Wynne snapped awake and quickly pulled on a leather tunic and thick bragae trousers. She stuffed on wool boots and then proceeded to brush out her hair to the best of her ability, then she tied her waist-length locks in a high bun with her faded rose-colored silk ribbon. She sighed with nostalgia each time she laid eyes on it.
The last time she ever saw her parents - when she was twelve, having been dragged away from them by Sábháiltean slavers - was when she got it. Her mother had been wearing a rose-colored silk shawl that day, and when the frightening blonde-bearded slaver grabbed her, she clutched her mother. Sadly, the slaver was stronger, but Wynne had accidentally ripped her mother’s shawl in the process. Now, the strand seemed all she had of her life in Nahrin.
She shook her head. The was eight years ago. She was twenty now and had a life of her own, free and safe. She was valued as a cultural informant of Úda and she had the dearest of a friend in the military. How could she leave yet?
She shrugged on a heavy fog jacket, made of thick cable-knit wool and leather. She raised the hood over her hair and opened her cabin door.
Her single cabin was one of many that were built across the keep’s outer wall. Most of the servants inhabited them, including a good amount of Wynne’s co-workers and friends. They were built sturdily into the stones and bricks that made up the wall, and a maze of balconies and stairs conjoined them all.
Wynne’s cabin at the top made running down to ground level a long job.
She came to the soft, dewy grass huffing and out of breath. The pre-dawn air was cold and damp and hard to breathe. Nevertheless, the servant willed her chilled legs to move as she shivered through the very early morning.
Last night she had prepared herself a sail canvas pack with food, two canteens of water, and a sleeping mat. That made her spend one long night sleeping on the hard ground so she could wake up and not need to roll it up and pack it. She massaged her knotted joints painfully.
Her breath became clouds in front of her mouth. In Úda, the worshipers of Fiilnobaa, the god of life and death, believed that the cold depleted one’s soul. Clouded breath was pieces of one’s spirit escaping the body and flying to Fiilnobaa’s Realm of Eternal Life. The myth probably derived from short lifespans and an uncanny amount of deaths in the winter season. Of course, Wynne never believed it. Her parents and she practiced their belief in the Protector, and they prayed endlessly for the freedom of the pagans in their country.
Finally, Wynne, body shivering and teeth chattering, made it to Baric-Tref by the sun’s lazy awakening. She entered the city - if it could be called that, it was more of a military camp - and searched for Aloysius.
Baric-Tref was the only permanently situated war camp in all the world. It was the official training grounds of the Solitary, where boys became men, and men became legends. Famous warriors walked to and fro around her, despite the early hour. Most were cloaked an hooded, and Novices, Privates, and Retireds strolled along in cuff-collared jerkins and official airs. A black-haired boy, eight years old, marched past her, hands stiffly behind his back. He nodded to her and sprinted to his cohort.
Tents and barracks marched like the boy across the flat land, in perfect uniformity and perfect synchronization. As if on cue, without any wakeup call, Sergeants, Captains, Commanders, and the Chief Cohort Master himself woke and went to their duties. Immediately noise began, as if the entire town were a machine. White dressed nurses - other than a few special Solitary women, the only females in the town - bustled to prepare for any disaster and otherwise disbanded to assist their male counterparts. A few had stayed up all night with injured soldiers in the three infirmaries.
The sun had just shown itself and the whole of Baric-Tref had already been awake.
Wynne had been here before. Only, not because she trained. She was Aloysius’ slave. A few Solitary in the camp had probably remembered her, and they gave her friendly smiles and a few nods of salutations. She had found herself at home in Baric-Tref, given there was no room for persecution or assault. There was no room for anything except acceptance and trust. Many of the Privates, now high Captains or Commanders, had mercifully taught her Common Tongue and Gwceff.
No one here was an enemy.
She made her way to the Chief Cohort Master’s tent and knocked on the central support.
“Barod,” he called.
The word ‘ready’ was the common Gwceff word for ‘enter’ or ‘come in’. Never did one say ‘come in’ when ‘ready’ was curter and more ordering.
Wynne entered and was stopped by the wonder of the room.
The necessities - a low bed frame outfitted with a simple matt and a desk - took the backmost fraction of the long tent, as if they weren’t more important than the marching bookcases on either side of the room, the shields and longswords propped up against the sand clock, and the target peppered with throwing knives and Údaen darts. A rough knot rug laid between her booted feet and the grass.
The Chief Cohort Master, Master Pritchard Dacey, stood like a Retired, with hands behind his back and feet spread apart, ready for any surprise attack. He watched her - and anyone, she knew - with a calculating sense of, ‘Well, if you were to attack me, I could use this against you, I could knock you to your feet like this, and I could disarm you like that…’ For a man in his early fifties at least, he was a strong man with a healthy sunkiss all over his squarish face. His thick, silvery brown hair was cropped close to his head and his strong jaw was clean shaven. His eyes, deep brown eyes like a wolf, watched everything carefully. Nothing escaped him, though he seemed leisurely and relaxed. Everyone could and did underestimate the short leader of the Solitary.
“Úda’lugha? Common Tongue? Gwceff’iaith?”
“Common Tongue, Master Pritchard,” Wynne answered.
“Have a seat.” He motioned to the oak chair in front of his desk, and he sat on the one behind it. “What can I do for you?”
“Do you remember me?” Wynne leaned in.
Pritchard looked back up at her and squinted. “Huh. Your face is familiar, but your name I can’t assign.”
“I’m Wynne O’Úda?” she said.
He grunted, but persisted in staring at her.
Wynne sighed and took off her hood. “Sabriyya Masuma Rostami Abd-Al-Allah?”
Pritchard smiled. “Sabri, I hardly recognized you.” He squeezed her hand like a father. “How’s the Palace treating you? Apologies for not coming back recently. Novices keep me bolted down, and Shay alerted me of a new threat. I dispatched a squadron to the Tywyll yesterday and they’re riding as we speak.”
“I registered for a Destrean name, and I’m Wynne now,” she corrected. “I’ll answer to Sabri if need be, but anyway, the Palace is merciful. I’ve got my hands full in the stables, really.”
“The stables?” Pritchard clicked his tongue with distaste. “A girl like you would do well as the queen’s own bodyguard! The stables’ a waste o’ your time!”
Wynne smiled. “I’m looking for Captain Aloysius Carmody?”
Pritchard nodded. “Said a Wynne’d be coming through. He’s packin’ up as we speak. I asked yer destination, but he said it was classified. Somethin’ he couldn’t even tell his superior.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “Eh, it’s classified by the queen, so…”
Wynne raise an eyebrow. “Aloysius told you that much?”
Pritchard smiled. “No,” he simply. “You just did.”
The girl’s cheeks blushed. “Forgive me gullibility. But this is a covert mission, sir. Aloysius would reluctantly strangle my neck if you say anything about it.”
“My lips are sealed, dearie.” He sat back again. “If you could wait outside, Captain Carmody will be with you in half a tip.”
Wynne nodded and smiled. “Good seeing you again, Master Pritchard.”
“You too, Sabri.”
She stood and left the tent, where the weather hadn’t warmed. The Solitaries stayed a hair away from succumbing to the bitter cold every day of the year by exercising strenuously. She spied a squadron of Privates, each within two years of each other, cranking out countless knuckle push ups without breaking a sweat. Fresh-faced, boyish Novices sparred with longswords to keep their teeth from chattering.
Wynne stood outside the tent, bouncing on her toes and hugging her own arms. Her pack sat lazily beside her. Stubborn strands of hair hung in front of her eyes, which she blew over with a short and forceful puff of air.
She turned to see Aloysius jogging towards her, a military pack slung carelessly over his shoulder. He came to her caped but unhooded, his brown hair tied back loosely in a short tail. It bounced behind him as he stopped in front of her. His cheeks were pinked by the cold, but he looked unphased by it. She had noticed after years that his otherwise hazel eyes gleamed pure green in the chilly air.
“Bore da, Capten,” Wynne greeted. She shivered as a blast of morning air sifted through her hair and penetrated even her fog jacket.
“Cold?” Aloysius asked. Her teeth were chattering too vigorously for her to answer in words, so he took that as a yes. He rubbed her arms quickly until she didn’t feel the bite of it any longer, then he rubbed his gloved hands together, and placed them on her cheeks.
“That works,” she said with a surprised giggle. He smiled with satisfaction and pulled his hands back. “Is that some Solitary procedure?”
Aloysius took the joke and laughed. “Nay, just a somethin’ you learn from your parents, right?”
Wynne picked up her sail canvas bag. “Have you eaten yet?”
The captain shook his head. “I’m saving what I got for our trip.” He said it as if it were only a vacation. Of course, this was probably nothing short of grossly normal to a Solitary, but it wasn’t a fair breeze either. “Are you hungry?”
She tried to silence her growling stomach this long. “Aye,” she answered.
Aloysius motioned his head for her to follow him. “The mess hall’s pretty good. I’ll take you, aye?”
She nodded with gratitude. “You’re wonderful, Sius.”
He smirked as they walked. “Don’t thank me yet.” She started shivering again, and with no question, he kept an arm on her shoulders. His cape was warm and thick, almost new. It immediately chased the cold away.
At the mess hall, Wynne finally knew where the Solitary’s bottled-up immaturity went.
She remembered it so well. Coming in after four years of absence, she already knew what to expect: raucous boys and men jumping over tables to sit with their friends and cohorts, yelling and frequent fist-fights, and the ever present incurable laughter at any soul who passed gas.
No matter how much she was expecting it, the mess hall was like a battleground she needed to cross. She gulped and clutched her pack.
“Don’t worry,” Aloysius muttered in her ear. “Just walk with me.”
Still, she was jostled around by the highly trained Privates enjoying a hand-to-hand spat. She practically clutched onto the captain’s cape, which was stitched with gold thread on his shoulder in the shape of a peregrine falcon, signifying his rank. No man would pick a fight with him, no matter how drunk, if he saw the prestigious badge.
Wynne was pushed over.
Aloysius felt the tug on his cape, and he whirled around and assisted Wynne back up. He glared at the cohort that had allegedly shoved her off her feet, and an enthusiastic Sergeant seemed guilty enough.
The captain gently made Wynne sit down, and he faced the Sergeant.
“Steer clear,” he said in a low and dangerous voice. “Understood?”
The Sergeant, obviously drunk, shrugged nonchalantly. “‘Nd why’d I listen to an adyn like’ya, pync?”
That was enough to blow any fuse out of control. Aloysius was about to punch, but the Sergeant was already on his knees, clutching his chest and groaning. The captain looked back at Wynne, who was in low and steady yd biad beginning position. Her face gave away her own personal offense at the insult aimed at Aloysius. She and he shared insults and compliments; if one was called a pync, the other was sure to react. She huffed and stood to full height - which wasn’t much - again.
The Sergeant had a short temper, too, though. He set his jaw tight and swung high at Wynne. His uppercut was definitely one to write home about, full-fisted and powerful. However, she never felt it. Aloysius caught his fist as if he were turning a doorknob, then flipped him over. The Sergeant caught himself quickly and, still in the grip of the captain, dropped down and scythe-kicked at Wynne’s legs. She jumped over and landed on her hands, then she piked her legs to kick the Sergeant square in the face. She used her momentum to somersault and land on her feet.
The rest of the Solitary were speechless.
Aloysius dusted off his hands and put a protective hand on Wynne’s shoulder. She shifted her canvas pack onto one of the tables and avoided eye contact.
“Sorry,” she mumbled to the Sergeant.
The red-bearded man groaned and struggled out of the mess hall.
“You… you smacked Sergeant Braeden real spankin’ well!” one Private exclaimed. He smiled brightly. “You’re good!”
Aloysius stepped aside with a look of gentle amusement as Wynne was surrounded by awe-filled Solitary.
“How’d you do that? Wasn’t that yd biad? I’m officially blown away! How long did it take to master? Oi! You are Údaen! Did you grow up kicking Solitary rear? You’re amazing!”
Wynne had never received such recognition. It was overwhelming having so many smiling, eager, and unbelieving faces right in hers.
“Oi, give ‘er room! Lemme see!” One certain Boniface shoved through the crowd and stared long and hard at Wynne. His brown eyes had never changed. His blonde hair was cropped now, and his beard was at least trimmed by his dagger that sat dutifully on his hip belt.
His face softened. “Sabri?”
Wynne hugged him. “Bondi!”
The Privates around exchanged looks and nervous murmurs, along the lines of, “She’s allowed to call him ‘Bondi’? How’s she still alive? First she whoops the Sergeant and the next dangerous thing she does is call Praetor Boniface a nickname!”
Aloysius came back, an unbelieving smile on his face. “Colonel Boniface,” he exclaimed. “You look-”
“Upupupup,” halted Boniface as he parted from Wynne. “Praetor Boniface. Yes, it’s been that long.” He smirked playfully. “And yes again, I look as good as a Venéran god. Thanks.”
He and Aloysius laughed so hard at their inside joke before they pulled each other in for a brotherly hug.
“So glad to see you back in Baric-Tref,” exclaimed Boniface, bringing Wynne closer to him as well. “What brings you this south?”
Aloysius crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re waiting on the other half of Shay’s reinforcements. We’re assigned a royal classified mission.”
“Ah, royal classified,” echoed Boniface. “The most dangerous.” He looked back at all the soldiers, still eagerly over their shoulders. “Yn ôl at eich prydau,” he ordered. “Nid yw hyn yn peri pryder i chi.”
The soldiers all sighed with annoyance and returned to their rowdiness.
The Praetor sighed irritably. “They gotta know when spying is needed and when it’s not,” he grumbled. He adopted a serious face and nodded to the outside. “Get yourself somethin’ to eat and follow me.”
Wynne followed Aloysius and Boniface, tucked happily in her almon crwst, an almond pastry. It was light on sugar and nourishing for the soldiers. It was also extremely delicious. If one were to poison it, their victim would eat willingly anyway.
“The queen herself is on this mission,” Aloysius told the Praetor. “I’m telling you because you can dispatch the reinforcements needed. Wynne- or, Sabri, you know her by, I guess, knows yd biad and we have an accomplice who knows the killers’ mannerisms, personalities, tactics… all we need is the Solitary power behind us. You have the authority to dispatch.”
Boniface rubbed his beard and nodded. “Where’s this operation takin’ place?”
“At most, to Hudud Boulder west o’ here. The killers are Údaen, though they have a Sábháiltean tag-along. We don’t have jurisdiction to go further.”
“But mounting a full attack in Tywyll is suicide, Captain. You know.” He sighed and shifted his gaze to Wynne. “Dwi ddim yn credu,” he mumbled. “Is that the firebrand girl who left us four years ago to work in the Palace?”
Aloysius gazed at Wynne, who sat cross-legged against a tent, finishing off her pastry. She licked her fingers with satisfaction. He smiled.
“Aye, that she is,” he replied, nodding.
The captain felt he looked at her too long for comfort. The Praetor was right; Wynne was beautiful. No matter what she did, her waist seemed to stay slim and her form was healthy and strong, though supple and cat-like. Her eyes were heavenly and, if one looked closely, they weren’t blue but deep violet. Her hair was tied up in a bun on the top of her head and curls sprung up in a revolt against her control.
“Yes, she is,” remarked Aloysius, blushing.
“Is she your…?” Boniface looked as if he were searching for the correct word.
Aloysius shrugged. “As far as I know? She’s my best friend.”
Boniface scoffed. “You’d be one spankin’ couple.” He patted his friend’s shoulder. “Here, I’ll dispatch a squadron adjacent to the Draig Company to you, aye? To assure safety and security, I’ll come.”
The captain nodded. “Good deal. Pack up by the cockerel’s cry and we’ll be out towards Bryngaer. Her Highness, our hunter, and his escort will join us and we’ll be off to catch the offenders. After that, well, we’ll find out.”
Breixo: BRAY-shaw | Noe: NWUH (or Noah condensed into one syllable, if that's possible) | Caislin: KAI-sleen | Wynne: WIN | Sioned: SHUN-ud | Yatie: YAH-tyuh| Cairbre: KAR-bruh | Niall: NEE-al | Rohese: ROW-hees | Sabriyya: sah-BREE-ah |