Chapter (I): Fleeing the Nest (Part 5)

After staring at the woman who’d cleared their problem out for a few moments, Varlaine shook his head. Now was not the time to be gaping. He motioned with a hand after the retreating bandit, and Eryn followed his pointing for a moment before shaking her head. The rider’s arms were still crossed firmly over the thin metal plate over her chest, and she was quick to return her stare to the redhead between them. Distrust clouded her eyes and dragged her lips down into a frown.

“Are you two injured?” The question that came from the armored, older woman was hoarse, rough, like someone who had been days without water. It shocked Varlaine for a moment; he had thought perhaps she was masking her voice, but it seemed now like it was natural to her. The prince shook his head in response.

“No… erm, thanks to you. I mean, thank you.” He answered lamely. She watched him for a moment, with steel-gray eyes, judging silently before nodding. ‘Laine felt his cheeks heat up in humiliation. At the end of the encounter, he felt useless; Eryn had at least dealt with the leader, and this woman, whoever she was, had really dealt with everything. When she seemed satisfied with her look over him, she turned her eyes to Eryn, who was visibly less impressed than he was.

“Who are you?” The cyan-haired griffon rider demanded. Her tone was sharp, interrogatory, and made Varlaine flinch. The swordswoman she was challenging did not seem perturbed, tilting her head just slightly at the question and turning her attention to the bandit Cass had put down.

“Naz. Mercenary.” Short responses, curt and to the point, while she stepped forward. Cassius pulled back a pace, leaving the body under his claws where it lay; with a boot, the woman turned him over and grimaced, before rolling him over again to lay facedown. Varlaine chose not to look too long, but appreciated that the sight was probably nicer that way.

Eryn, however, seemed less than grateful. “That’s funny. Those guys called you Henrik, right before you stabbed the lot of them in the back. Who’s Henrik?” She pointed out. Her ornate, expensive axe was lifted to rest over a shoulder, perhaps to display her lack of fear, but the show of power didn’t seem to shake Naz any. The middle-aged woman frowned at the girl on her griffon’s back.

“I imagine this armor belongs to him.” A noncommittal shrug, looking around once more, taking stock of the bloody dirt around them. Her eyes came to rest on the motionless, spear wielding man Varlaine had incapacitated with an icicle, and her brow narrowed. “Ran a carving knife through his throat. Took his gear to go after his comrades.” Her head turned and Varlaine got another look at her hair: red, but faded, a color that was practically nonexistent in Revengard and something of a rarity in anyone who wasn’t from the northern country of Lor’tsun. She cleared her throat, snapping him out of his musings to inform Eryn that she wasn’t intimidated. “Do you have more questions? Because you left one alive.”

Eryn’s discontent with that answer showed in a glance to Varlaine, one that he returned with a shake of his head. While he was just as confused as she was, Naz did not seem like an enemy. She’d saved their lives and demanded nothing in return so far, and appeared to have bigger things in mind—as he watched and tried to piece things together, she marched her way over to the downed bandit. One boot planted in the middle of his back, and with both hands she pulled the icicle free; as she did, he cried out in pain, the ice coming away bloody before it was tossed away. The foot on his back rolled him over, very much alive, very much terrified.

“You. Tell me where your hideout is.” Naz knelt down at his side, one hand sliding his spear out of reach while the other grabbed onto his collar. Then she curled fingers into a metal-plated fist and pulled it back, causing him to flinch. A swift punch to the nose got another cry of pain. Varlaine looked away, while Eryn shouted a complaint.

“Let him up! He’s unarmed.” The rider complained. Her feet kicked over the side of her enormous leather saddle, and then she dropped to the ground, stumbling towards the pair. Naz turned her head to glare, then, but did not strike again.

“Girl, if you had any idea what these men have done…” The woman’s scratchy voice reprimanded, but Eryn didn’t back down. Varlaine was quick to hop off of his horse, feet hitting the ground just as clumsily as his traveling companion but moving to separate her from Naz even as he steadied the dirt beneath him.

“Could you please explain what’s going on?” He asked. Naz turned her stare to him, but then softened and stood back up. As she rose, she rooted her foot on the man’s stomach once more, and dusted herself off.

“There’s a farming village an hour’s journey west. These men hit it hard a few mornings ago.” She explained, lifting her foot and then dropping it back down. The bandit, who couldn’t have been much older than Eryn, yelped at the pressure but didn’t fight it any. “Dozen or two dead. Took everything valuable. Burned most of the rest.” Another stomp, then.

Eryn protested, then. “You’ve gotten your retribution. There’s no honor in hurting the defenseless.” She finally closed the gap enough to put hands on Naz’s arm, tugging her back. While the older woman could have fought back, she humored the rider, taking a step away and letting the bandit recover.

“I’m not going to hurt him, if he tells me what I want to know. I’m going to kill him. Quick, clean.” Naz responded. Varlaine could see Eryn’s blood boiling just beneath the surface of her skin. She grew stiff as the spear that laid abandoned next to her, pulling on Naz’ arm once more.

“No, you’re going to turn him loose after he tells you what you want to know.”

Surprised by Eryn’s stubbornness, Naz stared her down for a moment—and was met with a challenging glare back. Then, she shrugged one shoulder. “Fine. It’s on your head, though.” Her boot lifted from the man’s chest, and he lifted both hands to clutch at the spot that was surely bruised. ‘Laine wondered if Naz had cracked a rib.

(Part 6 is up, and can be found here!)

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Chapter (I): Fleeing The Nest (Part 4)

Varlaine welled up another spell, palm numb with the frost that had covered it. His hand outstretched, aiming towards the remaining spear-bearing bandit, the other still flat on the ground with a shimmering icicle in his back, but the prince faltered before he could let the spell release. Everything was moving so fast, too fast, that he had barely grasped where all of the attackers were by the time Henrik had dispatched of most of them; the stench of blood in the air left him feeling queasy, stomach churning with bile. By the time he was ready to unleash another spell, their armored, helmeted savior was already engaging the last standing enemy. Varlaine’s fingers twitched as he dismissed the spell for fear of misfiring.

In this battle, ‘Henrik’ seemed a little more matched. While skill was evident in the ease with which the swordfighter had struck down the others, it was countered handily by range. The long haft of a spear trained on him kept Henrik at bay, jabbing out in quick, conservative thrusts that he was unable to maneuver around. Despite his footwork, he was not fast enough to get in range safely, but also refused to disengage. The two circled one another, while Cassius and Eryn continued to struggle against their leader, the griffon’s claws wrapped around his axe and having to relinquish his edge in the grapple often, else find the edge of that blade in a claw instead.

Faltering, Varlaine tried to find his voice. If he could warn their ally to pull back, perhaps he could unleash another spell and put an end to this; but he could not bring himself to interrupt, to take charge, to command. So he watched in awed silence as the heavy footfalls of the swordsman carried him just shy of in range before being driven back, then again, then thrice. One of his hands had abandoned his sword, held up and open, prepared to grab. Whoever he was, the young prince was convinced that he knew what he was doing, if they were indeed a ‘he’. When the circling, strafing pirouette of steps in and jumps back placed the warrior directly to his front, Varlaine spied a braid of red hair that slipped from under the bottom of the full, disguising helmet and disappeared down its owner’s back, tucked neatly inside of armor.

Finally, either spotting an opening or growing tired of the game, Henrik launched forward. A hand outstretched, prepared to grab at the haft of the spear aimed at his chest. Laine saw the mistake a moment before the swordsman did, though; the spearman was also trying for a gambit, shifting his aim up, towards the smaller but less protected target of his opponent’s head. Henrik’s open, swinging palm was just a moment too slow to stop the jab in time, and his sword was poised at his side for a strike, not up in a parry: the spear thrust rang true, striking against the armored brow of the swordsman and sending him tripping backwards. He landed on his back, grunting in pain, struggling to come to his feet before the advantage could be pressed.

“Eryn!” Panicking, Varlaine called out to the rider, who was already yanking on Cassius’ reins to pull him off of his first target. He reared up again and screeched, turning and beating his wings against the air to carry him forward the few giant’s paces he needed to close the gap between himself and the spearman. The bandit, in shock at Varlaine’s cry and looking in his direction instead, didn’t see the great beast coming down on his back from behind. One massive, birdlike claw gripped his head, then his full weight came down, flattening the human to the ground with a heavy, dull thud. He did not rise.

Behind Eryn, the leader she and her mount had been struggling with was quick on the draw. He left his ax on the ground, instead pushing himself onto his feet unburdened, hands and arms bloody with the clawmarks Cassius left as proof of their encounter, and sleeves ripped and stained dark. Without even a word, a curse, or a threat, he began to flee; something metal and round hurtled after him but flew past a shoulder, and the distance between he and the victors in the skirmish grew and grew. Varlaine was hesitant to follow, instead looking over his allies.

Eryn was sitting unhappily on Cassius’ back, who was still standing over the body of his kill. She was staring at the stranger in their midst, who they owed their life to, and who was back on his feet. Rather, she was back on her feet; having thrown her helmet after the escaping bandit, her face was plainly visible. Long, auburn-red hair put back in a braid disappeared down her back. Of its length, ‘Laine was uncertain, only that it was surely past her shoulders. Her face was that of a woman old enough to be mothering children his own age, with the onset of crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes and a firm purse to her lips. Neither the wrinkles nor the set jaw attracted his attention as much as the scars that marred her face: while she had the look of one of the fine play performers who would put on shows back in the castle, it was buried beneath a thin, curved line that extended from near her left ear, crescentic across a cheek bone and stopping just shy of her mouth’s corner. Beneath that, in much thicker lines across a tanned, well-traveled chin, a pair of marks like claws ran vertically across the cleft, wider than their cousin over her cheek but less prominent, hidden beneath the shadow of her lip.

(Part 5 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (I): Fleeing The Nest (Part 3)

As Cassius and Eryn took the mouthy bandit to the ground, all five of his comrades recoiled in shock. Each let out a cry of alarm, but one in particular surprised Varlaine. “Gods…!” The bandit they’d called Henrik jumped back in surprise, pulling sword from shoulder to side in a loose stance. The shout that came from under his full helm was coarse; but it was certainly feminine. ‘Laine’s head wasn’t the only that turned, either. Two of the men jerked their heads to glance at the armored swordsman, while two others were already closing in on Cassius and Eryn.

The young prince had to tear his focus away from both his traveling companions and the curiosity that was Henrik’s voice to stay his horse. The beast panicked at the screech Cassius gave off when he charged, forcing Varlaine to grab at the reins with his free hand, rearing it back and squeezing his heels in against its sides in an effort to bring it under control. His other hand held his spell tome close; using the pages of the book as a catalyst, his hand had begun to ice over, numb with the chill of ice magic. By the time he was stable, he heard the sound of metal rending metal, and turned to look at the source.

Henrik had closed the distance to one of the two men who had noticed something was amiss. In a heavy, overhead swing, the fighter split the helm of the bandit, smashing through it and sending his confused ‘ally’ to crumple to the ground—dead. As he started to fall, the man’s killer planted a leather boot in his chest and kicked him away. ‘Laine flinched when he got a look at the damage caused by the swing, as Henrik stopped to assess the situation.

“Keep your head down and your eyes open. Help her.” That rough voice, even more feminine now that Varlaine was listening for it, commanded. After a moment, he grasped that it was an order for him, and turned his attention back to Cassius and Eryn, the former of whom was wrestling with a pinned highwayman and the latter was now swinging her fine steel axe at one of the two pike-bearing men trying to free their leader. He seemed to be struggling with getting in range, a long spear knocked away with ease every time it drew near enough to jab at Eryn. Similarly, Eryn, mounted on the back of Cassius, could not press the advantage and get in range to strike him down.

Varlaine’s stomach lurched at the thought of loosing a spell that might end someone’s life, but that was quelled by the fear that Eryn might face injury or worse if he faltered. In a bright burst of neon, icy blue, a frozen spire erupted from his palm like an arrow freed from a bow. It flew just as straight, headed for the man who was closing in on Cass’ flank and embedding into his shoulderblade from behind; with a yelp of pain, he stumbled and fell flat.

Off on the other side, Henrik was crossing swords with the other who’d taken note of his betrayal. Steel met steel in loud crashes, but it seemed fairly one-sided from where ‘Laine was watching. Henrik’s steps were like a dance: in, and out, blocking swings with harder ones to meet, sending his partner more and more off balance, until a flick of his wrist slit his notched, scratched blade against the other bandit’s forearm. His cry of pain was silenced quickly; both of Henrik’s hands gripped the hilt of his sword and crashed it upon the man’s neck, slicing diagonally into it and leaving him dead on impact. Without stopping to take the damage in, he was already moving to assist Eryn.

(Part 4 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (I): Fleeing The Nest (Part 2)

Once they’d climbed over the hump, the young prince could more clearly see what was waiting on the other side. Eryn had been roughly accurate in her count: five highwaymen blocked the path, each dressed in plain clothes and clunky, misfit armor, iron plates over some chests and hole-riddled chainmail covering others. Their roughness was plain to Varlaine even at a distance, and made him clutch his tome tighter to his side. The leather cover grew icy against his royal garb, magic welling up in a tingling sensation at his fingertips. While he’d never used his magical training in any real-life and certainly not in any life-threatening scenarios, it was better than being unarmed. Far beyond the group was a sixth, lagging behind, with a drawn sword slung over his shoulder. While his education in formations was scant at best, the young prince was uncertain why they would need a rear guard for such a small party.

The distance between the mounted pair and the roadblock closed faster than he would have liked, taking his thoughts out of the books he’d studied in his father’s libraries. Upon closer inspection, three of the men were carrying bags over their shoulders, thick burlap sacks all filled to the brim. As Varlaine and Eryn approached, Cassius shaking himself off uncertainly, they dumped the bags to the ground and dusted hands off to come forth and greet the pair.

“You two look lost.” One of the men, with a wide, curved axe slung over his shoulder, worked past the others. Varlaine took stock of him for a moment, the armor covering his chest and head, the dark, browning red dried to the edge of his weapon. “These parts aren’t very safe. Need’n a little protection to get home?” He bounced the axe on his shoulder with his question.

“No, thank you very much.” Varlaine shook his head, keeping his back straight and his head high, even while the fingers of the wind brushed his long, silvery blonde hair, showing just how young and small he really was. Even on horseback, if they tried to get through, or around, they would be taking too many risks. “We are perfectly capable of handling ourselves on our way South.”

Eryn, surprisingly, was rather quiet. She had her hand on the haft of her axe, but didn’t pull it free just yet. Instead, the rider sneered to herself, crossing her other arm over her chest and seeing how the diplomatic approach worked out.

“Maybe I wasn’t bein’ clear enough,” The armored man in front of them laughed, a dry, mocking noise. Varlaine could tell from the look on Eryn’s face that she was boiling up inside, that her pursed lips were aching to go off. “We’re gonna walk the two of you home, and then we’re gonna get a nice, handsome reward for it. Now, put that axe down, girl, before someone gets hurt.”

The sound of metal scraping lightly on leather as Eryn’s axe came free from its holster on the saddle made Varlaine wince. He pulled his book in front of him, opening it to the first page he found, and concentrating on the contents: a large, circular glyph, with symbols and letters in Immervian script. Immervolk had created the art of spellweaving, and shared it through the form of books like the one he was holding—filled with pages upon pages of incantations, of catalytic runes, enough for novice mages to summon forth magic. If Eryn was drawing her weapon, he should ready his own.

“I hope by ‘handsome reward’, you mean literally.” The griffon rider sneered and spat at the bandit’s feet. He stepped back, boots kicking up dirt as he scowled in return, tightening his grip on his axe and moving to speak before Eryn cut him off. “Because you certainly could use some help after getting beat so bad with the ugly stick. Maybe I could give your face a little help, with this.” She slung her own axe up to her shoulder, matching his threatening stance with her own. While his was rough, stained and simple and cheap, hers had been a graduation present from her parents and been purely decoration for her saddle thus far, a pristine, elegant looking tool that would look more at home on a wall than a battlefield.

Tensions were rising faster than Varlaine wanted to admit, and with the numbers and experience clearly not on their side, a battle wasn’t in their favor. Eryn had gone quiet, challenging the axe-wielding brigand with a glare. The sixth member of the crew had caught up to them while they talked, as well, further stacking the odds against the pair. He wore a full helmet covering all of his face except for a tan, scarred chin, and he was armored solidly from shoulders to toes. Perhaps that was the reason it had taken him so long to catch up. When the new arrival took his place at the back of the group, one of the members greeted him with a nod.

“Wotchu got there, Henrik? Fancy a new set of clothes while you were doing the rounds?” The bandit laughed. Most of the others flicked a glance at the more heavily armored man, who shrugged with one hand, the other still balancing his sword on his dented iron pauldron. The nicked, scuffed blade he carried tapped the metal quietly, and attention redirected towards Eryn.

The rider didn’t seem to be backing down or regretting her choice of words, which only made Varlaine more nervous. She was quick to anger, he’d learned from his time travelling with her, and slow to move on. The encounter was going to turn violent soon, unless he intervened. He started to open his mouth to speak, but was cut off when the bandit pulled his head back and spit at Cassius. The griffon stepped back in alarm, clicking his beak and stamping front legs.

“Ya’ve got a mouth on ya, girl. I was beginning to think ya were going to let yer boyfriend do all the talkin’,” He belted out a laugh, then motioned with his hand. Four of his compatriots started to fan out, forming a half circle, while the most heavily armored one in the back stood still. They couldn’t escape that way. “Beauty’s wasted on a temper like that. Ya’d do well to keep yer mouth shut when yer this outnumbered. Now, put down yer weapons, both o’ ya, if you don’t want us having your chicken over the fire tonight.” He moved a step closer, which spurred Laine into ushering his horse forward several steps.

“That’s enough!” The young prince lifted a hand up, palm out, trying to keep the peace. He wanted to cut off Eryn’s inevitable retort. She didn’t belong out here, and wouldn’t be able to make the right choice; he could see her already tugging on Cassius’ reins, pulling her axe back and tensed for a fight. “If you let her leave, I’ll come with you quietly. My name is Varlaine Serilvan Estergrand. My… my father will pay you well for my safe return.”

The man in front of them snickered at that. “Estergrand. As in, King Arivan Estergrand. You’re joking, right? What do you have to say about this, chickadee?” His head cocked, smirking to Eryn, who was seething. Varlaine didn’t know if she was angrier at the situation, or at him for offering himself over.

“I’d say my chicken is hungry.” She hissed back through her teeth. Then her hand on Cass’ reins lifted and snapped them back down, getting an ear-piercing screech from the great avian beast. “Hyah!” The scream split the air and sent Laine’s horse into a panic, rearing back, and he lurched to regain control. As he did, the ground shook with the weight of massive griffon claws galloping forward. Wings opened and flapped to gain a few feet of air, and both rider and mount let out a loud, angry cry as Cassius ascended before grabbing onto the surprised highwayman’s shoulders with birdlike claws and dropping their combined weight onto him.

(Part 3 is up, and can be found here!)