The cabin was a draughty ramshackle place, but it was shelter. Though it was far from his forte Rab had made some efforts to seal the cracks as it were where he could and somehow he and Jade had fumbled through.
It wasn’t the homiest of places by far, but after months of being on the move Rab knew it would do them both some good to stay put for a little while. So, he did what he could to make the place as comfortable as he could and was grateful for something to keep his mind and hands busy.
The fire crackled merrily in the hearth, a bright and warm spot in stark contrast to the rest of the dreary place, while rain poured down outside. Jade was curled under a blanket in front of the fireplace; she’d fallen asleep earlier and he hadn’t had the heart to risk waking the young girl by attempting to move her. So, he’d taken one of the pillows, folded it under her head and let her sleep in much-needed peace while he ensconced himself in the worn and raggedy chair in front.
Jade’s peace wasn’t a peace he felt this evening as the fire mingled with the rain beating against the walls and window. He long lost track of how many times his thoughts wandered back to that singular night. He could seldom stop the swell of memories and he didn’t bother trying this time.
Even under the protection of the trees the rain came down in driving sheets and if he was soaked to the bone he didn’t notice as he pushed through the foliage and stumbled over stone and moss in the worn muddy paths. Eleanor’s name sounded in his mind over and over, lending a terrible rhythm to his ragged steps.
Irwin’s fate was yet unknown, but he’d found Eleanor. He’d found her cut down in the forest. He found her, he found her. He stayed by her side for too long and not long enough until some awareness of the world came back in and drove him to his feet. She was alone, pale and bloodied and gone from him. She was alone and Elwin was gone. The princess was gone. Desperation urged him onward.
The paths he thought he knew seemed to twist away, and every shape in the dark held danger, but still he ran and stumbled through. He couldn’t say for how long he went before he finally stopped, choking for air and he realized he was utterly lost.
There’d been no signs of life, human or monster. The clamour of battle and fear was behind. Only the wind, rain and his own thudding heart sounded in his ears. As he stood panting however, another low sound reached his ears. Somewhere nearby was the river and if he could find it he could follow it.
One more deep breath and he plunged onward paying no mind to how the branches snagged at his clothing in the most direct route he could find to the river. His heart skipped a beat at the sight before him.
A young girl floundered in the rushing water. Even as he watched she went under for a moment that seemed to stretch to an eternity before she came back up.
“Princess.” His voice came out in a weak gasp he was certain couldn’t be heard over the rain and the river’s roar. He shook his head and hurried forward, calling out this time. “Jade! Hold on, lass!”
The water was cold against his legs and tugged at his robes as he splashed out into the river. Stumbling and slipping over rocks, just a little farther… she was almost here… and he caught hold of her hand. He tugged her to him and she staggered to her feet, clinging to him.
“I’ve got ye,” he said gently. His knees trembled even as he tried to support them both. She was safe; someone else had escaped that horror. “Come on, this is no place to be standing about.”
Jade seemed in a daze as they sloshed and tripped their way back to shore. He kept a tight hold on her, her hand seeming cold and small in his. When they found themselves back on solid, if not much drier, land she collapsed against him in a shivering coughing heap. He held her close for what little comfort against the fear and despair he could provide, and for what warmth could be given—little it seemed for he felt as drenched as she was and the rain only continued to pour over them.
“I’m glad you’re at least safe,” he murmured.
“Safe,” Jade repeated. Then she suddenly thrust herself from him before he had time to react. “No! She asked me to keep him safe. I-I—!” She spun round and bolted away.
His blood ran cold as her panicked cry came sounded while she dashed along the river bank. If she’d had him… the river, no. He ran after her, but she was younger, faster. Then a shrill shriek split the air. The gryphon burst from the trees and swooped over Jade. She scrambled back covering her face with a startled scream and Rab put on a greater burst of speed. The monster landed. Three eyes narrowed viciously and it spoke with a croak.
“Stupid humans. Do you think you can escape the shadow?”
Rab lunged in front of Jade and took up an old offensive stance. “Aye, I think we can.” But he could feel it now. Years of peace and complacency had lent their own rust; Master Pang would have his hide for that.
And none of it mattered, not while there was still someone left to protect. Too many had fallen; he wouldn’t see the Princess number among them.
The gryphon lashed out with a talon. Rab ducked under and delivered a swift kick to its exposed chest. It hissed. As more talons raked the air Rab jumped back, avoiding the attack while also trying to track where Jade had gone. She’d scrambled right back away from the fight, smart girl. He leapt into another flurry of quick hits, narrowly avoiding a swipe of its beak and bounced back, preparing a spell.
“You want the darkness, do ye?”
The gryphon wavered, knocked off-balance by Rab’s blows and hissed through its beak.
“Zam!” Rab cried out. The monster reeled as the darkness coalesced around it and its shriek was one of pain when Rab landed another blow to its shaking head. The gryphon teetered and fell, collapsing into a heap before fading into shadow.
Rain continued to pour down flattening the grass where the monster had been. Rab stood panting before he spun around to find Jade. She remained on the ground, the skirts of her dress in a tangled mass around her. Hands gripped the grass. Drenched hair clung to her face around wide eyes. He hurried back to kneel in front of her.
“Lord Robert,” she whispered. Her eyes darted back to the river. He caught her wrist in a firm but gentle grip before she could consider pursuing that course again.
“Are you all right, lass?”
Her lip wobbled. “I… Lady Eleanor trusted me. She… she told me to take him and run, and I… I…” She fell forward into him, clenching his robes, and buried her face in his shoulder. “We fell into the river,” she sobbed. “I tried to hold him.” She trembled against him and he could feel himself shake. Her voice wavered and broke. “I lost him.”
Rab hugged her close and stared blankly into the darkness. Lost. Had he really expected to find his grandson alive through all this? Maybe not, but hope was a cruel mistress. He shivered and tightened his hold on Jade and the rain poured down and maybe they could just sit here all night and why not? What was left?
Jade hiccupped and another sob broke free against him. He shook his head. A fine and useless thought; they couldn’t stay here. They still had a chance to escape and salvage whatever was left. He had to bring Jade back to her father if his old friend yet lived and the possibility he hadn’t was only one more thought to shy away from in the growing number of losses.
“Jade.” He gave her a squeeze. “We’ve got to get moving. Ye’ve been so brave tonight. Now just one last time, eh?”
And she had risen. She’d clutched his hand and the tears still ran freely down her cheeks mingling with the rain drops, but she’d held on and together they fled through the forest in a night that seemed never-ending.
Rab stared into the fire with a long sigh. They’d spent the rest of that night finding their way through the trees until Jade was nearly asleep on her feet. He’d found them a place to hide and thinking back he still wasn’t certain how long they’d spent there exhausted and on high alert but unable to stop sleep from coming regardless. Maybe if they’d left earlier, maybe if they’d been faster; there were so many what-ifs and none of them mattered anymore. All that mattered was when he deemed it safe enough to leave and they made their careful way back to the city they found ruins.
If there were any survivors they’d fled as well and he sent every prayer to Yggdrasil that was indeed the case for some. For some; not all. He’d left Jade hiding and finished the grisly search himself.
Irwin… the name stuck in is throat as surely as Eleanor and Elwin. He could only hope they found their way back together somehow in the safety of Yggdrasil’s boughs. Vowing to return at a future date to do more, he’d left a small marker for his family and retreated back to Jade.
Jade stirred with a soft moan and a mumble, catching Rab’s attention away from the crackling fire. “Lady Eleanor… Father… No…”
Poor lass. Rab slipped off the chair to kneel beside her and rested a gentle hand on her shoulder, hoping not to waken her but that some comfort might be felt. Her head turned and with a deep breath her breathing evened. Rab rocked back on his heels. She shouldn’t be here. Neither of them should’ve been but for her at least, she should be home. Home away from all this. Home with her father.
Then he rose again, suddenly restless. That wasn’t a possibility either and he paced over to the window. There wasn’t much to see in the deepening darkness or through the large drops running in streaks down the glass. He absently watched their paths anyway.
Home… it should have been straightforward, maybe not easy, but a plain path was clear. He would take Jade back to Heliodor and with any luck back to her father—there had been no sign of the king in the ruins—and he too could speak with Carnelian. They could figure out where to go from there. Rest… grieve.
It seemed simplicity wasn’t allowed for them. They’d made it back all right, growing steadily warier as whispers grew ever darker the closer they got to the city. Yet there had been relief as well as they heard of the king’s return and grief in the princess’s apparent death. He’d had to stop Jade from announcing herself—best to wait to see Carnelian first. He thought it safest and only right—he was her father after all. Now he wondered if some deeper instinct guided him.
The king had returned. Passing through the streets of Heliodor there were bustling crowds headed toward the plaza and Rab and Jade followed, keeping to the outskirts.
No amount of staring at leaden raindrops and grubby streaks over an old window would chase out the memory of those damning words no matter how hard he tried to concentrate.
“Dundrasil has fallen.”
“The Luminary is a lie.”
“The Darkspawn has risen.”
“He has taken our princess, my daughter, and so will try to take us all.”
“Remain vigilant! The Darkspawn must be destroyed.”
Rab wouldn’t forget the horror in Jade’s face either as she whispered, “That’s not my father.”
That wasn’t his old friend calling for the death of his grandson either.
What should have been a return to safety became another flight. Jade clung as hard to his hand as she had that night in the forest, and there was both fear and a fierce determination in her face when she suddenly tugged him aside to show him a secret way she knew out of the city.
One flight led to another and Jade followed and Rab had no idea where to go from there. If Carnelian had changed what of the Sultan and King Gustaf? They would avoid the larger cities and pass through towns quickly and only at need. In time they found this old abandoned shack a short ways from a small village, and decided to stay for a while. Rest and recuperate.
It wasn’t much. He couldn’t honestly say how safe they were but there was a comfort in waking in the same place for more than one morning in a row.
Jade stood by him now, arms folded over her chest. Her eyes flicked nervously to the rain-splattered window. “Is everything okay?”
“Aye,” he said with an attempted small smile. “I was just having a wee think. Morning’s still a long way off, ye should be sleeping.”
Her arms dropped to hang at her sides. “I used to watch the knights train. I even had Sir Hendrik show me a few moves with a sword.”
Rab stared at the seemingly sudden change of conversation but it was clear she had a lot on her mind so he remained silent.
“I want to protect the people I love. I want to protect myself.” Her hands clenched and once more Rab found himself faced with that same fierceness from Heliodor. “No matter what. Will you teach me?”
“Martial arts, eh?” Rab replied thoughtfully after a moment. It wasn’t a bad idea; it was a good idea really. The more she could protect herself the better, especially should they ever get split and, well, he was hardly getting any younger. Not to say he couldn’t hold his own of course, he quickly added. Still, it was a pity he didn’t dare risk bringing her to Angri-La. He could use a brush-up himself. Ah well, never mind that. They could only work with the hands they were dealt.
“I’d be happy to teach you. I won’t be going easy on ye, mind.”
She stood tall and proud. “I don’t want you to.”
“Good, then here’s your first lesson. Training is best done with lots of rest. Get on to bed with ye and get some sleep.”
“Yes, Rab,” she said with a bow of her head and hurried away, pausing only to take her blanket from the floor before going to her bed.
Training eh? Which meant he ought to be following his own advice and so he ambled off to his own bed wondering how easily sleep would come this time.
And so the time started to pass quickly in days filled with training, any bits of education he could instill into the princess, and with the necessary day-to-day tasks of surviving. Jade approached her lessons with a single-minded determination and he often had to remind her that breaks and rest were just as important before she settled into the rhythms that worked for them both.
It was all comforting in a way. It kept the mind and hand busy for which Rab was grateful. He only sometimes worried that they were perhaps growing too comfortable in this new life. More than once he reminded himself they shouldn’t stay for overly long nor get too familiar with those of the nearby village. Better to move from place to place. Better to be wary and keep an ear out for any and all rumours and the darker whispers surrounding Heliodor.
It was that same worry that lingered in the back of his mind as he walked back from the village, little bag of goodies in hand and that same worry he tried to shunt aside for now. The day had turned into quite a pleasant evening, warm and breezy, and peaceful. As he approached the cabin, he spotted Jade sitting on a log near their training area.
“There ye are, lass,” Rab said cheerfully and came over to join her on the log. “I’ve got us some treats,” and with that he pulled out some small strawberry cakes.
Jade took the piece with a small smile and an equally appreciative bite before abruptly stopping. She stared at the cake, the small joy fading from her face to Rab’s disappointment.
“Is this okay?” she asked. “The last few days have been… good. Sitting here, this cake. It’s nice… I feel a little happy but… but Lady Eleanor, King Irwin… Elwin...”
Rab swallowed. “Eleanor would be glad you’re happy. I’ll bet she’s up there smiling down at us right now.”
“At you maybe,” Jade said in a small voice. “But I lost him when she trusted me.”
“She’d never blame for you that. She’d want you, us, to be happy.” It was something he had to remind himself on a daily basis and when the darker thoughts came that if any of them died it should have been him; he’d had a fair shake at life… Yet here he was. “She died protecting her family. All of it.”
“Family…” she repeated quietly.
“She loved you. For her, for Irwin, for Elwin, we have to live for our family.”
Jade sniffled. “Our family?”
“Aye. The best way to repay her is to remember how to live. It’s okay to be sad and it’s okay to be happy too. She’d love to see you smile just as I’m sure your father would too.”
“Father… What happened to him?”
“I wish I knew, but we’ll find the truth one day, I promise ye that.”
“I miss him. I miss home. I miss visiting Dundrasil.”
“You’ll go home one day. All of this will be nothing more than a bad memory.”
Jade shook her head and met his eye. “Not all of it. I like some of being here. I like spending time with you.”
Rab ducked his head. Ahh the straight-forward honesty of youth. “Ach, you’re a good lass. It’s an honour to care for you. Now why don’t ye finish that cake before it starts drying out eh?”
She nodded and taking a small bite from her cake looked out at the landscape before them. Trees dotted the fields and the clouds overhead were growing tinged with pink and orange as the sun started to set. It was a small smile that lit Jade’s face, but one Rab was glad to see all the same. They were alive to enjoy this moment and he hoped there would be many more to come. Once more he sent his silent thank you to Eleanor and Irwin and the grandson he wished he could have known. And once more he sent his promise to his family and his old friend that he would look after Jade like his own.
For this moment it was enough.