Cassian and Koax crossed the threshold of the Hunting Grounds not more than an hour after dawn.
Cassian’s heart soared the moment he felt his feet what upon the grass of his homeland once again. It had been too long. His thoughts drifted briefly to Leasha. He allowed himself a momentary panic as he considered the possibility that they may never walk together upon these lands again. But he pushed the thought away. Leasha was brave, strong, clever, and he smiled at the last thought, she was also likely too damned self-centred to allow herself to get killed.
It took a long morning’s walk at a swift pace for the pair to find the road back into the Meadow Hall. They considered resting, but with no food between them and only a little water supped from a stream at first light, neither of them was willing to delay their return to civilization.
After the chaos of the Dragon attacks, the land Cassian had spent his life patrolling seemed calm once more. Farmers were bringing in harvests, and herding spring calves, they passed traders carrying wares and all seemed right in the world. As if the war he had seen far away in Midwinter, would never reach here.
But a rock of dread sat in Cassian’s stomach as he wondered how long that feeling would last.
He and Koax finally reached Meadow Hall when the sun was ebbing lower in the sky. Too much longer and they would have been forced to make camp, but just as it seemed they would be cold for another night, Cassian saw the lights of home.
Despite their hunger and weariness, the pair glanced at one another with a grin and raced for the gates of Meadow Hall.
Cassian could barely swallow his joy as he walked along the familiar flagstone streets, he had been hopeful that they would catch Queen Evaline before she retreated to her private chambers for the evening, but he was surprised and relieved to see that the council was in session.
Two guards were on duty at the doors to the long hall, the lights of the long fires glowed through the windows and, as they drew closer, he could hear the arguing voices of dozens of nobles, scabbling as is their want.
Cassian nodded to the guards, and the pair slipped through the doors and into the back of the stifling council chamber. It seemed everyone with any claim to the council was there. Men and women he believed had long gone to their graves were shouting along with copper-headed youths, and even a mother whose child was obviously too new to the world to be away from her arms.
He had never witnessed the chamber so full and so loud.
Over the heads of the councillors, he could see Evaline, resplendent in a green dress the colour of the Meadow Dragon, standing on the dais and flanked by six fully armoured guards. She rarely needed more than two even when dealing with enemy generals.
It was Ferox, a high priest, who was stating his case. Despite being fiercely loud, the council cheered on his words so consistently it was difficult for Cassian to know what the man was saying.
“I have sent search parties,” Evaline cried over the crown once Ferox had finished his spiel. Although her clothes and jewels were magnificent, even from the far side of the room Cassian noticed she was gaunt and tired. She had lost weight since he had been gone. “There would be no need to,” she said desperately, “she is my heir. I have no other.”
Cassian’s stomach turned to stone as in an instant of cold dread he realised exactly what the council were accusing Evaline of.
“Then where is she?” Ferox demanded.
“Buried in the Hunting Grounds!” A voice close to Cassian’s ear shouted and he turned to see a woman he’d respected all his life turned almost feral with hatred.
“Burned to nothing at first Harvest night!” Another voice shouted, so filled with rage he could not discern its owner.
He glanced at Koax and could see they shared the same bewildered sense of disbelief. Throughout the whole of the Edge Islands, the Elven Council was known for its civility. Cassian felt sick to think he had brought such chaos to bear.
But there was only one thing he could do.
He silently cursed his oldest friend, took a deep breath, and as loud as he could muster over the braying beasts, he shouted. “I know where she is!” He was drowned in the noise but he persisted, pushing and elbowing his way past people he never would have been in the same room as before. “I know!” He shouted, “I know where the Princess is!”
But he was getting through, as he passed people that recognised him for the Princess’s old bodyguard they listened, and silence had descended by the time he and Koax reached Evaline on the dais
“Cassian?” Evaline stared at him open-mouthed.
He knelt before his queen taking a deep breath as he thought about how he was to explain that Leasha had abandoned the Queendom for her own adventures. “The Princess has been trying to save us all from the dragons-”
“Nonsense!” Ferox shouted with such force and venom he was unable to contain his own spittle. “The dragons have not attacked since last moon past,”
“Because of our quest,” Cassian turned to the red-faced priest, ready to face down any accusations of Evaline’s betrayal.
“Cassian speaks the truth,” Koax added.
“And who are you, sea-maid?” The question came from the crowd and it was impossible to put a face to it. But to the Fenner’s credit, Koax turned not to try to find the abuser but to Evaline kneeling before her to introduce themself.
“I am Koax of the monarch guard of the Fenwater Marshes and I have witnessed the acts of the Dragon Tamer.”
“Dragon Tamer?” Evaline asked with an eyebrow raised.
“It’s a long story,” Cassian explained. He turned to the council, “but Princess Laetitia, First Daughter of the House of Atheling, is safe. At least she was safe when last we saw her.”
“When last you saw her, Ranger? What good is that?” Ferox demanded, “Where is she now?”
Cassian had never known the council to be so unruly. All protocol had disappeared, the loudest voice was all that was heard and little if any reverence had been paid to Evaline. What had passed in his absence? “The Princess,” he said, turning back to Evaline, unsure who else but the Queen to address, “travels with the Wizard, Myrddym of the Black mountains, and the two Wealderlings to gather an army-”
“An army?” Evaline gasped, “Cassian? Surely you jest?”
Cassian knew there was no simple way of explaining, no easy answer he could supply, “The Druids of Dragon March have taken Midwinter, it will not be many moons before they march for Meadowvale.”
“They boy is absurd-” came a voice from his left.
“It’s true” Cassian argued instinctively turning to the council but unable to pick out his accuser amongst the crowd, “Why would I lie?”
“He lies to the Queen!” An older voice from the back shouted, reedy but strong.
“He is the murderer, likely as not!” another voice shouted.
He turned to them, trying to seek a face to the accuser’s voice, his stomach turned as he realised the council was after blood not reason. “Nay,” he protested weakly.
“Where has he really been?”
“You should be ashamed of yourself, boy,” Ferox stared at him with bloodshot eyes under angry whitening brows. “The Princess was under your protection.”
Cassian shook his head. “Majesty?” he turned to Evaline desperately and saw a sadness in her weary face. He closed her eyes and shook her head, looking as though the world was simply too heavy for her to bear anymore.
“Take him,” she said, turning to her guards, “take them both, and lock them up. We will sentence them in the morning.”