As soon as he’d returned, all was right with Dragonhead again. The servants had a spring in their step; even the kitchen’s cooking seemed especially tasty today. Alas that it was not to last!
More business trips came and went, though none quite so long as the last. Still, with every period that Haurchefant was gone, Emaile could feel the tension and the absence he left behind.
Reading and sorting Lord Haurchefant’s vast collection of books and papers could only keep her occupied so long. While books were nice company for a day of solitude, there was really no substitute for living, breathing beings. And so, Emaile found herself drawn to the stables too during her daily romps around Camp Dragonhead.
Initially it started as just a peek inside, a gentle cooing to the chocobos as the stable boy, Olivier, combed their feathers and cleaned their stalls. But after a few days, Olivier turned to her, grinning brightly. He held out a sprig of greens to her. “Fastest way to a bird’s heart? Through their beak,” he explained, twirling the greens between his fingertips.
Emaile chuckled, taking the greens and offering them to one of the chocobos, the one with the striking black feathers, who munched happily. “Thank you for your expertise, ser.”
Olivier pulled out more greens from the bucket he’d hauled over, and together they ensured each chocobo had their fill.
As she stroked the black chocobo’s down, she turned to Olivier. “What an awful lot of work for just you!”
Olivier shrugged, pulling out a file to blunt one of the chocobo’s talons. “His Lordship knows I can get stuff done. I ‘ppreciate that kinda trust. Without him, I’d be collectin’ snow down my shirt in some back alley o’ the Brume, beggin’. He took me in, gave me a way t’ earn wages. Make a livin’. Maybe even earn a pair o’ spurs like he did.”
She smiled. “Ser Olivier has a lovely ring to it.”
He laughed. “Maybe. I love th’ birds, but I wonder if I wouldn’t make a better tamer, out in Tailfeather.” He wrinkled his nose. “I’m not one for fightin’.” His face fell. “I don’t like th’ sight o’ blood, actually… Or seein’ things get hurt.”
Emaile’s smile slowly faded as she turned from the chocobo, her full attention on the boy now.
“Ya see the look on their faces, when they’re in pain, and ya realize they ain’t any different than ya.” He paused his work, though this time he didn’t look up. “I’d rather make things feel better. Like what I do here, keepin’ the birds comfortable-like.”
Making things better. “I think I would prefer to do the same, were I given the choice,” Emaile nodded. “You’re very wise for your age, Olivier.” She patted the chocobo’s side. “These birds are lucky to have you to care for them.”
Olivier grinned sheepishly, scratching his ear as he sought a distraction. “Well… it does get to be a good load o’ work sometimes… wouldn’t mind some help now ‘n then…”
Emaile held out her hand toward Olivier for the file. “I would be happy to supply it. As long as I have a tutor to instruct me!”
Olivier practically glowed as he taught her everything there was to know about caring for a chocobo: how to groom them, how to clean their stalls, what to feed them and how often. It was indeed a great deal of work, and Emaile found herself amazed that Olivier could tend to it day in and out without losing a spring in his step.
Though it didn’t stop his stomach from growling with complaint as the day wore on.
“Shush, you!” Olivier grumbled, gripping his gut. “Yer in the presence o’ a lady!”
Emaile just giggled. “It seems as though I’ve kept you from luncheon, what with all these lessons, ser.”
Olivier shrugged. “Well, it was nice havin’ the company. I can eat once I exercise th’ birds.”
“Oh, that would take a dreadful time all on your own,” came a man’s playful voice from behind them at the stable door. “Perhaps I can offer my assistance.”
Olivier glanced up, flushing. “M’lord! Yer back!”
“Recently arrived!” Lord Haurchefant strolled in, examining the stalls with a nod of approval. “Spotless! As always. A man could learn a thing or two from you, Olivier.” He arced a brow as he glanced at Emaile. “Though a certain lady’s assistance is also particularly excellent at keeping a man on task.”
Curtsying, Emaile inclined her head. “I’m under apprenticeship to your groomsman.”
“My! Olivier, you’ve been holding out on me.” Haurchefant clapped. “Well, with all of us, the work will be done thrice as fast. Shall we?”
Her second ride with the young lord! Emaile’s exhaustion fell away quickly at the prospect of a ride with the cheerful Olivier and Lord Haurchefant. What better company could a young lady ask for?
This time, Emaile observed closely as Olivier and Lord Haurchefant blanketed, reined, and saddled three of the chocobos. Noticing her interest in their work, Olivier resumed his duties as tutor. “Here, m’lady. I’ll show ya how to tie a lead on th’ others!”
Snatching up her hand, Olivier eagerly drew her over to another chocobo as Lord Haurchefant brought over a length of rope. “Nothing terribly complex,” Lord Haurchefant reassured her.
Olivier took the working end of the rope while Lord Haurchefant held the standing end. Slowly and methodically, Olivier worked out each part of the knots with the wordless assistance of Lord Haurchefant, the stableboy explaining each step as he went. A few binds and twists and pulls, and soon Olivier had a neat little loop that secured the chocobo’s head like a pair of reins. And with equal expertise, his nimble fingers tugged and pulled until the whole thing fell apart neatly in his hands.
He demonstrated a few more times before passing the working end into Emaile’s hands. “Here, m’lady. Now you try.” Grinning, he swapped places with her, nudging her closer to the chocobo and Lord Haurchefant, who again waited with the standing end of the rope in hand.
Suddenly standing this close to Lord Haurchefant, Emaile found herself falling into his smiling blue eyes… and quite forgetting the first steps. She shook herself with a start and slowly began to work Olivier’s instructions, walking through the process aloud.
Now and then, Lord Haurchefant’s hands would cross over hers, passing close or lightly brushing against them as he assisted her in tying the knots.
“That’s it!” Olivier cheered. Emaile held the completed knots in her hand.
“A natural.” Lord Haurchefant nodded. His closeness and presence were warm as a mug of their coveted hot chocolate. “Are you certain you didn’t lead a double life as a sailor?”
Emaile offered him a nervous laugh. “As certain as I have only my exceptional tutor to thank for this new skill.”
They repeated the process for the other chocobos—Olivier tying his own knots while Lord Haurchefant assisted with hers—until all the chocobos were either saddled or ready to be led. As before, Lord Haurchefant assisted Emaile in mounting her feathery steed before he and Olivier mounted on their own. She silently envied the ease with which they mounted—though she imagined it was far easier to do without the folds of her dress!
“Now, as enjoyable as these rides are, we must never go too far, you understand.” Lord Haurchefant explained as he flashed her his usual smile… despite the edge of concern to it.
She nodded. Well did she recall their plight here in Camp Dragonhead. “Ixali to the northeast and Dravania further north still.”
Haurchefant nodded. “Neither they nor the local beasts would dare come this far south; not with our patrols. But all the same, I would not have you at risk, Lady Emaile.”
She smiled. “Knowing you and your men are here to defend our lands makes me feel quite secure, my lord.”
“Then our work is never in vain.” He nodded with satisfaction.
He led them off to the right, westward—nowhere near the aeries where the hostile bird-men dwelt. This was the same road her carriage took to bring her to Dragonhead. Not long on their ride, they passed the time-worn stone and iron gates that led to the Steps of Faith into the Holy See itself, off to their right, heading northward.
Haurchefant nodded and waved to the guards posted at their stations. Emaile followed suit, though she wondered how well they could see the gesture at this distance; they were a good fifty yalms away.
Haurchefant continued down the path heading westward; now this way Emaile had never come. “This is the way to Whitebrim Front,” Haurchefant explained, “the hold where Ser Drillemont, a colleague of mine, resides. You’ll see it in a moment on our right.”
Off to their left, Emaile could make out the peaks of mountains peering over the tops of the bare-branch trees.
“Those mountains cut nearly all the way through the Coerthas Central Highlands, west to east,” Haurchefant explained, following the direction of Emaile’s gaze. “Remarkable, really. Whitebrim Front and Dragonhead guard the only passages through.”
The path began to rapidly descend, and the trees fell away. Far below them was a castle slightly larger than Dragonhead with great towers that more closely resembled the dizzying spires of the Holy See than Dragonhead’s sturdy but squat fortifications.
“Whitebrim Front,” Haurchefant announced, gesturing to the fortress, which seemed to be placed right on the edge of a sheer cliff.
Lord Haurchefant called their procession to a halt. “And there’s the passage through the mountains that Whitebrim guards: Daniffen Pass. Do you see it, Lady Emaile?” He turned his hand from Whitebrim Front to their right and north, swinging his arm instead to point southward, where the land began to slope up into the knees of the mountains.
She followed his gesture, but she could see no sign of a break in the mountain range.
“Here. It’s easier to spot from this angle,” Haurchefant offered, patting his arm and gesturing for her to follow its point to find her quarry.
With a curious and bashful look up at him, Emaile hesitated before leaning over in her saddle to get closer and gaze down his arm. Her chin almost bumped against the crook of his elbow, they were so close.
She thought she could just barely make out an area of rock that looked somewhat lighter than the rest, as if it were being lit from within by a distant light.
“Daniffen Pass is a cave system naturally boring through the mountains,” Haurchefant explained. “It takes you right by a most impressive crystal structure left behind by the Calamity.” He nodded, as if to affirm his own information. “Circle around that and you’ll be heading south and eastward. The path there leads past Dzemael Darkhold and, from there, southward into the Black Shroud.”
Dzemael Darkhold. Emaile shivered. “The castle they say is haunted with demonic, otherworldly creatures?”
“The Voidsent. Indeed. Which is why the Darkhold has long been sealed off and remains under guard to this day. There are many dangers surrounding Dragonhead.” Haurchefant nodded. “Which is why I do humbly request neither of you venture this far without my accompaniment,” Lord Haurchefant said with a surprisingly stern brow as he turned his chocobo around in a loose loop, allowing the tethered birds to circle behind him. He made eye contact with Emaile and then Olivier.
How far had they traveled? It’d hardly seemed like any time at all. Emaile turned in the saddle to look. Far enough, it turned out; Dragonhead’s walls were no longer visible.
“Ya can count on us, sir!” Olivier said with a salute.
Emaile quickly returned to the present discussion. Right, her promise not to venture too far without accompaniment. “We promise!” She followed Olivier’s example, shooting off a salute with a giggle.
The sternness dissipated from Lord Haurchefant’s blue eyed-gaze immediately, and he too offered a chuckle as he saluted them back. “Now! It is a shame that we are exercising these birds, or I would venture a race was in order. Perhaps something to look forward to for next time.”
Olivier wriggled in his saddle. “A race? Against you, m’lord?” He grinned.
Emaile giggled. “I think perhaps I shall remain at the finish line to cheer the victor. I am still uncertain about my own riding skills, let alone to engage in a race…”
Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn / 2013-2021
“Hm. A fair point. But I’d hate to have you bored to tears simply watching from afar…” Lord Haurchefant tapped his chin. “What say you, Olivier? Perhaps we should sweeten the pot. A boon from the fair lady for the winner of our race?” he teased.
Emaile laughed at his jest. Of course he meant no word of it, but she played along all the same, feigning an indignant scoff. “I should think I should have a say in such a reward!”
At the mere suggestion, poor Olivier glowed red from ear to ear.
“Well, Lady Emaile, if a small boon like a kerchief should prove too little, I would hate to present you as stingy,” Lord Haurchefant continued to play his part, all seriousness. “But you are quite right; a kiss would be far more suitable to your generosity.” He shot a sidelong, satisfied little smile at her.
Soon enough Emaile matched Olivier in his crimson hue. Quite flabbergasted, she could think of no good retort—
“Ah, and there is our gate,” Lord Haurchefant cried, cutting the banter short. “Well, no races for us perhaps then, my friends. But I do hope I can keep you company again all the same.”
His impish smile made her laugh. And it made her heart skip a beat.
All photos property of Square Enix unless otherwise stated. Used under US “Fair Use” laws.
Final Fantasy XIV and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix. And I am not affiliated with them.