There it sat, half-sunken into the lake. He did not recall a lake every being there, only a small, meandering river. Yet, time had eroded away both its banks, and the manor that once stood upon them. All that was left, now, was a single turret and a part of the wall. The rest had long since crumbled away into the waters, now only pieces of the rocky shoreline. All that had once been, was now reclaimed by the land. There was no grandeur of the noble house that once stood there, nothing to remember it by. Save distant memories held by the only remaining piece on the board. A pale, and lonely knight who now sat upon a tree stump at the lake’s edge. He looked as if the very colour had been drained from him entirely. Not just by the emptiness before him, but in a manner that seemed as a permanent scar. His dull, greying-upon-black hair tousled by his own hands, and wind. Held tightly now between his fingers, head bowed as his elbows rested upon his knees. Dangling from the fingers of his left hand, glinting in the sunlight, was a small and elegantly simple silver amulet of Mara, and a letter. Even in his silent grief, and even as his shoulders shook, he held it gently. As if, with the lightest pressure of touch, it would crumple into dust. For it was yellowed with time, the edges of the vellum brittle.
If there were such a thing as Fate, it was naught but a cruel design. For if he had met his end, and sorely did he wish he had, their wait would have been but a brief passing of time. Now, he wondered just how long it had been.
It was finally the undeniable necessity to sleep that drove him from that tree stump. In the shadows of another day fading away, he slowly turned his path toward the nearest road. For there was none that ventured here, now. He did, however, recall the merchants he had passed some days prior mentioning a wayfarer’s rest not far from here. Perhaps, it would be busy.
Who in their right mind would build a town that far north, the pale knight questioned in his mind.
For a moment, Matthew wondered if he had read the sign wrong. It was not entirely impossible, he was still getting through the translation book the Conclave librarian had “lent” him; or, perhaps he had not entirely sobered up yet. While both were true, so too was the sign. It pointed further northward: Gondryck's Nest. He recalled, in another time, venturing that far north to patrol the small swath of farmland under the House. Surely, no sane person would think to build a settlement so close to the Reach. Then again, it had been so long. Maybe they were no longer the threat they once were. And so, in the growing light of dawn, the pale knight made his way down the northern road. If only for the sake of finding a familiar path.
But it became increasingly clear, the further the road took him the less likely he was to find such a path. For a time the woodland surrounding the merchant road was calm, verdant even in the summer sun. Certainly it was a wild place, but that was how he remembered Bangkorai. A wild land, still untamed by the hands of men. While perilous at times, it had been a life of tightly-knit kin seeking to root themselves. In a way, he felt more at home walking through the looming boughs of the forest. It was a sense that could, almost, allow him to breath. A mild, fleeting pleasantry that allowed the still-sobering knight a quiet relief. Yet, as the day waned so too did the light in the forest. It was subtle at first, merely the passing shadow of a cloud perhaps. But the feeling grew as the forest began to lose its vibrancy, and the boughs above gave off more shadow than greenly-filtered light. It was as Matthew approached a series of rising rocks along the road, covered in thick moss with small, white flowers, that he truly felt the lingering sense of dread brought on by this place. It was there, on that dusty road that the knight paused. His armour catching brief glints of sunlight that managed to filter through the swaying branches that shook in the stale wind.
I know this feeling, Matthew thought grimly. Slowly turning to look at the area around himself, one hand reached to wrap around the hilt of his sword. A drawn, and bitter look on his face as he sank further into thought. It is as if … the Host passed by here.
He knew that it had not, no. That had been one of the first things he had taken to library for. Styriche and his Host were long dead. So what then was this? Before the dusty, memory-stolen, and dishevelled knight could sink any further into his memories a piercing cry for help broke the stillness over him.
Bandits, a notorious problem in these parts. Today was no exception.
Around the bend of the rock outcropping, further down the road was a rutted merchant cart. The rut that had trapped the cart’s wheel suspiciously deeper than the others. Bundles of wheat, and crates of peaches had spilled out onto the road from the kiltered cart. Wood and reins creaked as the horse pulling the load thrashed and kept trying to bolt the cart out of the rut, but by now the beast was heaving for breath against the strain. Another cry carried up over it, a boy calling out for help in desperation. Only to be cut off by the loud clamor of steel, again and again. A middle-aged man, barely covered in leather armor was desperately fighting off two bandits with a tarnished short sword. The bandits did not look much better off, in mismatched hides and leathers with weapons just as tarnished. But their ferocity was outmatching the man's desperation.
“I told you to run, Orin!” the accosted merchant yelled, barely holding his footing against the heaving blow dealt into his sword. “Get!”
“B-but, Pa!” the young man protested between chattering teeth. In fairness to the poor boy, he had tried to make a run for it. He had made it just as far as the further peach crate. Now, he was curled up behind it, listening to the rhythmic ‘thunk’ of arrows sinking into the wood and peaches. He wasn’t sure if it really was an attempt to hit him, or some cruel game as the fifth, then sixth arrow sank into the crate.
But there was no seventh arrow. A sudden commotion of rustling trees, and breaking branches could be heard from the treeline. Then, it went still. It was enough to make the young man peek just over the edge of the crate, and to make both of the assailing bandits pause. A fleeting moment to catch breath, and tighten the grip upon hilts. Until, the scrawny figure of a slapdash hide clad bandit came flying out of the brushline, and slammed into the side of the wagon. With a groan the ruffian crumpled into the dirt road, and remained there, perfectly still.
“The fu--” one of the bandits started, cut off by his own companions axe sinking into the panel of the cart next to him: a warning shot.
“I’ll have to ask you fellows to cease in your…” Matthew stepped out of the brush as he spoke, a few stray leaves in his flat, greying hair. His full-plate dusty, and having a stray branch caught in the underlayer of chainmail by his shoulder. He held his sword at the ready in one hand, and his shield in the other. Yet, the tip of his blade dipped low, and wavered even as he lost his wording. “Well, if you would cease.”
The candid, plate-armoured knight drew looks of bewilderment from the two bandits, as well as the merchant and his son. Now, the odds did not seem so enticing to the bandits. They were kitted more for hunting, not dealing with a knight, or a guard, or whomever this was. This merchant cart had been easy pickings, and its load seemed just enticing enough to make them hesitate in leaving it. It was the unspoken desperation that lead to one of the bandits taking the chance, in the midst of gawking confusion, to slam the hilt of his sword into the side of the merchants head. It dropped the man in a black-out groan, even odds are never prefered by bandits. It was an act obviously distasteful to the knight, for he gave them both a flat glower. They had their warning, and as Matthew suddenly began approaching them he adjusted the grip on his shield.
“Oi, who t’fuck ya think yeh are --” one of the bandits started, a sun-tawny man with a few too few teeth and a long sword. Before he could finish his whistle of an insult, he found the knight almost in his face.
There had been a brief shimmer of silver come over the knight’s form, and just as suddenly he moved all the quicker. For every pace the bandits took to ready themselves, Matthew took two. Before the longsword-wielding bandit could bring the weapon to meet the knight’s own sword, he found the knight but a pace from him. Then, he found the patinated metal and wood of a green shield in front of him, then abruptly in his face. There was a sharp ‘crack’ as the shield slammed into the bandit's face and torso. With a shrieked cuss of blind pain, he stumbled back. Having dropped his sword to clutch at his face, blood pouring from his broken nose. In the course of the bandit stumbling away, holding his broken face, the gap was closed by another sword being brought down against Matthew. A swing that barely glanced off the knight’s shield, before he locked the crossguard of his sword over top of the bandits. He moved just quickly enough, that the remaining uninjured bandit barely had time to disengage. Looking at the knight with a wide-eyed stare, he moved to yank himself and his weapon away. But the knight moved with his every jolting step, holding the lock tightly with his shield on his outside arm. With another jolt, the bandit tried to take the opportunity to yank out of the lock once more, only to find the rut right behind his own footing. With an ungracious yelp, the bandit lost his balance and found himself wedged in the rut.
“Wait, wait!” the bandit, held up his hands, having lost his weapon. Sure enough, the point of Matthew’s blade waited, just a hair’s breadth from his neck. With a flat, focused expression the knight stared at him with eyes a near-colourless silver-blue.
“On my knight as an honour, I cannot allow you to … hurt these people,” the knight said clearly, but he seemed to have a hard time choosing his words. Quite a hard time, for he was not quite sober. His words making the bandit stare at him in bewilderment. But the look faded, and Matthew barely caught the glint in his eye. Then, another glint. This one of steel, at the corner of his eye. The archer had, evidently, awoken and taken the axe from the cart. Before the pale knight could fully turn with his shield, there was a cracking of wood as one of the peach crates was dropped on top of the archers head. With the promise of a long, long headache the archer dropped once more. The young lad staring at the body before him, and then the knight. He almost looked apologetic, but just a bit proud of himself.
With a huff, Matthew gave the young man an approving, thankful, nod. Already, the sprawled out merchant was starting to groan, and the bandit with his broken face had sank to his knees. He was trying to stem the flow of blood from his nose and mouth, coughing hoarsely.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any rope, would you?” the knight asked the young man.