Tar’vid looked around in awe, at a distance the camp had seemed massive, but now, up close, the encampment was unbelievable in scale. All he could compare it to was the mustering at Veldren and in comparison that had been tiny.
“Have you ever seen an army so large?” Sah’eca asked him, turning in her saddle and beaming with a broad grin.
“Never, the closest thing I can compare it to was nothing like this” he replied, still dumbfounded.
They had to pass down the main road in single file now, carts, columns of men and oxen cavalry passed them by. Tar’vid had heard of the mighty oxen cavalry of the north, but seeing the armoured beasts up close was frightening.
“Bred for generations those Tar’vid. Can’t match a horses speed, but their greater muscle makes it near impossible to stop their charge” Sah’eca murmured to herself, hand on the pommel of her saddle.
Tar’vid noted that the soldiers all bore blue tabards with a white cross upon their breast, an inverse of the Paladin symbol. It was true then, the Paladin order was now a fully militant order, he couldn’t help but wonder how this would affect the way they were seen by other kingdoms from now. His musings were cut short upon hearing orders being shouted out, he turned in his saddle to watch lines of infantry moving their formations in sync. More infantry could be seen practising formation fighting in the clearings between tents with swords and spears.
“Impressive aren’t they?” Tar’gorth said proudly, having fallen back to ride beside him. “I’m sorry I snapped at you this morning, it was a stressful time” he explained, though the older man still kept his thoughts to himself.
“Don’t beat yourself up about it, I don’t even want to be here...” Tar’vid said, trailing off as Sah’eca and Tar’gelth pulled their horses aside.
“We leave you, for now at least. Tar’gorth and Sah’rah will accompany you to the grand master’s residence. Sah’ravel guide you” Tar’gelth said. Once they had responded the group moved on, Tar’vid noted Sah’rah had not given Tar’mine’s blessing in return to the Elf. He wondered what was happening between the two of them.
“Come on lad, let’s get you to the grand master before dark” Tar’gorth said gruffly, shaking the reigns of his horse and leading the way, Sah’rah followed behind them in silence.
The rest of the journey felt awkward with Sah’rah’s presence. Tar’vid’s initial awe at the size of the camp having faded some time ago he was now bored, even Tar’gorth seemed down. After what seemed hours they came to the citadel, passing through a large gatehouse with its portcullis raised to allow them to pass through, the far side though remained closed until the first one closed. Tar’vid looked up as they went through, spotting the numerous murder holes and arrow slits in the walls... it reminded him strangely of Whitecliff.
They had to wait several minutes until the portcullis opened, the awkward tension becoming unbearable. Only when they emerged out into the courtyard did Tar’vid feel the tension lessen, though perhaps that was simply his imagination. After leaving the gatehouse it was only a short distance to the stronghold... though in reality, it was only a small stone tower a few floors high, nothing quite as spectacular as Whitecliff or Keldran. As they approached the entranceway several men and women emerged from a side door, taking the reigns of their horses before the three Paladins could dismount. A finely dressed man emerging from the main entrance a short time later.
“Greetings to you all, I hope your journey was uneventful, in the nicest possible manner of course” The man said pleasantly, he was nearly a head shorter than Tar’vid, he noticed the man carried himself with the confidence of a skilled fighter, noting also that the man was missing a fair few teeth and had broken his nose at least twice, an odd combination with his shaven head Tar’vid thought.
“More eventful than I’d have liked Tar’lin” Tar’gorth replied gruffly, rubbing at his scar in frustration.
“Indeed, and you must be Tar’vid... Tar’mine’s chosen” the short man replied turning to him. “The grand master asks that you two remain outside whilst he talks with this one, come with me now Tar’vid... the time is already late.”
Tar’vid followed Tar’lin inside, Tar’gorth and Sah’rah appearing to pay him no mind once again as they obeyed the grand master’s command.
Tar’vid walked behind Tar’lin in silence, the other man peering back at him intermittently.
“So... you are the heralded Tar’vid?” Tar’lin asked, dropping back to walk beside him. “You’re taller than I thought you’d be, is it true that you have bested several opponents... and on several occasions as well?”
“For the most part it’s true... are these tales widespread around the camp?” he wondered, this was the second time his ability to fight had been brought up.
“Certainly, several of our new arrivals have been telling us of bandits giving up on contact with our fellow Paladins, even when they would have clearly have killed a lone Paladin. Your reputation has saved lives Tar’vid, that’s a great feat for someone your age to have accomplished.”
As the two of them moved further into the tower Tar’vid thought it seemed much larger inside. Taking an ordinary-seeming door they ascended a spiral staircase to the second floor, Tar’lin pushing open a thick oak door at its peak and standing aside.
“Please address him as grand master Tar’vid, we have little in terms of hierarchy, but there is only one master of the Paladin order and should be shown due respect” Tar’lin cautioned as he passed by.
Tar’vid nodded, starting to unfasten his sword belt. It seemed somehow proper that he came in unarmed.
“There’s no need for that... you’re Saint Tar’mine’s chosen after all,” Tar’lin said with a reverence he hadn’t expected.
Tar’vid let go of the belt strap, stepping through the doorway and into a large chamber that encompassed the whole of the second floor. The walls were lined with great, thick bookcases, bound tomes and scrolls covered every inch of them. As Tar’vid moved onward he noticed the fine red carpet on which he walked was faded and fraying. Near the centre of the room lay a great thick oak table, piled with parchment and papers. Smaller desks lay several feet to all sides, with men and women hurriedly scrawling upon parchment before handing them off to men in fine livery, that quickly ran past him and towards the doorway he’d entered through. Tar’vid walked over to the large desk, he could hear the distinct sound of a quill scratching on parchment coming from behind the mountain of scrolls.
“Hello there?” he asked, rather unsure of who he should be asking about the grand master’s whereabouts. “I’m here to see the grand master.”
The scratching stopped and a man stood up from behind the desk, his shaven head reflecting the candlelight from his desk.
“Then, you must be Tar’vid of Whitecliff,” he said, scratching his greying moustache and goatee vigorously.
“Indeed I am, here at the request of Tar’mine” Tar’vid replied standing bolt upright
“Greetings to you young man... I am Tar’mon, grand master of the Paladin order” he said kindly, offering his ink-stained hand which Tar’vid shook immediately.
“You’re taller than I expected” Tar’mon said with a curt smile. “Come Tar’vid... there is somewhere we need to visit before tomorrow’s departure.”
“We’re leaving so soon?” Tar’vid asked, a little puzzled that such a large-scale operation could move so quickly.
“Indeed, we’ve been ready to depart for over two weeks now. Tar’mine, however, insisted you be a part of this operation. I have to admit though... if he hadn’t shown us where you were, I doubt we’d ever have found you” Tar’mon said as he guided him towards the back of the room.
They came to a circular structure that soared into the upper reaches of the building... it looked like the chamber of judgement in Whitecliff he thought. The room had two Paladins guarding it, both in their armour and holding spears and shields, both stood poised for combat at a moments notice.
“We must leave our weapons here” Tar’mon said, removing his sword.
Tar’vid did the same a second later, the guards taking the weapons before stepping aside and standing to attention as the two of them passed into the chamber, the door having opened by itself. Tar’vid recognised the room instantly, it was exactly the same as the one in Whitecliff, down to the smallest detail.
“All these chambers are linked aren’t they?” Tar’vid asked, voicing his thoughts.
“Yes... and no. Though it is the same room, it exists outside of time as we know it... you would never meet anyone from Whitecliff in the Brownfield Saints room for example” Tar’mon explained as they made their way to the raised dais.
“Are you ready Tar’vid, this can be rough” Tar’mon asked, Tar’vid nodded in response, remembering all too well his first time here.
Tar’mon spread his arms wide and a moment later the familiar blue flames leapt up, engulfing them both in the heatless fires.
Tar’vid’s eyes refocused as he blinked away the bright spots. They were standing upon the platform of the Saints that had been there at his judgement, and when he’d received Torgard. Those that had failed the judgement still surrounded the platform knelt as always.
“Greetings once again Grand Master Tar’mon... and to you, Tar’vid,” Sah’ravel said almost as though she were bored, her voice still sounded ethereal to his ears though.
Tar’mon bowed and Tar’vid followed suit quickly, Tar’mine stepped forward and placed a hand upon each of their shoulders.
“Please, rise, both of you” Tar’mine said with a kindness Tar’vid had always felt from him.
“You’ve done exactly what was asked of you Tar’mon, leave with our blessing, grand master,” Sah’ravel said with praise, though never looking at them.
Tar’mon bowed to the Saints in turn before leaving, as the flames engulfed him once more. Tar’mine suddenly began guiding him towards Sah’ravel in haste.
“You may be wondering why I’ve commanded you north Tar’vid” Tar’mine asked, circling around him and sitting on his white throne beside Sah’ravel.
“I confess... it has crossed my mind often on the journey here... though I knew you wouldn’t tear me from my wife and child without good reason” he replied with reverence, the Saints were all knowing after all.
Tar’mine sat back on his throne, waving his hand casually and conjuring images in front of him. As Tar’vid looked at them he thought he saw some kind of egg, perhaps an insect pod... it was hard to tell.
“Are you familiar with my life journey Tar’vid?” Tar’mine asked, his eyebrow raised.
Tar’vid nodded, only guessing it related to the Blooming and their mission. “Only the accounts in the book of your name, when Samarkand fell, most of our records were destroyed... though of course, you know this” Tar’vid replied, feeling a little foolish.
Sah’ravel smiled, looking over to Tar’mine and placing a delicate hand on his own. “You were right about him, as I hoped you would be,” she said happily.
Tar’mine smiled, waving a hand and creating a chair behind Tar’vid. “Please sit, there is much to tell you Tar’vid.”
Tar’mine told him the story of his journey, it turned out that much of Tar’mine’s story had been lost with Samarkand, tales of giants and dragons... most importantly the story of the Blooming of Hope, the details were strangely similar to the tale Sah’eca had told him and he mentioned it to the Saints once the tale was finished.
“It’s good to know that we still have scholars amongst our ranks... it’s a trait I fear we have lost over the centuries” Sah’ravel lamented shaking her head, perhaps at the decline in their number.
“There was a point in relaying my story to you, Tar’vid. I believe you are the chosen of the Blooming... that you will make the choice that will seal back the tear once more” Tar’mine said, leaning forward and fixing him with his gaze.
“I won’t fail you both... if this is my destiny, then so be it” Tar’vid replied, standing and bowing to them both.
“I know you won’t Tar’vid, go with our blessing,” Sah’ravel said as Tar’mine stood once more.
“There are still Paladin shrines where you’re going, you can seek me out there if need be... stay safe Tar’vid,” Tar’mine told him before staring off over the sea of failed initiates, the blue flames engulfing Tar’vid and taking him away once more.
Tar’vid’s eyes adjusted to the change in location quickly, Tar’mon standing up slowly beside him.
“How long have you been waiting?” Tar’vid asked, standing himself.
“Only a few seconds, time passes strangely in the presence of the saints... best not to think about it really” The grand master explained hastily before leaving the shrine.
Tar’vid looked around once more before departing himself. Once he left, the shrine door closed once more, the guards of the shrine handing them back their swords before barring the entrance once more. Tar’mon waved over one of the men in fancy Paladin livery.
“Fetch Tar’lin, tell him to find temporary quarters for Tar’vid... preferably with Sah’rah and Tar’gorth. I’d prefer him to be with someone familiar” Tar’mon said, clapping Tar’vid on the shoulder. “Come, while we wait for Tar’lin to arrive I’ll show you where we’re going.”
Tar’mon took him over to the large table with piles of scrolls still littering it, covering the multitude of maps underneath. Tar’mon moved a number of the larger scrolls aside carefully, pointing a finger to a marking reading Brownfields, then slowly traced his finger upwards on the map, his finger had moved nearly two feet when he stopped on a mountainous region, scattered with large lakes.
“Around here is our destination Tar’vid, it would take over a year to get there on foot, perhaps a lot longer with an army in tow,” he said, his voice conveying his amazement. “We chartered the Mages guild to go north over a year ago, they’ve placed markers down in the north that will allow the Mages here to open a portal straight to the north, it’s all rather complicated to non-Mages, but that’s a general idea.”
Tar’vid agreed, magic was a little over his head after all. Tar’mon asked about how his journey had been since becoming a full brother and Tar’vid was fairly honest about it all, retelling his story until Tar’lin arrived a few hours later.
“I’m afraid there was no room in the first division quarters, I’ve had them set up a tent for you on the outskirts... it’s only for one night though” Tar’lin explained, giving a short bow whilst addressing Tar’mon.
“Can’t be helped I guess. Tar’lin if you could see Tar’vid to his lodgings... then you can call it a day yourself afterwards. Good luck to you Tar’vid, I hope to see you on the other side.”
Tar’vid gave a slight bow, then followed the short Paladin outside into the fading light.
“Try to keep a low profile tonight Tar’vid, rumours have circulated around camp about Tar’mine requesting your presence here and many aren’t happy about it. I’ve put you near some of the more trusted soldiers and Paladins, they’ll keep people from hassling you” Tar’lin told him, leading Tar’vid through the courtyard and into the gatehouse with a small escort following behind them.
“Are they necessary?” Tar’vid asked, indicating the group of soldiers.
“Our fellow Paladins, for the most part, are fine, but the other soldiers... so yes, they’re necessary” Tar’lin replied his hand close by his sword’s pommel.
Tar’lin continued to lead them through the streets, passing by groups of soldiers and Paladins that gave them only a cursory glance before returning to their activities. As the sun dipped over the mountains to the north Tar’vid noticed that enclosed lanterns began to ignite spontaneously.
“The Mages crafted them, would’ve taken our men hours to light all these lanterns otherwise” Tar’lin commented as they passed a large tent filled with soldiers and Paladins. “That’s the mess hall, we’ll stop in here now whilst you have some protection.”
Tar’vid’s escort filed in first, taking up positions around the dining area, their weapons kept close. He took his place in the queue, getting his serving of stew and bread before looking for a seat.
“Tar’vid, come, sit here!” Came Sah’eca’s booming voice from the far end of the tent, immediately all eyes turned upon him, he noted many barely restrained their contempt for him.
Tar’vid made his way over to Sah’eca, perhaps others might think twice about messing with him there. Tar’lin remained nearby should he be needed.
“How goes things young Tar’vid?” she asked, drinking from her bowl that seemed like a child’s in her hand.
“I was happier before everyone knew who I was,” Tar’vid replied with a wry smile.
“Oh, sorry about that, I forgot you’re not the most popular person right now... though I don’t see why, being Tar’mine’s chosen is a heavy burden” she replied, putting down a small book that she’d been holding in her other hand.
“It’s fine, really... this, strangely isn’t the first time I’ve had a target on my back” he replied, remembering his brief time in Keldran.
“Well, you may be pleased to know we’re in the second wave tomorrow. It’s all rather exciting isn’t it?” she asked with a gleeful expression. “I’ve never been outside of Cerdic, I believe our destination is on another continent Tar’vid.”
“It is, Saint Tar’mine filled me in on the details earlier” he replied, noticing that many of the soldiers and Paladins were leaving the tent, their meals unfinished.
“I shall have to map the area out... perhaps one day we shall have a repository of knowledge that once more matches that of Samarkand” Sah’eca continued, oblivious to what was clearly going to happen soon.
After a while, only Tar’vid, Sah’eca, Tar’lin and the four men of their escort remained, along with twelve soldiers and another Paladin. Tar’vid stood to leave, he’d rather avoid a fight where weapons were present, but as he reached the entrance several soldiers blocked his path.
“You’re going nowhere princess” one of them mocked, before spitting at his feet.
Tar’vid stared at him indignantly as he heard a scraping of metal on wood, seeing the benches and tables being dragged to the edges of the tent with the other Paladin standing in the middle of the floor, his tabard discarded on a chair.
“So you’re Tar’vid of Whitecliff, chosen of Tar’mine... you’re taller than I expected,” he said mockingly running a hand through his short red hair.
“That’s getting really old” Tar’vid replied with irritation, they would surely have many battles to come, why start a needless one now?
“How about a friendly duel?” the Paladin asked, gesturing around the room as if this was acceptable behaviour.
“Another time perhaps, if you’ve forgotten we go to war tomorrow” Tar’vid said, eyeing the guards at the door once more.
“Tar’gon!” shouted Tar’lin. “Enough of your idiocy, let him leave or the grand master will hear of this.”
Instantly everyone but Sah’eca pulled their weapons free, several flashes followed as Paladin armour clad the three of them. Tar’vid’s mind immediately went into battle mode, he picked out his initial targets quickly, taking the two guards at the door would be simple, but his escort and Tar’lin would be cut down by the greater numbers should he escape.
“You better think about what you’re doing” Tar’lin addressed the soldiers, “You’re attacking the grand masters chosen men, not to mention Tar’mine’s chosen man... it’ll be the gallows for the lot of you.”
The soldiers hesitated a moment, the gallows deterring an immediate outright attack.
“That’s only if you leave here alive” Tar’gon added, spinning his blade around like an amateur, a sardonic grin on his face.
Several of the soldiers began to advance at the encouragement and Tar’vid prepared for a bloodbath. Several screams erupted a few seconds later, Tar’vid whipping his head around to see several soldiers on the ground, a great tear in the tent wall. Sah’eca stood tall, holding a table in her hands with a furious look on her face.
“Tar’gon you will stop this now or by Saint Tar’mine I’ll crush the lot of you, no one threatens my friends!” she boomed, Tar’vid had never seen the Venna so angry... it was terrifying to behold.
Tar’gon sheathed his blade immediately, lifting up his hands in submission as the remaining soldiers did likewise.
“Leave and think on your stupidity!” Tar’lin shouted before Tar’gon and the others fled the tent through the newly created exit.
Tar’vid’s escort relaxed once more and Tar’lin let out a deep breath, Tar’vid sheathed his own sword, knowing how close many of them had been to death.
“Arrest these men” Tar’lin ordered, indicating the soldiers bowled over by Sah’eca. “Someone’s got to be held responsible for this” he continued, inspecting the large tear. “Tar’gon’s gone too far this time, I’ll see him hanged.”
“Could you let it slide... this one last time?” Tar’vid asked. “They already despise me, getting one of our own hanged... I don’t think my reputation would recover.”
Tar’lin’s shoulders sagged. “If that’s what you want, then one last time... but I won’t be able to protect you at all times Tar’vid.”
Sah’eca walked over to Tar’vid, placing a large hand on his shoulder. “He won’t have to worry about that, come Tar’vid, we should probably get you back to your tent.”
“I agree... but I don’t actually know where it is,” he replied with a shrug.
Tar’lin must have overheard him and indicated for the remaining member of his escort to show him the way. “Be safe Tar’vid, the Saints preserve us if we have to endure this level of envy the whole campaign.”
“I’m getting the impression I was never welcome here... and that I never wanted to be, it seems like a cruel joke” Tar’vid replied, taking a deep breath of the evening air.
“It’s not what we want Tar’vid, it’s what the Saints want... no, need, we’re only pawns to enact their will... never forget that” Tar’lin said, hand on his sword hilt. “Tar’mine protect you both.”
“And Sah’ravel guide you” he replied as Tar’lin turned and strode away, back towards the keep.
Sah’eca accompanied him and his escort through the camp, though it seemed that there were few people about now, most having chosen to get a full nights rest with battle more than likely tomorrow. As Tar’lin had said, his tent was indeed on the outskirts of the camp. Several soldiers lounged about outside, though his escort received a nod of greeting from them, easing his nerves as he passed them. His escort bowed and left them as they entered the small tent.
“Certainly cosy,” Sah’eca remarked, her head rubbing up against the roof.
“It’s only for one night... besides, I’m somewhat shorter than you” Tar’vid remarked, sitting on the mattress lying on the ground.
“Indeed, just sleep lightly... I never expected there would be such hostility towards you here Tar’vid, I’m truly sorry I took you from your wife” Sah’eca said as she started to duck out of his tent.
“It seems to be my defining trait since walking the path... though, I’m glad to know you have my back, and that you’re my friend at least” he replied, offering her his hand.
Sah’eca gripped his forearm lightly, with a smile that came across far more menacing than it should have in the low light. “I always have my friends backs, Goodnight Tar’vid, I shall see you in the morning.”
“Indeed, Sah’ravel guide you,” he said, placing Torgard down beside his mattress.
“And Tar’mine protect you,” she replied before leaving the tent.
Tar’vid lay back on the hard mattress, reminding him of Whitecliff and his rock hard bed there. He found his thoughts wandering towards Luna again, he only hoped that Jonas was keeping her safe as he drifted off to sleep. Tar’vid’s dreams were fraught with terrors as he tossed and turned, his worries manifesting in visions of death and destruction. He suddenly went rigid as he shot awake from his nightmares, feeling steel pressed up against his neck and a hand firmly clamped over his mouth.