Gravefoot had stopped outside her door, huge fist poised to knock. The torchlight made shadows dance across the entry, causing his eyes to shift in and out of their darkvision. A cool breeze was coming from a window down the corridor, carrying with it the faintest hint of lilac and elder. The pleasant smell died around Gravefoot. He had been at the fort only a few days, but reeked of wild animal, sweat, and his own blood.
Gravefoot had not bathed in days. He had been sleeping in the pen with the she-wolf since their arrival in order to try and establish a bond with dire wolf. So far, his attempts had ended poorly, as illustrated by the countless gashes, bite marks, and scrapes that covered Gravefoot’s body. Were he not able to call upon the gifts of Pharasma, Gravefoot is certain this attempt at training would have killed him numerous times.
In both lives, Gravefoot was fearless. He had tended to the dead and the dying, suffered scorn, exile, and sometimes violence. In the past few months he had struck out into the wilds where he came face to face with dangerous creatures and men. And never once in any of that did he falter. His faith in Pharasma and in his own ability to survive made him resolute. And yet, here stood, in a hallway, arm raised, in front of an oak door, unable to knock. The ludicrousness of the situation was not wasted on Gravefoot. Steeling himself and mentally growling, he forced himself to knock, resulting in an abrupt pounding that, to Gravefoot, seemed to rattle the door on its hinges. Even through the oaken planks Gravefoot could hear her sharp intake of breath as the pounding had startled her. Gravefoot cursed under his breath.
“Come in Auchs,” she said of matter of factly, her voice betraying nothing of having been startled.
Gravefoot visibly winced at being confused for the simpleton, but then, what was he expecting? At least the simpleton had an excuse. People are far more willing to forgive the “touched” than the ugly. Composing himself, Gravefoot entered over cautiously.
“Gravefoot,” Captain Javair said surprised. “I am sorry. From the knock I thought you were…someone else.”
“I should have taken off my boots,” Gravefoot replied. He was looking down at the streaks of wolf excrement he had just tracked into her chamber.
Gravefoot looked up to notice her looking at him queerly. Of course she was, what kind of response was that?
“I should have taken of my boots,” Gravefoot tried to explain weakly. “I have been in the pen and tracked filth onto your floors.
“That is as it is,” Captain Javair said realizing what Gravefoot was talking about. “Please have a seat. I had heard that you were back. Going forward I would appreciate it if you would notify me in person upon your arrival. Are we clear?”
Gravefoot nodded dumbly. He was enchanted by this woman. The steel in her voice. Her ability to command the situation. There was nothing of the vulnerability he had seen that winter night in her now. Gravefoot himself would not have believed it was the same woman, were it not for him being there.
“Please. Sit,” Capatin Javair said again, equal parts command and invitation.
Gravefoot hurried to the chair she indicated. As he lowered himself into it, the wood creaked under his bulk. It was just small enough that his knees ended up closer to his chest than the floor and from the reflection in the silver pitcher on her desk, he knew he looked ridiculous.
“Will you have wine?” Captain Javair asked, reaching for said pitcher.
“No,” Gravefoot responded curtly. They were few things more horrific involving his disfigurement then that of watching him drink. Especially red wine. Without fail, drops would pour out of the ruined side of his face staining his jagged teeth and chin with what looked like blood.
“Very well,” She said, not having any herself. “What is it you need?”
It occurred to Gravefoot then that he had asked for this meeting. That detail had been forgotten amidst the emotions and thoughts swirling around inside him.
“Captain Javair,” Gravefoot began, but has he pronounced the “juh” of her name, a goblet of spittle shot out of the ruined side of his mouth. With no lips to hold it back, it spattered on the flop, inches from where she stood. “Forgive me,” Gravefoot apologized flustered. “You have no doubt heard of the decree from Restov?”
“I have,” she said, leaning back against the front of her desk with her arms out to either side. The sword at her hip forced her to shift to one side, and suddenly Gravefoot’s mind was filled new thoughts, equally foreign and no less tumultuous. “I believe congratulations are in order?”
Gravefoot was no good at accepting accolades or compliments. They made him uncomfortable. He could only mumble and try to wave it off.
“Is that the purpose of this visit?” She asked arching one eye-brow. “To tell me that which I already know?” Captain Javair’s eyes turned away from Gravefoot, her attention captured by one of the pieces of parchment on her desk behind her.
He had already lost her interest he realized. It happened often. Gravefoot was awkward and hard to look upon, even to the kindest souls. People wanted to be done with their audiences with him as soon as possible. They couldn’t help it. But he could not let that happen this time. She must hear him, for if this ever went as he expected it might, he feared for what may come.
“Hardly,” Gravefoot’s voice suddenly sounded, louder than he expected. He felt compelled to stand. And so he did, pulling back the scarf she had given him that so oft to hid his face. Gravefoot could see Captain Javair’s eyes track him upward as he stood, and for just the briefest of moment there was a glimpse of cautiousness. Gravefoot didn’t know why, but he clasped his arms behind his back, tilted his chin slightly to look her in the eyes, but not look down on her. He stood at his full height, shoulders back, and the composed voice that came out of him caught him by surprise.
“You have tasked me with being the Gravethorn Company’s advocate with my band,” Gravefoot began, each word clarion clear. “However, I take the role to mean that I should be the advocate of the company in all things. Even if it means advocating the good of the company to its captain.”
“Have a done something to jeopardize the company?’ Captain Javair asked, once again her eyebrow raising.
“No,” Gravefoot responded. “But this is about what could be done. You can see from the ruin of my cheek that there is no silver in my tongue. I am awkward, and monstrous, and unsettling to behold. But do not let that take away from the wisdom, from which this shattered mouth now speaks. Restov has done us no favors with this granting. They have made us the scapegoat for their conquering of disputed lands. They send us favor and wish us well because we are no threat to them. We have the Stolen Lands now, and they do not fear us, so to their minds, it is the next best thing to taking them from the River Kingdoms. And what of the River Kingdoms? Are they to suddenly honor our sovereignty because a rival nation says so? I think not.”
Gravefoot began to pace now, slowly, all thoughts of wolf shite and floors far from his mind.
“Both kingdoms will think this fledgling nation quaint, and no threat. And if we are divided, they will be right. The contract struck with myself and Valen recently was shrewdly done-“
“So we come to the heart of it,” Captain Javair said rising of the desk. “Valen gets a royal decree and sends my advocate to get me to come back on my terms? I see-“
“You see what is not there!” Gravefoot growled. Gravefoot could not recall an instance in his three decades of life where he had ever interrupted someone. “I have heard them talk, and they speak of offering you and your man a spot on the ruling council. Valen doesn’t even know I speak to you now.”
Gravefoot turned to face her, “Heed my words, not as threat or bargain, but as truth. If they offer you, and or your man, these positions, return the outlying lands to the kingdom as a show of solidarity. The fort shall remain yours and the upkeep to be paid as struck, but you would be foolish to try and hold the outlying lands as this kingdom forms around them.”
“If they would offer council spots anyway, what reason have I to give over the lands so recently bestowed?” Captain Javair countered heatedly. “You speak of your wisdom, but I see none in that course.”
“Exactly,” Gravefoot said calmly. “You do not see, because you do not know my companions. You are mighty my captain, but your fledgling force could not stand against Valen now. And he will have a kingdom to command. Whose army will grow the quicker? You must understand, Valen is as noble a soul as I have ever met. But he is young, and like some many youths, confuses his convictions for truth, and uses his “truths” to dictate his practicality. If for even a moment Valen thought that your lands would serve this fledgling kingdom’s people better as his, he will take them. Sure he will offer some terms to assuage his own since of honor, but make no mistake, he would do anything if his youthful idealism dictates it as “for the betterment of his people.”
“Then there is Fell,” Gravefoot’s voice dropped in timbre though he didn’t intend it to do so. “I have seen you fight my captain. You are both a vision of beauty (Gravefoot could not believe he just said that!) and ferocity. You are a soldier to your core, but Fell, Fell is a killer. The world needs people like Fell, though they are loathe to admit it, and so will Valen. Fell was none too happy about the deal with Gravethorn in the first place. He will need very little excuse to come and raze your walls in the name of the kingdom, should the opportunity present itself.”
Gravefoot could sense his captain’s ire, she was on the defensive, and why wouldn’t she be? Had he not just threatened her? Was he not asking her to give up something that she had just gained?
“But,” he continued remaining calm. “What if all these words are wind my captain? Yourself and the mighty Gravethorn stand against Valen and his fledgling kingdom when they came to reclaim, if it came to that. At what cost? Some land and pride retained? And in the end, your forces battered, will you not lose it all anyway when Restov or the River Kingdoms see what The Stolen Lands are actually worth? There is gold here. And materials for building structures and weapons. No country will let that rest now that we have tamed it. What are the surrounding lands when you can oversee the entire kingdom, my captain? How much more the pride, if something is built here that neither the Riverlanders nor the Swordlords know is possible? This kingdom we can build, which no doubt is seen as joke to some, can stand as strong, nay stronger, than our neighbors. But this kingdom must be whole. Be it your claim, or the Soot Scale, there can be no internal division. For those divisions are what our enemies will use to weaken us, and if that happens, we are lost before we start. We are another Restovian proverb, told in Swordlord parlors, about what happens to those who didn’t know their place. In here, on your land, you are Captain Javair of the Gravethorn Company. But how much more if we unite our lands and out there-” Gravefoot swung his arm out wildly and cleared a shelf he did not know was behind him. The shelf’s contents clattered to the floor in a mess of scattered papers and shattered ink pots.
“Oaf,” Gravefoot thought to himself looking at the wreckage. His shoulders slumped and he felt that person he was a moment ago slipping away. “My apologies Captain,” Gravefoot spoke to the floor. “I have said my piece and should clean up the mess I have made. If they offer position, my captain, I think the gesture of returning the outlying lands would go far. If they do not, as you know, the Gravethorn Company has a deal shrewdly struck, and for now, is no worse off for it.” With that Gravefoot dropped to his hands and knees busying himself with the mess.
“Leave it,” Captain Javair said. “Stand.”
Captain Javair crossed the chamber and stood in front of Gravefoot as she were inspecting one of her recruits. “You keep saying “they”. But are you not one of them?”
That same question had played through Gravefoot’s mind on so many occasions recently, and yet he had no better answer for her now than he had for himself.
“I am a gravedigger,” Gravefoot said. “As my captain knows all too well. I would spare my captain the pain she felt a winter’s night passed, when she needed my services. I offer advice that will go far in my captain, and the Gravethorn Company, having no further use of those services.”
There was silence in the room, and Gravefoot knew that Capatain Javair was somewhere else at the mention of that night. He stood, shoulders slumped, looking at the floor. The silence stretched on for what seemed a ten-day before suddenly being shattered by a ghostly howl. The she-wolf had awakened, which meant it was time to train anew. As he listened to the rage filled lament of her call, Gravefoot wondered if he would ever be able to reach the beast.
“If my captain will allow it, she is up, and I must return to training,” Gravefoot said quietly.
“She?” Captain Javair asked. “Have you no name for this beast which you will break and bend to your will?”
“She has a name, of that I am sure,” Gravefoot said with a grin unintentionally gruesome. “She has just not been inclined to share it with me. I do not break unless it is needs done to cleanly mend”
“She is a woman,” Captain Javair said, giving a smile that touched her eyes and sent Gravefoot’s heart to racing. “Woo her, show patience with her, and respect her strength. When she is ready, she will give you her name.”
“Sound advice for sound advice,” Gravefoot said. “An even trade. My captain has done well by herself and for herself. A notion I understand all too well. But my captain should consider, she needn’t always be the only one looking out for her, and the Gravethorn’s. well being” With that Gravefoot turned and made to leave the Captain Javair’s chambers, his thoughts already on the fanged muzzle that would so soon be finding purchase in his arm.
“Gravefoot,” Captain Javair said, halting him. “When would you have my answer to this most unusual request?”
Gravefoot turned pulling the gifted scarf over his head to once again shroud his marred visage. “I think my captain is like the she-wolf. I shall get it only when it is her will to give it me.”