WHOOSH… WHOOSH….WHOOSH… –
Alongside Gurjin Naia rode her landstrider, following arrow after arrow through the woods. She remained hesitant about leaving Kylan and Tavra behind, but her gut told her urVa was sincere. If not, she would use all her hunting merit to call his bluff, just as she promised with Rian back at the podling pub. She side-glanced to Gurjin occasionally, watching for signs of weariness or sleep but he rode on strong, his eyes almost aflame.
WHOOSH… WHOOSH…. The arrows ceased.
"Whoah…" Naia and Gurjin rode to a halt.
"Dobah, dobah," Gurjin soothed to the landstriders, then turned his head to and fro, his dreadlocks swinging round his head as he scanned the area. They had come to a long narrow stretch of treeless ground, almost a ravine. Nothing else stood out to Naia. Time passed. There were still no more arrows. Naia could not see any sign of Rian or skeksis. Just a little, she began to worry they had been duped.
"Ahhhhhh…." Gurjin seemed to have figured something out, his eyes taking a final sweep of the area then became focused on the ground. Dismounting, Gurjin began to study it, his methods akin to traditional Drenchen tracking and something else. Dismounting her landstrider, Naia tried to figure out what Gurjin was studying. While not as experienced with tracts in dry earth, Naia guessed something large passed through here on occasion, like a pathway trodden by giants. Gurjin confirmed her guesswork.
"This is a route the skeksis use. They ride their carriages through here." He scratched his cheek thoughtfully then lay himself on the ground. Dreadlocks pooling around his head, he pressed one of his ears to the earth and stayed quiet and still, eyes closed. Naia recognized what Tavra had done when leading her and Kylan through the Dark Woods to the Castle. Holding back questions, she allowed Gurjin to listen.
Before long he picked himself up, saying, "A carriage is coming. It'll be here in moments!" Looking round the area again, he pointed to where a few tree branches arced over the path. "Whadda say?"
Naia nodded her agreement and without further word the twins raced for the indicated tree and nimbly hulled themselves up. Still feeling urVa's ta coursing through her, she felt more trusting of him now. Gurjin sounded a small ouch as he climbed but did not falter. Seconds before they were in position Naia heard it: a great rumbling rapidly approaching. Alarmed by the ruckus, the two landstriders streaked off, their purpose served till the next time they could be bribed. Naia had no doubt the carriage coming into view was a skeksis one: not even the All-Maudra could have required such a massive transport. The design was a giveaway too.
Sharing a wordless countdown, Naia and Gurjin dropped from their perch onto the carriage as it raced under them.
From within Naia heard a non-gelfling voice. "What was that?"
Gurjin leaned over the edge of the carriage looking in. "Hello there!"
Naia recognized the next voice which came from closer on her side. "Gurjin!"
Feeling vindicated for trusting urVa (and her gut) and pleased with her brother's levity, Naia played along.
Leaning over the roof, looking in, she saw the surprised Stonewood seated across from the just as surprised Chamberlain, both of them looking at Gurjin's upside down face. "Rian…!" she said in a sing-song tone.
Rian turned round. "Naia!"
She extended her arms to him. "It's time to go!" Rian reached out and met them, letting himself get hauled out.
"So long, Chamberlain!"
Tolyn limped–marched to the double doors of the throne room, self-conscious of his bandages and bruises. His eyes remained sore as well from the Vapran's light attack, leaving him bereft of his usual glare.
All the castle's healers were occupied with the more urgent casualties, like Penga, so Tolyn only received a simple first aid – which would be enough for him. He was strong. He was the acting-captain.
Pausing before the doors, Tolyn forced himself again to straighten his posture, letting out a small groan. His ribs ached from his humiliating tumble from that bola trip. His fingers clenched about his spear like the throat of whoever denied him his chance to a proper standoff with that Vapran paladin and repaying the harm done to Penga and the other comrades under his charge.
Huffing to himself, he passed through the double doors.
Awaiting him, the Emperor sat upon the throne, sided by the Scroll-Keeper and Gourmet. Tolyn's understanding was that the Collector and Ornamentalist were also getting treated for wounds inflicted by the traitors. Traitors who escaped on his watch. Before the remaining Lords his anger with himself was quickly dissipating into anxiety.
"I answer your summons, my emperor," Tolyn bowed, hoping to not break out in a sweat nor his voice crack.
"Ah, acting-Captain Tolyn, yes," skekSo acknowledged almost cordially. "I have need of assistance. Assistance only a gelfling can offer."
Tolyn straightened, resisting to fidget. Was he not going to be admonished after all? "How can I be of service?" he asked stiffly.
The Emperor tilted his head, idly fiddling with his sceptre while he fixated on the gelfling. "You are Spriton. Spritons typically master the craft of dream-stitching; imprinting their memories into an object or surface. Am I correct?"
Tolyn puffed his chest out even though it hurt. "Yes my lord, on both accounts. I devote myself to every craft within my clan, be it dream-stitching, spear combat, bola throwing, landstrider riding, agriculture - "
"Yes, yes, that will do," the emperor cut him off. He momentarily seemed to have something caught in his throat, drawing curious stares from the Scroll-Keeper and Gourmet. Tolyn shivered in his uniform when the two skeksis eyed him as if daring him to notice.
The Emperor's episode passed and his tone smoothed over, friendly again. "As you know, it is regrettable and worrisome that Rian's mind sickness has begun to spread, and that his new accomplices have broken out the infected traitor Drenchen." Tolyn's gut clenched as he bent – pardon, bowed – in understanding and agreement, appreciating a courteous means to break eye-contact.
"We must take this as a sign that Captain Ordon has failed in his mission to capture Rian, and has either perished or become infected himself."
In his bow Tolyn nearly doubled over. For all the disdain he felt towards Rian, he revered Ordon the Spitter Slayer. Ordon was deserving of a grand memorial if the worst had happened. The Emperor's next words recaptured Tolyn's focus and he straightened.
"Another concern is that one of the newly infected is princess Katavra of Ha'rar." Tolyn blinked, then nodded again. That paladin was the All-Maudra's daughter?
"By unfortunate timing," the Emperor continued, "the General and Ritual Master have just recently departed for Ha'rar on separate business and do not bear the news of the princess's corruption. I expect the tainted daughter will soon try to make it back to Ha'rar herself, and risks spreading her corruption among the royal family."
Tolyn took a step forward. "Sire, if you wish it, I will ride to Ha'rar immediately to warn the All-Maudra. As I said, I am proficient in landstrider riding-"
The Emperor raised a silencing hand. "No, no, the soldier-princess has too great a head start. We need a quicker method to be sure the All-Maudra is informed well beforehand and takes appropriate precautions. Only a message on the wing can reliably overtake the princess." The Emperor leaned forward, his tone becoming ever softer, sympathetic. "And we must be considerate. The queen would likely need some time to accept her own daughter has sadly turned against the Lords of Thra."
"Yes. I suppose that makes sense," Tolyn mused aloud, recalling Ordon's moroseness when he extended his position as Acting-Captain to go find Rian. Tolyn caught himself sagging again, and straightened his posture with a wince. "What of the Drenchen clan? I understand both the Drenchen traitors to be children of Maudra Laesid, one of them her heir as successor to Great Smerth. And that Sprit-… other lad? The really mad one."
The Emperor dragged his sceptre through the air in hypnotizing figure eights. "To all those questions: I will personally prepare a letter for each maudra to explain the grieving news, and send them by wind sifter. Here is where I need you. To spare the Maudras of all doubt, I would like you to dream-stitch your own accounts of the prison break into the letters. Show the infallible truth." The Emperor leaned forward with a pointed smile. "Dream-stitches never lie after all."
Understanding and pride welled up within the Spriton guard. "I would be honored to assist the Lords of the Crystal and the Maudras in these dark times."
The Emperor's tone was grinning as he exclaimed, "Excellent. I will prepare the first letter and we will have it flying to Ha'rar before the third Brother's zenith. You will be summoned when ready. You are dismissed…, Captain Tolyn."
Promise me, someday we'll sail away. To a place where no one can find us. Where there are no Sifa… no Vapra…Where doesn't matter. Where we can just be… one.
"Tavra…Tavra…Wake up! Tavra!" Tavra was roused from a deep slumber of bliss and longing to a ruckus of excited chatter. Blinking sleepiness and afternoon light from her eyes, she made out Kylan and Naia kneeling over her. Naia kept jostling her till Tavra finally slapped her off. Sitting up she propped herself on her elbows, trying to remember when she decided to nap and internally frowned. A cursory look around her showed they were still at urVa's campsite. By the current position of the Brothers Tavra could tell some time had passed since ta with urVa.
Naia and Kylan were not looking their best. Kylan had a mostly healed bruise on his cheek and looked in need of some shut-eye. Disheveled dreadlocks and dark bags forming under her eyes, Naia looked like an insomniac.
Over Kylan's shoulder Tavra spotted Gurjin in the background, and – "Rian," Tavra remarked, sitting upright.
"Ahh, her highness awakens," Rian quipped, smiling yet misty eyed. He appeared in both enheartened and wounded spirits. Tavra could not help notice Captain Ordon was absent.
"Done with your beauty sleep?" Gurjin asked, looking rather like he needed some. He and Rian were securing a few packs, and large saddle looking things; too big for landstriders.
Tavra's ears tilted back, embarrassment creeping up her cheeks. Had she been the only one to doze off? As sleepiness receded further, Tavra noted a great sense of relief throughout her body. She admittingly felt famished and in great need of a wash and change of clothes but otherwise sound. "What happened?" she asked, trying to keep her voice dignified as nothing else was keeping that way. She looked round the campsite for another occupant. "Where is urVa?"
"Uh, where to start?!" Gurjin exclaimed. "We've rescued Rian, liberated a few armaligs and totalled a skeksis carriage while at it, had an uber-dreamfast, met Aughra, and are now about to make for Ha'rar!"
"And everyone got a title, except Gurjin," Naia added with a grin. "Maybe you could have gotten one were you awake for it," she teased.
Tavra blinked, rubbing her temple and trying to wrap her still waking head around this. "You all did what without waking me?" Heat and bother continued to climb her cheeks.
Kylan looked sheepish. "I'm sorry. You seemed really peaceful when everyone got back, and then Rian was just going to show us..." Kylan faltered, his countenance becoming disturbed. "Well, he was going to show us something in dreamfast, then…" his brow wrinkled in contemplation. "We all got pulled into dreamspace." He shared a shrug with Naia. "We didn't see it coming."
Tavra blinked at the term. Dreamspace….she's heard plenty about it. Tavra absently fingered at her luck charm, pining to return to the dream she was just having. "What then? You said something about Aughra?"
Rian walked over and said, a bit impatient but not unkindly, "We can explain on the way. We really need to move."
Naia nodded to him though she contradicted it with a dismissive wave. "We'll be going soon, keep your pants on. Gurjin tells me you were never an early riser, and he already has poor standards."
Rian and Gurjin shared a pouted look and a shrug at Naia that shouted What the heck?
Flashing an amused smile to them, Kylan then sheepishly admitted to Tavra, "Waking you just now was difficult. urVa added something to your ta to help you sleep."
"I was gonna spit on my finger and stick it in your ear," Naia added.
Trying to feel more angry than embarrassed, Tavra pushed down her indignation at being drugged, even if to medical effect. Mother would not approve of her getting hoodwinked like that. Her feelings turned sentimental upon recalling Brea sneakily drugging Elder Cadia.
Brea… Seladon… How were they faring? Had they received any news yet? If not from Rian and Ordon...
"How are you feeling?" Naia asked, voice and face turned caring. "I gave some more tending to your wounds." Her brow creased. "Your arm in particular. urVa apparently wanted me to look at. Something about it did feel off till after I treated it."
From where she sat Tavra did another self assessment and found indeed, while her attire was still half in tatters, the skin underneath was mostly mended, though skekEkt's claw marks may become a new scar set. Turning and flexing her sword arm, she found it notably free of a toxic tingle that had plagued her since her encounter with the Emperor. Lying nearby, her sword sadly remained impaired.
"Much better. Thank you." She inclined her head to Naia.
She returned the gesture. "Least I could do after your help at the castle." Naia's mien turned softer, sentimental. She side-glanced at Kylan.
"Tavra…," Kylan spoke, his words weighted. Tavra sat up further, attentive and slightly trepidatious.
"We saw your mother and sisters in dreamspace," Naia said. Tavra's heart quaked.
"Your family knows the truth," Kylan softly explained. "What the skeksis, Rian, and you have really done. They're waiting for us in Ha'rar. Your mother has lit the first fire of Resistance against the skeksis."
Tavra's gaze drifted inward, breath taken away as the words sank in. So long she disagreed on her mother's way of government - clan integration in particular - and methods for preparing Seladon. Now... she felt an unfamiliar, indescribable hope and pride in her mother's brave stance.
In afterthought Kylan anticlimactically added, "Oh, and if you're hungry, I set aside some broth."
Author's note: Here concludes my (partial) AU for episode 5 of Age of Resistance. Episodes 6 through 10 are either in early draft or at least thought through in my head.