The Balance of the Rose - Cover

The Balance of the Rose

Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy

Chapter 9

Mann awoke the next morning still thinking about the events from the previous evening. Something had happened to Karith and she had called out to him through their link. He did not completely understand the bond they shared, but he knew he could sense her through it and, apparently, communicate as well. He sensed her fear and sent reassurance, love, and just as important, power through the link. He knew she was all right, and he reassured her that he was on his way.

The sergeant was an efficient man and had the camp broken down, the wagons hitched, and the caravan ready to travel an hour after sunrise. It was a cold morning, the coldest so far, which did not bode well for their continued travel. Benito commented that he expected snow on the pass across the Alps. Mann looked at him blankly and Alexander had to explain about Mann's lack of memory and then went on to explain snow. Mann agreed after the explanation that the weather during their travels was going to get decidedly worse.

The day went like the one before, easy travel on the road with little traffic. They were farther away from Milan and late enough in the season that caravans had already made their trek across the passes. The late harvest was still in the fields and farmers were preparing to bring it in. All in all, the trip so far was boring and Benito, the captain of the guard was content to keep it that way. That was not to say that he did not take his responsibility seriously, or that he was complacent, because he did and he was not. He had scouts ahead of the caravan sweeping their advance and he also maintained a trailing rear guard just in case. So far the added precautions were just that, precautions, but he did not plan to be caught with his pants down.

Alexander proved adept in the saddle and he split time between riding beside Benito, at the front of the column, and Mann, at the middle near Maria's carriage. He even spent some time with the rear guard as well. Mann was impressed with the young man's diligence with learning how to lead a company. Alexander wanted a command but thus far his father had balked at such an outrageous idea. Alexander wanted to prove him wrong and spent time picking not only the captain's brain, but the sergeant's and Mann's as well. While the captain and sergeant were well versed in soldiering, Mann had little knowledge of group tactics, but he was able to pass on tracking and one-on-one conflict resolution, as he called it. Alexander laughed at Mann's description of single combat, both armed as well as unarmed. Mann huffed in feigned indignation and explained that gentlemen such as Alexander should never sink so low as to fight with their enemies. He continued to explain that where he came from honor challenges were serious affairs and followed strict guidelines. Conflict resolution, Mann explained, was the proper way gentlemen settled disputes, and usually involved a judge to ensure that the rules were followed. The two had a lively discussion, interrupted on several occasions by Benito, who had his own ideas on how to 'resolve conflicts', and it had nothing to do with honor or judges. Their discussions helped to make the time go by in the saddle and ease the boredom of the road.

Karith was up at daybreak and went through her morning routines before dressing and leaving her residence in search of her father. He answered her knock and she entered his room to find him sitting at a desk working on his rendition of the sword he hoped to create.

"Just refining my drawing," Galt replied to her unasked question. "Not that it matters much since I cannot work the metal for it."

"I am not going to help you create that for him," Karith stated matter-of-factly. "A sword made of that metal will have a decided advantage in this setting, an advantage he will exploit to subject Europe first and everywhere else after."

"Karith, it is only a sword," Galt countered. "A finely crafted sword forged of a magical metal, but still just a sword. It is not as if I can make it live or anything."

"You are wrong, Papa, and in any case I will not be a part of it," Karith stated with finally. "Papa, I do not want to argue with you. I know how you can be about the things you craft but this is different. This is wrong. That metal will allow all matter of things to be done to that sword, even the trapping of an essence, a sentient essence."

"I disagree and I will not argue with you any longer. It is just metal, nothing more and I intend to finish the commission, with or without your help. Come let us go down to have breakfast, and then I need to get to the shop."

Karith shook her head but followed her father down to the dining room. Tarn was not there, but dishes and silverware had been set for two so they sat and servers entered the room bringing breakfast. Karith kept her thoughts to herself but she knew that there was no way her father would finish the sword. No way, that is, if she had anything to say or do about it.

Tarn was sitting at his desk in his office contemplating the turn of events while his guests were having breakfast. It seemed fortune had smiled on his plans again.

"So, she was in the north of Spain all that time," he slowly shook his head, while he pondered that tidbit of information. "I was close, so very close. She must have sensed me and fled the area. I wonder where she is now?"

In his younger days he had taken a more intimate and active role in the expansion of his empire, a role that brought him into direct conflict with his enemies. In one such battle, he had engaged a woman mercenary who had surprised him with her abilities. In the midst of their struggle, it dawned on him that she was more than a mere human fighter, oh so much more. He was stunned to learn that another of his race was alive and a female to boot. He wondered if she even knew herself. In the midst of her swing, he reached out and grabbed her, trying to pin her arms to her sides. She fought him every step of the way as he tried to dominate her. He felt a small fledgling bond in place and prepared to strip it away when he was attacked from his unprotected flank. The attack did little damage, but it did interrupt his concentration, and the female, acting upon the momentary loss of control, broke his hold and fled the field before he could recover. In his anger he slew all within his reach, friend and foe alike. From that moment on he had searched for her everywhere, but to not avail. She had vanished and his chance had vanished with her.

"Well, if I cannot have the mother, I will have the daughter," he proclaimed. "That bond was stronger than I thought. So, this white-haired stranger is a Wyrm. I did not expect that but it does explain a lot."

Standing up, he crossed over to his bookshelf, looking for an ancient tome which contained the oldest recorded information on his people. There was a way to circumvent a bond; he just needed to read up on it. He would have his princess and no upstart would get in the way.

Karith had little to do now that she had at last found her father. He was busy in the shop trying to solve the issue with the right type of heat for working the archanite. She had spent the remainder of the morning practicing her sword forms and the simple exercises Tanith had shown her to improve her usage of Eldritch. She actually missed the conversations with her other self, and wished she had them back. Marianne helped a little and two had become, if not fast friends then at lease conversational friends. Even Alfred had proven helpful in the initial searches for her father, and now he provided information on places to explore and general information about the keep and grounds. After spending the morning honing her skills, she went in search of Marianne and conversation. She was still troubled by her father's single-minded, almost reckless, pursuit of the perfect sword and needed to clear her head.

Tarn was still poring over the tome, looking for references to bonding, when a knock on the door interrupted him.

"Come," he replied to the knock.

Ciril entered the study and approached the desk, lowering his head and waiting for his master to acknowledge his presence.

"Yes?" Tarn asked, looking up from the old book.

"My Prince, we believe the white-haired stranger was in Milan as late as two days ago. Our emissary there is dead."

"What about the Archduchess?"

"Alive and unharmed and apparently on her way back to Vienna," Ciril replied. "The caravan left yesterday with a full company of royal guardsmen."

"Is the white-haired stranger with her?"

"I do not know," Ciril replied, shaking his head. "We have been unable to determine that, although we are still investigating."

"Savoy and then Milan. You do not suppose that he is trying to get here?" Tarn asked, pondering the question.

"There is no way he could know the location of the castle."

"I wonder? Find the route that the caravan is taking and intercept it. I still want the Archduchess and more's the better if he is there as well."

"Yes, My Prince," Ciril replied and bowed as he backed out of the room. "It will be as you command."

Tarn sat at his desk with his fingers steepled, the tips in front of his lips, staring at the closed door, deep in thought. Too many questions, too much uncertainty. He needed answers, he needed more information. He disliked doing so, but he needed to confer with his patron. Getting up from his desk, he crossed the room and opened a side door, the very same door that he and Karith used to shift to the workshop where her father had been held. He stepped through the doorway and closed the door behind him.

Tarn reappeared in a different room then the one leading to the shop. Stepping out of the closet into a square room about 20 feet across he gingerly walked around a large pentagram inlaid in the solid marble floor in the center of the room. He began to light braziers in all four corners of the room, and then lit the large candles at the cardinal points of the pentagram. He waited to light the last candle after stepping into the center of the pentagram.

The last candle was the key to his preparations, for it was the personal candle of his patron and the guide to where he was going. After lighting the last candle a silver beam of energy appeared from one candle to the next, highlighting the lines of the symbol. A shimmering dome of energy encompassed the symbol on the floor, sealing Tarn within its protection. Tarn knelt and his vision blurred for a moment as he was plane-shifted to the hall of his patron.

When his vision cleared Tarn was kneeling within a pentagram in a dimly lit chamber. His vision was obscured by a thick, oily, smoky mist but he could just make out shapes moving back and forth outside the lines of the symbol of protection. As more of his senses returned he began to hear low moaning in the background.

"What is it you require?" A soft, gentle voice spoke from within the mist.

"Lord Azeroth, a moment of your time."

"What is it, Prince Tarn?" The same voice asked.

"Are there other factions in play?" Tarn asked, head still bowed. "I ask because lately my plans have been thwarted on several different and unrelated fronts. As if someone or something is actively moving against me."

"You are correct, your overzealous ambition has brought you unwanted attention," Lord Azeroth, Prince of Lies, replied as he stepped forward toward the protection pentagram. "Attention that unfortunately I am unable to help you with. Attention that may spill over to me and mine, and therefore I must protect myself."

Lord Azeroth, Prince of Lies, was one of the Principalities of Evil. Slight of build, immaculately dressed in white jacket and trousers with a red cummerbund and cravat. Shoulder length brown hair and brown eyes. Completely unremarkable in both looks and presence.

"Lord Azeroth, I do not understand," Prince Tarn replied, looking up.

"Your ambition has become your downfall," Lord Azeroth replied, placing his hands on the boundary of the protection and pushing on the shield. "You should have moved slower and more subtly. The sorcerers were the final straw. Your excessive use of Eldritch, in a world that does not use it, has tipped the scales too far over to recover naturally.

"You encouraged me every step of the way. You even gave me insight into the opposition's plans. It was you who mentioned the use of sorcerers coupled with my power."

"That was then and this is now. All of what you have said is true but our association must come to an end. The scales will have to be brought back into balance."

"How can you say I was overzealous?" Tarn asked. "You never said do this but use restraint, or here is a great gift but be cautious. It was you that guided me, even gifting me that bar of magical metal."

"What bar?" Azeroth asked.

"The bar of silver metal with the runic symbol engraved in its top," Tarn replied, describing the bar of silver star of archanite. "The one you had delivered to me by one of your minions."

"I know of no such gift, nor would I have trusted such a powerful item with one of my servants," Lord Azeroth replied. "I would not be so foolish as to give you an item that would so completely tip the scales that there would be no way for them to re-balance on their own."

"Then who did?"

"I do not know," Lord Azeroth spoke with finality in his voice as he continued to press against the protective shield of the pentagram. "Do not contact me any longer; our association is at an end."

"Are you testing my protections?" Tarn asked, voice tinged with anger, finally noticing his patron's actions.

Tarn stood tall within his protective symbol and began to draw power.

"I am not some weak minion, Prince of Lies," Tarn declared as power flow all around him. "You may be a Godling but I am a Wyrm!"

Power flashed within the confines of the pentagram as the shapes faded back within the mist.

"Now, Prince Tarn, there is no reason to get testy," Azeroth replied, stepping back. "You puff up nicely behind the protection of your shield. First born you may very well be but before you were a thought I existed. You should leave now."

Tarn felt the shift as his vision blurred before returning to his secret room. Before blowing out any candles he visually checked the room for dangers. Satisfying himself that he was relatively safe, he blew out each of the candles and then extinguished the braziers before leaving the room for his study. Upon returning there, he had Ciril summoned and waited for him to arrive.

The audience with his patron did not go the way he thought it would. He felt as if had had been left twisting in the wind. What did Azeroth mean about 'scales' and 'balance'? He had gone on about it several times, why did it matter if the balance had shifted in his favor? And what of the bar of metal? Azeroth said he had not sent it; but if he had not then who did? Why would someone want him to believe that his patron had sent a gift when in fact he had not?

Azeroth was the one to suggest several of the ideas that he had put in motion and now to say that Tarn was on his own and those same ideas were somehow responsible for the unwanted attention. Something more was going on and Tarn was stuck, smack in the middle. Could this stranger be involved somehow? Was it just coincidence that brought the stranger into Karith's life and into direct conflict with him? Was it just chance that he had selected Galt to create his sword, a man whose daughter just happened to be a Wyrm? The daughter of an old adversary with whom he had almost forced a bond? A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.

"Come," Tarn growled the command.

Ciril entered and bowed his head. "You summoned me, My Prince?"

"What have you learned in regards to the caravan's route?"

"They intend to take Brenner Pass across the Alps. They will be there in two days."

"Excellent!" Tarn replied. "I want a welcoming party to meet them at the pass, after Sterzing but before they reach Innsbruck. Capture the Archduchess, do what you will with the rest."

"And if the white-haired stranger is with them?"

"Kill him but be cautious. I am told he is powerful."

"Yes, My Prince," Ciril replied. "It will be as you command."

"Be about your orders, Ciril," Tarn replied, waving his hand in dismissal. "Do not disappoint me."

Ciril nodded and bowed his head as he backed out of the room and closed the door behind him. Tarn returned to the ancient tome and his research. He needed to find an answer, now more than ever. It was several hours later that he came across a vague reference to an obscure ritual; a potion and associated incantation to break or shift a soul bonding. Breaking was perhaps the wrong word, based on the vague description; it shifted the bond to another. The tome referenced another older manuscript; the 'Book of Arn', that Tarn did not have. He needed solid information but was at a loss as to where to go to get it. He initially thought about Azeroth, but knew that that avenue for information was closed to him now. There were other Principalities of Evil, but would any grant him an audience and more importantly, would they have the information he required? Finally deciding that nothing ventured, nothing gained, he closed the book and retraced his steps and actions and found himself once more in his secret audience chambers.

The ritual he was about to undertake had not been performed in sometime; well, not since pledging himself to Lord Azeroth. After lighting the braziers situated in the four corners of the room, he went to a small cupboard and removed an opaque glass jar and silver spoon. He scooped out several spoonfuls of the crystalline substance from the jar and sprinkled it on top of the smoking braziers. A red smoke began to waft up from the braziers, filling the room with a sickly, sweet smell. He removed the candles from the points of the pentagram and replaced them with brand new tallow candles and lit them as well. He began to chant as he gathered power.

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