A New World
Vance made sure to be packed and ready by sunrise. He had spent most of the night brainstorming over how to approach the situation, since he had gone off on a scouting misson, and would be returning with a foreign emissary. There were still many details to cover, but the ride home would be lengthy enough for that.
“She is here, Lord Vance!” Cameron called in a harsh whisper.
Vance was about to correct the young man’s use of his name, when he noticed a form emerging from the forest.
Rowena was dressed as she had been the previous evening, but was atop a white mare that was like no horse he had seen before. Her mane and coat were as white as the snow they trod on, and the saddle and bridle were very obviously foreign, but shined with an elegance that conveyed royalty.
Vance bowed from the waist, and saw Cameron and Dale showing similar respect out of the corner of his eye. The two of them had already dressed and mounted their mares, while Vance remained at Dancer’s side holding his reins.
“Welcome again, Lady Rowena,” Vance said as he stood up straight again.
She smiled and nodded from underneath her hooded cloak, and the mare she rode turned and stopped. There had been no pull on the reins, and Vance wondered if this white mare was similar to Dancer when it came to intelligence.
“I will accompany you to your kingdom,” she announced.
“We will be pleased to have you, Rowena,” Vance smiled honestly and mounted Dancer.
There was not much else to say, and he found himself slightly uncomfortable in the following silence. The horses walked along, their hooves crunching in the dusting of snow. Vance lifted a hand to get the twin guards’ attention before speaking.
“You two lead us in the same way we went out. One nod to the guards. I’ll do the talking,” he said in a low voice.
Though it would be some time before the reached home, Vance wanted to be sure that they knew their one and only duty. The two boys nodded and moved their horses to the front, and Rowena and Vance followed.
“Dale, stop showing off! There’s no need for that!” Cameron’s voice broke the awkward silence.
Dale had somehow coaxed his mount into a complex high-step that was something many of the arena horses knew.
“I can do as I like. We’re not even close yet!” Dale argued, continuing his posting and grinning over at his twin brother.
Vance lifted his eyebrows and shook his head. The boys had been unusually calm and quiet for most of the night, and he supposed that they had more energy to spare than usual. That, coupled with the excitement their new guest brought with her, was likely causing high spirits between the two. He decided not to squelch them.
“Dale, don’t make me show you what Dancer can do,” he baited, not bothering to feign any sort of propriety.
Dale responded with a gesture that meant to challenge, while his brother turned his horse threateningly toward him. Cameron was still doing his best to keep his honor, despite Vance’s obvious dismissal.
“This does not appear customary,” he heard Rowena say, and Vance turned to look at the girl, who seemed to glow even as they left her home.
“I’m afraid it isn’t. I apologize,” he admitted.
She smiled and looked forward again. “No need. I only hope your kin are as friendly and carefree.”
“I hope so too,” Vance mumbled, though he could not picture himself using those adjectives for many of the court.
“How far is the ride to your kingdom?” she asked at a length, eyeing the landscape around them.
“Several hours, if we keep this pace,” Vance answered honestly.
“Shall we raise the pace then?”
Vance turned to look at her again, surprised to see a hint of amusement in her eyes. It helped him to see through the ethereal glow that surrounded her, and realize that she was only human. He had to wonder if all of her people had such shining features.
“Raise the pace?” he seemed set aback.
“Spirit could use a good run,” Rowena admitted, running a hand over her white mare’s neck.
As if in answer, the white horse lifted and nodded her head with a short whinny.
Vance grinned and nodded, glad to have a chance to let Dancer free as well.
“Right then. Dale, Cameron, lets get in another good run before we make it home!”
The four of them took off in a gallop on their mounts. Rowena’s hood was pulled back, and her black hair flowed like a curtain behind her. They each felt the pulls of their flapping cloaks in the wind, but it only made the ride more exhilarating.
- - - - - - - -
Truthfully, it had been a very long time since either Rowena or Spirit had a chance to gallop over such clear land. Both took advantage of their momentary freedom, and let loose as their escorts did.
“Indeed, let us see what Dancer can do!” Spirit had spoke into her mind before she took off, and Rowena felt the amusement from her mind as they went.
Wylden, who was the only one who was not so fond of the ride, took off on his own wings after a few moments. She knew he would not have any problem keeping up.
They galloped for awhile before slowing the pace. Vance took some time to explain to her again how their Kingdom’s stations went. She was not surprised to learn that it was based on lineage and not wisdom. There were some things she did remember from her childhood, no matter how strange they seemed after years in Tarragon. When he asked more questions about her people, she simply explained. There was not much to hiding their background, and he seemed to accept her slightly vague answers.
“It’s a great stone city, Lady!” Wylden’s voice came directly into her ear, causing her to jump.
Even Spirit spooked a little before realizing it, but thankfully the other three took no notice.
“I’ve flown ahead to see it, and you won’t believe your own eyes!” he exclaimed.
Rowena did not doubt it. Her father had told her of the grand kingdoms that existed, dwarfing what her house was. She could only imagine what such a thing would look like, until they began to pass sparse farming homes which caused her a measure of nostalgia.
“Is there something wrong?” Vance asked, obviously taking note of the look on her face as they passed by another farming home.
“No, I’m alright,” she answered after a moment. This was not the time to go into her past. “This is just a strange land to me.”
“If this is strange to you, wait until we reach the gates!” Dale said, turning in his saddle and grinning at her.
There was something she felt at home with. Gestures and big smiles and fluctuating voices. The elves were rarely so expressive. She grinned back at him, and nodded.
“Fates above, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.” Spirit admitted, her ears pointing forward.
The kingdom had come into view, and Wylden’s words had been correct. It was immense, and built almost totally from stone. The main castle reached to heights that most of the trees in Tarragon would not reach for a century. Its walls were of a polished stone that seemed to take the sunlight and direct it in an almost artistic way. Flags swayed in the winter breeze, each of them emblazoned with the same symbol that was on Dale and Cameron’s uniforms.
“Neither have I, Spirit. Neither have I.” Rowena sent back in an whisper of a thought.
She must have let a breath slip, for Vance turned to her and smiled.
“Welcome, Lady Rowena of Tarragon, to the Kingdom of White Phoenix.”
Dale and Cameron parted in either direction, moving their mounts to a position on either side of Vance and Rowena. They now flanked the prince and his guest, obviously playing the part of proper guards.
“It looks very imposing from here, but it’s really a nice place!” Dale said.
“It looks beautiful!” she whispered in response.
“Show time, boys,” Vance cut in, and Dale and Cameron took their places in front again. “Like I told them,” he said, lowering his chin a bit as he spoke softly to Rowena. “I’ll to the talking, at least at first. This visit is not something anyone is expecting.”
Rowena nodded, and reached to pull her hood back up. Spirit and Wylden both went as quiet as she did, all three feeling the looming tension that seemed to roll off of the great stone buildings ahead.
- - - - - - - - - -
It had been nearly a week since Vance laid eyes on his father. Ferin’s statement that he had been ill seemed to be true enough, for his usually hard eyes were glazed, and even the king’s skin seemed drained. Despite the sickly look to him, the king of White Phoenix was as diplomatic as ever.
Once he had heard of his second son’s arrival, the king ordered an audience with him and Rowena at once. Now Vance found himself on one knee in front of his father’s raised throne, surrounded by guards on either side (though Dale and Cameron still flanked them). Luck served them well that day, for Ferin was on a hunt with his guard at the time.
His father had been droning on about his mistake in a way that made him sound as innocent as possible, and Vance had a feeling that even Rowena could see through his mannerly words. He had asked Rowena a few questions, but only those that would let him hear her voice. The accent enough seemed to have quelled his suspicion and turned it to curiosity.
It was much better than Vance had hoped, being that his father not only believed them, but was preparing to come to terms with Rowena’s people. He was in the midst of offering Rowena a room in the castle, when Ferin’s voice rang through the cavernous hall.
“Do you always hold these secret meetings when I’m on the hunt, father?” Ferin asked as he walked into the room, and Vance heard the steps of his companions behind him.
His brother must have caught the look in the king’s eye, and his attire, for he did not continue for a few moments. Even a first prince knew better than to interrupt a meeting as blatantly as that. There was not much that could stop Ferin, though.
“Ah, Vance. I see that you’ve-” he stopped, apparently taking notice of the striking female at his side.
“Your brother has brought with him an emissary of Tarragon Forest,” the king’s voice rang out. “It seems we were mistaken in assuming it was unoccupied,” he said simply, and Vance could feel the accusation in his father’s voice.
It was a satisfying feeling, up until Ferin scoffed.
“This is ridiculous! Certainly you notice his guards. They’re none other than the arena stable boys!” Vance did not move, but he saw Dale’s back quiver a bit. “If he is to lie about that, he’s most likely to lie about his ‘emmisary’,” he sneered, putting a mocking emphasis on the final word.
Vance narrowed his eyes, and took the chance to stand up straight. He motioned for Rowena to do the same, and took grim satisfaction again in watching his brother’s eyes widen at the sight of her.
“Father, I do not know when our court lost so many of its manners,” he offered, nodding his head again. “I must apologize to the lady Rowena, and also to my guards.”
The king held his place, eying both parties as a chess player would eye his pieces. He had always been the best of players, and it was rare that he made an incorrect decision.
“Is what Ferin says true?” he asked in a low voice. Had the audience been larger, he may have been less personal with the two of them.
“I did chose to appoint Dale and Cameron as my guards. However, there is no lie in the act. I am of age, and as a prince of White Phoenix, I do believe I have the authority to choose my own men.”
Ferin, who was still staring at Rowena, turned his eyes sharply to his brother. It was rare that Vance openly admitted to being a prince, much less used the title as a privilege.
The king nodded.
“Ferin, the Lady Rowena of Tarragon,” he said pointedly, and it was Ferin’s signal to greet her as he would royalty.
He seemed a mixture between angry and awed as he bowed from the waist. Still, the action was as smooth and well-practiced as ever.
“Vance, have our guest accommodated, and see me afterwards. We will need to set up a council meeting,” the king ordered.
Vance bowed to his father, and watched as Rowena, Dale, and Cameron did the same. The four of them turned and exited the great hall, leaving only the king’s guards where they stood.
“He’s spreading his wings, Ferin. You’ll do well to watch your back.” the king cautioned, watching their exit.
Ferin stumbled on his words, and finally settled on a silent glare. He stood there even as his father got up and left the throne, and heard his voice reverberating off of the high stone walls.
“This will change many things.”
- - - - - - - - - -
A day before his actual leave, Dolen began his long trip home. He knew returning early would be looked down upon, even if it were only a day, but the coming weather would not permit an easy ride. Quickfoot seemed to sense the coming storm as well and kept a fast pace, even pulling when Dolen meant to slow down. The skies were gray, and the wind was picking up. He knew the last leg of his trip would be spent avoiding snowfalls from trees, and bracing himself against hard, blowing winds.
None of this bothered Dolen as much as the feeling that kept washing over him. Something was not right. Quickfoot’s nervous steps made him grit his teeth and wish for the thousandth time that he could mind-speak. Surely the horse knew something he did not. The elf had to keep reminding himself that if the situation were dire, he would be sent for. Someone would meet him along the trail and let him know whatever had gone wrong.
The two continued through the night, since Dolen knew the snow would be falling heavily with the sun’s rising. The elf pulled his white hair into a loose ponytail, and fastened a guard across his face when the wind picked up. He ran a hand over Quickfoot’s mane before laying a thick fur blanket over the horse’s neck. They could rest when they returned home. He would rest when he found out that whatever was bothering him was all in his mind.
The only distraction along the way was the sightings of the same white owl he had seen on the edge of Tarragon’s territory. Either he was very tired and imagining things, or the owl was following them.
- - - - - - - - - - -
The room smelled of cold stone and smoke from the fire. Though she knew it was luxurious, and the bed did feel soft and warm, Rowena could not make herself sleep. The fires made her nervous, and she had put the one in her room out as soon as she told the servant that she would be bedding down for the night. The thick cloth and fur blankets kept her warm in the huge bed, but the sound of the wind blowing against the castle walls and whining as it sped through tiny cracks in the window’s frames kept her awake.
The king had taken their story to heart, and believed them. Vance had laughed and hugged her (followed by Dale and Cameron), telling her that things had worked out better than they could have hoped for. They still had much work to do, but it would only be courtly activities and introductions to the council. Things that would solidify her role as emissary.
Something in the king’s eyes had bothered her, though. The same look that had crossed the king’s eyes had stayed put in Vance’s brother Ferin’s. Only when he took the time to look her over did his face change, and that was not a look that made her very comfortable either. Vance had warned her that his brother had a heartless, greedy way about him, and she could tell he was not lying just by looking at the man.
“Lady!” Wylden’s voice made her jump, but she sat up smiling.
Seeing the fairy reminded her that she was only visiting this place, and that her home was only a few hours ride away. The tiny male was ‘sitting’ on the large wooden bedpost, his wings folded back and his posture straight, as if reporting for duty. His hair was as red and as tousled as it always had been, but the slight glow around him brought out the handsome features even more.
“I’ve met horses in the stables, and Spirit’s made some friends already!”
“Has she?” Rowena asked in a soft voice, knowing she was only rooms away from the castle’s servants. “I certainly hope she acts more like them, and less like us!”
Wylden just grinned at her before shivering.
“How can you sleep in such a cold space?”
Rowena shrugged, and lifted the layers of blankets a bit. “It’s not so cold under here.”
Wylden laughed in the high, chittering tone of his kind, and flew in a few graceful circles above her head.
“I never thought you’d invite one like me to your bed, Lady!” he said with another grin, but moved back towards the window he’d apparently entered from. “Spirit says I am to explore the grounds tonight, and listen to conversations wherever I can.”
Rowena nodded and settled back into her bed. It was cold in the room.
“She’s right. Just stay out of sight, and be careful!”
Wylden gave her another salute and disappeared.
It took her awhile, but eventually Rowena drifted off to sleep.
- - - - - - - -
The room adjacent to the castle’s kitchen was once again occupied by a group of rowdy males that refused to go to sleep. The kitchen and staff could do nothing but continue service for them, however, being that the group was lead by the Prince of White Phoenix himself.
Ferin grabbed another mug of ale without even looking at the female who had placed it in front of him. He was too busy telling his story to the group of males that included Zane, and a few of Ferin’s guard.
“Oh of course she’s a lovely thing to look at. I wouldn’t mind having a tryst or two with that one,” he smirked and took a long swig from the cup. “It’s all a part of his plan, I’m sure! There’s something not right about this whole situation.”
“I’d like to get a look at her!” Zane said into his own cup.
He sneered when Ferin elbowed him in the ribs.
“You will, but I’ll need you all for more than that,” Ferin said in a low tone.
“You want us to keep an eye on her?” one of his guards asked.
That comment was from Dergon. He was a large man with an unruly beard, and a fierce frown. His eyes were tiny black beads hidden beneath the dark, bushy eyebrows above them.
“That, and a bit more. I’ll need you to find out the truth about her,” Ferin said, narrowing his glazed eyes in thought. He held a finger up and tilted his head. “In fact, we can kill two birds with one stone, boys.”
He sat back and grinned, steepling his fingers, and loving the attention he got as a man in charge.
“I’ll set about the task of sweet talking the Lady of Tarragon...” he said, putting a mocking tone behind her title. “And in the meantime, we can find out what lies beneath these woven tales she and Vance have concocted.”
The men nodded, and Ferin leaned forward again, lifting his cup into the air. “
I’ll bet my best cloak that she’s nothing more than a dressed-up farm girl from the land-lease section of the kingdom!”
“I’ll say a whore from the tavern district!” Zane grinned, winking at Ferin when the Prince gave him a wary look.
The other men raised their glasses, throwing in more bets, and finally clinked their glasses together in a toast.
The kitchen servants bustled around behind the doorway, but one particular servant narrowed her green eyes at the scene that had just played out.