This is what I get for trying to start a new story a few weeks before the end of semester crunch starts in full swing. Start off strong and then suddenly 31 days without an update .. If you enjoyed the first two chapters, I am very sorry, but it's ok! I'm back on track. That said, I'm grateful for the break as it has allowed me to do rapid iterations for the direction of the story in the meantime, and I must say, I believe it's significantly better than when I was currently working on it. More politics. More romance. More suspense. More cohesiveness to the overarching structure of the series as well. I'll just take that as a lesson when writing. In any case, both chapters one and two are slightly different plot wise. Thanks for choosing to read my work! R&R and all that good stuff.
The first morning rays peaked through the trees and woke Alice from a dreamless sleep. These past few weeks had become incredibly warm as summer slowly crept up on them, and in order to save money, Alice had opted to sleep outside. It wasn't particularly comfortable, but a blanket was hardly needed even in the coldest part of the night these days. Plus, she had noted that the area around here was particularly dry. After having done some quick navigation, she had realized that they were now west enough that they sat just north of the peak of the Southern Bay. The bay funneled all the wind from the sea towards this spot, but the mountains were coincidentally the highest at this point, causing the rain not to make it over the mountains. On one hand, it kept this area arid and dry enough to camp easily. On the other, it looked like the heat would be oppressive in the coming weeks.
Alice pushed her hair out of her eyes. Somehow, it must have come undone in the night. Then she realized her own was still in a neat little ponytail and that the hair was her sister's.
Ine lay on her side away from Alice, quietly snoozing. Her straw colored hair blended in with the morning rays quite well. With the sun shining brightly, the morning wouldn't remain cool very long. The forest around them would protect them against most of the heat, but it was quickly thinning out as they traipsed westward. Alice opened up her map, careful not to rouse Ine yet, and saw that the area west of their position was marked with a wasteland. Their supplies had dwindled more quickly than she had anticipated, so they were ill-prepared to cross 'The Sand Pits'.
Still, it's just about 35 miles across. Can we push it?
Alice and Ine were heading towards a system of valleys on the west coast referred to as 'The Independent States of the Fairheights,' or 'The Fairheights' for short. One of these valleys housed Ine's childhood home, and she expressed a strong desire to visit it after six years. Along the northern edge of the Fairheights, the map detailed a very large river that forked just north of their position and functioned as the southern border for the kingdom of Lomany.
Alice remembered that their friend, Emilia, had said she was going to hide in Lomany before heading further north into the criminally populated Outlands. She looked to the northern corner of the map and saw a crescent shaped protrusion several hundred miles north of Lomany, marked with ice, demons, and old gods.
She'll make it. Easily. The thought brought her cold comfort.
For the first time, Alice noticed that halfway along the Fairheights-Lomany border was a large city, Jorgein. There was no analogous stop along the Fairheights-Corth border they were heading towards. The wastelands magically transformed into valleys before small, isolated villages popped up. Alice bit her lip. She hadn't bothered to check the map because Ine had come from this direction six years ago with her parents. Of course, now that she had thought about the circumstances, fleeing into a wasteland was preferable to fleeing into the kingdom you were rebelling against.
The Fairheights had originally belonged to the now fractured kingdom of Lomany, a kingdom so vast that the northern border almost always had snow and the southern border hadn't seen a decent blizzard in a century. According to Ine, the current king of Lomany was actually one of three identical triplets. They had always been fiercely competitive, but their father had revealed on his deathbed out of spite that he had no idea who was the first born. The late queen had had complications with the birth, causing the doctor to mix up the children in the moment. The three sons immediately turned on each other, waging civil war in a bet for the crown.
In came the Fairheights. Apparently, the war had become so costly that Fairheights suffered a famine around six years ago, inspiring rebellion, and eventually the small province seceded. Normally bloodthirsty and vengeful, the king decided against fighting a three pronged battle, and, fearing their own people would follow in Fairheights' footsteps, his two brothers agreed to a truce, splitting the kingdom into roughly three equal pieces: Lomany in the south, Urtoman in the northeast, and Vate in the northwest which bordered the Outlands.
Ine had left Fairheights in the height of the famine and travelled east to the neighboring kingdom of Corth, where she lived on the streets for two years before joining the mercenary guild, the Falcians. Three years later, she met and joined up with Alice. Well, that was the condensed version. She suspected more details that Ine either didn't know or didn't want to share.
Alice folded up the map and placed it in the front cover of her copy of A History of Marx and its Rulers, her last remaining vestige of her beloved Treyce. She rubbed the embossed cover gently. He hadn't bought her a new copy; this had been his. Ine thought she was a history buff. While that was true, Alice skimmed much of the pages just so she could read the notes he had made in the margin. Some were funny: Sir Lawrence ought to refer to his two brothers by other names besides 'Darryl' and 'Darryl.' Too damn confusing. Others were a bit more serious: Remember that Rafe's mother is second cousin to Weiss. Use this line to prove dispute. Sometimes he even doodled. Despite Treyce's other talents, he wasn't a very good artist.
But even then, Alice clearly recognized a hand drawn version of her face and smiled.
She replaced the book in the pouch containing Fairy Tales Most Grim and Unsettling and The Alchemist of Romalia: Patriotism, War, and Vengeance. The first was another present, given to her by a still living Sir Nicholas of Ferrock. The other was a now overdue library book from Poldark. Keeping the book didn't settle well with her, but considering the circumstances, she wasn't sure how she could return it.
Ine roused herself with sunlight in her eyes.
"Morning, sleepy head," chimed Alice.
Alice tossed her some hardy jerky and the canteen. "When you're done, I got some news for you." Ine wasn't listening and slowly ate the meager food. Like Alice, she was becoming annoyed by the same meal every day. Once she finished, she gave a small burp and washed down the crumbs with water.
Alice nodded. "Good, because I've decided on a change of plans."
Ine eyed her suspiciously. "What kind of change?"
"We're going north into Lomany."
"WHAT?! You said we'd go to Fairheights!"
"Chill, it's just a detour." Alice sighed. Ine could be so impulsive sometimes. "There's a wasteland between here and the valleys called 'The Sand Pits.'" A glint of recognition shown in Ine's eyes. At least she's willing to listen now. "I'd be ok with that, but our supplies are running low, and it looks like there's no major settlement for more than a hundred miles in this direction, and that's a hundred the way the crow flies. In contrast," she grinned, "we can go north and follow the river border west. We keep going until we happen upon a nice trading post called Jorgein which is along the northern part of the Fairheights. Water, green, and frequent places to restock. I'd say that's better than pits of sand, right?"
Ine conceded the point reluctantly. Alice knew her sister just wanted to be home as soon as possible. She couldn't blame her, but Alice also knew it would be too risky even with full supplies. As it stood now, it'd be suicide just heading straight for the direct path, and coming from Alice, that was saying something.
"There's also probably a highway going north-south instead of east-west. Even if we did make it to the valley after the Sand Pits, we'd have to be snaking across the valley walls to get anywhere. I think this detour might actually be faster, Ine."
"Oh, alright. So are we gonna just sit here or get going?"
Alice packed up their things, and they were gone within two minutes.
The sound of the Loman River had been echoing long before the river had appeared. And even before it came into view, the sisters felt a distinct drop in temperature. Once they finally reached the river's edge, they stopped from sheer amazement. The river itself was several feet below them. Upstream was a waterfall that pounded the rocks below, kicking up spray that almost met them. Alice had expected a normal wooden bridge. Instead, a beautiful granite bridge help aloft by four arches greeted them. The road leading up to it was cobblestone, and the top was covered in more stone. The leading corner of the cover had a small coat of arms: a red shield section into four squares, with red and gold halberds crossed behind them, and a bear to the right on its hind paws. Three guards stood at the entrance, looking bored. Alice approached them uneasily. Emilia had Blaise had told them that Lomany would not be on the lookout for two mercenaries, but she still breathed uneasily.
"…er, my what?" asked Alice.
The guard looked up with an eyebrow raised. "Your Sigil of Commute? You're trying to enter His Majesty's kingdom without written approval of the state?"
"No!" said Alice quickly. "I'm from Corth…and our…immigration policies are not so strict." The guard snorted. His two comrades muttered something she knew was insulting.
"As per His Majesty's decree, Corth and the Fairheights are allowed authority to give writs of acceptance for immigration to His Majesty's kingdom. I'm sure a noble and upstanding citizen of these two places such yourself has one?" Alice bit her lip. Clearly, if they didn't, the guards were implying she was a convict, and she wasn't sure if the king of Lomany would have authority to arrest her based on a crime in Corth.
"Here," said Ine. She passed a piece of paper onto the guard. It had some instructions on it, two coats of arms (one of which was identical to the bridges), a signature, a date, and several seals. The guard inspected it carefully for a few minutes and nodded. Another guard stamped the piece of paper and handed it back to Ine.
"Welcome to His Majesty's realm of Lomany, Miss Raven and Sydney Stormhawk."
"Thank you," responded Ine airily. Alice remained silent as they crossed the stone bridge. The bridge was cooler than the forest, and the gaps in the side were covered in mist.
"What the hell was that?" hissed Alice.
"A benefit of being part of the Falcians, sis."
"You have a fake ID?"
"No, just a stolen one," Ine added with a wolfish grin.
"For both of us? How is that even possible?"
"They just happened to be a pair of siblings with gender neutral names. You can imagine that would get a high price on the black market." Alice decided to ignore Ine's continual boasting of her illegal activities. The road split off into three paths, two of them following the river in opposite directions. They picked the one heading northwest and walked at a decent pace. The river provided a refreshing atmosphere, and once they had walked for another four hours, they stopped for lunch by a stream feeding into the river. Alice tried fishing the way her mentor, Olanna, had taught her: bare handed. The dozen attempts were just as successful as the last time she had tried: no fish and a soaking, shivering body. Ine laughed each time Alice fumbled the catch. The closest Alice had been to actually catching a fish, she was so surprised at the result that the fish saw an opening and smacked her right in the face with its tail before escaping back into the stream.
Alice settled for berries and more jerky after that.
The next several days drudged on. While the sight of a raging river was awe-inspiring, it had lost its novelty quickly. Ine remained in high spirits once Alice had estimated another few days until Jorgein. Even though there were forests on the other side of the river, some days they were treated to the sight of vaulted, snowcapped mountains with green covering the base. These were the days Ine's mood became more introverted as she clearly dreamt of returning home with the border so close she could actually see it.
Day six. They would be at Jorgein by tomorrow. Ine's excitement was palpable.
"We're almost there, Ine."
Then frowned. She turned her head to one side, motioning for Alice to stay quiet.
"Someone's hurt," she said finally. Alice tensed up. This close to a settlement, they could easily find the person and bring him to safety. "You're the tracker," said Alice. "Lead on." Ine nodded and dashed into the forest. As they got closer, Alice finally heard the faint groan of someone dying. Her stomach turned to lead. After fifteen minutes, the groaning stopped. Ine followed a trail with or without the sound guiding them. Another fifteen minutes later, they found the source. Ine recoiled, and Alice bit her tongue.
Eight soldiers lay dead, covered in blood and dirt. One body had been propped up against a tree with a trail of blood in the dirt. Alice felt the man's still warm face and surmised he was the one groaning. Each man was killed by a blade or a crossbow. Mercenaries. The improvised sword work and crossbow usage meant as much. Ine's used the crossbow, but she was an expert in it. These men seemed to have the bare amount of skill required to shoot effectively. The soldiers had the crest Alice had seen before. These were the king's men.
She turned around, half-expecting a mercenary to have snuck up on her. Instead, she saw Ine pointing to a bush. "They escaped that way." Just then a yell startled birds in the distance. It was a young man's yell. Alice said a three word prayer for the dead and leapt after Ine.
"Well, what's we's have here?"
Thirteen mercenaries cornered a young man against a rocky outcrop. He wore clothing that was more padding than actual armor, but he still bore the Loman Coat of Arms. A dirk quivered in his hands. The mercenary who had addressed him grinned a toothy smile like a fox who had caught a rabbit.
"Ye've been a bit naughty, haven't ye? Going and deserting yer men like that."
"No, please! I didn't desert!" cried the young man, though to be fair he looked more like a boy than a young man (especially in his current predicament.)
The mercenaries laughed before getting down to business. One man mocked the boy. "You know what the punishment for deserting is, right Gerald?" Another man paused in feign contemplation. "I think it's death, init?" A few more dark laughs rang out, and the boy's face blanched.
"Please! I was following orders!"
"I've had enough. Emit, kill 'im."
Before Emit could aim his shot, a bolt tore through his chest, and he died before hitting the ground. The twelve remaining men looked around for the killing shot. Another bolt tore through Gerald, causing him to yell out in agony before crumpling in a heap. This time, the eleven men saw the direction and focused their fire on the bush. Ine hid behind a tree and waited for Alice to ambush them from the other side.
She slammed into two of the men like a battering ram, knocking them to the ground and pulling another man by his coat with them. Being so close and near the center, the mercenaries changed their crossbows for a sword and lunged after Alice. She ducked under a horizontal slash and sweep kicked the attacker to the ground. Before she could finish him however, two more men attacked her. But now the other returned their attention to Ine as she hit another of their allies in the stomach with a bolt. Alice retreated to give herself more space and punched one of the men running at Ine's hiding spot. Three men down, ten to go. She yelled at the boy, "Run!" He was too paralyzed by fear to move.
The men clustered together with two aiming their crossbow at Ine's tree. Alice decided close combat was too risky with these numbers and drew her quarterstaff. She wasn't sure how flammable this forest was and didn't want to use her fire magic haphazardly. Ine looked from behind the tree and was sent back by a flurry of bolts. She had seen four men with crossbows but heard only two bolts thud against the wood. She didn't try looking again.
Alice tumbled to the side and parried two slashes one after the other. One man managed to nick her arm, and she gritted her teeth. She definitely needed to upgrade her armor.
"SCATTER!" yelled the leader.
Before his men could react, Alice heard the sound of breaking glass. A second later, several of them men erupted into flames. Alice praised her good luck and took down six men while they screamed in pain. The other four managed to flee into the forest with the leader glaring at Alice just before hiding away. Another tinkle of broken glass, and the men were covered in what looked like sea foam, the flames put out.
She rolled the groaning men onto their back so they wouldn't suffocate and looked the soldier. His pack was open. Inside, she saw two more glass vials about as big as her hand tucked away between folds of soft leather. The boy breathed raggedly. Both he and Alice knew who had thrown the debilitating weapons, but they could scarcely believe it. Ine emerged from behind the tree tentatively and rushed over only once she was convinced they were alone.
Alice strode over to the boy. He was quite young, probably as old as Ine. Color returned to his face as their victory sank in. Alice knelt down and placed her hand on his shoulder. "You did well. It's going to be alright. What's your name?"
The boy shuddered before responding, "I…I'm Toby. Toby Dawler."
He broke down into tears. "E-Everyone…everyone is…"
Alice reassured him, "Ssshhh, it's ok, Toby. It's going to be ok. We're about a day from Jorgein. We can-."
His exclamation made Alice and Ine jump.
"I…I need to go…Cecil…I mean, the Captain wanted me…ordered me…to…"
Alice patted his shoulder again. "I understand." She glanced up at Ine. Surprisingly, Ine's normally aloof façade was stricken with empathy. Maybe seeing someone as young as her crying stirred her heart.
"Alright, we'll accompany you. Where did the Captain order you to go?"