Hello all! This is my first attempt at a story, but the second posting of this particular one. Why? I wanted to combine my previous chapters into a longer one, and I wanted to fix any errors I had. Flames, constructive criticism, and praise are all welcomed. I must admit, when I see that little 'review' button or get emails, something warm and fuzzy fills me up. Now, I know things of this plot have been done before, but I would appreciate it if you read it anyway. I started writing this on a whim.

The morning sun beat down on her thinly covered back, almost mocking her pain in its cheeriness. Today was not the day for sunny thoughts. Aaralyn touched the still recently upturned ground lightly, and then turned her face deliberately from it. Honey colored eyes became cold with purpose as she strode to her fleet footed mare. She mounted with ease, pulled up her ragged shawl further over her head, and with a small wave started the company moving.

Lyn looked back on her Uncle's grave, wishing she had more time to linger and mourn. But that was what they needed most, time, and not a second of it was to be wasted. The war was over, and they had lost. There was simply no way to get around it. They had to make their escape, now, before the soldiers arrived.

Anxiously, the young woman checked their little party, making sure all were present. The members of the household had formed small groups, all going to their stake out at different times and by different paths. Lyn's group was the last to leave, as she had to make sure everything had been taken care of. And thanks to her, it had. The Duchy was stripped of everything and anything, in an effort to give the arriving troops the welcome they deserved.

All the glamour of her past life was gone. Most had been sold or traded for food and mounts. Her splendid gowns had been traded in for the clothing of peasants, but Lyn wasn't sure if she minded the change. It was much easier to walk and ride this way, anyway. Not to mention the fact that she didn't have to have help getting her clothes on in the first place.

"Are you all right, Lyn?" The deep voice of her cousin interrupted her thoughts. The young woman looked up at Bryson, and managed a grim smile and a nod.

"I will get by, Bry." She said, looking at the worry in his dark grey eyes.

It was a hard time on all of them, and the last thing she needed was him trying to take some of the load. She was the once future heiress, and this whole deal was her responsibility, despite what she had been told. Aaralyn still felt as if it was her deal, even though she personally was not at fault for their loss of the war and the executing of her uncle.

Under her grey shawl, dark brown eyes swept over the path in front of her, cold and calculating. They had picked up a quick pace, moving at as canter as they got on more familiar ground. Wordlessly, the small group continued on their roughly beaten path. A fork in the road appeared, and Lyn slowed, the rest of her trope following suit.

With a slightly nod, Bryson and half of the people broke off, taking the left fork. Struggling with the feeling that something wasn't right, Lyn waved the rest of her group not to the other fork, but straight into the woods. They were following an animal trail, as planned, which had its negative and positive points to it. On the up side, they were less likely to be followed, but this also meant that the going was slower and more difficult for the horses.

The trail was over grown and mossy, with the prints of several animals lining it. Such paths generally led towards water, as this one did. But for now, it followed the still distant stream. In time it would widen to become a river, where they would have to ford it carefully to avoid being swept downwards by the currents. Currently, the path was pleasant, sprinkles of wild flowers growing in spurts along it. There was no time to stop and admire its beauty, though. The important thing now was getting them all safely to the caverns where they could hide.

Traveling in silence was preferred, but Aaralyn knew it wouldn't be possible. Their group was small, only six horses, with seven people. The oldest and youngest had been sent ahead first to conserve time and energy. The oldest in this group was a stout baker of around forty seasons; the youngest were twins, a boy and a girl, of seven. Lyn could not help but feel proud at the strength and unwavering trust in her.

Looking back, she spotted one of her dearest friends, Edric, riding with his younger sister, one of the twins, in front of him. She smiled briefly at him, listening to the young red haired man explain the ways of the three legged deer that roamed their forest frequently. Captivated, the fire haired child listened with wide eyes, stopping him from time to time to ask quiet questions.

The dark haired woman shuddered, looking at the woods with suspicion. It was a pity, for as a child she had known these woods intimately, running and leaping and playing. Things were most certainly different now, and the trees seemed immense and foreboding. Even the gurgling stream seemed to be whispering a warning. Swallowing her doubts, the exiled duchess urged her mare further in.

The minutes ticked by in what felt like hours, and the Lyn and her followers made progress. Eventually, the stream they had been traveling along widened, and spread out before them, cutting off all means of escape should the need arise. The quiet murmuring that had accompanied had escalated to a roar as their company stood in front of the river.

Taking a deep breathe, Lyn knew what she had to do.

"We have to for…" She started to an older man who was beside her, but he raised a hand for silence.

There. A tell tale snap of a branch. Lyn turned anxiously to warn the others, but was caught unawares when a tip of cold metal pricked her neck.

"No one move." The voice was hard and deep, startling their group out of silence and into action.

"Get going, now!" Lyn shrieked, turning her own mount, which reared and struck out at the captain who had moments ago held his blade to the young woman's neck.

That was all it took, and the horses surged across the river, Aaralyn's mare included. Unfortunately, their leader had slipped off of its back. The dark haired woman had barely landed when she was up again. Taking a deep breath, Lyn waded into the river. It's chill bit at her bones, but she gritted her teeth and continued on. She fought against the currents, which tugged at her feet and threatened to pull them out from under her. As she struggled, an arrow whizzed far too closely to her head for comfort.

This caught Lyn off guard, and the current won its battle, sweeping her downstream. Hands scrambled for something, anything, to hold onto. She managed to grip a rock, and clung to it for all she was worth. The moss was slippery, and the tug of the current was too much for her. Lyn released her grip, slipping back into the frigid waters. The swirling torrents grabbed her, pulling her head under the surface. She breached the surface, gasping for air, and weakly succumbed to it again.

The cold was biting, and the young woman could no longer feel her fingers. Plops as arrows hit the water near her provided a counter point to her struggles. She gaped, water forcing its way into her lungs. In a last ditch effort, she kicked out. At the same moment, an arrow was buried firmly into her shoulder Lyn's body was thrashed in the opposite direction, and just as she was about to give up, her head struck a rock. The last thing she recalled was a feeling of helplessness as the world faded before her.

"She should be back by now; she really should be!" The young man argued with himself, pacing across the roughly hewn floor of the cavern.

Dark grey eyes flitted over the area, then to the entrance of the cave. Bryson struggled to control the emotions that were creeping up on him and attempting to make the dirty blond haired man loose his temper. As it was, three former stable hands stood clustered, watching their young master with worried eyes. Their own party had arrived three bells ago, but not a word had been heard from the group led by Bryson's cousin.

The former Count had practically worn a path where he was walking in the bell and a half since they had begun to worry. Knowing that the path Lyn chose would take longer than his own, at first nothing had seemed out of the normal. But the minutes dragged by slowly, and there had been not a word from them. Concerned, Bryson had sent out several search parties of his most trusted friends, but they had yet to return.

Tired with his pacing, the young man burst out into the afternoon sun, breathing deeply and observing the bustle around him. Almost everything was going as planned, and the groups that had arrived earlier were setting up camp. Hopefully they wouldn't have to stay here for long, but that had yet to be decided. Bryson closed his eyes briefly, pausing to calm himself. Yes, Aaralyn was still missing, but that didn't mean everything was going wrong. All the rest of the companies set out had arrived, more or less without injury. There was one broken arm when a little boy had slipped off the back of his horse, but that was all.

"Milord, the mage Marlked has seen something in the water; I thought it was best to summon you." A young page boy said, earnestly searching the older man's face for any signs of disapproval.

Smiling slightly, Bryson patted the boy on the shoulder. Without a word, he scrambled awkwardly down the slope towards a cavern off to the right. Striding in, he was shortly at the older man's side. The silence in the room was complete, even the sounds from outside were blocked. Bry leaned over the old man's shoulder, peering intently into the perfectly still surface of the water. Not a muscle on Marlked moved as he stared down, eyes out of focus.

Several long, agonizing moments went be this way. Bryson had seen his eldest family mage at work many times, and he knew that concentration was of the essence. This was probably the reason for the silence spells on the whole cavern. There was no one else in the room, even the young page boy had left them in peace.

With a sudden jerk, the water was upset. Marlked stood up, smiling benignly at the younger man before him. Bryson's eyes searched the bright, sharp ones of the other. Silence stretched between them for a long moment before the old mage finally spoke.

"The soldiers have arrived at the estate. Things are going as planned." The old man stated firmly.

Bryson smiled, feeling more relieved than he had in a long time. He let out the breath he didn't know he had been holding, hands unclenching from his sides.

"And Aaralyn, did you see her?" He asked cautiously, fearing the answer.

Frowning, Marlked shook his head. So there was no news then, and all was left was to wait until someone returned. Hopefully Aaralyn would be the face Bryson saw, but the others from her company would be welcomed as well, even if a little less so in Bry's vision. But if Marlked had not been able to find anything, then hope was slim. The old mage was, after all, the best in the country.

"Thank you, Mage Marlked." Bryson smiled thinly at the older man, placing a hand on his shoulder to back up his gratitude.

He received a nod for response, and with a florid bow, the young man excused himself, going back outside to allow the man to rest. Bryson was worried about their mage; he seemed to grow older every day, the lines becoming deeper on his face. Frail movements and frequent yawns also were clues to signs of aging. Bryson didn't know what they would do without the old man.

At least things at the estate were going well. They had left it bare, and deserted, or so it seemed. In truth, they had left some rather nasty tricks for them. Anywhere from animal feces to oil slicked the halls and roads, making it almost impossible to travel along them, especially horse back. Thin wires, just about chest height for a mounted man, were stretched between all the trees in the surrounding forest. These were old tricks, but handy and useful nonetheless. It was all they could do to protect the groups heading up the mountains, and hopefully hold off all the soldiers.

According to Marlked, all of their little tricks had been deployed quiet neatly, and that was one thing to be grateful for. Bryson sighed, rubbing his eyes and looking around. The quiet bustle as people settled around him was soothing, and he felt his worries begin to melt away. The thumping of his heart, however, remained erratic.

Shocked, Bryson realized too late that the pounding was not his heart, but the rhythmic sounds of hoof beats. His hopes and heart soared as he sprinted to the path they had been using for travel in and out of the camp. Sure enough, a sweat drenched rider arrived within a matter of seconds. Bry cursed when the man slumped over weakly in the saddle. Several hands caught him before he fell, and the pale, shaking man was lowered to a rock.

"Are you all right?" Bryson demanded, crouching before the fellow as he drank eagerly from a water canteen of water presented to him. He choked and coughed, then sputtered. After he regained his breath, he looked Bryson in the eye.

"They've been attacked on the road, Menkoite soldiers. Some of them got away, but some were captured." He sighed slightly. "Your cousin wasn't among those we found."

Bryson's face creased into a frown, and his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Everything was going as planned, Marlked said, but how was it then, that the soldiers got by? Anger coursed through the young man's body. He rose, face taut, and jaw clenched.

"Bring me a fresh mount. I want five men ready to ride as soon as possible." He commanded grey eyes hard and cold.

A chestnut stallion was brought for him, along with five other mounted men, dressed in the colors of his household, grey and dark blue. Carefully, he examined each of the men, seeing their grim natures that reflected the way he felt. Each of them was his close friends, and friends of his cousin as well. The young man nodded firmly, and they mounted up as one.

"We ride." It was given as an order, not up for debate, and in unison they wheeled and left the cavern, each man bent with determination.

Things were going according to plan. In fact, better than he might have thought. Marlked groaned, shooing away the servants who leapt to their feet at his every movements. They were quite annoying, but knew better than to argue with someone of his station. Or one of his power, for that matter. Coughing to keep up his guise of weakness, the spry old mage resealed his cave with all the spells he could think of at the time.

With a faint, sly grin, he knelt and opened the sack at the foot of his bed. Concerned, he felt around until the familiar edge of a box met his fingers. Anxiously, Marlked pulled it out. With fumbling fingers, he opened the rusted box. Funny, that a thing so small could hold so much power. Even more amusing was that the foolish king had thought the box would protect it. After all, you can't magic metal, so nothing could be done either way to it. Unfortunately, this left it prone to anything and with a magical aura so dense and wide that only fools could not feel it.

Sighing, he gently uncovered the stone from its rags and was relieved to find it still there. It was amber in color, and uncut. Gently, Marlked ran his fingers down the side. With sudden movements, he rewrapped it, and stuffed it into the wooden box he had brought along just for this purpose. The jewel of Hardye must not be lost, or even played with. Kneeling, he drew on the box circles of protection, and bondage to himself. He could not bind the jewel itself to him, but the box would have to do in the mean time.

This little jewel was a very special delivery, and the cause of the current war. Aaralyn and her fool of an uncle had thought they were being framed for the missing stone, but it was really among their midst all along. Being paid to start a war was easy enough a task for Marlked, especially when it would take him one step closer to power. He would deliver the stone to the high king, then the girl. Her capture had been easy enough, but she was the key to the power of the stone. Well, anyone from her direct blood line would work but the young Bryson was too much of a task for an old, feeble, conniving mage to take on.

Standing, Marlked strode to the middle of the room, clutching the box that held the stone. He spoke the words of power, voice throbbing as he did so. Everything whirled around him, then resettled. It looked as if a tornado had gone through the room. The old mage rearranged things to make it appear as if there had been a great struggle of some sort. Satisfied with his work, he called up an illusion spell, and dropped the protective spells around his cavern.

For a long moment, he listened to the commands of the young Bryson as he ordered a party to go and rescue his cousin. Smiling grimly, Marlked let out a shriek, then dropped his hand. A burst of cold air surrounded him, and with an explosion, he and the box were gone.