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The Beggar's King

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The Beggar’s King

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Lands of House Dawnwood

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Dawnwatch, seat of House Dawnwood

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Five years ago . . .

The Iron Wolf

The beast gazed upon the man with an emptiness in its eyes, its snout closed but lips pulled to bare fangs and invite violence. For all its fury, the wolf could not attack, its form as frozen as the fur since fashioned from iron into steel. Even if this metal animal wanted to, it had only its head and no limbs to lash out with. Cradling the helmet in his hands, the owner thought of the power that it evoked. Ultimately, it was just a piece of armor crafted to resemble the head of a wolf, except it was to be worn atop the head of a man. Yet this one knew the meaning behind such a purpose, as intimately as he knew the purpose of his own position. To wear the Wolfshelm, the wolves of Wolfwood had to first deem you worthy. You were, after all, going to represent their image ahead of your own.

It was a responsibility and a privilege. For years, Lord Vadrian Dawnwood had known this truth firsthand. It was fastened as a brooch to his cloak and worn as plate against his breast. The amber eyes of the Lord of Dawnwatch stared down the helmet’s empty sockets where his own would be, grimacing at the snout. It was a staring competition that the wolf won every time. Sitting on the edge of his bed in the lord’s chambers of his house’s seat, this morning would prove to be a time no different. The truth was that Wolfshelm was far more than just a helmet. It was the breastplate and the armguard, the shoulder plate and the shin guard. It was a whole set of armor and a shield for the mind, for it represented a purpose greater than itself—the purpose of unity. Combined, the people of greater Orisia, the Goran and the wolves of Wolfwood formed a triangle of hope and harmony. It was hope and harmony, Dawn and Wood, that had given birth to House Dawnwood.

Vadrian saw the helmet on his head even as he held it in his hands, staring down at the face of the man that steel allowed him to be. There was a faint reflection of himself on the canine curvature, the long, black hair and the youthful features. His aunt used to tease him with the title “prince of promise”, even though the Lord of Dawnwatch was far from being any prince. Yet, as he sat there shirtless with the sleep of wake on his face, Vadrian was reminded of his true nature. The Lord of Dawnwatch was less of a man than most, for the helmet had turned much of him into the Iron Wolf. There were no regrets. Looking back did not require lingering in the past. Resolved from it, he had met beasts when he was but a babe, long, hairy faces all around him, and a beast is exactly what remained at the heart of the animal known as man. Vadrian knew not to war with nature. He invited her in as she slipped through the drapes in a gentle breeze, caressing his face with whispering fingers, stroking away the fear and doubt and replacing both with strength and honor. He felt himself sigh as the wind settled, opening his eyes so that his first sight was the orange and grey curtains with their golden trimming.

The great bed gave back to uniformity as Vadrian rose with helmet in hands, pacing over to the armor stand to place it back on top. His movements were slow and gentle, taking as much time as though it were a construct of glass and not metal. There was not a scrape of sound as the helmet was set back upon its post, its hollow eyes gazing out toward its host who took a step backward so that he could hold the armor in full view. It was a suit fit for the Lord of Dawnwatch if ever there was, naked in its shining form, with steel plate from shoulders to feet and not a dent or scratch to be seen upon it. Vadrian knew that was in part because of Barin the Blacksmith, a blacksmith who demanded to be called as such, for hammering out the dents, but it was also in part because of the lack of conflict the suit had seen. Where he planned on taking it, however, might very well bring conflict to the forefront of his house.

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine was silent as she stepped inside Vadrian’s bedroom. By Orisian custom, she wasn’t technically supposed to be there until they were wed, but she felt this night could safely be considered an exception. The hem of her nightgown swept softly across the flagstones, the fine Orisian lace carelessly left to drag on the floor. She stopped just behind her fiancé, her hands twisting together for a moment before she reached out to set her hand on his shoulder. She said nothing as she let her hand trail down to his, their fingers tangling after a moment. She stepped forward and set her forehead against his back, her eyes closing as she just let herself feel his warmth.

If only they didn’t have to leave. If only they didn’t need mercenaries to fill their army. If only the weight of their combined houses didn’t rest on their young shoulders. There were so many reasons to wish things were otherwise, and so few reasons to be pleased they were as they were, she felt. But things were as they were, and she needed to make the best of that.

She intended to make the best of that my making her fastidious, rule-bound fiancé let her finally sleep in his bed, curled up to his warm, solid chest. She knew she likely wouldn’t succeed - Vadrian’s affinity for the rules was part of his charm, after all - but she wanted to try. She slipped around between Vadrian and the suit, looking up at him with her deep eyes. “You should rest, my love.”

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At another time, Vadrian might have sensed the lady of the wood as she strolled into the private chamber of the lord of the dawn. He was too lost in his own world hidden within his lands to notice her creeping, his thoughts veiled behind the curtain of Orisia. His armor was like a mirror into the past, the present and the future, showing him the way to a dawn yet to come, one that would take this island into a warmth never yet experienced. In the wake of the Suffering, warmth was exactly what Orisia needed. House Beauchene had seen to that.

The touch had startled him, his shoulder barely flinching as a muscle twitched, but the caressing hand instantly became its own tranquil vision of the future, skin like the creamy wax of a candle whose flame was just close enough for him to feel its tender heat. Vadrian closed his eyes for as long as it took for Aine’s fingers to tickle their way down his arm, filling the spaces between his own even as his fingers didn’t flinch. He set his gaze on polished steel and the rough makings of the man and woman curved upon it as a reflection. The Lord of Dawnwatch and the Lady of Wolfwood were meant to be in union from the very beginning, always were and always would be. He dare not call it fate, but some things in life were just known for their own certainty, like blood in the body before it ever spilled out to prove itself. In his quarters, however, that union was not yet meant to be fulfilled.

Vadrian let Aine rest her weight against his bare body all the same, finding a certain rebellious authority that, though defying itself, empowered him to control his passions and refrain from spinning around to take her right then and there. He longed for her every time he was alone in his chambers, occasions marked by unbroken repetition save for moments like these when the better part of him was pressing her body against his, and naught but the cool, outside air was around to protest. When she shifted her view to align with his, he bowed his head while her own tilted backward, meeting her woodland gaze with the morning in his. Grab her. Take her. Toss her onto the bed. Rest her head on that golden pillow, press her body into those orange sheets, pull up those gray covers, and answer not one knock on the door until the sun itself has laid to rest. 

“I can’t.”

He spoke gently, masking the firmness in his voice, resisting the urge, the need, to reach out and caress her face with one hand and stroke her arm with the other, even as he did both in his head. She had broken code just by walking into his room, but Vadrian would let that slide, let her hold him, as much as he would refrain from breaking another by touching his betrothed within the confines of his chambers.

“It’s too early for that. You know this, Aine.” But I want to. I wish you were in my arms already, and we at rest as one, tangled in each other’s limbs, our heat cooled by the outside breeze sliding across the sweat of our bodies.

Sleep has become a daunting deed of late, and the dawn has already risen. I must rise with it. I must go.” But I don’t want to. His chest rose, holding his breath as he leaned forward to kiss her forehead, catching himself when only bare inches were covered before blinking the thought away. “Today is the day.”

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine sighed, frustrated but unsurprised. She couldn’t even begin to understand this strange Orisian fashion for the keeping of one’s virginity until after marriage. She wanted to rest beside Vadrian, sleep in his arms, warm and safe and content the way she couldn’t otherwise be in these cold stone walls. She respected Vadrian’s wishes, of course, and she wouldn’t push him - too much. She refused to be banished from his chambers, however. They were to be a shared space as soon as they were wed, and she felt they should be shared already, as she felt her own should be. She knew Vadrian would never enter her chambers, however. He was too Orisian for that.

“Well, delay the day. You are the Lord, you can do as you wish.” She reached up, her calloused fingertips tracing over his cheekbones. “Or if you will not, then stop burying your feet in the soil and let me come with you. I refuse to be parted from you.” She traced over his brow, heavy and creased from the burden placed upon it. “I know you’ve not got rocks for sense. You know I should come.” She let her hand fall to his shoulder, her thumb stroking against his neck. She held out little hope that he’d change his mind, but she could be far more stubborn than he. The good thing about having so little height was that you could bury your feet far easier than if you had more.

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Vadrian wanted to smile at her sigh, sensing the spirit of confoundment emanating from her being. She wants this. She wants this as much as I do. And she knows that we can’t. She knew, all right. She never drifted away because of it, though. He liked to tell himself that Aine was all the more for him given her greater reservations, and their own being kept in check. The Goran were their own breed, their own people, and he knew that intimately. He was himself of Goran blood. But more the child of the dawn than the wood. Aine wouldn’t be the first Goran Lady of House Dawnwood, but that didn’t undermine Vadrian’s appreciation for her compliance, even where the Orisian custom trumped the Goran.

Her very fingers were like twigs of the trees she hailed from, as smooth yet as hard as the bark upon them. The People of the Wood spent their entertainment on their earthen towers, swinging from one branch to the other, rustling their hands through leaves, singing, dancing and celebrating within the beautiful bounds of their Wolfwood Forest. Mine too, but not as much as hers. Vadrian took in Aine’s words, listening to the advice of his betrothed, his gaze not wavering to admit that she had the right of things. He was being stubborn, he knew, but he did not know if the Lady of the Wood was yet ready for the open expanse of the Island of Summer, such as the Orisians called it, and even if she was, would they be ready for her? Heading all the way to the island’s deserts would be just that—a long way—and it would be her very first time traveling so far, because it would certainly be his.

“You grace me, Aine, you do.” Now it was Vadrian’s turn to sigh, though he didn’t know if he was just masking a feint gasp of pleasure so simple yet serene in the mere form of that Goran thumb brushing against his skin. “You know I want you with me by my side at every turn and corner, but these deserts…” He looked aside, glimpsing a patch of tan sand where his golden rug should have been. “…This Orisia…” His eyes met hers once more, fingers formed into gentle fists, simply to keep from touching her. “The island may be free of its butcher kings, but that doesn’t make it safe.” Nowhere is safe. Not for the Goran. Wolfwood stood in testament to that. “How could I protect you?”

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine frowned, taking Vadrian’s hand and turning it over in her own. “You take me for helpless, Vaidín? You should know better.” She gently opened up his hand, stroking her fingers from his wrist across his palm. “I know you know better.” She set her hand on top of his, her fingertips barely reaching the heel of his palm. She could see how he might feel the need to protect and sequester her, to keep her safe from whatever harms - real or imagined - he felt were out in greater Orisia. She knew she was small by Orisian standards - all Goran were - but that made her no less mighty. She gently set his hand down and picked up his other, stroking it just as gently. “Vaidín, you cannot protect me. Not even within our own walls. You must trust that I can protect myself.”

And she could protect herself. All Goran, provided that they were able, were taught from young exactly how to defend themselves from all threats - Goran, Orisian, or of the land itself. It was tradition. Granted, she might not be as skilled with a blade as her sister Aoife was, but she was more than capable of keeping herself safe.

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Helpless? The Lady of the Wood? No, my love. Not from dawn to dusk. The Goran were a fierce folk, with perhaps greater emphasis on “were”. When the Orisians had enslaved and oppressed the People of the Wood, there were some that fought back. “Don’t let their forest fool you, Vadrian”, his father would tell him with a grin, himself of woodland affinity. “These Goran aren’t limited to wood and stone; they have iron in their blades as much as we do, and they know how to use them.” Today, the Goran of Wolfwood held their skills of combat by tradition and purpose, but fortunately, the days of bloodshed and brutality were stretched behind them. That might change the moment their Dawn Lord brought their chieftain out into the chaos and anarchy that was this island. Vadrian could feel it as some turning point; an epoch for the summers to come, and their dawns with them. For better or for worse was any fool’s guess.

He felt his thoughts trail even as Aine’s fingers did. She knew him, all right, and she knew he would give in sooner or later. Always, this woman seemed to have the right of things. His uncle would jape about it often enough. “She’s got you wrapped around her little finger like a vine, boy”, he’d hear in a mostly modest tone, but there were days of disagreements between the two men when the words felt more forced. Vadrian wasn’t worried. Aine was the Lady of Wolfwood, the betrothed of the Lord of Dawnwatch, and that meant more than mere customary arrangements. We are one, joined already, whether service has yet to be carried out in bed. Each touch upon his hand, each circular caress and meticulous massage, was like a kiss upon his skin, but all the more so a gnawing bite as his heart raced to contain himself from touching back. It is not the Dawnwood way.

“I do trust you, Aine.” His gaze embedded into hers, letting his hands do the feeling as his eyes searched for some contradiction, some denial, some doubt—anything that would keep him from saying yes. But it was not there. So be it. “I trust your heart, your mind, your body, your spirit, and all your capabilities that stem from them in uniform, but I do not trust that they will be enough.”

Now it was Vadrian’s turn to frown. It was a dark world out there. House Beauchene was drowning somewhere in the abyss where noble families of its murderous make were doomed to, but in the butcher’s house’s destruction, they had ushered in a wake of lawless lands. After quenching their thirst for slaughter, the Great North had abandoned the island, so warlords, crime lords and roving bands of raging pillagers had usurped authority from their noble predecessors. Those with wealth and the means to hold it were what ruled in place of monarchs. For almost twenty years, Orisia had been thus. You can protect yourself, Aine, but you can’t protect yourself from such dangers as those. I probably can’t even protect you from them. You won’t be safe. He couldn’t let her come.

“But you must, and I know that.” His eyes smiled where his lips frowned. “I dreamed it, Aine. Lord and Lady, Captain and Chieftain, Dawn and Wood. We cannot be separate for what lies ahead. The trees speak, the wolves interpret, the Goran translate and the Dawnmen respond. This is the way, Aine, I know this. I cross mountains, pass through cities and drag my feet through sand, not to buy swords, but to defend our homes with them. Wolfwood sends me, and it wants you there by my side.” He sighed. “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.” It would have been a moment where he would have run a finger down her cheek, just to feel her warmth. She would have seen that desire, and maybe the lack of contact was enough to frustrate the Goran into confoundment, but Vadrian would only let his smile take the form of his lips in humor if she did.

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine smiled and cupped his face, pulling it down so she could kiss his forehead. “The Wood is wise, Vaidín, and you are wise to listen.” She took his hands and squeezed them, dropping from her toes. “And I knew you would be, so I am ready to depart as you are.” She smiled and brushed his hair out of his face. “I will be waiting.” She moved around him, her hand trailing down his arm as she made to leave. She needed to go change - pretty as it might have been, Orisian lace was not practical for travel.

Goran stinging cloth, on the other hand, was hardy and hardwearing, unassuming and perfect for travel in the hot sands. She’d packed several simple shifts and cloaks to protect from the harsh sun, as well as several yards of unaltered fabric should they need it for whatever reason.

She turned and smiled at him as she slipped from the room, heading down to her own rooms at the other end of the wing. She needed to make sure she’d packed everything she needed. She smiled at her handmaiden and dismissed her, preferring to ready herself without assistance.

She stripped out of her nightdress without ceremony, leaving it on the flagstone as she pulled on soft, cotton leggings. Cotton wasn’t technically native to the Goran, but Aine couldn’t bring herself to mind. It was soft against her most delicate skin, and would protect her adequately from the leather of the saddle. Had she not known Vadrian so well, that might have been all she wore, but she did know Vadrian, and so she pulled on a simple, stinging cloth shirt as well as a concession to his modesty. She braided her hair neatly and laced up her boots, grabbing her packs before making her way back to Vadrian’s room.

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The feeling of being held. Vadrian had learned to cherish that feeling. Before Aine, the touch of a woman had not been known to him for a couple of years, ever since his mother had left this world for whatever might lie beyond it. Even then, the touch of a mother was not quite the same. His only female interest had been Aine, and with Orisian customs and Dawn especially, physical contact was limited at best. Chastity was a code long held by the Knights of the Dawn, and Vadrian was as much one of those knights as he was their descendent, their grand master, and the lord of their lands. Indeed, he was more Dawn than he was Wood. The latter spoke to him no less, however, and Aine appreciated that. He let her take his head in her hands, plant a kiss upon it, in turn appreciating her touch, no matter the ensuing breach in his chambers.

Vadrian said nothing back as Aine made to leave. He kept his head bowed slightly as she moved, finding solace by her side, feeling it slip away as she did. He didn’t let it show in his face, but he took vague amusement in her parting words. I know, Aine. I know you are waiting. But I won’t keep you waiting for much longer. Rites and rituals were one thing, but Vadrian had been adamant with the Savant, the Dawn Order’s equivalent of a chaplain, when it came to speeding the marriage arrangements up as humanly as possible. The sooner we are married, the sooner we are joined, and the sooner I can take you. A part of him knew that so much of the tension he was feeling was easily attributed to his flesh longing for Aine’s, the woman of his visions. He did not turn to watch her leave, merely sighing out his conflicted feelings which stretched beyond companionship to Orisia overall.

The Beauchenes and the Genesarans of the Great North had devoured the island in turn, leaving a less than bright summer in their wake, with the lands descending into chaos and anarchy. Now, instead of a bloody feast, the criminals of the country were nibbling on what morsels their brutal masters and punishing invaders had left, which meant the people at their mercy were left to suck on the bones at the bottom of the pile. It was a bleak time, no better or worse, it seemed to Vadrian, without the butcher kings ruling. Indeed, what had the Northerners freed the island from? They came with fire and sword, and liberated the Orisian peoples with charred flesh and spilled blood. This was not how things were meant to be. The Island of Summer was meant to be free of such crime and corruption. If the Lord of Dawnwatch had anything to say, he would make it a public statement. The time for that was not now, but it was coming.

Vadrian lifted his head with a blink, so that when his gaze met its forward mark it landed on the polished steel standing before him. The Wolfshelm was right where he had left it, making the suit of armor complete. Dawnwolf, it was called, where the Wolves of Wolfwood as a proper entity had come to howl at the dawn. The men of the Dawn had heard their call. Pairing the Wolfshelm of old with his own skills at craftsmanship, The Iron Wolf, the then Captain of the Dawnmen, Grand Master Nalaster Dawn, had fashioned for himself a suit of armor to complement the helm that his ancestor had made, to wear into battle; for it was the Dawnmen who fought on behalf of Wolfwood. Vadrian recited the tale in his head as his eyes remained locked with his metal skin. He knew that Aine had left his chambers to seek appropriate attire, such as she deemed it, but Vadrian had already found his.

Stepping forward, he ran his fingers across a pauldron and down the breastplate, the cold touch comforting amid the breeze of the outside world. Dawnwolf would accompany its owner on his journey to the deserts, but it was best left securely boxed up for the ride while he sought more comfortable clothing of his own. He would substitute steel for travel wear. By the time Aine had returned to his chambers, Vadrian was sitting at the edge of his bed waiting to receive her, his loose hair now ponytailed, his outfit of plain fashion viewed in contrast against the bed’s sheets and covers. He sported simple clothing: brown boots, black breeches, a white doublet and a grey jerkin. The grey, then, was at least more easily maintained, but the colors of House Dawnwood combined would have marked the company as prey by the predators prowling the island. Departing the castle grounds with a retinue was a tempting endeavor, but they could only accompany so far before it became too far. The times of today were just as dangerous as yesterday, and now Vadrian had Aine to think about.  

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine grinned as she walked over to Vadrian, taking his hands. “Why, Vaidín, you could be any simple Orisian.” Well. He probably could be - she hadn’t actually had much interaction with Orisians, other than the occasional aristocrat who she’d been made to make small talk with in her capacity as Vadrian’s betrothed. Luckily, that hadn’t been many. Yet, at least.

She squeezed his hands and pulled him to his feet. “Well, the sun won’t turn backwards. We should put the current to our backs and ground under our feet.” She rocked up onto her toes, almost as though she was going to kiss him, before she swayed away again. “Are we taking the horses? Or are we using our own two feet on this journey?”

She wasn’t sure what she’d prefer - a journey on foot sounded tiring and blistering, while horses were still an alien concept to her. Trusting a massive beast between her legs to not turn on her and crush her didn’t make sense, and she knew the beasts could sense her unease, and did their utmost to mock her for it. All in all, it was an undignified and awkward time for all involved, and she wasn't relishing the thought of hours spent in such skittish company.

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The morning sun shone through the window, slipping through slits amid the drapes, providing ample lighting for Vadrian’s activity. Sitting down was the gist of it, meditation on the verge of turning into a brooding silence. Aine had elected to come or, perhaps, was entirely chosen, and there was nothing that he could do to deter her. If the latter theory were correct, who would he be to, anyway? It was probably better this way, he told himself, though he had yet to become convinced. If the wood was whispering, it told him to rest assured knowing that some things in life were simply bound to its fate. Perhaps, then, this was one of them. Whether Orisia was ready or not, the Lady of Wolfwood was ready for it.

When Aine entered the room, the moment appeared perfect. Thoughts drifted from her, to her, the smile on Vadrian’s face resonating with the warmth of the sun. “Simple Orisian?” He paid his outfit a glance, suddenly concerned that her words might have held hidden meaning. Did he pick the right attire? Surely he did, and she was just teasing. He would never get enough of that. “I must admit to enjoying the sound of that. It has a ring.” Any lord not so preoccupied with power might have said the same. A lordship could be a tiring task, as could a seigneurty. The leader of a noble house, whether its familial head or not, carried the burden of managing it like an organization over a mere dynasty. With all his gifted titles, all of varying weights, Lord Vadrian Dawnwood could often feel the pressure. Though he wouldn’t trade it for the world. Unless the wood asked it of the dawn.

Vadrian took whole advantage of Aine’s touch. Still in his chamber, it wasn’t as though he needed to withdraw his hands, was it? Let the flesh mingle for a moment. At her mercy, he let his legs do what his arms could not, rising to a stand with his lover’s tug. With her gazing up at him, it was all he could do to gaze down, watching those brown eyes like they might devour his own at any moment. It was a cautious thrill, and a thrilling caution. “And remove my feet from the soil, yes?” He teased. At her question, he looked to the drapes and the colors of his house upon them. “I’ll unbury my feet for a certainty, but treading on them might be to folly.” Meeting her eyes, he saw his thumbs grazing across the hands that held them, even if only in his head.

“I know of your reservations, my love, but horseback would be the practical way, I’m afraid. A horse for me and one for you, for as long as your Goran legs can sit astride it, and you can double on mine when they can’t. We’ll be taking packhorses too, a couple of bare ones for extra in the event we lose any, wood forbid. Ser Malien, he’ll accompany us with a few other Dawn Knights, as disguised as yours truly, of course. I considered a wagon too, but . . . “ Trailing off, Vadrian caught himself, watching Aine’s face for a reaction as he grinned. “ . . . Ah, the bores of logistics. Sorry. Suffice to say, we’ll be taking to hoof.” And if your feet get sore, well, I’ll just have to rub them down. Even saying that out loud might have stirred him too far. Not yet. Must wait. The time will come, and all the more momentous when it does.

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine wrinkled her nose at the thought of the long journey atop a beast whose only function seemed to be to turn grass into anxiety. But it was necessary, so she’d do it. “Let’s go, then.” She reluctantly dropped his hands and turned back towards the door, squaring her shoulders. It was her duty to serve her people, and if she had to do that from the back of a horse, she’d do it.

She walked from the room and headed through the keep, talking herself up for the long journey ahead. The Wood wanted her to go, and the Wood had never steered her people wrong. The Wood would never put her in a position where she wouldn’t come back - not without telling her first. This was okay.

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The Iron Wolf

Vadrian let Aine leave him once more, ever the creed in his heart waging battle with it, fighting to not be consumed. This, he knew, was exactly why the Dawn code was so passionate. It had to be in order to battle its passions. The sooner Aine left, he admitted to himself, the sooner he would be far more capable of thinking with his mind instead of his heart, and the flesh that it sought to corrupt. The morning needed it, because the day that followed the dawn demanded a clear head. Vadrian found himself still seated at the edge of the bed, blinking at the floor beneath his feet, and all the feet of stone more that kept his keep standing. Iron, wood and stone. The Dawnmen had forged Dawnwatch with the iron in their hammers, the Goran had lumbered from trees gifted by Wolfwood, and the Wolves had quarried stone from their lair in the forest. All three groups had contributed to the creation of this noble house, seeing to its dawn and maintaining it with vigilance both day and night. Running it as its lord was in turn no easy feat.

Vadrian decided to get off his bed and unbury his feet from all the thinking. Thoughts were often his enemy as much as his ally. After beckoning for his chamber-groom, he spoke for luggage to be rounded up and set to wagon, the traveling company made ready to depart. The journey ahead would be a long one. Unrolling a map of Orisia while his servants attended to his needs, he dragged his finger from Dawnwatch in the east across Wolfwood to the west, sliding it further across the Areder Mountains, trailing it down from the City of Morgana to stop and circle the Orisian deserts: the Red Sands and the White Sands. Foreign ways and customs waited in those deserts, a people of their own amid the greater peoples of Orisia, and perils awaited in the form of both man and beast. Who knew what would hinder them before sand would even be seen? Nevertheless, both lord and lady had elected to travel the whole way. Aine was committed to aiding Vadrian, and Vadrian was committed to protecting Aine. To do that, he had to complete this journey, returning home with a contract that secured the service of sellswords. He had to fill the holes in his forces left by the father who had left him; the head of House Dawnwood who had abandoned his house long before he ran off to who knew where.

Vadrian looked up from the map and the daze he had been dragged into for staring too long at the seas surrounding the island of summer. Where are you, Father? Where did you go? Southwest toward Genesaris? Northeast toward Terrenus? East to Vile Isle, even? Vadrian could recall that one of the first actions he had taken one year ago when Lord Fendrin Dawnwood had performed his vanishing act was to scour the Summer Isles from the Orisian Sea to the Ceyanan Sea. Still no trace of his father. His disappearance had taken the entire house off guard, pitifully stumbling to scrounge up some trace of its lord. But Lord Fendrin Dawnwood just wasn’t anywhere to be found. It had taken to such mystery and alarm that Vadrian’s own brother, Costul, had himself departed the realm of Orisia in search of their father and the head of their house. Vadrian hadn’t heard from Costul in three months, since he had left. Now Vadrian didn’t know where either of his kin had ended up, as though both of them were lost at sea. Though his brother was his brother, and Costul was no man to be bested by land or water. Vadrian knew at least that his brother was disappearing with a purpose. It was his father’s disappearance that concerned him. Where are you, Father? He had to repeat the question another time just to snap himself from his new daze.

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The Knight of Keeping

“Ah, there you are.” The call came from a few steps away within the spiral staircase that the knight and the lady climbed, him up and her down. Round and round, always in circles. “Lady Dawnwood.” The knight felt the doubt in his own voice even as the lady might hear it as a vocal bow of respect. Ser Morver Dawnwood, the Knight of Keeping and Marshal of House Dawnwood, was a man who was known throughout the family’s holdings, in both fear and respect. He was no brute of a man, but he was a hard man, and he made sure that the people living under the authority of his nephew always remembered that. There was security too, he knew, in ensuring his soon to be niece-in-law knew it too.

“I was just on my way to see your betrothed. I understand that you’ll be seeing the lord off this morning.” He spoke his words with a vague concern that his polite manner was too strained within the natural gruffness of his voice. “I’m sure you can appreciate the nature of Lord Vadrian’s mission, my lady. The deserts of this island, they . . . “ He trailed off, diverting his gaze from the lady to the stone beside him for a moment, taking note of the wall’s rough ridges amid its deceptively smooth indents as torchlight set it aglow. “ . . . Well, let’s just say they are no place for a lady.” He would hold his stare with her for as long as it might take hers to break, blinking back visions to replace them with eyes.

Morver had been a handsome man back in his youth, but fifty-five years had rewarded him with lines chiseled in his rounded face, cheeks showing signs of sagging into bags beneath those already beneath his eyes. His hair was cut short into a peak that centered on his forehead, as grey as the steel in his gaze. For all his aging qualities, however, he was a battle-hardened man with a form to show it, fitting for the Knight of Keeping. This morning, he had on the colors of his house amid a gold and orange tunic and grey boots, with black breeches to accommodate. The day was felt to be a hot one, the warm morning showing signs of conquest, and Morver had nothing of ceremonial importance on the day’s agenda to warrant armor or cape. Nonetheless, he rested his left hand on the golden pommel of the longsword sheathed at his hip, more for reason to lean than to unsheathe as he stood in the stairwell indirectly blocking Lady Dawnwood’s path.

Edited by Die Shize

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Aine smiled as she saw Ser Morver coming up the stairs towards her. She’d always held respect for the man, as well as a certain measure of fondness. He was steady and unmoving; a strong, thick tree in the old heart of a forest, weathered by storm and fire but still standing strong. She would always respect a man who could stand proud and endure.

Her eyes went from the warm richness of dark earth to a black void as he spoke, colourless except for the reflected flames of the sconces on the wall. “I am pleased that I am not a Lady yet, if that is the case. For as I and my Wood see it, the deserts of this island are precisely where I should be, as I stand at the side of my betrothed. I ask that you excuse me, Ser, as I have many preparations to make.” She swept past him, uncaring that her shoulders and bags knocked into him. If Morver saw her as weak simply for what was between her legs, he must not have been half so great a man as she thought him.

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The Knight of Keeping

Recurring Theme

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Morver wanted to smile, but he couldn’t bring his lips to spread. They were set as a rigid line and remained as unmoving as his body, his mind and his heart. Anything else would have made him less of the man that he was, and some changes could not be afforded. Whether one of those changes was Aine of Wolfwood, Chief of the Goran, becoming the Lady of Dawnwatch and Lady Dawnwood in all official capacity, was yet to be known. Morver held respect for any people that proved themselves, and the Goran had done so time and again, but he also held concern. He wouldn’t have been much of a marshal, and would have kept nothing as the Knight of Keeping, if he hadn’t.

He felt his brow arc at her words. Stand at the side? Not stand aside? Had he heard her right? What is that boy nephew of mine doing bringing her along? Once again, Morver was forced to not let his thoughts read on his countenance. He held his reservations in check, but already his words were beginning to boil, that he might launch them at Vadrian and find out what on Valucre he was doing. Aine wouldn’t be helping the way. She would be in the way. That was no judgment on her character at that point, but rather a reality. That woman has no business leaving these lands, certainly not for the filthy deserts. No Goran does. Orisia was dangerous enough on the open plains, never mind the deserts. Before he could even think of protesting, she brushed by him.

Morver found that he could simply stand on the steps with his head turned, watching her vanish in moments around the staircase. At least she’s as determined as a lord’s wife should be. She had that much going, at least. Where she would ultimately end up, only La’Ruta could have known, and there wasn’t much left of that myth on the island today. Morver left that thought and resumed his climb up the steps. He had even more things to say to the Lord of Dawnwatch now.

The Iron Wolf

Purposely, sound wasn’t afforded to travel far from the lord’s bedchamber. The stone walls were thick; more so than the overall makeup of Stonetree Keep, as one purpose of a bedchamber was actually that of private discussion. Some might think that a lord’s most inner dealings occurred in the connected solar, but where was privacy at its most but within the personal sleeping quarters? Nonetheless, any servants just outside the suite would have heard the unmistakably raised voices of two men coming from within, and the older, baritone one that dominated the other.

Were the man any other individual, Vadrian would have chastised he who slammed shut the door to his chambers. Morver, of course, was not just any man. He was Lord Dawnwood’s marshal, his uncle—the brother of his father, wherever he was now. It took a long sigh, but in the end, Vadrian had gathered up his belongings and made his way out into the hall, bidding farewell to his personal gentleman waiting outside. Another servant approached with a smile and an extended hand, and were it not for the light belongings given the circumstances of the journey, Vadrian might have just taken the man’s offer to assist with the baggage before dismissing him with a return smile. He could carry his own bags this morning.

 Theme

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In the spacious entrance hall of Stonetree, amid gold and grey floor tiles, a grand, orange rug stretched from the double-door entrance of Wolfwood’s own steelbark to the double doors parallel that led into the great hall. A large banner floated above those doors, bearing the sigil of House Dawnwood; a grey fortress, a golden tree and an orange wolf’s head on a field of orange, for the wolves of Wolfwood had since merged with the dawn. The doors were flanked by twin staircases that granted access to the second level from the floor; two immediate doors above led into the open balcony of the great hall. Within, doors flanking the sides both above and below the balcony led to inner areas of the keep, but access could be denied first and foremost at the entrance hall.

On floor level, a door at one side led into a small living room where guests could wait at more leisure, and the door on the opposite side led to a small servants’ quarters. Twin guard barracks paralleled each other up the stairs by the same doors leading into the great hall’s balcony, just in case any attackers needed some initial repelling. It was here in the entrance hall that Vadrian had just entered and began to descend a flight of steps. He was pleased to see that his captain was already waiting for him down below.

“Ah, Ser Malien. Good morning.”

The knight crossed a fist over his chest and bowed before resuming his less than formal posture. A strong-bodied, strong-willed warrior, Ser Malien was as dutiful as he was capable of carrying out his duties, which was all too fitting for the Knight Captain of the Order of the Dawn. Some five years older than Vadrian, he was just as much a catch with the ladies, with short, blond hair, piercing blue eyes and a thick beard that framed his face and ran over his upper lip as a matching mustache. Like Vadrian, despite either man’s knightly status, Malien was also attired in plain traveling garb today, though it was also a pleasure to see the longsword sheathed at the man’s hip. Always a comfort.

“My Lord Vadrian, good morning to you.” Malien’s eyes danced from side to side. “Has Chief Aine already seen you off, my lord?”

Vadrian smiled at that, finishing his last step to set his belongings on the floor and the weight that went with them. There were no others with Malien, but it was apparent that the other Dawn Knights awaited their company outside. “No, my friend.” His eyes went to the expanse of the hall, expecting Aine to show herself at any moment. “Turns out that our lady of the wood won’t be seeing me off at all.”

Edited by Die Shize

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