Daughter of Tarragon

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A Better King

Very few tried to stop him or intercept him as he stormed through the castle. He took the specific path he had traveled so often before, ignoring both Zane and Gordon’s yells from behind him. Advisors or not, this was going straight to his father.

Ferin glared at the three guards who stood before his father’s room. The doors were closed, and they did not move as he approached at a fast walk. His heart was still beating at twice it’s normal speed when he stopped, his chest heaving as he looked between all three.

“I demand to speak with my father,” Ferin said in a dangerously low voice.

“We cannot-”

“Now!” Ferin interrupted, taking a step forward.

Usually, it worked. He was intimidating when angry, just as his father had always been. Ferin imagined that his own gray eyes cut holes through every other gaze, just as the king’s did when he yelled. However, the guards did not budge. In fact, they continued with their negative statements as one of them slipped between the doors and closed them again.

“What is going on?” he demanded, shrugging Zane’s hand off of his shoulder as the blond finally reached him.

The guards glanced at each other, but did not answer him. These were sworn to his father, then. He was about to press on, when his father’s doctor slipped out of the room, a grim look on his face.

“He is unable to speak, Ferin,” the doctor said in a soft voice.

Ferin felt a bit of breath leave his lungs, his muscles tensing.

“Has he passed, then?” Ferin asked, his eyes shifting between worried and still angry.

“He lives, but only just. He has slipped into a deep sleep,” the doctor replied.

He heard footsteps behind him and turned to see Vance approaching with fast steps. Anger flooded in over the chilling fear, and he turned to face his brother. Vance looked as though he would attack, but his step slowed considerably when he noticed the grim faces of the guards, and the doctor’s presence before his father’s door.

“What is this?” Vance asked, his demeanor changing almost immediately.

Ferin sneered and waited for the doctor to explain before snarling.

“What business do you need to bring to father?” Ferin asked, steeling his voice as best he could

Now, Vance turned an angry glare on him.

“Business? More like news. I need to make sure he knows that his firstborn has gone insane.”

Ferin laughed. He laughed so loudly that Zane’s hand was once again gripping his shoulder. He began pacing, for that was all he could do. He could not punch his advisor in front of the guards and the doctor. He could not see his father; his dying father! He could not beat his brother to a pulp right there on the floor, and he could not ride out after those blasted magic-users and dispose of them.

“You bring magic users to our grounds under the guise of treaty, and you call me insane?” Ferin asked, pacing smoothly as he kept his eyes on Vance. “I think I know just what father would do in my place.”

“Burn everything!” Vance replied with a wild kind of humor.

The sound of a short, covered laugh caught Ferin’s attention, and he realized that Vance was not alone. He had once again brought his boys in armor. He smiled softly and came to a stop mere inches from his brother. Lifting himself to his full height, he concentrated on giving Vance the stare his father had always given his followers. The half-lidded, dangerous look that spoke volumes of his station.

“Not everything, Vance. We bring fire to those who do not abide by our laws. We bring flames to the homes of those who threaten our very way of life.”

“Ah!” Vance smiled; a wild grin that contrasted his current mindset. “I see! So you’re going to war with Tarragon. You’ll battle the elves, then?”

Ferin started, his facade falling for just a moment, and Vance lifted a finger and grinned once again. His brother paced much as he had moments earlier.

“Yes, they are elves, Ferin. Not the godsbane, not allies of Van Reston, and certainly not enemies of ours. You’ll make them enemies if you bring fire to that forest again. Mark my word.”

“They made themselves enemies the moment they brought their evil to our kingdom!” Ferin bit back, still in shock over having heard them called elves.

“I am inclined to disagree,” Vance said softly, looking between the door and his guards.

“Elves! Do you hear this?” Ferin exclaimed, looking at their only audience.

The guards stood still, their faces showing nothing. The doctor looked nervous, staring between the two brothers without a word. Only Zane looked absolutely terrified, his smooth skin sheened with sweat as he shook his head and smiled.

“Ridiculous,” Zane managed.

“We have no time to dawdle! With the king unable to speak for himself, who presides?” Ferin asked, though his voice held no questioning tone.

There was hesitation, and that made him even more angry. His blood pumped in his ears as he waited, and finally, the doctor spoke up.

“The first prince presides, Lord Ferin,” he admitted, a subtle hint of defeat in his voice.

“As first prince, I will call a war council,” Ferin said , his eyes lifting as he felt elation spread through his mind.

“War council,” Vance mumbled, his eyes slowly lifting from the floor. “So this is it; you mean to go to war with Tarragon.”

“We cannot let this hang, Vance. Don’t you understand? It is moments like these that prove who would make the better king!” Ferin replied, honestly feeling like the elder brother in that moment. “These... people are a danger to our kingdom!”

Vance nodded, looking at the guards, Zane, and finally the doctor. After a pregnant silence, he stood up straight, and met Ferin’s gaze with a deadly calm.

“I will have no part in this,” Vance said.

Ferin watched him spin on his heel and leave, and caught the end of a glare from one of the guard boys before they turned to flank him.

“Then what will you do, Vance?” Ferin yelled down the hall, wondering genuinely where his brother meant to put all of that anger.

Vance stopped, turned, and lifted his chin, his voice a steady ring in the air when he answered.

“I’ll do what the better king would do.”

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Swirling thoughts slipped into her mind as she woke. Memories of tight hugs from A’dair and Lae’ra, the familiar scent and feel of her room, and even the joy that Windwalker had sent to her as she untacked him and let him into the forest on his own. The taste of Tarragon’s food (they had been starving when they arrived), and Dolen’s pointed look before he left for his own home. There was no order, just flashes of sights and familiarity in her mind.

The air was crisp, and the cold was bone-deep that morning. Her breath was coming out as steam, and she heard Silna rustling around on the other side of the room. There were whispered words, and finally some warmth filled the room as Rowena allowed herself to wake up.

“I’m sorry,” Silna said. “I did not think to set them last night.

Rowena sat up, still wrapped tightly in her fur blanket. “I didn’t even notice until just now,” she said offhandedly. “Is there a meeting?”

She remembered talk of a meeting. At least she thought she did. Certainly, after such a trip, Ta’llevny would need to see them.

“Tey’ven claims that the meeting will be held whenever we are able to make it to Ta’llevny’s vale,” Silna said with a short smile, lifting her eyes to meet Rowena’s. “We must have looked haggard enough that they insisted on a night’s rest.”

Rowena smiled and yawned, her muscles protesting as she stretched. The mention of Tey’ven brought back another memory; Before the silent, lengthy ride back to Tarragon, he had been whispering to Silna in White Phoenix’s square, a single hand on her shoulder.

“He looked happy to see you,” she said.

Silna smiled again, working diligently on folding her bedding and organizing her room. She cleaned when she was nervous.

“He was angry,” Silna said, but smiled as she said the words. “Mostly that the humans had kept us caged up. He kept asking if I was injured, and I had to keep telling him I was fine. The knife stopped pulsing when he came, you know. He has a matching black one.”

Rowena smiled into her fur blanket and was about to comment when knocking sound came from below them.

“Now that you both are awake, I suggest we eat and move on. There is a meeting that we are to attend,” Lae’ra’s muffled voice called from the level below them.

“We know, mother. Ta’llevny’s Vale.” Silna answered.

“It has been moved to the stone gardens.”

Silna and Rowena exchanged looks. The stone gardens was the clearing where they held many ceremonial gatherings (such as the Winter Ceremony), as well as important meetings. If they had moved it to the gardens, they were expecting many more than a handful of attendees. Especially if Ta’llevny himself was attending.

Rowena moved from her comfortable seat and began dressing herself. She cringed as she pulled her hair into a long tail, not bothering to dress it with anything. It had been too long since she had been able to properly wash it.

“I was hoping for a visit to the pool,” Rowena frowned as she pulled on her boots.

Silna nodded in reply, giving her a sympathetic look as she pulled her still-silky hair back into a tail as well. The heated rocks were often used to heat pools of water, whether in the various streams that passed through Tarragon, or the tiny pools that often formed near by. It was the best means of bathing in any season, since it could be heated to a point of comfort, even in the dead of winter.

The two young females climbed down to the main level of the house, greeting their parents with soft smiles, and consuming their food with as much speed as they could. Once finished with breakfast, the four of them began the walk to the stone gardens, speaking of their adventurous visit to White Phoenix along the way.

“I learned how humans dance, and wore their clothing,” Silna explained.

“Oh yes! Whether or not we are enemies in their eyes, I think corsets will be thankfully banished after our show at the ball,” Rowena grinned. “Kenzy did a wonderful job with our ideas.”

“So this excursion was not all bad?” A’dair asked.

Silna shook her head slowly. “No, I believe we all learned something from one another. Even Dolen,” Silna grinned and glanced at Rowena. “They had him playing their music and enjoying it!”

Lae’ra and A’dair both smiled at that, and Rowena could not help but remembering that as one of the better points of the trip. Still, even with the good came the bad. The haunting memories of Ferin’s words, and the glaring eyes of some of the crowd came back to her at once. She found herself frowning at the snow-dusted ground as they walked. After some number of steps, a flapping sound caught her attention, and she looked up to see Snowsong flying above her.

Rowena bent over and ran her fingers along the bottom of her boots. When her family stopped to see what was wrong, she waved them off.

“Go on, I will catch up,” she said, feigning a problem with her footwear.

She watched them leave her view, waited another few heartbeats, and then stood. Rowena turned on her heel and scanned the trees around her. She heard others, she was sure of it. There were footsteps, and a few shifting leaves on an otherwise windless day. However, when Dolen finally came around a nearby tree, he made none of those noises. He certainly looked as though he had enjoyed a heated soak and a wash.

Rowena frowned and tilted her head. “We aren’t late this time,” she said. “Why do you look so angry?”

Dolen watched her for a moment longer before lifting his arm. Snowsong swooped in and landed gracefully, back-winging as Dolen gave him room. Once he settled in, Dolen began walking, and Rowena fell into step next to him.

“He has shown me what waits for us ahead. There are too many visitors who do not live here,” he finally answered her, speaking very softly.

“Visitors? Who?”

“Outlanders. Many look like Blade-borne. You do know who Fellen’drey is, do you not?” he asked.

Rowena shook her head, suddenly stopping and fixing him with a serious look. Dolen looked slightly annoyed at having to stop, but turned and faced her. Snowsong’s eyes remained focused over his shoulder.

“Te’llevny’s younger sister,” Dolen answered. “She leads the Tree-borne clan.”

Rowena gaped, and he made a gesture that she knew meant to follow.

“His sister? I wondered how she knew Common,” she mused aloud, whispering as she recognized the path they crossed onto. “Ta’llevn’y sent his sister to rescue us!”

“Something other than a simple rescue is afoot,” Dolen guessed, and finally turned to gesture for quiet as they reached the edge of the gardens.

Dolen lifted his free hand and slid it casually down from her shoulder to her elbow. He did not push her, but steered her in the direction of her family. Normally, Rowena would have been annoyed at such a thing, but she was so awestruck by the sheer number of attendees that she certainly needed his guiding hand. Silna glanced in her direction, both sisters looking equally surprised as they turned their gazes outward.

On the raised section of the gardens, where her father’s father and the other elders usually stood, Ta’llevny and his riders were now standing. Nearby, Fellen’drey and a handful of her brown haired companions stood waiting as patiently as the rest. What was usually a crowd of fifty or so was now a crowd of hundreds, all standing patiently (and mostly silently) in wait.

Rowena swallowed audibly as Ta’llevny’s eyes landed on her, and even his soft smile did not do much to calm her nerves.

“I believe we are ready to begin. I ask that our White Phoenix emissaries come forward.”

She knew who he meant. She, Silna, and Dolen were the only three (aside from their rescuers) that could be called emissaries. Still, she stood in place, frozen by a sudden bout of shyness until Dolen moved forward.

“Go on,” A’dair whispered from behind them. “You have nothing to fear.”

Exchanging one last glance with Silna, Rowena moved through the crowd of black-clad elves.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

“See if your father will meet us in the tavern,” Vance said to Dale as the three of them made their way down the castle’s stairways.

“Yes, Lord Vance,” Dale replied automatically, moving ahead of them at a faster pace and disappearing around a corner.

Cameron did not follow, which was just as well. The less commotion they made at that moment, the better. As they moved toward the lower floors of the castle, more and more courtiers began to pass by. Many of them glared in his direction. One winded female even stopped to tell him in a reprimanding tone that he should be supporting his brother. Cameron reminded her that she was speaking to a prince of White Phoenix, as they continued on their way.

Vance was lost in his own thoughts. What would a better king do in this situation? Ferin was obviously going mad if he meant to start a war. Especially when Van Reston seemed to be boiling over. To go to war with any other province would be giving them the opening they needed to move in and take over. Still, what could he do to thwart Ferin’s plans? The doctor himself had repeated the words of the law that they must abide by. The king had not assigned the kingdom to him before falling into a coma, so Ferin would be the rightful heir. He would be in charge in his father’s stead.

And his father...

Vance stopped and stared out one of the rare windows that fell in their path. Cameron stopped with him, eyeing him, but not speaking quite yet.

His father was dying. Between the rushing worry and anger over Ferin’s ridiculous schemes, he felt a slow cold settle into the center of his body. Memories of his father’s hard smile, proud eyes, and commanding voice took over, and he found it hard to picture a world without him. Vance stared outward at the mid-day sun, ignoring the biting pain of hunger, and letting his sadness settle over him like a blanket.

“Lord Vance, we should continue,” Cameron said.

“To what?” Vance asked softly.

“We need to act soon, or your brother will go forward with his plan,” Cameron answered, using the same soft voice.

“What would a better king do, Cameron?” Vance asked.

Cameron did not answer for some time. He heard the younger male shifting in his light armor; metal sliding softly against metal, before a soft intake of breath.

“Serve the people, rather than himself,” Cameron answered.

Serve the people. He was right, of course. Vance kept his gaze outward, looking down at the kingdom below. He could see only a section of the main court yard, but there was still a large crowd gathered.

“How am I to serve the people, when I’m fighting to save Tarragon?” Vance asked, and then turned to face Cameron. “Ferin is planning to march on them. Even if I stay and gather up a group to refuse to go along, he will still march on them. I have to stand in his path.”

“Then you have plan,” Cameron answered, his eyebrows lifting slightly. “You are serving the people. Now we, as a better people, will find a way to serve our king.”

Vance stared into Cameron’s green eyes for what seemed like forever, before finally smiling. Despite his age, Cameron certainly was wise. His words lifted Vance’s spirits to a point where he wanted to be a better king. He would fight in any manner he could to ensure that these people led a better life.

“Alright, then. We’ll meet your father at the tavern,” Vance said quietly, moving back on his path out of the castle.

The wind bit at them when they walked through the main doorway, and Vance was suddenly assaulted with several yelled questions.

“Do you mean to sell us to the magic users?”

“Will the king agree with Ferin?”

“Ferin cannot be left to lead! He is unfit”

The crowd, which had earlier been mingling together, suddenly seemed to split. Those who supported Ferin realized that there were many more who apparently supported Vance and his backing of Tarragon. It looked as though there would be a brawl, and Vance found himself forced to say something. He turned and looked up at the guards, as well as the announcer. All of them looked back at him hopefully, as if knowing that he was the only one who held the answer to all of their questions.

Glancing at Cameron, Vance turned and made his way back up the castle’s front steps. He hesitated once as he reached the raised podium. After a last look at Cameron, and one steadying breath, he stepped up and faced the crowd.

“According to my brother, we are going to war with the people of Tarragon Forest,” Vance said evenly.

He gave the crowd time to gasp, mumble, and take in the heavy news. After another minute, he continued.

“I do not agree with his decision, and I mean to take any means necessary to stop him. I suggest that every single one of you sit down and think about this,” he said, doing his best to not only project his voice, but meet the eyes of those in the crowd.

“Think long and hard, and decide whom you will follow. This is not a vote on who will be king. This is a vote on where our lives will go from this moment on. I had not wished for this day to come so soon, but it seems as though it has. There are two paths, and you may only choose one. Make your choice, and find a way to make it clear. “

Vance stepped down from the podium and looked to Cameron. It was a very open ended and short speech, but it had been his first. From the solid nods he was getting from a few of the guards and the crowd members he passed, he had a feeling it had been well said.

Now, he could only hope that he could find a way to stop a war.

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