Chapter 11: Saint Dragon
For such high caliber mercenaries, a job guarding a simple merchant caravan through a well-populated area with little risk of attack would normally be a joke. Aeila, lance-wielding maiden of battle and descendant of the Dragon Tribe, found the work insulting. However, she and her friends were in need of transportation.
Lucian and Celia were no help at all. Though both tried their very best to hide it, they were stricken with grief. Celia had a few good reasons; but in Aeila's own opinion, Lucian was just a nut case. He had pinned his life's goal to some girl he knew when he was a kid, and then these feelings had obviously transferred to Alicia somehow, thus the heavy sorrow he felt despite having only briefly met the girl.
But when it came to Alicia, she couldn't argue against that. There was something strangely wonderful about that girl. The same sort of aura had surrounded Leone of Artolia. Leone had always remained so distant from everyone even though she was very talented and beautiful. Aelia thought darkly that if she joined them in their fate, at least she too would be eternally beautiful.
Kashell was being of help, which was a huge surprise. He did his best to keep Celia occupied and watched the rear from the last cart in line, while Lucian and Aelia were given horses to ride at either side of the line of three wagons. Lucian was all but useless given his mental state and tendency to daydream, and so Aeila took it upon herself to watch out for everyone present.
Trouble is, there was nothing to watch out for. Their masters constantly asked trivial questions and were Hel-bent on enforcing the strictest security measurements out of paranoia, but there was nothing there. The ride quickly became monotonous. Maybe Lucian could at least provide some entertainment if nothing else.
Aeila rode up alongside Lucian out of boredom. "You remind me of a legend," she said.
Lucian snapped out of his obviously distant thoughts. "What kind of legend?"
Aeila took a breath and then began to explain with a haughty air of great dignity. "Tales of the Dragon Saint, Arngrim."
"Oh?" Lucian replied with only moderate interest. "I haven't heard of those…"
"They are only written in records held by the Dragon Tribe, and could be lost to time for all that I know," she explained with a shrug as if her own heritage concerned her very little. "I know them by heart though, all of my people do."
"Really?" Lucian asked, forcing a smile. "Which one do I remind you of, then?"
"The Saint King," Aeila replied with a coarse chuckle. "Want to hear it? I'm bored out of my skull."
"If you like," Lucian replied.
Aeila cleared her throat and began. "First off—and you should already know this if you have been traveling at all--Arngrim was a dragon, famous for his indifference towards humans, which is a good deal better than wanting to eat them, as is usually the case with dragons. He was involved in situations that might peg him a hero, but as a character in these stories, he is always very aloof and unconcerned with justice or righteousness."
Lucian smiled just a little. "He sounds a little like you," he said.
"Ha, I guess you could say that," Aeila answered him with a short laugh. "He was also a simple soul, preferring ale and solitude over arts and literature. But, I suppose he did grow bored after so many years of defending Midgard, and when presented with enough booze--that was his favorite offering, don't you know--he would tell stories of his comrades."
Lucian nodded to show that he was following along, though his attention was slacking.
"Hey, you know the story of the lost princess, right?"
Lucian looked up. "Was that the princess of Dipan?" he asked. "Coriander used to trade with Dipan long ago, and they still name girls after her, don't they?" His chin dropped down abruptly. "I bet Alicia was named after her…"
Aeila hadn't thought of that when she began telling the story, but refused to let that put a damper on it. "They say all the documents depict that she was executed along with the king and queen by Hrist Valkyrie at the end of a woefully short rebellion against the gods," she began again, "but I hear that there's plenty of scholars and that sort who claim that those records were falsified, and that the princess lived to strike back against the gods. This agrees with the legends that were supposedly told to my tribesmen by Arngrim, and the theory has some importance to this story so--what the Hel, let's go with it."
"Certainly," Lucian agreed.
"Contrary to popular belief, Arngrim was not a king of dragons or gods, but he knew a few kings in his time. One of his comrades in the legendary battle following the destruction of Dipan was an ageless man who became known as the Saint King. The story of how exactly he came upon eternal youth is another tale altogether, and I don't even know for certain which country it is he is supposed to rule. It's just more proof that this story is fiction, you think? I mean, what country do you know of where the king is fair, kind, compassionate, eternally young, and handsome to boot? He would have to be a god, and I really doubt that Odin fits those descriptions."
"I doubt any gods do," Lucian sighed. "Otherwise they wouldn't allow people to suffer so much…"
Aeila groaned, once again veering the conversation away from that subject. "Well, apparently the Saint King was that sort of ruler, or at least that's what the story says.
Anyway, so… getting to the point of all of this; the Saint King was very deeply in love with the princess of Dipan, but she died valiantly in Arngrim's great battle in which he won the dragon orb. Once again, that's an entirely different story."
"You should tell me the rest of these later," Lucian suggested, "but go on."
Aeila gladly did so. "The Saint King, they say that he reigns over the land never aging, always watching for the return of his beloved's soul, and yet never reaching out to her." At this point, her voice became more theatric and whimsical as her mother's (if the woman who she vaguely remembered was, in fact, her mother), would. "He watches and watches, always wanting only her and yet never going out to find her. He lives unmarried despite his countless admirers, without loving a single woman for thousands of years."
"Sad," Lucian noted flatly.
"Come on, Lucian!" Aeila cried and slapped him on the back. "Don't be so naïve. That's another sign that this story is bull shit. I mean, what kind of man would go for a thousand years without getting any ass? If you ask me, maybe he just wasn't interested in women and came up with this whole yarn to cover up the fact--anyway, wasn't I telling a story? Stories don't have to be true, they have messages and crap."
"I suppose not," Lucian groaned.
"So you have the Saint King, this pitiable character who sits on high watching over his love. She gets reborn over and over, living lives as all of us live. There are little anecdotes about her various lives, but I don't really remember them and they're probably unimportant anyway. What's important is that he watches her fall in love countless times, but never with him. He watches her bear children for other men and grow old with them and die. Over and over, he tortures himself this way, watching her happiness and never partaking in it."
Lucian began to get absorbed in the tragic story, hanging on Aelia's words. "…And?"
Aeila threw her arms up. "And that's all!" she answered. "He never gets the girl. It's a ridiculous story, I told you it was."
Lucian grimaced. "I don't remember you telling me that…" He gave a heavy sigh. "So, is there some moral to that story?"
"I don't know," she said. "I mean, why would anyone do that to themselves? Well… they say that the gods are unable to feel, and so perhaps eternity wouldn't affect them. But maybe... that is, if you buy any of this--which I don't-- the only thing that a person possessing eternal youth rather than true god-dom can ever love is an undying memory."
"Undying memories…" Lucian looked ahead to the horizon.
"Everything else dies. Everything else is transitory. He loves the girl forever, and she loves others forever through the cycle of rebirth. Maybe the girl represents humanity in these times when the gods seem so silent. Maybe it's just a stupid bedtime story. I don't know. It's well known that Arngrim liked to screw with people, and his stories always ended on a bad note like that."
Aeila was silent for a moment, and then began to laugh. "It is funny what people do with stories though, isn't it?" she pointed out. "This ridiculously depressing tale became popular, probably because everyone wishes for a kind, just, and morally grounded king--which again, doesn't exist. Young girls would fancy themselves the reincarnation of that princess and dream that the Saint King would come to woo them one day--which rather defeats the point of the whole damn story, doesn't it?"
"I suppose stories need to end badly once in a while," Lucian sighed. "If everyone always got what they wanted, then it would be dull and predictable."
"Right," Aeila agreed with a laugh. "But most people, they just want their happy ending. That is why Alicia is such a popular name for girls even in our day and age." She stopped and began to wonder, her own mind floating off to that poor deceased girl. "I wonder if Alicia knew that story or if her parents knew of it."
"I have no idea," Lucian said in an airy voice.
"Oh!" Aeila once again snapped him out of his daydream. "There is another version of the tale, before I forget."
"Really?" Lucian said, far more interested in the alternate tale than Aeila would have expected.
"Yeah," she answered. "In this one, they say that none of the girl's mortal loves were ever as true as her love for him. They say she would pine eternally for something that was not there, an amazing love that she possessed only for a moment and could never grasp again. She is unaware of him watching her, and he is unaware of her longing for him. He watches her until the end of time, and only then are the two reunited."
"That version is slightly better," Lucian admitted with a bitter laugh. "So… the king exists in two worlds, one where he's alone forever, and one where he is reunited with her in death…" Aeila watched him as he considered that for a moment in silence. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could have another tale that ended slightly happier, just like that fictional king?" He turned his head and looked at Aeila in deep concentration. "Do you suppose that it would let us rest at ease if we knew of it?"
Aeila backed away, driving her horse back to the other side. "It's just a story," she laughed, but the laughter was forced. His words made her extremely uncomfortable. "Don't take it so seriously."
I can't hear anything!
Hrist wished that Mystina would remain silent. Ever since being integral to the developments in Crell Monterfrainge, she had been extremely active. Hrist was pleased that her einherjar were treating this matter with such seriousness, but she wished that they—Mystina in particular—would refrain from talking so much while she was in this pure light form. It was extremely distracting.
She flew over the fields between Crell Monterfrainge and Flenceburg, behind trees and clouds when they were available. Otherwise, she had to hang back a distance to be certain that she wouldn't be spotted. A violet spark of light in the sky would be noticeable.
I wonder how Lord Rufus is doing?
I wonder if he's really looking for a cure for Fortuna…
Next time we see Janus, I bet he'll have battle stories for us!
Why are we even following them anymore? Let's just go straight there!
Hrist sometimes had trouble determining whose voice was whose, and right now it didn't matter. Floating about without a body was unsettling. The difficulty wasn't the problem so much as her fears. Probably unfounded, she thought. Even if Freya would keep it from her, Rufus would tell her if there was any danger of using these powers.
No, the real reason was that it caused those fuzzy memories in her mind to focus, and that made things too clear for her to bear. She had done something terrible. She could not remember if it was by ax or guillotine, but someone's head had gone rolling, that was undeniable.
They're stopping for the night, Alicia pointed out. Shall we rest?
Did Alicia sense that she was weary? Hrist decided to heed this suggestion and the bright light which none of the mercenaries had noticed pursuing the small caravan dropped into a patch of trees. Hrist's body took physical form there well-hidden.
"All of you are to remain silent while I am in flight," Hrist chided her einherjar.
Oh, did we disrupt your concentration? Mystina teased her. Hrist's anger flared at her triggering a violent chain reaction, rustling each of her einherjar out of their peaceful places within her in turn. Hrist forced herself to grow calm again.
"Tomorrow we will continue along this route," she said, ignoring Mystina. "Rest while you still can."
The next day dragged on much as the last. Aeila was so restless by the afternoon that even pestering Lucian could not keep her occupied.
She thought it was a mirage when she saw a group of men standing on the horizon. With a wary wave, she called for the caravan to hold and turned to Lucian. "Tell Kashell that we have company," she said, and took off without further discussion.
"Wait!" she heard Lucian cry. "It could be dangerous!" but she was not about to listen to an amateur mercenary's warning. Of course it could be dangerous--that was sort of the whole point. She grasped her lance in position to defend herself on horseback and rode towards the visitors.
There were five of them, and four looked like soldiers. The fifth was an older man dressed in dark cleric's robes. A mage with an entourage of soldiers is what it looked like, and that was not any typical traveler's party.
"State your business!" she demanded, circling cautiously around the group.
The tails of the old man's mustache perked as he grinned. "Business?" he chuckled. "Why, I've come for you, dearie."
"What?" Aeila spat.
Kashell's voice shouted out to her. "Aeila!" he yelled. He was riding from the caravan he was supposed to be guarding, which Aeila could have punched him for. It was Lucian's horse. He must have pulled the kid off of it and left him with Celia. "Your horse, get off!" he shouted. "Now!"
Aeila looked down and saw the edges of what he must have been able to see clearly from afar—the horse's flesh was aglow with strange runes. It began to bray and kick as if it too had only now noticed the spell being cast upon it. She felt it shuddering and convulsing underneath her and decided to take Kashell's suggestion.
She leapt from her mount, bruising herself against the ground. No sooner had she than her poor horse burst like a fruit left out in the sun. The mage laughed as Kashell swung his sword over his head and his soldiers interfered in his advancement.
Aeila drug herself off the ground and found the carnal remains of her steed spread across the field, twitching. She wiped the blood on her hands on the grass, paying no attention to that which had splayed across her body, and took a firm grasp of her lance.
She saw that Kashell had an advantage being mounted, but he ran a risk of getting the merchant's horse killed, and that was not going to fly well with their employers. She joined Kashell in the fight, expecting these soldiers to be no more than bandits dressed up in armor for appearance's sake. This assumption was proven incorrect as the four men began to display their expertise. Not a group hired for brawn alone, obviously, and yet their markings were not of any town or nation. That they were a cult of some kind formed around this mage seemed the most logical conclusion; and he was obviously a man of incredible skill in his own right. He could have easily targeted her with that spell, but it seemed that he wanted her alive.
The same did not hold true for Kashell, however. She saw the old man raise his hands to summon power, and the flicker of ominous light at the hooves of her friend's horse was a dead giveaway as to what he was targeting.
"No you don't!" she shouted and swung her lance. The magician's spell was interrupted, but all that her blade struck was grass and dirt. The old man was definitely spry enough for this job; he leapt out of her range.
And all of this had been a rouse to draw her between a pair of his soldiers who held chains and chain-link nets. "You have got to be joking!" she growled. "Do you honestly think that you can tame me?" She swung her lance like a scythe, cutting through the tall grass all around her and knocking away the netting thrown at her. One of the chains weighted with iron balls caught on her weapon but she paid no mind to that.
Celia and Lucian came running in now, swords held high. "Stay back!" she shouted to them. Celia should have known better. Under normal circumstances, Celia was their thinker and their strategist, the most level-headed.
"Damn it!" Kashell growled as he swung at the largest of the soldiers, making a strenuous effort to protect his horse. "Who in the Hel are these guys?" His adversary had sustained heavy injury at the end of his blade, and yet still fought as if he had boundless strength and energy.
We could really have used Lemia here, Aeila thought to herself bitterly.
In the time that they were forced to dilly-dally with the fighters, their leader from the back managed to cast a spell. It was not as complex in design as that which had blown Aeila's horse apart, but it was nearly as effective. A rain of spectral blades throbbing with black energy rained down from above. Aelia could hear it reflecting off of the armor that Lucian wore, which was a good sign, but her millisecond of relief was ruined when she heard Celia cry out.
"Celia!" Kashell shouted. As Aeila could have predicted, he abandoned his assault and galloped for his dearest friend. Aeila was distracted from her fight as well, but saw that Celia was still breathing at least. That was all the reassurance she could afford for herself at the moment.
Kashell dismounted his horse, which was spooked and almost useless now in any case. It was no war horse, to be sure. He scooped Celia from the ground and examined her wounds. A blade had struck her in the chest. It was of magical origin and did not penetrate her flesh deeply enough to be fatal. He squeezed her tightly, forgetting that this was most likely not helpful. "Thank the gods you've got that pure heart," he laughed, though it sounded closer to crying.
"My resistance to magic… is pretty strong," she replied, croaking the words. Then she rapped against his shoulder weakly. "Why aren't you helping them?"
"I, uh…" he looked up just in time to see Lucian run his blade through one of their enemies. "Way to go!" he cheered and leapt up with his sword in hand again. "Take it easy, Celia," he said to her, and rejoined the battle.
"We've lost one fighter each," Lucian said in heavy breaths as Kashell took his stance at his back. "They outnumber us, and that mage could decide to finish off Celia at any time if she is immobilized…"
"There isn't any time to talk about this!" Kashell shouted, and began to hack and slash at another of their men. "Just kill them!"
"Why don't you take your own damned advice!" Aeila spat at them from where she stood, fighting against two of them. She barked furiously. "Stop worrying about your girlfriend and kill this damned infernal mage already!"
Flame ripped through the fields as another spell was cast. This time the sound of the old man's cackling laughter was an overture to the blast. Fire shot up from the ground, catching the grasses aflame. Aeila heard Kashell screaming various expletives as the fire licked him. Lucian was surprisingly calm, she noticed. Perhaps he had seen more battles than she had given him credit for.
Celia limped to her feet, and despite the agonizing pain that she was in, reached out to calm the horse Kashell abandoned. She mounted it and rode back to the caravan. Good girl, Aeila thought. Those flames were dancing dangerously close to the line of wagons, and someone needed to make sure that there wouldn't be an attack on their employers while they were preoccupied.
Aeila's relief was short-lived as another chain caught, this time catching on the armor around her forearm. She tugged at it, pulling the man holding the other end along a few steps with her admirable strength; but she could not pull free without dropping her weapon to unwind the chain.
"Aeila!" Kashell shouted. He ran and chopped his massive blade at the chain with all of his strength in an attempt to wrest it from the hands of their attackers, but was repelled when a surge ripped of energy through the metal links. They sparked with blue and green veins of power. He went flying with a grunt while Aeila screamed. Her piercing voice wavered between that of a woman and a beast.
And above all this, the wicked mage's triumphant laughter rose. "Yes, roar as loud as you can, guardian beast!"
Kashel sputtered and choked for breath as Lucian ran to give him a hand. They became paralyzed amidst the flames in awe and horror at the sight before them. Aeila's body twisted and morphed between two figures, the girl that they knew and a terrible creature with horns and twisted fangs. The chains stretched as her size and shape fluctuated, but held.
"What's happening to her?" Lucian shouted over the unbelievable noise roaring and rumbling like continuous thunder. He sprang forward to strike at the mage responsible, but Kashell caught him by the waist and held him back.
"No!" he yelled, even his loud voice too weak to carry in this fray. "It would kill the likes of you or me! Aeila is—!"
Aeila was no longer in control of her body. She saw light and heard noise, and it infuriated her. She pulled at her bonds but they held, and her body burned with that magic being channeled into it. She was faintly aware of Kashell and Lucian shouting to one another, but the words did not reach her. Nor could she make out what was being said as a magic field opened beneath her. A crest formed on the ground and began to shimmer and sparkle gold with light. She felt herself fading from consciousness as well as from the physical plane.
Kashell and Lucian watched helplessly as Aeila flickered from sight, along with her captors and the magician who led them. They stood speechless in the field, flames dying around them, until the silence of a day which should have been uneventful reclaimed the caravan. The only difference to say that anything had happened at all was a scorched patch of grass, a mutilated horse, and the absence of yet another of their dear friends.
Kashell shouted and thrust his sword into the ground and then knelt beside it. Lucian stood unmoving, gripping his tightly as the wind blew gently across them.
- - -
They've taken Aeila! Lemia whimpered.
"I know that," Hrist replied calmly. "This is none of our concern."
Aeila is our friend! Alicia joined in. We can't just leave her to that lunatic's devices!
"She is a mortal and we are gods," Hrist replied. "Think only as einherjar must think and do not concern yourself with the fates of mortals."
A flash of something strange from Alicia came then. Anger, frustration, disdain-- everything that Hrist would not have associated with her, all of it came rushing out of the meek girl, and all of it was directed towards her. We aren't just your puppet soldiers! she scolded the valkyrie.
"I know that," Hrist answered. Her voice roiled with anger. To be lectured by her own einherjar was demeaning, and yet she allowed it because she agreed.
Aeila was your friend too, Lemia said. From her there were no negative thoughts, only compassion.
"We must follow Lucian, he is the key to locating Lenneth."
Whatever! Mystina barked. We've got a pretty good idea where she could be, let's just go there!
"I will not tolerate impatience."
For that she received a huff, a splutter of lips. Her einherjar definitely required discipline. Now was not the time for that, however.
She floated in the air above the caravan. Night had fallen and her figure was invisible against the dark sky. As she looked down at those below, small ants from this height, nostalgia became an oppressive force. Kashell was tending to Celia, whose wounds were worsening. She needed to see a doctor. To see the way that he so affectionately cared for her made her feel strange. It gave her some kind of fulfillment to know that neither of them was alone.
Lucian emerged from the cart and joined them on the grass where Celia laid with her head resting on Kashell's thigh. He stood up straight and seemed intent on something.
"I have to go," he said. "I want to help you find Aeila, I really do… but…"
"No need to explain," Kashell answered. "Your girl is in the same situation, and at least you know where to look for her." He grinned. "Go on. Aeila would punch you if she found out you passed up a chance to find your girlfriend to rescue her. She's not the type who likes to be rescued."
Lucian turned his head and looked sadly at Kashell's companion. "Will Celia be all right?"
"That sort of attack leaves a nasty curse, but as long as she sees a healer within a few days, it'll be no problem." He sighed and looked up at the sky. "Her vomiting and fever are due to the shock, not the wound. We have lost quite a few of our own recently. She… is not dealing well with the stress."
"How do you stay the way you are?" Lucian asked. "How do you keep from breaking?"
Kashell shrugged. "I know she needs me, so I can't," he said. "Besides, I'm sure my friends are partying in Valhalla right about now."
"I wonder if the gods really watch over this world," Lucian muttered.
Hrist wondered how he would like the world if the gods were involved in its shaping. Was that barren town any indication? How foolish for a mortal to speak as if he had any knowledge of what might have been—how ungrateful.
She watched as Lucian broke off from the caravan and disappeared into the forest. "I am sorry for Aeila, but my mission is clear," she said to her einherjar. All of her voices were silent.
The one that spoke up was not one of her own.
Hrist, came the voice of Freya. I want you to follow that mage.
Hrist scowled as Freya reached her through the power of Sacred Phase. "I do not believe that is wise," she answered. "Lenneth's whereabouts are at stake."
If you believe her to be in flenceburg, then level the city and be done with it, Freya said in a tired voice. I know that you no longer condone the use of such methods, no matter how efficient, and so I will not order you to do such a thing.
"Will not, or cannot?" Hrist replied. "Stealing a sacred treasure and cultivating souls for battle—these things Rufus may forgive you for so long as long-term damage is avoided, but the destruction of a human city? Would that push even his weak spirit to fight against you?"
Do not question me! Freya's voice answered in a great boom. Hrist was shocked at this tone. It was more filled with emotion that Freya would have ever liked to admit. She had struck a cord. We have… taken heavy losses. Her voice was soft then, close to sympathy.
"What?" Hrist replied. She instantly thought of Belanus and Janus and chided herself for it.
There was a battle against the Vanir on the outskirts of their territory, she explained. We were victorious and their advance was halted, but our numbers have suffered. We desperately need more einherjar.
"So why follow this disdainful mage?"
He has come to our attention in the past. His name is Gandar and he seeks the Dragon Orb.
"And do you as well?"
I understand that you have reason to distrust me. More reason than you know. But please—you must execute this heretic in the interests of Midgard, and then salvage his soul. His power would be a much-needed weapon against the Vanir.
"I do not make a practice of executing the einherjar I collect," she argued, "and I do not see how I can house such a despicable soul inside of me."
This order is not my whim, she replied. It comes directly from the King of Asgard. Now her tone was sarcastic and bitter.
Hrist could not understand. "Rufus? How could he justify such an action?"
Because, Freya explained. There was heavy annoyance in her voice. A representative of Midgard will be involved in this mission.
Go to the north. You should find a hidden fortress nestled in the mountains there. A human will meet you. That is all the information I have.
Without any sort of fare thee well, Freya's presence was suddenly gone.
Alicia's voice piped up in her place. What was that?
"Lord Rufus bids we find the girl," Hrist said. "Let us pick up the trail of her abductors before it grows cold."
"And now the goddess of death comes to bid me farewell…"
Hrist scowled. "If you can see me, then certainly you must know that your body is—"
"I'm not going to die here!" she spouted. "Be gone with you!"
Hrist. That man would make an incredibly effective Einherjar.
Hirst turned and took a step firmly towards the source of Freya's incorporeal voice, causing her armor to shake. "Lady Freya, you cannot condone his actions! He is a heretic who sought the Dragon Orb—"
"The Dragon Orb rightfully belongs to us. It was stolen away and hidden in Midgard. We allowed this under Lord Rufus's new law, in order to protect the stability of Midgard. It does not matter what offenses he committed to his fellow humans. Their lives are transitory. A mage of his caliber could turn the tide of the war. We have taken heavy losses, Hrist. Send him immediately."
The man tilted his head back and laughed uproariously. "What is that stupid kid doing? If Freya was able to convince him that he needs a valkyrie to fight his battles, things really must be bad."
"What of you?" Hrist scowled. "Why do you evade your duty to the gods? Are you a coward?"
"I've played that game and lost, sweetheart," he replied with a chuckle.
Hrist prickled up and clenched her fists in anger. "If you dare address me by any name save for Valkyrie, I shall cut out your tongue and render you speechless all together!"
His eyes narrowed and her stared at her. "How about Hrist?" he said.