Llew’s Return & The Evacuation of Highbend
Llew’s Return & The Evacuation of Highbend Manor
Year: Third Era 2114
“It doesn’t look like you are studying, Carys.” My mother chided me with her famously condescending sing-song voice, bringing a pink tinge to my cheeks. I shot her an annoyed glance...she wasn’t wrong, but I was irked by both her tone and how she had seen through my facade. My siblings and I were seated on the upper balcony under the vigilant supervision of my mother, and we were supposed to be studying, though I had been daydreaming while staring at the pages of my book. I was finding it more difficult than usual to concentrate today, and it seemed Mother noticed for once.
Iolyn, a lazy seventeen-year-old, was barely focused on his study of economics. His narrow chin was lazily propped up in his palm as his blue eyes half-lidded, the faint smile on his lips hinting at the manner of his own thoughts. The seven-going-on-seventeen-year-old Rhian sat across from me, her tiny frame dwarfed by the lute she held in her lap as she finally started the music lessons she had been begging for. I was twelve (nearly thirteen) and trying to sit demurely while my own book on Taurovan history sat open on my lap. I hadn’t turned a page in quite some time, and in retrospect, my facade had not been nearly as clever as I thought.
Today was the kind of day I loved to sit out here and study the most. The day was warm, but not sweltering, and the sun shone and lured birds and butterflies out to grace us with their presence. It was the kind of day where I could lose myself to reading, my interest laying most in history and tales of the heroes and villains that filled the chronicles with their astonishing victories and tragic defeats.
My own House, the House of Egon (or the House of the Sword, as we were often called) was born from such an outlandish victory, and perhaps that is why I found such stories so interesting. Kingdoms could be elevated to greatness or utterly destroyed, often due to the brilliance (or foolishness) of men, if not a mere twist of luck. Egon had won a great battle due to the first, likely with a healthy dose of the last, and thus, our bloodline was born.
Despite the perfect day, every word on the page was a blur, and I might as well have been trying to read ancient Velynesian for all the sense they made. Ever since Father fled over a year ago, I had been distracted. I found myself focused more on watching for his return than on my education or recreation, my gaze often set on the front gate.
While everyone else in my family had all but given up hope, I knew Father would come back, one way or another. He had promised, after all, though nobody in my family knew that. Even now, none of them knew that I had spoken to him as he fled, my terror of being interrogated by the Captain-General giving me all the reason I needed to hold my tongue, even amongst my own family.
A harsh chord sounded, distracting Mother from scolding me any further while Rhian gave a frustrated huff as she struck the wrong note. “This is hard.” She grumbled, having expected her sheer love of music to outweigh her lack of skill, and the reality of having to work at it was bringing a pout to her lips. Her music tutor offered a few gentle words of encouragement, though Rhian was not mollified and griped over how learning to play shouldn’t be so difficult.
I looked from Rhian to Mother and murmured an apology for my own lack of focus. “I’m sorry, Mother. May I get a different book to study today? I am having trouble focusing on this one.” Mother’s piercing blue eyes narrowed, giving me a shrewd look at my request. She was possibly weighing the likelihood of me wasting time and dawdling, so I adopted my best innocent and obedient look.
Finally, she gave me a nod. “Alright, Carys, but no dilly-dallying.” I set my current book on the table and rose.
Iolyn piped up as I headed inside. “Why are you so insistent on us studying anyways? Aren’t you always telling us to follow our hearts and our dreams?” His voice faded as I stepped inside, though I paused to hear Mother’s answer…I had been wondering the same thing over the last year.
“I will not have foolish children following foolish hearts and even more foolish dreams.” Her smooth voice echoed from the balcony. Mother was an idealist, though that also meant she could become somewhat authoritarian when we ignored her ideals for our lives.
I continued through the house, descending the curved staircase to enter the library where I browsed through one of the shelves in search of more interesting history than the one I was currently pretending to read.
It was only a tiny flicker of movement outside, but it captured my attention completely as I peered out the large library window. Two men on horses were coming up the road from the gate, but with the thick trees that lined the drive, I lost sight of them. All thoughts of studying were completely forgotten as I quickly made my way to the front hall, pulling open the heavy doors to step onto the front balcony just in time to see the figures enter the courtyard. My stomach tightened into a knot as my heart skipped a beat.
He looked far older than I remembered, the subtle lines that marked his face had creased deeply, giving him a wearied and weathered look. His horse slowed to a shuffle as he neared the steps, his grey eyes meeting mine as a tired smile formed on his lips.
“I never could sneak by you, could I, Little Dove?” He chuckled softly as he swung his leg over to dismount his large horse. My feet hardly touched the ground as I ran forward, throwing myself into his outstretched arms, burying my face into his chest, unable to utter a single word under the burden of my overwhelming emotions. He’s finally home! Despite my vast number of questions and stories I had about this last year, all I could do was cling to him fiercely and hope this was not a trick of my eyes.
“Yes, Carys.” He seemed to answer my unspoken question. “I have officially been declared innocent at last. I’m home.” He murmured into my hair, and I could feel the strain melting away from him. His arms tightened around me, gripping me securely with the embrace of a man who had come to believe he would never hold his loved ones ever again. I fought back the sobs of joy that rose in my chest.
“Llew?” My Mother’s voice permeated the happy fog in my mind, the sudden recollection that I was supposed to be getting a book bringing an abashed look to my face. I wasn’t sure Mother would consider this a valid reason for skipping my studies, but then I doubted even being on the brink of death would be either. I clung to Father for one last moment before letting him go to Mother. He kissed the top of my head as he rose to his feet, his long stride carrying him to his wife.
Their embrace was no less firm than mine, Mother’s arms gripping his shoulders as though fearing he would vanish from her sight. “How?” I heard her mumble against his cheek before she pulled back to look up at him in disbelief.
His hand cupped her jaw for a moment before dropping to her shoulder. “Her most damning evidence was forged.” He told her with a smile, possibly forgetting that I was still standing behind him. He let out a tired chuckle and shook his head. “The forger that she hired was caught and confessed to creating some of her best evidence against me in exchange for leniency. That brought all the rest of it into question, though there was no testimony remaining that was strong enough for a conviction. And since I had the unwavering support of every man in my company, they had nothing left by which to build a case.”
He kissed Mother lightly on the lips, adding softly, “I’m free, and I’m home, Tesni. I swear I will never leave you or the children again.” Doubt and suspicion remained visible in Mother’s eyes, though whatever questions or retorts she had were left unspoken. Despite her every effort to appear calm and collected, she wrapped her arms tightly around Father again in a rare show of affection.
Captain Cole, the man who had come over a year ago to warn my father of the approaching cavalry and their intent to arrest him, had dismounted and now frowned deeply as he stepped forward to intrude upon the loving moment shared by my parents. “Lord Llew, I hate to interrupt your reunion, but there are much more pressing matters that we must see to. They cannot wait.” He insisted, his expression failing to mask the urgency he felt.
Mother pulled away, a displeased look ghosting over her features. “ You must leave again already? Llew….” While she barely managed to maintain her calm demeanor, I could feel her seething from where I stood, my own disappointment showing at the thought of Father leaving again already. But you just got home! I wanted to cry.
Father turned to glare at Cole as he growled. “You cannot even let me enjoy reuniting with my family for five minutes?” He fumed, narrowing his eyes at his Captain, the man giving him a stern and superior look. Father relented beneath his Captain’s hard stare before looking apologetically to Mother, shaking his head. “Not just I, Tesni...all of us.” He let out a tired sigh as he released mother from his embrace.
My heart jumped up into my chest before dropping into the pit of my stomach as I wondered what that meant. We were all leaving? Why? It seemed my parents and Captain Cole had forgotten I was there as they continued their discussion with a swiftly growing urgency, though I instinctively shuffled a little closer to Father as I listened.
Father pressed his lips together into a thin line, trying to explain. “The Taurovan army that held the southern border was decimated in a surprise attack by the combined Yehketim and the U’sharrim forces and now their marauders are pouring across the border. They are sacking lands as they go, hollering about reclaiming what is rightfully theirs. We must all evacuate these lands until we can drive back those Yehketim mutts.” He let out a faint curse under his breath.
Terror struck at those words, my breath hitching as icy fingers of fear gripped my heart. The Yehketim have invaded?! I blinked a few times, trying to find the will to be strong and unafraid but instead, I took a few steps closer to Father in desperate need of comfort. My fingers grasped Father’s coat and while he didn’t look down at me, his hand found mine, covering it with his own to console me.
Mother’s jaw tightened as she stared at Father, eyes narrowing in both anger and fear. The fiery temperament that usually remained deeply buried nearly reared its spirited head as she stiffly asked. “How long do we have?” She fixed Cole in her swiftly darkening gaze, the Captain only faintly shaking his head in dismay as he gave the bad news.
“Two, possibly three days...then they will cross the river.” He said lowly, his eyes turning as his head nudged in the direction of the river that flowed at the bottom of the valley. Highbend Manor had been built upon the top of the hill that overlooked the river bend, making our land the unofficial guardian of the waters.
In my mind's eye, I could already see the Yehketim savages pouring across the water. My heart suddenly began to race and my breathing grew shallow, imagining them storming up the hill with their terrifying war cry and laying waste to our home, burning it to ash before massacring us all. They would leave nothing of us but the crimson stains that soaked the ground, the last and literal claim of our bloodline on these lands.
I whimpered without realizing it and I turned to look up at Father, whose grey eyes were fixed on mine. the sorrowful look on his face speaking volumes of his regret. Father crouched so he could look into my eyes as he whispered what little encouragement he could give. “Don’t be afraid, Little Dove. Go inside, and pack your things. Take only what you really need.”
“Are they going to kill us?” I asked, unable to raise my voice above a whisper, but Father quickly shook his head to allay my fear. “We will be safe in Perinthas, Carys. I promise you, we will be alright. Now be swift... go get your things.”
My feet hardly touched the floor as I ran inside, nearly colliding with Iolyn who had come to find us. Out of breath for more reasons than my charge into the house, I said, “Father’s home, the Yehketim invaded, and pack your things.” I didn’t even wait for a response from him before dashing up the stairs.
Iolyn called after me in bewilderment, “Wait….what?!” I gave him no answer though, quickly out of earshot. Word spread quickly through the house and amidst the chaos and fear, we packed only that which was most treasured.
It’s strange how those material belongings you thought were important, priceless artifacts suddenly become less important when it comes down to life or death. Father assured us we would return here soon, making it a little easier to leave many of my things behind, though Rhian struggled to prioritize what to take along. She had an extensive doll collection and balked when she was told she could only bring two. Iolyn packed surprisingly little, despite his enjoyment of the finer things in life though I know he wasn’t much for sentimentality.
My brother pulled me in tightly next to him as the last of our trunks were loaded into the wagon two days later, seeing my longing look as I tried to memorize every detail of our home. “It is just a thing, Carys.” He told me quietly. “All of our belongings can be replaced with new and prettier things. It’s the people that cannot be replaced.” It had been the most philosophical thing he ever said, though, in later years, I would wonder if he pretended to be denser than he really was.
I glanced up at him and shook my head, my worry was written all over my face. “I know, but this is our family home built by Lord Egon himself. What if we never come back? It feels…wrong.”
He gave me an easy grin and said. “You worry too much, Carys. We’ll be back, you’ll see.” With that, he pulled me a little closer and tucked me in under his arm. “One day…..you will rule this place like a Queen.” I giggled, feeling a little better, though I gently whapped his arm.
“Now you are just being silly.” I retorted, and he feigned offense.
“Never!” He pulled me close again as he looked around. The other wagons were loaded and our Household staff climbed aboard, or onto one of our horses that needed to be moved to our kingdom’s capital, Perinthas. “I promise, Carys…we’ll be back one day.”
I sighed with resignation as Brynmor flicked the reins of our wagon, the buggy lurching forward as our whole caravan rumbled and bumped down the long drive. I twisted in my seat to stare back at our family’s land as it grew more and more distant. What if Iolyn’s wrong, and we never see our home again?
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