Journeys and Destinations
By Christian Okane
Takes place after http://metamorkeep.com/story/Taking_Account.php
in April 708.
Also read http://metamorkeep.com/story/Pondering_the_Past.php for more information
Edmund had kept the retinue small. Only forty soldiers and brothers would accompany him on the trip. Those were enough to scare off any bandits or raiders. Along with them were three wagons filled with supplies. At the head of this small group a woman in full armor carried a pole from which hung a banner. The banner was of dark blue and had a gold Follower Cross on it. It marked this small group as an official procession of the Order of Protectors. While their weapons and size would keep most bandits at bay the banner would scare off any meddling or overly hostile nobles. It was also sure to attract a lot of attention.
Edmund could go covertly, just himself and a few others and easily and quietly make the trip. He had done such things before in the past but the paladin wanted people to know that this was a group of the Order of Protectors. Letting all know that the order was in the area and there to stay. It was sure to stir up trouble and it was an unsubtle message to Lord Donel that the order would oppose the man's ambitious expansion.
At Castel Roegh the Knightmaster of the Order of Protectors was also preparing for a journey. He was traveling with a far larger retinue. Besides himself there was a close guard detachment of twenty Knightbrothers, another one hundred Lay swords and two wandering Brothers (whose special skills were always useful). All were to help protect the two hundred lay brothers and servants and ten wagons full of the records and material that went along with running a large organization like the Order of Protectors. Also two more wagons came along for the food and supplies needed for the trip.
In spite of the short time and the number of people involved. things went remarkably well. Still there were some issues. There just weren't enough wagons to haul all the needed material. So after unloading at the destination the wagons would make a second trip. Patricia Samantha Fitz Hues (wife of Lay brother Joseph Fitz Hues) was in her third trimester. No one wanted to risk mother or unborn child so the couple would remain behind. Their skills with the bow would be missed but all wished them well.
The distance involved in traveling from Cantel Roegh to Chough castle and then on to Kelewair didn’t overly worry the Knightmaster. Even though it meant traveling across most of the width of the Southern Midlands. The roads between the two points were well maintained and the weather was good.
What worried Kenward was who they would meet along the way. They were traveling through an area that was highly populated and had recently suffered through the brutal civil war. One of the after effects was this very journey. He knew the route. As a Knight of the Order of Protectors he had traveled it many times. There were few places he hadn’t gone over the years of serving the order.
The Southern Midlands like all of the Midlands was badly divided religiously. Half the population was Lightbringer, a pagan faith with a bewildering array of many gods and goddesses. They were diametrically opposed to the monotheistic faith of the Followers and the two groups had clashed and fought many times over the centuries. Of the remaining half most were Follower but a good portion were the misguided Rebuilders. A group who, although they worshiped the Great One opposed, (often violently) on HOW to worship him. With some of the Rebuilder sects it was hard to tell that they weren’t Ecclesia. So trivial were the differences from the True faith. But some were very odd. Even in more peaceful times it made for a trying trip. With tensions and emotions running high after the civil war it made it all the more difficult. It was why he was taking along so many Knightbrothers and Lay swords. Their combat skills might be needed.
He was placing great hope in the two Wandering Brothers. Both brothers Sedgewick and Aelfrick were paladins. Being a knightbrother of the order was difficult. Being a priest was equally difficult. But a real paladin mixed both the rules and measures of a knight with the vows of a priest. It made for a difficult path that few could follow but those difficulties had their own rewards. They could dispel the undead, heal the sick and injured and accomplish other impressive feats of faith. Both had a long history of working with people. Of being able to solve problems by word and prayer rather than by sword and bow. Something all too rare in the Midlands.
The City of Laselle itself was decently if unimaginatively laid out. Its city walls were square with a gate on each of its four walls. The western wall hugged close to the river that brought so much trade. The western road left the western gate and crossed the river on an overly grandiose bridge of stone. It then ran arrow straight to the sea of Stars. The road itself was an old empire construction and had stood up to the centuries well. The road that ran from the east gate continued east and eventually reached the city of Midtown. But it didn’t stop here. Instead it continued onward before ending in the town of Medalia.
Sitting at the mouth of the Metamor valley meant that as many times as the valley had been invaded and destroyed, So had Laselle. It left all of its citizens a touch paranoid and its walls were tall, thick and studded with many towers.
Laselle was geographically to the west of Midtown but it was politically midway between Metamor Keep and Midtown. The Duke and Lord Donel were at odds for control of the important town. There are two factions that vie for control of the city government. It showed in the treatment Stealth received. Some people were friendly and helpful, while others showed hatred. Most seemed to waver in between showing something between indifference, disgust and nervousness. But all were quite happy to take his coin when he showed interest in buying something. Stealth was not here to shop. He was here to see what the town was like and to meet someone.
Edmund had stopped his small group outside the city in a small grove of trees just out of sight of Laselle. “The order has sent a Lay brother as a guide. He’s meeting us in Laselle. I want you to find him and bring him here.”
“That’s it?” Stealth asked.
The paladin shook his head. “No. We have heard rumors of,” he paused for a moment. “Problems between the people of Laselle and Keepers.”
Stealth tilted his head to one side. “Problems? You mean Keepers being attacked? Or just being rude.”
“We’re not sure,” Edmund responded. “Mostly word of harassment but no open attacks.”
“You want me to find out,” Stealth responded. “Go and see what occurs?”
Edmund patted his friend on the shoulder. “I know that you have the common sense to avoid trouble and the skills to get out of it if something happens.”
Moving at a moderate pace (making sure to not too fast or too slow) so as to not attract attention the cheetah made his way through the town. He would occasionally pause at a shop or at some vendor but he always kept his true destination in mind.
It stood in the center of the city where the two old, empire roads crossed. Literally. It was a tall, squat rectangular building at least forty or fifty feet high. It was made of a tough stone that had weathered to a smoky gray through centuries of battering by weather and armies. At first Stealth thought it was a massive gate tower. Its most unusual feature being that it had gates on all four sides instead of just the usual two. Massive, thick wooden doors bound with iron stood open but were ready to be closed at a moment’s notice. But as he got closer he saw things that confused him.
The battlements on top were of stone of a different color and were obviously a much latter addition. The walls should have been smooth but they were covered with nooks, niches and alcoves. All manner of things that recessed into the stone or protruded from it. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them but as he got closer Stealth saw that most were empty but several held the battered remains of what might have once been statues. Above, below and alongside those were the remains of writing in old Suiel, carved into the stonework. None of the writing was complete. Just parts and pieces of words and sentences that made no sense.
Over the gate in front of him was a particularly large niche. It held a battered, stone torso that was barely recognizable as being human. It had no head or arms and just two chipped and cracked bits below that might be legs. Above the niche was writing in large, bold lettering. “HAIL EMPOROR TAGIL . . . CONQUER . . .” Nothing else was legible.
Stealth looked around. The plaza was filled with people headed about on their own errands. Some were simply moving through going to places unmentioned. Some were browsing the shops and booths that lined the edges of the open area. All of them seemed intent on their own business and paying him no mind.
It was a quiet sound that came to his sensitive feline ears. He heard it over the hustle and bustle of the town around him. It was the soft rusting of leaves. A sound so out of place in a town. A shiver ran down his spine. Stealth slowly turned around and looked again at the monument.
Gone was the battered gray tower of stone. In it’s place was a tall, towering victory monument clothed all in white marble. Its sides were covered with statues of proud, courageous, legionnaires killing tall warriors who all seemed to be naked and wielding long swords and spears.
The thick wooden doors that could close the archways was gone, He looked up at the place over the arch at the niche. There stood the statue of a tall man dressed in the full ceremonial armor of a Legion general. He had a proud, regal look on his face. “ALL HAIL EMPOROR TAGILLINUS CAVARILLI CONQUEROR OF MARACTANIA” were the words over the statue.
“Are you all right sir?”
Stealth turned away from the strange tower and looked in the direction of the voice.
Standing next to him was a man slightly taller than himself. He was black haired and had a full beard and mustache. He was wearing a shirt and breeches of a dark brown and had on tall boots. Over the shirt he had a short coat of dark blue. In the center was a gold Follower cross. A short sword in a plain scabbard hung from his belt and a box was strapped to his back.
Stealth turned and looked back at the tower. It had returned to it’s modern, battered and worn appearance. “I . . I was just looking at the monument.”
“It was built to celebrate emperor Tagillinus’ conquest of what’s now Northern Midlands in -570,” the man explained. “This is the place where the last Centli chieftain Louernios surrendered.”
Stealth gave a chirp of laughter. “It’s pretty battered.”
“It’s over a thousand years old,” the man responded. “It’s a miracle that it’s survived at all.”
“It was pretty impressive back before the invasion.” Stealth commented.
“It’s still impressive now.” The man put his right hand to his chest and bowed. “I am Lay brother Emile Mosin. Your guide.”
The cheetah returned the gesture. “I am Stealth and I’m glad to meet you.”
“Brother Delacot is close by?” Emile asked.
“Just outside of town,” Stealth responded. “Please follow me.” He turned and looked at the monument and saw it was still in it’s old, worn form. Then he turned and hustled off down the street.
In the small tent that Edmund and Stealth shared a council was held. Aside from the two cheetahs Terrie was there. Also with them was Emile. Stretched out on the table in front of them was a map of the Northern Midlands.
“Which way do we go now?” Terrant asked. “We can follow the main route and go east but that takes us through Midtown. Lord Donel is sure to stop us. I know you want to confront him but that is a taking him on at his strongest.”
“We could avoid Midtown,” Stealth responded. “But how? The main road goes through Midtown.”
“I was born and raised in the area,” Emile said. “I know every road and trail and there are ways around Midtown.”
“We can’t go east,” Stealth said. “So we must take the road south or west. The west road leads to the Sea of Stars and eventually Menth and Soran.”
“And south?” Edmund asked. He traced the road south of the city with his finger. The river flowed south out of Laselle and the road followed it. Some miles south the river branched into two smaller ones and road split too. Each smaller road following one of the river branches. One branch meandered west and eventually reached the Sea of Stars. The other branch went south and ended in a large green spot.
“That is Tearmann marsh,” Emile commented.
“I’ve traveled the main road many times but I’ve never left the road. Never been in that marsh.” Terry said.
“No reason you should,” the scout answered. “The road detours around it for a very good reason. Travel there is difficult at best. It’s even parts earth, water and mud. Lots and lots of mud. Travel by walking or riding isn’t possible because of the mud and water. But the water is too shallow to really use large boats.”
“How are we supposed to get across?” Edmund asked.
“There is a trail that picks up where the empire road ends,” the Lay brother commented. “It crosses using the few bits of hard ground that there are. For the rest it uses a causeway, a low bridge, to cross over the worse parts.”
“What is the causeway like?” Terry asked.
“It’s wood and about five to six feet wide,” Emile answered.
Terrant made a pained expression. “That’s barely wider than the wagons.”
“What happens if we run into a caravan going the other way?” Stealth asked.
“There are various islands along the path. Some large enough to hold the whole group. “The trail leaves the marsh here,” Emile said and pointed to a spot south of Midtown. It then heads east and ends at a spot south of Medalia.” He tapped a spot on the map to the south of Midtown, close to the Great Barrier Range. “There’s a small road that heads south from there.”
“What’s that road like?” Edmund asked.
The lay brother traced his hand along a faint line on the map. It hugged close to the mountains following each curve and twist of the terrain. “Been a long time since I was on it. It’s not paved like the main road but it was in good shape. It skirts the mountains before it ends in Komley. It’s not straight like the main road and it will add several full days to the trip.”
“I don’t mind the extra time involved,” Edmund said calmly. “But I will not skulk around in the wilderness. I want people to know of this trip.”
Emile was quiet for a moment and seemed to be counting to himself. Ticking off numbers with his fingers. “We’ll pass through at least eight, good sized villages.” He tapped several spots of the map. Each representing a town or village.
They left before dawn when most of Laselle was either still asleep or just waking up. The group packed quietly and quickly. Then they headed south, moving quickly but not too quickly. They didn’t want to be seen as fleeing. But they also wanted as few people as possible to see them at all.
Dawn found them several miles south of the city and moving along a road whose stone had been laid down over a millennium before. Roads branched off at irregular intervals heading in different directions but the main road continued south following the river closely.
Finally, they came to where the river branched into two separate parts as did the road. One branch with its road went west to the Sea of Stars. The other continued south.
The passage of the centuries had worn the stones smooth but they were still strong and the road flat. They passed mile stones at regular intervals that marked the distance from somewhere. But the numbers shown didn’t match the miles to Laselle or Midtown. The further they south they went the higher the numbers became.
They passed small towns and villages interspersed between fields of wheat and corn as they traveled. The people there gazing at them with a mix of curiosity and confusion. The villages grew smaller and further between until they vanished leaving just woods and fields laying fallow and returning to the wild.
The Suielman road simply ended in a field of knee high marsh grass. They could plainly see where the gray paving stones simply stopped. It wasn’t that the rest of the pavement had been lifted and stolen long ago. The road had been cleanly and deliberately stopped at that point. The stones ended in a neat straight edge. A trail of gravel continued onward as it wound its way south quickly disappearing into brush and low trees in the distance.
“Ahead is the marsh,” Emile said solemnly. “They say the empire engineers got this far before they realized they couldn’t get through the marsh.”
Dasan knelt and felt the ground. “I’d believe it. Even after a small rain this would turn to mud.”
“Knee deep mud,” Emile responded.
“Can we cross it?” Terrant asked. “Will the wagons make it?”
“They should unless it gets worse,” the scout answered. “Small groups and caravans use this route all the time. Mostly to avoid paying tolls.”
“It remains gravel and earth till it reaches the trees,” Emile said. “Then it crosses the swamp on a wooden causeway.”
The marsh didn’t suddenly appear. Instead it slowly crept up on them as they moved. The grass around the trail gradually got higher and thicker while the ground grew softer and wetter. Walking on the trail was hard enough with each step being more labored. The horses pulling the wagon had to strain more. Any step off the trail would see the person’s leg sink into the mire. Finally, the gravel and dirt of the trail gave way to roughhewn planks which squeaked and squished when pressure was applied to them. The planks gradually lifted off the ground, held aloft by pilings made of tree trunks.
The marsh itself was a mix of swamp, streams, slow moving rivulets, rivers. small islands and mud humps that were an equal mix of earth and water. Interspersed with all of that were islands of grass and brush and dense stands of trees. Any movement through that was impossible. A person would sink up to their hips in mud that seemed to be everywhere. The only reason the group could make any progress at all was the causeway which ran arrow straight through the marsh.
The going was slow as the boards were slick and covered with moss in spots but they were generally sound. Worse still the causeway was only slightly wider than the wagon wheels.
“This is a great place for an ambush,” Stealth commented. “Out in the open on this causeway we’ve got nowhere to hide.” He looked at the marsh all around and below them. He spotted a hundred places where someone could hide.
“No need to worry,” Emile said cheerfully. “The locals won’t bother us. So long as we stick to the causeway.”
“Locals?” Edmund asked as he looked around. All he saw was mud, trees, waist deep water, more mud and plants. “People live here?”
The lay brother nodded his head. “Oh yes. Have for millennia. They say when the empire first conquered the Northern Midlands Centli survivors fled here. Centuries later when the Suielman empire collapsed their survivors fled here as well. To escape the Lutins.”
“Certainly a place no army would go,” Adelyte commented.
“And I see lots of birds and fish to hunt and eat,” Dasan added. “Lots of plants too. You could easily survive here. So long as you don’t mind the wet.”
Just then a flock of birds spooked by their noise took off and flew away squawking their fears.
The first view of Thrush Castle was impressive. The massive Sathmore mountains loomed up in front of them, towering over everything. It’s tall peaks casting long shadows across the ground below. Partway up the side of one particularly tall mountain were the walls and towers of a castle. They were at least five hundred feet up and surrounded on three sides by steep cliffs. The road leading to it wound its way up the side of the mountain switching back and forth in a dozen turns before coming to the castle gates.
“From here we walk,” The Knightmaster commented.
It was a long, slow climb up the road. The horses pulling the wagons worked hardest of all. A half dozen knights and lay brothers had to help push each one. Working the wagons around each turn was a major effort as the turns were sharp and the wagons long. Everyone was relieved when the massive, iron bound gates of the outer gatehouse came into view.
Standing in the gateway was a small group of people. All were wearing the blue of a Protector. Some were wearing armor and were obviously Knightbrothers. The rest were either lay brothers or servants. All were standing on either side leaving the middle open. Standing in the middle of the gateway was a single knightbrother in full armor and tabard. The tabard was the standard dark blue with a gold cross in the center but the edges had a gold strip. There was the gold symbol of a tower on the front on the right shoulder. That marked him as the Castellan or castle commander.
“Good afternoon Grandmaster Kenward, Brother Harrick,” the castellan said and bowed. “Welcome back to Thrush castle.”
The causeway was indifferently maintained. It seemed to be constantly wet with moisture and large parts were green with moss, fungus and all sorts of plant life. So in addition to being slick with water and plant life they had to watch for rotted or missing planks or beams. They spent three long hours cutting trees and reinforcing a section before the rotted wooden causeway was strong enough to hold up under the weight of the wagons. Even so they made their way past that point one at a time.
For all their worries the trip through the marsh went slowly but quietly. Stealth was amazed by the sheer abundance of life around them. Fish, otters, crabs, lizards, racoons, opossum and an astounding array of birds. Less welcome were the insects. There always seemed to be something buzzing around his head or trying to crawl up his leg.
Stealth peered down at the marsh beneath him. “Are there any alligators in there?”
“I don’t think so,” Emile answered. “It’s too cold in the winter for them.”
Edmund walked up to the two scouts. “It’s late afternoon. I’d like a place to laager for the evening.”
“There is a large enough island up ahead,” Emile replied and pointed to the south.
The fortress was built on a spur that stuck outwards from the mountain. It was separated from the rest of the range by a deep, wide moat. The inner ward of the castle occupied the top of the hill with the lower ward around and below that. Being on a mountain meant that there was no naturally level ground. So it seemed that no matter where a person was headed it always seemed to be uphill.
A curtain wall encircled the bottom of the spur on three sides. Tucked against the wall along most of its length was a wide range of buildings. Workshops, storage, granaries, several cisterns, armories, living quarters, stables and even a small chapel.
Towering over all of that from the top of the ridge was a long line of stone buildings at the end of which was a tall, massive tower.
The only level ground had been laboriously carved out of the rock. The largest was an area around one hundred yards long and half that wide. It doubled as a cavalry training area, infantry training area and a landing area for the order’s various flying creatures.
The fortress was alive with activity. Sentries walked the battlemented walls and guarded the few gates. The group passed a small level area where a score of men were going through close quarter sword and shield training. Learning to moving and fight as a group. Further along and upslope a dozen men were practicing on an archery range that was really long but very narrow.
“Are all Knightbrothers trained here?” the legate asked. The group had gone through the outer gate and were slowly making their way through the outer ward and uphill to the inner gate.
“Yes. They might be initially recruited elsewhere and will take different training in other locations but all will take their final vows here,” the Knightmaster said.
“How long is their training?” The legate asked.
“Four years,” the knight answered. “From first arrival to taking the final vows and adding the gold cross to their tabards. For paladins there are another two years before they take their vows.”
“That’s a long time to become a knightbrother,” the legate commented.
“We prefer it as it gives the Knight Initiate time to consider in detail the new life they have decided on,” the knight explained. “And also to sample what that life will be like.”
“Do many change their mind?” He asked.
“A few,” the Knightmaster. “But we do not want to force our lifestyle upon anyone.”
The legate looked up at the large Keep and the massive hall attached to it. “The order built all of this?” the legate asked.
“Not all of it,” the Knightbrother answered. “We got it from the Order of the Mountain Protectors. When the Protectors was created the older order was absorbed into ours. But their records speak of ruins up here when they first arrived.”
The legate nodded. “That makes sense. This is an easily defended place.”
“Brother Heddwyn who is the order’s historian says the ruins are post Suielman but it has some Suielman elements,” the knight commented.
The legate stopped. “What does that mean exactly? How can it have Suielman elements if it’s post empire?”
“There was a good-sized empire settlement in the valley before the invasion in 150,” the Brother explained and pointed downhill. “When the castle was first built they scavenged the ruins for good stone.”
“What’s wrong with that?” The legate asked. “Good stone is expensive.”
“Nothing wrong with it. Saved us a lot of time and effort. But he was most upset about it,” the knight laughed. “He says it confused his timeline of the castle’s history.”
The legate gave the knight a quizzical expression. “Your order continues to surprise me.”
The knight smiled. “You’re not the first to say that. We do tend to attract the unusual. But consider this. How are we to deal with the future if we do not understand the past.”
“Good point,” the legate agreed.
Kenward stepped closer to the legate. “To understand us. To understand our order you need to understand the Midlands and the people in it. I have four thousand knight brothers and Lay brothers to help maintain the peace in a third of the continent and home to as many as half a million people. We could not maintain the peace by sword and bow even if we wanted to. We must think in different ways. Use our finest gift and weapon – the minds The Great One gave us. Our problems are unusual and require unusual answers.”
“Nine years ago a town near Gwaron in Delavia was plagued by an outbreak of strange creatures,” the knight explained. “They seemed to just erupt out of the ground at random intervals.” He gestured with his hands.
“They had disturbed a burial ground?” The legate asked.
The knight shook his head. “No. A gate was opening and the creatures were coming through.”
“Is not Delavia mostly Lightbringer?”
“It is,” the Knightbrother answered and gave a wry smile. “The Lightbringers were able to contain the problem but not stop it. There was a Follower village nearby and they sent word to us. Thankfully Brother Heddwyn was part of the group sent to help.”
“He had an old Suielman map that had the word ‘ruins’ on a spot some one hundred yards from where the gate was opening,” the knight explained. “So Heddwyn took a large group of people there and they dug up the ground. They carefully stripped away the earth and uncovered the remains of a very old structure. It included a summoning circle. A mage was called in and the circle was carefully taken apart. That closed the gate permanently.”
“We are not supposed to take pleasure in other people’s difficulties.” The knight said. “But it was a good day for the order.”
The legate gave a nod of the head and a smile.
“A lot of what the order does is similar to that,” the knight explained. “Small issues. Bandits, raiders, feuding nobles, guilds and families. Issues that require only a few Knightbrothers to deal with. A large part of the order are Wandering Brothers for that reason.”
“Does the order fight full open battles?” The legate asked.
“You mean a major battle with hundreds or thousands of combatants?” The knight asked. “The last was back in 623 CR at the battle of Aizkraukle. There was over two thousand in the Sathmore force alone. The order defeated a major Sathmore raid. It was the order’s first real battlefield victory.”
“The only place of seeing actual major battle is along the border with Sathmore. The Lightbringers used to stage major raids into the Northern Midlands but the order put an end to that at Aizkraukle. Now it is limited to smaller raids and harassment. Usually a score or less seeking to steal or rustle cattle. We do have the occasional raiders from the Flatlands but that is more of an annoyance. We are seeing various things coming out Elderwood. Those are a growing threat. The last creature was the size of a large wagon and took almost fifty Brothers to defeat it. We still don’t know what it was.”
The legate nodded his head. “What of Aelfwood?”
“The elves?” The knight asked. Surprised. He was silent a moment. “To be honest we haven’t had any contact with them in a long time. They have always been reclusive to one degree or another.”
“Elderwood is a threat to be considered and brought to the Patriarch’s attention,” the legate commented. “What happens next?”
“After we unload the wagons we care for the animals and the people,” the Knightmaster responded.
“And the Bishop?” The legate asked.
“Then we go to Kelewair,” Kenward answered. “Things must be settled in the order before we travel away.”
The legate was about to speak when a small bird landed on the pommel of his saddle. The little animal was barely seven inches tall with brown wings, head and back and a gray underbelly. The bird flapped his wings and twittered loudly at the legate.
The knight laughed. “I’d like to introduce one of the local residents. This is a Mountain thrush for whom the castle is named.”
“He seems to be upset,” the legate commented, unnerved by the animal’s unusual actions.
“You’re new,” the knight responded. “The birds know who is supposed to be here. You are probably a little too close to his nest and he’s letting you know he’s not happy with it.”
“A lot of people are unhappy with my presence,” the legate answered.
“I wouldn’t worry,” the knight answered. “They’ll get used to you. It’s supposed to be good luck to have one get this close to you when you first come here. Usually it takes several weeks for the birds to grow accustomed to a new arrival.”
The thrush, evidently having made his point took off and flew a short distance. It landed on a battlement where a dozen thrushes were perched.
“You should be here in May and June during the nesting season,” the knight commented. “Then they are everywhere. They have nests in every nook and cranny imaginable.”
“Seriously? How many?”
The knight shrugged. “We’re not sure. But ten to twelve thousand would be a safe guess.”
“Ten thousand?” The legate asked in surprise. “That must cause a disruption.”
“It does. We had an expert on birds come from Kelewair a few years ago. To see about how to get them to nest elsewhere. He says that this hill has been their nesting grounds for thousands of years. Then the order came along and build a castle on their homes. It seemed only fair we share it with them. And the fact is that all attempts to remove them have failed,” the knight added with a smile. “It seems the Great One wants them here.”
The legate looked at a group of birds who were busily swooping and flying overhead. Then they landed and started to forage amidst the stones and grass alongside the path. A mere five feet from them. “They don’t seem to mind all the people around.”
“No, they don’t,” the knight answered. “The birds have thrived here.”
The legate looked at a thrush who was perched on a battlement and was ignoring the Sword brother who was walking back and forth past her on sentry duty. Within arm’s reach. “They certainly have the safest place. No predator will come anywhere near here.”
“They were here long before the Protectors arrived and they’ll be here long after we’re gone,” the Knight said solemnly. “That fact keeps a person humble.”
Calling the small hummock of sand, mud, marsh grass and trees an island was an exaggeration. It was barely above water level and only just large enough to fit everyone. They placed the three wagons on either side of the trail in a rough circle. Sentries were placed outside them keeping the campsite safe. Stealth and Dasan wen went up the road to see what awaited them. Mairsil and Adelyte went back the way they had come. To see if anyone was following them. The rest settled in to eat, relax and find enough space to lay down and sleep.
It was still early evening when Stealth and Dasan made their way into camp. They were not alone. “Edmund. We have a visitor.”
With the cheetah scout was a tall, gangly looking young man dressed all in green and brown. On his back was a bow and in his hands was a long spear. Edmund noticed that he had a complex swirled pattern tattooed onto both cheeks and a pair of dark blue lines arched over each eyebrow.
“My name is Deryk Glendower,” the man said in way of introduction. “I want to know why you are in our territory. Been a long time since anyone tried invading.”
“Invading? We are just passing through,” Edmund said and gave a chirp of laughter. “As clichéd as that may sound it’s the truth.”
“Where are you headed?” Deryk asked.
“Fulgar,” the paladin responded. “A few miles north of Komley.”
“You are a long way from Komley,” the new arrival responded.
Edmund pondered his answer. “We are taking a circuitous route to avoid unwanted trouble,” the Knightbrother answered.
“Trouble?” Deryk asked. “Who are you running from? Who? Lord Thomas?”
“We’re from Metamor but we are not of Metamor,” the paladin answered. “And we are on good terms with the Duke.”
The man scowled. “It’s kind of easy to tell you were from the valley. But what do you mean you are not OF the valley.”
Edmund pointed to the fire. “Come. Sit down with us. We’ve already eaten but you are welcome to enjoy some refreshments and we can talk. I will explain everything.”
Cautiously the man made his way over to the small space surrounding the fire. Edmund handed the visitor a wooden mug filled with a brown liquid. “This is coffee. A drink imported from the south. I was recently introduced to it at the Keep.”
The man took a sip of the liquid. “Strong.”
“So,” he said and took a drink of the coffee. “Why are you here? Who are you avoiding?”
“Let me introduce myself.” The paladin bowed to the man. “I am Sir Edmund Delacot, Knight Brother of the order of Protectors.”
“I’ve heard of your people.” Deryk commented. “What brings you this far north?”
“You don’t care what we look like?” Edmund asked avoiding the question.
The man laughed. “No. We’ve heard all about the curse. That is your problem. Not ours. We don’t care what you look like. What we are worried about is why you are moving through our land.”
“The order was recently gifted a castle in the town of Fulgar and we are headed there to take possession.”
Deryk leaned forward. “Is that the only reason? Why are you traveling through our marsh?”
Edmund shook his head. “The Lutin invasion during the Yule brought to our attention just how badly we have neglected the Northern Midlands. Not just the threats to the north but also political issues and threats to the peace.”
“You mean Lord Donel in Midtown,” Deryk responded.
“Yes,” the paladin responded. “Among other things.”
”Deryk smiled and laughed. “You’re up here to keep watch on Donel.”
“Has Midtown pressured you and your people?” Terrant asked.
The man shrugged. “They have tried to make us pay taxes and tribute.”
“Have they succeeded?” She asked.
He shook his head. “No.”
“And they’ve accepted that?”
The man smiled and laughed. “No but what can he do to make us pay? If they come here we’ll rip up the causeway and let them wade through the mud and water for a while. Eventually they’ll get tired and give up. Like all the others.”
Edmund gave a chirp of laughter. “It’s an old tactic but it works.”
“Stealth,” Adelyte said softly. “Those markings on his face. They’re Lutin markings.” The two were standing nearby. Close but far enough out they that could talk without being overheard.
“A lot of cultures use tattoos and ritual scaring,” Stealth commented.
“No,” she countered. “They do not look like Lutin markings. They ARE Lutin. The markings on his cheeks represent the Day Traveler and the Night Lady. The sun and moon.”
“Really?” Emile asked. The surprise plain to see on his face and in his voice.
Adelyte nodded her head. “I’ve seen them often enough.”
Stealth looked closely at the man. “He doesn’t look Lutin. Could he be part Lutin?”
“I’d heard rumors that a tribe of Lutins lives deep in the marsh,” Emile said. “But I never believed it.”
“If they have Centli and Suielman hiding in here,” Stealth said. “Why not Lutins as well.”
After travel on the road it was good to be inside again. The barracks were clean and warm and the beds reasonably soft.
The wagons were being unloaded and the horses had been groomed, fed and bedded down in the stables.
As a guest the legate was given his own room on the third floor of the dormitory. It was a small room with a bed, a small cabinet for clothes and a table and chair, The walls were left the bare white of the plaster that covered them. A (very) small stove rested in one corner along with a small wooden bucket containing some coal. He couldn’t help but smile when he realized by standards of the order this was lavish accommodations.
The legate caught sight of movement in the window. He noticed a thrush sitting on the windowsill and seemed to be look at him. And as if satisfied with what he saw the bird then flew away.
Early the next morning they ran into an unexpected problem soon after starting out. The caravan came to a sudden halt. Edmund made his way to the front and found Stealth and Terry staring at something ahead.
There in the middle of the path was a large raccoon who was busily eating some sort of crustacean. The animal was alternating between banging the hard shell against a piling and eating the soft bits inside. The animal paused a moment and looked at them. Then he returned to his meal.
"It looks like Rickkter" Terry joked.
“He certainly has Rickkter’s courage,” Edmund joked.
“What do we do?" Stealth asked.
"We wait," was the paladin’s response.
"Never interrupt a person when they’re eating,” Edmund explained.
Terry smiled and laughed.
After some minutes the raccoon finished his meal. He then walked to the edge of the causeway and climbed down. In moments he had vanished into the marsh.
Stealth peered over the edge and down, looking for their visitor but all he saw was marsh grass and mud. He did spot a score of places where the animal could be hidden.
He lifted his gaze and scanned the marsh looking for larger creatures. Out there Stealth was certain at least one person was watching them. He picked out several places where a person could hide. Finally the scout spotted a dark shadow at the base of a tree and an odd shape amidst a large plant with broad leaves some seventy yards out.
Edmund walked up to his friend. “Have you located them?”
“Two of them,” Stealth answered while still looking. “Probably at least one more out there.”
“Will they attack?” Emile asked.
“No they won’t,” Terrant answered. “But when a large, armed group moves through your home you are cautious.”
“And if they truly wanted to stop us they would smash the causeway,” Stealth added.
“Agreed,” Edmund added. “We confuse them. We’re too small for an invasion but the right size for a raiding party. But we are moving too slowly and are too friendly to be a raiding party. But we’re too heavily armed to be a trade caravan.”
“So what do we do?” Stealth asked.
“We continue along as we agreed,” The paladin responded. “How much longer till we are out of this?”
“We should clear the marsh in another day,” Emile commented. “Perhaps a day and a half before we reach solid ground.”
It was late. The midnight office was done some time ago but it was still several hours before Prime at dawn. Harrick and Kenward should have been asleep but instead they were both standing on a small balcony off the Knightmasters quarters. The castle and indeed the whole valley was laid out below them as twinkling lights in the darkness. A soft wind was blowing bringing with it the smells and sounds of distant places.
“I’ve always enjoyed this spot,” Kenward said softly. “Being here alone always allowed me to think.”
“It is very peaceful. It’s a good place for contemplation,” Harrick responded.
Harrick looked off to the north. “I wonder how brother Delacot is doing?”
“Edmund is a skilled leader,” Kenward answered. “I trust his skills.”
“I know but I wonder how far Donel will resist and how hard Brother Delacot will have to push?” Harrick asked.
Kenward nodded his head. “He was right about him being needed in the north at Metamor.”
“Of Edmund and his people,” Harrick said slowly. “Bother Gattaway. Now Sister Gattaway. The order doesn’t allow women but Terrant wasn’t a woman when he joined.”
“I have taken a wait and see attitude and given her special dispensation,” Kenward answered.
Harrick nodded in agreement. “But it does bring up questions about women in the order.”
“True but that is something we can deal with later,” Kenward commented. “We have many other issues to deal with.”
“A more immediate problem. What of the bishop?” Harrick asked. “And his father the Duke?”
Kenward winced. “That cannot be delayed any longer. It seems that my last official act as Knightmaster will be to meet with him.”
“What do you think he will talk about?” Harrick asked. “What is he like?”
The old Knightmaster shrugged. “I am not sure. I have never met this bishop before.”
There was silence for a long moment and both enjoyed the calm night.
“What went wrong Jacob?” Kenward asked in a whisper. “What did we do wrong?”
Harrick shook his head. “I don’t know. But none of the order took active part in the attacks.”
“They should have done more to stop it,” Kenward countered.
“Done what?” Harrick asked. “We expected threats from the Lightbringers, from Sathmore, from Marigund and even from the Giantdowns. But how could we expect such evil from the Ecclesia itself.”
“Perhaps breaking from the Ecclesia would be a good thing,” Kenward commented. “There has been talk among the brothers about just that.”
“I’ve heard the talk. Many of the order feel abandoned by Yesulam. Or have we already become too detached from it?” Harrick countered. “Perhaps we should have tried to get closer instead of letting the distance keep us apart. Had we closer ties to the local clergy perhaps we could have detected the old bishop’s slide into corruption.”
“Excellent point,” Kenward said. “We can take the opportunity of your Investiture to hold a grand concourse of all the Knight Commanders and all the senior leaders.”
“Good idea,” Harrick responded. “There is a lot to discuss.”
It was late afternoon when they came to a small island where the road split. One trail continued south, one branched off to the east and another to the west.
“We’ll stop here for the night,” Edmund ordered. “And continue onward tomorrow.”
This piece of land was a little larger than the last one so there was room enough to spread out a bit. The wagons were spotted and the horses unhitched. A fire started and a small latrine pit dug.
It was still light out when Stealth returned. This time instead of one person he had a half dozen. Deryk was there along with men and women carrying baskets, bags and packs. Edmund relaxed. This group wasn’t here to confront. They were here to bargain and trade.
The small campsite was active with people talking, looking and haggling over various items. Baskets made of marsh grass were present in large numbers, the skins of various animals and other things. One old woman was selling potions that she promised would make men stronger, longer, and women bigger in all the right places. But amidst those expensive potions were others of more real use. A bottle of oils that was guaranteed to sooth aching muscles, an oil to preserve leather and keep it supple no matter how wet or cold it got.
Despite their seeming innocence, for every visitor Edmund had assigned a watcher. That person stood nearby and made sure the marsh dweller was only there for trade.
“Roderick,” Terrant called. “I think you’ll want to come over here.”
“Ma’am?” The person was small, barely five feet tall and just a little over ninety pounds. It had the tan and black spotted coat of one of the smaller jungle felines. Roderick had adapted easily to being half animal and was wearing only a small pair of shorts with a hole at the back for his long feline tail. There wasn’t even any shoes on his paws. He was carefully examining a tree that stood by a wagon. And carefully placing seeds into a pouch.
He slowly walked over to Terry. Standing next to the woman was an older man dressed in a blue shirt and green pants. The man was carrying a large tree limb at least four feet long.
The tree ocelot morph gently took the pre-offered length of wood. He ran his hands over every inch of it. He even touched his tongue to it to taste it. “This is a Marsh Elm,” he said excitedly. “I’ve never actually held it before.”
Roderick stared at the man intently. “Did you cut this from a living tree?” He accused.
The man shook his head in response. “No. It was storm toppled.”
The feline nodded his head. Roderick reached into his backpack and pulled out a six-inch-long saw with a serrated blade. “I’ll swap you this for the whole length.”
Terry stood to one side and watched the two bargain. Someone touched her on the arm. The knight turned and a woman of middling age was standing there,
The woman leaned close to Terry. “I have a special item to offer you,” She said in a whisper as she reached down the neck of her tunic. The woman produced a small pouch from which she removed an object. It proved to be a crescent shaped item made of silver about the size of her palm. One side was blank but the other had several symbols inscribed with a dark green material.
Terrant’s knowledge of jewelry was limited but she understood that this was old. The symbols were obviously writing but a form she had never seen before. “What is it? Who made this?”
The woman shrugged in response. “Many things have been lost in the marsh over the years. Occasionally the marsh gives them back.”
“Where exactly did you get this?” She asked.
The woman shrugged. “People say that some of the islands were used to bury the dead.”
“You dug this up?” Terry asked.
“NO!” the woman denied excitedly. “We leave the dead alone. I found this in the water. I was hunting for shellfish on the bottom and found that instead.”
“The Centli used the throw items and people into rivers, lakes and swamps as sacrifices to their gods,” Terrant commented.
“That doesn’t look Centli or Suielman,” the marsh woman answered. “It looks older. A lot older.”
“There are people at Metamor who will know what it is and how old,” The knight responded. “What do you want for it?”
The Patriarchal Legate Tuscus was ushered into the office with little fanfare. He found the office of the Knightmaster of the Order of Protectors more Spartan than expected but probably more elaborate than some in the order would prefer.
The walls were plastered a pastel blue instead of the white he had seen elsewhere. Portraits of various men who he assumed were past Knightmasters lined one wall. A large fireplace filled another wall. Every room in the fortress seemed to have some sort of heating. With a fortress located in the mountains it was far from a luxury. It was a necessity. There was a large desk and chairs of dark wood in a simple style. The one accommodation to luxury was a small couch near the fireplace made of a green padded cloth.
“I hope your visit with us has been helpful,” the knightmaster asked as they took a seat by the fire.
“It has been very illuminating,” the legate answered. “I have learned a lot.”
“There is a lot more to discuss and consider,” Harrick said.
“Agreed but I must take my leave of you. I have been ordered to meet with the cardinal,” the legate responded.
“I am sorry to be losing you so soon,” Kenward commented.
“Agreed,” Tuscus answered. “But the cardinal wants to discuss recent events in Marigund and the Midlands with the Patriarch. And as the Patriarch’s representative I must attend.”
“I understand,” Kenward said with a nod of the head. “Would you be willing to take a missive to the cardinal for me?”
“Of course,” the legate answered.
The next day the group started out early. Just after dawn. They were laden down with a large assortment of baskets and bowls made of marsh grass, a goodly amount of carved items and two hundred pounds of Marsh elm wood. For all of that they had traded various knives, clothes, several gallons of ale and an assortment of tools and some coins.
The same way the marsh had slowly crept on them so it stealthily crept away. The water and mud underneath the causeway gradually gave way to dry, firm ground. Eventually the causeway dropped to ground level and continued for a while as a wooden plank road. Then the planks gave way to a gravel road that was scarcely wider than the causeway had been. Soon signs of civilization returned. Fields of ripening wheat and corn, orchards and farms appeared to either side of the road.
Their group passed a farm wagon laden high with marsh grass. The farmer seemed more interested in his wagon and horse than the odd fellow travelers.
The first confrontation occurred where the trail they were on crossed the main road in the form of six cavalrymen standing in their path. The men were wearing armor and carrying swords and stopping everything moving along the road.
The leader deliberately stood on the path of the heavily armed party and raised his hand, palm facing outward. "Halt in the name of Lord Donel."
"You have to admire their courage," Terrie said calmly.
"And total lack of common sense," Edmund added.
“I thought Donel would have done something before now. Certainly, something more impressive,” Stealth commented.
“We caught him off guard,” Edmund responded. “He expected us to go west or take the main road directly. He most likely has small patrols like this scattered all over.”
“You are not allowed any farther,” The leader said nervously.
“Not allowed any farther where?” Edmund commented. “North? South? East?”
Doubt crossed the leaders face. “You’re not allowed any farther.”
“No doubt you have already dispatched a rider to tell Donel we are here,” Edmund said calmly. “You have done your duty. So stand aside before someone gets hurt needlessly.” Thirty of the soldiers with Edmund and Terry deployed in a straight line behind their leader. It showed the small group from Midtown was outnumbered five to one.
“Now,” the paladin said calmly. “Leave before things get unpleasant.”
Sir Edmund Delacot turned to the soldiers behind him. People who had served with him for years. “Lock step. MARCH!”
The group of Protectors stepped forward in one, smooth motion. Each person moving in a synchronized movement. All acting in unison. It was impressive display of training and skill.
It had the desired effect. The leader took one look at the slowly advancing group and shook his head. “Follow me.” And with those words he wheeled his horse around and the group galloped away.
The group that left Castle Thrush was considerably smaller than the one that had arrived. Ten knightbrothers. Fifty Lay swords and the same two wandering brothers escorted Knightmaster Harrick and brother Kenward. There was no subtlety or tactical maneuvering. All were heavily armed and they would travel northeast straight to Kelewair using the main roads. It was a display of force that was sure to attract attention. But that was the idea. To show the Midlands that the Order of Protectors was still around and would brook no further bloodshed.
The sky slowly darkened but although the black clouds threatened to unleash a storm. People buttoned up coats and jackets and put away all things they didn't want to get wet. But no rain fell. Instead it grew darker until the land was bathed in a frightening twilight of neither day nor night.
The trees grew closer to the road as the road itself grew narrower and went from a well-maintained stone road to a rutted dirt path.
"This can't be the right road," Terrie commented quietly to Edmund.
"We didn't take any turn offs or side paths," Edmund responded.
The woman pointed to the darkened path in front of them. "Does this look like the road to Komley?"
Suddenly a tall mound rose up to the left of the path as a similar one stood sentry to the right. Their regular, smooth, grass covered sides told of its unnatural creation. The artificial hills rose over a hundred feet tall and each was topped by a black pillar. Their tall, black masses seemed to glower down at the living intruders. Angry at the intrusion into their realm.
With a slight touch of the reins Edmund brought his horse to a halt. The entire group followed suit.
At the base of each mound, within arm’s reach of the path were two pillars that flanked the road. Each was of black wood and completely covered with a wide variety of symbols Some were just words but Edmund recognized several magic wards and symbols. At the top of each was a starburst painted gold with a silver lightning bolt placed horizontally below it.
Almost reflexively the paladin reached for the hilt of his sword with one hand and clutched the cross that hung from a cord around his neck with the other. He spoke a quick prayer.
"Where are we?" Someone asked.
"Seven Barrows!" Emile responded in a pained tone.
"SEVEN BARROWS? We shouldn't be there!" Someone muttered.
"Yes we should!" Edmund snapped.
"This is a place of the dead," came the nervous answer from the Lay brother.
"The dead rest here," the paladin responded calmly. His speech and demeanor hiding his own unrest. "We have no fear from them."
"This isn't a place for the living," Emile said. "It belongs to the dead."
"Perhaps," Terrant countered. "But we're not here to loot. As long as we show respect we won't have any problems."
The man didn't speak but the look on his face was filled with doubt.
"I am a paladin of the order," Edmund commented. "It is my task to deal with the dead and undead."
“I’d rather not deal with undead at all,” someone joked humorlessly.
“It’s not exactly my idea of a fun day,” Terrant responded. “But it is part of being of the order.”
Edmund nodded in agreement. “The dead rest here. I sense nothing that can endanger us.”
“History rests heavily in this place,” Terrant commented. “A lot of good men died here. The memory of that battle has seeped into the ground. That is what you feel.”
Edmund pointed to the carving on the pillar to his left. “That’s the emblem of the 71st legion. This is where they made their stand back in 150.” There was touch of awe and reverence in his voice.
“Too late,” Terrant commented. “If they had arrived two days earlier they might have been able to hold the wall. Stopped the entire invasion.”
“Or simply died two days earlier,” Edmund responded.
Stealth nodded in agreement. “Nothing could stop the invasion.” He pointed to several symbols carved above and below Suielman emblem. “Is that Lutin?” He asked.
“It is!” Edmund answered. “The Lutins were so impressed by the legionnaires bravery and skill that after defeating them they built this monument to honor them.”
Stealth scowled. “First they killed them. Then they honored them?”
“It wasn’t all done for honor alone,” the paladin commented. “It was partly meant to placate the spirits of all those legionnaires they had just killed.”
“That makes sense,” Stealth responded.
The normal sounds of the forest started to fade. The cry of a night bird, the flutter of bats nearby hunting insects. The trees rattling in the wind. All faded to silence as the wind died as well. People stopped talking. Afraid of breaking the silence. Of drawing attention to themselves. The air grew colder till Edmund could see his breath as small clouds with each exhalation.
The sound of slowly marching feet came to him. A thousand feet tramping in unison. There was the blare of trumpets but like the feet they were faint, as if coming from a great distance. The horns and marching grew steadily louder. Not slowly but quickly as if those approaching were moving at a fast pace. As if in a hurry.
As the sounds got closer Stealth picked up the slow, steady BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! Of drums marking cadence. Soon he could hear voices, talking, shouting orders. Then came the jangle of metal armor and harness, the clop of horse’s hooves and the shuffle of feet.
“KEEP MOVING! KEEP MOVING!” a voice ordered from the darkness. “They need us.”
Edmund whipped around to his troops. “Get off the road,” he ordered. “Now!”
There was a frantic scramble as the living made way for the dead. Edmund’s people stood in orderly lines on either side.
They heard the sounds of an army on the move but the road remained empty. Their ears told them something was there that their eyes denied.
Suddenly there were shouted orders to halt. “We’re too late! We’re too late. They’ve broken through.” Came the ghostly voices.
“CLOSE RANKS! CLOSE RANKS!” A voice shouted. “Remember you are legionnaires!”
There was shouting, the sound of people moving, weapons being drawn. Horns blared. Orders shouted. Those were the sounds Stealth recognized. It was solders preparing for battle.
He looked to his own people. Some were looking around nervously and quite a few had out their crosses and many were in prayer. One archer had out both a Follower cross and a Predecessor star as well.
“Be calm,” Edmund Delacot the paladin said calmly. “They cannot harm us. They do not even know we are here.”
The sounds of combat filled the air around them. The ring of metal on metal, the crack of wood being split. The crunch of bones shattering and flesh being torn. The shrieks and moans of the dying.
The sounds of battle were all around them but still they saw nothing. It grew louder and louder till they covered their ears to try and block it out.
Then suddenly it stopped and there was nothing but silence. Only the faint whisper of the wind. His breathing seemed loud and he could clearly feel his own heartbeat racing.
A voice suddenly spoke from the darkness. It was oddly calm. “This is a good place to die.”
No one spoke or moved for a time. Slowly the forest came back to life. The chirping of birds, the rustling of field mice moving amidst the leaves and undergrowth. The sky lightened as daylight returned bathing everyone in its golden glow. It grew noticeably warmer.
“What?” A woman archer asked. Her voice boomed loudly and everyone jumped in surprise. All eyes turned to the woman who had a look of nervousness and confusion on her face. “What just happened?” She finished in a quieter tone.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this happening before,” Emile said nervously.
Stealth and his squad were standing together. “Why are these weird things happening when you and Edmund are around?” Mairsil asked.
“I don’t know,” Stealth answered. “Yet.”
“It is something of great importance,” Edmund said solemnly.
“Cheer up,” Mairsil commented trying to sound humorous and failing. “At least you didn’t experience it firsthand. Like the last time.”
“Nest will be upset that he missed it,” Stealth commented. “He’ll want to know every detail of what happened.”
Delyte laughed. “If he is so interested in this stuff why doesn’t he come down here himself.”
“He will,” Dasan commented. “People like him can’t stay away from things like this.”
“Whatever happened is done. At least for today,” Stealth commented. “Nothing will disturb us for tonight.”
Edmund ignored the discussion. His attention was drawn away from group and to the pillar. His eyes fell on the emblem of the legion but they didn’t linger there. Instead they moved past it. There, looming in the distance was another mound. It was taller and wider than the others and it towered over everything.
“Terry,” the paladin said in a voice that sounded calmer than he actually was, “Please stay here with the troop. I want to scout ahead.”
“Scouting is my task,” Stealth walked up to his friend. The scout was carrying a bow in hand and was dressed in armor.
Edmund turned and looked at the tall, center mound. His common sense said to turn back and leave but his soul, his heart told him to press onward. “We’ll do it together.”
The two climbed up the steep sloped side of the hill in silence. The only sound was of their breathing and the soft padding of the grass under their paws. It grew colder the higher they climbed. Looking down, he could see the six mounds that encircled the center one.
The top of the mound was flat and paved with stones laid out in intricate patterns. Six columns circled the edge and in the center of the hill was a tall monolith of black wood. It was taller and wider than the others. Carved into the middle of it was a starburst painted gold with a silver lightning bolt placed horizontally below it. He noted that the emblem was everywhere, carved onto every pillar and column. It was even laid out in stones on the ground at their feet no less than seven times.
“Seven mounds, seven columns and seven symbols on the ground,” Stealth commented.
“Seven is a magical number,” Edmund responded as he looked down at the fields below. “It has lots of mystical significance. It’s also how many cohorts the 71st fielded that day.”
“ED!” Stealth snarled and pointed to the center.
A figure drifted out of shadow of the center pillar and walked towards them. The person moved with the slow deliberate pace of a person in calm control. He was wearing chainmail armor of a type and style used for centuries. But the helmet tucked under his right arm was old empire and he wore a long red cape of a style that had vanished in CR 150 when the empire had died. His black hair was cut short. His face was calm but the eyes were piercing and looked them over. A gladius; a short sword hung in a leather scabbard from his belt.
The new arrival held up his right hand, palm out using an old Suielman greeting.
Edmund returned the gesture. “Hail Sir.”
Stealth placed his right hand onto his left shoulder and bowed slightly. Giving the correct response. “Hail and greetings to you sir.”
“Our apologies for disturbing you,” Edmund explained. “We seem to have taken the wrong road.”
“You are where you are supposed to be,” The stranger responded enigmatically.
Edmund leaned closer to the new arrival and peered intently at him. “Kaeso?” He asked hesitantly. “Kaeso Ferentia?”
The officer smiled but didn’t speak. Instead slowly drew his sword and held it up in front of his face in salute. He lowered the sword and then slowly faded from view. Vanishing like a puff of smoke in a strong wind.
They stopped some five miles from Kelewair. The order taught to judge a person by their deeds and not their looks. But many people, especially nobles never went beyond a person’s appearance. So the small Protector group stopped. Their old clothing, dirty and worn from the trip were exchanged for clean more expensive looking ones. This was done so they could enter the city looking their best.
Their reception at the gate was certainly more quiet than expected.
A dozen guards in armor stood at the open gate. Some were wielding spears and others had swords on their belts. All were wearing chainmail armor. Standing at the front was a man wearing plate mail armor with the crest of the Verdane family on it. This was obviously an officer. They eyed the new arrivals suspiciously.
“Greetings. I am Godric Neville Kenward. Knightmaster of the Order of Protectors,” the Knightmaster announced. “We are here for a meeting with Bishop Verdane.”
“Greetings,” the officer said. “My name is Jarad Verdane. Duke Verdane welcomes you to Kelewair,”
The knightmaster returned the bow. “Thank you. We are headed to the abbey where we will be staying for our short visit.”
The riders dismounted and they slowly made their way through the city. It was a courtesy to the people in the city and it gave their horses a rest. It also allowed the Knights to get closer to the inhabitants and bring them down the level of the common person. They looked less frightening and more like people.
Kelewair possessed a modest grace all it’s own. It’s buildings were mostly wood and plaster but some of the more important were of brick. Still the cobblestone streets were clean and at night were illuminated by lamps.
Some of the city’s people moved out of the way as the heavily armed group moved along the street. Others moved slowly, reluctant to give way before these strangers and others moved quickly, wanting to be clear of them. All stopped and gazed at the new arrivals. Kenward noted some angry scowls but many seemed genuinely curious and friendly. But most just seemed to be indifferent. Giving the group only a moment’s notice.
Newstead abbey was, like the city it was in, of modest proportions. Mostly of wood but with a fine chapel of imported stone. Abbot Fulchrid greeted them at the gate with a full complement of brothers.
“Greetings and welcome to our humble abbey,” the abbot said in a dignified manner and bowed. “You honor us with your presence.”
“Thank you,” Kenward responded. “We have heard good things about this place and I’ve wanted to visit for a while.”
The abbot smiled. “Thank you. We have prepared for your arrival. It will be a bit tight, but we have room enough for all.
“We don’t want to be burden on you and your people. We do not mind close accommodations and our brothers will help in the kitchens,” Kenward said calmly.
The abbot seemed to relax and he nodded. “Thank you. That will help us greatly.”
Kenward could understand the man’s relief. With all of Protectors staying within it’s walls the population of the monastery had almost doubled. It made for close quarters for everyone.
“The bishop has sent word,” the abbot said. “He requests your presence tomorrow after Terce.”
The Knightmaster bowed in response. “Thank you. I will send my regards to the Bishop today and see him tomorrow.”
The messenger arrived just before Sext – Midday as everyone was getting ready to sit down to lunch. The young man was dressed in fine clothing cut in the latest fashion. A long, thin rapier hung from his belt. He bowed deeply to the Knightmaster. “Duke Verdane sends his regards.” And with that he handed Kenward an envelope.
Kenward opened the letter and read it. “Duke Titiane Verdane requests the honor of your presence for dinner tomorrow at 7 pm.”
The knightmaster bowed to the messenger. “Send the duke my regards. It will be my honor to see him for dinner.”
With that the messenger bowed in response and then left.
"Who was that?" Harrick asked.
"Sir, Philip Verdane. One of the Duke’s kin,” the abbot answered.
“Isn’t the Bishop also kin?” The knightmaster asked. Already knowing the answer.
“Yes,” came the answer. “His son.”
A bell rang announcing the start of the midday meal. A line people, both monks and knightbrothers slowly filed past them.
“And the gentleman who greeted us at the city gate?” Kenward asked. “Jarad Verdane.”
“A cousin as well,” the abbot answered.
"How big is that family?" Kenward asked.
"You can never really be sure until something important is up for inheritance. Then they'll crawl out of the woodwork. Including the bastards,” the abbot commented. “I’ve seen it ruin many a family.”
“The order has seen countless family feuds over inheritance,” Kenward commented.
They put several miles behind them before Edmund even considered stopping for the night. The group was especially quiet as they set up camp. They set up several fires and those were larger than usual. To keep at bay the fears of what might be in the dark.
The sentry posts had been set and the animals had been checked one last time. The fires had been stoked (again) and would burn throughout the night. Edmund and Terrant spent a long time moving among the soldiers, talking, joking, putting worries to rest and soothing rattled nerves. Edmund made sure to take a prominent place where all could see him. He then clearly relaxed and tried to look at ease by the fire. Even if mentally he had much to worry and think about.
Edmund was quietly eating his meal when Stealth arrived and sat down next to him. “My people are set for the night. I’m keeping inside the group for tonight.”
The paladin passed a large plate filled with food to his friend. “Good. Everyone is on edge.”
Stealth looked at the offered food. It was beef stew, piping hot mixed with potatoes and an assortment of vegetables. “How did you know that ghost was named Kaeso Ferentia?” He asked between bites.
“I don’t know,” Edmund said with a shrug. “I think we knew him back in 150. In our previous lives.”
“That makes sense,” Stealth responded. “It fits with everything else that has been happening.”
“Nest and I had a long discussion with Misha and Rikkter after that last incident in the forest,” Edmund explained. “Where we relived the fall of the city.”
Stealth leaned closer. “Oh?”
“Remember when we were in the city and we saw Ka-Staru? It happened right before we were reunited,” Edmund said.
Stealth thought back for a moment. “You mean the black sword? The match for Misha’s axe and Rickkter’s dagger?”
Edmund nodded his head. “Yes. Three of the Five Sisters. Whatever befell the city – the three were involved. Somehow.”
Terrant walked up and sat down next to Stealth. “I made a complete circuit of the perimeter. Everything is quiet.”
“Good,” Edmund responded. He took a clean plate and filled it with food from the cooking pot. “I’ll walk around later.”
Terry took the plate and started to eat. The group was silent for a while as they ate. Each enjoying the food and pondering the day’s events.
“It is clear to me that WE are triggering all these spectral events,” Edmund said breaking the silence. “The key to why this is happening is the two of us.”
“The three of us,” Stealth corrected. “Nest is involved too.”
“How are the three runic weapons involved?” Terrant asked.
The paladin shrugged. “I don’t know. They were in the valley in 150 and they are all back in the valley now.”
“I think I understand why this is happening to us,” Stealth said softly.
“Oh?” Edmund answered and leaned closer.
“I think we were in Camulodunum back in 150,” Stealth explained. “We tried to stop what happened back then and failed. We’re here now to fix what happened.”
“There is a certain logic to that,” Edmund nodded in agreement. “I cannot deny that we were here in 150. But why now? Why not before now?”
“What if,” Stealth commented. “What if what happened back in 150 is going to happen again?”
Edmund shivered. “That,” he said slowly. “Is something I have been trying not to ponder but it is a distinct possibility.”
“How do we stop it?” Stealth asked in a voice filled with nervousness. He tossed a small piece of wood on the fire. “If we tried back in 150 and failed how do we stop it this time?”
“First we find out what happened in 150. Then discover what we did to try and stop it,” Edmund responded. “And we don’t do that again.”
“Dear Lord!” Terrant said. “The three.”
“What?” Edmund cocked his head to one side.
“Nestorius, Edmund, Stealth,” she explained slowly. “Black axe. Black sword, Black dagger. “They are the key. All of this started happening when the axe and dagger returned to the valley. But the activity really increased when you arrived in the valley,” Terrant pointed to Edmund. “It’s not just the three of you or the Three Sisters. It’s ALL of them combined. The six of you.”
“That makes sense,” the paladin answered. “Events are starting to happen and we need to stay ahead of them. These incidents with the ghosts has been increasing and will continue to do so. Brother Crosley was most adamant on that.”
“So we need to find out what happened back in 150 before things get out of control now,” Stealth said. “What about the axe and the dagger? Has anyone asked them?”
“Misha has told me that the axe will not explain anything that happened then,” Edmund responded. “And Rikkter and the dagger it seems are not on speaking terms yet.”
“The axe and the dagger are found. We need to find the sword,” Stealth commented. “The sword is the next key. Kaeso gave us the clue. He saluted us with his sword.”
“Excellent point,” Edmund responded.
“Now we just need to locate it,” Terrant added.
“Just?” Edmund countered. “We don’t know where it is.”
“It should be still in the city,” Stealth said. “Last time we saw it was in Camulodunum. It’s probably still there.”
“The ruins are very large,” Terrant commented. “Even with your recent experiences as a guide it’s still a large area to search.”
“I would suggest checking the Metamor library for more information,” Edmund said. “But I’m sure Nest is already doing that.”
“I can ask George,” Stealth responded. “His scouts have been going there for a long time.”
“An excellent idea,” the paladin responded. “He must have a map of the ruins. We can compare that to the map of the city in 150.”
They started out a little earlier than usual. Everything was packed away, the fires were put out and a final count was taken to be sure everyone was there. Quickly but orderly the group moved away from the old battlefield.
The path grew slightly better but was still mostly gravel in most places. As they moved Edmund’s group passed farms with fields of growing crops and or cattle quietly grazing.
It was early afternoon when Stealth came running up to the column. The scout moving with the speed and grace of the cheetah he was. He slowed and came to a stop in front of Edmund. “We have a problem.”
The cathedral was a fine-looking stone building. Probably the only substantial stone structure in the city besides the city walls. Two tall steeples flanked the main entrance doors of well-polished bronze.
Kenward, brother Harrick and a small entourage arrived at the bishop’s palace at half past nine in the morning. All of the knights had bathed and their armor, always kept clean. had been cleaned again and the tabards they wore over them were freshly cleaned and pressed.
The building was of middling size. Larger than most buildings in the city but far smaller than would be found in most other cities. It sat next to the cathedral with only a short walk from one to the other. A single guard holding a spear stood at the main door.
As they came closer the door opened and a young priest came out, moving at a good pace. Short, blonde hair framed a face that held a calm demeanor. “Welcome.”
Kenward gave a short bow. “Please inform the bishop Tyrion Verdane that Sir Godric Neville Kenward, Knightmaster of the Order of Protectors is here to meet with him.”
The priest bowed in return. “Bishop Verdane welcomes you to Kelewair. I am Father Goward. Please follow me.”
The village of Glengormley was small. Barely one hundred people in a score of buildings on either side of the road. The buildings were all stone and clustered together in a tight group. A small manor house sat at one end and an even smaller windmill at the other. The back walls of the buildings were all bare stone and there was no open space between them This left the only way into or out of the village being the road at either end. Both of those were now closed with barricades of barrels, boxes and even overturned wagons.
A simple design when the village had been built (or rebuilt) made the village nicely defensible. It would not withstand an assault by a full army but it made the village easily defended against raiders and the occasional overly bold bandit.
Standing behind the northern barricade was a half dozen men all brandishing a mix of spears, clubs and one man even had a bow.
Edmund stopped the column one hundred feet from the barricade. He moved ahead alone, leaving Terry and the rest behind.
A javelin lofted out from the barricade and struck the ground in front of him. He walked past it without stopping. When he was sixty feet from the barricade he stopped. “You missed,” he said bluntly. “Never throw at a target from that far out. You have a small chance of hitting and even if you do the missile has lost most of its energy. The chance of it causing serious injury is small. Wait till they get this close. Then throw.”
A second missile lofted up from the barricade and plummeted down towards the cheetah.
Edmund looked up at the descending missile with a almost casual gaze. He took one small step to the left and the missile projectile thumped into the earth mere inches from his paws
"Better," He commented but you STILL missed."
“Enough of your stupid tricks monster,” A brown haired man behind the barricade said coldly. “We were warned of your coming,” the leader said harshly. “You are raiding, looting, raping.”
“Monster?” Edmund leaned against the horn on his saddle. “And this warning came to you from Midtown? Baron Donel?”
“Yes,” came the answer. “A rider came through here this morning. He’s warning everyone.”
“And you believed him?” The paladin answered.
The man looked confused for a moment. “Of course. Why shouldn’t we? Baron Donel has protected or village for generations.”
“Do we look like raiders?” The paladin asked. “Do I look like some bandit?”
One of the other men waved a large spear at Edmund. “You . . . you’re one of THOSE people. From the valley.”
“So that makes me a monster? The paladin asked. “A killer? A raider?”
“We know who you are and what you want,” the man snarled.
The paladin slowly shook his head. “No. No you don’t. You know nothing about us. Of that I am certain.”
“Begone!” The man ordered. “You’ll not take this town without a fight.
“So,” Edmund said slowly. “You’ll not be allowing us into your fine village?”
“NEVER!” The man shouted as he waved his spear about. “We’ll fight you to the death to defend our families and our homes.” The rest of the people at the barricade cheered and howled insults at their opponents.
In his mind Edmund already had his attack worked out. His archers would shower those at the barricade driving them off. The survivors would take refuge in the buildings. These he would set fire with torches and fire arrows. (Why do people still use thatched roofs? Thatch! So easily set alight instead of slate or even wooden shingles.) Those who stayed in the buildings would die in the fire. Those who ran out would be run down by his knights or cut down by his infantry. But that was Edmund the soldier thinking. Edmund the son of a noble family. But he was Edmund Delacot, Knightbrother of the Order of Protectors.
“In that case,” Edmund said simply. “We’ll leave you in peace.”
And to the utter astonishment of everyone in the village. They did just that.
The Knightbrothers weren’t taken directly to the bishop. Instead they found themselves in a small room with some chairs and a large couch. Bland pictures of landscapes decorated the walls.
“Please wait here,” the priest said. “The bishop will be with you soon.”
The group was silent until the door closed leaving them alone.
“Soon?” Harrick commented. “That doesn’t bode well.”
The Knightmaster carefully sat down in a chair made of blonde colored wood and upholstered in a matching tan. “Consider this a small test of our patience.”
“You were expecting this,” Harrick commented in a cold tone.
A nod of the head was Kenward’s answer. “Some people think it necessary to show their dominance in such little things.”
“And others see it as a way to unsettle an opponent before a meeting or confrontation,” Harrick added.
“We’re not here to confront the bishop,” Kenward responded. “He is on our side.”
“I’m not so sure,” Harrick answered. “We thought Ammodus was a friend too.”
“Good point,” the knightmaster commented. “But let’s not prejudge him. He might just be like Knightmaster Huwain.”
Harrick turned and looked at the current Knightmaster. “Knightmaster Huwian?”
“You never knew him?” Kenward asked.
“No sir,” came the answer. “He retired before I took the vows.”
“Ah!” Kenward said with a smile. “A fine knightbrother and a great leader. But he seemed to be physically incapable of doing anything on time. He was always late. Regardless of how important a meeting or appointment was. They say he was even born a week late.”
Harrick gave a rare smile. “Truly?”
“Indeed,” Kenward answered. “Finally I took to telling him the wrong dates and times. If the ceremony was at Midday we would tell him it was at Terce. If the meeting was on the 15th of the month. We would tell him the 14th.”
“Did it work?” Harrick asked.
“Oh yes,” The knightmaster responded with a smile.
The door opened and Father Goward stepped into the room. “The bishop will see you now.”
The trees and underbrush along the side of the road was thinner than he hopped. It provided far less cover and concealment than he would have liked. Still, with care and skill he stayed out of sight. Usually he would move slower and more carefully but he had to stay ahead of the group Edmund and Terry were leading. That meant moving faster than he would have wanted but he had a task to do. An important one. He and the members of his squad were to warn Edmund of troubles they might run into. Things like an ambush or an approaching army.
Normal people didn’t understand. Having never experienced what being an animal was like, they just didn’t know what it was like. They didn’t know how amazing the enhanced senses of smell and sound felt. In his feline body Stealth could hear and smell things that a human just never would experience. His enhanced sense of smell picked up the faint whiff of a human scent. After a few moments, the feline recognized it as a man. After traveling with this group for so long Stealth knew the scent and look of everyone in it and this person was a stranger.
He stopped and for several minutes just concentrated on his senses. Sniffing the scents and listening to the sounds around him. The wind was gently blowing from the southwest telling him the intruder was in that direction. Slowly, carefully, thinking through each move before he made it. Stealth turned to the southwest and the foreign smell grew faintly stronger.
The scout scanned the forest ahead of him looking for the slightest sign of anything that didn’t belong. A branch broken the wrong way, a human footprint or a human shape amidst the shadows.
After a few minutes, he saw a branch, the end of which was bent at an odd angle. As if something had brushed against it. Looking at the ground beneath it. He spotted a mix of leaves and pine needles that had been disturbed. To most people it meant nothing but to him it was a foot print.
The feline looked around the print and found what he was looking for. A second footprint a little way off and slightly beyond that – a third. Slowly and carefully he followed the prints moving in the direction they led.
His sensitive ears picked up a slight movement off to his left and he turned in that direction. He looked intently unsure of what it could be. It might be the other scout or it could be a wild animal. Deer, badger, rabbit and fox inhabited this area in abundance and he didn’t want to go off chasing the wrong thing. Then he caught a faint whiff of leather and oil. His opponent was wearing leather armor that had been oiled to preserve it in the damp and rain.
He heard the bow release and an arrow thumped into the tree next to him. Stealth looked at the arrow for a moment. It was still quivering from the impact.
The feline reacted instantly. His own bow came up and he loosed an
arrow in the direction the first one had come from. Stealth saw a
shadow shift among the branches of a tree. He drew, fitted and loosed
another arrow straight at the shadow.
He was rewarded with a shout of pain. The shadow enlarged into the full figure of a man. That man turned and started running away as fast as he could.
The feline nocked an arrow and took aim at the fleeing man but he didn’t shoot. He wanted this scout alive to answer questions. And an arrow to the back would probably be fatal. If it didn’t kill the man it would make it harder to interrogate him. He could still learn much from a dead body but a live prisoner could tell him a lot more.
He dropped to all fours as his body shifted to its more feral form. Stealth looked at the fleeing man and the hunter’s instincts kicked in. His claws tore into the dirt as he sprang forward. His legs were pumping and he rocketed forward
Stealth was amazed at the blinding speed as the trees and bushes flashed by in a blur. It was exhilarating! Every part of his body; every nerve, every muscle and instinct was built solely for speed, to catch fleeing prey.
He felt the power and speed in his muscles unleashed but it wasn't raw or blind but was controlled and channeled, his instincts guiding him with lightning speed. The cat raced through the woods twisting and turning as he weaved among the throng. His extra-long tail flipping left and right, acting like a massive rudder for the speeding cheetah.
The predator closed the distance between them in an instant. The man who had been running before now seemed to be almost walking. Instinctively the carnivore lashed out with one paw and tripped the man. The prey tumbled to the ground in a flurry of curses and flailing limbs.
The cheetah clamped his teeth around the man’s arm, biting down hard. He twisted his body and his weight and momentum sent the man flying.
The man flew a good ten feet before he hit the ground. He tumbled through the underbrush for another ten feet before he hit a tree with a solid sounding thump.
Stealth stood up and shook himself off. He held still a short distance from the man. Outside of the reach of a swinging sword. The man’s body remained limp at the base of the tree. The cheetah could smell fresh blood and he could hear his ragged breathing. This told the Keeper that although wounded his prey was alive.
The group had pulled off the road and were deployed in an empty meadow. The wagons were tucked under a pair of trees that occupied one corner. The infantry arrayed around them in a tight circle of protection.
Next to one of those wagons was Stealth, Edmund and Terry standing around the captured scout whose hands and feet were bound.
“What do we do with him?” Stealth asked.
Terrant and Edmund looked at him for a moment.
“An excellent question,” Terrant commented. “We could send him back to Metamor under guard.”
Edmund shook his head. “Too long a distance. We could release him and send him back to Midtown?”
“Release him?” Stealth asked. Surprised. “He tried to kill me!”
“Good point,” Terrant responded. “And he undoubtedly has a lot of information about us.”
“But killing him is not an option,” The paladin ordered.
“Agreed,” Terrant added.
“He’ll make a good bargaining chip,” Stealth commented. “We can trade him for something or someone.”
Terrant smiled at the prisoner revealing a surprisingly warm and beautiful face. “Dear. It seems you are going to be a guest of the Protectors.”
“Once we get there his usefulness will be over,” Edmund responded.
The bishop’s office was well appointed but not overly so. The furniture was not new but it wasn’t overly old. It was just old enough to have a feeling of weathered dignity and grace. Pictures graced the walls. Mostly portraits of various clerics and priests. Kenward noted one empty spot over the fireplace which held a cheery fire that took the chill off the room. The wall in that spot was slightly discolored in the shape of a rectangle. The ghostly memory of a painting that had hung there until recently.
At first glance the most noticeable feature of Bishop Tyrion Verdane was his red hair. Cut short as dictated by the rules of his order. It topped a body that was slight and thin almost to the point of being frail. He was a sharp contrast to the well muscled form of the Knightmaster and Senior Knight commander. But Kenward noticed that although the body was frail the bishop’s face had the look of a hardened soldier. His eyes looked that over with a strong gaze.
“Your Grace,” Father Goward said and pointed to the Knightmaster. “This is Sir Godric Neville Kenward, Knightmaster of the Order of Protectors.”
“Your Grace,” The Knightmaster said and bowed to the bishop. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The Father pointed to Harrick. “This is Lord Jacob Harrick. Senior Knight commander of the Order of Protectors.”
Jacob Harrick bowed to the bishop. “Your Grace.”
The bishop bowed. “Thank you for coming.” He pointed to a corner of the room where several chairs and a table were arraigned in a group. “Please be seated.”
“Thank you,” the Knightmaster said as they sat down.
“How was your journey here?” The cleric asked. “Any trouble?”
“No,” Kenward responded. “The trip was pretty calm thankfully.”
“After the recent troubles, any calm, however brief is a real blessing.” Bishop commented.
“We are still trying to get a clearer idea of how emotions are going,” Kenward responded. “But I have ordered all brothers to restore peace and protect the innocent regardless of what their faith is.”
“I believe that protecting the innocent is in your order’s founding charter,” the bishop commented.
“It is,” Kenward answered. “But occasionally we need to be reminded.”
“I’ve heard rumors that you are traders,” the Bishop asked. “Selling souls and indulgences. Forgiveness of sins.”
The Knightmaster shook his head vigorously. “No,” he said with a strong hint of anger. “Never would we do that. But there are charlatans who claim to be of the order and the Ecclesia who do trick people out of their money.”
The bishop sighed and shook his head. “I am all too aware of such evil.”
“The order attempts to get rid of them but for every one we arrest another seems to crop up,” Harrick commented coldly.
“Some evils just resist all attempts to eradicate them,” Kenward commented/
“Is it true that your order has no financial or material support from the Ecclesia?” The Bishop asked.
“The order is self-sustaining,” Kenward said with some pride. “But through honest work and trade. It holds numerous farms and businesses that grow or produce many things but the largest crop is mustard.”
“Mustard?” The bishop asked. Surprised. “The spice?”
“Yes your grace,” he answered. “I have been told that the Order’s mustard is sold all over the Midlands.” The man smiled. “One new customer is Sathmore.”
The bishop looked at the priest. “Sathmore?”
“It has become very popular there as of late,” Kenward said with a touch of humor. “Rumor is it even graces the Imperial table in Elvequelin.”
The bishop shook his head. “Does the imperial family know where it comes from?”
“I cannot confirm it,” the Knightmaster answered. “But they are not stupid. They must know or at least suspect. Aside from not labeling it as coming from our order we make no effort to hide the source. We sell it to a Sathmore Follower merchant in Ellcaran who takes it across the border and sells it to a Sathmore Lightbringer merchant. They sell it to a prestigious spice house in Elvquelin itself.”
“That is convoluted,” the bishop said with a shake of the head.
“Indeed but it works,” Harrick responded. “Evidently they have been doing such cross-border trading for generations.”
“We are actually encouraging the trade,” Kenward explained. “It means there are more things crossing the border than raiding parties.”
“Now that is a good thing,” the Bishop commented. “It is sure to cut down on the violence. It means the two groups are doing more than just robbing and killing each other.”
“Every little act of peace helps,” Kenward responded.
“Our relationship must be redefined,” The Bishop announced suddenly.
“Redefined how?” The knight asked coldly. “We are not your personal troops. To be at your beckon call. That is what caused so much trouble with your predecessor.”
The response from the bishop was not what he expected. The cleric nodded his head. “Until now we have been ignoring each other,” the bishop explained slowly. “Each acting as though the other didn’t exist. That must change. We all walk a different path in life but we must work together to do the Great One’s work. We must coordinate our actions if we are to keep what recently happened from happening again.”
The Knightmaster relaxed a little. “It would benefit everyone if we did work together. So long as our independence of control aside from the Patriarchs alone is assured.”
“Agreed,” the bishop responded carefully. “But my own authority and that of the cardinal must be respected.”
“Of course,” Kenward said slowly. “We always respect the authority of the Ecclesia.”
“I have been pondering some ideas,” the Bishop said slowly. “Recent events have brought something to my attention. You have no official presence in Marigund.”
“We have in the past,” he answered. “It simply agitated things. We do monitor the country closely. Thankfully it has been peaceful as of late.”
Things are never truly peaceful in Marigund.” The bishop commented. “But the country is quiet. At least for the moment.”
“Nowhere in the Midlands is it truly peaceful,” Kenward commented. “There is always trouble somewhere.”
“All too true. But I am thinking it is time for the order to maintain a permanent presence in the city,” the Bishop explained.
“Is that wise?” Harrick asked.
The bishop held up a hand. “Please hear me out. Not a large one. A small hospital and charity ward. This will not only help the needy but it will show the order and the Ecclesia in a good light.”
Harrick pondered the suggestion. The bishop had not ordered him outright but put it as a suggestion. As a separate organization, the Knightmaster was not bound to follow the cleric’s orders. A fact many previous Knightmasters had fought fiercely to maintain. The only person whose commands they had to follow was the Patriarch. Still, when someone of the bishop’s rank suggested something you considered it an order. Even if Marigund wasn’t even in his diocese.
What impressed him was that the bishop had not outright ordered him. That showed a degree of diplomacy sadly lacking in many nobles and clerics.
“There is considerable merit in the idea excellency,” Kenward responded slowly. “But it is sure to cause trouble.”
The Bishop leaned forward. “There is undoubtedly a degree of risk involved. There is a risk of causing some unrest. But it is a risk worth taking. Things are changing in Marigund and we must help things along. Guide them.”
“You are aware of the recent troublesome events at the Mages Guild there?” The bishop asked.
The knightmaster smiled and laughed. “You have to be more specific. The mages are always causing some trouble. But I assume you mean the recent events with the automaton.”
“I do,” the cleric responded. “Do you know all of what happened?”
“Brother Delacot has sent a lengthy report on all that he knows of Madog.” Kenward answered. “But I am lacking more information on the new one, Salona.”
“What really happened? The leaders of all four faiths met together peacefully,” the bishop asked. “PEACEFULLY. And they actually agreed on how to deal with the issue.”
“Peacefully?” Kenward asked. Surprised. “Peacefully?”
“All four groups agreed on a course of action,” the bishop added. “That’s never happened before. Ever.” There was a touch or surprise in his voice.
“Remarkable,” was all the knight could say in response.
“Indeed,” the bishop answered. “The cardinal himself has taken a special interest in this. He was involved.”
“This does change things,” Harrick commented. “This is an opportunity we cannot pass up.”
“In the aftermath of the Questioners visit there last year and now this,” Kenward commented. “It is a good idea that we keep a closer watch on things there. We cannot let events get ahead of us.”
The bishop nodded his head in agreement.
“A Knightbrother and a dozen lay brothers to start with,” Kenward commented. “We could obtain help from among the locals. That should allay many fears.”
“The order is already spread thin,” Kenward answered. “But I am thinking a Wandering Brother. Perhaps brother Culman. He is from Marigund.”
“That would be most helpful,” the Bishop commented.
“Too bad Brother Delacot is occupied,” Kenward answered. “He has experience there. He too was born there.”
“The curse at Metamor has taken him,” Harrick countered. “He is no longer fully human. That would cause issues.”
“Considering that city,” Kenward laughed. “In Marigund he might blend in easily.”
“The curse at Metamor?” The bishop asked. “What has he changed into?”
“A racing cat. A cheetah,” the knightmaster answered.
“Interesting,” the bishop commented. “Has it effected his vows to the order?”
“No,” Harrick responded a little too forcefully. “Not only is he a Knightbrother but he is also a paladin. And the strange magic of Metamor hasn’t changed that.”
“The body is just a shell,” the bishop commented. “What matters is the soul within.”
Kenward stood up and walked over to the fireplace. He looked up at the spot where the portrait had hung but was now empty. “What became of the old bishop? We have heard ugly rumors about Ammodus.”
The bishop shook his head. “We are still examining what happened. But measures have been taken to be sure it doesn’t happen again. Once the corruption had been removed he was asked to step down as bishop. It was felt to be the best path for peace.”
“It will take a lot of effort and a long time to unravel the damage and pain he caused,” Kenward commented.
“And what of Ammodius himself?” Kenward asked.
“After his removal Ammodus requested that he be allowed to live a monastic life. Somewhere distant and isolated,” The new bishop responded. “That request was granted.”
Kenward nodded his head. “I understand. If there is some way that we can help please feel free to ask.”
“Thank you,” the bishop responded. “Together I think we can achieve good things.”
The two knightbrothers were silent until they had left the bishop’s palace and were making their way back to the monastery.
“Well,” Kenward asked slowly. “What do you think of him?”
Harrick nodded. "Soft spoken but there is a certain steel to the man's soul. I think he will make an excellent bishop."
“I think if his father believes he can easily control him.” Kenward commented. “The Duke is in for a rude shock.”
“He certainly has a lot to do,” Harrick commented. “Unraveling the damage his predecessor did.”
“We also have a lot to do,” Kenward added.
Their next encounter with the troops from Midtown came just as the group was setting out for the day. Twenty knights on horseback stood in two lines blocking the road. Their lances were leveled with their razor-sharp points aimed straight at the Paladin and his group. At the front was a knight dressed in full plate mail armor and riding a horse similarly protected. Covering the animal was a bright yellow cloth. On it was the image of a stylized feline that might be a lynx rearing up on its hind legs. Below that was a pair of crossed swords. The shield in the rider.s left hand bore the same heraldic emblem Edmund didn’t recognize immediately.
"Do you think our meeting them is an accident?" The woman asked.
"No," Edmund answered calmly. "They want to show their dominance in this area by forcing us to turn back."
"This is starting to become annoying," Terry muttered.
“This already is annoying.” Edmund stood up in the saddle and turned to his soldiers behind him. "Be careful and do not let them provoke you. But stand your ground and do not give so much as one inch. If they want a fight let them start it."
"They start it," someone in the ranks shouted. "We'll finish it."
"Who is this?" Terrant asked. "I don't recognize his coat of arms."
"A local noble," Edmund responded. "Probably sent out in haste. It's too soon for them to have come directly from Midtown."
"You cannot pass without the permission of Lord Donel," the man said.
Edmund didn't answer for a moment but seemed to ponder his next actions. From experience Terry knew her leader was trying to decide what to do next. Suddenly the feline paladin stiffened and she recognized that he had made his choice. "We of the order of Protectors have the permission of Duke Thomas himself," he said. "We don't need Donel's permission." He gave a flick of the reins and his horse started moving forward.
"HALT!" The nobleman ordered nervously and reached for the hilt of his sword.
Edmund looked at the young man with the hardened gaze of a predator. "Do you want to do that? Not only will you die senselessly but so will all of your people. Do you want their deaths on your conscience? Do you want to shed blood here today? I don't think so. You go back to Lord Donel and inform him that the order does not like his silly antics and interference." Edmund slowly walked his horse past the nobleman and his troops.
The town was unnervingly quiet. Terry had been through many similar little villages in her travels. It was a cluster of a dozen huts and small houses all lined up on either side of the road. A small church marked the center of the small hamlet. Next to that was a house that had a weathered sign hanging over the door announcing that it was also a small inn and store. The sign read simply "Inn," and nothing else. Not even a name. Why bother with a name when it's the only place in town? What unnerved her was the lack of people. The streets should have been filled with people; farmers working fields, herding cattle or just walking about. Instead the street was empty and all the buildings had their doors closed and windows covered with heavy shutters.
"Keep on guard," Terry said out loud to the soldiers she was leading. "But use restraint. "These people are our people now."
"Where are they?" An archer asked. The woman had an arrow nocked as she looked about nervously.
"In hiding," Terry answered calmly. "What are they supposed to do when a strange army marches into their village. "It will probably be several hours before they realize we're not here to loot and rape any of them and come out."
The buildings fell away and around them was an open field tilled for planting but still empty as it was too early in the year for planting. The long road they were on ended in the stone wall and gate house of a small castle.
Calling the structure a castle was an exaggeration. It was a forty-foot-tall round tower surrounded by a stone wall not even half that tall. The gatehouse that pierced that wall was merely a small square projection with a wooden gate, which at the moment was closed.
Standing in the middle of the road were four wagons, all piled high with gear that was being guarded by a half dozen figures. Scattered in loose formations in the fields on either side of the road were a score of soldiers. Terry easily picked out blue tabards on all of them, marking them as brothers or lay brothers of the Order of Protectors.
The column came to a halt just short of the closest wagon. Edmund and Terry dismounted and walked forward. The figures at the wagon came towards them and soon it was clear they were full knight-brothers of the order. They were wearing full plate armor over which was the blue tabard with a gold cross in the center.
"It's good to see you brother Nicholas!” Edmund said and hugged the knight.
"It's good to see you brother Edmund," Nicholas responded. He looked over the feline. “That is you Edmund?”
“It’s me,” Edmund responded. “A little furrier than before.”
Edmund hugged the other knight. “It’s good to see you Brother Giedrius.”
“It’s been too long Ed,” Giedrius responded as he looked his friend over. “So it’s true. You did go all furry.”
“I go where The Great One needs me,” the paladin responded. "How was the journey from Giftum?"
"Fine," Giedrius answered. "We made far better progress than we expected. We've brought six brothers and twenty-four Lay brothers but we have a complication," the brother-knight said and pointed to the top of the tower of the small castle. There fluttering in the breeze was the flag of Midtown.
"Oh you have got to be kidding," Edmund snarled instinctively baring his teeth.
"Don't these fools ever give up?" Terry muttered.
"Now Terry," Edmund said calmly. "These soldiers are merely following the orders of their overlord."
"You don't find this annoying?" Terry said. "This isn't harassment. It's outright theft."
"Of course it's annoying but we are supposed to be above such petty emotions," Edmund responded. "But we can resolve this peacefully."
“You’ve had issues with Midtown?” Giedrius asked.
“The entire trip,” Edmund responded. “It seems Lord Donel doesn’t want us here.”
“Any bloodshed?” Nicholas asked.
“No,” the paladin responded. “Thankfully. But it was close. Have you had any interaction with the villagers?”
Nicholas shook his head. “No. They bundled themselves up when we got within sight.”
“How do we deal with them?” Giedrius asked and pointed to the castle.
Edmunds tail whipped back and forth energetically. “I have an idea.”
Giedrius smiled broadly. “All those spots haven’t changed you.”
The Next Day
The troops with Edmund had been busy. When they came out of the tree line the infantry were carrying battering rams and scaling ladders. At the back, defended by archers and a small palisade was a catapult resting in the middle of the road leading to the village.
The feline paladin steered his horse towards the castle. The animal moved slowly and deliberately as her rider sat as still as a statue; eying the fortress with the cold gaze of a predator, whose form he now had. When she was within fifty yards, the horse stopped without Edmund making any obvious motion of touching the reins.
"You have stolen," Edmund stood up straight in the saddle. There was a dangerous light in his eyes. "STOLEN the property of the Order of Protectors. the direct representative of the Patriarch and the Ecclesia. YOU DARE to deny us our rightful property."
“This castle is the rightful property of Midtown and we will protect it to the death,” came a voice from the castle walls. The speaker was trying to sound bold but Terry noticed a faint edge of nervousness.
The paladin shook his head slowly making sure the gesture was overdone so all within eyesight would understand. “No. What you mean is that Donel decided to take what wasn’t his to take.”
“Lord Donel . .” The man started.
“DONEL IS NOT HERE!” Edmund interrupted. “He is not going to come riding over the hill to your rescue like some child’s tale. You. Are. Alone.” Edmund said those last three words in cold, clipped tones that seemed to ring through the air.
"Lord Donel will come with an army." The nobleman countered.
"Good," Edmund said simply. "I can settle our issues with him face to face like a true knight. But that's for the future. Now we will deal with you and take back what is rightfully ours." He drew his sword making the movements slow and exaggerated so that it was clearly visible to everyone. He pointed the tip of the blade at the castle. "Now. Do you yield and give up the fortress and all in it or do we take it by the sword? Surrender now, honorably and you will all go home to your families. If you refuse, we have to take back our home by force and that will place you outside the Great Ones mercy." He paused a moment and then leaned forward. When he spoke it was in a surprisingly friendly tone. "Now what will your choice be? Life or death?”
The column filed out of the tower and trough the small gatehouse in silence. No one spoke and they made few gestures. Last to leave was their leader. The man was dressed in his full platemail armor that had been cleaned and polished. The tabard over the armor had been cleaned and pressed. He rode a roan mare who had a caparison covering it completely. The cloth was dark blue and emblazoned with gold griffons. When the nobleman was even with Edmund the paladin held up a hand bringing the man to a halt.
Edmund pointed to where Terrant was standing. With her was the captured scout who seemed to be none the worse for his captivity. “He is yours. Take him with you.” There was silence as the scout was helped onto a horse. Only then did the Knightbrother speak.
"Tell Lord Donel," Edmund said slowly. "These idiotic interruptions are becoming annoying. If he wishes to discuss matters with us he can come here and we'll discuss this face to face. We will gladly talk to him and explain our rightful ownership of this place. If he wishes to dispute it more harshly, well then the order will deal with him. Permanently.”
The other noble didn't speak but simply nodded. Then he turned his horse to follow after his troops.
Edmund waited till the column had passed through the village before speaking. “Stealth my friend. Please follow them and be sure they don’t try something bold and stupid.”
Stealth nodded his head. “I have my squad following them already.” He looked at the tail end of the retreating column. “They’ll be back eventually.”
Edmund sighed and nodded. “I know.”