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The horse came to a halt in front of the shop and the rider dismounted waiting for his servants to catch up with him. From the wall hung a sign that indicated that this was the shop of a stonecutter. The shop occupied the lower floor while the mason's living quarters sat above.
The man could smell some kind of meat roasting and he guessed it was coming from the inn and tavern across the street. The keeper was preparing it for sell to his guests and those that would visit for refreshments during the day. If he had more time he might sample the food, but not today, he had much to do before he began his journey.
His servants joined him and he surrendered the reins of the horse to one and moved toward the entrance of the shop. He was still four paces from the door when it swung open and out stepped the tradesman.
"Welcome Lord," greeted the man.
"And to you," replied Lord Eric. "I have received notice that you have finished my commission."
"That is correct my Lord." With no further conversation the craftsman stepped to one side and bowed slightly. Lord Eric nodded and entered the shop. The man quickly entered behind and directed him toward the back of the room.
The shop had long tables running the length on both sides and the middle. Stones of all shapes and sizes laid the length of the tables and upon the floor. Many were fashioned in to objects ready to sell, while others showed only rudimentary work and still others were untouched by the craftsman's tools.
They maneuvered their way around the obstacles and came to stop in front of three large pieces of granite. "Here, my Lord. Here theyare."
Eric moved closer so that he could inspect the work. Before him were three blocks, one foot by one foot by eighteen inches. Each face had been ground smooth and reflected light like a mirror. The top face of each had been engraved with letters and words that only Eric of Nord could read.
He carefully studied the text, reading it over and over again to make sure that the craftsman had gotten it right. The man had worked from the parchment given to him and the young lord wanted to make sure that nothing was missing. After inspecting the first, he nodded and said, "Yes."
The craftsman expression changed slightly from one of concern to a slight smile. Eric moved on to the next stone, scrutinizing the engraving and once again he gave the acknowledgement that the work was correct, and the man's smile grew a little larger. As Eric moved to the third stone, the craftsman pressed in on him as if he too wished to inspect his work. He backed up a step as the lord straightened.
Eric, young Lord of Nord, turned to face the stonemason. "You have done well. They are as they should be." He motioned for a servant standing some distance from them.
The mason bowed once again and replied, "Thank you lord, it has been an honor to be of service."
The servant produced a bag containing payment for the craftsman. It was not necessary for him to count the contents for Lord Eric's honor and fairness was well known by all.
"Have the stones loaded into the cart and return them to the castle." Eric began heading for the entrance followed closely by its owner.
"Lord Eric, if I may be of service to you again, please call upon me."
Stepping into the morning sun, he said, "You may count on it."
The man bowed and as he rose begged a question. "Lord, if I may, what are the strange symbols on the stones and what is their purpose?"
Looking at the man for a moment before replying, Eric said, "It is a language. The words are unimportant to you, and their purpose." Once again he paused before speaking. "They are to mark the dead." Once more a pause and finally, "Even that part of me that has died."
The expression on the mason's face showed that he had additional questions but he held his peace, stepping aside as the servants exited carrying the first stone.
Eric took hold of his mount's reins and climbed upon the animal's back. Without saying anything further, turned his horse and headed off down the street. Reaching the end of the village he stopped and considered his next action.
The path before him split into two forks. The one to the right was the most direct course to the castle, while the left curved and passed the Chapel of Nord. After a moment of consideration, he turned left and trotted toward the chapel.
Father Dean walked among his flowers carrying an ancient vessel containing water. He stopped at each one, poured a drink and spoke in low tones to each of his plants.
"Evangelizing the plants, father? Or are you just practicing your sermon?" Father Dean turned as Eric brought his horse to a stop.
"Neither and both. The creation of God rejoices in his words." He placed the water container on the ground. "Even these flowers shout His glory."
Eric moved to the man and gave him a warm embrace. "It is good to see you. I am sorry that I have not made time to come here before now."
The older man smiled. "You have been busy since your return. A lot has happen to you since you left for Vesta."
Eric's countenance became serious. "That is true, father. Many times I wasn't sure if I would ever see the green forests of Nord again."
The priest placed his hand on Eric's shoulder. "My son, God has protected you for a great purpose. As He has demonstrated by His grace to you."
"Perhaps," replied the young lord.
"Ah, still the skeptic."
"It is my nature."
"Your nature is what the Lord makes of it." Eric shuffled his feet slightly, and the older man could see that this topic made him uncomfortable. Father Dean only wanted to make his guest feel welcome and knew just how to do so. "I have some fresh tea brewing and some sweet cakes just from the oven. Will you join me?"
"You know I can't refuse such an offer."
The two men walked toward the building. The chapel was a simple stone structure rectangular in shape with an arched roof made of slate. The windows on either side were made of amber colored glass with a large semi-circular one at the back wall. This window was stained with an image of the first Lord of Nord receiving a golden grant for the Lands of Nord from God.
Eric considered this to be a little too much, but he had always kept this opinion to himself. There were something better left unsaid and this was one.
Father Dean led Eric through the sanctuary and through a door on the right back corner of the chamber. The door opened to the rear of the grounds and to the cottage of the priest. Dean was a bachelor, even though most of his counterparts were married. Once Eric had questioned him regarding his status and he had replied that, "God is the only companion I need and the parishioners all the family I want." The answer seemed sufficient and Eric never asked again.
They entered the dwelling and Eric nostrils were greeted by the smells of the sweet cakes. "Ah to be in the presence of perfection."
"Almost," responded the priest. "Almost. Come sit here while I fetch the tea and cakes."
Eric positioned himself at the table and watched his host as he poured the tea into cups. Father Dean retraced his steps back to the table and place one cup in front of Eric and the other for him. Next he brought the tray of sweet cakes to the table.
"How is your father?"
Eric dropped a pinch of sugar into his cup and began to stir. "He is very well. He appears to be younger than when I left."
A smile appeared on the older man's face. "And your mother?"
At this a broad grin spread across Eric's face. "In the castle to stay." The two looked at each other knowing the thoughts of the other.
After an hour or so, Eric rose. "I must be going."
"Yes you are going to bury the dead. I have heard."
Eric gave him a quick look and nodded. "Sometimes it is necessary to bury what is dead to make way for new life."
They retraced their steps until reaching the horse. Eric reached in his shirt and withdrew two bags. "This is for the poor." He handed it to the priest. "This is for you."
Father Dean taking both bags said, "You have a heart of charity."
Taking the older man's arm, Eric looked into his face. "I have a request."
"If in my power it is yours. What do you desire?"
"Please say a prayer of thanksgiving for my safe return."
"I have done that already, but I'll say another and let the Lord know that it comes from you." The priest cocked his head and gave a sly smile. "The Lord would like to hear it from you."
Eric climbed into his saddle. "I have no tongue for it."
Father Dean pointed toward Eric's chest. "It is not with the tongue that one prays. It is with the heart."
Eric smiled. "Are you going to give me a sermon?"
The smile was returned. "Not necessary. God will call you when He is ready. When He does you will not be able to resist."
Turning his mount, Eric raised his hand and the priest did likewise. He pressed the animal forward and soon the chapel disappeared among the forest. Almost at the same moment the top of Castle Nord rose above the green and he rode into a large opening leading to the castle.
The Castle was a large structure made from granite stones. It sat on a small island formed when the Nord River split into and reunited some thousand feet down stream. A drawbridge connected the island from the land and once raised offered protection from attack. The original structure had been added to and improved by each lord until the castle and gardens cover the entire island. A wall fifteen to twenty feet high rose from the river and surrounded the grounds.
His horse's hoofs clanked as they crossed the bridge, announcing his arrival. His servants waited patently for his return and at his appearance, they began to lift the stones from the cart to cradles mounted to the backs of horses, one for each stone.
He dismounted and checked the devices. "Make sure that the cradles are properly cushioned. We don't need chafing."
"Yes my lord." The servant rechecked the harness for the fifth time.
"Eric!" Turning Eric saw his father coming to greet him.
"Are you leaving?"
"Yes. Within the hour."
Dovar looked at the position of the sun. "I thought you planned to get an early start?"
"I did, but got delayed."
"You went to see Father Dean?"
Eric nodded his head.
"I thought you might. He's been waiting for your visit."
"He's a good one for perspective."
The young lord shook his head up and down. "Perspective and some sweet cakes."
"Ah yes, sweet cakes. Somehow I knew they were a part of your delay. I've been told that he has prepared them each morning since your return."
Eric smiled at this and pointed to a servant to check some of the supplies. "I guess he has eaten a lot of them the last two weeks." They laughed and watched as the traveling party collected.
David of Albert, a nobleman attached to Eric as his aid came to father and son. "Lord Eric, we are ready."
"Let's get going. I wish to make camp at Kilter's Mound and I have already put us behind." He embraced his father and rose to his saddle.
"We'll see you in a few days," stated Dovar.
"A few days," he replied.
The party rode forth from the castle and turned to the path that would take them to the western ocean. The group consisted of Eric; David of Albert, eight warriors, eight servants, plus pack horses. They would travel southwest for a day and a half until reaching the beach. From there they would follow the shore until reaching a point that Eric had only seen once, but felt sure that he could find again. Once there they would enter the forest and travel for three to five miles. He had no markers, no trail, but somehow he knew he would find what he was looking for.
The land changed from farm to unbroken forest as they proceeded. The group spread out in a long line as they followed the narrow path. The warriors had taken positions in front and rear of Lord Eric. He found this somewhat amusing. He had traveled the length of the continent with only his friend Jason as his companion and had survived in situations that the odds were completely against him. Here all he had to worry about were bandits and the occasional wild beast. If fortune smiled on him these last two years, it would not desert him now.
Late in the afternoon they reached Kilter's Mound, a natural formation that towered some sixty feet above the surrounding terrain. Its basic shape was a large oval some quarter of a mile long. Its sides were well sloped and depilated of vegetation, with the top flat and shaded by many large trees. It offered perfect protection for travelers and it was here that Eric would make his camp this first night.
Some servants built a fire and began to prepare a meal of roasted meat while others unloaded the horses and saw to their needs.
Eric remained some distance from the rest. David of Albert had served the House of Nord for five years and knew the young lord before his journey east. This silence was uncharacteristic of the man he had known. He could not be sure if this was a result of his travels or the task that lay before him. The reason for this excursion had been vague but he was sure that Eric knew exactly what he was doing. He had never questioned his lord before and would not begin now.
After the meal, Eric left his traveling companions and laid out his bedroll. His saddle as a pillow, he lay upon his horse blanket. The cloak of animal fur, which he used as an all-purpose coat, was pulled over him.
He listened to the conversations of those that sat by the fire and to the sounds of the night forest and then he turned his attention to the stars. During his travels, he had become very aquatinted with them and their patterns. They had been the one constant for him during his trek, capture, and return. He could count on them being there each night to remind him that order reins quietly even when chaos rules.
By the middle of the next day they reached the shoreline and the band turned south traversing the wet sand. The horses seemed to enjoy the waves lapping at their hoofs for they quicken their pace. The cradles carrying the stones creaked and Eric twice stopped and had them checked to make sure that all were secure.
He watched the forest line for some sign and about an hour before sunset, he pointed and declared, "There it is!"
A large tree with many twisted limbs rose before them. It stood apart from the rest of the forest and by it shape it seemed to dare any to come near it for it stood twenty feet closer to the shore than any of its neighbors.
"Here! We will camp here tonight! Tomorrow we will reach the place!" Excitement was clearly in Eric voice.
They made camp near the base of the tree and watches were posted. The night went uneventful and the next morning they rose early and continued to the place only known by Eric. A place that in itself was unremarkable except for an event that had taken place there two years before and changed forever the course of Eric of Nord's life.
About midday he began to focus his attention on the forest as if to receive a signal more by sense than sight. Three times he stopped and stared into the forest as if asking some unseen guide, "Is this the place?" And each time he turned and headed forward.
No one spoke, not to each other and certainly not to Eric. The whole party began to watch the forest as if they could help him find this single spot in the unbroken line of green. Suddenly, he pulled hard on the reins of the horse turning it to face the forest. He motioned with his hand for the rest to stay where they were and he rode forward.
His mount moved slowly away from the ocean until he came to within ten yards of the line. Eric dismounted and led his animal until he reached the first tree. He stood there looking deep into the shadows for what seemed an eternity.
Turning, he motioned for the rest to join him. At their arrival, he said, "This is where we are going inland. The spot is three to five miles from here."
He could see it on their faces, wanting to ask him how he knew. None were bold enough to ask the question and if they had, he was certain that he would not have an answer.
He decided that even though it would be some hours before the setting of the sun they would spend the night here. The ghosts in that place had waited for him these last two years and one more night would not matter.
His men made camp and played in the surf. Eric stood by a large sand dune. He had been here before under different circumstances. Before helpless and lost, wondering if he would survive to see the next day. Fate had smiled on him and today he was the young master of Nord. With this journey he would complete his transformation.
His companions could sense the quietness within the man and all left him to his thoughts. They watched him as he sat on the dune and took frequent walks to the edge of the forest, standing and starring into the unobservable. He seemed to be talking to someone, perhaps the spirits of those that had waited for his return.
He remained to himself for the evening and camped out on the sand dune, away from the rest of the group. David considered requesting him to move closer for his protection, but decided better of it. Eric had not confided the exact purpose of this journey to him and he was in no position to question him. All he knew was that his master had required him to accompany him and here he was.
Eric rose before the sun the next morning and the servants rushed to prepare a meal. The warriors and David saddled their mounts and strapped their equipment to them, waiting for their lord to give the word.
It was more than an hour after the camp had been disassembled before he gave the command to move. One of the warriors questioned David, "What was he waiting for?" David motioned his head in a gesture of unknowing. For David it seemed that his lord was in contact with forces that the rest could neither see nor understand. It wasn't his place to question Lord Eric only to obey and protect him.
They had to walk leading their animals behind them. The foliage was thick, much thicker than Eric remembered. Had he picked the wrong spot? "No," he thought. "This is the place. The dune is right. A man alone would not notice the closeness of the brush. This is the place."
The going was slow, but Eric was guided by his senses and he knew he would soon be at the place, and all at once they push into a clearing and there before them was what they sought.
Eric stopped and the rest halted behind him waiting to see what he would do next. He unconsciously released the reins of his horse and slowly walked forward. The rest remained fixed looking at the man and the wreckage before them.
Stopping his progression as he reached the piece of metal that he had left to mark the burial place of Bill Barns, he reached his hand toward the marker, hesitated for a moment, and then withdrew it. What his thoughts were, none but he knew. He seemed to be reliving some event in the past and shifted from the now to the then. It drew him strongly for he was gone in all but physical form. The trance released him and he quickly turned and called, "Its fine. Come here."
His companions moved slowly toward the place he stood. They were not sure of the things they saw before them. David spoke for the group. "Lord what is this place and what...?" His words trailed off as he pointed to the object resting just beyond his master.
Without looking Eric knew where he pointed. Two years before the object had been bright and alive. It now lay dull and darkened by dirt and rust. Foliage from the forest blanketed much of the outer surface and signs that an animal had made a den out of its interior were evident by the number of small bones and refuse piled up at one of the gaping holes. Broken glass and pieces of wire littered the ground around the remains of the vessel and trailed back into the forest.
Eric could still see the path of entry. A line of trees showed damage to their tops as the object crashed through them. He knew somewhere back in that direction rested the rest of the craft with the remains of the balance of his crew.
Responding to David, he simply said, "This is a thing from another place and time. It is dead, as is all it was meant to bring. Let us complete our task and leave the dead to their rest."
The servants unloaded the stones and placed them at the spots indicated by Eric. Once completing their task, the entire group moved away from the area. As if afraid of disturbing some sleeping giant that they neither understood nor had any desire to understand, they moved to the edge of the forest. That was all but Eric who stood immobile before the markers.
He began to speak to those that had died in this place. "The end of one man gives birth to another. The two could not coexist and therefore one had to die. Goodbye Eric Hart, in the battle for life you lost, though you fought well, the outcome was preordained. I lay you to rest with your kind."
Looking around he knew that Hart and all that he represented were gone, no longer to haunt him. To pay honor to those that had died, he gave time to remember.