Pulling the Rug
Elves were extremely quiet beings, and Rowena had always been a deep sleeper. Therefore, she was not surprised to wake up and see Silna slumbering across the room, where she had not been the night before.
Silna had met with her on the evening after her first lesson with Dolen. She had apologized, explained exactly how (and by way of whom) she had come to her senses. Ta’llevny’s message had many doing new jobs, and Silna had left not longer after their talk to do her own.
Rowena had not seen her since then, and felt lonely at having to sleep in the usually crowded room alone. Apparently, Silna had returned sometime after she had fallen asleep, meaning that her work had lasted much longer than Rowena’s.
Despite that, Rowena did not even sit up before Silna’s eyes were open.
“Did I wake you?” Rowena asked, her voice heavy with sleep.
Silna shook her head once and sat up, looking as though she had only laid down moments before.
“No, I’ve been awake,” Silna answered. “It’s too loud out there to sleep.”
“You came in later than I did,” Rowena answered, looking pointedly at her sister as she too sat up. “Where have you been?”
“Mother’s had me escorting guests in all night,” Silna grimaced.
Rowena looked outward at the seemingly quiet forest. Silna had complained that it was too loud, and she guessed that her sister was picking up commotion nearby that she could not hear. She wondered how many had come in during the night, and was secretly glad that Lae’ra had let her sleep. After a long day of practice, she needed much more rest than any of her elven family might have.
As she took in her surroundings, she realized that it was light outside. The snow alone was not the only thing keeping the room bright to her eyes.
“No!” Rowena gasped, throwing her covers aside and feeling her muscles tense at the cold. She scrambled, trying to get into her clothing as quickly as possible.
“What?” Silna asked, shifting herself back and out of Rowena’s way.
“It’s light! I’m late! Dolen has had me up before dawn the past days.”
“If he wanted you awake, he would have sent that blasted owl,” Silna offered, pulling herself up to a more comfortable seat. “Besides, he technically did have you up before dawn. You were whispering his name in your sleep.”
Rowena sent her sister the best glare she could muster, and finally slowed down her motions. Silna was right; if Dolen had noticed her tardiness, he would have either sent Snowsong, or come looking for her himself. She could only guess that he was otherwise occupied.
“Do we have any duties today?” Rowena asked, wondering if she had been assigned to a task herself.
Silna was now working on getting dressed, and lifted her chin slightly. “I assume that we’ll be escorting guests in.”
“Are there really so many?” Rowena asked, pulling aside the fur that hung in their outside doorway and hanging her legs out into the cold.
Silna followed as she made her way down the outside of their home to the ground. She did not have to say anything at all, and Rowena’s expression must have kept her silent. There were small camps within sight of their home at all angles, and Rowena saw many forms moving in the dawn’s shadows.
The two moved around to the other side of their tree-bound home, and Rowena suddenly felt set-aback. It was nothing compared to being in White Phoenix; the elven visitors were extremely quiet. However, the sight of them made her realize exactly how many neighbors they would have for the near future. She was not used to being in such close living quarters with her own kind.
A black haired female caught her eye, and she looked away, turning toward Silna.
“Are they all here to fight?” she asked Common.
“It would seem so,” Silna answered in kind, handing Rowena her bow and quiver. “Ta’llevny is said to be staying in Feather Grove.”
“With the fairies!” Rowena exclaimed. “That will cause a stir!”
“I suppose it will,” she answered. “Then again, there is enough of a stir over this coming battle.”
“It is rude to speak in another tongue when we have guests,” Lae’ra cut in, and both females turned toward their mother. Silna smiled, while Rowena mumbled an apology. “I need you again today. There is another group that will be staying not far from here,” she continued, addressing Silna. “Once that group is settled, there will likely be more orders for us.”
“Orders...” Silna replied softly, her eyes wandering their now seemingly crowded surroundings.
“Ta’llevny has very specific ideas for our means of defense. He also believes a group of your human friends will be arriving soon,” Lae’ra added, tying a fur lined cloak around her shoulders.
“Vance and Lora?” Rowena asked, her brows lifted. She had expected as much, but not so soon.
Lae’ra nodded. “Your father reported as much before he left. I believe you will be needed on the edge of our borders sometime during the night” she said, but did not give Rowena time to ask any more questions. “For now, it seems that you are needed elsewhere,” her eyes lifted, and Rowena’s followed. Snowsong was perched not far above them.
Giving her sister one last look, Rowena nodded and watched as Lae’ra hurriedly led Silna away. Lae’ra was stressed, and her demeanor made it all the more easy to see where Silna had taken after her.
Rowena took in a short breath and looked back up to Snowsong. She saw mental images of landscape that was familiar to her, and followed when he took off into the trees. Dolen had never been fond of crowds, and she understood his decision to send the owl as she wove her way through makeshift camps.
By the time she reached a clearing, her face was red; both from the cold, and the weight of the eyes on her. Apparently, she was still some sort of legend to outland elves. Wonderful.
At first, she smiled, but a split second later, she realized that it was not Dolen who called her name. She turned back to see a white-haired elf dressed in browns, staring at her with wide gray eyes.
“I am Aeran’thal of the Trail-borne clan,” he said, making a gesture she was unfamiliar with. When she smiled awkwardly in response, he continued. “On behalf of my family, I wanted to say that I support you,” he finished.
Rowena was calmed only slightly by his apparent nervousness, but was confused at his words. “Support me?” she asked, shouldering her bow.
“There are many who believe humans do not belong among our kind,” Aeran’thal explained, his eyes still wide as he spoke. “But we do not claim judgement. If Tarragon accepts you, we accept you.”
She felts her lips pull into a genuine smile, though the blush did not leave her face.
“Thank you,” Rowena began.
“Aeran’thal,” he offered, smiling in an equally nervous, but extremely handsome manner.
“And if her kin arrive in masses, will you accept them?”
Rowena gasped, and Aeran’thal himself looked surprised as well. She turned a stiff glare at Dolen as he stepped up beside her, but his bright eyes were watching the new male with interest.
“We will,” Aeran’thal answered after a pregnant silence.
“I am thankful for that,” Rowena answered when Dolen did not.
“Your impatience is more than clear,” Aeran’thal said, his words coming out with more strength as he lifted his gaze above them. She glanced to his point of focus and noticed a familiar white owl. “I will leave you to your duties.”
Without a word, Dolen turned and stepped back toward a more quiet section of trees, and Rowena offered the foreign male a final wave before moving to follow Dolen.
“He was kind,” she said offhandedly, looking up to watch Snowsong as he deftly flew around branches of all sizes.
Dolen’s only response was a short release of breath and a wry smile. They moved in silence for some time after that, until Dolen finally came to a halt and turned to face her.
“We do not have much time,” he said, looking upward. The gray sky was barely visible between the thick evergreen branches. When Rowena looked back to him, he was looking directly at her.
“Today, we will try something different.”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Horses,” Vance whispered as he wrote the word down. He folded the paper, stamped it with his seal and stood to approach his door.
A guard turned his head and took the note wordlessly as Vance opened the door. He left with silent steps, and just as Vance moved to close the door again, another guard moved into place. They had been rotating all day. Sometimes he would hand the messages to maids, others to guards. He had sent many, and received almost the same number, and the line of guards had not been broken.
So far, the operation had been smooth. Ferin was so caught up in his own planning that Vance’s absence was written off as depression. In reality, it was anything but depression. Yes, he still felt a weight of sadness from his father’s death, but planning such a large scale event had his adrenaline running high.
That morning, he had made sure to send out a map to each of the leaders he knew of. From there, his orders and questions had all revolved around supplies. Did they have enough weapons? Was there enough camping equipment for those with families? They would need to be kept warm and fed, so food was another issue.
Vance was sure that their stay outside of Tarragon would last longer than a few days, but he was not sure that the elves would be able to provide much more than the space outside of their forest. Another order had been to make sure all that would be traveling were prepared for a long ride. With so many, it would take much longer than the usual amount of time. The travelers would need to be bundled up, well fed, and clean before such a trip.
As he thought, his worries increased. However, for each worried message, another was sent in return settling his question. Vance’s most recent thought was for the horses. The more he heard, the larger the group grew, and he wondered aloud if they had enough horses for the trip. They could not have anyone walking alongside their caravan. That would not only make them an easy target, but it would make it all the more dangerous. The snow had all but melted within the walls of the main village, but he knew that it would still be deep as they got closer to Tarragon.
The sun was setting. The day had passed in a blur, and he still had so much work to do before Ferin’s council meeting began. On that thought, he pulled out another piece of paper and wrote out a more detailed note. This one was an excuse for his not attending the war council. He was not feeling well, and would spend the evening as he had spent the day: in his room.
It was a lie, of course, but it had to be sent. Ferin had to be placated in every corner in order for their plan to work. His distraction with his own endeavors would need to be at high point that night, and Vance had a feeling they would.
Once again, he stood and passed the note through the door. This time, a maid was waiting outside with a tray filled with food, and another letter for him. He smiled, thanked her meaningfully, and whispered for her to make sure she and the others were fed soon.
He lit a fire after he had closed the door, chewing thoughtfully on a piece of bread as he sat down to open the letter.
Vance’s eyebrows lifted as he read over the words. They would make no sense to someone who had intercepted the letters, but to him, it meant something. It meant that Charles had connections in areas he had not known. They would be traveling on not only their own horses, but a donated number as well.
He suddenly did not feel very hungry. Darkness was swallowing the land outside, and that meant that their plan would be in action within hours. Still, he forced himself to eat. He would need energy to fuel strength of mind and body. Vance would be expected to lead a mass of people through a cold, dark countryside that he himself had traveled more often than most. This would either be a disaster, or a complete and total victory, but either way, it would be a historical move.
Tonight was the night that he would accept his place as the people’s king.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Nathaniel had never been one to speak up at council meetings. In fact, he rarely felt the need. Although he was young compared to some of the members, he held the same values as those who had come before him. The late king, Thurgal Warrington, had been a long-time friend of his family. He had watched both Ferin and Vance grow from toddlers, even as only the elder brother seemed fit to grow into his kingship.
Now, he sat and listened as Ferin went over maps and numbers and plans for an attack on a foreign people. It had been hours since they started, and refreshments had come and gone as the new king spoke. The rest of the council either sat quietly, or openly participated in the plans. There were many factors to consider; To attack from three sides, two or one? To send in ground troops first, or launch an all-out aerial attack of arrows and stone to start? These were magic-users, after all.
Nathaniel stayed silent. For the most part, he agreed with Ferin’s choice. However, the actions were being taken too soon for his taste. It had been mere days since his father’s death, and Ferin was already taking huge steps as king. The young leader had bloodshot eyes, pale skin, and a wispy attempt at a new beard. He looked positively unkempt. Still, he did not speak out. The majority of the council agreed, and were actively participating in planning the battle.
Only when Ferin mentioned his time-line did Nathaniel gape.
“Three days?” he gasped aloud.
Ferin focused on him, and he only felt calmed by the fact that he had heard a few equally surprised mumbles.
“Is there a problem, Nathaniel?” Ferin asked, enunciating his words to the point of annoyance.
“Three days is an extremely short period of time if you mean to draw up an army,” Nathaniel countered. It was a dangerous move, but he was en elder on the council.
“We cannot waste any more time,” Ferin replied. “It has been days since the menacing creatures left our kingdom. I have read about magic, and any large spell can be cooked up within a span of a few sunrises and sunsets. Who is to say that they are not drawing up their own army of demons as we speak?”
Nathaniel blanched. His reaction seemed to come from picturing Ferin’s words come true, but in reality, he was wondering how far gone the new king might be. He was dreaming of fighting a demon army? Worse still, very few faces seemed as surprised as he was. Seeming to have had the effect he wanted, Ferin went on. Nathaniel could not listen. He only heard more talk of weapons and maps and horses. Was he the only one who found this insane?
Thurgal had lead hundreds of men to a war over land years and years ago. That was a series of small, drawn out battles that had taken weeks to plan. This would be a large-scale offensive attack on an entire people that they did not understand. In the least, they should send out spies, get the true lay of the land, and possibly inspect their weapons before even attempting an attack. Ferin did not seem to see it that way.
The room’s heat began to make him sweat, and he felt as though his breath could not make it all the way to his lungs. Nathaniel shifted in his seat, and finally stood, mumbling about needing air as he left the room. To his relief, he heard Ferin comment on the ‘effect of demons’ as he left. At least his retreat would not be viewed as completely disrespectful.
He made his way down the halls, feeling the air grow colder as he neared the main entrance to the castle. Hopefully, the shock of winter’s bite would bring him back to health. Ferin’s order had him dizzy with fear. Had Thurgal made the right decision in allowing his first son to be king?
There were two flights of stairs between the council room and the main entrance, and Nathaniel took them carefully. He drew breath in measured intervals, and opened his collar as he crossed the cavernous hall that led to the great doors. Had he been more aware, he might have noticed that there were no posted guards, but Nathaniel was shining with sweat, and aching for a sharp burst of chilly air.
He opened the door, stepped outside and closed it, breathing out fog in relief. His eyes were closed as he drew in a second, and a third gasp of cool air, before his ears picked up sounds. Nathaniel sucked in a surprised gasp as he opened his eyes.
The courtyard was milling with people. There were many of them, and as he focused he could just make out the forms of dogs, horses, and shining reflection from metal objects. Despite the amount of ruckus, there was not very much noise. In fact, the more he saw, the more it looked as though they were attempting to move in secret. The flow of the crowd seemed to be moving out away from the castle. Many of the people he saw had their backs to him, and large packs sat on their horse’s rears.
They were leaving! The kingdom’s people were fleeing the safety of the castle! Questions flew through his mind as he stood frozen against the closed door, bracing himself against the thick wood as he calculated what he was seeing. He wondered what could make them do such a thing, but realized that just as he had seen, the people had likely seen a side of Ferin that they had not trusted.
But where would they go? Would they simply leave their homes? Ferin’s war plans would certainly come up short now. Nathaniel could not count the amount of men he saw in that crowd. Young, able-bodied males who would otherwise have been called to battle.
What he saw next was something that made the barrage of questions in his mind stop. It was as though this one sight was enough to answer them all.
An unmistakable black stallion flowed in a smooth gait into the courtyard, followed by two handsome bays. The black stallion danced in place and spun as his rider asked him to. Even Nathaniel knew Dancer when he saw him, and the second prince sat atop the steed looking as though he had owned him all his life. Vance was flanked on either side by his twin guards, and all three were dressed for cold weather.
The second prince met his gaze and held it, and Nathaniel knew. The people were following their chosen king where he lead them. Vance was taking his followers out from underneath Ferin’s wing, and Nathaniel was the only being who stood between either side. Dancer stopped moving and stood, staring as his rider was. The two guards moved on ahead, following the last of the huge crowd as they disappeared from sight.
He could still alert Ferin’s guards. He could alert those left in the kingdom, for Vance surely had not emptied the courtier’s homes. The high-born lot would not be found gallivanting outside in the middle of a winter night. The closest was in running distance, and he could go there, or turn and take his news directly to the council. Vance seemed to be asking him that very question: would he?
After what seemed like hours, he stood up straight and took in another long breath, allowing the chilling air to bite into his lungs. He made no move to run, or even to turn and go back into the castle. Nathaniel set his feet and stood in place. With a resounding nod, he sent Vance on his way. No words were spoken, but Vance returned the nod. The great stallion spun in place once more, and took off in a beautiful canter, melting into the darkness as the crowd had.
Nathaniel waited for another long span of minutes before turning to make his way back up to the council meeting. The least he could do was buy them some time.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Silna made her way through the darkened forest with ease. The snow-coated ground made it fairly easy to see where she was going, and her boots barely made a noise in what was left of the accumulation. It had been another long day of leading in guests and helping them to settle into their new camps.
There had been a particularly tense span of minutes when Silna was forced to help a familiar white and brown haired male with his hanging bedding. Luckily, he had remained quiet, and only spoke enough to thank her as she left.
She had stopped at her home long enough to eat a quick meal with her parents before packing a snack for Rowena and leaving. The sun had set hours ago, and according to Ta’llevny, the humans would arrive sometime before dawn. If anyone should be there to meet them, it would be them. Deep down, she hoped that Tey’ven would show up as well. She had not seen him since she had been on patrol with him, and the time apart was beginning to put her on edge. That fact alone was unnerving.
She did her best to block out the soft sounds of their new neighbors as she moved. Thankfully, her work with Lae’ra made it easy to find the boundaries between each camp. She walked them carefully, doing her best not to interrupt those who might be taking their rest. Silna smirked when she came across a father and son practicing with blades. It gave her a measure of pride to see that, although both were Blade-born, her eyes found every movement familiar. In years before, the sight of them alone would have made her feel inadequate.
When the camps thinned out, Silna picked up her pace. She was glad when the only sounds that filled her ears were the soft wing-beats and calls of night birds, and the occasional motion between the trees. The forest’s creatures were also nervous at the sudden increase in population. Hopefully, they would not feel too put-out by the guests.
Her training, as well as her heritage gave her a higher sense of presence than any human. When she felt a particular heaviness to the air, Silna knew that someone was nearby. She slowed her steps and listened harder. She heard heavy breathing, but only just. A snap of a bowstring caught her by surprise, and she caught the blur of motion before an arrow struck in the woods ahead of her.
“Well, at least you’re good at it,” Silna whispered and breathed out as she focused. There was a small wooden target that had been placed against a tree, and although the arrow had not struck it’s center, it had hit the target.
She watched Rowena come out from behind another tree some ways ahead of her and move to retrieve the arrow. However, once the arrow was free, she turned and trotted carefully to another vantage point, setting herself behind a large evergreen. Silna wondered what was going on before she noticed Dolen. He had moved almost as undetected as Tey’ven often had, but his eyes were bright in the darkness, and they were focused on her.
“I believe we are finished for today, Rowena. We have company,” he said softly.
“Who?” Rowena replied, her words notably louder as she stood to look around. Although she saw much better in the darkness than any other human, she had nowhere near the visual ability of an elf.
Silna moved forward, not bothering to be quiet about it. She took no joy in making her sister feel inadequate.
“Silna!” Rowena grinned and approached her as she finally noticed her presence.
“You are doing well with the bow,” Silna said honestly, eyeing the target as Dolen picked it up.
Rowena positively beamed. “Dolen has me practicing with it on the move, to make sure I can keep myself unseen and still hit the target. He places it, I shoot, and he picks it up again. It’s been like Rabbit Hunt all day!”
Silna began nodding, but something about Rowena’s words struck her as strange. “Rabbit Hunt?” she repeated, and moved her eyes from her sister’s nodding head to Dolen’s quiet form as he approached them.
Rabbit Hunt was a game they played as children; A chase-and-catch game where one would hide until the other found them, and then they would start again.
The way his stony expression shifted as she watched him confirmed her thought.
“Is this a good time to play courting games, Dolen?” she asked blatantly, suddenly feeling anger well up inside her chest.
Rowena went from looking pleased with herself and slightly winded to looking incredulous and blushing fiercely. Silna ignored it as Dolen answered, his stony expression returning. However, his eyes challenged her as he responded.
“She had learned to use the weapon standing still. Now, she needs to learn to use the weapon as she moves,” he answered in a controlled timbre.
Courtship was not something that was openly spoken of between parties. That she was calling Dolen’s bluff in front of Rowena was an extremely rude gesture, but she could not take it back. This was her sister, and a war was practically on their doorstep. Then again, she and Tey’ven had gone several rounds with one another just days ago.
Before she could second guess herself, or even answer Dolen’s argument, Rowena spun in place and spoke.
“Wait,” she said, drawing Dolen’s gaze to her own. “They play like the deer or the birds do. Is that not what you said?” she asked. “Is that what we’re doing?” she was still red in the face, and it seemed to be contagious.
“It is not something...” Dolen stuttered and glared at Silna before continuing. “We do not normally speak of it.”
“He’s right, Rowena,” Silna cut in. “I’m sorry,” she admitted.
“No,” she looked between them both. “You two may have all of the years in your lifetimes to spend courting, but I’m human,” she said, focusing on Dolen. “Humans make such things clear. Usually, one asks, and the other will accept or decline.”
Dolen glanced to Silna, but she gave a soft turn of her head, indicating that she was unsure of where this was going. Despite her fierce blush, Rowena was arguing a side she rarely did, and neither knew how to react. Luckily, Rowena once again took the reins.
“I just want to know, Dolen. Are you courting me?” she asked.
Dolen visibly swallowed, and finally nodded. “Yes,” he admitted, using the Common word, rather than the elven one.
Rowena, still blushing, shouldered her bow and folded her arms. She nodded in a curt manner and visibly mustered all of her courage before answering.
“Then I accept your offer,” she replied in Common, before turning on her heel and moving away from them both. “Now come on, I want to clear away the snow so the humans will have somewhere to camp.”
Dolen looked to Silna with a rare helpless, confused look on his face. She grinned at him and nodded. “It means that she courts you as well,” she responded.
“She looks angry,” he whispered, and Silna turned to watch Rowena practically stomp through the snow toward their boundary.
Still smiling, Silna shrugged. “She gets that from me, I think.”
Dolen moved forward and shifted his own quiver onto his back. “Are there any other human customs that I need to be aware of?”
She almost laughed, but shook her head slowly, thinking to herself. “Honestly, I am not sure. I do know that they live their lives to the fullest within the short years they are given.”
The two moved after Rowena, and Dolen only spoke after they had been walking in silence for another handful of minutes.
“We may not have very much longer ourselves. There is a war to fight.”