Published: November 3, 2012
Countess D'Lione found Benedict despite his best efforts, and had cornered him off of the main hall. She'd caught on quickly to the limp he tried to hide. To say she could be a mother hen at times was an understatement. It was only by her grace, and that of her children, that life of the castle-thralls was tolerable. She had her hands on once bountiful hips which had withered with age. Her hair had once been a lustrous black, but was not streaked with grey. There was still a regal beauty to the cast of her face, untarnished even by wrinkles. Her hazel eyes were flecked with gold, and brimmed with concerned anger. "How many times have I told you not to cut across the cairns, Benedict?"
"Twice?" He teased, trying to deflate her displeasure. It didn't work. "Really. I'm fine, your Excellency. I promise. The cut is cleaned and bandaged."
The woman tensed. Her soft blue dress had a high neck of white lace made it impossible for her to swallow in distress. The Countess tried anyway. "Did, something attack you?"
"Only my baseless fears." He turned his similar gaze away from hers. Gold-tinged hazel eyes were not uncommon in the D'Lione lands, the Countess' family had been in charge of it even before the Sundered Kings fell. Embarrassment enflamed his cheeks. "I cut my foot on jagged rock. Please, I am fine."
Her eyes shimmered for a few breaths, but whatever else the Countess was going to say had to wait. Her eldest son, Dorian, tromped down the hall toward them. He was towering and thick just like his sire. However, he had inherited his mother's keen mind and careful demeanor. Still, Benedict had seen Dorian pushed to the point of temper breaking and knew it was every bit as deadly as the usurper Kirkland. The truth of the matter was Dorian D'Lione had more claim to be the Earl than his father, Ardent's royal blood only passed through the mother's side. The Countess backed away from the servant and turned to her pride and joy. "Dorian."
"Mother." The heir smiled in an adoring way, bowing his head with respect. His grin didn't fade as he looked sideways at Benedict. "You are tormenting the poor thrall again, for shame! I suppose that you have told him about the terrible outfit he's going to be squeezed into? It will be better than what he is wearing. Really Benedict, you have no eye for fashion."
"A matter of bad blood, your lordship." Benedict laughed. He gave them both a quizzical look. What was this about a terrible outfit? "I am afraid I am unrefined because of it. You know how we lowly folk are. I do have to ask, what is your excuse?" His voice dropped so the terrible break of protocol for humor's sake would not be overheard.
True to form Dorian smirked and looked down at his clothing. He had adopted his father's tendency to wear somber colors most of the time. Today, due to High Summer, he swathed himself in a pale yellow shirt under a burnt orange vest, with shined knee-high boots and deep blue pants. The colors actually flattered the man, but he'd go back to black and grays tomorrow. Neither he or the Countess chided the owned orphan's errant tongue. "Appearances, Benedict. Appearances. I expect you to make the same sacrifice for D'Lione. Mmm, tomorrow we can go falconing?"
"The day after. Tomorrow will be spent nursing hangovers, I fear." Benedict grinned. Some thought it odd with how much disdain the Earl Kirkland had for the bounded, peasants in general that the heir and a castle-thrall were as thick as thieves. In truth, Benedict felt Dorian was like a brother. He was sure that the nobleman believed the same. The day that the Earl died and his son could take his title properly, was the day that Benedict's life would turn for the better. He caught the Countess giving them a wry smile, tinged with the mysterious sadness which often haunted her. He suspected it had to do with the murder of her first husband and son.
"Mmm, not in front of mother." Dorian stage whispered while looking sideways at the woman.
She tutted. "Come along, Benedict."
"Oh no. Save me, your lordship!" The servant laughed as the Countess tugged on his sleeve. He had little choice but to follow where lead, and would dress as told. As long as he was not under the Earl's eye, life wasn't so bad.
By the time he was dressed Benedict reconsidered how terrible life was. Nevertheless he followed the Countess into the main hall, trying not to be self-conscious the whole time. It wasn't that his suit was hideous; in fact it was the height of fashion. The problem was the attire was far above his station, which wasn't a difficult standard. That was not the point. The Countess gifted him with an expertly fitted crushed velvet vest. Its crimson tones were stark over a flowing white shirt of the finest cotton. The cut of the vest, which had polished bone buttons, was low enough to hide what Benedict felt was an overly-large codpiece. Black leggings swooped down into low cut shoes, with buckles he suspected were actually silver. One of the maids had quickly fussed with his nigh-colorless hair before sticking it under a fashionable hat. He had to wonder just what the lady of lions was up to. She certainly wasn't going to tell him. Instead as they slipped into the grand hall she motioned for him to mingle, and then headed for the main table. Merry chaos filled the abode full of music, laughter, ale and the scent of roasted pheasant. Succulent pies and sharp tarts sat amount pungent cheeses and those damn olives. Benedict didn't mingle, instead he found a patch of wall to try and melt into.
Frustratingly that didn't work.
So the bonded youth stayed where he was and let his gaze roam. No one approached him demanding more mead, or the directions to a discrete place for one act or another. It was still too early in the evening for the latter anyway. The hall wasn't even full yet, there were still empty chairs, even one entire table. Guests milled about, chatting over frivolous things. As more arrived they proceeded directly to the main table, where the Earl squatted in his tall chair. One might say the Earl Kirkland d'Lione never had a choice bit to be churlish. His brow was thick, a pair of shaggy black brows hung there akin to dirty tapestries. The man's eyes were nearly always narrowed, as if he expected a dagger in the back at any moment. His lower jaw was covered light black beard, save where a scar split chin to lip. The mark forever stained him as the usurper, the Countess' first husband had inflicted it before perishing. Even though it was High Summer he was still dressed in sobering blacks and grays, a polished breastplate guarded his chest instead of a vest. The man wore armor at the dinner table because it was intimidating; everything he did was to be intimidating. While Kirkland had slaughtered the last Earl and taken his place, everyone knew that his power was only because he was married to the Countess. He had as little claim to the D'Lione lands as Benedict did. He nodded to the woman as she settled beside him, more in the way one admired a prize than a person. Then he lifted his mug of ale to the next guest who presented greetings and a fine bottle of port at the table.
Benedict looked away. He didn't want any trace of the disgust inside to surface on his face. He was sure the Earl would be angry enough to see one of his slaves dressed like a gentleman. What was the Countess' game on that? Dorian was quickly spotted. The heir stood at the entrance greeting people as they entered, while chatting up two dilettantes. He had all the charisma his sire lacked. He caught Benedict's eye and tried to wave him over. The thrall coughed and quickly went back to looking over the party-goers so he could feign not seeing the offer. There were the usual faces, local lords and merchants who were little more than sycophants. As it was High Summer he easily spotted pilgrims among the throng. Any traveler could, as needed, drop into a local festival this day and receive all the mead and food they desired. To deny anyone was to risk the failure of the harvest to come, and a harsh winter. Tradition held such power over every aspect of life. Of course the sort of trekker that one found in the Earl's hall every summer was clearly overburdened with coin. Poor travelers were kindly directly down to the local villages, so they would 'have a better time of it.'
Benedict continued inspecting those about.
Curiously there was one partygoer that was not indulging in excess. Lounged in on one of the corner couches the gent had propped up tall boots of fine soft leather on a chair. He held a thick tome in his hands, whistling as he skimmed over the pages at a fair rate. If anything the man with a head of sun-spun hair seemed utterly bored. A glass of wine sat within reach, along with barely nibbled cheese. The foreign style of his clothing was interesting: First and foremost was a brown leather jacket, double breasted with two lines of immaculate brass buttons. The vest had a tall flared collar that came to two points on either side of the fellow's impish features, with a white lace-lining barely visible. The cuffs were over two inches wide, adored with more buttons and lace. He wore loose travelling trousers of a complementary tan and a good three belts that hung at odd angles instead of actually affixing fabric to waist. In fact, there was another buckled strap that hung over one shoulder as part of the jacket. He couldn't be more than a handful of years older than Benedict, yet when the man met his gaze there was an intense and piercing presence which bore into the castle-thrall. Benedict blinked. In that space of time the foreigner grinned idly and looked across the room, trying to find someone.
The slave followed suit, but didn't see anyone else out of the ordinary. By the time he looked back to the well-to-do-pilgrim the man had buried his nose back in the big book. Benedict removed his cap and scratched at his scalp. He could imagine the castle's coiffeur cringing. The shadows of the afternoon grew long, stretching through the hall's windows.
There was a ruckus at the door. Benedict wasn't the only one who snapped his attention that way. One of the flea infested rabble had managed to get past the polite gauntlet outside. Somehow the beggar hadn't been turned back by a subtle display of force. That meant the violence to come was going to be anything but subtle. The Earl stood up with a deep rooted growl, motioning for more guards to deal with the peasant trying to make his way in. In juxtapose the Countess displayed grace by blanching at her husband's rough actions. A better woman would have said something.
"Sir. Sir. We have a finer feast to attend down in the villages." It was Dorian who spoke now as he slid in front of the ragamuffin. The nobleman recoiled almost immediately, nearly lost his composure. The beggar's face was almost angelic as it was lifted, wisps of pale hair drifting out from under soiled hood. Without hesitation the intruder took the opening and slipped around the blue blood. Surging forward he threw back his flea-infested robes to reveal a breastplate breathtakingly carved from dragon-ivory. He had tall greaves to match, but only one bracer and clawed gauntlet. Just as striking was a lack of any visible weapon.
"I care not for the petty activities of this night. High Summer will come and go as it always has; it is what comes with the harvest which concerns me." The false-beggar's voice commanded attention. Even Kirkland was silent, but still glowering. Armor creaked as the unexpected guest walked to the middle of the floor and slowly looked around. He raised his talon-glove into the air. Such armor had not been seen since the Age of Whispers, at least not a set so close to complete. "I come to you this night for evil stirs in the land of Ardent! I have slumbered long waiting for its signs, and now that it has come, destinies must be fulfilled, or we shall be doomed."
The Earl's brow furrowed. Dorian recovered from his shock. The Countess took a deep gulp of wind before standing. Benedict's attention remained riveted on the soothsayer. The blonde gent flipped another page, yawned.
"What is this evil you speak of? This destiny? Pardon, but please do be quick." It was the lady of lions who spoke up.
After shooting the graceful woman a withering look the man revolved slowly to inspect all of those within. His handsome face took on a tinge most dire. "I speak of war, of pestilence, of brother pitted against brother! A terrible war not seen since the fall of the Sundered Kings. Only one man can lead us through this hell. Only one man can turn aside the darkness to come, yet he is still a boy. He is who I come seeking tonight for he walks among all of you." As he finished turning, arm lowering, he faced Dorian. The stance the interloper took displayed great confidence, power, and a hint of golden age long gone.
The Earl smiled. Of course his spawn would be the chosen one, a great hero to carry on his glory. Of course, the brute would have preferred it was he, but KIrkland understood that he was an old wolf now. He clapped his hands. "A fine message to bless our castle this High Summer! The glory of the D'Lione shall be great! Great I say. I will outfit this hero with the finest arms and armor from our vaults, sing his praises!"
"He must come away with me this night, no delays." The vagrant spoke low, but did not look back at the Earl.
"Of course! You will have our finest steeds." It took a snarl from the local tyrant to silence his wife before she spoke out of turn. While technically everything: the castle, the staff, the horses, the land, the grains, all of it, was the Countess she was the Earl's. By default he got the final say on just about everything. "You have my word of honor."
Most in the great hall knew such word was worth as much as sallow wheat.
The stranger dipped his chin in a grave manner. A hush fell over the crowd, their collective gaze dancing between the ancient prophet and dutiful son. Benedict's stomach knotted up terribly, dread sinking into his marrow. The indentured orphan realized that the white-haired man was looking at sideways. They met eyes and Benedict knew, he just knew that his life was never going to be the same. The last thing the young man wanted was to be a hero.
With the extension of one boney finger the armored wanderer damned Benedict. "Step forth, Benedict D'Lione. Embrace your destiny."