Heroes and Turncoats
Late Winter, Year 759 of the New Age
Windborne, the Cape
The air seared his lungs, his chest stitched so tightly that his quiet gasps sounded like roars in his ears. His heart was hammering so hard he could feel the blood pulsing in his ears, at the tender junction of his throat. He’d been running for so long, and the sun was just starting to climb up into the sky, turning the cold morning a dusky orange color. He’d finally made it… finally made it to them. He could smell their markers- the Alliance forces were close. Dropping his pace down from an all out sprint to a lope, Jeet pressed on deeper into the territory. He couldn’t stop- not until he found them.
The fawns were safe, he had to tell them that much at the very least. Keet and Anabelle… Rafe, Kaziya… so many others. So many youngsters so lost without their mothers. He did what he could to try and soothe their fears, told them stories and legends passed down to him through his mother until they felt relaxed enough to sleep for a time. He mostly spent his time with them, or as much time as he could. He knew there were lots of eyes on him, suspicious and wary eyes. Between himself, Nopharia, Seraph and Myra, they seemed to have the market cornered on comfort for those poor things. His own son and daughter seemed to have adjusted fairly well to captivity, but not every fawn had been that lucky. They had a parent on the inside- someone familiar to take comfort in. The others had no one, no familiar heartbeat or scent. It tore at him to see them so forlorn, so defeated. No fawn should have to endure what they were being made to…
He knew as soon as he saw them that he needed to get word to the Alliance, that he needed to tell them their youths were alive and well. It was just hard to sneak out of that place, it was hard to make the run… his lungs were on fire, his legs felt numb from the panicked flight, his knees were scraped and bloodied and his sleek silvery coat was slick and darkened with sweat…
But as he finally, finally crested that little rise to look down on the small clusters of gathered Alliance herd members, he finally managed to utter a sigh of relief. He called hoarsely to whoever could hear him, skidding tiredly down the slope…
Tensions among the Alliance had been stretched thin since that dreadful night. Emotions were running high and, were it not for the collective fear for their children’s lives, Ket feared the Alliance would have violently dissolved mere hours after their fawns had been swept away by the main herd.
She was sick with worry, and would have long ago deteriorated into a sobbing mess if her cool presence were not desperately needed. She had to be a beacon of hope for the sake of the others, even if the feeling had long ago fled her. Her days were spent looking into the tear-reddened eyes of dozens of anxious mothers and offering them slivers of encouragement: Yes, they were formulating plans to rescue the fawns. Yes, Tzilan’s new-found powers were a sign that they would be successful. Yes, of course their fawns were still alive, and being treated well. Ket wasn’t sure if they were lies or not, but she wasn’t sure if that really mattered anymore either.
All that mattered was Keet.
The morning after the attack, she’d scoured the charred fields. Many fawns had fallen. Some to the flames, and others beneath the hooves of their kidnappers. She’d felt both relief and guilt when none of the tiny corpses that littered the land had been her son. Others had not been so lucky. Other mothers had lost their babies, and Ket could still keenly hear their distraught, animalistic wails of grief. She feared the sound would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her days.
Shaking her head, she turned her attention to a flash of silver of the distant hillside. A doe running full tilt down its slope. Hollering something she couldn't make out. One of her scouts? No, she hadn’t been expecting them to return for another few days. Her heart leapt when she finally recognized the sweat-dampened stag.
“Jeet!” she cried, answering his desperate yells. She never thought she’d be so happy to see him. “Jeet!”
She collided against him in a fierce embrace, her eyes wet with tears. As much as she usually detested the silver stag, he was the only one who would really understand. “They took him,” she sobbed, the pent up grief finally breaking the dam she’d constructed for the sake of the herd. “Please tell me you’ve seen him. Tell me he’s okay. Tell me Fox didn’t… Didn’t…”
The silver stag was more than relieved that the first friendly face he encountered happened to be Ket. Despite the situation, and the terrible odds, and the scent of death and fire in the air, he felt his rapidly pounding heart give a leap. He’d put on his bravest face for those fawns because they needed him to be strong and stable… internalizing had never really been one of his specialties. Things had been rough. He got to talk with Myra on occasion, but even then he bore most of her pain and anxiety as well…
He didn’t get to vent what he felt, and neither did Ket.
His slackened pace suddenly picked up again, and he soared across the charred, open ground to meet her. His throat tightened at the desperation in her voice, and when they finally met, he folded his neck over top of hers, drawing her close. He could offer the comfort she was looking for.
“I know,” he soothed gently, despite his frantic flight across Windborne, “I know. He’s safe, I promise you. He’s okay. He and the others- they’re alright. He’s fine, Ket.” The effect of her emotion was cloying, and he felt a tightness in his throat and chest that had nothing to do with his long run. It hit him right then… how easily it could have been Keet trampled under fleeing hooves, turned to ash in the wake of the firestorm, or picked clean by buzzards on the long run from the Point to the main herd lands.
How it could have been any one of the fawns that he had in his care… and how much they’d already lost. He glanced around at the charred earth and held Ket closer, uttering a silent prayer of thanks to whatever God it was that watched over them and their son… hoping the protection wouldn’t fade now when he was trapped among the enemy.
She took strength from Jeet’s presence. Keet’s birth had linked them, and having the father so near was like having a tiny piece of her son. The icy grip of dread around her heart melted somewhat when he promised that Keet lived, and was well. And the others… the others!
“Jeet.” she said, pulling away to look him in the eyes. Dark streaks stained her cheeks, but her own eyes were well on their way to drying after her brief exposition of emotion. “The other fawns. How many? Who are they? Do you know their names?”
She dared to take her gaze from Jeet’s face only long enough to glance over her shoulder at the milling members of the Alliance who had begun to gather anxiously behind her. Many of them knew Jeet; she could even dare to say he had somehow become a friend of the Alliance. They had to know the fate of their fawns, either way. It’d bring them some measure of peace. It’d also give her soldiers an advantage if they knew how many hostages they would need to rescue.
Now that the mother in her had been reassured, it was the second-in-command who needed information.
The contact, however short lived, was sweeter than anything Jeet could have imagined. To have her willingly embrace him, and for that moment to think that she had sought him out for comfort and solace... He mentally kicked himself for enjoying it as much as he had, knowing she’d been out of her mind with worry about their son. He was selfish, and the realization of it cooled him right down to the bone. He stepped back from her when she pulled away, meeting that fierce gaze for a second and knowing she had resumed her duties. He looked away, unable to hold her eyes.
“Aye, I can give you their names.” The silver stag shook himself of the momentary hesitation, finally resuming normal breathing. He couldn’t do this now, not in front of so many anxious parents, praying to hear the name of their child.
He cleared his throat and plowed in, giving the names of the fawns he’d had in his care, smiling tiredly to those who thanked him, unable to meet the eyes of those who hadn’t heard the names of their children. All at once he felt like a beacon of hope and the harbinger of doom. He’d come so far to promise not nearly enough families that their innocents were safe.
It wasn’t fair.
“I can’t stay,” he finally managed to look up at Ket, grim lines drawn on his face, “Fox has his eye on me for talking with Myra. Leaving them alone, even just for this…” He hesitated, his throat working tightly. “I can’t stay.”
It was hard. She shifted quietly to Jeet’s side and stood silently as he listed out the names of the fawns he knew to be captive. She could see both the relief and the pain that washed over the faces of the parents. It was a dark world wherein it brought such comfort to hear that a fawn was merely stolen and not dead. Ket made note of the names, both to figure into the tactical planning and to offer comfort to the grieving parents later on.
When at last they had some semblance of privacy after the last of the anxious fawnlings had drifted away, Ket pressed her nose against Jeet’s in a show of support. “I know.” she murmured softly enough that only he could hear. “Thank you for this. For coming.”
Fox would pay. Fox and all the others who had inflicted such pain on her and her herd.
“It’s dangerous, Jeet. Be safe, please. But… if you know anything else, anything that could help us, will you - could you - try to get through?”
It was a risky request - it was treason - and unfair of her to ask after he’d already risked so much. If Fox already suspected him, asking him to do anything against the main herd was as good as signing a sentence for his death. But were the lives of their fawns not worth the price?
Thank him? Why? For giving them hope when things were laid so low? For telling them their children were safe… for now? He swallowed tightly again, still not quite able to hold her gaze. He hadn’t done anything worth their thanks. He sat by on the sidelines, he hid in the shadows when they displayed their defiance. He hid in the safety of the Main herd’s land and slunk through when he could… he was a coward. A coward posing as a hero.
“Are you kidding?” Giving himself another mental shakedown, the silver stag looked up at the flaxen doe, forcing a believable smile into place. “For you, not even the whole of Windborne could keep me away.” It was an easy lie to tell, even if it made him sick to his stomach. Where was he while she fought? Hiding. Waiting.
“I’ll bring them back, Ket.” Jeet managed after a time, steeling himself. “I’ll bring them all back, safe and sound. I promise.” This one didn’t taste like a lie when it left his tongue. He’d stuck to the safest path all his life, coasting through, living easy and avoiding responsibility. All while good ones like Ket, like Etain, struggled and fought…
Maybe he was misguided, maybe it was the wrong time to start pretending he, of all people, could be a hero, but this was a promise he intended to keep. He’d see it through to the end…