Hunted (tentative title) Chapter 4

Chapter 4- Distraction

       I left the castle, feeling very unsettled to meet with Darius.  I entered into the building the guard used as an unofficial headquarters.  It had once been an old tavern and inn.  Now, however, it was used strictly by the guard.  We had kept on staff to run the kitchen and bar for the soldiers of the guard.  It was nice to have a place that was all ours.   There was a fairly large banquet hall just off of the main dining area that served as a larger private meeting area.  Some of old inn rooms had been transformed into our interrogation rooms, the rest were left as they were to provide lodging for travelling soldiers or trainees.  Behind the inn we had a very large courtyard, completely converted into our training yard.  I smiled at the charming woman behind the bar when I entered.  She gave an over eager smile in return.

            “Jackson!  I’m so happy to see you in, I wasn’t expecting you.  Are you in for drinks?  Would you like some company?  It’s very slow today, I would be more than happy to join you….” I could hear the overanxious nerves in her voice as she trailed off.

            “Thank you for the offer, Melody, but I am not here for drinks.  I came to meet with Darius.  Do you know where I can find him?”  I asked.

            “Oh…  Yes, the prince is in room 4.”  She made no attempt to hide the disappointment in her voice.   “Are you sure you don’t want to stop for something to eat?  I would love the chance to talk to you for a while.”  She reached out her hand and placed it on my arm as I tried to pass.

            I stopped, surprised by how forward she was being.  Melody often flirted with the men who came in here, but was usually much more reserved with me.  “I’m sorry, I am late for this meeting as it is.”

            She did not move her hand away, instead she started rubbing my shoulder sympathetically.  “Forgive me for prying, Jackson, but I heard what happened with you and lady Violet,”  she hesitated momentarily “and I was just wondering why you did not go through with the marriage arrangement.  It seemed an obvious match to everyone else.”  She blushed scarlet and avoided my gaze, but still did not remove her hand from my arm.

            I stared at the barmaid blankly.  Even here, I could not escape this situation.  Did everyone know about it?  Why did everyone have to be so involved with my personal life?  “Melody, I’m sorry, but that is a private matter.  It’s not something I wish to discuss in casual conversation”

            “Oh, I just thought that maybe you turned her away just because…. Well, maybe because there was someone else that you had in mind?”  If possible, her cheeks flushed an even darker red as she spoke. Her question sounded almost hopeful. 

            My annoyance melted to pity for the poor girl as I realized where he questioning was leading.  “No, there is no one else that I had in mind.  I simply have no interest in being married.”  I smiled at her warmly as she finally raised her eyes to mine.  “In all honesty, I am practically married to my work.  I think I am doing the women of Galashenia a favor by not involving myself with anyone.  It’s a sentence I hardly like to impose on any woman.”  I tried to joke with her, trying to spare her feelings by convincing her, as I had tried to convince Violet, that her life would be better off without me in it.

            “A life sentence with you?  Hmmm…  I know a few women who wouldn’t mind that….   But you’re right, it’s none if my business. Of course it couldn’t have been because of another woman.  I mean, if you turned someone like lady Violet away, then there is no way someone else would stand a chance, no way someone like me could ever….”  She stopped herself short, as if she did not realize she was still talking aloud.  “Sorry…  I just wanted to be sure you were okay.  I know that hurting Violet would not sit well with you, and I wanted to know how you were coping.”

            I hurt Violet, and everyone was still checking to make sure that I was okay.  What was wrong with people?  “You’re right, I feel terrible about it all, which is why I would love for people to stop asking how I’m feeling.  I would prefer people save their pity for the person who actually deserves it.  People should be saving their anger for me, not their concern.” I wanted someone, anyone, to get mad at me for having hurt Violet.  Maybe if I knew someone was furious with me for this, I could stop being so furious with myself.  But all I got was their pity and their worry. 

            She looked abashed.  “You really are one of a kind Jackson.” 

            Darius emerged from the hallway, an old man walking behind him.  He stopped abruptly, looking from me to Melody, recognizing the tension that rested between the two of us.  He wore an expression of mixed surprise and chagrin.  Yet he very easily fell right back into his usual easy going demeanor as he stepped between us.

            “Of course you show up right when I have finished all of your work for you.  Have you been out here charming beautiful women again instead?”  He winked at Melody as he put his arm around me and lead me away from her.

            “I was not trying to charm anyone, nor was I trying to avoid work.”  I grumbled.  The last thing I was trying to do was charm beautiful women.  The last thing I wanted was another admirer.   All that I wanted was for things to go back to normal.  

            “You may not have been trying, yet you were still succeeding at both.”  He smiled at me.  “Jackson, this is Mr. Zanthana from Euleris, the town about 3 hours away.  I got his full report for you.”

            I turned to the man Darius had gestured at. He was an older man with grey hair and a thick mustache.  He had dirt on his hands, and all over the old overalls he wore.  The man was clearly a farmer, and was also clearly terrified out of his mind.  I shook his hand and said “Thank you so much for coming.  I am so sorry I wasn’t there to meet with you myself.  I was unavoidably detained by the Queen.”  I shot Darius annoyed glance before looking back to the old farmer.  “I trust Darius got everything?”

            He smiled weakly at me. “Yeah, the prince was very thorough.  I answered all his questions and I told him all that I know.”  He hesitated momentarily before continuing.  “I know that it is my duty to come forward if I suspect something.  But, you won’t tell them magic folks who it was who came to you, will you?  They live so close to my farm and I am afraid of them.  If they knew it was me who sent the guard to their door….  Well, I have children and grandchildren who all live with me.  I came to you to protect my family.  But this may put them in just as much danger.”

            I released his hand and placed my other hand reassuringly on his shoulder.  “Do not worry my friend.  You did the right thing in coming to us. We will not act on anything until we have come to your town and thoroughly examined the situation ourselves.  Should we find the family in question to be magic users, they will never find out who was the source of our information.  And your family will be rewarded for your courage in coming forward.  Have a safe journey back home.”

            “Thank you.”  He nodded at me, looking slightly more confident, and turned to exit the tavern.

            “Well, my friend.  Let’s sit and have some drinks while I bring you up to speed.”  Darius said as he turned towards a table and then he called across the room to the bar “Melody, could you please bring Jackson and I a pitcher of ale?”

            Melody smiled in response, and went to work behind the bar.

            “So, what was his story?”  I asked.

            “He came to tell us of a family living in Euleris.  The old couple have lived there for years without notice.  He said they mostly kept to themselves.  But lately they have had a lot of visitors from out of town.  He says there are all sorts of strange folks coming in and out for months now.  His farm is close by and he is worried.  Weird things have been happening in and around their house and he’s afraid for his family.  Two of his granddaughters came running home one day gleefully telling him about the lady who turned into a dog.  His grandson once saw a man who had carried a full grown horse with a broken leg to the stables as though it weighed no more than a colt.  He said there was a warm bright light glowing in the stable windows, and a moment later the horse came walking out as though nothing were wrong at all.  The farmer has tried to sneak up to see some of this for himself, but it’s like the old man knows he’s coming.  Whenever he walks up the hill to their home, the old man who owns the place is always alone in his garden, and looks up and waves like nothing is wrong.  The strangers continue to turn up and sneak away often in the dead of night and stay for months at a time.  It’s like a meeting point or something.  If he’s right about what’s going on there, this could be huge.  They could be the group we’ve been looking for. We know there is a resistance group somewhere out there.  We know they have large numbers and we know they’re working together to plan something.  This might be it, Jackson.  I think we’ve found them.”  His eyes were full of excitement.

            I was thinking hard about what Darius was saying.  We were sure that there was a group of magic users out there trying to gather numbers together, trying to plan something.  We just couldn’t be sure what their goal was.  Some kind of horrendous act of mass violence?  Or were they planning something bigger?  An uprising?  Did they want to take over?  I pondered the idea slowly, and finally let the excitement settle in as well when I realized that Darius could be right.  It was possible that the information this farmer brought us could lead us right to the group we were looking for. 

            “You could be right.  We have to do this properly though, make sure they don’t catch on.  We also have to be sure it is them before we go barging in for arrests.  This could blow up in our faces if it isn’t done right.”  I said.

            “Who do you want to send?  Bowen has always been good at information gathering.  He wouldn’t let you down.”  Darius suggested.

            “No, I think I would prefer to go myself.  I want to be personally sure that this is handled properly.  One wrong move and these people could all vanish in a puff of smoke, literally.”  I failed to add that I was desperate for something to keep me busy, and distract me from thoughts of Violet.  Not only that, but this mission would take me out of town and away from everyone’s prying questions and worried eyes.

            “I could go with you.”  He looked at me eagerly.

            “No, like I said, we need to keep it low key.  One person is all that’s needed.  Plus, we are trying not to draw attention to ourselves.  Nobody will recognize me or guess why I’m there.  You are a different story.  Nothing will send this group running for the hills faster than the prince showing up in their town.”  Plus, I wanted to be alone.  The thought of 3 hours on the road with nothing but Darius’s taunts about Violet was perhaps more than I could take.  But I didn’t want to say anything.  Darius looked dismayed enough at the thought of being left behind on such an important mission.

            “Yeah, I guess you’re right.”  He said, disappointment filling his grey eyes.

            Melody arrived at our table with our drinks.  Her eyes met mine and she gave me a half hearted smile.  I smiled back hesitantly, not wanting to give her the wrong idea. 

            “Thank you, my darling.” Darius said, winking at her again as she walked away.  He stared after her.  “I envy you sometimes, you know that?” 

            “Envy me?  What could I possibly have that could make prince Darius envious?”  I laughed.

            “You have the freedom to do whatever you want with your life.  My life was decided for me the day that I was born.   You can run off and pursue this lead; I am stuck here, tied down because of my title.  Not only am I too recognizable, but I am sure that this would not qualify as ‘staying safe’ by my father.”  He grimaced at the words as though ‘staying safe’ was a death sentence.  “And as blind to it as you may be, you have the attention of every woman in the kingdom.  And you throw that away like it’s nothing.  You even turn away the one woman who could officially make you a part of my family.  I don’t get it.  Is no one good enough for you?  Or seriously not even notice the women around you?”  His eyes were still gazing into the distance towards the bar. 

            It was the first time Darius had ever commented on the situation with Violet without making it into a joke.  I couldn’t believe what he was saying.  I never thought that he would ever take the rejection of marriage to his cousin as a rejection of becoming a part of his family.  When Izabella had mentioned that fact, she had just been trying to use it as a means of making me change my mind.  Darius actually almost sounded hurt by it.

            “Darius, I said no to Violet because I couldn’t marry someone that I didn’t love, not because I didn’t want to be a part of your family.  You are my brother, and I have always thought of you as such.”  I said, trying to reassure him.

            His gaze did not flinch from the bar.  He showed not even a flicker in my direction.  I was wondering if he even had heard what I said.  “I know.  I think I’m more envious of the fact that you had the option to say no.  Even with women, my title leaves me little freedom.  If my mother had tried to arrange a marriage for me, I don’t think she would have taken my rejection so easily.” 

            “Ha.  You think your mother took my rejection easily?  You didn’t hear her lecture after our meeting with your father.”

            “My point is that I don’t think the word ‘no’ would have even been an option for me.  You on the other hand, turn Violet down and not only is nobody mad about it, but you have another beautiful girl waiting in line for her chance.”  He said, his gaze still lost in the distance.

            It was only then that I noticed that he wasn’t just aimlessly staring towards the bar, he was staring at the girl behind the bar. 

            “She can’t take her eyes from you, yet she hardly glances twice at me.”  His stare was still stuck upon Melody. 

            “Melody?  Are you interested in Melody?”  I was absolutely bewildered by Darius’s suddenly odd behavior.

            His gaze broke from her finally and he turned to look at me, a smile spreading on his face.  “I knew that she had never noticed, but I cannot believe that you haven’t yet caught on.  I drag you in here every spare minute we have.  What do you think I come here for?  The wonderful ale they serve?”  He grimaced into his tankard. 

            “I thought maybe it was because of the guard.  That’s why I spend all of my spare time here.”  I said.

            Darius laughed.  “Jackson, nobody is as devoted to this guard as you. I would not spend every spare minute I had working with the guard, if it weren’t for the fact that Melody works here.”

            “Why not just tell her?  She probably hasn’t shown interest in you because you’re the prince.  She probably thinks that you wouldn’t even consider her, so she hasn’t even considered you.”

            “That is exactly my point.  ‘because I’m the prince…’  I wish I could stop hearing those stupid words.  I thought that was supposed to give opportunities, yet all it has done is take them away.  I have always wished I could trade positions with you.  I would be free to do what I want.  I could risk my neck all I wanted in the fight against magic. Or, I could be free to run off with the girl that I love.  The world would be open to me.  Instead I’m trapped here, and the girl I love doesn’t even notice me ‘because I’m the prince.’  Little does she know I would gladly walk away from the title and everything that goes along with it if I could do it with her next to me.”

            “I think your mother would be more open to you choosing your own wife than you think.  I’m not sure that it matters much to your mother whether the girl is royalty or a bar maid, so long as she is a good woman, a good future queen and you love her.  Why don’t you just go and talk to Melody?”

            “No, even if she did look at me, she wouldn’t see anything more than my crown.  And that is the last thing a girl like her is interested in.”

            “You know, I think you are more held back by cowardice than by your title.”  I was trying to goad him into talking to her.

            “You really have no idea what you are talking about.  I’d like to see how brave you are the day you see the girl who appears to you as the most beautiful thing you have ever seen.  The day you feel the ground shake at your feet and your heart ready to explode in your chest, I am willing to bet you will not have the courage to march up to her and declare your feelings.  I am willing to bet you will be shaking in your boots, just as I am.” 

            I laughed.  “And I am willing to bet that if you did march up to her and declare your feelings, the last thing you would hear is a rejection.”  

            He had no response for that, yet he did not move from his chair.  He glared at me, clearly eager to end the conversation. 

            “You have an early morning trip if you want to make it to Euleris in good time.  Get out of here and tell Tritus what you have planned.”  Finally his familiar smile returned as he said “Stay out of trouble, will you?  And try not to have too much fun without me.  You know how I hate to miss out on anything exciting.”

            I smiled back, grateful he was back to his usual smiling demeanor.  Seeing Darius so serious about something was slightly unnerving.  It did not fit into the picture of my best friend who hardly ever let the smile fade from his face.  Our friendship needed his joking nature to balance out my very serious nature.  He was always there to remind me to smile once in a while, just as I was always there to remind him that some things needed to be taken seriously.  We balanced each other out.  Love, it seemed, was playing strange games with Darius.  I could see it in his twisted expression.  His smile remained, but it looked more forced than ever before.  As I turned to leave, I thought of the longing I saw in Darius’s face.  It mirrored the look of longing and agony I had seen on Violet’s beautiful face the day by the river.  With that image frozen in my mind, I was briefly grateful that I had no plans of falling into such a crazy emotion.  Perhaps Izabella was right and I may be missing out on a lot of wonderful things if I missed out on love.  I was also however missing out on the pain of longing that wiped the smile even from Darius’s face and I was certainly not sorry for that.

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Novel / Novella
writing staceymarche
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Jackson has a strange conversation with Darius. He decides to set out on a journey with two purposes in mind. Firstly to investigate a group of magics, and secondly to distract himself from any more thoughts of Violet.
A Word from the Writer
again, this is a very rough draft. It needs to read over and many parts re written to tune it up. But please let me know what you think!