Daughter of the Wolf-head
Oblivious to her Baba's pain and suffering, Agata rode uneventfully out of the Far Reaches and across Iberia. Shin'ja knew where all the Marauder scouting parties and occupying forces were, after all - he'd assigned most of them before the High King forced the general out. Agata held her peace and watched Shin'ja and Viyan covertly. Viyan moved with a purpose and seemed unaware that the Marauder warrior's eyes followed her wherever she went.
They were a day's ride from the sprawling town of Tarshet when Shin'ja announced his departure. He rode directly beside Agata and spoke to her himself, inadvertently pleasing her.
"I won't pretend I'm sorry to see you go," she said.
He inclined his head with a narrowing of his eyes and the slightest of twists upon his lips.
"We won't attempt to discover your Lair, Princess," he said and paused, choosing his next words with care, "things are difficult in Narikala. The High King is not a friend to my general."
They rode along in a false peace with Agata wondering what to say. Should she thank him for his escort? She wasn't thankful! Was he going to pretend to leave only to bring back a war band to snatch her up and carry her off to Narikala and the High King? She opened her mouth to ask.
"No, I won't," he said, before she could utter a word, "I don't have warriors close by coming to catch you."
He glanced back at Viyan, her horse pacing along beside Kait. They were deep in conversation.
"I wouldn't do that to her."
"Why not?" Agata flashed, "She drugged you and tricked you."
He gave her a slanting, side glance and this time his mouth curved in a smile.
"My fierce and cunning Viyan," he grinned, "she's a weapon. Don't throw her away, Princess, for if you do, I will never forgive you."
She was about to declare that she had no qualms about his unforgiveness but the hot words died on her lips and the cool touch of reason replaced the heat. What he said was a greater evidence of Viyan's faithfulness to her Primavera than anything she could say to prove herself. This man, although tricked by Viyan, had the deepest admiration and respect for her. It was incredible and Agata couldn't help but wonder why? She remembered that Marauders held honour and unrelenting loyalty in the highest esteem. Had Viyan shown that to this seasoned and deadly warrior?
"Until we meet again."
Shin'ja's quietly spoken words jolted her out of her deep thoughts.
His horse threw up its head as he gathered the reins. He looked over his shoulder and caught Viyan's eye. A wordless message thrilled between them. With a click of his tongue, Shin'ja settled deeper in the saddle and bent over the horse's neck. It sprang away and with a thunder of hooves. Shin'ja was gone leaving only the pristine beauty of the wilderness, the blue sky overhead and the quiet majesty of the forest around them. Agata didn't check her horse to fall back beside her women. She pushed him on, rather, and gazed all about, listening intently. Nothing stirred among the trees. No Marauder band approached. Nothing. All was peaceful.
"He won't ambush us, Primavera."
Viyan spoke evenly, coming up beside Agata. Agata released a deep sigh that came up from the depths of her soul.
"I hope he doesn't disappoint you," she replied.
Viyan's serene face didn't change.
"Which way shall we approach the Lair," was all she said.
On this point, Agata did consult with all three of the women. In the end they all deferred to Viyan. She was the one who'd remained in situ. She knew the most about the Marauders.
"The normal way up the ravine and past the Overhang," Viyan said, "we can leave the horses at the stable cave and go to the Lair from there."
Pilar and Kait nodded their agreement.
"Very well then," Agata felt a sense of excitement rising.
Going back to the Lair! It was a place she'd never thought to see again. At least not for years until she had Iberia back in Bagration hands.
"The Lair," she breathed, closing her eyes and tilting her head back.
The Lair was the place she'd left childishness behind and shouldered her responsibilities as the last legitimate person of the Bagrationi royal dynasty. She'd wanted her little brother, Pertinax, to pursue the throne but none of the nobles wanted the son of an unknown concubine over a bona fide Primavera. Besides Pertinax was violently opposed to the idea. Agata's heart throbbed at the thought of Pertinax. What had Prince Ren done with him?
Please let him be alive, she whispered inwardly.
"Eyes sharp, people," she kicked her horse forward, the others clattering behind.
This was country they knew intimately. Every rock and branch was familiar to Agata. Her chest ached. How she loved these mountains. The horses strode confidently, carrying their light burdens ever upward. Agata wouldn't admit it to anyone but she felt Shin'ja's absence when the light vanished and darkness cloaked the mountains. She was jittery and on edge and even when her watch was over, couldn't quite get fully to sleep. She was up while it was still dark, fixing a simple meal and staring longingly to the looming peaks that seemed close enough to reach out and touch.
"What are you doing, Princess?" Kait said, sleep clogging her voice,
"It's still night time."
"We're nearly home, Kait!" Gladness rang through Agata's words and her heat skipped a beat at returning to that place.
She realised with a sense of shock that the Lair felt like home to her, not the palace at Narikala. The feeling stayed with her as they toiled up familiar, hidden paths and pushed through secret tunnels made of tangled underbrush and bushes. The caves where they stabled the horses were just as Agata had left them. Agata ran her hand down a familiar rough wall with a sense of timeless wonder.
I'm here. I'm really here.
Leaving the horses comfortably situated, now the women moved through the terrain with utmost care. Only Viyan paced along without watching and peering all about, scanning for an enemy.
No one spoke but all looked about keen and sharp. Even Q'ursha knew that this was close to home and silence and caution were paramount. Keeping the Lair a secret was everyone's priority since they first discovered it and made it their hidden fortress against the Marauders.
"Viyan," Agata placed a hand on her arm.
"What is it, Primavera?"
A smile played about Viyan's lips. Agata dropped her hand. Why did she always feel like Viyan was secretly laughing at her.
"We must be careful. M..Marauders might be about."
How she hated that stumble over the word, Marauders.
Viyan lowered her eyes.
"Of course," she said quietly.
She waited until Agata moved and fell in one step behind her, walking close.
"They're not here," she whispered.
Agata kept walking, stayed focused on moving with stealth. This was her Lair, her hideout and if she said 'be careful' then Viyan should do it. She forgot her irritation for now they ducked in behind the boulders that stood in front of the small cleft that led deep into the mountainside.
Home, home, home.
The same word pattered over and over in her mind. This was where she'd found sanctuary after fleeing Narikala. This was the stronghold that baffled the Marauders as they sought for her throughout all these great mountains and never found her. She approached the cavern where all her women had gathered to eat and chat. Kait and Pilar held back, letting Agata go first. A small group sat near a fireplace. It was new. Last time, Katranide was cooking over a fire pit on the floor and Vita, Viyan's newly found twin, had been there.
An eerie sense of déjà vu crept over Agata. There they were, just the same - Katranide alongside Vita who held her child. Loss penetrated the tilt of her vision for Pertinax was missing from the tableau.
Viyan brushed past where Agata stood rooted to the floor. She crowed and the others looked up.
"Viyan!" Vita cried, putting down her child, "You did it! You brought her back to us."
"Primavera," Katranide breathed, dropping into a deep curtsey.
After hugging Viyan, Vita apologised. She dropped onto one knee and clasped Agata's hands in her own two.
"I am so glad to see you, my princess. I have worried and fretted over letting that Messenger take you away. Did I do the right thing?"
"No harm, Vita. Lord Izak was very helpful."
"The women are out hunting," Katranide added, "they will be so happy to see you, Primavera."
No sooner had she spoken than the sound of voices echoed through the outer tunnels and the clatter of many booted feet approached.
Agata's eyebrows shot up.
"It sounds like there are many of them," she said.
"There are many more than we imagined," Viyan spoke now, "a lot of them fainted from shock and weariness on the battlefield but so many of them recovered from their wounds."
She looked at Agata with shining eyes, "I think you will be pleased, Princess Agata."
For once, Agata saw beyond Viyan's cool, amused mask and glimpsed an eager, loyal follower. Viyan was delighted to present Agata with a success! This was the reason she'd stayed in Iberia instead of accompanying Agata, Pilar and Kait when Lord Izak, the Messenger, came to carry her safely off to the Far Reaches. She'd insisted to Agata that there would be survivors and she, Viyan, would stay to nurse them. Agata was moved to tears.
"You did well, Viyan," she choked, her voice sinking to a whisper, "you did very well."