Mia sat in the dim tent in an attitude of total concentration, leaning forward to grip her feet. The old fortune-teller gently pried the young mercenary's hands free and laced them together. "Relax, dear, or the reading will never come out right." Mia nodded, her wide eyes intent in the pale purple light flickering from the crystal ball. She was still for perhaps a quarter of a second before one nimble hand fluttered birdlike to her blue hair and she began toying with it thoughtfully. "You have a great energy, my child." She forbore to mention the girl's youthful gullibility. It was almost a shame to cheat such an easy mark, someone possessed of so much vitality and trust. Then again, those were the sorts who tended to rebound most quickly from being deceived, or to banish the memory altogether. A blue-eyed knight from the same company had come to her at least three times with a sketch of a girl - a different one each time - and shelled out fistfuls of gold for assurances that she was The One. Then a horribly crass archer-type had ranted at her for a full five minutes and threatened to burn her tent down, until finally she'd had to return the money... but hopefully that wouldn't happen this time. It would have to be a very convincing reading.
"Here, give me your hand. Either one, don't overthink it. The greatest truth is in what you do by instinct," she said, reviewing what she knew about Mia. There wasn't very much. No one was entirely sure where she'd come from, and while she was pleasant and cheerful, no one really talked to her much. It seemed that doing so for periods in excess of three minutes always resulted in an invitation to spar, and that she wouldn't take no for an answer. The fortune-teller was going to miss that knight - he'd told her all the gossip while he waited for his reading.
"I'm ready, granny lady." Mia put her hand into the older woman's. It was a small, agile hand, but callused, and her grip was firm. She was smiling, uncertain but unafraid. The fortune-teller began to have a very definite idea what sort of direction this reading would take... But really, "granny lady?"
"Now I'll put my other hand on the crystal ball, so that your energy flows through me into the crystal. Do you see it beginning to swirl?" she asked. Actually, the swirling colors just meant that the candle she'd hidden inside the ingenious contraption had begun to gutter. She immediately set about devising a contingency plan in case it should go out. "Now, Mia, I need you to close your eyes and breathe deeply. That's right. Like you do when you practice with your blade." Admittedly she was going out on a limb here, but most people who subscribed to one brand of mysticism would believe in others. And if she was right, it would only increase Mia's confidence in her.
At every small sound, every perturbation of the air, Mia's eyes flicked about beneath her eyelids, as though she could still see the cause of the disturbance. Yet for all this intensity of attention, she seemed to be heeding the fortune-teller's instructions. Her breathing was slow and rhythmic and she'd stopped fidgeting. A remarkable young woman, that tension and calm should be so wedded within her. No doubt it served her well as a fighter.
When she was satisfied she had a good enough read on Mia, the fortune-teller began to speak in the low, sonorous voice that had so often put bread on her table: "With white robes flowing in the breeze, your archrival rides toward you..."
"Kieran, I know we've been through this before, but please humor me."
Crimean Royal Knight Fifth Platoon Captain Kieran looked up from attempting to yank his axe out of the ground. It was at that precise instant that the axe came free, flying back to crash into his (fortunately armored) shoulder. Rhys winced as the knight staggered backwards a few steps before catching himself.
"What is it?"
"Oh, dear, your armor's dented. Take it off, I'll give it to Daniel and you can pick it up tomorrow - Kieran."
The red-haired knight's attention had already meandered off in an unrelated direction, as evidenced by his taking up a second axe and preparing to hurl it skyward. "Watch, I can juggle all three. If you could just throw me the one over there once I've started -"
Letting go of the lefthand axe so that it fell perilously close to his foot, Kieran grinned suddenly. "Did I ever tell you how I became a captain? It began with my meritorious service in the face of the Giant Lizard Queen of Nados -"
"What purpose does juggling axes serve in a knightly training regimen?"
"I'm just about to get to that, actually. With the lizard hordes closing in on all sides -"
"I'll listen to your story if you let me take your dented armor to Daniel." Always spoiling for an attentive audience, Kieran obediently began to shuck off his red-enameled plate mail as he spun an epic tale of derring-do and improbable martial feats. It became quickly evident that there was not a piece of armor on him that was not dented to some extent. "You know, it doesn't make Crimea look very good for one of her finest to go riding around like that," said Rhys, quailing at the thought of carrying the great load to the forge. "And - you're bleeding!"
Indeed, blood had soaked through the side of the white shirt Kieran wore under his armor. He broke in his narrative for a moment to examine it speculatively. "Oh."
"'Oh?' How did you even get an injury there?" Rhys had learned long ago to have a healing staff on hand whenever he talked to Kieran, and he raised it as he approached. "Here, let me look." He wished he'd had time to replace the Mend staff that had broken in the last battle - the knight was bleeding rather profusely.
Kieran lifted his shirt to examine the gash running along his side, then looked up at Rhys and shrugged. "Bears?" he ventured. "Put your staff away! Such a trifling injury will not hinder a true knight of Crimea. Why, I've sustained many more grievous wounds, as in my valorous campaign against -"
"This is an old wound, Kieran. You just ripped it open. I think you've ripped it open more than once." Rhys could not quite keep the accusation from his voice and was briefly annoyed at himself, though he knew it would only bounce off. Kieran was reckless, yes, but behind that recklessness lay great courage and devotion to queen and country. He must not be judged harshly for it. But someday, if no one was around with a word of warning and a hefty stock of staves... "There," said Rhys, lowering his staff. He clucked his tongue in disapproval; the bleeding had slowed, but not stopped. But he had also learned long ago that bandages were never a bad investment in a mercenary company. "Don't go anywhere yet," he cautioned his patient, retrieving a clean white roll. "I'll just get this wrapped up. I don't suppose I can get you to stop training for the day, but have Mist look at it when you get back to the main encampment." He didn't add that he feared he'd be too exhausted to finish the job. He already felt somewhat lightheaded, now that his concentration on the healing had faded. Did he really have to carry that heap of metal all the way to the merchants? It wasn't as though he'd been listening very attentively to Kieran's story...
"Thank you, Rhys, in the name of the Crimean Royal Knights." Suddenly Kieran looked unwontedly shrewd. "Doesn't water stop bleeding?"
Rhys was taken aback for a moment that Kieran should take any interest in self-preservation, even if his information was not quite accurate. "Er, well, cold water will. Warm water does the opposite. What are you planning?"
"Well, I was just thinking that it's foolish for a royal knight to rely on his armor."
"You're going to have to spell this out for me."
"I'm going to sit under a waterfall for a few hours to toughen up! No force of nature is a match for Crimean Royal Knight Fifth Platoon Captain Kieran!" He ran to his horse, tethered far enough away that it was generally in no peril from errant axes.
Rhys sighed and eyed the pile of discarded armor. This would be an... interesting afternoon.
"Rhys? Hey, Rhys!" Mia waved at the priest as she jogged over, wondering if he could even see her over the heaps of red metal in his arms. "What have you got there?"
"Kieran's... armor," he grunted, stumbling a few more paces before coming to a halt and catching his breath. He must have been progressing in this fashion for quite some time, if the sweaty redness of his face was any indicator.
"Here, let me take some of that," said Mia, lifting the breastplate from his arms. Then she paused, staring at him and his white robes critically. "Why do you have this, anyway? Are you going to take up riding?"
"No," Rhys said so emphatically that Mia shrugged and walked on ahead. Well, there hadn't been any specific timeframe involved. For all she knew, it could be days or even weeks before her archrival appeared. She doubted that, though. Today had the savor of destiny about it...
"Mia?" By his tone, this was not the first time Rhys had called her name.
"What is it?"
"Nothing, really. I was just asking what you'd been up to today."
She bit her lip. Wasn't there some tradition about fortunes losing their power if you shared them with someone else? Then again, Rhys was a priest. She was sure he kept all kinds of mystical secrets. "I got my fortune told."
"Really?" Mia liked that about Rhys. He was always interested in whatever you had to say. "Who by?"
"That old lady in the caravan. With the veils and everything."
"Not the same one who swi - ah, who read tea leaves for Gatrie?"
Oh, this was a good sign. This was a very good sign. Rhys ought to know about these kinds of things, and he'd immediately known which fortune-teller she'd seen. She realized that she must tell him everything. "That's the one. Do you know what she said?" It wasn't a rhetorical question, but he either took it for one or just didn't know. Well, that was discouraging, but not too bad. "She said I'm going to meet my destined archrival soon."
"Mia, wait, I need to catch my breath." Mia stopped obligingly, then relieved him of a few more pieces of armor. "Your archrival, you said?"
"Yup. Say, are you sure you don't want to get yourself a horse? I mean, since you get so tired all the time."
"Don't worry about me," he said, and started walking again.
Mia hung back this time to walk in step with the priest. It was amusing to try to match his stride. "If you say so. Want to hear what she told me about my archrival? I'll know him when I see him, but maybe you could keep an eye out for him, too."
"I'd be glad to."
"'With white robes flowing in the breeze, your archrival rides towards you.' Oh, shoot, I can't do the spooky voice like she did. Anyway, there was some other stuff about our epic conflict, but - "
Rhys chuckled weakly and nearly dropped his load. "Is that why you want me to ride? I'm not your rival, I promise."
Mia frowned. "I guess not. But do you know anyone like that? There aren't a whole lot of other people around here with white robes on."
"Not off the top of my head. I'll look for him for you, though."
"Thanks, Rhys." There was a lengthy pause. "Why are we carrying Kieran's armor, again? Isn't he that - "
"Crimean Royal Knight Fifth Platoon Captain?" Rhys offered.
"He was training today and he's very hard on his equipment. I told him I'd have it repaired."
"And he left you to carry it by yourself? What kind of knight does that?"
"Kieran's a good man," Rhys said lamely.
"Sure." The next time they paused for a breather, she forcefully unburdened the priest of the rest of Kieran's armor. "You don't look too good. You should go get some rest. We're counting on you to keep the rest of us alive."
"But no pressure or anything, right?" Rhys asked, laughing. "Thank you, Mia. I will." His laughter turned wheezy and he began to cough. Mia hovered at his side looking concerned.
"Where is Kieran, anyway?"
"Sitting under... a waterfall... I'll be fine."
That was doubtful. Rhys was almost never fine. He could be a little difficult about it, though, so Mia left it alone. "I'll just take all this to Daniel then, right? Who's going to pay for it?"
She nodded and began walking away before she remembered something. "Oh, and Rhys? You will be looking, right?"
"I promised. I will."
"All right. Take care of yourself."
His head hurt. Actually, most of him hurt. And he was cold. Also, wet.
Like hell he'd say a word about it.
By his best estimate, Kieran had been sitting beneath the waterfall for around five minutes. His horse had stared at him wonderingly for the first of them, as though marveling at his rider's dedication. For the other four he'd been grazing contentedly. Well, let him! A horse had very little to prove, as long as he carried his rider well, which this one typically did unless Kieran began flailing about too wildly with his axe. That horse never spooked at some good, clean, glorious carnage. He'd also adapted to Kieran's occasional lapses in memory to the point that he would answer to any name from "Theodore" to "Dragonsbreath" to "You! Horse!" A worthy mount, indeed.
Kieran was still both cold and wet, but under no circumstances would a true knight let this waterfall best him. He braced his hands on his knees and most emphatically did not shiver. Ha! He'd like to see Oscar do something like this. A mere mercenary would never be able to withstand the elements with such fortitude, and that went double for craven, squinty turncoats. No, it was for the greater glory of Crimea that he -
Where had his horse gone?
He lurched to his feet and stood for a fraction of a second before the falling water battered him down again onto the stones. His footing lost, he slid down into the pool below and thrashed violently in the water shouting "Treachery! Base treachery!" until he realized that the waterfall probably would not be answering him. Unabashed, he waded out of the pool onto grass recently cropped by the teeth of his own errant steed - fortunately, tracking was among his multifarious talents, so the horse was as good as found already. "This isn't over!" he said hotly in the general direction of the waterfall before striding off on his latest valorous quest. Then he had to return briefly to the side of the pool to retrieve his axe.
"Hugo?" he called out. "Maverick? Broderick? Oi You Swaybacked Nag?" Perhaps he should stop renaming his horse every time a new fancy struck him, but really, you couldn't very well challenge the Giant Whippoorwill of Southern Crimea on a horse named Renaud, could you? No, you certainly could not! Such a heroic feat required a name like Ravager or possibly Maximillian. That reminded him. "Ravager? Maximillian?" Nothing. But he kept walking, a series of successively more impressive trumpet fanfares accompanying his progress in the back of his mind.
Ravager-or-possibly-Maximillian finally came into view at the crest of a nearby hill. He flicked his ears in calm acknowledgement of Kieran's piercing whistle and continued to graze. A worthy mount, occasionally. At least he didn't resist his rider's approach and subsequent swinging into the saddle. Kieran paused thoughtfully, marking the slight breeze and the great copper disc of the sun behind him. It was early evening - no, "twilight" was the word; a very dramatic time of day by all accounts. For a moment he envisioned himself as seen from the valley below, silhouetted against the setting sun, Ravager-Maximillian rearing most theatrically in the waning light...
The horse refused to oblige him, but cantered smoothly enough up and down the rises in the ground. Both parties were vaguely aware of a white something billowing out behind them like an elegant streamer; it was only Kieran who realized that it was his bandage, come somewhat loose and mostly dry in the day's exertions. He did not correct it. It was rather striking.
He started reining in Ravager-or-whomever as they approached the encampment of what now passed for the Crimean army. Rather a wan showing, but all the men and women ensconced therein had proven their own valor and devotion to their mother country. Not a one among them was a candle to Kieran's great knightly sun, nor would any be until they were reunited with Geoffrey. There was a man worth admiring -
A thin blue-haired girl suddenly dove out of Ravager's path and rolled to her feet off to one side, green eyes wide. Kieran, no less astonished, tugged his horse back to a halt. The girl would not meet his gaze, muttering something to herself.
"Crimean Royal Knight Fifth Platoon Captain Kieran greets you, um...?"
"Mia," she said, now staring up at him with an expression of intense scrutiny. "Could you be...?"
"The great knight who delivered the people from -"
"No, my archrival." She stepped up to Maximillian's side and pulled on the loose end of Kieran's bandage. "Well, it's not a robe, but -"
"I already have an archrival," he interrupted, largely to disguise the fact that he had no idea what she was talking about.
"Well, don't you have time for another?" Mia looked very earnest and very, very determined. "Having a rival helps you improve faster, so having two archrivals should be about four times as good, right?"
Kieran thought about that for a moment.
"Who's your archrival now?"
"Oscar," he said venomously, his eyes narrowing into slits. Someone had once told him that he most resembled Oscar when he was seething with hatred for the same, but he'd yelled at great length about vile and malicious slander until the argument was dropped.
"Oscar? But he's such a nice guy!"
"And a great cook -"
"Lies! Deceitful, fiendish lies! That treacherous scab on humanity - augh! He may try to set you at ease with pleasantries and - and cooking, but rest assured, 'Oscar' is the name of all that is ignoble and false!"
Mia blinked several times. "I'm not sure I want to be your archrival anymore."
"Mighty and implacable is the wrath of a Crimean Royal Knight," Kieran agreed, nodding gravely.
"But my fortune..." She trailed off, chewing contemplatively on a lock of hair that had somehow arrived in her mouth. "I have to think about this." There was a pause. "Hey, aren't you the one whose armor Rhys was lugging around half the day?"
"Indeed." It was a relief not to be talking about Oscar anymore. His blood pressure had just dropped off quite dramatically. "He made a most noble and generous offer."
"He looked like he was going to die."
Another pause. "Did he?"
"No. But I have to ask: how did you manage to do that much damage in one day, training by yourself?"
"A Crimean Royal Knight trains himself without mercy -"
"Or was it all in one day? You don't get it fixed very often, do you? Man." Mia shook her head. "It's like none of you men can take care of yourselves at all."
"Can, too," Kieran said rather childishly. "You should try real army discipline some time."
She was ignoring him. "Maybe if we just trained together..." Ravager whuffled at her and she idly patted the horse's nose. "I could use practice fighting knights. And the more practice you get, the sooner you'll be able to beat Oscar, right?"
His eyes narrowed again. "I could beat Oscar in a fair contest any day. He cheats."
"Whatever you say. You're bleeding, you know."
She was right. The cut in his side had closed up under the waterfall but seemed to have opened again in the past few minutes. "It's only a scratch."
"You should have Rhys look at it. And thank him for carrying your armor!" Fair enough, Kieran decided. He'd heeled Maximillian to a walk before she called out. "Kieran, wait." He waited. "We don't have to be archrivals. We could just be regular rivals. You weren't really wearing robes anyway."
She was probably crazy, what with her robe fixation, but it wasn't such a bad idea. He'd consider it. In the meantime... Yes! Ravager was rearing majestically just like he hadn't on the hilltop, and then he was off. "Good day!"
With white bandages flapping in the wind, Mia's rival rode away from her.
A/N: Whew. Okay, I haven't written any fanfic since mid-2005, so this has been sort of a warm-up piece for me. Concrit appreciated before I start actually taking stuff seriously.
1) Yes, Kieran's horse's name is supposed to keep changing.
2) Characterizing Mia and Kieran (and Rhys) was hard, so let me know where I went off most significantly.
Thanks for reading.