Vol.4, Ch.4, P.10
From there on, we left the caravaners and began our quest in earnest. But being a fortress, there were many an area yet that suffered not our civilian presence. And so it was that Mia went and saw such that she could. Hither and thither she walked, never with haste, taking in the place in all its activity.
At times would she stop afore a wall of no note, and touching its cold stones with her little hand, tarry there in silence. At others, she would peer up stairways and be lost in some thought. And when anear the training grounds we came, she stared intent upon them, and there whispered things that reached not my ears. What it was she was doing, I knew well: once was there a Man in this fortress, working day-to-day for his coin, that he might earn some food and comfort for Mia as together they lived in a little home in Arbel; and it was the sign of him, the traces of his very breath, that Mia was trying here to perceive.
My sister… so tiny, so lost she seemed amongst the bustling folk, beside the frowning buildings, below the soaring walls. And in watching her search them all for whom she much missed… oh, what a sight to ache the heart it was, as deep down, I realised this to be my own fault. He who had saved her, who had returned her to me—his own name he had, of course, one he had tried to air before… and one I should have heeded. But during our one and only meeting together, I had refused it.
‘…We have no ears
for Mennish names…’
There was working between Mia and this Man a thrallspell at that time. But as Mia herself had some gift for the covenantal magicks, forbidden it was for her to ever know the name of her master. But had she, what would befall this thrallspell, this covenant that so bound them, none did know. Thus was it nothing to be helped; fearing danger upon them—in especial upon her master who was yet subject to the slave laws of his realm—till now did Mia remain unknowing of his name.
Being myself neither thrall nor master, however, such constraints were none of mine to abide. Yet in spite of it, I had not even the courtesy to hear his name. Oh, what rue I felt now for the coldness of me. Were mine a warmer heart, an ear more open, if at least in return for his heroism, then might I have known the key to Mia’s quest and have her now rejoicing in his arms.
But, could I have? At the thought, I shrank—mayhaps it was never in me to. For anger there was in me when we had met, that Man and I. Anger at the burning of my village. Anger at the loss of my family. Anger at Men for having wrought it all. Like a scorch on my heart it felt, a scar warped and black. And so, racked by my own pain, I could but spurn the Man out of hand.
Even now, the pain, the anger, both were faded little. But, that all of Man was deserving of my ire—this, I began to feel, could not endure. Not any longer. For though Man has taken aught and all from me, so has a son of his saved and returned to me my dear little sister.
Hence, for him, I worried instead. To me, to us, his deed was valourous. But to his kin, it was an evil. With storms so brewing over the world of late, what doom had the deed meted upon him, I wondered. Was he unjudged? Did he yet draw breath, even? Or…?
No… What would become of Mia, then? Were we to find grasses grown over where he sleeps? And learn at last his name but from a graven stone standing over him? Nay. That could not be. He, that Man, was no ordinary soul. Albeit dim to matters of battle and might I was, I yet perceived in him a strength as towering as it was steady.
Yes. He was alive, then. He must be.
“…chief, Herr Rolf? Why, to battle he has…”
Such words met now my ears. Words of fighting, of marching, uttered by whom but fellows of my own kind chattering anear. How I hated the sound of such talk, feeling it like fingers digging at my scars, that all I wished to do was stuff my ears and shut it all away. A disrespect, I know, made to all the braves who fight for our security. But the sea in my heart was yet roiling, and mirksome, and confused… and afraid. And so, if even for now, I could not bear one more whisper of war.
Besides, already had I my fill of it, as along the way to this place, I had revealed to the caravaner our quest after that Man. But in asking of the soldiers who once served him in the fortress, the caravaner could give no answer, only that such Men were long since scattered. As it happened, when the host of Hensen captured the place two moons ago, disarmed they were, the Mennish soldiery, and locked away in the dungeons there. But when Arbel was taken soon thereafter, they were all of them let free.
Where each had gone was beyond all knowing. Yet one hope there was. A hope in Arbel. Were we to go and find there one such former soldier, could we then at last gain the vital clue to my sister’s quest? It must be done. Little Mia had suffered so much; how I wished to let her see him, to bring some light back to her eyes. Such I pondered as I watched her in her fruitless labours. Only, the thoughts ended asudden.
As just now, a scream had shot through the fortress.
Shrieking and crying, echoing all around. Everyone is confused. Everyone is panicking. All about they run. Chairs topple, papers fly. Sacks and crates, falling and spilling. Everything is coming undone.
“What? Here!? Were they not in Tallien? In battle!?”
More yelling. More shouting. Horns are blowing, bells are tolling. Bad people have come; people who should never be here.
Dear Sister runs to me. She takes my hand and holds it hard.
“Mia! We must run!”
I hold hers strong, too, and nod. Her hand is cold. She is afraid. Like everyone around, her face is in horror.
“We’re breach’d! Wardens! Quick! Secure the gates! If even just the north!”
“Blast…! No! No good!! They’re already bar’d! All of them!!”
The braves here roar and debate. Soldiers from somewhere else have broken in. The north gate—that was the one we came through, I think. The one that faces Hensen.
“Then… then they mean to… us… all…?”
Sister is mumbling. Her lips are trembling. Her face is nervous with sweat. We can’t escape. We can’t go home.
I see it again. My village—burning. Friends and family—dying. The day I lost them all. The day everything precious to me was rummaged and destroyed.
That day is coming back again. I can hear it nearing. I can feel it breathing. I…
I’m trembling now, too. My breaths have stopped. I’m scared. I want to hide. I want to curl up, to stop thinking, to stop dreading. I want it all to go away.
I can’t give up here. I can’t. If I give up, everything ends. This I know. But the end is coming. My life—saved for nothing. All for nothing. My master—where? Where is he? I can’t… I can’t meet him, then? I can’t see him? Be with him?
No… not that. Anything but that.
…no matter how hard I try, I keep seeing that day.
The day everything was changed. The day coming alive again.
So very, very scared…
Master, where are you?
Am I to die? Before meeting you again?
You risked so much to save me. You gave up so much to heal my heart.
I don’t want to let you down.
I want to keep living, even when everything in me is sad and grey.
I want it to live on and on—to live out this little life you saved.
Everyone’s yelling, screaming. Men in armour are coming close. Metal, sharp metal—I hear them hitting each other. Sister looks pale. She’s scared. So, so scared. Just like me. Still, I don’t want to give in. I don’t want to give up. I want to see him again. I want to, so very much. I came so very far. I did so much. But… but…
My eyes are warm. I’m crying. Crying and crying. I remember these tears. They remember me.
No. No, no—I can’t. Sister might worry for me again. She tries so hard, she toils everyday… all for me. I don’t want to trouble her. I don’t want to make her sad.
But still, the tears aren’t stopping. My body keeps shivering.
Master, where are you?
Where are you!
Please, save me!
Please, tell me!
That everything is all right!
That all is well!
“Have the chief host join later!” I shouted from horseback. “We move!” And there bolted off northwestwards. The sun soared high; it was nearing noon. By now, the 3rd’s splinter force had put several hours of travel behind them. This was nary the time to trouble about re-mustering and starting a march anew; we must be at Balasthea’s gates at the soonest, if even at first with but a force of few.
Sig and I helmed the haste, having quitted the Nafílim camp not caring for any other purpose than pursuit. Lise and her personal outfit, the Edelkrieger, galloped close behind. Ever specialised for speed, they were the only force that could make ready at short notice. A solace though it was to be bolstered by their number, our total was yet dubiously scant. Would that I had such a force of my own, but there was nothing for it; the coming battle… there would we, fewer than two scores in total, pit ourselves against hundreds of knights.
Evil odds, yes. Yet our mind was to survive and stall the capitulation of Balasthea for as long a time as we could, for trailing far behind us would be the greater half of the alliance-host. Volker and the rest were to remain on the plains, there to watch against any further Londosian surprises. Though I worried little for them; Balasthea was our enemy’s truest mark, after all, and only it had to fall to seal our fate.
Spurring on my steed, I could not help but feel spurred on myself. Spurred to great impatience; panged by a great pity. For not many had been posted to the stronghold’s defence. No, not many at all. Even with walls to protect them, the defenders would not hold out long, I concluded with pain, especially if taken unawares by the knights.
…But that was not all that gnawed at me.
For some time, an ill omen had been moiling in the back of my mind. Faceless and formless, it reached down and was wrenching away at my very heart, telling me that I had to hurry, that I had to be there, if even a second sooner. Such was my anxiety. Such were the screams in my ears.
Wait there for me, then! Wait!
I will be there soon enough!
Chapter 4 ─ End
(Language: German) “Noble warriors”. In Soot-Steeped Knight, a personal military unit of braves assigned to the jarl and any from his family. In this case, it mainly refers to Lise’s.