There were no details in the letter. The sender had been quite brief and he could only assume it was from a lack of writing ability. Which was why the temple requested his aid. It was safer to send a Paladin rather than a priestess. The words “Mage” and “magic” always sent them over the edge, fear strangling even the kindest and most devout of priestesses. Some days he wondered if they feared magic itself or the King’s laws.
His boots sloshed through the mud as he squeezed down alleyways and ducked under rows of hanging laundry. The scent of mold permeated the air and lingered inside of his helmet. It soured his mouth. His stomach flopped sickeningly the further he went into the slums.
Houses were poorly patched together with planks of wood, mud, and whatever discarded materials the refugees could find. He caught glimpses of them before they ducked into doorways. They feared he was there to arrest them or someone they loved. And someday, Ser Merrick might have to return for just that reason.
But today, his prisoner was waiting for him.
He parted some of the laundry, the river finally coming into view around the corner. Whoever had sent for him would be waiting close by. And there she was, pacing back and forth in front of a curtained doorway. The moment their eyes met, she rushed forward and tossed a bundle of blankets into his arms. If it hadn’t been for the weight, he might not have realized there was something wrapped inside.
He tilted his head down to peer through the narrow slits in his helmet. When he carefully peeled back the threadbare cloth, there she was squirming inside. She had to be a newborn. She was certainly too small to be older. Her eyes were shut tight and a sleepy yawn pried itself from her toothless mouth.
She was the youngest prisoner he had ever been charged with retrieving.
“I knew what it was... I hoped but I knew.” The mother crossed her arms and nudged her chin at the newborn. She was young, thin and bony. The hard life of being a refugee made her cheekbones more prominent and the auburn in her hair dull.
The mother snarled under her breath, “Monster.”
He held the infant closer. Even his years of experience hadn’t prepared him for such a reaction. Mothers had shown dislike, mosty fear, when their children displayed signs of magic. Most mothers tried to hide their children’s abilities from the Paladins to avoid losing them. But he had never experienced anything like this.
She was still an infant, cast aside with foolish hatred. It reminded him why he chose to become a Paladin in the first place.
“Does she have a name?” He covered the baby with the blanket again. There was a chill in the air and he didn’t need her getting sick. He feared the mother hadn’t even fed the child since learning she was a Mage.
“Take it already,” she spat loudly for every passerby to hear. “I don’t want it.”
If he hadn’t stepped back from the house, he thought for sure she would have shoved him.
She clenched her jaw and tightened her folded arms. She lost her daughter long before his arrival. She was grieving albeit in a way Ser Merrick didn’t quite approve of.
It was hard for him to believe an infant could display signs of magic. The youngest Mage taken to Sunstone was six and in all his years as a Paladin he never saw anyone younger than that. A newborn seemed entirely unreal.
The mother could have lied. It wouldn’t be the first time a parent tried to get rid of an extra mouth or an unsavory family secret. He hoped with a little time he could disprove the allegations. The trip to Lake Sunstone, the closest Mage’s college, was a week away giving him enough time to decide the truth behind the matter.
He carried the child back through the slums towards the markets but she weighed so little. He was so afraid of dropping her or crushing her with his armor that his movements through the narrow streets were awkward. His shield snagged a hanging shirt and all he could do was pull the laundry along with him.
Before leaving the capital, he stopped by the temple in the marketplace. He didn’t make it far before a priestess scooped the infant out of his arms and awed. She called the others over and they gathered around, calling her sweet names and begging to hold her next.
When he confessed she might be a Mage they all sighed in despair.
“High Priestess.” He moved further into the temple, past flickering candles and rows of pews. He bowed lowly to her in greeting then peered back at the group huddled around the infant. “I ask for the gods to bless our journey.”
Even the old woman sighed and wrung her hands. “So innocent.” Her lips thinned and he swore there were slight tears in her eyes. “Poor dear didn’t stand a chance, did she?”
He nodded his head and whispered softly, “She won’t see the outside world. I can not feel my duty in this.”
She raised her chin and narrowed her eyes. “It is not for us to decide. Magic is a blight upon the world, a disease that needs to be contained.”
He stayed quiet, bowing his head in slight agreement.
“Here.” She raised an empty basket into view and allowed the Paladin to take it. “Carry her in this and let us pray the gods guide her path.”
“She needs a name,” he admitted in a lighter tone. He held the basket a little less glumly than before.
“She doesn’t even have a name...” The High Priestess gracefully strolled with him across the large space. “She’ll need a strong name for a challenging life.”
As they reached the others, the High Priestess gathered the bundle into her arms. The old woman smiled widely as if the baby’s grin was contagious. It was hard for anyone not to feel joy with such a sweet innocent child around.
“Rori,” he finally stated. “Rori Serana. She can take my family name.”
“You’ve thought about it, I see.” The edge of her lips curled as a smirk began to form. “But don’t you think it odd for a Paladin to give his surname to a stranger.”
He was a soldier, a verteran... It was odd, of course, but he felt it was the right thing to do.
“The gods sent me down this path for a reason.” He looked at the squirming infant then to the High Priestess. “If I’m the one to take her from her family then it is only right I claim her as my own family.”
She nodded approvingly. “Giver of Life watch over her.”
“Ethereal Guide light her way,” he added gently. Then his gaze caught sight of her Elven ears. She was so entirely a newborn that the top edge of her ears were still curled inwards.
The High Priestess moved closer, voice soft as she must have seen the horror cross his expression. “Have faith, Ser Merrick.”
“What if they consider her dangerous? An infant can’t be trained.”
She tucked the infant into his arms before raising her eyes up at him. “We must trust in the balance between the Mages and the Paladins. Magic brings atrocities that can not be so easily ignored.”
His oath as a Paladin was fraying inside him, threadbare and crumbling. Once her words might have steadied him and redirected him to his path. He knew the stories and memorized the holy hymnals that were sung in temples across Amitra. But the decades worth of death and pain he had seen were weakening his resolve.
He laid the infant into the small basket. The temple gave them enough supplies for their journey to Sunstone and brought the newborn before the gods’ altars and asked them for guidance against evil.
That evening they left the temple and headed southwest of the capital. It wasn’t even their first night on the journey as they trekked along the road that his worst fears came to light.
He wasn’t sure what it was at first. It was like a spiderweb that had fallen against his cheek as he marched. But then he saw it, the light green wisps forming at the tips of her fingers. It was soft, tender, a gentle feather that reached out and caressed his skin.
It wasn’t a spell of any sort. But her ability to pull energy through the veil from the Aether to their world was unsettling.
She giggled happily. For her it was just playful fun.
He was disheartened. A knot formed low in his gut as he imagined the Paladin Commander’s decree to kill the infant before she posed a threat. He tried to give Chancellor Nicaise more credit, that he could convince them to be patient and someone might even step forward to raise the child as their own.
But as a Paladin, one who killed countless Mages in the name of order and justice, he felt a growing bitterness choke him. His purpose to protect Mages and innocent civilians was a gray, faded ideal that grew corrupt by the Paladins.
Ser Merrick marched onward but every divide in the road he stopped and hesitated. He could take her and leave, raise her as his own. But he didn’t know the first thing about magic and the temple already sent word ahead of his arrival. He knew they would hunt them down and whoever found them, would have them jailed immediately.
So he marched to Sunstone Spire and tried to convince himself he was doing the right thing. They reached the lakeside at dusk and took the ferry across the blackening waters. The stars that speckled its surface might have been beautiful if it were any other night. Tonight, with the infant as a prisoner, he felt haunted by his decision.
The chancellor and commander greeted him at the door, glancing at the basket before motioning him to follow. Ser Merrick laid the basket down onto the commander’s desk then carefully pulled back the blankets to the sleeping baby.
“This... is unfortunate,” Chancellor Nicaise stated then stiffly folded his arms. He glanced at the commander before ducking his head away.
Commander Zadkiel smacked his mouth as if he had intended to say something then bit down on it. He crossed the room, groaning with the difficult choice at hand.
Ser Merrick kept his tone level, as best as he could, “What will happen to her?”
“She is home now.” The chancellor tilted the basket ever so slightly to get a look at the child. “I have just the woman in mind to raise her... She recently... lost... something precious.”
The commander turned slightly. He gave a firm nod as if he agreed with the idea.
“Might I visit. Ensure she’s healthy and...”
“Ser Merrick,” the commander said flatly. “That’s not advisable.”
His voice hardened, chin tilting downwards as he stared at the commander, “I gave my life to the Paladins. To you. Now you’re asking me to arrest babies? To imprison a newborn?”
Commander Zadkiel lost his breath and he shuffled into the closest chair. He didn’t say anything further. He nodded his head meekly and glanced at the chancellor as if to allow it.
The chancellor bowed his head. “I’ll let her know you are interested in the child’s well-being. Rest assured, Ser Merrick, Winifred is a good woman.”
Author’s Note: Thank you for reading and checking out my work! I’d love to hear from you so don’t be afraid to leave a comment!