"His name is Lancer, milady..." Peter told her. The stallion watched her with large dark eyes as she pet him and he nosed at her lightly. Peter reflected that she had a way with animals. But then again, that was no surprise with all the other marvels she was capable of performing. She likely was very at home in nature. "Named thus because I had won him in a jousting match at Kingsbury two summers ago. I unhorsed a dozen men for my prize," he smiled proudly, and as he went on to tell the full story, he and Bo helped to hoist the fae girl up into the saddle, hoping the tale would keep her too occupied to be fearful.
"The last of the lot was a mountain of a man, and I felt pity for the poor horse that had to carry his girth," he chuckled, "The lads here never thought I could defeat him." He looked around a moment to his friends and smiled, a smile of triumph, which won a rare, very small hint of a smirk from Hildegard for but a moment, and a laugh from Neville at the memory.
"Hunt--t-the Prince, Prince Merridale, he was there, you see," Peter stumbled over the familiarity that had slipped out, familiarity he was not to use so lightly when acting as a knight, "he blessed my chances and lent me his lucky lance. Aye, and there never had been known a finer jouster than he in all of Renamor, so I knew my victory was assured. That mountain came at me but I kept the point of my lance straight and true and it shattered his shield."
Now that Leonna was settled, Peter began to climb up himself behind her, but he went on talking. He enjoyed this story. "With neither of us unhorsed, we had another go. This time the man came at me head on, with no pretense of blocking, his lance aimed for my heart. But when it met breastplate, it clanged away, while mine drove for his side and unbalanced him. Oh how he fought to stay on!" he chuckled, "clutching at me so, but he had no hope. The crowd had erupted into cheers! The prince's lucky spear had won me the day and Lancer here, as well as the purse. Built my sister a house, that gold did, and me a new sword. Never had a tourney so good as that one again."
I watched only the knight's face as he spoke, finding myself smiling as he smiled. There was a certain charm in his deep tenor, his lively talk. Such a bright expression made it difficult to remember the shadow of sorrow I had seen on him only moments ago, and I could not help but feel concerned that he should cast it away so quickly. The good knight Peter would not be the first to have hidden away dark things that so badly needed healing.
Settling myself on the horse was no easy task. My face was warm from the continued graces of the men, their touch and their glances as I had been guided onto Lancer. But I listened, trying to straighten my back, to balance, to nod back at what I heard. The mention of Hunter brought to mind curious images, as I had seen jousting only in books. It sounded terribly frightening, having such a pole aimed for one's heart, but Peter talked of it as if it were merely a challenging sport. What manner of life had Hunter and these men known?
“Your sister is fortunate to have a brother so brave and so generous.” I could not help the stiffness as I felt him behind me, clutching my cloak with my hands and the horse with my knees. What their city was like, I did not know, and still I wished to be left in the forest. My eyes searched the dark leaves, my nose the mossy musk of the trees for a reason to linger. These men were terribly kind, but I was outnumbered and still very much in their power. What would happen when we reached their home?
"Yes..." Peter murmured, the mirth gone from his voice. Thoughts of his sister's sick child, his nephew, entered his mind again, unbidden. Their weight had never left his heart, as much as he tried to keep it at bay with jokes and tales and the hardness in one's heart learned from training. He had this blessed creature now on his horse, what was to stop him from riding away with her to take her wondrous gifts to his nephew's aid, or his grandmother's?
Duty, he thought with a sigh, duty and loyalty to Hildegard... I could not do that to him. Times have been hard enough for him.
"Are you well, milady?" the lieutenant himself came trotting around on his black mare Ebony, a proud but calm beast, to check on the fae girl. Once satisfied that she was secure and settled, he nodded to the others, and called, "Let us ride, men!
Under dark of night, the footing was difficult and they had a slow going of it, even over the familiar terrain of the oft-patrolled forest. Darkness could make even the most familiar grounds full of unseen tricks and traps, plants grown thicker than one remembered, streams deeper, mud more slick. The calls of night animals were all about the forest, owls and foxes and cicadas, other furtive things rustling in the underbrush. They rode in columns of two, Hildegard slightly forward from his partner, Neville casting about light for him with his lantern to his right.
For a long time, all was man's breath and horse's breath, panting, clothes rustling, armor clinking, hooves on clods of earth, on rocks, on mud, on fallen branches. There was little talk with the wind in their faces and the moon hardly touched them through the trees, even though they were shedding some of their autumn coats by now. But after that seemingly endless ride, there came the stretch of plains ahead, like a rustling silver sea in the starlight, rolling grasslands and dirt roads drawn by men as far as the eye could see, to the distant gray slabs of the Renamor city walls on the horizon. Torches burned in those far-off towers in the capital city that never quite slept. The spires of the castle were only thin needlepoints in the distance in that black.
"It is for there we ride," Peter whispered to Leonna as they paused at the foot of the plains, and although he could not say what she might have beheld it as in her own heart, in his eyes, it was home. I shall be home soon, nephew, and nana too...
The sounds of the forest were comforting to me, a familiar thrum of conversation spoken anywhere there was a tree and a creature to call it home. I did not mind the slow pace and wished it to be slower, that we could linger under the leaves that caught moonlight until dawn slipped through them. There was still shelter here, even a sense of safety in the darkness. A creature could slip through the underbrush silent and unseen away from all mortal eyes.
But it was not meant to be. Rather than lingering, the men pressed on with their horses, the heavy hooves clopping quietly on the soft ground. I tried to be a decent rider, softening my back against the sway of the horse, but balancing on such a beast was something I had never done before. Rather than keeping what I supposed was the proper posture, I gently leaned my shoulder against the knight, relying on his strength and balance rather than my own.
“It is for there we ride.” I glanced up at Sir Peter as he spoke, troubled by what I saw of his face. There had been a sense of melancholy about him ever since I had mentioned his sister, but I had not wanted to press it as they rode on and on and on through the trees. Now we had reached the end of the woods, only a field between us and the city. It would go by far to quickly with no more branches or roots to hinder the horses.
“M...must we?” I bit my lip, already knowing the answer. Their home was an object of wonder and fear to me, a place I believed Hunter had lived, but a place I knew I would not be welcomed in. These soldiers had already guessed the worst of me upon seeing my eyes—would unarmed civilians think any better? A witch, they had said, a devourer of children, a caster changing men into frogs... goodness, I would not sleep soundly within a mile of their home of stone.
"We must return, Lady Aelfdene, and we have nowhere else to offer you shelter..." Hildegard answered, looking back at them. Peter nodded at this, trying to keep his thin face from showing anything but dutiful resolve. "We will find you comfortable quarters, somewhere on the outskirts... somewhere with a discreet innkeep whom can be trusted. I know you fear what those in the city may think of you, but... would you be any safer in that wood, or elsewhere for that matter, when other patrols besides our own may come and find you as well...?"
It was morning in Blancwood, in the nation of Rubato, back on the world of Earth, and Hunter Merridale stirred with dawn's first rays, casting back the covers from his bed as he sat and stretched. He felt of a mood to break his fast on bread and fruit, raspberries perhaps... Raspberries like the one in her pastry she brought me... Leonna, it is morn here, would it be too early to call upon you already...? He thought of their last embrace, their smiles, the glimmer in her eyes as they said their parting words, the warmth in her cheeks. To bring you home, bring you here...? I know time may pass differently at the Dome, but it feels too many hours to my heart's liking even now...
He rose and went to wash his face, to dress, choosing a green tunic and simple brown trousers. He ran a comb through his hair and then padded into the kitchen, knowing Chris would still be fast asleep for many more hours. The kitchen still smelled sweetly of the pie she had brought...
Mayhaps if I call Sir Fritz to help and take Chris to school... then I could go and see if she is ready... Yes, that is what I will do. I will see you soon, Leonna...
“You speak wisdom.” I did not look up to see Sir Hildegard, keeping the rest of my thoughts to myself. What good would it do to protest? There were still things they did not need to know, kind as they were. In my short years, I had spent the vast majority of time in the woods rather than homes or towns. It was easier to ask a tree for shelter by trying its branches than it was to earn money enough to pay an innkeeper for a bed. Similarly, trapping creatures and foraging for berries offered food for only the cost of energy, which I had plenty to spare. In the forest, I knew I could move more quietly than they—patrols of many kinds had passed me time and time again without knowing of the inhuman eyes that watched them.
Perhaps they thought of me as a lady, then, a forest creature more accustomed to kindness than violence. Only one of my lights had frightened them so; merely imagining how they would react to the trees curling about their legs and arms caused me a small smile. Even had their blades run into me, the wounds would have healed, or perhaps I might have tried my wings to see if I could bat them away. How could they know what I was capable of, this deformed creature of a very different world?
But fighting was out of the question. It was better that I be a prisoner, even one under the pretense of being escorted. The alternative was to truly frighten them, to give them a monster that would fuel paranoia and send hunting parties into the woods rather than patrols. Eventually, there would be too many of them, and I would be dragged back to a king to bear whatever punishment he could wreak on an immortal creature.
Yes, it was better to be submissive, to believe in good intent even if it turned out to be false. I was alien to these men, men of duty. Kind as Sir Hildegard had been, I still had to believe that some part of him could not let a creature like me run free. Perhaps it was for my protection, perhaps it was for the protection his people, but I was his charge now, and nothing would be truly resolved until I left or was accepted by the superiors that led him.
Hunter, Prince Merridale—I felt as though I needed him the most now. But perhaps that was not quite true. I had needed him dearly at Cadenza's wedding without knowing it, needed his company when he saw me in the Dome's gardens, needed his comfort at his home when all my fears finally spilled out. I had needed him those times, as well as his friends, and truly, I did not know how much until I was removed from them. Even surrounded by men, kindly gentleman willing to treat me well under very strange circumstances, I was alone in the pains of my heart.
I brought my hands to my chest, blinking in surprise when I felt a small, warm lump beneath my cloak. Mama's pendant was there, the lovely firefly that she said would help me return home. Such magic I knew little of, but it caused a spark of hope that shivered all the way through me. How could I have forgotten? I was lost, very deeply so in an entirely different world, but it was not reason to despair. My friends had not left me alone with nothing—were it not for Hunter, I would not have even an inkling of an idea where I was. No matter how long it took, I would not be forgotten... not so long as I did not forget them.
Perhaps it would be better in the city after all. Hunter was estranged from his country, but he had other friends besides himself that might visit. Hildegard and the others had spoken of them, and it could not simply be dumb luck that it was their patrol that had found me. Something greater was at work here, even if it was just a whimsical trick of the Dome. Was it some manner of test? Whatever the case, I would not be running from it.
“I... must ask...” I looked up to Peter, who I still rested against for fear of falling off the horse. “I haven't the proper currency to repay any of you for the kindness you offer, and I do not know how long I shall be here. Is there anything I may do in return? You need only name the deed and it is done.”
Peter looked instantly to Hildegard, and felt guilty for it, for wanting, but sudden hope had grasped him and he couldn't help but try to ride it out wherever the chance would go. Only his lieutenant knew fully of the worries that burdened him, of how sick his grandmother Doris was, with that terrible cough they swore would be the end of her, or the sudden ailment that had fallen over his nephew Jeremy, leaving the young boy feverish and red all over. His sister Ella fretted over them night and day, but none of the local remedies had worked. They had tried leeches, and all sorts of concoctions, but nothing they had so much as helped break the fever, or did more than soothe the cough for a night.
Hildegard personally did not like the thought of asking a favor of their guest, this guest in particular, whom he already felt so many uncertainties towards, but he could also sympathize with his friend. Losing family was not something that settled on you lightly. He could still recall the day he and Neville lost their parents, even if his younger brother could not.
The way she healed my hand... she has talents no healer here could ever hope to possess. She could save them... and would it not be to Peter's benefit, to the land's benefit, to have a knight with a clearer head, one who could focus more on king and country? They say if your affairs at home are peaceful, you can serve that much better... My friend, do I not owe you this chance? If we may trust her, she could do so much good for those dear to you... How could I question it, after what she has done so kindly for me?
The lieutenant nodded meaningfully to his friend, "go on," it said. They met eyes for a moment and Peter's face grew grateful, and relieved, and yet anxious all at once. Could she do it? Would she? Would she use her powers again...?
"M...milady..." he spoke up, unsure in his speech for once, "if you would... I... we... we normally would not ask anything of you in return, as... as you say, but... in these circumstances... I would be amiss to--" he cleared his throat and tried again, more directly, "My grandmother and my nephew are quite ill, and we saw what you could do for our lieutenant in the wood... if... if you would, could you try the same for them...? We could take you to my lodgings... perhaps it might even be safer there, you may be more welcome... and... you could help them... Would you? Please, could you, milady?"
“You hardly need ask.” The mere suggestion lifted my heart, and I placed my hand gently on his chest, wishing I could share how pleasing his question was. They had shown so much fear towards even the slightest show of my magic, but now they were willing to ask for its use. How could I possibly decline, particularly when it involved those Peter cared for? “I am happy to help in such a way, and I am certainly able to.”
Pink dawn was spreading over Renamor City's streets when the fae and her knightly escort rode through the South Gate and into town. Here, the roads were cobbled, and as they passed, shops were opening up for that morning's first business. Town criers called out the latest happenings, bakers' boys sought to entice the early risers with hot pies and crusty rolls, and pot shops began to put out their signs for the day's specials. Bo watched as one shopkeep put out a sign advertising a bowl of roast goose stew and felt his stomach rumble. It had been too long since they'd last eaten. That, too, was something that lay ahead for them at the Warren family home.
Hildegard let Peter and Lancer lead the way, following behind on Ebony, with his sharp gray gaze searching this way and that in discreet scans of the townsfolk's faces. They had covered Leonna in Neville's dun-colored cloak, so that all the people might see was a pale face and some blond hair peeking out, but even so, the lieutenant was wary. All it took was one loud enough and nosy enough observer to see her eyes in the shade of that cowl, and...
"Here," Peter called back, rousing him from his thoughts and worries, "this is the street, friends." He turned Lancer down a path with older cobbles, and wooden houses, the shops and inns giving way to little gardens and modest homes fronting right on the street. Neville had been to the commons often enough before, but somehow every trip away from the noble quarter of the city seemed to surprise him in one way or another. He could never get over how small the buildings were, nor how faded, or old. Yet the people here were still proud, and most of the houses were tidy, albeit overcrowded.
They rode towards the fourth house on the end and then finally came to a stop before a half-sunken porch, where Peter dismounted and then helped the fae girl down.
"Here is my home, Miss Aelfdene... forgive me but there hasn't been a man to fix that porch in years, save for myself, and I am seldom home..." he cleared his throat a bit bashfully, and then turned to his friends, "Please, please, come on, Ella is likely up and fixing breakfast already for Nana. Jeremy may be asleep though, so..." he held a finger to his lips and shushed. Bo's head bobbed when he nodded hurriedly at that, the way Hildegard had always asked him to when they needed to make sure he had really been listening.
The knights slid off their mounts as well and all four were soon tied up to the strongest porch beams they could find to keep them from wandering. The horses had a bit of grass to gnaw at there, so they were happy enough. Then Peter opened the front door, the hinges giving a faint squeak, and led the way inside.
"Sister, Nana, I'm home..." he murmured as they came into a little mud room. The kitchen was off to the left, the largest room in the compact house, and forward and to the right there appeared to be doors to other chambers, and a tiny hall leading to a privy and a final door. There were rushes on the floor and a few hangings on the wall, old but recently dusted. Warmth from the hearth reached them even there, and the smells of eggs cooking and bread frying, even a hint of honey.
For a moment, it seemed as if no one had heard him, but by the time the whole travelling party had huddled into the mudroom, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, a tawny-haired woman came to greet them, trying her best to look cheery even though it was plain to them all that she was more tired than anything else. The widow Ella Sumner's wavy hair was bound back in a messy bun, and bags sat under her close-set eyes, but she put on a big smile, a smile much like her brother's. She had the same weak chin but a smaller nose, and a working woman's hands, but a dainty figure--if Peter could be likened to a weasel, one might have likened her to a mouse. Over her off-white blouse and brown skirt she wore a green-checked apron stained with porridge and flour.
"Peter!" the woman rushed over to her brother and threw her arms around him, just able to reach them high enough to drape around his shoulders, "thank goodness you're here! Jeremy had another coughing fit last night and I had just been thinking I was sure to go mad if I couldn't get some rest today!"
"Ella," her brother returned the embrace, "You can have a nap, of course, but I didn't just come to babysit. I've brought help... help for Nana and Jeremy both."
When he said this, the woman stepped back with widened brown eyes and appeared to notice their guests cramped by the door for the first time. "Your... fellow knights? Your friends? Peter, good men I know they are, but I can't say I know what they could..."
"No, no, Ella," Peter cut in, "not them, although they helped me too. I meant..." he gazed back at the fae girl, hidden in her cloak, as Bo and Neville stepped aside so his sister could get a clearer view of her. As Hildegard reached up and gently eased back the girl's hood, Ella's eyes grew larger still and some of the color went from her face.
"...her," her brother finished, and then clasped his sister's hand to give it a reassuring squeeze before she could speak.
"B-but Peter... wh...who... from where is she..." all she could see where those eyes, twinkling like jewels, like no eyes she had ever seen before or, she thought, she might possibly ever see again. It was as if someone had bottled up the glimmer of the sun as it kissed the ocean waves in summer, and given its radiance to the girl's gaze.
"This is Miss Aelfdene, and she is our companion, one we are bound to protect, and yet one kind enough to have offered her help to us," Hildegard spoke up then, "Miss Ella, trust me when I say there is no one better suited in these parts, no one who has a better chance of healing your son and grandmother than this lass. She has already worked wonders for me..." he held out his formerly-scarred hand, smooth and strong, alongside the other, still greatly marked by battle and work, and it earned the reaction he wanted. The woman stared, but it was no longer the stare of the frightened--it was now the stare of the awestruck.
"C-could she really... would..." she turned to gape at Leonna, "w-would you really do this for us, Miss...?"
As we pressed further into the city, I felt ever more a prisoner. There was no sun for my face, no lasting glance I chanced at those around us—my hood may well have been chains, a heavy burden separating the guilty from the good. All I could assume was that unlike most of the places I had journeyed to, these people had little of magic, and what they did possess was forbidden and wicked. Why this was I could not immediately guess, but the image of a fiery demon, that creature of Bren, was enough a reminder as to why mortals should fear such powers.
“Here, this is the street, friends.” I roused myself from Peter's shoulder as he spoke, squinting at the homes lining the street. There was something more familiar there, those shadows of tended vegetables and the lilting chirp of morning birds. It made me warmer despite the old shadows such scenery brought—here there was contentment and the reminder of what I would not likely possess. Could the kindness of one person, of Hunter, truly change the world to accept something as cursed as I had become? Every part of this city was his home...
Suddenly, Peter was beside the horse and reaching for me. I started from the saddle, feeling a yawn as well as lost time. He was quick to lead the others to his home, but I was slow on my feet, lingering near the horses. Not once had the noble creatures seemed nervous, out of sorts, or lost in any way. They were creatures of the moment and admirable for that, judging nothing more than cruelty or kindness from their masters and looked after one another. If I could have but stayed outside for a while, waited for Peter to speak to his sister—but it was not long before I was shepherded in again by the men.
I stayed nearest to Neville, almost tempted to smile as the men walked in. Peter had asked all to be silent, but their heavy feet and clinking armor were loud to my ears; I might have hummed as I walked and been quieter. The slight humor, however, faded from my lips as we crowded into the hallway, a huddle of dirt and sweat in the cozy, sweet smelling home. Only when the woman appeared, when her eyes found Peter, did I realize that he had made no mention of a mother or father. Both siblings... they were... the must have been quietly alone in their own ways, but did not draw attention to it. His sister's complaint was light, more humorous than upset even as she cared for two sick members of her family.
I knew the moment was coming, but I was not prepared. The woman looked to me, and all I wanted was to be anywhere but there, any place I might dash into a hole to hide from the sight of one like her. The scene was too familiar, repeated time and time again in years past, those days when I was a creature, not a child. I did not fear what she might do, but that look, that look on her face, those eyes that screamed, “what are you!” I could not bear to see it. Fear from superstitious men guarding a forest was bad enough, and I did not need to see the fright, the wonder from this woman, this woman like me but so different. My own mother had passed away years ago from sickness; our plights were not so alien to one another, but that was not what she would see.
There was no room to step back, no arm to guard me or shoulder to hide behind. I began to reach for Neville but stopped, shuddering when the hood was removed from my head. Her gaze bore into me, as did the eyes of the others, but I looked to none. I looked to the ground, cheeks blazoned with shame, and I could hardly hear any voices beyond the ringing in my ears. A mix of emotions ran through me, clouding all about me in anger and melancholy. All manner of words tickled my tongue, but none, nothing seemed right to say.
“I...” My voice was too dry, too quiet, and I had to clear my throat. “That is why I am here.”
"You... you came just to help us...?" for a moment, the wonder and confusion passed from Ella's thin, mousy face and she looked touched, "Truly...?"
"Yes, sister, she wished to help very kindly... let us show everyone in and have her meet Nana and Jeremy. Have you put on any tea? We all should eat, I think, get up our strength... milady Aelfdene," Peter paused and glanced back at her, offering her his hand, "pray, come in, I will hang up your cloak..."
As the knights got settled in, removing enough of their armor so as to be comfortable in the simple wooden chairs in the corner of the kitchen, around a circular table, Ella led Peter and Leonna in towards Nana's room. In fact, she shared the room with Ella, and there was a strange mix of an elderly woman's effects and a younger woman's things throughout the space. A chest of clothing here, newer dresses and old there, dried flowers and old herbs, a remedy for coughs by the small beds. Nana Doris herself was napping in a padded chair, an empty mug of tea on the table beside her.
She stirred as they approached and lifted sickly eyes to regard her visitors. A strong old woman, she looked, soldiering on despite her illness, with a stronger set to her jaw and her chin than either Peter or Ella had inherited. She had clever brown eyes, beset by deep circles and bags hanging under them, and her cheeks had gone soft like wrinkled jowls in her old age. But in her youth, with her thick hair, and intelligent eyes, she likely had been a handsome woman. But now her hair had gone gray, and brittle as well from her illness, and her face looked sallow and pale. She had on a green rough-spun housedress on, that looked as if it had not been changed in some days, rumpled and worn, and brown slippers on her feet. Her eyes grew suspicious for a moment at the pretty blond stranger she saw, until she spotted her grandson Peter and her eyes brightened a moment.
"Peter... you have come home... Y...you've... brought a girl..." the gaze she cast over Leonna then was not that of a woman afraid of the supernatural, afraid of someone different--but the sharp and appraising look of a grandmother seeing the girl she believed her grandson had chosen to court for the first time. She judged her hips, a bit narrower than she'd like for bearing Peter some good children, and the rest of her slender frame--the girl needed a good thick bowl of potato stew, as far as she was concerned--and her sunny blond hair and pursed her lips. If she even noticed the fae girl's eyes, they did not seem to off-put her. "I do suppose lads will have their own tastes these days, but..." she sighed, but it turned into an ugly cough, and all fell silent and a little tense until it was over, "but aren't you going to at least introduce me to this young lady of yours?"
By the time she had finished, Peter didn't know whether to be more embarrassed or worried. That cough had sounded even worse than he remembered--but wh... how could she think? His ears turned red and hot as he cleared his throat and said, "Nana... I... I believe you have the wrong idea about Miss Aelfdene... sh... she is not... I am not courting her, she..." he swallowed a little hard and tried again, "she is here to help heal you, Nana, you and Jeremy... she has an amazing gift to cure others..."
"Yes, Nana!" Ella chimed in then to help her brother, "she came to help us!"
Their grandmother eyed them for a moment, as if she could see through her grandchildren to tell when they were spinning her false tales, but it seemed whatever she saw in their faces satisfied her enough, because when she looked to Leonna again, she almost smiled. "Well then..." she said, her voice a bit hoarse, "if that's true, girl, then go on... show me what you can do that none of our own city's physicians can..."
After saying his goodbyes to Chris and Louis, the Dome showed Hunter the way to Leonna's dorm, to her door. He had expected it maybe to be locked, but when he knocked, there was no answer, and when he grasped the doorknob, the door came open on its own. The room was still lit, and yet there was no sign of her...
"Hullo...? Milady, are you here...?"
OoC: Cue Padme emerging from somewhere in the room and surprising him. xD
Peter, his sister, his grandmother—did he realize how truly vulnerable they all were in that moment? His friends were only a room or so away, but escape was as close as the unassuming window less than a leap away. I could not help myself as the siblings spoke, seeing the blue sky outside and imagining fresh air. My senses had been numbed by melancholy, everything empty when Peter had taken my cloak and led me away from his comrades, but all it took was that sight, that glimpse of simple green outside to tickle my cheeks with the memory of a warm breeze.
When I looked back again to Peter, his ears had changed color and he was stuttering about me. I gazed between him and his Nana for the first time, much at a loss as to how I ought to feel. There was no chagrin, no doubt in me as I stood at his side, and for a moment I entertained the misunderstanding of his grandmother. What would it be like to be a soldier's wife, to be the secret of his cozy home and the bane of any disease that might threaten it? Would he have taken my hand, facing so hardy a love as his grandmother's, and poured out the feelings of his heart, the passion he had for me?
Bitterness—that was all that came to me at such thoughts. Things were too complicated for that, too impossible. I did not smile or blush, but stepped forward until I was near Nana's side. There, I slowly went to my knees, bowing my head rather than looking into her eyes. She had made no comment on what she saw there, and I wondered if her sight was bad. The sharp practicality in her words made it difficult to find ones of my own, but I had no fear of silence.
“I... find myself hesitant, and I am sorry. It is not that I do not wish to heal you, but that what your son expects of me is... unorthodox.” I angled myself to look back at Peter, feeling only more ill-at-ease. It was his judgment that I trusted, his judgment that his grandmother trusted, but the old fears had not left me. Would Nana be afraid, angry at the method I was about to employ? She would not lament a cured condition, surely, but I did not want to feel her gaze and that of Peter's sister when my work began.
This is what they want... they bear the responsibility for all that happens next, not me. I am... just a vessel of magic, one men have captured and sought to control. My lips were taut, limbs as tense as my thoughts, but I had come too far to simply hand out a bottle of herbs. Slowly, carefully, I reached for the woman's hand, lifting my chin to gaze at her face.
“I am not going to hurt you. This I promise.” Even as I spoke, the energy bled out of my body. It did not flow as easily as I should have liked, requiring a frustrating amount of concentration to keep my wings from flowing out along with it. Simple cuts and bruises were easy enough, but I had to feel through the woman's body, direct the life energy from my own blood into hers. The light came slowly from my hand and disappeared into hers, carrying all the strength and vitality of the fae creature I was. In that moment there was a link, and I could feel the weariness of her arms, her back, her lungs. Inch by inch, the unseen light in her body flooded with a warmth that restored all the disease had taken from her and more, easing old bones and old bruises that skin had hidden.
By the end of the process, I was breathless and more tired than I remembered being in a long time. A gasp wisped from my mouth and I retracted my hand, resting it against my heart. Fatigue blurred my vision a moment, concentration threatening to falter, and I doubled over with my eyes shut. I was trembling, weak of mind and body with so much spent, but the deed was done.
The prince appeared without warning, but Padme was too busy to notice him immediately. With her bangle staff in her paws, she slapped the floor with a hardy thwap, fur gleaming with a well earned sweat. The planks underneath her groaned for the hundredth time, flakes and slivers shuddering from the wood, but it was once again to no avail. With a furious yowl, Padme threw her staff away, only to crouch back down to the floor when the door opened. The voice she recognized, eyes lighting up with new vigor as she leapt from her place behind Leonna's bed to greet the unexpected visitor.
“Prince! PRINCE! Ground swallow Leonna! Padme see it! Come help!”
"Lady Aelfdene!" Peter cried, and he was the first to rush towards her, but he did not catch her before she landed on the rugs underfoot. Ella, too, gasped and hurried to her side, but not before stealing a glance at her grandmother, who had closed her eyes, and opened them again with the strangest expression.
"Ella, Ella, fetch water, fetch the others! I had no inkling that it would take so much out of her! She must rest!"
"B...but what of Jeremy...? Will she still be able to help him? Oh... oh we should have had her heal him first, b-but... I was unsure... unsure if it would even work, or if it might even make things worse, but I-I should have trusted..."
"That does not matter now, we cannot go back, but we cannot just leave her like this! Go, now!" something of her brother's strength as a knight came into his voice, as he hefted the unconscious fae girl into his arms. I am sorry... I am so sorry if we have asked too much... pushed too hard... You hadn't seemed so tired after helping Lesley, but that had only been his hand... his eyes rose for a moment to his grandmother, who had a flush of pink upon her cheeks, almost as if a clock had been turned back for her ten or twenty years. They were no longer so sallow, or so hollow, and she sat straighter in her chair, too.
This... m-my Lord... this has been the healing of many years of ailment and pain... of... of old age itself... This... oh poor lady, what have I done...? Was I wrong ever to ask?
Hildegard's heavy boots could be heard stomping toward them, as fast as if he had been alerted to some enemy storming them. His gray eyes took in the scene when he stopped in the doorway, and soon he was sweeping in to check on the girl, feeling her head, her pulse, her hands.
"Bring her food," he ordered, "I do not know what her kind might eat, but bring her food, water, tea, anything we have. It was unwise of us to dabble in things we do not understand, Peter... this girl... Why was she truly in that wood...? She has done us a great kindness..." he glanced briefly at Peter's grandmother, who was watching them now, speechless, "but at what cost?"
Soon the fae girl was put to rest in an old feathered, the nicest accommodations in the house, swaddled in blankets and an old but warm bear fur. A kettle of tea was set on the table beside her, and sandwiches on thick brown bread, and a chipped but clean pitcher of water. Peter sat beside her bed and watched nervously, wringing his hands every now and then anytime she seemed to stir. Hildegard paced the hall and tried to keep the household calm in his stead. In his room, young Jeremy went on coughing and sipping onion broth, as they waited to see what would become of their miraculous fae healer.
As strange as it sounded, Hunter had learned to find the wisdom and truth in the Haschen's words. She could be blunt, and people sometimes overlooked her for appearing to be no more than a rabbit, and sometimes a rather worked-up rabbit, but he had never known her to lie, which is far more than he could say for any human. If she said Leonna had fallen through the ground...
"You saw it all happen from the very first, Padme...?" he came over and drew his spear to thump its end on the hardwood floor. It all seemed solid, but the Dome could often be deceptive in that way...
What if she has fallen into danger? What if she is hurt, or worse, what if--no, no I mustn't give in to panic, he steeled himself, outwardly the very picture of composure and calm, panicking will not help her, nor help me find her. I must think clearly if I am to be of assistance to her. But where could she have gone? I don't doubt it's the work of its Dome and its whimsical, odd ways, but where could it have wished to take her? Why now?
"Please, tell me everything you saw, everything you might have heard, or even smelled... if it is somewhere this Dome has taken her, I should be capable of opening a door for us to follow and rescue her, but... but I need a lead to go on, please..." he lowered himself to a knee, to be more of a height with the Haschen, and looked into her big black eyes. In her memory had to be the truth of the matter, a kernel of some sort of knowledge, however small or seemingly simple, that could help them, but they needed to draw it out. "I will not rest until she is returned safely to us..."
I am fine, it is nothing terrible. But the words never left my lips. I had not expected to feel the warmth of Peter's arms, but it came and I welcomed it. When I tried to look at him, my eyes would only flutter, and I found myself in a paralyzing comfort I could not break. Gladly, I succumbed to the quiet, the peace that sleep offers, allowing the voices about me to slip away entirely.
It could not have been more than a few hours before I found myself again. I sighed, every part of my shoulders and back relaxed with the warmth of heavy bedding. The room I found myself in was silent save for distant coughing and the soft thumping of fidgeting feet, but I didn't dare hope that I had woken from the dream that was Choras. I knew before opening my eyes that I was not back in the Dome. Peter's thrumming aura was too strong, the duller ribbons of energy that twisted through his kingdom too clear to mistake for anything else.
There was a certain familiarity in finding myself in bed, and I could not help but laugh. I felt the sound in my chest and shoulders, but it was quiet, weak. This was little different from the time I had collapsed after healing Allan from an ugly wound. He had brought be to an inn, kept me warm, safe, fed. Rain had done something similar as well, carrying me away from a horrible demon and later caring for me until I awoke. And the more I thought on it, the more I realized how often it was that I had found myself in the care of near strangers, having helped them in some small way, expecting nothing, and being given so much more in return. To gain a friend, to gain a trust and companionship for any amount of time, was a gift far too often overlooked.
“Sir Peter?” I carefully pulled myself upright, curling my legs in as I sat on the bed. “I... nothing has happened while I was...?” Blinking, I looked to a myriad of pleasantries set on a table at my side, taking a deep breath as the scent of fresh tea touched my nose. “Ah... I have worried you. Please, accept a poor apology—I should have explained. I suppose I underestimated the task.”
I smiled sheepishly, looking over the knight. His posture was restless, hands clasped and shoulders tense, but his eyes seemed weary to me. I looked to the food and back to him, shaking my head. “You have not eaten or slept yourself, have you, Sir Peter? It is not meet that I should be treated to this while you and the others worry. And your sister... I should like to help. She has a great many mouths to feed, does she not?”
Something in the Prince's voice soothed the Haschen, and she fell back onto her back paws, nearly sitting. Perhaps it was just the reassurance that she wasn't alone, that something could be done, but she managed to let go of her fury just long enough to think. Her ears sagged and her eyes flashed with thought, her banglestaff rattling softly as she rocked back on her paws. In her frenzy to find Leonna somewhere in the floor, she had neglected to take note of the few oak leaves gathered in a small circle on the floor—a foreign plant to the Dome room.
“What more be there to remember, Prince? Leonna be getting ready to go, Leonna tell Padme we live with Hunter now.” Padme blinked, her head tilting sharply to the side as her small eyes narrowed. “Padme be here long time... why Leonna go with Prince?”
"It is nothing... You have..." he fumbled for words, tried again, "Had you seen my nana...? The way her eyes shone, her face regained color, everything that changed after you helped her... Sharing of our food is nothing compared to what you have given her..." he gazed down, "You have only missed our many thanks and prayers as you slept... even little Jeremy wanted to come in and have a peek at the lady who aided us so, but his cough still keeps him in his room... Please, just rest, we could not ask more..."
Bo appeared in the door then, bringing soup, "Is she still hungry...? Miss Ella heated up some more broth..."
"Stay with her?" Peter asked, "I want to go check on my nephew."
The big man nodded slowly and crept carefully toward the bed, balancing the bowl of soup as carefully as he could. He looked utterly petrified about dropping it, but when he reached the stool to sit, his face dawned in a relieved smile. "H...here you go, Miss..." he offered her a wooden spoon.
"Why...?" Hunter almost wanted to smile then, but he found he couldn't. The memories of his last conversation with Leonna, that last promise to see each other the next day, to live together... it only hurt now, when she was gone from his arms. Lost to him, likely alone, even afraid...
His mind trailed off and he noticed for the first time, as well, the oak leaves. He bent down and took one in his hands, rubbed it between his fingers, then held them up to his nose to smell. Northumberland Forest... Old memories of sunlight scattered through leaves, of squirrels, and birds chirping, and leaf mould underfoot, of the plains beyond the wood, the long rides to Renamor, with the smell of Mannie and his friends' other horses, of looking forward to a filling lunch, and a day's rest, of chasing scouts in enemy nations' colors, and calling plans out to comrades in the forest, all came rushing back with that simple smell. The tall oaks that the founders of Renamor had first seen, across that plain, and brought to build their bridges, and their watchtowers, and kindle their fires to warm their homes...
The Dome has taken her to my home... but not the house I keep in Blancwood, in Cadenza's Rubato, so far away. No... it has taken her to my real home. The land where I had left my parents and all others I had held dear behind... Did it want for her to see Choras...? To understand where I am from, why I am the man she has come to know...? Oh Leonna... they will never understand that blessed gift you have, that magic in your heart...
Leonna, please Lord, I pray, keep Leonna safe... keep her away from those that would never understand, that would offer her harm... let her wander happy in some wood, in some field of flowers, until I can come to her... Please...
"Prince?" he distantly heard Padme saying, in her shrill, small voice.
"...I know where Leonna has gone..." Hunter murmured, gazing again at the leaf he held, "Come, Padme. We must travel... back to my home... to the kingdom of Choras."
He opened a door for them then, an oaken door with an all-too familiar spade-like crest carved into it, just like the small crest picked out on the breast of his tunic in gold thread, and before Padme could ask much more, he led the way through.
OoC: I started the first half of this post when I was suffering from a bit of a writers' block the day before. Then today I wrote the Hunter half while on fiiiire posting in a streak and it just flowed perfectly. :3
“Thank you.” I offered a mild smile towards the portly soldier, though I did not wish to loose sight of Peter. He had so many concerns, and even when I had done what he desired, he still found a way to worry for me. But perhaps it was a relief to see him go, to see him at ease enough to take company with his nephew and perhaps reassure the others. My thoughts lingered on those beyond the room until something warm, something wonderful touched my nose. I looked down, reminded of my own hunger, to see a bowl of hot vegetables.
“Truly, this is thoughtful and I am grateful.” I reached for the spoon Sir Bo had offered, only to realize that I could not use it. His eyes were on me and he was close, and I... I felt my cheeks redden as my legs rustled under the covers. How silly I must have looked to him, a bedraggled creature sleeping in the middle of the day!
Carefully, I set the spoon down on the table, straightening my shoulders as I pondered what to say. “Ah... Sir Bo? You have not eaten nor rested yourself, have you? I should like to... to freshen up and be of more help to you all. Perhaps you could take some of this lovely meal with you as well?”
“B-but Peter said to...” There was the softest sound of a stomach growling while he looked at the sandwiches. “I...is it really okay, Miss...? ”
“I insist.” Perhaps I spoke too quickly, for the man already seemed rather ill-at-ease. But it could not be helped—already I found myself upset that I should have so much attention while he and the others worried and worked. “I just told Peter... are all of you not tired? And yet I have rested, I... ” I felt the brimming anger cool as I looked down at myself, not even wanting to think of the state of my hair. There was no doubting—I was a true mess.
“But... but we have only been sitting around and waiting and not doing m-much of anything... you helped Peter's nana...”
I continued to stare at my lap, shaking my head. “It was nothing, and will mean little if others continue to suffer. Please, I... if I just had a moment... it is not meet that I should be waited upon.”
“O-oh of course I... I didn't mean to make you feel as if you couldn't have privacy!” Sir Bo's round face took on a light shade of red, and to my surprise, he began to back off to the door even while his stomach continued to protest. “I... I uh... I'll... umm... S... sorry...”
I could not help but stare at him, feeling my own brow furrow as I watched. “Why do you apologize? I did not mean... please, I cannot possibly eat this all. Would you be so kind as to take some with you? I will not be long.”
His eyes widened, and for a moment it seemed he was entirely beside himself. Finally, his stomach grumbled once again, and he moved forward to take three sandwiches off the plate. Both his hands and mouth were eager, his simple pleasure in taking a hefty bite contagious in its contentment. “I... mmff... I'll fe outfide!”
“Thank you.” I smiled, clasping my hands together in my own simple joy as he stepped out the door and closed it behind him. Ever since I had landed in the odd land of Choras, it seemed I hadn't had a moment alone. In the sudden quiet, my anxiousness, my worries, and my embarrassment faded to nothing. I could pull my lopsided and frizzled hair out of its bun and brush out the leaves, take the silly white frock off along with its dust and stains from tumbling in the woods.
With the full light of the day still warming the room, I used water from the pitcher to rinse my face, my arms, my legs, drying myself off with a hand towel that had been left near the bed. The knights had also been kind enough to leave my things for me, including the bag I had attempted to pack before the Dome had its way. There was still nothing much in it, but my green dress was there, along with all the herbs and various supplies for camping. I smiled at the sight of the familiar fabric, taking it up in my arms and pressing it to my face to smell what had been home for a number of comfortable months.
The dress was much more practical and to my taste, feeling more comfortable even than the bed sheets as I pulled it on. The long skirt and sleeves, the black corset that I loosely threaded—here was familiarity, security. I then combed my hair again just to feel the soft pleasure of its wooden teeth, finally pulling my hair back in a tight twist that curled at the back of my head. All that was left then was a final touch, just a flower or two to add a flutter of scent and color.
I reached into my bag again, this time searching through an insensibly large amount of tubes. Omentus... it seemed so long ago now, so far away, but he had given all these seeds to me. Most of them were common blossoms and herbs, some even seeds for trees. I had finally had time enough to look at them all, though I could not yet identify all of them. Something blue... that would do nicely, but the perfect blossom I found was one that had memories I did not expect.
Forget Me Not... Hunter, will you still wait for me? It has barely been a day, but I fear many more may pass before I find you again. There are so many lovely women in the world... so many that could love you, care for you... would it be better if you forgot? I chewed at my lip even as I thought, finally blinking myself out of a reverie and taking a seed from the tube. It took only the most gentle puff of energy to make it grow, a thin green stem and delicately small azure blossoms sliding out across my hand. Even as it grew, I wove it through my hair, happy at last to be presentable.
And then... at last, the soup! I did not bother to use the spoon, taking the warm bowl in my hand with all the giddiness of a child. All it took was the slightest lick on my lips and then I was drinking it down, pausing only to chew as I encountered turnips and carrots. I finished with a long drink of water, then pacing out of the room without bothering with my soggy slippers.
“Sir Bo? Sir Peter? May I see Jeremy?”
Padme sighed, her small lips pursing. The prince still had not answered her question, and it seemed he was lost in some kind of haze. For a moment, she even suspected that the Dome was up to something yet again, but then Hunter was in action and Padme didn't hesitate to follow. She dropped her banglestaff and kept pace with him just long enough to pass through the door, then breaking into a sudden leap that allowed her to wrap her paws around his arm. From there, she climbed to his shoulder, head comfortably sidled against his with the rest of her body dangling at his back.
“So, Padme and Prince be going on 'venture to save Leonna? This be good.”
"Oh, um!" Bo stuffed the last of a sandwich crust in his mouth, and then in his panic, chewed hurriedly, all while pointing to the other room next door, "Mff min mere! Mmph!" he swallowed hard, "In there, y...yes! I'll show you in..."
He rushed along to lead her to the door, B-before I make any more of a fool of myself.
Inside, Peter was sitting by the bed, and a pale young boy, no more than ten or eleven or so, was huddled under some blankets on the bed, pushing away a cup of broth with weak arms, "N...no more, nuncle... when can I go out in the yard again to play at knights with you...? Or... or learn to ride Lancer, like you promised...?"
"As soon as you're well again..." his uncle said, but it came with a heavy heart he could not hide, and he winced when the boy began coughing again, "Please, please, you must finish your soup... it'll give you strength... I know turnips are not your favorite, but..."
"All I ever eat now is soup... I... I know mama works hard to make it, and... and it's not so bad, but... I miss other things, nuncle, I..."
The brown-haired boy stopped speaking--he had spotted the stranger, the blond woman in the doorway with Sir Bo. He wasn't scared, not with his uncle's friend there too, and she looked like a gentle lady... but there was something different about her he didn't understand as well. She had the prettiest eyes he'd ever seen, and flowers in her hair...
"Lady Aelfdene, you are well! And... and looking quite lovely, I must add... I am afraid this isn't the most pleasant room to be visiting however... Jeremy has been abed for days here and..." he gazed back at his nephew and drifted off. As much as he wanted to be a good host, he simply couldn't worry how messy bedding and scattered remedies must look when his own family was ill.
"Aelf...dene...? I've never heard a name like that before," Jeremy spoke up, with childlike curiosity in his eyes, "what's it mean...?"
"Yes, Padme... an adventure... something like that. This is..." He gazed up at the canopy of the trees above, all russet and gold and crimson. Familiar birds sang, and the smell of oak drifted by on the wind, and even the earth felt right under his feet. Home. He had not been this close to Renamor in some time.
"...This is the wood where Leonna fell... this is land owned by my family, by my father and mother... Can you pick up Leonna's scent, by any chance...? We may find we will need to go back and fetch Mannie soon... There will be much ground to cover if she has strayed far into the wood, or elsewhere still... She is light of foot, but... we must begin to search for some tracks..."
Much of his time as a page had been spent in the woods, learning the calls of different animals, the uses of different plants, especially those for food, the ways of tracking game and fowl. As a sworn knight, his lessons tended to be more of the nature of tracking men, of finding enemy scouts, sometimes only by the merest branches or patches of leaves they had disturbed, the places where their horses might have stopped to graze. He now relied upon those skills, and soon found prints of boots in the mud, several pairs, four distinct kinds he realized, following a regular route through the paths the knights had cleared in Northumberland Forest long ago...
Their strides... their treads... why do they seem so familiar to me...? Any group of men could have been patrolling these woods... but these four... they look...
I needed no further invitation. With a handful of skirt, I stepped carefully towards Peter and his nephew. The boy was pale and thin for one his age, but his features did resemble the rest of the family. When he showed no fear, I smiled, kneeling down on the floor at Peter's side. Perhaps it would have been more polite to ask myself in, or at least to give some reply to Peter's concerns, but I found myself helplessly drawn by the child. Surely he knew the same stories as the knights did... why did he not have the same fear?
“Names have all manner of meanings. To mine there is but one that matters, and that is 'daughter.' Your mother is kind, and I think she finds similar meaning to your name, Jeremy. Perhaps to you, Aelfdene will mean healing. I am here to help you.” I reached slowly to touch the boy's hand, trying to feel more than simply temperature. Every living thing gave off its own energy, but his was weak, dwindling...
“Bleh. Only thing here be HUMANS.” Padme sniffed at the air nonetheless, ears perked up as she listened to the prince's boots on the ground. “This be good forest, though. Padme hear water, too. Leonna never wander far from that.”
"Healing..." the boy goggled a moment, but when she took his hand, he felt something warm spark in him, life calling to his youthfulness, a sudden urge to smile, to laugh, to run and play, and a feeling that he could have the strength to do those things again--but it passed in an instant, a fleeting thing that was not yet his to grasp, and it was instead replaced by a subtle calm, a calm that came from his gentle lady alone. Her skin was fair like he had always been told noble ladies had. Her hands were soft, as if they had never seen work, but there was something practiced about them, like a nursemaid, that soothed him like his mother...
He sat back slowly onto the pillows and watched her with curious eyes, beginning to wonder if he was slipping into another fever dream, like the town doctor had said those visions were. This one seemed too nice to be that though... he wasn't tossing and turning, or sweating badly. There was just the lady and her eyes...
"Jeremy..." Peter breathed softly, and then looked towards Aelfdene. He looked worried--worried for both of them. Will she faint again, as she did after helping Nana? Can she truly be all right doing this once again?
Hunter looked up from the treads with a small smile, "Well done, Padme! The tracks do indeed seem to return back towards the creek I recall just beyond that slight rise..." he rose to his full height and gazed off in that direction a while, then back to where the tracks had entered, "but first they lead this way... we must see if perhaps they have left anything behind."
He followed the boot treads, careful not to disturb the trails, until they came to a tree, and here the tracks stopped, here they had turned back, and there were these barest impressions near them in the mud, slightly rounded, as if from the balls of the feet of some...
The plants have sprouted here already, as if with the first breath of spring... green little shoots have wriggled their way out above the leaf mould... here and there, why, I believe the tree itself even looks a little greener...
There was only one person he knew who could have had such an effect in such a short time. His heart raced in his chest for a few beats as he circled the tree, just to be certain of what he had seen, checking, and finding indeed the prints were there, the green was only there, in that spot, where he found a deeper imprint, as if someone had fallen and landed there, and a white petal of a flower he could all too well remember...
Lilies... she had been wearing lilies that day... he bent to pick up the petal, and held it briefly to his lips, remembering, dreaming.
Padme's paws squeezing his shoulder brought him out of the reverie. She was looking at him from her perch with those big, round black eyes as if she had just said something to him and was expecting a response, but he hadn't the faintest clue of what she might have said. He had been lost thinking of...
"Ah, my apologies, Padme, I didn't mean to drift off so, I had just been thinking... I believe this is the spot where Leonna must have fallen through the Dome door. You can see here, the greater pressure, the outline of her form where she landed... and then these green shoots, these petals... the four men found her here, and there does not seem to be signs of any kind of physical struggle... but her lighter prints do seem to follow along with theirs on the return trip... The creek should hold more answers for us. Let us be on our way--we can't afford to dawdle, least of all until we know she is in safe hands."
The knights of Choras have found her... but which? And how much do they know of her? Is she still with them? Outward the prince was the picture of level-headed calm, but inside, he could feel the frantic skip of his heart grow more with every passing moment his sweet faerie was gone. May the Father above safeguard her until we can see her again, until I can hold her... Leonna, I know you would do well on your own in a forest, but if they have taken you out of the woods, have taken you to Renamor... oh Lord, help her...
OoC: Sorry to suddenly change persons on you, but I've been writing Leonna this way recently, and couldn't help myself.
Looking back at the boy brought on an onset of feelings Leonna struggled to sort through. His gaze was not one of surprise or even wonder—not the fear nor the astonishment of the knights when they had seen her magic. The relaxing of his shoulders, the benign stare as his eyes bore into hers communicated an unspoken trust, a sense of pure and innocent curiosity. She realized then that she hadn't revealed her true nature to a child before, not as she was about to. Anyone could see from the glowing eyes that she was strange, but to behold her as she really was, to have mortals feel the energy in her veins course through their own body was something different.
She hadn't had the chance to meet the children of Bren. By now, the girls and boys she had known as a child were likely already married and caring for their own children. Before she left on that awful night, she had heard rumors of marriage, and at times even found a few stricken pairs that had wandered in the forest to seek solitude. She never spoke to them, never lingered long enough to hear the words they thought fell into empty air, but she had wondered. What did the people of Bren say about the demon recluse of the forest? What were they going to tell their children? Who would keep her company once the aged Hemanias was gone?
The maternal instinct awoke in the faerie with a fluttering start. She had barely met the boy, Peter's nephew, and yet she already felt it necessary that she help. In him, she saw her magic beautifully reflected, saw the hopes of a child burn in a sickness laden body. She had the urge to hold him, to comfort and fawn over him as a mother would. To him, she felt she could show her full form without fear—there was something in that gaze so like Neville's, like Hunter's, tender and willing to see. And there was so much to tell!
Children have no boundaries to their hearts... space to fear and love as few adults do. A familiar sadness touched the fae's eyes as they glazed with thought, and for a moment it seemed she was aware of only the nephew. I came to hate humans so much that I refused to learn more of their tongue, became so afraid of them that I avoided all unnecessary contact with them. I am more like Sir Hildegard than this boy—no, far worse in all that I have disbelieved.
“Yes...” Leonna spoke at length, finally seeming to stem and gather her thoughts together, “I will make you well again.” There wasn't a way to quickly explain what she was about to do, but the boy didn't need to be further reassured, and Peter had already seen her power for himself. So she let the power in herself go, felt the place deep inside herself and commanded it to open. The magic knew where to go, dancing off the tips of her fingers in glowing shades of cyan and seeping into the boy's hand. Though the light disappeared, its energy was almost palpable in the air, invigorating and purging and mending.
The release was almost pleasant at first, the feelings that followed it familiar. She could feel the boy almost as though he were an extension of herself, acutely aware of the tired muscles and sore organs. Her energy filled him, and then her own body began to protest, began to pull back. Leonna had to concentrate and channel the unwilling energy, forcing herself to give out what she was forever trying to hold back. Hands began to tremble, her breathing gained weight, but then the deed was done, and she was left with a shivering aura of energy retreating its way back into her.
This time, however, the magic hadn't stopped there. At first, the boy may have seemed an easier patient, being smaller and full of youth. But disease had ravaged his body, a body that was hungry and starving to grow. She found herself exhausted, but this time around she hadn't held back, hadn't stemmed the flow. Her wings were hardly separable from her energy, and with its release, it was only natural that they would follow. Constant discipline kept them in, reminded her to keep her natural aura deep, deep down inside herself where it couldn't harm others or be as easily detected. This time, however, she had made an exception.
So there they were, completely naked and glowing for the world to see. Something was wrong though, something warped about their shape. At first, Leonna was too tired to pay it great mind as she leaned against the side of the bed, writing off the feeling off as fatigue, but then they buzzed. Feathered wings didn't buzz. That's what insect wings—
“I... It cannot be...” Leonna's head turned, but it was difficult to see. At first, all she saw was a warmly familiar orange light, but then it all became clear. There were four wings protruding from her back, thin as gossamer and shimmering like diamond dust. They didn't shine in the light, but reacted to it, the transparent veins glowing gold as the sun hit them. The light flesh of those wings was transparent as well, but covered in ethereal dust that shone like a thousand jeweled facets. Each individual limb was at least five feet in length, uncannily resembling the shape of a dragonfly's wings.
That was it. Leonna was certain she was dreaming, that the impossible had finally happened and she had to wake up. She shook her head, flapped her wings, but the sensation wouldn't leave her. How she would explain herself to the undoubtedly surprised Peter was far from her mind—she didn't understand what was going on herself.
“Oi! Padme already say that.” The Haschen grumbled, fidgeting impatiently on the man's shoulder. She was convinced that something really was wrong with the prince or that some spell had been cast over him—he was so slow and thinking far too much. That was the trouble with Leonna most of the time, how she would stop too often and talk about things that didn't make sense, or how she would suddenly be caught up in some emotion and have to sit down for a while. Action, Padme felt, more often than not had a better place before thought, relying on instinct and a quick wit to get out of trouble.
“Padme show Prince how to find Leonna.” The Haschen then leaped from her perch, falling straight into the tracks Hunter was observing. She sniffed at the indents a bit, crunching her nose, but her ears remained poised at the top of her head. Her kind didn't rely on sight or even smell, listening and feeling the forest around them with their ears. Their targets were long gone, but there was a lot to be said of the forest. It was too quiet for her, a sign that it was a place that frequently saw humans. And if she wasn't mistaken, there was the sound of heavy horses somewhere far, far in the distance.
A peal of laughter, joyous, childlike laughter rang through the air, and young Jeremy was springing up in bed, clapping with delight, with health again, and he flung his arms around his healer and hugged her until it felt like his heart could bear no more, he was soaring, and his giggles turned into heaving breaths, no less happy than the tinkling, merry laughter of before.
"Oh thank you, thank you, thank you, lady! She's magic, nuncle, really, she is, she is! I feel like I could fly! Nuncle, nuncle, it's the greatest thing, look, look how pretty her wings are!"
Peter could not stop him before the boy was scrambling out of the bed to dance around the fae girl, holding her hands and twirling with glee. It was like something out of a fever dream for sure, so surreal he almost wondered if he was losing his mind, if the worry and the tiredness hadn't finally caught up with him and turned his faculties to mush. His nephew dancing with a faerie. His nephew dancing with a faerie, the creature all the stories used to say stole children in the night, stole them and left behind horrible changelings with wicked powers, and yet here they were, here she was, so kind and so good, and she had helped them all, Nana and Jeremy...
His head was spinning--he fell back in his chair, his limbs feeling utterly powerless for a moment. His gaze was stunned, the room swam. Jeremy was still laughing happily when the room faded to black.
By that time, Bo was rushing in to see what all the ruckus was about.
"M-M-Miss Aelfdene?" the plump man froze and stared, feeling as if he might swallow his own tongue. He could find no words, could only marvel at the wings as they caught the light, and feel the blood drain right out of his head. Only the doorway stopped him from falling, catching him as he staggered back and then slumped down in his shock.
"Peter, Bo, what is happening over there!?" came Hildegard's booming baritone voice down the hall. "Bo, answer me!"
It was wonderful to be touched. Leonna held the boy somewhat unsteadily when he reached for her, breathless because he held her so tightly. That he would be healed, she had no doubt, but that he would become so excited, so happy was a true surprise. How long had this energy been decaying within the child—how long had he been aching simply to move without fear of pain? His laughter moved her to tears, made her begin to clutch back and him and hold him closer.
Truly, the world would have lost something precious had this boy perished. Leonna smiled, feeling the strength to stand as the boy flitted out of her arms and tried to pull her up. She swayed with him, forgotten wings fluttering as she softly laughed along. Part of her wished that the moment wouldn't end, that the warmth in her chest would never leave again. But then her eyes fell upon Peter, who was now lying back in his chair rather than celebrating with them.
The gut reaction was sudden nausea. Had she done something to hurt him? Did she push herself too far, letting out so much that it had injured the man? The more reasonable part of her brain recognized that he had simply fainted, that his life energy was not fading away, but her heart did not have time to stop its suddenly quick pace. In less than a moment, Bo was at the door, stuttering and staring as he had when he first saw her.
Leonna froze, at a loss of what to do. If she stepped forward to help him, would he only be more frightened? Her wings lowered and snapped together, folding behind her back as a damselfly's does. When she heard Hildegard's upset voice storming up the hall, her legs suddenly remembered that they had muscles, and began to back away towards the window. She flattened herself against the wall, paling more as time slipped from her fingers. Their fear was not something she wanted to face again—no, she wanted to run and hide beneath the bed they had offered her—but she couldn't quite bring herself to throw herself out of the room.
Oh, this was all a terrible idea...
"Oh no, please... please don't go!" Jeremy cried, "Everything is wonderful, so wonderful! Mister Lesley, it's all right!" he skipped towards Leonna and took her hands again, nuzzling them as he might his mother's, "Thank you... thank you for everything..."
Hildegard appeared in the doorway, hefting Bo to his feet, but when he saw them, his gray eyes widening, the steel in them shaken for a moment. He could not see the wings folded behind her back as they were now, but glimmering faerie dust filled the air, coated the floor with unearthly beauty. There was no mistaking that some act of great magic had just happened in this room.
"Jeremy... step... step away from Miss Aelfdene for now, boy, she must be weary after healing you so..."
The wary note in the man's tone was lost on the child, "No, I don't want to, Mister Lesley, can't she stay with me and play? It's been so long since I could and... and she's the best! Really!"
"J-Jeremy...?" the boy's mother, Ella, came up beside Hildegard. Her eyes went to Peter for a moment, stunned, but when she saw him breathing, as if asleep, fainted, the look of confusion quickly changed to one of relief, "Oh Jeremy, my son, you're well!" she squeezed past the lieutenant and ran into the room, dashed to her boy and threw her arms around him, sobbing, "She truly did it! She healed you! Oh my boy, my boy!"
"I'm okay, Mama..." the boy nestled against her, his arms around her shoulders, and his voice sounded younger when he was in her embrace, being doted upon by her, "can Miss Aelfdene really stay with us...? I like her, I wanna ask her to play..."
Hildegard's stance eased in the doorway, like all the bite going out of a cold wind. Even he could not stay as stone when watching a mother and her son together. Leonna had made that possible. Had made him well when nothing else succeeded. Her magic might be strange, even alarming, but if she could do that...
She knew Lady Cadenza... and was there not always something different, something strange about her...? But she helped us in our hour of need, and Hunter trusted her, trusted her deep... What manner of creature are these women that come into our lives, wielding such power we never knew...? What is truly out there, beyond our land of Choras...?
"Yes, son, yes of course she can... of course she can," Ella was saying, squeezing Jeremy again tight.
Neville had come to peek in from the hall, and his mouth was hanging agape at the glitter still covering the floor, marveling at the dust left by Leonna's faerie wings, as if it was one of the most breathtaking things he had ever seen.
"I...it went well...?" he asked, sheepish about intruding on their moment, but too curious not to ask.
Hunter swallowed down a lump in his throat as he looked off across the plain with Padme--they had gone back for Mannie, and sat astride her now, with the Haschen perched on the prince's shoulder, gazing at those distant castle spires of the city he had fled four years ago...
I should have known the trail would lead us here... the Lord puts these obstacles in our way for us to grow stronger, for us to learn... running away from them only postpones the test we must face... and thus it remains... Father... Mother... is it possible that the knights have brought dear Leonna so far as even your chambers, your audience hall, that she may be standing there this very moment? What might you all think? Pray, what would you do if you ever saw her... would you see the beauty, the sweetness, the goodness I do, or would you think of her as you do the exiled witches in this land...?
I recall the Northumberland patrols... any strange occurrence was to be sent in... and this would be more than strange... could any of my countrymen hope to understand someone like her...? The miracles she can perform...? Those blessed wings, or those eyes like jewels, those gentle, warm hands, feeling like the kiss of the sun... can they see that she too just needs understanding and acceptance, like any soul that would be lost in that wood?
He could feel Padme growing impatient again, thwacking him lightly with a paw as he came out of his thoughts, "Yes, sorry, my friend... we shall ride... I know these roads well, and we should make good time..."
Returning to Renamor... I knew the day would come, but I had never imagined it like this... Leonna... for you, I would face even my father, my mother, all my fellow soldiers, but... Lord, let her be safe...
Mannie nickered as he ran a hand softly over her mane, and then pressed his legs into her sides, and soon they were off, galloping towards the capital, galloping towards the home he hadn't seen in so much time, and who knew what else...
We're missing your post inbetween here, Fairby. :< Hope you have it, if you do, just send it to me and I'll edit it in here.
The firefly pendant glowed softly for a moment, the word unheard by those in the room, but so clear to Leonna's ears. The voice was warm like an embrace, rich and soothing, a mother calling out to a darling child.
Where have you gone to...? You're beyond our home, but I can feel you still, feel you with this... My child, come home... I will see you brought home...
For the span of a few breaths, the fairy dust on the floor glittered golden instead of silvery white, like specks of precious sunlight glimmering off motes in the air. None of the humans seemed to notice it--indeed, it wasn't clear if any of them could see its change, but Jeremy's laughter seemed brighter, seemed fuller, Neville's smiles came easier, even Peter stirred, and the general tension in the room seemed eased by numerous degrees. Even Hildegard smiled briefly, and coming over to Leonna, he bowed his head, as if in apology.
"It seems I had gotten worried over nothing... forgive me, Miss Aelfdene, but you must be tired... Might I fetch you water? Tea? It might be best to give the mother and her lad some time alone... but we are at your service."
Bo nodded eager agreement to this, right on his feet again. The half-nauseous, dazed look was gone, and he looked the picture of health again, as if he had not been near fainting minutes before. Neville smiled and waved at the faerie from the doorway, a smile that reached his boyish brown eyes and made them shine. His brother Hildegard offered a hand, his healed hand, that sign of the goodwill that she had shown to him, and waited to help her up.
On the floor, the golden dust settled into a pattern like a tree. Home. A way home. Find the tree, find the door...
"Announcing Sir Arnold Tournebulle, here at your express command, Your Majesty!"
The pages scrambled to tug open the massive oak double doors, edged in gold, each wooden slab with the green spade of Choras etched and painted on their surfaces, and let the knight in to the royal audience hall. This was not the Great Hall, but it was still impressive, with sumptuous linens and rugs of forest green and gold covering the floor and every wall, and two high-backed, gilded thrones, with green cushions, for the King and Queen to sit upon to receive guests. Decanters of sherry, brandy, and fresh water were kept on hand, along with chilled milk, turkey, sweet pastries, cheese, grapes, and whatever else the Queen might request. As it was now, she was on her second glass of sherry, and feeling none too patient with the knight who had dawdled, to her mind, far too long to come to her summons.
Queen Sandra Merridale had been beautiful in her younger days, and was still a rather handsome woman, especially when dressed in her best regalia. An emerald-toned gown, cut exquisitely to suit her healthy bust and waist, hugged her curves and flowed down from her hips in a cascade of shimmering satin, the envy of any noblewoman for miles and miles around. Her bodice was worked with gold and square-cut emeralds, beaded with small pearls, and at her throat and upon each ear hung matching, larger emeralds, set in yellow gold. A cape of fine silk hug, majestic, from her shoulders, fixed with a golden chain across her chest. Her chestnut brown curls were piled high on her head, nesting a delicate golden tiara, all above an intelligent, fair-skinned face, where time had only begun to exact a slight toll, easing wrinkles by her eyes and mouth.
That mouth, prim and red, was not smiling right now. Queen Sandra tightened her grasp on the golden scepter in her right hand and waited for Sir Arnold to come forward towards her dais.
It wasn't until Sir Arnold came closer that he saw a skinny man in long green robes and black trousers cringing behind the throne, off behind the Queen's right shoulder. The man stuck out like a sore, throbbing thumb amidst the guards in their armor and the servants in their livery. He wore a tall, peaked hat to match his robe, had a long, ragged white beard, and held a carved stick of wood, inlaid with what looked like ivory, that came as high as his shoulders. A staff, the knight realized. Who did this man think he was, intruding on his audience with the queen!? It was his time to shine... he had given the good news to the King about the patrol, so this meeting could only be to commend him further for his part in that, right? Perhaps ask him to join Her Majesty's personal guard? Then... why did Her Majesty look so mad?
He went down on one knee before the Queen in a formal bow, one hand going to the empty place on his belt where his sword normally would be for ceremonies in wartime. He did not rise, nor meet her eyes. It was not his place to, not without her command.
"Sir Arnold..." she said, in a voice like she felt she was addressing a roach, "rise now, we have much to discuss. You will excuse me if we must dispense with some courtesies. I fear we have grim business ahead of us."
Grim business...? That does not sound like personal guard detail... the man cleared his throat and rose slowly, "Of course, Your Majesty... whatever you would ask of me, I will follow."
"Good," was all she said to that, setting aside her glass of sherry before going on, folding her hands in her lap, like a mother impatient with a child, "Then perhaps you can explain to me why it is taking your fellow knights so long to return to the castle? Hm? Where is Lieutenant Hildegard, Sir? Or Sir Warren, Sir Slovsky, Sir Neville? If all was well on that patrol, why have they not come back?"
Here Arnold felt a stab of guilt--to be honest, he hadn't cared where those four had went, so long as he had gotten to deliver the good news to the King. Hildegard had seemed no less cold and stoic than usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the Queen had a point... if all was well, where were they? Only two of them had families left in Choras, and Neville's parents lived right by the castle, and never failed to gossip with the other noblewomen and get news to the Queen. But if even that rumor mill had failed...
He wasn't sure yet how he could use this situation to his advantage, but he'd find a way. But first, he'd need to find an answer to give her. "I... I am afraid I do not know, Your Eminence... I do not normally fraternize with that lot, so once our duties were completed, I parted ways with them in the forest," was what he said, but there was an unspoken, I'm sure those louts are at a tavern or pot shop somewhere, eating slop, all save for Clark Neville of course, Your Majesty, such a fine lad, that Clark, the Nevilles are a fine family, so loyal to the realm, that he hoped got across clear. You did not voice such things to the Queen, but naturally they were known, he felt, amongst higher class personages such as themselves. Right?
"That is of very little consequence, Sir Arnold... the question was more a rhetorical one--I imagine if you had known, you would have been the first to tattle on them to my lord husband," the knight paled at this, but Her Majesty went on as if she did not care, "I ask you now, not because I expected you to know, but because I expect you to procure the answer for us."
Arnold could barely muffle a "m-me!?", but the look could be read on his reddening face all the same. His jowls quivered under his thick sideburns.
"Worry not, my knight, for you will not be without help," at this, the cringing man in the hat and robes came forward, and the queen extended a hand towards him. "This is Elias, our castle healer. He has detected a strange presence of energy in our land, in our capital, inside the city walls. It grew stronger twice already in the past few hours. Together with him, you shall track this presence and find the source," the Queen's tone was as cold as steel, but there was almost a sly smirk on her lips with those last words, And I expect where you find this source, you may also find our missing knight friends. The smirk soon soured into a bitter frown, more internal than shown, I have never forgiven you, Lesley Hildegard... Borrof Slovsky... Peter Warren, even Clark Neville... not since the day my son disappeared from our halls. I have no proof that you were involved on that horrid day, that day that shamed us in all the eyes of the realm, that shamed the noble Vilene family and my lord husband alike, but it doesn't take much for anyone to see you must have been connected... His friends from childhood... Why did we ever allow him to play with such riff-raff? To bring them into our castle, into our knights' barracks? A grievous mistake we shall never fully repair...
While the queen was lost in her own thoughts, Sir Arnold was still hung up on her words--"castle healer". Anyone close enough to royals knew those words truly referred to the secret witch or wizard every monarch on the continent of Guardia kept to tend to those things normal humans could not see, could not mend. They advised on warcraft, on dealings with outsiders, the strange, and the dangerous... and they also brewed potions, dispensed remedies, and generally gave better medical care than any mundane medic in the land. While the masses could never afford such private care, any royal was loath to go without a mage of their own. It was a cushy position for the mage, if they could keep quiet, but of course, they could never leave the castle, never tell anyone, and if they ever made the monarch upset...
Well, it was always easy to find another willing mage who didn't want to be hung on a cross and put to death. Four square meals a day and a decent place at feasts while being cooped up in a castle all your life was sure better than running from an angry mob or being outcast into the harsh wilderness, shunned by your own fellow men.
And this skinny, bearded, knobby-elbowed man was one of those mages? The way people talked about them, Arnold had expected someone with a heavy brow, dark, forbidding eyes, and a looming, powerful presence. Maybe a man eight feet tall, with a barrel chest and wicked fingernails, or a witch with dark lips and malicious spells upon her tongue. This man looked... pathetic, really. Lowly. He cringed at every word the Queen said, but when he finally came forward, he tipped his hat and said in a mousy voice, "E...Elias, at your service, Sir Knight. The presence is at a standstill right now, I think if we make haste we should catch it... i...if you are prepared to go now, sir."
"I..." the knight cleared his throat--no use sounding as sad as that pitiful creature. He looked like a skinny dog cringing under his master's heel. "I will need to fetch provisions and other supplies, Healer. But if you will meet me at the South Gate, mounted, we shall ride through the city and locate this energy source of yours." He turned to the Queen with a proud smile--that had been perfect. He'd sounded in control and dignified, while the wizard just trembled in his oversized robes. "By your leave, Your Highness..."
The Queen mused for a moment with those prim red lips, pursing them, before she finally nodded her curly head. The tiara somehow stayed perfectly in place. "Very well... I only hope your confidence shall translate to results, Sir Arnold. Be on your way. Elias, see to it that you do not embarrass us outside the castle, would you not? Forgo that ridiculous hat for a hooded cloak, it would be much more fitting. And do you have a less ostentatious staff? Honestly, must I..."
The lecturing when on, but Sir Arnold hurried out as quickly as was respectful and dignified. A royal mission! It might have been of a rather... questionable sort, but still, no one could deny Her Majesty had handpicked him all the same! And should the source of this energy prove to be some kind of great prize for the realm... Promotions! Lands, titles! Wealth! Gold coins were raining in Arnold's mind.
Leonna was still trembling from the words of the voice by the time Hildegard had spoken to her again. It was more than the fact that she recognized that voice—something touched her from beyond the void between worlds, as though it were her mother's hand touching her cheek. She heard every word, and yet their meaning was almost lost in the sensation that buzzed through her body.
All her life she had learned to fear that which could take a hold of her energy, the horrible nightmares that could twist her body beyond her own recognition, but this was different. It didn't feel like a foreign entity manipulating her flame, it felt like a part of her, but stronger, purer, familiar. It was a part of her sixth sense, that sensitivity to energies that reassured her of a new reality: she had a mother, and that mother had never ceased to care about her.
And then she understood what had happened to her wings. It wasn't a bizarre effect of chance, but the lingering influence of her mother. She had been so overcome by seeing her mother for the first time, so caught up in emotion and the mere presence of that woman, that she had been numb to everything else. The change in her very essence, the strength to control her own body—who but that blessed entity could bestow such a gift? The thought was overwhelming, followed by sudden emptiness as her mother's slight presence faded. Her eyes fell to the floor, to the pattern the dust had formed, and then closed.
“Yes... I am sorry.” Leonna's eyes opened to see Hildegard's proffered hand, tracing up his arm and all the way up to his face. There was no more upset, in fact, a pleasant feeling lingered all throughout the room, but something dark remained in the fae's expression. She had been touched by something from another world, something precious to her, and that instilled a new sense of desperation and loneliness. She longed to see her mother again, to feel Hunter's embrace. She longed to be in that home, that home where she didn't have to tip-toe about with her magic and worry about what would happen if someone saw her.
Leonna peeled herself away from the wall, arms against her sides and hands clasped just above her belly. She stepped forward, slowly, but rather than taking Hildegard's hand, she stepped around him, pausing at his side. Her chin lifted, head slightly turning as if she were about speak, only to fall back down as she continued out of the room. The knights could have treated her far worse than they had, said crueler things and delivered her before unfair judgment, but the unspoken mistrust was something that could not be ignored. She felt that Hildegard wanted to trust her, that he hoped for the best, but reality continually forced him to jump to the most instinctual of conclusions. After all... was it not blatantly obvious that she wasn't one of them, wasn't even human?
The wings on the faerie's back twitched as she moved, still feeling so new. Unlike the great feathered wings she had carried, they did not like to be still, like legs that ached to run. Practicality told her that it was just about time to pull the appendages back into herself, but she lacked the heart to do it, and had little reason to. She was exposed, the reaction had occurred, and what was done was done. Things hadn't gone as bad as they might have, but the unvoiced disappointment was there in the way that she met the gaze of none, quietly stepping into the hall to allow the family some privacy.
Back in Renamor after over a year away from Choras, and he could not get over the feeling. In all that time, he had met strange and new friends, tutored people and creatures the likes he could never dreamed of, saw fantastic sights... it was not that Renamor City felt small. No, no, it could never feel small, although he had certainly seen cities with towering buildings that stretched towards the sky and winding, paved roads that dwarfed the place. It was more so that the place seemed to be painted with an entirely different palette of colors than anyone else he had been. There were earthy tones, familiar hues he remembered and that were dear to him, but then there so many colors missing, colors he had grown to love... the blue of the television screen bathing Christopher's face as the boy fell asleep watching his favorite cartoons... the green of his new home's front door... the shining color of Leonna's eyes whenever they lit up with a smile... or the pink flush that would creep into her cheeks...
All these colors were missing, a bright piece of his life, and while Renamor was familiar, it had been home, it would never feel right without those pieces he had come to cherish in his new life...
That was the feeling, he thought, that formed the lump in his chest as he rode through the streets with Padme and Mannie. People dropped their work, laundry or smithing or wrangling their children or chickens or dogs, and stared as the prince rode past with the Haschen perched on his shoulder. He knew what a sight they must make... and in his forest green tunic, no one could mistake him for anyone else. The prince was back. Word would spread fast.
Speaking of words, he began to pick up snatches of stories, of rumors spreading about. People had seen the knights escorting a lady into town. A noblewoman, many surmised, to have warranted such an escort. Lieutenant Hildegard led the group himself...
Lesley... could it be so...? I had thought those treads in the forest looked familiar... God be willing, could she truly have been led into your loyal hands? I know you can be stern, my dear, dear friend... but you have always been fair... Won't you see the good heart that I came to care for so quickly, so deeply as I have? Surely she must win you over too...
Hildegard mainly stayed at the castle barracks, however, and the prince was not prepared to go there... at least not yet. He would search their other usual spots, the places they loved to frequent when the five of them were free about the city. He checked into taverns, pot shops, other eateries, the ranges, forges, a bookbinder's, bakeries. He checked the outermost jousting yards, where instead he found boys running about with sticks at play. It seemed to take him back ten, even fifteen years...
Then he rode down the old cobbled street, where he remembered Peter had grown up with his Nana, and the sunken porch his friend never did quite get around to fixing. And there were their horses... just as he remembered them. Ebony, Hildegard's black mare. Lancer, the stallion he had helped Peter win... Bo and Neville's horses were there was well.
"Here, Padme... she must be here..." Hunter murmured, half to himself as well, and slid down from Mannie, tying her to the porch beam near her old comrades. The horses began to sniff at one another, as if greeting one another after a long time apart. The prince smiled faintly at that, carefully offering his hand to Lancer to pet the stallion's snout, before brushing past slowly, Padme at his heels, to knock on the door.
Knock, knock, knock.
He drew his hand back and waited as there was first silence, just house noises, settling, birds on the roof, something brewing, maybe water, on the hearth inside. His chest began to feel tighter with every passing second. There were muffled voices, and he began to wonder if he should announce himself, or knock again. He found himself noticing odd things, like that the door looked newer than he last remembered, but that there was a notch already in the doorknob, and that one board had swelled some, maybe with the last summer. That summer had not helped the sunken porch. He thought he heard a boy's voice, laughing, inside, and then...
Lesley Hildegard answered the door.
In that first moment, the black-haired man looked as if someone had struck him in the gut with a sack of stones. His mouth worked for several seconds as they stood there, trying to form words, before Hunter's chest swelled far too much to bear any longer and he swept forward to embrace his childhood friend. His hug hit the taller man in the chest and rocked him back on his feet for a moment before Hildegard's limbs finally came unfrozen and limply went around the prince for a moment.
"H...Hunter...?" he croaked, the wind nearly knocked out of him, "My... my liege, y...you..."
"I'm alive...? I'm here...? Yes, my dear friend, and much more! You have no idea what a relief it is to see you! Please, we have so much to speak about, but first, pray, my good man, first can you please ease my heart and tell me if you all have picked up a young blond maiden today, lost, wandering in the woods? Her name is Leonna and her well-being is of foremost importance to me..."
"Leonna...?" Hildegard managed, "But... but the lady said her name was..."
"So she is here!" Hunter nearly squeezed the wind out of his friend before pulling back to clap his hands on his shoulders. Something danced in his hazel eyes then, something the lieutenant had never quite seen there before. It was as if he had become a totally new man. "Oh the Lord is good, Lesley, Lesley, please, you must show me to her! Good Padme and I," he gestured to a strange, rabbit-like creature at his side, and Hildegard noticed the critter for the first time, staring, "have been searching all morn and noon for her... Lesley... I am so happy you have met her first! She... she is very dear to me," he beamed, "no, more than that... she is my heart's delight, the woman I have come to love..."
That was enough to pull the lieutenant out of the dizzy haze he'd been sent spinning in, "...S...she is... you and her are...?"
"Yes, Lesley, yes... I intend to give my all to court her, should milady wish to have me... Please, I can't bear to wait any longer to see her well and safe... is she inside? Resting...? I don't wish to disturb her should she be asleep, no doubt the day's events have tired her, but..."
Hildegard swallowed and tried to steady his voice, "No... no, she was in the kitchen, last I saw... my liege... my truest of friends... it would be my honor to escort you to her. Please, follow me..."
With that, he ushered the prince inside, while curious eyes watched on the street, and news travelled.
The fae was weary of having eyes on her, watching the expressions in them turn from wonder to fear and back again. Had she been alone, she would have dug out the map in her bag and thought up a way to find the tree her mother had mentioned, but no one was about to let her out of sight. So she was resigned to easing her tension with household chores, tending to the soup Ella had left to check on her boy. The kitchen was a cozy place, she found, full of warmth from the fire heating up a large pot, and the air was thick with the scent of hot vegetable broth.
If Leonna could look at herself she might have been amused. The lightest flecks of fairy dust occasionally slipped off her wings and onto the floor, mixing with the dust and mud; the hot hue of her glowing wings lit up every plain earthen surface, and what few seeds had been strewn across the wood by shoes rustled as their tiny sprouts curled up near her feet. She was blithely unaware of the effect of her presence on the room, how the small change in aura from having her wings out made her skin warmer and the light scent of honeysuckle on her stronger. What she was aware of was nothing more than the slight inconvenience her wings provided, long, cumbersome things that she had to keep from knocking anything over.
How is it that they can become so nervous when they do not even know what I am capable of? All I did was heal the boy, show a little wing, and suddenly everyone thinks the house is on fire. Leonna frowned, shaking her head. There was so much to explain and yet no way to really do so, and thus her thoughts were her own as she chopped some unfinished onion. She had always liked the smell of freshly cut onion—many insects hated it, but it was hardy and almost spicy. Her eyes had never watered from the powerful juice, and her nose only found it to be mildly strong.
Leonna was seriously considering going back upstairs to fetch some spices from her bag when the sound of a knocking ran through the kitchen. It was hardly offensive, but the faerie's back was suddenly rigid. Peter hadn't mentioned any other family members or friends currently visiting, so her imagination created all sorts of possibilities. A guard? A milkman? A concerned neighbor? Leonna turned from her place at the stove, biting her lip. She didn't dare move for fear of attracting attention to herself, instead leaving Neville and the others to do what they might about the visitor.
But it was only a matter of time before the prince's voice traveled into that tense room. His words were muffled, but there was no mistaking that sound, those gentle cadences. Leonna's eyes went wide and her lips trembled, and as much as her brain tried to tell her that she was mistaken, it couldn't slow the beat of her heart. The strength drained right out of her, tears and laughter gurgling in her throat. She wanted to run towards the sound only to find it was all she could do just to keep herself upright. Again and again her eyes went from the doorway to the floor, the rest of her body trying to prepare itself for what it might be like to see him again. Within her already was a powerful craving to be seen by him again, to smell his woodsy scent and feel his firm hands, but there was always that distinct possibility that it wasn't him and she was simply overreacting.
Oh! This world is cruel, so cruel to taunt me like this...
“LEEEEEEEEEEONNA!” Padme's voice rang through the house, the shrill sound almost making the wood curl. The creature had grown frustrated with disappointment, of waiting for the prince to go here or there only to find that her friend wasn't in sight. Everything was too slow, the city was too busy for her to really hear anything, and so when it had been confirmed that Leonna was indeed in the house, an entire battalion of soldiers couldn't have managed to stand between her and her friend. She didn't mind the men or the armor or the unfamiliar space inside—her body was simply a creamy blur as it whooshed across the floorboards and bounced on walls to get past the tight corners of doors.
“How...” Leonna's grip slipped from the edge of the counter, taking her to the floor. The sound of her name was overwhelming, and there was no denying who'd screamed it. Padme, her dear friend, her only companion had somehow found a way to her. She wasn't lost any longer and didn't have weeks or months around these strangers to find out how to get home.
“Leonna!” Padme skidded to a halt as she caught wind of the woman's voice, sliding well past the kitchen doorway before righting herself and bounding in. She was in front of Leonna in an instant, sniffing at the woman and brushing one paw across her hand before turning away with a growl. “OI! What HUMANS do to Leonna!”
Had the fae still been conscious, she probably would have assured the creature that everything was more than alright.
Hunter was next, bounding into the room at a soldier's sprint at the sound of Leonna hitting the floor. Hildegard had always had the longer strides, the longer legs, but even he could not keep pace with the prince then as he rushed into the room, swept into a crouch, and lifted his lady into his arms.
"Leonna...! Leonna..." the prince found his voice shook as he hugged her hard to his chest, cradling her slender body, smelling the honeysuckle and the Forget-Me-Nots in her hair, the scent of the woods, the scent of the horses still faint on her. There was that energy too, that energy he always felt as warmth when he hugged her, something he barely understood, but she was so full of life for such a small slip of a thing... He knew she had gifts the likes of which he still couldn't fathom, but that she had been lost today, alone in a land she didn't know, his angel, wandering alone, anything might have happened, if other knights had found her, or his mother's men...
"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."
That was law in Choras, and much the same elsewhere on the continent of Guardia at large. What would they have done if they'd found her? She was so much more... no mere mortal wielding the forces of creation, but a force herself, something special, precious... they would have feared and what then...? He had seen what they'd done to others, even humans...
Our Father who art in Heaven... praise thee for protecting her... for guiding her into the arms of my friends, and not those who would do her harm...
"Hunter...?" came Peter's voice from the hallway. He sounded as if he thought he was sleepwalking, dreaming upright. The prince turned slowly, still clutching his delicate faerie to his chest, and met his friend's eyes. Bo was there too, gaping--reliable, dependable Borrof, good Borrof, he was not surprised if maybe he had a hand in convincing Hildegard to go easier on Leonna at first. And Neville... the young man was peeking out into the room too...
Hot tears welled in his eyes for a moment and he swallowed them down at the sight of his friends... he gazed down at Leonna again and gently brushed an errant strand of her wheat blond hair from her eyes, traced the soft line of her cheek...
It's time... they deserve to know you, and you them... I cannot keep my two lives separate anymore... For the friends who were so good to me, I must make amends... Leonna, I know they will grow to love you as I do... they must... they will see that... t-that I've perhaps finally found my... found the love I left for... even if I may just be a foolish man reaching for a star out of my grasp... how can I not try when I have you here... holding you like this... please awaken, my love...
Gently, with Padme and the others watching, he kissed her brow, and settled her more comfortably in his arms, supporting her back, careful about her wings. They were out, and no one seemed terribly alarmed by them yet--he was heartened by that. He was heartened to know she hadn't needed to hide what she was here, at least to some degree. It was like asking a flower to always stay folded, to stay wrapped in on itself, the way it must close when the sun goes away... the wings glittered in the light from the window, with their own radiance, such lovely things... there was something else too. Her necklace... He did not remember her ever wearing it before, but it was a marvel on its own, like a firefly somehow alive but wrought in silver, iridescent with light and its own little fire.
He felt his friends' eyes on him and glanced up from the pendant, from Leonna, to finally say, "I know I owe you all much in the way of explanations... and not only that, my dear friends, but in apologies and gratitude too, that much cannot be overstated... My sweet Leonna could not have found finer allies... finer people in this land than all of you..." he smiled, a slight but warm smile, "I know I am already greatly in your debts, and we have much to catch up on... but might I trouble you for a bed, one where she can rest and I might watch over her, until she awakens and we can make sense of all of this...?"
Peter and Bo stared at one another, and Hildegard and Neville were gaping at the prince and faerie on the floor. Neville was about to utter something when Ella burst in, her dressfront still damp from tears before, and thwacked her brother Peter on the head, "I knew I heard other voices, Peter, why didn't you tell me we had more c-comp..."
Her eyes froze on Hunter kneeling there, resplendent in his green and gold tunic, his princely grace, as he rose with Leonna, lifting the faerie in a princess carry.
"Sis... you remember my ol' friend, Prince Merridale, don't you...?" Peter managed the smallest weaselly grin, a little of his humor stealing back into his face.
Ella went as pale as bleached parchment. Hildegard, Neville, and Bo all scurried to give her a wide berth, unsure of whether she was going to faint or--
"P-PETER!" the woman gave a cry that rivalled one of Padme's own, and grasped a pan from the hook on the wall--but her brother was already laughing and running away, with a good head start.
"Hunter, follow me! I'll show you where Lady Aelfdene can lie down!"
"Aelf...dene...?" the prince stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised. He gazed back down at the faerie cradled in his arms, Leonna...? Just what did you learn after you left my door...? Was it a false name you gave, or...
"PEEETEER, I haven't had a chance to tidy up that room!"
"Hurry Hunter, or she'll get us both! It'll be fine, Sis, the prince has seen far worse in the castle barracks!"
The faerie had found herself lightly over the weight of consciousness, aware of little more than light and dizziness. Her brief surges of healing had taken more than she'd thought, but how could she give into weariness when a brief bout of exhaustion had concerned them so much before? She'd wanted to have some manner of solitude, only to fall flat when the impossible happened. Her head would have been more than happy to dream up visions of her prince, her mother, bright fields and endless skies, but something shattered that woozy veil. Ella? Yes, that was her voice, shouting, but it was so far away...
Slowly, Leonna began to find herself again. Her toes were curled, cold from the slightly damp state of her slippers from trekking in the woods, but the rest of her body was warm, aloft even. Her brows narrowed and her shoulders fidgeted, hands curling up against her chest as she took a conscious breath. The air was full of a familiar scent, not just the dusty woods she'd recently traversed, but something sweeter, tingling and fresh like spring grass. Surrounding that was the musk of a man she'd recently come to know, slightly salty but terribly warm. Her lips pursed, eyes half open as she tried to focus the rest of her senses back on the world.
Hands, there were hands lightly squeezing as she moved, causing the slightest squeak when she got wind of what was going on. His fingers were brushed over the the side of one thigh, barely above the back of her knee, and beneath both legs was an arm keeping them well above the ground. The other hand rested just above her waist, pressing at her side to keep her from slipping. Her head still lay on the prince's shoulder, the whole of her left side pressed against him. Her breathing faltered and her lips parted, but she could think of nothing to say. There was nothing to explain—this was a gentle hold, one that spoke no manner of anger or frustration that she might have imagined.
But how? How had he known where to go? How had he known that she'd been lost at all? Oh yes, they'd shared more than words when she last visited, but to think that he truly did care, that he cared enough to search until he could follow up on a vague offer—it was more than she deserved. Hot tears blurred her vision, made her lips tremble, but her heart was too full to speak. Instead, she could only stare fondly at her rescuer, smiling at those familiar features and blushing deeper at the tenderness in his gaze. Behind the fae, her wings were a buzz of activity, batting at the air and brushing sparkling dust on the prince's arm.
Leonna was utterly overcome with a myriad of emotions, but her body knew what it wanted. Her chin tilted upwards, neck weakly craning, but she was slow to move and starting to tremble from the effort. Fortunately, she didn't have to ask for assistance—the prince's mouth greeted hers warmly from above, their pair of lips meeting like the sweet touch of a butterfly upon a blossom. Had she truly been ready, she would have been able to wrap an arm around his neck and test the depth of the kiss, but the most she could manage was kitten-like pawing at his chest, hands slowly and weakly searching for a hold on his soft tunic.
“Sinome, sinome, lle ier sinome...” The words escaped Leonna's throat in a whisper, which was little more than a breath.
His world melted away the moment her lips found his, murmuring those soft words. Everything he had been feeling came together then, in a dizzying, warm, sweeping rush, filling his chest as he clutched her to him, his angel, his lost angel in his arms once again. It was like the relief and ease felt from a warm bath, yet the exhilaration of a spring rainstorm, the comforting glow of a fire in the hearth, coupled with the sheer joy of the sun shining down on your back as you rode through the fields.
His hands combed through her wheat-colored locks, sinking into their wavy masses, tenderly caressing them as if he could hold onto every inch of her. Slowly, but passionately, savoring every moment of having her in his arms again, he mouthed at those lips, deepening their kiss until there was only the warmth, the mingling of breath.
Peter peeked out for a moment from the room he'd fled into, and his sister stopped too. Hildegard, Neville, Bo, all. None of them, not even Neville, had ever really seen a noble engage in such a display of affection in public, even in front of only a few other eyes in a house, before, not like this. Commoners, yes, but the nobles saved their love, or lust, or duty, or whatever else they might feel for the privacy of closed doors, and to see the prince now, so swept up in his open and candid love, felt like... felt like intruding on one of those intimate moments, all the same. Like the two should be alone together somewhere, away from everything...
Peter coughed and shuffled back into the room. Ella murmured something about going to see Jeremy. Hildegard paced out towards the mudroom, and his brother followed, but not before a smile had blossomed on his face. Hunter had found it. The love he had hoped for, a woman who could make him feel like this... like he'd spoken of on the day they had helped him escape, four years ago...
He'd found her. Whatever more there was to the story, to who she was, to what might be... Neville couldn't help but be cheered by that fact. Perhaps there's hope for the rest of us, too.
"My love..." he heard the prince whispering to Leonna, "I'd missed you so... I worried terribly... to hold you now... to see your face... I never thought anything would be so precious to me..."