Roland quickly mopped up the last of the banshees, and the knights rejoined the party. Adrianos could still move, so he did the same.
No one hesitated now, they all knew that they couldn’t stay outside for very long. Even now, they could see the same wraith fog in the forest coming towards them.
Sir Andrew picked up Connor’s body, not bothering with the board, and unceremoniously threw it over his shoulder.
Leon took the lead, guiding everyone through the forest, while Artorias and Roland ran on either side of the group, keeping watch for any more monsters in the dark.
Fortunately, after fighting off the group of ice wraiths and a whole lot of banshees, their journey was nerve-wracking but largely uneventful. Artorias and Roland did occasionally see the cold eyes of watching ice wraiths from between distant trees, however, so they never let their guard down.
Finally, Leon led the group into the clearing filled with purple grass, and they saw the fort that was built in the middle of it. The group ran to the tunnel entrance, Leon opened the door, and they quickly filed in. Leon led the way, opening the inner door while Artorias closed the outer door.
When everyone was behind the walls of the fort, they were able to breathe a little easier. Artorias locked up the inner door, then went to the obelisk, checking to make sure that all the defensive wards were working properly.
Roland’s party were physically and mentally exhausted, so they simply sat down on the ground and caught their breath.
Leon could think of little else but his own bed, but after checking the obelisk, Artorias grabbed him and pulled him towards the supply shack. They grabbed a few large sheets of cloth, and a few pieces of wood, and brought them outside.
“You all can use these for tents, as you don’t look like you brought any,” Artorias said.
“Thank you,” replied Roland.
Roland’s party immediately went about setting up the tents, with Leon’s help. They were all eager to get to sleep, so they weren’t wasting any time.
Artorias glanced at Sir Andrew, who was still holding Connor. “You can put him in here, for now. We can throw together a decent litter to carry him out of here, but for now, he’ll be ok in the ice shack.” He led the knight into the food storage shack, where the sleigh that Artorias and Leon had taken to Vale Town was sitting, still full of food. Artorias had felt a little awkward about having Torfinn store it, so he had brought it home himself a few days before the knights arrived in Vale Town.
Sir Andrew gently laid Connor down in the ice shack, then went back outside to continue helping out with the tents.
It didn’t take long for Roland’s party to finish getting set up, and the knights immediately crawled into their tent and passed out, with Leon and the squires not that far behind.
The men-at-arms also fell fast asleep, except for Adrianos, who only laid down and pretended to sleep. He was contemplating what he saw during the fight with the banshees, the lightning magic that Artorias used, his age, even Leon’s presence. He was absolutely certain that Artorias and Leon were the two people he needed to find!
Outside, he could hear Roland approaching Artorias, and asking to speak in private. Privacy wasn’t too difficult to find, given that everyone had gone to bed, but they still gave the tents some space and went behind Artorias’ hut. Adrianos slowly looked around at the sleeping men-at-arms around him, and, certain that they were all asleep, began to channel some of his magic. The light around him began to dim, quickly enveloping him in shadows. He sank down deep into the shadows and disappeared.
Outside, Roland and Artorias had gone to the small garden that Artorias had planted behind his hut. Roland glanced around at the colorful plants, admiring the strong and healthy look that each one had.
“You have a lovely garden.”
“Are these Arran flowers?” Roland gestured to a group of thorny flowers with short stems and five luminescent yellow petals each.
“Indeed, they are. You have a good eye, not many can distinguish Arran flowers from Yellow Kentars.”
“Well, I have an interest in alchemy, and Arran flowers can be used to make a good low-grade healing salve.”
Artorias smiled. He wasn’t skilled in alchemy, most of what he could do was done by muddling around after reading some of his families’ books that he’d brought north fifteen years ago.
“So, Sir Roland, what did you want to talk about?”
Roland went silent for a moment, trying to choose a good way to ask his question. But, he wasn’t the most eloquent person, so he decided to just be direct.
“You’re Artorias Raime, aren’t you? The second son of Archduke Kyros Raime.”
Artorias was shocked for a moment and even fought the urge to reach for his sword, which was still at his hip. Then, he sighed. He almost expected this, as he made the choice to tell the paladin his real name, and even showed off his magic when an ice wraith came close to attacking Leon.
He still didn’t quite know how to deal with this, though. The impression he’d gotten from Roland was that he was a good, honorable man, a trustworthy man, but they hadn’t been acquainted for long. Artorias felt that he couldn’t just kill Roland, so all he could do was sigh.
“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” Roland could see the struggle on Artorias’ face and after remembering the strength that he had shown during the fight—the strength that easily exceeded his own—he was quick to placate Artorias’ fears.
“See that you don’t.”
Roland started feeling a little nervous now. Artorias was smiling at him, but the rest of him radiated hostility.
“If it’s alright for me to ask, why are you all the way up here? If you returned to the Kingdom, you would be made the Lord of the Great Plateau, and Archduke of the Northern Territories.”
“You’re quite bold, aren’t you? That’s a sensitive topic.”
“I’m sorry! I’m just curious as to what someone of your noble heritage is doing so far away from civilization, especially when King Julius thinks you’re dead and is seeking a successor for the Lordship of the Great Plateau.”
“My immediate family has been completely wiped out, knight. The only reason my son and I yet breathe is because we ran away to the Vales. If anyone threatens us, I will spare none of my power to make sure they are annihilated.” With that said, Artorias gave Roland a look that could freeze a desert and allowed his killing intent to crash upon the knight.
Artorias had spent the last fifteen years stewing in his guilt and rage over the loss of his wife, then for the deaths of his father and brother. This left him with an extremely potent killing intent. Even Roland, a knight who had been fighting the enemies of the Kingdom and keeping the King’s Peace for his entire adult life and had cultivated a strong killing intent of his own, couldn’t face it head-on, and was briefly left with weak knees and shortness of breath before he circulated his magic to combat the pressure he was under.
“Y-You can consider… my lips sealed!” The pressure coming from Artorias was intense, and Roland could barely get the sentence out.
But, once he did, Artorias restrained his killing intent. Roland gasped for breath and took a moment to compose himself.
“Well, I suppose we can consider that conversation as having never happened…” Roland said as he finished straightening himself up.
Artorias smiled at him as if Roland had never said anything at all.
“That would be for the best, knight.”
“Then, I’ll be heading for bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Roland quickly returned to the tents. It’s possible that if he had been paying attention, he might have noticed the shadow gliding across the ground, back to the tent with the men-at-arms. Once inside, the shadow dissolved away, allowing Adrianos to be seen again. The other five men-at-arms were still fast asleep, and Roland was still shaken from his brief conversation with Artorias, so Adrianos went completely unnoticed.
He’d overheard the conversation between Roland and Artorias, he’d heard Artorias confirm his own identity. Now, he couldn’t wait to return to the south. He needed to inform Lord Justin that he’d found the last scions of House Raime.
The following morning was rather awkward. Artorias and Leon barely spoke to anyone, except for Artorias telling them the time they’d leave. This behavior wasn’t out of the ordinary for Leon, but Artorias had been somewhat friendly to them, only to suddenly become colder now.
The group ate their breakfast in relative silence. Artorias didn’t seem to be doing it consciously, but he was radiating a slight killing aura. It wasn’t putting pressure on any of them, not even the second-tier squires, but it did cause everyone to be cagey and on edge.
Roland knew that he caused this shift in attitude, but he didn’t know how to make it right. He decided to give Artorias the day to calm down, then try to apologize and reiterate that he wouldn’t leak their location.
So, with a depressing start to the day, the group set off from the fort. There were no ice wraiths waiting for them when they exited the tunnel, no banshee screams were heard, the forest was peaceful. The animals gave the large group a wide berth. Wind Wolf packs ran away on sight, birds scattered, and all the creatures of the forest got out of their way. Consequently, they arrived at the Heartwood Glade by midday.
The enormous glade was surrounded by a wall of huge boulders easily twenty or twenty-five feet tall, so they had to enter through a small gap on the south side.
Roland’s party stopped and stared in awe as they finally got a good look at the majesty of the Heartwood trees. These were ancient things and stood incredibly tall, many over two hundred feet and most others easily over one hundred and fifty; the rest were comparatively tiny, only thirty or forty feet tall. The entire glade was filled with a peaceful aura, that soothed and calmed all who entered.
“This place is incredible!” Victoria gasped.
“Try to keep quiet, this is a sacred place.” Artorias quickly rebuked her.
Roland looked at Artorias quizzically, and Victoria shrank back in fear.
“Why would we need to be quiet? We are surrounded by nothing but trees.” Dame Sheira didn’t want to pick a fight with Artorias, as she knew she would lose, but she couldn’t just stand there and let her squire be admonished by a relative stranger.
“Have any of you heard the stories about the wars of the old gods?” Artorias looked around. Everyone looked back at him with blank stares, shook their head, or were too preoccupied admiring the trees.
“Well, I would look into the Epic of Antares or Tantalus’ Divine War trilogy when you return to the south. One of the details both legends go into are the gods’ burial rites. Those who die in the service of the gods would be buried in circles of ten, while the gods themselves would be buried in circles of seven. Their hearts would be removed beforehand, and replaced with a heartwood seed, which is where the tree got its name. Now, take a look at how the glade is arranged.”
The group examined the trees more closely and saw that most of the trees closer to the boulder wall were arranged in circles of ten trees apiece, with only the smaller and youngest trees being the exceptions, while the trees closer to the center were arranged in circles of seven.
“This place…” Roland began, but when he stopped, Artorias finished for him.
“…is a graveyard and the taller trees are the graves.” Artorias looked at each of Roland’s party in turn, making sure to have eye contact with each. “There is a clearing in the very center of the glade. That is where we will make camp. Go ahead and search for your amber, but take as little as possible, disturb as little as possible, and everything will be alright.”
Even the cynical Sir Andrew wasn’t going to contradict Artorias here. Everything, from the heartwood trees themselves to the gentle breeze, to the peaceful aura, made them believe that this was indeed a sacred place and that they should be quiet and respectful while they were here.
“Very well then. Sir Roger, you take the squires and go with Artorias to set up camp. Everyone else spread out and look for that Heartwood Amber.”
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