Much had changed within the Castle of the Dark Lord. The main halls were now being cleaned and maintained. The dust and grime that had once carpeted everything were slowly being swept away. Those of gypsie folk who had wished to stay, and surprisingly a small handful of some of the villagers had chosen to take up room in the servant’s quarters, even Timothy claimed one of the towers for his use.

I was mildly amused that Timothy hadn’t tried to outright take over the master study. Though I suppose many had assumed I would assert myself as the master of the castle. It was a discomforting thought to consider myself as someone who would take over such a place.

Dismissing my current feelings on the matter I glanced down one last time from the balcony that overlooked the fallen chapel of the castle. Currently, a small handful were making efforts to clear away the broken furniture and at my request, removed the holy vestiges. With an inward sigh, I turned for the long hall that led towards the throne room.

Some point after having been revived from my time in the mineshaft someone had brought a table into the throne room. It was small and seemed out of place against the backdrop of the forlorn room but it served a useful purpose.

Brutus and Timothy were already seated when I arrived, quietly arguing about the upcoming meeting. I noted a new member to my unofficial court standing quietly to the side. A tall simple looking woman that reminded me of Maricica when she wanted to be stern. She eyed me cautiously when I entered the room, her gaze following me as I took a seat at the head of the table.

“My Lady,” greeted Brutus with a respectful bow of his head. Timothy echoed the greeting hardly looking up from his mess of scrolls and books.

“Eileen should be here any moment,” advised Brutus before he turned to the tall woman standing off to the side, “and this is Miss...”

“Veronica Elwich,” answered the tall woman. She gave a short curtsey and handed me a sealed letter, “Burgermeister Collins sends his regards, formally thanking you on behalf of the village for the safe return of their number and wishing a speedy recovery.”

I accepted the envelope with a slight nod along with giving a curious glance at the wax seal emblazoned with the signet of the village. I tore the letter opened to skim over the contents. Much of it was filled with flowery wording of gratitude and well-wishing.

“Is there anything else I could help the good Burgermeister with?” I asked, putting the letter to the side.

“He has some questions as to your formal ruling and collecting of the taxes.”

There was a thud as Timothy dropped one of his books on the table, he muttered a brief apology before returning to his study.

“I’m sorry,” I said started as my mind tried to catch up with what I just heard, “the Burgermeister had questions regarding what?”

“Your formal rule and the collection of taxes.”

“I don’t follow,” I confessed.

Veronica looked placed on the wrong foot and seemed entirely unsure of the conversation.

“You are Lady, Mistress, and Claimant to the Dark Keep, correct?”

“I have not formally made such claims.”

“But she is the remaining Heir to the Castle and the land!” acclaimed Brutus loudly. The room turned its attention to him as he stood up, “Richten was killed in single combat against Lady Gwenyth, and he was the only other contender.”

“Of which the Burgermeister is willing to acknowledge the Lady as the rightful ruler of the valley, assuming we can all come to a mutual understanding over her rule.”

“Why?,” I asked.

“Excuse me?”

“Why does everyone want me to be the ruler of the valley?”

“Do you not want to?” inquired Veronica.

“Honestly, no,” I said without hesitation, “I have already expressed to the Meister Collins and to Priest Henderson, and most everyone else who has bothered to ask me, that I have no real intention of replacing the Dark Lord.”

My announcement seemed to take the breath out of Brutus’s sails as he slumped down in his seat.

“Yet here you sit in the Dark Lord’s throne room,” asserted Veronica, “with the attention of the entire valley on you.”

She paused and indicated a chair at the table, “May I?”

“Yes take a seat.”

There was a brief moment of silence as everyone settled in at the table. Brutus seemed to be brooding in his thoughts, while Timothy was studying his materials. I quietly considered the idea of me as a possible ruler of the valley. Looking over this small council I tried to envision the concept and perceive how others might see me.

My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the last member of this informal council, Eileen Tepes. She was an interesting woman according to what I have heard from others. Headstrong and blunt, Eileen had simply requested asylum the same as most others who have flocked to the castle since my revival. What made her stand out was her strict attitude in organizing the people of the castle into cleaning and making repairs. When asked about it, she simply stated that she wanted to excavate the castle to preserve its ancient history and tradition.

“Forgive my lateness, my Lady,” she curtseyed slightly before taking a seat, “there was some trouble while clearing out the cellar.”

“Anything I should be aware of?” I asked.

“Nothing that needs concern you for now, if you're just curious about the cellar. However, I do have some concerns that I insist on being addressed tonight.”

“I see.”

As I considered the group before me, I couldn’t help but reflect on my former companions and some of the times we have spent briefly plotting out our brief adventures and then latter working to overthrow the Dark Lord. Often in those days our planning and informal meetings were held in taverns or by a campfire. A sharp contrast to the meeting I was now sitting at.

“Brutus any word on the last of Richten’s followers?”

“We have managed to apprehend a couple of them yesterday and are holding them captive for your use my Lady.”

I nodded and turned to Timothy, “Anything further on your studies?”

He shrugged, “Still sorting through the library of books. Most of it is difficult to read due to the age of some of the material. Some references allude to the Dark Lord’s personal written histories during his early reign, and unfortunately, I have yet to stumble across any of them. I imagine they have been either looted by fools or hidden away somewhere in the castle.”

“And Ms. Tepes,” I said with a look towards Eileen, “You said you had concerns?”

“Yes, while renovations of the castle are proceeding well, our general supplies are starting to run low, including food. I doubt I should need to remind you but many of us mere mortals do require food and some basic comforts. Perhaps now would be a good time to open the castle treasury?”

“You should mindful how you speak to our ruler,” said Brutus with a hard look at Eileen.

“She brings up a good point regardless,” countered Timothy.

“My apologies for reminding my Lady of her duties,” said Eileen with a tone of frustration while staring down Brutus as he bristled angrily.

“Very well,” I interrupted loudly, “I will try to address your concerns as soon as possible. However, honestly, I don’t know where the Dark Lord’s old treasury would be.”

“Must be hidden,” muttered Timothy.

I looked over at Veronica where she had sat quietly throughout the brief meeting. She met my eyes, no doubt surmising my thoughts. I should have realized earlier that even with the small number of people that have joined me at the castle that the issue of food and supplies would become a problem. Something I doubt the Dark Lord bothered to concern himself with as is evident by the lack of upkeep around the castle.

“Veronica Elwich,” I mused aloud, “In your honest opinion how do the common people view my supposed ‘rule?’”

“Many are indifferent, and honestly a few are apprehensive that this marks a return to the old days under a new Dark Lord.”

“So there are those who disagree with me coming into power?”

“There will always be objectors,” she voiced.

I glanced down the table in thought.

“The valley needs a strong central leader," argued Brutus, "someone that can-."

I raised a hand to silence him. Rulership was not something I felt I would ever become accustomed to. However, I didn't want to be someone who abandoned responsibility when others need me. The question I needed answered the most is whether I was needed or not?

"To what end?" I asked, "to what end would the valley need a ruler? The meisters have done well in the absence of the Dark Lord, and the people are free."

"A hard question to ask my Lady," replied Veronica. 

"And an unnecessarily stupid one."

The table turned to look at Eileen who had spoken. Brutus was once more agitated at the uncouth outburst.

"Everyone at this table can tell you're uncertain about rulership, and I say tough. You are the master of this castle and by extension ruler of not just this valley but all of the Dark Lord's land. You should have accepted that when you set off to kill this Richten character," Eileen indicated towards Veronica, "now collect your taxes. Pay your servants. Enforce your rule before another fledgling Dark Lord does."

For a moment there was quiet as I digested Eileen's words and came to a decision.

"Very well," I stood, "Veronica, I will discuss the business of taxes with you privately. Brutus find those you can trust to oversee the collection."

"As you wish My Lady."

As I descended into the depths of the castle I tried to dismiss the notion of how I might be out of my league coming into power over an entire realm. I stopped outside a heavy set of wooden doors flanked by two swordsmen who greeted me with twin choruses of, "my Lady."

"Open," I commanded. One of the guards withdrew a sword as the other pulled open the heavy door. The flickering torchlight illuminated the shackled occupants of the room that acted as our temporary dungeon. It was unfortunate that the castle actual dungeon had become flooded.  Until repairs were made and the water cleared Brutus had decided to make use of an old storage room to house our prisoners. 

Someone charged from out of the darkness with a splintered wooden makeshift weapon. I intercepted the attacker by grabbing their wrist with a hiss. My other hand grabbed their throat and lifted the would-be attacker off the ground. 

"Foolish," I muttered. The man's iron shackles clattered as I tossed him back into the depths of the cold dimly lit room. 

"I suggest not doing that again if you want to continue living," I cautioned.

"Release us bitch!" muttered my attacker.

"Cooperate and I might consider it."

The prisoner spat in my direction. I ignored him to consider the three other prisoners held within.

"You," I pointed at the hunched-over figure of a short man, "come with me."

Meekly he rose and approached the door. My would-be attacker kicked out his legs to trip the man as he passed. He stumbled and fell to his hands and knees. Angrily I entered the room to grab the aggressor and toss him out of the cell. 

"Hold him," I ordered the guards, "and take him to my feeding chambers."

"As you will my Lady."

"I hope you choke on my blood! Bitch!"

One of the guards hauled him off while the other secured the door. The prisoner I had wanted to question stood quietly off to the side until I beckoned for him to follow. 

We retraced my steps down the corridor to another room. A warm fire occupied the fireplace and torches along the walls helped illuminate the room in a way that hoped came across as warm and inviting.

Brutus was standing near a corner of the room across from another swordsman. I took a seat at the desk in the middle of the room and indicated for the prisoner to sit across from me. 

"Your name," I requested. 

"It be Calvus, m'lady."

"You have information for us?"

"Yes, m'lady."

I beckoned for him to continue. Nervously Calvus shifted his eyes around the room. 

"I'll be sharing if I be getting your word I'll go free."

"That depends on your information. If it's worth my time to come to visit you, and it's proven accurate you go free. On the other hand, if you try to mislead me I might have to kill you."

Calvus nodded grimly, "I see m'lady. Well, the last I heard, them fellows of Richten's are up in the mountains."

"That's hardly new information," interrupted Brutus.

"Aye," Calvus nervously glanced away towards the fire, "but they be searching."

"Searching for what?" I pressed.

"I don't know," Calvus confessed, "but they're desperate by all accounts."

"Do you know where exactly they're searching?"

"Up yonder beyond the mountain gorge, near to the high stone bridge that crosses the way."

"Very well," I accepted, "take Mr. Calvus back to his cell."

As the swordsman led the prisoner away, I turned to Brutus.

"Your thoughts?"

"Possibly a wild goose chase, or a desperate attempt to bargain his release."

"Desperate doesn't mean wrong," I pointed out. 

"You want us to investigate this?"

"I want it looked into at the very least. If Timothy is right about the revival ritual, we need to hunt down any and all of Richten's followers. We cannot let them bring back the Dark Lord."

"As you wish my Lady," acknowledged Brutus, "I'll find a couple of riders to scout out the area."

"Good," I stood and approached the door, "I feel like hunting any suggestions?"

"There's word of some highwaymen along the main road that leads out of the valley."

"It'll have to work for now."


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