Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 06

Gridnor stopped at the tavern’s entrance, looking around slowly. Kridayan held the paladin’s arm, breathing in the smell of a new city, a new place filled with new people.  It had been a long time since he’d been anywhere but his adopted home village, but the travel had cheered him some.  Gridnor began moving again, winding between tables and guiding his friend across the room.  One of the barmaids brushed past them, a large flagon of ale in each hand and a warm smile on her face.  Gridnor found an empty table, seated his friend on one of the rough chairs, then nearly fell into another beside him.

Kridayan did not miss the gesture.  “Is the travel wearing you out, old man?”

The paladin chuckled.  “You’ve only been on the road with me for a few days.  I’ve been out for weeks, looking for you.”

The barmaid returned, carrying an empty glass.  “I’m afraid we have to ask for gold up front tonight, gentlemen.  Too many people for credit.”

“Not a problem, my lady,” Gridnor replied, already pulling a small fistful of coins from his purse.  “Two cups of ale for us, and we’ll be happy enough.”

She took two of the coins, smiled again, then returned to the bar.  Only a moment after she had gone, another man approached their table from the other side.  He moved slowly, hands under a dark grey cloak at the small of his back.  Kridayan heard the footsteps stop nearby, and turned his head to face their visitor.

Outwardly, the traveler looked like any other.  Tangled auburn hair and a short beard to match, grey-green eyes, rough traveling clothes under a brigandine tunic and cloak. Gridnor knew better.  His eyes locked with the traveler for only a moment before recognizing one of his own order.  He waved to the chair across from him.

The traveler smiled wide, and said, “I wasn’t sure from my table, but up close, there’s no mistake.  It’s always in the eyes.”  He slid into the chair, wincing slightly as he did.  His face showed more of its age, now that the man had relaxed.

“That it is,” Gridnor nodded.  “Glad to meet you, my friend.” He turned to Kridayan, and seeing the confused glace, he said, “When the eyes have seen as much war, pain, misery, love, justice, and hope as an old paladin, it comes out in the eyes.  When you’ve seen these things yourself, seeing it in others is easy.”

The barmaid returned with two large glass cups, filled with amber ale.  The newcomer nodded to the girl, “Another one for me, little sister.”  Then, he turned his attention back to his new friends. “Love, justice, and hope.  What more can honest men ask for?”

“I’ll drink to that,” Kridayan said, using both hands to guide his glass to his mouth.  Gridnor, too, took a deep drink of his ale.  This tavern had good, respectable drink.  They’d have to remember the place.

“So, my friends, my name is Wrindel, and in the wars, I was stationed on the border of Asharida.”  He paused, taking a deep breath  “And a powerful lot of good men died there, I don’t need to tell you.  Toward the end, when Asharida finally made peace with us, it got worse in the field instead of better.  That was when the Shadowknights got truly desperate.  Some of the things I saw them do…” he shook his head, then held up his right arm.  His hand was missing at the wrist, the sleeve of his shirt sewn closed.  “We’ll get to that in a bit, I’m sure.”  He smiled.

Gridnor smiled, and said, “Yes, we will.  Kridayan, the old paladins that fought in the wars have an odd tradition, and I think you’ll understand it better than most.  When our paths cross with another of our order, we swap stories.  Not just any stories, though…” he paused.  “We always start with the worst.  The most horrible, the most tragic.  The things we’ve seen, they carve themselves into the stone of our souls, and they will make us wither and die from the inside if we don’t let them out.”

Wrindel nodded.  “Many people don’t understand… but us old soldiers, we know.  You can’t just carry this stuff around in your heart and expect it to stay quiet.”  He took a deep breath, and then said, “But as the night goes on, and we have more and more to drink, our stories get less terrible, more cheerful, and by the end of the night, we’ve driven out the nightmares and are laughing and singing with the rest of the crowd!”

Kridayan smiled at Gridnor, and said, “Not a bad tradition to hold onto.  I’m sure I can think of a few such stories, myself.”

“Well, then,” Wrindel rumbled, his voice rising.  “Tell me where you’re from, and then you can start!”

After clearing his throat, the blind man took another awkward drink, then said, “My name is Kridayan. I’m originally from the capital city, son of a bladesmith.  Never married, never quite found the right woman.  When I was coming of age, I was noticed by the paladin order, and may have even finished their training successfully, but my father convinced me that blade-craft was my calling.  He’d say to me, ‘Forge the blades that will win our wars, and you’ll do much more to save our kingdom than any one knight has.’  Well, perhaps he was right about that.  After spending a great deal of lamp-light studying, and even more time at my father’s side in his forge, he and I together were able to forge weapons that were good enough to be enchanted.  He didn’t survive to see the result of his work, but soon after he died, one of the King’s enchanters took notice of one of our swords. This enchanter and I, we created new blades for the elite warriors that the paladins had selected as captains for the coming wars.”

As Kridayan paused for breath, Gridnor interjected, “Wrindel, you may not believe it, but you’re looking at the man who crafted most of the Santrellian Blades.”

Wrindel’s eyes widened.  After a pause, his left hand moved to his belt, and unhooked the scabbard of his sword.  He held it up for them to see, then set it on the table before them.  Kridayan’s ears identified the sounds immediately.  He slid one hand across the rough oak tabletop, running his fingers across the scabbard.  The sword was well-made, while not enchanted… but the sheath was instantly recognizable.  It was trimmed in black leather, gold and silver inlays, criss-crossing in an unmistakable pattern.  It had clearly been made for one of Kridayan’s swords.

“I carried one of your weapons into 54 separate battles, and it saved my life in over half of them,” Wrindel said, in little more than a whisper.  “They asked me to return it when I retired from combat, when I lost my hand, but I keep the sheath as proof that I’d carried it.  Sir, I am forever in your debt.”  The change in the sound of his voice told Kridayan that the man was bowing his head in respect and gratitude.

“Nonsense, my friend.” Kridayan took his hand off the sheath, stretching it over toward Wrindel, who took it in his own.  Kridayan squeezed, and said, “You and your men are the ones that fought and died out there, while I stayed home with my hammers and fire.  I owe you much more than you could possibly owe me.” He withdrew his hand, returning it to his glass.  “My life was not in danger… at least not until much later.”  He took a deep breath, then another drink, before continuing.

“It was many years later that they came looking for me.  I believe I had had too much to drink, because I remember finishing a particularly pretty, but obviously useless, parade sword for one of the members of the court, and going out to celebrate its completion.”  He paused, his head pointed at the glass before him as if he stared at the ale.  “Several different people there bought me drinks, but I didn’t make it home, I think.  I woke up with a crushing headache, in a stone prison cell half a league underground.  The guard outside my door wore armor of black steel plates trimmed with gold.”

Wrindel blanched, for he knew immediately what Kridayan spoke of.  His glance moved to his fellow paladin, then back to Kridayan.  “The Shadowknights.  Always at the root of the worst of our tales.”

Gridnor nodded, as Kridayan continued, “They wanted me to make weapons for them.  I think they wanted to watch me make them, learn what they could from me, but I refused.”  He shook his head.  “I can only imagine what spells they enchant their blades with, and I don’t want that taint on anything I’ve made.  And even if they had watched me, there was little they could learn if they didn’t have the talent.  When it was clear they couldn’t beat it out of me, they…” his hand touched the gold cloth at his temple.  Wrindel’s gaze dropped to the table.  Gridnor put his hand over Kridayan’s, steadying it.  He hadn’t heard this part of the tale yet, either, and it hurt watching his friend re-live it.

“They used fire.  They enchanted a black iron bar in the shape of a ‘U’ to burn white-hot, then pressed the two ends into my eyes.  They had shackled my feet, but not my hands…  The one who did it had dared me to fight back, but the entire bar was hot, and burned my hands when I touched it.”  He sighed, and said, “They left me to die somewhere in the wilderness, and I don’t remember who it was that found me.  Wood elves, I think.  My ears weren’t as sharp then as they are now.  Whoever it was, they brought me to one of the cities on the borders, and the King’s soldiers helped me get to where I’d settled until now.  Many of the people of the village I’d chosen remembered what I’d done, and they took care of me.  Built my house, brought me food, kept me comfortable… but my days of forging blades are over.”

“The maker of the Santrellian Blades, blinded by the dogs that had suffered so many defeats by his weapons.  I suppose they couldn’t think of any other revenge.” Wrindel said.  “Do you know why it is they let you go?”

Kridayan shook his head.  “Their marshal was the one who ordered me blinded, but he had left to see to some other evil business, and left me in charge of one of his acolytes.  I didn’t see her, only heard her voice.  She ordered me left out in the wilderness, she was very specific about where.”  He didn’t see Gridnor’s glance across the table, meeting the eyes of the other paladin, but he felt the change through his friend’s hand.  He turned his face, nodding.  “I know, too much of a coincidence.  She told her soldiers she wanted to make sure I was eaten before I got very far, but wanted them to leave me and return – without being seen.  I’ve wondered whether or not it was her intention that the wood elves came across me… but I doubt a Shadowknight would let me out alive, especially an acolyte.  What they do to those children, from what I’ve heard, twists their souls into impossible things.”

Wrindel nodded.  When Kridayan didn’t continue, he said, “Most of the things I’ve seen have been done to other people.”  He held up his right arm again.  “This happened in a stand-up battle, and for that, I’m grateful.  When you’re a paladin, your enemies don’t try foolish things like kidnapping.  They face you in battle, which is bad enough, but they do the worst things to people who can’t defend themselves.”

Gridnor finished his drink, and said, “Your turn, Wrindel.”

The other paladin nodded, finishing his own drink.  “Part of this story I had heard second-hand.  I only saw the end of it, so bear with me.  Just a painful story about a little elf-girl whose life could have gone so much better, and could have changed the way a lot of people look at the world.  Especially the elves- once they get set in their beliefs, they really get set in their beliefs.”

“Well, there was a traveling circus once, mostly humans, but they had a couple families of elves traveling with them.  They did some of the side acts, some acrobatics that only wood elves can do, you know… but there was one young couple that had a girl with dark grey skin and ice-white hair.”

Gridnor looked skeptical.  “Wood elves with a dark elf child?  How would that happen?”

“I have no idea, but as they were traveling through the countryside, they stopped outside of Ajoni.”  Wrindel sighed.  “Apparently they tried to keep the girl hidden when they were close to large cities, but someone spotted her.  I think it was Varassi himself who saw her, because according to the city guards he led his men out after the circus people himself.  And if the rumors are true, he ordered his men to attack the caravan when they wouldn’t hand over the girl.”

Kridayan sounded shocked.  “A paladin commander ordering an attack on a circus troupe?  Over a girl?  I don’t believe it,” he shook his head.  “The order would never allow the law to be broken so blatantly.”

Gridnor interjected, his expression darkened.  “It’s not impossible.  Varassi has a reputation for being, well, a little self-righteous.  And as far as the law goes, it’s a gray area.  Historically, the dark elves have been a serious threat.  It’s only been the last few generations that have really tried to co-exist peacefully, instead of attempting to subvert every other race on the continent.  And out of all races on the continent, the Shadowknights are made up mostly of Dark Elves.  Some of the old paladins still believe dark elves should all be killed, even children – once they grow up, they’ll be just as dangerous, to some of us.  But whatever her demeanor, if she’d been raised by wood-elf parents, perhaps she would turn out like them.  I’m sure that’s what the parents were hoping for, and it would be like a Wood Elf couple to do such a thing.”

“Well, we won’t find out anytime soon, I’m afraid,” Wrindel sighed.  “The circus troupe was scattered, and while a few of them were killed, the soldiers were certain that they didn’t bring back any dark elf, alive or dead.”

Wrindel sighed again.  “This is where my company entered the story.  We were on the trail of a Shadowknight raiding party, and at one point we engaged more than half of them openly.  We even thought Kadax was there- some of the spellcraft they used on us was powerful, and fits the stories I’ve heard of him at open war.  Their Fear spells had several of the men running.  It almost worked on me, and I have worked very hard to gain the strength to shrug off such things.  Some of them escaped us, and we didn’t cross their path again.”

“The next night, though, in following their trail, we came across a small campsite.  What was left of a tent, and two wood-elf bodies, husband and wife, we think- they had been wounded and left to bleed out, and were holding hands when we found them.  But inside the tent was a third bedroll, and a small carry-sack with clothes for a small girl.  There was some artwork, too – rough colorings done by a child.  One picture was a family portrait- the faces of two adults and a child, all with elf ears.  The adults both had dark brown skin, but the child’s face was blue, and had white hair.  It’s just not possible that it’s a coincidence.”

“Did you ever find out what happened to her?” Kridayan asked.

“No.  Not another sign.  I’m sure, from looking at her parents, that Kadax was leading the shadowknights that killed them.  I think they took her back with them to Shadow Mountain.  And there was something else strange…” he paused, considering his drink.  “One of the shadowknights was left behind, dead.  Another dark elf, a younger warrior.  We found him flat on his back, with the strangest burns on his face.  It was as if someone clamped their hands around his eyes and it burned them.  Not a heat burn, but a magical burn.  Almost like a lightning strike.  My first impression was that an older Shadowknight had kill-touched him.”

Gridnor set down his glass.  “It’s not impossible.  They do fight amongst themselves on occasion.  But if Kadax was there, no one would have dared stand up to him, I’m sure.  There must have been a good reason.  And not the killing of two wood elves – that wouldn’t have stirred their conscience.”  He stared at his glass, thinking, then he shrugged.  “If they thought like normal people did, I’m sure they wouldn’t be Shadowknights.”

Wrindel nodded.  “But the poor girl… dragged off to Shadow Mountain.  It would be such a great chance for her to have a normal life.  This was years ago, and there’s a good chance she didn’t even survive.”

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