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Marches – Chapter 05 (Second Draft)

Author’s Note – So, I wanted to show the second draft of this chapter. I hated the original version of the chapter, but love the character of Romi. I wanted to bring it closer to how I hoped to change the story in the next drafts, and while I’m now working on a third. I really enjoy seeing the evolution of stories, and thought it might be worth a look for anyone watching along. I hope you enjoy this rewritten and revised version of my least favorite chapter.

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 many things. 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 into her stay, 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 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 licorne.” 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 let out a yell and hit the pommel of his blade against his shield. The loud noise drew the attention of the wounded beasts, and as they prepared to strike again, one of the villagers yelled as well, hitting a hammer against the wood wall of the building next to him. It drew their attention, and as the wounded licorne rose to its feet, the other huffed and beat on the dirt road with a hoof. There was another yell, another burst of cacophonous sound. The poor beasts seemed confused, and it was clear they were frightened. They wavered, and shortly after darted down the street and away from the noisy crowd, and twisted hard to move towards the woodlands around the village.

The few minutes after felt like a much longer time, but soon enough, Ervig and his men had reached the scene and were helping people get things back to normal. At first, Bastien and Coralie were reluctant to let Mirabelle help, but once they did, she found herself calmed by the tedious tasks of cleaning up a market stall alongside one of the village artisans. She had helped pick up some of the smaller items that had been knocked aside in the rush of folk trying to find a safe place to stand, but her eyes would drift away to Ervig from time to time.

The man questioned the merchants whose cart the beasts had broken away from, took count of their things and seemed exacerbated by the time he stepped back over towards the stall where Mirabelle and company still stood. Bastien stepped out to greet him, still standing with his blade out and a watchful eye on any around his Lady.

“What did you find out, Sir Ervig?” She heard Bastien say.

“Not much. They bought the licorne from a merchant traveling through Rane. What information they had would be useless in finding out anything. My instinct is that they had no idea what they purchased.” Ervig let out a long sigh, “I’ll be getting some hunters together to try to track them down.”

“Any skilled enough to bring down a frightened licorne?” Bastien asked.

“We’ve got good hunters. I’ll put up a bounty for them, and we’ll get them down quick,” He took a deep breath, lingering a moment. “A bounty should help speed things along.”

“Bastien,” Mirabelle spoke under her breath, quietly joining the conversation and drawing looks from the two men. “Get him the coin needed for a bounty from our stipend.”

“My lady, this isn’t a d’Argent issue. The Astier will handle the coin,” Ervig protested, though only half-heartedly.

“It will be faster if I do it. If you insist, you can have the Astier repay me…” She spoke as she brushed off her robes and smiled over at the shopkeep she was working to aid. “Besides, I saw the danger. I want to assist.”

“Of course, my lady. And we thank you for that. You are too kind…”

Mirabelle just smirked and shook her head. “I will offer double the amount if the beasts are brought back safely. I would like to think they could be reformed.” She stretched. “Coralie and I will walk through the village again. Bastien, go with Ervig, and get what he needs.”

“Yes, Lady d’Argent,” Bastien agreed, “If Coralie is comfortable protecting you on the return to the manor.”

“I am,” The handmaiden gave a single nod.

“And my men are about if you were to get uncomfortable,” Ervig added. “And I will have Bastien back to you quickly.”

“Good,” Was all Mirabelle thought to say before smiling to the merchant and going back to working for a few moments, as Bastien and Ervig moved off to handle setting up the bounty. She wondered if she had made the right choice, but didn’t dwell. As the shop was cleaned up, she said her farewells and returned to the manor for a time.

Two days passed before she heard any word on what had come of the Licorne hunt. The autumn weather continued to push colder, and with a seasonal rainstorm hitting the area shortly after, she found her spirits down. The lands here were beautiful in their way, and from the manor house, she could watch over the small village to the west and enjoy wonderful views of the forest and rivulets to the east. Unfortunately, the turning color of the leaves had been cut short by the pounding rainstorms of the previous two days. What had looked like a beautiful array of colorful leaves had been stolen from their branches, with only a scant few leaves remaining on the branches.

She had expected that their hunt for the Licornes had been cut short as well, made impossible by the rains and fallen leaves. She had little hope they would find it and resolved to keep a vigil for the beasts.

A beating on the manor door near dusk on that second day was answered by one of her servants, who returned to the commons room where she sat reading as Coralie played lightly on her old viol. Bastien, as always, was nearby but left the lady to her own devices and busied himself with other tasks.

“My lady, Sir Ervig is here to see you,” The servant spoke with a bow.

“Very well. Show him in.”

“Yes, my lady,” The servant said before stepping back out of the room.

Ervig stepped in a moment later, his normally thin frame looking even frailer when soaked through by the rains he had walked through to get here. He spoke up quickly, “I am sorry to bother you, lady d’Argent, but I wanted to update you on the hunt.”

“Calling it off?” Bastien spoke coldly from the corner.

“Yes,” Ervig responded with a shrug, “But not for the rain.”

“Why, then?” Mirabelle asked as she pushed up from the seat.

“A young woman brought me the Licorne this evening.” He spoke. “The remaining one. She found the wounded one had succumbed to its wounds, and ended it.”

“But she was able…” Mirabelle turned and set her book aside, trailing off as she turned to speak to the man.

“Trap it, and bring it to us, yes,” Ervig gave a low laugh, “In the pouring rain, deep in the forest, with a fresh layer of leaves. I’ll admit, I am surprised.”

“And who was this lady?”

“That would depend on who you ask, my lady.” The militia captain’s lips twisted a bit uncomfortably, a sort of wince on his face.

“What exactly are you implying, Ervig?” Bastien spoke up, more curious at the tone than most of the others.

“It was the Fox’s Bastard.” He replied.

“And should that mean anything to us, sir Ervig?”

“Right,” Ervig brushed some rainwater off his arms and took a deep breath. “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 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.”

“Her father never granted her status as a full member of his family?” Mirabelle asked calmly, but quietly as they still stood in the midst of the room. She didn’t want to be too loud, to speak to openly and say something uncouth about the huntress who had just accomplished something she had frankly thought a nigh impossible dream.

“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, and she was officially named a bastard by the Duc du Rane.” He glanced down to the small puddle 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?”

“Significantly 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 take notice, though primarily those servants that had traveled with her to Milae. 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.” Her fingers tapped along the side of her robes, and after a moment, her voice called out an order, “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, her music fading as she began to stand up, “We will 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. “Thank you, Ervig. Please bring me a report after you’ve sent one to the Astier. And given it is Astier land, they may keep the Licorne if they would like, but if not, I would like it brought here.”

“Lady d’Argent,” Bastien started to protest, but a hand raised by the young woman cut him off.

“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 smirked, 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 he gave her a bow. “By your leave, ma’am.”

She gave him a dismissive wave, and then looked over to the others, before returning to her seat and taking back up her book – though the pages rarely turned. Her mind was elsewhere.

Once the day of the meal arrived, Mirabelle 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, though the rain did not return — only the chill of the Autumnal air.

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 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 sounds, but Coralie’s insistence on busying herself around the lady came in a close second. It was not as late as each 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. She had expected someone more imposing on both counts. The Huntress was a small woman, with a rounded face and bright red hair toned with just enough light browns to give it the tawny or orange color for which her father was known. She only met her eyes for a second before the woman looked away, nervousness extending from every motion and twist of her body. Her guard was not much more impressive, a tall, lanky man with only basic armor of tanned hide and a simple spear. The only impact he made on Mirabelle when she saw him was the odd thought that he looked uneven.

“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 adjuvate village projects properly. It drags him down as a domestic steward, but his skills with a spear are 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 sighed, “Well, yes. I have had to. Otherwise, how would I hope to keep my quaint holdings?”

“So, you know about the Astier family?”

“Yes, of course. As a 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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