Chapter 14
The Good News

Eagle, Gladius

"The call to witness is no easy thing. There is a definite element of risk involved. No matter how good the message, there will be people who do not want to hear it and worse yet, people who will go to any lengths to suppress it. It is no wonder that it takes a little prodding to get most people out there, but blessed are those who delight in the message and happily spread the good news."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Agatha was a simple woman. She never aspired to anything greater than the lot she was given. She had served House Aran for thirty-six years when the invasion robbed her of everything she knew. Her fellow servants, those who survived, were scattered to the four winds, but she remained. For twenty years she eked out a meager existence from the crumbling ruins of the Aran estate. The one thing that kept her going was the belief that one day the son of Lord Luther would return to Gladius to set things right.
That longed-for day finally came, but not how she expected it. Rather than riding in with all the glory of his family's honored name, the young master arrived broken and bleeding, a victim of the cruel pleasures of Punishment Square hiding from pursuing Guardsmen. Even so, her faith did not falter.
Even if his body had remained forever broken, he could still lead, still inspire others. She saw it in the exchanges with his comrades, his intellect, his compassion and his strong sense of justice. In the long weeks of his recovery, she saw his strength return. She had lived in a warrior's household long enough to see his true potential in spite of his injuries. He was entirely worthy of being his father's successor as a swordsman and as the head of House Aran.
Now he was gone to search the old battlefield for the gear of his ancestors. The revival of House Aran and overthrow of the usurper were close at hand. While the young master had his duty, there was a part the old servant could play. She could spread the word, let all the freedom-loving people of Eagle know that the glory of yesteryear would soon be back.
As today was a workday, there were not many people to tell, but she was an old woman and it took her time to get around a city as large as Eagle. Anyone who could lend an ear was worth talking to. She had already been to some of her closest neighbors. The results were less than encouraging. Some dismissed her out of hand. Others said they would believe it when they saw it. So far, no one shared her conviction, but she did not give up.
She found herself at a side entrance of the estate of one of the usurper's men, a Baron Magnusson. Her business was not with the lord, but with his servants. Among them was a kitchen hand who was practically her son. His father was a man-at-arms killed during the feud between House Leon and House Aran and his mother a scullery maid who died of consumption when he was still a babe. He was just a youth when Eagle fell to the invaders.
Every now and then, he would deliver food to her, so it was not like they had lost touch over the years. She made a point to arrive in the early afternoon, during a lull in the kitchen work. If anyone would listen to what she had to say, it was him and now was the time for it.
The side entrance led directly into the kitchen. A few servants were still scrubbing pots and pans when Agatha walked in. Because of her small stature, it took a moment for anyone to notice her. A plump maid saw her while she was putting up some plates and greeted her with a warm smile.
"Well, wot a surproiz," she said. "Come ta pay us a visit, 'ave ye, mum? Wait 'ere an' Oi'll let Alfstan know ye've come ta see 'im."
The maid bustled off and a few minutes later, Alfstan showed up. As Agatha was not known to leave her hermitage very often, he was not expecting her.
"Hullo, Auntie," he said. "It's a rare day when you come out this far. What brings you here today?"
"I wanted to talk to you," Agatha replied. "I have wonderful news."
Alfstan scratched his head. "What? You get a commission from some well-to-do?"
"No, no," she said, shaking her head, "nothing like that. It's much better than that."
"Well, don't keep me waitin' then, Auntie. Out with it."
Agatha could hardly contain her excitement. "He's back! He's come back to us at last! After all these years, he's finally come back!"
"Why, the young master! He's come back from Byrn. He's going to restore House Aran and bring that usurper to justice, mark my words!"
Alfstan quickly moved in closer to her, looking around suspiciously.
"What're you talkin' about?" he asked in a harsh whisper. "Don't you know that this is the home of a former Marauder? Such talk is dangerous."
"I don't care," Agatha said stubbornly. "I'm not afraid."
"You should be. The Guard's been askin' a lot of questions lately. They're just lookin' for an excuse to arrest people these days. That grey head of yours won't save you."
"Never mind my head. Are you going to listen to what I have to say or not?"
Alfstan looked around him once more and guided Agatha into the servants' quarters. He was like a child afraid of a bogey that would jump out of the shadows and carry him off, the old servant thought. Once they were in the servants' quarters, he made sure that no one else was nearby before settling down to listen to her. 'Settle down' was an ill-fitting way to describe it, though, as he was quite visibly nervous, even sweating.
"Okay," he said, "tell me about this 'young master' business."
"I didn't come here to speak in secret like some thief," Agatha said indignantly. "Everyone deserves to hear this."
"Not everyone wants to hear it," Alfstan replied, "and for good reason. You're invitin' all sorts of trouble, Auntie. If you weren't the closest thing to family I've got, I'd turn you out myself."
"Just look at yourself, Alfstan. Look at your fear. Don't you think there's something wrong with that?"
"I fear for my hide 'cause I don't want to lose it."
"That's exactly the kind of injustice the young master will lay low."
"You keep on sayin' young master this, young master that. Who are you talkin' about?"
"Who do you think? Lord Luther's son, Master Mark."
Alfstan looked at her blankly. "I thought he was dead."
"No, he's alive. Lord Luther took him to Lord Tiberius in Byrn just before those barbarians invaded. He's all growed up now and he's come back to set things right."
"Even if that's true, what can one man do?"
"He's not alone. He travels with the Prince and Lord Julian's daughter."
"Lord Julian's daughter?"
"She's followed in her father's footsteps and become the next Defender. Have you ever heard of such a thing?"
Agatha's former ward gave her an incredulous look. "A woman swordfighter? How much good can she possibly be?"
"I've seen her spar with the young master," Agatha said confidently. "She's more skilled than you'd think."
"Even so, that's just three people."
"They have three other companions."
"Auntie, three more don't make much of a difference."
"More will come, you'll see. Right now the young master is searching for the ancestral gear of House Aran. Once he succeeds Lord Luther as the new Guardian, all loyal Gladians will flock to his banner."
Alfstan gave her a doubtful look. "After all these years, how many do you think that'll be?" he asked. "Even if it does happen, do you seriously think they can stand against the Guard, much less the Marauders?"
"You'll see," the old servant repeated stubbornly.
"Why would anyone throw his life away for such a cause?"
"What are you talking about? Don't you remember how things used to be? The Truce Day festival, what about that? Oh, you used to enjoy it so much."
Alfstan looked away. "That was a long time ago."
"But don't you see? They've taken so much from us. Don't we have an obligation to take it back?"
"Missin' old festivals is one thing, Auntie, but you're talkin' treason."
"Since when is it treason to stand behind the rightful lord of this land?"
"It's been treason for twenty years, ever since the 'rightful' lord got turned out."
"I'm not bound by the law of the invaders."
"You may not think so, but I'm sure they'll bind you to it anyway. I can't blame you for bein' sentimental, Auntie, but you've got to look at things real-like. Is it really so bad the way things are? If we trade in one master for another, what do we gain? If a man's got a roof over his head, a shirt on his back and food in his belly, what more does he need? What more can he hope for? Look, if we don't make trouble, the Guard doesn't push too hard. Isn't that enough?"
"Surely you can't be satisfied with that. Don't you want to see this kingdom set to rights? Think of your father's service to House Aran. Won't you take up the eagle banner as he once did? I believe in you, Alfstan. You'll help me, won't you?"
The old servant had high hopes for him in spite of all the skepticism he had shown. Alfstan looked at her, not with the resolve to join her, but with pity.
"Look," he said, "I'm sorry, Auntie, but I'm not willin' to put my neck on the line for this, not until I see some proof that it's worth it. You shouldn't either."
Agatha did not say anything. She just crossed her arms. By looking at her, one might draw the conclusion that she was angry, but more than anything else, she was disappointed. Disappointment always cuts a child deeper than anger and Alfstan was no different, even after all these years.
"Come on, Auntie," he said, "don't be like that." Seeing that she was not going to stop sulking, he sighed. "Okay, you can just be that way then. I'll see you out."
Alfstan led her out the way she came, looking around uneasily as if he expected Randwulf himself to appear at any minute.
"Take the side routes going back," he said.
"I've got nothing to hide," Agatha replied stubbornly.
"Please, Auntie," Alfstan pleaded. "You don't want some Guardsman botherin' you on the way back, do you?"
Seeing the concern in her former ward's eyes, the old servant relented. "Alright then. For you, Alfstan. Because you were at least willing to hear me out."
Alfstan smiled. "Thank you. Take care, Auntie."
Agatha nodded and shuffled on her way. She kept her word to him, sticking to the side roads and back alleys to avoid any Guardsman that might be out on the prowl. She did not see much need for it. Even if the Guard knew what she was doing, they would not waste their time with an old woman like her.
Just as she was thinking that, a boot appeared in front of her face. The boot was connected to a man leaning against the opposite wall of the narrow alley. It was no ordinary man either. It was a Guardsman, an officer by the looks of it.
"You've been rather busy for such an old woman," the Guardsman said.
"Poor folk like myself have to make a living," Agatha replied, "old or not. If you'll excuse me, sir."
The Guardsman did not move.
"You're a poor hostess. You didn't even come out to greet me and my men when we paid you a visit the other day."
Agatha tried to keep her cool, but she could feel the sweat beginning to bead on her forehead. "I don't know what you're talking about," she insisted. "I--"
The Guardsman cut her off. "And you've been going around talking ever since."
He took his foot off the wall and stood directly in front of her and leaned forward, getting uncomfortably close. He lifted his visor, revealing himself to be a rather young man, but his youth did not make him any less menacing. He smiled. It was the sort of smile a cat gives a wounded bird right before it pounces.
"I'd very much like to hear about this 'Master Mark'."
Agatha turned to walk away, but there were more Guardsmen blocking her way. Her stomach tensed. There was no escape.
"It's rude to just walk away from someone, you know," the young officer said. "Come on, old woman, you were so eager to talk about this man just a few moments ago. Why don't you come with us? You can take your time telling us everything. We'll even provide the accommodations."
The old servant hung her head in defeat. There was no chance of escape, no hope of rescue. It was over. Her one regret was that she could not do more, that she would not be there to see the young master set right all the wrongs in the kingdom. Still, she vowed to keep silent through whatever pain and torment they had planned for her. It would be her final duty in the service of her lord.