The Company of the White Flame: A History of the Lady of Grace
Once upon a time, there was a young girl living in the small and isolated Vale of Slivnitsa. Nobody can recall her name back then but it is remembered that she was born hideously disfigured. Her life was not easy, she was shunned by those of her community for being an abomination, so when she came of age, she left the safety of the Vale to live in solitude, deep in the wild woods that surrounded her birthplace.
One day, when she was out picking mushrooms, she was approached by an old woman who told her that, for certain favours the girl would owe, she could transform her into a vision of perfection, to be adored and envied the nation over. Having spent her life being ridiculed, taunted and rejected, the girl did not think twice and the bargain was struck. She went home to bed and, the next morning when she awoke and eagerly looked in the mirror, she saw not her own face but that of a porcelain-skinned, clear-eyed, fierce beauty beyond her wildest imaginings.
Venturing back into the Vale for the first time in many years, the girl was stunned as the village-folk fell to their knees in awe, staring at her face in wonder, rather than disgust. She was offered the finest clothes and the best food from each table and it was not long before the local Boyar offered her a place at his side and in his bed. The Vale-folk called her their Lady Of Grace and she soon found that her beauty afforded her a power that she had never known before. No one could refuse her and she spent many years tricking the young men away from their marital beds and wreaking terrible vengeance on those who had treated her so badly as a child.
In time, she grew tired of the Boyar and the limitations that being his wife inflicted upon her, so she demanded that the people build her a tremendous castle in the nearby forest. Under the spell of her perfect visage, they did as she bade. When the castle was complete, she furnished it with hundreds of ornate mirrors, so that she might look upon her own beauty wherever she went. Such vanity and solitude took their toll and her new sense of power grew and grew to the point where she bound the terrible creatures of the woods to her and had them do her bidding in the dark night.
It was not long before, in the many mirrors of her home, she started to see the signs of age stealing across her face. In anguish at the thought of losing her beauty and the control it afforded her, she screamed into the darkness for salvation. Once again, the old woman from the forest came to her and told her of a terrible magic that would ensure that she would remain young and beautiful forever.
The woman left the castle immediately and stole into the forest and, using a trick the old woman had taught her, crept into the mind of a passing white hart and beckoned it to her. The deer came willingly and without fear. Taking out a blade, the woman cut out the deer’s heart and, after carving her own heart from her chest, forced it into the white hart. The old woman had told her that by doing this, her body would become immortal, immune to time and disease and injury. No man would ever be able to kill her, as long as the white hart roamed free and with it’s fleetness of foot and the power of her own soul within it, no man would ever be able to catch it. She sent it off into the woods and returned to her castle triumphant.
She went to the first mirror in the house, to marvel at her exquisite face, and screamed. The face looking back at her was the twisted countenance of her youth, made even more terrible by time and the darkness of her spirit. In a wild panic, she called to a servant for aid but he assured her that all he saw was her radiant beauty and could not understand why she was so distraught. Entering into the servant’s mind and looking back at herself with his eyes, she saw nothing but the even, luminescent, perfect planes of her face. A terrible knowledge was born within her and she flew into a fury, smashing every single mirror in the castle. With the mirrors lying to her, she had no choice but to send her servant into the village to bring back the most handsome young man that could be found.
When the man arrived, she bound him to a chair and demanded he look upon her, so she could see into his thoughts and indulge her vanity. At first the man was confused, but so enchanted by her that he accommodated her wishes. After many days of being her captive he grew fearful and begged to be released back to his family. When she refused he used the only power he had and closed his eyes tight, so that she could no longer use him as a mirror. She tried every persuasion known to her but could not convince the man to look upon her, so with cold fury, she cut off his eyelids. She kept him at the castle for a few more days but he quickly went blind so she turned him out into the night, upon the mercy of her wolves, of which there is none.
Realising that the grown citizens of the vale would all eventually defy her, she turned to sending her terrible fiends into the villages at night, to steal away children and bring them to her castle. Innocent and unaware of the danger, they gazed upon her with wonder and once again her castle was filled with mirrors, reflecting her immortal beauty at every turn. She kept them well-fed and well-dressed, locked in a room deep within the bowels of her home. Even if the men and women of the vale had been brave enough to come and attempt to steal their children back, they never would have found them.
Every now and again a child would fall sick, or become too old, at which point the woman would turn it over to her wolves and send for new children to be brought. Soon the local people were too afraid to consider conceiving children, knowing they would eventually fall into the hands of the Lady of Grace. The villages grew quiet and sombre, as they awaited her wrath.
The Company of the White Flame: Their Story
A few miles from the Vale of Slivnitsa there was another, far larger, Vale called Olvanshka. The men, women and children of the Vale had heard the terrible tales about the Lady of Grace but had never looked upon her. Their Vale was far enough away from her brooding castle as to afford them some safety from her attentions. Every now and again, one of her wolves would stray close to the Olvanshka borders and cause terrible havoc until it was killed or chased away.
As Slivnitsa withered away over the passing years, its inhabitants becoming elderly and bearing no children, the Lady of Grace turned her gaze to fresh hunting grounds. Olvanshka was not large, but there were many children and it was not long before a handful went missing on a particularly dark and stormy night, their screams of terror rousing the Vale from sleep and sending even the bravest men into a panic. Families searched for days for their beloved children, but of them, there was no trace. The Vale-folk instinctively knew that the terrible and beautiful Sovereign had taken them and were inclined to despair, but as they had never been enchanted by her perfect face, they were more determined to do something about it than the previous Vale that had fallen victim to her whims.
Every torch, brazier and hearth was lit, until the Vale blazed with orange light, and the people gathered in the square to decide what must be done. After much talk and arguing, their finest fighters, wolf-hunter Pavel and disgraced Boyar turned Volhov, Constantin, their most wise Baba Anna; along with her apprentice, Jelena and the Vale’s trusted priest and witchfinder, the Draughir, Dimitri, were selected to venture out to the castle of the Lady of Grace. Their aim to try and bargain for the missing children, if not dispose of the Lady entirely. For this they needed a guide; the roaming Warden Valeska, who had previous experience of the Sovereign, volunteered.
Valeska had tracked the Sovereign with her Warden Brotherhood for many years, and knew of the fabled white heart that held the heart of their foe. The group knew that the best way to defeat the Lady, was to capture this animal but they also knew that she and the beast were magically connected and she never let her thoughts stray far from its mind, so that she may guide it away from any discovery or unexpected danger. A powerful distraction was called for and Dimitri fetched his young son, Ivan. By using him as bait, they were taking a terrible chance but it was the best way to get to this isolated and paranoid woman without arousing suspicion.
Baba Anna and Jelena worked a powerful ritual upon Ivan, that ensured that when he met the Lady of Grace, instead of seeing her standing before him, he would see the face of his late mother. This would inspire such rapt attention from him, that the Lady was sure to become entranced by his affections. In the meantime, whilst she was distracted, they would track, hunt and kill the white hart.
They set out the next day, journeying as close to the castle as they dared, before turning the young boy out into the dark. It would not be long before the Lady’s wolves found him and took him back to the castle. Finding the hart would not be as easy. They hardly ate nor slept for the next week, as they trailed the animal through the forest. A fierce cold took hold of the land and by the time the group had tracked the hart to a maze of caves in the mountainside, they were half-starved and crazed with snow-blindness.
Stealing upon it whilst it slept, they planned to slit its throat, but Dimitri warned that, should they be careless in their weariness and it awaken, its fright would penetrate back to the Lady and she would instantly know not only their faces, but where they were, and the might of her wolves would come crashing down upon them. They must secure the beast without waking it. Immediately, Baba Anna and Jelena set about conjuring a blazing white fire that encircled the hart, trapping it behind a wall of flame that reached to the roof of the cave. The animal started awake, but it was already too late. It couldn’t move, or see beyond the inferno and, in her castle, far off, the Lady of Grace began to scream. Her voice poured out of the hart, deafening them and shaking the cave walls. Suddenly, the screams stopped as suddenly as they had started, and all was quiet. The mages worked through the following night to ensure that the raging fire would never die, thus trapping the magical vessel of the Sovereign forever.
None knows for certain what, happened to the Lady but when they made their way back to the castle and retrieved a shaken and babbling Ivan, he would cry out in the night about a blazing white, burning figure, frozen in place, unmoving, unseeing, screaming without end, somewhere in the bowels of the castle. They searched, but never found her.
They did however, find the lost children of Olvanshka, and returned them to their families. Not only that, but a few of the original captives from Slivnitsa were also found, still alive. Though terribly traumatised by their captivity and the madness of the Lady of Grace, they eventually rejoined their Vale and were able to start families of their own, thus rejuvenating the dying villages.
As for the group brought together by such a terrible enemy, they all swore an oath, never to divulge the location of the white hart, lest anyone find it and free it. Bound together by their ordeal, they formed a new Warden Company, to protect the surrounding vales, keep a vigilant eye on the terrible beings of Karov, and fight to the death to prevent the Lady from surfacing again. They are the Company of the White Flame.