Dubhaine Family/Aoifa/Roleplays/2009/March

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12th March - Alowca

Igna shook his head, clearing his thoughts, lamenting the strands of grey hair that seemed to be creeping into his once jet black locks. Slowly he approached the palace of Alowca. Moving through the crowd of his fellow Oritilonians, he approached Aoifa, a smile on his face. He turned to the guards attempting to gain clearance.

"I need to borrow her for a bit, gentlemen. There is something I must do and I need a true Alowcan as witness."

Reluctantly, they stepped away.

"Lady Aoifa, would you kindly lead me to the Pontifex's chambers? My brother's notes are a little less than helpful."

He waved a large book indicating his brother's journal. Shouldering his pack and dragging a very large wooden box he began to move to towards his brothers old home.

"Lord Igna I presume?" Aoifa gave the barest hint of a nod, "I found your letter most intriguing. It has been rare that anyone mentioned your brother's name save in scorn, though it is hard to tell from our fragmentary history quite what caused his exile. Please, follow me and let us resolve this mystery."

She looked momentarily perplexed as she tried to picture the complex warren of apartments and audience chambers in her head. As a Marshal she had regularly visited the war room to study maps of the south with their phantom armies, pointless exercises in paper generalship. No wonder Alowca had come to such a sorry end...

The clink of a halberd shifting on the flagstones broke her train of thought, "Excuse me, until yesterday I'd never visited the private apartments. I think we need to go through that arch there and then left and down and... well I'm sure we'll find our way."

Igna smiled briefly.

"Ah, let's get started I have a feeling this is going to take a while."

Fumbling through the tome Igna produced a piece of paper.

"Ah, as for the history, perhaps this will be insightful. It seems to be the work of Margrave himself, but I'm still confused as to why he is talking about himself in the third person."

Igna began to read in his gravelly voice.

Margrave looked back toward his beloved Alowca. The place was his home, his world, his life for so many years. He stood staring back at Alowca. So many memories, so many nightmares. He thought of the first time he had set foot on this continent. He was 16 barely out of training at his family’s mansion. They had sent him hear to learn under the tutelage of Always Solo a respected and honored family friend . . .

"I will miss you Alowca."

He began his learning under Always immediately. He learned of tactics, he learned of life, he learned of the Trinity.

"There is one thing that you could never teach me, old friend, the horror that is a man's soul."

At the age of seventeen, Margrave was given his first chance to lead, his first chance to shine. He was appointed as the new Paladin Primus of Alowca. He had always thought that battle would be a grand thing, a wonderful thing. It was brutal, it was bloody, and he hated the constant fighting, but it was required for his dream. Always had once told him "Even the greatest man can accomplish nothing without the courage to stand up and fight, because man is corrupt by nature. There are few who are truly willing to fight the good fight, and so it is they who must fight the hardest." So Margrave fought, He entered the field ov batle with the passion of a zealot and the fury of the drake that was so often quoted throughout his families history. By the time Margrave had turned 18 he was officially recognized as the Paladin Primus of Alowca. He fought like a demon, slaying thousands for his cause. He lead Alowca to victory after victory until the first of many fated days. The men of Lukon had joined the fight with Oritilon. The Oritilonese men were easy enough to slay, they were cowards, they were undisciplined, and they were stupid. The Lukonese though, were different. They drove the Alowcans back time after time. Always, who had very little say in the islands politics, gained a stronger voice. He had a compitent army to back him up. While Always began to wage a war of words and religion, Margrave waged war holding both Lukon and Oritilon at the borders of his realm. Those two were considered a threat to the balance of the island. The Army of Alowca has risen powerful and triumphant. They were feirce and honorable warriors. Times were good. It was during this time that Margrave met Larani Bloodphoenix his first and only love, a woman with a passion for the Trinity. Margrave waged war wihout a hint of fear, but never had the courage to bring his feelings for this woman out in the open. A three realm coalition spent almost a year smashing against the defenses of Alowca. Anomolous, quite likely Alowca's greatest banker, and his brother Feces kept the armies coffers full. Fang, truly Alowca’s greatest judge, kept the realm disciplined and in line. Always kept the people happy and spoke as the voice of the gods, standing as the only prophet ever to step foot on Alowcan soil. His constant visions and sermons on the Trinity gave the people hope. Margrave kept the military in line, using every trick he knew, fighting savagely against three realms, but they proved too strong. During the last days of the second Alowcan war, Larani died defending the walls of Alowca. She died in Margraves arms. On that day, Margrave stood over her corpse and stood his ground against over three hundred Oritilonese and Lukonese infantry. He succeeded in returning her broken body to Alowca’s palace, but was greviously wounded in the process. In the end, the three won, they sat in Alowca's capital and demanded Margrave and Always departure, lest they burn the city to the ground. So, Always and Margrave left, taking most of the faithful to other lands.

"I still don't see why he left. I would not have had the strength to leave the Aenil in such circumstances. Not for this realm at least. Pehaps he still thought his dream could be saved. Oh well, Were did I leave off? Ah, right . . ."

Igna rounded the corner as he spoke.

“It never bothered me that I was going to leave,” Margrave said to himself, “because I always knew that someday I would be back.”

And Return he did. Margrave returned to find firsthand that power corrupts. Anomolous had taken power. He was a wicked and foolish ruler. The power went to his head and he lost his way. After seeing this lack of honor with which Anomolous conducted himself, Margrave started a military rebellion. Three small battles were fought, and the vast majority of the people sided against Anomolous, seeing this err in judgement as well. Alowca never recovered. Disrespect for the current administration, fierce political infighting, and even disrespect of the Trinity itself were prevalent. Thinking back, Margrave thought of the great change that had taken place. Alowca had gone from a realm of fierce warriors to a realm whose honor was almost on level with their backstabbing brethren to the north. Margrave saw this change and remembered the good times, the great times.

Standing on the hills of Rola Sierrie, Margrave looked south toward Alowca city, and shed a single tear, Mourning the passing of an era, mourning the best days of his life, and cursing those that had belittled his beloved realm to the mockery it had become.

“Fare Well Alowca. I likely shall not see you again. May your warriors be true, and learn the lessons that they refused to learn from me.”

"Apparently, he left because he thought that it was inappropriate that his realm denied Always entry. He placed great trust in Always regardless Margrave's lack of faith."

Igna looked down the hallway.

"Ah, just a few more minutes of walking. We're almost there supposedly."

Igna shifted his pack slighty, sighing.

"I am ready to be free of this burden. If you don't mind my asking, what do you intend to do when this is over? I hear talk that a new realm is to be forged out of the shell of Alebad, though I'm not supposed to say anything to you likely. I would doubt that I could convince you to join me here, but perhaps I will see you there. I intend to be there to help found it."

"I'm uncertain Lord Igna," Aoifa brushed a lock of fiery hair from her eyes, briefly revealing the tell-tale white flesh of a duelling scar. "My brother Cathal has been offered sanctuary amongst The Assassins where he hopes to establish the reformed Church free from the conflicts of old. It's likely I'll follow him into exile as I'll not recant my faith and its been made clear that it's unwelcome where Oritolon commands."

Aoifa stopped at the door to the private chambers and pulled a key from her purse, unlocking it and pushing her shoulder against the heavy oak. She suspected there were usually servants on hand for just this purpose.

"I hope you'll forgive my bluntness, but I see little difference between Alowca of old and what Oritolon has become. True faith grows where men are free to worship as they will and until your people learn that they will be doomed to repeat our mistakes."

The door slowly swung open, revealing a spartan and gloomy room "I think it's in here."

"Ahh, and so it is."

Igna looked across the room slowly, lighting a candle to find his way. Searching the wall to his right he looked for the symbol of and eye. Khadgister's mark was very well hidden, but after some time he managed to find it on a low stone in the wall. He pressed it and a grumbling noise came from within the room.

"This, my friend, is the Champion's walk, as it was named by my brother. There are only two entrances to this place, and I do not know where the other end comes out. It is not mentioned in this journal. I intend to seal this once I am on the other side. Do you still wish to continue?"

Igna waited for his response.

"After this. . . After tonight my oath is fulfilled, and I am once again a free man. I may come with you, if that is acceptable. I tend to be a wanderer of sorts by nature."

"The Champion's Walk," Aoifa unconsciously touched the freshly-healed scar at her side as she stared into the darkness. Beyond that threshold lay not only the secrets of Alowca's ancient past, but a new life free from its shackles.

She'd stood loyally by her brother for so long, sharing his struggle to rescue both realm and faith from their corruption. Now there was no realm to save and the blood she'd shed in recent days had bought Cathal the time he needed to carry the best of the faithful northwards to their new home. Perhaps the oath she had sworn to their mother so long ago could be set aside... at least for a while.

"We make strange bedfellows m'lord, but I think perhaps there is more to our meeting than mere chance. Let us finish this drama set in motion by your brother," and as she stepped into the passage it was as if a heavy weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

Igna smiled as he entered the corridor. According to legend this path had only been tread by Margrave, Always, and Crystal in the entirety of it's existence. He set his burden to the side as the door closed behind him. He found the mechanism that slid the door open and closed and delivered one swift punch, shattering one of the stone gears and leaving his hand bleeding. This door would never again be opened, he only hoped that his brother was right about there being a passage out elsewhere. Hand still dripping blood, he retrieved his burden and began to walk down the passage.

"We have a bit of a walk ahead of us, perhaps you'd be willing to tell me a little of your family's history here?"

Igna looked down the passageway. His eyes were bombarded with images of the Trinity's founding. Denariel, Khadgister, Alluran, all were depicted in such glory. Igna could only smile.

"How could my brother have been surrounded, by such a culture, such a strong faith and never have believed in any of it. There was once a prophecy, that an unbeliever would come and serve and save this realm. So many thought it was my brother, but I'm not quite so sure anymore. Somehow, I don't honestly think Alowcan history has reached it's end yet."

"So my brother claims. I must admit I find the prophecies obscure, but he assures me that Alowca will play a pivotal role in the ultimate fate of the Colonies," Aoifa's eye was drawn to a vivid frieze of Denariel's Ascension.

"She's the cause of all this," she touched the cool plaster, "The Blessed Lady Denariel. How can a people ever embrace peace when their exemplar knew only war? My brother speaks of her with affection, of the inspiration she's provided for his spiritual struggle, but though I respect and serve her I cannot love her. Perhaps..." her voice trailed off leaving feint echoes on the breeze.

"Do you know he was just seventeen when she marked him out? My little brother Cathal who ran away from our home in Cagil in search of adventure, and in his very first battle was captured. She came to him in his sleep and took his fear, leaving in its stead a sense of purpose. Apparently he spent his confinement berating Spearhead for his shortcomings. I still find that hard to picture, a lad of seventeen lecturing one of the most powerful men in the Colonies as if he were a recalcitrant servant, but that's my brother."

The passage twisted strangely and plunged deep beneath the citadel, lit from the surface by cunningly wrought shafts set with burnished mirrors. She had to remind herself that they were in fact far below the city now and not in one of the moonlit boulevards. If her reckoning held true they were close to the armoury, on the edge of the old city.

"The first news I had of all this, I was a knight in the service of Alebad. By then Cathal was eighteen and General of Alowca, full of fire and fury, convinced that faith could endure where arms failed. I remember the pride I felt when he rode into Abaka at the head of his army, and the terrible battle which ensued. Four days the fighting lasted and had General Vapor committed the troops he promised we'd have won, but instead he kept the army of Alebad cowering behind the city walls."

"Not long after that I came south looking for fresh recruits and was surprised to find that Duke Cathal had put aside his sword to teach this new Faith Militant. At first I tarried to guard his back as it was clear there were those who resented the new Church - like that wretch Squeaks - but the more I studied his words the more convinced I became that they were genuine revelation. Since then we've both worked hard together to build something worth salvaging from Alowca's inevitable destruction. I guess time will tell whether or not we've succeeded."

"Ah, would this be it?" Aoifa's eyes caught a glimpse of deeper darkness ahead, possibly a side passage or an open doorway.

"Aye, this is it."

With a reverence of sorts, Igna walked the last hundred feet towards the door. He glanced over the inscription on the door.

"The greatest treasures of Alowca lie beyond this door. So says the door. So says my brother's journal." He muttered.

He pressed lightly as the door creaked open. Light bathed the area, blinding him momentarily. As his vision returned, tears began to well up in his eyes. He dragged the box inside. Turning to the final page of the journal, Igna read aloud: "It is my greatest and final wish to see Alowca's treasures on last time."

"I was under orders to keep this box closed here. I think if finally understand. . . ."

Moving the box out of the way, he began to slowly circle the chamber.

"It's a tomb. The resting place of the old ones."

The first stone coffin had a silver plate standing at it's base. A simple inscription engraved on it's surface: The legacy of Homer, First warrior to die for the Alowcan cause. I'll never forget you old friend, and I'll never forget that it was my orders that sent you to your death. I will never forgive what the Oritilonians did to you, nor what I did that brought your death into play. Alowca is eternally in your debt.

The next was a simple stone coffin with the words John engraved on the surface, a massive hammer propped against the side.

The third coffin was lined with gold, covered with long dead flowers. Attracted by an odd stain on the floor Igna scraped a white substance off with his index finger and tasted it. "Salt. Tears for the fallen. Who rests here?" The glint of diamond caught his attention. Igna's breath caught in his throat as he read the words. "Larani Bloodphoenix."

Igna continued this procession as he circled the room, finding the graves of four more of Alowca's greatest heroes.

He stopped suddenly as he came across an empty, open coffin. Within it there lay a single piece of paper.

If you are here reading this, then I, Margrave the Drake, Champion of Alowca, have fallen before returning from abroad. Let it be known, that for all my faults, I have never once forgotten the name of a man or woman who has served and died under me. This is my legacy. I have split more Alowcan blood than any foreign power, disease, or natural disaster. I have killed thousands with my own hands, but for all my power I could not protect that which was closest to me. Alowca died long before I left, at least in heart, and it is something that I will never be able to forgive myself for. I and my influence will be forgotten on this continent, this is my only wish.

Igna sighed slowly as he returned to the box. He placed one solid blow on the lid and the wood shattered. Staring at his brothers face he began to weep. He removed the remains from the crude wooden box and placed them in the empty coffin. Retrieving Margrave's greatsword, he let out a cruel laugh.

"So this is where Brothax's blade has been this whole time. Betrayer of the Drake, is it's name. I has brought great fortune on each member of my family who decided to wield it. They say it was forged in the Akesh temple on the East continent and cooled with the blood of Draxx the Drake, the greatest fighter in the history of my family. Good riddance."

Igna lay the blade next to his brother's remains and slide the coffins lid shut, sealing it.

"I. . . I'm going to need a moment. You should take a moment to rest. We'll likely have a long walk out as well."

"There is something else which belongs here," Aoifa removed her cloak, for the first time revealing the battered mace she'd reclaimed from the traitor Squeaks. At the time she'd intended to hand it to the new General, Lord Samson, but something told her that he was not the one.

Samson was a good man, but he wasn't a hero in the mould of Gravitas or Absolute and so she'd kept the true mace close, a constant companion in troubled times. And a strange thing happened: the more she carried it, the easier it became to bear the hardships which pressed upon her people.

Others noticed the difference in her, though for some unknown reason the weapon itself went unmentioned. Even in the confusion following her duel with General Hvrek no one thought to take it from her, that crude steel cudgel with its rusted flanges.

"This is the mace Denariel gifted to Alowca at her ascension," she unhooked it from her belt and weighed it in her hands, twisting her wrist once... twice... thrice... and each time pulling a blow that would easily have crushed a man's skull, helmet and all.

"Lady Denariel, we have paid the price demanded of us. Guard this place unto the Final Day and keep faith with your people," and with all her might Aoifa struck the tomb of Larani Bloodphoenix, burying the flanged head deep within its stone lid. As the thunderous echoes subsided she tested the handle, but it would not move.

"There, it is done."

"Quite an arm you have there, lass. I see you've had your burden lifted as well. With this my oath is finished. Where shall we go to now?"

Igna stood, feeling somewhat more relaxed than he had in the last year. Removing a water flask from his pack, he poured the contents liberally over his head and with one hand slicked his jet hair back, as he did so often in his past. He removed his shirt and threw it to the side, revealing the blue dragon tattoo wrapped around his chest. Removing an expensive engraved wooden box from his pack, he opened the lid with reverence.

"It has been a while, old friends."

He unlatched the crude metal gauntlets strapped to his hands and let them fall to the ground. From the box, he removed two beautifully engraved and polished war gauntlets. Each with a one inch spike protruding from every knuckles groove. They were as comfortable as he remembered. He strapped them on securely and smiled.

"I am a free man again."

He looked at his well muscled chest slowly retracing and remembering the few scars from weapons that had been able to reach him. A wicked smile on his face, he turned to his newest traveling companion.

"It is your turn to lead. I have no where to go and nothing to do for the next few years. I think I'll follow you for the time being."

15th March - Alowca

Aoifa emerged from the tunnel into the full glare of dawn, the sun rising from the eastern ocean into a clear blue sky. She'd led the way from the long forgotten vault in silence, partly out of reverence for the events she'd participated in and partly a need to consider the future.

Even now with the Realm she'd fought to defend a swiftly receding memory she couldn't easily bring herself to abandon her people. Had it just been a matter of her own life she'd have remained and the invaders be damned, but there were her friends and their families to consider.

She found herself on a narrow ledge under a massive overhang, high on the eastern cliff overlooking the northern breakwater. Fishing boats bobbed on the morning tide and the sails of a merchant vessel receded into the distance: perhaps she should follow her friend Allyah into exile... it was a tempting thought but she knew her duty was here with Cathal, for good or ill.

Aoifa grinned as she unbuckled her armour, cleaning blood and grease from the Alowcan arms as she placed the breastplate carefully on the passage floor. It was months since she'd been free of the heavy steel plate and she stretched her limbs appreciatively.

"Farewell old friend, may you one day serve some other knight as well as you've served me."

She turned to face Igna, "Well, it looks like a sheer drop from here, are you up for the climb? I've one last errand to run in the City itself and then I'm heading north through Alebad to Naan Forest and from there to the Dark Citadel if you'd care to travel with me."

25th March - Corali Forest

The Black Dog was an ancient and much regarded inn, squarely set on the old highway from Portion to Outer Tilog. It was built as much for defence as comfort with stout stone walls reinforced with oak beams and shuttered windows with arrow slits that had seen considerable use over the years. There was always trouble out here in the wilderness, even with a garrison of Lukon troopers guarding the northern approaches.

In the common room merchants from Lukon and Giblot sat cheek by jowl, heedless of the war between their peoples. Even in a land where war was constant there were always those who preferred to give their allegance to gold.

"I see you managed to give your retainers the slip," Aoifa said with a hint of mischief as she set two tankards down on the rough wooden tressle and took her seat opposite Igna.

She'd been in residence at the inn for several weeks now, enjoying the unaccustomed freedom. Hunting, drinking, whoring: she couldn't remember the last time she'd enjoyed any of these pursuits and for the first time in years she felt happy in and with herself. It was as if a fresh lease of life had been blown into her and she was determined to enjoy it to the fullest.

"Is probably for the best I'm not sure the inn would have had enough free beds for all of them, let alone enough ale" she grinned and took a deep gulp from the tankard.

Igna took a seat immediately across from Aoifa, smiling cheerfully. "Aye, I gave them the slip. They were persistent buggers. Seems they were using thier previous pay to buy information from the locals. Thought I was running off with a great treasure. I was, actually, at that. Freedom is it's own treasure."

Igna looked around the inn, viewing it's various vices. "I'm a man of the cloth, or so I fancy myself," he said smiling, "None of this interests me much, besides, I like my women with a little more fire in them than these."

He looked at the ale on the table. "Oh, gods, the ale. It's been years since I allowed myself its sweet embrace." Igna downed his mug in seconds. "Right, it'd be very impolite of me to make you pay for any of the nonsense that's about to happen. "Barmaid," he said slapping a young lass on her posterior, "Bring me another few rounds."

He looked back to his companion, blushing slightly. "I'm a very liberal man of the cloth," he said averting his eyes. Grabbing a fresh mug he lifted it in toast. "To freedom." He downed his second mug. "Oh ho ho, I'm going to regret this in the morning." He looked up at Aoifa, smiling. "Let's do something stupid."

27th March - Hulaferd

Aoifa nursed her pounding head as they crossed the long leagues of Hulaferd, the open expanse of grass punctuated by burnt homesteads and deserted hamlets. She tried to imagine these lands in happier times, but her own memories were themselves too scorched by the flames of war.

The brief respite at The Black Dog had been just that, a brief respite. Too brief in fact to do much more than drown her recent past in an ocean of ale. Mind you, it was good ale if her two-day hangover was anything to go by.

She could clearly remember Lord Igna quaffing three or four tankards in quick succession and foolishly keeping pace, acting like some young squire on his first campaign. From what she could recall they'd not been the only ones. The mists swirled in her memory, thrusting another scene before her blood-shot inner eye: she was easily three sheets to the wind by now and surrounded by raucous voices furiously wagering. Wagering on what?

Sat on the other side of the trestle from her was the biggest Lukonian she'd ever seen. A bearded mountain of a man with arms like a bear. There was sweat pouring from his forehead as he strained to bend his fist up from the wooden planks, his knuckles hovering barely an inch above the bear-soaked surface.

"Go on Bjarne, you're not gonna' let y'self be bitten by this little bint are 'e," his companions were clearly besides themselves at his embarrassment, even though they stood to lose a fair few coppers on night.

Aoifa's inner eye studied the hand for a moment, trying to make sense of the strange angles as its gaze slowly crept towards the foreground. There was another hand, much smaller than the soldier's though judging from the calluses and scars it had led a more interesting life. The hand was attached by a slender wrist to a leather bracer: a bracer which was strangely familiar.

"Oh blessed Lady Denariel!" she exclaimed. It all came tumbling back now. The ale, the bawdy songs, that stupid wrestling match with the Lukonian... she clearly recalled crashing into him at the bar, spilling his beer. She'd apologised. Well, if shouting obscenities more commonly heard in a Cagilian brothel could be classed as an apology. At the time she'd thought it could, but perhaps in hindsight she should have acted with a little more noblesse oblige. Funny how drink interferes with that.

Whatever, the man-mountain was clearly amused by her taunts and the next things she could remember was the wrestling match.

What most people don't realise about arm-wrestling, especially those with bulging biceps and no education, is that victory is all in the technique. There was no doubting that Bjarne had all the advantages of raw strength on his side, but his technique was a rank amateur's. Aoifa on the other hand had spent much of her youth carousing in establishments which made the Black Dog look like a model of propriety and though her technique was rusty it was still enough to turn the match to her advantage.

Bjarne's hand hovered for an age, the sinews in his arms standing out like the rigging on a storm-battered merchantman, but try as he might he couldn't get the leverage he needed. The hoots of derision from the other soldiers as his elbow finally gave way and his knuckles hammered into the wooden bench made it clear that he'd not live this night down for some time to come.

Her memory of the following hour or two was fragmented but she strongly suspected that the coppers wagered had been transmuted via the essential alchemy of the tavern into several more rounds of ale, shared with the Lukonians and their hangers on. There were painted faces and hot breath, yet more ale and... she smiled to herself as a particular face swam into view.

"Hold on tight lass, only a few more leagues to go," she patted the hand of her new handmaiden Gerda, the poor peasant girl clinging on for dear life.

"Yes Mistress," the girl's arms gripped tighter and Aoifa could feel the terror in them mixed with determination. Strange the pearls you could find in the rough, and easily worth the silver coin she'd paid the girl's previous master. If nothing else it meant she wouldn't have to do her own cooking and cleaning when they reached the Dark Citadel.

29th March - Dark Citadel

Aoifa loosened her sword in its sheath. It was a short twin-edged blade, the kind favoured by seasoned soldiers, and the scabbard was black tooled leather in the southern style.

"I'll make this easy for you lads," she circled her three would be assailants, travel-stained cloak thrown back to reveal a battered leather tunic, "you get one blow each before I draw my sword. Now I can't say fairer than that, can I?"

The leader was a wiry young thug, possibly an Outer Tilogian judging by his fierce teeth and crazed expression. Backing down was not in his nature.

"Then you won't be draw'n that blade missy. No, not in this life," the men spread out, weapons raised, and now it was Aoifa being circled. The one to her left struck high, the heavy cleaver in his left hand passing through the empty space where a moment earlier her head had been. The second was swinging an iron-bound cudgel at her thigh, his face ablaze with a gleeful leer, as the leader thrust a jagged knife at her vitals. Clearly the three of them were experienced in this sort of thing.

But not experienced enough. Even as Aoifa slipped beneath the cleaver blow she deflected the cudgel upwards with the hem of her cloak, tipping its author off balance, and used it to block the incoming knife. A moment later she was in the midst of them, her sword a blur of cold steel and arcing blood.

She took a step back and studied her handiwork, three embarrassed men clutching painful flesh wounds, their discarded weapons lying in the dirt.

"Any other takers?" she cast her gaze around the recruiting ground, wondering if these were truly the best the Dark Citadel had to offer.

"I think I might give you greater satisfaction," it was a quiet voice, obviously used to command, and it's owner had a stillness to her that was accentuated by her black leathers.

"And whom might you be?" Aoifa wiped the blood from her blade with the hem of her cloak. It was already ruined from the long journey north.

The woman stepped onto the hard-packed earth.

"Lena Hartmann, and death is my trade."

Aoifa drew a gold coin from her purse and cast it at Lena's feet, "Then there's your fee Lena Hartmann, now come and earn it."

They squared off with blades in the lower guard, each eyeing the other with predatory intent as they circled first left and then right.

Feint and counter-feint probed for an opening, the clash of steel echoing over the hushed onlookers as the former Champion of Alowca did battle with Death's servant.

Minutes dragged and the battle turned to a test of wills and endurance: neither had the mastery in arms. Aoifa had never known a more skilled opponent, the technical precision and efficiency married with an artist's feel. This was the steel which merchants had told her of, warriors trained from birth to treat battle as performance.

She stood back and sheathed her blade, "You practice your trade well Lena Hartmann. I could use a blade such as yours at my side."

"And who are you that you seek guild steel?" the woman lowered her own sword, still guarded against a possible deception.

"Aoifa Dubhaine, Grand Marshal of the Temple. And Death has long been my companion."