Chapter 25

Ban Plateau, Byrn; Anno Regis 1286

"What do you say when you are reunited with someone for the first time in years? What do you say before you will never see that person again? We're always trying so desperately to say the best possible thing, but sometimes you say a lot more by saying nothing at all."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

There could not have been much more than five hundred of them left, but the last survivors of the Dragon Guard kept the Marauders busy for ten days as they swept though the vast web of tunnels in Ban Plateau. There had been a fair share of traps, ambushes, and even a couple sizable skirmishes, but it was quickly winding down.
The Dragon Guard marshaled its forces together for one final push against the Gladians that broke like waves on the cliffs. Most of the men who participated in the attack were dead and the Marauders were mopping up those who had escaped.
With a small detachment following behind him, Randwulf sought out one man in particular, Byrn's Captain of the Guard. The King recalled the speech the Captain gave his desperate men. Randwulf had learned just enough Byrnan over the past several months to appreciate it.
"Men," the Captain had said as he paced in front of the formation, "you've fought well. I'm proud to have served alongside you. It has been a hard road, but we mustn't give in to despair! We are broken, but we still live! Our country is in ruins, but as long as Byrnans live, Byrn will never die!
"To our countrymen in chains," he exhorted the conscripts, "rise up against your oppressors! Better to die a free Byrnan than live as a Gladian slave! For King and country, make a stand against our enemies!"
Impressive for someone who is not even a native Byrnan, Randwulf thought, only too aware that he was not a Gladian himself. The call to revolt worked on about twoscore of the conscripts, not enough to avert the inevitable. To their credit, they put up a stiff resistance, but the Byrnans were too few and too weak. The battle was lost before it even started.
The King was thankful to have a Rowanite tracker aiding in the search. An outcast turned traitor, he had provided a wealth of valuable information about the secretive forest community and now he used the famed skills of his people in Randwulf's service. The Rowanite's keen eyes saw the Captain wounded in battle and carried off by his men. The traces of a blood trail they left behind would soon lead Randwulf to his quarry.
In a narrow offshoot of the tunnel, they found three Byrnan soldiers tending to their Captain. The tracker notched an arrow in his shortbow and shot an arrow through the neck of the soldier holding the torch.
Seeing their comrade so stricken, the other two immediately drew their swords.
"The enemy!" one shouted. "Don't let them take the Capta--!"
The tracker cut him off with another arrow, this one landing square in the Adam's apple. The surviving Byrnan recklessly charged forward with a loud warcry. This one Randwulf finished off personally, his ancestral blade swiping off the soldier's head in a single clean stroke. Now there was no one left to protect the Byrnan Captain.
"Leave us," Randwulf told the detachment.
"Your Majesty?" the tracker asked.
"Go, all of you. That is an order."
Without another word, the men withdrew, leaving Randwulf alone with the Captain. The Captain weakly pawed at his side for a sword that was not there. He had a crossbow bolt in his chest, just shy of the left lung, and another in his stomach. He was not long for the world.
"You have gotten old," Randwulf said in Everardian.
"Who... are you?" the Captain asked in the same tongue.
"I am Randwulf the Conqueror, Elemental Knight and King of Gladius, but that is not all..."
The King knelt down by the Captain's side. He took up the torch held by the slain Byrnan and held it up to his face.
"Of all people," he said, "you should be able to tell."
The Captain's eyes widened and his jaw hung slack, but he could say nothing.
"I want to thank you for bringing him up," Randwulf said. "You did a fine job."
The Captain struggled to speak. "You, you mean..."
Randwulf nodded. "Yes. He has grown into a great warrior. He performed the Rite of Succession and he is causing me a great deal of trouble even as we speak." The Conqueror grinned. "I wanted to catch him here, but it looks like I will have to confront him back in Gladius."
"That boy is strong..." the Captain said. "Like his father... You won't... best him..."
"Perhaps," Randwulf replied, "but I may not have to worry about that. When he learns the truth, he might join me."
"You... You underestimate him..."
The Captain broke into a short fit of coughing. The end was near. Randwulf took hold of the Captain's hand.
"Rest easy," the King said. "He will take care of the rest."
The Captain squeezed his hand in the final throes of pain. He was now deathly pale and hardly breathing. He looked to Randwulf.
"Break free of him... Break free, Lu--..."
The Captain was seized by a sudden spasm before relaxing into death. Randwulf closed the Captain's eyelids and places his hands over his chest. A single tear escaped down his cheek, the first in many years.
Once he regained his composure, the King returned to the detachment waiting in the outer branch of the tunnel. He pointed at his men with grave severity.
"Take the Captain's body," he ordered. "He is coming back with us to Gladius. On pain of death, you will treat him with nothing short of full respects, as if he were one of the Five Generals. Is that understood?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," they replied in unison, not truly understanding but not daring to question the King's order.
After many long years of self-imposed exile, one of Gladius' native sons would finally be coming home. The Captain's loss made Randwulf's resolve firmer than ever. The price had been high, but he would make worthwhile in the end. The Guardian would be his. There could be no other way.