Goswin and the rest hurry out of the room, following Thomasson as he gives instructions how he was going to smuggle them out of this village.
” You four, except Robert, must hide in my wagon. I will tell them that I am sending goods for my family far away. Which is a little truthful. Do not make any sound. Do not move a muscle. Once, we’re out of the village, we can talk more about the White Flames.”
Goswin got it, except…the King’s Men aren’t that stupid. Back in his city in Sowlengard, the King’s Men would look through people’s possessions, most of the time for no reason at all. If anything suspicious were found, which can range from weapons to even bread, they were usually punished immediately. He felt that there were no exceptions here in this village.
They went out of the back door, where a covered wagon with two horses were waiting for them. Outside, from the other side, sounds of chaos rang out. People are running and screaming, with the King’s Men shouting, ” We are looking for Goswin Lestrin and Swan Petterson. Surrender them to us, and this village will be left alone.”
Memories of when the King’s Men arrived at his house, unmerciful and cruel, flashed before his mind. He said,” Come on, let’s get in. Now.”
Swan and Rafael, both as frightened of the King’s Men as he was, went inside the wagon. Vince quietly slunk in behind them. Robert and Thomasson got on the wagon, taking place as drivers. Thomasson looked at Goswin and said,” Get in. No time to lose.”
Goswin went inside, just as he heard wood being torn apart.
He couldn’t see much inside the wagon. He saw light try to go through the nearly opaque cloth. He could see Swan, Rafael, and Vince-dimly. They were all dead quiet, as the sounds of the King’s Men neared close. Already, they can hear their horses and their hounds.
The King’s Men charged in on him, Robert, and his wagon.
Thomasson was terrified, but made sure he didn’t show it. Years of being a spy in Pholuxonian and Sowlen castles alike, and afterward covering as a tavern keeper, taught him to control his facial features. The King’s Men are not as dense as people would like them to believe they were.
He thought about two of the children, smuggled into his wagon. They looked familiar. Too familiar to be common. Something about the girl’s shade of red hair, and the boy’s serious blue eyes told him that they weren’t some low criminals on the run. Though, he isn’t quite sure about…
” Better make your claim soon.” Robert whispered, more quietly than one would expect, out of a guy, who would be the life of the party, guzzling ale in what could be dangerous amounts for Thomasson. ” The King’s Men would start questioning right this instant.”
” Tavern-keeper!” one of the King’s Men called out, and Thomasson grimaced for half a second, forced to turn in response. ” We are looking for two criminals. Swan Petterson, traitor of Reverist lands. Goswin Lestrin, the infamous murderer. They were spotted in this village.”
Thomasson, with the elegance of an actor (or better than one,considering the play he saw from afar), took the role of one shocked by the news of having such frightening criminals in his hometown. In reality, however, he wanted to begin driving immediately. They knew they were here, that was obvious, but, he hoped the children inside will do nothing suspicious under the cloth.
” Spotted?” He repeated, his tone stressed, just how he manipulated his voice to be. ” In this village-oh, what a disaster! Thank goodness you’re here! I haven’t seen them at all. Please, move along.”
The last sentence was the truth. It was part of his inner incessant prayer that played in his mind, whenever the King’s Men, the HEKN, or worse, King Norbert was around.
Leave me alone/do not touch my things/yes, I’m fine/yes, I’m just an ordinary tavern-keeper. Please get terribly drunk so at least I can feel safe in this place…
” May we inspect your wagon?” inquired the leader of the King’s Men, his eyes hard and cold, like rock. ” Just for safe travels.”
Taking this as the time to flee, Thomasson flicked his reins, driving his wagon away from the King’s Men as far as he can. Thomasson was not going to let them lift up the cloth that hid those children inside.
He rode out to the end of the town, and to the hills and forests around the town. Robert muttered on how anxious he was with the King’s Men, worried that they might catch Swan, his red-haired niece. Thomasson wanted to ask him on how he found her, in fact, the entire story. How they all were together, as he drove them closer to High Ebony.
The fort remained a mile away, and Thomasson was sure that they were out of sight. Immediately, he said to the children-who were silent the whole time, thank goodness-to lift up the cloth.
A few seconds later, the cloth was removed, and Thomasson could see the children again. Three Sowlen boys-one of them dark-skinned like the people from Sayabbuin Araetun and one Pholuxonian maid. How come?
” How did you do that?” asked the girl. She looked frightened. ” I thought we were certainly going to get caught.”
Thomasson posed a smile for her, still a bit terrified from the experience, and said,” Nothing exhausts the King’s Men other than a long, meaningless chase. You would know that for sure when you got into the Night Woods running away.”
” What?!” the girl exclaimed, her eyebrows raised. ” I was seen. By who?”
” There’s nothing to be afraid for,” Thomasson replied.” It was reported all throughout Pholuxon and parts of Sowlengard, at least. Some of the people thought you were crazy to go there. Others hold their tongue on their opinions. And others believe that you should be punished, calling the King’s Men incompetent. Either way,” and Thomasson stared at the white, mostly decimated stone buildings coming closer,” the people of the White Flames, and who support King Norbert’s reign believe that you must be with them, for multiple different reasons.”
The pale Sowlen boy spoke up,” Why would the White Flames want her?”
Robert, looking stoic, then answered,” We are going to find out.”
They finally arrived at a huge fort, surrounded by ruins of towers and walls. Greenery and trees grew up among the abandoned stones, giving it an ancient look. A cloister at the side ran out of the west side of the building, where Swan saw the Ramsons.
Not just Neville and his mother Anais. All of them.
Neville waddled as fast as he could to greet her. Anais ran faster, and hugged her like they haven’t seen one another for a hundred years. Anais’s adopted fair-haired daughter, Felicity, smiled and did a little wobbly curtsy for her, an imitation of how Swan used to curtsy before the Ramsons gave up on teaching her. She got a light punch from Swan in response. The twins, Daniel and Leonardo ran and jumped on her, like little kids usually do. Then, the father, George Ramson, strong and proud, came along and crushed them all, in one great hug. Then, Anais began to fuss over her gunshot wound.
” Goodness, Swan!” she shouted as soon as she saw the bandage. ” Whatever have you done with yourself. Are you alright? I’m sure the doctor’s son has treated you.” Swan wondered who she was talking about, and before she can get to a thought, Anais held Swan’s chin, as if looking for any more scars on her face, then calmly added, ” We’ll get that bullet right out, deary.”
The doctor’s son. Swan thought. She must mean Goswin. But how did she know him? And how did she know that Goswin treated her? Or even met her?
Robert also was given greetings as friendly from the Ramsons as well. He and George greeted each other like brothers. The children were as warm to him, as they were to Swan.
Goswin and Rafael were greeted by some of the agents, too. But, only in passing, and more as colleagues, than familial companions. Thomasson leaned close to an agent whispering to him, and immediately went inside. Perhaps for a meeting or something.
In all this excitement, Alex Leorent appeared to view, with an air of authority everyone senses as soon as he came out. He focused on Goswin, like he was about to send him someplace. And expected him to behave in a certain way.
Goswin felt nervous every time that noble stared at him, like he was measuring his value. In fact, he had that look on every volunteer and agent he had. But still, something about today seemed different.
Alex Leorent, looked his closest to being glad at something. A thin smile appeared in a face that doesn’t usually smile that much to anyone or anything. But other than that, he was as serious and in control as always.
” Goswin Lestrin, come with me to the Meeting Hall.” he stated, which startled him, Rafael, and the agents around him. He never called the volunteers by name. It was always by what they are. A doctor’s son he was known as, Rafael’s a fool-unfortunately.
And second, volunteers almost never come to the Meeting Hall, not unless something was that important for them to know. But, volunteers were never individually sent there. Only agents were.
” Are you coming, Goswin?” Alex called as he walked, and without pretty much of a choice, Goswin Lestrin followed him, promising Rafael to come back to talk and look after his hand.
Swan watched them leave, wondering, Where is Goswin going to? Who is that blond pale man? Then Neville stated,” Why is the doctor’s son being sent to the Meeting Hall? He’s not an agent; he’s a volunteer.”
” You know him?” she asked Neville, which surprised her. He never spoke much about him. In fact, until today, none of the Ramsons ever mentioned him. What was going on?
” We do,” said Felicity, still staring at where Goswin and the blond man were before they left. ” He is a skilled volunteer. Once treated Father when he dislocated his arm. We thought something bad would happen to him, but he turned out alright. He had to, for he is one of the best agents here in this rebellion.”
This rebellion, Swan thought. Then, something dawned on her and she asked,” All of you are part of the White Flames?” she looked at the entire family, all smirking at her finding out. ” You never said so!”
” Of course we won’t!” Anais scolded lightly, but she was still smiling. ” Otherwise, we would be dead, apparently. It’s quite good of you that you and the doctor’s son met. He is a very smart, caring man. If only his fool of a friend weren’t around.” She looked to a side for a few moments and looked at Neville and Felicity, saying,” Get Swan into the Healing Room and we’ll talk later at supper.”
” But mother!” Neville responded. ” You didn’t say why the doctor’s son is being sent to the Meeting Hall!”
What Meeting Hall? Swan asked.
” It’s none of your business, children, especially for you Neville.” Anais replied, her voice and expression clearly worried. ” I will discuss it with you all at dinner. Swan, however, needs to be treated.” She sent a determined look towards Felicity, who looked ready to contradict her, ” Now.”
The two Ramson children gave confused, worried looks at their mother, but consented, and took Swan inside. They were silent as they went inside the cloister.
” What’s a Meeting Hall,” Swan asked when they began walking in the hallway ” and why are you all shocked about Goswin going there?” Unlike them, she wasn’t going to just label him as ” the doctor’s son.”
” The Meeting Hall, is at the opposite end of High Ebony.” Neville replied, clearly proud of his knowledge. ” Only the best or the most important agents ever get to be sent there. ” he looked at Swan’s leg, and added,” We are sending you to the Healing Room where-”
“-I know what happens in there!” Swan retorted.
Felicity laughed a bit, saying,” Oh, Swan. Snappy and wishing she wasn’t seen as dumb as always.”
Swan didn’t really understand why she would think that. Her mother talked about them sometimes, about places in her world where people are quickly sent to when they get sick or hurt. Doctors take their…Swan forgot the word her mother used. It had to do with people’s heat. Anyway, her mother stated how well the doctors in her world are at fixing broken arms and legs. But when people’s limbs are too bad, they…
” Are you going to cut my leg off?” Swan asked, suddenly seized with terror. She did not want that. No, no, no…
” Of course not!” Neville snorted, sounding too much like his mother. ” Your wound isn’t that bad, and the doctors are only going to take the bullet out, just so the muscles inside will get to heal, and you can walk again.” he sighed and added, ” Lucky for you, the HEKN’s bullets are clean, and would not risk infection.”
Swan, was completely shocked. She thought of Neville as a bunch of things. Fat, stubborn, resembles a pig, always a complainer, but for him to know about how she got wounded, and how it can be healed, was new to her. Then again, it should seem little compared to half the chaos she experienced yesterday and today.
it felt like ten years ago, when Swan entered the wintry wood, ready to end her own life. Now, she was being led through High Ebony by her friends, into something completely new and also, strangely, familiar, no right, to her.
She backtracked a little, and asked,” When did you guys join the White Flames? What did they do?”
Neville, seeing her curious expression, then said,” We found help from the White Flames, when King Norbert burnt down our farm, and we have, for a while now, been supporting the White Flames ever since.”
” We have been tracking you.” Felicity stated, her words sounded careful, as if they were walking around a deadly object that could strike at any moment. ” Ever since you ran away from your home and wheat farm.”
Swan felt as if she has been at the edge of a cliff, and then was pulled back a few inches.
” You have been tracking me?!” she asked. ” Why?”
” The King’s Men and the HEKN were after you.” Felicity said. ” We ought to find you first and take you in, but you somehow disappeared. No one knew where you were after that.” Felicity looked at her, her features honestly curious about the situation. “Where the heck did you go?”
” I stepped into some portal.” Swan said, answering her question. ” It landed me to some wintry place. I wanted to end my own life.” her sorrow came back when she said those words, filling with memory of what happened.
” Why?” Felicity asked, her voice breaking through. ” It wasn’t your fault.”
” It is my fault.” Swan said. ” I didn’t put down the Pholuxonian flag that hang there.”
” Stop complaining.” Neville complained lightly, but Swan looked around, not listening, as a bunch of emotions came onto her like flames of a fire.
Like she was burning.
Wincing, Swan put out the memories. Shoved it away from her conscience. It worked, but tears still ran down her cheeks. The Ramson children stared at her, rather confused.
” Swan,” Felicity said, sounding calm, but with as much force as Anais. ” What’s going on?”
A door in front of them opened, and a lady in a blue dress appeared, staring at two Ramson children holding a tearing girl.
” Is this Swan Petterson?” the woman asked. She was to expect a girl with a wounded leg to be sent here today.
” Yes,” said Felicity. ” She needs to be treated.”
The lady, then neared towards Swan, and with her hands, dried her eyes, and said, ” Come in. Let’s get that bullet out, shall we?” The lady, then came into the room. The Healing Room.
Swan came inside as well, the Ramson children staying at the doorway.
Goswin looked around the Meeting Hall, which happened to be a small room, with wooden walls covered with tapestries that may have been once vibrant with color, but now the colors are faded. Not that he wanted to see them. Some featured battlefield gore. Others show pictures of hunters stabbing mythical creatures and carrying it back in a procession to some lord and lady. A small, thin window revealed the forests and hills around High Ebony.
The room seemed…almost disappointing. It was the room. The room where only the best agents went. He had seen Anais Ramson go in. And Thomasson. And many others. Not a single volunteer was allowed to be there. Yet, here he was. In this small, sort-of elegant, Meeting Hall-which is barely a hall at all.
But, since he was there. He shouldn’t complain. Besides, he should feel honored about it. He is, only a bit.
Alex Leorent poured some wine into his goblet that stood on his elegant wooden table, but none for Goswin. Not out of rudeness, though. Sowlens are forbidden to drink.
” So you’ve met Commander Highfree, haven’t you?”
Goswin’s blood felt cold, as if he was immediately taken back to the pine tree at the forests of Eastern Sowlengard. He remembered seeing Solven again and discovering with cold reality, what a completely different person was him, not at all the energetic, kind-hearted boy Solven used to be. At the end, Goswin scrambled with only his life, with Solven threatening to kill him, not resting till he does. After that, he just knew with a sinking thought, that Solven Highfree, the boy he rescued one night, and loved like a brother, was never coming back.
King Norbert and his men had murdered him, just like they had murdered his parents.
Goswin wanted to forget it all. He wished he take back three years of running away in fear and in shame. He wanted to go back to that moment. That night. When he lost himself, and found it again, by then too late to stop.
But since Alex demands an answer to his question, he drooped his head like a dead bloom, and said,” Yes, I’ve met him by the wood. He was…changed. He wasn’t the same as I saw last time.” In fact, I haven’t seen him or my home in three years. He must have thought I would never come back to protect him. Is that why he joined the HEKN? To survive? Did he believe seeing me dead would keep him alive? The thoughts only made him nauseous, depressed, and shaken. Solven, the boy who he cared for, now wanted to kill him?
” Of course, he wasn’t the same.” Alex replied nonchalantly, like it was rather a normal occurrence Goswin should get used to. ” This is what people get for being in an opposing side. Friends come and go, families disappear.” He took a small piece of paper and began writing it with his feather pen.
Goswin resisted the urge to yell at him. How could he tell him to just ignore it? Solven was not just some friend. he was almost a part of him, almost. He went to the HEKN to survive. Goswin could not walk away from that.
Alex, however, continued. ” I brought you here on this meeting not just to talk about the loss of a childhood friend, but to promote you.”
His anger dissipated only just a few. ” Promote me?” Goswin asked. ” I’m going to be an agent?” He felt happy to be promoted, but-
” But I’ve only been training for two years. I thought I had to train for five years to become an agent.”
Alex poured some wax into the paper, and stamped it with the symbol of the rebellion, a waterfall. ” You were,” he said as he put the stamp away. ” But you have shown exceptional skills as a volunteer. It would be a shame for your talents to come to waste if we didn’t promote you sooner. I just want you to stay away from the fool. I believe he might hold you back.”
” Rafael, you mean?” Goswin asked. Did this noble just order him to forget Rafael because of his new position?
” Hmm?” Alex replied, and Goswin remembered that Alex doesn’t call or remember his volunteers by name. They just weren’t that important enough to be.
” The one you told me to forget.” Goswin explained.
” I didn’t say forget about him.” Alex said, and sipped a glass of wine in front of him. Whether that’s an insult or had a dry mouth, he couldn’t say. For he added,” I just don’t want you to spend time with him. He’s a fool, and you’re not.
” As agent, you must do your duties, whatever they may be, with different people. You may not always work with the people you like, but if you both do it right, it wouldn’t make much of a difference if you did.”
” Perhaps,” Goswin said, ” But I can’t abandon Rafael just because I have been named agent. Sir, he may have his mishaps, but I won’t leave him just like that.”
Alex gave him a rather disappointed look, and commented,” I thought you were smarter than that.” He inclined his head towards the door, and added,” Go. Say goodbye to that friend of yours. I am sticking to my word. You are not to spend time with the fool again.”
Goswin, frustrated with his commands, simply turned and walked away.
” And one more thing.” Alex said, which made Goswin stop, and turn back.
Alex was holding out his piece of paper. ” Send this to the messengers first. I need to let our agents at the Southern parts of Pholuxon of what happened. That girl you saved will be assigned as volunteer, after she is treated.” Alex gave him a look that asked, You are smart enough to know what you’re doing, right? ” I’m sure you and the other volunteers can lead her through the techniques.”
Is he saying this to make me feel better about this? Goswin thought. In exchange for throwing away Rafael to train Swan? Not that he didn’t want to. If Swan had to be there, she has to train in order to stay. But, it still didn’t feel right at the moment.
Alex then looked at Goswin curiously, as if he was questioning his purpose, his worth. ” Any questions, boy?” he asked.
” None.” Goswin replied, ready to get out the door, and never come back to the Meeting Hall.
Commander Highfree was being led out into the courtyard.
Two guards held his arms tightly, and basically carried him without grace, from his plain quarters, throughout the long, confusing, monotonous palace corridors of mere marble and torches.
Every bone of him shook with fear. He failed. He sent King Norbert’s 23rd March of the HEKN to hunt down Goswin, his friend Rafael, and that Pholuxonian bitch that betrayed the king through her crime of hanging an enemy flag.
I couldn’t do it. he thought. Part of me wanted to stop all of this. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I wanted Goswin to just run away from me and my hunters. Please, before I had to do worse.
Therefore, he acted harsh and cold in the HEKN to survive. He threw the knives given to them at the desired point, just like they wanted him to. He tortured animals, worked hard and harder on his fighting skills. He rose through the ranks as fast as he can, finding himself commander of the 23rd March three months ago.
When he was given the signal, he never felt any more thrilled. Riding out with his troops, he finally felt he was put into something not easy, but worth it. Doing something that might prove the king that he is not the one to kill. He was instructed to make Goswin surrender, along with his friends as well, and send them to King Norbert in chains.
But, when he finally caught Goswin and his companions nearing towards a certain pine tree, a small part wanted to hug him, greet him as kindly as always, and tell him to run again, away. He’d even distract his men for a few seconds.
But the commander instilled in him won’t allow such tricks. He wouldn’t allow Goswin to get away like that. He would kill him, and every person around that supports the criminal, if needed.
Commander Highfree gave the order to lower his weapons, but let Goswin play with his mind. Yes, that was what he told himself. Goswin wasn’t trying to bring him out of the very group that was worse than the King’s Men. He was trying to undermine him, embarrass him.
It was because of him, and Highfree’s decision to spare him, that Goswin went out of his hands.
He swore to kill him. He has. He would, according to anyone he would talk to, for vengeance, to prove his worth to the HEKN, and to King Norbert. In truth, he wanted to put an end to Goswin’s misery, to get rid of him so that Commander Highfree will have no one to return to. No one to think about to make him turn back. His old life will die completely, along with his past mistakes of incompetence. He would fully be a part of the HEKN, and no one can stop him, and no one can hurt him.
He kept swearing this as he was brought closer and closer to the stone courtyard. Nothing grew there. Not even trees. No one went there, unless someone was going to die, or had died already. Already he is radiating fear and great anxiety he was passed through the black wooden doors that opened to it.
He blinked a little to the bright cloudy sky, in the courtyard. The king stood there, expression in disdain, with his eyes showing any sign of rage. They burned and pierced him worse than anything. Commander Highfree noticed the king’s right hand hatefully gripping his coiled whip.
” I told you,” his voice said, surprisingly soft and smooth.” to get the murderer and that phoenix traitor here in my castle. You failed, letting him slip into your mind.” He went closer, giving him a disgusted look, as if staring at a slow student, and asked,” Have none of our training sunk in, commander?” the last word was filled with mockery. ” Have you been empathizing with them?”
Some of the HEKN and the King’s Men smirked at him, trading comments of how stupid he was. Others looked ready, like a predator waiting for the chance to strike their prey. Their hands began to grasp their guns, hung tightly on their belts. Either way, the humiliation was high.
” Just a few days ago,” the king said, walking around like he was having a normal conversation with a friend. ” One of the King’s Men spoke out against my reign. He and his men were at the Night Woods, when that bitch escaped her desired punishment.” He stared interestingly at a group of the King’s Men, and asked,” What did he say there?”
” He said that the woods belonged to ‘brilliant monarchies.'” one of them replied. He smiled, and Commander Highfree could see he was trying to please the king, to make him rise in ranks. He learned that would never work in the level with the HEKN. There, you excel, or you are no one. Several boys who tried bribery and pleasing were the ones who were gotten rid of the earliest. Those who hardened, or pretended they did lasted longer.
The king responded to the soldier’s eager output, saying,” If you are trying to impress me,” he said to him, ” I’d suggest you stop being a dog. Are you a dog? To be disciplined by his owner?”
The soldier’s smile faded, as he learned of his place. To Commander Highfree, King Norbert asked,” Would you like to see him, Commander Highfree? He was dying to see you.”
Highfree vigorously shook his head, but his response was ignored. Looking at the two guards who dragged him here, and pointed with his head to the eastern direction. The guards then held him like he was a mere prisoner being led to his execution. Highfree writhed and panicked, wanting to escape. His thoughts are frantic, and praying.
Please, he thought, don’t punish me. Don’t hurt me. I promise. I swear, I’ll get rid of Goswin. Please, no. Please no…
But, it turns out, King Norbert wanted to give something worse on Commander Highfree.
A corpse of a shirtless man lay face down in the courtyard. His position was one who would be writhing in pain. His back, if it can be called that anymore, is a wasteland of meat and bone, rotting to the air. Maggots and flies mingled about, eating away. His facial expression is worse. His face is one of despair, one who was subjected to such agony that he had found nothing, no way to relieve it, or to make it stop.
The smell hovered throughout the side of the courtyard. The smell of the dead. Commander Highfree wanted to throw up from the scent. The sight, only made things worse.
King Norbert didn’t need to torture him physically. The message alone is clear. The people who attempt to question my power are to be eliminated. Serve me, and this won’t happen to you.
I swear it. he thought, his eyes staring at the corpse. He wanted to turn away, to run, but remained still with horror at the terribly bloody sight.
The younger, less experienced HEKN that arrived and looked at the corpse are frightened. Some screamed and retreated back. Others, like Commander Highfree, remained silent, but were completely terrified.
The more experienced, however, grinned at the sight, and even laughed when they saw the corpse, and the Commander’s reaction to the dead man. They began to sneer at Highfree, mock him.
” What happened, commander?” one asked, with sympathy as false as the corpse was real. ” Couldn’t take in the blood?”
” Face it, boy.” Another shouted. ” You a traitor? That’s what happened to traitors.”
King Norbert was smiling, as if in satisfaction, but the dip in his eyebrows expose that he wasn’t. He wishes he could feel satisfied on the justice given to the man. But he doesn’t.
All of this is too much. A nightmare speaking into the daylight, becoming real enough to suffocate him.
The stench. The corpse. The HEKN’s jeers and lack of empathy. King Norbert exposing his insatiable desire to feel it’s done for. Over, and over, and over again.
Before Solven could scream that it’s enough, the guards grabbed him and dragged him back to his room, through the same, plain hallways.
Highfree wanted to scream. The image of the corpse and the HEKN around it was burned into his mind. He still smelled it. He still heard the laughing and the teasing.
I understand. he thought, as he is alone once again in his quarters. He was shoved in, and his door slammed, with one more comment to spear him.
Admit it, Sowlen. You ain’t good enough, and you’ll never be a part of us.
After the door slammed shut, the boy lay on the floor, weeping if he still could. The scene out in the courtyard still fresh as a bloody wound. Then, when he could feel he could stand, he went to his chamberpot, and threw up in it. All the gunk poured out into the bucket, and the resulting stench filled him with misery. As if one awful stench didn’t make him feel like a coward. A failure.
I will try harder. he thought as he breathed deep breaths. Finally, putting the images away in the back. He has been doing this for quite a while now. Memories of home, memories of his parents, his sister Lynna, of Goswin from when they were both children, of the town they both grew up in, all of it. It was only to survive, and to be tougher, to act as if you were raised with no one to care about, and vice versa.
If he had a choice, if he didn’t have a clue of the consequences, he would run away from this. He sometimes imagined closing his eyes, and waking up as 12 years old, in his room. Not this room in a foreign castle, but his room, in his small house, with Lynna laughing as she made sly jokes, or succeeded in something. To his mother’s baked bread, and his father shouting his farewell, as he went to work. He would think all the events after that day, were a dream, and therefore, redo the day again. With better results.
Solven wished that would happen. He would run to his country, where the harsh winds and snow were as familiar as home to him. He would come back to the town he lived in, hug his parents, get a snowball thrown at him from Lynna, and then get hugged by her as well. He would run to Goswin’s house, and tell him everything he experienced in his dream, just like he used to describing what happened at school as they walked home together.
But, alas, he’s not 12 years old anymore. He’s not a child anymore. In fact, Solven believed that he’s not the boy that was at his hometown anymore. The boy died during that training.
He was Commander Highfree of the 23rd March of the HEKN. If he was stripped of that rank, which seemed likely, he would still be a part of the HEKN.
No matter what tries to stop him.
Even Goswin? a voice asked in his mind.
Even Goswin. he replied.
” How long will this take?” Uncle Robert demanded Mary, the lady that escorted Swan into the Healing Room.
” A few hours.” Mary said, getting her needles, scalpel and tweezers out on a wet napkin on her table, in an organized manner. ” Your niece was struck on the lower leg. We need to see if the bullet can be put out in the first place.”
He hated waiting. But, he didn’t want Swan to be a cripple. Not after what Thomasson told him about them while riding horses in the woods. Uncle Robert has told him about what he saw in the woods. Of his niece, Swan, in a glowing ball of fire.
Thomasson didn’t laugh at what he said, not like Uncle Robert partially hoped he would. He stated, I believe your niece and the doctor’s son could be the royal children whom we’ve spent the majority of our entire lives looking for.What you have said, may only confirm this.
He didn’t like this one bit. Swan, a princess?
It would be laughable to think so. Swan was feisty, frank, impulsive, a thief, stubborn, and about as uneducated as any farmer in Pholuxon. No one would take a look at her and declare her a princess.
Minutes pass. Uncle Robert waited, at the best he could.
Everything about waiting worried him. He feared that if he kept standing still, something bad would happen. Something actually preventable, but he happened to be at the wrong time and place. He loathed that.
He drank wine in the hallways of High Ebony. Watched agents come and go. They were like ants, some of them. Just too busy to talk.
In the end, however, none of that could distract him from the image of Swan in his head. Her, lying on the cot, as if too weak to get up, pale as a Sowlen. Her cheeks red as a fever.
That’s not Swan. he thought when he visited her. Not at the second. Not Swan, cheerful and a bit daring. He knew that the labor and the harshness of King Norbert’s rule had made her a little sullen and fearful, but she was still smiling and confident.
After 30 plus minutes, his head stung from the wine. Wincing, he set his cup down. At least he tried, until he ended up dropping the cup. The loud sound as metal hit stone made his head hurt worse, and Robert almost sighed as the rest of his drink poured out to the floor like blood.
Before he could think of something else, Goswin entered, looking more sullen than usual.
Uncle Robert wanted to know what happened in the Meeting Hall (he was shocked that Goswin was sent there, and wanted to know how come), but it wasn’t good news.
Goswin looked at the door to the infirmary and asked,” Is Swan okay?”
” I hope so,” Uncle Robert said, thankful for the talk. ” So far, she’s getting the bullet out.” He then asked,” You the doctor’s son, right? What are the chances she’ll be alright?”
” I don’t know.” the boy confessed. ” If the bullet’s dirty, that’s a problem. And if that bullet gets out, there’s a chance that would leave some muscle damage inside.”
Uncle Robert waved the extra information away, and asked,” So basically…”
The boy said quickly, ” She’ll be fine.”
Uncle Robert knew the boy was lying, but decided not to push him. It was clear that neither men wanted to assume the worst from Swan.
Goswin looked at the spill of wine, and at him, and asked,” You’ve been drinking?”
” Nay,” Uncle Robert replied sarcastically,” I purposely spilled it on the floor.”
Goswin gave him a glare in response, which made Uncle Robert add,” Okay, okay, I drank. You would, too, you know? Who am I kidding, though. You’re a Sowlen.”
” Back home,” Goswin said calmly as he sat down on a bench next to him, ” We looked at alcohol as poison. It’s only recent times, that it was also to be used for injuries.”
” It’s not poisonous.” Uncle Robert responded,” It doesn’t even taste good.” Then, changing the subject, he asked,” What happened at the Meeting Hall?”
Goswin’s shoulders wilted a little, and he answered,” I’m agent, that’s a good thing.”
Uncle Robert noticed his tone stated the opposite of what he said. ” Then, what’s wrong?”
” Alex Leorent told me to forget about Rafael.” the boy added,” Said he was holding me back.”
Uncle Robert then grunted,” Then tell that block of ice to go shit himself if need be. There’s no way you’d leave someone like that. Rafael’s a fool, but he’s your fool.”
Goswin let out a small smile, and looked ready to say something. Possibly:” Sir, I’m a Sowlen. I can’t curse, not even to save my life.”
Just then, Mary slammed open the door, terrified. The sounds of Swan screaming and the smell of smoke filled the air.
” Swan!” Uncle Robert cried, immediately pushing the healer, he charged inside, with Goswin following him, to see Swan on fire.
She was covered entirely in flames. The bed next to her was a scorched piece of cloth and wood. She was frantically pouring a jug of water on herself, trying to put it out. It worked, but only for a second. The flames resumed their places afterward.
” Help me!” she cried. ” I don’t know how to make this stop!”
Robert screamed at the healer,” How could you let this happen?!!!!!! Did you douse her with oil before you healed her?!!”
Mary stammered,” I-i-i got the bullet out! Th-th-then I tr-tried to c-c-c-close the wound. Sh-sh-she just burst into flames.”
No. he thought. That couldn’t have happened. He did not want to think about what could really be causing this.
He watched Goswin yell to Swan, ” Calm down!” he shielded his face from the blaze. ” It’s only going to get worse if you’re stressed.”
Angered, Robert bellowed,” What do you mean, ‘calm down’. She’s on fire! Put it out!!!!”
” This isn’t regular fire!” Goswin said. ” It’s on her, but it’s not burning her!”
” What are you talking about?!!” Swan shrieked. ” Fire always burn. That’s how it is!”
” By now,” Goswin said, ” you would have been dead already from those flames. Yet you aren’t. The fire is coming from within you. Only you can stop it.”
Swan stopped screaming, and stared in shock. Her flames dwindled a bit. Soon enough, they were gone. Her clothes were still intact. Swan reached her hand out, and said, ” Goswin, how could I-”
Before she could complete her sentence, a column of fire shot from her hand, that sped an inch from Goswin’s face, and singed a wall between Uncle Robert and Mary, who ran out the door, wimpering.
Soon, other agents arrived at the infirmary.
Anais went in first, charging in and looking at Swan as if for the first time. Neville and Felicity went in, their faces long with open mouths and wide eyes. Rafael came in, accompanied Goswin, and asked,” What’s going on?” only to get a silent answer.
Thomasson walked in carefully, like he always did, and looked concerned at Swan, as if asking if she was alright. Mary ran back in, looking at the scene, like she was trying to prove something was there. A few other agents went inside as well. At last, Alex Leorent came in, his presence demanding everyone’s attention.
For a while, everyone was silent. Not one dared to break it.
Then, Anais stepped a bit closer to Swan, and parted some of Swan’s hair from her face, and asked,” Is it true? Of what happened here?”
Swan didn’t know what to say or think, but in response to Anais’s question, her left hand summoned fire.
The agents, except for Goswin and Uncle Robert, jolted away in response. Rafael backed up as far as possible from Swan. Alex didn’t move a muscle, his face as expressionless as ever. They watched in a longer silence, in awe, as they watched the flames flicker and move about in Swan’s hand, but never burn her.
Finally, Thomasson said,” It is confirmed.”
The agents all looked at him, all wondering what he was talking about. Swan was none the wiser. She thought, What was confirmed? What did Thomasson guess or think about me?
” And what, is being confirmed, Thomasson? Are you trying to prove you have intelligence?” Alex asked, his eyes leveling him at his place like a sword would.
Thomasson looked at him directly, pointed at Swan, saying,” That girl is the lost princess that we have been looking for.”
Everyone except Alex gasped, and looked at Swan like she was a shining jewel in a cave.
But then, Felicity faced him and asked,” And what would prove that?”
Thomasson looked at her, and then at Swan and said,” Only the royal family would have the gift of summoning fire. Only the royal family would be immune to such flames. Her red hair is that of the last Pholuxonian king, and the kings before him. She was persecuted for her crimes, and the people who raised her made sure she lived. They had displayed such importance to her, if they were to have done so. Swan Petterson is the lost princess, now found, and our future queen.” After the last words poured from him, he bent his knee to her reverently.
Swan stood in shock of this, as Anais, her children, and Robert, and a few agents followed his example. Alex only gave her a closed grin of satisfaction, and nodded to Goswin, who went to her, and held her right hand, the hand not in flames.
He looked into her eyes, smiled, and said,” We have work to do.”