Chapter 11
Healing

Eagle, Gladius

"Usually based on nothing more than regular, routine interactions, we come to believe that we know people, understand them. However, you can never come even remotely close to knowing a person until you've witnessed his character under a wide range of circumstances. It's during these times when we move beyond the bounds of the status quo do we get a glimpse at a person's true face."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

That first night in Eagle was the hardest for Mark. Although it had not been apparent at first, his body had little tolerance for the pain reliever Teresa had used. After the third dose, he could no longer keep down his food and until the novice could concoct an alternative, he had no choice but to bear the considerable pain of his injuries. Since sleep would have been impossible under the circumstances, Teresa gave him a sedative tincture that put him out until noon the next day.
Teresa was busy changing his bandages when Sonia walked up to him carrying a bundle in her arms. She was not wearing her armor or any of the rest of her gear, which was a rare sight but not unexpected given the current situation. There was not much point being geared for battle when you intend to lay low and be inconspicuous.
"I've got something for you," she said to Mark. "Jasper managed to snatch all your stuff before he got you out of that pillory. I didn't even find out about it until last night. Don't ask me where he hid it all, the slippery little devil." She placed the bundle on the ground. "I'll leave it here. Oh, yeah, one more thing..." She held up his uncle's sword. "I picked this up in Cruz."
"Thank you," Mark said. The splints on his hands kept him from holding it, so he simply rested his hand on the eagle's head pommel. "If you see Jasper before I do, thank him, too. Not just for getting my stuff either. For everything, for rescuing me, for putting his life on the line like that. All of you. I don't even have the words for it..."
"Don't worry about it," Sonia replied. "You would've done the same for any of us. Besides, if you think I'm going to let the damned Guard steal my cousin from me, you've got another thing coming."
Sonia dug around in the bundle of Mark's belongings and pulled out his family's signet and the crystal pendant.
"Add in that cross of yours and it's a lot of stuff to have weighing down your neck," she said. "This is the signet of House Aran, right? Why don't you wear it on your hand?"
"Unless I find the gear of the Guardians, succeed my father and restore my house, I don't have any right to wear it," Mark said. Since Sonia was not wearing her gloves, Mark noticed that her hands were bare. "What about you?" he asked. "Were you never given your family's signet?"
Sonia pulled out a signet ring similar to his own from under her shirt. "This is my father's ring," she said. "It came with the armor." With a slight grin, she added, "I got the exact same idea as you. I may have my family's ancestral gear and performed the Rite of Succession, but House Leon hasn't been restored yet. Until Randwulf is overthrown, I can't justify wearing this ring."
A solemn air fell upon them. The two heirs of the Eight Stars had common purpose, although they did not yet agree on the means. Mark was still unprepared to take part in a revolution. He was still unsure that toppling Randwulf was the answer, but he had no good alternative either.
Apparently Sonia decided that heavy thoughts were detrimental to his recovery. Her mood lightened as she sought to distract him by dangling his pendant in front of him.
"How about this thing?" she asked, swinging the pendant back and forth like a pendulum. "What's the story behind it?"
"I guess you could call it a keepsake," Mark replied, momentarily lost in nostalgia, "a memory of old times, old friends..."
"It's more than a keepsake, isn't it? There's power here, elemental magic."
"Well," the wounded swordsman said with a chuckle, "those old times weren't exactly uneventful. It's a long story."
"I'd love to hear it sometime," Sonia said, "but you need to take it easy. Rest for now and I'll check up on you again later."
Sonia placed the ring and pendant with the bundle and walked out of the room. By that time Teresa had finished bandaging him and went to work preparing his meal. Thanks to Agatha, she did not have to improvise and was able to fix a proper bowl of gruel for him. It did not taste much better than the bread mush from two days ago, but at least it was warm.
"I'm sorry," he told her.
"What for?"
"You've been through a lot. I swore I'd protect you and I haven't been there. Now you're taking care of me like this..."
"This is my calling," the novice replied. "I heal people. I serve my fellow man." She glanced at the Cross of Saint Arita hanging from his neck. "You should understand that."
"I do, and maybe that's why. I'm not comfortable being served."
"Well," said Teresa, "it usually takes four weeks for fractures to mend, so you'll have to bear with it for a while longer. I might take off the splints in three weeks if I think you've healed enough, but you have to promise me you won't strain yourself."
"I will," Mark said. "Everyone is counting on me to recover as soon as I can. I don't want to jeopardize that."
Teresa smiled. "That's good to hear. I wish all my patients would be so cooperative."
At that moment Jasper stumbled into the room and collapsed. Surprised and concerned, Teresa set down the bowl of gruel and hurried to Jasper's side.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Oi've ben 'orribly bee'n an' brooz'd," the thief moaned in an obviously affected voice. "Oi doan' fink Oi kin meyk i'." He looked up to her. "Mebbe i' ye kin nahse meh beck ta 'elf. Fed meh boi 'and, baf meh an' wo' no'."
A lecherous grin crossed Jasper's lips. Teresa's cheeks flushed, but embarrassment was quickly superseded by anger. Her personality and her station prevented a proper cathartic outburst to release that anger, and so her feelings were channeled into a single utterance which was probably more injurious than the shrillest screeching.
"You should be ashamed of yourself."
She then turned away from him and went back to feeding Mark. Between bites, Mark tried to resolve the friction between them, lest conflict destroy the group's cohesion. (There was little hope of bridging the gulf between Edward and Sonia, so Mark directed his energies towards more winnable battles.)
"Jasper, you shouldn't tease Teresa like that," he said. "She's innocent to the ways of the world and it's wrong to take advantage of her naïveté."
"Oi've gow' no un ta talk ta," the thief complained. "Thah' bi' un 'eytes moi gahts, th' shroo ain' much be'ah, an' th' forris' gel doan' seem ta talk a' owl. Oi'm jellis o' ye gi'in' moi gel owl ta yersel'."
Mark laughed in spite of how much it hurt his ribs. "Jasper, if you want company, I don't mind you hanging around here. I'm sure Teresa wouldn't mind either if you'd only behave. Isn't that right?"
Teresa stared at the bowl of gruel and did not say anything. Mark knew better than to push her while she was giving Jasper the cold shoulder. She would be more sociable when she got over his latest infraction. In the meantime, Mark kept the conversation going.
"As for me getting 'your girl' all to myself, she's not mine to get or any other man's for that matter. She may not have taken her final vows yet, but she has already made a great commitment and you should respect that. It doesn't mean you can't be friends, though."
"Frinds doan' 'ave as much fun," Jasper quipped.
Teresa blushed anew, but tried to maintain her composure. "Your food is getting cold," she told Mark. "You need to eat now."
Mark obliged her and resumed his meal. Jasper took a seat and provided musical accompaniment. Thankfully, he chose one of the cleaner songs in his repertoire so as not offend Teresa yet again. The rest of the day passed without any event worthy of note.

* * *

A quiet week passed. The miners and their retinue returned from their shift, but nothing happened. It had been many years since the Aran estate warranted the attention of the townspeople. It made Agatha's life a lonely hermitage, but now it also kept Mark and his companions safely hidden.
The miners were leaving again the day Teresa decided to remove Mark's stitches. Agatha had volunteered to help. Though there was so much Mark wanted to talk about with the old servant, he had had little opportunity. Teresa's medicines kept him asleep most of the time and Agatha had been so busy tending to the new guests that she had little time to spare. He did not want to waste this opportunity.
"You're healing quite well, young master," Agatha said. "Isn't he doing well, Sister?"
"Yes, he is," Teresa replied. "He had been hurt so badly. I was very afraid for him, but he doesn't disobey my directions like a lot of patients do and he's healing all the faster for it." Pulling out a stitch and placing it in the basin Agatha was holding, the novice commented, "You've been a great help to me, Miss Agatha. Did you ever work as a nurse?"
"A maid in a warrior's household needs to know such things," the old servant said with no small amount of pride. "I mainly served Lady Flavia, the young master's grandmother, in my younger years, but in the days of the feud, everyone needed to know how to treat the wounded or help the ones who could. I helped the family physicians tend to fighters hurt even more grievously than the young master here."
"My uncle told me a little bit about the feud," Mark said, trying not to wince while Teresa fought a particularly stubborn stitch. "What can you tell me about it?"
"It started before I was even born," Agatha replied. "There was a dispute between your great-grandsire and Lord Percival of House Leon. The lords themselves never crossed swords, but the fighting men in their service were always getting killed or wounded. To be honest, I didn't think it would ever end until Lord Tiberius lost his birthright. I don't mean to speak ill of your uncle, young master, but I don't think he would have taken the same bold steps to bring an end to feud as your father did.
"Lord Luther and Lord Julian made a pledge as boys to end the feud. So much bad happened, but their friendship only became stronger. Once the two of them were the rightful lords of their houses, they publicly declared an end to the feud, marking the occasion with a grand festival for all the people in Eagle." A tear formed in her eye as she continued wistfully, "I can still remember that day, how happy we all were, when Aran and Leon embraced each other as brothers..."
"It's been thirty years," Sonia commented as she walked in the room. "I heard they used to commemorate it as a holiday, but Randwulf put a stop to it."
Agatha nodded. "That's right, young mistress." She sighed. "That Randwulf has taken away so much from us..."
The bitter feelings welling up inside of her were more than the old woman could bear. She wept silently, still faithfully attending Teresa in spite of her tears. Sonia rested her hand on Agatha's shoulder.
"Don't worry, granny," she said. "We're going to defeat Randwulf and take back what's ours. Right, Mark?"
Mark shifted uncomfortably, earning an admonition from Teresa to stay still. He could not deny all the evil that had befallen the kingdom since Randwulf's conquest nor the injustices that occurred on a daily basis. Even so, he was not ready to take up the path of war and all that it entailed.
"What is it, Mark?" Sonia asked.
"Don't ask me to do that..." he said quietly. "Don't ask me to do it again...."
"What are you talking about?"
"If you're serious about overthrowing Randwulf, a lot of people are going to die," Mark said grimly. "Good people, bad people... By the hundreds, the thousands even... How many people died when you rescued me? Not just Guardsmen either. How many innocent townspeople were killed?"
"Innocent?" Sonia scoffed. "Don't make me laugh! The mob that was cheering while you were getting flogged by that ape? The same mob that busted up your hands and face with rocks? What did you ever do to them?" She clenched her fists. "Not everyone who goes to Punishment Square is a criminal, you know. Sure, the Guard catches the occasional thief or murderer, but what about the man who stands up to them when they try to have their way with his wife and daughters? What about the farmer or herder who hid what little he had to feed his family because the Road Patrol wanted a free meal? Do those people care? No! All they care about is their bloody entertainment! They got what they deserved!"
"It's not your place to make that judgment," Teresa said in a muted voice.
Quiet though it was, Teresa's comment heightened Sonia's anger. "What do you know!?" she snapped. "You've lived your whole life safe and sound in that damned abbey! You don't have any right to talk!"
"Sonia," Mark shouted, "enough!"
He instantly regretted it. His sore ribs were ill-equipped to handle the sudden exertion and he doubled over from the pain coursing through his body. Her anger temporarily cast aside, Sonia rushed to her cousin's side.
"Are you all right?"
"Don't worry about me," Mark grunted. "You mustn't be so hard on Teresa. All she knows is what she's been taught. You're not entirely wrong, Sonia. I've seen how the Guard behaves myself and I don't doubt a word that you've said about them. Yes, it's wrong and it needs to be corrected, but I can't bring myself to kill to redress those wrongs."
Sonia stepped away from him. "You're a swordsman," she said coolly. "You wield a sword to kill people. If you can't do that, you were never meant to follow the way of the sword."
Sonia walked out of the room and Mark would not hear from her again for several days. Although neither one would want to hear it, Edward and Sonia were very much alike. They both had the same zeal to overthrow Randwulf, the same hatred of the usurper and his minions, and the same disappointment in Mark for his poor reception of the idea. Fortunately, while Edward continued to hold a grudge, Sonia got over her frustration rather quickly and they were soon on good terms again, though there was an unspoken agreement not to bring up the topic of Randwulf's overthrow and the part they would play in it.

* * *

The tedium started to wear on everyone's nerves as the days dragged on. Mark's desire to resume the journey was tempered somewhat by the stories Agatha would tell him of his father's youth, the courtship of his mother and the precious few years of wedded bliss before the invasion.
He had come to terms with the fact that there was no kin left for him in Gladius save Sonia alone. All that was left for him was the ancestral gear of the Guardians. For that he needed to venture to the ruins of Greystone, the site of the battle that marked the fall of the Mountain King and Randwulf's rise to power. There he hoped to find his birthright waiting after all these years, even if it meant finally confirming his father's death.
He devoted all his energy to healing. There was not much he could do to speed the process along, so most of that energy went into exercising his patience. The others continued to grow restless, sometimes risking ventures into the city just to break up the monotony. No one had gotten caught, nor did the Gladian Guard appear to be tipped off to their whereabouts, but it put that much more pressure on Mark to get better before they lost their safe haven.
Once three weeks had passed, Teresa removed the sling and splints on his hand. While she decided that he needed to wear the splints for another week, he was allowed to start exercising his shoulder. After being immobilized for such a long time, the muscles were so stiff that he could barely move. Teresa worked with him to do nothing more than simple movements, telling him that exercises to rebuild his strength would come later.
While she was helping him rotate his arm in small circles--a task that was a lot more painful than it sounded--she seemed a little distracted, as if she were lost in thought.
"Mark," she said timidly, "you're a monk, aren't you? I mean, you don't wear that cincture for nothing, am I right?"
"Used to be," Mark replied. "I joined the Order of Saint Arita in Byrn eight years ago. I was actually ordained a deacon last year. It made the Father Abbot all the more disappointed in me when I left."
"Why did you leave?" Teresa asked. "Did something happen?"
"Well, if you haven't gathered it from everything that's gone on here, I came back to Gladius to find out what happened to my family. I was taken to my uncle right before the invasion. I had no idea what had happened here until I arrived a couple months ago.
"Deep down, I knew it would be like this, but it's still hard to take. I was hoping against hope that my parents had survived, even though I knew it was impossible..."
Teresa bowed her head, muttering, "The Church raised me from birth. I never knew my parents and never thought about it. There were plenty of girls like me, lots of sisters to take care of us, so I was never lonely.
"It wasn't until I saw you trying to learn everything about your parents from Miss Agatha that I started to wonder. Who were my parents? Was I orphaned by the war? Was my mother a woman of good repute who died in childbirth or was she some captive woman despoiled by the invaders and too ashamed to keep me?" She hugged herself to suppress a shudder. "I don't like it, thinking of such things..."
"You are who you are," Mark said. "You don't have to define yourself by your parents. It may not look like it, but that's what I believe. Maybe I'm trying to find myself in all this, but even if I don't learn anything about where I come from, I'm still me. The past twenty years don't disappear regardless of what I do or don't discover.."
"Then why did you come back?"
Mark looked off into the distance. "I suppose I was looking for a bond," he said.
"A bond?"
"Yes, there's a bond that exists within a family and there's nothing like it anywhere in the world. Yes, I had my uncle in Byrn, but I wanted more. Call it greed if you will, but I wanted to know my parents, to restore that bond."
"I'm jealous," the novice said. "You're closer to that bond than I'll ever be."
"Ye doan' need parin's, luv," Jasper said. "Oi nevah noo moi ol' ded an' moi mum woz a roi' ol' witch, she woz. Toss bowf o' 'em an' Oi'd've ben a much 'appiah boi."
"Surely it wasn't as bad as all that," Mark replied.
"Ye doan' noo, yun' mastah. No' owl parin's ar' guhd an' Oi noo Oi di'n' gi' th' wo's' o' i'."
"Maybe so..." Mark admitted. "It's a shame, though."
The thief shrugged. "Loife's loike thah'. Ye kin' le' i' gi' ta ye."
"What are you lot yammering about now?" Edward grumbled, making his first appearance since they had arrived. "Get ready to move out. The miners will be on the road tomorrow. It's the best time for us to sneak out of town unnoticed."
"He's not ready," Teresa argued. "He can't even use his hands yet. We have to wait two more weeks at the very least."
"I'm tired of waiting!" the Prince snapped, slamming his fist into the wall.
"If we left now, you'd just complain about him being dead weight," Sonia countered, drawn to the room by Edward's outburst. "All this waiting is driving me crazy, too, but it won't kill any of us to wait another cycle or even two. Mark's recovery is our first priority."
Edward snorted. "It may be your first priority, but not mine."
Sonia moved in to trap Edward in his own faulty logic. "Isn't it?" she challenged. "Tell me, where do you plan on going from here?"
"Isn't it obvious? To the battlefield near Greystone."
"And why are you going there?"
"To look for the gear of the Guardians," Edward replied with another derisive snort. "I know you're just a woman, but are you really so stupid?"
Sonia laughed. "You're the stupid one, you drunken nitwit. How are you going to find the gear on your own? Dig up a couple thousand graves one by one? And even if you do somehow find it, without Mark, the gear of the Guardians is worthless. Good luck searching the Continent for the next in line." She paused to accentuate her next point. "There's one more thing. Everyone is here because of Mark, not you. You lose Mark, you lose all of us."
"Bah!" the Prince blustered. "I don't need any of you!"
"Stop it!" Mark shouted, ignoring the pain from his ribs. "Edward, for pity's sake, your pride is going to be your ruin. And Sonia, you need to stop goading him. We all need each other, okay? We're all the less if we lose any one of us.
"I'm no good to you until I can wield a sword again. If I could do anything to heal faster, I would. I'm asking all of you to abide by Teresa's judgment and bear with it a little while longer."
It was one of the few times the entire group had gathered together, but they soon dispersed. At first, Mark thought it was a bad sign for the group's survival, but there were no more arguments in the days that followed. Hopefully, it meant that some of the conflict had been resolved or lessened at the very least.

* * *

The mining cycle came and went, but Teresa insisted that they wait longer. She was not satisfied with the dexterity of his hands or the range of motion of his shoulder and refused to let Mark risk the dangers of the road.
By the sixth week, Mark started to practice with his sword with the cautious approval of his physician. At first, he stuck to the basic exercises, but quickly gained enough confidence in his restored abilities to do some light sparring with Sonia in the garden at the back of the estate. Teresa had her doubts and redoubled her vigilance. Much to the novice's relief, Sonia was exceedingly careful with her patient.
"You're almost good as new," the fencer said. "You should have no problem traveling when the miners set out again next week. Are you ready for it?"
"It seems like it's been forever," Mark replied, parrying a thrust, "but, yes, I'm eager to resume the journey. We've been lucky to avoid the Guard so far, but I don't think we should push that luck any further."
Some shouting just beyond the walls of the estate caused them to pause. It did not take long to recognize the leading voice, none other than the indefatigable Harald Svenson. It was like a cruel joke.
"But, sah," a subordinate whined, "this is th' third time we've come ta this city. Wot d'ye 'ope ta find?"
A loud crack indicated that Harald struck the puling soldier in his typical bad temper.
"I will find him!" Harald seethed. "He's here, somewhere in the kingdom. I know it! We hurt him bad. He had to have a doctor. He had to take refuge near one of the towns."
"Sah," another soldier argued, "that mercen'ry coulda deed from 'is wounds a long time ago an' 'is companions sca'ered ta th' four winds."
"No!" Harald barked. "No, he's alive! He won't die unless I'm there to witness it!"
"Is that the only reason we're here, sir?"
The other Guardsman earned a blow for the unwanted question. It seemed that the drawn-out hunt had pushed the lieutenant's unpleasant personality to even greater extremes.
"Learn your place or I'll have you flogged for insubordination!" Harald snapped. "Of course I have more reason to be here than just my instincts! The mercenary said he was the son of a man called Luther. I've asked around and found out that there was a famous knight by that name who lived in Eagle. We're standing outside the ruins of his estate right now. What better place for him to hide?
"Draw your swords, men. We're going in. The Captain wants him and his companions alive, but... accidents happen."
"What do we do?" Sonia asked in a low voice. "Do we fight them?"
Teresa immediately objected. "Mark, you mustn't! You're still not fit for it!"
"It's a bad idea regardless of my condition," Mark said. "We don't know how many men he has. Even if we rout them, the rest of the Guard will be alerted and we won't be able to use the miners as cover to leave the city."
Agatha, who had come into the garden while the others were eavesdropping, tugged on Mark's sleeve to get his attention.
"Young master, we should hide in the cellars," she said. "It saved me twenty years ago and I'm sure it will save us now."
Mark nodded in agreement. "Okay, let's get the others. There's no time to waste."
The group was hastily assembled and herded into the cellar. With his usual bravado, Edward vociferously condemned the idea.
"Why hide from our enemies like women when we should be facing them like men!?"
"Because it's better than dying like dogs," Sonia countered. "We've got to pick our battles if we want to succeed and this one isn't worth it. Do us a favor and be quiet until they go away."
Edward would have continued the argument if they did not hear Harald and his men entering the atrium. By the sound of their boots clacking on the tile, they estimated that he had twice as many men as before. The odds were not in their favor if they were discovered.
"Split up!" Harald ordered. "You lot take that wing and we'll take this one. If you find them, call for us. We leave nothing to chance this time."
The group scarcely dared to breathe as the slow, deliberate footsteps of Harald's men echoed above them. They had been careful to bring all their things with them when they went to the cellar, but doubts began to rise in their minds. If they had forgotten anything, would it escape the obsessive Guardsman?
"Someone's been living here," the lieutenant growled.
Mark could feel his blood freeze. They might end up fighting after all and the consequences could be disastrous. However, they found help from an unexpected direction.
"Will, sah," one of the Guardsman said, "th' townspeople say an ol' woman lives in these roons."
"Then where is she?"
"Meybe she's oot buyin' food or sellin' 'er weyahs."
"What wares?"
"Theyah's a loom 'eyah, sah. Weavin's a good way fer an ol' woman ta earn 'er breed."
"Sah!" another Guardsman shouted. "I' looks loike theyah's a cellah 'eyah. Shall Oi check insoide?"
"Of course you should check inside!" Harald snapped in aggravation. "Wait for us to get there." He called to men at the other wing. "Hey! You lot had better move your carcasses! We don't have all day!"
This was it. There was no avoiding them now. Mark, Sonia and Edward all gripped the hilts of their weapons and Jill notched an arrow. Even as they were girding themselves for combat, they were met by yet another surprise.
"Theyah 'e is!" cried a soldier from the other wing.
Harald's feverish footfalls hammered against the floor as he rushed to the scene.
"Who!? The mercenary!?"
"No, sah!" a soldier cried. "I's th' Singin' Bandit!"
"Doan' cowl meh thah', ye 'oreson!" a distant voice yelled back.
Surprised, Mark looked around and found no trace of Jasper. He was certain the thief had followed the others into the cellar, but somehow he had gotten out and was acting as a distraction for Harald's men. Driven by impulse, Mark headed to the door, but Sonia's firm hand stopped him.
"I know how you feel," she said, "but his gamble will be in vain if we go out there."
It pained him to stand by and do nothing, but Mark knew his cousin was right. He was not yet able to stand up their enemies and he had unarmed women like Teresa and Agatha to consider. As Harald gave chase, all Mark could do was pray for Jasper's safety.
They would not hear from Jasper again for three days. The only evidence that he had neither been captured nor killed was the fact that Harald's detachment had not come back to finish the job. When Jasper returned, they learned that he had drawn them out of the city and set them on a merry chase throughout the surrounding countryside before giving them the slip and doubling back. For single-handedly throwing the Guardsmen off their trail, the thief earned the respect of companions who did not have much faith in a man of his profession. Only the most stubborn--Edward, in other words--continued to doubt the thief's motives and his worth to the group.
After such a close call, there was no question about the need to set out at the soonest possible opportunity. They gathered all the supplies they would need well in advance and made a point to be awake before the miners were mustered at dawn. Agatha provided them with a variety of secondhand clothes donated by the local families, perfect for blending in with the crowd. Donning their new disguises, they gathered at the vestibule of the Aran estate to say their farewells to the old servant who had done so much for them.
As a chieftain of old handing out rings and other gifts to honored guests, Agatha gave each one of them a new set of winter clothes she made herself along with some parting words. First came Mark.
"Take care, young master. If your parents could see you this day, I know they would be proud."
She then bowed to Edward, saying, "Your Highness, the young master will serve you well. Have faith in him. May I live to see the throne of the Mountain Kings restored."
Turning to Sonia, she said, "Young mistress, you have taken a burden no woman should have to bear. Like the young master, yours is a noble heritage. Hold it close to your heart always."
To Teresa she said, "Sister, I cannot express my thanks for saving the young master. Your healing touch is a gift from God. Truly you will find your reward in Heaven."
Lastly, to Jill and Jasper she said, "Faithful companions, stand fast by these great people and you will find a purpose beyond anything you would have known." Bowing to the entire group, she closed simply, "I bid you all Godspeed and farewell."
Only Mark said anything in return. He got down on his knees and embraced her. "You have faithfully served my family for many years," he said. "Thank you. I will return, I promise you that, and when I do, House Aran will be restored."
"I look forward to that blessed day," Agatha replied, returning the embrace.
The parting was a painful one for Mark. Agatha was the closest thing to the bond he was seeking and he did not want to let go. However, he was filled with a new resolve. He vowed to fulfill his promise to the old servant and restore House Aran to its former glory. The first step lay in the heart of the Crescent Mountains, where twenty years ago Randwulf's invasion had changed everything.