Paige and her party had left the Castle Molt in all haste to make it to the first resupply checkpoint before dark, located just outside of the castle’s territory. It was during that time that Tyler had revealed the full route to the mausoleum.
“The mausoleum is located close to the royal capital. As we all know, the demon army of Trent has occupied almost half the country so far, focusing on the cities and towns. This is problematic since most of the checkpoints the guild set up were based around farming communities.” He grimaced. “With these towns occupied, we have two main choices. The first, we sneak into these towns and have a potential fight on our hands. If we are lucky, the demon army may have already moved on. Or second, we can follow the general path and forage off the land.”
Nick spoke up first, studying the map Tyler had laid out. “I’m for checking out the towns. Most of the supplies will be easy to find on the road, but if we have time to stop, let’s stop.” Zenith and Isabella nodded together.
Paige traced a route on the map with her finger. “The frontlines are around the fifth checkpoint. That means we have about ten days of safe travels, and then up to two to three weeks of dangerous travel.” She pointed at a relatively larger town close to the front lines. “We won’t use any of the established checkpoints after we reach the frontlines. So, everything before Trulton is fine; after that, we will strictly forage for supplies. After that point, any travelers will be under surveillance, from both sides. Let’s not risk exposing ourselves too early.”
“What is General Williams plan? How are you coordinating with the suppression army?” Paige asked. The others looked at Tyler as well. This would influence the latter part of their journey.
“We are using homing pigeons right now to coordinate. We do have some message scrolls we can use if we encounter an emergency though. The priorities right now are the granaries and iron mines. The suppression army is hoping to use these to reduce the need for a supply line. Attack move capture. He has already sent orders to start attacking the captured towns and castles. Some of the castles on the defensive lines have not fallen, so the suppression army is trying to send reinforcements to them.” He pointed on the map to a location south of their destination. “Castle Lidale, Vord, and Masthe are their main targets right now. Since the royal castle has been thoroughly destroyed, the crown princess has decided that once Castle Masthe has been retaken, it shall be renamed to Castle Terpiine, and will be the new location for the royal capital.”
Paige thought for a minute. “Okay, our general plan after the fifth checkpoint will be to follow the rivers toward the mausoleum. Will the suppression army be able to advance that far so soon?” She turned toward Zenith. “I know Appealte is closer to the frontlines than Leit. How soon could the reinforcements get to Castle Vord?”
“The Mage Guild and the major families had already prepared their armies to deploy by the time I left. I have already messaged them the results of the negotiations, so I suspect they should be crossing the borders soon.” Zenith pointed at the map, to a location south of Castle Molt. Castle Vey is about a five-day march to the border, and another five days to Castle Vord. So Appealte reinforcements should be actively attacking by the time we reach Trulton.”
“Leit’s reinforcements will reach Castle Lidale within ten days.” Pointing at a castle west of Trulton. “So, they should start pressuring the frontlines around the same time we are trying to sneak past it.” Nick was hoping that he would cross paths with some fellow rangers.
“We might cross paths with Leit’s reinforcements depending on our travel speed. Do you know which places they might be stopping at to resupply?” Paige asked Nick.
He looked at the map and pointed at a castle northeast of Trulton. “They probably will not stop at any of the towns. My best guess is they will stop at the just the castles instead. He traced a line from Castle Patel to Castle Lidale. We should cross paths with them somewhere past Trulton.”
“What about our pack animals? Are we able to change them out anywhere?” Nick asked. He did not like leaving his specially trained Ranger horse at the guild.
“We will have guild trained pack animals.” he indicated toward the mules sitting down around them. “I know that Leit’s horses are well trained, but the guild trained horses are not too far behind.”
“Ranger horses are specially trained, not Leit’s. I’d just feel more comfortable if I could bring my own horse.” Paige and Tyler nodded at that.
“What’s special about them?” Isabella asked. In her mind, a horse is a horse, no matter their training. “Do they have special abilities or something?”
“A Ranger’s horse is their companion,” Nick responded. “Their training allows them to travel the forests unhindered and with less noise.”
“It’s just a special breed of horse, Isabella. Just like how the army has specially bred battle horses, the ranger horses are specially bred for intelligence instead.” Paige replied dryly.
Nick clarified his position, thinking Paige was undermining how good their horses really are. “Any trained horse will listen to basic commands; a trained battle horse will not flinch in battle, but a good Ranger horse will be able to assess the situation and have a feel for what I am trying to do.”
“So, the horse is a mind reader?” Isabella questioned, her face showing disbelief.
“Not a mind reader, but intelligent,” Nick responded, a smile on his face.
“How do you hide it then?” Isabella questioned. “If a horse is that intelligent, everyone would want one, wouldn’t they.”
“Ranger horses are bred so that they look like draft ponies. If you were a thief at an inn, and the stable had a messenger horse, a battle horse, or a farmer’s pony, most would pick the messenger’s horse. We train our horses so that no else can ride them, even if they want to.”
“How do you do that?” The idea of a trained battle animal intrigued her greatly, although she would rather have an intimidating war hound or an attack eagle instead. And the idea of an animal only listening to her was even better, as no one would be able to take it away from her, not unless she wanted them to.
“Ranger Secret. Who wants to have first watch?” Nick said, ending that conversation. He unrolled his bag as he settled in beside a tree.
“Isabella will always take first watch.” Paige decided “One of us will stay with Isabella on the first watch to teach her anything we deem necessary. Then we’ll rotate the order between me, Zenith, Tyler, and Nick.”
They all agreed and left to set up their campsites. “Isabella, go set up your tent. We can talk afterward.”
“Are you fine Isabella?” Paige spoke to the young girl after everyone had fallen asleep. The campfire was running low on fuel.
“Huh? Why wouldn’t I be?” Isabella responded back, adding some twigs to the smoldering fire.
“If your mother was awake, she’d probably resent this journey too.” Paige chuckled “Although, that is how I met your mother anyways.”
Isabella scooted closer to her Aunt. “Mother always told us you were our Aunt, but how did you meet her? She said it was just an accident.”
“It was a hunting trip the royal family proposed, mainly so that your mother could meet potential candidates for her marriage,” Paige said, dwelling on the past. “As they were headed to the hunting grounds, they were attacked by a team of demons from Trent. It was never mentioned to the public that demons from Trent were roaming the country, mostly because they were in small groups. Anyways, your mother was separated from her guards and she drove her horse straight into the woods.”
“And then?” Isabella asked. Her mother had never mentioned any part of this story. ‘She just said they met during a royal outing.’
“I met her in the woods. I was hunting a pair of boars that were terrorizing a local farming village I had recently passed by and was offered a free stay in the inn if I could kill them.” She smiled in remembrance. “It was an easy enough job, so I took it. So here I was, out in the middle of nowhere, when a young girl on a spooked horse rode by. I thought it was strange, so I asked if she needed help.”
“You stopped her to ask?”
“No silly, I ran next to her and asked if she needed help.” Paige shrugged her shoulders. “I have a movement Skill that lets me run pretty fast. She said she was lost and needed help. So, I took her back to the village and we got to know each other.”
“That’s it?” Isabella replied. Surely something else must have happened?
“I was accused of kidnapping a princess and was forced to fight my way out of the kingdom, whereupon I swore vengeance unless she became my friend.” Paige looked at her, a smile on her face. “That only happens in stories. But sometimes, your best friends can be met just like that. A random meeting. A helping hand. She asked for help, and I was happy to help.”
She settled into her seat by the fire, her back facing the camp as she looked out into the forest. “It took two weeks to get back to the capital, and with no money to our name, we had to finish requests each night before we were able to make it back. I think it made her a better Queen to be honest, since she got the chance to see how her citizens lived and worked. We’ve been friends ever since.”
She glanced at Isabella as she pulled her cloak around her, trying to still the cold autumn air from reaching her. Paige waited until Isabella was comfortable before she began talking again. “Being a crown princess is hard. You must maintain your image, showcase your talents, protect the dignity of the royal family. I think I was her only real friend before she met your father and Gale.”
“So anyways, I kept in touch every other with Rebecca every couple of months, and eventually we did some adventures together. Your grandmother was rather protective of her though, so there was always a pair of Royal Guards following us. Tyler probably remembers those times as well, since I would duel him every time Rebecca left the castle so that we could have our little adventure by ourselves. That’s how we became friends with your father and Gale as well. We were a team.”
The fire slowly died down again as they sat in silence. Paige waited for Isabella to speak her mind.
“What will happen to me now, Aunt Paige?” Isabella asked quietly, her eyes absently staring at the dying fire. “Mother told me what would happen if my class was ever revealed. I don’t want to leave my family.”
She turned toward Paige, the glow of the fire turning her hair from platinum to a low orange. A shred of hope shined in her eyes, slightly covering her despair. “Will you be able to stop them from taking me?”
“…” Paige hesitated to give an answer. “When your mother gets better, we will decide what to do. I could do something to stop them, but that is a last resort option.” She looked into the young girl eyes. “I am certain I can stop them up until you are almost an adult. But beyond that, we will have issues.”
Both said nothing, knowing full well who they had to face in the end.
Isabella got up and sat next to Paige, settling down and resting her head on her shoulders. “Anything is better than nothing, Aunt.” She started to drift off to sleep. “How come you didn’t tell mother about your class?”
“Knowing would change nothing and everything, Isabella. You are young and kept away from court politics. If you had seen how your siblings grew up, you’d be wary of people too.”
“Your mother had her guard up against me almost all the way up to the capital. She didn’t have any other siblings to fight for the throne, but she did have many suitors and nobles who tried to influence her from a young age. In your mother’s eyes, I was just another person who could be trying to manipulate her, even though we met randomly.”
She looked down and saw the young girls’ eyes close. “Get some sleep Isabella, we have a long journey ahead of us.”
“Nick, your shift.”
Nick opened an eye slowly. His stared past the treetop at the constellation Leo above him. He whispered quietly. “It’s barely past midnight Tyler. Aren’t royal guards supposed to stay up all night guarding?”
“Yeah, but it is also a good time to talk.”
He got up slowly as Tyler sat down on the opposite side of the tree. “I’ll take this side of the camp.”
“What’s there to talk about? We’ve barely known each other for half a day”
“To be fair, our records on you are extensive Nick.”
“Same could be said about you Tyler.”
Both hesitated for a moment. Although Leit Confederation, Appealte and Alcudia were neighboring countries, each of them had strained relations with each other. If not for the sudden war with Trent, Alcudia would most likely be testing the borders right about now.
“Paige,” Nick said after a moment. He also had some questions that he hoped Tyler could answer. The numerous secrets surrounding Paige had scared him to some extent. “You’ve known her the longest out of all of us. How did she hide her class all this time? Our records on here are scarce. She doesn’t interfere in national affairs unless the royal family is involved. The only known battle she participated in against Leit was when the Queen was captured and close to childbirth.”
Tyler chuckled. “That was the first question Zenith had asked as well.” He sighed to himself. “We don’t know either. I’m almost positive the Queen did not know her true strength though. Otherwise, she would never have hesitated to go on those little adventures in her youth, not with a guard that strong.” He rubbed his arms distractedly. “I always thought she was just a bit luckier than me; our duels had even odds if I were to believe the bookies.”
Nick wasn’t so sure though. How could someone hide that well for so long? “And her Class upgrades were consistent? Nothing out of the ordinary?”
“She was friends with the crown princess at the time. The Queen had her entire background dug out; even the relatives of her supposed childhood friends were interviewed. We knew she was older than she appeared, but the guild reports collaborated our findings.”
He turned his head sideways, looking at Paige and Isabella sleeping soundly next to each other. “Those with Battle Classes age slowly, everyone knows that. We just assumed that she was born with a Warrior Class, so her age and looks would not match, regardless of her class rank.”
“She was just an Apprentice Paladin at the time she met the crown princess, so it didn’t take long for the spies to figure out where and when she was born. You don’t get a class like Paladin without having the drive to protect loved ones from evil. Her Class upgrades, Skills, and training were consistent too. Even within the Royal Guards, we praised her as an optimum warrior, since it seemed like she had a Skill for every occasion.”
“Was it all a lie?” Nick asked quietly. He did not like what he was hearing. Someone who was able to act that well had to have specialized training. Hiding your skills that deep was not something you could explain away.
“No, her friendship with Queen Rebecca is real. She truly cares about her and the kids.” Tyler responded instantly. “Her true class though, I wonder what she had to go through in order to get it.”
“And how old she is. The hasn’t been a large-scale conflict in centuries. You don’t get those titles through sparring and practice.”
Nick hesitated to ask his next question. “Why was she out of the country when Alcudia was attacked? With her actual class, she could have defended the capital alone.”
“That is harder to explain. The queen had sent her to negotiate with the Imperial family,” Tyler sighed as he scanned his surroundings. “The Queen did not think the war would last that long or go that far into the country. At the first sign of the Demon Lord, she had already made up her mind to ask the Imperial family for help. According to the king’s letter, once they found the sword, they both asked her to negotiate with the Imperial family. My guess is that after Paige heard the news about the royal capital falling, she relayed the message to the Guild and came back. I could see her doing that.”
“The queen trusts her that much?” Nick asked calmly.
“Yes. She trusted that Paige would choose what is best for Isabella.”
“Do you still trust her?” His attitude toward Paige would change based on his answer. He would still make his own decision, but it did not hurt to know where his companions stood.
“Yes. Although I’ll probably take her decisions into consideration. Her class is special.”
‘I will too.’ Nick thought to himself. It wouldn’t hurt to learn from Paige.
“Get some rest, I can handle the rest from here.”
Tyler agreed and nodded off to sleep. Nick thought deep into the night.