[Background: The Halurdow are invading the Kingdom of Galdona and are currently assaulting the capital city of Azraelis. Jezrei is elderly and too old to fight with the other defenders.]
Leaning on his walking stick, Jezrei shuffled to the arched window nearest the altar. Looking out over the garden, he smiled in fond remembrance of the times he sat in its fragrant, colorful embrace while dozing in the sun. Wooden shutters gaped open to allow scents from the garden to flow inside the chapel, but on this day the acrid stench of smoke carried on the wind from the besieged city overwhelmed the perfume of the flowers. Earlier, this same window revealed flames rising from the king’s castle. The wounded who came to the Temple for healing claimed that most of Azraelis, Galdona’s capital, had already fallen. As he gazed upon the tranquility of the garden below, he struggled to ignore the clash of steel that trickled to his ears from beyond the walls.
The Temple where he now stood, and its surrounding grounds, had become the last bastion of opposition to the invaders.
So many dead, so few remain.
He did not fear death. It was merely the next step along the path of his spiritual progression. However, the loss of those younger than he, who left behind families, saddened his heart. The oldest Muhadun gathered his energies and through the open window sent his prayers to Azrael for his brethren below: those destined to fight and die to protect the outer wall, and the Temple itself, from the depredations of the attacking barbarians. Jezrei hoped his prayers comforted their spirits.
The snick of the door-latch wrenched his attention from the window.
“Forgive my interruption, Jezrei.” Benrau, one of the younger Muhadun, bowed before entering. “The outer wall is breeched and I’m needed to help protect the Temple.”
Benrau cradled a young child against his chest. “Before the fighting reached our doors we, their fathers and mothers, agreed to place our children in your care. I’ve brought them with me. Other than within the shelter of Azrael’s palm, we could think of no place safer than with you, here within Azrael’s chapel.”
He handed the youngster to Jezrei. “This is Tallyn, son of Rheann and Allyn.”
The boy whispered, “I’m five,” as he raised the equivalent number of fingers and Jezrei clutched the little one close before setting him on the floor and taking his hand.
Benrau leaned forward and whispered in the older man’s ear, “His father fell at the city’s gate. His mother died getting him to safety. He is the last living descendant of King Faelyn, other than his sister who was captured.”
Jezrei tousled the lad’s hair before he bowed his head, accepting the duty given by his brethren and by the life of the five-year-old he cradled in his arms: the rightful heir to the throne of Galdona. His physical husk had grown too old and weak to fight with sword and bow, but he could ensure the children remained calm and safe. Should Galdona’s army return in time from battling the trolls along the northeastern border, his burden would be lifted. If the Temple fell, it would mean all of his brethren were gone.
Benrau moved aside and twenty frightened children straggled into the chapel. Many with heads bowed and eyes focused on the floor. The faces of the few who looked at him bore pinched lips, damp streaks down their faces and stared with wide eyes. Most were already orphaned by the fighting and, smothered by grief, all traces of joy had faded from their eyes.
Jezrei sighed deeply as the weight of responsibility settled upon his old shoulders. Among the last gifts he bestowed upon his people, Azrael had included hope. As a teacher, Jezrei’s sense of duty and his love for the Kalieri people required him to rekindle the spark of hope within these children.