Paladin Quinn stood before Warder Bryce. Her mission had failed, and it was not her fault. Leaning against the Warder’s desk was the two handed sword the boy had been wielding. That young man was a hero, and he should be lauded as such. She knew he would not. Politics often killed a hero, especially when one wasn’t needed.
Bryce had taken an interest in the sword, and seemed to recognise it. Quinn knew by passed down stories that Bryce had had one hell of a life before laying down his weapon and shield and joining the administrative ranks of the paladins. By all accounts, it had not been his decision to do so. The few occasions she had spied Bryce swinging a weapon in training were the few times she had ever seen a smile on the old mans face. He was a warrior and fighter, yet here he was playing the political game he publicly derided during his earlier years.
Still, he was a good leader and a good man, as far as he could be. Quinn respected him, and knew he had the paladin order’s interests firmly at heart. He would decide the fate of this boy, and that decision would mark the stance the paladins would take against the king.
“Who would have thought in that cesspool of a city a hero would emerge? A light to battle the dark. And just when we really didn’t need it” he said.
Quinn went to object. The light should always look for the light, and join it whenever it was found. The words died in her throat. She was a true believer in the light, she knew Bryce was not quite so true in his beliefs. Often he said he put a more real world spin on a divine idea, and that that was no bad thing. She was still not sure she agreed. It was why she had saved the young man, and why she was here.
Bryce smiled at her.
“The Warden would have done exactly what you did you know? You remind me of him in so many ways. Light is drawn to light, and together becomes brighter. The trouble with a bright light is that it blinds, and leaves everyone in shadow. And that is what we have here. A shadow looms over this city, and to fight it means blood. Blood I am not sure we should spill” he said.
Quinn looked at him. Light should never back down from darkness, that was a truth taught to them all. Yet, paladin histories were filled with tales of courageously pointless last stands and fights that eventually lead to the dark winning. Her heart told her that not to fight for this city was an act against the light, and she knew Bryce would feel the same. Yet where her head agreed, his clearly did not, and he knew more than she did.
“You’ve never faced a magic user, have you Quinn?” he said.
She had not. Few of the paladins had. The war against heretics had been a short but bloody one, with casualties high on both sides. The paladins had won, and it was said magic was scoured from the land. The paladins never said that of course, for they knew it was not true. But with the threat of magic past, many believed the paladins were no longer needed. It had taken the few paladins left alive to reform the order and make it into an organisation that people were comfortable with. The priests had been part of that she knew, a promise that the power of the paladins would be reformed into a non military, non fighting core.
“No sir, I have not” she said.
“If the Warden is correct, and I believe he is, I think that will quickly change. But for that to happen the order must survive. If we defend the city, I am not sure it will. It saddens my heart, but I fear we must finish the long game we started all those years ago” he said.
She had no idea what he meant by long game, but knew enough of the Warden to know he liked to think very far ahead. Bryce by his nature did not do so, but had the upmost belief in the Warden that he would follow his direction. She wandered what the Warden had already ordered, and why Bryce was not just following that command.
“What does the Warden say on all this?” she said.
He saw the man break, just for a second. The normal calm in his blue eyes cracked, and deep sadness resided there, accompanied by fear. It made her feel sick to see it, and she feared what would make this man fear. His normal calm resolve soon came back, but she could not unsee that fear. He needed help. She would try and provide it.
“He says nothing. He is gone” he said.
It was only then that she saw it. The silver marking of his rank had been replaced with a gold one. He was the Warden now. A thousand questions raced through her mind, but she kept them all to herself. Not by choice, but by reaction. Bryce threw his old silver rank marking onto the table and looked at her.
“Those are for you” he said.
She shook her head. She would not take them; could not take them. To take them was to leave her weapon behind, to take them was to become part of a system she had no idea to survive in, to take them was to deny who she knew she was. She looked at Bryce and in that moment saw the truth. He had done the exact same thing; sacrificed all he was to follow a leader he truly believed in. There was something noble in that. But she did not have that blind faith in Bryce. To refuse the markings was to admit to him she did not have that faith. Could she truly add to the pain of an already broken man?
“Good. You don’t want them. I knew you were the right choice. You should know we have been removed from the Joint Council, and that all rules we followed to join no longer apply. Should they ever apply again, I promise to demote you” he said.
Before she knew it the silver markings were in her hands. She had accepted, with her heart. She truly believed the light worked through her heart, so her head accepted the decision. As Bryce spoke she pinned the markings to her shoulders.
“We are leaving the city. We have no right to be here now. To stay is to declare war. We may take the city, but then we would have to rule it. The order is never meant to be a kingdom, for we all know the allure of power is great, and few have the heart to release it if they get it. I have desire to rip the order apart. First order of business is to save it. I regret what it means to this city, but I know it must be done.
“All paladin outposts are being closed, We are all returning to our homeland. Some have not made it, attacked before they left or destroyed on the road. Some believe we are being hunted, exterminated. The ex-Warden believed this to be so. We must make it back, and quickly. If rumours are to be believed, an incursion into our homeland is not far off. We must be there to defend it.
“With your promotion comes knowledge. A scryer will be assigned to you, to teach you what you don’t know. I assure you this knowledge is a burden. Take it slowly, and do not lose sight of your path.
“As well as knowledge comes responsibility. The paladins and priests in this outpost are now yours to command. As we are leaving you will need to make sure we have provisions for the trip. We leave in a week. Pass the order down and make sure all are ready. A mass exodus like this is a difficult thing. The priests are good at that kind of thing, I suggest you use them.
“Lastly. You must act the superior. Men and women will live and die by your actions. Follow the light, but only after careful thought. No more heroics, no more gut decisions. It is not your own life now. Understood?” he said.
The weight hit her, and she felt crippled. She nodded. She had taken the markings, she would do the job well. Even if it killed her, one day at a time.
“Good. Now, about the boy. What did he say about this sword?” he said.
She was glad for the change in direction. Now she was reporting to her superior like she always had. It was comfortable. But she also knew this was a training exercise. Soon, people would report to her and she would make decisions and give orders based on those reports. She was not ready for that. She cast it from her mind. One thing at a time.
“He said the sword was his. By the conviction in his voice I believed him. Besides, I don’t know where he would have got it. Can’t see the militia giving a no rank scrub a sworn like that” she said.
Bryce nodded along.
“Why did he stop the attack?” he said.
“I don’t know. Worse, I didn’t see him. He came from nowhere and stopped the attack so swiftly, I could not have intercepted” she said.
“You sure about that?” he said.
It was a fair question. Quinn was a good paladin, but more so she was blessed. Her sight, hearing and speed were beyond most others. To believe anyone could sneak past her and act so quickly she could not stop it was a hard pill to follow. More believable was that she allowed him to act, because in truth she wanted to stop the attack too. The difference was huge. In one story Finn was a figure to fear, a possible user of magic with no training on how to control it. It could be a death sentence for him. The other she admitted she allowed the plan to fail, disobeying orders in all but direct action. It would save Finn. But it was not the truth.
“I am sure” she said.
“If that sword is his, he is the son of a paladin long thought lost. If he got past you, he has potential. Give him the test. If he passes vow him in and bring him with us. If he fails, cleanse him” he said.
Quinn had seen Bryce administer the test, and had seen how hollow he looked after having to cleanse someone. She was not sure she could do it, especially to one she was sure was full of light. But that was her role now. She nodded.
He nodded back, and dismissed her.