Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 8)

The pair rested for some time; Varlaine only remembered closing his eyes for a long while and listening to Eryn’s breathing while they sat together on the hard tavern floor. It was the most peace and security the pair had been granted since their escape. When they reopened, it was to look at Naz as she squeezed his shoulder in a gauntleted hand and gingerly shook.

“Oh… I…” He tried to form words through a yawn, but the older woman shook her head and pressed one finger to her own lips in a silent ‘shh’. With a nod towards Eryn, she directed his attention to the trainee, who was still out cold; one of the blue-haired girl’s arms was looped around Varlaine’s waist, and her cheek rest on his shoulder.

When he nodded, Naz did, too. She released his shoulder to take up a wooden plate on the floor next to herself, then set it neatly on his lap. Steel-gray eyes matched his, then tracked slowly to the sleeping rider at his side. The plate was stuffed full, with bread, a small heap of what looked like seasoned chicken, and one large husked and boiled cob of corn, more than he could eat in one sitting. His head bobbed again in acknowledgement, and Naz offered a very slight turn up of her lips, before standing up and turning away.

‘Laine watched her go, taking a seat at one of the notched wooden tables in the dimly lit tavern, pushed to a wall to make room for the many recovering wounded. A lantern sitting on it illuminated Nico in its glow; the archer was sitting across from where she had, chin resting on one palm and watching her as she settled with her own plate. The shadows cast across his cheeks, under his eyes, along his brow gave his usually youthful face an older, worn weight.

“You said that an Alra attacked him?” Naz asked quietly. Varlaine stiffened; clearly he was the subject of discussion, and by the way she hushed her voice, he could tell that she was trying to keep the conversation out of his earshot.

“Yeah. Big, white wolf bastard,” The archer responded. On his back was a quiver full of arrows, and he reached back to fiddle with one, still leaning on his hand and watching her. “You oughta eat, Naz, then get some sleep. You’ve been making trips back and forth all day. We can talk more in the morning.”

She was silent for a moment, sliding off one of her gloves to set it on the table. Taking up a bite of meat, she popped it into her mouth and chewed, before swallowing. Then she massaged her throat with her bare fingers. “No, we can’t,” She said, voice scratchy as ever, “Because the three of us are departing at dawn. You and the rest of the townsfolk should mobilize quickly, too.”

Nicomenda frowned at her proposal, then, and crossed his arms over his chest. “You can’t be serious. These kids are exhausted. You’re exhausted. You should spend a few days preparing and resting up before you go, at least.”

“We don’t have a few days.” Her tone sounded resolute, firm, voice raising just a hair but still hushed. “Think. Whoever is looking for him knows where he is, now. They’ll be back, with numbers. If soldiers march to Dalren’s gates now, they will… gck.” She stopped to cough into her hand. Hurriedly, Nico pushed a ceramic jug that he had at his side towards her; she took it up and drank, gulped, before setting it down. “Thank you.”

“You’re getting yourself into trouble, y’know.” Nico frowned when she pushed the water jug back, placing a hand on hers and refusing the offer. She pulled her hand away, and then he returned it to her side of the table. “You don’t have to save these kids. You can point them towards Skyvlan and send them on their way, you’ve done more than enough.”

Naz bristled at his comment, and picked up the water to drink once more. “I didn’t have to save your skin, either. But I did,” She shot back, and Nico flinched before nodding. “I’ll get them to safety. Then I’ll make my way towards Kelvrir to rejoin the people of Dalren, or go back north to Lor’tsun. Where a mercenary wanders is none of a guard’s concern.” She marked that she was finished by taking another bite of food, then another. Nicomenda appeared to lack a good response for her.

There was quiet for a little while, broken only by the moans of pain from the many wounded, still tended to by the same woman who had been kind to Varlaine when he’d come. Naz finished her meal, then, and Varlaine picked at his own, fighting with a rising upset in his stomach. Nico watched her for a good, long while, before the barmaid approached him and wrapped her arms around one of his in a loose hug. Naz snorted and averted her eyes, and Nico shared a few whispers with the curly-haired blonde before rising from his seat.

Varlaine saw the archer exchange a look with Naz, who shrugged her armored shoulders. Then he left with the blonde, taking up a water jug and stooping by one of the injured, and the girl did the same for one nearby. Naz sat, and finished her meal, alone.

(Part 9 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 7)

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        With his robes pulled in tight around him, for warmth and comfort, Varlaine shivered in one of the few houses that were still standing. Nico had brought him there, and placed him in the care of a fair young woman with blonde, curling hair. She’d provided him with a half-load of bread and a corner to sit in while she tended to a great many others who were in worse shape than he was; injured and even a few dying men lay on mats spread across the floor of what looked like a tavern, if he had to guess.

He wasn’t alone long, however. Soon after he’d started to feel uncomfortable with the lingering aura of pain and imminence and longed to be back on his own, the door burst in; the blonde lady nearly dropped the jug of water she carried to a man whose bare chest was wrapped in bandages to whip around and face the new arrival, but instead found a panting, red-faced Eryn. Watching the rider’s head jerk from side to side, then seeing the recognition on her face when she found the prince, the barmaid returned to her tasks.

“Prince, I heard someone came after you,” Eryn hissed, warily glancing around when she used his title. He really would rather she didn’t use his title, because it was something of a risk when they were out in the open—especially since he knew now that he was being hunted. “Nico said it was an Alra. What happened?”

Still shaken, ‘Laine’s head bowed. In his hand he held a chunk of the bread he’d been given, something he’d saved; he extended it out to Eryn, who took it and glanced over the food. “I… I don’t know. He said that he was here to bring me back to the castle.”

Eryn furrowed her brows, staring at the bread she’d been offered, before chomping into it wholly and swallowing. It was dry, he knew, and could see it parching her when she bit into the next bite ravenously. Still, she didn’t complain, not at what he gave her. “Did he say anything else?” She asked.

“He said that he was sent by my brother, out of concern.” Varlaine answered her question, but couldn’t answer the confusion that pursed the girl’s lips.

“Your brother? Which one, did he say?” She stopped chewing, speaking with a full mouth to press further.

“Airvlan. My eldest.”

Eryn had been trained fully on the members of the royal family in order to recognize and protect them. That was the reason she had recognized him when he had entered the stables on the night of his escape, after all, despite his twelve-seat distance from the throne. The name confused her; he could see her counting on her fingers, perhaps naming off the others in line in her head. “I’m sorry, my lord, but I can’t think of any Airvlan. I must have forgotten.”

Varlaine shook his head and offered a faint smile. “No, that isn’t it. Airvlan is no longer in the royal family. My father disowned him and exiled him out of Revengard some five years ago… before you would have been undergoing training.”

The rider lifted the rest of the bread to her mouth before pausing and offering it back to ‘Laine. The prince pushed her hand away and she took it, biting half of it off in one chomp. “Exiled… yeah, I think I remember something like that,” She murmured, eyes falling to the dirty, dim wooden floor off the bar. “He did something like plot to overthrow his dad, your dad, right? Only, he got caught. They took him up north, I think, left him in Lor’tsun.”

“You would know better than I would. I was very young, at the time; I know one of my older sisters and a couple of brothers were upset by my father’s decision, and never forgave him for it. That’s about it.” The prince’s hands settled on his stomach, book still in his lap and knees drawn up some. Eryn joined him, then, sitting at his side and pulling one of her own knees up, looping an arm around it.

“Do you think he went through with it, then? The overthrow, I mean,” She asked. He appreciated that she had lowered her voice enough that only people who were listening in could catch any of it, but a paranoia gripped the back of his head and told him to be measured in his replies, to play it safer.

“I don’t want to believe it… but it would make sense. Whatever he did, it was bad enough for my father to think it worth the only thing short of a death sentence.” What didn’t make sense, at least to him, were the screams and pleading he’d heard from a few of his siblings’ rooms on the night of his escape. The murkiness in his head made it all harder to comprehend, to sort out. Cautiously, he leaned over a little more, and some of his weight rest on Eryn’s side. The trainee stiffened for a moment, before leaning back into him and lifting her head. Gratefully, but without a word, he rest his own in the space near her neck that she left; soon after, her own head reclined on his.

(Part 8 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 6)

The order rooted Varlaine to the spot. His jaw hung slack, and he stared at the animal as the magic diamond dust on his palm melted away. “A talking wolf?” He questioned under his breath. The beast crept in, silent as it all but crawled; its barrel chest was so low to the ground that its fur had stained earthen orange. So taken was he by the inhuman grace and fluidity with which the canine moved, he hadn’t even noticed that he was backing away, towards the city walls. He knew that it was a futile effort for a futile safety, but his instincts demanded he put as much space between himself and the creature as possible.

“I said, do not run.” When the animal spoke again, it was firmer. Louder. Its hackles raised and its fur bristled, and brilliant white fangs glinted in the midday sun when its lips curled up in a snarl that made ‘Laine jump. “Your brother worries for you, at the castle. Come quietly.”

His brother? Varlaine had many brothers and sisters; he was a dozen seats from the throne and then some. None of them that he knew of would have sent this… thing, whatever it was, after him. Shaking his head, he called out in response. “What brother? What of my father?”

“Boy, I do not have time for this.” The creature’s deep, inhuman voice boomed impatiently. “Airvlan. Your eldest. There will be plenty of time to talk later, when you’re with him. You’re coming back with me.” Standing up to its full height, the creature’s tail straightened out and his body formed a line, aimed straight at Varlaine. Like an arrow, he shot towards the prince, and Varlaine staggered backwards in surprise. His book spilled from his hand, and he brought the empty arm up to cover his face, bracing for fangs to snap in.

        Twang.

The report of a fired arrow issued from behind him, flying in from the side. He didn’t have the chance to see it, face covered, but the shriek of feral pain from his front clued him in on what the bowman’s mark had been. ‘Laine opened his eyes and looked, and saw the beast writhing on the ground. Its right half was stained crimson, stark on the pale fur, and a front paw rubbed relentlessly at his ear—or what was left of it. The top half had been torn away, pinned far behind him by an arrow that stuck in the grass.

It let out another bellow of pain, scrambling to its feet and shaking its head violently as it wheeled sideways to face its attacker. Laine risked a glance that way, too, and saw a sandy-brown haired man in a guard’s uniform with a longbow in hand, another arrow already nocked and ready.

The beast opened its maw to show off its pearly fangs, and a snarl ripped from its throat, burning with furious retribution. “You son of a—“

“I don’t miss twice!” Nico cut it off with a shout, stepping closer to Varlaine but keeping his bow at the ready. The animal’s lip curled again, this time in a sneer. Taking the opportunity, Varlaine recollected himself and his spellbook. Using a jittering hand, he prepared another spell, while the beast shook its head again and flung droplets of blood out over the grass. Seeing the losing odds ahead of it, the wolf fled with a lowered tail. Its footfalls were heavy, scampering back into the grass and away from Nico and ‘Laine. As it did, a flash of white light emitted from its cowering body and a man with untamed white hair fell to all fours in its place. He was dressed in a long, dark coat, and his wild hair was stained as red as the wolf’s fur had been; with a surprising agility, he disappeared back into the woods.

“Goddamned Alra. You alright, kid? I was looking everywhere for you.” Nico offered a hand to ‘Laine to help him off the ground, a hand which the prince took as warmly as he could. His frozen, magic imbued hand caused the guardsman to flinch, but the archer’s gloves protected him decently enough. Even as he helped the boy up, Nicomenda’s eyes were on the forest, and then on his arrow out in the grass.

“That was… an Alra?” The prince asked curiously. He looked out at the timberline, as well. The wolf had turned into a man as it limped away. Alra were beastmen, he’d heard that before, but he’d never seen more than a few who had come to his father’s court and they had never looked so feral.

“Yeah. You saw him, right? Changed from a monster to a man, can change back any time. That’s an Alra thing, all of them can do it.” When Varlaine was on his feet, Nico roughly brushed his shoulders off. While the man looked like he couldn’t handle himself, he had enough arm strength to make ‘Laine’s knees buckle when he clapped his back. “What were you thinking, anyways? Going off alone like this. Naz is gonna kill me when she finds out I let you get attacked. You aren’t hurt, are you?”

‘Laine shook his head in response. “N-no. I’m fine,” He promised, glancing back at the town gate. “Can we just… go back inside? What if he comes back?”

“Err… yeah, sure.” Nico’s eyebrows raised when his scolding was brushed aside, but he seemed to take it into stride well enough. “You go first. I want to collect my arrow.”

Varlaine didn’t need to be told twice. Taking the opportunity, he walked back towards the town gates with a sense of urgency in his steps. He had a sinking feeling that someday, he was going to come across that wolf Alra again, and he would be seeking revenge.

(Part 7 is up, and can be found here!)

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 5)

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              With Naz gone and Nico’s mind mostly in the gutter, Eryn had excused herself from the prince’s side to go flying with Cassius. In turn, Varlaine had slipped away from the guardsman who was supposed to be watching over him with relative ease; it didn’t look like Nicomenda particularly cared about anything, least of all the two youths he was given charge of. His spell tome felt heavier in his hands than it had the day before. When he carried himself to the edge of the town that they had come in, perhaps hoping to see Naz on her way back in, he held it close to his chest as he sat down against a tree. For a moment, he wondered if he was going to be able to stand back up.

He wondered if dragging the redhaired mercenary woman in was a good idea. Varlaine wasn’t afraid of her, or distrustful as Eryn was: truthfully, he felt she was staunchly on his side, even after only a day of companionship. She seemed honest, and forward, and responsible, unlike the archer she’d left them with. But two weeks of dragging both he and Eryn south, to Fort Skyvlan, for the meager repayment of a day’s work? It seemed unfair.

Frowning, he pulled his knees up to his chest and laid his book out over them, opening it and beginning to stare at the runic pages in search of distraction. What else could he possibly do? He had no money. He had no power. If he managed to survive a month without someone like her around, it would be nothing short of a miracle, but the debt that hung over his shoulders at her promise to accompany him was steep.

And what of Eryn? The trainee had fled the castle with him with little in the way of complaints, but that was all he’d heard from her since. She was miserable out here, and at her age, she was barely more suitable for travel than he was. Eryn belonged with her family, finishing her training and living a normal life as a guard. She’d make a better guard than that Nico character, for sure.

It took him some rumination on his soon-to-be traveling partners before Varlaine started to wonder about where he fit into the mess. Truly, Naz must have more important things to do than provide free escort to a high profile target like him. And yes, Eryn was too young and not at all complicit in royal affairs, least of all in a situation as tense as the one they’d found themselves in. But, what was he going to do when they did make it to the fort? If the capital had been taken, and his family removed from the throne, going back wasn’t an option. They couldn’t harbor him endlessly, either. A Revengardian fort would not be able to oppose a royal order, even from a new king; they would lack the power to refuse.

Continuing to think grew painful, an ache settling in his head as an unwanted guest that was always around recently. There was simply too much wrong for him to think clearly. The air around him was stifling in its stillness. His clothes, dirty and ragged from the road, seemed to hug him much too close. The harder he tried to push these feelings to the side, the more trapped and heavy the young prince felt, until his heartbeat crawled up his throat in a steady, powerful throb.

Still, despite the oppressive weight that bore down on all sides, royal raiment too stuffy for proper travel, the hair on the back of his neck stood straight as an arrow in a chill. He’d felt it before, recently, when faced with the bandits on the roadside; it was an utterly unpleasant adrenaline. Closing his book slowly, with a thump of the leather cover that sounded much too loud for his taste, he looked up and around to try and find someone, anyone, to quell the panic that was starting to brew in his chest. He almost wanted to look skyward and shout for Eryn, but bit his tongue.

Varlaine found no friends nearby, but to his side, still in the wild and keeping its head low, he saw a beast. A great, monstrous white wolf, larger than books had ever described and yet so shrunk to the ground that it had crept closer to him than he expected. It was prowling, hunting, and its eyes settled on him. Almost silently, it slunk forward.

The prince’s stomach tightened into a knot, and on instinct, he opened his book back up and placed a hand on the first page he came to. The sweat on his palm froze into sparkling crystals of ice, as he used his book-touting arm to pull himself up against the tree by the elbow. Running was suicide: he’d read that wolves hunted in packs, and he could only see the one. The others could be even nearer, and he didn’t want to turn his back to find out. Even if he did flee, he had no idea where to go, or who could stop the animal before it reached him.

While he prepared himself for a fight, it drew closer. Close enough that Varlaine could see its size, easily five feet from ground to shoulder, as large as a young horse. It could no doubt outrun him, with its legs as long as a man’s and twice as many. Opening its mouth, the wolf panted, watching him and keeping his head low; then, it spoke.

“Do not run,” A masculine growl, powerful, commanding, issued from the beast’s maw. It sounded distorted, inhuman, like something that was only parroting a person’s speech. “You must come with me, Prince.”

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