Vol.1, Ch.3, P.11
The River of Lorn Fates.
At waters’ end, I would there be judged.
At long last… or so I had thought.
I yet drew breath, and by no small fortune, woke to find myself lying in bed.
The medics’ tents—a familiar sight, this place. Already had I paid it a visit, namely after drawing Lindell’s ironfisted ire on the eve of the battle.
“Oh? Up now, are we?” spoke a nursing aide, peeking in. “Stay put, will you? I’ve got someone to fetch now that you’ve awoken—orders and all.”
‘Someone’? Who exactly? I wondered. As I thought to ask, I found the aide already gone from the tent. Likely she had found out who—or what—I was, for all gentleness was stolen from her mood, a contrast to my prior visit.
A still moment dragged by, till another soul came briskly into the tent: the Dame Mareschal Tiselius herself.
“Rolf! Oh gladness, you’re awake!”
“My Lady, Mareschal Tiselius,” I saluted, as I began bending up from the bed.
“At ease, now. You’ve toiled enough,” said the mareschal, staying my attempt to get up. She then alighted upon a chair right beside me. An odd… blush was about her face—thoroughly tired from the battle, she must’ve been. “How fare you, Rolf? Are you in pain?” she asked.
“I feel something of a fever, perhaps from broken bones. Otherwise, I fare well enough,” I answered. “What of you, madame? Were you wounded yourself?”
“Nay, thankfully. You did well to protect me in that moment, bringing me down and covering me like you did.”
“I see. Then I am most glad.”
“Yes…” Her voice faded into quietude. Curious. I yielded a blink of puzzlement before she continued. “…Do you remember calling me? By just my name?”
That I did.
If memory serves, I had spotted a flaming arrow piercing a tent behind her—one crammed with quickfire crates. The scream I let out to warn her was but of a single word: “Estelle”, her naked name.
“‘Twas an ill offence I’ve committed in the heat of the moment. Please, forgive my insolence,” I entreated her.
“And you held me close as we were both bent down upon the ground,” Tiselius went on. “You recall that, as well, I take it?”
“A-again, my deepest apologies, madame.”
“Ah, so you do remember.”
A soft laugh. “…I see,” she said, before reaching up to stroke her own shoulder—the same I held during my bid to shield her from the explosion. “It pleases me to see you up and lucid, anyhow. ‘Twas a whole day you’ve slept through, I’ll have you know.”
Her lips curved up tenderly. Was she the sort to smile when incensed?
“Madame,” I started, my mind turning to matters more urgent. “The battle—what became of it?”
“Our foes committed to their retreat, just as predicted. Some amongst our number insisted on giving chase, but I stilled their steeds,” she explained. “And that was the end of it—the battle was won.”
I let loose a deep sigh of relief.
It was finally over.
“Your sister and senior officer both are faring well, I should add,” she said.
With this, Emilie, Felicia, and I had a victory to decorate our very first battles with. And from that battlefield, we would make our return, unbroken and unscathed, heads held high. Well, I can’t exactly say I escaped unharmed from it all, but regardless: we lived to tell the tale.
“Your solace is much appreciated, madame,” I responded.
Tiselius paused for a while before speaking up once more. “…That moment, mere seconds before the bridge was undone. Do you recall?”
“You realised something then, and bolted off to the bank yonder—all in an instant.”
“As did you, Mareschal.”
“Right. I’m well aware of mine overeagerness, but I must admit, rushing headlong to the other bank like I did—’twas most ill-becoming of a commander,” she confessed, shaded with remorse. “My body betrayed the better of my wits. Before I knew it, I… found myself sprinting for the enemy shore. But had I not, ‘twould’ve been the final day for our dear forders.”
“Nay, madame. I believe your judgement was most sound. No commander of right mind would fain to have her own troops be made as scrap-feed for the fishes.”
“Thank you. Your words are succour most welcome,” she smiled. “Yet you thought—and did—as I had, am I wrong? Sooner than I, no less. And further on, you took quick action on the enemy banks before making for the tributary.”
“Indeed I did. Upon stolen steed, you raced to the tributary, bearing a full-packed explosive upon that shoulder of yours,” she recounted. “I saw you then… and resolved to wager our fortunes upon your enterprise. Thus till the dice revealed their tally did I commit to safeguarding the forders.”
“A bet you took along with Lieutenants Lindell and Mernesse, yes? I gather they were able to cross over to the enemy banks as well?” I asked.
“That’s right. For some minutes, the three of us harried the enemy artillery, that our forders might know of some relief. We heard it then—an explosion from upstream, like a most unexpected drum-strike. Not too long after, calm returned to the Erbelde, and the forders found their footing once more. ‘Twas a gamble of much gain.”
“But not one without its losses. What of that end?”
“…Till that time, a third or so of the forders were lost… whether to the waters or to the ire of our enemy. A search scours the river for their whereabouts as we speak, but to this moment, we’ve turned up naught.”
“I see…” I said lowly.
So it came to be that our forces suffered no small number of casualties. But perhaps that was the best we could have hoped for. After all, with the Des Ailes destroyed, there was little else that anyone could have done to draw the foe’s fury away from the forders.
In spite of it, the mareschal could only wring out embittered words from her heart.
“Would that I were keen enough to previse the Nafílim’s designs in damming the tributary… ‘Tis a deep regret that ill-relents,” she said, her topaz eyes downcast as they recalled that fateful scene. “The forders all, they were teetering at their limits. Any longer, and…”
And all would have been lost, our forders as pieces wiped away from the gameboard. Though that thankfully did not come to pass, by Tiselius’ account, it truly was down to the wire. Paying no mind to the enemy engineers like I did, charging through without a moment’s hesitation—all had been sound decisions. The fates would not have forgiven me had I tarried for a moment more.
“Were it not for you, our defeat would’ve been writ large upon the history books—disdainfully so,” Tiselius admitted. “I cannot thank you enough.”
“A thanks misgiven, I fear,” I proceeded to give my own admittance. “It was we, the 5th, who were slow overmuch in wading through the waters. The toll of an ill-planned march was weighing woefully on our backs. Had we lightened ourselves with a sounder scheme, the day would have been ours and all—ere the bridge was blown to bits.”
“That, I wonder. Would the 5th have arrived at all were you not there to suggest marching under moonlight?” she reasoned. “Nevermind that—was it not you, Rolf, who vouched for the better route from the very beginning?”
“You’re well-informed, madame. How, if I may ask?”
“I had Officer Kranz apprise me of it all.”
‘Kranz’? Our Gerd Kranz?
That’s… quite the surprise.
The mareschal pressed on. “Pray tell. What became of you after the waters were freed? By what fortune did you end up so deep behind enemy lines?”
“I was… swallowed up by the tributary itself.”
“When the dam was destroyed?”
“Yes. The fork was appointed with enemy engineers—I had not the luxury to detonate the charge in safety, not on their watch. And so I broke through. I destroyed the dam with as much haste as I could muster, and in the aftermath, I was whisked off by the waters.”
“…Quite the foolhardy one, aren’t you? ‘Tis a miracle you’re yet of one piece.”
“This fool’s flesh is nothing if not hardy, madame,” I admitted. Perhaps I owe my parents some thanks for it. Though, they hardly seem fain to lend even an ear to the son they so disavowed.
“And from there, you infiltrated the enemy camp from behind, played a ploy to pull their numbers away from the battle, and made your return to the frontlines.”
“That I did, yes.”
“Such valour—one most worthy of praise.”
“…Pardon?” I asked, puzzled.
“Your actions as recounted—all taken while severely wounded. Even then, what we have reaped from your pains is undeniable. For such bravery on the battlefield, you’ve earned mine applause and admiration both.”
“Y-you’re very kind, my Lady.”
A rosy glow then sang upon Tiselius’ cheeks.
Never could I have imagined her to be the sort to so warmly laud a swain of another Order. I saw further then why she stood so prominently within the knightly echelons.
“But of another matter, I should ask,” she began again.
“Another matter, madame?”
“Your sword—with such sleight do you wield it. How did it come to be, pray tell?”
…What’s this now?
“’Sleight’, madame?” I blinked. “I fear I do not follow.”
“The technique you so employed upon that Nafíl,” she elaborated.
“I had merely swung the sword twice—with but a single hand, I must add,” I answered plainly. “The other was broken, you see.”
“So you say. But mine eyes saw both to be unthinkably superb. No less than some millions of swings before them could have forged such swordsmanship.”
“Millions… Yes. Thinking of it, that number would be more on the mark.”
“I-I see,” she stammered.
If there was one thing I could be proud of, it was in not skipping a single day of sword practice since my earliest days. Of course, that long chain was broken by this adventure of a battle. For that, I would have to step up my regime once I return.
“One more matter,” Tiselius continued.
“Why did you brandish your blade against the Nafílim? No doubt full-knowing that it would never reach their flesh in the first place?”
“Ah, that…” My hands instinctively clenched the sheets. “I wanted to convince myself. I wanted proof. That my blade would not reach them. Of course, I knew that it wouldn’t, most certainly. But knowing wasn’t enough. I had to feel it for myself, with my very own hands.”
An explanation met with silence.
“A fool’s fancy, I know, but I—”
“Nay…” Tiselius interrupted. “…Yes. I see now. Of course you had to. What else was left to you otherwise? ‘Tis hardly a fool’s fancy that guides your heart, Rolf.”
Such soft sympathy, conveyed with a voice most tender in its timbre. I felt glad then—that my wayward ways were not lost to the mightiest amongst the kingdom’s knightly court.
The mareschal then straightened herself up. Turning to me, with both graveness and a shade of sorrow upon her mien, she began her next words.
“Rolf. By rights, I cannot infringe upon the 5th’s handling of honours.”
“But of course,” I affirmed.
“The deeds you’ve displayed in this battle are truly without equal. Yet, I fear they will ill-bear you any boon to which you are rightfully due.”
“I should not think otherwise.”
“…Your lot. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be for you.”
“You are most gentle, madame. But I enjoy myself quite well.”
“So I see…” Tiselius smiled lightly. Any expression upon her face would be worthy of a portrait. “…Rolf. Suppose I bid you join me in the 1st. What say you?”
Words I never expected.
In pondering the point of her proposal, there came another voice from behind her.
“W-wait! Rolf is my subordinate!”
A voice I knew very well—Emilie’s.