Chancellor's Suite <Palace District>
A spacious chamber with walls of polished biinwood and arched windows overlooking the courtyard below, this is the room that the Imperial Chancellor Alieron Mikin calls home. The room includes a washbasin, a chamber pot that servants frequently replace for cleaning, a wardrobes for clothing, and a four-post bed with an arched white canopy, polished biinwood headboard, thick beige blankets and comfortable fowl-feather pillows. An angled writing table is provided for the chancellor or his vassals to work on correspondence. A bedroll is provided for a vassal to sleep close by the chancellor's vicinity. High wooden doors lead out into the quarters corridor.
Announced by an attentive servant, the Spymaster enters the private quarters of the Regent on silent, soft-booted feet, no noise beyond the recitation of his name and title to herald his entrance, save the soft rustling of robes. Aiden simply flashes his most beatific smile, if tempered with a certain degree of smugness tugging at the corners, and awaits the good pleasure of the ubiquitous Oren.
"Duke Aiden," Oren greets, putting his work aside. "Please, come in and sit down. What may I do for you?"
Just a few moments after the Spymaster is granted access, a second voice chirrups at the door, announcing the arrival of her Grace, the royal healer. Rather than entering immediately, however, the door remains closed.
Aiden Zahir opens his mouth to speak, but refrains from doing so, looking towards the door with uncharacteristic wariness, and thence back to the Lord Regent. "I have a matter of some delicacy, milord," he informs, eyes catching an intrigue-rife gleam most assuredly not from the candles or any other light source. "But it would seem you have further guests."
"I am sure Duchess Rowena can wait outside if you so wish. She is a member of the Council and she can be trusted, however, if that is the kind of assurance you need. What is this regarding to?" Oren inquires.
When there is no reply, Rowena lowers her chin with a shaken sigh and stares into the stone floor. A heavier addition to her waterstone pendant weights upon her breathing, the Shard of Arminas glinting with sharp promise upon the palid backdrop of flesh. "You may leave me here." She directs to the servant with a gentle smile, reaching to brush a curl of the boy's hair over his ruddy ears.
Aiden Zahir gives a shrug of his berobed shoulders, replying with wry candor, "The Duchess need not be kept in the dark over this. Her services may be useful in the aftermath of what I am about to divulge to you. The Council entire would find this a matter of keen and necessary interest." In suggesting as much, the Viper's smile takes on an almost smug, wolfish hue. That of his House's sigil, a storm petrel, having eyed its next meal.
Oren Nillu nods. "Duchess Rowena, please come in," he says, raising his voice to be heard. "Very well then. Let us hear what you have to say, Duke Aiden."
Sahna Nillu approaches from behind Rowena, making a surprised sound. "It looks as if I picked a busy time to come." Sahna murmurs surprisedly, glancing at Rowena then Aiden as she peeks around the former. Her gaze returns to Rowena, worriedly, as she slips in as well.
Only after the servant has scurried back down the stairs does Rowena place her palms to the door. It opens at first just enough to permit her to slip through, black silk trailing behind. But as Sahna darts to join, she extends a hand to permit the tax assessor entry. "So it would seem," The duchess murmurs, casting a nondescript glance to the spymaster. She moves away from the door, coming to stand an arm's reach from the Zahir while returning her focus to the Chancellor. "If my presence interrupts, I will return later."
Aiden Zahir waves both Rowena and Sahna in, even as his eyes lock upon Oren as expression turns Cheshire with the promise of tantalizing intelligence. "My lord, you may think it crazy, but I advise you to immediately post Bladesmen, incognito, in the vicinity of every public notice board in the realm, and at the entrance and exit to every major district. Do so immediately, if you value the stability of our kingdom," the Spymaster urges, remaining as yet vague, and likely deliberately so.
"Neither of you is interrupting," the Regent states, eyes returning to Aiden. "The guards have already been doubled since I accepted this position. Why do you believe there is need for more?"
"Jurus Seamel tells me the Blades may revolt yet." Sahna murmurs quietly, voice low. "He's doing his best, but he doesn't seem very.. Optimistic."
Listening closely as the Spymaster begins to unravel his undoubtedly long stream of knowledge, Rowena closes her eyes. Her lashes shield the dark circles that etch beneath, a temporary blind to what the past two nights have done. "If they choose to revolt, they show disgrace to those who have sacrificed to build this realm to its glory. To those loyal to the Light who have fought to retrieved those lost to clutches of the Shadow." There's a pause as she opens her eyes now to stare vacantly through space and time. "But they cannot be blamed for the anger they feel."
Aiden Zahir's arms go to fold across his chest, the tall Spymaster seeming like nothing so much as the cat what's got the unwary bird in its mouth. "Know, my lord, that because of one person and their intentions, all we have worked for, all we are striving to build stands on the knife's edge. Tell me, do you know much of the history of Bramblestone Keep? Are you aware of who its most famous owner and resident? It has a history steeped in rebellion and insurrection. It was from thence that Goram Zahir betrayed Talus Kahar for the Wildlings in the first War."
"You are telling me, Duke Aiden, that Tomassa Zahir intends to revolt?" Oren Nillu asks, a faint smile decorating his visage. "How can you be certain? If this is true, then two problems can be solved in one single blow. The former Surrector has already shown herself to be a possible threat and, in accordance with the ranking officers I have spoken to, a battle is what the restless Bladesmen need. Given the position she once held, however, I will allow her the grace of doubting you, Lord Spymaster. Tell me, in detail, what you speak of and how you acquired the information."
"You're saying that Tomassa Zahir and Shalis Kahar intend to move?" Sahna asks with no real surprise, lips twitching. "I expect it of her; I don't expect it of him. It might be a less violent solution to call him in to us. He'll come because he's honorable and will most likely swear the oath, and she won't move if it means a risk of his head being lopped off. How did you find this out, Aiden? Going to her directly, perhaps?"
"That is..." Rowena shakes her head, brow furrowing with sober concern as she glances between the others. "It would be a foolish movement on her behalf. I'm aware that the former Surrector was not always known for her rational temper, however I'm certain that with a few words, any such notion she has can be suaded."
Aiden Zahir lifts a long, slender index finger in interjection as he continues, "Allow me the benefit of discussing this in its full context, won't you? As I was saying, Bramblestone has a history of rebellion. It was Goram's keep ... and Tomassa considers herself the inheritor of that legacy. I wonder," he muses, looking round at the others, "have any of you heard of the Black Rider? A mysterious figure in black armor who formented rebellion throughout the realm during the time of Goram Zahir? That rider was no less than Goram himself, and I have only just discovered today his base of operations beneath the dark and mist-shrouded moors of Hedgehem. I did not, for all of my artifice, come across this location by happenstance. I had to be shown it. By Tomassa. Who means to don the armor of the Black Rider and do justice to the heritage of Goram by stoking the fires of insurrection against the Lord Regent."
Oren Nillu turns to Rowena. "If what the Duke Aiden says is true, I intend to allow both Shalis Kahar and Tomassa Zahir to prove him wrong. Given what her last words to me were, however, I believe this to be the truth." His gaze slides on to Aiden. "She told you this? She told you she intend to revolt against me?" "She means to become a common bandit?" Sahna sniffs in derision. "At least she knows that mixing with the bottom-feeders of society is about the only thing she can hope to do. Again, I think the way to what little could be called her rational mind is through Shalis."
Pale. If Rowena were ever to be more such than she had become in the past weeks, her flesh would be translucent. Her breath holds in her chest now, eyes fixated on Aiden with the expression of a child lost in nightmare. Sahna's words buzz numbly through her ears, then she speaks with a shaking of her head. "Let me. Let me speak with her."
Aiden Zahir locks eyes with the Chancellor-turned-Regent, nodding in grim affirmation. "She did. Tomassa intends to begin by spreading propaganda across the realm's public notice boards, for passersby to read and to infect their minds with the notion of not merely toppling your Regency, my lord, but the monarchy as an institution. Hence my urging that you keep all such locations watched, in wait for her 'arrival'. If you desire proof of this, you have to go no further than Bramblestone itself. The cavern which Goram used for his operations adjoins its dungeons ... most convenient, wouldn't you say?" "No," the Spymaster softly on Rowena with a glowering frown, "to 'speak' with her now would be to tip her off, and allow her to take more drastic measures, such as the mobilization of her Irregulars. If she does arm and ready her forces, as disjointed and fractured as the Bladesmen are, even they would be hard-pressed to take Bramblestone without a lengthy siege. A siege we can ill afford in these tenuous days."
Oren Nillu's answer to Rowena's request is simple and cold. "No. As the Spymaster has pointed out, letting her know we know would be a grave risk. I will summon both her and Shalis to the palace. If they fail to answer, I shall immediately look into the possibility of overtaking Bramblestone, be it by silent attack or a full siege. If Tomassa Zahir does indeed intend to be the next Gorem, then she shall fall and her punishment will not be pleasent. I will make of her an example for all to see."
Sahna nods, expression chilly now. "Anyone who'd prey upon others for simple pride deserves no pity of mine; Let them enjoy the dungeons, the both of them." She declares, then falls silent to simply listen to the rest.
"More bloodshed, then." Rowena sighs, looking aside, arms folding beneath her bust. "Very well, as I suppose it is to be expected. Sadly. But if she does come as summoned, at least let me a moment with her. I have had greater insight to what makes her human...a woman at heart, even. She trusts me." Looking back to the others, particularly the men, through a slyly fallen curl, she adds "And *we* know how scarce the genuine embodiment of 'trust' can be."
The wily Zahir winces at Oren's suggestion. "My lord," he entreats in turn, "Tomassa will never admit to anything, and Shalis is oblivious entirely to her designs. Additionally, you would give her, upon successful exoneration, the opportunity to strike at Hedgehem itself, her forces able to move freely against Hedgehem. My advice, Your Lordship, would be to catch Tomassa red-handed, attempting to distribute her propaganda, or at the very least in possession of the Black Rider's armor once it's been seen abroad. She will confess to nothing, and evidence concrete is necessary. While none would stop her from hanging, that woman nonetheless still commands a great deal of respect from many corners ... including the Bladesmen."
"It is a sad truth, Rowena, but one nonetheless, that the realm will only become stable after a great deal of bloodshed," the Regent explains, looking at Aiden. "True enough. I will post these hidden Bladesmen in all the posts. Once I am in possession of the propaganda, I shall strike at Bramblestone. In the meantime, since she trusts you, you will make sure she remains in the dark. Duke Aiden, you will make sure she believes her victory assured. Confidence will be her downfall."
Silence was a mastered art amongst women. It's just that some rarely choose to employ it. "I shall say nothing, then." Rowena murmurs, eyes hardening with displeasure as she looks subserviently to the floor. "In the midst of this pitting of betrayls, then, I trust that all eyes remain focused on the wellbeing and safety of young Talus. I was told that his father would not be returning. How then, has the boy's guard increased?"
"The guard has been increased appropiately, as befits the young Prince. Duhnen Seamel has been assigned as the Acting Surrector and at his disposal he has the best for the job. The fact that you persist in failing to see the implications of what is being discussed here, Rowena, surprises me. These are unstable times and part of protecting the Heir is keeping the realm safe and peaceful," Oren explains calmly.
Aiden's smile spreads anew, crooked, and thoroughly predatory. In this, the Spymaster is every bit in his element, and he glories in the weaving of such webs of deceit ... for the good of the Crown, of course. "It shall be my pleasure and the highest honor, Your Lordship. Kinsman she may be, yea even one who has saved my life on more than one occasion, but my loyalty to her ends when it conflicts with the necessary and greater good of protecting Crown and country. When the time does come to strike at Bramblestone, my Lord Regent, allow me to assist, and I shall show your troops the way through Tomassa's own ill-gotten cavern, that we may overrun her troops from within their own keep, and fell the traitor by the means of her own perfidious rebellion. By this service, may the debt owed through Goram's foolish and self-destructive insolence be repaid."
Aiden Zahir is apparently not completely depleted of surprises yet, for he posits with a bow of head in deference, "If Your Lordship will permit, there is one other matter I should like to broach. That of a vacancy upon the Council. I understand we are bereft of a Trademaster, and would humbly put forward Lady Silverna Lomasa, mother of our newly-installed Watermaster. In her rather ... unique relationship with her son, nepotism is no concern, and a more worldly, frugal, financially sound mind you would be hard-pressed to find. Should you be perusing candidates for Orell Mikin's much-ignored and greatly-needed post, Your Lordship, I believe she would be an exemplary addition to the Imperial Council."
"Silverna Lomasa," Oren muses. "I have not met her, but I will arrange for a meeting so the idea can be properly considered."
Aiden Zahir dips into a low bow and takes his leave, having had his say. "Your greater will be done, my Lord Regent. As ever, I stand ready to be of service wherever and whenever it is required."
"Forgive me." Rowena mutters, taking a step back so the men may resume their discussion. "It seems I have lost sight of many things." She keeps her head lowered, picking at the silver chain that hangs 'round her throat.
Oren Nillu nods at the Spymaster. "Now, Duke Aiden, please grant me a moment with the Duchess Rowena. We have much to speak of."
Aiden Zahir withdraws as silently as he entered, departing without so much as the sound of footfalls ... after looking to the pair in parting with those deep green eyes and bidding both, "Light keep you until we meet again." And thence the Spymaster is gone.
Rowena remains silent after the Spymaster has gone, listening to the rhythm of her own breathing.
"I apologize if my previous comment seemed harsh, Rowena," Oren says gently. "I know you must be going through a lot right now."
"Oh, but where would the realm lie if governed by those who choose not the way of the sword?" Rowena remarks in turn, gaze still focused on whatever bit of dust it is that blows across the stone on a wind of human stirrings. "I can't help but to think, Regent, that the worst dangers that can befall an infant lie not miles from his home...but from within. Spiders, snakes...All sorts of terrors can slip through the cracks undetected." Lifting her eyes, she watches Oren, voice distant. "Let us hope that political discord does not draw our eyes from those more cryptic fiends."
Oren Nillu nods. "The child is safe, Rowena. Trust me. Now, you came to see me about something. Was it that or... perhaps something else? One should not have to carry his or her own pain by himself."
"But one did." The flush returns to Rowena's eyes, blurring her vision as she clenches her throat to keep down the urge to realease the sobs of frustration. "It is that...which I shall mourn." Biting harshly down onto her tongue, she turns her back in study of the room. Little had changed since Alieron made his residence.
Oren Nillu nods. "He did what he felt he had to do."
"And what did it gain?" Rowena fires back in question, hands lifting to hold her face together. "Disapproval? Mockery? Failed trust? You know as well as I that no one admitted to faith in his return. I heard voices of scorn. That he had abandoned the throne. That does not justify Fastheld to abandon *him*." While her words hold strength and vigor, her voice itself has grown weak. Strained.
"It gave the expeditioners time to find His Majesty," the old man answers calmly enough, watching the healer.
"So they could be turned away again...so it would all be in vain." She sniffs, pivoting to face him again with tremor in her tone. "So we can all now know that they remain alone. Afraid. That, m'lord, does not bring peace to my heart."
"I do not labor to bring peace to your heart, but acceptance," the elderly Nillu asserts.
Rowena narrows her eyes in seeming confusion. "I accepted your rise to position from its beginning. I voted in favor of your regency, there at the table. I do not contest that you are fitted for the temporary reign." Her lungs ache to slow their rapid rate, heart sent into flurried beat by the rise in her angst. Curling somewhat at the waist, she places a hand over her chest as though it could calm her. Her knees bend with controlled motion, bringing her to sit upon her heels.
"Not enough. Accept that he is gone," Oren presses.
Jaw set with stubbornness, Rowena shakes her head in protest. "You can't know that for certain." She whispers, fingers curling over her neckline before her hand falls into her lap. "I won't leave him."
Oren Nillu's eyes are firm, steady. "You must... or the effort of clinging to him will drive you mad."
"That's what they told me when he first 'died', M'lord." Rowena says with somber expression. "And I believed them...mostly. I pretended to go about as though he hadn't existed. And then one day...one day, that helm returned to the living. It had all been a lie. His wounds were grave, but I had begun to treat them. The Court had burned hollow ashes. It was all a lie." She lowers her head again, hair slipping over her shoulders to cloak them from chill. "A ruse to mask what had to be done. How then, can I be so certain that this is no ruse? There is no body."
Oren Nillu shakes his head. "No. I am not asking you to let go because he is dead, Rowena. I am asking you to let go because he is gone. Much like His Majesty, he will choose to remain beyond the Aegis. As much as I would like to believe that he will one day return, that is not possible. If you search your heart you will know it to be true. In fact, he more than likely told you as much in some way or another. A message sent, perhaps? An item? Given to you by someone other than him on his behalf? You know it to be true, Rowena, but now you must accept it... or vain hope will haunt you eternally and give you no peace of mind."
Rowena lifts the Shard to her eyes, staring at the reflection of a falling tear. As it slips out of sight, she lets the remnant drop, land dangerously against the exposed skin. One breath...then another.
"He made me a promise. There is no reason for him to fail that. If anyone in this realm would oppose his return, they would be forced to pass steel through me first." Ending in a squeak, her face contorts further and she rests it in her palms. "Hme wdnt oo tht." She muffles.
Oren Nillu sighs. "He would if he must. Rowena, there is only one way you will be able to live with this: let it go."
"I see no barrier to force him away!" Rowena snaps, hands flying apart to assist her in climbing to her feet. "He said he would find his brother...not stay. And if he does, then..." Once steady, she takes a deep breath and coerces her facial muscles to relax into an emotionless expression. "I will find him, one way or another. I come today to inform you that I will be gone for a time. There are places I need to go."
"As you wish," the Regent says. "I will not press this further. Come back when you can and Light keep you."
"It will." Rowena murmurs, then bows her head in farewell. As silently as the Spymaster vacated the chamber, so does she, leaving only a drop of wet on the stone floor.
By the Gatehouse <Fastheld Keep>
The heart of the walled city-state of Fastheld, this expansive fortress serves as the center of government for all the districts and the home of Emperor Talus Kahar and his wife, the Empress Freia Seamel. Soldiers of the Emperor's Blades can be seen walking along the battlements and throughout the grounds on regular patrols. The Imperial Stables are off to the northwest, overshadowed by the ancient Bronze Hall of the Imperial Horsemen; so named for its appearance of being thatched in bronze, finials on the rooftops cutting dramatic silhouettes upon the skyline, while regal banners flank the huge doors that guard the Hall. The Imperial Residence sprawls toward the north and east, while to the north rest the royal tournament grounds. Finally, one can find a gatehouse, defended by large double doors, leading toward the Palace Road to the south.
Varal stands near the Bronze Hall, flanked by five dour looking men. All six of them wear leather armor, although the five henchmen only carry short swords and short bows. The Baron looks about, a look of worry on his face. "Where did that Duchess run off to now..." he hisses.
Surely if Serath were alive, he'd not intend to stay away forever. The Chancellor was wrong. He had to be. But how long did one wait before setting off to find him herself? These thoughts and many more race through the clouded confines of Rowena's mind as she wanders through the fog, back to the Bronze Hall. "How long." She repeats to herself in a low murmur, sweeping the landscape with troubled eyes.
Yes, the fog. "Light watch over me, lest I do something I regret," Varal snarls, looking about. "Where is she?" he asks of a man, who he knows does not have the answer. He takes a few steps away from the hall, head swivelling back and forth.
"If I find him, he cannot send me away." Rowena mutters, pushing through the mist with determined steps. "He wouldn't-" She stops short, perhaps thirty feet from the hall as several large shapes of armored men appear standing before it. Was this the increased security that the Chancellor had spoken of? Proceding with caution, Rowena squints.
Varal crosses his arms, growing steadily more impatient with each passing moment. He takes a deep breath, trying to forth his irritation to lessen itself as he spots a figure approaching. He pauses a moment, and then takes a step forward. "Duchess?" he asks.
"Varal?" Rowena answers, quickening her pace a bit to reach him. She glances past him to the others. "What are you doing here?"
"I had heard that the expedition got back," Varal answers hastily, moving towards Rowena. His five men quickly move to follow. "Duchess, he returned?" the question is hopeful, but Rowena's doesn't seem to be upbeat as if he had. Varal's face hardens its expression, as if ready for the worst.
"...No." Rowena murmurs, feet slowing and hands folding under her elbows. She looks to the side with unease, pausing before she adds "Those that were with him...they claim that he is dead, that he...fell." Her head shakes absently as she takes another step forward to continue towards the hall. "I spoke with Vhramis. He was with Serath. He believes that he still lives, as do I. The Chancellor insists that Serath will never return here on his free will. I refuse to believe that."
Varal frowns, speechless for a good long moment. "That he will never return? Like the Emperor? Why would he not return..." The Mikin's eyes narrow. "Does the Chancellor have *other* motives at stake here, Duchess?"
Rowena sighs, passing between the readied men. "I do not know. There is no reason for him to forever remain beyond the Aegis. He promised to me that he'd run no longer. He swore to find his brother. That is all." Resting her hand against the doors, she stares listlessly at the Ring of the Star's glow. "I intend to leave tonight, my friend. There are places I need to visit. And after that...after that, I will contemplate to what lengths I will go to find him. Bones or otherwise."
Varal doesn't speak for a long moment. "Do nothing hasty, Duchess. I cannot stop Your Grace from doing as she wills, but I will not tolerate her doing something that will lead to danger - if it can be avoided." He pauses a moment. "Should Your Grace will it, I will see what I can do to try to find the Prince of the Blood and bring him back to Your Grace as he promised. 'Tis better that I put myself in harms way instead of the Duchess, as that is how it should be." He pauses. "May the Light shine over him..."
"I'm not certain that he would listen to you, should you find him." Rowena notes. "But I...it would be more difficult to send me away if I survived such a journey. I know the risks. But I cannot find peace knowing where he was left. If he is unable to return on his own, even if his flesh lies rotting, then I am bound to see to it he's brought safely home." She gestures the ring through the air. "That's what it means. I will not let distance and scornful words of others break what twenty years has forged." With that, she pushes open the door to the hall and enters inside. "I ride to Apple Village tonight."
Varal follows after Rowena, frowning. "There is nothing I can do to convince the Duchess otherwise?" he asks softly.
"It is as I said before, Varal." Rowena solemnly replies, her eyes turning to him with warmth to break the firmness of her expression. "I cannot force you to follow me, but I cannot force you to stay, either. There is time to decide. I do not breach the Aegis tonight."
Varal bows deeply to Rowena. "All Your Grace need do is ask of me what she will, and it will be done. It does little good to have me nagging like an aging hag, does it?" He smiles, trying to inject a little humor into an otherwise melancholy situation.
"A little." Rowena smiles weakly to him while brushing past a pillar on her way to the guest quarters. "It reminds me to at least notify someone before I go cavorting to places unknown."
Varal nods slowly, sighing. "Then please keep me informed, Duchess, and I will lend what aid I can to any endeavor Your Grace so chooses to undertake."
The duchess nods, hand lifting to rub at her tired eyes. "Thank you. I've enough sanity yet to do so. For now, I gather my things. There's one small matter I take to the Palace. Then, I leave for the forest district. If you wish to follow...wait for me in the stables."
Some time later...
Apple Village Hillside Neat rows of disciplined trees snake along the contours of the hill. Set perpendicular to the slope to catch moisture and conserve soil the aisleways between these rows are thick with bright emerald green grass that is cropped short by small herds of goats that wander freely through the fields. Each tree is pruned to a low, widely-branched form with lower limbs just too tall for a goat to reach and upper branches just within the grasp of a short man on a ladder. Individual fields are differentiated by low hedgeways or fences with the gates often left open between them. Different, too, are the shape of the tree-leaves, the texture of the bark, and the colours and scents of the fruits bourne. Through this neatly-laid patchwork a road wends between the nestle of cottages in the valley below and the scraggier, uncultivated hilltops high above where the majority of the town's livestock is pastured.
From Sprinter's saddle, Orell Mikin rides in on his Sprinter, the skinny build of the horse hiding the speed and endurance of the mount. A delegation of about 10 silver-armored mounted guards follows behind the Mikin lord while the remainder remains behind at the township.
In the dark of night, the rhythm of hooves thunders up the path, racing between the trees. Goats stir from their slumbers, yellow eyes gleaming as they turn heads to watch. Eleven riders come from the east, led by a mount of solid black. A white starburst on the muzzle bobs like a ghost through the air, marking the head of the animal. A few lanterns jingle and jangle from the hands that hold them, lighting the way of travel.
Leaned eagerly forward in the saddle, Rowena lets Umbrus set his pace, knowing the young horse loved to run...although he was not the swiftest of specimens. Suddenly, there is a shout from the guards behind, and a call travels up the pack to reach her ears. "There are riders behind!" They call, warning with a flash of the lantern. Instantly, the duchess jerks Umbrus's reins to the left, and off they pour, from the road and between the shelter of trees. There they remain, waiting to see the identity of the entourage.
From Sprinter's saddle, The leader, a young Mikin guard captain, also notices the guard delegation of the Duchess and points them out to Orell and the young nobleman swivels his deep blue eyes, set above his high regal nose, to identify those ahead of him and notices his sister, "Rowena!" he calls out as he rides forth, leaving his guards to catch up behind him
Recognizing the voice before she can see a face, Rowena nudges Umbrus to plod cautiously forward to the road's edge. "Orell?" She inquires, voice lifted to overcome the buzz of the season's first insects. Her wary eyes watch him approach, one hand resting on the pack that lay on the saddle behind her.
The others breathe a sigh of relief, identifying the riders as fellow ducal guard. Old friends. Long parted. Slowly, they congregate back onto the road, horses snorting and stamping with the eagerness to move forward.
Apple Village Hilltop Here the grass is sparse and close-cropped, bitten down to the nubs by shaggy white goats which provide fur, meat, and milk to the village below. A panoramic view of the Lomasa lands encircles the hill, from rising mountains down to the winding band of Fastheld river and even, in glimpses, the dark shadow of the Aegis beyond. The wind is wild up here, whistling fierce even through the hot suns of summer, and the sun beats down relentlessly. Yet it is not entirely a barren spot; little flowers twinkle in the grass, and oddly shaped leaves of miniscule plants that creep between the grass stems. In the middle distance the road winds down, brown and dusty, through little orchards laid out like checkerboards bedecked with varieties of fruit, through a little cluster of white and golden houses, and on to Lomasa road beyond.
As the horses fall into line and work up to a trot as they move up the hill again, Rowena nods. "Aye, I am leaving the Palace grounds for a time." She says softly, expression rather grim. "There are things I need to do. I cannot listen to the discouraging words of the Chancellor if I wish to do them." Falling silent, she squints as the wind tussles her hair into a wild mane, and looks over the horizon. "We are nearly there!" She calls to her men, and permits Umbrus just a brief pause at the top of the hill. Due to severe cloud cover, it is nearly impossible to see the outlines of the ancient ruins. But it was there all the same. Waiting. It had been about three years since she rode here...and the procession was equally somber.
From Sprinter's saddle, Orell Mikin takes a deep breath as he hears that, "I've heard rumors of what's happening. But I really want it from your mouth... What's the Lord Regent doing lately?"
"It seems you are being displaced from the Council, brother." Rowena answers, easing Umbrus forward at a slower and more careful step down the hill. She gestures for a lantern to move forward. "Watch for stones..." She warns, then glances to Orell. "I'm not certain how much I am at liberty to discuss. What I can tell you is that he is working to make Fastheld more secure, to guard young Talus."
From Sprinter's saddle, Orell Mikin nods to Rowena, "That's fine, I have an oath that intends to keep with His majesty, and guarding the young prince is the best way to keep faith with it. But no other loyalties will supercede that." as he guides his mount forward
The Base of Arrow's Watch <Apple Village> Withstanding the passing of time, the rages of battle, Arrow's Watch reaches from the renewed earth at its base ahead of you at the apex of Apple Hill. Its survival is a solemn reminder to all that guard against shadow must be kept. It isn't hard to imagine the souls of ancient watchers keeping an eye on things, as the wind sends hushed whispers and mournful tunes through the hollows. Crumbling stone, aged metals encircle the ruins to introduce visitors to the paradox of life through decay. Moss nests in the weathered cracks, tiny forests of green in their own rite. Here and there, a symbol of rebirth stretches timidly from the remains in the form of fern fiddleheads. Jutting shards of buried and broken weapons and foundation evoke the hazards to careless eyes, as they would snag a trouser leg or gown if one is not wary.
Rowena Mikin rides Umbrus in from Apple Village Hilltop.
Orell Mikin rides Sprinter in from Apple Village Hilltop.
And here it was...the blanket of night shrouded much of the scattered rubble from view, but it could not hide the majestic rise of aging columns. Mumbles from the riders silence in reverence, the only sound proceeding being that of hooves scraping against the protruding hazards. "We are wisest to go on foot." Rowena whispers, emotions swelling as memory sets in.
She eases Umbrus to a halt on the upward slope, and takes meticulous care to dismount.
From Sprinter's saddle, Orell Mikin nods as he dismounts by Rowena's side, offering his sister his arm to aid her, "Yes, that's a good idea."
With Orell's help, Rowena slides down. There is a clamor of armor and weaponry as others do the same, sending warning of their presence to the heavens, and the eyes of horsemen past gone. Once on her feet, Rowena takes Umbrus's reins and begins to lead him around the uneven ground, towards the main structure. She says nothing now, thoughts kept focused on the ground beneath her feet, and the souls that this place represented.
Arrow's Watch <Apple Village Moving past the base of Arrow's Watch, one enters the ruins themselves and thus the outer-ring of the one daunting Watchtower: the eight columns that once supported a sturdy rooftop, which has since weakened, and some walls between, little of which remains today. Ornate lettering and symbols were once inscribed into the pitted stone, and so carefully was the craft completed that many of the ancient messages and lore are still readable to the keen of eye. The remains of stairs wind upwards to a mysterious destination. Those who dare to walk them now risk the peril of tumbling down. Stepping through the gaping maw between one of the many columns, one can see a broken iron hinge or two, suggesting that doors may have once shielded the interior from view where walls had not been erected. Faded colors of stone smoothed by centuries of pacing feet welcomes you inside with cool serenity. At the very center of the ruins, a tribute to perhaps the founding Emperor stands with his right hand clenched around a now invisible sword to point it skyward, though remaining a venerable figure all the same. Behind this statue, one can find a more recent edition: The Shrine of the Horsemaster.
Orell Mikin steps in behind Rowena into the ruins. He does not speak too in reverence of the serenity of the place, but his obsidian armor shifts mutedly as he moves, dark eyes watching his sister quietly.
Rowena hesitates at the 'entrance', a hand uplifting to rest against the rusted hinge of a long-vanished door. Her fingers scrape over the gritty stone, wiping dust from the cracks. She closes her eyes for a moment, listening as the wind sends an eerie song singing through the stone above. Somewhere in the darkness, fluttering wings tell her that they are not alone. But she could never be alone here.
Opening her eyes, Rowena looks to the shadows of statues within and takes a step forward. Within a few minutes, and by aid of lantern, she has made it past the columns and into the center of the watchtower's base. The crumbling stairs are just to her right.
Orell Mikin keeps silent but his eyes swivels back to his sister's every now and then, he looks upon the shrine of the horsemaster. That's of course the reason for his sister's visit. He takes a deep breath as he steps further in, his arm still lending support to Rowena
"I wonder how many still visit this place." Rowena murmurs, her slender shoulders shivering beneath her cloak as cool wind blows through the silk of her gown. The lantern casts an orange glow over the floor before her, casting lances of light up the surrounding wall supports and fallen stone. She follows not its guide, but the paces set in her memory from earlier visitation. It had been the longest walk of her existence, to that marble pyre.
The swinging of lights brighten the stone somewhat as the guards gather around the perimeter. The tarnished gleam of a horse's muzzle catches in the light. A flash reflects from its raised hooves. Rowena kneels as she approaches, slipping away from Orell's offered arm.
Orell Mikin lowers his head reverently, as his sister kneels, a mark of respect for a man who has died for what he believed in and sought to protect.
Bowing her head forward, Rowena lets her lantern drop at her knees. Her hands glide over the marble, hooking over the top of the pyre, beneath the horse's raised belly. She presses her cheek to the cool kiss of stone, resting her head there. "They've not lain you to rest..." Rowena whispers, the hot caress of a tear rolling over her temple and into her hair. "But if you should ever pass through again, here, may these stones tell you of my prayers. Of my tears. Of my patience." Sucking in a shuddering breath, she falls quiet for a moment.
Orell Mikin sighs as he steps over to Rowena, offering his arm to ease her to her feet when she seeks to rise
"Serath..." Rowena speaks softly as though he were actually present, her head lifting so she may trace the silver and gold etchings with bruised fingertips. "May the wind carry these words to you...may they bring comfort in knowing that I will not abandon as the Chancellor insists. They lie...they say you will not return." Her face distorts slightly with a grimace and another tear leaves a reddened streak along her ashen cheek. "I will wait for you, Serath Kahar. I will find you again, I swear to it. Because I will not forget your promise. Because I keep Eriya safe for you. Because...because I love you and no words from the Council or souls otherwise are going to sway that." Her voice breaks with a stifled sob and she clings to the stone as though it were her lifeline in this time of confusion. "Hear my words, stone of the ancients...hold my words for him. May they ride swift on the wind...to traverse where I cannot go. Though one day I may. Because if I must bear the dreams of your pain, your isolation any longer, I too will pass."
Orell Mikin listens and feels unbidden tears raising to his eyes, and he bends to place his hand against her shoulder, "He knows. He certainly knows." he says quietly to her, his hand squeezing gently in comfort
"I didn't want to keep him from going..." Rowena whimpers, face mashed against the patient stone like a child against her mother's skirts. "I just...I just wanted to join him. To keep him safe." Safe from what, she does not say, but rather sits back upon the stone and then scoots so that her back may lean against the supportive structure. She reaches up to touch her brother's hand and closes her eyes. "I will not be leaving this place tonight. Tomorrow I will return to Apple Village...perhaps even hunt for what remains in Light's Reach. I would be thankful if you would send word of my whereabouts to the Regent."
Orell Mikin frowns slightly, "Hunt for what remains there? You /would/ bring your guards and send word from time to time right? And you should send word to the lord regent himself. I have doubts about that man."
"He knows that I go." Rowena sighs, voice thick with grief spent. She rubs at her nose with her wrist and sniffs. "But I did not tell him where. My guards will follow. We will take provisions. He who Destroys is gone, Orell. I fear little from that place."
Orell Mikin nods to Rowena, "And you'd send word too." he says seriously, "I'll join you there perhaps, after I tie up some loose ends in the market district."
"If you wish.." Rowena mumbles, though for anyone that knew her well, it translates into 'if you can find me'. Ten armed Mikin guard may be difficult to overlook, however. Tilting her head aside, she slouches into a more comfortable position and wraps her arms around her middle. Here there was safety. Here there were souls of loyal men gone to protect her. The ducal guard had already begun to set their camp outside the columns. It was only a few hours until dawn would break. Only then, would they move.
And so a weary body and mind command silence from her now, nothing more. Gripping the shard that hangs from her neck tightly, Rowena becomes less aware of her brother’s lingering presence, and more of the noises which will soon lull her to sleep. The singing wind……the rasping of leaves against aged stone……the rustling of grass as the guard settle to rest for the remainder of the night. It is not long before the duchess is curled at the base of the monument, consciousness filtering into dreams and memories. Somewhere, in the recess of her mind, a young girl is singing, and a young boy is laughing. Off they run, vanishing into fields of green.