And finally, chapter 30!
Chapter 30: Desperate Ambitions
Not long after Jade had joined the battle, the choking clouds of smoke from the blazing fires in the village had finally begun to dissipate, allowing both Leyon’s army and the enemy see one another once again. Though this meant there’d be no further concealment for either side, Leyon and company were relieved that their visibility returned was that much better. Now that they could see more clearly, it was easier for the knights to fight and to avoid accidentally hitting their comrades. Even better, the fires had begun dying down a short time as well. This left more room to wage battle across the ruined village and greatly reduced the threat of the knights being injured by the blazes. Unfortunately, the damage caused to the village still posed a danger. Many of the buildings had been literally gutted by the conflagrations and looked ready to collapse. Several had already fallen, possibly trapping many people beneath the rubble, and what might have been muffled cries for help echoed from several collapsed structures. Leyon quickly ordered some of the knights to break off from the battle and to attempt to dig the trapped villagers out before they were crushed or died of suffocation. He and the remainder of the army, meanwhile, focused on what was left of the Melorans and Red Claw members. ***
Natalie, quite enthused at her promotion, directed her horse nearby a building to skewer an axe wielding Red Claw member lurking near the village tavern when suddenly, the building’s roof began to groan ominously. Natalie’s horse, already skittish from the fires, was spooked and neighed loudly, rearing up on its hind legs without warning.
“Ugh! Aaaah!” Natalie yelped as she was thrown off of her steed and onto the ground…no more than a stone throw away from the crumbling tavern. Her eyes going wide at this realization, she scrambled to her feet, but she was half a second too late. The roof had split apart and a massive piece of debris hurtled straight towards her. Eliot, who had dismounted to search the rubble of another fallen building for survivors, saw her predicament and raced over.
“NATALIE, NO!” he exclaimed, charging forward to shove the deputy commander out of the falling debris’s path. He tried to follow, but was a heartbeat too slow. As a result, an enormous mass of wood landed on Eliot’s legs with tremendous force.
“Eliot!” Natalie gasped and scrambled to her feet again. Eliot was gasping in pain and had dug his hands under the debris in an attempt to free himself. But the weight of the wood and the deep pain in his legs, particularly his right one, were too great. All he could do was lay there, pinned and trying futilely to shove the debris off of himself. Natalie attempted to aid him, working to shove or to lift the wood off of his likely broken legs. But even their combined efforts could hardly budge it. Regardless, she tried with all her might from above while he struggled from below. The spiteful debris bloodied the fingers of both knights, but refused to be dislodged.
“Ugh, dang it, Eliot! You’re such an idiot!” Natalie opined.
“What?! I just saved your life, thank you very much!” Eliot retorted through the pain.
“I’m sure you could’ve done that without getting into such a predicament!”
“And how, may I ask?”
“I…I don’t know right now!” Natalie admitted, though she now sounded more afraid than annoyed and her eyes roamed the battlefield frantically. “General Leyon! Help!”
Leyon, hearing Natalie’s cry, immediately brought his horse to a halt and scanned the decimated village for the deputy commander. Thankfully, by this time, the enemy’s numbers had dwindled a great deal, allowing the general to safely turn his attention to his comrade’s distress. When he saw Eliot pinned under the fallen rubble and Natalie trying to free the trouble-prone knight from its crushing weight, he immediately raced over.
“No! Eliot!” he cried as he dismounted and took hold of the debris. “What the hell happened?!”
“The building was about to collapse and the noise spooked my horse,” Natalie explained and told Leyon about Eliot coming to her rescue and how he’d ended up trapped when the chunk of the roof crashed down upon his legs.
“Ugh, damn it!” Leyon growled, half in fear and half in annoyance. He then directed that, upon his signal, the three knights would simultaneously bring their strength to bear; he and Natalie would lift while Eliot pushed from beneath. Still, I am amazed, Leyon thought. First Eliot saves my life, then Natalie’s. And each time, he took severe injuries in so doing. I’m making sure he gets that Legion of Service medal. He may not be the sharpest axe in the armory, but he is a true hero. Though the addition of Leyon’s strength was enough to free Eliot’s legs, the dark-haired knight was still unable to stand up.
“I- I’m sorry, you guys…” he uttered. “My left leg hurts like hell… And I can’t move my right one at all.”
“Oh dear…” Natalie murmured.
“Blast. I sure hope Norman can get you back on your feet,” Leyon added, picking up Eliot and carrying him on his back. “We’re on a tight schedule, and we need every man we have.”
“I’m so sorry… But thanks, General,” Eliot replied.
“Hey, Eliot, don’t worry,” Leyon assured as he helped the knight get onto his horse, swung atop his own mount, and then mounted and rode towards the edge of the village. “This isn’t your fault. And besides, you’re my good friend. …No, more than that. You’re one of the best friends I’ve ever had.”
“…I am? Really?”
“Yeah. No doubt about it.”
“I…I am honored, Sir. Thank you.”
Leyon merely shot the wounded knight a wry smile as they continued towards the village outskirts. Along the way, the general signaled for Norman to join them and instructed Derien to order the wolves to finish off the remaining enemies and for the knights to begin searching for survivors amidst the rubble. Leyon, Natalie, Norman, and the wounded Eliot, meanwhile, retreated back to the area where the army had thought to camp for the night. Several injured knights and wolves were already there, as well as a few townsfolk who’d been rescued from the battle. Norman, thankfully, had the sense to use conventional medicines on the injured townsfolk and to conserve the staves for use by the army. They would be needed when the attack on Jerusa began…and, badly. Leyon ordered Natalie to stand guard outside while he set his comrade gently inside one of the wagons. Norman, looking a bit flustered from the battle, soon began to examine Eliot’s latest injuries. He swept a glowing Mend staff up and down Eliot’s upper legs, where the knight said the pain was most intense. Norman then set the staff aside and gently began feeling his patient’s upper legs. Eliot winced wherever Norman mistakenly triggered even more pain.
“Hmm…” Norman contemplated worriedly after a few moments.
“Well, is Eliot going to be able to walk again at all?” Leyon inquired.
“Eventually, yes,” Norman replied. “His left thigh just has a bad sprain, but I’m afraid his right is broken. I can feel a clean break in the bone just above the knee. My staff can heal the sprain, but it can’t fully repair a broken bone. Eliot will have to stay off of his leg for a few days to allow the bones to mend themselves properly. And, as was the case with Ike back in Fort Hector, he’ll need to eat the right foods to help it along.”
“Ugh…” Eliot uttered; though whether it was from losing his place in the fight or the prospect of the “right foods” could not be determined.
“Blast…” Leyon fumed as Norman began rummaging through his rucksack. “This means we’ll be short one seasoned warrior, and at the worst moment. I damn well hope Eliot will be able to fight by the time we reach the capital. We’re going to need all the strength we can muster for this mission to succeed.”
“I agree,” Norman replied, producing several flat pieces of wood and rope from his rucksack. “Hopefully, the time spent waiting for the “evacuation” will be enough to see him back on his feet. For now, I’m going to put his leg in a splint. Eliot, if you want to get around while we’re camped, you’ll need a crutch.”
“But where am I going to get one of those?” Eliot wondered as Norman removed the greaves from Eliot’s broken leg, rolled up his pants, and set the splints in place.
“Don’t worry, I brought a few along just in case. You can never be too prepared, after all. We’re just lucky they’re so light and compact, since I was rather…restricted in how much I could bring along on this mission.”
As Norman was carefully securing the splint to Eliot’s leg, Natalie entered the wagon.
“Oh… Deputy Commander,” Eliot greeted.
“Natalie,” Leyon added. “Is something wrong outside?”
Curiously, the normally poised deputy commander suddenly became rather flustered.
“Oh, no,” Natalie replied, but seemed to regret her words the moment they passed her lips. “I mean…things are, well, about what you’d expect. There are more wounded on the way; townspeople who were caught in the fighting. I, uh, thought it best to give Norman a…head’s up.”
As she spoke, her face became progressively redder. And, Leyon rather doubted that the heat of the fires in the village were the cause.
“Heh, true,” he replied, suppressing a smirk.
“Oh, dear, I had a feeling you’d broken your leg,” Natalie said as she took note of Norman finishing Eliot’s splint and then going to dig out a crutch. “You were lucky you didn’t get crushed back there.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m afraid I’ll be out of action for awhile,” Eliot reported somberly. Norman then helped him set the crutch under his arm.
“Does it fit alright?” Norman wondered.
“…I think so,” Eliot replied, rising to a sitting position and then attempted to swing himself upright. After several experimental steps, he let out a sigh of relief. “Yeah, this’ll work. And don’t worry, I’ll be careful getting outside.”
“Good. You don’t want to break your other leg, after all.”
“Geez, I’m not that clumsy.”
“Hey, um… Eliot?” Natalie spoke up hesitantly before the knight could leave.
“Well, I…I just wanted to say. Thank you… For saving me.”
“Heh. You’re welcome,” Eliot replied with a genuine smile. “It’s a knight’s duty to aid his allies in battle, after all.”
“That it is.”
Wow… I never knew Eliot was such a hero. He’s saved my life and General Leyon’s, all in the space of a few months. And to think, I saw him as just a clumsy oaf, Natalie thought to herself as the corners of her mouth unconsciously drew upwards.
“Aha, General Leyon was right!” Eliot continued when he noticed Natalie’s smile, his words shaking her back to reality. “You really don’t hate me! Heh heh.”
“…Wait, what?!” Leyon blurted, stupefied.
“Hey! Don’t make me take back my thanks!” Natalie retorted.
“Oh, I don’t think you’d do that,” Eliot replied deviously as he carefully clambered down from the wagon and landed on his left foot. “And General, remember when I told you she hated me? You said perhaps she didn’t!”
“I knew it!” Natalie groused, wheeling about to face Leyon with clear displeasure on her features. “I had a feeling you were up to your old cupid tricks again!”
“N-Now hold on! Should we really be discussing this right now?” Leyon wondered nervously, raising his hands defensively.
“Yes we should! You’re not going to convince me to date him!”
“Hey, it was you who brought it up,” Eliot pointed out coyly, snickering as Natalie’s face reddened all the more. “In fact, you didn’t even mind when I simply called you Natalie back during the battle, heh heh.”
To Natalie’s consternation, however, it was true. Though she tried to tell herself otherwise, Natalie, for some bizarre reason, truly hadn’t minded it.
“Alright, fine,” she seethed, still blushing. “I’ll admit it. I think of you as a friend too, but that’s it. Nothing more.”
“Whatever you say,” Eliot replied, though he looked less-than-chastened. “Well, I think I’ll be missing my paint soon enough. I have a piece I’d really like to finish before the war is over, and working on it would’ve helped to while away the time I’ll be off my feet.”
“Well,” Leyon spoke up, “we still need to get some rest before we press on. We’ll bunk down here once the fighting is over and, when that happens, you can see if there’s still a shop or two left in that village.”
“Not a bad idea. I’ll go find out. See you all later!”
With that, Eliot turned around and hobbled back towards the village. As he left, he spared a glance over his shoulder at Natalie. He almost stumbled when he saw her staring after him. Then, when he saw her avert her eyes and blush, he did stumble. Heh… If only you knew the truth, Natalie. Then you’d see. You weren’t the only one with a crush way back when. And you still aren’t.
“Well, Natalie… I just hope you find the right man someday. Whether it’s Eliot or not,” Leyon spoke up moments later.
“Thanks…” Natalie replied, her voice suddenly distant. “Me too.”
“Glad to hear it. Well, I’m going to go have a chat with Kevin’s group. I noticed an armed girl following them, and I’m going to see what that’s about."
“Another new recruit?”
“Looks like it, but I think she’ll be helpful. She barely comes to my elbow and is thin as a spear shaft, but I saw her take down several Red Claw who were twice her size.”
“Careful, Azura might not appreciate you eyeing another woman.”
Though Natalie had likely meant for that to be a playful taunt, Leyon could’ve sworn he detected a hint of envy in her tone.
“Oh, don’t be silly,” he said. “I love Azura. Besides, this girl must be ten years younger than me. Still, I may as well make sure she can help our mission. I’ll see you around.”
“Alright,” Natalie replied, almost tonelessly.
With that, Leyon took his leave. As he made his way to the Cilaean mercenaries, he glanced back at Natalie. The deputy commander was trying to avoid watching the departing Eliot, and she was failing miserably. When she did, however, turn her gaze away from the trouble-prone knight, a curious expression was on her face. Her eyes held a distant, almost wistful look. Her once blushing face was now pale again, and the corners of her mouth had drooped. Leyon’s eyebrow arched, as Natalie usually wasn’t one to appear so downhearted. But, then again, she had been behaving in a curious fashion. Aside from blushing at Eliot, her jibe regarding Azura had sounded far different than he would have expected. Her earlier bard had carried none of her once palpable disdain for Azura, which Natalie felt quite strongly after Azura had unwittingly contributed to Leyon’s memory loss, but instead sounded almost envious. Not jealous, as if her old crush on Leyon had resurfaced, but envious; almost longing. His intuition seemed vindicated when Natalie’s gaze turned earthward and a sigh escaped her frowning lips. Leyon, intrigued, continued on his way and soon approached Kevin, Zane, and Jade, whom were deep in conversation. Kevin noticed him first and moved to greet the general.
“Ah, General. I noticed Eliot hobble off on a crutch. What happened?” the mercenary commander wondered.
“Yeah, is he going to be alright?” Zane added.
“Eventually, yeah, but he broke his leg when he rescued Natalie from being crushed by a crumbling building,” Leyon explained. “He managed to get her away from the falling rubble, but didn’t get himself away fast enough. I’m afraid he’ll be out of action for awhile.”
“Oh, that’s not good. We need every able warrior we can find,” Kevin pointed out.
“I agree. Hopefully, we won’t actually have to fight until the time comes to retake Jerusa. If we're lucky, Eliot will be able to ride again by that time. Anyway, I came to ask you about something. I noticed that this girl joined our troop. I have no problem with her aiding us; I think it’s no secret that we need all the help we can get. But I would just like to know who she is.”
“Oh, right. General Leyon, this is Jade. She’s my cousin,” Zane explained. “I was teaching her swordplay, but I had to leave home when our mercenary group was hired to aid the Cilaean army. She’s kept up her training, though.”
“I see,” Leyon replied.
The general turned to face Jade and, to his perplexity, she was gaping at him with wide-eyed astonishment.
“Wow! You’re the General Leyon?!” Jade gasped in undisguised admiration. “I can’t believe I’m actually meeting you! Lots of people say you’re one of the best generals Talgria has ever had!”
“Ah, well, I don’t know about that,” Leyon replied with an abashed smile. “But I do lead my men to the best of my abilities.”
“I bet you do! I also heard that you even managed to beat General William in a spar!”
“Oh, that’s gotten around too? I did win a couple times, but he still usually bests me. The guy is a bear; tough and relentless. And that’s despite him always having a disadvantage against me, no less.”
“Oh wow. You two are amazing then! Oh, but Commander Kevin is too. When I started training, I wanted to someday be as great as he is.”
“…Er, well…” Kevin stuttered, his cheeks suddenly going pink. “I’m…flattered, Jade.”
“Hee hee,” Jade giggled.
“Did you seriously just blush?” Zane replied, sounding more annoyed than amused.
“Never mind that,” Kevin insisted. “I was just surprised.”
“Well, I think I’ll leave you guys to your conversation,” Leyon decided. “I should go send a couple knights to make sure the village is secure. I’d like for us to do what we can for the villagers before we press on. Besides, Eliot decided to run an errand in town and goddess knows what kind of trouble he might get himself into.”
With that, Leyon left his comrades to their talk and began seeking out knights to assess the condition of the townsfolk. The villagers who’d been trapped under the rubble, he suspected, were already freed; but, they might require Norman’s ministrations. Still, Leyon also knew that there was a very definite limit on what the knights could do, as they were pressed for time and had to conserve their own supplies for the attack on Jerusa. As he oversaw the activity in the camp, Leyon considered his next course of action. Intervening at the village had cost them time and a valuable warrior, though Leyon could not say he would’ve done differently after seeing the Red Claw’s latest atrocities. The notion of postponing the retaking of Jerusa, at least until Eliot’s leg healed, occurred to him. After all, the dark-haired knight was one of the finest warriors the Royal Knights had produced, and his help could make all the difference when the battle started. Still, there was a risk. The longer the army waited, the greater the chances that their presence might be detected. Conversely, however, if the army arrived at Jerusa too early, then the Melorans holding the Cilaean capital would be at full strength and the knights and wolves would be faced with a hopeless battle.
Leyon considered and decided, with some reluctance, that they’d have to wait. He didn’t like the idea of leaving the trapped Allied troops cornered on the coastline even longer, but this cloud did have a silver lining. It would give the ships carrying the siege weapons more time to arrive at the ports and deliver their cargo to the trapped Allied troops. And that could turn this suicidal gamble into a victory.
Meanwhile, Azura, Bryan, and company continued on their way towards Astryn Palace, in hopes that Queen Marion might still live and could verify Bryan and Owen’s identities. The encounter with Larameans had delayed them badly, and at the worst possible time, so the group had kept a rapid pace. Though Bryan had forced himself to focus solely on reaching the palace in time, the incident with the Larameans yet lingered in the back of his mind. He could not help suspecting that the laguz believing that Astryn had attacked their country, and arriving to retaliate at the same time that Bryan was trying to secure his throne, was no coincidence. It was doubtful that Francois had any answers; the count had seemed just as astonished as everybody else and, even if he’d been feigning surprise, it was unlikely that he would share any sensitive information with Bryan until after his bloodline had been proven. The palace, however, might provide him with answers.
Not long after the battle with the beast laguz had ended, thankfully, the palace soon appeared on the horizon. Even from a distance, it looked magnificent. Its walls of ivory colored stone and smoothly rounded towers shone in the bright sunlight. Stained glass windows caught the sun in rainbows of reflected light and delicate inlaid mosaics accentuated the artistry of the magnificent edifice. It was also enormous, even bigger than Castle Talgria, and Bryan suddenly found himself hoping they wouldn’t get lost while seeking the dying queen. Much of the group froze in their tracks, staring in slack jawed awe, but Owen regarded the palace with a nostalgic expression. His eyes had misted, and his lips twisted in a sad smile, prompting Bryan to clap a reassuring hand on his father’s shoulder. However, the group’s awed perusal of the palace ended abruptly when an unfamiliar foot soldier appeared in the distance, rushing towards them. Unfortunately, the look on his face was not a pleasant one. In fact, the man looked stricken; almost heart-broken. His eyes lit up, but only very slightly, when he caught sight of Francois and Eric.
“Ah, Count Francois. I’m so glad I found you and General Eric so soon,” the soldier greeted. “I was sent from the palace to find you, and I feared I’d be seeking you for days.”
“You were? What’s going on? We found evidence of the Red Claw and hostile Larameans while abroad. The capital hasn’t been invaded, has it?!” Francois frantically inquired.
“Well, no… You see… Your mission has been canceled. You and General Eric are to let these travelers go their way, while you and your escorts are to return at once.”
The soldier’s gaze then somberly strayed to the ground.
“What? But… But why? These people are—”
“Trying to help us? Yes, we suspected as much when we first heard news of them and saw them accompanying you just now, but…”
The soldier sniffled before continuing, and Bryan had a sickening presentiment about what had depressed him so.
“I…I’m afraid I bring terrible news. Queen Marion… She’s…”
The soldier began to sob and could not finish the sentence. But then again, he hardly needed to. At this realization, Francois and Eric’s eyes widened with dismay. Azura, Bryan, and Owen’s expressions were no different. The soldier’s eyes soon welled up with tears.
“…No,” Francois uttered moments later. “You… You don’t mean to say the queen is…?”
The soldier nodded as tears began trickling down his cheeks.
“Yes…” he confirmed. “She…has passed on.”
“Oh…” was all Owen could utter, sadness choking away any other words he might've spoken.
“Oh no…” Azura added, freezing where she stood.
Bryan’s shocked expression soon crumbled into a twisted grimace as tears also began forming in his eyes.
“…Damn it!” he cursed as he dropped to his knees and pounded the ground with his fists. “We were…so close…! There’s no way for us to prove my bloodline… And I promised Sally I would save this country… I promised that little girl!”
“…Bryan, we’ll find a way,” Owen replied, kneeling he his son’s side and grasping his shoulder firmly enough to straighten up the despairing prince. “We have to.”
“Yeah, Bryan. And we’re all behind you,” Azura agreed with a smile, though it didn’t touch her eyes.
“But…what are we going to do now?” Bryan wondered. “Even if I do gain the people’s trust, I’ll never ascend to the throne without solid proof that I’m the prince.”
“…Wait, prince?!” the soldier gasped, Bryan’s words causing him to choke on his sobs. “You say you’re our long lost prince? But we were told he was killed in Cilae!”
“That was a lie,” Bryan replied, some measure of calm returning to his voice. “The Red Claw twisted the story because they wanted you to believe I was dead. I survived the incident in Cilae because I was rescued from being falsely executed. It’s the honest truth.”
“Yeah, my comrades and I were all there,” Azura seconded.
“And I’m the one who saved Bryan!” Faline put in. “A Red Claw double agent attempted to behead him, but I killed the rotten scumbag before he could release the guillotine blade.”
“I see…” the soldier replied, though he hardly seemed convinced. “Bryan, was it? Then, there should still be a way we can find out if you are indeed our true prince.”
“What? Really?” Bryan wondered. “Francois?”
“Hm? Oh!” Francois blurted, his eyes pulsing wide. “He’s right, there is another way. Forgive me, I had forgotten in my grief. Anyway, it will not be easy, but if luck is with us, we just might succeed. Master Owen, if you are really an Astrynian Grand Duke, as you have claimed, then you should know what I speak of.”
“…Oh, yes… Um…” Owen worriedly began contemplating, then comprehension dawning a few moments later. “Oh! How could I have forgotten?! The sacred weapons of Astryn!”
“Sacred weapons?” Bryan wondered, puzzled as to how such things would aid him.
“They are the prized treasures of the Royal House of Astryn. There are seven sacred weapons in all: a sword, an axe, a lance, a bow, a fire tome, a thunder tome, and a wind tome. There is no light tome or dark tome because members of the Astryn royal family were always partial to physical weapons and anima magic.”
“That’s correct,” Francois replied with a smile. “I was wondering if you had perhaps forgotten.”
“But, how can they help us?” Bryan inquired, confused and impatient.
“You mean you do not know?” Francois queried. “It seems that Master Owen has neglected your education.”
Eric gave a derisive snort, which prompted a baleful glare from Bryan, but Owen quickly stepped between the pair.
“It’s simple,” Owen cut in, forcibly enough to arrest Bryan’s attention. “The weapons are ensorcelled with special, unbreakable magic. They can only be wielded by true members of the royal family. If someone not of Astrynian royal blood tried it, then the weapon would be useless…or might even kill the usurper.”
Despite the unpleasant imagery that Owen’s words had conjured, the prince of Astryn found his hope returning.
“So that means I have to try touching one?” Bryan guessed.
“Precisely, but I’m afraid doing so won’t be easy,” Francois replied. “With our queen dead I fear it is only a matter of time before the matter of who will take the throne becomes heated. Perhaps even violent. Our late queen likely appointed a steward from amongst the nobles to act as her surrogate until a new king or queen is crowned. I do not know whom she chose, but I am certain whoever it is won’t let just anyone enter the palace and touch those weapons.”
“Yeah, I had a feeling…” Bryan replied with a sigh, then his brow crinkled as a thought struck him. “Wait, would the legendary lance Eronite happen to be one of those weapons?”
“As a matter of fact, it is,” Francois confirmed. “I’m surprised you’ve heard of it, Bryan.”
“Oh, I’m not,” Owen contradicted with a chuckle. “When he was a child, my son loved to read about famous lancers and lances of all kinds.”
“Heh, yeah, it’s true,” Bryan added, with a hint of abashment. “I read that Eronite was also called the thunder lance because of its bolt-shaped blade and how its wielder could toss it at the enemy like a bolt of lightning. But the books I read about Eronite never said it was one of Astryn’s royal weapons.”
“Ah, true. Beyond our borders, aside from the royal families of allied kingdoms, we prefer that to be a secret,” Francois explained. “It’s to avoid drawing attention from the wrong people. Only members of our royal family can wield these weapons, due to their enchantments. As Master Owen pointed out, some of the weapons will actually harm a would-be usurper, perhaps fatally. But, not everyone knows that. A number of would-be thieves have tried to steal them, and discovered this too late. Not all of the enchantments function that way, however. There have been instances in the past where one of these weapons, whose enchantment would not kill a thief, was stolen. And, when the thief realized that using his prize was impossible, it was held for ransom and used as a bargaining tool in certain criminal deeds.”
“I see. Makes sense. But wow… I never dreamed I would be able to wield such a weapon… If I could only get the chance to touch it…”
“Well, we shall try. I must reiterate, however, that if someone who isn’t of Astrynian royal blood tries tried to touch one of those weapons… Well, let’s just say it isn’t pleasant. Only a true blooded member of Astryn’s royal family can safely wield them. More than a few who sought to challenge this claim found their decision to be…unhealthy.”
“Indeed. Well, let us continue to the palace. Undoubtedly, news of our queen’s passing has spread. At least a few of the nobles are likely to already be here. I’ll see if I can convince them to let you approach Eronite,” Francois offered. “I will be honest, the story you have told me is difficult to accept. Yet, despite that, I find myself believing that you’re trustworthy. And, in any case, it isn’t as though we’ve got anything to lose.”
“Oh, that would be great. Thank you,” Bryan replied, anticipation leaving him nearly breathless.
With that, the group pressed on toward the palace. They entered the large city of Medann, which sprawled all around the palace, and wound their way through the streets. Much like the palace, Medann was a beautiful sight…“was” being the operative word. Where there once had been broad streets of smooth and polished stones there was now a hazardous network of dingy streets riddled with potholes and shallow craters, the damage presumably caused by Meloran siege weapons and long, subsequent neglect. A network of bridges above, linking the upper portions of the taller buildings, had also fared poorly. Once crisscrossed in a lofty web, many of the bridges had crumbled; and, of those that remained intact, not one of them looked like they could support even Lily’s weight. The lofty spires of various buildings and homes now seemed withered and crumbling while gardens, once lush enough for a child to literally vanish into, now seemed drab and sickly. Even worse than the once beautiful city’s deformities, however, was its ghostly silence. Very few people crossed the group’s path, and of those very few, not one uttered a greeting nor even seemed terribly concerned with where they were going or what they were doing.
Medann, it seemed, had taken on the air of a gigantic mausoleum; its people walking corpses, whiling away the time until the cold embrace of death claimed them.
Owen, seeing the state of the city, seemed as though in silent anguish. And, Bryan couldn’t blame him; for the sight almost made him believe his mission to be futile; almost. He hurried through the pot marked streets towards the palace and, within the next half an hour, the group stood before its massive front gates. Francois then asked that the warriors wait for him while he entered and pled their case to whomever was present to hear him and who would judge his entreaty. Neither the count nor the prince could be certain whom among the various dukes and duchesses were within the palace, but it was certain that they were likely vying for the throne already. Bryan could only imagine what sort of chaos could be going on within the palace walls as he awaited Francois’s return. Francois had said that certain nobles already sought the crown, and were seeking to enlist the aid of military commanders and other nobles to support their claim. Lartz had made the same point back at Fort Hector; though, at the time, the group had expected that they would seek a competitor willing to aid Allied Command. That Bryan would be that competitor had never crossed anyone's mind at that time, least of all Bryan’s. The prince had also been informed by Owen, after his talk with Francois, that certain high-ranking individuals had either firmly declared themselves neutral or had not chosen a side…and that Francois’s backing was already sought after.
Maybe somebody in there had grown tired of being refused?
He hoped that the count would be alright. After all, Francois was about to inform a group of very powerful, very ambitious, very antagonistic and potentially very dangerous people that an unknown prince had appeared to snatch the throne from their grasp. Such a declaration could very well take a turn for the worst, especially if one of the nobles decided that they preferred Francois to be dead than to be alive in the service of an enemy. Time passed with oppressive languidness, and Bryan began to tremble and sweat trickled down his brow. Faline, Skye, Azura, and Owen soon took note of his anxiety and approached.
“Bryan, are you okay?” Faline wondered. “I’ve been worried about you.”
“So have I,” Owen added. “You can tell us what’s wrong, Bryan. We’re here to help.”
“Well, I’m just…so nervous now,” Bryan admitted. “There’s no reason to think the nobles will even let Francois get a word in. We already know some of the dukes and duchesses who are after the throne have been pressuring him to take their side. For all we know, somebody got fed up with his refusals and shoved a knife in his back the minute he got through the door. And, that’s just the first hurdle. What if they don’t let me try to prove myself? And, even if they do and the sacred weapons prove my identity, what if they refuse to recognize me as their prince anyway? And, even if we do manage to get the nobles behind us…look at this place! It’s so…desolate. Heck, if it weren’t for the half-dozen people we saw on the way over, I’d think the city was deserted. I felt confident before, but now I realize I don’t know anybody here or anything about this place. I don’t know any of its customs, its laws and rules, or anything of the sort; much less how I’m going to get this place back on its feet. I just feel like I’m going to end up being a total failure.”
“Hey! What kind of talk is that?!” Skye thundered. “You can learn everything you need to know! And you’re not going to act like a bum! Got that?!”
Before Bryan could reply, Raela appeared, seemingly from nowhere, behind Skye and rapped him on the head with her Sleep staff.
“Aaaah! What the—?!”
“Watch yourself, mister!” Raela warned. Skye could only gulp and grimace as he clutched his throbbing head and Raela strode off. The others merely snickered.
“Skye…” Bryan began, whatever else he was about to say lost amidst loud chuckling.
“Hee hee, anyway, Bryan, don’t worry,” Azura encouraged. “You started out not even knowing you were the prince of Astryn, but look at how things have changed. You’ve sent Shigo slinking off with his tail between his legs, you’ve aided an Astrynian village, managed to convince an Astrynian noble to vouch for you and we even have a way to prove your bloodline. You’ve already accomplished a lot and, if you keep at it, I don’t think there’s anything you can’t do. And, there’s also something else you should know. Even if you don’t know a lot about Astryn yet, that’ll change if you try your best. I learned from a certain special someone, who is close to my heart, that the best leaders aren’t the ones who never make mistakes. The best leaders are the ones who learn from them. And that’s what makes a leader.”
“Ah, that Leyon,” Bryan deduced with a smile. “I once heard the same thing from General William, actually. And, both of them are right. You’re a lucky girl to have Leyon, Az. I’m serious.”
“Hee hee, I certainly feel so. For quite awhile, I thought I didn’t like him. But it turns out, he’s wonderful…”
Azura then freely allowed her lips to curve into a bright smile while her cheeks turned red.
“I bet. And thanks, guys. I needed that,” Bryan said feelingly.
“You’re welcome, Bryan,” Azura replied with a pleasant smile.
Just moments later, Francois finally emerged from the palace. While Bryan was relieved that none of the nobles had tried to harm him, the count’s expression did not look too encouraging. Bryan immediately approached Francois.
“Well? What did they say?” he inquired, his heart pounding with eagerness.
“Hmm… Well, let me put it this way,” Francois began. “I can’t say I managed to convince the nobles to let you have a chance, but I can’t say they’ve truly refused either. They were…quite struck by what I had to say, as you can imagine. However, they said that before they inform us of their decision, they would like to speak with the two of us, as well as General Eric and Master Owen, directly.”
“What? Me too?” Eric replied, his tone equal parts surprise and annoyance. “Well, whatever then.”
“Alright then. I feel we’d have better luck getting through to them by doing that anyway,” Bryan added, taking a deep breath and forcing his nervousness to drain away.
“Agreed. I would also like to request permission to examine the old portrait they found,” Owen seconded. “I have no doubt that it’s my wife…”
“Of course. Now follow me, if you please,” Francois instructed. He then led Bryan, Owen, and Eric into the palace grounds while the others waited outside in the city that was neither alive nor truly dead. Faline and Skye, in particular, wished they could have accompanied them, if only to defend Bryan in case one of the parties that opposed him attempted to lash out. But they knew they wouldn’t be allowed; and that doing so might even harm Bryan’s credibility. All they could do was hope that the matter was resolved peacefully. Bryan, meanwhile, was vainly trying to stay calm and not let his body begin to tremble again. He gazed around the outer gardens and the exotic trees and flowers that grew there, hoping to take his mind off of his troubles, if only for a short while. But as he followed Francois, he passed somber patrols of soldiers and saw servants going about their tasks distractedly; all trying in vain to take their minds off of the fact that someone dear to all of them was now gone. Bryan could understand their pain very well; Marion had ruled Astryn for many years, and losing her had to be quite a blow. Talgria would likely suffer no less if Wencelis were to die as well…an eventuality that would become quite certain for him, and many others, if Bryan’s errand failed.
These thoughts seemed to temper Bryan’s resolve to succeed, but were interrupted when Francois led the small party through the large front doors of the palace. Contrary to the desolate capital, the palace was in excellent condition. Perhaps Shigo had not ravaged it as he had Medann, or maybe whatever harm which befell the palace had been repaired before Astyrn’s decline. Whatever the case, the large hall beyond was as beautiful as the interior of Castle Talgria. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling while ornate designs decorated the marble floors and walls. Ornate tapestries, whose images were lovely, if confounding to Bryan, lined the walls and fluted pillars rose to meet a lofty, domed ceiling crowded with pained images. Large vases, filled with exotic flowers, decorated small, fine silvery tables.
At the end of the chamber stood three robed men of decidedly regal bearing. All three were fairly young, but this was hardly surprising given Owen’s account of Shigo’s attack on Medann and the massacre of the local nobility. The eldest of the trio was a burly figure clad in a beige robe, which looked a pinch tight about the shoulders. An elegant moustache of blue-violet flanked his nose and a pair of deep set blue eyes regarded Bryan unblinkingly, shining with an intellect which contrasted with his brawny frame. The youngest of the trio was garbed in white and regarded Bryan with unblinking scrutiny. Bryan couldn’t tell whether his gaze held curiosity or suspicion. Despite his youth, the youngest noble had an air of thoughtfulness and stoicism that reminded Bryan vaguely of Ike. His golden orbs were lambent, eerily bright and disconcertingly large, while long hair the color of ice brushed his shoulders. The third man wore a silver robe and was a grim, but sharp-eyed individual. Indeed, it was his eyes that caught Bryan’s attention; for they were the color of blood, and were narrowed into crimson daggers as they glared at the prince. His deep auburn hair was immaculately cut and styled, and Bryan suddenly felt a tad scruffy in comparison. Still, between the silver clad noble’s sharp glare and that he clearly was not pleased to see Bryan and company, Bryan sensed in his gut that this man might be dangerous. His musings were cut short, however, when the noble in the middle, spoke first.
“Greetings. You must be Bryan, the one who claims to be our prince.”
“I am,” Bryan confirmed, trying to remain as calm and collected as he could. “I was raised in Talgria, in the town of Narcoss. My father brought me there following Shigo’s attack and my mother’s death. I did not know of my heritage until fairly recently, when Shigo discovered that my father and I were still alive and pursued us.”
“I see. I take it that the man behind you is your father?”
“He is. He also told me that he is a Grand Duke of Astryn, and that we are the sole survivors of House Novat.”
“Just as Count Francois has reported. Now, I will introduce myself. I am Laris, head of the house of Maryn and a Grand Duke as well. The man on my left is Canus, the count of Jupea and head of the house of Yssev. And on my right is Tavon, the duke of Dathyl and head of the House of Annuvin. In addition, Duke Tavon serves as steward of Astryn’s throne until a new ruler is crowned. We three were chosen to represent the nobility of Astryn in this…investigation of your claims.”
“Hmph. You do realize that we will not simply let you approach one of our sacred weapons, don’t you?” Tavon rather testily inquired.
“Of course, I would expect no less. However, I am prepared to do anything I can to gain the nobles’ trust,” Bryan replied.
“Heh. Easier said than done, I’m afraid. How do we know you don’t just want to steal our weapons? There have been plenty who have tried. And, for that matter, how do we know you’re not some Red Claw or Meloran spy? There’s been no shortage of those either.”
Bryan then growled angrily. However, before he could retort, Canus stepped in. The count of Yssev regarded Tavon with obvious annoyance.
“Duke Tavon, hold your tongue. That is no way to treat guests.”
“In these troubled times, prudence outweighs courtesy. An enemy can be lurking behind anyone's face, even yours.”
“What?! Why you—!”
“Both of you, that’s enough,” Laris chastised. “Tavon, you would do well to hold your tongue. We cannot afford such unbecoming behavior during, as you yourself put it “trouble times.” Least of all can we afford it from one entrusted to safeguard our nation’s throne. Bryan, I must apologize. Tavon can be rather rash at times.”
Judging from the baleful glare Tavon had fixed upon both Laris and the young prince, Bryan suspected that Laris was understating the case a little.
“You should also know this, however,” Laris continued. “Although Tavon acts as steward, he is seeking the throne as well.”
“It is my right,” Tavon spoke, though more to Bryan than Laris. “If none other can prove themselves fit to become our new monarch, then I shall occupy the throne myself. And, I will, if your claims prove false.”
“That much, I must confess, is possible,” Laris admitted, his words seeming for both Tavon and Bryan.
Perhaps it was the soldier’s instinct, honed over Bryan’s career in Talgria’s army, which always alerted him whenever danger was near; or, maybe it was that baleful glare of Tavon’s which caused the hairs on Bryan’s neck to stand on end; possibly, it was the hint of urgency and warning in Laris’ admission that the throne could very well go to Tavon. Whatever the case, Bryan was suddenly and firmly convinced that Tavon ascending to the throne of Astryn would be a very, very bad turn of events.
“So I figured. What must I do to earn the honor of approaching Eronite?” Bryan inquired.
“Why, you will do that by proving yourself,” Laris replied. “Not only that you are trustworthy, but that you are prepared to serve this realm in its time of need. We have decided to send you on an important mission. By accomplishing it, you will not only prove yourself to be trustworthy, but that you are prepared to use your strength and skills in service to Astryn.”
“Alright. What is this mission, exactly?”
“We have recently received word that some hawk laguz, whom we wanted to hire for an important task, have been captured by the Red Claw. The information we have indicates that these hawks have been imprisoned in an occupied fort somewhere to the south, known as Fort Mercue. Your mission is to lead some of our soldiers as well as your own and rescue these laguz. In addition to your own troops, you will lead some of our soldiers as well. Through this mission, you will prove your trustworthiness not only to us, but to both our laguz allies and the kingdom’s soldiers. Only then will we allow you to touch Eronite and see if you are indeed our prince.”
“Fair enough. Which men will I be given command of?”
“General Eric and his men are the only elite warriors our army has left, so one of the dracoknight platoons will be accompanying you. And Eric, you shall go as well,” Laris decided. “We are all too aware of how dangerous the Red Claw can be, and we shall take no chances.”
“W-Wait, what?! Grand Duke Laris, please reconsider! This is preposterous!” Eric protested, vainly trying to hold back his anger.
Bryan merely grumbled. This mission just got a lot harder already.
“Eric, do you realize why we called you to this meeting?” Laris inquired, a sly grin crossing his features.
Eric’s burgeoning anger abruptly transformed into perplexity. Bryan was curious as well but, interestingly, a quirk had formed at the corner of Owen’s mouth; as though he rather liked the idea.
“…No, I don’t,” Eric admitted, his tone almost wary.
“Count Francois’ report mentioned the…difficulties you and Bryan have had with each other,” Canus explained. “We are aware, as are you, that the troops under your command are the only force of suitable caliber for this mission. What’s more, if Bryan is truly the prince, we feel it prudent that you and Bryan endeavor to come to terms with one another.”
Though Bryan had only known Eric for a few, unpleasant hours, he already knew how the wyvern general would react.
“Are you out of your—!” he blurted angrily, reining in his temper in mid-sentence and then continuing in a voice that was calmer, but no less harsh. “You ask me to place myself and my men under the command of a charlatan? You insult me and my men.”
Canus looked rather displeased with Eric’s words, but a warning glare from Laris silenced him.
“We are not ordering you to become friends,” Laris informed them, his tone firm enough to forestall any snide remarks. “However, we are advising that you should trust each other enough to be allies. Your mission, and many lives, may depend upon it.”
“…I see. Very well,” Eric complied reluctantly.
“Francois, would you mind joining them?” Canus added. “I believe that, prince or not, Bryan will have need of your help. Plus, I think it is obvious that there might be some additional tension along the way.”
“Not at all,” Francois agreed. “We’ll take Lady Armelle and Captain Olivia as well since they are already with us.”
“Excellent,” Laris replied. “Whatever happens, I pray you all return safely with our hawk mercenaries.”
“We will,” Bryan assured. “I’ll make sure of that.”
“Good luck,” Tavon replied, though there was a hint of sarcasm in his voice. “Heh heh, you’ll need it.”
Bryan growled again, this time grinding his jaw tightly to hold in a retort.
“Bryan,” Owen spoke up, sensing his son’s thoughts and adopting a firm tone to ensure that he stayed quiet. “Now, before we leave, may I request to see the old portrait you found? The one that depicts an unknown woman? I strongly believe she is Princess Caline; my late wife, my son’s mother, and Marion’s sister.”
“Hmm…” Laris contemplated. “Very well, but don’t be long. The rescue of those hawk mercenaries is an urgent matter.”
“Very well. Tavon, would you be so good as to go fetch the portrait?” Laris ordered. “Given your words and behavior earlier, I suspect the journey might help to cool your temper.”
“Grrr, fine,” Tavon reluctantly complied and disappeared through the doors behind the nobles.
The surly duke of Dathyl had not been gone for more than two seconds before Bryan spoke up.
“No offense, but I don’t trust him,” the prince opined, despite Owen’s warning glance.
“Neither do I,” Canus agreed, prompting a relieved sigh from Owen. “Grand Duke Laris, I realize that Tavon is within his rights to become king if no other proves themselves fit to occupy the throne. However, I must insist that we prevent that from ever happening.”
“Something is off about him, I agree,” Owen seconded, taking Canus’ words as an invitation for frankness.
“I’ll admit Tavon is rather harsh and hot-headed, but he has not done anything wrong,” Laris cautioned. “Still, we will keep an eye on him. I’ve found his behavior to be somewhat suspicious lately.”
“Fair enough,” Canus agreed.
Bryan spied Owen of the corner of his eye, his gaze conveying an unspoken question. Bryan’s instincts had already been prickled by Tavon, and Laris’s words had been less-than-reassuring. The prince suspected that “lately” had encompassed far more than this meeting. Owen seemed to catch his son’s thought, but discreetly shook his head, advising his son against asking any prying questions before having proven himself. Instead, both men nodded their agreement to Laris and Canus.
“If memory serves, though, you’re one of the strongest candidates for ascending the throne, Laris,” Francois pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be opposing Tavon as well?”
“Well, it is true that I am also in a position to claim the throne and that I do not believe Tavon is fit to be our king. But, truth be told, I’m not certain if the title of king is one that I’d like to gain,” Laris admitted. “I’m deeply honored that my colleagues have such faith in me, but I cannot be certain if I’m really suited for such a grave responsibility. Although, if there were no one else to challenge Tavon’s claim, I’d certainly do so. Someone has to rule, after all; and I do not trust Tavon to occupy the throne.”
“Ah, I see.”
Again, Bryan and Owen exchanged discreet glances. Laris’s admission about Tavon seemed to reinforce Bryan’s impression that the duke of Dathyl was dangerous, and the crease of Owen’s brow suggested that he had reached the same conclusion. Before either of the two men could ponder the matter further, Tavon himself reemerged from the large doors, carrying an old picture frame. He then handed it to Laris.
“Thank you, Tavon,” Laris said, though Tavon gave no reply. “Owen, I believe you wished to see this.”
“Thank you…” Owen replied and, with some trepidation, somberly took the portrait. He motioned for Bryan to come to his side as they beheld the image of a young and regal woman. She was one of the most beautiful women Bryan had ever seen; and as he suspected, she bore a strong resemblance to him. The woman had the same olive green hair and green eyes as Bryan. Part of her olive green locks was tied into a braided bun while the rest cascaded down her back in smaller braids. Tightly curled strands of hair spiraled downward in front of her ears and tickled her cheeks. She wore a blue evening gown enshrouded by a shawl of a darker azure shade, which was of royal bearing but without being gaudy. Aside from her wedding ring, Bryan saw little jewelry on her person. But, of those few pieces was one he knew very well. About her throat was the very same necklace Bryan had discovered behind a brick in Owen’s shop, confirming her identity as his mother and Princess Caline. A thin, gold coronet encircled her brow while her smile was pleasant and content, as though she was posthumously welcoming her family home.
“…It’s her,” Owen confirmed as he lowered his gaze and his eyes became glassy. “My dear wife… Oh, Caline… I miss you so…”
Tears brimmed in the somber Grand Duke’s eyes as he looked at the image of his wife for the first time in years, his grief over her passing now crashing upon him like a flood. Bryan brought a comforting hand to his father’s shoulder as Owen’s tears fell upon the portrait.
“Dad…” Bryan uttered, his tone soft but determined. “I’ll avenge her. I swear to you, Shigo will answer for her death on the blade of my lance. I can promise that.”
“I know, Bryan. …And, I thank you…so much.”
The three nobles had been watching the pair for some long moments, discreetly exchanging glances as they, no doubt, probed Bryan and Owen’s faces for any sign of duplicity. Tavon, unsurprisingly, was unimpressed by Owen’s display of grief, while Laris and Canus seemed cautiously intrigued.
“Such grief is difficult to feign,” Laris spoke up. “Still, it does not prove that this woman was indeed a princess, I’m afraid.”
“We understand,” Bryan replied. “But, I can prove the truth of my words, and that’s what I’m going to do. I will not fail the mission you’ve given me.”
“And, I wish you good luck.”
“As do I,” Canus added.
Bryan nodded appreciatively. With that, he and the others departed the palace to rejoin their comrades.
“Well,” Eric replied once they were outside the main gates again, folding his arms. “If those dimwits think I’m going to just let this so-called princeling command my men, then they need a sharp kick in the ass!”
Bryan, his emotions still raw from seeing the state of Medann and the image of a mother he’d never known, wheeled on Eric and might’ve struck him if Owen hadn’t snatched his forearm.
“If you are so anxious to fight, save it for the Red Claw,” Owen admonished.
“Eric…” Francois said with a sigh. “Your antipathy towards Bryan is no secret, and it is understandable. However, we cannot afford to make enemies amongst ourselves if our mission is to succeed. Can you not give him a chance, if only so that we can accomplish our mission?”
“No. But, since he and I still need to settle our score, I am willing to make a deal.”
“Fine with me,” Bryan agreed, also folding his arms. “What did you have in mind?”
“A duel,” Eric replied, un-slinging his axe. “If you can defeat me, then I’ll let you command some of my men. But if I win, well, then I guess you’re screwed.”
Bryan, his patience with the wyvern general long since exhausted, hardly needed the encouragement.
“Heh. Alright then, you’re on,” he agreed.
With that, Bryan un-slung his lance and shield and motioned for everyone to step back so that the two combatants could battle without injuring the spectators. Francois then relayed to Azura and the rest of the group what had occured in the palace. As Eric and Bryan assumed battle stances, Faline approached Skye. Her eyes were filled with concern as she watched the combatants unblinkingly.
“Skye, I don’t like this,” she spoke up. “Even if Bryan does win, he could get seriously injured.”
“I know, Faline, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” Skye replied, his smile broad with confidence. “He’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Hey, this is Bryan we’re talking about here. You know as well as I do that many regard him as one of the best lancers in the Talgrian army. In fact, some even say he and General William are evenly matched now. So yeah, I’m definitely sure.”
Faline then recalled the tales she had heard about William and his prowess. Everyone called him the Lion of Talgria, or as an affectionate nickname, the Bear, due to his brute strength, resilience to injury, and relentlessness. Bryan became the mighty warrior known as the Emerald Sentinel only recently, during the course of the war. Yet, Bryan’s fame was already spreading far and wide, and Faline had seen first-hand that the tales about him were not exaggerated. Skye was definitely right. If Bryan and William were to have a similar duel, the two would wage an epic battle. Still, Faline didn’t quite share Skye’s confidence. She knew Bryan was a very skilled lancer, but this didn’t stop her from worrying when her love was in danger. What’s more, skill alone might not decide a battle. Though Eric didn't bring his winged mount into this contest, being earthbound hardly made him defenseless. Eric was clearly taller, and likely physically stronger, than Bryan; and that could give the surly wyvern rider an edge. He was probably faster as well, since Bryan wore heavier armor and carried a shield whereas Eric’s armor, designed for use in flight, was lighter and would afford him greater mobility. What’s more, Eric wielded an axe, which held a clear advantage over Bryan’s lance. Then again, while Bryan had already attained the rank of Sentinel, Eric was not yet a Dragonlord, which could possibly even the odds. Faline then smiled and decided there was only one thing she needed to do.
“Bryan! You can win! No one has ever beaten you in a battle, and no one ever will!” she cheered.
“That’s right! Show this idiot who’s boss!” Skye added.
Eric snarled while Bryan, wearing a grin to match Skye’s, turned to wink at his lover and best friend. Armelle, however, sighed and approached Eric. She laid a hand on his shoulder and, when Eric turned to face her, Bryan could swear that Eric was almost happy to see her.
“Eric, really, is this necessary?” she worriedly inquired. “I don’t want either of you two to get hurt at a time like this.”
That ghost of pleasure on Eric’s face vanished but, curiously, he did not seem angry at her words.
“Sorry, Armelle, he replied, his tone hovering somewhere between gentle and firm, “but I will not take orders from this fool unless he can prove himself to be my superior. I will not allow my men follow a weaker commander than I.”
“Sigh… Alright. I guess I can’t stop you.”
That nearly invisible smile crossed Eric's face again as he rested a hand over Armelle’s. Bryan’s eyebrow arched at this exchange, but Armelle quickly withdrew to the sidelines. With that, Eric turned to face Bryan once more. The two reassumed their stances and began to circle one another, each observing the other’s movements with a discerning eye for several long moments. Finally, with jarring abruptness, they charged at one another. When he closed the distance between himself and Bryan, Eric drew back his poleax and went into a spin, the blade cleaving the air in a whirl of deadly steel. Bryan, at first, appeared as if he was about to try and brave the whirling blade to retaliate with his lance, but he instead brought up his shield. The blade of Eric’s poleax ground against the shield with a discordant shrieking, the sudden impact knocking the Dragonmaster backwards and almost off balance. Bryan thrust his shield forward, catching the poleax’s shaft and spinning Eric again…leaving his back exposed.
Eric, however, managed to recover from the shock of Bryan's attack. He thrust the pommel of his poleax behind him, the blunt, heavy metal ramming into Bryan's chest plate. His armor absorbed the blow, but the impact sent Bryan stumbling backwards and bought Eric the time he needed to regain his stance.
“Not bad,” the wyvern general commended. “I might have very well underestimated you.”
“Heh. Believe me, there’s more where that came from,” Bryan replied. “They call me the Emerald Sentinel in Cilae and Talgria, you know.”
“Ha, spare me your prattle. Let’s see you for once back up your words.”
With that, the two combatants clashed once more. Eric’s poleax ground against the blade of Bryan’s lance relentlessly. Eric slashed, thrust, sliced and lunged with blade and pommel in a continuous, unbroken onslaught, seeking to find a weakness in Bryan’s defenses. Yet, no matter the speed or angle with which he swung his axe, Bryan deflected every blow easily. His shield and lance wove and danced in perfect harmony, allowing none of Eric’s blows to slip past. Bryan, on the other hand, had managed to knock back Eric’s axe with a swing from his shield and to ram his lance’s pommel into Eric’s gut. Despite that success, the prince had to admit Eric was putting up a good fight. The rapid and unpredictable rain of blows from Eris wasn’t giving Bryan many opportunities to strike at all; the opening which the prince had created had been as much a product of luck as of skill. As their bout continued, Eric drew back his poleax for an overhead strike. Bryan brought up his shield to deflect it when, suddenly, the Dragonmaster angled his swing to sweep at an angle, across Bryan’s shield arm instead. The blade slide into a gap in Bryan’s bracers and tore into his forearm and, in the split second while Bryan was thrown off balance by the pain, Eric struck. He swung his poleax so that the notch between blade and shaft caught hold of the side of Bryan’s shield and, with a mighty heave, Eric tore it free from the prince’s hand. The shield clattered across the ground, and Eric quickly darted over to block Bryan from reclaiming it. Faline gasped fearfully, knowing full well that, without his shield, Bryan was now at a far greater disadvantage. Bryan, having heard his lover’s gasp, turned to her and grinned.
“Heh, don’t worry, Faline,” he assured. “This is just a minor setback.”
Faline, despite an answering smile, wrung her hands and tried to calm her racing heart, hoping that her lover was right.
“You’re still talking a good game, but let’s see you back it up for change!” Eric spat and lunged at Bryan again. The prince, however, ducked and twisted in order to avoid the axe’s blade as it clove the air about him time and again. To the perplexity of the onlookers, he rarely brought up his lance to deflect any blows and made no move to counterattack. Eric, red faced from aggravation, drew back his poleax and swept it at Bryan’s ankles, forcing him to jump. But, that attack had been a feint, for the Dragonmaster swept a leg at Bryan as he landed, causing the prince to topple to the ground. Eric loomed over the fallen prince, his poleaxe drawn back for a final overhead swing. Faline and Skye froze where they stood, stunned with disbelief at the thought that Bryan was actually defeated. Eric, smirking contemptuously, loomed over the fallen prince.
“This was fun,” he remarked, not bothering to hide his disdain. “Still, as they say, “may the best man win.””
“True,” Bryan replied, almost smugly, which sparked fresh anger in the dragonmaster.
The poleax’s blade whistled through the air as it swung towards Bryan. Suddenly, as fast as lightning, the prince brought up his weapon and caught Eric’s axe in the deep notch of the brave lance’s forked blade. Faline’s jaw dropped while Skye’s eyes nearly popped out of his skull. Eric, blanching as he realized the trap he'd just been snared in, bore down upon Bryan with all his might, but Bryan held back his foe’s blade. The deadlock, and the battle, ended with astonishing suddenness as Bryan swiftly jerked his lance to the right, forcing Eric’s axe to spring out of his hand and spin until its pommel slammed into the wyvern rider’s jaw. Eric staggered backwards, the axe falling from his slackening grip, and Bryan sprang to his feet.
The prince then leaped into the air and spun into a wheel kick, striking the now-disarmed Eric in the chest and sending him crashing to the ground. The prince rushed over to the fallen wyvern rider and leveled his lance at his enemy’s throat. Eric, gaping in astonishment, merely stared at him, his breathing heavy and fast.
“Well…” he panted. “Like I said, “may the best man win.” I admit defeat.”
Bryan simply smiled and withdrew his lance, allowing Eric to rise.
“Well, you put up a good fight,” he replied. “Not many flyers will fight on foot, and you nearly had me with that ankle sweep. I look forward to us fighting on the same side.”
Despite Bryan’s attempt at being civil, Eric looked as though he did not share the victorious prince’s sentiments.
“Hey, Bryan!” Skye called out excitedly as he ran over to his friend, followed by Azura, Owen, and an ecstatic Faline. “Man! Way to go! That trick with the lance’s blade was awesome!”
“Aw, it was nothing,” Bryan bashfully replied.
“It certainly was not!” Faline denied. “Bryan, you’re just the best!”
Faline threw herself at her lover as she spoke her words, clasping her arms around his neck and planting a very moist kiss on his cheek.
“Heh,” Bryan commented, his cheeks turning pink. “Thanks, Faline.”
“Yeah, keep this up, and Shigo will be running for the hills!” Azura exclaimed.
“I will agree, you’ve come such a long way, Bryan,” Owen complimented. “I think even William would be sorely pressed to hold onto his title if he faced my son in a spar now.”
“Aw, Dad…” Bryan bashfully replied. “Thanks, you guys.”
Bryan, still quite pink from the praise, turned to face Eric. The wyvern rider was back on his feet, a flustered Armelle fussing over him like a mother hen. Interestingly, Eric looked more amused than annoyed at Armelle’s fretful behavior. But, when he met Bryan’s gaze, his humor vanished and his lips twisted into a scowl.
“I’ll admit, you are strong,” Eric conceded. “And, as promised, you may command some of my men. Temporarily, mind you. I will follow your orders as well. But don’t think this means we’re friends. You may be a competent fighter, but we’ve got a long way to go before I give you any more respect than that.”
With that, the Dragonmaster retrieved his poleax and stalked off. Bryan merely grumbled in annoyance, knowing that Eric’s ambivalence could become a serious issue during the mission if the wyvern rider continued to let his distrust get the better of him. And, admittedly, Bryan had much the same problem. If not for Owen’s intervention, the “duel” would have begun much sooner...and been far less civilized. Still, neither meant that Bryan couldn’t gain the trust of the troops serving under the surly Dragonmaster. If he could achieve that, he would, indeed, achieve a great deal. For the time being, that would have to be his focus.
Once Eric had his injuries healed, he gathered a platoon of dracoknights. After giving them a quick briefing, in which he studiously avoided mentioning Bryan, Eric led the platoon to accompany the group to Fort Mercue. Bryan, deciding that speaking to Eric would be inadvisable, looked to Francois to act as a guide. And thankfully, the Thunder Sage knew exactly how to get there. It wouldn’t take more than a few hours on foot, he had explained, and this relieved Bryan. He wanted to complete the mission entrusted to him by the nobles had with all possible speed. His instinctual distrust of Tavon had yet to diminish, and Bryan wanted to ensure that the duke of Dathyl would have too little time for any mischief while Bryan was gone. What’s more, though there was still no sign that Shigo had begun his expected attack on Astryn, he could do so at any time. It was only a question of where and when.
As Bryan contemplated that matter, however, he realized that it was quite strange that Shigo hadn’t launched his invasion of Astryn already. Bryan recalled the words of the Red Claw commander he had encountered earlier. The Red Claw had let slip that Shigo had broken ranks with Melora, and that the rumors about Bryan’s death had been meant for Shigo as much as for the people of Astryn. Could Shigo have fallen for the ruse? Bryan quickly discarded that notion. Shigo was many things, but he clearly wasn’t stupid. So, why was he waiting when doing so only allowed Bryan a chance to strengthen the country? What is he waiting for? The last time I saw him, the dastard was power-hungry and acted like he would attack as soon as he had the chance, Bryan recalled in his thoughts. Yet, he’s had plenty of chances to do so, and he hasn’t. This doesn’t make any sense… After a minute or so, the only thing Bryan could decide was that he would find out in due time.
During the journey, Azura decided to converse a little more with Zarek, since she had not had much of an opportunity to do so since he had joined the group. She always liked to learn a little bit about the soldiers she was commanding, as it made it easier for her to trust them, as well as the reverse, and to ensure loyal to her. And Zarek proved just that when he began explaining his reasons for joining her.
“Ah, so you’re repaying us for rescuing your grandfather at Fort Absolon?” Azura inquired.
“That’s right. I needed to get him home as quickly as I could though, and that’s why it took me so long to catch up to you,” Zarek continued. “See, Grandpa is old and ailing, and it was a miracle that he didn’t get worse from being crammed in a dirty prison cell, let alone end up catching that gross infection that went around in the fort. I just need to earn enough money so I can afford the medicine he needs. Grandpa was the one who raised me after my parents were killed in the last war, and he trained me in the way of the axe. I want to use those skills to help him, and whoever else I can.”
“I see. You’re a wonderful grandson to him, then,” Azura complemented with a smile. “I’d be more than happy to let you fight for us so that you can help him.”
“You are too kind. Thank you, milady.”
No more than a heartbeat later, Lily came rushing over, a happy smile on her face. Azura was pleased at the sight, as it seemed that ever since Zarek appeared, the young Fire Sage was happier than before, despite the war and the death of her father.
“Zarek! Hey there, handsome!” Lily greeted flirtatiously.
“Uh…oh. Hi, Lily,” Zarek reluctantly returned, nervously eyeing Lily’s fire tome.
“What’s up? You alright?”
“Yeah, it’s just…uh, you surprised me.”
“Oh, sorry! I just thought we’d spend a bit of time together,” Lily replied with a big smile. “You seem like a great guy!”
“Er, thanks, but I was going to talk some more with Lady Azura. I’m still confused about what’s going on.”
That was only partially true. Zarek already had a rough idea about Astryn’s situation and some notion of where they were going and why, but he had a feeling he would not enjoy Lily’s company for long…if at all. She was certainly adorable, but Zarek was leery after she’d nearly charbroiled him when they first met.
“Really? I could tell you what you need to know! Come on, I wanna get to know you better!”
“Well, I can see you’re all tied up here, Zarek, so we’ll talk later, alright?” Azura replied with a deceptively innocent smile. “Bye!”
“Huh? W-Wait! Milady!” Zarek called back as Azura walked away. He had a strong feeling that she had actually left him with Lily on purpose. That musing prompting him to mumble under his breath something to the effect of “hazard pay.”
“Oh, Zarek, you’re silly! Come on!” Lily gleefully insisted and yanked the axe fighter after her by the arm. Some of the dracoknights nearby began snickering at his predicament.
“Daah! H-Hey!” Zarek protested. Lily, however, wouldn’t let him go. Damn it. I just know this girl is going to annoy and embarrass the hell out of me…I almost wish she did charbroil me!
Sometime later, Fort Mercue came into view at last. As Bryan had suspected, it heavily resembled a keep with a fortified wall, perfect for housing prisoners. Its front gate was huge and locked tight while the outer stone walls looked so thick and heavily reinforced that not even the most powerful catapults or the largest battering rams would probably not breach them. This concerned Bryan, as he wondered just how the troops would get in to rescue the captive hawk laguz. Eliminating the Red Claw members that were patrolling the area was one thing, but getting through the massive gate and walls was going to be a different matter entirely, since the Red Claw could simply wall themselves in and wait out the army. Francois, noting Bryan’s consternation, explained that the fort was built thusly to serve as a prison and that the walls and gates kept the prisoners from escaping, as they were no less impregnable on the inside. It was extremely rare for one to ever succeed in escaping Fort Mercue.
“You see, Astryn Palace, as large as it may be, has no dungeon of its own,” Francois continued. “This is one of the differences between a castle and a palace. Castles always have dungeons, but palaces typically do not. There are exceptions, of course, but unlike a castle, a palace mainly serves as a home for nobles or royals rather than a defensive fortress or a staging area for soldiers and knights. So, to compensate for the lack of a dungeon, multiple forts that also double as prisons were built around the nation. The others also have such fortified walls and gates, to prevent jailbreaks from within as well as from without.”
“Oh wow, I had no idea. Shows how much I know about being a prince…” Bryan replied with a self-depreciating tone.
“There is no need to worry. There are many royals and nobles that have much to learn, but no time to do so,” Francois assured. “Some people born into nobility never even get chosen for a single title.”
“Like that cowardly son of Novat that my father told me about.”
“…But tell me something, Francois. Do you actually believe me when I say I’m the prince of Astryn? You told me you think I’m trustworthy but, on the other hand, you also said that my story is hard to accept.”
“Hmm… To tell you the truth, I haven’t decided. It’s been most difficult for me to make decisions these days due to the state this country is in. The problems we face seem to know no limits; be it in depth, complexity, size or in number. And what’s worse, I was only recently granted the title of count of Urae a few years ago, so I have little experience as of yet. Before then, Queen Marion was quite reluctant to let anyone rule Urae, so I was also faced with the additional task of rebuilding the province from the ground up.”
“Oh. I see. I don’t blame you. It has to be hard for anyone to make the right decision in times like these. If Tavon was right about anything back at the palace, it was when he said that anyone could be an enemy right now. With the Red Claw and Melora all over the continent, it can be quite difficult to determine who, if anybody, can be trusted. But I assure you, I want to do anything, and everything, I can to help Astryn.”
“Hm. You are quite right. And what’s more? I think I do believe you now. You seem to be an honorable man and your words hold clear conviction. These are the signs of an ally worth having.”
“Heh. Thanks, Francois. That means a lot to me.”
“You’re very welcome…my prince.”
“Hey, if you two are done over there, can we please start forming a strategy?” Eric angrily interrupted. “I think we all know that trying to break through those walls would work about as well as trying to move Mount Trito Mons.”
“Ah, right. How exactly are we supposed to get in there, Francois?” Bryan inquired.
“Well, obviously, we have to get rid of the Red Claw first,” Francois began. “But, as for how to get in, there are two entrances on either side of the fort. Each one consists of an outer gate and an inner gate. The outer gates we can get through without much trouble since they are locked from the outside. The inner gates, however, are locked from the inside, so our best chance is to have one of the wyverns fly over to one of the inner gates and open it for the rest of us.”
“Alright, then that’s what we’ll do. Two dracoknights will take care of unlocking one of the inner gates while the rest of us deal with the Red Claw and the corresponding outer gate,” Bryan decided. “Eric, you can choose who goes for the inner gate.”
“Fine by me,” Eric replied.
“Just one more question before we get started,” Bryan continued. “What are those small towers scattered outside for? I think I’ve seen them a few times in Cilae and Talgria. Are they some kind of lookout tower?”
“Ah, those are assault towers,” Francois explained. “They’re an invention of Cilae’s, believe it or not. Perhaps Cilae would have fared better, had they built these towers in the same quantities as we and Talgria have. Anyway, assault towers are much like your typical lookout towers, only these feature what the Cilaeans call “modular design.” Simply put, they consist of a number of small, portable sections, allowing them to be assembled, disassembled, transported, and then reassembled in a timely fashion. Although this means that they’re much easier to destroy than normal lookout towers, assault towers have their compensations. They can not only be used by archers, but also by mages and anyone else who can attack from medium to long range. Even mounted units can dismount temporarily and go inside to attack from one of the windows at the top. The tower features embrasures for firing arrows and throwing javelins, knives and hand axes, as well as casting spells. The tower, however, can be a bit confining, so one using hand axes might have a rough time of it, unless he can make the throw using a vertical motion, rather than horizontal. Being in a tower also gives archers a greater range, thanks to the elevation. The units inside cannot be attacked until they leave the tower or the tower itself is destroyed. That is, unless someone in a different tower is in range. An assault tower can accommodate up to four units at a time. There’s simply not enough room for any more.”
“I see. Those towers sound really handy.”
“They certainly are. However, if an assault tower is destroyed while someone is inside it, that unit will surely suffer serious injury…if they manage to get out alive. Also, a healer obviously cannot go inside a tower to heal an ally if there are already four people inside, so be careful when using them. Although, a healer can heal units inside a tower from the outside, but only with a Physic staff.”
“Alright, got it.”
“Great. Oh, and one last thing. If a staff wielder has a Hammerne, the staff that has the ability to repair weapons, it can also repair damaged assault towers.”
“Ah, then we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for those. Now, let’s take that fort back!”
With that, the group rushed forth and began the attack. The Red Claw members, whom were caught unawares, were soon pinned against the wall and were being picked off one by one. Bryan, meanwhile, ordered Skye and Lily to rush into one of the vacant assault towers as quickly as they could. This would increase the advantage the army already held, and prove invaluable if the Red Claw in the fort came out to counterattack or if enemy reinforcements arrived. Soren also headed inside another tower and was soon followed by Francois, as well as Kye, whom had earlier obtained some knives from Ryin. The others did their best to prevent the Red Claw from reaching the towers, either to destroy the ones the army was using or to make use of the unclaimed ones. Unfortunately, it seemed that not all of the Red Claw had been taken by surprise. A few of the towers already contained enemies. This meant that the only way these adversaries could be defeated is if the tower was taken down or the Red Claw members were forced out beforehand. Still, Bryan and Azura decided that they much preferred using these towers instead of destroying them. They were excellent offensive weapons, but they were also capable of protecting vulnerable units like archers and mages. The towers themselves simply needed to be guarded from enemy attacks.
However, though the Red Claw was caught off guard, they quickly recovered and began to put up stiff resistance. The two dracoknights Eric ordered to get the inner gate open had difficulty even looking for a hole in the enemy’s defense, much less finding one. Everywhere they flew, they were spotted and attacked by the enemies manning the assault towers. Though the dracoknights were able to avoid being hit, their luck might change for the worse at any time. Bryan then grumbled and began contemplating what to do. If he had some of his troops attack the towers held by the Red Claw, and the enemies near them, then the other towers held by his allies could be left unprotected. To compound his worry, more Red Claw emerged from another side of the fort and charged towards Marc, Leona, and several other troops guarding Skye and Lily’s tower. Fire from the towers whittled down the enemy, but the Red Claw reached Marc and Leona. Both knights were forced into combat, as were the rest of their comrades soon after.
With the Allied troops below them distracted, a few more Red Claw members broke away from the combat and went straight for the tower. Skye cursed at this reversal of fortune. The embrasure was too small for him to squeeze through, so he could not possibly fire an arrow straight down at the enemy. He hoped desperately that Lily had a plan. She had been about to cast an Elfire spell when the tower suddenly shook violently.
“Aaah!” Lily cried as she and Skye were slammed against the wall.
“Blast! Lily, we’ve got to get out of here now!” Skye insisted desperately and helped her to her feet.
Bryan and Azura both gasped when they realized what was happening. Unfortunately, both were too far away to be of much help. Skye and Lily attempted to start down the ladder that led to the ground, but before they could, the tower shook once again before they could escape. And this time, the tower succumbed. It began to collapse, and though Skye was able to jump down the ladder, his hand slipped from Lily’s, forcing her to be thrown right toward a nearby embrasure. Though Skye could not squeeze through such a small opening, the tiny fire sage flew straight through the rounded hole and plummeted to earth. Her piercing scream echoed throughout the entire area. Raela turned in the direction of the sound and, seeing her sister's peril, blanched with terror.
“LILY, NO!” she shouted in undisguised horror.
“LILY, HANG ON!” Zarek shouted and rushed beneath the falling fire sage as fast as he could. I just know I’m going to regret this…
Just seconds before Lily could hit the ground, Zarek came to a screeching halt below her. She landed safely in his arms, though the impact caused him to topple over. Lily fixed Zarek with a very grateful, and very flirtatious, smile which caused Zarek to grimace. Before they could get up, however, they found three Red Claw members standing over them; a fighter, a myrmidon, and a mage, all looking very pleased at the easy pickings they’d discovered. Their delight, however, came to an abrupt end when an arrow struck the swordsman in the back of the head while two red shockwaves clove into the other two, one right after the other. All three Red Claw crumbled, dead before the even hit the ground. Skye and Raela then rushed over, the latter dismounting from her horse and racing over.
“Are you guys okay?!” Skye inquired.
“Lily! Are you alright?!” Raela added breathlessly.
“Yeah, thanks to Zarek!” Lily assured joyously, despite that the battle was still not over.
“Yeah… Can you let me up now?” Zarek queried, more than a hint of annoyance in his tone.
“Oh! Sorry!” Lily gasped and quickly scrambled off of him. She then threw her arms around his neck ecstatically.
“Oh, Zarek! Thank you so much for saving me! I’ll never forget this!” she exclaimed and instantly smooched the axe fighter’s cheek. If Zarek had not already been lying prone, the shock would have likely knocked him clean off his feet. His expression also crumbled into slack jawed stupefaction. Once again, some of the other troops noticed and began to snicker. Zarek, recovering enough of his composure to feel angry, merely grumbled and glared at them as his cheeks turned a rosy red with embarrassment.
“Zarek, I’m so grateful that you saved my sister,” Raela spoke up, hugging him and prompting a bemused stare from Skye. “Thank you.”
“Ah, it was nothing. Just doing what I came here to do,” Zarek replied. “I wish those dirtbags over there would shut up, though.”
Before anyone could say anything more, Azura and Bryan rushed over.
“Whoa, I’m glad to see you guys are alright!” Bryan panted. “Zarek, right? Great timing there.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what we would’ve done if you hadn’t stepped in,” Azura added.
“Heh, I guess. No problem,” Zarek replied.
“…Well, Ike and Morris just took out the towers which the Red Claw held, so it’s time we wrapped this battle up,” Bryan decided.
Everyone nodded and raced to rejoin the combat. Bryan, by now, saw that the battle had taken a turn for the worse. The Red Claw here had put up a better fight than he’d expected, and he was growing increasingly desperate to tilt the odds back in his favor. Still, no matter what happened, he had to finish off the enemy and rescue those hawk mercenaries. He needed them and the Astrynian dracoknights to have faith in him, and being thrown back by the Red Claw would not inspire faith in the prince. No matter the time or cost, he had to prevail. The fate of his mission to prove that he was the heir to the throne depended upon it.