We started this Adventure Tail here ....but the story really began here... And now Part Three of The Land of Ice and Snow - The Departure.
It seemed that the rest of Bandit's visit would be mostly unremarkable. As the gossips expected Bandit and Col Ti spent a lot of time together. However, Bandit's free-spirited ways ground fiercely against Col Ti's stoic discipline. He would wake her early for rounds or troop inspections and she would reply, “OK” and then roll over and go back to sleep. Or she would disappear for most of the morning without any explanation only to return later with a newly killed deer slung over her shoulder. She lived, it seemed, without any sense of duty.
Princess Kai kept her distance. True to his word, Zander made sure that Kai and Bandit did not cross paths. The Princess was still sulking from being humiliated and dismissed by the older hunter. Kai naturally did not like other females, least of all of her own kind. So for Kai to be so enthusiastic about Bandit's arrival and then be rejected was a deep wound. Zander knew that Kai had always longed for an older sister. Expecting Bandit to fulfill this role could only lead to disappointment – and it did.
Gradually the chip started to erode off Kai's shoulder and soon the four of them – Zander, Kai, Col Ti, and Bandit found themselves talking and drinking late into the night. Although they had to be beg her, Bandit eventually started telling spectacular tales of victories from her youth. Kai was spellbound. Something in her pulled toward these stories of a wide, rugged country and dangerous hunts. The way of the BearHunters was calling to Kai.
Bandits exotic voice and tales of valor were intoxicating. She became well liked at court and many sought to befriend her. Kai was flattered when she realized that Bandit was spending more time with her than with anyone. Including Col Ti. One night Kai saw them arguing. Bandit was shaking her head and when Col Ti reached for her – Bandit pulled away. Since that night Bandit had been cool to Col Ti. Secretly Kai was thrilled to have Bandit to herself. The Princess spent every spare minute with Bandit hounding her about details of every hunt.
Many visitors came from distant parts of The Good Land to see Bandit. She was surprisingly patient with those who came just to see her striking blue eyes. Even the Dowager Teddi Grumpkins came to court to meet Bandit. The Dowager had not left her quarters in many months due to old age and her coming blindness. That she would come to visit Bandit was an honor.
It was said that the Dowager Teddi was exiled from her own lands. She was found by Rangers, starved and alone, in the Deep Woods. She must have done something disgraceful in her homeland because the Healers discovered Teddi's front paws had been mutilated and were useless. Her teeth were also broken out. No one in The Good Land could conceive of something so awful. There were whispers that the Dowager must have been a traitor to be cast out penniless, crippled, and broken. Some wanted to leave Teddi to her death in the Deep Woods but OFG would not hear of it.
Teddi was brought into the household, given fine quarters, and nursed back to health. Even though old age and senility had taken whatever grandness she once had, OFG would not allow Teddi to be ridiculed. Teddi's erratic, and sometimes destructive, behavior was politely overlooked. She received the tenderest of care.
Now in the Great Hall after so long an absence the Dowager Teddi was wheeled in atop a kind of trolley laden with pillows and soft pelts. Bandit stood patiently as the Dowager Teddi leaned forward, touched her face and muttered quietly “Ah yes.. yes I see. Very blue indeed.” All nodded respectfully even though they all knew that the Dowager Teddi could not even see down to her mangled front paws.
When the effort of coming to court had overtaken the ancient one, her caretakers wheeled the Dowager Teddi reverently back to her quarters where she was put back to bed. In a land where strength and honor were the highest virtues no one uttered a single mocking word even for such a frail creature. They all knew when their days of usefulness to the Good Land ended, or if they were denied a glorious warrior's death in battle, then they would all be afforded the same respectful care.
Despite the apparently falling out between them Bandit and Col Ti continued to work together. Every morning Bandit and Kai trained on the parade grounds after troop inspections. Col Ti and Zander often joined them. One such morning OFG and Little Mo went out to see how the training was proceeding. Kai and Bandit were engaged in hand to hand combat, both breathing hard.
Kai stepped in to take a swing but Bandit expertly avoided the blow, feigned a step back, and landed a sharp blow on Kai's neck.
“Little Kai! You fight like a child! You always fight what is in front of you! Look ahead - look to my next move.” Bandit said.
Kai was snarling and back in her fighting stance. She lunged again. Once more Bandit danced out of the way and struck Kai as they passed.
OFG and Little Mo were watching from a distance. “Our visitor does not address the Princess as her title, Sir” Said Little Mo.
“No.” Said OFG watching intensely.
“Do you think it is.... damaging... for the rest of the troops, Sir? It is unseemly for Bandit to take such liberties.” Little Mo was worried that this lack of decorum would spread through the troops. No one dared call their Princess “Little Kai.”
“Humility is a virtue, Little Mo.” Said OFG as they turned to go. “Perhaps having an equal is good for our Kai. But make an example of anyone else who dares be disrespectful.”
Little Mo nodded.
As the walked away they could hear the sparring continue. Another swing and a miss followed by Col Ti's roaring laughter. Then his surprised, “Hey!...” And a tumble of bodies.
OFG paused and raised an eyebrow to Little Mo, “And perhaps you should....”
“Send for the Healers? Yes, Sir. I'll have someone sent right out.”
Kai's fierceness was just one of the reasons she was such a good warrior – and her dogged determination made her even better. But still, thought OFG, Bandit was right. Kai needed to control her impulses and fight with her head - not just with her courage.
Later that night, at supper, Col Ti arrived with a newly stitched up wound on his ear. Kai, for her part, had a new scar over her eye. Bandit, walking between them, wore only her obvious pride for the young BearHunter apprentice shining in her startling blue eyes.
“I want to go with Bandit. She is going to the far northlands and I want to go and hunt the great white bear of the Lands of Ice and Snow.” It was more of a statement than a question.
In truth Col Ti had warned OFG that this was coming. Kai stood before her mother.
“We will leave in two days time and return when I have earned my BearKiller name.” Kai's jaw was set and her chin was lifted just a little in defiance.
“I see.” Said OFG. She began pacing behind her desk, hands clasp behind her back, her face emotionless.
“The Princess has reached her full maturity, Sir.” Said Little Mo. “And you were younger than she is now when you....”
“Thank you, Little Mo.” Said OFG gruffly.
Kai's jaw fell open. Little Mo was an unlikely ally. She looked at the former troubadour quizzically.
OFG hadn't slept since Col Ti told her that Kai was going with Bandit. She knew Kai was an excellent hunter and she did not lack courage. While she felt some pride in her Princess for wanting to go on this quest OFG was overwhelmed with a sense of dread. If Kai stayed within her borders OFG could protect her, or so she hoped.
She had nearly lost Kai when her stubborn girl had gone after that huge hog alone. OFG still shuddered when she remembered Kai's broken body. She had stayed awake, never leaving Kai's side, for almost three whole days.
OFG had viciously cursed the Healers when Kai did not awaken. She had gone so far as to tell them that if Kai died they would be buried in the same grave. When Kai was not revived on the second day one of the Healers, fearing for his own life, tried to steal away under cover of nightfall. He was hunted down by Col Ti and executed on the parade grounds before noon the following day. Cowardice was not tolerated in the Good Land.
Everyone rejoiced when Kai finally recovered – especially the Healers. OFG swore she would not risk losing her precious girl again. But trying to control Kai was like trying to rein in the wind. It was useless to stop her. The least she could do was make sure Kai was well provisioned.
She continued pacing a while. Then OFG stopped and looked out the window.
“Very well. I'll ride with you and Bandit for two days past the North Gate.”