Chapter 26: On the Road II

Rowan woke up screaming. The nightmares were finally back in full force. Flashes of pain and suffering so real, so visceral, that she could feel them now. She had dreamed of the eclipse in vivid detail, only every mistake, every moment of terror was punctuated by the touch of the Silent Sisters. Rowan’s back roared in agony. 

That isn’t what woke Rowan up, however. Not even reliving her mother’s death was enough to grant her bitter release from the torment. No, that came from seeing Tehri broken and on the verge of death. She had been too late. She had failed. There was nothing she could do other than hold onto Tehri as the light faded from her eyes.

It felt so real. The pain. The loss. All of it. Rowan’s chest heaved as adrenaline continued to flood through her veins. She had to do something and she had to do it fast before her emotions got the better of her.

Rowan rushed out with Elan Fiir, a belt of knives, and a reflex bow with a quiver of arrows, practically her entire arsenal. The only thing she was missing from it was her short spear and buckler.

Alas, in her hurry to leave the tent, Rowan forgot to close the flap, exposing the insides to the autumn chill. If the screaming hadn’t woken Seres up, the sudden cold will. 

Rowan on the other hand, was,  more likely than not, significantly less bothered by it. That isn’t to say she couldn’t feel it; her feet in particular were suffering. She was only wearing underwear and a small night tunic, after all. No, the reason for her surprising tolerance was that a little cold was nothing next to her nightmares. Dealing with that particular horror took precedence over chilly toes.

Step one – cut down a tree. That seemed like it would be a good way to vent some trauma. Rowan stopped herself just before Elan Fiir bit into the bark of a particularly large silver pine. Already she was having second thoughts. The tree had done nothing wrong, and while she knew that it wouldn’t be able to damage Elan Fiir, she was less confident she could cut all the way through something quite so thick. Even if she could, there was the very real possibility that it would fall into the clearing and onto the tent.

Reluctantly, Rowan sheathed Elan Fiir and instead started stringing the bow. Even with her enhanced strength, the reflex nature of the bow made it somewhat awkward. She could have chosen the lighter, pre-strung recurve that she had brought with them to teach Seres. It would have made things significantly easier for her, but at the same time, it would have made things too easy; the recurve had a practically non-existent draw weight after all. The reflex on the other hand was on the cusp of being a war bow for a fraction of the size (it was no wonder that it was designed by a Ferran).

Once the bow was fully strung, Rowan belted Elan Fiir and a quiver to her waist before making her way out of the copse of silver pine so that she could loose arrows in the open grasslands. It would mean she’d need to travel further to recollect the arrows, but it also meant that she didn’t risk breaking any of the trees. Thankfully, she was still close enough to see or hear if anything out of sorts happened in the camp.

On the seventh arrow, Rowan heard movement from the tent. She snapped around with the bow at full draw, ready to shoot any trespassers in their tracks. It was only after she saw Seres’ head pop out of the open flap. 

Seres had taken the time to wrap herself in a dressing gown before stepping out. Rowan saw Seres looking around, no doubt looking for her. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take much time for Seres to find her considering Seres’ excellent night vision or the fact that Rowan was a beacon of Resonance. 

Clearly concerned, Seres made her way to Rowan’s side. 

“Are you okay?” she asked, “I heard you screaming.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you,” Rowan replied glumly.

“What’s wrong? You can tell me.”

“I had a nightmare. A bad one.”

“It must have been. What happened? They’ve never made you scream like that.”

“I saw Tehri broken and dying in my arms. I saw my failure.”

Tears started to well in Rowan’s eyes.

“You haven’t failed.”

“Then why has no-one seen her? It’s been five years!”

The dams of her eyes gave way and the waterworks began in earnest. Seres stepped in to give her a warm embrace. 

“There, there, Rowan,” Seres said softly, stroking Rowan’s back. “We’ll find her.”

Rowan dropped the bow and hugged Seres back, crying loudly into her shoulder.

After a couple of minutes, the weight of Rowan’s emotions brought them both to their knees. Even so, this was a much better way for Rowan to vent her feelings as opposed to aimless training.

Almost half an hour later, the tears finally stopped flowing. Rowan’s eyes were raw, her throat coarse, and her nose red. 

“I think I may have ruined your dressing gown,” Rowan apologised with a rueful smile, looking down at the war zone of snot and tears on Seres’ shoulder.

“Think nothing of it,” Seres replied softly, “It’ll wash.”

“But…”

“No buts, Rowan. You needed that. I will ask, however, that we return to the tent. Now isn’t the time to be training, the ground is hard as a rock and you’re cold to the touch. We can train together tomorrow if you want. You need to start teaching me, after all.”

It took Seres pointing it out for Rowan to realise that, yes, she was in fact, freezing. Barely moving while half naked in the middle of a late autumn night didn’t exactly do much to keep one warm, after all.

Rowan nodded her acceptance of Seres’ request and picked the bow up as she clambered back to her feet. As Seres started to walk back to the camp, Rowan was quickly reminded that she was missing something.

“What about the arrows?” she asked.

“How many are out there?” Seres said, turning to give Rowan a contemplatory look.

“Seven.”

“That’s too many to just abandon,” Seres sighed.

Rowan nodded.

In response, Seres started walking off into the darkness with a confident smile. 

“Let me help you find them,” she called back confidently. “Two pairs of eyes are better than one.”

“Um, Seres…”

“Yes?” Seres replied, turning back slightly.

While maintaining the most neutral expression that she could manage with her tear ruined face, Rowan pointed in a completely different direction. 

“The arrows are over there.”

Rowan couldn’t be 100% sure, but she just knew that Seres was blushing at that moment.

*****

They arrived in the town of Baromiir just in time for a late lunch, the next day. Baromiir was the first of the three major settlements along the Telma River. Overall, it wasn’t a particularly exceptional town. There was nothing in the way of unique or specialty resources to set it apart from anywhere else. 

If it wasn’t for one very specific fact, Rowan doubted it would have ever grown to be more than a village. The fact in question? Distance and trade. Baromiir was a days travel by boat from Telmaris, the next major town, Like Baromiir, Telmaris was a days travel from Feldran, the mountain city that would mark the end of the first leg of their journey. 

Both Baromiir and Telmaris served as waypoints for trade to and from Feldran. It was instantly clear how Baromiir served that particular purpose. Anyone that spoke Midiran would know before they even reached the town. True to its name, Baromiir featured an exceptionally tall bridge that spanned the entire width of the river. It was easily tall enough to let a mast sail under it, and it also connected the two halves of the city along with a ferry service. The town also had several places to moor a boat on either side of the river.

The two girls went past the bridge as  they made their way to an inn on the far side of town which had been kindly recommended by one of the guards. Rowan marvelled as she saw the bridge up close. She had been too young to fully appreciate it the first time that she had seen it. Now she had no such issues. The full length of the bridge spanned an impressive chunk of the town’s width and even then, it was ridiculously steep. It also had two side ramps that turned away from the main ramp to allow access from the river road. 

Both Rowan and Seres saw countless people using the bridge, giving them a solid idea of what effect it could have on those that used it every day. One such example came in the form of a rather anomalous Ferran man who was pushing a cart up one of the ramps. For the most part, he looked fairly normal with the exception of his legs which were the size of tree trunks.

“I didn’t even know that was possible,” Seres muttered quietly upon seeing it.

“Tell me about it,” Rowan replied, not even trying to hide her horrified awe.

After the bridge, they arrived at their destination, “The Three-Eyed Hunter”, a rather large inn with an attached stables. To the locals, it probably seemed like a fairly innocent name for an inn. To Rowan and Seres, however, it was mildly terrifying, especially after they saw the sign. It seemed as if the owners had named the inn after the Vhoraks, one of the most voracious predators in the world. The horror of it all was made even worse by the rumbling of their stomachs.

“Shall we?” Rowan asked in attempt to hide the ferocious roaring, her face rosy from embarrassment.

“We really should,” Seres replied.

With their minds set, they rode towards the stables and handed off their horses to the stablemaster. They were then free to enter the establishment, and they didn’t even need to carry their packs. As part of the stabling service, a porter was provided. With that in mind, they took their first steps towards the inn’s entrance.

As soon as they walked through the door they were greeted by a plump Ferran lady with an extremely bright and energetic smile.

“Welcome to The Three-Eyed Hunter,” the woman said cheerfully, “I’m the owner, Klei. How can we help?”

“Hi, I’m Rowan and this is Seres. We were hoping to stay the night and get some food.”

“Of course! We have a few different tiers of room available. From the way you are both dressed and all the stuff you have with you, I won’t even suggest the communal rooms. That leaves the private rooms and the suites.”

“Private will be fine,” Seres replied.

“And will you be needing two rooms or just one? You aren’t lovers are you? It’s totally fine if you are. We just ask that you aren’t too loud if you decide to have sex in the wee hours. Only the suites have noise absorption crystals.”

“We’re not lovers, no,” Seres laughed while Rowan fumbled around. 

“I thought as much. You look too much like sisters or something.”

“Close enough,” Rowan muttered.

“We get that a lot,” Seres clarified. “And we only need one room.”

“We only have doubles, if that’s okay? 

“I think we can manage with…”

“We should get a suite,” Rowan interjected.

“Oh?” Klei and Seres asked simultaneously.

“I’ve been suffering from nightmares,” Rowan explained to Klei. “Last night it was do bad that I woke up screaming. You said the suites have sound absorption crystals. Less risk of disturbing your other guests.”

“That’s a good point,” Seres admitted. “What other facilities to the suites come with?”

“A bedroom, a communal space, a restroom, and a bathroom with full plumbing at the very least.”

A the mention of a bath, the two girls shared a look and said, “Why didn’t you start with that?”

Within moments they were renting a suite for the night. Not long after that they were in the common room feasting on succulent roast lamb, rosemary potatoes, feather greens, and carrots cooked in red wine. By the end of it, Rowan had almost forgotten that she was supposed to start teaching Seres how to defend herself. She eventually concluded that lessons would need to wait until after their meal had settled.

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 25: On the Road I

Rowan gave the Queen a pointed look which was returned by her own piercing sea green gaze.

“Why did it take you so long to discover the raiders and their operation?”

“That’s a good question,” Queen Elarin responded, “I’m surprised you hadn’t already asked it.”

“It hadn’t crossed my mind until yesterday.”

“Well the answer is mult-faceted. First and foremost, they primarily acted on the other islands and the northern and southern sides of this island, far from the capital. The further you get from the heartlands, the more policing falls on the local Lords, garrisons and governors. When we investigated after the fact, we found clear signs of corruption and bribery.”

Both Rowan and Seres were disgusted at the notion.

“Furthermore, they were significantly less overt with their strikes, either hitting caravans or small villages.”

“How do you know all this?” Seres asked. Rowan wondered as well; this was a significant amount of detail.

“We were lucky. One of the governors kept a full set of reports on all the attacks that were in range of his city and jurisdiction so that he could extort more bribes from the raiders. The rest of what we have is mostly extrapolation and inference with a splash of eye witness accounts.”

“Makes sense,” Rowan sighed frustratedly.

“This all led to only a single report ever making it to the capital before the eclipse five years ago. Roughly nine years ago, we were informed of a group of raiders based on Færich Lan.”

“I remember that!” Rowan interjected suddenly. 

“You do?” Seres asked quizzically with the aid of a raised brow from Queen Elarin.

“Aye! Tyris missed my eleventh birthday because of it.”

“I’m sorry about that,” Queen Elarin apologised. “They were dealt with swiftly. All in all, they were probably less than a tenth of the full operation.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they were meant to be a red herring of some sort,” Rowan posited.

“If they were even affiliated with them,” Seres added.

“Indeed. After that, it wasn’t until the lead up to the eclipse that they started to act more boldly. Then they kidnapped Seres and hit Næmyris. Only then were we in a position to start investigating. It took the better part of a year to have enough intelligence to strike.”

Both Rowan and Seres needed a moment to process everything after that. It was a lot to take in. Eventually, Rowan spoke up again.

“Were the people taking bribes punished?” 

“Yes.”

“Thank you.”

“Hopefully such tragedy will never again befall our fair nation.”

“Truly.”

“Are you done with your questions, Rowan?” Seres asked.

“I am, yeah.”

“We should probably get going if we want to make good time.”.

“Right. Thanks again, Queen Elarin, and goodbye.”

“Farewell, Rowan. Please keep my daughter safe.”

“I will.”

“Goodbye, Mother. We should be back before the Solstice if it doesn’t snow too heavily.”

“Farewell my dearest Seres. If ever you need more protection on your travels, you know who to ask.”

“I’m sure Rowan will be more than enough.”

With the final goodbyes said, the two girls lead their mounts and pack horses out of the stables before mountain up. Rowan was unsteady at first, she’d never ridden a horse before, but she didn’t make a complete fool of herself which was something at least.

*****

The start of the journey was largely uneventful. Both Rowan and Seres were wearing riding gear instead of any obvious finery so most people only gave them a passing look if anything. Life in the city was a busy one after all so it wasn’t that surprising. On top of that, Rowan was a complete stranger to most people and Seres hadn’t been seen in the city in over five years. Right now the only thing that gave her away were her eyes and they weren’t exactly the first thing you noticed when you looked at someone.

Once they were outside the city, they picked up the pace, going at a canter instead of a walk. They tried trotting at first, but Rowan couldn’t get a handle on it. Fortunately, only Seres saw her fall the first time.

“Oww ow ow ow,” she cried out as she landed on her side.

“Are you okay?” Seres asked. “That looked like it hurt.”

“I’m fine,” answered Rowan with a soft note of pain as she rolled back up, thankful that Elan Fiir was attached to the horse instead of her. On the flipside, said horse was now running away.

“Rubbing your shoulder like that isn’t very convincing.”

“I’m more concerned about the horse. Give me a second.”

Without any more warning, Rowan bolted across the grasslands to catch her mount. Fortunately, Rowan was more than a match for a horse in terms of speed. Ten leagues an hour? Easy. As she was, Rowan was pushing twelve. The downside was that she was significantly lacking in stamina, at least compared to a horse. Still, this was a sprint, not a marathon and Rowan was able to catch up in no time.

“Easy, girl,” she whispered in an attempt to calm the mare down.

Instead of letting Rowan stroke her, the mare reared her head and gave Rowan a toothy neigh followed by what could only be called the smuggest chortle in existence. 

“Dinnae give me that,” said Rowan with a hint of annoyance.

The horse of course had every intention of giving Rowan ‘that’ in the form of an extremely loud snorting right in her face.

“What do you mean you want an apple?” Rowan wasn’t actually sure that’s what she wanted if anything, she just knew that horses apparently liked apples. From the horse’s reaction it seemed like a good guess as she nodded intently.

“I don’t have any, but we have some nice tasty treats back with Seres and the other horses.”

At the mention of treats, the horse was instantly off. If Rowan hadn’t been holding onto the reins it would have been another chase.

“Wait! I need to get on first. Please don’t shake me off.”

The horse just gave her a look that said, ‘That was entirely your fault and we both know it.” Thankfully she didn’t do anything to make things difficult for Rowan as she mounted back up. That is nothing she could control; being notably taller than her rider didn’t count.

Once Rowan had both feet in the stirrups and her hand on the reins, the horse went from nothing to a full gallop within seconds. If she weren’t an Ardent, Rowan would have been thrown off like a ragdoll.

Seres was laughing when Rowan finally regained control. To add insult to injury, the horse joined in.

“I think she likes you,” Seres giggled.

“She’s a menace,” Rowan huffed. “I’m half convinced that she’s an Ardent in disguise.” 

“That would be something. Are you sure you can handle her? The stablemaster would have given you a more mellow horse if you’d told him that it was your first time.”

“It’ll be fine,” Rowan said, rolling her eyes. “Nami’s just a little feisty is all. Speaking of which, do you have any of those sugar cubes on you?”

“I do, yes.”

Seres pulled out three brilliant white cubes of sugar from a small pouch at her waist. One was given to each of the horses from Rowan’s feisty chestnut and Seres’ graceful grey to the sturdy bay that was their pack horse. Nami was demanding another before she was even finished.

“You can have more later,” Seres told her with a mischievous smile. “If you behave, that is.”

Even from her saddle, Rowan could feel the indignance behind the look that Nami gave Seres.

“Are you sure she isn’t an Ardent?” Rowan asked. “Horses shouldn’t be this emotive.”

“Don’t be silly,” Seres giggled.

“I’m not,” Rowan objected. “Just look at her.”

“Intelligence was her Gift from the Goddess, that’s all.”

“Why couldn’t it have been grace or vitality?”

“Are you sure you want to say that while you’re on her back?”

“No,” Rowan admitted, “it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Nothing.”

There was no helping it. If anything, Nami was the perfect horse for Rowan and she couldn’t exactly begrudge her for having the one Gift that made her more intelligent than the average horse. Maybe if horses had as many potential gifts as humans and the other humanoid races, they were limited to three, just like animals. 

“Rowan? Are you okay? You’re staring off into space.”

“I was?”

“For a good minute.”

“Well… I think I’m okay. I was just thinking.”

“If you’re sure.”

“Yeah, don’t mind me. Instead, you should mount back up. It’s still a while off to the next village.

*****

They continued to travel west by way of the road that ran alongside the Telma River. It had been years since Rowan had last travelled down this road and it was just as beautiful and viridescent as she remembered. There was lush green grass and wildflowers. To add to the picturesque scenery were nice white fluffy clouds, one of which Rowan swore looked just like a fenrabbit.

On the first day they took a gamble on reaching a village before nightfall and hoping they could find shelter there instead of looking for somewhere to set up camp. They were cutting it close as the sun had just dipped below the horizon when the village came to view. Granted, calling it a village was rather generous. It was more of a hamlet, little more than a dozen or so buildings.

According to Seres, it had been originally settled to take advantage of a ford. Keyword being originally as earthquake had diverted another river into the Telma causing water levels to rise by more than a foot. Now they have a ferry instead. 

Of course, with so few buildings, an Inn was out of the question. On the flipside, literally everyone offered their full hospitality and that was without them even disclosing their identities. Seres refused to impose that much, however, which led to Rowan making a compromise with one of the farmers by means of their barn. In the end, Seres agreed to the compromise, albeit reluctantly on the condition that the farmer accept a silver link for his troubles.

The barn ended up being surprisingly comfortable, especially as the farmer had said that they could sleep on the hay. Alas, the comfort at the cost of mutual shame or perhaps a new fashion trend as the hay had managed to practically become one with their hair. It ended taking the better part of the morning to brush out every last bit. 

Meanwhile Nami munched smugly away at her breakfast, chortling whenever the girls hit a snag. Eventually, however, they were able to leave. Unfortunately, the further they got on the second day, the more obvious it became that they wouldn’t reach the town. Eventually Rowan called for a stop.

“I think we need to make a choice, Seres. We could push on past sunset. If we do, we should make it to the town and we aren’t hurting for night vision. At the same time, it isn’t really fair on the horses. Alternatively we could find a place to set up camp and then take it easy tomorrow.”

“Wouldn’t we need to make up for lost time if we did that?”

“If we were in a rush, yeah, but a single day doesn’t matter that much.”

Rowan wasn’t being entirely truthful when she said that. She wanted to get to Næmyris as soon as possible. At the same time she didn’t want to injure the horses. They were kind of screwed if either of them went lame or threw a shoe after all.

“If you say so,” Seres replied after some thought. “In that case, the copse of trees a mile or so back looked promising. And it’s close to the river so we can bathe.”

“You want to bathe in the open? And I thought I was bold.”

“Stop that,” Seres pouted, “it’s not like they’ll be anyone to spy on us so it should be fine.”

“Well I don’t really mind. I’m just surprised is all.”

“We’re still going to wait until its pitch black.”

“Of course. Shall we?”

“Yes, let’s.”

The copse ended up being a perfect place to set up camp. Out of the way and well sheltered but still close to the river and the road. There was also space to set up a campfire without threatening the trees. With that said there were a few hiccups when it came to setting everything up. That is to say that the tent was an absolute nightmare. Even Nami refrained from snickering at the whole ordeal.

When it was finally over, the two girls collapsed to the ground in a moment of cathartic exhaustion. 

“That had no right to be that difficult,” Seres huffed.

“Are you sure they didn’t give us any better instructions?”

“That’s what I found in the packs.”

“It read like it was made with an architect in mind.”

“You can say that again.”

“Hey, Seres?”

“Yeah?”

“I was wondering, why did you pack so many crystals?”

“Oh that? Let me show you.”

“Let you what now?”

Seres rolled her eyes. “Just watch,” she said as she got up and walked over to her packs. From inside one of them she pulled out a rose tinted crystal with veins of blue. Rowan recognised it as a Thermal Resonance Crystal, specifically a flame bearing one.

“You see, a lesser known ability of my eyes is this.” 

Seres started conjuring a small flame, drawing it from the crystal and let it dance over the palm of her hand.

“How are you even?” Rowan started.

“I’m able to Resonate with crystals and channel their power. My Gift helps as well.”

“Gift of the Soul?”

“It lets me strengthen Resonance in the living, be it people, trees, or animals.”

“Animals I can understand, but trees?”

“It isn’t easy, but yes, I can. More importantly, I think it’s time to put this fire to use.”

This time Seres just casually tossed the flame into the fire pit they had made.

“There has to be a catch?” Rowas asked.

“It takes a lot of energy and once I release my control I can’t regain it. Take the campfire for example. I can’t do anything about it now.”

“How did I not know this was a thing?”

“Probably because those that do know about it think it’s a myth so it isn’t really that well documented. On that note, there’s something I need to thank you for.”

“Oh?”

“Lord Fein wanted to know if it was true so he tried desperately to get me to tell him. When you made your deal with him, you stopped them from torturing it out of me.”

“Well I’d do it again and again if I had to.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. You gave me a reason to live, after all, to not give in. If anything I should be thanking you. Now let’s make dinner before I start crying and then we can go bathe.”

Seres nodded affirmatively. 

“Right!”

Previous Chapter <-> Next Chapter

Chapter 24: Goodbye

A few days had passed since the ball. In that time, Queen Elarin met with everyone that had been involved in the escape, from the other prisoners to Ædarik and his party. She made sure that they were fully rewarded or given a head start where appropriate.

From what Rowan could tell, part of that included arranging transport for those that wished to return home or set up somewhere outside of the capital along with a fair amount of coin. A few were granted apprenticeships instead.

All in all, it was a busy time for everyone, Rowan included. She wanted to spend as much time with both Alena and Seres as she could, though for completely different reasons, whilst also needing to prepare for her trip back home. On top of that she still needed to train and come to terms with what was now expected of her as both a lady and the Ardent Flame.

The solution to spending time with Alena was probably the easiest one to find. It just involved inviting her to stay with Rowan for the remaining few nights they had left together. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it worked and it helped to keep her nightmares at bay which was no small feat.

She’d been lucky that they hadn’t been haunting her too much since the escape. Alas, nothing could keep Rowan’s demon’s away forever; years worth of pain and suffering had made them too strong. Even so, a loving embrace never failed to at least help.

Unfortunately, Alena wasn’t able to stay with her during the day as she had her own preparations to attend to. Her friends also refused to let Rowan hog her, which she found to be weirdly adorable. On the flipside, less Alena also meant less of Seres feeling like a third wheel. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing that you wanted to put your honorary sister through.

Another advantage to Alena not being around during the day is that it made getting ready for her own trip significantly easier. Granted this was mostly due to Rowan being sure that she’d be too distracted if Alena were there, but it was also due to Seres needing to do much of the same prep so they could do it together.

On the second day, Rowan found a small solution to the issue of needing to train as well as that of being Seres’ protector. It was obvious really; Seres needed to learn the basics of self defence. She’d never be good enough to defend against an experienced Ardent or Stoic, but they were rare enough that Rowan could take sole responsibility for them.

Smaller threats such as bandits and thieves, however? They tended to strike in numbers or catch you unaware. If Rowan had to constantly worry about Seres being completely undefended, she would likely get herself killed. Especially when you considered that she was far from being invincible. Even with her resilience and improved healing, a knife to the heart was still very much a death sentence. Fortunately, old age and cancer would never be an issue for her.

Yay for practical immortality!

As Rowan was considering how to broach her idea to Seres, she was wondering whether or not armour was also a thing that needed suggesting. On the one hand, Seres had an image to maintain as a princess. On the other hand, armour was kind of useful for not dying.

Rowan would need some herself, though not too much. She’d need to weigh up the pros and cons which was harder than it sounded. More armour meant more security which didn’t really do much to heighten her emotional state. Less armour, however, meant less security and by extension, significantly heightened fear and anticipation. Rowan didn’t like being afraid, but she couldn’t deny that the Arsent enhanced senses from it would be incredibly useful in a combat situation. As for anticipation, the advantages of quickened reflexes were as clear as night and day. On top of that, the heightened emotions would also massively increase her physical attributes.

The more Rowan considered it, the more she came to the conclusion that armour was ironically better when she wasn’t expecting a fight. Improved reflexes didn’t exactly help when you already had an arrow sticking out of you after all. In combat, however, less armour would probably be better. Or more accurately, less of what Rowan would consider to be armour. Some things were easier said than done.

Before Rowan knew it, day three was rolling in. The day before had practically been a dud as Rowan had spent it mindlessly packing while thinking about self defence training and armour. And even after all that, she almost forgot to bring it up with Seres. If it hadn’t been for both Seres and Alena noticing she was more than a bit out of it, she may have forgotten entirely. Fortunately Seres agreed, though she did ask that it wait until they were on the road. Something about not wanting to embarrass herself in front of military folk.

With that request in mind, Rowan decided to hold off on training until they were on the road as well. That left one very important bit of prep that she needed to do; talk to Tyris. She had to know what to expect when she got home.

Finding him wasn’t too much of a challenge, which is to say it was unreasonably easy. All she had to do was ask in the navy barracks where she could find him and she was promptly directed to his quarters. Funnily enough, this was actually her first time visiting them.

She knocked nervously on the door. It was a weird thing to be nervous about, yet here she was. Likely it was due to the fact that she hadn’t seen him since before the ball. She hadn’t had the chance with everything that had been going on and she was somewhat distracted at the ball. Of course that’s assuming he was actually there. It’s possible that he was considering his rank. Alas, she hadn’t seen him so she couldn’t be sure.

With that said, at least she wasn’t knocking on say, a bathroom door with Alena on the other side. That would be an entirely different kind of nervousness.

“Hello?” Tyris called out from within the room.

“It’s Rowan.”

“Well don’t stand around out there. Come on in. The door’s not locked.”

That seemed like a security oversight. Not that Rowan could really say anything about it; she didn’t exactly have the means to lock her own doors. Granted, she was sure Avra would have a means of bypassing them even if they could be locked. Regardless, it was convenient, or at least it would be if the door knob would turn.

“I think it’s stuck,” Rowan called out.

“Are you turning it the right way?” Tyris replied.

“Yes?” Rowan answered, feeling a touch of red on her cheeks as she tried to turn the knob counter-clockwise. It felt unnatural. Even so, it worked and the door swung open to reveal a surprisingly plain room. That isn’t to say it didn’t look nice, it was just plain. Not at all what Rowan expected.

“You look disappointed,” Tyris observed. He was sitting at a desk covered in paperwork, though he had turned his chair to face Rowan.

“No no no,” Rowan stammered, “It’s just…”

Tyris laughed. “I’m just teasing, my little red lady.”

Rowan blushed harder.

“Sorry about the door being awkward by the way. For some reason they decided to have it open with only counter turning. As for my room? I’m not here enough to really feel the need to decorate?”

“Oh?”

“We’re at sea for the better part of the year, so I decided to decorate my cabin instead. I see you’re wearing Elan Fiir, by the way.”

“Yep. Queen Elarin said I could now that I have my titles.”

“Is that why you came to visit? To show it off?”

“No! I wanted to see you. Plus there are a few things I need to ask. The showing off bit is just a nice little bonus.”

“I swear, if this were eleven years ago, the order would be flipped.”

Rowan was horrified at the suggestion and objected heavily with a single word.

“Rude!”

“I’m joking,” Tyris laughed.

“Well bleh,” Rowan replied, sticking her tongue out at him.

“How old are you again?”

“I don’t see the relevance of the question.”

“Because you’re acting like a child.”

“Better than acting like an old fogey,” Rowan grinned smugly.

“You got me. Let this be a lesson dearest little sister. In eleven years, you’ll be wizened and ancient, just like weary old me.”

“Except I’ll still look good.”

“Ouch! That really hurt, oh sister of mine.”

“Stop being dramatic. I wanted to ask you about home.”

Tyris’ expression turned serious at the mention of home. “Go on?” he said.

“I need to know what to expect. It’s been so long and it’s probably changed as much as I have.”

“Probably. I can’t really say much. After the attack there hasn’t been much to make me go back. If it weren’t for Dad, I wouldn’t go back at all, but I can’t just leave him alone. Even then, I’m lucky if I can visit more than once a year. I tried to convince him to move here instead, but he wouldn’t have any of it. He’s not doing great, to be honest.”

“Well I’ll have to fix that.”

“Good luck. I imagine you’ll cause quite a stir when you arrive. With the exception of a few people, no one that was declared missing ever returned and those exceptions were limited to the first couple of weeks.”

“I think I know who they are?”

“You do?”

“When I Awakened, it was because they took Tehri away to kill her. I managed to break free and chase after the ones that took her and killed them. A few of the others managed to escape in the confusion. At least I assume they did because I never saw them after that. Are you sure you haven’t heard anything about Tehri?”

“Absolutely nothing. We had people looking for months. We even interrogated the bandits when we found them with the hopes that they would tell us where you had all been sent. Complete silence. Not one spoke.”

“Thanks for trying.”

“Think nothing of it. I’d do it all a thousand times over if it meant finding Tehri or lessening your pain.”

Rowan felt her eyes well up. The tears were sporadic at first. Then they streamed. She fell into her brother’s arms and cried. It was sudden, but she didn’t care. Talking about home was painful and while she had tried to contain it through good cheer, the sincerity of that last line broke open the flood gates.

Tyris held her gently and stroked her hair softly. “There, there,” he said quietly, “I’m here.”

Rowan stayed in her brother’s embrace for a good ten minutes, crying the whole time, before she pulled back, still sniffling.

“I probably look awful,” she said, wiping away the tears. It didn’t help that wearing makeup had become a part of daily routine. Mascara and eyeliner did not mix well with excessive crying.

To add insult to injury, Tyris replied with, “Most definitely.”

“You’re not supposed to agree with me!” laughed Rowan sadly.

“Would you rather I say you look as beautiful as ash-touched snow?”

“That’s even worse!”

Not much was said after that. Rowan had most of what she needed to know. That is most of what she needed that Tyris could provide. There were still gaps, but it was better than nothing. He did add one last thing before Rowan left, which she definitely appreciated. Shortly after that, Rowan said her goodbyes. It was likely the last time she’d be seeing him for a while as she was leaving the next day and he would likely be at sea when she returned. And then she had her assignment in Særis. For all she knew it could be more than a year. Even so, she kept her farewell brief. She didn’t want to break down in front of him again.

*****

Everyone was up early the next morning and standing by the docks as the ships were loaded. They found the autumn air was crisp as it carried the first hints of winter.

Alena and her friends were due to leave with the second morning tide as was everyone that was going to Særis. Less than fifteen minutes now. Rowan and Seres would be leaving not long after.

Rowan had refused to let anyone say goodbye until she was ready. Any of the main people that is. She wasn’t close enough to the other prisoners to even try to dictate what they did, nor would it be fair.

Alas, she couldn’t wait forever and the longer she waited, the more it would hurt. She started with Ædarik.

“I guess this is where we part ways?”

“So it is,” Ædarik replied somberly.

“Thank you for trying to rescue us back in the caves. It was a stupid thing to do, but I won’t deny that it must have taken a whole lot of guts. My advice for next time you go on a rescue mission, try to be a little more prepared.”

“I was rather out of my depth, wasn’t I,” Ædarik laughed loudly.

“More than a little,” Rowan giggled. She then gave him a big farewell hug, big for her that is, and added, “Good luck with Ashlin.”

Once Rowan had let her go, Seres gave him her own farewell hug.

“We really do owe you,” she said. “Without your help I don’t know how we would have found our way home.”

“I’m sure you’d have managed.”

After Ædarik was Ashlin which ended with good luck much like the previous one had. From the look that she gave Ædarik, it was clear that she felt like she didn’t need any. She then surprised Rowan by saying that she was jealous of her and Alena in a tone that suggested she wanted a bit of the action. Rowan wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Rowan didn’t dwell too long on Davra or Deilin simply by nature of having interacted with them the least. Deilin especially. Rowan almost got the impression that she intimidated her. Granted, if that were the case, she couldn’t exactly blame her considering that mentioned her oath of vengeance during their first ever conversation. Davra on the other hand seemed more cautious of Rowan than anything. Even so, she wholeheartedly congratulated Rowan on her relationship with Alena.

After Davra was Maro which was another short and sweet ordeal. However, unlike the other short farewells, a lot was still said without them saying much of anything. After what they had been through, words didn’t need to be spoken to be said.

In stark contrast, her farewell with Amran was surprisingly wordy. Which is to say, actual spoken words.

“When we next see each other, you better be twice the Ardent you are now,” he said.

“And you better have a fully articulated prosthetic foot,” Rowan laughed.

“I think you’re overestimating how quickly it will take to complete and calibrate a working foot.”

“Right back at you.”

“Point taken. Take care of yourself, Rowan. When you’re done with everything you need to do here, I’ll see you in Særis.”

“Until then.”

“Until then.”

With that done, Rowan was left with the goodbye she had been dreading. Before she could say anything, Alena wrapped her arms around Rowan as if she never wanted to let go.

“I’m going to miss you,” she admitted. “I know we’ve only known each other for a short time. Even so, you’ve touched my heart. Maybe it is just wanton desire that is making me feel this way. If it is, I don’t care. I say it real, that there is more to us than that. At the same time, I won’t shy away from that desire.”

Rowan hugged her back just as firmly.

“I’m already missing you and you’re not even gone.”

“Well we can stay like this a little while longer.”

“There’s so much I still want to do with you, even if it’s just getting to know you better.”

“I’m the same. I guess we missed a few steps, didn’t we?”

“For sure.”

“We’ll have to make up for lost time and missed opportunities when you come to Særis.”

“I wish we could start now.”

“So do I, but we need to be strong. It will make our reunion all the sweeter.”

Rowan blushed slightly at that, mostly because it evoked memories of how sweet Alena tasted. Fortunately, Alena couldn’t see Rowan’s rosy cheeks.

“Stop being a pervert, Rowan,” Alena laughed.

Turns out she didn’t need to see to feel Rowan’s desire.

“No promises.”

The two girls parted at that, blessing everyone with mirth filled laughter.

“You’re incorrigible.”

“So what if I am?” Rowan smiled

“I’m not complaining,” Alena replied impishly.

“ALENA!” Ædarik called. “Sorry to interrupt, but it’s time to leave.”

Alena turned away sadly only for Rowan to pull her in for a deep passionate kiss that ended up being a bit more intimate than people were probably expecting.

They were rudely interrupted by Ædarik calling out again. Who did he think he was, ruining their goodbye kiss. To make for it, Rowan gave Alena several more quick kisses before finally saying goodbye and giving her one last kiss.

Rowan and Seres watched them depart. Alena was waving for the entire time that her ship was in view. They would have left sooner but Rowan refused to leave while she could still see the ship. Alas, the sea wall got in the way fairly quickly and Seres was able to drag Rowan away.

An hour or so later, Queen Elarin met Rowan and Seres at the Royal Stables. She presented them each with a ring. As far as Rowan could tell, they were identical with two woven bands of gold and silver set with three different crystals. The middle crystal was a mystery, being completely clear and flawless. The two outer crystals, however, were much more obvious. They were Rowan and Seres’ birth crystals respectively.

“As long as you both are wearing these rings, you will be able to find each other. Furthermore they can be used to alert the other that they are in danger. To this day I regret not sharing a pair with Seres all those years ago.”

“It’s okay, Mother. You couldn’t have known. Plus, it’s not like it would have changed things. I was stripped of all my valuables the moment they captured me.”

“It would have given you a chance.”

“There’s no point in dwelling on it, Your Majesty,” Rowan interjected, “Instead might I ask how they work? Do we just need to wear them or is something else required?”

“Sorry, yes, they need a drop of blood from the other person as well. That will attune them.”

“Seems simple enough.”

Rowan pulled out a knife and gently pricked her finger with it. She let the blood drop onto the ring, only for it to be devoured by the central crystal.

“Is that normal?” Rowan asked.

“Perfectly.”

“Well I guess it’s your turn now, Seres,” said Rowan, handing over the knife.

Seres obliged, though she did so with an almost dangerous lack of confidence. It made Rowan nervous just watching. She really did have her work cut out for her with the upcoming self defence classes if this was how Seres handled a knife.

“Now you can exchange the rings. They’ve been fitted to your ring fingers.

Immediately upon slipping the ring on, Rowan noticed that the central crystal came in contact with the skin. It wasn’t by much, but it was enough to be noticeable despite having a soft underside. That is to say it has zero hard edges instead of actually being soft. If only.

With all that done, Rowan remembered a question she had been meaning to ask Queen Elarin.

“Your Majesty, I was wondering…”

“Yes?”

“Why did it take you so long to discover the raiders and their operation?”

Good News Everyone! I’m making progress with my Patreon backlog at a really good pace. With that in mind, Chapter 25 is available now on Patreon with the £5 tier which will also give you access to the uncut version of Chapter 22 (if you join before the end of the month) and all of released world building tidbits. I’m also making significant headway on Chapter 26. I won’t make any promises, but I fully expect it to be ready for patrons this week which would mean I can release Chapter 27 next Monday/Tuesday.

Previous Chapter

Chapter 23: The Next Step

So i did a poll to see what to do while I build up my backlog of early access chapters for patrons. With the results in, my plan is to release a chapter a week until I have at least 5 patron chapters. Then depending on how my pace is going, I’ll add in a couple more chapters to my buffer zone. This is to avoid what happened before when my mental health took a massive nose dive. With that said, enjoy the chapter.

“Ah ah choo.”

Rowan woke up sneezing loudly from a wandering tail tickling her nose. Not exactly the most romantic start to the morning after your first time. Alas, there was no helping it as Alena had found her way into the nook of Rowan’s armpit, and while she was fast asleep, purring away, her tail had a mind of its own. 

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Rowan didn’t need to be a tail whisperer to know that the rogue tail wanted to play. It was almost as if it was enacting whatever dreams Alena was having at the time. After rudely waking Rowan up it decided that she was much in need of more tickling. She tried to escape without waking Alena up, only for Alena to nuzzle in closer. 

It was incredibly adorable and incredibly inconvenient. In the end, Rowan had no choice other than to just lie there and enjoy the view. Not that she could really complain; it was a very nice view after all. 

While looking at Alena’s sleeping face, Rowan started to stroke her hair. Unfortunately, she was unable to do the heart fluttering manoeuvre of pushing a lock of hair behind her ear like she had done all those years ago with Kiriin. Guilt flashed momentarily for thinking back to a lost love which in turn brought a hint of sadness. It only lasted a second, however, as Alena’s ears twitched in the most adorable fashion believable and as Rowan continued to stroke, Alena unconsciously reciprocated with purring.

After a few minutes of perfect bliss, Rowan heard someone enter the apartments. A knocking on the door soon followed.

“Lady Rowan?”

It was Avra, the maid.

Rowan panicked. She hadn’t noticed before, not consciously at least, that neither she or Alena were being granted any modesty by the wayward covers and they weren’t exactly dressed either. To make matters worse, the covers were well out of reach.

“Just a second,” Rowan called out before whispering an apology to Alena.

Rowan then enacted her ‘genius’ spur of the moment plan to achieve modesty. She stretched out in an attempt to grab onto the covers with her toes. Her foot started to cramp from the unnatural way she was using it. Thankfully though, the discomfort was worth it as she took hold of the covers and started to bring them. Unfortunately, doing so required more disruptive movements and Alena started to stir. Rowan then hurried to get them both covered.

Now sitting up with the linen sheets loosely covering her chest, Rowan called out to Avra again. 

“You can come in now.”

“Right away.”

And to her word, Avra swiftly entered the room, looking the very image of professionalism. 

“How can I help?” Rowan asked?

“First of all, you and your guest have been invited to break fast with Her Majesty and the rest of the Royal family.

Not just Seres, Rowan thought to herself, it’s been a while since that happened.

“Secondly, I have arranged a change of clothes for your guest. I do not believe that she would rather not wear a ball gown to breakfast.

“How did you know she’d be here?”

“I know everything about those I serve.”

That wasn’t at all ominous.

“Furthermore, the whole palace is aware of your exploits from last night. Milady wasn’t exactly subtle about the whole ordeal.”

Ominous tidings forgotten. Now only blood red embarrassment remained.

“It is fortunate that rest of the Sunfall Apartments are without guests at this moment in time. I fear they would have had an even more intimate understanding of your late night activities.”

We weren’t that loud, were we?

“Finally, Her Highness requested that I  tease you on her behalf. I believe you have been sufficiently teased.”

Avra let Rowan process the foul betrayal as Alena finally made her presence known. With her back to Avra and her face towards Rowan, she stretched and gave out the biggest yawn. It was almost as if she was emulating a lion’s roar, except the sound she made was just the cutest. Then in a moment of inspiration, Alena settled down from her stretch, pulling down the sheets and, with her mouth still wide open, she nommed on Rowan’s exposed breast.

“I believe that is my cue to take my leave,” said Avra as Rowan once again turned crimson.

*****

With Alena dressed in one of her more casual dresses and Rowan in a tunic which was practically a minidress and pair of leggings, the two girls made their way to the Dawn Wing for breakfast.

“Is it really okay for me to be here?” Alena asked.

Rowan rolled her eyes at that.

“The queen invited you as well. Who cares if it’s as a plus one?”

“But I’m only a lesser noble, all things considered.”

“And?”

“It’s not proper.”

“It’s no less proper than me being there.”

“You do realise that you were given a title on par with an earl, maybe even a duke, last night, just without the land, though I imagine that will come later.”

Rowan wasn’t sure exactly how she was supposed to process that information. She knew that the titles were a big deal, but not that much of a big deal.

“Of course, that’s just one of your new titles. The other is a bigger mystery. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been someone granted the title of Ardent Flame in over a thousand years.”

“Well I didn’t have those titles when I first met the Queen. And I’m definitely not worthy of being the Ardent Flame if it’s so prestigious.”

“Yet here we are.”

“Well as Ardent Flame, I say it’s okay.”

“But…”

“No buts. You don’t get to have sex with me and then chicken put at breakfast.”

Alena didn’t have a response to that. Instead, Rowan took her hand softly into her own and walked forwards with confidence. 

The rest of the trip took place without much in the way of complaint from Alena. If anything, it was largely uneventful with the exception of garnering a few looks and that was more due to Rowan than there being a couple of girls walking romantically hand in hand.

A maid was waiting for them at the entrance to the large private dining room of the Royal family. She curtsied to them before opening the door and announcing their arrival. 

On entering, Rowan was completely unsurprised to see Seres, Queen Elarin, Princess Elia and Prince Rikta. What was more surprising is that they weren’t the only people there, not counting servants. Behind the Queen stood a familiar duo, the Awakened Pair that had stood guard whenever Rowan was handling Elan Fiir. 

Across from them sat a human woman who was likely in her early thirties and had midnight blue hair with azure highlights. Rowan guessed that she was the first princess of Særis, in part because of her hair, but mostly because Brennan and his partner were standing guard behind her. To the princess’ left there were a pair of younger Ferran males, likely the Ferran princes. They seemed to be of similar ages to Seres and Princess Elia and both had russet hair touched with white, notably on the tips of their ears.

As Rowan had the sudden realisation that there may end up being more to this breakfast than she had believed, Queen Elarin gave both her and Alena a warm smile and said, “Good morning, Rowan, Lady Alena. Might I introduce you to our guests? This is Princess Yona of Særis and to her left are Prince Tomas and Prince Kiaran, the eldest and youngest children of the Prince Sovereign of Ferran, respectively. Princess Yona, Prince Tomas, Prince Kiaran, this is Lady Rowan’efrii, the Ardent Flame, and her newfound partner, Lady Alena of House Muun.”

Alena immediately curtsied to everyone, showing particular deference to the two princes of Ferran. Rowan also curtsied to everyone. If it were just the Royal family, she would have settled with a slight bow of the head with how the Queen had insisted she didn’t need to be so formal. The presence of guests, however, changed everything. Rowan had to be on her best behaviour. She wasn’t hopeful. 

“Good morning, Your Majesty, Your Highnesses, and to your illuminated guests.”

Immediately after greeting everyone, Rowan felt like she had just said something extremely cringe worthy. She wanted to sound polite and sophisticated. Instead she sounded like a perfumed sycophant or worse, a flowery buffoon. She just knew it. She just…

“Why are they holding hands, Mother?”

Illusion shattered. In just a few words, the great Ardent Flame of Midiris had by slain by the mighty Prince Rikta. Why? Rowan didn’t know why. Something about his tone, maybe? Or perhaps it was his inquisitive gaze. Either way, Rowan wasn’t looking forward to the answer. It seemed like Alena wasn’t doing much better.

Unfortunately, the Queen was all too happy to answer her unreasonably adorable demon child and from the looks of it, he wasn’t the only person who wanted to know.

Queen Elarin gave Prince Rikta a sage look and told him, “You see, dear. Lady Rowan and Lady Alena are very close friends and…”

“Just say it how it is, Mother,” interrupted Seres with a surprising hint of annoyance. “Leave the sugar-coating to the historians.”

Rowan heard a slight chuckle to her left. Part of her wanted to glance over to see who it was. The other, more dominant side, however, was enraptured in stunned silence.

Following the rogue laughter, Seres fully took on the reins of explaining the Rowan and Alena situation before her mother could fill Prince Rikta’s head with unnecessary, partial truths. 

“What Mother meant to say, Rikta, is that they like each other romantically and hand-holding is a sign of affection between loved ones.”

“But they aren’t men?”

The facepalm was immediate as was the laughter on the left. The laughter was in turn followed by what Rowan could only assume was a slap and a yelp. 

Rowan had to look that time. Prince Kiara was rubbing the back of his head whilst Tomas seemed completely unphased and was sitting patiently.

How did he get his hand back so quickly?

Meanwhile, Princess Yona was clearly veiling a smirk behind a napkin.

Turning to look at the other guests had another purpose as well in that it gave Rowan the chance to see what Alena’s reaction to the whole sequence of events. Shocked. Mortified. Confused. Horrified. All were apt descriptors of Alena’s expression at that exact moment of time. Rowan decided to give her a slight nudge in the right direction, which is to say guide her to their seats. It was all she could do to not be stunned into catatonia herself.

Meanwhile Queen Elarin seemed perfectly happy to let Seres finish what she had started. It was almost cruel in a ‘not really but you took responsibility by interrupting’ way. Thankfully Seres regained her composure as Rowan and Alena took their seats.

Removing her palm from her face, Seres decided to get right to the root of the issue by asking, “What do you think romance is, Rikta?”

“It’s what men do to make people like them and want to get married so that they can have babies.”

An exchange of looks immediately followed that was a conversation in their own right.

Seriously? – Seres.

Not my job – Elia.

He’s too young for the talk – Elarin.

He’s nine! – Seres.

Admittedly that last one was guess from how exasperated Seres looked. After the quick silent conversation, Seres turned back to Rikta. 

“Okay, I’ve just got a couple more questions,” she told him. “First, do you think a man can be romantic to a man?”

Prince Rikta rolled his eyes. “Obviously.”

“That’s right. Do you think two men can have baby together without any extenuating circumstances?”

“If they get married.”

“Let me just put that answer to the side. How about a woman being romantic to a man?”

“No.”

He said it with confidence that Rowan wasn’t sure how to process it. So many gaps. From the looks of it, Seres was on the verge of tearing her hair out. After a few breaths, however, she turned to their guests and apologised.

 “It seems that my younger brother has a few gaps in his education and I’m sorry you all had to witness the discovery of such. I’ll have to amend this at a later date. Until then. Rikta.”

“Yes?”

“Romance refers to a special kind of love and intimacy between two people as well as the expression of those feelings. It can be initiated by anyone, not just men. And romance doesn’t necessarily lead to marriage and babies can occur independently of marriage. I’ll tell you more soon enough. Understand?”

“Yes,” Rikta nodded glumly. 

“Excellent. I think now might be a good time to eat, don’t you, Mother?”

“Indeed,” Queen Elarin answered before giving the servants a quick nod. They swept immediately into action and breakfast was served within moments. 

It was clear that extra care had been put into the meal as it was not only for the Royal family but visiting royals as well.

“This is delicious,” the Særan princess announced, speaking for the first time since Rowan and Alena had entered the room. She spoke with a mature timbre that gave her a strong presence on top of her rather unique appearance.

“I’m glad it is to your liking, Princess Yona,” Queen Elarin smiled, “this is a favourite of mine. How about you, Prince Tomas? Prince Kiaran?”

Prince Tomas answered first with a polite nod. “It is indeed an exquisite dish. The balance is divine.”

Kiatan was next. “I think my actions speak louder than words.” He was already finished and his plate was sparking.

Rowan was amazed. She hadn’t even seen him touch his silverware, yet here he was.

Did he inhale it or something? 

“Indeed,” Queen Elarin responded. “With that said, I think it is time to bring up why I wished for you all to meet today.” 

That got everyone’s attention.

“As you all know, my daughter here, Seres, was kidnapped roughly five years ago, as were Lady Rowan and countless others.”

The three visiting royals nodded at that.

“From what Seres and Lady Rowan have told me, young adolescents were taken from across Llen Fær, Sæeis, and Ferran over the course of several years to a series of caves underneath the Earldom of Fendras near the great fjord. The purpose? To enslave and torture them until they Awakened. It is clear to me that someone is engineering an army of Awakened soldiers for some foul scheme. I’m sure we can all agree that this is of grave concern to us all.”

Another round of nodding. Princess Yona looked pale at the implications while Tomas maintained a level expression. Kiaran on the other hand looked to be a mix of fear and excitement. He may be seventeen or so, but the idea of epic battle and adventure clearly appealed to him.

“With that in mind, it has also been brought to my attention that Lord Feilan Takiir, Earl of Fendras, is involved and was taking advantage of many young female prisoners.”

“That is a serious accusation, Your Majesty,” Princess Yona interjected. 

“And one that will need to be thoroughly investigated, as will this entire operation. Between us, we only have so many Awakened individuals to combat this threat. Especially when we don’t know where the main operation is based or where they are targeting. With that in mind, I would like to request that Lady Rowan and Seres be permitted to serve as my representatives on the mainland for the investigation and execution of the threat.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Yona replied.

“Agreed,” Tomas added.

“Umm,” Rowan interrupted, “Would it be okay if I visit my family first? I need to see my father and find my sister.”

“Of course,” Elarin answered.

“Not alone you aren’t,” Seres interrupted, shaking her head. Rowan gave her a betrayed look. Seres only smiled and added, “I’m going with you.”

Alena giggled on Rowan’s other flank. “You didn’t think she was going to leave you alone, did you? I wish I could go with you as well, but we’ve already been away from the university for far too long. Promise me you’ll visit me?”

“Of course I will,” Rowan blushed.

“Looks like Rowan is ready to tie the knot,” Seres teased.

“I am not!” said Rowan a little bit too loudly.

“Remember where we are, Rowan,” chided Alena.

“Oh sorry.”

“I can definitely see the Ardent in her,” Yona laughed.

“This is tame,” Seres replied with laughter of her own.

Rowan gave her an accusative look and with several notes of mock betrayal, exclaimed, “Traitor!” 

“Oh to be young,” Queen Elarin sighed. “However, before that goes any further I must bring the conversation back on course. Rowan.”

“Yes?”

“Last night I granted you the title of Ardent Flame. If I’m being truthful, you aren’t ready for it. You are the third person in the history of Llen Fær to be granted the title and it is not done lightly.”

“Then why?”

“Because I’ve seen your strength and your passion. In time you will grow to become a legend in your own right, just like those who came before you. With that in mind, I grant you full leave to carry Elan Fiir as you see fit.”

“Thank you,” Rowan replied meekly.

The conversation for the rest of the breakfast was mostly on logistics. Eventually,  Rowan and Alena excused themselves to spend some time together while Seres took her younger brother aside to give him a more rounded education on sex and romance.

Overall it was a quiet day. A calm before the storm. Alena would be leaving soon, as were the rest of her party. It also seemed as if all the prisoners desiring passage to Særis would be leaving as well. That included both Amran and Maro. In a sense it was sad news, but at the same time, she would be making her way to the Azure City. Before then, however, she was going home.

Rowan was finally going home.

This actually ended up being roughly 1k words longer than I had originally anticipated. It may be a bit wordy and heavy on dialogue but I hope it was still an enjoyable read.

Now that I’ve done my post chapter comment, I’m going to take a leaf out of Selkie’s metaphorical book, and start shamelessly plugging at the end of each of my chapters. I’ll also be doing this retroactively for anyone that starts reading after I’ve done this.

First off, I’d like to invite you all to my discord server where you can engage with the community, discuss the story and come up with wild theories that I will totally judge for being wrong. Not really, I just like theories. The engagement also makes me happy and a happy Ren is a Ren who is in a better position to write.

Next is my Patreon, which is the go to place to support me while also getting some curated bonuses. It isn’t at all required but it does help massively and it is really appreciated. Down the line it will also let me call myself a full time writer which is a heart felt dream of mine.

If you want to support me with a one off donation, you can do so through my Ko-fi.

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Interlude: A Voice on the Wind

Pre-Chapter Notes: Hello everyone. Just wanted to remind you that if you join my Patreon, you can read an extended uncut version of the final scene from the last chapter. It’s roughly 1100 words and goes into all the action and even features some characterisation of the two girls and their relationship. For the month of October, this is available at a reduced cost of £5. My writing pace is also picking up again after the nightmare of the past couple of months so I should be able to start building up my early access chapters for Patrons. First step will be one chapter and then five. If I get enough Patrons I’ll build that backlog up to ten chapter. While you’re at it, consider joining my discord server as well. With all that said, enjoy the chapter (and the juicy parts from last chapter if you missed it.)

Two river petals and a dawn flower to go and Tehri’s bouquet would be complete. She had spent the entire morning picking out flowers from the now surprisingly abundant flower garden that she had been tending to for the past four years. It wasn’t much but it let her stretch her creative juices without being overly expensive; which is to say it cost nothing other than time and a few seeds, most of which Tehri had harvested herself. 

At some point in the future, Tehri wanted to learn how to make pigments and, by extension, paint from her flowers so that she could get back to painting proper. Hana and Byrden had tried getting her some when they discovered her artistic nature, but it proved to be unreasonably challenging. For one, paint was significantly more expensive than Tehri had ever realised and the supplies weren’t much better. Second of all was the fact that it wasn’t exactly high on the stock lists of any of the merchants that stopped by the village.

At some point they managed to acquire a few paints for Tehri, hoping that it would help her first major bout of depression in their care. It had happened not long after they had told her about her mother’s fate. At first she was manic at the news. 

It was a dangerous time for her; mania and grief don’t mix well, especially when the person is to do much of anything physical to distract themselves. To make may matters worse, Tehri didn’t care that she had a weak constitution or that she was still recovering. Instead she pushed herself, almost as if she was seeking pain. At one point she even jumped off of one of the taller buildings. 

To this day she isn’t sure why she did isn’t sure why she did it, but when it happened, she crashed both figuratively and literally. 

Hana and Byrden were terrified when it happened and they were even less equipped to deal with the depression that followed. One of their attempted solutions were the aforementioned paints. 

Fortunately, she had only broken one of her arms from the fall so she was able to make use of them and it did help slightly. What she really needed, however, was time and maybe some of her medicine from home. Unfortunately the latter was well out of her reach. Time, however, was in ample supply, even if it filled her guardians with dread. 

Tehri’s mood started to improve as spring approached. When it was good enough she did one last painting and then made Hana and Byrden promise that they wouldn’t buy her any more supplies. She refused to be a drain on their resources. From that day she started helping out with chores as best as she could which is what led her to the garden. 

In time it grew to become her new artistic venture. It may not have been painting, but it made her happy enough. As an added bonus, Hana was particularly fond of the bouquets that Tehri created. In fact, Hana was the recipient of the one she was working on that morning. 

The occasion? Hana had just discovered that she was pregnant with her first child. It was news worthy of celebration and Tehri wanted to do her part. This was the least she could do, especially when her competition was Byrden who had discovered a way to be over both moons at once.

With the dawn flower picked, Tehri made her way inside the house; it had grown over the years. Not by much, but enough that they could more comfortably accommodate for the family they were planning for. Tehri felt a little guilty about that because without her, the house would have already been big enough for a couple of children if she hadn’t been there. Alas, Tehri had taken the only spare bedroom in the house. Now, however, there were an additional two rooms that had been built into the side of the house. Tehri looked forward to the day that they would eventually see use. Today, however, was not that day.

Tehri found Hana in the kitchen trying her latest creation. She had been told by some of the other women to expect weird cravings when she eventually got pregnant and now that she was, it seemed like she was overcompensating for a lack of any by creating various weird and wacky dishes. 

Tehri gave the wall a slight knock to get her attention right as she was giving her creation a taste. That was unintentional on Tehri’s part as was what came next. Hana dropped the spoon and started sputtering almost immediately. Panicking, Tehri placed the bouquet down on the table and rushed over. She signed quickly to say, Sorry, are you okay?

Sign language was a useful skill and one all three of them had learned together after a merchant had suggested it to them. It made communication between them significantly faster and a lot more convenient which was important in times like this.

Seeing the signs, Hana did her best to compose herself and respond. After a moment or two she managed to respond with, “I’m okay. You just surprised me is all.”

I didn’t mean to, Tehri signed back, I just wanted to show you these flowers. They’re for you and the baby.

“That’s really sweet, thank you. Though I think it might be a bit premature to start getting the baby flowers.

I know that!

“True enough. Care to try some of this soup?”

Tehri’s face paled at the proposition; Hana’s dishes had become a game of chance. On one hand it could be delicious, and on the other it could be congealed frog jelly soup with pickled River slugs or worse. Even so, if it made her happy, Tehri dared risk it.

Hana handed her a small tasting bowl and ladled in some of the soup. It didn’t look too threatening. If anything it looked to be a rather unassuming creamy yellow. It even had a mellow aroma that made Tehri even more suspicious. Alas, it was too late for her to back away now so she touched the bowl to her lips and tilted it back. 

Tehri’s eyes widened in surprise as the soup hit her tongue. She could taste the gentle and earthy notes of potato and celeriac. Something was wrong. It was far too normal; there had to be something else. She had to try it again to be sure. Then it came. Tehri started to feel a rising heat from soup, one that threatened to bring her to tears. Only the tears never came. Instead the heat had been tempered by the creaminess of the soup in a way that Tehri didn’t even realise was possible. She also didn’t realise that she was smiling.

“I’m glad that you like it,” Hana beamed. “Though I can tell that you’re a little surprised. Don’t worry. I’ve got an extra spicy version that I’ll be sharing with the other mothers in the village later this week. They won’t know what hit them.”

Tehri couldn’t help but laugh at Hana’s devilish plan, even if it scared her a little.

“Oh yeah, before I forget. Would you be able to do me a favour, Tehri?”

In response, Tehri gave her a quizzical look.

“I need a couple of things from the market. Do you mind picking them up for me? I’ve got a list and the money already prepared.”

I can do that no problem. 

“You’re a lifesaver. One of the stalls closes at noon and it won’t be open again for another two weeks. There’s a little extra money in the pouch so use it to treat yourself. 

Thank you.

*****

It was a relatively short walk to the market even with Hana and Byrden’s house being on the far side of the village. If Hana wasn’t still working on her soup or needing to do chores around the house, she could have probably made it in plenty of time. Even if that was the case, however, and Hana was just lazing around, Tehri would still have obliged. She liked being outside and doing a little shopping wouldn’t strain her too much.

When she arrived at the market, she went looking for the stall that was due to close early. It was manned by wizened hermit of a man with long unkempt greying brown hair and a similarly ‘styled’ beard. That is to say, Tehri hoped his hair was brown. It was difficult to tell and the twigs that decorated it didn’t help. Neither did the earthy aroma that he gave off or the fact that Tehri didn’t recognise him at all. In spite of that, he looked clean enough.

As for what he sold, Tehri could see a plethora of herbs and fungi, many of which were still in the dirt from which they had grown. Tehri recognised some of his wares, but most were beyond her.

The man looked over at Tehri as she approached and straightened slightly. He then called to her and asked, “What can I do you, little miss?” with a voice like moving earth. 

Tehri handed him the list, hoping that he could read. She was doubtful; comprehensive reading skills weren’t exactly common in the village.

He mused over the list for a second and then peered over it to look down at Tehri. “Are you sure this is what you want, little miss?”

Tehri nodded.

“Then I hope you are prepared for the consequences.”

The man’s tone in saying that was far too ominous for Tehri’s liking. She tried to sign for clarification but he only gave her a confused look. 

As she flailed about, someone else called out to her. A golden haired boy approached them from across the market. He was around the same age as Tehri, and well built with a smile that could melt even the coldest of hearts. He was also one of Tehri’s few friends and the only one that had gone out of their way to learn sign language.

Hi, Kamren, Tehri signed to him. 

The wizened man gave him a knowing glance and said, “This must be the father.”

Tehri gave the man a horrified look. It may have been true that Tehri liked Kamren and that they had even kissed, but father?

Kamren had a similar reaction, only he voiced it.

“The young miss is purchasing mother’s wort, elden root, and milker’s truth cap. These are all highly effective natal supplements and remedies to help with the early stages of pregnancy.”

In that instant, everything became clear. Tehri started signing to Kamren so that he could translate for her.

“These aren’t for me, they’re for my guardian, Hana. It’s her first child.” 

After clarifying for Tehri, Kamren realised what he had just said. He turned to her and asked, “Since when?”

Last month? Tehri answered.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”

We only found out a week or so ago.

“But you just said…”

You do know that it takes some time after you do the deed to learn the results, don’t you?

“Yes?” answered Kamren with absolutely zero confidence. 

You’re hopeless. 

“This is all very nice,” the man interjected, “and I apologise for the mistake, but we should continue. Noon fast approaches.”

Tehri nodded and asked how much it would cost.

“Two wheat and seven pennies,” the man answered. It was a colloquial way of saying two bronze coins and seven copper pennies.

Tehri handed him the coins and he prepared the goods with a loving, delicate touch. He wrapped each bundle of herbs in cloth and placed the fungi in small wicker boxes before loading everything into a canvas bag. Kamren took the bag for Tehri and offered to join her for the rest of the venture.

Some time later they found a quiet place out of the way to take a break. Tehri had bought them a little snack in the form of shimmer-grilled vegetables for them to eat with the extra money that Hana had given her. 

While they were eating, Kamren prompted a conversation by saying, “Did you hear the rumors from the capital about the missing princess and how they hosted a massive party to celebrate her return?”

No? Tehri replied.

“It was the talk of the market all morning. Apparently she had been kidnapped or something all those years ago along with a bunch of other people. Something about those raiders. Anyway, they managed to escape and find their way back. One of them was given a really old title from way back when, but I don’t know why. I think it might have been something to do with them being an Ardent. All I know for sure is their last name is really similar to yours.”

The news hit Tehri like a landslide. Her hand drifted to the bracelet on her wrist. She dared not hope.

What was their name? she asked.

“Nairiir? Neiliir? Something like that.”

Tehri’s heart jumped. She dared not hope, but after hearing those names. It was obvious how you could get to either one from Naliir. And on top of that, they’re supposedly an Ardent who was captured by the raiders. Tehri dared to hope.

She forgot about the shopping and ran back to the house. Kamren shouted after her, but his words landed on deaf ears. 

Minutes later she threw the front door open to find a startled Hana.

“Tehri? What’s going on?”

My sister! She’s free!

“Say again?”

My sister is in the capital. She escaped with the princess!

“How do you know that?”

The merchants were talking and they said her name. Our name. They said Naliir or some close enough approximation of it.

Hana was speechless. If it was true, it was incredible news. Even so, she wasn’t sure what they could do about it. Midiris was so incredibly far away. That’s how it seemed to her at least. Granted, the furthest she had ever been from Aran Village was Talaran City. The only thing she could think of was sending a letter and praying it reached her. Before she could suggest it to Tehri, however, someone else came barging through the door.

Kamren was breathing heavily, trying not to drop all the wares he was carrying.

“You forgot the shopping, Tehri.”

And with that, the moment was, for the time being, lost.

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