With the Father's blessing, you shall return to Earth. Guide Agnes Oaks soul to Heaven with St. Ajora's divine protection... Farlem...
Farlem, everyone present echoed.
Father Jaren closed the Scriptures, signifying the end of the funeral. The few who attended whispered their condolences to Ramia and Galvin before leaving the gravesite. Galvin expressed his gratitude, but Ramia was deaf to those words of comfort for they could not ease the pain of her troubled heart.
A month had passed since Lord Oaks death during which the household mourned. Black cloth covered the banners that hung on the keep; servants wore sashes of black silk around their waist while Ramia and Galvin tied black ribbons around the hilt of their swords, all of which indicated their mourning.
As custom dictated, Lord Oaks lain in state at the chapel, awaiting those who would say their last farewells. Pristine curtains covered the windows and the only light came from tall candelabras standing at the head and foot of a bier. Upon that platform stood a coffin of dark oak, a fitting place to house one who was named after the wood.
In the coffin, Lord Oaks body was swathed in white, the still face gleaming in the candlelight, its lifelike appearance testament to the embalmers skill.
Ramia remembered the times she had visited and looked upon Agnes, staring at the familiar features, the blue eyes dulled, no longer animated by the bright spark of life. She had hoped to find a hint of life within those dull orbs, hoped to find a finger twitch, a twist of the lip
But all those visits only served to remind her of the harsh reality of death, of the mortality of men, of those last words Lord Oaks had spoken to her with his dying breath.
They had echoed in her heart then, they echoed in her heart now as she stared at the grave. Those words haunted her dreams, her thoughts, until it seemed that it would consume her very being.
Know that I love you and youll always be close to my heart... My granddaughter...
That one word had rocked her world that night. She knew that she wasnt a Birch by birth, having talked to her foster parents about her heritage all those years ago. Now that she thought about it, her father and mother did not give her true mothers name, only that she was a common knight serving in Zeltennia
Or was she?
Ramia didnt know anymore. She could not distinguish what was true and untrue. But one thing was certain to her: Lord Oaks was dead and whatever secrets he kept had died along with himsecrets that could, perhaps, be unlocked.
Her hand went to her breast, where the key Lord Oaks had given her hung beneath her tunic. She had the key to those secrets, she knew she had the key to those secrets and yet, she did not have the courage to unlock them. Why was she afraid? Was it fear for the unknown that stopped her from obtaining the answers she sought or was it something more than that, something far worse?
Thoughts like these were what consumed her this past month and she had always found solace when visiting the chapel, when looking upon the face of her mentor. His last words not only troubled her, but soothed her as well. Contradictory, she knew, but for some reason they sounded right, filled with love.
But the voice she next heard was not filled with love, but with urgency: Ramia!
She blinked, her mind returning to the present as she turned towards the voice, which belonged to none other than Galvin. Seeing that he had captured her attention, he nodded towards a group of four heading for them and said, Look.
Ramia obeyed, noting the disdain in Galvins voice, and saw why. The group that came to them was led by none other than Lord Gyle Ilde himself. At the sight of him, she made a sound like a snarl, deep in her throat, and Galvin cast a cautionary glance in her direction.
Both knights had their suspicions on who had sent the ninjas. They knew that Lord Ilde held no love for them. Ever since the day Ramia had defeated his squires in a fair fight, Gyle had held a grudge against them. His hatred for them was known among the nobles, so when news of Lord Oaks death reached the palace, it came as no surprise to them. They expected as much, but with no evidence to prove his hand in the death of Lord Oaks, he remained free.
His presence at the funeral angered Ramia for she felt that he was dishonoring the memory of her late lord.
My condolences, Lady Ramia, Sir Galvin, Lord Ilde said in greeting, bowing his head slightly. I was saddened to hear about his death. He paused briefly as he looked down at the grave. Did he suffer? He appeared to be grieving, but his tone betrayed him.
It was full of mockery and if it wasnt for Galvins interruption, Ramia would have sprung at Lord Ilde. He died a knights death, Galvin replied as he positioned himself between Ramia and Gyle. That is all you need to know, Lord Ilde.
Though not the answer he wanted to hear, he nodded. Yes, of course. Such a death befits a knight of the crown. But he was more deserving of a traitors death, he thought darkly as he gazed at Ramia, who stared back, her eyes burning as she glowered at him. He was a great man, he said, as he shifted his gaze back to Galvin. He shall be sorely missed.
Yes, indeed, Galvin agreed sadly.
Lord Ilde nodded and excused himself and his three knights, murmuring their sympathies once more before walking away, Ramia casting a final, scornful glance at Gyle.
An arrogant man, a voice observed and Ramia turned to see Father Jaren and Divine Knight Tomas approaching. Worse, hes implacable, Jaren continued. Such a man does not deserve to live, dont you agree, Lady Ramia?
Milord? Ramia inquired, wondering if he knew that Gyle had sent those ninjas.
I could have him arrested and tried for his crime, Lady Ramia, the priest explained knowingly. All you need do is say the word and it shall be done.
It was a tempting offer and when she looked to Galvin, she saw that he was considering it, glancing at Gyles departing back with a wicked smile. She, too, considered it, but something in her heart told her that it was wrong.
I thank you for the gesture, Father, she said, but I must decline.
What?! Galvin exclaimed incredulously, swiftly turning on her. You would let Lord Oaks murderer go unpunished?!
Lord Oaks murderer has already paid for his crime, Ramia countered calmly, with his life. If there is someone to blame for this tragedy, then it should be us. We failed to protect our lord, Galvin, as was our duty.
Whatever argument Galvin was about to say, died on his lips. He couldnt argue against that simple fact and it was this fact that angered him. He and Demitri had gone to Lesalia to retrieve a chemist and when they had arrived back at the keep, they were too late. The truth was that he had failed and he could no longer deny it.
Are you sure about this, Lady Ramia? Jaren asked a bit skeptically.
Ramia nodded firmly. Yes, Milord. It is against the knights code to seek revenge against another. Besides, the fault lies with us. Let his freedom be our punishment for our failure.
Jaren sighed. Always the righteous one. You almost sound like your He caught himself almost saying mother, instead muttering, Nevermind, with a shake of his head. Ramia wondered what he was about to say, but kept silent, listening as Jaren said, If that is your decision, then so be it.
Thank you, Milord, Ramia said gratefully.
I admire you, Lady Ramia, and I admired Lord Oaks, said the priest. It is the least I could do in his memory. He then motioned for Tomas to follow him as he took his leave. The Divine Knight took a step then stopped. Without looking at Ramia or Galvin, he said, Lord Oaks was a good man and a loyal knight. Its a shame that he has left us so suddenly. Im sure that he had a lot more to teach the both of you, especially you, Lady Ramia. A lot more
Ramia gazed at the Divine Knight thoughtfully, marveling at his reticent tone, as he paused briefly, seeming to gather his thoughts. I hope you find what you are searching for, he turned to gaze at Ramia, Lady Ramia. He then politely bowed before leaving the two, quickly following Jaren through the departing crowd.
She was surprised by the Divine Knights comment. How did he know?, she thought as she stared at his back in bewilderment. Was she that easy to read, her thoughts clearly expressed on her face? She shook her head, hoping to clear them of such disturbing matters, but it served only to sustain them.
There were so many things to think about, so many questions that need answering. She suddenly felt smothered by such thoughts so that when the last of the mourners left except for her adopted family that had come to pay their last respects to their old friend, she left them saying that she needed some air.
Leave her be, my son, Tiana said when Galvin moved to stop her. She needs to be alone, to grieve and to cope with the lost of her mentor
And dont you think that I need time to grieve too, mother? Galvin retorted, cutting her off suddenly. He turned to face her and his whole family, his eyes glistening with unshed tears. I lost a mentor as well. Dont you think I feel the same way too? What makes her grieving different from mine?
He saw his grandparents exchange a knowing glance before they turned to his father who, in turn, looked at him, his expression grave, but when he spoke, it was with a heavy heart: Lord Oaks was more than a mentor to Ramia.
The next words his father spoke would forever ring in his mind.
He was her grandfather, her true grandfather.
The burial groundlocated towards the back of the keep, beyond the gardens, separated by a barred gatewas a serene place, and if it werent for the many gravestones that dotted the rolling grass, it would be a perfect place to think. Ramia walked past the graves as she made her way to the gate that marked the entry of the Oaks family burial site, passing through with not so much as a thought, her mind preoccupied with other matters.
The day was bright, the sky cerulean with drifts of high cloud floating on the sweet-scented wind. Contrary to the days cheerful setting, Ramias heart was as violent as a raging thunderstorm. Each beat was like a thunderclap, her thoughts rampant as the winds. She felt like a sailor lost at sea amidst the tumultuous waves that threatened to capsize her boat and drown her. Her one support was gone now, buried beneath a sea of dirt and grass, so that she had to rely on something else to keep her afloat.
And that one comfort is her sword.
She unsheathed that weapon as she continued to walk through the gardens, feeling comfort in its weight, the black ribbon hanging limply at the hilt. Then suddenly, as she took a step, she thrust her sword forward. With her next step, she followed through with a low swing, her sword arcing as she pivoted on that same foot to do a downward slash as she completed the turn.
She executed a series of slashes and thrusts, swings and stabs following that simple maneuver. It was a deadly dance of the blade, taught to her by Agnes. She thought of him now as she jumped, cutting the air before her with a two-handed downward slash as she fell.
Her sword sang as she twirled it in her hands, dazzling those who could have been watching as the sun glinted off its polished surface. She performed those exercises and techniques that she had learned from Lord Oaks, guided by his hands.
All those times she had practiced in the garden, Lord Oaks had always come to watch silently, never disturbing her concentration. Only when she was finished would he make his presence known to her.
A wind blew then, strong enough to make her stop in mid-swing. She stood silently, listening as the gust rustled through the surrounding trees, shaking loose leaves that fell down around her. She thought she heard a voice in the wind as it whipped through her long hair:
Do not be afraid. I am with you always.
Suddenly, all her doubts was blown away just as the wind left the garden, taking them away to faraway heights where they would bother her no more. She felt calm then as she took out the key from beneath her tunic, watching it sway at the end of the thin chain that it was suspended from.
The truth will reveal itself at its own time.
Ramia knew that it was time. She was not afraid any more.
Clutching the key in her left hand, she sheathed her sword and marched firmly towards the keep. Passing through some hedges and bushes, she finally came to the flagged pathway that led back into the keep where she saw her mother sitting on one of the stone benches that lined the pathway.
Celinda turned when she heard Ramia approaching up the path. Her hair blew loose in the wind, her gray eyes shone bright as she studied her daughter. You seem determined, she observed with a smile.
Ramia paused at the pathway, gazing at her mother, her hazel eyes no less as bright. I am, she replied strongly, unconsciously bringing the key closer to her heart.
Celinda noticed this and stood, her soft blue robe rustling as she approached Ramia. The smile was gone now, her expression grave. So, you have finally decided.
Yes, Ramia nodded, clutching the key tighter and bringing it to her heart. I am ready to unlock those secrets now, mother. I am not afraid. Lord Oaks is with me, she pounded her chest once, here.
We are with you as well, Ramia, Celinda said. Whatever secrets you learn, whatever path you take, know that your family supports you. We will never abandon you. Never forget that. She then hugged her daughter, who whispered, Thank you, mother, as she returned the embrace.
Now go, Celinda urged when they finally broke apart. Ramia smiled then and nodded and resumed her walk to the keep.
You let her go.
Celinda turned to see her husband emerge from the trees. His hair that was usually up fell loose about his shoulders as his dark eyes reflected his concern. He wore a gray long-sleeved tunic with matching pants followed by black high boots. A slender saber was belted at his waist and a black ribbon tied about his right armthe Limberrian sign of mourning.
I had to, Celinda replied as he came and took her hand. She needs to know, Andrew. We knew that she would learn her true heritage one day.
But I never thought that it would be this soon, he murmured, brushing his hair back with his other hand. Is she ready?
She is ready, answered his wife, as they both turned to watch their daughter disappear into the keep. She follows her heart.
Ramia stared at the thick wooden door, a torch in one hand, the key in the other. During the five years that she had resided at Oaks Keep, the only place that she hadnt fully explored was the west wing. She had, on occasion, walked through the halls that were almost always poorly lit, giving it a forbidding atmosphere.
Very few visited the wing, none roomed there. It was as if the servants avoided venturing there for it lacked their care. The windows were dusty, the air musty. It seemed she had stepped into an abandoned building. There was something here the servants wished to avoid and she stood in front of it: the only door in the whole keep that was kept locked, only admissible to the one who possessed the key.
Lord Oaks had the key and now that key belonged to her.
The family vault, the servants called it, where old artifacts and treasures of the Oaks family collected over the years were kept. But what did they hold for her? What sort of secrets lied there in wait? There was only one way to find out.
Ramia took a breath as she pushed the key into the lock and turned it. The door creaked open, revealing a stairwell spiraling down into the depths of darkness. She felt a chill run down her spine as she took that first step down followed by another and another, the sound of her heavy footfalls echoing eerily in the silence.
The stairs wore on for sometime, encountering the occasional spider web that crossed her path, a sign that this passage hasnt been used for quite a long time. She eventually reached the bottom and lifted her torch to get a better look at her surroundings. She stood upon a floor of gray stone, great blocks of the same color rising above her to form a square ceiling for the large room filled with ancient relics that dated back to before the Fifty Year War.
Her one torch only illuminated her immediate surroundings. She turned to the side to see an unlit torch in its sconce. With her torch, she lit it, brightening the room by a fraction, revealing more than just artifacts of the past, but paintings as well. She felt like a treasure hunter who had stumbled upon a rare find. Eager to study the numerous relics and artifacts, she lit another torch she found before placing her own torch in an empty sconce. The three torches were bright enough to light up the whole room except for one small corner.
Ramia didnt seem to notice as she began to pick up items, studying them closely, searching for their significance. The many ancient weapons and armor did not provide her with anything but admiration for the smiths that had crafted such beautiful, yet primitive, objects. After a few more minutes of scrutinizing the armory, she turned to the paintings.
Most were faded and covered in soot, but once she wiped off the grit, she marveled at the artists talent. The first painting she came upon brought a mixture of awe and confusion.
Theres something missing here. I dont know how but I just know.
She knew it to be the painting that was missing from that wall she had first seen when being shown to her room on the day she arrived at the keep. But how did she know without ever visiting the keep before then? She studied the painting closely, hoping to find any clue to her answer.
The painting was of a woman in her mid-thirties with brown wavy hair and forest green eyes. She stood tall in her flowing gown of light pink, her smile carefree, the painter capturing her beauty perfectly. At the bottom of the portrait was a name: Dei Oaks.
The name didnt sound familiar to Ramia, but the painting did get her thinking on who she was. She then turned to another painting and immediately named the place where its supposed to be in the keep, which surprised her yet again. She studied it briefly before turning to another painting, instantly naming the location where it belonged:
Above the fireplace in Marks room.
Dining hall, above the minstrels gallery.
Foyer, in between the two staircases leading up.
These paintings were people she never met in life, yet somehow she felt as if she knew them. She named every single one she found, no longer admiring their beauty, the cold fingers of foreboding slowly gripping her heart.
This is strange, she thought uneasily. Why is it that I know where these paintings belong?
She stepped away from the works of art, the many eyes that were frozen in time staring at her as if they recognized her. She took another involuntary step back, nearly tripping over something, catching her balance at the last moment, quickly turning around to find another painting much to her surprise.
Unlike the other paintings, this one was carelessly thrown against a pile of various antiques. The quality of the work was poorly done as if it was only half finished. Colors were smeared together like the image of a dream, none of the persons features clearly defined
Except for the eyes.
Ramia looked at those eyes, feeling a sense of pride and love as she stared at them. Much like she felt when she was with Lord Oaks. Then it struck her. Those eyes were a stark blue, the same color as her lords, yet were different. As she was about to bring her head closer to the portrait to study it better, there came the sound of something being knocked over.
She quickly snapped her head in that direction, thinking that someone else was down here with her, but saw that the sound had come from the dark corner and not from the direction of the stairs. She ignored the sound with a snort, and went back to the painting in question.
Again, as she was about to look more closely at the painting, there came a sound from the dark corner. This time it was a scratching sound. Ramia ignored it at first, but then it became persistent, the irritating sound seeming to make her ears bleed. Growling in frustration, she placed the painting down, taking a torch afterwards so she could see what was making that sound.
The light of the flame dispelled the shadows of the corner, revealing the culprit. A gray rat clawed on the surface of a dark chest caked in dust so thick that Ramia could see the scratch marks left by the culprit.
The rodent continued to scrape against the latch of the chest, seemingly unawares of the human approaching. After a few moments of scratching did it notice her approach. It did not skitter away as most rats would instinctively do. Instead, it turned and looked at her.
Ramia looked at it curiously, its whiskers twitching ever so slightly. She stomped her foot once, hoping to scare it away, but it didnt even flinch, only standing there looking at her calmly. Its gaze unnerved Ramia, as if it knew something she did not.
A few minutes seemed to pass by before the rat, with another twitch of its whiskers, jumped onto the chest, clawed at it, then skittered away.
Normally, Ramia would have dismissed the rat with a shake of her head before returning to previous matters, but she suddenly felt drawn to the chest. Something about the rats stare and the way it scratched the chest before running away urged her to open it.
Feeling the need to know what this rusted, old chest contained, she placed her torch on the empty sconce above it before kneeling down before the box. For some reason, her hand shook as she reached for the latch, slowly unlocking it and lifting the lid afterwards.
Ramia let out a breath that she had held while opening the chest, as she gazed in wonder at the contents. Much like the ancient weaponry that she had looked over a while ago, the equipment she found were very much suited for a knight of high ranking.
The gleaming helmet of crystal sparkled softly in the torchs light, radiating the different colors of the rainbow. The shield was made of finely honed black steel shaped into the form of a kite, strong enough to withstand harsh blows but light enough to maneuver it easily. The armor looked to be an ordinary piece of equipment until Ramia passed her hand over it. She felt an aura of magic within the armor, surprised that the spell the armor was imbued with hasnt faded with time. The sword, too, was imbued with magic, feeling it pulsate through her as she unsheathed it. The hilt was wrapped round with wire, the quillons straight and wide. The blade was close on a handspan across where it fused with the guards, s seeming to glow with a dull light. It was a sword of epic proportions, one that looked to belong to a great king.
As she removed the equipment one at a time, reverently placing them on the floor besides her, she came upon a rolled parchment. Unfortunately, when she went to pick it up, it easily crumbled into dust and she was left with nothing to identify who the equipment belonged to.
The equipment was of excellent quality and it seemed to have been recently crafted. But who, besides Lord Oaks, could have possibly worn the items? His wife perhaps? Or maybe
You have truly inherited the spirit of your mother She said exactly the same thing when her mother was dying...
her mother Lord Oaks spoke about, his presumed daughter. Was it possible that this equipment belonged to her? Eager now to find the truth, she rummaged through the chest, hoping it would yield a clue or an answer to her many questions. The pair of boots, gloves, and trousers she found did not reveal much, but unbeknownst to her, the blue tunic found after provided the key that would open the gate to memories long forgotten.
She gazed at the piece of clothing that was riddled with long open slashes and stained with blood as voices from a past long faded away came rushing back to her:
Grandpa! Whats happening??? Why are they hurting Mama??? Why???
The voice of a little girl.
Be quiet! And stay quiet!
The easily recognizable voice of Lord Oaks.
Do you know who your father is? Can you tell me who he is? Whats his name?
That sly voice could only belong to Father Jaren.
And that voice
No ! Ramia gasped, staring wide-eyed at the tunic as images from that ill-fated day suddenly filled her mind. She trembled and wept at the tragic realization of it all.
Mama Grandpa she sobbed, not the nineteen-year-old knight but the four-year-old girl, bereft, alone. She clutched the tunic to her as if it would give her comfort, her tears flowing freely down her cheeks.
The gray rat stood at the foot of the unfinished painting that had suddenly become all too clear to Ramia, watching as the lady knight cried. It then turned to the painting and the name that was inscribed on it: