Durwin Maggaster stood looking from just inside his chamber’s balcony and into the sprawl of rolling hills that stretched into the blackness of Asper Forest. The moonlight was stolen by the heft of storm clouds, and it was only because of the occasional bout of lightening that his sight escaped his fort’s outer walls at all.
He let out a sigh, just to have it swallowed by thunder. If it weren’t for the arrival of the High Guard, he would be home sipping summer wine by the warmth of the fire, but as a knight of The Swords of Dradu and lord of Asper Forest, his place was here awaiting his commander. After all, it was rare for a member of The High Order of Dradu to make such haste appearances. The visit must be nothing short of vital importance.
He listened nervously for approaching horses as he’d done long before the last bit of daylight was stolen by night, but the rain cut through the sky in thick lines and rapped loudly in his ears like a thousand incessant drummers, blocking out all but the booming thunder. A heavy knock at his door brought him back to his senses.
“What is it?” he called, refusing to part ways with the dreary scene that echoed his mood.
His chamber door peeked open, casting a shard of light over the cobblestone floor of his stay room.
“My lord, Sir Vralis Ottom has just arrived at the gates,” announced the skittish voice of his steward.
A lump fought its way into Durwin’s throat, and he swallowed hard to clear room for his reply. “See him in, Chanstor. I will meet him in the entrance hall.” Durwin sucked a deep breath into his lungs as the door closed behind him, but the attempt to calm himself failed. Vralis Ottom was a kind but powerful man, as were the rest of King Audrick’s twelve high guards, but if he was here to push the will of the king, the will would be done.
He walked across the chamber to where the bed sat and gazed atop the nearby credenza. There lay his most cherished possession, a small pendant made of polished, black stone attached to a thin, golden chain. Engraved perfectly on it was the crest of his brothers, the crest of The Swords of Dradu. He clearly remembered when King Audrick gave the customary gift to him during his knighting ceremony. Not before or ever since has more pride coursed through his veins. He picked it up delicately and let his fingers run over the markings. They were still deep and sharp after all these years.
The years have been far kinder to you than me, thought Durwin, now grey, wrinkled and burdened with age.
The crest was made up of a heater shield, sideways and tilted to the right. Following it was the land of Dradu; to the shield’s left were sharp, horizontal cuts. It was as if the shield was protecting Dradu from their approach. A long sword rested diagonally over Dradu, cutting the land in half, its blade’s tip to the upper right.
Durwin thought of what the cuts symbolized: The kingdom’s enemy during The Great Extradition, a time when the knights under Audrick numbered into the thousands, and Audrick had yet to reclaim the throne. There hasn’t been a war of that magnitude in the seven hundred years since. Often he dreamed of living in such a time, a time when the title of knight meant something more heroic than governing land or ordering around overzealous officers and their footmen. He donned the pendant and felt its power rush through him like flash fire. Even after nearly thirty years of service, Durwin still felt unable to fully master the old and mysterious magic that the stone held within.
His eyes were flooded with torch light and his ears with the excited chatter of more than one hundred strong as he made his way into the upper corridor above the entrance hall. Red banners of The Swords and the purple ones of The High Order hung from nearly every rafter in honor of the High Guard’s arrival.
From the ledge overlooking the chaos, he saw a sea of his footmen below, all dressed in their red gambesons that were usually reserved for battle. Durwin shook his head, annoyed by their eagerness. Surely Vralis was not here to offer palatable news.
Suddenly, the entrance doors were forced open by a blast of chilled autumn wind. The torches of the hall cowered in response, and colored leaves rolled over the threshold to meet the crowd’s feet. Vralis Ottom entered, causing silence to swell throughout the room. While Durwin held court with Vralis many times, it was always in the king’s castle at Bulwarck. It had been years since the High Guard’s last visit to Fort Gunther, and his face was new to most of the footmen that resided here.
Even to the oblivious, there was no mistaking who he was. The dark-purple robes reserved for The High Order peeked from beneath his cloak, but even more telling was the raw power that he exuded, a power similar to, but infinitely more potent than, that of the pendant Durwin wore around his neck.
Vralis Ottom’s black eyes scanned the hall hurriedly, and a chill fell over Durwin as they found him. Refusing to push his dripping brown hair from his face, Vralis summoned Durwin with a nod.
Durwin found himself walking quickly down the stairway to meet him, and he wondered if his men could feel his fear as he threaded through. Something is wrong, he thought as he neared. Vralis’s eyes looked blank, yet determined. He didn’t offer the usual greetings as Durwin approached; he only offered a thick, chilling stare.
“Sir Vralis, it’s a pleasure to see you again,” Durwin lied as he kissed his commander’s gloved hand. The words were coarse as they pushed from his throat, and when they came out, they were without meat.
Vralis offered no reply. Usually he was a man of many gentle words, but thus far his sharp eyes did the talking, and they were not gentle at all. He was a tall man, at least a head taller than Durwin. His clean-shaven face bore slight wrinkles around his eyes and mouth, confessing the age he reached before his gift was discovered by King Audrick. For a moment, Durwin tried to imagine what it must be like to live forever.
“Sir Durwin Maggaster,” said Vralis finally, his voice as cold as his eyes. Vralis almost seemed to be looking through Durwin as he spoke. “An urgent matter has come up, one that we must speak about at once.”
“Y...Yes, my lord. Let us retreat to my private chamber.”
Durwin could smell the country air drifting off Vralis’s cloak as he glided past. The red crowd parted quickly as Vralis led the way towards the stairs. Durwin felt their eyes on him. While some wore looks of pity or fear, most had relief on their faces that they were not the ones chosen to follow. Where was their joviality now? he wondered.
They entered the chamber, and Durwin, for the first time, realized how dark it had become. He eyed the dying embers in the fireplace, their pithy light only strong enough to illuminate the large, limestone mantle containing them. Durwin hurriedly went past his bed to the forgotten fire and prodded life back into it. He turned to see the dark shape of Vralis already across the chamber, staring out at Asper Forest through the balcony entrance.
“Are you feeling well, my lord?” Durwin asked as he approached.
There was no response or any indication that his voice was even heard. Durwin took a moment to gaze at the landscape from alongside Vralis and saw that the storm clouds were waning, their blackness surrendering to the moonlight which now cast a brilliant blue glow over his land.
“So what news do you bring us?”
This time, Vralis looked him over, and Durwin suddenly preferred being ignored.
“Another was found with the gift,” he said calmly.
“The gift?” Durwin stroked his chin’s whiskers. “You mean Arii?” he said after a moment.
Vralis nodded slowly. This was indeed extraordinary news. The power of Arii, as far as Durwin knew, only ever belonged to King Audrick and his twelve.
“So who is this one you found?”
“A boy,” Vralis answered. “A villager in Asper Forest.”
Durwin felt pleasure that such a treasure lived in his forest, but he fought to keep the pleasure from surfacing. Vralis was obviously not pleased by the report, so Durwin was obligated to feel the same.
“So what is to be done?”
Vralis’s eyes were lured back to the landscape. Finally in a tempered voice he uttered, “Asper village, as well as its sons and daughters, must be ended.”