Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 4)

“More Alra than Revengardian?” Eryn asked. “What do you mean? Isn’t it our territory?”

“No… not quite,” Laine finally took his eyes off of Naz to address the trainee. “It’s outside of our domain, but not quite in the space the Alra tribes have claimed. It’s a city-state in itself.” Giving that a moment of thought, he rubbed his chin and looked up. Why did they refuse to annex themselves to a stronger nation? The protection of the Revengardian army would surely be a welcome boon to a merchant-filled city.

Nico shrugged. “Not Revengardian, and not part of Eriskar… I don’t know why Naz wants to send these people there. Definitely too many beastmen for my tastes, not sure I’d want to follow. But I trust her judgment. Owe her something fierce, too.”

The remark on Alra-kind bothered Varlaine, pulling him from his thoughts to instead cast his attention over Nicomenda. Staying his tongue, he instead returned his eyes to the mercenary on the stage. He’d missed some of her speech, but she seemed to have stirred the crowd up enough. They drew up to the wooden platform, mystified by both the shimmering treasures that were laid out neatly and with the way Naz spoke.

“I cannot tell you what to do. I can only tell you what I think is safe,” She continued, one arm lifting up and resting her hand on her hip. She cleared her throat, pausing to swallow. “And staying here is not.” Her armor defended her from scrutiny, reflecting and glinting; ‘Laine had only ever seen stuff of that quality in some of his father’s war room meetings, on a few Revengardian generals. Lor’tsun was a supremely battle oriented country, so he supposed they would have equipment of that caliber in good supply; still, she seemed to hold it in very high regard. Indeed, he wondered if she had hunted down the gear’s thieves as much for the sake of the armor as for the town.

The people chattered amongst themselves, while Naz shook her head and moved to jump off the stage. When she knelt and placed her hand on the edge, a man’s voice called out. “Wait—wait. Will you be coming with us?”

Naz stopped and looked back at him, then cast a glance over to Varlaine and his group. “No. I have business elsewhere.” She responded. Another murmur ran through the people, but she ignored it to hop off the stage and plant her boots in the mud. While they talked, she worked her way away from them and to the displaced prince.

“Good speech.” Nico praised, offering a thumbs-up while he leaned against a splintered wooden wall. “I don’t know if they’ll buy it, but I’d go if you were.” Varlaine opened his mouth to speak out on that, but just frowned and looked awkwardly away from Nico. “So… why aren’t you going, anyways?”

“I have to get these kids to Skyvlan. Then… I don’t know.” Naz dismissed his praise with a shake of her head. Eryn was still leaning heavily on Cassius. Hoping to assuage her concerns, the young prince reached to take her hand again, but she did not extend her own in return. His fingers instead drifted through Cassius’ earth feathered side. “But that’s later. Now, I need you to watch over them for a while.”

“What?” Eryn perked up at that, scrutinizing her with a wary eye. “Why is he watching us? I thought you were going to be taking us south.”

“I am,” The warrior brushed off the concern by rolling one of her shoulders. Varlaine could see a renewed dance to her steps, even if she was out of breath, taking a canteen from Cassius’ saddlebag and immediately draining it. She swallowed wholly but quietly, before returning it to its slot and wiping her lips. “But I need to help these people first. You two stay with him. I get them moving. We get supplies. Then we leave.”

While Varlaine wasn’t ecstatic about spending more time with Nico, he at least had enough sense not to complain. So far, the mercenary was already offering far more aid to him and Eryn than he could repay. When she clapped him on the shoulder, he met her eye and nodded.

“I’ll be going. You lot stay safe.” She said, and then started to make her return to the people she’d left behind. They’d begun to follow after her, and stopped when she moved into their midst. ‘Laine had to admit, it was better that way: he would rather not be in front of so many of his father’s citizens.

When she was gone, Nico sighed and shook his head. “Skyvlan… that’s at least two weeks on foot. Not a fun trip. What have you gotten yourself into?”

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

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 3)

((Author’s Note: Sorry, everyone, I made a mistype and called the trade city ‘Eriskar’. The name of the city is Kelvrir, and Eriskar is the general name for the region under Alra dominion. This has been corrected. My apologies.))

As the townspeople congregated, faces darkened with grief and soot and with ash staining their clothes gray, Varlaine felt nothing short of dismay. Of course, he masked it, watching the situation unfold from a distance. Naz reached her hands down to pat the heads of the children who’d come to greet her, offering each some words of acknowledgement before going to speak to their mother, a woman who stood alone and walked with a weight on her shoulders that the prince couldn’t fathom even as he tried. While she did, a hand clapped onto ‘Laine’s shoulder and shook.

His stomach tightened abruptly, and the salted pork that he’d swallowed down earlier in the morning threatened to make its return in the mud at his feet. Swallowing it down, he turned his head to see the guard that Naz had been speaking with before. Nico, she’d called him. He looked friendly enough, but the hand that squeezed ‘Laine’s shoulder was stronger than the man put on.

“Sorry, did I scare you?” The guardsman asked. Varlaine shook his head, and the older man broke into a grin as he released the boy. “I figured maybe you two would like to get out of sight.”

“Please,” Eryn sounded less comfortable than ever. For her sake, ‘Laine nodded in agreeance, and Nico gestured for the pair to follow. They did, Eryn on Cass’ back and Varlaine on foot, leaving his horse tethered to the stage with the treasure they had recovered. Together, they slunk into an alleyway between two houses that still stood with all four walls, though the shattered window they stopped by left little comfort in the prince’s heart.

“Didn’t get to introduce myself.” Nico reached one hand out, extending it to Eryn first. She had to lean over to reach, but when he had her palm the older man took a moment to kiss the top of her hand. “Nicomenda Bellant. One of the few remaining town guard, and not a bad shot besides.” While Varlaine wanted to be annoyed at the blatant flirtation, something that Eryn took to with a smile and notably heated cheeks, he found himself focusing more on Naz. The mercenary woman was going around the stage to climb up its steps, standing just behind the line of goods they’d brought.

“E-eryn. Eryn Fitch.” The rider tucked blue hair behind her ear as she gave her name. “Royal guard in training. It’s nice to meet you.”

“I think Naz is about to speak,” Varlaine interjected. The other two looked at him and then at the square, where people had congregated around the stage and started to quiet down. The respect that she commanded left him confused and intrigued; in the palace, the term ‘mercenary’ was as dirty as ‘harlot’ or ‘slave’. People like Naz sold their lives, and were therefore worth little when compared to the people who bought their services. As he crept forward enough to lean against Cassius’ side and reach a hand up for Eryn’s, Varlaine did not feel so valuable; the rider taking his palm in her own and squeezing assuaged him in the same way a fleeting breath of air would the terror of a drowning man bobbing at the surface.

As Naz stood tall in her silver armor, the people hushed each other. She seemed confident enough in front of the crowd, clearing her scratchy throat and straightening her back to stand taller. Once they’d quieted down, she spoke in her rough, harsh voice. “People of Dalren! I return with gifts, and with news.” Despite the distortion that made her sound much older than she appeared to be, Varlaine couldn’t help but pick up a musical lilt to her voice. It beckoned for attention, and had him listening to what she said with as much intent as any of the townsfolk.

“The men, the criminals who have burned your homes and murdered your kin, have been slain.” She stopped to swallow, and to allow for the scattering of applause and satisfied chatter. When it stopped, she gestured with her arms at the recovered gold and gems at her feet. “Better yet, we have reclaimed your jewelry, your gold, your heirlooms. And then some!” Naz’s voice rose, and the crowd’s excitement followed. Varlaine arched his brows in surprise. She had been so stiff, so reserved, when they had spoken over the last two days. Her skill with the peoples’ energy rivaled that of some of the speakers and entertainers he’d seen in his father’s court.

“At my feet is a handful of the gifts we bring back to you. When you have men and women able, I will take them to the rest—but with this bounty, I bring conditions… and a warning.” Her tone darkened, lower, and the peoples’ giddiness ebbed as quickly as it came. They leaned in to listen closer, collectively.

“First: ensure all personal effects find their way home. Wedding bands, lockets, family marks, these are to be returned to their owners. Widows regain the belongings of their husbands. Widowers, their wives. Orphans, their parents.” A clear-cut rule, which was sensible enough. Indeed, nobody seemed to be arguing it aloud, prompting her to continue. “The rest is to be divided among the living by need. The disabled, the old, the unfit. There is enough to buy many of you a new life.”

The speech seemed to be taking its toll on her, despite the energy she carried. Stopping for a moment, Naz paced and swallowed, lifting a hand to rub at her throat. The people she delivered her address to were gracious enough to let her, either out of respect or sheer joy at her offering. When she was able, the redheaded Lor’tsun woman resumed.

“It is my suggestion that you take these spoils and leave this place immediately.” That was a firm statement that stirred some dissent. Before people could protest too loudly, she raised a single hand to the air and held it up, palm out. “I have met with people from the capitol. There has been fighting at the palace. It will soon spread here.” Some of the denials and complaints that had started to form died out just as quickly, settling into a listening, albeit nervous, mob. “I cannot confirm the attackers, but Dalren is not fit to withstand battles… or even another bandit attack. I urge you to take the spoils I bring with you and travel west, to Kelvrir.”

“What is Kelvrir?” Eryn whispered down to Varlaine.

“It’s a trade city on the border between Revengard and the Alra territories. From what I understand, it’s very large and considered a neutral ground,” Varlaine explained. Nico interjected with his own information.

“I hear it’s full of Alra aristocrats who ‘sympathize’ with the poorer humans there. Big money, big talkers.” He added. “More Alra than Revengardian.”

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

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 2)

((Author’s Note: Sorry I’m a day late this week, everyone!))

The center of the village they’d entered was mostly empty when the trio arrived, a small square surrounding a charred, ruined wooden platform. Naz guided Varlaine’s horse to the stage, climbing off and hitting the ground heavy enough to sink her boots into the mud. Without much explanation, she began emptying the saddlebags they’d spent so much time filling in the morning: armfuls of gold jewelry, rings, and coins galore. Each she laid out in a line on the raised platform. When she cast Varlaine a glance, he hopped off of his horse to hurriedly assist.

“What did you mean, ‘capital sentiment is not positive’?” Eryn asked, as the mercenary and prince together began empting the bags that Cassius bore. She sat atop the griffon with crossed arms, demanding an answer, while Naz briefly offered Cass a stroke to his cheek in passing. The griffon arched into the touch, working his beak. “And what exactly is your plan here?”

“My plan,” Naz rasped, then grunted with the weight of a particularly hefty sack of treasure, and Varlaine scrambled to help her with both of his hands under the bag. The two carried it together and dumped it next to the rest of the spoils. “Is to get these people out of here. Before the fires from the palace spread this far.” She opted to ignore Eryn’s first question, earning her a wicked glare.

Varlaine stopped to rest, leaning against the stage and looking over the treasure they’d brought back. It certainly looked like a lot, even to his princely eyes, and it was only a fragment of what they had found in the den. “Fires? What do you mean?” He frowned when he asked, but quickly reverted to neutrality when he realized that a few townsfolk had trickled into the square and were regarding him with curiosity. His royal tutors had taught him that he must not convey his emotions outright, especially uncertainty.

“If what I’m hearing—and seeing, with you two—is true, there is a power shift blowing in the winds.” Naz, too, acknowledged the people. She did it with the same stern look that she bore at all other times, and Varlaine wondered who had taught her to look so steady, like a rock. Then she returned to emptying Eryn’s saddlebags and ensuring that all of their retrieved goods were laid out in a long, glittering line. “This area is unstable. At best, more bandits will be looking for weak picks, and this is one. At worst, war will be at these peoples’ doors in a week.”

Eryn’s face set in obvious doubt when she heard Naz’s proposition. “What do you mean, ‘war’?” She asked, sliding her arms around Cassius’ neck in a hug. The older mercenary shrugged her shoulders, going quieter as the number of people in the square grew. At her nonanswer, Eryn reaffirmed herself with a huff. “Revengard isn’t going to war.  Some people attacked the capitol, sure, but I bet they’re being driven back, if they’re not all gone already.”

“If you believed that, you would be returning home right now.” Naz’s tone was not biting, but her words hit hard. Hard enough that even Eryn, whom Varlaine had learned never ran out of things to say, went quiet. “Varlaine, what did you see? Did royalty die?”

The prince nodded, slow and carefully, as he replayed some of what he’d seen on his way out. Yes, he knew that several of his siblings had not been as fortunate as he was escaping the castle. There had been screaming, and the sound of skirmishing, and the gut-wrenching scent of what he’d now learned was spilled blood. “Yes. I know at least three princes… and one princess… are gone. Perhaps more.”

“I don’t know how politics work here,” Naz’s voice lowered, some of the new arrivals to the square starting to approach their huddled little group. Among them were children, a small handful of which seemed quite excited to see the mercenary. They started to close the space between them and the prince’s group quickly, splashing through the mud, and Naz offered them a wave. “But where I’m from, killing a Lord’s son is a major offense. I imagine it worse for a king. There will be a retaliation. And if the assault force was capable of making it into the castle…”

Varlaine didn’t need her to finish her sentence to understand where it was going. She stepped forward and away from him, towards the approaching people, and stooped low to greet a pair of children who hugged around each of her metal-clad legs. Whoever had attacked his home had both purpose and power, and he lacked knowledge of either. The prince looked to Eryn, who had closed her eyes to bury her face in Cassius’ feathers, and retreated further into himself by placing a smile on his own lips.

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

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 1)

The night had been kind to Varlaine. He slept soundly, and did not rise until the door to their shelter opened to let in morning light. Naz stirred both he and Eryn awake, and while the pair were groggy, they were at least well-rested; the older mercenary had opted to take watch all night, something the young prince was grateful for, if a bit embarrassed. Their morning was less restful than the night, which turned his mind off of her quickly; they were saddled up and on the road before too long, this time with Naz directing the trio with heavy bags of pilfered treasures to return them to their owners.

With the roads clear and bright, and Naz confident in her retrieved gear, the travel itself at least passed quickly. This time, she sat in front on his horse, which left him to wrap arms around her waist for stability. His cheeks had flushed initially when she’d told him to do so, as she hadn’t when she rode behind, but now that they were on the move it wasn’t so bad. His cheek rest against the cool steel of her breastplate, and it soothed his aching head. It wasn’t until Eryn swooped down to inform them that their destination was in sight that his grogginess had finally started to clear, and when they finally did come to a stop it was more the assaulting scents of the air around them that knocked him out of his haze. Burnt wood, mostly, with a twinge of drying blood; he hadn’t known the latter very well before the previous day, but it unsettled him less than it had then.

Eryn landed behind the pair’s shared horse as they approached the gates, and lagged as they entered. People scattered and gave them space, ordinary folk, not the type he was used to; the clothes they wore were not in much better shape than his tattered robe and undershirt, but at least he found some companionship in the weight their faces showed. Each and every one of them had lost something recently, too: family, friends, neighbors.

While they continued forward, a muttering in their wake, Naz turned her head to and fro in search of something. Expecting Eryn to demand what they were looking for, Varlaine turned his head back to her, but saw instead that she was laying over Cassius’ back and hugging him around the neck. Her visage bore a sedated mix of concern and sadness, which left his heart heavy. Sometimes, he forgot that she was only a trainee, and that she had not yet reached an age where she was ready to be away from her family. This was not one of those times.

“Naz!” A voice called out that took him from his thoughts, and all three of them jerked their heads towards its source. A man who looked in his early twenties, around the same age as Varlaine’s oldest brother, with a mess of sandy brown hair on his head and geared in leather armor, approached them on foot. He had a long, exquisite looking bow on his back, and as he got closer it was obvious that he was more unkempt than the woman he was calling to; his cheeks and neck were rough with stubble, and his clothes were untucked, loose and dirty.

“Nico.” Naz responded with less exuberance than she was greeted with, but it didn’t seem to deter the younger male. He bore a smile on his face despite the state of the buildings around him; Varlaine could see a half burned storefront with a family sifting through its charred interior, among a collection of buildings that likely shared the same fate. “I bring good news.”

The archer’s smile grew, and he cast his eyes over both Varlaine and Eryn, as well as the bags they carried with them. “You coming back at all is good news. Who are the kids? Friends of yours?”

“We’re not kids,” Eryn protested.

“Yes. More importantly…” Naz answered for them, swallowing in preparation before she spoke with her scratchy voice. Her response brought Varlaine’s lips up just a twitch. “The remaining bandits have been dispatched. We have located their hideout, and brought back some proof of our findings.” Her head nodded towards one of the bags hanging from the saddle of Varlaine’s horse, and the prince waved when the new arrival’s eyes trained on him. “I need you to gather everyone you can. Bring them to the square and tell them it is important.”

“You got it,” Nico agreed. “I’ll get moving. How soon are we talking? There aren’t a whole lot of people left, and the people who are… they’re not in the best of sorts.”

Naz frowned at his question. “As soon as possible. Put some spring in your step, Nicomenda.” A dash of irritation crept into her voice, and it seemed to get the response she desired, with the man nodding and starting to walk towards the destroyed shop that Varlaine had been watching. He entered and spoke to them while Naz rubbed a gauntleted hand at her eyes, and the trio stalled in the street for a short moment.

“We can help, too,” ‘Laine offered after a moment of deliberation. It seemed the right thing to do, after all, and the debt they would owe Naz if she held her word and accompanied them southward was much greater than the meager work of hauling some of the treasure they’d reclaimed for a half-day. Eryn sat up when he spoke, and crossed her arms, awaiting Naz’s response.

“No,” She answered, “But thank you. You two should stay with me. The people are not in a very trustful mood. I rather they get the summons from someone they know… and keep you near.”

“Why? Shouldn’t they be happy to see someone from the capital is here to help?” Eryn piped up. She puffed out her chest to show her trainee garb, complete with a royal seal on her breast that stood out prominently.

“That’s the reason I want you two near. Capital sentiment is not positive right now.” Her answer disquieted both Varlaine and Eryn enough that neither complained when she spurred the horse she rode onwards, and Cassius followed unordered.

(Part 2 is up, and can be found here!)