Note: This one's for you, Kitten Kisses! (And re: your PM, you were definitely on the right track. :D) Sorry for the delay; as always, the chapter got much longer than I expected... (I think way too much happens here compared to the previous chapters. :P) (3/29/2008: FIXED FOR SCENE BREAKS, EFF YOU FANFIC NET)
It was still raining when the first of the wyvern squadrons came.
Two of their own number had indeed fallen ill from the poisoned water, and rested in the cave with Rath, recuperating, while the others took their bows and arrows and took aim at the wyverns screeching and circling in the air outside, a red storm come to destroy them. Kent, who had never quite mastered the bow despite extensive training with Lyn and the other members of the tribe, remained in the cave, caring for the sick and injured.
Rath had been recovering steadily, but was still too weak to stand. The two poisoned men lay pained and feverish, and cried out often in their sleep. Under proper care, they would certainly survive, but with such limited supplies as they had, inside this cave that stank of death itself, Kent could not know what their fate would be. The horse they had killed had been skinny and ill, barely more than skin and bones, and its tough meat provided hardly any sustenance. But it was something. It was enough, though on the first day Kent had been unable to touch it. The horses of the plains were hardy and intelligent creatures, comparable to the Ilian pegasi and the wyverns of Bern that now surrounded them. In their large, dark eyes, he saw fear, and the knowledge of death, and he could not help but think of his own faithful chestnut, loyal to the end. Even so, he did not like to think of what would happen once they had killed the last of the horses.
Only three of the fourteen horses who had escaped with them remained now, at any rate. The others had fallen in battle, or on the arduous trek into the mountains bordering Araphen, or had continued on with the rest of the tribe toward Lycia, to seek refuge with Lord Eliwood of Pherae. Kent did not know if they had survived the crossing of the mountains, or if they had been accosted by bandits on the way, or if they had safely reached Pherae by now after all. They had calculated that it would take little more than a month's journey at the quickest to traverse the mountains, burdened with the sickly and elderly and the young as they were, and another two weeks to enter Lord Eliwood's domain, but if the wyverns were to catch up to them, as they were certain to --
The screeching of the wyverns pierced through the air, joining with the horrible screams of the dying and the horses' cries of fear until Kent could no longer tell the difference between man and beast. On the ground, Rath stirred, and muttered Lyn's name.
"She's fighting," said Kent. He had been unable to stop her. And now he could not protect her.
The other man looked up slowly, and seemed surprised to see him. "They're here."
"Yes. Wyverns. Just a scouting group, not many of them."
"A prelude for what is to come."
"Yes," said Kent again, and did not know what more to say.
After some time, Rath said, "Are you afraid?"
He was taken aback by the question. Nergal came suddenly to mind, and his morphs, dead men come alive once more, and the great dragon at the last, terrible in visage and power. And yet even then, even then... But they had been young then, still, and perhaps foolish, believing still in their own strength and righteousness over the harsh realities of life.
He thought then of Bulgar, the silent city and that silent spring, empty streets awash with blood, rotting carcasses piled all around, missing chunks of carefully sliced flesh, countless once-proud warriors left with nothing but sheer animal instinct.
Wolves, he thought, remembering the old legends Lyn had often whispered to him, late at night in bed. Our ancestors were wolves. We are descended from wolves. The blood of wolves runs through our veins.
"Yes," he said at last, though it shamed him to say it. He, an old veteran now, and more than twenty years' experience under his belt.
"We are all afraid," said the other man, and Kent could not read the expression on his face. "You and Lyn most of all."
Kent bit back a retort, born more from frustration than true anger. Instead, with the discipline gained from years as a loyal knight, he said, "Still, we fight on."
Rath nodded, almost thoughtfully. "That is right."
Kent could not be sure if it were a mere confirmation, or if the other man was pronouncing his judgment upon them. He shifted uncomfortably under Rath's scrutinizing gaze.
"It is not wrong to fear," Rath continued, as if reading his mind, and the man seemed strangely regretful. "We will follow you to the end."
Not for the first time, Kent wondered what had induced Rath to leave the Kutolah and his family behind once more, and what he had been doing, all these years since. But he did not ask.
"But for now, you must rest," he said instead.
Rath stared silently at him for another moment, then obeyed.
The wind had stilled.
The wrongness in the air made her shiver. The sweet, clean breeze that ran through her beloved plains was but a distant memory now, and yet Lyn still could not accustom herself to its absence. She could not bring herself to stay inside the cave for long. She felt ever as if the walls were closing in all about her, as if she were suffocating, drowning in the darkness.
And yet it was even worse outside.
The others were on edge as well, she knew. They could sense it. They could all sense it. That insidious wrongness. Two days had passed since the skirmish with the wyvern scouts; the rain had come to a stop that very night, and the wind too had been silent since then, and the world turned gray and still.
Three more of their number were dead. One pierced through by a javelin; two fallen to the rocks below. A terrible victory. They had numbered fifteen, and with Rath only twelve remained now, two of them ill and one still weak, and more still injured from the fighting. The names of the dead drummed through her mind like a Lycian funeral march, and yet she could not grieve. Already she could no longer see their faces. In her mind their features blurred together into something not quite human and not quite beast.
"I can't remember," she told Kent. "I can't remember any of them." Men and women long gone to Mother Earth's cold embrace, and memory had long ago fled her, but it seemed wrong to her that this should be so. That she could no longer remember her father's rare laughter, her mother's bright, warm eyes. Florina's sweet smile, giant, beardless Hector, Eliwood's noble profile and ever generous expression.
"Why? I remember Zephiel. He was but a boy then, barely younger than us. A sweet child and a noble brother. Fair and handsome and kind. I remember his voice, the exact words he said to his father that day. Why? Why this, and not..."
She wished she could cry, but she could not. No tears would come. Kent watched her silently, weary and troubled and old, so old, old beyond his years. Guilt washed over her, and she reached out, fingers brushing against his cheek. But to her surprise, he drew back, shaking his head.
"You should go," he whispered hoarsely.
"What are you talking about? I told you, I won't run. You know that. Why..."
"Not for my sake, Lyn. Nor yours." And Lyn knew from the way his eyes flickered down before he stepped forward and clutched her in his arms what he referred to. Even without that she would have known.
"It's not too late yet," he said. "You still have a chance..."
She pushed him away, firmly but gently. "I cannot abandon my people."
"Our people, Lyn." His next words were not bitter, but sorrowful. "Or do you think they will not follow me as they have you?"
"No," she said. "No --"
"Please. I beg of you."
"And if I run, what then? What difference will it make? You know very well that once they hunt me down they won't spare me. Not even if I'm --"
"Still, there is a chance..."
"You think it's hopeless."
He fell silent, and she almost screamed at him then. Of course it's hopeless. I know it's hopeless. Everyone knows it's hopeless. You don't need to spare me from the truth.
"I won't run," she repeated, unconsciously brushing her hands against her belly, but he only looked at her sadly and turned away without another word.
She could not sleep that night, and whispered the beginnings of a prayer as she lay there, listening to Kent's soft, steady breathing at her side. Oh, Mother Earth, Father Sky...
But she could not finish the sentence.
The army arrived the next day.
They fought. Kent took up a spare sword and waited for the foot soldiers to arrive. Meanwhile, Lyn and the others felled wyvern after wyvern, and yet still they kept coming. One more of their ranks was lost, and more still injured.
Near noon there was a lull in the fighting. The woman with the scarred arm had just come in to brew medicine for Lyn when a great shout came suddenly from outside. The Red Hawk, in the middle of bandaging a wound on his arm, looked up sharply.
"A wind from the north," he said.
Kent ran out, the Red Hawk following, and saw the other men pointing toward the sky. His heart leapt at the sight: a lone pegasus being chased by three wyverns, dodging and swirling through the sky. The men nocked their arrows, but they were too far away. Lyn, seeing Kent, came to his side, and watched in silent suspense with him.
He thought of the siege of Caelin, of brave little Florina soaring off into the skies, and wondered if Lyn remembered the same.
As the four fliers neared, the men took aim once more, but before they could loose their arrows, an arrow from the enemy ranks came flying.
"Watch out!" shouted Lyn, though her voice was lost in the wind, and the pegasus duck and wove and let out a terrible neigh and came hurtling downwards, and Kent was reminded that there were Sacaens among the enemy as well, Jute men seduced by the promise of power and just as skilled with the bow as any plainsmen.
"Jump!" screamed Lyn. "Jump!"
Kent and the Red Hawk leaped out of the way by instinct as the pegasus came crashing toward them, and the other men took the advantage to shoot down the chasing wyverns. Lyn rushed over to the girl who came tumbling to the ground even as her pegasus and the wyverns screamed and fell, down, down, out of sight.
"Are you all right?" Lyn demanded, and the girl nodded, trembling wildly, clearly struggling to hold back tears.
The Red Hawk gave Kent a look of dismay, and strode back into the cave without another word. Kent understood the other man's look without asking.
So young, he thought. So terribly young.
The girl looked around awkwardly as she began to calm down.
"I -- I come with a message for the chief of the Lorca clan," she said, in slightly accented Lycian.
Lyn straightened slowly. "I am the one you seek."
The girl's gaze flickered down, then up again, and her mouth opened in clear shock. "But --" she stammered. "You, you're --"
Lyn nodded. "Yes, I am," she said softly.
"What message do you bear for us?" said Kent, stepping up beside her.
The girl looked back and forth between the two of them, uncertain, before she at last seemed to remember herself. "I come... with tidings from General Fiora. Of the Ilian pegasus knights. She wished to inform you that General Roy of the Lycia Alliance Army has arrived in Ilia with a joint Etrurian and Lycian force. They've come to liberate our land, she said. And she said -- she said, 'The end of the war is close.'"
Kent and Lyn looked at each other.
"Sain," said he.
"Eliwood's son," she replied.
He was struck, once more, by the memory of Caelin. So long ago, so long ago. But it was different this time: no longer was he Knight Commander, young and inexperienced, a legion of men under his responsibility, doomed under his failed leadership, and this time there was nowhere left to run, and the Lords Eliwood and Hector would not ride to their aid.
"I am glad," said Lyn, though her eyes spoke differently. "I'm so glad."
"The end is coming," Kent said quietly. "Soon, peace..."
Lyn turned to the girl. "Thank you. Thank you... and I'm sorry."
The girl stared at them with wide eyes, plaintive and confused. "What -- what should I do now?"
"Can you fight?" asked Kent.
She shook her head. "My lance -- it broke."
"No matter," he said, making a brief, inadequate attempt at reassurance. "Go inside. Rest."
"I wonder how much he takes after his father," murmured Lyn as the girl scuttled inside. "Fifteen, and already a general!"
"You were the same age as he, back then."
She was silent for some time. "Kent --"
"If it is true -- what does this mean for us? What..."
"Bern has surely received reports of this already. It may be that they will withdraw a portion of their troops from here to send north," he answered.
"Then there is hope."
"The slightest. You forget that Bern possesses the largest army on the entire continent -- they can afford to divide their forces thus. Why else do you think they would have sent so many against us, when we are so few, so irrelevant? It matters not to them: they fear that we will follow the example of the Silver Wolf, and they would destroy all who stand in their way, no matter how trivial or insignificant."
"I have not forgotten," she said stubbornly.
He bowed his head. He knew that Sain and Fiora had sent the message to give them hope, to let them know that help would soon arrive too in Sacae. They had heard nothing but rumors since Bulgar, months ago now, and it was good indeed to have real news at last. But Kent knew just as well that help would not come soon enough. Not for them. And so hope manifested in him in a kind of bitter gladness, at once both rejoicing and sorrowful.
Lyn grabbed his hands, and when he looked up, her eyes were flashing with the same determination that had always come so naturally to her, that had been present even at their very first meeting.
But before she could finish her sentence, there was a sudden rush of wind and wings, and Kent moved immediately to shield her with his body. A single wyvern had arrived, hovering just out of reach of their arrows. The emblem it bore identified it as the commander's mount.
"My, my. What's this? A cozy little den of mice, all holed up in a nice little cave!"
The voice, speaking in drawling, accented Lycian, was a woman's, and strangely familiar. Kent hesitated, trying to discern the rider's features. At his side, Lyn, whose eyes were keener than his, inhaled sharply. He stiffened a moment later, arriving at the same conclusion Lyn had reached.
Had it not been for the voice, Kent might have mistaken the rider for a man. But that distinctive scar, that fierce, harsh beauty, undiminished even with age -- it could only be Vaida, who had fought with them under the banners of the Lords Eliwood and Hector, so long ago.
"Well, listen up, you pathetic rats! You can hide all you want, but you're trapped! You have nowhere to run!"
"Enough of this nonsense!" shouted Lyn. "What do you want?"
"I have an offer for you! Let me talk to your leader!"
Kent placed a restraining hand on Lyn's arm and stepped forward. "I am the leader, Lady Vaida."
Vaida hesitated, taken aback. "How can you know my name? Surely it must be long forgotten, after twenty years of lurking in the shadows, with neither honor nor glory! Could word of me have spread so far, that even a Sacaen mongrel would still remember me now?But no, you do not look Sacaen. Could it be -- No. No matter. I have a proposal for you, Sir Leader."
"Surrender," said Vaida, "and your pitiful lives shall be spared."
"And if we do not?"
Vaida grinned, baring her teeth. "Then don't even think about seeing another sunrise!"
Lyn's grip on his sleeve tightened, and for a long time Kent did not reply. Vaida, he remembered, had always been a particularly vicious, brutal woman, and gifted with a sadistic sense of humor. And yet he remembered also the wyvern knight Heath, who had fought under Vaida's command before they both fled from Bern, and he remembered the reason for which they had fled. He remembered too that Vaida had, in the end, earned the rare respect of the venerable Lord Wallace, who was the most honorable and admirable man Kent had ever known.
"If we surrender, then, you promise that none of us will be harmed?" he said at last, taking care to keep his gaze fixed upon Vaida. He dared not look at Lyn.
Vaida threw her head back, laughing. "I give you my word."
Lyn would never forgive him, he knew. And even then, there was no guarantee that they would not be killed anyway. Twenty years had passed since those days, those days of courage and camaraderie, and the hearts of men were fickle. Zephiel had changed, Bern had changed, and so too, perhaps, had Vaida and Heath.
A thought occurred to him then, and he said, "Is Sir Heath among your troops? I would speak with him."
Vaida's grin turned into a frown. "You're just full of surprises, aren't you? Hmph! And what does that fool have to do anything? Give me your answer now, or we fight!" She signalled to a squadron of foot soldiers who had been waiting halfway up the mountain path, and they began to march upward, toward the cave.
"Kent!" Lyn whispered fiercely, and he was aware of her eyes and the eyes of all the Lorca who were waiting outside with them trained intently upon him. There was nothing at stake now but pride and honor, he thought, and such things weighed but little against the lives of many. Many things flashed through his mind in that instant: Bulgar, freedom, power, trust, dragons, the dead babe.
He held out his arms in a slow, deliberate motion, and dropped the rusty old sword he had drawn earlier by instinct. It clattered to the ground. Then he closed his eyes.
"No!" yelled Lyn, and at the same time, a terrible scream sounded forth from the mountain path. A shudder ran down Kent's spine. He whipped his head around to see.
Standing there upon the path, worrying at a soldier's body, was the mountain cat. It was large, as big as a horse, if not more, and its jaws were smeared with blood; but its coat was dull and ragged, and Kent could see the ribs poking out its sides. It did not in any way lessen the sudden, pounding sense of terror coursing through his veins. The soldiers shouted too in alarm, frantically thrusting their spears at it, but to no avail: the cat's strength remained yet, and it swatted away both man and weapon with equal ease. Kent could hear men shouting, but did not hear their words. Arrows flew up from the base of the mountain, and a formation of wyverns approached from the distance, but Kent had eyes only for the cat.
At his side, Lyn's hand found his own. She murmured in his ear, "That is no cat!"
"What do you mean?" he asked, dazed.
She shook her head.
"When I was a young girl," she said, voice filled with wonder and reverence, "it saved me." She stumbled over her words, her explanation flowing from her mouth half in Lycian and half in Sacaen. "I had wandered away from our encampment, and could not find my way back. It was in the middle of winter, and I was only a little child. But for three days and three nights, the cat brought me meat, and protected me. And at sunrise on the fourth morning, my father found me at last. The cat had brought him to me. My father told me later that it was the guardian spirit of our tribe, a spirit of the land sent to guide and protect us. I had wondered if it might not be the same. I had not thought it possible..."
Kent looked on, but could see nothing but a half-starved beast. He opened his mouth to say so, to say something, anything, but found that he could not find the words.
The wyverns arrived, throwing javelins at the cat even as the foot soldiers scrambled for safety. The cat yowled in fury as one of the javelins struck. At that, the Bernese soldiers cheered, but with a single swipe of the paw, four more men went flying off the cliff. The remaining soldiers fled. Meanwhile, the wyverns continued to close in. Kent knew it would not take long before the cat was felled.
But just then, the cat leaped atop a great rock, out of reach of the wyverns. It halted there for the briefest moment, looking down upon them all, and in that instant, its tawny gaze met with Kent's own. Time froze. He blinked. The cat was gone.
However, the shouting had not stopped. The men of the Lorca, taking advantage of the confusion, had begun loosing arrows into the midst of the wyvern riders. Vaida swooped back and forth, dodging arrows and barking orders. The wyverns began to withdraw.
When the last of them had gone, Vaida turned her mount's head to face them once more and growled, "You've had your chance! Don't think you'll get away with this!" Then she flew away.
For the first time since Vaida had come with her offer, Kent turned to look at Lyn. "I..." he began, uncertain of what he intended to say. But the sight of her face, pale and strained, stopped him. "Lyn! What --"
"It's come," she said.
"What? But it's --" he paused, struggling to remember how much time had passed, in this place where time had become meaningless, struggling not to remember the last time the same thing had occurred, during those years of famine. They had tried so hard to forget that first loss, that first failure.
"It's too soon," he said at last, and did not quite manage to keep the despair and helplessness from his voice.
"I know. You will tell me that I should not have come out to fight, but..."
"No," he whispered. "Let me call the women."
He woke to darkness and silence. For a moment he thought he was dreaming again, but then he noticed the faint flicker of torchlight, and sat up with a start. The cave was empty but for Rath, the two sick men, and the young pegasus knight, lying asleep by the fire, and the three women, bowing silently, one by one, in the four directions... And Lyn.
The girl with the bulging eyes, whose brother had been the first to die, noticed his stirring, and broke out of the circle to come to him. "The wyverns have not yet returned."
"How long have I --"
"A few hours. The sun set a while ago."
He glanced awkwardly at Lyn, lying in the corner by a basin of water. "Should I...?"
The girl nodded. "The sick ones cannot be helped, but now that you're awake..."
"I understand," he said. In this matter, at least, the Sacaens were not so different from their Lycian counterparts. The midwives in Caelin had disliked male presence by the birthing bed as well, though the Sacaens were more superstitious about it, and far more strict about the rule. Had it not been for Lyn and the Red Hawk insisting that he take a rest while he could, he would already be outside waiting with the other men. He had not wanted to rest, to mar the ceremony with his presence, to bring more inauspiciousness into their lives. But he had been too exhausted to protest. He knew, too, that as a leader, it was his responsibility to take care of himself before taking care of others. Lord Wallace had drilled that into his mind countless times. Duty is not blind. Responsibility is not blind. Listen to your heart, and you shall never stray.
But his heart was in a shambles. He was a knight no longer, and bound to no liege, and still he felt guilty, for all the things he could not change, would never have the power to change.
The next few hours passed by in a blur. He exchanged a few words with the Red Hawk and the other men, but for the most part, they remained silent. Kent was uncertain whether it was because of their natural inclination toward terseness, because of fear, or if it was something else. He knew that most Sacaens understood at least a small amount of Lycian. And the Red Hawk had not been outside when the confrontation with Vaida took place.
Vaida would most likely return with her men at dawn, he knew. But there was no guarantee she would not attempt a surprise attack in the middle of the night. Wyverns, after all, had better sight than humans in the darkness. And so they took turns keeping watch, stealing a wink of sleep when they could. But Kent did not sleep at all. He could not. At one point he wondered if he ought to pray, but he had never been a staunch believer in the Eliminean faith of his youth, nor did he feel comfortable communing with the spirits of the plains, even after so many years.
Whenever he thought of the cat, he thought of the dead boy.
It was already nearing dawn when the girl with the bulging eyes emerged from the cave and called for Kent. He could not read her expression in the darkness, and Lord Hausen's last words to him echoed in his mind. History certainly likes to repeat itself, doesn't it, my boy? But the marquess had been smiling then.
Then a weak cry sounded within the cave, and Kent broke into a run. He came to a stop at Lyn's side and sank to his knees, panting, his legs too unsteady to hold him.
"Oh," he said. "Oh."
Lyn smiled at him. "A girl," she said. "It's a girl."
Mina, the woman with the scarred arm, reached over and handed him the child. The third woman, who might have been Mina's cousin, or perhaps a sister-in-law -- Kent could never remember -- stood to the side, busying about and humming a melody he did not recognize. She was smiling too.
"She's so small," he whispered, looking down gingerly at the babe cradled in his arms.
"Yes," said Lyn. "It can't be helped. We'll just have to feed her extra well to make up for it, won't we?"
Her eyes were dancing.
"Forgive me," he said. "Oh, Lyn, forgive me."
Her eyes might have darkened for a moment. He could not tell. But then she said, "No. You were right. It would have been foolish not to accept..."
Mina interrupted. "It was a different kind of courage," she said simply, but Kent could hear something like respect in her voice, and looked up, surprised, only to be startled again.
Rath stood there, watching the scene, some strange, unspeakable emotion darkening his gaze. Kent did not know when the other man had woken, nor how it was that he had approached without anyone noticing. After a moment the man seemed to remember himself, and he said, "Dawn approaches. I would fight alongside you... Kent of the Lorca."
Lyn spoke before Kent could reply. "Rath! I won't let you. You are not yet fully recovered."
And indeed, Rath still looked as if the slightest gust would topple him over, and his face was visibly strained.
"I cannot just sit here doing nothing. Not when --"
"No, Rath," said Lyn, and from the look on her face, Kent knew what she would say next before she opened her mouth. "I know it is too much to ask of you, but please... leave this place now, while darkness still favors us. Leave, and take my child with you."
Rath, as ever, hid his reactions well, but even Kent could tell that the other man was shaken.
There was a certain sadness in Lyn's face that Kent had never seen. "I ask too much of you, don't I?"
Rath shook his head, then looked at Kent.
"Please," said Kent, understanding. "... My proud brother of Sacae."
And though it pained him to do so, he held out his child to the other man. Rath accepted the baby with trembling arms.
For a long time no one spoke.
"Go now," whispered Lyn. "We'll catch up with you later."
When Rath looked up at last, Kent saw that the other man's eyes were glistening.
"What is her name?"
Lyn told him.
Despite Kent's protests, Lyn went back out to fight as soon as the sun rose. She took up a bow, and kept the Sol Katti sheathed at her side, and the Mani Katti within easy reach. Kent took up a bow as well at last, and took aim at enemies who came close enough for him to be sure of hitting, and when the foot soldiers arrived, fended them off with a sword. Even the little pegasus knight came and joined him, though she had only had the most basic training in swordplay.
It was late in the afternoon before Vaida herself was seen again. By then their meager supply of vulneraries had already run out. Nor did anyone have the time to make more, much less gather the necessary herbs.
Vaida did not waste any time before swooping straight toward their archers. The men, taken by surprise at her bold move, scattered a moment too late. One of them was struck straight in the heart by her lance; another was knocked to the ground from the force of her impact and did not get up again. As Vaida swooped in again for a second round, Kent heard Lyn give a sudden shout, and turned to see that she had unsheathed the Sol Katti, and was now rushing at the wyvern rider. But in that moment of distraction, Kent's opponent knocked the sword from his hand. At his side, the Red Hawk blocked a second blow for him. Kent scrambled for his sword, but it clattered out of his reach.
Vaida laughed and laughed, her voice carried above the other sounds of battle by the wind. Lyn cried out again, and Kent saw her clutching at her side, and Vaida closing in again. Without thinking, he grabbed another fallen sword nearby and ran toward them. Vaida saw him and twisted in the air, now pointing her lance at him instead of Lyn. He leaped and thrust his blade forward.
A scream. Or perhaps screams. He realized only an instant afterwards that his voice had been among them. The lance had run clean through his sword arm. He dropped his hold on the sword, and stumbled back. The blade had lodged itself in the belly of the wyvern, in one of the chinks of its armor. As he watched on, he realized numbly that it was the Mani Katti.
The beast screeched and thrashed in pain, trying to dislodge the blade. Vaida shouted commands at it, but at last even she, veteran rider that she was, was unable to keep her seat. She crashed to the ground, body twisted at an unnatural angle. Her wyvern fell a moment later, tumbling down the side of the mountain, taking the Mani Katti with it.
For a moment Kent thought he saw the cat, watching them in the distance, but it vanished.
A trick of the eye, he thought, feeling faint, and turned to Lyn. He could hear the Bernese troops sounding a retreat.
"Are you all right?"
"Just a scratch," she said, biting her lip. Her hair had come out of its tie and was now flying freely about her. "You?" She gasped, noticing the lance through his arm.
The pain swept over him in waves for the first time. He grimaced, then reached over to grab the lance, considering his options. Then he paused, dread flickering briefly through his stomach. "It's poisoned."
Her face twisted in distress. "Let me find an antitoxin --"
Kent grabbed her shoulder with his good arm. "No. There are none left. You know that."
"Hurry," he said, through gritted teeth. "You must do it now. Before it spreads."
Her eyes widened. Then they steeled. She called out to the little pegasus knight, who was resting nearby, and asked her to bring a torch. The girl seemed surprised, but obeyed, and soon returned.
Lyn turned back to Kent.
"Whenever you're ready," she whispered.
He nodded and closed his eyes.
The hum of a blade and the wind rushing down, and then searing heat, the smell of burned flesh. The sacred fire that must never go out, he remembered distantly. He was not sure if he cried out. When he opened his eyes again, Lyn's hands were shaking, and there were tears in her eyes.
"Thank you," he said, and looked at his arm, lying on the ground in a pool of drying blood. Perhaps he would offer it to the cat, he thought humorlessly, before remembering the poison, and then Lyn had thrown her arms around his neck, and he thought of nothing more.
A little while later, as they cleared away the bodies of the dead, Kent heard a voice calling weakly for him.
He turned, and saw that it was Vaida, lying broken upon a nearby rock. After a moment of hesitation, he approached.
"Give me your name," said Vaida, between gasps. Her face was lined, and much older than he remembered it to be. "Let me know the name of the one who has felled me."
"I am Kent, formerly of Caelin. With me is Lyn of the Lorca, and Rath of the Kutolah was here as well." After a brief pause, he added, "We fought with you, once."
"I know that," she snapped. "And against me, too." Then she said, "Hn. I thought so. Heath's old friend. Finally managed to get the girl, eh? More than that fool could ever --" She broke off, coughing up blood.
Twenty years ago, he might have blushed at the comment, or protested against its uneasy truth. But now, instead, he said, "You shouldn't speak."
She snarled. "Don't waste your pity on me, fool." The effect was ruined by another bout of coughing.
For some time he stood there, uncertain, when suddenly Lyn materialized at his side, watching Vaida with an unreadable look in her eyes.
"Call off your troops," she said. "I know they will return. Tell them not to. Tell them to go home."
"Or what?" Vaida laughed weakly. "You may have defeated me here. But at what cost? Look at you. Your pitifully ragged, starving men. Your fool of a one-armed knight." She said that last with a sneer and a slight nod toward Kent. "So I die here. That matters not. Bern shall never fall. King Zephiel shall never fall."
"Eliwood's son has already reached Ilia!" said Lyn. "Surely you must know this. Bern's forces are being pushed back by the day. You cannot hope to win this war."
"I believe in King Zephiel."
"King Zephiel," said Kent, "is no longer the man he was."
When Vaida spoke next, her voice was bitter and tinged with something that might have been regret. "The same thing that damn fool said. Should have known. 'We're being used,' he said. 'What the king is ordering us to do now is no different from what we ran away from in the first place!' Still, I had hoped to support Zephiel in my own way... any way I could... in this unofficial capacity..."
"Then Zephiel -- he doesn't know you're here?" said Lyn, as Vaida burst once more into coughs.
"Oh, he knows. I don't know how, but he always knew. Maybe that was why he told... But no. No one else. No one else mattered." Vaida smiled wryly. "No. There won't be any reinforcements coming for us. Even so, we will fight to the death. Every last one of us."
"You understand little, former lady of Caelin," said Vaida, with a slight, pitying irony. "This is the way of Bern. Every individual must deal with his own consequences. Every one of us knew this when we began the pursuit. And you are but a handful of starving rats."
"We will not lose," said Lyn, fists clenched.
To Kent's surprise, Vaida smiled.
And then she spoke no more.
"We are leaving," she told him.
He gave her a questioning look, and her heart clenched at the sight of the empty space where his arm had once been. She brushed aside the feeling and said, "This is our chance. Without their commander, the Bernese men are disordered and confused. Even if they intend to fight on, it will be a long time before they will be able to do so as efficiently as before. We will take this opportunity to escape. They will not dare follow us into Lycia. Not now that things have come to this."
And catch up with the rest of our people, were the unspoken words.
He considered this for some time, and from his expression, seemed to agree. But he said, "What of the sick and the injured? And the horses? It will not be easy for them."
"We'll think of something."
He did not reply. Finally, he said, "I'm afraid I am nothing but a burden to you now."
She was taken aback for a moment. "Never."
"With only this one arm left, I am useless."
"Think nothing of it," she said, with a sudden fierceness. "It matters not. If it bothers you so much, then from now on, I will be your sword arm!"
At last, a laugh escaped his mouth. It had been a long time since she had last heard him laugh, and the sound made her heart sing.
"Then I will be your shield," he said, his lips quirking into a smile.
"Yes," she said, laughing now too. They were standing together at the entrance of the cave, and a sudden wind had arisen, the familiar sweet breeze of her plains. She breathed it in deeply, relishing the sensation.
"No more waiting!" she said, looking out upon the valley of the dead. "No more waiting!"
Later, she would sing her child's name to heaven and earth, and the vast Father above and the great Mother below and all the spirits of the land would surely protect them.
For she would sing of life, and of hope.
Of course I couldn't kill them off. I certainly considered it, but like I said, I think of Lyn -- and Kent, by extension -- as a survivor. That and they've been through too much already. :P (And came out stronger each time.)
The "mountain cat" is meant to be the Elibe equivalent of a cougar... except kinda bigger. And the baby's name... I hate naming OCs, especially when there's really no consistent naming pattern for the Sacaen characters. (Except maybe "short and easy to pronounce".) As for the chapter titles -- "Scarborough Fair" as sung by Simon and Garfunkel is one of my favorite songs ever, and it just seemed to fit the story, even though the subject matter is quite different at first glance. (The "Canticle" counterpoint lyrics do fit better, however.) And re: Vaida? I like giving the "bad guys" a recognizable face, and it's practically canon for her ending, anyway.
Anyway, just as a heads up, there are a few other loosely connected fics I'm planning that take place in the same universe as this one, including a prequel Kent/Lyn fic ("Wherever I May Find Her"), a sequel focusing on the aftermath of the war ("Upon the Shoulders of the Dead"), and a few one-shots (some of which have already been posted). Thanks for reading!