She stopped and backed herself into a dark corner for the second time, watching several maids trot by laden with trays. None of them noticed her, of course. These halls were ill-lit and rarely traveled by anyone other than servants. Lora was one herself, so even if a stray eye happened to notice her presence, they thought nothing of it. Thankfully, since they did not note her presence, they did not notice the bundle she carried. Still, she made sure to keep out of their way. There was what felt like no time left before the grand hall would be opened, and the expensively dressed courtiers would come pouring in. Lora herself had several tasks yet to accomplish, but this one took precedence over the rest.
While she waited for the line of maids to pass, she ignored the sweet scents of food in favor of dredging up recent memories. Had it only been an hour before that she was dancing in Vance’s arms? That he had insisted that he wanted to be with her? To be with her. Coming from any other man, Lora would have taken the words in a lewd sense, but Vance? No. Vance had meant them sincerely. She had noticed his eyes for the first time as he had said those words. Brown centers bursting into dark green. They reminded her of the trees in Tarragon.
Lora’s gaze dropped to her bundle and she sighed softly, wondering if she should allow herself to dream so much. There was Tarragon; the land of magic, and Vance; the prince who cared for a commoner. Tales, the both of them! However, she could not forget the fairies singing as the snow fell, or the look in those forest colored eyes as he spoke to her. So she allowed herself just a slip of hope. Things could change. In fact, they were changing.
The thought brought her out of her daydream and back to the now empty hall. She peered out, and in seeing no one approaching, trotted easily down the stone passage. Lora passed three more small wooden doors before stopping at one. She knocked to make sure it was the empty one before opening it and shoving her large fabric bundle in. She straightened her stance and looked both ways after closing the door, and had time for exactly one breath before she was trotting back the way she came. It was a long way back to the hall, but it was worth it. Her insides were no longer squirming with worry now that her task was complete.
“Oh, that hair!”
Lora turned and lifted her brows in surprise. An elder maid, Barlowe, was staring at her with a narrowed gaze. The woman was not known for speaking out other than to yell, so Lora braced herself. Surprisingly, the usually hardened face broke into a rare soft smile.
“It is lovely, to be true. You’ll have even those heavy-pursed princesses jealous,” Barlowe said. Even her voice had taken on a soft tone, which the elder maid did not often use.
Lora blushed, quite unused to such blatant compliments. Silna had insisted on threading her hair in soft braids before the ball. ‘If you have to wear that drab old thing, you can at least let me dress your hair,’ the elven female had said. Obviously Lora had acquiesced.
“Thank you, ma’am,” she practically whispered.
Barlowe waved her off and dropped the hardened look back over her face. It fell as easily as a curtain over the smile that had been there a split second earlier.
“Think nothing of it, dear. Now get to your tasks, or the first prince will have vapors.”
With a grin at the thought of Ferin being fanned awake, Lora gave a short curtsy and moved into the grand hall. She received three more compliments on her hair before the hall was finally open. After one last pull at a table cloth, Lora stood with her back to the wall, smoothing her gray dress out and watching the doors anxiously. She chanced a look up on the dais and grinned at the sight of her brothers. They stood on either side of what must be Vance’s empty seat, while two others stood by Ferin’s. The servants and maids all took their places along the walls of the cavernous room, and clapped in unison as the courtiers began to enter. It was tradition, and Lora found herself smiling as she watched the beautifully colored dresses flow by.
The fashions were still the same, but the fabric had grown increasingly extravagant. Patterns were more intricate and flashy, and many had what looked like jewels hand sewn into the dresses once they were fitted. Such things that sparkled in the light, and caught the eye when the wearer moved even the slightest bit. Colors had also grown in extravagance. Some dresses that passed seemed to fade from one color to the next. Attending these balls often made Lora wish she was a more adept seamstress. She would likely never wear such things, but even to create them would be a wonderful experience.
The courtiers took their seats first and foremost. Starting from the far end, they slowly took what seemed to be assigned seats as they filed in. It left the high table free, as the higher ranked members would sit nearest to the king, or in this night’s case, the princes. The servants would stand still until the princes and their guests were seated, and move with as much speed possible to get them served first. Lora guessed that Ferin would have a speech prepared, but it was common practice to begin serving even as the host spoke.
The low hum in the room suddenly increased, and Lora focused again just as a maid at her side took in a soft gasp. Her lips turned up in a smile as she saw what had caused the commotion. It was her friends! Vance entered first, leading Rowena on his arm, and to their sides and slightly behind were Silna and Dolen. Silna and Rowena were dressed like no other at the ball. Though the dresses Lora had seen were beautiful, what the two of them wore was simply exotic. Silna’s off-white dress seemed to set off her complexion just as Rowena’s cream did hers. Both dresses flowed in layered fabrics that contrasted the heavy ones that were in fashion then. Lora recalled Kenzy’s idea to steam-straighten Rowena’s hair, but had left before seeing the final result. It only added to the effect. As the dresses flowed behind them, so did their hair. Silna’s snow white, and Rowena’s jet black. Both adorned with a few braids and shining jewelry, but the most of it left to fall.
Dolen was another story altogether. He looked positively stately. They had pulled his hair back into a long tail, while still managing to keep his pointed ears covered. His dress was more of a formal version of his traveling outfit. The tunic and pants were dark brown, both trimmed in a soft green. The symbol on his breast was apparently meant to represent Tarragon, and Lora thought it did well. An embroidered tree that reached out in all directions, the thread was such a bright green that it reflected the light almost as easily as his eyes did.
And of course, Vance looked positively handsome. He had trimmed the thin hair around his chin and jaw line so that, while it was nowhere near a man’s beard, it showed his maturity well enough. Lora smiled and thought that it was only meant to hide his boyish features from the elder council. He, too, was wearing a well cut tunic and pants, only his were lighter, more layered, and the symbol was the phoenix that decorated the very room they stood in. His hair was combed back and held in place by both a small helping of pomade, and a strip of leather. She wondered how long it would be before stray hairs began framing his forehead, as they so often did.
They were sitting, and Lora was being jostled from both sides. Ferin began speaking, and she wondered silently if anyone had even noticed his entrance. Shaking her head, she rushed to work, forcing herself to become the mannerly servant she had been raised to be.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -- -
The tension was worse than the last time. If Rowena thought that her slight experience in gatherings of this nature would help, she was wrong. Though they outwardly portrayed themselves gallantly, she, Silna and Dolen were on edge. The bright lights of the fires, the low hum of the whispers, and the proximity of so many beings in what had once seemed like a large room was affecting all of them. Still, once they were seated (at Vance’s right side), Rowena took in a breath and let out a slow sigh of relief. She barely heard Ferin’s speech, especially when she thought she saw the tell-tale blurs of red and blue high above them. Wylden and Frisle had been instructed to stay nearby, in case a message needed to be passed discretely between the horses and themselves, but they seemed to be paying more attention to their own elation. Something told her that the fairies reveled in the excess of color and light, where she and her kin did not.
Vance held his own quite well. Not only was he carrying himself so well that he looked every bit the prince of White Phoenix, but he had been making a point to speak with several of the council members. She did not try to listen, but he had been shaking hands and making low comments to most of them since he had arrived. Rowena did allow herself to listen as Ferin made a sideways comment toward his brother, apparently offering him a chance to speak. When Vance accepted, the audience seemed to still.
“I wish to welcome you all, and to formally introduce Ladies Silna and Rowena, and Master Dolen of Tarragon Forest. They are our esteemed guests for the time being, and I hope that you will give them the same courtesy as you might give your neighbor, for that is what the inhabitants of Tarragon are.”
Rowena’s were not the only set of eyebrows that lifted at that statement. Vance was being bold, and Ferin squirmed in his seat accordingly. Regardless, the applause when he finished was fairly loud, showing that there were more than a few who were either not surprised by his words, or simply agreed with them. She watched as Vance made a few gestures and formally started the ball. Once again, she was amazed at how well choreographed the event seemed to be. As soon as Vance was in his seat, several lines of servants seemed to appear. A cup of wine and a plate of some sort of crackers and cheese were set before her within moments. There was a resounding uproar of conversation around the large set of tables, and she finally allowed herself a glance at her sister and Dolen.
“Are you alright?” she asked in a bare whisper.
Dolen stiffly nodded, his bright eyes focusing on the plate in front of him. He was nervous. Silna leaned in and spoke around him (for Dolen was seated between she and her sister), her words coming on an even tone.
“It is very loud,” Silna said, her eyes narrowing as she scanned the cavernous room.
Rowena thought her sister was adapting to the bustling world of White Phoenix much better than Dolen was. She wondered if he could take much more of the setting before simply leaving.
“Keep your friends close. I will let you all know when it is alright to leave,” Lora’s voice cut through Rowena’s thoughts.
The girl had spoken as she placed a set of napkins and utensils in front of them, discreet enough that no one seated nearby had noticed. Rowena nodded, but her friend was already gone. Sighing, Rowena picked at the food and began eating. Despite her nerves, she was hungry. It had been a long day, and she thought that it might be an even longer night, so she was not about to ignore food when it was (quite literally) placed in front of her. Her worries mounted more as she wondered how either Silna or Dolen would take to the small, smoky tavern that they were to meet in later on.
“The music, please,” Ferin spoke up, carrying easily over the loud conversations around them.
As commanded, a tune began flowing through the room. Chairs eased out, and couples were soon dancing in revolving patterns in front of the tables. Rowena took a large sip of her wine and swallowed heavily. There was still dancing, the main course, dessert, and the inevitable small talk to get through before this ordeal would be over. She eyed her companions and spoke softly in Elven.
“Drink the wine. It may help this evening to pass by more quickly.”
The edge of Silna’s mouth pulled up in a smirk, and she carefully lifted her cup to drink. Dolen, on the other hand, grasped at his and drank as if he had not done so in a week. To Rowena, it was surprising and unsettling to see him in such a state. However, she knew that even his most nervous actions would seem graceful to the humans seated around them. For the first time that evening, she let herself look around at the other attendants seated around them. She found herself hiding her face behind another sip of wine. Just about every eye was focused in their direction. Men shoveling food into their mouths and either glaring, or staring through stolen glances. Ladies openly fluttering their eyelashes and hiding behind ornately designed, feathered... things.
After another long breath, Rowena put her cup down and sat back. She barely had time to breathe before Vance was standing over her, his palm facing upward in offering.
“Would you like to dance?”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Ta’llevny’s vale was packed. Only upon returning to the vale after his final escort run did Tey’ven take in the enormity of the situation. Where there had once been a thin layer of snow and sparse underbrush that left clearings between huge trees, there were sprawling tents and bedding. Elves from all clans were moving around, stringing up hammocks and even climbing into the trees to finish setting up their makeshift homes. Tey’ven watched them with interest, his blue eyes wandering as Whisper wove them through the crowded area. Another thing that amazed him was that of them seemed nervous or on edge. They simply carried out their tasks as if they were setting up for another party.
“You were not yet born when a gathering this large last took place,” Whisper spoke to him mentally.
Tey’ven turned in his saddle and faced forward, his eyes hard beneath his white cloak. Whisper’s words had been a veiled reminder of who he was representing. One of Ta’llevny’s riders should not gawk as a child, especially not while he wore his ‘uniform’.
“Neither were you,” he replied, leaving the twinge of annoyance out of his mind-voice.
The night sky did nothing to darken the area now that lights were being brought to life, camp by camp. Some used fireflies, while others used glowing stones. A few had apparently brought fairies from their home lands, who did enough to light the area around them. Tey’ven was tired, but he knew would need to report to Ta’llevny that all were accounted for. Once that final job was done, he would be permitted to rest.
“I was told stories,” Whisper continued..” Shaden remembers the last one quite well. You may want to inquire-” but he stopped his thought as Tey’ven sent a mental image of his last encounter with Shaden, and her not-so-mannerly rider, Sa’nengal. “It was large. Not so large as this, maybe. It took place on the other end of the land, facing Van Reston. I do not think White Phoenix even existed at that time.”
Tey’ven swallowed hard and shifted in his seat as he saw the soft glow of Ta’llevny’s tree in his sightline. He was not anxious to be off of Whisper. One of his status had been trained to stay on horseback for long periods of time. He was anxious for answers. Would Ta’llevny divulge more about his decision to bring in so many of Tarragon’s elves, especially so many from the Blade-borne clan? His eyes had picked up much more black clad elves than any other color on the way in, and he certainly had not been the only escort that day.
They approached the base of Ta’llevny’s home at a slow walk. The camps receded until they reached the clearing before the huge tree, and though there were no tents or hammocks, many folk were gathered a polite distance from Tarragon’s leader, who was standing at the base of his own home. Tey’ven figured it was easier than cramming so many up into the tree for a simple welcome. Regardless, he took in a silent breath and resolved himself to be patient. He would have to wait his turn, and that was a ways off if he judged from the amount of elves who stood before him.
He slid from his saddle in one easy motion, shifting his cowl back and observing the area without the white sheer fabric in his eyes. As Whisper wandered out of the way, Tey’ven found himself counting. There were eight elves surrounding Ta’llevny. Five of them had the signature dark hair and dark clothing of the Blade Borne, but the others were unidentifiable. He heard mumblings of the usual greeting, and watched as one bowed and received some comment in response from Tarragon’s leader. After another moment, that elf turned to leave, and the next stepped up. Well, at least it would not be long before it was his turn. However, within seconds, all eyes were on him. The only recognizable ones were a set of green and gold, filled with amusement as always.
“If you will, Tey’ven?” Ta’llevny gesturing to him to come forward.
He did as asked, of course, ignoring the other gazes and stepping to his leader’s side. The two strolled away from the small gathering, into a darker part of the widespread vale. Tey’ven did not speak, knowing that Te’llevny would begin the conversation when he saw fit. The two walked silently by one another, using the same long legged gate, despite their vast age difference.
“It pleases me that so many have come,” Ta’llevny spoke at last.
He stopped and turned easily, focusing on the forest beyond them. Tey’ven noticed that his hair was still a mix of tawny and white, but the branches that grew from within were bare of the leaves they held in the spring and summer. In following the leader’s gaze, he took note that the camps were all lit now, giving the usually glowing section of forest a starlit effect. There were soft sounds of voices in conversation and the friction of ropes and the rustle of fabrics, all joined with the usual night bird calls.
“You did not think they would answer your call?” Tey’ven asked at a length.
“I did not think they would agree with the cause,” Ta’llevny answered, his voice soft and calm as always.
Tey’ven thought about his words and finally allowed himself to form a nagging question on his lips. “When will this war begin?”
“Ah, the war will not begin for some time. I fear the first battle will take place before spring arrives,” Ta’llevny did not miss a beat, allowing his odd-eyed gaze to lift toward the clear night sky. “We must wait for the first blow to strike before we make any formal plans.”
“It will happen, though?” Tey’ven asked, knowing it was a stupid question. The vale would not be filled with elves ready to march into battle if nothing was going to happen.
“It will, and I may need to send my riders out as a means of retaliation.”
Now the gold and green gaze moved to meet his. He fought not to show his trepidation, but knew that Ta’llevny saw easily into his young mind. Not only was the leader being incredibly vague about what he knew would happen, but he had admitted where the first clash would take place. Magic did not carry beyond Tarragon, and Tey’ven was not comfortable in such a barren land as White Phoenix. Still, Silna, Rowena and Dolen were currently in the heart of a possible enemy’s lair, and he knew they above all would need him.
“I understand,” he finally replied, accepting the veiled order.
“Rest now,” Ta’llevny said after a pregnant silence. “I will send for you once I am sure of the details.”
Tey’ven bowed and made his way back toward the clearing. He pulled up his cowl just as the light became brighter, more to avoid the gazes of the foreign elves than anything else. Once close, he pointedly circled the area in a wide arc, moving back to Whisper. The horse did not need to ask where their next destination was. Tey’ven’s fatigue hit sometime later, about the time he climbed up into his home.
He removed his traveling clothes with care, leaving only a light layer of clothing on as he pulled himself under a fur blanket. He wondered in amusement what the rest would think of him in such a state. One of Ta’llevny’s esteemed riders, silent as the air itself and invisible as a wraith, falling bonelessly to his bed and curling up under a fur blanket for warmth.
Sleep came quickly, and before he knew it he was awakened. Not by the sun’s light, or the biting chill of the next day’s wind. In fact, he slept through a good portion of the day before he was finally brought out of his slumber. He was jarred awake by an otherworldly pulse. It cut through his senses and brought him gasping to an upright position as he searched for the source. Then, he saw the dark glow. There, strapped seamlessly to the side of his black boot, was his blade. The hilt pulsed with a bluish tint that he had only ever seen when he was much younger.
It took only a moment to realize exactly what it meant.
- - - - - - - - - - -- - - - - - -
Ferin was brooding. Usually, by that time, he would have had a turn with just about every lady in attendance. He loved seeing the angry glares of overprotective fathers, and jealous looks from husbands. They could do nothing to insult the next king of White Phoenix, so they stood aside and watched as their daughters and wives smiled adoringly up at him. Not tonight. Ferin had spent the majority of the ball watching over the room like a hawk; A hawk with a never-empty cup of wine in his hand.
He had certainly meant to dance! In fact, Ferin had wanted to make a show of dancing with Lady Rowena. Of course, that had gone all wrong when Vance led her out before the main course was even served. Since then, the emissary was either with Vance, eating, or on the arm of her white haired companion. The meal was served, followed by dessert, and now the hot drinks were being served. The music ran on wildly, and couples flourished across the floor in brightly colored dresses and feathered adornments. However, the Tarragon natives were not dancing. They seemed to have excluded themselves into a corner, and were speaking animatedly to a few of the council members, right then; His council members.
Ferin glared and took another sip of wine. The more he watched Rowena with her white haired companions, the more he found himself uneasy. There was something different about them. Their voices, their faces, even the way they moved. There was something... off about it.
“See something you like?” Zane puffed as he hoisted himself up into the seat at Ferin’s side.
The blonde was going to need a lesson in manners if he could not get himself up into a chair properly. He certainly would not be allowed to behave like that at the coronation.
“Not at all,” he mumbled. “The Tarragon natives disturb me,” he added in a blunt tone.
To his chagrin, the white haired male turned to stare up at him not even a minute after he had uttered the words. His bright green eyes seemed to bore a hole into Ferin’s own gray ones. As idly as he could, he turned his attention to Zane.
“Beautiful lot, they are. I should love to see more of them,” Zane said lightly, his gaze still focused on the dance floor.
His skin was flushed again, and Ferin guessed that he had either come from dancing, or another tryst with one of the servants. Such things were normal at events like these, but Zane would need to be more careful in the coming days. He was easily entranced by females. That thought alone had Ferin’s mind moving even faster.
“Zane,” Ferin waited until he had his friend’s full attention before going on, his voice dropping to a whisper. “They are not of our kind.”
One of Zane’s eyebrows lifted.
“Yes, they have two arms, two legs, and a head. But that does not make them our kind. In what land does white hair breed to sons? Young sons? In what land does dress of that kind prevail in the courts?” Ferin asked, leaving a short break before going on. “Zane, I have visited just about every foreign place known to this countryside with father. True, Tarragon was never a part of that, but they are far too different to be considered safe.”
Zane stared at him blankly. “You think they mean harm?”
“I think they dabble in witch craft.”
That got his attention. Zane’s blue eyes got so wide that he looked twice as young as he was. He said the prince’s name, glancing to his cup before looking back up again.
“No, I am not too far into this drink,” Ferin answered the silent question, keeping his face deadpan. “I think they are witches. Sorcerers. They use magic to keep themselves so beautiful, and magic to keep that begotten forest of theirs locked up.”
Zane sat up and looked in the direction of the Tarragon natives, as if assessing Ferin’s words. “Magic could aid us, Ferin,” he whispered, apparently elated.
Ferin rolled his eyes, thinking again that Zane was far too easily entranced. “Magic is evil, Zane. Magic is the Godsbane. They could very easily be in league with Van Reston. The forest of Tarragon spans wide over the hills and just to the outside of the territory. What better tactic then to pay off their magic-using neighbors to spy on their enemy?”
“It does seem a bit too sudden. But Vance?”
"Tch. Vance. Vance knows nothing of politics. He trusts stable boys to be his guards! No. He knows no better than a piddling child, which is why father chooses still to pass the throne to me.”
Zane stared longer, not speaking for some time. “What will be done about Tarragon, then? Should we not tell your father about this discovery?”
“Father certainly won’t need to hear about our plans. Not in his state. We will wait. We can whisper rumors as before, and cause a stir. The first chance we get, we will name them magic users and have them banished. Then, we will carry on with our plans once I am named king.”
“And Vance looks all the worse for leading enemy spies into the very palace we all preside in!” Zane said in a louder tone, grinning.
Ferin made a quieting gesture and sat up straighter. “Precisely,” he said, once again catching the haunting gaze of the white haired Tarragon male. “Let us find some ladies who will dance with us.”
“And lend willing ears to whispered knowledge,” Zane put in.
Ferin smiled genuinely for the first time that evening.