The evening air had cooled and Sasha stood next to his armor, piled neatly at the foot of a tree. The shadows of the small copse they had made their camp in had consumed them – you wouldn’t know anyone was there until you were within 20 feet. Sasha felt consumed by the shadow of the tree, as though its boundaries were the demarcation of one world and stepping into the dimming afternoon light would be entering another. Perhaps he was hiding here in the dark, wishing to put off the light a little longer, to delay being seen.
It had been a long fortnight of wandering throughout the Greenbelt. The wild country had demonstrated, time and again, that humans were hardly welcome here. The mighty Taldan Empire had attempted to build something here and had been slowly and inexorably driven away by the wildness of the place – by its very alienness. Old and gnarled trees hid a community of small evil – pathetic, yet malicious. The fey of the Narlmarches had been mischievous but he had no evidence that they had been torturing anyone. The silver mine had brought more blessings and more conflict. Gold, silver, and timber – small wonder that these lands were so coveted; however, the kobolds represented the same problem as the boggard, which was the same problem as the fey and every other sentient creature that lived here. Humans had a poor record of living peaceably with those around them. They would clear the forest for timber, empty the gold and silver mines, and build docks all along the Tuskwater. Then they would send that wealth north to Restov, where the Swordlords would use it against Surtova, if Surtova himself didn’t simply seize the land and consume the bounty for his own empowerment.
That couldn’t be justice, could it? Why should Noleski Surtova, or the Swordlords, for that matter, have the wealth of a land where people already lived? Wasn’t that simply conquest? Wasn’t that the Taldan Empire all over again? If they were passingly benevolent, it was the Taldan Empire; if not, it was the Chelaxians and their diabolist tyrants. But who would stand up for fey and kobolds and boggards? Chief Sootscale seemed to care about his people (or, at least, about his position among them), but who would listen to him?
“You did, didn’t you?” came the soft, feminine voice.
Sasha wheeled. The afternoon light had gone and Sasha’s protective shadow was now all around, casting the copse and surrounding territory in the muted tones of night. Even in that shadow, the mithral armor of Iomedae glittered, drawing starlight to it so as to make it gleam like the moon come down from the heavens. She no longer wore the face of his aunt, but the face that he had learned from Boris’ religious lessons, though she uncannily resembled his relations for all that. Sasha knelt before his lady.
“Get up, Aleksandr. I have no use for a knight on his knees.”
“Lady,” Sasha stood, “I am…”
“You are confused and lost and don’t know what to do next.” She did not smile and her tone was soft, yet unyielding. “You wonder who would champion those who have no voice. Who would protect the lives of those who have no protection from the armies of men? I ask you, Sasha, are you quite so busy that you cannot fulfill such a duty?”
Sasha’s eyes widened, “Me? I am hardly suita…”
“Do not question me, Aleksandr.” The voice stayed soft yet killed Sasha’s protest in his throat. “You have been raised to lead. You carry a legacy in your blood, in your upbringing and in your actions. Like the sword I gave you, so long as you are true to me, I shall make you shine. Take up Lawgiver,” Sasha blushed slightly that she knew what he had named his sword, “and I will give you the courage to see through the difficult times ahead.” Sasha’s hand gripped his sword and he felt a heat fire through him, burning hottest down his neck and along his spine. It burned painfully…
…and awoke him in the copse of trees. The dark was true – it was still hours before dawn, but the only other people there were Katya, Dyimi, and Gar – Eoghan and Lem had still not returned from scouting the fort. Sasha felt…strange. It was an odd peak between anger and serenity. He knew, deep in his soul, that the only fear he would ever again know was that which he brought with him to battle. He had been given courage. Now all he needed was something to do with it.
He looked south and thought of the Stag Lord.