The round courtyard was cast with soft morning light. Blue tulips and lilies dotted the grey stone walls of Spearfort, their petals and leaves gently caressed by the morning wind. Sir Percson had flown off with the gryphon knights at first light. After a quarrel that woke the entire fort, Lady Elisen was sent back to Rondiar with a sleeping Amelia. Even if all five Whiteguards were protecting her, Fayte doubted that Wilson would be able to return to bed. Not that Fayte fared any better earlier that day. He roused in cold sweat many times, sometimes screaming. His nightmares had never been so bad.
"I saw Emily in my dreams last night," he told Wilson as they dismounted. "I saw her killed with my sisters and mother."
"They are only dreams," Wilson reminded him as he did many times before. "Don't fill your head with wild imaginations."
They rode from Spearfort due south to the town of Redpath. A few of Spearfort's guards had watched him with hesitation to act. No doubt they had received word that Fayte was to be held, but Sir Percson had asked that his lord father not take him. Fayte did not get to meet his father as the Whiteguard had advised against it. A pity, for Lord Petronas Kayme was one of many great heroes in the War of Darkness and Light.
Redpath was a noisy town twice the size of Ironsville with three inns and more taverns. It was home to the headquarters of Eronaxe, the largest mercenary guild in Hylan. Most of the people here carried weapons openly. Captain Teynier had spoken of Redpath before, telling Fayte that it was not those who bore their swords and maces openly that he need fear, "It is the ones who appear unarmed that you should pay mind to."
A treaty was signed between the Order of the White Shield and Eronaxe, allowing the guild to run the town without interference from the Order… as long as peace was kept.
"We shall find time to meditate again tonight," Wilson told him, tossing a few coin pieces to the stable master to feed and hold Whitesong. "Is there a church here?"
The sweaty stable master raised a brow at him. "Redpath's not the prayin' type." He rubbed his chin, eyeing Wilson's dirty priest robe. He refused clean clothes from Spearfort, insisting on keeping his robe. "Wil' a shrine do?"
A shrine would do.
But this was hardly a shrine. This was-
"-an outrage!" Wilson exclaimed. "Blasphemy! Insolence!"
Fayte tried to soften his friend, noticing the heavily armed men and women looking at them. A screaming priest in dirty robes wasn't exactly a pleasant sight in the morning. They stood at a corner of the town's centre, moving broken, mouldy creates and a wagon that were discarded around a little shrine.
"How dare they defile Sera's shrine like this!" Wilson said, pulling the weeds and vines off the marble shrine, carved in an image of a great white dragon. It was the size of a barrel, standing up to Wilson's waist. Sera's wings were wrapped around her like a cloak, her head held upright but her eyes peering low, looking at the mortals beneath her. "She should at least be looking at grass or flowers, not red dirt!"
The town of Redpath was, naturally, named after the red dirt it was built on.
"Such sacrilege! Such defilement! Such impiety!"
"Wilson, you have excellent command of the spoken language, but please," Fayte pleaded, "shut up."
His friend turned around with his finger pointing, ready to give Fayte a good scolding, and he would have, if all these scary men and women were not glaring at him. The townsmen passing by had stopped to see what the noise was about. One of them, a large woman twice as tall as Fayte with a two-handed mace resting on her shoulder, stepped forward and dropped the fanged head of her mace to the ground. A small cloud of red dust erupted beneath her weapon.
The woman said nothing.
"We are truly sorry for the disturbance," Fayte said, waving for Wilson to do the same.
"Truly we are," Wilson agreed, Preston nodding along on his shoulders.
Redpath was a town of Hylan but it was not a town controlled by the Order of the White Shield. Lawless it was not, but neither was it exactly lawful. Eronaxe controlled Redpath and the guildmaster's words were the law. Unfortunately for them, Eronaxe was not a very hospitable guild.
"My friend, as you can see-" Fayte gestured at Wilson's dirty robe. "-is not entirely… sane."
He shot a look at Wilson. Play, along.
"I said I was sorry for the disturbance," Wilson told him. "I did not say I was sorry for this."
So here is where I die, Fayte accepted.
"What did you say?" the woman grunted, her voice no different from a man's.
Then again Fayte could have been mistaken about her gender. Her shoulders were broad and her arms were twice larger than Fayte's. He could melt all the metal on his training armour along with his sword and shield, and still Fayte doubt there would be enough metal to forge a mace as large as hers. Sunrays gleamed off the fangs of the mace. A cruel weapon it was, made to crush but now forged to cut as well.
Three other men stepped forward. Each one with an equally large weapon. The shrine being located in the town's centre placed Fayte and Wilson in a terrible strategic location. And now we are surrounded. Great. But there was no stopping Wilson when it came to Sera.
"Wilson…" Fayte whispered. "I know you are faithful to Sera, but this is not the place for this."
"They defiled Sera's shrine," Wilson told him. "Such a sin cannot go unpunished."
Preston opened his wings and screeched from Wilson's shoulder. Normally people would cringe and cover their ears, Fayte even flinched, but these people around them were hardened warriors. Not one of them batted an eyelid. The most they did was grit their teeth… and looked twice angrier.
"A little weed and dirt," a man said, hefting a double-headed axe on his shoulder. "You sure tis worth breakin' your neck fer?"
"Sera's shrine is to be kept clean and pure always," Wilson told them. "My quarrel is not with any of you. It is with the White Rose servant charged with the care of this shrine."
"The shrine is only a formality," another said, this one armed with a one-handed mace, his hair tied into dreadlocks. On his belt was a dagger, a broadsword, a second dagger, and a bow slung over his chest. This man is a walking weapons rack. "We do not kneel before a rock to pray. And there is no priest here. Only travellers who sometimes clean the shrine... without being noisy."
Wilson swept his hand behind him at the shrine.
A column of light shot down from the sky with a deafening blast. This time every man and woman around them flinched and ducked. Others drew their weapons while some even fell straight to their knees and bent over muttering prayers. The worn and chipped marble of the statue began to reform and the surface washed to a shine by the light of Sera. White roses, tulips, orchids, and flowers of other kinds blossomed around the shrine. The red dirt that few plants save for weeds and thin leeching vines could survive in began to sprout with thick verdant grass.
The light extended and enveloped both he and Wilson. Fayte felt energy pour into him and the robe that Wilson wore had its dirt shed off and tears mended. He felt renewed. His aches gone and the smaller of his wounds mended.
"You do not need an entire church to call upon Sera's Light," Wilson told them as the column of light faded. He crossed his arms. "Even a shrine as small as this has its meaning. And as a priest of the White Rose, I will not remain hush to any disrespect towards Sera."
Why Wilson could not have just done that in the first place, Fayte did not even want to bother asking.
Priests were highly respected individuals in Hylan. Even murderers would think twice before harming a priest. It was rumoured that the Underlord had forbidden his assassins from taking the lives of any who served the Order of the White Rose. The woman grunted and scowled in defeat. She said nothing more as did the other men. Most of them turned and walked away while others remained to observe and some approached the shrine to pray.
"I thought I was going to die," Fayte said, taking his hand off his sword.
"Sera protects those who serve her," Wilson reminded him. "You had nothing to fear."
Sera didn't protect my family. "If you say so."
Fayte stepped aside as a few women - ladies, not warriors - walked up to Wilson and spoke to him, asking for guidance. He had not noticed them before but children appeared and like always they were fascinated with Preston, so the white dragon leaped off from Wilson's shoulders and played with them. They were here for a reason. He went closer to the shrine, now surrounded with people who came to pray. Fayte found himself a spot on the grass that had grown and covered more than half a yard around the shrine. The misplaced patch of green on red could surely be seen easily from even the clouds. Fayte went down on one knee as a knight would and began to pray.
They had decided that they would wait for three hours at every town or city they stop at. Travelling by air would be the best way for Rinmar to find them, but Fayte was reluctant to leave Whitesong behind. Instead, Preston would take to the sky while they rode. It was known to most that white dragons had an ability to communicate with other animals. Hopefully Ye'Jou would somehow be able to find Preston.
"Pardon my interruption, squire."
Sera, guide me, he ended off and opened his eyes. Standing behind him was a young man, dressed in tattered clothing that before was clearly fine enough to wear in the noble district of Rondiar without drawing judgmental eyes. Fayte noted blood stains on his leather jerkin and those tears were clearly from blades. When he turned to the man's face, there was no need to guess for he could recognise him immediately.
"You're the agent-"
The man pressed a finger to his own lips and smiled. "I know where the Princess is."
Wilson and Fayte followed him away from the shrine. At first Fayte had thought they would be walking into one of the alleys between the buildings, but the agent led them into the crowded streets. Blacksmiths hammered and heated iron and steel, mercenaries sorted through knives and weapons, arrows and armours, while merchants yelled and haggled back. Many a times Fayte found mercenaries drawing their weapons in the midst of a heated argument, only to have the blacksmith himself pull out a sword as well.
A noisy street makes for a better place to discuss in private. Clever. Fayte noted the two exquisitely carved dagger sheaths tied to the back of the agent's belt, loosely concealed by his jerkin. The cases of the weapons were ornate and bounded with gold shaped into intricate creeping patterns.
"Before I tell you where the Princess is, you shall hear my master's terms, of which he has three."
The Underlord wants to make a deal. "Our ears are yours."
They walked through the crowded street. The agent pretended to browse and even bought a whetstone and a few buns. Neither of them accepted any when he offered them the bread.
"When you become a knight," the agent said, "and assume command in a city or castle, the Underlord will one day call upon your assistance. Fret not. He will ask not for anything that you cannot deliver. Nothing that goes against the laws of Rondiar or your oath as a knight."
"A favour," Wilson said, his tone telling Fayte to be wary of being indebted to the Underlord.
"Done," Fayte said.
For the Princess he had no hesitation.
"Second, you are not to inform your Order of the Princess's whereabouts."
That was a problem. "Why?"
"Princess Emily is in Eres Star City." The agent ignored his question, glancing back at them to see their reactions. "Go now and ride quickly. The Scygard is still on his way there. He will have to cut through the woods to avoid the gryphon search parties. Take the main road. You will not catch up with him, but at least you won't be too far behind."
"Why must the Order be kept from this information?" Fayte asked again. "And you have yet named your third term."
The agent stopped and stepped up to an old woman seated on the ground. She wore little clothes. What thinly threaded fabric she had covering her was old, dirty and measly. In front of her was a spread of old ornaments and trinkets. Odds and ends that she must had picked up from the ground or pilfered from others. There was nothing here that caught their attention but the agent seemed curious enough - in the old woman.
For a moment there the agent and the old lady looked at each other. As if communicating telepathically, the lady suddenly nodded and the agent tossed her a small pouch of coin. An informant. This woman is more than she appears to be. "They say the Underlord has eyes everywhere."
"Everywhere and more," the agent told him. "Are you still in possession of that seal the High Sage gave you?"
He even knows it was from Kestel. How? Fayte nodded, lifting his father's seal from his waist pouch.
The white gold shimmered under the sunlight, drawing unnecessary attention from curious eyes and itchy fingers. Wilson pushed his hand back and shook his head.
"Go to Eres Star City," the agent then said. "You will see why the Order cannot be informed. It is for her own sake. As for the third term, you will fulfil it as you rescue your Princess."
They lost sight of the agent for a brief moment when two men cut through them. Once they were clear, the agent was nowhere to be seen anymore.
"He took on two Scygards and walked out alive," Fayte told Wilson as they made their way back to the stable. "That agent is no ordinary man."
Eres Star City was four days ride away, all the way at the other end of Hylan. Wilson could only sustain one horse's stamina, carrying one person and not the both of them. If they wanted to reach Eres Star City soon, they needed to fly. In other words they had to leave Whitesong.
"Rondiar?" the hired rider said. "Tha' will cost ya."
We don't have much left. He looked at Wilson who only nodded. "Will this cover it?"
The hired rider check the small pouch of coins. It was all that Fayte and Wilson had left after setting aside the coins needed for the gryphon flights. What was left would not be enough for sure, but perhaps they could get Whitesong and a message to Spearfort.
With a scoff, the rider tossed the pouch back.
"Ya got such a fine horse ere' an' ya got no coins?" The man waved them off. "It won't even cover ya to Spearfort. An' a message will cost ya more."
"This is more than a fair amount to take you to Spearfort," Wilson argued.
Fayte touched his friend on the shoulder and pulled him back. "Take my horse to Spearfort. Tell them the son of the Lord-Knight is headed to Eres Star City urgently."
"The agent said not to inform the Order," Wilson reminded him.
"Spearfort isn't part of the Order."
A disapproving shake of the head was all he got from Wilson.
The man cocked a brow at him. "Go away, boy, 'fore I…" Fayte held up his father's Royal Seal at the man. Very quickly, the rider's expression darkened. "White Shield's got no hold 'ere, boy."
"The people at Spearfort will pay you well," Fayte told him. "Show them the horse, they will recognise it. Tell them you have a message for them which you will not share until you are paid."
For a while the man considered it. He turned around and looked at the stable master who had been listening the whole time. This was an opportunity to make some quick coins and the stable master saw it. He nodded at his rider.
"I'll need that bag of coins there for uh, supplies," the man said, grinning.
Fayte held out the pouch but before the rider could take it, he pulled it away.
"Be informed that stealing my horse and selling it off will bring you more trouble than the coins you get in return for her sale," he said, placing his hand on his sword. "You saw the seal."
The man's grin disappeared. He took the pouch from Fayte and gave his word that Whitesong and the message would be taken to Spearfort. As if your word means anything. They made their way to Redpath's gryphon master. It was there they learned that Redpath had no gryphons that could take them straight to Eres Star City.
"My birds won't take the cold," the gryphon master said. "You'll need them ones at Harvesria. There I can take you."
And so they paid for a gryphon to the town of Harvesria and loaded up the supplies given to them at Spearfort. The hot air of the waking day rushed them as they soared through the sky.
"Fayte, when the Prince told you that the demon could be at a place of power, do you think…?"
It was not the heat nor the blinding rays that made Fayte scowl. He knew what Wilson was trying to say. He had realised it the instant the agent told them that Emily was taken to Eres Star City, situated at the foot of Mount Erestor, home to the Temple of the Eres Star.
The final resting place of the legendary Eres Star Templars.