Who: Sarnai & Castile
When: June 14, 871
Where: The Eastern Woods; the Duke's Estate
The moon was high in the sky when Sarnai slipped from her bed and crept across the small room on silent bare feet. She hadn't slept a wink, keenly aware of how quickly her time was running out. She may not have known why she and the other eleven girls had been brought here to the Duke's estate in the Eastern Woods, but what she was sure of was that with every passing day, her chances of escape were becoming less and less. There were rumors - now that the intrigue was fading - that they were to be wedded off, or that they were to be given to the Green Duke as some sort of gift.
Sarnai was of the mind that they were to be sacrificed and there was no way she was going to just sit around and wait for it to happen. Not when there was even a slim chance she could do something about it, of course.
With one last resolute glance over her shoulder, the Southern warrior tiptoed her way across the bear skin rug, over the cold flagstones of the floor, and to the window. There was a guard stationed outside her door, she knew, and Sarnai froze as the window latch gave a soft squeal of protest before sliding free. Seconds passed, kept in time with the beating of her heart, but the door didn't open to reveal a curious face asking if she needed anything.
So Sarnai continued, taking a moment to tie the long nightdress up around her thighs so her short, strong legs could move freely as she threw one over the threshold and began climbing down. It wasn't an easy descent but the craggy stones and timber beams made for suitable hand and toe holds and even still, by the time she was halfway down her muscles were burning and her knees and fingers scraped raw until she left small smudges of blood behind.
Once she'd climbed down far enough, she dropped down and landed hard, the shock traveling up through bare feet and into her knees, forcing Sarnai to bite her lip to keep from crying out. There was no time to recover though and her eyes were immediately darting around the courtyard even as she ducked behind a bale of hay. All was quiet for the moment, but there would be guards near the front gates and probably some making their rounds . . .
She needed a horse. And a weapon, as well.
They'd arrived just that morning but from the moment the Duke's fortress had come into view, Sarnai had been on high alert. She'd listened and watched, memorizing faces and the basic layout of the estate, which meant that she had a rough idea of which direction the stables were. She moved slowly, cautiously, each silent footstep bringing her closer and closer and when a pair of guards wandered past, she'd ducked back into the shadows and held her breath until they'd passed . . .
And then she reached her destination, after what felt like a lifetime, and slipped inside the stables--
Only to come face to face with a young stable hand, his mouth half-open in a yawn.
That yawn turned to a gasp when he saw her and Sarnai capitalized on that second of surprise by leaping forward to tug the knife from the sheath at his waist.
"Hey!" he protested, taking a step forward. Sarnai's eyes narrowed and he paused, hands coming up in a placating sort of gesture as he continued, "You shouldn't be out 'ere, Lady."
"I'm no Lady," Sarnai hissed. "I just need a horse and then I'll be leaving . . ."
“And where would you go, if you could make off with said horse?” asked a commanding voice from behind a massive horse in the stable that shifted restlessly. The beast snorted at her angrily, annoyed that she was distracting the hand from his job of haying up the stalls.
James Castile appeared at the animal’s side stroking the bay colored coat. His green armor glittered in the lamplight like fresh dew on a mossy tree. “All the realms promised the King three maidens from their lands. You can not… change your mind, young lady, you accepted the call”.
Sarnai paled, her heart dropping into her stomach at the sound of that familiar deep voice. She may have only met him this morning, but the Green Duke had made an impression, to say the least. Men of the Grasslands weren't overly tall, with even the largest barely hitting six feet, which made James Castile a veritable giant of a man in comparison. He was larger than life, both in the physical sense and reputation, but Sarnai wasn't easily intimidated and her hand flexed on the hilt of her stolen dagger.
"I accepted nothing," Sarnai fired back, widening her stance in preparation to defend herself in case the stable hand got any ideas. With her jaw set against the very real threat of failure looming before her, the girl continued, "I wasn't given a choice." Her lip curled, "And I won't be some sacrifice to appease a fai--"
She bit the sentence off before finishing it though, hesitating at the thought of adding treason to whatever sort of punishment she was likely to receive. Because what were the chances that the Green Duke would take pity on her and allow her to escape?
The Duke’s hands soothed the agitated stallion next to him, as he watched the petite girl through half lidded eyes. “You were bound and dragged here? I saw no such thing, young lady” he replied curtly. Castile was not naive in the knowledge that while some of the maidens were here out of loyalty and duty, others were not. And if they wanted to escape they should have done so before coming to his domain, and his responsibility.
He stepped from around the horse, and nodded to the stable-hand to finish taking care of the animal. James stepped closer to Sarnai in mild interest, and asked her “Tell me, young lady, what makes you think you are here to be sacrificed?”
Castile’s eyes were intently focused on her, “Is it just the frightened gossip of young girls away from home, or do you have some kind of proof?” He gestured for them to move deeper into the stable away from the prying ears of the young hand, but made no move to restrain Sarnai or deprive her of her weapon.
Sarnai's lip curled. No, she may not have been bound and dragged here, but what choice was she really given? She'd asked questions, expressed her desire to go home, and had been ignored at every turn. She was a commoner and that this Duke assumed that she could have walked away from all of this simply because she wanted to, spoke far more loudly about his narrow view of the world than her own. Nobles truly had no idea what it was like to be one of the common folk.
As he came around the horse, Sarnai took a step backwards but then he was beckoning her closer and she hesitated, weapon still held at the ready. She didn't want to walk further into the stable, not with the door - and potential freedom - just behind her . . .
"What else am I supposed to think?" she snapped. "No one will tell me anything! If I was here to receive a gift, or a blessing, or anything good, then why the secrecy? Why bring us to the Eastern Woods? To you?" She shook her head, deciding then to speak exactly what she thought was happening here: "Our King made a deal with the witch rumored to live here in your forest and I am part of the price he must pay." Which was really no price, for him. What were the lives of twelve common girls weighed against whatever sort of benefit he was getting?
“You would prefer the cold of the Northern mountains instead?” he asked, tilting his head as the petite exotic female from the East fired off what she thought was going on. The Duke listened like he was a patient parent hearing out a child telling some far fetched tale.
His mouth curled only slightly, “I have no need of maidens, and know of no such bargain. But you are correct in that for good or bad, you are here for a reason…. One that only Philip knows, and he is King and must be obeyed”.
Tilting his head and mustering something that was close to a sympathetic expression for the briefest moment, the Duke stated firmly, “Even if escape were possible, your family and people would suffer for your treason. My realm would suffer for my negligence in the matter…. I will not allow it”.
He was right, Sarnai knew. It wasn't like she could escape and simply go home to her Clan. No, her slight would be met with punishment, if not for herself than for those she loved and if he so chose to, Philip had enough manpower to wipe every Grasslands Clan from existence . . .
Frustrated tears stung the backs of Sarnai's eyes and no matter how tightly she clenched her jaw, she couldn't seem to stop her chin from quivering. It was all so unfair! And, for half a second, she was tempted to leap at the Duke and take her chances with burying the knife into the side of his neck, just there were jaw met ear.
Instead, she loosened her hand on the hilt of the blade until the weapon slid from her fingers and clattered to the stone floor beneath her bare feet, and then she lifted both hands in an obvious sign of her surrender. If she were to die here in the East, at least she would die protecting her people. At least she would die with as much honor and bravery as she could muster . . .
The Green Duke’s mouth curled into a rueful grin, “That’s is unnecessary young woman, clearly you are simply visiting the stable and will return to your room. We will not speak of this incident to the King”. Castile appreciated that she was a logical creature, and perhaps fate would choose her to fulfill this mad endeavor his brother insisted upon.