Nearly sixty years ago, in the Barony of Sarcelfen along the eastern edge of the County of Mirwood which is itself part of the Greater Duchy of Westridge, the area now known as the Withering Wood was once a lush wooded area offering plentiful hunting grounds for both nobles and commoners. The roads were teeming with trade carts shuttling to and fro from various parts of the Duchy. But all that changed due to an unknown magical mishap. During an investigation into the event, the point of origin was determined to the Tower of Sarceline. The Lyon family, the Barons of Sarcelfen, were ultimately held responsible for the tragedy. The Tower and the surrounding tainted land was removed from the Lyon’s charge. As if the public shaming weren’t enough, coincidently, that area of land contained valuable resources the Barony no longer had access to.
Seemingly destined to a slow death of financial ruin, the decades have not been kind to the Lyon’s nor their Barony. Within the barony, the people are impoverished, scraping by with what meager trade they can manage and subsistence farming of the remaining arable land. They’ve grown reclusive and wary of outsiders, superstitious of magic and those who use it.
The Barony of Heartsgrove was a recent creation, consisting of a large portion of the Withering Wood north and east of the Tower of Sarceline. Nominally void of any humanoid life, the only check to the rampant and twisted growth of this land and the feral wildlife in this area were the Mirwood Rangers who regularly patrolled the area. They worked without end to cull any animal pack that grew too numerous or dangerous, keep what remained of the roads clear, and save the occasional lost soul before the woods got them.
The newly appointed Baron of this inhospitable land was quite familiar with it. Ranger-Knight Thomas Reignsford had had his fair share of such patrols. Sitting atop his favored personal horse, a Chestnut Mare named Bernadette, Lord Thomas thought about his lands as he rode through the town of Lyonne. The capitol city of the Sarcelfen Barony, Lyonne reflected the state of not only the Barony itself but also of the Baronial family, the Lyons. Everywhere Thomas looked there were buildings in disrepair, broken cobblestones and clumps of grass in the main road leading to the keep, and trade stalls sporting dirty and tattered drapery. The townsfolk who were out and about the streets, most through need rather than desire, cast suspicious glances at the Lord and the retinue that followed slightly behind him.
Three others on foot followed the Baron, the two holding the back of this mini-procession were obviously soldiers, dressed from head to toe in Stormwind blue-steel half plate complete with broadsword and a kite shield emblazoned with the lion head emblem of the Kingdom of Stormwind. The third man was harder to immediately identify. He walked slightly behind and to the left of Lord Thomas. Dressed in fine leathers and linens on green and brown, he looked a man of the earth who was fulfilling a role in a higher station. Despite his being unaccustomed to his current position, he exuded an aura of tranquility and confidence. Jack Brightlake, a long-time friend and trusted confidant and now Seneschal of Lord Thomas’ broke the silence, “My lord? We’re approaching the keep, have you given thought of what to say?”
“Not a clue, Jack”, was Thomas’ reply. “You know I’m just as new to this as you are. I’ll kick the humbleness and respect up a notch or two and just wing the rest. Just make sure I get a good announcement.” Thomas looks over his shoulder with a nod, a wink, and a smile. Jack shakes his head and pinches the bridge of his nose, “Nature guide us.”
In the Great Hall of Lyonne, dusty tapestries fluttered in the gentle breeze wafting through the room. Seated upon the dias was Cassandra Lyon, Baroness of Sarcelfen and matriarch of House Lyon. Even in her older years, the Baroness sits poised in her chair. Signs of the radiant beauty she was in her youth still show through the years of struggling to repair not only the Barony as a whole but also the reputation of her family name. Her eyes still shine with a fierce determination, which often look out a nearby window upon the Withering Wood in the distance, a stinging reminder of one great hurdle not yet overcome. But hope still burned in her heart. This “up-start” of a Baron coming to visit her, she has heard his name several times before, even before he was raised to nobility. She only held a measure of esteem for him because not only was he a senior Ranger of Mirwood, who not only safeguard the roads through the Withering Wood, but her Barony at large; but he was a soldier and knight of the realm, something Sarcelfen was seriously lacking.
His Grace, the Duke of Westridge, Maxen Montclair had approached her several months ago regarding the creation of this new barony, carved out of lands that were rightfully hers but were more a burden than a boon. The Withering Wood, a malignant growth of wooded land, was a financial sinkhole with even the most meager attempts of upkeep. She agreed to the terms of agreement that would remove a sizeable portion of this burden from her plate along with a sizeable influx of gold into her coffers as payment for said land. The Duke explained his belief that with this Ranger-Knight’s direct management and responsibility for the land could potentially heal the land and in doing so would heal the remaining parts of tainted land in her barony as well. The Rangers had access to resources the Lyons did not, chiefly the Druids of Oakhall, an order even more reclusive and enigmatic than the Rangers themselves. His Grace professed that he believed their involvement would be critical to discovering and solving the underlying cause of the tainted land.
She knew the Duke need not explain himself, she took great honor in that he would show her that courtesy. If His Grace held faith in this Lord Thomas’ ability to achieve this goal, that was enough for her. And IF he could pull it off, not only would it heal her lands and hopefully bring prosperity back to Sarcelfen, but she’d have another formidable and resourceful ally along her borders.
Three loud taps of the Steward’s staff upon the stone floor by the doorway to the Great Hall brought Lady Cassandra out of her inner thoughts. “Let him enter, Steward,” she beckoned.
The doors to the Great Hall swung open, the Steward standing tall and proud in fine garments bearing the colors of House Lyon. Were Lord Thomas a man of fashion he would have realized the Steward’s clothes as well as others among the Great Hall were several trends behind, perhaps second hand garments from other more up-to-date Houses. Though the main of the outfits were clean and pressed, slight stains could be noticed along the cuffs and collars. But Thomas was not one to scoff at such things, they were still finer clothes than he had worn most of his life and what he was wearing took a generous portion of his personal salary to cobble together.
The Steward bowed graciously to Lord Thomas before uprighting himself and turning to face the Baroness. “Lady Cassandra“, the Steward belted out into the chamber, “may I present the Right Honorable Baron of Heartsgrove, Lord Thomas Reignsford, the Oakhearted. Knight of Westridge, Ranger of Mirwood, and a Corporal in His Majesty’s Army.” Thomas, still at the entryway, bowed before approaching the dais. He motioned for Jack and the two soldiers to follow him.
A dark green rug ran the length of the hall, from the steps of the entryway to the steps of the dais ahead of Thomas. A long table flanked either side with chairs on both ends of the table and towards the outside wall, but none on the inner side. Six armored knights bearing the colors and tabard of House Lyons, a field split horizontally of green and black with a stark white tower crest, lined the chamber; two at the entryway, two flanking and slightly behind the Baroness, and two more stationed along the walls toward the middle of the chamber. Seated on the dais was Lady Cassandra, dressed in an elegant gown of pale blue, tresses of her curly grey hair fell over her coronet. Hints of the vibrant red hair known to her family showed along the edges of her hairline. Attendants shuffled back and forth, tending to their Lady’s needs. Seated on a small bench to Lady Cassandra’s right was a young woman, maybe fifteen or sixteen years of age. A silver circlet held in place red locks of hair similar to that of the Baroness. She was dressed in a likewise elegant gown, this one of a yellow reminiscent of dandelions.
As Thomas approached the dais, he bowed again. His entourage following suit. “Lady Cassandra, thank you for receiving us. My I introduce my Seneschal, Jack Brightlake, and two soldiers of the First Regiment of His Majesty’s Army.” He motions to the man on his left and the two soldiers behind him.
“Welcome to my home, Lord Thomas,” she responded. Cassandra placed her hand gently on top of the hand of the young woman next to her. “This is my grand-daughter, Gwyneth. Her father, my son, fell fighting the Legion at the Broken Shore with His Majesty, Varian Wrynn. May the Light rest their souls.”
Reignsford bowed his head in reverence, “May they rest in the Light. My condolences to the both of you on your loss. Many have made sacrifices in the name of the Kingdom, but some feel more poignant than others.”
“Indeed, Thomas,” replied Cassandra with a solemn tone. “Please, let your men be at ease. Join me on the veranda so we may speak plainly.” She motioned towards a north facing door. The veranda offered a lovely view of some of the few gently rolling plains in the area, covered in wildflowers. In the distance can be seen the darkness of the Withering Wood. In the corner of the veranda sat a small rose bush, while not dead, it was wilting. Thomas thought to himself that it was a fitting allegory to Sarcelfen’s current state.
Thomas waved his men off, “Take a rest, guys.” He followed the Baroness out onto the veranda, she offered him a seat in a wicker lounge chair to her left as she sat down in a chair of similar fashion. An attendant brought a platter with tea cups, a kettle, a sugar bowl, a bowl of cream and a small platter with lemon slices and set it on a small table between the two. She waved away the attendant, offering an empty cup to Thomas, “Goldthorn Tea? They grow abundantly in the area and make for a delicious tea.”
Thomas smiled, “Yes, please. Thank you for the hospitality, Lady Cassandra.” He held the cup gently as she poured tea from the kettle into his cup. “Please Thomas, no need for such formality out here. Cassandra will do. And you’re welcome. Since His Grace spoke of his decision to create Heartsgrove and the part you’re to play in mending the Withering Wood, I’ve looked forward to meeting you. What are your plans for the area if I may ask?”
He looked up at her while putting some sugar and few drops of lemon into his tea. Giving the tea a quick stir and sip, “Mmm, that’s lovely. I will be leading an expedition in the next few days to what was once Piscator’s Rest. I want to use that as a forward base camp for future excursions into the Withering Wood. Reopen it as a ferry port to encourage trade travel through the area, under escort of course. We’ll study the fauna and flora, try to determine the underlying sickness effecting the land and how to reverse it. Meanwhile, if efforts at Piscator prove effective, we’ll stretch north and try to do the same at Caister. The gold mines nearby will be vital to provide capital for further growth.”
Cassandra nods, sipping from her own tea. “I welcome your optimism and enthusiasm. They are rare commodity in these parts. Having the ferry open would be a great benefit to my merchants, shortening the trips to Vries significantly. I would gladly spend a portion of the savings on transportation cost to secure a place on those ferries. Whatever resources I can spare to aid in this venture are yours to ask, Thomas. May this be the beginning of a long and fruitful alliance between our two houses.” She raised her tea cup in a toast, which was likewise met by Thomas’. “Aye, may it be so, Cassandra.”
Their conversations continued on for several hours, ranging from topics such as personal history, political opinions, plans for the future, etc. Attendants occasionally came in and out supplying more tea, snacks, or with writs for the Baroness to view. She would glance at them before having them deposited at her table on the dais of the Great Hall. But she always returned to the conversation at hand, joy in her eyes and a smile on her face, enjoying the company of a peer who held no disdain veiled behind pleasantries. Genuine mirth and respect, she almost forgot what it was like.
As the evening drew a close, Lord Thomas got up to bid his farewell. The Baroness stood up as well to shake his hand wish him success and a safe journey. On his way out of the veranda, Thomas walked over to the wilting rose bush he spotted earlier and knelt down. Cassandra cocked her head in curiosity, but said nothing, letting the young lord carry on with whatever his intentions were. Thomas poured a bit of water from the canteen he carries with him into the potted soil and then stuck his finger into it. Cassandra’s eye widened in disbelief as a green aura seemingly wafted from his hand and into the soil itself. In moments, the rose bush was rejuvenated, sprouting several fresh buds of yellow roses.
As Thomas stood and turned to back to Cassandra, an iridescent green ring around his blue eyes could be seen slowly fading, but the strain of the deed done could be seen on his face as it held a pale green hue and beads of sweat formed on his brow. He cleared his throat as he dabbed his brow, “My apologies, I hope this rose bush will symbolize a brighter future and friendship for the both of us.” Cassandra’s mouth agape and face flushed, she quickly composed herself. “You’re just full of surprises, Thomas. May it be so. Good evening, my friend”
On their way out of the palisade surrounding Lyonne, Lord Thomas looked over to Jack, “Well, that went better than I expected. Don’t you think?”
“Aye, my lord. It did indeed. Though you should be careful about that display you put on there at the end. We both know the source of that power. Great caution should be taken with its use. What affects the Withering Woods is far beyond a wilting plant. That much is known.”
“You’re right, Jack. You’re right. But hope can be a powerful weapon, and I just armed the Baroness with a large supply of it. Let’s hope it lasts.”
"...My life has been one prolonged hunt."
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