Solace Woods: Solace Glade - <Forest District>
Though the Solace Woods and deep as they spread across the stretch of the Forest District's untouched terrain, there are places even within that orchestra of life where one can find respite and peace. The area known as the Solace Glade is one of them.
The world of politics and civilization is still hidden behind a vast wall of Aspen, Beech, Biinwood, and Maple; the boundary of timber flanking this curious clearing on all sides, cutting one off from the Empire beyond the kingdom of nature within.
The glade itself is a peaceful place dominated by short, downy grasses, bursts of tiny colorful flowers, and a small rocky lagoon to the east of the dell that gurgles with crystal water. A blackened path of earth in the middle of the clearing marks the location of a frequently used site for camp fires, and it is no doubt that location which many Knights spend their time here.
It is around that campsite that one soon understands why this location is special, for circles around that patch of dark earth stand eight statues at equidistance lengths from each other. One of those statues depicts Emperor Talus Kahar II, shield in hand, with sword pointing towards the ground at his feet.
The other seven depict what one might assume to be some of the very first Captains of the Emperor's Blades, their armor ornate, beautiful, and from an utterly different period of time. Though their armor is different, and through they are are nameless as they are silent, their devotion to the Empire and her People is no less apparently upon their weather-worn features.
Varal sits by the lagoon, staring across the water. Behind him lays his cloak, baldric, and armor. Only salt-encrusted velvet protects him from the cool evening air. A hand plays with the teeth strung around the neck, and a slight expression of apprehension sits uneasily upon his face.
But not entirely alone, it would seem. From the shadows of the trees emerges one giant scarecrow of a figure, ranger-clad and ranger-silent, his bright argentite staff now a dusky rose in the evening light. He pauses, just beyond the reach of a sword, and says, "Good evening."
The nobleman's surprise is hard to notice. His jaw clenches tightly for a moment, and the muscles at the side of his neck bunch. Relaxations quickly follows, and no movement is made to attempt to grab the sword. The weapon is far enough out of reach that even an attempt would mostly likely prove futile. "I am surprised to have a visitor, to be honest," Varal states quietly. "Much less you."
Taran tilts his head. "I listen to the song and find a chord where I would not expect it to be," he says. "And I've been watching you...in a general sort of way. Is this where you want to be?"
"Birds flitter from tree to tree, always singing, always moving, migrating. Nothing to root them, hold them in place. They have the ability to choose where they want to be," Varal states. "Then there are those for whom duty is their bedrock. It's not a question of where they want to be, because sometimes that is where they least want to be. Rather, it is a question of where they need or have to be." There's a smirk, but the man hasn't turned to look at Taran. "Does that answer your question to your satisfaction?"
"It tells me you do not know very much about birds," Taran chuckles. "And was a masterful evasion. Bravo; dealing with Voreyn was good for you." He leans on his staff, studying Varal with a small smile on his lips. "The wolf gains sharper teeth."
"Well. You caught me. I do know very little about birds," Varal states, slowly rising to his feet. He takes a moment to straighten his shirt, and then smiles inwardly. "Pointless to try to fix my appearance when my clothes look like this, eh?" he states with slight amusement. "But you must not know very much about canines. Kael is a wolf. I am not. I am a dog."
Taran lipquirks. "You would like to believe that," he says. "But a dog wears a collar with joy. To a dog, the collar says, 'my master loves me, and gives me his mark to show the world how much he loves me'. You do not seem a man filled with joy, tonight. To a wolf, a collar is merely something a leash is fastened to."
"I merely trade one collar for another. A looser one, with a longer leash," Varal retorts. "A dog can only wear so many collars comfortably."
Taran laughs at that. "Do you really? You would rather be a hound of the state, than a hound of the Light?" He waves a hand. "No...no. Do not answer that for me. It was not what I came here for."
"You forget hounds of the Duchy. I have never been a hounds of the Light. Never associated with the Church, nor the Ordinators," Varal supplies, then frowns slightly. "You have an uncanny ability to be at certain places at certain times, Songbird. Then do tell me, why are you here?'
Taran smiles. "But I did not say you were a hound of the Church, or the Ordinators," he says, almost gently. "I said you were a hound of the Light. Despite what they may tell you, it is not at all the same thing." He leans on his staff, holding it with both hands as he studies Varal. "Sometimes people...don't exactly lose their way, but they enter a cloudy place. Some find their way out without difficulty. Some start on darker paths. Some never come out at all. Some I can't help - most, I can't help, anymore, really. But you have entered the mist. I think you know that, yes?"
Varal frowns. "Are you divining my future through the Shadow, Songbird? Is this another vague warning?"
Taran makes a face at that. "I don't get visions," he says. "That seems to be Tshepsi's domain. I watch and I listen to the Song. I can still hear the Song in Light's Reach, so - I think it is just me, Varal, though Shadow certainly makes it easier to hear." He shakes his head. "I am not trying to be mystic; at the heart of it all, call it worry. Or perhaps concern. So few people live with any true integrity. We compromise ourselves for reasons we think are good, and sooner or later we forget who we are. Most of us."
"What good are these generalization, Taran? I need details. What am I going to face? What is so horrible that lingers before me?" Varal states, mildly annoyed. "You can't tell me that, I'm sure. Knowing that there is something does not help me in the slightest. For most, the trepidation it would inspire would just make the waiting worse. You're not doing me any favors." He pauses, then sighs. "But, I will do you a favor. Don't let the Shadow help you. Don't use your abilities. Don't damn you soul. Repudiate the Shadow, deny your Touch."
Taran raises both eyebrows. "A soul? I believe your cousins already decided I do not have one," he says softly. "No. No horrors lie before you, Varal. I would not worry if that were the case. You understand horrors. So simple, so starkly evil. No doubt, no hesitation slows you in such times." He shakes his head. "Change comes in times of doubt. You do not doubt where the darker Shadow is concerned. You know where you stand, then, and what you have to do."
And then...the bard does something odd, at least to any that know him. He gets down on one knee, bowing his head, and sets his bright staff on the ground before him. "In the name of Love and Light I ask forgiveness from all misdeeds and offenses, Count Varal Valoria of Wedgecrest Falls and Light's Watch."
"What is there to forgive, Taran? I may not likely, but if you hadn't been forgiven for any minor slight, we would not be talking here, now would we?" Varal states.
Taran raises his head, a small smile on his face. A little private, a little wicked, but decidedly amused. "You enter into an interesting company," he says. "I think my hope will be that they do not disappoint you too much."
"The Knighthood, you mean?" the Valoria questions, seemingly slightly confused.
Taran nods, picking up his staff again. "Confusing matter, honor. Very few people in the world truly get it right. And the few that do often find themselves misunderstood."
"Admittedly, being understand has never been a priority of mine," Varal notes plainly. "The Duchess waited long enough that I found my desire to become a knight reversed, and in time to find that the new Grandmaster wanted me as a charter member of his expansion." He pauses. "Mages ought to be much more wary of me now."
Taran blinks. "A mage that was not wary of you before now was a fool," he says simply. "You may choose to serve the law, but over you Law holds no power. The wolf may pretend to be a dog, but remains a wolf. You have more in common with your fenrir than with Norran."
"But before I had to obey the law, now I have to apply it," Varal replies. "Like I said, the dog has a longer leash."
Taran looks almost sad. "No...the wolf is on a shorter one. You have no authority over mages now, save as any other citizens of the kingdom. Mages are not the purview of the Knights. Shadow is not the purview of the Knights."
”Within reason, yes. But I can act if I see a mage using the Shadow," Varal responds. "And, Ailith may want to make use of me. She has in the past."
Taran laughs at that. "It does not surprise me." He seems, in a strange way, reassured somehow. "You will do. Yes. Tempting to watch your effect on the Knighthood; it was due for a bit of a shakedown."
"You see an awful lot of corruption everywhere, Taran," Varal states, then taps his chest, "for one who has to fight the greatest corruption within himself."
"Perhaps that is why I see it," says Taran. "Sunkissed live in light and hope. They find it in the strangest places, to my eyes. After a while, you all become blind to the dark. Knowing nothing of loneliness or despair, you forget how to see it in others. Brilliant to the eye, eventually you all become as the stars; beacons of light that are forever out of reach." He shakes his head. "As for me, I hold on with fingernails and willpower to the twilight. Though increasingly I find little point in the effort; if my song should end on the bass clef then it will."
"I have seen more darkness than most will in a lifetime, Taran, And that was without Shadow and Light, just human nature. I am far from blind to it. You may generalized about the kissed all you like, but that will never make you an authority, nor guarantee that what you believe is actually true," Varal chides. "You don't know how lonely or desperate I have been. Perhaps it makes me less forgiving of it in others, since I found a way to escape most of it."
Taran smiles a bit. "And yet you seem to wonder why I like you."
"What's not to like?" Varal drawls in return.
Taran just grins. "I generalize about Light, you generalize about Shadow. But you're nearer the twilight than any other that I could name. As for knowing - knowing is my power. I have no doubts there, as to why it is not one mirrored in Light."
Varal grunts. "One more vague prophecy, and I am going to be tempted to break something inside of you."
Taran shakes his head. "No. Just something to think on. My power is to know. What you feel, how you feel. What *everyone* feels." He gets to his feet. "And I can't change it. All the mistrust, all the anger, all the pride, the lonliness, the hate. I know where it is, how much of it fills the world. And I can't stop it. Go to Light's Reach? Stuffing cotton in my ears - it doesn't make it go away, it's turning my back on it. Sometimes I do anyway, just to breathe." He shrugs. "Let go of the corruption in me? How easy to say it. To stuff the cotton in my ears and pretend it isn't there."
"Things that are right and necessary aren't easy. I will never know how difficult it is to be Touched. I hate that it is more likely the threat of me than the love for the Light that will motivate the Touched, but so be it. I will do what I can, what i must, to prevent the Shadow's grasp from expanding. That is my calling," Varal states. "So, it would be criminal, morally, for me not to try ceaselessly. Lately, more than ever, I have seen damnation creeping on your fellows' features. Perhaps you are hiding yours, but I am not blind. I see the Shadow growing where once it could only hide in the Shadows."
Taran leans on his staff. "Do you think we do not know?" he asks. "But our own curse is not to know when we fall. We *will not know*, Varal. None of us will. To the last of us, when you come after us on the final hunt, we will fight you and tell you you are wrong. Every. Last. One. And should we say otherwise it will only be a bid to persuade you to stay your hand a little longer."
Varal smiles sadly. "I would just assume kill you all, and let the Light embrace you now rather than risk losing you to the Shadow. But, that is not considered acceptable. Murder, even." He pauses. "I could give a damn about protestations of innocence. When I know there is guilt, I will act. But you know that. We all know where everyone stands. It's an unpleasant impasse, and a strained coexistence. But it is what we have."
Taran tilts his head. "Unpleasant? No. Reassuring. Hold to that, at least."
Varal laughs softly. "It's reassuring for you. But, here I stand, always judging and evaluating. Worrying, watching. It's not pleasant."
Taran hms. "Perhaps that is why Celeste couldn't do it," he muses. "She used to say the same as you, you know. That she would take our lives when we fell. She sounded so very sincere about it. But she couldn't see that Kallyn had crossed a line, even when other mages *could*. Mercy stayed her hand longer than it should have. Or perhaps some other thing. I've rather lost touch."
"Kallyn did not kill anyone. She did not cross a line that Celeste felt was too far, I'd be willing to guess. Not that Celeste was right, but her heart is big. It's her greatest virtue, and perhaps vice at times," Varal concedes. "More distressing from that period, I find, were the mages themselves."
Taran smiles slightly. "Mercy may stay your hand, but it is not a trait of the Shadow," he says. "Was that what disturbed you? Or some other thing?"
"I found how two-faced and deceptive you can be. Meian's presentation of herself normally is not who she is, and who she is I find to be quite fearsome. Of you, Kael, and Meian, she is the most likely in my eyes to come to terms with my sword on short notice," Varal states. "And Sandrim was a bit of an idiot, too blase about the Shadow. Also dangerous."
Taran purses his lips. "The Firelights are predators and this surprises you?" he asks. "Tch. And Sandrim is young. He learns quickly - but still a lad in many ways, for all he's seen more than most his age."
"She surprised me, yes," Varal admits. "And now, I don't know. She is far too opinionated, as well. Thinks she knows military matters and the like. Finds fights. She is not who I thought she was."
"A grasp of tactics is natural to a predator," Taran notes. "Else a wolf pack could do little. And now you will be a Knight. The biggest pack, as it were, but hardly cohesive. The Shadow will not be your day to day concern. Will that be a relief? To put that worry into the hands of the Ordinators?"
Varal smirks at Taran. "You honestly believe I would put aside the Shadow for a moment?"
Taran shrugs. "If you do not defer to the Ordinators in such matters, you might not stay a Knight for long," he says. "You see what I mean about choices, compromises, now? You will certainly make a *better* knight than average. But you may not be one for terribly long if the politics gets to you."
"I warned Norran as much. If they remove me from the knighthood, so be it," Varal states. "It will change very little, just the form of authority I can wield."
Taran nods - not simple agreement, but a thoughtful confirmation. "Good," he says. "When power is an end to itself, Shadow is always there. When it's a means to an end there is still hope, and honor." He stretches, then, and on the six-foot-five giant, it's quite a gesture. "You will do fine. I was worried; things feel rather vague and unsettled in the world of late, and I do not like that. But *you* will be all right." He grins. "You don't like vague prophecies? Neither do I, but I get them all the time. I will leave you to your vigil then. I am sure Norran is *fascinating* company."
"Norran is not liked, but he is a good man," Varal says, tone a little hard. "A safe journey, then. Light Bless."
The bard laughs at that, a delighted sort of sound. "You say that as if I did not know," he replies, grinning. "But that does not make him a scintillating conversationist. Light keep, Varal, as I am sure it will."
"You just need to know what to talk about," Varal replies, nodding.
Taran nods a concession to that, offers a waves, and walks back into the trees - the ranger-bard disappearing into them fairly quickly.