The sun overhead the grasslands was overbearing. That was the thought that occurred to Varlaine the most pressingly, though perhaps it was a lack of cool, fresh water that brought on the internal complaints. He wasn’t used to traveling, let alone in the wilderness, alone, but that was to be expected. Under him, his chestnut horse plodded along the dirt path at a sedated pace, just as tired as he was. Young fingers reached up, slipping out of a royal purple silken sleeve and craning to brush the mare’s smooth fur, petting his mount in the soothing way he’d been taught in the castle before drawing back to brush back-length platinum hair over his shoulder. It was messy now with sweat and dirt, unbecoming of him.
Above him, a massive winged beast circled, with its rider casting wary glances down on him. The creature was part of the Revengardian mounted force, a griffon, war mounts that bonded to their riders for life. Eryn was in the saddle. She was part of the royal guard for his country, for Revengard, dressed in the colors of a neophyte—orange garb under flat gray armor, lightweight for her own steed’s sake. She was still young, too young to be dragged into the mess he was in, having only seen fifteen years come and go. But then, he had just celebrated his thirteenth some few months prior. Suddenly feeling much more vulnerable and weak, Varlaine pulled a cerulean-painted tome to his side protectively. A spellbook, the only thing he’d managed to grab on his way out when Eryn had come to grab him, and the only defense he had.
The griffon rider far above him waved to get his attention, and then pointed out ahead of them, over the hills and smooth, well-traveled roads. She yelled something that he didn’t catch from their distance, but flicking his eyes up, he saw what she was attempting to draw attention to. Wafting over a crest and past the horizon was a trail of dark smoke, which, were he traveling under any other condition, would have given him hope; smoke meant people, and people meant safety. His parched throat swallowed as he considered it more deeply. Right now, the two of them were not moving in peace, they were fleeing. The bloody, silent coup d’état he’d witnessed was still fresh on his mind. If they found themselves in the hands of whoever had ripped through the royal family, they would not be shown mercy. None of his brothers or sisters had been.
As he contemplated whether or not they should continue down the road they were on or double back the way they came, Eryn started to descend. Great flaps of her griffon’s wings caused Varlaine to flinch away, hair gusted about once more, before talons dug into the earth as he stabilized himself. Perched up on a leather saddle, the guard he’d taken on leaned forward to wrap her arms around her mount’s neck in a hug—then she scratched her fingers through his cheek feathers.
“Good boy, Cassius,” Eryn cooed. The griffon preened at the touches, then, and shuffled. When she was done treating Cass for a good flight, she leaned back and looked over to ‘Laine. Her hair, cyan like a crystalline lake and strung through beads on one side, was swept back by the wind and as wild as the girl beneath it. “Prince Varlaine, there is a group of men on the road ahead. I think half a dozen or so.”
Varlaine frowned at the news. Whether he wanted to or not, it sounded as if he was going to have a run-in on the roadside. “What could you tell from them? Are they guardsmen?”
“I don’t think so. Looked too plainclothes.” The rider noticed his expression and shook her head. “Definitely armed, though, and coming this way. I’m sorry, Prince, I think they saw me.”
He was trained well enough in social etiquette to notice the apprehension and concern on her face, just as he was educated in how to mask his own. Taking a breath to calm his nerves, Varlaine shook his head. “Don’t worry, Eryn. I’m sure that everything will work out.” He assured her. She nodded, though he could see her fingers dancing over the handle of the sheathed axe bound by leather cords to Cassius’ saddle. Briefly, the runaway prince felt dread wash over his shoulders; they had been lucky to avoid trouble in the two days since leaving the capitol, but should they end up crossing paths with the men who had just taken his father’s castle by storm, Eryn could easily abandon him on the ground and fly away. After all, she was already escorting him away from her house and home, away from family, and placing her faith in him, all out of duty to her country. He couldn’t ask her to risk her life any further than she had by getting him this far.
“Do you think we should turn back?” She asked him. Her head tilted to the side curiously, evaluating the young royal. Doubt was written across her face, replacing the nervous crease she’d been showing.
After a moment of contemplation and looking at the road behind them, Varlaine shook his head slowly. “No… I think we need to keep going forward.” There wasn’t much for him that way. Besides, if word of the overthrow he’d seen hadn’t spread, he needed to find someone to tell and get the message out. They needed to find one of his father’s advisors, or someone from Immervolk, the neutral theocracy to the south, anyone who could offer them sanctuary.
“Then you should keep that spellbook out.” Eryn’s tone was flat, dissatisfied but softened by acceptance. He couldn’t really blame her for her temper, though, she was only a teenager. Varlaine nodded in response, one hand holding onto his tome, the other taking up his mare’s reins again. With a snap of the leather, not too harsh, he got her to trot forward. Cassius, Eryn in tow, paced after him, and together they climbed the hill to greet whatever was over the top.