Chapter 2

Eagle Plateau, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"It all seemed to happen so fast. I was living without direction when my path was thrust on me. I acted with a zeal that would guide my steps again and again. When faced with the challenge of overwhelming odds, I always rose to meet it."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Tiberius sat by the fireplace as usual, watching Mark sleep and reminiscing. Ten years had passed since Luther left the boy in his brother's care. Mark had grown into a thin and slightly awkward youth, showing natural talent with a sword but also the thoughtful, introspective nature of a scholar and a soft heart, rare aspects in one destined to become a warrior. Never taking a wife or having children of his own, Tiberius had raised Mark to the best of his admittedly limited ability. Leaving basic schooling to the monks in town, he focused on teaching swordsmanship and the powers of the Guardian.
Tiberius was the one meant to succeed his father. At the tender age of fourteen, he became the head of House Aran in the midst of a bitter blood feud. For six years, he was the Guardian, but an accident creating False Gems caused the ancestral gear to reject him as master. Without the gear, he could not properly train the boy in its powers. The sword he had made and the Dagger of Eolande were all he had. Tiberius knew from experience that the False Gems were but a pale copy of the real thing. Nevertheless, it was the best he could do.
His thoughts were disturbed by a knocking at the door. A creeping suspicion in the back of his mind warned him to be cautious. He rose, took his sword from its mount and approached the door. Waiting on the other side were several soldiers of the King's Dragon Guard.
"What brings you here at this hour?" he asked.
One of the soldiers met his question with one of his own. "Are you the Gladian Tiberiy Gregorov?"
"I am," he replied, eyeing the soldiers warily.
Why did they ask who he was? He had trained every single soldier who had enlisted in the past nine years in basic swordsmanship. Even the older members of the Guard sought him out for training in advanced swordfighting technique. They should know him. Something was not right.
The sinister nature of the night's visitation soon became clear. Lying in a pool of blood only a short distance from the soldiers was Ivan, Tiberius' farm hand and stableman. There was not the slightest trace of remorse or doubt in the soldiers' eyes. It bordered on the inhuman and Tiberius knew they had no compunction about doing the same to him.
"You are hereby under arrest for treason," the soldier declared.
"What!? On what grounds!?"
"Come quietly," the soldier growled as he grasped the hilt of his sword, "or we will take you by force."
Tiberius glanced back at Mark, still asleep, unaware of the danger they now faced. He sighed deeply.
"I guess I have no choice."
He closed the door behind him. In a gesture of compliance, Tiberius held up his sword. The soldiers made two critical mistakes. First, no one was covering the man who stepped forward to take the weapon. Second, they were packed too closely around Tiberius to react quickly. Their supposed captive punished them accordingly.
In a lightning-quick movement, Tiberius took hold of the hilt, smashed the face of one soldier on the draw, stabbed another in the throat, and struck a third with his scabbard. The others immediately took a step backward and drew their own weapons.
Tiberius threw his scabbard on the ground. It was the point of no return. The gem in the hilt glowed with a faint blue light as sparks crackled around Tiberius' blade. The swordmaster glared down his opponents with the steely resolve of a man unafraid of mortal combat.
"You will not take me without a fight!"

* * *

Alone in a dark forest, Mark faced the glowing eyes of a great wolf. Its bared fangs flashed in the moonlight that penetrated the canopy. Mark reached for a weapon, but there was nothing for him to use, not even the keepsake left behind by his father, the dagger that had never left his side even once in the past ten years.
A snarl rumbled deep in the wolf's throat. It reared back and pounced on Mark with a single forceful jump, knocking him flat on his back. He desperately grasped at its head to save himself from the eager snapping of its jaws, but his strength could not hold out forever. His arms began to fail him, but the wolf did not tire. Just as it sank its fangs into Mark's neck, he woke up.
As he struggled to regain his bearings, Mark heard the clashing of steel against steel outside. He looked around and saw that not only was his uncle missing, but the sword on the mantle as well. Without thinking of the potential consequences, he rushed outside. There he found his uncle struggling against soldiers of the Dragon Guard. Four already lay dead on the ground while three others continued to fight. Bleeding from many wounds, Tiberius' strength was waning and his movements steadily growing more and more sluggish. He would not last much longer at this rate.
Instinct took over and Mark blindly rushed at one of the soldiers. Drawing the Dagger of Eolande from his belt, he thrust it into the back of the soldier's neck. The stricken soldier froze suddenly and began to spasm. Before the body fell, Mark charged at the next one. The soldier swung at Mark, who dodged the amateurish stroke and swiped his blade across the attacker's throat.
The last soldier lunged from behind, bringing his sword down with an overhead chop. Mark narrowly caught the blade with the crossguard of his dagger, but struggled against the soldier's superior strength. Unable to hold back his opponent, Mark helplessly watched the blade inch closer and closer to his body. Just as the edge was about to touch his shoulder, Tiberius thrust his sword into the soldier's side and kicked him to the ground.
For a brief while, it seemed as if time had stopped. As the passion of the moment began to wane, Mark looked around at the bodies scattered on the ground. The grip on his dagger loosened. It slipped through his fingers and fell onto the blood-stained grass. His eyes widened at the realization of what he had done. His gorge rose. Unable to hold it back, he doubled over in a fit of vomiting. While he was retching, he felt Tiberius' hand on his shoulder.
"You've done nothing wrong," his uncle said with labored breathing. "There is no wrong in killing to defend yourself or someone else." He winced and took a few slow breaths before speaking again. "You have to get ahold of yourself, Mark... I cannot tend these wounds alone."
His uncle's plight was enough to force Mark to overcome his weakness. He ran into the house and returned with several spools of bandages. Not having the time to properly wash the wounds, he hastily bound the many cuts on his uncle's body to the best of his modest ability. When the bleeding had stopped, they moved into the house and Tiberius was laid on his bed.
Mark could not go to sleep even if he wanted to. He knew that their problems would only be multiplied if the bodies of the dead soldiers were left lying in front of the house. Taking up a shovel, he spent hours digging holes to bury the bodies, periodically checking up on his uncle's condition. The layer of topsoil on the plateau was thin, barely enough to cover up the bodies. He took straw from the stable to cover up the shallow graves and blood-stained patches of grass. To make it less suspicious, he then proceeded to scatter straw randomly around the area to make it look like a bale had been dropped accidentally.
Once the soldiers had been buried, he took especial care in making a grave for Ivan. The stableman had no family, but had worked diligently for his uncle many years. There was an old tree next to the stable where Ivan would often rest during the midday in summer. To Mark, it seemed like the most fitting place.
After offering prayers for the dead, both friend and foe alike, he went back into the house and saw that his uncle was sleeping fitfully. Mark took some time to sort out what had happened that night. No matter how he thought about it, he could not understand why his uncle had been attacked, but the portents were grim indeed.