Vasilios is a modest country, whose history is marred with the sins of its past ruler, Harrenhal Vondien. Fifty years have passed since his insidious reign began, during which he banned the native High Elves to the desolate mountaintops on the outside of the city. Here, he denied them access to owning property, to rights as citizens, and never recognized their unions as being sanctioned, though they worship the same Gods.
Four long years have passed since Harrenhal's death, seeing his son ascend to the throne.
“By the Sirens… Unbelievable. Those Elvish bastards have us trapped in a damn wine cellar…” A knight, who had been hard at work quietly barricading the door, put his arm to his brow to keep the sweat from his eyes. A large scar on his forearm identified him to whom he pledged his loyalty, even in the dim light of a single candle. Black hair, greying at the sides, was trimmed somewhat neatly at the neck, his bangs having long since been moved from his eyes. A man who had seen enough to know that this door wasn’t long to hold. “It gives us time, but we might not all make it when she comes tumbling down.”
“Well, ain’t that why we blocked up both?” The second companion spoke up, adjusting his hilt as he stood, heading over to a modest sized sack, which held their initial supplies. Nearly thirty in age, he meticulously counted their rations – again, and again, but the numbers never made sense. “Don’t tell me it was for nothing, Davin.”
The young King placed a finger to his lips, eyeing the older men with a look that could only be described as...slightly concerned. He pointed up, to the stone ceiling above them as dust lightly fell, signaling someone’s presence. “Davin, Sirius…They’re in the study…” He paused, “But I don’t think they’ve found that hatch.” Sirius eyed the ceiling closely for a moment, before turning to his liege.
“At least there only seems to be one in there. For now.”
When the moon rose highest in the sky, and the river ran still, they attacked. Just as he had been warned. The King of Volaire had taken equal measures on his front to not only prolong his own life, but to spare the innocents who might be caught up in his politics. All house staff had been dismissed for half a month, still receiving their pay so that they might seek refuge outside the castle walls without becoming beggars in the streets. Where there were once lively council proceedings taking place in the castle’s war room, they had been prematurely concluded before that month’s edicts could be reconciled. The payment of taxes was halted for the foreseeable future. The income from the rest of the territories under his jurisdiction should suffice to keep the capital seat of Vasilios in working order. The people who must live in the center of such turmoil need not suffer.
The painful irony of the past was not lost on the young king, aged twenty-six, whose many changes since he ascended to the throne four years ago, came at the end of almost thirty years of tyranny. His father, the late King, whose name his son never wanted to grace his tongue for the rest of his life, was a powerful man with a self-serving agenda. The aggregation of greed, lust, and pride drove his every conviction. And, being the sole ruler, with few who opposed him, he saw no reason why he should not have anyone or anything he wanted. Yet, times were [i peaceful], if only so to appease His Majesty. With the sin of wrath as his most powerful weapon, the late King had bullied his way into an age of relative wealth, prosperity, and economic stability… at the cost of an entire race’s own dignity.
Fifty years of wars between humans and Elves had preceded his decision… At the time, his sheer force of will, driving out the Elven menace was appreciated. Unfortunately, it had all gone to his head. [b “Royland, my son… One day, you’ll learn that your power and your money are all that speaks to the hearts of men.”]
Well, he did suppose a [b [i demon]] always knew best, men’s desires.
“M’lord… M’lord…?” A faint whisper called him out of his thoughtful state. “They’re close. We should go now.” Without a word, Royland turned to face the barricade in front of him. Up above, he heard the clatter of the kitchen wares being tossed around, callous voices calling out for him – ‘Oh, my King! Where are you, my King?’ Royland felt his blood boiling in his veins as the noises grew louder. It didn’t occur to him that perhaps he was a little anxious, having been breathing in the sweet scent of wine and mildew for [i hours]. Listening to the sounds of his lineage being cast onto the ground, as though they were worthless. He knew. He just… knew. The flag bearing his family crest has been torn from the mast, portraits were destroyed or stolen, valuable parchments containing historical documents or important trade secrets among royalty was going to be used against him or sold to the highest bidder. A standing candle clattered on the floor directly above, causing him to instinctively grab the hilt of his sword. The shattering of stained-glass windows that had been set when his grandfather was in power rang as loudly as a church bell. Was this his legacy now? The faint sounds of tapestry being ripped from the floorboards forced him to hold his breath. And then…
‘Squires search the courtyard! Scouts search the living quarters again! I want that bastard’s head!’ The cacophony of footsteps faded in the distance… Silence. Royland let out a shaking, breathy sigh. It was time. As soon as the dust ceased falling on their heads, he started at the loose stones on the farthest wall, taking them as quickly and as quietly as he could. “Sirius? A hand?” The knight did as he was told, lending his strength to his king with haste, hoping they could reach the opening to the outside sooner rather than later. Halfway to freedom, he lifted a hand, fingertips raw from prying away at the stonework in the wall, to brush the dirt from his eyes.
“This may go a lot quicker if you help, Dav--…” Royland glanced over, only to see a sword pointed at the tip of his nose. And at the end, was the illustrious sir Davin, who smirked devilishly at the position he had him in. “…What’s the meaning of this?” Royland’s gaze steeled, aflame lit up in his eyes, never flinching at whatever fate may bring him. By this point, Sirius had leapt to his feet, readying a dagger in Royland’s defense. Still, Davin had the upper hand. One thrust and swing, and they could both die here and now. He eyed the hatch to freedom… So close. All he had to do was lift it and escape. “You really shouldn’t be surprised, M’lord.” Royland failed to blink when he refocused his attention, visibly unnerving his attacker. [i [b “Why?”]] Davin let out a nervous chuckle in spite of himself.
“There it is… There’s that look that was always in your father’s eyes. You… Your lineage is nothing but a dark seed. A blight on this kingdom. Thank all there is that you haven’t fathered an heir.” Sirius put his arm in front of Royland, forcing Davin to cease smiling. “Don’t get in my way, Sirius. This is between me and your precious King.”
“Stand [i down,] Davin. I won’t have you aiding usurpers… I simply won’t.” The blade of Davin’s sword slowly moved the dagger in Sirius’ trembling hand down to the side. “M-M’lord… You n-need to leave.”
“M’lord, I am bound by the order of the crest of your flag that says I will serve you, even at the cost of my own life! Leave, at once!” Although hushed as not to alert the infantry upstairs, Sirius’ voice contained an unnerving level of fear and uncertainty. Davin was a skilled fighter – skilled enough to have outlived most men he served with as a squire. Enough to have led a company on the front lines. Enough to have even killed Elves wielding magic. Royland knew the average bodyguard had no chance of winning against a battle-hardened man. And yet, here he stood, his body a shield. There was likely a reason. Sirius never acted without one.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] “Keep close.” That was the third time he reminded her. This time she said nothing, and he didn’t even look back at his charge. He was all adrenaline since they had easily broken through the gates and rushed the castle. Like the others around them, he was eager for a fight.
The castle was more empty than they had anticipated, putting them on edge. Having barely spoken more than a handful of words all night, Sumina was more like a ghost trailing behind her older brother. White hair, pale features, and a white dress all lent themselves to an unearthly appearance, along with her grim expression.
Pleas for peace and understanding had fallen on deaf ears. She only hoped her cries for mercy tonight would not also be ignored. It was the only thing that kept her there, trailing behind these men while they trashed what possessions they could find. No stone seemed left unturned in their search for the king. Continued shouts for him confirmed to her that he had not been found. [i Good].
“That bastard is going to pay. We’ll live good after this, eh, Mina?” Her brother, several years older than her, might have normally said something like that with a boyish smile. It might have made her smile then too, even if she didn’t entirely agree. This time he said it without looking to her, instead craning to check around a corner before walking down the hall. There was an edge to his voice she didn’t like, and he nervously adjusted the grip on his knife.
“Our lives are good, Tarron. Things are getting better.” The faint hope that she could talk some sense into her brother. She was growing more and more concerned about how he was acting.
Her meaning was entirely missed by him. He sounded distracted when he answered,”Of course. Things will get better now. Aha, what do we have here?”
Whatever he had seen was around the next corner, and Sumina rushed to look. She went to her brother’s side, leaning against the corner where the two walls met. It was one of the guards, being held by three elvish men. They had overpowered him, but not without a fight. Blood dripped onto the floor from all four.
“Gave us a good fight. Won’t say where the king is though.”
“Needs some persuadin’ if you ask me.”
The intentions of the elves was perfectly clear. While two held him, the third wound up and delivered a solid punch to the stomach. Tarron started to step forward, his free hand running shakily through his mop of grey hair. Sumina grabbed the back of his shirt,”Tarron, don’t do this. He’s done nothing.”
“Nothing? He’s protecting that royal [i demon]. If he wants to side with that dog he can die like a dog too.” The harshness of his voice was worse than she’d ever heard. She knew he was angry, but this was more than she thought. He was fixated on the sagging form of the human guard, supported by the other elves.
“C’mon Tarron. See if you can get ‘im to squeal. If he does maybe we kill ‘im quick.” Their laughter made her feel a little nauseous and she pulled at her brother’s shirt again.
The guard still had some fighting spirit, a little fire in his eye,”You’ll never find the path to him. My King will be safe from the likes of you. You’re too blinded by hate to follow him.”
“Please, show him mercy.” This was why she was here, to talk them down from this kind of madness. To reign in this bloodlust.
“Close your eyes, Mina, if you don’t want to see. You should have stayed with the children.” With a jerk of his shoulder and a quick step forward he broke her grip. Sumina just stood there for a moment. She almost couldn’t believe that this was her brother. That hatred she had tried to soothe away had consumed him tonight.
Before her brother had made a move the sound of glass shattering somewhere behind her startled her and she turned away from the scene. She couldn’t stop them, and now she couldn’t watch. She slipped around the corner and looked down the hall, not sure what to do.
Her eye caught something then. Smudges of some white substance on the floor and walls, which individually looked like nothing, but where she was standing came together to form an arrow. She looked around her and stepped to one side. The arrow was gone, just smudges again, but in an almost recognizable pattern. She stepped closer to the wall again, and there it was, telling her to go left. On the wall next to her was a black smudge of charcoal.
The sounds of pain from around the corner made her stomach drop. She didn’t want to stay and listen, and now she was curious about the purpose of the arrow. She went down the hall and took the left path. She followed along, looking for more smudges of black and white, the black indicating where to stand to see the pattern of the white, which indicated which direction to take next. While she walked, she gave it a little thought. The guard mentioned a path they wouldn’t find. Was this it? What would she find at the end of this?
Then the pattern indicated an end to the path, an x in a particular hallway. That puzzled her so she walked down the hallway slowly, examining the walls and doors. Above a door was another smudge of charcoal. Was that where this led?
Her question was answered when she walked into the room and found another guard. He was knelt down and peeling back the corner of an ornate rug, which hid a wooden door. A hatch to some room below. Sumina stepped in and closed the door so as not to reveal the guard to any elf passing by. The sound made the guard straighten up and draw his sword.
Whatever he was expecting, Sumina wasn’t it. He froze, and she just stood there with wide eyes while he pointed his sword at her. “I don’t want to hurt you. I just… there were arrows and…”
The guard had already said something about the path to taunt her brother and the others. Her stomach felt a little heavy. “Someone else might find them soon. If the King really is here, he needs to leave before they find him. You too.”
Her concern for them baffled the guard. He looked at her ears with suspicious disbelief. He started to inch closer,”Hands up so I can see them.”
She complied, staying still while he got closer. The slow pace was starting to worry her. She didn’t know how long they had now. The door suddenly opened and both she and the guard tensed, the guard swinging his sword to the door.
“By thunder, don’t point that at me!” Another guard had entered, and in a loud whisper admonished the other while closing the door. Then both of them were staring at Sumina, who actually seemed relieved at the entrance of [i another] human rather than one of her own kind. “An elf? Get rid of her.”
“She knows, Alain.”
“Damn.” The newcomer Alain gave her a long, searching look. “How many know?”
“Just me, I think. For now, but I’m worried someone else might figure it out soon.” Her concern and desperation made Alain laugh, and Sumina frowned. “I’m serious. A guard was caught and said something about a path and someone might figure it out like I did. There’s no time.”
“Why would an elf want to help? Why shouldn’t we kill you?” Sumina looked surprised, and a little afraid. Before she could say anything in response, or even think of what to say to that, the guard she had first stumbled on put away his sword.
“I don’t know about you, but I can’t kill an unarmed woman. It isn’t honorable. We take her to King Royland and let him decide what to do with her, since we can’t let her go.”
“An unarmed elf can still be dangerous, Walter. Have it your way, though. Go on.” He gave Sumina a little shove in the back. While Walter opened the hatch Alain kept an eye on Sumina, like he expected her to try something. Walter went down first, and then Alain gave Sumina another shove,”You next, I can’t have you run off.”
With a little roll of her eyes she sat down at the edge, then pushed off to drop down without argument. This was what she was trying to convince them to do anyway. Surely the King would actually believe her, and not simply distrust her for being an elf.
With the hatch safely closed behind him, Sirius let out a sigh of relief. “Now I can fight without distraction.” Davin eyed the dagger in his opponent’s hand, noticing he no longer trembled. “[i Why], Davin?”
The older guard lurched his arm back to swing, but Sirius swiftly forced his free palm into Davin’s arm, swinging precisely at his belly with the dagger in hand. It would take more than brute force to overpower the more agile guardsman. Davin stumbled backwards, but quickly countered with the hilt of his sword, and Sirius dodged to his right, in kind. With distance between them, Sirius drew his sword, finally at an even match.
“That… That [i little swine,] King Royland,” Davin began, “Spoiled, narrow-minded son of a common whore, isn’t worthy of that throne.” Sirius steadied himself, sensing the sinister aura from his former comrade. Hatred in his eyes. Malice in his words. Without responding, Sirius lunged forward, metal against metal ringing in his ears.
“That swine, as you called him, [i is your King!]”
“And you are his lapdog, sworn to his side, keeping his bed warm, ain’t ya!?”
Footsteps drawing near briefly drew Davin’s attention, allowing Sirius to briefly overpower him, forcing him to nearly lose his fitting. Figuring it was his allies, he called out to the shadows beyond, “Well, finally, you Elvish bastards! I’ve got one of the guards that knows the secret of the path!” Eyes widening, Sirius eyed the tunnel tentatively, nervous. The end, it seemed, would not be swift.
But the voice that responded was all too familiar to him. “[i Sirius!? Brother!?]”
“Alain--!” The younger guard cried out happily. Davin’s face fell. Then, it contorted to anger. With Sirius distracted, he swung, slicing his belly just enough to force him to the ground, clutching his side in abject horror as his blood spilled to the floor. Alain began to call out to his brother, until he noticed who had injured him. Alain’s eyes darted frantically to his brother in arms, to his attacker, and then drew his sword.
“U…Usurper…” Sirius’ vision began to blur, “He’s aiding… u..usur..pers…” Davin put a foot in his target’s wound, grinding the toe of his boot to force out desperate cries of pain. How he wished the King was here, to see the fate of all servants who should follow him. Slowly, he raised his sword, blinded by fury, sneering at those who had opposed him.
“Send my regards to the late King… and greet his son at the gates when I catch him!!”
Though he was desperate to listen in on the now muffled conversation above him, he knew he had to move. It was imperative. “You had better live, Sirius…” Royland muttered somberly, “I command it.” He shut his eyes; hands curled into trembling fists.
Not a week had passed after his father died, when Davin approached him earnestly, just before his crowning. Royland remembered clearly his feelings of pride and gratitude for having been recognized and acknowledged by one of Vasilios’ most fearsome soldiers. Davin bent his knee. He swore fealty to him. How could he have been so [i blind]? And now he was to lose one of the few friends he had left to trust. To a man who aided usurpers. And probably had for years, now.
“No, Royland…” He shook his head, “I must have faith in him.”
Walking briskly, Royland took the path he’d always been taught to know as a child. “The path” forged for descendants of his line by his own grandfather, for reasons lost to history. With the state of the castle the way it is, now… there would be no telling what they would do to wipe his lineage. Running his fingertips across the damp stone walls, he sighed, frustrated. Father had always forbidden him from determining the reason for which this tunnel was made, and he had no spare time, free of watchful eyes with which to find out on his own. Even as king. And now the study and library likely sat in shambles – flames if he were truly unlucky.
Blinded by the darkness, he only needed to trace the wall to tell where he was meant to go. “The path...” One, two, three, four, [i stop]. An indentation, whose telltale white smudge had long since faded, guided his path to the left. He dared not let go of the wall, for fear of getting disoriented. Though his safety was guaranteed by one tunnel, another might lead to his untimely demise. “[b North] of where the sun rises…” One, two, three, four, five, [i stop]. Silence in his ears. At least he wasn’t being followed, for now.
He continued straight until his fingertips traced another letter. “[b Opposite] the river’s cries.” Another left, into a tunnel with an unsteady, uncomfortably steep decline. The path led out into another small room, this time dimly lit by a single candle in the center, one set earlier in the night. With his vision returned to him, Royland reached for the chamberstick in one swift motion, nearly extinguishing the flame. His step quickened, his free hand shielding the candle. The rendezvous point was near. “Find the image of the Sun’s dear friend…” Blue eyes darted all around the tunnel, searching frantically, until he came to yet another small room. Directly to the right of the tunnel he had just emerged from, was a rudimentary etching of the sun. Yet, to the three tunnels beyond him, there were still three etchings of the moon; one crescent, one half, and one full.
“My Lord, are you sure you wish to mar the path like this?” Alain turned away from his chisel, eyeing the King concernedly. “The siege may be certain, but they cannot possibly—”
“This is the only way…” Royland founded his arms across his chest, eyes cast towards the ground, deep in thought. Alain gulped quietly… It was difficult to see the once happy, young prince in such a state, worried of having his birthright stripped from him. His clothes were simple and unassuming. There was clear evidence that he had been plagued with wakefulness these past few nights as they prepared for their escape. What was usually neatly coifed auburn hair was in a messy, disheveled state.
“You look quite worn… You should rest.”
The men locked eyes, and Royland let a half-lifted smile on his face to ease Alain’s worry. A rare sight, these days. Alain smiled softly in return. “It’s finished.”
Royland headed to the etching of the full moon, directly ahead of him, but set the chamberstick at the path of the etching depicting the crescent. Using what little light was available, he looked above the tunnel before him and jumped to grab the barely visible ledge. With much effort, he managed to pull himself into his appointed hiding place, leaving no trace of himself below. “[b Climb] towards the sky… Clever, grandfather.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] The second guard, Alain, had descended behind her quickly. He was unwilling to leave his companion alone with her, he knew she could be dangerous. Within seconds she was the least of his concerns.
The cellar was darker than the room above, but Sumina didn’t need much light to get an idea of the situation. There were two figures, one with his sword held up and his face twisted in a rage, while the other writhed on the ground in pain.
When Sumina started to move forward she ran into Walter’s arm. He pushed her back behind him. For now he appeared to view her more as a woman than an elf, his posture decidedly protective over her.
Alain was ahead of both of them, so when Davin attacked he was the one to meet him, their blades making a terrible noise when they clashed. Each man had the force of raw, strong emotion in each swing. When the traitor saw Sumina break past Walter’s outstretched arm he took her for an ally of [i his]. She was an elf, so of course she would share his goal. The odds were looking a little more in his favor.
It wasn’t her own strength that got her past Walter, but a little bit of magic. She shifted the stones under his feet with a barely breathed handful of words in her peoples own language. It was enough to throw him off balance and let her pass,”I have to help him.”
All three took that to mean Davin. As soon as he’d regained his balance Walter’s blade was drawn and he bounded after her. Instead of helping Davin with Alain, she rushed past both of them. Davin halted Walter with a swing that made the young man step back,”What in blazes are you doing, girl? Get back here and help me put these dogs down!”
Now Davin was fighting two, and couldn’t afford to look behind him to see what she was doing. The other two could see however, and Alain attacked fiercely when he saw her go to Sirius, sure she was going to finish him off,”Sirius! Leave him alone!”
The two were locked together, neither giving an inch. Aware Walter may take the opening, Davin shifted to let the words fall to one side while he shoved all his weight into Alain. Alain fell back onto a stack of barrels, and the force of the two men was enough to knock the heavy casks over. One hit the ground and split open, filling the cellar with the heavy scent of wine as red liquid spread over the floor to mix with the blood.
By the time Sumina reached the guard that must be Sirius he was a little out of it, but still conscious. His breathing was heavy, blood pouring out barely slowed by his hands. He was losing a lot of blood, and Sumina, now full of adrenaline, didn’t waste any time. She pried his hands away from the wound and pressed her own to the spot, which drew a hiss of pain from the man. “Shhh, just let me help. You’ll be alright. Relax, if you can.”
She disliked violence, but Sumina wasn’t [i squeamish]. When she decided healing would be her primary area of study that was forced out of her. A healer couldn’t heal an injury if she couldn’t even look at it. Panic didn’t help the hurt or sick either. Sumina’s teacher had been harsh on these points, which gave her an ability to keep calm that served her well now.
If Sirius wasn’t aware she was an elf before, he would know once she started murmuring in the Elvish language. Out of either tradition or some other reason, all magic was taught and worked in that language among her people. She never questioned it, quite simply because it worked. The words were simple, saying to mend the flesh, and the flesh obeyed. Under her hands the muscle and skin knit back together. The smell of wine hit her just before the wine did, lapping at her legs and soaking into her dress, staining the white a deep red.
Her hands were slick with blood, but she tried to pull Sirius’s head up and off the wine covered floor,”Can you stand? Are you hurt anywhere else?”
The words were quiet and meant for Sirius, and didn’t reach the three men fighting, who all had no idea what she was doing, but were desperate to either protect or attack her. Walter had tried to attack Davin while the casks were falling, but Davin barely evaded it, only for Walter’s attack to nearly hit Alain, who was struggling to regain his footing,”Watch it! Stop the girl!”
Only now Davin was attacking Walter, keeping him pinned in place. It was also keeping Alain blocked, unable to escape or strike until he took a chance to thrust his blade under Walter’s arm, aimed at Davin’s exposed torso. It was unlikely to connect, and Davin easily stepped away to avoid it. The change in positions was all that was needed, because Walter was able to shift to the offensive while Alain went around them, desperate to get to Sirius and save him from the elf.
Taking a chance that cost him Davin tried to stop Alain one last time. Sword and arms occupied fighting back Walter he sacrificed a little of his footing to try and trip Alain. The guard stumbled, turned, and connected a slash that bit into Davin’s arm. It wasn’t a deep or decisive blow, but it was a small victory. Davin couldn’t fend them both off forever, skilled as he was, and once the elf could no longer help the traitor it would only be a matter of time.
“Murderous—” He stopped short, seeing Sirius was sitting up next to her. He still had his sword raised, trying to figure out what had happened.
Meanwhile Davin had overpowered Walter, leaving the younger man sprawled over a cracked wine cask clutching at a stab wound in his side. He approached Alain from behind, sword in one hand and bloodied dagger in the other. When Sumina had turned, pale eyes widened in fear. Not only for the sword raised at her, but the blades raised at the back of the man standing over her.
From that moment to the end it all happened in a blur to her. With a word of Elvish and a motion of her hand, she directed a rather sloppy spell, splashing wine from the floor all the way up into Davin’s face. Training and instinct warned Alain of the danger behind, how quiet it was, and he’d turned before the alcohol had hit his attackers face. The momentary blindness was all Alain needed to run his blade into the gut of the traitor.
Sumina leaned forward to rest on her hands and knees. Death did not come instantly to Davin. He hit the floor, and Alain set about kicking away any weapons out of his reach. A wounded, cornered animal was still incredibly dangerous. “Why, Davin?”
But Davin was looking at Sumina,”Traitorous little bitch.” As if he had room to talk of traitors. He hissed acrimoniously, blaming her for his defeat,”Can die with the rest of the dogs. They won’t show you any mercy when they catch you licking royal boots.”
Sumina looked away. She didn’t want him to [i die], but he’d tried to kill the other three guards and the king. She looked up to see Walter slump down off the cask. She rose to her feet, while Alain, wound up like a spring and ready for action still, turned his blade to her. She froze, the tension as palpable as the scent of wine, so heavy she could taste it.
“Alain,” Sirius sounded tired, but considerably better. Nothing more needed to be said for the moment. Alain’s sword point returned to Davin and he asked again,”Why?”
Things relaxed slightly, and Sumina went to her work. The same magic that had healed Sirius she worked on Walter, who was now looking at her in awe. “Magic?”
When she finished she nodded,”Yes. Is that all?”
When Walter confirmed that was the extent of his injuries she stood up, using the empty wine cask to steady herself. Walter rose to his feet as well and retrieved his sword before both of them went to stand by the others, to decide what to do with Davin and how to proceed forward. Sumina stayed a few steps back, her arms crossed. She felt uncomfortable, and not able to look directly at Davin. Not because the sight of blood bothered her, but more because he was wounded and there was little she could probably do given how viciously he had fought moments ago. Along with that, the insults did sting a little. She didn’t think of it as betraying anyone to try to stop this, or prevent some bloodshed and death. That was probably how it would be seen though.
The three guards stood in shock for what seemed like ages, catching their breath with the sickly-sweet scent of wine now permeating the room thoroughly. Alain and Sirius took turns glancing behind them at Sumina, and to Davin in the center of them, bleeding through the gaping wound in his torso. The cellar was silent, save for Davin’s labored breathing.
“Well, Sirius…” Walter never took his eyes off the traitor at their feet, “What shall we do with him, then?” The question only garnered a sigh from the young guard, who anxiously gripped his clothing where it had been sliced but minutes earlier. He pulled his hand back, now stained with blood and wine – although which was which, he could not seem to tell.
“Unfortunately, if he is left alive… The King will be in constant danger. Davin is privy to secrets that we simply cannot afford to let into the wrong hands…” Infantry placement, travel routes, supply caches, and not to mention the secrets of other rulers in kingdoms far beyond the borders of Volaire. Any trade, pact, or treaty made or upheld for nearly thirty years… Serving so closely at the side of two Kings while being an Elvish sympathizer… Sirius could hardly believe it.
Alain, while sharing the sentiment and the troubled look in Sirius’ eye, readied his dagger. He at least owed this much to Royland – his actions preceding the siege were commendable. Something his late father would have never considered. Evacuating the innocent? Alleviating taxes? It was simply unheard of. “Sir Davin of Volaire… You have broken the oath that binds you to the King’s crest. You are hereby charged with high treason… And your sentence is death.” Flicking the handle between his fingers, the blade now pointed down. Cautiously, Walter leaned down to expose the now trembling traitor’s neck. “Do you have any last words…?”
Sirius quietly put a hand over Alain’s arm, motioning silently to Sumina. “Perhaps we might also get her opinion…?”
A breathy, aerated chuckle erupted quietly from Davin’s lips, covered in blood. The grip on his wound became noticeably weaker the longer he went on to speak. “You all… are so [i blind]… That child… is just like his father…” A violent coughing fit interrupted him, forcing Walter to remove his hands, lest he get blood on them. “Why… do you think… he let those [i demons] through the… border…? He’s planning to- to wipe you all out…“
An eruption of footsteps up above from all direction startled the occupants in the cellar. ‘To think they would be so stupid as to spill the wine in their hiding place! Under no circumstances do those rats escape us!’ Walter jumped to his feet, “Damn it all… The wine…! Alain, Sirius! You must finish this, now!”
Without hesitation, Alain drove the dagger into Davin’s neck, effortlessly sliding it across and leaving it lodged for the mere sake of saying he got the job done. Much too swift for a man who had attempted to aid in the murder of his own king. Sirius grabbed the sole candlestick in the room. With Walter holding the latch open, Alain jumped first, and Sirius second. “We’ll head off,” Sirius pointed to a now lit chamberstick on the far wall, “Follow us when the woman has made her decision. We’ll leave a light source for you, but if you’re being followed, [b [i leave it]].” After seeing his comrades run off, Walter eyed Sumina anxiously.
“…What are you going to do?”
How long had it been now? Royland closed his eyes and listened. Silence. One of the brief moments of respite he’d had since this ordeal began. To think, what he had intended as a gesture of peace would return to him in the form of a sword aimed in his face. It was obvious some men would oppose his decision – such is the realities of being a ruler. You cannot please everyone who serves under you. But, to think, a stark betrayal had been brewing in Davin’s mind for who knows how long. How many others could there have been?
The King’s brow furrowed. Sirius and Alain, at the very least, he could count on. Though to many on the outside, they may seem to be just his guardsmen, they had always been important companions. The three of them had often been sparring partners, and in their youth, well-known troublemakers to the common folk. Anyone else who made it along the path with them were wild cards, at this point. Who knew how many people Davin had infected with his vitriol?
Royland sighed, exasperated. “Sirius… You had better be—” Distant footsteps forced him cease muttering. Whoever was with him would soon be upon him. He could only hope that they were allies.
Illuminated, the path was but a dirt tunnel, where each step would force one to decide. Continue forward, flank left, or right? Some openings were sheer drops after the first five steps, others booby trapped with spikes, laced with poison or the blood of lepers. Unknown if any of these would serve as deterrents for elves with magics, Sirius and Alain traversed through the designated tunnels with great haste. Down towards the southwest until they reached the Lunar Tunnels.
“M’Lord?” Sirius whispered, cautiously approaching the tunnel of the full moon. “M’Lord, are you here?”
Without hesitating, Royland dropped from his hiding space, eyes wide with relief. “Sirius – by the Sirens, you’re alive.” Looking to his right, a smile formed on his face. “Alain, you bastard.” The atmosphere darkened quickly, despite the happy reunion. The scent of wine wafted into Royland’s nose and his joy soon faded. There had obviously been an altercation in that cellar. Sirius had been wounded, yet where his shirt was torn, there was no visible wound. Alain’s scabbard was missing his dagger, and his sword was not sheathed completely, suggesting some sort of struggle.
“Were you followed? How many men came along with you?” The two guardsmen eyed each other quickly, before Alain chose to speak up.
“There is Walter, but…” Alain sighed, unsure of how he was to explain their…complication. “There’s also an Elvish woman with him.”
“And you [i left] him, Alain!?”
“Royland, please...!” Sirius ended the King’s heated advance with an arm outstretched to separate the two men. “She helped us… She healed Walter and I.”
“She never alerted her people to our whereabouts in the study and… she [i found] the path in the castle walls.” Royland stepped back, glancing to Sirius for confirmation – but it was the first time he had been hearing of it, too, never having a chance to exchange the details of how she came to their aid. “If she should choose as I believe she will, Walter is safe, and our escape is all but assured… We should wait for them.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] That was the question she was waiting for, so tense she could barely breathe. What to do with the man who had betrayed them. Part of her wanted to save him too, but that wasn’t her decision to make. More needed to be weighed than her sympathy for a man in pain.
She couldn’t look at Davin while they decided his fate. She could hear his labored breathing, but willed herself to look at the candle instead. It was easy enough, until she was brought into the conversation. Then she looked at all of them, a little surprised. Her opinion?
Davin’s words were a little different from the ones she heard back home, but the way he said them was unnervingly familiar. Even among his own guards there were those who hated him so much. What sort of man was the king really? She didn’t know him personally, she barely knew what he was supposed to look like based on drawings, often crude. Still, he had welcomed trade with her people. They had more land and were becoming more prosperous than she had seen in her entire life.
There was no more time to ponder things. Their hiding place had been found. The traitor guard's life was ended quickly, before Sumina could avert her eyes. Her teacher had wondered aloud to her several times if she was too soft to be a healer. Those musings came back to her then, while she followed the three guards to the hatch here, which would take them even farther underground.
What was she going to do? Sumina didn’t have to think long, and there wasn’t much time to,”I would come with you all, if you’d have me.”
Walter nodded and motioned for her to jump down first. She sat down first, then took the plunge into the tunnels below. Walter followed quickly, and then he took the lead while she followed closely.
Sumina rapidly realized without a guide she would be hopelessly lost. There were so many branches to take. Not knowing the true path would hopefully slow any pursuers, of which there were bound to be many. With this being most likely the best lead on finding the king they would throw all they had into the search.
“I’m glad to have you with us.” Walter had waited until they were a good ways into the tunnels to speak up, initially listening for pursuers. They had come down the hatch and closed it before anyone had entered the cellar, and no one was immediately behind them. “Thank you. You saved my life. I haven’t asked your name yet.”
He knew the wound he’d received in that fight would have cost him his life. There was no one else in that cellar or even the castle with the skills, time, and willingness to help, save for her. She accepted the gratitude with modesty,”I’m just glad I was able to help. Anyone would have done the same. My name is Sumina.”
“No, they wouldn’t, Sumina.” She couldn’t deny that. He was right, the other elves wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help him. She fell silent while they made their way to the meeting place where Alain and Sirius were waiting already, with a man Sumina knew right away must be the king. She’d never seen him, and the drawings weren’t exactly accurate, but the basic features were there.
All eyes were on her once Walter joined the others. Alain nodded when he saw her,”Here they are. As I said.”
Feeling a little self conscious Sumina crossed one arm in front of her to hold her other arm, and after a moment gave a slightly clumsy curtsy, suddenly remembering there was some sort of etiquette she was probably not aware of and breaking. How did someone greet a king? Was there some proper way when meeting in a secret tunnel fleeing for their lives? No one had taught her that, no one probably expected her to meet him except maybe at his execution. Yet here she was face to face with the man himself, her tongue tied. The reason her brothers sounded and acted so cruelly, the man Davin had betrayed. Sirius, Alain, and Walter seemed loyal to him though, and they had been willing to bring her despite her ears.
“Sumina’s thrown her lot in with us. I don’t think anyone else will make it. They’ll have found the tunnels by now.” Walter explained.
Sumina rubbed her arm. Her arms and hands were sticky with a mixture of blood and wine she was itching to wash off. “They’ll be putting everything they have into searching here. We shouldn’t delay.” The sense of urgency was enough to loosen her tongue a little. After all of that she couldn’t let these four be caught and killed.
His gaze, steely at first, softened when he laid eyes on the demure creature in front of him. Her humble expression made her encounter with his men fortuitous for he and their cause. Delicate hands, stained with blood, had [i saved] his closest friends. Slowly, he bent his knee to her. “I’m eternally grateful… to you… for returning my friends to me…” Sirius, Alain, and Walter followed their King in kind. “I know that our people have feuded for decades, long before either of us were born into the world… Should I live through this ordeal, your kindness will not go unrewarded…”
Though he wanted nothing more than to relax, Sumina was correct. It was imperative that they escape. Now. Standing to his feet, he motioned his companions to the etching of the full moon, hoisting himself up into the crevice once more. With a hardy push, Royland removed a piece of wood, revealing their exit to the outside world. Walking directly into any tunnel would only see their put their pursuers at dead ends. The narrow tunnel above was the only real way out. Sirius, determined not to leave Royland’s immediate side, was the second in. Alain, the third. Then, Walter, who offered his hand to Sumina with a smile on his face.
“Mind your head, M’Lady.”
Once he was off his belly and on his feet, again, Royland walked ahead of the group briskly, eager to thrust himself into the clean, evening air that he could feel coming from the distance. Twenty, perhaps thirty steps, and he stopped underneath the stone archway, listening for nearby shouting, footsteps rustling the grass, and looking for the distant flames of torches. Darkness. Stillness. He motioned quickly to Sirius, who bounded behind him, followed by Alain, and Walter. The foliage surrounding Volaire is notoriously thick, and hard to navigate, but a barely visible footpath had been exposed days earlier by Royland himself, accompanied only by Davin. No matter if he were dead or alive, it wasn’t within his power to traverse the tunnels unscathed. That was one secret that he was careful to impart on only those whose trust he had never thought to question.
Off the path of the river, as to not risk being caught in an obvious path. Along the base of the mountain range, yet not so far that the Elves that owned that land would feel threatened by their presence. No, they needed to travel as far as they could, for as long as they could. “Sirius,” Royland reached his hand back, “Did you bring the rations?” Sirius’ pace slowed, noticeably enough that Royland raised his brow at him. “Er, well…” He gulped. Better to be direct. “Simply, no… Davin put up enough of a fight that it was lost in the shuffle.” Royland huffed, but audibly accepted the reasoning. No matter, now. It would simply mean their stay at the camp would be shortened. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. If they move the following day, they’d arrive at their next destination ahead of schedule, anyhow.
Several hours passed. The sun had just begun to illuminate the skies when a crudely put together campsite came into view. Sirius sighed, jogging ahead to assess the state of it. Rocks meant to encompass the fire were strewn about, and what little wood remained scattered around was rotten, easily splitting under the strain of Sirius’ feet. At the base of the surrounding trees were three tiny wooden spaces, hiding sacks camouflaged by brush. Royland took a seat at the nearest opportunity, having been restless for so long. The fatigue was beginning to catch up with him.
“You all should rid yourselves of the stench of wine… The river is near-by. Take care you aren’t spotted. We haven’t long before the sun rises…” Royland eyed Sumina, “There should be a spare cloak between all of our belongings. Help yourself.” Poor thing had been put through so much for the sake of others who had no attachment to her… He would be sure to free her from the party once they reached the nearest civilization. Walter and Alain, in a discussion amongst themselves, absconded to the river first, leaving Sirius to guard the King and Sumina. Royland had crossed his legs, elbows resting in his thighs, clasped hands holding up his head. His eyelids fluttered slowly. A sigh escaped his lips.
Sirius stayed on his feet, nervously running his hand through his hair, sometimes removing clumps in the process. The surrounding forest was quiet, now, but they didn’t have long. “We’re safe for now, but it would be in our best interest to move as soon as you’ve rested, Royland.” He received a hand waving him off in response. “That wasn’t meant to patronize you. We’ve time enough to wash, discard our clothes, and be on our way.”
“Then it’s a good thing I don’t carry a stench as the rest of you do.” Sirius shook his head, face remaining stern. “It’s a three-day journey to the nearest encampment… A brief passing through of the border of Pimli, no less. It’s another seven days to the nearest town after that. And that will be our first real place of respite.” Sirius slowly regarded Sumina with sympathy. “It’s understandable if you’d like not to travel with us. It’s an arduous journey for—”
“Sirius, you’d best not underestimate Lady Sumina.” Walter emerged from the trees, with Alain close behind. “Remember what she’s made of. She healed us both in the midst of a fight. I do think she’s earned our respect.”
Alain chuckled, “We’ll keep eye on the King and the surrounding area while you wash and change.” He handed her two cloaks, one hooded. “Merely suggestion. Cloaking your hair and ears may do you good in our travels.”
Sirius sighed, pulling at his bloodied and wine stained clothing, “I suppose I can go last… Just like old times, ay?”
Walter took a seat across from Royland, who opened one eye, but otherwise dared not move. “How long are we meant to stay?”
“Just until you’ve all changed. We need to get as close to the border as we can before we truly settle.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] The fact that he had expressed such gratitude surprised her. She didn’t know how to accept thanks like that, and she certainly hadn’t been expecting any sort of reward. All she could do was look at all of the men knelt in front of her and then look away bashfully.
So none of the tunnels was the correct one? She hadn’t even noticed the hidden tunnel above until the king pulled himself up. This would slow down any pursuit for quite a while. Sumina accepted Walter’s hand up with a smile,”Thank you.”
The way out was clear, no one had found it yet. When she saw the shadowed foliage she had expected their way to be difficult, but there was a path for them to follow. The hours wore on while they walked in silence. Sumina kept expecting to hear people behind them. Her people finally catching up. But nothing came, except dawn creeping closer. She was used to walking, but by the time they stopped she was feeling a little tired after not sleeping and walking nonstop for hours.
“Thank you. That would be nice.” Sumina gave a little smile,”I’m afraid I didn’t have a chance to pack.” She sat down as well, knees together and feet to one side. It might not have been much of a joke, but her attempt at humor showed she was still in relatively good spirits given the situation. The night had been difficult and would have irreversible consequences, but it hadn’t broken her.
She was trying to keep calm, but Sirius’s pacing was starting to make her a little anxious too as she watched. He was concerned for her. Before she could object that she would be fine Walter came to her defense.
With a nod Sumina took the cloaks offered and stood,”A wise idea. The less attention drawn to us the better. Thank you, I’ll try not to be long.”
It wasn’t hard to find the river, even though it couldn’t be seen from the camp. At this point the river was wide and flowing lazily. A perfect place to bathe without fear of being swept away. She left the clean clothing draped over a rock, and with a look around out of an abundance of caution got undressed and into the water. It was cold enough to make her shiver. The water wouldn’t make her want to linger, even if she didn’t feel pressed to keep putting distance between them and their pursuers.
The time she took was enough to scrub herself clean of blood and erase the smell of wine. Then she dressed, still shivering. The mens cloaks were large on her, but there were ways to fold and tuck things to fit a little better without needing to cut or sew anything. She managed, even if it wasn’t ideal. The walking and rising sun would warm her soon enough, but when she returned to the camp she was rubbing her arms to warm up in the meantime. She gave Sirius as warm a smile as she could manage,”Your turn now. Thank you for waiting.”
Sitting to rest before they continued seemed the wiser choice, even if it meant being colder for a little while. So she took her seat again, her arms crossed this time. She did have a little time to think on some things. The events of the night and how they unfolded. And here she was looking at the king. He’d obviously known an attack was coming, this escape was too well planned. “The castle was empty because you knew, and sent people away. You prevented a massacre last night.”
So far the king wasn’t anything like the cruel, tyrannical demon she’d heard of. She was feeling some relief in all of this that her faith in him not being as her family described was right.
Upon Sumina’s return, Sirius rushed off to rid himself of his blood-stained and sticky clothing. Alain and Walter chuckled quietly, each flanking Royland before taking a seat to rest. “What shall we call you on the journey?” Walter eyed Royland to make sure he was awake. “Can’t very well have people knowing you’re alive.” Distant towns of common folk were of little concern. It was a very rare occurrence for them to ever lay eyes on royalty. Smaller countries with no treaties or trade agreements who had never met Royland could probably be swayed away from acts of violence. What really worried Royland were those that had been punished or otherwise had a bounty on their head. Anyone brought to the throne room for judgement of serious crimes within the last ten years would surely know his face, and therefore, be a formidable threat.
“My name is just fine. None of that ‘[i M’Lord]’ or ‘[i my liege]…’ For now, we’ve all been stripped of our titles.” It was the best course of action, even after they had passed through the first encampment to confirm to at least a portion of the military forces that he was still alive. There was no way of telling just how quickly information would spread among the Elves. Gaining the human’s compliance would be their largest challenge – but it was Royland’s greatest advantage. Perhaps Sumina might know to what extent they were able to communicate with their surrounding communities. Some cultures often used carrier pigeons, but there was always the possibility that magic bearing creatures had access to familiars. Royland had only ever heard about [i those] in fairytales – but it was worth investigating, nonetheless.
Royland offered Sumina a weak smile at her realization. It was not something he had advertised, nor wanted to use to gain sympathy on his behalf. It was, however, a compliment that she had noticed. He wondered if her brethren bothered to notice, as well. “The last thing I wish is for those that serve me to suffer needlessly…” He had always held that belief. There was many a time that his father ordered men off to enemy territory with the express order not to return. Housekeepers were not exempt from his rampant abuse. They often found themselves on the receiving end of beatings if they did not concede to his demands. The most unfortunate wound up dead, in most cases, and banished in others. “The help is completely innocent. As are a majority of the guards that are loyal to me. A lot were my caretakers and protectors in my youth. I wouldn’t want to see them dead.”
“A King protects his people.” Alain glanced over the group with a serious expression painting his face. “To think they would repay his opening of the land and trade opportunities with an attempt on his life.”
“I watched my father use people for his own gains my entire life. No doubt if he were in my position, every man and woman would be expected to take up a weapon…”
Walter cleared his throat, “Royland is a bit of a swordsman himself. Skilled, controlled, quick-witted.” Alain wrapped an over Royland’s shoulders, winking at Walter, who in turn glanced at Sumina. “Chivalrous, too.” Royland let out possibly the most disappointed sigh of his time alive, eliciting chuckles from his friends. Though it was in jest, he wished they wouldn’t do this in front of someone they had only just come to meet.
“You’ll have to excuse them.” He elbowed Alain in the side, forcing the other to retreat in silent agony. “Hopefully they will [i behave themselves] for the duration of your travels with us.”
Nearly as quickly as he’d run off, Sirius returned, quietly slipping through the bushes, nearly startling Walter who had seen him out of the corner of his eye but had not had time to react. “I’ve made a quick survey of the shoreline, and the surrounding hills. No torches in the distance, silence all around. We’re several hours ahead. Might we rest, M’L—”
“No honorifics…” Alain whispered, still curled up from Royland’s jab.
“Ah… Right.” Sirius corrected himself, “Well, the coast seems to be clear, for now.”
Royland glanced around at the group, all gathered. “Well… Shall we rest or move ahead?”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] No titles, at least for now. That did help clarify, even though she had sort of assumed that revealing who he was carelessly was most likely a bad idea.
The smile that spread over her face at his confirmation of her suspicions was warm and pleased. It was not only a relief but a pleasure to see that he was, in fact, the sort of man who cared for those below his station.
If only her people had been a little more trusting. Their grievances were with the father, and judging from the brief mention of him Sumina doubted Royland approved of his father’s decisions any more than Sumina approved of her family’s participation in the attempt on Royland’s life. It brought a more serious and thoughtful expression to her face, until the two started their teasing of the king.
At that her smile returned, accompanied by giggling. There was real camaraderie in the group, not merely a king and his sworn guards but a friendship. “What gentlemen I find myself with. What will I do?”
They sort of reminded her of her brothers and their friends. Teasing each other and horsing around. It was a bittersweet thought, to see these men and feel at home with them, while realizing she may never get to see her brothers like this again.
Sirius returned, and the news was good to hear. They weren’t in any immediate danger. That didn’t mean they had a lot of time to spare. Sumina was aware that the men were probably concerned about her, and wouldn’t want to push her too hard. While they did see her as at least somewhat capable, Walter had obviously been protective over her and looking after her to avoid bumping her head or tripping, and Sirius had voiced concern over her ability to endure the long trek ahead. She pulled the hood of the cloak up to hid her ears, taking care that her hair was tucked back,”Please don’t wait on my account. If you all are prepared to move on, then I am ready as well. It may be best to keep moving. The more distance we place now the harder it will be for them to track us. Old tracks are harder to follow than fresh ones.”
She was sure that by the time they [i did] stop she would be exhausted, but she didn’t want to be a burden and insist they stop to rest at every opportunity. She didn’t want to be the reason they got caught. Sumina stood up and rubbed her arms again.
The benefits of rest were tempting. Almost unbearably, given their remaining stamina. But rather than resting in the open, a roof over their heads and a meal in their bellies would do them far better. If they could all endure a bit longer, the first leg of their journey would be worth it, in the end. “There’s a lone monastery out ahead of us just inside of the Pimli border. Not much is known about the parishioner that oversees it, but it [i is] known that he offers sanctuary for friendly travelers.”
Simply the mention of Pimli was enough to cause nervous glances amongst the men of the group. While they were effectively moving under the guise of being ordinary travelers, that was also the source of their fears. Especially with Sumina in tow to protect. The people of this landlocked country were originally robbers and rapers, who attacked villages in the surrounding lands to steal women, children, and supplies to ensure their continued existence. Often these villages were too small to warrant response from their respective Kings’ guard. Some victims assimilated to the lifestyle, others relocated, and few learned to adapt. But with growing numbers came a growing demand for food. Since Pimli has no access to tillable land within their own borders (or capable farmers), disturbing rumors had been circulating the last few years that they were resorting to… unsavory methods to feed their growing population.
“Walking in empty-handed may not be the best idea, then – if we [i are] doing this.” Walter said, a frown on his lips. “Any fresh meat that we can acquire on the way may just save us some trouble down the road.”
Alain rolled his eyes, muttering, “We [b are] the fresh meat.”
“Wouldn’t they be just as apt to steal what we carry in, and then slice us up and hang us out to dry?” Sirius piped up.
“[i [b Enough.]]” Royland took in the silence, then sighed heavily. The pushback was expected, but still highly annoying. “Like it or not, our stamina is low. We need shelter, food, and rest. We do more harm to ourselves than good if we do not take this risk. Our [i other] option involves waiting until we reach the guard’s encampment on the other side of the border. I’m not sure about you lot, but I would like to move through the entirety of Pimli in [i one day].” No objections this time. No matter how fierce the fighter, or how great the force, nobody wanted to stop in the middle of Pimli and risk being overcome by those that might as soon steal your women as they would devour your flesh.
Finally, in agreement, Alain spoke, “They won’t be able to pass into Pimli without causing a great disturbance, I suppose… Our sparse numbers and few belongings don’t make us the most desirable bunch. But a pursuing party on [i horseback]…” His eyes widened, half hopeful, half relieved.
“Precisely.” Royland stood to his feet, meeting Sumina’s gaze briefly before turning on his heels to face the dense forest. “Half-starved bandits will turn a blind eye to us once they know search parties will be roaming the outskirts of Volaire.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Pimli. Sumina wasn’t sure exactly what she should believe about the place. Sure, the rumors were terrible, and the place had a reputation even among her people. Then again, the man standing in front of her was proof enough that rumors were not always the truth. Pimli was perhaps not nearly as terrible a place as the rumors.
That internal reassurance was not quite enough to completely ease her anxiety. She made a small nod of agreement under her hood. Being able to pass through the small territory in as short a time as possible, and in broad daylight, would certainly not hurt.
At Alain’s speculation Sumina grew concerned. Not for herself, but for their pursuers this time. Would her brothers be among that group? Or her parents? She hoped not, especially if half the rumors about Pimli were true. When she met Royland’s gaze for a moment, she couldn’t help but look worried.
It seemed that for them to be fortunate, misfortune would have to befall her family and friends. And if her family and friends had their way, these men would die. That was something she couldn’t allow to happen. “They may go around, which would cost them time as well. Whatever they choose, if we can pass through quickly and quietly, we’ll come out ahead.”
As they started walking, she got thinking a little about Walter’s suggestion of bringing fresh meat in with them. It probably couldn’t hurt, but she was no hunter. As for this mysterious monastery, she just hoped it would offer sanctuary. “If we did want to hunt on our way, are any of you skilled and equipped to hunt?” She reached into the hood to tuck her hair back and adjust the fabric. The material itched a little where it rubbed the tips of her ears. “Otherwise I suppose I could keep an eye out for anything edible. Fruits, berries, vegetables, leaves. If you think that would be a good idea.”
This wasn’t [i exactly] like the mountains she called home, but many of the plants were still the same. Not all, but enough that she felt sure she could find at least something to eat before long.
Walter seemed to hem and haw at Sumina’s questions, glancing over to Alain, who turned to Sirius for an answer… Royland turned around to poise an expectant glance at his right-hand man, who was now bowing his head with a deep blush tinting his cheeks. Before he could utter an apology, Royland spoke up for him, “All we have are our daggers and swords…” Sirius seemed to be swallowed whole by the ground in his shame. “Any help you can extend is always appreciated.” Without much else to say, Royland quickened his gait, heading the group off by a few feet, merely an attempt to be alone with his thoughts.
With the darkness of night shrouding their travel, Royland resorted to counting his footsteps as a way to stave off his exhaustion. Two days and, now, two nights of careful preparation and planning – and not once had he been able to come to rest. It was obvious. His stride, usually quick and confidant, was more in line with his companions. He had always been taught to lead. To walk, speak, and think like a King. There should be no one at your side – even your Queen should fall in line behind you. Those who defy you should be cast aside, and those who oppose you should be destroyed. He shook his head to rid himself of the thought, unkempt auburn hair now guarding the pensive expression on his face. All he could do now was carry his pride to the end, preserving his dignity and the lives of his men, until this [i nightmare] ended.
On little sleep and food, they hadn’t made it into Pimli until well into the late afternoon. Although the sun was not yet setting, they were dangerously close to being caught in the dark once more, and still their destination had not presented itself to them. Royland, nearly at the end of his rope, sighed so deeply that it made Sirius visibly bristle.
“…I’m sure we’re almost there.” Any platitudes Sirius could offer fell short of reassuring his friend. Had he not allowed himself to be injured by Davin, and so distracted by the following chaos, they may not be suffering as much as they were in this moment. No, physically, [i he] was fine. Alain was showing some signs of tiredness, but Walter was in good spirits, having been making small conversations with Sumina throughout the duration of their travels. As far as he knew, they were merely talking about the different plants that could be used in cooking… As the group crested a hill, Sirius squinted, then exclaimed boldly, “That--!” Just down below was the welcoming sight of a lonely stone monastery, and the silhouette of an elderly man, tending to his garden nestled behind.
Upon approaching, Royland quietly got his attention, removing his hood. The elder eyed him, studying his features. “…What business do you have here?” He was cautious, understandably, as he dusted the soil from his wrinkled hands. The skin around his eyes never shifted, however, as he looked to Royland. There was no sense of surprise or urgency in his body language or his face. At least, it seemed, he felt comfortable enough to converse with them. That was a start, Royland felt. “We’ve been travelling for some time, and heard you offer respite to those in need. Please, if you have the—”
“I don’t offer sanctuary to bandits. And you all look quite like bandits to me.” One by one, he studied the group, tired eyes resting on Sirius, Alain, and Walter. The men removed their hoods, almost looking ashamed that it took them a moment to ease his suspicions. After a few seconds, he turned, but Royland called out to him. “Please. We’ve not got anywhere else to go. And the sun is setting soon.” The old man looked to him again to decline, but that was when he caught eye of Sumina, previously standing just behind the group, unseen.
“Oh…?” Slowly, he approached her, meeting her gaze for a long while. And, in silence, Royland watched. The monk eyed her face, focusing on the apples of her cheeks, the flush tone of her skin… "Is the woman with child?" Then he turned to Royland, who looked… well, confused, and earnestly so. He glanced around to his men, but their jaw dropped expressions made his face go up in flames.
"I-Is she-!? W-Well, I--!! N-No, I--"
The old man motioned the group inside. “Come. I trust you [i men] will do your part to earn your meal when the time comes.” After exchanging glances, and receiving a shrug from Alain, Royland - now thoroughly embarrassed - followed, holding the door for the rest of the group before shutting it behind him, notably refusing to meet Sumina's gaze in the process.
The inside of the small stone structure was just as drab as it was on the outside. Unassuming, and at first glance, wholly unwelcoming. But as the candles were lit to prepare for the coming night, simply made beds of straw and linen revealed themselves. “Please, rest… Some of you must help retrieve the meals, however.” It took everything in Royland’s power not to let his knees buckle at the sight of the first bed to catch his eye. Slowly, he sat, while Sirius and Walter followed the monk to his cauldron in the next room. Alain glanced at Sumina, waiting for her to decide on a place to rest before making his decision, opposite Royland.
“Finally…” Relief flooded Royland’s expression. Hopefully he could fight to stay awake through the meal. His attention was not assured for much longer after that, however.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] So they hadn’t prepared to hunt. That left them with little to do but walk, and pick anything she spotted near the path. There wasn’t much talking, no one had the energy for sustained conversation. Sumina could see it in the way they carried themselves. After a while things wore on her a little too, but between her occasional finds she shared with them and Walter’s questions it kept her spirits from falling too low as time and the sun wore on. She was always happy to answer a little about cooking, and the best uses for plants, especially when she found something they could nibble on as they walked. It was never enough to fill their bellies, but it seemed to help the mood a little.
It was a relief when all the walking seemed to finally come to an end. It had gotten late enough that Sumina was starting to wonder if they should try and use the remaining daylight to find a place to sleep in the wild. Then there was the humble little monastery. Sumina liked the look of it. The old man who approached seemed to her to match the monastery. Hard, but she suspected kindness, like the building interior was most likely more comfortable than the exterior appeared. One didn’t get a reputation for sheltering weary travelers by being unkind to everyone. But like the stone building, the softer side probably was not always readily apparent.
Sumina kept behind the men while they approached. Just because she suspected he was kinder than he looked didn’t mean she was ready to rush forward and introduce herself. That kindness was not very forthcoming either, he took them for bandits. Perhaps camping was their only option. Only then the man seemed to finally notice her. Sumina met his gaze with a little bit of surprise. She pulled her hood a little farther back, but not entirely off. She was a little concerned over carelessly revealing her ears outside.
The old man looked at her for what felt like too long before asking. Her eyes went wide, and her cheeks already flushed from the long walk turned a darker shade. She followed the old monk’s look to Royland, who was somehow even more mortified than she was. A second later she looked away. An answer of ‘yes’ might have elicited more sympathy, but she was incredibly relieved at the denial. She would have hated to deceive the man over that, not to mention the awkwardness of continuing the lie.
They were offered shelter anyway, and she got the impression it was still because of her presence, even if she wasn’t pregnant. When they entered Sumina chanced a glance at Royland while he held the door. Even with him not looking at her, she could tell the embarrassment still lingered. None of them had expected a question like [i that].
Sumina was about ready to go and help with the food, but Walter caught her eye and gave a little shake of his head and a smile. She returned the smile and looked at the beds. As she expected, simple, but more comfortable than it appeared. Sumina took a seat across and a little ways away from Royland, farther than she might normally have. The hood finally came all the way down and she rubbed the tips of her ears. Her legs felt a little like gelatin now that she was sitting and she sighed,”A chance to rest.”
As tired as she was, she was glad she wasn’t the only one obviously in need of the break. Sumina didn’t want to be the one slowing the group down. If anything though, so far her presence had been a boon for the group. She looked at Royland, who seemed the most exhausted out of the group. “It looks like you could really use the rest. The last few days can’t have been easy either.”
This wasn’t just one insane night and all that walking. He’d spent time preparing, as she now knew. Time preparing an escape, getting as many people out and to safety as possible, and waiting for an attack. That can’t have been a relaxing time. To think, while her family had been preparing for the attack, complaining about this man and his father, saying all the worst things about how selfish he was, he’d been losing sleep seeing to the safety of servants. She lowered her head, only to raise it again when the men returned from the other room.
If the old monk was surprised by her hair and ears, he didn’t show it. Walter was the one to hand her a steaming bowl of some sort of soup. If she had to guess it was probably what she would call ‘anything soup’, meaning anything on hand went into the soup. It was a common enough meal when food got to be a little scarce, as it sometimes did, particularly near the end of winter or when things were being preserved for winter. The soup would just be added to with whatever was found, kept warm over the fire for days at times.
“Thank you.” It wasn’t just directed at Walter, who took a seat opposite her, but at the old monk who was handing a bowl of soup to Royland,”We really appreciate your hospitality.”
Royland’s face perked up at the sound of Sumina’s voice, and although it was still somewhat difficult to hold her gaze for too long, he knew that alienating her would likely make them both feel worse. And so, doing his best to be cordial, he nodded. “It’s my first night of rest as an ordinary man. I think it’ll be well worth the wait…” Without quite realizing it, his eyes began to linger on her. His expression cycled through many emotions at once – concern, curiosity, intrigue, captivation. What was it about her that made her so unlike her family, who sought to parade his head on a spike through the streets of Volaire? She alone had recognized his efforts, and she alone could see his shattered will, stricken by the shame of being ousted from his own home. Perhaps she did not know the intricacies of his circumstances, but that didn’t seem to matter to her. He wondered, why?
“You seem to have bestowed upon us good fortune since we met, Sumina.” Alain chuckled, eyeing Royland, who immediately averted his gaze. It seemed he was caught. But his thoughts lingered. Something was… something was not right here.
Had the food not been retrieved so quickly, he might have had the chance to ask Alain outside for privacy before they settled in for the night. For the time being, however, it was best to keep up his manners. A weak smile came to his lips as he graciously received his bowl of soup, uttering a quiet thank you as the old monk shuffled to his own place of rest, mere steps from the rear door they’d entered through. Glancing at Sumina, he let out an earnest chuckle at her manners. “You may look like bandits, but you are weary and half-starved. Imagine my conversation with the Sirens at the gates when they inquire as to why I turned you away. ” With everyone seated, the next few moments passed in relative silence, filled only with the sounds of the travelers savoring their first meal in over two days, in some of their cases. The smell was as unassuming as the taste, and the only real saving grace was the abundance of root vegetables and tender pieces of meat that had been simmering for some time before being served. Not wanting to seem overly eager in front of the host, the young King made sure to pace himself, never taking part in the small talk of the rest that broke the silence every now and again. One by one, as each meal was finished, he gathered the bowls and carried them to the middle room, beside the pot and fire pit. He dipped a dry cloth in a bucket of clean, standing water, and began to clean – quietly, methodically, his back to the rest.
“It’s the least I can do.”
“I do hope you’ll forgive my assumption earlier,” The monk began, gazing expectantly upon Sumina. “I know not the nature of your connection with [i him], and I know not whether it will end in union. But I do know that the Sirens have crossed your fates.”
“Uhm… All of us?” Alain asked.
The monk thought for a moment but shook his head. “Worry not, my child. Your fates align with theirs just as well. Your place alongside your friends is solidified.” A collective sigh of relief from the men in the room turned into relieved glances all around. Just then, Royland returned to his place on the floor. Try as he might, he could not possibly stay awake any longer.
“About time we got some rest, isn’t it? It’ll be an early morning for us… if we’re to repay the monk for his kindness before we depart.” And once they were done and gone, he would thoroughly purge this “fate” and “connection” nonsense that seemed to bring them so much undue faith in their generous host.
The morning came swiftly. But there were no complaints on Royland’s end, whose mind had calmed considerably with rest. No more memories of his father’s strict teachings, and ingrained negative platitudes when he found himself alone with his thoughts. No inkling of paranoia when he greeted Sumina that morning. No feelings of resentment upon reflection of the monk’s revelation last night. Although he still was not inclined to believe it. Sirius, who had been helping him with a proper hunt using a bow and arrow borrowed from the monastery that morning, continued to attempt to persuade him.
“So you’re going to deny the words of a Siren’s divine messenger? You won’t take them to heart?”
“For the final time…No. I’m not as superstitious as the rest of you.” They spoke in hushed voices, with one pair of eyes to the ground, and the other to the front, watching their prey from afar. A doe not yet in its prime grazed carelessly just downwind from their position. So long as they were careful, it would be skinned and in the monk’s pot by mid-afternoon.
“Then, what of your status as royalty? You don’t think that is the doing of the Sirens?” Sirius looked to Royland in earnest.
“I think my status as King is a most unfortunate circumstance of chance...” Stand. Aim. Steady. Shoot. Sirius sighed. “Crack shot as always, Royland.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina didn’t catch Royland looking at her, but she smiled at Alain,”I’m glad to be of benefit rather than burden.”
She also had a smile for the monk. He did seem as kind as she suspected, taking in weary travelers. Even if he suspected they may be bandits. The meal was plain, but filling thanks to roots and meat. Everything was tender, and while more bland than she was used to the food reminded her of home. That came up in the small amount of talking that came with eating, she mentioned making something similar at home and how the soup was never quite the same twice.
After the meal it was her turn to watch Royland with his back to them, washing dishes. Sumina’s face generally didn’t conceal her thoughts very well, and now was no exception. He was exhausted, but determined to work anyway. She worried a little that he was pushing himself too hard, but at the same time admired that he had such a strong work ethic. She’d heard the nobility were lazy, but Royland was far from it. He seemed to push himself to work harder than those around him, rather than making others do the work for him even though he could easily do that.
“Hm?” Sumina looked to the monk a couple of moments after he started speaking,”Oh. It… I understand.” Though the color of her face gave away that it was still a little embarrassing to think about.
Their fates crossed? Was that why he had assumed that? Her gaze wandered back to Royland. Fates tied together was not something to take lightly. Or to say lightly either. She believed the old monk meant it, but wasn’t sure herself if he was right or not at the moment. She thought back to the events over the last day and night, interrupted from that by Royland’s return.
“Yes. Good night.”
She was probably the least weary of the group, but still found the rest was much needed. Sumina woke in decent spirits, and eager to do some part of helping. She was also very glad to see Royland and the others looking better rested.
A hunt was not the best use of her skills or time, but Sumina insisted on helping where she could, be it cleaning or gardening. She wouldn’t let the monk tell her no, though he tried to say she didn’t need to. With all smiles and a sweet sort of stubbornness she had set about sweeping once the two hunters had gone, deciding cleaning was what she was going to help with. She guessed the monk was probably a decent gardener with well tended plants, but probably didn’t get all the nooks and crannies when he cleaned. She even recruited Walter and Alain to help in moving heavier objects so she could clean behind and under them. The little monastery was cleaned regularly enough by the monk that it was by no means filthy, but was not often cleaned [i thoroughly]. The result was a lot of dirt cleaned out, and in a fairly short amount of time. Not a lot of talking happened, but Walter had made more small talk about cooking and cleaning, asking if she did this sort of thing regularly.
It made her miss her brothers a little to explain that she did, and usually they helped her with the thorough cleaning, like Walter and Alain were doing now. She explained that she did a lot of the cooking for the household, as well as gardening, sewing, and that she studied healing so made medicine. Walter seemed to enjoy getting her to talk more and open up. His genuine interest made her feel more at ease with them all.
When the hunters returned carrying their prize Sumina went to meet them. Sweat made little whisps of hair cling to her face, but the work hadn’t dampened her mood since waking. If anything she seemed more happy and full of energy. “What a catch! Welcome back.”
Sumina’s warm greeting made Sirius’ chest swell with pride. It was obvious only to those that knew him, but it was the first time a woman had acknowledged him so familiarly. “Well, I see we weren’t the only ones working hard.” Both he and Royland heaved a sigh of relief, placing the young doe, already drained of most of its blood gingerly on a stone slab just beside the monastery door. “It’s ready for you, Alain.” Though spirits were high, Royland was noticeably absent from the animated talk of his companions. Sirius relayed the highs and the lows of their hunt, taking enough of the attention away from him and offering him a moment to think. Without a word, he slipped into the seemingly empty interior of the monastery, reveling in the brief moment of silence afforded to him, after Sirius’ incessant nagging about the monk’s words from the previous night.
Fates crossed and fates aligned. Slow footsteps echoed in the stone room; his figure illuminated by the sunlight glinting through the stained-glass windows. There was a time when he may have earnestly believed such things. Before his father died. Before the Elves attempted to overthrow him. But that night had rendered his view of the world in monochrome. What was a destiny or fate to those that had always been considered beneath the Siren’s graces? What made him so deserving of the power, riches, and loyal subjects? Blue eyes solemnly looked to his hands, stained with the blood of the doe. Isn’t that how they saw him? Responsible. The blood on his father’s hands was…hereditary. He knelt to the floor, staring into the same bucket of water he had used to clean their dishes the night previous.
Unable to stand the sight and the smell any longer, he plunged his hands to the bottom…and began to scrub. The tops of his hands, his palms, the wrists, under his nails. Every time he’d pull them out to inspect them, there was a spot, a smudge, some [i minor imperfection] that forced him to try again. And again. And again. And again. Still, they were never clean. Still, it was never enough.
“So hard on yourself, my son.” Royland jumped to his feet, clearing his throat just as the monk shuffled around the corner from the front room. They locked eyes, but the younger man refused to speak, averting his gaze after just a few moments. How could he have been so… “You’re troubled. About what, you need not say.” Slowly, the elderly monk shuffled past him, stopping just before the back door. Royland assumed to check on the status of his helpers outside.
“…You said our fates were crossed…” The old monk looked over his shoulder, but Royland kept his back to him, eyes focused on his feet, fists clenched tightly. “How do the Sirens determine whose fates are crossed…how do they determine one’s fate? I don’t quite believe that Sumina and I are as connected as you believe… Our meeting was one of unfortunate circumstance. Are our fates tied by tragedy? Prosperity? What determines such?” Moments passed, before the monk finally spoke.
“The Sirens gave us the freedom to choose. You would do well to make good use of their gifts to you.” The rear door opened, but it never shut. Royland couldn’t bring himself to look towards the light. Fates crossed and fates aligned. What was it about her? “…Royland?” Quickly, he turned, wide eyes meeting Alain’s confused glance. “I could use some help. Spare a hand and your dagger?” “Ah, yes… Of course…” In the light, Alain could clearly see the color had drained from his friend’s face. “Are you… feeling alright?” Concerned plagued Alain’s face as he gazed expectantly upon Royland’s blank expression. “Did you get enough rest? Perhaps we could stay—” “I’m alright, Alain.” Gently, Royland smiled. “Just… tired from the hunt.”
Tired or not, the extra pair of hands was a great help to Alain. The entirety of the process for the old monk took longer than they may have wanted it to, but it was still only early afternoon once they finished and cleaned up behind themselves. The monk treated them to another serving of soup for the work they had all put in that day, allowed them to cook a few pieces of game meat for the road, and sent them on their way with one of the bows they had used for the hunt. Arrows were easy enough to whittle on their own, and so, they had refused those. Royland was the one who had insisted upon leaving as quickly as possible, much to the confusion of Sirius and Walter, who seemed to make it their duty to pester him for the duration of their walk. “The old monk said it was fine if we stayed another night. We could have moved on early tomorrow at dawn. We’ll be stuck in the dark again, at this rate.” Silence from the King spoke volumes. It was enough to shut Walter up, but Sirius was not so quick to catch on. It was his belief that, with a little prodding, he could garner a reason from his friend. But Royland was unkeen on sharing too much in front of Sumina. No doubt she had noticed his guarded demeanor towards her since they departed. “I simply wanted to keep moving. We’ve all had a night’s rest. Traveling through the night is a much less arduous task for us today.” “While that’s true,” Sirius started, “We’re taking quite a risk, don’t you think?” “It is an equal risk to linger in one place for too long.” “But you’re being—” “[i Sirius.]” Royland stopped, looking back with a strained smile on his face. “Air your concerns [i outside] the Pimli border.” Sirius frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “You’re [i quite] unsociable this evening.” “I’m unsociable every evening,” Royland retorted with a glare. “And you, likewise, are quite the nuisance.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] The familiar routine of dressing a catch while the happy hunter recounted the event was pleasant for her. She listened attentively to Sirius, though Royland’s absence didn’t escape her notice. He wasn’t part of the enthusiastic group, and neither was the monk, for a little while. Then they rejoined to help with the work. It seemed odd that Royland wasn’t the one sharing how things had gone, since by Sirius’s account Royland had made the kill and was skilled with a bow. Something was on his mind, but she wasn’t completely sure what it was.
By the time they left it was clear they would be walking in the dark, but Sumina didn’t question the hurry with which Royland wanted to leave. At first she had thought it was mostly to keep well ahead of anyone following them, but it became clear as they walked there was more to it than that. Something was bothering him. Something besides the people trying to kill him. He’d also been avoiding her again. Keeping distance, and he seemed more on edge when he [i did] look at her.
[i Boys]. The age didn’t matter, boys would still fight. Sumina couldn’t help the small sigh as she listened to Royland and Sirius argue. They fought like brothers. Blood or not, and regardless of status, they were brothers.
Sumina kept walking past them. Her eyes lingered a little longer on Royland before she passed by. Why did he keep pulling back from her? He would seem to get more comfortable, briefly, and then retreat. Had it been the monk’s talk of their fates? Her own reflections made her believe there was something to the monk’s words. Whether fated to meet or not, by following him she did feel her fate was now bound to his. The idea of [i union] though, that seemed a little too far fetched. No, she was sure they were bound in much the same way as the others were bound to him. Because they chose to help him, to protect him. Or was he more bothered by her heritage than he initially seemed? Either her being an elf, or the fact that her family was still actively trying to kill him.
She only noticed Alain when he came up beside her. She looked over at him. He looked at her with concern. “They argue like my brothers.” Sumina stated. Then after a moment, and a glance back to see that the others were still far enough behind, she asked softly,”Something is obviously bothering him. Is it my… background? The idea of having his fate crossed with someone like me? I wouldn’t hurt him, or any of you.”
“Oh no. It isn’t [i you] that’s bothering him. Not really.” Alain assured her quickly. She didn’t have to ask what he meant, her questioning look was enough. What did he mean it wasn’t [i her]? Alain had some suspicions, given the king’s history and some of the looks he’d caught him giving Sumina. The guard continued slowly, choosing his words carefully,”There was a girl, once. A political match. Things did not end well. I probably shouldn’t say more. I don’t believe he thinks you’re a threat though. None of us do.”
They hadn’t known her long, but in that time she had directly saved two of them from mortal wounds, and been nothing but kind and helpful. Sumina smiled, but that was where their conversation ended. When they looked forward again they could see houses in the fading light. Alain grabbed her arm to pull her back as he stopped. “Royland? About risks we might take. One looks to be ahead of us.”
Royland stiffened as Sumina passed by him. They locked eyes. And in that brief moment, she exchanged her concerns, and he…. He exchanged his reluctance to acknowledge them. It wasn’t feasible for her to know his reasoning, and if he could avoid it, he would never give her the opportunity to know. Walter ended Sirius’ incoming retort by guiding him onward with a hand to the shoulder, effectively separating the two.
“Now, now…” An uncharacteristically icy glance was pointed in Royland’s direction, to which he didn’t take too kindly. “You’re an open book. Try not to let it get to you—”
“And why should I take that from [i you]? Or any of you?”
Walter only shook his head, determined not to get involved. “I’m not here to lecture you.”
Alain’s voice calling his name spurred Royland to advance to the front of the group, in awe at how little separation there was from their path to the small town in front of them. A shanty town, whose homes were cobbled together using the wood of the villages they pillaged. Every home or business lacked a level of professional woodworking that was present in the towns of countries with infrastructure. They weren’t made with simple driftwood or discarded and abandoned pieces of property scattered throughout the lands. They definitely were not purchased or brought to Pimli by legitimate means. Even if they were not prone to devouring the flesh and bones of those that lived in the villages they pillaged, there was no getting around the fact that their civilization was built upon their ashes. Royland made the executive decision to continue on, in the hopes that any confrontations they might have could be settled…quietly. Truthfully, shamefully, he wanted to get as far away from the fresh hurt of Walter’s disapproving glance. The way he confidently made turns and pivots through the sparse town roads; it was almost as though the King had walked the streets of Pimli before. Without words, his entourage followed him, hiking their hoods over their faces, carefully shielding them from curious onlookers. Women and children with filthy bare feet – Men with distrusting scowls upon their faces. Some looking leerily in Sumina’s direction, much to the chagrin of the women in their company.
Not one step into the tavern, and they were met with a sight that forced the group to put their backs to each other, positioning Sumina in the center of them. “Well, look what we have here. That formation… What are four of the Kings’ guard doing so far away from home, in the dark?” A burly, balding man stepped forward, sauntering confidently towards the group. His underlings eyed the group from their seats – one, two, three, four – five or six, maybe, by Royland’s count. With eyes at least a head above the young King, he easily spotted Sumina’s slender figure at the center of the circle. “And look at [i that]. An Elvish [i woman.]”
“You’ll avert your eyes if you mean to keep the both of them.” It was almost too much for Royland. While he was never a staunch believer of the rumors about Pimli, he wasn’t about to give them a single inch of opportunity to make a fool of him, much less hassle Sumina. Fates crossed or not, he knew for certain that she did not deserve any undue attention. “We’re just passing through.”
A skeptical look washed over the opposing group’s leader as he sauntered over. Still, Royland never broke eye contact. In fact, the glare on his face seemed to grow ever darker with every word spoken to him. “You fancy yourself a fighter, eh…?” Silence. Then, to his surprise, the larger man in front of him began to smile rather… ominously. “You give me something of value and I won’t let you piss your life away in a mere squabble with me.” Eagerly, he eyed Sumina, focusing on every inch of her body as his tongue passed over his lips.
“What’s that [i woman] worth to ya…?”
Walter jumped in quickly, sensing their worsening situation. Like one could smell coming rain – a storm was brewing in Royland. He wanted to unsheathe his sword and behead the uncouth opposition without hesitation. Thank the Sirens that Sumina could not see that frightening expression on his face. Akin to that of a demon having been unleashed from a century’s old seal. “There’s well-bred horses being used by a squad of our pursuers.” The bandit leader raised his brow, intrigued. He asked them, what it was they had done to warrant being pursued on horseback. Walter explained, falsely of course, that they were deserters. They had stolen their weapons from the castle and ransacked a portion of the treasury. He produced a small pouch of emergency provisions with Royland’s family crest adorning it in elaborate stitching as proof, only to have it snatched from his fingers for “insurance,” they were told. Try as they might to emphasize the importance of their departure, the only agreement that could be made was the insistence that they stay the night. If this so-called search party were truly out for their blood – if they were truly riding expensive, well-fed horses, and if they might be prepared to pay in exchange for their lives, then the group was worth keeping ‘round.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] The town made Sumina uncomfortable, but not because of the cobbled together appearance. That had not struck her as indicating anything but poverty. No, what made her steps quick and kept her hood drawn to hide as much as possible were the looks that lingered. From most she didn’t get the impression of a kind heart under a stony face like with the monk. Royland seemed to know the way, or at least was as reluctant to stop on the streets as she was. She hoped they could pass through without any difficulty. Continuing at night seemed preferable to staying in this little town.
Her first sign of any trouble was the fact that they all moved to keep her at the center of a little ring while they all faced out. Only then did Sumina manage to peer around to see the man coming toward them. He was tall, much taller than she was.
It wasn’t hard to catch on to what he wanted, and the way he eyed her actually made her a little afraid. She crossed her arms and with a shuffle of her feet inched a little closer to Royland’s back. It didn’t offer much cover from his hungry look.
The story that was spun surprised her a little. The story wasn’t very close to the truth at all. Besides that, the emphasis seemed to be more on the horses than an attempt to have the pursuers eliminated. Slowed, yes, but spared if they parted with the horses. Horses they had stolen in the first place.
Sumina remained silent through the negotiations, such as they were. It was obvious they didn’t have much leverage. The promise of good horses seemed to be just enough to get them a relatively safe place to spend the night, but no chance for immediate departure.
That left only the decision of where they would stay. Even that was out of their hands. A man volunteered to take them, along with his brother. The way the two men looked Sumina over from head to toe, they weren’t doing this out of some kindness or concern. They certainly weren’t very interested in housing the men, but their party did manage to insist on staying as a group. It was probably better than staying with the leader, given how tense things had gotten between him and Royland. If they stayed with him, it would no doubt turn into a fight.
The men were both scruffy, with unkempt hair and beards growing out more from lack of care than anything. Their clothes were worn and patched, but the weapons on their belts were well cared for. The home they took the group to was much the same as the rest of the village, slapped together without much skill. The door was wedged too tightly and needed to be forced open. The older brother, a little grey just starting in his hair and beard, entered first,”Oi! Fetch us some drink. Make it quick.”
The woman who was hollered for could be heard getting things from the other ‘room’, which wasn’t so much an entirely separate room as a space sort of blocked from view by a huge shelf. When she emerged with two cups, Sumina’s heart broke seeing her. She was a short woman, as filthy as most she’d seen in the town with a threadbare dress and no shoes. The quick way she moved looked more afraid than anything, and the reason why was as clear as the old bruise on her cheek, already mostly yellow and green. She kept sneaking curious glances at Sumina and the rest of them, but didn’t voice any question as she gave a cup to first the older brother, laid back in a chair with his feet propped up on the table, made of slightly warped wood, then the younger brother still standing near the guests.
It was the younger brother who gave the next order,”Get some drink for our guests too, make it fast. Come sit down.” He added, motioning for the group to come in. He wasn’t looking at any of the men, but instead Sumina who was still in the loose center of the group.
There weren’t very many seats. The table only had four chairs, one of which had the backrest broken off leaving splintered wood sticks, making it an uncomfortable choice. Then there was the floor, which was at least wood but not skillfully laid, so there were cracks between the planks. Off to one side of the room was some bedding, but no bed. Sumina opted for the floor rather than take one of the few chairs. Once she was seated the younger brother took the nearest chair and tried to scoot it as close as possible to her. That was why he hadn’t sat right away. The guards didn’t let him get too near to her, which was a relief, they sat around her.
Sumina was trying to ignore him, and not let on about how uncomfortable she was in the situation. She wasn’t doing a [i very] good job hiding it. When she happened to look at the older brother and his unabashed staring she looked away quickly. The woman had returned, carrying two drinks which she handed to a Royland and Alain, then left to come back for Walter and Sirius’s drinks before finally bringing Sumina hers. The cups were whatever they had, and not all were even cups. Sumina was given a chipped clay bowl, which she accepted with a quiet thanks to the woman. Out of politeness she took a sip, and right away started coughing and made a scrunched up face. Whatever alcohol it was tasted strong and terrible, she couldn’t even tell what it was made from, just that it was some dark amber color. Obviously homemade, but not very well. She’d tasted far better home brews. The brothers found her reaction hilarious, and started laughing. It was possible that was what they were hoping for by offering a drink.
“Delicate little thing, ain’t she?” The older one took his feet down to lean forward, grinning at Sumina. Sumina narrowed her eyes slightly. Though she looked away, still uncomfortable with their looks, she took another sip and forced it down. It burned, but she didn’t complain. She didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing how scared she really was. If they decided to stop playing games and just take what they wanted, she doubted the five of them were enough to take on a whole village of bandits. Her response seemed to amuse them more. The younger brother looked to Royland with a grin,”I’d take her off your hands for the night.”
The part about the horses was true. The elves had taken what they wanted from the castle, including the horses in the stable. Well bred, well fed horses loaded with supplies and put to work in an attempt to catch the king that had slipped from their fingers. While Aildiun and his wife Saida stayed, as the new king and queen, along with their eldest son Ayre, they sent two of their sons to lead the search party since their daughter was also missing, in the hope that they might find her.
“I still can’t believe you lost her, Tarron.”
The criticism from his older brother was grating on Tarron’s nerves. Ever since the search of the castle had come up with no king [i and] no Sumina no one had quite let it go when talking to him. Especially Aias, who was in the search party with him to find the king, and Sumina if she’d gone this way. “I can’t believe you’re still on about that. She ran off. She’ll turn up. Probably went crying home.”
Aias snorted,”Or got kidnapped. Or killed. We don’t know, because [i you] were supposed to watch her and didn’t.”
“Maybe you should’ve watched her then.” Tarron was still bitter about getting stuck watching her on the night of the attack.
“Shut it, both of you. Fight when we stop, or at least get past fucking [i Pimli]. They’ve got a death wish coming here...” One of the men behind grumbled, sick of the two brothers fighting, and uneasy about being this close to Pimli.
“We could turn back. They wouldn’t survive here anyway. King came this way, he’s as good as dead, yeah?” Another spoke up, also eager to get away from Pimli.
Aias glared back at the others. He and his horse in the lead, the others lined up behind him,”Not good enough. We need a body to bring back, or at least part of one. And what about my baby sister?” He glared at Tarron, who felt ashamed enough at that point to look away,”Mother and father will never forgive you if she got killed out here. Or if [i anything] unfortunate happened to her. We keep going.”
After that they continued in silence for a while, not stopping when the light started fading. They had some distance to close, afterall. The sooner they caught up, the sooner they could return and celebrate.
Their lack of argument wasn’t enough to keep them from being spotted. Horses were pretty conspicuous, even in the dark. Especially when horses were what were being looked for.
For someone who was attempting to convince themselves that they weren’t bothered by the incessant attention Sumina was drawing, Royland felt an overwhelming responsibility towards her from the moment she had huddled into his back for protection in the tavern. Each look that she caught was met with one that forced all wandering eyes to find their jollies elsewhere. Some stared anyhow, convinced they could take him in a fight. Four men against an entire town of cutthroat criminals, from thieves to rapers to murderers, sounded like an unfair fight. But even if it came to that, Royland was determined to come out victorious.
If it was one thing the King so greatly despised, it was being made a fool of. Yet, here he was, the King of Volaire, whose family name and crest had ruled his familial lands for the past century, and he was being badgered about a night with his supposed bedwench by a man who likely hadn’t taken a proper bath since his last pillaging. Ridiculous. Assuming for the moment that they had any such worth between any of them, it was doubtful that Sumina would ever agree to humor them. No, she had far too much dignity for that – Royland could simply [i tell]. She was bound to royalty, after all. It was the least the Sirens could do, was make her act like it. Without necessarily meaning to, and in the middle of Walter’s interjection, he reached behind him and took Sumina’s hand in his. What was she worth to him? Asinine question. One that his father posed to all manner of nobles when he was looking for his next bedwarmer. How much, what are your terms? Was there such value to be placed on a living, breathing creature? She was not simply a commodity to be sold, passed around, and exchanged as the men of Pimli damn well pleased.
[i [b She’s mine.]]
The path to their host’s home was arduous. Not in length, but as a test of mental fortitude. Not one of them dared speak, except to utter a thank you when handed their cups. Royland caught the worried glances of friendly faces as they held their drinks in hand, served in what ever could be found around the “home.” Sirius took an uncomfortable seat in one of the chairs, shifting uncomfortably, praying for no splinters to come away in his arse when he was to stand back up. Sirius stuck close to the door, keeping a watchful eye on the entirety of scene unfolding before him. Walter took the second spare seat and attempted to shield Sumina from the advances of the younger brother. Reluctantly, Royland let go of Sumina’s hand when she chose to sit on the ground. The King would remain standing, unable to stifle the disgusted look on his face when faced with the imagery behind the younger brother’s words.
Fear, uncertainty, jealousy, hatred. Pure, white hot, blinding fire sparked behind his eyes for just a second. The older brother, who had seen it from a distance, turned white as a sheet. A hand reached out to the younger brother’s collar, and Royland brought him close. “Should I slit your throat and hang you to dry like a fresh cut of meat now, or shall I remove your fingers, in the event you attempt to touch her?” Alain, who had taken a sip of the rancid mead, could barely contain the drink spewing from his lips. The shock of a brazen threat forced the room into silence. Yet all that Royland could focus on was the slow, deliberate beat of his heart, reminding him that he was… [i alive]. And so long as he was alive, he would get his way. The Sirens be damned. “I alone have the right to lie beside her in bed. You will only receive that right when I take my last breath on this Earth, and when the only thing that shall remain of me are the embers from my funeral pyre. She belongs to [i me].”
It wasn’t long after that, that Walter, Sirius, and Alain convinced Royland to release the younger brother from his iron grip. His point now made clear, there was little else to do except to turn in for the night. Somewhat expectantly, the group was beyond restless. As were their hosts… Thankfully, the imbeciles decided to cart their slave maiden off to the tavern to have her make them money, leaving the group on their lonesome inside their prison for the night. The men huddled themselves in a semi-circle, leaving enough room for Sumina if she was to join their discussion on what to do next.
“Well… Here we are…” Walter, now convinced the mead was simply poorly made and not poisonous, began to sip his portion quietly in the hopes that it would calm his nerves.
“That was exhausting.” Sirius sighed, tracing his finger over the gaps in the poorly laid wooden floor.
“Imagine if we allow that search party to catch up to us.” Royland pinched the bridge of his nose between his index finger and thumb. The embarrassment of his words were beginning to catch up to him; it hurt head, making it ache in deep, familiar ways. Somewhere along the line, he would have to explain to Sumina that he only said what needed to be said in order to rid the brothers of their impure thoughts. A part of him hoped he simply would not have to explain. And yet… Was that conviction with which he spoke – was the pain he could feel in his chest – all for show? “If they show up near Pimli tonight or in the morning, we need to have an escape route ready.” Their normal route took them too far out into the open. An alternate route was now their top priority. If only they hadn’t snatched their belongings. Sirens only knew no one in Pimli had access to a map of the surrounding terrain.
“Cap’ain, you sure we can trust those travelers?” The bandit leader never averted his eyes from the dark forest ahead. Silence was his subordinates only response, for now. Of course he wasn’t sure if they could be trusted. Truth be told, he didn’t want them to be right. Only then could he kill them and claim that girl all to himself. Not only was she much more beautiful than all the women they had nabbed from any village in the past month, her hair, eyes, head, fingers and other parts would sell for a great price on the black market. But before doing away with her, he would have his way for as long as he saw fit.
“Well, they did ‘ave the King’s crest on that bag… Can’t be all untruth.” Another spoke from the shadows. A small torch was lit, waved, and quickly extinguished in the distance. “A trap ‘as been laid where they told us to wait, Cap’ain. If they do got horses, we’ll be ‘earing ‘em before we see ‘em.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] It had struck her as a little odd that Royland was so willing to not only protect her but hold her hand. Odd, but welcome. The physical touch was somewhat reassuring, soothing a little of her anxiousness. When he did let go, there was a reluctance to let his fingers slip away from hers, but she wasn’t going to cling to him like a frightened child.
Royland’s sudden defense of her came as something of a surprise. Mostly because of the intensity. It nearly made her choke on the mead she was trying to politely drink. Drinking merely to prove that she [i could], and wasn’t so delicate that she couldn’t drink their bad moonshine. There was a fierceness in him. Under the regal restraint he normally held he was a deeply passionate person, and had a temper. While the other three convinced him, Sumina lightly rested her hand on his back, her palm between his shoulder blades. A silent attempt to let him know these men weren’t worth it. Her voice was a little lost in the tense atmosphere, which only lessened a little when the younger brother was released. She didn’t let her hand linger long, though it [i was] tempting to. After only a few seconds she withdrew her hand and stepped away.
Sips of awful mead couldn’t really hide the slight flush in her cheeks. What exactly had he meant about [i him] laying in bed with her? The last words were practically ringing in her head. ‘She belongs to me.’ But what did he [i mean] by that? She didn’t get a lot of time to mull it over. The brothers decided to leave the stifling room to head to the tavern. Truthfully she was relieved to be rid of them, at least for a while, but she felt such pity for the woman. She had watched her depart with obvious distress. Sumina couldn’t do anything to help the woman.
Now that they were alone they were free to plan. Sumina joined the group, bowl of mead still in hand but without the brothers there to prove a point to she was much less interested in actually drinking it. The search party… she wondered who would be in it. How many faces she would know. It was probably best if she never found out.
Sumina could feel the awkwardness in the room. No one wanted to address what Royland had just said. When she looked at him, he was looking away from her in a way that felt deliberate. All that, and now he seemed evasive again. Sumina’s gaze lowered to the floor. An escape route would be wise, she agreed,”We may need a quick escape. I know there were good trackers among them, at least one will have been sent to look for us.”
Working from memory the men started to hash out plans for ways to escape and get to the encampment that was their goal. It sounded like the encampment was close, but Sumina knew the search party was probably even closer. And getting closer while the bandits no doubt set up their trap to take the horses. Sumina tried to pay attention to the planning, but was a little distracted. Both with concern for the search party getting closer and with trying to half puzzle out what Royland meant. And every time she chanced a glance at him he was looking anywhere but at her.
Eventually she stood up and excused herself, saying she’d take a look at the streets nearby, and maybe try to find a little something for them to eat. She went to the door, obviously intending to go [i alone]. Walter, Sirius, and Alain quickly exchanged worried glances. She could not be left to wander [i this] town alone. Walter was quick to volunteer to go too, saying he could do with stretching his legs anyway.
That took care of keeping Sumina safe from wandering eyes and hands. After forcing the door open Sumina and Walter shoved it closed and started walking. At first it was a quiet walk. Sumina was thinking. Surely he didn’t really mean to share a bed. Unless maybe all five of them would? That might be safer, but it didn’t sound like safety from having their throats slit was the only thing he was thinking about. Yet despite that, when things cooled he would avoid her.
It was probably good they went on this walk. The layout of the streets wasn’t very well planned, and makeshift walls and fences separated boundaries in odd ways at times. Knowing where dead ends nearby were was going to help if they needed to leave fast. It was a good thing that Walter came too, because every now and then there was someone lurking and watching, who may have approached if she were alone. But with Walter beside her, they kept to looking only.
Eventually just thinking silently was too much with Walter right there, watching her out of the corner of his eye. Walter wasn’t even making the usual attempts at small talk. “I just can’t figure out if he wants me here or not. At times he can’t seem to stand the sight of me. I suppose it’s understandable, after everything happened, for him not to want an Elf around. Not just any Elf either, my [i family] is… So why should he want me here? But then I’m [i his], and, and,” Sumina made a vague gesture with her hand. She was getting a little upset, having kept as tight a lid on it so far as she could,”You know. It’s almost like he [i does] want me, but then… It’s like he remembers who I am. What I am.” Sumina had stopped walking, having gotten worked up enough she looked like she might cry. She hadn’t even realized just how much this was bothering her until she started talking.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
The silence was almost as uncomfortable as listening to the brothers argue. Almost. The others were still somewhat relieved the bickering had stopped. They’d be glad to get out of Pimli, but the tracks they were following led ever deeper into the territory.
The King, or former King, had obviously thrown caution to the wind in some desperate bid to escape. They were still hoping to find him alive. All of them were thinking how satisfying it would be to drag him back to the castle and humiliate him before killing him. Publicly, of course. They’d be able to properly bask in glory then, instead of dragging back a rotting corpse and getting a pat on the back for their success.
Pimli was no doubt a dangerous place. They knew that, but even with their guard up they were in a hurry to catch up to their quarry. Perhaps it was that rush, or just that the bandits of Pimli were skilled at what they did do, but they didn’t see the trap until it was sprung. They came to a halt, surrounded on all sides. Their hands went to weapons, but their attackers were ready. They hadn’t drawn blood though. No, the horses were to valuable to senselessly injure in a fight if it could be avoided. Aias was taking count of the ambush. Too many. If they lost men now, they may be too weak a force to overpower the King and whatever guard he did have with him. Aias looked to the nearest bandit with narrowed eyes,"Let us pass. We have urgent business."
Although initially silent, Walter was quick to face Sumina, hands on her shoulders to steady her shaking frame. Her tear stained face was the last thing he wanted to explain to Royland – but it was also the last thing he wanted to see. Her troubles were understandable. Royland could be such an open book, but as quickly as those pages were exposed to the world, they seemed to be wiped clean. Anything to keep everyone guessing. Anything to protect himself from what he perceived to be imminent heartbreak at every turn. A sensitive soul with nonsensical methods. Walter sighed.
“Lady Sumina… If it is one thing that I know about Royland, it is that I know he holds no ill will towards you or your family for who they are.” Slowly, he released her from his gentle handling. “After all, would he have let [i me] accompany him, knowing that the Elves would assuredly overthrow him?” Walter smiled, hoping that his implication was clear. He was far from a full-blooded Elf, in fact, he could not speak their language, he could not mend flesh, nor use magic, and wasn’t familiar with their culture. His family did not even receive a dried meat recipe – though they are so often passed down from generation to generation, from what he understood.
“My grandmother…” Walter explained. “I never met her. She was killed when the Elves were forced into the mountain range nearly fifty years ago. My grandfather survived, with his son. My father. Who married a human woman, who then gave birth to me.” He searched Sumina’s eyes for any hint of lingering uncertainty. Eventually, he went on to explain how Royland came to know of his secret. It was originally the naïve question of a child who did not understand that not everyone was bred from royal lineage. It resulted in a friendly rivalry throughout their childhood, grew into a healthy respect for one another in adolescence, and culminated in a lifelong friendship in adulthood. At every moment where his abilities might have been questioned, or he was mistreated by the occasional old countrymen that had known his grandfather, Royland quickly came to his rescue with reckless abandon. Often using language unfit for a prince, but always with earnest motives. Though he had grown to be less honest with himself and his feelings as time went on, in an attempt to not be considered weak by his adversaries, the content of his character remained.
“If his… [i display] earlier was any indication… He wants you by his side. Think of how he never stopped to question your saving of myself, or Sirius. How he never questioned your accompanying of us… I would give him some time.” It was probably the last thing Royland would want exposed. But Walter simply could not stand idly by, while his actions harmed the feelings of another, who didn’t know him well enough to ride out the stormy seas of his past. “There are many things about him you have yet to find out… Perhaps once you do, all will become clear. Until then, Lady Sumina… Won’t you please take care of him?”
The crude door made an echoing crack – once as it opened to the quiet evening air, and another when it shut. As if he was waiting for Sumina’s departure, Royland let out a sigh of… relief? Sirius and Alain eyed him harshly, waiting for the footsteps outside to recede before they laid into him.
“She’ll grow impatient if you continue to treat her that way, Royland.” Sirius founded his arms across his chest. More than that, he had a separate issue with his earlier declaration. “First you denounce the idea that your fates are tied, then you claim her as your possession.” Royland winced.
“Not only that,” Alain began, “You avert your eyes at every chance you get. What is it that you’re afraid to see if you look at her?” Silence. Royland would continually refuse to answer, despite being prodded. Every beat of his heart seemed to come ever quicker. Royland’s ears grew hot as he continued to replay the words he had so carelessly, damn near shouted to the heavens above and all that would listen. More importantly, what was that voice echoing in the back of his mind? That primal urge he felt to compete at the sight of any man who dared showed a vested interest in her. The King of Volaire, surely, had no reason to feel insecure.
Sirius was the first to speak after a long while. “…She’s nothing like Lenoir.”
“Sirius, [i [b do not]]--…”
“It’s the truth! Lady Sumina is honest and kind… She was never interested in using us for her own selfish gain. From the beginning, she was on our side. Even when you were proclaiming the right to her bed in the eyes of uncivilized brutes, she offered comforts to you. Yet you treat her as though she’s a bother.”
“[i Enough.] I won’t hear it anymore—”
“[i With all due respect,] Royland. You’re no longer King, for all intents and purposes.” Alain, in Royland’s humble opinion, seemed a bit too eager to make that point known to him. But he was right. They were both right. In the haze of memories, of a thought that hadn’t crossed his mind in a long time, was the image of woman with flaxen hair. She smiled, soiling her dress as she knelt in a field of flowers. In the next recollection, she was speaking to a shell-shocked Royland, dress on the floor, hand on his chest. Flustered, he left the room, angrily approaching his father in the next moment, who seemed disappointed that his son had not taken the opportunity so carefully laid out for him.
Shaking his head, Royland retreated to the confines of his mind, much to Sirius and Alain’s dismay. Try as they might, they could not get another unnecessary word out of him. It wasn’t until Sumina and Walter would return that he would voluntarily speak aloud again that night.
In what little light was left at dusk, the bandit dared not take his eyes off of Aias until the burly leader arrived. With a toothy grin, he confidently approached his prey, fantasizing about the pound of flesh that would soon be on his butcher’s block.
“You? You got business in Pimli? And what is the nature of said [i business]?” He didn’t need a response. The answer presented itself immediately. The ornate embroidery of the saddles, and even the reins were engraved with the emblem of the King. But… “Didn’t know the King employed Points to search on horseback.” A member of the search party seemed to bristle at the casual, derogatory remark. All the more ammunition for the bandits to use.
Taunts from the forest came almost immediately, filling the air, and carrying to what part of the city they could reach, eventually drawing reinforcements. “Elves ain’t welcome in that castle, as far as I remember… Let alone the stables… So, you’ve stolen something from the King as well? Brave bastards. But, unlucky. Someone sold you lads out… And we’re takin’ all you got.”
Six bandits flanked each man and steed, aiming their weapons to force them to dismount. Slowly, and without undue trouble. If they were to keep their lives, they would comply. The first steed free was quickly mounted by the one that would deliver the cry signaling spoils to the rest of the town.
“You let them know we’re eating good tonight! Guess those thieves were telling the truth!”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Let Walter? But Walter wasn’t an Elf. Her initial confusion had quickly turned to realization. He was [i part] Elf. How? He answered without her needing to voice the question. And Royland [i knew], and was fine with it. At some point while the conversation continued, after she had been calmed, they continued to walk. Sumina mostly listened, turning the trip from planning an escape to foraging for food. Especially when she led them towards the edge of the town, their presumed eventual destination. Sumina occasionally paused the talking to make note of something, or to use magic to catch something up in a tree.
She did have a few questions for Walter while they gathered what they could, and found out that he didn’t really learn any of the culture. That seemed a little sad to her, that he was missing out on all of that. [i Display] was one way to put what happened back there. She couldn’t help but grow a little more bashful thinking back to it. Was that what he’d meant? Posturing to keep their hosts away? But he’d been so genuinely furious. Like he’d spoken without thinking first. But surely he didn’t really mean to want in her bed, did he? That was one big question still unanswered. Walter certainly couldn’t explain what Royland had meant when he said that, only Royland could.
“Of course.” Sumina gave Walter a little smile. “I don’t intend to abandon him. Any of you. Not while I can still help, and if that help is wanted.” That was the only thing. She didn’t want to overstay any welcome, or make things worse. “We best head back and cook what we have. It won’t be anything fancy, but we won’t starve.”
With her skirt held in one hand to make a little pocket she had placed several edible plants and herbs she’d found. The couple of squirrels she had used magic to snare in a tree, then dropped down, dead, she had requested Walter carry for her. Not much of a hunter herself, but she could put a little meat on the table. She obviously hadn’t taken any real pleasure in the task, but it was something that in her opinion had to be done. They were going to need their strength, and that meant as much food as she could get.
When they returned Walter forced the door open for her. One more matter to settle. He looked right at Royland,“Come help me with these, would you?” He held up the squirrels, dangling by the tails.
“It isn’t much, but we’ll have a little something to eat tonight, at least.” Sumina explained with a smile. She had first glanced to Royland, the concern only partly hidden by her smile, and then quickly looked away. Something was bothering him. If not her, then what? With her skirt still bunched she went ahead to look through their hosts mess of kitchen supplies. They obviously didn’t do a lot of cooking, but she was sure she’d find what she needed to cook [i something]. And she really didn’t feel bad for just helping herself to borrowing their dishes after everything that happened. It wasn’t like they were stealing their food or anything, only dirtying and then washing dishes. Judging from the things she was seeing, they might even leave them cleaner than when she found them.
Once he had his friend outside to dress the tiny catch Walter brought it up. He could tell Royland was in a bit of a mood. Sirius and Alain had no doubt said something, but he wasn’t going to wait and let Royland hurt Sumina’s feelings again. “She thought you didn’t like her because she’s an Elf.”
It was a little blunt and to the point, but his friend had been avoiding this long enough to nearly make a girl cry. “You need to talk to her. So you’re going to take this meat in and let her know you don’t hate her because of her family. She needs to hear it from [i you].”
Walter planned to send Royland in, then call Sirius and Alain out to ‘help him’ with clean up out here or something, and then keep the door shut until he was satisfied that Royland had spoken with her.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
Stolen? Aias’s face was hard. He didn’t like being accused of stealing. The horses were now theirs by right, since his parents now owned the castle. It wasn’t some petty thieving like these bandits. He and his family, his people, had conquered not stolen.
Not that all of that did him any good surrounded and outnumbered by cutthroat, dirty pillagers. After several tense seconds looking at the points of weapons aimed at him, Aias had to admit there was no choice. The horses would be forfeit. But sold out? No one would know they were coming except… their prey. So they were close. How close?
After reluctantly dismounting, and instructing the others to do the same, they were all forced to give up anything of value. Which wasn’t much, besides the horses. Food and supplies mainly.
“Who told of our arrival? A man, human? Perhaps traveling with a few other men. How many? When did they pass through?”
How far ahead was the King? If he was close enough it would be worth it to go ahead even without supplies rather than turn back. Then when they set this awful place to their backs to return they could do so with the former King.
There were a few times when Royland tried to chime in, or protest Walter’s demands, but he was shot down each time. Eventually, Walter simply refused to acknowledge anything that might come out of his mouth. He only asked for Royland to send Alain and Sirius out, as one of them was in possession of one of the only sacks available to carry the remainder of the meat in. Once all four men were outside, Royland was pushed [i inside], holding their catch by the tails.
Sumina’s form was in the corner of his eye, her back tuned. His pulse began to quicken – She had seemed normal when she returned. Not that he was looking for anything other than a favorable, oblivious reaction to all that he had said and done. Royland quickly ran his fingers through his hair, moving his bangs from his eyes. A sigh escaped him. How selfish of him… Expecting that she simply ignore his words, or think only that his intentions were benign, in order to preserve his privacy. Of course she felt like a burden. Of course she was confused. He was a man, indeed, but he was not daft or oblivious to other’s feelings. Only that he wished he could be. A glaring complication that came with being as empathetic as he was.
“Sumina…?” Where to begin? An apology that she may perceive as insincere, or an unbelievable account that had to do with his past? What issues could a King have that might illicit sympathy? “Walter told me that you… thought I was worried about you being an Elf…” Under normal circumstances, where he sat unchallenged on the throne, and he was meant to have children to continue his lineage, it might be rather disturbing. But here he was, an ordinary man, free to choose any ordinary woman.
“He said you thought that I, perhaps, didn’t like you…” Carefully, he began to gut the catch Walter had handed off to him, setting the entrails to the side, obsessively wiping his hand at every opportunity. For a while, there was merely silence, as he tried to piece together an explanation that might placate her. “Nothing could be farther from the truth… I’m indebted to you. I have been since we first met. Since I learned that you saved my friends. It isn’t that you’re an Elf, at all… Nor is it your family…” Elf or human, she was beautiful. Related to his usurpers or not, she had thrown her lot in with them thus far. Her intentions were clear, and she had never showed them any malintent. Sirius, Alain, and especially Walter had taken a shine to her. How was he meant to argue with those who so clearly outnumbered him? Rejecting her now would only bring their ire. Walter, especially, might never forgive him. He set his dagger down and properly looked her in the eyes, hoping she would meet his gaze. Where he thought he might feel embarrassment, he felt compelled to step close to her. Where he had previously been petrified to touch her for more than an offer of comfort, he confidently took her hand.
“It pains me to see you uncomfortable… It infuriates me to watch those men, and the way they look at you…” His ears burned, and the feeling crept over his cheeks, forcing him to look elsewhere. It almost assuredly sounded like he was professing his love to her… He quickly backpedaled, releasing her hand and muttering incoherently about how she shouldn’t get the wrong idea. “I owe you my protection. You’ve been…nothing but good to us.” Curse all of those wretched diction classes he was forced to take in his adolescence! Absolutely none of them were coming to rescue his speech, full of pauses and hems and haws. There was something about her, and the gentle look in her eyes that made him lose all composure. Sirius’ words echoed in his head. [i ‘She’s nothing like Lenoir.’]… And he was right. So, Royland decided, he would do everything in his power to make sure Sumina never suffered…Not by his own words and actions, but especially not through the words and actions of another. The embarrassed look turned to one of quiet devotion.
“I’ll do my best from here on. I’ll make sure you never doubt me again.”
The telltale crack of the door to the hut burst open suddenly. Royland took a step back from Sumina, hoping it was just the others ready to taunt him for being so openly close, but the panicked look on their faces said otherwise. Alain, heaving from the effort exerted to open the door, hardly managed to get his words out. “They returned with one of the horses! We need to leave! Now!” There was little time to establish where to later regroup. Only enough to decide that Sirius, Alain, and Walter would head out first, following the path out of town discovered with Sumina earlier. Royland glanced to Sumina, handed her a sack to place the unbutchered meat and ingredients into, then listened to the distant whinnying of the horses quickly approaching town. They were so close to being caught… But at least with their horses stolen, they wouldn’t be as quick to track them down.
“I’m the most favorable prey, so I want to let the others run ahead… Think you can manage with helping me?” It was a lot to ask. This was her brethren at their heels. There would undoubtedly be friendly faces in the crowd. “I won’t stop you if you wish to return home, instead.”
Questions. If it was one thing bandits didn’t like, it was questions. Especially those concerning their sources. More than a few faces in the crowd sneered and grumbled at the prospect of letting an Elf ask them any hard inquiries, and with what little they had received as compensation. “You don’t have the right to know the answer to that. I don’t see you wearing any crown!” A brash young man, possibly no older than eighteen, thrusted his makeshift knife in Aias’ direction. “They didn’t give no names, but they had King’s guard swords. Said they stole ‘em from Vondien Castle.” The leader, finally, seemed to catch on.
“Don’t tell me you’re looking for that Elvish bitch!” A deep laugh erupted from his body, echoing through the trees. He could hardly catch his breath, let alone formulate his taunts. “What’s she to ya? Can’t believe you got your wench stolen by a [i human]! And they looked pretty well acquainted, too! He wouldn’t let a soul near ‘er – called her ‘his’! By the Sirens! You points ‘ave lost your dignity by accepting that treaty, and now you’re losing yer [i women]!” Somewhat expectantly, the leader held out his hand.
“What say you this… I tell you where they’re hidin’, I get to keep your horses… and I get a night with the girl. You want that man she’s with, right…?”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina had gathered dishes and an old knife. After spreading her foraged finds on the table she had started to prepare them, washing some in a bowl of water she’d procured.
At her name she looked up and turned around. Royland was here, alone. She suspected Walter had something to do with that, given their talk. Her suspicion was confirmed,”Ah, yes…”
Whatever he was trying to say, he was clearly struggling with it. She didn’t hurry him. Instead she continued to work on cutting mushrooms and roots while he prepared the squirrels. It was sort of nice, working on preparing a meal with him. Even if she was a little on edge waiting for him to say what he meant to. Listening was rarely quite so nerve wracking to her. When he stopped cutting, so did she.
Her eyes met his, and she was a little surprised he held her gaze. Even more the way he took her hand and stepped closer. There was confidence there, at least for a moment. It made her heart and stomach flutter a little. How could just a look and a touch have her feeling like nothing else mattered? They were alone, but the room could be full and she wasn’t sure she’d have noticed. And despite his apparent attempt to protest like it was all some duty of his, the clear embarrassment fueled a warmth in her cheeks and chest. Whatever, exactly, he meant, she still couldn’t say. Or his reasoning for having kept her at a distance. Was it what Alain had said about an engagement that ended poorly? Whatever it was, she could see that he [i did] care about her.
With both hands she reached for his,”I—” Her fingers had barely brushed the backs of his hands when the door opened. Just like that, he stepped back and she withdrew. Her moment of embarrassment quickly turned to worry and a heavy weight settled in her stomach, killing the fluttering butterflies.
The search party was close. How many did she know? Despite her nerves, her hands worked quickly to pack the food and secure the bag while the group was divided. It made sense, she and Walter knew the way, so each of them would need to lead part of the group. Somehow that left her with Royland.
“Of course.” Sumina slipped her hand into his, her fingers finding a place nestled between his. She wasn’t going to risk losing track of him in the commotion. “I’m not going anywhere. I made my choice.”
The other three went ahead to the meeting place, while she and Royland made their way the opposite direction. Toward the crowd and noise where a horse had already been brought back. Holding his hand proved to be a wise decision, because the bandits rushing to divide up the horse jostled them and might have separated them otherwise. That was where they were headed, apparently. Sumina kept in mind the way back where she’d gone with Walter earlier. They would need to retrace steps that way before long.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
Stolen was right. That demon was the real thief, sneaking off like a shadow in the night. Tarron’s sour look transformed from confusion to rage in almost no time. Aias similarly looked furious, but seemed to have slightly more restraint than his brother. Tarron had started forward, but Aias put a hand on his brother’s arm.
The look Aias gave was pure, icy cold rage,”You’ll not speak of her like that. Nor will you lay a hand on her.”
Aias meant it quite literally. With several words in his own tongue and a movement of his bare hand over the bandit leaders, there was a gust of wind, and then the hand held out was severed by a blade made of air. Aias had chosen the path of magic. It made him less skilled of a swordsman and hunter than his other brothers, but he didn’t need a weapon to do terrible damage, only his own voice and energy.
The shock of his sudden move bought precious moments, moments he used to pull his younger brother with him and mount one of the remaining horses. Tarron had started to fight off some of the bandits getting over the shock. Humans knew Elves could use magic, and in Aias’s experience they either were overly cautious and afraid, or too bold to even think of it. The bandits seemed to be in the latter category.
“Bring me his head!” Aias shouted his order to the remaining two before taking off like the wind. Tarron had to hold on tight behind his brother to stay on. Already he could hear the sounds of fighting he was leaving behind.
Aias didn’t doubt his two men would do well. They were both skilled fighters. And even if they didn’t, they could recover the first horse, then take Sumina and the King, then get out of town before anyone could catch them. He was a calculating leader. Those two were expendable, so long as their goals were met.
“Do you think that… that [i dog] really done anything?” Tarron was worried. Sumina had fallen into the former King’s claws. On [i his] watch, as Aias liked to remind him.
Aias’s jaw was tight,”You better hope not. Likely just crude taunts from a crude brute.”
The crowd may have presented a problem in finding their sister, except that in a mass of dirty humans, and a sea of overwhelmingly brown hair, her white locks stood out. She hadn’t bothered to cover her head in her hurry.
“Mina! Mina! Thank the Sirens you’re safe.” Aias tried to force his way closer.
Both brothers spotted him at about the same time. Their look of relief turned to fury. Tarron was practically ready to jump from the horse,”Release my sister, you scoundrel!”
Sister? Scoundrel? [i Sister?] Royland's eyes narrowed, fearlessly locking gazes with his would-be murderers. Time was of the essence, yes, but his dignity was equally at risk. The loud one drew his eye immediately, but his gaze landed finally on the older of the two. He was strong. Royland’s face contorted into that famous, fiery glare. But his instincts were screaming at him. Danger. [i Danger]. [i [b Danger]].
"If only I could ask for my ancestral home back as passionately! The only scoundrels here are those who are undeserving of the royal title they usurped, gutless swine that you are!" Madness. Treating him like they had won. Treating him like some war criminal. He may have had to flee, but merely because his continued existence was the only hope for Volaire. For Vasilios. For lasting peace. "You've won [i [b nothing]] until you present my head on a spike on the castle walls! Mark my words, I will not give you the satisfaction!"
Royland turned to Sumina, deliberately bringing their interlaced hands into view of her brothers. Petty, yes. Satisfying, undoubtedly so. "Time to go. Lead the way."
On foot, and running against the grain of the crowd, their escape was swift to begin with. Royland could do little aside from look for potential hiding spots, should the situation turn more dire than it already was. The ferocity of the townspeople would only last for so long. Hopefully, the people of Pimli's reputation for ruthlessness with fresh meat in their sights was passed through the lands with good faith by the rumor mills.
Every other goddamned corner seemed to be a dead end. Buildings and piles of scrap wood placed haphazardly onto otherwise through streets made escaping ever harder. Royland had always detested fleeing in a straight line. If they didn't find somewhere to throw them off of their trail, they would almost assuredly be caught.
First, a small crevice between two upright pieces of wood caught Royland's eye. No, if they chose to use magic to blow down the makeshift homes in town, they would be discovered in no time. The forest was quite a way, and although it was their best bet, they would need to wait them out somewhere, lest their footprints give away their direction. Then, a lowly butcher's hut, made entirely of stone. Surely, that would be safe enough to get out of their line of sight.
Royland gestured his head towards the stone hut, barely large enough for two people. "Can you get rid of our tracks?" Surely, she could. But, more importantly, he had to ask. "Do you trust me?" That resolute gaze had returned to his eyes. He squeezed Sumina's had just a bit tighter, before quickly pulling her around the rightmost corner where the houses ended, pushing his back against the nearest wall, pulling Sumina close to him. Out of sight. Now all that was left was to wipe their footprints and wait.
With hardly any time to catch their breath, the sound of hooves grew closer, as did the cacophony of angry bandits, having to chase their catch. From the sounds, Royland could tell the horse was in absolute agony. He dared not peek outside, for fear of his messy auburn mop being spotted immediately. All he could do was pull Sumina a little tighter into his body in an attempt to calm his breathing.
Eventually the commotion was close enough that their voices would be covered. "Sorry about my harsh language towards your... Brothers." The solemn look on his face that followed turned into one of a subtle sulk. Who could have known, it would be her own flesh and blood, quite literally. Did that mean one of them was now on the throne? If so, Sirens help the city they governed... How the common folk must be in utter disarray. He wondered if they had already spread the news that he was dead. Would he have any supporters upon his return? Would he ever...?
“[i Dammit!]” With greedy hands pushing and grabbing at the still twitching horse, Tarron whipped his head around, frantically. Searching for any sight of Sumina. Any sight of that bastard that had taken her hand in his. An angry fist came down on the ground, as Aias stood and dusted himself off. “Where the hell did he go!?” “On your feet, Tarron… It’s time we took our leave.” Aias sighed, turning on his heels reluctantly. “Aias, he’s got our sister!” But his cries fell on deaf ears. One more glance around, and then, they left. Without the King’s head, without Mina, and with wounded pride.
Positive that Sumina was having more than enough of their close contact, Royland released her and put his head around the corner. A dead horse, being ravaged by hungry men, women, and children. No elves. Not quite ready to let the breath he’d been holding in go just yet, he urged Sumina towards the tree line, praying that they couldn’t be seen. Not walking for more than a minute, Alain was the first to greet them.
“Thank the Sirens you’re alright, My Lord, Lady Sumina--…” Alain’s eyes drifted to their joined hands but made no mention of it aside from giving Royland a shit-eating smirk. Choosing to ignore the silent mockery, Royland asked Sumina if she was okay letting him go. Once confirmed, Alain turned, motioning for them to follow him. “Sirius is not far ahead, only he knows where Walter decided to make the rendezvous. That was quite close. Did you know the men that showed up, Lady Sumina?”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina had expected familiar faces, just maybe not [i that] familiar. Her grip on Royland’s hand had tightened, and very slightly she had angled herself between her brothers and Royland. Sumina knew how dangerous her brothers could be. She could see a little blood spattered on Aias. Not his blood. Both of them had those fierce look. They would kill him in a heartbeat, if she let them. They were ready to kill Royland.
But not her. They weren’t prepared to go through her to get to him. Otherwise Aias would have attacked. When Royland pulled her hand up she finally looked away from her brothers. With her other hand she briefly touched the back of his hand,”Royland…”
Then she nodded, and they were off through the crowd. She didn’t dare look back, and her hold of Royland’s hand never loosened. She didn’t know the streets especially well, but she knew a route.
“Yes.” To both questions. Then she was whispering under her breath, with what breath she could get while they ran. The wind near the ground had picked up, blowing the dirt and wiping their tracks, even as they made them. She paused momentarily when he pulled her in close to him. She finished the incantation and leaned into him. Her heart felt like it was beating faster than a rabbits, and she wasn’t sure it was entirely because of the run. He smelled of sweat and dirt, but something else. Something she recognized as distinctly masculine, and unique to him. It was nice.
Not that she’d [i say] that to him. With her face half buried against his chest and shoulder she listened to the sounds growing louder and louder. When he spoke she looked up. Her brothers. Her own brothers she was hiding from right now. “They are trying to kill you.” With a little half smile, not particularly happy but trying to make the best of the situation, she added,”And I’m sorry my brothers are trying to kill you.”
To think two of her own brothers were in the search party. Were they looking for her too? It may have only been for hiding, but Sumina took comfort in being held just then. Somehow despite knowing it was a possibility she hadn’t been as prepared to face her brothers as she’d thought. If they caught up, would Royland and the others have to kill them? Could she just let her own brothers die? But the alternative might mean letting them kill Royland and the others. Something she was not going to let them do.
It was Royland urging them out of hiding that brought her out of her worried musing on the subject. It was time to finish their escape and meet the others. For the moment, her friends and her brothers were both walking away alive. Sumina was looking worried when Alain greeted them, though she tried to smile. What was he looking at Royland like that for? “Oh. Yes.” Truthfully she didn’t want to, but she released his hand anyway and followed Alain.
“Yes…” Sumina’s brows were drawn together, somewhere between a frown and worry. The pause there lasted until Sirius was in sight,“Two of my brothers were there.”
Sumina found her gaze fixed on Royland. He’d seen her turn her back on her own brothers, her flesh and blood, to flee and hide with him. And he had taken her with him without a second thought, even though one word and she could have turned him over to her brothers. The trust there was genuine and strong. She had no reason to doubt that anymore. He’d trusted her to keep him hidden from her own family.
There wasn’t any regret, but it still hurt. They were family. She’d grown up with them. She loved them, even as she took sides against them. When they joined Sirius, and then Walter, Sumina wasn’t very talkative. She said she’d explain more about the search party when they stopped. At a couple of points early on while they walked she murmured the incantation to sweep their tracks, since Royland had given her the idea. It wouldn’t work with an incredibly skilled tracker, but it was better than nothing.
At some point, Sumina had lost track of how long it was, the men seemed to notice she looked a little like a wilting flower and had insisted on stopping to eat at least. When she tried to object, Walter put his hand at her elbow and steered her off continuing, insisting they all could use some food.
Alain’s brow furrowed at Sumina’s answer – but there was hardly any time to ask her to clarify what she meant. Royland chose not to say much, either, but stayed at the rear of the group to keep Sumina company. When he noticed her eyes lingering on him, he turned to her, and offered a weary smile. “It’ll be alright.” There was little else he could say to ease her suffering. And, in front of Sirius, then Walter, there was little he could [i do] without loudly announcing that their relationship escalated quickly. Not that Alain would ever keep what he saw quiet… It couldn’t be helped.
Upon choosing a suitable area in which they could sit down and prepare their meal, Sirius and Walter scuttled off to find any flat stones on which they could properly butcher and prepare the herbs Sumina had picked earlier. It didn’t take long for them to return. And while Alain dutifully divided up their food for the night, Royland sat silent against a tree. Legs crossed, hands resting in his lap. A ginger, warm sensation pulsed with each heartbeat, as he remembered the prolonged touch of Sumina’s hand. The fronts of his arms and chest shared the same memory, already reminiscing about how close he’d held her to him. How perfect his hands seemed to be made, to take her form in his. Unfortunate, really, that their relationship only continued to blossom in the midst of strife. If all was calm, would they have come to rely on each other’s company so quickly? Sumina certainly had no reason to doubt him, but… he doubted himself. Questioned his own feelings. Wondered if they were genuine. It felt [i right], but it didn’t feel [i natural]. Never was he one to rush headfirst into the arms of a woman, nor was he ever blinded by love, or the pursuit of it. Yet, he treated her as though they hadn’t just met several days previous. It obviously brought them both some measure of comfort. But, how many other women might illicit this reaction? He was, after all, a man. Though he hadn’t given much thought to what that meant, until now. Unpleasant recollections of his youth sprang forth in his mind- it was his father that had always been a lecher, never bothering with honing his skills or setting out to prove himself as Royland had. It made him oblivious to the ways of women, not that he had ever had time or the interest in learning. But Sumina’s presence, and the idea that such a presence would continue to be a part of his daily life, made him want to understand her better.
Without warning, Royland stood, pointing off in some indiscriminate direction. If there had been any conversation amongst the others, he hadn’t been listening. “I’ll get some wood and stoke a fire.” When he finally walked out of their range of hearing, Alain spoke up, giving Sumina a serious, worried look.
“Did you mean what you said, Lady Sumina… About your brothers…?” He searched her sullen expression for a reassuring explanation. Perhaps she meant figuratively, in the same way Royland, Sirius, and Walter called each other with familiarity. There were troubling implications, regardless. Sumina seemed to know it, too. Walter and Sirius kept her in the corner of their eyes as they worked. “You need to tell us everything you can. What are their names, their strengths, and how to avoid them. How many of them there are.”
Just then, Royland returned, a bundle of wood tucked under his arm. “Alain… Maybe give her some time.” He knelt into the center of the group and began to light the fire. It came along swiftly, and he took a seat beside Sumina, eyes focused on the flames in front of him. “Besides, we’re better off focusing on our efforts to put more distance between them and us.” He could not shake that glare he had exchanged with the elder brother. Nor could he forget that unfamiliar feeling that had welled up inside him. The fear of losing his life. Those eyes… Dead, cold, harsh like an early winter. Dangerous. Royland wanted his throne back more than anything, but he did not wish to meet that man ever again. At least not unprepared.
“Royland, it’s imperative that we know what we’re up against.”
“I can tell you that if it is just the four of us, against the one who caught my attention, that none of us would live to see the next spring.” The crackling of the fire filled the air, but not much else was exchanged except for worried glances. Whoever it was Royland saw… Whatever it was that he saw, his companions thought, they must have seemed truly formidable. Aside from the necessary details of their situation, it was an unbearably quiet night. The tension would trickle over into the next morning, and throughout their final day of travel to the encampment. The pace seemed to quicken when they caught sight of the rows of pitched tents, and at first, they were ordered to halt. But, when the guards noticed Royland’s face, accompanied by his well-known closest confidants, each knight in his presence knelt and sheathed their swords.
“On your feet.” The men complied to Royland’s command. “How many of you are there stationed out here?”
“Fifteen, M’Lord, and the commander.”
“I want all men gathered in the center of camp. Where is the head knight?” A glance was exchanged between the guards.
“It was supposed to be Davin, M’Lord…” Sirius chimed in. Royland sighed. No matter, now. His request held firm. And he sent Sirius, Walter, and Alain to ensure that all men were accounted for, to receive status reports, a map, current positions of other camps, a fresh change of clothes for all, and prepare rations… By the time he got done handing them a list of things to do, it was time to introduce Sumina to the guards at the entrance.
He glanced to Sumina, somewhat embarrassed by his stern disposition. “There are some things I need to do. Perhaps you should get some rest.” His gaze returned to the guards. “This is Sumina. Please do what she asks of you.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] All she could do was nod at his reassurance during their walk. But would it be alright? Sumina was getting less sure that she would be alright by the end of this. She’d been holding some hope that her family might survive all this, be kept out of the worst of things and unharmed. But if they were actively chasing Royland, what did that mean for them?
When they did actually stop, she was glad to dive into some familiar work and help prepare the food. Keeping her hands busy may occupy her mind a little. But her mind was too active, buzzing with worries. Worries and… She had barely glanced to Royland, sitting at the base of a tree. That glance didn’t go unnoticed by the others, but none commented on it. They kept any talking for the moment to what needed to be said to prepare the meal. It was ridiculous of her, she was sure. To want that warmth. Despite the danger they had been in at the time it had been the most calm and secure she’d felt all evening. But she was being ridiculous, she reminded herself. He cared for her, that much was certain. That could mean any number of ways.
Besides, how [i did] she feel about him? Sumina had never been really infatuated with anyone before. She’d been dedicated to her studies as a healer. Any suitors had seemingly given up after a short time, and she hadn’t particularly cared. If Royland stopped meeting her gaze, if he went from being willing to hold her hand and comforting her to avoiding even looking at her again, if he acted like he didn’t want her there, she would most assuredly care a great deal. When he announced he was going to get firewood she looked over. She half wanted to join him, but to what end?
Her attention returned to the group with Alain’s question. She didn’t answer immediately. The question was simple, but not easy to answer. Of course they needed to know who they were up against. And no one knew her family better than she did. With Royland’s return her eyes kept to him, avoiding the others for the moment.
“Aias.” Sumina supplied after Royland told about the one who caught his attention,”His name is Aias. He’s my second eldest brother. The other is Tarron. He’s the fourth.”
After that she said very little. She decided after supplying names, she just wasn’t ready to talk about her family yet. Not like this. While she had half wanted to keep going, she was too tired to object strongly when it was decided they would sleep here. Even in the morning she hadn’t recovered quite to her usual cheerfulness, having not slept particularly well, but as the day wore on her mood slowly improved.
Tents and knights eventually came into view, and Sumina was a silent shadow until attention was drawn to her. A change had come over Royland, and she watched with curiosity. The Royland she had been with the last few days was not the one he presented to these knights. She smiled at him, a sort of fondness and understanding in her expression. For now he had to take charge as the King, and she didn’t have any particular place here like the others. Maybe later, if only to share what she knew of her brethren,”Perhaps.”
Rest might do her some good, but she was restless. She wanted to work. After watching Royland leave she wasn’t quite sure what to do with herself. After a moment she asked if anyone was ill or injured, or if anything needed mending. The guard that had agreed to do as she asked looked confused by her question, but after a moment answered. No one was ill or injured at the moment, but there were some clothes and a tent that needed some mending, only no one there had the skills.
Sumina asked to be taken there. They scrounged up the required supplies and Sumina found a nice spot near a tent to sit and sew while she waited for Royland and the others to finish what work they needed to do. The guard watched her, a little puzzled that she’d gone to work on something like this. Not to mention he was wondering a little to himself what she was doing accompanying the King in the first place, though he didn’t question her about it. Sumina started with the questions while she worked. Nothing very deep, but questions about the weather here and how they liked this spot, what they tended to eat, if they were missing anyone back home. Things to help pass the time mostly.
With his back to Sumina, Royland straightened his shoulders and headed to center tent in camp. Inside, he found Alain glancing seriously over notes taken by the watch. Nothing of note to report, that he could see. Nothing yet. Sirius had taken to meticulously gathering rations, portioned carefully to avoid starving out the camp of fifteen men. Walter was in a corner, his back turned to the tent opening, hunched open a map, furiously taking note of other camp positions as he was instructed to.
“Progress report, please…” An outstretched hand was immediately supplied with a piece of parchment, of the most recent watch reports, specifically any news coming in from home that had made it to the camp.
Alain sighed, carefully re-filing what he had displaced in his haste. “Seems as though they have simply been waiting for Davin, lily-livered traitor…” In limbo. With no direction. Aimlessly continuing their patrols. Good men, but not a real leader among them. “What should we do with them?”
Royland scoffed, “What else? We send them back to serve the current monarch and his family. I need them in Volaire, at the ready. If I should ever return…”
“[i When] you return.” Walter never looked up from the map, but Royland did not have to see his face to imagine the irritated look his words were likely receiving. “Can we trust them with what we’re about to tell them?”
“Sirens, Walter. They’re good men. Their reports are without fault. And they obviously haven’t heard the news, being on the other side of Pimli. Don’t doubt them, now… We’re already here.” Alain crossed his arms over his chest, noticing that each of them shared the same hardened, worried stare at their respective stations. The sound of the map rolling between Walter’s fingers seemed to cue Sirius’ arm shooting outwards, passing on the rations to be set aside for later. Moments passed, and Royland took a deep, [i deep] breath. A sea of murmurs was beginning to coalesce outside the tent, quietly waiting for their King to address them. And all manner of how to break the news ran through his mind. [i “I know I never visit your camps, but Davin is dead, he betrayed me, and I’ve been dethroned.”] He should have planned what he was meant to say far before this point. But if he was being honest with himself, he never expected to make it this far. [i All of this] had been wishful thinking, at best.
The squire watching Sumina work, eyes focused on her slender fingers as they diligently sewed, perhaps might not have known any better than to answer her questions. But his curiosity was beginning to get the better of him. Whether it was his youth, his lack of tact, or a combination of the two, he had to ask, “What is your relationship with the King?” His hand flew over his mouth, eyes wide with realization. “Er, w-what I mean is, M’Lady, is… How you came to travel with h—”
“Garrett? Is his Majesty’s guest almost done with the mending? He’s ready to address us.” The one called Garrett turned to Sumina, and smiled nervously, inquiring about the status of her work, asking her to just pay his question no mind.
“Don’t feel urged to rush, M’Lady. I won’t leave your side until you’re finished.”
Sirius lit a large campfire while Walter counted the knights and squires in attendance. Not everyone was here, but, according to one knight, it was the squire watching over Sumina. He would have to make sure Royland passed the word along to him, personally. Given his age, he may not believe anything less. Also a great opportunity to make the poor boy shake in his boots a bit, a face-to-face meeting with the King. Walter never fancied himself a sadist, but there were times like this where he sought excitement from wherever he could in trying times such as these. The crowd grew silent as Royland emerged from the commander’s tent. Each knight leaned forward in their seats, lending their ears and eyes to the one they swore fealty to. “There’s no easy way to say this. But Commander Davin is dead. He was given the penalty of death for high treason.” Not a word was spoken. Not even a gasp of surprise. Royland could not decide if it was because he was so unpopular, or because of the shock. “Simply, the castle has been seized. I…” He searched the crowd for Sumina. Best not to say more than was necessary. “While one of their own may sit on the throne, I am not dead. I am the [i rightful] King of Volaire.” A guard in the front stood to his feet. “Though it pains me to say it, I must embark on a journey outside of Volaire, away from the lands that my grandfather cultivated. I must seek out the assistance of other kingdoms if we are to stand a fighting chance. And, to that end… You must return to Volaire. I ask that you dutifully serve the monarch and his family. Do not let anyone question your loyalty to the sitting King. Do not allow yourselves to be accused of being traitors. Follow their rule as you have followed mine. And wait for my return.” More guards stood at the position of attention, right hand in a fist, crossed over their chest in solidarity. “We are gravely outnumbered, but the soldiers that serve the Vondien are more fierce, cunning, and adaptable than any other military force in all the known world. We will not be silenced. For Vasilios. For Volaire. I humbly ask you swear your fealty to me once more.” Every knight in attendance dropped to their knee. The sight made Royland’s chest swell with relief. Pride. Happiness.
[i [b “For King Vondien!”]]
The camp quickly returned to its usual preparations for dinner, not long after Royland had concluded his speech and dismissed the crowd. He instructed Walter, Sirius, and Alain to go on and gather their food in the commander’s tent, while Royland went to seek out Sumina. Someone off-handedly mentioned that she might still be mending some tents and clothes and such, with Garrett as her watcher. And, upon seeing her diligently at work, he sighed, hands on his hips. Unsurprised, but understanding her inability to relax. “I thought I told you to get some rest, Sumina…”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina paused in her work at the question. What [i was] their relationship? Sumina didn’t have an answer right away, but she did have a kind smile for the obviously embarrassed young man. “I hope to be finished soon.”
She had dexterous hands from years of work with healing and sewing. She got right back to work, but soon answered his question anyway, or at least partially,”I chose to protect him, and those around him. No matter what it costs.”
And she may pay dearly for it. That was clear enough to her after yesterday. It could cost her her family, and in a worse way than them simply disowning her. She fell quiet for a little bit after that, simply mending tears then carefully folding things once she was done. She did have to ask Garrett for help with the tent. It was just too big to fold on her own, after spreading it out to scour for any rips or even worn spots to fix.
Looking up from a shirt she was darning Sumina smiled. It was the most carefree she’d been since they had gotten to Pimli. The fact that he was here, sighing and scolding her lightly, rather than keeping away now that he was here being the King, made her happy. “While you and the others work so diligently? I couldn’t possibly.”
Her work was set aside, unfinished, and Sumina stood, brushing herself off,”I’d like to be helpful, if I can. How are things coming along for you?”
What did it matter what their relationship was, exactly? For now she was simply glad he was being friendly with her. Even though he’d have good reason to push her away now, standing with these knights when Elves like her had taken his throne, she wasn’t sure she could have borne that with any sort of dignity. Not after the last time had left her near tears.
Garrett looked at Sumina with wide, hopeful eyes. How wonderful was the King, to be able to employ the protection of someone with such grace and beauty? To be worthy of her devotion as she was. The weight of her words forced a lump into the young squire’s throat. “He’s lucky to have you by his side…” He muttered, holding his head down, until a pair of boots came into view. Slowly, he craned his head upward, jumping to his feet at the sight of the King’s face. “Y-Your Majesty…! I-I mean, my liege, King Vondien! How may I—”
Royland held a hand up with a slight smile on his face, “No need. Garrett, isn’t it?” Silent, Garrett nodded his head furiously, and saluted Royland with a fist over his chest. “Well, it’s almost dinner time. Hurry off.”
“Yes, my King!” Like a timid hare into dense brush, he was gone.
“Spritely thing isn’t he…” Royland chuckled. Probably no older than sixteen, if Royland had to take a guess. His demeanor reminded him greatly of Sirius in his youth. Unsure of his own role, having yet to find his niche within the ranks of the guard. Friendly young man, probably. Returning his attention to Sumina, he could finally continue their conversation on. “Well… Sirius took care of our rations. Walter’s secured us a map, and Sirius is going to prepare our change of clothes… I’m thinking of having the men heat some water for a bath, but I’m undecided…” His eyes drifted to the ground. Thinking, hard. Not about impending doom, or the constant state of danger, for once. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to relax for just a bit. Quickly, he returned Sumina’s gaze, but with a mellow expression on his face.
Just what did she need from him, to make the reality of their situation that much more bearable? He wanted to know. Even if unintentional, her conflicted feelings were reaching him – so painfully obvious, in where that shine should be in her eyes. It was as though a cloud hung over her head. He muttered quietly, “Do you want to talk about it?”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] All she could do was smile in amusement while the young squire stuttered and stumbled. She remembered some of that uncertainty when meeting the King face to face. Yet here he was now in front of her, and that nervousness was gone.
“A bath might be nice.” Sumina commented lightly enough. They all probably needed it. How much nicer might he smell after cleaning? Not that she’d be getting close enough to find out. Why was her mind wandering there? His eyes were searching hers for something.
“Ah.” Was it so obvious? She couldn’t help but have her brothers on the back of her mind. Sumina’s fingers met in a nervous fidget in front of her, slightly sore from the time spent sewing. “Maybe…”
There was some reluctance, a hesitation to start. Where to begin? She looked to the ground like it might have some answer. How to articulate her love for her brothers, her worry for them and what a conflict might mean, and at the same time assure him that she’d stop them if she had to.
“I used to climb trees. When I was little I would climb up as high as I could. It scared my brothers who were watching me. They would shout at me to come down, or climb up after me. I thought it was fun, making them chase up and get so mad and worried. One day I fell and broke my arm.” Her right hand passed over her left forearm, where she remembered it breaking. She had looked back to him, uncertain if she was making any sense,”They were so scared, fussing over me and panicking over it. I just cried and cried, while they shouted and eventually carried me to a healer. They all swore to never tell our parents, made me promise too. Well, the healer told them anyway. They were furious, and worried. My brothers were in trouble for letting me get hurt and hiding it. I didn’t climb quite so much or so high after that…”
Sumina rubbed her arm again. Was her story making any sense at all to him? She felt like she’d started to ramble. Her eyes were stinging a little, warm and a little red. She was trying to [i not] cry. “My brothers aren’t terrible people. I love them. I have four. Ayre, Aias, Vaeril, and Tarron. But I’d [i never] let them hurt you. I’m scared that they might, they hate you [i so much] and I can’t stand it. But I’m also scared because I don’t want them to die either.”
She was looking at him, in obvious pain and worry. She hoped he understood, but was worried he might be thinking she’d side with her brothers against him. Worried that after hearing this he might decide it was wiser to keep her away, since they were her brothers.
Royland listened to her story with his brows together, and a look of gentle understanding in his eyes. He had no blood relatives, in all the world. No distant Lords and Ladies in a far-off land, no father, mother, and certainly no siblings. The depth of her pain was one that he could never truly understand. Yet, still, it pained him. The last thing on his mind was the thought of ever prolonging that suffering, causing it to grow, or deepening its affect on her. Even if it should mean the end of his life, he needed to make a choice. How would he deal with this conflict of interest down the line? “…I understand.”
What little light was left reflected off of the tears threatening to spill from her eyes. Carefully, he looked around, noting their position to the rest of the camp. Most men were off tending to dinner, removing their heavy armor, and otherwise in the middle of switching out patrols. Still, they were exposed. Gingerly, he grabbed Sumina’s hand and brought her behind an unoccupied tent, out of the way of the light from the large fire at the center of camp. And with little forethought, he began to comfort her. His thumb ran over the ridges of her knuckles, slowly.
“Sumina… Do you trust me?” To keep you safe. To ensure that we should all come out of this alive. How he wanted so badly for that to be the only outcome achievable. There was no way of beating around the harshness of war, but, perhaps… Perhaps if he could speak those words, he could make it so. “I don’t want to pit you against your family for my sake… And though your brothers might despise me, I don’t intend to do anything that would hurt you.” If at all possible. “I cannot make irresponsible promises… But I will not strike to kill against your brothers. I must live if I’m to right my wrongs… But it does not mean that they should have to die.”
The world does [i not] work that way. War does not heed to the whims and wants of man. Not every man returns from their grapples with its wicked tendrils, and those that do, are scarred forevermore. Royland sighed, wracking his mind for any immediate solution. Wishing to give Sumina even a sliver of hope that it would be alright. But he could not bring himself to speak words that he, himself did not truly believe. He would have thought to pull her in close, but decided to let her close the gap, if she so wished. His skin began to burn with the memory of the days previous. And as he looked into her eyes, he felt himself wanting… more. Try as he might to ignore it, his body moved on his own. Closer, ever closer…
“M’Lord!” Royland’s face turned bright pink from the shock. “Yours and the Lady’s meal are in the commander’s tent!”
Clearing his throat, Royland spun around, back straight, arms behind his back, still gently clasping Sumina’s hand. He had never let her go, nor had he stepped away. “D-Duly noted. Thank you. You’re dismissed.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Taking them to somewhere a little more concealed, a little more private. That might be better if she did cry. Again wondering if he trusted her. His hand was warm in hers, the motion over her knuckles undeniably soothing. That stinging feeling that preceded crying ebbed away at the comfort he offered. Sumina gave him a small nod,”Yes.”
Of course there couldn’t be any promises like that. Promising everyone would live would only ring hollow. It would be an empty promise. But that he would try to spare her brothers if he could… that she could believe. “If you try, I would… appreciate that.”
Trying was all they could do. Try to keep everyone alive she cared for. There was such relief that he understood, that he wasn’t pushing her away. No, he was moving closer. Without necessarily meaning to, she had started to move in closer, wanting to close that distance. To feel him close again. “But I… You really must not let them… I would…” Her ability to properly articulate her thoughts was lost somewhere. His eyes were intense and she couldn’t look away. But then there was a voice, and he turned.
Her cheeks felt hot as she stood there behind him, her hand still in his. What was their relationship? [i Intimate]. Whatever it was, it was intimate. More than was perhaps wise or appropriate.
And yet… Once the knight who had informed them of dinner had left, Sumina did close the small distance to Royland’s back. On her toes to put her head on his shoulder, her chest against his back, her hand holding his just a little tighter. She was aware of the way it made her heart beat a little faster and her face feel warm, but a little unaware of how it might affect him.
”Thank you.” For taking the time to listen. For not pushing her away. For the promise to try with her brothers. So many things.
Neither of them quite wanted to risk lingering. There was an unspoken agreement that they didn’t actually want anyone to see them. And delaying dinner for… conversation, or whatever that was, would invite more attention.
At dinner, where Walter, Alain, and Sirius were already waiting, Sumina felt more up to discussing her brothers with them. At least a little. Ayre was the eldest, and Aias his twin. Aias was a mage specializing in magic for fighting, while Ayre preferred swords. Vaeril was next, and the hunter. She warned he was an exceptional archer and used familiars to track. Tarron, only a little older than her, with some skill in both sword and bow. The way she spoke, she obviously had affection for them all, though she was clearly also concerned over what danger they might pose to the group, and Royland in particular.
Things had been arranged so that for bed Sumina would not need to share a tent with anyone, since she was the only woman there. The plan was to leave early in the morning, so whatever mending Sumina had done would be all she finished before leaving. A fresh change of clothes was waiting for her, neatly folded. Clothes borrowed from the knights and too large for her, but they were clean and that was what mattered.
They went to bed and slept easily. Much better than the night before in the forest so close to Pimli. Sumina did not wake early on her own, someone would need to come wake her.
Royland had never known his heart could race so quickly. He was certain that Sumina could feel it, as her grip on his hand tightened, and he replied in kind. When she thanked him, he felt a chill down to his core. With her form pressed against his back, he wanted nothing more than to turn and embrace her. To lay her down and make her his, to mark her forever safe from any errant pursuers. Like, love, or lust? The reason did not matter. Against his wants, against what his body wished, he only muttered a response to her expression of gratitude.
All night, the sensation of her touch was etched into his back. He could hardly focus on his food, but against all odds, he finished eating. Silently, he watched Sumina’s face as she recounted what she knew about her brothers. For a moment, his concern about confronting them grew, but his mind eventually came back around to studying her features. Reimagining the feel of their hands joined. Royland almost wished she was with child, as the monk had wrongly suggested what seemed like ages ago. It would excuse and explain this infatuation he was beginning to feel. It was asinine – read like a fairytale for idiots. The King and a commoner from rival races, falling in love – preposterous. A storybook fable for children, at best. He put the thought out of his mind long enough to bathe, change his clothes, and after going out on patrol [i himself] to ease his still-racing heart, lie down inside the commander’s tent. Few words were spoken that night, exhaustion having caught up to them all.
Morning came swiftly for the King. Eyes wide at dawn, he sat upright, a cold sweat covering his heaving body. A nightmare that he couldn’t recall. If at all possible, he awoke looking more disheveled than when he had laid down to sleep that night. Alain and Sirius had gone on to assist in the morning patrols, giving the squires an opportunity to instead take their time in dismantling the camp. Some knights – about half – had moved ahead before the sun had risen to secure the route back home, while the rest stayed behind to see the King and his entourage off. As far as Royland could tell, they would have to stop off somewhere in Madej if they were to eat at all that day. Walter would assist Royland in packing away the items in the commander’s tent, a task that took no longer than an hour. Once everything was said and done…It was time to wake Sumina.
“Walter,” Royland sighed, rubbing his temples. “Don’t make me do this.” My dearest friend, one of my closest confidants, please spare me from the embarrassment of walking into a woman’s tent unannounced like some sort of maniac. The grin on Walter’s face…unsettled Royland, to say the least.
“You owe her.” His intentions were clear, and Royland glared. No, he owed Walter for nearly making Sumina cry. And he made that known. Much back and forth later, Royland reluctantly stood outside Sumina’s tent – the only tent that had yet to be folded up and made ready for travel.
“Ah... Sumina?” Royland cleared his throat, loudly. “It’s time to depart… Are you ready?”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] “Mmm?” Sumina was not ready. She wasn’t even out of bed yet. Rubbing sleep out of her eyes she sat up, then got up to peek of out the tent, just her head. Face to face with Royland in the morning light. He looked a little embarrassed, which made her feel a little embarrassed too, her cheeks turning a little pink. Fueled by his demeanor, and the obvious fact that she was the last one awake. “Oh no. Did I oversleep? Just a moment.”
Sumina disappeared into the tent to get ready the rest of the way. Nothing that could work for her hair but her fingers, clothes that were too large, and a belt that was too long. Of course they didn’t have anything ready for a woman, her presence here was entirely unexpected. She was mumbling to herself in Elvish while she got ready in a frantic hurry. Now that she was trying to get ready to go, there was no denying how comically ill fitting the clothes were. She felt terrible for sleeping in while the others were up, and now here she was struggling to figure out how to get dressed without looking ridiculous, or having difficulty walking. If the pants only [i fit]. Or the belt. Maybe she could get them to stay up. In the end the pants had to be abandoned, but thankfully the tunic was ridiculously long on her, long enough to be a dress, shorter than she might have liked but she was decent. The belt had to be looped into something like a knot to even get it to stay on. She emerged having rushed as much as she could, and looking a little frazzled,”I’m sorry. I should have been up to help. Ah, good morning.”
When she looked around she saw the camp was nearly gone, save for her tent,”Have I kept everyone waiting long?”
After Sumina was ready it was time to leave. She had happily enough kept hidden under her cloak, and kept to the back while the remaining knights sent off their King. At least among these men Royland seemed well liked. It made her smile to see. She was used to the way her brothers spoke about him, the way their friends did. A nasty reputation that he didn’t deserve, in her opinion. She could still remember the feeling of his hand in hers. The gentleness in how he held her hand, had held her. The promise to at least try to spare her brothers.
It was only once they were on their way and the soldiers were out of sight that she let herself wander a little closer, and started up a conversation asking how everyone had slept. The day passed more or less quietly and pleasantly to her. After Pimli it was relaxing to travel in a more peaceful area with less to worry about. Less, but not nothing. There were still her brothers, but without horses or supplies they would be slowed down. Slowed down, and hopefully never quite caught back up, but that was a lot to be asking.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
In Aias’s opinion, Pimli was a nuisance. What did he want with a bunch of filthy bandits? He left the two men to [i try] and deal with this mess while he and Tarron hurried back to resupply, report to the family, and then get right back to their pursuit. It felt even more urgent now.
“That bastard pig. He’s probably had his hands all over her. I’ll cut them off for that.” Tarron had been ranting on and off the whole long walk back.
Aias pinched his nose in his fingers,”We will get him, and he’ll pay for anything he’s done to her. But I’d like to remind you none of this would have happened if you had [i watched her] like you were supposed to.”
Tarron bristled,”She ran off! You don’t think she’d… been seeing him before this? Did she [i plan] any of this?”
The older brother sighed,”Possible, but unlikely. She’s terrible at hiding things from us. Like the kitten?”
“Or the cake. Right. Still.” Tarron huffed. Before they even made it all the way to the castle they were met with one of Vaeril’s familiars swooping down. Damn. They weren’t even going to be the first to break the news that they’d been unsuccessful. The two brothers continued their trek miserably, informing the familiar of everything. At least that meant they could return to their hunt even faster. Things would be ready for a second attempt before they even got there.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
It wasn’t until the afternoon was starting to wear on a bit that they heard the sounds of other travelers. They were arguing, or at least not talking very quietly.
“How in the world did you manage that! Sure footed my ass. Should’ve stayed on the ground.”
The man that responded sounded like he was in pain,”Damn it, I could get a cleaner shot. I told you.”
Without really thinking about it or asking the others Sumina changed direction to follow the voices. Someone was hurt, and she was inclined to help. If they seemed friendly enough, so while she did approach she did so cautiously.
“Now how are we going to haul you [i and] our catches home? All this meat wasted.” She could finally see the men arguing. Three hunters with their bows and their kills around them. Two standing, and the third sitting and hunched over his leg, which was presumably what was injured.
Sumina looked to Royland pleading a silent question. She wanted to try and help them, if she could. But she didn’t want to put the group and Royland in any unnecessary danger. The way she was looking, she would certainly regret not helping for days or longer if they simply left the hunters.
Stepping onto the bridge that joined Madej and Volaire put a sinking feeling in the pit of Royland’s stomach. That was it, it seemed, he was no long King. Just an exiled swordsman, followed by his closest friends. Destined to return to the seat of power, or relegated to wandering the continent for the rest of his days? Once across the border, he stopped in his tracks, causing Sirius to briefly run into him, who turned to look at Walter, and Sirius. The journey was just beginning, now. That which he’d inherited was sand gliding through his fingers. There was no grasping onto it.
“Sirius… Walter, Alain… This will be our last look of home.”
The beginning of their trek was a somber one, but in an effort to shake off the tense atmosphere, everyone chimed in to answer Sumina’s inquiries of their night. As it would turn out, it seemed everyone slept fine, aside from Royland. Upon hearing Royland’s less than positive admission, Sirius laughed.
“Always when you’ve got something on your mind! I remember you coming to the morning spar looking like you had soot under your eyes!” Alain chuckled at the memory, and Walter stifled a laugh.
“I remember how hard you tried to outclass everyone, even when you hadn’t yet come of age. You were a short one.” Walter smiled fondly.
Royland sighed, “Alright, you three…” But the smile on his face gave his feelings away. “Nothing about me could ever outshine the day Sirius ended up smacked in the face by his stallion’s second tail.” After a few moments of stifled chuckles, Alain and Walter were wiping tears from their eyes, while Sirius looked on, embarrassed.
Quickly, the laughter stopped when the group noticed Sumina’s attention drawn elsewhere. Voices. And, like an impulse, Sumina asked Royland for his permission. No words spoken, but he knew. Based on what he had known of her, and through some unexplainable understanding, he could just...tell. He could have told her, ‘No.’ It would have been as simple as ignoring her outright, walking past, and never looking back. But it seemed that anytime Sumina asked him for something, he folded, deflated, for fear that he might hurt her feelings… With a quiet sigh, and without words to avoid the hunters gauging their numbers, he looked to Alain on his right, gesturing with his head to flank farther outwards. The same for Sirius, but on the opposite side. Royland and Walter would approach with Sumina from the front.
One of the hunters looked up from his injured friend on the ground and took a stand. Thankfully, he had noticed that no swords were drawn, and so he kept his bow at his side. “Who are you three?” His eyes – some dazzling mix of green and brown – zeroed in on Sumina. “…An Elf. You a healer?” The man sidestepped out of the way, now making his friend’s leg fully visible.
“Please, you have to help us.” A second man, knelt on the ground, pushed a handful of dark hair out of his face. Again, the eyes were solely on Sumina. So much for introductions. Royland and Walter exchanged glances, but ultimately decided to keep watch. Just loud enough for the immediate group to hear, Royland muttered, “Just… be careful.” They could be playing it up, poising themselves to attack. At range, and against bows, swords would do little for protection. The safest option was to stand exceedingly close to Sumina while she assessed the man and worked, even if it made the others uncomfortable. With Sirius and Alain in the wings as silent watchers, their advantage was secured. The look of all the men was slightly gaunt; not only was it quite obvious that they did not eat regularly, but they seemed to be suffering from fatigue and low morale, as well. Royland wondered, where had they come from? The able men seemed not to have really taken his presence seriously until he’d asked how they were faring out in the woods.
The tallest man with the dark hair, Kallum, stood to respond to Royland’s question, looking somewhat exasperated by the mere thought of their whole situation. “We’re from a town not much farther north. The woods are scant with game large enough to sustain us all, though. Those troublemakers in Pimli drove most of the bucks and doe southeast into Volaire one winter ago. Ever since then, we pick up what we can find, do whatever we can to secure a decent meal, short of eatin’ our dead.” Royland’s brows came together. He almost felt sorry for the men. Obviously doing what they could to deal with the situation Pimli had wrought upon them.
“What about your crops?” Walter asked, before Royland had the chance.
Kallum shook his head, “Last they pillaged us, we only had so much in the storehouse to survive. We’ve tried to go make it spread further by sending out more hunting parties… But we’ve got to eat, as well.” Kallum’s gaze drifted to the man sat on the ground. “We got careless, this time. Thought we could go for a little longer, go a little further, catch a little more. Ulrich here lost his footing and, here we are.”
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina had enjoyed listening to them talk of when they were younger. It helped ease the homesickness that was troubling them, especially Royland. Leaving can’t have been easy, knowing he was leaving his home, a place he likely felt responsible for, in the hands of others. Others who had stolen it from him. Her people. It got her musing a little in the back of her mind about her home. Not that this was a good time to bring it up.
She smiled when Royland silently agreed to her request. It would be a relief just knowing she did what she could to help. Elf or human, it didn’t matter. These men were in trouble.
A cautious approach was not a bad idea though. Sumina nodded to confirm that she was a healer. These men looked hungry and tired. Times were hard for them. Sumina knelt with her knees in the dirt to attend to the injured man. With a soft, calm voice she asked to see where it hurt.
While she felt along his leg and ankle where the pain was she also listened to the other man talk to Royland. Trouble with Pimli extended well beyond the place itself. Ulrich was wincing in pain while she checked his leg, trying to put on a brave face but it hurt too much to hide entirely. Sumina sighed,”Well, you’ve torn a few things pretty badly, but nothing is broken. I’m glad to help, this would take weeks to heal on its own. Just hold still.”
Weeks to heal, and he presumably had mouths to feed back home. With her hand still over his injured leg Sumina mumbled in Elvish. For flesh to mend, tears to heal, pain to ease. When she lifted her hand she asked him to move his foot and leg. Ulrich did, and looked at her with wide eyes. “Not a bit of pain.”
Sumina smiled, then looked just a bit startled when Ulrich took her hand in both of his,”Thank the Sirens you came when you did. And thank you.”
Gratitude wasn’t uncommon, and she gave him a patient smile. The first man rubbed the back of his head,”Elvish healers really are that good.” Sumina looked up at him. Ulrich still hadn’t let go of her hand. It was starting to get a little uncomfortable how long he was holding on.
“I’m just glad I could help.” She gave Ulrich’s hand a pat,”I suppose we should go now. Do try to be careful on that leg for the next day or two. It is healed, but the area tends to be a little tender for a short while.”
“What’s your name? I have to know. My beautiful savior sent by the Sirens themselves.”
“Sumina.” He still hadn’t let go. Should she say something? Or was he going to once he got up?
“Well, we’ve got to thank you Sumina. Now we’ll be able to get home with no trouble. Do you all have a place to sleep tonight? We don’t have much and can’t pay, but we have a warm place you can rest.” Ulrich did stand, but kept hold of her hand to help her up. He was looking at her with this awed expression. More extreme gratitude wasn’t entirely unheard of, but Sumina wasn’t really used to it being quite so intense. Maybe they really didn’t see Elvish healers very often.
Royland’s eyes snapped to Ulrich’s position with such purpose that it had startled Walter, the way Royland's head moved to put Sumina back in his direct line of sight. There were two things wrong with what he saw before him. Firstly, a strange man was [i touching] – more like clutching – Sumina’s hand. And quite familiarly, too. Second, is that he was [i not] letting go. It was not mere gratitude, anymore. Kallum eyed Walter, who only nodded. Immediately coming to understand that Ulrich was about to lose his [i hands], Kallum cleared his throat.
“Yes, always one for a pretty girl, that Ulrich. Since you’ve offered, let’s lead them home. There may be more to catch on the way.”
“Hopefully you’ve room for two more.” Royland folded his arms across his chest as Alain and Sirius made their presence known. “We’re traveling in a group of five.” At the sight of so many better-fed men before him, Ulrich slowly unclasped Sumina’s hands, giving Royland, what he thought, was a bit of a harsh glare.
“Ah, of course. A woman with the temperament of an angel and the beauty of a Queen,” Royland rolled his eyes – he thought they might get stuck behind his skull. “Of course you’d have many men devoted to your safety. Come, my beautiful savior.”
That walk to the little village in the mountainside seemed to drain Royland more than their ordeal in Pimli. Ulrich, sly bastard, made every attempt he could to stay the center of Sumina’s attention. Originally, Royland was in the center of the group, but as time wore on, he slowed his steps to end up in the rear. When asked by anyone, Walter chalked it up to him being tired, in an effort to keep the peace. No, those stark blue eyes were focused on Ulrich’s hands, inching ever closer to Sumina, and his eyes were looking for any excuse to invade her personal space. The longer he stared, the more suspicious he became. At first glance, it was simple admiration. And, yet, there was that tell-tale hungry look in the young man’s eyes that Royland had seen in many a man’s eye before. Get in her good graces, get her to trust you. And when her back is turned…
Royland shut his eyes and sighed quietly. Best not to disturb himself with any unnecessary thoughts. Sumina had more than enough protectors that, realistically, Ulrich would never have the chance – nor would he live to reap the benefits of any unsavory decisions. The village itself was rather small, a feature Kallum attributed to those who had recently died or left to seek better prospects elsewhere. A sad sight, or at least it would have been, if Royland’s patience had not been ground down to the bone. From the time they arrived, it was most clear that Ulrich was attempting to separate Sumina from the group. Some such nonsense about meeting his elderly mother, teaching him some of the knowledge she shared she knew on the walk there, all implying that he wanted to bring her somewhere that the other men were not allowed. Thank the Sirens that Kallum seemed intent on talking some sense into his friend.
“Ulrich, it’s nearly dark. Let’s give our guests the meal we can muster and let them rest.”
Finally, Royland spoke up, “We’ve also got some rations we can share. You certainly could use them more than us, wouldn’t you say?” Kallum’s eyes seemed to light up with hope – probably the most excited he had been since Sumina and company stumbled upon them in the forest.
“Then… We’ll give the larger catches to the young mothers with children.” With the extra help, the catches could be cleaned, dressed, and dried – whatever what was necessary – long before the night was over. Filling bellies up before the hunger pangs began to set in again. Against his better judgement, Royland found his hands occupied with the numerous squirrels and other small game Kallum had managed to gather with his party, while Sirius and one of the other men that had been in the hunting party distributed the largest pieces of their rations to the rest of the villagers. Still, he frequently checked his surroundings to make sure Sumina was close and not being accosted.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina was glad to get her hand back, and quickly clasped her hands together in front of her. “Thank you. We really appreciate that.”
The walk to their tiny village was not terribly long. Ulrich kept asking her questions, which Sumina answered politely, but sometimes vaguely, especially when it was about herself. A subject he kept coming back to. It wasn’t quite enough to ask about her being a healer, he wanted to know about her home and family too, which she was far more reluctant to talk about with him than she’d been with the others. She was more willing to discuss being a healer, and that it was a particularly long path of magic to study, requiring years of learning and practice. He managed to keep her engaged in conversation practically the entire time.
This was something she’d been warned about by her teacher. Occasionally people would become very [i attached] to a healer who had helped them. The advice was generally to be polite, but not encourage it. It usually passed before too long. Besides, they were only staying the night in the village.
The tiny village was indeed in sad shape, and it hurt a little to see how hard they were struggling. Ulrich wanted her to meet his mother, which she politely declined saying maybe later they might have time. Or teach him something about healing herbs. Really, she thought it best if she stayed to help somehow, with night approaching.
Even though she stayed with the group to help, Ulrich never quite left her alone for long. Sumina set about helping prepare meat for cooking or drying. She knew plenty about both, and was easily able to separate out what pieces would be best for what, and cut them accordingly. Ulrich kept coming to help, carrying off her cut pieces where they needed to go. The work needed to be done, so she was glad it was getting done. Even if he stood awfully close sometimes. Once when he reached for the meat his hand found hers instead. An accident, or so he claimed.
He was looking for any excuse to stay near her. Eventually most of the meat was cut and she turned her mind toward cooking. While they walked Sumina had a habit of constantly picking up little things she spotted that were edible. Both because it was something she enjoyed, and Walter seemed to like hearing her explain about them. Plus as a healer some of the herbs she found might be useful to have on hand, just in case.
The bag of supplies had her collection of herbs, and Ulrich followed her to that where she planned to find something to help flavor their meal. She was fine with indulging his curiosity, but Ulrich finally pushed too far even for her patience. While she was knelt down pulling herbs out of the bag and the others were all occupied with their tasks, Ulrich’s hand went up the back of her tunic skirt.
[i That] was far too much for her to tolerate. She went stiff for a moment, then turned, grabbed his wrist while her other hand went to his chest to push him away. What she said was in Elvish and hissed dangerously, quickly drowned out by Ulrich’s shouts of pain.
Sumina looked furious, then horrified. Her hands quickly clasped over her mouth. She knew exactly what she’d done. Unrich was groaning on the ground with both bones in his arm, several in his hand, and three ribs broken. [i Everyone] was staring at them in shock.
Her face was bright red with embarrassment and rage. She wasn’t sure which emotion was winning, but she was too kind to leave him like that for long. “Sorry about the, um, broken bones. Let me…”
It felt a little awkward, reaching to touch his arm and ribcage again, this time to reverse the damage she’d done. She couldn’t look at him, or anywhere really, and settled on the ground while she mumbled.
As soon as the bones were mended Sumina stood up,”Excuse me, I…” She didn’t even formulate a proper excuse. She just started walking toward the trees, wanting to get away from the stares. She didn’t think she could look anyone in the eye just then. Especially Royland. What might he think, knowing she could do [i that] with a few words?
Despite being so heavily invested in Sumina’s safety, Royland still found himself embroiled in the conversation, wants, needs, and flattery involving the women and children of the village. Despite the obvious appearance of those who did not often indulge in opulent meals, or meals more than the hunting party could manage, a woman was indeed a woman, and Royland was obligated to turn on the charm.
“My, what a handsome man you are!” Giggles erupted from all around him, and as he was taught, he exuded that manufactured princely atmosphere that he was taught so well growing up. Walter and Alain watched from the sidelines, annoyed at that perfectly tilted boyish smile – while Sirius was in awe at the sheer radiance of Royland’s presence. Even dethroned, he could have any woman he wanted, settle down, forget Volaire and lend his talents elsewhere, to another King, or to an impoverished village that needed guidance. He could, Sirius thought, and that magnetic aura the Sirens had gifted him would merely put more loyal souls in his employ. The kingdom he had left behind could surely rebuild itself, in due time, if that was what the young Vondien wished. But his eyes… empty, hollow.
An earth-shattering scream ripped through the quiet village. Kallum jumped to his feet, and looked around quickly, only to lose his enthusiasm upon spotting the two figures in the distance. He muttered in disbelief when he saw Ulrich crumpled beneath Sumina’s rather aggressive stance. The men were stunned into silence, the women looked on in abject horror, and the children hid behind their mother’s legs with little to say aside from uncomfortable whimpers. No one seemed to dare move until Sumina leaned down to Ulrich’s side. Was she going to finish him off!?
A collective sigh of relief escaped everyone, as Ulrich scampered towards the nearest hut – as far away from Sumina as he could possibly muster. Walter nudged Royland to follow after Sumina, to which he obliged. When he got close enough to reach out to her, his face was almost pained. Like he was holding back a laugh. “Are you…?” He snickered. “Are you okay? What did you do to him?” The longer they stood there, the less he could hold in. It never grew into more than a stifled laugh, but it was obvious he so desperately wanted to. Yet, she was so embarrassed – it would behoove him to be considerate of her feelings… He simply couldn’t. Every now and again, he would catch her expression and chuckle a little harder, a little louder, intriguing the rest of their group. Before they could move to check, Royland seemed to regain his composure.
After a minute, Royland wiped a tear from his eye, “I’ve never seen a man crawl from a woman so quickly…! Like a newborn calf…!” He cleared his throat, “I had no idea you could fight.” She certainly didn’t look it, but that defensive stance she had taken with Ulrich was all he needed to see. Her feet planted just so, body straight, arm outstretched. Though perhaps not too suited to hand-to-hand combat that would last more than one or two fighting moves, if she could land a hit… Sumina was deadly. With a smile on his lips, Royland put the palm of his hand on top of her head. They would have to serve dinner, soon, but he suggested a walk to clear her mind beforehand. He waved his hand towards Alain and Walter, who quickly tried to defuse the situation with the villagers, drawing their attention back to the final dinner preparations.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Sumina couldn’t help but glance at Royland when he approached. Her face was so red. She’d half expected him to be worried, maybe a little wary of her. But he was [i laughing], or trying not to, which left her a little confused. “I… I um…” Her hands went to her hair, pulling it over one shoulder,”Broke his arm. Hand. Three ribs.”
At his hand on her head the corner of her mouth finally turned up into a weak half smile. Embarrassment was still the dominant emotion, but she was getting to be a little less mortified. “I can’t really. Just… defend myself a little. Magic mostly.”
A walk would be the perfect thing though. She wasn’t quite sure she was ready to face everyone just yet. Not long after they started walking she was looking over at him. He seemed unconcerned that she’d just broken several of a man's bones. Most people would be quite horrified at a healer hurting someone like that. “I… suppose I may have overreacted. I just… he put his hand up my skirt and I…” Sumina was looking away again. Yes, looking back she was sure she had overreacted.
Royland couldn’t keep the smile off of his face as they made a quick lap around the village. Especially when he noticed she had been staring at him. That much damage from a single push – and she had healed it in just as quick of an instant. Yet she was so embarrassed, more for hurting Ulrich, despite the fact that he had wronged her. “I don’t think you should give him that much credit… He’d have ended up with a lot worse if any of [i us] had gotten to him.” And by that, he meant, if Royland had gotten to him. It was common knowledge that his friends were only there to keep him from desecrating the corpse when he got finished.
“You may not be able to really fight, but… would you like to learn?” She had potential. Great control of her body, an obvious calm mind. Sumina could be a force to be reckoned with, if she should just apply herself to it. She also had four adept fighters in her company – but Sirius was, by far, the most appropriate choice to be her mentor. They were both of slender build and she could serve to learn a thing or two about honing her reflexes from one of the quickest fighters in Volaire’s King’s guard… Or, former King’s guard… The thought had almost served to dampen his mood, but he quickly shook the thought from his mind. “Of course, there’s no obligation…” But the look in his eyes gently pleaded her to accept. Maybe just, one lesson. There wasn’t much [i he] could teach her, but it would allow them some time on Royland’s restless nights turned early mornings. Perhaps he shouldn’t need such an excuse to keep up his own training – that’s what Alain might say, if he were here, right now. But it was an excuse to see more of Sumina and spend time together he normally would not get.
“As long as you let the others know [i why] you did it, I’m sure they’ll understand.” A rooftop was barely visible just beyond the tree line. Their walk was coming to an end. “Ready to face your hosts?” He smiled at her impishly.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] Somehow she didn’t doubt that Ulrich might have had it worse from someone else. Like Royland. She remembered how vehemently he’d defended her from just some words back in Pimli. Royland would have had no patience for Ulrich’s antics. Maybe despite her thought of being too harsh things hadn’t gone quite so badly.
Learn to fight? Sumina looked a little surprised, but she was giving it some serious thought. This path they were on was full of danger. Still, she was reluctant. Sumina was not a very violent person, and had only learned what self defense she had because her teacher insisted on it. For good reason, it turned out.
“Well, I…” How was she supposed to refuse? She met those blue eyes, the hope that she would accept. It couldn’t really hurt just to learn a little and try. She wasn’t much of a warrior and didn’t feel the need to be, but at the same time maybe being even better able to defend herself might help. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt to try. I may end up hopeless at it, but we’ll see.”
His impish smile was met with a small laugh, and her elbow bumping his,”No. But I suppose I can’t hide forever.” Somewhere along the way he had managed to put aside her embarrassment and ease her frayed nerves. The truth was she didn’t want the walk to end. She was really starting to enjoy the time, but they couldn’t stay out terribly long. The others would wonder and worry.
A little of her embarrassment returned when they rejoined the group. She did rather quietly explain what had happened and apologized for reacting so harshly. With an explanation for the sudden outburst, things smoothed over fairly quickly. No one really questioned her more on it. Either understanding perfectly, or perhaps fearing another outburst. Dinner could be made and eaten in relatively good spirits. Ulrich did not make an appearance, apparently not wanting to come near Sumina anymore, which was probably just as well. Sumina wasn’t really eager to see him after that, and wasn’t sure what she’d say to him.
They wanted to set out early. First thing in the morning Kallum was there to see them off, with Ulrich still hiding from Sumina. One of the women had scrounged up a slightly threadbare dress in a faded blue, which Sumina accepted with enthusiastic gratitude, which seemed to embarrass the woman a little who said it was nothing special. There was only a slight delay while Sumina changed, and she set out obviously much more comfortable in the dress. The previous owner had been a little taller, but the longer skirt was easier to manage for her than the shorter skirt of the tunic in some ways.
As gratitude for Kallum’s understanding and for the women’s kind contribution to Sumina, Royland removed a few gold pieces from one of the pouches that the thugs in Pimli had failed to confiscate from them. “I know gold may not seem the most appropriate compensation, but perhaps, if some traders do come your way…” Kallum’s eyes welled with tears, and he vigorously shook Royland’s hand.
“We’re all so grateful. The rations you’ve shared will go a long way. And the gold… it’s almost too generous…” Never in his life had anyone been so willing to pass along good fortune. While they were a lively group, he could tell that they and their actions were genuine. “When offered shelter, you’ve shared your food with us… In these trying times… And you spread your wealth… It isn’t just your healer. You’re all Siren sent.” A proud look was exchanged between the former knights. It reminded them of home – of the bond they would frequently create and reinforce with the people that Royland’s father governed over. It had always been their calling, to be a glimmer of hope in the bleak and dreary reality, with Royland at the helm of their good deeds.
That first day of travel was uneventful; at night, two of the men sat watch while the others slept. Once sleep could no longer be ignored, shifts were switched. Walter and Alain took the first, and Royland and Sirius took the last, just before the sun rose. Given that he had told Sumina he would give her a lesson or two, Royland was careful not to let her be woken up to keep watch. Instead, he shook her early that morning, once he was certain that Sirius was sound asleep. The training, to start, was simple. Exercises that she could do on her own. Simple pivots using only her feet that would allow her to dodge concentrated strikes and conserve energy. A defensive stance, hands covering her face that she could undertake in case someone decided to swing at her directly. Royland was not a strict teacher, by any means, but any improvements that he saw that could be made, he suggested them. In his humble opinion, she caught on quick – quick enough that he suggested she mention to Sirius if he might have more to teach her. Royland could refine her technique all he wanted, but only Sirius could increase her speed.
Unfortunately, that would be his last day traveling at full capacity for the duration of this leg of their trip.
It started with a sniffle, as most illnesses often do. Was it the good weather forcing the flowers to bloom? Pollen had always been a mild allergen to Royland, but never did it persist for days on end. By the third day of travel, it was difficult for him to sleep without his head elevated to clear his sinuses. The sleep he did get was of poor quality. Day four began the dry cough. From the base of his nose to the top of his skull, was a persistent, fuzzy feeling. Walking was difficult – there were several times he would need to use a tree for balance. Of course the rest would inquire, and suggest resting, but he would say they needed to press on. To make good time. To create more distance. They couldn’t stop moving.
The morning of day five, and Walter, Alain, and Sirius were starting to catch on – at least slightly – to their friend’s plight. Alain, as always, came out swinging. “Royland… You look like a swamp witch.” The glare that he received in response must have been extra menacing, because Walter quickly interjected, for fear that a fight might make Royland’s condition infinitely worse.
“Now, now… Perhaps we ought to rest another day.” Unable to speak much, Royland shook his head and simply muttered his disagreement. Gods, he could not think. It felt as though he was looking at the world through frosted windows of a decades abandoned chapel. This feeling would persist for the rest of their time on the road. What would have been six days of travel, turned to seven, then to eight. A full day of walking was simply out of the question, with the state Royland was in. Things were tense as a result. They had no idea how close the current regime might be on their trail, how many men they would manage to send through Madej without immediate intervention, nor what towns they would search, or who might sell them out.
Walter studied their map carefully as the group stood at the makeshift gates of a bustling town, complete with its own outdoor marketplace and several options for accommodations for travelers. “Seems as though this is the only town we might see for quite a while…” Concerned, he glanced over to Royland, who was sat against the side of a building, one knee pulled to his chest, trying to even out his breathing. His face was flush, and his eyes were glassy. Sirius was almost frantically waving a rag in his face, as the fever that had suddenly shown up just that morning had gotten worse.
Alain sighed, running a hand through his hair. “We’ll need to stay here as long as possible. Get our bearings, and… hope that Royland comes out of this alive.” None of them knew what this illness was but, in the end, they were only partway concerned. After all, no one else had caught it. But it was clear that Royland was no longer in any condition to move. Somewhat exasperated, Alain helped Royland walk to the door, and then to the bed, of the room they had managed to acquire at the inn nearest to the edge of town. “Luckily, we had enough gold on us… We can stay as long as we like. Up to two full moons.” The look on his face became gravely serious. Hopefully it wouldn’t have to come to that.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] The kind gesture warmed her heart. She was proud to see that Royland was as generous and well meaning as she had suspected before she’d even met him. His actions spoke louder than any of the rumors or blame for the actions of others.
Sumina was a little surprised to be woken early at first, but then remembered about the training Royland had offered and got up. The others were all asleep, and she wanted to take care not to wake them. She had always been an eager learner, picking up lessons with relative quickness. It still surprised her when he suggested Sirius could teach her more.
There was no rush for lessons as far as she was concerned, so she had neglected to ask for the first few days. After that, she became increasingly concerned over Royland’s condition until thoughts of training to fight were completely pushed from her mind. Far from stopping in her gathering of things, she started to stray a little farther and more often to examine things, and often returned with a bunch of something to tuck away.
Especially the last few days of travel. She took advantage of Royland’s need for rest to increase her silent preparations, not commenting much on what she was gathering. She took other opportunities to see how he was. Not wanting to fuss over him too much, but also concerned, she would often brush his hair back and put her hand over his forehead. There was an almost overwhelming cloud of tense worry over the group, her included.
By the time the fever had appeared, she knew they were going to have to stop soon. He couldn’t keep going, despite his protests. She had silently resolved to put her foot down at the end of the day, but fortunately they found a town before they had to camp again. At that point rather than wander in search of herbs and other ingredients she remained much closer to Royland. She didn’t appreciate Alain’s comments and sighed while they got Royland to a bed.
Rest was what he needed. Proper rest. Not for the first time that day she felt his forehead,”It should not take that long to recover.” She let her fingers comb his hair back and added in a mumble,”It better not.”
He was so hot. She didn’t like the way his eyes looked, or his skin felt. Or the way his breathing sounded. She wished they could have stopped a couple of days ago, when his condition had started to deteriorate, but the hope of town and a bed just a short distance away… “Bring me the bag. Help me prop him up a little.”
She wasn’t barking orders, but there was an authority in her voice that made it hard to ignore. Especially when she looked to each man as she gave the order she wanted [i him] to carry out. Sirius propped Royland up with pillows while Walter brought her their bag of supplies where she had been stowing herbs for days. She sat on the edge of the bed while she rummaged,”What do we have for medicine?”
The men giving each other clueless, somewhat sheepish looks was all she needed. Sumina bit her lower lip on the inside. Of course. None of these men seemed to have a clue about illness. “So what I have then.”
Among other things, but that fever was perhaps the most pressing concern for the moment. It felt too hot for her liking. “I’m going to need a few things in that case. Water, hot and cold. Boiling hot, and as cold as you can get. An empty jug. That rag. A mortar and pestle, or something very like one. Bone broth. Divide up tasks, but get them here quickly. Then I have a few more things I need.”
The bag was set down next to her, and her hands returned to Royland’s face. The men hesitated for a few moments, then got together to divide up who would bring Sumina what. Sumina started by leaning over, taking a better look at his eyes. Her brows drew up and together in clear distress at what she was seeing. She let the back of her fingers trace from his temple, down his cheek, to his chin, and then repeated the motion hoping to soothe him, and maybe let him sleep a little,”How are you feeling now? Try to get some rest. Soon we’ll have some medicine and food.”
Soon, but not soon enough. She wanted to have it already, but she had to wait on pins and needles for Sirius, Alain, and Walter to return, one by one, with the things she requested. Once they got back, she would be sending Sirius and Alain to get them all dinner, and Walter out for a few herbs she wanted more of right away.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
By the time Aias and Tarron trudged in, Vaeril had already, of course, given mother and father the basic story. A second attempt would be made, this time with Vaeril to help track them, since it would be harder with the head start they had.
Aias and Tarron would barely have time to talk with the family and rest before leaving again. What a talk it was. Mother and father had taken over the castle as the new rulers, and were quick to make themselves at home in the castle. The study, which had been where the trail was found and the hunt was started, was where the family met to discuss details.
“He [i what]?” Vaeril was struggling to stay composed. Arms crossed, sitting back against a table, almost relaxed, except every muscle in his body was tense.
Tarron wrinkled his nose,”You heard me. He was holding her hand like he owned her. He’s got those claws in her. Dragged her off with him.”
“And you [i let] him get away with her. Again.” Vaeril grit his teeth. If only he’d been there instead of here, sending messages. There were others who could have sent them, but he was assured his skills weren’t needed to track down a handful of humans scampering away. Or his sister, eager to return to her family.
Tarron bristled,”Maybe [i you] should have watched her then. Set one of your birds on her instead of [i me]!”
Ayre was still sitting in a chair, eyes closed with his nose between his fingers. He hadn’t moved for some time while the others talked,”Quiet. If he [i has]... violated her, in any way, then he’ll pay for that too. It’s settled, I’ll go too.” The eldest looked to his twin. They were identical in nearly every way, save that Ayre’s hair was long and tied back, reaching past his shoulders, while Aias had his cut short above the ears. All four brothers shared a strong family resemblance, with hair ranging from light grey to white like their sisters, and eyes shades of pale blue.
Aias tilted his head down slightly at his brother,”If you like. There’s no guarantee we’ll be able to bring him in alive to you, so this may be for the best.”
Vaeril scoffed. This brother also had long hair, reaching his elbows. Unlike the others, he bore the marks of a summoner on his skin, visible peeking up along his neck and on his arms,”He’ll feel the arrow before he sees us, but I won’t kill him. Not until we can look him in the eye. He’ll know who killed him.”
Tarron kicked the bottom of the closed door,”Great. It’s settled. We kill the bastard. Can we eat and rest before we go?” He had hair similar to Aias, but even shorter. He was simultaneously eager to leave and angry to have to go back to the hunt so soon. But the idea of leaving Sumina in the claws of that fiend bothered him more.
Both parents had been quiet while their sons argued. Ailduin with his elbows on the desk in front of him, fingers laced together with knuckles white from the pressure while he rested his mouth on them. Saida with her hands over her mouth, her head shaking every now and then. Ailduin spoke finally,”Ayre, we need you here. Your brothers can—”
“Father, with all due respect, I am going. I will bring Sumina back safely, and then we can continue with whatever lessons you like.” Lessons on how to be a King. As if a man King for only a few days knew any better than Ayre, Prince for just as long.
“My baby. My poor little girl…” Saida was probably the most distraught. At the sound of her, near tears, all the men stopped their bickering, at least for the moment. Ailsuin tried to comfort his wife.
“I know. Our baby girl. She must be terrified.”
Ayre stood,”We’ll see her safely home, Mother. Aias, Tarron, get some rest. We’ll fetch you when it’s time to leave.” He gave his father a look. No more arguments.
After all of that, Aias and Tarron only had hours to rest before the brothers were all on the trail with fresh horses, and Vaeril’s extra eyes. First was checking on Pimli, which would only be a brief detour, and to see if they could learn more from anywhere else Royland had stopped, maybe about his plans going forward.
Could she feel it, he wondered? The beat of his heart as she ran her fingers across his skin. Bashfully, he glanced away, none too keen on answering her question – on her seeing him in such dire straits. But, what could he do, now, aside from lie there and accept her concerns? “I feel…” A violent coughing fit erupted from him, and he turned to shield his face from her. Partially not to irresponsibly spread what may be contagious, and the other to hide the red tint making its way across his cheeks. “I’ve… been better.” That much, he thought, was plainly obvious to see.
Despite being propped up, his breathing would not settle for some time. And all the while, as they sat in the inn, so clearly alone, Royland eventually could not care to take his eyes off of Sumina for any extended period of time. She was still touching him – with a caring aura that had not been exuded towards him since he was a child. But the intentions were…different. Maybe? He thought back to his declaration to her in Pimli. To the moment they shared in the encampment, when their faces had inched closer to each other than ever before. Weakly, he smiled at her, the fever emboldening his thoughts. Without clearly thinking, he reached up to touch her hand. To stop the soothing motion of her skin against his. “If you keep doing that, I won’t be able to calm down...” Was it the fever or his embarrassment that was causing his face to grow ever hotter? “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were taking advantage of me…” Royland clasped her dainty fingers gently. Not that he could ever articulate it, but, her presence itself was enough to calm him into a light, unsatisfying sleep until Sirius and Alain had returned with the supposed “bone broth” Sumina had asked for.
Sirius’ voice reached the room first. “Lady Sumina!” Royland’s hand released Sumina’s as soon as Sirius and Alain made themselves visible, now fully awakened. Somewhat eagerly, they presented a sizable pot full of hot water, whole, unbroken chicken bones and a random assortment of vegetable scraps that the vendors at the street market had let them take. Sirius almost seemed to be shaking, while Alain displayed his signature, unbothered expression, watching Sumina expectantly. What was she planning to do with this, he wondered? Sirius continued, “I-Is this what you needed!?”
“Seems quite a strange ask, to me.” Alain had his arms crossed over his chest, skeptical, but open to any and all outcomes. Royland might have thought to laugh, if he had not been in such poor spirits and health. With a smirk just barely hidden beneath the covers on top of him, he eyed Sumina for her reaction.
“Well, you can’t fault them for effort…” Royland said, attempting to reassure Sumina.
When Walter returned with the only properly fulfilled request of the evening, he looked at Sumina expectantly for his next task. “What else can I do?” Royland’s open eyes put a smile on Walter’s face. “You’re conscious! Thank the Sirens.” A sudden thought made its way across Walter’s face, and he exclaimed something nearly unintelligible about the pestle and mortar before taking his leave from the room once again. And just like that, they were alone. Again.
“If I sleep, tell me… Will I awake, again…?” Somewhat seriously, he locked eyes with her. But he was tired. His vision was fading, and it became easier to breathe. If death felt so peaceful, if his last sight should be Sumina, then so be it.
[left [pic https://i.imgur.com/n90UwYf.jpg]] He certainly had been better. Sumina smiled slightly, and once he had stopped coughing to lay back had resumed her attempts at soothing him until his hand stopped hers. Her face felt warmer at his words. Was she being too familiar? But he kept hold of her hand. And the look in his eyes… he was undeniably tired, but what else was there? Not irritation, and not a desire to move away. If anything she felt pulled in, and had to look away, at his hand in hers. She gave it a gentle squeeze,”Royland…”
What else to say? Things fell quiet, and she was content to sit silently and watch over his uneasy rest. Here they were alone again, and despite her worry things felt calm. Until Sirius and Alain returned.
She couldn’t believe it at first. Her hand closed into a fist over her mouth while she took in the pot of what could [i become] bone broth, with a little more work. They were so [i sincere], but this wasn’t… “Mmm.”
How to articulate it without sounding like she was insulting them? It was so stupid. Bones and vegetable scraps in hot water? It was something a child might bring her, but these were fully grown men. Her eyes flashed to Alain when he commented on this being strange. “Yes. Well. That’s not… It’s a start. To get proper bone broth you need to do something [i with] the ingredients.”
Like explaining to children. Sumina sighed and explained step by step how to make the bone broth, and sent them off to do that and get food for them all while they were at it. She looked at Royland, who at least seemed to get some amusement out of it. She couldn’t help but smile,”Like children.”
Then there was Walter. Thankfully he had brought the water and empty jug. But then he remembered the mortar and pestle. She just shook her head. They were nearly hopeless when faced with an illness. She’d have to tease them mercilessly once this was over.
The rag was soon damp with cool water, and Sumina was back at the bed, water in reach. “Of course. And I will be right here.”
He’d been more active with the men here, but of course it had tired him and drained what little energy he had. “Rest.” She tried to cool his forehead with the cloth while she waited for the others to return. And she would have to remember to hush them when they [i did] come back. She couldn’t have them rile Royland up and waste any gained energy and strength.
[center [b ~*~*~]]
Vaeril was able to tell more or less what path they had taken through Pimli. Including their first stop at the monastery. They decided to stop there briefly to question the monk.
At first the stop seemed fruitless. The old monk was stubborn, and scrutinized them. On learning that the Elvish girl from days before was their sister, he did give them two scraps of information, neither of which was very useful. He confirmed that they [i had] been here briefly, but he knew nothing of their plans. Vaeril already knew that they had at least passed by, which was the only reason they were here. He gave them one more thing that had them all thinking about it as they hurried on past Pimli. That their sisters destiny was intertwined with a man, a man the monk described and matched what they knew of Royland. He didn’t even confirm how many were traveling in the group, and the brothers decided not to waste too much time prying that out of the old man.
They couldn’t afford to waste time on too many useless questions if they were going to catch up soon. And after hearing about this supposed destiny, it seemed all the more urgent that they should catch Royland and rescue their sister. What might he have done to ‘intertwine’ their destinies according to the cryptic old monk?
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