She only had her mind set on transporting the milk.
“This is the last time I ask for your help, Tesni,” Wynne growled as she hobbled from the dairy stables to the kitchen door under the weight of the two large pails, both filled to the brim with fresh, warm milk. They wouldn’t stay filled unless she got help- quick. She had accidentally splashed out more than usual.
Ash was fighting a low fever, Caron began working in the palace instead of in the stables, Sioned was sent to gather hazelnuts in the Tywyll (it was, of course, a job to keep her as far from trouble as possible), and Morrin was at home with her bairns and husband, getting some time off for the new babe in her womb to grow. Tesni and Wynne were the only ones on duty, though Wynne hadn’t a clue where Tesni went. It was far past dusk and if the girl wasn’t so angry, perhaps she would have been worried.
A stray cat - a bare, skinny thing - stalked by Wynne, hungrily eyeing the pails of milk. The dairy maid's heart bled as she observed the cat’s strained breathing and how its ribs showed under its skin. Making sure no one was watching, she set the heavier pail in front of the stray.
“Drink your need, tabby,” she whispered, kneeling beside it.
As if with gratitude, the tabby meowed and contentedly lapped away as Wynne scratched its ears.
The air was still.
Wynne sensed a presence before the cat looked up and scrambled away. At first she guessed it was Tesni coming to help, but in a second she ruled her out. The footsteps were made in gentles taps of the sole of a soft leather boot. The volume of the tap made her specify the presence. He was a tall and solid man trying to sneak up on her.
I can’t find myself alone with a man, she thought, her heart pounding fearfully. Especially at night.
It seemed a last minute effort to stay safe, but Wynne gripped the lighter pail by the handle and whirled it around to make contact with the man’s jaw. It was supposed to be a glorious-sounding act of self-defense, but the man ducked it and pinned her arms to her sides.
“Wynne, will you just let me-”
Wynne didn’t let him finish and cut him off by screaming and kicking her leg high up between his. He gasped with pain and crumpled backwards. With her life safe now, she saw her assailant’s face.
“Remind me not to test you and jump in with a helô,” Aloysius groaned. “Sorry I startled you.”
Wynne’s eyes doubled in size. “Captain!” She crouched to help him onto his feet. He waddled to find a comfortable position, but otherwise, he seemed better. In her sheepish relief, she smiled shyly. He was one man she could trust.
However, through her smile, she slapped his cheek hard.
“You scared me upright, you did!” she accused. “What do you want? Where’s Tesni? Have you seen her? I need to strangle her.”
Aloysius indignantly rubbed his stinging cheek. “Haven’t seen Tesni around, Wynne. Apologies.” He shook his head. “Pull back on your arm next time I disappoint you.”
Wynne huffed and crossed her arms. “Excuse me, aren’t you some elite captain of the Solitary? A girl’s slap should be nothing but the breeze on your confounded cheek.” She picked up the two pails, which were disappointingly both less than half full. She faced Aloysius again. “What’s on that mind o’yours?”
Aloysius straightened and took the pails in his own hands, and they walked to the servant’s kitchen. The dairy maid smiled laughingly at the sight of a fully armed captain of the Solitary - in uniform, cloaked and hooded - carrying the dairy into the kitchen as if he did it all the time. Her dear friend usually didn’t come into the stables or the kitchen, given he had to stay close to the road leading to Baric-Tref, on the complete other side of the kingdom. Baric-Tref was half a day’s ride south from the gates of Bryngaer, and the stables and kitchens faced too north for him to waste time there. Today was something different.
“We have a lead to the king’s killers,” Aloysius finally said to break the twilight’s soft silence.
Wynne looked up at the captain. “Who? How’d you find them? What’s the lead’s name? Did the person see what happened or is he implicated with them?”
“Implicated,” Aloysius answered, his voice seeming lost in her quick questions. Wynne knew he wasn’t all that good with interrogations or over-excitement, and so she slowed herself down.
“Who is it?” she asked again, calm. She had seen four strange men in the stables that day and she was sure they caged one of them.
Aloysius rubbed his beard tiredly. “The queen says he’s a battle legend I only heard about when I was a private, he was already commander. Commander Finnian Rhith of Anglesey.” He shook his head with awe. “This cursed adyn is nowhere near the man anyone thought he was.”
Wynne bit her lip. “Hm. How’d a Solitary get implicated with Údaen mercenaries?”
“At the Battle of the Border, the Grey Company had a tragic but alleviating victory, coming back with half of their soldiers either dead or missing. Their commander was marked down as uncertain, alongside his younger brother, Drystan.”
“Tragedy,” breathed Wynne, who had heard of Finnian Rhith O’Glesey. It was such a shame to lose a prodigy such as him. “Wait a minute. Long blonde hair tied in a tail?”
“Scowl as evil as the Depths?”
“Just the one to make you stone.”
“Bright, hateful blue eyes?”
Wynne nodded slightly. “I saw him.” She pointed towards the stables. “He and two Údaens and one slight, red-headed waif were asking us questions about the coronation.”
Aloysius nodded. “What did the Údaens look like?”
Wynne bit her lip, not wanting to tell him how captivating the younger one’s eyes were. He seemed to not stop smiling at her. She had not enjoyed how offsetting the rest of his company was, but she had to admit to herself that he was, well, a rajul wasim, as her people would call him.
“The elder was about twenty-six, I’d say,” she mused, remembering him. “He had deep brown skin and towered above the rest of his company. I think he was in charge. His hair was thick and black, and he cut it short, like no Údaen I’ve seen. He went against our traditional customs and didn’t wear a beard on his chin or the gold bangle of an adult. He bore soft black eyes and strong cheekbones, but I can’t remember what he was wearing.”
“That part doesn’t matter,” Aloysius said. “And the other?”
Handsome. Dreamy. Young?
Given, he looked like he came straight from the fishermen’s province Balad-Mada’a, he was enough to make an Údaen girl fall in love.
“He, um,” she started. “Olive skin, bright blue eyes, curly black hair, and a wide smile.”
Aloysius frowned. “Why was he smiling?”
“I don’t know,” Wynne said quickly. “I don’t know what was going on in his mind. Why would I?”
The captain chuckled as if he knew and understood her franticness. “Easy, I didn’t mean to corner you. I only was wondering.”
Wynne’s shoulders relaxed and she smiled shyly again.
Oh, the Protector’s watching over me, she thought as they came to the kitchens. She ran inside to hide her blushing cheeks.
“Wynne,” Aloysius called as he caught her arm gently. “We need you.”
“To do what?” Wynne asked as she turned back, curious. “I can’t do anything for you other than tell you what I already did.”
The captain raised an unbelieving brow. “Remember when we met? You’re capable.”
Wynne blushed harder. “That was- well-”
“Údaen yd biad,” the captain finished for her. “We Solitaries spend years just to counter it. I’d know that formation when I see it. And you were fighting whoever was unlucky enough to force you off that slave-ship.”
Wynne sighed, her cheeks hot. “I’d rather not think about that day.”
Aloysius nodded with embarrassment.
Wynne came to Destrea not for a better life; she was captured from a war camp in the Údaen village of Nahrin and was forced into Sábháiltean slavery. She was a fiery one, not subjecting to orders. Partially because she couldn’t speak anything but Údaen. She was sent to Baric-Tref to learn a thing or two about obedience and was put under Aloysius’ command. He taught her to speak the Destrean and Sábháiltean tongue of Gwceff, and he had learned a lot about her and her family, who waited for her back in Nahrin. He freed her and smuggled her out of Baric-Tref, and she made her way to the palace to save up to return to Úda.
From the day the captain observed her undocking to the present, they were inseparable. No one could make Wynne feel safer.
No one else knew her real name.
Wynne sighed and nodded. “What do you need my help with?”
Aloysius smirked his usual, dry-humored smirk.
Wynne hastily and half-dramatically curtsied. “If I’d known it was your company I’d be in, I’d wear something more apropos!”
She looked down at her worn linen tunic and scuffed boots. Aloysius could have at least given her a heads-up. Her cheeks burned red with embarrassment and even a few tears stung her eyes.
Caislín smiled at her and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Aloysius told me about you,” she started. “Your story is an inspiring one.”
“Oh?” Wynne stuttered as she glanced at her dear friend, who leaned against a pole in the covert Solitary stables, a reassuring grin on his face. He mouthed a short sentence: ‘You’re in good hands.’
Caislín nodded. “I’m sorry about your tragic… immigration.” She sighed. “The corrupt Slave Age, we all hope, is behind us.”
Wynne nervously played with her almost explosive curls. “With a queen like you, Your Highness, I think I’m blessed to be here.”
Caislín smiled again. “I’m blessed to have a servant like you in my palace.”
“To get to the point,” Aloysius said with a clear of the throat. “Captive.”
He called that into the stable, confusing Wynne. Two Solitary, two of whom she categorized as friends, shoved a familiar figure into view.
“Ow,” moaned the figure as he pulled himself to his feet. “My, my, such gentle handlers. I feel so safe being your advisor,” he growled, his voice dripping thickly with an excruciating amount of sarcasm. He locked eyes with Wynne, then looked downwards. “I remember you.”
Wynne crossed her arms over her chest like a little pouting child. “I remember you,” she seethed. “Why is he here?”
“He knows the Údaen offenders,” Aloysius cut in before anyone lost an eye. “We’ll get to them sooner if we don’t jail ‘im.”
“I’m still here,” Chance raised his voice. “Look, don’t let this man’s prejudices define me, ‘right? He’s a downright-”
“Shut up now,” Cairbre interrupted as he slapped him upright the head.
“Stop abusing me and I may keep my promise!”
“Atal y cyfan!” shouted the queen. “You’re not allowed to speak unless spoken to!”
Wynne’s heart stopped in surprise. Was this what the queen became after the death of her father? Suddenly she was worried.
Her Highness sighed and relaxed, eyeing Wynne again. “Whatever about him. We’ll need your help understanding Údaen culture and we’ll need your reinforcements in yd biad. Will you join?”
She will still shaken by the outburst of her queen, and Chance’s furious manner scared her. Cairbre and Shay held the captive back again, steel-eyed and cranky, as always. Her worry crept into her heart and was cultivated by the discouraging scene in front of her.
However, Aloysius’ soft gaze and reassuring expression warmed her. The captain had been there for her every second of her episode in Destrea, and she knew it as a fact that he would be there every step of the way. There was no soul alive on the Earth who could make her feel unsafe if her dearest friend was present. He had vowed that anyone who laid a hand on her would taste his wrath, and she counted on it. He was a light in the tumult of her life, and no one could snuff it.
“I will do it.”
“You scared me there for a second.” The moon gleamed high over the west buttress of the Bryngaer Palace and beams shafted through the dancing pillars of the city. Like a speck against the enormity of the castle, Aloysius let his feet dangle off of the balustrade of one of the countless mezzanines. He loved the precarious position; it made him feel like he was flying.
He looked up at Wynne, who sat beside him on the thick balustrade, legs folded beneath her.
“I was serious,” he admitted. “I was truly frightened when you hesitated.”
Wynne sighed and shrugged. “I didn’t know what to make of it.” Her breath was shaky. “Our queen’s growing more and more furious. It wasn’t all that… encouraging, you know?”
Her eyes teared up until a little sob escaped her. She softly sniffed as she cried with fear and confusion.
Aloysius brought her closer to him with a gentle arm. “The queen’s well-meaning still, Wynny. She’s had to grow up and out of childhood in seconds, and it took its toll. I guess that she’s never been in a dangerous position - well, that meant that us Solitary did our job spankin’ well - ever in her life. To be threatened at knifepoint while watching her father be critically injured… You’ve got to be less set off and a little more understanding in this situation, I guess.”
Wynne paused, then nodded. She moved with Aloysius’ arm and rested her head on her friend’s shoulder. “That’s true,” she sighed sleepily. “When do we go?”
The captain sighed. “Firstlight.” He looked down at her. “You good with that?”
Wynne nodded a second time. “Yes.” A yawn escaped her. “Good night, Aloysius.” She parted from him and hopped back on the mezzanine.
“Good night, Wynny. A night of serenity.”