72 The Ridge Man“s Loyalties*
Aegin did not have to look hard for his father. In the north eastern district of Fountain Ridge, right on the border of the forest lands, there stood an inconspicuous little house that the Ridge Men had called their headquarters for the last three generations. Perhaps there were some that wondered why so many men clothed in black frequented the house, but they knew enough not to ask about it. To not investigate. Those who weren't smart enough? They learned quickly.
Still, Aegin had little care for what passers-by thought as he ran into the little house and pushed passed everyone else whilst he was searching for his father. All the while, Aegin hoped he was wrong. He hoped that what he suspected was going to be written off as ridiculous. Aegin had always respected his father as a man of the Ridge. Everyone on the Ridge knew the name Raymond Shadowsmith. They said he could craft shadows in his midst. Shadows to protect his allies, and condemn his enemies. He was a legend. Yet Aegin had also had what some my misconstrue as a pleasure to call him father. Raymond had always been a man of the Ridge before a father though, which had inevitably led to a lack of familial duties on his part. Raymond had always been more focused on forging another soldier, not a son. Perhaps that was why Aegin had spent so much of the last few years asking questions he wasn't supposed to. He was just looking for a path that hadn't been forced on him. For a life that he could lead confidently.
And now, now that it had all been brought into question, Aegin had to push all of his insecurities regarding his relationship with Raymond aside. There had been many things Aegin had been uncomfortable with over the years, but somehow this, condemning a boy that turned out to be one of their masters to Jerrica, had pushed him over the line.
Aegin paused before the doors that led to the meeting room of the Commanders. There were five in total, and one of the absolute rules was not to interrupt them whilst they were in session unless something dire occurred. Aegin wasn't stupid enough to believe that his concerns qualified as 'dire', but he also couldn't bring himself care about that in that moment. He barged through the doors and into the middle of a meeting.
"Aegin!" Raymond snapped, standing immediately to reprimand his son's disrespectful behaviour, "We're in the middle of a me-"
"Did you know?" asked Aegin, cutting off his father. The room fell silent, and Raymond's eyes narrowed at the look his son was giving him.
"Whatever it is, Aegin, we'll discuss it later, right now I'm-"
"The boy that we delivered into the bowels of Jerrica, the one we left to the whims of Zaroth, did you know he was a Kildare?" Aegin reiterated.
He wanted a straight answer. He was sick of the excuses. Of the distractions and the lies. He wasn't leaving until he had a straightforward answer this time.
The room was silent, then one of the other commanders, Incah, rose and pointed at Aegin as he left, "Deal with this, Shadowsmith. The Ridge is not place for a questioner, and I think we've tolerated the boy's misdemeanours long enough".
The others left, and Raymond stood from his seat, looking across the small meeting room to where Aegin stood in the doorway.
"I've told you time and again, Aegin," Raymond seethed, "It is not our place to question".
"And I told you that maybe it should be," Aegin snapped back, taking a step forward, "If we'd questioned, perhaps we wouldn't have condemned one of the individuals we are honour bound to protect into this continent's darkest prison!"
"He is not a Kildare!" Raymond snapped back, "His father threw off the name, and thereby did so for his descendants. They are no longer of the Kildare bloodline".
"Being of the Kildare bloodline is the only reason he's even in that mine!" snapped Aegin, "After all, I'm sure you're aware that the Kildare bloodline is essentially infertile. Evidently the rumours of it being cursed are very much true".
"Aegin, you're stepping over a line and you can't take it back," Raymond warned.
"What makes you think I would want to?" asked Aegin, "What makes you think you know anything about me? You've never once asked me what I believed in, or were those questions forbidden as well?"
"Stop it, Aegin, you're being ridiculous," Raymond growled.
"No, I'm being loyal," Aegin corrected, "Loyal to what I believe to be right. If that means trusting an individual that everyone else believes is a monster, or in the Duke's case a stud horse, then fine".
"Enough!" snapped Raymond, "This is not a subject for debate, Aegin. Our duty is to carry out the orders of the Duke of Fountain Ridge. That has always been our duty, it is what makes us Ridge Men. Unfortunately, that means making and doing difficult things for the benefit of our people".
"This isn't benefitting anyone but the Kildare family!" snapped Aegin.
"The Kildare family is vital for the stability of this continent, Aegin. If it and all of its businesses and trade deals were to collapse, then there would be nothing and no one left to keep this Empire running. It is imperative that they have heirs to continue their businesses," Raymond replied.
"At the expense of a child's freedom? At the expense of his sanity?"
"Empires have been built on worse things than the suffering of a child," Raymond stated.
Aegin frowned. What kind of argument was that? Of course he was factually right, but that didn't make it morally right. So, Aegin turned and stepped back towards the door, "Those Empires all fell eventually, did they not?"
Aegin managed to dodge the first blow, something that seemed to surprise his father. Surprise him enough that Aegin also managed to get a few hits of his own in before his father started fighting back.
Aegin breathed heavily, he knew that he'd never been able to truly keep up with his father. Sure, he had the training, but he didn't have the loyalty and dedication his father had. There was no motivation in Aegin's heart to hone his precision in battle. He wished there had been. Eyes wide and scared at the look his father gave him, the look that showed no familial bond, only blind loyalty, Aegin struck out. His father blocked, then cut quickly to the side, jabbing Aegin in the ribs. Aegin flinched and retreated hurriedly, circling his father.
"I'm leaving," Aegin stated, though his voice didn't seem as determined as he had been a few moments before. Raymond's eyes darkened, the father gone. Aegin lunched.
Feint to the left.
Swipe the leg.
Aegin crashed to the ground and Raymond leaped on top of him to hold him down.
"You've got a lot to learn, boy," Raymond growled. He drew back his fist, and brought it down on Aegin's temple.
Aegin could smell the forest air. The pine needles and the damp undergrowth. His head pounded. He groaned as he rolled to his hands and knees, then squinted his eyes open to look around.
As soon as he asked the question, it all came flooding back to him. He pushed the pain to the back of his mind before he jumped to his feet and turned in all directions. His father was leaning against a tree, facing away from him.
"You're too late now," his father stated, "The orders were sent off last night, there's no way you'll catch them in time, let alone save your little friend, if that's what you call him".
Aegin's eyes widened, "What have you done?"
"My duty," his father replied, turning to look at Aegin.
Aegin narrowed his eyes in anger, "He doesn't deserve any of this! He's done nothing, wrong or right!"
Raymond pushed away from the tree and began to walk away, "This is the last kindness I will give you as a father, though it is evident I was never great at that job anyway. I have done my duty, now you decide what yours is".
Aegin watched his father leave, suddenly aware of what his father had done. Aegin had betrayed the Ridge Men, he'd broken his oath. By all rights, Aegin should have been killed. Likely everyone would believe he had been. His father would not betray something he believed in, and Aegin should never have asked him to. Aegin took a moment to get his bearings, then began running.
His duty? He wasn't so sure about that yet. But he knew what was right.