Vol.2, Ch.6, P.2
“M’lady,” called Maria amidst my heavy thoughts. “‘Twas here at headquarters where I stayed, on the same evening that Lord Rolf had set out for the Albecks’ viscounty.”
“That I recall, yes,” I affirmed.
“And after nightfall did I fain visit the stables, that I might behold your royal steed.”
…I knew then to what conclusion Maria was leading me. A conclusion attested, yet hidden for many months for my sake. A truth, sudden like lightning and colder than ice.
“…And beheld it you did, didn’t you? As it… verily rested in the stables…” I said, increasingly penitent, “…after Rolf had already taken to the road.”
Maria nodded softly. “I did. My eyes fooled me not; clearly I recall its grandeur as though ‘twere yesternight—the steed was a hulking warhorse, of the Reuscher breed.”
All was then hushed.
Lost of all words for the moment—for the revelation—I felt next a dull and clenching pain in my bosom. It throbbed with the hammer of guilt; it wrung with fingers of regret.
He’d done no ill.
None at all.
No… ‘tis more than that. His conduct was just, in fact, and his heart was virtuous—he’d chosen the course most rightwise, even to his own suffering.
Oh, what droves have known deliverance by this single deed of his. A deed done… all to save me from certain misery.
And what of I?
What have I done for Rolf? What words have I given him?
That was my former measure of him: a weakling too arrant to face his faults. And I’d even gone so far as to lecture him on the conduct most beseeming of a knight… for I’d convinced myself that after abiding years of discrimination, of abuse and derision, he’d sallowed into a coistril of a coward.
But not only that.
When tidings began trickling in of his accomplishments at Ström, I’d thought Rolf to be regaining the gallantry of his former days, to be shedding that shameful husk of his, at long last.
What wrongness there was in me.
What shame that should rightfully have been mine.
There was naught for Rolf to regain, naught for him to shed. For ever and always has he been the Rolf that I’ve known, the Rolf that I’ve loved… right from our very first days together here at the Order.
‘Twas then that Rolf denied the fault, that the horse was set loose by his hands. Verily did he keep silent of his whereabouts as to before and after the horse’s vanishing, yes, but that very silence was a shield, protecting me from the perilous knowledge of the Albeck incident.
Yet that’s not to say such an alibi was ever needed. We had nary a speck of proof of his wrongdoing, and Rolf himself steadfastly denied all involvement. What’s more, ‘twas an occurrence during his leave, on a day when the horse was not his charge. By rights, the fault should never have fallen to him, a detail he’d clearly emphasised before us all.
Even then, despite the soundness of his reasoning, I did not lend Rolf an ear as I should have. Indeed… I gave him none of my trust.
My gift, instead, was repudiation. Of loosening the leashes upon the leadership as they howled at and harried him, of looking down on him from my high seat and demanding from him an undue apology.
I can hear it again, that moment, echoing clarion in the recesses of my mind.
…You shall apologise at once…’
The voice of authority.
Cold and cutting.
Rolf is a virtuous soul. ‘Tis not in his compass to apologise for a sin not his own. But perhaps… perhaps, he might’ve wavered, I think.
Just for a moment.
Just for me.
He might’ve realised that the commotion was more empty noise than aught else, that he had but to bend the knee and bow his head, and then all would be as it once was. That his days spent by my side could yet endure.
But such wavering tricked him not.
For Rolf Buckmann is ever a soul set upon his path.
‘…I hereby discharge you from your service…
…and exile you from our Order…’
Yet with a gaze one ought never turn to a beloved…
With a timbre never meant to strike cherished ears…
…did I send that very soul into exile.
Returning to the moment, I found myself hunched, both arms tightly wound about myself.
Without Rolf, ‘twas oh so very cold…
“M’lady… Pray forgive me…” Maria looked on with all grief in her eyes. “…’Tis I centred in this ill circle. In hoping to help you did I only hurl Lord Rolf far from your side…”
“…Nay…” I shook my head, nigh-shivering. “Nay… Maria. The fault’s not yours. Not at all…”
Indeed, Maria had only chosen the rightest of courses, and I had my life to thank for it. Opposite was I. Starkly so, for in this entire affair have I committed to only the most mistaken of paths. A path certain to be severed short, were the Albecks yet left to their devices. There was no longer any doubt left in me: the tragedies they’d meted unto their victims would’ve easily been my own to suffer.
Yet ‘twas a fact that the Albecks’ criminality hinged upon one child’s memory of eight years past, a feather of a recollection against the unceasing momentum of an aristocratic marriage… And the prime mover of that momentum: my own father, striving each day that I might be wed to a family more rooted and renowned than our own.
Hence Maria’s decision to seek Rolf’s aid. ‘Twas most certainly her only choice… and more certain again the best she could’ve made, for Rolf trusted to her memory and became an ally, true and whole-hearted. Inheriting Maria’s cause, he next sprang to action in hopes that I would be spared a woeful end, of quailing in some dark corner of a dungeon, undressed of all dignity.
And after the villains were brought to justice, Rolf did not gloat of his deeds, no. He kept silent. The truth, the intent, the circumstance—all were concealed, and he was surely in the right for it.
But suppose I had been apprised. Just the knowledge itself would’ve been dangerous enough, even had I stayed myself from all involvement. And suppose further it came to light that I’d known all along. Surely much ill would’ve beset my family and myself.
Yet such was not so. I was kept unapprised, and for my own good.
Still… unknowing of it all, I still could’ve trusted to Rolf.
Trusted to his silence. Trusted to his defiance. Trusted to his character. Then surely would he still be here by my side, with this incident just a shade before all the light shining ahead of us.
But I didn’t… and there laid my error.
“Trust” was instead “doubt”, sooner convincing me instead that Rolf had only to bow his head, and all would be settled and forgiven.
“What… what am I to do…?” I whispered, giving air to my despair.
‘Twas mere months ago that Rolf was in this very room.
But now… now, he’s gone.
The one I wish most to be here beside me…
…was now gone from all sight and touch.
Maria’s was a look of dear worry as I then cast mine down, heavy with the weight of all the revelations, the realisations… the regret.
‘Twas then that a rapid knock came upon the chamber door.
“Madame! An urgency!” cried a muffled voice. A rush of action and into the room came an officer.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, springing to my feet. A closer look, and I saw the officer to be heated with panick. He seemed to have run all the way here, for his breaths were quick and rasping. “Why, you wheeze from haste! Be at ease, my ears are yours.”
“P… pardon, madame,” he answered. In half a moment, he spoke again. “Mareschal—it’s Central.”
Next did he relay the news. In them were words beyond immediate comprehension. Nay—’twas simply that I refused to believe my ears.
“…What?” I gasped. “…How? That… no…”
“Details are scant,” the officer continued. “But Central is certain—very certain.”
‘Twas preposterous. Such a thing should never be.
‘…Balasthea has fallen…’
Struck out of all my wits, I trembled in dread till at last, my mind soon scrambled for reasons, for cause, for aught that might vouch for the contrary.
What had befallen upon Balasthea? Upon Ström itself?
Was the advantage not theirs? The momentum? The victories of late?
What of the margrave? His Fiefguard? They had numbers enough; what were they doing?
What’s happened to Rolf?
If the fort did truly fall, then as its commandant, Rolf most certainly would not have gone unscathed. Would that he were only taken prisoner, but… knowing him, he might’ve bared the sword and joined the fray. And if so… odylless and ill-matched as he is, his final moments might’ve been without mercy.
…Is he dead, then?
Rolf… is dead…?
All because of me? Because I sent him there?
The very thought was a blow to my every nerve. I clenched my bosom at once, to still the urge to weep and vomit.
Nay, he’s alright.
Rolf is yet alive. ‘Tis certain.
He must be. He has to be. The fates wouldn’t be so cruel. Not after all he’s suffered.
No, he’s hardly alone. Felicia is there, as well. ‘Twas a week ago, very soon after the screening, that she took leave to head for Ström. She is the strongest of our sorcerers, a champion of the 5th. With her, all is well. I know it.
Rolf and Felicia both are yet sound. They must be.
In trying to convince myself of it, I shook my head vigorously to expel the ill thoughts creeping in.
“Madame,” the officer spoke again. “A conference convenes on this very matter—Central’s magisters will soon bid your presence, I presume.”
“…Yes,” I answered. “Of course they will.”
Overwhelmed as I was, I could not know that in that very moment, the curtains had been drawn, unveiling strife of terrible scale. The times were now as a violent river, roaring as it swallowed up each and every one of us. Indeed, we were as paper boats set adrift upon the rapids, scarce able to choose our course.
Yet there was one soul standing against that tide. A soul that has hitherto stayed his own course against all odds.
With my heart filling with thoughts for him, I looked to the high window and beyond.
There did dark-steel skies roll and rumble on, as though to augur all that was to come.