Vol.2, Ch.3, P.3
The operation was a success.
Godrika was retaken.
And yet, the spirit of cheer found no home in me. For just as Rolf had prevised, there indeed lurked in that subterrane a behemá more savage than our imagining.
Our eagerness stirred the monster below: a catoblepas, dread fiend of myth, one that tore through the 5th’s ranks in their frantic escape. ‘Twas a folly that exacted from us a price too heavy to bear: droves upon droves of our number, dead.
And none deserved the blame more than I. To Rolf’s counsel did I turn my back, only to then face the families of the lost. To condole them. To answer for my indiscretion.
And how ironic again, that ‘twas not our knights that had slain the catoblepas, but Rolf himself. And only himself. Where my levinblade and all of our magicks failed, Rolf’s wits and daring succeeded.
Yet for however dear and vain our sacrifices were, the prestige accorded to the 5th was unmistakable. A ceremony followed, wherein medals were bestowed to the participant leaders, as well as the knights distinguished in their feats.
I had the honour of officiating the solemn affair, but not the honour of giving Rolf his rightful due. For ‘twas not vested in me to decide who earned what, but in the Marquis Norden himself. Verily had I nominated Rolf, but in the end, he was a hero left unsung.
‘Twas perhaps something we both expected. Hardly a sigh issued from our lips.
“Rolf… I’m sorry,” I had said to him. “I made especially sure to bid the marquis you be honoured, but… I’m afraid he…”
“Pay it no mind, Mareschal.”
That was his answer. And all he ever said of it.
A man ever trudging up the Sisyphean hill to knighthood. But never a man to despair at every tumble he took to the bottom.
A man by the name of “Rolf Buckmann”.
A scant two years from Godrika, and the myriad ranks of the Orders were each and all fitted with silver. Even the swains themselves were bedight with the argent, for it happened that Godrika hid veins of it far more bountiful than any could’ve foreseen.
Ironic, then, that what I had foreseen was soon realised: Rolf no longer knew the taste of victory, silvered as his sparring partners now were. Hence did I exempt him from all requisite training. There was little meaning in them if what awaited him were naught but injury and derision.
But that hardly stopped him.
On and on did he brandish his sword, its blade never reaching its mark.
On and on was he beaten down into the ground, left with naught to do but writhe and gasp for air.
Gone were the scant inklings of awe for his prowess. To all the others, he was a rag doll to be torn and broken day after day.
And not just a rag doll, but a blotch of iron in an ocean of silver. True, swains were themselves also afforded the shimmering gear, but Rolf was an exception: in the entirety of the 5th, he was the only one left unfitted. This, too, was a development beyond my wildest dreams.
More astonishing was the influence of silver on the minds of the officers themselves. Their argent gear: effective in battle, splendid to behold, and now, a status symbol of no small degree. Parading about in their newly given shine had fattened their conceit to the fullest. And along with it, their scorn for the yet iron-clad Rolf.
Apprised of the situation, I ordered the quartermaster to also have made for Rolf a suit of silver armour to call his own.
“Madame, I’m afraid I fail to see the point in this,” the quartermaster tilted his head. “What purpose might silver serve a man of no odyl?”
“I would have the whole of the 5th be in full lockstep, a purpose silver should serve well enough,” I answered firmly. “Deprive him of it and we but mark him the black sheep of our herd, do we not?”
There was no lie in what I’d said. My reasoning should’ve proven sound enough. Even then, the quartermaster was oddly given to resistance.
“Pardon me, madame, but is it not the hobbling sheep of a man himself that keeps our herd out of lockstep?”
“Just do as I’ve requested, will you now? A suit of silver armour for Rolf, please and thank you.”
Words of my own, spoken by my own, then echoed up in me.
‘…I’ll make certain that you’ll not be ailed by such abuse any longer…’
A promise I’d made to Rolf. A promise I meant not to betray.
“I fear I’ve not the final say in this, madame,” on did the quartermaster resist. “Silver equipment was once the privilege of the executive officers, accorded only by Central itself. Theirs is an authority that stands, even now. To receive any at all, I must needs first inform Central of the number we require, and thereafter gain their approval.”
“Then why not do just that? Tell Central to include a set for Rolf in the next shipment. Is that so difficult?”
“My Mareschal. It bears no mention that silver is soft amongst the many metals. Have an odylless soldier wear it, and he might as well wear paper.” A sigh. “With all due respect, could you, with clear conscience, so poorly outfit one of your own, just that he might match more merrily with his peers? By my measure, you but imperil this man, good-for-nothing that he is.”
Had this officer omitted that last remark, I might’ve thought him half-considerate of Rolf. But in them was laid bare the way of his heart: he believed Rolf to be most undeserving of silver gear, magnificent of power and beauty as ‘twas in his mind.
“…I’ll hear no further excuses. Get Rolf his share. Do all that you must.”
A conversation severed by my own irritation. That same ire further harshened my steps as I quit the quartermaster’s presence. Yet ‘twas the sullen truth that no consent would come from Central.
There was no avail in sight for Rolf. How nagging, how unendurable ‘twas.
And so tugging my horse along now was the same man, of the same towering physique, clad in the same iron. A man that sooner seemed a manservant than a swain.
By that point, there were indeed those that’d begun to treat Rolf as such. What was once “abuse” was now flagrant persecution.
I made a point to request again a suit of silver for Rolf during a summons to the royal capital. But there in Redelberne was I met with the same excuses as the quartermaster’s. There, my hopes were dashed yet again.
The officials observed anew that a suit made to match Rolf’s large figure would require a custom fit. Reasonable, if not for the tone of scorn laced in their timbre.
The bitter winds sent against Rolf only crescendoed from there on.
But I did not stand idly by; with quill set to parchment, I decreed to the whole of the 5th that all members strike from their conscience any discriminatory misgivings for another, based whether on capability or equipment. Though in the end, like so many of my prior efforts to shield Rolf, it amounted to naught.
In the course of those heavy days, an incident unfolded: a horse of mine had gone missing from the stables.
The leadership boiled with panick: the steed was a gift from none other than His Majesty, King Londosius. As my swain, ‘twas Rolf’s duty to look after the horseーa responsibility hardly forgotten by the leadership, for they all then pounced upon him, so eager to lay the blame upon a lapse of his wits.
Some secret malice was at work, a design to set the horse loose and brand Rolf the culprit—a design to have him expelled. I found it hard to believe that the very Order I commanded could be so insidious, yet the suspicion remained a ghost haunting my thoughts. Nevertheless, nary a spot of proof was ever brought to light that could substantiate those doubts.
I quickly attempted to calm the situation, but the effort was more quickly again washed away, for Rolf’s ensuing defiance was as salt upon the leaders’ angered blister. And yet, for however much he refuted the accusations brought against him, ‘twas a dark curiosity that Rolf couldn’t explain his activities in town, taken on the very same day of the horse’s vanishing—all on account of insobriety.
When pressed, he but pursed his lips shut like a child loath to admit to the virtues of the apology.
Were he more of himself of our bygone days, surely Rolf would’ve confessed to his ill actions and made proper amends. But he was changed. The long years of discrimination seemed to have left him thoroughly sallowed.
Of course, I grieved for his situation. His pain, his troubles, all were suffered unjustly. Yet I also couldn’t bear the thought that he could be so changed, so withered of his former valour. Thus, to much of my own grief was I dashed by his sunken conduct.
‘Twas the truth that a single horse was all that was lost. A slight against His Majesty, to neglect his royal gift, sure. But ‘twas not as though I or the Order saw a heavy sin upon Rolf’s head. No, that head of his was yet steeled against the temptations of spite and treachery, that much I knew. ‘Twas but an innocent slip of his hands that freed the horse, no doubt, were the fault truly his.
Indeed… a simple mistake. One that could’ve been settled just as simply.
With but a single word, he could’ve earned my immediate forgiveness.
With but a single utterance, this commotion could’ve met its swift end.
And yet, Rolf refused.
‘Twas in parallel that the matter of my betrothal to Kenneth of Albeck was given speed. A development that clouded my spirits and had me weary of any hope for the future.
Set against those troubles was this tangled knot of a scandal, doomed to be left no less coiled.
I saw no other choice—I had Rolf exiled.
Why did it come to this?
Why didn’t Rolf have it in him to apologise?
Oh, the countless times I asked myself so. In the following days of processing his expulsion. In the following days of listening to gleeful lips sing of his punishments. At their end, my heart knew no answer.
When it finally came time for him to leave, I had set out to meet him. However small, there was yet hope. Hope that he might have some words. Hope that he might see the worth of the apology. This, I nurtured to the very last moment.
A simple yet sincere “sorry” would’ve been all it took for me to wipe his sentence clean. The retraction, at so late an hour, surely might’ve riled every corner of the 5th to no small vexation. But I cared not. My own end loomed near. To be wedded off to some son of a viscount. To hang up the mareschal’s cape and quit the halls of the Order forever.
Would Rolf at last be wise to his faults? To realise what relief a single apology could accord him? Met now, as he is, with the reality that soon would we go our separate ways? His erstwhile self has ever and always done the right. Surely, then, there is in him the spark to do the same here.
These thoughts rumbled in my heart as I looked intently upon him. And Rolf, standing on the verge of departure, looked back.
“Be well, then.”
His last words before he set out.
Words, terse and clean. A sword cutting the ties between us.
I but remained there on horseback, utterly aghast, drained of all strength and inspiration to leap off and run to his side. On and on, I stared at his vanishing figure.
He had but to bow his head. He had but to bend the knee. And all would be as before. Why hadn’t he, then?
Again, the questions cackled away at me.
Again, the answers remained silent.
Rolf was ever at my side. From our earliest days. From our most faded memories. From when we were wide-eyed babes, scarce able to keep a running stride through a world we barely knew aught about.
When there was joy, we rejoiced together.
When there was sorrow, we rued together.
A party dress.
My very first. Gifted with it, I frolicked all through the room in elation, twirling with haphazard steps. Then did I take Rolf’s hands, and together we danced and danced, till I was a spent and breathless mess.
My very own. Dear little Thibaud, filled with pluck and song. But on the day silent of his last vitality, I wept on and on, till came Rolf to my side. And there he stayed for the rest of the day, quiet and condoling.
Never could I have imagined that Rolf would be gone.
Ever and always would he be here with me.
This, I believed. For the longest, longest time.
But ‘twas not so.
‘Twas never to be.
To a border province goes he so branded a knight-exile.
‘Tis a rule writ in neither stone nor law, but in precedence, one that curtailed my efforts to select for Rolf a closer destination. What was chosen instead was Balasthea Stronghold, sat in the yonder province of Ström.
Nary a soldier or banner of an Order would be found there. Protecting those lands in lieu of our knightly presence were the presiding margrave’s own men. The same held true for Balasthea. Thus was there no direct connection between the fort and any of the Orders themselves.
But ‘twas a plain fact that we knights compose the royal military. Hence did the margrave—himself appointed and funded by the Londosian royalty—find his army subordinate to our own, by rights. Were a post in his ranks vacant, ‘twas well within my authority to fill it, an opportunity I quickly seized for Rolf’s sake.
“Seasoned noble serviceman” was to be his official status upon employment at Balasthea. Admittedly, a “serviceman” whose entire tenure was spent as a swain, and a “noble” who was all but disinherited—caveats that would be most difficult to hide, I’m sure. Yet the technicalities bore little weight in the end, and ‘twas thanks to this very designation that the transferral went through at all.
No matter the cost, he must not be made to fight.
From now on would he live in a land straddling the terrible den of the Nafílim. A land that my protective hand ill-reached. For him, to step into the frontlines would be to step through death’s door itself.
‘Twas a fate he could not defy.
And for why but that he was weak?
Not even I could deny that sad truth any longer. And ‘twas neither for his lack of odyl nor his defeats at the end of every spar of late.
Nay… ‘Twas simply that he was no longer one to confront his faults.
Admitting to weakness. Aspiring to strength. Virtues most absolute in their necessity, honoured by all who wager their lives on the battlefield. Virtues, now lost to Rolf. There, on that same battlefield, would the fates send every arrow and spell to pierce him in his tragic flight.
And there… there, would he die.
I could not let that happen.
Heretofore have I constrained myself and silenced the beggings of my heart, that I might not give to Rolf any undue favour or treatment. But to set him loose to his own end? Such was a mercy stroke, not constraint. I’ll not hide my reservations, my despair for his changed conduct, but to have him suffer a senseless death was something I could not, for the life of me, allow.
A bittersweet fortune, then, that the commandant of Balasthea was taken ill, whose now-vacant seat I gave to Rolf. ‘Twas not at all an arrangement met warmly by Central, but through my sheer persistence were its magisters convinced. Likely they thought him one most wont to fatally slip up somewhere, but I thought otherwise. After all, for however much he lacked teeth in battle, he excelled in dictating it.
From the war-table, then. Donned with the title of Acting Commandant would Rolf thrive. This, I believed.
With him safe from the maw of the frontlines, I at last knew some measure of relief. Yet it did little to fill the void in my heart.