Draiken woke to find his own breath frosting in front of him. His windows were pierced by golden sunlight breaking through the rainclouds of the previous night. The aesthetic was both beautiful and annoying. It was far too early for such a horribly bright event. Swinging his legs around to the edge of his bed, Draiken sat with the palms of his feet pressed squarely on the frigid stone slabs. He ran both his hands over his face and back through his hair finding that his cheeks, nose, brow, and hair were all equally chilly. The light had not quite passed his bureau as it normally did in the morning, and for a second he wondered what time it was – and what had woken him up. He was answered by the cacophonous sound of something metal dropping in the hallway.
“You may enter, Alistair,” Draiken called from his bed. The squire poked his head through the chamber door sheepishly, carefully balancing a tray of food with a large pitcher and washcloth. Draiken helped clear the bedside table for the tray and then proceeded into the hall with just a sheet wrapped around his waist. Sure enough, some lost silverware and an overturned tray containing the remnants of a tart littered the floor. He scooped up the tart and gathered the pieces of cutlery before retreating back inside the room. “Pity that,” he said, eyeing the tart. “Looks like it would've been delicious.” The breakfast treat did not appear to be salvageable. The top was caked with small splinters of stone and dust and most of the frosting still remained attached to the corridor floor.
“Apologies, sire. With these balancing skills I can safely say I was born to squire, not clown.”
Draiken chuckled as he pulled an undershirt over his head. “What time is it?”
“An hour past daybreak, I believe. The hunting party is already starting to gather.” He watched as Draiken pulled his leather tunic on, fastening it from the waist up. A silk cape was slung over his left shoulder, hanging only a couple feet from the ground.
Alistair handed a goblet of milk to Draiken as the prince cinched his belt shut over his tunic. “Tell me,” he began, taking a sip, “what sense is there in going hunting the day of our trip to Olympus? We should be preparing to leave.”
The squire shrugged. “Perhaps it'll serve as a good distraction from the trip... and your father.”
“Any news on that front?”
Alistair simply shook his head. It was true though. A distraction would be good. Draiken hadn't fully grasped the severity of these events, after all. With Elias stuck to his bed, it would be up to him to represent House Hawke in Olympus. He would have to attend the banquet in his father's place, sit in on the council, sign the treaty, speak for thousands and thousands of citizens, his familys, his father's knights. He already felt out of place. To have so much responsibility thrust onto one's shoulders over the course of one day was overwhelming. He hoped it would get easier as the days went on.
“Right then,” Draiken said solemnly. “I suppose you should ready my things while I make a few visits. I'll meet you in the courtyard within the hour.” He took his last bite of eggs and downed the rest of his goblet in one gulp. Alistair collected the tray and dishes and made his exit while Draiken fastened his cloak around his back. He took a moment to study himself in the ornate mirror on his wall. The last year had been rough on him, he could tell. His face showed a ¼ inch of sandy blonde stubble, his eyes slightly darker than he remembered. It sometimes felt as if the last few years of the war had greatly aged him. He didn't feel 23. And the coming week was going to make sure that he never felt 23 again.
As Draiken shut the door of his bedchamber behind him, he took a moment to make a mental list. He surely wanted to pay a visit to his father before the hunt, but also had to check-in with his sister, make sure his trunks were being loaded for the trip to Olympus, and check the tower for his letter. Since he was already near her room, he decided to pay Sophie a visit first. Her room was on the next landing, facing West. She was a talented painter and often made jawdropping renderings of the Sun setting over the treeline. Her room held only a scarce number of her artistic endeavors. Sophie was humble, and easily flattered. In her eyes hanging her own work was like showing-off, so she often gave them out as gifts. In one instance, a travelling Laruzian artisan had offered to take over a dozen off of her hands for a handsome price, but she insisted he take them for free. 'Hang them in the churches,' she had said. Draiken remembered having laughed at that, saying that he faintly recalled Lord Montague saying something similar during the war. However, Draiken found his eyes drawn to these very canvases as he entered her chambers. She often left the door open, forsaking privacy (or heat for that matter). Sophie was holed up at her desk in the corner near a fire. She was pouring over some maps, from the looks of it.
She had a habit of doing that. Sophie the Seer, he used to call her when they were young. If she didn't know everything, she pretended she did. He would tease her saying that she should grow longer bangs to cover her third eye. As intuitive as she was, she was very learned and hardly wrong. If she wed soon, she would make a powerful Queen – the sort of Queen cities yearned for. She would be kind, merciful, decisive, but above all else, kind. In his heart, Draiken hoped to find a woman like her some day. Somebody he could count on. Someone to share the burden.
“Sophie. Up early as well, I see?”
She began rolling up one of the maps on her drawing board, binding it with string and stuffing it into the leather tote next to her. “Had a hard time sleeping, as you can imagine. What with the trip... The Festival... Father...”
“What are these?” he said, gesturing down at the maps.
She had a compass out, making various markings and alterations to different areas of Pandora. “Double-checking Captain Donahue's maps.”
Draiken couldn't help but laugh. “He let's you do that?”
“He makes me. Don't tell Elias though.” She dipped her quill in ink and made a final notation before leaning back and drawing her cloak around her shoulders. “Aren't you supposed to be out murdering some animal? You all better be quick about this hunt, we have to leave Port before nigthfall if we have any hope of making it to Olympus on time. We're already going to be late as it is...”
“I'm on my way. Don't worry. Just checking in. Have you seen our father today?”
She nodded, rolling up another map and stuffing it in the tote. “I have. His fever broke late last night, apparently... which is good. Huxley says that he will be on the mend for the better part of the week. Travelling is still out of the question, of course.”
“The old bird is gonna live after all? That's a relief.”
She turned and saw the sadness in Draiken's eyes. She rose and crossed to him, taking his face in her hands. "It is, Brother. It most certainly is. Now go... they're probably waiting for you." He kissed her on the top of the head and left her to her maps. As Draiken left her chamber, he felt a sense of relief. He decided he would visit his father once he returned from the hunt. His goodbye could wait until then. The faster he concluded this hunt, the faster they could leave for Olympus. Elias would certainly have much to discuss with him about Olympus. It was a straight shot down the tower to the royal commons. Several groups of soldiers and attendants were scattered about, some hauling crates and trunks out to the carriages on the street, others helping others pack and organize gear for the trip. Elias Hawke's chamber lied in one of the corridors behind them, well out of reach. Draiken promised himself to allow enough time to visit him when he returned. The street outside was packed full of carriages. The foot traffic was tremendously dense as even more people moved around packing everything they could. It was hard to seperate those packing to leave from those packing to hunt, but Draiken soon made out the unmistakable Dorian atop his white horse in light chain mail. He had a crossbow slung across his back, as did several of the knights around him. Draiken weaved between horses and man alike towards the hunting party, but bumped into a large man bearing a cloak with the Hawke insignia. He grabbed Draiken by the shoulders, keeping him from falling.
"Whoa there, young Hawke." It was Ser Jenson, of the private guard. He looked tired, and Draiken surmised that the drink he shared with him the previous night may have been the first of many for the knight. "Off to join the hunt, are ya?"
"Indeed. As if I have nothing better to do."
"Your father hopes that you may catch the hide of something rare out there. For King Elliot, that is."
Draiken laughed. "Of course. Rumor has it the King is fond of scarves."
The knight chuckled and continued on his way. "No worries, Hawke. I'll keep a good eye on your father while yer out."
Draiken watched the knight disappear under the arch towards the commons, and turned to continue to the hunt. He saw Alistair jog up from behind one of the horses with Draiken's sword, sheath, and longbow. "What's the word, my friend?"
Alistair helped Draiken fasten his weapons to his back and horse. "You leave as soon as the rest of the knights join us. They are still being briefed." Draiken's longsword was now at his hip. A quiver of arrows was fixed to the horse, and his longbow was slung around his shoulder. Alistair helped give him a boost up onto the saddle. From there he had a better vantage point of the city quarter. Lanchester was quite alive. A light layer of fog remained just above the highest tower of the castle making no sky visible. It would surely rain before nightfall, making the prospect of an ocean voyage to Olympus that less appealing. Dorian spotted Draiken mounted in his horse, and gave his a slight kick in the side. He twisted the reins navigating his horse through the rest and pulled up beside Draiken.
"Glad you could join us," said Dorian. He wore a circlet of leaves and a silken silver cloak over his shoulder. He acted the role of prince more than Draiken did, as if he had earned the title himself.
Draiken turned in his saddle. "Wouldn't miss it for the world," he said sarcastically. "It's not everyday we get to partake in such brotherly pursuits together."
Dorian scoffed at this and kicked his horse back into a trot. Meanwhile, Alistair mounted his own brown mare. He pulled his cloak around his neck and dug some nuts out of his pocket. Leaning forward in his saddle, he reached around to feed some to his horse before popping some into his own mouth. Not much later, a group of six knights exited out of the mouth of the South tower as if in a procession. Several took their horses while one proceeded on foot past Draiken's horse. He recognized him instantly as Aemon Williams, head of Elias' private guard. Most of the men in the hunting party were common knights of Lanchester, with only a few of the private guard speckled throughout. Draiken saw that some of Dorian's friends had chosen to join the party as well. Draiken slightly wished that Ser Jenson had chosen to come, if only on his behalf. The rest of the party was altogether unfamiliar. But if the hunt was just a formality, Draiken would just ride it out and participate as little or as much as he saw fit. One of the guard's voices boomed out above the others.
"Alright. Saddle up, men. We ride to the field." Several others hooted and hollared at this and kicked their horses into a gallop. Draiken and Alistair followed suit behind Dorian and some of the other soldiers. The train of horses wound West through the Merchant Quarter and pavillion, past the royal garden and across the bridge onto the road towards Edgebrook. In total, Draiken saw 16 of them. Himself and Alistair, Dorian and his three friends, 4 men of the private guard at the center, and six soldiers bringing up the front and rear. They wore cloaks of the Watch, with the Hawke insignia emblazoned on the center, a hawk stretching out its wings. They rode in loose formation down the road for a good ten minutes before veering North onto a seperate path. This part of the forest was dense, and only allowed speckled sunlight through. The fog was thicker here, hanging just below the canopy of trees. Mixed sounds of wildlife sang all around them as the forest continued waking up. After a few more minutes of riding, the front of the formation split up and man began dismounting their horses. Draiken followed suit, leading his mare towards a nearby tree. Several of the soldiers tied up their horses and moved towards the center of the clearing. One of the knights donning a cloak of the private guard climbed a small stump near the edge of the circle and spoke to the group. Underneath his helm, Draiken saw that it was Ser Axel Faulk. He often led the hunts in this parts of the forest.
"I think we're all met, gentlemen. We'll be splitting into four groups to tour this grove first. Lord Hawke requested that we bring back the pelt of a dire boar for our tanner to make a gift for the King. We know it makes it home in the caves up on the north ridge often enough. We'll send two groups that way while the other two break West and East." He began circling through the crowd making the groups while Draiken fetched his quiver and gear from his horse. Ser Axel made it to him soon and put him into a group with Alistair, Ser Avery, and two soldiers named Rolf and Barrett. Their group was instructed to head up the left side of the pass towards some of the caves in the cliff face. If they could flush out the boar and use flares to signal their position, then the other groups could flank the animal. Draiken finished fastening his sword and dagger, and made sure his quiver was in place. He was always able to move quicker with a bow in hand as it was less cumbersome. The tree in the grove were thick as carriages. Charred black wood from previous forest fires left the forest with a dusky glow. Thick foliage, ferns and small ponds populated the forest's lower levels while mossy cliffs outlined the grove itself. The groups formed up and made their ways into different parts of the forest. Draiken glanced behind him to see Dorian disappear behind a tree with a few of his cronies and a few knights from the private guard. Other groups made off the same, while two soldiers stayed behind with the horses.
Ser Avery took point as they eased their way onto what appeared to resemble a path. It wound up the side of the cliff where both plant and rocked seemed to grow inwards creating a narrower trail. As they moved on further, they fell under the shadow of the cliff. Draiken could feel the damp air hanging all around them. It was darker here, and both of the soldiers took a moment to light torches. One was handed forward to Ser Avery who took it and continued his climb. "Keep a watch above us," the knight began, "If there are any shadowcats around they'll be stalking us from up there. And if you see thick webs, call them out. We don't want to walk into a spider trap." For a moment, Draiken had forgotten the pleasures of deep forest travel. Boars, shadowcats, spiders. The beasts of the Blackwood. Each were menacing in their own way. Caught unaware, they could kill you easily. Luckily, they all shared one thing in common: they hated fire.
The group proceeded slowly up the side of the pass. All of the sudden, they were almost passing over one another vertically, using the rocks as handholds. Draiken quickly realized that the terrain did not make for a quick retreat should they need it. In front of them was what appeared to be a clearing. The overgrown plants gave way to a craggy sheet of rock that led to the base of the rock summit. The party moved out of the brush and fanned out, surveying what they could of the cliff. Beams of sunlight broke through various points of the canopy above to cast spotlights onto the forest floor. Ser Avery raised a hand and gestured for the group to move in behind him as he sidestepped closer to the cliff. He pointed at his eyes and then over his shoulder towards a small opening buried in a pile of rocks. It was large enough for a grown man to crawl in with his hands and knees, but also just large enough for a boar. Alistair and Rolf flanked to the far side of the lair, weapons drawn. Draiken notched and arrow in his bow and kneeled down in a firing position as Ser Avery crouched and slowly stepped in towards the lair. The group waited for his signal, but the knight was distracted by something off to his right. The brush rustled as something wormed its way through it. Ser Avery reeled around with both sword and torch in front of him. He looked over to Barrett and Draiken and signaled for them to move. The two rounded their way, backs against the cliff, towards where rock met plant. Barrett held up his hand and pulled a wall of sageberries to one side clearing a line of sight for Draiken and his bow. He leaned into the opening just in time to see a spider pull the head off of a shadowcat. The two creatures sat in a pit of bloodstained webbing, the majority of which sloped up the side of the cliff into the darkness. The grass was matted to the ground as both webbing and creature alike weighed it down. The spider, easily coming up to Draiken's shoulders in height, pulled the corpse of the cat under him and began binding it in web with his hind legs. The front legs savored the head of its most recent kill, allowing Draiken to duck down behind the bushes. He waved his arms wildly at Ser Avery, and the knight's eyes grew wide. Draiken and Barrett began to retreat from the wall of ferns when the first red stream of light was fired into the sky. Everyone's head jerked up at the hissing sound of the flare and the deep sound of a horn echoing off the cliffs.
As if in response, a second flare went off in the forest. Again from the East. More hissing sounded from over the hedge as Draiken and Barrett scrambled from their spot. The spider quickly retreated up its web at the sound of the horn, cradling the captured shadowcat in its spindly legs. The group made for the forest clearing down at the other side of the cliff where the first flare came from. Draiken jogged ahead to where Ser Avery led their charge. "Whose flares were those?" Draiken asked between breaths. He was in worse shape than he remembered, especially with so much gear weighing him down. The knight grabbed hold of a branch in their path and hacked through it with his sword.
"That's not what I'd be worrying about," the knight said, kicking the branch out of the way.
Alistair, Rolf, and Barrett came sprinting past. "What do you mean?" Draiken asked.
A third flare went off from South of them. They both looked up as it sailed up into the foggy canopy of trees.
Ser Avery took his shield off of his back. "We didn't bring a horn." The knight ran off after the others.
Draiken tossed his bow aside, drew his sword, and followed.