An Unlikely Messenger
His father had dressed him in his best winter gear, and as the horse trotted evenly through the trees, he was glad of that. The further from the Tarragon territory they went, the colder it became. Riding the white mare was a pleasure, though. At first, he was set aback by how easy the trip was going. He did not need to command her at all. The reins around her neck were purely for decoration, and the horse was following the trail on her own mind. Vance had explained this to him, but he only really began to believe it when he saw it for himself.
In addition to her intelligence, her gait was the smoothest he had ever felt. It was the middle of the night, and he was still wide awake; not sore in the least. His father was a horseman, so he was as well trained as a fifteen year old boy could be when it came to equines. This mare he rode would certainly be worth a king’s holdings in the human world. It was almost too bad that she belonged exclusively to Tarragon. Then again, he would not dare take her from her home.
Daniel shivered and leaned forward when the mare, Spirit, picked up speed. Even her trot was smooth.
“We close?” he whispered.
She snorted. Daniel had grown well used to having what seemed like one-sided conversations with her as easily as he had grown used to the beautiful Tarragon natives and their fairy neighbors. He simply took it as another land that he had not yet seen, and was grateful for the experience. There was a time in his life when he had resolved himself to the fact that he would be bound to the castle for all of his years. The work of a page was never done, and only if they proved themselves elsewhere would they be promoted. Since then, any time spent outside of the kingdom was a gift to him, even if it was an errand as dangerous as the one he was performing.
He gripped Spirit’s mane and leaned forward more, trusting her not to run him into any branches. If she was picking up speed, it meant that they were getting close. He would need to prepare himself for a possible fight. Stupid Marcus! Even he should know better than to go against Vance. It did not seem like something Long-legs would do, but he had to be stopped. Daniel had known Marcus as a child, and he mentally prepared himself for what he may have to do when they met again.
Spirit dropped back to a walk, and slowed down to the point where she was taking one slow step at a time. Her head was lifted, and her ears were forward. It was almost as if she were stalking something. Daniel sat up straight and focused ahead of them. In the distance, he could just make out what she was seeing. A shadow was moving up ahead. He could only hope that it was their prey, and not an animal that meant to make them prey. However, he doubted that Spirit would knowingly take them so close to a predator.
The mare moved out and made a wide arc until they were traveling parallel to the shadow. She seemed to be side-stepping closer to it, and as they closed in, Daniel saw all that he needed to see; it was a horse and rider, and the rider was slumped in the saddle, asleep. Only one as inexperienced as Marcus would allow himself to fall asleep in the saddle. To his own luck, the horse was still on the right path, since he could very easily have woken up in a land far off of the trail he was taking if the horse thought any better. Long-legs was either in a hurry, or desperate. Neither of which was a good sign, especially since Daniel was about to confront him.
Spirit was bringing them close, and luckily (or something more than luckily), the dark horse Marcus was riding did not seem to fear them. Something akin to recognition crossed over its features, and it blew a long breath of fog as Spirit pulled up beside them.
“Oi, Long-legs!” Daniel said, pushing the boy next to him.
Marcus scrambled awake in the saddle, and clumsily slid to the side. By the time he recovered his seat, both Spirit and Marcus’ mount had stopped.
“What! Where am I?”
“Running from camp?” Daniel answered, keeping his muscles tight in case he needed to make a fast move.
“Running...” Marcus whispered, looking all around him before sitting up in the saddle. “Oh! Yes.”
“Yes?” Daniel spat, his brows drawing low over his eyes. “Just like that? Fine, yes, you’re running from camp.”
“Well, yes.” Marcus replied, his eyes wide.
Daniel was filled with rage, but something in the innocence of Marcus’ eyes stopped him from lashing out. “Playing spy for Ferin?” he asked carefully.
Innocence turned to outright surprise as Marcus’ eyes practically bulged from his head.
“What? No! I was just... didn’t you get my note?” he stumbled over his words.
“Ah, no. Everyone thinks you’re running back to give Ferin all our secrets,” Daniel admitted.
“Ohhhhh no! No!” Marcus practically wailed. Spirit began shifting and stomping her feet under him, and Daniel shushed the lanky boy. “No,” he whined, but at a lower volume. “I left a note, see? I’m going back to bring my ma’ and sister,” he explained in a whisper. “Didn’t know Vance allowed the whole family t’be here, ya see?”
“You should’ve told someone, Marcus! That was so stupid,” Daniel rolled his eyes. “Your job is to run messages.”
“I know,” he visibly moped. “I just decided last night. The elves weren’t as scary as I thought, and the fairies... well, my sis would love the fairies...” he continued, but Daniel tuned him out.
Spirit was still marching in place, making it uncomfortable to stay in the saddle. She sensed something that he did not. He held up a hand, and thankfully, Marcus stopped speaking. At first, he only heard his own blood rushing in his ears, but then he heard hoof-beats. It became louder and louder, until it was more than clear that someone was coming their way. What was worse, they were coming from the direction of the castle.
“Who’s that?” Marcus whispered.
Daniel shrugged and fought for an idea. “Not one of ours.”
“Probably the real spy for Ferin,” Marcus grumbled.
That thought had Daniel panicking. He kept his eyes in the direction of the sound, but breathed deeply as he decided.
“We gotta stop ’im,” Daniel whispered.
“Us? How? I don’t have any weapons!”
Daniel listened again and slid from the saddle and into a few inches of the leftover snow. He ran his hand over Spirit’s soft neck and looked outward, concentrating on the sound.
“There’s only one. Spirit can distract ’im. We just gotta find a way to get ’im tied up,” Daniel decided aloud.
Both boys remained silent as they thought, but Spirit took things into her own charge. The horse shifted, and took off at a dead run, leaving Daniel gaping in her wake.
“Your horse ran off,” Marcus commented stupidly.
“She’s got a plan,” Daniel replied, smirking as he moved to trot after her. “C’mon”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Things were definitely looking up. Ferin did his best to keep his composure, and not show his awe as the lines of warriors marched in. They were on horseback, but their horses all marched in step with one another. It was as though they were putting on a show, but something in their demeanor made it clear that this was no dancing show. All of the beasts were huge, thick-furred and as intimidating as their crest boasted.
Though they clearly had not sent every one of their men, Khalesford had emptied a good amount of their military in order to please the new king of White Phoenix. Ferin had spent the past few days preparing the men that would march for him against Tarragon. There had been a vague message from the Khalesford representatives, but seeing them now only brought him more hope.
The people of Khalesford were actually an ancient throwback from Van Reston. They spoke a broken form of Common that he could understand, but their old relatives likely could not. He had not read enough to explain what had split them from Van Reston, but he knew enough not to ask. The only thing Ferin had learned was that White Phoenix had given part of their land to the Van Reston deserters centuries ago, and that calling in a favor was well within his rank. His father’s notes explicitly advised against calling them too often, but according to the calendar, it had been years since their last meeting. Their fast reply said enough.
“Welcome, warriors of Khalesford!” Ferin announced. The horsemen replied in a vocal salute that almost made him flinch. They were certainly a militant lot. “I am Ferin, the new king of White Phoenix, and I call upon your aid in a time of war.”
“I am Valen, son of Kartoren, First Command of the Black Knights of Khalesford. We come to your aid at your own call, in accordance with the eighth decree of the treaty between our peoples. For the time allotted, we are so-forth, yours to command.”
Ferin was once again set aback. He sent a quick glance to Zane, thinking that this Valen had found a way to sound even more gallant than he had. He mouthed the words ‘time alloted’ to him, and turned back to face his visiting men. Despite the valiant speech, the knighted commander had said that all of them were Ferin’s to command. That thought, at least, set him at ease.
“I ask that you take your leave this day. Be at home in our courts, and take meals and drink at our tables. We will march on Tarragon on the morrow,” Ferin finished, and looked toward Gordon. “See to it that their horses are properly housed and fed.”
“Taken care of, sire. The Khalesford stallions are well known to those who know of them,” he said.
Something in his tone and words made Ferin uneasy, but he lifted his hand in a dismissing gesture, nonetheless. The warriors dismounted together, once again in unison, and barked a few of their vocal salutes before relaxing. They were a multicolored lot, but all were bearded; it was clear that their land was more often cold than warm. That was all for the better, considering that they were in the midst of winter. Most armies (including his own) were not well-equipped for fighting in the cold. Valen himself had a long, curly mane of dark hair, and he towered above most of his already hardy-looking men.
Ferin was suddenly worried. Valen and his men were perfectly stately, even as they barked and grunted at each other in broken Common. For all of his shining adornments, Ferin was a slight man compared to these barbarians, and he was flanked only by his advisors and a few guards. He somehow wished he had thought to prepare himself for more of a welcome. The kingdom must look desolate and poor to the visiting men. An idea came to his mind, and he acted on it. Of all things, he was best at putting on a show, and it seemed as though such a thing would be the only solution to his problem.
“We will have a welcoming ball for our esteemed guests this night,” Ferin mumbled to Gordon.
“Sire, is that in our best interests?” Gordon asked, but Ferin glared, and the elder man nodded. “I will alert the staff.”
Sated, Ferin watched as the Khalesford men led their large mounts toward the stables, and only when they were out of sight did he return to the castle. First and foremost, he needed to make himself look much more intimidating than he did currently. After all, these would be the men who would help him to his first official victory.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The camp was as prepared as it was going to get. Shields and hides had been set up along the open front line of the clearing, and weapons had been sharpened and assigned as needed. More and more elves were coming out from the trees as they saw their kin laughing and getting along with the humans. It was an interesting sight to see, especially when a newer member made themselves known. They would communicate with the humans often times with no more than facial expressions and gestures, but it would not take long for them to warm up.
Lora had been watching just such events all day, and was most pleased to see her brother Dale getting along with a harsh-looking black haired elf. Rowena had explained the different clans, and which traits each usually carried. It seemed to fit very well that Dale would find a way to win over a female warrior; especially one so proficient with the blade.
Towards the end of the day, she sat with Vance, handing him a bowl of soup as the two watched Dale and Cameron square off. In either corner was an elf; Nayla on Dale’s side, and a male named Faeron on Cameron’s side. While the twin brothers turned circles and danced at each other with dangerous sword-motions, the elves spoke in even tones back and forth to each other. It seemed as much of a duel to them as it was for the brothers. If Lora had not learned of their rare reproduction rate, she would have guessed that the elves, too, were siblings.
“I’m glad for their help. We’re all learning,” Vance said, putting the empty bowl on the ground beside him. “Have you seen Rowena fire a bow?” he asked.
Lora grinned and nodded. “She definitely has skill. I think we can also blame her fast progress on her courtship with Dolen.”
“They’re courting?” he asked, his brows lifted.
Lora laughed, but stopped herself soon after, offering an apologetic smile. “I suppose I should not expect you to keep up with the personal lives of so many when your schedule is so full. Yes, they are.”
Vance nodded, looking out over the camp in thought. His eyes were quickly drawn back to Dale and Cameron as the battle became more intense. Lora had often worried for her brothers when they took up the part of Vance’s guards. In fact, she had absolutely resented him at first.
Despite his kind demeanor and good reputation, she had been angry that her only siblings would have to put their own necks on the line for him. However, she had watched them grow since they had become his guards. Even Dale, who would likely take a part of his youth to his death, had grown more responsible in the past months.
Her little brothers stood before her as men, moving in such a way that she had never even seen her grandfather move. Identical faces stared each other down, keeping the other’s motions in his peripheral view, and striking at the first chance. Lora began to understand why such things were often put on display for royalty at shows. It was almost more of a dance than a battle.
”Shen kela! Hale tevan’ya sule!”
Lora did not recognize any of the elven words, but she waited for Nayla’s reply. However, both elves suddenly stood up straight and turned, facing the wooded border. Lora and Vance both turned their attention as well, just in time to see Tey’ven ride through the trees on Whisper and stop a few feet from them.
“Spirit returns,” Tey’ven said in accented Common.
Vance stood, and began moving up the center of the camp. They had kept a clear path down the middle for instances such as these, when someone would need to get from one end to the other without being hindered by other camps or people. Lora followed, and both of her brothers sheathed their swords and ran up to flank Vance. Nayla and Faeron made a point to stay behind Tey’ven, who followed as well.
Just outside of the camp, Vance stopped, looking over the white clearing with a narrowed gaze. A crowd was beginning to form, and Lora was about to take a self conscious step back, but it ended up being a step closer when something appeared over the hill.
Spirit was weighed down with a body, and not far behind her were what appeared to be two young men. Each was atop his own horse.
“Someone must have taken him,” Vance whispered, and began moving forward.
Lora and the rest followed him, and when they stopped, she saw that the body hanging over Spirit’s saddle was still conscious. Spirit’s reins had been removed and used to help tie the man to the saddle, and the job had been done well enough to where he had stopped struggling.
“I left a note,” Marcus whined as he dismounted, rubbing at his sore legs.
Daniel, (the page Vance had sent after Marcus), dismounted in a much easier fashion.
“He was going back to get his mom and sis. Found ’im not far out, but we both saw this rat riding towards camp with a fire under his hide. Spirit slowed his horse and we surprised ’im. Roughed us up a little, but we got ’im,” Daniel gestured to the bound man, and Lora noticed that both teens had red marks on their faces.
“Ferin sent him?” Vance asked.
Daniel nodded. “We got ’im to admit he was out to get info on you for Ferin. Won’t say no more though.”
“Bring him back to the border,” Vance ordered. “We’ll see about that.”
Vance turned and walked back, and Tey’ven moved to follow. When the crowd began to disperse, Lora made a point to turn and speak kindly to the two boys. Either Vance had forgotten, or he was too focused to do so himself, but she figured her own words would do.
“You both did a wonderful job. I’m sure you’ve saved us from a lot of trouble by capturing that man,” she said with a smile. Daniel nodded and offered her a bow, and Marcus grinned and saluted her.
“Think he’ll be mad with me?” Marcus asked sheepishly, eying Vance’s trail.
“No,” Lora looked back as well. “Once he’s done with that one, I’d imagine he’ll have nothing but thanks for you both,” she assured him.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“They’ve taken over your mind, master Vance. Can’t you see?”
Vance pulled the rope tight, and knelt before the man, baring his teeth in anger. “No more than Ferin has taken over yours. Why were you sent?”
“I’ve already told those boys. Ferin wanted information on you,” he answered.
“Fine,” Vance spat, standing and pacing again. A crowd was gathering of both elves and humans, but he did his best to ignore them. In the least, Dale and Cameron were keeping them at a decent distance away. “Fine,” he repeated. “The weather has obviously changed, so you’ll be doing the same for me.”
“The weather...” the man mumbled.
“It’s a figure of speech! Tell me what you know of Ferin’s plans!” Vance demanded.
He knew from the silence of the crowd that his actions were scaring them, but there was nothing that could be done. His nerves had worn thin on the second day, and he had nowhere else to release them. This enemy was proving to be the perfect outlet.
“He’ll march on Tarragon,” the man flinched, looking out into the crowd.
“Why else would we be camped out in front of it, if we did not know that already?” Vance asked, once again kneeling before the man. He noticed that the man’s eyes were trained on the crowd; widened and interested, no doubt looking at the elves. “If you think the elves are dangerous, you have not yet seen my temper,” he ground out.
The man’s attention was suddenly back on Vance, and the way his eyes shifted to and fro proved that he was thinking wildly. He began mumbling, and Vance felt a presence behind him. It was Charles, and two other elder members of his make-shift council.
“He’s-he’s asked out after horses from the neighboring lands,” the man said quickly, as if searching for something tangible. “Planning to gather up what he has and go to war on this...” the man’s words faded off as he was distracted once again by either an elf or a fairy behind Vance.
“Go on, ya rotten dog. Give us somethin’ we can work with an’ we might consider leavin’ both arms to ya,” Charles cut in.
When Vance turned to meet his gaze, he winked and smirked. Obviously, Charles had no intention of mutilating the man, but the threat held thick in the air. Vance stood once more and waited, until the man finally sat up in his bounds and practically yelled.
“Khalesford! They mentioned Khalesford! I think Ferin means to ask for help,” he yelled triumphantly, looking between Vance and Charles.
Vance rolled his eyes, ready to yell that he had never ever heard of such a people. However, one look at Charles stopped his reply. The elder man had paled, and was looking at Vance with the most haunted expression that Vance had ever seen on his face.
“Khalesford,” Charles whispered.
“What?” Vance asked. “Who are they? I’ve never heard of such a people.”
“It’s a place, not a people. They don’ have a name, exactly,” Charles rambled, but stopped and shook his head, finally settling his eyes on Vance. “We have a problem, sire.”