The Eastern Prince, The Western Knight
Earth 53: Prince Snart/Knight Lance
Part I: The Knight Returning To The West
Sara makes camp along the north shore of Storm Lake, just outside the capital of the Eastern Empire, Central City. It would only take another hour or so to reach the city and subsequently an inn, but she has no intention of getting pulled into the recent strife.
The King and Queen have been killed in their beds by assassins, the Crown Prince is missing, presumed to have fled for his life and the Princess is squared away in a secure summer home until she comes of age to take the throne. In the meantime, various heads of state are volunteering their services to run the kingdoms until either the prince could be found or the princess came of age.
Either way, Central City and the entirety of the Eastern Empire are in for a rough few years while the government reorganized themselves, and, assuming none of the other empires decide to take advantage, that alone could stall everything from trade and commerce to simple peace keeping.
Sara doesn’t envy them and it isn’t her concern anymore. Even though admitting that breaks her heart just a little bit more.
With a fire warming her camp, her horse watered and grazing, and her fresh kill cleaned and cooking on a spit, Sara sits back with her knives and begins the process of sharpening each one. By the time she finishes, neatly replacing each knife in their proper hiding place, her dinner is ready. Slicing her kill into pieces she eats quietly, keeping a careful eye on her surroundings. She doubts anyone from the city would travel beyond the wall, especially with everything that has been going on, but it won’t do to be caught off guard. The last thing she needs is to get pulled in, not when she has her own mission to finish.
With that thought in mind she tenses as she notices her horse begin to react to the brush around the camp. The loud snap of a branch draws her attention behind her and she stands, drawing her sword.
“If you’re looking for trouble, you will find an abundance of it.” she calls into the darkness. The rustling of movement halts for a moment before beginning again, this time closer. She coils, her muscles ready to strike out at a moments notice. The tension builds as the rustling continues and then, all at once it passes, the foliage parting to reveal the most beautiful snow leopard she has ever laid eyes on. “A little far south aren’t you?” she mutters, knowing it can’t understand her.
Sara lowers her sword. She isn’t foolish enough to think it isn’t dangerous, but with the way it’s eyeing what’s left of her dinner, she supposes it could be worse. Without taking her eyes off the animal she leans down, scooping up the old wooden bowl that holds the rest of the meat and then in one graceful movement, throws it toward the animal, landing just at its feet.
The animal stares her down for another minute before snapping up the meat and scarfing it down. When it is done, licking the grease from around it’s muzzle, it watches her, and for a Sara worries it will make a move for her horse, or worse, her. But then just as quickly as it arrived, it leaves, disappearing back into the brush.
When she is sure it’s gone, she re-sheathes her sword and retakes her seat, adding logs to the fire. In the silence, she finds herself fixating on the cat. Even with winter so close, it’s strange to see snow Leopards so close to the capital. Between regular travel on the trade routes between the Northern Empire and the Empires to its south, and Central city’s recent expansion, the leopard population has stuck mainly to the mountains in the North, avoiding people where possible. This one must have been desperate to approach her.
As the fire begins to die, Sara secures her belongings and prepares for bed. As the embers die she slips beneath the animal skins and drifts into a light sleep.
Waking to the frost is the most prevalent sign that winter is coming. The grass and brush around her camp are coated in a weightless white ice, silencing the world. It is a sharp and a welcome contrast to the all too real nightmares that plague her.
Sara rises and goes about her morning routine, deciding to skip breakfast in order to push on. She packs up her supplies, loading her horse and climbing up into the saddle, spurring the black steed gently forward. Debonair, a name her sister had given the beautiful black horse, moves at a sedate pace through the Eastern Wilderness, conserving energy for the long journey ahead. They have several weeks worth of travel to go, regardless of how fast they move, and after everything that has happened, Sara is not entirely eager to get home.
When the sun is high in the sky, Sara is traveling through a short, but deep canyon. The high walls provide some shade from the glaring sun, but it also makes her vulnerable to ambush. It is because of this that her awareness is heightened, and because of that she notices her tail.
The snow leopard from the previous night is several hundred yards behind her, ducking in and out of rocky outcroppings. It’s not stalking. She knows if it were it would not be in the canyon with her, rather the cliffs overhead. She can’t get a very good look at it without letting it know she’s aware it’s there, so she pushes on, carefully picking out the sound of its enormous paws better suited to the snow than the gravel strewn canyon.
Near the end of the canyon, the tiny stream that flowed down the center opens into a small lake, crystal clear and refreshingly cool. She decides to stop to let her horse drink. She’ll need to eat soon as well, but for now, she’s more interested in taking advantage of the cool water. Her leather armor and chainmail are thick and trap the heat in rather well. At night this is a good thing, but now, with the sun beating down on her, it is anything but.
She notes that the leopard has moved in closer, watching her with cool blue eyes, but she still does not acknowledge it. She does, however, notice that it’s carrying something in its jaws, though she can not see what it is. Ignoring it, she strips from her armor and under wraps and slides into the cool water, sighing as the sweat and dirt washes away. She swims around a bit, eventually diving under the surface for one final cool down. When she surfaces, the leopard is sitting on the rock ledge around the lake, watching her closely. On the ground in front of him sits an enormous fish, dead, obviously, and from the looks of it fresh.
Sara moves through the water slowly, but quickly realizes the leopard isn’t going anywhere. When she’s close enough to reach out for it, he uses its snout to push the fish toward her, indicating that it’s for her. She’s confused to say the least, but she smiles softly at him.
“Well aren’t you sweet.” she says, watching him look away as she hoists herself from the water. She smirks. “And a gentleman too.” she continues, leaning closer to scratch at his ears. There’s a deep rumbling purr as he leans into her touch. This animal is surprisingly emotive, and she considers that it could be touched by magic. It’s not unheard of for animals to have some magical property to them, either an understanding of humans or an affinity toward sorcerers.
Sara let the thought go though, there’s no reason to be alarmed by a magically inclined animal. She braids up her hair and lays out on the rocks to dry, fully aware that the leopard will not look at her.
After a quick doze in the sun, Sara stands, redresses and packs the fish away in an empty rations bag. She’ll have to stop again in a few hours and she can eat it then. As she mounts Debonair, she notices the Leopard watching her again and as soon as she begins to move on, it follows, this time with her, instead of at her back.
“Tagging along?” she asks, though she doesn’t expect an answer, magical or not. “Better stick close then, it’s a long journey.”
The leopard merely picks up the pace to stay at her side.
It’s a little surreal, having a snow leopard following her around, but she supposes it’s better than something that isn’t quite so friendly. She sets up camp, gutting and cleaning the fish before sticking it on a spit to roast while she goes about her other chores. The leopard watches her, laying on a log near the fire and flicking his tail back and forth.
By the time she finishes, the fish is cooked and she slices it up, giving the larger portion to the leopard. They eat in companionable comfort and when they finish, Sara cleans up, and then crawls into her bed. She’s just dozing off when she feels the leopard move up beside her, curling against her side and purring softly as it too falls asleep.
The next few weeks continue on in much the same way. They travel forward, they eat, they sleep, they push on. Sara’s single minded determination to get where she’s going allows for no detours. They don’t stop in villages for more than a meal, they don’t detour into passing cities and they don’t interact with other travelers to do more than exchange information about the road ahead and behind.
Within a month they’ve crossed the border between the Eastern and Western Empires and it is here that the autumn leaves are the most vibrant red Sara has ever remembered seeing them. They used to be her favorite, the colors dancing in the cooling breeze, twirling, blending like the colors of her favorite court gown. Now they appear blood soaked, dripping with the nightmares that plague her, with the sins she’s committed in a desperate bid for revenge. She can feel the emotions trying to overwhelm her, but she won’t let them, not yet. There’s still a ways to go before she can give in to that.
The leopard is a steady presence at her side, a friend she did not know she needed. It has only been herself and Debonair for so long, the presence of another makes her feel like she’s not quite as alone as she’s felt for nearly a year, maybe longer. She spares a look down at him and he looks back up, those crystal clear eyes rather grounding in their intensity.
The first clap of thunder startles her. She’s been so caught up in her thoughts she’s failed to notice the dark clouds rolling in. Before the first drops can fall, Sara has the saddle canopy set up, shielding her from the coming downpour. She halts Debonair without forethought, gesturing for the leopard to join her in the saddle. He doesn’t respond at first, but with the first drops of rain he jumps up in front of her, curling up behind the saddle horn and against her stomach. She chuckles, listening to him purr as she removes a riding glove and runs her fingers through his thick spotted fur.
“Alright, let’s find shelter.” she says, spurring Debonair on.
Shelter comes in the form of an abandoned waystation. The roof of both the internal structure and the horse rest are intact surprisingly enough, and Sara ties Debonair up under the canopy, removing her belongings and the saddle and dries him off as best she can before wrapping him in a horse blanket. Once he’s taken care of she joins the leopard inside, immediately getting a fire going in the firepit at the center of the room. The rain would prevent her from hunting tonight, so they would have to settle for the dried rations she’s kept for moments like this. Luckily she hadn’t needed to cut into them before now, and she has plenty to keep the leopard fed.
He’s clearly not thrilled with the arrangement, and she tries not to laugh as he wrestles with the tough deer jerky. Judging by the very cat like glare, she failed miserably.
They manage to make it through dinner and Sara sits quietly for some time, staring into the flames. Her journey is coming to an end. Another week and she’ll be home, ready to tell her family about her travels. Another week and it’ll all be over… and then what… and then nothing. There is no afterward for her. Her life in the last two years has been a long and angry stretch of revenge. She’s dark now, her soul twisted, the ideals of the knighthood she worked so hard for thrown aside.
There is nothing left after this.
Sara startles from her thoughts at the feeling of the Leopard, digging his head under her arm. He rubs against her side, laying his chin on her thigh. She smiles softly.
She supposes there has been some good to come from all of this. She’s made a friend, as strange as that seems, in this creature. Perhaps it senses that they are kin. Dangerous, deadly, predators. Though she can’t imagine an animal that prefers it’s meat cooked and likes to cuddle, is a cold blooded killer. Maybe she’s spending too much time overthinking it. It’s hard not to dwell on certain things, but perhaps she’s overestimated the darkness inside her, because she’d be damned if she said she didn’t like when he cuddled up or if she had ever eaten raw fish.
Sara sighs and lays down on the bench around the firepit, curling around the leopard and drifting off to thoughts of a dark and dismal future.
Sara grew up the second daughter of Quentin Lance, second councilman to the king of the Western Empire. Sara was groomed from an early age in the ways of the state and the etiquette of ladyship. But Quentin Lance, like most of the King’s council was an open minded man and the knights of his territory were not limited by gender. It was in watching the knights on the practice field, that Sara fell in love with knighthood.
Her father hadn’t been thrilled, but he knew Sara was a free spirit, she always had been, so he let her train with the knights as long as she agreed to continue her studies in politics and edicate. Sara readily agreed and her training began in earnest. And like all things in life, Sara threw herself into it full heartedly. To her she saw nothing but benefit, but her parents and family lamented, at least in private, the loss of a marriageable daughter. Bless them, they would never say that to her, or suggest that she needed to marry, but her father wanted lots of grandchildren at the very least.
Eventually they made a deal. Sara would wait to take the knighthood until her twenty-first birthday, four years later than most young squires began proceedings. In those four years Sara would continue her training, but she was also expected to attend state dinners and political functions, including accompanying her father to the Capitol for council meetings.
At first she hadn’t liked the idea, but she quickly grew to like it. She hadn’t been aware that her father had fended off offers of marriage on her behalf, informing the nobles that she was in training as a squire and would decide for herself to marry or ascend to knighthood. So there was a grudging respect among them whenever she was near. She had also made a name for herself as a protector. Never backing down from a fight when someone needed help. This put her in favor with all classes of people.
There was no peasant class in the Western Empire. The king was a fair and just man who didn’t believe any individual should horde wealth they didn’t need nor would ever use, so taxes and resources were distributed, not necessarily equally, but no one ever had to live without so long as there was surplus. There had been unheavel when he took the throne and implemented these laws, but soon the empire began to thrive, outshining the south, north and eastern empires, and the discord settled. The Eastern Empire, the West’s closest ally, had followed suit and they too thrived, ensuring a lasting peace and lucrative trade between the West and East.
Unfortunately that peace did not extend to the South.
The North was the smallest empire on the continent, and was harsh and cold. The people of the north were well adapted to the living conditions and they lived off the land and sea. They traded with the West and East and occasionally the South, but they had no interest in war or extending their borders, so they minded their own, the monarchy attending gatherings as expected and nothing more.
The South was another story altogether. Years of strife and intolerance had bred hatred in the South. Those who were thought of as different or not useful were shunned or castout, forcing them to seek refuge in the East or West. They were hostile at their borders and their trade with the East and West was stilted at best. They over taxed traders importing and exporting until finally very few traders were willing to work with their own traders any longer. This impacted their economy astronomically and in retaliation, civil war broke out. From the strife rose a leader who only saw an opportunity for his own benefit.
Using the backs of the disenfranchised he stoked their fears of difference and poverty, promising them wealth and glory. He built an army and that army overthrew the monarchy. He then proceeded to bleed the empire dry in the form of “necessary” laws and taxes. He told the people that what he took would rebuild the empire and in the long run they would thrive, but the money only filled his own pockets and the laws ensured a distraction from his deception.
It was Sara’s father who spoke openly against him. The yearly gathering of the four monarchs was tense, at best, to begin with, and it was only made worse by the blatant disrespect Darhk had for his peers. Many of the West’s high officials spoke out that day, but none spoke louder than Quentin Lance. Darhk did not appreciate the accurate accusations made against him and two months later, a small contingent of his army marched from the southern border into her family’s territory of responsibility and slaughter every man woman and child they came across, making their way like a plague toward the city center where they overpowered the guard and executed her family alongside every servant and soldier. They burned the city to the ground, slaughtered the cattle and destroyed the crop. By morning only her family’s castle remained, protected from the flames by the mountainous hill it was built upon.
Sara had not been there, she had accompanied her step sister to the Capital, Star City, summoned by the prince who had been courting Felicity for nearly a year. It was supposed to be a happy time, a time when her step sister was to finally be betrothed to the man she loved. Instead, it was a time of sorrow and misery as word spread throughout the continent.
There was no doubt to anyone who had committed the atrocity. They had not tried to hide their affiliations. The three remaining empires were furious, even the North pledged support in what promised to be a bloody conflict. The council of the Southern Empire saw what was coming and decided to cut their losses. No amount of wealth he could give them was worth the pikes waiting for their heads, so they overthrew him, imprisoning him and the soldiers who had marched into Western Territory. They promised to deliver the prisoners to the Western Capital as reparations for Darhk’s crimes and the council’s complacency in allowing him to run wild.
Darhk had seen the move coming though, and he formulated a plan. Upon transport, he and the majority of his men escaped, disappearing into the East. A contingent of hunters and soldiers were put together, most of them volunteers, and were sent out after the escaped prisoners, but while they found his army and defeated them, Darhk was still nowhere to be found.
Sara’s friends and stepsister had struggled against her will for months, trying to keep her in place and away from the fight, but Darhk’s final escape was the last straw and in the dead of night she rode off on Debonair, her finest sword and most faithful weapons in tow and for a year she tracked him. Tracked him through every empire, across open terrain and thick forests. She tracked him up mountains and across rivers. And then she found him, in a little seaside town. Having bought passage across the sea, he was preparing to leave the continent, but he wouldn’t make it.
Damien Darhk was an expert swordsman. As a con artist he’d spent years learning various trades and skills to better his cons and combat was among them. He almost beat her, almost, but the more she fought the more her rage slipped away and the seething, boiling of anger that had driven her all this way quieted. It was in that moment that she saw her opening and she struck, killing him instantly.
When it was fully understood by witnesses what had happened she was heralded a hero, but she did not feel like a hero. A messenger was sent from the nearby city to spread the news of Darhk’s demise and with him rode Darhk’s head, proof of her revenge. His skull would undoubtedly be displayed as a spoil of war in the Capital.
She was given free room and board until her wounds could heal and when she was fit to leave she did, thanking the villagers for their kind hospitality.
She was recognizable wherever she went on her trek back to the West. It was hard not to see the young woman in white leathers and chainmail riding a massive black horse. So she avoided people wherever possible, and continued the slow trek home to tell her family of her victory.
Castle Lance is stark white compared to the blackened scorched earth that surrounds it. The black shingled roof is dusted with snow giving the castle a look of peace and serenity. If she couldn’t see the burned out remains of the city or the numerous new headstones in neat straight lines along the city’s edge, it would elicit that serenity.
She rides Debonair in a slow line passed the graves, paying her respects to each and every one as they pass. She knows these people, she knows them all by name. They are just as much family as her flesh and blood. They were innocent people, working hard to feed their families, to have happy lives and it was all taken away in a single night.
The ground still smells of ash and blood as she rides the path up the mountain side. The gate is still in splintered pieces, hanging off of its hinges and she weaves Debonair through the broken structures.
The Leopard, who has been dozing in the saddle in front of her, sits up as they stop and she moves to dismount. He watches her as she makes her way through a stone archway, pushing the wrought iron gates open and stepping through. He jumps up onto the wall to the left of the gate, laying out on the top and watching as she kneels before a set of graves.
“It’s over.” she says to the stones. “I got him. He’s dead.” she continues. The emotions she’s been holding back for months are welling up and here, in this place she knows she can let them go. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to protect you.” she says, tears slipping down her cheeks and she struggles to hold back a sob. “But I got him. I stopped him, he can’t hurt anyone ever again.”
Sara doubles over as the sob breaks free, her body shaking as she loses grip on the control she’s struggled with since this all began. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” she whispers gasping for breath. She repeats it over and over again until she can’t breathe.
Sara startles as a big furry grey head intrudes in her vision. She looked down, surprised to see the leopard staring right back at her. For the first time since they’ve crossed paths she catches something familiar in his eyes. A familiarity in the glassy blue orbs.
He nuzzles under her chin with his snout and cuddles up to her chest, purring gently. Sara wraps her arms around him, running her fingers through his fur and finding the well of emotions finally settling.
It’s in the quiet of the late afternoon as they sit at her family’s graves that clarity trickles in. An overwhelming idea that seems too crazy to be true. She unwinds her arms from around the leopard, pulling back to look him in the eyes again. The familiarity is stronger than ever now, and the longer she stares, the less she doubts herself.
“Len?” she asks, her voice a hoarse whisper. She watches as the cats eyes grow larger in a too human expression of surprise, and she knows, she knows she’s right. “Oh god, Len.”