Chapter Fourteen: A Counterattack
Lelani hummed to herself softly as she turned over in her bed. “When did these beds get so comfortable?” she half mumbled to herself. She was only half aware of the morning light streaming through the open mouth of her leather cave.
Suddenly, the entire cave started sliding forward across the ground. Her drowsy mind kicked into overtime as she stiffened. Without warning, huge fingers reached in. They began to rummage around, knocking things this way and that.
Lelani screamed as she fell off her bed. She tried her best to scramble away from the unexpected digits.
A gasp resonated from outside the leather as the hand quickly retreated. The celling of the opening lifted slightly and ice-blue eyes peered in.
“Oh sorry! He told me to remember you were there and everything…”
Blinking several times while regaining her composure, Lelani stepped outside. The huge, slumped figure of Pharcipeo met her eyes. His back straightened and he gave an embarrassed smile.
“It’s alright. You just startled me is all…”
“I guess my stomach just got the better of me.”
She looked over to the base of the mighty tree. The young man had his bandana pushed over his eyes. His chest was lightly rising and lowering, his mouth slightly agape.
“Still sleeping, I see.”
“Yeah,” the istus said with a smile in his voice. “Both Altunus and Rexathor are heavy sleepers. They’ll sleep to noon if allowed.”
His hand stretched past Lelani into the sack. Pulling out a square the size of his hand, he unwrapped the cloth and frowned down at the food in his hand. “Not much left, is there?” he said before taking a huge bite out of the cheese wedge in his hand.
Pinching off the corner, he offered some to Lelani.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting the piece the size of her head. “We’ll be getting more soon, right?”
“Yeah,” the boy chewed, “We should be arriving in Subtun today, right Prince?” he asked as he knocked his outstretched foot into Rexathor’s.
“Errrmmm!” he groaned back, giving a weak kick back in his companion’s direction.
“Exactly,” Pharcipeo assured.
Lelani took a bite of her portion of cheese, wide-eyed. She didn’t want to be accidently kicked in their physical banter.
Groaning and bringing up a hand to push up his bandana, Rexathor sleepily muttered, “We should get a move on.”
Tearing off a generous share of cheese and popping it into his mouth, Pharcipeo tossed the rest of the cheese wedge towards his companion. “Fine by me. Here’s breakfast.”
Even in his half-asleep state, his fingers easily caught the flying food. Sleepily, he stood to his full height, yawned, and popped the rest of the food in his mouth.
“Lelani get some, too?” he slurred after swallowing.
“Yes, I did,” she called up, her hand cupping around her mouth. “So nice of you to ask, Your Highness, after you ate the rest.”
Her sarcasm finally woke him up. He shot down a questioning look before chuckling a bit. “I see you’re awake too, then. Sleep well?”
“Yeah… it was actually kinda nice. Much better than what I’m used to.”
“I guess that’s saying something considering it was a piece of bread.”
“No kidding.” She rubbed her neck.
Kicking dirt over the nearly dead embers, they packed up their remaining gear and started making their way toward Subtun.
At first, Lelani wasn’t entirely sure what to think when Pharcipeo offered to be the one to carry her into town. Rexathor figured it would be best for all of them if she was with Pharcipeo in case they ran into trouble. Plus, the boy seemed to be showing his best behavior. If nothing, he was going out of his way to be nice to her.
Things were different riding in Pharcipeo’s pocket. For one, it was much deeper than the one Rexathor had let her use. She could see out only if she stood on her tiptoes and pulled the lip of the pocket down. It was also lower on his tunic. Not to mention, the boy was a good head shorter—relatively speaking—than the prince. Lelani found herself even father down than she had originally anticipated.
But there was some good to come out the switch of pace. The way Pharcipeo walked was much smoother to Lelani. At least she wasn’t swaying as much as she had while riding with Rexathor. The boy seemed to know how to level out his steps so that he quite nearly glided over the ground.
Not two whole hours of walking had passed before the three ran into the main road.
“Okay, from now on, we have to be doubly on guard,” Rexathor said, turning to them.
They both nodded, ready for what was to come.
Ten minutes down the main road, an old man on a cart passed them by, his donkey braying. Lelani ducked down into the pocket and pulled Pharcipeo’s bandana over her head as cover. After a few of the giant’s swaying steps, she decided she could peek out of the corner and remain hidden. The boys were trying their best to look straight ahead. The old man, however, was staring at Rexathor intently, as if he was trying to figure out if he had seen him before. Just as they were passing him, his eyes lit up and he gasped. Muttering something under his breath in a sort of reverence, he and the cart rolled out of sight.
The cavern of Pharcipeo’s lungs exhaled.
The town’s walls were in sight now. Above the long stretches of stone, she could see the tops of buildings peeking out for a view of the countryside. Astounded, Lelani guessed this was about as good as she was going to be able to view the entire town.
Several people bustled by, hushing as they got a good view of the boys. Some whispered, “His Highness,” some bowed low, and others stopped dead in their track—faces completely frozen in shock.
With the swaying of her perch, it was hard to focus on any one thing too precisely.
“Here we are,” Pharcipeo breathed toward her while keeping his eyes straight ahead. Lelani ducked back down into the pocket and planted herself at the bottom. This still wasn’t enough to prepare her for the loud, rushing voice of a nearby guard calling upward, “Open the gate for the Prince of Ortanis!”
Pharcipeo’s eyes darted downward. Lelani was securely tucked away, but he couldn’t help but worry about her precarious position. As they marched into town, people gasped and stared. He looked over at Rexathor, gauging his expression. The prince’s eyes were focused and collected.
“Good people of Subtun,” the Prince called out as they walked along, “I wish to hold council with you. Gather your neighbors and inform them. We shall convene at the Duke’s house.”
There was much whispering and as well as a few others calling out, “Yes, Your Highness!”
They walked past the gathering crowd, past all the shops and little houses lining the cobblestone path, straight up to the nicest house on the hill. Subtun was one of the smallest districts in Ortanus, but one they often visited. He was so familiar with these streets, Pharcipeo felt like he could find his way in the dark with no trouble at all. As they grew closer to the house, a pit began to grow in his stomach. He didn’t know if it was fear or just anxiety that was griping him. His mind kept spinning around his tiny passenger in his pocket. The last thing he needed was for her to be found out.
Pharcipeo was brought out of his thoughts as Rexathor knocked loudly on the large wooden door. He could feel Lelani moving about in his pocket, and he was sure glad there was no one around to notice.
The door swung open to a working man in a brown servant’s tunic. His face collected as he laid eyes on the Prince. Bowing deeply, he breathed, “Your Highness, we weren’t expecting you!”
Rexathor was as calm as ever. “We seek council with the Duke of Subtun.”
He rose from his bow. “Yes, of course, please enter,” he said ushering them inside. “The Duke is just resting, but he will want to see you.”
The servant rushed off, and they were left alone in the large, decorative room. “Lelani,” Pharcipeo breathed downward, “We’re alone for the moment.”
He felt her shifting as she popped her head over the top of his pocket. The scarf was still covering the top of her head, need she hid quickly. She took in the wonder of the room before her. Rexathor turned toward the two of them smiling.
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” he asked in low tones. “And this is only the home of the Duke of Subtun.”
“So?” Lelani called up, almost too softly to hear.
“Subtun is one of the lowest districts of Ortainus,” Pharcipeo added. “If you want to see a decadent district, the east is where you want to go.”
The girl nodded her head in understanding when footsteps sounded from down the hall. Without prompting, she ducked back down into the confines of his pocket.
The Duke appeared with his silk robes and thinning hair, accompanied by the same servant as before. Huffing, his hair disarray, he came up to the two of them, and sunk to one knee.
“Prince Rexathor,” he said, spreading his arms out. “A thousand condolences for the death of His Majesty.”
“Thank you, Luminis,” he said quietly, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I take this display as an act of continued fealty?”
“Of course, My Lord,” he said, trying his best to stand once again. “I will always support you and the High Prince.”
Rexathor let out a tense sigh and Pharcipeo could feel Lelani move about at this new information.
“I feared that Diomus’ lies had taken hold everywhere.”
“The High Chancellor? Oh no. His edict to bring both you and your brother to justice was proclaimed, to be sure. But I can assure you, you are safe here.”
“Then can I be assured that Subtun still swears fealty and will come to my aid if needed?”
Pharcipeo felt a bit anxious when the Duke looked curiously at his breast pocket, and tried his best to turn in such a way that it was shielded.
“Yes,” he said, taking his eyes off the pocket. “Of course. And, as an old friend, would you entertain a curious question?”
Luminis’ hand came together, as if praying. “The High Chancellor also called for the return of a girl who would be accompanying you.”
Rexathor’s eyes met Pharcipeo’s in a moment of fright. All movement in his pocket stopped. “It is only us, Luminis.”
“Oh, well, forgive my asking, but I am just so curious. He said that the girl would be small enough to fit in a hand.”
The prince kept a firm composure as he said, “Luminis, do you really believe that?”
The old man let out a sigh. “No, but I couldn’t help imagining.”
“Well, keep imaging, then,” he said with forced ease. “We need to hold council with the whole town, so could you send your messengers?”
“Of course,” he said snapping his fingers. His servant bowed and rushed out of the house. “And forgive my curiosity, Prince Rexathor.”
He gave a sickly smile. “Don’t worry,” he managed, spreading his arm around the Duke.
“And if you also don’t mind me asking, is this the first province you’ve visited?”
“What took you so long, again, if you don’t mind?”
Rexathor let out a laugh to release the tension in the room. Pharcipeo forcibly relaxed his shoulders. He wasn’t sure if he should keep his back turned to hide the small bulge in his pocket, or just act natural. He just wasn’t that great at these human things.
“When fleeing from the castle, we weren’t able to take any of my horses. The Chancellor was a step ahead of us. So we left on foot.”
“You came on foot all the way here? My dear prince,” he exclaimed opening the front door, “I will be sure to have my stable master fit you up with my two finest horses.”
“We would be ever so grateful, Your Lordship,” Pharcipeo interjected, bowing slightly only after putting a guard-rail-of-a-hand over his pocket. Two tiny hands pressed up against his as he bowed.
“Would you like to rest here for a while?”
“That tempts me,” Rexathor responded. “But I won’t feel at ease until I have held council with the citizens.”
The duke’s eyebrows rose slowly.
“It’s important. Even the lowliest can give the information that I seek,” the prince explained.
“What is it that you seek, My Lord?”
“Word on… my brother.”
The prince put a hand on Pharcipeo’s shoulder. “If I’ve learned anything from this istus, the commoners like that connection to their leaders.”
“Come,” he said, with a wave of his hand toward the door.
The people of the town had gathered. Pharcipeo looked nervously at the prince. Guards stood by their sides. They stood at the top of a hill, looking down on the great multitudes of people. The people started cheering when they saw the two boys appear. Rexathor held up a hand and the crowd’s noise died down.
“I think you have all heard the news. His Highness, Seric, son of Magnus, the king of Ortanus, is dead. Allegations have spread that my brother, the High Prince, and I conspired together to bring about his death.” Murmurs rippled through the crowd. Rexathor looked out over them with cold, emotionless eyes. “I can tell you all that these are just allegations; nothing more. Now, I have come to ask you, the people of Subtun, for your aid. Would you join with me in support of the royal family? Will you continue to believe in us?” Louder rumblings rushed throughout the crowd.
“Was it not my royal family who negotiated peace with Adoluns in the south? When the harvests were poor two summers ago, didn’t my royal family provide food from the grain holdings? If anyone had a complaint, didn’t my father, the king, hold hearings for any and all to attend? We have been there to govern and protect the good people of this country. So be there and keep your faith in us!”
A few shouts broke out in agreement. People threw their fists in the air, cheering. “Prince Rexathor! Prince Rexathor!” The crowd chanted over and over. Pharcipeo felt the stirring in his pocked. He gently brought a hand up to pat the quivering form inside his pocket. He could only imagine how loud this was echoing for her and cringed at the sensation. He caught glances with the prince. Rexathor nodded.
He raised his hands over the crowd, and they cheered all the more. A few in the front were trying to catch his attention.
“Your Highness!” they shouted above the roar, “What of you elder brother? Is he not to blame for the king’s death?”
A grimace found its way over Rexathor’s face. He motioned for the crowd to quiet down. Slowly, their voices diminished to a manageable lull.
“Friends,” he called. Pharcipeo always thought his whole demeanor changed when he talked to civilians. He seemed more in command, he supposed. This brother he had taken for himself was defiantly a prince.
“As you know, the High Prince Altunus has been accused for the murder of our father. This I can assure you is not true.” Murmurs rippled across the crowd. “However, we both are being pursued by Chancellor Diomus who means to punish us for crimes we have not committed. The High Prince has fled his sights, as have I. However, he and I have been… separated. And as such, I would beseech you, the good people of Subtun, for knowledge of his location. If you have any information of his whereabouts, the royal family will be,” he paused, “very indebted.”
Faces turned from one to another, as if they were trying to dig out information from each other. Silence fell over the crowd like freshly fallen snow. Rexathor’s shoulders sunk slightly.
“Any information will be greatly valued,” he repeated. “But my journey will not end until I find my elder brother. Anyone who would like to hold council with me can find me with Lord Luminis.”
The crowd began to disperse, talking amongst themselves. Pharcipeo turned around and sighed, leaning his head on Rexathor’s shoulder.
“We’ll find him,” Rexathor assured. “We will.”
“Your highness!” called a voice, pushing itself through the crowd.
“Percida?” Rexathor questioned.
Pharcipeo turned back around, eyebrows high. A teenage girl was running through the crowd. Her long, golden hair stuck to the sweat on her skin as she dashed toward them. Her plain brown dress swished along with her red cape tied around her neck. Pharcipeo instantly recognized her has one of the castlehands that would wait on the royal family.
“Percida? What are you doing here?” Rexathor chocked out, his face turning a light shade of pink.
“Oh, Your Highness!” she repeated, running up to them and doubling over. She heaved a few deep breaths. “Terrible—huff—news.”
Rexathor put a hand on her shoulder and helped her upright. Pharcipeo took a step back, feeling uncomfortably close to her. The last thing he needed was for her to bump into him and hurt Lelani.
A small tug from inside of his pocket forced him to look down. Lelani was sitting at the bottom of his hammock-like pocket, her eyes trained on him. She seemed like she wanted to tell him something, but now was definitely not the time to be conversing. He gave a few quick shakes of his head, frowning all the while, as to show that they would have to talk later.
“What news?” Rexathor prompted the girl.
“The Chancellor. He has—huff—sent men here to—huff—look for you. They are at the gates—huff—as we speak.”
“What?” Pharcipeo couldn’t help but interjecting.
“I came to warn you as—huff—soon as I could, my prince,” she said, her brown eyes dancing with concern.
“Thank you,” Rexathor said softly. His cheeks were full of color. Pharcipeo grinned slightly. The prince had always talked of the castle hands who would catch his eye. Percida was definitely one of his favorites. Then again, Rexathor wasn’t as bad as his older brother. Altunus would always be chasing skirts. Rexathor was very passionate about the women he found attractive. He would always go to him for advice, asking which girl would be worth his time. He never found it in himself to declare his feelings for Percida. She seemed cold with his subtle advances.
“Quickly, towards the inn,” she exclaimed, pulling at his cape.
“Yes, ah, yes,” he agreed, coming out of a sort of trance, and began to follow her.
“Oh, hey,” Pharcipeo started to object. Shrugging, he quickly followed after them.
“Halt!” came a voice from the edge of the plaza. The slowly dispersing crowds came to a standstill. A chill ran down Pharicpeo’s spine. They had caught up to them. He didn’t want to be dragged back to the castle. He didn’t want Rexathor to be taken and punished for something he didn’t do. Least of all, he didn’t want Lelani anywhere near the chancellor. That guy never quite sat right with him.
Pharcipeo froze up, but Rexathor pulled on his shoulder. They slowly made their way toward the row of buildings.
“If the Prince Rexathor and his accomplice, the istus Pharcipeo, are in this town, bring them forward! The crimes committed toward the crown must be accounted for!”
Silence swept through the previously chatting people. Pharcipeo couldn’t help but glance over his shoulder as they made their way through the plaza. Two guards were on horseback, looking out over the crowd. Slowly, the people began to approach the guards, but as the seconds ticked, they seemed to become more and more aggressive. One woman rushed the horses, frightening them. One reared, neighing loudly as it threw its rider to the ground.
“Keep moving,” Rexathor hissed to Pharcipeo, pulling him along. He walked a bit faster, but he still kept his gaze on the scene unfolding behind him.
“He-hey! Stay back!” shouted the guard still on his horse.
At this, the people rushed the horses. The man on the ground tried to avoid the masses of people rushing him. His horse reared again. It slammed its hoof into the guard’s shoulder.
“Whoa!” the second guard shouted. He reached down and swiftly pulled his companion onto his horse. The man screamed with pain, flailing his arms as he was lifted into the saddle. The soldier pulled on his horse’s reins and spun it around. He raced the horse toward the gate as the other horse followed along. The people cheered as they passed out of the gate. The injured guard screamed the whole way.
Pharcipeo smiled hesitantly as he quickly followed the prince towards their destination. The three of them passed through the wooden door to the inn. The cheering was muted as the door swung shut behind them. The young boy took a deep breath in, relishing in the smell of home-cooked mutton stew.
The space around them was sparsely furnished with wooden chairs placed near a burning hearth. A woman with silvery hair sat in a rocking chair near the entrance and smiled. She slowly pushed herself out of the chair and bowed before Rexathor.
“Your Highness,” she willowed, “please give us the honor of staying here tonight. Our Percida is always treated so well when she is working in your household, we can only offer the same.”
The boys nodded their heads in respect. “We thank you kindly,” Rexathor said.
The blond girl curtsied before her grandmother and then showed the two boys down the hall. She opened a door, and waved her hand at the room before them.
“Thank you, Percida,” the prince beamed. Pharcipeo flashed a smirk at his companion. She curtsied and left.
The room was moderately spacious, for a commoner’s inn. There were two large beds with coverings, and in the corner sat a plain wooden table with chairs. One small window near the top of the wall allowed light to stream in.
Pharcipeo became acutely aware of the person in his pocket with the sudden onset of silence, and looked down at her. Through the slight opening at the top of his pocket, he could see her sitting in the corner folds holding one knee to her chest. She was looking up and out and smiled when he caught her gaze. She waved an arm in a questioning fashion. He shook his head in response. He gazed up towards Rexathor and he moved swiftly towards the door, shutting off the outside world.
“It’s safe now,” he whispered down to the girl as he took a seat on one of the wooden chairs. He felt her movements and slowly pried his pocket open. She swayed on unsteady legs as she reached up for the lip of the pocket.
“Here,” he said, as he hunched his back and pulled the pocket opening down farther. He offered his open palm which she, with some effort, clambered onto. A shiver went up his arm as she pulled herself onto his hand. She used the crevasses between fingers for hand holds as she gathered herself onto his palm. She stayed kneeling with her hand to his for balance as Pharcipeo ushered her towards the wooden table.
“If I’m not mistaken, we were almost caught,” her softly articulate voice called up as she stepped off of his palm to the surface of the table.
Rexathor heaved a heavy sigh as he swung his pack to the ground and fell into the other chair. “Kiss the heavenly stars on our behalf, traveling guardians,” he said pointing upwards, “for we have escaped with our lives.”
Lelani looked confusedly towards Pharcipeo who simply whispered, “It’s a human thing.”
“Uh huh,” she said. “Anyway, I have to say that was some speech you gave there, Prince Rexathor.”
The prince looked taken back for a moment before swiftly regaining himself. “Just Rex, okay?”
“I don’t know,” she said slowly. “Everyone seems to really look up to you and respect you.”
He laughed that laugh that always made the castlehands swoon. “Well I should hope they do. Otherwise this whole mission may be for naught. But anyone who is a sister to Cip is a sister to me.”
Pharcipeo’s eyes flared up at this. “She’s not my sister,” he hissed at Rexathor, but he merely smiled.
“Do you not consider me your brother?” he asked, nudging him with an elbow.
“Well there you have it. We’re all family now,” he declared as he threw an arm over Pharcipeo and brought up his free hand behind Lelani. She looked startled by the sudden appearance of his hand but seemed to recover quickly.
Pharcipeo rolled his eyes and allowed himself to be hugged tightly.
“I… I haven’t had a real family in a long time…” Lelani said after a while.
Pharcipeo began to feel a twinge of guilt when he spotted a tear gleaming down the girl’s smiling face.
The evening was quiet and uneventful. They enjoyed a proper meal at a proper table for the first time in days. Lelani was very cautious whenever there was a knock at the door. She would duck behind a few stacks of food they put on the table for this very purpose. The Duke Luminis and several of the villagers visited them in the inn’s common room, conversing and offering gifts of food and clothing, which Rexathor graciously accepted. Rexathor explained to the duke why they were going to stay at the inn instead of his luscious house while Pharcipeo laughed under his breath. Two horses were brought to be stabled in the inn’s stables for them. To their dismay, none of the villagers who visited them brought any relevant information.
Night came swiftly, and they enjoyed themselves in proper beds. Tonight, there were able to set up a collection of tunics into a rather comfy-looking bed, Pharcipeo thought, for Lelani.
Lelani settled down in her canyon of fabric. Far beyond the edge of her table, Rex and Pharcipeo settled down into their own beds. She sighed and looked up at the roof of this room, so many hundreds of meters above her head.
“Star-filled dream to you both,” Rex’s called. He blew out the candle and set it on the floor next to his bed.
“Star-filled dreams to you too, Your Highness,” she whispered at her pillow of fabric.
At least he seems to believe me… or is he just kidding with me? Does he really think I’m right? I don’t even know what I believe anymore. But if I could have my little brother back again…
She fell asleep before she could finish the thought.
“My Lord Chancellor,” the messenger spoke. “What shall you do?
Diomus grunted violently, running a hand through his oily hair, and looked back toward the man.
“Chancellor Diomus,” spoke the general. “You can’t abide by this sort of violence. You have to show the people that you mean business. Strike out against them. Otherwise other towns will be sure to fight for the prince.”
“No,” he said sharply, putting up a hand. “That won’t work.” He stopped in his tracks and looked about the room. “All of you, leave me.” The servants glanced at each other before getting up and heading for the door. Diomus paced nervously about the room and then finally crashed into his armchair. He covered his face with a hand and sighed.
“General Lutis,” he asked the remaining person. “I think you know what I have in store.”
The man paused for a moment. “I have an idea, sir, but no definitive knowledge.”
The room was starved of oxygen momentarily. Diomus lowered his hand, his cold hard eyes staring out at the general.
“Sir,” Lutis pleaded as his eyes lighted with understanding, “You can’t mean to do that again. Last time, it was much smaller. If you plan on casting this over the Subtun—”
“Not just Subtun. The whole country.”
A huff escaped the general’s lungs as he stiffened. He plopped into his chair. “Sir did you—”
“Yes,” he said sharply.
“But remember what happened when you tried this before? And even then, it was only a small handful of people! To attempt to alter so many minds would leave you—”
“I am well aware of the consequences, Lutis.”
The general stood up sharply. “I see.”
“You will either choose to help me, Lutis, or find yourself back in the backwards heap I pulled you out of so many years ago.”
A beat of silence passed before the general responded, “Of course.” He bowed and turned around, briskly marching out of the room.
The chancellor sighed and slouched in his seat. “Whatever it may take…”