So, this has taken a bit longer than expected. Sorry about that. But at long last, here is the new chapter...
But to answer one question about Alessia's strength, especially compared to other people in Westeros. All around as the Dragonborn, she is considerably stronger than most other people. Magic, dragon shouts and being a trained Legion soldier, that's quite a lot of power for one person. When you look at her skills with just the sword, she is on par with the great fighters of Westeros. Sword against sword some might even beat her, but she has her magic and a dragon to rely on, so she only has to fear the other Deadra champions and the creatures that the Daedric Princes have unleashed upon the world. So I hope that clears this up at long last.
Orys Baratheon had known that his mission would be a long and difficult one. He had been prepared for fights, for extortion, for death and sickness. What he had not anticipated was how quickly his patience would run out in the end.
After too many days in the green hell, he had managed to leave the gigantic forest and made his way further to the east. Many people had seen the dragon, which was a good thing, but none had seen it land anywhere.
He had to ride for days on end, without ever getting any closer to the elusive mercenary and her dragon. All he ever heard was that the dragon moved to the south-west. So he followed that trail. But the lack of real progress quickly annoyed him to no end.
Aegon would expect results, not immediately, but soon enough to change their plans accordingly. With all the preparations underway, it was only a matter of time before Aegon would begin his conquest. It was inevitable and in some way, Orys yearned for the fighting just as much as Aegon does. They were very alike in that regard, after all. But as long as this Alessia is on the loose, their entire invasion could be in jeopardy. The damage this one woman could possibly do… he didn't even want to imagine it.
It was in his third week in the after leaving Dragonstone, when he finally ran across some traveling merchant who had an interesting tale to share. A woman in strange armor had been seen at one of the farms from where he bought flesh and skins. A rich woman, a woman who had supposedly arrived on horseback and left on a dragon.
Orys found the farm easily. The story had spread far and wide and many people were quick to tell their own spin on the tale about the dragonrider and the farmer. The most interesting of those tales where the hushed whispers of the dragon princess. It was amusing to hear the speculations about the origin of the dragonrider, though Orys was quick to dismiss the idea of a princess riding a dragon. He had heard about the princess of the Stormlands. A spoiled little shit, Aegon's words, not his. His friend had felt insulted when King Argilac had offered him his daughter to form an alliance. There were other reasons for Aegon's refusal as well, but the undesirable Princess Argella did not sweeten the deal in any way. Orys had no doubts that such a girl could never survive the force of nature that is a dragon. Little did he know, though, that the rumors were not as wrong as he had believed.
The farmer was on his field, together with some of his older children, as Orys approached him. The man looked fearful but stood his ground none the less.
"Are you the farmer who has taken care of the dragon princess' horse?" Orys asked. He had called the rider a princess just to see how the man would react, but the way the farmer flinched and wouldn't meet his eyes was highly suspicious.
"Please, good ser, I have already told the king's other knights all I know. The princess just paid me to care for her horse when she left with her dragon. I don't know nothing about where she's now, I swear."
Orys watched the man closely, too stumped to reply immediately. Has this farmer just confirmed that the dragon rider is the princess of the Stormlands? The foolish little girl? And not just that, other knights of this realm are actively searching for her… This had to be some mistake. The smallfolk would call any woman in fancy armor or dress a princess. They just couldn't tell the difference.
"So the princess has not been here since you saw her last?" Orys queried.
"No, ser, we haven't seen her since," the farmer mumbled. He was obviously frightened of what Orys would do to him after this unsatisfactory answer. And judging by the black bruises on his arms, the other knights that had been here had not been very kind to the farmer.
"Rest easy, man, I'm not here to hurt you," Orys assured him, "But it is of utmost importance that I find the princess and her dragon."
"No one knows where she is, ser. We only heard rumors that she has fled Storm's End on her dragon and moved to the west. That's all I know, I swear."
Orys wanted to curse, but that would have like frightened the farmer so much that he would have turned into a shaking mess on the ground. If, and that was a very big if, if the dragon rider is truly the princess of the Stormlands, than she was definitely a threat to Aegon's plans. To think that one of the first kingdoms they would try to conquer would have a dragon rider of its own… Even three dragons against one, the damage to Aegon's plans would be considerable. He would win, of course, but at what cost?
"West you say," Orys mumbled. The farmer only nodded mutely, too afraid to speak. "I will have to continue my search then. Thank you for your time." He bid the man farewell and returned to his horse. But as he walked through the field, he could see the farmer's children watching him intently. All of them were dirty, which was not surprising for farm children, but some of them seemed bruised and otherwise hurt as if someone had beaten them. The children had kept their distance, just as afraid as the man. Whatever King Argilac's knights had done here, it had left a lasting impact. And that was worrying. If the king's men would do such a thing, this could only mean that there was more truth in the farmer's words than Orys was willing to believe.
By the time Argella and her newfound companions had found all the rotting corpses, the sun had risen high in the sky. They had thrown all the undead minions of the necromancer on one large pile, to burn them all at once. So much death and decay would only invite disease or worse, more idiots with dark ambitions. So when Argella began disposing of the corpses, Prince Gawen was quick to order his men to help her.
The task had been greater than anticipated and by the time they were done, the pile had risen almost twice her size. Hundreds of people, travelers, farmers, merchants, everyone who had stopped at the inn and seemed an easy target. The necromancer had been a patient man, building up his army slowly and in absolute secrecy. Sadly for him, mindless zombies are no real match for a fully grown dragon of Odahviing's power.
"What are you going to do now?" Theo Tyrell asked as he approached Alessia.
She wasn't so sure. She tried to come up with a plan, as she watched the pile burn, but her mind refused to yield the result she was looking for. Alessia knew that she had to hunt down Peryite. The Daedric Prince would only bring more death and destruction to this world, but at the same time, she knew that she was no real match for him. Even though the Prince of Pestilence is considered the weakest of his kin, he was still many times more powerful than a mortal, even if that mortal is a Dragonborn.
"I need to go south," Alessia replied, "I have to follow Peryite. He is too dangerous to be left unchecked."
"I..." Theo obviously wanted to say that he would follow her, but he couldn't. He had his duties, she had hers, "I need to go back to Highgarden. I am needed there."
Alessia nodded. She had expected as much. Another deadric champion would have been useful, even one as untrained and untried as Theo, but she would have to adapt. She always did.
"I will find you once I've dealt with this mess. Then we continue our talk about the Daedra," she promised before she walked away from the burning pile and towards one of the remaining horses. She already missed the powerful warhorse she had liberated from King Argilac's stables, but her abrupt escape from Storm's End had forced her to leave the strong animal behind. Such a shame. The mare she would be forced to use now was underfed and looked as if a strong wind could break her neck.
As she reached the horse, the reins were suddenly snatched from her. Prince Gawen stood there, in his silver armor, dented and dirty by the earlier blood work. His eyes, a light brown that seemed to shine golden in the right light, bore into hers.
"Is there anything you need of me, your grace?" she asked. The simple courtesies needed when speaking to royalty had been beaten into her long ago and both Legat Rikke and Queen Elisif would be proud to see their work had finally borne fruit.
"You will travel with us to Highgarden. My father will have to see you with his own eyes, else he wouldn't believe a word about this night," the prince replied, followed by an amused chuckle, "And it would be a shame to let a pretty flower out of my sight so soon."
Alessia wanted to scoff but refrained from any such disrespect. She had seen much more subtle attempt to lure her into a man's bed before, but she wouldn't have expected a prince to be the most obvious of them all. Then again, Prince Gawen was a rather good-looking man with a powerful name, he surely had no trouble getting what he wants from the more simple-minded maidens. Sadly for him, a Dragonborn is no simple maiden… neither is a princess of the Stormlands, she added almost as an afterthought.
"You have seen the monster, I need to pursue it, lest it will cause more chaos," she implored the prince.
But he remained unmoved, "The more reason for you to come with me. Together we will convince my father to assemble an army of the best knights in the realm to hunt down this foe."
"It is my task, your grace, your men would stand no chance!"
"And you would? Why is that, I wonder? Your dragon? Or is it your magic that makes you so special? Don't deny it, my pretty flower, I have seen plenty of your skills his night. You are more than meets the eye, but even so, one woman against this monster, that is hardly a fair fight." He moved closer than she was comfortable with and put his hand on her cheek, cradling it softly.
But Alessia wouldn't play his game. She swatted his arm away as if it was an annoying fly. The prince was lucky, though. Had he not worn his leather gloves, she would have punched him in the face. She had never like skin to skin contact with strangers, not since her childhood and those insipid nobles in the Imperial City with their wandering hands…
"I will take my leave now, your grace," she said, this time more forcefully.
Prince Gawen only laughed, though his eyes had hardened and his grip on the reins of the horse had only tightened. "You will come with us. I simply cannot allow you to roam this realm unchecked. From my point of view, I can't be sure who is more dangerous. That black dragon… or you."
"And you would bring me into your home, to your father, your king? Despite knowing my powers and that you would stand no chance against me?" she challenged. He was either overly confident in his own abilities or he was hiding something. She seriously hoped that he wasn't just some noble born moron like so many others she had met over the years.
"Are you an enemy of House Gardener?" he asked her directly.
Her father was one, she was pretty sure about that. Should Prince Gawen or any of his family find out that she is the daughter of Argilac Durrandon, they wouldn't treat her with any courtesy? As far as she knows, her father had just won a war against the Reach, killing Gawen's uncle, King Garse VII. Even with her dragon, Alessia would have a hard time escaping their castle unscathed. But she also knew that only a few people outside of Storm's End had seen Princess Argella before, so the chance that anyone would recognize her would be slim.
"I have no quarrel with your family," she replied cautiously.
"Then you will come with us. This is not negotiable. You wither come willing or I will have to force you."
She almost laughed, as she looked at him amusedly. The prince and his few men her wouldn't be able to force her to do anything. She had killed greater bands of Stormcloaks all on her own, so what chance would they stand? But she had to be careful as well. She was in no position to make any more powerful enemies. The Stormlands were already up in arms against her, no need to add the Reach to that list as well.
She sighed deeply, "This is a mistake. Losing Peryite now will only make things worse. But if you insist, I have no choice but to follow you to Highgarden."
Prince Gawen's mood brightened considerably, as he had obviously expected her to be more resistant to the idea. He even had his hand on the hilt of his sword.
"Excellent. Don't worry about the monster, something as big as that thing won't remain unnoticed for long," he assured her.
She wanted to point out that Peryite had already spent an unknown amount of time hiding in the Reach, but decided against it. It would be just another argument she couldn't win just because the prince was too stubborn to see her point. Alessia just shook her head and climbed her horse.
Gawen still stubbornly refused to hand over the reins, obviously suspecting her to attempt to flee. So he leads her over to the rest of the group, where Theo Tyrell was waiting with the surviving knights and servants.
"Onward, to Highgarden! And make haste, men," the prince announced loudly.
He handed the reins of Alessia's horse to Theo for a short moment, as he climbed atop his own horse. Then he took them back.
"Are you trying to keep me tied to you for the entire duration of our journey?" Alessia asked him, both amused and annoyed by the prince's actions.
He chuckled, as he looked at her. "I might consider releasing you, somewhere near Highgarden," he said. "Can't let my little flower run off without me now."
"You are only wasting your own time and energy here, prince, I already said that I would come with you, but you will do as you please."
He laughed again, clearly amused by her continued defiance. Alessia would humor him, for a while at least. Once they had reached Highgarden, she would find a way to leave without alienating the entire kingdom in the process. Until then, she would put up with him. Well, not all of his advances…
Highgarden was truly a sight to behold. Albeit not as grand as the Imperial City with its White-Gold-Tower, but compared to what she had seen in this world, it had to be the most beautiful castle in all the kingdoms.
Three rings of white stone surrounded the keep, each wall higher than the one before, as grand and majestic as only the great walls of the Imperial City had ever been. Towers, both large and squat and tall and round had been built to protect the keep from foreign invaders, as climbing roses and ivy-covered much of the white stone. Even from afar it was truly a sight to behold.
Alessia could barely keep her eyes off the keep, even as they rode through the many orchards that surround the castle, something that Prince Gawen noticed with obvious satisfaction.
"Behold Highgarden, home of House Gardener. For thousands of years my family has ruled the Reach from this castle, ever since our honored ancestor Garth the Gardener had made his home on top of the hill next to the river Mander," the prince exclaimed, "You will find no finer castle in all the lands, nor one with greater knights and songs."
"It has its charms," Alessia replied cautiously, "I'd like to see it all."
She was honest here, the castle did intrigue her. Especially as they passed through the gates of the first wall and passed through a giant briar labyrinth. People were frolicking and songs could be heard everywhere. Many singers seemed to be around, there to entertain the many highborn guests of the Gardener King.
"Oh my dear flower, I will show it all to you. Every room if need be to convince you to stay with us," the prince replied with a laugh, "Few people have witnessed the beauty of Highgarden and left of their own volition."
"Then there shall soon be one more," Alessia replied. "Duty waits for no one, not even those who can visit such a happy place."
As they passed the second wall, the green maze was replaced by busy streets and knights in shiny armors. Normal guards were there as well, all dressed in heavily ornamented armors, all adorned with the green hand of House Gardener. It seemed that the middle section of the castle was the place where most of the men in arms would be located, something that Alessia would remember for later.
But she also realized that with each wall they passed, her chance for escape, should it be needed, seemed more and more unlikely. By the time they would enter the center of the castle, only Odahviing would be able to free her, she was sure of it.
Then they passed the third wall. The heart of Highgarden was right before them. The main keep, with its many gardens, terraces, and gazebos. The entire castle here seemed to exist solely for the purpose of making its inhabitants happy. It was this kind of ostentatious luxury and disregard for dangers in the world outside that had always made Alessia hate the Imperial City, but just by the looks of it, Highgarden was even worse. Never would she have believed it to be possible.
And all the minstrels, the wine, and foods she saw, the entire place must look like the perfect world for a Daedra like Sanguine. Alessia could only hope that he wouldn't make an appearance, but deep down she knew that if there was a feast here, the Daedric Prince of debauchery would be here. And just from the looks of it, they had many feasts in this castle.
Prince Gawen's hunting party was soon greeted by another richly dressed man and a large host of guards and servants. Most of them stared at Alessia as if she was a dragon herself, with undisguised curiosity and wonder. Especially the one who lead them.
"The one at the center it Prince Edmund, heir to the throne and Prince Gawen's older brother," Theo provided next to her. She had been so caught up in her own thoughts that she had not even realized that he had approached her again, for the first time since Gawen had made it his personal duty to drag her to Highgarden.
"So one prince comes to greet the other," Alessia mumbled.
"They have always been close. The princes are only a year apart in age so they have done almost everything together," Theo replied, "Together they will bring a new golden age for the Reach."
So much pride, Alessia thought with worry. The young Tyrell was so blinded by his loyalty to his kings that their achievements became his pride. Such a wrong sense of loyalty had led many men to their deaths in the past. She herself had killed many Nords who had been utterly loyal to Ulfric Stormcloak, blind to the faults of their leader and the doom he was leading them towards.
"Brother, we had not expected you back so soon! It's been not even two weeks. Have the Red Mountains collapsed and frightened away all your game?" Prince Edmund asked loudly, as he approached his brother.
Gawen had been quick to jump out of his saddle and embrace his brother strongly.
"I bring bad news, Edmund. I must see father at once. Dark powers are at play and the Reach is in great danger," Gawen replied.
Edmund looked worriedly at his brother, before he answered, "Our king is currently with his council and will not see anyone at least until midday."
"I have to intrude then, this is important," Gawen said, as he pushed past his brother. But Edmund held him back, by grabbing his brother's arm.
"Don't, Gawen. Father will see you when he has the time. Whatever news you have, it will have to wait. You know how he is!"
"Aye, I know. But we can ill afford to waste time," Gawen growled. "So be it, but I will be the first to see him once he is free. Please keep those other sycophants and supplicants away from him until I've had a word with him."
"I will, brother, you have my word," Edmund replied. The older prince looked towards Alessia again, "But I see you've made a new friend. A woman in armor, how very odd."
Alessia had left her frail old horse behind at this point and stood back with Theo, watching the scene with keen eyes. Only when Gawen motioned for her to come closer, she approached the two princes. The eyes of every man in the courtyard were on her and she was sure that she had seen a number of archers on the walls and towers around knock their arrows. Good, they were not a foolish sort to allow an armed foreigner near the heirs of their king without making sure that they would be able to stop an attack.
"Ah, Alessia, let me introduce you to my brother. This is Prince Edmund Gardener, heir to Highgarden and the Reach," Gawen introduced, "Brother, this is Alessia, a mercenary with… exceptional skills."
She removed her helmet, as the prince regarded her with interest and inclined her head in respect. She wouldn't curtsy, she doesn't do curtsies. "Your grace, it is an honor."
"My, what a pretty one you have found," Edmund exclaimed. He had obviously misunderstood what Gawen had implied when he spoke of her exceptional skills.
"Careful, brother, this one can bite back," Gawen warned, "The armor and weapons are not just for show. Not to mention her pet dragon."
"Pet dragon?" Edmund asked, "Please tell me you didn't bring a Targaryen to our castle."
"I am not a Targaryen, your grace, I have no great family to speak of nor lingering loyalties to any of the great houses in the kingdoms," Alessia assured him.
The prince considered her words for a moment before he turned away. "Father will not be pleased by this, Gawen."
"I count on it," the prince replied cockily, "But once he hears the entire story he will thank me for bringing her here."
"I hope you know what you are doing, brother," Edmund sighed. "Regardless, I will have the servants prepare a guest room for her. And a bath, perhaps. She should better look her best when you introduce her to father."
"That would be a good idea," Gawen conceded.
Alessia herself didn't think much about it. A guest room was good, even though she had no plans to stay for long, at least one night of sleep in a good and safe bed would be welcome. And a bath even more.
"And maybe a dress, so she can join us for a small feast tonight," Gawen continued.
Edmund nodded, "Yes, that can be arranged."
"Excellent. I will see you later then, brother," Gawen said, as he watched Edmund depart.
The rest of the hunting party and the servants had long since disappeared, leaving Alessia alone with Gawen, Theo and a handful of guards at every exit of the courtyard. It had been a strange welcoming in this castle and Alessia could only wonder what would await her next.
King Mern of House Gardener, ninth of his name, watched with a deep frown as the people enjoyed the feast. He didn't feel like celebrating, but news of his younger son's victory over a horde of undead had spread quickly in the castle and many saw it as a feat worthy of celebration. Mern did not agree. If only half of Gawen's ridiculous tale was indeed true, the threat to the realm was not yet over. Yet here they were, celebrating like a bunch of foolish peacocks with not a worry in the world.
Then there was the other reason for his headache. The dragon rider his son had brought to Highgarden. Alessia… a mercenary with no ties to any great House. A convenient disguise… No, this woman was not what she claimed to be. Oh, he believed the tale of her skills in battle, he even believed that she could call a dragon to aid her in battle. Those fools on Dragonstone had three of these beasts at their command, so another dragon wasn't completely out of question. But her loyalty and agenda are what he questions.
"Are you alright, father? Are you feeling unwell?" Mern's eldest son and heir, Edmund, asked. The boy looked with obvious worry at his father. Such a good son, unproven yet, but with the obvious eye for details. His three other sons lacked this attention, Gawen most of all.
"When you look at the woman your brother is dragging around to dance with, what do you see, Edmund?"
The prince watched his brother and the mercenary for some moments. She had cleaned up remarkably well. Bathed, dressed and groomed she could almost pass for a highborn lady. In fact, she did move with a certain grace and poise that a lowborn mercenary should not possess.
"She is not… what I would expect from a mercenary. Not just because she is a woman, but she seems to be right at home at a feast like this," Edmund commented. "And Gawen seems a bit too enthralled by her beauty. People will start to talk."
"Your brother is a fool. Too easily swayed by a pretty face. It is a weakness you once shared, Edmund."
"Yes, father," Edmund replied, albeit with obvious bitterness.
But Mern did not care about his son's feelings. The boy had done the right thing in the end, he had given up on his foolish notion of romance and married a girl of good stock, even providing an heir of his own already. If only Gawen would show the same dedication to his duties.
"This woman is an enemy in our midst."
"An enemy, father?" Edmund asked, alarmed by this. He was obviously worried for Gawen's safety.
"Only yesterday I received word from our spies in Storm's End. The messenger had ridden day and night and killed two horses to bring us this information quickly. King Argilac and his spawn, the Princess Argella, are at odds. More than that, there had been a fight in front of many witnesses. The princess against Argilac's dog."
"If I remember correctly, Argella Durradon is a useless wench with no skills to speak off."
"So we have been told," Mern agreed, "But the princess won her fight. With magic and sword."
Edmund paled as he heard this, his eyes quickly finding the mercenary and his brother again. A woman fighting with magic and sword, what are the odds…
"There is more. Argilac wanted his daughter imprisoned. He believed that she might be trying to depose him. And that is where things got interesting. She was saved... by a dragon. I hadn't believed our spy at first, but now that your brother has brought us another dragon rider, things make more sense."
"So Princess Argella is working with the Targaryens to depose her father?" Edmund concluded, "They are the only ones who could have given her such a beast. There are no other dragons left in our world. But why is she here, then? Maybe her plans have failed and she is seeking refuge from her father's vengeance."
"That is one of the questions I want to be answered," the king growled.
"I will have arrested once the feast is over. We will find out what the Durrandon spawn is doing here."
"No!" the king said imperiously.
"Father?" Edmund asked, obviously confused.
"We will play her game for the time being. But we will keep a close eye on Princess Argella. Her presence might just as well be a boon for us, but until we know for sure, we will watch her closely."
"Shall I inform Gawen of this?"
The king pondered this for some time, his eyes following the princess of the Storm Lands and his son. "No. Only you and my most trusted councilors know about this yet. Let Gawen entertain and distract her. He shall even take her to his bed if he wants, but I will have my answers."
"And if she kills Gawen because we didn't warn him?" Edmund asked. His son sounded slightly angry by this decision. The worry for his brother's well being was clouding his mind if only a little.
"Should your brother died by her sword or magic, we will have our answer as well," Mern replied. "We will speak no more of this tonight. Go and mingle with your guests."
"As you wish, father," Edmund replied.
The boy wasn't happy, but that wasn't the king's priority here. For the good of the realm, they would do whatever is necessary. He wouldn't be blinded by rage or lust for vengeance. Argilac may have killed his brother Garse, but Mern wouldn't throw away a good opportunity just for the sake of petty revenge. It was just as he had said, Princess Argella might be both a gift and a blight, they would just have to find out what she was here for.
A/N: And the secret is no longer much of a secret.
Orys still has his doubts and doesn't want to believe that Aegon might have thrown away the chance to get the fourth dragon rider on their side when he refused to marry Argella, but he will realize the truth soon enough. And the Gardeners, let's just say that they have eyes and ears everywhere. The same goes for other kingdoms as well. But in this case, the Reach and the Stormlands had been at war again and again for many years, so they each have spies in the strongholds of the enemy. Well, let's see whether Argella/Alessia is the boon they need to survive Aegon's Conquest. I guess we all know what happened to House Gardener in the books...
And Prince Gawen might even be a rival for fair Argella's affection. It's not like anyone can force her to marry against her will at this point...