“Why does it always have to be me?”
The mere fact that Thadeon was asking himself this very question weighed him down more than the knee-deep snow he was treading through. Briefly stopping to memorize the slopes that surrounded him, he pressed on, making his leather, fur-lined boots sink into the thick layer of frozen whiteness again and again, each time with a heavy crunch.
“If only I could ever say no…”
“Everything alright, lad?”
He turned back to the faint silhouette of a man following him, battling the snowstorm that raged all around them just like he did.
“Of course, Rotdam. Everything’s just perfect,” he shouted back to his second-in-command as the winds howled all around them, unsure whether the other man even heard him.
“These people attacked three of your uncle’s villages already, put them to the torch and took everything they had. We need to find them and put an end to this…” Rotdam paused. “… even if we freeze to death, I suppose. Don’t worry: we’ll be out of here in no time. Hope we’re staying at Balador for a while, though. After being back home for so long, I find it hard to up and leave just like this.”
Rotdam hit Thadeon on the back, making some snow fall off his leather shoulderpads — but he was barely paying any attention, and was instead inspecting what little he could find in the snow ahead of them.
“There are tracks, right there…” He pointed to the right. “They’re still headed up the mountain. Everything in order with the men?” he asked, completely ignoring everything that had been said previously.
“Everything except that they’re frozen to the bone,” the older man said, his teeth clattering.
The two started walking again once their soldiers caught up to them: two dozen men, all equipped for combat and for the hardships that might come with it, but still visibly encumbered by the icy touch of the Kelleth Mountains. Thadeon was not particularly concerned with their progress itself — it had been only two days since they started tumbling through the snows on the legendarily hard-to-navigate paths and ranges to the north-east of the city, and they were already on the track of the invaders they had been sent after.
“Did you hear anything from Thamred?” Rotdam asked, huddling closer to be able to shout through the howling winds more easily.
“Not since we left,” Thadeon smiled to himself. “I’m sure he’s doing fine. I don’t suspect that the Order is giving him too much trouble.”
“Crawling up the ranks of the Order already…”
“He may be my little brother, but he’s not a child anymore… and if you call what those paladins do training…”
“Why? What is it exactly that they make him do?”
“Well… You know them as well as I do. Religion is one thing, most of the kingdom is religious, but the Order… they take it a bit too far sometimes. You haven’t been gone for that long: you remember Hawne and the others — they have powers and they thrive on it, even though most of the paladins are more versed in their preaching than their magic. My brother is a different story, though… nevertheless, they’re probably just making him do combat routines and intensive reading. Hawne still keeps following him around. He thinks Thamred is some kind of savior that will deliver us all from the fiery jaws of hell.”
“Aye, I heard the rumors. Did you at least manage to see him before you left? You get called around an awful lot nowadays, even when there’s no war…”
“Sadly, no…” Thadeon shook his head, once again knocking some snow off his helmet. “… but I did send him a letter from Balador. It’s his birthday today, you know.”
“Aye, I’m aware,” Rotdam smiled. “I think I know you well enough that I needn’t even ask if you got him something — we haven’t been apart for that long, lad…”
“Thamred is obsessed with weapons that make you slow and vulnerable, so I figured I’d get him a claymore,” Thadeon laughed, as much as he could in the freezing cold they were in. He pulled the thick cloth around his neck a little closer, and then returned to following the trail.
“I’m sure you didn’t just get him an ordinary blade. That would be unlike you.”
“You know me well, old friend. Everyone was wondering where I was during this spring, but I’m telling you…”
“You didn’t disappear after your assignment down south for two months just to get a sword. Please tell me you didn’t! Your father was furious! Everyone in Balador was talking about it!”
“Captain Rotdam, just exactly what are you accusing me of? I heard about a rumor of military importance, so I had to go see if it was true. Besides, I needed some time away from it all, and thanks to those few weeks, now my brother will have a properly oversized sword to swing,” Thadeon said with a childish smirk on his face.
“Could have at least told someone where you went. In any case, a heavy weapon isn’t always a bad thing, as long as you can wield it proper. Is the little lord any good with two-handers?”
“The little bastard is only eighteen and he’s starting to beat the crap out of me… even without his magic.”
“He beat you? The General of the Grand Army, the Future King, the Defender of the Realm, the Vanguard of the East, the Shield of the People…”
“Stop that…” Thadeon’s dark eyes clearly expressed his immense boredom as he looked into those of his old second-in-command. “You should save those for the unlikely occasion of me becoming king.”
“Speaking of kings… What about your father? How is he? I have heard a lot of things from Thoden.” Rotdam quickly looked behind to make sure the soldiers were following, and then returned to Thadeon.
“Proud as ever. One of his sons leads his armies and occasionally his brothers’ armies, and the other one aspires to be among the leaders of his beloved religion and probably the head of another army. He’s fine physically, although I consider his trust in the Order somewhat unhealthy.”
“What makes you say that?”
Thadeon hesitated, but after a brief pause, looking back to see if anyone else was near them, he answered: “The Holy Hand.”
“What about him?”
“He has more and more influence on my father’s decisions. His judgment is often clouded by faith, and Hawne has really mastered the art of controlling that faith.”
“I remember how hard it was for us to get along with them in the east… do you think they’re up to something? As a group?”
“The paladins? Doubt it. But Hawne? Without a doubt. I’m even more powerless to call them out on anything than before, since my brother is one of them… but don’t worry, I’ll keep my eye on things, whatever happens. I just don’t like my father being controlled by anyone. It’s driven us further apart since you last saw him — I mean us and our parents.”
“Hawne has never done anything wrong, though. He did go to the east with us and proved that he’s an exceptional warrior. Before that, he was waging wars for your father before you even had any hair on your chin — if he was plotting something, I think we would have seen it by now.”
“Of course he went to war. There was religion involved… You can imagine his enthusiasm when it came to sending me up north to deal with ‘heretic outsiders’. Almost as enthusiastic as my father about keeping me away from Delaine.”
“Is she doing well?”
“Other than the constant hate she gets from those two, as well as some of the other paladins? Yes, she’s doing alright.”
“Aye, they’re not exactly the most tolerant of men. That goes for most of Balneor, though.”
“Wish I could say otherwise, but as of right now, everyone seems to be terrified of the idea of both of my uncles letting in outsiders. They’re painting it as a clash of cultures… and Hawne seems to be only benefiting from the fear that’s being created by it all.”
“Does your brother not doubt him?”
“Thamred’s young. He still thinks Hawne is there to guide him along his way, even if they butt heads from time to time. They have something in common that not many people do, seeing as they both practice magic at a higher level than most of the paladins.”
“You give him too little credit. I wouldn’t worry if I were you: you have enough on your plate as it is…”
“Don’t get me wrong, he’s doing as well as an Aldeaari paladin can do — I guess he inherited all the fuss over the legendary powers too. It’s not like he’s not enjoying it…”
“At least this way your mother has got her wish to have one of you in Balneor.”
“While I freeze to death…” Thadeon suddenly stopped, and pointed to a patch of bright red blood in front of them, with clearly visible tracks indicating struggle all around it. “They won’t, though. Ready the men!” he said. At this, Rotdam nodded, turned round, and approached the soldiers marching behind them, his hands waving to signal them through the blinding snow.