Vol.2, Ch.3, P.1

 

Ever was Rolf our paragon.

To everyone, the model Londosian, all the way since his greener days.

If aught could be known, he would know of it.

In aught he endeavoured, he would succeed in it.

Amongst his peers, his sword abided no rivals. In his spars with the grown-ups, they, too, would know humility on occasion.

And as with the sword, so Rolf was with the book. Not even the most cryptic essays on provincial governance were spared from his curiosity. And ‘twas not such a rare sight to catch him in wordly discourse with our fathers, barons though they were.

He was perfect. As a budding nobleman. As a treasured son. House Buckmann’s prospects seemed all but ensured. None within its halls dared gainsay this. They had scarce reason to.

And to such a prodigy was I betrothed.

There was promise between us. A horizon we both looked fast to. In those shining reaches awaited a happy ever-after. A time we would share with all certainty for years, and years, and years to come.

To be at his side, from now till evermore—how blessed I felt. How proud I was.

The many days we spent in each other’s company. The many more days we would herald, together.

All seemed so brilliant.

Till there loomed a spot of darkness.

One by the name of the “Roun of Orisons”.

The day we were received at the divine rites was the day we found Rolf to be “ungraced”. He but knelt there before the Reverend, his bosom cold of Yoná’s odyllic warmth, the quartz in his hands unbrightened by Her light. And ‘twas so on that very same day, that the very same black spot yawned agape, like a maw beneath my feet, to swallow me whole.

‘Twas then that I knew darkness.

‘Twas then that I saw shadows growing upon the horizon we shared.

Ours is a society bent on war upon the Nafílim. No matter how studious and wise one may be, no matter how deft and marvellous with the sword, to be empty of odyl was to be empty of promise.

How dearly I believed that Rolf would’ve made it all work out somehow. That he would’ve been able to defend his honour. That he would’ve made due and more with his ill-starred lot. For a wunderkind like him, it surely could’ve been so. That is, were he graced with even the faintest sliver of odyl.

But he wasn’t.

He had naught.

None… none at all.

And without it, he was but fodder to be cast to the Nafílim.

Magick can be overcome only by greater magicks, whether in offence or defence. For Rolf, this was a forgone conclusion. He could not attack. He could not defend. He could not know victory when it matters most. He could not thwart defeat even if it spelt his own end.

Odyl is, to begin with, a blessing endowed to each kin of Man by Yoná, our Deiva Most Divine. ‘Twas through the holy Revelation shown to St Rakliammelech that he conceived the Roun of Orisons: rites by which to commune with the Deiva, then disseminated to all spheres of Man. From Her is gifted the grace of odyl, and there is not a soul that She has turned away.

Just as a child would be given flesh and blood from mother and father both, so, too, should we lambs of Yoná receive from Her our odyl.

How rooted in certainty this was.

But Rolf was as a fledgling of a different nest. An apple fallen too errantly from our tree. The black sheep of the herd, abandoned even by Yoná, our one shepherd.

We Londosians are ever bound to our odyl. Its measure is our worth. And so for someone like Rolf to be void of it, naught but ill and disdain awaited him.

Rolf Buckmann. Not a prodigy, but half a man. Not a model for us all, but a “defect”, through and through. This was what Londosius had deemed of him. Adamantly, no less, as though ‘twere the sacrosanct word of Yoná Herself.

And that was why Rolf was disavowed by House Buckmann. Why the ink was washed away from our deeds of betrothal. Parchment, now full-white as they were the day they were bleached.

But in the face of such misfortune was I, accorded a lot most can only dream of.

Attaining the highest distinction of “Aureola” from the Roun of Orisons, I enlisted into the 5th Chivalric Order to great fanfare, for it happened that, of all the uncountable knights and dames to have ever joined its halls, I was foremost in my store of odyl.

By that alone, the powers that be made me not a swain in my first year, but a dame, knighted with all haste and ceremony. Yet their indulgence seemed unending, as I was then made to stand amidst their high echelon: a member of the leadership, one under the direct command of the mareschal in his personal unit.

Breathless as I was, the fates were keen to toy with our fortunes ever more. Yes… How appalled I was to find Rolf as a swain to none other than myself.

‘Tis expected—and indeed, the usual course of things—that a recruit of the Order must first endure the toils of swainhood. But for Rolf himself to be made mine? No less a fledgling in my own right, vacuous of the office of a dame?

I sensed then, and now, some foul hand at work in all of this. Was there some humour to be found? A savoury note in this bitter irony? To so make a “defect” a swain to his former betrothed? I could not know, but I feared there were many who did and indulged in it just the same.

And thus did I know sorrow.

To see Rolf, burly and proud of figure as he was, pitifully hunched over as he tended to my armour.

To see the prodigy, gentle and full of promise, left to such drudgery as tugging my horse along on foot.

To be addressed by my once-betrothed with all deference, but cold of the warmth of our more innocent days.

I made sure to give him the freedom to speak to me as he always had. Only, to him, ‘twas a liberty too fraught. I realised then, that somewhere in the course of this whirlwind, we were separated. Farther from each other now than ever in our lives.

And yet… I also knew happiness.

Happiness in being yet by his side.

Our prospects for marriage may have been undone, but my feelings? Nay. I still very well wished for a life spent together with him. Dearly and more dearly again, no less than before.

Because to be with him was as to breathe. The wheeling of the sun, the blowing of the winds, the coursing of the riversーthese were, to me, no less natural than Rolf’s company.

‘Twas so, then, that beside Rolf Buckmann was where I belonged.

I, Emilie Mernesse.

 

 

Within a year of my enlistment, I was made lieutenant to the Owlcranes.

And not long before did Felicia herself join us in the 5th.

Hers was a fate most contrary to her brother’s, for at her own rites did Felicia receive a ponderous store of odyl. So much so that she was considered for a seat in the Sorcery Brigade’s leadership.

But she was no less astounded than I, upon seeing for herself the ill treatment exacted upon Rolf. Astounded, and disheartened.

For his part, Rolf was yet a swain. Though in spite of his hardships, he never faltered in his training: his swordplay was as sharp as ever. But to the members of an institution so steeped in the practice of magicks, there was, at least, some measure of contempt for pure swordsmanship. Nonetheless, ‘twas this art that Rolf continued to ply with great assiduousness.

He was, most apparently by this time, of a physique most imposing in the entirety of the 5th’s ranks, with strength of arms matched by none else. In spite of it, the others—all of them, really—were quick to disparage his usefulness against the Nafílim. But ‘twas during physical training with him that they were quieted to some degree.

Though that changed most asudden whenever he faced any of our leaders, for ‘twas they who were donned with silver armour, wonders of odyllic conduction that they were. Try as he might, never could Rolf reach them with his sword, and without odyl of his own to defend with, the sparring matches were ever cruel and one-sided travesties.

Of course, it never occurred to those leaders to contend on equal grounds. Their silver arms and armour stayed on at all times, as they were taught to do by both instruction and the rigours of the battlefield. And so to keep the gear on was, in and of itself, a form of training. Sportsmanship, then, was to them a poor excuse to take it all off.

But just the same, practicality was their own ill excuse, to beat and deride Rolf as they pleased, all from the security of their argent raiments. The grins roused upon their lips was proof enough of their sadism.

That’s not to say Rolf went the entire way without some respect paid to his skill. There were those that acknowledged him, surely, but they were as droplets in a sea ever roiling with disdain for him.

I recall a day when I was yet a lieutenant.

A day that saw Rolf grievously injured by a spell during what should’ve been mere sword practice. From what I’d heard, the offender was overwhelmed by Rolf’s strength, and on the verge of defeat, resorted to magick to turn the tables.

That same opponent was none other than a member of the Sorcery Brigade, joining sword practice on some whim. The blade was naturally not his forte, but the thought of losing to a “defect” was evidently more than his pride could handle.

Apprised of what’d happened, I raced to the infirmary at once.

“Rolf! Oh, the wounds…! Are you all right!?”

“…I am.”

An unhurried, unbroken answer from Rolf, reclined as he was upon a bed, dressed in head to toe with bandages. Mottling them was blood, freshly red.

My worries unabated, I pressed the physician nearby for answers.

“Sir, his injuries—how do they fare?”

“Well, let’s see then,” he responded methodically. “Multiple lesions he’s had, and internal haemorrhaging to boot. Took a while of mending magicks to patch him up, but the wounds should be nicely sealed now. I shouldn’t expect any sequelae to harry him henceforth.”

Hearing those words was a relief. Though what the physician uttered next stoked my ire.

“Though truth be told, this sort of thing could’ve been easily avoided, even with the most basic of palings.”

“…Why, sir,” I returned, unaware of the sharpened quietness of my voice. “‘Tis his fault, you mean to say?”

“Not my place to say, of faults. I don the doctor’s coat, after all,” the physician countered. “And as per my station, I say this: treatments do not come cheap, you should know.”

A response that earned my irritation many times over. Yet I hadn’t the patience to humour him further.

“Your opponent,” I said, having turned back to Rolf. “What madness was in him!? To spit out magicks in a sword spar! His superiors should hear of this!”

With that, I very well had a mind to burst out of the infirmary and protest against the incident to the other leaders. But I was stayed by Rolf’s curt words, delivered as he did nothing but stare at the ceiling.

“It’s useless.”

“Wh—! Why’s that!?”

“They’re not the sort to lend an ear. Not to trifles such as this.”

Never did Rolf do aught but quietly suffer the injustices dealt upon him. Not even when he was injured so. Whatever grievances he may have nurtured, never were they aired.

That stolidness of his racked me horribly.

“No. They shall,” I replied with spirit. “This won’t stand, Rolf. I’m going!”

True to my word, I flew out of the infirmary and alighted upon the offices of the Sorcery Brigade. ‘Twas there that I found the lieutenant and superior of Rolf’s opponent, to whom I complained fiercely. And ‘twas there that I knew the meaning of Rolf’s words.

“Had your swain the odyl to resist it, surely he would not have suffered what he did.” An echo of the physician’s own insolence, aired with hollow interest. “The problem, then, lies with him, does it not?”

I struck his desk. “Enough of your nonsense!!”

“…Lieutenant Mernesse,” he sighed, “I mean all the respect in the world, I do. But to sink our standards for the comfort of a ‘defect’ is, itself, nonsense. Injurious to our Order, even. Pray understand, my Lady.”

We were of like rank, he and I. But seeing as I was of the Owlcranes, perhaps this lieutenant felt compelled to pay deference to me. Though he certainly hid none of his prejudice for Rolf. Not in the slightest.

“Tch…!”

By then, I’d lost all patience.

Heated, I went to the Mareschal Tallien himself and broached the very same matter, only to be met with the very same complacence. The same apathy. The same hatred.

A sentiment shared by all in the Order—nay, in all of Londosius, for a man who lacked only in odyl.

Rolf spoke not a word against it.

And I could do naught but accept it.

How it pained me so.

 

 

Another memory, then.

Here, too, was I lieutenant to the Owlcranes.

A time haunting even to this day.

Rolf and I were to spar one another. Not by choice, but by an order from the Mareschal Tallien himself, to—in his own words—”hammer my swain into shape.” Emphatically did I insist upon at least doing so with the same equipment as Rolf’s, but like the many leaders below him, the mareschal brooked none of my words.

I wonder.

What look was upon my face?

As Rolf and I measured swords?

As iron and silver coursed against one another?

A paling, unseen to the eye, breathed from my armour to inwreathe every seam and length of my body. And ‘twas this paling that dammed the force of Rolf’s sword. No matter where he aimed, no matter how quickly or strongly he swung, not once did his blade reach my person.

A denial most absolute.

He who is unmagicked cannot defeat one who so is.

Just as one added to one becomes two. Whether calculated a hundred times over or a million, the outcome remains the same. ‘Twas so, then, that Rolf’s blade was stayed by the paling. Absolute indeed, as if the hand of Yoná Herself were there to stop it.

And ‘twas not for a lack of trying. In Rolf’s grip, the iron sword flowed scythingly. With more quickness than the senses could follow would his blade race to my vitalsーaccurately so, as if driven there by the gales of his will.

Only to be stilled no further than a hair’s width before its mark.

But of my own blade, the story couldn’t have been more different.

None were the times that it landed where ‘twas aimed. And yet all about Rolf’s body were injuries, accruing more and more. Where he evaded, the odyllic stream would find him and tear away at his flesh. Where he defended, the odyllic blast would strike him and lay low his body into the ground.

However one-sided it may have been, the mareschal was loath to end the match, let alone mitigate it—not while Rolf and I yet stood. ‘Twas more a farce than a spar, and to my great dismay, one prolonged beyond all reason.

But never did Rolf let up. His were movements of daunting precision, ever minimising the severity of the wounds inflicted upon him. His was a mind of steeled focus, keeping him always on his feet. Though his sword was humbled with every swing, never reaching me in its unseeable career, Rolf fought on.

On, and on, and on. For as long as his body yet had the strength to move.

And ‘twas never in him to play at frailty and willfully couch in defeat. Always did he accept derision and scorn from others, but the moment a sword was put in his hands, Rolf was a man transformed. An avatar unrelenting, defiant of aught and all set against him.

How it broke my heart.

To see him yet afoot, bruised and thrashed, bloodied to great waste, whilst I suffered not a graze upon my skin, to say nothing of the untouched silver reams of my armour.

Ever was he our paragon.

Strong, more so than anyone. Dependable, more so than solid ground.

How I long dreamt of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him in our fight against the Nafílim. A dream I thought was within reach, so long as I applied myself, that I may keep up with him.

Why was it, then?

That we were so fraught as we were?

That Rolf had become so pitiable a man?

Further and further still our spar went, till Rolf lost all consciousness and foundered into the dirt.

 

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