Sunday, May 24, 2015

Last of the King's Men, Chapter 23

Sanna sat on the roof of the lodge, watching the dark horizon. She had her bow in her left hand, her right hand fidgeting, eager to reach back and grab a pair of arrows. Her restless watch scanned to and fro, catching every shadow, every leaf blowing in the hind. To her battle-hardened eyes, everything was a potential enemy, every new ally a turncoat waiting to reveal himself. The rest of the remaining Horselords had gone soft- after so much time spent running, defending, the moment a respite became available they doffed their armor and cast aside their weapons.

She could understand it, of course. She was far from heartless. After the years spent in exile even she was desperate for some comfort, some relief from their anguish. But she knew, after all her hardship, that relief would not come so easily. Relief would never come until their king was avenged.

She watched the horizon, feeling the sun begin to rise behind her. Grash and Artemis had not yet returned. Fru’al and Tarrow were asleep. Sanna knew they would both awaken soon- Fru’al to begin preparing his magic for the day, and Tarrow to begin training. She knew their routines so well- not just because of their living in close quarters for so long, but because it was her duty to never let a detail pass her notice.

But Tarrow hadn't been training the last few days- instead, he had spent his mornings socializing. Not Sanna. She spent her own time riding, training, collecting information, buying supplies, and keeping everyone's armor and weapons oiled and sharpened. If the enemy chose to show up at their doorstep while everyone else had their guard down, she had to make sure she had done everything she could. Sleep rarely came easy to the edhel- lately especially so. She spent every night so far sitting on the lodge's roof, watching. She couldn't let herself sleep unless someone was on guard.

Off in the distance, she saw two forms on horseback riding towards the town. Sanna Stepped down from the roof silently to meet them as they approached, bow in hand, even though she could easily recognize the draconian and the squire. She stood, stock still, until they had dismounted, tied their horses, and approached, looking worn and weary. She opened her mouth to speak, but then closed it as she heard a sound from inside the building- in a moment Tarrow would emerge and welcome the latecomers. No use wasting the energy on unnecessary words.

"It's about time," spoke the trystborn, stifling a yawn as he opened the door to the approaching Artemis and Grash. "Get in here, the three of you. I trust the night went well."

They all followed their red-tailed companion into the common room, where a fire in the hearth was heating a kettle of water. The four of them pulled chairs around the table as the crumbling stuffed bear kept vigilant watch- Sanna noted internally that Fru’al must be studying privately in the barracks.

"We have found our next lead," said Grash, taking a deep breath, heavy with fatigue. "The scale we found in Sibyla's house most likely belongs to a runaway draconian named Vrell. Although he left town two months ago, he has been seen more recently with a human girl named Fondin Dermar. It is possible she may know his whereabouts, or at least may be able to point us in the right direction."

Sanna nodded. "I know the girl you speak of. She lives with her parents on a farm southwest of town."

"Ah, yes, I know who you mean," said Tarrow. "I've met her parents. Perhaps we should have a talk with them."

"I recommend against it," Sanna warned. "I have not encountered this draconian in my patrols of that area. If she has met with him in he time since we arrived here, their meetings were likely in secret. I doubt her parents would have any knowledge of them, and such an approach could ruin any chance of getting the information peacefully."

Artemis, who had so far looked to be on the brink of falling asleep, perked up momentarily. "What about magic," he began, glancing around the room. "Why don't we just have Fru’al use magic to make her tell us? He can do that, can't he?"

Sanna watched Grash and Tarrow shift uneasily. Grash took a deep breath before responding. "Artemis, if we use magic to force an innocent person to betray a friend, then one could argue that we are no better than the evil we fight against. It may turn out in the end that your suggestion is the only option, but for the time being we must at least try a less underhanded approach."

"Not to mention," spoke the aged wizard, staring down at the pages of his weathered spellbook as he walked into the common room, "if the spell were to fail, she would know that we tried to trick her with magic. Judging by this town's attitude towards things arcane, I imagine that would mean another unfriendly mob chasing us on our way."

"Right," began Tarrow. "Now... I say we go have a chat with this girl and play it by ear."
The knights reached the Dermar homestead just around time for morning chores. Sanna wished they had brought their horses- she never felt as safe as when Sorroweth was beneath her, the wind whipping through her silvery hair- but Tarrow had asserted that approaching on horses would be more likely to draw unwanted attention.

As they approached the two-story building, Tarrow led Artemis straight to the house to keep up the pretense of making the trystborn’s daily rounds. Grash, Fru’al and Sanna walked around the grounds, looking for Fondin. Around the back, a barn stood at the end of a long stretch of pasture. A few sheep milled about, and a young boy stood near them with a long crooked stick. Sanna saw him turn and stare at the Horselords as they approached, his grip on the stick tightening.

"Greeting, young man," called Fru’al, walking up to the boy with his hand outstretched. The boy shook his hand in greeting, but Sanna noticed no difference in the boy's stiffened demeanor, and he continued to stare straight at her and Grash, barely even acknowledging Fru’al beyond the handshake.

"My name is Fru’al," continued the mage. "Might I ask yours?"

"Elijah," said the boy, glancing at the old man for barely a moment.

Fru’al looked back at his companions, and then to the boy. He then turned back a second time, grinning, catching Grash's attention. Sanna watched as he gestured for the draconian to join him with the boy, who continued to gaze intently at the edhel. A subtle motion from the sage told her to stay where she was, and the two men and the boy walked a short distance from her.

Sanna watched, puzzled, wondering what they were doing. This adolescent seemed to be watching her, completely oblivious now to the flock he was tending. The way he stared looked familiar- almost like a hunter seeing its prey for the first time, trying to work out how it was going to pursue. And now, Grash and Fru’al were whispering to the boy in private, with knowing grins on their faces? If Sanna had any feeling whatsoever that she wouldn't be able to kill or at least subdue this boy multiple different ways with a variety of available weapons (makeshift or otherwise) she might feel intimidated. As it was, the behavior of the three males before her was... puzzling, to say the least.

After a short while, the two knights left the boy, who had a satisfied and hopeful look on his face. They each laughed to themselves, leaving Sanna once again confused, but no words were wasted on the exchange. Fru’al simply pointed at the barn, and they walked toward the wide structure as the boy scurried off to gather his wandering flock.
Inside the barn, a dark-haired girl sat on an upturned crate, milking one of the family's goats. She didn't notice them when they first approached, until Sanna heard Grash clear his throat.

"Pardon me, ma'am," he began, pausing momentarily to allow the girl to gather herself after being surprised by strangers. "My name is Grash Vesuvix. Might you be Fondin?"

The girl stared for a moment, not unlike the boy had stared at Sanna, but she regained her composure soon enough. She nodded, her brown eyes glancing between them uneasily. She stood up, slapping the goat on the rear with the back of her hand to shoo it along, and wiped her palms on the front of her apron. “May I…” she began, trailing off.

The draconian stepped closer to her, extending his red-scaled hand towards her. Her eyes lingered on it, then she took it daintily, her gaze lowering as she did so.

“Fondin, my friends and I have come to talk to you. If you have time, that is,”

Sanna watched the girl nod once again, remaining silent. A cool breeze swept through the barn.

“We were wondering,” said Grash, sounding unsure of how to proceed, “if you might be able to tell us about someone. We were looking to speak with a man that you may know- a draconian named Vrell.”

Sanna watched as Fondin’s face turned red, and the girl quickly turned around to hide it, pretending to busy herself with the milking supplies. After a pregnant pause, her response came out in barely more than a squeak.

“I don’t know who you’re talking about.”

Grash took another step forward, glancing back towards his companions. “Fondin, please. We only need to speak with him. We think he may be in trouble- we know he was hurt. We need to talk to him to make sure nobody else gets hurt.”

She turned back around, and through the farm girl’s ebony hair Sanna could see tears threatening to fall from her eyes. “Look,” Fondin began, “Vrell would never hurt anyone. He’s… he’s the sweetest man I’ve ever met, and none of you… you… adults… could ever imagine what it is that we have.” The way she said the word “adults” was, Sanna noted, implying that such a fate was a bad thing. Typical human adolescent angst. The edhel was thankful that she never had to deal with such behavior.

“Fondin,” responded Grash, reaching to place a warm hand on her shoulder. “I believe you. I’m not trying to judge anything about you or your relationship with him. But the important thing is, like I said, that we find him and talk to him before it’s too late. Do you know where we can find him?”

For the briefest of moments, Sanna saw the girl’s gaze flicker. She wondered if Grash or Fru’al had even noticed it- but regardless, her own eyes glanced to where Fondin had directed her, intentionally or not- towards the house. The girl let out a wail and pushed Grash’s hand from her shoulder, and turned and ran out of the barn into the fields. The draconian moved to chase after her, but Fru’al’s wrinkled hand halted him.

Sanna, however, was still staring at the two-story building that Fondin called home. There was a window within sight, up on the second floor. Next to the window, conveniently, was a tall tree, one strong branch barely more than an arm’s reach from the glass panes.

“There,” she said to the other knights, pointing. “That’s the girl’s room. If there is anything to be found, it’ll be there. I’ll be right back.”

Without waiting for a response, Sanna sprinted towards the homestead, pausing behind the thick tree trunk. Looking around, she could see the young boy, Elijah, once again tending to his flock, though occasionally he’d glance towards the barn, now with a quizzical look on his face. Through the first-story window, she saw two human adults standing with Tarrow and Artemis, Tarrow talking animatedly about something insignificant. His gaze met hers, and without missing a beat, Tarrow began casually leading them out of the room and out of sight.

She quickly scaled the tree, reaching hand over hand until she was level with the upper window, close enough to reach the glass. Through it, the edhel saw a plain, unassuming bedroom, as she had suspected. She stretched one limber leg to rest on the sill, the other planted firmly onto the protruding branch, and placed both hands on the pane. After some difficulty moving it, she whipped out her dagger, easing it into the space between the edge of the window and the wall. In no time, the window was open enough for her to squeeze through into the room.

Closing the window behind her, Sanna’s eyes skipped around the room, looking for anywhere that a girl might hide a note, a keepsake, or anything else she doesn’t want found. She checked in her chest of drawers, under her straw bed- even in the pockets of some of her dresses. She spotted a loose floorboard, and taking care not to make any noise, she pried it out with her dagger, and sure enough, below it was a small compartment with a scrap of musty fabric, a draconic-looking tooth on a cord, and a note hastily scrawled on paper. Unfolding the note, Sanna quickly memorized it.

Fondy- I know that I won’t be able to see you for a while. And I know that you don’t want to leave your home. But if you change your mind, meet me at the tall hill off the east road- you know, the one that looks like it has a crown on top. Meet me there the night of the full moon. If you don’t… I understand. But I love you, and I will see you again. Just don’t forget about me, okay?

It was signed at the bottom with a small drawn symbol that looked like a three-clawed dragon’s foot. Hearing a noise coming from the hall outside the room, Sanna quickly folded up the note, replaced it in its hiding spot, and slid the board back over it. Footsteps were coming closer, and she stood up, looking out the window down towards the ground. She felt the familiar sensation of her body flowing like liquid, and in that same moment she felt the springy earth beneath her feet, her back against the tree, the window blowing her silvery hair. Grash and Fru’al were still by the barn, and hurried to meet her as soon as she Stepped back to the ground.

The knights rode their horses along the road east, passing by the scattered farmsteads that stood outside of the town proper. The full moon had already passed- the previous night, in fact, but Sanna knew that tracking some amorous draconian would be far from her most difficult quarry. Not long had passed before the road wound beside a tall hill covered in scattered boulders, the topmost of which jutted up against the sky like a crooked crown. Sorroweth carried his rider around the stones to the zenith, stopping short of the rock formation to allow the edhel to dismount without disturbing any possible clues.

The Horselords gathered around, looking for signs of disturbance while trying mainly to keep out of Sanna’s way. She knelt beside the crown-like boulders, her eyes fixed on the grass. It was matted in a circular formation, as if someone had paced back and forth waiting for someone to arrive. Her eye caught a small gouge in the edge of one of the boulders, its edges still sharp- meaning that recently, someone had struck it with a bladed weapon, possibly in frustration after being rejected.

She looked closely at the faint footprints, however, noting their size. She only saw one individual’s footprints. He had come here alone, which meant that whatever his agenda, it was not one he wanted to share with whoever or whatever he was allied. If their goal was to capture rather than kill, this could be used as a bargaining chip.

The other knights were silent, the only sound being the faint whip of wind. “One set of footprints,” she began, breaking the quiet. “It seems Vrell came here, waited for her, and then left- continuing south. We shouldn’t have much difficulty following him. He came on foot, and didn’t bother to hide his tracks.”

Tarrow, satisfied, gave the order for everyone to remount and follow Sanna’s lead.

As they got back onto the road and continued along, however, the edhel held up a hand to stop. She caught a scent, coming from up ahead, around a bend in the road- one that the others would doubtless detect any moment.

The smell of burning flesh.

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