And chapter 28!
Chapter 28: Breaking the Barrier
“Damn it, Bryan! Now look what you’ve done!” Skye thundered angrily. “We’re completely surrounded and outnumbered!”***
“Hey, I wasn’t exactly expecting to fight against my own people, Skye!” Bryan retorted as he readied his lance and shield. “Besides, I was trying to be reasonable!”
“By goddess-damn provoking him?! You have the diplomatic instinct of a pile of cordwood!”
“Guys, come on. This is the worst time to be arguing,” Marc cut in before Bryan could retaliate.
“Yeah, and I’m sure you all remember the last time this happened in the middle of a battle,” Azura added, a bitter edge in her tone as she recalled what happened to Leyon.
“True…” Skye replied with a sigh.
“…Yeah, I apologize. We’ve got a long way to go if we’re going do what we set out to do here. So, let’s get started and teach these thugs a lesson,” Bryan agreed.
“Ha, yer gonna need more than that to beat me ‘n me mates!” the vigilante retorted with a sneer.
Bryan merely snarled as he hefted his lance, wordlessly daring the enemy to attack. The rest of the group scrambled to take up defensive positions, the infantry forming a wedge around the healers and mages, fighting to fend off the bandits assailing their defenses. Meanwhile, the knights and wolves scattered and wove into the enemy, clashing with whichever bandits crossed their paths. Luckily, the bandits had been too complacent to press their initial advantage and, thus, Azura’s defenses held. Bryan, who was at the tip of the ‘wedge,’ however, couldn’t help but feel even more ill at ease at this latest turn of events. He had known that Astryn was in dire straits and, though Astrynian Pegasus knights joining the Red Claw probably should have been a warning sign, this had taken him entirely by surprise. That these traitors didn’t believe that he was their prince hardly bothered Bryan, but what if they were not the last? What if, amongst the people of Astryn, these were only the first of many who didn’t believe his claim? Even worse, what if other Astryninans had defected to the Red Claw just as these vigilantes had? Whatever the case, something needed to be done about it, and fast. Once this battle was finished, Bryan vowed he would make certain of that.
Meanwhile, not more than a swallow’s flight away, a warrior garbed in purple armor astride a white warhorse tore through the gate of an old Astrynian fort. Once he brought his steed to a jerking halt at the gates, Commander Dougal quickly dismounted and barged inside, his features tight with anxiety. As sweat trickled down his brow and dampened his dark hair, the paladin quickly approached a patrolling soldier and inquired about Shigo’s whereabouts. After learning that his superior officer was in the training ground behind the fort’s keep, Dougal raced there as fast as his legs could carry him. He seriously considered running somewhere else, anywhere else, for he rather doubted that the general would be pleased at this news. Gulping audibly, he approached Shigo and hoped for the best.
“G-General Shigo! I apologize for intruding, Sir, but—” Dougal began when he rushed outside, but was interrupted.
“Ah, Dougal. Relax, I already told you that you’ve gained my trust,” Shigo reminded him as he finished a powerful, flourishing strike with his silver blade which made Dougal blanch all the more. “Though, I’ll admit I was just getting into the heat of the moment there.”
“Yeah, but I know you don’t like having your training sessions get interrupted…”
“Well, never mind that. What are you here for?”
“Oh, I-I’m afraid I bring bad news. The scout commander just reported something disturbing. Apparently, th-there’s a rumor going around that Prince Bryan was killed in Keanu.”
“…WHAT?!” Shigo thundered, nearly grabbing Dougal by the collar of his tunic. “What do you mean?!”
“W-Well, the scout commander said that his men overheard some talk from the locals. Apparently, there w-was a Red Claw double-agent in Cilae. He’d been working to trick the Cilaeans into thinking Prince Bryan was a traitor. They s-say that, a few days ago, the Cilaeans found and executed him. We d-don’t know anything else, I swear!”
At this, Shigo nearly exploded.
“DAMN IT! He’d better be alive or else Isis and the others will regret ever ruining my plans! Bryan is my fight and mine alone!”
“Yes, Sir. But, if I may ask, what do we do now?” Dougal inquired.
“For now, we gather information,” Shigo replied, though still fuming with anger. “We have little, if any, proof that Bryan is really dead. I want more scouts to be sent out, to keep their ears open for news. They are to write down what they hear and bring it to me directly. I will look over what these rumors say, to see if there are any…discrepancies.”
“So, you believe Prince Bryan is still alive?”
“Yes, I do. But, if these rumors turn out to be true, then we must adjust our plans accordingly. See to it that the scouts gather every bit of information they can get. And, should they sight Bryan himself, they are not to engage him. They are to report his location to me immediately. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, Sir. And I will do everything I can to ensure that this is accomplished.”
“Excellent. The scouts didn’t blow their cover, did they?”
“No, nobody even knows we’re here yet. It’s amazing how we managed to slip an entire army past the Astrynians without them noticing. General Shigo, you are a true genius.”
“Thank you very much, Dougal; though, given the lackluster state of Astryn’s defenses these days, I must consider myself over-praised by that remark. Still, the question remains… If Bryan is dead, then this whole campaign will have been for nothing.”
“I-I’m sure you’re right, Sir. About him likely being alive, that is. Isis surely knows we’ve broken ranks with her by now, and that Astryn entering the war would be a serious setback to Melora’s plans. This could just be an attempt to kill two Pegasi with one arrow, by throwing us off and keeping Astryn out of the fighting. Astryn is already in a big slump as it is, so it would be easy to make them believe such tales, with or without proof.”
“My thoughts exactly. Should these rumors prove false, then we stick to our original plan. If Bryan is alive, then all we have to do is wait for him to appear and make his move.”
While Shigo and Dougal discussed this troubling tale, and would doubtless be shocked at how close at hand their prey was, Azura and Bryan’s army struggled against the oncoming Red Claw assault. The leader of the vigilantes hadn’t been bluffing about bringing along “plenty” of friends, for it seemed that for every two of them that was defeated, three more took their place. Worse still, many of them were seasoned warriors. There were Paladins, Warriors, Snipers, Sages, Swordmasters, Halberdiers, and all manner of promoted beorc soldiers. Also among them were more wolf and raven laguz, as well as hawk laguz this time. This was most troubling. Bryan recalled his earlier theory that the Red Claw might be recruiting laguz bandits into their ranks, and Leyon’s theory that the Red Claw could also be forcing laguz to fight for them, but the presence of hawks worried him. This could mean that either some of the hawks had defected as well, or they were simply hired to fight alongside the Red Claw. That was the best case; the worst case was that the allegiance of Recathe, as a whole, had already been bought by Melora. Bryan shuddered at the prospect, but shook himself back to attention. Whatever the case, it was unacceptable. And Bryan knew that the Astrynians would need the help of as many hawk and dragon laguz as possible if their country was to be fully restored to her former glory. If Recathe had joined Melora, or was at least considering doing so, maybe a successful campaign in Astryn would get them to change their minds.
As the battle wore on, Bryan and Azura’s group continued to clash with the veritable army of Red Claw. Their phalanx was holding up but, against the relentless onslaught, Azura feared it would buckle under the strain. And, if that happened, it was over. Desperately, she ordered the phalanx to divide into several smaller, diamond formations in order to force the Red Claw to divide their offensive in turn. Unnoticed by both sides, however, another combatant had joined the fray. He was a sea green-haired man garbed in grayish blue pants and a gold and brown shirt and carrying an axe. He had arrived on the battlefield via another road into town, and looked as though fresh from a very long journey. He soon came to a halt, panting as he caught his breath from his travels and bringing a hand to his slightly bloodied upper right arm.
“Finally… I’ve caught up to them…” the man gasped to himself. “Hopefully, they won’t mind me helping out.”
The young man began to make his way towards Azura’s phalanxes but, before he could call out to the embattled earl or her troops, Lily caught sight of him. After defeating a hawk laguz with a wind spell, she waved him over.
“Why, hello there handsome!” she greeted with a smile.
The axe fighter, jogged over, as close to the fire sage as he could manage, and then skidded to a panting halt.
“Whew!” he gasped out. “I finally caught up with you guys! It took me a while, but it’s good to be here.”
“I agree,” Lily replied, whipping out a fire tome. “Now, please hold still.”
Realizing her intent, the axe fighter blanched and his words became frantic.
“NO! DON’T! I’m here to help you!”
Lily appeared skeptical, and her fire tome began to glow with arcane might.
“You saved my grandfather at Fort Absolon,” the mildly terrified axe fighter explained, though his words were all coming out in a rush. “After I made sure he was well, I came here to pay my debt. I want to join Lady Azura’s army…and I don’t want to be charbroiled!”
Lily’s expression softened just a bit, but she lowered her tome.
“We’ll see if you mean it. My name’s Lily. Who might you be, handsome?”
“Uh…I’m Zarek,” the man replied. “I’ve been chasing after you guys for days, maybe weeks. And, I was wondering if I could help out here.”
“Oh, I’m sure Bryan and Lady Azura wouldn’t mind. And we practically need all the help we can get right now!” Lily pointed out, gesturing towards the fierce battle.
“I see. I’ll do what I can, then,” Zarek replied, readying his axe.
“Great! …Oh dear, you’re hurt, Zarek!” Lily gasped, taking note of the axe fighter’s bloody arm. “Don’t worry, I can get my sister to heal you right up, handsome! I’m afraid I’m not too good with a staff myself just yet…”
“Oh, um, thanks…”
With that, Lily yanked Zarek into the chaos and searched for Raela. Unfortunately, Zarek was far from alone in needing Raela’s aid. Many of the others had sustained injuries as well, and both Raela and Norman continuously had their hands full. Though Zarek’s wound was eventually healed, the Red Claw was not letting up. Several of Azura’s formations had either been forced back or had shattered, with troops frantically retreating to regroup and to avoid being surrounded and hacked to pieces. Bryan’s formation, in particular, was being heavily assailed. Soon enough, the formation crumbled and, Bryan found himself alone and completely surrounded by several axe and sword wielding combatants. Faline soon noticed and frantically raced to aid him, but before she could reach her lover, he was already making his move. And, it made her jaw drop.
Bryan slung his shield over his back and thrust his lance into the ground. Then, he grasped the lance’s pommel, vaulted up atop the weapon and launched himself into a blinding spin while driving his heels into any foe that approached too closely. Which, indeed, many of them did…with most of whom losing a few teeth for their foolishness. Once Bryan had struck all of his adversaries who were within reach, he regained his footing on the ground and tore his lance free from the earth. He then spun it in a blinding arc so fast, the lance seemingly blurred to invisibility, striking several foes once more in the gut. Several were impaled on the lance’s forked blade while others were struck with the pommel, bones shattering under the blow. The vigilante whom had greeted the young prince before gasped in disbelief as he watched at least five of his cohorts get slain in all the same instant.
“Damn! Yer much better than I thought!” he admitted, struggling to sound more enraged than terrified.
“Well, what did you expect? I’m the prince! I have to be an experienced warrior if I want to save my country,” Bryan replied. “And just so you know, that earlier display was just a small sampling. I really think you ought to reconsider joining the Red Claw; I go through them the way a whale goes through krill.”
“Ya sure be talkin’ a good game, but let’s see ya back it up!” the vigilante challenged, a Swordmaster and a Warrior racing to his side.
“It’s your funeral,” Bryan replied ominously, twirling his lance as he performed Impale on the Swordmaster and crushed the warrior’s skull with his lance’s pommel.
“Ha! Yer skill proves nothin’ about who ya are! But ye’ve caused us more trouble than we can be affordin’! Mates, retreat fer now!”
With that, the Red Claw members disengaged and fled the scene, their leader at their head. Bryan had almost given chase, but stopped in midstride and doubled over, panting as he watched his enemies flee. Though he was not hurt, the battle had done much to exhaust him. As Raela, Norman, and the others treated their latest injuries, Bryan caught his breath and awaited Azura’s signal to continue their journey. Moments later, the young prince felt two arms curl around his neck and a pair of lips press into his cheek.
“Bryan! Oh, you are so amazing!” Faline cried happily. “I was so worried about you just now, but then you totally pulverized those guys!”
“Eh heh, yeah,” Bryan replied with a smile. “I practiced that maneuver for a long time, but rarely ever had the opportunity to actually use it in a fight. I’m glad to know all that training paid off.”
“Me too. I was wondering if I’d ever see that move again myself,” Skye cut in, approaching the two. “I thought you were nuts when you first came up with it, but you actually managed to kill somebody besides yourself with it. Very impressive!”
“Yeah, I’ll say!” Azura added with a smile. “Bryan, I’m really glad I decided to learn the lance from you!”
“Heh, thanks, you guys,” Bryan replied. “…Huh?”
Just as Bryan had turned away in a vain attempt to hide that he was blushing, he spied a flicker a movement amidst the village’s buildings. At first, he thought he’d just imagined it, but then he saw it again. And, he wasn’t alone.
“Who’s there?” Skye called out, readying an arrow.
A sharp gasp was heard from behind one of the shacks, and Bryan and Azura brought up their weapons as well.
“Come out of there with your hands up!” Azura barked, certain it was a stray Red Claw.
A pair of hands, both of which much too small to belong to any Red Claw members, shot into view and were followed by a small girl, pale with fright. Seeing her, the three adventurers sagged with relief.
“Sorry about that,” Bryan spoke up. “We thought you might be another Red Claw member.”
The little girl looked relieved, but she also looked like she’d seen better days. Her face and her short orange pigtails were caked with grime. She appeared to be no older than eight years old, but she looked terribly wan and weary. Her pink dress, which, like its owner, looked much the worse for wear, as it was badly tattered, poorly mended, and seemed as if it was hanging off of her body as though it was much too large to fit her. Perhaps it had been a hand-me-down from an older relative?
More likely, it fit fine…until hunger made her shrink, Bryan thought.
The girl appeared to be very nervous as well, as her body trembled slightly and she had not even lowered her hands yet, but when Bryan knelt to her level and smiled gently, she gradually became calm.
“Hey there, what’s your name? What are you doing here?” Bryan inquired. “Oh, and you can put your hands down now.”
The little girl was only too happy to obligue.
“Thank you, Sir. Um… I’m Sally. I heard a lot of noise out here, and I wanted to see what was happening,” the little girl explained. “So I snuck out.”
“Ah. You should have stayed home, Sally. I’m sorry to say, it’s very dangerous out here,” Bryan pointed out. “And your parents are probably worried sick.”
“Yeah, I know… But I just had to see…” Sally replied.
“If the prince had finally come. Everybody was looking for him.”
“Uh huh. But a lot of people now are saying he’s dead.”
“So I’ve heard. Tell me, Sally, do you know where everyone is getting that idea?”
“Yeah, some scary men told them. It didn’t take long for lots of people to hear.”
“These scary men, can you tell me anything about them?”
“I’m sorry, but my mommy made me go inside when she saw them coming. I never saw them, I just heard what they said. Things had been bad enough before they came, but now a lot of people are sad, hungry, poor, and even sick. Bandits have taken everything we have. We don’t get more to eat than broth and water every day and my grandma is sick.”
“Oh… I’m so very sorry to hear that, Sally.”
“Thanks, but I’m okay. My mommy and grandma always said ‘never stop hoping for the best.’ I think the prince is alive, but everybody says that’s foolish. My big brother and the other kids make fun of me all the time for thinking this and my mommy and grandma think I’m getting my hopes up too high this time, but I don’t care. Someday, the prince will come save us. I know he will…”
Bryan couldn’t help but remain silent for several moments as he recalled the bullying he’d constantly endured as a child himself. He knew he couldn’t let poor Sally suffer a similar fate, especially since she was a poor and hungry child trapped in an impoverished village, something Bryan never was even when his problems were at their worst. In fact, on the heels of that musing came another. If he was, indeed, to claim the throne of Astryn, then these were his people. It wasn’t just Sally who needed him; judging by the look of the impoverished, slowly dying village, they all needed him.
“I see. I know how that feels, because the same thing happened to me when I was your age. You want to know something, though?” Bryan replied, his smile growing larger. “You’re absolutely right, Sally. The prince is alive.”
“He is?!” Sally cried. “How do you know?”
“Well… You’re looking at him.”
“Yep. My name is Bryan and I’m the prince. My mother was Queen Marion’s younger sister, though I only learned this recently. I wish I could have come sooner, but I’m here now, and I will not leave until Astryn is back on her feet. I’m afraid I have no proof of my bloodline right now, but will you believe that this is the truth? Will you trust me?”
For a long moment, Sally looked thunderstruck. Then, explosive joy dawned on her features and she practically charged at Bryan, curling her arms around his neck and hugging him fiercely. Bryan was caught off guard, but wrapped his arms around her small body and returned her hung nonetheless.
“Oh! Wow!” she blurted, barely able to speak coherently for several moments. “Yes, I definitely trust you! You’re such a nice man and you protected my hometown from all of those mean men, so you’ve just got to be the prince! Oh, I’m so happy you’re finally here!”
“…Thank you so much, Sally,” he replied, a tear forming in his eye. “Astryn’s been through some hard times, even more so than I thought, but I swear that I’m going to put an end to all of this. Once I’m done, all this misery you’ve had to put up with will be over.”
“Can you help my grandma get better too?”
“Of course. In fact, there might be something more that I can do for you and your neighbors as well.”
With that, Bryan rose to his full height and signaled Bronwyn to move her wagon closer. Once it had arrived, Bryan rifled through its cargo until he produced four sacks of sturdy cloth, each one bigger than Sally herself was. When the little girl, at Bryan’s urging looked inside one of the sacks, she was astonished to see that it was brimming over with dried meat, bread, apples, roast chicken, sausages, butter, honey, cabbages, carrots, smoked fish, pork, cheese and leather flasks filled with water. There was, Bryan suspected, more food in that one sack than the girl had seen in her entire life. The sight made her lower jaw plummet and her mouth water.
“I hope that will help you and the others here, at least until something more permanent can be done,” Bryan spoke up, breaking Sally’s astonished trance. “Now, listen carefully, I don’t know how long it’ll take me to reach Medann and set things to rights, and I might not come back this way in quite a while. In the meantime, that food has to last. Is there someone here who can make that happen?”
“I can do it!” Sally volunteered, but it didn’t take her long to notice Bryan’s skepticism. “I’m serious! My mommy is the herbalist here, but she’s so busy taking care of my grandma that I’ve been doing her job for over a year now. I’m always making sure the people here have enough medicine and I never let the herbs go to waste.”
Bryan smiled, wondering if he was even half as responsible at her age. He rather doubted it.
“Alright then,” Bryan replied. “While I go to Medann, I need you to see that this food gets to the people who need it and to make sure that it lasts as long as you can manage. If you can plant the seeds from the fruit and vegetables, then you might be able to grow that much more food. I know this is a lot to ask from someone so young, but can you do it?”
“Sure!” Sally replied with a sniffle. “I’m so glad you’ve come at last, and I’m overwhelmed by your kindness …I know you can save Astryn and that you’ll be a great king. You’re my hero, Prince Bryan.”
“…And I’m very proud to be. I won’t let you down, Sally. I promise.”
With that, the two let go and Bryan rose.
“I have to leave now and continue on to Medann. You go home and do as I asked, alright?” Bryan advised.
“Oh, don’t worry, I will!” Sally assured and raced off. As Bryan watched the little girl open up the sacks of food and begin running portions to the other homes, a few tears streamed down his cheeks. Owen, Faline, Skye, and Azura soon approached him.
“Bryan… That was amazing,” Owen complimented his son.
“It was. You really are a wonderful man, Bryan,” Faline agreed, kissing Bryan’s cheek again.
Skye, however, seemed ill at ease with Bryan’s actions.
“I really, really don’t want to say this,” the sniper entreated, “but was that such a good idea? Those rations would’ve lasted us at least a week, and there’s no way of knowing if we’ll be able to replace them if we get held up. We’re not going to do Astryn any good if we run out of food and starve before we even reach the capital.”
“I know,” Bryan replied. “Still, these people need it more than we do. Besides, we’re sure to run into Shigo sooner or later, and we can always replace our food with his supplies.”
“I agree,” Azura added. “Besides, what we did here is important. You really filled that little girl’s poor heart with hope, Bryan.”
“Yeah, but…” Bryan replied, sniffling. “This is terrible. So many people are suffering here… I never thought things would be this bad…”
“It’s not your fault, Bryan,” Skye encouraged, though he still looked leery about his friend’s sudden soft-heartedness. “These people never told—”
“I know, but I can’t help but think I should’ve seen this coming! The vigilantes and people doubting my claims. And I didn’t… And now my people think I’m dead.”
“But that little girl doesn’t,” Owen countered. “Bryan, what you did just now proves just how much of a man and a leader you’ve truly become. Even if we can’t find proof that we’re members of the royal family, you can still get people to believe in you.”
“You’re right, Father, and I know. Sally believes in me, and I plan to make good on that faith. I’m going to stop Shigo once and for all and claim the throne. And I swear that anybody who stands in my way won’t live long enough to regret it.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Skye commented, patting Bryan’s shoulder. “But that food’s not going to last these folks forever. And the girl’s grandmother is still sick. What do we do about that?”
“Simple. When we reach the capital and revive the army’s fighting spirits, I’m going to have food and medicine sent to the sick and injured. And, if we capture enemy supplies that we don’t need, we’ll send those as well. We’ll recruit as many new soldiers as possible so we can fight back against Shigo. We might run into him before then, but I don’t think we should go for the kill until we have the advantage. Once we do, he’s dead.”
“Sounds good to me,” Azura replied. “Let’s keep moving north. We’ll have to march faster now, but we can handle it. We’ll march as far as we can and set up camp at dusk.”
After the others voiced their agreement, the group continued their journey. On an impulse, Bryan continued to watch the impoverished village for as long as he could. Sally was still doling out portions of the food, knocking on doors and presenting her offerings to the astonished residents. Bryan was surprised, and impressed, with the little girl’s work. He was almost getting dizzy tracking Sally’s darting form as she shared his gifts, and very likely, news of his arrival as well, with her neighbors. And, even more impressive, she did not try to hide away a larger portion of the food for herself, even though she was surely famished.
If she were nine or ten years older, I’d make her this village’s magistrate on the spot, Bryan thought.
With a smile on his face and a spring in his step, he continued onward. Along the way, Bryan conferred with Owen about details on Astryn’s royal family, eager for any notion as to how he might prove his claims and for more insight into his own history. He was curious as to why Owen wasn’t eligible to claim the throne instead of his son, and the Grand Duke explained that it was tradition for blood members of the royal family to have the right to inherit the throne first. Bryan was the only one left who could claim the throne via this tradition, whereas the dukes vying to replace the dying Queen Marion could only do so by subduing or crushing all opposition…and plunging Astryn into chaos all the while. The young prince had also been curious about whether or not he had a surname and middle name since he was part of a highborn family. Unfortunately, though Owen recalled their surname, which was Novat, Bryan’s middle name had slipped his mind. There were many things about the last war which Owen longed to forget, but it seemed he’d relinquished more than he’d intended. However, Owen also assured that he would remember it eventually, as it had been very important to Bryan’s mother.
Zarek also explained his presence to the group as they traveled. He reiterated his story about his grandfather having been rescued from Fort Absolon and his decision to repay his debt by aiding Azura’s army in the war. He was a mercenary and had been looking for the group ever since and, despite his near-miss with Lily’s fire tome, he seemed to get along quite well with the Fire Sage…though the sight of her playing with her fire tome did make him jittery.
The large group had just begun to approach another town as the sun began to sink below the horizon, and it was agreed that they should set up camp nearby. Eager though Bryan was to find additional clues as to the rumors of his supposed death, he did not relish the idea of marching into another ambush. The tents were pitched and a guard was set so they could get some rest and watch for Shigo’s men at the same time. Bryan had half expected the renegade Meloran general to be actively seeking out the prince of Astryn or fighting to claim the country for himself and his followers. Yet, there was no sign that Shigo was doing either. What were they waiting for? Perhaps Shigo was too much of an egotist to fight a demoralized army? But what does he care about Astryn’s strength? He’s just a power-hungry madman who wants this country for himself, Bryan thought. So why doesn’t he attack? He must be here by now, and he’s sure to have brought a huge army. Whatever the case was, Bryan knew he would find out when he confronted Shigo once again. And the next confrontation between the two would be the last.
While Bryan was mulling over Shigo’s mysterious absence, the others were setting up camp. Ike and Elincia, as might be expected, were setting up a tent for them to share. And Ike, as was also to be expected, seemed far more interested in crushing his lips against Elincia’s cheeks and neck than hammering in tent stakes. Azura, spying this, chuckled good-naturedly and gestured at the enraptured couple.
“Looks like they’re setting up the honeymoon suite, again,” she joked.
“Interesting you should mention that,” Ike replied as he, very, briefly disengaged from Elincia’s collarbone. “We were going to tell you guys at the right time, but there might not be one and Elincia and I have put this off too long as it is. We have some great news!”
“Yeah, Ike and I are going to get married!” Elincia chimed in with excitement and flashed her engagement ring. “He proposed to me the night we got back from the northern floodgate in Talgria.”
“Oh wow! That’s so wonderful! Congratulations, you two!” Azura replied, nearly jumping up and down and hugging the pair.
“I agree! This is the first exciting thing we’ve heard in days,” Boyd commented, and then added something under his breath about a betting pool. “Congrats!”
“Yeah, I knew you’d pop the question sooner or later!” Ranulf added happily, giving Ike a pat on the shoulder and then smiling coyly. “So who’s cooking the big feast for the bachelor party? How about we have a real cake instead of one of those hallow, wooden ones with the naked woman inside?”
“Oh stuff it,” Ike retorted playfully. “I’d rather save the big feast for the wedding anyway. The cake idea’s fine though, but you can have my share.”
“Of the cake or the girl?” Boyd inquired with a roguish grin.
“Now, now Boyd,” Soren warned. “I don’t think your wife would appreciate that kind of talk.”
“Wife?” Ike repeated, laughing at both Boyd’s embarrassment and at the notion of him settling down. “I never would’ve pictured you getting married.”
“Neither did I,” Boyd admitted. “But then, things just sorta…happened between Mist and I. And before I knew it, we were wed. The only annoying part was that she turned into a crybaby during our vows.”
“Whoa, whoa, wait, Mist?!” Ike gasped. “A hot-head like you married my sister?!”
“Eh heh…yeah. Guess that makes you my brother in law, huh?”
“Yeah, well, then why’d you leave her behind to go look for me, you dimwit?! Where’s the sense in that?! You can’t have been married for very long! And this is my sister we’re talking about, Boyd! If you’re not taking good care of her, you’re going to hear from me about it!”
“W-W-Wait, I can explain! We were supposed to go on our honeymoon, but then all that trouble started like a couple days before we were going to leave. So we postponed it until things calmed down. But then King Renning needed a couple of your old allies to find you and Elincia. Oscar was too busy at the castle, Rolf is too young and whiny, Titania has leadership duties to attend to in the Greil Mercenaries, Mia’s practically vanished, probably traveling, Rhys is too sickly, plus he’s got a school to run, and you can be sure Shinon and Gatrie weren’t going to do a damn thing, so that left Soren and I. Mist wanted to come along too, but I told her it was probably too dangerous since there’s a huge war going on. She’s a skilled fighter and healer, but I thought this might be too much for her.”
“Wow, I see. That’s understandable,” Ike conceded. “Keep it up. Getting back on topic though, I meant the cake. I don’t want it.”
“Now there’s something I didn’t see coming,” Soren snickered. “But then again, it’s probably because there’s no such thing as a ribeye cake. Still, both of you have my congratulations as well.”
“Thanks, Soren. I’m glad I can always count on your support,” Ike replied with a smile.
“Same here!” Elincia added, giving Soren a warm but, judging by his expression, undesired hug. “I’m so excited!”
“Me too! Oh, who’s going to be what at the wedding?” Azura wondered excitedly. “I’d love to be a bridesmaid!”
“And I wouldn’t mind being a groomsman,” Boyd put in.
“I’m best man, right?” Ranulf added, wrapping an arm around Ike’s shoulder.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Soren retorted. “I should be best man! I’m Ike’s best friend!”
“I’m his best friend too!” Ranulf shot back, letting go of Ike and fixing Soren with a glare.
“WELL I WAS HIS FRIEND FIRST, CATFACE! AND WHO WANTS A SMELLY FELINE TO BE BEST MAN AT A WEDDING?!”
“WHAT?! WELL NOBODY WANTS A GIRLY-LOOKING BOY TO DO IT EITHER, WINDBAG!”
“YOU TAKE THAT BACK OR ELSE!”
“HEY!” Ike cut in, grabbing Ranulf by the back of his shirt and Soren by his robes, practically lifting both of them off the ground. “That is quite enough! We don’t need to decide all of this now, alright? And besides that, if you two are going to fight about it, neither of you will be best man and Boyd will do it. Got that?”
“Yeah, and you two deserve it more than I ever will,” Boyd added.
“Fine…” Ranulf and Soren apologized at the same time.
“Here, let’s pitch this honeymoon suite,” Azura offered, snatching up the mallet and tent stakes. “I don’t think these two are interested in working right now.”
Ike and Elincia, by this time, had meandered to a nearby elm. Ike had sagged against it, yanking Elincia into his lap, as the pair were again lost in their mutual affection. Ike and Elincia exchanged long, probing kisses, between which Ike would lavish Elincia’s neck and collarbone while she craned back her head and moaned in ecstasy.
“Ya think?” Boyd opined.
“Gee, I hadn’t noticed,” Ranulf piped up sarcastically.
“I’m just glad he’s got his girl,” Soren added, a fiendish grin dawning on his countenance. “There were days I thought I’d always be turning girls away from his door. Except for that one time though...”
Ike, hearing Soren’s words, suddenly blanched with fright. He vaulted to his feet, so suddenly that Elincia was catapulted off of him, and he stomped over to Soren.
“Don’t say another word!” he warned, though he sounded more desperate than threatening.
And, much to Ike’s chagrin, he seemed alone in demanding Soren’s silence.
“Really?” Ranulf chimed. “Do tell, oh blustery one.”
“Yeah, let’s hear it!” Boyd agreed.
“This is mutiny! Mutiny, I say!” Ike railed, sounding mildly terrified.
“It was fairly soon after the Mad King’s War,” Soren began while Ike mouthed ‘somebody just shoot me.’ “We had just come home from a job. It was a terrible one, we should’ve been paid at least three times as much as we were. But, in any case, Ike went straight to his room and tried to get some rest.”
“An hour or so later,” Ike cut in, shooting Soren threatening glares all the while, “Soren comes in and asks “are you home?” I said “yes.” He asks “for visitors?” I said “maybe.” Then, he said “for admiring ladies?” And, I pulled the covers over my head and said “no.”
“Oh yeah, I remember this! I was laughing so hard, I had to have been on the floor in my room for an hour!” Boyd recalled, bursting into laughter once again.
“So,” Soren continued, “I went back to the horde of ladies, fifty or so, if I remember right, and I told them “I’m sorry, Ike is a lout. I mean, he’s out.”
“After that awful job, having my nap interrupted and girls hanging on the bell, Soren’s little slip was the last straw,” Ike went on. “Like an idiot, I barged out and said “hey, who are you calling a lout?!” Then, Soren said “oh my, he’s home after all.” And, well, you can guess the rest.”
Which, apparently, they did…because everyone except Ike was rolling on the ground laughing hysterically. Even Elincia was tearing up with the hilarity of it all.
“Traitor,” Ike remarked teasingly, swooping in for another kiss.
“I still say I should be best man,” Soren remarked as the group got back to work. “I know all the funny stories about the groom.”
“Another few stories like that, and he might have you roasted and served at the wedding feast,” Ranulf warned jokingly.
“Doubtful, not enough meat on my bones. Besides, I hear that beer roasted cat is a delicacy on this continent.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
“Remind me why I’m inviting you two again?” Ike groused. “Now, quit it and let’s get this tent up!”
As the group continued pitching their tents, Ranulf and Soren continued to shoot glares at one another. Ike sighed in frustration while Elincia merely giggled.
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the encampment, the Royal Knights had dismounted and pitched their tents as well as a large pavilion to act as a temporary stable. The knights, and the horses, were savoring a final night with a roof over their heads as, when they split off for the journey to Jerusa, they would be leaving the tents behind. Not all of them were fond of the idea, but a camp of the Royal Knights was too easily recognized, especially on a mission calling for stealth in a country overrun with the enemy, and pitching and breaking camp would also take time they might not be able to afford. Eliot and Natalie had just finished putting their steeds away when Marc and Leona arrived to do the same. As they dismounted their horses, Eliot and Natalie approached them. Eliot sported his usual grin, the sort that betrayed his true youth and eagerness for a laugh…and which made most of his acquaintances want to punch him.
“Heya, Marc. Forget any good stories lately?” Eliot greeted tauntingly.
Marc, apparently used to this treatment, took the insult without so much as a blink. Leona, by contrast, looked ready to knock some of Eliot’s teeth out.
“Can it, Eliot,” Leona retorted as she threw a thick rug over her horse.
“Leona, just—” Marc began, but Natalie cut him off.
“Leona, really, anyone knows that Marc’s condition is a liability,” she reasoned. “You should just stop denying it.”
“No, you all are wrong. Marc has just as much potential as any knight!” Leona argued. “I’ve been his partner long enough to know that!”
“And we’ve been knights long enough to see that Sir Forgetsalot can’t remember half of what his instructors tell him,” Eliot added.
“That’s not true!” Leona shot back as she removed her horse’s saddle. “Just muzzle it!”
“Honestly, Leona, why do you keep defending Marc?” Natalie wondered with a sigh.
For a long moment, Leona simply seethed in silence, as though angrily contemplating that very question. Or, more likely, she already knew the answer but had never had reason to give voice to it until now. Whatever the case, she knew what she wanted to say. She also knew she wanted to give Natalie what-for, so she punched the deputy commander hard enough to make crimson trickle from her jaw.
“Because I love him!” Leona replied hotly, tears forming in her eyes. “…I tried to deny it for so long, and despite all the bickering he and I used to do, I couldn’t help it. Marc isn’t the sharpest axe in the armory, we all know that, but he’s always had so much respect. He was always so kind to people and never lost his temper, even after being heckled so much. He just kept going and training, and General Leyon and I always had faith in him. Every time we were injured in a fight, he made sure I was fine before tending to his own wounds… He could never even remember what his parents looked like, but he thought of everyone that mattered to him, even me. So just clamp your jaw shut before I break it!”
Leona looked quite out of sorts after her confession, and Natalie looked very nearly homicidal…not the smallest reason being that she had about six teeth ready to just fall out of her mouth. She was about to return the favor when Marc darted between the two women and pried them apart.
“Hey, hey!” he urged. “Cut it out! You two want to wind up mucking stables?!”
Marc was more than a little struck by Leona’s confession, and he could not help but suspect he would not be forgetting her words anytime soon, but he didn’t have time to appreciate it. At that moment, Leyon came in.
“Atten-SHUN!” he barked, and the quarreling knights immediately disentangled themselves and fell in line.
Leyon puffed up with aggravation but suddenly deflated, a look of helpless frustration on his face.
“I don’t have time to punish all of you, so I’ll settle with the one who started it,” he declared.
To everyone’s surprise, Marc raised a hand.
“It was me. Deputy Commander Natalie said my mother was ugly, so I punched her.”
Leyon looked skeptical.
“I thought you didn’t remember what your mother looked like?” he recalled.
“Er…uh…that.s irrelevant!” Marc retorted, unconvincingly.
“Uh huh. So, how come the bruises are on the right side of her face? I thought you were left-handed.”
Marc had never made a habit of lying and, as such, he was terrible at it. Trying vainly to ignore the sweat dotting his brow, he frantically struggled to come up with a plausible explanation. Even to him, the notion that sprang to mind didn’t sound convincing.
“She, ah, wove to the side. So…I backhanded her.”
Leyon regarded Marc with a raised eyebrow. Marc, the young general knew, was lying. If the forgetful knight sweating like a weary horse did not betray this truth, all that stammering did. Why, however, was far less obvious. As long as Leyon had known Marc, he had never lied, not even to avoid embarrassment over his impaired memory. When he forgot something he should not have, he simply said so…and everyone had a good laugh. So, why was this any different? Then, Leyon noticed something else.
Marc’s eyes would not meet his gaze. Instead, they kept drifting in Leona’s direction.
This caught Leyon’s attention. He had suspected for a long time that Marc and Leona had feelings for one another. In fact, that was why he paired them up in the first place. On an impulse, Leyon spied Leona out of the corner of his eye. She was fidgeting in place, even before noticing his scrutiny, and her gaze kept drifting between Marc and Natalie; concern for the former, anger towards the latter.
Leyon couldn’t keep himself from smirking.
“Very well,” he intoned, doing his best to sound severe. “Marc, I ought to send you back to Aracion, but that’s an indulgence I can’t afford and your skills in combat are too valuable for the mission. Therefore, you will spend the rest of this evening cleaning these stables.”
As if on cue, one of the horses raised its tail. A splat was heard and the air became notably fouler. Just as Leyon was about to leave, Leona spoke up desperately.
“Sir, wait! I wish to make a statement.”
Leyon turned, nodded for her to proceed, and his jaw dropped when Leona drew back a fist and plowed into Natalie’s jaw. The deputy commander, who now looked angrier than a red dragon with indigestion, was about to retaliate when Marc stepped between them. All three began shouting at once and Leyon could not tell what one was saying to the other, but he didn’t particularly care. He had a hunch about what had just happened, and he wanted to test his theory.
“Atten-SHUN!” he commanded, louder this time, and the knights came to attention. “Alright. Marc, Leona, both of you are mucking stables tonight. Natalie, find a healer before all those teeth fall out. Eliot, go find some way to make yourself useful.”
With that, Leyon left the pavilion, more or less dragging Eliot and Natalie along. Once they were gone, Marc and Leona were alone…save for their rather fragrant charges. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Eventually, however, it was Marc who took the plunge.
“Leona…” Marc uttered. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“Do what?” Leona replied. “Punch Natalie, or admit that I was in love with you? I don’t regret either one.”
“I thought that might be the case. We’ve been through so much together in our time as knights. In all that time, you were the only one who ever really believed in me. Well, at least some of the time.”
“I do swing a mean tongue, don’t I?”
“Yeah, and your right jab’s not bad either. Still, I admit, I fell in love with you too. But I’m not sure if I deserve you. My memory causes me enough problems as it is, and I’m not wild about the idea of you having to deal with it more than you do already. I don’t want to forget dates or important occasions or anything and have that reflect on you.”
“I know. But it’s not your fault. And I understand if you don’t want to risk it. Your memory did cause some issues in the past, after all. Just know that I don’t think I could ever love another man as much as I love you…”
For a moment, Marc was left stunned by Leona’s words. Could she truly mean what she said? True, she still took jabs at him for his lapses in memory but those had stopped months ago. And, even then, it was more of a joke between the pair than anything else. In fact, looking back, some of the exchanges the two had had were almost amusing. And, she had known about his condition practically ever since they met and had even tried, with wildly varying degrees of success, to help him with it. Yeah, who am I kidding? Marc thought. She knows about my problem better than anyone and has dealt with it for so long. I can’t break her heart like this. Marc then wrapped his arms around Leona’s waist, yanked her towards him, and allowed his lips to meet hers in a long, passionate kiss. She was startled at first, but quickly closed her eyes and curled her arms around his neck.
“You’ve gotta be crazy to love a guy like me,” Marc opined. “But, I love you too.”
“Oh, I don’t know about me being crazy,” Leona retorted playfully. “It was you who picked this setting, after all.”
“Touché,” he conceded, and then kissed her again.
Just as the couple had locked lips, Leyon had slipped around to peer into the stables. As he eyed the pair, he was unable to suppress a chuckle. He had been waiting for the pair to admit how they felt about one another for quite some time, and he was glad to see that it had finally happened. Still, the smile on his face eventually vanished, and he couldn’t prevent himself from sighing. This scene had brought him quite a bit of satisfaction, and he was very happy for Marc and Leona, but it also reminded him that there was something he needed to do, and that this evening might be his last chance. He needed to let her know…
Around an hour and a half later, after removing his armor and trying to do likewise with his anxieties, Leyon departed his tent. He heaved a heavy sigh, squared his shoulders, and began moving. He was ready to do what he had to do, and he knew that his time was running out. He walked through the camp, wondering which tent might belong to Azura. He hoped she wasn’t already asleep, as he rather doubted that rousing the young earl would persuade her to listen to him. He’d already made more than a few blunders with her in the past but, after the next morning, he wouldn’t be seeing her again for some time. If the mission to Jerusa took a turn for the worse, he might not see her again, period. He had only one chance, and he was determined to make good on it. After discreetly poking his head into a few tents and asking several sentries, he was directed away from the encampment to a small lake nearby. Sure enough, Azura was standing at the lake’s banks. A full moon was shining radiantly overheard, reflecting on the lake’s gently rippling surface. Azura, apparently unaware of Leyon’s presence, stood bathed in the surreal glow, as she began to stretch and flex as though to relieve muscles cramped from too many swordfights with too many enemies. Her nimble hands then found the straps of her light blue armor, which she eagerly shed. This was followed by her shoulder guards, her hairclip and her boots…but she didn’t stop there.
As Leyon watched, stupefied, Azura stripped to her skin. Even from behind, the light of the full moon made her feminine charms, no longer concealed by her rough-and-tumble garb and battle-hardened demeanor, all too visible. Her soft, pale skin, the subtle curves of her hips, the graceful arch of her back, her shapely limbs, and her hair which cascaded to her waist like a molten waterfall all left Leyon dumbstruck.
Emphasis on “dumb,” he chided himself. Turn around, you fantastic idiot!
Yet, it was as though he were rooted to the spot. He watched, transfixed, as she dipped one foot into the water, gave a quick nod and then dove in. Before Leyon could return to his senses, though he rather doubted he could have, she emerged again. Though, “emerged” might have been an understatement. In an explosion of foam, she burst free from the water, arcing upward and then downward to dive in again. Once under the water, she dove as deep as she could, pumped her arms and legs for speed and then launched herself skyward again and again like a dolphin or a fabled mermaid. Leyon watched, doubly impressed, for several long minutes until Azura finally tired and sinuously maneuvered towards the shore. With her lower half trailing idly in the water, she lay her torso upon the bank, water trickling down the curves of her exposed breasts…with Leyon less than a few yards away and still unseen.
How Leyon kept himself from fainting, he would never know. All he did know was that she was stunning. And, that knowing overwhelmed him in much the same way that so much about her did, her courage, her fortitude, her strong sense of self, her beauty and her unbreakable spirit, and left him awhirl in his own thoughts of how much he longed for the fiery redhead.
His senses returned just in time for him to see that Azura had noticed him.
“WHAT THE—?!” she screamed, trying vainly to conceal her nakedness with her hands while the shamefaced Leyon, unable to salvage his dignity, turned away.
He half expected her Regal Sword to plow through the back of his head at any moment. Slowly, and feeling mildly terrified, he turned around once more. To his surprise, Azura was still there. More curious still, she had not scrambled to retrieve her clothes. In fact, aside from pulling herself out of the water, she had barely moved at all. She just sat there, her features marred with an expression of disgust and revulsion. And, as Leyon was just about convinced that his chances with her had been utterly destroyed, he noticed that her expression wasn’t directed at him. It was directed at the water; more precisely, to her reflection. Puzzled, Leyon was about to speak, when her gaze swung back to face him.
“Well, I guess this makes us even,” she commented, reaching for her undergarments.
“Wait, what?” Leyon blurted, confused and trying to focus on something, anything, besides Azura’s soaked, nude form.
“That again? Azura, I told you, that wasn’t entirely your fault. I should’ve paid more attention, and Natalie didn’t need to snap at you like that.”
“Yeah, but I’m still to blame too,” Azura insisted as she slipped her undergarments back on. “I’m so ashamed of myself. How could I be so foolish and immature? And, in my first battle as a noble and commander of the army, no less? I felt terrible when King Wencelis told me how disappointed he was with me. I can’t say I blame him, given all the times I’ve done wrong. Especially to you, Leyon.”
Leyon had been more than tempted to interrupt Azura’s tirade and tell her, quite forcefully, why he didn’t believe a word of what she was saying about herself. But he forced himself to calm down, to keep his gaze fixed upon her face and to let her have her say before he interjected. When Azura finally paused, he moved closer and cupped one of her cheeks with his hand. He silently marveled at how smooth her skin felt under his fingers, and marveled once again at the warmth that passed from her cheek to his fingertips, despite the chill of the water.
“There’s been a lot on your mind lately, hasn’t there?” he asked courteously, forcing his eyes not to drift downward. Though Azura was no longer nude, it hardly made a difference.
“Yeah,” Azura admitted. “Ever since I first found out the truth about my pendant and became an earl, I’ve been so anxious and nervous. It’s been making me wonder if I’m doing anything right. And then, all that trouble back at Fort Absolon…”
“It’s alright, Azura. Even the finest leaders make mistakes. I know I did. Heck, even my brother did. And we both know Bryan made his share. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same held true for Ike as well. You’re not alone in this.”
“The best leaders aren’t the ones who never make mistakes, because that’s not possible. The best leaders are the ones who learn from their mistakes. You did that, better than that, in fact, by figuring out how to help me get my memory back. You took responsibility for what went wrong and you put it to rights. That is what makes a leader.”
For a crazy fraction of an instant, Leyon believed that the sun had come up. Then, he realized that the sudden illumination was instead the radiance of Azura’s smile.
“You can be real sweet sometimes,” she commented. “I can see why Natalie was so taken with you.”
“I…beg your pardon?” Leyon blurted, confusedly.
“Oh…oops. Well, while I was trying to find a way to restore your memory, I talked quite a bit with Eliot to see if I could learn anything that might help. He told me that Natalie used to have a crush on you.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah, that’s what Eliot said.”
“It’s interesting you should bring that up though.”
Here, Leyon paused to remove his cape and drape it over Azura to offer her some warmth. The pause also gave him some time to steel his nerve, for he’d been taken off-guard by her self-recriminating tirade…amongst other things. She shivered a bit under his cape, looking uncharacteristically vulnerable, and yet favoring him with a patient expression.
“And why’s that?” Azura wondered, knotting the cape to cover her torso and folding her arms.
“Well…I’m in love. I never thought I’d see the day that this would happen, especially after I lost my brother. But I’ve fallen in love with a very beautiful girl that I’ve spent some time with during this war and she’s amazed me time and time again.”
Azura felt as though she’d been punched in the gut. She remembered how she’d mentioned Natalie earlier and had a sudden premonition that Leyon had not been so blind to how Natalie felt for him after all. Perhaps he had chosen to pursue his deputy commander? Azura knew she ought to feel happy for him…and yet, she was in anguish at the idea.
“Oh?” she inquired, trying to keep her tone neutral.
“Indeed,” Leyon confirmed, smiling broadly. “I admire her beauty, courage, and bravery. Her independence is also astounding. I’ve fought alongside her in many battles and she has impressed me with her skills every time.”
“Very much so. And yet, I fear she does not feel the same towards me. We’ve had words from time to time, but they’ve rarely been friendly. She seems to think I want to coddle her, you see, and that I’m only concerned about her because of her importance to the war effort. Despite this, I’ve vowed to protect her with my life. Because I love her.”
By now, Azura, was nearly in tears.
“Leyon… I…I’m sorry. I was wrong…”
“No, you don’t need to apologize. I should’ve made my intentions clearer. Besides, the fact that you survived the Red Claw for so long should’ve been more than enough proof that you didn’t need me looking over your shoulder.”
“Yeah, but I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions the way I did. But who…who is the girl?”
Azura drew in her breath in nervous anticipation and though she felt ready to burst, Leyon simply smiled before replying.
“I believe you already know the answer to that. I’m heading in for the night now, but if you want know for sure, I think this will tell you.”
Leyon then took her hand, leaned over, and planted a soft kiss on Azura’s cheek. After bidding his good night, Leyon walked off with new thoughts in his mind. Whether she loves me or not, my love is forever hers, he avowed as he headed back towards the camp. Meanwhile, a stunned Azura traced her fingers over her cheek.
“He…loves me…” she murmured, stupified. “Oh, Leyon… Huh?”
Azura snapped out of her daze to see that her other hand was holding something. As she opened her trembling fist, she discovered a small sheet of parchment with only a few lines written on it. It was a short poem that read:
When I look into your lovely eyes
I see this through and through
My life and axe are yours because
My heart belongs to you
With all my love,
“Oh… Leyon…” Azura whispered to herself after reading the poem. She then turned and spied Leyon as he strolled farther away. She couldn’t let him leave. Not yet and not when there was so much she had to say as well. And with that, Azura rose to her feet and raced after him. Somewhere during the journey, Leyon’s cape had come unknotted and pooled to the ground.
“Leyon, wait…” she gently spoke up, taking his arm. He turned around to face her.
“Hm?” he replied, again forcing his eyes not to stray from hers.
“I…I don’t hate you… I never did. My mind wanted me to dislike you, but my heart told me otherwise.”
Leyon merely smiled lovingly, affection and relief alike reflected in his gaze, as he and Azura moved closer to one another. He then cupped her cheek with his hand once more while interlacing his fingers with hers. Their faces soon inched closer and closer, until their lips met. Within the next few moments, Leyon had slipped his arms around Azura’s waist and pulled her close while Azura curled hers around his neck.
“I love you, Leyon…” Azura whispered when they finally pulled away minutes later.
“I love you too…Azura…” Leyon replied quietly, this time allowing his eyes free reign.
“You like what you see, don’t you?” Azura teased flirtatiously.
“A loaded question, if ever I heard one,” Leyon replied with a chuckle. “I say “no,” I’m insensitive. I say “yes,” I’m a pervert.”
“I guess that is unfair. Just don’t let Mother find out about this. She’d kill us both.”
“But of course,” Leyon agreed, understanding perfectly. He didn’t much like the idea of the others finding out either, especially the knights. They’d never let him hear the end of it, nor would Wencelis and Louise, probably.
“Still, this is the last night we’ll have with each other for awhile,” Azura continued. “…Have a little fun with me?”
Azura gestured towards the lake.
“Heh… Why not?” Leyon replied, his grin growing larger.
Azura, giving Leyon a parting kiss on the cheek, dove into the lake once more. As she had before, the young earl swam with dizzying speed and sinuous grace, leaping from the water amidst explosions of foam. After watching her in awe for several moments, Leyon began undressing as he prepared to join Azura for an evening swim. Leyon removed his tunic and pants, leaving him clad only in a pair of red shorts.
“Bryan gave me the idea,” he said as he removed his tunic. “Saves me the hassle of changing my clothes every morning and evening when I’m in a hurry.”
“Ah, clever,” Azura replied, eyeing Leyon’s shirtless form appreciatively. Leyon had a well built, almost sculpted form, and looked nearly as muscular as Ike himself. His broad chest and muscle rippled stomach made him look strong enough to carry his own horse, yet he had a more slender physique that looked far lighter, and swifter, than the hulking hero of Tellius. If the two were to arm wrestle, it would be very difficult to determine a winner. Leyon clambered down into the water and tried, with little success, to overtake the swift Azura. The young earl was like an eel in the water, fast and slippery, and she had no compunction against splashing Leyon after evading his fumbling grasp. Eventually, Azura swam over to Leyon, embracing her love under the moonlight.
“You know, that poem was very sweet,” Azura complimented when the pair were shoulder-deep into the water, curling her arms around Leyon’s neck again.
“Heh, I’m glad you liked it,” Leyon replied lovingly. “My grandmother was a great poet and she taught my brother and I a few of her techniques while raising us after our parents died. Trust me though, she was far better than either of us.”
“She must’ve been very good then. You know, growing up, I was teased by boys a lot. They didn’t think I could be as good a warrior as them just because I’m a girl. As I grew older, and became a warrior, I took it for granted that they’d look down on me… But, meeting you and being on this quest has helped me see that not all of them think women are weak. It’s nice to finally meet some men who respect me for my skills.”
“I see, and I’m glad… To be honest, I used to think women were better off with men to help them out. You changed my mind about that. Women can be strong on their own.”
“I’m glad too…”
With that, the two drew closer and locked lips once more, allowing their tongues to cross the thresholds of their mouths. They didn’t let go for a very long time as Azura slid her arms across Leyon’s shoulders and back while he caressed her torso.
Not far away, on a small rise overlooking the lake, another couple had been roused by the sounds of small, but relentless splashes. Disentangling themselves, they poked their heads through the flaps of their tent and spied an interesting sight below.
“…And I thought we weren’t supposed to be pulling shenanigans,” Ike grumbled, though a hint of surprise seeped into his tone when he got a clearer look at Azura as Leyon began leaving kisses on her neck. “Tsk, tsk. And, I thought Leyon was supposed to be a gentleman.”
“Tell me about it,” Elincia agreed and then giggled. “And, just so you know, don’t go trying to talk me into that sort of thing...at least, not unless we’re really alone. But, they are adorable out there.”
“Darn. I mean…right you are, dear.”
The next morning, the camp rose at the brink of dawn and the troops suited up and armed themselves as quickly as possible. It was nearly time for the group to divide, with Leyon and Derien’s troops riding towards the Cilaean border while Bryan wanted to focus on finding some Astrynian soldiers as well as someone who could help him prove his and Owen’s connections to the royal family. After some deliberation, Ike decided to ask Boyd to join Leyon’s group rather than staying with Ike.
“What, worried I’ll cramp your style?” Boyd joked at hearing the request, but he assured Ike and Boyd assured that he had no problem with it.
Afterwards, Boyd sought out Skye. He soon found the Sniper sitting outside of his tent waiting for the order to break camp and march.
“Hey there, you’re Skye, aren’t you?” Boyd inquired.
“That’s me. Boyd, right?” Skye replied.
“Yep. I've got something to show you. When Soren and I came looking for Ike and Elincia, I also brought this with me.”
Boyd then produced a large gold bow with brown embroidery on its grip and curving arms.
“Whoa. That’s one heck of a bow you’ve got there,” Skye commented, his eyes widening.
“Yeah. It’s called the Silencer. My younger brother made it. Well, with supervision from his teacher, that is. Anyway, it’s the most powerful bow you’ll ever see. It was first designed by my brother’s teacher, who’s one of the best Snipers I’ve ever met. My brother figured it might come in handy over here after we heard what was going on, so he gave it to me. After seeing your skills, I think it’s perfect for you. So you can take it. I prefer my axe anyway.”
“Oh. Wow, thanks a bunch! I’ll use it well.”
Skye then eagerly took the bow, almost drooling with anticipation. With practiced eye, he examined the bow’s accuracy and the tautness of the string, and found both to be flawless. With such an incredible bow, and his own remarkable skills, perhaps he’d earn an Order of the Golden Arrow after all. Meanwhile, as more of the army made ready for their departure, Derien approached Ranulf and the wolf siblings.
“Kiel, Sara, his majesty wanted me to give you two something before I left,” he spoke up. “You too, Ranulf.”
“Oh?” Ranulf wondered.
“Ah, I bet I know what it is,” Kiel replied eagerly.
“Me too,” Sara added, anticipation clear in her tone.
“Indeed. They’re right here. There’s one for each of you,” Derien continued. He held out what appeared to be three golden medallions with the shape of a cross inscribed on them. In the center of the crosses were patterns of gleaming rubies. The three laguz each took one.
“Wow, what is this for?” Ranulf inquired.
“I’ll show you. First, Kiel, you transform,” Derien replied.
“Sure thing,” Kiel complied. He then reverted to his wolf form without hesitation.
“Now, I’ll transform.” Derien decided and did the same. However, aside from the color of his fur, Derien’s wolf form had several differences. He was a little larger, his fur was shaggier, but also darker and sleeker, and he had longer fangs and claws.
“Whoa. Your wolf forms look a little different!” Ranulf noticed. “How did you manage that?”
“Well, you know what a Satori Sign is, right?” Derien inquired.
“Yeah. They allow laguz to unleash their hidden strengths. With it, they can use their mastery skills.”
“That’s right. The medallion I gave you is called a Satori Symbol. It is similar to a Satori Sign, but it does more. It can also make a laguz’s animal form bigger and stronger. The human form remains roughly the same, however. Anyway, we call this process metavolution. It works fairly like a beorc soldier promoting, as it allows a laguz warrior to grow more powerful and learn new abilities. Few Satori Symbols have been made though. The first successful one was produced only around a year ago.”
“Wow, I see. Thanks, Derien.”
Within the next hour, the camp had been finished dismantled, the tents and bedrolls taken down and stored, and everyone awaiting the order to depart. Leyon was chatting with Derien about possible strategies to use in Cilae, but unfortunately, neither of them could think of anything plausible. Between Melora’s superior numbers, the breakdown in communications and their scattered objectives, the prospects for the mission seemed grim. When Ike saw that they were concerned, he approached them and revealed that Soren was a master tactician and that he should be able to help them out before the group divided. Leyon and Derien then asked that Ike bring him over, though Soren seemed nonplussed at the idea.
“Ike, you know how I feel about using my skills for anyone except you,” Soren pointed out as his friend ushered him over to the two generals.
“Yeah, but I’m fighting in this war too, so you’re still doing it for me,” Ike protested. “Come on, please?”
“Sigh… Alright, fine.”
Soren approached Leyon and Derien and, after briefly introducing himself, inquired as to the strategic situation.
“I thought your assessment of the strategic situation was “we’re screwed,” Boyd piped up.
“Well, I’ve made that assessment before and have been disproven,” Soren conceded, favoring Ike with a rare smile.
“Well, because of the communications breakdown due to the capture of the Raven messengers, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of our information,” Leyon began, tracing a rough map in the earth. “Queen Belinda and her entourage told us that Jerusa is being held by approximately five hundred Red Claw members.”
“I’ve heard it mentioned that the bulk of the Allied armies are stationed along the Cilae-Melora border,” Soren spoke up.
“That’s correct,” Leyon replied, tracing miniature tents to indicate roughly where along the borders those troops were bivouacked. “At the time of their arrival, they numbered roughly eight thousand Talgrian and Cilaen troops. Later on, Eraghoan and Perais troops were dispatched to join them, as well some two thousand new recruits and reserve troops from Talgria. Assuming they all arrived, that’s another four thousand all told. Of course, all this is based on speculation and assumptions. Without the Raven messengers to carry news back and forth, we don’t even know if any of them are still out there. And, if they are, they’re surely surrounded by Meloran troops.”
“Are there any other Allied troops in Cilae?” Soren inquired.
“Yes, at the coast,” Leyon replied, tracing more tents along Cilae’s northern coastline. “Because Melora had been seizing Cilaean ships out at sea, we expected them to use these vessels to smuggle their troops into port. So, the ports were under guard when Jerusa was invaded. I believe the troops there number some six hundred.”
“What is your best assessment of those two troop concentrations?”
“The armies at the border are all regulars, seasoned knights and soldiers. But, they’ve also been cut off from supplies for some time now. Assuming they’re still alive, they likely won’t hold out much longer without food, medicine and, most of all, fresh weapons and reinforcements.”
“And the troops along the coast?”
“They were defending Jerusa before being redeployed, and they left heavily armed. At least half of them are raw recruits, but many of Cilae’s Pegasus knights are among them.”
“What has been occurring along the coast since Jerusa fell?”
“Not much, actually. According to Commander Eilonwy, the Red Claw has the ports under siege but don’t seem to be in any hurry to advance. The Allied troops at the ports and the Red Claw in the area are roughly equal in numbers.”
“I see. I think I know what we must do.”
As usual, it only took the Wind Sage a short time to come up with the perfect tactic. He decided that since the Red Claw’s army was concentrated at Jerusa and at the border, the best chance for Leyon’s group would likely to lure them away from both areas.
“And, how can we manage that?” Leyon inquired.
“Simple,” Soren replied. “You told me that the Red Claw isn’t making a serious effort to attack the Allied troops holding the ports, correct? That is likely because, having stolen so many ships, the Melorans believe that the Allied troops there are trapped and can be crushed at any time. But, what if something occurred to make the Red Claw think that those troops were able to slip away? Something like a seaborne evacuation?”
“Evacuation?” Derien repeated with bitter humor. “Those Melorans have stolen so many boats, it’s a wonder we even have two-man dinghies left. We can’t move six hundred troops by sea.”
“We don’t have to,” Soren countered. “We just have to make it look like we can. If we manage to slip a few men inside the ports, and have them and the troops create the appearance that a seaborne evacuation is underway, then the Red Claw might be caught off balance. They might siphon off forces from Jerusa and the border to stop the “evacuation,” leaving you an opening to strike at Jerusa and relieve the Allied troops at the border.”
“But, we’d be funneling hundreds, maybe thousands, of enemies at a force of only six hundred Allied troops!” Derien objected. “They’d be cut to pieces!”
“I thought of that too,” Soren answered. “Surely, some Cilaean ships have been recovered?”
“A few,” Leyon replied. “You’d never fit six hundred troops onto them though.”
“That is not my intent,” Soren corrected. “We won’t be using the ships to move the troops out, we’ll be using them to deliver something that will help them hold out: siege weapons.”
“Ah, that just might work!” Derien chimed. “Aracion has been producing ballistae and catapults non-stop ever since we received word of the Red Claw crossing into Talgria. We could probably load dozens of those things onto the boats.”
“Exactly,” Soren confirmed. “We can have a dispatch rider return to Aracion with news of this plan, so that the siege weapons can be loaded onto the ships and sent to Cilae. The crews should, of course, take the pains to look like Red Claw until the time comes to disembark and deliver the weapons. We make sure word of the “evacuation” leaks out and the Red Claw will come running, leaving Jerusa and the border siege undermanned. While the Red Claw is getting clobbered by catapult stones and skewered by ballista bolts, you’ll be able to break the siege against the troops on the border and retake Jerusa. Once that’s done, and the tables have turned, the Red Claw attacking the ports will likely surrender.”
“You’re a genius!” Derien cheered.
“I have to agree!” Leyon added. “I don’t see how it can fail!”
“Thanks, and no problem,” Soren replied. “Have the fastest among your riders carry word to King Wencelis. We need those siege weapons on the boats as fast as possible if this is going to work. Now, I suggest we all move out.”
“Right. But one more thing,” Leyon insisted.
He then approached Azura, whom was not far away.
“Az…looks like it’s time for us to leave,” he spoke up.
“Yeah… I guess this is good bye for now…” Azura replied, her eyes downcast. The pair had discovered their love just the previous evening, and the notion of parting so soon was saddening to them both. Even so, the couple leaned in for a farewell kiss, which resulted in many jaw-drops and head shakes.
“Hehehe, I so knew it!” Eliot mumbled to himself with a chuckle. Natalie merely sighed, figuring that perhaps the two really did belong together.
“Come back to me in one piece, you hear?” Azura said when she and Leyon parted.
“Of course. I’ll see you again soon, my love,” Leyon promised.
With that, the pair ordered their parties to move out and the two groups separated. Azura and Bryan’s group went west while Leyon’s headed northeast for the Cilae border. One of Derien’s wolves volunteered to deliver the request for the siege weapons to King Wencelis, saying he could circle back and catch up with the army faster than a knight. The two generals quickly agreed, wrote and encrypted the request and sent the wolf off. Leyon’s small army, thankfully, did not have to go very far since the group was already in the northern region of Astryn when they divided. They just needed to cross the foothills of the nearby mountain range and they would be in Cilae. Unfortunately, as those foothills came into view a few hours later, so too did another obstacle. Along the long, stone wall, which spanned the pass and served as a border fortification between Cilae and Astryn, were dozens of Meloran soldiers and Red Claw members, entrenched and ready for combat. Snipers manned ballistae at the wall’s edges while catapults and Sages were stationed between them. Pegasus knights and dracoknights above the wall while other cavalry and infantry stood atop it.
“Damn it! I thought I smelled a lot of beorc ahead! They’ve formed a blockade here to keep us out!” Derien realized.
“And that means they anticipated our arrival,” Leyon added. “But it doesn’t matter. We have to break through if we’re to reach Jerusa and our besieged friends. Everyone, CHARGE!”
With that, the troops scattered and raced towards the staircases and ramps leading across the wall. It wasn’t long, however, before the enemy began retaliating, firing off siege weapons and other ranged attacks to stop Leyon and Derien’s men from closing the distance. The knights and wolves, too swift and maneuverable to be struck, wove out of the path of one barrage after another and soon assailed the enemy. Leyon ordered his troops to defeat every enemy they could find so that they could not warn or reinforce the enemy troops occupying Jerusa. Derien and Leyon both suspected that the army they would be facing at the capital would be large enough by itself and they could not afford to lose the element of surprise or be overwhelmed by reinforcements.
Fortunately for the Allied troops, Jett and Magali reached Warrior and Halberdier status respectively during the battle, with Jett having promoted first. His shoulders were now clad in the same spiked armor which Boyd wore while Magali’s pink armor resembled Cato’s. Instead of leg armor, however, she wore magenta leggings and pink foot guards. Her shield became larger as well. With their newfound strength, the pair added greatly to the might of their group, which pleased Leyon and Derien all the more.
“Either the strongest defenders are all at Jerusa, or these guys have underestimated us,” Leyon decided when the enemy’s numbers began dwindling quickly.
“Yeah… But hey, their loss is our game,” Derien replied. With this, Leyon could not disagree, and ordered his men to take out the remaining enemies quickly so they could continue. If Soren’s plan was unfolding as they hoped, then the siege weapons could already be getting loaded onto the few remaining Allied ships for delivery to the troops at the besieged Cilaean ports. Making sure the “evacuation” got underway, and that Melora found out about it, would be crucial to success.
While Leyon and Derien’s group finished their battle, Azura and Bryan’s pressed on towards Medann. Bryan and Owen figured that any help to be had, soldiers to help defeat Shigo and others to vouch for his identity and spread the word of his return, would be found there. Not to mention Bryan would get to see Marion before she passed away. His ailing aunt was one of the few people who could identify him as the prince of Astryn. If Marion could see the resemblance between Bryan and her sister, then she would surely know that he was her nephew. And if that wasn’t enough, finding the Grand Duke whom Owen had escaped the capital with would only lend further credence to his claim. When the group passed the fort where Bryan had first met Shigo, they saw it was eerily quiet and deserted. Bryan knew that the idea of Shigo hiding in the same place twice was too good to be true, but it was strange that the fort had not been re-occupied by bandits or Red Claw or Astrynians or anyone else, for that matter. At this, the group could only press on.
However, it wasn’t long before the group came upon another camp built near the Lysthe swamp, a vast marshland where three Astryn’s three major rivers converged. One of these was the Ystrad River. The other two, according to Owen, were the Vena and Nepte Rivers. Unfortunately, the figures roaming the large campsite did not look friendly. Closer inspection soon revealed, inevitably, that it was yet another Red Claw encampment. Axe wielders, archers, swordsmen, and mages of all kinds wandered about while a few ballistae had been constructed on the outskirts.
“Curses! These must be the thugs who spread those rumors about me!” Bryan realized. “I bet they heard about what happened in Keanu and twisted the facts!”
“Yeah, I definitely don’t doubt that,” Azura agreed. “My guess is they’re also the ones looting the villages, like we saw when we first arrived. They’re probably robbing the locals of their food and money.”
“DAMN IT! I won’t stand for this! I’ll turn them into shish-kabobs!” Bryan angrily thundered.
“I’m with you all the way, Bryan. Let’s kick their asses!” Skye proclaimed.
Bryan wasn’t hesitant to agree as he rushed towards the camp, followed by his allies. If the Red Claw really was stealing from the locals, Bryan knew stopping them had to take priority. If he could rescue the Astrynians from poverty and starvation, then they would surely trust him as their savior when the time came to battle Shigo. And by winning over the people, they would likely accept his claim that he was their prince, even if he didn’t have proof. Hopefully, this would help strengthen Bryan and Owen’s standing in Astryn and allow them to gain access to Astryn Palace. Once there, finding proof of Bryan’s heritage would hopefully prove a simple matter.
However, there was no telling how many Red Claw members had crossed Astryn’s border. Thankfully, since Melora’s only interest in Astryn was making sure they didn’t join the fighting, the Red Claw incursion was likely to be a small one. Bryan surmised that this camp may very well be all there was, aside from Shigo’s forces. More likely, the Red Claw was only using Astryn as a sort of supply hub to move troops and weaponry into Talgria and Eraghoa. Still, as he angrily drove his lance into Red Claw members on all sides, Bryan knew this had to end, especially if he were to gain his people’s respect and trust. He, Skye, and the others tore through the tents, destroyed the catapults, and Skye manned a vacant ballista once more to rain death upon the Red Claw. And to Bryan, it felt almost as good as a night alone with Faline would. His ascension was at hand.