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Chapter 37: Surrounded

They plunged through the forest, tripped over protruding roots and slippery patches of leaf-thick mud. Behind them and around them came noises Ovelia could not make sense of—shouts and fiery blasts, the crackling of lightning and the creaking and cracking of trees, the teeth-wrenching squeal of breaking metal and the heart-rending screams of dying souls.

And Ovelia ran beside the man who had kidnapped her, terrified of what was happening, of what she knew and all she did not know.

There was crashing in the underbrush around her. Two Hokuten soldiers holding swords and shields appeared. "Princess!" shouted one.

Wiegraf fell upon them, slicing down from atop his chocobo. The one who'd shouted ducked back, cursing; his companion ducked low, sidled past Wiegraf and slashed at Delita. Delita thrust out with his shimmering sword, and a burst of force hurled the woman back so she crashed against a tree. Folles moved on the other man, and there was more rustling from the trees around them.

"Damn," hissed Wiegraf. "Delita, go!"

Delita grabbed Ovelia's wrist and took off at a run, pulling her along behind him. From behind a trunk burst a burly man with a hatchet in each hand. He hurled one and Ovelia cried out before Delita's sword smashed the offending hatchet from the air. Then Delita lunged, and ran the soldier through.

"Come on!" Delita shouted over his shoulder, and shoved the woman off his sword with one booted foot. Ovelia followed without thinking, too shocked to do anything but obey. Because when the hatchet and hurled through the air, it hadn't been aimed for Delita. It had been aimed for her.

Was it true, then? The Hokuten sought her head? Nanten on the one side, Hokuten on the other, a royal plot angling for her throat and an abusive captor her only possibility of salvation? Ovelia ran on, following Delita's back because she didn't know what else she could possibly do.

No more Hokuten appeared around them, though she could hear the cracking of branches underfoot, the thunder of explosions and magic, the clashing of metal ringing beneath the rustling canopy of leaves. The forest felt alive with dangers, shadows she could almost see, blades she could almost feel.

She ran, in terror and doubt, with the branches creaking overhead, the leaves crunching underfoot, the sounds of battle all around. She ran until she could hear the Falls: first a dull rumbling, then a steadily mounting roar, and trickles of mist filled the thinning woods as she and Delita ran. The ground grew rockier and the roaring of the Falls grew louder, and soon they were pulling themselves along slick rocks with the help of patchy saplings, and Ovelia's lungs ached in her chest and her hair was damp with sweat against her forehead and she didn't dare to stop.

Above her, the rocky slopes of the Zirekile mountains climbed high into the air. Here and there, old trails and spray-worn stairs zigzgged across the imposing stone, but it was hard to see too high: there was such a fog upon those mountains, as mist rose up off the river and the plunging Falls. Almost no trace of the Araguay woods remained: only the thinnest and most pitiful saplings and scrub grass, springing from the cracks in the water-slick stone.

The hissing of an arrow cutting through the air: Delita stumbled in front of her as it hit home with a meaty thnk. The feathered shaft quivered in his shoulder as he yelled curses into the moist breeze. Ovelia gasped, her eyes flickering up to find a shadow moving against the fog, drawing back its bowstring. She flung up hand and willed, felt cool wind burst from her fingertips and coalesce into a shimmering pearl ward. The arrow bit into it, and she felt it like a blow to her stomach.

"Keep moving!" Delita shouted, and Ovelia staggered after him, searching for any new danger as they worked their way up the slopes. Another arrow bit into the stone beneath his feet, and Delita twisted aside, roaring in rage, and Ovelia tried to keep her pearl shield moving with them but it was too much, every step winded her as though she were running full-out.

Tired. So tired. So many men and women, angling for her throat with weapons in hand, and now the only one who'd tried to save her was stumbling with an arrow in his shoulder.

"Let me see that!" Ovelia said, reaching for the arrow.

"There's no time!" Delita hissed, his eyes raking the shadow-thick slopes.

They crested a ridge of stone and came out onto a level plateau, bisected neatly in two by the pounding fury of the Zirekile Falls. Even with the mounting roar in her ears, Ovelia was unprepared for the sheer staggering scale of it. On one side was the same blunt, impassive rock of the mountains, where dim figures still jogged along stairs and trails. At the steepest part of this stone wall, the blue/white water raced down in an imposing curtain and then cascaded into a rushing rapids which surged down a narrow canyon of abrupt walls. A rickety rope bridge swayed unsteadily above the chasm, the only way to cross the plateau that did not require a steep and slippery climb up the rock face above.

The figures on the slopes moved closer, men and women with weapons in hand, and Ovelia felt a flash of panic to see their blades gleaming in the wan light leaking through the thick fog. They were running for the bridge, and Ovelia's blood turned icy. If they reached it first...

She and Delita wordlessly put on an extra burst of speed. Two of the soldiers had reached the plateau, and were tearing away from their fellows, heading straight towards them. An arrow hissed out of the mist and clattered against the stony ground just in front of Ovelia.

"Shield!" Delita shouted, as they closed the gap between the two charging soldiers, and Ovelia snapped up her fingers, willed and felt that odd exhausted part of her ache in protest but she forced herself past it, forced pearly to unfurl in a loose half-dome just before and in front of her and Delita. An arrow bit into the shield: then another. Each rocked Ovelia where she stood, leaving her gasping for air.

"Push!" Delita shouted, as the two soldiers—a man and a woman, one with a spear and one with a sword—drew close, and Ovelia pushed the bubble outwards in a sweeping blow, and they raised their weapons and cut into it and she pain was such she thought she might pass out but still she pushed and they stumbled backwards.

"Break it!" Delita roared, and Ovelia let the shield fall as Delita leapt forwards, his sword falling in one clean arc. It shimmered, pulsed, and exploded into bright white light and thunder so loud it left her reeling. The two soldiers were flung like rag dolls in either direction, battered and burned. The man landed at a sickening angle, his arm bent the wrong way, screaming. The woman somersaulted and somehow landed on her feet. She swayed back and forth, her eyes glazed, part of her scalp burnt away to reveal blackened skin that stretched down half her face: then she collapsed face down upon the ground.

"Halt!" brayed a nasally voice, and Delita looked up with sword pointed, his injured arm slumped awkwardly. The other four soldiers had fanned out around them—two women with swords, one man with a mace, one with an axe. The man with the axe—a tall, reedy specimen with lank blonde hair—stood between them and the bridge. Above them, two archers were visible upon a winding rut that snaked its way up near the tumbling falls, their arrows trained on Delita.

"I don't take orders from you," Delita shouted back, raising his voice to be heard above the Falls.

"So who do you take your orders from?" asked the knight. "Return to the Princess to our care and name your masters, and you shall find the crown most merciful."

Delita laughed and raised his voice still higher. "You mean to kill the both of us."

No sign of shock on any of the nearby faces, and that lack of emotion was more damning tha the hatchet that had been thrown at her, the arrow that had hurtled out of the dark. If Delita's accusations had been so laughable, surely there would have been some sign from the soldiers around her. Surely someone would have laughed or scoffed or choked back outrage. But every soldier maintained their steady gazes. None were surprised by what they'd heard.

The lank-haired man shook his head and offered Ovelia a wan smile. "Do not worry, your Highness," he said. "We will see you safe from this maniac."

They had come to kill her. Nanten on one side, Hokuten on the other, those assassins in the Monastery, whatever role Ramza Beoulve played in all this, whoever Delita was and whoever he worked for. So much unknown. So much danger.

Ovelia felt bright rage clarifying her thoughts, banishing pain and exhaustion. She had done as she'd been asked. She had lived in the monasteries, treated coldly by women of every station who feared the Queen's wrath. She had endured the loneliness and isolation, held her tongue and played the good Princess for the sake of her kingdom, and now all these enemies surrounded her. Louveria? Bestrald? Goltanna? What did it matter to her? They had killed Katherine! They had killed Ysabel! They intended to kill her!

"You will stand down!" she bellowed. "All of you!"

Now there was a reaction on their faces: now there was surprise, consternation (was there just a hint of amusement?). The lank-haired man shook his head. "Your Highness, I have my orders-"

"Am I not your Princess?" she demanded. "Whose order might supersede mine?"

"Our Prince, your Highness," the lank-haired man said.

She stepped closer to Delita, gathered strength and energy and focused it in her ring. Their best bet was to push straight through this lank-haired bastard, knock him back and make a break for it across the bridge. She did not know where Delita intended to take her, or what his purpose was, but it had to be better than this.

"Your Prince," she sneered, as she focused her magic. "Is a political convenience. I am your Princess by blood, and you. Will. Obey!"

The lank-haired man pursed his lips. "Of course, your Highness."

He knelt, and laid his axe flat upon the ground. Ovelia felt her head go light: had that really worked? Had she really-

She saw, too late, the finger twitch: saw, too late, the archer on the slope turn his bow towards her. She lifted her finger, too late to stop him.

The twanging of a bow. The hissing of an arrow. The archer on the hill stumbled and tumbled down the slope, cracking his body against the rocks. The lank-haired man snapped up his axe: Ovelia's knees were weak with shock and relief. She, like all the soldiers, like Delita, forgot for the moment their desperate straits, and searched for the unknown archer.

"Delita!" came Ramza's high voice.

He was astride the same chocobo that had carried her and Delita from Orbonne, his bow in his hand, an arrow nocked and trained upon the last archer on the slope. The chocobo slowed to a halt, watching the assailants with lively orange eyes. Its light footfalls were masked by the pounding of the Falls against the stones.

"Ramza?" squawked Delita, and for a moment his dark eyes seemed bright with confusion, his face terribly young.

It took her a moment to realize what had just happened. It took her a moment to realize they knew each others' names. Her skin prickled, her blood turned icy cold and lava hot. Ramza Beoulve knew her captor? But that wasn't right, the Beoulves were Hokuten commanders, Larg's trusted allies, and Delita was fighting the Hokuten so how-

Delita.

Again she saw Alma's sketches. She saw the man in profile, his hair longer, his face younger, but undeniably Ramza. And she saw the other faces, dark-eyed and serious, and she had not known his hair was red from the charcoal drawing and his eyes had not burned the way her captor's eyes had burned but the resemblance was there and the name was there and perhaps it had been her anger or her pain or her fear or her confusion or the burn upon his cheek or the simple fact that Alma had been sure he was dead but now it was like the sun had risen, showing the picture in its entirety.

Ramza Beoulve, Alma's brother. And Delita, the friend she'd thought was dead.

Ovelia gasped, looking between them. "Teta's brother!" she shouted. "And you're-"

Ramza's eyes went wide. Delita's eyes went wider. And in their wide-eyed shock, the spearman lunged for Ramza.

"Watch out!" Ovelia shouted without thinking, but the bird had seen the assault and leapt backwards, fluttering its wings to keep its balance, and Ramza cursed in his seat, turned and loosed his arrow as the archer on the cliff loosed his—not towards Ramza but towards Ovelia, who caught the movement from the corner of her eye, raised her hand and did not form a barrier so much as push outwards with her magic, so the arrow corkscrewed wildy to one side, and the spearman fell back cursing as Ramza's arrow found his shoulder.

"Don't move!" Delita bellowed, his sword jabbing towards the lank-haired man who'd taken their moment's distraction to move a little closer.

The lank-haired man froze, his fingers curling along the haft of his axe. "Who the hell are you people?" he whispered

"A man who'll put an arrow through your throat if you try anything," Ramza said at once, though his bow remained trained upon the archer in the cliffs. He already had another arrow nocked—when had he drawn it? But she noticed that the quiver on his back was empty now. A Beoulve with a single arrow: a dead man with an arrow in his shoulder: a Princess who was already wheezing from the magic she had used.

"Where are the others?" Ovelia shouted.

"Dealing with an attack in the Woods, your Highness," Ramza said.

"What the hell are you doing here, Ramza?" Delita demanded.

"I was hired to reinforce her guard," Ramza answered.

"You were..." Delita shook his head.

"One of her guard?" the lank-haired man exclaimed. "Then I am sorry for the confusion, sir! We thought you were his ally. We have come to rescue the Princess from this-"

"Save your breath," Ramza spat. "Your men already took their shot at us in the forest."

Ovelia felt a flash of panic as the Lionesses' faces flashed through her mind. "Are they-" she started, and could not bring herself to finish.

"Fine, your Highness," Ramza said.

"Oh," called Gaffgarion's melodic voice. "I wouldn't go that far."

Ovelia's head jerked past Ramza, back the way she and Delita had come. Gaffgarion had just crested the ridge, strolling amicably besides a squat, pot-bellied man with an imposing shield on one arm, a familiar sword in his hand, and a Hokuten cloak upon his shoulders. Bundled beneath his back were the outlines of a scepter and a shepherd's crook.

Behind him, lurching unevenly, came three Hokuten soldiers, all with swords drawn and pressed against three throats. Agrias, Alicia, and Lavian were all disheveled, bruised and bloodied and ragged, swaying unsteadily on their feet. But Alicia and Lavian looked mostly like themselves: Agrias' face was a swollen, bruised mess, her blonde hair matted with blood, and it seemed her captor was having to hold her upright to keep her from collapsing.

Gaffgarion stood smiling in front of them, his ruddy red blade in his hand.