Vol.1, Ch.4, P.8
The catoblepas was slain.
With Godrika free from its menace, the 5th Chivalric Order resumed their efforts to secure the bloodied depths. The knights’ diligence proved fruitful, for at just past sundown on the second day, the final squad emerged from the adit and gave the bookending report: the tunnels were at last emptied of their erstwhile inhabitants.
The Godrika Minery was back in Londosius’ hands, and the monolithic veins of silver with it.
But candles were kept lit, for the work of the knights was yet undone. Many a time was the hourglass turned till late into the moon-crowned night, where adjourned a meeting on the stationing of troops at the mines, as well as the repatriation of the dead therein. Yet again were we to camp under the stars; only on the morrow would we make our way back to headquarters.
Through the miracles of mending magicks were my wounds mostly sealed up, though my bones were left in their broken state. The silver lining? I was yet able to walk this time, a thankful convenience compared to the aftermath of Erbelde, where I was left bedridden for days on end. And so I availed myself the opportunity.
Sword practice. The daily rigour. The daily comfort.
There was I, alone in a benighted grove. Hands clasped about the hilt, I turned my eyes up to the moon. Pain ran through me in an unceasing cycle, but by force of will, I pushed it from my mind. I raised the sword and swung.
“Egh…!” I winced.
This won’t do.
The pain was the better opponent, sharp and sudden, leading my sword astray in its sailing.
“No good… And no choice, either,” was my muttered relent.
And so I settled into the centre guard, blade forward. If I could not swing with my body, then I would swing with my mind. I emptied my lungs of their air, and purged from my head any remaining distinction between my hands and my blade.
Now I had but to repeat the same once more, this time between my consciousness and the ambience itself.
In my mind’s eye, the vision of a swung sword. Then another. And another. Downward. Upward. Left. Right. Aslant.
In my corporeal eyes, the sight of a stilled sword. Moonlit. Motionless.
For countless times more, I continued to swing the sword with not a single budge from my body. Each instance of the blade arc, carefully corrected. Each swing, imbued with the whole of my soul.
My brows furrowed.
Even in my mind, the blade began to meander.
For there before me, that beast awoke. A foe never to be forgotten. The memory of the mines surfacing into the moment. A harrier upon my heart.
The envisioned sword was swung many times more, but its course proved uncorrectable. Bent it was in its travel, dull in its cut, slow in its fall. Tonight would be another wasted night. The distractions have won the bout.
I closed my eyes, finding there in my heart the blackened waters stirring once more.
In its depths, the eyes of the sinking catoblepas—eyes brimming with the brilliance of battle, bright and burning, till they were as embers stamped out by the cold abyss.
Those very eyes had shown me what a valley there was between their master and myself. Of how unconquerable the catoblepas’ spirit was. Of how dwarfed my defiance was. I had won the game of life and death, but lost the war of wills.
‘I am without odyl. If victory is not in the cards, then I have but to fold.’
Somewhere, somehow, I had fooled myself into believing such, that this would be the way of things from here on out. And so I lost, and continued to lose, till the battle came whereupon my very essence was to be judged.
There, too, I lost.
The odyl of which I lacked, the world in which I lived—neither were factors in this fight. Only my spirit was the participant, and by the end, it was beaten and brought low.
Eyes open, I gave a deep breath. With renewed determination, I clenched the hilt of my sword. Back to the beginning now.
Till there rang a voice I knew very well.
Long has it been since I’ve failed in sensing someone’s approach before their call. Another defeat—how many more must I endure before the light of dawn?
“My Lady Felicia,” I answered.
A brooding mien shaded her fair face. “…I am yet your ‘Lady’, now of all times?”
“As you must be.”
I knew well what she wanted to say, but breaking custom here would have done neither of us any favours. This was not simply a matter of paying the requisite respect to a superior.
Felicia would gain only grief in consorting with me so congenially, ungraced as I am.
What’s more, House Buckmann had forbidden even the sharing of words between us. Were it to fall upon the ears of our parents that she yet harboured any warmth for her wayward brother, then surely a shadow would loom anew upon her future prospects.
For her part, Felicia must have been well-apprised of this by now. Yet to her, knowing and accepting were hardly two sides of the same coin.
Such a troubled soul stared on at me, sullen.
“If I may ask, what is it that you’ve been doing here?” she said dispiritedly.
“Training, my Lady,” I returned. “My daily practice.”
“Yet those hands have hardly swung the sword even once, in all the time that I’ve watched you,” Felicia observed. “Is it that your wounds have got the better of you?”
“Nay. One may yet swing a sword that cannot be swung, as it were.”
“I… see. I think… Were this training only as constructive as it is cryptic.”
Lost upon my own sister, I see. I couldn’t blame her. Not least because our disciplines were worlds apart.
“Well? How may I be of service to the Lady Felicia?” I asked, to which my sister began parting her lips for words that would surely issue with no small difficulty.
“…I… I owe you much and more… for your bravery.”
For having saved her from the catoblepas, perhaps? There was a tone of gratitude in her voice, certainly, but I also sensed some regret couched in that timbre.
“And my words after the war council—they were bitter overmuch,” she continued. “‘Twas an undue slight that I’ve let slip.”
“One I pay not a mind to,” I dismissed.
“What left your lips was not so out of line. But be that as it may, some biting words here and there are well and fine, I’d say,” was my admittance. “We’re family, after all. You and I.”
Anew upon Felicia’s lips: a faint smile. She then let her gaze fall, and there our company sat still for a quiet, moonlit while. At its end, she looked up again.
“…Brother…” she softly started, “…you’d slain that behemá all by yourself, hadn’t you? That affrighting catoblepas… murderer of all our men—with just you alone was it felled…”
“I was hardly alone,” I corrected.
“Yet hardly had I and the others done aught. ‘Tis certain: we were… we were of no avail…”
Her voice trailed off to quietude before another joined our midst.
“Rolf, Felicia. You two’ve been here all along, I see.”
Felicia turned up. “Emilie…”
Our young mareschal came into the moonlight. Her timbre, too, was void of its erstwhile vigour.
“…Even on a day like this, you won’t rest from your training, Rolf?” Emilie asked flatly.
“I see… But do temper yourself.”
Her regard had the look of complete exhaustion about it. We had won the day, but only upon the bodies of the vainly departed—those of none other than her own subordinates. I could not imagine what a crushing burden it must have been upon her heart.
“Your counsel, Rolf. It portended much… hadn’t it?”
Our point of contention. Silence was my answer.
“The behemá menace, the tangled routes of retreat, the casualties…” Emilie resumed. “Had I heeded your warnings, certainly the day would’ve sung a different tone.”
“The day is ours regardless,” I reaffirmed dispassionately.
“…I suppose it is, in the end.”
“Emilie…” Felicia gently spoke up. “Are you unwell?”
The two girls were as sisters to one other. That Felicia would show such concern for the visibly haggard Emilie was most natural, for between them was shared a sympathy nurtured since their earliest days.
“Unwell? I… Yes. I am unwell, I admit,” said Emilie. “Felicia. Not long ago, I bade your brother seek a different path—one of strategy and planning, perhaps, things of that sort. He’s a wise one, as you well know. And that’s why I thought he’d find some purchase, were he to sheathe the sword for good…”
“Yet… ‘twas that same wisdom that I took ill-heed of. Only yesterday did I reject his counsel outright, and now…” Emilie shook her head. “…Now we’ve got graveyards to fill. Families to condole.”
“But Emilie, ‘tis not…”
“You had your reasons,” I asserted. “And they were valid enough. To say you rejected my proposals outright is a bit much.”
“Yet the losses we’ve suffered were both unreasonable and overmuch; no excuse or comfort now can bring back all the dearly departed,” Emilie insisted. Her lips then slowly bent into a smile—a weary, lightless smile made to mock none other than Emilie herself. “…When I’d heard the 15th’s report, I couldn’t contain my shame: I had to enter the mines myself and settle the matter with my own hands. ‘Twas witless of me, looking back on it now…”
“Oh, Emilie…” Felicia consoled. “’Twas a greathorn we all thought the beast to be, no? Were that the case, certainly your levinblade would have felled the fiend.”
“…You thought to punish yourself, didn’t you?” I elucidated. “Atonement, tempered by regret—impetus enough to send yourself into the tunnels, where you might right your wrongs.”
“Yes… that sorts well, I must say. What a fool I was,” Emilie confessed, her eyes drifting off to some memory. “And the Mareschal Tiselius… I admit again, I see something of a rival in her. She often fights on the frontlines, doesn’t she?”
Estelle Tiselius. Dame Mareschal to the 1st Chivalric Order. I had not thought her name would come up in this conversation, but here we were. Widely reputed for her valour upon the frontlines she was, but I could not comprehend why that would stoke within Emilie the fires of competition.
“The Mareschal Tiselius is a hero-dame of our realm, that much is certain. But the Lady Emilie is hardly wanting for merits of her own,” I observed. “Am I wrong? I see no reason why you must be compelled to play the rival so.”
“…You’re right…” Emilie relented, letting her gaze fall. Yet another matter remained uncertain in her heart, one she brought to voice after much struggle. “Rolf. About what you said before, of how our kingdom means to expand its military might, should we take back these mines—will it come to pass, do you think? Now that we’ve done just that?”
“I’ve no doubt.”
Londosius’ dearest fodder for its lions of war.
Godrika was at last the kingdom’s own, and eager were its royal hands to reach into the purified bowels and snatch up all the silver it so coveted. And not to the crafting of coins or crowns would the precious metal be tasked. No, every molten droplet of the argent would fill the moulds in which would form the pride of Londosius: silver weapons and silver armour. Nothing else.
And certainly, many wills within the kingdom’s legislative halls were long bent upon seeing this through—Central, in particular. Indeed, the administrative canopy over the five Orders was as an aviary aplenty with war hawks, each itching and impatient upon his perch. Our success here at the mines would doubtlessly see that fiery flock flourish.
“We’ll be showered with decorations for what we’ve achieved today… won’t we?” Emilie wondered aloud with furrowed brows.
Many souls here were lost.
And many amongst them again were the dear issue of the aristocracy. The 5th, after all, is a grand gathering of ennobled sons and daughters all seeking to start their decorated lives. The implication here cannot be understated.
But another implication, one of a newfound source of silver—a seemingly endless supply of it, one could imagine—is overshadowingly monolithic by comparison.
Londosius was changed forever.
An able commander is he who knows best how to kill his own soldiers, that his own ends might be given furtherance. A cruel and cutting truth, one that undeniably manifested here at the mines, much to Emilie’s chagrin. But I suspect Central would have fained to agree with frightening immediacy.
“…My heart tells me to step down as mareschal, that I might answer for my failings,” confided Emilie. “It’ll hardly atone for all we’ve lost, only… I cannot see myself keeping the mareschal’s mantle for much longer. Yet… yet stay, I must…”
Tears fell from the young mareschal’s eyes.
“House Mernesse… my poor, poor family… We’re so small, so faint, I fear… I fear we are as a raft upon the fickle seas… ready to founder against the slightest wave…” she wept. “…This victory—how I detest it so… yet I need it, if only to keep my family afloat…”
Mernesse. A noble line fallen upon hard times. With but a few servants and no land to call its own, House Mernesse was like to fade as a bubble set loose upon the barbed winds of aristocratic society. Yet Emilie’s fortunes gave it the purchase it needed to survive. Though, just the same, its heavy fate now rested solely upon her young shoulders.
But for her family to persist with any certainty, a further arrangement must be consummated.
“…And House Albeck…” Emilie continued. “…If I’m to honour the engagement, then I’ve no choice… none save remain in the Order…”
House Albeck—its son and heir to whom Emilie was now betrothed.
It would seem her station as an elite within the Order gave substance to the engagement. The shackles of aristocratic life, as it were. I’ve since been freed from them, for better or worse. Yet here, Emilie remained indelibly bound by them.
Never would these worries have harried me had you found the grace of Yoná…
Words that Emilie dared not utter.
But they spoke the simple truth. Were we yet betrothed and to be blessed with a happy ever-after, she would not have known the misery that now mired her so.
On and on, she sobbed.
Felicia, helpless, did naught but look on to great sorrow.
The night after a hard-won victory.
The victors—not amongst them was shared a single smile.
Chapter 4 ─ End