"In my heart I know I can let go.
In the end I will find some peace inside.
New wings are growing tonight."
– Within Temptation: The Swan Song.
"Mount up!" I order, and smile faintly as the group complied. We are to continue through the dusty and ash-filled countryside, and head further north. There was still a long journey to complete, but being out in the field again was good – at least after having been cooped up in the Cathedral and the Paladin barracks for several weeks, training the wanting-to-be Knights of the Church. It had been taxing, to say the least, tutoring the men and women in the ways of Light and steel; how to fight with body and soul and the divine power that infused every Paladin. Some had failed, some had made it. The strong-willed remained, whereas those who lost hope in ever achieving the silvered shoulder-plates and the two-handed hammer had left their studies.
But it had always been like that, and would remain to ensure that only those worthy would have the honour of calling themselves Paladin defenders.
Two of them are among those I am commanding, Thenli Darrowell and Seridan Fenn both young men, and considering their prowess and eagerness to learn and to defend, I am glad they are with me. As we ride, I on point, I glance back over my shoulder at the soldiers and the two junior Paladins, as well as the sole mage, or sorceress to be more exact, in our midst. They are wary, as is right, looking to their sides for any sign of trouble. In this broken land there are many dangers.
"Milady," a young man’s voice speaks.
I look to my side to meet the eyes of Thenli Darrowell, junior Paladin – short and well kempt brown hair, accompanied by equally brown eyes and a fair face, which bears little hint of having seen combat; his stature tall and proud, though I have come to learn of the humble and charitable spirit that dwells within him.
"Yes, Brother?" I reply.
"Did you always dream of becoming a Knight?" he inquires, his eyes alight with curiosity, and, from what I can gather, a touch of admiration.
Ignoring the latter, I nod slowly. "Yes, Brother Darrowell. Ever since I first saw them parade through the Capital City in Lordaeron," I answer, and resume having a watchful eye to our surroundings.
I can sense him smiling before he continues his friendly interrogation, most likely caused by nervousness as we are proceeding through an unfamiliar area with the chance of seeing combat before we leave it. "Was it just as hard back then, milady? The training, I mean."
I chuckle quietly, sparing him a glance and friendly look. "I would assume as much, Brother, though I didn’t start my training till well after the Second War."
Bearing in mind that I’ve not seen anything hostile, I risk fetching the water skin hanging from the saddle of Archi, my trusted warhorse, and quench some of the burning thirst. Wiping my mouth briefly I nod faintly as I think back on my days as a trainee. "It was hard enough when I began learning to use a weapon and the Holy Light. And being a young girl amongst mostly men didn’t make it any easier."
"Well..." he starts slowly, "You’re a Knight now, milady."
Smiling at the compliment I spend a few seconds strapping the water skin back to its place. "Indeed I am, Brother. Why do you ask?" I say as I peer at him curiously.
He reacts by blushing ever so faintly and looking away as though to scan his surroundings. "Oh. Well...just curious, is all." He clears his throat, glancing over his shoulder at the column. "And wondering if I’ll serve as one for as many years as you have, milady."
Venting a laugh I lean over to place an approving clap on his armoured shoulder. "As long as you know what you’re signing up for, Brother Darrowell. To be Knight is to serve as one till you don’t breathe the air any longer." I nod appraisingly. "You’ll do fine as one. I’m sure of it."
He seems to straighten up, grow a couple of inches at the affirmation, and I wonder for a brief second if his mouth will suffer permanent damage from the big smile he gets. "Y’think, milady? Thanks."
The silence slowly falls in the column, and the watchful eyes keep their vigil – the sound of hooves punishing the ground below us and the vague clatter of our armour the only things being audible for as the minutes slowly pass. I always found it rather pensive, that particular silence, and never really liked it, but it usually helped a soldier to notice any impending danger over yonder. A necessary evil, I would call it.
"Have you ever..." Thenli Darrowell slowly starts again, but his voice trails off in uncertainty.
"Ever what, Brother?" I reply, keeping my eye on the horizon.
"Are you ever afraid when out like this, milady?" he asks, seemingly getting the courage to finish the sentence upon my inquiry.
I look him over, but fail to meet his eye as he keeps himself busy with being watchful. "Well, of course. To be afraid is natural," I comment and then add, "But the Light can make that fear fade quite easily." I shrug lightly. "You just have to find that courage within, Brother. Besides, we do not live for ourselves, but to defend our fellows and allies alike."
He falls silent upon that, merely nodding a bit at my remark.
The hour from there is passed in silence.
I huff, the throat burning again with thirst due to the dust and heat of this place, even though it seems ever veiled by dark and red clouds. The barren rocks, clearly marked by fire from the bowels of the earth, appear only vaguely touched by the occasional hot wind that sweeps through, whirling ash and dust in all directions. The soldiers are already rather dirty – their faces blackened some by the dry ash. Yes, this place is a pit, unfriendly to all who pass through it.
Quenching my thirst once again I find myself stopping, and can swear that I heard something among the trampling of hooves and clatter of plate mail. The column stops in turn with the soldiers looking to their sides. I glance over my shoulder, finding that they are also scanning the horizon. They’ve heard it too.
And it draws closer; a leathery flapping in the air. I gasp in realisation and look up, finding that my suspicion was true.
"Dragon!!" I yell in alarm.
A bone chilling shriek responds as a black dragon crashes through the column, breaking bones and steel and flesh. Surprised cries resound as soldiers are tossed to the sides, the whinnying of horses accompanying them – and then comes the body of the second junior Paladin, Seridan Fenn, crashing at my side; his chest buckled inwards – already dead.
"Scatter!!" I command, and notice that the sorceress is already weaving a spell. Her attempt is cut short as the black dragon deftly lunges it open maw at her, picking her up. She screams in terror for about two seconds before her life is cut short with an awful faint crunch.
The soldiers cry out in panic, trying to scatter, but most of them are killed by the searing fire breath that comes roaring from the mouth of the drake. One or two of them try to keep on moving, even while in flames, but their desperate screaming end rather quickly.
Thenli Darrowell roars, and I blink in disbelief as I see him charging the dragon head on, holding his sword high.
"Thenli!! No!!" I manage to shout.
The dragon hears him coming, apparently, and I see him vanish in a burst of flame – horse and man alike.
We are all dying. We can’t fight it, but they’re already all gone – the dragon smashing the remaining soldier with one of its scaly clawed hands, or whatever they have.
I could try to make a run for it, but where? We were in the middle of no-man’s land. No safe haven to venture to.
And I make my choice, unsheathing my greatsword and spurring Archi to the gallop – I call upon the Light to fill me, my one eye ablaze with its divine power as I cast aside all worry for myself. There could be wounded among those hapless shoulders, still alive. The dragon might even be the bane of someone else coming this way, perchance a search party when finding that we never reached our destination.
So I gallop.
The black dragon slowly turns its head to face me, seemingly undaunted at my charge. Or maybe surprised? I don’t know which, but I pray for the latter, so that I might have a chance, however improbable. The Light is my strength. It could just do with bringing this scaled beast to the ground.
It lets out a snort, flames flashing out of its immense nostrils, which even deafens the thundering of Archi’s hooves – and then I realise its intent as its tail is turned to the side.
I have no chance of avoiding the incredible force crashing against Archi’s side and my left leg as the tail smacks us like a hand swatting a fly, and with that I find myself in midair, flying over the hillside. My descent down the rocky crevasse punishes my body as I crash through rock and stone, smashing ribs and bones against them before rolling over on my back like a ragged doll when I finally reach the ground below.
The pain is numbing, and I can’t feel my legs. Upon turning my head to the side I find Archi’s mangled body, blood seeping through his nostrils and mouth. His idle gaze tells me the inevitable. He is dead.
I cough. It hurts to do that, so I try not to. Blood in my mouth, hard to breathe – not good.
I can’t move.
Looking up at the careless black and red sky, I try to push away any worry. I’d always known what I had agreed to when first taking the oath – and remembering that when in the company of Auburn.
I wonder if they’ll ever find me. But it’s okay. Iohannes and Annika won’t be alone. Richeron will take care of my little gems. And Miss Jennings’ll help him. And Nouala. And Amy.
A face slowly comes to view in the clouds above – not filled with wrath and torment, but smiling, just as I could remember her.
I return her smile, though the pain flares and the world fades around me. Her face remains, as though to tell me that it’s okay.
"Heaven queen, carry me
Away from all pain
All the same take me away
We're dead to the world."
– Nightwish: Dead to the World.
"Why have you brought me this?" a voice said as I slowly gained a measure of consciousness. "So battered she’s hardly alive."
Someone is near me from what little I can hear, the voices muffled. I try to open my eye, but everything is so hazy, so dim and farfetched. The aching pain makes it hard for me to think straight.
Where am I?
"Pardon, sir, but she wore the emblem of the Church. I think she’s one of those Paladins. Y’know, those who can summon the Light, or what’s i-," another voice was replying, a touch of subordination in its tone.
"I know bloody well what they can do, whelp! Don’t assume you can lecture me!" was the angry retort.
It sounded deep. A male. Race? No…I don’t know. Pain is still flaring. I still can’t move, but I try.
"By the Nether," the deep voice suddenly says – there is surprise in his voice. "The damned woman is awake, even trying to move." A cold laughter echoes.
Echoes. I must be in a hall. A room? No, I’m not sure.
"Well...maybe not a total waste. I do have certain ideas that I’ve never been able to test satisfactory – and these Paladins are said to be immune to a lot of things," the voice adds. It seems musing.
Someone grabs me by the jaw, turning my face to side to side. I whimper as the pain increases in its intensity.
"Alright, patch her up. Don’t want her dying before I even begin." the voice says as the hand lets go.
I feel a slight shudder, as though being lifted. I must’ve been carried into wherever I am.
I groan. The pain is too much.
To the honourable Grayson Shadowbreaker, esteemed Lord and most-gracious Knight.
Light’s blessings and eternal guidance be bestowed upon you for all days of your life.
M’Lord, I write most humbly in order to inform you of troubled news.
We have for some days awaited the arrival of the contingent of troops led by Knight Lady Withamhall, accompanied by two Junior Paladin defenders. I regret to inform you that none have passed through the gate to the Searing Gorge, and that none of our allied scouts of the Dwarven Mountaineers guarding the passes have seen any trace of them.
Upon the day after the expected passage I asked our Dwarven allies to dispatch scouts to see if they were on approach. Alas, all reports so far have proven fruitless. I am as I write this still expecting answer from the long distance scouts, but have reason to fear the worst, as Knight Lady Withamhall’s contingent should have arrived at Menethil Harbour on the 17th of this month. A messenger from that aforesaid township has confirmed that the contingent did not take any other path towards the intended end location.
I will send word as soon as I know more, but have to at this present occasion list them all as missing in action.
I await your response, and any additional orders you may have for me.
Your humble servant and compatriot in the service of our most holy Church of Light,
Sir Adelhoff Steelbrow,