The Flight of the Court Dancer
The roar of those calling for her blood as she fled through the castle gates was deafening. She ran blindly through the Castletown, hiking up her skirts and hoping to Lord Kass that there would be no town guard to bar her way.
It felt like not very long at all before her breath would not come, before she was standing alone and quiet on the dirt road path she’d came from. She couldn’t stop the shake of her shoulders, and the humiliation and terror burning in her ears. Her mother, much less Lord Kass, would not be pleased with her failure.
She had bought their army precious time to march across Meridell fields unchecked, but how long would it take for Meridell to undone all of that? How long until her dance’s work was undone? A fornight? Perhaps even less?
She shook her head as she lumbered off the path, towards the forest. No, the Darigan army was strong. Meridell stood not a chance against them with Lord Kass at the helm, along with her mother. They would succeed. They had to.
She stared up at the tiny splotch of land floating in the distance, the Darigan army looked smaller than Petpetpets as they surged towards Meridell castle, bigger than them all, bigger than the Citadel.
She turned away, ignoring the shudder of her heart and the dread in her bones as she marched into the dark forest.
She later found that she could not even take joy in her country’s success. The fields of Meridell were ruined, set ablaze or simply tramped afoot, and as she drifted through it aimlessly, her heart clenched.
Although perhaps that was simply her stomach. She hadn’t eaten since her flight from Meridell Castle, perhaps longer. The fields were picked clean too, any speck of food had already been scavenged. There was not even a blade of wheat for her to eat.
The ruined Meridell fields stretched out as far as the eye could see, and it was all black and ash, ruin and smoke.
“Oh dear! Honey, are you alright?”
She scarcely had the energy to blink. Her throat was so gummed up and dry it was likely by Lord Kass’ blessing that she still drew breath. She quivered and then slumped, spent. The hunger in her stomach had turned into an all-encompassing static that enveloped her whole, and she felt so frail that perhaps the weak Meridell breeze would do her in.
“Oh faeries above! She’s still alive! Rowan! Go fetch her some Kau milk, the dearie needs it!”
“Ma are ya sure--”
“Rowan! Listen here! You go get that milk, or so help me Queen Fyora!”
There were no faeries above. There was only the ruined Citadel, and she did not have that to thank for her survival.
She wondered if her mother questioned what became of her. Did she think her dead? Had she sent a platoon to find her?
…Had her mother thought of her at all beyond her role in her terrible scheme?
The lip of a bottle and cold relief pouring down her throat stops that terrible thought. She stirred, trying to open her eyes and sit up, but her muscles spasmed with the effort, and she spluttered. Strong warm hands steadied her, and tipped the bottle back to her lips.
“Down dearie! You need rest. You’re much too weak to be doing anything on your own. Lucky we found you when you did! You would have been as done as a hot crossed bun if one of those nasties had found you instead!”
She spluttered again, and her throat was hot—why was it hot?—and suddenly there were tears streaming down her cheeks, and she is sobbing brokenly, pathetically.
“Oh honey, don’t you worry. You’re going to be just fine.” Her savior said soothingly, and she could feel their paw tracing small circles on her back.
Her mother came to mine. Would she have comforted her if—when—she made it home? Would she hold her close and whisper such sweet nothings as she cried?
She didn’t have an answer to that, and the revelation makes her cry harder as another voice calls out into the growing dark of her mind, “Ma, she alright? Actin’ stranger than a hungry Whinny.”
She came to in a bed made of hay and maize, staring up at a wooden ceiling rotted with holes. There was a wet rag on her forehead and her head pounded as though the entirety of the Citadel had fallen on it. Where was she…?
“Oh thank the faeries! You’re awake!”
With momentous effort, she turned her head towards her savior, a stout looking purple Blumaroo who beamed at her proudly.
“You’ve been right out for a good couple of days now, dearie!” The Blumaroo explained as she took the rag resting on her head and dunked it in a bucket of water, squeezing out the excess on her forehead. She sighed contently as the Blumaroo continued, “Me and my dear sweet Rowan were so worried!”
The Blumaroo folded the rag back on her forehead before twisting around, nodding at something unseen. Someone new, a solemn looking Green Ixi—Rowan, if she had any guess—emerged from the shadows, holding a raggedly looking bag full of peas with a chipped wooden spoon.
“Now eat up, dearie! Don’t eat too fast now, wouldn’t want a mess. Oh dear you probably want to sit up and eat, don’t you? Rowan, would you be a dear? Oh pardon me, lemme getcha something to drink.” The Blumaroo babbled as she left the room, oblivious to her son’s thinly veiled look of misgiving as he fed her. His lip curled.
She was left alone with the Ixi, who obediently moves her into a sitting position, before spooning her peas, albeit slightly too quickly. He was watching her with a gaze that she did not like. Too wise. Too knowing, for one so young. It reminded her terribly of that little girl in Meridell Castle, the one who had seen her for who she truly was…
“Is somethin’ wrong, miss?” Rowan asked neutrally, still staring at her blankly.
She wipes the scowl off her face. It would not do to think of that little Aisha now. What was done was done. She very well couldn’t go back in time and erase the twerp that was for sure. She shook her head and said softly, “No I’m quite alright. Here, you don’t need to spoon feed me. I think I am well enough to manage now.”
The Ixi continued to spoon feed her, as though she hadn’t spoken. She allowed it, if only because she was unsure of how he would react if she repeated herself.
And perhaps she had not yet regained her strength proper.
“You fleein’ or somethin’?”
She looked at him blankly, before what he said finally clicked. “Ah…yes. From the…Darigan forces.” The Ixi said nothing to this, so she added on, “They are closing in, are they not? Let us hope that we…prevail.”
“Yer fleein’ the wrong way then. Everybody’s up and runnin’ towards the castle, not away from it.”
The Ixi stopped feeding her, giving her a considering look. She was frozen, stiff. The Ixi was perhaps only a peasant, but she had not regained her strength, and she was a dancer, not a fighter. If he wanted, he could very much march her back to Meridell Castle, no matter how much she struggled, there would be nothing she could do to stop him.
Her breath came quick and sudden, then.
The Ixi sighed, shaking his head, before he resumed feeding her. “Now it ain’t my business, and ma always told me not to pry. And it’s a war out there, there’s gotta be some fellas who gotta dirt that won’t stay buried, especially with those demons making a real mess out there.”
Her heart ached. Demons. He called her kind demons.
The Ixi was oblivious to her pain, and he continued, “So keep yer secrets, I guess. But don’t be getting’ me and my ma mixed up in it. We already lost my da, and ma won’t say it but she’s hurtin’ real bad.”
She felt nauseous, and she did not think it was due to the peas. Did Lord Kass know…? Did he know what suffering he was causing?
…Did her mother? Did anyone in the Citadel realize?
Rowan was still talking. “—so I don’t mean to get all nasty like, but once you’re feeling up and ready to go, ya better hit the road, ya hear? Tell ya got…family or something up aways. She’ll want ya to come, by doggitedly she’ll want ya to come, since I…never got a sis and she never gon got a daughter.”
She nodded because she didn’t want to hear anymore, her heart was clenched so tight it felt fit to burst.
The Ixi nodded jerkily in response, before he withdrew the spoon and neatly tied up the sack of peas, leaving it at the foot of her bed. “Now I ain’t gonna leave ya to starve. That’s yer supply pack. Use it as ya see fit.”
The Ixi left without another word, and it was not long after that his mother came in to fuss over her, handing her a bottle of milk, “Fresh from ol’ Betsy,” The Blumaroo said fondly as she corked the bottle tightly, handing her a sash so she could tie the bottle to her waist.
The warm look that the Blumaroo was giving her made her chest hurt, and yet her voice was surprisingly level as she made her excuses—not daring to mention the words exchanged between her and the Blumaroo’s son, Rowan—and it did not feel too awkward to give the Blumaroo a farewell hug.
Her two saviours saw her off—Rowan did not wave to her, and his mother gave him a cuff to the head as she waved vigorously—and she waved too, a quick thing, for she did not want to overstep her boundaries, before she disappeared into the forest, her pea sack slung over one shoulder.
She did not get to walk far.
A mottled yellow Pteri slipped out from the trees, giving her an onceover and then a sneer. “Mmhmm-mor-morg-uuuusss…shhh-shhhe issssss d—d-disa-ah-ppointed…” It rasped, not bothering to hide its disgust as it offered its back, and she did not doubt it would be a long and awkward ride back to the Citadel.
Her mother was disappointed. She supposed she had every reason to be. But was she—?
She shook her head again and said nothing, obediently climbing on, tossing the sack of peas to the Pteri, who cackled as it swallowed the bag whole. She kept the milk bottle hidden under her skirts, and it was only as the Pteri lifted off into the sky did she cast one woeful look of longing back at the ruined Meridell fields.