Another piece of the ongoing adventures of the Cain family
|Raven approached the delegation from the city. The townspeople murmured on both sides of the aisle, the only distinct word rising from them was Raven. Her black hair was unbound, flowing down her back. Her violet eyes were on the four men on the dais. Her skin was still pale, though lines threatened around the eyes. Unhurried, her low-heeled boots crunched the fallen leaves. The short sword strapped to her right hip hung with familiarity, though its weight had been long absent. She wore the black surcoat of the house of Cain, emblazoned with her own arms. Her (cape) swished softly, a whisper above the late autumn leaves. She never looked back, but she knew her daughter Shadow was a step behind and slightly to her right, the best defensive position if it came to a fight. She was proud of her daughter, she’d matched their footfalls to sound as one. The wind smelled faintly of snow. Winter would be early this year.|
Raven and Shadow stopped at the foot of the dais. Shadow looked very much like her name, almost every detail of her costume matched Raven’s. Twin daggers hung from her belt in front, in the back she held twin sai. Shadow had beaten Raven at the sword, but preferred more defensive weapons. She braided her hair, and the storm gray eyes were the only trait she’d received from her father. Raven knew if this turned out badly Shadow would need to return to the sword.
The four men were staring at the two of them. Raven never flinched, meeting their gaze and returning it. She knew Shadow was up to this task.
Raven stepped onto the dais. She looked at the townsfolk, then faced the men. “Let them go home. I am the one you seek.”
The leader stepped forward. Two of the others looked bewildered, the third shook his head. “I can’t do that. They are responsible for harboring a fugitive of the King’s Justice. They must be punished.”
“Even if they know not what they harbor? I recognize no King,” Raven said. “The rightful Queen is not on her throne. There is no justice in this land. Who are you to make such accusations?”
The man was taller than Raven, with brown hair and eyes to match. His features were rough, and his attitude matched it. He spoke with a hiss that sounded snakelike. “I am Ormond Haller, King’s Marshal. I am looking for the Crown Princess, lost to her people for fifteen years now. They say she had black hair and violet eyes, as you do, but I will not arrest a body-double. You cannot be as old as that lady should be. Get out of my way, and take the girl with you. The town hides the lady from me, and I will return her to her home.”
“Ormond Haller, King’s Marshal,” Raven said. “A commoner by birth and a nobleman’s trade to serve the King, who has no authority here. What an interesting combination.”
He did not respond, clenching his jaw and glaring down at her. His right hand gripped his sword, as if he meant to draw it and strike her down.
Raven turned to the armed guards around the town square. “Let the people go. They know of no Crown Princess, and each of you knows it.” She lowered her gaze to her neighbors and acquaintances of the town. “Go home.”
They didn’t move. She didn’t really expect them to, but she had to give them the chance. If the King had finally caught up with her, they probably didn’t have much hope of surviving the sunset.
She turned back to Haller. “I am Aria, of Cain.” She presented her right fist to him, not nearly as close nor as fast to his face as she would have preferred. The ring, carved with the Cain crest, could not be removed from her finger except in death. After that, it would embed itself in the wall as a memorial. She did not have the magic to construct them, luckily Jade had received the gifts in that department that both she and Shadow lacked. Raven had only enough to prove her royal birth, and Shadow little more than that. Her third child did not seem particularly gifted, but instead had a smattering of everything.
She still expected them to kneel to her name, she realized after a moment of them staring at her. The dumbfounded looks on the faces of the two young ones made Raven wonder if they had heard of her. She reminded herself not all the Marhsals were commoners, some of the nobles had blended into the new regime, rather than face the butcher’s block with the Queen. Raven missed the respect her name held. She hadn’t spoken it since she’d left, taking her childhood nickname instead. The few nobles she’d known to escape the city had done similar things, and they corresponded rarely.
The name and the ring were enough to identify her to anyone in the country. The townsfolk were silent, staring. Haller did not seem to think it was enough. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion, as if to question her further when one of the two she suspected noblemen tapped lightly on his sleeve and whispered to him. He gestured at Shadow, then retreated to his earlier position with the others.
“Who is she?”
Shadow stepped onto the dais next to her mother. “I am Astarte, of Cain.” Her voice was perfectly level, though of a slightly higher note than her mothers. Raven watched Haller as she also lifted her right fist to show the ring with the Cain crest, one of the last ones created by the jewelers in the city for the House of Cain. [When/how/why do they receive these??] Raven’s pride almost allowed her a smile, but she held it in. Shadow was her mother’s daughter.
The man who had spoken to Haller had his mouth half-open, staring at Shadow. How did he know of her? He didn’t look old enough to remember her or her daughter. There were enough stories of Aria, Crown Princess, to fill any child’s head with stories, but his shock attested to a better knowledge. She marked him as probably noble, and kept her attention to Haller. She would figure out his mystery later.
Haller stared at both of them in confusion. He seemed to be taking in for the first time their clothing, the low-heeled boots more suited to riding in a region where horses were scarce, the flowing pants allowing free movement in a fight and appearing as a skirt when standing still, the surcoats gently worn that draped to midcalf. The King had since instituted frilly dresses on women who attended court, disliking the precedence set of allowing women to hold equal or greater office. Head to toe, both women were dressed in black, deep as midnight and unmarked with stains or dirt. The rich fabric was useless in the farm country and the color impractical except at court or temple. The weapons were of extremely high quality, unlikely to find this far from any quantity of professional fighters.
“You will let these people go,” Raven said. “Then we will discuss your King’s Justice.”
“You do not set the rules here. You are two women, and outnumbered. Surrender and I will grant you mercy,” Haller said.
Raven turned her head as Shadow hissed softly. Shadow fell silent, but still smirked. Raven could not fault her, and turned back to Haller. She paused before speaking. She could still see the men behind Haller, two of them appeared quite uncomfortable and the third looked merely confused. Haller’s belligerence would not be supported. Outside the circle of townsfolk, Army regulars stood at attention. They followed orders, and would not be swayed by words from any but their commander. She noticed there were no women among them, whether just in this company or the entire Army was questionable.
Haller’s face contorted with fury. Raven almost smiled; Shadow had not made a sound this time. Haller began issuing orders, and the soldiers formed up to obey. One by one, the soldiers at the perimeter halted. Haller and the men behind him stopped moving as well. Raven nodded at Jade when she emerged from the trees on the other side of the dais. Jade had gotten the few magical gifts from both her parents and somehow multiplied them. She still lacked formal training but did better than most trained mages Raven knew.
“How long can you hold them?” Raven said. Jade still lacked stamina, but she knew her limits.
“Those four are the problem,” she said, pointing at Haller and the others on the dais. “I can unthread the others, but some of them are fighting me and I can’t do both.”
“Just hold Haller. Can you let the other three loose and see if it’s enough?”
Jade nodded. Shadow guarded the three as they were released. Raven watched Jade as she unthreaded the memories of the remaining intruders. The books instructed to do it one at a time, but her daughter did the surrounding soldiers at once. To Raven’s eye, it was neatly and professionally done. When she was young, she’d felt it a cruel gift to see the magic and not work it. The sight ran strong in her line, whether they could work it or not. She’d seen later those who worked the magic and couldn’t see it. She could do enough to tutor Jade on the rudiments and point out her mistakes, even if she couldn’t fix them herself. Jade rarely needed Raven’s help. Her surgical skill proved to be extremely useful. At a shake of Raven’s head, Jade paused before working on Haller. She did not appear tired, but Raven wasn’t sure how hard she could be pushed. She wasn’t sure how much she needed to change of Haller yet.
Shadow did not relax as Raven approached them. Raven wondered how much they could see. “Who are you?”
All three kneeled, heads bowed. Raven waited. After a moment, one of them looked up enough to look for permission to rise. Raven acknowledged him. It felt odd, though it was what she wanted.
“I am Hamilton Slade, Hamilton, of Bron. My companions are Odo Murn and Loren Joy, Loren of Xxxx.” His words tumbled over each other, barely pausing for breath. “I have a message from Morrigan Willow. May we speak privately?”
Raven noted he used her name and not her title of High Priestess. She wasn’t sure the King could manage to change things inside the temple, but she couldn’t rule it out, either. Morrigan was likely to entrust a message with another noble, Marhsal or not, if it was important. Raven hadn’t yet been able to get Jade to send magical messages to the capital, so this was Morrigan’s only choice.
“Go home,” Jade said to the townsfolk. Raven heard a hint of a geas behind it. Still the soldiers did not move. They stood and filed out of the square.
Hamilton turned to look at Jade, startled by her voice. His eyes narrowed, as if he finally figured out the magic came from her. Jade met his stare. Raven wondered if he saw the resemblance between them. Jade’s only visible weapon was a dagger at her belt. Her deep auburn hair glowed like sunset, setting off the porcelain skin she inherited from her mother. Jade’s green eyes were only slightly paler than the hunter green outfit she wore. He may have wanted to ask who she was, but he held his tongue.
“Is this private enough? I guarantee neither Haller nor the soldiers can hear you.” Raven said as the last of the townspeople disappeared from sight.
Hamilton only handed over a scroll. The seal was Morrigan Willow’s personal design, not that of High Priestess. Raven broke the seal and unrolled it.
This message will reach you courtesy of Marshal Hamilton Slade. There are several nobles in the Marshals, as you know, and most of them are still loyal to the Queen. I mean you, of course, though you weren’t crowned.
The King has overreached his limits. He can no longer pay the mercenaries he brought with him, and he cannot control the remainder of our army. The commoners are beginning to work against him. He promised to bring them up, but instead has only brought them more hardship. The butcher’s block is empty; he cannot ferret out more nobles and he must be very careful of the commoners or lose the few supporters he still has.
His solution is to marry you. He has heard you are not strong in magic and thinks you to be an easy conquest. I know you are more resourceful than they give you credit for, but it has been fifteen years since your disappearance. I know Astarte is of legal age, and Isis is nearing it. There are rumors you have done well in exile, but now you are needed at home.
The time has come for you to return. The signs are unmistakable. You have become the whispered legend in the streets of the city. You spark even the commoners to reach beyond their circumstances to resist the King. Please come to their aid, and ours.
Morrigan Willow, High Priestess
Raven rerolled the parchment and tucked it away. She’d never ignored Morrigan’s words before, she wasn’t sure she should start now. Jade would be able to tell if she was forced to write it or not. Raven only saw that Morrigan did indeed write it.
If this company was after her, how many others were there? The road to the capital was dangerous enough, without being old nobility these days. Or had that changed since her exile? Shadow and Jade would go with her, of course. She knew where the strongholds of exiled nobles were. Morrigan had not said she needed to go straight to the city. Jade could be mostly trained before they reached the city.
The message system between the strongholds she knew would carry word of a rebellion long before they reached the city. The King’s Tithes were heavy; the strongholds had been mismarking the ledgers since that first hard winter. Were there enough to resist the mercenaries?
The more immediate concern was Haller and company. Jade could leave them frozen, but they would not stay that way indefinitely. Haller’s memory had to be modified enough that he wouldn’t cause trouble. Only the Marshals had the orders – that made the troopers easier to deal with. Hamilton and his companions may prove a problem if Raven intended to visit the nearest stronghold. House of XXXX and House of Bron had a feud predating even Raven’s grandmother. House politics did not always make allowances for other circumstances. She supposed that was one reason she’d been voted Queen.