Roderick rode Magni a little ahead of the Royal carriage as they traveled the roads slowly north. It was a very cold day. The sky was gray, and Roderick could see little flakes of snow fall every so often. The hills around them had started growing larger as they road would climb up more frequently than it would go down. Travel was slower than ever before as the horses had to struggle to get up the large hills. They took more frequent breaks in the day to rest the horses and stretch cold bones and muscles.
Roderick pulled at his gloves as he rode, not liking the feel of them on his hands. It was too cold to go without out, but Roderick didn’t like knowing he would have to throw them off to be able to perform Mystics if it was needed. He had the hood of his fur lined cloak up to help with warmth, but the cold wind that gusted every so often, still cut right through him.
He looked over to see Dracia bundled up in her own cloak. She rode slightly hunched over on Aarit, bracing herself against the wind that was once again gusting. Roderick looked behind him to see he they had some distance from the carriages.
“When will you leave for the summer palace?” he asked.
“At the luncheon break. We will eat quickly and then get on the road. I want to make it to our destination not too long after dark. The less we can travel after sunset, the better,” answered Dracia.
“It looks like it could snow soon. That might slow you down,” said Roderick, looking up at the sky.
“Not as much as it will you with all these carriages. I hope you will make it to the estate before it gets too bad. I would say I hope we don’t get snowed in at the estate, but that would be a lie. I am not looking forward to reaching our destination.”
“No, but we cannot avoid it forever, I suppose,” said Roderick.
“We cannot,” said Dracia. “And I suppose the dread of the event is usually worse than the event itself, though in this case I think that may be wrong.”
“Galen is working very hard, you know? I think he spends half the night reading books on Navalia. He has brought several with him. He was even reading a book on the Cassendars last night.”
“The Cassendars?” asked Dracia as she looked at Roderick with confusion. “Why is he reading on the Cassendars?”
“Since their power seems to be able to destroy and block Navalian magic, he thinks it could be helpful for you. I don’t know what he is trying to find, but I never have understood how Galen’s mind works.”
“I hate that he is working so hard on my account. This traveling is exhausting enough, and now he has to go see to the queen’s health. I know your brother is brilliant and strong, but everyone has their limits,” said Dracia.
“He likes to push himself. You could order him to stop, but I am not sure he could follow your order even if he tried. I know the princess is very concerned about you and her mother. I think he might do anything he could to ease any problem she has.”
“He has grown very fond of her, and I believe the feeling is mutual,” said Dracia. “I worry for them.”
“They are old enough to make their own decisions. You talk of Galen putting too much on himself, but no one puts more on themselves than you. Let them live their lives, Dracia. Whatever happens, they will have to deal with it.”
They rode on in silence for a while as the snowflakes became more frequent.
“Have you spoken with Darron recently?” asked Dracia.
“No, I try to avoid speaking to him when possible,” said Roderick. “I have watched him closely.”
“And what do you find?”
“He is unusually quiet on this trip. He often rides alone. I thought it was odd his father did not accompany the king on this trip, but it seems as if he has had problems with his back lately.”
“When we get to Navalia we will have to watch him even more closely. I think he developed a friendship with Princess Lilith,” said Dracia. “She seemed to not mind his company.”
“I noticed it as well,” said Roderick, “He can be charming when it wants to be, and I suppose women find him handsome.”
“They do, and for good reason. He is handsome. He is very handsome until you get to know him well. Then you realize what a pompous, hill rolling, jackass he really is,” said Dracia with disgust.
Roderick laughed. “I would say your language has gotten quite course being in the Sentinel, but I have a feeling you have spoken that way for a long time.”
“I have two older brothers, Roderick. I have heard plenty of course sayings, and I admit to using them too often.”
As the luncheon rest approached Roderick found time to ride by Galen. His brother did not look worried about the upcoming trip, but he did look thoughtful. He rode by his brother in silence for a while waiting for Galen to speak. When it didn’t seem as if he would, Roderick decided to say something.
“How do you feel about your trip this afternoon, Galen?” asked Roderick.
“A little anxious, but I am more worried of what will happen when we get there,” said Galen. “I know the prince says he doesn’t expect me to work miracles, but I do wish to help the queen in some way.”
“The queen has been ill for some time, Galen. Many healers have seen her. If you cannot help her, you should not feel ashamed. The prince or princess will not think any less of you,” said Roderick.
“I know Princess Lexine thinks of her mother often. I would like to be able to give her some hope about her mother. I know I should temper my expectations, but I can’t help but want to be able to help in some way. I hate to see her suffer so.”
Roderick did not ask if he meant the queen or the princess, but he think he had an idea of who Galen really meant.
“You will need to be very watchful on the journey to the palace. The road is very desolate. You will not pass through any villages or see many if any farms. It will get dark early today with the clouds and snow.”
Galen nodded. “I will be very vigilant, brother.”
“Listen to the High Captain; she knows what she is doing. If you do find yourself in a fight, she will help direct you. Do exactly as she says. She knows how to end battles quickly. When she tells you to strike left, you go left. When she tells you to run, you run, and when she tells you to move out of the way, do it.”
“Is that how you got so skilled at fighting by her side? Did she call out directions to you as you fought together?”
“In some ways,” said Roderick with a smile. “When you fight side by side with someone as much as I have with the High Captain, it becomes natural, like speaking together, or knowing each other’s preferred meals, or…”
“Dancing,” finished Galen. “When I saw you fight with her in Winsdell, it was like some sort of beautiful, terrifying dance. It was like you had all the moves worked out ahead of time, and you were performing.”
“We have practiced the dance many times, and performed for many audiences, though it usually isn’t a repeat performance for anyone,” said Roderick.
“It bothers you that you aren’t going with us, doesn’t it?” asked Galen.
“Yes,” said Roderick. “It has been many years since I haven’t been by her side as we do our duty. I would rather battle a 1,000 men at her side than stay behind and wonder what is happening.”
Galen was silent for a moment as he looked at Roderick.
“You shouldn’t be worried about this trip. I doubt we will face one man let alone 1,000,” said Galen.
“I know; it just feels so unnatural to not be going with her.”
“I will not let her down, brother. I will not let you down either,” said Galen as the carriages around them slowed down to a stop.
“I believe you, Galen. Watch out for yourself as well. I’d like you to come back in one piece.”
Roderick ate a quick lunch as he stood at the side of the road. Most of the lords and ladies took a few moments to stretch their legs before reentering their carriages to eat their meal. Roderick couldn’t blame them as it was very cold, and the snow was falling freely now. As Roderick walked around, he heard the king trying to get Leal to change his mind.
“Come now, Leal, look at the weather. You shouldn’t be riding out in this. We can press on and be nice and warm and safe in the Westmoria estate before dark.”
“I hope you are father, but my sister and I will be almost to the summer palace by that time. You can still come with us if you want,” said Leal as he adjusted his gloves.
“No, I will not go, and I do not approve of you going either. You will experience nothing but heartache with what you find,” said King Rommel.
“It will be worth it to see my mother and make sure there is nothing that can be done,” said Leal. “Goodbye father, safe travels to Westmoria,” said Leal as he turned and walked towards where his sister stood with Galen.
Roderick walked on until he found Dracia standing by Aarit. Darron was walking up to her as well, and Roderick and he reached her at the same time.
“Good, you are both here,” said Dracia as she adjusted Aarit’s bridle. “I will only be gone tonight, but I need you both to remain vigilant. I know you both know what to do if something happens, so I will not insult you by going over everything.”
She patted Aarit and turned to look at them. “I am not worried about what happens on the road, but make sure you watch the Elites at the Westmoria estates. I know you are all very honorable and proper, but it has been a long journey and there are some pretty young women traveling with us who are known to be flirtatious. I am sure the Lord of Westmoria will have some other guest as well. Remember the honor and shame of each Elite is the honor and shame of the Sentinel,” said Dracia. She stared at Darron. “Conduct yourselves as the Elites you have sworn to be.”
“Of course, High Captain,” said Darron smiling at her. “We are both also lord’s sons, you know.”
“I do know it,” said Dracia. “I also know lord’s sons very well, and that is why I am asking you to act as Elites.”
“Yes, High Captain,” said Roderick trying not to smile.
“If I hear of any inappropriate behavior while I am gone, there will be repercussions,” said Dracia.
“There will be no issues, High Captain,” said Roderick.
“I agree,” said Darron. “We will all be epitome of Elites of the Sentinel.”
“See that you are,” said Dracia as she launched herself up in her saddle. “The Sentinel stands true.”
“The High Captain is strong and just,” said Roderick.
Dracia nodded and moved Aarit forward to ride over to where the prince, princess, and Galen had gathered. Darron turned and walked away, but Roderick watched as the small group rode off. He kept his eyes on them until he could not see them anymore.
They were soon moving again on the road. Roderick rode up front of the royal carriage with Darron close by. The snow was falling fairly heavily now with large flakes starting to coat the trees and brown grass. The road was a soggy mess, but it had not frozen over yet. Roderick hoped they would not take too many breaks so they could reach their destination soon. He tried to focus on his task at hand instead of thinking of Dracia and Galen riding off with the prince and princess down a dark, deserted road.
“You can relax, Roderick,” said Darron as they rode. “You are off the leash for a moment.”
“I never feel as if I am on a leash,” said Roderick dryly. “I enjoy having our High Captain around.”
“Oh, come on, you must feel some relief not having to answer to her and be all proper. You can have a little fun tonight. She was right about several pretty young ladies willing to flirt. I have seen at least three I wouldn’t mind spending some time with,” said Darron looking back at the carriages.
“I will do nothing to tarnish the Sentinel name or make my High Captain disappointed in me,” said Roderick.
“You are a man, are you not, Roderick? You must see how some of these women respond to you. They seem to like a man in the uniform of the Sentinel. You are not bad looking, and you could easily find a lady to warm your bed tonight. You will not have to share a room with your brother.”
“I am an Elite of the Sentinel, and I can control any urges I have,” said Roderick. “I have no interest in bedding anyone of this traveling party.”
“You are still pining for our High Captain, aren’t you? I thought you would had managed to bed her by now, but lately I have heard she has her eyes set much higher than you.”
Roderick looked quickly at Darron. “You should not dishonor her with some lies and rumors you hear.”
“Even if those rumors and lies as you call them come from the betrothed of the man in question?”
Roderick refused to answer, but inside he felt a small panic. Darron having this secret information about Dracia could not be a good thing.
“She told me of her suspicions when she visited Winsdell. I was often left in her company when the prince was busy with his duty. I have longed suspected he might favor her in some way. I mean a tumble here and there with the High Captain, who could blame the man, but I think it might be a bit more serious than that. What do you say, Roderick?”
“I will say nothing, except you should hold your tongue. Speaking of such things about the High Captain and the prince is dangerous and wrong. I am sure the king would have plenty to say if he hears you speak so.”
“I don’t plan to spread it around. I am not stupid, but you must know this cannot end well for your friend. What can she possible gain by continuing to entertain him? He will be married soon, and I don’t think Princess Lilith shares nicely,” said Darron before he turned his horse and rode back to the middle of the line of carriages, leaving Roderick feeling sick and worried.
The arrived at the Lord of Westmoria’s grand estate a little after sunset. The lords and ladies hurried into the large home, happy to be out of their cold carriages. Roderick hung back with Darron until all members of the court seemed settled, and the Sentinel was then shown to their rooms. Roderick found his room to be comfortable with a good size bed and even a small sitting area with a fireplace. He cleaned himself up quickly and went down to gather with the others downstairs.
He stood in a large drawing room near one the fireplaces watching the ladies and lords talk and laugh. He was in no mood for conversation as he hoped that Dracia and the others had reached the summer palace by now. He hoped Galen would not be too disappointed if he could not help the queen. He even silently prayed for the prince and princess as they saw their mother.
Roderick had almost decided to just go to his room and skip supper, when Dracia’s mother approached him. Lady Owena was a pretty woman for her age that looked nothing like her daughter. Where Dracia was dark headed with bright brown eyes, Lady Owena had blonde hair and light blue eyes. Dracia was tall for a woman, but Lady Owena was petite in every way. She smiled as she approached Roderick, but Roderick found he could not smile back at her, knowing the way she treated her daughter.
“Good evening, Roderick,” said Lady Owena. “I am surprised you are still with us tonight. I thought you would accompany my daughter on her little trip.”
“The High Captain asked me to stay behind to see to the safety of the king and court. As her second I must help lead when she is away.”
“I know how much she depends on you. You are quite a favorite with her I believe.”
“I am very devoted to her as my High Captain. She has been a good friend to me for years,” replied Roderick.
“I do hope Dracia has made it to her destination by now. I do not like to think of her on horseback out in the middle of this weather. I hope she does not become ill.”
“You are worried about her?” asked Roderick, unable to hide his surprise.
“Of course, I am worried for her. She is my daughter. I have done nothing but worry about her almost her whole life.”
Roderick raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
“You seem surprised. You must know I do care for her. I do not want her to come to harm.”
“I am sure you do care for her. How could you not? She is an extraordinary woman you have raised,” said Roderick. He tried to stop talking, but found he could not. “Though I am not sure how much you really appreciate who she is.”
“She has told you things about me, has she?” asked Lady Owena.
“A little, but I have also seen and heard how you treat her in public. You find many faults with her.”
“Isn’t it a mother’s job to help their daughter grow and become all she can be?” asked Lady Owena.
“Dracia is the finest woman I know, my lady. She is the leader of the Sentinel, and she is brave, wise, and kind. What else do you want from her?”
Lady Owena looked around and moved closer to Roderick. “It seems to me that she is aiming for something even higher than her current position. If she gets what she desires, she will need to be all you just said and more. I want her to succeed for herself and the kingdom.”
“I am sure I don’t know what you mean, my lady.”
“I think you do, Roderick. You think you hide your expressions well, but I can read you very easily. You look so much like your father, and he thought he could hide his feelings, but he always had a tell. You have the same one.”
“You knew my father?” asked Roderick looking down at her.
“Yes, he was at court often, and we were the same age. It is not unusual that I should know him.”
“I didn’t think you would bother talking to a lower lord,” said Roderick. “Many in your social circle do not.”
“There was not a large circle of people my age when I was young and came to Winsdell, and I attended the Royal Academy for a few years with him. We had similar interest in subjects,” said Lady Owena.
“I did not know this,” said Roderick. “He never spoke of you when I was young. My mother has never mentioned this to me.”
“No, I don’t believe she would. She is not fond of me. I am sure you know it, but it is no matter.”
“Would you tell me how you knew I was hiding something?” asked Roderick.
“That depends, will you tell me if what I think I know of my daughter is true?” asked Lady Owena.
“No, I will not divulge any of the High Captains secrets I may know. If she wants you to know anything, she will tell you herself.”
“Then I will keep my secret as well,” said Lady Owena with a small smile. She looked up at Roderick for a moment. “You do look remarkably like your father. I think you even have the same smile. I have not seen it tonight, but I have seen you smile at my daughter many times, and just like me with your father, it always makes her smile in return.”
Lady Owena walked off, leaving Roderick to watch her go, wondering what to make of that conversation. He spent the rest of the evening eating, and talking as little as possible to anyone by only giving polite smiles and simple answers to questions. He watched over the Elites as Dracia had asked him. He saw a little flirting, but most of it seemed harmless. Only Darron seemed to be skirting the edge of propriety, but when it was time for bed, Roderick saw Darron enter his room alone. Whatever might have happened after that, Roderick couldn’t say. He slept more soundly than he expected.
The next morning, he arose in nervous anticipation of seeing the party from the summer palace return. After breakfast he went down and spent some time amongst those of the court who lounged around parlors and dining rooms, as the weather was too awful to be outside. Roderick noticed he wasn’t the only one who paced and fidgeted all morning. The king seemed agitated, barely speaking to anyone and spent his time standing by a window and looking out. Dracia’s father and brother seemed on the surface to be well settled, but Roderick noticed they both looked between the clocks in various areas of the room, and the doorway that was closest to the entry hall. Dracia’s mother spent most of her morning watching Roderick. Her eyes seemed to follow him, and he was unnerved by it. He felt like she was trying to determine something from his manner, but he knew not what.
By lunch, Roderick was thinking perhaps he should approach the king and ask if he should go with a few Elites and check in on the others. He had made up his mind to do it once lunch was over. He looked for the king in the parlors and drawing room, but could not find them. He decided to be so bold as to check the rooms the king was staying in and passed through the entry hall to go up the stairs. On the stairs he was surprised to meet Galen and Princess Lexine coming down.
“When did you get back?” asked Roderick as he ran up to meet them.
“About thirty minutes ago,” said Galen. “We came in a side entrance. The prince thought it was best.”
“How did everything go?” asked Roderick.
Galen and the princess looked at each other before Princess Lexine looked down to see a few ladies walking through the entrance hall.
“It was interesting,” the princess said in an overly bright way.
“And you all made it back fine?” Roderick asked looking down to see a few more ladies and some lords pass through.
Galen again looked to Princess Lexine. Roderick took a step closer to his brother and the princess.
“What is it?” he asked quietly.
Galen shook his head. “It is too much to say here in the open, but all will be well,” said Galen as he looked towards his feet.
Roderick felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Something was not right at all.
“Where is she?” asked Roderick in an urgent whisper.
“Leal took her to a room the housekeeper showed him. I believe she was tired from our journey,” said Lexine.
“What room?” asked Roderick looking at the princess.
“She will be fine, Roderick,” said Galen reassuringly. “She just needs to rest before we travel tomorrow.”
“Tell me what room,” said Roderick forcefully.
“The third floor, second room on the right,” said Lexine as she looked over Roderick’s shoulder. Roderick could hear the footsteps coming his way.
“Come along, Galen. Let’s see if they can manage to feed us even though we missed luncheon,” said Lexine taking Galen’s arm and looking at Roderick. “Our trip went very well, Elite. Thank you for asking.”
Lexine smiled and walked past Roderick, taking Galen with him. Roderick walked quickly up the stairs to the third floor, knowing that things did not go very well.