The following week was busy. Preparations were made for Lady Mellisande’s journey, and then scaled back when the Commander put his foot down on excess and deliberately drawing attention to themselves. It ended up being a very simple travelling group, aiming for safety in anonymity, rather than bluster.
The steward was consoled and conversed with at length. His reminiscences and self-recriminations yielded a range of observations and cautiously-repeated rumours surrounding the school that hardened Alec’s determination to see the place properly investigated.
The afternoon before they were due to leave, Alec called a full squad meeting, briefing them on the assignment and breaking the news of his resignation and the reallocation of roles within the group.
“But how can you leave sir, isn’t this your home?”
“I’ve only been here just over a year and it was never meant to be a long-term posting.”
The squad looked confused.
“Nathan and I are members of the King’s Guard. His Command asked the Commander here to make room for me to better investigate a rather strange rumour coming from nearby. Not one to let chance go to waste, the Commander promptly handed me a bunch of green boys and troublemakers and stuck me here until I’d sorted you all out.”
This drew a dutiful laugh, as intended, but it was as subdued group that went in to dinner that evening.
The next morning, the troop was packed, assembled and had been waiting an hour before Lady Mellisande appeared, a quietly downcast Rosalind in tow. People in the castle yard to bid her farewell magically found other places to be as she stalked to the mounting block, radiating icy fury.
The question was, have it out now, or leave her to stew. Alec decided on the latter, purely because it would infuriate her further, and gave the order to mount up without so much as a glance in her direction.
The ride to Nora’s cottage was accomplished in silence, Alec making sure to ride at the head of the group to hide his growing amusement. Nathan shook his head in disgust.
“You’re acting like a child you know.”
“You forgot petty and deliberately provoking. I know, and I’ll doubtless get over it, especially when I have to deal with the consequences, but in the meantime I’m enjoying myself so let it ride.”
He got over it as soon as they entered the clearing. Nora’s garden was torn to shreds and the sturdy cottage was looking worse for wear. A nod to Nathan sent the man to the door with Jase as backup as the rest of the squad divided themselves between checking the perimeter of the clearing and closely surrounding Lady Mellisande.
Nathan knocked and called, standing back so he was in full view of the windows and the conveniently placed crack in the door. He breathed easier when it swung open to reveal Nora, clearly unhappy but unharmed. He ducked into the cottage, leaving Jase to guard the door.
Mellisande moved to take her horse closer to the cottage. The guards refused to budge.
“Not until Nathan knows what’s going on.”
“Because gods forbid I should have any idea what’s going on right in front of me.”
Alec focused on his exasperating charge, “You really want to have this conversation now? When we could be ambushed at any moment?”
That earned him a glare capable of withering forests and her jaw visibly clenched. She returned pointedly to the silent treatment.
They weren’t kept waiting long, Nathan and Nora emerged with Nathan carrying a large bundle. Alec dismounted and moved across the grass to them, Mellisande was again blocked by her guards.
“I am charged with your safety Your Ladyship. Everything else must come second, including your curiosity.”
When he was close enough to not be overheard, he spoke a single word, “Kid?”
“He’s fine. Cuddled in a couple of cloaks here and pretending to be a … something, I forget what.”
An affronted hiss came from the bundle, “I’m an injured wolf puppy.”
The retort, compounding the relief, nearly startled a crack of laughter from the stoic captain, he locked it down just in time.”What happened?”
Nora shuddered, “Creatures, last night, howling and clawing at the doors and windows. They tried the roof too but I have defences up there, they didn’t get through. I don’t know what they were, but they weren’t natural.”
Nathan’s bundle twitched, “Captain Alec, it was the bad people, they found me.”
“He has to come with us.”
Alec nodded and turned to the healer, “Mistress Nora, we’re taking Lady Mellisande to her godmother at Lilyfeld Hall. I think it safest for Kid to accompany us. I would be honoured and relieved if you would join our company but understand if you’d rather not.”
Nora’s thin smile said a great deal, “Thank you for your consideration Captain, I’ll be coming with you.”
Alec signalled for one of the spare horses and directed the guard leading it to help Nora pack anything she needed.
“No need, I was about to make a run for the keep. Our packs are just inside the door.”
The soldier reached in and grabbed two bags and at Nora’s confirming nod, attached them to the saddle. She swung up and followed Alec back to his horse and a still-fuming Mellisande.
Alec mounted, then moved to where Nathan still stood, bending to take over charge of the bundle, “I’ll take the puppy for now, I need you on scouting duty.”
Mellisande’s protectors finally eased their circle enough to let her join Alec.
“Yes, a little white northern wolf puppy Nora has been caring for. He’s a little spooked but no additional injuries.”
Mellisande unbent enough to smile and gently patted the pile of cloth, prompting a squeaky growl from its depths.