*This post is part of the Write 31 Days challenge.*
Prince Ottelo opened the door to his chamber still rubbing sleep out of his eyes. His wavy hair was sticking out in all different directions, nightshirt falling open to reveal the scar on his chest from a playful duel that got out of hand a few years ago when he and Pitney had set their eyes on the same girl. Pitney had won the duel and the girl.
“What?” He asked the open door without opening his eyes to see who had knocked. Through thin slits his eyes made out a tall and dark, blurry figure.
“You’re wanted in the main hall.” Lord Pitney shoved him back into his room and slammed the door behind him.
“What in the –“
Pitney went straight for his dressing room and brought out his riding gear and boots.
“Put these on. We will leave as soon as you are ready.”
“Pitney, what is the manner of all of this? I must have just fallen to sleep less than an hour ago.” Even as he protested, he pulled over his shirtdress, then his leather riding vest and allowed Pitney to attach his belt.
“Two hours ago, actually. This is precisely why you need a valet. This is not my job.” Pitney typically would have teased him about dressing, but there was a hurried need in his tone that kept them both silent.
“Princes Edward and Benjamin arrived at the gate and asked for your presence. Your father is losing his mind over it. Apparently, the queen had to round him up out of some servant girl’s chamber. Why he can’t bring them to him, I will never know…”
“Pitney, please. Spare me my father’s detrimental behavior. Why are they here? Lady ReAnne? Did she also make the journey?”
At his question, Pitney stopped and looked in Ottelo’s eyes. “It is because of her they are here. Something has happened, but they will not relay the story to me, only that it is urgent. They wait for you in the main hall.”
Ottelo’s heart dropped into the pit of his stomach. “ReAnne…” he muttered under his breath as both men ran through the castle to where the princes had been given something to eat and drink. Pitney followed close behind.
“Prince Edward, Prince Benjamin,” Ottelo bowed to each.
“Prince Ottelo, please…we haven’t much time.” Edward put down his bread and took one last sip of water as he stood. Benjamin stood with him, though he hid his face far beneath his wide-brimmed hat. “Our sister has grown ill and under the orders of the Great King, we must set out for the land of Havarth to find the cure.”
“Havarth?” Ottelo and Pitney said in unison.
Three hours later, the cavalcade of four found themselves traveling northeast, positioning their hoods to best block out the blinding glare of sunrise. Ottelo and Pitney were in the grey of Staas while Edward and Benjamin, absent his hat that was now tied to the side of his horse, wore the navy of Mirias. Their cloaks were the only defining marks they possessed. Dennis had stayed behind, against his wishes but at the insistence of the Great King, to aid Lady Kaelah in caring for ReAnne. He was a quick learner and could help research by providing another set of eyes to peruse the many manuscripts and books.
Of the four, they rode in mostly silence, having relayed the story during the first hour of their journey. Both Ottelo and Pitney trailed behind Edward and Benjamin, each horse keeping time and a healthy space between each other so that if either pair were to speak, it would be hard to make out a conversation. They were surrounded by patches of black earth and large ashen tree trunks that spoke of the devastation a fire had caused. Few birds flew above their heads and the least used trade route that would take them beyond the borders of the treaty and the Blessing was rocky and overgrown by ground moss. Small shrubs and prickly vines had begun their takeover of the forest floor, but out of the ashes and the ground cover that threatened to suffocate all underneath, a few small sprigs of what would be majestic trees had begun to push their way through to the sunlight above. A forest in a time of rebirth.
Pitney was the first to break the silence. “Why do I feel as if there is something they aren’t telling us?” He barely moved his head in Ottelo’s direction.
“She was kidnapped and poisoned. The Great King insists that we find the cure. Do you disagree with that assessment?”
Pitney dropped his voice even lower, keeping his eyes on Edward. “It just makes me wonder. Why come get us? It was obviously an attack by the Coills. It has their fingerprints all over it: field attack, young maiden, sleeping potion. And yet, none have spoken of the likelihood. I am not in a position to give my opinion to more than you, but surely, you have already thought of it? So why not just go find the cure themselves and pretend it never happened? Then, the binding would not be in jeopardy to us, and we’d be no worse for wear. Why call us to their aid?”
Ottelo pause for a moment, measuring his response against the knowledge of Pitney’s affection towards ReAnne. He agreed that the Coills were highly suspect, but also understood a king’s need for secrecy, though the Great King seemed to keep more than average. “Let us not forget it is my binding that would be in jeopardy, Pitney. While I may wish for it to be postponed, I have not considered severing it outright, no matter her health. Admittedly, there is a curious air about it. If it is more life threatening than what they are telling us, I suppose we will find out, soon enough. Take heart, my friend. Including us only strengthens the future ties between Mirias and Staas, not weakens it.”
Pitney visibly straightened himself in the saddle. “Yes. I’m sure all will be well if it is as easy as they are making it to seem. If it is life or death, I just wish they would say so. That is all.”
They both turned straight ahead to stare at the rider in front of them and didn’t speak for hours. Ottelo thought on what Pitney said, not wanting to believe there was anything quite as harrowing as death coming upon ReAnne. He was not sure what poison ailed her, and while he had not chosen Veil of Mind as his gift and was not able to sense a person’s emotion, he was sure that Prince Edward was hiding something.
A sudden stop of the two riders in front of them broke his thoughts. Edward walked Regal in a wide berth as Benjamin fell in line behind him. Benjamin’s navy cloak usually fell far over his face to block his eyes from others, but now, he threw it back and called his brother’s name.
“I see it,” Edward replied.
Ottelo and Pitney were left shrugging their shoulders at each other as they fell in a singular line behind Benjamin and his chestnut mount, Tuens.
“Anyone care to fill us in? Is it a vex?” Pitney asked, as the distance between them and a large bush filled to capacity with berries grew ever larger.
Benjamin turned and addressed Ottelo in a whisper. “Those berries are not in season, therefore, they are suspect.”
Ottelo nodded, but noted Prince Edward was intently focused on it and Benjamin was speaking slowly and softly to him. If it were just out of season berries, why was Edward trying to exercise his gift in broad daylight with only what little shadow the bush cast?
When it was more behind them, rather than to their sides, Edward did one quick look back before clicking his tongue and sending Regal into a gallop. The other three followed suit and they rode in silence until it was far behind them.
“Your Majesty, is the danger passed?” Ottelo asked, Pitney’s concern having bothered him more than he cared to admit.
“Our journey is long before us, Prince. Please, call me Edward. Yes it is, now. Though, it was not a vex, Benjamin perceived that it was most definitely human. Probably a scout for a gang of marauders. But none of us are wearing our crest, nor seem to be of great value, so hopefully, we have outrun any idea of a petty thief. This deadened forest is not providing adequate protection and shadows are scarce. Another four hours along this path and we should be at the edge of the treaty borders. It is then we will know life without blessing. Tell me, has your father, King Lothair, ever taken you beyond borders?”
“Yes, he has. To his credit and mine, I suppose. It is a sort of deadening within the heart, is it not?”
“I agree. Benjamin and I went for the first time shortly after he accepted Veil of Mind on his Confirmation Day. The Great King wanted us both to know what our gifts felt like when the Spirit of Blessing wasn’t assisting them. It is harder to focus and, for me, the darkness becomes harder to resist. Thankfully, he has made it part of our training to frequent the borders. That is how I first knew that bush was to be studied. Those berries typically only grow here in the winter months, and we are just at the completion of summer with autumn yet ahead of us.”
“So, someone uprooted a plant in winter and hid behind it?” Pitney asked.
“More like, someone with great skill as an artist recreated the bush, my friend.” Ottelo offered.
Benjamin rode up alongside them until they were three wide on the road, with Pitney falling behind. “I find I second guess myself beyond the borders. It is a frightening thought to not be sure of one’s intent when it counts the most, and yet, while within treaty borders and even more so behind the walls of Mirias, I am quite sure of everyone’s most forefront emotion. Of course, most people within Mirias do not have intents set upon doom, either. Tell me, Ottelo, how is your gift prevailed upon? I have always wondered how the gift of Mind Mirage works. I hear it is routinely given to those within the Order to aid in the gentle passing of life. They can create a wonderful, peaceful atmosphere as the elderly or injured pass on. I wonder…what use it would do for a k-“
Before he could finish his sentence, an army of uncrested knights slowly came into focus in front of them. The sun glinted against their armor, causing all of them to squint. Some were on mounts, arrows drawn, while rows and rows followed behind them, on foot with swords and shields in ready position, walking in their direction. In the very front was the commander seated high on a tall, black, horse.
“What in the world?” Benjamin muttered.
Edward pulled suddenly on Regal’s reigns while Benjamin pulled Tuens off the road completely. Ottelo glanced over at Pitney and the two of them drew their swords, racing towards the army and a sure defeat. Not to be outdone by a prince of Staas, Edward resettled himself into the saddle and heeled Regal two times, pushing him towards a sprint. As they charged forward, the commander dropped his sword and the knights both on steed and on foot, made quick gains towards them. Just as the commander, who was still in the lead, closed the gap and swung his sword towards Ottelo’s head, the whole army dissipated, like a cloud of smoke.
Ottelo and Pitney took one look at Edward’s confused face and roared in laughter. Benjamin slowly brought Tuens out from behind his hiding place, suppressing a chuckle.
“What? What was that?” Edward circled Regal, still searching for a sign of the army.
“Sorry, Edward. I wasn’t aware you and Benjamin had not seen the gift of Mind Mirage in person.”
“No, no we haven’t. I have heard tales of it in whisperings of travelers from the other kingdoms, but I have never seen it in person. A whole army? That is incredible.”
“And some would say…dangerous.” Benjamin eyed Ottelo curiously. “I understand now why our gifts are well suited.” Ottelo bowed his head in acknowledgment.
When nothing further was explained, Edward raised an eyebrow towards Benjamin. “Care to explain that, brother?”
“Sorry to not let you in on the secret, Ed. It took me a moment, after the shock of what my eyes were seeing, for me to figure out what my gift was processing. I am fairly new at this, often over-taken by my vision instead of what I know to be true. But once Ottelo and Pitney ran so recklessly towards sure defeat, I stopped and assessed, as one should. It took me just a moment longer to realize that while I could see an army, I could not measure their intent.”
Edward shook his head and looked over at Ottelo, who was still smiling.
“There was nothing to feel from them. No rage. No anger. But most telling of all was the absence of fear within them. There is always a measure of it somewhere within a person. Even Ottelo, who was throwing the mirage, gave off small traces of the natural fear that elevates when faced with an opponent. Bravo, Prince. That was well-conceived.”
Ottelo accepted the congratulations with a grunt and a nod. He hadn’t meant to frighten them so much, but they were on a journey together and it would do well for all of them to know each others strengths and weaknesses of their individual gifting. Ottelo shot Pitney a pitying glance. Since the gifts were subject to royal blood, poor Pitney would be the odd man out during this journey. Thankfully, his skills as a swordsman were well documented, by far more than the scar on Ottelo’s chest. At least now, Ottelo had an idea of why the Great King had insisted on his presence during this expedition. The more gifts within a caravan, the more protected it is, the more likely the journey was to be a success. This also meant that whatever they were searching for was a more harrowing task than Edward or Benjamin had made it out to be.