Chapter 32: Encounter
Strolling in the forest, a peculiar girl was following a path parallel to the one a sturdy-looking carriage was travelling on, keeping an eye open for everything unusual or exciting.
After sitting a whole day on the coach’s bench, Nisha was bored out of her mind, her back sore from the rockings of the jolty road, therefore she had chosen to travel on foot in the morning after an uncomfortable night on the cargo space.
The evening before the departure had been scarcely filled with an uninteresting conversation about the quality of the meal she had prepared, and various other shallow matters: how life had been in the cottage, the way Eldrin had been acting… Luthais was mostly trying to establish a friendly relationship with the newest recruits of his House. The maid sisters had done their best to speak normally with the half-elf, although a life of servility had instilled in their very being the lowly habit of looking down and remaining silent in the presence of a noble.
Learning that Luthais was a duke had not helped in that regard, and Annabelle and Lydia had forced themselves to regulate their speech to make it sound as casual as possible, not fidgeting or falling back to their previous servant identity and avoid his gaze.
Under any other circumstances Nisha would have been with her two dear friends to support them through this strait, but discussing about the hunting grounds and her grandfather had been saddening her greatly, and not even the praise on her cooking skill had cheered her up, hence she had chosen to explore the nearby woods.
Informing the others that she was not staying in the vehicle anymore rather than asking for their permission, she only had to promise to stay close by and abstain from doing any dangerous things before being allowed to venture off.
The expedition quickly paid off when a [Forest Panther] forced its luck by ambushing her, jumping from the upper branches of a tree, probably thinking that it could take her out by surprise, yet the former dragon had been aware of the monster’s trap for miles, discovering it with her [Spirit Sense] after being notified through her keen instinct of a ‘smell’ of danger.
The meat of a second-rank monster would make for a nice addition to this day’s dinner.
More than a real need of meat, the dragon girl wanted to vent her bad mood on the unsuspicious animal, there was after all more than enough smoked meat in her [Soul Space] to feed her for decades. She soon started to damage the hide and flesh of the unlucky creature with her blades, to the point of rendering it inapt to any use. She knew that there was no point in grieving forever, but being torn between the temptation to lie down and cry, to do nothing until the end of time, and lash out against the whole world, had taken its toll on Nisha, though she was hiding her foul mood from her companions.
I didn’t notice earlier, but every time I hunt, I end up handling a dead body. Why did it never bother me before?
Storing away the game, she noticed that the carriage had moved down the road, out of sight. She sped up to catch up to her companions, going from jumping atop the lower branches of various trees to avoid obstacles on the ground to an unbridled rush between tree trunks and bushes.
Aside from the interruption on meal time, the remainder of the morning passed peacefully, letting Nisha appreciate the beauty of nature.
Whenever she noticed a particular flower or herb she could name, memory would take her away to a walk with Eldrin, who patiently taught her the elven names of each plant, the omnipresent delicate scent of greenery deeply submerging her in thoughts.
Unconsciously, she bent down to pluck one of the flowers. She was about to stick it in her hair, next to her ear, when she suddenly froze.
Her grandfather was always doing this, picking and gifting her various beautiful and fragrant plants to her great joy. The combined might of the harsh recollection and the smooth feeling of the flower’s petals on her skin dampened her spirits even further, but Nisha endured and completed her motion, sticking the stalk of the ivory flower into her hair like an ornament. Unknowingly, the reminiscing girl had closed her eyes, lost in memories. When she opened them to reveal her golden-red irises again, a small swarm of yellow butterflies was dancing around her, some of them covered in red splashes.
Intrigued by the colorful spectacle, she decided to follow them for a while, drawn in by their large numbers.
She had seen one or two of them on the open clearing in front of the cottage, teasing the grazing [Sapphire Cows], so she had been taught their species’ name, nevertheless the dragon had never observed such a large gathering of them, nor had she heard of the possibility of such a behaviour.
Steering away from the carriage’s path, the fluttering insects guided her to a new segment of the forest, where the earthen and fresh smell of the woods slowly changed to a familiar scent.
Nisha clearly knew that scent, but she was strangely unable to name, it got steadily stronger after a candle’s worth of time of wandering through the trees.
Both old and heavy, even Nisha’s enhanced sense of smell couldn’t recognize the fragrance she was chasing.
The mystery cleared when the swarm of butterflies stopped and dispersed on another road, this one bigger and more developed than the small one Luthais’ carriage was riding.
A brown horse was trotting along the way, carrying a man wearing a grey leather armor, its flank covered in foam from exhaustion. The leather cap on the man’s head was hiding much of his features, but he immediately looked up when he heard the bushes at the roadside rustle.
I know! Eldrin told me, it’s ‘horse’ smell!
Such thick eyebrows. The crest on his chest seems familiar, where have I seen it before? Right, it’s on the carriage too, I remember the green and red colours looked pretty.
“Who are you?! Identify yourself!”
Startled by her sudden apparition, the soldier called out to her, his hand on the heft of his weapon, a long grey blade at his side.
Nisha herself seemed very out of place in the forest, a cute little elf girl wrapped in a green dress revealing her smooth pure white skin on the back, token of her former wings; she resembled a fairy more than a real person.
“Who are you to ask me that? Is this your forest?”
Curiously tilting her head, the strange fairy-like girl looked at the man without fear – his aura was stronger than her own but she had the advantage of the surroundings, the woods having been her playgrounds since her birth, thus she was absolutely certain to be able to outrun him would the situation require it. Additionally, she had carved the small pendant hanging around her neck out of a coin enchanted with her [Flickering Cover], though she was unsure if it would be enough to trick the soldier.
He doesn’t look hostile. But acting like this in the forest is not smart.
Unknowingly, Nisha’s silent critic had hit the mark, the rider was not used to travel alone in the Wilderness, and having met no one but his horse in days was daunting him to no end.
Getting lectured on his improper behaviour seemed to calm him down, and he changed his defensive posture to respond.
“Indeed, this is unbecoming of an officer of the royal army. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Brandon Rivers, sergeant of the first division of the royal army, it is my pleasure to meet you. May I have the honor to know your name, my lady?”
Acting the part of a shining knight in armor as he had been taught in the capital, the man must had wanted to impress the young girl from his baffled expression when Nisha returned his greeting, pushing the joke as far as to bow in a curtsy.
“The honor is all mine, Sergeant Rivers. It is a pleasure to meet you, my name is Nisha Dharnas and -”
At the mention of her last name, Sergeant Rivers abruptly straightened, and he stared at her, his eyes wide open.
“Is that true? Is your last name really Dharnas?”
Slightly intimidated by the abrupt change in his behaviour, Nisha backed off a bit, ready to bolt in the forest any time.
“Yes, Dharnas is my last name. Why?”
“Oh thank the gods, I have been searching for Marshall Luthais Dharnas for a few days now. Can you tell me where he is?”
I don’t know if I should trust this guy. He doesn’t seem like a bad person, but ‘telling everyone about everything’ is one of the things Anna warned me about. She also said I shouldn’t talk to strangers …
“Why do you need to speak to him? I don’t know you after all.”
Wary of his intentions, Nisha was getting ready to flee when his answer startled her.
“I was dispatched to find the marshall near the royal hunting grounds, they should be around here. I am directly under his command and have urgent news regarding the siege that require his immediate attention. If you can’t tell me where he is, please relay my message to him when you see him, this is of utmost importance.
The siege has resumed.”
Grim and worried, the sergeant’s voice convinced Nisha of his honest intentions, deciding her course of action.
“Alright, take your horse and follow me. I will bring you to see Luthais.”
The man’s expression visibly brightened at the prospect of completing his assignment, but soon became one of confusion when he saw the young girl turn around and start to walk into the forest, away from the road.
“Wait a second, why are you going towards the woods? Weren’t you going to take me to the marshall?”
Doing about-face, Nisha looked at Sergeant Rivers with a strained expression.
“What do you think I am doing? You were going in the wrong direction!”
Blushing slightly from the admonishment of a girl many times his junior, the soldier meekly followed her on foot, leading the horse by hand among the trees.
The trip back to the carriage was quiet, Nisha being well aware of the monsters lurking around and bypassing them, Sergeant Rivers too busy trying to get his horse to pace through the woods without stumbling or breaking a leg to care about potential threats.
The dragon girl smiled in satisfaction when they reached the carriage’s trail, taking pride in her ability to remember the way back without a hitch.
“It’s this way. We should reach them before nightfall.”
Pointing in the direction Annabelle, Lydia and Luthais were travelling to earlier, Nisha expectantly waited for the soldier to mount his horse.
When he offered her a hand, the dragon tilted her head in puzzlement.
“Come on, get on. Old Brown here might be tired, but we can still catch up to them faster this way. You said they’re in a carriage, right?”
I have never ridden a horse before. But it should be like being on Little Breeze’s back anyway.
“No it is alright, just follow me.”
Without waiting for his answer, Nisha clad herself in a strong fire aura, strengthening her muscles, and she left at a brisk speed along the dusty road.
Horse and rider were staring in awe before remembering their objective, breaking into a slow canter to run after the dashing figure.
True to Nisha’s words, it took them two good candles to behold the carriage from afar, although she had paused every now and then to allow the rider to catch up with her, small breaks that the little girl had used to circulate her aura, preventing her fatigue from spreading, with a meager amount of darkness mana, the dark fog was spreading a pleasant sensation around her legs, taking away the fatigue for a time, almost invisible in the darkness of the forest.
Anna or Lydia must have seen us too.
The carriage stopped soon after its pursuer’s apparition in its range of sight, waiting for them to reach their target.
Meeting face to face with his commanding officer seemed to stress Brandon Rivers a lot, he performed a sharp rider’s salute and spoke up even before Nisha could have a chance to do the introductions.
“First Sergeant Rivers reporting to the marshall of the King’s army! I carry urgent news and a request for you, sir, to return to the army camp near [Blackquarry]. Due to a new development, your presence is needed to maintain the defense of the town.”
The half-elf seemed familiar enough with the man to not question his identity or the validity of his informations, he straightened out his lax posture on the driver’s seat, suddenly looking much more like a distinguished noble able to perfectly rule over an army.
“Make your report, sergeant Rivers. I am listening.”
“Sir, yes sir. Over a week ago, after another day of useless skirmishes, the Terus army camp suddenly broke up and got ready to depart. Fearing a deception, the general ordered us to stay alert and manned the walls with twice the patrols in case of a sneak attack.”
The protest of a tired horse interrupted the transmission of the message, worn out after having been ridden sharp to its limit, foaming all over, the animal couldn’t take it any longer.
“Lydia, would you please …?”
Asking one of the girls to take care of the horse, the half-elf was assuming his commanding role right away, eager to hear the rest of the news, which were probably of critical matter as they required his presence.
Nisha headed over to her two big sisters, marveling at the horse from a close distance, the animal intriguing her more than the soldier’s story.
Petting the brown fur, she only halfheartedly listened to Sergeant Rivers who had resumed his report after having dismounted and taken a big mouthful of water from the canteen Annabelle had offered him.
It has so much soft fur. I think I like horses.
“My thanks to the ladies.
As I was saying, the general feared a stratagem and kept the walls manned, and his apprehension turned out to be true. Roughly two days ago, two of the enemy camps reappeared in the night, forbidding anyone to leave and building siege machines for the first time. The general did not know when they would finish their construction and begin the assault, but he urgently sent sneak messages to the capital to ask for your return along with reinforcements. A fast messenger bird informed us that you were close by in the hunting grounds, and I was dispatched to find you.
We don’t know where the remaining eight enemy camps have gone, but the siege seems to have taken a dire turn. I beseech you, sir. Please return with me quickly.”
Having lost his cool towards the end, the tired soldier apparently noticed he had overstepped his boundaries and forgot to address his commander with proper courtesy, but Luthais didn’t seem to mind, processing the information. It made no sense that four fifths of the enemy army had retreated after the dragon’s ambassador had promised to end the conflict with the Terus empire, while two camps still remained to assault the city.
Nisha ceased to stroke the pretty horse fur and focused her attention back on the half-elf, who seemed to have reached a decision.
“Sergeant, I understand.
Your hard ride has paid off, but as you can see I am accompanying members of my House to the capital.
I was also convinced that the Terus siege would end soon, the Empress supposed to order her troops to retreat, are you absolutely sure that [Blackquarry] is going to be attacked?”
Instead of answering, Sergeant Rivers only saluted and bowed his head, proving his absolute conviction, as he meant that it was up to his commander to inflict a punishment upon his person in case of disappointment in the lowly soldier he was.
Sighing at this display of loyalty and good faith, Luthais had no choice but to react to the report, acknowledging its accuracy.
“So it seems unavoidable to change our plans. I can’t really leave you here in the Wilderness alone, Nisha, Annabelle, Lydia, so please forgive me for taking you along to the city first. I will try to let you off before reaching [Blackquarry], but with a large portion of the enemy army missing, the safest place for you at the moment might be in the city I defend.
I wish there was another solution, but let us make haste to the siege now, such concerns won’t help.”
Waiting for the girls to take place on the carriage again, the half-elf ordered the soldier a last time before rushing on the little road.
“Sergeant, we will advance on this road, follow us in a moderate speed to go easy on your horse. We will prepare a camp at the roadside, after a crossing where you will have to go right. After the crossing, the road leads in the direction of [Blackquarry]. We should arrive tomorrow evening there.
In the name of the King!”