Windwalker did not like the kingdom of White Phoenix. From the moment they left the farmlands and began to enter more crowded housing, the horse was tense. As the crowds gathered, his steps became higher and more erratic, and as they finally entered through the gateway in the castle’s walls, he was threatening to rear on Rowena. Only Rowena and Spirit kept him calm, and they could only do so much with him without causing too much attention to be drawn to them.
Had Windwalker not calmed for a moment’s time, Rowena never would have caught sight of the size of their audience. It was twice as large as the group who had seen them off when they left. This time they all smiled and waved, lifting steaming cups in salutes as they rode by at a slow pace. Some openly gaped at Dolen and Silna, turning quickly to their companions to whisper and point. Rowena wondered for the first time if bringing her sister and long-time friend to such a place was a good idea. They looked calm, but Rowena knew them both well enough to note the tension in their backs and shoulders.
When they reached the stairway that led to the castle, it was Ferin and an arrangement of men who met them. The crowd cleared enough so that the group could dismount and hand their mounts off without being too crowded. Rowena took care in sliding out of Windwalker’s saddle, keeping her hands tight on his reins and sending a steady stream of calm thoughts his way. She watched as Cameron helped his sister from her seat, then turned and spoke in a low tone to a nearby guard. He gestured to the prisoners and Rowena figured that he was explaining the situation. A moment later, several guards and workers went on to untie the prisoners and formally take them into some sort of custody. When one of the stable hands approached and offered to take her horse, she shook her head quickly.
“I need to see him to the stable myself, if you don’t mind,” she said, running a hand over the gray stallion’s neck. “He is not one for crowds.”
The stable hand started, but finally gave a short nod and led the way with the reins of both Treasure and Lora’s mount in his hands. Rowena turned to see that only Dale and Cameron stayed behind with Vance. Lora, Dolen and Silna were following the stable hand as well. The crowd gave the group of them a wide berth, still whispering and watching with wide eyes. Rowena even thought she saw a few blushes in the crowd, and remembered that her companions were both very handsome specimens.
The stables were cleaned out and ready for the horses, and though Dolen and Silna both gave the boxes a strange look, they each led their horses into one at the direction of the stable hand. Windwalker was once again not happy to be placed in such a small space. He snorted, pawed at the door and turned about several times. Rowena was hard-pressed to soothe him and explain in as few words as possible that this was just temporary. She reminded him that it was a place he would stay in only for a few days, and that the stable hands made sure to let them out as often as possible.
“Spirit will do her best to keep him calm,” Silna said in a soft voice behind her.
Rowena turned and nodded, noticing the slightly nervous look in her sister’s eyes. Dolen was watching the stable hand lock Talon’s door, and lifted both brows as the young man asked him something. He turned to meet her gaze a moment later.
“He says you can leave Snowsong here. He may not like it within the confines of the castle,” Rowena translated.
“I wonder if I will feel the same,” Dolen replied, lifting his arm and letting Snowsong rest in the rafters of the large stable’s roof.
“Beautiful creatures you lot bring in,” the stable hand exclaimed as he watched Dolen’s actions in awe.
Rowena smiled at the young man and nodded. “Please look after them well. They are friendly creatures, but a few are nervous at being penned up when they are so used to running free in their home.”
The stable boy put on a very serious face and nodded solemnly. “I will, Lady. I promise ya.”
Rowena thanked him heartily and turned to see Lora leaning on one of the stall gates. She looked exhausted.
“Come then, they’ll want a formal introduction and all of that,” Lora waved them forward. She stood up straight and did a very good impression of a person who was not in pain, moving to lead them all back to the castle.
The four of them made quite an entrance, even as Lora led them through the servant’s entrance. Many of the cook’s assistants and servers greeted Lora at first, giving her hugs and exclaiming how they had missed her, while complimenting her on her clothing. A certain few noticed her bruises and pained expression and ordered her to her bed immediately. When their eyes caught sight of her three companions, they all went into a myriad of squeals, gasps and grins. Some went on and on about how handsome they all were, while others complained that they needed more meat on their bones. Dolen stood with the most impassive face he could, but to Rowena’s trained eyes, he was becoming as nervous as Windwalker was. Silna seemed more concerned about the proximity of the walls and the heat of the open flames from the oven. Lora must have caught the uncomfortable look on Rowena’s face, for she ushered them on not too long afterward, taking them through the maze of stairs and hallways that eventually led them to the main receiving hall.
Two large doors opened to reveal the shining floor and vastly open space that was currently just about filled with people. At the back of the cavernous room, Vance, Dale, and Cameron stood with several other men that Rowena did not know. Women in brilliantly colored gowns were peppered throughout the hall, standing in corners whispering to each other or openly fawning over Vance and his company. To his credit, he did well enough in ignoring them. Instead, his attention was focused on what was in front of him.
Ferin stood at the base of the king’s receiving throne. Not quite sitting in it, but obviously making some sort of statement. His placement was surprising enough, but his dress was exquisite. It seemed as though he had preened himself more than usual; the high-collared vest and coat that he wore reminded Rowena of the king’s dress. The first prince had guards standing on either side of him, keeping as still as the pillars that held up the high ceiling. He appeared to have been in the midst of a conversation when Lora led Rowena, Dolen, and Silna into the hall.
“Ah, I see you’ve brought examples,” Ferin said haughtily.
“Yes. They are representatives of Tarragon Forest, here to witness the presentation of the treaty,” Vance replied.
Rowena thought he was doing well in keeping his cool. It was almost as if he and his brother were the center of a fighting ring. When either of them spoke, all whispers ceased as the crowd apparently listened to their conversation. Of course, Ferin’s voice seemed to emanate as if he wanted them all to hear.
“Ah, well, how lovely,” Ferin commented.
He turned slightly in place and offered the four of them a short bow. Lora bowed back immediately, a hand going quickly to her waist as the motion caused her more pain from the blow she had received. Rowena and her Tarragon kin did not bow.
“Father is bedridden, so I will call council in his stead,” he spoke to Vance once again. “See to it that your guests are properly boarded,” Ferin ordered blatantly.
Before Vance could say anything in response, he turned and left the dais. Part of the room’s occupants broke off to follow, while the rest lingered behind. It was imperative to eavesdrop on both sides of the spectrum, after all.
“I do not like him,” Silna, who stood slighty behind her, said in Elven.
“Neither do I,” Lora spoke the words in near perfect Elven, and Rowena held back a grin. Silna did not hold back her own smirk.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Cameron sighed softly as he eased himself into the wooden chair. Though he would not whine as Dale did, he too was sore and tired from the fight and the ride. He eagerly accepted the ale his father passed to him, not caring that it tasted like sweat and would just make him even more tired. He looked around the table at his father, brother and two other men he barely recognized, feeling more at home in the smoky tavern than he had in the hall of the castle.
“That bag of gas didn’t even give Lord Vance a chance to speak,” Dale’s face dipped into a sour look. “How were we to report the bandits?”
“You’ll want to make a formal report anyway,” one of Charles’ friends spoke. “You must put it in writing.
“We don’t know how!” Dale whined again.
Cameron pinched the bridge of his nose at the sound of his brother’s whining. Though the two were literate, neither knew the protocol behind lodging a report or complaint with the kingdom’s officials. They would certainly not accept a simple note scrawled in either of the brother’s messy print.
“Lora does,” Cameron said with finality.
“She is alright, your sister?” his father asked.
Cameron felt himself nodding. That subject had Dale shutting his mouth and looking downward.
“She was saddle sore and tired, so we sent her to bed. She did want to come,”
‘She did not want you to see her bruises’, he thought, but did not say.
“Good lad. I’d’ve sent her right back as is. She would be too obvious, sitting here amongst us rough old barkers,” Charles smirked and took a long swig of his drink.
“Make sure she includes what they wore, any markings on their skin, and the weapons they used,” one of the other men said.
Cameron mentally noted the comment. He was so very tired, but his mind still ran with the day’s events. He remembered bare parts of it; the elven male’s arrows slipping through the trees like wind, and the female fighting so fluidly with a sword that Cameron himself had nearly been distracted. Blood, anger, pain. It had been a trying fight. Then, the sight of his sister lying limply on the ground. If it had been anyone other than the prince pulling her into his arms, he may have gone crazy.
Vance had let the two of them off duty as soon as they were alone. He made a not-so-veiled comment about visiting family members and making sure they knew that Lora was well and resting in her room. The boys had eagerly changed out of their armor, washed, and made their way down the road to the tavern where Vance had first met their father. Sure enough, there he waited.
“We have a plan,” Charles said after a long sip of his drink.
The twins leaned in, their eyes rapt with interest, as the other two men at the table casually leaned back and let their eyes drift around the room.
“Not one we may speak of here, but I believe we may be able to get our lord to a better place in life,” he continued, obviously keeping his words vague.
“I hope so, cuz Vance said that treaty-”
Cameron cuffed his brother and pulled his mug of drink away, glaring in his twin’s direction before looking back to his father.
“The Lord has more followers than we had originally thought. We mean to make that obvious upon the time when he and his brother come to blows. It will be inevitable, I’d imagine, once a trial is set for these bandits. Or, once this treaty becomes an argument,” Charles continued, his words coming out in a tone meant for only those at the table.
“We do not believe the agreement will go over well. At least from what we heard,” Cameron put in.
“All the more well and good,” his father replied, tipping his mug into the air. “The sooner those two go at it, the sooner the lines will be drawn.”
“They will be drawn as soon as that paper is read out. I am told they did not follow our liege’s usual orders,” Cameron admitted.
He knew that his father was not aware of Tarragon’s true inhabitants, but that fact was not one he needed to know. At least, he did not need to know at that moment. Right now, there were more pressing matters. Right now, he wondered if Vance knew just how ill his father was.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Their rooms were luxurious compared to the original room Rowena had stayed in. The royals had provided them with three rooms, all with adjoining doorways. All of them were laid out in soft fabrics and warm fires. Servants brought delectable portions of fruit, cups, and pitchers of wine and water. They offered their services at all times, and Rowena thanked them kindly before closing the door tight. She turned in a flourish and looked to her two companions.
“Well, this is nice,” she said with lifted brows.
To her, it was lavish, but she had stayed in the castle once before. Dolen and Silna both looked as though they would pace the floor at any moment.
“We can douse the fires if you like.”
Silna shook her head and tested a couch nearby, her eyes squinting as she sank into it. “I do not mind the furniture.” she admitted.
Dolen was looking out the window, his eyes curious as his hand ran over the thick glass that overlooked what seemed like a thousand miles. The sun was just setting, and it made for a brilliant view. He was obviously awestruck, and Rowena smiled as she watched him for a moment. Then, he turned in a flash of white hair, anger flaring to his face as he focused on a spot somewhere in the air.
“Stop hiding!” he said quickly.
Then, both a red and a blue flash came into view, floating of their own accord near the ceiling. Rowena realized he was staring at Frisle and Wylden.
“Your fault! Yourfault!” Frisle danced and pointed to Dolen in the air.
“What are you going on about?” Rowena asked in an accusatory tone.
Dolen looked genuinely annoyed, but did not answer. Instead, he fixed the glowing fairies with another glare.
“Hunter’s bird wantstoeatus!” Frisle exclaimed, his orange-ish hair standing on end.
“We could not sleep with Spirit, the bird kept looking at us as if we were food!” Wylden added, his words more clear, since he was well used to speaking with Rowena.
“My bird wouldn’t want to eat you if you didn’t flit around his head so often,” Dolen retorted, glaring at the two fairies.
“Youmadehim mean!” Frisle said.
“He is not a kind being of the Forest, Elf!” Wylden took Frisle’s side as well, even going so far as to point a finger in Dolen’s direction.
To her astonishment, Dolen seethed openly and leaned forward to point a much larger finger right back.
“You are no more kind beings of the forest than Snowsong, you begotten pests!”
“Pests! Oh lady, he calls us pests.”
“Pesterpester! HumanLady, your elf-is-cruel-to-us!” Frisle stood in a defensive pose as he stared at Dolen’s finger with something akin to horror.
However, Rowena was not in a position to stand up for her fairies. She was trying to control a sudden burst of laughter that had her face red. The sight of Dolen; quiet, calm Dolen, caught in a fit of anger and pointing at a pair of tiny fairies had sent her into silent giggles. Only when she took a deep breath and continued to laugh out loud did Dolen stop what he was doing and look her way. He stood up more straight and flushed slightly, just as Rowena found herself sitting hard on another couch, a hand waving cool air over her hot face as she tried to control her peals of laughter.
Dolen sent a helpless look to Silna, only to find that she too was in the midst of laughing. He looked to the ceiling as if it would give him an answer, and made his way back to the window, shaking his head.
“Sleep here, you evil creatures,” Rowena said softly, a few moments later when she had finally gained back her ability to breathe. “Do not seek to bother Dolen. He is weary from the trip, and worries for his friends in the stable.”
Frisle and Wylden disappeared from view sometime later, and once the three had eaten and changed, Rowena suggested they rest while they could. The darkness brought a cold chill through the stone walls, and she made sure to show them both that the covers would keep them warm if they chose to douse the fire. She found that when she finally lay down on the soft bed, her traveling clothes replaced by a warm gown, that she was bone weary herself. A dreamless sleep followed.
It was a complete surprise when she awoke not long after, seeing her surroundings only thanks to the moonlight that filtered through the window. She pulled on her fur shawl and peered into Silna’s room, seeing a lump in the bed that she figured to be her sleeping sister. Her feet were freezing, but she crossed her room to the other side, peering through the door into Dolen’s room. There was not a lump in his bed. Squinting, Rowena finally found him sitting by the window, wide awake and staring at her with his usual bright green eyes. They had left none of their luster back in Tarragon. She gasped and took a step back.
“Don’t scare me like that!” she whispered, moving quietly into the room.
“I did no such thing,” he replied. His voice sounded raw with exhaustion.
“Can’t you sleep?” she asked, stepping near the sill he sat on to stare out at the countryside.
It was blurry, but she could see the landscape and the soft lights from the town’s buildings in the distance.
“I cannot sleep confined in such a place,” he admitted, his eyes dancing over the room behind him.
Rowena thought she felt her heart clench. She had not even thought of how hard it would be for both Silna and Dolen to spend even a few days in the human world. The stone walls of the castle were so very different from their open-air homes back in Tarragon. The fires burned much more brightly, and the lights too were all flame, rather than glowing insects or magically heated rocks. She touched his shoulder sympathetically and sighed.
“Have you tried the bed?” she asked.
He gave a fraction of a motion to his head that must have meant ‘no’.
“Come on.” she urged, taking his hand carefully and pulling a bit to get him to stand.
She moved him toward the bed and pointed between it and the couch.
“Either is suitable for sleep, Dolen. Just try, please?” she asked. “We need you to be well rested and ready for anything, just like-” she found her throat contracting slightly at the flashing memories of the day’s battle.
They accosted her mind as if she had opened the flood gates with one simple thought. She took in a short breath, fighting back a sudden sob as she lifted her arms and hugged him close, all of her emotions pouring into the act.
“Thank you.” she whispered, remembering his face as he threw the knife at her attacker.
Remembering the ease with which he fired the arrow at the other. She felt his arms around her a moment later, and she fought back tears. Dolen had been there with her since she had been born, or so it seemed. He had always been there to listen, to hug her, to lift her when she could not reach, and explain something when she could not see. All when none but her sister and family would even look her way. Today, he had been there to save her life. She laid her head against his shoulder and took a long breath to calm herself, taking the time to listen to his heartbeat.
“I will sleep,” he said at a length, his soft voice vibrating through his chest.
Rowena nodded and slowly dropped her arms. Wiping her eyes in a swift motion with a bit of embarrassment, she smiled at him and took another step back.
“I’ll show you the way to the stables tomorrow if you really hate it.”
He smirked at her and moved toward the couch, and Rowena turned herself back to the doorway that connected their rooms. When she returned, she found Silna sitting wide awake on her bed. Her long hair shaded her face like a curtain, and her blue eyes cut through the darkness almost as easily as Dolen’s had. Once again, Rowena gasped.
“I swear, if you two don’t start announcing yourselves...”
“Did I interrupt something?” Silna asked in a sly voice.
Rowena threw her shawl at her sister and jumped onto the large bed, pulling the covers around her in a bundle.
“You’d better bring your own covers if you mean to sleep here.”
She fell asleep not long after she felt Silna settle back into place beside her. This time, the dreamless sleep that followed was not broken until the sun had risen.