The March of the Rose
Copyright© 2015 by R22CoolGuy
Dragon Back Mountains, north of the Thangdaemon Forest, Andor.
Aaron was up early, before even the false dawn, and well before anyone else. He eased out of his bedroll without waking up either Dana or Karith. The fire had died down to glowing embers so he added several pieces of wood and coached the fire back up. Large enough to drive back the chill in the autumn air, but small enough that dousing it later would not be an issue.
He was on his way back from the edge of Karith's wards, where he had taken care of his morning call of nature, when he noticed Anna stirring. He watched her rise, also trying not to wake anyone, and then notice him. Her smile was warming as she made her way toward him, navigating the sleeping forms on the ground.
"Good morning," she murmured as she stretched out the kinks of sleeping on the ground. "I think I much prefer a soft fluffy down bed."
"You get used to it after a while," Aaron replied with a smile.
"No, I do not think it has been long enough," he replied with a chuckle and started to move further away from those that were still sleeping.
"I am so glad you are back. I have really missed you," Anna replied, leaning in and kissing his cheek.
"As I have missed you," Aaron replied. "I am very proud of you, of all that you have accomplished. Show me your mark."
"My mark?" Anna replied evasively.
"Yes," Aaron replied and added forcibly, handing her his master's mark. "Show me your mark."
Anna reached into her jacket and removed a small gold token and passed it to Aaron. She took a moment to inspect his before returning it to him.
"Most impressive," Aaron replied before handing the token back to Anna. "How hard was it to convince Drexil to train you?"
"He was hesitant at first. Asked me what I thought you would say about him taking me on as an apprentice."
"What was your reply?"
"That I thought that you would say that if I wanted to better myself I should search out the very best and who better than the Grandmaster of Thieves."
"Why a thief?"
"I thought it would give me credibility with certain customers. I did not want to have to lean on your reputation when dealing with them. Speaking of masters, were you Tristan's SwordMaster?"
"No, well, not formally. I was only a Swordsman when we first met. I imagine our daily practices rubbed off on him."
"How did you meet?"
"When I first met Tristan Balefire he was an up and coming young corporal in the Malkurian Guard. He was younger than you. Young and brash, and overflowing with confidence. Most serious young man. Our first meeting was almost our last."
"How do you mean, if you do not mind me asking?"
"I had him under my dagger but spared his life. You have to understand that I was not a very nice person back then. Not bloodthirsty, or chaotic even, just thorough and efficient in all of my dealings. I believed then, and still believe now, that a dead enemy will never come back to cause you harm. He and I were on opposite sides of a situation."
"He was a newly minted corporal, a real up and comer within the ranks. He was placed in charge of a squad assigned to protect a cargo. His very first assignment in a position of authority, I later learned. I had been contracted to intercept the shipment and procure the cargo with very specific instructions on what was to be done with the guardsmen. It was probably the first time that I did not fulfill the requirements of a contract. Interesting enough he would be the reason for me breaking another contract later on."
"We had intercepted the shipment and incapacitated the other guards. I had him in an arm bar with a dagger to his throat trying to extract information on how to open the locked chest. He just kept silent even after I told him I already knew the combination but needed him to tell me. He just shook his head in defiance and told me to go ahead and kill him and that he had only one regret, that he would be unable to track down and kill the informant that had sold him out. I realized he was a man after my own heart, so I knocked him out with the pommel of the dagger, procured the cargo, and left. My hope, at that time, was that I had not just made a grave error."
"Yes, you could not do much better than Tristan, my dear."
"Yes, but something seems to be holding him back. You said he caused you to break another contract. When was that?"
"It was a good six moons later when we crossed paths again. I was in a roadside inn on my way to Loudin from Creton playing the part of a rich merchant. He had, apparently, joined a group of highwaymen who were terrorizing merchant trains and travelers along that route. I was under contract by a very angry Merchants' Guild to deal with them with extreme prejudice. To make an example of them for others. Do you understand what that means?"
"Yes, I understand the term. What was he doing as a highwayman? What happened to him with the Guard?"
"He told me later when I asked the very same question. He had figured out who had betrayed him and the Guard. He took the proof to confront the man, a senior sergeant with connections, and in the process the sergeant was killed. Tristan was drummed out of the Guard in disgrace. That event changed him."
"That seems so unfair."
"Yes, well, as you know, life is unfair. The Guard did not want it learned that they could not be depended on so they charged him with insubordination and striking a senior and then turned him out. Anyway, the group of highwaymen had entered the inn that I was in for two purposes: rob me, and hold up the other patrons. Tristan took one look at me and knew who, and more importantly what, I was. He brought his sword up in salute and backed out of the room. The other men were not so lucky. Later, he approached me cautiously as I was leaving and asked me to take him on as an apprentice. The timing, by the way, could not have been better for me. I knew that to complete my Master's rank I would need to take on an apprentice, and here one was dropped into my lap."
"Tristan is a thief?"
"You did not know? I assumed you did. Does he know that you are one, as well?"
"No, I did not know and no, I would never reveal who I am without certain assurances."
"Most unfortunate. It was not my place to tell you, then. Well, no reason to cry over spilt milk though. That is the reason his fighting style is familiar to you. My style rubbed off during our practice sessions. There is something else that I probably should not tell you, but in for a copper, in for a gold. He thinks he is not good enough for you."
"What? I have never given any reason for him to think that!"
"No, it is not you. It is him. He believes that as a Marquise and also a Merchant Master you could do better than a Swordsman, and more importantly, than a Thief."
"Then, he is an idiot! I would never discount someone based on their rank or station, just as I would not allow my choice to be governed by bettering my status. Wait until I talk to him!"
"Anna, do not," Aaron commanded, laying a hand on her shoulder. "That would be a mistake. Talk to him, yes, but do not make him feel belittled for his thoughts."
They talked a little more but wound down their discussion when Anna noticed stirring from the sleeping forms. They made their way back to the fire just as Tristan and Karith rose from their pallets and started rousing the others. After breakfast was over and all of their belongings were packed Aaron called everyone together and then addressed Anna.
"Do you start each day with the forms?" he asked, looking at everyone in turn.
"Probably not as diligently as we should be," Tristan replied and looked at Anna sheepishly.
"Dunin, do you and Beriwen fight as one? Graydon, Brother William?" he asked, looking at each one intently. "It is likely that a war is brewing, one that may just require all of you to fight with a sword. Dunin, do you know how Beriwen fights with staff and sword? How to protect her staff hand, where to stand to best support her? Tristan, you and Anna should know better. I have seen parties cut down because they could not fight with protection in mind. Do any of you know how to fight like a cohesive unit?"
No one responded, all had eyes lowered in shame or embarrassment. Dana, not having seen the images presented by TimeKeeper and therefore the reason for Aaron's harsh tone, started to place her hand on Aaron's arm in restraint when Karith quickly shook her head no.
"I want to show you what I mean," Aaron shifted to instruction tone. "Karith, will you attend me?"
Karith nodded and Aaron stepped back several paces to clear room, while Karith moved to his left side. She began several quick but effective stretching exercises, drew her rapier with her left hand, and a slim parrying dagger with her right, before nodding to Aaron that she was ready.
"Can anyone tell me why she moved to my left side?"
"Because she is left-handed?" Anna replied.
"Because it protects her off-hand as well as yours," Tristan replied. "I have not forgotten everything."
"Correct, if Karith was right-handed," he began and nodded to Karith, who swapped weapons. "She would still take up positions where she is because she knows my tendencies, as I know hers. We fight as a single unit and it does not matter the numbers. Dana?"
Dana smiled and fairly leaped to Aaron's right and performed the same stretching exercises as Karith did, before drawing her sword in her right hand. Aaron drew Caledor and DeathBringer and then looked at his mates.
"We begin," was the only command given before the three started the first of thirty forms, flowing from one to another. Aaron initially started at quarter-speed since they had not practiced as a threesome in a very long time. It did not take him long to increase speed to normal speed as he drew Eldritch and fed it to his mates, as well as his swords. Speed was increased as Eldritch was added until their movement began to blur. It was hard to keep track of the path of individual swords because they blurred into a single motion.
Tristan watched with a critical eye but could see no opening that could be exploited. They fought offensively while still protecting each other. He saw the change in speed as they slowed down and finally stopped and then went through several cool-down exercises.
"That is how a cohesive unit fights," Aaron instructed. "And it begins at practice. Please step apart and give each other space and begin on my command."
They spent the next half of an hour practicing with correction given by Aaron. From somewhere he had conjured a staff, similar to the ones used by SwordMasters in correction, and was using it where necessary. He began to slow them down and then had Karith demonstrate several exercises designed to cool-down their heated muscles, fast breathing, and rapidly beating hearts.
"You should practice that everyday of your life. It is the only way to get better. Beriwen, you should be practicing with Eldritch every day, too. If you want I will have Dana attend to your training. Now, let us get cleaned up. Anna, I turn them over to you."
Anna asked Aaron to take point, followed by her and Tristan, with Dunin just behind them, then Beriwen and Dana, Graydon and Brother William, and finally Reg and Karith bringing up the rear. She explained that Aaron, Karith, and Dana were in constant contact with each other, so spreading them out made the most sense.
Anna held everyone else up while Aaron started, to put distance between point and the main group. She told everyone else to give the group in front of them a five count head start and then she and Tristan started forward. She looked back and watched group after group move out until at last Karith and Reg started forward.
Aaron pushed out Eldritch feelers along the trail, looking for anything and everything as Thorn picked its way along the path, slowly rising in elevation as they climbed up the mountain following the path. He could feel every member of the group behind him, some by their Runeswords, others by their Eldritch. He smiled when he felt just the smallest of tendrils of power flowing into Tristan and Anna. Their time around him had changed them just enough to be attuned to the flow, even if just passively in the case of Tristan. Even Brother William was in tune with the flow, or a small portion of it.
"Why did you not tell me you knew my guardian, Aaron?" Anna asked, after they had been traveling for a while.
"I was not certain that Master Aaron was your guardian," Tristan replied while also paying attention to the road. "If you remember, I was going to discuss it before they showed up."
"Why did you not mention that you are a Thief when we were all sitting around the table at the inn?" Anna then asked, stressing the word so that he would understand she was asking about his rank and not affiliation.
"Why did you not tell me you were one, as well," Tristan countered.
"I am not one, technically," Anna replied teasingly. "I am only a Journeyman Third Class, a Sharper."
"And Drexil is your Master?" Tristan asked.
"Yes, as Aaron is yours," Anna replied. "So, where do we go from here?"
"I am not sure I understand the question."
"Well, when you do, please let me know of your decision," Anna replied cryptically and then placed a hand on Tristan's arm. "And Tristan, I am not Karith. I will not wait forever."
"Someone needs to knock some sense into both of those two," Beriwen quipped, watching the interaction between Anna and Tristan.
"Why?" Dana asked.
Beriwen explained the situation to Dana. How Tristan and Anastasia had been dancing around each other since meeting. How the rest of them to could plainly see what the two of them apparently could not or did not want to. A budding romance was there if only they would take the time to encourage and explore it.
"She has been singularly focused on finding Rac-Nur, and he is just dense," she concluded. "They cannot see just how well they fit."
"Sometimes it is hard to see what is right in front of you,"she began and then stopped for a moment before continuing. "Aaron has called for a halt. He wants us to wait where we are."
Aaron had been watching the trail climb steadily over the last few leagues and began scanning the area for signs of crossing into Dark Elf controlled lands. He had been in this room road/path before and knew the markers would be coming up soon. He knew that they were east of the forest and had to be pretty close to the Dark Elf lands.
He rounded a bend in the road and there they were, a pole on either side of the road with a human head on top of each. Below each head were several streamers attached to the pole. To the uninitiated they only looked intimidating but to one who understood such things they were more than a warning, they were a promise of repercussion if crossed. It could not have been plainer than if there had been placards announcing the warning. There was still blood dripping from the decapitated heads so he deduced that they had recently been changed. There was the very real danger that a hunting party might still be close by.
Aaron sent a quick mental warning for everyone to hold their position while he checked the area out. Sending tendrils out in all directions returned nothing. A few game animals but nothing dangerous and certainly no Dark Elves. He called everyone up but told them to be on guard as they approached.
"This is as far as we dare take horses," Aaron announced when everyone had gathered. "If my memory serves me correctly we will have to pick our way across a landslide further up."
"You have been this way before?" Dunin asked. "Why did you not tell us?"
"Did not think it was important," Aaron replied and shrugged. "I had occasion to pass this way a long time ago, well before meeting Tristan. The going will be too difficult for the horses and it would be better to turn them out here and not risk injury."
"Where will they go?" Dunin asked. "What will happen to them?"
"Thorn can protect them if you desire," Aaron replied.
"I believe my warhorse is tied to my sword, so if I turn him out he will come when I call," Graydon explained. "Tristan's as well."
The others agreed and Aaron directed Thorn to take care of the other mounts. Everyone dismounted and removed items of importance from the saddlebags. Someone asked how much further to the Keep and Aaron remarked that it was at least half a day's March from their location. It was decided to pack bedrolls and enough trail rations for two days' travel. Everything they would leave with the horses. When they were done re-stowing their rucksacks they turned out the horses and watched as they trotted off, back down the path.
"Anna?" Aaron asked, turning toward her. "The path should remain large enough for two at a time, but probably not more than that."
Anna nodded, and set the same order as before, with Aaron at the point, but this time she had Tristan up with him. She had Brother William take Tristan's place and the rest how they were. This time she explained that the distance would be closer so everyone really had to be on their toes so not to get caught in an ambush. Everyone nodded in agreement and they started off.
"This is where you were held captive by the Dark Elves, is it not?" Tristan asked as he kept his focus on his surroundings. "Where you received the scars on your back?"
"Yes, a memory I had hoped not to revisit, and yet, here we are," Aaron replied. "You need to be careful and pay attention. The Dark Elves will turn on us in a moment's time."
"Do you have a plan?"
"Follow Anastasia's lead," Aaron replied with a shrug. "Let us hope she has a plan."
"Is that not a little reckless? That does not seem like you."
"I agree it is not normal," Aaron replied. "But this is something she must do for herself, so she says. How are you two getting along?"
"It is complicated," Tristan sighed.
"No, it is not," Aaron replied. "You are making it so, unnecessarily in my opinion. But, hey, it is your life."