The clouds drifted serenely past the lofty peaks, dotted with snow even in the height of summer. Famratyr inhaled the pine-scented air and sighed happily. "I've never been to Mounteblank, Azfel. What's it like?"
The dark elf shrugged. "I have not been either. From what I have heard, the castle is very grand, and the views are excellent. The air is pleasantly cool in the hottest days of summer, and the land, though rocky, is quite fertile."
"And what about Duke Valentine?"
"Famratyr, I have never met the man."
"He is bold and brash and charming," Claudia said. "And just and brave and very caring."
"You have seen him, m'lady?"
"Of course I have. He's my uncle."
The dark elf and the werewolf stopped in their tracks. "He's your uncle," Famratyr repeated slowly. "Your uncle. And you never once mentioned this before?"
Azfelyndoran smirked. "I knew you seemed a little too polished to be just a common girl. You are highborn, then?"
Claudia shrugged. "It's not a great secret. I thought you knew."
"You never told us, my lady, and I am no mind reader."
"Oh. Well, Lady Claudia Rosemont at your service."
"Rosemont?" Famratyr murmured. "Oh, Azfel, we kidnapped the daughter of the lord of Sybalia!"
"Kidnapped? No, I came of my own free will!" Claudia scowled at the werewolf. "Did you forget that they were hunting me in the forest?"
"I figured that was because you stole some lady's jewels or something. Or that you were the Dark Lady. Why were they…?"
"I murdered my fiancé."
Azfelyndoran raised an eyebrow. "Lady Claudia, I did not think you had it in you to be so ruthless. I think we shall get along famously."
"I didn't really kill Ferdinand!" Claudia snapped. "The Warrior framed me!" The young woman drew her cloak closer around her shoulders. "Anyway… Cassius Valentine is my uncle. And he'll have to help us. That's what family is for, right?"
"One can only hope so, my lady."
They camped at the base of a mountain road that led to Mounteblank, deciding not to risk the perilous trail in the dark. The three travelers huddled around the fire, and Claudia began to feel a twinge of doubt. Surely her father had sent word to Cassius about Ferdinand's death and Claudia's escape. She could be leading Famratyr and Azfelyndoran into a trap for all she knew. Would her uncle put duty before family? Did they know if he was indeed a loyal servant of the Darkness? Was it all a front for King Edrick, to lull the creatures of the dark into a sense of security so that the king's soldiers could swoop down and kill them?
Claudia did not sleep that night.
Her companions rose at dawn, and they made their way up the steep, winding road. As they climbed, the gray towers of Mounteblank Castle rose up between the mountains, almost as high as the peaks themselves. The town of Mounteblank bustled with activity as merchants hawked their wares on the main thoroughfare. Horses and carts swarmed in the streets, making a chaotic jumble. Claudia tapped the shoulder of one of the guardsmen standing along the street to attempt to keep a semblance of order.
"Excuse me sir?"
"I'm no knight, ma'am. Not yet anyway. What can I help you with?"
"Is Duke Valentine holding court soon? My companions and I have come a long way. Do you know of an inn we could stay in to wait?"
"No need to wait, ma'am. Duke Valentine holds court every afternoon. Would you like me to take you up to the castle, or do you think you can make it on your own?"
"You have a duty here; I will leave you to it."
"Are you sure, ma'am? I could use a bit of a break."
"That won't be necessary, sir. Good day."
"Good day, ma'am. Take care now."
Claudia led Famratyr and Azfelyndoran over the ancient stone bridge that spanned the gorge between Mounteblank Castle and its town, blending into the crowd of other petitioners. More guards pushed back the heavy wood and iron doors to the castle, allowing the mass of people into the great hall of castle, where Cassius Valentine sat on a carved marble throne. The commoners lined up to give their grievances. Azfelyndoran tapped Claudia's shoulder with a slender, elegant finger.
"Perhaps we should wait in the back?"
Claudia nodded, and they retreated to a shadowed alcove at the back of the chamber. Famratyr's nostrils flared as a group of rather shabby looking vagrants wandered past. "Werewolves."
Claudia blinked. "They don't look that different from normal humans."
"No, of course not. Not in this form, and not with the Darkness weakened as it is. I'm certain no one else in this room can tell."
Claudia nodded slowly, turning this over in her head. When a group of farmers approached Duke Valentine asking for a group of huntsmen to go into the forest around their village and hunt the wolf pack that was ravening their sheep, Famratyr tensed. "What's wrong?" Claudia asked.
Famratyr gestured at the family of werewolves. "Those wolves are part of their pack. Some of my people were trapped as humans after Kalaryndor fell, but others remain locked in their animal forms. Those people are asking the duke to kill the werewolves' family."
"How can you tell?"
"How would you look if someone was planning out the death of your father right in front of you?"
Claudia nodded slowly. "A little like that, I suppose."
"I am afraid I must deny your request," Duke Valentine said with a sigh. "My best huntsmen are occupied elsewhere in the realm, tracking for Edrick's army."
"He said Edrick," Azfelyndoran noted. "Not King Edrick. Perhaps it is nothing, but we may have cause to be hopeful."
Famratyr grinned. "Valentine knows that those aren't ordinary wolves, and he doesn't want them killed. I like him more already."
They waited quietly for three hours as the crowd of people thinned more and more. The werewolf family approached Duke Valentine hesitantly, and asked him for the funds to start the construction of a new village on the edge of the Mounteblank dukedom. Cassius smiled and granted the request, sending a steward to get the requisite gold. "And what," he asked, leaning forward, "will this new village be called?"
"Moonhold," the youngest of the wolves declared proudly, only to be silenced by his father.
The duke stroked his well-trimmed beard. "Moonhold? I like it. Well, I wish you only the best of luck. Next?"
It was late afternoon when the last of the petitioners had their audience. Claudia ducked out of the alcove and fell in at the back of the queue, waiting as a woman begged recompense for the pigs she had been forced to kill when several of Duke Valentine's soldiers had taken a rest at her farmstead. Valentine paid her for the value of the pigs, and sent her on her way.
He stretched his arms behind his head and smiled down at Claudia. "Well, are you the last one today, madam?"
The young woman nodded to her comrades, and they took up positions at her side. She glanced up at her uncle and drew her hood back. "Uncle Cassius?"
"Light be good, Claudia!" the duke exclaimed. "Is that really you? What are you doing in Mounteblank? And dressed like that…"
Claudia shivered and cast a glance at the guards around the room. "Obviously," Duke Valentine said with a charming smile, "this is a family matter. We'll retire to my private study. Come along, dear." He stood up from his throne and gestured her through a door at the rear of the chamber. Claudia followed behind quickly, but the guards at the door crossed their spears before Azfelyndoran and Famratyr could pass through.
"Oh, no, they have to come too!" Claudia cried. Cassius raised his eyebrow silently. Claudia nodded vigorously. "Surely you've met my cousins, Nigel and Edmure? From… from my mother's side?"
Cassius nodded slowly. "Yes, I think I saw them at Rosemont Keep the last time I was there." The guards uncrossed their spears, and the two dark creatures hurried behind Claudia.
Cassius caught a passing messenger by the arm. "Send Jason to my study. And be quick about it." The boy nodded and hurried off.
"Nigel and Edmure?" Famratyr remarked. "Who's who? You know, in case it comes up."
"I think you are Nigel," Azfelyndoran replied. "It… fits."
"Aw, but I wanted to be Edmure."
"No, I think I shall keep that one."
Cassius led them up a spiral staircase to a high room in a tall tower. He motioned to several armchairs, and the travelers sat down. The duke crossed to his desk and drummed his fingers against the carved oak. "Claudia, I have heard many strange things these past few weeks. The shocking and sudden death of Count Ferdinand Di Napoli of Malian, and then your strange disappearance from Rosemont Keep.
"Now you turn up here; wearing rather fetching headwear, might I add. Something about it brings to mind the news of a new Dark Lord rising on the Sybalian frontier. Now, where would the link be there? Perhaps it has something to do with your traveling companions being a werewolf and a dark elf."
Famratyr whistled through his teeth. "This man's sharp."
Duke Valentine nodded. "Claudia, I am not going to turn you back over to your father. I only want to help you. But to do that, I need the whole story."
Claudia glanced at Azfelyndoran. "How did he know this was the Crown?"
"Anyone who has pledged themselves to the Darkness can feel it, my lady."
"So can we trust him?"
"I do not think we have any other choice."
Before Claudia could say anything more, the door to the study swung open, and a young man roughly Claudia's age ducked in. He was dressed in simple clothes and a leather breastplate, and his hair was plastered to his brow by a sheen of sweat. "Father," murmured, inclining his head. "You wanted to see me?"
"Jason, please take a seat," Cassius said, gesturing to the empty chair by the window. "Claudia, do you remember your cousin Jason?"
Claudia paused for a moment. She remembered that she had a relative named Jason, two years her junior. He was not truly her cousin, or not her first cousin, anyway. And the last time she had seen him, she had been just six years old, and Jason four. Thirteen years later, of course Jason would look different than he did in Claudia's hazy recollection.
Jason nodded by way of greeting, and turned his gaze back to his father. "Rosemont?"
"Yes, Claudia Rosemont."
"Charmed," he said to Claudia. "Why am I here?"
"Because Claudia is."
"I do not fully understand."
"Neither do I. Perhaps your cousin will care to enlighten us?"
Claudia folded her hands on her lap. "Uncle Cassius, I was told that Mounteblank was the last safe place left for… for people like me." She glanced at her companions. "People like us."
"People… like you."
"People who belong… to the Darkness."
Cassius paced around his desk. "And what is a sweet girl like you doing allied to the Darkness?"
"The Triad chose me. They chose me to be the new Dark Lady."
Duke Valentine stroked his goatee again. "So I can see by the Crown on your head. But why? Why you?"
Claudia sighed. "Because I was the closest to Kalaryndor when he died."
A hush fell over the room. "Wait a moment, m'lady," Famratyr growled. "You mean to say that you were at the battle too?"
Claudia nodded. "I was serving as my brother's squire. I was right next to Allister when he drove the Dawn Sword into Kalaryndor's heart."
"You are not as fragile as you first appear, my lady," Azfelyndoran murmured.
For whatever reason, Jason groaned and pretended to become very interested in the view outside. The duke of Mounteblank nodded slowly. "So… you were close to Kalaryndor, and were chosen to be the new Dark Lord? This is interesting. And when did you take up the Crown?"
"Shortly after Ferdinand's death."
"Yes, I suppose I would have known if you accepted it before the ball."
"Uncle Cassius, why did you go to the Darkness?"
The duke sat down and sighed. "Claudia, you know, of course, that my dukedom is on the Galletian frontier? Many creatures of darkness pass through my lands, and for many years, they ravaged my people. When the war was coming to a boiling point, I knew I could not allow the people of Mounteblank to suffer anymore. I joined the Shadow Lords for the good of my people, but it was also in their best interest to keep up the pretext of following Edrick. And, since Kalaryndor lost, I haven't been executed for treason."
"A wise precaution," Azfelyndoran agreed.
"So your new friends told you Mounteblank was a safe place," Cassius continued, "and they're right. I have been offering sanctuary to any dark creatures that come within my borders. So, my dear Claudia, how long will you be staying?"
"Not long, I should think," Azfelyndoran said quickly, before Claudia had a chance to reply. "The longer we linger here, the more danger we pose to you. We need to outfit ourselves for a journey to Andothasariel."
"Andothasariel?" Cassius asked. "What's there?"
Cassius nodded. "I've heard about that. Kalaryndor's legendary blade."
"Not just Kalaryndor's, your grace. That Sword was held by all Dark Lords before him."
"Right. So, you need my help on this journey?"
"We need to be better equipped," Famratyr said. "For the most part, we traveled over civilized lands to get here. The unsettled places of Galletia are rather tame, especially compared to the things we will encounter beyond its borders."
Cassius reached into a drawer on his desk and pulled out a rolled up map of the lands surrounding Galletia. "Azfelyndoran, if you do not mind my asking, could you show me where Andothasariel is?"
The dark elf nodded, and after a moment of thought, pointed to an area marked on the map as uncharted forest. "It is somewhere within there. I cannot tell the exact location from that map."
"It's good enough," the duke mumbled, pouring over the document. He ran his fingers along the Shieldwall that formed Galletia's northern border. "Claudia, have you ever heard of Lord Mandrake?"
"No, I don't believe so."
"He is of a minor house along the Shieldwall, and a Shadow Lord."
"A Shadow Lord on the Shieldwall?" Claudia gasped. "But that means he could let the dark creatures through!"
Duke Valentine nodded. "He could, but he never did. He has his honor. No, he brokered a deal with the Darkness to keep his lands safe, much as I did. He shelters dark creatures as much as he has to, and lets them pass through his gate into the northlands, but he never lets them pass the other way. Anyway, his keep is here." He tapped a circle on the map, not far from the corner of Galletia closest to Andothasariel. "I can give you provisions enough to reach that point, but I am rather strapped for resources with all of my refugees, refugees who, for all intents and purposes, should not exist. But Lord Mandrake can get you equipped for a journey through the north that, even in this summery clime, is still bitterly cold."
Claudia smiled. "Uncle, I can't thank you enough."
"Thank me when you have your Sword, my lady."
"Uncle Cassius, don't call me that. I'm just Claudia. I've only ever been just Claudia."
Duke Valentine stood up and placed his hands on Claudia's shoulders. "You are far more than 'just Claudia' now, my dear. You have the hope of all those sworn of Darkness resting on your shoulders. You are a queen."
"I never wanted to be."
"And that is what makes me sure you are ready."
"Uncle Cassius, I don't…"
"My lady, you are probably quite tired from your travels. I have had rooms prepared for you three, and baths can quickly be drawn for you. Take your rest and have something to eat. We can resume our talks later."
Claudia curled up on the feather bed, drawing the blankets around her. She felt clean for the first time in weeks. She had just eaten a sumptuous dinner of warm soup, flavored with bits of meat and vegetables. It sat in her stomach like a comforting weight, letting her feel secure and safe. Her silk dressing gown fell around her in voluminous folds. She reached over to her bedside table and wrapped her fingers around a porcelain mug of tea.
With great reluctance, she leveled herself up on the bed and sipped the warm amber liquid, lightly flavored with honey. An involuntary sigh of contentment escaped her pursed lips, and she folded her legs up underneath her.
The young woman whirled towards the north-facing window, ready to hurl the mug of still-steaming tea at the intruder to buy herself some time. "Oh. It's you. Why are you back?"
The Patron shrugged. "I am your guardian, Claudia. It is my duty to appear and guide you."
"I don't need a guide."
"Because you are going to rush off to this Lord Mandrake, and then to Andothasariel?"
Claudia hesitated, regarding the old man warily. "Why? Is that the wrong course?"
"No, it is the best thing for it at the moment. But you wish to leave Mounteblank as soon as possible. I am here to tell you to take some time, to rest here. You're safe for now, Claudia. Allow Famratyr and Azfelyndoran to rest. Take time to plan, to gather information. Do not be hasty. That was one of Kalaryndor's many flaws; he rushed into things without thinking."
"And you don't want that to happen to me?"
"I want you to learn from Kalaryndor's mistakes. You don't have to be a warmonger, my dear. There are other paths for a Dark Lord to take."
Claudia nodded slowly, taking another sip of her tea. "You think so?"
"Claudia, my dear, I know so. I've seen it happen." The Patron sat down next to her on the bed. "I will come again to tell you when you need my council."
"Thank you. I think."
"It is the least I can do for you, Claudia. You helped me. My powers are returning, and soon I will be as strong as ever." The Patron smiled, and unlike when the Warrior or the Mother smiled, it crinkled the skin around his eyes, deepening his laugh lines. Claudia smiled back, but a small part of her wondered if the smile was genuine or a very convincing fake. The Patron did have many years of practice, after all.
Her distrust must have shown on her face, because the Patron laughed. "I see I have done my work too well! Claudia, I am truly happy! Sometimes, you must take things at face value."
"But what if someone has a very good deception?"
"I would not worry about that, my dear. Kalaryndor never did. And before you argue that Kalaryndor died, remember that it was on the battlefield, and not some assassin's poison. Besides, your elf friend is suspicious enough of anyone who might cross your path."
"Azfelyndoran is not my friend." Or was he? Could she really trust the ruthless, vindictive dark elf? Famratyr at least seemed loyal and earnest, almost like one of her brother's dogs. But Azfelyndoran was a puzzle to her still, something so foreign and beyond comprehension that it frightened Claudia a little. Could she even trust him?
The Patron gave another smile. "Yes, I can see where your mind is going. Use this chance to learn about your allies, Claudia. You will need them in the days ahead. The road you walk is not an easy one, I regret to say. You must know and trust these companions of yours, because your life may well depend upon it."
Claudia nodded and set her teacup down. In the fraction of a second that she looked away, the Patron vanished, leaving nothing but a chilly breeze that sent a shiver up the young woman's spine.
The next evening, Claudia and her uncle walked the ramparts of Castle Mounteblank. In the courtyard far below, Famratyr and Jason sparred, their swords clattering against each other and shattering the ethereal quiet of the mountain keep. Claudia leaned against the wall, her brown hair whipping around her face. The duke paused next to her, a tiny smile tugging at his lips.
"Have you been coloring your hair, Claudia? You simply must tell my wife your secret. Your aunt Emile is fretting about going a little gray at the roots."
"Coloring my hair?" Claudia exclaimed. "Of course not!"
"It is considerably darker than it was at the ball, you must admit. When I saw you at your father's ball, it was like burnished copper. And now look at it; it's a dark as tree bark."
Claudia grabbed a lock her hair in her fingers and peered at it. Perhaps it was a little darker. But then again, it was dusk. And the light was not terribly good. "Uncle Cassius, I'm sure you're imagining it."
"Perhaps. But perhaps not."
Any further discussion was cut off by the clang of metal and Famratyr's sharp yowl. Claudia and Cassius raced to the other edge of the wall and glanced down. Jason stood over the fallen werewolf, his practice sword leveled at Famratyr's brow. "You're not just swinging a club," Jason told him. "There's a… a finesse to it. If you want to beat people over the head with a stick, get a mace. But if you're bent on learning the ways of the sword, then shape up."
"Finesse?" Azfelyndoran said, emerging from a shadowed doorway. His soft-spoken manner made Claudia have to strain to pick out his words. "You will not find much of that in Famratyr here."
"Oh, you know it to be true. Now give me that blade." The dark elf snatched Famratyr's sword away and settled into a fencer's stance. "If you want a true opponent, Young Valentine, then look no further than me."
Jason said something in reply that Claudia could not make out. Then, he lunged at Azfelyndoran with a yell, his sword raised high. Azfelyndoran stepped out of the way and circled around Jason's back. He could have easily ended the bout there, scoring an easy touch. But for whatever reason, he did not. Jason came at him again, and the dark elf parried the strike. They remained locked in that engagement for a long moment, appearing to converse back and forth.
Then Jason gave a roar of fury and pushed on his sword, making Azfelyndoran stagger back a pace. The dark elf remained on the defensive, dodging and parrying all of Jason's blows. He was obviously toying with the boy, and enjoying himself immensely. With a flick of his wrist, he disarmed Jason and sent the boy's sword clattering across the cobblestones.
"You have a long way to go, Young Valentine."
Jason stiffened and stalked out of the courtyard. Azfelyndoran turned to face Claudia and the duke atop the walls and gave a theatrical bow before smoothing down his silvery hair. Duke Valentine nodded slowly. "Azfelyndoran must be an excellent swordsman to have defeated my son so easily."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Jason is easily the best swordsman in Mounteblank, and someday he may even become the best in Galletia. He can defeat all of my guardsmen, sometimes as many as five at once. He is better than I was at my prime, and I'm sure your father has told you of my prowess."
Claudia nodded mutely. She had heard stories of her Uncle Cassius in his younger days, an absolute terror on the battlefield. It was rumored that he was once asked to serve as the captain of Edrick Septimus's personal guard, but to do so he would have had to renounce the Mounteblank duchy. That price had been too high for Cassius Valentine to pay, so he turned the king down. If Jason had inherited a fraction of his father's skill, he would have been truly formidable. But if his prowess was at all like his father claimed… then how skilled was Azfelyndoran?
"Uncle Cassius, do you think I can trust him?"
"I think so, Claudia." The duke shrugged. "He is beholden to your Crown, and at least for now, your interests overlap. He wants his magic back, and you are the only person who can give it to him. He'll have to follow you loyal to attain that."
"And when he gets it back?"
"Keep him on a very short leash."
Claudia glanced at her uncle. "What's wrong?"
"Brace yourself, my dear. We are in for a storm."
Claudia shuddered. "You mean… Edrick has found me already?"
"What's worse than that?"
"My wife just realized you're here."
"Cassius Valentine, you rotten scoundrel!" a woman shrieked as she flew from the door of the nearest gatehouse, her golden hair in disarray. "You have the gall to welcome our niece into your home, and not even tell me? I… I ought to have you whipped!" She swatted Cassius with her folding fan. "You maybe the duke, but I am the duchess! This is my home as well, and perhaps even more so! Where do you get off, keeping her hidden from me for a whole day?"
"Um," Claudia stammered. "Hello, Aunt Emile."
The frenzied woman turned to the Dark Lady and gave a brief curtsey. "Hello, Claudia dear. My, how you've grown. You really must stop by my solar for tea as soon as you are able." Then, she whirled back to her husband and swatted him again. "Answer me, you fiend! What did you think you were doing?"
Claudia politely excused herself and waited until she was out of sight before breaking into a fit of giggles that did not at all befit a woman of her station.