Chapter One : Part Four

The Runaways

“We have men stationed here, here, and there,” said Captain Cheven as he pointed at the blue flags that marked strategic locations on the map of the continent of Earlis that stretched across the large table in front of him. Cheven stood at one end of the massive wooden table while around it sat more than a dozen ranked officers in high backed wooden chairs.

Though it was growing dark outside, the room was well lit by thick candles in a brass chandelier overhead, torches along the walls, and a flickering fire that warded off the chill of the evening in the large stone room. A broad blue banner bearing the knotwork crest of the Cyrean royal house hung from floor to ceiling, flanked by ancient swords on either side.

Using a silver dagger as a pointer, Cheven drew a line from the coast to the city of Almontera as he said, “This is obviously the most direct route for the High Prince to take, but we’ve heard murmurs of outliers sowing seeds of unrest in the smaller villages here on the outskirts, so we should offer alternate routes in case of a protest blocking the way.”

“The Prince will be flanked by Vaim warriors. Who would be foolish enough to stand against him?” asked one of the seated captains as he leaned forward to examine the map more closely.

“No man in his right mind,” replied a quiet voice from the head of the table, “But we should have alternate plans in place, even if only to avoid potential bloodshed of our own people.”

Cheven nodded and leaned toward the map as he replied, “Yes, sire…” but his words were cut off by a sharp knock on the heavy wooden door that led out to the barracks’ great hall. With a hint of irritation in his voice, he called out, “Enter!”

The door opened and a young member of the palace guard, dressed in the formal blue uniform of the queen’s guard entered the room. The door closed behind him as he approached the head of the table and bowed. “Forgive me, sire. I know you asked to not be disturbed, but I have a message from your sister that could not be delayed.”

The man at the head of the table inclined his head and said, “Yes?”

“The little princess is missing. She’s not been seen since lessons let out this afternoon. When she did not join the family for the evening meal, your sister had the palace and the grounds searched, but there is no sign of her, and it grows dark outside.”

Violet eyes narrowing, Prince Kellen D’Cyr rose from his seat, and the others gathered around the table stood as well. “You’ve checked the hedge maze? The stables? The practice grounds?”

“We’ve checked the entirety of the grounds, sire, and no one has seen her since Beswarick dismissed the children this afternoon,” reported the young lieutenant who’d been tasked with delivering an update on the search.

“Blighted shadows,” the prince growled under his breath, pushing aside the chair that bound him to the table and striding for the door. “Expand the search, from here to the town. And call for Fitch and his father. If anyone knows anything it’ll be that boy.”

The guard cleared his throat. “Sire… Fitch Prieten is missing as well.”

Kellen closed his eyes and sighed deeply. “Of course he is. If my sister is in trouble, you’d better believe he’s at the heart of it.” He looked at Cheven, who’d moved to stand at his prince’s side. “Of all the days for them to choose to run off, they would choose today.”

“I’ll gather men to search,” Cheven started, but he was cut off again by the door opening. One of the gate guards entered.

“Sire, there’s been a disturbance in town…”

“Of course there has, because this day can’t end peacefully, can it? Have the city guard manage it,” Kellen commanded.

“They have, sire… but there’s a man here with a report I thought you should hear.”

The guard stepped aside, and a tall, broad man dressed roughly in wool and leather, with long, dark hair streaked with grey and a matching beard, entered. He dropped to one knee before Kellen and bowed his head. “Sire,” he whispered deferentially.

“Rise,” Kellen commanded. As the man rose to his feet, Kellen asked, “What’s your name?”

“Sondham, sire. Bladesmith of Almontera.”

The gate guard spoke up, “He’s my brother, sire.”

Kellen nodded in response, then turned his attention back to the bladesmith. “And what report do you have of the disturbance in Almontera?”

“Two youngins visited my stall in the market today. I thought they was boys, but the one referred to the other as his sister. Looked mostly like street urchins, an’ I caught them touchin’ a couple a me blades. I called em out on it and the one boy said it was his birthday and his pa gave them money to buy somethin’ in town today. They barely flinched at givin’ me sixty pieces of silver for the blades, sire. And when the lass gave me the money, I noticed her eyes… they weren’t blue, they was the same color as yours, my prince. And the boy mentioned Cap’n Cheven here, an’ he was callin’ her ‘Aiya.’” Sondham bowed his head.

Kellen leveled a furious gaze on Cheven. “How did they make it to town? Who was watching the gate today?”

Sondham cleared his throat before Cheven could respond. “That’s not all, sire,” he said, his voice quiet for a man who stood a head taller than most others in the room.

“Yes?” Kellen prompted.

“The mess in town today… Not too long after they left me stall, I saw two kids running, knocking into carts and stalls in tha market. There was three men chasin’ em, shouting for em to stop. And the girl… she had white hair flyin’ in the wind.”

“Saddle my horse,” Kellen commanded no one in particular, but a soldier darted from the room as the prince stepped closer to the bladesmith. “Did you see which way they went?”

“They ran to tha east,” Sondham replied.

Kellen turned to Cheven. “I want thirty men in the courtyard, now. We ride to town and beyond.” With a curt nod, Cheven stepped from the room, barking orders as he went.

The prince shifted his attention back to the bladesmith and said, “You, Sondham, have you seen the men who were chasing them before?”

“Aye, sire. They been skulking around town the past few weeks.”

“Get this man a horse,” Kellen commanded a nearby guard. “You’re coming with us,” he ordered the bladesmith. “Show my men where they’ve been staying. If anyone is inside, I want them held. If not, sit on the place until someone returns, or I send for you.”

The next several minutes passed in a flurry of activity as men armed themselves and a group of soldiers gathered in the barracks’ courtyard. Kellen, armed now with an elaborate sword strapped to his back, mounted the grey stallion next to Cheven’s black one at the head of the line.

“The men are ready, sire. Six will accompany the bladesmith while the rest will fan out and start the search. The city guard has been notified as well and they will take the streets of town as they know it best. We can focus our attention beyond the walls to the east. We’ll find her.”

“And may the Light have mercy on her when we do, because I won’t,” the prince growled. Then, with a shout, the gathered troops charged from the barracks toward the city of Almontera.

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