Serena kept her eyes on him as they walked, moving as he moved. She would then ask Andal to explain the mark further, but later… for now she was content to be in Cartell’s presence. As the forest was revealed, she smiled at the trees and gardened grounds. It was almost like the real thing, if not for the light. Still, something had to make these trees grow. As they stopped behind the tree, away from prying eyes, she pressed her hand to the bark to feel its roughness, then paid full attention to Cartell as he spoke.
Her eyes wandered down to the dagger as he took it from his belt and unsheathed it. She held out her hands to receive the dagger as he held it out to her. She withdrew it from the sheath again to examine the mark of Holland. “This must be precious to you,” she said swallowing hard. “Are you certain you wish to gift it to me?” She raised her brow. She was unmistakably pleased but hesitant to take it from his possession. When he insisted, she thanked him in a soft voice. She wrapped the trappings around the sheath and bent to raise her dress enough to hide it in the leg of her boot. She tugged the skirt back down, certain that it would be concealed. “I will cherish it always.”
Cartell smiled and nodded, content with her acceptance. As they made their way out of hiding, another kinship member suddenly approached them. "Cartell, my brother, our lord Andal wishes to speak with you." Cartell acknowledged him then turned to Serena, "I'm sorry, I must go. I recommend you sleep soon, my brother likes to move early." With a bow he excused himself and left with the other man.
He made his way to the sanctum where his brother usually spent his time around the basin. As he entered the room Andal was speaking to another high ranking member of the kinship. "Ah, brother." Andal said, turning to Cartell. "We've gotten word that the Illios are on the move. They've sent out the inquisition in full force, along with a platoon of Sworn Knights. Our road will be perilous, though I do believe moving in small numbers will be advantageous. Tomorrow the four of us will set out. Myself, you, the girl, and our uncle here." Andal motioned to the other man in the room, a man even older than Andal called Eyan. "With subtlety and a little luck, we can reach Cairn's Crossing by evenfall."
Cartell nodded, "As you say." Their quest was growing more perilous by the hour. He was a little afraid, but Andal had tought him well and he had already proven himself in battle. Now though, he feared for Serena.
She drew away from the kinship member who had interrupted the secret exchange. But it was safe in her boot, he couldn’t have seen it. Serena nodded to Cartel. “Thank you for your company.” She would do as he suggested, but not before she explored the small “forest” a little while longer, asking those tending to it questions about how the trees grew, what kind of flowers they were planting and such. She eventually retired to her room, taking off her boots and allowing the dagger to sink deep into it, pushing them under her bed, then disrobed into something suitable for sleeping so she did not wrinkle the finery she was wearing. Her last thoughts were of Cartell’s smiling face, which brought a smile to her own as she snuggled against the pillow and drew the blankets over herself. It had been quite the day and she slept soundly.
It was very early morning when a loud knock came at her door, the voice of Andal came through, "Lady Serena, make your preparations and meet us in the courtyard. We leave in an hour." Andal waited til he heard sounds of stirring then headed off down the hallway, the others were already waiting for him. A small smile came to his face, Eyan and Cartell were casually sparring in the courtyard. Eyan was old, nearing seventy, but Andal had seen him cut through five young swordsman like they were paper. He was an indispensable ally, he and Cartell were the only two people left who he could truly trust with anything. Of course he greatly respected all his brothers and sisters in the kinship, but ties of true blood were still the strongest. He longed for the day when Serena would place her trust in him, but she was still a wild card to him. His eyes glanced at Cartell, but did she trust him? He had seen they way they sometimes looked at each other, he wasn't sure what he thought of that. Andal sat down on a bench in the courtyard and covered his eyes, deep in thought as they waited.
The loud knock startled Serena from her sound sleep and the shock awoke her near completely. She threw off the bedclothes as she heard his voice, having been well prepared upon Cartell’s warning the eve before. She shivered a bit as she pulled on her boots, sliding the dagger snugly in her boot and wrapping the trappings around the laces of the boot until she was sure that it would not move yet not give her discomfort. She then hastened to the bathroom to splash water on her face and comb through her long hair. The shampoo had done it justice and her hair fell in long, shining waves. She changed into a proper dress for traveling, far less fair than the dress she had come in, but she was not willing to allow a dress to be ruined as they walked through the countryside. She exited her room quickly enough, for a woman that is… men did not need to address their hair or clothing for long. Turning her head up and down the corridor, she chose the courtyard as the likely place of meeting. She followed the turns as she remembered them and hastened as she could. She stopped when she came out of the archway and noticed that Cartell was dueling with an older gentlemen. Andal had mentioned his uncle, so this skilled fighter must be him, who bore scars of battle and had aged with that hard and weathered look as soldiers do. She saw Andal sitting on a bench but did not move towards him, just stayed where she was to watch the duel. She had not been taught to fight, but she wished that she knew how to defend herself at the least. Would they allow such an attempt or would they squirrel her away at the first sign of attack? She did not want to be typecast as helpless, frail and quick to faint as beautiful as she was. Those type of women were silly.
Andal raised his head as she entered. Cartell stopped mid-stroke and turned to look at her. Eyan swiftly smacked Cartell's neck with the flat of his blade, then guffawed. Cartell gave a short cry and rubbed the place where he was struck, Eyan smirked, "Ah, the weakness of men." Cartell blushed lightly, glancing at Serena, then hopping down from where they had been dueling. The two of them sheathed their swords and fell in behind Andal who had walked in front of Serena. "My lady." Andal and the others gave a short bow of their heads. "You are ready?" Seeing that she was he waved her towards the exit of the sanctuary.
Several other members of the kinship had come out to watch them leave, some looked worried, others hopeful. As the water drained from the pond concealing the staircase and they ascended into the dark of dawn, Andal spoke, "We make for Cairn's Crossing, have you heard of it? It's near fifty miles to the north-west." Eyan and Cartell were burdened with backpacks that held enough supplies to live in the wild for a few days, though they should only have to camp one night before they reached the city.
She gave Cartell a small smile, hiding her giggle at the strike behind her hand, but she could not disguise the mirth in her eyes. The weakness of men, indeed!… but she was no better, when it came to the feelings that she experienced when Cartell turned her eyes to her face. She nodded in affirmation that she was ready to travel, and she made way for the exit with her escorts. She had decided that she liked Evan very much, for he appeared to have a sense of good humor in him.
She bowed her head when their passing was witnessed by the kinship. She felt her face flush from the attention. She was nothing special, in her opinion. But to them, she was a future queen, she reminded herself. But she didn’t feel any different except, perhaps, a little afraid of what the title might mean for her future. As Andal asked if she knew of Cairn’s Crossing, she shook her head. But her stomach bubbled in anticipation for their adventure, as she saw it. She was breathless, feeling a bit criminal, having wandered so far from her former city. She felt alive and free, and she enjoyed it.
They made their way away from the pond, heading through the pine forest as the sun still hid behind the mountains in the east. Andal and Cartell were in front, keeping Serena behind them, with Eyan taking up the rear. Eyan spoke from behind her, "Let me say, my lady, it is an honor to meet you. All us old folk of the westerlands feared you lost forever. I'm only sad that my brother could not see this day. The memory of the Golden Kingdoms was all that he lived for." He smiled but it faded, the remembrance of his brother, Andal and Cartell's father, clearly troubling him.
After a few hours they exited the forest into an area of low rocky hills interspersed with grasslands. Andal stopped at the crest of one of the hills and pointed in the distance where a tiny sliver of blue could be seen. "The river would lead us straight to the crossing, but I've no doubt the Illios are patrolling it heavily. We must be careful in these foothills, the Illios keep outriders running through it regularly, even when they're not searching for someone." He hopped down from the edge of the hill, skidding through the dirt. Cartell did the same but stopped and offered his hand to help Serena down from the peak.
As Eyan began to speak to her, she halted herself so that she may hear him better, then came into step beside him. “You are very kind, Eyan. I couldn’t have imagined being so precious to anyone, locked away in that nunnery for much of my life,” she smiled. “But, surely he can see us from heaven…” she trailed off quietly, wondering if The Unnamed believed of life after death, and she did not want to offend him. “I wonder, did you ever know my parents, Eyan? Do you believe that they might still live? And what were their names? No one has yet said much of my heritage.”
At the hills, Serena resolved to be quiet as a mouse. She would not dare give themselves away… for having been with the Unnamed, and knowing what she knew now of the king’s intent to kill her, she deemed the Illios as a danger, not only to herself but to her companions. She struggled with long teachings, wresting what she had been taught in the nunnery, which had become her beliefs. She was slowly coming around, and there was a small part of her that remained suspicious of The Unnamed kinship. She could not discount Cartell, who was becoming as dear to her as she could allow inside, for she was new to such feelings, and a little afraid of them.
Serena took Cartell’s hand with a shy smile, feeling a jolt at his touch. She allowed him to help her down, raising the hem of her dress slightly so that it did not drag in the crags of rock. If they would not make for the river, to where would they travel? She swallowed down a small swell of fear, for she did not want to cross the Ilios’ path. How different had she been only a few days ago, arguing with Andal for insulting the Illios, and finding offence since she still had considered the city she had left behind her home at the time.
Eyan looked away momentarily as she mentioned heaven, then looked back at her question, "I knew them, as much as a lord can know his liege. They were kind, beloved by the people and ruthless in the defense of their lands. Their names were.." He seemed lost in thought briefly, "Elisa and Thorsten, yes." He smiled and seemed lost in thought again. "I believe they are alive, yes, they were not the kind of people to fade away easily. I cannot say where they may have gone though."
Cartell beamed as he felt her skin for the first time, quickly rushing back behind Andal his heart leaping at even a casual touch. They continued through the valleys of the rocky hills. Light wispy clouds moved quickly overhead by an unfelt wind, the sun just beginning to shined its light down on them. Suddenly the sound of hoofbeats could be heard. Andal whistled and pointed to a nearby outcropping where a few large boulders stuck out from the side of the hill. He ran and ducked into the shadows beneath them, waiting for the others to follow.
The sound grew louder 'til suddenly it was upon them, a small detachment of five to ten riders rode past them and to the direction from which they had come. At the head were several knights in golden armor, carrying shimmering white banners. The men behind them looked more rough, wearing assorted outfits of boiled leather and mismatched armor - mercenaries. When they had passed Andal gave a small huff and crawled out from under the shelf. "The Illios have taken to hiring sell-swords, there will be more patrols than normal. We must increase our pace." He broke into a light jog. Cartell looked back and yelled to Serena, "We established a checkpoint near the end of these foothills, a place we can rest for the night, we also roped several horses there."
Serena’s heart began to beat faster and she had to pause a moment to catch her breath. “Alive!” Her hands shook a little, so she clasped them together. “Perhaps one day I will be fated to meet them…” she said more to herself. “Wherever they are, I hope that they live in peace.” Carry the wishes on my heart little birds, she thought with fierce intent while watching birds scatter in the trees behind them and fly away in a dark cloud of feathers against the sky.
Her boots were well made enough to travel, not having the thin soles meant to be worn with fancy gowns, but heartier. She made her way down the rocky hills daintily but swiftly, her breath matching her pace. Hearing the horses, she turned her head towards the sound, only becoming worried at Andal’s voice. She scrabbled behind one of the boulders and squatted, her shoulder pressing against it, and controlled her breathing to sound in only faint vapors. Her cheeks were red from the sensing of the situation, and was wired to flee if Andal so called for it. She had dared not take a glimpse of them as they had passed. But when Andal moved she slowly rose to her feet, bracing her hands against the stone as she looked about. Illios’ soldiers! If they had come that close, she… placed a hand on her chest… could be found and captured, and her friends put to the death.
She completely agreed that a swift pace was completely necessary. Pale, she fell into step behind Andal and Cartell, her eyes moving to his face as he spoke. Rest sounded like a very good idea. And horses, certainly better. But here came another complication, she had not been taught to ride! She decided to keep that fact to herself for now…
The sun was high in the sky, they had been at a jogging pace for hours with short breaks. The weather had turned cold, a cold front blowing in from the north. The wind had descended and blew harshly through the valleys and crags of the foothills. Andal had lead them to a small patch of forest. "We're hidden here." He said as he motioned for the others to drop their packs. "We'll rest here for a while. We're making good time, we should reach the checkpoint before sundown." He didn't seem winded at all, and walked off to patrol the edge of the forest.
Cartell slung his pack down and collapsed against a tree, drinking from a canteen. Eyan walked a short distance from them and did the same, sharpening a short sword from his belt. Cartell finished his drink and looked up at Serena, laughing, "I'm impressed, no ordinary lady could keep up with us." Eyan gave a booming laugh from his place, "Aye, she is a true westerner!"
The sun in the sky had warmed them, and at the pace they were going, Serena broke out into a light sweat, which she wiped from her forehead with the back of her hand. But as the weather became cooler with the cold wind coming from the north, the sweat cooled and she shivered uncomfortably. At least their jogging kept the blood pumping.
Upon reaching the small patch of forest, and allowed to rest, she sat down, rubbing at her legs which felt cramped, and stretching her arms out to get the muscles to relax. She drew her knees to her chest, huddling to try to stay warm, and shivered despite her best attempts. She smiled at Cartell, thanking him when he offered her a canteen to take a drink. She beamed at him, feeling quite flattered. “It was a brisk pace, to be sure. Mind you, I did have to walk up and down countless stairs, no better than a servant. I carried sacks of potatoes, buckets of water, and the like…”
Cartell nodded slowly, "Well, as you see it was not wasted effort." He smiled, trying to make the best of it. Cartell let his head fall against the tree and he closed his eyes, sometimes sneaking a peek at Serena. Ten minutes passed then the sound of an alarmed shout rang through their small resting place. Cartell and Eyan jumped up, looking all around. Cartell looked to Eyan, "It sounded like Andal!" From the boughs of the trees above them a bolt flew down and struck Cartell, piercing his leather between his neck and shoulder. He cried out with alarm and dove behind a tree. There was the sound of several voices yelling in unison as several men and women leapt down from the trees above them. They were dressed in furs and crude leather, wielding worn and rusted weapons. One of them charged for Serena, his spear moments from striking her when Eyan stepped out and split the man from shoulder to waist. A woman dual wielding a crude axe and dagger met Eyan and they began to fight. Cartell scrambled to his feet as two bandits converged on him. One charged in with a broad sword, swinging downward towards Cartell's skull. Cartell raised his blade and met the blow, then driving his foot forward and booted the man in the chest, making him stumble backwards onto his back. The other wielded an enormous two-handed axe and swung it about as if it was a stick. Cartell dove back and forth dodging the blows but not gaining a chance to strike, his wound taking its toll by the pained look on his face. Eyan was also suddenly harried by a second attacker, but he held his own. A sound of distant fighting could also be heard from somewhere around them amid the screams.
Serena lowered her eyes demurely, wishing that she could meet those eyes. So a blush touched her cheeks and she kept a small smile on her face, meekly peeking out once in a while, trying not to stare at him but of everything else. At the sound of the alarm she scrambled to her feet, looking around for the source. She heard the whizzing sound of the arrow as it struck Cartell. She let out a shriek, her eyes widening. She wanted to go to him to help and she began to go that way, dodging the struggles. She bent to draw Cartell’s gift from her boot, and wielded it for she had nothing else. She skirted around as they struggled with one another, hooking back her arm as the enemy was occupid and stabbing it into his back then drawing away quickly. Red blood dripped down and she made ready to strike again.