Dracia looked over the crowd out amongst the hills of Winsdell. They were just outside the town amongst the grassy rolling hills that rested there. Every guest that was staying at the palace and all high lords from Winsdell walked around the hills in pairs or small groups.
Dracia looked at the women in their brightly colored summer dresses before looking down at her own dark uniform she wore. She gave a very small sigh. She didn’t care, not really. She liked wearing pretty dresses as much as any other woman in the kingdom, but it was somewhat freeing not to worry about what to wear each day anymore.
Her uniform also gave her a sense of protection. When she was younger and had first been allowed to attend court events, her mother had servants wrap her in fabrics with tight undergarments. She always tried to find new ways to make Dracia appear as dainty and delicate as herself. Her mother would make the servants fix her hair in a hundred different ways, never seeming to be satisfied with any hairstyle on her.
Then her mother would parade her around in front of different young men, and Dracia would feel on display. Her mother would constantly tell her to stand up straight in one moment and to not appear so tall in another. She would tell her to smile and then yell at her for appearing too open. She would tell her to talk to young men and then tell her off for speaking her mind. Her mother was impossible to please. Dracia could remember always trying to figure out some way to earn a kind word from her mother. Once she realized it was impossible, Dracia found ways to hide from her mother.
Now dressed in the uniform of the High Captain of the Sentinel, Dracia felt safe and covered. She felt she had her place, and no one could look down on her. She might not feel pretty and feminine, but she felt strong and proud. She would take strong and proud over being a fragile, criticized woman any day.
Many people wondered why Dracia would ever join the Sentinel. Her father had power and money. He could easily find someone to marry his daughter. She could have been a foreign princess or noblewoman someday. Dracia had many reasons for joining the Sentinel besides the fact she wanted to be an Elite who served the kingdom. It kept her close to Leal, and it kept her father from trying to find her a husband. Above all, it got her out of her house and away from her mother.
Dracia looked around and saw her charge, Princess Lilith, walking with Leal. They looked very well together. He was very handsome today, with his sandy blonde hair shining in the sun. His green shirt set off his hazel eyes perfectly. On his arm in her thin white gown with light blue ribbons and her pale blonde hair curled down the side of her arm, Lilith looked like she would fit very well as his princess.
Dracia watched them until Leal looked up and stared at her. He grinned slightly, watching her until the princess demanded his attention. Dracia walked away from the crowd for a moment. It seemed the princess was well looked after, and she could let her guard down for the time being.
She stood by a large tree, under the shade, leaning slightly on the trunk. It wasn’t very ladylike, but she found she didn’t care at the moment.
“High Captain,” said a voice behind her.
She turned to see an older woman with dark gray hair wearing a dark red dress. The lady smiled at her in a way that made Dracia automatically smile back. She had not been introduced but she knew this woman was Lady Elise of Siccaria.
“I hope you will excuse my forwardness, but I have wanted to be introduced to you, and it seems all of our mutual acquaintances are busy at the moment,” said Lady Elise.
“I am very pleased to meet you, Lady Elise.” Dracia curtsied. “It is very much an honor.”
“I assure you, the honor is mine, High Captain,” replied Lady Elise. “Would you walk with me for a moment?”
Dracia looked over her shoulder to see Princess Lilith still on Leal’s arm. “My charge seems well protected, so I would be very happy to walk with you.”
Lady Elise followed Dracia’s gaze to the princess and Leal. “The princess needs no protection, I assure you. If you want to watch out for someone, it should be the young prince. If he takes that one for a bride, I am afraid he will regret it.”
Dracia watched Leal for a moment and then looked down at Lady Elise.
“Come, High Captain, all will be well for a few minutes, walk with me,” said Lady Elise.
Dracia nodded and Lady Elise took Dracia’s arm as they walked away from the group.
“I understand you are the High Lord of Winsdell’s daughter.”
“I am,” said Dracia. “I grew up as Lady Dracia Yates, the only daughter of High Lord Arwel and Lady Owena.”
“You journey from the loved daughter of the Highest Lord in the kingdom to High Captain must be an interesting one,” noted Lady Elise.
Dracia thought for a moment. She supposed it was an interesting tale, but much of it she could not speak of to Lady Elise. “I’m afraid it’s rather simple. I wanted to join the Sentinel since I was young. I did when I was of age. I worked hard, and last year I was chosen as High Captain. I feel very fortunate.”
“I am surprised your father allowed you to join in the first place. I am sure he must have had plans for you,” said Lady Elise looking at Dracia.
“I have two older brothers that have made alliances enough for my father. He knew what I wanted, and he did not stand in my way.,” said Dracia. “I believe he does worry about me, but he knows I am happy.”
“And your mother? Was she not upset about being robbed of finding a husband for her only daughter?”
“My mother was very happy to see me out of the house as soon as possible,” said Dracia without thinking.
Lady Elise stopped walking and looked at Dracia. “Surely not, my dear. To have such a beauty for a daughter is such a pleasure for a mother. She must have been quite proud to have shown you off.”
“I am not sure I am my mother’s idea of beauty. She and I are so unalike that I don’t think she ever knew what to make of me.”
“I am sure that is not true,” said Lady Elise as they started walking again. “Mothers and daughters have such a special bond. I had my own beautiful daughter, and I miss her very much.”
The last statement was said in such a way, that Dracia knew Lady Elise’s daughter had been lost forever. “I am sorry. Was it recent?”
“No, it was almost twenty-six years ago, but the pain is still very real. It didn’t help that we aren’t sure what happened. You may have heard about it, perhaps?”
“No, my lady, I had no idea.”
“I thought your father might have told you. He did spend some time with my family when he was younger. He was quite close to both my son and my daughter.”
I knew my father went to Siccaria to learn Mystics, but he never talked to me much of his time there,” said Dracia. “What happened to your daughter, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“She disappeared one day. She left a short note saying she was going to visit a friend, and she would be back soon. We sent out people to look for her, but she never came back. We were contacted months later by an unsigned letter that she had passed. Her ashes came with the letter, but we weren’t able to believe it at first. We still searched for years, but at some point, we had to accept it as truth.”
“That must be horrible, never truly knowing what happened,” said Dracia compassionately. “I can’t imagine dealing with such a loss combined with the mystery of it all.”
“It was a huge loss, Captain. My daughter was exceptional. She was beautiful, intelligent, and very kind. She was also a few minutes older than her twin brother. She was the true leader of our people. You know us nobles say we lead as a family, and we do, but Ava was our leader. That is why I knew something horrible must have happened. She would not have left us for long without a good reason.”
“Once again, I am very sorry, my lady,” said Dracia, not sure what else to say.
“How old are you, my dear?” asked Lady Elise after a moment.
Dracia looked at the old woman, confused by her change of subject. “I turned twenty-five in late spring.”
“Ava wasn’t much older than you are when we lost her,” said Lady Elise smiling sadly. She stopped and stared up at Dracia for a moment.
Dracia looked down at the woman, thinking that Lady Elise seemed lost in her own thoughts as she looked at Dracia.
“Grandmother,” said a rich male voice causing Lady Elise to look over and smile.
“Ethen, my boy,” she said with a smile, letting go of Dracia’s arm. “Come here.”
Dracia watched as a tall man with broad shoulders walked up to Lady Elise, bending down to kiss her on the cheek. He turned and looked at Dracia. He was very handsome with brown eyes, a straight nose, and a strong chin. He wore a close shaved beard. His brown hair fell past his ear. His smile was a little crooked but showed perfect, straight, white teeth.
“And who is the lovely creature you have found to escort you around, grandmother?”
“Careful, Ethen, this is the High Captain of the Sentinel. You can see her uniform, can’t you?”
Ethen laughed. “I can now, but I was too distracted by such a pretty face when I first came up. You should be glad I saw you first, grandmother. Had I seen the High Captain at first glance, I might have ignored you entirely.”
Lady Elise hit Ethen’s arm affectionately. “As you can see, my grandson is a terrible flirt, High Captain. Let me introduce you properly. This is High Lord Ethen of Siccaria, the next leader to our people. Ethen this is Dracia Yates, the High Captain of the Sentinel of Cassendar.”
Dracia curtsied before Ethen took her hand and bowed over it, kissing it.
“I am very honored to meet you, High Captain,” said Lord Ethen.
“Likewise,” said Dracia, smiling at him.
“I was told by your king to meet his son out here. If you wouldn’t mind, would you point me in the right direction?” asked Lord Ethen.
“Go on and take him yourself, High Captain. I wish for some time to alone for few moments.”
“Are you sure, my lady? You could walk back with us,” said Dracia looking at Lady Elise.
“I am sure. I would like to spend some more time roaming around your lovely hills for a moment without the chatter of young people. Go on, the both of you.”
Lord Ethen offered his arm to Dracia. She paused for a moment and then took it with a small grin.
“Do not get lost roaming these hills, grandmother,” said Lord Ethen over his shoulder. “If you are not back soon, I will come to collect you.”
“I will not be gone long. Go enjoy yourself as much as you can around those Navalians.”
Lord Ethen gave a short laugh. “If I am going into such a hostile territory, at least I have the right escort. Lead on, High Captain.”
They walked slowly towards the others, at first in the usual silence of two people who had just met. Dracia glanced a few times at her new companion to see him looking at her as well.
“You are not what I expected to find in the High Captain,” said Lord Ethen breaking the silence.
“Did you hear the tale I was some great beauty who mesmerized and seduced the king and the old High Captain to give me the position, or were you told I was some man woman with a beard?”
“The second one,” said Lord Ethen with his crooked smile. “If I had heard the first, I would have figured it was real as soon as I laid eyes on you.”
Dracia shook her head. “Your grandmother is right; you are a flirt.”
“Only when in the company of one such as you. You are a great beauty, there is no denying it, but let’s see how clever and truthful you are,” said Lord Ethen with a smirk. “How do you find the Navalian royalty?”
Dracia was quiet for a moment, thinking of how to answer. She found the princess rude and intolerable, but she could not say it. She did not trust Prince Fannar though he had gone out of his way to please Dracia. There was something in his eyes and manners she did not like.
“They are intriguing,” said Dracia carefully.
“Intriguing?” asked Lord Ethen with a small frown.
“I don’t know what to make of them most of the time, and if I am honest, I am not sure I want to figure them out.”
Lord Ethen laughed again. “I will give you a point for honesty and wisdom.”
“What about you?” asked Dracia with daring. “You are obviously handsome.”
“Oh, it is very obvious,” said Lord Ethen nodding his head.
“Are you honest and wise?”
“I do believe I am an honest person. There are times I have to hide something like anyone else, but to those I value, I am always honest. Right now, I can honestly tell you I try to be wise, but I fall short many times. I have been fooled too many times for my own good.”
“I understand. I want to believe I am wise, but I do things every day that show me just what a fool I really am.”
“There are some things worth being a fool over, High Captain. If you are a fool for love or your duty, I do believe you will have to forgive yourself.”
“Perhaps,” sighed Dracia, “but it will not stop the pain I know is coming when my foolish ways catch up with me.”
They walked up on the others who were spread out over the top of the largest hill in Winsdell. Dracia looked around and found Prince Leal talking with Princess Lilith and her brother. Leal looked at Dracia with slightly narrowed eyes seeing her on the arm of Lord Ethen. He watched them both as they walked up to Leal’s small group.
“Your highness,” said Dracia letting go of Lord Ethen’s arm and curtsying. “I seemed to have stumbled upon a wayward traveler in the hills. He has told me he was looking for you, so I have brought him here safely.”
Leal gave her a half smile and bowed. “Who have you found, High Captain. I hope he is friendly.”
“He seems to be. He was vouched for by Lady Elsie or I might have left him out to starve in the hills,” said Dracia as Lord Ethen laughed. “This is the High Lord Ethen of Siccaria. Lord Ethen, this is the Crown Prince of Lanoxan, Leal Cassendar.”
The two men bowed to each other as Dracia said, “I understand you know the two current companions of Prince Leal, so I will consider my duty done and leave you to your royal circle.”
“High Captain,” said Prince Fannar. “Do not run away just yet. I haven’t had a chance to speak with you today.”
“Where you wishing to speak with me of something?” asked Dracia, looking at Prince Fannar.
“Nothing in particular,” said Prince Fannar. “I just enjoy your company. Our conversations are always interesting.”
“Yes, stay, High Captain,” said Lord Ethen looking at Prince Fannar. “I have a feeling we could you use your good sense and wisdom in this little group.”
“How are your training sessions going, Captain?” Prince Fannar moved closer to her. “Have you had to do any more interesting demonstrations for your novices?”
“No, I believe they got the point after that day at the course. Things seem to be running smoothly right now.”
“I will have to stop by again soon. That was the most interesting afternoon I have had since I arrived here. Wouldn’t you agree, sister?” Prince Fannar turned to look at Princess Lilith.
“It was not to my liking. I found all the High Captain’s jumping about and running to be off-putting. I do not mean to sound rude, but it is not what I am used to from women of nobility.”
“It sounds like I missed something very interesting,” said Lord Ethen.
“You did, Ethen. We visited the Fortress of the Sentinel one afternoon. The High Captain was very impressive in her duties. What has taken you so long to get here?” asked Prince Fannar.
“The business of ruling Siccaria. I had to see to my people and their welfare before I could get away.”
“Yes, the people of Siccaria have always been high maintenance, haven’t they? Fannar gave a short laugh. “Our people are very self-reliable.”
“The people of Siccaria are very interconnected. My people know they all depend on each other,” said Lord Ethen. “There were some concerns I needed to take care of to see to the safety of my people. I am sure you can understand it, Fannar.”
Prince Fannar smiled, but it looked more like a sneer to Dracia. Things were quiet for a moment before Leal spoke.
“How is our project coming, High Captain? I hope Novice Galen is doing well.”
“He seems to be. He is excelling in the Disciplines as I knew he would. I hope he is doing well at the Academy. I know he has made at least one new friend there. She came to see me the other day.”
“Oh,” said Leal brightly. “I believe I might be able to guess who you are speaking of.
“Your sister seemed very adamant that I let Galen attend the royal banquet in a few days. I, of course, said yes.”
“I am not surprised. She has talked to me about Galen since she met him. She seems very impressed with him.”
“That could be something to watch, your highness,” said Dracia with a raised eyebrow.
“I am going to watch it with great interest.”
“I am rather hot standing out here in the sun,” said the princess suddenly. “I think I would like to go find some shade. You will accompany me, won’t you, Prince Leal.”
Dracia saw Leal slightly roll his eyes as he quietly sighed. “Of course, Princess Lilith, let me escort you.”
He offered the princess his arm who took it. They started to walk away when Leal stopped close to Dracia. “High Captain, I believe we have a scheduled meeting soon. I hope you are still available for it.”
Dracia looked at him for a moment, thinking of what a fool she really was. “Yes, your highness, I am still available.”
“Good, I will see you then,” said Leal as he walked off with the princess.
“Surely, you will want to find some food and drink, Ethen,” said Prince Fannar. “I can entertain the High Captain while you see to your needs.”
“I am very well. I had a quick lunch in the palace before I came out here,” said Lord Ethen. “Are you not as hot as your sister out here in the sun, Fannar? The summer weather here in Lanoxan is much different than your kingdom.”
“I do not mind the heat or the sun, especially with such pleasant company.” Fannar looked at Dracia. “It is a nice change. I adapt well to all climates, unlike you, Ethen. I don’t believe the weather of Navalia suited you at all.”
“No, it did not, much too cold, and the snow lasts too long into spring. The summer weather here or in my homeland is much more to my taste.”
“What about you, High Captain. I hope you do not mind the cold,” said Prince Fannar.
“It does not bother me, but I do prefer the warmer weather. Cold usually brings disease and famine. It makes for a perilous time in the kingdom.”
“That may be the case here, but in Navalia, the people are used to the cooler weather. I think it would suit you very well. I hope you will be able to experience it one day very soon.”
“I believe you would be much happier in Siccaria, Captain,” insisted Lord Ethen. “You even look like you would fit right in with your looks. I believe my people would much admire you.”
“But you would be an exotic beauty in Navalia,” said Prince Fannar. “You can’t even imagine how adored you would be by the Navalians.”
Dracia looked between the two men, wondering if she was even needed for this conversation when the sound of horses approaching made her turn. Darron came riding in on his dark stallion while leading her own horse. Another Elite rode up next to him, leading Roderick’s horse. Darron jumped down as Dracia walked up hurriedly to him. Roderick came to her side as Prince Leal walked up close to her.
“Captain,” said Darron urgently. “We just had word that Gedonial soldiers have raided the village of Cadmial. They have set up a large camp there and are planning to move inwards in the kingdom.”
Dracia nodded. “We will need to form a force and leave today.” She turned to Leal. “Tell your father I will leave three Elites to use as he sees fit for any of our guests’ safety. It also seems I will have to reschedule our meeting.”
“Must you go, Captain?” asked Leal with concern. “Couldn’t you send a force led by Roderick or Darron?”
“No, if Gedonia has gotten so bold to think they can move further and further into the kingdom, I will need to go and make a statement. It is only a day’s ride from here, so I must act now.”
“Please don’t leave until I can see you off,” Leal whispered. “I will disband this party in the name of safety. You will go to your rooms to gather your things, won’t you?”
Dracia nodded. She walked to her horse and mounted it quickly. Prince Fannar and Lord Ethen had walked over as well as Princess Lilith.
“Be safe, Captain,” said Prince Fannar looking up at her.
“The High Captain is strong and just,” said Ethen giving Dracia a small smile.
“The Sentinel stands true,” replied Dracia with some surprise that Ethen would know the greeting.
She looked to see Roderick was on his horse. She nodded at Darron and took off on Aarit at a fast pace towards the Fortress. When she got to Fortress, she called all Elites and Novices to the hall. As she waited for the Sentinel to assemble, she turned to Darron.
“I need you to stay here and oversee the protection of Winsdell and the royal family. I also need you to continue on with the Disciplines.”
“But I would like to go fight with you, High Captain,” said Darron.
“I have no doubt you would, but I need you to serve in another way. If something goes wrong, the Gedonial forces will make their way here. I need you to be ready to defend Winsdell. We also cannot let this stall the Disciplines. We need new Elites. You will do this for the Sentinel and for me.”
“Yes, High Captain,” said Darron, sullenly.
After all Sentinel Elites and novices had gathered, Dracia addressed the room. “We have a situation in Cadmial that must be seen to. Gedonial soldiers have taken the village in hopes of moving west through the kingdom. We will not let that happen. I am leaving within the hour with the top Elites of the right flank and the rearguard. We will meet at the front of the Fortress.
“The rest of you Elites will be on guard until we return. We should not be gone more than three days. If we are gone more than five days and you have not heard from me, you need to be ready. I am leaving my second, Elite Darron, in command.
“Novices, you will not leave the Fortress grounds until we are back unless you have prior permission. The Disciplines will go on. The Sentinel stands true.”
“The High Captain is strong and just,” replied the room.
Dracia hurried to her room to prepare for her journey. She opened the door to find Leal pacing in front of her empty fireplace. He looked up at her as she entered and walked over to her, taking her hands.
“I don’t like you going. You shouldn’t be going,” said Leal.
“I am the High Captain of the Sentinel; what else should I be doing?”
“You should be in the palace with me where you belong. The Sentinel should be protecting you,” said Leal
“If it comes to it, I’m not sure how good I’ll be at sitting in the palace watching the Sentinel ride off to protect the kingdom.”
“No, you never have been one for sitting around when something is happening,” said Leal, bringing one hand up to cup her cheek.
“I have been gone on many things like this before,” said Dracia. “I always come back.”
“How many soldiers do you expect to find in Cadmial?” asked Leal.
“The report said at least three hundred with more expected to be joining them. That’s why we must go as soon as possible and stop this now.”
Leal took his hands away from her and stepped back, looking up at her with horror, “That many? How many Elites will you be taking?”
“Fifty,” said Dracia. “Fifty of my best fighters.”
“So few?” asked Leal. “Why not take twice as many?”
“The job of the Sentinel is to see to the safety of your family first, and then the kingdom. We must protect your family and Winsdell. I have to leave the bulk of our forces here to watch out over the town and palace,” explained Dracia. She grabbed a small bag and packed some paper and a few quills, along with some charcoal for marking protection runes.
Dracia walked closer to Leal and took his hand. “You don’t need to worry. I know what I am doing. I have fought Gedonial soldiers many times. Do you have faith in me as the High Captain, my prince?”
“I do have faith in you, Dracia, but it does not make me worry any less. Do you know what it would do to me to lose you?”
“You won’t lose me, not like this. I will come back. I will be back within three or four days,” said Dracia.
“Do you promise me?” asked Leal pulling her close to him, wrapping his arms around her.
“Yes, I promise on everything that we are, I will come back to you. I will even be back in time for the next royal banquet. I do want to see what is going on with your sister and Galen, you know. I wouldn’t miss it.”
Leal cracked a smile, looking down at her. “I do love you. I hope you believe it.”
“I do, and I love you.”
Leal bent down and kissed her, holding her close to him. She put her arms around his neck, wanting nothing more than to have more time with him. She did plan on coming back, but there was always a chance this would be the last time she would hold him or kiss him.
“I have to go,” said Dracia pulling back and dropping her arms. He hugged her close for a moment and then let her go.
She looked at him and turned to leave. She stopped before she got to the door and turned back to face him. Her hands went to her neck to find the thin gold chain that hid behind the chain she wore to hold her Captain’s pendant. Finding it, she pulled it over her head, taking it off to hold the large locket found there. Her finger grazed the surface, feeling the beautifully carved golden eagle that rested on the front.
“I should probably give this to you, at least while I am gone.” Dracia held out the locket to Leal.
“Why would you give that to me? It is yours. It will always be yours,” said Leal looking at the locket.
“If I don’t come back, or if decisions are made while I am gone, you might need it. Your father and your betrothed will be expecting you to be able to produce it,” said Dracia holding it out to him.
Leal took the locket and looked at it. He shook it gently, listening to the small rattle it made. He closed his fist around it and closed his eyes. When he opened his eyes, they were bright green for a brief moment before fading back to their normal hazel. He opened his fist, kissed the locket, and hooked the thin gold chain over both of his hands, placing it over Dracia’s head.
“It is yours and only yours. It will never belong to anyone else. You promised me you would come back, so there is no need for me to hold it. It will come back with you. There will be no decisions made while you are gone. I have already made my decision, and there is no going back. I would not want to go back even if I could. Please, wear it. It will offer you protection, I believe.”
“If that is what you wish, I shall do it,” said Dracia softly.
“It is what I wish. I never want you to take it off,” said Leal as he put his hand behind her head to pull her into a kiss.
“I really do have to go,” said Dracia pulling back. “I will see you soon, I promise.” She walked to the door. Before opening it, she turned to look at Leal. “Watch yourself around the Navalians. I don’t think I trust them. Try not to be alone with any of them.”
Leal nodded. “I would rather not be around them at all, but if I have to be around them, I will do so in the presence of others.”
Dracia smiled at him. She stared at him, not wanting to leave. She willed herself not to cry; she could not show weakness now. Taking a deep breath and building her courage, she opened the door and walked out of the room while she still had the ability to do so.