4. Golden Cloaks
The attack from the giant serpent, and the secret encounter with the mysterious woman, were beginning to feel like a distant memory to Alanis. As they continued their journey to Berthold, her concerns and nervousness about reaching James' homeland had nearly been forgotten.
Unfortunately those worries were replaced with new ones, as the need to eat, and rest took priority.
What was supposed to be a half day trek by foot, became two, long, tiring days, and to make matters worse, the young knight was a lot like her Official, Justin. His constant nagging to be careful of every minute thing was beginning to infuriate her. There were times she wanted to do something drastic, on purpose, just to get back at him.
Fortunately for him, she listened to her better judgment, and ignored those childish impulses, figuring it would only make him worse.
When he wasn't annoying her with his overprotectiveness, he somehow managed to find other ways to annoy her. Every now and again, he would pipe up, offering a upbeat comment as they walked. One statement, in particular, was beginning to annoy her to no end—
Don't worry, just a little longer till we reach Berthold.
He would repeat that stupid line almost every time they stopped to rest, or if he detected a shred of concern from her. After awhile, she didn't know if he was trying to convince her, or himself, that they weren't lost.
Because it certainly seemed like they were.
The terrain was starting to grow bumpy, and the hills grew larger the further they walked. Alanis looked down at her worn slippers from time to time while they rested. It wouldn't be long before they would break, she feared, realizing the grounds ahead wouldn't be any easier to scale.
Come on, just a little further. Don't make me walk barefooted in this place, she pleaded with her shoes as she treaded over a large grouping of rocks.
Thankfully, after several miles of walking, and climbing boulders, the land was becoming more forgiving. The thick trees that surrounded them began to thin, and lush fields of grass soon took their place.
Alanis stopped, staring in awe, as the winds brushed the tall grass in gentle waves ahead of her. It was truly mesmerizing, the sounds that carried over the vast field were gentle, and calming.
If it weren't for the sobering fact that they were nowhere near Berthold, or anywhere else, for that matter. They were still lost, it was evident by James' faraway stare into the fields.
They continued their walk in silence for awhile longer, until they neared the end of the large field.
"So," James hummed nervously.
Alanis lifted her gaze from the hill ahead, to the young knight.
He better not say it, I swear I'll scream.
"Since we have time, perhaps, now is a good time to get to know each other a little better," he suggested while meeting her pace.
"What do you want to know?" she replied curtly.
"Sorry, I asked," he retorted, his reply just as short as hers.
He walked ahead of her again, it was clear that he wouldn't bother her with anymore questions. She watched as his hand nervously stroked across the empty sheath at his side, then began to feel guilty for the attitude she gave.
He was only trying to lighten the mood.
"I'm sorry, I guess I tire easily." Alanis sighed. "It's not every day I walk fifty miles."
He snickered at her sarcastic remark while turning to face her, walking backwards for several steps.
"This is nothing," he replied with a snort, "I've walked longer than this."
"That doesn't help your case, now does it?" she quipped while plucking a stiff-reed, then chucked it playfully at him.
He picked it up and walked alongside her, nudging her bare shoulder with it until she slapped it free from his hand.
She rubbed her shoulder, wondering, for the first time in awhile, what she was going to do when they made it to Berthold. Of course she knew, she needed to find a way back home, but she was growing curious how his people would react to her situation. If James' claim were true, that nobody left Larska, his people may question her.
"What will we do when we reach Berthold? I mean, if we ever make it there," she asked timidly.
"Well, first I'll have to report to King Alexander, which I'm not looking forward to." He sighed, then continued, "I'm sure he will be curious of your story, too."
Curious of my story?
She stopped walking and he glanced over his shoulder, noticing she was no longer at his side.
"Alanis, what is it?"
He walked over to her.
"Should I worry about what your people are going to think of me?"
"What makes you say that?"
"Well, you said it yourself, that you've never met anyone else from Larska before. They're going to want to know why I left, but I have no idea myself."
"People are going to be curious, that's a given."
Of course they would, but how will your king react when I tell him my story.
"I wonder if your king will be as understanding with my story as you are."
"King Alexander is fair and kind, there's nothing you should fear."
Alanis lowered her eyes to the tall reeds.
"Do I strike you as the type of man who would lead a defenseless lady into a trap?"
She shook her head, no, but could see he was still disappointed by her subtle reply. The truth was, she was scared, and probably would be for awhile. She was lost in the middle of nowhere, with a man she had just met, and was now traveling to a place she had only found out existed three days ago.
I just want to go home, why can't he understand that? I miss my home, my friends, my life, she thought, realizing her true fear was never being able to return to those things.
"Please trust me when I tell you, that no harm will come to you when we reach Berthold."
He knelt in front of her, on bended knee.
"James, what are you doing?" she asked, growing more uncomfortable by his strange gesture.
He grabbed her left hand and held it gently with his. His eyes examined her small hand within his briefly before he looked up to meet her surprised stare.
"Alanis, you have my word, as a knight of Berthold, I will protect you."
His blue eyes gazed into hers, sealing his oath.
Could he really promise this, would he still protect me even if his king ordered otherwise?
She didn't know if he could, but could tell by his eyes, that he wasn't leading her to a hostile place. He wore his intentions within them, which were clear, and her intuition was telling her to trust him.
"So, do you believe me?" he asked, regaining her attention.
"Yes," she replied, though was still unsure. Truth was, she had only said yes, hoping he would leave it be.
"Great," he said while standing. "We've been through a lot and we barely know each other. I suspect you'd feel a bit better, if you told me about your home."
Alanis walked ahead of him.
"What would you like to know?"
"Did you leave any family behind," he questioned as he followed at her side, "in Larska?"
"I don't have a family," she answered timidly, recalling how she used to wonder what her parent were like, if they had wanted her, or even loved her. She never asked though, afraid the answer was something that would end up causing her pain.
"Well, you must of had friends. What are they like?"
"I have several, some Larska employees, but most are sick, like me. Just last week a good friend of mine fell ill from The Burn—" she stopped as old memories of her childhood friend came to mind.
Alanis recalled how Anna once dared her to sneak through the broken wall of their settlement, to the outside. That simple action had been so liberating for the pair that it fueled their imaginations, freeing them for a moment of all their worries of the future.
And now, she was likely dead.
"Her name was Anna," Alanis added finally, her eyes lowered to her feet, "They took her away before I could say goodbye to her."
"Alanis," he said, his voice lower than normal. "I'm sorry—you had to go through that."
She glanced over at him, his head was hung low.
Did my story really affect him?
"Hey, it's okay." She smiled in his direction, trying to reassure him she was alright. "It's something we all knew would happen—we're prepared for it."
"Gods—" He spat into the grass and shook his head, stifling whatever it was he really wanted to say.
What was bothering him, was it something I said?
His scowl disappeared and he looked ahead silently.
"James—" she went to speak but was hushed by his hand, where he held it over her mouth.
They were quiet for a moment, as were their surroundings. In time, Alanis' heart began to race while she prepared for the worst, that they were in danger again.
James dropped his hand.
"Did you hear that noise earlier?" he whispered over to her, his blue eyes questioning her.
Her heart was still pounding.
"What did you hear?" she asked, her voice cracked.
"It sounded like it came from over there." Her eyes followed his finger. He was pointing to the peak of a small hill they were near. "Stay here. I'll go and check it out."
He left her side and cautiously made his way over to the hill, crouching as he neared its peak.
"What is it?" she whispered loud enough to where he could hear.
He put his finger to his mouth, signaling for her to be quiet.
James was still for several, long minutes.
Suddenly, he lifted from the grass, and waved for her to join him. When she reached his side he pointed to a group of people riding towards them on horseback. The two riders, in forefront, carried large banners with Berthold's Crest embroidered upon them, and in tow was James' horse, Ellah. Every one of them wore armor similar to James', including golden cloaks that caught the afternoon light.
She swallowed nervously, wondering how they were going to react to her, if they would be as kind as James.
When they reached them, James stood confidently at Alanis' side. She looked over each of them anxiously, noticing how their helms concealed their faces in a somewhat menacing way.
Finally, the smallest of the group jumped from his horse, his armor clanked as he landed hard on the ground. He pulled away his helmet, revealing that he, was in fact a she.
Alanis was surprised, she wasn't expecting to see a woman, let alone, a very beautiful one. She was gorgeous, her eyes were the color of the sky, and her hair shone a faded blond that could easily be mistaken for as silver. She wore it bundled into many intricate braids that resembled a fine work of art.
Her eyes studied both, James and Alanis, while she stepped forward.
"Gods, James." She wiped the sweat from her forehead as she continued, "The king sends us on the most simplest of tasks and you get yourself lost—and with a girl no less."
"Is all of this funny to you?" She scowled, directing her anger at the pair. "Because of you, our group's reputation is—"
"Oh, I'm sorry, will you kindly remind me why our group got separated to begin with?"
"It's not my fault you don't know how to stay in formation."
"Maybe if our leader wasn't driving us in circles, we would have found the magical disturbance."
What's up with these two, their bickering felt like it was about something other than their failed task. They're acting like they just broke up, Alanis thought while her gaze jumped between the pair.
"What are you staring at, girl? The woman knight spoke, directing her question at Alanis.
Geez, what the hell is her problem?
Alanis bit her bottom lip, stifling a retort that could potentially piss this woman off more than she already was.
The woman walked past James and circled around Alanis, sizing her up just as a larger animal would.
"Where did you find this one?"
"What does it matter to you? She was lost, so I promised her I'd take her back to Berthold."
"Don't kid yourself, James, by the looks of it, I'd say you were both lost," she said while pulling her helm over her head. After, she strode back to her horse, and mounted gracefully for someone wearing plated armor.
James whistled and Ellah trotted over to him. He straightened her saddle, fastening its restraints. He tugged on them several times, making sure they were properly secure.
He smiled over at Alanis, and in that instant, she could tell he was relieved to see her, and so was she.
Things were starting to look up, she thought smiling back.
"I suggest you use the ride back to polish the bullshit story you have no doubt concocted for our king," the woman knight said, her voice was muffled by the thick metal of her helm, Alanis found it suited her.
The less she was heard the better.
The woman then signaled her steed to move and rode to the front of group and the others followed at a steady pace. Alanis was relieved to see her leave, and hoped to never see her again.
James called Alanis over and helped her climb up to Ellah's saddle, he then mounted in front, once she was settled.
Alanis leaned forward, while wrapping her arms around him.
"Is that woman always unpleasant?" she whispered into his ear.
"You caught her on a good day, but yeah, she can be bitch at times." He gripped the reins and pulled them up, causing Ellah to trot.
"Don't worry though—" He paused. "We all aren't like that."
He gave her a reassuring smile as he ordered Ellah to pick up pace.
Alanis held on to his waist as they picked up speed, moving them quickly to the front of the pack, next to the woman knight.
Oh, no, this can't be good.
He flashed a wry smile to the woman.
"Move to the back, James," she ordered, provoked by his advance. "We will lead you back to Berthold."
"Oh, but it was rude of me to forget to introduce the two of you," he shouted back to her teasingly.
"Cassandra, this is Alanis."
They sped past her.
"Alanis, this is Cassandra."
Alanis looked behind them, to the small group of knights and their leader, who were falling behind quickly.
"Do you think that it was wise to leave them, like that?" she questioned, her fingers clung tightly to his breast plate, afraid of the fall she would take at their current speed.
"I don't take orders from her. My duty is to report to my king as soon as possible," he replied giving her a quick wink before eyeing the field ahead of them again.
That woman was trouble, and by the way James was toying with her, she knew that wasn't the last they see of her.