Sheltered Flame Keep - Kitchen

Built as a new structure after Grummlan Path's discovery of the ruins, these kitchens are kept relatively clean so as to preserve the stately appearance of the black-veined white marble walls and the valuable wool rugs on the floor.

On this moonless night, a relic of the dismantled and dispersed Order takes refuge inside her rightful domain. The forgotten keep is rather quiet at this hour - its sole inhabitants consisting currently of the old caretaker, a cook, a serving maid, and the Duchess herself. Alone in the kitchen, Rowena is free to sing softly to herself while laboring over a curiously fragrant concoction at a table.

Mashed leaves in bowls, water in another, ground seeds in yet another, and still more pulpy substance being ground beneath a stone in the healer's hands. She's been hard at work in candlelight for long enough to have become immersed in it. Each movement fits into a rhythm, each breath drawn carefully and with measure. Concentration at its finest.

Nights like tonight, when the only light in Fastheld is a faint glimmer of flame, are those which mothers tell their children to be careful for because they are when the Shadow reigns supreme. On a night like tonight, one can jump at shadows, which are precious and few without the a single moon to give a respite from darkness. In a quiet, empty keep, the feeling can only be enhanced..

Echoing through the hallways of the keep are the voices of men, and more than just two. Gruff and low, their conversation is difficult to make out but punctuated by the occasional, sharp laugh. As time passes, the voices grow louder and seem to approach the kitchen. Like any good men, these people are thinking with their stomachs.

Outisde the kitchen, there's a brief ring of steel, and the squeaking of drawn bowstrings. Then there's a laugh, nervous and fraught with tension at first - but that tension slowly ebbs away to relief. Varal Mikin's voice rings loud and clear. "Sorry. We didn't mean to threaten, or frighten, you; you merely startled us," he tells someone outside the kitchen.

"Young foolhardy, yew." Chastizes the old man, shaking his blade-wielding fist amidst a clatter of old, mis-matched armor. "I saw yew come in from my watch station. Who might ye be and why might ye be treading these ancestral grounds of her ladyship?" He demands with a voice crackling with age. Peeking into the feast hall from the receiving hall, a feminine face watches with wide eyes. The rest of the ducal guard had not yet arrived from their summons that was sent two nights prior. The keep was in a vulnerable state. So who now, were these strange men that knew of its hidden location?

Hidden away from all sounds, all distraction, the deputy mistress takes care to knead some of the water and crushed leaves into the pulp with loving hands. "And to the East it rose with thunderous sound....the earth dislodged and fear abound..." The candle flame flickers its dance to accompany her song, casting alluring shadows over the working hands.

Five men in black leathers lower bows or resheath swords, each carrying a shortsword and shortbow common to simple guardsmen. The man in the lead, also in worn black leathers, grins curiously at the old man. Unlike the rest of his men, he cradles a massive warhammer in one hand, the weapon seeming surprisingly light for its size. "I am Baron Varal Mikin. I'm sure you've heard of me. Surely Her Grace would like to see me," he says politely enough, though his tone allows for no disagreement. "And judging by the conditions, she won't mind having my guards around for awhile," he adds.

Without any further discussion, Varal moves towards the kitchen. "You'll forgive my manners, my men and I are hungry after some hard riding. They'll be at your service for the duration of my stay for as long as I'm here. Until the Duchess' guards arrive to make this keep what it should be."

Armond narrows his eyes at the men as they pass by, unable to contest Varal's passing with much more than a grumpy "Ain't been Mikin blood 'round here since the Grand Master passed." Just to be certain, he marches along behind the last of the Baron's men, ever the faithful watch dog.

"Hark now, the fire to the east, watch now, the reign of the beas-" The sound of several footsteps tromping outside the kitchen doors jerks Rowena's head upright. "Armond?" She inquires aloud, wiping her hands hastily on a rag cloth. She loosens the dirk from its sleeping place at her hip and readies it at her side, just in case.

As Varal hears Rowena's voice, a genuine smile spreads across his face. "No, Duchess, just me." Moving into view, he bows deeply to the Second Liege, and his men mimic the supplication. "It has been far too long. Your Grace doesn't mind if we find some food?"

"Light's eternal flame!" Rowena gasps, all but dropping her would-be savior to the ground. Her widened eyes narrow into a squint of disbelief while her hands fumble to put the weapon away. "Varal, if I be not damned....Far too long? I...yes. Yes, here. The cupboards here." Her right hand gestures vaguely at rows of the storage shelves, on which have been stacked pouches of dried jerky, hardened bread, dried fruits, and other foods meant to endure many days at the air's mercy.

Varal grabs some jerky and hardbread while his men help themselves liberally to the stores. He sets his warhammer down, grabbing a pitcher of wine and a simple ceramic glass to go with the food. He moves back towards where Rowena is seated. He's silent a moment as he starts eating.

"If Your Grace's stores are low, I can send my men back to Light's Watch. We have plenty stored away, if it's necessary. And they're at Her Grace's disposal until she is properly settled here," he adds.

It's another pause, and some more munching, before the motherhenning stops and Varal comes to the point of why he's here. "I have heard that Your Grace's betrothed is indeed alive, and that Your Grace is well aware of this." He takes a sip of wine. "Why has Serath abandoned the throne, and his nephew, to that Zahir snake?" An undertone of carefully suppressed anger permeates the question.

No hugs, no stories of abroad...but ah. There lay his purpose. All expressions of joy and startlement fade back into the tired lines that wear her face this eve. Her lips set into a patient line, corners upturned ever so slightly. A quiet sigh trails behind her as she returns to her place behind the table and picks up the stone. "One cannot abandon what was never first claimed, Varal." She explains softly and turns her attention to the grinding of leaves and juice. "I will tell you the story of how it began...the night a dark message flew onto us on raven wings...deep into the Wildlands. Perhaps then, you will understand."

Varal nods, anger fading to sadness at Rowena's reaction. He takes a sip of wine to try to hide a slight flush of his face. "Your Grace will have to forgive me for being forward. I've spent the last year, it seems, fighting bandits all around this district - and have forgotten my manners." Despite the apology it's obvious that he's interested in hearing the story - he makes himself comfortable. Also, with a simple hand motion, he dismisses his five men to be alone with the Duchess.

Acknowledging the apology with a mere glance upward, Rowena takes a wooden spoon and scrapes the leaves out. "After the wildling attacks on Crown's Refuge subsided, many of our expedition's men turned to the river for safe passage home. I stayed behind with Vhramis...another bladesman...and of course the beloved ghost I'd once more discovered to be alive, though not well. It was our intention to linger awhile longer in this colony His Majesty founded. There was more to see, to learn, than I'd anticipated. So many new creatures, so much knowledge to bring back to our give us an upper hand in confronting these beasts. And yet our plans were interrupted one eve as a letter was delivered by bird to Vhramis."

Expression turned fully somber, she pauses in the work to stare at the pink-tinted mush. "A plague had ravaged through...even the Palace walls were no safe refuge for the man our faithful sought to protect the most. Rumors have spread now, regarding the origin of this disease which killed His Majesty. But at the was simply misfortune."

Dipping a finger into the pulp, she lifts a blob to her nose to sniff. "Serath was...broken, to say the least, by the news of his brother's passing. But nevertheless, we set out on foot some days later to return home. Three weeks, Varal. Three weeks of marching through field and valley, through ash and mud. The Green wildling tribe was at war with the black and therefore were concerned not with our presence, thankfully."

Varal nods slowly. "I'm sure it was difficult, and I sympathize," he states truthfully, but it is merely a preamble for a 'but'. "I can accept that he may not see himself fit to be Emperor, and to an extent I can respect that choice. But, if he loved his brother so, I can't fathom why he would abandon his nephew."

The satisfied finger wipes the contents back into the bowl before dashing across her already dirtied pants leg. Rowena discards the leaves into a basket on the floor. "When we did arrive back on Palace grounds, it was during the cover of darkness. No one knew yet of our return. We were too tired to seek confrontation yet, and Serath had much reading to do if he was to fufill his brother's request. The Prince was raised to excel in war, Varal. Not to sit upon a throne and uphold a kingdom. There were details of law to learn. Of recent ordeals to catch up on. It would be impossible for any man in his condition to have mounted the throne the following morn and restore all things to order."

Looking to Varal now with emphasis, she quirks a brow. "We resided in the Bronze Hall during this time, he and I. I spoke personally with the Chancellor to inform him of Serath's intentions, then rode to the Hall of Healing to reacquaint myself with the station. Three days passed, then there was word that the Zahir had made his move. The entire Council had been imprisoned, Serath hunted, but he managed to evade the Justiciar's men. Once it was certain that no one would oppose this shift in power, Zolor released the Council. For the first time in many months, Varal, there was peace. A tense peace, to be certain, but peace nevertheless. There was no outcry to slay the Kahar line. There was no whispering of rebellion. I am equally as disturbed as you by this, but rest assured that the child is not abandoned as you say."

"I spoke with Serath some weeks ago on this...he wishes not to disrupt this peace. Most the realm thinks him dead as it is, and many more might resent him for his past venture beyond the Aegis. The Church is against such things. He did wish to raise young Talus, however...and so I requested that I be permitted to find the boy a safe home with his kin outside Palace grounds. Zolor denied my request. He wishes the child to remain as he is."

"Of course he does," Varal hisses. "With the child in his grasp, Zolor can maintain a semblance of righteousness, while able to conveniently rid himself of the true heir once he has one of his own. The Kahar line is ending."

The Mikin forces himself to calm quickly, bowing his head in shame yet again. "Your Grace must understand that I worry. We Mikins are at a time of unparalleled weakness, while a man who professes himself our enemy has taken power. What ever Your Grace decides to do, and who to support, I will follow. Whatever Serath's reason, I assure Your Grace that I would trade my life willingly for his without hesitation. But, no matter what, I believe that Zolor Zahir will slowly and surely be our undoing."

He pauses, not hiding behind wine or food. A look of despair crosses his face. "I don't know what to do with myself. I don't see myself fit to be a Blade, and incessantly hunting bandits is an exercise in futility. I'm afraid I'm lost, and my gut is screaming for me to fight Zolor. Yet I know it would be even more stupid than Alieron's failing. When I look out from my keep, all I see is the ruined beauty of Light's Reach. It's killing me inside, Rowena."

Rowena stacks the now emptied dishware together and scoots it aside. The spoon is again picked up and this time used to cautiously transfer the bathing mix into a glass bottle. "We all worry, Varal," she murmurs gently, eyeing him with a studious gaze. "A truce was put to paper between our houses, yes. In that respect the law remains firm. Serpent may he be, Lord Zolor is not a foolish man. He agreed with my proposals that the Crown will help fund the reconstruction of Light's Reach. He is also supplying the Hall of Healing with new beds, new desks. He keeps our needs appeased in many ways...but on removal of the child he would not consent. Young Talus is blind, Varal. He knows only his world through sound, through familiar voices, through smells, through touch. To promptly relocate him to his uncle's arms would be to shock the little boy to nigh death. If a transition at all is to occur, it must be a gradual one."

Varal is shocked to hear of the boy's blindness, but shoves it aside. "I don't trust him, and time is on his side regardless of what stances he takes now." He sighs, straightening himself. "But Your Grace is right, there is little we can do but trust him."

"Besides..." A glint of mischief sparks in the duchess' eye as she sets the bowl and spoon down and squeezes a cork into the bottle's top. Smiling slyly to him through the candle flame, she says "Have you seen the man recently? His bones are aging, his reputation is slippery...what eligible, unwed woman would go willingly to that bed? He has announced openly that he will turn the throne back to Talus when the boy comes of age."

"There's always a woman willing to trade her womb for wealth and power, but Light knows who it could be," Varal replies simply enough. "If Your Grace doesn't mind telling me, what will Serath do with himself now?"

A light huff is issued from Rowena's lips and she takes the bottle from the table and holds it in her hands. Leaning a hip back onto a chair, she idly picks at the cork with a fingernail. "Let the realm believe him dead? Live on in his ranger suit? Keep to the shadows and trees until he finds the time is 'right' to expose himself again as alive..." A weary shake of her head punctuates the sighed postulation and she straightens upright again. "Whether it be a week or a decade, I know not."

Varal nods slowly, deciding to finally let the topic drop. "So be it." He pauses, taking another sip of wine. "Does Your Grace require my services as a Guardsmen, or is her protection sufficient - once it arrives? Or, is there something else I can do to make myself of use to someone?"

"You may come or go as you wish...I believe that my arrangements will be adequate. There are few who know of this place's existence. And there are fewer I need to fear. New furnishings for the rooms are under construction. I suppose I'll need someone to help oversee the transport of it through the wood once the time comes." Very gingerly, Rowena takes up the candle and moves away from the table, gesturing with her head for him to follow. "I'd intended for this place to be my home...our home. It's a peaceful place, filled with wisdom of the ages...perfect solitude for research and safe enough to hide young ones away from the deceptive allure of noblehood.”

Varal looks away from Rowena, nodding in response. "I assumed as much. I'm glad someone has taken back Sheltered Flame. And if Light's Reach is to be rebuilt, I guess that will keep me busy enough." He pauses a moment, then tilts his head to the side. "Research, your Grace?"

"Did you know there existed two types of wildling, Varal? Two distinct forms, two distinct toxins." Lifting her chin a notch in pride, she passes through the doors and into the black and white decor of the feast hall. "Until my journey to the Wildlands, I'd never before known such. The remedies used for green 'ling poison is too weak to combat that of the black 'ling. The venom is far more potent. And so...I've kept myself busied. Then of course there are the strange plants that grow only on that side of the wall. We have no record of such things, or some of the creatures seen, in Fastheld." Leading him along with a brisk pace, she lifts a hand to dab at a touch of heat along her brow.

Varal places a hand on his chest, frowning a moment. "I did not know there were two types..." he says slowly, frowning. He doesn't seem particularly comfortable with the topic. "I assume we normally see these 'green' wildlings?"

You head into Sheltered Flame Keep - Receiving Hall.

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.

"Yes, the green tribe is the only one we've known to breach our wall in efforts to make contact. To test us." Rowena glides along the runner carpet, angling towards the grand room. "It was the black tribe, however, that attacked Crown's Refuge. In that land, the green tribes actually cooperate with the human population in order to survive the black tribe's strength." A deep breath is given, her eyes blinking forcefully to clear a shadowy haze. Or was there one? The headache was returning, and this time with much more force. Still, her feet have traversed this corridor enough times to continue onward despite the blurred vision. "Disconcerting, is it not?"

"Very much so. But to sacrifice so many, and kill innocents, in what they call a test makes little sense," Varal replies slowly while scratching the leather armor over his chest, which hides the scars given to him by wildlings in the attack on Hawk's Aerie. "And these Black Wildlings, they are a threat to Fastheld?"

And as if by magic, something suddenly clicks in Varal's head. "I've been gone far too long, Your Grace. Allowing Your Grace to leave Fastheld and see these Wildlings without ample protection..." He bites his lower lip, obviously feeling guilty and lax in his perceived duties.

"I traveled with a deployment of bladesman, Varal. I was housed in a fortress." Dipping her shoulder into the grand room's door, Rowena pauses to breathe for a moment, chin dipped into her chest. She wipes again at her brow, this time feeling a touch of sweat. "The black tribe are more advanced in their use of weaponry...but I do not know what they intend for Fastheld. Still, they were dealt a major blow by the Instrumentalist in order to restore balance. She razed their forest, diminishing it to mere ashes."

"The Instrumentalist? One of those creatures like the Ravager?" Varal questions softly, though the mention of Bladesmen does little to assuage Varal's feelings. The mention of the dragon causes him to shudder. "More 'advanced' and poisonous? That sounds unpleasant..."

You head into Sheltered Flame Keep - Grand Room.

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.

"Mostly so." Rowena agrees, then shoves inward, while balancing the bottle between arm and hip, candle held aloft in her right hand. And she keeps on into the Grand Room, moving past the thrones as though they did not exist in her path to the inner study. "Would it be a sin to sit in Alieron's chair, do you think? Never before has a Lady of the Flame been left as next in authority. Then again, with most of the Order dissolved, would it truly matter?"

"I certainly won't stop Your Grace, and there's no one else to care. Besides, it is no longer his chair. No one else wanted to reclaim this place, Your Grace. 'Tis a misnomer to call what is Your Grace's his," Varal replies. "And I guess that if I feel that way, as his once loyal dog, then there would be few to disagree with me."

"True, that." Coming to pause at the entrance to the inner room, Rowena halts warily, her attention turning inward to a strange, flushed feeling and tweaking of the gut. Her lips press firmly together, eyes closing to block out the dizzying dance of shadows. Or were there shadows? There is a dance of light, at least, as the candle suddenly slips from her hand, fingers having gone rather limp. A woosh, a whisper, and the wax and brass holder clatter to the floor, snuffing the flame eternally. The noise jars her from the daze and she squints in puzzlement to her hand, energy faded. "The hour must be later than I thought...." she mumbles almost inaudibly.

Varal nods a moment. "Perhaps Your Grace ought to go to bed." And now that Rowena has put the thought of fatigue in his head, Varal can't help but stifle a yawn. "And perhaps I ought to find myself some accommodations, as well."

The heat has risen now from her core to redden her cheeks and ears, forehead contrasting with a clammy pale. "...Odd," she breathes with a furrowed brow. This was a serious condition to contemplate. Had she caught ill from food? A fever? She hadn't eaten much today, but she hadn't felt the need. Perhaps she just needed rest. "Yes..." The word is emitted as little more than a sigh, and she presses her shoulder harder into the door. But it doesn't budge. The reason of course being that rather than shoving inward, she's slumping downward. Another wave of dizziness passes over and she claws with a hand at her tunic's standing collar. "Varal...fetch me water." The request is more of a pant than command, and before another one can be uttered, her eyes loll listlessly to the side. "..just some water."

Fatigue is instantly forgotten as Rowena begins to slump. He bellows for his men, who have remained reasonably close. Barking out orders, one sprints for water while the rest circle around Rowena and begin to pick her up. "Is Your Grace okay? We'll take Your Grace to someplace where she can be comfortable," Varal says softly.

Struggling to regain control of her vision, Rowena closes her aching eyes to give them rest. "Hearth stone.." She mutters and goes more or less limp in the arms that uplift her. "Inner room" And then the men are left to figure it out for themselves, as the duchess lapses into unconsciousness.

"Light above," Varal groans, motioning for his men to take Rowena up to her room. "Where am I going to find a hearth?" he says softly to himself as he begins stalking about, looking frantically. After all, Rowena's the expert at making people better.

Much later ----

Sheltered Flame Keep - Courtyard

It is unknown precisely when this castle, known as Sheltered Flame Keep, was erected among the shardwoods and river oaks of Mikin Wood - although it is generally accepted that it was at a time long before the woodlands bore the name of House Mikin.

The curtain wall enclosing the courtyard is made from pitted gray stone blocks that could have been shaped and mortared into place more than a thousand years ago. Great sculpted stone sentinels flank the iron portcullis, facing inward with hands held palms up and draped with chains that support a pair of gleaming brass oil lanterns. The sentinels stand about twenty feet tall, priests of some kind in long-sleeved robes, their cracked faces mournful. The statue on the left is missing its nose; the statue on the right is missing a significant chunk of its left hip.

For six and a half centuries, this ancient keep has served as the adopted home of the Order of the Flame, a society of individuals devoted to the protection of Light's Reach. Sheltered Flame Keep was discovered by a woodsman named Grummlan Path, employed by Fahral Mikin to explore the woods and hunt for food to serve in East Bluff.

A moonless sky does not make for an easy watch. Many torches have been mounted around the curtain wall and the brass oil lanterns held by the massive stone sentinels burn furiously to ward off the suspicions of Shadow. If that didn't work, there was always the face of Armond Biinwood to do the job.

Such is the face that currently stands guard at the main gate, squinting gruffly into the darkness. Bushy white brows, wrinkled jowls, and an upper lip that all but disappeared into the purse of his lower (thanks to a missing top row of teeth) is what visitors, what seldom few the keep may have, are first greeted by. That and his accompanying pike, of course.

Despite his watchdog loyalty, Armond is beyond the age to defend so many precious things on his own. And so a few younger, more able bodies pace atop the wall, bows in hand. Contented with this security and fresh blades of baby grass, two horses are grazing in the courtyard.

This evening, Vhramis doesn't try to hide his presence. Perhaps he's smart enough to realize he shouldn't be approaching random keeps cloaked in shadows. Regardless, he cleaned the smearing of pitch off of the bow slung over his back, allowing it to glow it's intense blue, illuminating the area about him slightly. "Hello, keep," he calls.

"Ta shadow's sputz is that thar!?" Replies a voice bearing resemblance to the sound of splintering shardwood trees. In his charismatic way, Armond waves his pike hello. "Who ye be tah cross this ground of her Ladyship?" Squinting to study the figure shrouded by the glow, he harumphs.

"It's like her Ladyship's ring!" Resounds a more youthful shout from somewhere above in the torchlight.

Vhramis stares upwards at the challenge, eyeing the pike warily as it's waved about. "Is she about?" he calls out in question, either intentionally not answering the one directed at him, or not realizing it was even asked.

"Depends on who-" Tapped on the shoulder, Armond turns sharply around to eye the man that's since climbed down to better examine the visitor. The two exchange murmurs, casting Vhramis a skeptical glance over their shoulders every so often. Finally, Armond faces him fully and nods. "Oh yeh. Ah was told such a fella might be on his way. Open t'rusty gates, yew skinny pups, b'fore I serves yer hides to the kitchen fer stew!"

"Just like that harse that kicked ye in t'teeth?" Shouts a faint reply amidst the cranking of chains. This taunt brings a hardy bout of laughter from the younger crowd. Rather than firing up his temper, Armond turns to flash Vhramis his rather gummy smile with an energetic nod. "Meh teef." He confirms and swings out a leg in mimicry of the horse's fatal antics. "But ah still have nine and a half left tah bite ye with. Ha-hah!"

Draws his attention down from Armond to stare at the gates in front of him, attempting to keep a blank expression on his face. Though he probably looks at least somewhat doubtful at all of this. Which, if he were to look at it from a third person's view, would probably be funny to him.

The portcullis rises between the stone priests just as noisily as it had for centuries. A pair of guards flank the inner doorway, watching the silhouette of the newcomer with solemn scrutiny. "Sophie will meet yew inside. She'll know if the grandmistress is taking visitors at this hour. She's not well, yah know, the duchess." Clamming up there, Armond returns his focus to the surrounding darkness with a squaring of his bent shoulders.

Return to Season 4 (2006)

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