“You jest,” he lifted his gaze from the map and was surprised to see the deadpan faces surrounding him.
They were all older, statelier, and much higher up on the ‘scale’ than he was. It was the third meeting he had attended, and the first time he had spoken. The idea they just proposed was something he could not keep his mouth shut on.
“Master Vance, you have to understand how much gain this acquisition would bring us,” a gentleman to his left said. This one was balding, wore thick glasses, and had a perpetually sour look to his face. “It would serve us well to gain that section of Tarragon, especially if the Van Reston kingdom chooses to march on us one day.
“We would acquire nothing more than a patch of trees. There is plenty of land that can be farmed between here and there that lies unused!” Vance argued, knowledgebly holding back the fact that the forest may already be occupied.
“You seem overly protective of this patch of trees, young prince,” said another one.
This was his father’s closest attendant, Nicholas. He was much older than he allowed himself to look, with well kempt dark brown hair, and a vicious pair of pointed eyebrows. Vance hadn’t liked him from the start.
“Forgive me if I do not see a reason behind pointless burning. We are not the barbarians we were a decade ago.” Vance reasoned, eyeing the dotted line that cut directly through Tarragon.
He imagined his father’s men taking torches to the very area he had seen lights in just the night before. It made him even angrier to know that he would never get a chance to investigate that further.
“You are young yet. There will be a time that you will understand the ways of a growing kingdom. If rules are not enforced, the people will run wild. If one does not accommodate a growing people, it will be overrun,” Nicholas said. “Now, our scouts have laid out these maps for us to mark, and the land itself will need to be similarly marked before we begin.”
Vance looked up suddenly, an idea becoming so apparent that he had to stop himself from speaking straight away. He let the council continue to speak and made a point of agreeing with them. Finally he sat back and nodded to himself, making it seem as if it was all beginning to make sense to him.
“I would like to offer my services on this endeavor,” he said clearly, gaining the attention of the rest. “I will mark the area as shown on the map. It will not only serve as a learning experience, but I believe I’d like to see a bit further into this fabled forest.”
A few of the men nodded, but Nicholas kept a steady gaze on him. Vance made sure to match it.
“I’ll take two of my best men, of course, and I will report directly back to this council upon completion,” Vance finished.
They nodded, and Nicholas finally spoke up.
“You seem to be quite interested in a task that disgusted you only moments ago.”
Vance mentally cursed, but smiled softly as his quick mind again conjured an idea.
“That is true, however, I have come to realize that you were correct in your words,” he said, glancing down. “Though I must admit that I aim for a favor in return.”
Nicholas smiled shortly and pursed his lips, visibly glad to know that his suspicions had been correct.
“In order to complete the task in due time, I would request mounts from the Arena Stables.”
A few of the men smirked and coughed, and some frowned outright. Of course, they had all been brought up to date on Vance’s’ latest escapade. Nicholas seemed to take the bait and was only conscious of the fact that Vance would be getting a simple gain from the deal. He was giving the proverbial young dog a bone to chew on.
Little did he know that Vance had much more in mind than a recess with Dancer.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
He watched as the first snow of the season began to blanket the tree branches and ground below him. His previous thoughts had been on the white-blonde coloring of his hair as he had finished pulling a few braids back from the sides. It was a simple style he used while he worked, mainly to give him something to do in the down time.
This was not a season that Dolen enjoyed. Though his hair and clothing may match the whiteness of his surroundings, it still made it much harder to blend in compared to the myriad of colors that spring and summer produced.
He leaned further back against the tree trunk, waiting for his exhaustion to lead to slumber. Quickfoot was wandering the perimeter below and he knew the horse would not stray far. He had blanketed her with a few of his white furs to keep her warm for the night, and had dressed in the remaining winter clothes in an attempt to keep himself comfortable. The higher elevations tended to get cold much more quickly than it did at his home.
There had been no disturbances in his area since he had arrived. Though he would need to travel many miles each day, Dolen doubted he would see much. The area he was assigned to was far from the place where he had reported seeing tracks. This made him wonder why they had sent him out so far. Was it merely a ruse? A way to keep him occupied while Ta’llevny’s riders did the real work, or were they genuinely expecting humans to try the border here?
Dolen’s eyes picked up a white owl as it flew with barely a sound around the trees, no doubt hunting. The sun had slipped below the horizon hours earlier, and it was about time for nocturnal hunters to be surfacing.
His thoughts were not things that could be controlled easily, for they soon went back to the question of his station. In his younger years, Dolen had aspired to become one of Ta’llevny’s riders. However, compared to many of his peers, he lacked in the ability to mindspeak. The only way to become appointed to such a high station was to be recommended, and in comparison to his elder, more skilled peers, Dolen had been easily overlooked.
How had he ended up in one of the most solitary of trades? A watcher. No better off than the white owl in the darkness of the woods. Somehow, he felt that there was more to his life than this, but he continued with it as he had for years. It was his job, as assigned by the elders of his home, and he would continue doing it for as long as they needed him. Honestly, where else would he go?
The elf ’s jaw shifted as he ground his teeth slightly, and his eyes narrowed against his own thoughts. He kept repeating the end as a mantra. It was the only thing that kept him there; that, and the ever-present knowledge that he had something to protect.
- - - - - - - - -
Dale pulled the metal headgear down over his face and grinned. His brother, on the other hand, stood with a worried look on his face as he watched Vance approach them with two saddled mares.
“Quick with you! I need to be out of here before they notice my two best men aren’t actually palace guards,” Vance said, offering the reins to Dale, who was dressed in full guard attire.
“I do know how to use a sword, Master Vance!” Dale announced, pulling himself up into the decorated saddle.
“We both do, but will we not be punished if we’re found out?” Cameron asked, still holding the sword belt and helmet in his arms.
“I will be punished. You’re working under my orders,” Vance stopped and spun on his heels when he heard running footsteps.
Cameron and Dale both breathed easier when the recognized the form of their sister, long blonde hair flowing behind her as she ran.
“You’ll need these as well!” she breathed out as she stopped. “Forgive me, Master Vance, I was not able to carry it all at once,” she said, handing her younger brothers the decorated cloaks that each of the palace guards wore.
She turned and looked at Vance with an unreadable green gaze.
“You’ll take care of them? I do hope this is for a good cause,” she spoke without hesitation, seeming to forget all manners.
Vance did not reply, for he was too interested in how she was able to see eye to eye with him. She was nearly his height, and those eyes staring right through his had caught him off guard. Vance was very used to the fluttering eyelashes and deep curtsies of ladies wanting a higher status in court.
“Lora, don’t talk to the prince that way!” Cameron said in a hushed voice from the side.
“Of course he means well! We’re going to see Tarragon forest!” Dale said, still grinning underneath his helmet.
Vance was beginning to see the difference in the identical twins’ attitudes already.
“No. No, she’s alright,” he said, looking to them both and then back to Lora. “You’re alright. Address me as Vance, please. I tire of frivolities.”
Lora seemed set aback for a moment before her eyes went back to her brothers, and then out the door again.
“The sun will rise within the hour, and there is a layer of snow outside. You’d best be– Cameron, put it on and mount up!” she ordered, roughly turning her brother around and clipping the cloak neatly to his armor. She reached up to lay Dale’s properly against the backside of his mare, and turned to leave.
“I do hope this is all for a good cause. Keep them safe, please,” she whispered, giving them all one final glance before trotting back out of the stables.
Vance watched her retreat for before mounting Dancer. He ran a hand over the stallion’s mane and turned his horse towards the back of the stable.
“We’ll go out the back way.” he said, and heard the boys following.
“That was your sister? The cook’s assistant?” Vance asked, not able to hold back at least one comment.
When he had brought up the plan to them, they were ones to offer her assistance. They two had mentioned that she worked directly next to the armory, and could easily take a few sets of uniforms on the pretense of cleaning them.
“Yep! That was Lora. She thought I was telling a lie when I asked her to get us guard’s uniforms!” Dale said from behind him.
Vance heard Cameron shush him.
“She is a bit forward, but trust that it’s only because she worries for us,” Cameron said, his softer voice sounded slightly embarrassed.
Vance shook his head and smiled, turning back towards them.
“I think I like her all the better for that reason,” he replied honestly. “Now, you’ll have to ride on either side of me, in front. Keep your reins high, and sit up straight. Say nothing to the guards at the gate. When they nod, nod once in return, and do not pick up pace until I tell you.”
The boys nodded, and did exactly as he ordered. In fact, they performed so well that he nearly forgot who was riding in front of him. It took them awhile, but once they were out of sight, Vance leaning in and patted Dancer lightly.
“How about we go for a run?” he yelled out, and gave Dancer a kick to accentuate his wish.
The stallion took off and flew past the two boys. The two went so fast that he was worried he had gone too far and brought Dancer to a slower pace. Within moments though, they seemed to have caught on and Vance watched as both went past him on galloping horses. The twins had removed and were holding their helmets, and Dale’s whoop of excitement carried on the air as they went by.
Vance laughed and let Dancer go at a full run.
“My two best men!”
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Lae’ra had not returned by the time A’dair made his decision. Silna and Rowena had gone directly to him with the news of tracks, and he had simply nodded and told them to wait.
The report reached Ta’llevny and a message had been sent back to him within a week; A’dair was to investigate the tracks himself and report back afterwards. The matter was not something urgent, but was assigned to him nonetheless. A’dair was a tracker, capable of marking how old and how many the tracks were. He waited as long as he could, and finally left a message with Spirit in case Lae’ra would return to an empty home.
Silna, Rowena and A’dair set off through a layer of snow, all in white but for Rowena’s dark hair. She kept the hood of her fur-lined cloak up, more to ward off the chill in the wind than to hide the her hair color.
“Is it going to snow the entire way there?” Rowena asked as the three trekked through a few inches of the cold white substance.
“Not for much longer,” A’dair said, lifting his blue gaze to the sky. “By the time we get there it should be tapering off.”
He was right, of course. They had reached an area where the trees were beginning to thin out before Rowena even noticed the lack of snowflakes.
“How will you even see the tracks beneath all of this?” Silna asked, running a white buckskin boot over the snow on the ground.
“I’ve been doing this for a century and a half,” he answered matter of factly, narrowing his eyes at the edge of the forest. A’dair had never crossed the border, for there had never been a need to.
“It feels strange when you cross, but there’s no harm done,” Rowena said. “It does feel so much better when you return, though.” she mused, eyeing the area as they all walked slowly through the trees.
The calm was broken a moment later, when Silna stopped in her tracks and her head turned quickly to the left. Within moments she had pulled her sword, and there was a metal clash that stopped the birdsong in the forest for a few moments. Rowena and A’dair both turned quickly to see Silna lowering her sword and backing away from a white cloaked rider. Unmistakably one of Ta’llevny’s own.
She was speechless and had sheathed her sword with a shaking hand before she could even speak.
“Forgive me,” she said breathily, bowing from the waist.
“No need. Your response was quick and on target. I respect one who moves to protect their kin so selflessly,” the rider replied in a deep, yet soft tone.
He lowered his cloak and nodded once to Silna before looking outward at the edge of the forest.
“I do not know your destination, but I must forbid you from going too close to the boundary at this moment,” the rider continued, his light blue eyes scanning the trees expertly.
Silna looked as though she had missed every word he spoke, for the one she had clashed swords with was none other than Tey’ven. His hair was still black in most places but several white streaks had grown in through it, and it was done in a series of braids that somehow made him look even more regal.
“Your sister seems to have a problem paying attention.”
Rowena grinned and nodded in their direction.
“Hello Whisper! You look dashing in white,” she replied in her own mind, willfully directing it at him.
She felt the stallion’s amusement and elbowed Silna to gain her attention just as Tey’ven began his explanation.
“Three humans are currently coming this way. I was sent here when they were spotted.”
“Humans! Now?” Rowena asked and spun quickly, trying to adjust her sight to catch them.
It did not take much to focus. They were not very far from where her house had rested, which left them in range of even her poor sight. All three of them were very human, leading three mounts beside them.
A’dair hushed them all and the three of them ducked low. Tey’ven pulled the cowl of his cloak back up and narrowed his eyes, but stayed atop Whisper. The two blended well enough as it was. The elves picked up their voices before Rowena did, but their destination was clear.
“What are they doing this far out?” Rowena asked in her softest voice.
“Oh fates above, they’re just going to walk right in!” Silna whispered harshly.
“They are no more than children.” A’dair said, focusing sharply from his vantage.
Rowena was panicking, but she remembered a certain voice from a meeting weeks ago. The words danced through her head in a way that hardened her resolve. Slowly, she stood up and took a step. When she heard the whispers of her father and sister, she turned very slowly.
“I’ll go out and meet them. They cannot come in or they’ll be killed.”
“Let her go,” Tey’ven ordered softly, and Silna fixed him with a disbelieving stare.
“She knows their language and she is of their blood,” he explained, and then looked back to Rowena. “If you find trouble, we will be forced to take action.”
Rowena nodded towards the rider and gave both A’dair and Silna reassuring looks. Her breathing slowed as she moved forward, and began trotting when she saw how quickly they were coming. She reached the edge of the forest and slowed back to a walk, stopping a few steps beyond the border.
All three human males stopped and looked at her with the widest eyes Rowena had seen in years. One was tall, with light brown hair pulled back behind his head. He had a small tuft of hair on his chin that struck Rowena as strange. The other two were nearly identical to the last detail. Both blonde and tall, obviously just nearing adulthood.
It was a fascinating sight for Rowena, who had only ever seen elves for most of her life. The sight of youthful humans, much less two who were exactly alike in looks, left her as surprised with them as they were with her.
“Who’s she?” one of the twins asked, and though she understood, Rowena was hard pressed to recognize the accent.
They were dressed much more ornately than she ever remembered her parents dressing, giving her a clue to their place of birth. After a moment of gathering her nerve, she spoke, well aware of how shaky her accent was.
“My name is Rowena. I am an emissary of my people, and I’ve come to warn you away from our lands.”