Since The Day You Left XVII: Since The Day You Left I Counted
Wynne made it to the barracks of the keep. Warrior women jogged to and from the extensive and solid establishment. Marching girls with blonde braids swaying on their backs passed by her, their blue eyes gazing on her. They whispered behind their small, pale hands in the lilting yet hard language of Skuld. Wynne smiled and nodded to the squadron, who smirked shyly and went on their way.
She knocked on the barrack door, and a lady dressed in a soft buckskin tunic and palla answered.
“Úda’lugha?” she asked plainly.
“Gwceff,” answered Wynne as she entered.
The woman nodded. “Supreme General Asdis has been expecting you,” she announced as she led her through what seemed to be a long tavern lodge. “She awaits your presence in the hearth room.”
“There’s a whole room for a hearth?” Wynne said, incredulously. She stared at the woman with wide eyes. “Dwi ddim yn credu.” /I don’t believe!/*
The woman rolled her eyes and led Wynne into the hearth room, which was as warm as a Yule evening. Holly was draped across the marble mantle, and a feasting table - with the fixings of a very merry night - marched through about half of the length of the long hall. Framed runes of past victories were fixed high above their heads.
The only other soul in the room, besides Wynne and the assistant, was a middle-aged woman in full battle armor, her winged helm laid on the table in front of her. Her blonde hair stuck out in three long braids down her back. Her green eyes were icy and her expression was official. Across her stern face was a faded scar, beginning at her forehead and ending at her chin. If Wynne didn’t know any better she would have said a dragon left that wound.
“May I help you?” she asked plainly, employing Gwceff. “The empress said a girl like you was coming.”
Wynne nodded and sat at the other end of the feasting table. Apparently, the seats were made for men and women much larger than her or in full armor. Her chin just barely reached the tabletop.
“I’m-” She struggled to sit and meet her eye contact at the same time. Giving up, she rested her elbows on the table to make herself a little taller. “The queen’s military advisor. Well, it’s a temporary job. I’m normally a milkmaid.”
Asdis nodded slowly. “All… all right.”
Wynne could hardly make eye contact with her while the room was covered in so much interesting material.
The general tried to catch her attention. “Tell me of the foe,” she interjected. “Tell me what I’m to defend against.”
“Terrorists,” Wynne said lightly.
Asdis frowned. “You say that as if you were speaking of a Summer day.”
Wynne shrugged and smiled. “I like the idea of a hearth room.”
The general rolled her eyes. “What of their leader? Their locations?”
Wynne produced the parchment that Aloysius had practically ordered her to hand to the general. It was neatly put together, for which the Solitary were known.
Unless you actually knew a Solitary at a very personal or natural level, you would think they were the most detached, serious, mysterious men and women on the face of the earth. Only, Wynne was quite used to the Solitary’s rambunctious, caring, utterly silly lives. Their discipline and intense sensitivity to their surroundings while on duty were thrown to the wind when they were together under leave. There was a brotherhood to them all, and it was precious.
Asdis read over the parchments carefully. “‘No definite report of their precise location currently’,” she read, giving Wynne a tired glance. “‘... The terrorists are reported two Údaen mercenaries, with a Sábháiltean interceptor, and a Destrean countryman is implicated with them.’” She shrugged. “How can one even think about applying the proper military to such scant reports?” Asdis tossed the almost useless parchment back to Wynne, who caught it indignantly. “Oi, I’d bet the Eyes of Vårthjem on never finding these wraiths.”
Wynne frowned. “What’re the Eyes of Vårthjem?”
The general shot a poisonous look to her. “Never heard of the Eyes?”
She shook her head no.
Asdis opened her mouth to explain, but a moment passed by before she wisely pursed her lips together. She tossed one of her braids and stood. “A story for a later date, with no time pinch.” She shook her head. “No, speak more of our foes.”
Wynne nodded slowly. What was going on with the general?
“You’ve been expecting me?” breathed Caislín. “What?”
Skadi approached Caislín, a careful scrutiny over her face. The Solitary behind her slowly came forward, before their queen. Even if Skadi was harmless, their charge was uncomfortable, and the empress would lift a finger to touch a single hair on her head so long as they were alive and breathing.
Most Solitary men were chosen from families where they had younger sisters, so that they would develop a familial attachment and protectiveness over their queen. In short, they went into a crazed state of anger when the terrorists attacked.
Skadi backed down at the warning glares from the soldiers and put her delicate hand back to her side. “Apologies,” she muttered, not taking her eyes off of Caislín. “You… you are the Princess Caislín of Destrea, correct?”
Caislín stepped behind the Solitary. “I’m queen now. My father was killed by the terrorists we’re asking alliance against presently.”
Skadi’s eyes widened. “Killed?” she echoed breathlessly. “No, he couldn’t be dead, I- Dead!” She rubbed her forehead.
Caislín looked down at her boots. “It was a surprise to us all.”
A tear trickled down Skadi’s eye. “Well,” she whispered. “My Queen, I’m sorry I couldn’t contain myself.” She gently rubbed away her tear. “He was… he was a good friend. It’s such a surprise to hear he is gone.” She took in a deep sigh and shook her head. “And the terrorists are still a threat?”
Caislín nodded, cautious. This empress was certainly odd in ways of communication. First, she announced that she had been expected her for years. Second, she stood and approached to embrace her, backing off when the Solitary implied to do so. Next, she just about got ready to sob her heart out when she heard that King Eochaid of Destrea had been killed.
“We have sources saying the terrorists aren’t done,” Caislín said, remembering what Rohese had told them before the healer put her under freuchwyn to cure her wounds. She shivered at the thought of being attacked again.
Skadi nodded. “Who hired them?”
Caislín shrugged. “There’s no substantial evidence yet.”
The empress stroked her palla with concern.
What Caislín never noticed until then was the teardrop shaped emerald that was laid in the raven part of her crown. She gazed at it, curious.
Skadi raised an eyebrow. “Where is your crown?” she inquired.
Caislín grimaced. “It was stolen by the terrorists.”
The Alpenien’s eyes widened, then she donned a visage of hatred. “Crofton,” she hissed. “Caislín, escort, come with me now.”
She retreated out of the throne room, and the queen glanced between her two guards. Briscoe shrugged slowly, listless, and Anson looked concern, but he stood behind her like a good soldier.
Caislín sighed shakily and followed, Anson and Briscoe two steps behind.
“Nóe!” Chance exclaimed. “Are you all right?”
“I’ll live,” Nóe said, “but I need to speak with your queen. Can I find her?”
Chance scoffed. “You’re asking the man in jail,” he muttered. “Well, they may come down here soon enough. They’ll have to bring me with them.” He paused. “Why are you here?”
“I tracked you and the group all the way to Alpene,” Nóe answered, his exhaustion hinting slightly in his voice. “Well… Breixo’s gone crazy, and I’m more informed than you are.”
Chance hesitated at that before rolling his eyes. “Sure. What about Arlo?”
“Arlo’s still with Breixo; I had no time to pick him up while he was trying to kill me.”
The countryman let out a sad sigh. “I see,” he stated glumly. “All right, what’s going on?”
“Crofton’s enjoying more and more my brother’s… relentlessness, so to speak, I guess. Breixo’s Manhunter, Seph, has been dispatched and is hunting me as we speak, and as far as I’m told, Yīnyǐng hunters have been sent after the queen.”
Chance’s stomach turned over and he felt queasy at the mention of Yīnyǐng hunters.
The Yīnyǐng were from the Unreachable Provinces, beyond Osaka and Anahera. They were skilled hunters, formidable assassins, and they charged in rubies, which were in an abundance around the Earth. Of course, everyone wondered why the disciplined specters found value in such a worthless item, and it seemed that those of Venéra and Alpene understood, but they never explained.
“Who…” Chance was so thrown off he could hardly form his words. “Who sent them?”
“I don’t know,” Nóe confessed with extreme concern after a moment of silence. “Lord Crofton had told me that… that someone else was hiring.”
Skadi ushered the three Destreans into a private room and shut the door behind her.
“I demand a reason,” growled Caislín. “What’s-”
The empress turned only to hug the queen very tightly. Anson and Briscoe took one step forward, but their expressions gave away their complete confusion.
Skadi sobbed as she held Caislín to her, afraid to let go. “I’ve waited for twenty-two years,” she whispered, “to hold you again.”
Caislín’s eyes were wide. “I- I want a reason first!” She pulled away and stood behind her Solitary.
“Does a mother need a reason?” exclaimed Skadi. She went silent.
The queen’s knees felt weak as Anson carefully held her upright. “What?”
Skadi approached again. “Should a mother need a reason to see her daughter again?”
Caislín felt tears surging out of her eyes. “My mother died when I was born,” she said. “I never knew my mother.”
Skadi sighed. “Your father never told you what happened,” she whispered. “Allow me to tell you, then.”
“You’re saying we can’t be a family?” breathed Skadi. “Eocho, that’s all I wanted. I wanted to have a family with you.”
Her argument was quiet and almost broken as her husband paced the floor. Her brow was knitted in heartbreak and confusion. She wore the customary furs of her country, as well as the obsidian crown.
Eochaid rubbed his face and sighed solemnly. “Skadi,” he said comfortingly as he rubbed her arms lovingly. “We have to save our daughter as well as keep the Eyes safe from Lord Crofton. If he overthrows me - and he’s itching to - then he has two of the Eyes in his possession. We can’t have that at all.”
“Then keep the Sapphire,” pleaded Skadi, “and don’t pass it down to our daughter! Keep it and we can be safe - together.”
Eochaid shook his head. “No, the Eyes are traditionally held by women. Traditionally held by queens. That has relevance to them.”
“What sort of relevance would they have that could tear a wonderfully happy family apart,” cried Skadi. “No, break tradition. I can’t be away from you and our daughter.”
Eochaid parted from her and began pacing again. “I have no other ideas, my love,” he muttered. “We have to separate the Eyes. We have to separate ourselves.”
Skadi had begun to sob as she remembered. She held tight to the armrest of her throne and doubled over herself with the pain of such a horrid memory. Her stomach churned as she continued crying, pouring out her whole heart to the loneliness that enveloped the throne room. The fire drowned out of her ears as all she could hear was her baby - her joyful, giggling, ray of sun - screaming as the Solitary took her back to Bryngaer, just behind her father. The sound haunted every nightmare, every dream. It was the cry of a confused and frightened child.
“Momi!” she had heard. The cry of final endearment.
And she never heard her daughter again.
Skadi held onto the hope that, as was told to her in advance by a Solitary, her daughter would come to her this very day, but not out of reunion; Caislín never knew her mother. She never witnessed her face in a time she could remember. Skadi prayed that Eochaid had told her daughter of herself at least.
No. Today, her daughter was a diplomat. There would be no endearment from her. She would be as proper as a rehearsal.
“Oh, my Casey,” sobbed Skadi. “If you knew of my love for you.”
“And that was the moment you came into the throne room,” Skadi said quietly. “Casey, I never wanted to be without you.” She took off her crown, and she pried out the teardrop emerald. “This is no ordinary gem,” she said, giving it to her daughter. “You have a sapphire in your crown, yes?”
Caislín wordlessly nodded, staring at the gem.
Skadi donned her crown again and invited Caislín to sit at the hearth. She did so promptly, and the empress sat beside her.
“Your father and I were married after the War of Rubies,” she explained, “a year before we had you. We were both from lines of… of the Guardians of the Eyes. Traditionally, an Eye is held by a queen or empress, not by a king. When we had a girl as our heir, your father knew that he had to give his Eye - the Sapphire - to you. Your kingdom then was under rebellion from Crofton Fief, and the lord threatened to take over. Your father knew that I could not follow, given I had the Emerald, and if Crofton managed to defeat us, then he would two of the Eyes. Your father wouldn’t have that, and if I didn’t love you or him like I did, I would have seen how wise he was.” SHe sighed shakily. “Casey, you were taken away from Alpene when you were only two. I had two years to hold onto you and my husband, two beautiful years, that I knew were going to be whisked away from the day you were born. And since the day you left, I counted the years until you would return to me.” Her smile flickered away like a snuffed candle. “And your father…” She shook her head, looking down at her hands. “Never mind. It was never meant to be.”
Caislín could hardly breathe. How come she had to learn so much within this month? Why did she have to experience it all while she was still mourning her father? Why did her mother return while she struggled to accept that her father was gone forever?
“I’m sorry, Empress,” she said just over a whisper. “I’m tired. May I retire for the night?”
Skadi looked crushed by that. She wanted nothing more than to be able to speak with her daughter, to catch up with her, and to be called ‘mother’ again. There was ice in Caislín’s tone, and the empress felt it pierce her.
“Of course,” she muttered. “Follow me.”
Anson helped Caislín back on her feet, and they crossed several corridors, everyone silent as their graves. Skadi showed her to a basic suite, and Caislín shut the door, leaving Anson, Briscoe, and the empress outside.
The Solitary simultaneously bowed and turned, but being humane, they reluctantly turned back to Skadi, who seemed like she was trying to will the door open.
“The Queen will come out once she feels it,” Briscoe reassured her. “Don’t worry, she a nice person.”
Anson elbowed him, and he realized that those weren’t the best words for it.
“Casey’s not this way,” Skadi whispered. “Nevertheless, I still need your help.” She turned to the two Solitary. “Crofton has begun his war for the Eyes.”