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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Mock Cover Art

Hey, everyone! I decided this week to do something a little nonstandard for this place and post a little bit of artwork. A friend of mine, whose work you can find here (WARNING: Some content is NSFW!) drew up some art for the story. I wanted something to use as a basic cover art concept, and he worked with me to turn it into something I could use for a custom phone case.

Christian cover (1).png

I ordered through a custom phone case service, and got my case in recently. I made a few edits, but here’s the final version:

In case you were wondering over the names on the cover, they’re the three people who have contributed majorly to this story. The first is my own, the second is my wife, and the third is a close friend of mine. The three of us originated Erda as a joint writing project, and while that’s still ongoing, I took it upon myself to refine and rewrite the story for a more cohesive, reader-friendly experience.

I hope you enjoyed the update, and the art. I’m really fond of the way Naz is sitting and writing after a battle, and I think the color tones (red and blue mixing together) look stellar. Please do check out my friend’s work, he recently opened commissions and he’s a great artist.

Chapter (II): The Road South (Part 9)

Taking advantage of the silence, Varlaine worked his way through the food given to him, making sure never to take more than half of each portion. The chicken was heaven on his tongue, a finer taste than anything he’d ever had at his father’s table and more filling besides, and the bread had a dull warmth to it that soothed him from the inside out. The corn, he nibbled at; it was dry, and lacked the salt and butter that he was used to, but he appreciated the weight in his belly all the same.

When he’d finished his carefully measured bites, two fifths of every treat, he flicked a glance to the sleeping Eryn. Hunger panged at his stomach once more, and he let his eyes roam over the remnants on the plate. Biting his teeth together, the prince carefully nudged Eryn awake instead; when she stirred, he took one of her hands and placed the dish in it.

“What’s this?” She yawned, under her breath, eyes blinking awake with a bleariness that he found endearing.

“Dinner,” He answered in a whisper, which had her snapping to more attention. Holding the plate steady with one hand, Eryn immediately set in on the chicken. In barely the time it had taken him to prod at the cob of corn, she scarfed down the whole pile of meat—then she plucked up the remnants of the bread loaf and tore into that, too. Her intensity attracted Naz’s attention, the mercenary stopping to drink from the water Nico left behind before turning in her seat to face them.

“Don’t get too excited, you two.” She stood and stretched her arms, and Eryn looked up at her with both hands on the cob. “Finish your food, get a drink, and then I’ll see you to bed. We have an early start.”

Varlaine only bowed his head in response, but Eryn tilted hers in confusion. “Whaddaya mean?” She got out around a full mouth, before swallowing it down and coughing. Naz closed the distance between them and offered her the jug, and Eryn nearly spilled what was left of the plate on herself in her haste to accept. After a heavy gulp, she set it aside and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “Early start?”

Naz stooped down to pick up the plate Eryn put to the side and offered it back to Varlaine. He took it, picking up the scrap of bread that was left and rubbing it against what was left of the chicken, trying to pick some of it up. “I promised I’d escort you south,” the merc reminded, “And we’re going in the morning. Don’t fret over supplies. They are packed already.”

Eryn blinked in surprise, and even Varlaine had to admit while polishing off the plate, that sounded almost too good to be true. She had already gone above and beyond for them. Nico was right, why didn’t she just point them south and send them on their way?

“Um… thanks, I guess.” Eryn, ever graceful, dismissed the comment with a handwave. Naz offered her a hand to her feet, which the rider refused, placing her palm on the wall behind her instead and rising on her own. One of Naz’s scarred lips twitched briefly, before she extended that hand instead to Varlaine. The prince took it and pulled himself to his feet, offering her the plate. She set it on a nearby table as carefully as she could, to avoid making any noise.

“Are you two ready for bed?” The older woman asked.

“Yes,” Varlaine agreed. Eryn studied his face for a moment, before shaking her head.

“I’ve gotta feed Cassius,” She informed.

Naz swayed her head, left to right. “He’s already eaten, and been taken to a stable with… Varlaine’s horse.” She answered, watching her words. “You two only need to worry about resting, for now.”

After giving her a dirty, interrogating look, Eryn shrugged. “Fine, if you say so. He better be in good shape.” She grumbled. “Where are we sleeping, anyways?”

“There’s a room with two beds upstairs.” Naz answered. She reached down to the foot of the table she’d been sitting at, scooping up her bag and tossing it over her shoulder. Then she took her gauntlet from the tabletop, holding it in hand. “Follow me.” When they were ready, she turned around and led the pair to the far wall of the tavern, where a staircase led up a floor. On their way, Varlaine stopped for a moment to look through an open door, into a pantry behind the bar’s counter. Briefly, he caught a flash of Nicomenda with his arms around the blonde-haired bar worker in a firm embrace, before Eryn tugged him by the arm to keep up.

***

The room Naz guided them to was barely big enough for the two beds that it held, along with a short table between them and a window above that that let in moonlight. The beds themselves were small, smaller than Varlaine had slept in when he was half his age now, but his eyes felt so heavy that the stained pillow he eventually rest his head on was almost enough to put him under on contact.

Eryn climbed into her bed and rolled over, facing away from him, while Naz stood near the door and watched the pair climb in. The rider pulled her patchy quilt over herself tightly, while Laine laid under his for a moment and looked up at the ceiling, letting the day’s events slip through his mind and recounting what all had happened. After a silent moment of overwhelm, he was startled when a red head of hair entered his vision, and strong hands took care in tucking his blanket in around him.

The stream of consciousness that was trickling down his brain dammed itself when he felt the older mercenary bundling him up. He was a prince, yes, but it had been many years since someone had tucked him into bed. When they moved away, one of his own reached out from the blanket and grasped Naz by the wrist. She stopped and looked at his hand, then at him, standing in front of the window between the two beds. Her armored glove sat on the bedside table to her right, set to the side.

“Can you stay? Just a little while?” He asked, very quietly, as his fingers released her. “Until I fall asleep.”

She deliberated for a moment in her answer, and immediately guilt balled in his stomach. She’d already done so much for him, for them. Certainly, she had more important things she needed to handle, and rest that she needed to get herself. Before he could dismiss his own request, Naz nodded her head slowly.

“Just for a while,” She responded simply. Her bag was placed on the floor, and then she sat against the bedside table. Varlaine watched her reach into her pack and pull out a hardy looking jar of ink, bundled in a cloth, and then a leather-bound book. From the inside cover of the book, she pulled a feather pen.

Slipping her remaining glove off, Naz pulled the stopper from the ink and put the bottle on the floor beside her. She had to prop the book up on her knees to get any of the windowed moonlight to shine on it, but she managed well enough. The mercenary held it there, then dipped the pen in the inkwell. She wiped the edges off on the rag the bottle had been in, already stained with months of black streaks. Then she pressed the pen to the page and began to write, in a long, flowing script. Varlaine scooted up on his pillow to read it over her shoulder. She didn’t seem to notice.

‘Fifth of Lune, 1227.’ She scrawled the date at the top. ‘Returned to Dalren with the Revengardians safe and sound. Pressed the townsfolk to move west; I fear any delay could lead to a painful end to their story. I hope that when I leave them in the morn, they will possess the strength to make it to Kelvrir without me.’

Varlaine watched her write, listening to the soft scratch of pen on paper. The mat under him grew more and more comfortable, and his eyelids only heavier.

‘Nicomenda informed me that the boy, Varlaine, was beset by a wolf Alra who was hunting his trail. Varlaine appears fine, but I have my worries.’ Naz tapped her pen a few times at the paper in thought, before continuing. ‘I will keep an eye on him as we travel. If his seekers have Alra on us, there will be a need for nightguards and haste, as much as I can inspire in the pair. The girl is going to give me trouble…’

The words on the page were blurring together, enough that Varlaine questioned a line he read after going over it twice with blurring eyes. Finally, he let them fall closed, and closed they stayed.

(Part 10, the finale to chapter 2, is up, and can be found here!)

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!)