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At the sound of the bells ringing in the distance, the black haired knight turned in his saddle to glance back over his shoulder at the Keep rising in the distance.
“Ser Cerdic, the only one who rings those bells is-.”
“The AshHand.” A reluctant smile came to adorn his face as Cerdic shook his head. “It would seem that our Lord has finally returned; all our worry over him, and our impulsive leader seems to have simply run off on his own without telling anyone. A relief.”
All of the other hunters in the part were looking to him now with alert eyes. “Shall we return to our stations then, Allegiant?”
He nodded, turning his coal-pelted horse-Kestral-about with a firm jerk of the wrist. “Yes, return to your assigned stations immediately on finishing securing the perimeter of our stronghold against the threat rolling in from the North. I’ll head back to the Keep to check on our Lord’s condition and fill him in on the situation at hand.”
“Of course, Ser Cerdic.” The other members of the search party saluted their commander as he prodded his horse into a swift trot and headed back down the path that they’d been following.
The later afternoon sun filtered down through the waving branches of the trees overhead throwing a dappled light over the dirt path which sparked like fire off of his armor shield and sword, the wind of their travel playing through his horse’s mane and blowing his hair away from his forehead. Late summer insects droned in the undergrowth surrounding the narrow uneven trackway-little more than a weed choked deer trail worn into the earth by both their forces and the animals that inhabited the woodland-a squirrel chittering loudly as it leapt to another branch overhead.
Kestral snorted as her hooves clattered against the earth, the trail sloping upwards towards the Keep sitting atop the cliff over head and becoming more and more rocky as it progressed. Coming up over the rise and skirting the base of the castle, he dismounted outside of the stable and lead his mount in by the reins.
Glory knickered when he caught sight of the other horse, extending its neck out of its stall in an attempt to nip playfully at the other horse’s mane only to have the mare sidestep out of reach with a high whiney.
“You two behave yourselves,” he commanded softly, patting Kestral’s neck before closing the door of her stall and leaving the stable.
With most of the Order’s ranks either deployed to the completion of various jobs or else out insuring the integrity of their borders the cavernous halls of Greer Keep were all but empty. The sound of a door closing heavily caught his attention and he turned in time to see a woman’s familiar figure proceeding towards the infirmary with a folded sheet clasped in her arms.
At the sound of her name being called, she turned. “Oh Cerdic, there you are! Where are the others?”
“Out making sure our boarders are strong. It would spell certain doom for us if any of their forward scouts or saboteurs managed to get through.” He told her in a low rumble. “Though for what reason the Dhampir have suddenly mobilized against us now, after all this time, I cannot fathom.”
“It’s because of what my husband did during his prolonged absence.” Luciella said grimly. “With the death of Aser Bleak Heart he succeeded in formally declaring open war on them. It seems that Lilith would have vengeance for her child.”
Cerdic nodded. “That it would.”
When she spoke again, it was with a look of poignant concern pulling at her features. “I must ask, and I beg of you to answer me with honesty rather than attempting to bely my fears, are we going to be destroyed?”
“God is the shepherd who guides us through death’s valley and delivers us from evil. As long as we believe in him and his saving grace, we’ve nothing to fear. Not from them.” But she stepped out in front of him as he tried to walk away.
“That doesn’t answer my question!”
Now, he sighed. “I cannot give you a definitive answer, my Lady, as I am not possessed of the gift of either future sight or omniscience. However, I do know that we stand at least something of a chance. These grounds are hollowed, and we’ve the coelasquid might of the entire Order behind us. If this is to be our last stand, we’ll make it count.”
“And when will they arrive?”
“A fortnight, most likely. With Eros’ return-.”
“My husband cannot be expected to fight that soon! Not with his injuries!”
“My Lady, we may not have another choice. Though, I promise you, he and I will do our best to come up with some other plan.”
Still seeming reluctant to let the matter go, Luciella backed down with a small stiff nod and turned to head back to the infirmary a few doors down from where they stood. “You should speak to him, then. When he returned just under an hour ago he asked that I wake him when-.”
“No.” His voice, though still respectful, was firm as he gently caught her by the wrist. “Let your husband sleep. From the sound of what he’s been through, and from what I fear is soon to come, he’ll need every moment of rest which can be afforded to him. I’m sure that he’ll come to me when he wakes on his own.” Releasing her quickly he stepped back and offered a small bow. “Until that time, I will return to my post. There is much to oversee.”
“Of course, Ser Allegiant.” Luciella waited until he’d disappeared back down the hallway before turning sharply on her heels and rushing to the infirmary.
The doors were closed, just as she had left them, and swung softly inwards at even a gentle touch. Eros lay facing her, curled up on his side half-buried in the pillow, in the same cot where he’d been sitting when she had tended to him with the thin cotton sheets pulled up to his shoulders and one arm dangling limply at his side. In sleep the battle-hardened lines of his handsome face had been smoothed back into youth; looking at him now, she could almost imagine the life that they would have-that he would have-if heaven’s great burden had been set around the shoulders of someone else.
“Oh, Eros.” She sighed, running the backs of her fingers along his cheek in a soft caress, “what are we going to do?”
Luciella could only stand by as fate’s pieces fell into their assigned places and hope that those she cared about would make it through alive.