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.”