Vol.2, Ch.2, P.2
“…is there… anything… I can do…?”
A fruit born from much effort.
With pluck and persistence had I been sharing my words with Mia, that she may, given time, share with me more of her own. Though to be precise, it was more a one-way flow, for she was yet given to timidness and quietude.
But the progress made was undeniable, as evidenced by her innocent question, asked upon the morrow of our fifth day together. A request for something, anything at all, to do—surely it must’ve grown unbearable for her by then, to have so little to fill her days with besides idle dilly-dallying.
Perhaps I would give her just that. The timing seemed right.
Mia was, by nature, a child imbued with an independent spirit. Pure conjecture on my part, of course. But of late, the feeling was always there: though she yet said very little, I saw in her something of a sprout, slowly, ever so slowly beginning its bend towards brighter rays.
As such, giving her something to do for the mere sake of it wouldn’t have sufficed. Instead, I would have her do something for me. A lesson in tandem, to teach her that she was still a soul of value: someone who was needed, someone to be relied upon.
And so, to her, a duty all of her own. A simple, but vital bit of housekeeping was sure to fit the bill. Truth be told, a humble, standalone home such as this was hardly in need of a housekeeper. But I cared not. The ‘what’ of her job should matter less than the ‘why’, after all.
Housecleaning it was, then. To be done in the sunlit hours. I would be away at the fort from morning on, till my return at dusk. In the meanwhile, Mia’s charge would be to tidy up the house. And once she has grown accustomed to conversation, I mean to rely upon her some more. Perhaps with a bit of laundry and the like.
A question asked asudden. But of course I wouldn’t chain her up.
I do admit that I had reservations, to leave Mia all alone during the day. Spending those many hours in solitude was sure to ail a growing child like her, but my choices numbered few. Arbel was a bastion of Man, after all, and bringing her along with me to Balasthea was certain to beckon trouble beyond my arbitration.
Therefore, the best I could do before my daily departure was set aside some lunch for her. A meal of bread, assorted fruits, and such. And speaking of meals, two a day was the common custom, whether it be for the kin of Man or Nafílim. For my part, I favoured three, and partook accordingly even during my time in the Order.
So it was that I had Mia follow suit. Three meals a day for the growing girl. Though truth be told, the mere thought of her having lunch all alone upon that dining table was disheartening enough. But more disheartening again was providing her too little at so paramount a time: her heart and body both were yet healing, and ample sustenance was key to their corroboration.
To make up for it, I went well out of my way to ensure we shared our breakfasts and suppers together. And of course, each occasion was an opportunity for conversation: included with every meal were earfuls of prattle on my part. Stubborn, yes, but it was for her own good.
Yet in all things there are limits, and the same holds true for words. I knew this well enough, and so endeavoured upon her a touch from time to time. Certainly, no lady should suffer an unpermitted stroke of the hand upon her person. But Mia was a special case. Her heart was woefully broken, and my wits well-convinced me that warm contact was just the remedy needed for its mending.
All well and fine. Albeit by most measures, my figure was a towering one. Indeed, I myself had grown into a rather rugged and looming mould by this age of twenty. And so to Mia, I might’ve seemed the imposing presence.
Hence with all caution paid, with as much meekness of mirth as I could muster, to Mia I would give a tap upon the shoulder, or a touch upon the cheek. Gestures of gentleness, given upon entrusting some duty to her or thanking her for fulfilling them. And of course, all with a smile, without fail.
Even then, there would be little of what one would call a “response” on her part. Only, she would often look up to meet my gaze. And in those amber eyes, I would discover a candlelight of emotion, tiny, quivering, and vanishingly faint.
And there was the hug. A step above the gestures before, but one I could not commit to. Somehow, I had the uneasy feeling that an embrace would unearth from her a memory fraught with misery.
To stay myself for her sake.
To task all tact to her consideration.
Kindnesses, these were. Yet ones only skin-deep. Ones I wished never to retreat to. Intimacy is most frightful indeed, but I could ill-afford to be fettered by such fear. The part of the pale-livered pansy, who paints himself the prudent man by mistaking distance for discretion, was a role I was resolved to reject.
An ill-abled ungraced, a fool of an exile flung to the far fringes of the kingdom—these I may be, but a coward? Nay. I cannot and will not entertain cowardice, whether in my conduct or my conscience.
Yet there I was. Frozen.
The moment: when I was first fain to give Mia an embrace. But as I came close, a vision stopped me in my tracks. One of glass, at once whole yet frail, and then fracted into many fragments. In the end, I relented, petrified.
Once again, I realised that there were still many a hurdle to overcome, and over the coming days, a veritable mountain of dilemmas to deliberate.
Mia’s meek greeting as I opened the door, now home from my duties at the fort.
Such etiquette likely resulted from the education of the slaver himself. Still, it was one Mia acted upon by her own free will, a fact none could deny. And the deed earned no small gladness from me, for it was the first time I’d heard the greeting from her lips.
Already, it’s been two weeks since I’d taken her in; perhaps the frail bud that was her heart had begun to bloom? If even by just a little?
“Mia. It’s good to be home.”
Grateful, I reached down and ran my fingers lightly through her locks.
And then a thought struck me. Indeed, Mia’s hair was fine and fair, flowing like glossy strands of gossamer—so much so that I suddenly saw myself boorish to touch such a delicate thing without reservation.
Of course, I was yet committed to reacquainting Mia to the gentle touch. But a woman’s own tresses were to her a treasure most cherished. And so to lay a hand upon Mia’s own so freely was perhaps reckless of me.
Whelmed by the epiphany, I found myself frozen yet again as a silent lull stretched on between us.
Meanwhile, Mia’s gaze was pointed up, firmly fixed upon mine.
“Ah—sorry, Mia. Your hair, it seemed like silk. In a good way, I mean, soft as it is and all,” I stammered. “And er… its black strands shine well. Beautiful, really.”
My words, rushed though they were, echoed my honest sentiments. Truly, her sable hair was as silken satin, though I certainly should’ve been more artful in articulating aloud my measure of it. To be frank, the failure might’ve made me seem vain, if not vulgar.
And yet, Mia was gentle enough to offer those very words in return.
What an oaf I was. A trusty laughingstock of the fates, to be sure.
“Dear Commandant! A matter!”
“What’s it now, Ebbe? Not come to pitch your proposal again, I hope?”
Balasthea Stronghold. There I was in the command chamber, my gaze dug deep in some organisational charts, till its upheaval by Ebbe’s arrival.
Of course, this wasn’t the first of such unannounced intrusions. Ebbe had been bent of late on a plan to deploy the fort’s forces into Nafílim lands. A counteroffensive, to be exact, one he saw promising much profit, now that Balasthea’s fortunes were quite favourable, and what with our men presently able to repel the Nafílim aggression to little trouble.
And he wasn’t alone in his bloodlust. Many others in the fort echoed Ebbe’s call for belligerence, seeing the sound state of affairs. That’s not to say their sentiments were fresh. No, Balasthea’s plight prior to my arrival, dreadful and deathly as it was, yet burned bitterly in the men’s minds, and they meant more than ever to pounce vindictively upon this newly arisen opportunity.
“How now, Commandant! Pray unclog thine ears an’ lend ’em to unclouded reason!” Ebbe resumed his theatrics. “The enemy wanes an’ wavers in this while, thus we must strike! Come! While the iron glows hot, ey!”
Our foe was waning indeed. But that’s not to say victory was at hand.
“Cool those veins along with that iron of yours, Ebbe. Need I remind you—again—that this here is a fort, and its defence is our sole charge?” I stated firmly. “Balasthea is our bedrock. What good does it do any of us to abandon its walls for some foolhardy foray?”
It was the margrave’s men, the Fiefguard, who swung the sword of Ström, whilst we of the fort shouldered the shield. This must be emphasised, for apparently it wasn’t in Ebbe’s blunted pate. To merrily sortie our defensive ranks and leave empty the ramparts of Balasthea—purely on account of a newly held advantage—is naught but a filth-stain of a strategy.
“Well then, I ‘spose I’ll fare off on this ‘foolhardy foray’ on my own—with my unit in tow, that is,” Ebbe shrugged. “Worry not, Commandant! Our swords’ve sang in Nafílim air no few times ’fore, they have.”
I shook my head. “You but drave those swords into the backs of our foes as they fled, Ebbe. Yet here, you are intent upon invasion—another manoeuvre entirely, one that demands numbers you well-lack.”
“What’s this now, ey? You think Balasthea some cradle, Commandant? An’ we its babes, scarce able to eke out a vict’ry without its coddling walls? I think not!”
“The only babe I see here is you, Ebbe. One drunk from his rare bottle of victory, babbling and bumbling after the bait of ‘invasion’. Time and again have Londosius’ finer forces fumbled on that familiar path—to their own regret. Rather than wending down where their feet and flesh once fell, you might do yourself some good to grow up. Trade that bib of yours for a burgonet, why don’t you? And tighten its straps all the more tautly should you ever find the lulling taste of victory sweet upon your viper-tongue.”
“Tch…!” Anger twitched on his face. “Fine then, Commandant. I’ll bow t’your spirit, I will. But tell me this first, yea? Our plans for the headwaters—why strike it down, hm?”
The headwaters—a springpool spied by our scouts not more than a few days past. Located in the woodlands behind enemy lines, we surmised it to be a source of fresh water to the Nafílim, and the more ruthless amongst our ranks proposed we poison it. Corroborating tracks were found in its vicinity, ones that indicated its use by Nafílim civilians. Thus to befoul the waters would beget their widespread waste and woe.
Such was what was reported to me. But in the end, I rejected acting upon it.
“A gainly gambit, it is, fraught with only a little danger to us forces,” Ebbe continued. “Why, we once had it done t’great effect, ‘fore your arrival! So I ask again: why?”
I remained silent, staring back at Ebbe only to see in his own eyes a speck of savagery.
“No… That look on your face. I spies a tongue well-ready t’spew the same nonsense as ‘fore. Some spit ‘bout staying us hands from the civilians. Say it ain’t so, Commandant!”
My brows furrowed.
“…Befouling this fair land is our last resort. We owe much to the earth, to its winds and waters. We cannot be so wanton in laying waste to it, not least when the war-momentum already wheels in our favour.”
A smile. “Ah, then you do admit, ey! That it be very much a plan worthy o’ action, given a pretext with a price t’match!”
“Hmph. Well an’ good. Well an’ good, indeed…” he said fadingly, “…for now.”
“Ebbe,” I called to him as he turned his back. “I’ll say it till it is seared into that pate of yours. Do not act upon any plan that has met my rejection. Next time you get out of line, and there won’t be a ‘next time’ for you.”
A nail driven in, just in case.
Once before was this man insubordinate, taking his lackeys along to pursue the Nafílim in their retreat—after my express orders not to do so. Only by the margrave’s intervention was he let off the hook. But never again.
“‘Course, Commandant. I am a soldier, after all. Obeyer o’ orders, subject t’the rule o’ law,” Ebbe leered and sneered. “But orders have their limits. Rules have their exceptions. Oh, let’s say—were my dear Commandant too ill-abled and dim-wit’d t’do his office, for example.”
“And what does that make you, Ebbe? So able-bodied and bright-witted a babe you are, to think only of tearfully tattling to your margrave,” I shot back. “Only after I assumed command were the fort’s fortunes turned ‘round. Your dear lord knows well of this—and of my irreplaceability.”
“…Graceful words from an ungraced. But you’re no less a babe than I, Commandant. Be not too tipsy off your own bottle o’ milky merit, hm? Lest you find the mornin’ after a mite much for you t’stomach.”
“Ebbe. Your plan to poison the headwaters is dead. You shall not act upon it. Do I make myself clear?”
“Oh, you very well do, Commandant,” he smirked, making for the door. “You very well do.”
A deed to be done, must be.
Even when harried by hesitation. Even when left with lingering questions.
As long as I believe it must be done, so shall it be done.
This, I found myself pondering as I glared at Ebbe’s parting presence.