Vol.2, Ch.2, P.6
“Ebbe. Come next month, I’ll have myself some time off.”
“Oh? A ligging lackadaisy, are we now?”
Balasthea Stronghold. There was I, in both my chamber and the ever-sardonic company of the vice-commandant.
“The fort’ll be in your care while I’m gone,” I went on, brushing off his guff. “Quiet of late as it is, I don’t suppose aught ill should come this way any time soon. But if come it does, then I expect you to do your office some justice, and well-take heed of our captains’ counsel.”
“I’ll fulfil my office well ‘nough, Commandant. That much, I promise.”
“And you promise, too, not to re-sort the soldiery? Nor to pursue our foes in their flight? Or to stay yourself from sallying from these walls that you might sate that bloodlust of yours? I’ve forbidden these actions, you know.”
“Hmph… Yes, yes, Commandant. I know,” Ebbe groaned, throwing his gaze up in annoyance. “Bless me, you sound more the uninspired parrot with each passing day.”
“And you’ll suffer more of my squawking till you’re inspired yourself, Ebbe, to obey the orders you’re given,” I retorted, turning away from him. “I’ll brief you further in the following days.”
I peered through the chamber window. There in the yonder, beyond Balasthea’s bulwarks, spanned the Nafílim territories where I intended to take Mia, that we may search for the whereabouts of her remaining sister.
A quest for comfort… or a cruel closure. Nonetheless, it was one I’d been preparing for, right to this very moment.
“Commandant!” With a salute, a soldier stepped into the chamber. “From Central, sir.”
To me he handed an envelope. The wax seal thereupon was most familiar indeed.
“Right. Thank you.”
After sending off the soldier, I unsealed the envelope and unfolded the letter therein. What was scribed, never could I have expected.
“Well, Commandant? Care t’enlighten ol’ Ebbe o’ what the scribbles say?” asked Ebbe, his eyes keenly seeking something from my own. This, I did expect at the very least, for he was very much a man given to ambitions of authority. So surely were the sent words of Central, of all institutions of power, a quick interest to him.
“A recruitment notice,” I answered plainly. “The 5th Order has need of a chief adjutant, from the look of it.”
The recapture of Godrika, and the burgeoning of Londosius’ military might that followed, precipitated many an adjustment to each of the Orders at the organisational level. Roles were revised, charges were changed. And for some of the Orders, new posts were conceived, with “chief adjutant” being one of them. The role was heretofore missing from the 5th’s roster. A very recent development it was, then, that its leadership decided now, of all times, to avail themselves of it.
None of this was out of turn, truth be told. What was, however, were the criteria scribed in the missive. They were writ as follows:
…Applicants must have served no less than five Years in the Order beforehand. Prior Experience in Field Command is also required;
…Applicants seeking Frontline Service shall also be accepted;
…Neither past Deeds done nor Offences justly disciplined shall be of any Account…
“‘Five years in the Order’, eh? Bugger. None o’ my business, then.” The words of a listless Ebbe. “Though this cat be curious still—no account for ‘deeds done nor offences’, were it now? Well that sorts right proper with you, doesn’t it, my criminal Commandant? The war hawks at the 5th be cooing for your triumphant return. A shame an’ a waste both, t’not answer ‘em.”
“Eager to see me gone, are you?”
“Hah! Dear Commandant! I wouldn’t dare.”
The missive—sent from Central, but likely scribed by some clerk from the 5th itself. And the mind behind the peculiar criteria? None other than the Dame Mareschal herself: Emilie, my once-betrothed.
Much hearsay of the esteemed Aureola of the 5th had reached even the ears of folk here in Ström, far-flung frontier though it may have been. Indeed, of late the levinbladed battle maiden’s repute only crescendoed, and not just in the hearts of the knightly, but also in those of the gentry and common citizenry.
And much to my surprise, the royal sphere saw fit to afford her a fief: a province of her own to preside over. Ostensibly, House Mernesse was left as-is; under Emilie was a new, ennobled family formed.
And with it, a new name.
“House Valenius”, was it now?
Her name, her station, reforged anew. A halo-winged hero-dame in Central’s good graces, one whose soaring regard knew no bounds.
And that very same hero-dame was now summoning aspirants from every corner of Londosius to join her in the 5th as its chief adjutant—provided that they met her conditions, that is. And what curious conditions they were, indeed.
The first was rather run-of-the-mill, admittedly. The second, however…
‘Applicants seeking Frontline Service shall also be accepted.’
My thoughts turned back to a certain night, of what felt like ages ago. Then, like now, was I devoted to sword training on the daily. To such a soul immured in what, to her, might’ve seemed like some profitless drudgery, Emilie very well suggested that another calling in life be considered: to fight not upon the battlefield, but from the war-table instead.
To “set aside the sword”, by her words.
Her reasoning was rational enough. To ill-weave not even a wisp of odyl was to bare the dullest of teeth to the Nafílim, after all. But even in the face of such sound sense, I turned down her suggestion. For the sword, to me, was, and ever is my bedrock, one that I brandished to this very day.
Emilie herself must’ve recalled that same night, and say, in her own way, that one need not forsake the sword in assuming the post of chief adjutant.
If I am not overmuch the self-conscious sap, then I daresay this: Emilie was calling out to me.
The third condition, then.
‘Neither past Deeds done nor Offences justly disciplined shall be of any Account.’
This, too, was passing strange. An admission that even exiles would be eligible. Of course, to say that such heavy history would absolutely be of no account is far-fetched. The 5th is a conglomeration of knights, men and women to whom honour is life itself. So it is that an aspirant so stained with the brand of banishment would not be suffered lightly. So it is that the exile would be made to apologise.
What a thundering theatre it must’ve been, when the mareschal proffered such preposterousness before her knightly leaders. Rolling out the red carpet for the return of an exile? And next seat him in a post of such import as chief adjutant, no less? Not a mere fancy to fan the flames with this was, no. The possibility was real, penned right upon the missive in my hands.
That such ink was dearly set to parchment spoke volumes of Emilie’s authority.
Closing my eyes, I saw it again: her face. Unfadingly fair, as though it were only yesterday since I’d last seen it.
A wistful whisper upon my lips.
The grounds. The chambers. The halls. The knightly institution within which I spent five years alongside Emilie. Felicia, too, served it for nearly as long.
Though I was spurned and scorned as an ungraced by all within its premises, never did I think my days there were without their own merits.
Perhaps my return would be met with some pleasure? Not as some swain, but as an adjutant? Were it so, perhaps then would knighthood finally be within my reach?
A heavy moment.
Made no lighter with my eyes open again.
I’ve set my resolve.
A path chosen is a path to be walked.
A promise made is a promise to be kept.
“So, what’s your mind, eh Commandant?” Ebbe broke the silence. “Feeling homesick, I reckon?”
“…Nay. Not at all.”
Those words aired, I laid the letter to rest upon the desk. With one last look at it, a whisper welled up in my heart.
A few days went by, filled with my work and duties as commandant being passed along to my subordinates. At the end of it, I began preparing in earnest for the journey ahead.
Mia’s village—or what’s presumably left of it—laid in the northwest, beyond a stretch of forest. By no means was it far away, nor the woodland itself too large. A day’s trek on horseback would carry us through, given haste.
But no matter how thickly they grew, the trees could not hide one simple fact: their roots ran through Nafílim lands. And to avoid encountering any of Mia’s kin—belligerently unwise to our peaceful purpose, they surely were—a winding route was inevitable, one that necessitated overnighting out in the wooded wild. In other words, Mia and I would be camping under the canopy of both stars and swaying trees.
And for the errant behemót that might prowl upon our path, there was some comfort in knowing that breathing amongst them were none of their particularly dangerous brethrenーthe sort to brim with odyl, that is. Well, comfort enough, I suppose. Many a march through those woods have the Nafílim taken on their warpath to Balasthea; what’s safe for them should prove safe enough for me with Mia in tow.
As for Man himself, not upon the remnants of Mia’s homeland would his overt presence be found. Indeed, Ström’s stock of able-bodied soldiers was still unreplenished, for the wounds of Balasthea’s repute as a death-field were yet fresh—enough that breaking ground for a new garrison behind enemy lines was logistically wanton. It was for that very reason that those reaches were left utterly abandoned after their ravaging.
And strangely enough, my men had yet to report any activity that would suggest the Nafílim’s intent on reclaiming the lost lands. That’s not to say the lull could last for long, and there still remained some chance that we might run into them in our course. But kept it must be, our course. For how else would we find Mia’s sister?
Not till this far into my preparations did I realise that this would, in fact, be my first journey. There were the marches in my time with the 5th, yes, as well as the trip I took here from Norden. But this would be a journey taken by my own accord, on my own terms, not a march made in the myriad company of others, nor a voyage by way of stagecoaches.
Were I alone in this endeavour, I might’ve gone about it rather freely, with care scant and curiosity unconstrained. But care is a stern criterion, for this shall be a journey undertaken entirely with Mia. And that’s to say nothing of the camp we must make amongst the elements and all of its dangers.
The mere thought was enough to put my preparations into disarray. What exactly was needed? How much was enough? Of these, I knew very well for myself, but for a child like Mia? Aimlessly did I gather together rations, blankets, and all the like for her. Before I knew it, I had accrued too much to put into our pack.
Just an overnight stay in the forest this would be. We should pack as lightly as we would tread. It won’t do to be so weighed down as we wend through the woods. They should be parted from as soon as possible, that we might reach the village remnants at the earliest.
On and on did these worries whittle away at me as I sorted out our luggage for the coming journey.
The dawn of our departure.
I emerged from the porch and into a vista of silver, sunbroken skies. A horse idled upon our yard, to whom I went to stuff supplies into its saddle-packs: food, a smattering of camping comforts and tools, and my trusty waterskin.
I turned back to the porch.
“We leave now, Mia. Have you made ready?”
Mia’s nodding answer, given from the depths of her deeply hooded cloak. I then picked her up and placed her upon the saddle, catching nary a glimpse of her gaze, before mounting the horse myself.
What roiled and rumbled in her heart, I could not know. After all, she had given but a nod then, too, when I last told her where we would be going.
To where her happiness stopped, and all the hurt began: her homeland.
Certainly, she was never one to refuse a word I say, for better or worse. Thus was I ever unwise to the true mien of her mind.
What she thought. What she felt. All were behind some mist.
‘Mia. Let’s find your sister. What truth awaits us might be of no solace at all, but at the very least, we may, at last, lay this uncertainty to rest. Alive or no, just knowing her fate could be the first step to moving on.’
This, I had told her. To these unclouded words, too, had she given but a nod.
Perhaps I’ve overstepped my bounds. Perhaps I’ve played too ardently the self-righteous samaritan. Even so, I believed that Mia deserved to know. Too long had she stood still. Too long had she stayed silent.
Though with all honesty, I did hope that she would be alive. Dearly so.
The name of Mia’s eldest sister.
Let us go, then. Let us search for Eva.
I gripped at the reins, steeled anew by this resolve. The steed’s hoofbeats broke the morning quiet as we headed off.
Leaving the walls of Arbel behind us, we galloped upon the highroads and through the open country. By the time the dewy mists of the morrow had faded away, we found ourselves at the foot of Balasthea.
With neither ado nor delay, I cantered our steed into the fort and straight for the gateway facing the Nafílim horizon.
A salute from two soldiers manning the portcullis.
“At ease,” I addressed them, halting the horse. “I make for Nafílim territory; a bit of reconnaissance is in order. I trust that you’ve been apprised?”
“That we ‘ave, sir. Workin’ on yer ‘oliday—a solace it is, to ‘ave a commandant right committed to ‘is office, ey!” prattled one of the men. “Morten” was his name, a bloke given to facetious flattery, even to a man ungraced like me. Yet did I spy within his eyes a snickering flicker, a gaze ever ensconced with a simpleton’s scorn.
“Committed, indeed,” I returned detachedly, earning a jeer from the other soldier, who freed the crossbar. Then, slowly the great gate groaned open, till there, beyond the gaping crack, was revealed the fields immediately beyond Ström’s breadth. And further again, the forests to which our wishes were tasked.
“Ye all right wit’ just one drudge, sir?” asked Morten, tilting his head at Mia, who did little but stay quiet and concealed under the drooping fabric of her hood.
“I am,” I answered. “I’ll have just a little look around. The foe-lands are close enough; I won’t be long.”
“Oh! But o’ course! I reckon even ‘alf a drudge be ‘nough for ye, eh dread Commandant! Heheh! Why, just a gander ‘pon ye, an’ the devils’ll be kickin’ their sandals off fleein’ from ye, they will!”
The other soldier snorted with laughter at Morten’s sneering words. A grand time, they must be having.
“Sandals make a fine souvenir for a man like you, Morten,” came my halfhearted humour. “I’m off, then.”
With that, we passed under the shade of the archway, and as soon as our horse’s hooves met the wild grasses, we galloped off. Through the Nafílim skies rumbled the rhythm of our haste.
Chapter 2 ─ End