The room was dark. The little light there was came from the soft glow of candles from the writing desk in the corner and the low burning embers of the fireplace. Above the fireplace hung a large tapestry depicting a stern looking man wearing a cloak of wolfskin, with a heavy axe and wild looking beard. The room was stuffy and smelled of dried herbs mixed with mildew. Servants stood close by the bed easing the elderly feeble woman up right so that she could sit.
Brutus and Remus both knelt down next to the bed out of respect for the elderly matriarch. Remus reached out to take her withered hand in his and kissed the back of it. She placed her hand on each of their heads gentle and one by one they stood. A servant stepped forward offering a drink that the old woman waved away.
“Mother, Lady Rhea Castilio, may I introduce the Lady Gwenyth of the Valley, claimant to the Dark Throne, ruler of the Dark Lands,” said Brutus as he gestured to me.
I walked over to the side of the bed as Brutus and Remus both stepped aside.
“So you are the one I hear who has managed to take the throne,” spoke the old woman quietly, her voice rasped like aged parchment, “I suppose I should apologize for not granting you an audience last night when you arrived, but I am disinclined to consider I have to stay up this night for you. I am old as you can plainly see and I need my rest.”
“I do apologize for the inconvenience I have caused you,” I replied, “I have your son to thank for helping me take the throne.”
She chuckled softly, “Like his uncle that one.”
Wearily I glanced over at Brutus who barely acknowledge her words.
“Both of them had a talent for puting themselves next to people of power,” Lady Rhea continued, “almost a family tradition. It's how we came to inherit this land when many others have lost theirs during the Dark Lord’s reign.”
She coughed and one of the servants offered a drink to her that she took. She gingerly drank the cup slowly.
“I am optimistic that with our Lady on the throne things will be better than what they were under the Dark Lord,” voiced Remus.
“A low bar to aim for,” replied the old woman, “still something we can all hope for.”
She put her drink down on the table next to the bed and looked up at me with her old eyes.
“It's enviable,” she continued, “enviable that you will never suffer from old age thanks to your Dark Blessing.”
“Excuse me?” I stammered.
“You might consider your condition a curse,” Lady Rhea said, “or so Brutus tells me. However you have no small amount of power and eternal youth. Truly, I envy you.”
I frowned and bit back the words that came to my mind.
“But listening to the lament of an old dying woman is not why you're here. You want to tie the fate of House Catilio to your own and win the loyalties of some of the other powerful families in and around the reign controlled by the Dark Lord. A daunting task especially for someone who is unsure about ruling.”
“Mother,” interrupted Brutus sternly but stopped when Lady Rhea raised a hand.
“I will speak my mind my son, and perhaps instill some sense into your esteemed liege,” She shifted a bit on the bed before continuing, “You seem like a woman with good intentions and well meaning but in this cold heartless world where might makes right you need to be cunning. Kindness will only get you so far until suddenly everyone takes advantage of you and savage brutality will make far too many enemies to count.”
She paused to take a sip of her drink, “I will give my blessing for this alliance. Brutus be sure to arrange the formalities. Without my brother-in-law, may the bastard never return, you are left as the head of House Castilio and the Lord of the Mountain pass Castle.”
“Thank you, mother.”
“No need to thank me. You’re the one who pulled us all into this mess. Without my blessing the whole family will fall apart. Now if you excuse me I need to go back to sleep, it is certainly very late.”
The servants stepped forward as we departed from the room. In the hall Brutus gave a sigh that seemed to be full of frustration.
Remus however smiled pleasantly, “I think mother really appreciated that.”
“I’m sure she did,” muttered Brutus. He glanced at me and shook his head apologetically, “forgive my mother if she gave any offense. It seems old age has loosened her tongue if anything.”
“I think mother likes you actually,” offered Remus, “shall we make ready our departure? I’m sure the men are ready to ride forth.”
“I’m still concerned about the lack of response from the watchtower since we arrived here,” said Brutus, “Though the messenger might have gotten lost.”
“There’s probably nothing for us to worry about,” I said, “the only thing we can do is gather the men and depart. I am sure after yesterday's full day of resting they should be ready.”
The three of us entered the courtyard full of riders horses and wagons. Some of the men of House Castilio elected to join the expedition adding to our numbers. Brutus stood off by the gatehouse as Remus and I mounted up.
“Well my Lady, everything is all set,” said Remus, as he looked over the gathered crowd of riders and wagons.
“Then let us depart.”
“Open the gates!”
The shout was echoed by the men stationed at the estate’s gate house. Slowly the metal portcullis rose and I urged my horse forward. As we passed, Brutus gave a salute with his fist over his heart and accompanied it with a short bow.
Once we left the grounds of the estate we picked up the pace as we made our way out of the small mountain village towards the main road that led up to Highmount Pass. Ideally we would reach the stone bridge and its watchtower well before the night ended.
Something didn’t seem right as we drew near the lone watch tower that overlooked the stone bridge. There was no light, no torches or fire. No ran one ran out from the tower to greet us at the sound of our approach.
With a frown I considered dismounting to investigate when Remus ordered a few of our men to check the tower. As they dismounted and hurried forward, Remus approached my side.
“Something is off and I can’t put my finger on what, my Lady.”
“It is abandoned,” yelled one of the men that returned from the watchtower, “there are signs of conflict. Blood and broken furniture.”
I looked over at Remus, “What do you think?”
“I’m not sure. I would hazard a guess that the watchtower and the men stationed here where attacked but…”
“Where are the survivors,” I offered.
“I was about to say where are the bodies.”
He dismounted to ask some of the men some questions. I prodded my horse forward and felt something almost tangible in the air that acted like a barrier that I passed through. There was a brief sound of indecipherable words on the wind then eerie silence. The silence more than anything put me on edge. A stillness akin to that of the silence before the onslaught of the storm or the rush of battle.
I dismounted and pulled out my sword.
“My Lady is something wrong?”
“I don’t know,” I replied.
For a moment there was nothing. Then the still silence was broken when a scream pierced through the darkness. I turned to the watchtower intime to see something like a body fall from the top of the tower and hit the ground with a sickening crack.
“What was that?” asked Remus as he hurried next to me while trying to peer through the darkness.
I didn’t get to respond as someone else shouted out from behind us.
Turning to look, I saw the stiff jerky movements of the undead moving in from all sides.
“Swords out,” shouted Remus as he pulled out his blade, “swords out! Repel the attackers!”
Taking the initiative I charged towards the closest undead creature. It awkwardly swiped its decaying hands at me. Meeting the attack with my blade I removed the offending appendage and continued the sweep of my sword to remove its head. The body crumbled to the ground as I moved past to the next attacker.
Around me the sounds of conflict rose to a simmering maelstrom of chaos.
“Keep order and form up in ranks!” Remus shouted over the battle. As I cut down another undead walker I could see Remus had remounted his horse and was attempting to rally the men into formation. After dispatching another lumbering undead, I sprinted over to assist a few of the men that had gotten separated Remus’s formation.
My blade whipped out quickly to removing limbs and heads in short order as I attacked from the flank. As the bodies fell into crumbling heaps I looked over those I had assisted.
“Join up with the others and follow Remus’s orders,” I commanded. They retreated back from my presence. As I scanned our surroundings, I glanced over at the formation Remus was creating was engaging in the largest concentration of the enemy. We had the upper hand in numbers for now.
A worry entered the back of my mind as I considered the thought of whatever had risen these creatures from the brink of death might be nearby. If there were serious casualties among our men, there was a chance our advantage would be turned against us.
Grinding my teeth I charged headlong into the next group of undead men, and began quickly to take them down. We needed to make this a quick victory before things got out of hand.
An echoing horn sounded from across the gorge. Turning to face the source I saw a group of riders thunder across the bridge. For a moment I was worried about facing another attack from our enemies. Worry turned to relief as the riders plowed into the undead horde, cutting them down like wheat before the reaper.
The conflicted ended quickly after that. I wiped my blade off with a rag and sheathed it. The leader of the riders pulled his horse around, a tall lanky man with a thin wispy beard. His eyes darted over the remains of the skirmish before settling on Remus.
“Are you the leader of this group?”
“No,” denied Remus his eyes briefly darting over in my direction. I made my way over towards the two of them.
“Who sent you?”
“We are lead by Lady Gwenyth,” Remus declared, “She has personally chosen to lead this expedition.”
At this the tall man turned his head quickly to survey the entirety of the group around us. As soon as he picked me out of the crowd he dismounted and bowed down before me on one knee.
“Forgive me my Lady and spare my men if our service has displeased you.”
“Rise,” I commanded, “I have no time for pomp or ceremony.”
“As you wish my Lady,” he said rising to his feet, “If it pleases you, I am named Trevor of Vernt.”
“Thank you,” I said, “Your timely arrival was most welcome.”
“If I had known you were coming I would have been here sooner.”
“Perhaps we would have been the ones to save you instead,” commented Remus having dismounted from his own horse.
“We had sent word ahead,” I explained, “What happened to the men that were supposed to be stationed here?”
Vernt glanced back over the area of the skirmish and the tower, “to be honest I wish I knew.”
He kicked the corpse of one of the recently undead creatures we had just fought, “If I had to hazard a guess I would say that these ghouls are the remains of the riders stationed to look over the bridge.”
I put on a frown of annoyance at the thought of his suggestion, “Any way we could verify that? I dislike the idea of our people turning against in their death.”
“That would certainly be disagreeable,” said Remus.
“I will have my men see to it that they identify the bodies.”
I nodded in agreement to the suggestion, then glanced up towards the mountains.
“Do you have any idea where our enemies maybe hiding up there in those mountains?” I asked.
Vernt beckoned one of his men to approach, “We have been mapping as much of the region as possible. We had some luck when we uncovered some old maps from the local village, but even with that its guess work. Still we have an idea.”
The man Vernt had waved over saluted with a fist over the heart, “Sir Vernt.”
“Bring what maps we have into the watchtower and set up a watch.”
“I suggest keeping an eye on the bridge. We don’t want to get attacked again.” offered Remus. Trevor gave him a look.
“I believe that is obvious.”
In response Remus smiled, “Sometimes the obvious is overlooked or forgotten.”
“No need to be clever either,” huffed Trevor as turned to watchtower.
The three of us entered the watchtower and Vernt grabbed an upturned table to set up in the middle of the room. Around us other men and riders entered, placed some stacks of weather worn paper on the table that Vernt started sorting through.
“Remus I want you to arrange our men to assist Sir Vernt’s men,” I requested.
“As you wish, my Lady,” he said with a bow and salute.
“If its no offense to you my Lady but where did you find him?” asked Vernt as soon as Remus disappeared.
“He is Lord Brutus’s brother of house Castilio,” I replied, as I took a seat at the table. Vernt gave a low whistle.
“Elevated to Lord now is he,” he remarked.
“He is the remaining heir to house Castilio, therefore Lord of their holdings.”
Vernt offered a shrug, “I never bothered with noble and house politics. I preferred hunting.”
“Is there a noble house of Vernt?” I asked.
“Yes, but I doubt you would find much of it left so to speak,” Vernt grabbed another chair and sat on it with the back toward the table, allowing him to rest his arms on the top of it while still facing me, “I was more or less kicked out of my family. Still allowed to hold the name so to speak but my parents wanted nothing to do with me.”
He pushed a few of the roughly draw maps across the table over to me and pulled a knife out to point out the land marks.
“We hunted down several encampments of those bloody servants of Richten. We think they met up with some hitherto unknown group of Dark Lord worshipers once they made it to the mountains.”
“Some existing group that operated out of the mountains?” I suggested.
Vernt shrugged, “that the common thought, my Lady. Nothing that we can tangably prove, but I will say that they absolutely despise you.”
I gave a small smile, “Probably because I did help put an end to both the Dark Lord and Richten.”
“Oh, I bet it has everything to do with that little fact, and to add salt to the wound you did come out as the de facto ruler of the valley.”
“Yes and hopefully I will be able to extend my ruler over the rest of the Dark Lord’s lands and bring some stability to the land.”
Vernt took his knife and stab a random bit of fruit from one of overturned crates that were strewn about the room, “I could care less if you make things better or worse. I just want my men to be taken care of the right way.”
He eyed the fruit suspiciously. Vernt must not have found anything wrong with it as he elected to start cutting it open and eating a slice before continuing, “Brutus made his own assurances but I want to make it clear. We are not your play things to be discarded at a whim, or merely eaten when you get hungry.”
I rolled my eyes and snorted, “That's hardly a consideration for me. Lets focus on why I’m here. Do you know where these servants of Richten are operating from?”
“Like I said, we have only managed to narrow it down. Thankfully with the added men you brought it should help speed things along.”
“Excellent,” I commented, “Then tomorrow night I will join you.”
Vernt put his knife and half eaten fruit down, “Excuse me, but this isn’t some holiday for uppity nobles and the night makes it worse, actually let me rephrase that, the night makes it straight up dangerous for the men.”
“I am not some dainty nobleman’s daughter,” I corrected, “and while inconvenient for you I work best under the darkness of night.”
“Hardly a good start to your rulership then if you intend to act like the Dark Lord.”
Angrily I stood and kicked the table over with veniment hiss. My fangs extend as I grabbed Vernt by the front of his shirt and lifted him off the floor. Instantly I could hear the sounds of swords being drawn but no one stepped forward to intervene as I held him there. Vernt’s eyes were wide in surprise and he wisely chose not to say anything.
“Watch your mouth,” I warned before letting go and dropping Vernt to the ground, “I am not the Dark Lord so I would recommend that you not to compare me to him.”
“My humblest apologies,” coughed Vernt darkly. I narrowed my eyes at him before taking my seat back. Looking around the room I could see a mix of my men and his eyeing each other and me. Remus was standing in the doorway with his sword drawn. After a moment he resheathed it and approached.
“Is everything alright?”
“Peachy,” said Vernt. He stabbed another slice of fruit and offered towards Remus, “want a piece?”