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About Varied / Hobbyist Andre van StadenMale/United Kingdom Recent Activity
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Looking behind her, the city spread out below them. She hadn’t realised it could look so small. All the houses and shops were like toys, the roads like dark straw scattered about. She could just about pick out the palace, but the early morning fog and haze hid it from view. Eventually she lost sight of the city. They stopped for lunch not long after, finding food in the saddlebags, rations of bread and meats to last a week each. They tied the horses up, leaving them saddled and burdened. To Narael it seemed cruel, and she tied her stupid mare beneath a tree where grass grew lush and green.
As she sat down to eat, she was reluctant to break the silence, perhaps fearful that the sisters would tell her it’s time to part ways. They were outside the city afterall. Despite her earlier mistrust, she was reluctant to leave the pair. Narael sat mechanically chewing her food, staring blankly at nothing. Anya and Katya let her be. Something had changed, something had happened when the soldiers had attacked.
Maybe she was just imagining it, she was half convinced she was but the world had changed. Seeing that fire, that frozen instant that collapsed in on her so hard she fell. She closed her eyes and forced the thought away. That had been one of the sisters helping her. Good Reflexes Anya had said. It didn’t ring true, not of her. Sure, she could climb and run and do many things ladies shouldn’t, but she had never been acrobatic or graceful.
Katya knelt in front of her with a canteen and a clean cloth. “Now why didn’t you say anything? Foolish child.” She said as she wet the cloth and reached out to take Narael’s chin. Tilting the girl’s head, she dabbed at her brow and cheek, and Narael was startled to see blood on the cloth. She hadn’t noticed cutting herself. How can you not notice hurting yourself? As Katya dabbed away however, she became aware of the sting above her eyebrow. It was probably from when she had rolled and laid out after being thrown. “I didn’t realise. I must look a state.” Katya nodded “You do at that, but it’s ok. We’ll get you cleaned up a bit and be on our way. Got a ways to go yet. Nothing broken?” The words hit Narael with a wave of relief as she shook her head.
There was no stream or spring nearby, according to Anya, so they made use of their water stores to soak the cloth and clean the muck from their faces before they headed out. Katya was careful cleaning the blood from her face, and put something on the wound that dulled the ache a bit. Narael was thankful for the care, but found it odd; it was awkward and embarrassing to have someone fuss over her. “Time to leave.” Anya said when it was over.
A strange look crossed Katya’s face at that, and Narael couldn’t figure it out. Sympathy? Sadness? What was it? Katya stood up and nodded as Anya went to get her horse. Narael started to panic then; it had sounded so final. Time to leave. Had that been a command? Anya telling her to leave? The panic and fear grew. Getting left behind in the woods, in the middle of nowhere without a clue where she was.
With each step Katya took, the panic and fear grew. When she was halfway to her horse, the panic overflowed, pouring out of the former princess and freezing the world in it’s tracks. That half step took forever, as Narael jumped and ran to Katya, grabbing her in a tight embrace before she realised what she was doing. The moment collapsed back in on itself as the foot fell and Katya rocked under the impact. Narael let go as she realised what she had done, leaping back as if Katya had burned her. She felt the blood drain from her face as it ran cold. “I’m sorry, I..” she looked down.
Katya stepped up to the princess and laid a hand on her shoulder “It’s ok. We’re not leaving you behind.” Anya approached, leading the horses. “Narael. Do not fear. You can come with us for as long as you like. Tell us when you want to leave, and we’ll send you on our way with directions and our best wishes.” Narael nodded, refusing to look up. “You promise not to leave?” She felt small; felt the heat of embarrassment flush through her body as she said it. She sounded like a child!
Katya gently hugged her. “I promise. I’ll take you with me as long as you want me to.” Anya shot her sister a look, but said nothing as she held out her sisters reins. “What’s going to happen to me?” she asked, her voice muffled as she buried her face in Katya’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine” a hand on her hair, running down it’s length. Narael couldn’t face it. “I thought it was you. When I fell off the horse, I thought you did something.” She could feel Katya shake her head gently as the hand on her head stroked her and pulled her into a tighter hug. “No dear, that was all you. You don’t need to worry about that just now, ok? We’ll talk about it when we stop to camp. I’m sure you have all sorts of questions.” Narael broke the embrace, stepping back so Katya released her. It had felt good, but she still found it embarrassing.
As she went to fetch her own mount, Katya took the reins and mounted. Anya stared after the girl as she took to her mount and rode to join them. She led the way this time, and Narael followed silently as they headed through the trees. She was too tired, too emotionally drained to think of anything beyond staying in the saddle. The rest for lunch had been no rest at all.
The princess trusted her horse to pick her way through the trees and closed her eyes and breathing deep. She ended up yawning, and realised just how tired she was, now that she wasn’t in immediate danger anymore. Her horse tried to sidestep, but it was a halfhearted effort at best, and she unconsciously patted and smoothed its neck as she gave a slight tug on the reins. The soft afternoon light felt good and warm when its dappling rays hit her face. The air was a bit chilly, but the leathers kept her warm.
Katya rode up beside her as they climbed and the trees thinned out. They rode side by side in silence for a while, and Narael caught Katya looking at her sideways as they did. She didn’t say anything though, and Narael had too many questions boiling up that she dared not speak, for they might all spill out at once and make her look a greater fool than she already did. Eventually, Katya began to speak, identifying trees, plants and flowers as they passed them, and explaining their uses; this plant was edible, this one poisonous. This one had medical uses, that one tasted good when roast with venison. Narael let the voice wash over her, amazed that anyone would know these types of things. Logically, it made sense that someone would preserve and use that knowledge, but Narael had barely ever set foot outside the palace, let alone the city.
Listening to the woman talk about using tree bark as makeshift rope or to soothe headaches, Narael realised just how much she didn’t know about surviving outside the city, away from the claustrophobic prison she had been stagnating in before. It was a sobering experience, realising just how much she had never even considered. And having Katya explaining things, handing her leaves to look at, or pointing out flowers and telling her the properties of their roots was nothing at all like reading from a book.
She probed, with questions of her own; how would you prepare this leaf for use, how many flowers would be needed to cure nausea, why the root and not the leaf. Eventually they rode free of the trees into sparsely wooded fields and rolling hills. Mountain peaks rose in the distance, hazy and blue. The afternoon sun bathed the hills in golden light, and clouds skudded across the blue sky as they rode on. “How do you know so much about the plants, Miss Katya?” The lady shook her head “You don’t need to be so formal with me, Narael. Formality makes for tiresome conversation. As for your question, it comes from long practice and a long life.”
Narael studied the older woman as she rode. She seemed far more comfortable out here in the wilds than she had at any point in the city. “Formality lets everyone know their place and helps them keep it.” she shot back. “That’s what the king used to say anyway.” She looked away, studying the hills. “And you’re really going to take that man’s words to heart?” The princess shrugged “To be honest, I’d much rather forget that he exists. God, he’s going to kill me. He’s going to send an army to drag me back to him and he’ll have me executed.” She shivered at the thought; she had been trying to block it out, to ignore the possibility, but it wasn’t possible. “He’s welcome to try.” Katya said. “The soldiers won’t even find us, and if by some chance they do, well... “ she left the rest unspoken.
“Not that I’m not grateful for the help, but why are you risking yourself so? Why help me?” Katya considered this for a moment. “I suppose you impressed me during your court appearance this morning. You do remind me of myself when I was younger. You have a lot of fight in you.” Usually, accepting praise came naturally to the young woman, and she took it as her due. To hear Katya say something like that though… it made her uncomfortable, as if she didn’t deserve it. She pushed her discomfort aside as best she could.
“Mistress, how old are you? You speak as if your youth is long past. You don’t look too old, I’d say you have maybe five years more than me?” Katya laughed. “Well, how old are you?” Narael shifted in her saddle. Everything from her waist down ached. “I’ve thirteen summers, Mistress.”
Katya gaped at the young girl riding beside her. Knowing the girl was that young made the events that night even more incredible.. “Gods in all places. I’d thought you sixteen and small. You’re mature, for your age. No, I’m not eighteen. I’ve far more years than there have been since the librarian’s grandfather was young.” It was Narael’s turn to gape at the woman beside her. “How?” was all she could manage to say. “What I am, what you seem to have stumbled the first step to becoming… We live long lives, Narael. If we don’t die in battle or by murder, we live for centuries. To be honest, I’m not even certain that I can die, but that’s neither here nor there.”
Narael’s blood ran cold; she had thought to be on common footing with the rest of the world, and now she found herself one stumbled step above almost everyone. Different. It was a difficult thing to contemplate, made worse by Katya’s revelation. “What is it like, to live that long?” That was it. No questions about what they were, what she was, how it was possible. The girl was astounding, different in the way she thought from almost anyone Katya had ever known. “It is hard, and painful, and rewarding in many ways. I am lucky in that I have a family who have stayed by me all my life. Most I know aren’t so lucky.” Narael contemplated the answer.
She had never had much use for family. She hated her father, her elder brother; she even hated Kin a lot of the time, as dear as he was to her. She had loved her mother, but that had ended. She had loved her uncle, in a way, but he had been killed. That left servants and sycophantic lords and ladies eager for position near the throne, foreign dignitaries, though they were rare. Few could stomach dealing with her father for long.
It was strange to imagine such a thing as a family that loved and stuck together. She couldn’t even think of anyone she considered a friend. The nobles daughters were bores obsessed with boys and clothes and fashion, always polite and including with her but bitchy about others and behind their backs, always infighting for prestige and trying to worm their way closer to her. She couldn’t stand them. The boys were not much better. Some of them were as bad as her brother; she had heard the rumors and seen the crying maids during their visits. The servants kept their distance, though she believed a few loved her dearly. There was always that distance though, and eventually they left too. Even with Emi, there had been a distance. She had been closer than most, but still. “That is a lovely thing, I think. I would not know what it’s like, I’m afraid. Royalty are not much for family.”
Katya sighed. “I’m afraid, Princess, and I mean no offense, that most Royalty are not much for anything. Fancy balls and hollow lives surrounded by sycophants, murderers, thieves and traitors. There is very little that is noble about the nobility. It’s the same everywhere. Then there’s the fact that they chain themselves to duty and the demands of power as surely as they chain their subjects to their will. And they don’t realise, most of them, that they have no true power anyway. If the army refused their commands, the guard ignored them, the nobles did what they want and the peasants spat on them, they would be beggars in the street. All their power is granted by other men acknowledging the crown’s superiority and rule over them. If that breaks, what is left? It’s ridiculous.” Katya flushed. “Sorry, I was ranting. I just don’t like men ruling over other men and keeping them in the dirt. Freedom is the natural state of all mankind. And that includes women.” There was a half smile attached to that. It was amazing what a change that made to her face. “I had never thought of any of that. It begs the question… why do people accept it? I never wanted to be royalty. I’d rather have been happy.” She stared at Anya’s back as she thought about it. “They don’t always accept it, you know? I’ve seen it again and again. Sometimes all it takes is a little push, that one weight on their back that they cannot bear before they rise up and then things get messy. It happened in the country I was born in, in a neighboring country much later, and again in a country that my own nation controlled, which lead to the founding of a new nation that valued freedom more than their lives. Eventually it might happen here. It might have, had your elder brother sat the throne. If the nobles didn’t kill him first.”
Narael saw her brothers face; that moment of pain and panic as she slid the blade in; the moment the light left his eyes. It made her want to retch, to scrub at her hands. It also gave her a vague sense of satisfaction which worried her. “Where did you come from?” she asked, trying to distract herself. “A place you’ve never heard of, and no one from this land has ever been.” was the reply. Katya sounded like she didn’t want to discuss it. “I’m sorry, princess. It’s a bit of a painful topic for us. We’ve been gone so long and we don’t know how things are going. There was a war starting when we were forced to leave.” Narael dropped her gaze. “I’m sorry, Mistress. I wasn’t aware.”
Katya looked over at her again. “It’s alright, you couldn’t have known. Why are you calling me ‘Mistress’ all the time?” Narael blushed and stammered “I I’m sorry. Is lady more appropriate? It’s just you don’t seem like any nobles I know, or any of the servants for that matter, and I’ve no idea how to properly address a sorceress.” She stared fixedly at Anya’s back. “Honestly. I tell you not to be so formal, and you get even worse. Just Katya is fine. And I’m not a sorceress. I’m a Mage.” Narael shifted in her seat again “It’s just not proper, for a princess to address someone like that.” It did make her uncomfortable. She had forgotten herself during the escape, but still. “You’re not a princess anymore, as you’ve said yourself. If it makes you uncomfortable, then you can keep using Mistress.” She nodded. “I’m sorry. It’s just habit.”
Narael got lost in her own thoughts, trying to come to terms with everything that had happened. The light started to fail, and she fell asleep in the saddle. “Anya, we’ve got to find a place to camp. Our young friend is starting to fall asleep.” She jerked awake at Katya’s voice. “Up ahead, perhaps half a mile.” Anya replied. In the back of Narael’s tired, fuzzy brain, it registered that Anya had just spoken for the first time since lunch.
Narael couldn’t remember reaching the camp site, or laying out a bed roll, or pitching the tent… She had been woken by voices, and the smell of cooking food, and lay still in a low tent.
There was Katya, and Anya speaking, and a third voice, male. “So, how was your trip to the City… productive?” that was the man. He had the same accent as the sisters tied up in a strong, clear tenor. “In one way, yes. In the way we were hoping? No. There’s nothing there, Marcus. The librarian did suggest visiting the library at the collegiate but that was about it.” Katya sounded annoyed, probably at not finding what she was looking for. She had called the man Marcus. So she had a name to go with the voice now.“Where are the others?” Anya asked softly. Narael had to close her eyes and strain to catch what she said over the crackle of the fire. “The old man is still up north. Sparrowhawk went west and Swallow flew east to the city. She said she felt something interesting this morning and took off before I could say anything. Tristan is buying supplies and will be back in the morning. I see you brought a red kite to our flock.” Katya laughed, and Anya had a chuckle. “She’s more of a Peregrine.” Marcus sounded intrigued when he replied “Oh? Do tell.”
Then Katya’s voice lit up, and Narael could imagine her animation as she spoke. “She’s incredible! The girl had planned her own escape from the palace, gotten hold of equipment, knew how to spike doors and could move with passable stealth. She kept calm the entire time, even when she stuck her brother. And she’s like you.” That last part had some weight to it, a meaning Narael couldn’t guess at. “Colour me impressed. What do you mean she’s like me though?” He didn’t sound very impressed. “She can blur like you do. I don’t know the mechanism, we’ve not discussed it at all, but the effect is similar.” There was silence then. “Was she already awakened when you found her? Or did it happen during the escape?” he asked. “During the escape, near dawn. We’d run into some soldiers, and the horse threw her. In mid air she balls up and blurs twenty feet away.” Silence again; just the crackle of the fire, a sigh, the scuff of a shoe on the ground. “So what do you want to do with the girl?” he asked heavily. Narael stopped breathing. “I don’t know. Take her with us. I promised I’d take her with me if she’d come. She’s too promising to abandon, Marcus.” There was no pleading in Katya’s voice, just statement of fact as she saw it. “And drag her into our kind of life? It’s not right and it’s not fair on her. She has no idea, Katya.” Katya snapped back “And it’s not right to just leave her! To what? If she gets caught by her father, she’ll be executed. And if she isn’t? She can’t use her name, no one will give her sanctuary. She’d be a thief, a beggar or a whore within six months if she lived past her first.” She heard someone shifting in their seat. “So what? You’ll take her as an apprentice, ask her to come with us and leave everything she’s ever known behind, adopt her as a daughter?” He asked, his voice light and even. “Yes, if that’s what it takes. She’s already left everything she ever knew. What’s wrong with giving her something to replace it?” Narael could feel tears threatening to flow, and she didn’t know why.
Adoption? She didn’t know how she felt about that, about any of it, but she was at her limit and the thought of it was enough to tip the balance. “We could set her up at Verne’s.” Katya snorted. “The man is a lech. She’d kill him within a month.” Marcus coughed “And you’re sure we want to bring someone who kills so easy into the fold and teach her?” Katya sighed. “I don’t think she kills easy, Marcus. Her brother… she really wanted that one dead, and I could see why. Whatever she’s done, she’s just a frightened, scared little girl. She’s alone and has been for a long time, and she needs someone. I can’t leave her.” Marcus was silent then, as Anya spoke up. “For what it’s worth, I agree with Katya. I like the girl, she’s capable and smart. And she’s awakened… we can’t just leave her here. How many others have we met since we’ve been here?” Narael was surprised at that. Anya had been so quiet and distant since they’d met, she thought the woman didn’t much care for her.
Marcus relented “Ok, ok. Do as you will. I’m just not sure it’s wise to get your hopes up. For all you know, my presence may be enough to send her running. From all you’ve shared it doesn’t sound like she has any love of men.” She could practically hear Katya thinking about it. “I’m not sure, certainly she hasn’t had much reason to be fond of them. She did mention an uncle in a kindly fashion, but generally her talk of them has been negative. You know she wants to learn swordplay?” Narael felt awkward and guilty, listening to them talk about her, but didn’t really want to get up or interrupt. “Really? That’s unusual. Most ladies I’ve conversed with in the last few years would faint dead away at the thought.” Katya huffed indignantly. “And what, we don’t count?” Marcus laughed. “I said ladies, didn’t I?” he said jokingly. Narael heard a thud, and Marcus laughed again. It wasn’t an unpleasant sound.
There was a break in the conversation then, and the sound of someone moving around the camp took over for a while, until Marcus announced “Birds are done. Venison isn’t far behind. Gonna wake the girl, mama bear?” Someone blew a raspberry and Narael buried her face in her blankets as Katya crawled into the tent and lay down beside her. A hand brushed the hair away from her face, and she stirred, tickled by the brief contact. Katya shook her shoulder and called her name softly, she opened her eyes. “Come get some food, Narael. You must be starving.” She was, but she was reluctant to face the newcomer.
She buried her face in the blankets again. Katya stroked her hair as she lay there, reluctant to move. “Did we wake you, with our talk?” she asked, her voice soft and steady. Narael nodded. “And how much did you hear?” The question came, and Narael was not sure how to answer. “A.. a bit. Are you angry?” Katya shook her head. “Would you really take me with you?” She wanted to ask something else, but couldn’t bring herself to. “If you want to come with us, then yes, I’d like to. It’s not an easy life we lead though.” Narael shrugged “I don’t think any life I could lead from this point would be easy. You’re right, you know. I’d considered going to the collegiate, but that was just an idea. I don’t think I’m able to survive on my own. I think I would die, and quickly. At least I would have gotten away from that place before I did.” Katya continued stroking her hair, smooth and even touches from crown to shoulder. “I don’t know about that. Maybe you could have found a way to live.” Narael closed her eyes and shook her head. “No. I think I would have died. I think I already have.” she said. She turned over, putting her back to Katya and hiding her tears. “I thought… if I got out, I would be alright. I thought it wouldn’t bother me, but it does. I close my eyes and I see his face, the blood on my hand. I murdered him, and I left everything I was behind. I’m not a… a princess any m-more, and if I’m not that then what am I? Who am I?” Her voice shook, and she couldn’t stop herself. An arm snaked around her chest and pulled her close. “You can be whatever you want.” The woman at her back said, low and comforting. “And as for who you are. Well you’ve been so defined by what you were, that I don’t think you’ve found out who you are yet. Wouldn’t you like to find out who you can be?”
Narael considered it, tried to use her curiosity to drown her fears; it didn’t really work. All she could do was breathe and try to relax into the embrace. It was strange, how such a small thing comforted her; instead of feeling awkward or put out, it was comforting. “It doesn’t sound as if this Marcus is too happy about my presence.” She said, changing the subject; trying to distract herself. “Oh, he’ll grump and grouse, but he won’t deny you. You don’t need to worry about him.”
Narael wasn’t sure about that. Men always tried to get things their way, it was just the way things were. “Everything aches and I’m hungry and I can’t move.” Katya squeezed her tighter “I’m sorry. Anya and I, we’ve been using our abilities stop hurting. Unfortunately, healing others is not something I’m too good at. I can try help you, but it’ll be a temporary relief at best.” Anything would be better than nothing, Narael thought as a glowing warmth spread through her muscles. She sighed as she relaxed into the warmth; it spread and it lingered, and where it remained the ache vanished. “Better?” Katya asked; Narael nodded enthusiastically. “Do you want me to bring you something to eat?” She shook her head. “No, I’ll go out. I need the latrine.” Narael flushed as she said that… she’d have to… have to. She gave up and buried her face in the woolen blanket, overcome by embarrassment. “Ah. Right. Unfortunately I can’t magic that away. There’s a trench been dug a bit to the left of the tent, you can use that. And we have paper for wiping I’ll give you, and a stream runs nearby so you can wash up.” Katya sounded somewhat embarrassed herself; perhaps it was only for her sake, Narael didn’t know. “Come along then. I’ll get you a plate while you do your business.” Katya moved, letting go of the former princess, and Narael found she regretted the end of that contact.
Somehow, and she couldn’t fathom why, being close to the older woman made her feel safe. When that contact was broken all her fear and anger and sadness and panic crashed in on her and threatened to shut her down; reduce her to a blubbering quivering wreck. She firmly shoved her emotions aside as she had during her flight; she barely shifted them enough to allow her to move.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asked as Katya sat up and started to scoot to the exit. “Only an hour. Enough time to get camp set and a meal cooked.” Narael shifted onto her back and sat up, throwing off the blankets. The inside of the tent was bleached white cotton with an attached groundsheet of material she couldn’t identify. It was spacious enough that she was sure several people could sleep comfortably if they didn’t mind getting close. She had given no thought to food and shelter during her flight. If she’d been able to take her horse, she could possibly arranged for a tent and more supplies. But circumstances had dictated she flee on foot. She shuffled out of the tent, red faced, red eyed from crying, her hair a tangled mess from sleep. Katya handed her a roll of soft white paper which she took without a word, and she set off to the latrine trench without looking up.
When she returned, she found the sisters and the man they had called Marcus sitting around a lively fire. The smell of food and smoke wafted on the light breeze, and the leaves of the trees rustled as it played amongst the branches. There was a spit over the fire, with four small fowl roasting on it, a pot of vegetables hung from it, and the birds’ juices dripped into the pot as they cooked; to the side of the fire sat an iron skillet with cuts of venison and sausages. Marcus sat back on his elbows, side on to the fire with his long legs spread before him. Narael watched him closely as she walked over to Katya, who was fussing at the fireside preparing a platter for her. If he stood up, he would be tall. Taller than her uncle, or Captain Esran who ran the guard. He was broad shouldered, and even reclining as he was, he cast an imposing presence across the camp site. His clothes though… she had never seen such dress before; an unadorned but well made deerhide coat hung loose across his chest, revealing a dark green shirt of strange cut; loose soft hide britches covered his legs from rump to thin soled leather boots that run up his legs under the britches. His hair was long, the deep brown of good earth, clean as if he had washed that day, and strung through with feathers familiar and strange. A two day growth of beard dusted his cheeks, giving a disreputable cast to his otherwise handsome face. Handsome? Narael’s face burned.
Marcus sipped from a waterskin, and watched her just as closely. The attention made her want to shy away, so she stared intently and challenged his gaze as she sat on the ground to the left of the woman who had dragged her into this situation. It was Anya who broke the silence, as Katya passed her the platter and sat back. “Princess, may I have the pleasure of introducing Marcus Stewart. Teacher, brother, saviour and friend. Marcus, this is Princess Narael of Almir, daughter of King Nessam.” Marcus retained a neutral expression at this. “My apologies for the lapse, Princess, but I am comfortable and have no urge to bow. It is, however, a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” Narael thought him rude, to say such things, but she waved the comment away with as much grace as she could muster. “It’s no lapse, Master Stewart. Rather, I should not expect anyone to bow to me. I am no longer a princess, after all.” Marcus considered this, as Katya handed her a plate laden with strips of fowl, thin venison slices, sausages and vegetables and bread.
Narael felt her stomach rumble in it’s emptiness, begging to be filled; she obliged by falling on the food with ravenous abandon. “Well, you are still the daughter of a King, and you speak like one.” a pause. “You don’t eat like one though, I must say.” Narael blushed but continued her meal in the same manner. “My apologies for the lapse, Master Stewart. My appetite leaves no room for manners to interfere.” she said between bites.
Marcus laughed, a bubbling cascade of sound from deep in his belly. “Oh, don’t mind me. I’ve seen worse things… Either of these two on a bad morning is enough to make your current state look positively divine and graceful.” he said, indicating the sisters who glared at him. Narael allowed a small chuckle at this. They were obviously close, the three of them, for him to tease them so in such company. “I highly doubt that, Master Stewart.” she said softly as she finished her meal.
The chill of the night and the warmth of the fire warred across her skin as the warmth in her muscles fled and the ache began to return. The food sat warm in her stomach, and spread that warmth to her chest as her bone deep weariness hit her and she wilted in her seat. “Well then, not a princess, how would you prefer I address you?” Marcus asked. “Really, Marcus. The girl needs to rest and recuperate, not suffer the third degree.” Anya chided. Suffer the third degree. Narael had no idea what that meant, such an odd saying. “It’s quite alright. It’s a valid question, isn’t it?” Narael said, stifling a yawn. “Mistress Katya gave me a name, Navina. I don’t feel like Narael anymore, and it’s not a common name. Keeping it wouldn’t be wise, I think.” She felt herself leaning to one side as Katya caught her by the shoulder and offered her support. “Right you are, and wise too. Names are labels we use to identify and define ourselves, and for others to identify us by. Sometimes we outgrow them. A new name for a new life is not a bad thing, but it won’t make you a wholly new person. So, little peregrine, Navina or Narael, it is up to you which name you take and who you choose to be. Just don’t be in such a hurry to leave who you were behind, or you may lose something valuable.” Narael scoffed at that, despite the kindly tone and the weight of the words, she couldn’t accept it entirely “And what would you know about me, Master Stewart, to think there is anything of value I might leave behind? The only value I’ve ever had is as a broodmare and a bargaining chip for my fathers ambitions.” Marcus sighed and shook his head sadly. “You’ve missed the point entirely, little peregrine.” Narael scowled “What’s a Peregrine?”.
Marcus poked at the coals and added wood to the small fire as it burned down before he answered. “It’s a type of falcon, native to our homeland. It’s a small bird, and very fast when it dives on it’s prey.” He reached into his hair and removed a feather. Narael took it as he handed it over, twirling it in her fingers. It wasn’t too long, just over four inches, mainly black in the firelight, though there were white bars along the trailing edge, perpendicular to the stem. She started to hand it back, but Marcus waved her off. “You can keep that one, fix it in your hair. Consider it a welcome gift.”
The feather had a leather wrap about it’s base, and she considered tying it in, but didn’t want it to get bent when she bedded down, not to mention what the tie might do to her hair while she slept. “How far did we ride?” she asked, twirling the feather between her fingers. “About forty miles. We’re in the Galin Hills.” Narael hadn’t thought they’d made it that far. The more she thought about it, the more she realised it didn’t matter where they were, there wasn’t any escape from people like these. They had said that they would let her go; what if they were being honest? Did she even want to leave?
Narael put it out of her mind; she didn’t want to think about it. “I can’t imagine what bird this might have come from.” she mumbled, staring at the feather. She couldn’t see it in her head, tired as she was. She hadn’t expected Marcus to hear her, and was surprised when he replied “Would you like to see it? The bird I mean.” All the magic and abilities… everything that had happened so far had been so strange, Narael was forced to wonder what a little more strangeness could hurt. “How?” she asked. Best to find out before it started. Marcus smiled.  “Pass the feather back for a moment.” She felt a tug on it and let it go in her mute surprise. It floated through the air, tumbling as if caught by a breeze, returning to his hand. Katya rolled her eyes “He’s going to show off again. He does this, you get used to it.” Marcus gave a half smile and continued, unabashed. “See, peregrine, there is a vast distinction between an illusion--” The air started to warp above the feather “and reality.” The firelight bent and scattered through an indistinct form. Marcus held the feather in front of him, parallel to the ground. Around it, the light scattered into haze, reflecting off the warped air and resolving. A bird, and not a small one as Marcus had said, slowly formed in the firelight.
Narael thought it a vision brought on by exhaustion; she knew though… what she was seeing was his doing. She could make out a sharp beak, forward facing eyes set in a small head, the curve of the wing as it tucked into it’s back, and a vague white breast. “See, peregrine. This is what you are.” he continued, his voice soft and melodic. “There is a very fine line, between something seen and something that exists. Our perception of space and time is bound by our senses. If you can sense something, does it really exist? There are no true colours, as our perceptions of light and sound are illusions fabricated by our brains.” His voice seemed to seep into her bones as the bird continued to form; the breast was light with spots of black, as was the underside of the wing. The back and head were dark, as was the beak and the cheeks. Light feathers marked the chin and the breast and swept up the neck, almost cream but with a ruddy tinge to it. It was like no bird she had ever seen. “Everything is information. And if you can read that information, you can recreate it’s existence in the five senses.” She couldn’t tear her eyes away. “And if you can sense it, and know it’s nature, you can become it.” He grew indistinct, fuzzing around the edges. “What--” Narael began; she lapsed into silence as his details started to blur. “Showoff. Go find your daughter.” Katya said.
Narael stared as the bird began to move. It seemed more solid, more alive than it had. As it began to move, she realised Marcus had gone, and all that was left was the bird. Gone was the feather, and the leather tie. It stood, on the ground by the fire, and stretched its wings before taking off with a leap and a flurry of feathers. She sat in confused silence.
“Sorry, Narael. He’s very worried.” Narael stared blankly at Anya as she said it. “I’ve never, in my life, seen anything like that. Can you do it?” she asked as she came out of her daze. The fire was warm, there was food in her stomach, and she was far away from everything. None of the things Marcus had said had made any sense to her, but the words had resonated within her in a strange way. Anya nodded her response, staying silent on the matter.
Narael fell asleep, leaning against Katya. Anya watched the scene in silence, helping herself to her own meal of fowl and venison. She didn’t know what to make of the slight princess, and hearing that she was only thirteen? The girl was slightly scary. What had happened to this girl to forge her into such a person? She was capable, certainly, and tough though perhaps not as tough as she had thought. She had killed the crown prince without hesitation, apparently. And yet she was small, and vulnerable, naive; her plans in no way matched her stature or her ability to carry them out. Her sister’s soft heart surprised her, and yet she had expected it. Anya privately thought that the bond was affecting them all too deeply, but nothing bad had come of it so far. There was nothing to be done about it anyway.
Katya lifted the girl and carried her through to the tent. She lay the girl down on the bedroll, and covered her in blankets. It had been a risk, working with the girl’s memory like that. If she hadn’t removed the blood from her hands, both physically and the memory of it, the girl might have broken permanently. With the girl’s potential, using magic on her so directly required a delicate touch. Even so, it had probably contributed to the girl’s awakening. The problem Katya thought is what to do now. She retreated from the tent some minutes later, still uncertain of the answer.
She had nightmares that night. Half remembered flashes of red water, her brothers face, interspersing dreams of a black barred bird above a forest. When she awoke, she found herself bathed in blue light filtering through the strange outer material of the tent. She lay still, eyes unseeing as she contemplated her situation. She had taken off the byrnie at some point during the night, though she couldn’t remember doing so. Become someone else. The words came to her unbidden. Why not? What if Princess Narael Sanven of Almir had fallen from her horse and perished during the escape? She knew she had fallen from the horse. And something had changed in that instant. She had changed, the world had changed, she didn’t know which. If she thought about it, she herself had walked away from her place in the world. She had stumbled her way into something that was utterly insane. Magic? what else could it be. She could sense the change within herself, and what had Marcus said? If you can know it’s nature, you could become it? She didn’t know what had changed, what she was becoming. She was not Narael anymore. Who would she like to be? She saw it then, a girl who had once been Narael. She had a fine sword on her hip, a feather in her red hair, and rode a stupid skittish horse. She wasn’t refined, and was at comfort in the wilds of the world. She would do well as a caravan guard, and hold her own in a fight, but there was a lot more to her than that. The image attracted her, and she considered the possibility of becoming this girl. What would she have to do? I’ll have to be more than I am. That was the only answer. Voices rose outside the tent. “Where have you been?” Anya asked, her voice light. “Ah, I was on my way back, and dad came.” This was a new voice. Female, young, and very worried. “We decided to see what was happening in the city.” Anya sniffed. “Oh, so you went into the city.” Someone shuffled their feet. “No, I stayed high up. I didn’t go past the forest. Dad went in.” Anya sighed. “And? How is it?” a scuff and a sigh as someone sat down. “Oh man, it’s a mess. There’s soldiers and search parties all over the place. The place is on lockdown, but they’re well outside the walls. I saw messengers running all over the place. What the hell happened, Mistress?” Mistress. Who was this girl?
The former princess decided to move. She ached all over, and it wasn’t getting any better. “Where is Marcus anyway?” Anya asked as she left the tent. The other girl stared at her in shock. “What? Anya what is this? What happened?” Anya looked over at her, smiling in the morning light. “Ah, you’re up. Katya is away washing up.” Narael sat down by the fire pit and nervously smiled at the new girl. “Peregrine, this is Lore. Lore, this is the former princess Narael of Almir.” Lore goggled at her. “Oh. Oh wow. You stole a princess?” Anya frowned at that. “No, my sister did. And technically the girl stole herself, we just provided a little bit of assistance.” Lore laughed. “Oh that’s precious. I wish I’d been there to see that.” Anya turned a stern expression on the girl, whose eyes shied away from that gaze. “You were supposed to stay with your dad and practice.” Lore blushed. She was a pretty girl, dressed much the same as Marcus was, down to the feathers in her light brown hair. She had large eyes and full lips and a small chin. Narael thought she was beautiful, in a strange way quite different from either of the twins. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Narael.” Lore said, ignoring Anya’s chastisement. “The pleasure is mine. Marcus is your father?” She asked, struggling to think of anything to say. “Adoptive, yes.” Narael looked down. “Oh.” It made her think of what Marcus had said last night. That had stuck in her head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s better this way.” was all the girl said. They lapsed into an awkward silence.
Anya coughed, startling them both. “Did you practice?” she asked quietly. Lore nodded. “Yes, I did. It’s hard to grasp though, I think I may need to contemplate the exercise again. Mistress is this really the time?” Anya sighed “Perhaps not.” She joined them at the fire pit, and began stacking wood. As she added shavings, smoke began to curl upwards. Narael had not seen either of them light it. “So you’re what I felt earlier. Tell me, how much trouble did you cause?” Lore asked, relaxing by the fire. “Lore! Honestly, you’ve the tact of a warhammer.” Lore blushed and lowered her gaze. “I did cause a fair bit of trouble, didn’t I?” Narael asked. “It’s too late for second thoughts, Princess. There’s no going back” Anya said as she poked the fire with a stick. The fire began to spread to the wood, taking root as smoldering embers and small licks of flame. “Former princess.” she said absently. Anya was right. There was no going back. The possibility had died the moment her brother had.
As the fire collapsed in on itself, Katya walked into camp carrying plates, bowls and cutlery in the iron pot that had hung above the fire last night. It took Narael a second or two to realise it, but she was accompanied by a man leading a horse. “Narael! You’re up. That’s good.” Katya called as she walked in from the east. “Aunt Katya! You stole a princess?” Lore said, her voice incredulous. Katya grinned and the man behind her smiled, his eyes flicking to Narael. He had a sword on his hip and a spear on his back, and wore similar armour to Katya’s own. He was perhaps thirty, though he looked worn from his time outdoors. Narael flushed at his gaze and averted her eyes. He silently began unloading the horse, having reached what looked to be a small storage tent on the east side of the camp. “Princess, this is Tristan. He’s our surrogate uncle.” Narael nodded, but remained silent. They still called her Princess and she wished they would stop. “Tristan, this is Narael of Almir.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Narael” he said in a deep voice. He had the same strange accent as the others. “Please. Don’t call me that anymore” she said softly. “It’s a dangerous name, and the girl who bore it doesn’t exist anymore.” She felt the last of herself die then, now that she had admitted it. “And what would you like me to call you?” he asked, curious. “Navina. Call me Navina, or Peregrine, if you must.”
“Ah. So you made your choice.”
Navina nodded.
Narael Pt.4 - Navina.
So this is the final part that I'm going to share. For the moment at least. Read from the start: Narael pt.1

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    “Narael, can you hear me?” she didn’t want to talk. “Yes.” was all she could manage. “Are you well?” came the reply. “No”. She definitely wasn’t well. She had fainted; she never fainted… except she had. After the shock of that, it was perfectly understandable. But still, fainting? She opened her eyes, and found herself in a small drawing room, laid on a divan. Katya sat on a stool by the divan, holding her hand. Anya sat further back on a plush red chair. “I’m sorry, what happened?” you fainted you moron. “You must be exhausted, Narael. You fell asleep in my arms.” Katya said, a soft reassuring voice. “It has been rather an eventful night for you, though, so you can be forgiven.” Anya said, a happier counterpoint to Katya’s soothing worried tones. “Unfortunately, Princess, our business partner recognised you the instant we arrived, and has no wish to be identified. He is a gentleman of wealth and influence, you see. If you see him and get captured…” Narael turned pale at the thought, and found she could not blame him for his cowardice. “So our business with him has concluded, and we must be on our way once you’ve recovered.

    As Narael gathered her wits, Katya helped her sit up. A thought struck her then, somehow sticking there back in the fuzzy part of her brain: what drove women like these sisters? People with such abilties, what possible motivation or loyalties could they have? If I live to be a hundred. I’ll never be able to understand these two. “How long have I been out?” Katya answered  “About five minutes.” She was relieved it hadn’t been that long. Anything could have happened while she slept. “I’m coming together slowly, I’ll be alright Katya.” The dark haired little woman patted Narael’s hand.

    Narael marveled at the touch; not many people would so openly make physical contact with a princess. There was always a barrier. Even with her own family, there had been a barrier after her mother died. It was strange to her to feel anothers touch. Servants helped her dress, but the touches were shallow and fleeting. This was prolonged and spoke of care beyond what the princess expected. The cynical side of her wondered if the witch was weaving a spell.

    It was hard to forget what this woman was. Her hands, surprisingly were calloused, battered and worn, as if she took no care for them at all. “I can understand our hosts reticence, and if you do not vouch for him, I’m bound to question his cooperation in our escape. I know it may be rude, but that’s just how I am.” Anya smiled, briefly; it was as if her face was lit and then the shadow returned. “That’s practically a survival trait. You remind me of my sister in her younger years. Tough, capable, decisive, willful though you try to hide it from us. After all, for you, all of this has been a battle of wills. Our host is solid, he will not betray us. He may not assist us in any way shape or form, for himself and the staff on the grounds, we do not exist, we were never here.” Narael considered this; if this was true then these people had no loyalty to the kingdom. It was as if Anya could sense that. “They have a deep and abiding loyalty to you, specifically. They appreciate what was done at the castle. I’ve heard that your young brother is a much better choice for the throne.” That was it, in a few sentences, Narael had heard it all. Her sacrifice was appreciated, and now she had to run. “When do we leave?”

    Within the hour they were on their way, they received no food but refreshed themselves none the less. A brief washing of the face, discussing the specifics of the plan. Narael had objected strenuously, but was overruled. The sisters were practiced at escaping places they shouldn’t be. Now that it was time, she stood nervously in the courtyard. Katya eyed her sideways You’ll be fine, she sent Relax, princess. Narael looked about her. Former princess. It was getting easier and easier to send her thoughts that way.

    How are we doing this? Talking with our minds. Katya looked about her, ignoring the girls question. Narael wasn’t happy about that. Above the courtyard, past the wood, they could see the city wall rising against the night. There was clear ground near the wall, a no go zone so to speak. They couldn’t approach within a hundred feet without being seen. The estate was on the edge of the no go zone, but outside the city was within Anya’s range.

    This time Anya would send people one at a time, one horse at a time, until Narael was the last to come. It was something to do with ‘mass’ and ‘energy transport capacity’ being limited by distance. It sounded like something the old librarian would say. Narael decided to just trust that they knew what they were doing; this was a world she knew nothing about.

    Anya signalled to Katya with her hand, and Narael stood back, holding the horses and trying to breathe. They vanished from sight so quickly that Narael let out an involuntary yelp. It seemed forever, waiting for Anya to reappear. She began to fear that they left her, and checked to see she still held their horses in her burgeoning panic. Anya walked up to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Princess, breathe.” The hand stroked her back and Narael closed her eyes, trying to stop her shaking and breathe. “You’ll be fine.” Narael looked at Anya. Again, another person who wasn’t afraid to touch her. “Former Princess.” Anya smiled, a genuine heartfelt smile “As you say.”

    She took Narael’s horse first, and then the rest of them in rapid succession. Before long, Narael stood alone with Anya, who extended her hand. “Relax, Narael. Just take a deep breath and exhale when I tell you.” Narael nodded, trying to hold in her own panic. She took Anya’s hand and breathed as deep as she could. “Good. Now exhale all the way.” Narael forced the air from her lungs, and then the world stretched.

    Her lungs screamed for air, and she drew a shuddering breath. It was still horrific, but she survived it. Don’t make a sound. There are soldiers coming this way. Katya’s warning forced Narael to open her eyes. How? I swept the area. Anya did not sound pleased at this development. Not far enough. It’s an incoming patrol. Little late don’t you think? Anya scowled. You got a bead on them? she asked.

    Narael felt the words like a hammer to the chest. Soldiers, here. Yeah, but they’re in our way, between us and the forest. Anya’s scowl deepened. How many, dear sister? Anya asked as she retrieved her horse. Oh, there’s about 20 mounted soldiers.  Narael hurried to get her horse, broken out of her frozen shock. What game are you playing Katya? Anya asked frankly, looking annoyed. I made preparations for this. I spoke to the librarian before we left the castle, you know? I figure it would be best if the Princess disappear in a public fashion if we can. That way we can save the people in the town some hassle. Don’t give me that look sister, you know I’m right. Anya sighed and shook her head in exasperation. You’re going to be the death of me.

    Narael was not happy with this turn of events, even if she knew Katya was right. She had killed her brother; her father was not going to let that go. I don’t care what we do, as long as we get out of here. She sent as she mounted the skittish horse. The sisters followed and mounted up. Riding through a forest in the dark was never a good idea, but they had no choice if they wanted to get away from the soldiers. Dammit Katya! Anya sent, her presence like an angry stain spreading through the link. Not that I begrudge saving the girl, but this is not how we all agreed to work.

    Katya shrugged as she turned her horse round and set out. Narael followed her as she replied But it’s what we do, even still. You know it and you know The Rule. Sometimes you simply must. Narael didn’t get to see Anya’s reaction, but she knew none the less. You remember Losit, and Bahneer. Katya said. Anya didn’t say anything further.

    Narael had never heard of Losit or Bahneer. They didn’t sound like any language or names she knew. She stayed silent, despite her curiosity. Her fear was enough to silence any amount of curiosity. Twenty of the kings soldiers, patrolling outside the wall. Sure, they could turn into smoke or dust or whatever it was, but that was cold comfort. What if something happened.

    She shook her head, trying to concentrate on her surroundings instead of her fear. Katya picked up the pace to a trot, and branches began to swing past their heads faster and faster. Narael kept herself low on her horse, head level with it’s neck. It was an awkward way to ride, but she didn’t fancy a branch to the face and falling from her horse. She had no idea where they were, and no idea where they were going, and it irked her somewhat, but it was easy enough to forget in the face of her fear and her exhaustion. Despite the brief sleep, she was still beyond tired. She realised why when the false dawn light began to filter through the forest.

    As the sun broke the horizon, they broke through the trees into a clearing. As did the soldiers directly ahead of them. Narael panicked and sat straight up as the soldiers spotted them and gave a cry. She could hear it when the captain identified her. Stay calm. Anya sent to her. An arrow whistled past her horses head, however, and the skittish beast bucked and reared. Narael, unbalanced by the bucking, flew out of her saddle.

    Her panic took hold of her as she felt herself falling. She needed time to right herself, time to get to cover. Time to run and hide. Narael pulled herself into a ball as she landed and rolled twice before unfolding herself and scuttling back towards the trees. She used that motion to pick up her feet and ran before looking back.

    Everything was frozen. Her horse in mid rear, Katya stretching her hand out towards where she had been, and Anya… Anya was a blaze of light and slowly moving fire. The moment collapsed and Narael tripped over her own feet as blazing fire swept through the night in response to the arrows.

    Katya narrowed her eyes as she saw Narael twenty feet away. More arrows came through the night, but Katya waved her hand and they unravelled in mid flight, becoming harmless puffs of gas and dust. Then she too blazed with light as she melted off her horse and disappeared. No more arrows came, and she could hear the soldiers panicking in the distance. Her view was blocked by horse legs as Anya let her sister scatter the soldiers and approached, towing the stupid mare. You have good reflexes, to roll like that was all she said. Narael looked around self consciously.

    She was sure one of the sisters had helped her, but she couldn’t tell which one. She felt faint, and dizzy, and didn’t want to get back on the animal, but she had no choice. She just doesn’t know you yet. You can take my horse, but it’s best if she gets to know and trust you first. Narael snorted in response as she approached the horse, irritation, anger and confidence all projected in her step. I don’t trust the horse either, so the feeling is mutual. But she will learn who sits where. Anya sighed as Narael took the reins and mounted without further comment.

    She rubbed the beasts neck as it crab stepped, and reined it away more gently than before. Anya saw, but didn’t comment. Katya returned, unscathed and a grin on her face. She didn’t say what had happened, and neither of them pressed the issue. For her own part, Narael had no desire to know. And that is why I had to interfere. Katya said as she mounted. Anya nodded. Narael didn’t get it, had she just wanted to scare and kill soldiers? It wasn’t in keeping with what she knew of the lady, it didn’t add up. Katya circled her horse and lead the way.

Not much was said after they headed out in the early light. They heard no more soldiers, saw no one in the forests, and never saw the road. Narael just followed, unthinking and staring at Katya’s back. When she looked up, she was surprised to find the sun high overhead. Her stomach growled in protest at her neglect, but she didn’t say anything as she looked around. They had been heading steadily upwards for a while, she realised.
After Midnight by drevan
After Midnight
sunset after midnight on the Isle of Skye.

    Narael could barely believe her eyes. The two women were so similar, it was hard to tell them apart. Their dresses were the same, their hair was the same. “This little bundle of death and destruction is Princess Narael of Almir, daughter of the King and unwilling betrothed of Prince Liren of Saren. She’ll be our guest.”  “Ooh. Liren. That would be enough to make anyone run.” She sat down on the sofa opposite Katya. The contrast couldn’t have been more apparent. “Well then, Princess. My name is Anya and as you may have guessed, I’m her sister. Now, I’ll be needing to obtain another horse. Can you ride, Princess?” Katya sat up. “There’s no need. Dunstan is already making the arrangements. We’ll be getting visitors within the hour too. Right now, we need to decide what to do with her.” Both women turned to stare at the princess, still standing agape.

    Narael sat primly on a light blue settee, listening to the sisters argue. They had been at it for ten minutes solid and she didn’t even know what they were arguing about anymore, having lost the thread five minutes in. She’d had enough. “Enough. Look, you’ve been going at it for ages and you’re not getting anywhere. Meanwhile, my chances of leaving the city unassisted diminish by the minute. So if you’ll excuse me, I need to be making an exit or find a place to lay low.” She rose as she spoke, and moved to pick up her belongings. “Oh no dear, we will get you out the city. We’re trying to decide what happens after that. But I suppose it’s your choice.” Narael stopped dead in her tracks. She mulled over it for a moment before turning round. “Why help me? Political advantage? I don’t know anything about you two. I don’t know who you really are, or where you come from. I don’t know why you’re here or what you want.” What do you think? Katya asked. Well she seems functional, but there will be after effects. Anya replied. We need her functional. We can spend time putting her back together later. Katya countered.

    There was a knock on the door; Narael jumped. “Sit down, your highness. We’ll continue this discussion in a moment.” Narael returned to her seat as Katya shouted “Come.” The door opened, revealing Mr Dunstan and a dinner trolley. “Miss Crowley, dinner is served.”  Katya nodded, “In the dining room if you please, Mister Dunstan.” He wheeled the trolley deftly through the room to the far door on the right, and exited through to another room. Narael could not see it from her seat; she was too tense to try however. The barman unnerved her. She, unfortunately, was unused to dealing with people outside of the palace. While she was used to the servants and guards, she was out of her element when outside the palace halls, and her current situation was that unusual it was throwing her for a loop. “Now, Navina.” Katya said. Narael took a moment to pay attention, forgetting that she was Navina. “Sorry, um… Auntie. What is it?” Katya smirked. The girl isn’t too stupid at least. That’s a relief. “What were you thinking of doing from here?” Narael scowled. They had used the distraction to avoid her questions. “I thought I might travel for a while. Why Auntie, I had no idea you had such care for me.” Katya's smirk dropped like a stone. “It’s just that you’re in an interesting position dear, and could choose to do a great many things.” Narael nodded. Despite the pretense of relationship, and the false names, there was concern there. If nothing else, she was the consummate actor, switching faces as needed. How much of it is fake? she wondered. “I had considered that. I thought perhaps to visit with family in Avselin. On my mothers side. Not that I really wish to spend my time with family, but who else do I have to rely on?” They all knew that was an outright lie. “Avselin is an interesting place. It is far though. Will you take a retinue, or a caravan?”

    “What hope do I have of getting a retinue? No. I might hire on as a caravan guard, or pay for passage, and make my way in that direction if I can.” Katya blinked in surprise. It impressed her that the girl had thought that far ahead, but then she had thought of practically everything else. “That may be harder than you think, Navina. Have you demonstrable skill with the sword? Can you ride?” ‘Navina’ gave her a flat stare. “I have some demonstrable skill with the sword, but I’m marginally better with a bow. Yes, I can ride, though it’s not my favourite passtime. I thought to go to the collegiate in Avselin and plead my case. I had heard they were more enlightened than this kingdom.” Narael was a princess, and as such was accustomed to verbal jousting. The implication was that she would plead for sanctuary, as the Avselin Collegiate was established and run by the crown. Admission and tuition however were subject to crown review, as was the course of study for any one student. To gain admission, she would either need a false identity or she would have to plead for sanctuary. Anya nodded. “I see. That might work. That is well thought out.” Mr Dunstan returned. “Mister Amyrn sends his apologies, Ma’am. Due to commotion in the town he will be unlikely to reach you.” The ladies rose, and Narael followed suit. “Shall I prepare the horses, Mistress?” Anya nodded as she passed him. “If you please, Mister Dunstan.” He bowed as they entered the dining room. It was well lit by trimmed oil lamps on wall fixtures and on the long, dark table. Large windows and double doors heading to a balcony occupied an entire wall, though with curtains drawn you didn’t get that much of a view. “Enjoy the meal, my ladies.” He said, closing the door behind them.

    The places were set for close conversation, Anya took the head of the table, while Katya took the right hand place, so Narael took the remaining place opposite her. The food laid out looked appetizing, with soup in a tureen, bread and fine slices of meats. The ladies helped themselves, so Narael followed suit. She had expected to have to adjust to life outside the walls and interacting with commoners, but it was a shock to be doing so this quickly. “So, Avselin and the Collegiate. To study what, exactly?” There was warm beef and gravy. “Economics, military tactics, swordsmanship and archery. Whatever I find to study.” Fresh bread. “That’s an interesting subject list. And if they deny you admission?” Spicy Netran soup. “Who knows? I’m trying not to think about it.” Narael went quiet after that, staring into her bowl. She really hadn’t considered it, but she had to live somehow. “You still haven’t told me anything about yourselves. You’re very obviously not average townsfolk.” The sisters shared a look, and something passed between them, though Narael had no clue what it was. “Well, we’re sisters, though that much is obvious. We’re what you might call independant operators. We seek knowledge, about the world, events, people. Anything we can get our hands on, really. W--”

    “So you’re spies, essentially. What do you do with this knowledge?”

    “I wouldn’t say we’re spies. We’re not in the business of selling state secrets. We collect what we find and compile it, tracking certain events and happenings and seeking certain knowledge for our own benefit. Do you really think that people of our power and abilities would submit ourselves to someone elses oversight? Please, Your Highness, you must understand that there is much I cannot tell you about what we do. We will get you out of the city and then present you with your choices. Your plan was well thought out, though perhaps a bit sparse on the details and maybe not entirely feasible as you are just now. But we will help you as we can.” Anya sat back as she picked up a slice of bread slathered in butter and piled with beef. “I appreciate that your sister dear has dragged me into something much bigger that I expected. Given her unique abilities I see no choice but to follow along with her directions just now.” Narael watched Anya closely as she said this, but there was no explosion. She didn’t even bat an eye. “Well there is always a choice. Regardless, we can get you out of the city at least.” Katya finally piped in after finishing her soup “But I don’t think your plan is going to work.” Narael looked at her, wondering what the older woman was thinking. “Oh? Why would that be?”

     “Hiring on as a caravan guard would be possible further east, if you were a bit bigger, but here in the west they won’t even take your name at the caravanserai. There’s also the fact that you’re a woman, and you’re um... small. With your stature and obvious youth, I’m not sure you’d get hired even if you did go east. You’d have to be very good with a sword or bow to stand a chance. Not to say you haven’t shown a modicum of skill tonight, but the fact remains. Travelling alone as a woman is not a good idea. You have to be the best fighter you know, and confident you can beat any challenge. And that’s just to preserve your dignity. Next is the fact that no nation will grant you sanctuary now. You killed the heir apparent. Effectively, you’ve killed yourself, or at least that iteration of yourself, so going to the collegiate would be difficult as you would have to trade yourself off as a commoner. That requires a background, funds and accommodation, and the ability convince the admissions board that you are indeed a commoner, which requires acting skills.” That’s when the explosion happened.

    Anya erupted “You did what?!” She stared aghast at Narael like she had grown two heads. “Why would you help her do that, Katya?” Katya snorted. “I didn’t help her, she did it on her own. Besides, he deserved it.” Anya breathed deep and put her head back as she slumped in her chair. “Sorry. I just… you did say it was a big one, didn’t you.”

    Narael coughed once. “So what would you recommend then? I just become someone else?” Katya smiled, and it was dazzling. Even white teeth, laughing eyes and shining hair, she was a beauty. “Exactly. You become Navina. Think on it for a while.” The table conversation petered off into silence.

    Occasionally the sisters would engage in smalltalk, but Narael remained silent for the rest of the meal. What would it mean, to become someone else. I’d never be Princess again, maybe I wouldn’t even be My Lady Narael. It was a shocking thing to consider… peasants treating her as an equal, calling her Mistress Navina… or Crowley, or whatever name she chose. Strangely, she found a sense of freedom in that. To be on equal footing with the majority of the world. She had often considered how isolated she was by her status, and this was a chance to shed herself of it… of everything really. She ate without tasting, or seeing, her senses befuddled by the sheer possibility.

    “Narael, are you well?” Anya asked, touching her arm. The dinner was finished, the sisters sitting waiting patiently for her. “I’m sorry. It’s been overwhelming, all of this. I’ll take your help getting out of the city, though I don’t know what to do from there on. I thank you both though.” She said as she rose, the ladies following suit. “So what do we do now?” she asked softly. “We get ready to leave. Have a seat in the reception while we get changed and pack. We shan’t be too long.” Narael nodded her assent as she moved through to the reception hall. “And the things you gave me Miss Katya?” Katya looked at her for a moment, then answered “The clothes suit you. I shall need the belt and daggers back though. I have spares, but those are my favourites. I’ll give you another set. The rest is a gift.”

    Narael nodded but said nothing as she unbuckled the belt, leaving it on the end of the table for Katya and walking from the room. She couldn’t understand why these women were helping her. Possibly to gain information, or gain her trust and sell her to her father's enemies. The fear struck her then, but she fought it under control. So far they had been kind, and hadn’t asked her much beyond her own plans, but she had to keep her wits about her.

    Pulling up her backpack, she removed the sword from its bindings across the back and unwrapped it. She nearly choked when she recognised it. It was a functional sword… brown leather sheath, iron tooling and hardware on it, unremarkable in any way one would think. The hilt of the sword though, was well worn by hands much larger than hers. A smooth, blackened leather binding held the imprints of his fingers; the five inch cross guard was scratched from repeated blows, and had once been lovingly polished by those same hands that had swung it. She knew this sword, and slid it from it’s sheath. The blade was still mirror perfect, even along both it’s cutting edges. An inch and a half at the base, and tapering slowly along it’s unblemished thirty inch length, her uncle’s sword still shone in the lamp light. Narael nearly broke then, seeing that blade in her hands.

    She must have been staring at it a long time, as Katya came through dressed in similar leathers. Her top though was a trim leather jerkin over lined cloth, closed by the same belt and daggers she had lent Narael. Dark gloves tucked in the front of the belt, and vambraces spun loose on her forearms, she came through carrying a second belt. “So you’re considering carrying the sword then? That may be wise from here on out.” Katya stopped then, looking at the girl on the settee. “What’s the matter? You’ve held it together pretty well so far, so tell me what’s troubling you.” she asked as she sat down, dropping the belt on the low table and pulling her gloves from her belt. “Why did you pick this sword? I mean, where did you find it?” Katya shrugged. “I found it in the Armoury, and it seemed to be the best sword there. I take it you know the blade?” Narael nodded, her eyes glued to the sword. “It’s my uncle’s blade. He got it from his father, and kept it his entire career. I thought they broke it when he died.” The woman gave a dark chuckle at this. “Sorry. I’m sure they tried, but that blade is Cantaviran steel. It’s older than this kingdom. It wouldn’t break except by extreme force or magic. It’s probably worth more than the kingdoms entire coffers. As I said, the best sword there.” The Princess’ eyes widened at this. “It’s also the sword I learned to swing. My uncle taught me to fence, and-- and I used his sword against practice dummies and in slow sparring with him. He was killed a year ago.” Katya focused on donning her gloves and vambraces. “I’m sorry to hear that. You’d best be putting that on then. At least you’ll not have to get used to a different sword as you go.” Narael stood and buckled on the belt. It had it’s own knife already. Not a fighting dirk or a dagger, it was a simple woodman's knife, four inches long, single edged and curved at the point; it sat awkwardly on her right hip.

    She slipped the sword in it’s sheath through the loops on the left, which kept it hanging in place by her left thigh. She tried moving around and found that it swung awkwardly when she did, and that the sword threatened to slip through the loops which were too large for it. Katya came over to her and deftly slid the entire assembly around towards the back, tightening the loops up so it swung less and rode higher on the hip. She then adjusted the loop size to match the sheath, securing it tight. “That should do. Can you draw it from that position?” Narael nodded and dropped into a fighting crouch. Seizing the sheath in her left hand and the hilt in her right, she drew straight to a slash. “That works for me,” she said, backing into a high guard and standing tall. “Alright then. Gather your things, we’ll be going soon.”

    Anya hurried through from her bedroom carrying a full backpack and dressed in similar attire to her sister. “We leave now. Soldiers are searching door to door through the city. Katya, grab your things and meet us in the stable. Your highness, if you would follow me.” Katya lept into action, hurrying back to her room. Narael grabbed her pack and followed Anya out into the hallway. Every fourth lamp was lit, creating pools of shadow along the dark wood panelled hall. They turned right and headed for a smaller stair than the one she had come up, which took them through the kitchen and deposited them out the back of the inn.

    There was light on in the stable, where a young boy waited with three horses saddled and ready. Anya deposited her bag behind the saddle of a dun gelding, and directed Narael to the young black mare standing off to the side. The third, a piebald mare would be Katya’s then. “You’ll have to name her, I think. Mr. Dunstan’s horses are usually freshly broken I’m afraid.” I hope you’re a decent rider, was left unsaid. “Right. Can you help me secure the pack? She won’t stop moving.”

    Narael was starting to get nervous again. Their time in the inn had been a brief respite, but that was almost over. With Anya’s help, she finished securing her pack as Katya stormed out of the kitchen carrying her pack and a spare bow. “We’ll lead the horses out on foot. If you would do the honours, Katya.” Up on the horse her pack went, and tied down so fast that Narael completely missed it. “Of course. But the big one is yours. Just be prepared to hide us.” Anya nodded her assent as they led their horses to the back wall of the yard.

    Narael followed suit, leading the fractious mare by the bridle. The clothes felt odd to her, not being experienced wearing mens clothes. Yes, she could move, but she felt naked from the waist down. “Come close, Navina. You’ll hold Katya’s horse while Katya and I go through. She’ll come back and bring you and both horses through.” Navina nodded and took the reigns from Katya. She looked around her as they slipped through the wall. Mr Dunstan watched on, a friendly expression on his face, like a half smile. His eyebrows were saying hello.

    The stable hand had returned to tend his horses already. It was strange, there had been no lecture on the animal or how to care for it. Usually at the palace, they would lecture her daily about it. Consequently she was fair at riding, and she did love the animals. She nearly jumped out of her skin when Katya tapped on her shoulder. “Nervous much?” Katya was all smiles now that they were moving. “Come on, this isn’t the first time we’ve done this dance. It’ll be fine.” Katya took the reins in one hand, and her spare hand in the other, pulling it away from the hilt of her sword where it hovered. “Always hold the reins with your left hand, so your right is free to defend yourself.” With that she pulled Narael forward and walked with her through the wall.

    The princess stumbled again as she came through, but Katya steadied her while pulling her further into the blind alley. Anya was nowhere to be seen. It was almost a courtyard at the end of the alley. Enough space to fit both horses and turn them. “Ok, that was step one.” Katya said, helping her regain her footing. “What do you mean step one? Where exactly are we going?”

    Katya led her towards the wall. “This is step two. We’re going to visit a friend, then we’re getting out of the city.”

    Through the wall again. The alley way was narrower now, barely wide enough for both horses, and it narrowed up ahead. Anya was sitting on her horse further down the alley. “Ok, mount up. You’ve got a low backed saddle, so don’t expect too much support. The way your sword is should be fine, and if it isn’t we’ll adjust it when we stop.” Katya said as she took the reins and lead her horse past Narael.

    Katya followed her own advice and mounted, sitting naturally on the horse. Her feet were perfectly placed in the stirrups at the balls of her feet; the stirrups were shortened for leg control, so the horse could be steered without reins. This was something Narael hadn’t been taught, but figured she could learn if given the opportunity. She mounted her horse, and followed Katya down the alley to where Anya waited.

    It truly was abysmal; the collected refuse of human habitation. The ground was slick with mud and other substances, broken jars and bottles littered the place. The princess found herself glad for the boots and the mount, though the skittish animal would sidle at the slightest chance. It was also strange not to be riding side saddle, which is what she had usually done. Since her uncle's death, she had not been riding as often.

    Eventually Katya pulled to a stop, and Narael had no choice but to follow. Narael, can you hear me? The voice echoed in her head, but she couldn’t tell whose it was. You have to think directly at me. Imagine a line connecting your brain to our ears and force your thoughts through it. She couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t possible. Sure, in theory Magic existed. But it was strange and you only ever heard fairy stories about it or about ancient sages who helped mankind with godlike powers. But to see it in action, to be part of it was stunning. She closed her eyes and tried to picture it as the voice had said. Katya? Anya? she forced the thoughts out. That’s it. It’s Katya. Anya’s internal voice is a bit higher than mine she heard. Come on, the patrol has passed and we need to move, a second voice joined the conversation. Anya’s mount started to move with barely a touch, and the other two followed. So we’re linked like this? Who is doing it? Narael asked. Anya is doing it. We’ll be turning left out the alley way, and riding for a hundred yards to a second alley. It’s best if we keep off the streets, but with mounts and gear the sewers are not an option. Katya sent.

    She could hear Katya in a way that voices couldn’t quite convey. Along with the words, there was a sense of personality behind them; a sense of the woman that uttered them and all that she was. It was disconcerting to think she gave the other two that same sense when she sent thoughts their way.

    They reached the end of the alley, and without a pause entered the street and peeled left. There were no hoofbeats as they emerged, and Narael was forced to wonder exactly what type of inn that was when she saw the horses hooves muffled with cloth boots. What kind of inn would go through that kind of trouble? So we’re going to see a friend of yours? Is she going to help us escape the city? Narael asked them. In a manner of speaking. We have business to attend to and his estate is right by the city wall, so we’ll make our way there to start. Katya replied. They turned into the next alleyway and went single file, with Narael in the middle this time.

    As they rode up the alley, Narael couldn’t help wonder how many soldiers and guardsmen were out combing the city for her. How many were outside the walls? Right at the end of the alley, then straight on down the road. Don’t stop. Anya sped up to a trot, and Narael tapped her heels to catch up and the mount tried to sidestep. The princess reined it over and tapped again; this time the horse obeyed. She didn’t want to have to canter this animal until she had established her authority.

    The alley came to an end, and they turned right down the road. It was wide enough for a carriage with room to spare, so three horses abreast wouldn’t have been a hastle. She applied pressure with her left knee as she pulled the reins right, using the stirrup on the right to apply the pressure directly to the saddle instead of to the horse. This made the saddle pull to the right as her knee pushed from the left, and the horse followed the reins. Narael’s theory was that if she kept up that movement pattern when she turned the horse with reins, the horse would eventually follow them without reins. She lost track of the time and distance they had travelled, and she found she had no idea where in the city she was. She had studied the official maps in the castle library, but it was different at street level.

    Patrol up ahead. Through or around? Anya sent both warning and question. Through. Lets give them a goose chase came Katya’s reply. Anya kicked her mount to a canter, hooves thudding dull on stone. Narael again had no choice but to follow; she couldn’t help but feel that they were testing her. She kicked her mount to a canter, and again the animal tried to step to the right. Hard rein and a second kick sent her running after Anya at a gallop. This horse is impossible! she sent as she tried to rein in to Anya’s pace. Show her love and get to know her, you’ll be friends in no time. Anya replied. The former princess could practically feel Katya’s laughter through the link.

    They’ve spotted us. Anya sent as the shout went up. “Hoi, you! Stop where you are!” one of the men shouted. There were two of them ahead on foot, torches held high. Anya kept her pace as they approached the pair, while Narael kept a firm hand on the reins. “Stop! In the name of the King!” came from the second man. And then they were dust, galloping on the wind down the street as the guardsmen threw themselves out the way. The dust cloud ahead resolved into Anya who spurred her mount into a gallop. Narael reformed as she gave her mount her head, and the horse plunged headlong to try catch Anya.

    The guardsmen, left in the dust, picked themselves up and blew their whistles, hurrying to follow. Left in 300 yards! came the call, and Anya slowed to a canter, and then a light trot as they approached the entrance to another alley. Narael followed as distant shouts echoed in the night. Three women on horseback. Princess. She wondered if they’d found the body yet. Her father would try to kill her for what she had done, and now that she faced it, there was no option but for ‘Narael’ to vanish without a trace. Become someone else she’d said.

    Don’t stop. We’re almost there. Straight out the alley and down the road, then right. Katya told her. They heard running feet on the roads around them, shouts and clamour heading in the direction they were last seen. Then they were on the road and up to a canter again. They swung right not long after, down a narrow road which lead to a dead end. Don’t stop Katya told her, and she took the horn of her saddle to steady her seat. She saw Anya and her horse dissolve then, as she felt her own form unravelling. Then she was dust again.

    Her form stayed human, but she was made of fine sand that floated and flowed on the breeze; sand that flowed through the wall ahead like it as nothing. They didn’t revert back to normal after they exited the wall, but ran right into a forest. The horses plunged on, trying to dodge the trees but not really needing to. Narael could tell her horse was blinded by fear; it’s mind shut down to the point that all that existed was running.

    Anya was ahead, and burst out of the trees first. In the moonlight; the half shadows and black shades, everything was bleached of colour. It all came down to patches of bright and dark that flashed by as the horses ran. They hit the opposite wall of the property and reached the road when Katya sent Straight into the alley, then slow down. They didn’t properly reform until the hit the alley in single file.

    The world crashed in around her as she solidified; the sounds of the night, the calls of the watchmen in the distance, the putrid stench of the alley; all of it crashed in on her as she tried to rein her mount in. The stupid mare eventually slowed to a trot behind Anya’s horse. They exited the alleyway into a small dilapidated courtyard. They reined up there, walking the horses as per Katya’s instructions. So what now, have we arrived? Narael asked. No. We’ll be there soon though. Anya answered. Where is it we’re going? Narael pressed. You’ve seen what my sister can do. Now you’re going to see what I can do. Lets get off these horses and gather in there. Narael could hear the weariness in her voice.

    They took a few minutes to walk the horses and cool them down at Katya’s request. It was a solid precaution as they had run hard. In the odd closed in silence of the courtyard, their own ragged breathing seemed to ring off the walls like a clarion. Narael closed her eyes and listened.

    She could hear distant shouts as the searchers combed the area, some getting closer, some getting further away. The queries of the residents were indistinct but prominent voices in the night. She could almost feel it, all the fear out there. It oozed across the city as the residents woke to clamour as every watchman, guardsman, soldier and spy in the city hunted for her.

    There was the fear of the hunters themselves. What if they missed something? What if the murdering bitch killed them too? What if they were were reprimanded. She could almost feel it bubbling out of them. Was she going to do it? Was it possible she could get away? It seemed a dream come true, to leave this place and decide her own future. So what if it wasn’t by her own power? So what if she had help? It didn’t really matter to the princess… yes, she had her pride. But taking help offered isn’t always a bad thing. It seemed to her that accepting this help was the best option she had. Perhaps there would be trouble down the line, but this would give her time to think and plan.

    It seemed almost unreal, to her; that she might get away with it, get out. Of course her company was definitely unreal. Going through solid objects, turning into the disconnected base units of yourself and drifting… It sent a shiver down her spine.

    They dismounted and gathered to the side of the courtyard, towing their mounts with them. Come in close, Narael. Anya said. My range is limited.

    As Narael gathered in closer, Anya expanded her awareness. She could feel the city around her. Every heartbeat, every murmur and hope and fear was hers to behold. As her awareness spread, she coaxed a shift in focus. An ever tightening search for one place… She remembered the feeling of that place on a cloud swept moonlit night. The people there, and their wants and fears, she had felt them all before.

    All of this she searched for, focused on until she found it’s proximation in the vibrancy of the city around her. Just at the edge of her range, she found it. She focused in and did a sweep of the area, checking for needs and wants and fears that were unfamiliar, and found a platoon of guardsmen searching the houses nearby. They seemed to converge on her chosen location, so she sent Patience, please. There are too many guardsmen near our destination.

    Narael settled herself; she realised she had started shifting her weight from foot to foot as she waited, her panic growing by the minute. After what seemed like a torturous age, Anya ‘spoke’ again Ok, they’ve done a search and talked with the butler and the groundsman. They’re moving on.

    Those few minutes they waited seemed like some kind of cruel torture to the princess; a test of patience and courage for the ages. She couldn’t take her mind off what was about to happen, and that chilling fear of the unknown crept down her back and into her stomach. Get ready ladies. Get ready for what? They still hadn’t explained.. No wait! What ar--

    Time thinned out, and Narael felt herself being pulled and anchored both, stretched between two destinations. She was a thin band that resonated with the harmonics of the place she was heading to. It was painful and panic inducing, and it seemed to last forever before they snapped back into place.

    Narael dropped to her knees and struggled to draw breath, her throat closed and her chest burning. Anya caught her reins as they slipped from numb fingers, and Katya moved to her, through her sister, to reach her. Her horse stayed where it was when the reins were dropped. Then there was a thud, and Narael coughed the little air in her lungs out, before drawing a shallow gasp. This gave way to a long rasp as air entered her lungs. Eventually, the dam burst entirely, and in choking fits she breathed deep and filled her lungs.

    That had been horrific. “What the hell was that?!” she screamed out loud. That had driven her beyond reason, and she no longer had any thought for silence. Katya hugged her tight. “It’s ok. It’s all ok, Navina. There’s nothing to fear.”

    Anya looked away in embarrassment, or perhaps shame. “There’s nothing anyone can say to prepare you for that. The first time is always the worst, so… we just get it over with when we need to. I’m sorry” she said softly.

    Narael was numb all over; struggling to breathe; the pain as her chest constricted; the aching joints and stretched muscles. She closed her eyes against the pain and tried to relax, tried to breathe deeply and regularly. She eased into Katya’s embrace as the pains passed and warmth returned. “Better?” Katya asked; Narael nodded her response, her voice still weak. She became aware of voices around them, maybe 3 new ones, all male. We’re here? she looked around her; there was nothing familiar here, no courtyard, no brick buildings. They were in a stableyard. Where is ‘here’? she sent a query to the sisters. Our contact’s house. Our last port of call before we leave the city. You can relax. Katya’s ‘voice’ such as it was, came across as soothing. Narael felt herself carried away by the warmth and the soft words.

Narael pt2
Part 2 of god knows how many. Part 1 here:  Narael pt.1. Part 3 here: Narael pt.3
since I last uploaded something to this site. damn.


Andre van Staden
Artist | Hobbyist | Varied
United Kingdom

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LittlePear Featured By Owner Mar 28, 2008
Happy Birthday Andre!

have some :cheese: :cake:

Hope you'll be having a nice day! :hug:
LittlePear Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2008
diamond281 Featured By Owner Mar 12, 2008  Hobbyist Photographer
drevan Featured By Owner Mar 12, 2008  Hobbyist General Artist
diamond281 Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2008  Hobbyist Photographer
So you are alive? ;p
drevan Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2008  Hobbyist General Artist
barely =P
BlakkReign Featured By Owner Jan 14, 2008  Professional Digital Artist
thanks,i requested both.
slowly bringin him to life.
current plans of having a css journal with venom-fella, the artist who drew venom-fella is in my ID description.
venom-fella has been in a Fella Movie.
he's more famous than me,lol!
switchbladeserenade Featured By Owner Dec 25, 2007  Hobbyist Photographer
:holly: Happy holidays! May you and yours have a warm and healthy New Year:holly:
kerplunklyn Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2007
thanks for the watch!!
KirstenLane Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2007
Thank you for the watch :hug:
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