At long last, the day had arrived. In the palace, men cursed and sweated as they moved heavy, ornate furniture, while women and girls dashed about, cleaning and dusting nearly anything that wasn't moving. In the kitchen, the great ovens, cold for the first time in years, now echoed with the sounds of shovels and rakes removing piles of ash and partially burnt wood. Over all hung the smells of cleaners and fresh paint.
In the towns and villages along the Royal Way, walls were being scrubbed and whitewashed, cobbled streets and alleys cleaned, while townsfolk dragged their finest clothes from storage. Even on the farms along the way, there was frantic activity.
At the same time, far to the north, two men stood in the entryway of a mighty fortress. No servants bustled here, where bare stone walls and battlements stood in silent watchfulness over the forest below. Indeed, other than the gateman who had admitted them, the two had thus far seen no trace of anyone else.
"So this is where she's been all this time?"
The speaker's companion glanced at him with obvious distaste. He was a tall man, his slender frame draped in fine cloth and gleaming armor. A large, engraved ring graced the hand resting casually on the pommel of a jewelled sword that hung from his hip on an intricately tooled scabbard.
"It is the custom," he finally said, his tones measured and almost musical.
"I know the custom," the other replied, his words coming out in a gruff, almost barking voice. Shorter, stockier, his garments were of leather, thickly made and even more thickly patched, and all of some indeterminate color. This one stood with calloused hands at his sides, while the unadorned hilt of a sword peeked from over his right shoulder.
"I know the custom," he said again, shrugging. "At birth, the princess was brought here to grow into maturity, uncorrupted by the intrigues of the court. Then, on her naming day, she's to be brought back to the palace."
"There to receive her titles and take her place as rightful heir to the throne," the first man finished. "Of course," he added, "it should be a prince. Unfortunately, their Majesties were not blessed with a male child. Still, the throne does need an heir, and once the princess is properly wed, I've no doubt she shall serve as Queen quite well."
Before the shorter man could reply, the massive front doors of the keep began to swing open. Immediately, the taller man stiffened to rigid attention. Beside him, the shorter man stood relaxed, his muscular body remaining loose.
Through the doors came a pair as different from each other as the two men watching them. The first strode down the stairs confidently, seemingly mindless of the rich material cloaking her muscular, well-formed body. Shaking back a mane of raven hair, she gazed silently at the two men through piercing blue eyes.
Behind her came a second figure. Only a thin shift covered this one's slender, shapely frame. From the midst of a mass of golden hair, pale blue eyes briefly glanced toward the men before focusing on the courtyard at their feet.
"Which of you," asked the raven haired beauty, "is to be my escort?"
"Both, your Highness," replied the taller, immaculate man. "Your Royal parents couldn't agree on an escort, so each sent one."
"And you are...?"
"My apologies, Your Highness. I am Emeric, and I have the honor of commanding a detachment of Her Majesty's Royal Honor Guard. My companion," and here his voice dripped with sarcasm, "is Balian, who leads a unit of the Free Companies."
"Very good. I am Sabelina, and this is my maid, Isolda. We are nearly ready to depart, so I suggest you prepare your men."
Hearing the summons, Emeric dropped back until he rode beside Princess Sabelina's wagon. A huge, lumbering affair, requiring four horses, the wagon was carefully positioned in the center of Emeric's column of armored troops. As he approached, a hand drew back a finely embroidered curtain, allowing the Princess to gaze out at him.
"How much further, Captain?"
Emeric bowed slightly. "As Your Highness knows, this is only our second day of travel. We should reach the first farm late tomorrow."
"So one more night of sleeping in this wagon." Sabelina nodded. "And after that?"
"We will spend tomorrow night at the farm. The following night will see us in one of the larger towns along the road. We should arrive at the palace late on the following afternoon."
"A wagon, a farmyard, and an inn," Sabelina said, frowning slightly. "Still, I suppose it can't be helped. And your men? All are well?"
Emeric nodded. "All are well, Your Highness."
"Tell me about them."
For a moment, Emeric gazed proudly at the column ahead of the wagon. "These," he finally said, "are the finest soldiers of the most elite unit of Her Majesty's Guard. They were formed on your royal mother's order soon after she married His Majesty, your father. Since then, this unit has the distinction of being the only unit which has never known defeat."
"A proud heritage," Sabelina observed. "And what of the other? Balian, I believe you named him."
Emeric frowned. "It is not my place," he began slowly, "to question the decisions of His Majesty. Still, I cannot help but wonder about his choice of Balian to protect Your Highness."
"And why is that?"
"Ten years ago," Emeric replied, "our realm of Iznia was embroiled in war with the neighboring realm of Uthrance. The war ended when troops of your father sacked the royal city of Threlkeld.
"During that battle, Balian commanded over one hundred men of a Free Company. To this day, none knows their part, but when Balian emerged from the battle, only three of his men survived. Now he commands just over twenty men, and those same three serve as his lieutenants."
"And the rest of his men?"
"Much like their leader, Your Highness. Surly, undisciplined, barely a step away from the headsman's axe, from the look of them. Your Highness witnessed that lack of discipline this morning."
Sabelina nodded. That morning, as Emeric had ordered his men for the march, Balian and his men had simply lounged around a small fire. Then, once the column was ready to march, Balian had dispersed his men with a simple, "Let's get to it." Emeric's dismay at such undisciplined and unmilitary behavior had been obvious.
"And where is he now?"
Emeric's frown deepened. "Balian," he replied, "rides ahead of us with a few of his men. As to the others, I have no idea. They vanished to both sides of the column even as we began moving."
"And Isolda, my maid?"
"She rides with Balian."
"So what is she like?"
"She? You mean the Princess?"
Sitting comfortably astride her horse, Isolda rode casually, seemingly unaware of the fact that her position on the saddle cause her shift to draw up. Beside her, Balian's repeated sideward glances continued to leave no doubt that the maid wore nothing beneath that shift. Now, though, Isolda's attention forced him to raise his eyes to meet hers. The half smile he saw on her lips did nothing to ease his own discomfort.
"Yes, the Princess," he replied, shifting slightly on his own saddle.
"I would like to think," Isolda replied, obviously choosing her words with care, "that the Princess is a good person."
Balian nodded. "You would say that," he observed. "After all, you do serve her."
"I serve the realm," Isolda replied, "as do you."
"Of course." Grinning, Balian reached down, drawing the hem of Isolda's shift up slightly. "And exactly how do you serve, pretty one?"
In reply, Isolda grasped his hand, lifting it slightly higher, allowing him to feast his eyes on what lay beneath. Then, gently, she removed the cloth from his grasp, allowing it to fall as it would.
"That service," she said with a smile, "is not yours to command. It would be unfortunate were the Princess to find reason to doubt your intentions."
Balian frowned. "My intention," he said shortly, "is to see the Princess, and you, safely delivered to the palace. Those are His Majesty's orders, and that is what I intend to do." He began to say more, only to pause as one of his men approached.
"Ambush ahead. Looks well set."
Balian nodded. "Gather the men," he commanded, then turned to Isolda. "You ride back and warn the others."
With a nod, Isolda turned her horse and raced away. Even under the circumstances, Balian couldn't help but marvel at the way her speed caused her shift to billow up, leaving her slender body exposed nearly to the bottoms of her breasts. Shaking his head, he turned to more pressing matters.
Isolda raced back along the road, reaching the column as it was beginning to emerge from a thickly wooded section. Ignoring the stares of the men, she drew rein before a startled Emeric.
"Ambush!" she gasped, "just ahead. Balian is gathering his men to face them."
"Or join them," Emeric growled, then turned toward one of his men. Even as he began to issue a command, figures emerged from the trees on either side, throwing themselves at the neatly ordered column.
"Here!" Turning, Isolda grasped the outstretched hand, allowing herself to be drawn into the wagon. With the door firmly closed, the two women could only listen as the sound of battle swelled, then quickly died, followed by an unnerving silence.
Suddenly, the wagon door burst open, rough hands reaching in and dragging the two women out onto the ground. In spite of their struggles, the two were quickly stripped, roughly bound, then tossed back into the wagon. A third figure, wearing the remnants of rich clothing, was tossed in with them, then the door slammed shut. Immediately, the wagon began to rock violently, as if driven hard.
"What's happening?" Wildly, Isolda struggled with her bonds. Beside her, Sabelina stared at the third figure.
"We've been taken," she said. "But by who?"
The third figure's head lifted, revealing the bruised features of Emeric. Eyes wide, face pale, he tugged at his bonds. "They have us," he whispered.
"The soldiers of Uthrance."
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story continues in Homecoming 2