Forward To The Sunrise II: Who Are You
Caislín had woken before the sun rose.
Her husband was a riser even earlier than herself, but as the baby was soon coming, she began to find herself restless. Dawn began to wake on the horizon and the cold air swept into their tent and clutched Caislín by her ankles. She shivered and opened her heavenly blue eyes, and she was reminded as to where she was. She had been having dreams lately of Caer Bryngaer and its warmth and comfort. She had constantly imagined her father, back from the dead, beside her in the throne room. She had been seeing herself back as the Queen of Destrea, that is, before she woke up in a tent in yet another foreign country.
After the fall of Vårthjem, it seemed only days later that the Lord of Crofton Fief invaded Bryngaer and took full control of Destrea. It was disheartening and discouraging, as Caislín was their lost queen, who had been wandering for four years now. She was presumed dead, and she had to ask herself whether she thought that was for the better.
Nevertheless, her body screamed at her to get up and get ready for the day, and so she kicked off the covers and pulled on a simple linen tunic, a wool shawl, and thick bragae trousers tucked into spun socks.
The Summer in the far reaches of Haea was as cold as a Destrean Winter. She wondered how the natives survived such harsh weather.
As she stood, she felt the baby kick. Caislín drew in a sharp breath and rubbed her belly fondly. She and Finn awaited the child like the warm Spring of Destrea to bring warmth and light into their chilled and disheartened lives.
After she was dressed, Caislín ducked out of their tent and shivered to the outdoor stove. Underneath the snow, in a bag that was sewn to be bear-proof, was all the meat they had left: Finn had been able to hunt despite the cold and had scored a fine pheasant, a moose, and in the lower areas of Haea, some speckled quails. They were down to a leg of the moose to be eaten, one quail, and the pheasant’s wings. Finn had been wise in rationing it, and Caislín been a fair preparer of it. As of this year, no one got sick over her cooking, so she could make it simple and declare she was learning.
Finn advised her to prepare the quail today, as hunting would be fair. She plucked its feathers and cleaned it off with fresh water from the stream nearby. Lightly seasoning it with Haean spices, she put the bird on the stove and lit it.
She felt two hands on her waist and her husband’s lips on her neck.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” Finn whispered.
Caislín laughed and turned to him. “Good morning to you, too, Finn,” she said, kissing his cheek. “Hungry?”
Finn sighed and sat back as he looked to the grey sky. “Aye. The hunt was fair. I say we move in an hour.” He looked back down to his wife and smiled. “You know, you’re beautiful.”
The couple, after being separated for two years, had been able to catch up in one. After the fall of Vårthjem, they were so afraid of losing each other - and as Finn said they were very ready, and Caislín knew it, too - they were married. Both being Destreans, it was tradition to be bound on home soil. As Crofton didn’t allow anyone to go in or come out of the kingdom, they were married in the northern province, Powys. In the months and months that came after, Finn wanted so dearly to have children, but Caislín was too discouraged by losing her father on one day and seeing annihilation the next, she wasn’t ready to become a mother. At least the smile came back to her face, and now, they were awaiting their first baby.
Finn had to say that the agonizing wait was worth it.
Caislín took the cooked bird off the stove and, as she straightened up, took in a sharp breath. Her husband looked up curiously.
“You all right?” he asked, taking the quail.
Caislín nodded. “The baby’s kicking again.”
He smiled and laid an ear on her belly. “Aye, aye, he’s kicking hard.”
“‘He’?” she exclaimed, almost indignantly. “How do you know your babe’s a boy?”
Finn shrugged and stood. “If the woman gives birth, be it that at the least the man has some say in what his child will be.” He said so with no seriousness in his eyes, but with a face as straight as a ruler.
“It never works like that, Love,” concluded Caislín, cutting up the bird. “Ha! I’d pity the man who believed it with his whole heart.”
She served them both and sat beside her husband, who then asked Protector for a blessing. “May we be delivered to the land we love,” he said, eyes closed, “and may our friends be safe in Your Hands. Your holy will be done.” He snuck a fun look at his wife, then quickly added, “and please let our child be a boy.”
It earned him a kick in the shin from Caislín, who finished the prayer with him.
“Any week, now,” she whispered, her hand rested on her belly. “Any week now.”
Finn guided their horse through the stream, careful not to splash his wife, who was comfortably seated in the saddle. Tugging the buckskin along by the bridle, he looked back at Caislín and gave her a smile.
It seemed, though he was a grown man, she had seen him mature. Since their reunion only weeks before Vårthjem, he was such a boy that she couldn’t stand to stay in company with him. He began to understand and she fell all the more in love with him.
The two had known each other since he had turned fifteen and became a captain of Destrea’s former royal army, the Solitary. Her father grew fond of the confident yet humble youth, whose gaze had always pierced the princess. Once they had both come of age he asked for her hand so he could court her. Years had gone by and they only grew in strength and love. Then, what was now six years ago, Finn and his brother, Drystan, were both sent to the frontlines against the radical Údaen army, the Turbans. They had both disappeared, and most presumed all of them dead. Then Finn came back. Only, he was changed. Not remembering who he used to be, he was called Chance and was one of the leaders to a crime gang. Nevertheless, the Protector guided them together again, and it took some doing, but Chance began to remember his life before and fell in love with Caislín again. Then, while they were in Vårthjem to request armed forces against the gang Chance was formerly a part of, someone had planted bombs inside the castle, making it fall to rubble, and the two were blessed to be alive and together. They missed their friends, whom they hoped and prayed were still alive was well, but there were no promises.
“Hold on,” Finn said, “it’s getting steeper over here.”
Caislín nodded and held tight to the stallion’s mane. As the incline grew more drastic, her mind wandered back to the past. So much had happened and she wondered if she coped well enough. She and Finn had been able to put it behind themselves and were able to live, but she knew that someone had to do something about Lord Crofton.
“What’s plaguin’ your mind?” Finn asked quietly. They had come to a flatland and he mounted the stallion, positioning himself behind her. “You look upset.”
As they began to trot, she sighed. “I was thinking about Lord Crofton,” she admitted softly, “and the tiara.”
All those years ago, that one day that began a nightmare was supposed to be the happiest day of her life, when her father was supposed to announce her the queen. That day was the day her father was killed, her crown was stolen, undoubtedly by Crofton and the gang, and a few days later, Finn, under the name of Chance, came back to her, but he hated her.
Finn slowly nodded. “Well,” he said, but said nothing else.
Caislín rubbed her forehead and leaned against him. “The Empress Skadi… my mother…” She frowned. How could she ever get used to saying that?
Also in that week, she found out that her mother was still living, unlike she was told. Everyone had proclaimed that King Eochaid’s wife died in childbirth, but the truth was, his wife was the Empress of Alpene, and she had an explanation. Sadly, Caislín refused to listen. She was so angry and so confused when Skadi said she was her mother that she ran from her and shut her ears tight. While they wandered through Alpene, they heard that the empress was killed in the explosion, and Caislín regretted her actions.
“Aye?” Finn urged.
She closed her eyes and let out a relaxing exhale. “She said something about it. Said that the sapphire was special. If I had listened, if I had cared…” Caislín refrained with difficulty from crying from frustration. “Perhaps I would have done something about Crofton. Perhaps I had been able to do something.”
Finn was quiet for a second as he nodded. She cherished how he listened her with no judgement, and his advice was important to her.
He let out a small chuckle. “It seems to me as if you’re saying you singlehandedly gave Destrea to Crofton.”
Caislín fidgeted. “Perhaps not singlehandedly…” she muttered. “I just can’t shake the feeling that it was my fault that I didn’t know more.”
“It’s not your fault you didn’t know to know,” Finn said simply. “Look, we can always learn more. There’s a library in Úda that we can get to within a week if we’re quick, that should have a whole shelf on the Sapphire.”
Caislín smiled. “You’re merciful, Love.”
He chuckled as they rode across the country.
It didn’t take too long before Finn felt as if they weren’t alone.
Finn turned and scanned the scene around him; they had left the trees in the distance, and an expansive flat land of snow beckoned them south, in the direction of Úda. While this part of the journey left them wide open targets and kept them vulnerable, their advantage was that no one had the element of surprise on them. He kept a quiver strapped to the saddle, between him and his wife. All he had to do was snatch up his bow and a fletch of arrows and they would be defended. If that failed, he had a longsword strapped to his back.
The wind picked up and dragged the snow into dunes reminiscent of the desert sands, creating cover along with hiding places. Caislín didn’t suspect a thing, but his senses were tuned into the feeling that they were being watched.
The sun, only a weak, melted light behind wet, silver clouds, soared above them, and the feeling climbed up and down his chilled spine. Goose skin shocked the back of his uncovered neck, and he shivered. He pulled his wool shirt’s collar up a bit, as his short, cropped hair would do nothing anymore.
“Caislín,” he whispered, “don’t stop. Take the reigns.”
His wife opened her eyes and reluctantly took control of the strong stallion. “What’s wrong?” she said softly.
“Nothing yet,” Finn said quickly, silently dismounting. “Not yet. Keep your eyes open. Don’t panic.”
Caislín slowly nodded. She knew what to do, as they had ridden through harsher areas filled bandits. Finn had said that before, and they lived this far.
The feeling only worsened as Finn ducked behind a snow dune, pulling a thick hood over his head. If there were more, then he wouldn’t want someone to pinpoint his face.
Caislín prodded their horse to a trot, and as they casually clopped away, she looked back worriedly towards her husband, who nodded and gestured for her to keep going.
He unsheathed his longsword, and the perfectly kept steel made no sound. It was of Destrean craft, and Caislín recognized it as a Wing Company distributed standard. She was afraid as it resembled Aloysius’ blade, with a faint blue tint to the otherwise polished, whitish silver metal. Stamped on the blade was its Gwceff forge name: Câny’Gwynt - Song of Wind. He had found it pawned in a merchant’s shop in Venéra and thought nothing of it, but then it returned to them in Gaiel, where he dueled a mercenary for it. It had served him well, and he prayed it wasn’t going to stop.
“He got off,” mumbled his follower.
Finn made himself small against the dune and opened his ears to the stranger. He heard not hoofsteps through the snow but the sniffing of a dog. He frowned and risked himself a peek.
The hooded man was riding on a wolf double the size of his own horse. Its white fur was groomed and trimmed, and its saddle was high riding and made of dark leather.
The rider was black against the white of the scene and his steed. A hood and scarf covered his face and shadowed his eyes. Obviously, he was uncomfortable with the cold of the north, and Finn knew he was Údaen from the Manhunter sign on his shoulder.
“Shazi, Baqi,” the man called. Two rather average-sized hunting dogs trotted up beside him. “Hunt.”
Finn crawled backwards, staying with the contours of the snowy dunes. The dogs sniffed and followed his trail. He scowled with worry and backtracked a little faster. His heart stopped when his foot slipped on ice and he shuffled, shifting the powder snow.
Shazi and Baqi barked and caught up with him, and Finn wielded Câny’Gwynt and they circled around him, undaunted by the impressive blade. Their teeth were bared and they viciously growled as they closed in on him.
Finn was not afraid of Shazi and Baqi, though he was concerned by their master, who followed them around the dunes until he saw the Destrean man in a grey wool cloak and poncho.
“Who are you?” the Údaen asked as he dismounted his ghostly white growling Manhunter. He failed to unwrap his face, and he shivered as he approached Finn. He patted his short scimitar, wary of his presence. His eyes, the only features visible, were bright hazel. “Where’d you get such a fine blade?”
Finn, seeing that the Údaen was just as careful as he was, showing that he was not looking for a brawl, slowly lowered his sword. The robed man looked relieved and dropped his hand from his own blade.
“I was a Solitary,” the Destrean explained. He sheathed the blade across his back again.
That wasn’t a complete lie. Finn’s memory was still blotted and imperfect, but he had conjured up images of sparring with his brother, Drystan.
The Údaen nodded, impressed. “Explains your impeccable stealth,” he stated, with no sarcasm in his tone. Reluctantly, he unwrapped the scarf from his face and pushed back his hood.
The man was young, about twenty-five or so. His face was rugged and defined, tanned olive, with a rough brown stubble of days past across his face. In the cold, bright air, his eyes pierced Finn, as he was searching him for any sign of hostility. He was also tall, given his gaze was level with his own.
There was something about him that Finn was wary of.
“Who are you?” Finn asked.
The Údaen gave out a quick ‘oh’ and bowed, one hand over his heart. “I am Commander Toryalai Samara of the High Guard of Southern Úda.”