The warm, orange, light of the setting sun greeted Isabella as she slowly opened her eyes. She attempted to pull herself up in a sitting position, only to find herself incapable of such actions. Her legs and arms ached and she felt a certain weakness permeating her entire being.
“That spell took too much out of me,” Isabella thought to herself as she let out a sigh of annoyance.
Looking down, Isabella noticed that a woolen blanket was wrapped around her body. She wrapped herself tightly in it and raised her head to survey her surroundings. She noticed that Cattanburry was standing just a few feet in front of her, tying their two steeds together.
“What are you doing?” Isabella yelled, wincing in pain, as she lifted herself up by her elbows.
“Good afternoon to you too, Isabella,” Cattanburry replied with a warm smile “I am tying our horses together. Seeing as you are in such an incapacitated state, I thought it would be for the best if we rode together:”
“While I do find your concern sweet,” Isabella started “I can assure you that I am perfectly capable of riding a horse by myself.”
“Oh really?” Cattanburry said “Then prove it. Get up by yourself and walk to me without any help. If you can do it I will untie your horse.”
“Easy,” Isabella smiled and slowly got up to her feet. Every action she took made her grunt, but she tried to soldier through the pain as she finally managed to stand up.
As soon as she straightened herself up, Isabella felt that her knees wobbled. She tried to take smaller steps toward Cattanburry, but felt that with each step she was less and less stable. Stumbling, Isabella felt her body lean forward faster and faster as she lost her balance. Pulling her hands in front of her face and yelping, Isabella quickly fell down, face first, into the grass. She barely made a few steps before her ungraceful tumble.
With her face in the grass, Isabella began to roar with laughter as her face flushed red.
“Ow, ow,ow,” Isabella yelled as she held her sides “Even laughing hurts.”
Cattanburry smiled as he held out his hand. Helping Isabella up to her feet, Cattanburry held her close to him, making sure that she doesn’t fall down again.
Holding her in his embrace, Cattanburry felt that Isabella was snuggling closer to him, making sure to leave no distance between them. She had shifted her entire body weight onto the cardinal and he could see a glint of desire in her large, brown, eyes.
“You are quite muscular, cardinal,” Isabella said as her left hand laid on Cattanburry’s bicep “Your form is quite admirable for a man of your age.”
“Please refrain yourself from such comments,” Cattanburry responded as he raised her up to his steed.
“I am only complimenting you. Where’s the harm in that?” Isabella feigned innocence.
Cattanburry chose to ignore her as he sat in front of her. He knew that placing Isabella in such a position will only encourage her behavior, however, he did have a mission to complete and Isabella was a crucial part of it.
“Hold on tight,” Cattanburry said as he took the reins of his stallion.
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Isabella said as she clung tightly to the cardinal and placed her head over his right shoulder. She tried to stay awake as long as she could; however, her lack of energy still affected her greatly. Her eyelids felt as if they were made out of metal and her breathing steadily slowed down. Soon enough, everything became black once again.
Shortly after falling asleep, Isabella felt the gentle trot of Cattanburry’s horse come to a halt. She jolted awake only to find that the warm setting sun was now replaced by the coldness of the night. The white light of the half moon shone upon her face as she noticed Cattanburry climbing down from his horse. He held out his hand for Isabella and she accepted it.
Climbing down, Isabella noticed that they were nowhere near the capitol. In front of her laid a very narrow building, lightened by the orange glow of the torches set up in front of it. It seemed to be approximately three stories tall and built out of wooden material with a white plaster coating. Four windows were placed on each story of the building and almost each one of them had a glow of candlelight peering through.
“Why have we stopped here?” Isabella asked.
“Well, we already missed our appointment with the king. I figured we could spend the night here and hit the road first thing in the morning,” Cattanburry explained as he led his horses towards the building.
“And where is ‘here’ exactly?” Isabella pried as they approached the house.
The cardinal pointed his index finger at the wooden sign, gently swaying above the inn door. The sign depicted a knight like figure holding a keg of ale in his hand and winking.
The second she saw the sign’s name, Isabella brought her hand to her mouth and snickered loudly.
“Richard’s Pick,” Isabella whispered under her breath as she tried to suppress her laughter
“What was that?” Cattanburry asked as he turned around to face Isabella.
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” Isabella waved her hands and took in a deep breath.
“You must be more tired than I thought to just laugh like that out of nowhere,” Cattanburry commented as he opened the door to the inn.
“Yes, that must be it,” Isabella said and smiled innocently.
Opening the doors, Isabella and Cattanburry were greeted by a lively sight.
Large, crystal chandeliers, hung from the low ceiling of the tavern, shining their light upon the white, marble, floor. Upon the white walls of the tavern hung portraits of knights, past kings and legendary heroes, all diverging from the wall opposite to Cattanburry and Isabella. On that wall there were no pictures, nor any decorations, save from two banners that stood next to each other.
The left banner represented a golden cross imposed upon a blue background with the letters D, C, O and J written above its points. The one on the right showed a silver gauntlet, on a purple background, reaching for a white parchment of paper that was above it. On the paper, in bright, red letters were written the words “Praeclara Inventa”. The presence of both the Ordo Solo Deus banner and the banner of the house of Antegard meant that this inn was under the protection of both the Order and the King, making it one of the rare neutral places where these two worlds met.
Sounds of lutes and violins were interspersed with the loud chatter of the merry patrons. A mixture of tobacco smoke, coming from the pipes of the older patrons, cooked meat and booze lingered in the air, making fresh air a luxury in this place.
The waitresses serving the drunken customers were dressed in form fitting skirts, making sure that their busts were nice and pronounced as they carried large wooden trays filled with metallic kegs of ale.
By all means it seemed like any other tavern in Clomion, however, Isabella could quickly spot a discrepancy.
Looking around the tables, she noticed that a large majority of the clientele were of a higher stature. Some were clad in shiny, silver, armors while others yet were dressed in silk and woolen clothing, indicating their high standing within the society. A few white robes also made their presence known to Isabella’s eye, though they were in a minority.
“What is this place?” Isabella asked Cattanburry.
“This is an inn that many knights and lords of the kingdom use as a resting place on their travels,” Cattanburry explained as the two of them walked towards a wooden counter.
“How come there are members of the Order here as well?” Isabella prodded.
“The inn serves as respite to both the Order and the lords. It’s one of the rare places where these two worlds meet,” Catanburry explained as he rang a small bell placed on the wooden counter.
“I’ll be with ya in a minute,” a raspy, feminine, voice called out from the closed doors behind the counter.
As they waited Isabella’s eyes darted around the room. She looked through the shiny armors, the lavish clothes, and the pure white robes to find anyone that would be able to entertain her for the time being. Just as her efforts were failing her, Isabella’s eyes caught a glimpse of an anomaly.
She could notice a congregation of several armors and robes surrounding one table and bellowing in laughter. Though she could not see the main attraction through the wall of his acolytes, Isabella assumed that they have to be either of great importance or a source of great amusement. Either way, they seemed like her cup of tea.
“I think I am going to go and mingle for a bit,” Isabella whispered to Cattanburry.
Cattanburry waved her off as he waited for the innkeeper to make her appearance. Suddenly the door swung open with a loud slam as an irritated woman stepped into the frame. She rubbed her temples in exasperation as she reached in her pocket for her handkerchief to wipe away the sweat beads that formed around her forehead. She sighed, dusted off her dress and fixed up her red, unkempt hair, before she walked up to the counter. In her tired daze she barely even noticed the presence of the cardinal.
“So whadda ya want?” the woman asked brazenly.
“I would like a two bed room,” Cattanburry made his request.
“Sorry we’re booked,” the woman brushed him off without even taking a glance away from her counter.
“Are you sure about that?” the cardinal asked.
“Now listen here you,” the woman started, but her voice stopped in mid sentence as she saw who stood in front of her “Yer Holiness, please do forgive mah disrespect. Ah been ‘avin’ a rough time,” the woman bowed her head before the cardinal.
“I can see that,” Cattanburry replied “Still, are you sure there aren’t any rooms?”
“Sorry, yer Hollines, but it’s true,” the woman responded “We’ve been quite busy and we couldn’t fit ya in, even if ah wanted to.”
“I see,” Cattanburry responded “Well, if that’s how it has to be, then it has to be. I would just hate if the archbishop were to find out about your inhospitality here. It would be a massive shame that an establishment as fine as this one were to lose the support of the Order.”
The woman’s eyes dilated in panic and sweat began to pour out more profusely out of her.
“Now ’ang on, yer Holiness,” the woman tried to calm Cattanburry down “Let’s not do something hasty now. Ah’m sure we can come to a compromise. Tell ya what,” she said nervously “Ah’ll sort this out, while you just rest and relax ’ere. ’Ave a couple of drinks and whatnot, it’s on the house.”
“Alright,” the cardinal said “I will give you one hour to sort it out. That should be more than enough time for you.”
“Yer grace knows no bounds, milord,” the woman bowed to the cardinal as he turned away from the table.
Looking around, Cattanburry heard a loud feminine laughter, echoing through the noise of the tavern. He followed the sound to a crowded table as he saw Isabella and the man in the center of the crowd laughing merrily with one another.
The man looked to be in his late forties with a large, muscular frame and a thick beard going past his neck all the way down to his chest. His eyes were pale blue and they seemed to be ignited with a youthful vigor as he laughed merrily.
Unlike the people that surrounded him, this man wore neither luscious clothing nor shiny armor. Instead he wore a plain, white, form-fitting shirt and brown, hemp trousers that ended in a pair of black, turnbuckle shoes. Atop his light brown, graying, hair sat a brown leather hunting hat with a peacock’s feather sticking out of it.
Upon noticing the cardinal, the man stood up and opened his arms towards the newcomer. With a wide smile he embraced the cardinal firmly and patted him on the back.
“Cattanburry, you old dog, how you been?” the man said with a hearty laugh.
“I’ve been better, lord Graham,” Cattanburry smiled at his.
“Come now, you know better than to call me ‘lord’, “ the man responded “Leave those formalities to those who give a toss about them.”
“As you wish, sir,” Cattanburry said with a mischievous smirk “I see that you have met Isabella already.”
“Yup,” the man responded as he sat back down at his table “And I gotta say I love the spunk on this one. She’s got a really fiery tongue, I can tell you that.”
“Really?” Cattanburry said as he glared daggers in Isabella’s direction.
“What can I say?” Isabella shrugged “My tongue is my third greatest asset after all.” Isabella smiled and licked her lips.
Cattanburry sighed in exasperation.
“Care to put that statement to the test,” a blond man with pale blue eyes responded to Isabella.
Isabella eyed him from head to toe. She stood up and approached the man until she was but an inch away from his face. Her eyes were locked onto his as she cocked her head to the right.
“You’re too moist for a test dummy. Come back when you have dried off and then we might give it a shot,” Isabella said as she wiped off a few beads of sweat from his face and returned to her seat.
“It’s not my fault it’s so damn hot in here,” the man tried to justify himself.
“And those flushed cheeks are due to the beer, right?” Isabella replied back. The man tried to say something back, but just smiled nervously.
This caused a roar of laughter of the other members of the table, save for Cattanburry.
“Gotta hand it to ya lad, at least you went for it,” sir Graham said as he patted the young knight on his back “Where did you find this one?”
“I’d rather not say in front of a crowd as large as this one,” Cattanburry responded.
“He’s a bit shy about our relationship being so public,” Isabella interjected with an innocent smile, much to Cattanburry’s dismay.
“Well, well, what’s this all about?” sir Graham’s ears pricked up in delight.
“Nothing, she’s just trying to provoke me,” Cattanburry sighed.
“Aww, Cattanburry is embarrassed by me,” Isabella pouted as Cattanburry rubbed his temples in annoyance.
These interactions caused whispers amongst the knights and lords around their table. As sir Graham noticed this he clapped his hands loudly.
“Alright, lads, I think it’s time that you left us alone for a bit. The cardinal and I have much to catch up on,” sir Graham said, much to the displeasure of the men around his table.
“It was just getting good, too,” one of the men commented as they returned to their seats. Seeing their dissatisfaction with the situation, sir Graham thought of a solution.
“Tell ya what. As compensation for your compliance; next round’s on me boys!” sir Graham yelled back at his comrades.
“Hooray for Sir Graham!” the men cheered out.
“I told you not to call me sir!” sir Graham yelled out as he and the men roared with laughter.
As the laughter calmed down sir Graham returned his attention back to Cattanburry and Isabella.
“You always did know how to please a crowd, Austin,” Cattanburry commented.
“Thank you, Ronald,” sir Graham responded as Isabella snickered “That’s why they chose me after all.”
“Chose you for what?” Isabella interjected.
“Sir Austin Graham is an acting member of the Council of eight, serving as the people’s representative in the court,” Cattanburry explained.
“Oh, is that so?” Isabella’s eyes widened as a mischievous smile danced in the corners of her lips. Cattanburry took her by the forearm and leaned in.
“Do not try anything with him. We are on a tight schedule,” he whispered into her ear as he gripped her.
“Relax, I know,” Isabella whispered back “Although, I do like this aggressive side of yours quite a bit. Very dominant.”
“Ahem,” Austin coughed “I am sorry if I am interrupting anything, but it’s not polite to whisper like that.”
“My deepest apologies,” Cattanburry excused his behavior “She can be a bit of a handful to deal with at times.”
“No worries, my friend,” Austin waved Cattanburry off as he took a sip of his ale “So what brings you down to our parts, cardinal? You don’t usually visit lour little slice of heaven.”
“Well, it is more of a business venture, though I am sure you will hear of it soon enough,” Cattanburry said cryptically.
“Oh?” Austin’s bushy eyebrows rose up in interest “Is it a new law?”
“I don’t wish to discuss it,” Cattanburry said as he looked around “Especially not in a place like this one.”
“Understandable,” Austin shrugged as he took another sip of ale “And her?” he pointed his keg at Isabella.
“I,” Isabella emphasized her presence “Am his lovely companion. Odium was afraid Cattanburry would get lonely so he sent me to be his little guardian,” Isabella said as she scooted up closer to Cattanburry.
“Except you don’t behave like a guardian at all,” Cattanburry jabbed.
“True, I am much better than a guardian,” Isabella smiled seductively and winked at Cattanburry.
Cattanburry rubbed his temples in annoyance and let out a sigh at her remark prompting a loud laugh from Austin.
“Boy, you two really are something else,” Austin said as he wiped away his tears of laughter “Not even the court jester has brought me this much amusement.”
“I am glad at least someone is amused by her antics,” Cattanburry spoke through his teeth.
His tone of voice caused Isabella to back away a bit as she realized that she may have crossed a line.
“Don’t be so harsh on her, Ronald,” Austin said “The young maiden is clearly having a bit of fun with you. Besides, having affections of such a wonderful blossom can have its advantages.”
“If you say so,” Cattanburry shrugged.
Out of the corner of his eyes the cardinal saw the desk clerk rushing towards them. The young woman shook nervously as she tapped the cardinal on his shoulder.
“Umm, yer Holliness,” the woman barely spoke, her voice trembling with every word she said.
“What is it?” Cattanurry rose up from his seat.
Despite his age, Cattanburry’s large frame still towered a good head over the woman’s. As if gravity itself had intensified tenfold, the woman collapsed to her knees in front of the holy man.
“Ah’m so sorry, yer Holliness,” the woman began to beg “but Ah just couldn’t fit ya in. E’ry room’s booked and the majority of ’em ‘ave people sleepin’ in ’em. Ah just couldn’t bring mahself to kick mah customers out of their beds. It would ruin us!” the woman broke down in tears in front of the cardinal.
Cattanburry took in a deep sigh and rubbed his temples as he contemplated what to do next.
The second he saw the woman on the floor, sir Austin Graham rose up from his desk rushed towards her. He took her by the hand and attempted to raise her head up.
“Now, now, Martha, don’t do that to yourself,” Austin comforted the young woman “Cardinal Cattanburry is not an unreasonable man. There is no need to prostrate yourself in front of him.”
The woman looked up at sir Graham and was met with a warm and welcoming smile from the man. In his smile, she found a certain warmth that flooded her, and she regained her strength to stand in front of the archbishop.
“Thank ya, Austin,” the woman softly thanked him.
“Don’t metnion it,” sir Graham said as he rose the young woman up “You were always there for me, so, I was glad to be here for you for once.”
Cattanburry closely observed the exchange between them. The amount of sympathy that his friend gave to this woman was admirable, though not unreasonable.
Sir Austin Graham came from an impoverished background himself and had only gained a place at the King’s court because of his services to the people. Whenever a village needed emergency repairs after a great fire or flood, sir Graham would be the first man on the site, manually helping to rebuild the broken village. If a field needed to be plowed and the oxen were not abound, sir Graham would be there, working from dusk till dawn and only asking some refreshments as payment.
His jolly nature and rather easy going demeanor along with his willingness to help anyone in need earned him many favors with the lower classes. They revered him as the common man ideal; a shining beacon representing the very best of them. And thus, when time came for the people to choose one man to represent them at the Council of Eight, they almost unanimously cheered Austin’s name. He was their champion and their pride.
Even though Cattanburry knew all of this, he still found it refreshing to see his deeds in action.
“How I envy thee, my dear friend,” Cattanburry lamented. He could feel a longing smile trying to pull at the edges of his lips, but it disappeared in the same moment it appeared.
“I am so sorry for my outburst, yer Holliness,” Martha said as she wiped away her tears “It’s been real stressful lately and Ah guess it got the better of me.”
“Don’t worry, my child,” Cattanburry put up his hand “It was unfair of me to burden you. I can see that you have a lot on your plate and I don’t want to contribute any more to your distress. For that I am truly sorry,” Cattanburry said and offered his hand to the woman.
The woman took it and began kissing his head and pressed it against her forehead.
“I am not worthy of such words oh Blessed One,” she said to Cattanburry.
“Now that we’ve come to an understanding, what do you say we resolve our little issue then?” Austin clapped his hands as all eyes darted towards him.
“What did you have in mind?” Cattanburry asked.
“I was thinking of giving you my room,” Austin proudly proclaimed.
Both the woman and Cattanburry stared at Austin in shock. Even Isabella, who had been disinterested in the whole ordeal up until this point, leaned in to hear Austin better.
“ Austin, that is too much. I don’t know if I can accept an offer that generous,” Cattanburry said.
“Well you can if I insist,” Austin laughed and patted Cattanbury on the back “Besides, I figured that I could camp out for the night. It’ll help me to toughen up and what not.”
Martha rushed over to Austin and hugged him tightly.
“How can Ah e’er repay ya?” Martha hugged Austin tightly.
“Just be warm to them as you are to me and don’t worry so much,” Austin responded back “I’ll just need a few minutes to pack up my stuff,” sir Graham turned his attention back to the cardinal.
“Take all the time you need,” Cattanburry responded.
As Martha and Austin disappeared in to the upper floor of the establishment, Isabella stood up and leaned on to Cattanburry.
“They look so adorable together, don’t they?” she said with a genuine smile on her face.
“I suppose so,” Cattanburry said pensively “I would advise that you restrain yourself from your usual antics.”
“Relax, I was just making an observation,” Isabella laughed “Besides, sir Graham is not really my type to toy around with. At least, not at first sight.”
“What do you mean?” Cattanburry asked.
“He seems far too friendly and honest,” Isabella explained “Men like that are much harder to crack and it takes too long anyways. If another opportunity presents itself, I might try, but as it is? It would take too much time and effort. And I am already exhausted enough as is,” Isabella said as she slumped down on her chair once more.
“Interesting to see that even you have your limitations,” Cattanburry said and pulled up a chair.
“I am only human after all,” Isabella said and winked back at Cattanburry.
Instead of an exasperated sigh of annoyance, Cattanburry only let out a small chuckle as he looked away from Isabella.
“I think I am beginning to go mad,” Cattanburry said as he stared at the ceiling.
“Why is that?” Isabella asked, slightly worried about his sudden shift.
“I am sitting across one of the most powerful magic users I have ever met in my life who is also a protégé of one my closest friends who, also, just happens to be a staunch detractor of magical interference in the kingdom by any means necessary going so far as to exterminate,” Cattanburry emphasized that word “Anybody who even dares to think of practicing magic in his near vicinity. To top it all off I have cosigned a death warrant to numerous others and may be responsible for the beginning of a war, the likes we have not seen since The Great Divide,” Cattanburry stopped his ramblings. A pulsating wave of heat rushed through his body and a pulsating migraine took over as Cattanburry began to hyperventilate. He clutched his head and gritted his teeth as the pain intensified. Cattanburry could feel his heart beating faster and faster with each second and his breathing quickened. Some of the patrons began to get up from their tables, wanting to help the cardinal, however Isabella waved them away.
“Don’t worry yourselves. I’ll take care of him,” Isabella said as she quickly rushed over to Cattanburry’s side “Stay with me, Cattanburry, come on, stay with me” Isabella kept saying over and over again as she rubbed Cattanburry’s back in an attempt to calm him down.
Two minutes passed before Odium began to calm down. Isabella dared not to leave his side even when his fast breathing slowed down to a silent chuckle.
“I am even being calmed by the daughter of the Ninth King himself,” Cattanburry laughed “If this is not madness then I do not know what is.”
Hearing these words, Isabella backed away from the cardinal as he recomposed himself. He noticed that everyone in the inn began to stare at him and realized that his outburst might have caused a bigger stir than necessary.
“My apologies for startling you,” Cattanburry began “My strength faded from me for a moment and caused me to panic. I thank you for your concern, but I assure you that all is well now. Please return to your meals,” Cattanburry smiled as the patrons slowly turned away from him.
Even though the cardinal tried to calm everyone about his state of mind, the damage had been done. The once cheery inn now had turned into a den of hushed whispered amongst a deathly silence. Seeing a member of the Order suffering a mental breakdown was most damaging and he knew it would only be a matter of time before the news reached Odium’s ears.
Cattanburry slumped back into his chair with a sigh. This whole ordeal had left him weary and he could barely think straight. Once she saw he had calmed down, Isabella patted Cattanburry on the back. He looked back at her as she shot him a reassuring smile.
“I never took you for the sympathetic kind,” Cattanburry said as he returned her smile.
Isabella did not reply. Instead she just rested her hand on Cattanburry’s shoulder, reassuring him that he will be fine. In this instance, instead of irritation, her touch helped Cattanburry to calm himself down just in time for him to notice that Austin and Martha had returned.
Upon their arrival, Austin immediately noticed that the mood of the inn had shifted. Even though it wasn’t as deathly silent as before, it still was not as lively as it was when he left it.
“What happened here?” Austin asked Cattanburry.
“Nothing that you should concern yourself with, my friend,” Cattanburry responded “Have you found everything?”
“Got it all in here,” Austin said as he patted his large suitcase “I’ll grab my horse and I’ll be out of your hair. It’s been a pleasure seeing you,” Austin said as he set down his suitcase.
Instead of a handshake, Cattanburry hugged his friend tightly.
“Thank you for your generosity, Austin,” the cardinal exclaimed as he pated Austin across the back.
“Of course,” Austin responded and returned his pat “If you need anything else, just let me know. But, you’ll owe me a round for this,” Austin joked as they departed.
“I thought that was understood?” Cattanburry returned his joke as he waved him off.
“Now then, shall Ah get you settled in, then?” the young woman asked.
“Lead the way,” Cattanburry replied as he and Isabella followed Martha up the stairs and to their room.