The Hand That Steers The Kingdom – Part 16
Click here to read parts 1-15!
As soon as Anfir opened the tent flap, Tristan knew why he’d led them there. Fenrir hobbled up from the cot where a redheaded girl was attempting to tend to his bandaged leg. The woman’s cat-like features turned down in a scowl as she watched Fenrir hoist himself up and awkwardly brace himself on his non-injured foot. Tristan could just catch a glimpse of her mage mark as the woman dropped a wad of bandages in defeat. If Tristan remembered her brother correctly, the healer probably had her hands full.
“Captain,” her brother started, offering up a brief salute that was quickly redirected in favor of cradling his ribs. Tristan gasped when his shirt rode up, revealing a collection of mottled skin up and down his side.
“It looks worse than it is, Miss,” Fenrir said, flashing a charming but empty smile her way. “Who’ve you brought to visit me, Anfir?” He waited expectantly for the pirate’s answer. The girl behind him glared in their direction, frowning at Connor as if she was trying to figure out how she knew him.
Tristan gaped. She wasn’t surprised he didn’t recognize her—the same thing had happened with her last disguise. She was more concerned with his injuries. The sight brought her back to Sarai laying in the cot, half-dead.
Anfir turned to Tristan. “Take off the ring, darling. Then let the big man come a little closer, it seems your brother hit his head a bit hard on his last mission.”
Tristan snapped into action, closing her mouth and snatching the ring off her finger. The magic receded in an itchy roll up her skin, making the hair on her body stand up and prickle. It was Fenrir’s turn to gape. Tristan stood shyly in the doorway, scooting out of Connor’s way so he could join her inside. She’d shot up a whole hands-width since Fenrir had seen her last. Her head would now reach his chin. She waved nervously.
“Hey, Fenny,” she whispered. “Long time no —” Before she could finish, Fenrir had lurched forward and crushed her against his chest. He seemed immune to the pain in his side, only grunting a little as he squeezed her like he hadn’t seen her in years, which he hadn’t. Tristan wrapped her hands around his shoulders. They were broader than she remembered, but they still felt warm, they felt like home. Tristan buried her face in his chest.
“Tris,” he mumbled against her hair. “What in the name of the Goddess are you doing here, Tris?”
“Someone had to come keep you safe,” she grunted as best she could with her nose squashed into Fenrir’s sternum. His laugh was like gravel and vibrated through his body and into her bones.
When Fenrir finally released her, he gave Connor much the same treatment before hissing in pain and returning to the cot and the red-head that looked less-than-amused at her patient’s sudden need to roam.
“Now, what did we learn,” she chided him while attempting to wrap his ribs. The woman was only a few years older than Tristan, but younger than Fenrir. She seemed sassy and more than capable of keeping people line Fenrir in line.
Fenrir huffed a laugh. “To wait until after I’m bandaged to jump around?” The mage tied off the wrappings with a grunt and offered Fenrir a potion that he downed it in one gulp. He shook his head as if to rid himself of the taste. The woman prepared to leave, nodding at Connor on her way out.
“Soldier,” she said. “It’s good to see you again.” Connor nodded.
“You as well, Miss Freya.” Freya smiled and continued on her way, slinging a bag that jangled every time she took a step.
“You two know each other?” Fenrir’s brows were in his hairline as he considered Connor. Sarai was curious as well.
“We met years ago,” Connor said, waving off their interested looks. “She and two other young mages helped us escape Barati when Sarai and I took Tristan there. I’m glad to see that she’s grown up well.”
“Yes, she has,” Fenrir agreed, staring longingly out the doorway where Freya could be seen moving swiftly between the tents. Freya screwed up her face in disgust.
“Ew,” she muttered. Fenrir frowned at her.
“She’s taken,” he grunted. “Don’t worry, I know better than to moon after a committed woman.”
“Still,” she whined. Connor snorted fondly as they bickered.
Anfir arranged for them to share Fenrir’s tent for the time being, and they spent the hours after collecting their evening meal catching up.
“So, all of this—” she gestured at her brother’s injuries— “is because you feel down a hill while escaping?” Fenrir winced.
“It was a cliff, not a hill,” he hissed. “And half came from breaking out of the barracks with the plans.”
“And then you rolled into the ocean?” Tristan plowed on, ignoring Fenrir’s attempt to save face.
“How’s Sarai?” Fenrir asked, changing the subject.
“She’s the same as you remember, I imagine,” Connor said. “She’s injured and working herself too hard, but she’ll pull through. I pity the poor lad Anfir left with her,” he joked. “She’ll have the boy sorting bloom and minding the forge fire before she’s even out of that chair.”
Tristan and Fenrir laughed at the idea of Sarai in her wheeled chair commanding the Anfir-mandated bodyguard around the forge while Tutti watched and smoked.
“She hasn’t changed a bit,” Fenrir observed softly. “I wish she could have come with you.” Connor took the stew bowls from Tristan and Fenrir’s limp hands, wiping them out with sand from outside the tent.
“She’ll be along soon enough,” Connor declared. “She aims to bring weapons.”
“We’ll need them.”
As they settled for the night, Connor sleeping on a pallet by the fire while Tristan and Fenrir laid on cots nearby, she finally voiced a question she’d been meaning to ask.
“Fenny?” Fenrir made a snuffling noise she took to mean ‘continue’. “Why did Anfir say that the Doerman’s guards were necessary?” Fenrir shuffled around to face her.
“The other camp members don’t like them being here,” he began. “They don’t trust a tent full of Doerman deserters to be loyal to the cause. A few of the very old and the very young have been attacked. Of course, they won’t say who did it, no matter how much we try and get them to squeal. They just started sticking together and guarding their tent at all times.” He sounded angry at the injustice, but he also sounded like he understood why they’d retreat instead of pointing fingers.
Shame crawled up Tristan’s throat. She tucked her chin into the blankets.
“Do you trust them?”
Fenrir shrugged. “I brought some of them here,” he said as if it explained everything. “There’s a few I trust more than others, and there are some I’d trust my life with.”
“Anyone in particular?” Fenrir shot her a confused look but continued.
“The one lad that takes up guarding the group in the mornings. His name is Petya. He and his sister are good people. They saved my life from bandits while I was leading them to camp. Petya’s a bit stubborn and cautious as a demon around a priest, but he’s loyal. His sister’s the same. She’s a sweet girl, younger than you, but I think you’d get along.
Tristan didn’t know about that. As the night dragged on and she laid there wondering about what she could do. She knew Anfir had been right when he’d given his speech about allies. If she could do something to help relations, maybe she could understand more about what he meant.
“You want to go undisguised?” Anfir looked confused but intrigued. “Do you think you’re ready?” Tristan nodded.
“Nearly everyone knows who I am or they’ve heard the rumors,” she retorted. “There’s absolutely no point anymore, so I may as well get it over with.” She clenched her fists and took a deep breath. “And we need to get the others to accept the Doerman’s into the camp,” she mused. “I think this will help. I need to thank them for saving Fenny, I should make sure to welcome them officially while I’m at it?”
Anfir squinted at her, scanning her from top to bottom with an unreadable expression. Tristan sighed.
“I’m not ready to forgive all Doerman’s just yet. I still don’t trust or like them. But I’m willing to try.” She clutched at her skirt. “To be a good Queen, I’m willing to try.”
Slowly, Anfir’s mouth curled into a beaming grin. It did nothing to assuage the knots in her stomach.
She’d noticed it over breakfast and during the morning chores. The Doerman campers were either snubbed or given the cold shoulder by nearly the entire camp. There was a frigid divide that settled over everyone. Even Tristan could see that the tension was going to hit a breaking point sooner rather than later. She had a plan or half of one. She wasn’t sure what the other half would be yet, but a large part of it would depend on this Petya Fenrir had told her about.
Before the noon meal, Fenrir and Anfir escorted her to the Doerman tent, silent shadows as she marched forward with her real face bare and her disguise ring hung on the cord around her neck. The boy Fenrir had mentioned was sitting out front, as she’d expected. He wore a cobbled together uniform of a leather vest and arm guards, sadly worn and not likely to hold up to a real fight. Her small trio halted in front of him, and she pretended not to notice the way he gripped his dented spear until the knuckles were white.
“Are you Petya?” she asked, forcing confidence into her tone. She could sense other members of the camp staring at them curiously. Petya’s brows wrinkled under his helmet. Fierce black-brown eyes scanned their group, only relaxing when they settled on Fenrir.
“I am, your Majesty,” he said cautiously. Tristan sighed, there really had been no point in trying to hide was there?
“Is your sister here?” He nodded and leaned back to holler into the tent.
Tia appeared quickly. She looked very similar to her brother, but her demeanor was more hesitant than Petya’s. She too relaxed when she spotted Fenrir, bobbing a quick curtsey to him and another to Freya and Anfir. Their little greeting had garnered an audience both inside the tent and from the rebels that were slowly approaching, both confused and intrigued. An old man followed Tia out of the tent. Tristan assumed based on Petya’s head bob to him that this was an elder of some sort. She cleared her throat.
“My brother has told me that you saved his life,” she began. “I came to offer my thanks.” She bowed deeply. When she stood back up, it was to shocked gasps on both sides. She plowed forward, attempting to quell her nerves by speaking loud enough for everyone to hear. “Vamaser thanks you for standing with us. Although our countries have been enemies, you chose to help us reclaim our home. You have my gratitude as the Heir of King Bankin. I’d like to hear more of your opinions on how we can work together in the future.”
Once her speech was done, she waited. No reactions were forthcoming. The Vamaser camp was quiet, and the Doerman tent was filled with shocked faces. Finally, the old man bowed back.
“There is no thanks necessary, your majesty,” he said. “We are honored to be welcomed by you.” Behind him, Tia bobbed her head with a delighted grin, while Petya remained cautious.
Tristan hesitated before smiling at the elder. One small step, she thought. One step today and another tomorrow. She could feel her brother’s and uncle’s proud stares on her back. I can do this.