For once, Dwight was actually home.
Her heart leaped when she heard the news from the guards at the gate. They knew who she was and informed her that her quarters were prepared for her. When she handed over her backpack and heavy winter cloak, she was assured it would be delivered to her room. She gave them her thanks and walked in to the keep, in search of Dwight. She no longer needed an escort around the place, but she still got lost sometimes. Knowing Dwight, he could be anywhere from having his nose buried in a book to getting his hands dirty in the garden while discussing supplies with the keep’s cook.
She checked his “office” first. It was a room that Dorian had set aside for informal visits near the main gate, with a desk and comfortable chairs and a few shelves of books. While Dwight was away, Dorian could be found there working. When that turned up empty, as had the library, garden, and kitchen, she walked up the back stairs to the main hall. Since she had used the steps that the kitchen staff did for serving purposes, she came up behind the large carved chair his ancestors had used for audiences and banquets. She stood in the shadow of the doorway, silent and unnoticed, and listened in on the proceedings that seemed to have been going on for some time.
A man and a few armored soldiers, somewhat worse for wear, were standing before their Duke and the Earl giving a report about the gnoll infestation. After dealing with the same problem here and then again in the south west region, Shallan was no stranger to this dilemma. They reported that another red-eyed shaman had popped up, but the well trained knights of the Duke had dispatched it. Unfortunately, the loss of leadership had not done anything to disband them or even to encourage the gnolls to leave the area. Not even the snow and ice of winter had slowed them down.
Dwight thanked the man for his report and Dorian escorted the group out assuring them of lodging for the evening before they returned home.
Once alone, Dwight took a deep breath. Shallan could see the responsibilities of what he had been dealing with pull at him, wearying him. He dropped his head into his hand, tired.
Shallan walked forward into the room from her hiding spot, deliberately making noise with each step so she didn’t startle him. Dwight’s head came up and he turned, his expression fatigued, obviously expecting someone else. Once he saw her, he instantly revived and she could see some of the weight he carried drop away. He rose out of the chair to greet her, squeezing her close, kissing her deeply. She was a little surprised at the strength of his embrace, but she returned it with equal fervor.
She had missed him.
There was no crisis, no need for them to go riding off to someone’s rescue. There was nothing more important than each other, at least for this moment. She felt a twinge of guilt at leaving the Walled Valley without waiting for him to arrive, but she had no idea how much longer he would have been training villagers in Greenhill to the East across the border. For her part, the gnoll problem had been growing in other places and not just Joven, and she wanted to know if there was a solution to be found down in Riverwest.
Dorian returned to find the two of them entwined. He coughed politely to announce his presence.
Shallan could feel Dwight’s smile against her lips. He looked up at his brother without letting her go. She ducked her head in embarrassment, hiding her own smile. “Please clear my schedule until dinnertime. I’ll catch up then and can hear audiences during my meal.”
“Yes, sir,” came an amused reply from the older paladin. He left them and closed the door firmly behind himself.
Shallan reached up and knotted her fingers in Dwight’s blonde hair as he leaned down a second time to kiss her. She supposed she was forgiven. His warm breath in her ear asking her to follow him held promise.
Oh, gods, how she had missed him.
Once they reached his rooms, they wasted little time. It had become almost tradition to excuse themselves as quickly as possible and enjoy each other’s company in private. Shallan laughed at his eagerness as he shut the door behind them and began making his pleasure at seeing her again known. It was a rare expression, one few could coax from her. He was unabashed and she was just as willing.
As the afternoon waned, Shallan was half asleep curled around Dwight, tired from their exertions. Her hair had come undone during their sport and he was playing with the ends of it.
“A talking sword?” he asked her, after she had sleepily updated him on what she had been doing for the past two months.
She nodded against his chest. “And it can’t remember much. I’m just afraid it might warp something unexpected while it is unattended. It was in those woods for a while and the animals could speak. Who knows what other damage it can do? I left it at the Temple of Apollo in Woodland for the time being so a friend of ours could keep an eye on it.”
“How many animals did Cyneric wind up bringing home with him?” he asked with a chuckle.
“None,” she answered curtly. Dwight laughed aloud at her sour tone. Shallan continued, “I threatened him with severe bodily harm not to collect any more.”
“A dire threat indeed,” he teased.
She laughed and playfully smacked his stomach in admonishment. His whuff of surprise was followed by him grabbing her wrists to keep her from doing so a second time. She struggled for a moment, leveraging herself astride him. She paused, taking in the look of him spread out beneath her, his body honed from sword-work, faded scars from battles.
He released her wrists to caress her legs on either side of him. A quick buck of his hips, forced her to stop her fall with her hands to either side of his head, her hair curtained around them.
She dug her hands in his hair, burying her face in his neck, teasing with light kisses. His hands clenched on her thighs and she felt his body stiffen beneath her. Her laughter changed to a chuckle of pleasure as he responded to her ministrations.
There was just enough time before the evening meal for a second round.
Dinner was only slightly awkward. She had sat at this table before, but only with Dorian. Dwight did not have much time to converse with her as he was occupied with Dorian on the other side, signing documents and discussing decisions he had put off from earlier when she arrived. She listened with half an ear on what they were saying.
The patrols around Joven had been killing more gnolls, weeding out raiding parties faster than they had ever done before thanks to Shallan’s work with the trackers. The knights had been working more efficiently and response times were as quick as they could be, also due to her work with them. At the mention of this, she studiously ignored the surprised glance from Dwight.
But the threat was still there and not lessening. No one knew where they were all coming from, who led them, or why their patrols which were more effective than ever weren’t making a dent in the attacks.
Shallan looked down over the men and women who had chosen to eat with the Duke and Earl this evening. Most she knew now, at the very least in passing. A majority of Dwight’s Diamond Dogs were there and she knew them from their time in the Ogremoot. Some of the rest were the ones she had been coming up to Joven to train, knights and a mercenary or two, and she had reluctantly gained their trust. There were a few people she was unfamiliar with and she made a mental note to find out.
However, there was a pair, a man and woman, who made her extremely uncomfortable. Not because they were new, or even because of their odd clothing that made them stand out from the men around them. It was because they stared at her the entire meal, even so much as to ignore the food in front of them. She tried to avoid looking over since she could feel their gaze without trying.
It was not every day that she drew the attention of Hammehauk’s clerics.
Shallan had been awoken at dawn when Dwight had reluctantly left their warm blankets to begin his day. But rather than join him, she had enjoyed a rare opportunity to grab another hour or two of sleep. They had been up quite late the evening before enjoying each other’s company and catching up on the few weeks they had been apart. She returned his morning kiss and snuggled back down into the warmth he had left.
The rapping on the door to Dwight’s suite had woken her for the second time that morning. She pulled one of Dwight’s shirts on and went out into the more public room to answer it, opening it only to be greeted with the unfamiliar pair from the evening before.
She blushed at her appearance even though she had covered herself sufficiently, her activities with their Duke obvious in her state of undress, made doubly embarrassing since they were clerics.
"Shallan Telenarett, you are to accompany us,” the man began without preamble.
Rather than question them, she informed them she’d need a few minutes to get ready. She shut the door politely and went in search of her armor. She noticed that someone had brought her things from the room that she had been staying in during her visits and had unpacked her clothes and necessities in drawers among Dwight’s things. Her two sets of armor were arranged in stands, placed right beside Dwight’s working armor and ceremonial plate armor. This gave her a second’s pause. Not only had it been done while they slept, but that it had been done at all was strange to her.
She opened the door just as she was bucking her belt.
The woman looked down and saw the sword and scabbard, frowning. “There will be no need for your sword. We will not be leaving town and you will be perfectly safe.”
Shallan glanced down, and unbuckled the belt, walking over to place it back on the rack where she had found it. However, that didn’t mean she left weaponless. She swung the heavy winter cloak over her shoulders, closed the door to Dwight’s suite of rooms firmly and followed where the clerics led her.
In all the times she had visited Joven, she had only seen the outside of the Temple of Hammehauk. She had no contact with the priests there except those few years ago when Dwight was to complete his Paladin Trials. It had been a strange time, and Shallan had found it odd that the priests had allowed Dwight companions on a trial that every one of his ancestors had completed alone.
The roadway leading to the Temple was designed to be impressive. The paving stones brought the eye right to the edifice, an imposing structure three stories tall. It was a rather plain building, but it stood like a beacon, made of shining white marble among the wooden structures of the town.
When the two clerics ushered her into the main room, she had expected it to be crowded, but it was echoingly empty. The bustle of the street outside could not be heard here and the silence was almost uncomfortable. She recognized the statue on the center dais as the maiden she had seen at the completion of Dwight’s trial. Small alcoves around the room were filled with candles and representations of the aspects of the deity.
She was left alone for some time. She had begun to grow impatient when two very familiar men entered from the sanctuary area.
Dorian walked past her with an odd glance, walking to take a place by the main entrance to the temple.
She moved forward to greet Darik, pleased to see him after such a long time. And only then did it dawn on her that the two knights were dressed in armor beneath their cloaks and she stopped. This was out of the ordinary. The last she knew, Dorian had business with Dwight today and Darik had not been allowed near weapons or armor since the trouble he had caused in Woodland. Darik had not regained his paladin status, yet here he was, fully kitted out as if ready for a fight.
She glanced between the two men, and the gleam of sunlight in Darik’s hand put her on high alert. He had dropped a weapon into his hand from a hidden catch in his sleeve. Shallan backed away, her hands up defensively.
He lunged at her and she jerked back, the dagger flashing far too close to her face.
"What are you doing?" she asked, panicking. She looked over to Dorian, who watched them, as still as a statue. She spun away from Darik, scrambled to get one of the pillars in the room between them. Why was Dorian allowing this to happen?
Darik came around the pillar with snakelike ease. His punch, weighted with the dagger hilt, knocked a stroke of lightning through her head and she fell to her knees, stunned. The large man gripped the front of her shirt and lifted her, pressing her up against the wall.
As the storm in her head cleared, she found his dagger against her throat and she pushed back, trying to keep him from pressing the knife in. She clawed at her boot cuff with the other hand, scrambling for her own dagger, bringing it up to Darik's throat.
"Darik, stop." Her heart contracted in fear. This man she had once trusted to train her, a man she had asked for help to cure her from a possible werewolf bite, the man they had tried so hard to save when he seemed possessed. He again seemed haunted. She wanted him whole, for his own sake as well as his brothers' and to be attacked by him once more...
"Dorian!" she called out to the frozen paladin, hoping to stir him to action. His expression was oddly blank and he did not move from his post at the door.
Darik's knife bit into her throat, the sharp sting opening up a warm trickle that traced down her neck.
She pushed back against the larger man, trying to use the wall behind her as leverage. She kicked out, struggling to get him off, but he only pressed in closer, using his weight to trap her against the wall. Her knife remained on his throat, the cold steel threatening.
"Dorian!" She gasped, her desperation growing and leading her to ask for what she rarely needed. "Dorian, please... Help..."
"He will not help you." Darik's look penetrated her. He studied her closely, his eyes clear and calm. "You are on your own. Use your blade." He shifted her, his grip tightened and his blade cut deeper.
She grunted in pain and surprise, her dagger close to slipping into his flesh. It would be so easy to make him stop, to sink the knife in and end his life to save hers.
"I can't," she whispered. Her body, tight as a bowstring, released, the dagger dropped to the floor with a metallic clatter. She couldn't meet his eyes. Dwight's brother. She couldn't kill him, not even to save her own life, even though he would clearly kill her. "I can't..." Her throat tight, she gripped his sleeve in defeat.
The sound of running echoed through the temple. A cry of "No!" was torn from a familiar throat.
Shallan opened her eyes to look over and see Dwight struggling against Dorian as he held his youngest brother back. He was trying to get to her, to help, but the older man restrained him.
Darik sank the knife in, a spray of blood painted the marble wall and floor of the Temple red. He released her limp form and stepped away, looking down at what he had done.
She clutched at her throat, trying to stem the flow as it leaked through her fingers. She couldn’t believe what was happening. How had Darik been possessed again? She looked up at him and saw a flash of pain and sadness in his face, instantly replaced with that cold studiousness.
The Bronze knight turned and faced his brothers. When Dwight saw her blood on his brother’s armor, he lunged for Darik, but Dorian held him firm. “I’m sorry, Dwight,” was all Darik said as he slowly drew his sword and advanced on his younger brother.
Shallan fumbled along the ground, her fingers searching for the knife she had dropped. She grasped it and threw the knife, only to cry out when it bounced off of Darik and clattered to the ground. It was impossible. She had thrown it hard enough and it had hit with deadly accuracy at the seam in his armor, there was no way it could have just bounced.
A gong-like thrum rang through the temple. Darik had frozen in place and Dorian released Dwight.
Dwight raced to kneel next to Shallan, placing his hand over hers, hoping to stop her life from leaking away. He began the prayer to summon the strength of his goddess, to use his power to heal her.
“There is no need to call me, I am here.” A blonde, impossibly pale maiden stood among them.
Shallan grabbed Dwight, holding him off. She struggled to her feet dizzily, using Dwight as a steadying presence.
The maiden studied her, seemingly right through her. “It seems you cannot save your life, but would rather sacrifice it for others.”
Dwight’s grip on her arm squeezed tight, but Shallan’s hand was gentle on his. She could feel his anger and a little fear from him when faced with his goddess. Shallan knew, she felt exactly the same way. “My life is the only thing I have to give. It is a worthy enough cause,” she answered.
This seemed to please the woman. She looked over at Dwight’s brothers, who had knelt on one knee when the maiden had appeared. “My servants give much, and I ask much from them. Are you prepared to serve?”
“No,” came Shallan’s stubborn answer. She was elven and not of this land. Hammehauk was not her goddess.
Dwight was taken aback at her tone. Speaking to a goddess in such a way was a quick way to find yourself cursed or worse. His whispered admonition rankled, “Be careful, Shallan…”
The maiden raised a hand to forestall him and he silenced immediately. She walked over to the kneeling brothers. “My sons would not be here but for you, daughter. These two had betrayed me and would have died had you not brought them back to me to begin their atonement.” The two knights had not moved the entire time. “You gave Dorian something he had lost and he has returned to me. Darik, almost killed for his betrayal, was brought home, and begun back upon his path.”
The maiden approached Dwight, who had bowed his head. As She reached out a hand to his arm, he too fell to his knee. “And my son here, almost lost to me forever…” She caressed his cheek, and Dwight gasped at the touch. “He has taken the place of his fathers with your help.” She smiled down at him. The intense gaze of the maiden fell on Shallan. “My touch need not always be heavy. I have guided you since you arrived in our borders. Your steps led here, to this place, to do as was needed.”
Shallan shook her head. “This is not possible. No one changed my steps. My choices, my life.”
The maiden nodded. “The path continues, as it ever did. But everything you have done since you left home has been to prepare you for what is to come. You have felt it for some time.”
How could She know? The dreams were almost every night now. The path, the image of the maiden before her had been appearing more and more often. The dreams had been strong, realistic, and somewhat disturbing. Sometimes Dwight appeared and there was a compelling need to do something, something she was forgetting or unable to do. A mental block seemed to stop her, and the final step or action could not be taken to make the dream complete.
"You are ready.” The maiden held out Her hand.
Shallan hesitated. Would this be a betrayal of everything she had done in her life? Her own god, the elven god, had seemed to be pushing her to make a choice: serve him or serve another. But she was not in elven lands, nor did she ever serve his purposes. Everything she had done since arriving in this country had been to serve its people and not her own. This was what Hammehauk was asking: to do exactly what she had been doing anyway, but She was offering more than just accepting Shallan’s obedience. The ranger saw it in the life that Dwight and Dorian led.
Shallan glanced over at Dwight, his head bowed to his goddess. It was his honor, his loyalty to his people, his pureness that drew her. His brother Dorian was cut from the same cloth. And they had both accepted her more than her own father had. They had become her family.
All the times she had come to Joven, its people seemed to capture that same loyalty in her. She felt compelled to defend them, to keep them safe. This same need came tenfold when it involved Dwight and his brothers. It was this that the maiden asked from her, to do something she had chosen to do anyway. Something she would already lay down her life to protect.
Shallan closed her eyes and knelt.
A gentle hand was placed on her head, and the same light she had felt when Dorian had healed her filled her. Shallan surrendered to it, falling, and feeling a release that she hadn’t known had been wanting. But where Dorian’s power had healed, the maiden’s power overwhelmed her. It was comparing a gentle forest breeze and the full blown rage of a hurricane. The gale swept her away.
“Are you sure this is what you should be doing?” Sir Manfred questioned her. He and Thopas had been taking over the training yard duties of Dwight’s men from Dorian since they had returned with their Duke.
The Diamond Dogs were ranged around her as she adjusted her armor. She checked her fastenings on the studded leather, adjusting here and there for comfort and range of motion. She looked around and saw the other knights of Dwight’s patrols watching her warily. Though she had gained the trust of both groups, they still doubted her. She doubted this decision herself, but at least this time Shallan knew that if she mis-stepped, there would be a sign she was doing wrong. What she was doing was dangerous, and she rubbed at her neck uncomfortably, at an oddly shaped scar that had not completely healed despite the efforts of her ring.
Thopas handed her sword over, and she hefted the short blade easily. She took a deep breath and glanced up at the balcony above the training yard. There she found two men looking down at her with worry, but also with the trust she was missing from the knights surrounding her.
She stepped forward and faced her sparring opponent, he much larger, heavier and in better armor than her. She trusted that this was the right thing to do, the only thing to do.
She leveled her gaze at her opponent. “Alright, Darik, let’s begin…”