The folks of Ironsville went to their knees.
"I bid ye welcome to our humble town, Ye Grace," Lord Jacob said, kneeling at the head of the crowd.
For once the man wore clean clothes.
"I thank you, Lord Jacob," Emily said, stepping forward to him to help him up. "Please, rise, all of you."
And they all did, craning their necks to get a look at the Princess. Children sat on their parents' shoulders, pointing and asking, most of them seeing a member of the royal family for the very first time. Lady Linda took her place beside her husband and curtsied.
"Sir Ian's men told us that you were kidnapped," Lady Linda said, her brows knitted with worry. "Were you harmed, Your Grace?"
Emily shook her head and smiled. "I am unharmed, only weary and parched with thirst. I hear from my friend that the tavern here serves the most delectable meal."
"You humble me, Your Grace," Jayden the tavern keeper said, standing with his daughter, Renee, and his wife. "I do what I can with what I have, but it is nothing compared to the feasts that you are used to."
"I always hear from the castle servants that a humble meal does more than fill a stomach," she said. "When cooked with love, it also fills your heart with warmth and comfort."
Jayden laughed and scratched his head. He did not know what else to say. "You humble me, Your Grace."
"The Princess will require a quarter to rest in as well," Sir Ian said, speaking to Lord Jacob. "Randon has sent word to the castle. The Whiteguards will arrive soon once they hear."
While Sir Ian and Lord Jacob discussed the issue of Emily's accommodations and Kamille's imprisonment, Faye noticed a few new faces in the crowd. He met Melanie's eyes and jerked his head at the strangers.
"Travellers," she mouthed to him. "What's this all about?"
Fayte shook his head. He would explain to her later when--
--Lord Jacob smacked him on the head with his hand.
"What did I do?"
"A knight never lays hand on a lady," Lord Jacob told him, pointing at Kamille who was helped standing by a knight. She was too injured for them to even bother binding her.
"She is a-"
"Saldarian," Lord Jacob whispered, his eyes shifty. "Probably a Scygard seeing what you did to her. But a lady is still a lady."
A knight must also defend himself in the face of threat, even if the threat comes from a lady. Fayte said nothing else out of respect and of the inappropriateness of the situation. More would cry for blood if they knew Kamille was a Scygard. As much as Fayte hated her he did not want her to be mobbed and torn apart.
I want her dead, yet I do not wish her harm. He exhaled tensely and looked at Kamille. Sera, guide my heart.
Kamille was brought to the stable. If Melanie knew who this girl was she would never allow it. The fall of Zywedior was the knife that stabbed each and every Hylander's heart with hatred for the Saldarian. Regardless of whether someone had lost a loved one. Too many innocent lives were taken away. How the Prince ever hope to make peace between the two countries was beyond Fayte. Nor did he believe that Rinmar would succeed. He turned to the sky and looked to Lady Sera for a moment before he stepped into the tavern.
He spent the night at Wilson's, changing out of his dirty clothes for clean ones. Aunt Silvia knew who Kamille was the instant she heard Fayte had broken the girl's knee. The old priestess said nothing about it, neither approving nor disapproving his action. She had lost many friends to the Saldarians, but she too was bound by oath to not seek vengeance, to not harbour hatred in her heart, and to always forgive.
Once more he asked of the White Dragon God. Sera, guide my heart. Fayte shut his eyes and let sleep take him away.
There was a morbid beauty to it as realization had yet dawned upon him. The flames tore wood from frame and then swallowed both whole, growing larger and fiercer as it ate through his home. Fayte struggled to move quickly to put out the fire but his body refused him. Every muscle in his body worked against him.
Like an iron plate armour hammered shut around his entire body, the armour slowed him and kept him from getting to the flames, protecting him from harm. The sorely outdated craft hurt him more than it protected. A sinister figure draped in a thick velvet cloak of deep forest green, helmed and armoured with polished gold, stepped into the burning home. Fayte caught a glimpse of a curved blade.
He screamed, but not a sound was heard. He screamed and he screamed some more, but not a single gasp escaped him. He moved slowly while everything else around him moved as though time had quickened. He had to stop that figure from entering his home. He had to rush into his home. He needed his sword, but all he had was his shield. How was he to save anyone when all he had was his shield? He had to save his mother. He had to save his sisters!
"FAYTE!" he heard her scream once and then all was silent again.
The fire in his dream engulfed him and he bolted upright. For a moment he choked, forgetting to breathe, but the pain reminded him and he gasped for air. He was covered with sweat and he breathed heavily. It felt as though he had held his breath the whole time he dreamt. Now that he had woken he felt weak and dizzy, as though the drag from his dream had followed him to his woken self, like the iron armour continued to hold him down and slow him.
That scream… Fayte wiped the tears from his eyes roughly, drying his cheeks with the blanket. That scream…?
He looked up and saw that Amelia was sitting up, rubbing her eyes sleepily while Aunt Silvia was making her way to the door.
"Did you hear that?" she asked.
Fayte wondered if he had screamed earlier, but no, Aunt Silvia knew of his nightmares. She would know it was him if he had screamed. He swung his leg off the bed and quickly got dressed, pulling on a belt and a dark leather vest after putting on some inner clothing he borrowed from Wilson. Amelia held up his shield for him with both hands.
"Thank you," he said, patting her on the head. "Now go back to bed."
"Are you going to save the Princess?" she asked with a sniff.
Save the Princess? "What do you…" That scream.
Fayte grabbed the spare sword he left at Wilson's home and a dagger before he ran out. A blast erupted from the direction of the smithies. Men were standing outside their home looking concerned, some of them had armed themselves. His heart pounded as he ran across the dirt ground. Ironsville always smelled of smoke and coal as it did now, but there was another scent in the air. A scent of treachery.
"Release the Princess and the girl," Sir Ian said, sword in hand that glowed white.
It was too dark to see. Sir Ian's knights had thrown torches on the ground, but they did only to illuminate the area around them. Where they were looking at and where the enemy seemed to be, the area was still shrouded with darkness. Fayte had gone to bed early but it seemed he had not slept long.
"I'm afraid not, sir knight," a woman's voice came from the darkness. Fayte could see the shimmer of a small dagger and the rough outline of two figures held close to each other. "The Princess will fetch a good price."
"Insanity!" Sir Ian roared. "You dare hold the Princess of Hylan, your Princess, hostage?"
Slowly his eyes began to adjust. There were five of them in total. No one in Ironsville would do such a thing so it came as no surprise to Fayte that these five were the travellers he saw earlier. Lord Jacob should stop allowing travellers to enter Ironsville. All of them wore cloaks and boots, and three of them had their backpacks slung on. The one holding Emily stood a head taller than her with a cool expression and a cocky grin. A dagger was pressed against Emily's neck.
"Put aside your weapon, Sir Ian," Emily said, glancing at him. "Fayte, you too."
Not happening. He lowered his sword but kept a firm grip.
"Now there's a good Princess," the woman said, her dark frizzy hair cascaded over Emily's. "Listen to your Princess now, sir knight."
One of Sir Ian's knights spoke up. "I see the mark on your arm, slaver! Release the Princess now and end this foolishness. No one will dare trade you for a royal!"
Slavery was a tricky business. King Eardon ruled Hylan but he had little influence over what happened within the many forts and cities in his kingdom. Many lords turned a blind eye to slavery for it was cheap labour and the slaves themselves had need of money. For most it was a mutual agreement, work for coins, but for some it was work and only work. Children stolen from their parents to be sold away. Men and women who had to pay for crimes but the local dungeon could bear no more. Corrupted officials who lusted for wealth. Where there was need the slavers would supply.
Fayte approached them and one of the slavers raised his sword at him.
"You intend to sell the Princess," he said, storming past Sir Ian who tried to reach and hold him back. "That means you wouldn't hurt her."
Still the woman grinned. "Correct. But we are more than happy to hurt her."
They turned around and saw a sixth slaver standing behind them. In his arm was a little girl squirming and fighting, but the man shook her roughly and yelled at her. The sight of the dagger only made the girl struggle some more.
"My brother will teach you a lesson for hurting me!" she screamed, kicking at him. "And Preston will bite your ugly face!"
But Wilson was not here and Fayte could not risk Amelia getting hurt. Why didn't Aunt Silvia watch her? He stood and watched as the slaver carried Amelia to the others. She screamed for him and all he could do was tell her not to fight them. He was powerless just like in his dream. Powerless to help those he cared about. Powerless to save anyone. The slavers took horses from the stable and the woman had told them all that if anyone tried to follow them, Amelia's face would get it.
"I don't need a pretty little thing," the sole woman in the group said from atop the horse with Emily in front of her. "I just need her to hold a broomstick."
"The whole of Hylan will be after you!" Sir Ian yelled. "You cannot hide. The Princess will be recognised the instant she is seen. No one will trade you for her. Release the Princess and I swear you will not be punished for now."
The woman laughed. "Hylan is not the only country in our world, sir knight."
One of the knights scoffed. "The Northern Gate will not open for you."
The other slavers whipped their horses and rode off.
"That problem will be for the Underlord to bear," she said, looping the horse's reign around her hand. "Come after us and both the little girl and the lame will get it. HIAH!"
A few steps forward was all they took as they watched the slavers rode off. There were horses left in the stable but Sir Ian dared not give chase. They got Kamille as well. The other knights turned to Sir Ian for instructions. Fayte knew what they had to do, this was the Princess they were talking about, but he prayed the knight would have another plan.
"Mount up," he said after a short struggle with himself. "The Princess must be saved at any cost."
"How did you even lose her in the first place?" Fayte said, his voice louder than he intended.
"Mind yourself, squire," the knight told him, shoving him back. "You can tell your father anything you want, but the Princess herself had wandered away from me willingly when she was supposed to be sleeping. Her Grace will testify to that herself once I save her."
Fayte shook his head. Unfortunately that sounded just like Emily, and likely Sir Ian had let his guard down thinking she would be safe within the town. The folks of Ironsville gave the knights some supplies before they mounted up and rode off. Sir Ian would not allow him to go with them.
"You will stay and inform the Whiteguards what had occurred here," Sir Ian commanded him. "Tell them the slavers rode west. Let us pray I get to them before Lady Elisen catches up."
There was a story behind Lady Elisen's rise to knighthood and her honoured post as Whiteguard. Few knew the whole story and the whole truth, but all knew that the girl was once a slave. Likely she would disregard her past and act justly when faced with the slavers.
Or she would slay them all and claim it was to protect the Princess. Fayte ran to Aunt Silvia. Melanie was supporting the old priestess whose arm was shaking with rage. "Are you hurt?"
"Mage," she said, the left sleeve of her robe scorched. "I didn't expect him to be a mage. I let my guard down. I shouldn't have let my guard down!"
"It's not your fault-"
"Where did they take her?" Aunt Silvia seized his leather vest. "WHERE?"
He pointed behind her past the crowd that had gathered. "They headed west."
Aunt Silvia pushed him away and hobbled a few steps away, waving Melanie before she raised her walking stick over her hand. The woman mumbled an incantation and a flash of light transformed her old stick into a silver staff. Fayte could not understand the language she spoke but he had heard it before. Wilson would sometimes speak it when he needed Preston and the dragon was not by his side. Suddenly, Aunt Silvia jabbed her staff into the ground and a shaft of light shot up into the sky. Moments later they heard a moan from the distance, and a few moments more they heard it again and this time, they could tell that it was the roar of a great white dragon. Aunt Silvia fell sideways.
"What did she do?" Melanie asked, helping him lift Aunt Silvia up.
I don't know. Fayte held the old priestess's hand when she reached for him.
"Go," she murmured. "Go. Amelia… She's all… all he has left… Nothing… nothing must…"
A single spell and she is worn out so badly… Fayte felt his heart wrench. When did you become so old?
"Nothing must happen to her." Fayte thought of Wilson. "I know."