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Friday, November 20, 2015

Yalera the Brave - Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Is the King crazy?!” Yalera demanded several weeks later. They had returned to their estate to help with harvests now that summer was fading and fall was approaching. “He told me that I would be married six months from the time he accepted the proposal for my hand, but now that I have truly had time to think about it, I realize that places my wedding at the end of fall, beginning of winter!”
She threw a pair of dainty shoes that she had accidentally brought home with her across the room. “An early winter wedding might be fine here in this kingdom, but I'm expected to travel to the capitol of Nandia! At that time of year, it's already starting to snow, and travel will be slow and unpleasant! I should have insisted on next spring, or better yet, summer!”
Rohan stared at the shoes as he wondered whether he should pick them up. He had no idea how to respond, and he didn't think that suggesting that she write to the King to give him a piece of her mind would be helpful. He pulled on his hair and wracked his brains until something occurred to him.
Hey, cheer up. The King didn't know the exact date. The Nandians know that winter is hard to travel in, so I'm sure they'll set the date for spring.” Rohan looked to the ceiling as if searching for answers, and then realized that he had probably spoken the truth. He smiled at his twin. “So don't worry so much.”
Yalera sighed and slumped onto her bed in relief. “You make a good point. If they truly want peace, the Nandians won't plan the wedding for winter.”
Their father poked his head into their room. He looked almost green with worry. “Yalera... I just received a missive from the King... Apparently he received a response to the Marriage agreement within hours of our departure from the Palace... King Bruno of Nandia has set the date of the wedding for the Autumnal Equinox. We're to travel to the Nandian Palace as soon as possible to give the Prince time to get to know you a little before the wedding.”
Before Yalera had even a moment to process this information and react, her father gave her a tiny smile. “The good news is that your mother and Yemry will be joining us for the journey, and Rolanna will be there later on in time for the wedding.”
Yalera was speechless! Her mouth hung open in shock as a feeling of surrealism settled over her like a new dress. I thought I would have more time... “Uh...” She grasped for anything to say. “Uh...”
This is crazy!” Rohan roared in frustration and mild panic. “We barely turn 16 by the Autumnal Equinox! Why can't they give her a moment to catch her breath before marrying her off?!”
The tight feeling in her chest slowly wore off, allowing her to take a deep breath. She exhaled slowly, and then smiled. “No, it's fine. This way, you'll all have time to return home before winter arrives.”
Her brother couldn't look her in the face. The thought of losing her was too painful, and she acted like she didn't care. It felt almost like a betrayal!
But what'll you do about the harvests?” Yalera asked, frowning in concern. Leaving now until the Autumnal Equinox meant that there wouldn't be anyone here to help their people with the massive amount of work that needed to be done during the next few months.
Don't you worry about that,” her father assured her. “I'll promote one of my most trusted men to overseer. The harvest will be brought in with or without you.”
Yalera felt a twinge of pain that the job she had trained her whole life to do could be done without her. It was almost as if her father had just told her she was unimportant, but she knew he didn't feel that way. Forcing a smile to her lips, she nodded. “That's good... One less thing to worry about...”
Yalera...” her father murmured in concern.
Yalera pushed his concern aside, and literally stepped around him to access the door. “Yuna! Come on girl, let's go hunt something!”
Rohan perked up slightly. “That's a great idea! Rune, let's go!”
The father watched them leave with a heavy heart.

*****

Yalera wiped some sweat from her brow as she watched the large group of riders grow closer to her family home. They were an entourage assigned to her by the King, and had taken two weeks to get here from the time the letter had arrived informing her of her official wedding date. Now that they were here, she had no more time to mentally prepare herself.
Wow...” she murmured aloud. “There's so many people...”
The entourage consisted of many diplomats and attendants. From what she could tell, her mother alone had at least a dozen servants! A closer look revealed that a good half of the party was made up of soldiers. This made her feel a little bit better in case they were falling into some sort of elaborate trap.
The entourage grew ever closer until they were finally in front of her home. She sat quietly in a tree watching them, wondering if they would simply leave without her if they couldn't find her. It was wishful thought, and she knew that she'd probably feel much more reassured about her impending marriage once she met her groom.
Lady Yalena promptly issued about a hundred orders to the entourage. She felt that they all deserved a day or two of rest before they left for the Nandian Palace. Considering that there were quite a few women in the entourage, this made complete sense to Yalera. She wondered if her mother would take charge of her meeting with the Prince too. It would certainly make things easier for her!
Yemry!” Ronin greeted his oldest son happily. The two hugged, pounding each other on the back.
Where are Rohan and Yalera?” Yemry asked with a frown. He thought it was unusual for the twins to not be here to greet any and all visitors to the estate.
Ronin sighed heavily. “There's been a great strain between them recently. Rather than do everything together as they always have, they seem to be avoiding each other.”
Yalera pressed a hand to her heart as a stinging pain briefly flared up and then died down again. It hurt to hear such a statement, because she hadn't realized that she'd been avoiding her brother, or he her. Now that it had been said though, she knew it was true.
Lady Yalena put a hand on her husband's arm in an attempt to comfort him. “Maybe they're just trying to figure out how they're going to live without each other.”
I knew this had to happen someday, but seeing them like this is breaking my heart!” Ronin confessed, resting his head on his wife's shoulder.
The man who had been hired to run the estate while they were all gone – someone who had lived and worked on this land his entire life, as had his family before him – silently and capably directed servants and members of the entourage. He soon had the crowd dissipated, assigning everyone a place to stay until they continued on their journey. This left just the Lord and Lady, and Yemry and Baethan standing in the courtyard.
Baethan shifted uncomfortably, not sure what to do. He was along for the journey because Yemry had asked him to both as a friend and as a capable soldier. The King had placed Yemry in command of the soldiers in the entourage, and Yemry had appointed Baethan as his second in command. Therefore, Baethan was not a simple soldier being housed in the Stables like all the others, but he also wasn't part of the family, and witnessing such an intimate moment was a bit uncomfortable. He looked around and saw that everyone else had disappeared – either into the stables or into the large manor.
In the distance, he saw Rohan round a corner and run flat out in their direction. A moment later, two enormous cats appeared, chasing him as if they were determined to make him their next meal. Baethan paled in something akin to terror.
Uh, Yemry!” Baethan called out much louder than necessary as Yemry was still standing right next to him. “Yemry!” His throat seemed to go dry and close up, robbing him of the ability to speak.
Yemry and his parents looked to Baethan, and then to where he was pointing. Yemry chuckled mischievously. “Don't worry, Bae. I can handle this.”
Rohan continued to run at top speed until he was just a few feet away from them, and then he stopped as abruptly as he could; bending over slightly to pant from exertion. The two cats stopped running too, but continued to trot until they could press their heads into Yemry's chest, pushing him back two steps in the process. He ruffled the fur on their heads playfully.
Hi girls! I missed you too,” Yemry informed them with a grin. They roared softly as if talking to him. He looked up at Rohan. “Where's Yalera?”
Rohan shrugged and hummed I don't know.
Yemry took Yuna's face in his hands to address her directly. “What about you, Yuna? Do you know where Yalera is?”
Yalera couldn't help but giggle. She'd been watching Baethan as events unfolded, and he was currently clutching his heart and panting. The expression on his face as he watched the two cats “attack” Yemry was priceless! It was all she could do to stop herself from bursting with laughter. Everyone looked up at the sound of her giggling.
Ah, there you are!” Yemry announced with a grin. “On behalf of his Majesty, I'm here to tell you that as the future Crown Princess of Nandia, you are in charge of this mission... So long as you listen to and take into account all advice from your bevy of advisers!” He laughed as he watched her roll her eyes at that. Basically, she knew she was in charge in name only. He then laughed just a bit harder. “Uh... I'm not entirely sure that Princesses are allowed to climb trees!”
They most certainly are not!” Lady Yalena chided sternly, but then ruined the effect by smiling.
Yalera huffed haughtily. “Well this one is!” She slid down the tree capably, glad that she was wearing one of her special pant skirts that allowed her freedom of movement while still appearing proper. Yuna nearly knocked her over the moment her feet touched the ground, making Yalera laugh.
I think they know that we're going to be leaving soon,” Rohan murmured somberly. “They've been unusually affectionate the last couple of days.”
It won't be forever,” Yalera promised her cat, hugging her tight. “I'll send for you whether my husband likes it or not!”
Why aren't you bringing her with you?” Yemry asked curiously.
Yalera sighed a bit sadly. “I don't have the heart to separate Yuna from her sister. Besides, I want to make sure that the Nandians treat me well before I subject her to a new place away from Rune.”
Yemry bit his lip in thought. “Hmm... I think that bringing them with – at least initially – might make a lasting impression that you are not to be trifled with.”
Yalera looked to the sky as she thought this over. “Maybe you're right...”
Lady Yalena laughed unexpectedly. “I'm sure that even the Nandians fear smilodons! I rather like the idea of terrifying the King and Prince Crispin!”
Everyone giggled at this thought, except for Baethan. He stared at the large cats in horror. “You mean to tell me that these are your pet cats?!”
Yalera nodded with a grin. Rohan chuckled evilly. “As I recall, I still need to... Rune attack!” He pointed at Baethan, who promptly took a step back. Rune responded by growling as she advanced on the stranger.
Yemry laughed nervously. “Rohan... Why are you terrorizing my best friend?”
Because I don't like him one bit!” Rohan stated vehemently.
Baethan took a few more steps backwards. He cast a look to Yemry that clearly stated: Save me! Yemry chuckled nervously once more.
Alright, you've had your fun now, Rohan. Call her off,” Yemry ordered.
No,” Rohan denied, crossing his arms. “It's been a while since Rune had such a tasty snack.”
Rune continued to growl as she stalked ever closer to Baethan. The man was tempted to run screaming like a little girl, but he kept himself together and simply backed away from the massive cat. If he was right, he couldn't run fast enough or far enough to get away from her anyway.
Rohan!” Lady Yalena chided her son in astonishment. She turned to her husband for help, but he simply laughed.
Yalera was laughing too, but eventually took pity on the poor man. Pulling a thick cotton napkin out of her pocket, she feigned a sigh of aggravation. “Fine... I'll save you!” She opened the napkin, then purred softly. “Rune, Yuna... I have sausages!”
Both cats perked up immediately. They looked to her for confirmation, and then roared happily when they saw that it was true. Yuna was already at her feet, hopping back and forth in excitement, but Rune had to abandon her attack in order to run over to Yalera. She practically mauled the girl in her enthusiasm!
Yalera laughed as she held the sausages high above her head. “Hey now! These were supposed to be for me! I'm not entirely sure that you deserve them!”
Both cats responded by flopping to the ground and exposing their bellies as they meowed pitifully. It was as if they were begging her to favor them with a treat and by rubbing their stomachs. Yalera giggled as she relented.
Oh all right! Here you go,” she said as she tossed each cat a sausage. Baethan watched this with both relief and fascination. Never in his life had he imagined such dangerous animals as pets!
Spoilsport,” Rohan muttered, sticking his tongue out at his twin. She wrinkled her nose and stuck her tongue out at him in return.
Their mother laughed at their antics, glad to have quite a bit of time to spend with them for now. It was always a sore spot with her that – while for the best – she had missed most of their childhood. She pulled them both into a hug and kissed each of them on the cheek several times.
Yalera enjoyed the hug, nearly purring again as she held her mother tight. Eventually, she pushed lightly to get away. “I've hunted enough game to feed us for most of our journey, but I think I'd like to find something for dinner.”
But dinner is in just a couple of hours!” Lady Yalena protested. “Surely the cook has already started on it!”
Then tomorrow's dinner,” Yalera insisted with a firm smile.
Great idea!” Rohan agreed, backing her up. He pointed to the cats. “Besides, if we decide to bring them with after all, they should really fill their stomachs before we leave.”
Their mother sighed in defeat. “Fine, but be careful!”
We always are,” the twins chorused with matching grins. Yalera took advantage of the fact that Yuna was still laying on the ground licking her lips and cleaning her fur by sitting on her back. With a gentle tug on the smilodon's fur, she cried out: “Yah!”
Yuna leapt up and raced off towards the forest.
At least ride a horse!” Her mother shouted after her, but Yalera simply cackled in glee. She loved feeling wild and free. An echo caught her attention, and she noticed that Rohan was also riding his cat and whooping in joy.
Yemry laughed as he watched them leave. Curling an arm around his mother's shoulder, he asked: “Why didn't I have a smilodon while growing up?”
Lady Yalena sighed in mild aggravation and decided not to answer him. Instead, she pointed towards the manor. “I have to go explain to our entourage why my daughter isn't already in conference with them.”
Ronin pulled his wife into his arms and murmured in her ear. “Thank you for letting them have one last taste of freedom together before everything changes.”
Lady Yalena nodded, a bit sad herself now. “They grow up so fast!”
That they do,” Ronin agreed.

*****

Yalera threw her boot across the tent in frustration. She was alone with her mother and twin brother. Everyone else was currently in the large tent reserved for feeding everyone and housing the soldiers. Except a few men who were patrolling just in case there was any trouble.
Just a week inside Nandian Territory, and already Yalera was ready to call the whole thing off and go home... not that she had that power! Which was precisely what had her so upset. She paced her tent in agitation.
They don't care what I have to say!” She roared angrily. “If I suggested to my advisers that we cross a bridge to avoid going a week out of our way until the next crossing, then we'd almost certainly go a week out of our way!”
Her mother laughed. “Yalera!” Shaking her head, she pulled her daughter into a hug. “It's not like that at all, they simply – everyone – simply wants to make sure we get there safely.”
Yalera sighed, still frustrated. “This may well be the only time in my life that I ever get to travel! After this, I will probably be stuck in the Palace of Nandia for the rest of my life. All I want is to be able to explore a little from time to time. It's not like I won't have a huge cat or two to protect me should we come across any bandits!”
Her mother harrumphed softly. “Well of course they won't let you. You are the precious hope for a peaceful future. Every single person on this journey was assigned with the sole instruction to care for you and keep you safe until you are married. That's why there are so many diplomats and servants. That's why I get to be with you for so long. I'm supposed to teach you everything you will need to know in order to be a future Queen, but you...”
She shook her head and sighed. “You won't listen to me! Every time I try to talk about things you'll need to know, you change the subject or pace the tent, or claim you suddenly have to pee!”
Yalera pushed free from her mother's arms. “But don't you hear that?!”
Her mother and brother were silent for a moment in order to hear what she was asking about. They heard nothing out of the ordinary. Insects and animals were chattering away as usual, and there was nothing around to cause them any alarm.
Hear what?” Lady Yalena asked her daughter.
That! It's a sharp staccato... it has to be a bird of somesort. I've never heard it before, so it's something I've never seen. I just want to go out and find it. Maybe draw a picture of it. We've made camp for the day, it's not like I'll be holding anyone up, and if I'm tired in the morning, I can simply ride in the carriage with you.” The fervent look in Yalera's eyes clearly begged her mother to let her explore their surroundings.
Even though it made her feel like a cruel person, Lady Yalena firmly shook her head. “No. I understand that this seems like a wonderful opportunity for you, but if you don't stay here, eat something, and listen while I teach you what you need to know, then you'll find yourself unprepared when you need it most.”
Yalera wanted to stomp her foot and throw a tantrum like a child, but she knew that would only force everyone to treat her like a child. Inhaling until she literally couldn't draw in any more air, she counted to ten, and then exhaled slowly. Feeling a bit calmer, she decided to try compromising.
What if I listen to you as I eat, and then when you've talked for at least an hour, I can be excused to go explore for just 15 minutes?” Yalera proposed hopefully.
Her mother took a long moment to think this over. “Fine, but only if you take Rohan and Yemry with you! Better yet, half a dozen guards as well.”
How about instead of the guards, I take Yuna and Rune?” Yalera bargained.
Very reluctantly, her mother nodded her head. Whooping in joy, Yalera hugged her twin tightly as if rewarding him for helping her get her way – though he hadn't done anything – and then sat at the small table that had been set up for them to dine at. She cast a brilliant smile at her mother.
Well?”
Lady Yalena laughed, shaking her head at Yalera's eagerness. “Alright...” She sat at the table, waited for Rohan to join them, and then started her lecture as they savored the delicious meal that had been prepared for them.
Yalera waited patiently for almost 5 minutes beyond the agreed upon hour before she started impatiently clearing her throat and glancing at the clock significantly. She squirmed incessantly, almost staring at the clock until her mother finally relented and let her go.
You keep a close eye on her!” Lady Yalena shouted after Rohan. “Don't let her get lost, sprain an ankle, or fall in the mud!”
I promise!” Rohan shouted in return, running fast to keep up with his twin.
Yemry!!!” Yalera called out as she approached the tent that he and all the men were staying in. “Yemry!”
Yemry poked his head out of the tent, looking around in case there was trouble. Baethan was a step behind him. “What's wrong?”
Nothing! Mother gave me permission to go exploring, but I have to take you with me. Just you, mind you. No soldiers!”
And me, Rune, and Yuna,” Rohan reminded her. The two large cats were half laying half sitting near the perimeter of the camp, as if they were on guard and looking out for trouble. They perked up when they heard their names.
Yes yes, so let's go!” Yalera insisted urgently, pulling on Yemry's arm.
Yemry looked to Rohan. “Mother really gave permission?”
Rohan nodded. “She did.”
Yemry sighed in defeat, obviously wishing to relax and maybe get to sleep early. “Fine, we'll go exploring. Just let me grab my sword and a bow.”
Rohan already had his because he hadn't bothered to take it off earlier, but Yalera was half forbidden to carry a weapon during their journey. Therefore, her bow was in a carrier that could be attached to her horse rather than over her shoulder as it usually was. She nudged Rohan significantly.
Go get my bow,” she whispered in his ear. “It's not a bad idea to be armed if anything should go wrong.”
Rohan nodded in agreement and rushed to do what was needed. Yemry and Baethan returned before Rohan did. Yalera frown in puzzlement as she looked at Baethan.
Are you planning to come with us?” She asked curiously.
Yep,” Baethan confirmed. “Two sets of trained eyes are better than one, and besides, I need to go above and beyond in my service so that the King has no reason to be upset with me.”
Yalera rolled her eyes and sighed, but ultimately, she was still getting what she wanted, so she didn't complain. She gave a short whistle which summoned Yuna to her side. Yuna came running happily.
The forest is thick, so there's no use riding horses,” she stated, though she was sure they knew this information already. “If I were you, Baethan, I'd refrain from upsetting Rohan and Rune. I don't have any sausages left to bribe them with!”
Noted!” Baethan agreed with a solemn expression. He shifted his weapons slightly just to make sure that he had them.
Rohan raced back with her bow, then slung it over her shoulder and kissed her cheek. “You owe me! I had to lie and say that I wanted the bow and that I wouldn't let you touch it. If Lady Rachelle sees you with it, she'll wring my neck!”
Yalera kissed his cheek in return. “Thank you. If she wrings your neck, I'll have Yuna bite her!”
Yemry laughed. “Yalera! It's not right to have the smilodons attack people! That just make everyone afraid of them.”
Shh!” Yalera insisted in a whisper. “Lady Rachelle will hear you...” Beckoning, she led the way into the forest, riding atop Yuna's back.
Why are you with us?” Rohan growled at Baethan from his perch on Rune.
I asked him to,” Yemry lied, chuckling. “What did Baethan ever do to you anyway?”
Rohan considered making a long list of basically everything that had ever come out of Baethan's mouth, but then a mischievous thought occurred to him. “He looked up Yalera's skirt!”
What?!?!” Yemry roared as Yalera squealed: “Rohan!”
Meanwhile, Baethan held up his hands as he and Yemry jogged to keep up with the lightly running cats. “I did not!”
Did so!” Rohan insisted with a maniacal gleam in his eye.
No he didn't!” Yalera assured her older brother with a laugh. “I simply had to take it off to climb the tree and rescue him!” She lightly kicked Yuna to urge her to go faster.
What?” Yemry roared again, holding out an arm to catch Baethan as he stopped jogging. “You did what to my sister?”
Rohan laughed happily as he kept pace with Yalera. “There! I finally got him punished!”
Oh Rohan, you're incorrigible!” Yalera chided with a laugh. They were almost out of sight of their escort by this point.
I got you the alone time you wanted, didn't I?” Rohan challenged her with a grin.
So you did,” Yalera admitted, impressed.
Meanwhile, Yemry was glaring at his best friend. Baethan held up both his hands. “I did nothing, I promise! As she said, she rescued me!” He explained what had happened at top speed, pacifying Yemry, who still half glared at him. “Hmm... Since you're my best friend, I'll believe you... But if I ever hear of you doing anything inappropriate with my sister again, I will kill you!”
Baethan couldn't help but grin at that. “You'll have to beat Rohan to it!”
Yemry chuckled, thumping Baethan on the back. “You're probably right about that!”
The two of them looked around. “Wh... where did they go?” Baethan asked.
Oh great!” Yemry muttered unappreciatively. He tilted his head in the direction the twins had been headed. “We'd better catch up to them.”
Far enough away that they couldn't be heard, Yalera held up her left hand to signal a stop as she tugged on Yuna's hair with her right. The twins slowed down until the cats were walking cautiously along. Rohan looked around him to see if Yalera had spotted something.
I think we should find a spot to hide until whatever that bird is feels comfortable enough to start chirping again,” Yalera suggested.
Rohan nodded in agreement. “We should also probably climb trees to be closer to them when they do chirp... but what if it's too late? It is almost night.”
Yalera shrugged. “Let's hope not!”
They climbed off their pets, then signaled the cats to go ahead and explore on their own for a while. They each picked a different tree, and then shimmied up them as easily as breathing. Yalera was grateful that she'd worn a special skirt that hid splits along the sides. The skirt easily split open to allow her ease of movement, and underneath, she wore sturdy work pants. Her skirt was still getting dirty, but it was made out of plain cotton, so it wasn't a great loss. Even better, the dark blue sort of blended in with the tree as she got a little higher and the sun went down just a little more. She looked like a large shadow in the tree.
They climbed high enough that they couldn't be seen from the ground, covered by the thick crop of leaves. Then they got comfortable and sat still until everything resumed around them. Slowly, squirrels started bickering with each other, and birds started chirping. Wind rustled the leaves, almost sounding like a choir of tiny fairies singing.
Yemry and Baethan argued about which way the twins had gone as they ran by, and then everything was calm. A few minutes passed. Finally, the staccato that Yalera had heard started up. She strained her ears and looked everywhere until she located one of the strange warblers.
Oh!” She gasped softly, waving to her brother, and then pointing the bird out. “It's beautiful!” The bird was tiny and plumed in soft shades of blue. She pulled a small notebook and pencil out of her breast pocket, careful not to drop either as she located a clean page and then drew the delicate looking creature the best she could in the fading light of dusk.
Rohan suppressed a giggle as he heard distant arguing. While he didn't wish anything bad to happen to Yemry, he was strangely proud of himself for sending Baethan off to bumble along in the woods. “And he calls us bumpkins!” He muttered almost silently, harrumphing.
Truth be told, he wasn't that enthusiastic about the viewing the beauty of the bird. On the other hand, climbing trees and listening to the the birds sing was close to his idea of heaven. He pulled a small length of wood out of his pocket along with a knife. Skillfully, he continued the carving of Yuna that he was secretly making to give to his sister for her wedding gift.
The two of them got lost in their own little worlds, not really caring about the arguing that got louder as it got closer. Suddenly, a chill ran up both their spines as they realized that it wasn't Yemry and Baethan. Whoever was arguing, they spoke Nandian!
Nandian wasn't a completely different language from Rubidium, it was actually very close. Scholars would likely call them two distinct dialects of the same language, but they were different enough that non-natives of one had to pay close attention to understand what was being said. This meant that as the Nandians got closer, the twins could mostly understand what they were arguing about.
I'm telling you, they camped in that direction!” One man yelled indignantly.
And I'm telling you that they are over there!” Another insisted.
The third and final member of the group was obviously of the opinion that they were both idiots. “Quiet, or they're going to know where we are long before we know where they are!”
This prompted them all to fall silent for a couple of seconds. Then the first one sighed. “Well, we have to find them...”
Maybe we should split up,” suggested the second. He glared at the first in a way that made it clear he'd do anything to get away for a bit.
Good idea!” The other two agreed instantly.
We'll meet up back here in half an hour,” the third ordered, taking command. He pointed in the direction that Yemry and Baethan had run. “You go that way.” Then he pointed just a bit southernly of their camp. “You go that way, and I'll go that way,” he stated, pointing in the direction that would take him ever so slightly north of their camp.
Yalera and her brother exchanged worried glances. If they were damn lucky, all three of them would miss their camp entirely. Chances were that at least one of them would hear something and discover their camp in no time.
Yalera held up her hands in a giant W, silently asking her brother what she should do. Rohan pointed at the man he felt was most likely to find their camp, and then mimed shooting a bow. Yalera nodded, her heart heavy at what she must do.
Wait,” the second man called out from his path. “What do we do if we find any of the Rubidiumites on their own?”
The first man looked startled for a second before glancing at the third man. Clearly, he would be the one to answer that question. With a grim expression, he nodded in agreement with the thoughts in his head.
Kill them,” he stated decisively.
The first two nodded in agreement with him. “Right.”
Yalera held her bow at the ready, waiting until the man she was going to shoot was out of sight of both his companions. Taking a deep breath, she loosed the arrow, not daring to breathe until it hit its mark. The man fell to the ground with a soft thud. Exhaling a soft gasp, she tried her best to not think about what had just happened. Tears welled in her eyes anyway.
Waving to Rohan to make sure he was looking at her, she gestured in the direction that Yemry had gone. He nodded to indicate that he agreed; making sure Yemry was safe was more important than trying to get back to camp and warn everyone. They climbed down the trees as fast as they could – Yalera taking care not to let her skirt get caught on anything.
It was times like this that made them both glad that they had spent time – a lot of time – imitating their smilodons. They could both make noises that sounded very close to what Rune and Yuna made. Hopefully, doing so would attract their cats without alerting the strangers that someone was nearby.
Mrrow!” Yalera purred loudly. Unlike a contented purr, this sounded urgent.
Mrrow!” Rohan repeated, cupping his hand to send the sound in a slightly different direction.
Both continued to call out to their cats until they heard a roar in response. It was far enough away that they knew their cats weren't within whisper distance, but it wasn't so far that the cats couldn't get back quickly. It still might take them a few minutes though, so Yalera repeated the urgent call once more to encourage the cats to hurry. Another roar – ever so slightly closer – assured them that the cats were running as fast as they could.
Meanwhile, Yemry and Baethan jogged into sight. “Why are you making those sounds?” Yemry asked in confusion. He knew that the smilodons responded to their names, so this behavior made no sense.
Baethan gasped as Yalera quickly grabbed an arrow from her quiver and aimed it directly at him. Before he even had a chance to protest, she let the arrow fly. He braced himself for the impact, praying that she hadn't aimed anywhere vital. A soft thud behind him called his attention to the fact that he felt no pain. Patting himself reassuringly, he turned around to look behind him.
A man lay dead on the ground. He wore plain clothes to blend in with his surroundings, but a crest on his chest proclaimed him a soldier of the Nandian army. Baethan sighed in relief – a slightly dreamy expression on his face – but Yemry bit his lip.
Not that I'm complaining, dear sister, but aren't you supposed to be the future Queen of Nandia? It's not the most reassuring thing in the world to see you shooting your future people...”
I had to,” Yalera defended herself softly. She pointed towards the other body, which was too far away for them to see. “There were a total of three of them, and they're trying to find our camp. They plan to kill any of our people that they find.”
Rohan simply nodded in agreement. He was too busy keeping an eye out for his cat to care whether they believed them or not. With a sigh of relief, he gestured for Rune to come to his side.
This is not good,” Yemry stated grimly. “If there's three of them looking, it means that there's more out there somewhere waiting for these three to report back.”
If they plan to kill any sentries they come across, then they're definitely not on a mission of peace,” Baethan added, looking at their surroundings carefully.
Now that we know this,” Yemry murmured, biting his lip as he thought aloud. “We need to find them...” He tapped on his right temple as he tried to figure out a plan.
Rohan and I can ride back to camp. Trust us, we'll be very quiet. That way, you two can scout around,” Yalera suggested without trying to sound like she was giving her brother commands. “I'll send some men after you and make sure that everyone in our camp is on high alert.”
Yemry sighed. He didn't like it, but she was right. There was more danger to her from the unknown men than there was from the remaining scout. The sooner they found the danger, the sooner they could deal with it.
Fine, but promise me that you will go directly to camp and be absolutely sure you don't run across the third scout on the way!” Yemry insisted, worried.
He was not the only one. Yalera threw her arms around him and held him tight for a second. “I promise! And you... You be careful! I don't want to lose my big brother.”
Aww,” Baethan purred, teasing them. “How sweet! Makes me wish I had siblings... Not! I love being an only child. Now come on Yemry, before another group of scouts sneak up on us!”
Yemry rolled his eyes at Baethan, but pushed Yalera away gently. He kissed her on the cheek. “Go on!”
With a nod, Yalera tugged on her skirt so that she could mount Yuna. Rohan saluted their older brother respectfully, glared at Baethan, and then mounted his cat. “Take care!” He bade softly.
A moment later, the twins and their cats were slinking along. It was much like hunting, the silent stalking of prey. The twins held a mental conversation, surprisingly able to read each other's mind when they wanted to.
What should we do? Yalera wondered, scared.
I don't know, Rohan answered with a shrug. The Nandians must know that we are on our way to the Palace. Why would they want to stop you?
Maybe not all of them want peace, Yalera suggested sadly.
Probably not, but this is too important to let a handful of soldiers mess up! Rohan admitted. Deep down, he knew that peace between their countries was more important than anything, even if it meant losing his sister.
I know... Yalera sighed, almost depressed for a moment, and then she squared her shoulders. I will do whatever I have to to make sure that we arrive at the Palace! No rebel group of soldiers is going to stop me!
Rohan grinned at her proudly. That's my sister!
A couple of minutes passed in silence, and then they spotted the third scout sneaking up on a sentry. He had a knife in hand and was ready to kill the sentry. Yalera looked to her brother.
What does he plan to do once he kills the guard? Invade our camp all by himself? With a shrug and a slight shake of her head over such foolishness, she aimed an arrow and shot the scout. He gasped as the arrow hit him, stumbled forward slightly, and then fell forward.
The sentry had spun around when he heard the gasp and had just enough time to hold out his arms and catch before the man landed on him. The guard grunted and staggered under the dead weight, but then realized that he held an enemy soldier.
Guards! To me!” He shouted, rallying everyone in case there was an invasion ready to strike.
Yalera called out: “Don't shoot, it's just us!”
Guards rushed to the perimeter of the camp, aiming their bows into the woods, but they didn't shoot just in case Yalera happened to be telling the truth. The twins rode into camp slowly so as to not startle anyone. Their parents had heard the commotion and rushed to see what was going on.
Upon seeing the dead body, a conference was hastily called to figure out what to do.
There's no time for that!” Yalera insisted to one of her advisers. “Yemry and Baethan are looking for the enemy camp and may well need assistance at any moment!”
We must come up with a plan!” Her adviser insisted gruffly.
The plan is for the soldiers to go after Yemry!” Yalera shouted, pointing emphatically in the direction she'd came from.
That is a short sighted and narrow plan,” her adviser informed her with quiet snideness. “We need something better than that.”
Yalera could swear she could see red. She inhaled as much as she could to prevent herself from screaming at him. The problem was that inhaling didn't help calm her temper, so she kept doing it until she felt dizzy.
Lady Yalena was admittedly not any more in command than her daughter – and technically, Yalera and Yemry were supposed to be in charge – but she felt that she had to do something and quick! She stepped between her daughter and the adviser, holding both arms out placatingly.
Wait! Both of you are right,” she stated honestly. “A group of soldiers should be sent out right away while the rest of us confer and try to come up with a plan.”
Yalera finally managed to stop inhaling and let out her breath in a rush. “Yes!”
The adviser bit back a snarky reply and sighed. “Fine...” He gestured for the man who was third in command of the soldiers to organize a party to go after Yemry and Baethan. The soldier saluted him and then rushed off to do exactly that. He himself could not go as he would be needed at the meeting, so he knew to do his job as quickly as possible.
All the men who were not servants – or soldiers sent out to find Yemry – gathered in the command tent – which was the one Yalera slept in with her mother and twin. As a result, Yalera and her mother were made part of the planning meeting when it was clear that the majority of the men felt that it was no place for women. Lady Yalena muttered under her breath about the many women who followed soldiers around tending to their wounds during war, but didn't say anything directly to any of the men. Her husband placed a hand on her shoulder comfortingly.
Ronin used to think that a woman's place was at home raising children, but then he married the only close cousin of the King and realized that some women belonged outside of the home. His wife was actually an adviser and confident of both the King and Queen, which made her almost as politically valuable as any Lord in the Kingdom. Maybe even more so!
Then, staying home to raise children had taught him that not everyone was meant to do as they were supposed to. Finally, having twins taught him that girls and boys really could do the same things, and only other people's expectations taught most girls to stay home while most boys went out to learn how to defend the Kingdom if needed. The boys and girls themselves probably wouldn't think about it at all if not made to!
Without their commander around to maintain order, quite a bit of bickering ensued until a plan was finally agreed upon. Yalera almost pulled her hair out in frustration. The plan was to simply wait until the soldiers returned with more information, and in the meantime, be ready for an attack. She could have told them that!
Rohan was sent out to help guard the camp – since he had proven to everyone who had ever watched him spar that he was more than handy with a sword. Yalera – on the other hand – was told to stay in the tent and not be an easy target for any archers that might sneak up on them. She growled softly in frustration.
But I can help!” She protested to her mother when they were alone.
I know you can, my love, but they're right. You're the most important person here,” her mother reminded her. “If you're shot or kidnapped, all hope is lost!”
Yalera groaned in reluctant agreement. “I know... I just feel so useless!”
Better to feel useless than be killed,” her mother stated cheerfully as if telling her that it was better to wear blue with her complexion than gray.
Yalera rolled her eyes, sat on the surprisingly comfortable bed she shared with her mother, and crossed her arms. “That may be true, but I don't have to like it!”
Lady Yalena laughed, sat on the bed, put an arm around Yalera, and then kissed her on the cheek. “I see a lot of myself in you. You have my stubbornness! I had to get into trouble a lot before I learned how to compromise.”
Yalera had never thought of this before. She sat up a bit straighter and looked at her mother in surprise. The Lady giggled again.
Oh yes! I was always too stubborn for my own good! I'm so glad that both Yemry and Rolanna took after your father. He was always so kind and easy to get along with. He basically squared his shoulders and did every task he was given. The harder the better! He liked to work and hated being idle.”
Hmm...” Yalera hummed in thought. “I guess that Rohan is more like him too. He's always getting up early and working on something or other. Me? I like to work just fine, but my passion is hunting! Well... hunting and riding my horse. Racing along with the wind in my hair is the best feeling in the world!”
We have that in common as well,” Lady Yalena informed her daughter. “I was quite the equestrian in my youth. You may not remember it, but before I left to live in the Palace, I was the one who took you riding when you were just a tiny baby.”
I didn't know that...” Yalera murmured softly, now deep in thought.
She wondered what else she had in common with her mother. From her perspective, her mother had always been a loving and gentle woman who had a firm and commanding air around her. She always got what she wanted and knew that she would always get what she wanted. It made her a little intimidating, especially to those who didn't know her that well.
If you like to be wild and free – like me – then why did you want to go live at court?” Yalera asked her most puzzling question.
Ah...” Lady Yalena smirked. “Because... to me, there is nothing wilder than watching others. If you keep your eyes open, people will always manage to astonish you. You'll see affairs that don't make sense or perfectly proper ladies act like harridans when in distress... Maybe most surprising of all, you see men who otherwise seem like they don't care about anyone other than themselves do the most heroic acts of chivalry. I once saw an older gentleman – someone who never had a kind word for anyone! – rescue a starving cat from drowning in a well.”
With a knowing smile and a hug, the lady finished making her point. “As I said, people will always manage to surprise you!”
Yalera squinted at her suspiciously. “You're trying to tell me not to make any hasty judgments about my future husband, aren't you?”
Her mother simply shrugged as if saying: I don't know, am I?
Yalera sighed, slowly nodding her head. “Fine... I'll try not to form any opinions about him until he has managed to surprise me.”
Her mother laughed, which made Yalera giggle. Soon, they were both relaxed and had almost forgotten about the potential attack on their camp. Almost...

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