This Fantasy-Sword & Sorcery-Action Adventure story belongs in the Uber category. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
This story depicts a romantic relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
This story contains some genre-typical profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
This story contains genre-typical violence and swordplay, some of which is directed at women. Readers who are disturbed by this type of depiction may wish to read something other than this story.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: January 1st - 15th, 2014.
- Thank you for your help, Wendy Arthur and Phineas Redux *Flower*
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: On the heels of a personal tragedy, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle, daughter of Emperor Jin-Sarnos XII, is forced to go on a diplomatic mission to a neighboring empire to settle a border dispute. With her, she has the best Ranger of her father's armed forces, 'the Huntress' Caid Barlin. The two women and a small band of colorful traveling companions must navigate safely through a world of sweeping landscapes and narrow-minded emperors, mystical Seers and hideous creatures until they reach Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's realm in the Shadowlands...
Somewhere in the endless void of space, a blue and green planet circles a star with its nine brethren in close company. Insignificant in the overall scheme of things, the planet is nevertheless home to countless millions of beings that are born, live, love and ultimately die on the four major continents separated by vast, deep blue oceans that are populated by vile creatures of every kind.
To the far north, Antomar - icy and foreboding where the indigenous tribes are forced to live in mammoth underground caves to survive the winter that lasts for most of the year.
To the far south, Sotomar - sandy shores, burning hot deserts and steaming jungles shape the home of the golden-skinned traders who sail to the southern provinces of Acamar with exotic fruits, animals and fabrics.
To the far west, the unexplored Kalomar - protected by the Kowerai mountain range that reaches so high no man, woman, child or even fowl can breathe there, save for the Kalomarians themselves of which only very little is known.
And finally at the center of the world, Acamar, the largest of the four continents. It's the home of lush, green forests, endless meadows, gently rolling terrain, tall, imposing mountain ranges, crystal clear rivers and lakes, and also the only major enclaves of human life on the planet.
Divided into several territories and regions, Acamar stretches halfway across the planet and should in theory provide plenty of room for the various Kings and Emperors who command the realms within its shores - alas, these rulers are driven by an unstoppable lust for expansion and are thus in a constant state of war against the neighboring lands.
Our story takes place in one such enclave, Dinnigon, which is governed from Ashburne Castle. Situated roughly halfway between the northern and the southern provinces, and halfway between the Shadowlands in the east and the recently conquered Tantor in the west, Dinnigon is ruled by the brutish and cruel Emperor Jin-Sarnos the Twelfth whose nickname 'Zhuktah' quite literally means fear in the local language.
In the decade since the victorious conclusion to the War of Great Expansion that saw the armies of Emperor Jin-Sarnos conquer vast territories to the west, many things have changed at Ashburne Castle, not the least of which being his daughter, the noble and virginal Lady Bronwyn, who has grown into a beautiful, elegant woman with a regal posture, a lively mind, and - much to her father's frustration - a strong will.
As the story begins, a fateful decision has just been made; the ink has barely dried on the document that has sealed the fate of many a good man, woman and daughter...
The creaking sound of wooden shutters being opened stirred the twenty-five year old Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle from her sleep. Turning over onto her back, she yawned widely and dared to crack open her eyelids.
Her four-post canopy bed and indeed the rest of her chamber high up the castle keep was bathed in the warm, golden morning light so typical of a late summer day. She didn't like it one bit and promptly slammed her eyes shut with a pained whimper. When even that wasn't enough to shut out the light, she buried her head under the goose down duvet.
The forty-four year old Tawna, Lady Bronwyn's senior handmaiden and one of her most highly trusted servants at the castle, turned away from the shutters and moved silently over to the foot end of the canopy bed. "Milady," she whispered, folding her hands in front of her coarse, dark brown frock, "your father requests your presence at the breakfast table in the dining hall. Urgently."
"Tell him I shall be there when I am good and ready for it, Tawna," Bronwyn mumbled from somewhere under the covers.
"Milady, need I remind you that you have been late for the breakfast table twelve times this moon?"
Sighing, Bronwyn pulled down the duvet and stuck her disheveled head back out into the harsh brightness of the new day. From looking at the gray-haired Tawna who was standing in her 'I can wait forever'-pose rehearsed to perfection in her decades-long tenure as Lady Bronwyn's personal aide, she knew she wouldn't be able to get away from her chores.
"Oh, very well," Bronwyn said and sat up. The duvet slipped from her shoulders revealing a bright white sleeping chemise and a dark red hickey on the lady's neck. Yawning again, she rubbed her face and swung her legs over the side of the four-post bed.
"Was it a late night, Milady?" Tawna said while she poured fresh water that she had pumped herself - to be certain it was clean - into the wooden wash bowl on top of a small dresser.
"Come now, Tawna... you know full well I spent a good deal of the dark hours in May-Linn's chamber," Bronwyn said and got to her feet.
Scratching herself here and there through the thin sleeping chemise, she padded on bare feet over to the dresser where she splashed several handfuls of the cold, fresh water on her face. As always, the chill took her breath away but she was able to regain it by breathing deeply and evenly.
"Your towel, Milady," Tawna said, knowing exactly how the Lady of Ashburne Castle would react. Stretching out to connect with Bronwyn's wildly seeking hands, Tawna handed her a towel and took a step back. "If you require a special cleansing, I can fetch more water in a heartbeat, Milady."
"Oh, that will not be necessary, Tawna," Bronwyn said with a smile as she wiped her cold, clean face. "May-Linn and I merely spoke for hours on end. Well, spoke and kissed, to be honest."
The smile deepened and proved just what she felt for the beautiful, fair-haired May-Linn who was two years her junior. From very nearly their first encounter, and definitely from the first moment they understood they shared more than met the eye, the spirited handmaiden had become a beacon of light in Lady Bronwyn's somber life - her sparkling eyes whenever any conversation turned to the fair-haired subject proved that without a doubt.
"Milady... please be cautious. Your eyes betray you," Tawna said quietly.
"How can they not, Tawna?"
"I understand, Milady, but-"
"Mmmm. Have you seen May-Linn yet this morn?" Bronwyn said and shed her sleeping chemise in one, fluid motion. Her pale though well-developed body briefly caught a few rays from the sun that came through the windows, illuminating her graceful feminine curves as well as her surprisingly toned arms and legs - a legacy of the countless hours she had spent on horseback, or indeed practicing novice moves with the short blade against members of her father's armed forces.
"I have not, Milady."
"When we said goodbye earlier, we arranged to meet in the inner gardens at noon," Bronwyn said and padded over to a large closet. After selecting the gown she would wear for the next few days - it had long, puffy sleeves, a pleated base and a low, yet modest neckline, and it was crimson with a few green highlights around the bosom - she reached into the other side of the closet to take a clean pair of undergarments.
"Milady," Tawna said with a worried frown as she watched her mistress slip into her satin unmentionables, "I understand it must be difficult to hide your true self, but please take care. The inner gardens is not a place for a secret meeting... far too many people go through there for you to-"
"Oh, Tawna, you needn't worry. I am not going to ravish her in broad daylight. Although, making love in a bed of flowers or under the ancient trees... that would be enchanting, would it not?" Bronwyn said, quickly adding a wink to let the older woman know she was jesting.
The dark frown on Tawna's face only deepened - she knew exactly that Lady Bronwyn meant every word she said.
Chuckling over the pensive look on her old friend's face, Bronwyn closed the wings of the closet and moved back towards the bed with the gown. "Now, Tawna. My gown and my hair, please. Today, I would like it to be in a..."
Some time later, Bronwyn hurried through the shadowy and occasionally damp corridors of Ashburne Castle headed for the grand dining hall at the foot of the keep - her speed was so great, several of the lit torches she went past were nearly snuffed out. On her hasty way, she muttered random Hellos and Good mornings to the maids, servants and soldiers she met, earning herself many curtseys and deep bows.
With her feet moving like drumsticks in a fast tap and her skirt raised off the ground so the delicate fabric wouldn't be worn down by scraping along the coarse flagstones, she hurried around the final few corridors until she reached the wooden double doors that led to the dining hall.
The two uniformed soldiers from her father's regular army who were on guard duty snapped to perfect attention at the sight of Bronwyn appearing out of the corridor. The men - who were both in their mid-twenties - wore the customary dark red tabards and helmets of the ceremonial detail, and they carried shiny swords that were attached to the right side of a wide belt.
One of them put a gloved hand on the brass handle of the double doors, but Bronwyn offered him a polite smile to let him know she needed a moment before they could go on. Catching her breath, Bronwyn got her gown and locks in order and even managed to gain an air of superiority she didn't really possess - however, she knew her father demanded that she played her part.
With an aloof nod at the first soldier who immediately opened the door, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle strode through the double doors and into the grand dining hall.
The opulently decorated hall was vast, nearly one hundred fathoms square with an inner ceiling three storeys up from the green-and-white marble floor. Sixteen enormous windows with stained glass panes captured the early sun and distributed rays of multi-colored light onto the floor and the horseshoe table at the center of the hall.
Nine-branched candlesticks were placed in each corner and at certain points along the walls to provide the light, and the open fireplace at the far end of the hall behind the seat of honor burned strongly, sending out a much-welcomed wall of heat as well as a certain sweet fragrance that came from the type of wood used.
The conversation at the well-stocked breakfast table was seemingly going well, but Bronwyn groaned long and hard inwardly when she realized her father wasn't alone.
Beyond the small army of servants and maids that were always there, her father was joined by a few dignitaries and - much worse - a white-blonde woman dressed in a long-sleeved, black satin tunic who sat to his immediate right. The woman listened intently to what her master had to say, but her sharp eyes cast the occasional glance at the approaching Bronwyn.
'Zai Allizadra... that ghastly so-and-so,' Bronwyn thought as she closed the distance between herself and the table. 'How someone like her could ever rise to the position of commanding my father's elite units, I shall never know! Look at her face... those hard, angular features... or her eyes... like chips of blue ice! Sometimes I wonder if she is even a human being underneath all that black satin...'
"Ah, good morn, Lady Bronwyn," the man at the end of the table said which promptly silenced the conversation, "at last, you have decided to grace us with your presence."
"Good morn, father. I'm dreadfully sorry for my lax conduct. I was late getting up," Bronwyn said, keeping her eyes peeled to the marble floor as she raised her skirt and moved down in a deep curtsey that befitted the man she was kneeling for - her father, Emperor Jin-Sarnos, the undisputed ruler of Dinnigon and the controlling Sovereign of the conquered territories, Tantor and Zigai.
The Emperor leaned back in his seat and studied his daughter's curtsey with a dark, unreadable expression on his bulbous face. Instead of allowing her to rise like he always did, he let her stew, almost like he was punishing her for a crime unknown to most - not all - of the people at the table.
In his late sixties, Jin-Sarnos was a hard, decisive ruler who didn't shy back from using brute force to get what he wanted, neither on the battlefield nor in his castle. The prosperous years after the last war he had waged on the neighboring state of Tantor had left their mark on him - he had grown a pair of ungainly double chins and a considerable belly that a white-and-gold waistcoat could barely conceal - but his voice was as booming as ever, and his iron will was if anything stronger than before.
Still standing in her deep curtsey, Bronwyn felt a strong tide of worry course through her veins. Something was wrong, that much was clear, but she couldn't fathom why her father kept her waiting like that. Even as that thought entered her mind, the answer came to her in a bright flash: May-Linn. 'He knows... somehow he knows... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, he has found out about us...'
"Rise, my daughter," Jin-Sarnos said after a delay that seemed like a full turn of an hourglass.
Gulping down a lump of nervousness, Bronwyn rose from her uncomfortable position and moved towards the free chair on her father's left.
At once, a maid came from the back row and held the high-backed chair ready for her. Once the Lady had sat down, the maid put a gold plate and silver cutlery in front of her. "Milk, sweet ale or wine, Milady?" the maid said, ready to take either of the three jugs that stood on the table within easy reach.
"Milk, thank you," Bronwyn said, pulling in her chair the last bit of the way to have something to do that didn't include looking at her father or the cold woman from the Black Lance opposite her.
While the maid poured the chalky white liquid into the Lady's tin beaker, Jin-Sarnos briefly looked at his dark-clad associate to his right before he put down his napkin. Next to the spent napkin, a clean one was placed in a way that made it apparent it was hiding something. "Thank you, Gentlemen. That'll be all for now," he said to the four dignitaries who sat on the right side of the horseshoe. The four men quickly stood up, bowed and left in a hurry.
Once Bronwyn's beaker was filled, the maid put down the jug and reached for one of the seven heavily laden trays on the table. "Quail, bacon, sausages-"
"Just fruit today, thank you," Bronwyn said, reaching out to take two apples that appeared to be ripe for the taking.
"As you wish, Milady," the maid said and withdrew to her position along the wall.
Bronwyn took a small knife and cut the first apple in two, still doing what she could to avert her eyes from her conspicuously silent father and the white-blonde woman next to him. Without even wanting to, she noticed her father had a hand firmly placed on an oddly lumpy napkin, but she couldn't connect it to anything.
"My daughter," Jin-Sarnos suddenly rumbled, "I fear you've been too lax in the way you treat your handmaidens. Servants need to be kept on a short leash at all times. I was under the impression you already knew that, but I've learned from various sources that you speak to them like you would to someone of noble blood... that simply will not do. Bronwyn, you know they've barely evolved beyond the filthy pigs that roll around in their own muck."
"Father, that's not the impression I have," Bronwyn tried, but she could hardly get her voice above a squeak.
"Mmmm. You see the good in people, I know. But..." Jin-Sarnos sighed and removed the lumpy napkin. Beneath it, a gold necklace made of flat, linked tiles and a perfectly proportioned teardrop-shaped pendant came into view. "Here's your reward for putting too much faith in your servants. One of them stole this from you... it belonged to your mother, I recognized the design."
Bronwyn stared at the exquisite piece of jewelry that she had put around May-Linn's neck only the evening before. She remembered every little detail of the sweet moment, from May-Linn's sparkling eyes when the gift was revealed to the faint moans of pleasure and gratitude she had made when they kissed - and the time they had spent in each other's arms afterwards, holding on tightly and showering each other with silly affection. "May I see her... speak with her?" she whispered hoarsely, never taking her eyes off the necklace.
Furrowing her brow, Bronwyn briefly looked at her father but soon returned to the necklace. "I gave her that as a gift. She- she had... she had helped me tremendously and I w- wanted to give her something in return."
"Oh. I see," Jin-Sarnos said and dabbed his lips on the other napkin.
Bronwyn could sense something deeper, more sinister, behind her father's strangely curt replies, but she didn't dare make the connection to anything that had to do with May-Linn. "I simply did not think you needed to know, father..." she croaked.
When the Emperor didn't reply, the silence soon grew to a deafening level. All Bronwyn could hear was her own heartbeat thundering in her chest. The slices of apple she had cut mocked her on the gold plate, as did the necklace near her father's callused fist.
Jin-Sarnos grunted and reached for the jug of wine. After pouring himself a healthy amount into his ruby-studded goblet, he leaned back and shot Bronwyn a pointed look. "That is not all, though, is it... my virginal daughter?"
"I- I do not understand what you mean, father?"
The air was electric between the two family members, but the black spell was finally broken by Jin-Sarnos taking a long gulp from the goblet. "It matters not. I had her beheaded for thievery at the crack of dawn," he said casually, wiping his mouth on a clean corner of the napkin.
All color drained from Bronwyn's face, and her trembling hand jerked into the gold plate, sending the small knife and one of the slices of apple onto the marble floor. She stared at the table; stared and stared and stared, not trusting her sanity at all. As the world crumbled around her, her lips grew into thin lines in her face to try to hold back the primal scream that would surely burst out of her heart at any moment.
"My daughter," Jin-Sarnos said in a voice that had suddenly grown far harsher. "Shall we disperse with the mindless charade? I know what went on between you and that little whore. I do not condone such perversions in my castle! When Commander Allizadra came to me with the wretched news my sweet daughter had been lured in by the viles of that perverted snake, I knew I had to act swiftly... not only to protect my honor and reputation but to give any other pervert here a strong message that such filth will not be tolerated in Ashburne Castle!"
As Jin-Sarnos spoke, his already booming voice grew in intensity until it took on an apocalyptic quality that made Lady Bronwyn shrivel up in her chair. When her father finished his lecture by slamming his fist into the table, she jumped a foot off the high-backed chair in terror.
She couldn't get a word across her lips. As she sat there in absolute silence, breathing shallowly and feeling her heart beating like thunder in her chest, every last fiber of her being was being ripped to shreds, every last part of her heart was crying out in torment.
"For far too long," Jin-Sarnos continued, showing very little interest in his daughter's plainly evident pain, "I have let you plot your own course... but that will change now! Ever since you were young, you have been trained as a diplomat and negotiator, and now the time has come to exploit the skills you will hopefully have gained. In three days' time, you and a team of handpicked men and women shall travel to our neighboring kingdom in the east."
"T- travel to the east...?" Bronwyn croaked, looking up at her father for the first time in a long while.
"You heard me. There, you will enter negotiations with His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg in the border dispute we've had for a while. If such an experience cannot shape you into a proper woman, I shall be forced to give up on you, my daughter!"
"B- but, father..." Bronwyn tried, but the conversation was over, marked very clearly by Jin-Sarnos pushing the heavy throne-like chair back and striding towards one of the two doors at the back of the grand dining hall that would take him to his library and his private chambers. Behind him, six maids and servants hurried along to do their master's bidding.
Bronwyn's chin quivered, threatening to act as the release of the endless stream of tears that was sure to follow. Her hand slipped across the table until it covered the gold necklace. Feeling the smooth texture of the jewelry on her skin, Bronwyn could almost hear the sweet nothings May-Linn had whispered to her the night before.
At the last moment before she broke down, she raised her head and locked eyes with Zai Allizadra. Her sorrow fueled a torrent of anger and hatred that shot across the table and engulfed the satin-clad woman fully. For the first time in her life, Bronwyn wished she mastered or at the very least understood the ancient powers of the select few Seers - if she did, Zai Allizadra wouldn't survive another moment.
Alas, the cold woman sitting opposite her didn't even avert her eyes, but matched the stare with one of her own. "Mmmm. Hate me all you will, Lady Bronwyn," Zai said in a rich, velvety voice that was a stark contrast to her cold, hard exterior. "I only did my duty. I have sworn an oath of allegiance to my master, Emperor Jin-Sarnos, and I shall do whatever it takes to protect him."
"Protect him? From what? Two women kissing and holding each other tight? H- how can that be a threat to my father?" Bronwyn croaked in a voice that didn't sound like hers at all.
"Protect his honor and good name, Lady Bronwyn. Surely you must understand that."
Bronwyn just shook her head.
"Your upbringing has clearly been lacking, Milady. Oh, just to let you know," Zai said and pointed an accusing index finger at the reeling Lady Bronwyn, "the little whore cried your name just before her head fell into the basket. I thought it was so sweet. She must really have loved you."
Zai's words sent a wave of ice cold terror blasting through Bronwyn's system. Harder and harder the wave crashed against her defenses until her mind was so numb from the onslaught she had to grip the edge of the table hard to simply stay upright.
"I- I... c- cannot br- breathe..." Bronwyn croaked, pushing her chair back. At once, the maid who had helped her sit down rushed to her side. "I f- feel poorly. I need urgent rest."
At first, Zai Allizadra's only reply was a raised eyebrow, but she soon pushed her own chair back and stood up. "Allow me to help you to your chambers, Milady."
"I insist, Milady," Zai said decisively, leaving no room for opposition. She held out her gloved hand and waited for the Lady to take it.
"I said, no! Stay away from me, you... you... vile, revolting excuse for a woman!" Bronwyn shouted and yanked her arm back. Unfortunately, the dreadful events had upset her balance and she wobbled quite badly until she leaned against the side of the horseshoe table.
"You are in no condition to wal-"
"Be gone, wretched snake!" Bronwyn barked, for once proving that she was indeed the daughter of Jin-Sarnos.
As a veteran soldier from the War of Great Expansion, Zai Allizadra knew when to back down, so instead of twisting the screw further, she performed a graceful bow, took her dark brown cloak that had been resting across the back of another chair, and withdrew from the dining hall.
The final, fiery exchange had drained Bronwyn of her last ounces of energy and she could only bump back down on the high-backed chair. After a brief while, she waved one of the maids over to her.
The maid who had served breakfast for Bronwyn hurried over to the Lady and leaned down. "Milady?"
"Find Tawna and tell her to come to the dining hall in a hurry... please. I need her help," Bronwyn whispered, unable to even look at the fair young woman out of fear of seeing an echo of May-Linn staring back at her.
"Yes, Milady," the young maid said before she hurried out of the dining hall.
Many hours later, Bronwyn gradually came to from a deep sleep that had been induced by a sleeping potion. Though the potion had been made strong enough to knock her out for the remains of the day, the horrible events had played so strongly on her mind her sleep had been fitful and filled with grotesque images of herself and her late lover.
Bronwyn rested on her left side and stared vacantly into her darkened chamber. She filled her lungs with fresh air in the hope it would blow away some of the sorrow and loss that threatened to suffocate her, but the trembling sigh it produced proved it hadn't.
She'd had very little to drink before her emotional breakdown earlier in the day, and as a result, her throat was as dry as a cracked riverbed after a drought.
Looking around, she couldn't see a cup or a jug of water anywhere near her bed, so instead, she swept away the duvet and sat up. Once upright, her head felt numb and empty, but it was nothing compared to the vise that was clutching her heart. All around her chest, what felt like a solid metal band seemed to restrict her breathing, or indeed even the beating of her heart.
She hadn't had any nourishment the entire day apart from the water used to get the sleeping potion down, but her stomach performed an ungraceful flip-flop at the mere thought of food - still, she needed something to drink.
Sighing deeply, she reached up to pull the bell wire at the top end of her canopy bed.
Moments later, Tawna stepped into the darkened chamber with a lit candle on a brass stick. "Milady?" she whispered.
"Water... I need some water, Tawna..."
"As you wish, Milady," Tawna said and made to go back out.
Bronwyn sighed deeply as she looked at the closed shutters. "Would you please open the shutters? I cannot breathe in here."
"Certainly, Milady," Tawna said and moved back inside. After putting the brass candlestick on the dresser, she went over to the windows and moved the four shutters aside.
The familiar, creaking sound of the wooden shutters scraping against the frames sent a jolt of pain through Bronwyn, and she began to cry silently. The darkness masked it and she didn't feel it necessary to spread the news, so she kept quiet about it.
"I'll get your water now, Milady," Tawna said, performing a polite bow. The gray-haired woman turned around and quickly left the chamber.
Bronwyn got up on shaky legs and wobbled over to the dresser. When she had returned to her chamber after breakfast, Tawna had helped her undress and into her sleeping chemise, a task that had been made difficult by the fact that she had refused to let go of the gold necklace that had been the cause of May-Linn's death.
Since the exquisite piece of jewelry was resting on the dresser now, Bronwyn guessed she had dropped it from her limp hand once sleep had claimed her. As she took the necklace, the metal band around her chest tightened so violently it made breathing nearly impossible for her.
Whimpering, she left the necklace behind and staggered over to the recently opened windows. The sights, smells and sounds of dusk wafted up to her as she leaned against the wooden frame: with the sun setting in the western skies beyond her line of sight, the light was tinted orange, enhanced by the many burning torches everywhere in the walled city that had been created around the Ashburne castle over the course of the centuries.
It had apparently been a warm day, because a distinctly earthy smell of animals, waste and warm bricks hung over the entire city. A faint breeze caressed the walls of the castle, and when it came from the right direction, it carried the last calls of the merchants hawking their products in the market place a few hundred yards to the south of the keep.
'The market place...' Bronwyn thought and let out a sob. 'Where May-Linn and I walked just the other day. Where we stopped at many booths to haggle or simply to look at the fine craftsmanship... I swear... I swear I will avenge her. I swear I will kill that wretched bitch who took her from me. If it is the last thing I do, I will kill Zai Allizadra...'
Bronwyn's dark thoughts were interrupted by a firm knocking on the door. "Enter!" she said loudly, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her chemise as she stepped back from the windows.
Tawna and a tall, elderly man in a white robe entered the chamber holding a jug of water and a small vial made of green glass respectively. While Tawna poured fresh water into a wooden cup, the man moved forward and bowed deeply.
"Lady Bronwyn, I'm amazed you're able to stand unsupported. The sleeping potion I gave you should have been strong enough to let you rest for several days," the man said, putting a hand on his aching lower back as he stood back up.
Normally, Bronwyn would have offered the man a helping hand, but she was too numb to even think that far. Studying the elderly man with the white beard and thinning hair, she tried to remember if he had been with her earlier in the day, but gave up when the vise around her heart was tightened yet another turn.
Instead of answering him verbally, she shrugged and moved over to the dresser where she poured herself a full cup of water.
"Milady," Tawna said once she understood her mistress was still in terrible pain from her ordeal, "this is Mirkko, originally of Gronne but presently of Ashburne. He's the best healer the city has to offer. Far better suited to your special needs than the... the one employed by your father," she continued, putting special emphasis on the last words.
Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and gulped down the last of the water. Although the words took a while to sink in, she understood that Tawna was trying to tell her the elderly man standing before her was accepting of her true self. "I see... Mirkko, was it?"
"Yes, Lady Bronwyn," the elderly man said and bowed again.
"You asked how I could stand unsupported... I say, the fire of the wronged that burns brightly inside me is what keeps me standing. That alone, for my body no longer has a heart."
Tawna and Mirkko briefly looked at each other before they both nodded at the Lady.
Bronwyn grunted and turned back to the windows. Since her last look, the sun had gone below the horizon which cast a dark gloom over everything. The torches did their best to illuminate the city, but despite their great number, their cones of flickering light were insufficient to combat the rapidly increasing darkness.
"Milady," Tawna said, pushing the healer forward, "Mirkko and I would like to ask if you need another dose of the sleeping potion? Perhaps it would do you good..."
"Oh, Tawna..." Bronwyn said in a voice that trailed off into nothing. A deep sigh escaped her lips before she could go on. "I appreciate your concern. Yours, too, Healer. But right now, I prefer to... to experience the full brunt of my grief. If I continue to dull my senses, I fear I may never be able to grieve properly. I have slept the entire day... now I shall spend the entire eve and night praying to Marpaxa to ask her to keep May-Linn's soul safe from harm until the glorious day where we shall meet again."
"As you wish, Milady," Tawna said and performed a deep bow. When she stood up, she took the healer by the elbow and guided him out of the chamber.
Bronwyn could see Tawna wanted - or perhaps needed - to say something more, so she waited for her by the dresser, taking the opportunity to drink another cup of water.
A few moments later, Tawna came back inside and shut the door behind her so the people outside wouldn't be able to listen in on their conversation. "Milady, your father has spent most of the day arranging your journey east. He has ordered Caid Barlin to assemble a team-"
"Caid Barlin? The Huntress?" Bronwyn said and furrowed her brow. Though she didn't know any of them personally, she knew the House of Barlin was among those most loyal to the throne with several members of the family holding high-ranking positions in the empire's political spheres as well as branches of the military. Like Caid Barlin's father Efrem had been before her, she was Jin-Sarnos' favored Ranger, a relentless woman with a reputation for getting the job done - any job. 'If Caid Barlin assumes personal command over the unit, I shall be under so strict scrutiny for the entire duration I will be unable to even think without having her look over my shoulder. Drat. But at least it won't be that wretched bitch Zai Allizadra...'
"The Huntress indeed, Milady! She will come here in the early morn to present her plans. But that's not all," Tawna continued, further lowering her already quiet voice, "a man has arrived from the southern province... Bryce Cassian is his name. He's outside as we speak, Milady. He claims to be your newly appointed bodyguard and he demands to have an audience with you!"
Clenching her fists, Bronwyn spun around so fast her sleeping chemise billowed out at the base. "He shall have no such thing!" she hissed. "I am still Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle! I and no one else will decide who is allowed to set foot in my bedchamber!"
"My words exactly, Milady. I wish you all the best for your sleepless night. And Milady... I am truly sorry for your loss," Tawna said and bowed.
"Thank you, Tawna. I know you are," Bronwyn said and put a gentle hand on her old friend's shoulder.
The forced sleepless night had taken its toll on Lady Bronwyn. Not long after the night watchman who patrolled the narrow city streets far below the windows of her bedchamber had proclaimed Dawn Has Broken in song, she collapsed onto her bed and fell into an exhausted, heavy sleep once again haunted by a kaleidoscope of sounds and colors from the all-too brief time she had been allotted with the fair-haired beauty.
Nearly half a day later, Bronwyn found herself rocked so hard she had no option but to wake up to see what on earth was going on. "I- I am awake," she croaked, slowly coming to only to realize she hadn't moved an inch since she fell onto the bed at dawn.
Lying flat on her stomach with her face resting on the edge of the bed, every bone in her body ached and her bladder was sending out an urgent cry for relief. All that paled into insignificance, however, when her heart and mind remembered the tragic events that had caused all the pain and heartache to invade her soul to such an extent in the first place.
Bronwyn sighed and rolled over onto her left side. Above her stood not one but two women; one was dressed in the typical coarse outfit worn by the handmaidens, and the other was dressed from top to toe in pale brown suede that almost appeared to be a uniform of sorts. 'Suede? Who could that be?' Bronwyn thought, reaching up to rub her numb, dead-tired face.
The handmaiden proved to be Tawna who was wringing her hands ceaselessly. "Oh, Milady... I was so worried. I've been trying to wake you up for nearly half a turn of an hourglass. I was so worried... I feared you h- had decided to end it..."
"I was merely exhausted, Tawna," Bronwyn croaked, finally swinging her legs over the side of the bed. The sideways motion made the woman dressed in suede move back so she wouldn't be hit by the Lady's bare feet. Bronwyn cast a dark glance at the uniformed woman and came to the conclusion that it had to be Caid Barlin, the Huntress.
Caid Barlin was only in her early thirties, but her brooding nature borne of the numerous minor skirmishes and outright battles she had fought for Emperor Jin-Sarnos added a layer of darkness and maturity to her appearance. Apart from the perpetual look of sadness in her dusty green eyes, her shaggy honey-blonde hair and surprisingly youthful features - for a veteran soldier, that is - gave her an air of innocence that Bronwyn knew was as deceiving as a three-Crown note. In reality, Caid Barlin was a cold-blooded killing machine, and as such, not any better than Zai Allizadra.
Grunting, Bronwyn rose from the bed and smoothed down her sleeping chemise. "Caid Barlin, I presume? The famed Huntress?"
Nearly standing toe to toe with the older woman, Bronwyn couldn't help but note that the blonde was several inches shorter than she, though the shoulders were much broader and the compact torso underneath the suede uniform and a short, wraparound tunic hinted at strength far greater than what Bronwyn could offer.
"Indeed I am, Lady Bronwyn. Enchanted to finally meet you," the Huntress said and performed a graceful bow.
The Ranger provided no further information, leaving Bronwyn to ponder the ins and outs of the matter - which included the strange, yet strangely soothing, melodic, rich voice that had emanated from the comparatively short person. "As am I, Huntress," Bronwyn finally said, doing a curtsey at her guest that looked slightly odd as a result of wearing her sleeping chemise. "Tawna, please fetch me some fruit and a jug of fresh water. Though I cannot think of more substantial food yet, I realize I need to keep up my energy. Especially since my esteemed guest is apparently planning to ship me off in a quest to reach the eastern horizon."
"As you wish, Milady," Tawna said and hurried out of the chamber.
Bronwyn and Caid Barlin kept looking at each other for a short while before Bronwyn moved over to her closet. "Huntress, I would like to relieve myself, freshen up and change my clothes. Please, proceed to my study one floor below. I shall meet you there when I have enjoyed my fruit."
Caid Barlin furrowed her brow but kept her cool. "Very well, Lady Bronwyn," she eventually said, performing yet another graceful bow.
The first steps Bronwyn took outside her bedchamber for a day and a half were vastly different from those she had taken the day before. Then, she had been unaware of the tragic fate of her lover, but now, each step she took in the damp, dark corridors reminded her of the times she and May-Linn had walked there.
Bronwyn knew her father wouldn't tolerate her wearing the full mourning outfit consisting of a heavy, full-length black gown, black gloves, a black cape and a black veil - especially not considering the circumstances - but she felt she would betray May-Linn's memory by not wearing at least some of it, so she had donned the black gown and the matching cape. In her heart, she felt the conscious absence of the veil symbolizing her growing unwillingness to hide her true self.
On the descent from her bedchamber to her study one floor below on the grand staircase, she was greeted with condolences by several maids and servants who had learned the terrible news. Unfortunately, she also met a few who merely cast her contemptuous glances or whispered derogatory words behind her back.
Bronwyn guessed that most of the details - or at least the saucy gossip - had spread like wildfire through the castle, so she made a point of smiling and uttering a mumbled thank you to those who supported her, and flashing those who did not a fiery glare that made all but the most obstinate look away in embarrassment.
As she came to the heavy, wooden door to her study, she noticed a man in his mid-thirties standing ten steps or so further down the staircase. Speaking to a younger man in uniform, he was wearing a colorful, even flashy, satin outfit with a short jerkin over a tunic, knee-length pants and tightly wrapped leggings, and with a shiny sword hanging in a scabbard down his right thigh: his stance and expression proved he had to be quite full of himself.
'That must be the fabled bodyguard... what was his name? I can't remember. Oh, what a golden boy! Slick hair, suntanned skin, fashionable beard... not quite the image I had of a bodyguard. He's more like... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, my father must have picked him specifically so I could swoon over his boyish charms!'
Even as the thought flashed through Bronwyn's mind, the slick man spotted her and moved up the staircase, seemingly to greet her.
Bronwyn was in no mood for an introduction with such a peacock, so she hurriedly put her hand on the brass handle and pushed open the heavy door to her study. Once inside, she spun around and closed the door behind her - even as she did so, she could hear the man say: "Oh, Lady Bronwyn, wait...!"
With the door firmly shut and latched, she leaned her bare forehead against the coarse planks and drew several deep breaths. The comfortable temperature in the study told her that Tawna had kept the fireplace running throughout the ordeal, something she was grateful for now.
"Lady Bronwyn," Caid Barlin said, rising from a chair next to the fireplace where she had been studying a bound book, "are you poorly? Do you need to lie down?"
"No thank you, Huntress," Bronwyn said and moved away from the door. She moved into the study but came to a dead stop when she realized just what kind of uniform Caid Barlin was actually wearing. "Oh my... Lady Caid, you're wearing men's attire!" she said and put her hands to her bosom.
Caid looked down at herself but couldn't see anything unusual apart from the straight-cut ankle pants she was wearing instead of the prerequisite gown. In addition to those, she was wearing sturdy boots and a short hunting jacket over a dark brown, wraparound tunic with a round collar. "I am, Lady Bronwyn. Remember I spend most of my day in your father's forests hunting whatever needs to be hunted."
Bronwyn grunted and looked at the suede pants that she had to admit was a very fine fit indeed on the compact woman's frame. "But of course, what was I thinking? Please be seated, I shall join you in a moment. Would you like a refreshment? I can call for-"
"Thank you, Lady Bronwyn, but no. I have already eaten lunch," Caid said and sat down on the chair.
"I see," Bronwyn said while she walked over to a sideboard close to the fireplace to get a bound book she had been reading from before the horrors had begun.
The study was directly below her bedchamber and she had often wished there had been a direct connection between the two rooms. Already of a very intimate size, not even five fathoms wide and four fathoms deep, it seemed even smaller than that because of the many heavily-laden bookcases that occupied every single inch of the walls - apart from the space needed for the fireplace, obviously.
A small table and two chairs had been placed at the center of the room, and below the furniture, a large, round rug had been placed on the floor to fight the cold seeping up from the layer of expertly carved tiles that had been placed as a cover for the boulders.
The flickering flames did their best to illuminate the room and the two women, but Bronwyn decided that she wanted to see her book and her esteemed guest a bit better. Moving across the study to another sideboard, she took a candlestick that she proceeded to light up by holding a glowing poker from the fireplace next to the wick.
"Much better," she said and put the candlestick and the book down on the table. The heavy mourning gown was cumbersome to sit down in, but she managed to fold it up sufficiently so it wouldn't be ruined. Looking up, she realized that Caid Barlin had been studying her closely the entire time - and she didn't like it one bit.
"Lady Caid-" Bronwyn said coolly.
"Please, Lady Bronwyn... my name is simply Caid. Or Huntress. Either of the two will suffice," Caid said and once again put away the book she had been holding.
"I see. Tell me, do you even see yourself as a lady... or indeed a woman?" Bronwyn said in a tone that was harsher than what she had designed it to be. As the words left her lips, she was hit by a sense of embarrassment over her ill manners, but she knew she couldn't retract the words.
"A woman, obviously. A lady? No. There's no room for ladies on the battlefield," Caid said calmly, pinning Bronwyn down with an intense gaze from her dusty green eyes.
Bronwyn couldn't help but compare the eyes of Caid Barlin to Zai Allizadra's chips of ice. Where the blue orbs of the black-clad woman were transparent, offering the world a clear view of the insanity that lurked just beneath her cool surface, matters were very different with the green orbs of the Huntress. They were clouded with a deep sadness that held a clear message of the things she had seen and experienced on the battlefield - or perhaps more to the point, in the aftermath of the battles.
Looking down, Bronwyn let out a long sigh and began to wring her hands. "I... I am terribly sorry for my immature outburst, Huntress. It has been a time of great sorrow for me."
"So I've been told, Lady Bronwyn. Fear not, it takes more than a mere barb to injure me. Oh, and please accept my condolences on the untimely and tragic death of your handmaiden. I take it you were close?"
"Close...?" Bronwyn said, unsure of how much Caid knew of the sordid details. A small smile flickered across her lips, but it drowned in the sadness she felt inside and was quickly extinguished. "Yes... we were close."
Caid returned the faint smile but soon assumed the neutral expression she had worn throughout the conversation. "I'm all too familiar with sorrow and grief, Lady Bronwyn. I too have lost people near and dear to me. On the battlefield and elsewhere."
"Such is the bane of our existence," Bronwyn said somberly, folding her hands in her lap. "Now, Lady- I mean... Caid. I was under the impression you had something important to tell me with regards to the... well... I am not even sure what to call it. Expedition? Excursion? Quest? Campaign?"
"Well, a campaign it most certainly is not, Lady Bronwyn. Our unit is comprised of only six people," Caid Barlin said and rose from her chair. She quickly walked over to the sideboard to get one of the maps of the Empire. "I should say will be comprised of six people. We haven't actually assembled it yet."
"Oh... I see."
"We shall do that in the morrow. In the meantime, I think we should perhaps call it a diplomatic expedition."
Bronwyn studied the compact form of the other woman as she leaned against the desk. Although she had fully expected to despise or even fear the famed Huntress, the vibes that came from her proved that, if nothing else, she wasn't the same type of mindless killer as the people who served in the Black Lance, the elite battalions controlled by Zai Allizadra.
Blinking, Bronwyn suddenly realized Caid Barlin had spoken to her again. "Oh... once again, please accept my sincere apology, Huntress. My mind is elsewhere today. Please restate your question," she said, lowering her head.
"I understand, Lady Bronwyn. It wasn't a question, merely an observation where I mused over the fact that you will also need to wear men's attire on the trek. A gown is simply too impractical."
"Oh! Caid... would it shock you too fiercely if I told you I actually have a pair of ankle pants? Though I must admit I have never worn them in the company of strangers before... perhaps I will be mistaken for a boy?" Bronwyn said and allowed herself to laugh for the first time since the terrible news had reached her. Unfortunately, the laughter grated on her ear so it didn't last long.
Caid Barlin chuckled as well as she pushed herself off the sideboard to return to the table with a rolled-up map under her arm. "Lady Bronwyn, if I may be so bold, your ravishing beauty means you shall never, ever be mistaken for a boy. Of that I am quite certain."
"Thank you," Bronwyn whispered, suddenly overcome by an unwelcome return of the vise that held her heart captive. It had been mostly absent until then, but the term of endearment used by the Huntress had twisted the jaws yet another turn.
"I only speak the truth. Now, Lady Bronwyn, if you look at this map," Caid said and rolled out the map she had selected onto the tabletop. The Huntress put the candlestick with the lit candle on the top part as a weight and looked around for something else to use on the lower left corner. Her eyes quickly fell on the bound book, and it didn't take long for it to be pressed into service.
"I shall be right with you," Bronwyn said, rising from her chair. The heavy mourning gown did its best to hamper her progress, but she managed to fold it just right so it didn't restrict her legs. Offering the Huntress a faint smile, Bronwyn moved around the table and looked over the shorter woman's shoulder.
Once Caid's audience of one was paying attention, she leaned in and put an index finger on the beautifully drawn map. "We're here. Ashburne Castle," she said, tapping her finger onto the spot to make sure the Lady behind her understood. "And we need to go... here," she said, once again tapping on the map after moving her finger a great distance to the east.
"What does it say? Castle Blackston?" Bronwyn said, leaning down to get a better view of the map. As she did so, Caid Barlin's honey-blonde hair brushed against her cheek, startling her from its silky smooth texture. She quickly took a half-step to the side so she wouldn't appear importunate.
"Blackston Castle, indeed. Four days away on horseback. It will be strenuous, that much is certain. Lady Bronwyn, have you ever traveled that far?"
"I have not, Huntress," Bronwyn said pensively. She tried to calculate the distance in her mind but had to give up even before she had made it halfway there. "Not even well-protected in the back of my father's four-in-hand carriage. And I take it we shall not be using carriages on our expedition?"
"I fear we shall be traveling on horseback, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said, offering the Lady a polite smile before returning to the map. "So, a four day trek like I said. The plans I have drawn include resting here at the end of the first day. It's a pleasant spot roughly half a league east of the River Prinnai," she continued, pointing at the map.
Nodding, Bronwyn leaned in closer to follow the progress of Caid's finger. She had the strangest feeling in her stomach, but she couldn't decipher whether it was merely the lack of food making itself felt, or something else entirely. She narrowed her eyes to try to read her body's signals and eventually came to the surprising conclusion she was in fact looking forward to the adventure - despite the tragedy that had been its root. If nothing else, it would give her a distance to the places in and around the castle where she and May-Linn had spent a glorious, but all too brief, time together.
"At some point during the second day," Caid continued, "we will arrive at the Lower Merannai River, at its narrowest point. It's a ferocious body of water with raging torrents and deceptive underwater reefs, but there's a ferryman there who will take us across for a meager fee. By the eve of the second day, we will hopefully be at our next waypoint, the dense pine forests some five leagues south of the foot of Mount Jerubai. There, we-"
"Oh, the Yonn forests? Where the Yonnae live?" Bronwyn said excitedly.
"Why, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and turned around to face the younger woman. "I would not have expected an honorable Lady of noble blood to know of the Forest Women...? Yes indeed, the forest where the fabled Yonnae live."
Bronwyn was hit by an acute onslaught of a deep, red blush that rapidly spread over her pale cheeks and even out to the tip of her nose. She wasn't about to mention to a complete stranger - pleasant though the stranger was - that she had once spoken at length to a trader from the legendary commune of women. The talk had helped her come to terms with her true self in a period of her life where she had severe doubts as to who and what she actually was. "Oh, I have... I have merely heard the name mentioned somewhere else. It is quite remarkable, after all."
"Indeed it is. Of course, I did not say it. You did," Caid said, but wisely didn't take the matter further.
"Oh... I... I suppose I did," Bronwyn mumbled.
"Carrying on," Caid said, moving her finger further east, "the third eve should see us here, close to or perhaps even at the border to Lasar-Ihtreg's realm. Even if we make it there with daylight to spare, we shall not go on until the next dawn. Neither I nor any of our travel companions have visited his realm, and it is simply too dangerous to attempt an approach in the dark hours."
"I agree, Huntress. Safety before all."
"Quite. On the fourth day, we shall cross Lasar-Ihtreg's lands until we reach Blackston Castle. From that point on, the stage is all yours, Lady Bronwyn. I have heard you have been trained as a diplomat and negotiator."
"Well," Bronwyn said with a deep sigh, "such is my training, yes, but it remains to be seen whether or not I can recall any of the vast number of lessons my long-suffering tutor has tried to install in me."
Caid chuckled darkly and removed the two weights she had put on the map. The old piece of parchment quickly swept itself up into an untidy roll, but she rolled it out again to get it right. "Which reminds me... your father has given me a sealed document that must be handed over to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg in person," she said as she put the rolled-up map under her arm. "Your father was quite adamant that none of us are allowed to break the seal. Not even you. Thus, I shall protect the document with my life until we arrive."
"Oh?" Bronwyn said, narrowing her eyes. "Huntress, do... do you think we will be carrying a declaration of war... or... or something similar?"
"I cannot say, Lady Bronwyn. Lasar-Ihtreg does not have an army threatening us. In fact, he seems to be a ruler who stays well within his own realm."
"Unlike my father," Bronwyn said harshly. She suddenly realized she had spoken out loud to someone who was very much loyal to the throne, and she quickly ducked her head in case the response would be negative.
Caid turned around and looked darkly at the Lady, almost like she was trying to gauge if the younger woman really understood how the world turned. Grunting, she decided to let matters be and moved over to the sideboard to deposit the map.
The air inside the study had turned somewhat frosty despite the fire blazing in the open fireplace, and Bronwyn regretted speaking out loud. To have something to do, she folded her heavy mourning gown neatly and sat down on the chair. Although she couldn't get herself to look at the Huntress who was once again leaning against the sideboard, she could certainly feel the dusty green orbs trying to burn two holes into her head.
The awkward moment was mercifully interrupted by someone knocking heavily on the locked door. By the way the unknown person seemed to want to break down the door by thumps alone, Bronwyn knew it couldn't be Tawna.
"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is that now?" Caid Barlin mumbled, standing up straight. She cast a quick glance at Lady Bronwyn before she strode across the floor and over to the door. "State your business or withdraw... in any case, stop that infernal thumping!" she hollered to be heard through the wooden door.
'I will not!' a male voice cried from the other side. 'I have been ordered by Emperor Jin-Sarnos himself to be at Lady Bronwyn's side at all times, and so I shall!'
"Oh no, it is that colorful bird of a man," Bronwyn groaned, clapping her hands over her eyes. "Huntress, I fear you must let him in... he speaks the truth."
Caid narrowed her eyes and gave Bronwyn an extra-careful look to see if she was jesting. Apparently deciding that jesting was the furthest from the younger woman's mind, she grunted and turned around to unlatch the door.
In strode a man in an outfit so brash and colorful that Caid gained an instant disliking of him - at least, that's what her facial expression hinted at.
Even before the man had come to a stop, he smoothed back his slick hair that had become slightly ruffled in the fracas, and adjusted the scabbard carrying the shiny blade on his thigh to make sure it lined up just right. Taller than he had appeared on the staircase, the man had a few inches on Lady Bronwyn and practically half a foot on Caid Barlin.
The fact that he was the tallest in the study didn't escape his sharp eyes, and as he looked from Bronwyn to Caid and back, the air of superiority about him grew to insufferable levels.
"Good eve, oh ye charming Lady Bronwyn. I am enchanted to meet a woman of such radiant beauty," he said and performed a deep bow in front of Bronwyn. On his way up, he took her hand and kissed her knuckles.
"Good eve, Sir," Bronwyn said in a distinctly cool voice. "Oh dear, I seem to have mislaid your calling card. You are...?"
The news that not all members of the fairer sex knew his name made the colorfully dressed man take a step back and shoot Caid and Bronwyn an offended glare. "Bryce Cassian, Milady," he said, quickly falling back into his regular, well-buttered persona. "Of the southern province. Despite working on a delicate subject there, I came as swiftly as I could when your father summoned me. May I sit?" he continued, pointing at the vacant chair.
"But of course. Oh... Sir, please inform me of your full title so I can address you with the proper respect," Bronwyn said, moving slightly to the side to make room for the colorful man.
"My title, Lady Bronwyn? Alas, I am but a citizen of your father's vast and glorious empire," Bryce said, moving in so close to Bronwyn it almost became inappropriate. "A title has not yet been bestowed upon me, but I have reason to believe I could one day be gifted a-"
Grunting, Caid Barlin moved over to the other side of the two talking people so she had a line of sight to Bronwyn at all times. "So you're a commoner, then?" she said with a strong hint of sarcasm in her voice.
Bryce turned around and shot Caid a scathing glare that would no doubt have caused anyone less than the Huntress to tremble, or even to leave the room.
"Lady Bronwyn," Bryce said with all the charm of a snake about to strike, "your handmaiden here clearly does not know her place. I seek your permission to punish her for her vile insolence."
Bronwyn held her breath as the sudden aggression between the two people she was with swelled to hitherto unreached levels. She focused on the Huntress and spotted an instantaneous hardening of the woman's green orbs. Gone were the soft features and the friendly appearance; replaced by a hard expression that promised swift retribution if the colorful man was foolish enough to try anything.
"Sir, I... I cannot give you that permission," Bronwyn said, struggling to get up because of the heavy mourning gown. When she finally managed to get on her feet, she stepped in between the two combatants to break the tension. "My handmaiden this woman is not, she is Caid Barlin of the House of Barlin, close allies of my father. As I am sure you know. She is also the commander of the expedition to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's realm. As I am sure you know!"
The tension and aggression kept growing for a little while with Bryce and Caid continuing to stare each other down, but Bryce eventually caved and put up his hands in defeat. "I beg for forgiveness, Lady Caid. I had no knowledge of your involvement."
"Nor I of yours, Sir. In any way, shape or form," Caid said coolly, smirking when she realized she had managed to sneak in a parting insult.
"Oh, but you should have," Bryce said and decided to focus solely on the Lady next to him. "I, Bryce Cassian, perform the best close protection Crowns can buy. I am superbly proficient in the art of swordplay and I have in-depth knowledge of several forms of the ancient martial arts. I promise you, Lady Bronwyn-" - Bryce took Bronwyn's hand in his own for effect - "-that your precious life is safe with me. I promise I shall let nothing, no man, woman, child nor beast close to your bosom for as long as I breathe."
Bronwyn nodded solemnly, unsure of what to say or do. "That is... is... certainly..." she muttered, already dreading the prospects of spending four days in close company with the insufferable peacock. The journey itself would strain her to her limits; traveling on horseback for so long with a group of strangers she had very little in common with would already be a severe test of her mental health and aptitude, but to have someone like Bryce Cassian who had the potential of getting on her last nerve every time the hourglass turned could be the drop that made her cup overflow. "That is certainly a worthy pledge, Sir... I thank you. I-"
"Lady Bronwyn," Bryce continued, completely ignoring the Lady's hesitation, "if you seek confirmation of my skills, I have a scroll case full of glowing recommendations from fair maidens and noble families from here to the other side of Emperor Jin-Sarnos' realm."
"Oh, I- maybe I shall... have a look at them later," Bronwyn said, once again nodding solemnly.
Caid had kept remarkably quiet throughout the exchange, but the all too apparent discomfort suffered by Lady Bronwyn made her fair face assume a dark quality that told of a storm brewing just under the surface. "And with that out of the way..." she said and moved away from the sideboard, "thank you for your time, Sir. I shall continue with her Ladyship on her own now."
Bryce looked at the Huntress and offered her an overbearing smile. "Oh, I see my words have not yet penetrated your pretty head, Lady Caid. My orders are very clear... I am not to leave Lady Bronwyn unattended for any amount of time. Not when she's traveling, not when she's eating, not even when she's sleeping."
Bronwyn whipped her head around and stared dangerously at the man sitting next to her. For once, words failed her, but the blush that grew on her cheeks proved just what she felt of his proclamation. "Sir-" she tried, but Bryce and Caid were at it once again, staring each other down like a pair of fighting mastiffs. "Sir... beyond my father, I have never slept in the presence of a man, and I certainly will not start now!" she hissed.
"Ah yes, so I've been told. Indeed, is that not why this situation arose?" Bryce said coldly.
The boundless flippancy and rudeness of the man sent a painful jolt through Bronwyn's heart and soul. She could feel the color drain from her face, and all she could do was to look down and wring her hands as the metal band around her chest came back with a vengeance. In her heart, she felt Bryce's words had tainted or even desecrated the golden memories that remained of May-Linn, but she was determined not to show any weakness by crying in front of the two strangers.
Not even three heartbeats later, she looked up in shock as a kerfuffle broke out in the middle of her study when Caid Barlin reached down and grabbed the colorfully dressed man by his satin jerkin. Effortlessly, she dragged him upright and showed no signs of letting him go, even when he protested by squealing.
"You have said far too much, Sir," the Huntress said hoarsely in a growly voice that dripped with menace. "After you have begged for forgiveness with her Ladyship, I suggest you leave these premises while you still have all your teeth."
"I am Bryce Cassian! No woman has command over me!" the peacock said, but his words were negated by the fact he was unable to escape Caid's rock solid grip.
Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the mismatched pair - Bryce's additional height should have given him an advantage, but it didn't. It appeared a full-blown fight could break out at any moment, but to make sure it didn't, Bronwyn rose from her chair the fastest her cumbersome mourning gown would allow and put a hand on Caid's shoulder to let her know she should withdraw.
The Huntress did so, reluctantly.
Bryce took the opportunity to hurry behind the chairs and get away from Caid's reach. His face turned even more disgusted as he pulled down in his precious satin jerkin that had been crumpled by the Huntress' grip. Looking at the two women, he could barely hide the sneer that curled his lips. "I see this assignment will be my toughest yet. But I, Bryce Cassian, shall complete this task bestowed upon me by your father, or die trying! I bid you farewell, Lady Bronwyn! But know I shall be the shadow that follows you!" - With that, he spun around and stormed out of the study, slamming the door hard behind him.
As the tension left the room, so did Bronwyn's strength. Sighing deeply, she slipped back down on the chair and buried her face in her hands. Despite her best efforts, a few sobs racked her body, and this time, she couldn't conceal them.
"Oh Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and knelt down next to the weeping woman. Putting a warm hand on Bronwyn's back, she began to draw small, yet comforting patterns across the mourning gown. "Pay no attention to that court jester. I promise I shall look out for you on our expedition. He will never get close enough to cause you pain, Milady. And have no fear, no man shall ever be near you when you sleep. I have already arranged that you will share a tent with myself and the third woman in our group, unless the conditions are so poor we need a different approach."
"Thank you, Lady Caid..." Bronwyn whispered, sniffling deeply.
"Now what did I tell you about that? Caid is my name, Lady Bronwyn."
"I know... I... I am truly sorry," Bronwyn said and wiped her leaking eyes. "It slipped my mind."
"Understandable. Do you wish me to escort you back to your sleeping chamber?"
"No... no, I would like to stay here for a while.... to... to look into the fire and think of matters important to me. But I could use a cup of hot tea, Caid. Would you mind seeking out Tawna so she can make one for me?"
"Perhaps it would be most prudent if I did not leave you for the time being, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and finished comforting the Lady by giving her elbow a little squeeze.
Bronwyn looked wide-eyed at the Huntress, but soon understood that she was right. A self-satisfied man like Bryce Cassian was inevitably at his worst when he was challenged unexpectedly - and he most certainly had been. "I thank you, Huntress. Could you merely look outside and ask the first maid who comes by to call for Tawna? Every maid in Ashburne Castle knows Tawna so it will matter not who you ask."
"Now that I can do, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and performed a deep bow.
A while later, Bronwyn's cold hands heated up instantly as she wrapped them around a hot mug of tea. Tawna had insisted on delivering the tea in person, and the senior handmaiden was now busy arranging the Lady's hair back into the beautiful hairdo she usually wore rather than the bird's nest that had been there since the tragic news had broken.
It was clear to Bronwyn that Caid wanted to say something more, and equally clear that she held it back because of Tawna's presence. After taking a long sip of the hot tea, Bronwyn offered the Huntress a faint smile. "Caid, you may speak your mind. Tawna and I withhold nothing from each other."
"Very well, Lady Bronwyn... however, I fear the question is a delicate one. The handmaiden who was killed..."
"You needn't ask. Yes, we were in love. Alas, only for an all too brief moment in time," Bronwyn said and looked down. The gesture interrupted Tawna's work, but the handmaiden waited patiently for Bronwyn to look back up. "If that bothers you, I prefer you speak your mind truthfully now rather than somewhere between here and Lasar-Ihtreg's realm."
Caid merely nodded at first and took a sip of her own tea before clearing her throat. "If I said it bothered me, it would make a liar and a hypocrite out of me, Lady Bronwyn. I too harbor such preferences."
"I beg your pardon?!" Bronwyn said and jerked her head up. The rapid gesture meant the two combs Tawna used to straighten out the last remnants of the mess were caught in an unfortunate position and yanked Bronwyn's scalp back. "Ow!" she yelped, reaching up to the offending tools.
"Oh! A thousand apologies, Milady!" Tawna cried and hurriedly began to unravel the knots of hair that had become entangled in the ebony combs.
Bronwyn blinked a couple of times to digest not only the pain from her scalp but also the surprising - even shocking - information offered to her by the Huntress. "Caid... I... I cannot find the words... I had no idea..."
"Good. I prefer such matters to stay between us. Only a select few knows about me, Lady Bronwyn. I dearly wish for it to remain that way," Caid said and shot the Lady a pleading look with her dusty green eyes.
"Of course, of course! Caid Barlin, your secret is safe with us. We shall keep it even beyond our dying breaths! Is that not so, Tawna?" Bronwyn said. She wanted to nod vigorously, but remembered at the last moment it would only make the mess in her hair worse, so she didn't.
"Indeed it is, Milady. Huntress, we shall remain silent," Tawna said, bowing slightly to her mistress and their guest.
"That is all I can ask of you," Caid said and focused on her tea.
Early the next morning, Lady Bronwyn's bedchamber was a hive of activity with several capes, smocks, corsets, surcoats, hoses, girdles, shirts, gowns and leggings splayed across the four-post canopy bed. Bronwyn herself - only wearing the most essential - scuttled back and forth between the closet and the bed, depositing further garments on top of those that were already there while searching for the very special outfit she knew she had in her possession.
"Oh, Milady..." Tawna said and looked more than a little skeptical at the two pieces of dark green cloth Bronwyn had wrapped around her chest and hips, "I still cannot fathom why you would want to wear such scratchy, confining undergarments when you have such beautiful satin-"
"Simply because these are more practical while underway, Tawna. We depart at first light in the morrow and I prefer to have made myself accustomed to them ahead of time," Bronwyn said with her head buried inside the closet.
"Granted, but... still."
"Ah! Here they are," Bronwyn said and pulled out a pair of dark green, high-waisted ankle pants with straight legs and two-inch turn-ups. "Tell me, Tawna, will these not do nicely? I believe they will. I shall use these men's pants with my short riding coat and the heavy-duty tunic you sewed for me last year... or was it the year before?"
"It was the year before, Milady. But..."
"Yes?" Bronwyn said and held the pants up against her lower body so she could see how they fit her.
"You shall be gone for at least eight days, Milady. Surely a single pair of long pants cannot be enough! And not to speak of your unmentionables, oh my!"
Bronwyn slowly lifted her head to look her senior handmaiden in the eye - she hadn't thought of that particular aspect of the equation. "Oh... I fear you are right as always, Tawna. No... one pair of unmentionables will surely not be enough..."
"Have no fear, Milady," Tawna said with a knowing smirk, "while you go on today's introductions, I shall collect all the spare unmentionables I can find. My integrity and professional pride prevents me from sending my most esteemed Lady Bronwyn on such a perilous trek without clean undergarments."
A broad smile spread over Bronwyn's lips for the first time in days - a smile that eventually turned into a warm laugh. "I thank you, Tawna... and so does my delicate bottom."
Fully dressed in riding boots, the dark green, high-waisted ankle pants and her short riding coat over a double-stitched tunic, Lady Bronwyn skipped down the grand staircase to get to the entrance at the base of the keep.
Her father hadn't summoned her since revealing the terrible news, nor had she run into the ice cold Zai Allizadra - and for that she was eternally grateful - but the strutting peacock of a man who greeted her by the main entrance was almost enough in himself to make her spin around on her inch-high boot heel and walk back up the staircase.
"Lady Bronwyn," Bryce Cassian said and performed a deep bow. "It shall be my honor to escort you on your trip through the disgusting, filthy streets of your city."
"The city is not mine, Sir, it belongs to my father," Bronwyn said, crinkling her nose when she noticed Bryce's new, frilly jerkin was even more foppish than the one preceding it.
"A mere figure of speech, Lady Bronwyn."
"But of course."
After smoothing down his fashionable circular beard, Bryce put out his arm like he expected Bronwyn to hook her own inside it. The way he held it looked like he was trying to prove a point about the size of his manhood.
Bronwyn had other ideas, however, and simply turned away from him.
On their way through the dusty, smelly paths and alleys, Bronwyn often greeted passers-by who recognized her. The people she met smiled at her, but their smiles vanished like the morning dew when they clapped eyes on the surly Bryce Cassian who was indeed shadowing Lady Bronwyn like he said he would.
Many of the peasants who were commonly working in the fields surrounding the walled city had assembled at the square for the weekly market day where they had set up stalls selling their produce.
The result was a cacophony of sights, sounds and smells; stalls selling colorful fabrics and dyes were side by side with bee-keepers who hawked jars of their home-made honey, and spice traders from the southern province who all had numerous piles of spices lined up in increasing hotness in front of and inside their stalls; further on, there were tailors, leather craftsmen, basket weavers, barrel makers and cobblers selling the latest fashion in wooden clogs.
The next aisle saw masses of chickens, geese, ducks, sheep and even the odd cow - and every single one of them made their presence felt by loudly voicing their discomfort of being in such close confinement.
"Oh, this is torture! What a wretched place... get out of my way, peasant!" Bryce growled, rudely pushing aside an old man who had dared to venture into the aisles between two of the stalls.
The third aisle saw stalls presenting marble and stonemasons, jewelers, pewterers and other highly skilled craftsmen who created products for the home. Inevitably, the customers there were mostly women; their husbands and sons had assembled in the fourth aisle where local taverns had set up a row of stalls selling meat pies, sausages and freshly grilled chops of lamb and pork. The heavy food was helped down by gallons of watered down ale that a small army of servants were rolling from the local breweries in ten-gallon kegs.
The sun hadn't yet reached its zenith, but even so, several of the men visiting the tavern stalls seemed to have found the bottom of their mugs of ale a little too often. Singing off-key, the men laughed noisily at each other or raved around in drunken stupors.
Bronwyn allowed herself to smile at the good-natured unruliness. Sniffing deeply, she took in all the exotic aromas that permeated the market place she loved so dearly. The only thing she couldn't get herself to do was to visit the jeweler she and May-Linn had stopped at the last time they were there.
"Lady Bronwyn, how much longer do I have to stay in this wretched environment?" Bryce said surly.
"My good man, you are free to leave at will," Bronwyn said, turning around to give the peacock a disdainful glare.
"Alas, I am not."
Bronwyn snorted and turned away from her shadow. "Your choice," she said over her shoulder. Resuming her stroll, she went past another few stalls before a familiar figure in a suede uniform suddenly waved at her from a quiet corner of the market place. "Oh! There we have the Huntress. Come on, Sir. We shall not waste a moment."
Even before she had finished the sentence, Lady Bronwyn put the long leg forward and disappeared into the crowd. Behind her, she could hear a few highly incendiary curses brought forth by Bryce Cassian, but she couldn't care less about his well-being.
"Huntress," Bronwyn said and bowed slightly to the older woman once she had reached her.
"Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and mirrored the bow. "Like me, I presume you bow and not curtsey because it somehow feels wrong while wearing men's attire?" she said, winking.
"It does!" Bronwyn said and clapped her hands together in front of her bosom. "Oh, how charming that we both employ the same reasoning!"
"Charming, my..." Bryce Cassian growled once he caught up with Lady Bronwyn. The supposed bodyguard looked surly from one woman to the next, seemingly not sure which of them he disliked more. The sneer that slowly formed on his lips when he looked at Caid Barlin suggested that he had made up his mind.
Caid rolled her eyes at his ill manners but decided to give him the cold shoulder instead of a warm welcome. "Lady Bronwyn, if you will come with me, please. We are to meet a special member of the team. The third woman I mentioned last eve."
"Lead on, Huntress," Bronwyn said and hooked her arm inside that of Caid Barlin.
Caid narrowed her eyes slightly at the openly display of affection, but when she noticed Bryce Cassian grinding his jaw at yet another slight by the Lady, she smiled broadly and made a sweeping gesture.
The cobbled side street they walked down at the other side of the walled city was far quieter than the busy market place had been. Made up of pale brown, one-and-a-half storey half-timbered houses of brick and clay, the street was home to a great variety of families; at the end nearest to the larger connecting street, there were several small children playing with hoops and self-made balls, and they had a young, pregnant woman there who kept an eye on them from her doorstep; at the other end of the street, an elderly lady used a wooden cane to keep her balance while crossing the uneven cobblestones.
"Here we are, Milady," Caid said and pointed at the next house after the one with the pregnant woman. Once Bronwyn had gone up to the door to wait, the Huntress turned around and faced Bryce. "And you cannot enter, Sir."
"What? I demand to know why!"
"The lady living here will not tolerate any men inside. It is a sanctuary for women."
The sneer on Bryce's lips that always seemed to show up when he was displeased with something returned with a vengeance. This time, it curled his lips so hard his teeth were showing. "And tell me, what should I care?" he hissed in Caid's face.
"Of course, I could tell our Emperor that-"
"You would not dare, woman!" Bryce barked loud enough for the entire street to hear.
"Would I not?" Caid said, leaving the question open-ended in case her opponent cared to banter. He didn't, so she nodded and stepped away from him. "Lady Bronwyn, please knock on the door."
Bronwyn smiled and did as asked. A moment later, the door was opened by a young woman no older than a late teen who was wearing a frock commonly worn by housemaids. "Good day. May we enter?" Bronwyn said, adding a smile to offset the slightly odd circumstances of having two women show up at the door wearing ankle pants.
"You may," the young woman said and stepped aside to let her two guests into a narrow lobby. Once they were in, she closed the door behind them. "Please have a seat. The Master is out, but I shall fetch the Mistress at once," she said and offered her two guests a slight curtsey before hurrying up a creaky, wooden staircase next to the lobby.
"The Master...?" Bronwyn said, turning to Caid. "Did my ears deceive me, or did you not just tell that insufferable man that this was a sanctuary for women?"
"I did. I lied."
"Oh... normally, I do not condone such behavior, but in this case... good for you," Bronwyn said and quickly stifled a smirk.
Creaking noises from the other end of the narrow lobby they were standing in made Caid and Bronwyn look down there and into a room that appeared to be the house's kitchen. Sounds akin to a door opening, then closing were heard, and it wasn't long before a tall, white-haired man wearing a white robe appeared at the other end of the lobby.
"Oh... greetings, Lady Bronwyn. I am pleased to see you up and about," the elderly man said while performing a labored bow that made his back pop and his white robe flow out at the base.
"Mirkko? Why, it is you," Bronwyn said and went down the lobby to address the healer who had helped her with the sleeping potion.
"Indeed it is, Milady. Who is your friend in the suede uniform?"
"Caid Barlin, Mirkko," Bronwyn said and waved Caid over to her. "Perhaps you know her better under the moniker The Huntress?"
"I fear I do not, Milady. Greetings, Lady Caid," Mirkko said and bowed again. "How strange, the women present wear pants and the only man wears a gown-like robe!"
Bronwyn chuckled and took a step back to glance at their garments. "Indeed. Unpredictability and surprise are the spices of life, I suppose."
"Possibly. Have you met my wife yet?" Mirkko said and shuffled back into the kitchen. "She's upstairs mending a dress that was accidentally torn yesterday."
Caid Barlin opened her mouth to reply, but before she had time to do so, an elderly yet strong voice behind her answered the question:
"Now they have, my dearest Mirkko. Greetings, I am Fyonna of Ashburne," an elderly lady said. Appearing to be in her mid to late sixties, Fyonna had a compact shape with stooping shoulders and crooked hands.
The pale blue, long-sleeved cowl she was wearing had an intricately detailed, broad white stripe down the front that was revealed to consist of letters from an ancient and long-forgotten language. The cowl seemed to have individual pantlegs as well as a section of cloth at the center that nearly reached the floor. The woman's face was obscured by a hood that came down to below her eyes, but she soon raised her aged hands to pull it back.
Bronwyn let out an involuntary gasp at the sight of the tightly wound strip of cloth wrapped around the old woman's eyes. Held in the same pale blue hue as the cowl, the cloth was decorated with letters identical to those that graced the front. When Bronwyn realized she had acted inappropriately, a red blush spread over her cheeks and she hurriedly looked down.
"Good day, Caid Barlin," Fyonna said, putting out her hands as she moved forward.
Bronwyn stared at the blind woman and scrunched up her face into a mask of confusion. 'Caid has not spoken a word, of that I am certain... but how could she be recognized...?'
"Good day, Fyonna," Caid said and took the blind woman's hands in her own for a little squeeze. "Pleased to see you."
"And I you, my dear. Who is that with you?"
Bronwyn's face was transformed from scrunched-up confusion to plain shock in a matter of a heartbeat. Without being able to get a single syllable across her lips, she looked from the blind woman and over to Caid, and then back again.
Fyonna cocked her head and seemed to sniff the air. "I smell... Spices. Cinnamon. Lavender. Some transpiration, but not of the sour, male kind. It is a woman, of that I am certain. Child, why don't you introduce yourself so I can spare my senses for important matters?"
"I..." Bronwyn stuttered, blushing so hard her cheeks were burning. "I apologize profoundly, Lady Fyonna. Indeed, I am a woman... I am Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle, to be precise."
"Oh, Lady Bronwyn, I bow my head for thee," Fyonna said and performed a graceful curtsey. "Please accept my sincere condolences on the passing of your handmaiden. Such a tragedy her death was."
At Fyonna's words, Bronwyn felt the old, unwelcome vise around her heart return to take yet another evil turn. She briefly closed her eyes, hoping to remember May-Linn's beautiful face and unbridled laughter. "I thank you, Lady Fyonna," she said quietly.
"You cared a great deal for her. It is plainly evident in your voice."
Bronwyn nodded and let out the breath she had been holding. "I did... yes."
"Now child, please allow me to get an impression of your face."
"M- my face?" Bronwyn said and looked to Caid for guidance.
Almost sensing the Lady's hesitation, Fyonna took a step back so she wouldn't appear importunate. "I promise it will not hurt, Lady Bronwyn. It is simply so I can see you properly."
"But you are blind!" Bronwyn exclaimed and promptly blushed all over again.
"Ha! Caid, Lady Bronwyn is certainly a quick study, eh?" Fyonna said cheerily. "Yes, child, blind as a bat I am... however, I possess other skills that more than make up for my lack of eyesight."
"Well... you may go ahead, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said and stepped forward so she was within easy reach. "No, your hands need to be higher..." she continued when the blind woman reached too low.
"A thousand apologies, Lady Bronwyn. There are things even a Seer should not touch without invitation," she said as she let her crooked hands roam across Bronwyn's features.
"You're a Seer?!" Bronwyn said, staring wide-eyed at the blind woman before her. At the same time, she was astounded by the silky softness of the woman's fingers as they went on a journey of exploration across her chin, cheeks, ears, nose, brow and forehead. She had expected them to be unpleasant to the touch, but the Seer's fingers were anything but. As the fingers trailed tenderly across her skin, she thought she could feel a strange, golden warmth in their wake, but immediately scoffed at that ridiculous notion.
"I'm a Seer, yes. Mmmm... you have an exquisite bone structure. You must be a beautiful woman," Fyonna said and pulled back from the Lady.
Caid chuckled and took Fyonna by the arm to lead her into the kitchen once the seance was over. "She is. Fyonna, have you thought about my proposal?"
"I have, Caid. I accept," Fyonna said and sat down on a wooden chair near a wood-burning stove where Mirkko was stirring a pot of stew for lunch. "For years, I have heard things about Lasar-Ihtreg that I need to verify for myself. Our Order cannot allow- on second thoughts, I better keep that to myself for the time being," she continued, turning her head towards Bronwyn as the Lady stepped into the kitchen as the last person of the group.
Narrowing her eyes, Bronwyn looked intently at the blind woman to gauge if it was all just an act, but came to the conclusion it wasn't. Then she realized the essence of what Fyonna had said to Caid. "But, Lady Fyonna... you cannot possibly come with us... you are blind! How can you... we shall be traveling on horses and..."
"I dare say I have experienced worse hardships, Lady Bronwyn. I accept. I shall be there in the morrow," Fyonna said decisively, ending the conversation almost before it had begun.
Caid grunted and went over to Lady Bronwyn to put a hand on the small of the taller - and confused - woman's back. "Excellent news, Fyonna. We shall meet you at the stables just after dawn. Now if you will excuse us, we need to find the last two members of our team. Have a pleasant day... you too, Mirkko," she said and bowed to her two hosts.
The impending departure snapped Bronwyn out of her stupor and she performed a quick bow to the Seer and her husband. "Oh, I wish you a pleasant day, too, Lady Fyonna. Mirkko."
Outside on the cobbled street, it was clear to see by the color of Bryce Cassian's face that he was teetering on the brink of spontaneous combustion. Pacing back and forth in a narrow track, his eyes shot fire when Caid and Bronwyn closed the door to Fyonna's home behind them and stepped down onto the street. "Are you quite done here?" he sneered.
"We are," Caid said calmly, taking Lady Bronwyn by the arm and leading her away from the irate man. The two women briefly smiled at each other, but kept up appearances otherwise.
Bryce let out a few colorful curses, but to his credit, he managed to keep them under his breath - mostly.
The small group of people continued their tour of the city by walking up the connecting street and along the uneven cobblestones for quite a while. In the distance, the frenetic noises from the market day slipped further and further into the background until it was merely a murmur on the wind; its place taken by laughter and merry voices from the many taverns and blue establishments that populated the northern area of the city that Caid Barlin led them into.
The architecture changed as well - there, it seemed that every other house was a hovel-like tavern with crooked doors and poorly constructed thatched roofs. In the rows behind the taverns across filthy back alleys, dilapidated two-storey houses leaned against each other, seemingly only an autumn storm away from collapsing.
Because of the vast number of people visiting the stalls run by the taverns up at the market place, the streets Caid, Lady Bronwyn and Bryce walked through were mostly deserted, but the poverty was tangible - there were still children playing on the cobbled, filthy streets, but they did so barefoot and wearing tattered rags, and here and there, prostitutes of all ages leaned out of decayed windows while scouting for customers among the few passers-by.
The smells that permeated the area weren't pleasant in the least; general decay, human and animal waste, rotting garbage, and simmering food like cabbage stew and onion soups cooking by open windows all mixed into a lethal cocktail that made Lady Bronwyn pinch her nostrils as they turned down a side street that proved to be even more filthy and awful than the one they left behind.
"Barlin," Bryce said quietly, grabbing Caid by the shoulder after they had walked on for another few paces, "you cannot be serious! Dragging her Ladyship into the whore district is nothing short of madness! Look at her, she's suffering."
Bronwyn was indeed a little green around the gills, but Caid grunted and effortlessly removed Bryce's hand from her shoulder. "I know. We have arrived," she said, gesturing at a particularly seedy establishment.
"This. Is. A. Brothel," Bryce hissed, quickly moving over to the Lady to protect her from the dangers that undoubtedly lurked within.
Until now, Bronwyn had been too preoccupied by the poverty and the filth to notice what had been said, but that piece of news woke her up. "Oh my! Caid... I... I am uncomfortable here."
"I know you must be, Lady Bronwyn. Therefore, I want you to wait out here with Bryce. I promise it shall only take a very short while. The last two men we need for our expedition are in here. It's their regular haunt," Caid said, offering the Lady a reassuring smile.
"This? This is their regular haunt? What are they, animals?" she said, but immediately blushed at her rudeness.
"No. They're retired soldiers from your father's army. Strong, loyal and willing to risk their lives to get the job done. It shall be so, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said decisively before spinning around and entering the establishment.
Bronwyn understood from the Huntress' tone that she had no say in the matter, so she didn't even attempt to speak up. Being in the shady district scared her, but at the same time, it piqued her sense of adventure.
She had only been there once before, years earlier at the end of the War of Great Expansion when her father had led his victorious soldiers on a grand parade through the entire city state. The Emperor Jin-Sarnos and she had been lounging in the golden four-in-hand carriage, riding at the point of a full brigade of regular soldiers and the entire two thousand-men strong regiment of Zai Allizadra's elite Black Lance.
'I wonder if Caid Barlin took part in the parade? She must have been very young then... twenty or so. If she were, she would probably have been near the b- oh dear, look at those two,' Bronwyn thought, chewing on her fingernails when a couple of ruffians suddenly turned onto the street she and Bryce were waiting in.
The two poorly dressed men briefly looked at each other before they resumed walking towards the Lady and the peacock.
"Sir, I think we should go inside... now!" Bronwyn said and hurriedly stepped into the establishment, moving so quickly Bryce Cassian didn't even have time to open his mouth to respond.
What was inside the tavern proved to be even worse than the ruffians outside. As Bronwyn came to a dead stop just inside the door after having barged through it, she saw to her horror that half a dozen swords and nasty-looking daggers were pointing at her.
Wide-eyed, she tried to stutter out a reply, but she couldn't get her lips or tongue to cooperate into delivering anything resembling coherent speech. Behind her, Bryce Cassian stepped into the establishment and closed the door rather more gracefully than it had been opened.
Five men and two women were lined up at a wooden bar counter inside the dark, smelly tavern, and they had all spun around and drawn their weapons at the intruder. It didn't take long for them to see that it wasn't a hold-up, so they holstered their blades and turned back to their ales and brandies.
Only then did Bronwyn realize that one of the women at the counter was Caid Barlin. The Huntress was standing next to two men of wildly differing appearances; one was a veritable mountain of a human being, and the other was smaller, shorter and wiry.
Drawing a shaking breath, Bronwyn ventured into the tavern. She didn't dare look any of the patrons in the eye, instead focusing squarely on tip-toeing across the dusty, straw-covered floorboards to get to Caid and the two men.
For once, Bryce Cassian seemed in his element, and he went straight up to the bar to order himself a brandy.
"Huntress," Bronwyn said shakily as she reached Caid and the two men. "I apologize profusely for my... my... dramatic entrance. There were ugly men out on the street, you see... and... and I did not dare-"
"Oy, there be plenty o' ugly men in he', luv!" the mountain of a man said cheerily. At least six foot five, the man was as bald as a millstone, but he tried to compensate for it by having grown a foot-long full beard that had turned gray in places. His eyes and face were friendly, if a little haggard, and his weathered skin proved that he was no stranger to spending time outside in the harsh sun. He wore the dark brown clothes so typical of a peasant, but the tattered rags did a poor job of hiding the muscles that riddled his shoulders, arms and torso. Smiling broadly, he put out his paw, clearly expecting Bronwyn to shake it. "Kheo Khammon, luv. Enchanted ta meet such a perdy one here in this nasty part o' town!"
The other man chuckled and patted Kheo on the shoulder. Unlike his large companion, the wiry, dark-haired man seemed nimble and agile, and he had razor-sharp eyes that didn't miss a beat anywhere. Dressed in a red satin tunic, a black leather belt and black ankle pants that had clearly started life as his uniform in Emperor Jin-Sarnos' armed forces, he was fit and well-muscled, though of a vastly different build to Kheo. All in all, he exuded an air of a coiled-up spring that could burst at any moment. "What my dimwitted friend here is trying to say, is that we rarely see a woman of your striking beauty here. Deegan Arliss, Milady. Enchanted to meet you."
Bronwyn stared at the paws of the two men, unsure of what to do with them. In the end, she decided to do the polite thing by reaching out and shaking hands with both of them in a very lady-like fashion - first Kheo and then Deegan.
"Touched her first... ha!" Kheo said, nudging his shorter friend.
"Touched her longer... double ha!" Deegan fired back, returning the nudge.
Caid hid the smirk that had threatened to come to the surface all through the weird conversation. Clearing her throat, she put a hand on Bronwyn's elbow and took a step to the side for effect. "Kheo, Deegan... this is Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle. Sole daughter of Emperor Jin-Sarnos, your old boss," she said solemnly.
The facial expressions on both men turned from cheery to horrified to embarrassed and finally to angry - all directed at Caid who finally allowed the smirk to spread out over her face.
Kheo merely scrunched up his face and began to chew on his meaty lips, but Deegan slammed his hands onto his hips and shook his head slowly. "Now why didn't you tell us that before we made such fools of ourselves, Caid...? No wait, let me guess... because you thought it would be funny. Milady, Kheo and I are honored to be in the presence of such nobility. I am Lieutenant Arliss, retired, formerly of the finest cavalry troop at Ashburne, First Battalion, First Regiment... the First Up Front, you've probably heard of us. Enchanted," Deegan said and performed a deep bow. On his way up, he took Bronwyn's hand and kissed her knuckles.
"Thank you, Sir," Bronwyn said with a smile, recognizing the special banter that could only exist between very old, very dear friends. The three people she was with were as different as night and day, and yet she could sense a deep-rooted camaraderie between them that clearly stemmed from their days wearing the uniform of the Emperor - possibly even forged in the heat of battle.
Kheo nodded and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand a couple of times before he stepped forward and repeated the bow he had just seen his friend make. "Sergeant Major o' the Artillery, uh... retired, an' former heavy weapons specialist Kheo Khammon at yer service, luv- uh, Milady. I served as a grunt in the third infantry battalion under General Galehr until those people with them fancy uniforms kinda caught wind o' my skills an' shipped me off to those artillery boys. Spent most o' my time there overseein' the huge trebuchets and those things I can never remember the name of... ya know, those things that can shoot twenty steel javelins at once when you pull a rope? Funny, ain't it? I worked on 'em for so long that you'd think-"
"Kheo," Deegan said and thumped his large friend's shoulder, "I'm quite sure her Ladyship isn't interested."
"Naw... yeah, yer' right. I beg yer pardon, Milady," Kheo said and wiped his mouth again. "It's jus' that sometimes, my mouth kinda runs off with me an' I get really excited like, an'-"
"We get the picture, Kheo," Caid said, much to Deegan's amusement.
"So," Bronwyn said, feeling she had made the right decision by walking into the seedy establishment after all, hasty though it may have been. While she was still forced to go on the trek across her father's lands, it was crystal clear to her that the men and women she was going to share a space with for the next eight days or more were good people - and for that, she was eternally grateful. "You Gentlemen both fought in the War of Great Expansion?" she said, smiling at both men.
"That's right, luv! Uh... Milady," Kheo said, nodding.
"So did I, Lady Bronwyn. When the order came, the First Up Front was, predictably, first over the fence and onto enemy terrain. The first few months of the campaign were child's play, but then we ran into heavier resistance, and... and..." - Deegan suddenly stopped and looked at Caid like he realized he had said too much. "Oh, that's a story for another day."
Bronwyn could sense the mood had cooled off considerably, and she knew it had to be connected to the former Lieutenant's words somehow, but a glance at Caid Barlin didn't offer an explanation and she didn't want to press the issue. "I understand, Sir. War is always an evil business," she said, nodding solemnly.
Caid grunted and pushed herself off the bar counter with a face that had turned darker and eyes that had lost some of their luster. "So... Kheo and Deegan, I think we're done here. I'll swing by later today with the supplies we'll need. Are your horses still over at Aleyn's stable?"
"That's right, Caid," Kheo said, nodding so hard his long, graying beard bobbed up and down.
"Good," Caid said and reached out to thump fists with her old friends.
Bronwyn furrowed her brow and slowly withdrew her lips into a worried grimace. She looked from the two men and over to Caid before she dared to speak up: "Huntress... I am not in the regular possession of a steed... I fear I can not have one at my disposal at such short notice. Whenever I wish to ride, I ask one my father's dignitaries to arrange it for me... but the steed belongs to a high-ranking cavalry officer and I fear I will not be able to borrow it for such an extended length of time."
"Oh, Phirax the Unholy..." Caid mumbled, scrunching up her face. "I should have thought about that... how foolish of me!" she continued, slapping her forehead to make her shaggy locks fly this way and that.
Deegan grinned broadly and reached over to thump Kheo's arm. "You needn't worry, Lady Bronwyn. Kheo and I shall buy one for you at the market. Which kind of horse are you using now?"
"The steed I usually borrow is a handsome, black stallion... a thoroughbred."
The three experienced soldiers looked at each other and let out identical grunts. "I see," Deegan said, "however, I fear a good-natured, broad-backed mare is far better suited to the task at hand than a skittish stallion, Milady. Remember, we need to travel far, and we'll be carrying a heavy load. A temperamental horse will only sour the event for all of us."
"I bow to your superior knowledge, Sir... also... I... Sirs, without becoming too vulgar," Bronwyn said and began to blush, "this is my first time traveling this far on horseback. Would it be possible for you to... to... buy me extra padding as well?"
"Aw, that ain't gonna work, luv! If this' yer first long haul in the saddle, yer gonna have a sore bum no matter whatcha do!" Kheo exclaimed, nodding.
"Kheo! You're not helping," Deegan groaned out of the corner of his mouth. "Again, you needn't worry, Lady Bronwyn. If padding you require, padding you shall have."
"I thank you, Sirs," Lady Bronwyn said, blushing fiercely from speaking of such private matters in the company of strangers.
Caid shook her head and let out a loud laugh that made the other patrons look at her - including Bryce Cassian who was on his third brandy. "And with that, I am quite certain we have covered every possible angle. Very well, Lady Bronwyn... please allow me to escort you back to the castle," she said and put a gentle hand on Bronwyn's arm. "In the morrow at the crack of dawn, we shall all gather at Aleyn's stables. Yes?"
"We' gonna be there, Caid, you can bet on it," Kheo said - Deegan merely nodded.
"Cassian, we're leaving!" Caid said loudly as she guided the Lady away from the bar counter by putting a hand on the small of her back. "You better pay your tab... if you can."
Several of the patrons let out a grunting cheer at the thinly veiled insult, though the one coming from Bryce Cassian was more akin to a mumbled curse describing Caid Barlin's ancestors in less than flattering terms.
As Bronwyn stepped back out onto the filthy, cobbled street in the run-down part of the city state, a cold tingle trickled down her spine at the prospects of what she was about to do. After a brief wait for Bryce Cassian to join them, she, Caid and the colorfully dressed man set off back to Ashburne Castle.
Walking along in silence, her thoughts were squarely on the endeavor that lay ahead of her; of the hardships the long cross-country trek was sure to carry on its back, and of the daunting task of entering negotiations with Lasar-Ihtreg once they reached their destination. 'Lasar-Ihtreg... a ruler I know nothing of... and I need to settle a border dispute I have no insight into... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, I pray to thee to protect this humble fool whose only crime was to love someone she shouldn't have,' she thought, letting out a long, slow sigh.
Caid picked up on it at once and moved in closer to the woman she was going to spend the next eight days with, if not more. "Lady Bronwyn, please do not despair. While it will not be a joyful jaunt through the countryside, I promise that we shall do what we can to make it tolerable for you."
"Thank you, Huntress," Bronwyn said quietly.
"You'll be fine, Lady Bronwyn... I'm sure of it," Caid said, holding out her arm in an invitation for the Lady to hook her own arm inside it - Bronwyn accepted the invitation with a wistful smile.
Lady Bronwyn's night had been a fraught affair; first, the thoughts churning on ceaselessly in her mind had caused her trouble falling asleep, then she had dreamt the most beautiful dreams of making sweet love to May-Linn, then she had awoken to face the heartache-inducing pain of the harsh reality.
On her way down the grand staircase with Tawna in tow carrying her supplies and field packs, she was anything but her sunny self. She barely had the wherewithal to acknowledge the maids, servants and soldiers who greeted her, and if Tawna hadn't made her aware of them, she would have walked right past them.
Then her day went from bad to worse.
'Oh no... why her? Why now?' Bronwyn thought as she came round the last section of the staircase and spotted Zai Allizadra leaning against the doorjamb of the double doors at the main entrance to the keep.
As always, the commanding officer of the Black Lance was dressed in her black satin uniform with a dark brown cape. Since the last time Bronwyn had seen her, she had gained a brass insignia shaped like a laurel wreath that she wore on her lapel.
The face of the white-blonde woman lit up in a cold smile when she and Lady Bronwyn locked eyes across the twenty fathoms separating the door from the foot of the staircase.
Sighing, Bronwyn continued her stride, hoping to brush past the insane woman, but she knew in her heart she wouldn't be allowed to. By the time she reached the door, Zai predictably stepped out to intercept her.
"Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Zai said in her typical velvety voice that only offered faint hints of the poisonous snake that lay beneath her cool exterior. "I hope you slept well... you need your strength now that you're to spend the next few days in the company of stinking animals. Oh, and we shouldn't forget the horses, naturally."
"Watch your tongue, Zai, or I shall watch it for you!" Bronwyn hissed, acting on instinct alone. "Among those you're referring to with such contempt is a member of one of the most important and influential families-"
"Caid Barlin, yes. The Huntress. I'm well aware of her connections... among other things."
Bronwyn furrowed her brow but refused to fall into the commander's trap. She knew the slightest twitch or odd look would confirm the 'other things' Zai talked about, so she kept the most neutral expression she could muster while hoping that her expression alone wouldn't satisfy the cold and slightly insane woman. "Have you stated your business yet, Commander? I would rather not be late in arriving at the stables."
"Oh, I haven't quite stated my business yet, Lady Bronwyn. I wish you an utmost pleasant journey to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's realm," Zai said and performed a sweeping bow that seemed to be just on the wrong side of mockery. "When the time comes and you take your rightful place on the throne, may you look back upon this event as the turning point of your life."
"Zai Allizadra, rest assured, when I assume my father's throne, you shall not be anywhere near it!" Bronwyn said and snapped away from the black-clad woman. "Tawna! Come!"
"Yes, Milady," Tawna said and hurried out of the main entrance to keep up with the fast, impassioned stride of her mistress.
The large complex of stables owned by wealthy trader Aleyn Rowan was located close to the garrison in the western part of the city to give the Imperial cavalry an extra supply of horses in case the city ever came under threat from an advancing hostile army. Since the caretakers and stable boys were more in tune with the animals than the Captain of the Horses employed by the cavalry, more and more cavalry steeds found their way into the many boxes in Aleyn Rowan's stables.
Though the sun had barely cleared the wall lining the city, the high ambient temperature brought on by the late summer warm front that had swept across the city the past several days meant the smell emanating from the manure, the dust and the many horses was stifling to the point of suffocating the few people who had ventured out onto the streets at that time.
Lady Bronwyn and Tawna both pinched their noses as they went past the largest pile of manure on their way into the stables, but the other, smaller piles weren't much better.
After walking down a wide, sandy path lined by no less than ninety-six boxes that were all occupied by horses of varying breeds, genders and ages, the two women finally found Caid Barlin and Bryce Cassian who were loading wooden crates packed with supplies needed for the expedition onto the broad backs of their steeds - a chestnut mare for Caid and a flashy palomino for Bryce, respectively.
"Lady Bronwyn," Bryce said, bowing deeply. Even he had had to moderate his clothing: gone were most of the extravagant garments, replaced by a tan, utilitarian riding jacket, sturdy gloves and a pair of fashionable long riding pants in an earthy tone that was slightly darker than his short jacket. A broad-rimmed hat with a long feather dyed pale green proved he hadn't been able to fully shed his habit of dressing colorfully.
"Sir," Bronwyn said coolly, walking straight past Bryce to concentrate on Caid who was dressed like she always was, save for a pair of thick gloves. "Good morn, Huntress," she continued in a far warmer voice.
Smiling at the Lady, Caid threw a rope across her mare's rump before performing a deep bow. "Good morn, Lady Bronwyn. Are you ready for today's cross-country trek?"
"To be honest... no. Alas, I have no choice. However, I feel safe and perfectly comfortable in the presence of such a skilled woman such as yourself, Caid."
"I thank you, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and bowed again.
A deep, mocking snort was heard from Bryce's side of the box they were standing outside of, but it had apparently been a sneeze.
"Bless you," Caid said surly, but even that didn't garner a reply beyond a sneer.
"Huntress," Bronwyn said as she ran a hand across the four wooden crates tied to the hind quarters of Caid's mare, "I was under the impression that Lady Fyonna and the two men would meet us here, but...?"
"We shall meet Fyonna at her home, Lady Bronwyn. We need to come right past her street to get to the East Gate, and it would simply be a waste of her time to make her travel over here only to return. Deegan and Kheo are out giving the mare they bought for you a test ride. I am expecting them back shortly... oh, speak of Phirax the Unholy and he shall appear," Caid said and pointed over Bronwyn's shoulder.
Turning around, Bronwyn watched the two men enter the sandy path from a connecting alley. Kheo Khammon's huge frame looked odd on top of a dark brown horse, but Deegan Arliss looked positively out of place atop a broad-backed palomino mare that trotted along with very secure steps.
As they arrived, the nimble and agile Deegan quickly jumped out of the specially prepared, padded saddle and handed Lady Bronwyn the reins. "Milady, your steed awaits you. A palomino mare of rock solid lineage with strong legs and a sturdy frame. She'll do everything you'll ask of her and she'll do it forever and a day. She won't let you down, I guarantee it."
"Oh, Sir, she is a beautiful mare, indeed," Bronwyn said and went over to the large animal's muzzle. After giving it a few rubs, the horse whinnied and leaned into her touch.
"She likes you, Lady Bronwyn," Deegan said, grinning broadly.
"How appropriate," Bryce said from somewhere behind them, but he was soon silenced by a fiery glare shooting at him from Caid's green orbs.
Bronwyn smiled back at the former Lieutenant and took the opportunity to rub the horse's head a bit more, earning herself another whinny. "Has she been given a name yet?"
"Oh, not yet, Lady Bronwyn. That honor is all yours."
"In that case, I shall call her... hmmm... Tawna, do you have a suggestion...?" Bronwyn said and turned to her senior handmaiden.
Tawna furrowed her brow as she took in the sight of the large mare. "Well... how about Santilla, the color of sand? Her coat is quite sandy."
"Santilla... oh, that is such a charming name, Tawna. Thank you!" Bronwyn said and turned back to her newly-christened steed. "Santilla... yes, what an excellent name for her. Enchanted to meet you, Santilla... do you like that?"
Santilla seemed to give her approval by nodding her large head a couple of times and letting out a satisfied whinny that made the humans standing around her laugh at the antics.
"Milady," Tawna said, "I fear I cannot stay any longer. I promised Carrae and Mynere that I would return swiftly to aid them with their reading. They are learning to read and write, you see..."
"Oh, I recall you were helping them with that. Tawna, you have my full blessing to return to the castle at once. Such a noble act should not be postponed by a mere departure," Bronwyn said and took her handmaiden's hands in her own to give them a little squeeze. "I thank you for your invaluable assistance to help me get through the insanity of the past few days. Upon my return, we shall have a little talk, you and I. There are a few... private... things I wish to discuss with you. And now, I bid you farewell, Tawna."
Bronwyn's face suddenly became a mask of sadness, and she looked like she was imagining saying goodbye to someone else entirely. A small tear escaped her eye, but she quickly wiped it away before any of the strangers they were with could see it.
Tawna had noticed it, however, and she knew instinctively what was on her Ladyship's mind. "Thank you, Lady Bronwyn. I shall pray to Marpaxa and ask her to keep an eye on you while you are away from here. Farewell, Milady," she said, returning the squeeze before walking away.
A few moments went by where Bronwyn was unable to speak, but as she tracked her senior handmaiden eventually reaching the connecting alley and leaving the stables behind, she drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.
"Are you all right, Lady Bronwyn?" Caid said quietly, putting a comforting hand on Bronwyn's back.
"Yes... thank you. Perhaps the gravity of the situation just struck me... I cannot say I am fully looking forward to the next few days," Bronwyn said and wiped her eyes again.
Around the two women, life went on, and Kheo Khammon looked like he was bursting at the seams to say something, practically jumping up and down in the saddle while wearing a cheesy grin. "Caid's horse got a funny name, too, luv!" he said, nudging his heavily-laden horse around on the sandy path. "Ain't that right, Caid? Why dontcha tell her Ladyship wot ya called yer horse?"
"Kheo..." Caid groaned, but Bronwyn's expectant gaze made her shrug and mumble: "Chestnut."
"Oh, another wonderful name. Yes, indeed, Huntress. Wonderful!" Bronwyn said, clapping her hands together in glee.
"With all that... huh... stuff out of the way," Caid said, deliberately looking away from her companions to hide the small blush that most unusually graced her cheeks, "shall we mount? Just so you all know, I spoke to Emperor Jin-Sarnos earlier this morn, and he was adamant that his daughter, her Ladyship, should have possession of the scroll case with the sealed document at all times... nobody else is permitted to hold it, and that's final. Lady Bronwyn, the scroll case is in the right saddlebag. You cannot miss it," Caid said, pointing at the wooden crate on the right side of the palomino.
"Very well, Huntress. I shall keep my eye on it at all times," Bronwyn said, nodding.
"Good. Do you all understand? Kheo?"
"Sure thing, Caid!" Kheo said, once again nodding so hard his full beard bobbed up and down.
"Very well. Let's mount up!"
Deegan went over to Lady Bronwyn to offer her a chivalrous hands-up, but she surprised everybody by climbing up and swinging her leg over the boxes and the padded saddle in a perfectly graceful maneuver.
"Oooh, very nice there, luv!" Kheo said. "My horse got a name, too. Wanna hear it?"
"Yes please, Kheo...?" Bronwyn said, shuffling around on the saddle atop Santilla to get her rear end lined up properly with the extra padding.
"Horsey!" Kheo said and let out such a roar of laughter he nearly spooked his and everyone else's steeds into bolting.
The heavily-laden horses soon trotted down the sandy path until they reached the connecting alley where they turned left to get back to the increasingly bustling city streets. The crates they had on their backs and the leather straps holding them down creaked and groaned from the rhythmical motions, but everything seemed to hold together just fine.
Up front, Caid Barlin had assumed the lead on her mare, with Lady Bronwyn and Bryce Cassian side by side immediately behind her. Kheo and Deegan had the rear and deliberately fell back slightly so the group of horses wouldn't create a traffic jam on their way over to Fyonna's street.
High atop Santilla, Bronwyn looked down upon the people they trotted past. The faces of the people she met - the citizens who were going to the market or their places of work, and the peasants who were leaving the walled city through any one of the four gatehouses to tend to their fields - were almost uniformly dark and gloomy. There were occasional smiles when they noticed the Lady looking back at them, but the smiles were gone as quickly as they had appeared. Furrowing her brow, Bronwyn looked straight ahead pondering what it could mean.
By the time they reached the street where Lady Fyonna lived, the Seer was waiting for them atop a bay mare. She still wore the same outfit: the pale blue cowl with a hood and the similarly colored strip of cloth covering her dead eyes. From her position astride the horse on a men's saddle, it was clear to see the cowl did in fact have individual pant legs. As the group approached her, she turned her head and waved at them even before Caid had spoken up.
"Good morn, Fyonna," Caid said, bringing the small column to a halt by raising her fist in the air.
"It's 'Good day,' Caid. Some of us have been up for quite a while, you know," Fyonna said with a chuckle. "Are you all here?"
Sniff, sniff - "And her Ladyship as well, I sense. Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said and bowed her head. "I hope you will have a pleasant day atop your palomino."
"How can you possibly know that?!" Bronwyn howled, staring at the Seer with wide, disbelieving eyes.
Fyonna smirked and clicked her tongue to get her mare on the move. "Ah, Lady Bronwyn... Kheo told me a turn of the hourglass ago when he and Deegan came past so I could get acquainted with your steed. I beg for forgiveness, Milady... it was simply an attempt at being humorous."
"Oh... well, you certainly had me... you had me good, Lady Fyonna!" Bronwyn said and broke out in a nervous snicker that was quickly drowned out by a braying laugh that burst out of Kheo Khammon at the successful joke.
Like before, Bronwyn shook her head in disbelief over the Seer's astonishing skills - and not to mention the fact that the elderly woman was to join them on horseback. Turning Santilla around, she followed the Seer back up the narrow, cobbled street. "But Lady Fyonna... are you going to ride with us? I was certain you would have joined us lavishing in the comfort of a gig or a carriage..."
"Hardly, child. I have been riding since decades before you were born. Working in unison with the eminent strength of this beautiful creature, my senses are in fact heightened. I predict I shall be the last of us who will run into problems on this trek."
"Well... I pray to Marpaxa that none of us shall experienced any hardships. Oh, I think the Huntress is getting impatient... we better pick up the pace, Lady Fyonna."
"Indeed we better, Milady. Yah!" - With that, Fyonna nudged her mare's sides which sent the large animal into a faster gait.
The East Gate was soon left behind. Once the group of six were out in the open, effortlessly overtaking an outbound convoy of heavily-laden freight wagons belonging to traders who had been at the market the previous day, they assumed the positions they would try to hold for the entire trek - Caid up front, Bronwyn and Bryce behind her, then Fyonna alone in the center, and finally Deegan and Kheo who would protect the rear in case any ruffians attempted to sneak up to rob them.
As they trotted along the dirt road leading away from Ashburne, Bronwyn took a deep breath and let it out shakily. She had the weirdest knot in her stomach, but she couldn't tell if it came from the things she left behind, or from those that were yet to happen to her - or indeed from Zai Allizadra's atypical behavior and her cryptic message when they had met at the main entrance.
Sighing, she snapped out of her stupor and concentrated on following Caid's lead on Chestnut.
The sun had merely traveled a short distance across the sky when Bronwyn and the others reached the edge of the vast pine forests that stretched onwards for dozens of leagues.
Since there was hardly any wind, the trunks stood firm and proud, and the only movement came from the birds that flew to and fro among the trees.
The crowns of the immensely tall pines caught the rays of the sun and created a surreal light show on the forest floor that alternated between deep, dark shadows and spots of bright light that appeared to come out of nowhere.
"Oh, what a magical sight," Bronwyn said and craned her neck to take in all the splendor. "I must say, this is truly enchanted! As a little girl, Tawna told me nursery rhymes and bedtime stories that spoke of the little Faeries inhabiting the forests... would it not be magical if we saw a Faerie now?"
"I saw me a Faerie once! She popped up at the bottom o' my mug o' beer! Shook her hiney and flashed her..." Kheo mumbled, but Deegan quickly shushed him.
Fyonna chuckled at the bald man's statement on her way closer to Bronwyn. "Unlike what our friend back there says, the Fae will not come out in the daytime, Lady Bronwyn. We need to be here at night."
"Oh, that is marvelous!" Bronwyn said, smiling at the Seer. "Can you sense them with your special powers?"
"I can. I spoke to the Fae King once. A charming man to be sure."
"Oy, luv!" Kheo exclaimed loudly. "Don't be lissenin' to the old woman. She's only tryin' ta pull yer leg!"
Fyonna turned around in her saddle and pinned Kheo to the spot with a silent glare through the strip of cloth. "Would you like to wager on that, Kheo Khammon?" she said in a voice that came from a lower register than her regular tones.
"Uh... no," Kheo said and shuffled around. "Not particular-lee."
"You shouldn't," Fyonna said and turned back around. "Lady Bronwyn, if you ever wish to see or even meet the Fae, I shall introduce you to them."
"Thank you, Lady Fyonna. I shall consider it."
Not long after, Bronwyn turned around in the saddle to take in all the sights when she suddenly spotted Ashburne Castle in the far distance. The imposing, dark gray edifice with the tall keep, the square roof on the dining hall, the battlements, the guard towers at each corner, and the tough, impenetrable wall that surrounded the city seemed small and insignificant compared to the sweeping landscape of meadows, fields and forests that lay all around it - not to mention the vast, hazy blue sky above it.
"Oy, luv!" Kheo said when he had to perform an evasive maneuver to get around Santilla who had stopped dead. "You need to keep yer horsey goin', ya know!"
"Ashburne Castle..." Bronwyn said quietly, pointing at the horizon.
"Yeah... it looks better from the other angle, though... ya know, when us poor grunts march home after a campaign. When we saw that big ol' pile of bricks there, we knew we was almost home free. It always gave us a kick up the a- uh, rear and made us go that little bit faster. Maybe sing the victory hymn a little louder, too!"
In the meantime, Caid had noticed the lack of progress and had come back to Lady Bronwyn on Chestnut. "Milady, is there a problem?"
"No, Caid... I just... oh, this is going to sound so childish," Bronwyn said and looked down, "but the forests have always marked the outer limit. I have never ventured further from my home than here... that big boulder over there, see it?" she continued, pointing at a large rock that was covered in moss and half-buried in the ground.
"When I reached that, I knew it was time to head for home. Now... now, we have barely taken the first step of our journey. When we continue onwards from here, Ashburne Castle will be obscured by the proud pines. I feel like my ties to my home are being cut. I am truly sorry for acting like such a child, Huntress. At my age, I really should behave like an adult."
"There was a first time leaving home for all of us, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and reached across the gap between them to put a hand on the Lady's arm, "and we all wept."
"Let's carry on, Lady Bronwyn. We have a long way to go until we can think of resting."
"I know. Lead on, Huntress," Bronwyn said and slapped the reins to let Santilla know she should get on with it.
Several turns of the hourglass later, the edge of the vast forest slowly moved back from the dirt road Bronwyn and the others were traveling on. Where the forest stretched further north seemingly all the way to the horizon and the snow-capped mountain range in the extreme distance, the dirt road continued east into a rougher landscape.
No longer made up of cultivated fields, the terrain changed to one of tall grass, large boulders and randomly placed, ancient trees with huge, exposed roots. The dirt road they were on gradually turned into a mere sandy trail, then a well-trodden grassy path, then not even that.
Despite riding with five other people, Bronwyn felt entirely alone in the world. For leagues and leagues in every direction, there were no signs of human life - no smoke from fires, no houses, no fields, no livestock, nothing that would indicate Man had ever visited that stretch of land they were on.
In its place, nature had provided a bright, glorious backdrop with every imaginable shade of every imaginable color put on the flora and the fauna, from the bright red flowers that riddled the tall grass to the brown cones on the trees; from the tiniest buzzing insects to the largest birds that sat on the sturdy branches resting their wings.
The scent from the many flowers was intoxicating, and Bronwyn could hardly stop inhaling the clean smells. Everywhere she looked, more flowers and plants offered their scents at her, and she took it all in quite greedily. "Oh, how refreshing! And such a striking difference to what we are used to..." she mumbled, hoping they would stop soon so she could pick one of the bright red flowers and put it in her hair.
"Indeed, Lady Bronwyn," Bryce Cassian said, looking at Bronwyn's smiling face rather than any of the flowers. "Milady, I notice you aren't wearing any gloves. I fear you will need them sooner rather than later," he said, and for once sounded like he was speaking with no hidden agenda.
"Oh... I do not have any, Sir," Bronwyn said, looking down at her hands that had already grown slightly red from holding Santilla's reins. "I must admit the thought never crossed my mind. Whenever I have been on a horse in the past, it was typically a short ride."
"Here," Bryce said and reached across to hand the Lady a pair of gloves. "I brought an additional pair. I had them made last year from the finest leather Crowns can buy. They're of an exquisite quality and should suit your delicate hands perfectly."
"Oh! Oh, I thank you, Sir... it is too grand a gift by far!" Bronwyn said as she tried them on. She had to admit they were of an excellent quality, and better still, they fit her hands like she had provided the original templates.
"Nonsense, Lady Bronwyn. They're yours."
High above them, the sky had gradually gained a husky, gray tone that even a city dweller like Bronwyn knew would mean rain - or possibly even a thunderstorm - later in the day. Though the air was still clean and fresh, the humidity was climbing, as were the occasional winds that swept across the landscape to ruffle the tall grass.
Another turn of the hourglass later, the group of six rode under leaden skies as they began a slow descent down an easy, grassy slope that led them to a dried-up riverbed. The summer heat had been a hard mistress and had left only a weak stream at the center of the riverbed - the rest had turned into thick cakes of pale brown mud.
At the front of the group, Caid Barlin raised her fist in the air to signal they should stop. She quickly dismounted and examined the dried mud to see if it would hold the weight of their horses. Through her many years of experience, she decided it could, and got back on Chestnut.
"It's safe!" she said loudly so everyone could hear her. "Deegan, please guide her Ladyship across!"
"I'm on it, Huntress!" the former Lieutenant said and moved his own horse up alongside Santilla. Smiling at Bronwyn, he took her reins and held them loosely in his hand. "Milady, you needn't be worried, this is just like a walk in Ashburne Castle's inner gardens. Caid, we're ready back here!"
"Good," Caid said and slapped the reins to let Chestnut know she could move on.
Moving as one, the group crossed the dry riverbed with no problems and were soon at the other side. The beginnings of yet another pine forest came into view, though this one offered Bronwyn and the others a natural clearing where several fallen trunks formed a semi-circle that was the ideal spot for their first rest - or so Bronwyn thought.
"Oh, Huntress... please... would it be possible for us to take a rest here?" Bronwyn said, shuffling around on her padded saddle to find some relief. "My... my... rear... is..."
"I fear we cannot stop yet if we're to stick with our plan, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and offered the Lady an apologetic smile. "We are still several turns of the hourglass away from the scheduled lunch break."
"Several turns...? Surely not, Huntress. We have been traveling for nearly an entire day, I feel!"
"I fear we have not, Milady," Caid said with a smirk.
Bronwyn didn't offer a reply other than a mumbled "Drat..."
Inevitably, the rain that had threatened to fall came. Just as the group of six left the pine forest behind to head into open terrain that offered very little in the way of shelter, individual spots came down to greet them. Before long, it turned into a steady drizzle that soaked everything in its path.
Men, women and beasts were soon steaming hot, dripping wet and thoroughly miserable - and judging by the dark gray color of the rain clouds above them, it would get worse before it got better.
Up front, Caid couldn't be bothered to speak but simply raised her clenched fist in the air. Once everyone had seen it, she gestured to the left, in the direction of a grove of trees roughly five hundred fathoms away.
The entire group turned to the left as one and began to trek across the rocky terrain to get to the natural shelter.
Once there, the experienced soldiers among the group quickly dismounted and coaxed the horses into standing in a box formation. With every steed in place, they hurriedly stretched one of the tents out between the saddle horns to create a modicum of dryness underneath.
"Phirax the Unholy is pissin' on us! I can smell it!" Kheo growled as he huddled up underneath the makeshift tent, wiping reams of sweat off his bald head and his hairy shoulders. The high level of humidity and complete lack of wind made humans and animals alike exude a most unpleasant concoction of sweat, body heat and various other vapors.
"Watch your language, grunt! There are ladies present," Bryce Cassian barked, putting his hands in front of Lady Bronwyn as if to protect a shrinking violet.
"She's smelly, too," Kheo grumbled into his full beard.
Caid chuckled and leaned over to give Kheo a thump on the rear end with her boot. "I fail to see how you can discern that considering you're sitting in a cloud of stink yourself, Kheo."
"Jus' laugh at old Kheo, whydon'tcha... I ain't moving a finger before the rain eases off... come hurricane, high tide or-"
The words had barely left Kheo's lips before the heavens above were split in two by a huge thunderbolt that screamed across the sky. A mere second later, the resulting thunderclap blasted through the grove of trees, making every living thing in the makeshift camp jump a foot in the air.
The horses knew better than to stand under trees in a thunderstorm and went on their merry way in opposite directions, easily tearing the tent in two. The rain that had pooled on it was mercilessly deposited down onto the people hiding underneath it, drenching everybody to the core apart from Bronwyn who was still being shielded by Bryce.
Then the heavens really opened and sent a torrential downpour down upon the resting people.
"Now Phirax is really pissin' on us!" Kheo roared, slamming his fist down onto the torn tent and the puddle that had already formed - the others merely groaned and tried to scramble away from the trees.
In the kerfuffle, Bronwyn noticed that the strip of cloth covering Fyonna's dead eyes had been pulled off by the water splashing everywhere, and also that it had ended up across her right boot. Grunting, she reached down to take it, intending to help the old woman put it back on.
"No!" Fyonna cried, holding her hands firmly across her upper face, "no, avert your eyes, Lady Bronwyn... at once! Avert your eyes now!"
"Lady Fyonna, it does not frighten me to see a disabled person. I just want to help," Bronwyn said, holding the pale blue cloth.
"It's not that," Fyonna said with a growing panic in her voice while she continued to bury her face in her hands, "not that... you're not a Seer... if any of you look into my eyes, you will die where you stand! I am speaking the truth, Lady Bronwyn... you shall be consumed by fire!"
"Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, please help us," Bronwyn said and shied back from the elderly woman. "Look away! Look away, everyone! Look away!" she cried to the others who hastily turned away and dove for cover among the trees.
Another violent thunderclap immediately above them pounded on their eardrums and made Bronwyn cry out in terror. She was still clenching the pale blue strip of cloth in her fists, but she was terrified of looking at Fyonna. "L- Lady Fyonna, I h- have your blindfold. I sh- shall turn you away fr- from us... do you underst- stand?"
"I understand, Milady... there cannot be a living soul in front of me when I remove my hands! You hear me, not a living soul!"
On shaking legs, Bronwyn got up and took the elderly woman by the shoulders. She turned her around slowly until she was pointed at nothing but the empty grove of trees. "Y- you are safe, L- Lady Fyonna. He- here, I need your right hand..."
When Fyonna moved her hands away from her eyes, an otherworldly pale blue light seemed to illuminate the trees on the other side of her. She quickly reached behind her back, snatched the piece of cloth from Bronwyn's hands and wrapped it tightly around her eyes. Once the cloth was in place, the blue light disappeared. "My powers are failing me..." she said, panting hard from the fright and the exertion, "I said I was the last of us who would have problems... I was the first..."
"It was an accident, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said, still looking away in case the cloth hadn't been applied properly.
Fyonna sighed deeply and turned back around. "It is safe to look at me again, Lady Bronwyn. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Another streak of lightning tore across the sky, quickly followed by yet another thunderclap.
"How could I not help?" Bronwyn said, standing on legs that were so shaky she could hardly keep her balance.
The next lightning bolt that lit up the sky had already moved some distance away from the small grove, and the resulting thunderclap was noticeably quieter as well. Before long, the torrential downpour eased off and was reduced to the same kind of persistent drizzle it had been before the storm had hit.
Behind Fyonna and Bronwyn, Caid came back shaking her head. "The soldiers fled and the innocent saved the day. I bow to thee, Lady Bronwyn. You are far braver than I gave you credit for," Caid said and bowed deeply.
"Brave? I am not brave, Huntress. If I were, I would not be thinking about finding my first spare set of undergarments right now..." Bronwyn mumbled.
Three turns of the hourglass later, the last drizzle had finally stopped. Dusk was falling and everything was cast in an eerie light from the rays of the setting sun that had to battle through the thick rain clouds before they could illuminate the land.
Atop Santilla, Bronwyn was so exhausted she couldn't keep her head straight on her shoulders. She wobbled so much on the padded saddle - the numbness from her rear end had spread halfway up her back - that she nearly fell out more than once.
"Huntress! We need to stop... Lady Bronwyn is unwell," Deegan said strongly the third time Bronwyn was on the brink of keeling over. Spurring his horse on, he went up alongside the palomino and resolutely brought it to a halt by pulling its reins.
Up front, Caid put her fist in the air to signal the group they should stop. Quickly turning Chestnut around, she moved back to Lady Bronwyn where she only needed a single look at the dead-tired woman to realize they had pushed the inexperienced youngling too far on the first day.
Grunting, Caid nodded at the former Lieutenant. "Thank you, Deegan. Kheo, Bryce... help me set up the bivouac. We'll spend the night here."
"One or two tents, Caid?" Kheo said, already dismounting his own steed.
"Two tents, Kheo," Caid said and moved in close to put a warm hand on Bronwyn's thigh to wake her up. "One for the boys, one for the girls. Deegan, give me a hand with her Ladyship. We need to get her down before she collapses."
"Yes, Caid... be right with you," Deegan said and jumped off his horse.
Once Caid and Deegan had Bronwyn safely down from Santilla, the Lady came to though her eyes seemed hard at work trying to combat the notion of staying open. She eventually began to stretch her legs, her back and her numb rear end, but the way she staggered around on her stiff limbs meant the others chuckled at her.
"Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said, putting out her arm. "This reminds me of a story I've once heard where the blind led the lame... who knew they were speaking of us? We better get out of the way while the Huntress and the others set up our tents. Let's walk around a little to get the circulation going."
"I am trying to," Bronwyn groaned through clenched teeth, hoping the numbness of her seat wouldn't be a permanent fixture. Her face was suddenly cracked wide open by a yawn that came out of nowhere. Smacking her lips, she looked around with an embarrassed blush on her cheeks, but realized the only person close enough to witness her supposedly vulgar behavior was the blind Seer.
"Oh, please do not mind me, Milady. I'm far too tired to care about etiquette," Fyonna said, smiling at the younger woman.
Bronwyn's eyes popped wide open and she let out a surprised grunt. The blush on her cheeks deepened and went out as far as the tip of her nose.
"There's no need to blush, Lady Bronwyn. Come on, let's sit while our friends erect the tents. I sense a boulder or two straight ahead," Fyonna said and hooked her arm inside the wildly staring Bronwyn's. "Ah, I said I didn't care about etiquette, but it's still impolite to stare, Lady Bronwyn," she continued, nudging the Ladyship's side.
The next morning dawned bright and crisp. The previous day's thunderstorm had lowered the humidity so, for once, the air was breathable. Inside the tent reserved for the three women, Bronwyn stirred and smacked her lips a few times.
Before she opened her eyes, she gave May-Linn's soft, suede-clad body that she was snuggled up against a little squeeze to show her gratitude over the wonderful love they had made under the cover of the dark night. With a husky snicker, she moved her probing hand upwards until it found a soft, round breast that she caressed one last time just because she could.
A surprised, drowsy grunt in a voice that sounded anything but May-Linn's made Bronwyn slam her eyes wide open and stare at the body she was lying next to - Caid Barlin. "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa," she croaked and hurriedly scrambled away from the Huntress, moving so quickly her sleeping furs couldn't keep up and became a crumpled-up mess.
Frantically rearranging her furs, Bronwyn looked around and saw she wasn't in her chamber back home sharing a bed with May-Linn, but in a tent somewhere in the wilderness with two women she had only known for a few days. An embarrassed blush swept over her face, and she wanted nothing more than to duck down into the warm, comfortable furs and stay there for an eternity.
"Lady Bronwyn?" Caid whispered from her side of the tent with an expression that seemed to be a cross between confusion and annoyance. As she sat up in her own sleeping furs, she looked down at herself and her suede jacket that had been pushed to the side by Bronwyn's probing hand.
"Caid... I... I beg for forgiveness," Bronwyn whispered hoarsely, "I... I... I thought you we- were someone else... oh, I beg for forgiveness... please forgive me for the outrageous violation... it was not my intention to... to violate you..."
"You're forgiven, Bronwyn," Caid said and reached over to pat the Lady's long legs that were protected by her sleeping furs. "I only hope it was a good dream since the reality did not live up to your expectations," she continued with a wink.
"It was," Bronwyn said and fell quiet. Closing her eyes, she replayed parts of the dream that stood the most vividly in her mind: the parts where she and her beautiful May-Linn were in each other's arms, kissing, caressing and pleasing each other while performing the ancient dance of love.
The images brought the return of the metal band around Bronwyn's chest. Simply to mock her, unseen hands twisted the vise a further few notches until she could hardly breathe. Her chin started quivering and it wasn't long before large, crystal tears escaped her eyes and ran down to stain the furs. "I apologize, Huntress. I miss her so much. My heart still cannot accept that she is gone," she croaked in a shaky, thick voice.
"Never apologize for loving someone, Lady Bronwyn. Come..." Caid said and tapped her fingers against Bronwyn's foot inside the furs, "while Fyonna is sleeping, I think you should go behind the tents and freshen up. I'll take a spare canister of water so you can cleanse the most necessary."
"Oh... I... now?" Bronwyn said and pulled the furs even further up. She reached up to wipe away some of the tears, but it was of no use - they just kept on coming.
"I promise I shall stand guard. None of the men will ever get close enough to see anything you do not want them to see," Caid said and swung her legs over the side of the furs to get her boots.
Stepping outside the tent, Caid and Bronwyn met Kheo who was building a firepit in the space between the two tents so they could cook breakfast. The big man was on his knees, arranging stones into a circle, and he had already found an armful of twigs and foliage that he had dumped into the circle.
"Good morn, Kheo," Caid said quietly. "Her Ladyship shall bathe now behind the tent."
"Mornin', Caid," Kheo said, dusting off his hands. "Oy, luv... is she cryin'? Did she bump her big toe or somethin'?"
"Or something," Caid said with a wink. "Kheo, it's a woman-thing. Hang on while I fetch the canisters."
"Oy! Glad fer the warnin', Huntress. I know better than ta get mixed up in wimmen-things. Sweet Marpaxa, I've known enough wimmen to know tha' when they're cryin', men should do the right thing... an' stay away from 'em," he said and hurriedly returned to the firepit.
Despite her tears, Bronwyn chuckled at the big man and his slightly quaint behavior. 'Though his ways... not to mention his sense of humor, goodness me!' she thought, discreetly wiping away the tears that kept on coming, 'Though his ways could not be further from what I am used to... I... I honestly have come to respect him... with Kheo, there is nothing hidden... unlike Bryce Cassian or even Deegan Arliss, everything is right there, on the surface...'
Almost as a proof of Bronwyn's thinking, Kheo let rip in a whole string of colorful, inventive curses when his efforts with the flints failed and he whacked his thumb instead of the other rock.
"Language, Kheo," Caid said, walking back from the horses carrying one of their canisters of water. "Lady Bronwyn, if you please..."
Smiling, Bronwyn turned around and walked behind the tent, already pulling her tunic out of her ankle pants.
Many turns of the hourglass later, the group of six rode across terrain that slowly changed from the vast, blue-green forests to scattered, windswept pines, and finally to a wide-open space littered with large boulders.
At first, they were in a grassy hollow of sorts where they couldn't see much of the surrounding landscape, but when Caid coaxed Chestnut into leading them up a long, winding slope to a plateau, they realized they were standing at the rough edge of a mile-wide riverbed that seemed to have been carved out of the forests at the dawn of time.
Leagues and leagues away to the north, the jagged, snowcapped peaks of the Jerubai mountain range loomed majestically above the horizon, almost like the riverbed was a pathway that led directly to them.
A wide, raging river thundered from north to south at the center part of the riverbed, creating an obstacle that would have been insurmountable if someone hadn't built a chain-driven ferry line that spanned it. The chains controlling the ferries were attached to four poles - two on either side of the river - that appeared to have been hammered far into the rocky ground to withstand the pressure from the raging river.
A flat, barge-like boat that had been pulled up on dry land, and a small hut with a column of faint smoke rising from it proved that even in the middle of nowhere, there were people to be found who knew how to make a quick Crown.
Raising her fist in the air, Caid made a gesture that told the group which way they should travel - down towards the hut. After everyone had acknowledged her command, she began descending along the winding slope until she and the others were safely down on the flat part. "Whoa, Chestnut, whoa..." she said, pulling her steed to a halt just onto the first few yards of the rocky surface.
Soon, Bronwyn and the others fanned out and came to a stop alongside the Huntress. Easing up on Santilla's reins, Bronwyn stared at the raging Lower Merannai River with a wide open mouth, letting out a mumbled "Goodness me..." at the sight of the foam-topped torrents that were everywhere in the body of water.
Fyonna looked towards the mountain range and nodded quietly to herself. "According to legend, this riverbed was once upon a time a glacier that came down from the Jerubai, but the Great Mother needed the water elsewhere so she took it. All that remains is the Merannai River because it slipped through her fingers by accident. Later, the Great Mother returned to create a new glacier to restore nature, but it took so long for it to form she fell asleep... she's still there, resting under the Jerubai peaks."
"Oh," Bronwyn said excitedly, "that must be why the mountain range is sacred to the Yonnae, the Forest Women..."
"It is indeed, Lady Bronwyn. The Jerubai range and the Yonn forest that I believe we shall reach in the morrow. Is it not so, Huntress?" Fyonna said, looking to Bronwyn's left.
Caid nodded absentmindedly, concentrating on the Merannai River, the small hut and the column of smoke that rose from it.
To their right, Bryce Cassian let out a contemptuous snort and turned towards the Seer and Bronwyn to offer them a look that spelled out quite clearly what he thought of the old legends. "Pah, old wives' tales. What a load of-"
"Do not mock what you know nothing of... Sir!" Fyonna barked back, once again slipping into the voice that seemed to use a deeper register than normal.
Bryce chewed on his lips for a few seconds before he let out a mumbled curse and moved his horse away from the blind Seer - Kheo and Deegan just looked at each other, knowing when not to interfere.
"Everybody," Caid said, effectively ending the bickering, "I'll scout ahead. I'm concerned about the lack of activity around the hut. If everything is all right, I'll signal for you... else I'll come back and we shall be forced to find an alternative route. Understood?"
"We understand, Huntress," Bronwyn said, nodding vigorously. Somewhere to her right, she could hear Bryce snort yet again, but she was past caring about what the peacock of a man had to say.
Caid slapped Chestnut's reins and took off across the rocky riverbed at a slow, deliberate pace.
Bronwyn tried to stand up straight in her stirrups like she had seen the experienced Deegan Arliss do countless times on the trek, but had to give up when her thigh muscles weren't strong enough to support her. Instead, she settled for shielding her eyes with her hand to keep track of the suede-clad Huntress who was closing in on the hut atop Chestnut.
When Santilla whinnied, Bronwyn scratched the horse's mane and whispered a few words of comfort into its large ears.
Kheo and Deegan were less worried about Caid's safety and began to play a game of One-Two-Three on a slip of parchment while they waited. Holding a tiny pencil - and with his tongue in the corner of his mouth to obtain a maximum of concentration - Kheo played bravely but lost most of the time. The occasional deep, rumbling chuckle proved he didn't mind too much.
By the time Caid reached the small hut several hundred fathoms away from where Bronwyn and the others were waiting, Bronwyn was nearly bursting with nervous anticipation and even worry for her new friend. She rubbed her face, hoping it would reduce the stress, but found that her flushed face was merely a symptom, not the cause.
"Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said, leaning in towards Santilla so she didn't have to speak for everyone's ears, "Caid will be just fine. Do not forget, this is what she does for a living... and it has been for nearly fifteen years."
"I know, Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn said in a shaky voice, "but I fear I still worry about her. I dread something bad will happen to her. She has become someone I consider a friend... though I would never have predicted it when I was first told of her involvement."
Fyonna turned her head towards the jittery Lady and offered her a smile. "I understand. Caid Barlin has a tendency to get under your skin," she said warmly.
Down at the hut, Caid dismounted and looked through the window. It was apparently filthy because she used her sleeve to wipe it clean. Then, she knocked on the door and stepped inside.
So much time passed, Bronwyn began chewing on her fingernails, but Caid suddenly reappeared next to the hut with a young man in tow. The Huntress raised her fist in the air and called the others down towards her.
"Oh!" Bronwyn cried, startling Kheo into losing yet another game, "the Huntress is calling for us! I declare, we shall go at once," she said and nudged Santilla into a slow trot towards the hut.
Fyonna and Bryce soon followed, leaving the two gamers near the edge of the riverbed.
"Oy, where's the fire? Wouldya wait for us, luv!" Kheo said, hurriedly slapping the reins of his Horsey with one hand while stowing away the parchment needed for the game with the other. "Deegan, is she an eager li'l one or what?"
Deegan laughed and kicked his heels into the flanks of his horse. "Ha, she is, I'll give you that... oh come on, Kheo... the world won't wait for ya, you know!"
Down by the river, Bronwyn and the others dismounted to take a breather while they waited for the barge-like ferry to be put in the water. Like the evening before, Bronwyn walked around on stiff limbs, groaning under her breath about the outrageously sore condition of her rear end.
The young man who had followed Caid out of the hut was already hard at work preparing the ferry, but it seemed it would take a little while.
"Caid," Bronwyn said, waving the Huntress over to her, "I fear the young ferryman is underqualified for the job at hand... look at him struggling with the heavy boat..."
"Yes. I had to wake him up from an exhausted slumber. He told me his father usually takes care of the crossing, but he has had to remain in the settlement where they live. It's apparently a short two miles upstream," Caid said, looking at the young man's brave if rather clumsy efforts.
"Another thing, Caid... I fear the boat is not large enough for all of us at once... who shall go first?"
"Oh, you needn't worry about that, Lady Bronwyn. Kheo and Deegan will cross over first with their horses so they can help pull the rest of us over in case the young man isn't strong enough on his own. Then you and I, and finally-"
Bronwyn gasped and placed two hands across her bosom. "Huntress, I have severe doubts over the sensibility of placing Lady Fyonna on the same boat as Bryce Cassian..."
Caid stifled a smirk as she looked up at the taller Bronwyn with a certain gleam in her dusty green orbs. "I fear you are right, Lady Bronwyn. Very well, I shall escort Fyonna. Of course, that means you will have to suffer the close companionship of Cassian on your crossing...?"
"Nothing I cannot withstand, Huntress. On this occasion, I believe it is best... for his safety, that is," Bronwyn said and let out a girlish snicker that made the others look at her.
"It shall be thus, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said, bowing deeply.
Behind the two women, the ferryman had finally hooked the barge to the chains and had launched it into the water. Turning around, he waved at his customers to get them to come over.
"He certainly took his sweet time," Caid said. "Kheo! Kheo... you and Deegan go first! Once you're there, help pull the rest of us!"
"Sure thing, Caid!" Kheo shouted back as he took his horse's reins and began to lead it down to the ferry. Once he had reached it, a small discussion seemed to break out and it wasn't long before the big man waved at Caid.
"Milady, I better go and see what Khammon wants," Caid said and bowed again.
"Oh! I shall follow you... this is quite exciting!" Bronwyn said and hurried after the compact woman.
They quickly went across the wet, slippery rocks near the edge of the river until they reached Kheo and the ferryman. There, Bronwyn decided to assume a background role and let Caid deal with it in her own, decisive style.
"Yes?" the Huntress said, putting her hands on her hips while pinning the ferryman to the spot.
The young, beardless man - dressed in clogs and a coarse, dark brown outfit with half-length sleeves and a hood - screwed his best smile on his meaty lips as the woman he had already spoken to came back. "Greetings again, stranger. I fear the good man here and me got a disagreement when it comes to how much it's gonna cost ya," he said, pointing his thumb at a grumbling Kheo.
"Kheo, I'll handle this," Caid said, nodding in Kheo's direction to let him know he should go back to the others - he did so, reluctantly. Once he had left Caid and Bronwyn alone with the ferryman, the Huntress looked up at the slightly taller man and sent him a sharp glare. "How much?"
"For six horses and six people... eighteen Crowns."
Caid narrowed her eyes dangerously but let her silence speak for itself.
Behind her, Bronwyn watched Caid's tell-tale body language but didn't want to butt into a discussion she didn't have a solution for. 'Eighteen Crowns... I wonder if that is expensive or not? By the way Caid is reacting, it looks to be expensive... perhaps even extortionate... but we need to cross the Merannai...'
It seemed the young ferryman wasn't impressed by Caid's silent treatment, however, because he took a step back and casually spat on the ground. Grunting, he wiped his meaty mouth on his short sleeve and shot his visitors a bored glance. "Of course, you're free to try your luck further downstream. I know for a fact there's another crossing, oh... two leagues south. If it's still there, mind ya. The bridge a league or so north of here got swept away in the spring flooding... ya know, when the big meltwater streams come down from the Jerubai? It floated past here in fine fettle, it did... two people had been crossing it at the time and they washed ashore here. A husband and a wife. Mmmm. A cryin' shame to die so young. We buried 'em... we thought it was the least we could do," the ferryman said and spat for a second time.
"Oh, how dreadful! But we need to cross here, Sir!" Bronwyn said, wringing her hands. "It is imperative we proceed further eastward... I, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle have a very important meeting with-"
"Lady Bronwyn," Caid said strongly, putting a very firm hand on the Lady's arm.
When Bronwyn looked down and locked eyes with the Huntress, a silent message was sent between them that said in capital letters that not only was the ferryman's tearjerker tale meant to make people cough up, 'now' would be a good time for Lady Bronwyn to keep quiet on the whole.
Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at Caid, realizing too late she had just handed the ferryman a golden opportunity to increase his fee if he wanted to. She groaned long and hard inwardly, wanting to slap herself silly for such a foolish outburst.
"Eighteen Crowns like I said," the ferryman said, nodding at Caid with a broad grin on his meaty lips.
Caid's jaw ground hard for a little while, but she relented and took off her glove. "Eighteen Crowns it shall be, my good man," she said and shook the ferryman's hand.
Kheo's and Deegan's crossing went without a hitch, and the two strong men were soon at the other side of the Merannai, helping the ferry back to the other shore by pulling the chains.
Bronwyn had already mounted Santilla, but on her way down to the embankment, she could feel the large animal wasn't too pleased with the situation. Making a fast decision, she pulled the horse to a halt and dismounted.
High atop his own horse, Bryce Cassian shot the Lady a slightly patronizing look. "Lady Bronwyn, I understand you may be frightened by the prospects, but I can assure you that it's only water. And if you should be so clumsy and fall in, I can assure you that I, Bryce Cassian, would jump in to rescue you, thus risking shirt, life and limb."
"Why, I truly appreciate your offer, Sir," Bronwyn said sharply. "Alas, it so happens that my Santilla here is the one who appears frightened. Will you jump in and rescue her if she falls in?"
"A horse? I would do nothing of the kind."
"Mmmm!" Bronwyn grunted and clucked her tongue to guide Santilla closer to the edge of the raging river. There, they waited for a little while until the ferry was brought back up on the shore.
The ferryman lowered the walkway to allow the Lady on board but had to jump aside when Bryce Cassian insisted on getting onto the ferry's flat deck first.
Once there, the peacock of a man shuffled around in the saddle and pinned Bronwyn down with a sharp glare. "Come on... it's perfectly safe."
"There is safe, and then there is being in close proximity to you, Sir," Bronwyn mumbled under her breath as she guided Santilla onto the ferry. The large animal wasn't too pleased with the situation, but its good-natured spirit soon took over, and after a quick shiver, she stepped onto the wooden boards.
The ferryman shut the walkway and waved his arms to signal Kheo and Deegan on the other side they should start pulling. Working together, the three men soon had the ferry moving off the shore and into the water.
As the first of the raging torrents hit the flat-bottomed craft and made the chains creak and groan in their metal eyes, Santilla let out a nervous whinny, but Bronwyn caressed her neck and muzzle which made her calm down again.
The rough water soon slapped over the edge of the ferry and splashed against Bronwyn's pantlegs, and she couldn't stop a short, chill-induced gasp from escaping her lips. She didn't even have to look at Bryce Cassian to know the man was shooting her a look of contempt, but she didn't care.
Instead, she shuffled over to the other side of Santilla and stroked that side of her neck as well. "There, there... we shall soon be at the other side. It is just a little water... cold, cold water... but water nonetheless," she said as the ferry bobbed up and down as the torrents played with it like a twig.
Looking ahead, Bronwyn could see Kheo and Deegan were hard at work, and it didn't take the strong men long to haul the ferry across the Merannai. The ferryman quickly lowered the walkway at the other end and once again had to jump aside in a hurry as Bryce insisted on being the first to disembark.
With most of the ferry clear, Bronwyn clucked her tongue and led Santilla off the barge, smiling gratefully at the young ferryman as she went past him.
"Oy, luv, that wudden't so bad, was it?" Kheo said, patting Santilla's flanks once the horse and its guide had reached the shore.
"The water was fine, Bryce less so," Bronwyn said for the big man's ears only. Smiling, she mounted Santilla and shuffled down in the padded saddle. Looking behind her, she could see Caid and Fyonna already lining up at the other shore, waiting for the barge to come back to them.
The silly incident with the price before the Lower Merannai River crossing had a heavy impact on the remains of Lady Bronwyn's day. Embarrassed by her boundless naïveté, she ducked her head and minded her own business the entire afternoon and early evening - not even Fyonna could get her to come out of her shell with a few legends and tales of the Forest Women.
Looking squarely at Santilla's saddle horn, Bronwyn didn't notice that Caid was suddenly riding next to her until the Huntress waved at her to get her attention.
"Oh..." Bronwyn said, immediately looking back down.
"Lady Bronwyn, please do not feel too bad about what happened back there," Caid said, rolling gently atop Chestnut, "it was just a minor setback. I do not think we could have haggled him down to less than fifteen Crowns anyway. People like him are like little Kings... they have their own realm."
"Well, I understand, but... oh, I feel so foolish, Huntress! The day after the morrow, I am supposed to enter negotiations with His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg on a border dispute! I can predict the outcome of those negotiations with startling clarity... a failure... nothing but a dreadful failure awaits me once we reach Blackston Castle. That I fear shall happen," Bronwyn said in a voice that trailed off into nothing.
Caid reached over to put a gloved hand on the Lady's thigh. "We shall all do our best to prevent the negotiations from turning into a failure, Lady Bronwyn. That is why we have Fyonna with us... she shall be there, whispering words of advice into your ear while you face His Excellency."
"I am obliged for the attempt at cheering me up, Huntress. Alas... I fear that, too, shall be a failure."
The two women rode along in silence for a while before Fyonna joined them on her bay mare. The Seer looked towards the deep, dark forest they were traveling next to with a reverent smile on her lips. "Behold to your left, Milady... we're passing just south of the realm of the Yonnae. These are the first of the groves and forests so sacred to the Forest Women. Perhaps you can gain confidence by their presence?"
"Now I shall probably put my foot in my mouth again, Lady Fyonna, but these forests appear identical to those we have traveled past during the entire trek..." Bronwyn said with a tired chuckle.
"Oh, I suppose that's true, Lady Bronwyn... however, it's what's in them that makes all the difference. Think of it as our home away from home... or... think of it as a sacred place from where you and I draw our strength. Caid, too. Although I've never witnessed it personally, I know there's a shrine in a hidden location inside the forest dedicated to the Great Mother."
"Yes, and every full moon, the Forest Women gather to honor and celebrate those who were here before us. From what I've been told, it's a-"
"Load of tosh!" Bryce Cassian suddenly hissed over his shoulder. Unsighted by any of the three women, the bodyguard had swept ahead of them and had suddenly blocked their path.
Bronwyn whoa'ed Santilla so the palomino wouldn't bump into Bryce's horse, but Fyonna couldn't react so swiftly and was nearly unseated when her steed turned sharp right to avoid the roadblock. The wooden crates tied to the hind quarters of the two horses scraped against each other but held together - if only barely.
Kheo roared something uncomplimentary about Bryce in the background, but Bronwyn only had eyes for Fyonna and the way she clenched the reins so hard her knuckles turned white. Bronwyn gasped when the weirdest sensation began to rumble inside her chest cavity, and she pressed her hand against her heart to stop it. Hurriedly glancing towards Caid while trying to control Santilla who had turned skittish all of a sudden, she could see the same things were happening to the Huntress and Chestnut.
After a few seconds, the rumbling disappeared and Fyonna let out a long sigh. "I apologize... I should not have done that," she said quietly.
With the strange sensations over, Caid spurred Chestnut on and quickly jumped to the head of the little group. "Bryce," she hissed, reaching for - but missing - the peacock of a man who was still wearing his feathered, wide-brimmed hat, "I don't know what's going on inside your head, but I do know that nobody would miss you for a second! Do you understand what I'm saying, Cassian?"
For the briefest of moments, it appeared Bryce wanted to confront Caid but he eventually backed down and moved away. Snorting contemptuously, he yanked the reins which made his horse whinny angrily and throw its head. With a curse that insulted the horse's lineage back four generations, he nudged its sides instead to get it to move away from the others.
Caid followed him with her eyes to make sure he was out of her hair. When he was gone, she shook her head and moved up front so the group could carry on.
The unexpected excitement had left Bronwyn completely out of breath, and she rubbed her chest repeatedly to quench a strange buzz that seemed to emanate from her heart. "Lady Fyonna... was that you? It was, was it not?"
"It was, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said, patting her horse's neck as the steed resumed its slow walk across the countryside. "I apologize. I so nearly broke one of the Order's most important rules... I should know better than that."
"I beg for forgiveness if you feel I intrude where I should not, but... what did you do? And how?"
Fyonna briefly looked at Bronwyn but soon concentrated on the road ahead. "I used the combined strength of the females present to create a mind-weapon. If I had focused hard enough... if I had wanted it enough, Bryce Cassian would have been... he would have been obliterated. I better leave it at that."
"Oh... is that why Santilla was suddenly skittish?"
"Indeed, Lady Bronwyn. I... please forgive me, I need to meditate for a while to clear my mind of the anger and hatred I accumulated."
"But of course, Lady Fyonna, of course..." Bronwyn said and turned Santilla away at once. Spurring on the palomino, she was quickly back to her regular spot right behind Caid. To her right, Bryce Cassian was traveling parallel to the group, but he kept a fair distance to the others.
The further the group of six traveled east, the colder it got. A frosty wind swept down from the Jerubai mountain range and turned every piece of exposed skin in its path a sickly bluish white from the cold.
Despite the strong evening sun that was still resting low in a husky, blue sky high above them, the winds brought along a stark and most unwelcome reminder of the harshness of the winter months that weren't too far away.
One after the other, they donned woolly winter capes to at least try to remain warm, but Bronwyn felt her cloak didn't do anything at all to combat the chill that blasted her from the wind's edge. "Oh, this is madness..." she said in a muffled voice having clenched her jaw to stop her teeth from chattering. "Why is it so cold? The sun is shining, the flowers are in bloom... the birds are singing... it is summer... and yet, it is winter!"
"It's the Boran, Milady," Caid said over her shoulder. "It sweeps down from the Jerubai. I fear there's nothing we can do but to press on. It will get warmer, I promise."
"But will any of us be alive then? Or will we all have turned into statues, forever frozen to the spot where we died? Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, imagine being found in a millennium or two as remnants of a long-forgotten civilization!" Bronwyn howled, staring wide-eyed at the plume of steam that left her mouth when she spoke.
"Oh, I'm sure it won't be quite that bad, Lady Bronwyn..."
"Huntress, f- for how much longer do we h- have to endure th- this before we s- set up camp f-for the night?" Bronwyn said, and now, her teeth did indeed chatter loudly in her mouth.
Wrapped in her thick, army-issue cloak, Caid turned around in her saddle and observed the evening sun that was setting on the western horizon. "Well... there's still daylight left, Lady Bronwyn. I predict it will last for another turn of the hourglass. We should continue while we still have light... pardon me for saying so, Milady, but you look miserable."
"I am miserable, Huntress," Bronwyn mumbled.
"Very well. When we reach a suitable site, we shall put up the shelter," Caid said and turned back around.
They kept riding along in silence for nearly a half a turn of the hourglass before the Huntress finally found a clearing with a hollow that was suited for them. By then, the sun was so low on the horizon the shadows created by the steeds and their riders seemed to go on for leagues ahead of them.
They were once again traveling just south of the sacred forests, but the deep, blue-green woods didn't offer much protection from the sweeping Boran that blasted everything in sight. The trunks were swaying this way and that which created a cacophony of creaks and groans from the many twigs and branches that were manipulated by the winds.
"Oh, this wretched gale!" Bronwyn cried when her hood was blown off her head for the tenth time in a very short while. "Why will it not stop?"
"You shall soon be out of it, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and raised her fist in the air to stop the group. "Kheo!"
"What's on yer mind, Caid?" the big man said, hurrying up from the tail end of the six.
"Kheo, it's too cold to stay separate so we need to hunker down tonight. See that hollow over there in the clearing?" Caid said and pointed at the site she had selected, a cluster of trees that offered a natural shelter against the Boran by standing in a horseshoe-like shape. Just beyond the trees, the ground dropped off into a grassy hollow where it appeared the strong winds had less of an influence.
"Set it up in that. Use double guy ropes on the biggest trees, singles on the others... we don't want a repeat of yesterday's disaster."
"Sure as Phirax pissin' in my ear, we don't!" Kheo said, nodding hard.
"Make it come down in a nomadic triangle... you with me?"
"Aw yeah, Huntress. I know exactly whatcha mean. Deegan! Pull out yer finger, son, we got work to do!" Kheo said and dismounted his horse to begin setting up the overnight camp.
Bronwyn rubbed her chin at the sight of Kheo and Deegan hard at work with the tent. The two experienced soldiers quickly had a single piece of canvas stretched out between the trees and the grass, putting it there in a perfect triangle down to the ground.
While Kheo fastened the corners of the canvas with foot-long pegs that he hammered into the ground with a wooden hammer he had in his field packs, Deegan ran up the slope to attach the guy ropes to the tree trunks. Working quickly and efficiently, he tied double ropes to the two largest trees and singles to the others. It didn't take long before he ran back down and helped Kheo with the last of the preparations with the pegs.
"Huntress," Bronwyn said and licked her lips nervously. "Oh... Huntress?"
Caid was busy hauling supplies from the wooden crates into the newly erected shelter, carrying three or even four items on each arm to reduce the number of times she would have to go back and forth.
"Oh, Huntress?" Bronwyn tried again, but she quickly realized Caid was too busy to come to her. Sighing, she dismounted from Santilla and loosened the leather straps on the crates to give Caid a helping hand.
"I fear Caid has work to do. Perhaps I can help, child?" Fyonna said, dismounting with surprising ease right next to Bronwyn. She patted her bay mare's flanks and whispered a few words of gratitude into its large ears.
Looking at the single tent, Bronwyn furrowed her brow and began to chew on her lips. "Well... it appears we shall be resting in a singular tent tonight... but I must admit it gives me cause for concern to share a tent with a man... or indeed men... when I am not obliged to through sacred matrimony."
Fyonna opened her mouth to reply, but at the same time, Caid returned to work on the wooden crates on Santilla. "Who's not married?" she said, releasing the first crate from the leather straps.
"I am not..."
The Huntress briefly stopped working to shoot Bronwyn a puzzled look. "I see. I knew that already, Milady," she said, adjusting her gloves before going back to work.
"Oh, Caid," Bronwyn said and wrung her hands, "how can you feel safe sleeping with Kheo and the others?
Caid stopped working again and looked bemused at the taller woman. "I've known Kheo ever since I joined your father's armed forces... that's more than a decade ago. By then, he had already transferred to the artillery, and I was a very young, very foolish girl who had volunteered for active duty out of misplaced belief in my abilities. I even went under an assumed name so my father wouldn't find out I had joined up. I ended up as an orderly and Kheo became my personal mentor in the unit."
"Yeah. Later in the war, we went side by side through the Court of Phirax with the Dogs of Damnation snapping at our heels. That's when we met Deegan Arliss for the first time. I think I can trust them enough to share a tent with them for one night."
Bronwyn's shoulders slumped dramatically and she shook her head in an acute onslaught of blushing embarrassment. "I am truly sorry, Huntress... though I remember the terrible war, I know I have lived a very sheltered life until now. I am so accustomed to our traditions, it is difficult for me to suddenly acquire a whole new view on things. I know I still have a lot to learn about life and the world in general..."
"You shouldn't be too hard on yourself, Lady Bronwyn. As long as you're willing to learn, you cannot go wrong," Caid said and put a gloved hand on the Lady's elbow. "And now, if you will excuse me..." she continued, pointing at the crate.
"Of course... please, do not mind me, Huntress," Bronwyn said and took a step back to get out of the way.
Some time later, the sun finally went below the western horizon; its last rays illuminating the scattered clouds that drifted past and left them bathed in shades of red and gold.
Almost instantaneously, the dusk turned into proper darkness that crept up on the nomadic tent and engulfed it in deep shadows from the creaking trees above. Four torches had been put up - one at each corner of the tent - but they had all been snuffed out by the strong Boran that still roared down from the Jerubai mountain range.
It was mercifully warmer inside the tent, but even so, the group of six were hunkered down in their winter cloaks or even their sleeping furs. Because they couldn't have a chimney hole in the top of the tent they couldn't light a fire, but Deegan passed the beef jerky and a canister of water around between them as their supper.
Bronwyn stared at the dried meat almost like she didn't know what to do with it, but eventually decided that food was food and took a bite. Although it wasn't a seven-course menu, it was what she needed, and she munched on it with great relish.
Out of habit, the group had split in two with the women occupying the part of the tent nearest the doorway, and the men at the other side. They ate in silence for a while before Kheo Khammon raised his meaty paw in the air.
"Caid, I have a question," he said in a tired voice. Even before he had finished speaking, Bryce and Deegan were grappling for the last slice of jerky, but Kheo settled the argument with a growl - then he snatched it for himself.
"Speak up, Kheo. What do you have on your mind?" Caid said, putting away her own slice of jerky to save it for later.
"Accordin' to military law, an' I'm thinkin' that we fall under that with you bein' in charge an' all...?"
"I suppose we do, yes."
"Well, accordin' to the law," Kheo said and tore off a large chunk of the jerky that he started chewing on, "whenever the temper'ture is as low as it is now, I believe we are entitled to a shot o' brandy. And I just happen to've seen a jug o' very fine brandy in one of them crates."
"Mmmm, yes, I believe we are entitled to a brandy," Caid said and reached behind her. There, hidden in her sleeping furs was a dark brown jug with a cork. She pulled it open and sniffed the contents. "Yep, brandy."
The others cheered, even Bronwyn who felt so cold inside that she was beginning to worry about getting ill.
Caid once again reached behind her and found a pile of tin beakers that were stacked inside each other. After she had thrown a beaker to each of the people with her, she grabbed the jug and prepared to pour from it. "But!" she said, holding the jug ready. "Only one beaker each. Bryce, you heard that?"
"Why do you always pick on me, Barlin?" Bryce said surly, huddled well down into his sleeping furs.
"Give me a full turn of the hourglass and I shall tell you, Cassian. Very well, her Ladyship goes first. Milady?"
"Oh, I should not... but I need it," Bronwyn said, earning herself a loud, roaring cheer from the others. When her beaker was half full, she nodded a thank you to Caid and pulled back. Sniffing it, she realized it was stronger than the brandy she was used to back home, and she looked up with a worried frown forming on her brow. 'Goodness me, this is potent...' she thought, sloshing the dark brown liquid around in the tin beaker, 'I fear Caid and the others will think I am such a child if I say it is too strong for me... oh... what a delightful aroma!'
Without waiting for the others, Bronwyn threw her head back and emptied the tin beaker in one gulp. The powerful liquid tore its way down her throat and into her stomach where it felt like she had eaten fresh lava. Groaning long and hard, she clutched her throat and let out a series of squeaky noises that she had meant to be words.
The others in the tent - apart from Fyonna, but even she had noticed - just stared at Bronwyn with wide open eyes. Sighing, the Seer shook her head slowly at the youngster's impatience. "Child," Fyonna said, "I do believe your brandy was supposed to have been nipped at, not swallowed whole."
"Oy!" Kheo said, slapping Bryce Cassian so hard on the leg his brandy ran over. "Oy, luv! Oh, yer gonna get it in the morn'... oooooh, yer gonna get it in the morn'!"
"I don't think it's going to take that long, Kheo," Deegan said, looking at Bronwyn's eyes that had already gone bleary.
After Caid had poured each of them a healthy amount of brandy, she slammed the cork back into the jug and put it away. Holding up her tin beaker, she looked all her companions in the eye and offered them a silent greeting, even Bryce Cassian.
Bronwyn looked around at the others, expecting to see human beings but only seeing vague outlines and shadowy creatures. Her head became heavier and heavier, and she struggled to keep it on her shoulders. Sighing deeply, she put her hand down on the ground to try to get more comfortable, but only succeeded in groping Fyonna's thigh.
When the Seer chuckled at the attention, Bronwyn shook her head to ascertain where the odd, echoing laughter came from. "Why did the world suddenly go blurry?" she said out loud, but her ears only picked up an incoherent mumble.
The brandy in her gut burned merrily, but after a short while, the stinging sensation settled down and she relaxed more, eventually reaching a point where she felt limp and boneless. In the meantime, most of her senses had begun to function again and she could hear the others talk about this and that though she still had a hard time following the confusing fragments of the various topics.
"-old days, huh, Caid?" -- "-down in the southern province, I-" -- "-pregnant, but we had to-" -- "-this reminds me-" -- "-challenged the boorish man to a duel-" -- "-about the cavalry is-" -- "Emperor... yeah, old Jin-Sarnos-"
When someone - it could have been Caid or possibly Kheo - mentioned Emperor Jin-Sarnos' by name, Bronwyn scrunched up her face. Spurred on by her state of inebriation, her mind began to create a string of associations that she knew would only lead her to misery. Even so, the process had been started and she was powerless to stop it.
A tempest ignited inside her that climbed steadily towards the inevitable explosion. Growing in strength for each passing moment, it sent fiery tendrils through her, and soon, it - and she - had reached critical mass.
"Lemme tell you a story... my father whipped me when I was a little girl!" she blurted out in a strong, clear voice that made the others shut up instantly and stare at her. "He whipped me, the rotten bastard. I had been disobedient, and he whipped me. I could not sit for a week because that miserable son of a whore whipped me."
Bronwyn heard someone say "Lady Bronwyn-" somewhere in the far distance, but she didn't care.
"Just like he whipped my mother for enjoying the company of another man. He stripped her naked and made me watch. He tore chunks out of the skin on her back with his whip. That's why she died. She got the fever and died from the whipping. My mother!"
"Lady Bronwyn, please... you don't know what you're saying," a female voice said somewhere in the fog, but Bronwyn brushed whomever it was off with a hard shove.
"And lemme tell you another story! He beheaded my love... my May-Linn!" Bronwyn roared, clenching her fists so hard she could feel her fingernails dig into her skin. "He beheaded the woman I loved because we had sex... and father could not stomach it, the rotten prick! That bitch Zai Allizadra beheaded my lover bec- because... because..."
Bronwyn's head swam with fatigue, drunkenness, anger and even pure hatred. A never-ending sequence of images and impressions flashed before her eyes; impressions of the terrified, pained screams her mother had made when she had been whipped; images of her father's hard, merciless face when he brought the whip down upon the tender skin of the woman who was not only his wife, but the mother of his child; and finally a nightmarish vision of May-Linn during her last moments among the living.
Roaring out her hatred towards her father, Bronwyn had finally reached her limits. With a voice that trailed off into nothing, she keeled over and fell into a bottomless, black chasm.
"Sweet Marpaxa... Lady Bronwyn!" was the last she heard before an impenetrable darkness consumed her.
The fog monster was a fierce opponent, but Bronwyn put up a brave fight. Its shadowy tendrils wrapped themselves around her head and her throat, trying to drag her back down into the pitch black pool it called home so it could suffocate her and feast on her remains for a thousand generations. Bronwyn resisted with all her might and eventually managed to free herself from the evil creature.
Just when she thought she was safe, a stink monster joined the fray. A wall of the most peculiar smell she had ever experienced filled her senses - not to mention her nostrils - and she feared for her life. Moments later, the stink monster engaged the fog monster and wrestled it to the ground, soon roaring in triumph from its apparent victory over its mortal enemy.
Bronwyn used the fight to make her escape. Running down a dark, shadowy corridor, she reached a gateway at the end that she tried to open...
"Wh- wha...?" Bronwyn croaked, raising her head and cracking open her eyelids that seemed to be made of lead. She tried to peek through the semi-darkness that surrounded her, but she couldn't see much.
Above her, a shadowy figure held something in its hand - and the 'something' was the stink monster. "Gah!" Bronwyn croaked and tried to shy away from the looming danger. When she moved up in her sleeping furs, the weight of the mud she had in her head became too heavy a burden for her to bear, and she had to drop back down onto her pillow with a pained whimper.
"Fear not, fear not, Lady Bronwyn... it is I, Fyonna," the shadowy figure said.
"Yes, and I've made you a mug of herbal tea. You should drink it, it will help cure your hangover."
"Ha- hangov- over?"
"Ah, yes. Yes, Lady Bronwyn, you have a hangover," Fyonna said and broke out in a most un-Seer like giggle. "Here, raise your head and drink. It's not too hot. It'll do you good."
"St- stink monster..."
"Well, I agree it's got a distinct smell. Drink, Lady Bronwyn, drink..." Fyonna said and held the mug to Bronwyn's lips.
Bronwyn took a few greedy gulps and found - much to her relief - that the taste was far better than the smell. She breathed heavily and tried to focus, but came to the conclusion the semi-darkness was in fact real and not just a figment of her imagination. "Wh- where am I?"
"We're on our way to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's realm, Lady Bronwyn. Remember?"
"Oh... yes. Drat. May I have some more tea, please?"
"But of course," Fyonna said and held the mug to Bronwyn's lips. Once it was empty, she put it away and reached behind the stricken woman to help her sit up.
Bronwyn did so but regretted it almost at once when even her hair had become tender to the touch. "Ohhhhh... I shall never drink brandy again. Never," she said, rubbing her face. "Wait... where are all the others? Did they leave us behind?"
"Oh no, Lady Bronwyn. The Huntress and the others are stowing the supplies on the horses. The Boran died down over the course of the night, and we're to move out as soon as you are back on your feet. It is already a turn of the hourglass after dawn."
"Oh... very well. I better," Bronwyn said and tried to turn around in her furs. The movement was enough to open the door for the fog monster that immediately tried to grab her with its shadowy tendrils, but a big shiver and a jaw-cracking yawn were enough to scare it away.
Once she was seated the right way up, Bronwyn fell silent and looked down at her boots that she had been intending to put on. "Lady Fyonna... I think I may have said something last night I should not have. Something that I dearly wanted to have kept a secret," she said quietly, reaching for the first boot.
The Seer pulled back and knelt down on the spot where her own sleeping furs had been. She nodded once to confirm the Lady's words.
"So now they all know about me... Lady Fyonna, how did my companions react?" Bronwyn said, deliberately looking away from the Seer. Sighing, she took her boots and put them on to have something to do with her hands.
"Lady Bronwyn, those who did not know about the beheading or the other tragedies were shocked. Bryce Cassian was disgusted about your personal revelation."
"He would be..."
"Indeed, Lady Bronwyn. He is unworthy of but a single of your thoughts. My advice to you is that you should forget him. Kheo and Deegan supported you before, and they support you now."
"That is something at least..."
"Indeed it is, Milady. Come, let me help you up. We really need to get going," the Seer said and rose to her feet with grace - Bronwyn was less graceful on the whole.
"Good morn, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said once Bronwyn and Fyonna stepped outside the nomadic tent. The Huntress took off her leather gloves and walked over to the Lady and the Seer - and it didn't take her long to categorize the pale complexion and the bleary eyes as a class-A hangover.
The early morning sun shone so brightly and so harshly into Bronwyn's eyes that she had to shield them with both hands. She tried to find a comprehensive and polite response to Caid's statement, but all she could produce was a croaking "Ugh..."
" 'Ugh'!" Kheo mocked as he tightened the leather straps holding the wooden crates on his Horsey's rump. "Yeah, luv, I know my ughs, and that's a perdy good 'un right there... huh, Deegan?" The grin on his face proved that it was all in good humor, but he still had a wicked gleam in his eyes. "Oy, luv... ya wan'a brandy? We didn't empty the jug last night."
"Uggggh...!" Bronwyn croaked, shying away from the big, bald man.
Caid waggled a few fingers at her old friend before she jogged over to Bronwyn to help her get her foot into Santilla's stirrup. "Bronwyn... can you even ride?" she said for Bronwyn's ears only.
"I- I believe I can," Bronwyn said, but her faltering efforts to put her foot into the stirrup told a completely different story. After the third attempt - and the third failure - Caid reached down to guide the boot directly into the iron circle.
When Bronwyn was finally atop Santilla, Caid put a warm hand on the Lady's thigh which made her look down. "You have to promise me to hold on tight... and if you feel any discomfort along the way, cry out and we'll stop. All right?"
"I shall try, Huntress. I- I thank you for all you have done for me. I apologize for being such a burden to you," Bronwyn said and reached down to cover Caid's gloved hand with her own.
The day went by in a blur for Bronwyn who fell in and out of a fitful slumber high atop Santilla. Though Fyonna's herbal tea had helped, she was still fighting the physical effects of the brandy and the emotional effects of her ill-conceived ranting and raving from the night before.
Over and over, the words she had blurted out were repeated in her mind, mocking her in all their stinging truthfulness. She felt a deep sense of shame and guilt over having given the others such an unwanted display of her dirty laundry, but at the same time, she understood the words had needed to come out or else they would have festered in her gut.
The hatred to her father still lingered in her heart, however, and there she knew it would remain until his death.
It didn't help that the late summer sun had returned with a vengeance. Unlike the day before where they had all been wrapped up in their winter cloaks, the sun was beating down on the dusty, dry terrain they were riding through.
As they were slowly getting nearer to Lasar-Ihtreg's realm, the terrain changed once more, this time into flat, tundra-like plains that held neither shadow nor shelter for leagues in either direction. To the north, the majestic Jerubai mountain range was closer than ever, and it was even possible to see the clouds that drifted around the snowcapped peaks.
A quarter of a league or so ahead of them, Bronwyn could see the deep, dark pine forests return with its natural shelter, but the prospects of riding across a vast expanse of absolutely nothing with the sun practically carving its name into her skull the entire way there didn't exactly improve her mood.
"Caid... Huntress?" Bronwyn croaked, slapping Santilla's reins a little so the mare would pick up the pace. The large animal responded with a brief whinny before she did as asked.
"Lady Bronwyn, are you poorly... or in pain?" Caid said, moving Chestnut to the side so Bronwyn could come up alongside it.
"Not as such, but I fear I am quite tired. Would it be possible for us to take a short rest when we reach the edge of the forest?"
"Ah, we shall do better than that, Milady. See the four huts among the trees? One of them is a tavern," Caid said and pointed at the tall pines.
Bronwyn tried to focus on the nearest trees but could only see the proud trunks. Shielding her sensitive eyes, she was suddenly able to pick up a faint column of smoke that rose from a chimney. "Oh... I cannot see the tavern, but I do see smoke."
"The smoke is from the tavern, Lady Bronwyn."
"I wonder if... oh, I should not get my hopes up too high. I shall only be disappointed," Bronwyn mumbled, rubbing her chin with her gloved hand. "But I cannot help but wonder if they have... oh..."
Turning around in the saddle, Caid shot the indecisive Lady a sly glance while her Chestnut steered itself around a few rocks that were lying where the mare wanted to walk. "Lady Bronwyn, I'm not sure what it is you're trying to tell me...?"
"A hot lunch! Although my stomach is rebellious at the moment, I fear I am so very tired of jerky!"
"I'm quite certain they serve hot lunches, Lady Bronwyn. Let's find out... Deegan!"
A moment later, Deegan Arliss whoa'ed his horse on Caid's left side, gently pulling the animal's reins to make it stay in place. "You called, Huntress?"
"I want you to go down to the tavern over there and ask... politely, Deegan... if they can cook something warm for Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle and company who shall arrive shortly?"
"Hot food, eh? I could live with that," the former Lieutenant said, sporting a wide grin. "It shall be done, Huntress. Yah!"
Turning away from Chestnut, Deegan spurred on his own horse and quickly left the rest of the group behind. He thundered across the tundra-like plain with the greatest of ease until he was nearly out of sight.
"I hope his quest shall be successful," Bronwyn said, rubbing her stomach that had begun to growl at the anticipation of food, "for I fear I shall keel over if I do not get anything substantial to eat soon."
The tavern and the other buildings in the small settlement were all made of thick, untreated logs from the forest they were next to. The log cabins had been expertly designed and assembled, and offered a clear picture of the craftsmanship involved in constructing such a house.
Apart from the four main buildings, the settlement had a shared woodshed and a shared outhouse that were both standing a bit away from the houses. Two children were playing with sticks outside one of the other houses, no doubt pretending to be knights in some colorful empire or kingdom.
Upon the group's arrival at the tavern, it turned out that Deegan's quest had indeed been successful, as the innkeeper, his wife and their four children - two boys, two girls - came out to greet their guests. The children were quickly lined up by age, and they all bowed or curtseyed deeply in their coarse, brown outfits.
"Goodness me, this is magnificent," Bronwyn said in a warm, regal voice, quickly dismounting by swinging her legs over the side of Santilla's padded saddle. When she hit the ground, the last echoes of her hangover made their presence felt, but she screwed on a smile and stepped forward. "Greetings, citizens. I am Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle. What a charming, rustic tavern you own."
"We salute you, oh, exulted Lady Bronwyn. I am Larkan of Grave, and this is my wife Sara and our children," the innkeeper said, bowing just as deeply as his children had done.
Squat and heavyset, and with a darker skin tone than those living nearer to Ashburne, the innkeeper and his wife appeared to be in their early to mid-thirties. Larkan was wearing clogs, coarse, dark brown pants and a jerkin that wasn't as white as it had been, and his wife was dressed in a dark green gown that had seen better days.
"Greetings, Larkan and Sara. Grave? What an unfortunate name for a settlement..." Bronwyn said, looking at the other houses with a frown forming between her eyebrows.
Larkan nodded solemnly and tucked down his jerkin that he had noticed wasn't all the way down into his pants. "It has always been thus, oh, exulted Lady Bronwyn. Such was the name of the first man here."
"I see. Well, I suppose- Oh! Do I smell-" Bronwyn sniffed the air several times, trying to pick up the scents that wafted out towards her from the kitchen. "Do I smell pork pies?"
"You do, oh exulted one," Sara said and bowed again just to be on the safe side. "Our famed ten-inch pies. We had just put them in the oven when your manservant came to us and told us of your wishes."
Bronwyn quickly glanced at Deegan Arliss whose eyebrow was already on its way up his forehead. "I see. Very well. Oh, we have traveled a great distance so I fear we are quite hungry for quality food."
"Quality food is just what we got, and we got plenty of it, oh exulted one!" Larkan said with a beaming smile plastered onto his face. "We have just been visited by a trader convoy so our stocks are full!"
Kheo froze in place and stared wide-eyed at the husband and wife. "That..." he croaked, rubbing his tummy that seemed quite a lot flatter than usual, "is the best news I've heard all this damn week! Outta my way, hungry man comin' through!" he said, jumped off his Horsey and made a beeline for the entrance to the tavern.
"Save some for us, Kheo!" Caid shouted after him, but the only reply she and the others got was an echoing "Naw!"
The interior of the tavern was held in shades of brown, but Sara had done her best to add some color to the drabness by decorating the eight tables with gaily colored, crochet place mats and small brass lanterns that looked like they had graced a ship once upon a time.
Four thick pillars supported the tall roof on either side of a counter that was placed roughly halfway through the house - the other half saw the kitchen and the sleeping quarters for the family.
The floorboards were covered in sawdust to pick up any spillages; a necessary measure because the craftsmanship had been of such a high quality there wasn't a single crack or knot in the entire floor.
"Oh, my!" Bronwyn said when she entered the tavern with Sara in tow. "You have certainly worked hard to build this..." she said, looking around at the perfectly aligned logs.
"We did, oh exulted one," Larkan said, bowing for the umpteenth time. "My father and his brothers built it nearly forty years ago. My wife and I took over when my parents passed."
"Mmmm. Excellent," Bronwyn said, looking at Kheo who was sitting rather impatiently at one of the tables, already holding his cutlery straight up in the air. While she was watching, Deegan and Bryce joined the big man at the table thus splitting the group into their usual factions.
Behind Bronwyn, Caid helped Fyonna inside, and soon, the three women chose a table not far from the kitchen. After Fyonna was seated comfortably, Bronwyn sat down as well and waited for Larkan and Sara to come out with their lunch.
The kitchen was equipped with three clay ovens, two of which were hard at work baking the pork pies. On the right hand side behind the counter, kegs of varying sizes were piled up three or four deep, some labeled Ale, some Brandy. On the left, an entire wall had been filled with jugs and jars that, according to their labels, contained all the regular things needed in a kitchen, like exotic spices, flour, vinegar, salt and sugar.
The aromas that escaped the ovens through the cracks around the hatches were so rich Bronwyn's stomach began to growl loudly, and she had to pat it with an embarrassed blush coloring her cheeks. "I beg for forgiveness, Caid... Lady Fyonna. I fear my stomach is quite angry with me for neglecting it for so long."
"Oh, that's quite all right, child," Fyonna said and reached over to stroke Lady Bronwyn's hand. "I have heard worse, and I am sure Caid has too."
"Yup," Caid said casually, too preoccupied with looking at the kitchen to have time to give a proper answer.
Larkan soon came down to Bronwyn's table holding a pencil and a piece of parchment. Bowing deeply, he held the pencil ready and offered his most exulted visitor a smile. "Milady, what would you like to drink to your lunch? We have four different kinds of ale... sweet, light, medium and a strong brew. Also, we have just received an exquisite barrel of brand-"
"No brandy!" Bronwyn croaked, already looking a little green around the gills. "I- I- no brandy, please, Larkan. Would it be possible to get a mug of cold water...?"
Larkan briefly furrowed his brow but soon took the order. "We have a clean well just out back, Milady."
"I would like that very much. Thank you."
"As you wish, oh exulted one," Larkan and bowed deeply. After he had taken Caid's and Fyonna's orders, he left in a hurry to get the water, leaving Bryce Cassian highly frustrated at the lack of attention from the servants.
Up at the ovens, Sara opened the first hatch which made Kheo let out a celebratory whoop. After Larkan had put the mug of water on Bronwyn's table and bowed deeply, he inserted a long peel into the oven and pulled out the first two ten-inch pork pies that were quickly transferred to plates held by his eldest daughter. "The exulted one and the Seer first," he said quiet, nodding in Bronwyn's direction.
His daughter curtseyed and hurried down to Bronwyn's table where she put the two plates down in front of Bronwyn and Fyonna. "Your meat pies, oh, insulted one," she said and performed a deep curtsey. Smiling shyly, she hurried back up to her parents to get the next plates.
The gaffe made Bronwyn smile at her tablemates, but her stomach soon overruled everything and demanded that she took her knife and fork - so she did.
At the other table, Kheo let out a long, tormented groan that grew so pathetic it nearly sounded like he was crying. His despair was quickly snuffed out, however, when the next two pies were deposited on the table he shared with Deegan and Bryce. Acting far more swiftly than his bulk suggested he could, he scooped up both plates and started eating from both.
This time, it was Deegan and Bryce who whined vociferously, but it didn't help them much - Lady Bronwyn's table was served next, much to their vocal dissatisfaction.
Ten spicy ten-inch pork pies - Kheo alone ate four - eight mugs of ale and one mug of cold, clean water later, Larkan came down to Bronwyn's table and offered her a tray with a selection of herbs for smoking and chewing.
"Oh, no thank you, Larkan. I fear I do not chew herbs as it gives me such bad breath," Bronwyn said and waved the innkeeper off.
"Oh, but exulted one, we have mixed these herbs ourselves. They provide dental hygiene, they are good for your skin and they're a potent love potion. I'll bet his Lordship will be pleased."
Bronwyn blinked a couple of times and stole a glance at Caid who was apparently stifling some kind of smirk. "Ah, thank you... but no thank you, Larkan."
"As you wish, oh exulted one," Larkan said and bowed again. When he couldn't get a sale at the female table, he went over to the men's table and promptly sold a pile of smoking herbs, two kegs of medium strength brew and a wrapped, smoked baloney.
While Sara's husband collected the plates and told his children how they should wash them properly, she herself sat down at Lady Bronwyn's table and offered her Ladyship a respectful smile. "Milady, if I may enquire... where are you and your escort headed? North towards the Yonnae?"
"Oh, you know about the Forest Women?" Bronwyn said excitedly, moving out to the edge of her chair.
"But I do, Milady. They come by every once in a while to trade furs for things they cannot find in their forests."
"Oh, how exciting," Bronwyn said, nodding enthusiastically at Sara's words. "Alas, I fear we are not going north. We are going east, to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg's realm-"
"Oh..." Sara said, grabbing the edge of the table. At once, she scrunched up her face and grew a distinctly worried look in her eyes.
"-where I shall enter negotiations with His Excellency on a border dispute," Bronwyn continued, completely missing the change in Sara's demeanor. "To be truthful, Sara, I do not look forward to it."
Unlike Bronwyn, Caid hadn't missed a beat, and she leaned forward to look Sara in the eye. "Sara, why did you suddenly turn so gloomy? Was it because Lady Bronwyn mentioned Lasar-Ihtreg?" she said in a deliberate tone of voice.
"Oh, I beg for forgiveness. It was not my intention to interfere in your business, Milady. But yes, it is not often Lasar-Ihtreg is spoken of with reverence in these parts. You see, we have heard stories about people going missing near the border to the Shadowlands. Good people who wouldn't leave their children behind... and I stress, women as well as men."
"Sara!" Larkan suddenly said strongly up near the ovens. "Do not bore our esteemed visitors with your old wives' tales!"
Sara nodded and turned back to Bronwyn and Caid. "I beg for forgiveness. I did not mean to bore you. I shall return with your check, Milady."
"No wait... wait, Sara!" Bronwyn said, but the innkeeper's wife had already left the table. "Oh... what was that about, I wonder...?"
"I cannot say, Milady," Caid said with a shrug.
Knowing all too well what it was about, Fyonna leaned back in her chair wearing a dark expression that appeared to be carved in stone. Sighing deeply, she began to speak in a quiet voice that made Caid and Bronwyn pay attention at once. "I fear I have not been entirely truthful with you regarding my role here, Lady Bronwyn."
"Oh, what does that mean now?!" Bronwyn groaned, staring wide-eyed at the Seer.
"The Order has informed me of such disappearances," Fyonna said, continuing to speak in a quiet voice. "Your father knows about them, too, Lady Bronwyn. They form the border dispute he has sent you here to settle."
"But, Lady Fyonna..." Bronwyn said, "the Sacred Order of Seers? What do they, or you for that matter, have to do with Lasar-Ihtreg? Is he a Seer, too?"
"He was before he was expelled, yes. He would not conform to our ancient rules that have been in place for millennia. We had no choice but to cast him out of the Order."
"And he did not take it well, I gather?"
Fyonna chuckled darkly and leaned forward to rest her elbows on the tabletop. "I dare say he did not. Lasar-Ihtreg set our Grand Master alight."
"I fear he did, yes," Fyonna said with a slow, dark nod. "Then he and a female companion left us. Centuries later, we heard he had usurped the kingdom we're headed into now. His female companion is now his high priestess. Your trek here was a good cover to get a closer view. That is why I needed to come with you, Lady Bronwyn."
Caid rolled her eyes and let out a long sigh. "I knew there was more to this than met the eye... Phirax the Unholy! A border dispute, my-" - the curse was accompanied by a fist slamming onto the tabletop.
Bronwyn leaned back to digest the worrying news. Even though she literally chewed on her cheeks to help it along, it had a hard time getting past her logical mind. "Wait... Lady Fyonna... you said 'centuries later' ?"
"Indeed I did, Lady Bronwyn. I fear I am slightly older than you take me for."
"The passing of time is different for us Seers. I am close to two centuries old, yet I am merely a young maid compared to Lasar-Ihtreg. He is nearly six centuries old... and from what I remember, he looks it, too!" Fyonna said with a wicked, little twitch around her lips.
Bronwyn opened her mouth to reply but couldn't get a word across her lips. After a while, she shook her head repeatedly. "I fear this is too much for me to cope with... too much by far!" she mumbled. "I think I shall need a brandy after all..."
Right on cue, Sara came down to the table with the check, but she was quickly sent back into the kitchen to get a brandy for the exulted one.
As the day went on and the shadows grew longer, each of the members of the six-strong group were uncharacteristically silent. The terrain was well suited for introspectiveness, because for each passing mile covered by Santilla, Chestnut, Kheo's Horsey and the other strong steeds, the forests grew denser, the birdsong grew fainter and even the sunlight itself seemed to grow weaker and more cold.
Rolling along atop Santilla, Bronwyn couldn't get past the fact that her father already knew of the frightening disappearances, and yet still chose to send his only daughter into such dangers. 'He must hate me almost as much as I hate him,' she thought with a sinking feeling in her gut. 'What a perfectly dysfunctional family we are... my father kills my mother... indirectly, if nothing else... perhaps I shall kill my father one day. It seems to be the way our family operates. At least I have a reason, unlike him.'
Bronwyn looked over her shoulder at the Seer who appeared to be slumbering atop her bay mare. Grunting, Bronwyn turned back to the trail ahead and sighed so deeply her shoulders slumped. 'And what of Lady Fyonna? I cannot believe the story she told us at the tavern. She is two centuries old? Lasar-Ihtreg is six centuries old? I cannot even begin to fathom how that is possible. And what am I actually supposed to accomplish when we meet His Excellency in the morrow? Settle a border dispute, ha... if he is a Seer like Fyonna claimed he was, he can see right through me before we have even met. I fear this shall be the largest, most dismal failure in the history of diplomatic relations. And my name shall forever be tainted because I failed grandiosely at something I was never supposed to succeed at. All this... this... this idiocy because I dared to love a woman! Wretched!'
In the distance, Bronwyn could suddenly hear water burbling. The further along the trail they went, the stronger it became, and that despite Bronwyn's inability to see a stream or indeed a river anywhere near them.
After a while, the soft burbling had turned into a hard noise akin to a raging river - then, coming around a soft curve on the trail they were following, they had reached the final landmark on their seemingly endless trek: the dark, fast-moving Ultannai River that separated the lands of Emperor Jin-Sarnos from Lasar-Ihtreg's realm. The river had so much strength a constant haze of droplets hung in the air above it, creating a mist that made it difficult to see across.
Caid quickly raised her fist in the air to stop the group; the other riders fanned out and moved alongside the Huntress to see for themselves. "We're at the border," she said, but it was only stating the obvious.
A cold trickle swept down Bronwyn's spine when she realized the thirty-fathom long wooden bridge that spanned the Ultannai seemed to disappear just after the halfway point.
When Bronwyn nudged Santilla a little to the side, she could see that the rather odd bridge had been built so low and flat the haze and the foam-topped torrents actually swept over it at the center, thus obscuring the view of the other side - not that there was much to look at: the entire eastern bank of the Ultannai was a flat, gravelly affair with sparse vegetation and plenty of driftwood deposited there by the raging torrents.
Roughly two hundred fathoms up the embankment, the ubiquitous deep, dark forests returned, but they were pulled back from a fifty-fathom wide trail that was so perfect in its lines that Bronwyn imagined it was man-made.
Bryce Cassian backed his horse away from Deegan's and shuffled up alongside Bronwyn's Santilla. "Lady Bronwyn," the peacock said, hitting a note of greater sincerity compared to his usual pompous self, "the morrow is your big day. I certainly hope you know what you are doing. I did not come all this way... seemingly to the end of the world... only to be thrown out of Lasar-Ihtreg's kingdom because the negotiator didn't do her homework."
"My plans are not yet drawn, Sir," Bronwyn said curtly, "but I promise you shall be the first to know when I reach a conclusion."
Bryce blinked a few times, unsure if he had just been insulted. In the end, he decided to drop the matter and move back to Deegan.
Behind them, the sun once again set in the western horizon. Unlike the previous day's destructive Boran, the breeze brought on by the raging Ultannai wasn't yet intrusive, but it would soon change once the last of the sun's rays had been extinguished.
Caid grunted and stood up in her stirrups. "Everybody listen up! Like we agreed upon back home, we shall set up our last overnight camp here, near the embankment or just inland. It is far too dangerous to travel into Lasar-Ihtreg's realm at night."
For once, everybody agreed, and Kheo, Bryce and Deegan were soon hard at work setting up the two tents.
Bronwyn dismounted Santilla - nursing her sore rear end - and quickly began to put together a nosebag for Santilla from the supplies the large palomino had hauled the entire distance on her hind quarters. When it was full, she moved up front and attached the nosebag to the harness, speaking words of comfort to distract her faithful steed until dinner was ready.
Later, Bronwyn, Fyonna and Caid were inside their tent, enjoying a cup of the medium-strength ale they had bought at the tavern and playing a slightly altered version of the One-Two-Three game Kheo had taught them - altered because the original rules of the game didn't take into account that a player could be blind.
"From here, to here, to there... One-Two-Three," Fyonna said triumphantly, connecting the lines on the parchment with the miniature pencil Kheo had made for them by breaking his own in half.
Bronwyn and Caid looked despondently at each other, once again defeated handsomely by the only one there who couldn't even see the playing board.
"Oh, Lady Fyonna... you are simply too good for us!" Bronwyn said, shaking her head in disbelief. "I fear we cannot challenge you at all..."
"I know you cannot!" Fyonna said and broke out in an un-Seer-like giggle. "That does it, I am going over to the boys to play. Perhaps they shall present a stronger opposition... though I doubt it. Will you girls be all right by yourselves?"
"Oh, we will," Caid said, getting comfortable on her sleeping furs now that she didn't have to sit close to the parchment any longer. "You needn't worry about us."
"Good. I promise I shall be quiet upon my return in case you have already fallen asleep," Fyonna said and got up with all the ease in the world. A moment later, the Seer had left the tent which left it oddly calm - even the flickering flame on the candle they used to illuminate the parchment settled down quickly.
Bronwyn sighed and looked at her new friend. Pretending to do something with her hands when she was in fact just shuffling a few items one way, then the other, she licked her lips several times and tried to find a way to break the ice on the touchy subjects she hoped to get the vastly more experienced Huntress to talk about.
"Yes?" Bronwyn blurted out nervously, cutting Caid off midstream.
Caid smiled at the jittery youngster to get her to calm down. "I sense there's something you would like to ask or perhaps tell me...?" she said warmly.
"Oh... I fear there is, yes. I apologize for acting so immaturely last night. I know it must have been painful to listen to. I cannot fathom why I just let my heart run off with me like that. Please accept my profound apologies, Huntress."
"You have nothing to apologize for, Lady Bronwyn. Nothing at all," Caid said and shuffled around in her sleeping furs. "Now, you said things I had not expected, that's true, but..."
"I... I need to apologize to the men as well. That, I fear, shall not be as simple."
"Oh, but I must, Huntress," Bronwyn said, wringing her hands.
"No. Deegan and Kheo have already moved on... and Bryce never will. It's no use, Lady Bronwyn."
A long, deep sigh from Bronwyn was the only sound heard in the tent for a long while. From the other tent, laughter and sounds of playing wafted through the sheets of canvas - it appeared that Fyonna was winning there, too.
"Caid Barlin, may I ask you a personal question?" Bronwyn said, looking down at her hands. "You are free to turn me down if you feel I overstep the line."
"You can ask me anything, Lady Bronwyn."
Bronwyn licked her lips again, trying to find the right words. "I... I loved my May-Linn with all my heart and soul... indeed, my entire being. Have you ever loved anyone that much?"
Caid rolled over onto her left side and propped her head up on her arm. "I honestly haven't. Of course, I've had dalliances but never anything that lasted more than a couple of weeks at the most."
"Uh... I see," Bronwyn said with a blush creeping onto her cheeks.
"Yeah," Caid continued, "during the war, I felt it was wrong to have someone at home who would no doubt be worried sick about me when we were off on the major campaigns. Later, after the war... well... when my father retired as the Senior Ranger following the victory, my future was set in stone which left no time for a serious relationship. And besides, we both know your father would never accept it."
"When I become Empress, that shall change!" Bronwyn said strongly.
"Good. It's high time for a change, Lady Bronwyn."
Another cold shiver ran down Bronwyn's back and she shot the Huntress a worried glance. 'I have very little love for my father, but discussing my own reign like this is unsettling... it is high treason, after all, with the throne being well and truly occupied. I can speak safely to the Huntress, but if Bryce Cassian overhears me, I will find myself in the dungeon at the mercy of Zai Allizadra and her wretched ax... I need to be more careful.' - "Yes," she added quietly.
"M- may I ask you another personal question, Huntress?"
"Of course, Lady Bronwyn...?"
"May-Linn is the only woman I have made love to. I presume you... you have more experience in that field...? I mean, as a soldier and all..."
"Well," Caid said with a cheesy grin, "I have sampled the sweet nectar of more than one woman in my life, yes."
Bronwyn opened her mouth to ask the question that was burning on her lips, but her courage deserted her at the last moment and she clammed up. "Sweet Marpaxa, you must consider me such a child," she said after a little while, shaking her head despondently.
"I do not, Lady Bronwyn. What's important here isn't how many gowns you've conquered, but if you're true to what your heart tells you. It really is quite simple, at least from my point of view."
"Oh, I wish I had your confidence, Huntress. With May-Linn gone, I fear I shall remain in my present state of solitude until I am so old and gray no woman will ever cast me a second glance."
"I know you're grieving over your lost love, but some day, someone else shall catch your eye, Lady Bronwyn. Believe me, it will happen."
A faint, shy smile spread all over Bronwyn's face, and she ducked her head down between her shoulders to combat the wave of heat that tickled her skin. "Let us hope so. Thank you for the encouragement," she whispered.
Caid chuckled at the Lady's cuteness, but her face soon fell into a mask of worry. "Lady Bronwyn, there is something else as well... something that will undoubtedly have a direct impact on our endeavor when we cross the final bridge and enter Lasar-Ihtreg's Shadowlands in the morrow," she said and sat up again.
"Oh, that does not sound pleasant, Huntress... go on...?"
"Many of us Rangers have heard stories from lumberjacks and settlers about large, flying creatures that swoop down from the skies to snatch unwary people-"
"Much larger than eagles, Lady Bronwyn. Man-sized creatures," Caid said quietly.
Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the Huntress, expecting to see a wink, a smile or any other kind of hint that she was merely jesting - when nothing came, an ice cold shiver trickled down her spine. "Man-sized...?" she whispered.
"Indeed. Until now, I have always scoffed at those stories, calling them nonsense or herb-induced hallucinations... but with Sara telling us that good people have disappeared in this area, I fear the stories may have been correct all along, or at least partially correct."
"By Marpaxa... this does not install confidence in me, Huntress!"
"I beg for forgiveness, Lady Bronwyn. From what I've heard, peasants, traders, even swords-errant have vanished from here and elsewhere. Entire families from a trader convoy that didn't return twenty leagues south of here... but still near the border."
"We are half a day's travel from Lasar-Ihtreg's Blackston Castle, and it cannot come soon enough for me. We must be more alert than we have ever been," Caid said decisively. "Once there, we should be safe."
"Unless Lasar-Ihtreg is behind the disappearances!" Bronwyn said in a strong whisper. "You heard what Lady Fyonna said... she would not be wrong about that... would she?"
"You are right... I fear she would not, Lady Bronwyn. We shall see in the morrow."
"We shall indeed. One final question... and I promise it shall be the final question this eve, Huntress..."
"Go on," Caid said with a smile.
Bronwyn wrung her hands and pulled her lips back in a grimace. "Back when I first met Deegan and Kheo in the brothel- I mean, the tavern back home, Deegan started telling a story that he stopped quite abruptly. I sensed it was from the war, but..."
"I had the impression it involved you? Now, Huntress, if you feel I am poking my nose where my nose has no right to be, just tell me and I shall withdraw."
Caid sighed deeply and rubbed her face. "Deegan was referring to an operation that went wrong. The trebuchet artillery base Kheo and I were stationed at along with a company of men suddenly came under an unexpected counterattack from enemy cavalry. They overran us at dawn and killed practically everybody."
"Mmmm. The few who weren't killed were taken prisoner and led back to a forward command post nearly a league into enemy territory. Yours truly and Kheo among them. Once there, we were interrogated for days in the hope we had knowledge of the battleplans for the entire theater. We didn't, of course... how could we? We were mere grunts and they had already killed our commanding officer, a Colonel."
"Oh, how shocking... truly shocking. Lady Caid, I apologize profusely for bringing up such a horrible memory..." Bronwyn said and reached out for Caid, hoping the Huntress would accept her hand.
Caid did, but let out a very long sigh at the same time. "Lady Bronwyn, may I show you something hideous?"
"Oh... hideous? What do you mean... hideous?"
"What war does to the human body," Caid said and began to take off her jacket. Once it was off, she pulled up in her wraparound tunic and let it hang loose.
"When the time comes for you to assume your father's throne, may I simply plead you remember the true cost of armed conflict, Lady Bronwyn? So that you never declare war on a whim, or at least without considering the consequences for the men and women who shall bear your sword and banner?"
When the Lady didn't answer, Caid pulled up in her tunic to reveal dozens of poorly healed scars that covered her torso from her neck to her hips. Though her breasts were wrapped in dark green cloth, scars that were visible around the edges hinted at the extent of the injuries to her tender mounds.
Bronwyn stared at the horrific scarring with wide-open eyes. Her face had lost all color and her lips had become mere lines in her face. "Caid, I-" she croaked, but her voice failed her.
"Behold, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and lowered her tunic. "Such is the true face of war. Back to the story... after a few days of interrogation, we were rescued by the First Up Front, Deegan's unit. They swept in and laid to waste the entire enemy cavalry unit who had captured us. And we cheered them, we survivors. My injuries kept me in the field hospital for nearly a moon, but I returned to Kheo's artillery command in time for the next offensive."
"Sweet Marpaxa... why?" Bronwyn whispered. "You were injured so horribly... why did you not come back to Ashburne and hang up your sword for good?"
"How could I when the job we had been put there to do wasn't finished, Lady Bronwyn? It really is that simple," Caid said and tucked her tunic into her ankle pants.
Bronwyn shook her head that had begun to regain some of its color, even if the Lady still looked a little pale in places. "Words fail me, Huntress..."
"I beg for forgiveness, Milady. I didn't mean to frighten you. Now, get some rest," Caid said and shuffled down into her sleeping furs.
"Get some rest...?! Huntress, you expect me to rest now... after the gruesome story and vision before me?" Bronwyn whispered, busy chewing on her fingernails with a pale, horrified look on her face.
Caid held up the open side of her sleeping furs and looked Bronwyn dead in the eye, silently offering the Lady a safe haven for the night if she was interested.
Bronwyn stared at the compact body inside the furs. She dearly wanted to accept the offer, and yet, she was terrified of what she might do if she dreamt of May-Linn again during the night. Ultimately, she shook her head and moved over to her own sleeping furs.
After she had kicked off her boots and had slid down into the furs, she looked to her right at Caid who had tucked down the covers. "I am grateful for your offer, Huntress, but... but I fear it would not be appropriate. Have a good night."
"Sweet dreams, Lady Bronwyn," the Huntress said, snuffing out the candle to let darkness sweep over the inhabitants of the tent.
The next morning, the sun had only regained very little of its strength; though it was the dead of summer, the light was oddly bleak and wintery. As Bronwyn exited her tent for the first time that day, she offered Kheo and Deegan a smile before the two men went to work dismantling the tents behind her.
After finishing her morning necessities in a freshly dug pit behind a nearby tree, she looked around to try to understand why the light was so strange. She couldn't hear any birds nor smell any flowers, but she didn't know if the raging Ultannai River had anything to do with it.
"Mount up!" Caid barked, putting her foot in the stirrup and swinging her leg over Chestnut's back. Once she was comfortable in the saddle and the horse had adjusted to her weight, she nudged its sides and set off in a slow walk towards the final bridge.
Behind her, the others did the same. Bronwyn clenched her jaw and held Santilla's reins tight as she looked at the dark Ultannai River that didn't seem any friendlier in the daytime. The haze of droplets was still hovering above the surface, and the foam-topped torrents still rose above the framework of the strange, low bridge.
Up front, Caid's horse had reached the bridge and began to walk out on it. The woodwork creaked and groaned but held up to the weight. Once the Huntress was halfway across, Chestnut's legs reached the haze of droplets and the water that washed in which made the large animal shy to the right and whinny loudly. "Steady... steady, girl," Caid said, caressing the mare's neck to get its mind off the terrors below. "Steady... we're almost there... thank you, girl," she said once she had reached the other side of the bridge in one piece, though sporting a wet pantleg from the splashes she had been exposed to.
She quickly turned around and raised her fist in the air which made the others stop on the other side. "One at a time!" she said strongly to be heard over the thundering water. "Kheo, you're the heaviest... you go last."
"Yep, Caid!" the big man said, shuffling back to the rear of the pack on his faithful Horsey.
"Good," Caid continued, "Cassian, don't let the Lady out of your sight!"
"Don't tell me how to do my job, Barlin!" Bryce barked, snorting so contemptuously it made the others shoot him funny looks.
Bronwyn was the next to move onto the low bridge, and she took a deep breath that she intended to hold the entire way across. Halfway there, her plan was scuppered when she was splashed with ice cold water that made her gasp out loud. At the same time, Santilla performed a shimmy to get the water off her flanks that nearly unseated Bronwyn. "It's just water, Santilla," Bronwyn said, patting the mare's neck while shuffling back down into the padded saddle. "Just a little more... a little more... a little more... yes! Oh yes, thank you, Santilla," she said, breathing a deep sigh of relief when Santilla's hooves reached dry land.
The fifty-fathom wide trail that seemed to have been carved out of the surrounding deep, dark forests with a ruler continued straight on for as long as anyone could see. The trail itself appeared to consist of a mix of sand, chipped wood and the odd crushed rock.
"Welcome to the Shadowlands. Everybody, stay sharp," Caid said from up front. After the group had assembled on the first part of the woodchip-covered trail, they set off as one, moving in a closer formation than usual.
"I cannot wait to leave it," Bronwyn mumbled, looking at the crooked, scary trees that lined the trail. Unlike those on her father's lands, the trees were placed seemingly at random and were locked together so tightly through their heavy crowns that hardly any sunlight could reach the forest floor. As a result, a perpetually moving gray haze of varying translucence swept around between the protruding roots of the gnarly trees.
Just as Bronwyn was staring, a shadow moved from the foot of one tree to the next. Grunting in surprise, she rubbed her eyes repeatedly and tried to find the strange shadow again, but it had vanished. With a frosty shiver racing down her spine, she decided against looking at the trees and settled for enjoying the view straight ahead.
Half a turn of the hourglass later, Blackston Castle had come into view in the far distance at the end of the trail. Unlike Ashburne, Blackston was ugly and utilitarian; almost like a huge military installation rather than a regular royal castle. Tall and wide like a rectangular brick, it had a circular keep at the center and four square guard towers - one at each corner - connected by jagged battlements.
Fyonna was meditating high atop her bay mare when she suddenly jerked in the saddle. After she had calmed down, she lowered her head and moved it from left to right like she was listening to something just out of reach.
"Lady Fyonna-" Bronwyn said, but was halted by a raised hand from the Seer that clearly spelled out that she needed to be left in absolute silence for the time being.
Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the Seer who had become as still as a statue. After a couple of rolling beats atop Santilla, she was about to speak to Caid about it when Fyonna beat her to it.
"Huntress! We are being watched," the Seer said decisively.
At once, Caid's hand shot skywards to stop the group. "I needn't ask you if you are sure... from where, Fyonna?" she said, turning Chestnut around to face the Seer.
"I- I cannot say," Fyonna said, moving her head from side to side. "My senses were... were piqued. We are being watched, but I cannot ascertain by whom or indeed from where."
Bronwyn nearly swallowed her tongue as she whipped her head around and stared into the scary forests. Behind her, she could hear Deegan and Kheo draw their swords to be ready to intercept any potential enemy.
Their horses picked up on the nervousness and began to act skittish, and Bronwyn needed to constantly caress Santilla's neck to keep her satisfied.
"Kheo!" Caid barked. "Sweep five hundred fathoms back from our present location. If you encounter any hostiles, fall back at once to report! Now!"
"Yes, Huntress!" Kheo shouted back, taking off at once on Horsey. Soon, the big man had his horse in a strong canter and was quickly reduced to a dot in the distance.
Moving decisively, Caid turned Chestnut around in a three-hundred and sixty degree sweep to scout their surroundings.
From out of nowhere, the Huntress was wielding a foot-long jagged machete that Bronwyn recognized as one used as a ceremonial weapon by the Forest Women. Even before she'd had time to digest that, the Huntress came up alongside her.
"Lady Bronwyn," Caid said in a hard voice that left no room for objections, "until we're on top of things, stay close to Bryce Cassian."
"Y- yes, Huntress," Bronwyn said, quickly making Santilla shuffle to the side so she was closer to her self-proclaimed bodyguard. Looking right, she could see that Bryce was no less worried than she was which didn't exactly install a sense of confidence in her.
"Deegan!" Caid continued, "Protect the Seer. Since Kheo hasn't returned yet, I shall scout five hundred fathoms ahead. Yah!" - With that, she steered Chestnut around and slapped the reins hard to let the large animal know she had work to do.
Bronwyn clenched her fists and let out an "Oh, please be careful, Caid!" in a voice that was marked by the stress she was under, but the Huntress was already too far away to hear her.
Deegan and Bryce circled their horses around Lady Bronwyn and Fyonna, but with no enemy anywhere near them, it was difficult for them to know what they should do.
In the middle of all that, Fyonna had lowered her head like she was extending every last one of her already sharp senses. Suddenly, she jerked upright and began to scan the sky. "From above..." she said, though the statement was tinged with an uncharacteristic uncertainty for the Seer.
Bronwyn knew at once what the Seer meant and stared up into the pale blue sky. Everything seemed peaceful, at least for the time being. "The flying creatures..." she croaked, "Deegan, Caid must have told you the stories about the flying creatures...?"
"She has," the former Lieutenant said, following the Lady's line of sight by scanning the sky. "And I've heard a few myself about man-sized beasts."
"Indeed..." Bronwyn whispered.
Predictably, Bryce Cassian spent more time rolling his eyes than using them. "Oh, what a load of absolute bull manure... man-sized flying creatures? Oh, I know what this is," he said, slapping his thigh in a wholly unpleasant display of mockery, "it's the Faery King... isn't it, Seer? But of course it's the Faery King. With all his little Faery faeries with their little wings and faery dust and Phirax the Unholy knows what else! Oh yes, of course it is!"
"Shut up until you are spoken to, Cassian!" Bronwyn barked at the top of her lungs, scaring not only all their horses but Fyonna as well who nearly jerked out of the saddle.
Fyonna kept moving her head back and forth though her movement slowed down somewhat - then she jerked her head towards the forests. "In the trees!" she said in a deep, peculiar voice.
A long, gurgling hiss and several growls from the opposite side of the trail made everyone pipe down and stare at the gnarly trees. "Look!" Bronwyn cried, pointing at one, then two dark brown creatures that moved stealthily just beyond the first row.
The creatures knew to exploit the twirling haze and thus remained just out of sight, but from the brief moment they had been visible, they appeared to be at least five feet tall with muscular arms that came to below their waist. Their heads and faces had been obscured by the shadows, but they moved in an upright style reminiscent of humans.
"By Phirax, what is this?" Deegan said, trying to control his spooked horse. "It's almost like they knew our tactics... Caid and Kheo are away... they've split us up, the bastards!"
"Do something, you coward!" Bryce cried, kicking out with his boot to give Deegan's horse a shove on the hind quarters.
Whinnying loudly, Deegan's horse reared and threw its rider before it took off in the same direction Kheo had gone with its eyes rolling wildly from unbridled fear.
Bronwyn cried out and quickly dismounted Santilla. In a heartbeat, she was at Deegan's side and helped the former Lieutenant into a sitting position. "A- are you all right? Please tell me you are all right, Deegan!" she said, kneeling on the trail and patting down the man's every limb.
Dazed and disoriented, Deegan groaned softly and held his head in his gloved hands. "I'm f- fine, Lady Bronwyn. Thank you... just winded and a few scrapes this time. Which is less than what I shall do to that... that... that... wretched man over there!"
"You have my full blessing, Sir," Bronwyn said and put out her arm to help the former Lieutenant up.
Groaning, Deegan stood up and clutched his left hip and buttock that had taken the worst of the impact, visualized nicely by a gray scrape on the seat of his riding pants. Once he was limping around, he shot Bryce Cassian a dark glare that promised a swift and messy retribution.
"The beasts are gone," Fyonna said in her regular voice, scanning the line of trees on both sides of the trail.
"They're smart," Deegan said and brushed off the seat of his pants and the lower part of his tunic. "Too smart. I hate smart critters."
At the same time, Caid came cantering back to the group from further up the trail. Once she arrived, she brought Chestnut to a screeching halt and immediately began clapping the panting mare's neck. "I got your message, Seer. What in the name of Phirax happened here?" she said, dismounting to check up on her old friend Deegan.
"Monsters!" Bronwyn said, pointing at the trees where they had seen the strange beings. "Brown beasts... two of them! They left when... uh, when we had a little accident."
"Brown beasts... you mean bears?"
"No, Huntress," Fyonna said from atop her bay mare, shaking her head. "Not bears. Creatures. Animals, and yet not. They were clever... they knew exactly what we were up to."
Caid scrunched up her face and turned around to scan the edge of the forest. "Well, whatever they were, they aren't there now. Seer, can you sense anything untoward?"
"I cannot, Huntress... though I must admit to having a bad feeling about our presence here."
"One that we all share. Very well." Caid sighed deeply and brushed a gloved hand across her hair. While she was contemplating the unexpected development, Kheo returned with Deegan's horse on a tight leash.
As soon as the big man had stopped, Caid stomped over to him and slammed her hands onto her hips. "Kheo, did you encounter anything unusual... like bears, only not?"
Kheo was busy draining one of the canisters of water, but as soon as he had taken the last gulp, he shook his head. "Naw, Caid. I saw nothin' o' the kind," he said, wiping the excess water out of his long, graying beard. "Bears, only not? What in the name o' Phirax is that sapposed to mean?"
"I'll tell you later, Kheo." Rubbing her brow, Caid moved back to Chestnut. Before she climbed back up, she took a final look at the forest. "All right. Listen up, from now on, we shall stay in a close formation. They are obviously just testing us... whatever they are. Do you all understand?"
"Yeah," Deegan said, groaning as he put his foot into the stirrup and swung his leg over the side of his horse.
Bryce was conspicuously silent, though he was under close scrutiny by not only Deegan but Bronwyn as well.
"All right. Let's move out! And stay sharp!" Caid barked, nudging Chestnut into a fast walk.
A quarter of a league further on, a smell the experienced soldiers in the group knew all too well wafted out towards them from a small clearing in an offshoot to the left of the main trail.
Working as one, Caid, Kheo and Deegan all drew their blades and moved their horses in even closer.
Bronwyn narrowed her eyes and looked around for the source of the smell. To be on the safe side, she scanned the skies and the trees for the creatures, but couldn't see anything. "What is that?" she said, taking several deep sniffs, "Is that burnt wood? It smells like something has been burning. And what is that strangely aromatic scent? It almost smells sweet... but not quite."
Caid briefly looked back at the inexperienced Bronwyn before she let out a deep sigh and clutched the reins even harder than she already did. "Death."
"D- death?" Bronwyn whispered, putting her free hand across her mouth.
Caid nodded and raised her fist in the air to stop the group. Some forty fathoms ahead and to their left, a narrow path went off the main trail. The trees were too dense to see any details, but there was no mistaking the smell. "Seer?" she said, but she already knew the answer.
"There's no life over there, Caid," Fyonna said, but suddenly moved her head to the side like one of her sharp senses had picked up something unexpected. "Wait... no, there actually is. It is small. No... weak, not small... strange."
"Strange? Strange, how?"
"I- I cannot say, Huntress."
Caid looked back ahead and began to chew on her lips. "Very well," she said and holstered the machete. "We'll just have to do this the old-fashioned way. Kheo!"
"Yep... comin' through!" the big man said, maneuvering his Horsey around the tightly knit formation until he was at Caid's side.
"Kheo, scout ahead... but take care, my friend!" Caid said and put a gloved hand on Kheo's arm.
"Yeah... ya needn't worry 'bout me, Huntress. I know how ta cover my ass." Dismounting, Kheo drew his sword and ran diagonally across the trail. Once at the grassy verge at the other side some ten fathoms ahead of the group, he knelt down to listen for hostile activity. A moment later, he got up and ran around the corner of the offshoot with the steel blade blinking in the bleak sunshine.
"Caid," Bronwyn said, chewing on her already well-chewed fingernails, "I fear I am getting quite worked up over all these frights that seem to find us... my heart is galloping in my chest..."
"Mine is too, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said. The Huntress screwed on a smile but she was too focused on the task at hand to let it reach her eyes, thus negating a lot of the desired effect.
"Mmm-hmmm..." Bronwyn said, chewing on two fingers at a time.
A short while later, Kheo came running back. In the meantime, he had holstered his blade, indicating there was no immediate danger. "Phirax, what a mess, Caid," he said upon his return. "It's a trader convoy... or used ta be, anyhow. Four wagons lined up in a defensive circle. Can't see no exterior damage to none of 'em 'cept a-couple o' scorch marks. All their goods an' merchandise are still there so it wasn't no highway robbery. A lot of dead bodies. Men, women, children... even the horses. Six people, five horses... one o' the wagons had two."
"Phirax is definitely pissin' on us now!" Caid said and rubbed her brow. "Wait, only six people? Six people is far too few for four wagons. Traders always have their families with them... there should be ten at least. Maybe as many as fifteen."
"I know. And get this... the dead bodies got nasty-lookin' bite marks on 'em. Even the damn horses!"
Bronwyn's eyes popped wide open and she felt the blood drain from her face. "Bite marks?" she whispered hoarsely, grabbing the saddle horn so she wouldn't keel over.
"Bite marks, luv. Man-sized bite marks. Like, somebody went in ther' an' tore chunks outta'm," Kheo said, nodding.
"Oh, how awful! Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, this is so awful... those poor people!" Bronwyn groaned, burying her face in her hands.
"Kheo," Caid said while she reached over to put a calming hand on Lady Bronwyn's arm, "the Seer said there was still life over there... did you see anything strange? Perhaps beings that weren't humans or horses?"
"Ya mean like those bears that ain't?"
"Or the flying creatures from the tall tales, yeah."
"Naw, Caid," Kheo said and scratched his bald head. "I don't think I did. O' course, it was a little hard ta tell which was which in there with all that blood and gunk..."
That was all Bronwyn could stomach, and she pushed Santilla between Horsey and Chestnut and hustled over to the other side of the main trail. There, she dismounted in a hurry and emptied the meager contents of her stomach into the shrubbery.
Behind her, Fyonna dismounted her bay mare and shuffled across the woodchip-covered trail holding a canister of water. "There, there, Lady Bronwyn... rinse your mouth with this."
"Th- thank you, Lady Fyonna..." Bronwyn croaked, staggering a fathom or two to the side before bumping down on the woodchips. She quickly took a sip, rinsed her mouth and spat it out into the other mess she had made in the shrubbery. "I h- hope those poor people shall find their way to Marpaxa's side... even after dying in such a... a... horrible place. Caid said they were families..."
"I know, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said and stood up straight. She began to look around, but she didn't appear to have picked up anything - then, both she and Lady Bronwyn heard a clear flapping of large wings from somewhere above them.
Bronwyn looked at Fyonna who quickly turned to look at the sky. Behind them, Deegan and Bryce were bickering over the earlier incident, making it hard for even the Seer to separate the sounds - for Bronwyn, it was nigh on impossible.
"Silence! Silence, you two!" Fyonna barked, pointing at the sky, but her words had no effect on the bickering men.
Kheo had noticed the plea, however, and let rip with an booming "Quiet!" that shook more than one twig loose from the trees they were standing next to.
Soon, all six were listening and scouting the skies. The first to look in the right direction was Bronwyn, but she couldn't believe what she saw.
A huge, dark gray creature with a five-foot wingspan flew straight for them at an alarming rate. It followed the woodchip-covered trail some three hundred fathoms to the south of their location, and it was skimming the surface, flying only a few feet off the ground in what was clearly an attack run.
Bronwyn jumped to her feet and opened her mouth to scream a warning to the others, but the terrible fright had rendered her unable to speak beyond a faint croak. Instead, she pointed at the approaching creature with a series of wild gestures.
Caid was the first to follow the Lady's frantic pointing, and she drew her machete at once. "Incoming! Split up!" she roared, hurrying over to Fyonna to protect the Seer from harm.
"Phirax' balls!" Kheo roared and drew his sword.
A split second later, the huge creature blasted through the group, shrieking in a terrifying, high-pitched voice. As it flew past, it was revealed to have sets of fierce talons on its front legs, long, strangely formed hind legs and a two-foot long pointy tail that it used to keep the balance during flight.
The horses were all spooked and promptly bolted in every direction. As the creature cleared the group, it went into an immediate climb, but not before giving Bryce Cassian an almighty whack over the shoulders with its tail - the peacock fell off his bolting horse, but no one had time to make sure he was all right.
"What in the name of Phirax the Unholy is that thing?" Caid shouted, pressing Fyonna into the shrubbery.
Bronwyn and Deegan were huddled together on the other side of the trail, but had no answer. "It's what killed those traders is what it is!" Deegan roared back, holding onto the trembling Lady.
"Incoming!" Caid roared again, ducking her head at the last moment as the creature made another pass at her.
At the other side of the trail, Bronwyn wrung her hands ceaselessly as she stared at Caid and Fyonna. "Oh, please be safe... please, please, please be safe," she said in a voice that was no louder than a whimper.
When the creature missed for a second time, it went high in the air and seemed to hover there for a while before coming back down for its third attack run.
"Kheo!" Caid barked to the big man who had dived head-first into the shrubbery a bit further down the trail, "let's deal with this overblown pigeon! Now!"
"Right by yer side, Huntress," Kheo shouted back, drawing and twirling his sword.
The two experienced warriors ran out into the middle of the trail and began to shout and wave their arms to be a pair of wonderfully juicy targets for the creature. Their tactic worked as the creature came straight for Caid who bobbed up and down on the balls of her feet to be ready for it.
As the creature flew towards the Huntress at high speed with its fearsome talons extended, Bronwyn let out a long, pained cry from her hiding place across the trail, but the experienced Ranger didn't pay attention to anything but the beast in the sky.
At the very last moment before the impact with the creature, Caid rolled to the side and shoved her machete upwards, hoping to strike a soft underbelly - and she was successful.
The creature let out a terrible shriek and instantly began to fly erratically. Blood poured out of its split belly, and it was unable to keep its wings going hard enough to stay airborne.
With a dying shriek, it landed hard on the trail, bouncing once before it was still for good.
To finish it off, Kheo swung his sword and decapitated the dark gray beast with one, swift stroke. The head rolled off the shoulders and landed somewhere in the shrubbery next to the trail.
Panting hard from the tension, Caid ran over to it with her machete ready to finish it off if she needed to, but when she got there, it was clear for all to see that it was dead as a doorknob. "What an ugly son of a- great work, Kheo."
"Nothin' to it," Kheo said and wiped his sword clean on the monster's leathery back.
Behind them, the others came out of their hiding places and joined Caid and Kheo at the fallen creature. "Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn said, "look at that thing... oh my, this is so terrible. Look at it!"
"Let's turn it over," Deegan said and stuck his boot under one of the wings.
When the creature turned over, bits and pieces fell out of the belly that had been sliced fully open by Caid's machete. Bronwyn nearly vomited again, but she managed to keep it inside - unlike the creature.
Coughing and rubbing his head, Bryce Cassian staggered up to the group but took a step back when he caught a glimpse of the dead monster. "By Phirax the Unholy..." he said, covering his mouth with his hand. He had to avert his eyes from the hideous, gaping wound, but by doing so, they fell on other, more puzzling parts of the dead body. "Barlin... that's a woman. You killed a woman..."
"What are you talking about, Cassian?" Caid said, wiping her precious machete on the creature's large wings.
"That's a woman! Look!" Bryce said, kneeling down next to the beast. With the hilt of his sword, he swept aside a sliced-open piece of skin to reveal a soft mound on the creature's chest. "Look! That's a human tit... and down there, between her legs... that's a cun-"
"We get the picture, Cassian, thank you," Caid said surly. Kneeling down, she had to admit that, for once, Bryce Cassian was speaking the truth. She rubbed her chin as she studied the rather obvious evidence. "He's right. That's a human female... or used to be," she said, chewing on her lips.
"Ohhhh, Sweet Marpaxa," Bronwyn moaned, withdrawing from the corpse in a hurry.
"The front legs are in fact arms," Caid continued, "look, a human elbow and wrist. Eagle-like talons on her fingers, though. The hind legs are deformed but recognizable... Seer, is this what you sensed? The strange life you mentioned?"
Fyonna came up to stand closer to the dead beast. She lowered her head briefly but eventually shrugged. "I believe so, Huntress. I cannot say for certain. It... she may have been hiding when Kheo went over to the wagons before."
"Hmmm," Caid said, looking from Fyonna, down at the dead monster and finally up at Kheo. "Kheo, where did the head go?"
"Down there, somewhere," the big man answered, pointing at the shrubbery. "D'ya want me ta find it for ya?"
"I knew you was gonna say that," Kheo mumbled, already striding into the shrubbery to search for the severed head.
A short while later, he came back holding the head by its ears so he wouldn't get gunk on his hands. As he dumped it on the ground next to the body, the last doubts as to its origins vanished. It was clearly a human female, though her face had been altered as well, with dark gray skin and eyes, a small patch of hair on top of her head, a row of tiny horns across her forehead and two rows of razor-sharp teeth in her mouth.
"That's where them bite marks came from," Kheo said, absentmindedly wiping his nose.
Caid looked up at Bronwyn who was as white as a clean sheet. "Milady... we're going back to your father's realm. As soon as we collect our horses, we're going back."
"But Caid... the negotiations..." Bronwyn croaked through a clenched jaw.
"I cannot guarantee your safety, Milady. This poor woman here is most likely one of the missing people. Look at her," Caid said and pointed an accusing finger at the dead beast. "I for one do not wish to end my days like that. I doubt you do, either."
"We're leaving. End of discussion," Caid said and got on her feet.
Collecting the horses took longer than they had wished for. Bronwyn's Santilla, Kheo's Horsey and Fyonna's bay mare were easily rounded up, but Caid's own Chestnut, Bryce's palomino and Deegan's steed were so spooked they needed to be chased for nearly a quarter of a turn of the hourglass before they settled down enough to accept their riders again.
Kheo's Horsey had tripped in the confusion and had fallen onto its side. It had managed to get up on its own, but the wooden crate of supplies it carried on its right flank had been crushed. A few things were beyond repair, worst of which was the remaining keg of medium-strength ale they had bought at the tavern. The dark-golden liquid poured out of the cracked keg and onto the woodchip-covered trail when Kheo caught up with Horsey.
Kheo knelt down next to his Horsey's front legs and looked concerned at a bloody scrape just above its left knee. "Caid! Got a second?" he said, rubbing his nose.
"Barely, Kheo..." Caid said, wiping the sweat off her brow that had come from trying to walk off her Chestnut's terror. "Hum. That's a nasty gash."
"Yeah. D'ya think we can stress it? I really don't wanna leave Horsey here with them flying critters..." he said, picking a few woodchips out of the horse's wound.
"I wouldn't attempt it without treating it first. Use some of the bandages in the first aid kits. Ask Fyonna if she can help... maybe she has a potion of some kind in her field packs."
"Oh, good thinkin', Caid. Yep, that's what I'm a-gonna do," Kheo said and got up.
Nodding, Caid moved back to Chestnut and continued speaking in soothing terms to the jittery horse. She stroked the trembling flanks and whispered plenty of calming words into the large animal's ears, and before long, she was able to put her foot into the stirrup and swing her leg over the wooden crates. "Lady Bronwyn!" she said loudly to Bronwyn who was already sitting astride her Santilla. "It's time to leave. I know it's an inconvenience, but we simply cannot risk it."
Bronwyn sighed but nodded back at the Huntress. "I understand. I am frightened beyond my wits simply thinking of staying here... but I had an assignment. I fear I cannot return to my father without having met Lasar-Ihtreg," Bronwyn said and clutched the scroll case with the sealed documents that she had wrapped around her body on a leather strap to keep it close.
"We shall not return to your father at once, Lady Bronwyn. For starters, we shall go back to our last overnight camp just beyond the Ultannai River. We were safe there. As the commander of this expedition, it's my responsibility to keep everyone safe," Caid said high atop her still skittish mare. "To tell you the truth, Lady Bronwyn, I would rather not have to explain to your father why you have suddenly become dark gray and sport horns and pointy teeth!"
The corners of Bronwyn's mouth twitched in what was supposed to be a nervous smile, but it got stuck halfway there. "I thank you for your concerns, Huntress... alas, I fear my father would perhaps appreciate that shape more than the one you see before you now."
"Be that as it may, Lady Bronwyn... we are leaving. Is everyone ready?" Caid said strongly. When she got a chorus of affirmative answers, she nudged the sides of Chestnut and set off back towards the Ultannai in a fast trot.
The group of six rode quickly down towards their point of entry into the Shadowlands at the odd, low bridge crossing the Ultannai. They had kept their regular formation with Caid up front and Kheo and Deegan forming the rear - Kheo's Horsey wasn't as quick as it had been, and the big man was lagging behind from the rest of the group.
Seven hundred fathoms before they would have reached the bridge, Fyonna and Kheo both cried out to alert the others. Even while they were riding fast, Caid snapped her head around and stared wide-eyed at the sky behind them.
So did Bronwyn, and she couldn't believe what she saw: ten of the flying creatures were coming straight for them in a cluster so large it nearly blocked out the bleak sun. The creatures shrieked in various registers, proving there were former males as well as females among the attackers. "Caid!" Bronwyn screamed, almost losing control of Santilla.
"Keep riding!" the Huntress roared back, but even before the words had left her mouth, the first of the creatures had reached them.
Three of the dark gray beats blasted through Caid's close formation and frightened the already spooked horses out of their wits. As a result, Bryce's palomino turned sharp left and slammed into Bronwyn's Santilla that bucked hard in surprise.
At that speed, Bronwyn could not hold onto the reins and was unseated. For a brief moment in time, she found herself suspended in mid-air, but the ground soon came up towards her at a sickening speed.
Screaming, Bronwyn landed hard in the shrubbery next to the trail. She was thrown back up like a rag doll and rolled side-over-side several times until her progress was halted by a tree stump. Moaning and groaning, she fell down into the shrubbery where she began to cry from the shock and the hard impact.
Moments later, a sharp pain rose from her entire left side, and she could only breathe in short gasps. She looked up through a veil of tears and saw Caid and the others struggle with their frightened horses.
Everything was pure chaos and the flying creatures only added to the pandemonium by performing strafing runs where they came in one at a time to keep everyone on their toes.
Bronwyn dug herself even deeper into the shrubbery, hoping she would be well out of sight of the attackers. With her jaw firmly clenched to fight the pain that shot up from her side, she could see that Caid, Deegan and Kheo had dismounted and were swinging their blades at the creatures. As she was looking, Deegan's sword carved a furrow in the underside of one of the dark gray creatures, and the beast flopped hard onto the ground. Kheo quickly finished it by lopping its head clean off.
At the other side of the woodchip-covered trail, Bryce Cassian was protecting Fyonna - or perhaps it was the other way around, it was hard to see, especially since Fyonna was on top.
The creatures seemed to change tactics and began to come at the defenders in pairs or even in threes. Bronwyn wanted to cry out a warning for Caid to watch out, but she couldn't breathe deeply enough to produce air for it, so it ended as a choked-up whimper.
On the trail, Deegan was suddenly knocked down by two of the creatures on a strafing run, but the success was short-lived for the first of the two as Caid cut off one of its wings in mid-flight. The creature shrieked and tried to escape, but flew straight into the ground. There, it was swiftly beheaded by Kheo.
The creatures seemed to have had enough and rapidly climbed out of reach of the defenders. Once high in the air, the beasts flew back and forth in a large formation, shrieking to each other like they were discussing a new approach.
Bronwyn wanted to exploit the respite by getting up, but before she could do more than get on her knees, Caid and Kheo had rushed to her side and had helped her out of the shrubbery.
"Lady Bronwyn," Caid said, putting a strong hand under Bronwyn's arm to keep the dazed woman stable, "are you all right? You took a nasty tumble..."
"I hit the tree stump. It winded me... it hurts when I breathe... my ribs..."
"I see. Careful, Kheo."
"I'm careful, awright!" Kheo said, holding the Lady in a surprisingly tender touch.
Caid took a half step back and observed Bronwyn's clothes. Her riding jacket wasn't torn or bloodied, but it was dirty from where she had hit the ground and the stump. "Lady Bronwyn, I know this will sound inappropriate... but may I put my hands upon your body?" Caid said with an apologetic smile.
"Of course... of course... I trust you completely," Bronwyn wheezed.
"Thank you. I promise I shall be swift. Please tell me when it hurts," Caid said and ran her hands up Bronwyn's left thigh, hip and the side of her stomach.
Bronwyn tried to take a deep breath to get her heart to calm down, but she still couldn't get a lungful. "Nothing yet, Huntress, but... my ribs..."
"I'll be right there, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said and continued upwards. When she touched Bronwyn's rib cage on the left side, the hiss and pained groan that burst out of the Lady proved where the damage was. "Yes... I fear this will hurt, Milady. I beg for forgiveness. It needs to be done."
"Uh-huh," Bronwyn groaned, but the pain that shot up from her side when Caid put a hand on her ribs drowned out everything else.
"Nothing is broken or even dislodged, Milady. It's just the shock and the impact. Please try to breathe normally."
"Oh, I dare say I have... been trying to do just that... for a little while now, Caid!" Bronwyn wheezed, but already felt her condition improve. From somewhere at the back of her mind, a little voice told her it was actually quite pleasant to feel Caid's hands on her body, even if the circumstances weren't optimal.
"Oy, Caid," Kheo said with a grin, "I think she's on the mend!"
"Yeah. Wretched, now we have to get the horses-"
"Here they come! All of them! Watch out!" Bryce Cassian cried in a terrified voice from the other side of the trail where he and Fyonna were still hiding.
Caid and Kheo spun around and looked up - and sure enough, the entire group of creatures came at them in a single swarm.
"Aw... this is gonna end badly..." Kheo groaned, rubbing his bald head.
"For them!" Caid roared, drawing her machete. "Milady, get back to the shrubbery... now!" she said, giving Bronwyn a slight push on the shoulders.
Bronwyn staggered back across the trail but couldn't move fast enough to get to safety before the surviving creatures came in on their attack run and blasted past the humans on the ground. She shrieked and dove for cover in the middle of the trail, injured ribs be damned. The pain that shot up from her chest added a creepy, red veil to her vision, but she blinked it away to keep up with the attackers.
Caid had missed the creatures on their first strafing run, but she was ready for the next wave. Bobbing up and down, she swung the machete back and forth to be ready for anything, but she hadn't counted on a sneak attack from behind - a dark gray creature swooped down upon her from a great height with its talons extended.
Even though Bronwyn screamed a warning at the Huntress, the experienced soldier received such a thump in her back that she was thrown several fathoms along the trail on her hands and knees. The machete flew from her grip and ended up out of sight. A moment later, the frightful, dark gray beast jumped on top of her with the clear intention of getting fresh meat for lunch. Bronwyn cried out in terror as she witnessed her new friend struggling against the strong creature, trying with all her might to hold its fearsome teeth away from her face.
A strong surge of anger swept through Bronwyn, and she bolted to her feet the fastest her injured ribs would allow. Racing over to the struggling Caid, she began to kick wildly and ferociously at the creature to give it something else to think of. One of her kicks impacted something soft and dangly between the creature's legs, and it shrieked loudly and took off, flying somewhat erratically until it had reached enough altitude to make a clean getaway.
"Caid! Caid, please talk to me! Caid!" Bronwyn cried, kneeling down next to the bruised and bloodied Huntress. Blood seeped through her torn gloves and she had a few abrasions and scratches on her face from her rough landing and the close company of the sharp talons, but mercifully no bite marks.
"I'm f- fine... wretched critters!" Caid roared, though the strong statement was tempered by a rattling cough. "Oh, I can't stay here... we got monsters to kill! Where's my machete?" she continued, shaking her head repeatedly as she sat up.
While that had been going on, Kheo and Deegan had managed to kill two of the flying beasts in a one-two combination of sword moves that had left one beheaded and the other short of a wing. "Huntress! You okay?" Kheo shouted, stabbing his sword hilt-deep into the wingless beast's chest to make sure it got what it deserved.
"Beat up but okay, Kheo... thanks," Caid said. Out of nowhere, she wrapped an arm around Bronwyn's body and pulled her close. "Thanks, Lady Bronwyn," she said and stood up on tip-toes to place a quick, grateful kiss on Bronwyn's lips before she went on a quest to find her lost machete.
Bronwyn froze to the spot as the kiss kept lingering. A pleasant tingle spread out from the point of the sweet contact, and despite standing in the middle of a war zone, a goofy grin formed on her lips. "Oh, you are most welcome, Lady Caid," she mumbled before she remembered where she actually was and hunched over so she would present a smaller target.
High above them, the flying creatures seemed to change tactics again. Two more beasts had joined the others, but the latest arrivals were different from their brethren by carrying a net between them.
Fyonna had finally released herself from Bryce Cassian's hysterical grip and intercepted the hunched-over Bronwyn in the middle of the trail. "Lady Bronwyn, that was brave of you... insanely foolish, but brave," she said, bowing to the Lady.
"Thank you, Lady Fyonna. I should ask how you were able to see it, but I better not," Bronwyn said with a nervous grin. "Where- where do you think these monsters come from? I have never seen anything like them back home..."
"From Blackston Castle, Lady Bronwyn. I fear they are Lasar-Ihtreg's creations. Beyond the worrying news of the disappearances, the Order of the Seers have heard rumors of experiments on humans. Until now, we could not get those rumors confirmed... but... I dare say they have been now. This is all Lasar-Ihtreg's work."
"That wretched man!" Bronwyn barked, not realizing her strong curse before it was too late. "Oh... I beg for forgiveness, Lady Fyonna. A Lady should not speak like she was born in a gutter."
"No, he truly is wretched, child! I fear we have not yet seen the last of the beasts. Although I can only sense the last remaining shreds of humanity within them, my senses are warning me they are planning a bold move... up there," the Seer said, looking up at the circling beasts.
Caid had overheard the conversation and ran back to Bronwyn and Fyonna with her precious machete firmly back in her bloodied hand. "I fear our horses are long gone, Lady Fyonna. Either we walk back or we are stuck here for now."
"Alas, I cannot walk such a great distance, Huntress."
The distant sounds of many leathery wings flapping hard made Bronwyn look up at their attackers. By the way they were circling, it was clear they were almost ready to commence another strafing run. "Then we better stand and fight, Caid... Lady Fyonna... because I fear it shall not be long before they come for us."
The words had barely left Bronwyn's mouth before the flying creatures did indeed come for them. Breaking up into two groups, the beasts chose different targets on the ground and were soon swooping down from the heavens above.
"Rotten sons of whores!" Caid roared and waved at Bryce, Deegan and Kheo to alert them of the impending attack.
Then the beasts came and blasted between the defenders. Again and again, the dark gray creatures performed strafing runs with their talons extended; again and again, they whacked the people on the ground with their wings, hind legs and their pointy tails as they whooshed past them; and - worryingly - again and again, they evaded the wild swings and chops that threatened them.
"They're clever, those bastards!" Caid roared when she had missed yet another of the creatures. "Everyone, watch those talons!"
Kheo's answer was a growl, too busy swinging his sword at the beasts. Deegan and Bryce had no better luck with their blades, and all in all, the situation grew worse with each passing moment.
Moving together, the main group of creatures swooped down in one, big cluster, repeatedly thumping into the people on the ground in an effort to keep them occupied. Behind the main group, the two creatures carrying the net came in from another angle, headed directly for Fyonna and Lady Bronwyn who had sought cover near the trees.
The Seer sensed the two attackers even before they arrived. With a hard shove on Bronwyn's shoulder, she pushed the Lady away from her - then she tore off her blindfold.
Bronwyn bumped down on the ground with a pained cry, but it got stuck in her throat when she saw the bright blue light that emanated from Fyonna's exposed eyes. She hurriedly looked away from the Seer, concentrating on the beam of light that cut through the air like a knife. As it hit the first of the two creatures carrying the net, the beast burst into flames in mid-flight and crashed to the ground where it thrashed about and writhed in pain until it became still.
Bronwyn's chin quivered at the frightful sight, but she didn't have time to think of the implications before the other creature had swooped down upon her and had released the net which fell right on top of her.
Screaming in fear, Bronwyn fought to get out of her prison, but her increasingly frantic and panicky gestures only got her deeper into trouble.
The Seer turned her head in a sweeping arc to nail the beast with the net, but her beam of light missed it and set fire to several of the trees instead. Then, she was attacked by two flying creatures that had broken off from the main group.
As Fyonna was wrestled to the ground and assaulted with the talons and fearsome teeth of the two beasts, the creature that acted as the leader of the group calmly snatched up the net that held Bronwyn captive and took off with her.
Bronwyn screamed in unbridled terror when she realized what was happening, but no matter how hard she struggled to find a way out of the net's constricting cords, she was unable to make any progress.
In the end, it was too late for her to try anything. She watched in horror as the creature took her higher and higher above the treetops. As the trail, the columns of smoke from the burning trees, and the people fighting on the ground were left behind, her eyes rolled back in her head and she passed out.
Bronwyn came to just as the flying creature that carried her was joined by the beasts that had survived the attack. Clutching the net out of fear of falling to her death, she stared with uncomprehending eyes at the many dark gray former humans that surrounded her.
The sounds of the many wings around her were a stark reminder that she was literally headed for trouble; the fact that she was several hundred fathoms above the ground only proved it.
Far below, a uniform carpet of the bluish-green treetops stretched out until the horizon, and only the wide woodchip-covered trail offered a hint at where the creatures were taking her.
Bronwyn tried to breathe normally but her heart was galloping in her chest which gave her injured ribs a real workout. When all the awful events ganged up on her, she couldn't hold back a strangled cry, but the beasts on either side of her turned their heads towards her and let out such deafening shrieks that she shriveled up into something approaching a fetal position inside the net.
In the distance, the ugly, square Blackston Castle appeared through a haze. It was as ungainly up close as it had been from down below, and Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the black obsidian walls and surfaces that shone threateningly in the bleak sunlight.
The castle stood proud and menacing in the middle of nowhere, on elevated ground to protect it from hostile armies. A moat that appeared deep and murky snaked its way around it, and beyond that, scores if not hundreds of round boulders and oddly shaped lumps of rock had been strewn out across a vast distance to prevent anyone from reaching the castle by land. At the base of the castle's central part, a row of cavern-like gateways seemed to be the only entrances, but even they had no visible means of access.
The circular keep at the center of the brick-like main building rose roughly three hundred fathoms above the already high base, and the square guard tower at each corner reached halfway up the keep.
Bronwyn gulped when the creature carrying her climbed to an even greater altitude. From up there, the sky turned bluer, the wind was stronger and the sun felt warmer. The clouds seemed so close she could have touched them if her hands had been free, but they were clinging onto the net with all the strength she could muster.
The creature finally swooped down towards Blackston Castle - or rather, towards the top of the keep. The flat, round surface seemed tiny from the altitude they were at, but the beast seemed to know what it was doing and approached it with very little drama.
Upon final approach, the other creatures left their leader behind and headed for the brick-like central part of the castle. Craning her neck, Bronwyn had just enough time to see the beasts fly in through an opening that was camouflaged perfectly in the black surface before her view of it was obscured by the keep.
The flat, upper surface of the keep proved to be a landing platform built on top of the tower itself. Below it, a stone staircase led up to a hatch that was concealed in the shiny obsidian.
The net containing Bronwyn was lowered down onto the flat surface with surprising caution. As the creature released the net from its talons, it fell to the sides to allow Bronwyn a clear path out of it.
Sitting on the platform that was cool to the touch despite being a black surface under the relentless rays of the sun, Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the dark gray creature that hovered above her. Even as she was watching it, it flew over to the side of the platform to land, squatting down and folding in its leathery wings like a giant bird.
After several deep, calming breaths, Bronwyn pinched herself to make sure she wasn't just hallucinating everything. The brief pain that rose from her skin where her fingernails had left a welt proved that she wasn't, but the alternative wasn't much better.
She didn't dare to move an inch, but at the same time, she knew she couldn't sit there forever. A quick glance at the sun proved it was still high in the sky, but it would set sooner or later, leaving her with even worse problems.
Groaning from the emotional strain and her banged-up ribs, she climbed to her feet and staggered around in a circle, constantly watching the dark gray beast out of fear it would attack her. For the time being, it ignored her and tended to its leathery skin instead.
On wobbly legs, Bronwyn inched closer and closer to the edge of the platform to try to establish how far up she actually was, but the winds that only grew stronger the closer she got convinced her it was far too dangerous.
"Bronwyn... this is where you shall die," she croaked, rubbing her brow. The dark thoughts inevitably brought tears to her eyes, but she soon wiped them away and tried to steel her resolve. With a sigh, she sat down on the flat surface and began to rock back and forth.
Behind her, the hatch began to open.
She only noticed it when the black hatch was slammed onto the flat surface, making her jump a foot in the air and let out a terrified cry. Spinning around on her knees, she stared wide-eyed at the dark brown humanoid that appeared through the opening.
At first, she could only see its head that had vaguely human features, though with a thick brow, cauliflower ears, beady eyes and uneven teeth that fit poorly in its mouth, but as it climbed up the last steps of the staircase, its full, muscular frame came into view, revealing it to be just a shade under six feet tall. Stark naked like the dark gray flying creatures save for patches of hair under the arms and near the genitals, the humanoid was clearly a male.
When the creature opened its mouth and let out a gurgling hiss, Bronwyn realized it was of the same species as the two she had spotted among the trees even before she and the others had come under attack from the flying beasts.
Behind the first humanoid, a second beast identical to the first popped up from the staircase.
"Oh no... oh no!" Bronwyn cried and inched backwards from the two monster-like creatures.
Moving surprisingly swiftly for their large and less than agile size, the two humanoids grabbed Bronwyn by the arms and manhandled her over to the hatch. Kicking and screaming, she tried to combat the muscular goons but they were far too strong for her. "No!" she cried as she fell on her stomach on the flat surface near the hatch.
The scroll case with the sealed documents she carried on a leather strap around her upper body was pushed into her sore chest, sending a powerful jolt through her ribs. Seeing stars, she could do nothing but clutch her chest and moan from the pain.
When the brown creatures grabbed her arms again, she gave up the uneven struggle and allowed them to lead her down from the landing platform.
The stone staircase she was forced down first led to a small, rectangular anteroom with open window frames at either end to allow the wind free passage. The room was empty so she was pushed around by the brown beasts until she faced another section of steps going further down.
Another flight down, the staircase opened up into a room far more luxurious than the one above. It had draperies in crimson and black on two of the four walls, and although the windows were in the same location as the floor above it, they had closed frames with stained glass panes.
A burning torch stood in each corner, casting a golden, flickering light onto a throne-like chair at the center of the room. Facing away from the staircase, the throne had a perfect view of the eastern sky out of the window.
A figure protected by a crimson hood sat motionless in the throne. A pair of white, wrinkled hands held onto the throne's armrests, but they too seemed devoid of life.
The brown creatures finally released Bronwyn and she came to a jerking halt in the middle of the dark floor. Massaging her upper arms where the beasts had held her, she cast a worried glance at the crimson and black draperies that were revealed to consist of letters from an ancient and long-forgotten language.
Bronwyn furrowed her brow as she studied the letters. They were strikingly similar to those printed on Fyonna's cowl and the strip of cloth that covered her eyes. Movement from the throne made her snap back to the matters at hand.
Lasar-Ihtreg rose from the throne and turned around to face his visitor. He was wearing a cowl that was crimson on the outside, black on the inside, and it too was covered in ancient letters. Like Fyonna's similar outfit, Lasar-Ihtreg's cowl had a broad, intricately detailed stripe down the front, but where Fyonna's was white, his was black.
As Bronwyn was staring, Lasar-Ihtreg's ancient hands rose to push back the hood. If she hadn't already been so familiar with Fyonna's appearance, she would have gasped loudly at the sight of Lasar-Ihtreg's drawn face and the tightly wound strip of cloth he had wrapped around his eyes - even so, she had to swallow hard at the sight of the ghastly creature that stared back at her.
Where Fyonna's face was aged but still attractive, Lasar-Ihtreg's was white and bony to the point of being skull-like. The ancient skin with the texture of brittle parchment that was draped tightly over his hollow cheeks and pronounced cheekbones made it appear that he was long since dead, and his large teeth and narrow, white lips only added to the ghoulish image.
Bronwyn gulped and looked down at the floor.
With an impatient gesture, Lasar-Ihtreg waved the two dark brown beasts out of his sight, and they reacted quickly by hurrying over to the staircase and climbing it to the anteroom above.
"Ah, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle... enchanted to see you. We meet at last," Lasar-Ihtreg said in a raspy voice. What was supposed to be a smile briefly flashed across his narrow lips while he performed a slight bow.
Staring at the ghoul before her, Bronwyn had to force herself into acting as the polite human being she was. "Your Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg. Enchanted to see you, Sir..." she said in a trembling voice, curtseying to the ruler of the Shadowlands.
"Child, I do believe what's in that scroll case is intended for my perusal," he said and pointed a bony, crooked finger at the cylindrical container Bronwyn had around her on a leather strap.
"It is, S- Sir," she said and began to fumble with the scroll case. Once it was free of her shoulders, she handed it to Lasar-Ihtreg with hands that weren't trembling, but shaking.
"Oh, child! Do not fear me. I have done you no harm, and I shall do you no harm," Lasar-Ihtreg said while he broke the seal that held the lid in place. He quickly removed the scroll from the cylinder and threw the useless container onto the floor.
With a creepy smile, Lasar-Ihtreg unscrolled the parchment and began to read from it. Now and then, he glanced up at Bronwyn before reading on.
Bronwyn grew more nervous by the second. She could already feel the strong hands of the brown beasts ripping off her limbs, or the talons of the dark gray beings tearing chunks out of her flesh for an afternoon snack. Swallowing nervously, she peeked over her shoulder to see if she could make a run for it.
"Lady Bronwyn, please do not act like a frightened child," Lasar-Ihtreg said without looking up from the scroll. "I can sense your terror. It does not become you."
"I fear I worry about my safety, Your Excellency," Bronwyn croaked. "Also the safety of my companions... my friends. Please, Sir... I know you are a powerful Seer... are they alive and well?" she said, chewing on her fingernails.
Lasar-Ihtreg looked up and cocked his head at Bronwyn's words. "Child, I care less for your friends than I do a steaming turd in a latrine. I assure you my creatures will have dealt with your friends with the utmost proficiency."
Bronwyn's jaw became slack and her face fell into a dark mask of sorrow. Her chin started to quiver and she could not hold back a trembling sigh. 'Caid... and the others... Kheo... Fyonna... Deegan... I hope they died swiftly. I hope they felt no pain... oh, Sweet Marpaxa, please allow them to come to your side and experience the wondrous afterlife...'
"Now, Lady Bronwyn," Lasar-Ihtreg said, rolling up the scroll. "It warms my heart to read this scroll. To read that your father follows the agreement we made to the letter. To read that he gladly offers his only daughter as my lawful wife to bind our empires together and ensure a glorious future for our realms... is nothing short of... mmmm... magnificent."
"Wh- what?" Bronwyn croaked, clasping her forehead. Suddenly feeling too weak to stand, she collapsed onto her hands and knees in the middle of the room and stared at the gray flagstones on the floor without seeing anything. "I'm... I'm to be... to be your w- wife...?" she whispered in a hoarse, strained voice.
"Indeed you are!" Lasar-Ihtreg said, dropping the scroll in front of Bronwyn's hands before he went over to the window overlooking the eastern sky.
Trembling in shock, Bronwyn reached for the scroll and began to read it, though the veil of tears that formed in her eyes made her father's easily recognizable handwriting difficult to decipher.
The scroll read,
'Your Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg, Emperor of Multrovia, Lotzan and Onilia, Sovereign of Palkor, Ruler of the Shadowlands, Son of the Sun & The Stars, Brother of the Mathawan and the Rainarr, Father of your land and your people, Owner of forty thousand peasants and ninety thousand beasts of burden.
I praise thee, Your Excellency, and I present thee with my blood daughter, Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle, as according to our agreement of lawful marriage that was written in ink and sealed in our blood.
Now twenty-five years of age, she is of noble lineage and guaranteed untouched by man. Incest has not occurred recently, so her blood is clean, her mind is lively and her features are free of degeneration.
She is tall, elegant and regal; thus the perfect frame for bearing children. Despite her advanced years, she should be fertile for at least another decade. Her mother bore three children, two of which lived to adulthood; Lady Bronwyn and an older man who is now a much-revered proconsul in the Northern Territories.
Your Excellency, in the hope that our realms shall forever co-exist in peace and prosperity, I give thee my blood daughter Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle.
Emperor Jin-Sarnos XII, Ashburne Castle.'
Looking up in a daze, Bronwyn tried to focus on Lasar-Ihtreg's dark silhouette that was still standing at the window, but found she could not. "But I cannot be your wife! We have only just met!"
"Nonsense, child," Lasar-Ihtreg said and made a faint gesture with his hand, prompting the two brown beasts to come down from the anteroom above.
"You do not understand, I simply cannot be your wife!" Bronwyn cried, shying away from the muscular creatures as they crowded her and reached for her arms again.
Pressing herself up against the draperies, Bronwyn stared in shock at the two creatures and the dark figure at the window. "Your Excellency... please... this is all just a terrible misunderstanding... the scroll must be a forgery... my f- father would not... would not..."
Even as Bronwyn said it, she knew in her heart that her father would indeed give her away to the ghoulish Lasar-Ihtreg - he would even do so with a smile on his lips as he put his stamp and signature on the document. "No... no, no, no, no..." she cried, kicking out after the beasts.
"Lady Bronwyn, save your fire for our wedding night," Lasar-Ihtreg said coldly, "I can assure you you shall need every last bit of it. Take her below!"
"Noooooo!" Bronwyn screamed, but the beasts were too strong for her and dragged her effortlessly out of the throne room and further down the staircase.
Down they went, floor after floor after floor, constantly passing rooms identical to the ones they had just left behind. After what felt like an eternity for Bronwyn, she and the two beasts came upon a much larger room - at least a hundred fathoms across from window to window - decorated with crimson and black draperies like the throne room above.
Bronwyn quickly surmised they had reached the foot of the keep. The staircase continued down but it was so dark down there she couldn't see any further, and the beasts that held her didn't appear interested in it. Instead, they yanked her along the smooth floor headed for a corridor that branched off from the larger room.
Torches stood in each of the larger room's corners, but they were out, and it didn't appear the room was used for much except perhaps as a hub. Similarly to the corridor Bronwyn was pushed towards, three other corridors branched off from the room, but she couldn't see where they went.
Just before she was pushed into the corridor, she noticed an altar-like stone column standing at the center of the large room. She only had a split second to take it in, but she thought she had seen a skull resting on the top of the altar - she had no time to discern whether or not it had once been an animal or a human being.
The creatures pushed her down the corridor that proved to be a gallery; the entire left side of the corridor was open, only supported by thick columns of black obsidian every ten fathoms or so. The view out onto the Shadowlands hundreds of fathoms below made Bronwyn gasp and had her stomach performing a flip-flop, but a fine-meshed net had been stretched between the columns to prevent anyone from taking a dive.
Like the rest of the castle's exterior, the right hand side of the corridor was black obsidian where doors with tiny little peepholes had been built into the smooth surface for every fifteen fathoms. The doors had no visible hinges or even handles.
On their way down the corridor to an unknown destination, the familiar shrieks of the flying creatures could be heard in the distance, prompting Bronwyn to think they were immediately above the gaps in the castle's walls she had seen the creatures fly into when she had been brought there in the net.
A pained whimper - that sounded like it came from a human being - from somewhere further along the corridor made Bronwyn clench her jaw hard and glance to the right at the row of doors. The next one they came up to was open.
Bronwyn's steps slowed down; her legs disobeying her at the prospects of what she might see in the room. Though the brown beasts began to hiss and shove her along the corridor, she grabbed onto the doorjamb and held on tight.
Inside the cell-like room was a bunk, a chair, a small table and a waste bucket. Another of the brown beasts was manhandling a young, naked boy onto the bed. The boy's skin was still pink like a human's, but a pair of underdeveloped wings were growing on his back and a line of horns had begun to break through the skin on his forehead.
Bronwyn stared with wide open, terrified eyes at the gruesome scene. Her strength failed her, and the beasts were able to shove her away from the opened door and further down the corridor.
Soon, she was at the cell reserved for her. One of the beasts pushed the door open to reveal a room identical to the one she had just seen. The other beast shoved her hard in the back and slammed the door shut behind her.
Nearly numb with shock, Bronwyn shuffled around to look out of the tiny peephole, but caught a faceful of one of the brown creatures instead of the sweeping landscape beyond the gallery.
Bronwyn turned away from the peephole and began to weigh her options. "They shall not take me without a fight," she mumbled, looking at the items at her disposal. "The door opens inward... perhaps if I blocked it with the table... no... the monsters are too strong, it would never hold. Hmmm. The bunk... yes, by Marpaxa, the bunk!" she continued, kneeling down in a hurry to look in under the wooden frame to see if it was free or bolted to the floor.
It turned out the bed was simply standing on the gray flagstones, but it proved to be so heavy she could hardly move it an inch at a time, even pulling or pushing it with all her strength.
Inch by frustrating inch, Bronwyn was able to get the heavy bunk scraped across the floor until it was firmly up against the door, blocking it completely. Flushed crimson red and panting hard from the exertion, Bronwyn staggered up into the bunk bed and dropped down flat on her back. Her injured ribs throbbed mercilessly, and she had to clutch her chest simply to make sure it wasn't falling to pieces.
As she lay there staring at the gray, non-descript ceiling, the faces, voices and mannerisms of the friends she would never see again slowly paraded by her mind's eye; Fyonna of Ashburne, the mysterious Seer with the deadly skills and the finely honed senses. She had a wicked sense of humor in her ancient soul and she played a mean hand of One-Two-Three. Was she really two centuries old?
She thought of Kheo Khammon's size, his wild beard, his baldness and his odd accent that all hinted at him being uncultivated or even crude, and yet, he was a friendly bear of a man. Then she thought of Kheo's friend, Deegan Arliss and of his sophisticated manners and skills on a horse and with a sword. A true officer and gentleman.
Bryce Cassian... well, the less said or even thought about Bryce the better.
Instead, her thoughts turned to Tawna, her faithful senior handmaiden. Always helpful, always loyal, always with a friendly smile on her lips, even if she did have a tendency to be too careful on occasion. Bronwyn had been able to share all her secrets with Tawna knowing they would never get any further. She had lost count of the number of times Tawna had given her just the right piece of advice at just the right time.
Her mind wandered into a dark place where Jin-Sarnos, her father who had betrayed her time and time again, appeared. Bronwyn couldn't even think of him without feeling a growing sense of anger and hatred, so she pushed him to the very back of her mind. They shared blood but nothing else.
And then there was Caid Barlin, the Huntress. Her dusty green eyes, her shaggy hair, her youthful features, her brooding mind that had turned out to be far deeper and richer than the first impression had hinted at. The horrific scarring on her compact body. Her rich voice that could bark a command so effectively the world nearly came to a stop, but also whisper words of comfort, support, humor and even affection. Her lips that had made such sweet contact with Bronwyn's - alas, a contact that had once again been all too brief.
Bronwyn felt a stab of sadness and guilt in her heart at the thought. "May-Linn has only been dead for a handful of days, and here I am... harboring reverent, warm thoughts for another woman... what kind of monster am I?" she whispered into the quiet room. "Oh... it matters not. Caid is dead as are the others. Killed by creatures sent forth by my husband-to-be. Wretched... simply wretched!"
Bronwyn spent the night tossing and turning on the lumpy mattress. It took her ages to fall asleep, and when she finally did, all her dreams were of the people she had known and loved. When she woke up, she was as emotionally drained as she had been when she had fallen asleep.
The room was still draped in darkness when she cracked open an eyelid, so she let out a deep sigh and rolled over onto her other side in the vain hope of sleeping for another few turns of the hourglass.
Moments later, her hopes were dashed when someone tried to push open the door. As the unknown person - or monster - discovered the path was blocked by the bunk, a series of growls, groans and gurgling hisses were exclaimed rather noisily at the other side of the door.
The creatures weren't about to give up and began to slam their meaty fists against the obsidian door.
Bronwyn jerked around on the bunk as the heavy, wooden frame was pushed back with each ear-shattering thump on the door. Staring wide-eyed at the door, all she could do to stop herself from falling off the bunk was to grab the mattress and hang on for dear life.
As soon as a small gap had been formed around the door's frame, the monsters put their backs into it and shoved the door open, pushing the heavy bunk across the cell like it weighed nothing at all.
Bronwyn gulped as she swung her legs over the side of the bed that was suddenly pressed up against the table, thinking she was glad she hadn't tried to attack the creatures - they would have torn her to bits without breaking a sweat.
The first of the stark naked, male creatures jumped into the room. Panting, it hunched over and clenched all its muscles in its upper body before letting out a fearsome roar.
A cold shiver ran down Bronwyn's back as she pressed herself up against the far wall of the cell. Her face as white as a sheet and her lips pressed together into two narrow lines, she stared at the creature's aggressive body language. "Oh, Sweet Marpaxa," she mumbled in a trembling voice, "please protect your humble servant from this evil... please protect your humble servant from this evil... please protect your humble servant from this-"
"Praying cannot not protect you one little bit, child," a dark, raspy female voice said. The woman moved into the opened door and gestured silently at the aggressive monster that immediately backed down and moved behind its mistress.
"Wh- who are you?" Bronwyn croaked, grabbing the mattress as a comfort blanket. She couldn't see anything of the unknown woman beyond her shadowy silhouette against the opened door. Behind the woman, the sky towards the west was still dark, proving it was either night or the early hours of the morning.
"I? I am Lady Welthianne of Blackston Castle, child. I am the high priestess of the Cult of Lasar-Ihtreg," the woman said and performed a slight, mocking curtsey. "I am also Lasar-Ihtreg's life companion."
"His life companion? Then I surely cannot marry him!"
"But of course you shall, silly child," Welthianne said and stepped into the cell.
Bronwyn furrowed her brow at the sight. She had expected someone of Lasar-Ihtreg's age, especially remembering Fyonna's words about the two of them leaving the Order of the Seers together, but not only was Welthianne not a Seer, she didn't appear a day over thirty-five.
Her hair was long and mahogany brown, as were her eyes, and her regal features with striking eyebrows, sculpted lips and a strong nose and chin were offset perfectly by her long, crimson gown that allowed a peek at her powdered cleavage. The only thing that spoiled the ensemble was her raspy voice that seemed to belong to someone far older.
With a gesture, Welthianne told the two beasts to leave the room. They did so with nary a hiss, and the last of the two closed the door behind them.
Bronwyn averted her eyes from Welthianne's hourglass body and concentrated on staring at the floor of the cell. "His wife I cannot be when he already has a life companion, Lady Welthianne. How many wives does Lasar-Ihtreg need, anyway?!"
"Why, as many as he wishes, of course," Welthianne said and pulled up in her gown as she sat down at the foot end of the bed. "Tsk, tsk, tsk, what are you wearing, child? Tell me, are you a girl who pretends to be a boy?"
"What? I am not!"
"Then why do you wear men's attire?" Welthianne said and reached for Bronwyn's pants.
Bronwyn yanked her leg away from the older woman's hand, though not before noticing that the entire outer joint on all her fingers had been painted crimson, not just her fingernails. "Because I needed to ride here, Lady Welthianne! I was under the impression I was here to settle a border dispute. Little could I know I was the grand prize, instead!" Bronwyn said, moving up to the top end of the bed to evade the other woman.
"Do not fear me, child... I will never harm you."
"Ah, so said Lasar-Ihtreg, and yet, his... his... hideous creatures have done nothing but manhandling me while I have been here. Now, please, leave my chamber and let me enjoy the last moments of my life in solitude!"
"Alas, Lady Bronwyn, I cannot," Welthianne said and made a small gesture. From outside, one of the dark brown beasts entered the cell holding a pale blue gown that was neatly folded over its arm.
Bronwyn stared at the gown and the beast. She quickly realized it was smaller than the other brown creatures had been, and a closer inspection proved it was a female. "That's-" Bronwyn whispered as she stared at the female's deformed face and naked body. "She's a young woman... barely out of her teens... why, Lady Welthianne? Why, tell me why, has Lasar-Ihtreg turned all those poor people into hideous monsters!?"
Welthianne turned around and looked at the female. With a smile, she waved the young being over to her. When the beast was at her side, she reached up and ran her crimson fingers down the being's arm. "Oh, Makla here is no hideous monster, are you? No. Makla is my personal maid. The most loyal slave I have ever had."
When Welthianne could see that Lady Bronwyn was unconvinced, and indeed even more horrified than she had been before, the high priestess shrugged and gestured Makla to move away from them. "You ask why, Lady Bronwyn? We did them a favor. Most of them were degenerate creatures even before my life companion turned them into their present shapes using the sera he has perfected over the centuries. Mmmm. They were peasants, mostly, though we did take a few warriors to keep the blood clean. Oh, you know how it is in the small rural villages. They have too much time on their hands in the winter months."
"But...! That is no answer, Lady Welthianne!"
"Is it not? Why, it is the only answer I can give you, Lady Bronwyn."
"If you wanted to do them a favor, you could have given them an education or... or... or reduced their taxes so they could improve their standards of living! Not turn them into vile creatures!" Bronwyn said and slammed her fist into the mattress.
"Oh, come now, Lady Bronwyn... educate animals?" Welthianne said and got up from the bunk. "Enough of this. Take off your ugly garments," she continued, smoothing down her dress.
"I beg your pardon!? I most certainly shall not!" Bronwyn barked and folded her arms over her chest.
Welthianne looked at the defiant Bronwyn for a few seconds before she shrugged and moved away from the bunk. "Very well. Then I shall call for one of the males who will do it for you."
"No! No, wait... I shall do it, you wretched, evil woman," Bronwyn growled and began to unbutton her riding jacket.
Bronwyn walked with heavy steps along the open-sided gallery. She stared straight ahead, not quite believing the living nightmare she was in the middle of.
The short-sleeved, pale blue gown she had been forced into wearing dragged along the floor, sweeping around her bare feet with each step she took. On her right ankle, the strange metal anklet that Welthianne had insisted she wore felt confining and sent out a tiny, constant jingle that she knew would drive her off the wall if it was to be there permanently.
A pale blue veil connected to a half-bonnet covered her face, and she had a crimson flower stuck behind her right ear. The neckline of the dress was quite a bit lower than what she was used to, but the high priestess held her right arm with such force she could not reach up to cover her chest.
Makla walked on Bronwyn's left with dragging steps. The beast was holding a bridal bouquet in its dark brown hands, adding yet another layer to the already surreal situation.
As the trio reached the staircase, they were joined by two more of the brown beasts. Both large males, they waited for the women to walk past before joining the group.
"Where are we going?" Bronwyn said as they reached the large room with the four corridors. She glanced nervously at the altar-like stone column at the center of the room and saw to her great horror that she had been right - the item on top of the column was indeed a human skull without a jaw.
"To Lasar-Ihtreg's grand throne room," Welthianne said, yanking Bronwyn along, "downstairs."
Three floors below, they left the staircase behind and ventured into a magnificently decorated room of enormous proportions. The room had a double-height ceiling, and it was a hundred fathoms wide and at least three hundred fathoms long. Most unusually, the floor was made of white-green marble rather than the regular gray flagstones.
There were close to two dozen rows of benches on either side of a central aisle, but they were all empty. Crimson and black draperies covered three of the four walls; a gallery with stained glass panes made up the final wall.
A thick support column of white-green marble that had been decorated with cloth in crimson and black to match the draperies stood in each corner of the room to hold the immense weight of the floors above. Each column had a seven-branched candlestick next to it where all candles had been lit - curiously, the flames on the candles shone in a shade of red rather than orange.
Welthianne put Bronwyn at the far end of the aisle, facing a pair of marble thrones up near the end wall. The aisle was covered in hundreds of crimson flower petals that littered every last square inch of the white-green surface between the rows of benches.
Bronwyn was grateful for the high priestess finally letting go of her arm, but when she tried to reach the sore spot for a quick rub, Welthianne grabbed her hands and tied her wrists together with a rope. "Ow! Just what do you think you are doing, woman? I demand you untie me at once!" Bronwyn hissed, struggling to break free.
"Just a precautionary measure, Lady Bronwyn," Welthianne said, yanking Bronwyn's hands towards her to make sure the rope held.
"The rope is on too tight! Do you want my hands to wither and die even before I have married Lasar-Ihtreg?"
"Oh, I doubt it shall come to that. Makla!" Welthianne said and gestured to her maid.
The female beast hurried to up stand next to the two humans. Welthianne calmly snatched the bridal bouquet from Makla and shoved it into Bronwyn's bound grip. "There! Oh, you are such a pretty bride."
"I beg for forgiveness for the uncouth language, but you, Lady Welthianne, are a sick, twisted woman!"
Welthianne took a step back and studied the woman in blue before her. "So you tell me. Lady Bronwyn, if you wish to have your jaw tied shut as well, keep talking. I am full of bright ideas, Milady. I am sure I can come up with something that shall keep us both happy during the ceremony."
Bronwyn grumbled severely but kept most of it on the inside.
"Good. Now I shall leave you to ponder your future as Lasar-Ihtreg's bride," Welthianne said and ran one of her crimson fingers down Bronwyn's cheek, along her throat and finally onto her chest, "but have no fear, we shall meet again soon, child. Up at the altar."
With that, Welthianne slid away from Bronwyn like a crimson shadow, walking around the benches and along one of the walls so she wouldn't disturb the hundreds of petals in the aisle.
"I fear that woman does not play with a full deck of cards," Bronwyn mumbled under her breath. Turning around, she noticed that Makla was still close to her, no doubt to serve as her bridesmaid. Beyond the brown female, both of the male guards were leaning against a wall, seemingly just waiting for Bronwyn to try to make a run for it.
She wasn't about to give them that pleasure. Instead, she turned back around to face the two marble thrones. "A tragic mess or not, nothing good has ever come out of losing one's good manners," Bronwyn mumbled to hear a friendly voice amid the terrors of Blackston Castle. "My dream wedding this may not be, but by Marpaxa, I shall... I shall... honor my family and my blood. Oh, if only Caid and May-Linn were here to see me..."
As if on cue, Lasar-Ihtreg and Welthianne stepped in from a sidedoor up at the other end of the aisle. Lasar-Ihtreg was wearing the same outfit he had been in the day before, but Welthianne had donned a crimson shawl that she wore over her head.
After Lasar-Ihtreg had moved into position in front of one of the thrones, Welthianne signaled for Bronwyn and Makla - and the guards - to begin the bridal procession.
Gulping, Bronwyn set off up the aisle in a slow walk. On her way there, she kept her eyes trained on the hundreds of petals on the marble floor so she didn't have to look at her ghoulish husband-to-be.
Lasar-Ihtreg and Welthianne waited patiently for Bronwyn to arrive. None of the three smiled, in fact, they looked like they were guests at a funeral, not a wedding.
When Bronwyn finally made it to the marble thrones, she turned to Lasar-Ihtreg and curtseyed at the ruler of the land she was in to follow proper etiquette.
Lasar-Ihtreg briefly nodded back at her but soon turned towards the high priestess.
An ice cold shiver ran down Bronwyn's spine at the sight of Lasar-Ihtreg standing next to her. In the harshness of daylight - bleak though it was - the face of the ancient man looked even more ghoulish and skull-like than it had done in the semi-darkness the day before.
His cheeks were so hollow his teeth were showing through the parchment-thin skin, and his jaw and cheekbones were so prominent they almost broke through. There was a constant, faint tremble about him that Bronwyn hadn't noticed the day before, and she wondered if he was ill. 'Perhaps that is why I have been forced into this dreadful situation... perhaps he needs offspring to ensure that his lineage continues? But why could he not use his high priestess? She does not appear old enough to be barren...?' Bronwyn thought and sneaked a glance at Welthianne who was holding a scroll that appeared to be as ancient as Lasar-Ihtreg himself.
The shawl hid Welthianne's forehead and eyes, but Bronwyn looked closely at the skin on the lower part of her face and her throat, and found - much to her surprise - that it was utterly free of age-related blemishes, or even signs of having lived at all. In fact, her skin was as smooth as a newborn's behind.
Bronwyn narrowed her eyes, but the high priestess began to chant at the same time, so she pushed her findings to the back of her mind where they joined the frightening prospects of having to endure a wedding night with Lasar-Ihtreg.
The high priestess began to read aloud from the scroll, chanting monotonously in a strange, foreign language that Bronwyn had never heard before and couldn't understand a word of. On and on the high priestess went, apparently needing to read the entire scroll before the ceremony could begin.
When the first scroll was finished, Welthianne rolled it up and took another that she began to read aloud as well, only this one was in Bronwyn's own language.
"We are gathered here today," Welthianne said in a chanting, raspy voice, "to see the people before us joined in sacred matrimony, joined in the holy bonds of marriage that no man, nor woman, nor God can be allowed to break until Death shall part them. The people before us shall be joined in the sacred union that can only exist between a man and a woman, that of the blessed motherhood that shall ensure the future of our proud, noble realm."
'What a load of...' Bronwyn thought, but wisely kept it to herself.
"We are gathered here today," Welthianne continued, "to see the Father of our lands, the Emperor of Multrovia, Lotzan and Onilia, the Sovereign of Palkor, Son of the Sun and the Stars, Brother of the Mathawan and the Rainarr, His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg Rawtha Astar of Blackston Castle, take this woman, the pure and noble virgin Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle as his wife for all time until Death shall part them."
' 'The pure and noble virgin...' Pah! If they only knew... if they only knew the truth, they would both keel over and perish... and I could try to make a run for home!'
"Lord Lasar-Ihtreg," Welthianne continued, "the hand of Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle awaits thee. Will you claim it?"
"I will," Lasar-Ihtreg said in a raspy voice very similar to Welthianne's. The ancient man turned towards Bronwyn and literally took her hands in his own. The bridal bouquet and the rope tying her hands together were quickly tossed away so he could stroke her skin halfway up her lower arms.
Bronwyn gasped loudly at Lasar-Ihtreg's cold touch. His pale, wrinkled hands were like ice and did not feel human at all, and she could clearly feel the bones through the brittle skin. She briefly tried to pull out of the grasp, but he was too strong.
"Lady Bronwyn of Ashburne Castle," Welthianne continued, turning towards Bronwyn, "the hand of Lord Lasar-Ihtreg awaits thee. Will you claim it?"
Refusing to answer, Bronwyn stared defiantly at the two odd beings she shared the room with. She knew she would be unable to keep up the act of defiance for long but decided to show Lasar-Ihtreg that she would be no pushover. Suddenly, she felt the anklet around her right foot tightening up. The metal chain dug further and further into her skin until she could no longer withstand the torture. "I will! I will! Make it stop!" she cried, slamming her eyes shut in pain.
Lasar-Ihtreg nodded almost unnoticeably and the metal chain promptly returned to its regular width.
Panting hard and seeing little black dots in her vision from the excruciating pain, Bronwyn stared wide-eyed at the man she had just accepted the hand of. Her chin began to quiver but she held back the tears, not wanting to give the sadist the pleasure of seeing her crying.
Welthianne took a step back and held up her hands like in a blessing. "Thus endeth the ceremony. I now declare you master and subject. Lord Lasar-Ihtreg, you may claim the bride and do with her as you see fit."
Lasar-Ihtreg didn't need to be told twice. Turning around, he folded back the hood of his crimson and black cowl to reveal his balding head where only a few tufts of white hair remained. "Come, child... I shall reward you well in our bridal chamber. But first, a kiss to seal our marriage."
Bronwyn felt an entire bucket of ice water wash over her as the ghoul came closer to her in a menacing slide, but the moment was mercifully interrupted by the fierce shrieking of dozens of flying creatures just outside the stained glass windows. The shrieking became louder and louder until it was so intrusive even Lasar-Ihtreg turned to see what was going on.
Outside, the air was thick with the dark gray creatures that flew around in frantic patterns, almost like they were trying to warn Lasar-Ihtreg of an impending danger - the creatures even started making strafing runs at the windows of the throne room to make their point.
"Welthianne," Lasar-Ihtreg barked, "find out what that infernal shrieking is about and deal with it. My new wife and I shall relocate to the bridal chamber!"
While Welthianne hurried over to the windows to communicate with the creatures, Lasar-Ihtreg grabbed Bronwyn's hands and dragged her back down the aisle towards the staircase.
To say Bronwyn was in discomfort would be an understatement - she was at the point of vomiting just thinking about what was going to happen. Considering the look of Lasar-Ihtreg's head and hands, she didn't dare think about how the rest of his body looked, not to mention the other things that usually took place in bridal chambers.
Mere fathoms before they reached the staircase, one of the brown beasts came hurrying up from below, stopping Lasar-Ihtreg and Bronwyn dead. The beast spoke to its master in a series of hand gestures, gurgling hisses and short growls that left Bronwyn utterly confused.
When it was done, it hurried back down the staircase, but Lasar-Ihtreg kept standing passively, having seemingly lost interest in the bridal chamber. "What poor timing. The bane of my life," he said under his breath. Turning towards Bronwyn, he offered her a cold, joyless smile that made his face appear even more skull-like than usual. "Lady Bronwyn, it seems someone is here to rescue you."
"Wh- what?" Bronwyn said hoarsely. She glanced out of the windows at the Shadowlands beyond, not daring to think of the possibilities. Lasar-Ihtreg's grip around her wrists was still strong, otherwise she would have run over to the windows to try to see if it could really be...
"Ah, yes, it appears so. However, do not fear for our wedding night, Lady Bronwyn. This is merely a postponement. All the greater our passion shall be when our bodies will finally meet in that ancient, carnal dance... no?" he said, running his bony fingers down Bronwyn's throat and onto the top of her cleavage.
Shivering in disgust, Bronwyn shied back from the deadness of the touch, but her new husband still held onto her wrists and yanked her back to him.
Just when Bronwyn feared they were going to kiss after all, Lasar-Ihtreg turned to Welthianne who was still standing at the window.
"Welthianne, come!" he barked. "Keep a close eye on Lady Bronwyn while I deal with her pitiful friends once and for all!"
Welthianne bowed and hurried back along the aisle; her long crimson dress sending the many petals flying into the air as she raced past them.
The news that someone had come in an attempt to rescue her was already more than enough for Bronwyn, but Lasar-Ihtreg's use of the word 'friends' sent a cold wave of anxiety through her. 'Caid is strong... so are the others... but are they strong enough to fight the ghoulish man and his minions? Oh Sweet Marpaxa, please protect Caid Barlin and the people she is with... that is all I ask!' she thought, once again trying to break free of her new husband's strong grip.
"You certainly have a fire within you. I like that in a woman," Lasar-Ihtreg said in a strong whisper, pulling Bronwyn back to him.
"You better be careful! My fire is so strong it shall burn you to a crisp!" Bronwyn said, averting her gaze so she didn't have to look a Lasar-Ihtreg's freakish appearance.
By then, Welthianne had arrived and grabbed Bronwyn around the upper arm like she always did. At once, she dragged Bronwyn over to one of the support columns where she gestured at Makla to join them. When the brown beast had shuffled over to them, Welthianne took its long arm and held it against Bronwyn's pale blue gown. "Makla, if she tries to run, hurt her! Hurt her badly, do you understand?"
A confused look spread over Makla's deformed features, but she eventually nodded and grabbed a handful of the blue gown to show that she would do her mistress' bidding.
"You wretched daughter of a whore!" Bronwyn barked, reaching in vain for Welthianne. "Not only did you say you would not harm me, now you force this poor, innocent girl into doing your evil work!"
"Oh, Lady Bronwyn, temper temper!" Welthianne said, throwing her head. "I said I would never harm you, and I won't! What my slaves do, I cannot be held accountable for. Now, come over to the window and watch my beautiful birds slay your band of rescuers."
"I will do nothing of the kind... you are sick!"
"Makla!" Welthianne barked, gesturing at the young female.
Without hesitation, Makla rammed her fist into Bronwyn's gut; not strong enough to truly hurt the tall woman, but strong enough to send her a message. Once the blow had been delivered, she looked up at Bronwyn with wide, nearly apologetic eyes.
Bronwyn locked eyes with the poor creature and briefly smiled at her to send her a silent message, a message that said she knew the blow hadn't been made in malice.
Scoffing at the attempt at communication, Welthianne grabbed Bronwyn around her shoulders and turned her toward the windows. "Behold, Lady Bronwyn. In a moment when I release my birds, you shall see how efficiently they attack and hunt down their prey."
"I have seen it," Bronwyn grumbled, craning her neck to look at the boulder-littered ground far below in the vain hope of spotting a familiar shape or outfit. They were too high up and the air was too hazy to see the ground in great detail, but she had a growing sense of nervous anticipation in her gut that told her something was about to happen.
Below them, hidden gates were pulled aside to release the full complement of flying creatures from their aviaries. The sky turned dark from the many leathery beasts that swarmed out of Blackston Castle and immediately began to swoop down towards the ground in search of a juicy target.
"Behold!" Welthianne said excitedly, gesturing at the many monsters. "Aren't they magnificent? My finest creation!"
"What? You made those... those things?" Bronwyn said, staring wide-eyed at the high priestess.
"But of course I did, child. The birds are my pets! My life companion created the original recipes for the sera we injected into them, but I perfected them. Lasar-Ihtreg prefers the brown beasts. I grant they can be useful for certain tasks, like Makla here, but their range and stamina is far too limited. My birds can go from one end of our realm to the other and still make it back in time for feeding... or indeed, from our realm to yours."
"Are you not afeared they shall turn on you and pick your bones clean, Lady Welthianne?"
"My birds?" Welthianne and shot Bronwyn a puzzled look. "Hardly, child. None of them can exist on their own and they know it. Life is so fragile, even for magnificent creatures such as those. If anything were to happen to me or my life companion, our pets will simply roll over and die."
"So you have control over them by-"
"Watch the battle, child."
"But is their condition reversible?"
"Enough with these questions, Lady Bronwyn! Clear your mind and enjoy the show!"
Before Bronwyn could speak her mind, the entire castle started rumbling from the opening of many portals down on the ground.
"Ah!" Welthianne cried, pointing down at the brown wave that was released from Blackston Castle. "Behold! Behold Lasar-Ihtreg's pets! Oh, this shall be so much fun. I wish I had brought snacks!"
Gulping down a sour surge, Bronwyn pressed her face against the window to see better. Like Welthianne had said, a huge swarm of the brown beasts ran around at random on the ground far below. The creatures quickly covered a large area of the boulder-littered ground, and it seemed they were so pumped for a fight that one or two of them even started wrestling each other.
Bronwyn closed her eyes and thought of her companions. Sighing, she allowed herself to reminisce about Caid's dusty green eyes, but a sudden thought invaded her mind and made her open her eyes again. 'Wait... the beasts are just running around and fighting each other... there is no one down there for them to engage! Maybe... maybe Caid and the others have already found a way into this wretched castle! Oh, Sweet Marpaxa, I hope that is the truth of this matter!' she thought, clenching her fists in agitation.
Down below, the battle did indeed fizzle out before it had begun. After a while, even Welthianne noticed it, and the high priestess leaned against the windows with a rare furrow draped across her smooth brow.
Bronwyn sneaked a sideways glance at her captor. Welthianne was seemingly too preoccupied with the odd battle to notice anything else, but when Bronwyn tried to slide sideways, Welthianne's hand came flying out and grabbed hold of her preferred target, Bronwyn's upper arm.
"Oh, you disappoint me, child," Welthianne said coolly. "And you, Makla, disappoint me even more. I can see I need to punish you. Remember the last time I had to punish you? That's right... it hurt, didn't it?"
Makla took a step back, nodding sadly. Cowering, the young female hunched over and tried to protect her small breasts with her arms.
Both corners of Bronwyn's mouth twitched in anger at the thought of the young female being tortured by the high priestess. Her fire returned with a vengeance, and she tried to push herself towards the woman in red. "You and your life companion certainly belong together... you are both sadists! How dare you hurt that poor, young girl?!"
"Tell me, Lady Bronwyn... if your horse is too slow, do you not whip it? If your servant does a rotten job, do you not whip her?"
"No, I do not!"
"Ah, you are truly a noble creature," Welthianne said with such thick sarcasm it could have been cut with a knife. "Enough of this. There's obviously something wrong down there so the entertainment has been cut short. As will your tongue be if you do not treat me with the proper respect, Lady Bronwyn. Come, back to your sleeping chamber until Lasar-Ihtreg returns with the heads of our attackers!"
Welthianne yanked Bronwyn away from the support pillar without waiting for a reply. The two women were joined by Makla who shuffled along behind them over to the staircase.
The three floors back up to the open gallery were covered in complete silence save for the incessant shrieking that came from the flock of creatures that were still flying around outside the windows searching for a target. Once in the gallery itself, Welthianne shoved Bronwyn along ahead of her with Makla bringing up the shuffling rear.
By the time they reached Bronwyn's cell, a thought of escape formed in her mind. 'Not only have I seen enough of the castle to know where I am and where to go... all the brown creatures are involved in the battle down on the ground. Apart from Makla, we did not run into any of them... but I need to act swiftly! Oh... if I only had... had something I could... wait... the post on the bunk,' she thought, secretly looking around the cell to find something she could use to immobilize Welthianne with. The bunk still stood where the aggressive brown creature had pushed it earlier in the day - up against the table.
After Welthianne had shoved Bronwyn into the cell, the high priestess remained in the doorway.
Bronwyn sat down and cast a sneaky glance at the woman in red. If her plan was to work, she needed to get Welthianne close enough to grab. She realized she had to be proactive, so she jumped up from the bunk and reached out for her captor. "Lady Welthianne, please! You cannot leave me here!" she howled, reaching out for the high priestess like a child pleading for a hug.
"Wha-" Welthianne said, taking a step into the cell out of sheer surprise.
"This is such a dreadful and scary room! The darkness is so frightful, and last night, the voices of all those poor people you have turned into those awful, awful monsters haunted me ceaselessly! Please, you cannot leave me in here! You must take me somewhere else... take me to Lasar-Ihtreg's bedchamber! Please!"
Welthianne shook her head slowly as she approached the whining Bronwyn. "Your master is not there-"
Bronwyn suddenly jumped forward, grabbed the arm of the high priestess and pulled her forcibly into the cell.
Welthianne was unprepared for having her arm seized and stumbled head-first into the cell. Before she knew what was up or down, her legs were tangled up in Bronwyn's, and she fell forward, headed directly for one of the posts at the foot end of the bunk.
Screaming, Welthianne brought up her hands at the very last moment to break the fall which meant she bounced off the post itself but slammed her cheekbone into the bunk's wooden frame below it.
Her head jerked around in the impact and her hands immediately became limp, meaning she couldn't brace herself for the secondary impact onto the gray floor. She landed hard and remained still.
Bronwyn's condition wasn't much better. When her legs had been tangled up with Welthianne's, she had fallen down as well and had struck her tender chest against the board across the foot end of the bunk. Groaning and seeing stars, she bumped down on her rear end and clutched her aching ribs.
The screaming had brought Makla into the doorway to see what was going on. The timid young female stared wide-eyed at the sight of her mistress immobile on the floor. She shuffled into the room, eyeing Bronwyn as well as Welthianne, seemingly unsure of what to do.
Bronwyn untangled herself from Welthianne's legs and swung around towards the approaching beast. "Makla... I do not wish to harm you... but if you attack me, I fear I shall be forced to. Do you understand me? I am not here of my own free will, and neither are you," she said and grappled for her boots that were somewhere behind her so she wouldn't have to escape on bare feet.
When she found them, she held the right one ready, but stopped to stare at the anklet that Lasar-Ihtreg had somehow manipulated into hurting her - the skin was still red and swollen underneath it. "Hmmm..." she said, tapping her fingers against the sturdy leather boot in a fast-paced beat while she pondered what to do about the chain. "Oh, I cannot stay... wretched, I do not even have time to put on my proper clothes instead of this far too revealing gown," she eventually said and put on the boots.
Getting up, she inched closer to Makla who hadn't moved a finger yet. "Makla, I am going to walk right past you now... if you touch me, I fear I shall be forced to harm you and I do not want that."
By then, Bronwyn and the creature were nearly face to face. Bronwyn held her fists ready to pounce, but the confused and even sad look on Makla's deformed face told her it would be all right.
When Bronwyn moved past and out into the gallery, Makla turned and tried to communicate with her in a string of hisses, growls and gestures. It was soon clear to her that she couldn't speak to the woman in the blue gown and chose to kneel down next to her stricken mistress instead.
Bronwyn cast one last glance at Makla and Welthianne before she took off down the gallery, hurrying to get away before the high priestess would come to and summon the brown beasts.
The boots gave Bronwyn a far easier time on the central staircase compared to her bare feet, and she exploited it by zooming down flight after flight. Now and then, she paused to listen for the brown beasts or Lasar-Ihtreg, but everybody seemed to be detained elsewhere.
As she came to a stop and pulled up in the front of her dress for the umpteenth time, she wished she had taken the time to put on her regular clothes after all, but time was the only thing she didn't have.
Grunting, she pulled it up once more and set off again, eventually coming to the throne room where her fate had so nearly been sealed. She briefly popped her head inside to see if anything had changed, but it was as it had been before.
Bronwyn held her breath for a few seconds to listen, but all she could hear was the blood coursing through her veins and past her ears - even the flying creatures outside had calmed down. They were still circling, but they seemed confused as to why they had been summoned when there was nothing to feast on.
With everything calm, Bronwyn hurried back to the staircase and continued down. The next floor didn't provide her with an exit, nor did the next after that, but once she reached the third floor down from the throne room, she heard a clear and unmistakable gurgling hiss from somewhere just beyond the staircase.
Bronwyn clenched her jaw hard and tip-toed further down until she was certain she was out of range of the brown beast she had encountered. On the first landing between flights, she stopped and listened hard. When the world had returned to one of silence, she pulled up in her dress and continued down.
Another floor further down, she came to a screeching halt as she heard hisses and growls as clear as day from the staircase. Holding her breath, she put her hands behind her ears to ascertain where the sounds came from - it looked quite odd and she was glad no one was there with her to see it. The hisses came from below so she slipped into the floor she was on.
Unlike the bright, stately floors she had already seen, the one she found herself in was dark and smelly with only a single torch every ten fathoms or so to illuminate it.
The walls were still gray stone, but there were no draperies or seven-branched candlesticks anywhere. Instead, the walls were covered in what seemed to be splatters of various substances; green and red mostly, but there were a few that were yellowish-white.
Bronwyn didn't really want to stop and think about what could have caused those splatters, so she moved past the worst of them rather swiftly until she stood in the square center of a maze of corridors.
All the hallways looked identical save for different colored splatters on the walls. Rubbing her chin repeatedly while thinking so hard steam nearly poured out of her ears, she ultimately chose the one straight ahead so she wouldn't get lost - it happened to be a corridor splattered with a green substance.
The ceiling in the corridor she had chosen was quite low, only two and a half fathoms above the floor. Roughly five fathoms beyond the square center, the floor changed from solid stone to a metal grating with bars that reminded her of a cage. At the same time, the horrid smell of waste increased, and she had to pinch her nostrils.
There were five doors on either side of the corridor, four of which were open. Bronwyn stopped and tried to listen but couldn't hear anything. Staring into the semi-darkness, she eventually decided the coast was clear.
Just as she took her first step onto the grating, she heard a human voice whisper 'Help me...' from one of the rooms.
Bronwyn froze in place and stared at the four open doors. She had no idea from which of the doors the plea for help had come and she really didn't have time to check them all. Her conscience demanded that she did, however, and she tip-toed over to the nearest room. When the first of the cells proved to be empty and the second too dark to see anything, she tried the third.
Inside the third room, a naked young man was lying on a stone slab. The lower half of his body had already been transformed into one of the brown creatures, but the top half was still human, save for his left shoulder and arm, and parts of his throat.
Bronwyn kept standing in the doorway, unsure of what to do or if she could even help him at all. She took a faltering step into the stinking cell, but just as she did so, the young man turned his head towards her and let out a gurgling hiss all too reminiscent of the brown beasts.
That was too much for Bronwyn to handle, and she spun around and stormed out of the cell. Outside, her boot snagged on one of the gratings and she fell flat on her face, landing on the straw-covered metal grating with a loud bump and a pained moan from the pain that shot up from her aching ribs.
All around her, anguished cries for help burst forth from the cells, including those where the doors were closed. Men, women and children cried out for someone to help them or let them out of their imprisonment, but Bronwyn had had all she could take and stormed through the hall with her hands covering her ears until she reached a closed door.
Opening it in a panic, she rushed through it and bumped head-first into a solid wall of flesh.
The brown beast Bronwyn had tried to flatten with her head roared in surprise and nearly fell on its rear end. Moments later, it realized what was going on and came at her with its muscular arms stretched out ahead of it.
Shrieking, Bronwyn ducked and dived to stay out of its grasp. She never settled down for even a second as she kept evading the creature's strong arms until she suddenly found an opening and rushed past the brown monster.
Another wooden door was at the other side of the small room the creature was in, and Bronwyn hurried through it and slammed it shut - just as she did so, the creature had caught up with her and thus earned itself an intimate encounter with sturdy, brown wood. This time, it did fall on its rear end in a dazed and confused state.
Bronwyn exploited her stroke of good fortune and ran down the next, mercifully empty, corridor. Finding a staircase, she briefly paused to listen for the beasts - and pull up in her dress that had become rather obscene in the fight - before she continued down.
Another flight down, she remembered to scout her surroundings carefully before stepping into another potential mess. This time, the entire floor was one, large room similar to the throne room, but just as dark and creepy as the one she had left behind moments earlier. Strange metal bars protruded from the walls throughout the room reminding her of something familiar, but she couldn't recall what it could be and thus entered the floor.
Three steps further on, she recognized the strange metal bars as being similar to those found in aviaries. Gasping loudly, she spun around and tip-toed back to the staircase. "Not your best ever idea, Lady Bronwyn... this is where some of the flying creatures live," she stammered out loud to hear a friendly voice.
She didn't want to stick around for when the creatures would return, so she hurried another floor down and wound up in a room of equal levels of darkness but without any metal bars - instead, it had plenty of thick support columns that creatures of all kinds could hide behind. Looking around for a window and finding none, she had to settle for a guess, and that guess said she was close to ground level.
As she stepped into the room, she sensed it was different somehow, even beyond the impenetrable darkness. Something was odd compared to the other rooms and corridors she had visited, but she couldn't figure out what it could be until she felt a gentle breeze caress her cheek and blow her hair off her shoulder.
Spinning around, she nearly let out a whoop when she could see faint glimmers of the bleak daylight so typical of the Shadowlands down near the other end of the room. "A back door... oh, thank you, Sweet Marpaxa," she whispered, rubbing her hands in glee.
Bronwyn decided to be extra careful and hurried over to the nearest of the support columns to hide. Crouching down, she peeked around it and counted to thirty before she moved onto the next one.
By the time she reached the fourth column with three more to go, a shadow flashed across the daylight at the back door. Bronwyn clenched her jaw in fear and annoyance, and crouched down even further to be as small a target as possible for the unknown beasts that lurked outside.
Heavy breathing reached her ears, and she cursed inwardly and inched around the support column to get away from the monster. It didn't sound like any of the brown beasts or the flying creatures she had encountered, but with all the evil that permeated Blackston Castle, she figured Lasar-Ihtreg and Welthianne could have created other types of monsters as well.
The heavy breathing was soon joined by footfalls from a different source. One beast seemed to move to the left side of the room while another came straight for the column Bronwyn was hiding behind.
Bronwyn bit down on her lips and inched backwards, hoping to reach the column she had just left behind. The space between the columns was too large to sneak through undetected, but the shadows were just about deep enough to give it a shot, anyway - in the end, she decided to go for it. 'It is better to confront Death than to sit and wait for him to announce his arrival,' she thought and jumped up from her hiding place.
In five long steps, she was at the other column and hurriedly crouched down behind it. The heavy breathing had stopped, almost like the creature was trying to reacquire her scent. Several moments went by where Bronwyn didn't even dare to breathe herself out of fear of being heard. Suddenly, she sensed the presence of something lurking in the shadows not a fathom to her left.
She knew she had to react swiftly, but since escaping to her left was out of the picture, all she could do was to try the right hand side of the dark room. Jumping up from her hiding place, she went into the space between the columns and made a run for the back door.
Five frantic steps on, Bronwyn bumped head-first into a large, immovable object that immediately let out a surprised roar. All Bronwyn's survival instincts came to her at once, and she punched the large animal in the gut the hardest she could, then slammed her booted heel down onto the large foot she could see the outline of in the darkness. She was about to knee the creature in the groin when two strong hands were wrapped around her upper arms and held her back.
"Oooooh, I'm a-gonna kill ye for what ye did ta my foot! Ohhhh, ya rotten piece of trash, I'm a-gonna squash yer head like a bug!" a very human voice roared while the body the voice came from danced around on one foot.
Bronwyn stared wide-eyed into the darkness, recognizing the voice but unable to speak beyond a strangled squeak from all the emotions that screamed through her in a raging tempest. When the meaty paws changed position from her arms to the sides of her head, she felt it most prudent to cry out before her head would indeed be squashed. "Wait!" she howled, "Wait... Kheo! Kheo, it's me! Lady Bronwyn!"
"Whut? Luv, 's that you? What in the name of Phirax the Unholy are you doin' down here?! Caid! Caid, bring a torch! Get in here!"
Moments later, Caid Barlin stormed into the dark room carrying a lit torch. She was about to rip Kheo a new one for shouting so loudly when it was supposed to be a covert entry when the flickering cone of light from the torch landed upon the familiar shape of Lady Bronwyn.
"Oy, luv! Ya might wanna... uh... pull up in yer dress there. Yer girls are nearly showin'," Kheo said in a voice that was tinged with embarrassment.
"Oh! That wretched gown... thank you, Kheo," Bronwyn said, never taking her eyes off the Huntress while she pulled up in the pale blue gown that had once again gone on an adventure all of its own.
"Yer welcome. An' I know when I'm excused an' this is one o' them cases now. C'mon, Deegan... girls gonna talk, ya know," Kheo said and hurriedly left the dark room with Deegan Arliss in tow - Deegan had just enough time to shout 'Hello!' at Lady Bronwyn before he was dragged out of the dark room.
Caid shifted the torch away from her and closed the distance between herself and the taller woman. "Lady Bronwyn, I cannot tell you how relieved I am to see you safe," she said and wrapped her free arm around Bronwyn's tall body.
"The feeling is mutual, my dear Huntress," Bronwyn said, but her voice broke and she had to be quiet. As the strong, compact body wrapped around her, she allowed herself to melt into Caid's touch and relax for the first time since she had arrived at Blackston Castle. Sighing deeply, she returned the embrace and added to it by gently rocking back and forth.
The draw of the spirited soul in Bronwyn's arms was too strong for her to fight; she needed to connect on a different level, needed to connect with the warm human being in her arms the only way she knew. "This... this will not do... I cannot... I need to..." she whispered, unleashing her senses to take in every last detail of the woman she held in her arms.
"Are- are you ill, Lady Bronwyn?" Caid said, reaching up to caress the Lady's cheek.
"No... I have never felt better," Bronwyn whispered. Moving decisively, she leaned down and claimed Caid Barlin's lips in a strong, emotional kiss that sent a wonderfully warm wave through her entire being. As she kissed the woman in her arms, the warmth traversed her body and touched her in every spot that mattered, rolling through her veins, her muscles and every last nerve she had. The kiss was so enjoyable she didn't break it off before she let out a soft moan into the Huntress' mouth that sounded just a bit too personal for a first proper kiss.
Separating, she leaned her forehead against Caid's and sighed deeply to let out some of the excess heat inside her. "I have never felt better," she whispered again, pulling back to smile at the green-eyed beauty in her arms.
"That's certainly good to hear, Lady Bronwyn," Caid said with a cheeky grin. The Huntress took the opportunity to caress the Lady's side before she pulled back to study the revealing pale blue gown. "Milady... what are you wearing?"
"Oh... I fear that is a long story, Caid," Bronwyn said and touched her lips where the sweet contact still made its presence felt by a series of little tingles. "This entire mission was a scam from the start. Or even before the start, to be precise."
"The sealed documents we carried were... well, arrangements for my wedding with Lasar-Ihtreg. This is my wedding gown," Bronwyn said and pulled out in the pale blue gown.
Caid's eyes popped wide open and she stared long and hard at the Lady and her revealing dress. "I beg your pardon! Your wedding gown?"
" 'tis true, 'tis true..."
"What a stroke of good fortune we met when we did!"
"Ah, not exactly, Huntress... you see, the ceremony is already over. I am now formally married to His Excellency Lord Lasar-Ihtreg..." Bronwyn said with a shrug.
Caid looked like she didn't know how to respond to that. For a few seconds, all she could do was to shake her head. "We shall deal with that later. The back way in here is free of those hideous brownies... or it was before. We managed to round up our horses yesterday and they are all outside... Santilla is missing you, that's very clear from her body language. Lady Bronwyn, come, let us make an escape while we still can."
Bronwyn rubbed her brow and thought of all she had witnessed in the brief time she had been at Blackston Castle - the pain and suffering brought on the poor peasants that were forcibly transformed into the monsters, the sadness on Makla's deformed face, and the soulless evil inhabiting Lord Lasar-Ihtreg and Lady Welthianne. All those impressions melted together into a single thought that was so strikingly clear it nearly frightened her. "No. We cannot escape yet. There is evil here, pure evil, and it needs to be stopped. We are the only ones who can do it, Caid. I am truly sorry... but this evil needs to be stopped for good."
Caid took a deep breath but chose not to comment.
"Lady Bronwyn is right, Huntress," Fyonna said, walking into the dark room with a pronounced limp.
"Oh! Lady Fyonna!" Bronwyn said and leaped ahead to pull the Seer into an embrace. "Oh, I am so relieved to see you are alive! When I saw you last, you were being attacked by several of those ghastly flying creatures!"
"I was scratched and attempted bitten, but nothing I couldn't handle, Lady Bronwyn. They perished, I'm still here. That was a fair trade."
Bronwyn nodded and squeezed the elderly woman's shoulder. "Lady Fyonna, you and the Order were right... Lasar-Ihtreg and his high priestess are experimenting on humans."
"I thought as much," Fyonna said darkly.
"The disappearances?" Caid said.
Bronwyn turned around so get back into the cone of light from Caid's torch. "Yes. They transfuse the abduction victims with some kind of serum. Depending on its component parts, they either turn into the flying creatures or the brown beasts. I... I have witnessed more than one transformation and they are ghastly... simply ghastly."
"Is it reversible?" Fyonna asked.
"I cannot say, Lady Fyonna. I asked the high priestess but she never got around to answering me."
"And would she be Welthianne?"
"Yes, Lady Fyonna. She calls Lasar-Ihtreg her life companion. She is a cold, evil being who just happens to look like a woman. There is truly something wrong with her."
Fyonna chewed on the information for a while, then she turned towards Caid. "Huntress, I fear her Ladyship is right. We cannot escape before we have destroyed this fountain of evil. If we leave it to its own devices, it shall only grow stronger and threaten us all."
Caid sighed and put her hands on her hips. She looked from Fyonna to Lady Bronwyn and back before she settled for locking eyes with the younger of the two. "So be it. But I fear it will not be as easy as that."
"It will not," Fyonna said and took Bronwyn's and Caid's hands in her own to share some of her own powers with her female companions. "Therefore, we must travel to the head of the snake and cut it off in one, swift stroke. We must obliterate Lasar-Ihtreg and his high priestess."
"Lady Fyonna," Bronwyn whispered as the group sneaked through yet another shadowy corridor somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of Blackston Castle, "are you sure you can sense Lasar-Ihtreg? I cannot understand why he should be down here... he has several chambers in the keep and just below it."
"I can sense him, yes," Fyonna whispered back. "I fear he is able to sense me, too, but that is something we have to take into account. I do not think escape is his plan. He wants to face us... or me, to be precise."
"Good!" Kheo rumbled from somewhere up front, twirling his sword that had seen far too little action for the experienced soldier's liking.
At the back of the group, Bryce Cassian was guarding the rear with a sword in his right hand and a dagger in his left. Now and then, he shot a dark glance at Deegan Arliss who had ruined his feathered hat as retribution for causing his horse to throw him in one of the attacks. Even worse, Bryce's tan had faded since they had gone on the mission, and his neatly groomed beard had become unkempt because his favorite bone comb had been broken in two.
The dark corridor they were in smelled the same as the one Bronwyn had been in when she had encountered the people being transformed, but the floor was solid and there were no doors in either of the walls.
At the lead of the group, Caid Barlin carried the torch to great effect. When they came up to a door that opened away from them, she pumped the torch twice in the air to let the others know they should keep quiet and come to a stop.
Once the group was settled, Caid crouched down and ran a hand along the lower edge of the door.
"Can you feel anything?" Bronwyn whispered.
"Cool air. Do you know what's behind this door, Lady Bronwyn?"
"Alas, I do not," Bronwyn said with a shrug. "I did not come here during my escape. Please, may I...?"
"Be my guest," Caid said and moved aside to let the Lady come to the door.
Bronwyn put her ear to the door but couldn't hear much through the sturdy material. Like she had seen the Huntress do, she crouched down and touched the underside of the door's frame. The air was indeed cooler than on their side and that prompted her to get down on her knees and put her ear to the tiny crack.
She could hear a few growls and gurgling hisses, but no evidence that Lasar-Ihtreg was there. "Well... I fear at least two brown beasts are in there. I can hear them hissing."
"Not those things again!" Bryce cried hysterically from the back of the group, but Fyonna shushed him before he would give them away.
"Indeed," Bronwyn continued, getting back up. The first thing she did was to pull up in her pale blue gown that had once again slipped just an inch or two too far down. "I take it you have already encountered those, Huntress?"
"Just one so far. It caught us by surprise but a chest sliced open silenced it," Caid said casually, offering the Lady a brief smile.
"Caid... I know it may be impossible for you, but... one of the brown beasts... a young female... she helped me escape," Bronwyn said, dusting off her knees.
"Lady Bronwyn, I understand your anguish, but we cannot tell them apart... well, beyond gawking rather vulgarly at their genitals. If she is smart, she will stay away from us. If not..."
Bronwyn nodded somberly. "You are right as always, Huntress. I am indeed a fool."
"You are not, Lady Bronwyn. Now, please take the torch and stand aside while Kheo, Deegan and I deal with what's beyond this door. Kheo?"
"Right on yer back, Huntress," the big man said, twirling his blade.
"Here we go," Caid said and put her hand flat on the door. She turned around and winked at Bronwyn who smiled in return.
When the door was smashed open, Caid Barlin stormed into the room beyond it with her machete already swinging wildly. Four brown beasts were in the room, two squatting over holes in the floor and two resting on stone slabs - only one of them had its face turned towards the door.
"Aw, ain't it great! We caught 'em in the crapper!" Kheo roared as his long blade whooshed through the air and sliced open the neck of one of the two beasts squatting on the floor. Moments later, crimson blood splattered out from the gaping wound and draped everything in sight in red.
Caid's machete found another target, one of the two beasts that were resting on the slabs. Although it tried to put up a defense, she buried the blade hilt deep in its gut before she pulled it out and went on a hunt for something else to kill.
Bronwyn stared in wide-eyed terror at the efficient way her friends were killing the brown beasts, and she reached up and grabbed hold of Fyonna's arm to have something to hold onto, mentally as well as physically.
"Such is war, Lady Bronwyn," Fyonna said calmly.
"I- I know... and yet, it is still shocking," Bronwyn stuttered, staring at the end result of the battle: four slain brown beasts. None of them had had time to escape, sound an alarm or even hiss at their opponents.
Behind them, Bryce scoffed at Lady Bronwyn's discomfort. "War is not for women," he said, snorting contemptuously.
"A-ha!" Fyonna shot back, "I knew there was a reason you were guarding the rear, Cassian!"
Bronwyn's cheeks blushed from listening to the embarrassing exchange, but she was spared an insight into the bickering of her friend and acquaintance when Caid signaled they should proceed.
"Come," Caid said, waving impatiently. "I've sent Kheo ahead. There's another corridor beyond this room."
Bronwyn groaned and helped Fyonna over a threshold and around the four dead beasts. "In this wretched castle, there is always another corridor... trust me."
Bronwyn had been right. After the next corridor, there had been another, and then yet another. During the fruitless search for the evil Lord Lasar-Ihtreg, Kheo had gone from suffering mere grumpiness to being uncharacteristically taciturn to finally being steaming angry at the unfairness of it all.
When the group came up to a dead end, the end was nigh for Kheo and he thumped his meaty fist into the wall on the left of the blocked passage to blow off his frustrations - and promptly fell head-first through the hidden door he had discovered by accident, grunting all the way down onto his hands and knees.
"Oh well done, dumpty!" Bryce mocked from somewhere at the back of the group.
After helping a grumbling Kheo up, Caid looked into the room he had found by accident. "It's a staircase and it's only going one way... up. I think we should try. We won't find Lasar-Ihtreg here, that's for certain."
"I agree, Huntress," Fyonna said, moving her head in a curious pattern. "I can still sense him, though it's weaker. Maybe he is trying to evade us, but..."
"Let's do it," Caid said and moved into the stairwell. With the torch aimed high ahead of her, she ascended the stairs slowly so she could react if something came the other way. "It's clear, come on," she said once she had reached the landing.
The staircase only led a single floor up where it ended in a room that appeared to be a guard room of sorts. The stench that hung in the air proved it had been used by the brown beasts at some point, but there was a thin layer of dust on most surfaces.
Kheo hunched over and ran ahead. Not long after, he came back and leaned in toward Caid. "Right outside, there's a balcony overlookin' some kind o' cargo deck or somethin' two floors down. Not much down there like crates or stuff, tho'. There's a stone staircase leadin' down to it. There's plenty o' daylight down there so it's gotta have direct access to the outside."
"Great work, Kheo, thanks," Caid said and patted the big man's shoulder. "Lady Fyonna... any news on Lasar-Ihtreg?"
"He's close... very close, Huntress. Very close!" Fyonna whispered back.
"Very well. We must proceed with caution. And that goes double for you, Lady Bronwyn. Please stay close to Deegan and Bryce from now on."
"Yes, Huntress," Bronwyn said, nodding frantically. The first thing she did was to wipe a few beads of sweat off her brow; the second was to pull up in her gown.
Caid, Kheo, Fyonna, Bronwyn, Deegan and finally Bryce sneaked out onto the balcony mentioned by Kheo. Like he had said, two sides of the balcony were protected by railings, and the third was a steep staircase that went down to the floor of the cargo deck below.
On their way down, Bronwyn couldn't help but think about the odd Blackston Castle. 'I am assuredly glad my own castle was not built like this... it almost feels like it was never meant to be inhabited... dead ends, secret passages, staircases everywhere, open galleries, prison cells, empty rooms, strange cargo decks at the base of the main building... I wonder if it was originally a military installation...? Oh, what does it matter now...'
The descent went without problems, but as soon as Fyonna put her feet down on the coarse flagstones that made up the floor of the cargo deck, she grabbed hold of Caid and pulled her close. "Huntress... draw your blade. I fear I have led us into a trap!"
A split second later, four large portals were opened along the floor of the cargo deck to let in close to two dozen of the brown beasts. At the same time, a swarm of the flying creatures roared in through the opening at the far end.
"Wretched!" Caid barked, drawing her machete. "Kheo! Deegan! Time to fight!"
"Time to kill!" Kheo roared back, twirling his sword as he ran out into a group of brown beasts. His first swing separated a brown head from its shoulders, which led the other attackers to regroup and come at him in pairs rather than one at a time.
Caid was less fortunate on her first encounter, but she managed to slice open a beast's thigh on her second pass. Ducking and diving, she used her smaller size to evade the much larger beasts' clumsy swings. A new strike against the next beast's chest carved a deep furrow along the brown skin. The beast roared and went down on its knees - a brutal chop meant it became a head shorter.
The first beast came back at her and tried to wrap its arms around her, but she went down on one knee and rammed the machete deep into its gut. When its intestines saw the light of day, she jumped up and slashed it across the chest to ship it off to Death even faster.
Deegan kicked a beast in the groin with his pointy boot, and once it hunched over to clutch its injured member, he went for the jugular and sliced open its throat. Even before his first kill was motionless, he jumped over another beast and rammed the sword hilt-deep through its lungs.
At the other side of the battlefield, Bryce Cassian had also drawn his weapons, though he preferred to remain at the stone staircase to protect the women.
Kheo let out a disgusted roar watching the peacock of a man, and it nearly brought him down when two creatures came at him locked together in the hope they'd be a stronger force. Collecting himself, Kheo twirled his sword and separated a hand from an arm on the downswing, then an arm from a torso on the upswing. The second beast gave up the unequal struggle and ran away.
Caid performed a forward roll that meant she was in the perfect position to carve a deep X into the gut of another of the beasts. Panting hard from the strain, she twirled her machete and looked up at the flying creatures that hadn't attacked them yet. Her fingers were still marked by the talons of the one that had wrestled her to the ground out on the woodchip-covered trail, and she wasn't really looking forward to fighting the dark gray creatures again.
Kheo punched a brown beast in the face, and when it keeled over, he used its body as a launching pad for a leap that ended in another head rolling along the flagstones. "Caid! Caid, they ain't as tough as they look, them brownies! We' cuttin' through them like nothin' at all!" he shouted between a hack and a slash.
"Don't talk, just fight, Kheo!"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fightin'..." Kheo said and finished off yet another beast.
At the same time, Caid used her smaller size again and made two beasts thump together. Jumping up, she cursed the fact that her machete wasn't long enough to slay them both at once, but she solved that little problem by ramming the sharp side of the blade up between the first beast's legs while it had its back turned to her. Roaring, she jerked back the machete and watched the beast keel over with a few bits missing.
The next was quickly shipped off to Death, and Caid ran off to find another target while there was one to be had.
All of a sudden, the piece of jewelry around Bronwyn's right ankle began to tighten. Screaming in pain, she fell down on the flagstones and pushed off the boot to try to yank off the anklet that had already dug itself deeply into her skin with no signs of slowing down. Even as her last scream died down, the skin was broken and a line of blood appeared all around the metal chain.
At the other side of the cargo deck, Lasar-Ihtreg and Welthianne stepped into the melee.
"Lady Bronwyn, avert your eyes... you hear me?" Fyonna said and moved away from her companions. "You too, Cassian. I fear this shall be messy."
"Whatever you say, you crazy old..." Bryce said, but wisely kept the rest to himself. Leaning down, the peacock stared helplessly at the bleeding wound on Bronwyn's ankle.
"Don't... just... stand... there... help... me... you... miserable... coward!" Bronwyn croaked through clenched teeth.
"Milady, what do you want me to do? There's nothing I can do!"
"Wretched!" Bronwyn cried, hoping to alleviate the pain by tearing off the anklet chain. All she succeeded in doing was to break her nails and bloody her fingertips - and the chain kept on growing tighter.
Fyonna still walked with a pronounced limp as she stepped into the center of the cargo deck, completely ignoring the bloody brawl that took place all around her. Moving slowly and deliberately, she removed the hood of her cowl and waited for Lasar-Ihtreg and Welthianne to reach her.
Lasar-Ihtreg moved just as slowly across the flagstones. Once he and Fyonna were face to face, he made a small gesture that stopped the anklet from torturing Bronwyn.
Bronwyn cried out in relief as it returned to its regular width, but try as she might, she was unable to slip the anklet off her foot. For once, Bryce Cassian proved useful by producing a lacey handkerchief that he held against the bleeding wound.
Lasar-Ihtreg turned back to Fyonna, cocking his head as he studied the Seer from top to toe. "We meet again, Fyonna. I see you have found my new wife. Thank you for bringing her back to me. We have unfinished business in the bridal chamber, she and I," Lasar-Ihtreg said in his characteristic raspy voice.
"I sincerely doubt you shall ever have her on her back, Seer," Fyonna said, paying close attention to what Welthianne was doing next to her life companion.
"Ha!" Lasar-Ihtreg cried, "On her back, on her knees... it matters not how she submits to me as long as she does!"
"Six centuries old, and yet, you know nothing of women," Fyonna said and reached up to release the strip of cloth that covered the upper part of her face. The pale blue light that emanated from her dead eyes shone brightly onto the floor, forcing Welthianne into retreating at once with her hands shielding her face.
Opposite Fyonna, Lasar-Ihtreg took off his own blindfold to reveal the black diamonds in his eye sockets. Roaring, he released a strong surge of black light that blasted out of him and towards Fyonna - the battle was on.
The thunderclap that grew out of the beams of energy clashing at the center of the battlefield was strong enough to shake the entire castle in its foundations.
Bronwyn shrieked and clapped her hands over her ears to protect them from the massive sound. Once the shockwave had passed, she let out a sigh of relief and went back to mopping up the blood that still seeped from the wound.
With wide open eyes, she stared at the brutal battle that took place all around her. "Wretched... I am but a helpless child!" she said and squeezed the blood out of the cloth. "Caid... Kheo... Deegan... even Fyonna! My companions are fighting a battle I started but cannot finish... wretched!"
"Lady Bronwyn," Bryce said, still holding his spotless blades, "when will you understand that women should not-"
"Look!" Bronwyn cried, pointing at a dark-haired figure in a crimson dress who was sneaking along the wall at the opposite side of the cargo deck.
As always, the look on Bryce's face told that he was hopping mad at being interrupted, but he still turned around and followed Bronwyn's pointing. "So? It's a woman. A good-looking woman..."
"Oh, perhaps I shall introduce you to her, Cassian!" Bronwyn barked and staggered to her feet. "I dare say she is your type exactly!" Clenching her jaw to push down the pain that burned up her leg from her abused ankle, Bronwyn took off in a limping stride that saw her leaving the peacock behind in a hurry.
"Well, I- Wait! Lady Bronwyn, where are you going?" Bryce said and hurried after the Lady in blue. "The Huntress said you should stay with me!"
"Then you better hurry up!" Bronwyn said, ducking out of the way of Deegan Arliss who was fighting two of the brown beasts at once. The first quickly lost an arm, the second was slashed across the chest and promptly beheaded.
"Lady Welthianne! Lady Welthianne! Halt! You cannot escape!" Bronwyn shouted to be heard over the sounds of the frantic battle.
Welthianne suddenly turned around and began to run towards the injured woman in blue. She had her crimson fingers extended ahead of her like her beloved pets when they attacked. In two heartbeats, she was in Bronwyn's face and grabbed hold of the younger woman. "You have ruined it all, you filthy whore!"
Bronwyn's lips twitched at the fiery insult, and she promptly grabbed hold of the high priestess' shoulders and wrestled her around. The two women danced like that for a few steps until - once again - their legs entangled and they fell down onto the flagstones.
Welthianne exploited the confusion after the fall to slap Bronwyn hard across the face with the back of her hand. "I should have killed you when I had the chance!" she hissed, wrapping her crimson fingers around Bronwyn's throat and squeezing for all she was worth. "Never mind... I shall kill you now!"
The threat was real, of that there could be no doubt. Bronwyn could almost feel her windpipe being crushed by the insanely strong fingers of her opponent, but she was determined not to end her life on the filthy floor. With eyes that were bugging out on stalks, she lashed out with both hands and repeatedly whacked Welthianne over the head until she released her grip.
Coughing and spluttering, Bronwyn rolled away from the high priestess and scrambled to her feet. For a few seconds, the two ferocious fighters tried to stare each other into submission before they went at it again; this time, Bronwyn got the upper hand by ramming her knee into Welthianne's gut at the very first attempt.
Now it was Welthianne's turn to cough and groan. Staggering away, she only made it three steps before she fell down onto her knees.
Bronwyn was ready to pounce to finish off the high priestess, but just as she was about to spring into action, a new thunderclap produced by the beams of energy Lasar-Ihtreg and Fyonna threw at each other rumbled through the room and forced her to cover her ears. When the sound and the shaking had receded, Welthianne was gone.
"Oh... oh, no! Wretched!" Bronwyn roared, clenching her fists. "Where did... where did she go? Ohhh! Bryce? Bryce! Oh, where is that fool off to now?!"
While Bronwyn was looking in every direction to find Welthianne, she spotted Caid fighting three of the brown beasts at once. The first was quickly dispersed with by a fierce slash across its throat, but the other two ganged up on her and pushed her back. The second creature lost an arm in a blinding flash from the machete and staggered away with blood pouring out of the horrible wound. The fight had taken its toll on Caid and she was brought down hard by the third of the brown beasts.
Bronwyn gasped loudly and began to hobble towards the stricken woman to help her, but before she could make it there, the creature had jumped on top of Caid and began to shower her in punches.
Looking around in terror, Bronwyn could see that Deegan and Kheo were both too busy with their own monsters to help the Huntress, and Bryce was nowhere in sight. Bronwyn's blood froze over in her veins when she saw the beast jumping off Caid and moving away from the prone woman to join another fight elsewhere. "Not again... not again... oh, please, Sweet Marpaxa, not again," she whispered hoarsely, limping as fast as she could to get to the honey-blonde woman who was lying very still.
Before Bronwyn could make it there, another thunderclap was produced by the clashing beams of energy. This time, it was strong enough to make the floor shake, and everybody - apart from Lasar-Ihtreg - lost their footing and landed hard on the flagstones.
The rumbling quake stopped the fight dead, and every combatant just stared at the others, not wanting to be the first one back in the fray. The floor of the cargo deck was covered in blood and littered with bodies; one of which was Caid Barlin.
With a heart that hammered in her chest, Bronwyn stared at the honey-blonde woman, wishing her to shake it off and get on her feet. She couldn't see any movement, not even the rhythmical rising and falling of Caid's chest that proved she was breathing. Gulping down a sour surge that threatened to drown her, Bronwyn turned towards Fyonna who had also been thrown onto her knees in the quake.
Lasar-Ihtreg breathed hard, studying the carnage. Moving slowly and deliberately, he shuffled over to Fyonna who was just getting back to her feet.
The cargo deck was eerily silent as Lasar-Ihtreg raised his right hand and put it on Fyonna's cheek. "Such a waste," he breathed, caressing her cheekbone with his thumb. "If you had accepted my offer of marriage back then, we would not have met as opponents now. All that remains is your death, Fyonna. I promise it shall be... painful!"
With that, he sent out a wave of black light strong enough to make Fyonna's pale blue cowl smolder and glow red. When columns of smoke began to rise from the garment and her skin, he only intensified the onslaught.
Fyonna screamed as her skin was singed. She tried to fight back with her own beam of energy, but there was nothing she could do. Slowly, she was pushed back down to her knees.
The air around the two Seers glowed and turned hotter than lava. A poor brown beast that got too close caught alight and was incinerated before it had made it two steps away from the cone of black light - that accident made the other creatures pull back in fear, releasing Kheo and Deegan from their opponents.
Lasar-Ihtreg let out a booming laugh as Fyonna's skin began to char and turn black; his laughter echoed through the cargo deck and spurred Bronwyn into action.
Getting up - but making sure she was well away from the beams of light - she half-walked, half-crawled over to Caid. Once she was there, she snatched the machete the Huntress had dropped when she fell.
Bronwyn didn't want to remember Caid in death, so she closed her eyes while she was close to the stricken woman and simply wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the machete. Turning away, she got to her feet and limped over to the uneven struggle between Lasar-Ihtreg and Fyonna.
Two steps later, she thought she heard a whimpering groan behind her, but as she spun around and looked at Caid, the honey-blonde woman remained completely still. Looking back ahead, Bronwyn could see Kheo kneeling on the floor some distance away from her, nursing a wound in his side that bled quite badly. Deegan and Bryce were nowhere to be found.
"I am the last one... I must finish what I began," she croaked, limping over to Lasar-Ihtreg with the machete in her hand. The burning pain from her ankle hampered her progress, but she swallowed it and kept going.
On her way there, the surviving brown beasts encircled her and the flying creatures made strafing runs with their talons extended just above her head to make her change her mind - all in vain. Step by bloody step, Bronwyn approached Lasar-Ihtreg with the machete in her hand.
It appeared Lasar-Ihtreg hadn't noticed the threat that came at him from behind, but he suddenly jerked his head around and shone the beam of black light directly at Bronwyn's face.
Shrieking, Bronwyn dove for cover by jumping forward with the machete ahead of her, hoping she would catch at least some part of the evil Lord, but she missed him by less than a fathom - behind her, one of the brown beasts and two of Welthianne's birds were hit by the beam of energy and caught fire.
Grunting, Lasar-Ihtreg gestured angrily which made the anklet tighten again before he turned back to Fyonna.
Blood immediately sprang from the wound as the chain tightened so hard Bronwyn's foot turned dark red. Screaming, she lost her balance and fell down on her knees, then her rear; the machete left her fingers and clanged harmlessly across the flagstones. Behind her, two of the brown beasts had their muscular arms up, ready to snatch her and tear her apart limb from limb - or worse.
Bronwyn tried to ignore the pain, but found it so intense and white-hot that she couldn't - not until she was filled by the strongest surge of hatred she had ever experienced. Hatred towards Lasar-Ihtreg for burning Fyonna, hatred towards the brown beasts for hurting Caid Barlin, hatred towards Zai Allizadra for beheading May-Linn, and, strongest of all, hatred towards Emperor Jin-Sarnos, her father, for offering his only daughter on a silver platter to an entity of evil who had done nothing but hurtful things to everyone he had ever encountered.
Roaring out her hatred, Bronwyn grabbed the machete, jumped up and buried the blade hilt-deep into Lasar-Ihtreg's back. When it was all in, she jerked it out and plunged it in for a second time, this time forcing down the razor-sharp blade through all Lasar-Ihtreg's rotten innards.
Then the world exploded in Bronwyn's face and she was thrown clear across the floor of the cargo deck until she slammed shoulder-first into the far wall.
Black energy escaped Lasar-Ihtreg's body in an uncontrollable burst that swept away everything in its path - people, beasts and the few crates that were on the cargo deck. Everyone and everything was blown to the sides as the evil Lord staggered around with the machete still imbedded in his body. He screamed in what seemed to be multiple voices at once as his ancient shell finally began to crumble and die.
Even more voices joined the terrifying cacophony until it seemed that every dimension known to Man pointed at the same spot in time and space - Lasar-Ihtreg's fragile being. Blood of several different colors began to seep from his head until his ghoulish, skull-like face was covered in the glistening fluids; then, he fell to his hands and knees.
The voices eventually died down, leaving only the pained groans of the six centuries old man. Blood dripping from his head and the horrific wounds in his back stained the flagstones beneath him. He looked up, but before he could lock eyes with anyone, he shuddered and fell down completely.
A moment later, he was still.
"Caid!" Bronwyn croaked, still resting up against the far wall with all the other debris that had been pushed aside in the explosion of energy. Aching all over, she sat up and rubbed her shoulders and neck that had taken the brunt of the impact. With Lasar-Ihtreg's death, the anklet had ceased to torture her, but the chain had dug itself so deeply into her flesh she still couldn't pry it off.
Just as she was thinking about getting up, Lasar-Ihtreg's remains let out another burst of black energy that sent a hurricane shrieking through the cargo deck.
All the brown beasts that had still been standing suddenly began to dance around grotesquely, clutching their heads and bodies and letting out pained growls and gurgling hisses. One by one, the creatures fell down and began to jitter uncontrollably - and one by one, they died.
Moments later, the dark gray flying creatures rained down from the ceiling of the cargo deck where they had been flying around. The winged monsters thumped down onto the flagstones, literally falling to pieces from the hard landings.
When two flying creatures thumped down on either side of Bronwyn, splattering her pale blue gown in blood and gunk, she cried out her frustrations and scrambled to her feet to get away from the worst of the air raid.
All around the cargo deck, the corpses of the brown beasts and the dark gray flying creatures littered the floor and created a disgusting obstacle course that Bronwyn needed to cross to get to Caid Barlin.
Bronwyn shook her head and set off towards the prone woman, but only made it a couple of steps before she happened to cast a glance at Lasar-Ihtreg's body. His physical shell had withered down into a pool of steaming acid that had completely dissolved the blade of the machete - only an inch or so remained of it, right up against the hilt.
Fyonna had been unaffected by the violent explosions of energy and still lay where she had fallen. Her skin had been singed and her cowl had turned almost as black as Lasar-Ihtreg's from the forces it had been exposed to. While Bronwyn was watching, the Seer coughed and began to rub her face, meaning she wasn't as badly hurt as she appeared.
Bronwyn hoped it would be a good sign and looked ahead at Caid, but the Huntress was still motionless. Sighing, she limped on.
When she reached the fallen warrior, she knelt down next to the body. Caid's face had been beat up quite badly leading to a swollen left eye and several other cuts, bruises and abrasions, but beyond that, she seemed intact.
Though Bronwyn knew she wouldn't find any heartbeat, she leaned down and pressed her ear to the warrior's chest to listen for any signs of life.
Above the two women, Kheo and Fyonna came over to see what was going on. Kheo bore a row of deep scratches across the lower left part of his abdomen, a legacy of getting too close to the strong fingers of one of the brown beasts. "Phirax... Caid!" he said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.
"I..." Bronwyn said, listening to Caid's chest. "I do hear... s- some- I do hear something! She still has a heartbeat! Caid! Caid, can you hear me? Caid?" she cried, stroking the good side of Caid's face so she wouldn't exacerbate the swollen eye.
"I fear I cannot sense her, child," Fyonna said, busy wrapping the strip of cloth around her eyes so she wouldn't accidentally incinerate anyone.
"I can!" Bronwyn barked angrily. "Caid... please come back to us... Caid! Oh... why will she not listen to me! She must listen to me, I am... I am..." - Bronwyn looked up at the Seer who shook her head slowly.
Bronwyn ground her jaw incessantly, looking from the two people above her and down to the prone woman in her arms. "No... no, I am not giving up on her! Not this time," she said and dove down to claim Caid Barlin's lips in a ferocious, life-affirming kiss where she tried to transfer all her own energy into the passive, limp body she held in her arms.
"Oy, luv!" Kheo said, averting his eyes from the tender scene.
Bronwyn really put her back into the kiss, and little after little, her efforts began to pay off. The energy, the love and the passion flowed freely from the Lady to the Huntress and slowly began to persuade Caid to return from wherever she had been spending her time.
The triumphant return of the Huntress was complete when she moved a hand up and put it behind Bronwyn's head to pull the younger woman even further into the kiss. For a little while, they positively gnawed at each other's mouths before they realized they weren't alone.
Bronwyn eventually bumped down on her rear, staring in wide-eyed shock at the honey-blonde woman who sat up and probed her swollen eye while letting out a long, dark groan. Her shock turned to a sense of happiness that swirled around inside her like a late summer storm, then to a burst of compassion for the injuries on Caid's face, and finally into a veritable lightning bolt of explosive joy and relief that the Huntress was all right.
Crying out, Bronwyn got on her knees and pulled Caid into a strong, crushing embrace that went on and on and on. "Oh... oh, Caid... I am... I am so happy, so very happy to see you alive and well. Oh, please do not give me such a fright..." she mumbled into Caid's shaggy hair where she had buried her entire face.
"Ooof! Uh... Lady Bronwyn? I had the most peculiar dream... I dreamt we were kissing... with an, uh... with a little tongue and-"
"That wasn't a dream, Caid," Bronwyn said with a grin as she caressed the good side of Caid's face.
"Oh... please accept my profound apologies for-"
"I shall do nothing of the kind, Huntress! Not when it was I who kissed you!" Bronwyn said and exploited the short distance between them by leaning in and transferring a little more energy to the Huntress who looked like she could need it. With the enthusiastic response she got, it appeared she had surmised right.
Above the kissing women, Fyonna cleared her throat, but it turned out to have very little effect. "Ah... Lady Bronwyn... Huntress? I hate to break up such a charming party, but I fear you are making sweet old Kheo's cheeks burn."
Chuckling into Bronwyn's mouth, Caid ended the kiss and pulled back from the Lady. "We can't have that, can we? Very well, I fear we must continue at another time, Milady... that is, if you're interested in continuing?"
"I am, Caid. I very much am," Bronwyn said and proved her point by stealing another kiss at the last possible moment. "We... we still have a few obstacles left... so perhaps... perhaps we should wait until we return to Ashburne Castle?"
"That would probably be wise, Lady Bron-"
Behind them, the contemptuous snort that echoed through the cargo deck meant that Bryce Cassian had come back.
Caid and Bronwyn got to their feet and went over to confront the cowardly peacock. "So?" Bronwyn said, pulling up in her gown that had once again gone too far south.
"We found the woman in crimson," Bryce said, staring at the carnage and at the low front of Bronwyn's gown. "She's dead."
"You killed her yourself, Cassian?" Bronwyn asked, narrowing her eyes.
"Nope," Deegan said, holstering his blade. He walked towards the women with a limp, the direct result of a long, bloody tear in his pants down his right thigh. "She was already dead when we found her."
"Hmmm?" Bronwyn said, looking back at Bryce.
The peacock tried to hold her gaze but had to look away. "I take it she wasn't quite human? Shall we say, she looked rather odd when we found her... like she had been dead for centuries," he said, holstering his spotless sword and dagger.
Above them, Blackston Castle began to creak and groan, and mortar and chips of stone and obsidian suddenly began to rain down upon the survivors. The creaks and groans grew in intensity until entire bricks came out of the ceiling of the cargo deck two storeys up.
"It's... it's collapsing! The castle is- oooof!" Fyonna cried, shielding herself from a large piece of mortar that nearly collected her head.
"We... we need to get out of here! Hurry!" Bronwyn shouted and wrapped her arms around Caid who let out a surprised grunt and nearly fell over when she was pulled the wrong way all of a sudden.
"I can... I can walk, Lady Bronwyn, thank you!" the Huntress said, trying to release herself from the iron grip the Lady had around her waist. "But you can't! You are limping!"
"That is nothing... just a-"
"Nonsense, nothing... your foot is covered in blood! Come, lean on me. Kheo! The Lady is hurting!" Caid barked, but soon realized that Kheo was giving a helping hand to not only Fyonna but Deegan as well. She briefly looked at Bryce but soon gave up that ridiculous notion.
Amid an infernal rumbling, the group of six staggered across the floor that grew ever more littered with the debris that rained down from above. By now, all the walls, the ceiling and the floor were cracked, and dust hung heavily in the air, coating the slain brown and dark gray beasts in a layer of white.
On their way out, they passed by the body of Welthianne who had hid in a crevice with a dagger in her hand, no doubt hoping to ambush Bronwyn and the others if they came past. Like Bryce had said, her beauty had turned ugly in death. She had been reduced to brittle, parchment-like skin and protruding bones, and the crimson gown hung on her shrunken body like a tent. Like Lasar-Ihtreg, her head had turned skull-like and ghoulish, with her grotesquely loose jaw, her few remaining tufts of hair and her empty eyes a firm proof that Death could never be called pretty or graceful.
"She was the same age as Lasar-Ihtreg," Fyonna explained as they went past the corpse. "I surmise she was feeding off his dark energy to keep her looks. When he perished, she reverted to her true age... but of course, no regular human can live for six centuries. And that's the result right there."
"Ghastly... simply ghastly," Bronwyn mumbled, looking anywhere but at the dead body.
The group quickly left the dying Blackston Castle behind and crossed a narrow drawbridge that spanned the moat. On their way over, Bronwyn thought she could see some kind of dorsal fin break the water before it swam on, but she had seen plenty of monsters already so she blocked it out of her mind and hurried onwards.
Outside, the landscape that was already littered with boulders and oddly shaped lumps of rock had gained a new color - brown. Everywhere, the carcasses of the brown beasts draped the boulders and the sand between them. There were no external injuries to any of them, so they had all perished from the fatal loss of connection to their master.
"Ghastly!" Bronwyn croaked, limping along the fastest she could. Now and again, she looked over her shoulder at the castle and the keep hundreds of fathoms above them. The keep had already begun to lean over which made her increase the tempo even more. "How much further to the horses, Caid?" she said through clenched teeth.
"A few hundred fathoms, Lady Bronwyn. Can you make it?"
"I must. Can you?"
"Of course, it's only my eye that's less than perfect. Kheo? How's it going back there?" Caid shouted over her shoulder - the terrain was too rocky to look anywhere but ahead.
The shouted answer came at once: "Bryce is whinin' in my ear all the damn time!"
"Figures," Bronwyn mumbled, changing her grip on the Huntress.
A rumbling roar that began loud and soon turned thunderous suddenly filled the air behind them. "Lady Bronwyn, I fear we have very little time now!" Caid cried, snapping around to look at the keep that had begun to break up.
"I cannot move faster! Argh, that wretched foot! Look! There, that boulder there... it should be large enough for us all... let us try it!" Bronwyn cried back, aiming for a large boulder that she hoped would provide enough cover.
All six of them had barely thrown themselves behind the boulder before debris ranging from pebbles to man-sized lumps of obsidian and stone started blasting through the air.
"Down! Down with your head, Lady Bronwyn!" Caid cried and wrapped her arms around Bronwyn's head and upper body. "Everybody! Stay down!"
Safely cocooned by the Huntress, Bronwyn reached up and clapped her hands over her ears. "Oh! I fear we are still too close, Caid!" she cried back, but her voice was drowned out by Blackston Castle finally collapsing.
The roof of the brick-like main building caved in, causing the keep to keel over and land across its base with the strength of an earthquake. Once the thousands of tons of stone came down upon the main building, everything came down in one, thunderous motion; guard towers, the galleries, the throne room where the wedding took place, the cells with the hybrid creatures - everything.
Soon, everyone on the ground was engulfed in a huge cloud of dust and a hailstorm of pebbles that billowed out from the ruins.
Bronwyn shouted in surprise at being fired upon by what she thought were slingshots, and ducked even further down into Caid's grip.
Slowly, the cloud dissipated and the pebbles eased off. The air was thick and nearly unbreathable from the massive amounts of dust that lingered everywhere, but Caid sat up and wiped the gunk off her brow. "All... right... did... we... lose... anyone...? Sound... off!"
"I'm here!" Kheo croaked from somewhere in the dust cloud.
"So am I." - "And I," Deegan and Fyonna said.
With Bronwyn alive and well in her arms, Caid only needed to hear back from Bryce Cassian. "Bryce? Bryce, are you there?"
A rattling cough came the other way, followed by a few curses in a local dialect. "Yeah, yeah, woman... you don't have to shout. My shirt is ruined!"
"Cassian, when I say sound off, you sound off!" Caid barked, brushing dust and specks of stone and obsidian out of her hair.
"Why are you always picking on me, Barlin?" came the inevitable and highly predictable answer.
Caid shook her head and pulled Lady Bronwyn into a hug instead. "And I know you are all right, Milady," she said quietly. "I mean, with the way your fingers are clutching my thigh, how can you not be?"
Bronwyn jumped up like she had been burned and hurriedly kept her hands to herself. "I beg for forgiveness, Lady Caid. I just needed something to hold onto. I hope you can forgive me..."
"I can," Caid said and took the opportunity to give Bronwyn a little kiss on her dusty cheek, "but we better get on with it now. I have a feeling we shall need, oh, one or two turns of the hourglass to find our horses... again."
Ultimately, it didn't take quite that long. By the time Santilla, Chestnut, Horsey and the rest of the horses were good to begin the endless trek back home to Ashburne Castle, only half a turn of the hourglass had passed.
Bronwyn watched Caid, Kheo and even Bryce prepare the horses and whisper soothing words of comfort into the ears of the large animals. Sighing, she pulled up in her pale blue gown and stumbled up on top of one the oddly shaped lumps of rock.
At the top, she looked at the sorry ruins of Blackston Castle and the even sorrier remains of the scores of brown beasts that hadn't been able to live on their own. "What pains me the most is knowing Makla has died, too..." she said quietly to herself, shaking her head slowly.
"I beg for forgiveness for listening in, but who, Lady Bronwyn?" Fyonna said, dragging herself up next to the Lady.
"Oh... one of those brown beasts I met in there. A female. She was Welthianne's slave, but she was just a young, innocent girl... ah, well. Such is life. To be honest, there was no way she could have lived out here. She would have been an outcast and treated as such."
"All too common a tale, I fear," Fyonna said, putting a tender hand on Bronwyn's elbow. "I wanted to ask if I should take off Lasar-Ihtreg's anklet?"
"Oh... yes, thank you, Seer. If you can."
"Though it was created by an evil mind, my skills should be enough to remove it, Lady Bronwyn. Please stand still," Fyonna said and knelt down on the hard rock. She brushed her fingers across the chain that broke apart immediately and fell onto the boulder as a harmless piece of metal. "There."
Bronwyn stared down at the Seer. Her foot was sore and her ankle was in a bad state, but at least it could mend now. "I thank you, Lady Fyonna. I have tried and tried but could not get it to move a hair's width."
"You are most welcome, Empress," Fyonna said and climbed back up.
Bronwyn smiled and looked back at the ruins - then she spun around to face the Seer. "What did you call me, Lady Fyonna?"
"Empress Bronwyn of Blackston Castle. You married the ruler of the Shadowlands, Milady. And then you slew him. As tradition dictates, you are the rightful conqueror of these lands and the people here."
"I do not wish to be anyone's conqueror! And that marriage can in no way, shape or form be legally binding!"
"Alas, your wishes cannot change such a tradition, Empress Bronwyn. Behold, your realm," Fyonna said and made a sweeping gesture across the landscape that hadn't changed at all since Blackston Castle had crumbled. The sunlight was still bleak - especially now with all the dust in the air - the forests were still deep and dark, and the fields were still untouched by man.
"Drat. I know nothing of this land nor of its people... their customs, their religion, not even their language," Bronwyn said, looking back ahead. Sighing, she took in the sights of the land that now belonged to her, whether she wanted it or not. "Still. I suppose it could be a valuable bargaining chip for our return. I fear my father shall not look upon me with a smile on his face when Caid and I ride into the East Gate of Ashburne."
"That is beyond doubt, I fear, Empress."
"Lady Fyonna... please... for the time being, I prefer simply to be addressed Lady," Bronwyn pleaded, taking the Seer by the shoulders to underline her words.
"As you wish, Milady. However, that's another wish that cannot change the tradition. You are the rightful ruler of these lands and so you shall remain. Thus, your proper title is Empress."
"I understand, but-"
"Lady Bronwyn!" Caid said from somewhere behind the two women. Bronwyn turned around and saw the Huntress holding up a dark jacket, a white jerkin and a pair of brown riding ankle pants in a fancy cut. "Lady Bronwyn, Deegan Arliss would like to offer you his spare set of clothes now that your own have been lost in the ruins... not to mention the gown you are wearing now is, uh... not particularly suited for riding."
"Thank you, Huntress. I shall be right down," Bronwyn said and turned back to Fyonna. "Seer... I need a favor of you."
"I am your humble servant, Milady," Fyonna said and curtseyed at the Lady.
"Caid and I... can we..." - Bronwyn's voice trailed off. Instead of speaking, she turned around and observed Caid who was joking around with Deegan and Kheo about something or other to blow off the last of the tension from the battle.
An involuntary smile spread over her lips at the sight of the petite woman jostling - and holding her side - with the much larger men, and she felt a warm wave spread through her.
"Lady Bronwyn, I am blind as a bat, yet even I can see the budding attraction between you and the Huntress," Fyonna said and gave Bronwyn's hands a squeeze. "If you feel it's worth pursuing, you should go for it."
Bronwyn smiled broadly at the Seer's suggestion and pulled the elderly woman in for a hug. "Worth pursuing? Oh, this is beyond simply worth pursuing... I sense the pursuit is already underway, Seer!"
"It charms me, child. Only... watch out for the snakes in the grass. Not all are easily recognizable, Milady. Some of them are wearing the colors of a friend or acquaintance and will only strike when your back is turned."
"I know," Bronwyn said somberly. "I know. Things will change upon our return, of that there can be no doubt. First, though, I think I shall change my clothes... and I think I shall ask Caid Barlin to assist me."
"A wise choice, Milady!" Fyonna said and let out a most un-Seer like giggle.
"Indeed!" Bronwyn said, giggling back. "Oh, Caid? Caid Barlin, please?"
At once, Caid stopped playing with the others and hurried up to the boulder. "Milady?"
"Caid, I shall need a hand getting into the new garments so kindly shared by Lieutenant Arliss. Can I rely on your support behind the boulder... please?"
"You can, Milady," Caid said and performed a deep bow. Then, she snatched the jacket, the jerkin and the pants and hurried behind the boulder to help Lady Bronwyn take off the inappropriate gown - and she was accompanied by a wild chorus of hoots and cheers from Kheo and Deegan.
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