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Marches – Chapter 05

Author’s Notes – I am reluctant to post this chapter. I hate how this chapter turned out in its first draft. I would have preferred it lay forgotten. But, there is an importance in showing mistakes. Or, I guess more importantly for me, I need to be willing to show those mistakes. This chapter is very important though. Romi becomes Mirabelle’s closest friend in her new home, and gives her a bit of a sense of normalcy. Despite the fact that Romi is not a Noble in the eyes of many. She becomes her confidant, and appears again throughout many of the future stories.

For this chapter, I did a lot of removing. The fight in this chapter was confusing and unnessecary, so in my first rewrite of this chapter removed it. It changed it to a simpler style where our Fox hunts down the Licorn off screen, and meets Mirabelle after finding them. In addition, I decided against killing both off. They were never mentioned again after this chapter in the first draft, and that felt like a waste. So, I’ve changed that. Other changes include pulling characters a little closer to their later characterizations, since I have a better grip on them, and detailing some sections to fit better with the story’s thematics.

I may add the second version of this chapter to the website, but I haven’t decided yet. For now, I am just posting this version. I do not like this version, and I am not proud of it. But, it was a first draft. And that is the building block of any part of a story. I hope you enjoy some elements of this part of Marches.

Fair Winds,

Museless Bard

The Fox’s Bastard

Mirabelle had found herself at home in the village faster than she had expected. The people of Milae were incredibly cordial to her, with an excitement to have her that she never saw in any of the people who visited her old home. She never knew the people of the villages outside of Towers at the Temple, but here – she was already getting to know people. Only a few weeks had passed before she had found a few she could genuinely rely on to help her with a great deal of her required tasks in this new life. Ervig, specifically, had been essential in helping bring her information about the region.

She had been lucky that the Astier owned two manors, as well. They had a fortified home atop a nearby hill, which was built across a river tributary and was where the family actively lived. But Chateau Ronic, where she currently lived, was the home of one of the middle Astier ancestors. From what she gathered, the eponymous Ronic was a leader of the village but otherwise detached from the family affairs. However, while the others were off at war, she was able to defend the village from an opportunistic attack. The villagers held it up as one of the pillars of their relationship with the family.  It seemed the family mostly used the manor as a place to stay when visiting the village now, but for the time being, it was hers to do with as she pleased.

She kept herself busy learning about the region and its people but made time for meals with Tienette. While she did not connect much further with Valamir, she did spend quite some time with Sarus’ younger sister, Cynewise – though she always went by Cyne. The two did not enough together for Mirabelle to consider her a close friend, of course, but she could easily see her becoming one in the future. Still, this isolation made her feel rather lonely. One day, that feeling began to gnaw at her more than usual, and she decided that she needed to leave the residence and go about in town, in hopes of clearing that fog from her mind.

So, with Coralie and Bastien behind her, she ventured out into the village once again. It was a day like any other in the town. A few traders had come into town that morning, as they did every few weeks. It was a time when she could get a few items she didn’t normally have access to – mostly dried goods from the coast, in this case. Still, she enjoyed looking. Every once in a while she would find something from home that helped her feel a bit more grounded. It was a challenge for her to avoid simply buying up more than she needed too, but luckily Coralie was always nearby with a reminder about her stipend.

Today was not unlike any other. The sun peeked through the leaves of the trees scattered throughout the village giving a little bit of warmth on an otherwise blustery day, as the summer season faded into autumn. The people were happy though, the sun and early stages of harvest beginning keeping spirits high, despite the colder day. She spent some time chatting with some local villagers as she passed through, still impressed that she was greeted well nearly every time. Of course, there were outliers. A few villagers had let it slip that they’d prefer an outsider not be joining their ruling family – but she had expected that sentiment to be the most common.

Instead, even only a few months in. She found herself walking the streets of the village with the same confidence she might have strolled the temple. While speaking to the baker, though, her ear caught a warning.

“Look out!” A villager’s voice pierced the otherwise peaceful day. There was a distinct, sharp screech of someone in trouble, then the sound of a scared or wounded horse.

Mirabelle felt a heavy hand on her back, the gauntlet edges pressing into her spine and forcing her back. Bastien may have said something, but it was impossible to tell. There was the distinct sound of steel leaving scabbard. On her other side, Coralie and falling back against her as well, both pushing her back and into the merchant’s stall. She barely had a chance to look to see the trouble. A pair of large draft horses had been startled, or maybe injured. She couldn’t tell. Their drivers tried desperately to get them back under control. Then there was a distinctive snap, the leather of their reins giving way under the stress. One of the drivers fell back at the change in force, losing his footing and smashing to the ground with a scream. His partner was startled, and the second horse’s reins were lost. Both horses tore forward. The cracking of wood followed as they stripped free of the cart.

Then the animals rushed forward down the street, panicked. Little was more dangerous than a frightened animal, and a massive draft horse on a busy street was a genuine threat. When they rushed down the street, people scattered. Mirabelle saw the creatures rush at a villager, one raring up and striking out with its front hooves. Luckily, the villager had been able to dart out of the way, but they moved fast towards the other villagers. One villager fell near one of the horses, who kicked back. “Bastien!” Mirabelle’s voice broke through the noise.

The old templar didn’t hesitate. When her voice called, he pushed off from her and rushed towards the villager. He raised his sword, both hands firmly gripping the hilt of the old weathered blade and raising it as a spear. With a yell, he met his mark – the blade sinking into the draft horse as it raised up with a sickening sound. The templar followed through, pushing his entire weight into the beast. He was not a small man, but the beast was enormous. He pushed with everything he had and tilted the thing just enough to knock it back and away from the villager crawling to their feet. The villager let out a scream as the horse hit the ground next to it, with the templar now atop it.

That was all the opening that Mirabelle needed. She pushed past Coralie and rushed out to the villager on the ground. She gripped the villager’s hand and helped him up. Her handmaiden was right behind her, though. As soon as the villager had started to climb to his feet, she felt Coralie hit her in the back – hard. She and the villager stumbled forward, and she turned to see the handmaiden rolling out of the way of the other angered horse.

“Coralie!” Mirabelle yelled back to her as her eyes caught a glimpse of Bastien pulling his sword out of the creature and stepping away. Then she realized her mistake. One of the draft horses, the one still standing, had rounded back around to face down the small foreign handmaiden armed with nothing but a dagger. And the other rolled back to its feet, despite the blood pumping out of the sword wound in its chest.

She saw it then, the bright white bone at the center of each horse’s skull.

“They’re licorn.” Mirabelle almost laughed with a mix of excitement and fear. They were not just frightened and scared animals. They were unicorns, their horns carved off their skulls and forced into service as draft animals. They were bred for war, fighters from the day they stood to their deaths. She felt a hand on her shoulder, then another, the villagers pulling her back and off the street and to a nearby building.

Bastien steadied himself and took a few steps back. His stance changed, his center set and ready for the oncoming charge. “Coralie, can you get to safety?”

“I’ll try.”

“Go left.” He ordered as the two unicorns charged at them. Both dodged to the left. Bastien’s blade swung up as he was passed by the creature. Coralie had rolled away, taking a swipe but her blade didn’t seem enough to cut through the creatures hide without getting closer, and her goal now was to run and protect her lady. As soon as she was clear, she did just that. Leaving the Templar alone.

The Licorne did not hesitate to rush at him, recognizing he was the only threat against them at the moment. The templar swung at the first to rush him, ducked away from the second, and resettled just before they rushed again. It was the only strategy that would work here, but these creatures were smart. After only the second rush, the one he dodged past stopped short and kicked with its hind legs. The powerful hooves hit the man’s armored back and sent him crashing forward. The wind was clearly knocked out of him, and the second creature turned about to make another run. Then there was a whistle and another. Two arrows struck the creature in its wound, sinking deep, and causing it to stagger.

An archer at the end of the street stood, another arrow knocked into the simple bow. A man stood a few steps ahead of the archer, with a wooden spear readied and waiting. The archer didn’t slow down for a second. As soon as that arrow was knocked, it loosed and a whistle followed. The target had changed, striking the uninjured licorn square in the flank. It let out a pained noise and then turned to the new target, rushing down the street towards its new threat.

Bastien was able to pull himself to his knees as it started its charge and brought his sword around with everything he had left in him. The blade found its mark, cleaving the back leg off the creature. The severed limb toppled harmlessly to the ground, and the Licorn itself lost is balance and stumble, crashing to the ground. Another arrow struck it as it fell, this time square in the head. The spearman rushed for and quickly finished the job with a powerful thrust into the creature’s chest. The other unicorn fell to the ground and struggled to keep itself up. After another minute it gave up and collapsed, its breathing slowing and fading.

Mirabelle rushed out to Bastien, who was climbing to his feet slowly but surely. Coralie stayed close but kept her blade drawn and her body between the archer and her lady.

“Bastien, are you alright?” Mirabelle asked as she helped him steady himself.

“I’ll live to fight another day.” He said with a bit of a panting breath, “You stay put next time.”

“Announce yourself,” Coralie’s usually soft voice barked out at the archer as she approached.

“This is Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane.” The spearman barked back. “I am her guardsman, Alain.”

Mirabelle glanced up, but what she saw was not what she expected.

Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane carried a simple bow, ashen in color with a frayed bowstring. She wore clothes more suited to a hunter than a noble. She had a simple hide and fur cloak and worn and somewhat ragged clothes. The only mark of nobility on her was the pendant necklace she wore. Moreover, the woman was unimpressive, and if she was honest, a bit odd. Her face was round, with puffy cheeks and a small chin. In a way, it looked as if the bottom half of her face ended a little bit earlier than it should have. With thick, bright lips and large eyes, it just made that even more the case. Her form otherwise was thin, more so than it needed to be, and she was not particularly tall, and would not have been tall enough to draw back a longbow well.

“Thank you for your assistance, Lady Cedolin,” Bastien said with a bow of his head. “I fear it might not have gone well without you.”

“I’m just happy I was able to help.” She spoke with a mousey voice, high pitched and quiet, but quickly spoken. She gave a little bow of her own as she handed her bow over to Alain. “And you are?”

“I am Sir Avent Bastien, templar of Lune and protector of Lady Mirabelle d’Argent.” He said motioning to her. “And our protective handmaiden here is Coralie.”

“d’Argent?” Romi’s eyes went wide, much wider than normal. She visibly swallowed and then quickly knelt before them, her voice barely a whisper. “My lady, my sincerest apologies. I did not recognize the Fille de Lune.”

“No, no, no,” Mirabelle said pushing past Bastien and Coralie to put a hand on the archer’s shoulder. “You saved my guard and helped protect Milae. You don’t need to bow or apologize for anything.” She gave a smile and a shake of her head. “I should be apologizing to you. I do not recognize your name. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with all of the noble houses in the region yet.” She didn’t wait for any sort of answer though, “But, I insist you and your man dine with us tonight, and if you need a place to stay, the Manor has more than enough visitor space.”

“I wouldn’t dare intrude.”

“I insist. It isn’t an intrusion. It is our honor, and I’d like to repay you, even in a small way such as this.”

While Romi was very reluctant to accept at first, she finally relented saying that she would be honored to share a meal that evening, but that they had already arranged for a stay at the local inn in the village. They thanked her again and allowed her to head off to finish her business in the village, and they stayed behind to deal with the aftermath. Soon enough, Ervig arrived with militiamen to handle the cleanup.

As his men began the cleanup in earnest, he had the story relayed to him by a few different people. He clearly took Bastien’s version as gospel, only adding the others’ details as he needed too. A few villagers had given him wildly exaggerated claims, but he was glad to find out it was little more than scared beasts. He was clearly concerned that they were Licorns, but he was more curious about another fact.

“She was introduced as Lady Romi Cedolin du Rane?” Ervig spoke up softly with a slight shake of his head. “Romi, le batard de Renard?”

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke quickly, a bit defensively.

“The Fox’s Bastard.”

“She’s the daughter of Luc Cedolin du Rane. He was a marquis, across the border from Milae.” Ervig explained. “He was called le Renard, the Fox. Not because he was particularly cunning or quick, but rather because he had orange and red hair.” The militiaman pointed towards his own head or the hair on it – which bore no resemblance of similar colors. “He never married. His lover died in childbirth, and he raised Romi alone.”

“So, her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the village streets. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the archer who had saved them.

“Unsure. When her father died,” The captain took a breath and crossed his arms. “She was only fourteen. Her cousin took regency of his estate, she has officially declared a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the path below him. “There are rumors that her cousin orchestrated it. But, in the end, she is illegitimate. By law, she is just Romi. Her cousin did grant her a small piece of land on the edge of our territory. But she mostly subsists by hunting and has a small contingent of loyal servants.”

“How many?”

“Less than you brought to the village, my lady,” Ervig said quickly. “She is a kind girl, but of little concern.”

Mirabelle made a noise, somewhere between a huff and growl. It made the others around her step back and away for a moment. She took a deep breath and then gave a little bit of a shake of her head. “I’d like to know more about what happened to her and her family.” She ordered after a moment. “Coralie, have the servants find what they can from the village over the next few days.”

“Of course, my lady.” The handmaiden gave a quiet bow. “We’ll find what information we can.”

“And I still want to have a meal with her.” Mirabelle clarified. “Bastard or not, she is of noble blood.” She spoke with a quick nod. “And I look forward to it.” She seemed to have decided as she dusted off her clothes and looked to Ervig. “Make sure the people are safe and this is cleaned up. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier.”

“Yes, my lady,” Ervig said after a moment. His head twitched to one side for a second and he gave a smile, “My lady, you do recall you are just a guest here, correct? There is no need for you to worry about the day-to-day.” He gave a smirk, poking at the young girl, “Or are you considering staying?”

Mirabelle frowned at him. “You forget yourself.”

“My apologies, my lady,” He replied with his hands raised for a moment. “I meant it mostly in jest.” He admitted with a smile to her, and then a gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others. “I’d like to return to the manor now.”

She took her time returning to the manor, lingering on the streets for a time and working slowly but surely to return. Once back, she set it upon her servants to prepare a traditional Cote d’Argent meal – light fish, sweet fruits and vegetables, and a stout bread. She gave them their orders and went back to her quarters to bathe and clean herself up. Then, once she had dressed in a nice enough dinner dress, she set about waiting for her guest to arrive. As the night began to fall, clouds began to fill the sky blotting out the stars.

It made for a dark night, and as the dinner hour passed her servants began to mill about and see if she would decide to eat without her guest. She did not. Instead, she simply sat and waited. After an hour or two, she relented and allowed her servants to eat – but she waited. Night fell darker, and the deeper the time went the more she listened to her servants speak about how she was wasting time. That the girl wasn’t coming.

With the darkness engulfing the home, she had her servants light a lantern outside, and one for her to read by, and she continued to wait. As she read, she listened. Bastien’s snores from his place nearby her were perhaps the loudest of the sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as everyone seemed to feel it was that night. Only an hour or two had passed since darkness fell, but they were impatient.

When there was a knock at the door, Mirabelle stood and moved over to see who it was. Coralie rushed to stop her and to open the door herself, but the lady would not have it. She opened the door to greet the archer and her guard with a smile.

“I apologize for the late hour, my lady,” Romi spoke with a deep bow. “Please forgive,”

“Not at all,” Mirabelle replied swiftly, cutting her off. “Hunter’s rarely come home until the end of the day, Lady Cedolin.”

Romi smiled and lowered her head. “Thank you,” She said quietly.

“Come in and have a meal with me. Your man is welcome to rest and eat as well, of course.”

“You are too kind.”

The two walked into the manor and found themselves in the dining room. The sat to eat and for the next few minutes, they found themselves merely exchanging more pleasantries, which irked Mirabelle – though her face never showed anything but kindness. As the conversation seemed to go nowhere, she opted to push the archer, to see what she could discover about her. After a drink of wine, she spoke plainly.

“Ervig says you are the daughter of Marquis Luc Cedolin – but a bastard.” Lady d’Argent put a hint of emphasis on the last word. “He is wary of you.”

“Ervig is…” Romi’s grip tightened on her cup and she sighed, “Cautious, but correct. They call me…”

“I know,” Mirabelle spoke softly. “You don’t have to say it.”

Romi nodded and continued. “I live in a small home in the forests on the Rane border with Nid de Vouivre. It is a meager hunting lodge my father built. Something my cousin didn’t care enough to take.”

“You don’t seem to harbor much ill will…”

“My cousin is a fox. He is cunning and always a few steps ahead of anyone who faces him in a political arena. He doesn’t join conflicts he will lose. His case against my inheritance is ironclad in regards to the law. He has contacts at every level of the court of Rane and he can bend them with a few choice words.” She spoke with a clear bit of sadness. “Had he put his skill to something great, he would likely be one of the best of us – but he is driven by power and wealth.”

“Perhaps one day you can secure your lands again,” Mirabelle spoke with a succinct nod.

“No. My father’s lands are rightfully his. As long as he leaves the lodge and forests to me, I have no reason to test him.” The archer shrugged. “One day I hope to be able to sway him back to something more important than power and wealth. His potential as a courtier and leader is astonishing. His mastery of debate and the sincerity to which he puts his mind to the research behind arguments is inspiring – if currently misplaced.”

Mirabelle didn’t say anything. She was a little surprised. That was rather high praise for a thief and con-artist, but moreover, she was astonished at her sizing up of the man. “Tell me, what do you think of Ervig’s abilities.”

“Hm?” Romi raised a brow and paused between a bite of her dinner. “I…” She thought a moment. “As a military leader he is talented, but his domestic abilities leave much to be desired. He tends to want to handle things himself and lacks the education required to properly adjuvate village projects. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skill with a spear is quite good. His understanding of bandit tactics and small conflicts makes him very skilled at defending a village such as this. He also has a knack for connecting with his subordinates.”

Lady d’Argent gave a little nod. She thought that maybe there was more to the archer than she let on, but this all but proved it. “Do you know this much about every noble in the region?”

“What?” She shook her head for a moment, and then gave a sigh, “Well, yes. I had too to keep my holdings.”

“So you know about the Astier?”

“Yes, of course. As the regional power, and the nobles of the closest town to me, I have too.” Romi spoke softly.

“What can you tell me about Valamir?” Mirabelle asked, before shaking her head. “Actually, no. I know the Marquis and Marquise…” She pondered for a moment, “Romi, what can you tell me about Sarus?”

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