These Defining Moments

Afterward, what she recalled most clearly was the scent of burning roses. The sweet, airy perfume intermingled with smoke and heat and burning. Occasionally, the idea struck her as tragically romantic, but mostly it made her want to scream until her throat was too raw to scream anymore, and then all she could do was cry.

It had begun as a perfect day. The war in Aschare, the raging battles meant nothing to her. And none of her stepmother's orders, her cruelty or Blair and Adelle's sneering had bothered her either, because they simply didn't matter.

There was only one thing that mattered on that day: she, Madeleine Lisette Luck, was the best fire dancer alive, and after that day, she would be equal with the best that ever was. White Flame, the hottest color, highest level, was the woman's name to the public. She was the only fire dancer to ever reach white, but she'd been dead for years, almost as long as Madeleine had been alive.

The day should have been perfect.

She stood in Madame Clarisse's tent, at the north end of the village, where it was set up for Autumn Festival. In the center of the tent was the plain wooden table spread with a blanket of roses. There were the deep red ones, bright orange and yellow, scattered blues, and one single white rose, to be hers if her dance was without flaw.

The others girls dashed about, none of them quite looking at her as they passed carefully around her. They didn't speak to her, and she didn't speak to them. She didn't mind. They were all so giddy, so brainless. She alone remained calm and reserved. She didn't need their friendly conversation. She had herself; that was enough.

She watched them though, as they talked to each other, whispering excitedly and giggling as they scrunched curled hair, pinning their roses on skirts of all colors. She glanced down at her own plainer dress, a simple gray, blackened with soot at the bottom.

Most of the girls wore their level of skill in their dress as well as their roses. The lesser ones had plain red, then orange, followed by yellow and blue...and white, though no one wore white. She should have worn a blue dress, but she had none. It didn't bother her though, she told herself, raising her head high. The people loved her in plain gray. They had a name for her—Cinderella—and they cheered whenever her dance began.

At last, the other girls went: reds first, then oranges, yellows, and the ones who had just reached blue. Madeleine had reached blue long ago.

When the last of them had gone, she moved slowly to the table, strewn with green leaves and parts of stems, fallen petals in their myriad of dyed colors. Patiently, she gathered her own roses and the pins that were left for her. She picked up her coarse gray skirt and first pinned the red roses, smiling as she recalled her first, clumsy dances as a fire dancer, then the orange as she built skill. At yellow, she was better still, and at blue—her fingers lingered on the calming, silky petals, then slipped downward abruptly.

She winced as the pin stabbed into her thumb. The drop of blood was a brilliant red, like a rose bud on her finger, beautiful. But pain wasn't beautiful, she reminded herself and wiped away the blood, returning to pinning the blue rose on her skirt.

Finally finished, she looked at the lone white rose still on the table. It was so pure in its lack of color or blemish. To think, only that one woman had ever worn a white rose as she danced! Madeleine wanted it, more than she'd ever wanted anything. She wanted the white rose and the white dress that would come with it, the sparkling mask, and the glass shoes (it was rumored that White Flame wore glass slippers, though Madeleine had always found this idea ridiculous—how could one walk, let alone dance, in slippers that could shatter beneath one's feet?).

If it was possible in any way, she wanted it. She wanted to be the best, and she wanted everything that came with it. She would go touring across Wyndl, dancing in every village, and people would chant and shout her name, and she'd wake up in the morning on a bed with soft pillows and clean white sheets, and she'd eat seven course meals every day and wear jewels and silks and satins, and no one would think her spoiled or haughty. Whenever they saw her passing by, they'd simply say to themselves, "Well, there's Lady (for they would call her by her rightful title) Madeleine Lisette Luck, the new White Flame. She deserves all she has now; after all, she is the best fire dancer in the world." And then they'd turn away and go about their business.

And she would have suitors, of course, calling on her at all hours of the day, and she could stick up her nose and turn away, or she could let them come, if she liked them well enough. They'd dote on her, of course, because she'd a princess. No one would think to order her about, or to make her work from sunup to after sundown! No one would control what she did. She'd control what other people did! She'd have hundreds of servants, and they'd do everything for her. She'd never lift a finger...except for the dancing, of course.

She would practice dancing every day of her life and never let up on it. She'd be able to practice whenever she wanted to, not just in the middle of the night after her chores were done. Though, she might still practice in the middle of the night, when she wanted. There was something to dancing in a pitch black land, under the darkened sky, when she couldn't see anything, and there was nothing but her and the glowing fire. Somehow, the leaping flames brought her to life; the vibrant color made her spin and twirl and feel, like she'd never felt before.

She made her way to the mirror then, at the far end of the tent. She had to do this, and if she was really going to be the best, she had to look the best too. She observed herself carefully. Her hair fell in gentle waves, and if it was slightly tangled...well, that was just the way her hair was. Her eyes, peeking out from the cloth mask, were...well, plain and gray, but today they almost looked blue, and...well, if her fingernails were filthy and her skin was too freckled and her arms too muscled for a lady, what, she was still the best fire dancer in the world!

And besides, her roses were pinned perfectly, cascading gently down her skirt in their colors like a rainbow. She had more roses than any of the other girls. She'd worked harder than they had. No matter how much better their appearances were than hers, when she stepped into the fires, she had more grace than all of them. They couldn't take that from her. Nobody could. She straightened herself to her full height and glanced at the white rose on the table, smiling slowly. The next White Flame.

She heard footsteps then and the sound of the curtain-like tent opening being pushed to the side. Turning quickly, she spotted Madame Clarisse coming slowly towards her, carrying herself like a belle as always. In truth, she was a middle-aged woman, past her time, with hair much more gray than blonde and skin that was beginning to wrinkle and sag, but she didn't seem to notice as she walked with grace and a head held high.

Madeleine bent into a low curtsy at the sight of the older woman, as all the girls did. They respected her, even as they giggled at how she still wore a corset at her age. Even so, she had an elegance they all wished to acquire. "Madame," she said, as she began to straighten.

The woman gave a slow smile. "Madeleine," she began in a voice barely above a whisper, the way she told the girls a lady ought always to talk. "You look lovely," she said, pale eyelashes swooping downward as she looked over Madeleine's hair, dress, roses, everything. Nothing escaped Madame Clarisse's notice. "Are you ready to begin your dance?"

Madeleine nodded without a moment's hesitation. She knew her dance forward and backward and could probably do it with her eyes closed. She'd spent weeks practicing it, tweaking it, perfecting it. And it was perfect. It was harder than any she'd done and more dangerous, with many leaps and twirls over the flames, but she could do it.

"Good," Madame Clarisse replied, with another small smile gracing her lips. She took a few more dainty steps toward Madeleine, until she stood directly in front of her, not a full foot away. She gazed at Madeleine keenly, squinting into her face.

"Madame?" Madeleine asked awkwardly after a moment.

"Breathe, Madeleine. Remember that. And don't just do the steps, let yourself feel the dance, live the dance." She closed her eyes, pale lashes brushing her equally pale cheek, and she raised her arms slightly, swaying, lost in a reverie. Then, abruptly, she stopped, eyes flashing open. "And remember, overconfidence is as bad as underconfidence. This dance is not a sum of your previous triumphs. It is its own circumstance and must be regarded with proper humility as well as courage."

"Yes, Madame," Madeleine replied. That was really the only thing anyone said to Madame Clarisse. She was a lady, and her morals and etiquette were not to be contradicted. Even so, Madeleine didn't entirely see the woman's point. There was nothing wrong with confidence. She'd seen what the lack of it did to the girls who cried and ran from the fire in fear just before a performance. She didn't fear the fire. It didn't hurt her, had never hurt her. Nothing could hurt her.

Madame Clarisse watched her for another long moment, pale blue eyes staring intently into Madeleine's own. Finally, she nodded and turned away, facing the table. She reached out slender fingers and picked up the white rose, twirling the stem in her fingers, making the bud a blur of white. "It will be yours, if you pass," she said quietly, looking at Madeleine meaningfully.

Madeleine nodded. "I know." She looked at it and could almost feel it, the silky petals, the green stem, sharp thorns. The thorns wouldn't make a difference to her; if she could just grasp the rose in her hand, she could do anything.

Clarisse gave another of her gentle smiles, like a gracious host, and set the rose back down upon the table. Just then, there was a thunderous cheering from outside, a massive crowd roaring their appreciation. Clarisse looked toward Madeleine, raising a brow. "That would be the end of the dance. Only you remain. Go when you are ready." With that, she turned and proceeded out of tent, taking tiny, elegant steps and passing out the back opening.

Madeleine watched her go, then moved towards the front end of the tent, the opening where crowds of people would be waiting for her, ready to watch Cinderella perform her defining dance. She waited there for a moment, then took a deep breath, and straightened. The crowd would cheer for her, louder than they had ever cheered. And she would dance for them, like she had never danced. And she would reach white and have that rose pinned to her, because she had the most grace, the most will to do this. She was the best.

Bracing herself, she picked up the staff that was leaning against the table with the twine tied securely on both ends. Gripping the wood tightly, she threw back the tent opening and stepped out. A sea of faces met her outside, watching her in a half-ring around the area, opposite from the tent. It looked like everyone from Saimes had shown up and probably many from surrounding villages as well. They were all silent, just watching her, a thousand shades of eyes staring, fixed on her.

Someone coughed in the crowd, and she took a step towards the flames. Five distinct fires blazed in front of her, four of them surrounding a larger one close to the center. She went towards the first one to her left, dipping the end of her staff into the flames. The twine ignited slowly, the spindly ends first glowing a dim red, then a brighter orange until the entire thing was a blazing fire. Quickly, she whipped her staff around and dipped the other end into the fire. She watched as the fire slowly spread and leapt to life.

Finally satisfied with the fire at both ends of her staff, she prepared herself to dance. She closed her eyes, shutting out the world until it was only her alone in the darkness. The fire burned brightly around her, willing her, begging her, to dance. She knew all the steps. She opened her eyes—and twirled.

She breathed woodsmoke as she reeled right, raising her staff above her head, towards the sky, where she sent it spinning in her hands until it became a circle of flame. The crowd to all three sides of her began to blur into nothing. It was only her and the fire, and she was whirling around it, round and round.

Finally, she stopped her turns and made waltz steps around the second fire—down, up, up, down, up, up—while the flames rose and fell to match her. Trailing flames burned between this fire and the others. They parted to let her pass as she waved her staff in swirling figures at her side.

Then she spun and leapt over the third fire. Her staff was blazed in front of her. She could feel the warmth beneath her feet as she soared through the air, hoping—knowing she would reach the other side.

In a low lunge, she landed, head bowed forward, straight arms holding out the staff. She paused, breathing in smoke, relishing the warmth of the fire. The fire made her live. She took a long, deep breath and spun again, twisting her body across itself as she revolved around the next fire.

Her feet moved of their own accord, propelling her forward into another turn, where all she could see was a blur of orange and red. And her feet pushed her off the ground, sent her flying through the air, over the fires, over the world. Her arms moved her staff, the bright fire a streak through the air that sparkled for a moment, then died in the air.

She moved through heat that made sweat bead on her forehead and pour down her face and down her back until she was drenched in it. She moved through thick gray smoke that burnt her eyes and choked in her throat, but she loved it all. This was what she lived for.

From somewhere far away, she heard a crowd chanting a name: Cinderella, Cinderella! It was dull roar in her ears, gradually becoming louder and louder like galloping horses pounding towards her. She reached out in a low arabesque, arching her entire body. She felt her back stretching as her leg extended high above her head, toes pointing to the sky. Her face tilted upward, breathing the air up there, and her arms lifted, spinning her staff in blazing circles just above her toes, nearly touching them with the burning ends.

Stepping again, she weaved around each of the fires until she reached the end of the line for her finish. She made another arabesque there, curving herself away from the fires. Then slowly, she brought her leg down from the air. When it hit the ground, she slid the other swiftly towards it, took one step, and propelled herself over the fire, spinning around as she flew through the air.

She could hear their cheering loud and clear now. They were cheering for her, because she was graceful, because they loved her. As she landed, she slid forward on the ground again, with her opposite foot this time, and took another small step and threw herself over the next fire. The flames leaped wildly beneath her as the crowd's roars took on another level of noise, rushing towards her.

She landed equally smooth, but not quite as far from the first fire as she had intended. She extended her leg out far and took an extra long slide this time, pushing her whole body forward. On her next leap, she extended the staff out in front of her and spun it in small circles crossing over in front of her. In the air, the flames formed joined rings, connected to each other, connected to her. When she leaped again, she made the circles high above her sky, orange and yellow arches blazing above her.

She made a sharp gasp when she landed. Her ankles were too warm beneath her, like they'd been singed. She stayed her ground, though. Readjusting herself would be a flaw in her performance, and she could not have flaws. She allowed herself a small glance down, however, and saw a trail of flames between this and the last fire, a swirling line between them. She wasn't in the fire yet, wasn't burning, but she was close. She would just have to get away fast.

Gliding forward, she stared ahead at the flames high and blazing like a wall of red and orange and yellow and white fire, and it looked too long and too high, but she had already leapt. She was going to make it. She had to make it. She swung her staff out directly in front of her and formed a hoop of fire she passed through just before it disappeared. She could hear their cheering Cinderella, Cinderella, louder than ever but suddenly it died away into silence. Why weren't they cheering anymore?

She knew she was off balance; the weight of the staff had thrown her off, and—she made a muffled cry, because her foot, it was hot—too hot, and—and she was falling this time, not landing. Her feet felt hot, burning hot, and they smacked hard against the ground at her angles, and from there she tumbled farther, a crumpled heap on the ground.

Suddenly, she feared the flames like she had never feared them, because they were hurting her, hurting so bad! It burnt at her skin, hot, raging flames tearing her into pieces. She heard gasping and shouting all around her, but it blurred into the—scorching, melting heat. She could see all the colors, and she had roses for each of them. The red and orange and yellow, that was her color, and...white. She should have been white. She was going to be white, but she was—burning.

"Isn't that—isn't that Miss Madeleine Luck?" she heard a confused, shrieking voice from the crowd.

She knew then that her mask must have come off. Whether it had burnt off or simply fell, she couldn't tell. She wanted to scream back at them, "No, it's Lady Madeleine Lisette Luck!" but she couldn't, because it hurt so much—even her throat felt like it was burning. She managed to roll, staring up at the crowd, the sea of faces she'd listened to for cheering but never even looked at. They seemed closer now—and she wished that someone, anyone, would come pull her out of the fire, beat out the flames, douse her with water, something. Anything to stop the pain. But they were too afraid of the fire. She wasn't afraid. The fire wouldn't hurt her, could never hurt her, only...the pain...

She saw people, so many people, blurred faces she didn't recognize. But there was one face, one face she knew—far too well. He was her father—Lord Arthur Luck of Pennyshire, where she lived with her stepmother and—and her stepsisters. Where he'd lived too! Her father.

He—he was right here, and she wanted scream at him, but it hurt too much to scream, and...and he wouldn't even come to pull her out of the fire. It was searing her flesh like so many pins and needles stabbing into her and—and the smell! She didn't know what it was, but was...her head throbbed dully. Her own flesh was burning, and she choked on the smell and the smoke, and—

He was supposed to be in Aschare, fighting in the war. He'd told them—her and Edith and Blair and Adelle—that he was going away to fight in the war! He'd been going back and forth, helping in the efforts, but five months ago he'd said he was going to stay for a longer time, to help as a real soldier, because—because they were dying, all of them, and...she was shaking, her lip first and then her shoulders, all of her was shaking in violent tremors, and it hurt.

He'd—he'd abandoned them all and her most of all. She was his daughter, and he'd left her, and if he'd ever done anything in the war at all, he'd deserted! He'd lied to her, deceived them all, and probably fled the war like a coward, and...and maybe that was all she was made up of; maybe it was a failing streak in the family, because...she was going to be White Flame. And now, she was nothing, and everyone knew, and everyone saw her. She had failed—at everything.

And then, as she rolled in on her side, curling into a ball, there was the scent of roses. Sweet, fragrant roses. Burning. Her shaking stilled as she focused purely on the roses and the ashes, mingling together into one strange scent. The world began to slowly grow black.

Looking back, what he determined more than anything else was that war really was hell. Everyone said it—not on the front lines of course, not charging into battles, or shouting inspiring speeches. Those sort of things had their own phrases: "Victory or death!" "To die for one's country is to live forever!" "For glory and battle!" Those were the things people shouted to chase away the fear gnawing at their brains.

But in the real thing, in all of the sweat and the blood and the dirt, it was simply a muttered, under-the-breath, "War is hell." Those were the moments they watched their friends and comrades dying around them, and they turned to see their battle standards and thought traitorously: maybe it's not worth it. That was when they realized that no matter what standard they fought under, no matter what country they were battling for, war was all the same. It was blood and death and smells and rotting flesh. It was hell.

He supposed it was these moments that turned men against each other, made traitors of them all, sent brothers murdering brothers. And that was when he would gulp and turn the thought from his mind completely, focusing instead on the weather, the seasons, any sort of small talk he could rack from his brain. But then, if his mind ever returned to the subject, he would wonder how—and why—his life had ever turned out like this. It shouldn't have.

At twenty-one, Prince Ivan Glorodell of Wyndl was in battle against the Ascharans. He felt, sometimes, that his whole life had simply been one giant battle against the Ascharans. It was, more or less, all he ever did.

The Great Ascharan Invasion, sixteen years prior, had been the singularly most interesting event in everyone's lives since...well, no one really knew how long. The Wyndlans and the Ascharans had hated each other as long as anyone could remember, but the Invasion was the monumental happening, the one moment that defined everything else. Suddenly, the hate between them wasn't an old grudge, wasn't a prejudiced dislike. It was war.

Ivan remembered that day, more than he remembered the rest of his childhood. Most of what he recalled was dashing beneath high wooden tables with Thaddeus, but this day was different. He and Thaddeus were playing war in the courtyard—his brother had been just about to stab him through when a man with a bright red face came leaping over the bushes just behind them on the back of a dappled gray horse.

The man only stopped long enough to give Ivan and Thaddeus a small smile as he passed. Then he delivered the message to their father, King Nicholas: the Ascharan generals Bede, Caedmon, and Gratian had decimated the city of Bellen, near the border. General Bede's actions haunted Ivan's nightmares for years. He was a great brute of a man, who lived only to kill—trained for it since he was even younger than Ivan and Thaddeus. He burnt cities to the ground, slaughtered every man, woman, and child.

The Ascharans had taken the city of Goel as well, the home of Lieutenant Wescott who'd ridden with the news. Ivan recalled him as being tall, with an easy smile, and an obviously brave man, if for no other reason than the way he rode his horse, like he was chased by death itself.

King Nicholas called on his people for support—and war. Ivan recalled sitting beside him, a bit tiredly, mounted on a pony as his father shouted speeches he didn't quite understand, always about honor and glory and defending their homeland. Men joined the army, more and more, until one day King Nicholas took Ivan and Thaddeus, very seriously, and told them that he would have to go away and fight to protect them from the Ascharans. He would miss them, but he would come back as soon as he could. First, though, they would take a journey together, to the summer palace, Falos, where the boys would stay with their mother.

The journey through tall, dark forests was exciting for both Ivan and Thaddeus. On their ponies, they could almost keep up with the rest of the army, and they rode next to Lieutenant Wescott most of the way. He told them jokes and taught them basic fighting techniques and made them laugh when he climbed every tree they stopped beside.

But then, a mere couple of miles from Falos, Wescott's tree climbing showed him something other than blue sky and soaring birds. He shouted the warning: General Caedmon's army was approaching. Ivan and Thaddeus were sent on to Falos with the queen for safety, but they weren't safe there.

Ivan remembered his mother's piercing shrieks as the guards that were supposed to protect them were shot down beside them. He'd never seen a dead body before. They were so still, and there was so much blood flowing from their wounds. He'd never seen so much blood.

Queen Sidonie grabbed both Thaddeus and him and ran, not towards Falos, but back towards the army. They were protected back at the battlesite, even if the sights and sounds there were things a child should never see.

In the end, the Ascharans left to recover and regroup. The Wyndlans examined their home. Falos itself had been burnt and ransacked, almost completely destroyed.

From there, the king made his decision. He would take his wife and two sons south. All of Wyndl would join in the war campaign. He made several more speeches about freedom and protection and joining together as one.

After that, everything was simply "the war." They traveled; they were always traveling chasing General Bede and General Gratian as they moved farther into Wyndl. While the army fought battles, Ivan and Thaddeus stayed comfortably in the nearest town, playing out their own version of the war.

Ivan was always Wescott, the man who took his scouts through the dense forests and marshes of southern Wyndl, who destroyed entire Ascharan forces by stealth. They watched him rise from lieutenant to captain to colonel and finally general. Both boys admired the man, but it was Ivan's right to play him. He was born first, if only by two minutes.

Thaddeus usually played another man, one they'd never met but heard many stories of from the north. His name was Captain Raines. He'd refused to come south with the rest of the army, but fought in the north, where General Caedmon still lurked. He was a good match for Caedmon, killing in the woods and while the Ascharans slept at night, or raining arrows on them as a greeting in the early morning hours. He won his first open victory at Imdrel and from there kept on, forcing Caedmon backward at Vels and Nailam and finally Falos.

The final battle for Wyndl was fought in Goel, where it had begun. It was a hard battle, as both sides threw everything they had into the fight. In the end, the Ascharans were pushed back into their own country, but at a hard price for the Wyndlans. Nearly a quarter of their army was dead—and the Ascharans were not quite defeated.

It was during the Border Wars that Ivan and Thaddeus learned how to ride with a weapon, strategize, and kill.

Of course, they spent the early years watching and hearing news by word of mouth. Captain Raines was made a general, something Thaddeus told Ivan as soon as he found out and wouldn't let up speaking of for almost two weeks afterward. He'd always been robbed of playing General Wescott, but now Captain Raines had taken a step up. His smugness eventually let to an all out brawl, in which both of them ended up with sore black eyes.

For years, no progress at all was seen by the army. They merely traveled up the river, over the border, and back again. Then, General Wescott and General Raines started strategizing together. They got their men to Venturi and Traste in the Tul Mountains, a few of them made it halfway to Dryksm in central Aschare—but there they were cut down and tortured.

Thankfully, there were younger men to take up the fighting then, Ivan and Thaddeus among them. They fought their first battle at each other's backs in Goel, shouting comments about General Wescott and Raines and the three Ascharan generals, and who fought the most like whom. They fought well together; all the new recruits fought well together. Once again, the war began to turn in favor of the Wyndlans.

A younger General Fenn was in command of much the army now. He was popular with everyone and had a strategic mind matching Wescott, Raines, and the king. He came up with the idea of positioning the men in a half circle around the Ascharans, trying to surround them and obliterate them forever.

The Wyndlans pushed east, and in time, all battles were fought in the Tul Mountain passes, inside the Ascharan border. Still, they stayed in the border for long afterward, killing a hundred men on this side of the mountain, three hundred over there, until it had become almost mindless.

Often, Ivan grew tired of it. He grew sick of battles and training and shrieks of death, death, and so much death. Sometimes he even told Thaddeus that he hated it. Thaddeus only crossed his arms over his chest and said with a smirk, "And what would you rather do? Herd sheep? You can't know you hate it when you've never done anything else."

He would sigh then and realize that Thaddeus was right. And he would realize it again when Thaddeus killed the man ready to attack him from behind, and again when Thaddeus kept him up laughing the night before a big battle, to keep their minds from it, and again when they shared a tarp in the middle of a heavy rainstorm. Because Thaddeus was always right, until one day when he wasn't.

It was autumn, mid-autumn that blended into summer. The wind was strong, blowing through his coarse clothing and worn armor. He shivered once as the air fell sharp against his skin, then recovered. He was still warm. The sun was bright overhead—glaring when he glanced up—and his forehead was hot. And sticky.

He raised his hand to his head, and when he brought it away there was warm, wet blood on his fingertips. He stared at it for a moment, then let his hand fall flat to his side again. It was no surprise. There was blood everywhere. Scarlet, crimson, deep red blood—everywhere he looked.

He glanced at the field around him. It was utterly barren. Not one green thing lived amidst the trampled mud—and bodies. There were few men left standing around him now. He could hear a faint sound of clanging metal swords, like the ringing of a distant bell. He saw the movement in the corners of his eyes, but all at his feet were the pale, unnaturally still bodies, their blood mingling with the mud they were lying in, until it was all a blur of russet brown.

His eyes caught something else, almost a golden glow falling through the air toward him. He looked up and spotted them: leaves, yellow maple leaves blowing in the wind. They whirred and spun in the air, floating in wild spirals toward the ground, where they landed, rustling, on the dead.

Then, abruptly, he saw movement beside him, heard the sound of a blade cutting through the air. He flung his sword up and blocked the attack. He saw the eyes of the Ascharan soldier in front of him widen for a moment, as he forced his own attack lower. His blade caught the man right above his hip, slicing through his torso, almost to his opposite shoulder. The man fell limp to the ground in front of him. He had pale gray eyes. Without thinking, Ivan planted his boot in the man's chest and pulled out the blade.

He turned then, glancing farther around him to see that the Glorodell battle standard was still in the air, raised high on its wooden pole. The gold and silver threads stood out from the green, forming the shining shield and star. It was caked with mud, however, many dark brown splotches tainting the once bright colors.

He heard the sound of another sword swinging from his other side and whirled around, raising his own blade to block once again. The two blades clanked together and bounced backward, metal ringing into the air around them. He was the first to recover, lunging forward to make a quick stab and move on. He knew they were winning the battle, and he wanted to get it done as quickly as possible.

His attacker, however, made a quick jump to the side, moving just out of the way. The maneuver, oddly, reminded him of his brother. Thaddeus had a talent for moving quickly, one that Ivan had found most aggravating in sparring. After considering a moment, he stepped again and made another attack, but the man jumped to the other side this time. Then, finally, the man made his own attack, leaping at Ivan and swinging his sword for his neck. As he came forward, Ivan got a clear look at his face and reeled backward, shocked.

He knew those features, knew them as well as he knew his own face. It practically was his own face. Lighter hair, a squarer jaw, higher bridged nose, but that was it! They had the same color eyes, the same dimple on their chins. He was staring at Thaddeus, his twin brother.

Ivan probably would have stopped fighting altogether, had the man not spun around and attacked him from the other side. Ivan turned, blocking frantically as Thaddeus's attacks grew more rapid and more brutal. "Thaddeus!" he screamed as he tumbled backward. "It's me! It's Ivan!"

His brother must not have recognized him. It was difficult after all, since most of them had lost whatever uniform they might once have had, and both Ascharans and Wyndlans alike were caked in dirt and blood. They all looked more or less the same. He hadn't even realized it was Thaddeus at first. But his brother's eyes were locked on him, unmoving from his face. "Thaddeus!" he shouted again, now forcing his way forward, pushing his brother back.

Thaddeus seemed to look at him then—really look at him, as someone he knew and not merely one of the hundreds of men he'd killed on the battlefield. His jaw twitched slightly, as it always did when he was nervous or strained. It was a trait Ivan shared, had shared since they'd both been born.

"I am sorry, brother," Thaddeus said at last in a low, quiet voice, even as he plunged forward to attack.

Ivan leapt out of the way, holding his sword limply at his side. "Sorry?" he repeated, at a loss. "Sorry? What—what are you—?" He hurried to form an attack as Thaddeus came toward him again.

"You were born two minutes before me," Thaddeus said, moving away from Ivan's sword with slow, tired steps. " never should have happened. I'm sorry that it did—for the both of us. I don't want to do this, Ivan!" His voice cracked. "You're my brother. The problem is...when we go back to Wyndl, you'll be the crown prince, and...that can't happen. I won't let it." With these words, his voice hardened again into a low, impassive tone.

"You mean—you're betraying me. You're trying to kill me for the throne, because I was born first?" he asked, senselessly trying to comprehend how this was happening, how Thaddeus, his own twin brother was...trying to murder him!

"Yes." He didn't elaborate, only said the one word flatly, unreadable eyes staring.

"Well, I won't let you!" Ivan shouted, suddenly angry. He felt fresh adrenaline rush through his veins. What right had Thaddeus to take his throne away? Ivan was born first, two minutes first, but that still made the throne his by rights! Thaddeus was a traitor to himself all of Wyndl! It was Ivan's duty, as prince and heir, to fight the traitor.

Within moments, they were both leaping and dodging and pushing forward with savage attacks. All Ivan could hear were the sounds of their blades and the roar of his own anger.

Thaddeus made a turning leap forward, spinning and attacking from the opposite side. Ivan turned, just in time to have his shoulder grazed by the tip of his brother's blade. Before Thaddeus had a chance to move back, Ivan pushed the tip of his sword into Thaddeus's torso. It did nothing; his body was covered in heavy armor, warding off all of Ivan's attempts at injury. Frowning, he looked his brother over, even as Thaddeus was lunging forward. He spotted, right beside his collar bone, a rip in the armor. He could attack there and actually puncture.

"I should have been born first, Ivan," Thaddeus was saying now. "It was pure chance, not any purpose behind it. It could have been me, and—you might hate me all you will, but...I'd be a far better king than you'll ever be."

Looking into his brother's dark eyes, Ivan suddenly felt rage flaring within him, and all of the ridiculous fights and spats they'd ever had came flying down into his mind. Thaddeus had never really liked him. He'd never been the brother he should have been. He'd always seemed...arrogant, like he thought he was better. Deep down, perhaps he'd been planning this all along, perhaps he'd always been intending to kill Ivan.

Fury hot in his chest, he leapt forward, stabbing straight for the torn spot in his brother's armor. Thaddeus was caught unawares, and the blade went right through his neck, beside his collar bone. Thaddeus made a muffled choking sound. His face suddenly went white. Ivan spotted bright, dripping blood on the man's lips, beginning to spurt out of his mouth, spattering the front of his armor as he started to stumble. He slipped in the mud a ways, then fell to his knees on the ground.

Ivan gripped the hilt of his sword, wrenching it out abruptly, stunned. Thaddeus only seemed to choke more with the blade gone, blood gushing out of his mouth now. On his knees, he fell to his left side, limply. Ivan watched him lying still on the ground for a moment, unable to move himself from the spot. Finally, he dropped to his knees beside his brother, catching the man's wrist and gripping it in his hand.

"Thaddeus," he whispered, shaking as he squeezed his brother's arm. "Thaddeus."

His brother's eyes rolled towards him, glazed over with film. He said nothing, but the blood bubbling around his mouth was beginning to stop. Ivan wasn't sure whether that was a good thing or not. Then, Thaddeus's eyes rolled to his opposite side and stayed there, staring blankly. His breath stopped.

Ivan stared, scarcely breathing himself. He stared, immobile, at the crimson blood spotting his brother's face and chest. His brother was dead. Thaddeus was dead. Ivan's head fell forward, and he stared at the ground beneath him. It smelled damp, but not the fresh damp of spring and dew. It was dirty, full of the stink of dead corpses and blood. He looked at his hands, lying halfway buried under mud. There was a red stain on them. He pulled them up, the mud sticking and resisting him, but he brought them to his eye level and saw the deep red blood. Thaddeus's blood. He'd killed his own brother. He was a murderer. was self defense! And yet...he'd still done it, and he wouldn't have had to have done it, not at that precise moment anyhow. He'd killed his brother voluntarily. He'd killed a lot of other men voluntarily and hadn't called that murder. But they were Ascharans, they were attacking him, they were his enemies! But then, Thaddeus had been attacking him. Did that make Thaddeus his enemy? And...did that make it...alright?

"Your highness, we've won! The war is over, after all these years!" Ivan glanced up to see Mattias, his father's footman, approaching with a wide smile on his old, wrinkled face. He looked down at the dead body, beginning to panic.

"Oh..." Mattias spoke quietly upon reaching him, seeing Thaddeus lying on the ground. His features fell then, and he seemed to hunch over more. "I...I'm so sorry. Did you happen to see who killed him?"

Ivan looked up dumbly. He was the one who'd killed him! Then he realized: no one else knew. All anyone had seen was him kneeling beside his fallen brother, devastated at his death. That was true. It was what he was doing. "I...I didn't see him," Ivan stuttered.

Mattias nodded. His eyes were beginning to gloss over with unshed tears. Mattias had known both of them since they were born. "It's terrible...your father..."

Ivan swallowed at the mention of his father, King Nicholas. He loved his father, and his father loved both of his sons. He would be heartbroken at the news. He—he ought to tell the man the truth. He hadn't lied to his father since he was...ten, at least! could he possibly tell his father that he had killed his own brother? He couldn't do it!

More men were crowding around now, coming in closer to peer at Thaddeus's still, still body. Too still. Everything was too still, too quiet. The men's voices were hushed, whispering so he couldn't make out the words. Then, he was able to make out one voice. "At least he died in battle," someone said, "with honor and glory. A hero's death." There were several murmurs of agreement.

Ivan swallowed again, biting his lip. A hero's death. Attempting to kill his brother. It didn't match up and yet...all these men thought it was true. Was this how all heroes were born, with mixed-up legends? Were most heroes...not actually heroes at all? At last, he let out a shaky sigh. It didn't matter. All of the men, they all liked Thaddeus, loved him; he couldn't tell them that Thaddeus had tried to kill him. They might not believe him, and—he didn't want his brother to be known as a traitor. He'd...loved Thaddeus. Thaddeus had been a hero, to him, when they were growing up, to many of them. He glanced down at his brother's face, bloodied, still, dead. He took a shaky breath.

Finally, the long awaited new story! I hope you read, enjoy, and of course, review.