The Shadow of the Rose
Copyright© 2012 by R22CoolGuy
With Reg gone, Aaron stayed in Realto for several days. He practiced daily with Rac-Nur and Master Caleb. He tried on several occasions to convince Rac-Nur to return to his home until Aaron had need of him, but Rac-Nur was having none of that. He had already forfeited his place in his clan, by just being with Aaron, even despite, or really because of the life-debt. The fact that a Shoc-Du, would require assistance from a non Shoc-Du was unthinkable, even from someone like Aaron for whom they had great respect. Like it or not, Aaron was Rac-Nur's clan, dismissing him now would be akin to a death sentence. Aaron explained that he intended to move to a town somewhere west of Aithen, purchase a small home as a base of operations, and would need someone to look out for his interests.
While Rac-Nur was not thrilled with living in a human town, he knew his options were limited and agreed to help Aaron in any way he needed. It was going to be interesting have a dark elf as a manservant, to say the least. He would definitely turn heads wherever Aaron settled.
Her Highness, The Lady Laura Ragnarak, daughter of His Excellency, Duke Benjamin Ragarak, 13th Duke of Malkur, was on a sabbatical in the Southern Reaches when reports surfaced that young women were being targeted for abduction. Her father sent word to the port city of Re-An, where she was enjoying the summer, that he wanted her to return home at once. Duke Benjamin and his daughter, Lady Laura, had different definitions of 'at once'.
Lady Laura, known un-affectionately as 'The Ducal Brat', was the only child of the Duke and heir to the Duchy of Malkur, as well as a vast mercantile empire. The apple of her father's eye, she was spoiled with every luxury that she desired, and she desired it all. She was also the most sought after prize in the Merchant World. In short, she was a spoiled little rich girl, and she knew it!
She was tall at 5'10", but slender, with legs that went on for leagues, flaming red hair, hazel green eyes, a dancer's build, and medium sized breasts that seemed large on her frame. She walked with grace and a certain air of superiority. She was a beautiful young woman of 20, but had the personality of an old hag.
When her father ordered her home, she threw a temper tantrum for three days before relenting. Her governess/chaperone took charge of packing and sent word to the Duke that they would leave shortly. 'Shortly' turned into another week, and by that time the road from Re-An to Malkur was unsafe to travel, due to seasonal sand storms. The only way home was through the kingdom of Aithen. The trip to Aithen would take a week and then another two to Malkur.
Her entourage consisted of her governess/chaperone, two female Malkurian Guardsmen as bodyguards and a squad of ten Malkurian Guardsmen as escort. The duke handpicked each member of her escort and assigned a full captain from his personal guard as commander. She rode in a coach with her chaperone and one bodyguard inside the coach and the driver and the other bodyguard up on the seat. Five guardsmen and the captain rode on horseback in front of the coach and five on horseback behind.
They were attacked on the morning of the fourth day out of Re-An. A platoon of orcs, four full squads led by a subaltern, ambushed them as they travelled down the road. The ambush site was strategically chosen to provide optimum cover for the orcs, and the initial attack took out half of the escort guard.
Fearing for the safety of Her Highness, the captain in charge of the guard commanded the coach to flee while they fought off the orcs. Several hours later when there still was no sign of her escort, the bodyguards were forced to continue the journey alone. They stayed on the road and switched off with the driver, never stopping and made Aithen's borders a full day ahead of schedule. Still leery of stopping before they reached the city gates, they continued on. Having been forced to stay in the coach for the past three days, Lady Laura arrived in Aithen in a foul mode and let everyone in ear shot know it.
King Thane was holding daily court when a loud commotion in the hall drowned out all noise in the throne room. Chamberlain Walton was trying his best to steer Her Highness away from court and into an anteroom to wait, but she was having none of that. Bursting into the court she demanded an audience with the King! Bowing slightly before the throne she launched into a tirade about the servant's manners and how she should not wait like a peasant to see the King. King Thane was forced to close court and see to the needs of his neighbor's daughter. What he truly wanted to do was take her over his knee and spank her!
This went on for several days, with no apparent end in sight. Every day, at least four to five times a day, she interrupted whatever he was doing at the time, to complain about some aspect of the high city, or some slight, however small or imagined, by a member of his staff.
He sent word to Malkur, letting the Duke know that she was safe and that just as soon as he could muster enough men, he would have her escorted home. Aithen, like Malkur, had every able bodied guardsman out patrolling and seeing to the safety and security of its borders. In Aithen's case, that included all lands not under the protection of Dukes or other landowners.
Her latest temper tantrum had pushed Chamberlain Walton to the brink of civility. His insistence that she book an appointment to see the King, and not just barge into his office, or worse, his private quarters, which she had done on several occasions, had gone un-heeded. King Thane was at his wits' end, and seriously contemplated having some kind of accident befall her. He needed to get rid of her, before she completely disrupted Aithen. He did not know that his salvation had just passed through the city gates!
"Are you going to mope around Realto until winter?" Micah asked Aaron one morning after practice.
"I am not moping, and who left you in charge?" Aaron asked peevishly.
"Father," Micah laughed. "He told me to get your attention. It looks like I have."
"I am going to get your attention," Aaron mocked growled and chased Micah around the practice ring. Finally catching him, they rolled around the ground wrestling for supremacy until finally Aaron wore the larger Micah down and pinned him. Laughing, Aaron cleaned up and went in search of his father, finding him in the wine cellar with the steward.
"Father, I thank you for your hospitality, but it is time I moved on," Aaron explained. "I plan to stop in Aithen and then move west and settle in a town there. Once I am settled I will send word."
They discussed several topics including the castle in the forest. Duke Thandar wanted to explore the lands east and possibly lay claim to them. Aaron advised caution when exploring and his father concurred. Aaron also mentioned that he was probably going to hire guardsmen to man the castle and protect his interests. He told his father not to be surprised if a company or so of guardsmen stopped in on their way toward the castle. He took Micah aside and talked with him quietly for several minutes and then handed him another gold coin. This one was not enchanted, but more of a calling card or personal token from Aaron. Saying his goodbyes to all, he and Rac-Nur headed out.
Their first order of business was to stop in Aithen and see his uncle one more time. Aaron wanted letters of introduction from the Merchants' Guild and the crown. He intended to use the Merchants' Guild as a cover. He had sufficient financing for a stake in a merchant house in Aithen and intended to use that as an inroad to a house in whatever town he chose. He also wanted an obscure title, and thought his uncle could help there as well.
A short distance from Realto, Aaron stopped and questioned Black Rose on the particulars of teleporting. Teleporting was an easy way of going from point "A" to point "B", as long as you had a good mental picture of both points. It was impossible, or more correctly, highly dangerous, to teleport to a place that you hadn't been to, because you could wind up teleporting into something that wasn't meant to be teleported into, like a tree, or a rock. The teleportation limit wasn't based on the number of people, or amount of weight, it was based on the total area being teleported. Black Rose assured Aaron that as long as Aaron provided the power, there would be no issues.
Aaron pulled power from his surroundings and commanded Black Rose to teleport him and Rac-Nur to an area about a mile east of Aithen alongside the Old Kings' Highway.
Several days passed and still no WitchLord. Tanith had felt slight echoes of his power usage, but nothing solid, nothing leading her to his exact location. She knew that he was moving west and she was sure that she was at the crossroads of his journey.
Every morning she walked down to the city gates and back trying to pinpoint his location. Every morning so far, nothing. She spent the rest of her days walking the streets exercising the years of hibernation away, or practicing the sword at the local Fighters' Guild. Usually after lunch she would walk out of the city and down the road and teleport to the mountains. Once there she would change back to her base form and stretch her wing muscles on the upper air currents. The rest of the day was spent catching up on the history of Andor during her hibernation.
Aaron and Rac-Nur appeared just off the highway within a mile of the city's gates. The nudged their horses forward and joined the flow of traffic entering the city. They were detained at the gates until Aaron showed his royal papers of entry, and vouched for Rac-Nur. The guards gave him a pass which he had to show at every gate. Making their way through the middle city and to the upper city, where they were passed through those gates as well. Aaron received not even a second look as they travelled to the upper city and the palace. People stopped and stared, pointing at Rac-Nur who paid them little mind. The sight of a dark elf in the high city caused a small panic, until guards restored order.
Aaron stopped at the palace courtyard and dismounted, handing Thorn's reigns off to a groom. Cautioning Rac-Nur that the King was his uncle they approached the palace gates. Aaron vouched for Rac-Nur and was admitted to the palace. Word was sent ahead, and Chamberlain Walton met them on the other side of the gardens.
"Lord Aaron, your uncle will be happy to see you," Walton grasped his arm.
"Walton, this is my assistant, Rac-Nur of the Tem-Pe clan of the Shoc-Du," Aaron made the introductions. "Is my uncle busy?"
"I will take you right to him, please follow me," Walton replied, nodding at Rac-Nur.
Walton led them to the private audience chamber, knocked and opened the door, holding it open for Aaron and Rac-Nur. Inside, the King was sitting at his desk having an animated conversation with a young woman - actually, it was the woman who was animated - with a pained expression on his face.
She was beautiful, yet her beauty was dulled by the look on her face, as well as, the pitch and tone of her voice. She was flanked by two women fighters, who turned when Aaron and Rac-Nur entered, placing their hands on the hilts of their swords. They wore the livery of Malkur, so Aaron reasoned that they were Malkurian Guardsmen and probably her bodyguards.
Slightly behind and to the left of her stood another woman, a little older, but still quite lovely, with the same pained expression on her face as the King. Aaron was about to enter the discussion when the King cut him off.
"You are here already," he announced, which caused the woman to turn toward Aaron. "That was fast."
"Walton, we must commend the Guild on their speedy response," the King nodded at Walton.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Walton replied, clearly confused.
"Lady Laura, I would like to introduce Master Aaron Whiterune," the King gestured toward Aaron. "One of Aithen's premier SwordMasters and bodyguards. He has been commissioned to return you to Malkur, and to your father."
Aaron stopped dead in his tracks, clearly as confused as Walton was. He looked to Walton, who shrugged, and then back to his uncle when he was brought up short by Laura's scathing remarks.
"Do they not teach court etiquette to Aithen's SwordMasters?" Lady Laura asked, a little haughtily.
She looked him up and down as one would inspect a horse or a slave. He was a handsome man, shorter than her, not very muscled, yet strength and confidence flowed from him like water. A dark elf stood next to him, a dark elf of all things!
He coolly stared right back at her, obviously sizing her up as well. Aaron continued to stare, caught completely off-guard by his uncle. A nudge by Walton brought him back to the now.
"Your Majesty, the Guild sends its respects," Aaron performed a sweeping bow, and then turned and bowed before Lady Laura. "My lady, my swords and I are at your disposal."
"May I present my second, Rac-Nur. Ex-first sword of the Tem-Pe clan of the Shoc-Du," Aaron announced, bowing again. Rac-Nur just stared, hands on his hilts.
"It is their custom not to bow to non Shoc-Du, Your Majesty," Aaron explained.
"Master Rac-Nur," the King nodded and then turned to Aaron. "Master Whiterune, when can you be ready to travel?"
"Your Majesty, Lady Laura; I have several commitments to discharge first. I can be ready to leave tomorrow, at the earliest," Aaron replied. "After that, whenever the Lady is ready to return home."
"King Thane, I could not possibly be ready to travel for two or three days," Lady Laura replied, completely ignoring Aaron. "I have shopping to do and then packing, and should there not be a farewell ball or gala event?"
"Yes, Lady Laura, a farewell ball," King Thane sighed. "Do your last minute shopping tomorrow and we will plan the ball for three days hence. Would that be sufficient time?"
"Oh yes, that will be perfect," she exclaimed, clearly excited. "Yes, a new dress and hairdo for the ball."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," she curtsied, and turned to leave. She stopped and turned back to Aaron. "Coming?" she asked haughtily, tapping her foot.
"Lady Laura, I would like a moment with Master Whiterune," King Thane explained. "And besides, he did mention that he had duties to discharge before he could leave."
"Oh, very well," she spat, and turned and left the chamber.
"Aaron, before you get upset, I am sorry," King Thane smiled. "She needs to get home, I need her to go home, and your arrival presented a perfect opportunity."
"Yes, I can see by your smile, how sorry you are, Uncle," Aaron laughed. "She is a handful, is she not?"
"Aaron, you have no idea," King Thane shook his head. "She has been here all of a week and I am ready to sanction a contract."
"Well, then perhaps we can help each other," Aaron smiled. "I am thinking of buying a controlling interest in one of the less solvent merchant houses. I plan on moving west, so Malkur sounds like a perfect place. I will need letters of introductions and I would like a title, something obscure, yet legitimate. Can you help me?"
"Yes, let me talk to Walton," the King replied. "I am sure we can come up with something. I am thinking a Marquis de something. What house are you thinking about investing in?"
"I do not know that, yet," Aaron responded. "I was going to check around. If there is nothing further, I will be off. Wait, how about the Marquis de la Rose?"
"Yes, that would work," the King replied. "I will have Walton start the necessary paperwork. Where are you staying?"
"Nowhere, yet," Aaron replied.
"Stay here, practice here," the King explained. "That way Lady Laura will have the opportunity to get to know you better. I will have to put you up in the south-wing guests' suites,, where Her Highness is staying.
"That is fine," Aaron replied. "It will put me close, but does she really need my protection, since she has two bodyguards?"
"I am not sure, but I would pit you against any two or five Malkurian Guardsmen anytime," the King responded. "Her coach was attacked by orcs and the entire escort was killed. I sent out additional patrols, but they have turned up nothing yet."
"I have also encountered orcs, Uncle," Aaron explained. "Two squads worth on the highway south-east of Dria. I do not know if it is related or not."
"There have been raids along the highway between here and Malkur as well," the King responded. "If these are patrols testing our strengths and are part of a much larger offensive, then we had better be prepared. I am worried about sending her home, so you guarding her will be a load off of my mind."
"Well, I will try to handle her with a gentle touch," Aaron smiled. "If not, there is always a bull whip."
"Yes, a bull whip might just work," King Thane chuckled.
"Uncle, I really do have several errands to run," Aaron continued. "I should be back by dinner."
"Oh, yes, of course," King Thane chuckled again. "I was just picturing you, her, and a bull whip."
"By your leave?" Aaron asked, performing a perfect sweeping bow.
"Knock it off," the King laughed. "Get out of here."
"Yes, Your Majesty," Aaron bowed backing up, "Thank you, Your Majesty." Aaron turned and left the chambers.
"That man is so exasperating!" Lady Laura huffed. "He does not even know to show me the proper respect."
"Who, Lady Laura?" Lady Laura's chaperone, Lady Colleen asked, knowing quite well who.
"That guard, Master Whiterune," Lady Laura huffed and stomped her foot.
"I am sure he did not mean to be," Colleen replied. "He seemed a little distracted to me."
"Exactly," Lady Laura replied. "He should pay stricter attention when a noble is addressing him."
"Perhaps he was determining how best to protect you?" Colleen tried to calm her down. "He is a SwordMaster, after all, they do not just give that away."
"Well, I will give him another chance to prove himself," Lady Laura finally conceded. "But, I do not see why I need him? I have Rene and Michele to guard me. They have protected me well so far."
"The King and your father are worried about the trip to Malkur, my lady," Colleen tried to explain. "They feel that the attack on the road to Aithen was not random. They also feel that you are a target, my lady. Your safety is paramount, and the King is offering one of the guild's best."
"So everyone keeps saying," Lady Laura huffed. "He does not seem all that special to me. Rene, what do you think?"
"His physique and demeanor are misleading, my lady," Rene replied, as Michele nodded in agreement. "There is death in his eyes, and power radiates from him. I would not take him lightly."
"Hmmp," Lady Laura snorted in disgust. "No one ever takes my side. I am going to lie down."
After Lady Laura went to lie down Colleen turned to Rene, "Thank you for helping to calm her down.
"Do not misunderstand me, Lady Colleen," Rene admonished her. "I did not say what I said to take your side or to placate Lady Laura. That SwordMaster is dangerous and should not be taken lightly. He may be on our side now, but there is something about him that causes me concern."
"He is a predator, Lady Colleen," Michele interjected. "Never turn your back on a predator."
"I will keep that in mind. Thank you," Lady Colleen nodded. "You had better go after her." The two bodyguards bowed and followed after their charge.
"I just hope we never become the prey," Lady Colleen shuddered and went to get lunch.
Aaron and Rac-Nur left the palace and headed back down to the lower city and the Central Quarter. Aaron stopped at the entrance to the seedy taproom and drew power from the area. After absorbing sufficient power they entered the 'Deathmark' taproom and Aaron directed Rac-Nur to a table by the rear.
"I may have need of you," Aaron explained. "I may bring you to me if there is trouble."
Rac-Nur nodded and crossed his arms, hands on the pommels of his swords.
Aaron walked over to the bar, and slid his assassin's token across the bar top. The bartender picked up the token and placed it in a depression behind the bar. A section of the back wall slid open and Aaron entered a small entryway with a door on the opposite wall. Walking up to the door Aaron knocked three times.
"Enter, Master Whiterune," Aaron heard from behind the door.
Aaron entered the council room and nodded to the assembled masters. In attendance were Lords Gnola, Qatar, Elwes, and Remy. Lord Elwes was a human from the Southern Reaches, and newly appointed to the council.
"Greetings, august lords," Aaron smiled. "I have decided to relocate west and was interested in purchasing a controlling interest in a floundering merchant house; one that finds itself low on funds and is either located in Malkur or has an office there. Would the 'council' know of a house that fits those requirements?"
"Master Whiterune?" Lord Gnola admonished. "Is it not proper to show respect to the 'council'?"
"Lord Gnola, I have nothing but the utmost respect for the 'council', and its members," Aaron replied with that feral grin. "I just no longer find myself in a subservient role."
"And what role do you find yourself in?" Lord Elwes asked, leaning forward.
"Non-competitive equals, my good lords," Aaron replied, cautiously placing his hand on Black Rose. "Lords, I did not come here to bicker. I came here because I respect this council's knowledge, and hoped to borrow from it. If I am in error, I apologize and will withdraw."