“Danelle!” Marideen shouted, “Be careful!”
Danelle giggled as she looked out over the edge going down into the small stream. The stream wasn’t deep enough for Danelle to be at any risk of drowning, but the edge she glanced over led to a steep, thorny three-foot drop. Marideen would rather not have to explain to her father why her little sister was all cut up and crying.
She ran quickly over to her sister, trying to pull her back. Danelle, deciding it was a game, danced to the side, giggling as she went. Her feet skirted along the edge of the steep decline, a foot slipping. She managed to catch herself before she went rolling down into the thorny bushes below, bouncing more enthusiastically as if to overshadow her near fall.
Marideen quickly decided to change up her tactics.
“Do you want to get closer to the stream?” Marideen shouted to Danelle, who had already run a fair distance away.
Danelle stopped and turned back.
“Mmmhm!” She made the noise loudly/Danelle made a loud noise of agreement as she nodded enthusiastically, a silly grin on her face.
Marideen knew a spot where there were no thorny bushes and the decline wasn’t quite so steep. She ran up to Danelle, offering a hand. Danelle looked at it for a moment before grabbing on. Marideen knew not to grab Danelle’s hand by force, or Danelle would resist. Danelle was always stubborn like that. Things needed to be her choice or she would fight you the whole way.
She began leading her little sister to the spot she knew was safe. Her father was at work and most of the staff that worked at her manor was inside, cleaning, cooking, and performing other duties for their father. Their nanny had given her permission to come outside with her little sister. She could barely see the nanny, sitting on the porch reading a book as they played. Her father’s estate was very large. The manor itself had about twenty rooms, and they had many acres of grass and forest to play in. This stream was one of many on his property but was often the smallest and closest to the house.
Marideen remembered once two summers before when a particularly strong rainfall left the stream as deep as the ridge Danelle and she was on. Her father had forbidden her from playing near it until the stream had settled down. Afterwards, she had asked him where all the water had gone, but he was not able to get her a satisfactory answer. She tried to walk the distance of the stream to see where it ended up. After about a half mile, the stream became indistinguishable from the rest of the forested terrain around it, which boggled Marideen. The water had to have gone somewhere.
They finally reach the cleared area. It was still a steep drop to the trickling stream below but was more manageable than anywhere else. Marideen took a few steps down, her feet slipping. She ended at the bottom with a half run which she stopped abruptly, having to step over the steam before she could stem her momentum. She turned back to the decline, reaching up to help her little sister down. Danelle gleefully jumped out, fully expecting Marideen to catch her. Marideen made sure that she did.
Once she put Danelle down, she ran up and down the stream splashing and giggling as she ran. She briefly searched for fish, before Marideen told her the water was too shallow for fish. Marideen watched as Danelle threw rocks in the water, danced in the water, ran in the water, and even tried to splash Marideen with water, which Marideen did not find nearly as amusing as her sister did.
After playing for an hour or two in the stream, Marideen finally convinced her little sister it was time to head back up to the house for something to eat. As she finally got Danelle up over the incline, she glanced back at the house. There were two grisly looking men walking towards her. She put her body in front of her sister, shielding her from the two men. The men were large, perhaps the largest men Marideen had ever seen. She felt afraid but squashed down the fear the best she could.
Danelle pointed at the men, “Who are they?”
Marideen shook her head, not being able to answer. However, as the men drew closer, she began to recognize one of them. He was a retainer of her fathers, a sword master named Beiromon. She vaguely recalled that he would start training her sword mastery in a year or two.
“Are these the Cleefe children?” the other man asked Beiromon.
“Yes, they are. Are you sure about this?”
“We have to. We don’t have time,” the first man said, and then pointed two fingers out, one at each of them. “You two. You’re coming with us!”
The other man slapped him on the shoulder with the back of his hand, “You’re scaring them half to death, you idiot.”
“I…I’m not scared!” Marideen spouted out.
“Is that so?” Beiromon asked, one of his eyebrows rising.
Marideen straightened her back, puffed out her chest and attempted to look menacing. The two men exchange a brief look before turning back to the girls. They had a look of sadness in their eyes that put Marideen on her guard. The other man took a step forward, dropping down to one knee. He looked Marideen in the eyes with a straight face, an honest face.
“My name is Maximil,” the man said, waving a hand to the other man, “and this is my good friend Bieromon, whom I believe you know… We’re here about your father, he’s in trouble…”
Before long, Marideen and her sister found themselves in the back of a truck, hidden by piles and piles of blankets, clothing, and other junk that Maximil had piled in there. They had been lucky. As the truck pulled down the street, she could see several armored vehicles driving by. She could almost hear the sound of the doors being kicked into her manor. She hoped her nanny was alright. She hoped everyone who lived there was alright.
As the truck drove noisily down the road, she realized she could hear sniffling, barely audible over the loud engine of the truck. She looked behind her to see Danelle. She was visibly shaking and tears were streaking down her face as she let out another sob. Marideen pushed herself back to Danelle, embracing her.
“It’s okay,” Marideen attempted to reassure her, “I’ll always watch after you, and I’ll always keep you safe.”
Marideen’s eyes snapped open as the escape pod shuttered. They were now approaching the atmosphere of the planet. She made a quick check of her harness. She knew her eyes were rimmed red, although she had not cried yet. It was the exhaustion, physically and emotionally, at least she tried to tell herself that.
She glanced over at the corner where Berret sat. He was unconscious at the moment. Markus has found a med kit on the escape pod and had performed his best to stem the flow of blood and keep Berret alive. But as he had told them at the time, he was not a doctor and could only do so much.
Markus and Maximil sat across from her. Markus’s eyes were closed as if he might be sleeping, but that was never an assumption anyone should make. Before he had closed his eyes, Markus had told them he had activated the homing beacon for their ship on a hidden frequency. He personally has selected and hired this ship, so it was unlikely the Taerrens would be able to find them first. At least, that was what Markus had assured them. After that, no one spoke, and they all sat in silence. The men avoided looking at her as if they saw something in her eyes that troubled them.
The involuntary nap had done little to help Marideen feel rested. If anything, she felt more exhausted than she had ever before. The pod shuddered again as they hit the atmosphere. Marideen could feel the pressure against her body as the g-force within the pod increased.
Could she have done something different? She kept running the scenario through her mind again and again, but she didn’t seem to be able to separate her thoughts properly. The boy, the one she had left behind, kept flashing into her thoughts. This, in turn, made her feel guilty. Not guilty that she had left him there, but guilty that she was thinking of him instead of her sister.
Her sister was dead. There was no denying that. More, her father was also most likely dead. If he wasn’t dead, he would be a captive somewhere. However, she couldn’t think of that right now. They were not out of danger yet. The lot of them could still end up in a cell easy enough.
Everything from this mission had gone wrong. Her father, how could he have blundered so completely? Someone had betrayed them, it was the only answer. Marcell, the farmer, had the capacity and the motivation, but Markus rejected the possibility outright. It still seemed like he had done it. Maybe Markus was in on it as well. That was a ridiculous notion. The light left Danelle’s eyes.
She began to mentally prepare for the steps ahead. First, they would need to get free and lay low. They would need to find Berret a doctor and get him patched up. Then, she would have Max get a hold of all his contacts to find out exactly how bad the damage was and how much information has now been leaked to the Taerrens. The Lancers would never be the same again, this she knew. Danelle collapsed to the floor.
She would find out if her father was alive, find out where they put him, and plan a rescue just like they had done for Berret. However, she wouldn’t make the same mistakes of the past. She would find proof that Marcell had betrayed them, and she would get her vengeance on him. Her mind worked busily, but she was unaware of the tears dripping down her cheeks, making no attempt to wipe them away.
The parachute eventually was released, causing a sudden jerk in the pod. After that, the pod dropped slowly down to the planet. It took several more minutes before striking with a sudden unexpected thud. Markus checked the radio transmissions and after a little bit, he nodded to himself. They would be picked up soon. Danelle was dead. Marideen ignored the voice nagging at the back of her mind.
“They will be coming soon, so it looks like my device worked. The native homing beacon is jammed and our beacon is transmitting. We should be back in orbit and heading to the nearest jump gate before the Taerrens even find this pod.” Markus said reluctantly, still avoiding her eyes.
“Good,” She responded, feeling like something needed to be said in response.
This didn’t have the desired effect, as her words seemed to echo in an awkward silence.
“Birdy… we….we’ll get your father back. He escaped, he had to of. Then he will get everything straight, and things will be like they were…” Max’s voice trailed off as he realized what he was saying.
“Like they were before,” Marideen completed his sentence, her voice steady. “Good, we have much planning to do.”
“Are… Are you alright, birdy?” Maximillion asked hesitantly.
“I’m fine,” Marideen replied, standing up and looking over Markus’s shoulder.
She really was perfectly fine. Her sister died, but she couldn’t undo that. There were things that needed doing now. She had to get to work, to keep things going. The Lancers would need her strong and whole and capable. The escape pod jerked as an attachment clamp clicked into place in the above hatch. Funny, Marideen hadn’t heard the ship get close. On most planets, you could hear a ship from miles away, although the tone was always different depending on the composition of the atmosphere.
The hatch above them clicked and clanged as the arm attached to place on the outside of their hall. Marideen could hear a loud rush of air as the arm pressurized between the two ships. A few more moments later, Markus declared that they were ready to board the ship, and began opening the hatch. Danelle, lying there in a pool of her own blood. That was also strange; it usually took about ten minutes for the arm to normalize in pressure. This seemed so much faster.
She tried to go towards the ladder to enter the hatch, which Markus had opened after turning the adjacent wheel a dozen times. However, she realized she was sitting. She certainly didn’t remember sitting down. Danelle, dead. She shook the thought from her mind. Standing up she began walking towards the ladder to find that her legs didn’t seem to be working properly.
She collapsed to one knee, and before she realized it, a large sob escaped her throat. Maximillion was there, but she was scarcely aware of him. She had trouble breathing, why couldn’t she breathe? She couldn’t remember to breathe. Danelle. Dead. She collapsed the rest of the way. She didn’t know if she hit the ground or if Max caught her. She couldn’t feel anything anymore, anything but the pain bursting through her body. Danelle was dead, because of a boy with hazel eyes. Those were the last thoughts that haunted her into unconsciousness.