About a month after they left Hareik, the double walls of Middanhal rose in the horizon to meet them. They had encountered the first Order patrol a few days prior; unlike in the lands of Isarn, the soldiers simply let them pass. As they came closer to the city, they met several more contingents of Order troops and even mercenaries. Damien scowled upon seeing the latter, which they hardly seemed to notice; thus, without further incidents, the pair reached the capital of Adalrik.
They entered through Woolgate. There were few other travellers passing into the city; as if to compensate, a great number of soldiers loitered around the gate and surrounding fortifications.
Damien paid little heed to their surroundings; in contrast, Gunvor stared with something approaching awe. “I have never seen a building so big!” She gestured with excitement at the Citadel.
“I suppose it is quite the size,” Damien assented. “Probably the biggest castle in all the realms, if not the world.”
“It must be!”
“Come along. We follow the Arnsweg, and it will take us to the Temple.”
He pointed down. “The road we are walking right now. Built by Arn, I presume. But these drakonians will claim that about anything. You meet a farmer living two stones from the Alfskog, he will claim that Arn himself laid the foundation of his outhouse.” Despite his disparaging remarks, a smile played on his face.
Gunvor laughed and glanced at him. “You seem in good cheer.”
“I would never admit it to a drakonian, but there is something special about this city.” He gave a sigh. “It feels good to have returned.”
“What will you do next?”
“Well, I am taking you to the Temple, of course.”
“After that,” she clarified. “Do you intend to stay?”
“You know, I should probably have put some thought into that,” he admitted with a wry smile. “I never considered beyond Middanhal. I suppose you will return to Hareik?”
“I will discuss it with the gydja of my order here in Middanhal,” Gunvor explained. “The gydja in Hareik left me free to decide.”
“Would you consider that? Staying in Middanhal?”
“Possibly,” she contemplated. “It would certainly be a change from Hareik! But maybe the gydja will know of a small temple elsewhere that needs a priestess. Somewhere with a forest.”
“That sounds pleasant.”
She cleared her throat. “If you have no other options available to you, perhaps you should consider becoming a temple guard.”
“Hah! The Templars would seethe with rage if I became employed at the Temple, even as a lowly guard.”
“I did not mean the Temple,” she elaborated, stressing the second-last word. “With my recommendation, I am sure any temple of Austre would accept you.”
His mouth curled upwards. “That is a kind thought. Maybe.” They separated briefly to walk around a cart driving towards them; when they met on the other side, he spoke again. “Thank you for this journey.” His left hand was on his sword hilt, but it seemed mostly out of habit; his right hand was barely shaking.
“I am the one who should thank you, surely.”
He shook his head. “I did this for my own sake. It has been a long while since I had to think of anyone else. It has done me good.” He looked up; ahead of them, they could see the Temple dome. “I blamed the Highfather, the Templars, and many others for my current misfortune.”
“I still do,” he laughed. “But there is a fight inside of me, and the drink makes it worse.”
“Even now, when I grasp my sword, I relish it. The world becomes slow, like – like moving through water,” he explained with a feebly voice. “All thoughts disappear. I know exactly what to do. I am never afraid because I never imagine I could lose a fight. In those moments, I am Damien of Montmer once again. So half the time, I feel the urge to become that man again.”
“And the other half?”
“The rest of the time, I am sick to my stomach of blood. Sick of feeling empty when it ends, remembering that I have nothing else.” He took a deep breath. “I do not know what to do. But it cannot go on. Maybe – maybe a quiet life guarding a temple by a forest is what I need.”
She took his arm, letting him steer her through the crowd, which grew thicker the closer they came to the Temple. “Once I have spoken to the gydja, perhaps we can make plans.”
They reached the Temple square; solstice was long over, and it had returned to its usual state as a marketplace. This allowed them to easily make their way across and walk up the stairs.
As they reached the plateau in front of the entrance, the two Templars standing guard surged forward to block their path. “You have some nerve showing your face,” one of them growled.
“You best be gone before I finish my sentence,” warned the other.
Damien pulled out a letter. “I am here at the Highfather’s bequest.”
The Templars exchanged looks of disbelief, but one of them grabbed the creased parchment to unfold and read it. “Seven and Eighth, this seems genuine.”
“You cannot be serious,” remarked the other.
“I will investigate this. Wait here,” the first Templar commanded, disappearing into the Temple.
“You should go ahead,” Damien told Gunvor. “This might take a while.”
“Where do I find you afterwards?”
“At the central basin in the gardens.”
“Very well.” She stepped forward, and the remaining guardian let her pass into the Hall of Holies.
Damien waited outside, pointedly ignoring the Templar’s scowls. With a demonstrative grip upon the pommel of his two-handed sword, once consecrated to holy service, he used his other hand to lean against one of the pillars.
Eventually the other Templar returned, sending his comrade a look. Silently, he gestured for Damien to follow, which the latter did with a smug expression.
The anointed knight led him straight through the complex and into the gardens in the middle. He took Damien to a bench, where the Highfather sat in his customary, unadorned robe.
“Thank you, Sir Wulfric,” the old priest told the knight, who bowed and left. He turned his attention on Damien. “I was told you returned in the company of a sister of Austre.”
“Yes, Holy One,” Damien confirmed. His voice was flat.
“I assume you have completed the task I placed upon you.”
“Yes, Holy One.”
“Very well. Kneel.” Damien did so, while Septimus stood up and placed his hand upon Damien’s head. “You are returned to the embrace of the gods. You may seek shelter in their refuge. You may seek their blessing. You are spared their wrath. Under the eyes of the dragon, the raven, the bull, the horse, the bear, the hart, and the eagle, this will be.”
“This will be,” Damien mumbled. As the priest withdrew his hand, he rose to stand.
“You are free to go where you please,” Septimus told him, “and I place no further commands upon you. But this silver is yours to speed you on your way, and this letter contains news you should hear.” The priest placed a small purse and a letter in Damien’s hands, leaving him alone.
When Gunvor went to the Temple gardens, she saw no sign of Damien at the central basin. She searched around for a while until she found him sitting on the bench. He was staring at a letter in his hands.
“Damien?” she said cautiously. He looked up. “Is something the matter?”
“A letter from my father’s steward. There was a battle in Ealond between the king’s forces and those of Duke Belvoir.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“My father fell on the field, and when my brother tried to save his body from mutilation, he was slain as well.”
“Those are dreadful news!” She sat down next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I am so sorry!”
“You need not be on my account. Last I saw either of them, I was still a squire. We were strangers to each other.”
“Still, you have my condolences. What of your poor mother?”
“Dead years ago. I have a sister, but neither of us have any interest in the other, I wager,” Damien explained. “Regardless, they want me home.” He waved the letter in the air.
“Of course. You must pay your respects.”
“I had not thought of that, but I suppose I must.”
“Will you – do you intend to stay in Ealond?”
He glanced down at the letter. “I probably have to, seeing as I am the new baron of Montmer.”
She pulled her hand away from his shoulder. “Baron?”
“My father was the thirteenth baron of Montmer. As the second son, I went into the Order,” Damien explained, sounding absent-minded. His eyes continued to move across the letters on the paper in his hand. “But now I am the closest heir.”
“You are not only nobleborn, your family is entitled,” Gunvor said softly. “And now you are as well.”
“In the faintest sense of the word. Montmer is little more than a keep with a scrap of land to its name.”
“Yet there is still a world of difference between Lord Damien and Baron Damien.”
“Only the difference we make of it.” He gave a shrug and looked at her. “What of you? Was the gydja satisfied with your efforts?”
“She was. I am free to stay here or return to Hareik.”
“What will you do?”
She stood up from the bench. “I don’t know. I need to think.”
“Same here.” He stood up as well. “I should find lodgings. It is too late in the day to set out for Ealond.”
“Of course. Farewell, milord.”
“Fare you well, Sister.”
“Gods be with you.” She turned and left with hasty steps.
He watched her leave and clenched the coin purse in his hand. “I need a drink.”
When the Highfather returned to his cell, he found Godfrey waiting outside. “You are still here? I thought you went to see the Quill.”
“I decided to delay until tomorrow. Also, I have a letter you should sign.”
“Of course.” The priest unlocked the door to his room. “Damien of Montmer arrived just today.”
“I had my doubts,” Godfrey admitted, “but this was never my scheme to begin with.”
“Indeed, it was mine.” Septimus opened the door, and they stepped inside. “I have my own doubts whether he will ever be a capable lord of Montmer, but that is out of my hands.”
“Who approached you?” Godfrey asked as they sat down. “I can’t imagine who would take an interest.”
“The new Veiled Sister in Fontaine, though I cannot understand either why she would care. I suspect she acted on another’s behalf.”
“But you helped her nonetheless.”
“After my visit to Fontaine, I thought it best the sibyls saw the gentle side of the archon,” Septimus explained. “The heir to Montmer is restored, and the Veiled Sister has been shown a kindness.” He picked up his quill. “You had a letter?”
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.