The Bird and the Beast: VI
The way to Kingshaven was long but uneventful. The winter was much more comfortable so far away from the sea, and the days were quite enjoyable. Juniper rode on Old Nellie and was thankful to have Eames as her guide. Even though she didn’t know him at all, she felt comfortable and safe. They made very few stops and pressed on without much rest. During the two days of travel, they slept only once.
He asked her some about the Kas, about the Night of the Demons, and about the executions he’d heard so much about. She answered some of his questions, but she would rather not speak of the gruesome parts. The messenger accepted that and said no more of it.
On the third morning of their travels, they reached the enormous oak that stood in a most beautiful clearing—the Telling Tree.
“Did you know,” said Eames, “that before the Kings of Old, this is where the people would choose their new leader whenever a leader died?”
Juniper scoffed. “That’s not true.”
“It is!” cried Eames. “There are plenty of writings in the mountains that tell of the Great Moot! They would choose in the light of Volta, fairly and rightly. No heirs, no bloodlines. The people chose.” He chuckled. “Have you never wondered why the Kings of Old chose a place like Kingshaven as their seat of power? No grand rivers, the dangerous Evergreen Wilds, constant battering from the Mountain Folk—it’s because they feared angering the Wild Gods.”
“That’s just your theory,” said Juniper. “It’s obvious they chose it because it’s in the heartlands of Nornest! It has the best farmlands, Hill Lake, and the gemstones in the mountains. Well, had the gemstones, I suppose.”
“If you say so,” Eames huffed.
Juniper observed the grand tree as they passed it; the naked branches stretched towards the heavens and outwards, as though it was embracing the world; its trunk was beautifully twisted, as if it had danced while it grew. It surely looked thousands of years old, and perhaps it stood there long before Edred ever came to these lands.
Farms and houses started to appear in the rolling hills the closer they came to the city of Kingshaven. Juniper had been there once, as a small child, and all she remembered was the gigantic Red Fortress, the Hall of Kings, that towered over the city like a monument upon the hill. And they crowned a height, she could spot it well over the white treetops.
All of a sudden, it felt as though she could breathe again. The city of Kingshaven spanned through the valley like a large gathering of several small hamlets, with wooden houses, thatched roof and stone walls running along the cobbled streets. The thatched rooftops were covered with white, soft snow, and almost every chimney spewed fresh smoke from the morning fires. Framing the city itself were the crumbled red walls—once, they had stood tall around the city, but now they stood forlorn.
When they entered Kingshaven, the familiar sounds of hustling and bustling made her sentimental; the people were running about in the snow, carrying furs, pelts, firewood; horses hooves clattered against the cobbled stone, carts thumping behind them; children ran along the streets, tossing snowballs at one another, fighting each other, and chasing chickens around.
The Vault stood in the middle of the town square, and an Architect with a tall hat tried to chase some of the children away with a broomstick while trying to sweep the stairs. Rosy cheeks, glittering eyes, hardworking people in the cold morning—in a way, it felt like home.
An unexpected sob rose in her throat, and she had to cough a few times to be rid of it. Now was not the time to burst out crying.
Eames was heading for a tavern in the city centre. Over the opening hung a sign where is said The Green Leaf, and Juniper followed him inside. It was rather empty save for a few customers eating some porridge for breakfast. On a wall right by the entrance, there was a gathering of posters.
Juniper only let her eyes sweep across it, and she suddenly saw her father’s name accompanied by an ink sketch of him that was crossed over with red paint. Wanted for regicide. She swallowed hard.
Perhaps, she thought, no one would recognise her amongst these people. If she dressed like a regular girl, then perhaps they would believe she was one.
Eames headed to the red-haired girl by the bar. “Morning, Isobel!”
“Well, Eames, I thought we wouldn’t see you for another week,” said the girl.
“I have an urgent message to High Architect Reginald,” said the messenger.
“You’re running for the Vault now?” the woman, Isobel, asked. “I thought that was beneath you.”
Eames huffed and shook his head. “I just bring the messages. Anyway, I have a message for you, as well. It was supposed to go to the Town Crier, but I might as well give it to you. Came from Three Crossings. I think it’s from Noxborough.” He unrolled the scroll and cleared his throat. “All right, here it goes.”
He read the contents aloud, and Juniper was suddenly petrified, her heart chilling in an instant. The Vasaath had sent out a monumental reward for her. Fifty thousand sovereigns. To hear such a value was baffling! It was a fortune one could only dream of owning, one a mortal would barely acquire in a lifetime. Eames’s voice was rather strained as he read it but kept a straight face.
“Fifty thousand sovereigns!” gasped the barmaid and placed a hand over her chest. “She must be valuable to them. Poor girl!”
“Well, there are Stone Wolves in the forest,” said Eames dismissingly. “If that girl has escaped the city, she’s long gone by now. Those bastards only leave bones in their wake. Anyway, what must an honest man and his companion do to get a decent meal around here?”
They were seated by a table and served a bowl of porridge each, but Juniper had no appetite. She kept glancing around and kept hiding her face with her hair.
“Don’t worry,” muttered Eames with his mouth filled with food. “Keep your head down and stay calm. Most people around here have never laid eyes on royalty, so there should be no risk of anyone recognising you. Besides, people are obsessed with your brother. Illyria has promised ten thousand sovereigns and a piece of land in the south as a reward for him. After the Night of the Demons, I doubt anyone is eager to have any dealings with the Crimson King, even if has promised a fortune for you. Dress like a commoner, put some soot on your face, and you’ll look like anyone else.”
Juniper only wrung her hands together, not quite convinced of his words. Leaning closer, she whispered, “Do you know how I could get in touch with Duke Edding?”
Eames furrowed his brows and shook his head. “He’s notoriously difficult to get an audience with. You should try Duchess Sophia.”
“But you’re a messenger!” Juniper gasped. “Could you deliver a message to the Duchess?”
“Express deliverer,” objected Eames, “and even if I wanted to, there is a terrible hustle getting through to the Duchess—it must go through her page, and then her advisors, and they have to evaluate, and—it’s nearly impossible for a common express deliverer like me!” Then he leaned in, too. “But, I’ve heard that the Duchess has city assemblies once every month at City Hall. You might try there?”
Juniper nodded. “Thank you, Eames.”
He smiled at her and stuffed his mouth with more porridge. When Isobel came to take their bowls away, Eames quickly grabbed Juniper’s and said, “If she won’t eat that, I will.”
The barmaid rolled her eyes.
“Oh, and Isobel!” said Eames as he swallowed the porrigde. “My friend here… Jane. She needs to speak with the Duchess at the assembly this month, but she’s not from around here and needs some food and lodging for the time being. You don’t happen do require some assistance, do you?”
Isobel narrowed her eyes as she scrutinised Juniper in her seat. “I can’t pay you anything, but you can sweep the floors and wash the dishes for a bed and two meals a day.”
Juniper nodded. “Thank you, that is kind of you. I accept.”
“Good.” With that, Isobel disappeared behind the bar and into the kitchen.
Eames stuffed his mouth full of porridge and finished his second bowl in less than five minutes. “I need to hurry now. Can’t rest until the message has reached the High Architect. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
Juniper smiled and nodded. “Thank you so much, Eames. I don’t know what I would have done without you. But may I ask for one last favour?”
The man looked down at her, his brows raised in curiosity.
Juniper bit her lip and urged him to lean down to her. “You must bring the news to Westbridge. Tell them the Demon is coming and that he has an army unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. Tell them to run, to flee to Illyria. If they don’t believe you, then make them!”
When their eyes met, Eames nodded seriously. “I will.”
“How fast can you reach Westbridge?”
“If I ride this morning,” muttered Eames, “two days. If I ride hard.”
Juniper nodded. “Then ride hard, Eames. There is no telling when the general will march, or if he’s already on the move.”
At that moment, Eames’s eyes changed. It was as though he then realised the seriousness of the situation, and he nodded again. “I won’t fail you.”
Smiling in relief, she gently grabbed his hand. “Thank you. I’m forever grateful.”
He smiled and fumbled with his hat before he looked about. When no one else saw him, he gave her a bow. “Milady. Take care now, and save Nornest.”
“Only its people,” she sighed.
“Nornest is its people,” Eames said with a twinkle in his eyes before he left the tavern.
Juniper watched the door as it slammed after him. Nornest is its people. That was a beautiful saying, she thought, and in a way, it gave her more comfort than anything.