The city of Canluum appeared ahead, stark grey stone walls raising up defiantly from the hard Kandori dirt. Lheorik licked his dry and cracked lips, stomach growling at the meal he knew awaited him. Small game and streams sustained him during his hike, but they were cruelly few and far between. He stumbled on, leg still stiff and bruised from the trauma of the battle. A group of armored soldiers rode out from the gates to intercept him. As they approached, the exhaustion of his march overwhelmed him dropping him to his knees. Seeing the tattered cloak of the Red-Horse draped around him, the lead officer dismounted and assisted Lheorik into the saddle.
“What happened?” the officer asked.
Lheorik spoke, his voice scratching out of his dry throat, “Defeat. The Seventh Mountain Cavalry has met the last embrace of the Mother.”
“Are you being pursued?”
“No, I’ve been walking at least a fortnight.”
The officer nodded, “Get him to the Commander.”
The Commanders office was impressive despite its simplicity. Polished wooden beams ran the length of the ceiling and a dark stone fireplace blazed on the far wall. The only other decor was a massive, pale green banner bearing the Red Horse of Kandor. Commander Rinson stood behind a heavy wooden desk, leaning over a map.
Lheorik’s escort saluted the Commander as he came to a stop, “Commander Rinson, news of Rodril’s Cavalry.”
Rinson looked up sharply, “Blight man, what happened to you? Get him a chair.”
“Defeat sir, we were overwhelmed, on the Plain of Lances.”
“Where’s the rest of the survivors?” Rinson asked.
“Just me sir, to my knowledge.”
Rinson cursed, slamming a fist into the heavy wooden table. “Commander Rodril, did you see him fall?”
Lheorik shook his head, “No, but his corpse was left.” He withdrew Rodril’s rank insignias and laid them on the table. “I spoke his burial words, but couldn’t bury him.”
The chair was brought for Lheorik and he lowered himself shakily into it.
“Light, that’s all Hayden would have asked, he’d be glad to know one of his boys made it home.” Rinson said. A woman came bristling into the office, “I’m told we have a wounded soldier and you’re interrogating him?”
Rinson picked the insignias up from the table, “Peace Wisdom, I was about to send for you.”
The wisdom seemed not to have heard or cared for his reply. She held Lheorik’s face, peering into his eyes. “Doesn’t appear to have any head trauma, physically at least. The rest of your questions can wait Rinson. I want him in a sick bed, now.”
Rinson nodded, “We’re done, for now. Look him over.”
Lheorik’s escort assisted him from his chair and half carried him from the office.
For the next several weeks Lheorik remained under the care of the Canluum Wisdom’s house, being poked, prodded and fussed over by a gaggle of women at all hours of the day and night. He finished his debrief to a lieutenant by the name of Agris. He was honorably discharged after being awarded the Red-Horse of Kandor and a meritorious intelligence badge for his courageous actions and detailed debrief in what would later be known as the Battle of the Seventh Mountain.
After two weeks with the Wisdoms, the apprentice assigned his bed for the day entered to find his room empty. His recently received medal and badge left on the neatly made bed.
The rain pattered against his thick wool hood as he observed the sprawling manor in front of him. Commander Rodril’s signet ring felt heavy in Lheorik’s hand as he worked up the courage to face the man’s widow. He stepped forward, splashing through the muddy street and onto the flat stone walkway. Knocking, Lheorik lowered his hood. The door opened, and a soft light fell across his soaked form, dripping on the front porch.
A wisp of a girl peered out into the night, “Can I help you?”
“I’m here to speak with the Lady Rodril.” Lheorik said.
“She’s not receiving guests, not at this hour anyway.”
“She’ll want to speak with me, I was with the Commander the day he fell.”
The girls knuckles whitened on the door frame. “You’re the survivor?”
She opened the door, and the warmth of the home, mixed with the smells of roasted meat and spices embraced him.
He followed her through the front entry, and down a torchlit hall to a small door near the back of the manor. She knocked and waited. After a stretch of silence a voice drifted through the door, “I’m not hungry Belna, take it home for your mother.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but you’ve a visitor.” Belna said.
Another silence. “Come.”
Belna pushed open the door and motioned Lheorik through, as he entered Belna pulled the door closed behind him. The room was a small library, all four walls were shelved from floor to ceiling, and not a single space empty. The back of a large cushioned chair faced him with a little fireplace crackling before it.
“Come then, who is it?”
“My name is Lheorik, Lady Rodril.” He said as he made his way around to the front of the chair.
Lady Rodril sat regally, a crystal glass filled with a light brown liquid clutched in her hand. Her posture and regal look commanded the same authority her late husband possessed. She was stunning. Flawless even, in spite of the redness circling her large green eyes.
“Sergeant Grayson I presume?”
Lheorik shook his head, “Just Lheorik ma’am. I received my official discharge.”
Lady Rodril took a drink, her eyes tightening at the sting, “Oosquai. Like drinking fire, Sergeant. My husband had a taste for it though. I like to close my eyes and try to taste whatever it was he enjoyed about it.” She poured a second glass and held it to Lheorik.
“I don’t mean to intrude, I only wanted-“
Lady Rodril stood raising her glass and pushing the other toward him, “To Hayden, Commander of the Seventh Mountain.”
Lheorik took the glass.
Lady Rodril continued. “And to the survival and prosperity of one of his, Sergeant Grayson, may he deserve it.” She emptied her glass.
Lheorik hesitated, then followed suit. The liquid scorched down his throat and into his stomach, leaving a smoldering warmth.
“So, what is it you ‘only wanted’ Sergeant Grayson?”
“I didn’t see Commander Rodril fall my lady, but I did see the aftermath of it.” Lheorik opened his hand, offering the ring to Lady Rodril. “I want you to know he died valiantly. It took a host of shadowspawn to reach him, and by the looks of it, he made them pay for every inch.”
She lifted the ring from Lheorik’s hand, and he felt a weight go with it. “Thank you.” She turned the signet over, running a thin finger across the heavy metal insignia. “It will mean a lot to his boys.”
Lheorik set his empty glass down, “I’m glad for it ma’am. I was honored to serve beneath Commander Rodril, I fear I’ll never be in the presence of such greatness again.”
Lady Rodril wiped at her eyes, “I fear you’re right, for both of us. Goodnight, Mr. Grayson, and good luck.”
Grish’s voice brought Lheorik back to reality. “Lheorik, she’s in active labor.”
Lheorik looked out over the field of sheep. “Dom, let them graze a bit more, but get them back before dark.”
Dom grunted his understanding. The man had lost his jaw, along with half his face, to a trolloc's axe while Lheorik was still a boy. Unable to continue service, he was discharged with a skillset that amounted to drinking and fighting. Angry drunkard became his occupation for over a decade. The first thing Lheorik had done after his discharge was spend his entire savings on a ranch in southern Kandor. The second thing was head into town to find cheap labor. That's when Dom received his first promotion in twelve years. Dom quickly revealed another skill set, his ability to terrify young ranch hands with a steady look. Dom was the only remaining hand from that first group of hires. Most of the current hands had served in some capacity, but Dom’s grim looks proved as affective on prior soldiers as it had on farm boys. The man was loyal to a fault. He was the hardest worker Lheorik had ever met, and even had a sense of humor, although his laugh was a grotesque chortle. He was second only to Lheorik at the ranch.
Lheorik dismounted and hitched his horse in-front of a large white barn, making his way inside to deliver his one hundred and twenty fourth steed.
That night, he sat at the large dining table in the common of the main house. The hands had all eaten and departed to their tents or rooms, for those that had them, only Dom and Lheorik remained.
Dom sat back, watching the fire consume another log, oblivious to Lheorik’s presence. Both men content to sit long into the night. When they retired to sleep, they would each face the too common dreams of battle, reliving wounds suffered both physical and emotional.
The ranch had been Lheorik’s dream for his entire service, there wasn’t a day that passed where he hadn’t painfully wished to be in this position. It was beautiful, and peaceful. Sitting snug between two mountain expanses, the lush rolling hills and full wooded area's deep green hues set off the grey and white of the mountain rock. Despite being in the Borderlands, he was far enough south to escape the realities of the land further north. Beyond one incident where Dom had caught a new hand attempting to steal from Lheorik, there had been no violence since he’d bought the property.
Only now, with his dream accomplished, it felt hollow. He was rudderless and adrift. Now his daily thoughts were pulled north toward the blight, to a sense of service he neither wanted nor appreciated, yet there it was.
Standing, Lheorik gave Dom’s shoulder a squeeze as he made his way past. “Don’t let it keep you up too long friend, the morning always comes around.”
In his room, Lheorik turned Jinro’s Red-Horse clasp in his hands, the firelight flaring across it in quick bursts as it caught the curves and edges.
Lheorik grimaced as the voice snapped through his mind. He stood and slammed a fist into his bed stand, the clasp puncturing his rough and callused skin. He watched as a bead of blood twisted down his palm, across his wrist and around his forearm. He mulled over re-enlistment for the thousandth time. But for the first time, he landed at yes.
He was sick of the pull, the guilt, the nightmares. He had hoped these things would fade with time, but they felt as sharp tonight as the first night he had bought the ranch. It was time to face them.
He left the deed and keys for the ranch at Dom’s door, and rode out the Northgate on his finest steed with his service blade sheathed across his back. He planned to return to Canluum, seek out Lady Rodril, and find out what ever happened to Hayden Rodril’s sons.
For the first time in years he felt a lightening of his shoulders, and the hope of something different crept around the edges.