A New Beginning

North Crimson Forest, Gladius

"After that first battle, my path had already been set. I could not abandon those people after what I had begun. I came back to Gladius to face my past. The overthrow of Randwulf was my way of resolving that past while creating a new future for those who had suffered under his rule."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The group was reunited a couple miles from the field of battle. It was a happy reunion to be sure, but few words were exchanged. They allowed themselves only enough time to catch their breath before moving on, traveling throughout the night and well into the next day. They were near the point of collapse when they took refuge in the woods for some much-needed rest.
While they cleaned weapons and enjoyed a light meal, Teresa went to work replacing her hasty field dressings with some proper treatment for their wounds. Thanks to his thick shell of steel plate, Edward was unscathed. Only his armor had suffered the minor hurt of the single crossbow bolt that had punctured his pauldron. Likewise, the nimble Jill was not touched once by the clumsy Guardsmen and Sonia's deft swordplay left her with nothing more than some bruises and a few light scratches. Mark had gotten the worst of it, not from the Guardsmen but the creature he had slain. His forearm was cut deeply by its claws and its thick skull had cracked a few of his recently mended ribs. It was nothing short of miraculous that the four companions had not suffered more grievous injuries.
Once Teresa had finished tending to her companions, there was still no sign of pursuit, so they allotted themselves three hours before setting out again. They took a two-man watch in rotating shifts so that everyone got two hours of sleep, just enough to recover the strength they would need to continue. It was past midday when they resumed their journey, traveling through the night as before and stopping to rest in the woods one last time before they moved beyond the reach of its cover.
It was the morning of the third day when they reached the gates of Stormtree. Stopping about a furlong away, they had to decide how to gain entry to the city without drawing attention to themselves. They had seen the many wanted posters on the way to the Crimson Field and they knew that all commands had been alerted. They could not simply walk up and ask for entry. The ploy from Eagle was not likely to work a second time. Killing the men of the gatehouse was an even worse idea since the local garrison was even larger than the detachment they had fought.
As they debated their course of action, the gates slowly swung open. It put them on their guard. There was no one ahead of them trying to get in, so it could only mean someone was going out. They were far enough away to avoid easy identification by the men of the gatehouse, or at least they thought they were. Maybe it was just a merchant caravan leaving the city. Maybe it was a squad of the Road Patrol passing through. Maybe something worse. For all they knew, the whole garrison could be mustered to challenge any traveler. They had to be ready for anything.
A single man ran out to meet them. Both Mark and Edward recognized him as one of Siegfried's servants. He bowed to Edward as soon as he drew near.
"Your Highness, please come with me at once."
"What about the guards?" the Prince asked.
"We are currently distracting them with strong drink and a game of chance," the servant replied, "but they will not stay away from their post for long."
"How did you know we were coming?"
"One of our number saw Your Highness' party cross the bridge and ran ahead to inform us. Captain Siegfried bids you wait for him at the Rusty Sword until he can meet with you."
"Are you sure we can trust him?" Sonia asked suspiciously.
"Siegfried's men are loyal," Edward said confidently. "I can assure you of that."
Without further ado, the servant led them into the city and through the winding alleys to reach their destination without catching the notice of any Guardsmen. At the back door of the designated tavern, the servant bowed to Edward once more before taking his leave.
"I will inform the Captain right away. If you will excuse me..."
As the servant shuffled off, Sonia looked around warily, her hand resting on the hilt of her sword.
"I don't like this," the fencer said. "It's too easy."
"You're just being paranoid," Edward said. "I go here all the time. It's safe, full of friends to our cause. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm going to go celebrate our rousing victory."
Sonia shrugged. "I guess if an untrusting guy like him thinks it's safe, it should be okay. Besides, I could use a drink." She glanced over to Jill. "Just keep an eye open, alright?"
As they were going in, Teresa stood her ground.
"I'm not comfortable going into such a den of sinful carousing," she said. "I'm sure I can make better use of my time tending to the poor around here."
Aritans like Mark were a general exception to the restrictive cloister of most orders. It was rare indeed to see a Niccolan nun actively ministering to the community. Mark was impressed by this, a sign of the progress Teresa was making since she left the safety of the abbey.
"I understand," he said, "but don't wander too far. There are enemies everywhere and we may have to leave at a moment's notice." He made the sign of the cross as a benediction for her efforts saying, "Vade in pace, soror."
Teresa bowed and took her leave of them. Jasper looked somewhat crestfallen.
"'Tis a roi' owf'l pi'ey, 'tis," he said with a sigh. "Oi'm shoah moi gel'd foind meh a lah' mo' attrectiv' i' she'd gi' a drink er too in 'er."
Sonia gave him a quick cuff to the head.
"Will you ever give it a rest, you great pervert?" She took hold of his cloak. "Now come on. If you're worth your salt as a bard, I'm sure you know some good drinking songs for times like this."
Jasper tried fruitlessly to squirm out of the fencer's grip. "Wo're ye dewin'!? Moi 'aht's fah moi gel an' no uvah!"
"I never asked about that," Sonia grumbled as she dragged the thief inside. "You're bound to make a better drinking buddy than Edward. That's all."
Jasper was resigned to his fate and they all went into the tavern. The Rusty Sword was one of many such establishments in the city, a favorite among the survivors of King Edgar's army. In coming here it became easy to see how Edward's confidence had been kept afloat after all these years. All the men, except for those who had passed out, rose from their seats to hail the arrival of their Prince. Edward took the first tankard of ale offered to him and immediately went to boasting about his recent exploits.
It was little surprise that Sonia and Jill were ill-received and that Edward had no intention of claiming them as his companions. Any woman who was not a barmaid or a lady of the night would find no welcome here. Mark was glad Teresa had opted out of this particular adventure.
With his gaudy clothes and slight frame, Jasper was not regarded much better than the women until he demonstrated his skills to the delight of patrons. His songs and lute-playing earned him the odd coin here and there and, more importantly, free drinks. Sonia, on the other hand, would never stoop to entertaining such boors and relied on the persuasive power of her stubborn personality and her coin purse. After all, the barkeep was a businessman above anything else, and while the person may not have been especially welcome, her money was.
Mark abstained from the whole affair and sat at a table by himself. He had no intention of drinking anyway. The comparative solitude gave him time to reflect on everything that had happened since he arrived in Gladius nearly three months ago. Staring at his injured forearm, an unfamiliar voice addressed him.
"Something tells me you did not get that in a barroom brawl," the voice said.
Mark glanced over to the origin of the voice. It was an old man, apparently a knight of some sort, whose armor was concealed under a dark green cape. A well-groomed man, he seemed to be of a higher caliber than the drunken veterans who frequented the tavern. The man motioned toward one of the chairs at Mark's table. Mark noticed the sign of the Red Chi-Rho on his right hand. A High Templar. Mark nodded in consent and the man sat down.
"It is a rare sight for anyone to openly defy Randwulf these days," the Templar mused. "You are either a hero in the making or a complete fool."
"It's hard to say," Mark replied dryly. "But what makes you think I've been defying Randwulf?"
The old Templar smiled. "Your reputation precedes you, Mark, son of Luther... or rather, Mark the Guardian."
Mark looked wide-eyed at the Templar. The old man discreetly parted his cape to reveal the hilt of his sword. Embedded in its pommel was a green gem with a familiar glow.

This is far from the end, but before we go forward we must first go back. In Knight of Gladius: Volume II, we explore Mark's days in Byrn and Randwulf's brutal campaign that follows ten years later. Byrn's salvation and fall set the stage for the final act, where the past Mark lived and the past he never knew collide in a clash that will shape the fate of Gladius.