(Seven years)

Rain pounded the roof, but inside the tiny house were four people (and one large dog) in relative warmth considering the weather. The front room served as both kitchen and living room, and a tall, redheaded man snoozed in a chair in one corner by the fire, his little son sitting on the hearth playing with a toy.

Given the tranquility of the scene, the yelped protests were slightly out of place.

“Ow. Mumma, dinnae! Tha’ hurts! OW”

In one of the two bedrooms, a freshly bathed little girl frumped on a stool in a slightly oversized nightgown, her hazel eyes filled with indignation that would’ve been serious if it wasn’t quite so comical. Behind her, a pleasant looking dark-haired woman brandished a comb with practiced accuracy.

“Sit STILL, Fiffy. It won’t hurt so if you dinna struggle.”

The woman yanked the comb through another snarl, her long fingers unwinding yet another bit of sticker brambles from her daughter’s birdsnest of hair.

“Did ye not comb it a’mornin’ like I told ye?”

The mumbled response warranted another yanked knot.

“What’d ye do that got ye in alla this mess anyhow? That skirt’s near ruined.”

“Jus’ climbin’ trees wi’ -OW- Bert. He dared me t’ climb th’ haunted yew tree in th’ churchyard!”

“Brother Olfric’ll have ye ears for breakfast if he catches ye again, ye ken? An’ that tree isnae haunted. Jus’ older e’en than th’ cemetery.”

The disgruntled “Aye, Mumma” that emerged from the damp mess of red curls held only a hint of defiance.

The woman sighed, deftly braiding that evening’s project into a tight plait and securing it as best she could, knowing another night of combing was likely ahead of her the next day unless it kept raining. How that child could look and act so much like her father, she didn’t know.

Tripping once on her nightgown, the little girl scampered out into the front room and clambered over the dog and into her father’s lap, waking him up and asking for a story.

He blinked at her sleepily, then smiled.

“A’righ’, jus’ a short’un thow. Lesse… I s’pose th’ best stories all start wi’ “Once upon a time” ayeh?”

*****

(Sixteen years)

Brother Olfric didn’t believe in coincidences.

Not anymore, at least. 50 years or so of service to a tiny mining town had taught him a lot about providence, and sticking together, and about the rugged, simple strength of the people that showed up week in and week out at his tiny, wood-frame church.

When the huge, old tree outside had fallen, and the sons and daughters of the town came to chop it into firewood, he had been sad – it’d been like an old friend, watching over the cemetery. But that firewood had been an unexpected blessing, bringing not only him but also another family through the worst set of blizzards on record.

He’d thought he would miss chasing the kids out of it, but it turned out they hung around anyway – especially Aely. He had a soft spot for the girl, as much as he tried not to play favorites. She’d stop by in the afternoons after school, helping out the hunched priest with his daily duties, caring for the only things of monetary value in the entire building – candle holders.

She reminded him of his wife, or maybe his daughter – he didn’t know. Both gone with fever on to the next world so long past. But she was kind and quick to laughter, and seemed genuinely to care for the arthritic old man he’d become.

So when it was time to make the trip to Stratholme for the Spring Fair and get more candles and oil, more incense and maybe some new linens, and catch up on the news coming out of Lordaeron, it was no coincidence that he asked the teenager to go with him.

She was, of course, thrilled – and her enthusiasm was infectious.

Olfric figured she’d probably been all the way to the city only a handful of times in her life, and this time she’d be going without her family. And this time they’d be there for two whole days.

Lars Hansson had asked him to their home for dinner the night before they left, and he’d accepted gratefully. Their home was peaceful, and Aely’s mother was a fantastic cook. The kind of cook that could take a cabinet full of nothing and turn it into a meal for six – which she needed, since Leofred was turning 14 this year and eating like his legs were hollow. A huge meal of roast and potatoes and warm, fresh bread would set them off on the right foot the next morning.

*****

Stratholme was as it always seemed to be during the Spring festivals. Crammed with people, sheep, goats, oxen, carts, and every other manner of everything you’d want to find in a big city that was just waking up from being snowed in for 4 months. The redheaded girl was easy enough to find – she was taller than most, and her hair made her something of a beacon.

And then Sunday afternoon, after they’d bought all he’d need for the church for the next year and were packing up the horses to head back, he noticed her watching something.

“What d’ ye see?” he asked.

“Procession a’ some sorts?”

“Aye, th’ Order’s makin’ another Paladin this noon, an’ they’re sayin’ Uther Lightbringer his own self’ll be there. Ye want t’ go watch?”

*****

The afternoon light streamed through stained glass windows, illuminating the floor and congregants in the Alonsus Chapel with bright flecks. Incense hung thick in the air, and even from the corner in the back where she and Brother Olfric had squeezed into a pew, she could see the Clerics of Northshire on the left of the center aisle and the Knights of the Silver Hand on the right. Someone was leading a choir in a soft chant, and the entire building fairly glowed with the occasion.

She stared. For only having heard tales of him, Uther Lightbringer was easy to spot among the Order. He was not the tallest, nor the broadest of the Knights, but his presence was unmistakable. His dark hair was greying at the temples, and there were streaks in his beard, but his eyes were warm, deep with thought and prayer. Aely gawked, openly.

When the singing stopped, a young man walked in through the doors of the chapel, standing with what could only be his family on either side. He was dressed simply – white linen pants and a tunic – his blonde hair combed back away from his face, and nervousness crinkling his brow. She watched as he walked up to the altar and knelt, and the Archbishop spoke words of blessing to him and to all who had gathered. As he began his vows, the young woman’s mind wandered slightly, wondering about the man who was joining the order that day as a Knight; where was he from, and how had he known that that was to be his path? She tried to catch a glimpse of his family to see if she recognized them, to no avail.

Brother Olfric elbowed her in the ribs and whispered fiercely in her ear, “Lass, pay attention now – this’s th’ part wha’ makes th’ whole bit worth it. Watch.”

As Aely peered, straining her eyes to take in as much of the ceremony as was left, the Archbishop looked down at the young man, kneeling before him, now wearing a blue stole and elaborate armor, with a Paladin’s hammer in his grip. “Do you vow to vanquish evil wherever it be found, to protect the innocent with your very life, and to serve always what is right, honorable, and good?”

His voice cracked. “By my blood and honor, I do.”

And then, almost imperceptibly, the Knights of the Silver Hand and the Clerics of Northshire raised each of their right hands in unison, many closing their eyes – and to her utter astonishment, their hands began to glow. Softly at first – and then the light streaming from their hands and down from the rose window behind the altar began to grow stronger, and the young man’s kneeling form was blurred by the beams of intensifying Light.

Aely blinked, trying to shield her eyes from the blinding glow. Next to her, Brother Olfric inhaled sharply, and she turned to him. “Ye a’righ’, brother? Do ye need air?”

He shook his head, a look of awe on his face that surprised her, given that she was sure he’d seen Paladins join the order before. “Nothing’s wrong, Lass. Look.” and he pointed at her hands. She held them up before her, wondering at the mirrored golden glow clinging to her own fingers.

After a few moments, the Light in the room dissipated, and the young man stood amid shouts of congratulations. Aelflaed sat dumbfounded, blinking at her hands. Brother Olfric, on the other hand, grinned like a schoolboy. “Come, Lass. I think ye may have found your future. Got folks ye need to talk at.”

****

Only a few weeks later, Aelflaed found herself on horseback again, headed towards Stratholme. Brother Olfric was with her again, but it was a weekday, and instead of going to get new things for the next year’s church services, she was going to begin her training as a Paladin. Two years, she’d study there in Stratholme. Two years away from home, and family, and everything she’d known. She was 16.

An’ how ye expect t’ make it through tha’… well, ye’ve got y’r bloody laigh’ filled hands full this time, lass.

The rest of that fateful Spring afternoon had passed in a blur. Aely had been whisked from the pew in the chapel to speak to two of the Paladins, congratulate their newest member, get a blessing from the Bishop, and set the horses pointed back to the west, but not before a few intense questions from a very serious older man, in charge of finding new folks to train for the eventual vows of the Silver Hand. She’d signed her name to begin her training – and only afterwards realized what that might actually mean.

Fortunately, Brother Olfric had taken the blow of telling her parents, whose reactions were understandably mixed between pride and fear. Taking holy orders was one of the few ways for their daughter to be something more than they had been – and one of the surest ways to place her in harm’s way.

Author Anna
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