“Go?” The single word struck a tight cord within me, thrumming urgently and quickening the beat of my heart. We had been speaking of leaving, but the actual thought of removing myself from her, of loosing the wonderful warmth that filled me now—it was almost impossible to conceive. Years, I had spent years only dreaming of this time with her, of what it might feel like to see her face and hear her voice. I had wondered for too long about what her embrace might feel like, what she would call me and where she would lead me if ever I found her.
It was then that I realized how badly I had lied. I did not want to leave, I wanted to stay, to return home and never dream again of wandering. That had been an unspoken assumption I always had, that if I should find my family, I should stay with them. No more fear among mortals, no more wondering if I might ever be natural to everything around me—I wanted that place where my flames wouldn't harm others. That flame was quelled now... did that mean there was no home for me?
Yet I could not find it in myself to ask. I merely stared at Mama's beautiful eyes, crumpling from the inside out. She was sad for me to go; I was sad for me to go! After having felt this sense of wholesomeness, of family, how could I merely walk away? Hunter had given me a place in this world, however temporary, and both he and Cadenza had inadvertently formed a link to my mother which I never would have discovered. The mere thought of returning back to that simple and lonely little home in the Dome made my cheeks burn and my eyes water.
How long had I thought I could remain so noble, so sacrificing? It was clear to me now, distinctly clear that I had put off all thoughts of truly leaving until now. I did not want to wait until it was convenient for one to take me here again, to return to the Dome and pretend that this revelation of my heritage was a thing too small to deserve every moment of my attention. I did not want time away from my mother to consider all that she had revealed, nor all Hunter had found in myself. No, I wanted to be with her, near her, to hear and feel and see all that I had not known as a child. What did it matter if I had food or spare dresses or even my staff, my sole heirloom of my origin, so long as she was here?
“I... I do not want to go.” Even as I spoke I was ashamed, looking to the ground. I could not deny the pure joy I had felt in not mere discovery, but hope to stay with her and this world that I had come from. To wait even the short amount of time it would take for me to prepare to stay with Hunter and him to come for me... I hardly had the patience for it. What if he could not find me? What if all this merely faded away, if it had all been a hopeful delusion?
But if I could not do that one small thing, could I consider myself honestly worthy of Hunter's offer? I needed to be more than a burden, and the first step in that would be helping him... to help me. So I swallowed, looking back up again. “I will return again... soon, very soon. I promise.”
"You are certain, Aelfdene...?" Gaia searched the girl's eyes for a long moment, before a thoughtful yet serene expression came over her face, and she seemed to settle something for herself. She stroked her daughter's cheek with gentle, graceful fingers, and then guided her into one more embrace, her arms around her strong but her hug soft, warm, enveloping.
"Take care... I do not mean that in the human way, but in the older sense... take caution, be mindful of where you go, of your safety... I could not bear it if something should happen to you so soon after we have been met once more... Do not forget that which I have given you..." she said, squeezing her lightly, and at the fae girl's throat, the firefly pendant seemed to gleam in response to such closeness to her mother.
"You must come back..." she murmured. She had lived for eons, but she would have gladly waited far long before ever having to release her child again from her arms. But it came time for the pain, and indeed it ached deep, somewhere in that age-old heart that had loved all that had lived and gone, to let go of yet another, one so cherished. The Mother parted from Leonna, but kept her hand in hers, and together, they vanished in soft, green light.
When they reappeared, they were in a jungle clearing somewhere far, in the nation of Florheim, well north of Rubato. There remained the first known door to the Dome from the world of Earth, their world. Cadenza Madrigal had been sent through that Dome by her eldest sister, years ago, originally on her sister's orders to plunder the strange worlds beyond. What would lie ahead for Leonna beyond that door now?
Letting go of her hand, taking those steps to the door—my own feet hesitated to move as I ordered them. I made my promises to be safe, said my goodbyes, yet my eyes could not remove myself from my mother. We were in an entirely different place filled with immense life, but I saw only her, the soft green eyes and the pendant about her neck. Only in touching my own necklace did I gain the last gap of reassurance I needed to part. I would see her again and soon.
My hand didn't leave the firefly as I crossed the threshold of the door and was still firmly grasping it by the time I made it numbly to my room in the Dome. For the first time since my arrival to the Dome, I was not inclined to start cleaning or baking snacks or charting out the forest. The first and only thing I could think of was packing, but I had so little to stuff my bag with. Seeds, spare clothing, small utensils for cooking, soaps and tinctures—all were already tucked away in my satchel. All I had to gather was my journal I had left on the desk and my staff, which had been resting against the wall since the time of my departure.
With the items resting in my hands, I could only ponder how long it would be before I might hear Hunter at the door. Hours and hours... the night still had to be endured, and I was already poised on my toes to leave. With Padme still gone with her friends, I would have to wait to tell her as well. The only thing left was... dinner.
I let out a long sigh, leaning on my staff as I stood again. My only thought had been to check the ice box for the simplest thing to make, but I did not quite make it there. Two steps and the floor suddenly disappeared. I felt familiar inertia, that thrill as gravity pulled me down before the wind grasped my wings, then panic. Everything flashed from darkness to light again, but before I could make heads or tails of it, I felt the front of my body thwump into a papery pillow.
No sound, there had been no sound of the floor giving way before I fell. Had I somehow broke through the tree's solid trunk? But the fall was too short and... my journal, where had that book gone? It was no longer in my hand...
"No, I will wager with you Peter, there is no way Old Thomas can drink that many pints!"
"Nonsense, Neville, I witnessed it myself! But if a wager you desire, then pray, I shall accept no less than twenty gald!"
"Twenty gald!? Are you mad?"
"Hush!" ordered a stern baritone voice at the head of the group. "Quit your bickering, the both of you! Did no one else hear that squeak? It sounded like a wounded animal... nay... perhaps a wounded child..."
"Er... Sir Hildegard? Mayhaps we um... go help it?" spoke a slow, stumbling other voice.
"We will, Bo, if everyone will take care to stop stepping on twigs--the sound is going to scare it away."
Lanterns wavered in the twilight of the forest, the sunset only a faded orange memory in the sky, the cicadas out to serenade the nighttime patrol. Lieutenant Lesley Hildegard and his troops made their way through a thick patch of brambles, quieter now that Peter Warren and Clark Neville had stopped arguing at the back. Borrof Slovsky lumbered forward with his pack rumbling on his back, and cast his lantern's light toward the clearing ahead.
There, in a pile of fallen leaves at the base of a great oak, lied a fair, blond girl.
"H-H...Hilde...gard..." the big man mumbled, his chubby face going pale. His hand holding the lantern shook terribly and cast the light about in dizzying flashes.
"Steady, Bo, steady!" the lieutenant grasped his friend's arm and the lantern ceased its jerky dance, "You have heard tales of the folk of the forest, have you not...? Those that seize children and the unsuspecting to whisk them away to their dens, for horrors no man has lived to tell of? We must take caution..."
"She could be one of those, ah, those dryad folk, from the stories..." Peter suggested, "or an elf... she is lovely enough to be an elf."
Hildegard ignored this for the time being--they were all shaken up enough--and drew nearer to the mysterious girl with Bo, both their lanterns shining bright. As they came closer, he grasped his sword's hilt at his side, ready for whatever witchcraft she might throw at them.
"Who are you?" he demanded, his gray eyes sharp and betraying none of his fear. That was when he saw hers--the color of vibrant gems, too beautiful and blue to be natural. Truly they had to be in the presence of something alien. He had to tear his gaze away before he was spellbound, "Men!" he called back to his fellow knights, "do not gaze into her eyes directly, lest they enspell you!"
Crunchy, musky leaves where everywhere—in my hair, my mouth, and in every fold of my dress they could find. I had been so busy spitting them from my teeth while trying to scramble out of the pile that I neither saw nor heard the men approach before the bright light of a lantern was before my eyes. It was still uncomfortable as I stared back at the first of them that appeared, gawking with my knees folded awkwardly beneath me. My book was forgotten even as my hand found it again, and I had to wonder how in the world this odd group of strangers had found their way to the Dome.
“H-H...Hilde...gard..." The man might as well have found a mother bear, for all the shaking he went into. Instinctively, I reached forward, not knowing if we spoke the same tongue and what it was he said. There was nothing to fear in the room I had been provided...
“Steady, Bo, steady! You have heard tales of the folk of the forest, have you not...? Those that seize children and the unsuspecting to whisk them away to their dens, for horrors no man has lived to tell of? We must take caution..." So there was another of them here, and another and another... and they thought I... oh, it was not at all good. Already the steadier man new I was not human.
“She could be one of those, ah, those dryad folk, from the stories... or an elf... she is lovely enough to be an elf." The latter of them spoke, and despite the fact that he was quite wrong, I found myself eager to agree to his claims. What he suggested sounded harmless, at least pretty rather than threatening. Had they all been frightened by their first comrade's response?
“Who are you?" The steady man had his hand on his blade now, and I worried then that I had fallen into some sort of nightmare. They did not seem like indecent men, but... what manner of decent man would not at least start at one like me? I was not human, and I once had a flame that could have harmed them all, even had I tried to control it and wish it otherwise. This man... he could see that in me, I knew it. Such a thought brought despair in my heart even as he turned to warn his fellows.
“Please, I...” I was about to explain to them that they had wandered into my territory when I realized that I was not in my room. The forest with the immense trees, the thrumming energy of the ground, the warm misty air full of exotic scents and sounds—this place was decidedly more solid, colder. I could almost recognize the sound of a bird in the distance as I wrapped my arms around myself. Where... where could the Dome have possibly dropped me? Hunter was... Hunter was to come for me there.
The staff in the crook of my left elbow had picked up a soft blue glow; these were the nervous tremors of energy that too often followed my worries. If that steady one... if he moved to strike out, I could form a barrier fast enough to stop him. But outrunning four men... four armed men when I had not even had time to stand... that was not likely. I could only pray that such would not be necessary. Even the stern one seemed hesitant to act immediately, asking and reasoning before waving a sword about.
“I... I am...” Well, I did want to know how it felt, how that true name felt again on my tongue. It was more truthful, after all. “I am... Aelfdene. I am not here to weave magic—please! Be not afraid. I just wish to know where I am...”
"I am... Aelfdene. I am not here to weave magic—please!" she cried, even as the strange cane at her side glowed with an otherworldly light. It did not appear ominous, but then again, many dangerous things did not advertise themselves candidly. Hildegard did not trust that light. "Be not afraid," the creature went on, "I just wish to know where I am..."
"She hasn't heard of Choras?" the weaselly-looking Peter piped up, "how can you go wandering in the Northumberland Woods without knowing where you are?"
"Someone who is not concerned with territory humans have won in war, Peter," Hildegard replied. His eyes watched the fae girl suspiciously like he thought she might suddenly grow two heads and begin yelling out hexes if he was not vigilant. "Someone unconcerned with mortal troubles. You see that witch's staff she carries. She must be some lost inhuman creature who has wandered into our living realm."
"I-is that true?" a younger voice squeaked from the back. It was Neville. He was Hildegard's younger brother, though you could not tell it, save for the angular line of his jaw and the liveliness behind his eyes. However, where his older brother's were cold and sharp and intelligent, his were more youthful, more optimistic, more curious of the world that still held so much for him to learn. He'd had a much more comfortable life than his brother after their parents died and Hildegard had saw to it that a rich, kind family adopted Neville, while he himself struggled to become a page to any knight that would accept him. Neville's nerves were not as steely as his brother's then, faced with a beautiful but strange being in the dark of the woods.
"We do not have the luxury to investigate further--she may call upon others of her kind at any moment. Bo, Peter, collect her now, while we have the strength of greater numbers. Fair creature, if you do not struggle against us, we will not treat you more harshly than we need to. There need not be violence."
At the lieutenant's orders, Bo and Peter went forth, Bo in his heavy, clumsy steps, Peter slinking along, his muscles like a whipcord under his armor, like someone used to sneaking around enemy lines, both their hands at the hilts of their swords. Neither felt any ill-will towards the girl--but neither could deny that they were shaken by her, by those alluring, unnatural eyes, by that strange light about her staff. They flanked her and drew their weapons, but did not strike, did not even nudge at her with them. They merely made it clear that should she resist, they had the option, and the advantage. She was a prisoner, but she did not have to be a full-fledged enemy.
"Rise," Peter told her, then added in a chivalrous impulse he could not help, "ahem... if you would please, lass." Knighthood training died hard. Even if she was not human, she looked and sounded like a lady, and he could not help treating her as such, as much as the situation allowed.
"Pray cooperate," Hildegard added, in a more neutral tone than his friend, but with his own brand of clear-spoken, cool diplomacy, "I wish not to spill unnecessary blood this night. If indeed your words are true, and you wish our kingdom no harm, then we shall take you to Renamor City proper, and His Majesty may decide to pardon you. Until then, we cannot ignore this intrusion into our lands by one of magic kind. Should we move now, we should reach His Majesty's halls before dawn."
OoC: I still really need to write up NPC profiles for these guys. I have their appearances/personalities/etc. all clear and stored in my head though, so if you have questions, feel free to ask. Some of their histories and such have been covered in oooold threads like "A Kindred Spirit", but just asking me is easier than digging up possibly outdated stuff.
A king may choose to pardon me? These were not mere country guards and I no ordinary woman... yet even with their weapons I had not begun to think of the full consequences. I could do as they said and hope for the best, trusting in human mercy, but what if, holding the same suspicions, they did not let me go? It would be infinitely better to escape four guards rather than a king and his court, but if I showed them even a sliver more of magic, surely only condemnation would meet me. This was a strange new world, and I, I was already a prisoner in it.
“A pardon? Am I not innocent?” I slowly stood, searching their leader's eyes for some mote of understanding, but he would not meet my gaze directly. Behind me, there was only too clearly the sound of clinking metal, and tried dearly to avoid the image of a blade in my back.
"...If nothing else, fair creature, you are guilty of trespassing in His woods, and we must ascertain the truth for your presence here. Choras has many enemies that may do it harm, even if those enemies send their emissaries in the form of gentle-appearing yet peculiar maidens." Not an inch, not in a single word would he budge. If a man of his position was so wary, what chance did I have with a monarch of so cautious a land? They spoke of enemies, enemies to—Choras!
My knees threatened to give as the weight of the name struck me. I would have thought it at least some degree of pure coincidence, but it was the Dome that had brought me here, and those flashes of gold, the green, the curve of their voices so strangely familiar—Hunter himself had said that he had found freedom through Cadenza and that bizarre magic. It was too strange for me to comprehend; too long I had seen a prince in Hunter, but the full understanding of what that meant, that there was an entire kingdom behind him, a functioning army once at his command... my mind could only grope about the idea, unable to hold it, to remember the way that he had held me.
I took a sharp breath, nearly stumbling forward. The butt of my staff firmly met the ground to offer support, but my mind felt as though it was trying to soar out of my head. Everything about me said my realization was true, but I could not bring myself to believe it. Hunter... the exiled prince... did I dare speak his name to find out? No... they were suspicious of me already and if he truly was the prince of this land, would his disappearance not in some way be place on me? I did not know how much they knew of the Dome, but I could not take that warm name from my tongue.
“Hu... Hildegard... that is what I heard them call you. I will do as you wish and place my life in hands which have never known me... but there is something I wish in return. I come bearing no harm towards you and your people, yet your weapons are drawn upon me. Do not be the vessel of ending an innocent life... I fear your judgment and more yet that of so wary a leader... but have you the conscience I believe you may possess, have mercy upon one different from you.”
Lieutenant Hildegard regarded her for a long moment, thoughts flickering behind his steady gray eyes. Peter and Bo watched as their leader's dark brows furrowed for an instant, and both straightened their postures a little stiffly when the taller man looked their way.
"She doesn't sound like a liar, brother..." Neville piped in, his young voice with a trace of boyish softness. He was the only one gazing openly upon Leonna now, his eyes curious, almost gentle. "Is it possible that not all inhuman creatures are bad...? It may be she is a kind one..."
Hildegard's eyes hardened at this, but his face looked--if one could read its subtle, angular lines--looked stricken, if only for a passing second. His little brother's words had struck his heart, the thought that he was treading upon the young man's good faith with his suspicions. Was he being too harsh on this lass? What would the prince do... Hunter, it has been too long... In times such as these, I still find myself wishing I had your steadfast guidance, your surety of action and word...
All the squad watched as their leader mulled over the fae girl's request, the heart deep under his cold, steel-tempered exterior wishing too, to believe the gentle lady, to take her at her word, even as he knew she might be bewitching him. If they sheathed their weapons, she could attack in the next instant, before they could ever draw them to defend themselves again. But if she truly had such frightful magic, could she not have already killed them, swords or not? Yet she had done nothing but call a little light to her staff to lessen the dark of the forest...
My liege... my friend... may the Lord grant me the strength to do as you would for our land and our brothers...
"...Very well, Aelfdene," he rose his head from his thoughts and allowed his gaze to finally meet hers as he spoke, "we shall call a truce of sorts with you on our journey to His Majesty's court, but you must come nonetheless. It may be a mere formality when we reach there, but I cannot allow mere chance to sway my decisions. His Majesty entrusts me to be vigilant, and thus we must report any strangeness to him we run across, however harmless it may eventually prove to be... does thou understand me...?"
He then returned his glance to Peter and Bo, and nodded once, signaling them to put away their weapons for the time being. "Come, men, we must make haste to our steeds and begin on our way. Night is not a wise time to leave them be for long. Even the insignias of Choras on their armor shall not deter the worst of bandits. Sir Arnold should not have to watch over them alone for long."
He said my name, then, finally meeting my gaze. There was sharpness there, sharpness enough to make me doubt going along, but his words were not unkind. It was so like... Hunter, upholding duty, chivalrous action even under unkind circumstances. These men held a fear and wonder for me as others had in Bren; I could not blame them for that. I did not wish to follow them to more judgment, but the only other choice was fleeing. Undoubtedly, they might consider such action the result of a criminal's desperation.
“I understand... though I would not wish it. Even a gentle hand can lead a soul to condemnation.”
Hildegard turned back to address her, even as the party began to move carefully through the wood, towards its outer edge, keeping their lanterns cast ahead to illuminate the winding path.
"Then I pray you will forgive me, maiden," he told her, "for where I stand, the road branches out into equally perilous choices, and I have no guide save for my own intuition. A greater man may see a way I cannot... but there is too much at stake in this single moment for me to sit and ponder the options while the situation passes me by."
At this, the men fell silent, all thinking of times that felt far too long ago, when they'd been guided by their prince, by that kind and confident voice, led by a heart and a mind that never seemed to falter from that pinnacle of knightly conduct and capability that they all aspired to. He had been their champion, their leader, their brother. He still was, wherever he might be. They thought they would grow accustomed to his absence, but as the months had gone on, they only felt it more keenly, like an arch that is missing its keystone, unable to ever stand on the same stable ground again.
Neville was the only one to voice it aloud. "I miss Hunter..." he murmured, very softly. It was out of no disrespect for his elder brother's skill as a leader--in fact, without the prince there, none of them could see any better leader to take the man's stead than Lieutenant Hildegard. Neville uttered the words more in the manner of a young boy missing a favorite relative, an uncle or older cousin he looked up to greatly. "He could help figure out what we should do... he always could..."
"Neville," Hildegard said, his tone one of gentle rebuke. His footsteps were heard trudging through the leaf mold and sodden earth for the span of several breaths before he spoke again, "Speaking his name will not bring him back... let us not dwell on memories, lest they cloud our eyes from our duty..."
Even though he was scolding his brother, all could hear that his heart was not quite in the words. Neville frowned but fell quiet, and they all marched on, keeping a rough circle around Leonna as they moved, Peter and Neville behind her, slightly to the left and right, and Hildegard and Bo to the front, in a similar formation. If the atmosphere wasn't so tense, it might have looked to an outsider observer like they were a royal security detail escorting a princess.
"Careful, we will soon come to a stream," the lieutenant cautioned, as a cool breeze first met them, rising off the nearby water. They tightened their circle around Leonna--almost as if in preparation to protect her or catch her if she stumbled in the mud, rather than to pen her in. Somewhere, an owl was questioning who was around.
I sighed before I realized I had, covering my mouth. This Hildegard was stubborn as stone, but somehow endearing in his duty. These soldiers were not coarse or cruel—afraid, perhaps, but so like Hunter in speech and gait. It was disturbingly comfortable to walk near them, to hear the weight of their steps and the light clink of armor. Despite where they promised to deliver me, I was not alone in this new world. They had answers and were company, kind company, given the circumstances.
What was surprising was when Hunter's name appeared in their conversation. It seemed almost folly to think that the man they spoke of was any different from the Hunter I knew, but... how they talked about him, it seemed so personal. Could it possibly be that they were friends of his? Yet the dimness in their voices almost suggested that he had passed away. Perhaps there was a tactful way to inquire...
I gasped as cool mud sucked on my feet, immediately stepping back. I did not have to look down to understand the implications, wincing as a tiny trickle of water found its way between my toes. Why, why had the Dome done this to me? I had not even had the chance to put on proper shoes, proper boots—these were slippers, and not only flimsy ones, but white.
Oh bother, but what do I care? If I dirty what the Dome gives me, it is its own fault. It will just be cold... and they will squeak horribly... These were men all about me, and I did not wish to earn their disfavor with trivial troubles, but something simply had to be done.
“Please, just a moment if you would.” I brought one knee up, feeling something like an odd stork as I slipped one shoe off, soon doing the same for the other foot. The following sensations made me immediately regret removing them, feeling cool and slimy ground seep up from the grass, but it was for the ultimate good.
Hildegard shared a meaningful look with Peter at this, and then sighed and shook his head, his features softening a little, "Pray, milady, do not..." he sighed again, "do not trouble yourself so. Even if you are our prisoner, it would not do for us to refuse a lady her due courtesy. Bo, would you?" he looked to the stockier man.
"O...oh!" Bo rose his head and blinked his dim brown eyes, before looking to the fae girl. He gulped once, but then nodded to himself as if he had assured himself of something important, and dutifully lumbered forth to clumsily but securely heft Leonna into his big arms. "I... uh... d...don't use any magic please... I like being a man... not a..." he gulped and looked toward the water, then back at the girl, "f-frog..."
"Bo, let us be off! Don't fret about her! We are all here to help you!" Peter cheered from behind them. Already Hildegard had started wading across the stream, keeping a hand on his younger brother Neville's shoulder to help him along.
Bo shut his eyes in obvious effort and then began to wade in as well, his heart pounding in his big chest, his steps sluggish but parting the water with the weight and immobility of a rock. A few times he stumbled on stones in the riverbed, and the stream burbled and splashed him and the girl. But he did not fall, and they forged on, meeting the others at the other side of the stream.
His face was pale by the time they reached the bank, and with the weight of his armor and the extra burden, his forehead had gone shiny with the exertion. It was with clammy hands that he settled Leonna down onto the damp grass, and then stood, panting hard, catching his breath.
"We cannot rest yet, Sir Arnold is still some ways off," Hildegard called back. "Take a moment to have some water and rest, then we continue."
Post by Fairby, originally from a PM, and reposted here:
It was something that belonged in an old fairytale. Granted, I was a “prisoner” and no human damsel, but I could not recall a time in my travels where I had been kindly ferried across a stream by a knight. Beneath me, the poor fellow trembled, and although his ridiculous notion of me turning him into a frog tempted mild ire, I admired his chivalry. I was tempted to tell him that transmutations were far outside of my knowledge and powers, but icy droplets of water kept splashing at my feet— it was the most I could do to keep from squirming and yipping at the cold.
“Thank you, S... Sir Bo.” I straightened up again, trying to find my feet in the dark shadows of the grass. Everything in that moment seemed to be quivering, unsure and unsettled in the evening breeze. It was an uncomfortable quiet, and I knew the soldiers would be taking a defensive stance again. I would be surrounded by metal and fear...
Creating light was as easy as breathing. Only a spark of energy left me as I lit a small ball of light near my waist, gleaming as a soft star with a pale blue glow. It cast a sorry face on my damp white shoes.
It took some time for the words to reach Bo’s mouth, but once they came, they came all at once, “Uh… uh… it’s happening! Everyone shall be toads!” he shrieked, and sprang for the trees with deceptive speed for his build, a speed borne only out of the fires of fear. His mother had told him horrible tales, of things back in the Old Country, in that dark and cold homeland he left behind, but he had never before see signs of such things with his own eyes until they met this fair creature. Her light burned without visible source, and the old nightmares came, reaching for him.
Hildegard had to lunge to catch him, and the weight of it rocked them both back so far they nearly fell on their rears, "Milady, you promised us! You promised us no magic!"
He stared at her with wide gray eyes, his lips fixed in a grimace of barely reined-in fear. His grip on his emotions was always iron-clad, but seeing his men so shaken, being faced with this strange sight, it all left him more than a little shaken.
Breaths shook in the cool, tense night air, hearts pounding.
Peter had drawn back towards the bank, remembering something he had once been told about running water and such sorcery. Did it ground it out? Or was that something else? He thought Neville was beside him, but before he realized it, the younger man, barely more than a boy, was wandering forward with a hand outstretched towards the fae girl and her light, his eyes transfixed.
"But... but it's so beautiful..." he said, nearing Leonna, "something like this could not hurt us, could it...?"
"Brother, get away!" Hildegard bellowed, rushing toward him.
“I... it is not... I could not...” All I knew was that my shoes were on and that the large fellow had tried to bolt away. No time to explain, no time to react, and I worried that weapons might be coming at me at any moment. It was only a ball of light, a small, harmless little thing. Formerly, it would have been flame, something rightly feared, but this—this was relief in darkness, a little star to shed a little light. If these soldiers feared any manifestation of magic so terribly, what could I do that would not frighten them? My voice, my appearance, the thrum of energy within me was all a part of me, inhuman, but surely close enough to be recognized for some manner of good humanity.
In the sudden chaos, only one of the men demanded my attention. There was something in his face, something so awed and gentle that I almost mistook him for someone else. In the darkness, in that armor, with the scent of His forest all about us—I would have sworn it was Hunter had I not known better. The following rush of emotion poised me to quickly close the distance between us, to find safety in the hand he offered, in his arms. He was surrounded by fear, by tales and superstitions, but it was truth he saw. Perhaps that truth was not what I truly was, rather, what I wished to be, but it was a welcome gaze, a mirror that reflected a woman rather than a fearsome beast.
"Brother, get away!"
My hands were already moving towards him, palms up before I realized what I was doing. This was not Hunter. He still seemed all the kinder, but to reach out and embrace him? The men would think I was trying to eat him alive... or perhaps turn him into a toad. I had no voice to compete with their leader, speaking my thoughts with my eyes, if he would just look without fear! No, I will not hurt you. This is what I am. Will you fence in an innocent woman with weapons? Will you cage her, this stranger who wishes only to go home again?
"But Lesley, she doesn't mean any harm!" Neville cried as his brother pulled him away, "d-don't you see?"
"I can't risk it... I cannot risk you..." was all his brother could murmur, his voice suddenly full of pain as he dragged him near, "Mayhaps you are right... but if one is to test it, let it be me... not you... I shall touch this magic light and see what its nature is. Will that satisfy you...?"
The young man watched his brother's eyes, before he could not help gazing back at the fae girl. She had a gentle face. She did not look aggressive or devious. Just a little scared, maybe, like they were. She was just as scared of them as they were of her, he thought. If they treated her kindly, maybe she would do the same in return. She hadn't hurt them yet. He did not see why she would now. She was something lovely, beyond such petty meanness and violence... He nodded slowly, and Hildegard echoed it in turn.
Peter and Bo stood back as their leader released his brother and crept toward the girl, his gaze riveted on the ball of light. Hunter... Hunter told us stories of elves once, elves in the mountains to the north. He had dreamed of one day seeing those elves. Is she...? Could she truly be friendly...? Using magic for good?
He removed the glove from his hand and reached out, with lightly trembling, long, tan fingers, rough and callused from work and hardship. His heart beat a drumbeat in his ears and he knew he may be risking his own next breaths to touch the light, but this close, it did seem beautiful. Like a tiny sun, white and brilliant in the dark. But he knew the sun could burn, and he was not sure what to expect from the little replica. He steadied his nerves and reached to touch the light, knowing not whether he would find something solid or not.
OoC: (What would it feel like? )
I wrung my hands and brought them to my chest again, and I watched, listened. Whether it was right to be glad or sad at the way Sir Hildegaurd approached me I did not know. They were all so frightened, so cautious at the slightest glimmer magic, and it was only because of this brother that they dared to approach me again at all. I could not help but look back at the man who had spoken for me, even as his brother came closer. He was certainly softer than the others, a dark tone of cocoa to his hair and warmer eyes with a hue of brown. Clearly, he respected... Lesley, was it? He did not question his brother's authority, but his willingness to trust—I would not forget that.
When I noticed how close Lesley's hand was, I nearly flinched. His hand made the light waver, casting odd shadows on the whispering grass, but it did not disappear. And why would it? The light was merely an extension of myself, a manifestation of the energy within. I knew there was very little warmth in it, merely pure light that hummed gently when it touched the skin. It responded almost magnetically to the soldier's touch, coming under his fingers and kissing at the energy he did not know he possessed. That warmth, that gentle thrumming of a soul bonded to the body—there was nothing else in the world quite like it. My own energy did not need its own sentience to understand the draw, but merely drew itself towards the gentle heat that would shelter it from the night air.
“I did not mean to startle you, truly. I admit I was careless, but asking me not to be magical is akin to asking me to stop breathing. It comes as naturally to me as breath does to you, flows through my veins as blood does. Magic is not a fundamentally evil thing, just as a hammer is used according to the desires of he who holds it. I do not have power to turn men into beasts... but I can show you it is not a wicked thing.” Only a thought was needed to cause the light to float out of Lesley's grasp. Slowly, I reached for his hand with both of mine.
OoC: Hope the IC description of the light helped to clarify wut it would feel like.
What happened next proved her assertions better than any of her words could have done. The men watched in awe, but none so awed as Lieutenant Lesley Hildegard himself, as the fae girl's hands closed around his, and a tingling warmth enveloped his hand, rousing even old scarred tissue that he never thought he would feel again. For a second there was a sweet, prickling pain, like when your hand awakes from being numbed and asleep. Every nerve, every bit of skin was awoken to sensation, and he could do nothing but stare at her open-mouthed and wide-eyed, part of him wishing to move, but his knees locked, his shoulders frozen, too stunned to act on any one impulse.
Then the relief came, gentle, blissful relief, soothing in its embrace, like a warm bath after a long day of aches and pains, one of the doctor's best salves spread on a burn, but even deeper this feeling went. Hildegard finally found the strength to look away from the girl's enchanting eyes and down to his hand--but he could scarcely recognize it now. Tan still it was, and long-fingered, strong, but the skin was as smooth as on the first day of his pagehood, even the fingernails, all smoother than he could ever remember it being, it seemed so long ago.
Neville cried out happily and stepped forward at some point to clap his brother on the shoulder, but Hildegard hardly noticed. He was too spellbound by what had just happened. The lieutenant instead sunk to a knee before Leonna, changing his grip on her hands so that now his were the ones that held hers, and bowed his head over them, kissing the backs of her fair hands each once.
"Oh dear creature..." his baritone voice trembled slightly with rare emotion, "what blessing hath you bestowed upon me, that once again I have the hand of a babe, what healing light... how dare I, a mere mortal, have questioned your divine gift... Will thou forgive me, milady...?"
“A-Aelfdene, I am nothing more than that, nothing more or less than you.” My cheeks were flushing and my hands were tingling, and I could not comprehend the actions of Sir Hildegaurd. He was by no means the first mortal I had ever healed. Some lives had been saved by this power—Khaz and Rontu I had healed deep stab wounds for. Allan the pirate had also experienced my healing for injuries to his leg and abdomen; Zyler the adventurer had many scrapes and cuts removed by such magic; even Omentus had felt of that power. But never had these individuals nor any other expressed such wonder, such eager gratitude for something so simple as rejuvenating a calloused hand. Yet Lesley's hands were so gentle now, his lips so tender, and suddenly my own eyes were watering.
Finally, he was not afraid. All I had wanted was for his suspicions to abate, that he would find me harmless as any other wandering woman and leave me to my own business in finding what to do about being tossed from the Dome. But he was kneeling now, supplicating on his knees for forgiveness. I had been embittered by their severe superstitions, but all the while I had known it could not have been without reason. If nothing else, Lesley seemed to be the very definition of reason, responsibility, duty. He had readily known that I was something abnormal and had only followed his conscience in taking me into his custody to alert a superior that something was new and possibly dangerous. If nothing else, that had been made apparent by his steely orders and the tear in his eyes when he had felt it needful to keep his brother from me.
“I am not divine, Sir Hildegaurd, nor am I evil. I am not human, but I have lived and walked among your kind all my life. We speak the same language, feel the same pain when stubbing a toe or bearing an insult, and surely we both feel inclined to protect those that are dear to us. It is no gift to you but a gift to me to heal what is mortal and fleeting, to give it vitality and beauty again. It seems fitting to you as well, that one so dutiful, so loving, should reflect outwardly that softness. I have asked you to tolerate this part of me, this energy that is native to my very body, but please, know also that I am human, human enough to feel and fear as you do.”
"Tolerate it...?" he asked, as if she could have no sooner asked him to merely tolerate the refreshing coolness of water, or the invigorating warmth of the sun, "Nay, I shall praise it, my good lady, praise it for the rest of my days. Never before have I seen such a miracle with my own eyes... Even such a humble one as the restoring of these lowly hands... I thank thee, Aelfdene..." he bowed again, until his friends came to gather around and get a closer look at his hands themselves.
"It... it's really true..." Peter murmured, glancing up at Leonna in awe. Immediately his thoughts sprang to his sick grandmother at home, and his sister with the child who had caught some wicked illness as well, but then he reminded himself such thoughts were selfish, surely such a blessing was not meant for a man to control and use as he pleased. No wonder such power was only given to fair creatures like this one... He sighed and looked away a moment, trying to put away his concerns for later.
"Wh... where do you come from, Miss Aelfdene...?" Neville spoke up in his soft, curious voice, "how did you end up in this wood...? Mayhaps we could help escort you home...?" he looked to his brother, hoping, hoping dearly that his change of heart meant that they were no longer intending to take this girl to the king for judgment.
Hildegard spared him a very small, brief smile. One had to know him well to be able to read the subtle upward curving of his lips, but his little brother knew and delighted in it. "My brother speaks sense... we owe it to you, at least that much, for our misunderstanding before. Would you allow us the honor...?"
"Oh... uh... oh please!" Bo added in, his lantern shaking as he leaned forward eagerly, "And more lights! You could make more lights... th... they are pretty..."
“Duma alasse ein corm vela rusva. I am overcome with so much, I...” My heart was beating too quickly, catching in my throat, and my cheeks felt warm enough to glow. That all of them should gather so near, so admiring, that their fear should have dissipated like perfume in a strong breeze—I felt as though I were a jeweled bird released from a cage, glittering and dazzling in new light. One of them had called me lovely before, but none of them needed to say it then. The assertion was in every gaze, in their gentle requests, and I felt radiant merely basking in the midst of it all.
Practical, I had to remain practical. But I did not have the remotest idea of what to tell them. How could they escort me home when I had no idea of where it was? The Dome was a flighty thing, choosing on its own where to drop me at the merest whim. No, I would have much rather made more lights for them, to spend a long moment listening to their voices, watching their faces. One of the soldiers seemed almost sad at the turn of events, and I wished to know more of his troubles rather than worrying about a problem that I had no solution to.
“I would... I truly do wish to accept such a kind request, but... I do not know where home is from here. It was... magic that brought me here on its own, a sort of thing I do not have control over. You found me just as it dropped me, and I have no idea how to return. It sounds strange, I know, but you know as much as I do about how I ended up here or how I may go back.”
The men each looked from one to another then, murmuring amongst themselves. "It is like how he disappeared," Neville was saying.
"He and the Lady Cadenza, and that farmer man, could it be true? Could such a thing happen?" Peter asked.
"Hush your gossiping, men... we know not how he left and it would not be wise to lead this blessed maiden astray with mere rumors," Hildegard cut them off. "But perhaps... the scholars of the city may know a way? In any event I know we must return to the capital, and Lady Aelfdene needs safe quarters to rest in until she knows what she wishes to do next. Is... is that a suitable solution for now, milady?" he asked, turning to her. Now there was truly no doubting it, his manner towards her was truly that of a knight guarding his revered princess, or nay, even higher. He bowed his head to her and awaited her reply.
Cadenza? That was surely no coincidence. I felt hope for the first time since my arrival, knowing that those two had been here previously and that these knights knew them. Surely, even in the worst case, it would only be a matter of time before either of them chose to visit. Even if it took years... had I not already spent decades searching for home? There was no need for further panic, yet there was a lump in my throat that I could not quite swallow.
I certainly felt that I had done nothing to deserve their ire and fear, but surely so a small token of healing did not deserve such admiration. How could I impose upon them? It went well beyond receiving shelter, food even. If they could so easily guess my inhuman nature, how long did they expect to conceal it from others? Would there be suspicion? Trouble? Could I truly trust them to begin with, these men whose duty meant so much to them?
“Oh, I... I could not... unless... you think it is for the best? This place is strange to me, but no forest has ever threatened me. Just now, there was mention of Cadenza... I know her... but the magic she wields I know little of. If you do have a place, if only for tonight, I would be greatly obliged.”
"M... magic..." Bo murmured. For once, he spoke for all of them, for not of the others had dared voice the wonder aloud. They had known the travelling, brown-skinned woman had possessed some sort of special power, but it seemed so unlike the witchcraft they had been told of on their own world that it seemed odd to think of it under the same name. Her power had been nothing like potions and curses and cauldrons, but not at all like Aelfdene's divine gifts for light and healing either. Were they the same type of being? They seemed as different as night and day... But if this woman knew of Lady Cadenza, could she also know where their prince Hunter had gone?
"I think we ought to be able to find an inn, if not within the bustling crowds of the cities, where you might be questioned, then somewhere close at hand outside its borders, milady," Peter piped up, "the horses shouldn't be far."
"Aye," Hildegard agreed, "come, let us make haste. Sir Arnold has been waiting far too long, and there is much to explain to him."
When they came to the edge of the wood, all but Lieutenant Hildegard himself stayed back with the fae girl as the man went onward to meet with their remaining comrade. He intended to send the man away with word for the castle of their patrol, word that all had been well, and no enemy threatened them from that end. The news would please the king and Sir Arnold would be eager to be the one to deliver it and receive His Majesty's praises. That particular knight was always seeking a way to win more royal favor.
All the men hoped it would be enough to send Arnold off without further question, and when Hildegard returned alone, leading his black mare Ebony by the reins, they rejoiced to see it had worked.
"Men, come, let us mount and be off! Peter, you shall ride with Lady Aelfdene, as you are our lightest and surest rider."
"Yessir!" he replied, and they all hurried along to their horses, helping Leonna along with them to the edge of the forest.
It was easy enough to follow the knights on their way. I could not hear their solid footfalls over mine, nor their clinking armor over the brush of my cloak on the raspy grass. In that slight noise, the forest fell silent all around us, the crickets hushed as burning light chased the shadows away. As we walked, I pulled the hood of my cloak over my head, half-mindedly keeping my orb of light floating by my side.
Where were we going? Sir Hildegard had explained it somewhat, mentioned an inn, but where was I? All about me were familiar oaks and their counterparts, spicebush, ninebark, and a myriad of others. The cool air did not welcome seasonal blossoms, but the branches of shrubs were burdened with already nipped berries, their leaves having burst with respective colors of yellow and crimson. These were familiar to me, as was the hoot of the owl, the fluttering of moths' wings. Yet it was alien entirely, a mix of old earth and herbal spice that I had not known before. Here was a piece of Hunter, a flavor in the potpourri of his aura, and I was standing in the very midst of it.
Even as we walked, I paused very occasionally to look up at the starlight glancing from above, which winked from between the leaves. A breeze would drift by, or a small whiff of one of the knights would touch my nose, and I had to wonder if I truly had not been caught in a dream, in this place that was both normal and different.
I found no reason to speak, keeping my eyes away from the men that surrounded me. The air was less tense, but still quivered with encroaching cold, and I felt unduly exposed. I had not been planning for a long walk through an autumn wood, and much less knew how to talk to a group of soldiers. What was it that they were thinking, and how long would we remain together? I wanted to listen, nothing more, to retain the sound of their voices, the scent of them, if I should ever need to find them again.
Yet the one face I could not ignore was that of... Neville, yes, Neville was his name. He was decidedly younger than the others, having a softness about his features, the way he walked. Rather than merely traversing the forest, he watched it as it did him, with eyes to see rather than to fear. Unlike the others, he did not seem to hide it, that trust in him, that vulnerability. Why was one like him a soldier, yet without the hardened hands of his brother?
With bated breath, I had watched Sir Hildegard walk off to see to his business, trying to read what I could not see and understand what I could not hear between the knights as we waited. Did they feel guilt for being indirect? Did they still worry that I might be some wicked devil in disguise? I searched their faces, but the light was dim and the conversation small.
And then we made our way to the edge of the woods, and a new trepidation took me. Away from the cover of the trees, I would be more exposed. They spoke of a city, and there I would be surrounded by their kind, where a thousand things could go wrong with a single mistake. I spoke none of my worries, trying to trust as I could, but then they spoke of riding horses and I simply knew that something would go horribly wrong. How was I to ride such a beast, such a tall, proud creature? And with a man, too—oh dear.
“I... I can walk, I... I would not wish to be an inconvenience.” My voice was small and my chin was dipped, but I chanced a glance at the man that I was to ride with, hoping that he would understand.
"No, milady, I'm afraid you could not walk as far as we must go, or we would not see the place for longer than any supplies could hold us," Hildegard answered, "Have you ridden a horse before...? Peter, help her, will you not?"
"You won't have to worry with me, Miss Aelfdene, I've ridden with ladies many a time before, I know just how to help you up. Would you permit me to? Those shoes you wear cannot be meant for long travels," Peter added, looking down at the little flimsy slippers on her feet. At his side, his brown stallion sniffed at the girl who smelled much sweeter than her male companions.
I looked down at my feet, feeling my cheeks warm. The knight was right, of course—the flimsy white slippers were already damp and flat. I could feel almost every lump in the soil beneath my feet, and had those feet been mortal, blisters would have been in my future. “Oh... you are right, of course. I... I simply hope it is not a terrible bother. I have never ridden a horse before, but... but he does seem terribly friendly.”
I gently touched the stallion's muzzle, then looked to Sir Peter. He did seem confident, firm, and I was terribly grateful to no longer be a prisoner. In all likelihood, I would not have run more than a step before the likes of him had me captive again.