Flocked JP 30
Ryan Watt
(11 reviews)
Once Upon A Time... kingdoms in trouble had to wait for a wandering hero to come along and save the ... Show More
Adventure, Comedy, Cross-Genre, Fantasy, High Fantasy
Fairy Tale, Guild, Magic, birds, curses, Champions

The Red Trail

              The first time the witch found her was not the worst. It certainly felt that way to the young tsarevna, hiding in a small village dressed in rags and reeking of goose dung. She had no other scenarios to compare it with. The witch swooped in on her mortar and pestle the day of her friend’s wedding.
The young tsarevna, though officially dismissed from her goose girl duties not too long before, had chosen to return to the capital of Mezen to watch, from a safe distance, with her fan at her side. By then she had worked out that the broach in her bag could transform into a fan that held the power to confer invisibility. She worried about getting the beautiful paper of the fan dirty, so she washed her hands thoroughly several times in the stream outside town before coming in, although she was beginning to think she would never be clean again. This thought told her that if she were lucky, anyone who might know her would have such a hard time seeing the tsarevna beneath the dirt. Looking at her face in the rippling stream that morning, she had not recognized herself. She would not realize it for years, but it was the first time she saw the face of the woman she was becoming.
To be precise it was not the witch who found her, but her servant, one of her dreaded riders.
It happened the moment Kata and Isidor appeared from the Chapel of the Divine Will amidst the flight of doves and the an aetheric display of colored light and confetti showered the couple and crowd. Kata looked beautiful in the dress. Absolutely stunning, the tsarvena thought of her former handmaid, and deserved every second of her happiness. She had risked her life for her former princess, and now she was one herself, and quite possibly a queen someday. Isidor was handsome, but from their brief interactions, the tsarevna could not see the two of them together, which had been the other possible life path for her. That was gone now. In its place, a path of hiding, of running, of needing direction.
While thinking these thoughts, the rider, sans mount, but wearing still the pale white armor of his position, had grown near her in the crowd. Only one person, standing behind her left elbow, separated them. She did not notice. Her thoughts made her momentarily forget the crowd, and she pulled from her bag the mirror that was too large for it. “Before me,” she whispered. The mirror showed her an alleyway. Curious, she swiped her thumb the other way over the inscription on the handle. “Behind me,” she whispered again. The mirror image rippled while the glass remained smooth, and showed her only her own face, and behind her, the Knight of the Dawn’s helmet. His eyes trained right on her.
She turned the other direction and ran. In her mind, she turned herself into a fox, nimble and swift and clever enough to outrun and outsmart her pursuer. She did not turn to see if the knight was following her. He either was, or the others were closing in. She tucked the mirror away and unfurled the fan. As she beat the air with it, she felt instantly better at the feeling of being hidden, not realizing that each time she jostled someone in the crowd out of her way, she showed where she was as well as if she had remained visible.
Her heart raced. She needed an escape route, a way out. She chastised herself for not thinking of that before getting lost in the crowd. Then she saw it, the alleyway, and ran for it.
Before she reached there, a shadow passed over it. The shadow gave way to the shape of the witch, riding the large stone mortar, dropping down in front of her.
“Don’t bother hiding behind that fan. I know its magic, though I was not the one who made it. I can also smell the goose droppings all over you. Show yourself,” the witch ordered. The words must have been charged with magic, for the girl could feel them in her skin, under the dirt. Her hand stilled and the fan’s magic abated.
“You’ve led a better chase than any have in a great many years. But enough. You were a fool to come back here. Knights, restrain her. We are leaving.”
The words jarred something inside the girl’s mind, some small remaining desire to resist. She stiffened. The witch narrowed her enormous eyes.
“Come easily, or I shall ruin the wedding day.”
Hands clamped down on her shoulders. One white gauntlet, one red. Her heart raced, but her feet did not. They moved slowly with her captors, looking for a way out, where she could not find one.
              The Order’s clerks had trouble finding all the relevant books on Sir Red, so the researchers had found themselves unable to do much work the first day. Thus, they spent their whole second day deep in research in the archives, except for a noontime walk for Satu and Ghiro, and a noontime flight for Kess.
They ate in the common banquet hall, a room that held a supply of food throughout the day for any Champions who were passing through and needed a bite. Nothing fancy or elaborate, but enough fruit and bread and salted meat to fill them up for the afternoon.
As Satu set her plate down on the sideboard, she froze in place. For not the first, or second, time that day, her heart had begun racing, like it only did when she knew she was being pursued by her witch.
“Satu,” Ghiro said. Her voice came out low and gentle, like a distant wave. Enough to bring the sensation of water crashing over whatever feeling was blocking up Satu’s mind. She shook free, released the plate, and moved aside.
She felt her feet move, but could not recognize her own willpower in that action. She moved from the hall and towards the curved ramp that led towards the archives.
“Why is this so hard?” she whispered. She knew the others would hear her and whispered mostly because it felt like the only way she could get the question out.
“Taking real action is never easy,” Kess said. “I know that. I spent years taking no action. I begged for the chance to take action. Then the chance came and I was petrified for a month, unsure what choice I would make. There have been a few nights in the last six months where I have woken this bird’s body from slumber with the terror that the choice was still coming up and that I would have to decide.”
“How did you ultimately decide?” Satu offered her arm as a ledge so they could talk in something closer to face to face. He accepted the perch.
“I waited until the last second, when I had no more time, and then decided.” He looked away and then back. “I do not regret my decision, and I do not know if I could have done any different. I did not know what the outcomes would be. Do I let the witch strike me down or not? Do I trust the Juniper Tree or not? I ultimately did trust the tree, because that is where all my knowledge had come from while I was the Bird of Truth. I knew the feel of true knowledge. But it took me months to realize I knew to trust that knowledge.”
“Which is why we are here. Then you will have that knowledge to rely on,” Ghiro added. She had somehow taken the lead and pushed over the archive door.
In the first chamber of the archive stood a little desk with a clerk behind it. In front of it, a woman with a strip of fur slung over her shoulder was leaning down and signing into the log book.
“Hello Corrine, back at it again?” Ghiro asked as soon as the other woman stood up. Corrine turned with a nod.
“Always,” the other Champion said. Satu did not know her, other than having seen her around the archives the last couple days. Satu reminded herself again of the importance of trying to learn more about her fellow Champions, especially the very few women. “Sah Corrine,” the other woman said.
“Sah Satu, a pleasure.” They shook hands. Satu realized Kess was still on that arm. “This is Kess, my guild mate.”
“The Kess? My, a pleasure. I have heard about you from Nuraya a few months ago. Well met, and now I must be off. Trying to nail down more solid information on a lead to take to the council.”
She vanished into the archives as Ghiro signed in. Satu followed, and then Kess with a foot print.
They wound their way back to the room they had been using for their research. All their materials remained where they were. Kess flew off to explore again. He had trouble with trying to actually read the books with his avian eyes, but when they found new information, he was a whiz at drawing connections in the material.
The two Champions poured over more text about the life of Sir Rodion, Calls he had gone on, both before and after his disappearance. It had happened, they had learned yesterday, nearly a century ago. Ninety-five years, to be precise. While on a Call to Dvina, Satu’s home kingdom, he had gone missing.
“Maybe if we can find the Call he was sent on, that might give us some clues,” Satu said.
“You seem fixated on his disappearance. Why not on his reappearance?” Ghiro asked.
Satu knew she could not explain in words. Not in such a way that it would not seem cowardly. She had been found and caught, for a few minutes, when she had been unprepared. When she had gone into a scenario the witch had expected her to be in, and Satu had not had an escape route prepared. Luckily, one appeared in the alleyway. She saw a sewer grate that the knights would not be able to fit into and dropped through it after dropping the enchanted hairbrush. She called it back to her as soon as she was underground, not wanting to let the witch have it again. She had run for most of a day. Since then, she had never visited her former maid nor her husband. Not even a letter had she sent. And, in every situation she entered, she always knew the possible escape routes. Even in the archive. Even if it meant water logging the books or shattering expensive windows, or spilling blood if absolutely necessary, she could get out of this room alive if she had to. 
“It is the one thing I feel like I lacked in my Trial of Inspiration,” Satu said allowed. “Despite being in my country, and having heard many stories about him, I have no idea why Rodion had been Called to our land. I did not look in our own library when I was there, but I cannot even be sure that information would exist there.”
“Your kingdom, and its sister Daugava, both are so thoroughly against the Order. Why?”
Satu shook her head. “I really am not sure. I have thought about it a lot, ever since you first asked me to join. I was just as against the idea at first.”
“You said it was to spite your parents in your Trial of Truth.”
“That was an easier truth to believe at the time.”
They said nothing more except for an occasional ‘pass this book’. Kess returned after an hour and stood on the table watching them and waiting. His presence distracted Satu for the first few minutes until she grew used to him and nearly forgot he was there. When she next did, and tensed, her eyes bounced to the document nearest his feet. An envelope with a royal seal.
“Wait, why did I not notice this before?” she asked the eternal quiet of the archive as she reached for the envelope. She removed and read its contents before commenting further. “This is it.” She barely kept her voice at a whisper.
“Is that the Divina seal?” Kess asked.
“Yes, and it confirms my suspicion,” Satu answered. “Ghiro, I had this itch of a feeling, in the back of my head, when you asked me to join the Order. You know I said no. I gave you all kinds of reasons.
“You were scared of the witch finding you, and of going against your ancestor’s command. I had to assure you that you would be anonymous, and even told you how I joined the Order despite my father refusing to allow our Kingdom to ally, something I have since only barely softened him on.”
“Right, but what I never told you was the one part I could not explain, even to myself, because I did not have words for it. It was deeply entrained into me growing up, that joining would bring disaster. This confirms why I felt that way. It is a letter, written by my great grandfather, Tsar Feodor the second. It declares he has banned his nation from having any contact with the Order. He was ruler when Rodion vanished. I never knew when the decree was made, but I knew it existed. Look at the date. It is shortly after Rodion vanished!”
“Why would he sever what tenuous ties existed then?” Ghiro said.
“Fear,” Kess offered.
“Against?” Ghiro leaned back and nearly folded her arms. She caught the action and placed them instead on the arms of the chair.
“Who else? Her.”
“Kess, do you know this, deep know this, or merely suspect?” Satu asked.
The jay gave the question some thought. “Suspect. But the logic tracks.”
Satu had to agree. “My own parents would not go after my brothers, nor I, when she had us. They accepted our loss as part of a continuing cost. For what? To keep the witch appeased? She still takes from us, every generation! I have asked myself for years why they would not go after us. They feared her retaliation. Tsar Feodor must have feared retaliation as well. We had brought in the Order after all! Oh, and that Champion was from Daugava too. They must have feared she would attack them too since they also declared formally they would never ally with the Order. Prevent the Order from looking into the witch. Shut them all out.”
“How does this help us to be able free your brothers?” Ghiro asked. The words knifed apart the warm blanket or coat the revelation had wrapped Satu up in. It was still there, but a chill of reality set in.
“With due respect, Officiant,” Kess said, bobbing his head to her, “if the Order getting involved in the affairs of the witch back then scared two kingdoms this badly, they must have had reason to think the witch would take the involvement badly. It means she can be provoked, and…”
“A provoked villain, while possibly unpredictable, is also off their game,” Ghiro finished with a smirk. It was an old philosophy of the Order’s, one that often failed to hold up under scrutiny, but Satu could tell Ghiro was impressed by Kess knowing it. She had always held strongly to those tenants and had tried to teach them to Satu. Even if fallible, they made for one more tool to try to use on any puzzle.
“This means we need to find out what Rodion was doing when he was captured, and converted to one of her riders. If we can find out what Call the King cancelled,” Satu paused and hummed as she set the letter aside for another book, “we can see what sort of incident may unnerve this witch.”
Research took over the room again for the next couple of hours, punctuated now by various brief interrupts to reveal something. Sir Rodion’s discovery of future Champion Esben. His defeat of the beast of Lugano. Most records about him completely ignored the missing years. Those of related Champions mentioned only that he had been gone, or how different he was since his return.
“Here is a question: Didn’t he start to use a different name after he returned? An epithet?” Kess asked.
“Yes,” Ghiro replied. “He began to be called Sir Red.”
Satu shivered at the name. To embrace the name she gave him was either truly horrifying, or showed how utterly fearless he was.
“Would there be more records under Sir Red?”
“I trust the clerks to know the archives well enough to know all the alternate names for our Champions,” Ghiro said. “But if you would like to ask, they would not take offense.”
Kess flew off through the maze, leaving the women once again alone with their books.
“Here!” Satu exclaimed, nearly getting out of her seat. “The Inquest. I found it.”
She spent a minute keeping Ghiro waiting in anticipation as she ran her eyes around the document. It was within a ledger of minutes from Council meetings from that era, Satu found. It did not contain a complete record of the Council meeting, but it had broad summaries.
“Sir Rodion of Daugava, missing for the last forty-one years, has returned to the Order. Councilor Schuster returned to the Order from his retirement to verify his identity after Seerheim’s resident mages verified the lingering magics on him were not altering his appearance. It seems that during his time away, he was under the mystical thrall of... it says her name… oh my…” Satu paused to swallow and focus. Even seeing her adversaries name printed caused her stomach to lurch. She took a breath and continued on. “Ambassador Terrence and Councilor Houarn advocate for a new Trial of Truth before clearing him for service, for it is clear that Rodion wishes to return to active duty with the Order… Then it changes topic.”
“Not much at all, strange,” Ghiro mused. “Keep reading, maybe it will say if they later went through with a second Trial of Truth. If so, the scroll should be unsealed for us to read. Maybe Kess will find it.
“I found something,” the jay said, over the sound of his whoofing wings bringing him in for a landing on the back of a chair. A clerk followed soon after.
“My apologies,” he said as he entered carrying a box large enough to need both arms, but not appearing to be that heavy. “I did another check and discovered Sir Rodion left his personal effects to the Order. Thought you might like to have a look.”
“Thank you,” Satu said, rising to help lift the burden of the box from him. She set it down on the one bald part of the table. Champions, when they had no family or heir, would leave things to the Order. Of course Sir Rodion’s family would either have been dead by the time he returned to the Order, or else his ties to his home kingdom had been severed by the proclamations severing ties. She reached for the lid and once again her body hesitated.
“Go on, open it,” Ghiro said.
Satu opened the lid and began to riffle through the contents. A small bound set of pages. A broken sword. She furrowed her brow as she lifted one other item from the box.
A solitary, long brown speckled feather. 
Log in to add a comment or review for this chapter Chapter updated on: 9/10/2017 4:22:29 PM
  • Jennifer Flath commented on :
    10/11/2017 11:47:48 PM
    Nothing about this guy seems to add up to anything but trouble for Satu.