The sun rose slowly over the riverside campsite. Gradually people emerged from the wagons and tents to start the morning chores. Kashmir smiled happily as he watched his wife and daughter tend to the cooking fires. It was these simple moments in life that made him happy. To be on the road again made it even better.
With a happy sigh, he placed another log down to split, then swung hard with his ax. After several minutes of work, he managed to build up a decent pile of kindling.
“My little Dorina!”
Kashmir picked up his daughter in a big hug and swept her off her feet. Every day he held her was a reminder of how precious life could be. It was the worst night of his life when the dead had come to slaughter everyone in his camp and sought to steal away everything that was precious to him. The days and nights that followed still haunted him. He was willing to side with a devil to take revenge on the monster that hurt his family.
It was a mercy to be reunited again.
“Mother says the breakfast is ready.”
“Then let us go eat, but first help your papa carry back some of the firewood, eh?”
Dorina rolled her eyes and reached out to pick up some of the split wood. Kashmir smiled warmly as he loaded up an armful.
“I see that you been chasing some boys around lately,” Kashmir teased.
“More like chasing them off.”
“That Cadrin boy is starting to act more mature lately. He seems to be taking a liking to you.”
Dorina only replied with a shake of her head.
The two stopped by the fire close to their wagon and dropped the gathered firewood. Maricica leaned over for a chaste kiss to which Kashmir happily obliged while Dorina joined her cousin Claudia in grabbing food.
Kashmir helped himself to some generous servings of breakfast eggs and bread. Before he had a moment to sit down he was beseeched by someone in the camp to help with a wagon repair. With an apology to his family, he hurried off.
“I am so sorry to have bothered you.”
“It is no bother to me,” assured Kashmir as he joined the group to help lift a wagon with a split wheel.
“One, Two, Three, Lift!”
The group heaved the wagon off the ground and after someone propped up a few logs underneath, they carefully brought it back down.
“Thank you so much.”
“Again, it's no bother.”
Kashmir turned to head back towards his family and the waiting breakfast. As he came around his family’s wagon he was surprised to see a stranger sitting next to their fire. His wife Maricica was offering a drink and food while Dorina and Claudia were taking some of the cooking wear to be washed by the nearby stream.
“Well hello there,” Kashmir greeted.
“Oh, excuse me,” said the man at his approach. He stood up quickly, acting as if Kashmir had caught him in a moment of embarrassment, “I didn’t mean to take your place by the fire but your wife insisted, and.”
“Please I insist it is no worry to me. Take a seat.”
“Thank you, kind sir.”
“Call me Kashmir.”
“Thank you, Kashmir. I have been traveling all night hoping to find my brother. This bit of rest is most welcomed.”
“All travelers are welcome to join my family by the fire,” Kashmir's face suddenly became serious, “Though if you're going to eat my food and wine, you best have something to pay up with.”
The stranger suddenly choked on his mouthful and swallowed quickly. Behind his back Maricica gave her husband a stern look and Kashmir returned it with a mischievous wink.
“I’m sorry all I have is but a few coins to my name.”
“Bah! What use are coins when all I could buy I have here? No, I would rather hear what story you have to tell that would propel you to travel the whole night. All just in the hope of finding your brother.”
“Oh,” said the man, “I see then.”
“Take your time, there’s no rush. I promise there’s more wine the telling is done.”
“I hope my story doesn’t come as too much of a disappointment, as there really is not much to tell.”
“Let's start with your name,” prompted Kashmir.
The man took a long draught from his drink before starting.
“My name is Remus, Remus Castillio. I have been looking for my brother Brutus Castilio.”
Kashmir gave a side glance towards his wife and caught her eye. She gave a small encouraging nod before turning back towards tending the fire.
“Brutus, Brutus,” muttered Kashmir as he stroked his beard as if in thought, “perhaps I might have heard of someone called Brutus.”
“Please if you know of my brother, I need to find him!”
Remus looked up at Kashmir hopefully. In response, Kashmir gave an exaggerated shrug, “If this Brutus is the same as your brother then I might know where he has gone, but still I’m curious to hear the rest of your story.”
“It’s our mother,” Remus glanced down, “the village priest says she doesn’t have much longer.”
“I was told he had joined up with a gypsie camp after our estate was burned down.”
“You're part of a noble family?”
Remus shook his head, “Hardly, the Dark Lord revoked the lands and titles of most everyone who disagreed with him.”
Angrily Remus glanced away, “My uncle was the Baron of a small bit of land up in the mountains. The family castle was charged with defending the mountain pass. He was a supporter of the Dark Lord, much to the disgrace of our family.”
Kashmir offered more wine to the man and commented, “I have learned not to judge a man for his family, only for his choice of friends.”
“It was worse for our family after the Dark Lord fell. Because our uncle soiled our name, we became persecuted by the common people. Brutus had disappeared during that time as well.”
“A tragic story my friend,” Kashmir clasped a hand on Remus’s back, “and a good one. You have certainly earned your food and drink, but let me tell you another tale.”
Kashmir took a draught from his drink and cleared his throat, “When the Dark Lord was defeated, many people were still angry over the injustices and wrongs dealt them during those dark times. Blind in their anger, they accused each other of being allies of the Dark Lord. Soon many tried to flee. Some joined this here camp,” Kashmir waved a hand in the general direction of gypsie folk, “others rallied to a new ruler, one who currently rules from the ruins of the Dark Lord’s castle.”
“Is my brother Brutus a part of your story?”
“Forgive my husband his riddles and games,” interrupted Maricica as Kashmir opened his mouth, “We had a man named Brutus join our camp. However, he opted to stay behind in the valley instead of remaining with us when we left the camp.”
Kashmir gave his wife a sourly look, and she swatted him over the shoulder, “You had your fun, now go fetch your daughter and niece. They should be finished cleaning by now.”
“Of course my love.”
With a cheeky smile, Kashmir stood and took his wife’s hand to kiss the back of it. He started whistling a merry tune as he made his way to the riverside. Behind him, his wife gave assurances to the stranger that shared their fire.
The City of Grace once stood as the last refuge against the Dark Lord. Within its holy walls lay the central foundations of the Goddess of Light’s Holy Church. Many credited the Church as the single driving force to resist the rise of the Dark Lord and to stop his undead armies from spreading far across the land. The High Priestess had given her blessing for the creation of many Holy Orders of Knighthood to combat the ever-looming threat that had once dominated the realm.
It was no surprise to Clarice that as one of the surviving heroes to have defeated the Dark Lord, that High Priestess had sought to grant her a place in the hierarchy of the church. Instead, however, Clarice had declined the offer in favor of returning to her volunteer work at the city hospital.
Today she was outside tending quietly to the garden. It was a peaceful quiet afternoon. Lost in her thoughts, she barely noticed the approach of an elderly man coming up the path.
“The tomatoes look lovely this year.”
Clarice looked up in surprise and smiled warmly.
She stood up and hugged the old man dearly.
“I missed you so much!”
“My dear Clarice I have missed you too.”
“Is the school still trying to have you take on an apprentice?” she asked when she released her hug. The old man frowned and shook his head.
“After the failure of my last apprentice I have turned them all down. I feel I am better off with my studies in private these days.”
“I see,” said Clarice thoughtfully, “Though I am grateful to see you again, I am curious to know what brought you out of your books to see me.”
“News from the valley,” Wildaburn replied, “both good and ill but very curious.”
“Oh? How so?”
Carefully Wildaburn removed a letter from his cloak and held it out. Clarice took the letter in hand and opened it. Her eyes widened in surprise as she gasped.
“It’s Gwenyth! She’s alive!”
“So it would seem,” the old man muttered cryptically, his voice carried a concerned tone, “I took it upon myself to reach out to all our old friends who fought with us. Allen it seems had already made plans to return to the valley with his Knights due to some unsavory rumors that have sprung up, and I haven't found Garith.”
Clarice’s face fell, “Garith had passed away.”
Wildaburn was briefly surprised and nodded solemnly.
“I’m sorry to hear.”
“It's okay,” Clarice said with a sad shake of her head, “He came here after he took sick last winter,” She glanced down, “He didn’t make it.”
A sorrowful silence fell between them that stretched on for more than a moment. Finally the quiet was broken as Wildaburn offered out his hand.
“Let us move on to the business at hand. Gwenyth is alive and from her report, it looks like she is in some spot of trouble. Perhaps it is time for these old bones to go on one last adventure.”
“We can talk about it over tea if you would like,” offered Clarice as she took the old man’s hand.
“Tea would be lovely.”
The two turned down the winding garden path towards the main building of the hospital. Clarice led Wildaburn to her private quarters and busied herself gathering some leaves and a pot while Wildaburn took a seat in one of the available chairs.
“A very humble abode for a young lady,” he commented aloud.
“I don’t mind,” replied Clarice as she put the pot over the stove. She started looking for her fire starter when Wildaburn raised a hand and muttered a few quiet words. A flame leaped to life within the small stone stove.
“Thank you,” Clarice beamed.
“My pleasure to assist.”
Soon the water took to boiling and Clarice poured the tea for both. After taking a seat, they both drank in quiet reflection.
“I miss these moments,” commented Clarice, “the quiet ones where we would sit and drink together.”
“I missed them too.”
“I remember when we tried to talk the others into joining us.”
Wildaburn laughed, “Allen and Garith were too restless to sit down and enjoy.”
“Same with Gwenyth, though she did try.”
“I remember when she had switched your drink of tea for that unusually strong wine.”
A fierce blush blossomed over Clarice’s face as she stammered, “She said it was an accident!”
“I remember,” chuckled the old man, “I think she had gotten tired of our infrequent tea parties and tried to sneak her drink of choice in.”
Clarice shook her head in dismay, “I’m so glad to hear she’s alright. We never did find her after the Dark Lord stole her away. I thought for sure he killed her just to spite us.”
“We all did,” replied Wildaburn, “Even after searching high and low through the castle we never found her.”
“But she’s alive now and that's what matters.”
“Agreeable,” said Wildaburn, “Which is why I was hoping you would join me in returning to the valley.”
“Of course,” Clarice quickly agreed, “I can ask one of my sisters to take over in my absence here at the hospital. What about your commitments to the academy?”
Wildaburn waved a hand dismissively, “I am not too concerned about those old farts. They have put up with my antics and I am sure they will put up with them again once I return. Someone will take over my classes once we depart.”
“When would you want to leave?”
“As soon as possible my dear. Allen I believe has already departed and it might already be too late if we wanted to catch up with him.”
“Very well give me a few days then, to get everything in order.”
The two sat quietly through the rest of the afternoon enjoying their moment of peace and tea.
The sun was barely beginning to set over the high mountains when Allen knelt between the twin burning pyres. He had lost two good men last night. Two men that had surrendered their lives in the fight against the forces of darkness.
“Brother Fyn, if you would speak the last rights,” he commanded.
The man to his left barely hesitated to speak. He spoke the words reverently, commending the souls of the dearly departed to the peaceful embrace of the Goddess, and warding remains from the misuse of evil. Not that there would be much to remain from the offered funeral pyres. An ancient tradition that had developed among many of the Holy Orders that had arisen during the Dark Lord’s terrible reign.
Allen clenched his fist angrily. Cowards. The servants of darkness held nothing but cowardly ambitions in their hearts. Seeking power for vein ambition and to prey upon the defenseless.
As Brother Fyn uttered the end of the last rights Allen stood and turned to face his proud fellow brethren of the Order. He ought to say some words. Something to soothe the pain of the loss they all felt. Instead, he raised his sword.
There was an echoing sound of the rasp of metal as the rest of the knights of the order drew their swords and raised them.
“Ours is the Oath of Vengeance!” he shouted.
“May evil perish!” came the thunderous reply.
Allen sheathed his sword as he looked over his men.
“Mount up!” he commanded and the men stirred into action as they gathered to clean up the makeshift camp they had erected briefly so that they may give service to the lost lives of their fallen comrades. One of them approached Allen. The oldest of their Order.
“Brother Pike,” spoke Allen.
“Brother Allen, you seem more than a little troubled.”
“That I am,” Allen raised his clenched fist, “they shouldn’t have lost their lives.”
“Death comes for us all, Allen. You couldn’t save everyone.”
“Brother Pike you sent me here more than several years ago into this valley with a ragtag group of adventurers to kill the Dark Lord. When he was defeated, this,” Allen pointed to burning flames, “was supposed to have come to an end. Now, rumors rise of multiple claimants to the Dark Throne and each seeming to have inherited a portion of the Dark Lord’s undead curse!”
“They knew the risks Brother Allen, just as we all do,” Pike gave a deep sigh, “It is not wise to hold yourself accountable for every death.”
“No, Brother Pike, I do not hold myself accountable for their deaths,” Allen turned to grab the reins of his horse from his squire, “I hold this Lady of the Valley accountable.”