Gravefoot barely contained himself as he giddily made his way through the streets of Levington. He ignored the glances askance from the people out this morning, not sure if it was him or the ton and a half of stark white direwolf beside him. He had been away from Levington for quite a while, and it had changed a lot. The city was growing at a rapid, yet organized pace. A far cry from the streets of Gravethorn, whose every alley was packed with shelter seekers and derelicts. Whereas, despite the heat, the citizenry of Levington seemed content and happy, those of Gravethorn only shared looks of sadness, loss, and distrust after Fell’s campaign. But even these heavy thoughts could not weigh down the half-orc’s light steps, for soon he would be able to see her again.
He had all but jumped at the task when his captain, actually Baroness, old habits died hard with Gravefoot, had said they needed to send someone for supplies from Levington. When Gravefoot volunteered, the Baroness was glad to let him go saying only, “Take your Blackthorn Brigade, and send them back here as soon as possible. I expect you will stay as long as is needed Captain.” Gravefoot wasn’t sure if he should have been hurt by her easy dismissal, but this time he didn’t care. He would get to see the little one.
Blackthorn Brigade wasn’t a brigade at all. When refugees started arriving, many sick and dying, and all needing shelter, the Baroness had tasked Gravefoot with finding anyone within the company that had any skills that could help. Gravefoot found a handful of men and women who were medics, carpenters, wheelwrights, and farriers, prior to becoming sellswords. They were placed directly under Gravefoot’s captaincy, and were ordered to join him in whatever tasks he deemed fit. At first they were highly adverse to the work, but soon had little grounds for complaint. Their captain was always the first one out to help, and the last in. Gravefoot had been fair with them, and quick with coin for drinks at the tavern in the evenings. Although not good with people, Gravefoot understood soldiers, having been around them his whole life, and quickly won them over to the good they were doing. It was early last winter, when Gravefoot digging through things left behind in the fort from the Staglord’s days hoping to find something of use, came across a stash of black hooded robes. The robes were ideal for Gravefoot and his people, as they could easily be worn over armor to stay warm, and their dark color hid the blood, sick, sweat and mud that they ended so many of their days covered in. Soon people were asking for the Black Gravethorn’s when they needed help. And eventually that shortened to Blackthorn, and stuck.
Then one evening the Baroness entered the barracks, crossing directly to Gravefoot.
“Captain Gravefoot,” she said succinctly. “You and the Blackthorn Brigade are to be commended on your good work. Carry on.” With that she left, and like that, the Blackthorn brigade became official.
Gravefoot wore one of those robes now, only in the heat he was stripped down to the waist, his gifted scarf serving as a sash. His upper body was now about sixty percent tattoos, though many had evolved into more natural and organic patterns. One had changed significantly, as he had covered over the Baroness’s likeness. His mohawk had become long and unkempt over the year and he had taken to braiding two strands in the front to keep his coarse hair out of his face. His huge hands were wrapped in dirty gauze to the forearm. His constant work never giving the chance for his blisters to heal all the way. He would have looked more out of place where it not for Howl of the North Wind. The beast was the embodiment of wild. Even now as she padded alongside the nearly seven foot tall half orc her keen eyes looked upon the citizenry without fear, and more than little hunger. Her very essence seemed wrong being contained within these man-built walls, and she wanted free of them. This she let Gravefoot know on a number of occasions, as she less than gently nipped at his heels, speeding him along in his task.
At last the duo arrived at the door of Leveton manor. Gravefoot spun on Howl of the North Wind, raising himself up in posture unconsciously as he tried to summon command into his voice.
“Howl of the North Wind, stay here until I come out,’ Gravefoot commanded.
In response Howl snarled and stood on her hind legs, imitating Gravefoot’s increase in posture. Gravefoot, just the low side of seven feet, was not used to having to look up at things. Yet the massive beast stood well taller than him now.
Knowing she was testing him yet again, Gravefoot stepped forward and shoved the white mound of wolf in the chest, trying to force her back on all fours. The direwolf hooked her forelegs around Gravefoot’s neck as he shoved, and both tumbled down in melee of snarls, curses, and fangs. After a time Gravefoot had the beast pinned and was eye to eye with her, she on her back in the dusty path, Gravefoot atop her.
“Howl of the Northwind, stay here until I come out!” Gravefoot said again out of breath. The direwolf snorted derisively before flipping herself over, crashing her boney head into Gravefoot’s face as he she did. There was a loud “thunk”, followed by swimming vision, and Gravefoot wasn’t sure how he stumbled to his feet. When he could see clearly again he saw that the direwolf was laying in a patch of shade, her huge pink tongue lolling out, looking as if it were her idea that she wait there contentedly until Gravefoot returned.
“Close enough,” Gravefoot grumbled turning to the Leveton’s door. He was surprised to see a slip of a girl standing, gawking, the door swung wide open. Gravefoot recognized her immediately as Amma, the young woman Gravefoot had convinced Svetlana to take on as a maid, though now lady in waiting, after Oleg’s request. Gravefoot could only assume the girl had witnessed his discussion with the direwolf.
“Good day Amma,” Gravefoot said towering over the girl. “I believe I am expected?”
Amma could only stare at the wolf, then Gravefoot. She said something quietly and yielded the threshold of the door still unsure. As he followed her, Gravefoot noticed Amma was almost as disheveled as he was. Instead of dirt and a scrapes, Amma was caked in flour and had bits of dough in her hair. Gravefoot was overcome with heat and the smell of fresh baking bread as soon as he entered the house.
Making his way into the kitchen, Gravefoot was surprised to see the place, normally immaculate, look like some kind of battle had been waged through it. Instead of corpses there were discarded mixing bowls and spoons. And atop the sturdy table were baskets piled high with fresh loaves of bread. At the largest of the counters was arguably the most powerful woman in Levington. Officially she was the wife of the Treasurer, but it just took a few minutes with Svetlana to know that she was so much more. She wore a simple smock and shift, the sleeves rolled up past her elbows. He arms were sunk into a heap of dough she was kneading. Her hair hung in sweaty wisps around her face, flushed from the heat of the oven which had probably been going all night. Her tired eyes were kind as they looked on Gravefoot. And a warm and welcome smile followed quickly after.
“Lana,” Gravefoot started. His nickname for Svetlana was at her behest. His ruined moth often had trouble with the “Svet” part of her name, and she had told him to just call her “Lana” to spare any embarrassment. “You look tired. New mothers need as much rest as their child.”
“Tell her that,” the woman said with sardonic grin. “She gets it from Oleg. He don’t let me sleep either. Asking this and that. Sometimes I fear for this nation with him having the purse strings.”
Gravefoot could only chuckle. There was no one better suited for his task than Oleg Leveton, and they both knew it. A good man, and true. With a good woman behind him.
Gravefoot gingerly crossed the kitchen to simple wooden crib Svetlana had indicated with her head. He hunkered down low over the perfect pink-skinned bundle, swaddled now in light cloth. With healers hands, more gentle and stable then one would think possible to look at them, he scooped the babe out and held her aloft. Lazily the little girl opened her crystal blue eyes and looked upon the half-orc, a slow open-mouthed smile spreading her chubby pink cheeks, revealing toothless gums and little tongue.
“She remembers you,” Svetlana said over her shoulder as she wrestled with the dough. “For most that try to pick her up, she wails like a banshee.”
Gravefoot couldn’t say anything. Little blurs of water began forming at the bottom of his vision. He gently laid the babe down on the table, all the while smiling his grotesque smile. When he could talk it was a gentle rumble to the squirming babe he now unwrapped.
“Let’s have a look at you Sigrun Ragna Leveton, Princess of Levington,” Gravefoot said in voice he only found when speaking with babes. It was not a silly voice, just gentle and quiet, like the rumble of stone moving far off.
“You can stop all that,” Svetlana said huffing. “Tis’ Valen that is King, and his daughter, should he have one, that would be princess.”
“Forgive me. I still do not fully understand how titles work. But I think every little girl should be a princess if she so chooses, isn’t that right Sigrun?” Gravefoot said the last, once again examining the child. “What do you call one born of a lord and lady then?’ Gravefoot asked sincerely.
“Bah that!” Svetlana replied with a final slam of the wad of dough. I am no more a lady then you a lord, Councilor Gravefoot,” Svetlana took on an airy posture as she used his official title.
What a sight this must be, Gravefoot thought to himself, as he examined little Sigrun. Were someone to come in now and see a towering half-monster, covered in tattoos, poking at prodding at a squirming pink babe.
After thoroughly examining Sigrun, Gravefoot deftly wrapped the babe again in her swaddling cloth, then begun rocking her back and forth. She looked like she would get lost in his massive green forearms.
“She is beautiful ‘Lana,” Gravefoot said still looking down on the child. Sigrun busied herself trying to pull on Gravefoot’s braids that hung just out of her tiny reach. “And healthy as any babe I have ever seen.”
At the last Svetlana’s shoulders dropped slightly, as she breathed out a sigh of relief. She turned again to Gravefoot with a smile warmer than the over-worked oven. “Thank you Gravefoot. For everything. You have been away too long.”
Gravefoot flushed, embarrassed, and looked to change the subject. Just then Amma came in, carrying another basket bigger than her, this one filled with dried goods.
“What is all this? Gravefoot said. It looked as if Svetlana and Amma were doing their best to single handedly provision an army. There were baskets of food everywhere.
“Oleg said you all had it rough in the south,” Svetlana began. “When we heard you were coming, Amma and I worked through the night getting this ready for you take with you.”
“Lana-,” Gravefoot began, overcome with surprise and gratitude.
“Wasn’t just me and the girl,” Svetlana jumped in over the top him. “Jhod sent some stuff up from his temple. And, he would be mad for me telling you, but a few of those cheese wheels came from Kestin’s own cellar. It isn’t much, but we all gave what we could to help out.”
Yet again, Gravefoot was left speechless.
“There are a lot of folks up here who appreciate what you did, and what you are doing,” Svetlana continued as she jammed the dough into a well-oiled pan. “And suffering doesn’t know borders, so relief shouldn’t either.”
Gravefoot was overcome, and could only sweep up both the ladies in his huge embrace. Amma tensed, but Svetlana just rested her head on his broad shoulder, running a matronly hand up and down his back before patting it twice.
“Let go,” She ordered. “We have a bit of work left, but send your men up to the house in a few hours to load the wagon. We will feed them before they set out.”
Gravefoot watched in silence for a moment as they returned to their work. He talked with Svetlana for the better part of an hour before bidding farewell to Svetlana and Amma, saying he needed to find his companions whom he had not seen in quite some time. Svetlana let Gravefoot see himself out while she continued her work. At the door Gravefoot produced a simple silver holy symbol he had had made before his journey. Kneeling at the threshold, Gravefoot begun a prayer.
“Our Lady of Graves. I call on your protection for this house and those within. They have been kind, and gentle, and loving to your servant. Death comes to us all in time, my lady, but if it is your will, let not the pain that accompanies your domain be known in the House of Leveton for sometime.”
With that Gravefoot squeezed the holy symbol hard in his hand. He channeled all the energy he had gained from the day’s communion into the simple silver medallion. He felt empty and strange, having no more of the tie to his goddess welling up within him. Opening his palm he saw that the amulet pulsated softly with a blue green light briefly before returning to normal.
Gravefoot placed the amulet on the sill above the door. He knew not what it did, or even if it did anything at all. He was simply content with knowing he left behind some of his Lady’s power in this, the home of his first friends.