The Heart of the Matter
The human wine had done little to ease his nerves. The light, the heat, and the ever bustling humans were all surrounding him that evening, practically making his senses spin. He made a point to keep them open to the world around him, nonetheless. Even above all of the noise and light, Dolen was well aware of several things going on within the stone castle. He had been paying close attention to human mannerisms and customs, mostly to give himself something to focus on, but also to gain knowledge of how this world was run. He knew only a small amount of their language, but he also had another trick up his sleeve. Dolen may not be able to use mind-speech as many of his kin did, but he had a distinct talent for reading body language. Spending years with elves had fine tuned it, so he found himself easily translating just about every move these raucous folk made. Humans were not shy creatures, but they often spoke one thing while their eyes portrayed something altogether different.
Vance’s brother was a prime example of that. He was constantly scheming, and Dolen thought he had picked up on something particularly dangerous. If he only knew more of the language, he might be able to gain even more knowledge. Then again, he would also need for the human musicians to lower the volume with which they played.
“We will leave soon, I promise,” Rowena’s voice cut into his raging thoughts, and her hand was at his back.
Dolen wondered if he was portraying a bit too much body language at that point. Then again, Rowena knew him better than most. He met her gaze and nodded, taking in a slow breath through his nose and straightening his stance. They had been conversing with elder council members for some time. Though Vance and Silna had taken most of the conversation, Dolen found himself answering questions in halting Common, only to receive approving smiles and nods from the elder humans. He wondered how amused they would be if they knew exactly how old he was.
Now, the group was alone, keeping an eye out for a signal from Lora or one of the fairies. He took his time watching either Ferin, or the humans on the dance floor. It seemed almost uncanny, the way these folk danced. Males and females held close to one another, spinning and using certain steps to certain tunes. Sometimes in unison, other times in coupled off forms similar to the dance he had been taught. He did see similarities in a few of the motions they made, but it amazed him that the humans would show such intimacy in front of so many others. It had been hard enough to keep himself composed during Vance’s impromptu ‘lesson’. He had tactfully avoided dancing at the ball, and succeeded thus far.
“Time to go,” Vance’s voice came in a low tone.
Dolen understood those three words, for Vance had spoken in accented Elven. He watched as the prince wound his way through the crowd, while Silna moved off in another direction. Neither looked back, only moved off to meet with their respective partners. Now the plan was in action. Vance would meet with Dale and Cameron, Lora with Silna, and he would follow Rowena. So he moved without surprise when she lightly grasped his arm and moved toward one of the several doorways, babbling quickly in the Common tongue. Dolen only caught words like ‘tired’, and ‘ill’, and figured it was his turn to act. It was not a hard task, considering his overwhelmed state.
Rowena led him down a narrow hall, surrounded on all sides by stone. He was thankful for the lack of fire, at least. It was also cooler here, and the scents were less overpowering. When they reached their apparent destination, they donned stashed cloaks and made their way carefully down what looked like one of the servant’s passages of the castle. They followed Lora’s strict directions, and those they passed seemed either oblivious or well advised of the situation.
Dolen took in an almost gasping breath when they were through the final door of the castle. It was cold, but the air was clean and he could see stars rather than a ceiling. The icy wind hit them and pulled at their cloaks, and they flattened themselves against the wall to keep from being seen. At least that was what he did. Rowena was shivering already, and he edged her further away from the door before pulling her under his arm. Elves apparently ran higher body temperatures than humans did. He felt the cold in his bones, but he was not shivering as violently as Rowena was. Then again, he remembered the fabric her dress had been made of, and wondered why they had not thought to include warmer clothing along with the cloaks.
“We wait here?” he asked, turning himself so that his back took the brunt of the wind. It was nights like this one that he often curled up with Talon, rather than sitting high in a tree. Winds like these made trees bow and flex to their limits; Sometimes too much.
“They s-should be here s-soon,” she stammered.
Even her voice was strained, and he knew every muscle in her body was tensing against the freezing cold that surrounded her. He let out a short sigh and pulled her closer, using both arms to wrap the cloak fully around them. After a moment her quaking stopped. Her breaths came easier and she relaxed against him. He felt himself relax more too, letting his body be supported by the stone wall.
“Thank you,” Rowena spoke more clearly. She looked up and pulled at his cowl, dragging it down further over his face. “Hard to keep those eyes from notice,” she said in a mumble, as if musing to herself.
The proximity reminded him of their earlier lesson, and he found himself leaning closer. He had noticed the human tendency to speak into each other’s ears. Whether or not the words spoken were meant to be private, it seemed to be an act saved for short moments of intimacy, usually between males and females. As he felt his own blood racing faster, he figured that this could easily count as one.
“I am sorry we did not dance,” he whispered.
The words seemed to have surprised him as much as they surprised her. However, before either of them could say any more, the crunching sound of footsteps had him tensing for a clash. Doing his best to continue shielding Rowena, Dolen turned to see Silna and Lora coming around the corner.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Vance made his exit very well known. He had smiled and bid every high born guest goodbye, particularly the council members. He had claimed to want to go over his version of the Tarragon treaty to some, and simply claimed a headache to others. He took the route that he had assigned himself: a winding path that led to upper floors, then lower floors, and finally around to the back of the castle. He found Dale and Cameron standing before an otherwise barren doorway, looking quite cold.
“We should have thought to dress warmer,” Dale said, running his arms over his clothing.
Apparently, even guards wore light clothing to these events. Vance pursed his lips and shrugged into his fur lined cloak.
“We should be fine in these cloaks. It’s the others I’m worried about,” he answered with a dark look, knowing that the others wore cloaks stolen from the servants ward.
The white elven cloaks would definitely have been noticeable outside of the castle, despite their pointed camouflage. Lora’s only option had been to use the most rugged and bland fabric available, and he could only hope that it would keep them warm enough.
“Come on,” he urged, moving out ahead of Dale and Cameron.
Each of the three pulled heavy cowls over their heads, both to ward off the biting wind and make themselves unrecognizable. They passed several guards, who seemed too interested in their own conversations to care. With small groups of the town’s folk passing by, they likely blended in well. Once into the front streets of the castle, they passed several stores and inns that still kept their lights lit. From the sounds within, they appeared to be having celebrations of their own. Vance was familiar with such things, since he had often escaped high born functions to attend them.
Dale was mumbling between shivers as they all caught sight of the tavern. It was well off of the main streets, but looked inviting nonetheless. The orange glow from inside promised warmth, and all three stopped talking and sped up once it was in sight, making sure to be careful on icy patches.
A blast of warm air greeted them when they entered. A few of those seated closest to the door barked at them to get in and shut it again, and they did so without complaint. Vance followed the twin guards once they were inside, and found himself at the other end of the tavern at a familiar table. He looked up to see Lora, Silna, Dolen and Rowena seated with Charles Callahan at one of the larger tables. They all seemed to still be working on getting warm.
“Welcome, welcome! Have a seat, I’ve ordered hot drinks for all of ya,” Charles said merrily. He had apparently started in on his own hot drinks already.
Weariness took him as soon as he had eased into the chair, but he kept himself sitting up straight, leaving his cowl up as the rest had done. Vance nodded in greeting to the rest, sending Lora a short smile before focusing on Charles. As much as he wanted to speak with her and the others, there was business to attend to. Charles squinted and grinned, looking more merry than Vance had seen him last. The sight brought a slightly confused look to his face, and the elder man saw it.
“Alright. First, I’ll tell ya that you needn’t hide out in here. I know every one of these kind patrons, and the owner himself is a part of the plan,” Charles spoke well above a whisper, and smiled up at a servant as she easily passed out drinks while balancing several others on a plate at her hip. “Go on then!” he insisted, lifting the cup to his lips.
The group exchanged nervous glances, but all obeyed. Those who still had their hoods up slowly pulled them back to reveal their features. The two elves stuck out like sore thumbs in the dusky tavern. Vance was thankful at least for his bland features. He chanced a look around, and certainly met curious gazes, but that was as far as it went. Charles had apparently done well in warning these folk of just who would be visiting.
“Thank you for having us,” Vance offered after a moment.
Charles leaned back and lifted his cup, and all but the three Tarragon natives lifted their own in the same gesture.
“More than welcome, Lord Vance!” he announced with another grin and another sip. He set his cup purposefully on the table before leaning in on his elbows. “Now, we’ve heard talk about the town, and I’ll tell ya. I did not expect so many, but you’ve got some followers, Lord Vance,” Charles looked Vance in the eye, nodding when the prince lifted his brows.
“Oh yes. They all seem to know that you’re just the opposite of your brother, and they hope your views are that as well. These farmers, these land owners and their families... they are on the verge of migrating now that they know what’s in store!”
“They couldn’t. The next settlement is too far,” Vance put in, picturing families trudging across barren land to get to the next poor village. All to escape Ferin’s rule!
“Oh, they likely wouldn’t, but they are worried enough to have thought about it. Any more of the king’s taxes and they wouldn’t have a choice,” he sat back and lifted his finger, looking about the group as a teacher would his students. “But they follow ya, and they are prepared for a battle if it comes to such a thing.”
Vance found himself very awake, swallowing the sip of his drink in one hard motion. He barely had time to come up with a single response before Rowena had spoken.
“But are they prepared to ally with a foreign land?” she asked, looking exhausted with worry.
Her hair was already beginning to pull up into soft waves again, and she kept her cloak pulled tight around her as if she was still cold. Despite that, Rowena still looked every bit the Tarragon native.
Charles nodded. “Oh, trust me. These folk would side with Van Reston if they promised a peaceful existence.”
Rowena pursed her lips, and Vance knew she was aching to speak the truth to Charles. He felt it too, but he let the man speak.
“We have a few men on the council that agree with us, if you understand me,” Charles admitted, and Vance nodded in understanding. He thought he knew who these men were. “These men will call a vote when Ferin tries to claim the throne. They are sure they would win such a thing, and then it will be up to the people of White Phoenix to choose their king!” he finished with a relish, once again lifting his cup. The rest did not do the same, and Lora leaned forward to speak in a lower voice.
“Father, are you sure this is as planned as you say it is? I cannot see them going against so many years of tradition.”
“While you were off gallivanting in foreign lands, Lora, I was meeting with my own council,” Charles said with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Tradition be damned, this is the first time in centuries that brothers will fight for the throne. Good will prevail, I feel it in my bones!”
Vance sat back and tapped nervously at the edge of the table. The rest were silent, apparently taking in as much as they could. The plan sounded well and good. He certainly had faith in the council’s ability to overthrow Ferin. The problem would be getting past not only Ferin, but his father’s followers. Could he propose such a thing to his father on his deathbed? The king had spoken strangely that last time Vance had seen him, but he doubted that his father would see him on the throne in his brother’s stead. Moreover, could he become what these people wanted, or needed him to be?
“Now then, let us celebrate,” Charles said seriously. “Meeting adjourned?”
“Wait, that was it?” Cameron asked.
Charles nodded. “We just wanted to be sure you were all aware that we have everything under control.”
“Are you sure?” Lora asked.
“My own children do not believe me!” Charles laughed and shook his head. “I am sure. You just go on about your business. Lord Vance has much to attend to in the next few days, what with Tarragon business and his poor father’s ill health. We’ll keep our eyes peeled.”
“You may have to, if Ferin’s sending bandits after us.” Dale put in, his face glum as he sent a glance toward his sister.
Then the elder man sobered. His jaw twitched and his furry eyebrows dropped low.
“There are others keeping watch over you now. Just be careful,” he cautioned in a dark voice. Then, sitting up again, he lifted his glass. “All is well?” he asked.
“Will they accept magic users?”
Vance coughed loudly, choking down liquid that had gone down the wrong pipe. He had been sipping at his drink when Dolen’s heavily accented voice had spoken the words, and he could not believe he had just said such a thing. Rowena said his name, Dale and Cameron both turned a funny shade of white, and he met Lora’s wide eyed gaze. Only Silna seemed composed, staring at Charles with a calm gaze, waiting for an answer.
The elder man stared right back. In fact, the entire room seemed to quiet down. It was as if no one breathed for a long period of time. Then, Vance saw one corner of Charles’ mouth turn up into a soft smirk, almost a crooked smile, and his eyes softened fractionally.
“They’ll accept anyone willing to fight for them, so long as they are good of heart.”
Silna smiled at once, practically lighting up the room. Even Dolen offered a soft smile, and the room burst with sound again. Conversations started back up, drinks were once again flowing, and Dale and Cameron slid limply back into their chairs. Charles lifted his cup.
“For the love of a drunken whore, are we all well?”
They agreed, and there was laughter, lifted glasses, and a chant for old time’s sake. Vance found the time passing quickly from then on, his heart lightened by the warm familiarity of the tavern, and the closeness of his true friends.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
It had been hard at first, but Silna thought she was coping well with the shock that was human culture. Then again, she had had a first hand taste of it for most of her childhood. Dolen was holding up decently, considering that just hours before, he seemed as spooked as WindWalker. Even Rowena was tense and nervous for most of the time they had been there. Silna wondered if it was simply being in the human lands, or the impending threat that Ferin seemed to emanate.
Now that they were away from the stone walls of the castle (and Ferin’s too curious stares), all of them seemed to calm down. Dolen had taken it upon himself to break the overhanging taboo, asking Charles directly about what they might think of Tarragon’s true nature. Silna had almost enjoyed that moment! She honestly did not think Dolen would have such reckless courage. But he must have seen what she saw in these folk. The lesser folk, she guessed. All dressed in drab tones compared to the formally dressed high-born. The small place they gathered in was a simple structure made from what looked and smelled like wood and stone. Everything about the place and the people here was different. They practically glowed with life, and Silna did not have to read minds to see that they were genuine. There was nothing false or costumed about them.
It was because of this that she was able to relax. Silna sat back in the stiff wooden chair and watched the goings on with a tired smile.
The rest talked loudly, and more music began coming to life from group sitting in the far corner of the tavern. As with the people, even the music here seemed more alive, more free. It was as though the very aura had changed in the short distance from the castle to the town.
“Does the master play?”
Silna’s thoughts were cut short as she focused on a new conversation at her side. Rowena was smiling in Dolen’s direction, and a young human was standing and looking to him askance.
“If you can keep the beat for us, we’ll keep ye entertained!” the young man said, gesturing to the corner where the musicians were set up.
“They want you to play,” Rowena explained, and Dolen nodded, signaling that he had understood. “Then go on!” she grinned.
Silna smirked when he looked to her. “Go on, then. Best show them that we aren’t going to turn them to stone,” she said in Elven.
She smiled sweetly when he gave her a withering look, and finally stood. There was clapping, and Dolen took a careful seat amongst the human musicians. He took up a round, cylindrical object and looked it over, eyeing the human as he touched it in three different places to show what sounds it could make. Within moments, they had begun a melody. Dolen took a few seconds, but fell in with the group easily, creating a steady beat for them to play to. The humans clapped again, Charles lifted his cup once more, and they began to dance.
Once again, their dancing was less cordial and more jovial. Males and females danced in circles with grins on their faces, and the twin brothers, Dale and Cameron, got up to perform an apparently well-known stepping routine. The amusement was infectious. Silna tapped her foot along with the songs, and watched as Lora and Vance got up (receiving another grand applause that had Lora blushing red in the face), taking their own turns on the now crowded space on the floor. The tune changed, Dolen took it faster, and pipes and strings lifted in the air. A man’s voice rose above the tune in a song that a few in the tavern apparently knew.
Dolen was smiling, which was a rare event in its own, and Silna found herself on the receiving end of a wink from Charles. She was simply astounded. After the council meetings and the conversations with court members, and Vance’s warnings about protocol and rules, this was an entirely new world. It all became clear to her how important Vance’s claim to rule would be. It was as if he and his brother were night and day; one wanting nothing more than power and control, the other wanting simply to preserve these small sections of pure substantiality.
“This old leg won’t hold up long out there, but thank you, Lady!”
Charles was turning Rowena down. Silna laughed when her sister extended a hand to her, as if offering to be her partner in a dance. She shook her head in the negative, still smiling. Her sister waved her off and moved back onto the floor, clapping and moving herself along to the next song’s beat.
Silna jumped. No one noticed her motions in the loud place, but she found herself ready to yell at a pair of loathsome faeries. That was before she realized what the words they were babbling meant. She stood and called Rowena’s name loudly at the exact time that something shook the door. It opened and brought in a draft of freezing wind, and a hoard of armored guards.
The music stopped abruptly. Charles and Dolen stood up with very similar looks on their faces, and Silna watched Vance step carefully in front of Lora. Dale and Cameron came to either of Vance’s sides, their faces mirror images of each other. The guards (she recognized the garb from outside of the castle) filed in until no more could fit, but she could tell many more waited outside.
“We seek the Tarragon natives. They are to report to the castle under arrested circumstances,” one guard’s voice boomed loudly.
He did not have to speak so loudly, since the room had gone still and silent. This was apparently not something usual. Silna did not understand what was going on.
“Arrest?” Rowena gasped.
Vance was asking questions, and a drone of whispers and mumbles cycled through the room. Once again, the guard spoke over everyone.
“Send the Tarragon natives forward, and you will not be held in contempt.”
“In contempt of what?” Vance demanded, stepping forward.
“Lord Ferin’s orders!” the guard answered back easily.
“Lord Ferin-” Vance spat, moving forward to yank the paper from the guard’s hands. He read it over and Silna watched his eyes widen. “Where does he gain the authority to make such accusations?”
“Lord Ferin is king in waiting, he is therefore able to take over king’s actions until he is crowned or otherwise relieved of his duties.”
“If Ferin has authority then I do as well. I demand proof of these judgments!” Vance yelled. He was red-faced and very angry. Silna wondered exactly what that paper stated.
“You must speak with Lord Ferin. I ask once more for the Tarragon natives. Come forward, or we will be forced to follow the lord’s orders.”
“What, burn the place down?” Vance asked in an exasperated tone.
The guard stood still.
Silna understood now. She also understood what would happen if they did not go with these guards. She took up her cloak and lifted her chin as she stepped forward, nodding to Dolen and slipping her hand under Rowena’s arm.
“Come. We have no choice.” she said in Elven.
“You are not to speak the devil’s tongue!” the guard barked at her.
They were surrounded as the three of them moved into the cold. She heard Vance’s voice yelling over the closing circle of guards as the wind bit at her.
“Devil’s tongue? You fool, they’re from another land!” the rest of his words were muddled.
Silna could hear nothing over the harsh wind and the steady marching of the guards that surrounded her. Rowena gripped her arm hard, shivering with cold, and she kept her body still and her mind as calm as she could. There was light over the castle, proving that the sun would be coming over the horizon within the hour. They had stayed out all night.
Weariness blurred everything in her mind, and she felt as numb on the inside as she did in her own skin. They marched mindlessly with the guards, and did not fight as they were led into a squared off room of stone. It was smaller than even her own room in her parents’ dwelling. A gate was locked behind them. Silna looked around, watching as Rowena sunk to the floor, a hopeless expression on her face, while Dolen paced the short length of the tiny room, looking around like a colt in a pasture. That was it! They were trapped. They were being held, or kept for some sort of accusation that Ferin had apparently come up with.
“He works fast,” she hissed, nostrils flaring as anger gave her a jolt of energy.
The other two did not speak. Rowena was shivering. Dolen was running his hands over the stone walls, trying to find something to aid in their escape. His sanity would not last long in such an enclosure. Not for someone so used to using tree branches for bedding. Silna crouched and touched the floor, finding that it was also made of stone. There was a window, but it was tiny, and far too high up on the wall to use. The gate was metal, harder than the blade of a sword.
Or a knife!
Silna lifted her foot and felt her boot for the indentation, and pulled Tey’ven’s gift easily from the hidden sheath. She held the small hilt and touched the sharp blade to the metal gate to see which metal would be the stronger. The gate’s metal was too thick.
Rowena was crying. Silna turned with the knife in her hand and stared at the two of them; Her sister in tears, and Dolen pacing like a trapped beast. The faeries were probably hiding. Angrily, Silna gripped the knife, wishing she had just one of the guards to lash out at. If not, Ferin himself. She was helpless. Her mind whirled with thoughts. Ideas appeared, only to be squelched by her sense of reality. She crouched again and drove the knife’s blade into a small crack in the floor, her teeth bared in her own frustration. But something happened then that made her face drop its wrathful mask.
The hilt of the knife pulsed. It glowed brightly and sent some kind of feeling through the air. She waited, wondering if it would crack stone, but it stayed put. Nothing happened until it pulsed again, and again. Rowena’s tiny breaths stopped, and Dolen’s steps shifted to come closer.
“What-” Rowena started to ask, peering at the glowing hilt.
“It is the knife Tey’ven gave me,” Silna answered.
“Two of Blade-borne,” Dolen said offhandedly. “Do you not know what it means?”
Silna shook her head. “He handed it to me before I left. I do not know much about the Blade-born clan, Dolen. I am merely training in sword play.”
He pursed his lips in a tense line and canted his head to the side, green eyes shining as he watched the blade.
“Let us hope it bodes well.”