As of this day, November 19th, on the two thousand and fifth year of our Lord, Legacy of Valshannar has begun. The winds of war have begun to hasten, the lords marshall their forces in preparation for battle, and the vultures gather for the feast.
Prepare yourself accordingly.
Legacy of Valshannar - Prologue
Though the imperial court was filled to capacity with courtiers and advisors, Cecilia couldn't help but notice the subdued atmosphere that hung over the crowd like a dense fog. King Mordred, the first of his name, had become increasingly sluggish and disillusioned with worldly affairs ever since the unfortunate death of Prince Mildain, the Imperial Heir. Often, key decisions regarding Etruria's future were left in the hands of selfish and egotistical nobles who looked no further than their pockets. This only increased her anxiety for the future of Etruria as Cecilia combed a hand through her dark green hair with a sigh. Beside her, the Knight General Percival and the Great General Douglas stood silently. Percival's blonde hair still bore the dark marks of youth that contrasted with Douglas' graying brown hair. Nevertheless, the two knights did not move a muscle despite the long hours they remained standing.
Ordinarily, Cecilia would be more than supportive of the king's grief, especially since Prince Mildain was the only child of King Mordred. However, Cecilia reflected bitterly, Elibe is not the same peaceful world it was twenty years ago.
Twenty years ago, Cecilia played an essential role in the long odyssey of triumphs that ultimately averted Elibe from disaster. Though the harrowing journey was fraught with perils and danger, Cecilia noted that the campaign was, more or less, waged during an era of relative peace and prosperity. The same could not be said of the current age and time.
Especially since the great lords of the past are long gone, Cecilia thought with despair as she reflected upon the correspondence that arrived two days ago from Lord Hector.
Cecilia had, during her first tour of duty twenty years ago, acquainted herself with several key figures in the Lycian League. They included Lord Hector of Ostia, Lord Eliwood of Pherae, and Lady Lyndis of Caelin. After reading the letter, Cecilia found to her growing dismay that Lord Eliwood had fallen ill, though hopefully he'd survive the illness. She also found the confirmation of the death of Lady Lyndis.
Lady Lyndis had, after the death of her grandfather, Lord Hausen, abdicated the throne of Caelin and returned to the plains of Sacae many years in the past. Rumor has it that Lady Lyndis never recovered from the death of her most beloved companion and eventually withered, despite the utmost care of the Kutolah Clan. Though all the companions grieved for the fall of Mark, no one took the blow harder than Lyndis herself.
And what I would give for Sir Mark to be alive this day and lend his considerable aid to Elibe, Cecilia shook her head; I would be at ease even if every nation on the face of Elibe were attacking us if I knew Sir Mark was leading our armies.
"Make way! Make way!"
Cecilia's musings were curtailed as a bloodstained messenger stumbled his way across the slippery marble floors. The youth's armor was cracked in several areas, blood matting his dirty blonde hair. The Pegasus Crest on his cracked shield denoted him as a knight of Ilia. Skidding to a stop before the throne, the messenger dropped haltingly to one knee before holding up his dispatch with both hands.
"Your Majesty!" The messenger gasped, "Ilia is on the verge of collapsing before the hosts of Bern. Ilia entreats, no, begs Etruria to honor the Pact of Windcrest made in years past and come to Ilia's aid!"
The Pact of Windcrest was an agreement signed between Ilia and Etruria roughly twenty five years in the past. Ilia was traditionally ruled by an assembly composed of senior Pegasus knights or mercenary knights. During a brief period of political upheaval, a few members of the assembly sought to consolidate their power by eliminating the other members. A brief civil war followed, in which Etruria dispatched a small army to aid in quelling the rebellion. Grateful for the timely Etrurian assistance, Ilia offered its mighty Pegasus fleets to return the favor whenever it was needed. The ruling Etrurian King had generously refused the offer, stating that Etruria was always ready to aid its neighbors. In the ensuing treaty signed between the two nations, Etruria pledged to assist Ilia in its time of need while Ilia's fleets would always place Etruria's request for mercenaries as its first priority.
King Mordred coughed slightly before motioning Lord Roartz to bring the sealed parchment. The most powerful of the king's advisors, Roartz treated the message with nothing but disdain as he snatched the parchment from the messenger's hands. Breaking the wax seal and reading the contents without handing the matter to the king, Roartz smirked with amusement.
"The Pact of Windcrest, eh?" Roartz leered, "What a pitiful mistake in the past it was to ally ourselves with such a pathetic wasteland. What is it if not a blank check for Ilia to call upon whenever it meets the slightest of difficulties?"
Holding his anger in check, the messenger grimaced, "Milord, Ilia has long provided noble Etruria with fleets of loyal, efficient and brave pegasus knights. Why, the Subjugation Wars in the past could not have been won with…"
"Silence!" Roartz barked, "Etruria has paid for every service Ilia rendered with the required sum and owes no favors to Ilia. Let your frozen turf break under the hooves of Bern for all we care. Is that no so, milords?"
Lord Arcard, a member of the high nobility but possessing no importance save being Roartz's greatest supporter, boomed his agreement, "Indeed! Sacae has been conquered and Ilia soon to be overrun. We should be looking to our own defenses rather than busying ourselves with the affairs of foreign and might I add," Arcard smirked, "inferior nations?"
The messenger colored in fury, "I… We…"
"See?" Arcard pointed, "The savages can barely speak intelligibly!"
The courtiers and sycophants burst into a mocking laughter, but the Generals of Etruria did not laugh. Sputtering with humiliation, the messenger arose and bowed curtly before moving to quit the room.
Roartz raised a hand majestically, "Halt, did we grant you permission to leave?"
Beside Cecilia, both Percival and Douglas stiffened. Only King Mordred had the power to dismiss or grant audience to foreign dignitaries! How dare a noble usurp the king's authority! The Three Generals waited in vain for the king to grant a reply.
The messenger turned around haughtily, "I am a knight of Ilia! Though born in a frozen hell, Ilia is still my home and my country! Even if no other nation in Elibe shall come to our aid, the knights of Ilia will fight to the death if necessary!" The knight paused to take breath before adding pitilessly, "Let my rebuff be the death knell of Etrurian honor!"
Choking with rage and shame, Roartz roared futilely, "Stop that man!" Ashamed of the treatment done to a fellow knight, not a single military man lifted a hand to stop the proud Ilian.
"Your Majesty!" Cecilia protested as the Ilian knight disappeared, "Surely this cannot be condoned! The Pact of Windcrest was forged a dozen years ago by General Valshannar before the last Terrascar Purge! Do we frown upon his memory by spitting upon Ilia's request?"
"The Mad Genius," Arcard said contemptuously, "was a traitor, a deserter, and a coward. Why honor his word?"
Cecilia, Percival and Douglas all gave Arcard a glare that promised death should the noble malign the name of Valshannar again. Douglas had served alongside the man during the lengthy and problematic Subjugation Wars while both Cecilia and Percival had studied under the vaunted Lord of the Silver Vanguard. Though Percival and Douglas did not always see eye to eye with the Valshannar General, they respected his military prowess and unerring dedication to Etruria. His loss was a grievous blow to the Etrurian military infrastructure. Arcard cowered underneath their combined gaze and did not speak another word.
"If Ilia should fall," Cecilia continued after ensuring Arcard remained silent, "Then Bern will control both the Ilian and Sacaen borders to Etruria! This already presents a two-pronged assault that Etruria will be hard-pressed to defend against. If Lycia were to fall next…"
"Lycia," Roartz rolled the name off the tip of his tongue, "Another group of petty fools that do not know the true meaning of nobility. Do you favor the Lycians because of your close relationship with the Lycian lords, particularly with your pupil, Roy of Pherae? My, my, isn't he too young for your tastes?"
"How dare you…!" Cecilia's eyes were ready to spit fire at this point while Percival seemed ready to go for his sword, but a stern glance from Douglas quelled them both. Again, their united glances were directed towards King Mordred.
"Your Majesty?" Roartz said silkily, "You must be tired. Please rest yourself while I," he cast a cold glance at the Three Generals, "Deal with this troublesome situation…"
"Yes," the king murmured hoarsely, "That… would be best." Raising his hands, King Mordred was helped to his chambers by two Royal Guards.
Roartz watched with satisfaction as the king departed. He turned back to the court, "Now where were we? Oh, this talk of war and battle has exhausted the tender ears of His Majesty. Let us reconvene at a more," he smirked sardonically, "appropriate time… Dismissed…"
As the courtiers and members of the court emptied the throne room, Cecilia found herself walking alongside Douglas and Percival. Throwing a despairing look at the two of them, Cecilia shook her head sadly.
"Your concerns are quite valid, Cecilia," Percival observed, "But I fear you rushed things quite a bit. This is the first time in several months we were able to bypass Roartz' interference and present ourselves in court."
Cecilia nodded, "I understand. I apologize for…"
"Do not apologize," Percival cut her off, "I agree with what you were trying to knock into those thick-headed, egotistical idiots who call themselves nobles. But what I'm trying to say is…"
"This would all be different if Prince Mildain was alive," Douglas said.
Cecilia and Percival both grimaced. Percival sighed, "I wasn't about to say that, but General Douglas is also correct in that regard."
"Though unfortunately, it seems to be the only solution to every obstacle at court," Cecilia observed drolly.
Douglas nodded, "There is no use crying over spilt milk. The loss of Prince Mildain was a terrible blow to Etruria, but we must make do without him. Etruria still looks to the three of us to protect its borders."
"Hopefully we can soon make that four," Percival noted, "What do you two think of young Klein?"
"I think I'm the only one who can use the term 'young,' Percival," Douglas boomed with a laugh. "He shows promise. And he has the added advantage of being the son of Lord Pent."
"He might have the connections to infiltrate the court," Cecilia said, "Since he is of high birth, Roartz cannot block him from presenting ideas to the king! So…"
"We shall see," Douglas chided, "The Archery General is still a recent addition to the Etrurian military, so we will have to wait for young Klein to prove himself worthy. Only then will he be given a position where he is capable of influencing the court."
The discussions of the Three Generals trailed away as they made their way out of the palace.
A proud lion standard, the sigil of Osita that carried both sword and ax, fluttered gaily over Castle Araphen. For the first time in its history, the fortress found itself armed to the teeth and filled to capacity. Typically, the castle was only crewed by a token force of militia supplemented by an equally sized group of mercenaries. All of this changed when Bern began mobilizing its troops across the border.
Seeing that invasion was imminent, Lord Hector summoned the Lycian Lords from near and far to Castle Araphen. Under the Lycian Covenant, the various marquesses were honor bound to rally their retainers and assist in the national defense. As a loose coalition of peers, no single Lycian state possessed sufficient strength to combat Bern on its own. When faced with the paramount threat of invasion, the marquesses thrust aside their private scruples in order to do battle against Bern.
A week after the first heralds were sent across Lycia, the various lords began trickling into ARaphen. Hector, as Lord of Ostia and the recognized head of Lycia, arrived first at the head of six score armored knights. Marquess Sarpedon of Kathelet appeared shortly afterwards, leading several dozen militia. Marquess Orun, Hector's half brother, pleaded illness but managed to send his son, Pandarus, with fifty spearmen. Sir Kent held stewardship over Caelin in Ostia's name since the abdication of Lady Lyndis many years prior. Restricted by his injuries in previous battles, Kent nevertheless dispatched some two score archers along with three dozen mounted knights. Rhesus of Santaruz, grandnephew to Marquess Helman, appeared before the gates of Castle Araphen with fifty swordsmen. Marquess Dolon of Tuscanny arrived last with three score ax men and several wagons of supplies. Combined with Araphen's available soldiers, the Lycian Alliance Army fielded nearly four hundred men-at-arms.
Hector, however, frowned at the limited amount of warriors at his disposal. Standing on a balcony that overlooked the castle courtyard, Hector surveyed the army as the soldiers assembled into a formation. Laus and Pherae had not arrived yet, and with them disappeared any hopes of heavy cavalry. Laus, as proven twenty years ago, fielded a goodly number of stout cavaliers, though their skills and courage paled in comparison to the mighty Pheraen mounted division. To make matters worse, word came that his good friend Eliwood of Pherae was ill and would most likely be unavailable for the upcoming battle.
I haven't seen him in a few years, Hector thought, with so many bloody liars and sycophants springing up all over Lycia, what I wouldn't give to have a trustworthy comrade in this nearly impossible battle.
'Impossible' seemed to sum up the situation quite nicely. Despite Hector's petitions, most of the marquesses brought only token forces to aid Araphen, leaving badly needed soldiers to 'defend' their holdings. The mere thought of that made Hector grit his teeth in frustration.
Why can't those idiots understand that if we don't win this bloody battle, there won't be any holdings to return to? If Bern crushes the resistance at Araphen, Lycia's independence is as good as gone!
Bern was widely regarded as the greatest military power in Elibe, and not for little reason. The Bern standing army was capable of deploying nearly four thousand soldiers at any given time. Etruria, as the second powerhouse in Elibe, once possessed a similar army size, but that has severely deteriorated since the collapse of the Silver Vanguard at the end of the Terrascar Purges. Currently, Etruria was capable of mobilizing roughly two thousand professional soldiers. Needless to say, Lycia didn't stand a chance of matching either country in numbers.
"Lord Hector," a voice sounded behind the Ostian Lord, "would you like to address the army?"
"In a moment," Hector replied, "I will need to meet with the other lords afterwards. Have them assemble in the throne room, sir…?"
"They call me Sain, Lord Hector."
Hector turned around in astonishment. Sure enough, the Green Lance of Caelin stood smirking before the eyes of a befuddled Ostian Lord. Sain's graying hair and wrinkles clearly said that twenty years have taken their toll on the boisterous cavalier. However, the same cocky smile from twenty years ago was still plastered on his face.
"By St. Elimine, what the devil are you doing here?" Hector asked.
Sain's smile widened even further, "Same as you are, Lord Hector. I have an interest in defending Lycia's future."
Hector shook his head, "Last I recalled, you had resigned your commission as Caelin's Assistant Knight Commander and became a free knight. What prompted you to return?"
"I received a letter from my bosom companion, Kent," Sain replied, "I know that fighting is no longer possible for Kent, but someone needed to lead Caelin's forces into battle. No invader from Bern shall trample my fair memories of Caelin and Lady Lyndis."
Hector sighed, "Speaking of Lyn, have you heard…?"
"I was there, Lord Hector," Sain said sadly, "I held last vigil for her along with her husband, Rath. Do you remember him?"
"Yes," Hector recalled, "I never saw him miss a mark before. How is he doing?"
Sain's sad smile did not change, "He's gone too. Rath was killed in battle when Bern overran Sacae."
"What?" Hector exclaimed, "The last report I received was that Bern besieged Bulgar!"
"That was two weeks ago," Sain corrected, "With the help of the treacherous Djute Clan, Bulgar was sacked and the Kutolah scattered to the four winds. Sacae is now in Bern's iron grip, though Ilia is not far from that fate either."
Hector smashed an armored fist into the stone balcony and cursed, "With Etruria hesitant to respond, that leaves Lycia alone to brave Bern's storm."
"Any word from Laus or Pherae?" Sain asked.
"None," Hector admitted, "Eliwood's incapacitated, though his son, Roy, is hurrying back to Pherae to assume command. Erik, on the other hand…"
Sain grimaced, "I never understood why you didn't sack him years ago, Lord Hector."
"That decision was out of my hands," Hector growled, "I would upset the balance of power if I started by tenure by sacking lords left and right. With Marquess Helman and Darin dying of 'questionable' causes, the fall of Erik would spark widespread panic in Lycia."
"I take it that the rest of Lycia didn't know about Nergal," Sain said with a frown.
"And I wasn't about to inform them either," Hector replied, "Some things are best left buried, where men do not pry. Anyhow, Erik then proceeds to dazzle everyone save Eliwood and I with his ludicrous promises of reforming his ways. Naturally, we haven't managed to find any means of refuting his argument in the past twenty years."
"What is it now?" Hector replied impatiently.
A winded soldier saluted, "Outriders have sighted Bern's army approaching Castle Araphen! Scouts estimate that there are roughly two regiments!"
"A full thousand," Sain murmured.
"When will they arrive?" Hector growled.
"They'll be here in two weeks, Lord Hector."
"Two weeks?" Sain and Hector exchanged a glance, "Bern's invasion force needs two weeks to transverse forty miles?"
The soldier hesitated, "Outriders report that this host is moving extremely slowly, Lord Hector."
"Feh," Hector grunted, "With luck, Eliwood will be here with a retinue of Pheraen cavalry by then. Until then, we can do little more than defend this castle."
"Outclassed and outnumbered," Sain shook his head, "At least we have enough supplies for the time being. Quartermaster reports that we have enough supplies to last us until the shipment from Ostia three days from now."
"So why are they taking so long?" Hector asked, "That army can arrive at Castle Araphen within a week, yet they purposefully delay their march. What are they plotting?"
Neither Sain nor Hector wanted to dwell on the possibilities.
"You know who could tell us that?"
"Yeah," Hector replied grimly, "Mark."
On all accounts, a Bern war camp was designed for battle at the cost of comfort. Surrounded by a forest of wooden palisades, it was only accessible through four heavily guarded gates. Inside these daunting barriers, the camp was divided into four equal partitions, crisscrossed by two roads separating them. If breeched, the defense could be fought tent by tent in order to prevent any foe from reaching the central command. In the center of this makeshift fortress, five pavilions were erected. Each surrounded by an array of banners, only the centermost pavilion was graced by the presence of the mighty Bern Triple Crown, the symbol of Bern royalty. The Triple Crown was not a trio of crowns at all. Instead, the emblem portrayed two crossed swords of incredible caliber topped by a single golden war helm. To the learned individual, the crown symbolized the royal line of Hartmut while the two swords were Exxacus and the Sword of Seals. However, few humans in Elibe now recognized these reminders of a glorious past.
As befitting the greatest military power in Elibe, Bern's war camp was alive with activity. Soldiers everywhere were occupied in their assigned tasks, be they sharpening weapons, drawing supplies, or grooming the horses. The entire army was like a well-oiled war machine: fluid, competent and merciless in battle. Unlike their relaxed Etrurian or Lycian counterparts, Bern soldiers carried themselves with a dedication derived from their long-standing confidence in their abilities. Not a moment was spent in idleness when every second could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Granted, Bern did not taste the latter very often.
Zephiel, King of Bern, stood stiffly before the tent flaps that led to his residence. Slightly behind him, a slim, hooded, dark-robed priestess waited patiently. While Zephiel was regarded by his subordinates as the exemplary model of a warrior, the same could not be said of the priestess. More than one soldier had uneasily remarked the chilling, almost inhuman aura that the priestess seemed to exude. Not that the sinister Royal Guard members with glowing red eyes were any improvement. These comments, of course, were never spoken in the king's presence.
"Brenya," Zephiel asked, "Has Narshen arrived yet?"
The willowy Dragon Lord emerged from a nearby pavilion. The purple-haired sage was several years younger than Zephiel, but her loyalty to the king rivaled even General Murdock. Brenya was assigned as part of Zephiel's personal retinue since her youth and was known to be an ardent supporter of the king. Over the years, there sprouted several rumors that her loyalty bordered on an unrequited infatuation, something that Brenya fiercely denied. Nevertheless, both she and Murdock served as competent and unflappable commanders during the respective Sacaen and Ilian campaigns.
"No, my liege," Brenya replied smoothly, "Though General Narshen did send a dispatch claiming he'd present a mighty gift."
Zephiel nodded imperiously, "A gift? Narshen's voracious appetites are well known to cause countless complications. For his sake, this 'gift' he bears had better not be an imitation of the previous one."
Brenya inwardly scowled at the images Zephiel's comment conjured up. During his brief exercise in Ilia, Narshen had returned with several female captives. Hoping to curry favor with his master, Narshen had presented his spoils to the king, only to have a furious Brenya personally eject the general from the king's audience chamber. She then released the captives and allowed them to return home unscathed.
"His skills are fairly impressive," Zephiel continued, "However, Narshen would do well to curb his desires and focus more on his objectives."
"Your Majesty," Brenya said, "Are you certain with giving Narshen the responsibility of sacking Lycia? Surely someone more trustworthy could…"
"Xavier believed Narshen to be proficient enough for this assignment," Zephiel replied, "Brenya, you comprehend as well as we do that Xavier is never mistaken."
That silenced Brenya. Ever since the aging tutor had arrived at the Royal Court, he had revolutionized the Inner Court, as Zephiel named it. While King Desmond reigned over the courtiers and squabbles of Bern's Royal Court, Zephiel closeted himself with Brenya, Guinevere and Xavier. With Murdock ensuring that no one disturbed their lessons, Zephiel, Guinevere and Brenya listened in rapture as Xavier conveyed his knowledge to them all. To Zephiel, Xavier imparted the keys to kingship and royalty. To Guinevere, Xavier was like a second grandfather who patiently fostered her growing thirst for literature and serenity. To Brenya, Xavier taught the ways of war and the secrets of strategy. Much of Bern's present day supremacy could be attributed to the painstaking twenty years Xavier invested in Zephiel and Brenya.
"Narshen has repeatedly complained to us that he has never received an opportunity to attest his valor," Zephiel continued gravely, "Let Lycia be his trying grounds. Should he prove inadequate to the task, then Gale will replace him."
Gale was, in Brenya's opinion, a much more reliable candidate for a Dragon Lord. Skilled, cunning, honorable, tactful and humble, Gale exhibited Narshen's skill in battle but without Narshen's recklessness and unpredictability. The favored companion of Guinevere's bodyguard, Miledy, Gale would've been the logical choice had not hampered by his land of birth. Born a native of Ilia, Gale's position was superceded by Narshen, a native of Bern. Bern had always been suspicious of outlanders and aliens, preferring to staff its armies with officers drawn from Bern itself. This perhaps would explain why Narshen was a Dragon General while Gale served only as General Murdock's lieutenant.
"General Brenya! Your Majesty!"
A messenger was stopped by two robed members of the Royal Guard. Tall and imposing, they blocked the path of the messenger with their brawny hands.
"State your business," one of them said with a hiss.
The messenger gulped, "Your Majesty, General Narshen has arrived with his squadron. He has an urgent matter requires your immediate attention!"
Took him long enough, Brenya suppressed the urge to roll her eyes.
"Very well, bring him before us," Zephiel said.
A few moments later, Narshen arrived with his personal guards. Haughty, proud and stubborn, the blond general carried himself like a man utterly confident in his abilities. The minor technicality was that he never proved those 'legendary' skills to anyone save himself. However, his entire pompous attitude dissipated in the presence of his master. The arrogant smirk on his face faded into the perfect visage of a fawning lapdog. Halting half a dozen yards before Zephiel, Narshen performed an elegant bow with a flourish.
Flattering snake, Brenya inwardly growled, but did not visibly express her disgust.
"Your Majesty," Narshen said silkily, "I humbly thank thee for allowing such a lowly, unworthy creature into your awesome presence."
Damn right, Brenya thought.
As if divining Brenya's thoughts, Zephiel glanced towards her briefly before addressing Narshen, "You have certainly taken your time, Narshen. You were ordered to appear before us three candle marks ago. Under Bern law, tardy appearance before one's king is punishable by death. We trust that you have a sufficient excuse for this transgression?"
Much to Brenya's satisfaction, Narshen paled considerably, "I beg pardon, my liege. I lost several candle marks while circumventing the skies of Lycia."
Brenya was aghast, "Lycia? The army is about to engage the Lycian Alliance Army at Araphen are you are spending your time chasing skirts in Lycia?"
Narshen feigned injury, "General Brenya, you wound me! What could possibly have done to give you such an impression?"
Do I need to give a list? Brenya glared at the general without reply.
"Enough," Zephiel's voice cut through the argument like a blade of ice, "Narshen has yet to make his report. You can question him at your leisure afterwards, Brenya."
Narshen inwardly fumed at Zephiel's indirect manner of placing Brenya above him and struggled to maintain his composure, "Your Majesty, might I present…" Narshen gestured to a dismounted cavalier behind him, "Marquess Erik of Laus…"
The cavalier slowly removed his helm, revealing the features of a middle-aged man. Erik knelt before Zephiel, presenting his back in a token form of submission.
"Your Majesty," Erik said smoothly, "It is awe-inspiring to pay homage to you."
Another Narshen, Brenya declared harshly in the privacy of her mind, I suppose creatures of like mind commingle naturally.
"You swore fealty to Hector of Ostia," Zephiel rumbled, "What makes you turn your colors so easily?"
"Lycia is prey to age-worn and foolish traditions," Erik replied, "The scattered lords are like mice squabbling over the last bit of cheese. Lycia desperately needs change in its politics and government. Your Majesty is the perfect solution to both problems."
"Therefore we become a tool for fulfilling your wishes?" Zephiel asked calmly.
Brenya was delighted to see Erik cower for his life.
"Your Majesty knows I meant no offense!" Erik cried in a shrill voice, "I simply mean to give Lycia into the hands of Bern!"
Zephiel smirked, "Your offer is amusing, Erik of Laus. We, however, doubt your ability to swing the scales of war in such a radical manner. Spies have reported that the mighty Laus army was shattered twenty years ago by a force of less than twenty men. Are we wrong in this regard?"
"The times have changed since then," Erik said hoarsely, "Twenty years I've spent patiently refitting and training the Laus army. Laus now has enough strength to confidently backstab the Lycian Alliance!"
"What do you stand to gain through all this?" Brenya's suspicious tone clouded her voice.
"I have… a long standing hatred of Hector of Ostia," Erik said as he recalled a few bitter memories, "Perchance King Zephidel could reward this faithful servant with dominion of Lycia?"
Narshen frowned as he barked, "Now see here, Marquess Erik! That wasn't what we agreed upon!"
And now the daggers come out, Brenya thought as she watched Erik avoid Narshen's gaze.
"Lycia," Zephiel said as if testing the word on the tip of his tongue, "Rest assured, the two of you. Whoever performs the greatest service for us in the coming battles will be granted Lycia."
Greed shimmered in Narshen and Erik's eyes. "Your Majesty, Lycia will be swiftly conquered by my companies!" Narshen exclaimed with a salute.
Not wishing to second his one-time conspirator, Erik leapt at the chance as well, "Laus will see Lycia safely delivered into your hands, Your Majesty!"
"Dismissed," Zephiel said despite their bravado.
"Your Majesty," Brenya said uneasily as Narshen and Erik departed, "Surely you will not leave Lycia in the hands of those two…?"
"We said whoever performs the greatest service in the war will be granted Lycia as their holdings," Zephiel said as he gazed at the priestess behind him with approval. "Be they human or dragon…"
Brenya could not suppress the shudder that ran down her spine at those implications.
Compared to the extravagance of Aquelia, Castle Bern could almost be described as Spartan in furnishings. However, what the castle lacked in luxury, it was certainly built with safety of Bern's royalty in mind. Shooting out amongst the tall mountain spires and guarded by the fierce wyvern lords of Bern, the fortress appeared to be impregnable. Bern's warriors proudly boasted that no one would be able to enter or leave the castle without detection. A boast, ironically, that was about to be proven false by the very people the warriors swore to protect.
Hunched over a small table, Xavier was dictating a message as he tried to fight the growing migraine that planted itself behind his eyes. While Zephiel was temporarily away at the war front, Xavier was charged with overseeing internal affairs until the king's return. Zephiel set great store in the advice that his tutor offered, and frequently sent dispatches filled with updated plans back to Castle Bern.
Besides having to regularly await the king's orders, Xavier now had an army of informants to work with. Owing to illness, the previous head of intelligence had literally dropped dead in the middle of work, a fate that Xavier honestly hopes to avoid. Fortunately, the spies were prudent enough to write their reports using an upraised text, hereby allowing Xavier to 'read' the reports simply by running his calloused hands over them. There was no need to reveal state secrets if the occasion could be avoided.
So Marquess Pherae is bedridden with illness? If Marquess Pherae could be delayed a little longer, then the Pheraen cavalry will not be able to assist Araphen, Xavier thought as motioned for the scribe to stop.
With most of Bern's legions already deployed into battle, preciously few professional soldiers could be spared for a raid of Pherae. However, the local bandits may be persuaded with the right coin… Xavier trusted that his bait would be more than sufficient to tempt the greedy brigands into launching a furious attack on a weakened Pherae.
"New orders, Dreyakis," Xavier said, "Have Damas and his cronies begin their assault. They know what is required of them."
Dreyakis had been Xavier's trusted valet for the past twenty years. Undemanding and loyal, the servant dutifully carried out his master's commands even though Dreyakis was almost as venerable as Xavier. Scribbling down Xavier's latest command, the one-armed scribe rolled up the parchment before sealing the manuscript with a wax seal.
"Is there anything else, Master Xavier?"
"No, you're dismissed for the rest of the day," Xavier replied. "My presence is requested by Princess Guinevere as a temporary replacement for her usual bodyguard.
Xavier, Zephiel's mentor, advisor and prime minister all rolled into one, emerged slowly from the study that served as his quarters. The past twenty years have not been kind to the aging teacher. Gouty, blind, silver-haired and frail, Xavier nevertheless retained his keen intellect for conquest and intrigue. Xavier had patiently cultivated Zephiel's talents for nearly twenty years before unleashing the King of Bern upon Elibe. Elibe considered Zephiel to be a wise and peaceful ruler during the early years of his reign and was consequently caught by surprise with Bern's sudden belligerency.
Using his cane as a guide to the unknown, Xavier slowly padded his way through the myriad of hallways until he came to Princess Guinevere's room. He had, after all, resided in the castle for twenty years and, despite his blindness, could navigate his way through the castle quite efficiently. As Xavier approached, a male wyvern knight standing guard before the doorway caught sight of him.
"Ah, there you are, Master Xavier," the knight greeted, "I was afraid you didn't receive the letter from the princess."
"Zeiss, is it?" Xaiver inquired, "What are you doing here? If I recall correctly, you were recently assigned to General Narshen's command?"
"You are quite right," Zeiss replied with a smile, "Miledy, however, insists that she accompanies me until I safely arrive at camp. After all, this is my first tour of duty as a knighted wyvern rider."
"You are all that remains of her family," Xavier nodded towards the doorway, "it'd be quite natural for her to be worried for your well being. However, since Miledy is not at her assigned post as the princess' guard, I gather she is currently inside apologizing for her temporary absence."
"She is doing just that," Zeiss answered as the door swung open with a small groan.
Miledy issued forth from the doorway while casting a worried look behind her. The crimson-haired guardian had been beside Princess Guinevere ever since Queen Hellene died of illness fifteen years ago. Miledy cared for the princess almost like a surrogate mother and did her best to shield the young royal from the frictional turbulence between King Desmond and Prince Zephiel. Though Miledy was a battle-hardened and skillful wyvern knight in her own right, she honestly wished for nothing more than to remain beside the princess to the end of her days. As Miledy turned around, she smiled briefly at Xavier and her brother.
"Master Xavier," Miledy said with a bow, "I apologize for bothering you during such an important time. You must be overwhelmed with plans and stratagems for the king, yet I…"
"Nonsense," Xavier said with a huff, "I fully understand and agree with your concern for young Zeiss here. Be at ease, I will watch over the princess until you return."
"Thank you," Miledy replied, "I couldn't help but worry that Zeiss would run into trouble along the way without anyone to help him."
"But sister!" Zeiss protested, "I'm never going to become a full-fledged wyvern knight in your eyes if I'm always cooped up in a cage!"
Before Miledy could respond, Xavier spoke up, "Now, now, my old ears cannot abide another sibling argument. You're already late, Zeiss, and for the sake of your military career, I'd advise you to get a move on. General Narshen is most impatient with tardy soldiers."
"Narshen," Miledy grimaced, "He's all bark and no bite. Why, if it wasn't for his infernal meddling, Gale would be…"
"…would be Dragon Lord," Zeiss said with a sigh, "We know, dear sister. We all pray for his speedy promotion just as we pray the two of you would finally tie the knot."
"That was completely inappropriate!" Miledy said with a fierce blush, "In the future, you will refrain from speak… Never mind! Zeiss! We need to leave immediately!" She marched off without another word.
Xavier chuckled softly while Zeiss heaved a sigh, "Always avoiding the problem, my dear sister is." The red-haired knight promptly took off in pursuit of his sister.
Shaking his head at their antics, Xavier turned his attention back to the princess' room. Knocking quickly on the oaken door, the advisor was admitted by a brunette priestess named Ellen. Though the St. Elimine Church flourished in Etruria and Bern alike, the military hierarchy of Bern was always considered to be far more important than priesthood. Ellen was one of the few exceptions that readily participated in the church rather than seeking an active military career. Perhaps it was due to her introspective nature and connections with the church that Ellen was assigned as Princess Guinevere's personal attendant. The two young women had immediately connected on their mutual interest in literature and learning, spending fruitful hours studying and reading in the royal libraries.
Xavier bowed, "Princess Guinevere."
Guinevere smiled serenely at her childhood tutor before rising elegantly from her window seat. Dressed in a flowing red dress and wearing a solid gold circlet, Guinevere wore the appearance of an angel emerging from an epic portrait. While age had drawn wrinkles and weakened Xavier, the past twenty years only served to bring out Guinevere's womanly graces and charms. Already considered one of the finest ladies in Elibe, Guinevere's high status and regal bearing would be a fine bargain for any would-be suitor.
"Master Xavier," Guinevere repeated, "how fare you this day?"
Xavier smiled slightly, "Quite well, princess. Although the candle marks seem to grow shorter every day. With Bern on the war footing, the king and I must regularly keep correspondence to plot Bern's next move."
Guinevere's smile dampened at the mention of war, "Why is my brother doing this? What does he hope to gain from this war?"
"I do not know, princess." Xavier replied, "I suppose that King Zephiel seeks what all great conqueror's wish for: a unified Elibe ruled by one king. Elibe has never been united since the nations rallied together and fought the dragons during the Scouring. King Zephiel would be hailed as the first emperor in over one thousand years!"
"War causes great suffering," Guinevere said, "thousands of innocents die by the sword every time a war breaks out. Lands are ravaged and peasants flee for their lives… Surely there can be a peaceful solution to this conquest!"
"Bern has long been preparing for this day, princess," Xavier said. "For three generations, the Kings of Bern have been patiently building up their strength and arms. They have been waiting eagerly for an opportunity to present itself, an opportunity that will make Bern the mightiest country on the face of Elibe."
"Glory, might, and fame are pointless if they are paid for with innocent lives," Guinevere protested, "Bern is already the acknowledged military power in Elibe. Why do we need to kill more people to prove this?"
Xavier frowned slightly, "Ellen, could you please bring me a cup of tea? I do believe this will be quite a debate." Blind as he was, Xavier completely missed the two women exchange a look.
"Master Xavier, I…" Guinevere began.
"Milady," Xavier held up a hand, "you are destined for something far different from the king. The Kings of Bern bow to no one save the king alone; this is how it was always done. Ambition, desire, and conquest all reside in the hearts of kings. Princess, you are a peaceful individual, naturally unsuited to war and…"
"I beg your pardon," Ellen's voice wavered slightly as she approached. "H-here you are, Master Xavier."
"Thank you, child," the master said as he tilted the cup and took a sip. "Now where was…"
Ellen nimbly secured the cup as it dropped from the advisor's nerveless hands. Xavier crumpled to the floor in a heap; his deep breathing told the conspirators that he was quite dead to the world.
"Ellen," Guinevere chided gently, "how much sleeping draught did you put in there?"
Ellen flushed with embarrassment, "Ah, perhaps a little too much. I'm not trained in the specifics of a sleeping potion, milady."
Guinevere smiled, "Be at ease, there is no harm done. Though we must make haste and depart before Xavier awakens."
Ellen timidly poked her head out the doorway, "Milady, there is no one about!"
Guinevere nodded before smiling apologetically at Xavier's prone form. "I'm so sorry, Xavier, for doing this to you. I know that you are only acting under Zephiel's orders. Even so, I cannot abide that innocent lives are being destroyed in this horrendous war. I must stop this madness, at any cost."
"Milady, please hurry!" Ellen said.
"I know," Guinevere replied as she removed a large ruby from one of her drawers. "This however, is required if peace is to be forged."
Ellen gasped, "Milady, is that…?"
"Hush, Ellen," Guinevere placed a finger to her lips.
With one last glance to make sure the coast was clear, Guinevere and Ellen quitted the chamber. Ellen slowly tugged the door closed and locked the room.
No sooner had the key been withdrawn from the hole did a pair of golden eyes snap open.
It might have occured to you, dear reader, that Roy appears for all of one line in this prologue. Rest assured, the red-haired son of Eliwood will make his debut. Someday.
Thank you for reading and review if you have the time!