Summary: See chapter one
Disclaimer: See chapter one
Warnings: See chapter one
Chapter Three: By Your Side
"I don't want to see him, Woltar. I made that perfectly clear to you yesterday. You know what he did."
The Storm Brigade captain regarded the sullen twelve-year-old boy standing in front of him with exhaustion. "It has been four years, boy. Your father is a different man now. He only wishes to speak with you, perhaps take you home…"
His pale cheeks reddened with twin spots of red. "I can't go back there, I won't. You can't make me!" he cried, the violent outburst leaving him trembling. "I don't want to see him again!" In his anger, he lapsed into a more childish manner, the cold and detached demeanour he had adopted in more recent years slipping away.
"Albel, I know it will be difficult at first. But I am not your legal father; I cannot keep you here with me. His Majesty has renewed his captainship, surely that is some indication that you can give him a measure of your trust?"
"There is no longer anything I can do. Perhaps if your father comes to stay here for a while, you may think differently about returning to your family manor."
"If he comes here, I won't stay. I'll leave!"
"And then where will you go? Who will take you in?"
The boy fell silent, flinging his head angrily to one side so he would not have to meet the penetrating gaze of the older man. His back was stiff, proud.
Woltar sighed and reached out with one hand to lay it on a thin shoulder. "Albel…"
He reacted to the gentle touch like a hard blow and jerked out of his grasp. "I though I could trust you," he spat. "But you're just the same. I hate you!"
The harshness of the young boy's words struck Woltar to his very core and pain knifed his heart. This boy, whom he had raised and watched grow like a son for four years, hated him? How could the gods have allowed that to happen?
"If you do not wish to see him," Woltar began, his voice gruff, "then I will request that your father respect your wishes."
Albel gazed at him, the sparks of distrust still flickering in the crimson depths. "You will?"
"Yes. But you must understand that if he petitions the king and is granted his appeal, you will have no choice but to return to his household. There will be nothing that I can do. You are his son, not mine."
"Then why can't I be yours!"
There was a stunned silence before Albel spun around and fled, leaving Woltar standing alone. He opened his mouth to call after the boy but his words stuck in his throat. He had had no idea that the boy felt so strongly about living in Kirlsa and more importantly, about him.
What had begun as a warm affection for the son of his comrade had quickly grown into the love he had always expected to have for a son of his own blood. He remembered the dark night four years ago when Albel had arrived on his doorstep, soaking wet and half delirious from lack of food and water as if it were yesterday. Woltar had accepted the boy's need with a gracious intent to return him to his father in Airyglyph as soon as he was well enough to make the journey. But then he discovered something that soon changed his mind.
The nightmares that left Albel drenched in sweat, screaming for a mother who was not there to comfort him.
The screams that cursed his father.
Albel would not admit the truth so easily, but Woltar had heard enough from listening to him mumble in his restless sleep and resolved to keep him away from Glou for as long as the Dragon Brigade captain was a danger to his son.
Six months after the boy last refused to see his father, even though Woltar did everything in his power to keep him, Albel was returned to his father's house.
The manor seemed so empty without the presence of the boy and Woltar missed him. After four years, he had become so accustomed to hearing the exasperated cries of the servants as Albel played prank after prank on them and the delighted shouts as he joined the village boys in staging mock battles with wooden swords, that it hurt to realise he was gone.
It hurt him more deeply than any wound, hurt more than any spell dealt by an Aquarian.
Of course he continued to see Albel, but it was never the same. Something had changed in the boy.
Something had died.
The inner fire that Woltar had nurtured into full flame had turned into dull ash, blown away with the wind.
The spark of mischief in his eyes had been extinguished and he treated all those around him with a cold indifference, even Woltar. The young boy had become separate from all of them.
Thus began Albel's war on the fortune that refused to favour him.
"You damn fools, spread out! Get backed into a corner and you die!"
The furious roar from the captain was matched by the angry shriek from the dragon as she reared back, her long jaws snapping as flames shot out of her open mouth. With angry shouts, the Black Brigade soldiers fell back in an attempt to escape the flames.
Albel cursed and flew towards the dragon rampaging on the ground. "Air Slash!"
The ripple of energy streaked through the dirt and sliced the scaly hide of the female Nassar and she shrieked in pain, trampling a soldier in her blind panic. The soldier screamed in agony as his leg was crushed beneath the tremendous weight of the dragon and Albel ran past him, ignoring him completely.
He gripped the Crimson Scourge in his sword hand and favoured the dragon, which had backed into a corner of the gorge, with a grim smile. "Come and get me, dragon bitch. Today is the day you make the journey into hell!"
His latest lieutenant, a short and stocky man whose grace with a sword had not seemed to extend to his awkward walk, shook his head as he knelt to assist the fallen soldier. "That man has a death wish," he muttered, shoving a handful of berries into a mouth twisted from pain. The soldier did not respond, closing his eyes in blissful relief as the crushed bones of his leg began to repair themselves.
But the other participants in the hunt stood with their mouths hanging open as they watched their captain face the dragon, head to head.
He was truly a magnificent sight as he stood tall, his hair blowing freely in the wind and the terrible sword he wielded gleaming in the sunlight. But the image was spoiled when he turned around with a sneer on his pointed face.
"What are you waiting for, maggots! Do something!"
They sprang into action as he commanded, falling efficiently into the ordered lines that Albel preferred for hunts, but still they hung back. While Albel was not arrogant enough to try to fight a full-grown Nassar alone, he demanded the first attack. They were only to fight when the beast began to weaken. Then, as Albel always said, there was no more sport to be had. So he would detach himself from the battle and leave his soldiers to clean up after him. They did not complain, since no one really wanted to attack a fresh dragon and since their captain was a crazed warrior, who was going to argue?
Albel ducked as a thick claw slashed towards him and it sliced past his head, the dragon stumbling slightly as it lunged. He grinned savagely as his sword sank into the soft flesh of its underbelly and it shrieked in rage, twisting frantically to rid itself of the burning sting of the blade. The captain sneered at the flailing beast, turning his back on it disdainfully as he pulled his sword from the thick belly. This one had been far too easy. No challenge at all. Glaring at a nearby gaping soldier, he jerked his head irritably in the direction of the wounded dragon. "Finish it."
"Yes, milord!" he snapped to attention, sliding his sword out of its sheath and moving towards the floundering dragon with three other soldiers.
Albel watched the dragon die with cold eyes, deaf to the shrieks of pain and rage. With a snort, he wiped his blade clean of blood and slid it back into the sheath hanging at his side.
"No sport today, Sir Albel?"
Albel did not turn when his lieutenant spoke to him. "None. One would swear that these stupid beasts are getting weaker by the day. To get a decent kill, I shall have to find the male."
"He will stay close to his females so we should find him soon enough for my lord to have his entertainment for today."
Albel merely grunted in reply and the other man cast him a sly grin. The Black Brigade captain was typical to the point of predictability these days.
"Sir, we have located the remaining five!"
Perhaps this time Albel would finally get the challenge he had been desiring for so long. As he walked in the direction that the soldier had pointed out, he congratulated himself for managing to keep Sophia off his mind for a record breaking sixty minutes.
It was only too bad that it was not going to last.
"Wow, this is beautiful!" Sophia exclaimed, admiring the delicately beaded necklace that she held in her hands.
The vendor grinned in anticipation of a sale, leaning forward eagerly to show off more of his wares. "For a pretty young lady such as yourself, a bargain 300 Fol!"
"What! My lady, that is robbery!"
Sophia glanced sideways at the servant, who had a scowl on her face as she glowered at the wizened old vendor. "Why? It's such a pretty necklace, Elise."
"This old coot is trying to cheat you, Lady Sophia. That cannot be worth 300 Fol! It is merely cheap junk!"
"It seems reasonable enough..."
"The lady obviously has an eye for quality," the vendor began, glaring daggers in the direction of the servant, who huffed and folded her arms resolutely. "But perhaps she should teach her servants some manners!"
"Hey," Sophia interjected when she saw the woman visibly swell with fury, "she isn't my servant. And her manners are fine the way they are."
"My lady, I meant no offence," he said hastily, wary that he might have just lost a sale. "Would my lady accept the price of 150 Fol with my sincerest apologies?"
"I don't see why not…" she began, taking a sideways glance at her companion, who snorted and turned away. "Yes, 150 Fol will be fine."
"Excellent!" he beamed, taking the necklace graciously from her and proceeding to drop it into a small velvet pouch, all the while watching her count out the money out of the corner of his eye. She dropped the money into an eager hand and was favoured with another beam as she took her purchase and she returned the smile quite happily.
The other woman began to stomp away as soon as Sophia had taken the necklace and she had to hurry to catch up. "But he seemed like such a nice old man, just trying to make a living!" she called after her.
"My lady is too easily swayed by appearances," the servant woman replied, slowing down to walk beside her. "That same old man who seems so 'nice' is a known swindler by night!"
"Then why didn't you say so?"
"To do so is to wake up with a knife in the back," she replied darkly. "He will have many friends willing to do so, that old man. To announce his activities to a noble is suicide."
"But I'm not a noble."
"My lady is the esteemed guest of Count Woltar and a heroine, thus you are nobility. And if my lady would permit me speak freely…"
Sophia shrugged. "Go ahead."
"The lady is held in Lord Albel's high regard, are you not?"
"I should hope so."
"You have the added status of being his chosen companion. Which, if I may add, is a title no woman has ever been able to claim before you."
She stopped in her tracks. "I have status because Albel is my boyfriend? Come on, there must have been another woman before me." Secretly, she hoped that this was not the case but because Albel was very handsome, albeit the sexiest man she had ever known, so she knew it was a foolish sentiment.
"Of course he has had women before, my lady, but you are the first who has remained by his side. Now that you have returned, there are undoubtedly high hopes for you and the lord. It is rumoured that the king himself hopes for a marriage and Count Woltar would undoubtedly want for Albel to finally settle down."
Her green eyes widened. "M-Marriage? They want Albel to marry me? B-But, I'm only eighteen years old!"
"Eighteen is the perfect age for marriage in our country, Lady Sophia. Do you not want to marry the captain of the Black Brigade?"
"Well, yeah, but I never thought it would be so soon… I mean, I thought, you know, maybe when I got a bit older…"
Seeing that Sophia was getting more and more flustered, Elise smiled. "I meant no insult."
"No, you didn't insult me, it's just that… the idea of marriage is a little heavy for so early in the morning," she laughed, a sudden skittish look in her eyes.
Oh god, they wanted her to marry Albel?
Okay, she had known him for more than a year, but most of that had been spent billions of light years away from him. Truth be told, she didn't know as much about Albel as she would have liked. Especially to make a commitment like marriage. Yes, she did love him (she certainly felt like she did) but was she ready for something like this? She sighed, realising that she was being an idiot. It was a rumour, Albel probably hadn't even considered the possibility of her being his wife. Just like she hadn't considered the possibility of him being her husband.
She didn't really want to marry him, did she?
Yeah right, she berated himself sharply, why else did you come back to this planet anyway? It wasn't for the food! It was for Albel, simple as that.
But did she really want to spend the rest of her life with him?
Yes, she answered herself honestly. More than anything.
But what if that was just the dream of a naïve girl?
"The dragons are heading towards the village!"
Amidst the catastrophe of noise, one shout rose above all. "Fools! If those dragons reach Kirlsa, I'll disembowel you all myself!"
With that incentive, the soldiers scrambled to their assembled lums and air dragons but many of them had families in the village so no order from Albel was needed. The said captain mounted his lum and set off at a gallop towards Kirlsa, his heart thundering in his chest.
Once they had found the remaining dragons of the nest, everything had crumbled. Had he known the blasted male would be the size of a goddamn space ship, he would have brought more men. Actually, it would not have made a difference how many men he brought with him, since this particular dragon was as big as Crossell. When this was over, he thought darkly, he was going to have a word with the Marquis about the Nassar he had undoubtedly allowed to live long enough to grow to that immense size, and he then dug his heels into the lums side, urging it to run faster.
They had successfully killed another female when the male had appeared and many of the soldiers had run away at the sight of the magnificent beast. In the midst of the confusion, Albel had made a personal note of the ones who ran, storing it in his mind for which punishment would fall once they returned to the Training Facility. He abhorred cowardice and simply did not tolerate it amongst his notoriously elite brigade. Also on the list was the fool who had mistakenly reported the location of the dragons. Apparently his eyes were stuck so far up his backside that he had missed a dragon the size of a bloody mansion.
God, he was surrounded by idiots.
He would have tried to take on the dragon by himself but his lieutenant had given him a steely-eyed look that clearly said absolutely not. Of course, Albel had told him where to stick it but the man did not seem the least affected or intimidated and for a moment he regretted selecting a man who was not a complete moron like Shelby had been. So by the time Albel had managed to throw off his lieutenant and the ten other soldiers restraining him, the dragons had taken off and now he was riding flat out to reach Kirlsa before they did.
Before they reached Sophia.
When the scream shattered the bustle of the market, it almost went unnoticed. Unnoticed that it is, by everyone except Sophia. Her head flew up, her ears pricked in the direction of the scream and her hand flew instinctively to her back, reaching for the staff that was not there. She swore under her breath (a few choice words courtesy of hours spent with Albel), her skin prickling as adrenaline rushed through her veins.
"A dragon! A dragon in the sky!" This time the human scream caught the attention of the crowds and immediately panic ensued.
Elise grabbed her hand and pulled her quickly into the safety of a nearby empty house to avoid being trampled by the hysterical crowds. "Here, my lady! You will be safe!"
"Wait, Elise, I have to fight, I have to…" but her words were lost in the feral roar of rage that reverberated in the streets.
Once they were inside, the noise lessened to a dull roar.
"Why in the holy name of Apris have the dragons come to the village?" the servant woman exclaimed as she huddled next to the window, staring in avid horror at the four gigantic dragons circling the village, one of them as big as the Kirlsa manor itself.
Sophia was standing in the middle of the room, the cry of the beast echoing in her head. Memories of past battles… "They… the people will need protection… healing…" she said softly.
"Kirlsa is the headquarters of the Storm Brigade, my lady, they will be able to exterminate the dragons in an instant!"
"No…most of them are helping the people who have already been injured and they aren't nearly strong enough to battle a dragon that big." Abruptly, she turned around and searched for anything that could be used as a weapon. Nothing. Damn, she would have to take a chance and run to the nearest weapons store. Elise raised her head when she heard the door open and saw Sophia leaving.
"Lady Sophia, it is too dangerous! You'll be killed!"
She paused and smiled at the woman. "I'll be okay. I'm a heroine, remember?"
Elise stopped, her hand over her mouth. "But… the dragons…you may be hurt!"
"You should wait here where it's safe," she continued. "I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise. Don't worry, I can handle myself in a fight."
Before the woman could protest, Sophia was gone. Elise turned to the window and while she watched the young girl run across the square, she murmured a prayer under her breath.
"May the grace of Apris be with you, Sophia…"
The frozen needles struck the circling dragon a glancing blow of its shoulder and it roared in rage, swooping down to belch a stream of fire over the square towards Sophia. She held her staff out in front of her face, a circle of symbols appearing to form a shield against the white-hot fire. Once it saw that the target of its wrath had not been burned, the dragon shrieked in rage and landed onto the ground with a crash that shook the ground. Its malevolent yellow eyes were fixed on Sophia. She gritted her teeth, bracing herself for the imminent attack.
She gasped in surprise as the dragon's head was quickly and violently separated from its body and whirled around. "That was… Nel?"
The scarlet haired warrior was standing atop the inn roof, her scarf fluttering in the wind and her arms folded across her chest, glaring at the dragons with cool emerald eyes. A dragon shot towards her, the air shrieking along its wings and she smiled, unsheathing her daggers in the blink of an eye.
"Nel, watch out!"
It was as if the dragon was moving in slow motion, the way Nel darted through the air, gracefully flipping back to avoid the deadly flames. She skidded on the roof tiles but kept her balance as she released another Flying Guillotine that sliced the dragon's arm clean in half. The dragon shrieked once, an unbearable blast of agony, before Nel silenced it forever with an almost disdainful slash of her blades across the soft flesh of its exposed throat. But as the body fell, it crashed through the roof and Sophia saw her begin to fall even before she heard the startled exclamation from Nel.
"Nel!" Sophia cried before running towards her, pointing her staff at the fallen woman. "Healing!"
The soft green glow of the spell surrounded the bloody form of her former companion and she rose out of the rubble slowly as she shook her head from side to side to clear the fog. "Sophia?"
"Yeah, it's me. Are you still hurt? Do you need another healing?"
"No, I can do the rest myself." Her calculating gaze swept over the girl who noticed, turning faintly pink under the scrutiny. "What are you doing on Elicoor, Sophia?" she asked bluntly, straight to the point as usual.
"I, uh…" she was about to stammer her way through a lame excuse when the Aquarian's gaze slid sideways to rest on a point above her shoulder. Sophia turned to see what seemed like an entire herd of lums thundering towards her.
She gasped in surprise when Albel flung himself off the foremost lum and skidded to a halt in front of her, sweat dripping from his face. "What the hell are you still doing here? If you had not noticed, there are fucking dragons circling above your head!"
"I know, but…"
"And what the fuck are you doing here?" he asked furiously, turning to Nel, who stood silently to the side. "Did you drag her out here to help your pathetic Aquarian ass fight these beasts?"
"Albel, what is wrong with you? I came out on my own, Nel was helping me to defend the village."
He stopped for a moment, eyeing Nel suspiciously and he turned reluctantly to Sophia, speaking so that the Crimson Blade, along with the rest of his men, would not hear. "I was worried about you," he said in a gruff voice. "That you might have to face the dragons alone…"
"You were worried about me?" she asked softly, her eyes lighting up.
He nodded, an almost imperceptible tilt of his head. "Is that so surprising?" he snapped, his eyes avoiding hers.
She smiled and took his hand gently. "No. Not really."
"I hate to break up the tender moment, but we still have two dragons who undoubtedly have the intention of incinerating Kirlsa now that two of their own are dead. And one of them happens to be bigger than Crossell."
Albel glared at Nel. "We are aware of that, wench."
Sophia watched nervously as the warrior's fingers twitched near the hilt of her dagger at the mention of the word 'we'. "Can we just fight the dragons and go?"
The Black Brigade captain nodded curtly. "The sooner the better. But you are staying here. My soldiers are here and the Storm Brigade is mobilising as we speak. The Aquarian wench and I can most certainly handle this."
She jerked her hand away from his and her lips thinned in a frown. "I am not staying behind, you are not fighting without me."
Albel looked set to say something very nasty until Sophia whispered something to him in his ear that brought a curiously pleased look to his crimson eyes. It was obviously not meant for Nel to hear, but the woman was a spy, so of course she did hear it.
"By your side is where I belong, in more ways than just the obvious…so let me fight with you again. Let me fight by your side."
She frowned, mulling over the words in her head. This was obviously more than what Fayt had suspected, certainly more intimate than anything he had ever voiced to her. Nel watched as Sophia took an unresisting Albel by the hand and together they walked to where his soldiers were assembled and gazing up at the two dragons with undisguised wonder, but no fear. Albel had certainly had them well trained: they showed not the slightest hint of fear.
"Lady Nel, you honour us with your presence."
"Count," she answered, with a tilt of her head. The shrewd old captain strolled to her side, following her gaze to where she watched Albel and Sophia. Immediately behind him, his lieutenant began shouting orders to organize an attack on the immense dragon.
"I daresay I do not need to ask why you are in Kirlsa."
She was silent, ever aware that the old man was more dangerous than he looked.
"Might I ask you to give my regards to Master Fayt?"
Much, much more dangerous.
"What makes you think Fayt is somehow involved in all of this, Woltar?" she asked, a hint of anger beginning to drip into her voice.
"Oh no, Nel, I do not think, I know. Do you think it is merely coincidence that the day after Sophia arrives, you suddenly appear in Kirlsa after an absence of five months? Please, do not take me for a fool."
"I am on a diplomatic mission to Airyglyph, Woltar, as you are very much aware of!"
"Still," he said mildly, "it is somewhat strange that a mission you could have completed a week ago on presentation was suddenly decided to proceed today of all days. Is it not?"
Caught, Nel only glared at the old man and stalked away without saying a word. Woltar watched her walk away and his gaze drifted over to settle on Albel and Sophia.
They were standing side by side.
Albel deserved to have the chance at happiness and Woltar was going to make damn sure that no one stole that away from him.
To be continued…