Times Have Changed
Winter, Year 759 of the New Age
Silverthorne, The Black Lake
The last week had passed in exquisite discomfort in the mountains that bordered Silverthorne. The frigid air, the narrow paths, and the frequent snowfalls all conspired to make Corvus as miserable as possible. But even without the cruelties of the mountains bearing down on him, Corvus would have found himself in a pathetic mood.
He was in Silverthorne, the place of his birth.
The knowledge pressed against him like a hand, as though it sought to smother him. The further he pressed into familiar territory, the tighter his stomach clenched. He shouldn’t be here. He wasn’t welcomed here. They would find him and kill him. She would kill him. Corvus screwed his eyes shut and fought against the memories that swam up to meet him, as fresh and painful as a burn despite being nearly a decade old; the cloying presence of the storm, the smell of wet grass, and the terrible fear that had accompanied his expulsion from Silverthorne.
Corvus shook his head as though he could rattle the memories loose, but only succeeded in tangling his dark mane in the tines of his wide antlers. He heaved a sigh and continued to carefully weave his way down the narrow, icy path to The Black Lake. He couldn’t rightly scout if he was too busy feeling sorry for himself. Rort had trusted him to do this, and he’d given his promise that he wouldn’t let the young bull down. Rort had been hesitant to leave the side of his heavily pregnant mate, and had been thrilled when Corvus had offered to take the lengthy, arduous scouting mission off his hands. At the time, Corvus had felt good about helping a friend in need, but now he only had regrets.
He heaved a sigh and paused at the lake’s edge. The shoreline was choked in a thin crust of ice, and he had to break it away with his hoof before he could drink. The water was cold, and hurt his throat as he gulped it down, but it was preferable to dehydration…
A shiver ran down his spine, and he couldn’t blame the water alone.
Corvus jerked upright and looked around, his ears pressed forward and his eyes straining against the early morning fog. He thought he’d heard something.
Sometimes Savalya liked doing early-morning patrols alone. Listening to the birds singing, not having to suffer through other soldiers talking and gossiping… it was peaceful.
Today was not one of those times.
Savalya didn’t find it peaceful. She heard no birds singing or creatures scuttling on the ground, saw no movement in the grass ahead. She felt almost as if she was the only thing left alive in the world.
The feeling was downright creepy.
She stepped through the knee-high grass cautiously, trying not to make a sound and give her position away to anyone else nearby. Savalya felt thankful at least that she was a soldier who was able to move quietly and take care of herself if need be; had she not known how to defend herself against a predator, she would have died in minutes.
It had not been the greatest of ideas to accept this patrol, but no one else had wanted to do it and Savalya wasn’t in the best of graces with Silverthorne’s army as it was, being a female soldier and all that. She had leaped at the chance, and had only managed to escape being assigned another soldier to “guard” her because no one had wanted to. She supposed she should feel lucky, but patrolling alone here seemed like an appropriate retribution.
She stretched out her neck to sniff a bent stalk of grass, reassured when her nose found only the faint scent of a Silverthorne. It didn’t seem like anyone had been here in a long time; that was good.
Still, Savalya couldn’t shake off the eerie feeling that something was watching her. The skin at the back of her neck prickled, which was never a good sign. She turned around for the umpteenth time to check behind her, and for the umpteenth time there was no one there.
And then, a crack. A quiet sound, but it felt deafening, since it was the first thing she had heard besides her hoofsteps in a long time. Savalya whipped her head towards the source of the sound and carefully stepped closer, all senses on high alert.
She squinted, trying to make out a shape in the fog. She thought she saw something, but she couldn’t be sure yet in this dim light. She took another step-
-and the sound of a twig snapping rent the air. She cursed herself in her mind, yelling silently to be more mindful of where she stepped, but the deed was done.
The fog cleared up slightly, enough for her to make out the darkish smudge she saw, and her heart clenched. The shape was dark, and appeared to be fawnling-sized.
She couldn’t be sure who it was, but it was always better to be safe than sorry.
“Halt! Who goes there?” she commanded, her voice echoing through the desolate plain.
“Halt! Who goes there?”
His stomach lurched into his throat, and dread consumed him. Quickly, he pinpointed the source of the voice – the dark shape of a single fawnling in the fog. Just one? That wasn’t so bad… but there could be more, he reasoned internally; flanking him even as he hesitated. Ready to spring on him and open his throat. He swallowed the lump in his throat, his mouth uncomfortably dry despite the water he just drank, and darted into the tall grass, away from the Silverthorne soldier.
How could he have mucked things up so quickly? He’d been in Silverthorne proper for less than half a morning, and already he’d been found out. The rest of his scouting mission would be difficult, now that he’d been discovered... assuming there would even be a scouting mission. If he didn’t escape the guard, he was fairly certain there’d be less covert observation and more dead, rotting Corvuses.
He chanced a glance over his shoulder as he galloped to gauge whether or not he was being followed, and felt a surge of relief when all he saw was the morning fog—
--Hurk! His hoof caught an unexpected dip in the terrain, and he tumbled head over hooves into the dew-slickened grass. He landed with a heavy thump, and lay dazed and groaning on the ground.
Footsteps; heavy, and fast. The fawnling was fleeing.
Before she realized what she was doing, she begun sprinting after the footsteps, determined not to let him-- it was definitely a him-- get away. If he was running away, he had to know that he wasn’t welcome here; and if he wasn’t welcome here, it was her responsibility as a soldier to chase him off.
Savalya galloped after him, each footstep resounding like a crack of thunder in a heavy storm. She strained her ears, trying to follow him as well as she could without the use of her eyes. The mist obscured her line of vision, swirling in front and blocking his dark figure from her sight completely at times, so she was forced to rely on her other senses.
After what felt like an interminable amount of time but was probably not that long, she began to hear another sound: his breathing, she thought, or perhaps her own. The realization brought her another spurt of energy, and she sped forwards with all of her strength.
And then there was a different sound; a noise of surprise, and then one of flesh hitting ground-- hard. Savalya slid to a stop, hooves scrabbling for purchase against the slick grass, and trotted to meet him.
He was sprawled on the ground, groaning. Black, like she’d thought, and he reeked of Blackwood. And… well, it had to be her imagination, but he looked kind of familiar.
Familiarity or no, he was trespassing, and that was not okay on Savalya’s watch.
“State your name and purpose here,” she growled, shoving her horn at his face threateningly. She had learned a while back that threatening others with her horn was a surprisingly good tactic. People did what you asked when there was a big pointy skewer in their face, apparently.
His head was spinning. He didn’t think he’d broken anything in his fall, but he couldn’t be sure. He tried to get his feet beneath him, to escape before the guard caught up, but moving his head brought on a wave of nausea. He grunted, pressing his cheek against the wet grass to give him something to concentrate on while the vertigo passed.
He vaguely heard somebody speaking above him, but they sounded far away. They – she – had demanded some answer from him, but he couldn’t be sure. With a groan, he rolled over to stare up at the soldier. He should at least look upon the face of his killer before she delivered the final blow.
She was pretty, at least, despite the wicked horn that was inches from his face. Her dark eyes and caramel coat tugged at something in the fog of his mind, like she was a figure from some long-forgotten dream.
The name came to his lips without warning. He hadn’t thought about the little dark-colored fawn in years, but as his dizziness subsided, he could draw the similarities between the filly he remembered and the hardened doe that now held him at her mercy.
It annoyed her that he didn’t answer her. In Savalya’s mind, the first thing a fawnling should do when asked a question by a soldier was answer it, but apparently he didn’t agree.
Actually, he looked more like he was going to throw up. She backed up a few paces just to be safe, but he seemed to be fine. He took a few deep breaths and turned to face her.
And she was struck speechless.
She… she knew him. He had changed a lot since she had last seen him-- grown taller, gained muscles and a large rack-- but it was undoubtedly him. This Blackwood was no Blackwood; the fiery color of his eyes proved it. There was no other fawnling she knew who had those eyes.
“Savalya?” he asked, and in an instant she knew she was right. Her jaw worked for a few moments, but nothing came out; she was not sure what to say.
“Corvus?” she whispered finally, the word hanging in the air. She stepped forward again, carefully maneuvering her horn out of his face. She had so many questions, but knew how to ask none of them. Where did you go? Why did you leave? Why are you here? She didn’t know… she didn’t know how to respond.
Slowly, the world expanded as he recovered his senses. For what seemed like a small eternity, he stared at the face that was both familiar and utterly foreign. “It is you!” he whispered, shifting to rise stiffly to his feet.
His gaping mouth slowly turned up into a lopsided smile. How long had it been since he’d seen her? Ten years? More? He wasn’t sure – all he could remember were the vague impression of languid summers and a likable, though clumsy little filly. “I—well, who would have guessed we’d meet again like this?” he said with a good natured laugh. Despite their shared past and the shock of being reunited, nothing changed the fact that he was still a Blackwood raider and she a Silverthorne soldier, and his laugh faded into a sheepish look.
He began to get up, and Savalya hastily stepped back again to allow him room to stand. Still at a loss of words, she was only able to stare dumbfounded at him. Her guard was down now; she did not check for the presence of other Blackwoods, didn’t take her eyes off of him at all. It didn’t occur to her that Corvus might be a raider, whose mission was to spirit her away to the endless dark pine forests of Blackwood and have her birth his fawns, or that he might be here to kill her. The thoughts simply didn’t enter her head.
He smiled, and suddenly Savalya didn’t feel like a soldier anymore. She felt like a young, innocent three-year-old filly, listening eagerly and laughing along to the stories he told with a glimmer in his eye. He had been funny and charismatic, and she had done what many three-year-old fillies had done back then; fallen for him, harbored a secret fawnhood crush on him. She had been confused and upset when he disappeared suddenly, though rumors had circulated that he was the filthy spawn of a Blackwood who had gone back to where he belonged. It seemed the rumors were true.
Still, she couldn’t bring herself to kill him. Some small remnant of the filly she had once been lingered, and she didn’t have it in her to snuff out his life.
She gave a broken smile at his attempt to turn the situation funny, the way he always had. “Yes, who would have guessed?” she replied quietly, half to herself. They had met in the worst possible circumstances, and she knew what she was expected to do to him. Fate had a crooked sense of humor, it seemed.
“You shouldn’t be here,” she told him. “It’s not safe.” There was a lot more she wanted to say, but she hoped he understood.
His attempt at a smile fell by degrees. How could he have thought she’d still be the little filly who had adored him? That had been years ago, and things had understandably changed. It would be silly to think anything else. “You’re right, I shouldn’t stay any longer than I already have.” he said, a touch of regret in his voice, “But tell me... how is home? Does my mother still live?”
He ached for any information and, despite the dread that had clutched him every step of the way through the mountain pass, found himself remembering Silverthorne with a fond glow now that he was face-to-face with one of the precious few good memories he had.
“It’s good to see you, Savalya. Honestly. I’m.. uh, well. I’m glad you found me.”
She smiled. It seemed like he hadn’t closed himself off to his birth herd entirely, and she was glad for that. “The herd is well,” she said. “Lots of ann… er, beautiful fawns, and some new generals as well.” She didn’t mention the part about Skuldafn having been crowned king; Skul was the newest in the line of kings that Silverthorne had gone through in his disappearance, and she refrained from saying them all out of caution.
“Your mother has since had her fifth fawn, all healthy. And all with the same large stag, curiously enough…” She shrugged. She was not one to judge others based on who they took for rut. “She’s getting up there in her years, and her tongue is getting sharper for it.” A touch of amusement colored her tone at the thought of Nubia.
She shrugged sheepishly, giving the same awkward half-smile that the filly had done nearly a decade before. “It’s good to see you too, Corvus. I’m glad I found you too.” The unspoken reason why hung above her head, but she pushed it away.
“So, uh, how is Blackwood?”
The herd had changed; that was understandable. The king who had reigned in Corvus’ time had to be ancient by now, if he hadn’t already fed the flames of a funeral pyre. The fact that his mother was still alive and well brought a smile to his face. Nubia had been inexplicably cool to him in his last year with the herd, but he could still call upon a handful of warmer memories of his mother.
Regret clawed at him. He wished he could burden Savalya with a message so that his mother would know what had happened to him all those years ago. The stags who had chased him away under threat of death. His gypsy life and the places he’d seen. That he still lived and loved her. But such a message would be proof that Savalya - a soldier - had been fraternizing with the enemy, and he simply wouldn’t put that sort of mark on her.
“Blackwood is what it is.” he said with playfully resigned tone. Such was life, and there was little he could do about it now. He found himself gazing intently at the dark-pelted soldier, as though trying to memorize every nuance of her face - who know when the next time he’d see a pleasant shadow of his past again. “You’ve grown into yourself,” he commented, “Confidence suits you.”
His eyes travelled past her, towards the southern horizon where he knew the Silverwood lay. It’d be nice to go back, but even he recognized it as a fool’s wish. Silverthorne was set in its ways, and he’d never be welcomed.
“You know… Blackwood isn’t so bad. They treat their women right, Savalya. You’d be treasured there for your strength. And your dark coat would be considered lovely -- it is lovely. If you’re not happy here…”
Savalya flicked her ears back uncertainly, surprised by the compliment. “Um. Thanks,” she replied, smiling despite herself. “I’ve found it helps dealing with others.” Putting on a brave face and shouting orders was how she had survived her apprenticeship, how she managed to sleep after she had been taunted by her peers and even insulted by grown soldiers. It was still what she used now, to shake off the glances and smirks that she received daily.
She opened her mouth to blurt out an instinctive ‘no’ at Corvus’ proposal, but closed it again thoughtfully. She had been inculcated with a hatred of Blackwood for all her life, and as a result her policy was to chase Blackwoods away on sight. It was the policy of most soldiers in Silverthorne. Many soldiers would even try to kill Blackwoods if they saw them.
But it was also enticing to be told of a place where does were treated as they should. To be accepted in her herd, to truly feel like she was a part of a whole… it was something she wanted. Something she thought she deserved. And to not be thought of as her parents’ ugly duckling-- indeed, to be considered beautiful within her herd-- it was tempting.
“... I’m sure it is,” she replied finally, smiling warmly. “I’m sure it’s wonderful to does, and it would be nice to be welcomed within a herd.” Saying it was surprisingly hard; it felt strange to speak of Blackwood as anything less than a merciless, doe-stealing bunch of lawless murderers. The words felt foreign on her tongue.
“But I’m going to have to say no. I belong in Silverthorne right now, and they need me here.” She tried to smile, and wasn’t quite sure she succeeded. “Even… even if they don’t know it yet.” The dark doe closed her eyes, taking a deep breath. When she opened them again, there was another smile in place, a better one. “But I promise, if I ever do want to run away, I will look for you.”
Corvus sketched her a wry smile. “Things are the way they are.” he lamented playfully before glancing over his shoulder towards the mountain pass he’d originally stolen into Silverthorne through.
“I shouldn’t stay, it could get us both into a mess. And what would the herd say, if anybody saw you with a dashing young Blackwood raider?” he gave Savalya a wink to prove he was only joking. “I, uh… well, I don’t think it’d be fair to count on your hospitality in the future, eh? What with the way things are between us, now.”
He sighed and looked Savalya over one last time, as if to commit this new, pretty adult version of her to memory.
“I promise I’ll leave Silverthorne right away.”
Despite the lightness in his tone, she found herself unable to play along. It was a dangerous game she was playing, and fraternizing with the enemy was punishable by exile, something Savalya would rather avoid.
“No,” she said seriously. “You can’t. The next time I or anyone else catches you on this side of the mountains… well, you know what would happen,” the soldier finished grimly. She was sure the black stag had seen raiders being chased away before-- perhaps he had even been one of them, she didn’t know-- and if they caught him, Corvus would be burned.
He promised that he would leave. He’d given his word. For her sake and his, she hoped that he would keep it. Blackwoods weren’t known for their trustworthiness, but the dark doe hoped that there was still some part of him, a sliver of Silverthorne buried deep within him, that would honor it.
“Good,” she replied firmly, managing to smile. “That’s all I want to hear.”