Roland awoke in the dark. He tried to sit up but pain shot throughout his body. His vision blurred and dizziness swam through his head. He could hear distant voices. Is this the home of Bolvii? Roland thought to himself. Sleep came for him like the charge of cavalry. Roland slept.
Untold hours later Roland again awoke to the feel of a moist cloth on his forehead. He opened his eyes and the blur had cleared. He was now certain he was dead for he looked into the eyes of an angel. When she smiled Roland felt peace wash throughout his soul. She was a slim, light skinned
beauty with long, raven black hair and sky-blue eyes. Roland’s angel stood and drifted from the dark room he was in. He tried to speak but discovered that he was still very weak. Sleep came for him again as he collapsed back into the silk that surrounded him.
“Awake, Sir Roland,” he heard the delicate whisper of a female voice. “Awake. You and your friends are safe.”
“It is just Roland, no ‘Sir’ to it,” Roland said as he attempted to sit. He discovered that he was feeling much better. Well rested.
He looked up into the eyes of his angel. She must be a champion sent from Bolvii himself.
“You should be well enough to dress for dinner,” came from her full and inviting lips. “You will find all of your things here and intact. Your friends, and your horses, have been well cared for.”
“Might I know the name of the angel that saved me? I must know whose champion you are.” Roland said. He understood now how the men of old were helpless before the beauty of the champions that traveled with them. He understood how one could be struck so violently by beauty.
“Angel?” The ivory skinned beauty asked. “Truly there is no angel here, nor one even close.”
“I beg your pardon,” Roland said. “But I converse with one, too beautiful to be nothing but a very resident of the heavens, even now.”
The young woman’s warm lips curved up into a smiled. Roland knew then he would be helpless against that smile.
“I am no angel, no champion, Roland.”
“Then the champions on high should hide their heads in shame that they can never possess such grace as that found radiating from such an earth-bound source.”
The young beauty blushed and favored Roland with another smile as her ample chest fluttered in response to her sudden breath.
“I believe you are still light headed,” she said with her smile toning her pure voice.
“I love you now,” Roland said, “and will forever.”
“You should dress for dinner,” the young woman said again, this time with a laugh.
No girlish giggles from this one, nor any hint of mocking. Roland decided that he loved her laugh as well.
“Might I know the name of my cause to draw breath?”
“My name is Clairenese,” the young lady answered.
With that, she stood and floated from the room on light feet. She stopped just before exiting and turned up the flame on the oil lamp near the door. Roland had never seen a woman so beautiful. Her form alone would stop any man in the street, but there was more. Roland saw an intelligence that shined in her eyes in the frank way she looked at him. He saw a confidence in the way she moved and every aspect of her posture. This was no fainting beauty, nor was she one to flatter with a giggle at some foolish remark or flirt. This was a woman possessed of a strong will.
Mind your surroundings! he heard in his father’s voice. You woke up dumb, don’t stay that way!
Roland rose, still a little shaky. He found that his wounds, the ones he remembered among others he did not, had been treated. Treated, and for the most part healed! He found all of his equipment intact. He discovered that his armor and weapons had been cleaned and oiled and that his clothes had been washed and scented.
His thoughts turned to his angel in spite of Velryk’s warning going off in his head. He felt himself a fool for being so easily swayed by a pretty face and enchanting voice. He wished to wipe the emotions from his heart and cleanse his mind of her memory. He, however, could not. Clairenese was now a permanent resident among his desires.
As Roland dressed, he realized that he had slept for the first time since he could remember, peacefully and without the protection of his helmet. That line of thought brought him back to wonder about what had happened at the battle with Dawn and Yorketh. Curiosity burned within him. He had to know what had become of his friends. He had failed them.
That thought sobered him and his visage reflected his shame. He had made it from the battlefield somehow, and his friends were said to be well. He must focus on what was before him and not waste time on the past. Roland shook all foolish thoughts from his mind as he pulled his helmet over his head, then reconsidered. It would be rude to walk around in his host’s home wearing his helmet. Furthermore, it would show that he was afraid or, at the very least, unsure. Show strength when you are weak, the words from Arto coming to him.
Roland curled his helm under his arm and proceeded. Roland took up the scarf to cover the scar on his neck and discovered that the scar had vanished.
As Roland finished dressing, he heard a slight knock on his door. For the first time Roland looked around the room he was in. His thoughts and motives had been so directed earlier that he had missed his actual surroundings. He had been thinking of plots, motives and outcomes. He had failed to think of his/Velryk’s advice literally.
He viewed a room that possessed all the luxuries of a lord’s bedroom, silk on the pillows and sheets, thick elven made carpets on the floors, and rich paintings of ancient battles and majestic landscapes hung on the walls of black stone. The air smelled pleasant enough but there was a weight to it that he couldn’t identify.
Roland walked to the door. Behind the door he found a pale, and very thin man wearing a servant’s gown. Upon seeing him Roland reconsidered and placed his helm on his head. The thin man was there in the lighted vision of Roland’s helm however, the magic of the helmet revealed no heat from him whatsoever.
“You are ready to be escorted to the Dining Hall?” The pale man asked.
“Follow me, kind sir.”
The thin man led Roland down a dim hallway softly lit with unusual glowing stones. They appeared to be polished marble spheres that shown with a comforting light. They reached a large stairway railed with fine mahogany wood and carpeted with purple silks. Roland was led into a room containing a wall of books, several lavish chairs, and thick elven rugs on the floors. He saw Eldryn and Ashcliff standing in the room sharing a drink from crystal goblets and talking quietly.
The thin man left Roland’s side and exited the room, closing the large doors behind him. Roland saw his two companions, apparently healthy, and relief washed through him.
“How fair you?” Roland asked.
“Well,” Eldryn said. “And you?”
“I have certainly, and most recently, been worse,” Roland replied. “Where are we?”
“Your guess is as good as ours,” Ashcliff said. “However, I may have an idea of who intervened on our behalf. I am sure it will all be explained at dinner.”
Upon seeing his friends safe Roland removed his helmet. Eldryn handed Roland a goblet of the best wine Roland had ever sampled. Perhaps because of the quality, or perhaps because he had never thought he would taste wine again.
“Ash, I believe you have successfully deceived us where your skills in combat are concerned,” Roland said.
Eldryn gave Roland a curious look.
“I never said that I could not fight, I merely refrain from it when I can,” Ashcliff replied.
Roland and Ashcliff shared a smile.
“What do you speak of?” Eldryn asked.
“While you were down, our friend here came to our aid,” Roland said. “It turns out that he is quite capable with his hands and feet.”
“When you grow up on the street you either learn how to fight, or you do not live to learn other things,” Ashcliff replied.
“I have something for you,” Roland said.
He dug into the worn pouch he wore at his side and took out a small ring.
“This is a gift King Vigorr of the Stonebeard clan gave to me to pass on to you,” Roland said.
Ashcliff took the ring and looked back up to Roland wearing the first surprised expression Roland had ever seen on his face.
“In honor of your help in retrieving their ancient king’s axe from Nolcavanor,” Roland said.
The pale, and quite cold, man returned and opened the doors.
“My lord is ready to receive you now at his dinner table.”
Roland, Eldryn, and Ashcliff followed the pale man back out into the main hall and through large double doors, which led into a grandiose dining hall. Each was shown to a specific seat, Roland being placed near the head of the table. The table had been set with the finest of dishes and another goblet of the sweet wine awaited them at their seats.
Roland and Eldryn placed their helmets and gauntlets on small tables behind their chairs. Ashcliff’s eyes scanned the room. A tall, finely muscled man with a shaved head, pale skin, and deep red lips entered the room from the double doors. A man that Ashcliff knew and had done business with. Clairenese was at his side.
“Gentlemen and warriors,” the tall man began, “I am Lynneare. I am the master of this humble house and your host.”
Lynneare’s smoky gray eyes swept over the three men and paused when they reached Roland.
“You have our gratitude for your regal generosity,” Roland said.
Roland noted the richness of Lynneare’s voice. There was also an accent, but Roland could not place it to any lands he could think of, not that he was well traveled.
“Smooth of tongue, and well reserved,” Lynneare said. “I assume that curiosity is eating away at you and still you remain courteous.”
“’The rude question is oft answered with rudeness in return, if it is answered at all,’” Roland quoted from Thoughts on War.
“A well-read warrior,” Lynneare said. “Truly a general among men.”
Lynneare seemed to float to his seat at the head of the table. Clairenese took her seat to his right, across from Roland.
“I understand that you have met my daughter,” Lynneare said to Roland. “However, allow me to make a formal introduction. Roland, son of Velryk, this is my youngest daughter, Clairenese.”
“It is my pleasure and privilege to be graced with such a presence,” Roland said.
Eldryn rolled his eyes. Eldryn had seen Roland with the tavern girls, and on rare occasion attempt to call upon the fairer ladies of Fordir. Eldryn had seen Roland direct about his purpose and had seen him when Roland thought he was being charming. Eldryn had never seen him with such a look on his face. Roland was lost to them.
All at the table seemed comfortable and friendly. Ashcliff, however, kept his boots under his chair and most of his weight forward on the balls of his feet. To the casual eye Ashcliff seemed relaxed as well.
“We have much business to discuss,” Lynneare said. “However, I have never been fond of business on an empty stomach.”
Lynneare looked to the only other entrance to the room, a small door to his left. The door swung open and two pale and beautiful young ladies entered bearing dishes of various exotic foods. Salads of foreign flowers, fruits from enchanted trees in the Suethiel forests, and meats from rare animals were placed upon the table before the group. Five more lovely, but pale, young women in servant’s gowns came out to bring each of those dining a bowl of soup.
Roland, Eldryn, and Ashcliff noted the appearances of the servants with suspicion but held their tongues. The food did look enticing, but each gave it a second examination without harming any rules of etiquette. It appeared to be just as it seemed, very appetizing.
“Shall we offer thanks to that great god of war, Bolvii, for his strength and wisdom?” Lynneare asked.
Everyone at the table bowed their heads as Lynneare offered a prayer in an ancient tongue that Roland and Eldryn recognized, but did not fully understand. Roland picked out the words for ‘Forgiveness’ and ‘Time.’ It was the language of the Great Men of old. Ashcliff bowed his head, but kept his eyes open and scanning.
“Please enjoy your meals,” Lynneare said at the close of the prayer. “We will have much to talk about and you will need your nourishment I am sure.”
Roland was the first to sample his soup. It was marvelous, and it warmed the few remaining aches in his bones. Eldryn found that the soup soothed the nerves that were knotting in his stomach. Ash smelled and then tested the soup with a small taste. There was no evidence of any poison or intoxicant that he could detect, however, he didn’t know them all. Not yet. After the soup the three friends helped themselves to the salads and meats on the table before them.
Lynneare had a special entree that was brought to him by one of the pale beauties. It appeared to be a very rare steak. Everyone ate in silence. Some thought of what they should say, some enjoyed the peace and the company, and all enjoyed the meal. The finery made Eldryn feel like a bull in a dish closet, but the taste of the foods soon allowed him to relax into a comfortable state. Everyone finished their meals, and Lynneare rose from his seat.
“Shall we adjourn to the study for our discussion?”
Lynneare stood and Clairenese took his arm. The two led the way out of the dining hall and into the study where Roland had first reunited with his friends in the expanse of the great house.
Lynneare offered each of the three a large, and very rare, wrapped smoking leaf from the tropical expanses of Janis. Ashcliff accepted his and placed it inside his shirt. Eldryn took his and lit it on a candle burning nearby. Roland took his and bit the end off of it, working it into his jaw.
“The likeness is truly amazing,” Lynneare said.
Roland looked at him with a curious expression.
“Forgive me,” Lynneare said. “I knew a man once, a Great Man, like you. He was also a good friend. You remind me of him.”
“My lord,” Roland began, “I have attempted to remain courteous. There are things, however, I would know.”
“Stiff necked and straight forward like him as well,” Lynneare said. “Very well. I shall explain what I can. If you have any further questions after my explanation you may ask them when I am done.”
“As you say, my lord,” Roland said.
“I am Lynneare, as I have said. I have traveled many lands, and have lived many lives. You may trust me in that my motives are fashioned from love and faith of, and a renewed dedication to, the Infinite Father. I am a father myself, the father to many. Dawn is my daughter, and although misled, my daughter still. I would not have harm come to her. I know that she has acted to shame me in her quest for power, however, I have taken her back into my home to discipline her and put her back on the right path. I ask you, from one man who is a father to another who may be beginning to understand what it is like to be one, that you forgive her your grievances and that you let her be.”
Eldryn’s fears for Petie leapt to the forefront of his mind.
“Lord Lynneare,” Roland began, “I do not know that what you ask will be possible.”
“You have every right to defend yourself,” Lynneare said holding up a hand. “All I ask is that you forgive her former transgressions, and allow her father to correct her in her wrongs. Should she still attack you, I release you to do what you must. I aided you in your battle against my daughter, Yorketh, and their men. I call upon your mercy that you forgive my daughter, and your debt to me for that assistance will be repaid.”
Roland’s gaze steeled. He did owe a debt, although, this seemed more along the lines of extortion.
“You will see that she harms no other?” Roland asked.
“You have my word that she will harm neither you, nor any other who fights for the just. Nor will she harm any innocent in any land. If I should fail in this, then I release you and all to do what you must.”
“Then before these witnesses I extend my mercy, and offer her forgiveness,” Roland said.
“I thank you for your mercy. I am but a humble man,” Lynneare continued. “I wish only to live out my days in my castle and enjoy the success of my children. However, my home is threatened by an enemy that we share. Daeriv fights Prince Ralston’s forces, and attempts to move into my small lands on a daily basis. You are in my lands now, on the continent of Lawrec. I ask that you join with Prince Ralston’s forces, and assist in the fight against this Daeriv. It is a fight I am sure you would have sought out eventually, however, I seek your assistance as the weak seek the help of the warrior.”
Weak indeed, Eldryn thought. Everything about this Lynneare spoke of power. Power that, he at least was wise enough to know, was beyond the understanding of ones as young as they.
“You have no need of asking,” Roland replied. “It is a fight we will join.”
“What would you ask in return for your assistance?” Lynneare asked.
“A warrior asks for no payment to fight the likes of Daeriv,” Roland said.
“Spoken like Ivant himself,” Lynneare said. “Are you sure there is not something that I can help you with? Some kindness I could offer.”
“It was you that healed our wounds?” Roland asked.
“Indeed, it was,” Lynneare said. “Or, rather, the healing was the result of my prayers.”
Eldryn wanted to scream. He knew it would do no good, for Roland was rarely altered from a course he was decided on. Just the same it was dangerous to accept a ‘kindness’ from the likes of this Lynneare.
“Then the only thing I would ask is that you visit a friend, Lucas of the Slandik. He is without his sight. Is that within your scope of healing powers?”
“It is,” Lynneare said. “But I must correct you on one point. Any healing that I administer comes from Father Time. I am simply the one who offers the prayers. Rest assured that your friend will be the focus of those prayers.”
Roland had always been taught to trust his instincts and his judgment. His outward mind screamed that this Lynneare was the core of evil, however, his heart judged him a just and true man. ‘You will know a man by his actions, not his garb.’ The words of Velryk, his father, came to him and comforted him in his decision to ally with Lynneare.
And then there was Clairenese. Roland decided that before he could come to a woman such as her, he would have to be a man proven in combat with more than a sword to offer her.
Eldryn and Ashcliff retired from the study and were escorted to their rooms. Although Eldryn wished sorely to speak to Roland about this rash alignment, he found the need for sleep uncompromising and, once back in his own room, fell into a deep rest.
Roland and Lynneare remained in the study and talked long into the night about many things. Arto and his book, ‘Thoughts on War,’ Roland’s fight with the dark elf, Maloch, and Roland’s days of training at his father’s side were among the topics they discussed. Lynneare asked many questions about Velryk, and Roland asked many questions about Clairenese. Roland discovered that he had a liking for Lynneare, despite his dark visage. The longer they talked the more it seemed that Lynneare lost his air of piety and officious diplomacy.
Roland no longer felt that he was being handled or maneuvered by someone skilled in the warfare of conversation, but was speaking to a good man possessed of a genuine concern for the plight of these lands and those in it.
“Why is it that you choose to worship Bolvii?” Lynneare asked.
“Bolvii is the god that my father worships,” Roland answered. “I suppose it goes far beyond that, though. I should say I began worshiping him because he is the god my father chose to worship. My worship of him continues because of choices I have made about my faith.”
“Bolvii has seen over you well, and has always watched over those of our race. Could that be why you worship him?”
“No,” Roland replied after a moment of contemplation. He had completely missed the implications of Lynneare’s phrase, ‘those of our race.’ “I do not question that Bolvii has been the savior of more than one Great Man, and he has certainly had a hand in my survival and fortune, but that is not it. A man should not worship a god based on what the god does for him. Rather it should be based on how he identifies with the god. Bolvii is indeed a god of war, however, his greatest act was to protect the weak. He stood against over powering odds for what he felt was just. He did it to protect those who could not protect themselves.”
“The Infinite Father of Time is Bolvii’s master and father,” Lynneare said. “Do you not think that your prayers would carry more power if you offered them to The Infinite Father instead?”
“I do not care if my prayers carry power or not,” Roland said openly. “What I do I must do without borrowing strength from any other. The prayers I offer to Bolvii are not requests. I simply pray to him so that he will know and understand my heart. It is written in the holy book of Bolvii, ‘Bolvii will put no task before you that you cannot achieve.’ As Arto says in his ‘Thoughts on War,’ ‘a just warrior that will not quit will never know defeat, although he may be bested in combat.’ A man fails for one of two reasons. Either he quits, or Fate deemed it his time to fail.”
“You father should be proud of the education he has provided his son,” Lynneare said. “It is one thing to quote the great books, it is another entirely to understand them.”
It was not lost on Roland that the last time they spoke, Velryk admonished him about the value and distinction of those virtues.
The morning neared and both decided that they should get their rest. Roland went up to his room. He managed to find his way unescorted. He entered and undressed. Although in a strange place surrounded by the unknown, Roland felt at easy here. Roland lay in his bed staring up at the ceiling. His thoughts and plans for the future began to take form and he sought to arrange them in place.
“He likes you,” Clairenese’s voice came to him from the dark of his room.
Roland bolted up out of bed at the surprise of her lovely speech from the darkness.
“What is there to like?” Roland asked, peering through the gloom in search of her form.
“You remind him of his old friend,” Clairenese said. “They were fast and loyal to one another. Father is lonely now, and truly brave men, truly good men, are not found as often as they once were.”
“You believe I am a truly brave man?”
Roland had never questioned whether or not he was ‘good.’ He knew his intentions were good. His ability to act on those intentions and to see them through… those things he had always questioned.
Clairenese walked from the shadows of the room with her lush hair bound with a dark blue ribbon of silk exposing her gentle neck and bare shoulders. Her countenance emboldened and enslaved him. He cursed himself a fool, but knew that he loved her. He did not know it then, but he would remember her that way even after death would separate them.
“I believe your pride is dangerous,” she said. “Father and I have watched you for some time. We have seen your bravery, and your tact, and sometimes your lack of thought. What I mean to say…I don’t mean that you’re thoughtless, but rather, quick to depend on your instincts. Instincts that seem to serve you well. However, I… rather we, worry for your safety.”
“I am still learning,” Roland admitted. “I ever strive to be worthy of…”
He broke off there unsure of what to say or how to say it. She watched him with those brilliantly blue eyes as though she could read his every thought.
“When I have a name,” Roland said, finally overcoming his own silence. “When I have a title and more to offer than silver words, I will return for you.”
“Roland, you have no need of titles or wealth to come to me,” she said softly.
Clairenese smiled, moved to him, pulled his head down to meet her eyes, and kissed him. Roland’s heart swelled and his spirit seemed too confined in even his large frame. Roland took her into his arms and kissed her deeply. He pulled the midnight blue ribbon loose that bound her hair and released it to fall around the two of them. He could smell the scent of lilacs in her silken hair. Roland had never desired anything like he desired Clairenese then. Roland pulled back from her to gaze into her rich, blue eyes. Those eyes swallowed him.