Today is the day.
When Elora woke that morning, it was from a fitful slumber. Her dreams had been chaotic and filled with nerves aimed directly towards the day ahead. Even in her waking state she couldn't shake off the feeling, and it made her heart seize in her chest and a cold sweat open up upon her brow.
She had laid in bed last night for what seemed like forever, just staring up at the carved canopy of her bed, or tossing and turning this way and that. She had tried with everything in her to put it at the back of her mind, to think of anything else but her impending nuptials. She was sure that if she didn't sleep everyone would be able to see it on her face and the last thing she wanted on her wedding day were black bags under red eyes. That thought hadn't made it any easier to sleep however.
She sighed and looked at the clock that sat next to her bed. It would be few hours yet before one of the maids came in to wake her up and she knew that there was little to no chance of getting more rest, so she rose from her bed, her silk nightgown clinging to her body because of her nervous sweat.
She had dreamed about this day since she was a little girl. After all, what woman didn't? This was the day that she would become a wife and Smith in full. The thought terrified her. What didn't though, was the man she was meant to marry. No, that thought didn't even cross her mind.
Duke Cellus, Lord of Sind and Royal Protector of the Princess was someone she had known since she was just a child. They had grown up together, played together and, eventually, fallen in love together. Their marriage had been arranged when they were newborns. The Duke and Duchess of Sind had agreed to the proposal set forth by Elora's mother and father nearly seventeen years ago. As a result, a mere four years after his birth, Cellus had been carted off to Myrin, to live in the Royal Palace and begin his training to become Royal Protector and, eventually, a Knight.
Even after the deaths of both his parents, Cellus had remained at Elora's side. He had inherited the title of Duke, but it was a title to a city that he didn't remember. Both his parents had been interred in Sind, but he didn't even go to their funeral. Believing that it would mean him being too long away from her side, no matter how much she argued with him about it.
A small, sad smile crossed her face as she thought of that. She remembered screaming at him in one of the great dining halls one evening as both her parents looked on at a loss. She had apologised profusely the next day, as had he. His reasons for not returning were founded; he hadn't had the same experiences she had with her own parents. In fact, he barely knew his mother and father, only seeing them during public holidays because of their duties in Sind keeping them away. That irked her as well, knowing that she was the reason that he didn't have more time to spend with them. She swore that when she had children she would never do something like that, she would never send them away or sell them off like trinkets to be used in some political game.
Of course, she would be having children with Cellus, so maybe he thought... differently...
The thought of just how they would make those children caused her face to turn a deep red and she jumped back onto the bed, giggling foolishly and burying her face into the pillows. She thanked the Great Spirit that no one could see her right now. She was supposed to convey confidence and nobility with every stride, not appear to be a common girl excited to marry the man that she had loved since she was little girl.
The thought of the activities they would have to perform as a married couple had never been far from the Princess' mind these past few months and she found herself longing for it more and more as the time passed.
As theirs was an arranged marriage, and her mother knew what teenagers were like, she had endeavoured to never let the two be alone together. In fact, she hadn't been allowed to spend time alone with Cellus since she was very young. Nowadays, a maid or guard or someone would be around to make sure the two kept their hands to themselves. Spirit, she hadn't even been allowed to kiss him, restricted to receiving a peck on the cheek and nothing more. After today, that would no longer be a problem.
She cackled madly into her pillow and began to smash her head into the softness, a wild grin on her face. Yes, today was the day. She couldn't be more excited to find out what married life would be like. He was her champion, her Knight, and together they would rule the Kingdom and go into battle together and have babies and...
“Your Royal Highness? Are you awake?”
Elora nearly choked as she jumped to her feet in a rush, looking around as if to find something to hide behind. She cringed in embarrassment, remembering that she was supposed to be a Princess, that she was supposed to represent the Crown in the absence of her mother and father. It was hard sometimes, especially on days like today. She wasn't surprised that there was a guard posted at her door: there was every other night.
From the sound of the voice it was Embla on the other side of the door. She was a nice enough girl, though a bit formal. She sparred with Cellus on occasion when they sat in the Gardens together and her future husband had informed her that Embla was a force of nature with that sword of hers. Elora never had much of a mind for such things. Something which annoyed her father to no end as he had been the one responsible for teaching his daughter how to be a proper Smith. She had never liked the sight of blood despite her earlier assertion of going into battle while Bonded with Cellus. Her knowledge was based off the fantasy of war, not it's grim reality.
Embla, like all members of her personal guard, was female, as it had been for every female member of the Royal Family since the founding of the Kingdom. Elora wasn't quite sure why that was, maybe to keep temptation as far from her as possible? Not that it mattered now, she only had eyes for Cellus.
“Sorry if I disturbed you, Embla. I couldn't really sleep.” The Princess shouted through the door as she picked up a dressing gown and put it on.
“I'm not surprised, your Royal Highness. I could hear through the door. It sounded like you were having a nightmare.” Embla said, trying to be supportive but failing spectacularly. She was the stiffest and most formal woman on her guard. Of course, that didn't effect her ability to carry out her duty admirably, though Elora often thought it would be better to have someone she could actually talk to without it immediately becoming awkward.
“Lady Vera said that this might happen. She asked if you awakened early to go her rooms. I believe she has something to discuss with you before the ceremony. Should I call for the honour guard, your Royal Highness?”
Elora rolled her eyes. Embla hadn't even considered that she might not want to go and see the First Knight and instead stay in her rooms. Since the problems that had arisen on the border with Dunhold, the King and Queen had been on campaign, trying to put down the invasion before it could truly begin. Worse, they apparently wouldn't make it back in time for the wedding, though Elora had been told that they were trying their hardest to do so.
Dunhold had tried to invade a dozen times in the last hundred years. Why must they choose now of all times to do so again? She had said as much to her parents, all but stamping her foot in complaint of the idiot who ruled the smaller Kingdom to the west.
She had read a few of the demands put forth by Grand King Felman, first of which had been the unconditional surrender of the Kingdom of Venos, as well as six thousand heads of cattle. As the list went down, the list of demands had grown even more strange, one of which required all men over the age of thirty to be castrated. She had also been a demand, put at the very bottom of the list. She was supposed to become a bride of the Grand King's son, Felman the thirteenth. Everyone had laughed at that. She had met Felman the thirteenth once, about four years ago. He had been a weak waif of a man with a sickly pallor and ruddy brown eyes. There were rumours abound that he was the result of an incestuous union between his father and one of his many wives/sisters. Nothing could be confirmed, of course, as the previous King, Felman the Eleventh, hadn't been one to keep records of how many children he had.
Even the title of Grand King was a farce. Something that Felman had given himself upon reaching the throne. A declaration to the world at large that he was the greatest King since the first of his name and that he would one day rule the entire continent and then the world. If only the man wasn't an idiot, he might have been onto something. The only reason he was any sort of threat was because of the Knights under his command. He boasted a large host of powerful warriors who were no doubt feeling quite disenfranchised with their monarch. Sad to say that blood trumps all, however. They were honour bound to serve the throne and would carry out Felman's orders, no matter how insane they may be.
Elora's mother and father were obligated to repel the invasion. For as ridiculous as the King was, the hordes he commanded were no jest. They had already been gone for some months now and would be unlikely to return today, as much as Elora wished that be the case.
In the absence of her mother, Queen Gida, Elora was continuing her training with Vera's sister and Smith, Lady Annabelle, as well as with Vera herself.
She had thought her father was a tough teacher, but he was nothing before Lady Annabelle. The woman had been a Smith for nearly twenty years and was a master of the craft. Despite her achievements as the Smith to the greatest Knight in the Kingdom, she had only been acknowledged as a Master Smith last year, travelling to the Empire of Ingemar to stand before the Masters who presided in the Hall of Tyra.
All Knights and Smiths, no matter their rank in Nobility, bowed before the wisdom and authority of the Masters of Tyra. Despite residing deep in the vast reaches of the Ingemar Empire, the Emperor had no authority over them and they were to be considered neutral in all matters of state. No one dared to offend the men and women who ruled there, for they were the ones who taught Smiths and Knights how to fully control and best utilize their powers.
Elora and Cellus would be heading to the Hall one week after their wedding. The journey would be long and arduous, taking many weeks to cross the harsh terrain that surrounded the Hall and that wasn't counting the time it would take to reach even that far.
Elora had argued for staying in the Kingdom and just letting her mother and father teach her the ways of the Smith. She had been harshly shot down. Some truths could only be learned from the Masters and the journey itself was training of a sort.
The journey, she was told, was something of a pilgrimage and as such must be undertaken alone. It would only be her and Cellus and a small entourage for months of travel. Something which she wasn't against, though even knowing him as well as she did, she didn't like the idea of being filthy from sleeping on the ground in front of the man that she loved.
Elora had been confused at first as to why Lady Vera and Lady Annabelle would be left behind at all. They were the most powerful Bonded pair in the Kingdom and were a large reason that other Kingdoms had such respect for Venos in the first place. But Vera had been told to remain behind at the behest of the Queen. While the Monarchs turning up to deal with the threat of Dunhold personally was a requirement because of it's nature, Lady Vera and Annabelle would be better served holding down the fort in Myrin. Their very presence would prevent anything untoward happening in the event of some kind of attack, plus they were the only Knight and Smith that Elora's mother and father approved of to continue her training in their absence.
“No need for the honour guard, Embla. It's early and I'm sure they have a long day ahead of them. Just you will be sufficient.” Elora quipped, somewhat thoughtlessly.
She had never liked being told how to live her life. Unfortunately, that was a requirement for being born into the Royal family. It was rare that Elora was to make any decision regarding how she spent her time. There was always a function or ball of some kind to attend to, where she would have to smile, shake hands and look charmed by all the insufferable sycophants that made up a rather vast majority of Venosian Nobility. Even her wedding was taken almost completely out of her hands. Her sole decision being the colour of her dress and even that had seemed to only have one answer.
She reasoned that was partially why she had enjoyed working in the orphanage in the Commons as much as she did. She was almost glad that Delithia had nearly been run over by her carriage, as horrible as it may have been. Not only had it caused a delay for her meeting with Count Hugo the younger, a pompous toad with far too great a sense of his self worth, but it had also let her meet and speak with Sister Erin, a wise and mature woman with a sense of grace that few Nobles would be able to replicate.
She had told the Sister to expect help in a week after she had explained her circumstances but things were far from that easy. She had to beg and plead with her parents to allow her this one small project and even when she had convinced them, it wasn't the plight of the children that had moved them but how good it would look for her to be seen helping the peasantry.
She loved her parents but sometimes their political minds overcame their common sense. She could only hope that she wouldn't one day end up like them.
Her time there had been joyous. The children were adorable, especially little Delithia who she had invited to be her flower girl. That had resulted in another argument with her parents which she had won over by a hair by appealing to how well it would play off to the peasantry. She never told them about having the Sister and the other kids on stage, worrying about that for weeks before realising that it didn't matter. They would be there and that was final. It was a political marriage but still a marriage and she wanted her new friends there with her. She had so few friends as it was.
As she finished dressing she thought of the events of yesterday. Cellus leading Delithia into the palace had been a sight to see. The poor girl didn't know where to look and her eyes seemed to have glazed over in amazement. Seeing her in her dress had been almost too adorable to the Princess and she had almost refused the girl when she asked if she could take it off. Her bridesmaids were equally enamoured with the girl, from her blonde curls to her bright eyes. Elora may be the star today, but yesterday was for Delithia. It was made all the more intriguing to learn from Cellus that it was her brother who had dropped her off, Delithia wanting him to walk her to the palace.
Orin. The name had come up quite a bit when speaking with the Sister and the kids. Well, more the children to be fair. The Sister didn't like talking about Orin much, he was one of the first kids she had brought into the orphanage, Elora had heard, and he spent much of his time trying to make all their lives easier, even taking the risk of becoming a mercenary.
She had asked Cellus about him during a private dinner last night. Well, as private as it can be with six guards and an army of maids ready to serve their every whim.
“Dangerous, that one.” Cellus had said between bites. “Reminded me of your mother in a way.”
Elora had nearly spluttered wine on her dress at that comparison.
“Really?! In what way?”
Cellus shrugged. “Like he'd seen some trouble. Even while speaking with me, his hand never left his sword and when the gates opened he stepped further in front of Delithia, as though to protect her.”
“Well he is a mercenary, my love. I suppose that's just a result of the life he led. Oh, should we invite him up on stage with the Sister?”
Cellus immediately shook his head. “I asked Delithia and she said he wouldn't do it. He doesn't seem the type to stand on ceremony. She said that he would be in the crowd though, to see her in her new dress,” Cellus smiled. “I know I've said this before, but I'm glad you pushed to help them with your parents. They are good people.”
She smiled at his praise and blushed prettily. “So am I.”
Elora finished dressing and stopped for a second to take stock of herself in the mirror. She was always told she how beautiful she was, but she couldn't see it. In her mind she was still just a gangly teenager with blonde hair and eyes that were almost a bright sunset orange, a gift she had inherited from her mother. She had only just turned sixteen and she had yet to fill out completely yet. That's what her mother said anyway and as she examined her chest she couldn't help but feel doubtful.
The reason for her restless sleep was for just such a reason. What if Cellus was repelled by her during their first night together? What if she wasn't a good enough wife? What if she let him down as a Smith and held him back? It was these doubts and more that kept her awake. Cellus was perfect in every way and would no doubt make an exceptional Knight. His family had a long line of Knight's in their ancestry. One of their more prolific members had even served as First Knight some two hundred years ago. That Knight, and all others before and after, had the Bond Gift of Fire. A powerful ability that would help her in her Smithing to no end. She just hoped she was prepared enough and, not for the first time, she despaired in all the moments she hadn't been listening when her father was trying to instruct her. It's the main reason she hadn't just decided to reject going and seeing Lady Vera outright. She needed all the help she could get right now.
She walked out the door with aplomb and stopped to accept the salute from Embla whose face, as ever, remained stoic and without emotion.
“Let us be off then, Embla. I have a very big day today and I want to get started as soon as possible.” Elora said gracefully, her hands laid delicately across her front.
Embla nodded stiffly and turned on the heel, making her way down the hall and leading her Princess towards the quarters that held Lady Vera and Lady Annabelle, the First Knight and Smith of the Venosian Kingdom.
Elora had never been too fond of this place. While the palace was her home, it was also her whole world and it was rare that she got out to do anything outside it without approval from her family, never mind leaving Myrin itself. She was resigned to reading about the wide world beyond the walls of the Kingdom's capital and she found herself envious of people in the commons, or even those of lesser Nobility. At a moments notice they could pack up and travel to wherever they wanted to the Spirit with the consequences.
The halls, tapestries and staircases carved from wood imported from the Yelesi Republic all faded into the background of her mind as nausea threatened to overtake her once again.
It will be fine. These words she repeated inside her mind like a mantra, hoping beyond all hope that they take root inside her troubled soul. She needed clarity today and she would be inconsolable if even the slightest thing went wrong. She had been waiting to marry Cellus since she was six and she understood the concept, she would not cause problems that didn't need to be problems in the first place.
Elora was so lost in her own thoughts that she nearly walked right past the door leading to Vera's quarters and it was only a small clearing of the throat from Embla that caused her further embarrassment. She nodded thankfully to her guardian and knocked daintily on the door. Hearing the brisk reply of the First Knight almost immediately.
“I'll wait here for you, your Royal Highness.” Embla declared immediately and moved to stand to the right side of the door frame.
Elora rolled her eyes. “You don't have to do that, Embla. I'm quite safe with Lady Vera and I doubt you've had much sleep over the past few days. Why not get something to eat and some rest. I can call for another guard if needed.”
Embla stared for a few seconds, as if looking for some kind of trap before narrowing her eyes. “I'll stay here.”
It took Elora all she could not to simply explode with rage. This guard was impossible!
Gritting her teeth, Elora walked through the First Knight's door and closed it sharply behind her. Perhaps more than she should have, considering Embla was standing right there. Spirit, why did they all believe that she was just going to run straight to Cellus' room as soon as there was no watcher in sight? She didn't have that little self control.
Or perhaps she did.
“Ah, Princess, I had a feeling that I would be seeing you early. I prepared some tea.” came a voice from further in the room.
Elora huffed and immediately walked over to a small table, all but throwing herself into one of the chairs in a silent rage against the injustice of it all, staring out of the window into the darkened gardens with a scowl on her face, something that even the sun rising over the royal gardens could do little to alleviate.
Elora finally turned to face her interrogator and was yet again reminded of how painfully plain she was, even in her own palace.
The Lady Vera was a warrior, born and bred. Her hair was pulled back in a tail as it usually was and it shone white in the darkened light. Her eyes were ice blue, light and hard, twin flints that struck a cord of power and strength, but also humour. Her skin was pale, like fresh milk and she had a figure that would have men throwing themselves at her feet in droves if she just wasn't so utterly unapproachable. She was the most powerful Knight in the Kingdom. There were very few men who could live up to her vast expectations, so she remained unmarried. Though once she had famously said that any Knight who bested her in combat would be allowed to take her hand in marriage, regardless of family or position. There had been quite a few takers yet she remained a free agent, another testament to her incredible power.
“Tough would be one way to put it. I couldn't sleep and even when I did, I had nightmares. I'm a mess,” Elora started and found that she couldn't stop. “I still have to arrange carriages, make sure the cake is delivered, see about the quartet and make sure my guests arrive on time. That's just the wedding, never mind the Bonding!” As she spoke, Elora sank further and further into her chair.
Vera took a seat opposite her Princess and raised a pearly white eyebrow.
“You need to handle all that? I'm sure the servants will suffice. For the wedding, not the Bonding.”
Elora glared at her teacher. “I'm sure they will but I want to handle all of it. So much of this wedding has been taken away from me already. I'd like to be able to at least implement some of the things that have been decided without my consent.”
Vera sighed. “There is a reason we do things this way. The Prince or Princess marries and Bonds with their Knight. That's how it works, how it has always worked, since this Kingdom's founding. That process has become more streamlined through the years. Others handle the wedding and you are supposed to focus on the actual Bonding itself which, for your information, is the important part of the ceremony.”
“The wedding's just as important.” Elora stated stubbornly.
“No, it is not.” Vera shook her head patiently. “Bonding with a new partner can cause any kind of a million different outcomes. Problems have occurred during Bondings before and they've not always been pretty. For example, nearly two hundred years ago during a royal Bonding, both Knight and Smith died because they were poorly prepared for what was to come and in the ensuing chaos of their souls melding, they rejected each other.”
“I've read that story as well, Vera. You know as well as I that that was because they didn't know each other nearly as long as Cellus and I. Plus, the Smith wasn't from the royal family.”
“Yes, but the Knight was. Just because you are royalty, Elora, does not mean you are immune to these effects.”
Elora ran her hands over her eyes in defeat. She knew she would lose that one, but she wanted to try anyway, for old times sake, considering the fact that she wouldn't have Vera and Annabelle as her teachers for much longer. She knew that Vera was talking sense, of course. It was the same lesson her father had tried to drill into her as much as possible, as her mother had done to Cellus. Just spending time with each other wasn't enough. They needed to understand each other.
“I know, I know. If it makes you feel any better, I'm not worried about the Bonding itself. Far from it. Cellus and I have been basically attached at the hip since we were kids. I think the Bond will go smoothly.” Elora said stiltedly, unsure of how to broach this topic with the First Knight.
“Then what are you most worried about? Hold nothing back now, I've been exactly where you are right now and I might be able to help.”
Elora snorted. “Yeah, but it was your sister, not your future husband.”
Vera laughed. “True enough. Though I had difficulties even with Annabelle, I assure you. Siblings get on each others nerves at the best of times, but Bonded?” Vera shivered. “It was definitely an experience.”
Elora giggled, feeling better immediately. Vera always had a way of piercing through her shell. Unlike her sister who in some ways embodied the ice the First Knight was known for better than her Bonded ever could.
“I'm sorry, Vera,” Elora sighed. “I'm just so... confused right now. I want this wedding and Bonding with everything in my heart and soul, but I'm afraid that I'll be worthless as both a wife and a Smith.”
Vera reached over the table and gently stroked the Princess' hair.”There's nothing wrong with feeling like that, little Elora. It would be strange if you didn't feel that way. This is going to change your life and not always for the better. I'm sure there will be times that you'll second guess yourself but you must remember to trust in your Bonded, as he will trust in you. If I wished I had any advice before Annabelle and I Bonded, it would have been that. I have high hopes for both of you. I know you don't see it, but I see you surpassing even Annabelle in power, and that Duke of yours is no slouch either. I best watch my back, you'll be after my position before long.”
Elora chuckled again, her eyes glistening with tears that she absently wiped away with the sleeve of her dress.
“How did you know I would be awake at this hour, anyway? The sun isn't even up yet.”
Vera shrugged. “I was the same way during my Bonding. I couldn't sleep, couldn't think straight. I was binding myself to another person for the rest of my life. Never mind that it was my sister, I was terrified.”
“You? Terrified? I don't see it,” Elora meant her words. She had seen Vera train with Cellus and she made the prodigal swordsman look like a child next to her.
Vera laughed loudly and poured some tea in Elora's cup. “I know it sounds unlikely considering all the dangers that Annabelle and I have faced over the years, but yes. One day I'm sure you'll be having this very same talk with your son or daughter and you'll remember this old woman's words.”
Elora frowned sarcastically. “You're not that old, Vera, and you know it.”
Vera smiled sadly, an expression that Elora could not even begin to decipher, so instead the two sat in silence and stared at the now rising sun, setting fire to the immaculately placed flowers and tree's of the royal gardens.
Elora had loved these flowers once, but now they were a symbol of her captivity. Her need to grow beyond the walls of the palace and Myrin itself was an almost physical force within her chest. It was getting worse the closer she got to the day when she could finally set out for the Hall with her love to learn their new craft.
“Do you think we could put off the wedding, until mother and father arrive?” Elora asked suddenly, surprising even herself. She wanted this wedding, she wanted the Bonding, but the thought of doing it all without her parents left a sour taste in her mouth. She cursed Felman again within the privacy of her mind. Her father was supposed to give her hand to Cellus', that was what tradition dictated.
Vera shook her head hesitantly. “No, unfortunately. If I could allow such a thing, I would, in a heartbeat. I know how much being here meant to the King and Queen. But the Hall only accepts a certain number of pairs every year and to wait another year would just make both of you weaker without instruction, Bonded or not. We're cutting it close with setting the date for today. I'm even tempted to not even giving you the week to enjoy your new married lifestyle.”
“No! Please! We need this.” Elora all but cried out, her eyes alight with desperation, seeing the serious expression etched into Vera's face.
“I'm allowing it, but you will be training, that is a guarantee. There is much I cannot share with you because of the Accords with the Hall but at the very least we can help you and your paramour to adjust to your new circumstances.”
Elora breathed a sigh of relief and raised the cup of tea shakily to her lips and taking a steadying sip. She and Cellus had been talking about their 'week off' as he put it, for months now and they were both excited to spent every minute with each other. Alone if possible.
“How goes your exercises, anything come to mind?” Vera asked the question casually, but Elora knew that tone and immediately straightened in her chair, inwardly cringing as she did so. It seems that even her wedding day wasn't an excuse to not train.
“I'm trying, but it's getting harder and harder the closer we get to the Bonding. I'm finding it difficult to focus on anything else. Envisioning a Weapon for Cellus is exhausting.”
Vera nodded knowingly. “Annabelle said this would happen. It took her until a couple of weeks after our Bonding before she was happy with her creation.”
“How did she know that it was the right one?” Elora asked with a frown.
Vera shrugged. “She just said that she felt it. A resonance of some kind with her soul and my own. Remember, we weren't expecting you to go in there with a fully formed Weapon in mind. You can sense Cellus' soul at the moment because of your abilities, but it takes the Bonding itself to understand that soul fully. The hope of these exercises is to help you when you eventually build your own Forge.”
Elora nodded placidly. “I know, I just hope its a good one.”
“I know it will be, I've seen some of those doodles you have in your room. You're quite the artist, aren't you?”
Elora flushed with embarrassment. “You saw them? How!? I have them hidden away!”
Vera laughed. “Hidden under your bed? Not the best of places to hide anything, my Princess. Also, underneath the drawings of swords I found some rather illicit sketches of Cellus-”
Elora pounced across the table and clamped her hand over the mouth of the First Knight, causing Lady Vera to laugh even louder.
* * *
Two weeks earlier...
Night had fallen over Myrin when the man entered through the city's north gate. The guards paid him no mind, merely giving him and his mule a cursory glance before nodding towards the wide open portal to the Commons. He had arrived just in time in seemed, the gates would close soon enough to stave off the horrors of the night and anyone caught outside in the fields surrounding the city would be forced to fend for themselves until morning arrived with the coming sun.
The man smiled faintly under his mop of dark brown hair, haphazardly sticking in a dozen different directions. He had the look of a common field worker to him. His boots and clothes were dusty and stained in a number of places and the addition of the limp he had added to his gait had helped sell the deception. He had purposely spilled ale onto his clothes, a foul brand favoured by the common folk for it's strength and affordability. He exuded the aura of a broken and battered commoner, returning home after a long day of toil, wanting nothing more than a stiff drink and warm body to wile his night away.
He waited until he was deeper inside the city before letting go of the mules reins and leaving it behind, his stride straightening as he did so. He cared nothing for the animal and had taken it from it's previous owner for the sake of convenience. The owner himself would not come looking for the creature, nor would he report the theft to the guard. At this very moment he lay in a shallow grave about a mile outside the city, throat slit from ear to ear and a grim look of terror etched onto his sunken face.
The man walked through the familiar streets with a purpose that belied his appearance and didn't stop once, his focus being entirely on the destination that he had been given in the letter he had received some months before. He was careful to keep his muddy face aimed at the ground however. While he could disguise many aspects of his appearance, his eyes were not one of them. Thankfully, the guards didn't look twice at a member of the peasantry staring at the ground. It was their rightful place to bow before their betters, after all.
After a swift and, thankfully, uninterrupted journey to the tavern that was the meeting point he allowed himself one small sigh of relief, releasing the tension he had felt on his journey from the east.
He couldn't remember how long he had been planning this particular venture. It felt like untold years and looking back on all the planning, subterfuge and strokes of luck involved, he could only assume that was truth. He needed only one more piece for his plan to come to fruition, for him to reap the untold rewards for completing this last simple task.
Of course, in his line of work, simple was anything but.
The tavern was called the Cat and Dog and it was hardly what one would call an upscale establishment. The man had to stop himself from sneering at the dilapidated building, with it's boarded up windows, foul colour and the scent of shit that seemed to waft off it in waves. But how pretty the tavern was had nothing to do with the purpose it would serve tonight. Unfortunately, the man would be spending quite some time here for the next couple of weeks, but it was a price he was willing to pay. He was so close to the end now that he could taste it.
He trotted inside the tavern and immediately walked over to the bar. Ignoring the rowdy peasants as they jumped around, drinking from mugs containing the same foul smelling ale that stained the man clothes and tried to find a little joy in their purposeless lives.
It was all the man could do to stop himself from killing them right then and there. If they knew who he was, they would prostrate themselves before him, offering their lives if it meant getting even a little closer to his unfathomable power.
He stopped in front of the dirty inn-keep and slammed a coin down onto the bar, causing the man to jump and curse, turning on the newcomer with a wary look in his eyes. It was when he saw what was etched on the coin that he came to a stop, his eyes and jaw falling open. He quickly managed to his hide his surprise and quickly scooped the coin up from it's place on the bar top, his eyes scanning the room as if to make sure nobody saw.
The man sighed and tapped a finger against the bar impatiently. This inn-keep was a terrible agent, he would be eaten alive if he were thrust into the service. No doubt he enjoyed this favour for his betters, however. After all, a dog was always thankful when you gave him the scraps.
“Right this way, sir.” The innkeeper whispered loudly and walked towards a door that was off to the side of the door, half hidden behind crates and baskets.
He pulled a key from a bundle on his belt and immediately opened the door that led to a staircase heading down into the earth's bowels.
The man followed the disgusting peasant down the creaking and half rotted staircase, almost amazed that he reached the bottom in one piece. If nothing else, it spared him from the nauseating smell and noise that so dominated the tavern above. At the very least the howling commoners would make sure that no one overheard what happened down here.
The stairs led to a room that was dimly lit by candlelight. A table had been set up in the centre of the small room, with six chairs surrounding it. Large pillars of stone rose from the ground intermittently around the room, no doubt to support the weight of the tavern above. The man was surprised, and pleased, to find that five of the chairs were occupied and that he was the last to arrive. As it should be.
He dismissed the man with a glance and he walked over to the chair they had left for him at the head of the table, taking a seat without a word. Four of the five men were definitely commoners. The stink rising from their bodies was enough to give that fact away. They could almost be interchangeable, such was the nature of their appearances. Each had tattoos of various kinds of animals on their upper and lower arms. The sleeves of two of the men's tunics ripped and torn from their holdings to show their art. One was even shirtless, showcasing his large frame and winding tattoos that moved across his entire upper half, ending at his neck.
“Bout time you got here, asshole. We've been here for hours.” The man sitting on his left said. This man had a serpent crawling up his left arm and his weedy frame, large nose and wispy hair caused the newcomer to almost be overcome by another wave of nausea.
“My apologies, Grimbol. I had some unforeseen complications.” The man replied with as much politeness as he could warrant. As much as treating this common filth as an equal caused him pain, he needed their services for what was to come.
Grimbol spat on the ground and leaned back in his chair, causing the man sitting on the serpents left to laugh.
“Trying to act tough, Grimbol? You Snakes are about as strong as mice.” This man was larger than Grimbol, though not as much as the shirtless man. His tattoos seemed to be almost entirely made up of bulls of varied size, running up and down his arms. His hair was long and dirty, tied back loosely with a piece of string. Unlike the other men at the table, he was the only one carrying visible weapons. Two hatchets tucked into the rope belt of his dirty tunic.
Grimbol turned on the man with a sneer. “Shut your ass up, Brant. If this here wasn't neutral ground, I'd carve you up like a fucking roast.”
Brant snorted but said nothing and leaned back in his chair with a smile on his face, basking in the hatred that his long time enemy felt for him.
“But this is neutral ground, Grimbol, and you will respect it.” This time the words came from the shirtless man who sat straight in his chair. This one was dangerous, to be sure. He looked like a thug but unlike the other two one could sense a keen intellect behind his frosty glare. Something that his bald head, muscular frame and tattoos did not suggest.
The man nodded his head in greeting. “Well said, Destin. I thank you all for coming here today.”
Destin grunted in response. “I said I'd respect the agreement we have, but I'm in the dark like everyone else here. So tell us, stranger, what is it that you want from us?”
The man smiled and rose from his chair, as if to look down on all those seated.
“I have contacted you all for one purpose and one purpose alone. The kidnapping of the Princess Elora.”
For a moment, silence fell upon the five men, before they all exploded with laughter. Well, four of the men. One remained silent. This man was huge compared to the others, so much so that he dwarfed even the shirtless Destin. He was wrapped in a cloak with a hood so deep that his face could not be seen. This was no doubt by design.
“Why don't we steal the palace itself while we're at it.” The last man snickered along with the others and the stranger took the time to focus on him.
He was young, younger than anyone else at the table. The man would put his age at around eighteen. He had only one tattoo on his arm, one of a ravenous dog with a gaping maw and a cascade of black hair that fell around his shoulders. His eyes were dark, almost black in the dim light of the room and the hilt of a large dagger could be seen poking up from his belt.
“I remember inviting four guests to these proceedings. I see the men I invited. So who are you, boy?”
The kid raised a cocky eyebrow and leaned back in his chair, nodding towards Destin as if that was an answer. The big man confirmed that the boy was with him when he clapped a large hand on his shoulder.
“This here is my prodigy! I'm teaching him the ins and outs of the business, so he stays.” Destin made it clear that he would broke no argument from any of the men present and the stranger had choke up a scathing reply, his hands fastening to the back of the chair he was leaning on in anger.
“Can he be trusted? I'm sure you understand that I would rather no word of our discussion here reached the light of day.”
Destin waved a hand dismissively. “Yeah, yeah. He can be trusted. Pater here is going to be a big part of my business going forward. No doubt he'll cause a lot of trouble for my two compatriots over there, so I wanted to introduce them.” Destin grinned nastily.
Grimbol and Brant glared at Destin and his apprentice, their eyes promising death and destruction.
“Enough,” The stranger said loudly. “I know what I'm asking sounds ridiculous, but it can be done. I assure you. The only problem will be that we'll have to act quickly if you wish to pull it off.
“I don't know if we want to pull it off.” snapped Grimbol. “I'm sure it can be done, but what could we possibly get out of it? It's suicide with the First Knight in the palace and even if we did succeed the guard would tear us apart in retaliation. No amount of money in the world will convince officials to get off our backs.”
The stranger smiled. “That is exactly why you three, and your men, will have nothing to do with the kidnapping itself. I merely need you to make as much noise as possible, draw as many of the guard as you can to your respective territories.”
The three leaders grunted and looked to be deep in thought, their eyes staring at nothing, before Destin eventually shook his head, almost regretfully.
“I'm always up for giving the guard the run around, but the Nobles will know we had something to do with it.”
“I'm not saying the job is without it's risks, gentlemen. You will most likely have to go to ground for quite some time after we complete our task, perhaps even flee the city itself. But you will be well paid for your services.”
“How much are we talking here?” Brant asked bluntly, his arms folded across his wide chest.
The stranger grinned. “Ten thousand imperial sovereigns, and Knighthood.”
The four men immediately fell silent, staring up at the stranger incredulously. Even the cloaked man, who so far had said nothing during their meeting, shifted in his chair.
“Knighthood, huh? How exactly are you meant to do that?” Destin asked with narrowed and doubt filled eyes.
The stranger spread his arms wide. “I may not look it, gentlemen, but I assure you I have access to resources that you could scarcely dream of. It would be of little difficulty to move three Smiths into the city, as payment for a job well done.”
“How great can your resources be if you have to use muscle like us? If you have that kind of power, I'm assuming you could storm the city with an army.” Destin stated, looking slightly assuaged, but far from convinced.
“That is a mere matter of logistics and convenience. Our success depends on the First Knight suspecting nothing until the opportune moment. To storm the city would be a rallying cry to Venosian Knights. Your men are already in place and we will have the element of surprise on our side.”
There was grumbling among the four men as they discussed, their whispered discussions strange to the eyes of the stranger, who but a moment before had seen them about to attack each other.
“We'll accept your agreement, on condition of receiving the sovereigns first.” Destin, who had somehow become the unofficial spokesman for the group, said carefully. “Your eyes are freaky enough that we know you ain't no commoner. So you must be some kind of Knight.”
The stranger nodded and smiled. “The coin will be transferred to your preferred location before the week is over. Upon completion of the task, three Smiths will be moved from their place outside the city and to that very same location. Do we have an accord?”
“The Smiths are already in Venos?” Brant asked, surprised.
The Stranger shrugged. “Of course. I may be many things, gentlemen, but I'm also a man of my word. If I say that you will be receiving those Smiths, then you will.”
Grimbol and Brant exchanged a look of greed, while Destin continued to eye the Stranger.
“That remains to be seen. If we receive the coin, we'll do your dirty work.” Destin stated.
The stranger clapped his hands. “Excellent. The instructions as to the time and date of this attack will be included in a letter that you'll receive with your payment. This, unfortunately, gentlemen will be the last time we meet face to face. For security concerns, you understand.”
“What about him?” Pater asked, pointing his thumb at the cloaked man. “What's his role in all this?”
“Nothing you need concern yourself with, young Pater. While you gentlemen distract the guards, this man has another task. One which I will need to discuss with him in private.
Destin raised an eyebrow. “Keeping secrets already? From my experience, if someone's hiding their name and elements of the plan that you're supposed to be a part of, he's not to be trusted."
“Not at all, Destin. I have merely found it better for everyone to know their specific role. I don't tell you my name for my protection as well as your own. As to the role of the man in the cloak, he is to help with the kidnapping itself, a part of the plan you will have nothing to do with. Better for you to know nothing about me or my friend here.”
Destin grunted and pushed out of his chair, causing Pater, Grimbol and Brant to follow suit.
“Can't say I care much, either way. Just get us the coin and those Smiths.”
The leaders of the Common Dogs, South Borough Serpents and Bell Tower Bulls walked to the steps and made their escape into the heady scents of the tavern above.
The stranger waited for a few moments to make sure that the peasants were completely gone before falling into his chair heavily, loosening his tight collar and rubbing his fingers into his temples to alleviate some of the pressure he could feel amassing over him. All while the man in the cloak stared at him from under the heavy hood.
“You play a dangerous game, Hammond. Relying on criminals like those will be your downfall.”
Hammond looked up at the man in the cloak and smiled, his eyes glowing with a sickly yellow light.
“Come now, Gustav. Any means to complete the task at hand. Isn't that what the General used to always say?”
Gustav grumbled, his eyes never leaving Hammond's.
“We are not soldiers any more, Hammond. You risk everything by going about it this way. So desperate are you to get your hands on that girl that it has blinded you to the danger you're in.”
Don't speak to me of blindness, Gustav!” Hammond snarled. “I'm not the one who turned away from everything he cared about.”
Gustav stiffened at that and Hammond felt a flash of anger emerging from the man hidden behind that layer of fabric.
“I asked you here as a friend,” Hammond continued, softer than before and with his hands facing upwards in a placating manner. “I know we have had our differences in the past, but I need your help now, for everything we've ever worked towards!”
“You worked towards, Hammond. I got off that wagon a long time ago and now, seeing you like this, I'm glad that I did.” Gustav replied sadly.
Hammond sneered. “So you'll be a coward yet again, run away from your problems without facing them. Mentor saved our lives, Gustav, showed us the world for what it truly is. I begged and pleaded with him to give you this chance. You could finally be a Knight, avenge Ingrid and Olga-”
Gustav shot up from his chair. “Don't you dare say their names! Your words are pretty, Hammond, and pour like honey in the ears of those common trash, but I know you. I know what kind of man you are, what kind of man you've become,” Gustav pointed at Hammond's eyes. “That is not Knighthood, it is a sickness. That man has taken everything you were and twisted it back on itself. For what? Revenge?”
Hammond's face turned cold and his yellow eyes began to glow all the brighter. “I don't need your approval for any actions I take, Gustav. So go, run back to your little band of merry men. Just stay the fuck out of my way.”
The two men stared at each other across the table, one could almost see the tension that ran between them before Gustav finally turned away and made his way to the stairs. At the bottom step, he hesitated and turned to stare at the back of the man who, at one time, had been his greatest friend in the world.
“Don't let the hate guide you, Hammond. I let it do just that for so long that I almost couldn't find a way back. If you ever come to your senses, know that I'll be waiting for you.”
With that, the cloaked Gustav disappeared up the stairs and into the night. Hammond watched him go with no small amount of regret within his chest. Gustav had been his brother once, long ago. He only wished that his oldest friend could see sense, could see the greater plan at work. But he never had. Doubt had never been far from his mind and in those last few years together he had been swallowed by them completely. He could never see the Mentor's vision, not like Hammond could.
One more mission, one more task, and he would finally be reunited with his beloved Mentor. He was in desperate need of guidance, of assurance. Seeing Gustav again had opened wounds that he would have been best to leave untouched. He should have never asked the Mentor to try and bring his old comrade back into the fold.
But there would be time to think on that later. Right now, he had tasks to complete. Convincing the gang leaders had only been half the battle, after all, and he needed to be as ready as he possibly could for when the day of his triumph would arrive.
Dismissing the thoughts of Gustav from his mind, Hammond made to walk up the stairs and back into the decrepit inn above. He had letters to send.