The clash of thunder rolled in the distance but only tears fell on this night.
Castle Vladertz, once the stronghold of King Adrieyl Vladertz, stood with its black stone walls and looming towers, overseeing the procession in stoic silence. They landed outside the castle where a temporary gryphon roost was put up. Near a hundred gryphons were present, yet their squawks were soft and none screech nor cry.
There was death in the air and the majestic animals knew respect.
"Evening greetings to you, Your Grace," his father said, helping Emily from her gryphon. "We were not expecting you today."
"A squire has fallen," Emily said, accepting a fresh cloth to wipe her face from one of three servants who had hurried forward to attend to her. "It is my duty to be here."
In truth it was not, for people died every day and it was not the royal family's duty to attend all funerals. His father did not speak the contrary and bowed as Emily walked by him. She joined hands with Rinmar who greeted his father with a nod. Sir Percson and Lady Elisen followed. Mailer was right behind them, his bells still attached but if it was possible, none of them jingled with mirth or jest.
They embraced each other before his father looked to Wilson.
"Lord Frendon, it was my decision to keep this from-"
"It matters not," his father said. "Your silence on the ambush and that of the other squires did not cause this. Your Order did well in informing the priests and priestesses taking care of my squires. Jeremiah and Priestess Joanne were aware of the danger. I would have preferred if I was informed, but even so, I would have done the same as your Order did at that time."
"Then how did it happen, father?" Fayte said, for he did not believe it did or could.
They heard noises from the drawbridge, a dispute of some sort.
"Later," his father said, turning away from the bridge to look at him. "I received word of the ambush in Iredis. You defeated a mage?"
"It was a narrow fight," he said, "and I had help from a new friend."
To see pride brimming in his father's visage eased some of the sorrow that filled his heart on this night.
"After you have completed your pilgrimage we shall resume your training," his father said, placing a hand on his shoulder. "Just as I've promised you many years ago."
Fayte looked forward to that. He was only a page and to be trained by his father was not a painless memory, but he treasured those days and now Fayte looked forward to more of such times. The Light of the Spirits would not be easy to wield without guidance.
More gryphons were landing just as they left. Torches were lit and staked to the ground in place of lumastones. In fact, none of the glowing gems were to be seen. There was an ominous feel to it, but of course, this was hardly a light-hearted event. Two knights followed by his father's side. Fayte and Wilson right behind them. They could not find John in time so they left and would search for him later if time permitted. Estelle had bid them farewell in Iredis.
"I will show you the rest of Iredis on your next visit," she promised. "It was fun fighting beside you, Fayte Kaywin."
"Let us hope our next meeting will involve less excitement," he told her. "And please relay my gratitude to Master Fengoth once more for the letter and books."
At the drawbridge of Castle Vladertz, Fayte saw the two Whiteguards standing beside Emily protectively. Rinmar was behind her.
"Stand down," Sir Percson said. "You are in the presence of the Grace of Hylan."
"The Princess may pass," someone said, Fayte struggled to find the source. "But the Saldarian and the Scygard may not."
Then he saw it. A shine on a shroud of shadow on the wall in front of Sir Percson. It was no shadow but a man donned with an armour forged from night. Fayte had read about this armour before and knew what the knights who wore them were called.
"Vlazion knights," he murmured, looking at Wilson.
"An old custom of the Vladertz family," his father said. "One of the reasons why I kept this from the Princess."
Emily should have heeded Commander Reyner’s advice not bring Rinmar with her. Before the rise of the three Orders, there were knights but of many kinds from the different kingdoms. The Vlazion knights swore fealty to the King of Castle Vladertz. However like the knights of all other kingdoms, the rise of the Order of the White Shield united them with shields of white.
"Prince Rinmar," his father said, stepping up to the group. "I fear I may have to ask for your understanding in this matter."
Rinmar nodded at once but Emily would not give in.
"But Uncle Frendon!"
"Princess," said the Lord-Knight. "You are here to pay your respects. Nothing more."
"It is all well," Rinmar said, smiling at her, patting her hand before he let go. "I shall await your return outside."
"There is a village to the south just a few leagues from here," his father told him, hearing the echo of thunders to the distance. "You may seek shelter there for the time being. My men will send word ahead and Lady Elisen will escort you there."
Fayte expected a protest.
"As you command, my lord," said Lady Elisen.
Everyone could tell that the Lord-Knight was in a very dark mood right now.
They proceeded into the castle. The people present numbered more than a hundred for sure, all of them dressed in black and grey with not a shade of colour. Vlazion knights stood stalwart around the courtyard and on the walls, each one with their black armour and menacing horned helmets. In the centre of the courtyard, seats were arranged and candles were lit. They were given one themselves, a single stick held naked, with no means of keeping the burning wax from dripping on their hands.
"Bear with it," Wilson whispered, accepting his. "A simple gesture to show that all in attendance share pain on this day."
Yet this pain was not well received by others.
"Nonsense!" a man said, his voice loud and disruptive in the hushed night. "Fetch me a holder this instant. I will not have burning wax dripping on my-"
Fayte nearly drew his sword. One of the Vlazion knights came up from behind the man and pressed his gauntleted hand to his mouth. Fayte could see his father struggling to act as the knight dragged the man away.
"Rest assured, my lord," another Vlazion knight came to them and said. "He will not be harmed."
His father sighed. "Please see to it. And remind everyone not to go too far while you're at it. You all return to my command on the morrow."
"We leave only in tradition's sake, my lord," the knight assured him. "We are still knights of the White Shield."
"I am pleased to hear that," he said. "Escort the Princess to the King. And where is Feralina?"
The King is here as well? Fayte wondered if it was because Jeremiah was the greatson of Iyden Vladertz, the Lord-Knight before his father.
Two other Vlazion knights came forward, these two draped in cloaks of dark crimson, and led Emily away with Sir Percson.
"The Master-Knight is with her family at the front keeping vigil, my lord."
"Alright, thank you." His father turned to him. "Here. You will want this later."
His father pressed a dagger to his hand. It was of the same make as the one Fayte received from the Order when he first ascended from page to squire. They parted ways there. Wilson was led to join the noble guests at the rear while Fayte was brought further to the front. It was there he saw more clearly the guests at the front row, all of them standing, and most of them donned with the armour of the Vlazion knight. There were mages as well with red weaves humming faintly against the amber glow of the torches.
"Fayte," said Julin, his dark haircurly and his cheeks covered with freckles. "I'm glad to see you safe."
He nodded at his friends, squires the whole lot of them, and even Jason was in attendance who nodded in return when they saw each other.
"Is it true?" Fayte asked.
None of them answered, only lowered their heads.
Jeremiah is alive, he thought to himself again. Jeremiah won't die so easily.
"Where is he?" he asked.
Julin pointed to the front at the darkness. "Squint a little and you can see it vaguely."
Fayte did as suggested and he could see the outline of a coffin raised on a platform. That whole area was covered in darkness with not a single torch lit. There were stairs to the side of the platform so Fayte hoped that they would be seeing him up close later.
He is not dead. Fayte shook his head. Not until I see it with my own eyes.
"What happened back there?" Julin asked softly. "We heard a man shouting."
"A noble lord was asking for a holder for the candle."
Julin grimaced. "A mistake. Was he silenced?"
Now it was Fayte's turn to grimace. "Not in the manner that you’re implying."
"His throat would have been slit in the past," said Julin, the top of his hand piled with hardened wax. "The Vladertz are strong for a reason. They say a Vladertz is twice as harsh to the enemy as they are to their own. Judging by how they fight…"
Fayte had often listened to Jeremiah speak of his family. Noble families like his tend to have traditions of such. It was how they became strong and feared. There were little to no traditions for the Kaywin family. None that he knew of in any case.
"I fought him during the tournament…" Julin's voice softened to barely a whisper now. "I should be the one lying in that coffin."
As ashamed as he was to think it, Fayte agreed. Julin was a good squire, but he was nowhere near him or Jeremiah in terms of swordsmanship. If anyone could survive those ambush, it would be Jeremiah. But it was an assassin who attacked him. A trained assassin. Fayte doubt he would have survived himself were it not for the scale of the demon empowering him with rage.
"No one should be lying in a coffin," Fayte said, putting his arm around Julin's shoulder. "Do not entertain such thoughts."
A sudden flare startled all of them.
Fayte shielded his eyes as the flaring light eased into the glows of flickering flames. The torches on the platform were now lit and set in the centre was a coffin of black gleaming marble, covered from head to feet with a piece of red cloth that no doubt bore the insignia of the noble Vladertz family. A single man stood on the platform now, his black armour forged with cruel curves, sharpened, such that merely falling on him would cause harm. Held against his waist was a helm with three spikes. Behind him a thick cloak of crimson billowed in the dry breeze.
"We gather today for one of us has fallen," the man said, his hair a startling white and his face wrinkled with age. "One of the Vladertz. One of our blood. One I call grandson."
Lord Tyden Vladertz, son of the late Lord-Knight Iyden Vladertz, Lord of Castle Vladertz.
"My grandson did not fall in combat," he went on, his voice more tempered rage than grief. "His fall was without honour. Stabbed through the eye by the very dagger I gifted him with on the day he proved his worth as a squire. My grandson was murdered by an assassin. An agent of the Underlord."
There were gasps and noise of disapprovals coming from behind them. Lord Tyden looked irritated by that. He was expecting silence but the people present were not familiar with the traditions of the Vladertz family. Turning around, he stepped up to the coffin of his grandson and with a dagger in his hand, stabbed it through the cloth and lid. Once more there were gasps and sounds of disapproval.
"A promise," Julin said, understanding the gesture. "No wonder my father took my dagger away before we part."
A promise? Fayte wondered. "Of what?"
"Vengeance," Lord Tyden said, whose name reminded all of Bishop Tydon, but whose words and actions made the distinction clear. "Until I possess it, I shall not rest."
With that, the Lord of Castle Vladertz left the stage and slowly, one by one, members of the Vladertz family made their way up the platform to pay their respects. There was Jeremiah’s mother, a woman famed for her exquisite beauty but was now veiled with grief, and his father, whose wizard robes glowed a harsh red as smoke rose from the hand which he placed on the lid of the coffin. Fayte had met them before when he came to visit Jeremiah in the past.
"The Vladertz is a family of knights," Julin explained when Fayte asked. "Thus Jeremiah's father, being a mage, was not allowed to speak at such occasions."
Just as the man would never inherit the title of Lord of Castle Vladertz.
"With Commander Reyner serving as Commander of the Whiteguards, the next in line of succession for Castle Vladertz is Jeremiah," Julin said, shaking his head. "Was Jeremiah."
Fayte vaguely recalled Jeremiah mentioning that to him in the past.
Others followed, many were Vlazion knights but only Lady Feralina put a dagger through the coffin. Commander Reyner lingered by Jeremiah in the armour of a Vlazion knight, no doubt torn between duty and kinship. Fayte could not see the King denying the Commander of vengeance. Likely the Whiteguard himself never broach the matter.
"Reyner," it was the voice of the King. "By my command, you are to spend the turn of a moon searching for the man responsible."
The man who sent that the assassin. The true killer.
The Whiteguard looked to the King, Fayte followed his eyes to find the royal family seated at a side near the front. They were surrounded by three Whiteguards, wizards and sorceresses, and Vlazion knights draped in crimson cloaks. Fayte smiled. Gratitude welled on in Commander Reyner's eyelids.
"I will not rest, nephew," the old knight said, his hand grip firmly on the dagger he just impaled. "Not until the man who put a bounty on your head is met with justice."
As the Commander of the Whiteguards left, Fayte was wondering how they were stabbing dagger through marble.
"The lid is wooden and framed with marble," Jason said as he rolled his eyes after he overheard Fayte asking.
Once the members of the Vladertz family were done, King Eardon ascended the wooden steps and paid his respects. He was quiet and quick and behind him Queen Remilda and Emily each placed a stalk of white rose on the head of the coffin lid, adding to the bunch that Jeremiah had collected already. His father was the next to pay his respects and as he did a Vlazion knight came over and told them to rise. Fayte followed his friends as they were led to the side of the platform, waiting as Captain Resfield stood by the coffin where the squire who served him lay. He had not seen the Captain in a long while. Their first meeting in a dungeon in Eres Star City was still fresh in his mind.
When at last the senior knights had paid their respects, it was their turn and Fayte found himself lingering to the rear. He didn't want to go up there. He didn't want to step close to that coffin. He didn't want to accept that his friend was dead.
"Kaywin!" Lord Tyden called, his visage stern. "My grandson awaits you."
Sera urged him on with a sound of thunder.
Fayte nodded and took his first step forward and then another, and another, until he found himself standing in front of the black marble box. The coffin. The place where Jeremiah would rest in forever. He held up his dagger, a plain thing only squires from poor families would receive. Those of noble birth would receive a more lavish dagger, commission for them by their families, one that befitted their birth. Fayte's father was not one for such things and neither was Fayte.
Something landed next to him.
"What is it?" he asked, kneeling with his hand held out to Preston.
The white dragon dropped a dagger into his hand before he flew off. A dagger much more ornate than his own. The same dagger that forced a draw during his duel with Jeremiah. And suddenly Fayte found tears spilling from his eyes. All the hardships they had went through training together in the Order. The pain and the suffering and the laughter and the joys. The memories he shared with Jeremiah came rushing back.
Fayte twirled Jeremiah's dagger in his hand and stabbed it into the coffin.
"I've killed the man who took… who took your life," he said, though his words felt hollow to him. "And now I swear I will find the person… the person who…"
He could hear someone coming up the steps to comfort him, but Fayte only had his mind on one nagging fact. And it was that he could not believe Jeremiah was dead. The best squire he had ever known could not have perished so easily. His best friend was not dead. Not until he saw it with his own eyes. And so he did the unthinkable.
Fayte grabbed the head of the lid and flung it open.