Since The Day You Left XVI: Alpene
Nóe ran down the hall.
He remembered last night as if it were a second ago. Every memory was vibrant as if it had just happened. Every single word, action, and gesture was crystal clear in his mind.
“Your brother is becoming quite destructive,” mused Lord Crofton, carelessly strolling across his throne room. “It’s become… peeving. And his dog, that mangy, rabid thing… that is a lot to take care of.” He stopped mid-step, then turned to Nóe. “Has he been this way for long?”
Nóe thought for a second before shaking his head. “No, sir. I regret to inform that all my brother’s actions are quite novel to me.”
Crofton nodded slowly, his face showing an expression of perpetual disgust. “Hm. If he were fighting for me then I wouldn’t be so curious. I would simply allow him to kill for me.” He shrugged. “Is this personal or is your brother already paid?”
Nóe frowned. “I can’t say it’s either, really. I’m not sure what happened, he just… snapped. I'm- I'm afraid now.”
Crofton nodded once more. “I see. Well, what price would he agree to? I’m certain I can tempt him somehow.”
Nóe shook his head again. “I can’t think of any price that could heal my brother enough to listen to words of bargain.” He said so with complete concern. He was becoming impossible.
Breixo was falling away from any reason.
Now, he ran.
“Brey!” called Nóe. “Brey, I need to talk to you!”
He came to their quarters in Crofton Fief in a few flights of stairs. They were given two comfortable suites in the royal tower, Nóe having to share with Arlo, who was gone doing who-knows-what. He guessed he was somewhere in the sparse, black forest. That redheaded boy couldn’t be kept from climbing the gnarled limbs of the ancient trees.
Breixo looked up from repairing his arttilsana. It had stayed together this long; he could stretch it out a few more years, probably. “Aye, shaqiq?” He looked expectant, but also busy. He waited for Nóe to say something, giving him his undivided attention.
The perfect brother.
Immediately, words were whipped from his mouth. He had rehearsed the conversation countless times, yet now he forgot what he meant to say completely. His throat was dry. He was afraid.
Breixo frowned. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost, Nóe,” he stated. “What’s up? I’m listening.”
Nóe looked around the suite. His brother’s room was pretty much like his own, with a bed in the middle, washing bowl off to the side, and tapestries decorating the walls. The window faced the other side of the tower, however. Breixo got the view of the Crofton border, where the sun seemed unafraid to show its beams and trees grew. Nóe was stuck with the view that delved into the black fief. He was truly jealous.
“Nóe, what’s wrong?” Breixo had since stood up, putting his arttilsana down. Worry creased his brow.
“Nothing’s wrong,” Nóe made out. “Well, sort of…”
“Please stop being mysterious and let me hear it,” he said. “I’m here to help.”
And how can this Údaen be losing it? Nóe thought helplessly. He’s good to me and Arlo. He was good to Chance before… well, leave that be. He was exceptionally good to Nadia and Yatie.
“Breixo,” sighed Nóe, remembering at least half of his rehearsal. “I’m fifteen now, and that means I’m an adult by Údaen and Destrean terms. I can fend for myself and you know that.”
Breixo nodded slowly. “I know that,” he said, one word at a time. “Well, what’s wrong?”
Nóe rubbed his nose awkwardly. “And,” he started, “um, ah, and I have my own payment. I have ways to go back to Bryngaer.”
“And what are you saying?” Breixo urged. “Nóe, I’m sometimes very confused by you.”
Nóe prayed to whomever would listen and held his breath. “I’m leaving the company.” He let out his breath and looked fearfully at his brother.
Breixo looked confused still. “I thought you were doing quite all right. What made you come up with that?”
Nóe sucked in his lips and sat down. “You’re scaring me out of my wits,” he confessed. “It's like you're sick or something. When we escaped Úda, none of us imagined this life. Remember what we all asked for?” He paused, but Breixo said nothing. “Nadia wanted to start a bakery, Yatie wished to be enrolled in school, you planned to become a blacksmith’s apprentice, and I ached to join the Solitary.” He shrugged. “There was no room in our plan for crime. We were going to be honest citizens.”
Breixo shrugged. “Plans change with fate,” he replied simply. “This is what we’re good at. You know that all those dreams were impossible. No one would hire an Údaen.”
“They would now,” countered Nóe, standing. “There’s peace, with the Turbans gone. The Destreans helped Úda. We can travel back and forth, we can get jobs. That’s what I’ve wanted.” He ran a hand through his curly hair. “You made me believe that this was the way of procuring it, but I know better.”
Breixo shook his head. “This is what I’m getting for providing for you?”
Nóe approached slowly. “Brey, I don’t want to- I don’t-”
“So you’re betraying me?” he said sharply. “You’re leaving your own brother to go to jail by your own will?”
“No, no, no,” Nóe said quickly, shaking his curly head vigorously. “Brother, I wouldn’t hurt you for that sake, I would never. I’m leaving you now, hoping you’d follow, but I know you don’t rely on me. I don’t rely on you. I’m leaving because this is getting crazy.” He let out a disappointed sigh. “This isn’t how I imagined it going,” he groaned.
Breixo looked stiff as he crossed to his little brother. “How long have you been meditating on this?”
Nóe winced. “Since we let Chance go.”
Breixo tossed his arttilsana to the washbowl and scowled. “Since then you were plotting against me!”
His little brother backed away in pure terror. “Brey, it’s still me, Nóe. Please, stop this!”
“I hate you,” the elder growled like a churning wind through his teeth.
Nóe blinked. “Please don’t hate me,” he said, his voice broken. “Brey, listen. I’ve already corresponded with the Solitary. I turn myself in and I’m a free man after that. They won’t hurt me.”
“I don’t care if they break every bone in your body or not,” Breixo interjected with an ever rising voice. “A traitor for a brother is no brother at all.”
“I’m not betraying you!” Nóe shouted. “This is for me, for my life! It has nothing to do with you!” He swallowed. “Breixo, you were the most amazing person I had ever known. The best brother, the best friend, the best companion. I don’t know what happened! Do you think you were the only one mourning?” He rubbed his eyes. “I love you too much to hurt you like this. I’m regretting it already.”
“Regret it then!” Breixo screamed as he turned. “Leave now before I have a mind to kill you on my own.”
Nóe stifled a gasp as his vision blurred. “You’d- you’d kill me?” He felt a catch in his chest. He knew Breixo was no longer his older brother. He was no longer Hashim Al-Izz. “Why?”
“I hate you!” Breixo yelled. “Leave me if you must, Miraj Al-Izz, and never return to me as my brother!”
Tears stung Nóe’s eyes. “Stop it, you’re scaring me!”
“If I see your face again it’s an enemy! You were never my brother!” Breixo caught him by the collar, drawing a terrified yelp out of him. He raised him off of his feet, and Nóe pleaded and kicked. He threw him into the door. Nóe grunted in pain and slump against the heavy oak. “Tarak li!” he cried. “Tarak li ‘lilaa al’abad!”
Every Údaen knew those words. The Book of Alqudama told a story of a man betrayed by his brother, whom he cursed to be solitary for the rest of his miserable life. It was his curse that Breixo recited. It was the highest form of hatred ever used by an Údaen man.
Nóe, still on the ground holding his shoulder, sobbed as he opened the door and scrambled out. He sprinted down the corridor, his shoulder throbbing tremendously. Tears rolled out of his eyes as he fled to the stables, quickly saddled his horse, and galloped to the border.
He was in too much danger to look back or forgive Breixo.
Caislín squinted as she opened her eyes.
Fresh air seeped into his nostrils. It was cold, fresh, sweet air, with the low rumbled of a waterfall in the distance. A tinge of soft grass tickled her nose. The coolness surrounded her and she smiled with content. She didn’t even want to open her eyes.
“Is this a hobby of the queen?” grumbled a familiar, sarcastic voice, making her frown. “Passing out at crucial moments then waking up quite a bit later?”
“Shut up already,” growled Wynne dangerously. “My Queen, are you awake now?”
Caislín opened her eyes and welcomed the sight more than the feeling.
Outside of her tent was Elysium. Rocky, purple mountains soared high and pierced the soft white clouds. The sky was perfect watercolor blue. Forests marched up the veins of land that traced up to the peaks of the mountains, and glittering snow dressed and draped the many evergreen trees, which wafted of the luxurious smell of pine. Green grass which sparkled with gems of dew waved like kelp in the soft wind that mixed the paradisal scene together. A sapphire fjord sliced the western mountains apart, creating a peninsula in the chain. The water stemmed into countless brooks that ran through the land.
Caislín stepped out of her tent and breathed in the scene.
“Alpene,” she said. “Why are we here?”
Aloysius approached from the camp, arms crossed over his chest. “Don’t mind at all that Praetor and I overruled your… unconscious - but still supreme and present - authority and called upon the Alpeniens for alliance?”
Caislín shook her head. “By all means, take those reins,” she said, rubbed his forehead. “I couldn’t have been unconscious for more than a day. I’m no longer sick.”
The healer, Ignatius, reverently put a hand on her forehead. The medic shrugged. “It could have been an aftershock of your illness, My Queen, and also the worry of the moment. I noticed your low fever while you were unconscious and… well, I took it upon myself to treat it. I put you under freuchwyn to put the fever down and you were out for three days.” He winced and awaited a fiery reprimand.
Caislín raised a brow and shook her head for a second. “All right,” she said slowly. “Odd situation. I commend you for thinking on your feet, but for future reference, you do not have my permission to drug me unless it’s completely urgent.”
Ignatius bowed his head in embarrassment. He was hardly more than a Novice, with a gangly frame and extremely shy demeanor. He knew there was still much to learn, and he nodded as his lean cheeks reddened.
Caislín approached Boniface, who sat next to the bonfire, tending to whatever was cooking in the pot. He stirred some form of stew, which didn’t smell or look appealing, but didn’t make one gag. It was tasteless, but not horrible.
“Breakfast is served, My Queen,” Boniface, with a fun smirk on his face, announced with flair.
The light attitude made it bearable.
Chance sat off to the side, poking the meat in his stew. His stomach felt like a cold rock. He had discussed Breixo with Wynne before Caislín woke up, and he was losing hope in his friend. He swallowed down the sick feeling and nibbled gingerly on the meal.
“He plan is to hit Vårthjem, the capital, before high sun, to speak with the empress. She’s expectin’ us, but if we’re a tad late, then…” Boniface trailed off, but then shivered. “Never mind that. Anyway, long story short, we have to get there on time. Your Highness, you’ll handle the negotiations?” He looked up from his map and glanced at Caislín.
The queen nodded as she finished off her stew. “Aye.”
Boniface nodded and swept a finger across the illustration of a gleaming castle hidden by the mountains. “Anson, Briscoe, guard the queen. Cahir, Iolo, go with Captain Aloysius in a sweep of the keep.”
Cahir, the youngest Solitary, being but a thirteen year old Novice, snickered. “Sweep o’ the keep. Sweep o’ the keep.”
Iolo rolled his eyes and slapped his companion’s back, getting him back in order.
Boniface continued. “Wynne, speak with the supreme general of our foe. Employ Gwceff only. None understand the Common Tongue. Ignatius, you stay with me, Cairbre, you escort Chance to the Vårthjem prison until we move out once more. Remember: these are warriors, and if we make a wrong move, they’re ready. We have to be prepared for that, but up until then, we’re guests and swords stay in their scabbards, aye?”
He received a cacophony of his men agreeing.
Boniface rolled up the map. “Let’s pack up!”
The hike was nothing. Getting across the bridge was something else entirely.
Caislín was struck. From where they were two hours ago, she could just barely see the fjord and its peninsula. Now, she could see that a castle that imitated glass and obsidian sat on the tip of it, gracefully reaching with towers for hands to the perfect sky. Two waterfalls cascaded from either side of the apparition, roaring like twin bears into the placid fjord.
It was fifty feet or more away from their grasp. They stood, watching in awe the spendor, on the disconnected mountain chain. Only a bridge that stretched across the fjord, with supports every ten feet driving down into the water, stood between them and the capital of Alpene.
The bridge was made of the same glass-like substance as the castle, and in the sunlight and water, it sparkled in every color of the rainbow.
“Well,” Briscoe chuckled, shouldering his pack. He flicked his stallion’s reins. “First one across doesn’t get decapitated by the inhabitants!” With that he galloped across the bridge.
Caislín smiled and followed. Soon, the whole caravan reached halfway across. The queen relished the view on either side of her as her black hair whipped behind her face. The water didn’t seem dangerous so much as life giving and free. The roar of the falls rang in her ears like the tolls of celebration bells. The sparkle of the Bifröst winked up at her, telling her that everything would be all right once they met the empress. Everything would be back to normal very soon.
Two guards - both female, surprising half the group - stood at the gates. In their hands were long, pointed javelins, which they lowered at the approach of the caravan. To contradict the many legends about the Alpeniens, the women didn’t wear horned helmets. They used bronze helms that covered almost their entire faces, excluding their eyes and their mouths. Their armor was formfitting and strong, and they wore blue tunics and thick bragae under.
“Ingen adgang til utenforstående,” said the one on the right, in a high and heavenly voice. If she didn’t sound so angry, Chance would have been pleased to speak with her.
Boniface bowed as he dismounted his high standing bay. “Hilsen fra Destrea. Vi holder en avtale.”
The guards both nodded and separated their weapons. They turned their backs to the caravan and placed a hand on the gate.
Chance noticed the doors more closely. They were made of a curious, shimmering black stone that reminded him of obsidian, with engravings of an emerald nature telling stories all over it. They were like runes. The most curious thing about the gate was that, where the guards held their hands, a keyhole lay present. The ladies eased their javelins into the keyholes, and the gates opened.
“Dwi ddim yn credu,” Caislín breathed.
The gates revealed a bustling city, filled with flowers and merriment. Burly, fur-caped men strolled from here to there in the clean, though slim, streets. Women with long blonde braids and full length tunics haggled with merchants in their stalls, and their children cried at their feet. Geese honked and fluttered about, and dogs scampered to and fro.
It was perfect and happy.
Jolly laughter, children squealing in delight, and the disorderly yet euphoric noise lifted Caislín’s heart to the heavens. She wished that she could bring just a little of the happiness close up in Alpene to Destrea, and that would be enough. There was no rhyme or reason to the city, yet no one cared. It was life. It was everything.
The caravan trotted through the lower tiers of the capital, and they made their way to the keep. It shimmered in the sun and towered over the people, but not as an oppressor, but as a monument of pride. The keep was definitely something Caislín would be proud of.
The group split into their assigned jobs, and the queen went toward the main entrance, Anson and Briscoe only two respectful steps behind her, hands behind their backs, hoods on their heads.
“Everything will be all right,” she reassured. “Nothing wrong will happen.”
“With all due respect and complete appreciation for your concern, my lady,” Anson started, “but this is a textbook diplomatic endeavor for us. We’re quite all right.”
“Then I’m reassuring myself,” Caislín concluded, brushing off her gown.
She hadn’t thought of bringing one just in case. She couldn’t thank Wynne enough for allowing her to wear her own formal gown, which was a simple blue satin body with a basic lace skirt and a yellow sash around the waist. But unfortunately, Wynne forgot her formal slippers, so Caislín made do with her Solitary military boots, and she prayed that the empress had no sense of fashion.
Inside the keep was flooring. Air was punched out of the Destrean queen as she looked upwards. Intricate murals of past leaders and stories passed down from generations soared high above her. It seemed like every wall had a thousand alcoves inside them. The floor as well was a gargantuan mosaic of the empress herself, with shining black hair, pale skin, and icy blue eyes. She seemed similar to Caislín herself, though she was draped in furs and carried a sword.
That was where Anson and Briscoe actually saw a difference. They had to tear their gaze from the floor to keep walking behind their own queen.
Marble pillars climbed high upwards, supporting the vaulted ceiling. Pointed arch windows shafted in noon light and illuminated the icons painted over in gold leaf that were fixed into each redwood alcove. Empresses past were immortalized in each painting, with brief histories of their deeds written on the frames in the native Alpenien language, Skuld.
“Majesty,” mumbled Anson, “we best be makin’ for the throne room now.”
She nodded. “Of course. Let’s go.”
Her father had spoken highly of Alpene. He praised their monarch, Empress Skadi. He said that she was like a sister to him. Caislín hated to be the bearer of horrible news, but if Skadi felt that close to her father, then she knew this discussion wouldn’t just involve politics. She knew that the subject of family would come up, and she didn’t know if she could handle that.
“We’re right behind you, Your Majesty,” Briscoe said softly, almost sympathetically.
Caislín noticed she was crying. Wiping away her tears, she sniffed. “If we’re to be protected from future blows from these terrorists,” she said, “then we need to continue.”
With that, she bravely stepped into the throne room.
If anything could be more beautiful than the entrance, then the throne room won. It was almost all completely wood and wool. A roaring fire crackled in the hearth near the high redwood door, and a hunting horn lay on the mantle. Runes fixed in frames lined the walls, and sconces with paintings of dancing bears and elk gave off warm light. The throne itself was covered in soft furs, and the lady seated on it looked safe enough.
Indeed, Skadi resembled Caislín. Her pale, middle aged face was round and welcoming, and her lips were as red as roses. Her piercing eyes watched the trio carefully, if not gently. No one knew why they were so afraid in her presence. Her waist-length raven black locks were let free and sat around her. A crown encircled her thin brow, and an emblem that resembled a raven’s beak dipped down on her forehead. She was dressed comfortably in a soft buckskin sheath dress that conformed to her feminine waist and flared out after her hips, and a palla over her shoulders made of fur. Strapped to her forearms were seax knife scabbards, which made her presence slightly less benign.
“Princess Caislín,” Skadi announced in Common Tongue, with a thick Alpenien accent. “So good of you to come.” A smile - one like the queen’s one - came across her face. Her eyes disappeared under her cheeks. “I’ve been expecting you for years.”
Caislín’s eyes widened. Why did she say that? How come she was awaiting her for so long, since the subject of their appointment was quite new?
Another question creeped into her mind: why did they look so alike?
Chance thumped his head against the cell wall with pure boredom.
“Can’t we go to the tavern or something, Cairbre?” he moaned.
Cairbre shook his head. “Na.”
He rubbed his face tiredly and slid against the wall. “Why not the galley?”
“Praetor said you’re here until we move out again or unless the queen needs ya.”
“Can we check?”
He thumped his head again.
Cairbre rolled his eyes. “Ye tryin’ t’give yerself a splittin’ headache?” He scoffed. “Now I know th’depths o’ yer stupidity.” He crossed his arms over his chest and scanned the prison. It was large and made of bedrock; no one would have done better. It was stocked high with rakfisk, the Alpenien fish delicacy. It was the only available food to the prisoners. He sat back on a rakfisk barrel and watched Chance with amusement. “Y’make me laugh.”
“Oi?” Chance said with a raised brow. “Let me out and I’ll show you laughter.”
Cairbre rolled his eyes and stood. “Enjoy yerself, Chance,” he said, straightening his jerkin, “‘cause I’m gonna go do just that.”
As he climbed the stairs, Chance’s blood boiled. “Oi, c’mon back down, ye cur!”
It didn’t matter. His only company was gone anyway.
The sound of the heavy prison door opening an entire story upwards caught the man’s attention.
“No, let me go! You don’t understand, I have to find the Destrean queen!”
Chance stood and leaned against the bars of his cell, frowning with confusion. The person yelling at the top of his lungs was speaking in Common Tongue. Boniface had said no Alpenien could understand it.
The two female guards from the gates shoved their captive into the cell next to Chance’s, sour glares on their faces. They hiked back up the stairs to the door, leaving the captive to yell all he wanted.
“Please, someone listen! Listen to me!” His cries quieted, and Chance was right when he thought he heard soft sobbing.
Chance wished he had seen the youth’s face in the bout. He strained to catch a glimpse into the cell, but it was in vain.
“Are you all right?” he asked simply.
He heard a sniff and a shuffled of the boy’s boots. “Chance?” the voice breathed. “Chance, is that you?”
Chance slowly nodded. “Yes. Who are you?”
“It’s me, Nóe!”