“I think I want to see the capital too” she added with a smile too sweet for his taste “you won’t mind if I go with you, right?”
Bran blinked his eyes and said in a stupid voice:
“Uh? What? Why?”
Elea pulled away from him and said:
“Of course I’ll want to see the world too. You know, I’ve never went farther than Faebwin.”
He arched one of his eyebrows. It was not that surprising. She was a noble’s only child. Of course she wouldn’t have the freedom to move wherever she wants, which was something he definitively could use against her.
“Isn’t it dangerous? What if something happens to you?” He forcefully added “travelling out there isn’t as safe as you think” Especially if you’re with me, he added in his mind.
She looked at him suspiciously, her eyes squinting hard at him.
“Why are you so adamant about me going? Nothing can ever happen to me with Celek there.”
Damned be the gods. He had forgotten that. She got closer to him again, and peered into his eyes:
“Are you going to meet someone there whom you don’t want me to see?”
She took the reflexive slight widening of his eyes as confirmation. With a slightly trembling voice, an angry look in her eyes, she whispered in a barely audible voice:
“Is it a girl…?”
He sighed. He couldn’t know if she was acting or genuinely annoyed at the moment. One thing he was sure about was that she was always able to control him easily.
“It’s not a girl”
She wrapped her hands around his and said:
“Then why? Why don’t you want me to go with you?” she pursed her lips, waiting for his response, and after noticing his lack of it, she added with a downcast look: “Why do you never share anything about you?”
In order to protect you, and to make our separation easier, he answered in his mind. He remained silent though. She looked at him again, put her arms behind her, and took some steps back. Her barely audible voice could still reach his ears:
“Why do you never trust me?”
He opened his mouth, and closed it again. He didn’t know if she was acting or not. She slowly turned, and with wobbly first steps, started leaving.
His hand caught her. Words, all his consciousness wanted to stuff into his throat, started spilling from his throat:
“Elea stop! You can come with us.” He took a shaky breath, trying to calm himself, and chose his words carefully as he said: “I can’t tell you what all this is about right now, but I will definitively tell you once I’m ready to”
She turned again toward him, a smile slowly blossoming on her face. He really couldn’t tell if all of that was an act. She lightly kissed his cheek, and he didn’t put any resistance. No use crying over spilled milk, it was time to move from here.
“I’ll need to get horses first before going”
She immediately averted her gaze, trying not to meet his eyes. He understood thanks to experience: trouble was coming.
“You see… First I want you to ask my lord father to let me go with you…”
The palm of his hand found its way to his face. How couldn’t he think of that? Her kiss had messed up with his mind, which must be why. Couldn’t he have used her father as argument to stop her from going? He cursed his stupidity. Now he had to deal with the lord. He felt a headache coming. This family was very troublesome.
“Why can’t you ask him yourself?”
She looked at him again and showed a sweet smile. Her answer came almost cheerful:
“I don’t know why, but he likes you too much, and always listens to you. He’ll easily accept if you ask” she added with a wink “want to bet on it?”
Bran sighed. The matter was more complicated than that. He could hope her father would refuse. He said in a defeated voice:
He started walking out of the dead alley. Before stopping and looking around him. He could only see red walls. He turned toward her, and with a wave of his hand, he told her to lead the way.
As she bypassed him, her hand found her way into his, and her fingers intertwined with his. The earlier kiss had made him too weary to try resisting. As she traced her footsteps in the alleys, he remembered the fated day when she had just suddenly faced him and confessed her love to him. He stifled a chuckle, thinking about that time. She looked at him questioningly, but shrugged it off after Bran shook his head.
At that time, he wasn’t prepared to love or care about anyone. Other gloomier things were taking up his mind. He looked up at the blue sky. His thoughts of then were almost like what he was feeling now.
He really couldn’t let her come with him.
They soon left the alley. Bran was greeted by the buzzing of people. Their number had increased, compared to earlier in the morning. As Elea guided him toward the east of the Bourg, he could feel the glare of some young men on his back. Terrowin was, unlike other cities, a place where the rich and the commoner were the closest in status, with some minor differences between them.
All rich young men coveted Eleanor, as she was an easy way to nobility. Bran, to them, was no more than a dog’s shit that the lord weirdly dotes on.
He felt Elea tightening her grip on his hand.
They soon made it to the lord’s manor. It was mostly made from the same red stones as all buildings in the Bourg. Occupying a large perimeter compared to everything else in Terrowin, it was a three stories high house, which was pretty small, compared to other houses. Lands’ prices were rising, and commoners, not able to afford a large land, built houses five stories tall.
The roof that was slightly inclined downward in both sides was entirely made of white tiles, which were very rare and expensive in this place. They were a mixture of white marble treated with magic and dough sliver, adding shine to it. The nearby houses were all clustered together, giving the manor some space. He could see small gardens and a stable at the back of the house.
It was underwhelming, for a noble’s house, in Bran’s eyes. Most nobles were very extravagant in proclaiming their status and superiority in everything of theirs. Lord Terrin wasn’t the type to squander money on trivialities though.
Elea led him forward. Some gardeners and servants greeted them. He only gave them a simple nod back. Contrarily, she greeted each of them by name, a warm look in her eyes. She lightly tugged his hand and whispered in his ear:
“Next time you come here, if you don’t want me to kiss you here openly, you should start greeting them properly”
Her tongue furtively licked the corner of his ear. He flinched, and looked around. Quite a few servants were smirking, looking at them. He could see a minority glaring at him. He didn’t care.
An old man dressed in a loose white robe came out to greet them. His mouth, framed by a grey beard, smiled as his gaze settled on Eleanor. As he looked at Bran in turn, his face became an impassive mask, but his eyes betrayed a hint of suspicion. He must have thought he was betraying no emotion, but Bran was the best one in the Bourg in reading emotions. He slightly bowed.
He simply nodded toward Bran. Elea smiled toward him:
“I want to talk to lord father. Lead us there”
“No can do. The lord is working now, and wouldn’t welcome anyone outside the family right now. Those were his direct orders”
She frowned, looking at him. She couldn’t go against her father’s orders. Bran struggled to hide his happiness. As long as they wouldn’t meet her father, she wouldn’t be able to come with him. He would only have to tell her he was in a rush, and she would be stuck here. Elea looked back at the old man, and said in a forceful manner:
“Bran is already part of the family. Soon he will be my wife”
The old man stifled a laugh, and his eyes betrayed his amusement. Bran flinched, and turned to glare at Elea. He understood now. She must have been the origin of the weird rumors about him. He hoped such rumors would never reach Celek. The man would definitively keep laughing at him till the end of time. The girl showed a sweet, very sweet smile, which slowly morphed into a predator smile. His instinct kicked in. He knew that smile. She was considering kissing him right there.
He tried to get a bit farther of her, but her hand grasping his didn’t let him. He had to escape. He couldn’t suffer anymore humiliation. The old man, as if noticing something too, said:
“No can do. He is still not part of the family. The lord’s orders are absolu—“
A steel hand settled on his shoulder. The old man turned to look behind his back, and bowed his head in respect. A man covered in steel armor but the head came in view. In his free hand, he carried a steel helmet. His face seemed sculpted from marble. A slightly crooked nose, cold hard black eyes and dark black curly hair. He seemed in his forties. His tall stature made him tower over all of them.
“Hadrin! Tell him Bran can come too”
The knight looked at her and Bran then ushered them to come. The old man looked at them in confusion, and cried out:
“But the lord’s orders are c—“
Sir Hadrin cold voice interrupted him:
“From now on, you would let this young man meet the lord without the need of any appointment, no matter the time. He is free to come and go as he pleases in the manor. He would have the same respect you would give to an honorary guest. Those are the lord’s new orders”
The old man still looked unconvinced, but he still complied, bowing deeply and taking his leave. Elea looked at them confused. It was very unlikely for her father to do that, even for a fellow noble. She shrugged it off. She was thankful enough that Bran would go with her, and she knew when the time was right for asking questions. She sent him a very sweet, a way too sweet smile. He gritted his teeth. Yes, she would only ask questions in the right times. He cursed his body and mind for being so easily affected by her.
As the knight led them into the main hall, he never said a single word, nor looked at them. Elea glanced at him, and said:
“Hadrin, when did you come back? I thought father sent you some important matter”
The knight glanced at her, and after a little hesitation, he said in his cold voice:
“The matter was already resolved. I had an important report to the lord, so I came back earlier than expected”
Bran looked at them in turn. The rules here were quite lax. Was it alright to tell her that? She was the lord’s daughter, right, but she was just slightly older than fifteen. She had to start being initiated in the matters of land managing and proper etiquette, and should stay away from really important matter. He sighed. In this house, they did everything in backward manner.
Elea was looking at him. As he tilted his head questioningly, she looked at the knight and said:
“Was that order earlier about Bran real? I can’t remember lord father doing that to anyone before”
“It is real. He saw you from the window, and interrupted me in my report just to relay that order”
“Well, lord father was always acting weirdly toward Bran. And Bran is Celek’s disciple; of course he would be treated with the utmost respect. And… “A light red covered her face and neck “And he would be my wife soon…”
Sir Hadrin turned and looked at Elea, and she squirmed under his gaze. Trying to joke with him was like trying to fill a pit of sand with water. The knight looked at Bran and said in his icy voice:
“Celek deserve the utmost respect. His real worth and strength can only be known by the greatest warriors in the world. But you wouldn’t get this much respect just because of that. Being his disciple doesn’t mean much” He looked at Bran’s green and blue colored eyes” Even being part of his family doesn’t mean much.”
Elea cocked her head.
“Are they family related? They don’t look the same at all!”
“Their eyes are slightly similar” was the knight’s curt answer.
Bran was starting to get annoyed. They were outright ignoring him.
They reached the main hall. Rows of tables stretched in a long line. The knight turned left. They both followed him. Bran knew where they were going. The lord’s study. The boy was quite stifled by their attitude. Couldn’t they just ask him and be done with it? True, he never told them anything, even if they asked, but he definitively hated being ignored this way.
The knight opened his mouth again:
“This young man is hiding too much. Why would someone of Celek’s strength settle in a desolate place like this land?”
Because this land is a desolate place, that was why. Bran smiled wryly. They reached the study. The knight knocked at the door, dropping the earlier conversation with Elea. A light voice responded, ushering them to enter. Bran reached out for the knob of the door. Before entering, he turned his face and said:
“Celek is my uncle”
He looked forward and entered the study, ignoring their surprised expressions.
The Lord looked a lot like his daughter, only his skin was white, as he didn’t need to do anything under sunlight. His eyes were a penetrating azure blue, and his hair was a fiery wavy mess. He looked just a slight bit gaunt, but he was good looking overall. He was rumored to be very handsome in his youth, but the death of his wife left him scarred, and he neglected his appearance. Bran clicked his tongue softly. If the result of such a neglecting was such a good looking man, just how handsome was he in his youth?
The lord smiled at them, and his smile got an unnoticeable bit wider as he looked at Elea’s and Bran’s fingers that had intertwined again.
“Hadrin, thank you. Bran, you can sit. Be at ease”
With his hand, he ushered Bran to sit on a chair. He looked at Elea, who naturally sat near the boy, and then motioned at the knight. Sir Hadrin immediately stood straighter and started:
“My lord, as I was saying earlier, there are some sightings of the southern tribes in the borders. I asked all the nearby villages, and there were no troops of the king passing to look into the borders”
“You mean that his majesty isn’t taking action?” The lord frowned, pondering “That should not possible. His majesty values this kingdom more than anything. He wouldn’t leave such matter unattended.”
Numerous thoughts swirled in Bran’s head. Was it really okay to let him hear such important talk? And the King… will he really do nothing? The southern tribes were known for their barbary acts. It would be disaster if they entered the kingdom. He looked at the girl sitting right next to him. She was staring at her father. He knew she was gobbling all the information she could. It was rare for her father to include her in such talks. The lord turned toward Bran.
“What is your take on all this, Bran?”
Bran could see the knight widening his eyes, and Elea’s head whipped around to stare at him. The lord almost never asked for someone’s opinion.
“I have no knowledge about these matters. Nonetheless, I think the king is planning something and will retaliate sooner or later”
The lord sighed in dejection. The knight expression returned to normal. Bran understood his answer and act were perfect. He must have looked like any country pumpkin trying to look intelligent. Good. He resented the lord though. Why was he asking him in front of them? He was as annoying as ever. Elea was still looking at him. Her eyes were full of suspicion.
“We’ll continue this matter later, Hadrin. What I’m curious about, is what Bran wants from me? You always avoid my home like a plague. I’m almost hurt”
The lord’s smile was bright, too bright. Bran always felt uneasy around him. Like father like daughter. This man knew too much about him. Else, he wouldn’t have allowed his relationship with his daughter. Bran sighed. The lord didn’t know all about him though. If he knew, he would have treated this love as the greatest disaster.
The boy looked at Elea. She was staring back at him. They remained silent for a moment, each waiting for the other to start. He could see the knight starting to frown in impatience. Elea smacked, then licked her lips. Bran’s body shuddered. He didn’t know what it exactly meant, but he knew it was a threat. And the kind of threat he was weak against. He gave in and said in a defeated voice:
“Celek and I are going to the capital. We’ll remain there for two months. Elea wants to come with us”
The girl glared at him. He outright grinned. He couldn’t cower from her forever. Was she expecting he’ll make it look like he was the one wanting her to be with him? The lord arched a brow at their fast exchange, and then shrugged it off. His voice came almost indifferent:
“She can go.” He shuffled some papers on his desk, glancing at them, and then continued “I had reports yesterday of masses of feral beasts running from the east. It isn’t safe outside cities anymore, so Hadrin will be going with you”
Elea panicked and started:
“But father, why –“
“My lord, may I speak?” the knight’s voice cut her off. The lord waved his hand encouragingly, and he continued “No matter how many beasts, Celek cannot be defeated, my lord. If something can kill him, then my presence there will be of no matter”
The girl looked at the knight and gave him a grateful nod. He showed a small smile. The lord seemed impressed. He turned to look back at Bran:
“Bran, do you think harm will touch my daughter in this trip?”
Bran acted as though he was hesitating, then putting an earnest expression on his face, he answered:
“To be really honest with you, this trip can be very dangerous.” Damned be the gods, he just spoke casually as though they were equals. Old habits don’t disappear easily. The lord didn’t seem to mind, so he forgot about it “Celek can be strong, but there are always unpredictable circumstances that one cannot control. I believe Elea would be safer if she remains here.” Pulling a firm and serious face, he added “I don’t want anything to happen to her”
Bran hoped the lord would understand the subtle meaning. Elea was glaring venom at him. Lord Terrin showed an amused smile and said:
“Actually, now I am more inclined to send her with you, as someone who worries about her as much as you will definitively keep her safe” Bran widened his eyes, and was about to intervene when the lord stopped him. ”Don’t try to deceive me, I got a decent idea on how strong you are; at least strong enough to kill a direbear”
Bran gritted his teeth, and did nothing to hide it. This fox had understood his meaning, yet didn’t give him any leeway to leave her! But how did he know he killed that bear?
Noticing his confused gaze, the knight said:
“Some woodcutters found the bear’s body still fresh just a little later after you entered Terrowin. It made quite the commotion. Only you, Celek and I can kill it on our own here around”
Bran groaned. He couldn’t stop her now. The lord said, displaying some interest:
“You can take horses from my stable. But a trip to the capital… is it in order to meet him?”
Bran looked deeply at the lord, ignoring the confusion on the faces of Elea and Sir Hadrin, and answered after some hesitation, his voice leaking traces of anger:
He stood up, not waiting for a response. Elea hurriedly followed him. The knight stood confused, not understanding Bran’s attitude.
Bran walked down the stairs as he made way toward the backdoor of the manor. He had played sometimes in the manor with Elea in his youth, and he could find his way easily.
He was grateful for Elea’s silence. He was angry, and afraid he would lash at her. It was all because of that damned Terrin. He hated him. The lord had no bad intentions, but he still hated him. He always reminded him of memories he didn’t want to talk about. Why did he ask about that earlier? The man was always fooling around, and creating trouble for him.
Elea reached out and held his hand. He wanted to shake her off, but she didn’t let go. He turned and glared at her, but she just stood there, fixing him with her eyes, unflinching. She didn’t ask him any questions, just holding his hand more tightly. He felt like screaming at her, telling her to scram, but he stopped himself. He had just been disrespectful to her father, and she asked him no questions, just stood with him. Her free hand reached out, and she hugged him. It was an awkward hug, free of the usual lust overflowing from her. He just kept standing like a fool, not knowing how to react. His anger at her father calmed down. His thoughts went to the most important matter.
He had to push her away. Even if it was going to hurt her, he had to do it. No matter what, she couldn’t go with them. Nobody could go with them in this trip.
He knew this time it would be again many times harder than three years ago.
He cursed himself. If he had enough willpower, he would have stopped this relationship from starting a year ago. He knew there was no future that could be built with him. All that awaited him and everybody close to him was death. There was no escape. His only protection, Celek, in some years won’t be enough. The lord didn’t know what really awaited him in this trip.
Seeing his lack of reaction, she slowly pulled herself away from him. Her smile held a bit of sadness. He thought hard. Should he put a stop to everything now? Looking at her eyes, he knew he couldn’t do it. He sighed. He would ask Celek about a solution later.
He reached out and held her hand. His other hand went to her head. He pulled her closer to him. He kissed her forehead, and started pulling her toward the stable. Some servants had seen all this, but he cared not. He also ignored Elea, who stared at him with mixed feelings.
As if she had read his thoughts, her mouth morphed into her usual smile. He smiled back at her.
“Sorry for earlier”
She shook her head and gave him a light kiss on the cheek. He wished she was always this compliant. It would make things easier for them.
He heard a coughing behind him. He whirled around, pushing her behind his back, and his hand found its way toward his sword. It was Sir Hadrin. Bran never understood how the man could move without making sound while wearing such armor. He and Celek never wasted time training on heavy armor, or armor all together. They would become useless at some point, as the enemies would become strong enough that their blows would completely disregard its defense.
Bran knew this line of thought had many shortcomings, but to someone as unlucky as him, forgoing his mobility would be fatal.
“I’m here to tell the groom to give you the horses.” He added with an indifferent gaze “And don’t get so intimate publicly”
Bran couldn’t hide his surprise seeing Elea blush. She wasn’t the type to care about people seeing them. He then realized. The knight was her mentor. As Bran was trained by Celek too, he could understand.
The knight started walking, not expecting a response. Bran and Elea walked in tow. She was still hanging her head down, hoping her hair would hide her face. The boy smiled.
As they made it to the backdoor, the knight ordered a servant to prepare three strong horses.
The boy looked at him. It was the first time he called him by his name. The knight was smiling.
“While the horses are being prepared, want to have a spar with me?”