I remember the day my mother died very clearly. She was my father’s third bride, a forester’s daughter. She was the only woman of common birth my father married, though in Rurauk the practice is not uncommon. I was the only child she bore. As the youngest, no expectations were placed on me. But this often led to more attention on my siblings, training them for their future responsibilities. I did my best to be underfoot at all times, forcing my family to pay attention to me. It hardly ever worked, and more often than not, I found myself being punished for such behavior. The only person that understood me was my mother. Her name was Rosalie. Some things about her have stayed with me more than others. Her hands were pale and callused; dirt under her fingernails from working in the garden. She liked to do the work herself, claimed it was relaxing. Her hair, red as my father’s favorite roses, always smelled the way the forest does just before it rains. She used to braid my hair for me. I remember sitting impatiently as she would do so, more excited at going out to play than having my hair pulled away from my eyes. And her laugh. It was too loud to be polite, and she tended to snort and gwaff. But it was my favorite sound, and it always made my father smile as well.
The condemned has paused, smiling faintly to herself.
I remember she would kiss my head after finishing my braid, and tell me to go get some sunshine before I wilted. My father once told her I was not a flower, and my mother had laughed and told him that I was. I was her wild rose, and roses needed light.
The condemned has paused again, for a long moment. Perhaps lost in her reverie.
I was not there when my mother died. She had been ill for years. I was seven then, and she must have known her time was near. She had called me to her room, and made me sit down on the side of her bed. She told me she was going away, and the time for play was over. She wanted me to promise to behave when she was gone. I didn’t understand what she meant by “going away”. I thought she was leaving me, of her own will. That upset me more than anything else she said, though I remember little of it.
The condemned’s tone has turned hard. As her words are impersonal in nature, I am recording her emotional state for the accuracy of the reader as she pauses to collect herself. She appears visibly upset, eyes closed as she attempts to get her shaking hands under control. It is unclear to me if she is angry or grieved.
I ran from her. I ran from my dying mother the way only an upset child can, with all the speed and grace of a wild hare. I escaped to my usual retreat; a garden my great-great grandmother had planted that had gone wild from neglect. The dirt paths were pitted and overgrown, and in some places the briars grew so thick that an adult would not be able to make it through without injury. The sun was bright that spring day, and I had sweat through my roughspun shift. One too many ruined items of finery had seen to my usual wardrobe quickly consisting of clothing normally seen on commoner children. I still remember everything in great detail, though I did not think I had been paying much attention at the time. I sat on a crumbling stone bench in a forgotten, overgrown corner. Briars creeped up the legs, and roses were blooming all around me. I cried out of rage. I was so angry with my mother. How dare she think of leaving me? I sat in the cloying heat, stewing in my anger. I waited for her to come and find me, the way she always had before. To apologize and make everything better. But she never came. It was not until later, when I trudged back to the keep, tired and hurt, that I understood. When the heat of the day had burned itself out, and the sun was red as blood on the horizon. When I was not allowed in the room as they covered her face with her blanket when I finally returned. Later that night, as the druids committed her body to the earth that her soul might follow and one day be reborn -may Aisha hold her in Her arms eternally- according to their beliefs. That was when I understood.
The condemned is now clearly angry. She is calming herself once again before continuing.
It is and will always be my most bitter regret that I was not there when my mother passed into Aisha’s arms. Such a foolish thing…
Anger has given way to an exhausted grief, unless I have read her expression wrong. I do not believe so, for the condemned’s shoulders have slumped and she has pulled her legs close, making her appear smaller. I believe we will end for today, and allow the condemned to gather themself for the morrow. Besides, my candle is about to burn out, and I have no more spares for today.
-From the Last Testament of Allaha of the Condemned, to be carried out by way of Decapitation. Transcribed by Sister Gloriana on this day the 19th of Estalvo, Year of the Fall 1512.
The Seer of Hastaput
“Allaha of the Mountain, is it?”
He was a young man with a cleft chin and warm brown eyes that matched the chestnut shade of his chin length hair. He wore a tunic bearing the crest of House Timerbrand large upon the chest, a crimson tree flanked by lions rampant upon a sable field.
“Yes, my Lord of Timerbrand.”
The knight held the reins of a white gelding, dressed in full plate armor, helm held under her arm. She was fair skinned and full freckled, with orange hair in a braid that wrapped twice around her head. Her most prominent feature was a large hooked nose, and the rest of her features were hawkish to match. A square jaw, set wide, and a low brow. Her cheekbones were set high, but it only gave her gray eyes a slightly sunken appearance.
She had an interesting party of companions. A thin girl sat on a lithe silver stallion with only a blanket and no saddle. Her dark skin and voluminous, curly black hair marked her as one of the Menori people. Like many of them, she wore loose, shambled together clothing and no shoes at all. She smiled easily, causing one of her cheeks to dimple. A beauty mark rested just above the corner of her mouth on the same side. Her arms and legs were reed-like, and her hands and feet looked large in comparison - a sign she was not yet done growing.
There was also a Jeongwonee boy of teen years, easily placed with his monolid eyes - though his skin was darker than a typical Jeongwonee, and he had a broader jaw, higher cheekbones, and wider nose than his pale skinned brethren. He sat on a large black mare; larger, in fact, than the knight’s steed. His head was uncovered, leaving his straight black hair to fly outwards from his head and tangle. He wore a pair of round glasses, and looked about with interest, a small journal in his hand as he took notes of their surroundings with a stub of charcoal. He was stocky, with a softness about his face where he had not quite lost the weight evident by his chubby stomach and arms.
Before the Jeongwonee boy sat a Tibu child, who stood out the most. He appeared as an overly large orange cat in clothing, and one of his eyes was a milky white. He stared at the lordling curiously, unblinking. He did not wear shoes, but had cloth wraps around his feet instead.
Sir Timerbrand folded Allaha’s writ of passage and returned it to her with a smile. “We may not have seen each other since we were children, but I insist you call me Alec. You look well, Ally.”
“No one has called me that since I joined the Order.” Allaha tucked the writ into one of her saddlebags. Her tone was sombre, and soft spoken. It was difficult to tell what she thought of the reunion, though it did not seem to bother Alec.
The lordling smiled. “The priests have made you serious. I cannot imagine how. Do all Knights of the Mountain play nursemaid, or do they punish you for your sex?”
“I am on an important mission from my Lord Devera to serve as protector to these children. It is a great honor to serve him and the Order in whatever way I can.” Allaha mounted her gelding.
“Peace, I meant no offense. Whatever the case may be, you are dedicated, no one could doubt that. Come, I will escort you to the keep from here.” He waved for a soldier to bring forth his roan mare and a piebald gelding, “Captain, mind the outpost in my absence.”
“Yes, sire.” The man saluted by thumping a fist to his chest.
“We will find lodging at the Sanctum,” Allaha said, putting on her helm. It had a mane of white feathers sprouting from its top, and the crescent moon in relief upon the forehead. The visor was also cast in the shape of a crescent.
Alec shook his head. “The Sanctum is too far, you would not reach it before nightfall. Stay at the keep tonight and journey to the Sanctum tomorrow, if you must. Besides, the little one appears to be falling asleep.”
When Allaha looked, she found it was true. The Tibu child was struggling to stay awake, blinking slowly and yawning. The Jeongwonee boy behind him was doing little better, rubbing at his eyes and smearing charcoal on his face. After a few moments of deliberation, Allaha nodded to Alec.
“Thank you, Alec.”
The lordling nodded, and turned down the trail. His second mounted the gelding, dressed in the livery of House Timerbrand. He nodded to Allaha, allowing her and her charges to ride before him. The man had a scar at the corner of his lip, and a generous growth of stubble around his chin. He had short cut black hair and dark grey eyes. The man brought up the rear of the party, almost like a guard.
“I recruited Jack out of the army to be my second. He’s a wicked hand with his sword, but he got captured by a couple of Jaspernians that cut out his tongue.”
“War? Or the usual skirmishes?”
“The usual. Don’t think I would much like to go to war with the Jaspernians, sneaky bastards that they are.”
From the rear, Jack grunted his agreement.
“And these skirmishes are common?” the Jeongwonee boy asked suddenly. His eyes shone with interest, charcoal stylus at the ready.
Alec looked over his shoulder to get a look at him, “Yes. Usually they start raiding now in the spring, since they do not know how to handle winter. Desert creatures, you know.”
“Why do they raid Dorbean?”
“Supplies, mostly. Livestock, food, ale. Things they can’t make on their own.”
Jack made another grunt, jerking his head at the Menori girl.
“Oh, and women. That is really why the army is called in.”
“That sounds silly,” the Menori girl said, “Why in the world would they kidnap women?”
“Because they know Dorbean women are the most beautiful in the world, I suspect.”
Jack grunted in agreement again.
“I highly doubt that to be the case,” the Jeongwon boy said, scribbling down notes, “Everyone thinks they have the most beautiful women in all Magdra, I’ve read enough books to know.”
“Careful who you say that to,” Alec said, but smiled, “Some might take offense.”
Jack snorted, and looked at the surrounding forest.
Without warning, a misty orange head appeared in front of the lordling. Alec gave a shout of dismay and drew in his sword as his horse neighed and bucked in surprise. The lordling’s eyes were wide in shock, and at the rear, Jack drew his sword as well.
“What foul trickery is this?”
“Goric! You said you would stay out of sight!” the Jeongwonee boy said, casting an apologetic look at Allaha.
“How could I remain out of sight after learning this man knows more about our dear Allaha than I?”
“That is a demon. He is the familiar of Hibu, who is a sorcerer of Jeongwon,” the knight said, nonplussed.
Alec studied the floating head, forcing himself to calm down with deep breaths. It was a man, with almond shaped eyes and a wide nose, his features soft around his jaw and eyes. It had long hair that flowed around it, dissipating at the ends as orange smoke. Its eyebrows were thick ovals, and its nose was wide and shaped more like a deer’s than a human’s. His ears, too, were those of a deer.
“A demon? Can it be trusted?”
“I prefer ‘he,’ actually. And there is little I can do to you as I am now. Other than scare your horse, I suppose. I wish only to ask you about our ravishing Knight of the Mountain.”
“Ravishing?” Alec looked at Allaha, cocking a brow in confusion. “Has the ‘Wild Rose’ finally bloomed?”
The knight was unphased. “He is, at worst, a nuisance when he is without physical form. Though out of respect for me, I pray you will ignore him as I do.”
“Was there a time she was not so cold?” Goric asked, moving to float before the lordling. “And what is this ‘Wild Rose’ business?”
“There is little for me to tell, as we have not seen each other since we were but children.” Alec reluctantly sheathed his sword, and nodded for his second to do the same.
Jack did so even more reluctantly, glaring at the demon as if that could harm him.
The floating head pouted by puffing out his cheeks. “Oh, come now, I’m not asking for much. Besides, none of us know anything about her.”
“Peace demon, or Goric. Whatever it is you are called, Ally has asked me not to speak of her, and as I do respect her, I will not.” Alec held his head high, though the slight curl at the corner of his lips gave away his amusement.
“You know enough, demon,” Allaha said calmly.
The Menori girl urged her horse forward, to sit abreast with the lordling. “Sir Knight, please do tell us more about Allaha. We only know her name and her Order; she knows our pasts, but hers is a mystery. Could you really not tell us anything?”
“I do not see how it makes much difference,” Hibu said, still jotting down notes, “Whatever past Allaha had, she’s a Knight now.”
Alec shook his head. “Your Jeongwonee friend is right. And even were it not the case, I would not speak of it. Ally’s past is her own to share. Or not to, as she chooses.”
“What a loyal friend,” Goric drolled. He floated back to the knight, “So, the ‘Wild Rose’, huh?”
The knight continued to look straight ahead. “A name which no longer belongs to me. There are no roses on the mountain.”
Alec looked back at her, amused expression sombering. “You have changed, Allaha.”
The woman met his gaze through her visor, “Yes, I have.”
The lordling arched a brow, “Should I mourn you then?”
“You should have mourned me long ago. The ‘Wild Rose’ is dead. I am Allaha of the Mountain.”
Unnoticed, Jack rolled his eyes.
“So I see.” Alec looked ahead, and spurred his mount to move forward once again, “I wonder, if the ‘Wild Rose’ yet lived, would she remember a summer promise?”
“Hm?” Goric mused, moving to float near his master.
Allaha was silent for a time. Her charges studied her, but it was impossible to tell what the knight was thinking with the helm in the way.
“... she would remember the smell of spring roses.”
Alec sighed, “Yes. I suppose she would.”
“Well that wasn’t cryptic at all,” Goric said, rolling his eyes as he faded out of existence.
“You love her,” the Menori girl said, eyes widened in surprise as she looked between the two.
Alec laughed. “Do not be daft, girl. We were children. I was only talking about a game we used to play.”
“Children love more easily than adults, for they do not know the fear of loss.” The girl seemed sad, smile turning into a frown as she watched the young Lord of Timerbrand.
At Allaha’s request, the girl bowed her head and fell back to ride abreast with Hibu and his black mare.
Jack shook his head, then spurred his horse forward. Catching the lordling’s eye, he pointed to himself, and then up the road.
Alec nodded. “Good idea. Ride ahead and let Benning know we have guests.”
Jack nodded back, then pushed his horse into a trot to outdistance the group and ride ahead to the keep. He disappeared around a corner before Alec spoke.
“So, tell me, Allaha of the Mountain, what brings you to Hastaput?”
“... we seek a seer.”
Goric reappeared suddenly, looking at the knight with interest.
“Ah. Him.” Alec scratched at his bearded cheek. “Well, good luck with that. He is not very personable, that one. Lives in the woods outside of town. The townspeople would have run him out, if he were not such a good healer.”
“Why would they have run him out?” Hibu asked.
Alec glanced back, “His mother was a witch. The townspeople believe she cursed hunters and woodsmen, turning them into horrible beasts that hungered for the flesh of man.”
“Did she?” Allaha asked.
The lordling shrugged, “There have been rumors of monsters in the woods since long before I was born. If the seer’s mother had been alive that long, she was truly a fearsome creature to behold.”
“And what of the man’s father?” Goric asked, watching Alec shrewdly.
“No one knows. Some say it was a demon, others a…”
“I know my people’s reputation,” Tamara said when the lordling looked at her. She smiled thinly and unpleasantly.
Alec nodded. “Others say it was a traveling Menori, due to his complexion. Still others insist that she conceived with one of the beasts she created. Personally, I do not see that it matters.”
“Just curious,” Goric said, winking out of sight as Jack rode back with a steward riding next to him on a grey charger.
“Welcome back, sire,” the steward, a fat balding man with a bulbous nose, said. He seemed out of breath from the ride, and Jack sneered at the man.
“Thank you, Benning. Are rooms being prepared, then?”
“Of course, my lord. And food as well.”
Alec smiled, “Excellent.”
Benning bobbed his head, “And your father wishes to speak to you upon your return.”
The lordling’s smile dropped, “I see. I suppose it would be best if I went to meet him now. Will you take our guests the rest of the way?”
“Of course, sire.”
“Then I will meet the rest of you for the evening meal. With me, Jack.”
Alec urged his horse into a gallop, and his second was quick to follow. Allaha watched after them from behind her visor as the steward Benning took the lead.
The knight spoke, “Has something happened to the Lord of Timerbrand?”
Benning sighed, “The lord has fallen ill. I am afraid he has been for… some time.”
“... I see.”
“I… I hope seeing an old friend might be some… comfort, to him.” The man looked up at her from beneath his brows, eyes as innocent and hopeful as a dog begging for table scraps.
Allaha sighed, “The girl he knew is gone. But I will offer what kindness I can.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
It was not long after that they reached the keep of Lord Timerbrand. It was large and block shaped, with soldiers patrolling the battlements. Benning waved to the guards at the gate, and one nodded back. They left their horses there, to be collected by a stable hand and taken care of. Allaha took her saddlebags with her, slung over her shoulders. It did not seem to be any great weight to the knight, although they were each as big as a sack of potatoes.
Benning led them to the guest wing of the keep. Hibu and Tamara were given their own rooms, and each went with enthusiasm to wash off the dust from the road.
Tamara did so simply with water and cloth, changing into a brightly colored clean dress from her provisions and wrapping a bright red sash around her hair to tie it back. She also put large gold hoops on her ears and a wooden pendant on a leather thong around her neck.
Hibu, on the other hand, washed the dust and sweat off with scented oils. When he was finished, he applied a sweet smelling ointment to his neck and arms. He pulled on carefully folded and pressed clothing, consisting of a long tunic that tied at the chest and loose fitting pants, both in white. He pulled added soft leather boots, and over it all a long robe in rich blue with intricate gold embroidery. He used a thick substance that smelled faintly of heather to comb his hair back presentably.
The Tibu child allowed Allaha to bathe him, then curled up on the bed wrapped in towels to sleep.
The knight turned to herself only after taking care of her charge. There was a screen set up for modesty, with a small brass tub behind it. Allaha washed quickly and efficiently, letting her hair down to wash it as well. As she was finishing, Goric appeared on the other side of the screen.
“You really must like this guy, to tell him why we’re here.”
“Leave me be, demon.” Allaha rose from the tub, grabbing a towel hanging over the screen, She dried herself, wringing out her hair into the tub before using the towel on it.
“Now that’s unkind. I am even respecting your modesty.”
“Only because I can still cut you in that form.”
“So, what is the story between you two lovebirds? You couldn’t have been older than what, eight the last time you saw each other?”
“Nine. Not that it is any business of yours.” Allaha pulled on her plain underthings, then a thick pair of white hose. She put on a thin linen undershirt, also white, with belled sleeves. Over this she pulled a heavy tunic, dyed red, with the silver crescent moon embroidered in silver on the breast.
“It hurts that you think so lowly of me.”
“Then give me a reason to elevate my opinion.” The knight emerged from the screen while braiding her hair.
Goric floated a foot from her shoulder as she walked over to the bed, where she had left her belt and boots, the latter of which were dyed red to match her tunic. “No mail? Wow. You must really like this guy.”
“He is a respected lord. Wearing mail to his table would be improper.”
Allaha finished with her hair, using pins to secure it in place wrapped around her head. She sat to pull on her boots, and Goric floated around her head.
“That has never stopped you before. At least you’re taking your daggers, or I would absolutely have to be jealous.”
“What do I care for your jealousy?”
“My lady, you wound me.”
“Not often enough, it seems.”
Allaha stood, strapping on her belt with its daggers on the left hip. Her swords, one of silver and the other of steel, would normally be on her right. The belt was thick, to accommodate the usual weight. The knight turned to ruffle the Tibu child’s ears, causing him to purr and stretch.
“Very well. I can tell when I’m not wanted. I will stay here and keep Karej company while you go and enjoy the company of a man for which you hold no affection.”
“Do as you will, demon.” Allaha left without a backward glance, or even a nod to the floating head.
Goric sighed, looking at the sleeping child. “Even warriors of the faith can have fun every now and again, right?”
Karej curled back into a ball with a soft mew.
The demon rolled his eyes. “No, I suppose not.”
The hall was decorated with tapestries depicting great battles and legends of the area. There were long tables set down the sides, the closest to the doors being for the lowest ranking in the hall. Servants and soldiers took their meal raucously, metal clanging as a pair of men reenacted a recent fight of some kind or another. Further up the hall, scholars, clergymen and higher ranking servants ate more sedately. They were deep in discussions of politics, faith and local gossip. On a dais sat the high table, where the Lord of Timerbrand sat in the middle. He was entertaining visiting lords and lordlings, but appeared thin and slightly dazed. It was easy to imagine that the lord was gravely ill; it was Alec, at his right, who took up conversation with his peers.
The meal was already underway when Allaha entered through the open doors, careful to avoid those serving. The smell of roast poultry permeated the air, as well as a hearty stew of some kind. The knight skirted the edges of the room, looking for her charges. She spied them sitting at one end of the high table, a spot open between them for her. As unobtrusively as possible, she made her way around the side of the hall to sit with them.
“Why is western food always so bland?” Hibu asked, frowning at his plate. It was roast pheasant, with mashed potatoes on the side, and some kind of breaded cake of something, “This is supposed to be a feast?”
“Be nice. The food is kindly given, as well as lodgings,” Tamara said. eating her own food with a satisfied smile.
“You know nothing of the finer things in life.” The sorcerer sighed, but suffered to partake of the meal.
“Then we are even, for you know nothing of life at all.”
Allaha sat down between them, and a servant was quick to fill her cup with wine. The knight took some food from the center of the table and silently added it to her plate.
Hibu sniffed. “I know it is an insult that they put you at the end of the table.”
“They had no need to give us a place at the high table at all,” Allaha said, “Eat in peace, Hibu.”
“Are you guardian or mother?”
The three turned as Alec of Timerbrand approached them, walking down the tables with nods and touches of the shoulders to his guests. He was smiling, but it did not reach his eyes.
Allaha looked up at him, “Protector.”
Alec nodded, “If you have time after the meal, come see me at the northern tower.”
The lordling patted Allaha’s shoulder, then turned and went back to his place at his father’s side. The knight watched after him, ignoring her charges’ conversation.
“What is going on with you and this guy?” Hibu asked.
Tamara sniffed, “Mind your tongue. Allaha’s business is her own.”
“But do you not want to know?”
“I cannot decide who is worse. You or your demon.”
Hibu drew himself into a proper pout, puffing out his cheeks and turning up his nose. He refused to speak for the remainder of the meal, which suited the women fine. However, as they left the hall and made to return to their rooms, the sorcerer could not still his tongue.
“Are you really going to meet him?”
Allaha nodded once, “I said I was, and so I am.”
“Why?” Hibu frowned, tilting his head.
“Come along now, sorcerer,” Tamara said, pushing the young man forward, “I am certain you have scrolls to prepare or nations to study. I will bet there is a tapestry of a story you know nothing about on our way back.”
“But-” Hibu looked back at Allaha over his shoulder. Then he sighed, and didn’t finish the sentence.
The knight watched them head down the hall towards the guest wing and their rooms. When they were out of sight, she turned down a different hall. She seemed to have little difficulty finding her way, and the halls were empty as most guests and servants were still in the hall or headed to their chambers for the night.
“Oh, a late night rendezvous?” Goric asked, appearing near Allaha’s head, “Loverboy know about your vows of chastity?”
“We are meeting to talk.”
“Oh, sure, talk. After seeing you out of your armor, I am sure that’s all he wants to do is talk. Unless that’s a euphemism now. In which case-”
“Peace, demon. Follow me if you must, but hold your tongue and remain out of sight.”
“Why? As I said earlier, I can tell when I’m not wanted.” The demon sniffed and disappeared.
Allaha continued on in silence. She came to the door to the northern tower, where a guard saluted her sharply. She nodded to him, and entered the first floor of the tower. It was a square shaped tower, and the stairs wound around the side. There were landings along the way, mostly guard quarters and armor storage. Allaha passed through with little notice, until she reached the hatch leading to the top of the tower. Here, she climbed a ladder.
Alec was waiting, his back to the hatch, looking over the nearby town and surrounding forest.
Allaha pulled herself out of the opening, closing the hatch behind her. She walked over to the lordling as he leaned on the ramparts, “Good evening.”
“Well, it is an evening.”
They were silent for some time. Allaha crossed her arms behind her back, standing straight as she waited.
Alec continued looking outside of the keep. It was he that broke the silence at last, “A beautiful night.”
“You did not ask me out here to talk about the night.”
Alec chuckled humorlessly, “No, I did not. I… I am going to marry Dana.”
“You did not ask me out here to speak of that, either.”
“You were never one to play nicely, were you?”
“I never saw the point.”
Alec turned to look at the knight, leaning back against the ramparts. He crossed his arms over his chest, “My father is dying.”
“So I have been told.”
The lordling stared into the middle distance, stilling completely, “We were so young. How did you do it? How did you keep from just…”
“If you jumped from this tower, would it restore your father’s health?”
Allaha turned to face out and away from the lordling, “It would not bring back my mother, either. It will hurt. It will make you angry. But you cannot change it. All we can do is live, Alec.”
The pair were silent for some time. It was chilly, this high up, and Alec rubbed his hands up and down his arms. Allaha appeared unaffected by the weather, standing and watching.
“Have you ever considered what might have been?”
“No. I am sorry, Alec.”
“Do not apologize. And thank you, for being honest.” The lordling pushed away from the ramparts.
“I can be nothing but.”
“You have changed.” Alec walked forward, towards the hatch inside.
Allaha turned at last, watching him, “I wish you and Dana every happiness.”
The lordling laughed. It was a bitter, hollow sound, “Platitudes ill suit you, Allaha.”
With that, he opened the hatch and started to descend. He closed the entrance behind him, but Allaha could still hear him on the rungs of the ladder. She stared at the hatch sadly.
“You do like him,” Goric said, a voice in empty air.
“I have given up my ‘might have beens.’ There is only one I regret.” Allaha moved then, returning inside herself.
Goric sighed. “Now, what am I supposed to say to that?”