Authors: Steven A. Tolle
Jake could feel his legs starting to quiver as they turned and started towards the main doors. They were almost to the press of people leaving the hall when a man’s voice called out behind them. “Marcus.”
Marcus stopped and turned around, Jake and Hailyn doing the same. Jake saw a handsome older man approaching, tall and lean, with gray-streaked dark curly hair, dressed in fine clothes. Jake could not help but think that this is how Marcus would look later in life, so similar was the man in appearance.
Walking next to him was a strikingly beautiful woman, almost as tall as the man, dressed in a dark silk dress that clung to her body. Jake guessed she was in her early forties, her porcelain face still
smooth, but hints of fine lines around her dark eyes and red lips, with wisps of gray visible in her long, dark hair. While she was physically attractive, Jake got a sense of coldness radiating from her, a feeling of aloofness to the plight of others. Maybe it was the lack of warmth in her eyes when she looked at Marcus or the neutral appearance on her face, but Jake immediately felt he would not want to be the person to cross her.
“Father.” Marcus said to the man. He gave a slight bow to the woman. “Mother.”
“We were pleased to hear that you accompanied the quest to free the princess, son.” Lord Marcelas said as he came up and hugged Marcus. “You have brought great honor to our house.”
He stepped back and Marcus’ mother came forward. Lady Arelia did not embrace her son, but simply touched his face. “I am glad to see you unharmed, Marcus.” She did not sound like a concerned mother or particularly glad to Jake. “It appears that your training here in the city, while keeping you from home, has been worthwhile.”
“More like he had the magic-wielders to protect him.” A tall man behind Marcus’ parents spat, looking at Marcus. He was in his twenties, dressed in mail with a sword belted on. While he took after his mother, he still closely resembled Marcus, so Jake figured out who he was before he said with contempt in his eyes. “Isn’t that right, brother?”
Marcus frowned at that, meeting his brother’s stare, eyes angry, but simply said. “If you say so, brother.”
Jake, feeling uncomfortable being caught in this family dynamic, looked at Hailyn, trying to subtly motion with his eyes that they should leave. Before they could start moving, Lord Marcelas spoke, disappointment and anger clear in his voice. “Rolas, that was unkind and beneath you. Do not belittle Marcus’ accomplishment, especially in front of his comrades.” After waiting until Rolas sullenly nodded, Lord Marcelas turned and looked expectantly at Jake and Hailyn.
“Father, as you heard, this is Jake Thomas and Sister Hailyn.” Marcus said, gesturing towards them and breaking the stare with his brother. “They both showed great courage in the face of our enemies. Without both of them, it is likely that our mission would have failed.”
“I extend the thanks of our house to you as well.” Lord Marcelas said urbanely as he extended his hand to Jake. Jake took it, noticing the firm grip and calloused hands. Lord Marcelas gave a slight bow to Hailyn. “You will always find welcome at our hold as honored comrades of Marcus.”
“I would add my thanks, as well.” Lady Arelia said
, her dark eyes focused on Jake. Jake felt uncomfortable as she looked at him, those cold eyes studying him. “I am glad that Marcus has such friends.”
“Thank you, my lord and lady.” Hailyn replied with a nod of her head. “You honor us. I know that you want to catch up with your son and I need to get Jake home to rest, so we will take our leave of you.”
“Of course.” Lord Marcelas said. “Good night, Sister. Jake.” He headed towards the doors, his wife and Rolas following him.
Marcus lingered for a moment. “If you need me, send a message and I will come.” He said, looking at Jake. “I assume you will be with the Mastersmith and his family?”
“Yes.” Jake said.
“Until then, good night.” Marcus said to them and left to follow his family.
Jake and Hailyn made their way back outside, the pace slow as Jake felt his strength begin to fade. By the time the grooms brought the wagon to the entrance, his legs were quivering. He gratefully climbed into the wagon, sweating from his efforts to stay upright, and let his power go.
It only took a few minutes to ride over to Norlan’s house, finding warm light streaming from the windows. Jake was surprised to see Norlan, Madalin and Cherise sitting on the front porch, Maxis laying at Cherise’s feet. They stood as the wagon approached, Maxis rising and placing himself between them and the gate. When Hailyn stopped the wagon and called out a greeting to the family, Jake used his magic again, slowly climbing out of the wagon. He took slow hesitant steps towards the gate, Hailyn hovering close by. He made it just inside the gate when Maxis collided with him, knocking him to the ground. Jake cold not help but laugh as he found himself trying to push the dog away as Maxis happily licked his face.
“Get off him, you dumb dog.” Norlan said good-naturedly as he pulled Maxis away, allowing Jake to get back to his feet.
Madalin, tears of joy in her eyes, threw her arms around him, pulling him close, her hug tight. Once she finally released him, Cherise came up and gave him a quick hug, a smile on her face. Jake was glad to see that she was better spirits than when he last saw her.
“We heard that your party had returned, but we were not allowed into the palace grounds.” Norlan said, still holding onto Maxis, whose tail was wagging enthusiastically. “We hoped that you would return here after the nobles finished with you.”
“What’s happened to you, Jake?” Madalin asked, alarm in her voice as she looked closely at Jake’s face. Her eyes were worried as she carefully reached up and touched the white streaks in his hair.
“Something happened when I was using my magic to try to rescue the princess.” Jake said, grateful for her concern. “Jonas is not completely sure how it happened and has to research the issue before he can do anything about it.”
“Where is he, by the way?” Norlan asked. “I expected either he or Dominic to be with you.”
“It is a long story.” Jake replied. He gestured towards the house. “Let’s go sit down and we can tell you what happened.”
“Of course, Jake.” Madalin said, gently holding onto his arm. She walked next to him as they headed back to the house. Maxis barked unhappily as he was left outside while the others
went inside, settling in at the kitchen table.
Madalin brought over some fruit and water as Jake and Hailyn told them everything that happened since they left the city. They described the battle at the demons’ lair and explained what they knew of Jake’s infirmity. Hailyn spoke about why the clerics could not yet help Jake. They finished with Keria sending Dominic and Jonas against the demons and of their return journey to the city.
“That is enough for now; we have plenty of time to talk.” Madalin said firmly, standing and ending the conversation. “You should go to your room and get some rest, Jake. I will make sure that you are not disturbed.” Based on the look on her face, Jake pitied the person who tried to disturb him.
Madalin looked over at Hailyn, studying her. “You need rest as well, Hailyn.”
“I do.” Hailyn said as she stood. “I also need to get the wagon and horses back to the Temple. I will come by tomorrow to check on Jake.” She started for the door. “The blessings of the One be upon you.”
“Let me see you out.” Norlan said and joined Hailyn as she went out the front door.
“To your room, Jake.” Madalin said determinedly. Jake gave her a smile and stood, moving towards the back door, Madalin accompanying him.
The night air was cool and the stars were shining brightly as he crossed the patio and entered his room. Once he was inside, Madalin asked if he needed anything. “Some water would be nice.” Jake answered and she left to get him a pitcher.
After he had unbelted his sword, hanging it from a peg in the wall, and gratefully sat down on his bed, the curtain pulled back and Norlan entered with his saddlebags over his shoulder, Maxis sticking his head in as well. “Hailyn said these were yours.” Norlan said as he put them on the stool in the corner.
“Thanks, Norlan.” Jake said, yawning. Feeling the comfort of the bed under him, sleep called to him. “Would you mind helping me to get out of my armor?”
“Of course.” Norlan said, coming over and assisting Jake in undoing his armor straps. Once Jake removed it, Norlan took the armor and stacked it neatly next to the saddlebags.
“I am so glad to see you again, Jake.” Norlan said as he turned back, his voice thick with emotion. “I have prayed for your safe return.” He came over and embraced Jake, his powerful arms holding him tight. “I told you that you have become like a son to me.”
“I am glad to be back.” Jake said when Norlan, looking somewhat embarrassed by his emotional display, released him. “I don’t think I would be able to deal with all this without you and Madalin.”
“It has been our pleasure.” Norlan said kindly as he made to leave. “Get some sleep.” He paused at the doorway, looking back. “We will do whatever is needed to find a way to help you get better.” With that, he left.
After Madalin returned with the water, then left, blowing out the candles as she went, Jake pulled off his clothes and climbed into bed. He released his magic, weariness quickly spreading through his body. He began to drift off when he heard the curtain move. He looked over to see Maxis enter the room. The dog came over and laid his head on the bed next to Jake. Jake was startled that he could feel that strange crawling sensation when Maxis was close.
After a quick nudge against Jake with his head, Maxis moved away and lay down, curling up at the foot of the bed. The sensation faded once Maxis moved, but as Jake thought about it, he realized that he had not felt that sensation from anyone when he had been holding his magic. He began to consider what that could mean, but exhaustion overtook him and he faded off into sleep.
The clash of steel against steel reverberated off the wall surrounding the training area as Marcus parried the sword blow aimed at his head and closed with his opponent, a young man encased in the armor of the Royal Guard, with an open-faced helm atop his head and a shield on his left arm. He slammed his shield into his opponent’s, driving the young man back. He thrust his sword into the small opening in his opponent’s guard as the young man tried to recover his balance. His opponent parried the blow just in time, but could not avoid Marcus’ shield when he swung it again. The young man tried to raise his own shield to block it, but was too slow and Marcus’ blow hit him in his helm and sent him tumbling to the ground, losing his grip on his sword. Marcus closed with him, bringing his sword overhead for the finishing blow.
“I yield!” The young man cried, raising his empty sword hand, a look of fear on his face as he saw the fire in Marcus’ eyes.
Marcus stopped, cursing under his breath, lowering his sword and shaking his head.
I let Rolas get under my skin again.
He thought bitterly to himself. He sheathed his sword and offered his opponent a hand to help him up.
“I thought you were going to take my head off.” The young man said as his took Marcus’ hand. “Do I owe you money I have forgotten about?”
“I apologize, Daen.” Marcus said, pulling the young man to his feet. “I had a long night and let my emotions get the better of me.”
“Next time, let me know when you are in that kind of mood and I will have Nathen spar with you.” Daen replied, taking off his helm and rubbing his head, indicating the other young man leaning against the rails on the edge of the training area.
“I warned you that he looked like he was out for blood.” Nathen called over with a laugh. “You are just too bull-headed to heed my advice.”
Marcus grinned slightly at that as he and Daen walked over to Nathen. These two were his closest friends amongst the Royal Guard. They had been in the same training class when Marcus first arrived in the city. Both Daen and Nathen had graduated and taken their place in the ranks while Marcus continued to train. Marcus was not allowed to actually join the Guard, due to his rank and position, though
he was unofficially inducted by the Guardsmen, allowing him to share in the camaraderie and close bond that developed between the soldiers.
His friendship with these two was surprising given their different backgrounds. Daen, close to Marcus in height and size, with a tanned face, light brown hair and green eyes, was a farmer’s son. His family, as they had for many generations, farmed a
small holding in the southwest of the country. With four older brothers and one sister to carry on the farming tradition, Daen’s father decided that he wanted a different life for his youngest son and sent him to the capital to apprentice a trade. Much to his father’s dismay, Daen decided to join the Royal Guard instead. Marcus knew of no other recruit that had worked as hard and diligently as Daen, who held himself to the highest standard. While Daen had not excelled at the combat arts, he was smart and as capable as any in the Guard.
On the other hand, Nathen, slender and a little shorter than the other two, with a lean face and short blond hair and blue eyes, was from a minor noble family. He was the only son of his family, with an older and a younger sister. His father sent him to the city specifically to train with the Royal Guard to enhance their standing in the pecking order of the noble families. Nathen was less than enthused when he first started training, used to living a life of relative ease. Early on, he was not one to obey the rules, especially those he thought were outdated or irrelevant. Though his instructors had considered dismissing him on several occasions, Nathen had demonstrated talent with the sword and bow. Those skills had kept Nathen in training and he eventually stopped fighting the rules, though he would tell anyone who asked what he thought about them. He also had a mischievous streak that manifested itself with pranks and jokes, often at the expense of Marcus and Daen.
The three had bonded when the instructors had assigned them to train together, holding each accountable for the actions of the others. Some tension had developed between them at first, but that soon passed as they found themselves growing closer together as they faced a common adversary - their instructors. The training had been physically and mentally challenging and the three were able to lean on each other to make it through. Marcus was grateful that their friendship had continued after the training had finished; these two were as close as brothers to him now.
His real brother, of course, was the reason he had gone to Daen and Nathen in the early morning, asking them to come spar with him. Rolas had continued to needle Marcus, mocking and challenging him, as he tried to tell his parents what had occurred during the rescue mission. They had gone up to the rooms in the palace that the king had set aside for Marcus’ family, sitting down in the comfortable chairs of the library. His father had tried to keep the peace, admonishing Rolas and encouraging Marcus, while his mother sat there watching quietly. Finally, Marcus’ patience with his brother had reached its end and only their father’s order had prevented it from coming to blows. Marcus had gone to his room, but sleep would not come, so he slipped out quietly and went to find his friends to work off his anger.
“What has you in such a mood, Marcus?” Daen asked. “I figured you would be happy to be back in the city.”
“Rolas.” Marcus stated shortly.
“Ahh.” Daen said sympathetically, sharing a look with Nathen.
They knew of Marcus’ estrangement from his brother. Marcus had told them much of what happened, but not all. They knew that the two have never been close. Marcus had told them of Rolas’ jealousy of his relationship with their father, whom Rolas said favored the younger son over
the older. Rolas had always been outspoken in his claim as the rightful heir to their family’s holdings and saw Marcus as a threat to that.
What Marcus kept to himself was the real reason he had been sent to the capital. Growing up, with his father often busy or away on business, his mother distant and Rolas as a tormentor, Marcus found solace with his nanny and her husband. Even after he had grown old enough to no longer need a nanny, Selace and Tenan had always welcomed Marcus into their home. Tenan was one of his father’s huntsmen and taught Marcus tracking and hunting. Selace was there to encourage and console Marcus as a child, giving him the affection that his mother did not show. With no children of their own, they were surrogate parents to Marcus and he felt closer to them than his own family.
When Marcus had just turned sixteen, Tenan was killed while out hunting in the forest. It appeared that, while cleaning the deer he had killed, he was attacked by a bear. They found Tenan’s mangled body near the deer carcass. Tracks led off into the undergrowth, where they found the bear, dead, with Tenan’s knife still in it. When this news reached Marcus, he was devastated and went immediately to see Selace. Though Marcus attempted to comfort her, she was inconsolable.
The next day brought another hammerblow to Marcus’ heart. In the night, Selace had gone to the falls that fed the river near the holding and, in her despair, had thrown herself off. Some of the housemaids had found her body in the rocks that morning. Shattered by the news, Marcus had gone to one of the outbuildings and broke down, weeping. Rolas found him there and began to mock him, calling him a baby and hurling other insults. Marcus was used to his brother’s taunting, usually containing his anger and walking away, but when Rolas said that Tenan and Selace were only servants and not worthy of a nobleman’s tears, something inside Marcus snapped.
He charged Rolas, catching him off guard and drove him out into the courtyard. They fell to the ground, punching and kicking each other. They regained their feet, still swinging. Neither was holding back, with Marcus consumed by rage and Rolas by hate. The servants and craftsmen scattered as the two fought and rolled around the courtyard, attempting to kill each other with their bare hands.
When they battled close to the blacksmith, things took a deadlier turn. Rolas grabbed a nearby sword and Marcus followed suit. The two closed with each other, swords moving. They had only begun when several of the men-at-arms barreled in and wrestled them both to the ground, stripping them of their weapons. They were both dragged unceremoniously to the cells set aside for prisoners waiting for their father’s judgment.
Their father was the angriest Marcus had ever seen him when he came to the cells in the early evening. He was so mad that he almost could not speak. After blistering their ears about breaking the peace and how disappointed and ashamed he was to be their father at that moment, he left them both locked up for the night, barring any food or water.
The next day they were released, with a man-at-arms assigned to each of them to prevent a repeat of the day before. Their father had made them apologize and shake hands, promising to behave like
brothers should. Marcus could tell he was troubled, knowing that it was only words, and, shortly after the funeral for Selace and Tenan, his father told him that he was being sent to train with the Royal Guard. Despite parting with his father, Marcus was eager to go.
“Well, I know of several taverns in the city where it will be unlikely that your brother would find you.” Nathen said lightly. “If you can bring yourself to go to such places, I am sure we can find some, umm, distractions to take your mind off your troubles.”
“I’m sure you know of all such places, Nathen.” Marcus said, shaking his head with a smile on his face. “Thank you for the offer, but while I could give a fig about Rolas, I doubt Keria would be too happy if I was caught in such a place.”
“My apologies, Marcus; I forgot you are a romantic at heart.” Nathen said. “I, for one, am not bothered by such concerns.”
“We know, Nathen.” Daen said, rolling his eyes. “The One preserve us, we know.”
The three shared a laugh, Marcus feeling his mood lighten.
“You both disappoint me so.” Nathen said, feigning disillusionment. He glanced up, a twinkle in his eye. “Let’s go get something to eat before Marcus decides he want to pound out more of his frustrations on me.”
As they began to walk towards the mess area, a voice called across the training grounds. “Lord Marcus.”
As they turned towards the voice, Marcus saw Justian walking towards them. He came up to them, bowing slightly to Marcus. “Your mother has requested that you return and have the morning meal with your family.” Justian said.
“Of course, Captain.” Marcus said, his good mood dissipating, but keeping the disappointment out of his voice. He looked at his friends. “I will come by to see you when I can get free.”
Marcus.” Nathen said mockingly, with a grin and an exaggerated bow. With a nod from Daen, they continued on to the mess area.
“Let’s go, Justian.” Marcus said, heading back towards the palace and steeling himself for an unpleasant morning.
Jake awoke from a dreamless sleep to see the sunlight streaming in through the windows.
Madalin must have let me sleep late.
Jake thought to himself. He called up his power, feeling strength return to his body. He sat up and slowing stood, moving around his room and getting dressed, but leaving his armor and sword behind.
He pushed the curtain aside and stepped out onto the patio. He stopped, enjoying the sunshine on his face and feeling the cool breeze move around his body. He could see some dark scattered clouds in the distance, bringing the promise of rain. After a few moments of contemplation, he went inside the main house.
He saw Madalin and Cherise sitting in the front room, Madalin reading and Cherise sketching. Madalin looked up when he came into the kitchen, rising and coming over to him.
“Good morning, Jake.” She said, reaching up to touch his face. “How are you feeling?”
“The same as yesterday.” Jake replied. “As long as I hold my magic, I can at least move around.”
“Come, I set aside a plate for you.” She said as she went to the counter to pull a plate of food from under a cloth. She sat at the table while Jake ate.
“Is there anything you want at the market?” Madalin asked solicitously when Jake had finished. “I need to go and gather some items. Cherise will be going with me.”
“I’m fine, Madalin.” Jake replied.
“Well, you should go back to your room and rest, then.” Madalin said as she stood, taking the plate over to the wash sink. “You need to conserve your strength until Brother Jonas returns.”
“I think I will hang out outside.” Jake said. “It is a nice day and I could use some sun.” He saw the disapproving look cross Madalin’s face. “I promise to not do anything crazy. If I start getting tired, I will go lay down.”
“Fine.” Madalin said, voice neutral though she did not look pleased. “Maybe I should have Cherise stay with you.”
“There is no need for that.” Jake said hurriedly. “I will be fine and, besides, there is nothing she could do if something did happen.”
“All right, Jake. I will trust you.” Madalin replied. She headed to the front room. “Let’s go, Cherise.” She said to her daughter as she headed out the front door. Cherise jumped up and, with a wave to Jake, followed her out.