A small village has sprouted on the edge of the Lightholder River where thecobblestone roads from Fastheld's other prominent districts intersect, in the shadow of Caryas Hill and the majestic gray silhouette of Fastheld Keep – the seat of power for the entire realm. Sutlers, traveling performers and other small-time merchants ply their trades along this main crossroads - competing for space with carriages hauling passengers, couriers rushing important communiques from one district to another, and the soldiers of the Emperor's Blades who regularly patrol the area. On the northwest corner of the intersection, next to the road that twists north toward Lightholder Bridge and the palace, sits a large tavern and inn where weary travelers can refresh themselves. It is a mildly warm afternoon. The air is stagnant, not stirring with the slightest breeze. A few wispy cirrus clouds streak the otherwise clear sky.
A distant thundering of hooves softens as it nears from the north, the dust cloud dissipating as the shape of horsemen form. Eleven riders barrel along the road, slowing to a crisp trot as they enter the town. Black and purple garments enscribed with the mongoose crest, a symbol of Mikin name. They were remnants of the Ducal Guard which once guarded the Twin Keeps before the Ravager's reign, and they follow still the head of that very house. But times had seen great change, and great change now saw that head as a woman.
Leading her men at a much slower pace so as to spare the inhabitants the danger of racing hooves, Rowena Mikin sets the course southward. The Royal Healer's silken garments of court had been shed in favor of more weatherable material. Her hair, bound in meticulous arrangement of curls, contrasts to the more mannish wardrobe greatly, reminding all that her mannerisms remained very much regal.
The young Citizen gives a glance towards the oncoming riders, enough to make out the livery the wear. Reeze watches them approach for a few moments before averting his gaze as he waits for the small troop to pass. (Reeze)
Umbrus watches the ongoings on either side of the road with alert, blue eyes. His stubby ear twitches irritably as the flies seek to swarm old scars. Rowena maintains a firm hold on the horse's reins, her gaze equally as wary. The Chancellor had been lucky to survive that last attack, and she sought not to follow in his suffering. Two of the guards spur their mounts forward to flank her and ride just slightly ahead, perhaps sensing her tension. Together, they continue wordlessly to the south. Umbrus speeds off at a gallop toward the South.
Aegisview, city of industry and commerce, was once the provincial capital of the now-defunct Vozhd dominions. Straddling three trade routes at the Aegis' major eastern gate, rolling hillocks and loamy plains give way to dense urban quarters and a skyline populated by brick smokestacks. Hundreds of stone chalets dot the rural lowlands, centered amid the great farm-estates of the landed gentry. The Eastwatch canal, a broad, glittering waterway, feeds surrounding fields with irrigable water and descends into the very heart of the city itself. Narrow cobblestone streets coil through the cramped city districts, yet inevitably lead to the expansive central square: the living heart of Aegisview.
The sprawling marketplace is filled with carts and shanties; shops and stores; brightly coloured tarpaulins and independent merchantmen. Yet all are dwarfed under the two great industries of the region, embodied in their monolithic facades of stone and glass: the iron works and textile consortiums. Like sentinels, these twin foundries flank the square at either end. Broad cobblestone avenues expand in all directions. To the west, a chain of forested mountains mark the provincial border; to the east, the Aegis itself, gargantuan and imposing. To the north, behind high walls, the battlements of Aegisview Keep can be seen, and to the south the precipitous towers of The Warren. A large sword stands outside the Loom and Spindle, melded into the ground.
Before that sword, stands a figure engulfed by a midnight cloak, although the air remains fairly warm. The crimson glow of Day Hunter had risen to join its sisters in the sky, casting the sun into slow exile. Night was falling, and this first leg of her journey had come to an end.
“I think the Shadow tried to claim me again...”
Whispers a memory upon the breeze, tickling her ears with its soft breath. Kneeling to bear the weight that phantom voice hangs in her throat, Rowena Mikin reaches a hand outward towards the skyward hilt. Fury had driven this blade into the ground. Fury had driven its keeper into the unknown. Fury...had left scars on many hearts.
Her fingertips hesitate as they brush over the golden wire, eyes glancing to the darkening skies. Was this blade indeed cursed? Or was it holy, for having spared its wielder the wrath of the skies. No matter...
Her hand grasps it tightly, using it to bear her weight while the other gingerly examines the ground into which it had fused itself. A tingling sensation creeps across her palm, startling her for a moment. Turning her hand over, she watches as an ant scurries in desperate circles, lost. “I’m sorry, my friend.” The duchess whispers and bows forward to gently blow the creature back into the soil. Behind her, ten figures clad in Mikin regalia oversee the ritual in respectful silence, each regarding the phenomenal blade with their own expression of skepticism.
Rowena reaches into the satchel at her side now, pulling from it a thin strip of silken cloth. It pale, blue color dances against the darkness of her sleeve in the breeze. Her brows set firmly in concentration, fingers nimbly put to work. When she has finished, the sword’s hilt has acquired a ring of sorts. The ends flap loosely in eye-catching manner, a sharp, feminine contrast to the brutal nature of the weapon.
“What would you have me do?” Rowena whispers softly, folding her hands around the hilt as though in prayer. She bows her head further, resting the delicate bridge between her eyes upon the unyielding metal.
“...it was watching you... knowing that you may never really know... watching your tears... that was the real torment of the Shadow...”
“...I missed you, even though you were so close by.” She murmurs in completion to the remembered remark. An audible sniff draws back a bit of her emotions before they leak onto the ground. “Do you watch them now?” Rowena’s voice wavers, eyes closing to the glare of the blade’s sheen.
A few of the guards begin to shift uncomfortably in their rigid stance, hardly enthralled to watch what they assumed to be just a continuation of madness.
“Or have you been cast into the infinite breadth of the Light...shielded from all fears, all sadness.” Her slender shoulders sag further beneath the pull of the cloak. “What would you have me do? How long must I wait for you? How far must I search? If you be dead, then please...…tell me so. Tell me you no longer suffer. Until then, I will not abandon you. This is my promise.”
A drop of wet darkens the ribbon beneath her hands, spreading like the slow bleed of a wound. She looks up. The water in her eyes is mirrored by the glimmer of the moons. “It is time.” She murmurs and plants a brief kiss atop the hilt. Long moments pass as the woman stares soulfully at the relic, gaze piercing the distance in silent communication.
Once Rowena had turned and faced them again, the head guard nods in affirmation and extends a hand to her. In it, he holds Umbrus’s reins.
“Forgive me.” She states aloud, but whether the apology is to man, horse, or some other unseen entity remains unknown. A smile of thanks is passed to the guard as she climbs onto her mount and settles in. It was going to be just another sleepless night. She might as well make herself comfortable.
A long journey later... Bold text
Forest <Forest District> A small spring gurgles next to a cluster of shardwood and shade oak trees. Chitters can be heard trilling and capering about in the higher branches. Smaller animals rustle through the shrubbery. It is a hot night. The slightest breeze stirs over the land infrequently. The skies are perfectly clear. The following of the six moons are visible in the sky: Herald (blue/waning), Dayhunter (crimson/waxing), Torch I (gray/waning), Torch II (gray/waning).
Beneath the sheltering shade of thick canopy, insects drone lazily on through the heavy heat. A faint breeze whispers promises of relief as it stirs through the leaves.
Yet not all mammals have settled to sleep for the night. Through the trees, two large figures rustle somewhat noisily along, guided by an eerily swaying glow of blue light. Gazing ahead from the other side of that light, Rowena adjusts her grip on Umbrus's reins single-handedly so that the other may hover freely before her. The Ring of the Stars lived up to its name, glowing of its own accord in the darkness. The guard that rides with her remains silent, constantly scanning the area for signs of threat.
From Firelight's saddle, Another faint glow is in the darkness...that cast by the light's eye that gleams upon a bow of ancient steelwood, proclaiming the presence of the archer approaching his home. "there is only one such ring in Fastheld, surely." comes a familiar voice from that direction.
The two shadows pause, though most of their bodies is now somewhat distinguishable....with the exception of Umbrus. His starburst muzzle contrasts with the surrounding dark, but his ebony coat blends more easily. "And only one such wearer." Rowena chimes in reply, leaning in the saddle to whisper to her guard. She knocks Umbrus' flanks with her heels, spurring him forward to meet the other horse at an angle.
From Firelight's saddle, Fionnlagh taps his own horse, the towering shire moving to meet the lighter paso fino halfway, then turning parallel as the Forester smiles in the dimness. "Come my friend....it is late, and Forestwatch is warm. And we have much time to pass over, if no great errand spurs you away?"
"This whole night is warm..." Rowena bemoans, tugging irritably at the standing collar of her tunic. Sweat had actually broken along her brow, in her hair. Twas the first time in ages. "But I will gladly share a time. It is the very reason I strayed from my original course, of course." In the darkness and strange light, the shadows that somber her expression are even more exaggerated, countering the warmth in her tone with melancholy airs. Slowly, the guard's horse plods forward to join them, the rider bestowing the forester with a small nod.
From Firelight's saddle, Fionnlagh returns the small nod, taking up an escorting position he has not held for some time. "Then we shall find something cool instead," he offers, chuckling softly. "It has been far too long since you graced my humble abode with your beauty and friendship, my dear Duchess."
An agreeable sigh of truth breathes from Rowena's lips, chin dipping forward in both a nod and branch-dodging effort. The twigs catch a few curls of her hair, but only for a moment. "I have been needed elsewhere for quite some time. Only recently have I found a chance to steal away...and so I did. The Tradesmistress wishes to see me as head of my house, you know. Thus, I need to more closely monitor Light's Reach."
From Firelight's saddle, Fionnlagh nods thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "By all I've heard, that little surprises me. But come...we should let the horses rest before we talk on their backs all night." He gins a bit, spurring Firelight lightly on towards home, but not leaving the Duchess behind.
Fionnlagh rides Firelight off toward Forestwatch.
Fionnlagh's House - Living Area This room is a rather tightly squeezed combination of living room, dining room and kitchen, with a small sitting area for guests to gather, a dining area and a cozy kitchen. The walls and floors are made of shardwood planks. Steps lead down into the stables/workshop. A doorway leads into the bedroom.
Fionnlagh opens the door of the home as they arrive, stepping aside and holding it to allow Rowena to make her way in. "Come in, my friend....make yourself comfortable and I'll get us a fire started if you need. Going straight to sleep, or staying up a bit to talk?"
Rowena clomps slowly over the wood floor, pausing a few feet within to refuel her memory of the place. At once, the exertion from her ride combined with the nighttime heat bring a flush to liven her otherwise dead complexion. She tugs on the brass grommets at her throat with one hand, opening the tunic. "Sleep comes when it may. If the elusive beast wishes to bestow its affects over me tonight, then it will in its own time." She answers plainly, crossing the floor towards a shardwood chair.
"Couch." he offers instructionally as she moves towards the chair, extending invitation to the central piece of furniture where she's sat with him before. "Just let me get settled in and I'll join you." As she loosens the grommets, there's a mere hint of blush to his cheek, but he dismisses it with a soft chuckle. "Discard as you need or wish, my friend. There's no disapproving glances in Forestwatch tonight."
"Are there ever?" Freeing herself of the stiffer, thicker garment, Rowena casts him a smile of old over her shoulder. To save both their dignities, there is a billowing, red blouse beneath of course. Made of a thinner weave, it enables her skin to breathe. After the tunic finds its resting place over the back of the chair, she folds herself gracefully onto one end of the couch and stares into the extinguished hearth. "My sanctuary in the midst of prim propriety..."
Fionnlagh laughs at that quip, moving to hang his weaponry by the door to his own room, and glancing over his shoulder. "Not even if you were naked...though you might have to excuse a rosy shade or two in my cheeks. Speaking of which, I'll draw you a hot bath if you like."
The sheer mentioning of that sparks a new shade in Rowena's own, her stare into the hearth becoming more fixed. To save face, she responds with a more racy quip of "My sanctuary is not to be another's fantasy," and gestures a hand vaguely through the air. "A chance to rinse away the ash of my old wood would be appreciated, of course." Casting her gaze into her lap, she picks some of said grime from beneath a fingernail.
Fionnlagh laughs lightly, applying a little rosy shade of his own to his cheeks as his eyes dance a bit. He doesn't take the first part any further however, offering with polite warmth, "It shall be done then, my lady. Do you wish it now, or later?"
"It matters not." Rowena shrugs, twisting now in her seat to watch him. "I can sit just as easily here or there. It is your hands that would be put to work." Settling around again, she fans lightly at her face, perhaps more from habit than genuine need. The flushed feeling was beginning to fade.
Fionnlagh considers this, pausing a moment, then nods once. "I'll draw it now then...perhaps in my chamber, for privacy? Bathing in the living room is a riskier endeavour, though I expect no visitors." He grins a little.
"Privacy is of course desirable." Rowena confirms with a nod, having little fear, however, than a deer, chitter, or otherwise harmless creature of the wood would purposefully enter in and disturb her. "Although..." Her stare becomes vacant for a moment, lost in some memory, and a certainly blissful one, given the expression upon her face. "I have once had the 'interesting' experience of more awkward quarters." Ah, curse that night. Bending forward, she stretches a cramp from her back and inspects a suspicious scuffing on her boot. Light behold, it seems as though a hole were wearing through.
"Oh?" inquires Kenneth's voice through the door left open as he passes into his quarters. "What sort of awkwardness? Or is that better left unasked? You know my ears and mouth are not closely connected, as it were, when called upon to hear thoughts."
"It was an incidence of most rarity, if you'd believe." Rowena replies from her lounge on the couch, eyes closing to the imagined flame in the empty hearth. "For who should suspect a Prince to act as servant and draw a bath for his host?" Saying no more, she rolls onto her back and slowly slides to thieve more of the couch's space. With her eyes closed, orientation becomes riddled, and for a moment she feels as though her body were sinking into nothingness, tired limbs melting away.
"Who indeed?" inquires the forester, a hint of bemusement in the voice, though he adds quickly. "And I do indeed believe you. You've never given me any reason to doubt you in anything, my dear friend. Except occasionally in wisdom when to stop working." The last is laced with a hint of tease again, the sounds of a filling tub coming bucket by bucket from the other room.
"With so few reliable souls on the Council, one must endeavor twice as hard to keep the Empire from falling into dust." Rowena rebukes, her tone as solemn as the truth in her statement. "I feel guilt even now, having been away nearly a week's time." Sinking...falling away. Opening her eyes before the sensation over powered her sense of reality, Rowena stares pointedly at the ceiling to anchor herself. "Tell me...what business have you found since we last spoke?""
Fionnlagh makes his way back into the main room, approaching the settled Duchess with a quiet footing forest-honed. If he manages not to alert her, he slips onto the seat beside her semi-reclined form, smiling a bit. "Your bath awaits, my lady, if you would care to accompany me. And don't. Without occasional rest, *you* will fall to dust....and then where would the Empire be? Do not think the fate of the Empire rests solely on the shoulders of the Council, my dear Rowena. Not that you aren't important...but there is strength in the common folk as well. Sometimes the nobility forget our abilities." To the latter question, he offers a simple shrug. "A bit of horse-breeding back in Silkfield, of late. I had just returned from there when we met in the woods."
"The future of Light's Reach rests heavily enough on mine..." Rowena reminds with a mumble, the whites of her eyes showing more drastically as she looks 'down' her nose to see him sit at her feet. "I suspect horse breeding leaves you with not as many wounds as hunting bush dragons?" Teasing tone returned, just faintly, she arches a brow and then makes an effort to sit up. Her vision swims for a moment, preventing her from simply leaping to her feet.
"Not quite as many," offers the forester, though the evident difficulty of her effort breeds a rather improper result of its own. If she fails to prevent him, the forester shifts to scoop the Duchess up...one arm behind the shoulders and one beneath the knees, "It's a good thing you aren't fat and ornery," he observes teasingly. "And you'll find there are willing hands enough to help you, you know, if you just stopped long enough to ask. *We* stayed here with the Ravager for a neighbor, after all."
Fat, no. But ornery....quite. Once she's lifted just enough off the couch, the duchess hefts herself free with a lean forward until her boots hit the floor. "I'm aware." Rowena states matter-of-factly. "It is not my hands that are mining the stone, afterall. In fact, little of the physical labor will be mine to bear. It is my duty to monitor the progress, however. Tradesmistress Nillu has insisted that I take the head of my house. Orell's become less than worthy in the court's eye. Alieron's widow has two small children to worry over. Sophia and Fael have their own homes to look after. And I..." Exhaling a sigh, she lifts her hands to pull hairpins free. "Have a horse and two sharp eyes. Head I so shall become."
Fionnlagh can't help a small chuckle as she outfoxes him, offering her a brief grin that turns more solemn as she continues, nodding attentively. "You have more sharp eyes than two," he offers softly, touching her arm lightly. "You know you need only call if you need any aid. We foresters are loyal folk, even if Alieron displaced us. And I've considerable faith in you, my friend. But I *shall* fuss at you to take care of yourself, when I think appropriate, you know. I wouldn't be a friend if I didn't."
"Fuss as you will." Rowena permisses with a more docile tilt of her head, placing her hand over his. "I rest as I need. This entire journey away from the Palace is just that, in fact. A rest for my ears. Escape from the hounds." Wry smile curling in one of her lips' corners, she turns to disappear into the 'private' quarters. "I'll thank you now, lest I forget later." She calls back, eyeing the tub and surroundings with an air of skepticism.
Fionnlagh laughs, following along as far as the doorway. "Want me to wait out here? Or bring a screen? Or settle in and keep my eyes closed? Or otherwise?"
"You're 'free' to stay out there." Rowena replies without hesitation. Undressing meticulously, she folds everything into a tidy stack atop her boots, hairpins laid at the very apex of the pile. The air certainly wasn't so warm anymore!
A toe timidly tests the water, identifying it as a safe temperature. And so in she goes.
"Think you'll be hungry when you finish?" inquires the hunter from outside, offering, "I could put together something quick....no cooking. You'll take my room tonight, of course? I can occupy the sofa."
"I can't say that I'm very hungry," Rowena announces, arms wrapped around her knees as she huddles in the water's warmth for a moment. "But I will accept the chance to steal your quarters." Turning her face into her knee, she inhales the moisture deeply, arms falling slack to dip into the water and begin scraping old skin and dirt from her palms.
As she inhales, she'll catch a faint scent in the water....flowers perhaps. Doubtless, the forester added something to the water for her visit to sweeten it.