Title Writing Prompt Challenge Round 10 — E. J. D’Alise Submission

This is the Tenth round of the Title Writing Prompt Challenge. For them unfamiliar with the challenge, a quick summary: three writers offer the fruit of their labor and inspiration based on a given title.

The Round 10 Title — Once Upon A Time… — was chosen by me. Gary will choose the title for the next round.

The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the G and PG rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Those ratings are guidelines but they are subjective. If you find a story disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, stop reading and move on to the next one. The same goes if you are not interested in finishing a story. It may seem like obvious advice, but these days many people go out of their way to experience outrage (and then complain about it).

This, then, is my submission . . . and something completely different. In fact, so different that it’s not a short story. It’s the beginning of a novel. Let me explain . . .

The time was October 2016, and I planned to partake in the NaNoWriMo effort. To that end, I wrote a scene. Nothing planned, just something that came to me. That scene is the first chapter below, but you can read the original HERE.

My last NaNoWriMo was in 2015, so what happened in 2016? Well, bluntly, Trump happened. Literally that . . . and now, six years later, it’s all still a big mess. I’ve done some writing since then, but nothing beyond short stories. Then, on Wednesday, I had an epiphany . . .

Since I’m never in the running in these challenges, why not take the opportunity to kickstart a project I’d laid to rest? And I did, writing about 9,000 words to add to the existing 1,200.

No, it’s not a stand-alone, and it’s unlikely the next title will match this story . . . but I aim to finish it before the end of the year. It will be published in spurts and in addition to future Title Challenge stories.

Here’s the blurb for this story novel:
Some have destiny thrust upon them.

There’s one other thing I need to explain, and that’s the term ‘Clipper’ (taken almost verbatim from the original post, correcting for clarity):

I struggled for a few minutes to come up with the word “Clipper” (and the subsequent “Clip”) because I wanted a derogatory/common name for Meya’s position as a way to indicate both how folks thought about her and her kind, but also to set up stuff for later on. While explicit, the thinking was that she was law enforcement, and as part of being convicted for a crime, one would have their earlobe clipped. Getting arrested again would mean losing the other earlobe. The third time, you are done for. It’s an easy way to keep track of criminals, a visual rap sheet that would travel with the person and make them easily identifiable. 

That’s a pretty good explanation as things go, but clipping hasn’t played a major part in the story (so far). Still, I felt it needed clarification.

One final note. . . 10K words are a lot. Don’t feel you have to read it, and certainly don’t vote for it unless you’re actually looking forward to subsequent chapters.

Once Upon A Time

Copyright 2022 — E. J. D’Alise

(10,650 words – approx. reading time: about 40 minutes based on 265 WPM)

The Tavern

“Clean Your Boots”

Meya looked at the sign and then down at her boots. Sighing, she picked up the coarse brush and cleaned the dried mud from the sides of her boots before wiping the bottoms on the bristles mat. She stomped her feet a few times and then entered, her eyes adjusting to the lighting.

She was the center of attention for a second, people’s hands automatically nearing the hilts of their swords or daggers. Once they deemed her innocuous, they returned to their drinks. Her eyes surveyed the patrons as she made her way to the counter. Two, maybe three, who might pose a challenge should it come to that.

No, make that four. Meya focused on the young woman carrying a short sword across her back and a side-sword sporting an ornate guard. The handles on both swords were as worn as those of Maya’s swords, but the young woman could not be more than half her age, early twenty if even, she judged, with an air of confidence about her that reminded Meya of herself at that age. More importantly, the men in the tavern showed no interest in her. In this tavern, that spoke volumes. 

She headed for the bar and motioned one of the people behind it over.

“I’m looking for this man; seen him lately?” she asked as she unrolled the scroll, holding one of the sides flat with her hand.

The man stepped back and looked at her with suspicion.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

Meya’s peripheral vision alerted her to being the center of attention again, a fact confirmed by a corresponding drop in the general din of the place. By the time she answered, her voice carried in the relative quiet of the place.

“The Center,” she replied as she moved her coat to clear her side sword. The white and black emblem on the hilt was visible to the bartender and a few people at the bar.

“You have no jurisdiction here,” the man continued.

Meya put some steel into her voice as she replied.

“Neither do I have the usual constraints.”

Her hand fastened the other flap of the coat to the hook on her hip, exposing her five slender throwing daggers and her short sword.

The bartender blanched at her words and stole a furtive glance to the back of the room. Specifically, to the door at the back of the room. Meya headed to the door as a few people got up and headed for the exit. They were the smart ones, the ones who wanted to maximize the chances of still being alive tomorrow.

The not-so-smart ones, two men and one woman, stood up from their tables and blocked her path.

“We don’t like Clippers,” one of the men said. All three had their hands resting on their swords.

Meya stopped. A second later, her hand and arm having moved faster than most could react, the hollow-sounding ‘thud’ of one of her daggers embedding into the door behind them had all three of them turn. The message was clear; the dagger could have just as easily found a different target on the way to the door.

Before they recovered, the door opened, and a hand dislodged the dagger from the wood.

“I’d recognize this calling card anywhere,” the man she had been asking about said as he stepped into the room. “Hello, Meya. What brings you to the Outlands?”

The three people between Meya and the man looked from one to the other and retreated to their respective tables with as much dignity as they could muster.

Meya ignored them and walked up to the man with her hand outstretched.

“You, Leor,” she answered as she retrieved her dagger.

“Interesting. As I recall, your exact words were, ‘I never want to see you again.’ That was followed by a threat to Clip me. “

“Times change, Leor.” Meya looked around the room before continuing. “Got a place we can talk in private?”

Leor pointed back to the still-open door, and Meya led the way into the back room, Leor following. Inside the room, she held the door open for Leor and was about to close it when the young woman with the two swords slipped in after Leor and made her way to one of the corners.

Leor didn’t seem surprised. Meya checked if anyone else was coming in and then closed the door as she focused on the young woman settling on the bench by the window.

Meya stood looking from Leor to the young woman and made the connection, as incredible and unsettling as it was.

“You’re married?” Meya asked, letting incredulity tinge her voice.

She registered the quick shadow come and go across Leor’s features. She looked at the young woman just in time to catch the fleeting moment of sadness, her smile now gone. It lasted but a moment before the woman’s face settled on a more serious expression.

“Was,” Leor answered. He then pointed at Meya and the young woman in turn before continuing.  “Meya, meet Serel, my daughter. Serel, say hello to Meya.”

“Are you out of your mind?” Meya directed her question at Leor, but her eyes were fixed on the young woman. No, not a woman; a girl. Meya mentally adjusted her earlier age estimate to no more than nineteen. That was based on last having seen Leor twenty years ago.

“What is it you want, Meya?” Leor asked, ignoring the question and letting irritation creep into his voice.

“What do I want? I wanted to tell you your mother has died without naming a successor. I wanted to bring you back for the formal transfer of The Seal to the head of the Council of Regents. Now I want to tell you to get as far away as possible and take her with you.”

“Shit.” Leor put little emotion behind the word. It was more of an assessment of the situation than an exclamation. “Ronek.”

“Exactly,” Meya concurred.

The girl got up and came up to them.

“What’s going on?” she asked, “And what does it have to do with me, and who is Ronek?”

Meya looked at Leor, who nodded.

“Ronek is your father’s cousin. She’s ambitious and unscrupulously power-hungry. She currently serves as Regent of The Center and Speaker for the Council of Regents of the surrounding provinces. She was next in line to the throne, which she had waited for all her life.

“Serel, as granddaughter to the Queen, as of a week ago, you are Queen of The Center and all its Provinces, and Ronek is not going to like that one bit.”

Meya watched Serel’s confident demeanor replaced by confusion and uncertainty as what Meya said sunk in.

The Dungeon

Galen’s attention momentarily split between the book he was reading and the sound of approaching steps. He knew who it was, and her visiting was an ill omen for things to come.

At the sound of the key operating the lock of his cell, Galen closed the book, set it aside, and rested his forearms on the table and his hands face down against the wood surface. For a moment, he focused on the feel of the wood; smooth but not flat, worn to a shine over many years of use.

The cell door opened, and the man accompanying the woman made to enter, but the woman stopped him.

“Leave us,” she commanded.

The man did not respond but raised an eyebrow as he turned to face the woman.

Her tone softened, and she reassured him, “I’ll be fine, Kell,” she said. “Accompany the guard back to his station and make sure no one approaches. I don’t want any eavesdroppers to this conversation.”

The man nodded and turned.  The woman and Galen both waited until the sound of their footsteps faded.

“Hello, Galen,” she finally said.

“I’m not interested,” Galen said.

“You don’t know why I’m here,” the woman said as she repositioned the only other chair in the room and sat across from Galen.

“You look tired, Ronek,” Galen said. “Have you considered relinquishing your responsibilities and just enjoying what life you have left?”

“Is that what you’re doing?” she asked.

“I’m doing what I was denied doing in my youth,” he replied. “I’m learning. Mathematics, philosophy, the sciences, and especially history . . . I might even write a book about what I know about history. Don’t you think it would make for interesting reading?”

Ronek smiled.  “It would, at that,” she said, then turned serious.

“The Queen is dead.”

“I’ve heard,” Galen replied. “Congratulations.”

“They’re premature,” Ronek answered.


“I need the old you. I need The Bloodhound.”

Galen’s face hardened. He leaned back on his chair, letting his hands drop to his lap.

“I don’t do that anymore,” he said. “You should know that. Besides, this cell suits me fine. Room and board, and all the books I want. I have no desire to go back out into the world.”

“There’s a girl,” Ronek said, ignoring his reply, “her name is Serel. I want you to find her.”

She then explained why it was important for Galen, The Bloodhound, to find her and why the girl was both a complication and a fortuitous opportunity.

Galen listened in silence. When Ronek finished speaking, he stood and walked to the window of his cell. Without thinking, he briefly brushed the locket that hung from his neck, confirming it was still under his shirt. From the window, he could see the harvest in full swing in the fields below the Tower. He looked further, focusing on the mountains, and noticed the first sign of snow on the peaks.

He thought about all he had done and involuntarily touched his right ear, rubbing the remnant of his earlobe. Both ears had been clipped, but the right ear was the one he always touched, perhaps because it was the first clipped.

. . . and because that was when he earned his Bloodhound nickname. A nickname he wasn’t proud of. How many had he tracked down and killed in the service of the cause? A cause he later realized was but a lie by people thirsty for power and fueled by greed.

He’d escaped shortly after his first capture and went on to earn the clipping of his other ear. In the end, he’d made those self-declared prophets pay for what they had wrought upon the people and, disillusioned, surrendered himself and stood trial for his deeds.

Were it not for his noble blood, he would have been executed, but instead was imprisoned for life. He hadn’t lied to Ronek. This life suited him just fine. No different, really, than retreating to the solitary life in a monastery. Better, even, as he wasn’t saddled with the trappings of religious rituals. He kept fit, read, and meditated. Most of all, separating himself from the affairs and concerns of men let him achieve the inner peace that had always eluded him.

“Why me?” he asked. “You have an army at your disposal.”

“She’s in the Outlands.”

That made sense to Galen. The Center wouldn’t want to risk restarting hostilities by sending troops into the Outlands. He briefly wondered how many of his old comrades in arms were still alive . . . and how many might bear grudges and want him dead.

He turned to face Ronek and held her gaze as he spoke.

“I heard Meya has fallen out of favor,” he said.

“She got caught between loyalties and withheld information. I had no choice but to demote her,” she answered. “Meya understood and offered to resign. I opted to demote her and sentence her to three months in the Tower.”

“I’ll leave in the morning,” Galen said, “and Meya is coming with me, reinstated and with full Council authority.”

“You still carry that torch?”

Galen ignored the question as he pointed to his ears.

“Having a representative of the Council will ease my passage through its territory. I rather not explain myself to every constable I encounter. Plus, she has seen the girl.”

“Done,” Ronek said, “but will she be safe in the Outlands?”

Galen didn’t answer, but his expression did.

“Of course,” Ronek said, rising. “I’ll have Kell bring Meya’s and your gear. You can tell her yourself what she just volunteered for.”

With that, she turned and left. Galen listened to the receding sound of her steps, his thoughts still unfocused by this sudden change in the direction of his life.

He sighed and resumed reading his book. It was a collection of essays by contemporary thinkers about the purpose of one’s existence. Most dealt with lofty ruminations about the universe’s grand plan, with only a few matching Galen’s belief that ‘purpose’ was unnecessarily elevated beyond what one chose based on one’s ill-defined and changing desires.  

Looking for Refuge

“Do you think Meya will be alright?” Serel asked her dad.

“I don’t know. I’d heard Ronek had mellowed since The Strife,” Leor answered. “But I’m not sure how Ronek would react if she found out Meya held anything back. That’s why I advised her to come clean.”

They’d been traveling for three weeks, setting off the same day Meya headed back to the Center. Assuming Meya kept a relaxed pace, it would take her at least eight days to get from the edges of the territory the Center controlled to standing in front of the Council.

Meya had initially planned to report she hadn’t found Leor, but he strongly advised against it. Even after all these years, the Center’s leadership retained the paranoid tendencies it had embraced during The Strife. It was unlikely Meya had been sent on her mission without a redundant security layer.

While not overtly, Leor was sure the Center would have employed others to monitor the situation. If not by direct observation, dropping bribes would get them any information they wanted. Then again, if there were local spies, Ronek would already know about Serel, and sending Meya to bring him back made no sense. Or did it?

“Why didn’t you go back with her for the formal Transfer of the Seal? Ronek would have become Queen, and that would be that,” Serel asked.

Leor sighed. He’d considered it, but he’d slipped back into his Strife persona and thought of all the possibilities, giving more weight to the ones with the worse outcomes.

He’d been initially surprised at how easily that behavior came to him after all these years. But, upon reflection, the magnitude of what was at stake — Serel’s future — was the trigger.

He’d considered the possibility Meya’s mission to bring him back was a ploy to separate him from Serel, leaving her vulnerable. He’d trained Serel as well as anyone her age could be trained. And while she’d not seen actual combat, he had no worries about her ability to defend herself. That said, no matter the skill, no one was invulnerable.

But the most important reason was that no matter what was agreed to, Serel would always be the rightful Queen. There was no mechanism negating birthright other than death. He knew that when he and Celena decided to have Serel, but the assumption was that his mother would name a successor. That would have rendered Serel existence a non-issue. 

“Until I know more, I would rather we don’t get separated,” Leor answered, simplifying the complex reasoning behind his decision.

“But won’t that mean they’ll just send someone after us?”

“Into the Outlands?” Leor replied. “Not unless they want to start a war they can ill afford.”

“I’d heard the Center has covert operatives,” Serel said. “They wouldn’t necessarily trigger a full-scale conflict.”

Leor laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Serel asked, a bit miffed at his laughter.

“Sorry,” Leor replied, “I’m not laughing at you. It’s the thought of an operative of the Center blending in in the Badlands.

“Some might, one in particular, but he wouldn’t do Ronek’s bidding even if she offered to release him from prison.

“No, “Leor continued, “the biggest threat is from mercenaries already in the Outlands or groups forming a temporary alliance with the Center. Some in the Outlands might get the notion that holding you might give them some leverage with the Center.”

“Not that I’m interested, but what would it be like to be Queen?”

Leor looked at Serel. He could see how that might be attractive to someone with simplistic views about the title and what it entailed.

“Politics, intrigue, backstabbing, endless requests for favors, and lots of decisions, most involving making compromises no one is happy with,” Leor said. “Your time, your life, is no longer free. Your responsibilities broad, and your rewards few.

‘You might think you’re in charge, but only if you have a strong coalition of supporters,” Leor added, “and only if you can keep those supporters happy.”

“You certainly know how to make something unappealing,” Serel said. “Is there anything appealing about it?” 

“Only if you like the thrill of politics, intrigue, backstabbing—”

“Alright, alright,” Serel interrupted. “I got the gist of it. But then, why would anyone want it?”

“There are two reasons,” Leor said. “One, some people enjoy playing the game and enjoy the power they can wield when successful at it. Two, they are born and bred for it, groomed from infancy for the station. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are good at it, but they might think they are even when they’re not.”

“Which one is Ronek?”

“Both. As the Queen’s niece, and without an heir, she was groomed for it. She both enjoys the game and is good at it.”

They stopped to rest by a stream, eating some of the provisions they’d brought with them while their mules rested. Riding their mules, they’d been traveling roads Serel didn’t even know existed, two additional mules carrying provisions. Leor had hated leaving his horses behind, but his mules were hardier and better suited for the terrain they traveled and trained specifically for this eventuality.

“How far are we traveling,” Serel asked. “You had mentioned a refuge, but not where it is.”

“It’s not a refuge,” Leor answered. “Just refuge. We’ll travel until it finds us. But first, we need to get through the Outlands.”

The Outlands

“There was a time I would’ve killed you on the spot.”

Galen looked at Meya. She was staring straight ahead, over her horse’s head, and seemed lost in her thoughts, almost as if she hadn’t realized she had spoken aloud.

He could have said much, but sometimes it’s best to keep quiet. They’d been traveling for ten days and had barely spoken ten words since leaving the Center. They were now well past areas where the Center held sway, which could be why Meya chose this moment to speak.

“Why did you choose me?” This time, she looked at Galen, which meant she expected an answer.

He would have liked to tell her all the reasons, but he kept to the simplest.

“You saw the girl.”

“What makes you think I will help?”

“You care about the Center and the order it provides, flawed as it is.”

“Big on order, are you?” Meya asked, not expecting an answer. She then changed the topic.

“Leor will stand in your way. For that matter, so might I.”

Galen pulled the reins.

“Time to swap rides,” he said, directing his horse toward the stream flanking the road. “And we’ll rest for a bit.”

Dismounting, he set about removing the saddle from his horse and the packs from the horse carrying the provisions. Meya did the same with her horse and the horse carrying their gear. Traveling light and with two horses each meant they could swap horses and keep a faster pace. For now, they let all four horses rest and fuel up as they did the same.

Sitting in silence as they ate, Galen relished the view, the sound of the wind, the gurgling of the stream . . . All things he hadn’t realized he had missed while in prison.

“Why did you agree to this?”

Galen looked at Meya and saw genuine curiosity.

“The girl—”

“Serel,” Meya interrupted. “Her name is Serel. Use her name; she’s no random stranger. She is your niece and Queen.”

“…Serel,” Galen continued after a brief pause, “is a problem out there. A perturbation that could destabilize the balance. It’s bad enough if she does it unintentionally, but much worse if she becomes a pawn of someone with ambitions.”

“Someone like Ronek,” Meya said.

“You served the Queen,” Galen said, “and yet you knew that without an heir, Ronek would someday be Queen. Would you serve her?”

“I serve The Council.”

“You’re evading the question. As a Clipper, you are both judge and executioner, but all under the authority of the Council, and the Council reflects the will of the Speaker of the Council, Ronek.” Galen paused, then turned to face Meya.

“You execute the orders of the Council, Ronek’s orders.”

“The Queen is the ruler,” Meya replied. “The Council does her bidding.”

“You can’t be that blind,” Galen said as he rose, grabbed their utensils, and went to the stream to wash them. “The Council is supposed to consul the Queen, but you know the Queen rarely went against the advice of the Council, especially as she got older. For years now, Ronek has effectively been the ruler of the Center; if not in name, in practice.”

Meya listened to Galen openly voice what many whispered in private. She had never stopped to think about it, but hearing it so clearly described, she reviewed her experience with The Council, and the truth of it crystallized.     

“What are Ronek’s intentions toward Serel?” she suddenly asked.

“Work it out,” Galen replied.

Meya pondered the various possibilities as she saddled one horse and loaded their gear on the other. She then had another thought.

“Where are we going?” she asked. “Do you know where they are?”

“I know Leor,” Galen answered. “He’d look for refuge.”

“Where is that?”

“It’s not a place,” Galen answered. “It’s with a group of people.”

“Fine, but where are they? How will we find them?”

“They’re Nomads. You don’t find them; they find you.”

The Marsh Nomads

“Be alert,” Leor said as four riders appeared out of a thicket on the opposite bank of the narrow bridge they were crossing.

“They don’t sport any colors,” Serel said. “Bandits?” she asked as the riders trotted onto the bridge.

Leor and Serel stopped their mules. Ahead, the four riders were now blocking the way.

“At the very least, it’s not very civil,” Leor replied.

Civility would have had the riders wait for Leor and Serel to cross. Within the narrow confines of the bridge, there wasn’t enough room for the two groups to pass each other.

“Here they come.”

Just as the group ahead of them advanced, they heard horses behind them. Just two riders, but they were now trapped on the bridge. Leor tied the reins to the pommel of his saddle and released the clasps securing the swords, Serel mimicking his actions without being told.  If necessary, swords in hand, they’d try running through the group.

It would be a last resort move because the mules were vulnerable, but so were their horses, and his mules were less likely to get spooked by sudden action. With any luck, the riders would end up in the river.

The four riders advanced, stopped, and only one — a young man about Serel’s age — kept coming.

“We request passage,” Leor said as the rider stopped within speaking distance and dismounted.

“Passage, you say,” the young man said. “We have reports of a man and woman from the Center traveling the Outland, asking questions.”

 Before replying, Leor took a moment to glance back at the riders behind them. They were slowly coming closer.

“We have nothing to do with the Center. You should let us pass.”

“There is another option,” the man said. “We take your mules and provisions, and if it pleases us, we let you live.”

“That option might cost you dearly,” Leor said. “You really should let us pass.”

Without speaking, Leor and Serel dismounted and drew their short swords.

“You’re outnumbered,” the young man said as Serel moved to face the riders behind them.

“Not for long,” Leor replied. “We only have to kill a few of you before the rest reconsider their choices.”

“You think us cowards?”

“Only cowards ambush people.”

The man smiled. He still hadn’t drawn a sword and stood relaxed and unconcerned about Leor’s sword and stance.

From the thicket, more riders showed themselves, a few carrying bows and one carrying a crossbow.

“As I said,” Leor said, pointing at the newcomers, “cowards.”

The young man glanced back, and in that second, Leor covered the ground between them, spinning the man, twisting his arm behind him, and putting the short sword across the man’s neck.

“You better hope they like you more than they like our stuff,” Leor said.

The young man had lost his smile. Surprisingly, he was angry rather than as afraid as he should have been.

“You’ve just made a big mistake, I’m—” the man started to say but stopped when the blade at his throat made a small cut on the skin.

“You should be telling the men to retreat,” Leor said. “Anything else will draw more blood.”

“You won’t kill me,” the man said. “If I die, so will you and the girl.”

“Have you ever bled a pig?” Leor asked. “It takes a while, but they eventually die. Meaning,” Leor continued as he drew a bit more blood, “I don’t have to kill you right away to ensure you’ll eventually die.”

“Two can play this game, old man,” the man replied. “Take the girl!” he yelled.

They all heard it—a strange noise, like a dull thud. One of the two men facing Serel slid off his horse, a quarrel embedded in his chest. He hadn’t hit the ground when another quarrel hit the second man.

Meanwhile, a commotion arose on the bank as figures descended on the group trying to string their bows, swords making short work of the unprepared men. The three horsemen on the bridge panicked, trying to turn their horses on the narrow space. One fell to another quarrel, the remaining two pushing their horses to a gallop in an attempt to escape. One of them almost made it.

Leor let go of the man he was holding. Panicked, the man tried to get his horse, but the animal was spooked, turned, and galloped off the bridge.

A man had walked onto the bridge, stepped aside to let the horse pass, then resumed walking toward Leor and the remaining bandit.

The newcomer stopped in front of the bandit. Without a word, he stabbed him and pushed the dying man off the bridge.

“That will spoil the water,” Leor said, looking at the newcomer and noting the colors. He wasn’t much older than Serel, but honed by a harsher set of experiences.

“No more than all the shit animals already dump in the water,” the man replied, turning his attention to Leor.

“My name is Aden,” he said, “of the Marsh—”

“…of the Marsh clan,” Leor interrupted. “I recognize the colors.”

“And you are?”

“My name is Leor, and that is Serel,” he answered as Serel joined him.

Aden nodded as if the information confirmed something.

He turned at a slight angle before continuing.

“You’re still holding your swords.”

“So are you,” Leor replied.

Aden made no move to sheath his sword.

“These are trying times. It’s difficult to find people one can trust,” he said. “These men had attacked some of our hunters. Wounded one and stole from them. We’ve been tracking them for a few days.”

Two men and one woman walked up to join Aden. Leor looked past them and saw another half-dozen men and women at the end of the bridge, all with weapons in hand. Two crossbowmen stood on the riverbank, one on each side of the bridge. This was no regular scouting party. 

“We seek refuge,” Leor said.

Aden said nothing, focusing on Serel. When he did speak, it wasn’t anything Leor and Serel expected to hear.

“Our elders request a meeting with the Queen of the Center and all its Provinces,” Aden said, and with that, he sheathed his sword.

Almost as if a signal, the other Nomad followed suit, as did Leor and Serel.

“We offer safe passage to our camp, which is a day’s ride.” Aden continued. “Aside from us four,” he nodded to his companions, “the others don’t know who you are, and it’s best to keep it so.”

With that, he turned and walked away, his companions parting to let him pass and then following behind him.

As they walked away, Serel got close to Leor.

“The Marsh Clan?” she asked softly. “Is that good?”

“One clan is as good as another, but this one perhaps a bit less so.”


“It was your mother’s clan.”

“Mother was a Nomad?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Leor replied. “Let’s follow them. There are things and events we don’t know about, and the Clan’s elders might shed some light on them.”

“Do you trust them?”

“Nomads take pride in their code of honor. We’ll be safe,” Leor replied.

The Forest Nomads

“How many Clans are you familiar with?” Meya asked.

“Marsh, Plains, and Forests. Had brief contacts with the Mountain Clan, but, for the most part, they had little involvement in The Strife,” Galen replied.

“I thought all the Clans had been involved.”

“How much do you remember about The Strife?”

Meya hesitated. It was a period in her life she would rather forget, but that would mean forgetting her father and brother. 

“I was still at the Academy. You had already left,” Meya said, missing Galen’s furtive glance at the mention of his leaving. “The Center was expanding its influence and shoring up its army for a potential conflict with the Western Kingdoms. The Clans objected to The Center’s incursions into the Outlands for resources, and discontent turned into insurrection and, ultimately, a war of attrition.”

Meya looked down at her hands, her voice going soft as she continued.

“Eventually, the losses were too great, and the Center and Clans sought peace, from which came the Clans’ autonomy and a healthy trade between the Center, the Clans, and the Outlands.”

“An interesting version of history,” Galen said. “I’m sure the Clans have their version.”

“What am I missing?” Meya asked.

“It wasn’t just resources like lumber, minerals, and grains . . . The Center was conscripting young men from the Clans. At first, with promises of good pay and adventure, and then by force.

“And, no one ‘sought peace’, as you put it. Leor and a faction of nobles somewhat forcibly pressured the Council to open negotiations. On the Clans’ side, ambitious men had to be persuaded to give up their dreams of glory and riches.”




“Not all by myself. Near the end, people were tired of fighting, and new leaders, moderate leaders, rose from the ranks. But, yes, I took it upon myself to clear a path for them.”

“How did the Center capture you?” Meya asked.

Galen looked at Meya; her eyes told him it was an honest question. She didn’t know. He looked away.

“I turned myself in.”

“What? Why?”

“When I said I paved the way for new leaders, I killed people with families. They were bad men in need of killing, but no one considers their family members evil. But more than that, people looked at me as a unifying figure. For the Clans to retain their individuality and independence, it was best if I left. For that matter, that’s also why Leor left the Center. Each side could then claim a fresh start and a new focus.”

 “Scapegoats,” Meya said, almost speaking to herself, reprocessing history she thought she knew.

“Only to a point . . . Leor led and fought for the Council, often brilliantly. I fought for the Clans, often brutally. During the last Winter campaign, we called a truce on the battlefield. It was a senseless meat-grinder that neither of us wanted, with men we considered family dying in service to ambition and greed.

“It helped that he’s my half-brother. At that meeting, we resolved to end The Strife by pushing our respective sides toward peace talks.

“As I said, people were ready and didn’t need much of a push. But, afterward, we were open wounds to our respective sides, and we had to go.

Meya was silent for a few moments and then whispered three words.

“The Winter campaign…”

Galen hesitated but felt compelled to say something.

“I’m sorry, Meya. They didn’t deserve to die. No one did.”

“Did you lose anyone?” she asked after a moment of silence.

“…someone very dear to me,” he softly answered.

Meya put her hand on Galen’s arm, unaware of what that did to Galen’s emotions.

Suddenly, Galen Stood and looked along the way they had come.

“Someone is approaching,” he said. “They’re stealthy, but not stealthy enough.”

“How do you know?” Meya asked as she stood, adjusting her weapons, making sure they hung properly.

“Do you hear anything?”

“No,” Meya replied.

“Birds and animals go quiet when men move in the forest.”

“Pack up and get the horses ready to move,” Galen said as he retrieved his fighting ax and small crossbow, hanging both on his belt. He also slung the leather quiver of quarrels over his head so that it hung across his chest.

“Where are you going?” Meya whispered.

“Scouting,” he said.

“Move the horses behind those boulders and wait there. Don’t engage anyone unless you have to, and keep your back to the boulders. As a last resort, ride away.”

“It doesn’t make sense to separate,” Meya said as she packed their utensils, but when she turned, Galen was gone.

After an unladylike utterance, she let the horses to the spot he indicated. She couldn’t see the road and hoped she was likewise shielded from anyone traveling on it. Her bigger worry was keeping the horses from making noise. They were well-trained, but one never knew about horses. 

Meya listened for any noise, but all she heard was silence . . until a voice behind her spoke.

“Hiding is the behavior of bandits,” a female voice said.

Meya turned slowly to face the speaker, her hand near her throwing knives.

The speaker was a younger woman dressed in cloth that would help her blend in the vegetation. A fighting ax hung from her belt, and a short sword was strapped to her back, but her hands were empty.

“So is sneaking up on people,” Meya replied as she scanned the surroundings for signs of the woman’s companions. It was unlikely she would be traveling alone.

“Where is your companion?” the woman asked Meya.

“Where are yours?” Meya replied.

“I’m not sure you’re in a position to ask questions,” the woman said.

Meya didn’t reply as two more individuals made themselves known. She guessed there might be a few more. Galen had told her that Clans’ scouting parties typically numbered four or five people, young but experienced.

“So, now what?” Meya finally asked.

“Now, we decide whether you’re a threat.”

“Funny,” Meya replied. “That’s exactly what I’m doing.”

“We have a conundrum, then,” the woman said.

“Not really,” Meya responded. “You could just leave and let us be.”

The woman did not respond, but the three people repositioned, effectively cutting off any avenue of retreat.

“I should let you know that once I feel I have no choice,” Meya said, “things will get messy, and I won’t stop.”

In answer, the woman raised a hand, and an arrow struck the ground in front of Meya, embedding itself in the soft dirt.

“Not too messy,” the woman replied.

She had just finished speaking when they heard the sound of a crossbow, and a quarrel embedded itself in the ground in front of the woman, no more than a hand span from the front of her shoes. The difference was that it had come through from behind her and between her legs.

A moment later, another quarrel, shot from a different spot, struck a tree to the group’s left, making the person hiding behind the tree jump out and into view.

Another quarrel struck another tree, and the group’s archer stepped out from behind it.

“Perhaps we can call a truce and talk,” Meya suggested.

The woman smiled.

“Well done,” she said. “My name is Ran of the Forest Clan. I accept the truce.”

“Ran,” the archer said as he looked around, “do you trust them?”

“They obviously could have killed us, so, yes,” she replied.

With that, Galen stepped into view and walked up to the group.

“Nice to meet you, Ran. My name is Galen, and this is Meya.”

“Are we to trust them?” Meya asked, still on edge from the confrontation.

“Don’t insult them, Meya. Nomads live by a code,” Galen said, “and their word can be trusted.”

“Waylaying travelers is a strange code,” Meya said, marginally relaxing.

“They’re just doing their job,” Galen said. “Keeping the Clan safe.

“Come, let’s share some food,” Galen added, pointing to the small clearing next to the road.


Leor and Serel entered the meeting tent and sat on the blankets opposite the four elders. Aden had brought them here and now stood at the entrance. Two other people moved a low table, placing it between Leor, Selene, and the elders, and then left. Cups and bread baskets were set upon it, and no one spoke until they sipped from the cups and shared some bread.

“On what grounds do you seek refuge?” one of the elders, a woman, finally asked.

“We seek refuge from them who would harm Serel,” Leor said.

“Who would bring harm to her?”

Leor hesitated. He recognized the woman. Her name was Kirsi. Originally of the Forest Clan, she must have married into the Marsh Clan and risen in rank. Or, perhaps, her husband had been one of the Marsh Clan’s leaders. But he wasn’t sure if she recognized him since their interactions had been few and many years ago.

The question also posed problems. In anticipation of this moment, he’d struggled with what answer he might offer. In the end, he opted to tell the truth.

“I fear The Council’s intentions toward her.”

One of the other elders spoke up.

“Would granting you refuge bring us into conflict with the Center?” he asked.

“It might,” Leor answered. He then added a calculated challenge. “But only if they would hear of it.”

A point of pride with the Nomads was the closeness of the Clans and those within them. People claiming refuge were often escaping injustice. Sometimes, they just wanted a fresh start. Nomad Clans were generous with their welcoming but brutal if they felt deceived. Putting the clan in danger by hiding crucial information was never a good idea, but trust had to flow both ways. 

“Is Serel your and Celena’s daughter?” Kirsi asked, point blank.

So, she did remember.


“There are two people, a man and a woman, said to be searching for you,” another elder said. “Rumor is they are from the Center. The female might be, but the man is a different matter.”

Leor said nothing, worried about the next words to be spoken.

“That man,” Kirsi said, “is The Bloodhound. That puts us in a quandary.”

“Because he’s a hero of the Clans,” Leor added. “You should know, he no longer claims that name and prefers his given name of Galen.”

“Be that as it may, granting you refuge creates what appears to be an unresolvable conflict.”

“We’ll take our leave, then,” Leor said, trusting the clan to abide by the terms of temporary refuge. “We’ll journey to the mountains and seek refuge there.”

Kirsi ignored Leor and turned to Serel.

“Serel, daughter of Celena of the Marsh Clan, Queen of The Center and all its Provinces, what is it you desire?” she asked.

Serel looked at her father, but he kept his eyes forward. This was her answer to give.

“I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “I don’t know enough to understand my options or even see a path before me.”

“A wise child,” Kirsi said. “Perhaps even wiser than her father.”

The elders looked at each other and nodded, probably agreeing on something they had already discussed. Then Kirsi spoke for them.

“We’ll provide refuge with one condition, that you meet with Galen,” Kirsi said. “I understand your desire for caution, but ignorance paves the way for misunderstanding. Perhaps you’ve forgotten the meeting of the Winter Campaign, but we learned the lesson; communication is the key.”

“I have a condition of my own,” Leor said, “that no harm comes to Serel, and should the meeting not be fruitful, we’ll be allowed to leave unharmed and given a head start.”

“You appear to have forgotten much, Leor, so we’ll ignore the implied insult. You have safe passage and are not a prisoner here. If you desire, you are both free to leave.”

“My apologies,” Leor said. “Concern for my daughter clouds my judgment, and I meant no disrespect.”

Kirsi considered Leor for a moment, then gave a slight bow of the head, signifying acceptance of the apology, and with that, the elders rose.

“We’ll provide you with a tent,” Kirsi said. “You’ll find your gear there, and we’ll tend to your horses. In the morning, per the provisions of refuge, we’ll discuss your duties until a meeting with Galen is arranged.”

With that, they streamed out of the tent, but Kirsi stopped just before exiting.

“Aden should have warned you, but it bears repeating. The fewer who know of your status, the better,” she said. She looked at them for a moment, then, after a nod to Aden, she left.

Once in their tent, Leor turned to Serel.

“You have many questions,” he said. “I’ll do my best to answer them.”

They sat on their respective blankets, and Serel tried to prioritize all the questions that flooded her mind. In the end, the first one was the most obvious.

“Tell me about my mother,” she said. “About how you met and her life before I was born.”

Leor’s features softened as he started speaking of treasured memories.

“We met during the trade negotiations. Celena and five others, two from each clan, regularly traveled to the Center and back to their respective clans. I had guaranteed their safety, and my hand-picked men provided security for their travels and during their stay. On one of the trips, we got caught in a freak snowstorm, causing us to hunker down for nearly ten days. I’d sent riders back to the Clans and ahead to the Center, letting them know of our delays, which left us short-handed.

“I filled in some of the protection duties since we were short-staffed, and one evening, after we resumed traveling and had camped for the night, Celena’s horse was spooked by something and ran off. She hoped it would return in the morning, but when it was time to leave, and it hadn’t returned, she insisted on looking for it.

“I decided for the group to continue, and I would accompany her in the search. We tracked it and realized it had met with a small group of travelers and had been taken. Based on the campsites they left, they weren’t Nomads; when we caught up with them, we realized they were slavers.

“Four men, leading three women and two young boys, tied with ropes in single file. Enraged, and before I could stop her, she charged into them. I was right on her heels, but it was all her. I killed one, and she took care of the other three. We then detoured to return the captives to their homes, much to the rejoicing of their hamlet.

“They assumed we were a couple and put us up for the night in a single guest room in one of the houses.”

Leor looked at Serel before continuing.

“And, no, nothing happened. We didn’t sleep much, but that’s because we talked. We talked about all sorts of things. We kept talking for the entire time it took us to arrive at the Center.

“That’s where I met Eldon of the Forest clan, her intended by arranged marriage. Concerned for her safety, he had ridden hard and arrived at the Center ahead of us. I was devastated but said nothing and bowed out.”

“Arranged marriage?” Serel asked.

“The Clans have a pretty simple mechanism for keeping the peace between them; they marry across the clans. Not every marriage, of course, but enough. Sometimes, the heads of clans will arrange marriages. The couples still have to consent, but they rarely object. Both sets of parents usually agree upon the unions, and most betrothed are a good match.

“But not mother and Eldon?” Serel asked.

“By all accounts, they got along, but it was early in the courtship, and while Eldon was certain about his feelings, it turned out Celena had spent more time with me than she had with Eldon.”

“You make it sound as if it’s just a matter of spending time together,” Serel said.

“What do you think it should be about?” Leor asked.

“The person,” she replied. “Knowing what they’re like, their feelings about things, their wants, and desires.”

“. . . and how would one go about finding out those things?” Leor asked. 

Serel hesitated and then smiled. “Spending time together,” she said, still smiling.

“There’s also a bond that forms when sharing memorable moments.”

“The rescue.”

“Yes, and there was another thing we shared,” Leor said. “By then, most people were weary of the war. While most wanted it to end and return to normal life, some wanted to go further. They wanted a change of environment.”

“So, how did you get together?”

“Once all the agreements were signed, I found I had no place at the Center. I was a bit of a problem for the Council. So was my little band. We were an open wound for them since we pressured them into talks, often with not-so-veiled threats. Fine when it came to getting things going, but we had no place in the power structure. An open government can’t afford independent enforcers; enforcers not beholding to anyone. A government works best with internal checks and balances.”

“I don’t agree,” Serel said. “It sounds as if your group is exactly what’s needed to make sure mistakes aren’t repeated.”

“No,” Leor said. “Power corrupts, and especially power backed by force.”

“You’re not corrupt!”

“We’re not talking individuals; we’re talking institutions. My group would not be able to function as you envision because we would constantly be consulted by people seeking our approval. Whether we wanted to or not, we would have become a shadow government.

“You can’t have people govern themselves if they’re afraid of an outside source. They might make mistakes if left alone, but they are their mistakes to correct.”

“That’s not what happened in The Strife.”

“That’s exactly what happened in The Strife. The correction came from within. Anything imposed from the outside can’t last.”

Serel, unconvinced, but got back to the main interest.

“So, what happened with mother?”

“I left the Center in the Spring, along with my band of friends. We found a suitable homestead at the edge of the Outland and established a little hamlet centered around the Tavern, catering to travelers and dabbling in a bit of trade.

“It was just before the next Winter that Celena showed up. She had left the Marsh Clan without knowing how I felt about her but wanting to find out, and the rest is history.”

They fell silent for a while, each lost in their thoughts.

“What do you think will happen?” Serel finally asked.

“I don’t know,” he answered. “Galen is my half-brother, and while we might have fought on opposite sides, we’d never had animosity toward each other.

“There is much we don’t know, and the best we can do right now is to wait and see what we can learn.”


Galen, Meya, Ran, and the rest sat in a circle, a small blanket spread between them. On it, bread, cheese, and dried meats were spread out for the group to pick at. A couple of flasks were passed around as needed.

Ran had been watching Galen and Meya as the group made small talk.

“Have you reached a decision?” Galen asked without looking up.

Meya looked around. “Who are you talking to?” she asked.

“Ran,” Galen replied as he tore a piece of bread from the remaining loaf. “He’s trying to decide something about us.”

Galen split the bread he had in two and offered half to Meya.

“I don’t think they’re on patrol,” Galen said. “I think they were looking for us.”

Ran laughed.

“Your reputation is well-deserved,” he said.

“What do you know about me?”

“Only what I’ve been recently told,” Ran replied.

“I suspect I will be reprimanded for putting my comrades in danger, so I would appreciate not mentioning our little confrontation,” he continued.

“How did you know I wouldn’t kill you outright?” Galen said.

“We’ve been tracking you for a while and spoken to people you’ve met along the way,” Ran said. “Plus, we’ve been watching you for a few days.”

“Oh? And what has that told you?”

Ran pointed to Meya. “You care about her and wouldn’t put her in danger.”

“What?” Meya asked, almost choking on her food.

“Ah,” Ran said. “You don’t know.”

Galen said nothing, but a look from him had Ran backtrack.

“Sorry, I’m speaking out of turn. The point is, you must have known who we were, or you wouldn’t have left her alone to draw us out.”

Meya looked at Galen in shock. “You used me as bait!?”

Ran ignored Meya’s protestations and leaned forward.

“Tell me, when did you figure out who we were?”

The question hung there for a moment while Galen finished his bread.

“Last night. I came to your camp to see who was following us,” Galen said.

“Impressive,” Ran said.

“I didn’t hear or see anything!” one of the men said. “I know I didn’t fall asleep. When was this?”

“When you checked on the horses,” Galen said.

“Perhaps we need two sentries per night,” Ran said.

“So, why are you looking for us?” Galen asked.

“Because you’re looking for Leor and Serel.”

Galen subtly shifted his position, as did Meya, but Ran held up his hand, turning serious.

“Easy! Let me explain,” he said. “They are with the Marsh Clan, but their presence, and yours, leave the Clans in a bind.”

“They asked for refuge, which was provisionally granted, but you don’t want to go against me, the Center, nor the Council,” Galen said.

“It’s more than that,” Ran said in a much more serious tone.

“Having the Queen of The Center and all its Provinces in our midst makes us targets.”

A silence fell on the group.

“How many know?” Meya finally asked.

“Not many, but the longer this goes, the harder it will be to contain and control,” Ran said. “I know because I’m supposed to bring you back for a meeting.”

“A meeting—” Meya said.

“A meeting between old friends. Friends and half-brothers,” Ran said. “The Clans want this matter resolved before things get out of hand.”

“What’s the expectation?” Meya asked.

“That’s not my place to say, but something is needed because no one wants to rekindle what was put to rest twenty years ago.”

Galen stood and wiped the crumbs from his shirt.

“We best get going, then,” he said.

By evening, they were out of the forest and at the edge of the plains, a grassy vista opening up before them. A good place to make camp, and Galen took the second watch.

Near dawn, he heard Meya approach and steadied himself for what might be.

She settled next to him without saying a word, and they sat in silence for a while.

“Is there something I should know?” she finally asked.

Galen said nothing.

“What did Ran mean when he said you cared about me?” she pushed. “What does he see that I don’t?”

Galen sighed.

“What’s the answer you want to hear, Meya?”

“I don’t know… I just want to understand.”

Again, Galen sat silent.

Without a word, Meya made to get up but sat back down as Galen spoke.

“I don’t know when I first became aware of it,” Galen said. “You and your brother grew up at the palace, as I did, and it was natural to have you around. First, as the sister I didn’t have, then as one of my few friends, and then it seemed more, but things were already going wrong. I don’t remember my father, but I remember my step-father, Leor’s father. He was ambitious, drove events, and forced decisions I disagreed with. Dissenting became dangerous, and following a threat of prison, I left. It was one of the hardest decisions of my life.”

“I remember the shock I felt when it was reported you fought for the Clans,” Meya said. “It felt as much a personal betrayal as anything I’d ever felt.

“Then, having my father and brother die in the Winter campaign and learning you led the rebels… that hurt me twice over.”

“Especially them, but not just them, is what pushed Leor and me to meet,” Galen said. “Watching friends die and knowing we were both partly responsible is what gave us the resolve to end it.”

“You said you lost someone very dear… who was it?”

Galen stood, looking toward the breaking dawn. Finally, he answered.

“You, Meya. I lost you,” he said and walked away toward the camp.

Meya made to follow but then sat back down, emotions addling her ability to think clearly. 

Old feelings came back, swirled, and blended with more recent feelings, leaving her with a jumbled and confusing mess.

Galen cared for her? And not just as a friend, but perhaps more? How much more? How did she feel about that? Her father and brother had died fighting against men led by Galen. At one point, she had sworn to one day kill him. 

She remembered Ronek casually commenting about Galen’s role in bringing about peace. She also remembered gentle prodding about how she felt about Galen. Did Ronek know of Galen’s feelings for her?

A part of her was angry for being treated as a fool. No, not as a fool, but as a child. A child not to be trusted with complex and difficult things.

And yet . . . And yet, that is exactly what she craved. Simplicity. Clarity. Certainty. She was drawn to her role as a Clipper in part to exact judgment and punishment for clear violations of the rules, just now realizing she seldom considered the circumstances. Break the law, get judged, get clipped; clean, simple, direct, and no consideration for extenuating circumstances.

She wondered if that was one of the reasons people hated Clippers.

She stood, the morning sun’s first rays touching her forehead but offering no clarity, and she now regretted broaching the subject with Galen. 

And why was Galen so reluctant to express his feelings to her? He still hadn’t said exactly how he felt about her. He seemed as if he cared deeply but spoke of it as something that was, but is no more.

All good questions she could also ask of herself. How exactly did she feel about Galen? All these unanswered questions promised the remainder of their travels would be uncomfortable, unspoken things hanging between them.

The Meeting

The encampment was a collection of wagons and tents arranged based on the terrain. Temporary enclosures housed horses, oxen, herd animals, and poultry, presumably supplementing hunting harvests.

As they rode in, Meya noticed people stopping what they were doing and standing to watch them pass. Many fell in behind the group, following them to the main tent.

Meya recognized Leor and Serel from afar, part of a group waiting for them next to a larger tent. The tension was palpable, but the initial encounter was anticlimactic. Leor and Galen stood face to face for a few moments, clasped forearms, and then Leor waited as the elders greeted Galen.

A few appeared to know him, and it was clear that, for them, it was an honor to meet him, regardless of which Clan they represented. Lastly, Galen stood before Serel, bowed, turned, and stood waiting.

The elders then led the group inside the tent. Once the meeting tables had been arranged, people not part of the meeting left.

Leor and Serel sat opposite Galen and Meya. Elders of the three clans sat at the ends of the table, and Aden, Ran, and a few other scouts sat at a separate table. The rest of the scouts were stationed outside, keeping anyone from approaching the tent.

Serel spoke first, asking Meya how she had fared upon her return to the Center.

“I only took half of your advice to heart,” Meya said. Addressing Leor, she continued. “As you had predicted, some information preceded me to the Center, and the council held me in contempt for withholding some of what I knew. I was demoted and sentenced to the Tower.”

“I gather Galen prevailed on Ronek to amend your sentence?” Leor asked and immediately noticed Meya’s discomfort at the question.

“Which brings us to the point of this meeting,” he quickly pivoted, sensitive to her discomfort. He turned to address Galen.

“I’m surprised Ronek was able to enlist your help,” Leor said, “and I’m anxious to hear of her intentions.”

Galen nodded to each end of the table and addressed the Clans’ elders.

“Ronek extends her gratitude to the Clans, both for your discretion and assistance,” he said, surprising Leor, Serel, and Meya.

Galen turned to face Serel and answered by speaking to her directly.

“The Council officially recognizes Serel as the rightful Queen,” he said. “I offer my bond and protection to ensure the Queen’s safe return to the Center so that she might take her rightful place on the throne.”

The statement stunned the people present, and no one spoke until Serel broke the silence. Her words surprised even Leor, indicating a maturity that, while hinted at, had never before been on display.

“I was led to believe Ronek aspired to ascend to the throne. If that is the case, I will step into the role of Queen with a target painted on my back,” Serel said.

Galen didn’t hesitate in his response.

“Ronek is interested in remaining Regent of The Center and Speaker of the Council of Regents. As for your safety, it was her desire that I oversee it.”

“So, a figurehead, while she controls things behind the scenes.”

Galen looked at the other, hesitating.

“I am to speak privately with you regarding such matters.”

Serel looked at Leor and Meya, then addressed Galen.

“Anything you have to say to me can be said in front of them,” she said.

Galen looked at Leor and then Meya.

“Forgive me, but this I cannot do. This is a decision that only Queen Serel can make, and the information I have is for her alone,” he said, and then raised his hand, interrupting both Leor and Meya from speaking before continuing.

“I am allowed to say that, should Queen Serel decline to return with me, I am to stay with her and ensure her safety. In that case, I would strongly suggest moving to the mountains. But the rest is not negotiable. It’s the Queen’s decision to make.”

Leor studied Galen, the two holding each other’s gaze without speaking for what seemed an interminable time to those present. Leor then looked at Serel, nodded, and stood.

Addressing the others, he pointed to the exit.

“We’ll be outside,” he said, “making sure there are no eavesdroppers.”

Leor held the flap open as everyone exited the tent, then glanced one last time at Galen and Serel sitting across from each other and left.

Outside, Leor stood by the entrance and asked Meya to check the back of the tent. Satisfied, along with the scouts, they took up positions out of earshot, allowing them to monitor anyone who tried to approach the tent.

The elders nodded in approval and then motioned for Leor to join them. They spoke briefly and then left as Leor walked back to Meya.

“What’s going on?” she asked. “What am I missing?”

“Something is rotten somewhere, and Ronek is trying to head it off,” Leor replied.

“Head what off?”

“If I were to make an educated guess, another war, and perhaps more,” Leor replied

“I don’t understand why we cannot be trusted. If not me, certainly you, as her father.”

“Especially me,” Leor said. “It’s not a matter of trust. I’m too biased to make a rational decision based on the greater good. My decisions would be tainted by my concern for her, as they’ve already been.”

“But Serel—”

“Serel is old enough to decide for herself, and I suspect Ronek doesn’t want someone who isn’t capable of such decisions, and this is a test. She either is the person Ronek hopes her to be, or it ends here.

“If Serel asks for advice, I’ll give it,” Leor added, “but for her decision to mean anything, it must be hers to make and live with.

Meya tried to imagine herself in Serel’s shoes. Would she want someone to decide for her or try to sway her? Probably not.

“How’s your relationship with Galen?” Leor asked, changing the subject.

“What relationship?” she asked.

“Sorry,” Leor said. “Traveling together, I thought—”

“What does everyone seems to know and that I’m missing? When I try to talk to him about it, it sounds like something that was, with no chance of being again.”

Leor looked at her and realized she was seriously asking.

“I thought you knew,” Leor said. “I only found out during the Winter campaign, but I thought you knew from before.”

Leor’s voice got soft, and his gaze seemed to turn inward, and Meya realized he still carried the emotional scars of The Strife.

“It was the second month of the Winter Campaign when I got word of someone approaching under the flag of truce. It was Galen, riding an ox-driven cart. He sat without moving, surrounded by my men, and said nothing until I arrived. ‘Look at what we’ve done,’ he said. In the cart were your father, brother, and two other of our childhood friends. He’d found them after we’d retreated.

“We just looked at each other and… well, you know the rest, but I remember the second thing he said. ‘I’ve lost her,’ he said. He meant you,”

“But… but we were never more than friends,” Meya said.

Leor smiled a sad smile.

“He was always reserved, always kept things to himself; in that, he hasn’t changed,” Leor said. “But, let me tell you something you’ve probably forgotten. Remember when we were nine or ten, exchanging tokens of friendship?  Do you remember what you gave him?”

“I’d forgotten about that,” Meya answered. “I gave him… I gave him a clipping of my hair.”

“There’s a locket he carries—” Leor said but didn’t finish because Serel and Galen came out of the tent and walked toward them.

Galen was as impassive as ever, but Serel looked more serious and mature. Even before she spoke, Leor knew what Serel had decided.

“We leave for the Center in two days,” she said.


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