The Shadow of the Rose
Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy
Reg was much stronger the next morning, so they decided to push on to Realto, and speak to the Duke.
Aaron had talked with the captain for several hours after Reg fell asleep. Although the rumors said otherwise, the captain knew of no other abductions in Realto, or sightings of the knight. He hadn't seen, or knew of the heraldry either. Aaron was going to check with the library at Realto, as well as asking his father. A lot of conjecture, but no facts.
After breakfast they mounted their horses and continued their journey to Realto, which they reached in the late afternoon, and made straight for the manor house of the Duke. The Duke, alerted to their arrival, met them at the stables and escorted them inside, to his private study.
"The captain informed me of the events from the inn last night," Thandar began. "But I want to hear it from you, get your impressions."
Aaron replayed the events from last night, in their entirety. He also gave him his impressions. He then had questions for the Duke.
"No," Thandar had never seen the heraldry that Aaron described. "Yes," the Duke had sent riders to the other towns, and strengthened the patrols, and increased their frequency.
The Duke could see that Reg was still weak from the attack, so he bid him good day, and had him escorted to his room, to lie down. After Reg left, he spoke to Aaron about the events in Aithen.
"I have sent Weaver to Aithen under heavy guard," Thandar began. "The King wanted him there, to give more credence to your report."
"Yes, I suppose some of Lord Beadle's relatives are complaining," Aaron replied. "Not that I care, his death is the least of my worries now."
"Do you plan on continuing this errand you have?" Thandar asked.
"Yes, I really have no choice," Aaron replied. "I gave my word, and my hand. I have to see it through. This armored knight worries me though, I got several clean hits on him, and it was as though I never touched him. I am not sure if any of Reg's attacks even did any damage. I do not have enough information to combat it effectively, and it was certainly hardy."
"Gods forbid there be more than one," Aaron grimaced. "Two knights would have cut me down."
"Spend some time in the library," Thandar replied. "Look in the older section, there are books there that were discovered when the foundation for the manor house was excavated."
"Alright I will, and thank you," Aaron nodded. "By your leave, Father?
"Certainly, take Micah with you," Thandar replied.
Aaron left the study, finding Micah standing outside the door waiting. Together they went to the library, and began going through the books in the old section.
Two Thangdaemon Knights left the tower at dawn, traveling south through the Wastelands. Using a hidden passage through the mountains brought them onto the Central Plains, where they turned east toward Realto, and Aaron.
They crossed fields and farmlands, but kept their focus on Realto. They didn't need to stop at night, and since their mounts moved at great speeds, they made fast time towards Aithen's western border. They crossing it early in the morning, skirted the city, and continued on toward Realto.
"Milady, there are new developments on the Material Plane," a Godling reported to Lady Rannath.
"What is it?" Lady Rannath asked, fading into view.
"Lord Devlin has taken up the Staff of Power, and raised Thangdaemon Knights, milady," the Godling replied.
"We suspected as much," she sighed. "Keep watch, I will inform the others. Their followers may need help."
"Yes, milady," the Godling replied. Lady Rannath faded away.
After several hours of searching, they were ready to give up when Micah stumbled upon an old book written in an unknown language.
"Aaron, I think I found something," Micah exclaimed. "At least there is a picture similar to what you described."
Aaron looked in the book, and sure enough there was the rampant dragon, identical to the shield markings of the knights. This particular heraldry was of a rampant black dragon on a crimson field. The language was definitely archaic, not any of the languages spoken in this age, not even High Elven, the language of Kings.
Looking further in the book, Aaron made an astonishing discovery: there was a section with pictures showing Black Rose and Red Rose, and the signet ring he wore. A whole page of information associated with them, and another page showing a bounding silver hart, with a golden crown of antlers, on a sky blue field. Aaron did not know for sure, but he thought it might be the heraldry for the Tarrans.
There were other heraldries, including one he thought he had seen before. A large white tree, with a silver crown of leaves, on a pale green field, tickled his memories, but he could not quite place where he had seen it.
"Well, this is definitely interesting," Aaron agreed. "It would be better if I understood the language. Let us take it to Father. I would like to keep it."
They cleaned up the library, and returned to the Duke's study, and showed him the book. He agreed to let Aaron keep it, only asking Aaron to let him know if he ever got it translated.
Aaron spent a quiet evening with the Duke, Micah, and Isabelle, who had passed her test, and was now a full member of the Sorcerers' Guild. She had moved in to the guest quarters in the Duchess's Wing, which was where the female servants' quarters were located, so she would not be lonely. She was being tutored alongside Micah, and excelled in mathematics and the sciences. She quickly became one of the family. Both the Duke and Micah were pleased.
The next morning found Aaron practicing in the training arena, under the watchful eye of Swordmaster Caleb. Reg was outside too, sitting in a chair, watching the training. Aaron had replayed the fight with the knight for Master Caleb, looking for ways to counter, or get an advantage. Since Aaron had little in the way of armor, standing toe-to-toe with a fully armored knight was akin to suicide. They discussed different techniques and strategies to compensate for the disparity in armor, and then Aaron practiced them over and over. Aaron also had some ideas utilizing his sword's abilities, but that wasn't something he was willing to share with his old master. Master Caleb could find no fault in Aaron's practice, and told him so. If and when Aaron encountered that knight, he would be prepared. The pupil who was already a master, no longer required instruction.
After cleaning up, Aaron and Reg spent more time in the library. Aaron showed Reg the book and the heraldry that Aaron had seen before. Reg agreed that it was familiar, but also could not remember where he had seen it. Then he remembered, and reminded Aaron of a tapestry on the wall in Mara's parlor. Aaron agreed that that was where he had seen it. More investigation in the library turned out to be fruitless. No further information was discovered, and no further writings in the unknown language, or references to the language were found. The search had reached a dead end.
Reg announced that he was fit, and plans were made to leave in the morning, spend the night in Dria, and enter the forest in the following morning. Since there was no information on what was in the forest, they figured an early morning start would be the safest course.
Aaron thought about Lady Rannath and the night they spent together. He hoped she was well; he had not had much need of her assistance as of late. Not since the fight with Malachi, and she was not able to help him then. He decided to depend more on himself and his two Runeswords, and less on divine providence, although in truth, he might just be trading one deity for two others.
Lady Rannath had questions that needed answers. There was only one place she knew of where she might find them. She planned to call upon the Seeress, and asked Lady Melody to accompany her on her trip.
"He thinks of you, does he not, sister?" Lady Melody asked.
"What makes you say that?" Lady Rannath asked in reply
"Well your face gets this glow, and the corners of your mouth turn up in a little smile," Melody replied. "It is really quite nauseating."
"Thank you, very much," Rannath laughed. "And yes, just because you asked, he is thinking about me."
"Although, he is also thinking that he needs to be more self-reliant," Rannath sighed. "I guess it is for the best, he is still my Paladin and Champion, but our relationship is changing. For several reasons, I must pull back."
"Is that why we are going to see her?" Melody asked.
"Yes, I have questions," Rannath nodded. "Not all concern him, but some do. You will wait outside for me?"
"Of course," Melody replied, nodding her head. "What else is there to do?"
The Seeress had a small dwelling, whose entrance was located far away, though still on Andor, half a world away from Aaron and Reg. The location was hidden in a mountain pass, by way of a barely navigable game trail. Power and magic were uncontrollable there, so they had to walk through a perpetual swirling snow storm. Finally locating the entrance, Rannath asked Melody to wait outside and entered.
"Come in child," an elderly lady sat at a tapestry loom. "It has been many years since I have had visitors. Please come in and sit down."
Rannath looked around the meagerly furnished hut. For although she entered from the mouth of a cave, she was standing in a thatched hut, the air warm and humid. She was not all that sure she was still on Andor, let alone still on the Material plane. Finding a small chair by the loom, she sat down.
The woman was beautiful, even in her elderly state. Long auburn-red braided hair, emerald green eyes, with freckles marching across a pert nose. She was simply dressed in a white linen gown, sitting at a loom, working on a large tapestry.
"Well, child," she stopped her work and looked at Rannath with a critical eye. "You have certainly caused me some little work. While I can weave an unruly strand or two into place without affecting the overall piece, I can hardly start over, or change the pattern completely."
"I am sorry, Great Mother," Rannath sighed. "I never intended for this to happen."
"Child, you may be able to lie to yourself," she admonished, "but do not lie to me."
"You knew what he was when he first touched your thing of power," she accused gently. "No mere mortal, not of your faith could have used it without being consumed. Yet, he, a thief of all things, and certainly not of the Light, picked up your holy relic, and used it to do his will. Surely you knew he must be more?"
"I was not sure," Rannath lowered her head. "It had been so long, I was not sure what he was."
"But you knew when you first communed with him, you should have felt it then," she continued. "I cannot see how you could not. Did you not know what he could become, what he would do, loose among this age?"
"I had hoped, if left alone that it would not happen," Rannath conceded. "But it seemed no matter how hard I tried, or cautioned non-interference by others, it did not matter. Almost as if there were outside influences guiding his path."
"When you first proposed your plans to my brothers and me, we thought it a perfect solution to our dilemma," she smiled. "We had each lovingly created races that advanced to the point where they would not coexist with each other, but more importantly, could not live amongst the younger races. We knew that before long, you three would enslave the younger races, and consume them in your war."
"Each thought that they were greater than the other two," she smiled, "yet you were meant to live in harmony with each other. Not only did that not happen, but you all became a threat to any other race that might follow."
"I know, we were so arrogant and petty," Rannath acknowledged. "Even our plan was arrogant. Our help, in exchange for enlightenment, and ascension to a higher plane of existence. Well, we certainly got that."
"Perhaps, but it provided a solution to a problem we were unwilling, for many reasons to correct," she admitted. "You were wolves amongst sheep; why not assist you to become better. By that point, my brothers were ready to withdraw from this Mythos and start again elsewhere. Your plan provided an opportunity there as well."
"Are we better?" Rannath asked. "We betrayed our brethren. I betrayed my betrothed. I condemned him to death at the hands of others, and did nothing. How better is that?"
"Now, we are at the heart of the matter," she smiled. "You thought to atone for your presumed betrayal, to rekindle love in his descendant? Surely, you must realize that this thief is not your beloved, no matter that they share the same blood, or how similar their looks?"
"Is that why you laid with him, knowing that in doing so you would conceive, and bear his child, a male child?" She asked. "That a union between the two of you, would produce a male heir to The Rose Throne, and what, the three of you would live happily ever-after?"
"I fell in love!" Rannath cried. "Is that so bad?"
"Yes! You meddled in things that you lack the understanding of," she proclaimed, raising her voice. "That one act has set many things in motion, events that you know nothing of. A single pebble thrown into calm waters will cause many ripples."
"I am sorry," Rannath cried softly. "It was foolish of me, a momentary weakness. You say he is different, but his mannerisms, his loyalty, and single-mindedness are all the same, it was easy to dream. But now, in the cold light of day, I realize my mistakes, but what of the child?"
"Before I answer that, answer me this," she replied. "What are your intentions; will you step down, turn away, and go be with him?"
"I have thought long on it," Rannath answered. "I will not shirk my responsibilities on the Ethereal plane. Besides, if he were to ever find out how his ancestors were defeated, and banished, I fear he would never forgive me. The answer is no, I am, and shall always be, the Goddess of Light."
"What are your plans, concerning your son?" she asked.
"I do not know," Rannath admitted, shaking her head. "Will you tell me his fate?"
"On his birth you will bring him to me," she proclaimed. "I will place him where he will grow strong and true."
"As to his fate," She leaned forward, staring Rannath in the eye. "He will take up the hand of Death, and walk in the shadow of Doom."
"His father will be tempted, but will resist," she continued. "The son will not. He will feel abandonment, and will seek retribution. He will take up his blood right, and his actions will calm the ripples, and restore the pattern."
"No! It will consume him in the end!" Rannath wailed. "As it always consumes, there must be some other way, please?"
"Death comes for us all in the end," she reminded Lady Rannath. "Or have you forgotten that? That is the first law."
"I am sorry Lady Rannath," she replied, placing a comforting hand on Rannath. "Do not think that I set him on this path lightly. He is as much my child as yours, his race was created by my hand, but this is the only way to bring back the balance."
"Do not interfere in this," she tightened her grip. "Now it is time for you to return. Go in peace, but do not forget to deliver him to me on his birth."
"I will not forget, Great Mother," Rannath replied, stood up, and left the hut.
"Did you get your answers, Rannath?" Melody asked.
"Yes, I did," Rannath replied. "I now know what I must do. Come, we must be getting back."
Aaron and Reg headed out first thing in the morning. The weather had been unpredictable and erratic the past few days, and this day was no exception. A cold drizzle had started falling late the night before, and a cold wind swept down out of the north. All and all, a damp way to start the day, but they were eager to get to Dria, so they set out anyway.
The drizzle ceased about midday, so they stopped, shook out their wet traveling cloaks, and had a cold lunch about where Aaron had first met Lady Melody. He remarked as much to Reg, who then spent time in meditation with his Lady. They were still about half a day's journey from Dria, so they did not stay long. The road was quiet, and they saw no other travelers or patrols.
Aaron started to feel strange sensations as they approached the section of the highway that cut through the Thangdaemon forest. His senses were all over the place, and strong emotions flooded him from all around. Aaron finally pulled in Thorn's reins and took several deep breaths, trying to calm his nerves.
"Are you alright?" Reg called out, turning his horse back around. "What is wrong?"
"I do not know," Aaron responded, clearly agitated. "Give me a moment."
Aaron collected himself, and urged Thorn forward again. "Reg, the forest is trying to talk to me. I can feel it. Something is not right, and this is not the first time this has happened."
"Maybe as we travel further into the forest tomorrow, you will get a better sense for what is happening," Reg suggested.
"Maybe. I hope so," Aaron replied. "This uneasiness is starting to get to me. It is distracting, at a time when I do not need to be distracted. I will be fine. Let us just get to Dria."
As they traveled away from the spot where Aaron felt the discomfort a large hart stepped out on the road from the forest, and watched them. The stag was old, with a silver mane and silver velvet on his massive crown of antlers.