Tar’vid still felt shaky on the charger the next day. The previous night Sah’rah had to round him up after his horse refused to stop. As they made camp there had been little need for a fire, as Paladins there was no need except for cooking. Tar’gelth allowed the others to sleep while he took first watch with Tar’vid, making conversation as they kept watch over the calmness of night.
“Is it true what they say about you?” the Elf asked him as they stared out into the darkness.
“Guess that depends on what they say,” Tar’vid responded with a wry smile, though it seemed Tar’gelth missed it.
“It’s said you saved Fernhaven from the plague... that you defeated four thugs at once in that camp, also that you survived and killed two Elf assassins at the Inn in Redmane forest” Tar’gelth stated flatly, Tar’vid was unsure if this was praise, an accusation or disbelief.
“It’s true for the most part, though some of that’s exaggerated I’ll give you” he replied, looking over to the Elf and gauging his reaction.
Tar’gelth grunted and stood up, then walked back towards where the others slept.
“Tar’gorth, Sah’rah your watch!” he called out, then simply laid down on the ground to sleep.
Tar’gorth and Sah’rah walked over to where he sat, the older man tapping him on the shoulder. “Go on lad, get some sleep. It’s another long day of travel tomorrow” Tar’gorth said, then stifled a yawn as he stretched.
“Tar’gelth... he’s a hard man to read. I can’t tell if he disapproves of me or not” Tar’vid pondered aloud, standing up and stretching out his arms.
“He’s complicated, being back within Keldran’s borders makes him uncomfortable” Sah’rah replied, sitting down a few feet away and saying no more.
He wanted to ask her more, but by the moonlight Tar’vid saw Tar’gorth shaking his head.
“Sleep well Tar’vid,” Sah’rah said quietly, staring off into the night.
He went back to the area where Tar’gelth and Sah’eca slept, the Venna snoring loudly while the Elf lay there almost motionless in his breathing. Tar’vid lay down on a patch of grass, laying his head down he thought about Luna, and how used to the comforts a home had brought him. Perhaps the grand master only wanted to meet him, it was a vain hope and Tar’vid knew it was hopeless. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep for at least a while.
Tar’vid woke after what could only have been a few hours sleep, an owl calling out before swooping by only inches from his head. How strange he thought, owls always seemed to appear at pivotal moments in his life and he followed it, stopping by a copse of trees. The night was still oddly quiet but for Sah’eca’s deep breathing.
“Trouble sleeping lad?” Tar’gorth asked him from the darkness.
“Yes, I... I thought I heard something” Tar’vid replied, staring intently into the trees for something to reveal itself, when nothing moved after a long time he returned to the camp and sat down, perhaps it was just a regular owl hunting in the night. Tar’vid crossed his legs reciting several prayers silently until the sun started to creep over the horizon.
Tar’gelth suddenly sat upright, dusting himself off and standing quickly. “Mount up everyone, we break camp immediately!” he ordered, Sah’eca roused from her sleep, immediately moving into action.
“I hope you’re well rested Tar’vid, there’s a great distance to cover yet,” Tar’gelth told him as he leapt up onto his horse. “Also, I felt the power of your prayer. Perhaps the grand master is right about you.”
“I hope so too, I’ve left a lot behind to come with you” Tar’vid replied as he mounted, frustrated with the Elf’s attitude.
The Elf nodded, perhaps Tar’gelth was warming to him he thought. Tar’vid set his charger to a trot once more, this time he held the reins more firmly, trying to control the horse as he’d seen the others do, though perhaps the horse was simply following the others again, he felt a little more in control... perhaps for the first time in a few days. The rest of the day was spent in near silence, only the rhythmic clopping of the horse’s hooves breaking the silence. It was late afternoon when they reached a crossroads, a perfectly stationed Inn sitting by the junction.
“We ride on until nightfall” Tar’gelth called back loudly as they continued east, Tar’vid looking back longingly at the Elven Inn with its soft beds and nice food.
“Don’t look so down lad, you shouldn’t get so used to comfort after all” Tar’gorth said, forcing a smile for him. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know how Tar’son is these days would you?”
“When last I saw him he looked well, it was a long time ago though” Tar’vid replied, still dejected at passing the Inn by.
“That’s good to hear, it’s been some time since we walked the path together now. Must be over thirty years now” Tar’gorth mused before spurring his horse forward.
Tar’vid had to wonder how Tar’son looked so young, Tar’gorth was easily in his late forties after all. The last rays of light started to fade as they reached the edge of a great lake, Tar’gelth calling a halt to them, Tar’vid feeling infinitely proud of himself as he reigned in his horse successfully.
“You’re a quick study Tar’vid, who would have thought you hadn’t ridden a horse until only a few days ago” Sah’eca commented with a smile, the expression oddly soft on her imposing frame.
They dismounted with the watch being set as before, Sah’rah getting the night off this time as Tar’gelth and Sah’eca took the first watch. He sat beside the great lake watching the moon’s reflection shimmer in its still waters, the night was especially cloudless and he suspected it was probably quite a chill night for summer.
“Trouble sleeping again?” Sah’rah asked, sitting down beside him.
“A little, I had hoped to see the birth of my child. Guess that’s unlikely now though” he replied, picking up a stone and skipping it along the surface of the lake.
“Perhaps, but Tar’mine himself summoned you, you have to believe that he wouldn’t simply tear you from your family without reason,” Sah’rah said softly, trying to offer some comfort to him.
Tar’vid was sure Tar’mine had high hopes for him, that perhaps the Saints had some form of foresight he wasn’t aware of. “I’ll pray on it a while, perhaps the Saints will alleviate my fears.”
“Mind if I join you... I have doubts of my own, though perhaps not as great as your own” Sah’rah asked as she crossed her legs.
“All problems are equal are they not... and no, I don’t mind at all” he replied with a smile.
They both looked out over the calm waters of the lake, chanting in unison Sah’ravel’s prayer. The moon was almost full now and silhouettes of nighthawks could be seen flying past. Tar’vid felt sure that the Saints were helping him now, just as they always had.
Tar’vid was woken sometime later by Tar’gelth with a tap on his shoulder. He noticed Sah’rah had fallen asleep on his shoulder and he lowered her gently onto the grass.
“You prayed together?” the Elf asked bluntly, his tone accusatory.
“We did... it would seem we both needed some guidance from the Saints” Tar’vid replied, trying not to sound defensive.
“Good for her, she has been somewhat lost these past few weeks” Tar’gelth replied before lying down to sleep some distance away.
Tar’vid wondered what it was she was going through, though they weren’t close enough for him to ask outright. He walked slowly away from the lake, seeing Tar’gorth cross-legged in the moonlight with Sah’eca. The Venna clapping him on the shoulder before loping off to find somewhere to sleep.
“A beautiful night young Tar’vid,” Sah’eca said kindly in passing.
“Indeed, sleep well Sah’eca” he replied as he passed her by.
“I always do” she called back quietly, making him smile at the memory of her snoring.
Tar’vid was starting to find that Paladins were all so different, that his personality wasn’t an aberration. He had always thought he would mature into Tar’son’s demeanour, though that seemed unlikely now he thought.
“Get much sleep lad?” Tar’gorth asked as Tar’vid sat down beside him.
“Some, I prayed with Sah’rah beforehand. It seems we all have burdens the Saints can help us with” Tar’vid replied candidly, a wolf howling out in the night.
“That we do, some of us more so than others,” Tar’gorth said disapprovingly, looking back towards the others.
“Now, enough about the others. How’re you holding up, can’t be easy having to leave your wife behind” the older man asked in a more kindly tone of voice.
“It wasn’t too hard on her, she seemed almost relieved I was heading to Brownfields. I can’t help feel she knows something about my future... strange as it seems” Tar’vid replied, looking out into the darkness as another wolf howled at the moon.
“Lad, I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff in my time, mirekrakes... now they’re weird. Scrying the future though, that’s generally par for the course... as far as magic goes anyway. I knew a guy in Liergan, out Redrealm way, could see your future years in advance. Never saw the stampede that killed him though, poor guy” Tar’gorth reminisced.
Tar’vid was astounded at how flippant Tar’gorth was in regards to the future, such things were for the gods to know alone surely? When Tar’vid hadn’t spoken for a while Tar’gorth stood slowly.
“I’m gonna make a circuit of the camp, keep your eyes peeled lad. I’ve had a weird feeling all night” he said whilst casting his gaze about, though what he saw in the dark was anyone’s guess.
After several hours the wolves howls were getting closer he was sure, within the hour Tar’vid could see the yellow glow of the wolves eyes in the darkness. He stood calmly gazing defiantly at the pack as he drew Torgard, bringing the blinding flash of light as protective armour encased him. The act having the desired effect of sending the pack scurrying away in fear, Tar’gorth appeared a short time later, hand on his sword hilt.
“What is it lad?” the older Paladin asked quickly, scanning the edge of darkness for enemies.
“Just a wolf pack, I think any kind of magic user is more than they’re willing to challenge” Tar’vid replied as he sheathed Torgard once more, his armour dissipating instantly.
“I guess so... still, let’s stay vigilant. There are worse things than wolves in these parts as I remember” Tar’gorth told him with a slightly worried look.
Tar’vid couldn’t help wondering what else prowled the night that could worry the old Paladin.
Tar’vid spent the rest of his watch wide awake, Tar’gorth’s words putting a strange sense of unease on him.
“You still with us Tar’vid” he heard Tar’gelth call over to him.
Tar’vid grabbed the reigns tighter, realising he was falling behind whilst lost in his own thoughts.
“I am... I was just thinking” he replied quickly, spurring on his horse to keep pace. The charger snorted at having to exert itself but obeyed none the less.
“Are you still thinking of home?” Tar’gelth asked, his demeanour less haughty than it had been last night.
“In part, it was more what Tar’gorth said last night... of there being worse things than wolves in these parts” Tar’vid said in a hushed tone, instinctively looking around him.
“It’s true, the Mages rarely train monster hunters these days, so the darker monsters remain unmolested to attack at will. If our numbers were greater, perhaps we would take up that mantle” Tar’gelth pondered, the Elf staring back into the distance.
“Remember that Arklar beast we took down a decade ago?” Sah’eca boomed proudly as they caught up with the others.
“I do, the villagers described it as a four-foot long lizard... with sharp fangs that spat a poison that killed a man instantly. Turned out the damn thing was near fourteen feet long and spat poison that could melt steel, took four of us to kill it. Poor Sah’raen wasn’t so lucky that day... bastard melted off half her skull” Tar’gelth recalled painfully. Sah’eca seemed to only then recall the sorrow of her loss that day and fell silent.
“How many of us are there exactly?” Tar’vid asked solemnly, knowing how painful Sah’raen’s loss still felt to them.
The others thought long and hard, though, Sah’rah was somewhat absent-mindedly staring forwards.
“Less than a thousand... perhaps drastically fewer. All our garrisons have been left at minimal levels for this campaign, and I know there are less than a thousand, perhaps as low as seven hundred Tar’vid” Sah’eca said, trying to recount from memory.
“My ledgers are at Brownfield keep, I’ll tell you properly once you’ve seen the grand master” she continued, seeming to make a mental note of it.
“How do we campaign with so few?” Tar’vid asked, he wouldn’t claim to know the first thing about warfare, but he was certain that under a thousand Paladins would struggle to capture a castle. They simply weren’t trained for such a task.
“Our order has allocated over half its treasury to hiring and training an army, it’s also being bolstered by mercenaries from the northern realms” Tar’gelth replied confidently.
“How many soldiers do we have then?” Tar’vid asked, uncertain what was actually happening.
“Approaching the hundred thousand mark now, we had to make assurances to around seven kingdoms that we weren’t attempting to take them over by force” Sah’eca interjected with a wry laugh.
Tar’vid could imagine the panic the Elven kingdoms would have had at a new Paladin army on their doorstep.
“So where exactly are we going on campaign?” he asked, feeling it was about time he knew.
“North,” Tar’gelth stated bluntly.
“But we’re in the north” Tar’vid replied, wondering how much farther north they could go.
“Far north lad, as in a years march north... under usual circumstances” Tar’gorth cut in, waving his hand northwards.
“To do what exactly?” Tar’vid then asked, he now knew where. Now he needed to know what they were going there for.
Tar’gorth looked to Tar’gelth who nodded his consent. “The Blooming of hope lad, we found it after decades of its foretelling. We found it” Tar’gorth said excitedly leaning forwards in his saddle.
Tar’vid knew the Blooming of hope must be important, the Paladin texts refer to it in Tar’mine’s story... though he had no idea what it was, just that it was powerful.
Tar’vid sat down beside Sah’eca as they made camp, the Venna beginning to recount the tale of the Blooming of hope to them. It was Tar’vid’s turn for the night off, but he felt he needed to know the story behind their campaign. Sah’rah sat with them, clearly having only just learned such information herself.
Sah’eca took a deep breath, closing her large brown eyes. “The tale of the Blooming is old, as old as the gods... perhaps older. It is said that a great rend opened up the fabric of our world aeons ago, that this event spawned our gods and all life as we know it. All that is certain is that a being of immense power was created to counteract the tear, but such power could only exist for a short time. Eventually dissipating its energy to seal the tear. The tear, however, was too great to ever be fully sealed and so over the centuries it slowly unravelled... spilling more power into the world once again. So the cycle repeated until mortal beings came to be, first was the Dwarviari that you will know as the Dwarfs and my forebears. They found that the being would latch onto one of them, until the Blooming happened... at first they tried to harness such power, then, the being revealed itself at the moment of dissipation, revealing that they had a choice, they could claim the power for themselves ushering in a time of unrivalled magical power... but that in doing so the tear would grow... that the beasts of magic would become more numerous, more powerful. The Dwarviari understood that the cycle must continue unbroken, having battled the creatures of magic for decades. Then came the Elves, the mountain folk who adopted the name of Dwarves. These young races were guided by the Dwarviari so that when the Blooming came again, they were ready. Then came the humans and Orcs, who were driven by war and conquest, only one man rose above his base desires and sealed the tear. Blessed Tar’mine, who saw the wisdom of the Dwarviari and ascended beyond mortality with Sah’ravel... and that about leads us to where we are now, an empire to the north has control of the Blooming and we must take control of it. You may not have heard, Tar’vid, but in the south lands, dragons run rampant, as do the other greater creatures of magic... should this tear become permanent, the world will be overrun by magical beings. Who knows what greater threats lurk beyond the tear, just waiting to push through” Sah’eca told them, never once opening her eyes as she recounted a memorised story of every text written about the Blooming. Tar’vid noticed the astonishment on Sah’rah’s face, the ramifications were beyond massive... that every nation in the world wasn’t descending upon the Blooming of hope was shocking.
“I’m sorry to have left you with such a tale before sleeping... the tales could all be false of course. The flow of magic always ebbs and flows, and of course, monster hunters are so rare these days, it could just be that such beasts have been left unchecked for decades. The grand master, however, will take no chances, especially since the edict came from Tar’mine himself... well, good night” Sah’eca told them before standing and striding off for her watch.
Tar’gorth and Tar’gelth came over a short time later, preparing for sleep. “You two look like you’ve been told the world’s going to end” Tar’gorth stated, before laying down.
Tar’vid wasn’t too sure whether they just had been.
Tar’vid stretched out his legs in the saddle, the day had been sombre after the revelations of the previous night. He and Sah’rah had learned of what was ultimately at stake now... and that he had delayed this important campaign north by almost a week. Tar’gorth and Tar’gelth remained at the head of the group, though they rarely spoke now. Sah’eca formed almost a bulwark between them, occasionally trying to make conversation with Sah’rah, who looked ready to burst with anger as they arrived in Curintan, the buildings seemed orange in the glow of dusk. It seemed to Tar’vid a very human looking settlement, the low palisade, and many of the buildings inside built mainly of wood. As they passed through the gatehouse he noticed that the guards were most definitely Keldran soldiers and that indeed most of the people still in the cobbled streets were certainly Elves, Tar’vid also noted the glares they received.
“We may as well stay the night here” Tar’gelth called back, manoeuvring his horse towards a large building.
Tar’gorth allowed Sah’eca to pass him by, with Tar’vid and Sah’rah falling into line with him. “Be careful in here Tar’vid, as Sah’rah can attest, the locals aren’t too fond of us. Ancient history and all you know” the older man said in a low whisper.
As they dismounted, several boys came from the large barn to collect the horses, Tar’gelth conversing with them before tossing them a coin.
“The horses will be safe, come Tar’gorth. We have grave matters to discuss... the rest of you stay out of trouble” Tar’gelth said sternly, though he was distinctly glaring at Sah’rah when he spoke.
“If they leave me be, I’ll leave them be” Sah’rah muttered in response. Tar’gelth seemed to ignore her and went inside the large building after Tar’gorth.
Sah’eca followed after having to squat comically to get underneath the doors lintel, Tar’vid held the door open as Sah’rah breezed past him. They entered into a large common room, tables and benches liberally scattered around a large fire pit in the centre. Tar’vid immediately noticed Tar’gelth in conversation, presumably with the owner.
“Why have you come back here?” the owner asked, a rather short Elf with a mane of blonde hair.
“I like the friendly atmosphere of your establishment” Tar’gelth replied humourlessly, Tar’vid couldn’t help but note Sah’rah’s wry smile. He also noted the angry looks from the other patrons of the tavern.
“After last time... look, just sit over there and don’t antagonise anyone, can you do that?” the owner asked them all angrily pointing to an empty corner.
“They leave me alone, I’ll leave them alone” Sah’rah repeated, though she seemed tense.
The owner stepped back a little, shrinking from her anger. “I’ll have food and drink sent over... please don’t destroy my tavern... again.”
After taking a coin from Tar’gorth the owner went into the back room through a stout oak door, several young girls emerging with pitchers a moment later. They had all sat down by then, Sah’eca having to pull two benches together to take her weight.
“What exactly happened last time?” Tar’vid asked he noted that they all smirked a little... even Tar’gelth.
“The locals aren’t so keen on Paladins, so when Sah’rah turned down their advances...” Tar’gorth started.
“A slight scuffle broke out, needless to say, four Paladins made short work of them” Tar’gelth chuckled, the noise made Tar’vid feel a little uneasy.
He turned around, seeing that the other patrons broke their gazes immediately, some leaving the tavern as quickly as possible.
“What’s the grand master like then?” he asked, wondering what the highest ranked member of their order could do.
“He’s strangely amiable considering his power,” Tar’gorth said, scratching at his beard.
The young girls placed the pitchers and mugs on the table quickly, backing away before Tar’vid could say his thanks.
“He’s powerful, I know that for a fact. Records indicate he’s killed at least two chimaeras, rumoured he took down a dragon once too” Sah’eca butted in enthusiastically.
“The latter was never confirmed, and the grand master laughs it off without a direct answer every time,” Tar’gelth said calmly, raising an eyebrow at Sah’eca’s outburst.
Tar’gorth stood after draining a single mug of wine, bowing to them as a whole. “Forgive my abruptness, but I’m tired and a good bed awaits me. I’ll see you all in the morning, Sah’ravel guide you.”
“And Tar’mine protect you,” they all replied as one.
As the night wore on Sah’eca was the next to leave, having drained a full pitcher and eaten at least a full chicken by herself. Tar’vid had picked at his food and drank little... there was something odd between Tar’gelth and Sah’rah, he felt it in the air. The three of them were now alone and Tar’vid felt he should leave them be. Neither of them noticed him leave, though their conversation only starting once he began to open the door that led to their accommodation. He wanted to eavesdrop... but it wasn’t his business, so he pulled the door shut behind him. Walking the length of the hall he wondered exactly which room was his. Passing by several doors, he found that each door had a nameplate, his own being at the far end of the hallway beside a leaded window, frosted glass depicting the infinite dragon symbol of Keldran. He pushed open the door, stepping inside and unbuckling his cloak and sword, placing them both on a wooden chair by the door. He looked around, a simple wood framed bed took up most of the room, with a small cupboard standing in the corner. Not bothering to undress he lay down gently on the bed, enjoying the comfort of it after nearly a week on the road. Tar’vid lay there a long time just staring up at the ceiling and imagining what Luna might be doing now. A short time later he heard a door slam shut, he suspected Sah’rah and Tar’gelth’s conversation hadn’t gone well.
Tar’vid mounted his horse, the others hadn’t arrived yet and the air was thick with moisture, a thick mist lying over the town having blown in from the lake nearby. Sah’rah was the first out and she mounted her horse quietly, though he noticed her eyes were red as she hung her head against her horse’s neck.
“What a horrid morning, at least I slept well” Tar’gorth boomed, perhaps wanting to wake the Elves that despised them. He fell silent on seeing Sah’rah’s state though, shaking his head before mounting his horse.
Sah’eca came next, followed by Tar’gelth, who looked none the worse after last night. Sah’eca mounted her steed, pulling up next to Sah’rah and draping an arm around her. Tar’gorth stared angrily at Tar’gelth, who trotted his horse past him, his haughtiness on full display. Tar’vid heard Tar’gorth curse before wheeling his horse around to follow after the Elf.
“Tar’gorth what’s going on?” Tar’vid asked quietly.
“None of your business lad, keep your nose out of it!” Tar’gorth snapped angrily, passing him by.
Sah’rah and Sah’eca passed by next, the Venna’s height making her look like a mother comforting her child. Never in all their time together had Tar’vid felt so ostracised from the group. He decided to hang back a moment, taking in the almost ghost town-like settlement of Curintan. He walked his horse on, hearing only the sound of his horse’s hooves on the stone flags of the road.
“What have you gotten me into Tar’mine?” he asked the mist, not expecting an answer.
“Your destiny Tar’vid” he heard on the wind, though as he looked around, he could see no one.
Tar’vid walked his horse onwards, ignoring the feeling of being watched. He had seen none of the owls that seemed to follow him, spying for the Saints and perhaps protecting him.
The mist eventually fell away as they ascended a hillock and entered into the emerging sunlight. Then he caught his first glimpse of Brownfields, a great stone castle perched upon a steep hill, below it, a large town that itself was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of tents, stretching out towards the horizon.
The others were already descending the hillock as he spotted it, a great stone circle standing alone in a field. That was where he would meet his destiny he knew, almost feeling like there was a hand upon each of his shoulders urging him forward his horse moved onwards.
“Go forth Tar’vid, with our blessing” he heard on the wind, seeing an owl alight onto a small tree beside the roadway.
Tar’vid nodded to the bird in acceptance, leading his horse downwards towards the encampment.