The course of true love never did run smooth. – William Shakespeare
”They are dead, Henry.”
A sharp pain as his heart shattered, a silent roar of despair – then the calm clearness of oblivion. Erin watched the sorrow that slipped away and was replaced by adamant determination. She tried to take his hands, but he pulled away from her. He did not utter a word, but his attitude spoke for itself. Henry Scaletti did not need the comfort of his queen, and her wet eyes and hazy voice appalled him. What right had she to grief? It was his wife… his children. For a second the world spun with raging speed and the pain became so overwhelming that he feared it would burst right out of him. The second passed and so did the emotions.
“Thank you for informing me, mylady. I will go speak to the priest. He can raise them,” the knight declared with stoic calm.
“They are gone, Henry. There is nothing left. The house exploded. Let them rest,” Erin pleaded. Henry sent her a scrutinising glare then pushed past her and left the garrison’s training grounds. She turned around and watched him until he disappeared from her sight. A broken man filled with all the wicked zealousness that only love could inspire. “I am so sorry, Henry,” she whispered and dried her eyes. “But it was the right thing to do.”
Barim was working in the cathedral’s garden alongside some of the acolytes. It was manual labour and it was most certainly not expected of the high priest of Natuska to take part of it, but he liked to do so. It helped him clear his mind and it gave him a chance to get to know his acolytes. It was important for him to show them that he thought of each and everyone of them as being important. Because they all had their role to play in the Riverlight community. Furthermore, he also loved to see the plants grow. He was deeply fascinated by the new life that sprouted forth from the ground, the process of how even the smallest seed could grow into a beautiful and strong tree. He was content when he worked out here and his past seemed far far away and unreal. Like a nightmare from one’s childhood.
Suddenly a shadow fell over him. He looked up and squinted his eyes against the blinding white rays of spring’s first sun. “Da’gorand, can I speak to you privately?” Barim could still not make out the dark face, but the voice was clearly Henry’s, though it sounded slightly strange. “Of course, Henry,” the cleric smiled and rose, wiping his dirty hands off in his brown kirtle.
Barim led his colleague into the cathedral. It was all but devoid of people. Barim had made it a matter of honour that the clerics and acolytes primarily should make relief work when not preoccupied with sermons or prayers. Thus it was an easy task to find an empty part of the enormous building.
“What troubles you, sir Henry?” Barim asked mildly.
“Lily and the children are dead.”
All colour rushed away from the cleric’s face. He did not know what was more horrible; the tragedy or Henry’s complete and insensitive ease. He found himself dumbstruck and it took a moment for him to regain the capacity to speak.
“I… I am sorry for your loss, Henry.”
“Don’t be! You are going to raise them,” the knight replied matter-of-factly while his eyes bored into Barim’s. That, however, was a fight he could not win. Barim had gained wisdom and experience from a long life filled with hardships, troubles and challenges, and there was no chance that he would be intimidated by a man, who had barely left his adolescence. Barim’s expression shifted from deep-felt compassion to match the stoicism of Henry’s.
“I will ask Erastil if he deems it right to bring back Lily, but I will not risk the ritual on the children,” he stated flatly and crossed his arms resolutely.
Deep red flowers of anger sprouted all over Henry’s face.
“Why not?” he hissed through clenched teeth and mustered all his will not to punch the obnoxious priest in the face.
“Because it is a dangerous and painful process. Of all people you ought to know that,” Barim retorted in a calm but stern voice. “If it does not destroy their bodies it will most likely crush their souls, and I will not be the instigator of that.”
“They are strong kids,” Henry countered without pause, but Barim saw the panic and desperation rising in his companion’s eyes.
“This is not up for discussion, Henry. I will ask for Erastil’s guidance about Lily, but you will have to let Belle and Alistair at peace.” His tone of voice was gentler now, but left no doubt about his firm conviction. Henry’s head dropped with a grim look of acceptance and he stood still for a moment, trying to understand the unfathomable. With an angry gesture he dried a single tear from his eye with the back of his hand. “Lily then,” he agreed and turned around on his heels and left the place of worship with firm strides. Barim followed him with his eyes. Sun streamed in through the cathedral’s immense gates and as Henry went through them he cast a shadow that made him look like a giant. Yet, he is only a man, Barim concluded thoughtfully. He lit three lights and stood watching them for a long time. He pondered where this fork in the road would lead Henry – possibly all of them.
Alyssa was cleaning the banisters of Castle Riverlight. It was dreary beyond imagination and her back hurt like hell. She had done it every day for the last week. Normally they would be more or take turns, but she had talked back to Old Eliza in the kitchen and this was her punishment. “That fat, old, nasty wench,” the girl muttered under her breath and rubbed hard on a particularly stubborn spot. The only good thing was that she sometimes caught a glimpse of the new king in the halls or on the stairs. He was so handsome. And he always smiled nicely – when he noticed her. The sheer memory made her blush and smirk. Perhaps if she played her cards right, she wouldn’t have to clean this castle for the rest of her life. Erin Surtova was getting old after all. Could she even conceive anymore? The queen had used her youth chasing bandits and monsters in forests and swamps, and her prime with a man who had hated her more than she him. Alyssa shook her head and rose to straighten her back. She would never have acted that foolishly. Her parents had made it very clear to her that it was a woman’s holy duty to stay at home and please her husband. Obviously, the queen had not received these instructions. In the middle of her line of thoughts Alyssa noticed something rather odd a little down the walkway. A semi-transparent globe or opening seemed to appear and distort the surroundings, flickering like the horizon on a hot summer’s day. Suddenly a figure emerged from the spectacle. Alyssa watched it with wide eyes and open mouth. She wanted to scream and run, but her body would not move. Seconds later her brain recognised Daniel Orlovsky and the terror turned into amazement. He walked past her, sending her a dazzling smile and a wink while letting a hand run through his long, almost silver-like hair. The girl instantly blushed and cast down her eyes. She knew the reputation of the head wizard very well.
Daniel chuckled a little and looked back over his shoulder to see the baffled maid again before he turned down the corridor to Erin’s chambers. It was one of his small pleasures to surprise, startle and perhaps even scare a little with his magic. He knocked on her door and entered. She was sitting in one of the deep windowsills at the far end of her antechamber, surveying Riverlight’s waterfront. She did not even turn around to look at him. He furrowed his brow slightly. He had expected to be chided, as he had not awaited an answer before entering.
“Most magnificent queen, I am at your service,” he declared flamboyantly and walked towards her. “Daniel – I have dire news,” she replied still not moving. The wrinkle in his forehead deepened as he moved the rest of the way up to her. “What is it?” he asked and looked down at her. Finally she turned her head and looked at him. Her eyes were red and swollen. “Lily and the children are dead… and so is Akiros,” she snivelled. At first he just looked at her in disbelief, then a smirk started spreading upon his lips and nonchalantly he leaned against the stonewall and looked at her with mirth in his eyes. “Lily and Akiros, you say,” he mused.
“Do you find this funny?” she snapped at him, anger welling into her eyes.
“Please, Erin. Do not try to fool me. I knew about them. I am your spymaster after all, remember?”
“They are dead,” she said emphasising every word, but without a single sob or tear now.
“If I remember correctly, you had a private meeting with Akiros yesterday while the rest of us were taking care of the well-being of your kingdom, my queen,” Daniel reminded her with delight.
“I was ill, but Akiros had matters that I needed be informed about,” she replied and looked out of the window with a sullen expression.
“You have never missed a council meeting no matter what condition you were in, so my educated guess is that either you and Akiros are lovers, which I find highly unlikely that Jhofré would cover up for you, or you planned with our beloved warden how he might escape with his lover, who, until recently at least, was Lily Scaletti,” he ended his insightful analysis looking most satisfied with himself. Erin suppressed a smile. It was unfortunate that Daniel had figured out the truth, but after all it was his job and he was very good at it – and never did he neglect to deliver his points with style and wit.
“Since when are you on first name terms with your King,” she pouted in mock discontent and looked up at him once again.
He cocked his head coyly: “Since we became lovers.”
Erin’s eyes darkened immediately: “Your sense of humour is distasteful, Orlovsky.”
“And my wit unequalled,” he riposted.
“As is your self-satisfaction.”
He shrugged. It was true, but a truth he was comfortable with.
“I am going to call the council together. A great personal tragedy has befallen us, but the kingdom must not suffer from it. We need to instate two new councillors as quick as possible. And you, Daniel Orlovsky, better keep your wild theories to yourself,” Erin warned him and slid down from the window.
“Sure,” he agreed with a shrug to indicate his indifference.
“Please leave me. I have business to attend to,” she ordered and waved her hand dismissingly. He walked towards the door without further insults to the Surtova. However, as he reached it he turned around. “You know Erin. No matter what you did, it was Henry who failed his family.”
“I know, Daniel. It was the right thing to do… it still just feels… I hope they will be happy… that we all will,” the last part of her sentence was barely a whisper.
“Yeah well. I just wanted to say that you shouldn’t be too harsh on yourself … Sometimes you make me worry that you actually do have a heart,” Daniel said with a wry smile and slipped out the door.
The street was bustling with activity. Everything was ordinary. Except for the burnt down mansion. Some stopped and stared at him, others whispered about him under their breaths to one another, and some simply looked away and hurried by. He noticed all of it, yet none of it. Henry saw and disbelieved. How could this have happened? Why him? Why his family? What had he ever done to deserve this fate? He stepped through the outer gates and into the mansion’s courtyard. The fountain in the middle still sprouted cascades of water. Cobblestones in different colours formed intricate patterns in the yard. Bushes, small trees and flowers thrived and stood orderly in their beds. Everything was so incredible perfect – but the ruins. He stepped up to the front door and placed his hand against it. Rather than opening, it fell with a loud crash. Everything stopped for a split second out in the street… then returned to the state of ordinary everyday business.
Henry realised that the outer walls might have weathered the fire somewhat, but the interior of the mansion was close to utterly destroyed. He realised, too, that he had difficulty recreating the surroundings in his mind. This was his home, or used to be at least, but he had barely any memories from the place. It had all been ripped from him before he had had a chance to know it. And why? Because Lily had stashed her potions and alchemical supplies at home. It was the only plausible explanation for the fire’s intensity and following explosion. For all of this destruction. She had been utterly selfish all the time. Every time he had strayed from the path, it had been because of her. Her and her damnable mother. He had broken his word of honour to save her from Jhod, had cursed another man’s family and instigated an entire plague in Riverlight because she just had to have an Elven relic. He had loved her and the children unconditionally, and how had she repaid him? She had taken everything! With a roar he hammered his hand into a still standing stonewall. Small rubbles and dust trickled down due to the impact. He placed his forehead against the wall. It was still warm. Why, why, why? Suddenly he could hear Varn’s taunting words clear as crystal within his head. “You have a split focus, Henry. You cannot be family man and rule a kingdom. Your perspective can never be true.” Varn or not, he had been right. But not anymore. Henry knew exactly who he was and what he should do now. Mourning a single family was pointless when an entire kingdom depended on his leadership. He would return to the training of his troops as soon as he had informed Barim that he should not bother bringing Lily back. He would just slay her again. She did not deserve to live after all that she had done. He would never forgive her that she had taken his children with her.
Resolutely, Henry left the ruins of his home, life and love.
Barim sat in his private quarters of the cathedral. He rolled his holy symbol between his fingers. Back and forth continuously. Several deep furrows in his forehead and an absent expression in his eyes revealed that he was deep in thoughts. He had communed with Erastil about Akiros Ismort’s fate. If he should try to bring the fallen paladin back to life. If he had redeemed himself enough to be greeted by the deity once again. The answer had been far from straight, but it had revealed something truly surprising. Akiros seemed to be very much alive, though living another life. He did not know what exactly had been going on, but lies and deceit were clearly part of it. Barim sighed deeply and shook his head. Relationships were disintegrating at a rapid pace at the moment and he did not like that one bit. What threatened one, threatened all. Once again it seemed to befall him to keep their small community together. And it had to be kept together at any price since it was crucial to the greater community of Natuska.
There was a knock on the door.
One of the acolytes, Gaelen, entered. “Your presence is requested at the castle, revered high priest Da’gorand. It is a council assembly, I am informed.”
“Thank you, Gaelen,” Barim replied kindly and rose. Perhaps the meeting would shed some light onto the day’s mysteries and secrets. But most likely not, he thought to himself as he tossed his cloak around his shoulders and left for Castle Riverlight.