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The Path We Tread

By Cole Potter

As the sun rose, Brother Ventaris strode through the halls of the inner keep passing room after room of the Lions quarters, some were open with Lions preparing for the day, others filled with loud and boisterous snores of sleeping men and women. Those who were awake greeted him as he passed and he greeted them in kind. His demeanor was one that appeared stern but held a serenity and sense of control brought on by a cool temper. Ventaris reached the end of the hall and made his way down the stairs to the lower level of the hall. There were less rooms here as it was difficult and costly to dig out the space needed for underground rooms. Ventaris turned left at the bottom of the stairs and walked parallel to the stairs as he approached his destination. The door to the room sat slightly ajar. Ventaris calmly pushed open the door and took in the small room before him. Sleeping in the bed was a young man sprawled out and snoring lightly, the room was half cleaned with clothes and equipment piled hastily against the far wall. Brother Ventaris sighed and shook his head at the idea of having to take this boy on as an apprentice, regardless of how agreeable the young man was. Ventaris looked towards the small wash basin that sat in the corner full of water and smirked.

Harkov walked through a maze of stone pillars, each one varying in size. Harkov remembered this place. It was a monument in New Hope, one dedicated to the lives lost on Faedrun. Harkov wandered for a time and found that no matter how far he walked in any direction, he never found his way out of the maze. His vision was hazy and he seemed to have tunnel vision. He stumbled through the maze when a laugh caught his attention. He looked to his right and saw a blur move past the path to his right. He knew the laugh and chased after the blur, then he’d hear the laugh in another direction and change directions accordingly. Harkov grew ever closer to the blur until finally it wasn’t a blur. Harkov saw her outline and just admired her. She turned and smiled. He went to say something but he was wrenched from his dream by a stinging cold that caused him to suck in a sharp breath and fall out of his bed gasping and stuttering. Harkov landed on the floor with an audible crash and stumbled quickly to his feet to survey his disturbance. At the foot of his bed stood Brother Ventaris chuckling and holding Harkov’s now empty wash basin.

“What in the hell?” Harkov asked his mind still not quite centered after his rude awakening. Ventaris walked past him and returned the wash basin to its holder before turning and walking towards the door.

“If you’re to be my apprentice, you will be training as a Lion. Get changed and meet me outside.” Ventaris ordered calmly without so much as a look before departing. Harkov sighed and made his way over to his bed before sitting on the edge and running his fingers through his still dripping hair.

“ I’ve had worse awakenings” Harkov said to himself as he threw on some dry clothes.

Harkov made his way hurriedly outside as he ducked past Initiates and Lions. His rush caused some shouting behind him, but Harkov didn’t bother to stop, he was on a mission. Harkov exited his barracks and quickly spotted Brother Ventaris standing beside a group of Lay militiamen with a large sack at his feet. Harkov eagerly greeted his teacher and stood waiting for his instruction with an almost overzealous military resting stance. Ventaris picked up the sack and tossed it at Harkov’s feet. The sack landed with a loud thud and the sound of metal gently sliding against metal. Harkov knelt down and opened the sack and found a set of freshly oiled chainmail, a gambeson as well as leather bracers and greaves. Upon further inspection though, the mail was rusting in some parts and the leathers were worn. The gambeson was well worn in and had many spots beginning to tear. Harkov didn’t dare complain, fearing reprimand and physical training as punishment.

“ It is to my understanding that until this point you’ve only been borrowing armor for training since you had little money when you arrived and that went towards your mace so I pulled some strings and managed to get you this,” Ventaris explained as Harkov began to don the armor.

“It is yours to keep and maintain, you will earn your plate as all Lions do when you have proven yourself ready. Understood?” Ventaris continued. Harkov nodded with a grunt as he slid the bracers over his forearm.

“So, what training will we be doing today?” Harkov asked as two Lay squires jogged forward and handed Harkov and Ventaris each a worn training shield and their mace and hammer. Ventaris rolled his shoulders, his own chain chattering as he readjusted.

“Obstacle Course.” Ventaris stated. Almost immediately after a sharp whistle blew and the militiamen started running, Brother Ventaris jogged behind them and Harkov fell in line beside him. The first obstacle was mud pits, Harkov slogged through the water filled pits whilst the mud pulled at his boots and greaves with a deep slurping sound and cleared the mounds of dirt piled between each pit, assisting anybody he could on the way up. Harkov loved the challenge and made no attempt to hide it as he plodded beside Brother Ventaris. None of the other men and women wore armor or held weapons so their pace was much faster than Harkov and Ventaris. The obstacles were each challenging in their own right, an eight foot high wall that required a degree of teamwork, even for those without armor, weighted sacks that you had to carry for a distance were cumbersome, let alone having to bear shield and mace. A rope wall, walls one needed to mantle and roll under, an underwater passage and another pool of knee deep mud and water tested even the strongest men and women. After all of that, the group was split into teams of three for a test of strength and will, a tug of war was held. Ventaris and Harkov paired with a Militia women and battled their way into the championship bout. Harkov took the front of the rope as he always had and was breathing heavily as sweat and water dripped down his entire body. Ventaris anchored the rope and the militia women took the middle. Their opponents were three large and strong men with the one in front being of exceptional form and their anchor a massive man with a combination of muscle and sheer mass. The two teams battled for what seemed like an eternity each round until it was sudden death. The order was given and the two teams struggled. Harkov gave a shout and pulled with all his might as Ventaris and the militia women both pulled with their all as well. Their opponents were strong though and began to pull them towards the mud pit. Slowly, inch by inch, Harkov was pulled to the edge of the pit when suddenly they stopped and Harkov and Ventaris bellowed as they began to pull and gained a modicum of ground back. Their attempts were in vain though as their opponents gave one final heave and Harkov heard a ripping as his hauberk sleeve caught in the thick corded rope and he flew into the mud pit. Sputtering and wiping mud from his face, Harkov looked up to see the outstretched hands of his comrades who pulled him from the pit. The entire group rejoiced at the end of the exercise and all scattered to the wind. As Harkov ventured over to a water barrel to begin washing himself, Ventaris clasped his shoulder and haggardly said.

“Nice job out there, you did good.”. Harkov felt pride well in his chest and began to peel his soaking armor off of himself. His leathers were saturated and saggy, flattening out with little resistance. His gambeson and tunic heavy with water and the mud made a sucking noise as he peeled them off himself. As Harkov stood over the water barrel, he heard a strange scratching noise above him and looked up just in time to take a copious amount of ice cold water to the face. Staggering a step and quickly shaking out his hair, Harkov looked back up to see a pretty red haired woman who appeared to be around Harkov’s age looking over the edge of a balcony with an empty bucket in her hands. Harkov could hear Brother Ventaris laughing as he washed himself at an adjacent barrel.

“You looked like you could use a bath.” The woman said giggling.

“That I did.” Harkov nodded with his own chuckle. Harkov shot Ventaris a look and when he looked back the girl was gone. One of the militiamen caught Harkov’s attention and made a crude gesture insinuating some less than gentlemanly things with a ridiculous face which put Harkov in stitches and the small group that had gathered at the barrels also shared a hearty laugh as muddy water flowed off of them in sheets and heavy droplets. Harkov admired the moment, it was one of the first in a long time where he had been so carefree.

Later in the mess hall, Harkov sat alone and picked at his food. His mind wandering far from reality. Harkov was so deep in thought he didn’t even notice Brother Oliver and Brother Ventaris sit down across from him till Oliver cleared his throat. Harkov pulled himself from his own little world and shook his head.

“Forgive me, I was lost in thought.” Harkov apologized.

“No need to apologize. I just wanted to check in with you quick.” Brother Oliver replied kindly.

“Brother Ventaris tells me you show great potential, I implore you to keep up the good work.” Oliver said in his calm yet cheerful tone before excusing himself to attend to his other duties. Harkov started eating his meal in earnest with his newly found company. Ventaris and Harkov ate in relative silence giving in to the din of conversation. Harkov eventually could not bare to be silent any longer and spoke.

“Can I ask you something Brother Ventaris?” Harkov asked.

“That depends on your question.” Ventaris replied before taking a heavy drink from his tankard.

“Why did you run the course with me?” Harkov leaned forward, placing both elbows on the table, he continued with a slight stutter. “I-It just doesn’t make sense to me. Almost every military trainee, like myself, are instructed by trainers but the trainers rarely participate in the actual training. So why did you?” Harkov leaned back in his seat with his brow furrowed in confusion awaiting for Ventaris to respond. Ventaris made to respond but held up a finger when he realized he was chewing on too much food to speak through. When he finished Ventaris gave the young man his explanation.

“Lions are warriors yes, and we are the iron fist of our order so we style ourselves like a military. But we are far different from the armies of nobles or kingdoms.” Ventaris took another drink from his tankard before continuing. The clamor of the hall was begging to tone down as the night continued to grow closer and closer.

“The title Brother means something far more to us than it does to those in a military. We are all agents of Arnath and we serve faithfully on his path. The path we tread is a long, and at times, a lonely one. Darkness can consume someone if they walk alone for too long.” Harkov nodded his understanding, at least what he thought he understood.

“I ran the course with you because you have taken the first steps to becoming one of us. It is my duty as a Lion and as one of your future brothers to make sure you know what that title means. You want an instructor, talk to Basil” Harkov nodded. It all made sense to him but he also still didn’t fathom why the Order would spend this much time and energy for him. They trained him, fed him, clothed him. All because he might become a Lion. No single person put that much stock in him before. Let alone an entire order. It wasn’t like he was special but they treated him like he truly had the potential of those who came before us. Brother Ventaris interrupted Harkov’s thoughts abruptly.

“Stop thinking so much and eat your food. You want to stop looking like a scrawny little runt, so you need to eat.” The two laughed and Ventaris excused himself. Harkov set to his food, still not quite focused on eating.

Later that evening, Harkov lay on his bed and gazed out of the small window in the opposite corner of his room. The full moon cast a strong light out into the settlement and gave Harkov a good view of the night sky. Harkov had tried for hours to fall asleep but he couldn’t. His mind scattered around, jumping from thought to thought. Most of them he had hoped to forget. Harkov sighed and sat up looking around his room. His insomnia causing a new found frustration and at that moment Harkov was glad he was the only inhabitant on this level as he roared his frustrations into the night. Laying back on his bed, Harkov closed his eyes and did something he hadn’t done in a long time. He prayed.

“Arnath, I know I have never been a man to pray often, but I need guidance.” Harkov took a deep breath before continuing.

“Show me a sign, show me something so that I know that I’m not just wasting their time.” Harkov waited awhile before opening his eyes. Nothing had changed, no ethereal presence had come with wisdom, no visions of Arnath entered his mind. Harkov felt dread strike ice through his heart and felt his throat well with fear. As he sat in the dark, a feeling of hopelessness crept over him. Harkov stared at the ceiling and began to weep. Something else he hadn’t done in a long time. He sobbed until the light in his room grew stronger. Harkov sat up once more to investigate, rubbing his eyes and feeling a pleasant warmth spread across his cheeks. Looking at his hands Harkov gasped as he saw silver light glinting and flowing like water around his hands, gleaming like a tiny river of stars swirling back and forth. Harkov sat amazed and felt his ice cold dread be replaced with burning excitement. Harkov began to speak one of the battle prayers he had learned to see what would happen.

“It is for us to stand when others can’t,” the light grew stronger and flowed toward his forearm.

“It is for us to hold when others run,” the light moved further, encompassing both Harkov’s hands and almost half of his forearm.

“It is for us to fight when all hope is lost. Such forges our faith, such forges the future.” The silver glow now encompassed both his arms to the elbow and shined brightly in the din of Harkov’s room. Almost as quickly as it had come, the light disappeared. Harkov looked at his hands as the glow faded. Harkov’s head now swam with dazzling lights filling his vision. He was tired now, so very tired and then everything went black.

Harkov awoke the next morning to the sound of birds chirping and people moving about outside. Harkov felt groggy, his tongue was dry and his teeth felt as if they had hair. He had slept the kind of sleep where one was too far gone to care for comfort or dreams. He had been wiped out after the night before having drained him so heavily. Harkov was excited but his joy was tainted by how awful he felt.

The days and weeks blurred together, Harkov and Ventaris trained day in and day out doing labor during the periods of time they weren’t training. The settlement was still growing and required many strong hands to build it. The heat of summer after one final stubborn stand gave way to the cool mornings of early autumn. Even with all of the distraction from his old life, Harkov still couldn’t escape all of his demons. They found him most when he was doing something that requires little thought, like chopping wood or clearing brush.

The new farms that were being built required large amounts of work from all members of the Order who were fit and able to wield tools. Harkov liked how hardy the people of Starkhaven were. None were exempt from the labors of progress. It maintained the stereotype of hardy and strong humans from the north. A respectable image at the least. There was much to be done be it clearing brush or moving dirt to fill ruts in the road or shore up foundations. The trees of Mardrun had roots that ran deep and each tree that needed to be cleared was a daunting task that usually required shifts. One such shift is where Harkov met with his demons once more. The crews were dealing with a stubborn stump that even trying to cut it down enough so that it could be buried was difficult. Harkov had been switching off with Ventaris every so often whilst they chipped away at the root.

After hours of chopping they still weren’t done and the end didn’t seem near. Harkov worked at the stump with weary arms and a mind that was unfocused to the task. His thoughts went to his past and he saw memories and thoughts he wished he hadn’t. His anger and frustration filled him and suddenly his arms weren’t so heavy and the world around him faded to somewhere far away as he hacked viciously at the stump causing wood chips to fly everywhere, showering himself and the earth around him. His ears picked up noise, but it sounded far away and as if someone was talking through water. Slowly it became clearer, and clearer. The voice was Ventaris. He was yelling now. Harkov didn’t stop. He was too focused on the images in his head. Until finally it came through clearly.

“Harkov!”

Harkov bellowed and gave one last vicious strike and with a resounding crack cut through the stump.

Harkov leaned back and looked around. Ventaris had a look of surprise in his face but it held something else. Exactly what, Harkov couldn’t tell. Harkov looked down at his hands. They were starting to get raw and red. Harkov knelt like that till he felt a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, Harkov saw Captain Orn Ree. Who with a degree of pride said.

“This young man now knows the strength of fury it seems.” A few of the other men gave a cheer both in celebration of a griffon acknowledging the young initiate and that the stump was finally low enough to just dig over and be done with. Harkov smiled reflexively, but played back what Ventaris had told him.

“The path we tread is a long and at times a lonely one, darkness can consume someone if they walk alone for too long.” Harkov knew he wasn’t truly alone, but then again, he also knew things were never so simple with him.

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