The March of the Rose

Copyright© 2015 by R22CoolGuy

Castle Daemongurd, Eastern Realm, Andor.

Aaron and his mates settled into their new home easily enough. All of the staff had asked to stay on and Aaron was quite impressed with Thanos' running of the castle. True to word, there was a teleportation platform off of the main hall behind a secret door that they used to move back and forth between the castle and the palace in Cumbra. Interestingly enough, there were no sightings of the Thangdaemon Knights and Aaron concluded that they must have returned to their graves when Velen died.

The body of Prince Velen was laid to rest on a warm and dry morning in late autumn. His body was interred in the family mausoleum, which had been prepared for its prince. During the three day vigil for the prince, at Aaron's request, members of the castle staff had taken turns in keeping Guard of Honor present for their prince.

On the fourth day, the companions left the castle to return Brother William's body to the monastery.

The party arrived at the small common house at the base of the mountain retreat several days later. They looked around and could see no obvious way to announce their presence. After an extensive search of the room Aaron found a magical chime, which rang an identical chime at the top of the mountain in the hut by the A-frame structure holding the elevator. The chime in the common house rang twice in response, signifying that someone or someones knew that there were visitors in the common house. It was less than an hour later that the elevator slowly came into view and finally stopped at the bottom. Two men, or rather, two monks opened a gate and stepped out, one of which Aaron recognized.

"Thomas?" he asked, surprised to see his old friend.

"Aaron?" the monk replied, equally surprised. "Is it you? It is you!"

The two men met in a heartfelt hug that shocked Reg, Anna, Tristan, and most especially Dana and Karith. They had never seen Aaron show that kind of emotion before with anyone outside of their little group.

"Everyone, this is Thomas. A very old and dear friend," Aaron announced.

"Abbot Thomas, now, Aaron," Thomas replied and smiled to the companions, while grasping both of Aaron's hands. "Hello, everyone. What a surprise to see you again old friend."

"A surprise for me, as well, Thomas," Aaron replied and frowned. "And unfortunately not a happy occasion for our reunion after all these years."

Aaron went on to explain that they were bringing Brother William back home, well, his remains unfortunately. The reunion turned into a somber affair as they loaded the body onto the elevator and prepared to ride it back to the top.

"Aaron, how do you know the Abbot?" Graydon asked the question that was at the forefront of everyone's mind.

"Let us save that tale until after the services honoring Brother William," Brother Thomas interjected.

The Companions agreed and entered the elevator for the long journey up to the mountain retreat. Brother William was laid to rest in a solemn ceremony attended by all of the monks due in no small part to the fact that the High Paladin of the Realm was present. The monks were respectful but curious about Graydon and even a little more curious about the twin swords, one black, the other white. It was the day after the funeral that the question regarding the friendship between Aaron and Brother Thomas was revisited. The companions were enjoying a late afternoon meal of fruits, cheeses, and smoked meat, washed down with mead and wine when Karith asked the question.

"So, Beloved, how did you meet Brother Thomas?"

"He saved my life," Thomas explained. "We were on an expedition to recover a holy relic and Aaron saved my life at great peril to his own."

"You make it sound more melodramatic than it was, Thomas," Aaron chuckled. "It is a long story and would take a while to tell. Suffice to say that we survived and recovered the item that Thomas is talking about."

"Your arm looks well," Brother Thomas asked, pointing towards Aaron's left hand. "I seem to recall it being more pink and fresh."

"It was injured while saving my life," he continued, explaining to the others.

"It is completely healed now," Aaron replied turning the arm back and forth to show Thomas. "Thomas, please?"

"A modest man," Thomas replied and touched Aaron's shoulder affectionately. "It is his story to tell, I will not interfere."

"Perhaps, I will tell you sometime, but not now," Aaron replied to the unasked question on everyone's lips.

"I will hold you to that," Dana stated, getting the last word in on the closed discussion.

Karith and Reg nodded in agreement and they finished their meal discussing more mundane things. Brother Thomas showed them to their quarters after the meal and left them to attend evening vespers. They were up at the early bell the next morning, eager to get on with their lives. Brother Thomas brought them a light meal after morning prime and chatted with them while they broke their fast.

The Abbott and the other monks would have liked to have spent more time with Graydon but the rest of the companions, and Graydon as well, were eager to get on with their lives. Brother Thomas escorted them back down to the elevator and after enlisting a promise from Aaron to stay better in touch bid them a fond farewell. He signaled for the monks standing by at the wheel to start lowering the elevator and continued to watch it until it slipped from view.

The Companions reached the bottom and the party split up after saying goodbye to one another. Graydon summoned his horse and bid everyone goodbye, again, even though Aaron had offered to shift him straight to the mountain. Graydon wanted to spend the time traveling in quiet solitude before embarking on what he was sure would be a troublesome job of reuniting his people. It was a tearful goodbye and Aaron secured a promise from Graydon to let him know if he ran into trouble.

Beriwen kissed the ladies goodbye and after promising to stop in and see them often, shifted her and Dunin to Re-An. Dunin had letters of presentation from King Dorian as well as from Duke Samuel. There was also a letter from King Dorian requesting that Dunin be released from his commission to pursue nobler pursuits.

Anastasia was next, along with Rac-Nur and Dae-Re. She needed to return to Malkur and her various enterprises. She looked at Tristan expectedly but he never said anything. A little sad at the turn of events, she kissed Aaron, Dana, and Karith goodbye and after one more look at Tristan, nodded to Aaron who had Karith shift her to a spot just outside of Malkur.

Tristan requested that Aaron send him to Loudin, specifically to Michael's old cottage, giving Aaron the image. Aaron asked him to come with them to Castle Daemongurd but Tristan said he had things to take care of in Loudin. Aaron used DeathBringer to send Tristan to Michael's cottage.

"He is an idiot!" Dana spat in disgust. "A complete and totally unmitigated ID-I-OT!"

"I just do not understand," Karith added, shaking her head. "Did you not see the look on Anna's face? Heartbroken, that is what it was, she was heartbroken. Aaron, you need to go after him and knock some sense into him!"

"Me? What am I going to do?" Aaron replied with a quick shake of the head and shrug of the shoulders. "I have talked to him. It is his life, after all."

"No, Anna is involved, as well," Karith retorted. "She is your ward after all, and you are responsible for her happiness."

"Wait a minute now!" Aaron replied. "You cannot make someone love someone else!"

"That is just the point, he does love her," Dana countered. "He just will not, or cannot admit it."

"Tristan has to come to that conclusion himself," Aaron explained. "Otherwise it will all be for naught."

"If he waits to long it will be for naught!" Dana exclaimed.

"That is for him to figure out," Aaron concluded. "Come, it is time to return home. I am sure Reg is ready to have Melvina back."

"We might stay around for a day or five," Reg replied, smiling. "I think she would stay forever just to be able to interact with the children. They are certainly unique."

"Home," Dana sighed.

"Yes, home," Karith replied and whisked them away.

Duchy of Malkur, Central Plains, Andor.

It had only taken Anastasia a day or two to get back up to speed on current events during her absence. Well, she had only been gone a few short weeks. She marveled that her adventure was so short but had encompassed so much. She was happy that the day-to-day operations had gone smoothly in her absence and commended Morgan on a job well done. Morgan, her first-assistant in Malkur, had even gone to the trouble of selling the brownstone house and had three possible replacements lined up for Anastasia to see.

Anastasia had finally settled on a smaller three-bedroom home with detached servants' quarters just one street up from the wall separating the upper and lower cities. Laura would not like it because of its location but Anastasia rather liked being closer to the lower city. The real selling point was the downstairs bedroom that Anastasia asked Rac-Nur to convert to a Do-Jo. The sale went through without a hitch and the three people, one human and two Shoc-Du moved in. There were only a few things that Anastasia wanted from the old house and the rest of the furnishings she acquired new. She advertised for a butler and cook and found a nice couple with no children. They were enthralled with the servants' quarters and started right away.

She reflected that it had not taken her very long to start the next chapter in her life. Laura and Gunter had her over on several occasions and Laura still tried to play matchmaker but Anastasia just was not interested. She put all of her energies into the House and her training and tried to get on with her life, melancholic and sad as it was.

Michael's cottage on the edge of the Duskwood Forest, Western Realm, Andor.

Tristan arrived at Michael's cottage, finding it exactly how he and Graydon had left it those many weeks ago. The feeling of calming peace he had always felt at the cottage embraced him as he walked around the grounds, taking in the aroma and the sounds of the place. He needed to find himself and had decided on the solitude of the one place that always made him feel better. He looked around and decided the garden needed tending so he grabbed a nearby hoe from its stand near the lean-to tool shed and went to work on the weeds. After finishing with the garden he began chopping wood for the fire. After chopping enough wood for several days he looked around for something else to do, anything else to do, so that he did not have to think about Anna.

It was several hours later that he finished his self-imposed chores and brought the chopped pieces of wood into the cottage. He swept out the fireplace and rebuilt the logs in preparation of a new fire. He then swept out the cottage, shook out the straw filled mattress, and cleaned out the cabinets. When all was done he lit the fire and made dinner preparations.

While clearing out the cabinets he found the makings of a simple broth and set about to make his dinner. It was late in the evening, after the sun had long set, that he finally let himself relax from the day's toils. He sat outside smoking his pipe and watched the tendrils of smoke rise into the night sky. He sat and pondered and reflected and otherwise contemplated his life to date. After several hours of reflection and finding no real solution, he sighed heavily, tapped out his pipe, and turned in for the night.

The scene repeated itself every day for five days. Get up, sword forms, work around the cottage, chop wood, make dinner, watch the stars, and go to sleep. He had no worries, no one trying to kill him, no one pressuring him, no one requiring more than he could give, and ultimately, no one to share his life with.

On the sixth day, just like the previous five, Tristan was in the middle of the forms when a beam of white light streamed down from the heavens. The outline of a man shone at the base of the light.

"Tristan, what are you doing?" a voice, much like Brother Michael's, asked.

Tristan stopped his practice in mid form and just stared at the apparition. He shook his head several times and closed his eyes tight and then opened them again. Finally deciding that he was not hallucinating he spoke.

"Michael?" Tristan asked, backing up.

"Were you expecting someone else?" Michael's spirit asked.

"I was not expecting anyone and especially not someone I buried not that long ago," Tristan replied drolly. "Why are you here?"

"I am asking you the same question," the spirit replied. "Do you not have some place to be? Someone to be with?"

"I do not know," Tristan replied.

"Well, you will never find out hiding out here," the spirit replied. "Love is a risk, which is why when you finally find someone to share it with it is its own reward."

"How do you know?" Tristan asked. "You lived your life as paladin and hermit, there is not much room in there for love."

"I have loved nevertheless," he replied with certainty.

"What if she does not feel the same way?" Tristan asked.

"What if she does and you never find out?" The spirit replied, voice beginning to fade. "Tristan, get on with your life, your whole life. You are much too young to live the life of a hermit. Go, rejoin civilization."

The rays of white light faded away and Tristan was alone again. 'Get on with his life', the spirit of Brother Michael said. Had it been Brother Michael's spirit? Or, in the peaceful solitude, was that his own spirit in Brother Michael's voice that was telling him that he was ready, finally? After all he--they--had gone through in the past weeks, maybe it was time for him to move on. He was no longer the same man he had been when he had started this journey. He had been through so much, he had grown, and now, it was time to accept it. It was time to grow up. Tristan made his peace and would leave for Loudin as soon as possible. It would be a hike of three days and he wanted to be rested and on the road early. For the first time in a long while, he felt better about things. He quickly, but efficiently finished his forms and started the process of securing the grounds and boarding up the cottage.

Loudin, Western Realm, Andor.

Tristan's timing was impeccable as he made the city gates just as darkness fell on the third day. His destination was a nondescript boarding house in the better section of the middle city, the place where he kept a long-term room. The next morning he was up before the dawn and practicing sword forms. Aaron's not so subtle remarks about his lack of focus had hit a nerve. Well, Aaron's and Anastasia's, who was never far from his thoughts. Each had encouraged him to do better, to be better. After finishing his forms and washing up he went downstairs in search of a much-needed breakfast.

Tristan left the boardinghouse with several stops in mind. His first stop was the Merchants' Guild where he had a lock box and his meager savings on account. He withdrew a hundred gold pieces and requested a transfer note to Malkur for the rest. He closed out his lock box and it was brought to him in a private room, where he removed its contents.

His next stop was the Fighters' Guild, and more specifically the weapons arena. The weapons arena in Malkur was located next to the barracks attached to the Fighters' Guild headquarters. Tristan found several classes as well as individual training in progress. At the entrance to the arena was a bell used to announce challenges and advancements. Tristan stopped and rang the bell three times, signifying his request for testing. He waited patiently until a man approached wearing the knot of a SwordMaster.

"I am Ricard Demotray," the man greeted Tristan. "What level do you wish to be tested for?"

"Warrior," Tristan replied and bowed.

"Your patents please?" Master Ricard held out his hand.

Tristan handed over the documents showing his standing and rank within the Fighters' Guild. Master Ricard looked through the documents and checked that everything was in order.

"I see that you tested for Swordsman over six years ago," Master Ricard looked up from the documents. "You have met the prerequisite time for eligibility for advancement. In fact, you could have tested any time after three years."

"Yes, I have had other pursuits that have kept me preoccupied," Tristan replied vaguely. "I recently realized that I needed to make changes in my life."

"I see," Master Ricard replied. "And now you are ready to test for Warrior?"

"Yes," Tristan replied and nodded.

"Very good," Master Ricard replied and handed the documents back to Tristan. "Follow me."

Master Ricard led Tristan into the arena and toward a roped off area and told Tristan he would return momentary and that Tristan should use the idle time to warm up and review his forms. Tristan stripped off his shirt and began several exercises to stretch his muscles and then began a slow walk through of the first fifteen forms. Master Ricard returned several moments later followed by two men, one wearing the knot of a SwordMaster and the other the knot of a Grand SwordMaster.

While the test for SwordMaster required a four master panel, one of which must be a grandmaster or judge, the three tiers of journeyman rank required less stringent panels. A single SwordMaster could judge a Fighter, while it took two SwordMasters to judge a Swordsman. The Warrior status required a three-man panel and must include a SwordMaster Judge or a Grand SwordMaster acting as judge.

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