A ride toward harsh wisdom

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Into the old dungeons

“ Valette, you need to stay still, I can’t do the stiches otherwise.”

“ Just hurry up please, it’s irritating me”

“ You never complain about her touching you at night, oh Madam D’orzerge.”

“If you even think about grabbing your prick Demlun, I shall rip it off and feed it to you!”

It had been five days since Rilleux Lacrossie and his fellow pilgrims had passed into the woods of Txarral, under the guidance of Mer Papin. On this fifth day, an hour past noon, he and the others were taking a minute to rest after another bloody skirmish, this time against a pack of xaran Dreagonlings. They were laying in what appeared to be the ruins of an old fortress, though all that remained where the walls, which where overgrown with moss and vines. Their horses where tied to trees about thirty yards away, standing quietly and chewing what grass they could get. In this open space, they could feel the cold sunlight upon them, and Rilleux silently thanked the stars that there had been no rain today.

Every one of his limbs ached, and added to the squelch of copious sweat under armour, on a body that had not bathed in days, Rilleux could safely say that he wasn’t comfortable. He knew his companions all felt similar to him, and that was the surest reason behind the increased tension. All of them had snapped at each other in the course of the week, with Valette and Demlun nearly coming to blows. Even Rohais, whom Rilleux had assumed to be as kind and patient as anyone, had sworn at all of them a couple of times. Still, she was the only one who ever apologised afterwards.

While they sat around, Mer Papin had left them for a while, as was his custom after any skirmish. They’d stopped questioning his absences days ago, and simply let him come and go as he pleased.

He and Rilleux had not had any kind of meaningful conversation since their talk before entering the forest, which had left the young warrior time to dwell on the old man’s advice regarding “ Balance, in all things.” He felt he had a good understanding of what that truly meant by now, and had thought of some ways about how he could apply that to his life. Still, there was a nagging doubt in his mind that he was misunderstanding something, and it was vital. Yet he couldn’t articulate what this was, so he had no idea how he’d ask Mer Papin about it. Not that he’d had any clear opportunities over the last few days, with all that they both had to do.

Yet he now had no regrets whatsoever about bringing the old man along, and even if they weren’t talking to each other all that often, he was glad of his company. He knew that Franclerk and the rest of them, no matter what other petty disagreements they had, could all unite in one opinion: Without Mer Papin, they’d be dead.

Since the first day they entered the woods, Mer Papin guided their path with such wisdom and care, that they could almost be convinced he was no mere man, but some kind of spirit of the forest. He seemed to be able to see through the thick trees, finding the best paths for them to ride. At least once an hour he would stop, and put his ear to the ground. After a minute or so, he’d get back up again, and point the new direction in which they were to go.

The going was never easy, the forest every bit as wild and rough as they’d been told, but it seemed like Mer Papin was letting them avoid the worst of what Txarral’s woods had to offer. There were rumours of young warriors letting their horses ride into bogs, and sinking with them without a trace. Add that to the hundreds or so other rumours about poisoned leaves, sheer drops over waterfalls, and all kinds of other lethal dangers, to not be paranoid in these woods was to be foolish. Yet the young pilgrims could safely say they’d managed to avoid any unnecessary danger. They owed all that to Mer Papin, and more importantly to the fact that they always listened to him. Even Demlun, who’d never been one for respecting authority, shut his mouth and paid attention when Mer Papin spoke.

But to avoid any kind of peril would have missed the point of the pilgrimage, as they were tasked with bringing back tokens and trophies from slain foes. If pitfalls where one danger, ambushes where another, either from men or beasts. Their hands were always ready to draw their weapons, ever anticipating an attack.

Yet once again, the wise guidance of Mer Papin proved to be their salvation. Rather than fight off sneak attacks at every turn, it was them that could pick and choose their battles, and even launch sneak attacks on their own.

On their first day in the woods, Mer Papin had found the trail of what appeared to be escaped prisoners. Fugitives often made their way to Txarral, and they could be from anywhere. What exactly they hoped to do once they got here, no one could guess, but it seemed that desperation was the most obvious motive.

Mer Papin had bid them dismount and follow him on foot, as he would do so for every subsequent encounter they would have. Tying up their horses, they let him lead them to where the fugitives were camped.

They found them in a small clearing, not so much camped as huddled. There were twelve of them, eight men and four women, and their ragged appearance made it impossible to determine just how old any of them where. None of them had any armour to speak off, but all of them carried weapons of some kind, be it a shortsword, hand axe, or rusty dagger.

If any of these criminals were worth something in terms of a bounty, it was of no matter to Rilleux, or his companions. Taking prisoners was out of the question, and even if they did, those they managed to drag back to Illpialle would simply face a swift hanging.

They’d been able to sneak fairly close to them, Mer Papin letting them go on ahead once they’d caught sight of their targets. The old man had no illusions about being much of a warrior, preferring to let the youngsters get their hands dirty. Still, Rilleux suspected that he might have something up his sleeve when he needed it.

Once they had gotten closer to them, it was time for Franclerk to demonstrate his talent with a bow. The third son of the count of Boug had missed out on inheriting the family sword, as well as the mace, so in response he’d dedicated his martial training to an unfashionable weapon for nobles to use.

When the first arrow pierced the neck of a fugitive who’d gotten up to piss against a tree, his companions began to understand the merits of his rigorous daily training. Their understanding grew even stronger as he strung and loosened another arrow in a matter of seconds, striking another fugitive straight in the heart before the ragged band had fully processed that one of them was dead. A few more seconds, and another was down, this time one of the women with an arrow right between her eyes.

Feeling that the odds where now even enough, the pilgrims broke cover and descended upon their foes, who were just now realising the situation they now found themselves in. The odds were still against Rilleux’s group, two to one, but they had the advantage of years of brutal training, and the element of surprise.

It wasn’t a long battle, but it was bloody. Rilleux remembered bashing his shield full into the face of one man, a skinny specimen who fell to the floor with blood streaming from his face. He’d let Valette finish him off, driving her greatsword down into his neck, while he covered her back against a new opponent.

This was a bigger man, who carried a large club. Using his shield again, he blocked the heavy downward blow of the club, the force of it causing a jolt of pain to go through his arm. Powering through it, he stabbed his blade forward, finding his mark in the stomach of his foe. The brute let out a howl of pain, dropping his club, yet he did not fall down. Rilleux could sense him trembling, as he did his best to tug his sword out of his flesh.

Realising that Rilleux was now effectively stuck, the burly man soon overcame his pain. Raising his arms above his head, he bought his two fists down upon the young warriors shoulder, missing his head by inches. The force of the blow made Rilleux loosen his grip on his sword, and he staggered back a foot or two, slightly shocked that his foe had that much adrenalin left.

Before he could even ready himself for another blow, he saw his foe’s head separate from his shoulders. As the large body fell to the ground, Rilleux saw Demlun smirking, fresh blood on his twin swords.

“ Keep up Rilleux, I can’t always save your arse!”

Ignoring the jibe, Rilleux went to retrieve his sword from the freshly made corpse. Upon looking up, he observed the battle was all but over. Rohais was bringing her mace down upon the head of a cutlass wielding man, the force of the blow causing his brain matter to splash against the ground. Three fugitives lay dead at her feet, all bearing evidence of her blows upon them. Franclerk was retrieving an arrow from the man he’d killed mid-piss, it being buried deep in the man’s windpipe. Demlun and Valette where facing each other, three dead bodies showing signs of their blades. Valette was staring daggers at Demlun, who bore a smug look upon his face.

“ You know that last one was my kill, you Curly Cuntbag!”

Demlun shrugged his shoulders “ Should have been quicker then, that’s the disadvantage of carrying about that massive thing. That’s a brute’s tool, no finesse at all.”

“ Shove your finesse up your arse sideways, before I put this brute’s tool there myself!”

Luckily, the three other pilgrims were able to stop this argument resulting in another dead body, Rohais embracing her lover from behind in order to sooth her rage. Franclerk glared at Demlun, but said nothing. With disaster averted, the grim business of cleaning up after the battle could begin.

In around an hour, they gathered the corpses, put them in a pile, and started a fire in order to burn them. Whilst they did this, they also cleaned the blood off their weapons and armour, Rilleux’s sword in particular smothered in gore. They also took time to take a few breaths, the work of the skirmish, though short, being more than a little strenuous.

In time, Mer Papin joined them again, and congratulated them on a well fought engagement. He told them he’d been watching them from a tree, and had been impressed by all of them. He bade them follow him back to their horses. Which were still safely tied up.

Thus, every day they had fought at least one skirmish, all of which were challenging, but not foolhardy. On the second day, they came upon a pack of wolves, prowling by a pond as they took their daily drink. In a similar manner to how they took out the fugitives, they were able to ambush them, Franclerk’s arrows piercing more than a few fur coats before the fight proper began. Rilleux fared a little better in this engagement, at least in his opinion, felling three wolves by his own hand. Of course, he still couldn’t keep up with Rohais, the Castellan’s daughter killing twice that amount. Her movement in battle was nothing short of amazing, the swing of her mace almost looking effortless in its grace and brutality. In this fight, Rilleux also observed Franclerk making use of his training in Hudlavet, the unarmed fighting style that was traditionally practiced by archers, when they needed to get up close and personal.

On the third day, they came across a pair of the brutish creatures known as Grukshex ogres. These humanoid, grey skinned monsters stood at twice the height of a man, with arms and legs as wide as tree trunks, and faces so hideous that looking upon them made ones stomach turn. Hoilettan children’s tales spoke of these creatures as bone-eaters, who kidnapped wandering truants in order to cook them in a stew. Rilleux remembered wetting his bed one night after seeing them in a nightmare, and even looking upon them now made his bladder feel weak. If looks weren’t bad enough, their stench made them all queasy, and Rilleux could not begrudge Demlun for vomiting into some bushes.

Yet once again, they had the advantage of being able to ambush their foes, and the battles they’d faced had hammered home the fact that they were no longer children. The two ogres were walking through an open area, side by side, and the pilgrims had been able to follow their tracks without needing Mer Papin’s aid.

Franclerk had fired an arrow directly into the larger one’s back, hitting it in the middle of its spine. The ogre let out an almighty roar, slumping to its knees with a thud. It continued to roar in frustration, but it could not move a muscle, the arrow having hit a vital nerve, causing almost total paralysis.

Meanwhile, the smaller ogre had noticed the others predicament, and a sniff of the air told it where the arrow had come from. Within moments, it was charging in Rilleux and the others direction, mouth frothing in rage as it made to smash them into dust.

If they had not planned for this, the pilgrims might have wilted in fear. But their nerve held, and they stood in a tight cluster as the ogre approached. At the last possible moment, they stepped in unison to two sides, men on the right and women on the left. The ogre charged through where they had been standing, and as it did so, each of the warriors struck, stabbing and bashing the charging monster upon its flanks.

The ogre certainly felt their blows, yelling in pain as it ran past them. However, none of them were foolish enough to believe the fight was over, and the fact that their foe was already turning to charge them again proved that there was more to do. The monster was bleeding from it sides, but it’s movement didn’t seem all that hindered, its pace still as quick as ever as it made its way forward.

It made a beeline for Franclerk, who was aiming a shot directly at the ogre as he charged. He fired, and the arrow went straight into the deep forehead of the ogre. If Franclerk had expected that to be enough to slay the beast, or even slow it down, the loud yell and increased pace shattered all those hopes. The archers face turned a deathly white as the ogre bore down upon him, blood pouring down its face in a mask of fury and terror.

Dropping his weapons to the ground, Rilleux, moving as quick as he could, leapt towards Franclerk, tackling him to the ground and out of the way of the charging monster. Tumbling to the side at the last possible moment, the pair of them crashed to the ground in an unflattering heap. Rilleux felt the ogre move past them, and silently thanked the stars that he’d been quick enough. Franclerk winced, the force of Rilleux’s tackle enough to crack an unarmoured man’s ribs, but the look on his face conveyed all the gratitude in the world.

Rilleux turned his head to see Demlun running towards the ogre, and in a blink of an eye he was leaping on its back, twin blades sinking into its shoulders. Rather than falling over, the ogre began to flail around wildly, Demlun’s swords stuck in it’s flesh. Demlun began to cling on for dear life, legs swinging in the air as the ogre moved around, it’s arms reaching behind it’s back in a futile attempt to pry the irritant off.

Those efforts stopped abruptly the moment the ogre felt its right kneecap crack apart, courtesy of a blow from the mace of Rohais La- Harpenay . Rilleux could almost feel sorry for the creature, the sound of the bone cracking truly hideous.

As the ogre slumped to one knee, it’s right leg now entirely useless, Valette made her move, plunging her greatsword deep into the ogres belly. Another yell of agony escaped its mouth, and Demlun took this chance to leap down to the ground, leaving his swords where they were for now.

Again, these blows did not prove to be enough to take the ogre down. Valette was now in a similar predicament to Demlun, her weapon lodged right in the creatures flesh. Valette tugged with all her might, but to no avail, and the ogre was now turning its head towards her. Slowly it began to raise its left arm, winding up for a devastating strike. Rohais let out a cry of panic, moving towards her lover.

Rilleux’s instincts took over, and he leapt to his feet.

With a voice as loud as he could physically manage, he yelled out “ HEY, UGLY, OVER HERE!!”

Stars be thanked, the brute heard him, and it’s momentary hesitation gave Rohais the time she needed to pull Valette back, the Greatsword of the D’orzerge family left lodged in the innards of their foe. The ogre began to slowly turn around, staying on one knee as it slowly inclined its head toward Rilleux, who was now facing him armed and ready.

Banging his sword against his shield, he stared the ogre directly in the eyes, hoping they betrayed none of his inner fear. Luckily, his foe took it for the display of strength Rilleux intended, and roared in response. Without thinking, Rilleux found himself roaring back, more than likely looking like a complete madman in front of his companions.

What was even more likely to seal that opinion in their minds was what he did next. With his shield raised high, he ran straight towards the ogre, who was now lifting both of its arms above its head, ready to bring them down upon him.

In doing this, it had mad its last, and most fatal mistake. Picking up his speed, Rilleux now dropped his shield, and gripped his sword with both hands. As the ogre brought its arms down, Rilleux brought directly before the ogre. As the realization dawned on its face, he stabbed upwards into the foul beings throat, slashing from left to right as he opened up its skin. Dark blood began to flow from the open wound, and with a last whimper and a fading of light from its eyes, the ogre was finally slain, Rilleux being forced to duck to one side as its body slumped forward, crashing on the ground.

Rilleux looked up to see Franclerk standing by the paralysed ogre, his dagger in hand. Stabbing at the base of its neck, he put the creature out of its misery. Rilleux silently thanked the stars for all the fortune that had led to Franclerk being in their group. If they had had to fight two ogres at the same time, none of them may be alive.

Demlun was tugging his swords out of the ogres back, huffing in strain and irritation about the indignity of it all. Valette would have been doing something similar, but for Rohais pinning her down, lips upon hers as tears flowed from her eyes. It took a whole two minutes before the two separated, during which time the men had no idea where to look. Again, Mer Papin emerged after the battle was done, and once congratulations were doled out and rest was taken, the journey continued.

The fourth day brought along the Arusha, or the Great bear in the modern tongue. These bears were said to have existed in the land before the first stars fell, and that the earliest peoples had nearly been wiped out by their rampaging hunger. They were all at least twice the size of an average bear, with claws to match, and a ferocity that made Grukshex ogres look gentle. Mer Papin had picked up its trail almost immediately after they had woken up and struck camp, and had told them that it was likely heading into the denser areas of the forest, where the trees where tightly packed together.

Taking on the bear on the ground would have been risky enough in an open area, but in such tight quarters it was suicide. They almost decided to give up on it there and then, but Demlun insisted they make a try for it. Arusha pelts where worth their weight in gold, as only the greatest hunters ever brought them out of the Txarral forests. Demlun had promised at least six girls a bear pelt, and the gift of one from an Arusha would earn him, in his words at least, “ a Fucking that would be sung of for generations.”

With Demlun motivated entirely by his dick, the pilgrims were at an impasse. With a grin, Mer Papin spoke up, telling them of how he envisioned them catching this bear. All of them listened attentively, as although they groaned at Demlun for his crude reasons for it, they all desired the pelt of an Arusha for themselves. Bringing one back home would certainly impress any of their parents, and would make a great trophy for their personal collections.

So it was that they found themselves high in the trees, gingerly clambering from branch to branch as they made their way to where the great bear supposedly waited for them. They’d balked a little at Mer Papin’s suggestion when they had first heard it, as none of them had climbed trees since they were little children. Yet Mer had refreshed them on the basics, and before long they were clambering up the large trunks like Aidhame chimpanzees. Negotiating their way through the tick upper branches was tricky, but Mer Papin was there to guide them along.

After around twenty minutes, they caught up to the bear. It was a white Arusha, likely down form the northern edges of the forest and was making its way through the trees slowly, the tight quarters making its movement difficult. Rilleux saw Demlun’s eyes light up, and he couldn’t blame him. The White coat of the bear seemed to shine, and it began to make sense why some people believed the Arusha had mystical energy within them.

At Mer Papin’s signal, Franclerk drew his bow, and took aim. Another signal, and he fired, his arrow striking the bear in the side of its thick neck. It let out a roar of agony, stopping in its track and looking up, trying to find who had dared to strike it.

Mer Papin signalled again, and in unison the Pilgrims leapt from the trees, weapons drawn and pointed down. As one, they landed on the bears back, the beast bucking upon the impact. Those with blades stabbed where they could, with Rilleux sinking his sword into the bears flank. Rohais had found herself near its head, and she brought her mace down directly onto its skull.

The bear roared again, and tried with all its might to shake its attackers loose, but Rilleux and the others held on for dear life, and stabbed and struck again and again. It was a brutal and fierce struggle, but eventually the bear began to slow down, as its blood began to flow freely down its coat. Another few blows, and it finally stopped moving, slumping to the ground. As its great bulk crashed down, Demlun was tossed onto the forest floor, landing flat on his back. He let out a yelp, and Rilleux could not help but be amused.

The bear had taken a great many blows before it had finally been slain, and it had bled a great deal. It had taken an hour for all of them to collect pelts that weren’t stained with blood, with Demlun taking some that were almost completely red. According to him, these showed a mark of authenticity, which would make the girls that much more impressed. It was odd to see how the Le-Sasbil heirs mind worked, but they all simply shrugged their shoulders and let him get on with it.

So after all of this, they had come to fifth day, and the fight against the Dreagonlings. These creatures were also supposed to be ancient, and some scholars speculated that they were merely descendants of larger monsters, who’d passed away with the first starfall. These lizards stood upon their hind legs, at around half the height of an average person. Their mouths were filled with razor sharp teeth, but their forearms were small and hardly useful in combat.

This time, they’d allowed their enemies to ambush them, but on ground that they chose. Mer Papin had informed them that the pack had caught their trail, and if they were caught whilst on the road, it would be trouble. Luckily, they had time before the Dreagonlings reached them, and the old guide had led them to the old ruins were now they lounged about. Here, they were able establish a strong defensive position, with their backs to a high wall. From here, the lizards could only come at them from one direction, and the pilgrims would be able to see them approaching from quite a distance.

Thus the Dreagonlings charged, hungry for their prey. Once Dreagonlings had picked up a scent, any semblance of rational thought disappeared, replaced by nothing but ravenous hunger.

As they came at them with reckless fury, Franclerk began his work with his bow, stringing and loosing arrow after arrow with even greater speed than he’d shown before. After a minute, the numbers of the Dreagonlings had been cut from twenty to fifteen, but their charge did not waver, and they reached the pilgrims, jaws snapping in anticipation.

This fight had been frenetic, bloody, and relatively quick. Their position had been well chosen, and by sticking close together, they were able to form a solid line of defence, swinging and slashing at their foes as they came. Still, the numbers were against them, and it took all their efforts not to be overwhelmed.

Even so, Rilleux could not help but be aware that Valette was not fighting as she usually did. Normally , her movements were more refined, her years of training clearly showing in precise, rehearsed swings of her greatsword. Here, there was wildness to her strikes, a kind of reckless abandon as she faced her foes, and her face betrayed the rage she was letting out as she took heads. This had resulted in her claiming the most kills in this skirmish, but in the course of her rampage, she’d taken the cut to the arm which had required stiches from Rohais.

Demlun had made a snide comment or two, and Franclerk had tried to lecture her on discipline in battle, but Rilleux knew to keep his mouth shut. This was due to the fact that he had a fairly good idea as to why Valette had acted the way she had, and it had everything to do with him being on watch at a certain time the night before.

If there had been one particular contributing factor to the collective tension within the group, it was the difficulty in getting any kind of decent sleep. They would ride for as long as they and their horses could physically manage, before dismounting and tossing their blankets down in any area that looked feasible to lie down in. after a quick meal, their came the issue of who would take first watch of the night.

This was the only part of their journey where Mer Papin was entirely useless, falling asleep the moment they had eaten. He’d explained this away on the second morning with some stories about being an old man, who needed his sleep far more than them. It was a crock of lies of course, but the pilgrims had been willing to begrudge him this one defect as an otherwise brilliant guide.

So it fell to them to take turns watching for danger, all agreeing to a period of an hour or so a night for each of them. When their turn was done, they were to wake up whomever it was who’s shift was next, with Valette often choosing to kick Demlun in the ribs when his turn followed hers. It had worked out so far, with no attacks at night, and Rilleux wandered if there was some kind of unnatural good fortune that kept them safe. Not that he would ungrateful if that was the case, but it would make losing precious sleep every night a pointless exercise.

On the fourth night, something did happen during his shift on watch, but it was nothing to do with any outside threat to the pilgrims. As Rilleux looked out towards the trees, straining his tired eyes for movement, he heard voices coming from the direction of where the others slept. He could tell right away that it was some kind of argument, and for a moment his chest tightened in fear, as someone or something must have snuck around him and attacked the others.

Yet upon listening closer, he could tell who exactly these voices belonged too, and that attack was not the concern here. It was Valette and Rohais, and it was obviously not a discussion that Rilleux should have overheard.

“ Valette, I don’t understand, what have I done?”

“ Nothing, it’s not you, just leave me alone!”

“ We don’t have to do anything tonight, but something’s clearly wrong. You know you can talk to me, please don’t shut me out!”

Rohais voice was desperate, pleading, and Rilleux could not help but feel incredible sorrow for her. This sorrow was quickly replaced by anger at what Valette said next.

“ Stars above, do you need to always be at my heels like some bloody puppy? Every day with that look on your face, its, its,……arrrrgh!

There was a stomping of feet as Valette stormed off, and in the same instant Rilleux could hear the sobs begin. Rohais was obviously trying to keep quiet, but it was to no avail.

Rilleux felt impotent for being able to do nothing but sit there, but he knew that if he went over to Rohais, she’d know that he’d been listening. Besides, Valette could come back, and take any efforts made by Rilleux to comfort her the wrong way. Besides, he wouldn’t have the first clue about what to say, and he’d probably make the situation much worse.

Still, what he’d heard deeply unsettled him, and he could only imagine how terrible the two lovers felt right now. He’d never imagined that Valette could say such things to Rohais, which obviously meant this was no trivial squabble. He brooded on this for at least another hour, before he eventually decided he could take no more, and roused Franclerk for his turn on watch.

The following day had been a constant attempt to avoid eye contact with either Valette or Rohais, lest Rilleux look betray his overhearing their conversation. The two still rode side by side of course, but did not exchange a word. They barely said anything to the others either, with Valette even forgetting to swear at Demlun for once. Of course, neither Franclerk or Demlun had the faintest idea what was going on, and were too absorbed in the business of staying alive to think too deeply on it.

But when Rohais was devotedly stitching Valette’s wounds, in spite of all that had happened the previous night, it was clear how deep her feelings were for the daughter of the D’orzerge family. It wasn’t hard to feel a little jealous of such devoted love, and Rilleux was reminded of a painful memory, long thought buried. As he looked up to the sky, his mind drifted to thoughts of home, of an autumn night when the rain hammered against the barn door, when nothing else mattered but-

“ I have a notion, if you’d all like to hear it.”

This sudden declaration from Demlun snapped Rilleux out of his idle reverie, and he turned to face the curly haired youth, who was now on his feet, again practicing his sword motions. His blades cut seamlessly through the air, making a faint whooshing sound as he moved his arms.

“ My notion is this. “ Demlun continued, now confident he had all of their attentions. “ We have now been out in this bloody forest for five days, getting sick of the weather, sick of sore arses, sick of eating trail rations, and sick of each other. Now the only fun parts, for me at least, have been the fighting, and that’s because I do enjoy stabbing things, I cannot tell a lie. “

“ Is this going somewhere?” asked Valette, who was obviously not in the mood for hearing too much more of Demlun’s voice.

“ Of course it is, oh Madam D’orzerge. We now have the trophies of five separate skirmishes to show for our efforts, the Arusha pelts the icing on a fine cake. While I do love fighting, too much of a good thing can make one weary of it, like lovemaking or sweet candy. I reckon we’ve done more than enough to constitute a decent pilgrimage, by anyone’s standards, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but my ma and pa didn’t expect much of me to begin with. So I propose we get on our horses, turn about the way we came, and ride for Illpialle in an hour or so. How does that sound?”

For a moment or two, no one spoke, all of them pondering on Demlun’s idea.

“ Someone sounds like he just wants to curl up by the fire, like an old pussycat.” Was the eventual taunt from Valette. “ What, does the spoiled brat want to go home to his mummy, because he doesn’t like the cold and the wet?”

Demlun sneered. “ You’re every bit as spoiled as me Valette, don’t you forget it. We all grew up in comfort, so let’s not try and pretend that this week has been a gritty time for all of us. There’s no point in putting on airs that you’re tougher than anyone else, miss steel britches.”

Valette seethed at that, and her fists clenched in preparation of knocking Demlun flat. Before she could act, Franclerk cut in.

“ Pilgrims normally spend at least two weeks in Txarral, don’t forget. If we go home too early, our parents will suspect something is up, and may even send us back up here.”

Demlun threw his arms up, exasperated “ then we don’t go straight home, you bloody dimwit! We spend a couple of days in Illpialle, maybe take the scenic route if we like. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I found Illpialle to be a perfectly charming town, and its women delightful!”

At this, Valette stamped her feet in anger. “ Again, this coward only thinks with his prick! All you want Demlun, is to traipse around like a mongrel shoving Arusha pelts in the face of every poor girl you harassed in Illpialle, hoping one of them eventually gives you a pity fuck!”

Demlun stood directly over her, his eyes narrowing. “ Well excuse me, but a man has needs! We can’t all take a copper haired beauty with us to bed each night, giving us a seeing to when everyone else is trying to sleep!”

That was the last straw. In less time than Rilleux could blink, Valette was on her feet. A swift movement of her fist, and Demlun was on the ground, flat on his back. He let out a cry of agony, swords falling from his hands as he reached them up to his nose. Rilleux could see the blood already start to flow from it, and he winced a little, imagining the pain Demlun must be feeling. Still, there was no question in his mind that he somewhat deserved it.

In another quick movement, Valette had her greatsword above her head, and was ready to bring it down on Demlun. Before anyone could stop her, she swung downward, and it was all Demlun could do to roll out of the way before the blade reached him.

“ Stop it Valette, please!” Screamed Rohais at last, desperately tugging at Valette’s arm, trying her best to prevent her from making another attack. Meanwhile, Demlun had crawled over to Franclerk, who like Rilleux had simply watched the whole scene unfold in mute shock.

“ Get off me, I’ll fucking kill him!”

“ Shoot her Franclerk, she’s bloody lost it!” Pleaded Demlun, genuine terror in his eyes as he looked up at his would be protector.

Franclerk didn’t have the faintest idea what to do, and he began to quiver in his boots as he felt the whole situation overwhelm him. The confident and bossy archer had been replaced by a confused boy, and Rilleux decided he now needed to step in.

“ Demlun you bloody fool, apologise now!”

At this, Demlun looked at Rilleux, a betrayed expression on his face. Blood still flowed from his nose, and was beginning to stain his tunic.

“ She’s trying to bloody kill me! She’s a lunatic, I always said so!”

“ And you’re an asshole, you know that? You never know when you’ve gone too far!”

“ Take her fucking side then, I’ve got two swords, one for each of you!”

With that, Demlun got to his feet, grabbing his swords as he rose. Once upright, he stood in a combat stance, the fear on his face turned to raw anger. This was no bluff, he was entirely willing to shed the blood of his companions. This was the climax of tensions built over a week of hard travel and bloody conflict, and stars above only knew how this would all end.

The scene now resembled something out of old Hoilettan tragedy, with all the melodrama and violence that epitomised the genre. Valette had now roughly shaken off Rohais, who upon being shoved to the ground, began to wail desperately for her lover to lower her sword. Franclerk now fell to his knees, his hands upon his forehead as simply stared, wide eyed and opened mouthed, at the whole affair. Valette and Demlun stood across from each other, weapons drawn and ready. Both of them had their teeth bared, looking somewhat like snarling dogs as they watched each other, readying themselves for their next move. Rilleux was trying to shout, but nothing escaped his mouth, and foolishly, he reached for his sword.

“ My young friends, I have news, if you’d wish to hear it.”
Mer Papin was now standing between Demlun and Valette, and from the look on his face and the calmness of his voice, he seemed completely obvious to the whole argument going on around him. How he’d manage to get there without anyone noticing him could only be an act of a sage, surely one of the old tribal spells the guide had claimed to have skill in.

Valette and Demlun instantly snapped out of their mutual bloodlust, jumping back from each other in shock as Mer Papin appeared. Franclerk let out a yelp of surprise, leaping to his feet. Rohais only looked relieved, Rlleux guessing that she was even more grateful than he at the old man’s presence.

If Mer Papin noticed their reactions to his sudden arrival, he did not show it. Instead he merely continued “ under these ruins, there are the remains of what was once a dungeon. I would imagine it worth exploring, if you youngsters are interested. It may provide a momentary distraction, from other more puerile and baser pursuits.”

At this last remark, he looked once at Demlun, and once at Valette. The two warriors lowered their heads as he did so, shameful of their actions. This reminded Rilleux of the scolding’s he’d get from his sword instructor, after being too reckless at morning drills.

“ Do you know what’s down there” Asked Franclerk, calmer now for the presence of the old guide.

“ Not a clue” Mer Pain replied, smiling. “ I only know that I’ve seen the entrance, and that it should be fairly easy for you all to get inside. From what I could smell and hear, nothing dangerous is inside.”

“ Why didn’t you go down there yourself?” asked Rilleux .

At this, Mer Papin grinned at him. “ I hate dark places, and dungeons most of all. That’s why I won’t be going down there with you, so if any of you want to explore for yourselves, it’s your risk to take.”

“ Do you know anything about this castle?” Asked Rohais, who was now on her feet. “ Like who built it, and might have lived here?”

“ There’s a hundred different tales, and so many claim to be the full truth or half of it. Some say an old Gardenan or Hoilettan outpost, abandoned once the settlements were all destroyed. There’s talk of the mad king Garrien planning on building the last of his great castles out here, his murder coming before work could be completed. My favourite one tells of the legendary King of Txarral having his stronghold here, and his gold staying here till this day.”

“ Now hang on”, Rilleux butted in. “ I’ve never heard any legend about a King of Txarral.”

Mer Papin shrugged. “ I didn’t say it was a well-known legend, only that it was my favourite. Likely they don’t tell it to noble brats, only in my home village.”

“ Whatever, is there likely to be gold, or anything worthwhile down there?”

At this interjection from Valette, Mer Papin gave a warm smile.

“ Who am I to know? Nothing comes from merely asking me about it, only exploration will give you the answers you seek. Though I don’t know what you’d want with gold, as we aren’t exactly near any stores.”

After this, there was a moment or two of silence, Mer Papin sitting down upon a loose stone, satisfied that he had no more questions to answer. Above their heads, a Cipon Falcon flew, letting out a loud cry.

“ Alright then”, said Valette, after a pause. “I guess I’ll go down. Rilleux, come with me.”

“ Me?” Rilleux could not help but be surprised by this. If Valette was to go anywhere, Rohais would surely have been her only companion.

He turned to Rohais, and as he expected, she looked very confused at this. However, she said nothing, merely staring at Valette with a look Rilleux couldn’t quite read.

“ Yes, I said you, do you have mud in your ears? At least two of us should go down there, the rest can stay and watch the horses.”

Rilleux looked to Franclerk and Demlun, but neither of them had anything to say. Franclerk was now inspecting his bow, trying to avoid anyone’s gaze. Demlun simply stood still, taking long deep breaths. He evidently still needed time to properly calm down, and being around Valette for much longer would not help matters.

“ Fine then” said Rilleux, looking back to Valette. “ We should set off now”. Turning to Mer Papin, he asked, “ Which way is it?”

“ Just a few minutes west of here, I’ll lead you”, Replied the guide. With that, he began walking in that direction, Rilleux and Valette following behind him. Before they lost sight of the others, Rilleux took a last look back towards Rohais. He saw that she was now curled up on the ground, knees pressed to her chin.

He had to find out what was happening with her and Valette, and soon.

Mer Papin led them down a wide path, managing to avoid clambering too many ruins along the way. As they walked, Rilleux noticed that there were more complete looking structures around him now, with the remains of what one might call towers or even small buildings lining their route. It led him to wonder just what this castle might have truly looked like in its prime, as it certainly seemed more important than a simple Hoilettan advanced fort.

After a minute or so of silent marching, they found what they were looking for. The entrance to the dungeons was, as they might have guessed, a hole in the ground. More exactly, it was a hole in the ground with the remains of what must have been stairs. Upon looking closer, they could see that the hole lead into some kind of tunnel, one that was fairly large and wide. From here, they’d be able to explore all of what had been the dungeons, and likely beyond.

Without a word, Mer Papin left them, this time simply walking back the way they had come rather than using a spell to disappear. Valette walked towards the stairs, and Rilleux was left with no choice but to follow her.

In two minutes, they had entered the tunnel, walked a hundred yards or so forward, and found themselves in what they could safely call the dungeons proper. The walls were lined with moss, the smell and feel of the place evident of it being unoccupied for centuries.

Still, as they walked in, the lanterns that hung on the wall light up, responding to their presence. While this may have startled some, the two warriors knew this as sagefire.

In almost every noble house in Hoilettan, a sage was employed, either permanently or on temporary hire, to serve the family and perform certain minor spells for their benefit. The most common of these spells was Sagefire, an enchantment which ensured that every lantern in the house would set itself alight the moment anyone walked near it. This was a great convenience to the nobles of Hoilettan, and made sneaking about the palaces at night nigh on impossible, deterring would be thieves and mischievous servants.

Even an average sage could make one of these enchantments last a century or two, so it stood to reason that a particularly powerful one must have been employed here. Again, this was another clue to the former stature of this place, as powerful sages tended to only serve the highest lords, with the most powerful among them being under the personal service of the royal family.

“ Alright, I guess this is far enough.”

Rilleux had been looking around himself, his mind slightly absent with thoughts about the castle, so he jumped slightly as Valette’s sudden remark. He turned around, and saw her leaning against a wall, arms folded across her chest.

“ What do you mean, far enough?”

Valette glared at him.” Did you really think I wanted to explore this place? There’s nothing down here, it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out . If any pilgrims or bandits have ever found this place, they’d have cleared it out years ago. “

“ So why are down here then, and why did you ask about gold?”

Valette was clearly irritated, and she spoke now in a slow, deliberate manner. “ I asked about gold to convince the others I actually wanted to come here, and I asked you along because I need to talk to you.”

Rilleux now understood the situation, and he felt he could be almost certain about what Valette might want to discuss. Still, he felt he should play it safe and simply listen for a bit. He leaned on the wall opposite her, and nodded for her to continue.

It took a moment for Valette to speak, Rilleux noticing her taking a deep breath as she composed herself.

“ I, shit. Where do I begin? Look, I’m sorry about what happened with Demlun just now. It was really stupid of me?”

Rilleux hadn’t expected that.

“ You’re sorry? Demlun had that coming, saying things like that. He’s been an ass this whole trip, I’m surprised you didn’t knock him out sooner. I-“

“ Shut it!” snapped Valette, interrupting him. “ Do you really think I need you sympathising with me and bitching about Demlun? He’s only an immature ass, I never should rise to jibes from him. He isn’t even that bad, compared to others I’ve had to deal with. Shit, he probably didn’t deserve what I did. I was trained to have more discipline than that.”

“ Were all stressed, It’s understandable.” Rilleux replied.

A part of him wanted to just get out with it and tell Valette he’d heard her and Rohais arguing, but deep down he knew it wouldn’t help. At best, she’d be annoyed he was listening, and at worst, she’d leave without getting off whatever was on her chest.

“ I can handle the stress, Rilleux, and Demlun should just be noise.” There was a pause, then she continued. “ But there’s something else, and it’s been eating away at me for five days now, longer than that even. That’s why I snapped today, and that why things might seem different with me and Rohais.”

Rilleux leaned back again. “ Go on.”

Valette hesitated again, then continued. “ I should begin by saying that for years, my parents have never once interfered in my personal life, so long as it didn’t hinder my training. I’m their only child, and I carry all the hopes of the D’orzerge bloodline. Luckily, I’ve managed to surpass even my father in skill, so that’s left me free to do as I’ve liked.

At least, until the start of this year, when our family sage confirmed my mother will bear no more children. They never told me, but my parents had been trying for years to have another child, when it became obvious I had no interest in men. My uncle was killed in the last war with Gardena, and he’d never married. As it stands, the D’orzerge family will end with me.”

Rilleux could not help but gasp. “ Stars above, I had no idea. The D’orzerge family line goes back to court of king Heilo. At least two of them formed part of Queen Frota’s Honour guard at the battle of Sirim-“

“ You sound like my tutor, so stop before if show you up by reciting our whole saga word for word. Yes, our family has a huge legacy, and I’ve felt the weight of it every day. It just,…. it never occurred to me that it might need more than my sword to preserve it. But now my parents are concerned with my private life, my father especially. Recently, it’s gotten worse.”

“ How so?” asked Rilleux. He didn’t like where this was going.

“ Around the time they found out no more children were on the way, I was seeing this merchants daughter from Darnald, Monabrie Sur-vin. Her father had been travelling along the road towards Treteres, but had had to stop at our castle to repair his wagon. We offered to let them both stay with us, and things went naturally from there.”

“ On the night after the news was broken, Monabrie and I were in my room. Out of nowhere, my door burst open, and my father charged inside. Before I could even react, He grabbed Monabrie by the hair and threw her off me, tossing her practically out the door. She ran away before she had time to get her clothes on.

I was too shocked to say anything, and that’s when he started screaming at me. I could tell right away he’d been drinking. He went on and on about how I was a failure as a daughter, that my conduct brought shame upon our whole house. He said he wished I’d been born a son, not as a, in his words, confused daughter. “

Rilleux had nothing, and made sure she could tell that he was still listening. He now hung on her every word.

“ In the morning he apologised, but the damage was done, and we couldn’t go back from there. Monabrie and her father left without a word, and I haven’t get involved with anyone after that, not while I was at home at least. I’m scared that if I do, my father would have another outburst, so I do my best to not even give any girls around the castle a second look.

I can’t simply avoid my father though, and things haven’t got much better. We’ve started arguing over the most petty things, always clashing whenever business of the castle needs to be discussed. Every time, it was clear that my father was really angry about me being gay, but he refuses to admit it. So he’s being passive about it, discreetly dismissing the pretty servant girls and refusing any noble daughters who wanted to lodge for the night.

But if you think I’ve had it bad, it’s nothing compared to what my mothers had to deal with . My father’s always been the kindest husband you could imagine, but now it’s clear my mother is barren, he’s started acting like a different man. He barely talks to her, He doesn’t want to eat with her, and he’s completely stopped going to her bedchamber.

When he does see her, he’s cold at best, and when he’s worse he starts saying all these awful things to her, calling her an old sow and a barren field. He spends half of his nights with some of the worst of his men, drinking himself half to death and bitching about me and my mother behind our backs. From what I gathered, he likes to rant about how women have brought ruin upon his house, and that it’s all due to curses or Gardenan spies or other paranoid crap.”

“ By my house Valette, I-…..” Rilleux had piped up, but instantly regretted it. He knew that no matter what came out of his mouth, it would simply be a platitude.

“ I can’t imagine what it must have been like.” There, that was better than nothing.

He was sure she’d snap at him, and momentarily avoided eye contact with her. Yet when he turned back, he saw that her expression hadn’t changed, her eyes still downcast as she bit her bottom lip.

“ You’re right, you cant. The worst part is, I actually feel sorry for my father, you know? It’s like his whole world has started to crumble, and its turned him into a stranger. I don’t know the man who’s taken his place, and I keep thinking it’s my fault.”

“ How in saints name is it your fault?!” shouted Rilleux, suddenly flush with anger. “ Yes, you may be gay, but it’s no excuse for your father to blame you for everything that’s happening to your house.”

“ You think that hasn’t occurred to me, Idiot!” Now Valette was annoyed, and Rilleux’s hand instinctively reached for his sword.

“ I know I can’t change who I am, and my father used to understand that. But now he hates me for it, because it stops him from hating himself too much. It’s gotten so bad, I’ve started wishing I was interested in men, and could have been married off years ago to pop out babies for our bloodline. It would have saved my mother at least, and my father might have stayed my father.

This last month before I’ve set out on pilgrimage, its escalated quickly. My parents argued with each other one night, Screaming so loud you could hear them screaming from the stable yard, and it was all about me. I ran to the common room, but before I could reach it, my father had struck my mother across the face. When I got in, her face was bleeding, and he was standing over her with the family sceptre in his hand. I managed to tackle him, and he tried to strangle me!

I found out he’s been meeting with a Dark sage, sneaking out of the castle at night to go to his cave. Stars know what he’s talking about with him, but my mother’s been terrified lately of what he might be planning. I’ve had to stay up with her night after night, trying to calm her down and stop her crying.

Then out of nowhere, he sent me out to join up with all of you. There was nothing I could do about it, he’d gotten the kings permission and everything. I hated leaving my mother alone with him, but if had to leave. Still, I made sure a couple of the guards I trust will keep her safe, no matter what my father tries.”

“ Valette, I don’t mean to make things worse, but I’ve read about what dark sages are capable of” Rilleux voice was low now, and he couldn’t disguise his fear. “ If your father is serious about meeting with one, you and your mother could be in serious danger.”

Valette ran her hands through her hair, gritting her teeth.

“ Don’t say any more, or I’ll go insane. I did get our family sage on my side, and he promised to put some ward spells in place without my father knowing. But I wanted to put everything going on at home out of my mind, or else I’d likely die out here. Then I met Rohais, and you can guess the rest. “

“ It’s good that you two found each other. I can tell she really cares for you.”

Then, before he could stop himself, Rilleux carried on “ But you still haven’t explained why you’ve been treating her like you have lately, and what’s going on at home is no excuse! You forget, she’s not just your lover, she’s my friend, and I can’t stand to see what you’ve been putting her through. I heard you two last night, so get to the damn point about why you’ve been a bitch lately!”

He’d felt himself lose control of his words as he said them, venting his frustrations without restraint. The icy chill of regret came the moment he finished, as he now saw Valette reaching behind her back, going for her greatsword.

Her eyes where flashing now, and Rilleux knew he couldn’t waste any time. In a second, he had his sword out in front of him, pointing it directly at Valette’s throat.

Valette could feel the steel close to her throat, and this was enough for her to put her hands down. The flash in her eyes was quickly switched to something between fear and sadness. Rilleux could swear he was seeing things, but it almost looked like Valette might be about to cry.

“ Fuck, Valette, I’m-“

“ Save it” she said flatly, cutting him off. “ You’re right, stars help me. I knew you must have heard us, and that you’d get at me eventually. But if you wanted to make me hate myself any more than I do now, it would be a waste of time.

Like I said, I’ve been trying to put all the crap at home out of my mind, and she’d helped a lot with that. Then the morning we were due to set out from Illpialle, someone at the inn handed me a letter from home. If I’d had any sense, I’d have thrown it out, but instead I read it. It was from my father.

He’s made an deal to have me betrothed to the son of a noble house, and that the arrangements for the wedding will begin the moment I return from pilgrimage. “

“ How can he do that!” Rilleux exclaimed, balling his fists in anger. “ He must know that even marrying you off isn’t going to bring him an heir, and it’s only going to harm your houses reputation when it ends in annulment.”

“ That’s the worst of it. He says he’s aware that my, well he refers to it as my situation, would ordinarily serve as a hindrance to any betrothal, and that for months he’s been making enquiries to other noble houses to marry me off with that in mind, all for nothing.

Then, he got a letter from one family who’d be willing to match me with their son. Their boy isn’t interested in being a husband, and my father tells me that I’d only ever have to spend one night with him, have one child, and then I’m free to do whatever I wish while he carries on his days of sleeping around.

That was it. He didn’t even ask how I am, or say anything about how things are back home. Nowhere does he ask if I consent to this, or anything like that. This is pure business, and once I’m married off and an heirs on the way, I’ll finally stop being an inconvenience to him.”

There was a long pause, both of them looking at the dungeon floor. All around them was silence, the ancient structure so thoroughly uninhabited that not even rats or spiders took residence here.

After a minute, Rilleux spoke up.

“ Valette, if you find out who your betrothed is, maybe you can work out some kind of plan.”

Valette looked back at him, and Rilleux could swear she was about to cry again.

“ That’s the worst part, I can’t. Because the man I’m betrothed to Is Demlun Le Sasbil, and he doesn’t even know it.”

Then the tears came, and she rushed over to Rilleux, wrapping her arms around him as she laid her head upon his shoulder. This was the last thing he’d expected her to do, and for a moment he simply stood there, rigid. Then, he put his hand on her back, doing his best to soothe her as she sobbed.

Eventually Valette, was finished, and lifted her head up. Her eyes were red, and she sniffled as she came back to herself.

“ Tell anyone about that, and I kill you.”

Rilleux smiled, and nodded. “ Understood, I’m sworn to silence.”

She resumed her leaning position on the wall, crossing her arms again.

“ So that’s my situation, in all its fucked up glory. You can see why I’ve kept quiet about it, and it’s killing me that I can’t work out how to let Rohais now. But I had to vent to someone, and out of you and Franclerk, you’re the least idiotic of the pair.”

“ Thanks ever so much Valette, I am truly flattered.” Rilleux gave a low bow, to better accentuate his sarcastic tone.

Valette rolled her eyes at that, and continued. “ I know that Demlun’s ignorant of the whole thing, or else he’d have brought it up by now. But I can’t be sure whether or not he’ll go along with it when his parents do eventually tell him. He never talks about how things are at home, and he might well have as little choice as I do. That’s what’s been driving me insane the most, the fact that I can’t be certain if this hell is avoidable or not, so that’s why I needed to vent.”

Rilleux had nothing to say to that, he understood completely. Still, one thing did puzzle him.

“ But, you seemed so fine when we set out, like nothing was wrong.”

Valette flashed him a sardonic smile.

“ It was all denial, and it’s been denial for most of this trip. The moment I’d read the letter, I started trying to forget it, even knocking my head against a wall to try and bash the news out. Being with Rohais has made it all easier to ignore, and the battles we get into help too. But every day it’s been clawing at my mind, and it gets worse every time I have to look at Demlun. Him being an arsehole isn’t the problem, its more the fact that he’s part of my father’s scheme to ruin my life, and he doesn’t even know it.

I know I could just run away from all this, just take Rohais and flee somewhere, maybe Nikralka. Star’s, she’d go with me in a heartbeat, I can just tell. But if I do that, I know the bastard my father’s become will take it out on my mother. At best, he’ll cast her out with nothing to her name, and immediately find some new bride. But my heart tells me he’d do something worse, maybe even kill her. “

“ Valette, you can’t seriously be thinking of going through with this!”

She was unfazed by this latest outburst from Rilleux, far too wrapped up in her own thoughts.

“ You sound like what a younger version of me would say. But just lately, I’ve been thinking that if I can just get though one night of sex with a man, and nine months of pregnancy after that, I can pretty much go back to my normal life. Once the child is born, my father will likely be more than happy to ensure its cared for, and keep me well out of its life. It’ll be the son or daughter he can get right, not like the failure of his firstborn.

I know Rilleux, I know that sounds insane, and it is, but please understand me. I can’t let my family line die out with me, I can’t let my mother be humiliated. I need to be strong enough to put what I want aside, even if it kills me.”

“ And Rohais, what happens to her?”

Valette sighed. “ It’ll break her heart, I know. But she can get over it, I don’t doubt that. Maybe, stars be good, we’ll find each other again.”

Without warning, Rilleux smashed his fist into the wall behind him. The mail clanged loud against the stone, causing an echo throughout the old dungeon.

“ Do you even love her, Valette?” Now it was Rilleux’s turn to speak in a low and deliberate tone, and his teeth ground together between each word.

“ How can you say that, of course I fucking do!” Valette screamed, her voice cracking a little.

“ Then how can you just do this to her! When you love someone, you fight with every last drop of blood to keep them by your side, not toss them aside when things get hard!”

“ I, AM, NOT, tossing her aside! I have to do this, and I hate myself for it!”

“ If you really wanted to stay with her, you could come up with some kind of plan, Instead you’re just giving up!”

Valette’s voice was hoarse now, and her eyes were wide with despair and anger.

“ What do you know of love, besides what you tell Franclerk?! How can you stand there and lecture me, like you really understand what I’m going through?!”

For a moment, Rilleux didn’t reply. His heart pounded in his chest, as he pondered how me might say what he need to now.

“ I’ll just say this Valette. You’re not the only one here whose father has an issue with them being gay.”

Valette fell to her knees.

Outside, wind was now starting howl, the first instance of a gale that would rage for an hour. For a brief instant, Rilleux pondered how long they’d been down here.

“ Stars, Rilleux, I…… I didn’t.”

Rilleux smiled. “ It’s alright, no need to apologise. Though come to think of it, I don’t think we can really compare our situations. I have two younger brothers, both of them already happily betrothed. But before that, there was someone, and my father…..”

Suddenly, the full memory came back to him, and Rilleux choked on his words.

“ It’s alright Rilleux, you don’t need to say any more.”

Valette was back on her feet now, and her voice had lost its hoarseness. Both of them felt calmer now, everything now being out in the air.

“ Look, Valette, there’s nothing you can do about all this now, not while we’re out here. But maybe, when we’ve left, I can go with you when you head home, and we’ll have Rohais with us. I’ll help you talk to your father, and perhaps we can work out a better plan, peacefully.”

Valette’s eyes widened. “ You’d really do that?”

Rilleux grinned “Why not? Remember, I’m the heir to the Lacrossie family. Your father would have to listen to me, lest he risk offending my house. If you just make it clear how much you love Rohais, maybe he’ll put this whole scheme aside. I can’t make any promises, of course, but it’s worth a try.”

Valette grabbed his hand, and he looked into her eyes. There was such an expression of joyful gratitude on her face, it almost made Rilleux blush.

“ Thank you, Rilleux, you’ll never know just how much this means to me. Now, let’s get out of this miserable place, and get back to-“

“ Seek me, for I am yours by right. Leave me not, for you leave your destiny. Claim me, and conquer.”

This voice, load and clear, was now booming around in Rilleux’s head.

Again, it repeated “Seek me, for I am yours by right. Leave me not, for you leave your destiny. Claim me, and conquer.”

He looked to Valette, and by her face she could tell she could hear something too. Then as the voice continued to repeat its message, he could see a faint, golden light shine further down the hall, pointing the way further down into the dungeon.

Without giving it further thought, he began to walk towards the golden light, Valette soon following behind. As they walked, the voice became louder, clearer, and it seemed to Rilleux that it was not compelling him against his will. Instead, he had a feeling akin to a perfect mental clarity, as if all that his life boiled down to in that moment was listening to that voice.

They passed through the old dungeon, featureless and abandoned with cells empty and locks long broken. Valette had been right to say that this place was surely cleared out long ago, but that idea was completely lost to them now.

Eventually, they came to barred wooden door, at the end of a long hallway. From the small opening, Rilleux deduced that this must have been the most secure cell, meant for important prisoners. Through this opening, they could both see the golden light they had followed, and now the voice changed its message.

“ Open, and I am there. Be bold, and reap reward. Proceed, and to you the glory.”

Before they were fully aware of what they were doing, Rilleux and Valette lifted their legs in unison, and gave the old door a heavy kick. Before their combined strength, it flew open, miraculously staying on its hinges. Rilleux stepped through first, Valette following immediately after.

For a moment, all the two of them could see was the gold light, now so bright it was almost blinding. Then after a moment or two, it faded. Before them was their prize, and both of them took a sharp intake of breath.

In the small cell, leaning against a wall, there were two swords. One was a Long sword, the other a greatsword. Both of these had blades of shining silver, with silver runes inlaid along the edges, ensuring greater sharpness and quality. They looked completely untouched, and fresh from the forge, so surely some kind of sage’s spell had led them to be here, untouched for so long. Their hilts where gold, pure and unblemished, meaning that these where the kind of swords forged only for the hands of royalty.

Without further hesitation, they both stepped forward to claim their respective blades. Upon picking up the Longsword, the voice finally stopped, and in that moment, he felt more whole and complete than he had ever felt in his life. A new energy began to fill him as he held the blade before him, and in his heart he knew that this was indeed his destiny, his prize.

He looked to valette, and it was clear that she felt the same, holding aloft her greatsword. Her face, so recently bearing the look of grief, was now almost serenely calm, and in the light of the dungeon, she almost seemed to glow. Her eyes were closed, her breathing slow as she took in this moment of serene fulfilment.

After a while, they looked at each other, and a new understanding was on them both.

Rilleux smiled, and said simply, “ so then, what do we tell the others?”

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