Some time earlier, high above the heads of the 'intrusion'...
Sheltered Flame Keep - Tower Top
An open-air cupola with a dome of ancient green marble, supported by white marble columns, forms the top of the tower of Sheltered Flame Keep, granting a rather remarkable view of the surrounding acreage of what was once Mikin Wood. The centerpiece of the cupola is an iron brazier, where the Order of the Flame keeps its own fire burning. Stone steps lead down.
"Look ye now, on so many below...the sword and boot doth march upon our ground of peace. Scowl ye, in your graves 'neath their feet, for here stands the Crown's claws. Grasp do they, for that flesh they cannot have?"
So soft is the voice that that whispers between flashes of fiery whips atop this towering cupola that it is nearly swallowed by the sounds of breath taken to utter it. Between the furiously-burning brazier and the edge of the pitted stone, the Lady of the Flame lingers, appearing ghostly in her flowing, white chemise. The powerful heat from the massive torch flushes a richenss to her cheeks that life had failed to provide in many weeks. It reflects sharply in her eyes - the hungry burning within pools of jade. And the sorrow dwells there too, upheld on furrowed brow.
"Forgive them, vigilant souls of your trounced Light. They know not what boundary they cross." Tearing her gaze away from the tiny lantern glows below, Rowena turns her back to the edge and circles slowly 'round the iron brazier towards the steps. "All are welcomed to bask in the Light's glow...but only the chosen may guard the Flame's ancient walls."
At last over powered by the blinding fire, Rowena vanishes into the depths below. It was time to greet her guests.
Sheltered Flame Keep - Receiving Hall
Newer than the walls that surround the keep, the receiving hall is part of a largely reconstructed edifice of quarried white marble veined with black. Standing on either side of the majestic polished biinwood entrance doors one finds a pair of well-maintained stone sculptures of soldiers in plate mail, standing atop white marble pedestals. Gleaming chandeliers hang suspended from the biinwood beams that brace the ceiling above. Long, narrow black and gray runner carpets extend the length of the hall.
Norran and Paulnor are standing in the middle of the hall, talking now with Varal who's just arrived from another part of the keep with the rest of his men.
The Lomasa tilts his head slightly as Varal mentions Light's Watch. "Why, yes, actually. How did you know?" asks Norran with genuine curiousity, adjusting the helm under his arm before nodding to Varal. "Yes, I'll contact you when I have something. But yes, supposedly about fifty of us coming down here. Marshal also wanted to speak to the Duchess."
Varal laughs. "Because, Norran, Light's Watch was built to defend Light's Reach. There is no better location to have if you want to protect the rebuilding effort." He pauses. "You, of course, have my permission to use it or whatever the Imperial Blades may need. The barracks and armory, bare besides what my men here-" he points to his five retainers "-use it for, should be perfect for your men to bed down in and store their equipment. You know where to find it?"
"Think someone knows where it is. The Marshal," Harper suggests with a small shrug, glancing to Norran for comfirmation.
A creak and echoing 'thud' suggest that one of the many passageways that lead from this hall have been infiltrated...or abandoned, as this case may be. "Ho there, yew men of blade!" Shouts the unmistakable voice of the castle's gate keeper. Apparently Armond also plays the role here as herald, in addition to watchman and courier. With a shuffling step that's yet nimble for one his age, the old man hurries forth from one of the biinwood doors. Clank...clink...jingle goes the mismatched chain mail that hangs loosely on his torso.
"The Lady of the Flame shall grant yer requests to speak to Her Grace..." Pausing, Armond squints to the men. "But only yew may do so. Me girl has just finished polishing these here floors...and tromped again they shall be." A muttering grumble follows that with a sad shake of his head, but he bows nevertheless to the younger soldiers and gestures to the doors of the grand room.
"Much thanks, Varal. I'll tell the Marshal as soon as I see him again. I remember well enough where it is, not old enough to lose my memory. It'll be nice to have a proper garrison," Norran thanks Varal with a bow of his head in appreciation, looking over to the approaching man.
Norran listens carefully, eventually smiling to the older man and bowing politely. "Much thanks, Master. We'll do our best," notes the nobleman with a chuckle, giving a brief nod to Varal and waving Paelnor forward. "Let's head on in, Harper. About time you get to meet the Duchess face-to-face, disprove all of those rumors." With that, Norran begins a steady stride forward to the Grand Room.
Varal hefts his warhammer onto his shoulder, nodding. "My pleasure, and, frankly, my duty as well." He falls in stride behind Norran, and his men follow. "You won't mind if I join your audience with the Duchess?"
Sheltered Flame Keep - Grand Room
This expansive black-veined white marble chamber, with arched ceilings supported by tall pillars, has at its center a broad red marble brazier. At the north end of this grand hall, one finds a two-level dais: On the lower level, one finds two high-backed biinwood chairs reserved for the Champions of the Flame. On the upper level, one finds a biinwood throne reserved for the Grand Master of the Order of the Flame. Behind and above the Grand Master's throne hangs a large black banner bearing the Order Crest: A chainmailed hand gripping a blazing torch. Rays of light spread outward and upward from the illustrated torch.
Two pairs of high-backed biinwood chairs flank the brazier and are reserved for the Commanders of the Order of the Flame. Against the east and west walls are a total of eight biinwood chairs facing in toward the brazier. These chairs are reserved for the Companions of the Order of the Flame. A dais against the south wall supports the biinwood throne reserved for the Lady of the Flame. Double doors on either side of the Grand Master's dais lead to the inner room, while double doors flanking the Lady's dais open into the receiving hall.
A heavy 'whoosh' of air moves through the abyssal chamber as the doors are pulled open and the warmth radiating from the red marble brazier tremors almost visibly. Once the torch flames stabilize themselves, sight into the chamber reveals an ethereal figure clad in white, sitting motionless in the Grand Master's throne. The blue light that emanates from her left hand is dissipated greatly by the other dancing fires in the room.
Staring vacantly at the doors, Rowena does not trouble herself with uttering a word until they have crossed the distance, for in this chamber, a single voice can be lost just as easily as it can be roared. Her eyes gaze with patience from beneath a whimsical 'crown' of braided hair and tiny sprigs of fresh buds - a symbol of authority, of strength, to counteract the paleness of her brow.
After the doors open, the sound of steel-clad footsteps can be heard entering from the Receiving Hall. The tall, platinum-armored and black-cloaked form of Bladesman Norran Lomasa is the source of these footsteps, a look of passive wonder on his face as he takes a look about the large chamber. Upon taking notice of the woman on the throne, however, he sets his emerald gaze to pay full attention. He looks over to the man following him, Varal, and asks quietly of him, "This is one of the more...complicated Masteries I've been in. Where is it exactly one's supposed to kneel?"
Varal moves his warhammer to hold it in both hands, parallel to his shoulders. He looks over at Norran, "Just follow my lead." He moves to before Rowena's throne, lowering himself to a knee - the 'hammer resting on the knee. His five men flank and do the same. "Your Grace, may I present Norran Lomasa, a representative of the Emperor's Blades?"
If one is to kneel, they best do so with good form, for the souls of Flame champions and guardians past watch ever-vigilantly from the many long-abandoned chairs that remain positioned about. One can almost hear their whispers yet alive in the flickering flames.
Kind eyes of wisdom look upon Varal as he stoops in Orderly fashion and a slender palm lifts from bended knee to press noislessly against her breast. "The occasion sees you in a subdued spirit, Bladesman." Rowena addresses to Norran, chin dipping forward in returned respect. "I do hope that the cause for so many men of arms in this ancestral place of seclusion is not an ominous one."
The steel footsteps begin once more at Norran follows Varal and the other men, taking a position before the throne. While walking, the finely polished iron of Norran's cavalry sabre is freed from the baldric while he simultaniously and effortlessly falls into a kneeling position as the others, all in one fluid and almost practiced movement. His left hand leans the tip of the sabre into the floor, while his right holds his helm under his arm.
"On the contrary, Duchess Mikin," answers Norran in his bold, youthful yet cultured tone of voice. "I am here in Marshal Nepos' stead, Commander of the Justiciar's Claws. I come to inform you that the Marshal and fifty of our unit have come to aid in the reconstruction and protection of Light's Reach. Varal has generously offered his Keep to garrison us."
Varal raises his head. "As Your Grace is certainly aware, there is no better garrison for Light's Reach than the keep designed for that very purpose. I would be derelict in my duty to Fastheld were I to deny the Blades access." More explanation than defense.
"I agree," Rowena murmurs, chin lifting as her attention shifts from the Lomasa to Varal's clarification. "While the foresters have reported no recent outbreak of brigand activity...it would be foolish to consider the threat entirely diminished. A great fortune of marble will be passing by the wood for years to come as the town is rebuilt. The workers and settlers must be protected." And so the duchess nods her head forward in approval. A moment of silence is held then, her lips parted a hair's breadth as though to continue on.
"I must inquire, lord Lomasa..." she finally says, head tipping aside to examine him from a slightly varied angle. One of the infant buds of lavender sags free from the twisted locks and bounces once against her temple. "If the Marshal will be commanding his men here on future occasions. I can assure you that our small defense has served well enough to this hour and I've no room to accomodate more able bodies. As you can I'm sure deduce from its location, this place was meant to serve its keepers with solace and the silence needed to think most deeply. To compromise its history of peaceful dwelling would be to scoff in the face of countless generations who have served in the Order to protect Light's Reach with more divinity than sword alone." Words of warning as they may be, they are spoken gently and fluidly, her lips held in a placid line.
"I'm also sure there'd be more use for fifty able-bodied men than mere protection, Duchess. Blades are routinely used in construction efforts throughout Fastheld, I see no reason for this not to be a similiar case," points out the Blade from his position, hand gripped firmly on the hilt of his sabre as he speaks.
"The only Blades currently here are the Marshal, a few extra men from the advance unit, Guardian Harper and myself. We only lingered to speak with you on the matter of the reconstruction, and meant no intrusion. We ran into Vhramis out in the ash and he informed us you'd be here, and so we came," explains the Lomasa matter-of-factly, his voice sure and unwavering. "I had not suspected that you wished seclusion, Duchess, as you yourself told me you personally requested reconstruction. I did not think you'd wish seclusion at such a time, and for that I suppose I can only speak my apologies."
Varal slowly rises, turning to face Norran. HIs face is somber, but he gives the Blade a polite smile. "It is not the wish of the Duchess to isolate herself, Norran," he begins, the tone patient. "Merely, this keep is sacred place for the Mikin family, nor was it meant to house a significant number of individuals for more than a short duration." He pauses a moment. "Moreover, it is out of the way of Light's Reach, and not particularly needing in protection. I've taken special care to ensure these woods are free of bandits - and I'm sure that Vhramis can confirm that, for the most part. The ruins of Light's Reach most likely harbors the greatest danger now."
"When a place loses its mystery, it, too, loses its beauty. I want no such fate for Sheltered Flame, for it would put to dust the grace upheld for centuries past. That is all, for you are correct in recollection of my wish. These walls are deep enough into the wood, what's left of it, to remain hidden from view of Mikin road as Varal's words have suggested. And so there shall be no conflicts with the passing of crew of materials. I myself will be present on occasion, in fact."
Rowena's neck straightens, her eyelids closing for a moment to catch the wave of dizziness that the motion brings. Before the dark circles beneath those eyes can stare blatantly at the men for long, however, she opens them anew in a flash of green. "Forgive my hasty direction to the gate, as it was, for I am not yet returned to strength. When rest is poorly found amidst a maelstrom of illness, any moment alone becomes eagerly sought. I hope it has not come at the expense of hospitality. Please...help both yourself and your 'few' men to a drink from our wine cache before you set foot to Light's Watch." Very subtly, her fingers curl over the ends of the throne arms, muscles tightening to stiffen her spine from the developing slouch.
"As always, the Crown's extension of aid is graciously accepted."
"I think both of you seem to have misunderstood me," answers the Lomasa apologetically, leaning still on his sabre. "The majority of our unit remains at Fastheld Keep awaiting orders from the Marshal. Our 'advance team' and the rest of us have remained camped outside. Only two of us have actually set foot inside this keep's hall, Guardian Harper and myself. We remain here not for protection, but to inform you that we will aide Light's Reach. As I explained, we did not intend to stay here or house any Blades at this location, but at Varal's keep."
With that bit pushed out of the way, Norran begins to rise from his position and return his sabre back to his baldric, emerald gaze lifting to look toward Rowena. "Unless there's anything else you wish to ask of me," begins the Blade, expression curious, "Anything greater than a relay of information I cannot provide. You should speak with Marshal Nepos himself should you wish to discuss more delicate matters, whatever they may be."
Varal casts a worried look towards Rowena, and nods. "Of course, Your Grace." After a moment, he then nods to Norran. "Forgive me if I misunderstood. I look forward to your arrival at Light's Watch. The keep should be well stocked, but I'll make sure everything is in order." He finally bows deeply to Rowena. "Light's Blessings, Your Grace, for a quick recovery."
A blessing, to cast away a curse.
Breathing in the deep scent of her floral-studded 'crown', Rowena rolls her eyes upward to stare at the shadow cast by the hanging banner. A strong fist to uphold a fragile torch, a fading faith. Both her fists clench the throne arms to mirror the image, then one lifts to fold into her chest in closure of the former, greeting gesture. "My thanks to you both, and to Marshal Nepos for your steadfastness of duty. Ride safely, Lord Lomasa. Pass my good tidings on to your leader."
"Of course, Duchess. As far as I know, we should be departing for Light's Watch tomorrow and the rest of our unit to join us in the coming days. I wish you well, and Light Keep," finishes Norran off with a smile directed to Rowena, his final gesture to her a deep, respectful bow before he stands tall once more. Setting his helm back on his shoulders, Norran reaches the clasp his leather cloak closed once more and turn to depart.
"If you will excuse me, Norran, it has been a pleasure. I will see you again at Light's Watch, then," Varal says before disappearing with his five henchmen.
Rising to her feet, Rowena remains standing as the Bladesman makes his departure, seeing him through to the door with a diplomatic gaze of serenity to mask the surfacing array of thoughts. She knew very well how many had accompanied him, as she'd watched the lanterns swaying across her courtyard from the tower's peak. She'd heard the march of footsteps, the whisperings of the servants and personal guard as they slipped to and fro in the keep's halls. A new era was birthing for the trodden Light's Reach. But at what cost would it come?
"Light keep ye," Rowena offers once more when Norran has nearly traversed the entire hall, her voice amplified with a sudden vigor. "As safely as ye shelter the Light."