Firelight flickered over tapestries, and set the wooden contours of a four-poster bed aglow. Eliwood lay there, cast in skeletal relief. Twin fires roared at either end of the bedchamber, and a suffocating heat suffused the room, yet he shivered through the sweat rolling down his brow. He lay there, wishing to sleep but awake, too many thoughts in his head.
"Marcus," he called.
The door opened, and his grizzled man-at-arms entered. He stood at the foot of Eliwood's bed, armor gleaming in the firelight.
"Marcus…" Eliwood said again, with a sigh. His hand strayed to a silver chain around his neck, where four rings hung like a death rattle, all too small for his fingers. "I fear you're going to outlive me after all, my friend."
Marcus eyed him grimly. "Excuse my saying so, but you're a poor hand at the macabre, My Lord."
Eliwood raised an eyebrow, not quite sure he had heard the man correctly. "Pardon?"
Marcus waved a hand to the east. "No one's going to outlive anyone if Zephiel has his way."
With an effort, Eliwood pushed himself up in bed. "Bern's defeated the Kutolah?"
"Crushed them. Rath is dead, although Wil reports that his father and daughter fled shortly before the route. Sacae still burns."
Eliwood held out a shaky hand. Marcus gave him a tightly rolled scroll, written in code that Eliwood could sight-read by this point in his life.
"Scouting options?" Eliwood asked.
Marcus shook his head. "None, Zephiel has locked down the Sacaen border to a single chokepoint. Wil came in with a Bernian brigade hot on his heels. We're blind as far as the warfront is concerned. As best we can tell, we have a few more weeks before Ilia falls. Zephiel won't move on Lycia until then."
"That's a slim hope." Eliwood handed the scroll back, and Marcus crossed the room to toss it into the fire.
Standing in front of the hearth, the knight said, "Again, a poor attempt at the macabre. I don't see it as any hope at all."
Eliwood drew back the covers and got to his feet. "That's because we're not looking at the same things. Is Zephiel actually in Ilia?"
"Last report put him there. That was almost a week ago."
Eliwood crossed the room to stand beside Marcus. It was unbearably hot before the fire, but still he shook. The fevers and chills would not take him, though - not yet. Something whispered as much, and he wondered if it was a reassurance or a taunt.
"Please saddle Arcadia for me, Marcus."
A hand came to rest on his shoulder. He looked up at his friend and comrade, solid as ever in his old age, concern etched into his worn features.
"Eliwood," he said. "This isn't your fight anymore. Roy is coming home soon, let him handle it."
"I intend to," Eliwood said. "But there are some things that only I can accomplish."
"Why, My Lord?"
Eliwood went to the wardrobe and removed his traveling cloak.
"Because some things are only reasonable with one foot in the grave."
Eliwood trotted Arcadia down the moonlit length of the back pasture. Marcus rode beside him, silent but disapproving. Eliwood's plan could rightfully be called insane, but as the marquess drew closer to death, his value as a ransom hostage grew ever-smaller, and his value as a diplomat remained. Now, standing in the shade of the reaper, Eliwood was free to act irresponsibly for the first time in his life.
Part of him reveled in it.
"This will be interesting, Marcus. Perhaps even fun."
"Fun." Marcus grunted the word as though it had no meaning.
The pair rode silently through the young night, eventually slipping through a cleverly wrought gap in the pasture fence. All the while, he drew curious glances from Marcus, and for good reason. Eliwood had left behind all courtly raiment, dressed in the robes of Saint Elimine's acolytes, and blackened his telltale hair with charcoal and grease. Marcus had abandoned all noble insignia as well, wearing hardened fighting leather in place of his armor.
They dipped down into a ravine and came up the other side only a few hundred paces from the road to Araphen, which they followed north. At the first crossroads Eliwood turned east, taking them to a small village close to the Bernian foothills. Marcus remained compliant as they crossed over the deserted village green. Even when they dismounted and hobbled their horses outside a nameless inn, he said not a word, but when they passed out of the village on foot and came to a fork in the road, he stopped.
"My Lord." His deep voice cut through the night. "This is madness. This takes us toward the bandit roads, which beside the obvious are also poorly maintained and easily confused with game trails."
"Patience, Marcus. Just this once let me do something mad."
Eliwood led them on, up into the mountains. After a time they left the path completely, wading through waist-high grass and holly bushes. In a clearing Eliwood paused and turned about, eyes on the few stars visible through the dense canopy.
Marcus sighed and pointed to a gap in the branches, where the trees had been hacked away. "I don't suppose that's where we're going."
Eliwood followed his gesture and smiled. Through the gap a ruined scouting fort could be seen, nestled into the mountainside.
"Well spotted, Marcus."
They struck out through the undergrowth along a winding, forgotten footpath, and soon a set of stone stairs emerged, rounded by the rain and wind. Eliwood stopped and removed a white rag from his acolyte robes. He held it aloft, the cloth flapping gently in the night breeze.
Dark figures coalesced, solid against the great grayness of the mountainside. Eliwood tucked the rag away and began to climb. At the top several men waited. All wore a hodge-podge of armor, common among mercenaries and mercenaries-turned-bandit.
Eliwood handed over a bag of silver, and the men led them inside the fort. Within the antechamber a man stood behind a table. He was tall, his brown hair bound with a blue bandanna. He held himself with the tired efficiency of a lifelong foot soldier.
"Didn't have any trouble finding the place," he said. "Although I was beginning to suspect you might not come after all. You're two days past due."
The door shut behind them, and a thrill rippled through Eliwood's gut. Succeed or die.
"I had some trouble getting away," Eliwood said, "but your instructions were clear, and the marquess keeps all his old maps. You are Damas?
Beside Eliwood, Marcus clasped his hands in front of him, a gesture Eliwood knew well. Marcus was making a conscious effort not to lay hands on his sword. At the moment, he was the weak link, and the old knight knew it.
"Damas. That's me."
Eliwood sat, giving all appearance of ease, giddy with daring-do as he had rarely been before. "Have you thought about my offer?"
Damas brought a hand to his chin. The sound of fingers on stubble rasped loudly.
"I've thought about it," he said, "but what do you want to go to Bern for? They don't take refugees or traitors. They don't take anyone without something to give, and I figure if you've got something to give, you'd just as soon give it to us."
Eliwood withdrew a sealed letter from his robes and set it on the pitted tabletop.
"I'll give you this, certainly. It's all I have. As for going to Bern, I don't know what you're talking about. I've lived there my whole life. Born and raised there."
Damas watched him in silence. After a moment he said, "Have you, now? Native Bernian - who would have thought it." He took the letter and examined the envelope for a moment, then showed it to one of the men behind him.
"That the marquess' seal?"
The underling stepped forward, his features lit by moonlight, and Marcus flinched. Eliwood had been afraid of this. Pherean bandits sometimes meant Pherean deserters, and Marcus was sure to recognize any. Hopefully they wouldn't recognize Marcus in return, not since Lowen had taken over as master sergeant more than a decade ago.
The underling's attention remained on the seal, and eventually he nodded. "That's it."
Damas cracked the seal and scanned the parchment. After a moment he flipped it over and indicated a dark stain on the paper.
"The marquess is ill," Eliwood said. "He bleeds daily from the nose and mouth. He can hardly draft a letter without bleeding on it."
"And he's never heard of a handkerchief?" Damas turned the letter backed toward himself. "He'd send his heir a letter covered in his own blood?"
"His son is well-aware of the condition. The marquess has turned it into a second seal of authenticity. Not a bad idea, in turbulent times such as these, but it won't help. The contents of that letter are accurate – only a skeleton crew guards Castle Pherae, and his son is in Ostia. If the marquess isn't dead in a few weeks, he'll be on death's door. The castle will be ripe for the taking. Already is, if you know what to look for."
Damas narrowed his eyes, but at last he folded the letter and tucked it away. "Fine, we deal. You can use the old mountain road."
"You'll need this." He drew back his sleeve, exposing a crude brand on his forearm. "Still want it?"
A shallow smile played at the corner of his mouth. He'd given Eliwood exactly what he wanted, but he clearly expected Eliwood to balk at the toll.
Eliwood drew back his sleeve. "I told you. I'm Bernian through and through, and I just want to go home."
Damas jerked his head toward one of the men behind him. "Heat it."
The man disappeared into a small back room, and for a moment the glow of a fire pit illuminated the dark antechamber where Eliwood sat in waiting. The door closed and sealed them into darkness once more. The wind gusted outside, trees groaned in the night, and Eliwood held Damas with a steady gaze. After a few minutes the man returned with a smoking firebrand.
He crossed the room in two steps and pressed it against Eliwood's wrist without a word. Smoke and the stench of burnt flesh curled up into Eliwood's nose, and he went lightheaded with pain. His head swam, and then Marcus was there, holding Eliwood's wrist steady.
The bandit looked surprised and, whether he intended to or not, lifted the brand from Eliwood's skin. A vile, red weal marked the underside of his forearm, and Eliwood shuddered as he tried to control his breathing. The deed was done. He almost laughed, and he felt a wet cough rising up in his chest.
"Many thanks," he murmured, and rose from his seat.
A few of the men swayed, as though to stop him, but Damas remained motionless. Eliwood and Marcus left with no further trouble. As soon as they were away, concealed in the darkness of the forest, Eliwood laughed, coughing blood into the night.
"Thank you." He wiped the corner of his cloak across his chin.
"I didn't realize just how mad this plan was," Marcus answered, "and I suspect I still don't. But I can see you will need all of my support, and none of my dissention."
Eliwood smiled, still somewhat delirious, heady with pain and success. "Yes, that is the Marcus I need."
"How far do we go, My Lord?"
"All the way to Bern, Marcus. All the way."
Eliwood crouched in the shadows, concealed behind a blackberry bush just off the footpath. The way had grown steadily wider during the past few hours as they came down from the mountains, and it was nearly dawn now, the horizon flushed with rosy hues. Marcus crouched next to him, and they both watched the sorry scene just down the road. A grandfather and a young man stood amidst a gang of men.
"Things like this make me question the rule of lords," Eliwood said.
Marcus kept his attention on the robbery. "Zephiel is a warlord. He cares not one whit for peace, at home or abroad. I'm not surprise he doesn't patrol his roads."
Eliwood sat back and folded his arms. "I like to think myself a just man, Marcus, like to think that I will stand beside my father after death and Roy will stand by me." He waved a hand in disgust at the bandits. "Yet this still happens in Pherae, too. Under my rule. How long until my great-grandchild is the next Zephiel? And what will be the state of Pherae then?"
The travelers had disappeared under a hail of cudgels and boots. A thread of righteous fury curled around Eliwood's heart like spider silk, but no more. In his younger days he wouldn't have stood for this, but now he knew too much and saw with too wide a lens. And he and Marcus were old men.
"I'm on a precipice, Marcus, holding together what my father handed me. We've been in constant decline since Roland. Roland, who never would have stood for this because he the power to stop anything, and I wonder why we don't have that power anymore, and then I realize that's exactly what Zephiel wants, isn't it? The power to right whatever wrongs he sees, the power to stretch out his hand and change the world."
The bandits had gone, and one of the prone figures stirred on the roadside.
"So it's not the power that's gone wrong, but the men who wield it. Sometimes I think Nergal was right, if for the wrong reasons."
"You want the return of dragons, My Lord?"
Eliwood gave him a wry smile. "You can't deny I'd want at least one of them back."
Marcus averted his gaze. "Lady Ninian was different."
"Different in quality, not in kind," Eliwood said. "She was still a dragon. I think the golden age before the Scouring was a time when humanity had a friend and rival to propel us ever higher. We were not Bernians or Lycians but humanity; in both peace and war we had the dragons to give us contrast. Now we only have ourselves. We stagnate, corrode, and so, as I said… I find myself doubting the rule of lords."
"So you wish for the dragons to return?"
"No, we'll never regain what we lost. But I want something, Marcus. Something to challenge good men and hold them to just standards, some sort of institution, so that when eventually a bad man comes along he cannot undo what countless generations before him have built."
Marcus didn't reply, perhaps he didn't know how to, and Eliwood let the subject go. Even he didn't know what he wanted. After a few more minutes he rose and approached the travelers.
An elderly man sat upright in the middle of the road, eyes fixed on Marcus. When neither Eliwood nor Marcus moved to threaten him, the old man spun and knelt over the younger man beside him. He pressed his fingers to the man's neck and cast a wild glance over his shoulder.
"You were fleeing to Pherae?" Eliwood asked.
"By the bandit roads?"
"We're desperate. Please."
Eliwood looked down at him in silence. In the light of dawn both men were bruised and bloody, but the younger's eyes had swollen shut, and his breath came through a shallow, bubbling rasp.
Eliwood reached beneath his shirt and removed his necklace. He unfastened the clasp and slipped one of the rings off. Part of him screamed that it didn't matter, not here in the middle of nowhere, but another part of him whispered that this was the end of all things. Soon he would no longer miss mementos, and small deeds cast long shadows. And he had a task to complete.
"Here." He knelt and slipped the ring onto the young man's little finger. "It may keep him alive long enough to find someplace better."
They left the men on the road, and Marcus drew up alongside Eliwood. "Nini's Grace? To a complete stranger?"
"Peace, Marcus. Even Ninian once said that it's only a ring."
The abbey was much smaller than Eliwood had imagined, even for a congregation based in Bern. From the letters he had exchanged with Lucius, and via Lucius the abbess here in Bern, he had come to expect a sprawling, pastoral scene. Instead he found little more than a single-room chapel and a chicken yard. A tiny cemetery on the north side doubled as a garden, and from the road the grounds looked deserted. He was surprised the place actually had a bell tower on the chapel roof.
Eliwood unbuckled his rapier and handed it to Marcus, who silently strapped his own blade across his back and fastened the rapier to his hip. They descended from the highway, and Eliwood let them in through the front gate. A few chickens crossed the path, clucking without a care, and a moment later the chapel's front door swung open.
An older woman stood on the steps, although she was probably the same age as Eliwood. Her hood bore the triangular pattern of an abbess of Saint Elimine.
As they neared she said, "Lucius of Lycia?"
Eliwood nodded. "I am."
"You look exhausted." She came down the two front steps onto the stone pathway. "And too thin, even for an acolyte."
"Well," Eliwood said, allowing her to lead them inside, "the roads are not safe, so we did a lot of…guessing."
The abbess shook her head and sighed. "I've heard. The King salted the earth in Sacae, and the Pegasus knights break themselves against his armies. He marches like Hartmut reborn, and I'm not surprised it's safer to wander through the wilderness than take the roads."
She led them to a small refectory, through a door behind the chapel altar. A table spanned the length of the room, and a fire burned in the cooking hearth at the far end. The smell of milky stew and sage filled the room. It whispered to Eliwood of safety and comfort, and he slumped into the nearest chair.
The abbess frowned and bent over him, her hand to his brow. "You didn't simply travel a rough road, Brother Lucius. You're ill."
"Yes," Eliwood said, not bothering to lie. "I am, but it's my burden to bear. I'll be well enough after a few days' rest."
"Rest," the abbess said, as she crossed to the hanging pot over the fire, "and food. I'll go get you some feverfew."
She set a bowl in front of him and left. For a moment, they were alone. Eliwood ate his stew, and Marcus eyed him from across the table.
In a low voice he asked, "Why are we here, My Lord?"
"Would you believe me if I said a brief period of convalescence?"
That had been what Eliwood told the castle staff, in his letter explaining his disappearance. Marcus didn't seem to find the quip amusing. "No I wouldn't, My Lord."
Eliwood smiled. "You'll see soon enough. For the time, enjoy the peace. It's strange to find it, here, in Bern of all places."
"While the rest of the world burns," Marcus muttered.
They looked away from one another as another man entered. He wore a charity robe of the abbey, a brown, sack-like thing. It did little to conceal his broad shoulders and scarred hands, not to mention the furrows gouged across face.
"Hello, brother," Eliwood said.
"Not a brother." The man took a bowl from the stack on the shelf and ladled out some stew.
"Then what are you here for?"
The man sat down, the chair creaking beneath him. "Convalescence."
Eliwood laughed softly and eyed Marcus. "Us as well." He stood and walked the length of the table, where he held out his hand. "I am Lucius."
The man ate a spoonful of stew and chewed for a moment without making eye contact. At last he reached up and took Eliwood hand. "Dieck."
"May you find your peace." Eliwood turned to go, waiting until he was at the door to say, "Although you don't look like a man in need of peace."
Dieck gave a short laugh. "Yeah? What do I look like I need?"
Eliwood left, Marcus following behind him. Eliwood felt as though the world had begun to bend around him, shaping itself to accommodate his passage. He could not say if he dreaded that notion or reveled in it.
Despite Eliwood's ulterior motives, the abbey was a restful place, and his cough abated somewhat over the next few days. The abbey felt not only remote, but isolated entirely, as though it existed in the idealistic mind's eye of someone younger than himself. To think that places such as this still existed.
Three days after their arrival, he was sitting beneath one of the few apple trees when Dieck came around the side of the building. He stopped at the sight of Eliwood. Usually they avoided one another and had spoken no more since Eliwood's parting comment, but now Dieck stood staring at him.
He crossed the grass to stand in the shadow of the apple tree.
"What did you mean," he asked, "when you said I seemed in need of a cause?"
Eliwood raised one shoulder in disinterest and closed his eyes. "You said you weren't an acolyte, and if you're not, then you only look to be one other thing. Although this is a strange place to find one."
"Why do you care what I look like?"
"Because I need what you look like."
Dieck looked down at him in confusion, then shook his head. "If you have a point, make it. I hate beating around the bush."
Eliwood laughed and sat up. He'd never been good at the veiled speech of the court and the league. "You're a mercenary if I've ever seen one, and I might need a mercenary. But only if there's one to hire. Sometimes men don't like being dragged into a life they've left behind."
Dieck frowned, his brow furrowed and his gaze distant. "I travel across the entire continent, yet here I am. Same conversations, different faces."
Eliwood got to his feet. "So you have left it behind."
He began to move past the taller man, but stopped as Dieck said, "More like I wasn't cut out for it anymore."
"Tired of nobles and their pettiness?"
"Yes, but that's not why. It's just hard to be a cynic after you meet what a nobleman is meant to be."
Eliwood raised an eyebrow and slowly sat back down. Dieck joined him.
"Meaning what?" Eliwood asked.
Dieck stared at the earth beneath him. "There was a time when I was only concerned with spreading my name. I was as worthy of glory as any nobleman born in a high tower, because they were all liars. There was no such thing as nobility."
"But then I met a man who truly was born to stand head and shoulders above everyone else, like every nobleman claims to be. He was selfless, concerned with things bigger than his house. After that, I couldn't lie to myself. I couldn't say one employer was as good as the next, that they were all the same beneath the fancy speech, because I knew it wasn't true. So I left."
"Why don't you work for that man?" Eliwood asked.
"I did, for a while."
Eliwood nodded. "And so that life's not for you anymore."
"Yeah." Dieck looked up from his self-reflections. He seemed surprised to find himself speaking with Eliwood.
Eliwood glanced up at the leaves, green and aglow with the sun behind them. "What if you could work for another man of that caliber?"
Dieck snorted. "You know one?"
"No, but I know a man who will become one."
Before he could continue Marcus came around from the side of the abbey. "My Lord-"
He stopped short. His jaw tensed, his face stony. Eliwood rose and removed the chain from his neck. He unstrung Thor's Ire and handed it down to Dieck, who accepted it with a strange expression.
"If you would like to meet such a man," Eliwood said, "go to the fortress castle, perhaps two days from here. From there, cross into Pherae, and you'll find a small village, tucked away in the foothills. Wait there for a young man with red hair, named Roy. He will know you by that ring."
He turned to go, but paused as Dieck said, "And if I'm a mercenary, what am I to be paid with?"
"That ring," Eliwood said. "Ask Roy its worth, but feel free to keep it."
He joined Marcus, leaving Dieck beneath the apple tree. As soon as they were around the corner, Marcus broke his silence.
"I apologize a thousand times over. That was thoughtless and inexcusable. I truly am getting too old for this."
Eliwood waved a hand in dismissal. "No, I rather liked it. Gave the whole affair a sense of the dramatic. Although now I suppose he'll go expecting to find that I'm Roy. That was quite cloak and dagger, wasn't it?"
"Yes," Marcus replied, sounding uncertain. "But there's something you need to see."
He led Eliwood to the front of the abbey and out to the main gate.
"I check the road a few times a day for hoof prints," he said, "but today I saw that."
He pointed to the distant tree line on the opposite side of the road. Eliwood squinted, then laughed under his breath as he spied a scarlet sash snapping in the wind, fastened to the top of a pine tree. He had been looking for that every day since their arrival – of course Marcus, despite knowing nothing of it, would spot it first.
"It's suspicious," Marcus said.
Eliwood put a hand on Marcus' shoulder. "Yes it is, which is why it's a good thing no one else has your attention to detail. Come inside, someone will be arriving soon."
Marcus followed him into the abbey and back to the kitchen without a word. They sat, picking at a plate of roasted parsnips for a time, until the abbess entered. She looked around, paying them no mind and appearing quite unsettled, then left.
Two men in acolytes' robes entered the room. They were tall, hulking men who looked as if they were about to burst free from their clothing. They wore their hair shorn close to the scalp, and they sat at the far end of the table, speaking quietly.
Eliwood glanced at Marcus. Those men weren't acolytes any more than himself. He rose from his seat, and Marcus stood to follow, but Eliwood gave a small shake of his head. He needed Marcus to distract them. His mere presence should do the trick, like a bear among wolf-hounds.
Eliwood slipped out and wandered back through the chapel then around the outside of the building. Dieck was gone when he reached the back, but that wasn't surprising. He had seen little of the man over the past few days and had no idea where he spent his time.
At the rear of the graveyard was a much smaller building, one that Eliwood had avoided until now - the relic annex. According to Lucius, it contained a finger bone of Saint Elimine. The door was closed, but candlelight flickered from within, and two more daunting acolytes stood outside. Someone was inside that building. Someone important, if Lucius' letters were correct.
Eliwood loitered for a few minutes. He walked through the wild flowers and reached up to pull an early apple from the small, bushy trees. When the moment felt right, he approached the relic annex. The men immediately barred his way.
"Can't go in," one of them said, a man with a scar across the bridge of his nose.
"I am an acolyte of Saint Elimine," Eliwood said. At that moment a rivulet of blood threaded down from his nostril, and he smiled. "And I am dying. I am one of the few who can go in there."
The man's eyes narrowed, but he jerked his chin in Eliwood's direction. His partner dropped all pretense and began to pat Eliwood down. He withdrew the two rings on the chain, eyed them for a moment, smelled them, licked one, then dropped them back inside Eliwood's shirt.
The man with the scar opened the door and followed Eliwood inside. As the door shut the chamber reverberated, and a woman turned away from where she knelt in front of the relic box.
She had hair gold as sunshine, skin fair as bone, and a blood-red tearstone suspended in the center of her forehead. Princess Guinevere, in the flesh. She titled her head, looking at him curiously, then turned back to her devotion.
Eliwood's heart fluttered. The heavy, conflicting hands of destiny and decision settled on his shoulders, paving infinite roads before him. He had felt like this once before in his life, standing in the bedchamber of the young man who now raged across the continent. In the many years since, Hector had often lamented their decision to save the boy-turned-tyrant.
Eliwood never had. Not out loud, at least, for that decision was forever past. But now he found himself wondering. Ilia would surely fall, but what might Etruria and Lycia accomplish, with Bern's war machine brought to a halt in mourning for a dead royal, with Zephiel in the capital for the funeral?
He approached the relic box and knelt, pondering. There had been a time he would not have thought such things. Shame would have flushed his cheeks, but now all he felt was fever heat and the cold calm of necessity. The long years had changed him, despite his struggle to remain uncompromising. 'Morally insufferable,' Hector called it, and a smile twitched at Eliwood's lips.
"Elimine's blessing to you, brother," Guinevere said, only a few paces away.
Her voice settled upon him like a dawn breeze, and he blinked. No. He knew very well could not kill this woman. Desperation might change his thoughts, but not his actions. He might not do better than his father, but he would go to his grave knowing he did no worse, either. Besides that, he had a task to complete.
He reached inside his shirt and removed another of Ninian's rings - Set's Litany.
"Saint Elimine," he said softly, but loudly enough for Guinevere to hear. "I beg your grace, insight, and calm."
He was saying the words wrong. He didn't even know the words to speak before a holy relic, but Guinevere clearly did. From the corner of his eye he could see that her lips had stopped moving, and she looked at him strangely.
"I beg your peace for a dying world. I beg you accept this token. I beg that you bless me with your presence during these blackening days, and the long, dark night to come."
He rose, moved toward the relic box, and Guinevere made a strangled sound as he reached for the lid. He set the ring on top and turned away. As he walked past Guinevere, he made eye contact. Her brow furrowed in confusion, and then he was past her, back into the cemetery garden.
He would have to assume she had gotten the message.
That night Eliwood and Marcus waited in their room on the second floor above the refectory. Eliwood lay on the bed, too tired to move, and Marcus stood by the door. At Eliwood's request, Marcus no longer wore the rapier, and his sword stood propped up in a nearby corner. He had flat out refused to hide the weapons under the bed, and Eliwood couldn't blame him, although he hated the thought of giving Guinevere a reason to fear them. Assuming she found a way to communicate.
It was well past midnight, and Eliwood had yet to hear anything that sounded like the patter of princess feet on the floorboards of the hallway. Marcus leaned against the door with his eyes closed, patient as only he could be.
The window across the room flew up, and Marcus' eyes snapped open. A pale hand appeared from above the window frame and dropped a piece of parchment onto the floor. Eliwood sat up, but Marcus stayed him with a cautious hand. Marcus took up his blade from the corner and approached the window. With eyes up he knelt and retrieved the parchment, which he handed to Eliwood, attention still on the now-empty window frame.
When Eliwood unfolded the note, all it said was, In the bell tower.
He showed the note to Marcus, whose face took on a stony cast, that look which meant he understood Eliwood was about to do something both necessary and dangerous.
Eliwood went to the window and looked out, up and down. Above him the eaves jutted out, enough for a handhold but not far enough to prevent climbing. He hoisted himself out and up, his wasted muscles trembling with the effort. Laboriously he dragged himself up inch by inch, a stubborn war against gravity and age. On the roof he rolled onto his back, silently gasping in the cold night air. After a moment he got to his feet and crept along, toward the dark bell tower at the peak.
As he drew near, a voice from within said, "Stop. No closer."
It was impossible to tell where exactly the voice echoed from, which dark corner of the bell tower Guinevere stood in, wreathed in the shadows. Smart woman.
"Who are you?" she asked.
Silence. The wind gusted, and clouds drifted across the moon.
"And what do you want, Marquess Pherae?"
"Peace," Guinevere repeated. "Every ruler wants peace, did you know that? Whether it's a Lycian marquess or a Bernian king - but it seems like no one can get there without bloodshed. My brother had spies in Lycia for the accords three years ago. I know what Marquess Ostia really wanted to do with Marquess Laus, all in the name of peace."
Eliwood slowly circled around, keeping his distance but ascending to the peak of the roof, where he sat. "Is that so?"
"Yes, and it makes me wonder if men like my brother aren't actually more dedicated to the cause of peace. He doesn't take it lightly, you know. He carries a world of sin on his shoulders."
"Is that why you're making a pilgrimage across Bern, visiting every tiny chapel and roadside shrine? Praying for the strength your brother needs to grind the rest of us to dust beneath his heel, so we can reach that final, great peace?"
"If your brother told you he wanted peace, he was lying. Although I think you must know that, Princess Guinevere."
Guinevere stepped into the moonlight, wraithlike in a long nightgown. "And I should believe you over my brother? I should believe in your peace instead of his? Will you tell me the moon is my mother, and I should believe that, too?"
"That is what I came to ask for. The peace, that is."
Guinevere gave a bitter laugh and held out Ninian's ring. "And what is this? Proof, somehow, that you're the dying Marquess Pherae, a true and honorable man?"
"No. Not proof to you, anyway. But if you listen to me, it will be proof to the people who can help you, people like my son."
"And why should I believe you?
"Because as I said in the chapel, these are blackening days, princess. You have to believe in something, and I don't think you're making this pilgrimage because you believe in your brother."
"No. So here I am, another way, a hidden path suddenly revealed. Whether you take it or not is up to you."
Guinevere looked away, her hair like strands of white gold in the breeze. "My brother at least gives me proof, through cold fury and a strong sword arm. You can't give me anything but a ring and idealistic words?"
Her voice caught with pain, and she looked up to meet Eliwood's eye.
"You are clearly devout," he said. "You've heard of the Fire Emblem?"
"Look into it, and find the Shrine of Seals, far to the north. There's your proof, should you believe me. Don't let your brother find out, which should be manageable with him in Ilia. If anything you find changes how you think, changes what you believe, make your way to the fortress castle half-a-day's ride from here."
He got to his feet and turned to go, but stopped as she called after him, her voice nearly lost in the wind. "That's it? That's all you can give me?"
"No, that's all you can give me. Farewell, princess."
Eliwood descended and lowered himself from the eaves once more. Marcus was there, waiting to help him inside the room.
"Did she believe you?" he asked.
"I don't know," Eliwood said, heading for the door, "and we need to leave before she decides."
"Now?" Marcus said. "In the dead of night? How?"
"The same way I knew she would arrive today. We have a friend in the forest, come."
Eliwood led them out of the abbey and down the front walkway, dappled in shadow as clouds crossed the moon. The creak of the closing front gate carried like a birdcall in the night, and Eliwood glanced over his shoulder. No one followed, no one called after them. Guinevere was at least considering what he had said.
On the other side of the road they waited just inside the tree line, concealed in the shadow of a towering oak. The cold wind cut through his acolyte's robes, and he shivered, feeling fatigued. He had done what he came for. Now all that remained was the return, and the end, the final end. He hoped to see Roy once more.
The undergrowth rustled, and Marcus stiffened as a figure stepped out, wreathed in shadows. The clouds shifted, and a moonbeam illuminating the man's face.
"Matthew?" Marcus said.
Eliwood could understand his surprise. None of them had seen Matthew for nigh on a decade. He had continued on in his service to Hector, through Serra's death, through Florina's, but when Oswin passed, Matthew disappeared.
He looked much the same, but for the gray shot through his light brown hair. His ever-present, knowing smile still played at his lips, but there was also that sadness which hung about him. The same sadness he had picked up one foggy eve on the Isle of Valor, and never once put down.
"Hello, Marcus. Still playing footstool to stuffy lords," he said, with a nod to Eliwood. "Speaking of which, good to see you, Lord Eliwood."
Marcus remained quiet. He and Matthew had never seen eye to eye, and Marcus didn't have Oswin's fondness for Matthew born over decades of dealing with him.
Eliwood stepped forward and clasped Matthew arm. "Well met, old friend. We received your message."
"I suspect you did. I've brought the horses, and Guy sends his regards." He glanced over his shoulder. "I'm sorry to say I can't complete the second half of your request."
Eliwood sighed, feeling the ache in his bones. There was always something. "Why not? I need someone watching over Guinevere when she starts poking around in things she shouldn't."
Matthew shook his head. "You wouldn't want me to. I've got that madman Karel on my tail."
Marcus drew his sword immediately, smoothly, and pivoted to check their rear. An uneasy chill raced over Eliwood's skin. Karel was one person he had hoped to never see again, and one of the few people he had not kept track of.
"What does he want?" Eliwood asked.
"Guy, I suspect, but I haven't stopped to find out. Regardless, you don't want me following the princess with him following me."
"Karel is mad," Eliwood said, "but there's a method to it. He wouldn't hurt Guinevere. She poses no challenge to him."
Matthew shrugged. "Do you want to back that horse? Because I certainly don't. Either way, I'm not doing it."
Eliwood fell silent, then said, "And if I take care of him?"
Matthew eyed him up and down. "No disrespect, Lord Eliwood, but I don't see that happening."
Eliwood held out his hand to Marcus, who handed over his rapier after a brief pause.
"Karel once told me," ELiwood said, belting on the sword, "that I would become strong, and at that time he would come for me. Perhaps he will be surprised that it is I, coming for him. Where are the horses, and where did you last see him?"
"The horses are over the hill," he said, and jerked a thumb behind him. "Hobbled at a roadside shrine. I saw Karel maybe two days ago, so unless I've gotten very lucky, he's still around here somewhere. He's following the horse tracks, I suspect, so ride slowly enough and he'll catch up."
"Good. Watch over Guinevere, and consider Karel dealt with."
Matthew's sigh coalesced with the wind, and he said nothing more on the matter. "Farewell, Lord Eliwood. It was…nostalgic, seeing you again."
"You as well, Matthew. Elimine's blessing."
"Marcus," Matthew said. He gave the old knight a cursory nod, and then drifted into the shadows.
As Eliwood struck out into the woods Marcus said, "My Lord, this entire venture has been foolish, but I must put my foot down here. Karel has done nothing but slay men his entire life, and you are unwell. Let me handle it."
"I would if I could," Eliwood replied. "But Karel's invitation was to me. I don't think he would accept a challenge from you, old friend, no matter your prowess. He holds to a code of honor all his own."
They rode through the night on swift Sacaen purebloods. The wind pulled at Eliwood's cloak, like the hands of so many dead, and he pressed on grimly. His time had not yet come.
Just before dawn they stopped and took a winding side trail to where a well stood in the middle of the rolling Bernian hills. Marcus watered the horses, and there they waited. For most of the next day they loitered, watching the sun rise, hang at its peak, and slowly descend. Toward evening a dark, mounted figure appeared on the horizon, and came to a stop.
The rider heeled the horse forward, and as he drew near Eliwood was surprised. It was Karel, surely enough, but not the Karel he had expected. His hair was shorn at his shoulders, and he no longer wore the short, legendary Wo Dao at his hip. More than that, the bloodlust had gone from his eyes.
Karel looked truly calm, and Eliwood could not tell if that boded well for him or not. Karel stopped his shaggy plains horse and swung down. He stood beside his mount, stroking its neck as it immediately dipped its head down to crop the grass.
"Given me the slip," Karel said.
"Matthew?" Eliwood replied. "Yes. He does that."
Karel eyed him coolly. "Eliwood of Pherae. You're a man I never thought to see again."
"I could say the same of you, Karel. What do you want?"
"To speak with my apprentice." He laid a hand on his sword. "To see him one last time, before the end of the age."
Eliwood drew his rapier. "I'm sorry, but I'll have to do."
Karel cocked his head, and then a shallow smile graced his features. That surprised Eliwood most of all.
"I'm done slaying, Eliwood of Pherae. They have a different name for me now."
Eliwood did not sheath his rapier. He had once witnessed Lyn split a flitting mayfly on the draw, and even she had feared the swiftness of Karel's blade.
Yet Karel did not strike Eliwood as a liar.
"You are saying," Eliwood continued, "that you wish to see Guy for purely personal, peaceful reasons."
"If you return to Pherae with us, I can have a message sent to Matthew, and Guy may contact you if he wishes."
Karel looked into the distance, his hair drifting in the evening breeze. He pushed away the horse's head as it nuzzled his robes. Eventually he turned and unfastened a small bundle lashed to the horse's side. He unwrapped it, layer by layer, until he held the Wo Dao.
"I think," he said, looking up from the sword, "that I will take that duel I promised you, so long ago."
Marcus tensed, but Eliwood stayed him with his off-hand. Karel still did not seem to be the man he remembered. Even with that wicked sword in hand, Karel appeared composed.
"To first blood?" Eliwood asked.
Karel smiled sadly. "I've never dueled to anything else."
Eliwood nodded, and Karel untied the longer sword he wore at his side. He replaced it with his Wo Dao, and he closed his eyes, his shoulders sagging beneath an unseen weight.
He opened his eyes and nodded to Eliwood.
The duelists drew near one another, and a thrill flooded Eliwood's every fiber, a sensation he had not felt since his youth. Karel swayed, so light on his feet, so deceptively smooth in his movements.
But Eliwood could be deceptive as well, when it suited him. He had kept his sword arm bent since Karel appeared, a few degrees short of full extension, feigning injury. Surely Karel had noticed, and Eliwood played his part in earnest.
He lunged, falling short of his arm's natural length, and Karel easily dipped back to avoid the thrust. Again Eliwood lunged, and again Karel effortlessly dodged.
On the third lunge Karel ducked and flowed, surging in past the rapier tip. In a blink the Wo Dao was bare, glistening in the late sun. Eliwood drew a main-gauche from within the folds of his cape and parried Karel's sword stroke. With a quick hop back he retreated, then redoubled, lunging again.
Eliwood's arm snapped out to its full length, the rapier tip chasing after Karel, mere inches away. Karel's eyes widened and he parried, taking one hand off his sword to catch Eliwood's wrist as he struck with the main-gauche.
For a second they remained there, arms splayed to either side, and then Eliwood buckled to his knees, coughing violently onto the earth. Blood spattered Karel's boots, and when Eliwood looked up, the man was staring at him with a perplexed look.
Marcus stood with his sword bare, but Karel paid him no mind. He only stepped back, and sheathed the Wo Dao.
"It been years," he said, "since I last looked at a man and did not immediately discern his fatal weakness. You are dying, Eliwood of Pherae."
"I am dying," Eliwood agreed. He got to his feet. "And it looks like first blood was mine."
"But not by my hand." Karel gazed at the Wo Dao for a moment, then offered it to Eliwood. "I wished for my successor to receive his inheritance, for him to take it from me. This sword has been passed down in cascade of blood through the ages, but perhaps it is time for that legacy to change. Take it to him, if you can."
Eliwood hesitated, then took the sword. "And you?"
"I will go. To where, I can't say. Farewell, Eliwood of Pherae."
He turned and mounted his horse. Marcus let out a pent up breath.
"That was not what I expected."
"I have to admit the same." Eliwood watched Karel's retreating form until it disappeared around a bend in the road. "But I shouldn't be so surprised. The world is changing, its old players falling into the background."
"Speaking of which…"
Eliwood looked up, shaken from his musing. "What?"
"We've been gone nearly two weeks, My Lord. The staff thinks you're convalescing in the summer palace, but Lady Lilina is to be arriving for her exchange in Pherae, soon."
"Ah. I had forgotten about that." Eliwood tucked the Wo Dao into the back of his belt. "Then we'd best be going."
Marcus relaxed, the tension melting from his shoulders. As they mounted, determined to get at least a few miles closer to home before dark, Eliwood's hand strayed to the final ring around his neck - Filla's Might.
The old knight stopped and turned in his saddle. Without his resplendent armor, Marcus looked like a scarecrow, and Eliwood felt a sudden melancholy. For so long Marcus had been steady as a stone, stalwart even against time itself.
"Before she died," Eliwood said, "Ninian spoke to me. Told me of things to come. Her prescience was never reliable when it came to the grand scale of political machines, but she did manage to tell me one thing, and quite clearly."
Marcus remained silent, and the wind died. Elibe held its breath.
"She told me that before I saw her again, I must give away her rings. One to a stranger on the road, one to a friend I did not yet know, one to a beloved comrade, and one to a faithless foe."
Eliwood removed the silver chain from around his neck.
"My Lord, you don't need to do that."
"No, Marcus." Eliwood stared at Filla's Might, weighty and familiar in his palm. "I do. I lay awake many nights, debating her words, but in the end she said I must. Not that I would, or should, but must. I didn't want to at first, pushed it to the back of my mind, but through this past year, her words have loomed over me."
He held out the chain, ring dangling between them. "Until now I've been guessing, never certain to whom I delivered her rings, only hoping. But I am sure about this one. Please take it, and may it give you a dragon's might. I'm afraid your road will stretch out long after mine has come to an end."
Marcus hesitated, then held out his hand. He quivered as the ring dropped into his palm, as if it carried all of Eliwood's cares with it. He placed it around his neck and slipped it beneath his shirt.
"I will treasure this," he said. "And one day deliver it to Master Roy."
"No." Eliwood sighed and stared out over the sunlit hills. "I was to give them away, not lend them. Just as the dragons will never return to the world, those rings will never return to my family. Pass that ring on to your successor, whoever that may be, or take it with you to the earth, or throw it away. It's yours now."
Marcus placed a hand over his chest. "I understand."
Eliwood smiled. "As well as any man can. Now let's go. Lady Lilina will be upset if I'm not there to greet her."
"To say nothing of Lord Hector."
"Hector?" Eliwood glanced at the old knight.
Marcus smiled. "He'll be irate if he ever finds out you went on one last adventure without him."