The Thief of the Rose - Cover

The Thief of the Rose

Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy

Chapter 4

The Duke's manor house was similar in functionality to the King's palace. Enclosed within a stone wall with a single manned gate, a large courtyard served the manor house, guard's barracks, stables, servant's quarters and jail. The manor house held both private quarters for the Duke and family, as well as public areas where the business of running the duchy was held.

Aaron passed through the gate into the courtyard intent on the manor house, when he observed within a marked off area close to the barracks, men at arms practicing under the watchful eyes of the Manor's SwordMaster.

Master Caleb, the grizzled old SwordMaster, veteran of countless battles and skirmishes in the defense of the House of Blackmoon, put his young charges through their lessons. Using a gnarled staff to make corrections where necessary, and occasional praise when deserved. He noticed, with some interest, the stranger watching the training.

"Well, well, well, the prodigal son returns," he smiled as he approached Aaron. "Have you kept in practice, how are your forms?"

"It's good to see you too," Aaron laughed. "Not how is my health, or what have I been up to, but have I continued your lessons? Yes, to answer your questions, I continue to practice, if only to do you proud."

"Well, get in here and show me," Master Caleb reached out, to jerk Aaron off his balance and propel him into the ring. Aaron kept his position and his balance.

"Good, you still have balance," bowing and sweeping his hand, he bid Aaron to step into the ring. "What else do you remember?"

Aaron did so; removing his cloak, leather jerkins, shirt, and arm bracers, everything but his gloves. He stretched and warmed up, first with the sword and then, with both sword and dirk. After a few moments of contemplation, he declared himself ready.

The SwordMaster put Aaron through his paces, first at quarter-speed to judge form, and then increasing speed, to see where speed degraded form. After a half hour at full-speed he called a halt. Aaron was sweating and breathing heavily as he did his cool down exercises, but showed no signs of exhaustion. Caleb was impressed but wanted to push his student and decided on the next course of action.

Master Caleb called for two of his students, and the sparring began. Aaron easily held his own against two, so Caleb added another, and still another. Swords flashed, thrusts pulled at the last second, parries, blocks, a ballet of swords, finally tuned, deadly, but with a certain beauty and artistry.

Finally Master Caleb called for a halt in the practice. The combatants bowed to each other, and then to the master. They retired to cool down and to quench their thirst.

"Well done, Master Aaron," Master Caleb congratulated him, "you have not forgotten everything."

High praise indeed, from the SwordMaster!

He followed Aaron over toward the water trough and watched as Aaron untied the knot in his hair and plunged his head into the water. He pulled his head out and shook it like a dog spraying water everywhere, including Master Caleb. Aaron looked up at his old master with a certain gleam of mischief in his eyes.

"The warrior's knot looks good on you," Caleb remarked, as Aaron dried his hair and retied the knot in the back, "a noble profession."

"Yes noble indeed," Aaron replied and then thought to himself, "or at least a good cover profession. People are so squeamish around thieves."

After leaving Realto, Aaron tested for and achieved fighter status within the Fighter's Guild, eventually earning the knot of a warrior. While he maintained his status within the guild, it was not his "real" profession.

"Why do you wear that sleeved glove on your left arm," Caleb asked pointing, "I initially thought it would slow you down, but it appears not to hinder you at all."

"An old battle injury," Aaron replied smiling, thinking of the Goddess. "The sleeve is enchanted to protect the arm, but not hinder motion."

"How is my father?" Aaron asked, changing the subject.

"I'm not really sure," Caleb shook his head. "Sick from the reports. Sick enough to not be allowed visitors. Master Micah or Lady Thalia are the only ones allowed to see him, outside of his physician, the chamberlain."

"Well, allowed or not," Aaron finished getting dressed. "I intend to see him."

"The physicians and the Duchess have kept him isolated," Caleb reported. "It may not be healthy for either of you."

"Does not matter," Aaron set his jaw. "I will see him. Thank you for the exercise, I will stop by again in the morning."

"Be careful," Master Caleb warned. "Keep your sword loose in its scabbard, and watch your back."

"I always do," Aaron replied and left the arena, heading for the manor house.

Aaron only made it a couple of strides before he was stopped by a squad of soldiers. "Milord, you are requested to come with us," the squad leader announced, "the Lady of the Manor is expecting you."

Aaron noted that they wore the livery of the Duke. "Lead on."

Aaron was led in to the house. Although it had been 16 years since he left - was ordered to leave - the main hall had not changed at all. He followed the squad through a side door and down a hall to a closed door flanked by guards.

"Please wait here," the squad leader knocked on the door and waited.

The door opened and a page ushered Aaron into an anteroom. Inside the room, more guards (in the same livery as the men from the inn) flanked the door and a desk across the room. Seated at the desk was a woman that Aaron barely recognized as a lady of his dead mother's. So not a chambermaid, exactly, more like a lady in waiting.

"Forgive my memory, but I do not remember your name," Aaron stepped forward, "you attended my mother, did you not?"

"I am the Lady Thalia," she replied, "and yes I did. Why have you returned?"

"I heard that my father was gravely ill," Aaron watched her; "I wanted to see him. I also understand I have a brother?"

"Yes he is gravely ill," she replied. "The physicians say it is contagious, he can have no visitors. My son Micah is 13 years old, I will let him decide if he wants to meet you."

"Hmmm," Aaron leaned forward. "Perhaps I did not make myself clear. I returned home to see my father. Either show me to him, or stay out of my way and I will find him myself."

"Fine, do not say that I did not warn you." Turning to the guard at her left, "escort Master Aaron to the Duke's chambers. Will that be sufficient?"

"Yes, you are so kind," Aaron remarked and followed the guard out.

A side door opened and a tall, lanky man entered, "He could be trouble."

"Perhaps, but I do not perceive him as a threat," Thalia replied. "He is just a warrior, he probably thinks with his muscles. Maybe he will catch the Duke's illness."

"I can probably arrange that," the tall man laughed.

Aaron followed the guard to the Duke's quarters and to the door of the bed chamber. A door that should be guarded, but was not.

"He is in there," the guard pointed, turned and left.

Aaron slowly opened the door, followed it in to the left till his back was to the door and wall. Across the room in his bed, the Duke slept restlessly. His skin was ash gray and stretched tightly across his face. He was feverish and breathed heavily, laboring for air, like each breathe might be his last. He was sick there was no doubt about that, but sick with what?

Aaron closed the door and quickly crossed the room and examined his father. The Duke had lost considerable weight and looked like a bag of bones. At the bedside table a goblet of liquid caught Aaron's attention.

Carefully picking it up and inspecting the contents, Aaron determined that nothing of a poisonous nature was revealed. There was something mixed in the liquid, a stimulant of some sort, but that would not cause the condition that his father was in. If his father was being poisoned, the goblet was not the source. Scanning the room looking for anything out of the ordinary revealed nothing. Maybe he was just ill, but Aaron did not think so. Something was nagging at the back of his brain, something, what was it?

He sat down next to the bed and thought about his father's condition. A few moments later the door opened and a tall, rather lanky man dressed in healer robes entered the room holding a tray with various items on it.

"What are you doing here?" the man asked. "This man is contagious."

"What is wrong with him," Aaron asked, "how do you know he is contagious?"

The man closed the distance to Aaron and at the last second blew some type of powder in Aaron's face. The rune in the center of the signet ring on Aaron's left hand flared briefly and Aaron felt a tingle throughout his body.

He leaped to his feet, knocked the tray out of the healer's hand, spun him around, putting his parrying dagger to his throat, pinned his arms behind him and frog marched him to the wall. Aaron pressed the healer against the wall and searched him; finding a dagger, a vial containing a liquid, a snuff pouch and a token, the token of an assassin.

"Before I end your life," Aaron began, "you need to decide if you want to die quickly or not. Answer my questions and I will slit your throat, lie to me and I will make your death last days. Which will it be?

"Please wait," the man answered, "you misunderstood my actions. I was only giving you an preventative antidote, nothing more."

"Really," Aaron chuckled, wrenching the right arm up until it popped, "that is lie number one."

The healer screamed in pain, "Wait, wait, what do you want to know?"

"Very good," Aaron replied, "now, what did you give my father, and who are your accomplices?"

"It causes his blood to not absorb oxygen," the man rasped, "and results in death by heart failure or asphyxiation. He should have been dead by now; I am not sure why he is not. I have no marker, I was acting on my own, there is no one else."

Bingo! That was what was nagging him. The stimulant was counteracting the poison. That was why his father's symptoms were all over the place. Well that explains his father's condition, now what to do about it. Well, first things first.

"Someone has been giving him a stimulant," Aaron responded, popping the other arm out of its socket. "You had to have help, that is lie number two."

The healer began hyperventilating, "agh, okay, okay. I am in league with the Lady Thalia. The Duke would not name your brother Micah his heir, waiting for you to come home. She wanted him dead with no named heir, as Micah would have a greater claim to the duchy and eventually the crown. She would then have access to greater things as his regent."

"Mother wanted Father dead?" Aaron spun the healer around to face Micah, who had just stepped out from a secret door by the bed.

"Are you my brother Aaron?" he asked looking at both men. "You must be Aaron, you look exactly how father described you."

"Milord," the healer squeaked, "please help me."

"Help you, Arnod?" Micah looked at him and cocked his head. "Why would I help you? You have tried to murder my father. I hope he kills you."

"Your wish," Aaron slit Arnod's throat, dropping him to the ground, "is my pleasure. Now, what to do with your mother?"

"I cannot kill her," Micah pleaded, starting to tear up, "I will have her arrested and then determine what to do with her."

"Are the guards loyal to you?" Aaron asked.

"Father's are," Micah look over to the bed, "can you help him, Aaron?"

"I will help him," Aaron nodded, "you take care of your mother."

Aaron looked down at his father, checking his pulse, eye lids, breathing; all of the vitals looked bad.

He looked up to see Micah exiting the room and removed his rings from both hands, and a couple of vials and pouches from within in the folds of his cloak. He removed his cloak and sword belt, setting it within arm's reach. He removed the sleeved glove from his left hand, placed it on his father chest over his heart, and began to pray to his Lady, as intense pain coursed through his body.

Lady Rannath, Goddess of Light felt the pull of power and followed it to the room, seeing Aaron's left hand on the chest of a dying man. She allowed power to flow through the conduit of Aaron's "Good" arm and into the chest of the man, "his father?" she thought.

After what seemed like an eternity to Aaron, but was only several moments, the flow slowed and stopped. Staggering back Aaron looked up and into the face of his Goddess.

Slowly, painfully putting the sleeve back on he asked, "Will he live?"

"Yes, he will live," she replied, radiating love and healing powers.

"Thank you," Aaron replied staggering over and sitting down wearily into the chair, "I could think of no other way to save him, he was far down the road and I needed something powerful to bring him back."

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