“Telling them didn’t help anything. They’re even more angry now,” I said as I stretched my shoulder. The wound on my upper back was healing but the skin was tight and sore. It would probably be fine in a day but in the meantime, the unpleasantness was annoying.
Considering their adverse reactions, I wasn’t surprised when most of the group had decided to return to Lion’s Arch while I made this quick side trip. The friction setting in between us was getting to be uncomfortable and every time I looked at their faces, all I felt was guilt. Time and space might be able to prevent the growing inferno Quint warned of, but I knew nothing would be able to repair the damage already done. I had nothing else to blame besides myself.
And this cursed purpose of mine.
“Of course they are,” Quint replied as he quietly scouted by my side. His red reef drake, Michi, happily waddled next to him, opening and closing her strong jaws to let out the occasional hiss. I suppose she wanted to be a part of the conversation as well. “I imagine they expected more than ‘I guard something very special and this Alec person is trying to get it and kill me’. You didn’t give them much of an explanation like you promised and I’m sure they have many more questions. I know I do.”
“I don’t have much more to tell right now,” I lied.
“You held back.” Quint stopped and looked down at me. Short strands of graying dark hair hung down by his pale eyes. “You’re good, I’ll admit. But you get that brief look in your eyes right before you set your jaw and I know you’re deciding what exactly to say.”
I scowled deeply at Quint and the tower of a man took a cautious step to the side, away from me while Michi let out a strong hiss through strong parted jaws. The great reef drake was very protective of her master, even against harsh looks. With a wave of his hand and a quiet word, Quint settled Michi and she backed away to go off in search of small prey.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm at his accusation, he was right. Grenth may have wanted me to divulge the details of my purpose to the others, but by Grenth’s great Underworld was I going to tell them everything. It didn’t make any sense. Over twenty years of secrets and lies, all for one purpose. Then in one night, I’m supposed to spew it all to a small group of people I’ve only known for a few years. Grenth could pitch a fit and freeze the ground we walked on, but I wasn’t talking. Old habits die hard and I was as stubborn as an old Dolyak.
“After all these years, that’s all I have,” I said sternly, rubbing at my tired eyes. “Information hasn’t exactly been plentiful.”
“Seren is convinced you should have told them all about this in the beginning. Maybe she’s right,” Quint offered. “Maybe they could have he-”
“It’s not that simple,” I argued, cutting him off. “And Seren is naive to think so.”
“That may be,” the Adviser began. There was a gentle firmness in his tone. “But she has a point. Keeping these secrets hasn’t exactly done you a service with them, has it?”
“Not exactly,” I reluctantly admitted. “But the alternative could be far worse, trust me.”
I looked aside at him, not really looking him in the eyes. “Just trust me. I’m telling you all more than I would like anyway.” I sighed heavily and then grumbled, “Grenth take it all.”
The Adviser eyed me curiously. “Why do it?” he asked. “If you don’t even know what it is you protect, as you claim. Why protect whatever it is?”
I eyed him suspiciously. Maybe I was being paranoid. He was after all, our Adviser and it was his job to ask questions and keep us all straight. I had vetted him personally and he had never given any of us a single reason to not trust him. In my world, there weren’t many people like that left.
I turned toward him, trying to think of how to word my answer. Clenching my jaw, I swallowed hard and looked up at his curious pale eyes looking down at me. “Family,” I said finally. “Let’s just say it’s a family thing. A last request.” I was surprised at how easy the words came out but I knew he’d understand. He already knew my parents were dead. Most of ours were. It was just the nature of the world we lived in.
Quint frowned. “That’s quite a burden,” he gently acknowledged. “But what about them?” He asked, motioning behind us. I knew he was talking about the others.
“What about them?” I asked quickly, pretending to survey our surroundings.
“Are they not in some way family now?”
Caught off guard by his question, I stumbled over my thoughts. I hadn’t really thought of the others in that way before. I didn’t even know how to measure such a thing with them. I liked them all; they were all good people. “I-I don’t know.” I nervously scratched at my neck. “We need to get going.”
Quint left the topic alone and we continued on side-by-side in silence at a quick pace as the nighttime sky began to soften along the horizon. The weight and rhythmic bumping of my axe against my leg was a great comfort and almost helped me forget the aching state of my body. I rubbed at my tired eyes again. They hurt almost as much as my muscles and I longed for my bed back at the hall. My speedy run through the Fen and the impromptu fight had cost me and there was no doubt in my mind that the past few years spent in Lion’s Arch with the others had allowed me to slip back from a standard of peak physical condition.
“It’s over there,” I said, pointing across the small valley to the collapsed hillside as we reached the sloping edge. “I’ll be quick.” I looked aside at Quint and was about to motion for him to stay but I was caught off guard with the strange look he offered me. “What is it?”
He shook his head slightly. “It’s just strange to listen to you talk now.”
He started to chuckle. “I suppose it was a necessary thing to do,” he remarked. “To change one’s appearance, voice and all. One of the Order’s learned tricks, no doubt.” He flashed me a knowing glance.
Raising a delicate eyebrow, I looked up at him. “Just don’t let it spread if you can help it. Their trust is already waning and you know how most people feel about the Order.”
Quint quietly nodded. “Most, but not all.”
“If only everyone was as understanding as you,” I smirked. “Stay here and watch my back,” I ordered and then half-jogged down the slope and across the small clearing now marked with the signs of battle.
It was a strange thing. No bodies littered the ground from the end of our brief battle with Alec’s men and my senses didn’t feel the chill of death. I knew there had been occasional sightings of Risen this far north in the Fen and they were known to drag the dead back to their champions to serve their purposes, but I could not be sure. Ever watchful, I made my way across the clearing to the water pool. Some of the rocks from the collapsed cave entrance had tumbled into the pool but the breastplate remained untouched. I fished it out of the chilly water and held the cold metal in my hands. Gently, I wiped away beads of water from the front panel.
“You have them. They’re good people and they will do right by you if you give them the chance.”
Sir Fendall’s words echoed in my mind. He may have had a point, but I didn’t think they were ready and I sure as gods didn’t think I was. There was so much at stake.
Clutching the breastplate to my chest, I started making my way back to the small valley where Quint was waiting for me on the other side. I found the Adviser standing rigidly with his back to me as he looked down at something in his hand. My skin started to prickle and my senses heightened as my anticipation rose. Clutching the breastplate close, I crossed the valley and climbed the gentle slope up to join Quint. Chills from a quickening anxiety rushed my spine as I looked over his arm. I recognized every written word on that paper.
More importantly, I recognized the handwriting, but I didn’t know how that could be possible.
“He came back and left you a message,” Quint said as presented the parchment to me. “And used this to pin it to that sapling over there.” He handed me an old dagger handle first. As soon as my hands touched the etched hilt, they began to shake. Blood still stained the blade.
“How did he know you’d be back?” He asked and then let out a loud whistle. A few seconds later, Michi emerged at the top of the rise, happily hissing and swishing her tail.
Four names were written on that parchment: mine, Rhys’, Fendall’s, and Torran’s. Under our names were two other words I fully recognized: Eternal Blade. My heart thundered in my head but not from fear. I was done with being afraid. Notes of intimidation and quick retreats from battle were all cowardly tactics. And now this.
I was livid.
I took the parchment from Quint and pocketed it. “Sentimentality,” I murmured through clenched teeth as I held Sir Fendall’s breastplate tightly to my chest. “We need to find De Koninck and get everyone back to Lion’s Arch.”