“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.
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.