his sister since then. Vance nodded and looked out at the group, watching as Silna and Rowena tied the last of the men to a horse.
“I will ride out first with Dale at my side, followed by Silna and Dolen, Rowena and Lora, and Cameron at the rear to tow the criminals.”
The group seemed to concede, and all began to mount. Cameron made sure that all of the reins were secure, having formed a train of them from his saddle. Once mounted, the group rode on silently. Vance made a point to arrange his own hair and clothing in a way that kept him looking at least slightly regal. Only Dale’s voice broke the silence after some time, as they were passing another small farm on their way to White Phoenix. The young guard suddenly turned in his saddle and beamed at Silna, a smile breaking through.
“You were brilliant!” he exclaimed. “You must continue to teach us once we return, Lady Silna. Please!” She must have nodded, since he went on after moment’s time. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen sword work like that, really! It was amazing. You looked as though you barely moved around those bumbling men!”
“You also fought very well,” Silna said, speaking of both twins.
“Where did they come from?” Rowena said, her voice very soft. Vance turned himself in the saddle to glance back at her, and the rest before answering.
“I do not know. There are a scant few who would dare attack a royal, much less so close to the kingdom,” he admitted, his brows drawing together as he began to think on the subject for the first time since they had been attacked. “They certainly had us surrounded long enough to catch sight of our dress,” he shook his head again and went silent.
“We will have them questioned when we return,” Cameron put in, a slight questioning tone to his voice. Vance nodded in reply.
“I think we ought to question your brother,” Silna said with a sliver of emotion.
Maybe they were not so detached as he thought. The female elf did not outwardly look it, but her words confirmed that she was seething on the inside nearly as much as he was. Although Rowena had moved to shush her sister, Vance found himself nodding again.
“That will be my first course of action.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
It was an hour before sunset when Charles heard the exclamations and hoof-beats outside of his him. A knock at the door came a moment later, and he was not surprised to see one of his friends on the other side, saying in an excited tone that the second prince and his party were riding in.
“Sarah!” he called to his wife.
She appeared in the kitchen doorway, and trotted forward when he offered his hand. The two moved swiftly out the door, despite Charles’ limp, approaching the roadside to stand with a slowly growing crowd.
The hoof beats became louder, and he heard Sarah gasp as she saw the group just before he did. He understood her reaction when he saw them. The prince rode in next to Dale, and the red and orange sunlight caught their forms in a magical way. Though, behind them rode two of the most exotic beings Charles had ever seen. A male and female, both beautiful, with long white hair, and equally white clothing that was obviously not a part of the kingdom’s dress. One of them held a grand white owl on his arm and had a bow and quiver of arrows strapped to his back, while the other (the female!) rode with a slim sword at her waist. Both of their mounts were glorious looking, and Charles found himself shaking his head in astonishment.
Behind them were two he recognized; his own daughter and the Lady Rowena.
’“Oh, Lora!” Sarah cried out, unable to stop herself.
Charles gripped her hand, but watched his daughter in hopes that she would see them. However, Lora was otherwise occupied; turned toward Rowena as both of them tried to soothe her spooked horse. Though it stayed in line, the beautiful gray stallion was obviously not happy to be surrounded by so many people.
“Oh, she looks beautiful,” Sarah said again, and with her words, Charles noticed Lora’s clothing.
Although she wore pants as a male would, they were the same type as the exotic female and Rowena herself wore. He, too, had to admit that the clothes were fit for his daughter. Charles followed the line down and lifted a hand when he saw his third child, Cameron. The boy nodded solemnly back, and he felt Sarah smile and wave next to him. He looked absolutely gallant in his armor. His mount was showing how well-trained he was, as Cameron had one hand on the back of the saddle, and the other lifted the flag of White Phoenix to announce a royal party. Charles’ smile disappeared as he realized what Cameron held, however. It was a rope that connected to the reins of another horse, which led to a continuing line of horses. All of them had black clad bodies laid across the saddles of the horses, feet and hands bound tight.
“The bandits,” Charles whispered.
He caught the glances of a few of the men in the crowd and lifted his chin before turning and moving back into the house.
“What?” Sarah whispered, following close behind him and knowing better than to speak in tones that might be overheard.
Charles waited until they were both in the house before slamming a fist into the table.
“Well,” he said at a length, looking to his wife. “At least we know they can defend themselves against the likes of that.”
“Will you meet with the others?” she asked, knowing full well that there was something else afoot.
Charles nodded and sat down heavily in his chair.
“I’ll go to the tavern in an hour. Hopefully that will give any news time to circulate,” he said softly. Another thought crossed his mind and he tapped the table with his fingers. “I’ll see if I can get one of the kids home to see you, too.”
“I’ll get dinner for you then.” he heard her smile and shift her position. “You’ll need it if you mean to spend the evening with the rest of them.”
Charles looked up and felt the anger drain from him as he met her gaze. He was once again reminded of why he married the woman before him. Only Sarah would so easily shift from fear and anxiety to determination and calm. Of course, it was also only Sarah who could cook better than any of the castle’s own chefs.