Caolán was able to get in contact with his people through other means, but all anyone saw were the faerie. If there was another way into Álfheimr, it wasn’t very big. From reports that he received, the goblins were swarming most of the forest and the entryways had been closed off in precaution. No one was certain why the foul creatures were there, but it was suggested that they were drawn there by something. The goblins being ordered to the area by someone wasn’t ruled out, either.
Then one day the prince received news that he didn’t like. I came across him in a foul mood, a severe frown on his face. I stopped him as he passed and asked what was wrong.
He gave a frustrated sigh. “A scholar – a researcher – has been sent to help with getting rid of the goblins. He clams to know why they’re here and how to get rid of them. He’ll be here in a week.”
“This is good news!” I smiled to show my enthusiasm, but when Caolán’s frown remained, I asked, “If a scholar is not good news, is it the person that bothers you?” The reaction I saw seemed to be the answer.
“He’s smart and he knows it,” the prince fairly snarled. “The insufferable ass! He will come swaggering in and insinuate that I wasn’t good enough at my job, that it was inexcusable that I almost killed our new allies.”
I was taken aback by this vehemence and I knew then that it was the man that bothered him more than the help. Unsure of how to respond, I remained silent and listened.
“I admit that he is brilliant,” Caolán continued. “He knows more about magic than anyone I know. His Majesty will want to speak with him, I’m sure. If anyone might know why the goblins are doing here, he would.”
I tapped a finger against my chin. “It’s the man on a personal level that you don’t like,” I said finally. “His work you respect.”
“His work is sound,” Caolán emphasized, “and I try not to tell others my opinion of him for fear of coloring their impressions.” At this he gave me a guilty look, then carried on. “I’m aware that not everyone has the same opinion of him.”
“Then when I meet this scholar, we shall compare impressions of him,” I told the prince. “What is his name?”
“Dušan,” Caolán said with a heavy sigh. “I had better inform their majesties that he will be arriving to help us.” With a quick nod and a tired smile, he continued on his way.
Before he could get too far, I called out to him again. “I understand not wanting to give people a bad impression of someone before they meet someone, but you may want to warn them.”
He gave me a wry smile. “A good suggestion. Who knows what Dušan will do.”
While we awaited the arrival of this brilliant scholar, it seemed to me that our little group grew closer. Perhaps it was the camaraderie we experienced from the battle with the goblins and our journey back; our failure in our objective and our determination to see it through; the stories we shared with one another around the campfire. Whatever it was, I noticed that we often sought each other out.
Constantine was never far from Nikola’s side since the attack. The duke offered his services in ridding the kingdom of the threat, but Kieran had told him that they would try another method before resorting to violence. In the meantime, she would keep his offer in mind.
It was this news that they brought me as I sat in a private drawing room by the fire. “I wonder why she seems so set on using this spell that Dušan wants to use,” I mused aloud. It was possible that the use of this spell would rid the kingdom of a great majority of the goblins, allowing her to organize a small group of fighters to help clean up the rest.
Nikola echoed my thoughts, but shrugged afterward. “But it is her kingdom. We have no say. At the very least, I think she should determine if someone is controlling the goblins or if they are trying to establish a territory in her kingdom.”
“I agree, but all we can do now is wait.” I gestured to the other seats by the hearth, inviting them to sit with me. “There’s mulled wine to help warm you from the chill. Winter seems to be fast approaching, but I’m told that it doesn’t snow this far south.”
“That will make our trek into the forest easier if we are able to resolve the issue.” Nikola sat down in the chair closest to the wine, pouring himself a glass. “We won’t need to pull out our winter gear or worry about being caught in a blizzard.”
“Small assurances,” Constantine muttered, sitting down in the seat by the fire. He thanked Nikola for the wine and leaned back. “It will still become cold, even if there is no snow. If we are sent out to clean up the mess, we’ll need some of our warmer clothes.”
“We’ll pull it all out if our services are called for.” Nikola settled himself into his chair with a satisfied sigh. “Things to worry about if her majesty calls for us to help her.”
The conversation changed topic, and we spoke of home. Nikola and Constantine spoke at length of what Laskanda was like, giving me insight on what their life was and what they yearned for when they returned. While Nikola wanted to spend more time with his family, Constantine was content to return to his land and holdings and continue to protect the duke.
The knight fiddled with a ring on his right hand, stopping when he realized that he was playing with it. “What of you, Vaera? What is it that you want? Will you return home or stay here?”
Nikola cast me a look, worry flashing across his face. If I spoke the truth, Constantine wouldn’t believe me. If I lied, I would have to continue the lie.
“I don’t know. I’ll stay in L’Aquitaine for as long as Kieran will have me. Returning home would be welcome but I’m not entirely sure if it’s something I want to do.” I glanced at the duke, who gave me a small smile. I didn’t lie and I didn’t tell the entire truth. I left things as vague as possible. My answer seemed to satisfy Constantine.
“And where is home?”
“Far, far from here,” I told him. It was the truth, after a fashion. My home from my first life was on a distant land on a far flung world. It especially seemed so now. Closing my eyes, I forced my mind back to the present. “Given a choice, I would rather stay here than return. At least until things are settled.” I gave him an apologetic smile.
“Things sound a bit strained for you at home.” Constantine leaned back in his chair. I could tell that he was leaving the conversation open to allow for an explanation. He was curious, and I had deliberately been vague in my answer.
“They’re complicated, to say the least.” I gently cleared my throat. “I’ve been a long time from home and I’ve discovered that things have become so complicated that it would be best if I waited until the- situation has been cleared up.”
Constantine nodded in understanding and I think a little in sympathy. “I’m sorry to hear that your home is besieged by such difficulties.”
I shrugged. “I’m happy it’s not a civil war. Just a bit of unrest and uncertainty.” Which made it sound much worse than it really was. I groaned inwardly and clamped my mouth shut, giving him another smile. Thinking better of it, I changed the subject to something away from home. “I would like to explore Álfheimr, if I’m allowed. I’ve only heard stories of these beautiful places hidden within the Realm and I would like to see them with my own eyes.”
With the change in topic, I felt the conversation was easier. There was still the odd question that I had to navigate around, but Constantine seemed willing to let my answers be vague. I think he reasoned to himself that when I was ready to elaborate on my home and what was going on, I would tell him.
Some days we sat in comfortable silence, preoccupied with our own thoughts. Other times we talked about what was on our minds and traded stories of our youth. Constantine and I would often spend many afternoons and evenings talking about our adventures, Nikola seemingly content to listen.
Even with the doubt he held toward my claim, it appeared that Constantine enjoyed my company well enough that he would still remain even after the others left. As we waited for Dušan, I found that I was looking forward to visiting with him, just as when we first met. But something was different this time. We were closer and laughed often. A feeling that I thought long dead began to make itself known and I dared hope that Constantine felt the same.
These new, unfamiliar emotions had to be pushed aside when Dušan finally did arrive. The waiting was over and it was back to work. The strange appearance of the goblins had to be solved, and after that the treaty had to be finalized and signed before winter had a firm grip on the land.
Dušan was greeted by the steward of the castle, who informed their majesties of the scholar’s arrival. I didn’t meet him then, as I knew that most were on their best behavior when meeting others for the first time. I wanted to meet him when he felt that there was no need for courtly manners.
I didn’t want to get in the way, considering myself more of a warrior than a scholar, despite the thirst for knowledge that being around Kieran and Rhys had instilled in me. Instead, I devoted the majority of my free time meditating, the brief glimpse I had of the duke’s potential giving me hope that my powers were slowly returning. My hope was that meditating would allow me to focus on those abilities that were apparent or manifesting already. The more those were developed, the greater the possibility that others would appear.
But I should have paid more attention. I shouldn’t have secluded myself away and ignored what was going on around me. Perhaps what happened later wouldn’t have transpired. But you can’t change the past without accepting the fact that other things would change as well. I was too engrossed in my own problems to realize what was going on around me. My attention wasn’t brought to it until Constantine and Caolán made their concerns known to me.
There was a knock on my door, and before I could utter a word of welcome, it opened. Both gentlemen stood in my doorway. Caolán was scowling and I felt a part of myself quail at the sight. If the fae prince was angry over something, it didn’t bode well for the one his ire was directed at. I looked to Constantine and his face was much the same. I felt something uncomfortable settle in the pit of my stomach.
It was as if everything around me darkened as I stared at the two of them, noting the way they stood. Tension hung in the air. “What happened?” My voice was hushed, and my words seemed too loud for how serious the situation seemed to be.
“Rhys, Kieran, and Dušan have gone off to do something reckless.” Caolán’s voice was quiet, but he might as well have yelled at me.
I looked to Constantine, seeking answers. “They’re nowhere in the castle,” he said. “A guard said that they left in the direction of the forest.”
I sprang to my feet, grabbed my spear, and dashed out the door without a word. My only assurance that Constantine and Caolán were behind me was the sound of feet running. How could they have gone to the forest without protection? Never mind that Dušan was a talented magic wielder and Kieran and Rhys were knew how to defend themselves. There were who knew how many goblins lurking in that forest. They would be overwhelmed. What were they thinking?
We were halfway across the courtyard when we saw the king and queen return, the scholar in tow. They paused when they saw us, and as I saw their smiling faces I felt relief sweep over me. I slowed to a stop and planted the butt of my spear in the dirt.
“What’s all of this for?” Kieran gestured to my weapon, then to my companions.
“We were worried,” Constantine answered. He stepped in front of me and made a small gesture for Caolán to step down. “When we heard that you had left in the direction of the forest without escort, we had intended to catch up with you.” He gave those present a charming smile. “Now that we see you safe and sound, there’s nothing to worry about. Be please,” Constantine grew sombre, placing a hand over his heart, “let us know so that we can accompany you next time.”
“Your presence wasn’t necessary,” Dušan said smoothly. “We left to collect ingredients for our spell.”
I glanced over at Caolán, hearing a slight note of alarm mixed with suspicion. Returning my attention to Dušan, I watched his reaction.
The scholar smiled pleasantly, but there was something in his gaze that unsettled me. For a brief moment I thought I saw something much darker and uglier lurking beneath the surface. “Why, to banish the goblins. Their majesties expressed concern over having an enemy within the borders of their kingdom. The creatures also hinder our access to Faerie.”
I heard the prince suck in a sharp breath, and it seemed that Constantine heard it as well.
“Thank you, Dušan.” The Laskandian bowed to Rhys and Kieran, then to the fae. “We wanted to be sure that their majesties could rely on us.” Constantine turned neatly on his heel and gave us both a look.
I thought for sure that Caolán would refuse. He was a prince, after all. As uncomfortable as I was with leaving my two dear friends in the presence of this questionable man, I wanted to leave. There were things I wanted to discuss with them. Gently touching Caolán on the arm, he relented. We followed Constantine inside the fortress to somewhere more private.