Delia was awakened by a call at the door of her tent. “Princess, breakfast is being served.”
Groggy, she responded. “Is it morning?”
“Yes, Princess. We leave as soon as we’ve eaten.”
Delia blinked, her eyes gummy from sleep. “I’ll be right there.” She heard footsteps leaving as she swung her legs around to the ground. Morning already? She was still in her clothes. At the wash stand she splashed her face and rinsed her eyes. What had happened? Was she that tired? After unbraiding her hair and combing it, she rebraided it and stuffed her personal possessions into her saddlebag. Ready, she left the tent and went to the cook tent. There, people milled around, bowls of mush in hand, chatting. She thanked the elf who handed her a bowl and walked to a tree to sit, her back against the trunk.
Sisruo found her there, eating the last of her food. “Princess. I didn’t see you at dinner last night.” He sat down beside her.
“No. I slept straight through.”
“Is your wound bothering you?”
“No. I rebandaged it this morning after I combed my hair. It’s fine.” She saw him raise an eyebrow. “Just tired, I guess.”
“Ceinno dealt you a huge blow yesterday. Could that be it?”
Delia shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t feel any different.” To herself, though, she wondered if Sisruo was right. “No matter. We leave today.” She got up and dusted off her clothes. “I’ll see you at the lineup.”
Sisruo nodded but she could tell he wasn’t happy with her explanation. After returning the bowl to the dish washers, she went to the picket line to get her horse ready. An hour later, she was in line with Sisruo and the Mage when the King rode up and the party marched off.
The march lasted three days. In that time she spoke with the Mage about the psychic blow she’d received. “It depends,” Kaepli said. “You were already wounded, so that may be all it is.” He studied her. “Your aura looks normal and you don’t seem to be suffering any other effects.”
“Thank you, Master Kaepli. I just wondered.”
“Those kinds of attacks can be fatal. I’m glad you asked.”
Delia nodded. “I didn’t want to bother you.”
He gave her a smile. “Never a bother to speak with you, Princess.”
Now they were at a castle. It was dark, and to Delia, felt evil. The moat around it was full and stakes had been placed in multiple rows all around the perimeter. Logs had been piled on all of the roads approaching the castle. Turning to her magical sight, Delia could see an aura hanging over the entire place. It was as black as Nethene’s.
“I don’t have a good feeling about this, Father,” she said as she sat beside him. Their horses didn’t seem to like the place either. They tossed their heads, snorting and danced around the dusty road.
“I don’t much like it either. But if that aura is any indication, Iyuno and his minions, Nethene, included, are all in there. I’ll send a messenger.”
Master Kaepli shook his head. “I’m afraid you’ll lose any messenger, Sire.”
Captain Neoni and Mystesto rode up. “A bad business, Sire,” Neoni began. “I expected to see his forces outside the castle.”
Mystesto nodded his agreement. “They’re up to something, Sire.”
The king nodded. “Set up camp. Out of sight of the castle. We’ll meet this evening. In the meantime, post watchers around the castle, in pairs. For safety.”
“As you will, Sire.” With that, Neoni and Mystesto rode off.
The mage stroked his beard. “I’ll use the scrying bowl. It may provide some information.”
The mage rode off. Sisruo rode with him.
Delia stayed with her father and his guards. “Do you have a plan, Father?”
“No.” Ucheni shook his head. “No plan at all. Perhaps the mage will see something useful.”
Delia hoped so as well.
She was present at the council meeting that evening. They stood around the rough table, a map of the area, Iyuno’s castle, in the middle, covered the table. “Do we know what the inside of the castle looks like?”
Neoni shook his head. “We didn’t even know a castle was here, Sire. He must have had it built recently.
Mage Kaepli entered the tent. “Sire. I apologize for being late.”
“You have information?” The king looked tired, Delia thought to herself. And no wonder. The fate of the entire kingdom was on his shoulders.
“Not as much as I would like.” The mage spread a map over the table. “This is the interior of the castle as best as I could see in the scrying bowl. The aura covers most everything in darkness.”
The group huddled over the map. “There are a lot of blank spots,” the king said.
“Yes, Sire. The blackness was too thick there for me to see.”
Mystesto traced possible paths through the castle with his forefinger. “Some evil lurks in the blank spots, I’m sure.”
Everyone agreed. The king sat down on a stool. “What about the blocked roads and the stakes? Can we get rid of them?”
“I have my apprentices working on that now, Sire.” Kaepli pulled his sleeves into place. All of the materials are organic, so we may be able to pull them out of the ground to free our approach.”
The king nodded. “Mystesto, what to your scouts say?”
“They see no one outside the castle, sire. Whatever the inside is like, outside appears quiet.”
There was a commotion at the door. It was Kaya, looking to Delia as though she hadn’t slept in days.
“Sire.” She nodded to Master Kaepli and turned to the king. “The prisoners escaped. They killed all of the guards.”
A gasp escaped from each elf in the meeting. “The wounded?” the king asked.
“They’re fine. I left the most healthy in charge and rode here as directly as I could.”
Delia thought the young apprentice looked about to drop from exhaustion.
“Thank you,” the king said. He looked to Neoni. “Double the watchers. I don’t want them to sneak into the castle.”
Neoni bowed and hurried from the tent. “Master Kaepli, please take care of your apprentice. Let me know if you need anything.” Kaepli bowed and he helped Kaya from the tent.
The king looked at Delia. “Separating them didn’t seem to work. They have great power. Power I don’t want added to Iyuno’s.”
“What do you need me to do, Sire.”
“Check for aura’s. See if you can identify anyone in the castle. Or around the castle, for that matter. Keep me apprised.”
“Yes, Sire.” She bowed and left the tent.
Outside she found Sisruo, pacing back and forth. “Hello!”
“Hello. You didn’t come into the tent.”
“No, Master Kaepli had work for me. Is the meeting over?”
“For me. I’m going to look at the castle and see if I can identify individual auras.”
Sisruo gaped. “At night? From this distance?”
“From where I can. And yes, now.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“Doesn’t the Mage have work for you to do?”
“Not at the moment.” He reached out to take her arm.
Delia pulled it out of his reach. “I’m capable of doing this on my own.”
Even by the light of the torches, she could see him blush. “I know you are. But we’re outside of a deadly enemy’s fortress.”
Delia drew a deep breath. He had a point. “Very well.”
Thank You! Come back next week for Part 26.
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