* * *
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.”