Errek Ironclad tossed some wood on the slowly dying fire. Embers shot up, and drifted excitedly upwards before fading away in the night sky. Normally, in a situation like this, Errek would avoid building a fire at all costs, but winter was coming, and the nights were getting harsh; Errek figured that if he couldn’t give his charge any emotional comfort, she at least deserved a small bit of physical comfort.
He wiped his hands off and dropped back onto the log he’d been using as a bench. The forest had never been his favorite place, always preferring the cold, hard iron floors of the city to the soft dirt. Well, that, and the fact that he felt completely exposed out here—no walls, no doors, no hallways, nothing to cover them or protect them from an ambush. It was like sending the Emberguard a gilded invitation, and he hated it.
A soft murmur reached his ears, and he glanced over to where she was sleeping. She had rolled over, and her face was lit by the fire. For a human, she sure was beautiful. Her face defied her age, and—judging by how peacefully she now slept—he’d never guess half of what she’d had to endure these past few months. On the outside she was flawless, but on the inside she’d been absolutely torn to shreds… and he pitied her.
His gaze drifted to the small boy next to her, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms. This would be his third, maybe fourth winter. The last of the Valentines. His heart ached for the pain they’d been put through, and he knew that no matter what evil the boy’s father might have done, he didn’t deserve anything that had happened to him. No boy that age should ever have to watch his father fight for his life and lose. Errek was too familiar with that pain, and he wished it upon no one.
It didn’t matter what he wished, he realized as his resolve returned. If his wishes were reality, none of this ever would have happened, and he would still be at the Iron Lord’s side… where he belonged. If his wishes were reality, the Redhammer would have been the one to die a long and most excruciating death, instead of Dunbir. If his wishes were reality, he would have stayed and fought the Emberguard to the bitter end, instead of hiding in the forest with the Emperor’s widow and newly-fatherless son. But it didn’t matter what he wished, because this is what needed to be done.
His father had been taken from him when he was still very young, but there was one memory of him that Errek had desperately clung to all his life. Just as Errek had become, his father was the Iron Lord’s personal bodyguard, and one day he had to march out to protect the Iron Lord as he journeyed to Utica. Errek had begged his father to stay, but his father simply sat him down and told him, “Errek, sometimes a task isn’t given to you because you want it. Sometimes, a task is given to you because you are the only one strong enough to do it.” It was the only memory he had of his father, but his voice rang through as clearly as if he was here now.
When the Iron Lord died, Errek was left without a charge—a bodyguard with no body to guard. As he stood, he looked to the sleeping Valentines, their peaceful faces concealing a lifetime’s worth of pain. They deserved someone to keep them safe in these trying times, to keep the darkness at bay. Errek was strong enough to do this, and he resolved that he would do so, unto the very end of the world.