A deathly silence covered the crowd. The assembled men stood sternly at attention, their worried faces the only evidence of the anxiety that gripped each and every one of them. Nearby, the mass of tied down horses neighed and bristled nervously, noisily expressing what their riders did not. After several seemingly eternal moments, a familiar female face emerged from the makeshift tent. Her eyes were red, but her countenance firm.
"Men of Pendor," she began, her voice audibly hoarse. Three other heavily armored men filed out of the tent shortly after, two of them with heads lowered in quiet contemplation. "Sir Darin of Redimere is dead."
For the space of a single second, no sound was made, not even a solitary sigh. And then it came. A din of disbelief and anger and grief so thoroughly mixed the one with the other that it was a wonder if any coherent words were actually said.
The woman waited patiently, allowing those gathered to unburden themselves of the weights they had shared the last two days. The first of the three knights who had emerged from the tent raised a hand quietly, and the voices slowly began to die down. Many eyes were cast to the ground. Helms and hats were removed. A few restrained whimpers remained from the previous consternation.
The woman took a deep breath and began once more. "His last request was that I..." Her previously stoic voice trailed off briefly, and she bit her lip hard. "That I take command." The men's faces looked up at her instantly, some in awe, others again in disbelief. She looked over to the three knights. The two that had conversed with each other looked back neutrally; however, Sir Roland, the first, nodded in confirmation. She looked back at the men.
"I do not expect you to give me the same loyalty that we all shared to Sir Darin. I would have gladly taken his place, and I know most of you would have done the same. For those of you for are not willing to pledge loyalty to me, you are permitted to leave before dawn tomorrow. You may take your weapons and equipment, as well as any spoils you have acquired from our many victories. Remember Darin in your thoughts tonight and say a prayer, that his soul will receive its richly deserved reward." Many of the men nodded quietly. She nodded back at them. "The gods be with you all." And with that, she quickly turned back and reentered the tent. The men dispersed, some to drink heavily, others to solitary contemplation, and yet others to sit together and reminisce over the short, yet golden past.
"Sir Roland," said one of the two knights. "Sir Jocelyn and I have decided to part company. You are welcome to join us."
Sir Roland turned his attention from the tent back to the other two. "Is that so? I am sorry to hear it. I am sure Sir Darin would have been sorry to hear it as well." His voice was matter-of-fact and without recrimination, yet Sir Rayne visibly bristled slightly.
"That may be so, but Sir Darin is dead, and his last request was clearly the result of a feverish brain. Surely you don't mean to stay here under the captainship of this commoner? A woman at that!" Sir Jocelyn nodded in agreement. "I must say that I suspect a certain amount of..." he paused, choosing his words carefully, "sentimentality... may have influenced his choice." Sir Rayne's nostrils flared quietly as he nodded as well.
Sir Roland shrugged. "If you mean to imply that their relationship was anything other than professional, then I must disagree with you based on what I have seen. Furthermore, he had always shown good judgment in the past; I cannot imagine him rejecting such, even in death."
"He was an able captain and a great man," Jocelyn agreed, "but all things change, and even the most glorious of crusades come to an end. Sir Rayne and I would gladly have followed you, but if you will not take charge, then we have agreed to form a new order of our own. We will bring order to Pendor our own way."
Sir Roland nodded once more. "Then Astraea go with you. I do intend to remain under Julia's captainship. It is what Sir Darin wished, and I will honor his request." Sir Rayne eyed him incredulously then shook his head and shrugged. "Sir," Jocelyn nodded and offered his hand. The three shook hands in farewell, then the two knights marched off towards their steeds, apparently wasting no time in searching for their destinies elsewhere.
A man clad in black armor strolled up, apparently having watched the discusion in the background. "So the two blue-bloods have decided to cut and run, I take it?" Sir Roland murmured an affirmative. Sigismund snorted, watching the two knights as they readied to leave. "She's a good woman, that Julia. Reminds me a lot of Clair. I think Darin made the right choice, eh?"
Sir Roland nodded quietly. "Where're the others?"
Sigismund shrugged lightly. "I don’t know. I saw Ansen go inside."
Sir Roland nodded once more, as Sigismund began to turn away. "Sigismund," he called out. The man in black armor stopped and turned around. "Julia will need you tomorrow. Sober." Sigismund visibly wavered, his weight shifting from foot to foot. After a long moment, he nodded silently and headed off once more.
Sir Roland made his way back into the tent.
"I understand, Ansen," Julia nodded. "You do not need to apologize." Ansen looked back to Sir Roland and bowed his head instinctively. Sir Roland nodded and watched as Ansen made his way meekly past the massive knight. Julia looked up at him, her face lined with exhaustion.
"Following Sir Rayne, I presume," Sir Roland mused nonchalantly. "Of course," Julia responded, with a slight sigh. "And Sir Jocelyn?"
Sir Roland brushed his mustache. "With Sir Rayne."
Julia nodded, not particularly surprised by this news. "Did they say why?"
Sir Roland shrugged. "I am sure you can guess."
"Humor me," she asked, sitting down beside the sheeted corpse.
"You're a commoner. And a woman."
"They suspect you had some sort of relationship with Sir Darin."
She snorted a bit bitterly. "And when, pray tell, would I have found time for that?"
Sir Roland shrugged once more. "You asked, good woman."
She nodded. "That I did." She sighed, looking over at the body. "It did come up. Once. After our first victory over the Jatu warbands, he sat himself beside me and told me that, in another life, one not scarred by strife and battle, he might have courted me, 'one fine day.'"
Sir Roland nodded understandingly. "You fought especially well that day."
"Do you think he made a mistake?" she said without preamble, looking him directly in the eyes.
Sir Roland sat down opposite her, looking at the dead body beside them for a moment then back, meeting her eyes. "Would you like the full truth, miss Julia?"
"Always, Sir Roland. You know that."
"Very well," he said, leaning back a bit, his face thoughtful. "Sir Darin did not choose me because he knew my loyalty was to my order first. Pledging the men to me would be like pledging it to the Order. That is not the vision he had, nor was it the destiny he promised his men. Sir Rayne and Sir Jocelyn are excellent warriors, but they cannot relate to the men. They respect courage and skill, but when they look at a soldier, they do not see a man; they only see the soldier. They might make good leaders in their own way, but they will never succeed in the same way Sir Darin had. Their men will never die for them. Not willingly." Julia nodded quietly as he continued. "Sigismund was an able leader once, but losing Clair broke him. He was a drunk when Sir Darin found him. And even now, months later, he stands on that brink. The pressure of leadership would most certainly push him back over. That leaves you, therefore I think he made the right choice."
Julia chuckled quietly. "So I'm the best by virtue of there being no other alternative."
Sir Roland eyed her seriously. "Not at all, Julia. Remember. He could simply have disbanded the troop. That he placed it in your hands is evidence that not only did he think you were the best candidate, but that you might succeed where he failed."
Julia looked back at Roland, silent for some time before shuddering as she felt the full weight of responsibility descending from his words.
"I thank you, Sir Roland." She laid her hand respectfully on Darin's arm. "It would seem that Sir Darin was not the one promised by prophecy."
"It would seem not," Sir Roland agreed. "However, do not let your mind dwell on that too long. Prophesies are for seers and oracles. They are usually fulfilled in spite of man's efforts. Not because of them."
She nodded, pausing a moment before looking up at him. "Will I see you at dawn tomorrow?"
Sir Roland smiled as he stood up. He then inclined his head to her. "Yes, captain."