The Road to the Future

Ruins of Castle Darkwall, Gladius

"I have heard foreign historians call Gladius 'the land that falls to a single sword stroke'. Three times in its history did a single decisive battle change the nation's fate. The first was the clash between Everard and the patricians. The second was Randwulf's victory at the Battle of Greystone. The third was the Battle of Darkwall, where the wounds of twenty years past were finally redressed. Given my experiences, I shudder at the thought of a drawn-out war with its many tragic battles. Gladius may be quick to change, but at least it cuts the tragedy short."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

With the great explosion that lit up the sky, the rest of the warlock's creations simply vanished. The Marauders honored their truce and did not attack the Allies until they could make contact with Darkwall. The runners did not come back with good news. The castle grounds were totally devastated with bodies everywhere and precious few survivors.
Both sides had comrades lost in the castle grounds, so Marauder and Ally--who had been desperately seeking each other's destruction only hours earlier--joined forces to save whoever could be saved. Well into the night, crews worked to sort through the rubble. Those who were not searching for survivors were tasked with tending to the wounded or accounting for the dead.
When Randwulf was not found, Sir Drusus led the armistice negotiations. Although the Marauders still outnumbered the Allies, their losses were heavy and without their King to unite them, there was a serious risk of mutiny and desertion. Beyond that, the prudent Drusus knew that even if they defeated the Allied forces, they would have a hard time holding on to the kingdom. For the kingdom's sake, he and General Reinard sued for peace. The formalities had only begun, but the fighting was brought to an end.
On the afternoon of the second day, both sides agreed to intern the dead on the castle grounds. Darkwall held different meanings for people, but all agreed that the best use of the land would be a tribute to the fallen. Marauder, Ally, Gladian, foreigner, highborn and commoner, all were equal when laid to rest.
After a brief memorial service presided by the Niccolan clerics, everyone was given time at the graves that meant most to them. Mark the Guardian stood before a row devoted to his fallen companions. Giles. Adrienne. Stefan. Three people out of twenty-four hundred dead would seem insignificant to an outside observer, but Mark felt their loss all too keenly.
Edward showed up then and old Siegfried was with him. The old captain had his arm in a sling from an injury suffered on the battlefield. Edward was unhurt but looking rather sullen, but it did not seem to have anything to do with the dead. He gave the swordsman's current companions a contemptuous glare.
"What is he doing here?"
The Prince was talking about Claudius, who had stuck close to Mark along with his faithful servant Norbert. It was at Mark's own insistence. It was not safe for the boy to be left on his own. Although he was not particularly worried about his safety, Claudius nevertheless appeared ill at ease.
"Is it really okay for me to walk free like this?" he asked Mark. "I am the son of Randwulf, after all."
"Your birth is no crime," Mark said. "You're under my protection."
The young Prince looked at him awkwardly. "It is because we are... brothers, yes?"
Mark nodded. "That's a part of it. But even if we weren't blood kin, you've committed no offense against the people of Gladius that I know of. You don't deserve to suffer for the crimes of other men."
"Like my father..."
"You don't need to worry about any of that. I'm prepared to take you in as a member of my household."
Norbert seemed quite hopeful at the prospect, but Claudius was not so easily convinced.
"But you do not even know me," he said.
"I can learn," Mark replied. He gave the young Prince a weak smile. "We're brothers, aren't we?"
Claudius could not help smiling himself.
"I appreciate your generosity, but I do not think I can stay in this land. Even with your protection, I am sure there are many people who cannot forgive me for being who I am. I would like to find my own path, maybe travel down south to the homeland of my ancestors. Is that possible?"
"If no one brings charges against you for crimes against the people of Gladius, I do not see any reason to hold you here," Siegfried said. "You will have to wait at least a year."
Claudius bowed and said, "I am at your mercy. Thank you."
A new person approached, a noblewoman in chains escorted by a pair of guards. Few people were placed under arrest at this point, but she was one of those few. Mark thought it odd that they needed to have manacles on this woman, who did not seem to be any great threat.
Siegfried appeared rather distressed at the sight and turned to Edward.
"My Prince, is this really necessary?" he asked. "She is your sister for pity's sake!"
Edward's sister? Mark did not even know Edward had a sister, but it was not the first family surprise to show up here at Darkwall. Now that Siegfried mentioned it, Mark could see the resemblance. The same proud bearing, although her demeanor was far more refined and lofty, no doubt from living as a proper aristocrat all these years.
The woman stood proud and aloof and would not have the old captain pleading on her behalf.
"I am the wife of Captain Terentius, Siegfried Martel," she said tersely. "His crimes are my crimes, and since he is dead, I must stand in his stead."
"Princess Edytha..."
"She surrendered that title, Siegfried," Edward said sharply, his tone resembling his sister's. "She's not a princess anymore."
"My Prince, surely you--"
Edytha interrupted him, saying, "I would like a word in private with the young Lord of Aran."
"A prisoner has no right to be making requests," Edward insisted.
"I'll hear what you have to say," Mark said, ignoring Edward's protest.
Edytha bowed slightly. "Thank you, Your Lordship. You are too kind. Walk with me, if you would, please."
The guards stayed behind while Mark and Edytha walked a short distance from the others. She did not speak right away. Instead she simply watched him out of the corner of her eye, as if she were appraising him as they walked.
"I would have you know that I tried very hard to see you captured," she said at last.
It was not what Mark was expecting, but he responded as best he could.
"You were only doing what you thought was right."
"You are more gracious than most of the victors here."
"I can only answer for myself."
Edytha suppressed a chuckle, which sounded more like a disdainful 'hmph'. "You men of Aran were always known your forthrightness." She stopped and turned to Mark. "You look very much like Lord Luther. I was but a child when he saved my father from an assassin. It was one of many feats that made him a legend in his own time."
Unlike the other times Mark heard about his father's exploits, he did not feel the same simple pride, not after what he had learned. The perceptive Edytha was quick to quick up on this.
"You look uncomfortable," she noted. "I take it Randwulf told you the truth then."
Mark fell a wave of shock sweep over him. How could she know? Seeing his reaction, Edytha smiled.
"Yes, I know all about it. There are few secrets in this kingdom that I do not know."
That was a powerful statement if it were true, and Mark had little reason to doubt her. She was indeed a formidable woman, one of the great assets to Randwulf's reign, though no one probably realized just how long her reach was or how powerful her influence.
After impressing on him such a strong façade, it was surprising for her to take on a more mournful air. She was recalling something that softened even her flinty exterior.
"I knew your mother..." she started slowly, "after the war... She took a patrician name when she was married to Randwulf. I was one of the few who knew her true identity, perhaps the only one taken into her confidence. She was a strong-willed woman, fiercely determined and very beautiful. You have her eyes, but I am sure this is not the first time you have heard this.
"Nyssa was faithful to your father to the end. She believed with all her heart that she could awaken Lord Luther's spirit within Randwulf. That is why she stayed by his side. A love that strong is rare indeed..."
Edytha move in closer and with only the faintest sign of hesitation, she held Mark's face in her hands and looked deeply into his eyes.
"She talked often about you. She trusted you to set things right if she failed. It was one reason I took such an interest in your capture. I wanted to see with my own eyes the young man Nyssa put so much faith in. It would seem her faith was well placed. The victory of this day could not have happened without you."
Edytha withdrew her hands and once again assumed the same aloof character as before.
"Let me give you some advice, and a warning. A warrior's place is on the battlefield. Nowhere else is he truly alive. He can stand against a legion of foes, but the slow grind of peaceful days will crush him. Are you the rare breed who thrives in both peace and war? The coming days may prove to be your greatest challenge. Farewell, Mark the Guardian."
With another of her stiff bows, she walked back to her guards and allowed them to escort her away.
While Mark was still taking in all that she said, Catherine appeared before him suddenly. She had not yet fully recovered and merely standing was quite difficult for her. Despite his misgivings about her, his compassion won out as her legs began to fail her. Mark rushed in to catch her before she fell. She kept her head bowed and weakly gripped his sleeve. Her voice echoed in his mind, dejected and contrite.
I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, my love. Please believe me when I say there was no way to save him. Stefan allowed himself to be consumed by the darkness in his heart. He was lost long ago. I kept him by my side because I thought I could heal him, but he demanded more than I could give. I knew how he felt. I always knew, but I could not return his feeling because you are the only one I love. You think I am cold, but I am not heartless. If you let me, we can start a new life... together.
She then embraced him. Mark wrapped his arms around her, as much to keep her from falling as to return the embrace. He was torn by his conflicting feelings for her. On the one hand, he loved her. He had loved her all these years and part of him leapt at the thought of devoting the rest their lives to exploring that love. On the other, he was repelled by what she had done, and not only to Stefan, but what happened to him weighed the heaviest on Mark. Stefan loved Catherine, too, with just as much fervor, maybe even more. Despite this Catherine kept him closeby for years, all the while knowing his feelings and having no intention of returning them. Perhaps Stefan knew this all along but continued to serve her faithfully. And in the end, she killed him.
It was not that she felt no remorse. She was aloof but not that detached from her humanity. Mark knew this to be true, but how could he overcome the conflict within him? With Byrn in ruins, Catherine had nothing left. He could not simply leave her be. Maybe, just maybe, he could love and protect her, not just in his own right but in Stefan's stead as well. Maybe that was the answer. He was not for certain, but for now at least, he continued to hold her in his arms.
While he held Catherine, Mark looked over a short distance where Sonia was kneeling by grave, fingering the inscription she carved herself. Flanking her was her adoptive family, Jill and Ridley.
"You did well, my daughter," Ridley told her, resting his hand on her uninjured shoulder. "Master Killian would be proud of you. It's over now. You have many choices before you, but you will always have a home in Rowan if you want it."
Sonia bowed her head and touched her adoptive father's hand.
"Yeah..." she said with a sigh. "That'd be nice... You, Jill and Mark are all the family I have left now..."
Not far from them, the survivors of the Veracruz Abbey were mobbed around Teresa, who had Jasper at her side. The most vocal of these was a young monk--Philippus, Mark believe he was called.
"All the elders are dead," he said. "Brother Teofilo was the closest thing we had to a leader, but he's gone now. Sister Teresa, besides him, you were the only one with the courage, no, the faith to put your own life in God's hands to save the lives of others. You showed the Lord's own mercy to the very men who slaughtered our brethren. You have seen the wide world while we have stayed huddled behind the abbey's walls. If anyone is fit to lead us, Sister, it is you."
Teresa was understandably taken aback.
"But I, I couldn't possibly... I mean, I haven't even taken my vows!"
"Please, Sister!" Philippus begged, falling on his knees and clinging to the hem of her habit. "Who else can lead us?"
Jasper gave her shoulder an encouraging shake. "Doan't beh afrid, luv. Thays peple ned ye. Ye kin do it. Oi'll owlwehs beh roit thei boi yer soide." He looked up in the air. "Thaht is, i' ye wont meh..."
With a faint blush coloring her cheeks, Teresa replied, "Thank you, Jasper." Then, taking up an air of heretofore unseen resolve, she declared to the crowd, "If there truly is no one better fit to lead, then with God's help, and yours, I accept."
The assembled clerics cheered with a mighty 'Hallelujah!' and sang praises to God for their unlikely deliverer. To himself, Mark vowed to do what he could to lend her his aid. The restoration of the Order of Saint Niccolo in Gladius would enjoy the full weight of House Aran behind it. It was a small way to repay the incalculable good the order had done for Gladius' sake.
While Mark was watching Teresa and the Niccolans, Ignatiy had walked up without him noticing. He stood there looking at Mark and Catherine, nodding his head approvingly.
"I always knew it'd turn out this way," he said. "Aren't you glad I made you go into the prison instead?" He glanced over to Stefan's grave marker and sighed. "It's really too bad about Stefan. He was always so angry. He let everything get to him. You can't be that way. Maybe if we take that lesson to heart, his death won't be for nothing."
Ignatiy wrinkled his nose at Mark's expression. "Aw, don't look at me like that," he said. "You're too serious all the time. You'll be an old man before you know it."
"Ignatko, I--"
Ignatiy held up his hand. "Don't even say it. You're going to ask me to stay. You should know I can't stay put. Besides, I've had my fill of Gladian hospitality. I'm going on a trip." He grinned. "Maybe I'll find a place where I can spread the beauty of the Master's flames without getting tossed into some hole. See you around."
The firebug waved and walked away. Part of Mark wanted to stop him, but he thought better of it. If Ignatiy had found the strength to stand on his own again, it was not Mark's place to hold him back. All he could do was pray for the best.
"Hail the conquerin' heroes!" a cordial voice boomed.
It was King Breandan. He was in high spirits but limping along with the aid of a crutch. Even though his wounded leg appeared to have fairly new dressings, the blood soaked through, almost as if the bleeding had not yet stopped.
Still holding Catherine, Mark gave an awkward bow before asking, "Your Majesty, are you alright?"
Breandan gave a dismissive wave of his hand "Dinna fash yersel' aboot it. 'Tis naething mair than a wee scratch. Furst, let me congratulat ye all on yer vict'ry. Seicont, ye've gat me condolences fra yer losses. An thrid, Ah'd leke tae ken hoo in the blue blazes we're gaun tae git hame noo that Gutcher Greybaird is gane."
"Catherine here could transport you back to Arma with her powers," Mark suggested, "but she'll need a few more days to recover."
"There was a pirate crew that served as mercenaries for Randwulf," Siegfried added. "Their ship is moored at the mouth of the river up north. From what I understand, it should be large enough for all you Armans. I cannot vouch for its seaworthiness, though. We are not seagoing people, you see."
Breandan scratched his head, weighing either option and not particularly liking either. "Weel then," he said, "Ah think we micht impose on ye a while langer ere we decide. 'Tis a hard choice. Puttin' oor lieves in the hauns of some mind-wutch or spendin' a month or twa at se wi' thame Amazons."
Breandan chuckled to himself, thinking he had made some sort of joke, when one of his men came up requesting his presence. While he limped off, Mark turned to Edward and Siegfried.
"What do we do now?" the swordsman asked.
"The war is not over yet, Lord Mark," Siegfried said. "We have yet to receive word from the cities. We do not know how the revolts fared. Not everyone will be ready to accept the new order. The worst of the fighting is ended, but the truly hard work remains. Rooting out the enemy is just the beginning. We have to restore order, pick up the pieces of our broken kingdom and rebuild. Then there is the matter of bringing Randwulf's followers to justice. We have never faced such a great task since the War of Unification."
The old captain looked to Edward. "That reminds me. My Prince, we would do well to reinstate the Twelve Stewards."
Having emerged from his earlier gloominess, Edward smiled and gave him a hearty pat on the back. "With you, Siegfried, I've got two Stewards for the price of one."
"If you please, my Prince," Siegfried said with a curt bow, "I would like to be reinstated into my former post and cede the mayorship of Stormtree to someone else."
Edward laughed. "You don't want to get even a little greedy on me?"
"I would not dream of it."
"You keep the peerage."
"I would rather not."
"I can't have that dog Randwulf outdoing me. I'll even toss in a promotion. How high do you want to go? Marquess? Duke?"
Siegfried gave the Prince an exasperated look, but knew he could not win. "If you insist, I will accept nothing higher than earl."
"You don't like the sound of 'count'?"
Siegfried stuck out his chest in pride. "Patricians call themselves counts. Men of our stock are called earls."
"Then earl it is."
The old captain looked to Mark and added, "Let us not forget about present company."
Edward looked uneasily at Mark, who was not any more comfortable with the situation. Sensing the coming confrontation, Catherine gently pushed herself away and stood aside. The prospective Mountain King and the Guardian faced off. Randwulf's words burned in Mark's mind. Was it really in Gladius' best interest to turn over the reins of the kingdom to Edward?
Mark could read in the Prince's eyes that he was not sure of the answer he would get. Over half a year traveling together and their relationship had been largely antagonistic. Edward doubted Mark all the way, posturing as the leader but never truly being in charge. His stubbornness had broken up their fellowship, almost permanently. And now the one called the Drunkard Prince was supposed to rule an entire nation?
Siegfried was unaware of all that had transpired over the course of their journey and did not understand the reason for Edward's hesitation.
"What is the matter, my Prince?" he asked. Turning to Mark, he said, "Lord Mark, it is only a formality, but--"
Edward cut him off. "I'm afraid it isn't that simple, Siegfried."
Mark remembered the dream, the vision of Edward's past, when he kept Siegfried from taking his own life after being released by Randwulf. He thought of all the times Edward fought for the sake of the group, when he stopped letting his pride rule his every thought, word and deed. There were glimmers of a noble character there, but was it enough to make him a worthy king?
Gripping the hilt of his sword, Mark looked Edward dead in the eye and said, "Ask the question, Edward."
Edward seemed to fear what Mark's answer could be, but apparently he was more afraid of not asking.
"Will you honor the age-old oath between our ancestors and swear fealty to the Mountain King?"
Mark answered the Prince's question with one of his own.
"Will you remember the men and women who gave their lives here?"
Edward was taken off guard at first, but then answered, "I will."
"Will you bear the burden of those lost lives until your dying day?"
With more confidence and sincerity, Edward replied, "I will."
"Will your rule honor their sacrifice?"
"It will."
That last answer sounded truly heartfelt. Perhaps that hidden nobility in Edward would come out with the right influence. There was hope. There was always hope.
"Never forget those words, Edward," Mark said sternly. "I will hold you to them."
"Of course."
Mark drew his sword, then went down on one knee and offered it up to his new liege.
"Then you have my answer."
Somewhat haltingly, Edward took hold of Mark's sword and tapped his shoulders with the blade.
"May your word be your bond, Mark the Guardian, Knight of Gladius."

Here ends the quest of Mark the Guardian to confront his past and restore the rightful heir to the throne. This is the last volume of Knight of Gladius, but this is not all of the story. The Three Warriors follows the lives of Luther, Julian and Randwulf from childhood to their fatal crossing at the Battle of Greystone. There the past Mark sought will be told in full.