The March of the Rose
Chapter 8

Copyright© 2015 by R22CoolGuy

Local residence of House De La Rose, Aithen, Eastern Realm, Andor, three days after Anastasia's accession.

Anastasia had inexplicably awoken well before the sun kissed the tops of the spires of the palace. The false dawn was still and hour away and it was almost two hours before her maidservant would be knocking at her door with breakfast. Something had disturbed her sleep to the point that when she awoke she found herself wrapped up in the linen of her bed coverings. She had a light sheen of sweat on her brow and her breathing was coming fast and shallow. She also felt disorientated, and it took several moments to determine where she was before unwrapping the bed covering. Some unseen event was causing her distress and she had no idea what it was. Slowly sliding her legs out of bed, she sat up and slipped on her slippers. She stood and straightened out her nightgown before slipping on the robe that was laid over a nearby night table. Crossing the room, she sat at her dressing table, and began combing out her hair in an attempt to help calm her nerves.

The combing helped but she still could not shake the disorientation caused by a restless night's sleep. Somehow, someway she felt connected to some future event that was causing her to have troubled dreams.

"To Hell with it!" she muttered, placing the brush down, and standing up. "This is getting me nowhere."

She removed her bathrobe and hung it over the chair to her dressing table and moved over to where her wardrobe was. Lifting the shift over her head she let it fall to the floor and rummaged in a drawer for something more appropriate for what she had in mind. She pulled on a pair of linen trousers and slipped on a pullover linen shirt.

Leaving her bedroom she silently padded down the hall and descended the stairs to the main floor of the house. Her destination was a converted storeroom that was now her Do-Jo.

She paused at the entrance to the room and sank to her knees in reflective prayer and supplication. Anastasia got back up and made her way to the center of the room and began her stretching and warmup exercises. After stretching she began the unarmed forms that Rac-Nur had taught her and now did as unconscious thought. After the first rotation she picked up the speed and let her mind go blank and opened her senses. Her speed increased on the third go around without even knowing that she did so. Her awareness expanded and soared outward as her mind relaxed and her unconscious took over.

Her expanded senses detected several presences within close proximity, focusing on the residence. Now that she felt them, her conscious mind took over and tried to determine where they were exactly, and more importantly who they were and their intentions. As she tried to determine anything of importance the shapes faded away into their surroundings. She had at least one pinpointed and tried to feel for the presence that she knew was there, and still nothing. She stopped her forms immediately and slowly sank to her knees as she struggled to regain the feeling she had a moment ago. Slowly shaking her head she stood and slowly moved around the room, cooling down as well as trying to pick up any remnants of whoever had been watching.

Rac-Nur had told her about the ability to predict actions and sense surroundings while in a meditative state, as she had been while practicing her forms. This was the first time that the feelings had been that clear, as well as the first time she had held the awareness for that long. Perhaps the presences were a test by her Sen-Sai, and if that was the case then she decided not to speak about it until she had more information. With that decision made, she grabbed a staff from the nearby weapons stand and began her armed forms.

Anastasia spent half an hour with the staff but was never able to achieve the level of detached, trance-like state that she had been in when she felt the 'Watchers', as she now thought of them. She placed the staff away and started with the sword and stepped through the sword forms flawlessly. Finishing up her morning training, she slowed down and began cool down exercises before placing the sword back in the rack. She felt better, her mind was crisp and the fuzziness from earlier was gone.

Anastasia left the Do-Jo and made her way back upstairs to her bedchambers, where she found the tub prepared, and her bathing essentials laid out. Stepping behind the bathing screen, she dropped her clothes on the floor, stepped into the tub, and slowly lowered herself into the steaming water with a sigh. She had a long day planned of meetings and interviews in the office and did not have time to truly enjoy the bath. She made short work of bathing and soon was dressed and combing out her hair when a knock at the door signaled her breakfast. Anastasia acknowledged the knock and the maid opened the door and wheeled in the cart containing her breakfast. The maid set it up in a small nook in the room and waited. Anastasia crossed the room, thanked the maid, and sat at the table. The maid curtseyed and departed the room, after leaving the cart by the door. Anastasia ate her breakfast in silence as she went over her itinerary for the day, as well as reflected on the events from earlier. After breakfast she dressed for the day, wearing trousers, shirt, and calf-high boots. She was also wearing her fellblades as well as Avendar at her hip.

Anastasia left the residence about a half an hour later with Rac-Nur at her left, one step back. Anastasia waved off her carriage and decided to walk to the office. The reason she gave to Rac-Nur on walking was to enjoy the morning and stretch her legs. The real reason was to discreetly search for the 'Watchers'. She used every trick that Master Drexil had taught her, as well as those taught her by Rac-Nur, yet she could discover no tail, nor anyone paying her more than casual attention.

They soon passed through the gates to the lower city and Anastasia continued on into the Merchant Quarter, where the local office for House De la Rose was. Arriving at the front of the building she discreetly looked around before entering the front door. She was met by her assistant holding several cards.

"Lady Whiterune, these came for you," Alicia, her first-assistant in Aithen explained while handing over the cards. "All this morning."

"Thank you, Alicia," Anastasia replied, taking the cards. "Is everyone assembled?"

"Yes, my lady," Alicia replied and then followed Anastasia to a set of double doors.

Alicia opened the doors and Anastasia, and Rac-Nur entered the large conference room, noting the assembled merchants. Alicia closed the doors and took her place at the back of the room, just behind and to the side of the head chair. Anastasia approached the chair at the head of the conference table and the assembled merchants all stood until she was seated. Rac-Nur took a seat on the back wall, opposite of Alicia's.

"Good morning everyone," Anastasia started. "Before we begin any new business I would like updates on the trade negotiations with the Western Realm, and the acquisition of property in Brasemoon."

The morning meeting continued along the vein of acquisitions and expansion of House De La Rose and lasted for several hours. When it was over Anastasia asked one of her assistants, Merchant Dale Telpur, to stay behind.

"Anything new on properties in Thebes?" she asked.

"Yes, my lady," Dale answered. "I have been able to tentatively secure two medium sized warehouses and an office building near the south gate. Awaiting your final approval. They are lease property; the owner does not wish to sell."

"Only a lease?" Anastasia asked. "I had hoped to purchase the property, leases make me nervous."

"It is the best we can hope for, my lady," Dale explained. "There just is not anything available there. I can press the owner, but I need to know how high I can go."

"I will double the standard rate for buildings of their size," Anastasia replied. "Triple if necessary, but procure me those buildings."

"Yes, my lady, I will leave at once," Dale replied and turned to leave.

"Do not disappoint me," Anastasia added as the assistant left the room and turned to Alicia. "I want you to send word to me in Malkur as soon as the properties are procured."

"Yes, my lady," Alicia replied standing. "Is there anything further?"

"No," Anastasia replied, shaking her head.

Alicia left the conference room, closing the doors behind her, leaving Anastasia and Rac-Nur inside. Anastasia looked down at the cards in her lap and sighed. She opened them and perused their contents before setting them on the table.

"Do they think that I am some prized horse to be sold to the highest bidder?" she asked rhetorically. "Does Gerard think I am unable to run this house without a man's presence?"

Rac-Nur waited patiently for Anastasia to gain control of her emotions before speaking. When she finally sighed and stood up he spoke.

"Who runs this house?"

"I do," Anastasia replied turning toward her teacher and confidant.

"Then why does it matter what he thinks? Can he force a marriage on you? Does he have a controlling stake in your enterprise?"

"No," Anastasia replied, head dropping.

"Then why let it bother you? Who knows, maybe one of them will pique your interest."

Anastasia snorted in disgust, swept up the cards, and left the conference room with Rac-Nur in tow. She entered her office and set the letters of introduction down on her desk and then sat in her chair. She looked up at Rac-Nur one more time before turning to the paperwork on her desk.

"While I am finishing up here, why not take a look into House Relan?"

Rac-Nur nodded, turned, and left.

Old Guthard temple grounds, on the border of the Western Realms, Andor.

The dawn was just breaking as Graydon and Tristan cleaned up their campsite in preparation of continuing their journey toward Loudin. They took one last look and left the ruins for the road leading to Loudin.

"Tristan, how much farther to Loudin?" Graydon asked.

"I figure another two and a half or three days on foot," Tristan replied. "It depends if we run into anymore trouble. We should be at the hermit's cottage in two days."

"My Paladin, you need not walk, summon your steed."

"I have a steed?" Graydon asked, stopping and placing his hand on Lightbringer's hilt. "What of Tristan?"

"Summon your steed."

Graydon brought his other hand up to his lips and whistled. Tristan turned to look at him questioning as a horse's whinny answered the call and both could hear the beating hooves of galloping horses as they drew near. Graydon turned to the north just in time to see two horses round the bend and stop in front of them. The first was a white charger wearing silver plate armor. The second was a chestnut mare not wearing armor but had saddle, reins, and saddle bag.

"Well, we know which one is yours," Tristan chuckled as he approached the chestnut mare. "Where did they come from?"

"I called them," Graydon replied.

"I guess we do not to walk any longer," Tristan announced, chuckling as he mounted the horse. "This should cut a day and a half off of our trip to Loudin."

Graydon nodded as he approached the large warhorse, holding his hand out and stroked the horse between the eyes. The charger snorted and bobbed its head in greeting as Graydon slid around to the horse's side. Graydon mounted the warhorse and the two riders started forward at a trot. It took Graydon several moments to get the feel of riding, since he had never been on a horse before.

Dwarves as a rule were leery of horses, in part because they were short enough that even the smallest pony was difficult. Graydon was certainly tall enough to ride a horse but having lived most of his life in a subterranean home there was never a need to learn how. The charger was making it easy on him though, providing a stable platform while eating the miles easily.

When they finally stopped at the end of the day, they had covered more than half of the remaining distance to Loudin. Tristan found them a small clearing just off of the road on the eastern side and they set up camp for the night. Graydon built a small fire in the ring of stones and they cooked a meager meal. They split the night in shifts and passed the evening in peace.

They were back on the road at first light and making good progress. Tristan remarked that they ought to reach the cottage soon, and then Loudin was only half a day's journey further. Tristan stopped his horse about midday and waited for Graydon to pull up alongside. Graydon could see a small stone path leading north into the woods.

"From here we walk," Tristan announced, dismounting and gathering the reins of his horse.

"How do you know this hermit?" Graydon asked as he also dismounted.

"I got caught in an Orc raid not too far from here a while back and was seriously wounded," Tristan replied and started up the stone trail. "He found me and nursed me back to health. Ever since, I make it a point to stop and visit."

Tristan led the way up the path with Graydon bringing up the rear. The trail opened into a large clearing where a small cottage stood, smoke coming in small wisps from the chimney. Graydon looked around and spotted a small outbuilding, and a lean-to type animal shelter. Next to the cottage was a garden where an elderly looking man was hoeing the ground, tending the garden.

"Michael!" Tristan called out in greeting as he stopped his horse in the large front yard and tied it to a hitching post.

The elderly man, Michael, turned and shielded his eyes and then waved at Tristan. He leaned the hoe against a cart and trudged over to where the two travelers were standing, wiping his hands. He stopped in his tracks when he saw Graydon and more specifically Graydon's tunic.

"Well, bless these old bones!" Michael exclaimed. "Never did I believe that I would live to see this day."

He hurried over and grabbed Tristan by his arms and kissed both of his cheeks. He then turned to Graydon and looked him up and down, smiling the whole time.

"Hail, and well met," he proclaimed in greeting. "To what do I owe the honor of this meeting?"

"Michael, this is Graydon Kimrilson, and we need your help," Tristan explained by way of greeting.

"Let us go inside and sit," Michael replied and gestured toward the cottage.

Graydon tied off his own horse to the rail while Tristan opened the front door and the three entered. Graydon noted a table, a small bed with an armoire, and a kitchen area near the fireplace where a small fire was glowing. It was a very homey, yet sparsely appointed cottage.

"Please, sit down," Michael pointed to chairs around the table.

He then went over to where a steaming pot of water was hanging from a hook in the fireplace. He swung the hook out of the fire and used a cloth to remove the pot from the hook. He brought the pot over and set it on the table and then set out cups and a tin of tea leaves. After serving his guests Brother Michael sat down.

"This might sound odd, but would you do me the honor of showing me your sword?" Michael asked Graydon, his voice soft and reverent.

Graydon nodded, stood up, and drew Lightbringer which began to glow with a soft silver light, its runes glowing with a white light.

"Thank you, thank you," Michael smiled, tears falling from his eyes. "You can put it away now."

"You know what it is?" Graydon asked respectfully, sheathing his sword, and sitting back down.

"Do you?" Michael countered, and when Graydon nodded added. "Really know?"

"I know what it told me," Graydon replied, and then looked over to Tristan.

"I wish to show you something," Michael announced, rising from his seat and crossing the room to the large wardrobe.

Michael opened the double doors of the wardrobe and removed a folded piece of white cloth. He turned around and held it up, letting the material unfurl and revealing a white surcoat with a silver sword embroidered on the front. The sword was hilt up and had golden rays encompassing the hilt.

"I am, or rather was a very long time ago, a monk of the 'Order of the Sword of Saint Michael', also know as 'Paladins' of the Light'," Michael revealed and then reverently re-folded the surcoat. "I have been waiting a very long time to see you, Graydon Kimrilson, wielder of Lightbringer, and 'High Paladin of the Realm'."

Michael returned the folded surcoat to the wardrobe and closed it before re-taking his seat. The two men sat in stunned silence at the old man's revelation, waiting for him to continue. Michael explained that the order was dedicated to law and order in the five realms and had sworn allegiance to whoever wielded Lightbringer. He explained that once a monk accepted the responsibility as aide to the High Paladin he left the monastery, never to return. The knights were gifted with immortality having partaken of the cup. Immortal in that they would not die of old age. They could be killed and over the centuries many had been, for sure. Michael was the last of the warrior-monks to follow the calling in the last age. When the High Paladin had been slain toward the end of the age, Michael had made his way to this site and eked out an existence, waiting for the next High Paladin, or possibly death at the hands of his enemies.

Graydon had many questions. Chief among them was how the previous High Paladin had been slain. Michael revealed that Lightbringer had a twin in the sword Nightbringer, known as The Fist of Satan, and whomever wielded it was Graydon's opposite and sworn enemy. He also explained that if Lightbringer had been drawn forth than so had Nightbringer, and since polar opposites attract, the two swords would eventually seek each other out and force a confrontation. Finally, Michael asked them for the purpose of their visit.

"Originally, I thought the visit futile," Graydon began, turning toward Tristan and shrugging. "But knowing that you have been alive for so long you might know of what I seek. I am in need of information, specifically the location of 'The Soulsmith'."

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