Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 10) (FINAL)

“It’s time to get up, prince.” When Eryn shook him awake, Varlaine sighed and brought one arm up to shield his eyes. Warily, he blinked them open; through the sleep, he could see a dim gray light filtering in through the window. Eryn sat back on her bed when he did, her bright orange garb done away with and replaced with a more common, muddy brown set of clothes. While he was busy crawling out from his blankets, she slipped her gray chestplate over her head. “Didja sleep well?”

“Yes, very.” He nodded his assent, and the blue-haired trainee smiled in return. She gestured to the bedside table, which held a pair of wooden plates: one empty, and one with a light meal of buttered bread and an apple. “It’s only been a night of rest and already, I will miss the bed. Did Naz come by?”

Eryn tied her armor off at her sides, one then the other, cinching it into place around her torso. “She did. There are clothes for you by the door, she said they should fit, and a bag of essentials.” It was silent for a moment, while the prince ate at his breakfast and Eryn slipped her hands into her wristguards. “She seems… friendly.”

While Varlaine wasn’t sure he would use that term, he nodded and finished chewing his bite of apple. Swallowing, he gave the older teen the best smile he could manage, putting back thoughts of the road ahead, of the trials they’d face. She tried to return it, he could tell she truly was trying, but then she stood and stretched her arms over her head. “Anyways. I’m going to go check on Cass, make sure he’s ready to fly. Don’t mess around too long, or Naz will come nag at you.”

‘Laine put his bare feet on the cold floor about when she was turning her back to him, and by the time he collected the bundle of clothes left sitting by the door, the rider had already disappeared down the hall. He laid the articles out over the bed—a white shirt, brown cloth pants, a lightweight traveling cloak, and a patched set of leather walking boots with thick socks—and sighed. At least he would cease to look like a royal target.

The sun was starting to drag itself over the horizon by the time he was dressed and exiting the inn. Biting into the apple he held in his palm, the prince was surprised at the tang it left in his mouth compared to the pure, sweet taste he’d grown accustomed to. While he was musing over that, a hand clapped him on the shoulder, inspiring a jump of surprise.

“There you are, kiddo.” Nico’s voice. Of course. Varlaine turned himself around to look up at the older man, and found exhausted green eyes appraising right back. “You’re running late. Naz already has the saddles packed and ready to go.”

“Sorry,” ‘Laine began to apologize, but Nico was already turning his gaze away from him to glance about. The town was surprisingly mobile, despite the hour. People bustled with bags, with boxes, with carts. They seemed to walk with a certain spring to their step that they’d lacked when he and Eryn had first come to town. “Where is she?”

“By the entrance. Good luck getting to talk to her, though.” Powerful fingers squeezed his shoulder and then released, and then Nico was hastily moving to help a woman who was struggling to drag a cart full of clothing. Left alone, Varlaine stood for a moment before realizing that he was in charge of his own direction. That in mind, he started off towards the gate he’d passed through just the previous day, alone.

When he arrived, he understood what Nico had meant. A throng of people surrounded Naz, whom was speaking to an older man while the pair of children from the previous day hung onto one of her hands. Though she was conversing quite intently with the gentleman, enough that her empty hand continually rubbed at a sore throat, she spared glances down on occasion to work her fingers in the grips of the little ones.

Eryn was behind her with a pair of kitted horses, already on Cassius and looking as uncomfortable and impatient as she could manage. A guilt settled in the pit of Laine’s stomach. It was his fault that she was dragged out here, and it was his fault that she couldn’t go home. So, it was his responsibility to her that urged him forward, sifting through the crowd and clambering on the steed he’d escaped the castle with, unbidden. Naz shot him a look of approval, which he briefly acknowledged with a turn of his head, before focusing his attention on Eryn.

“Are you certain you’re still okay with this?” He asked her, quietly. The birds were starting to wake around them, and the light was growing, a soothing orange glow that cast on the pair. Eryn slipped her fingers into Cassius’ neck feathers, petting at the griffon, before she responded.

“I’m going to get you to safety, Varlaine.” Her answer was resolute, and though she had to be just as tired as he was, her chin lifted with an almost arrogant pride in her words. “You’re my friend, and I’m not going to leave you to the wolves. Literally, apparently.” A snort freed itself from her nostrils when she joked, and he met it with a grin. If she could tell a joke, things couldn’t be all that bad.

“Thanks, Eryn. I don’t know where I’d be without you.” He tried to show his appreciation in his voice, and she appeared to accept it with a brief thumbs-up, laying forward to rest her cheek in Cassius’ soft feathers.

That handled, ‘Laine took the reins to his horse, turning back to look at Naz. The man she was talking to seemed to be mostly nodding his head in response to the mercenary’s hushed words, until the two went silent for a short while, looking straight at one another. She bowed her head deeply, and he reciprocated, before she knelt to offer the two kids who had clung onto her a hug. One in each arm, she squeezed the pair in turn, before standing up and ruffling their hair. One of the pair, the boy, was crying. The other reached out to hug him, while Naz turned away and moved to the larger horse waiting near ‘Laine.

“Are you two ready to leave?” She asked, voice scratchy and dry. Frowning, Naz reached to her saddlebags, fingers brushing past the sword that was strapped into place there to pick up a metal water flask that hung next to a much larger jug.

Varlaine wanted to ask her the same question, noting the shadow that hung beneath her eyes. She denied him by popping open the flask and drinking heavily, cutting off any response she could have given. “I’m ready.” He finally gave.

“Let’s get this show on the road,” Eryn waved a hand. Naz took it as an acceptance and lifted her reins up, drawing them tight and spurring her horse along. Varlaine let her get a short distance ahead, partially because he wanted to cast a glance back at the townspeople who had gathered to see Naz off.

The two children had been collected by their mother, who knelt down and held the pair close to her chest. A few other men and women waved goodbye, while still others broke away from the crowd to carry about their business, gathering up bags and boxes and carrying them off. Nicomenda stood off to one side, and the barmaid from the inn had her face buried in his chest while the archer wrapped arms around the girl. ‘Laine watched him for the longest, before Eryn called back to him as Cassius tramped after Naz’s horse.

Offering Nico a short wave, he received a tired grin for his trouble. Then Varlaine dug his heels in against his horse’s sides, careful not to push too hard, and the beast started off after his companions. The sun, off to their left, had begun to light the world; laid out in front of them was the road south, towards Skyvlan, and perhaps respite.

[CHAPTER END]

(The first part of chapter 3 is up now, and can be found here!)

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