The Prince of the Rose
Chapter 9

Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy

Lady Rachel mulled over the information that her Goddess, She that has no name, had revealed to her the previous evening. Most unsettling information; a Runesword in play on Tarra. Which one? Could it be Red Rose? Could another heir to the Rose Throne be out there that she did not know about? But who? She thought back through the lineage and it did not add up. Who could it be? She knew every member of the royal family. By the Goddess, she was a member of the royal family! There was no one else, but was there? Oh, Goddess, had Dana found Red Rose? She had not communicated with her youngest in almost a year. Not since she started actively searching for the Rose Throne. Could Dana have found the Hall of Kings and drawn Red Rose from its stone? Why had they not been able to contact either Diana or Kalliste? She needed to know what was happening in the east, and she needed to know which Runesword had returned to Tarra. In short, she needed answers. She cleared her private audience chambers in preparation of the command she was about to give.

"Send for Sister Calliope," she ordered.

"Yes, Most Blessed Mother," her personal acolyte replied, bowing as she backed out of the room through a secret passageway.

The acolyte returned some time later, through the same hidden passageway, with three hooded individuals, leading them into the private audience chambers. Their black hooded cloaks draped them in obscurity with only the grey of leggings showing as they entered the chambers. The acolyte bowed, backing out of the chambers and closed the door behind her.

The three cloaked individuals made no sound or noise as they approached the sitting high-priestess. The individual in the middle stepped forward and stopped as they kneeled as one, right hands coming up to touch left shoulders, palms splayed.

"How may the Nightshades serve the Most Blessed Mother?" the middle cloaked figure asked as they stood.

One of the side benefits of having sent Dana to Andor to start an army of assassins was the ability to skim off the cream for her own personal aims. The best and brightest of the female assassins had been sent back to Tarra for further indoctrination and the Nightshades had been born. Consecrated within the eternal flame, but separate from the Sisterhood, the Nightshades performed tasks that could not be trusted to any of the temple orders. The consecration had a secondary benefit of infusing the individual with Eldritch. The assassins were not very strong in talent, but every bit helped. The identities of the Nightshades were known by the Most Blessed Mother and no one else.

Lady Rachel's trusted acolyte knew how to contact Sister Calliope, but did not know what tasks the sister performed for the Most Blessed Mother. She certainly did not know that Sister Calliope was the head of the Nightshades or that she was a Master Assassin.

The acolyte had been instructed to approach Sister Calliope and pass on the summons and then return and wait at the entrance to the secret passage and bring whomever showed up before the Most Blessed Mother. The acolyte never knew that it was in fact Sister Calliope, she thought it was some type of code or something similar.

Rachel explained what she required of Sister Calliope and the Nightshades. It was a two part requirement, separate but equally important. Queen Ariel needed to die in her sleep and the anomaly in the east needed to be dealt with, whatever it was, including the recovery of the Runesword. Sister Calliope understood what the Most Blessed Mother required and promised to personally see to it that the Runesword was laid at her feet. Rachel dismissed them and her personal acolyte escorted them out of the audience chamber and out of the temple through one of the secret passages.

Lady Rachel obviously did not know how Runeswords worked, but she soon would.

Calliope had made the trip to Andor to learn the art of the assassin. The Most Blessed Mother wanted a sister to undergo the training and be the head of a secret organization devoted to a skill set that was considered in Tarra as unsavory at best. At Calliope's request the Most Blessed Mother had beseeched their patron for assistance in the ability to move about secretly. She that has no name had provided amulets that would allow the wearer to plane shift. It was not without its hazards though. The plane had some fairly horrific denizens and anyone shifting there needed to get in and out quickly, so as not to provoke them. The talismans provided some small portion of protection while in that plane of existence. The amulets caused the denizens some small amount of pain if they try to close on anyone wearing it, a sort of shock, which infuriated the creatures but kept them at bay. The plane shift was only used when absolutely necessary, when other measures proved unsuccessful. This talent was how she intended to do away with the Queen. She would make it look like the Queen had died in her sleep.

Aaron rose at first light and noticed with some satisfaction that Kalliste was still with his little group. They ate a light breakfast and restocked their dwindling supplies before starting off on the second and more dangerous leg of their journey. The two wolfhounds trotted down the road as if scouting ahead. Aaron gave them their lead and figured they would make good scouts.

Dana reported that the road for all practical purposes ended upon entering the swamp. There was a high ground trail that meandered south through the swamps and marshes and was the trade route to the Lowerlands. They would have to pick their way across the marshland toward the lands of the Sidhe, which were east of their current position. Dana intended to make use of as much of the trade route as possible before turning east. They would have to pick their way through sink holes and quicksand as well as try to avoid the diverse and deadly inhabitants of the swamp. All in all, a lovely stroll through the park as Aaron remarked.

Kalliste had current news of the Lowerlands and shared it with the group. The wood elves of the western forest were at war with the orcs who had been raiding their lands for years. The orcs were aided by trolls, ogres and other fell creatures. The party would have to be careful traveling, for although the fighting would be west of them they would be traveling thorough the fringes of orc lands. They could run into trouble before reaching the Sidhe lands.

The first part of the leg was easy enough, the trail was mostly over even ground and higher than the marsh water, and they made good time. The path angled south and they kept on it for several leagues. Eventually Dana had them leave the relative safety of the trail and they turned east and began to pick their way through the marshlands. They were still making fairly good time over the uneven and soft ground even with the time lost from skirting the more dangerous areas. Aaron found another trail, well, ruts made by countless wagons, and so they began to follow the makeshift trail. They had not spotted another soul during this leg of their journey and for that Dana counted them lucky. The area should be full of ogres, ghouls and other fell things but so far they had avoided those obstacles as well. Their thinking was that those creatures that normally haunted these lands were west aiding the orcs. They had good vision since nothing grew higher than a couple of feet. Most of the vegetation was shrubs and tall marsh grass. The vegetation aided their speed of advance since they could see their path and surrounding area. They could move fairly quickly and still scan the area for threats.

All good things must come to an end and so it was with them as Aaron spotted a wagon up ahead of them escorted by orcs riding some kind of shaggy beast. It looked like some kind of prisoner transport as several huddled shapes were being pulled behind the wagon. The trailing orcs spotted Aaron at the same time that he had spotted them and they barked a warning to their troop and turned toward the party. The two wolfhounds began to growl and bark so Aaron called them back not wanting them hurt. The dogs obeyed their new master and returned to his side.

Aaron counted ten riders as well as four on the wagon. The wagon stopped and one of the orcs jumped down and pulled the prisoners toward the wagon, reeling them in to a manageable area. Aaron had little time to ponder why the prisoners were not in the wagon, since the riders were bearing down on his little party. The group fanned out and drew weapons as the attackers approached.

As the riders approached Aaron saw that their mounts were some kind of long tusked, shaggy haired boar. The tusks were tipped with metal and sharpened to a fine point. Bramble side-stepped the attack and Aaron swung out and down with his swords cleaving the heads off of both of his attackers. He engaged and quickly dispatched two more and then turned in time to see his companions, aided by the Black Guard who appeared at the first sign of trouble, finish off the remainders of the mounted orcs. With the orcs gone, they made quick work of the boars, and they slowly approached the wagon and the last of the orc raiders.

The remaining four orcs stepped apart in a semi-circle protecting their charges with weapons drawn. Tanith and Dana dismounted and stepped away from Aaron, to his right and left. The Black Guard fanned out just behind the three.

"Kalliste, stay behind me," Aaron commanded, dismounting and stepping in front of his horse. "Artemis, Orion, stay! Protect!"

The trio slowly approached the orcs with swords drawn and power fairly crackling from their fingertips. As usual Aaron took the two in the center while Dana and Tanith engaged the outer two. They fought like a well trained-unit, Aaron's blades flashing in sequence with his mates until no orcs remained. After taking a moment to wipe the blood and entrails off of his weapons he sheathed them and inspected the huddled shapes.

They were elves and they were half-starved, and worse, half-dead from their ordeal. Leaving the tending to his mates he inspected the caged wagon. Hanging from shackles in tatters that were once clothes was an elven female and she looked to be in bad shape. From what Aaron could see, she was unconscious and barely breathing. Furthermore, her face was sunken in and her wrists bled from the shackles.

"Aaron, be careful, those shackles and in fact the entire cage is made from cold-iron," Tanith cautioned him. "That metal is killing her. You need to get her out and unshackled as soon as possible. Those shackles are wicking her life-force away."

Aaron nodded his understanding and after inspecting the mechanism used his lock picks to open the lock. Stepping inside of the cage he felt a little disoriented but shrugged it off and inspected the manacles. Not seeing an obvious opening mechanism he drew Red Rose and cleaved the chains holding her upright and caught her in his right arm before she fell to the ground. Sheathing his sword he scooped her up and brought her out of the cage and gently laid her down on the ground. A closer inspection of the manacles revealed that they were fused closed with rivets. Drawing Red Rose once more he drove the point of the sword through the riveted portion of the manacles breaking them open and releasing her. Tanith handed him a spare cloak and he draped it over her exposed and battered form.

"Aaron, she is in bad shape," Tanith said, kneeling down next to him and inspected the elven maiden. "Feed her Eldritch, like I showed you when we healed Rac-Nur. This time tap into the Eldritch in the grass and bushes of the marsh. She is a thing of nature, let nature heal her."

Aaron nodded and closed his eyes and reached out for the flow of Eldritch. He refined his search until he was tapped into the grass, the shrubs and most importantly the scrub trees surrounding them. He opened his eyes and slowly drew the power in and let it collect on his fingertips and gently fed her the power, allowing it to replenish her own. Her breathing settled down and became stronger as her cheeks filled out and color returned to her face. Aaron slowly gave her Eldritch, letting her subconscious control the rate until finally her eyelids fluttered and open.

"Who are you?" she croaked in a voice so quiet that Aaron had to lean down to hear her.

"Just relax for a moment," Aaron replied softly and then lifted her head slightly so she could sip from the water flask that Tanith was holding.

Aaron looked over to where Dana and Kalliste were tending to the other prisoners, all elven males, and smiled after seeing Dana's nod. They would recover from their ordeal.

"Better?" Aaron asked taking the flask away and lowering her head back down.

"Yes, much," she replied with a slight smile. "Who are you and where are we?"

"Just travelers heading east toward the Sidhe land," Aaron explained. "The orcs attacked us, so we killed them and rescued all of you in the process."

"Yes, just simple travelers who have the ability to wield wood magic," the elf maiden smiled. "And have warriors from a bygone age as protectors. Are you an elf-blood?"

"Well, there is that," Aaron smiled in return. "No, I am not. I am called Aaron, this is Tanith, and over there tending your comrades are Dana and Kalliste. The guardsmen are personal bodyguards and protect us all."

"My name is Aine ("awn + ye")," she replied in introduction. "How are my escorts?"

"Dana?" Aaron looked up and called out to her. "How are they?"

"Weak and abused, but they will recover," Dana replied.

"Aaron, there may be more orcs around here," Tanith interjected. "We are pretty exposed out here in the open."

"Aine, can you get up?" Aaron asked. "Tanith is correct; we need to move to a more secure location. If one even exists out here."

Tanith and Aaron helped Aine to her feet and helped to drape the cloak around her. Tanith helped her moved over to the other released prisoners to help them get moving while Aaron looked around at the scene of the battle. He began dragging the orc bodies off of the wagon trail and depositing them in the murky waters of the marsh on each side. With his cleanup complete they pondered what to do with the wagon. The wagon had been wrought with cold iron so it was unfit for the elves to use and Aaron had no need of it. Finally Aaron decided to unhitch the mules and they pushed the wagon off the road and down into the water. They decided to use the mules to augment their lack of sufficient mounts.

Before they continued on their way Aaron had questions for Aine, and Kalliste as well, since she was supposed to know the political climate of the area. Why were the orcs traveling east with the prisoner wagon away from them? Should they not have been coming west towards them? No one had a satisfactory answer which caused the hairs on Aaron's neck to stand up. Something was not right. They would travel carefully and cautiously until they could glean the answers.

Even with the addition of the mules they were still short mounts and so their progress was slow as they picked their way through the marsh. Aaron was glad that he had the dogs who took the point, scouting ahead. Twice already they had warned them around quicksand. The dogs knew their business and kept them on the track and out of dangerous situations. Their going was slow and intermixed with frequent stops so the elves could rest. The elves had not fully recovered from their ordeal, and although Aaron felt for their plight, there was no other option than to press on and hope the stops would be sufficient to rebuild their strength and stamina.

Marsh grass gave way to cypress trees as the growth became denser. The trees began to close in on the path, obscuring the sun behind the deepening canopy. After just a few moments they went from sunny day to twilight. Aaron created a small ball of Eldritch to light their way.

Aaron's questioning of Aine revealed that she was on a diplomatic mission to the Sidhe lands to try and persuade them to help her people in their war against the orcs. Aaron also learned that she was a princess and her entourage consisted of her royal guard. She was the youngest of six children and her father had chosen her for the mission. It was her coming of age test. The ability to negotiate a treaty with the Side would reveal whether or not she had achieved the political wherewithal for other diplomatic missions. Since they were going in the same direction, Aaron proposed that they travel together for better safety. Without mounts of their own Aine knew her mission was in jeopardy, so she agreed to pool their resources and travel together. With Aine's help and knowledge of the area they were able to pick up their pace somewhat and made fairly good time.

Sister Calliope dispatched a team of Nightshades to the last known place that Lady Diana and Sister Kalliste were known to be. The team consisted of six members, six of the very best. She gave them their instructions and cautioned them to be ever vigilant and careful. She did not know exactly what they would be up against, but with a Runesword in play she knew that they should take no chances. Information was just as valuable as action. In this case it might well be more important. She instructed them to check in twice daily and also if they found anything unusual, anything unusual. After they left she planned her next mission, one that would not be delegated.

Sister Calliope had no problems with her conscience over the Most Blessed Mother's task. Being raised in a warrior society left her little time to contemplate the right or wrong of such things. If her Majesty was better protected or had better skill then she would not succeed. It was the age old axiom: Might made right. The ability to remove the Queen from power proved that she should not have been granted said power in the first place.

Aaron and his party had been traveling in the false twilight of the overgrown canopy for nearly an hour when they were pulled up short by the barking of the dogs in the distance. Aaron whistled and when that did not elicit a response he called them by name. When they still did not return he dismounted, and after cautioning everyone to stay back, slowly advanced to the dogs position. He looked back with a frown when he saw Tanith following him. Dana at least had the common sense to listen to him and stay behind. Aaron shook his head and waited for Tanith to join him before slowly rounded the bend in the trail. The Black Guard split in two squads; one advancing with Tanith, while the other stayed with Dana and the rest.

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