Summer, Year 760 of the New Age
Central Glenwood, Glenmore
"Papa?" A quiet voice asked from behind Aytan's back, and he turned his gaze from the Great Oak to find Elysia looking at him with concern in her eyes.
"What's wrong, Elsy?" He asked, brows furrowing as he turned to face her. His daughter rarely made the journey from their Glade to the Oak alone, so her presence, combined with the worry on her face, caught Aytan's attention.
"Oh, nothing," Elysia said with a soft smile. "Only I can't find Thalia... do you know where she is?"
Aytan sighed in relief, head dropping slightly. "You had me worried..." he said with a chuckle. "I assumed she'd be at the Glade with you... is she perhaps with Huisha, or maybe down by the river?"
The pale doe shook her head quickly. "No, Rosalie and the fawns are at the river and Huisha says he hasn't seen her for days. Can you think of anywhere else she might be?"
"Hm," Aytan said quietly, glancing off into the trees as he tried to think of other places the dark doe might be. She rarely left the Glade, and even then was only to wash herself at the river or go for magic lessons with Huisha. He'd left the Glade that morning without speaking to her, and now he cursed himself for it. "Perhaps she went with Eldhara to learn some healing?"
Again, Elysia shook her head, her long mane swinging by her neck. "Eldhara's in the Glade, alone." It was clear that the young doe was also concerned for her adopted-sister, and Aytan nudged her nose gently.
"Don't worry, I'm sure she'll come back this evening."
* * *
The last of the evening light was fading as Aytan made one last circuit around the Glade, waiting for Thalia to return. He'd seen or heard nothing of her all day, and Eldhara and Elysia were both beside themselves with worry - Thalia just wasn't one to run off without telling anyone, meaning that she'd either forgotten to tell someone, or something had happened to her.
"Where is she?!" Elysia bleated, her tail whipping from side-to-side - a habit she'd inherited from Thalia. "She's never left without telling anyone before!"
Aytan walked to her side and lay his head over her neck, pulling her tight in a reassuring embrace, though he was just as worried. "I'm sure she'll be back tomorrow..." he said quietly, to reassure himself more than anything else.
* * *
The next morning, the dark doe had still not made an appearance, though Aytan had forced Elysia to go for her daily lessons with Eldhara regardless, insisting that Thalia would be back by the time she returned. He'd performed his duties as Captain as quickly as he could, dashing back to the Glade whenever he could and asking all who had ever talked with Thalia if they had seen her, but to no avail. The doe had just vanished.
It was mid-afternoon when Elysia came bolting out of the trees, ears pinned against her neck. She slid to a halt beside him, her breath coming in ragged, wheezing gasps as she struggled to get air into her lungs. "We... we found....tracks....she's...she's been...she's been taken...to Blackwood!" She said between gasps for air, eyes wide and watering slightly. Behind her, Eldhara came cantering stiffly out of the trees, her age making her movements jerky and unsteady.
Aytan simply stared at his daughter for a moment. "What?!"
Elysia dragged in a ragged lungful of air and coughed loudly, trying to regulate her breathing. "We were over by the South Creek, and we found some hoofprints in the mud, with some bird-prints nearby and a magpie feather tucked between two rocks just next to the river. There were some other hoofprints with them as well, though they were bigger - a stag's! That must mean she's been kidnapped by a Raider and taken back to Blackwood, and Acka left the feather as a sign!"
Just then Eldhara came to a halt beside them and gave Elysia a warning look before dropping her head to catch her breath. "She ran before I could stop her," the old doe wheezed loudly, coughing once or twice before lifting her head to look Aytan in the eye. "We can't be sure it's her or not, it might just be a stag and doe out for a walk, and the feather could just be coincidence. Or perhaps some other fawnlings has a bird friend." She eyed the stag knowingly. "I know what you're thinking, Aytan. Do not do anything brash, your father would not hear of it."
"My father be damned," Aytan said harshly, his expression darkening. He glanced at his daughter, brows furrowed with concern at the soft wheezing noise she was making. "Can you take me back to the place you found the prints? Though walk this time, no running."
Elysia bobbed her head earnestly and took a step or two away, waiting for the Guard to follow after her. "This way," she called insistently.
"Stay here and watch over Rosalie," Aytan said to Eldhara, ducking his head to nose her cheek gently before he began to trot away, calling over his shoulder as he went: "I'll be back as soon as I can!"
* * *
"Here," Elysia said simply, stopping a good distance from the water and dropping her head to gesture at the indentations in the mud, still wheezing softly after the long walk. The prints had been made just after a rainstorm - the last of which had been a day or two ago - and had solidified as the ground had hardened, leaving perfect marks in the dirt. "And the bird-prints are here," she said, moving a step or two away and hovering a hoof over the spot.
Aytan looked at the hoofprints at his feet. They seemed the right size to be Thalia's, but every hoofprint in Glenmore was the same as the next in everything but size, and there were plenty of fawnlings around her size in Glenmore. They were of little help as a result. He turned to the bird prints. Definitely a bigger bird, they could have been from a magpie... though just as easily from a crow or raven. Separately the prints wouldn't have meant much, but so close together they meant something more....
"The stag prints are over here!" Elysia called to him before leaping nimbly over the creek, waiting for him on the opposite bank. Aytan's bulk meant that he couldn't copy her movements, and he instead had to wade through the water, shaking himself before going to peer at the hoofprints Elysia was stood next to.
Amid the roughness of the mud and several of the prints from the other bank were scattered the ones that Elysia thought belonged to a stag. They were bigger than the ones on the opposite bank, and easily twice as deep, revealing the fawnling who had left them was taller and heavier than the fawnling Elysia had assumed was Thalia. Thalia was a tall doe for Glenmore, and not the lightest build - the owner of these prints must've been closer to Aytan's height, and quite bulky in build, almost undoubtedly a stag.
"What do you think it means?" Elysia asked quietly, her huge eyes searching Aytan's for an answer.
The stag faltered for a moment, then smiled reassuringly, lifting his head up and chuckling. "Your concern is touching, Elsy," he said quietly, reaching out to nudge her neck. "But I'm sure it's nothing -- this is a main creek through the forest, there aren't any other rivers around here really, so this is bound to be a main drinking spot for fawnlings and birds alike. Plus it's right on a trail, so it'll get a lot of footfall." He smiled at her again, waiting for the pale doe to smile back. "It's nothing, she'll be off finding rare herbs and will just have forgotten to tell anyone where she's gone, that's all!" He was lying through his teeth, and if anyone but Elysia had been there they would have been able to tell, but the young doe was too trusting to doubt him for a second.
Elysia said nothing, her eyes narrowing slightly with suspicion fleetingly before her face lit up with a grin and she looked off into the trees, back towards the herd. "Of course she is," she said with a melodic giggle. "Sorry, I just got worried that the worst had happened! Forgive me for being so rash..." She ducked her head in apology and smiled shyly up at him, eyes asking for forgiveness.
"You have nothing to apologise for, Elsy, it's sweet you're so concerned for her," Aytan said quietly, bending down to lift her chin up with his nose. "Come though, Eldhara will be getting worried."
"Of course I'm concerned!" Elysia said as she leapt back over the creek. "She is my sister, after all."
* * *
The moon was high overhead when Aytan poked his head into the thicket to check on his family. Elysia's breathing had returned to normal after eating a herb Eldhara had found, though the younger doe had made sure to study the plant intently before eating it, so she could find it again at a later date. Aytan smiled down at the sleeping pair, watching their stomach's rise and fall with their slow breaths, before ducking out of the thicket again and turning to face South.
He'd thought over what he'd seen at the creek on their way back to the Glade, though Elysia had hardly seemed to notice how distracted he was as she bounded on ahead to investigate new plants. The doe had missed several other things at the creek -- the clump of dark hair caught in a bramble bush with a spring of lavender tangled up in it, the heavy scent of Blackwood in the air... Aytan had known from the moment he'd arrived with Elysia that her suspicions had been correct, though there was no point in worrying her needlessly, it made much more sense to leave quietly and let Eldhara explain -- the older doe would have realised the truth almost as quickly as he had, there was no doubt about that. Telling Elysia now would only lead to the young doe panicking and stubbornly refusing to let him go alone; better for him to face her wrath when he came back.
But now was not the time to think of what his family might think; Thalia had been taken to Blackwood, and Aytan had to go after her and bring her home safely. He knew Blackwood about as well as he knew the bottom of the ocean, but the journey was necessary if he ever wanted to see his daughter again. Could he even call her that? She was of no true relation to him really, but she was certainly as precious to him as any blood daughter would be. And now she was in Blackwood, held captive by some evil stag who no doubt had endless malicious things planned for her. At least it was Spring -- he had no reason to force himself on her yet. Still, she would be terrified alone in those dark trees... Aytan's only consolation was that she might find Hagen, or perhaps even Skoll, who might help her and keep her safe until he could find her and bring her home.
That was only if she found help.
Suddenly Aytan was cantering through the trees, weaving and swerving between the familiar trunks as he settled into an even rhythm and thundered South. The forest around him was dark under the shadows of night, but Aytan knew that the woods got much darker just South of the border. His breath huffed out of his nose in clouds of steam that vanished almost as soon as they appeared in the cold air, and his hoofsteps were loud in the silence of the trees as he raced South, towards Blackwood.