I awoke to a strange stillness.
Cautiously I pushed opened the lid of the coffin like box I had been using to sleep securely within during the day. An arrangement that had been made in preparation for long journeys from the castle, such as this one. Brutus was the one that had originally proposed the suggestion of sleeping within a coffin aboard a covered wagon during the day. He initially came up with the idea while I had been recovering from the initial attack by the Holy Knight from Allen’s Order. Timothy said the plan was sound after finding some accounts that suggested the Dark Lord had once done the same during his early reign.
It was not lost on me by how much I was uncomfortably mimicking the Dark Lord. A lot of it was out of necessity due largely in part to the curse he had inflicted upon me. Another part of me was becoming worried by how much comparason there was between me him and cautioned against following the Dark Lord’s footsteps too closely.
As I sat up I realized my coffin box had been moved from its usual place in the covered wagon of our convoy and placed within a dark stony room. Standing up, I glanced over the room and spotted a change of clothes, next to my sword. I dismissed the idea that we had been ambushed or captured. None the less I felt on edge.
Quickly I changed clothes and equiped my sword before making for the exit. The heavy door creaked and groaned as I pushed it open.
Two of my riders help open the door the rest of the way then offered a low bow.
“Where are we?”
“In a minor estate of house Castilio.”
I should have realized it sooner. Brutus and Remus had mentioned that we would need to travel past their family’s ancient holdings to reach the mountain pass. We had even agreed to stop to rest and regather our supplies.
“If I may my Lady, the Lady Castillo and her sons are waiting for you. Though if you have the need,” the man coughed awkwardly before continuing, “some servants and prisoners have been made available for you.”
At the thought of the implications he was making my throat started to ache in thirst. Eagerly I nodded.
“I would appreciate the moment to drink,” I replied.
The two riders escorted me further down the long narrow hall and descended down a flight of stairs further in the dungeon of the estate. We stopped just outside another heavy door that looked worn and ancient.
One of the riders pounded his fist against the doorway till someone opened it. A large heavy set man with a stern expression stood in the doorway. He eyed each of us in turn.
“Who are you?” he asked directing his question at me.
“Gwenyth of the Valley.”
The man frowned, “Lady Castillio mentioned I was to make the prisoners available to you. Didn’t expect to see you right as dusk.”
“I am assuming the Lady made mention of my unusual condition?”
“She didn’t say much of anything about nothing.”
I dismissed the idea of smiling politely. Instead I gestured into the room beyond.
“I prefer not having to wait.”
The man continued to frown but stepped aside as I entered flanked by my men on either side. The dungeon was small and cramped. Only three prisoners were inside each huddled up inside their own cell against the far wall. Two men and one woman.
“What are their crimes?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked.”
The large man shrugged and pointed to each one in turn.
“He’s here on an account of murder, him for theft, and she for unfaithfulness.”
“Open his cell,” I said, indicating the first man’s cell while eagerly licking my lips.
I nodded and both my riders moved to flank the cell door as the dungeon keeper removed a set of keys out of his pocket and selected one to open the metal bars. At the sound of the gate opening the prisoner stirred from his sleep and looked up.
Pushing past the dungeon keeper, I entered his cell and stood in the doorway. He looked cold, starved and ill in his soiled torn clothes. I approached and knelt next to him. Wearily he watched me and I heard him mutter faintly, “It wasn’t me.”
“Shh,” I said gently as I reached and touched his check, “I’ll be gentle and you won’t feel a thing.”
“Gentle?” he repeated ever so quietly I doubted anyone else could hear him.
Locking my eyes with his, I willed him to understand, “Ever so gentle.”
He nodded and closed his eyes. My fangs lengthened eagerly as I brushed his matted hair away from his neck. Then leaning in I bit and drank the awaiting blood that I so desperately wanted. The warm gush of liquid revitalized me in ways no other food or drink could. There was a frightened gasp from one of the other prisoners and the dungeon keeper muttered something of a prayer to the Goddess.
With forced effort I refrained from killing the prisoner but he was definitely weakened. I stood turning to dungeon keeper. As he saw the blood dripping from my mouth he took a few frightened uncertain steps back, almost stumbling into one of the riders that accompanied me. Even they looked a bit green from having watched me feed.
“He should still be alive, but I would quickly suggest bring him warm food and drink. If you don’t I doubt he would survive longer beyond tonight.”
The dungeon keeper nodded uncertainly as I exited the cell.
“Now open the next one.”
I emerged onto the main floor with my escort and was greeted by a subdued looking Brutus.
“My Lady, I trust everything is well?”
“Your family’s hospitality is a welcome change compared to what we have had to deal with of late.”
“I am glad you feel that way, my Lady. My mother would ask that you forgive her for not seeing you at this late hour. Our physician has recommended plenty of rest, and I believe my mother has happily taken to the advice.”
“I can understand her feelings on the matter,” I said, “Not everyone lives according to my timeframe.”
“She will be grateful that you are understanding.”
We walked quietly down through the hall in a moment of silence. Brutus seemed to have something on his mind and I let him continue with his thoughts in peace. It was unusual though for Brutus to be so preoccupied with his thoughts, often in the past he has usually been the first to speak on his thoughts on matters at the council meetings. For him to be so withdrawn was curious. Has he been worried about his mother? Or perhaps he had other concerns on his mind, such as the state of his family since his uncle’s death? I wasn’t sure. Neither was I sure on where the rest of his family stood in supporting my new rule.
“Brutus, you said your uncle was the head of the family. Is he still well?”
“We don’t know,” confessed Brutus, “After the Dark Lord fell a revolt rose up against many of the major families that had prospered under his rule, even if they didn’t support him directly. My Uncle’s estates were a major target of revolt and he had disappeared amidst the chaos. It has left our family into disarray and uncertainty,” Brutus stopped to turn to me, “I was with my uncle when castle was overrun. I managed to escape with the gypse Ashton and hide amidst the camp. My plan was to return once the worst was over but...”
“You never had the chance,” I offered. He shook his head.
“No, rather an opportunity came to light.”
I turned to the window and looked out into the dimly lit courtyard. A few servants were tending to the large number of horses that had been brought in by our expedition. Some of our own men were helping with the feeding and cleaning.
“What was this opportunity?”
“A chance or hope to position a new ruler over the valley that could protect me and my family.”
“I see, and how did you pull this off?”
I leaned against the stone cold window seal as I continued to watch the servants and guards mingle throughout the courtyard while I listened to Brutus explain himself. I had a bit of frustration building as considered Brutus’s role in my rise to power.
“I gained your trust, and reached out to some old family allies that would be willing to support me. I managed to convince a few to join us in at least putting down Richten. After he fell, your support grew either with the hope that you would a better ruler or perhaps simply because you are the strongest candidate for rulership.”
“And here I had thought most of these men came from Kashmir’s camp,” I mused bitterly.
“A few yes, but many of the people who serve you are those who had been persecuted either previously by the Dark Lord and by his followers, or the revolting factions that are accusing them of having been supporters of the Dark Lord.”
I clenched my fist, letting a bit of my frustration build as I contemplated the idea that all this responsibility that was being thrusted upon me was largely in part to Brutus’s manipulation. Then with a deep breath, I tried to let go of my frustration. I never intended to become the ruler but I needed to accept the fact that this was slowly becoming my reality. Additionally there was the idea that perhaps I could take advantage of this to help build a better realm and to further ensure that no one like the Dark Lord would ever rise to power again.
“My original plan was for Richten and I to die together in those mines,” I confessed, “I wasn’t going to return.”
Brutus said nothing and I let the silence fall between us. Both of us quietly preoccupied with our own thoughts as we stood there at the window.
“Do you still intend to support me, Brutus?” I asked finally interrupting the silence.
“Yes, my Lady.”
That did not bode well. If his answer was complicated because of political reasoning then I could work with that. I glanced at Brutus from the corner of my eye. If it's complicated because of undisclosed feelings, that might be troublesome. This was something I was going to have to keep an eye out for. Not liking the direction of the conversation I changed the subject.
“How large are your family’s holdings?”
Brutus shrugged, “Currently we are staying at the village home. The main holdings are located further along the road overlooking the highmountain pass leads out of the valley. It’s a small modest castle, but according to my family has been abandoned since the fall of the Dark Lord.”
“What of the highmountain pass?”
“Beyond the main holdings the road splits. The main throughway continues out beyond our family’s lands but the other road climbs up into the mountains. The highmountain pass you are referring to is a stone bridge that crosses over the gorge. My Uncle used to maintain a presence of our men to watch over the bridge. Right now our own riders are using it as a forward outpost to scout the mountain region till we can find where these old supporters of the Dark Lord have disappeared to.”
“I see,” I said, “Do you still plan to remain here with your mother?”
“If that is your wish.”
Annoyed with the lack of a clear answer, I tried to consider how I wanted to move forward. Brutus has thus far been the most militant of my advisors and possibly my most loyal, therefore ideal if not essential for the expedition into the mountains. However, I might be able to secure a stronger alliance if Brutus were to remain here, considering he had already done much in establishing the foundation of rulership.
“Yes,” I finally decided, “Yes, I think you should be here for your mother, and to help strengthen an alliance with the other noble houses.”
“Very well,” Brutus nodded, “I will ensure that their loyalties to the throne and by extension to you are secured. Do you still wish for my brother to join you?”
“I still do,” I replied, “Unless you think there might be an issue.”
“No, I doubt there would be an issue. While Remus maybe inexperienced with leadership, he is a skilled martial man and will protect you.”
“What of your family? Would they be willing to part with him?”
“My mother may prefer he stay, but I believe it would be a good learning experience for him.”
“Am I to become his tutor?” I verbally jabbed.
Brutus offered a rare smile, “hardly, my brother knows how to take care of himself.”
We spoke a bit longer in the corridor of his family’s estate until Brutus excused himself to go rest for the night. I remained at the window for a bit longer before deciding I need to vent some of my pent up apprehension about the expedition and some of my mounting frustration by sparring.
One of the servants directed me towards a small training yard off of the main courtyard. I was surprised to find the small dirt arena in use when I had arrived.
“My lady,” greeted Remus as he straightened at my entry.
“Sorry I didn’t know anyone would be here,” I apologized.
“No need to apologize. If you need privacy I can certainly leave.”
“You can stay,” I replied as Remus made to put up his practice sword, “I could use a sparring partner actually.”
“I see then.”
Remus took up a combat stance across from me and I dismissed my escort to stand by the door.
“I will warn you that I am a bit of an experienced duelist,” Cautioned Remus with a pleasant smile.
“Good,” I acknowledged, “I used to be an adventure so maybe you might offer a challenge.”
Remus only raised an eye before lunging forward. I parried his blade easily and countered with a thrust of my own. A smirk of confidence crossed Remus’s face as he deflected my attack and used the chance to move closer. I responded by side stepping his move.
“You are certainly stronger and more agile than I would have guessed,” acknowledge Remus as he moved forward with another attack, “though you strike me as someone self taught.”
“How can you tell?”
“You use a few well known positions but your style is all over the place. Not to mention some of your attacks while they hit hard and fast are a bit sloppy.”
“I never noticed before.”
“Here allow me to demonstrate a few positions and moves that might better assist you,” said Remus. He disengaged and took a stance next to me. Then had me mimic him as went through a few moves. At first he took it frustratingly slow but gradually had me move faster through the motions.
As I was getting the hang of a few the movements he wanted to show me I couldn’t help but think of when Allen and I had spared during our adventuring days. Allen possessed a more formal training background and had tried to teach me a few things back in those days as well. Though he had favored a sword and shield approach for combat or alternatively employing a heavy sword. I tended to prefer wielding a well balanced single sword.
Once done with the demonstration, Remus and I resumed our duelling match. I wasn’t sure how much time passed as we fought and exchanged blows but I found myself enjoying the moment. I’m not sure how long it lasted before Remus collapsed to the ground in exhaustion.
He was still smiling though he was visibly drenched in sweat.
“My lady, I have to say you never seem to run out of stamina.”
I frowned as I put up my sword, “I know. Another condition of my curse.”
“I’m not sure I would consider inexhaustible energy as a curse. If anything I envy you.”
I wasn’t sure how to reply to that. Remus took a few moments to catch his breath before finally getting back to his feet.
“Well I guess I should get back to oversee the preparation for tomorrow night’s departure,” Remus smiled happily as he saluted with his fist over his heart before leaving.