The Contessa's Secret


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Romance, Supernatural, Fantasy, Thriller, Space Exploration, Slice of Life

Nestled far to the north in the land of Falshket was place many liked to call enchanted. Of course, no one had yet to be able to prove it. Be it Lord or humble curious visitor, when one visits the castle of Contessa Celine Devareux all they find is a lovely, but typical stone dwelling built right in to the side of a mountain. So far north, the place was covered in snow almost year round, giving the curious only a small window of opportunity to investigate before traveling the forest roads became a dangerous en devour. The Countess was without a doubt, a loyal and obedient to the current King's law and rule over the lands. For several years since the new King took the throne, such peoples were banned from Falshket. The aid in such unsavory types would result in imprisonment or death. What the King fear was unsure, but no one wanted to tempt fate. Thus... the rumors of seeing outlawed magical creatures or a rogue wizard on the grounds of her home HAD to be balderdash.

Yet, that seemed to be exactly what she was doing. Even right that moment, trying to quickly stuff a small adorable fairy in to a vase before the chamber door swung open. Celine spun around, blocking the view of the vase with her body and painting the most innocent expression on her face that she could manage. "You're back...!" the small phrase came out much more wispy than she intended. Celine cleared her throat and tried again. "I mean. I hadn't expected you for another three days..."

The man at the door at first looked surprised to see her. Then a weary look came across his face as his whole body slumped forward. The elderly gentleman with a long white beard had been the caretaker of the Devareux castle since before the woman had even been born. "You promised there would not be any left in the castle when I returned from the Capital. ...if you get caught..."

Celine sighed, accepting that at this moment she -had- been caught. She turned back to the table to pluck the faerie out of the vase. Dusting the poor, frustrated thing off before shooing her away to hide somewhere more appropriate. "I did try. But then a blizzard blew in and I couldn't stand to throw them out when it was so cold... It'll only be for a few more days!"

He didn't look at all convinced. "His Majesty has sent some of his freshly trained men for your new castle guardsmen. Any one of them might be a spy and if they find something here-"

"They won't! Angus, I promise. Not a single one will be sighted and if I happen to find someone lost out in the snow I'm sure I ca-"

"Celine!" Angus all but threw his hands up in the air with frustration! Headstrong, stubborn, suicidal girl...!

"Aaangus." she responded, mimicking his tone. "Don't worry. I am brilliant at secrets!" The smile she gave him could have been considered devious, if there had been a mean bone in her body. Celine skipped passed him towards the door. "I'm going to take the sleigh out and meet a few... I'll know who is a spy if I see one!"
Skylar looked around nervously as his guard detail climbed the last hill approaching the Contessa's castle. He'd been away for so long, he didn't know if she'd still recognize him. Plus, he'd been told so many stories about his childhood home range that he didn't know what to think. At the College of the Guard, they'd drilled into each young, impressionable boy the danger of the enchanted. And for a timid, fanciful youth like him, it was almost enough to have him jumping at shadows. However, the constant taunting of the other boys was enough to help him develop into a closed-faced, albeit still a bit nervous, and diligent guard. Which was probably why he'd been chosen for this detail.

He leaned forward towards the young man in front of him, a cheerful soul in a boy named Edward, and whispered, "You don't think there's really ghosts of the enchanted hanging around here, do you?"

Edward turned around on his mount, grinning at Skylar from the other side of the wide moose antlers that framed the view each had of the other. "Don't take any of those campfire stories seriously. That's just the Aces trying to scare you," he answered easily.

But he'd already taken it seriously. Skylar took everything seriously. The orphan boy, sent from this region so many years ago to learn a trade and living as a guard, was as serious and thoughtful a boy as Edward was jolly.

"Hoy!" the captain of the guard called suddenly.

Skylar's blue eyes snapped up to see the castle barely distinguishing itself from the cliff that it was built into, then shifted to see a shape, no several figures, coming towards them.

"Contessa approaching! Dismount and salute!"

Skylar slid off the sloping back of his moose too quickly and fell backwards into the thick, powdery snow. He hopped back up to his feet, frantically brushing the snow off his backside before thumping his fist to his heart and bowing in salute to the approaching Contessa, his old saviour and new employ.
Celine pulled the reigns with her gloved hands. The reindeer at the end stomping their feet in to the snow as they came to a stop near the cavalry of guards. Once the ornate sleigh was no longer in motion, she was standing up quick to push back the furry hood of her cloak and wave to the guards. Still young enough to barely even be considered an adult, her behavior was just shy of what was 'appropriate' for adult nobility. Yet no one seemed to have the heart to tell her otherwise!

"So, Captain..! Where are my nice distinguished gentlemen soldiers? These are barely older than I am!" she teased, leaning forward as she stood and bracing her hands on the wood.

The Captain chuckled, nodding his head at the men behind him. "Your father's guardsmen should have retired a few years ago, Contessa. These men will be able bodied for several years to come."

"Hmm... Until the Yeti get them. We lose to many soldiers to the Yeti..." Again Celine was teasing, watching their faces to see who scowled, cringed, or looked plain curious. If they were all specially selected by the King, any one of them could be there to spy and steal her secrets. For Angus' sake, she needed to know who was trust worthy and who she had to be wary of. "I was just about to go for a ride and look for mistletoe in the woods. You'll all have to scoot out of the way! Angus is probably at the castle having kittens and wondering where you are."
Skylar's head snapped up and a flash of panic passed through his eyes before he closed off the emotion to his face once again. He snuck a glance to his friend, then to the captain and the Contessa, licking his lips nervously again. She was kidding, right? She had to be kidding.

He didn't have time to think about it too long, though. The order came to mount up. The moose were brought to kneeling so the guard could settle into their special saddles before the tall, gangly-legged creatures rose to their feet again.

"Guard Skylar! Guard Edward!"

"Sir!" the young men responded to the captain in unison, their beasts rising before the others. They trotted up to the captain to hear his orders.

"You both will accompany the Contessa on her ride, and take up your posts upon your return," he informed them.

"Me?" Skylar blurted at the same time Edward answered a drilled 'yes sir'.

"Do you have a problem with your assignment, Guard Skylar?"

"No sir. I'm sorry sir," he drilled out.

"Then go show the Contessa what the College of the Guards is producing these days. Real guardsmen, not simpering boys," he said, giving Skylar a critical look.

"Yes sir," he said, turning to the Contessa and saluting again from his mount. "At your service, my lady." Edward copied the gesture.
Oh dear. Celine hadn't expected someone would be sent with her. That would hamper her plans of making sure no one was lost out in the snow. The poor Yeti was way too big for the castle, and wanted to be sure his cave was warm enough!

"It's just going to be a short ride, I really don't need the accompaniment.." she suggested. The Captain gave her the look. That same look Angus liked to give her every time she wanted to do something they liked to call "grossly dangerous and inappropriate for a young woman." Celine suspected the Captain knew what she was up to, but he had been one of the few, loyal people she knew she could trust. He wouldn't give her away, but he also very much disapproved.

"Or they could join me so I don't get eaten by a Yeti!" she continued with a heavy sigh of compliance. Even despite her sulking, she cast the Captain a wide smile when she sat back down and took her reigns. Without warning, she gave them a sudden crack. Sending her double-team of reindeer in to a galloping run and forcing the lines of guardsmen to all leap out of the way with their moose mounts or get trampled in the process!

Celine laughed as she gave a quick glance over her shoulder. "If they can keep up with me...!" came her shout, along with another laugh. She wouldn't make it easy for them. She had a mission! Divide and investigate Guardsman Edward and Guardsman Skylar... that name sounded familiar...
Skylar yelped as she shot forward, a reindeer antler brushing the nose of his mount, making it snort and stamp. Edward, on the other hand, laughed and nudged his moose into a gallop, the awkward looking beast surprisingly swift. Skylar was half a breath behind him, but he wasn't laughing. His eyes were wide and intense, focused on his own mission. He had to catch up with her and do his duty! He couldn't risk being sent away again so soon after returning home.

"Did you see how cute she is?" Edward joked to his friend just above the wind as they rode together. He seemed as if the loping, rocking gait of the moose wasn't an arduous ride. Skylar wasn't surprised. They'd been trained in strength and endurance, drilled in riding. And Edward was a bit of a showoff, as friendly as he was.

He didn't answer as they began gaining ground on the sleigh, the moose chugging out puffs of smoke as they ran.

Meanwhile, the other guards gathered themselves, some brushing snow off their uniforms as they mumbled to each other, chuckling and shaking their heads at their unorthodox charge. Finally, they set off again, finishing the trek towards the castle and warm barracks.
Taking another quick look behind her, Celine couldn't help but laugh again. They were gaining ground and catching up. ...But not for long! As soon as the road curved and the sleigh made a sharp turn, she was reaching down to the floor boards. Gloved fingers circled around the simple cane she brought with her. Though, it had a small knife hidden inside just in case she found herself in trouble, in this moment she had an entirely different use for it.

Standing precariously, holding the reigns in one hand and the cane in the other, Celine lift it over her head to take a good hard THWACK at ice and snow covered tree limbs. The desired effect was perfect! Mounds of snow and ice dropped from the evergreens as she passed. Leaving the road blocked and at the very least, giving her time to speed away before they found another route through the trees.

Once Celine felt she was out of sight, she drew the sleigh to a stop and climbed out. Keeping the cane with her, she also drew out a small bag. Then, she swatted the rears of her reindeer to send them galloping on down the road. It would circle back towards the castle before long, and they knew the way home. Hopefully her Guardsmen companions would keep following, assuming she was still in it!

Pleased with her plot, Celine trekked off away from the road. Her cloak would keep her warm, and she was not too far away from home herself. Once she found her Yeti friend and made sure he was all right, she could walk back. She only needed to do it quickly before those two men realized she tricked them!
"Whoa!" Skylar pulled his moose up short to avoid the falling wall of snow. A little too short. The moose reared up and fell backwards. Skylar hit the ground first, and tried to scramble out of the way before he was crushed. He'd almost made it clear, but his foot became trapped under the struggling animal. "Ed, help me!"

Edward had barely avoided the same maneuver, turning aside at the last moment. He hopped off his mount and ran to help his friend. Calming the panicked moose, he unfastened its harness, allowing the animal the freedom to get to its feet without help. The moose scrambled up and ambled over to see if its rider was okay, nosing at him in concern.

Skylar was groaning and muttering through clenched teeth. This just wasn't his day. He sat up and gingerly removed his boot, shoving the injured limb into the snow to numb the pain. "You go on ahead, Edward, I'll be alright..."

Ed hesitated, but they were all trained in survival, and even traveling with broken limbs. Skylar was the best at it. He'd be okay, even if his foot was actually broken. He turned his moose and the pair picked their way through the trees to find the path again. Seeing the sleigh in the distance, he galloped off after it.

Skylar waited until his foot was just numb before taking some herbs and bandages from his pack and bandaging it tightly. He managed to re-harness his moose and climbed on, letting the animal pick its way to the path again. He had to get to a clearing so he could find the sun and the way back to the castle. The Captain would not be pleased.
Trekking through the trees, Celine kept an eye on the snow. The creatures that made their home in and around the castle were very good about hiding the signs of their movements, but there was always little things they left to let her know where they might be hiding. A little nick on a tree, and oddly placed branch. She could recognize the signs when she saw them.

So concerned with looking for her fugitive friends, she payed little attention to what was going on in the forest around her. Celine didn't fear the wild animals, nor did she feel anyone would be silly enough to wander around a forest that so many claimed to be enchanted, haunted, or even cursed. Ever so often a troop of bandits might try to hide in the caves in the side of her mountain, but that was something she never thought to consider.

When she came across a clearing in the woods, she stopped near it's center. Swooping down to pick up a cluster of nuts laying haphazardly in the snow. It was an odd place for nuts, even by her little friend's standards!

Then she heard the snort and the gentle clopping of hooves over snow covered ground. Inwardly she groaned, even as she turned to find one of the Guardsmen looking rather cross as he entered the clearing. He was covered in snow. No doubt a tumble from her distraction. Celine considered taking off in a running leap, but he would have likely caught up to her quickly with his moose.

Finally, she tilted her head and looked concern. She could see bandages just barely peeking out from the top of his boot. Those hadn't been there before, had they? "The Yeti didn't eat your companion did he...?" she asked curiously.
Skylar's head whipped up, his eyes sharp as he turned towards the sound of her voice, looking quite confused for a moment before answering.

"He went on ahead, after you...or he was supposed to have been. Where's your sleigh my lady? Eh, pardon me if I don't dismount..." he said, realizing his position above her and the predicament of dismounting. But even as he inquired about her sleigh, it occurred to him what she'd done. She'd sent it away to throw them off her trail. He hoped for Edward's sake that the reindeer were headed back to the castle. He wouldn't want his friend getting lost on top of going on a wild goose chase and everything else. Sighing to himself, he looked off towards the castle, and then back to the Contessa.

"Did you want to be rid of us so badly?" he asked, looking slightly offended, but stopping short from accusing her of causing his injury. She couldn't have meant to cause or wish him hurt, would she? "I mean, we are sworn to protect the king's high subjects. We're just trying to do our job..."
How unexpected. The typical guardsmen wouldn't be so blunt or open about their thoughts. She could even see the offense on his face. Most of the time they gave gave her a stern lecture about her safety and took no ifs ands or buts. Celine tilted her head to the side as she examined him a little more thoroughly. He really did seem familiar.

"I didn't mean to cause any trouble." she replied honestly. But she was still studying him curiously. "You are very familiar... I'm not sure why yet." Rocking back and forth on her heels, she was still trying to search her memory as to why.

" any case, I am only going for a little walk through the woods. You must need to get back if you took a tumble. So it wouldn't hurt to go back to the castle without me, yes? I'll return soon, I promise!"
Skylar looked down, fidgeting a bit before looking back up at her. "You really don't remember me, do you...Celine?" he asked, sounding more like a lost boy than a trained guard. He removed his hat, shaking his white-blond hair as he let her see his unencumbered face.

"I'll be okay, I'm used to it. I need to make sure you're safe. I'm rubbish at lying, and if Captain finds out that I left you out here and put my comfort first, I wouldn't even have time to unpack in the barracks before I'm sent back to the College, maybe for good. Please, Contessa, I only just got back home..."

It was a risk for him, being so open. He'd worked so long to learn to shield his emotions, to close off his thoughts, he almost felt naked before her.

"Your father sent me to the College, to learn a skill and earn a wage, but all I ever wanted was to get back home where I belonged. And if I had to become a guard to do so, well, I don't want to mess this up..."
Once his hat was off, she was squinting. Yes he was very familiar now... If only she could, ...oh! Oh dear!

The moment he had quit speaking, seemed to be what drew her out of the dumb founded staring she had fallen in to. Suddenly, Celine squealed! So loud that it echoed across the forest, causing several flocks of birds to take off in a flutter of wings.

Could she have jumped to hug him while he was on the moose, she would have. Instead she was bouncing on her feet with her gloved hands covering her mouth, trying not to squeak out another alarming squeal of delight. Skylar! That boy she had spent so many days running wild with in the castle and on the grounds, driving everyone crazy with silly antics and...!

"You look so different!" she finally breathed out. And he did! So much taller than she remembered. Solid and strong..well, more like a grown man than a child! Time away at the College surely did him well. That's when she realized giving him such a hard time really might get him in all sorts of trouble with the Captain. But... how could she keep her secret if he stayed with her? Celine bit her lip with the indecision. Oh, but she really was so excited to see Skylar again!

"I will return with you, then! You should have to tromp around in the snow like that. It's such a silly thing those rules the guardsmen have!"
He smiled sheepishly, actually coloring a bit. "Well, not all of the king's subjects are as apt to a sedate life. We need to be able to protect them no matter what. We don't matter compared to them. It's not like any of us are high born. Most of the boys are runaways, given up by poor parents, or orphans like me..." He fidgeted a bit, feeling a bit awkward now that she actually recognized him. It just reminded him how different they were. She was a contessa, and he was just an orphan boy turned guard.

"Anyway, come on, I'll give you a lift back. It'd be hard for you to keep pace with me if you're walking..."

Skylar carefully dismounted, landing on his good foot, and brought his moose down to kneel. He unfolded a piece of the saddle that was folded underneath, buckling it into position. Now there was space for both of them on the saddle, and she could ride behind him and not fall off the back of the moose.

"This is Birger, by the way. He's been my mount for three years now..." he said, introducing her to his moose. Mostly to get out of the awkward situation. Once he was sat back on the saddle, he instructed her how to situate herself so she could comfortably ride side saddle.
Celine huffed, his comments were upsetting... and it was incredibly hard for her to hide just how much it bothered her. "Everyone matters. No one is better than anyone." It was something she so fully believed and why she spent so much time and energy trying to hide and protect the outlawed magical creatures. There were people with families and lives too, and now they had to live in fear just because the King made some silly rule.

Before climbing up behind him, she introduced herself to the moose with a few pets. It was the polite thing to do! Then with Skylar's instructions, she settled behind him. A little bit wary of being so high off the ground and not having the security of a solid seat. Celine always preferred her sleigh opposed to riding the animals, as it made her a little nervous. She placed her hands on Skylar's shoulders so she could have something to hold on to and keep herself steady. Squeezing with nervousness every time the moose shifted his feet.

"He's a very handsome moose." she finally murmured. Still a little angry about Skylar's opinion of social class, but not quite wanting to make a big fuss about it.
Skylar didn't much like the situation of their social class, but it was the reality of the world they lived in, and she had much more freedom to speak against it than he did. He was simply stating the reason for the way they were trained, whether either of them liked it or not. It was this resignation that caused him to shield his emotions and steel himself from the jeers of the other boys. This was the life that was given to him, and he had no other choice but to live in it.

He didn't mind her holding on to him as Birger climbed to his feet once more, this time snorting a bit at the added weight. They'd both been traveling all day. Skylar made a point to himself to make sure Birger got plenty of feed, rest, and a good rub down, even if he had to hop his way around the stables himself. But even so, moose were not the easiest of creatures to ride, and the rear seat could feel quite precarious. If she hadn't held on herself, he would've suggested it.

"Thank you..." he answered quietly to her compliment. Skylar was very proud of him. He'd roped the bull moose himself as a calf, and raised him until he was strong enough to carry a rider. He'd been the strongest and best of the moose caught that year.

The pair rode the rest of the way to the castle in silence, and Skylar allowed his mount to pick his way along at his own pace, not wanting to tire the weary moose more than was necessary.
With Birger the moose standing straight up and tromping through the snow covered forest, Celine found herself very very nervous about being so high off the ground. Every movement seemed to make the saddle list from side to side, and though it was secure it really didn't feel that way to Celine. Her hands squeezed tighter at Skylar's shoulders and so she would have to see herself fall to her doom, she hid her face at his back. Her forehead resting against him.

"You will be a part of the permanent guard now, won't you?" Her voice was a bit muffled with her face hidden as it was. Celine shifted so she could peer up over his shoulder, though she kept her eyes squeezed shut so she wouldn't see. "Everything at home now is... a little different... since Father died."

Celine really wanted to tell him right out about her secret. When they were children there was no secret she wouldn't share with Skylar! Now though... now she was doing something against Kingdom Law. With him being trained at the College itself and hand picked to come back here, she couldn't be sure he wasn't going to turn tail and tattle on her. Have her arrested and thrown in prison, or worse!
"So long as I continue to do my sworn duty," he said simply.

Skylar remembered the pain he'd felt when his own parents died. He'd heard about the Count's death at the College and had wondered all these years how she had been able to handle it alone. He'd at least had her to help return the smile to his face.

"I was sorry for you when your father died. I had wished I could have been here for you, like you were there for me. I mourned him." he said in a quiet, almost reverent tone. "Everything changes when someone dies..."

He reached back and gently patted the hand on his shoulder. "I had missed you, Celine. I miss being able to run and play. I wish things weren't so different between us now. I wish life didn't have a way of getting more complicated..."
He didn't realize just how complicated things really were, nor how much it hurt to have him say something so sweet when she was having to lie to him. If the world was different, he wouldn't have to sound so sad. There were several dozens of people that lived in the castle, but there was only a precious few that she trusted, and even fewer still that she considered as a good friend.

"You're going to make me cry! Now that you're back, there's no reason why we can't have fun like we used to do. There are responsibilities... but that certainly has never stopped me before. We could steal a pie and sit on the castle roof until the Captain or Angus starts shouting at us." Something so childish was probably too silly for a serious for a freshly trained Guardsman. But even soldiers needed to escape, and Celine couldn't imagine how boring it must be to do nothing but train or stand around guarding things.

It seemed today wasn't going to be a boring day for a guard, though. The forest had fallen in to a strange eerie silence. No chirping of birds or rusting of creatures on icy branches. When a low growl was heard, followed by several others chiming in, they stood out in the quiet. Echoing through the trees. A hoooowl sounded an alarm. The tone was so distinct that Celine recognize that it wasn't the typical northern wolf... but the problem, was that it didn't sound one of the friendly varieties she hosted near the castle either! Intruders...!?
Skylar sighed and had just opened his mouth to say something else when he became aware of the silence as well. Even Birger grew skittish. When the howl sounded, the mount and his rider were of the same mind.

"Hold on!" he warned her, as the moose broke into a run. Skylar's trained hand kept it from running panicked, but they were both aware of the danger around them. Patting Birger reassuringly and keeping his knees tight in the saddle to keep him steady, Skylar pulled a signal horn as well as a bow and quiver from a side pack on the saddle. Whatever came at them, they'd be ready, and able to summon help

The trees were starting to thin now as they neared the edge of the forest, and the top of the castle turrets could just be seen over the rise. They were almost home, but Skylar could feel Birger tiring under him. He hoped his mount would make it. All other problems had left his mind in favor of the drills and training. A small part of him was actually excited to be able to do his duty and prove himself as the proud guard he'd been trained to be. There was no fear now; only resolve. He refused to fail his contessa.