Disclaimer: If I owned Fire Emblem, I wouldn't have screwed Nina over as much as the actual games do.
Summary: FE2,3. Only after you have loved can you know how little hate truly amounts to.
Pairings: Camus/Nyna/Hardin, Zeke/Teeta (or should that be "Tyta"? :P), i.e. SPOILERS
Rating: T for violence, sexual themes, psychological darkness.
Notes: Samson/Sheema is my FE3 OTP, but Camus/Nina is my FE1/DS OTP. That said, I do respect Nina/Hardin, and think that FE2 throws a HORRIBLY EVIL wrench into the whole mess. (OH FE, WHY SO DEPRESSING.) I'm also utilizing the lovely trove of world-building info revealed in the official designer's notes (yay Serenes Forest). However, I am not following events strictly as depicted in BS Akaneia Senki (normally I let game canon take precedence, but storytelling in the BS games is pretty rushed/over-simplified due to format so I'm taking the notes as canon instead), though I've looked at the (Japanese) transcripts and taken them into consideration. And I'm completely ignoring the manga, which I've also read in completion, and, less relevantly, the anime, both of which I hated and neither of which I consider canon (both blatantly conflict with the games). Also, I'm still getting used to localizations, so if you catch any weird name inconsistencies please let me know. (I started writing this last July... orz.)
Last but not least, this fic was difficult to write and perhaps will not be a comfortable read... part two in particular. (I was and still am very tempted to write an AU instead in which Marth dies, Michalis's political maneuvering comes to fruition after secretly allying with Camus, Elice and Nyna successfully pull off a rebellion with help from Hardin and Minerva, Jeorge is badass as ever, the ultimate defeat of Medeus is much more of a team effort, and certain couples live happily ever after. :P) Check the link on my profile for further notes.
July 2010: Well, looks like FE12 (which is on serious CRACK) totally jossed me (though I am SO SMUG about getting some aspects of Camus and his men totally spot on). I've tweaked the dialogue a bit in light of that as well as done some other minor (prose-related, not content-related) editing, but have changed nothing else, i.e. BS Akaneia Senki still does not apply... (I like my take on Nyna better. :P) May tweak more when/if the official localization comes out.
That said, part 2 has been halfway done for about a year; hopefully will finish by the end of this year.
1. but the earth abideth for ever
"Nothing is given to men, and the little they can conquer is paid for with unjust deaths. But man's greatness lies elsewhere. It lies in his decision to be stronger than his condition. And if his condition is unjust, he has only one way of overcoming it, which is to be just himself."
- Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death
"Do not hate, child."
Those were her mother's last words as they dragged her away, regal and serene even in the midst of a sea of blood and shattered glass, bodies and entrails covering the walls and the floor of the throne room in a morbid tapestry.
Do not hate, my daughter. Do not let hatred consume you.
The next time she saw her mother, she had become nothing more than another rotting head upon the city walls.
They fucked her maid before her face. Even to the end the girl watched her, eyes at once both pleading and accusatory, cheeks smeared with tears and mucus. Then they tossed the body to the dogs.
They did not touch her. She was the princess, too valuable to be stained by their dirty hands, her maidenhood worth an entire kingdom.
Instead, they locked her in her room and posted guards outside her door, brought her food and water two times daily.
She refused to eat. The first few days, she sat at the window, gazing ever outwards. Afterwards she moved to her mirror. She did not recognize the girl who sat there, hollow and gaunt, like a ghost.
On the seventh day the general himself came. He dismissed the guards before he entered the room. She did not turn. He did not speak. She studied his reflection in the mirror. He was young, as all the rumors had said. Dressed in the characteristic gold-embroidered sable of his Order. His gaze was cool, penetrating, indecipherable.
Fear struck her then, for the first time since her failed attempt at escape. On that day, the castle had burned, and the city with it. But she had thought of nothing but her father and her mother and the unborn child.
When he spoke at last his voice was so soft that she strained, against her will, to hear him.
"I am General Camus of the Sable Order of Grust. It was I who killed your father and your mother."
She did not respond. When he left she realized that he had brought her daily bread with him. It lay on the stool behind her.
In a fierce, giddy moment, she snatched it from the plate and tore it in two. She devoured it viciously, like a wolf after the dearth of winter. Her hands shook as she ate.
When the general returned the next day, she sat still and poised, hands folded modestly in her lap, back as straight as a rod, as she had been taught since childhood. Perhaps he spoke: she did not hear.
As she watched him in the mirror, she wondered if he could see the truth smoldering in her reflected eyes.
In her dreams he stood before her instead of behind and the cool, solid grip of her father's sword felt natural within her smooth, uncallused hands. Again and again she ran the blade through his belly, until his insides spilled out and his blood pooled dark on the floor and the light fled from his chill eyes. But even as she turned and fled she could feel his gaze following her, reaching out to tear at her like the thick brambles that grew wild in the forest beyond, like ancient bones rising from the damp earth.
He came to her every evening without fail, always at the same time, as the last rays of the sun faded through the window.
"Do you want to know how your father died?" his reflection in the mirror would ask, always in the same low, measured tones. "He died groveling at the feet of his captors, begging for his life until the very end. Do you know how he spent his last days before the fall of Pales? Eating, drinking, whoring, without a care in the world, even as his people lay dying on the streets and his knights shed blood and sweat and tears for his sake. A man undeserving of their honor and service. But I suppose a spoiled child like you would never understand."
Her eyes burned. She bit her tongue.
He spoke of the corruption among the nobility, of the rampant piracy in the south, of the drought in the central farmlands, of the plague that swept through the northern villages, of countless children sold into slavery.
"Do not think anyone mourns your royal parents. Do not think anyone will come to save you," he said.
She knew he lied because she remembered the boisterous revelry and wild celebration in the streets every winter during the solstice festival. She remembered the proud look in her father's eyes when she had first learned to ride, when she had mastered her first spell, when her mother's belly had grown round with child. She remembered proud, spirited Midia, who bowed her head to no man, and kind Bishop Boah, who had been her father's most trusted adviser after Pontifex Miloah, and Miloah's young daughter, who had been like a sister to her.
He never touched her; she never spoke.
Sometimes when he looked at her, he recalled, despite himself, the royal children, the golden twins of Grust, pride of all the kingdom. Sweet, thoughtful Yubello, shy but prudent; fiery little Yumina, who had always been braver than her brother, though sometimes rash in her utter fearlessness. Both of them so bright, so full of potential.
Sometimes when he looked at her he remembered Lena of Macedon. A girl gentle and wise beyond her years, quiet and yet resolute, who had always held a smile for everyone she met, no matter the troubles or hardships she bore.
How different the circumstances. How different two people could become.
One day he did not come. Outside her window, the last cicadas of the season buzzed relentlessly through the night.
She dreamed that she had been buried alive, and woke clawing at the sweltering breeze.
"The son of Duke Menedy has escaped," he announced the next time she saw him reflected in her mirror. "Like father, like son. A most uncommon individual."
She had met the older boy once, when they had been but children. She could still remember his proud, self-assured bearing. And his eyes, shrewd and unafraid. The defiant eyes of one who would brook submission to no one.
"Of the five duchies of your kingdom," he continued, "only two resisted the onslaught of the Emperor's forces. Menedy was one of them. Two betrayed the pathetic king to whom they had sworn their loyalty, while one raised not a finger to help."
That much she knew. She whispered their names to herself every night before she slept, willing their faces to sear themselves into her memory forever. Cartas of Lefcandith, cowardly and incompetent despite his namesake. Bent of Samsufe, cruel and sullen. Lang of Adrah, greedy and ambitious. Guvel of Dolhr, who had only watched and laughed as his men plundered and raped. Bishop Volzhin, who had usurped dear, sweet Boah, and of whom it was said had passed her mother around among the soldiers before they killed her. Emperor Medeus, who was the originator of everything that had come to pass.
And above all, Camus of Grust.
"How meaningless the bonds of oath and blood have become," he said. "How easily Jiol of Gra turned against his own sworn brother. How easily Michalis of Macedon plotted his own father's death. And yet in this age where weak men abound and are devoured by the strong, who is to say who loved his country more? Did Jiol love Gra as Cornelius loved Altea? Did Michalis love Macedon more than his father ever could?"
I loved my father, and you murdered him, she thought.
But not a word did she speak.
As the months passed, he replaced the guards outside her door with his own men.
"Captain, pardon my prying, but why do you protect her?" asked Belf, who knew him too well to believe the rumors that circulated among the other soldiers. "You must know that the Emperor ordered all of the royal family executed. Sooner or later, he will find out."
But he replied only, "I do not fear the Emperor."
Their silences waxed long with the nights.
She no longer looked at her mirror, but outwards. Snow drifted soundlessly past her window.
He called for fuel to be brought to her room. The crackling of the fire seeped between the empty spaces.
Watching her, he felt sometimes as if she might disappear before his eyes, vanish softly into the distant white.
"Once upon a time," he whispered, "there was a boy, who believed that he could change the world."
For the first time, she turned to face him, training her icy gaze directly upon him.
He smiled, without mirth, and left.
He did not return.
She dreamed of flame and ash.
Her mother's grinning head hung high upon a stake, black flesh peeling from white bone, eyes gouged from the sockets, in their place a sickly squirming mass. Beneath lay a man's body, blue, twisted, shriveled. Beneath that still, a young woman's body, dark chewed stumps for arms, pale legs spread in a listless sprawl, glassy gaze fixed upon her.
Come back, come back to us.
She could not look away. A soundless shriek caught halfway in her throat. Blood trickled down her face, her legs.
Clammy hands closed about her neck.
The first rains of the year arrived in a torrent of thunder and gray, drowning out the sounds of the rioting below her window.
The guards outside her door left and forgot to return. She stood, legs trembling, and walked to the window. In one swift motion she slammed her fist through the pane. The glass shattered. Blood trickled down her arm. Rain and wind swept through her hair as she listened to the calls of her people from her high position, unseen.
"What are you doing?"
She whirled around, recognizing his voice despite the long absence. But it was too late. In two long strides he closed the distance between them, grabbing her wrist. He gazed into her eyes, looking through them, past them.
He said, "Come with me."
Something in her snapped. She screamed, pounding on his chest, kicking and biting and scratching like a wild beast, tears streaking her face, mixing with rain and blood. But all was futile. He dragged her from the room as easily as if she were a rag doll. Into the darkness, into the storm.
"Silence!" he said.
Startled by the unfamiliar acerbity in his tone, she obeyed.
He released her suddenly, as if burned.
"The Emperor wants you dead. Already he has sent his men to the capital."
She stepped back, shaking violently, but held his gaze. "Then let them kill me!"
"No. I cannot allow that. I will help you escape to Aurelis, where it is said that Duke Hardin fights on. He will take you under his protection."
"Why?" she said, voice quavering and hoarse.
He seemed taken aback. But when he replied his voice was dry, almost mocking. "Because you are beautiful, Princess."
"Don't lie to me. If you help me, you will be killed too. Or worse!"
"Is that not what you have wished, all this time?"
She did not know whether to laugh or to weep. "You cannot know - how I have dreamed - how I have prayed - how I have suffered -"
"If it will ease your suffering, then I give my life to you here."
He held out the spear Gradivus, which her father had wielded, and his father before him. For a brief, tremulous moment, she reached out. Then she struck it aside, as if possessed.
"I cannot be satisfied with such an end!" she hissed.
To her surprise, he broke into laughter.
"I understand now," he said, with a hint of genuine amusement, "why the people love you so."
But his eyes were wet, and not with the rain.
Her wrist was thinner than he had expected. Sharp, bony. Like a dry twig, easily snapped. Her face was small and pale in the darkness.
They passed by the main courtyard as he led her to the stables. A flash of lightning illuminated the area. Ragged, skeletal bodies lay heaped in dark pools, spiked with arrows.
In that brief flicker of light he saw her as she truly was: a child captured in the first bloom of womanhood, touched by the last frost of winter.
They rode away in the confusion, unnoticed. She huddled in his cold embrace, body too weakened to ride on her own. She wondered what he would do if she slipped and fell from the horse's back. If she leaped and fled away into the night. But his grip was solid and firm, like stone.
Night passed. Day passed. She drifted in and out of dream and delirium, jolted to muddled wakefulness by the uneven rhythm of hoofbeat and thunder, like skulls knocking against the ground.
A call was raised behind them. She twisted in his grasp, straining to see.
A single rider followed in pursuit.
His grip tightened. Their pace quickened. But before long he slowed their already wearied mount to a stop, turned, and dismounted.
He did not look at her as he closed her fingers around the reins.
"General Camus!" shouted their pursuer. "Why have you betrayed us? Why have you turned traitor - for the sake of a woman? A girl?"
"It was to King Ludwik whom I swore my oaths. Not to the Emperor."
"They've already executed Raiden and Robert for abetting your escape! How could you -"
He bowed his head, but said nothing.
"You are a coward. A hypocrite," she whispered, hands trembling, but he gave no sign that he heard. Gradivus hung wrapped and useless upon his back.
"Go!" he said instead.
The other knight gave a terrible cry and charged.
The horses screamed and reared. She let the reins fall from her hands and tumbled from the saddle. The fall knocked the wind from her chest. Gasping, she rolled away from striking hooves and splintering wood. Mud splattered across her face and clothes.
Steps away, he crouched in obvious pain, hand held to an ugly gash in his side. The other knight had dismounted and approached now in silence, sword in hand.
Without thinking she threw herself between them.
The other knight hesitated. Close up, she saw that he was no older than the man she now shielded. Upon his face was written anger and unspeakable grief. She did not move. She watched him as she had watched herself through the long, silent months, awaiting the blow that was sure to come.
But the knight sank to his knees. His sword clattered to the ground.
"Forgive me," he said. "Forgive me - Captain!"
"No," murmured the man behind her. "Forgive me, Belf."
The knight rose. Mounted.
"Though I rode hard in pursuit, the traitor eluded me. I was unable to discover his whereabouts."
After one brief, final glance, he turned and rode away.
"Why?" he forced out, gasping for air like a drowning man. The world blurred, burning to ashes around him.
Her face was blank and hard, brittle as glass. "You promised you would help me."
A smile crept onto his face against his will. Then he frowned, struggled to stand.
"You're hurt." The words were difficult to form.
She looked down to where his gaze had slipped, where blood stained dark against her clothing.
After a moment, her expression twisted, crumpled. Her shoulders shuddered with half-sobbing laughter.
"It returned. It came back," she said. "Now, I am a woman again."
Understanding flickered hazily in his mind. He lifted a hand to her mud-stained cheek, startlingly cool to his touch. She stiffened, then reached up, clasping his hand within her own.
As his vision faded, he whispered, "I'm glad."
She moved afterwards as if in a dream, dragging him back onto the horse, ripping strips from her dress to bind around his wound and to stem the flow of her own blood. She rode hard, uncertain of where they headed, but knowing that they must stumble upon civilization sooner or later.
They reached the village at sunset. She slipped from the horse. Her legs buckled beneath her. People gathered. Shouting, speaking.
"Please help him," she said.
She choked. The words lay bitter on her tongue.
When she woke, light streamed in through the room. She caught a glimpse of her face reflected on the back of a burnished pot, cloudy and distorted. Upon looking down she saw that her clothes had been changed.
A matronly woman came bustling through the door. "Are you awake? How are you feeling, my child?"
She nodded, then looked around in sudden alarm.
Was it pity that stirred in the woman's eyes, or something else? "Your friend lives. But his wound was grievous, and fever has taken him. All we can do now is pray to the gods to spare him."
She stood. "A stave - do you have a stave?"
"I am sorry, my child. Our village is too poor to afford such luxuries." After a moment, the woman added, "Would you like to see him?"
She nodded again, and followed her host meekly to the next room.
There he lay, drenched in sweat, face softened in his sleep. Vulnerable. Defenseless. She kneeled unsteadily at his side, listening to his labored breathing.
"What is your name, child?"
She hesitated, then turned, slowly, deliberately.
"I am Nyna."
"Oh, like our dear princess?"
"Yes," she said. "Like the princess."
The village was so small that it had no name. She divided her time between the village shrine, a far cry from the austere but majestic temples of Pales, the fields, and the abode of the widow Emese, who had saved them. The others shunned her, whispering behind her back as she went about her daily errands, tittering at her ignorance. There were few villagers under the age of thirty, and even fewer of those were girls. Those with families and young children had long fled the region. Still, as the days drifted on, a few familiar faces began to greet her whenever she walked by. Her moonblood passed. She learned to cook and to mend her own clothes. Her hands and feet grew worn and callused. She prayed and made offerings to the gods. The rains gave way to spring and the first blossoms of the year, white apple and pale ash scattered across the land.
Still the man did not awake.
Dire tidings arrived from a distant village: an entire town wiped out from plague and pirates. When she passed the news to Emese, the widow only laughed, shaking her head.
"Why do you laugh?"
"Kings come and go. War, famine, plague - all pass in the end. We grow old. The gods scorn us, or see fit to smile upon us. And yet still the fields must be sown; the cows must be milked. What can I do but laugh?"
"If the king were alive, none of this would have happened."
"That is difficult to say," said Emese, her eyes kind and gentle. "And yet - if the princess were to reclaim her throne -"
It was not the first time she had heard such words, spoken often in jest, and yet with an undeniable undercurrent of hope.
"Why do you have such faith in the princess?"
Emese gave her a long and searching glance before replying, "Because she is only a child."
The woman sighed.
"And children," she said, "can learn."
At night she recited the names of her father and her father's father and all those who had come before her. Those names were meaningless to her, but as the days turned she feared that she would forget whom she once was, whom she was still, and that old sacred duty that had been thrust upon her.
These names also did she whisper: Cartas of Lefcandith. Bent of Samsufe. Lang of Adrah. Guvel of Dolhr. Bishop Volzhin. Medeus.
Camus of Grust.
She was still sitting at his side when he finally stirred, days later. She did not move or speak. Instead she watched him, uncertain, as his eyes fluttered open and then focused upon her face.
"Tell me more," she said at last, "about that boy."
For a moment longer his gaze lingered upon her.
Then he smiled.
As he began to recover, he helped where he could in the fields alongside the other men. He remembered those long ago years of his youth in now distant, remote lands, lands even more barren than these. And yet he remembered those days as a time of simple happiness, of hope and belief. Here, now, the work numbed his mind, nudged his body steadily back to full health. And when the oppressive heat of summer descended upon the land, he knew it was time to leave.
She did not protest. Something in her had changed, though he could not say what. The folds of her dress no longer engulfed her, obscuring the stiff lines of her slight build, but seemed now instead to veil the subtle movements of her looked at him when he spoke, but spoke as little in turn as ever. Her expression remained stiff and unchanging. Her gaze seemed ever directed at something beyond him, far off in the distance.
There was fear in her now, fear that he had not sensed even through all her long hours of captivity. But it was not the fear that permeated the battlefield or the decimated, near-abandoned shells of towns that spread all across the land.
"Why have they not found us yet?" she asked him.
And he replied, "Perhaps they have. Perhaps even now Medeus is only toying with us."
"As the gods above toy with us mortals."
"Fate lies not in the hands of the gods, but in the hands of men."
She looked away. "Medeus will have them killed, just like the others."
"Yes," he said. "He will have the village burned."
"I see." She spoke slowly, as if a great weight bore down upon her shoulders. But she said nothing more.
They left on foot the next morning. He was not yet recovered enough to ride, and the path they had chosen wound through forest and mountain, difficult terrain for a horse. In the air was a slight chill, a brief reprieve from the overbearing sun. In the distance the village's precious olive trees had begun to bloom.
Beneath the last tree waited the woman who had cared for them during his convalescence. She did not speak or stop them, but bowed down low as they passed. Others waited too, in the depths of the grove. But not one spoke a word.
Beside him, she came to a stop.
"Thank you," she said.
She did not look back.
The air was drenched with the sweet, heavy scent of honeysuckle, clinging to her like a second skin. Even in the shade of the old linden trees that lined their path, there was little relief from the heat. They spoke little as they made their way through the mountains. She struggled to keep up with his long, urgent stride, clenching her fists at her side in silence, nails digging deep into her palms.
"I am only a soldier," he had said to her once. "Yet I would not see this world fall into ruin."
The world lies already in ruins around you, she had thought to reply. But of course he knew that. He had seen it with his own eyes, and stood by, uncaring.
At night she could not sleep, but tossed and turned restlessly. The ground was cool and hard. She would imagine herself sinking deep into the soil, becoming one with the land. Breath came difficult to her, until at last she would still, her slightest movement turning liquid, languid. Even her dreams simmered with a slow-burning fire, melting together into bursts and trickles.
One late afternoon they came upon a pool deep in the forests. By the pool grew wild pomegranate, already beginning to ripen. She remembered the distant summers of her childhood: sunlight glimmering on the river, and red, red flowers like blood. He plucked one of the fruits from the tree and split it open with his knife, then held it out to her. Their hands brushed as she accepted it.
The familiar light tang made her mouth water. Her fingers and lips stained sticky and red.
He watched her as she ate. She finished and tossed the peel aside. Then, seized by a sudden feverish whim, she stripped off the layers of her dress and waded into the pool. The water's caress was cool and feathery against her skin. When she looked back again he was no longer watching.
She lowered her head beneath the water, letting her hair float up about her in a golden fan. After some time she resurfaced and shook the water from her eyes, studying her reflection. She scratched at her skin, clawing away the dust and the sweat and the grime, humming a low, sad tune her mother had often sung to her as a child. She heard him step into the pool as well, a careful distance away. In an abrupt, inexplicable pique, she climbed out. Water dripped down about her bare feet. She bent over to pick up her muddied clothes and found that she was loathe to pull them back on. Instead she stood, shivering, lost in thought.
The light crunch of fallen twigs from behind alerted her to his presence. She turned. He was dressed again, his damp hair the only evidence of his recent activities. He held out his sable coat with averted eyes.
She took it and wrapped it around herself, noting idly that his eyelashes were long and specked with gold.
"We must continue on our way soon," he said quietly.
"What if," she whispered, "I don't want to?"
Now he turned to face her at last, eyes dark. "Princess -" he began.
She stepped closer, challenging him. He did not move.
She leaned up, hands reaching out to explore the contours of his face. He closed his eyes. She kissed him. His breath hitched.
"Nyna -" he said, but his hands wrapped around her back and her waist and tangled in her hair. "Nyna, Nyna."
As the shadows of dusk spread, a cloud of fireflies swept upwards into the darkening sky, pinpoints of light shimmering on the surface of the pool, dancing against their silhouetted figures.
His coat slipped from her shoulders.
The days grew cooler. He led them through paths untread, hoping to avoid the bandits who were known to inhabit the within the mountains they passed by the mossy ruins of ancient, crumbling temples, remnants of a forgotten people, a forgotten time. On Grust there were no such monuments, or if there had been, they had been long destroyed, their stories forever lost to man. Here the air was different, untouched by salt and sea, and in those solemn groves the dappled light caught in her hair like a crown of gold as she kneeled and offered her prayers.
He only asked her once why she did so.
She had smiled for the first time he could remember since meeting her - a bitter smile, but a smile that belonged to her, and her alone. It lit up her face with a wild, reckless certainty that made his heart ache, even at the mere memory of it.
"I don't know," she had said. "The gods have never seen fit to heed my prayers."
He did not ask for what or whom she prayed.
They stood together on the last mountain before the lea of Aurelis. In the distance, the sun sank below the horizon. Wild wheat danced golden-brown on the slope, cast in a rosy hue. It reminded her of the sea, which she had only seen once in her childhood: tossing in the wind, ever-changing, terrifying in its vastness. As if the waves would rise and swallow her whole.
He had noticed men on their trail again two mountains back. He had not said so, but she had known from the look on his face that they would soon catch up. Indeed, she had guessed that the only reason they had not yet been caught was because Medeus intended to use them as a lure, to draw the Duke Hardin out of hiding and destroy two enemies in one stroke.
She knew, too, or perhaps guessed his intentions even before he spoke.
"This is where we part," he said, looking past her at the setting sun.
She clasped his hand in her own, willing him to turn, to face her. He did so at last, reluctantly.
"Come with me."
"Then let me stay with you."
He lifted his other hand, fingers gently tracing the curve of her cheek. "You must live. You are the hope of the people, of the land. You cannot die here."
"I know..." she said. "But I am only one person. I cannot do this alone. Will you not help me?"
"You will not be alone. Duke Hardin will surely aid you, and the people themselves will rally around you."
"But you," she said, "are the only one who has ever told me the truth."
To that he said nothing, and she continued, "Will you not come with me? Will you not help me save my people, and rebuild this broken land?"
"If I could, I would stay at your side for the rest of my life," he murmured. "But I must return to my own liege, my own people."
"Why?" she whispered. "Why continue to serve under this man who would let Medeus use you like a dog? Is he, then, a man who deserves your service?"
"If I do not remain true in these times, then who will?"
But she was not unaware of the bitterness that had crept into his voice.
"In aiding my escape you have already betrayed your king!"
"Then," he said slowly, "I shall accept any punishment he deems fit."
"Camus -" she said. "Please -"
He shook his head. "I'm sorry..."
From his pack he drew out a small, shieldlike device. She froze, recognizing what it was.
"Take this," he said.
She did. Her fingers closed around the cold steel of the Fire Emblem, the royal insignia of her line. She turned and closed her eyes. "I will never forgive you."
He took hold of her shoulders, leaned down and kissed her brow. Her tears escaped at last, trickling down her face, unbidden.
"Live," he said. "Live, for as long as you possibly can!"
What she did not tell him: Then you, too, must live. Live, live, live -
It was easier, after that, to keep trudging forward, without hesitating, without looking back. For if she stopped, she knew, she would not be able to continue on. She repeated his instructions in her head and thought of nothing else. Search for a concealed locale, he had said, a place easily defensible by a small number. Near the hills, where the most recent skirmish had arisen. Keep an eye out for irregularities in the terrain, for signs of human presence.
Follow the stars, he had said, tracing a crude map of the local geography on her palm. And so she followed the stars.
She stumbled upon the camp mere days later, by fate or perhaps sheer chance. It mattered not to her. A single man, dark and stern, rode out to greet her, but she was not deceived. She could feel the eyes upon her, and knew they watched for any false move on her part.
"I am Princess Nyna of Archanea," she said. "I escaped from the clutches of Emperor Medeus and come now to seek refuge with Duke Hardin of Aurelis."
"Indeed you seem to have come unarmed and in good faith," said the man. "But forgive me if I find it difficult to believe that you managed this all on your own. No easy task is it to defy the Emperor, and even less so to find this place! What proof do you have that you are who you say, and not some illusion conjured by the Dark Pontifex?"
She reached for the Emblem, clutched beneath the cloak he had given her, but a stray, dangerous seedling of a thought sprouted in her heart, and she hesitated. "What you say is true," she said. "But I was not without help."
"Help? I see none other here but you. Where might this brave man or woman be? For such a deed is great beyond imagining, and must surely be rewarded."
"That person desired no reward for helping me, but for the dream of a world without darkness."
"A noble man! But I must give him my thanks in person, at least."
"I see," she said slowly, her chest tight with some emotion she could not name, did not wish to put name to. "You still do not believe me. Perhaps this shall convince you!"
She drew the Emblem from the folds of her cloak at last. The man dismounted, and approached slowly, in silence, as if deep in thought. His eyes were dark and gave away nothing, though they were not unkind. She struggled not to flinch at his scrutiny.
"Do you still doubt? Then take me to the duke, and let him judge with his own eyes if I speak the truth!"
But the man smiled and shook his head.
"Forgive me for my impertinence, Your Highness. I had heard the rumors, but dared not believe -" He kneeled and kissed her hand. "I am Duke Hardin, whom you seek. Welcome to the Kingdom of Aurelis."
He garnered no satisfaction from the looks on their faces when they finally caught up to him and found that he was alone.
He recognized their leader as Bulzark, an underling of Morzas, who had replaced him as the overseer of the occupation forces in Altea, both of them creatures who hailed from the Shadow Dragon's innermost circles.
Bulzark sneered. "I see you seem to have misplaced something precious, General Camus."
"More precious, perhaps, to you."
The dragon laughed. "I think not! But more importantly, General, do you intend to fight me here? Do you truly think you can defeat me?"
"I do not intend to fight you."
He received a mere shrug in response. "Very well. It matters little to me either way. Besides, there is someone who is quite looking forward to seeing you upon your return."
Bulzark motioned to his men, who came forth and bound his hands.
He would not look them in the eye.
He was taken to Dolhr. Twenty lashes. Thrown into the dungeons. Time passed. Days, weeks. He did not know. His back scabbed over, the pain a distant and yet ever-looming presence.
At last in the darkness he saw the bent, shriveled figure of an old man emerge slowly, unsteadily. And he knew then, without even setting sight upon his face, the identity of his promised visitor.
By habit more than conscious movement he bowed low in the dank straw of his cell. His shackles scraped against the floor.
"Is that you, Camus?"
"Your Majesty," he whispered, voice thick with disuse. Words formed on his tongue, then faded, unspoken.
"You wonder why I have come," said the king. "I am old and ailing, and it is no easy journey from Grust to Dolhr."
He did not respond.
"Ah, how the years have passed. I still remember the day you first entered my service... such a promising young man, I thought then. And indeed you did not disappoint. How swiftly you rose through the ranks, despite your youth! How many the battles you won for our kingdom! And yet, now, now -" The king shook his graying head, slowly, sorrowfully. His eyes reflected the dim, flickering torchlight. "You have disappointed me gravely, Camus."
"I did what I believed was right."
"What you believed was right?" The king's voice trembled with something approaching indignation. "You have almost single-handedly destroyed this alliance we struggled so hard to maintain. All for a woman! A woman!" He stopped, gasping for breath, and continued, more gently, "I know what they all say about me. I know what you think of me. You think I am old and weak and foolish. But what would you have me do? Dolhr is strong beyond imagining. The darkness of old come again! I would not be remembered by history as the king who led his people to ruin! I will not see my kingdom crushed beneath the heels of the Empire like some useless pest! You understand that, don't you, Camus?"
"Yes, Your Majesty. Of course."
The king sighed and seemed to shrink in upon himself. "Yes, of course. Of course."
After a moment the king collected himself and said, "I entreated the Emperor to spare you, to take into consideration your past record. Great is the mercy of the Emperor! Not only did he agree, he returned Gradivus to our care. With two of the three holy weapons of Archanea in our possession, our position is secured." He paused. "As for you, they will release you when they see fit. Take this opportunity to reflect upon the pitiful life I have saved."
He hesitated. In the end, he said only, "I thank you, my liege."
The king turned and shuffled back into the darkness without replying.
He closed his eyes. His shoulders shook with silent laughter.
You were right, Michalis, he whispered to the rats. You were right all along.
She was escorted to one of the fortresses that remained yet under Aurelian control. The few maids there tsked over her tangled, muddy hair, the ragged state of her clothes, the scars along her arms, the roughness of her feet and hands. How you must have suffered, Your Highness! they cooed, but she knew very well what they whispered about her when they thought she was not listening. They spoke with neither good will nor malice, and yet, she thought, open invective would have been preferable.
Afterwards they washed and combed her hair, scrubbed her body clean, dressed her in a new gown. They burned her old clothes. She had not the heart to protest.
Then she was taken to meet the king, Duke Hardin's brother.
The king of Aurelis smiled at her visible surprise upon her arrival. "My brother and I were born to different mothers," he explained. "He has not treated you unwell, I hope?"
"No, not at all, Your Majesty."
The king sighed. "I was already a grown man when he came into this world. Our father died soon after that, and as crown prince, it was my duty to step into his place. So I did, in more ways than one. Over the years, I have become more like a father to him than an older brother... Perhaps that is why I worry over him so. He is clever, brilliant, strong - but proud. These years of hiding like rats, fighting from the shadows - they have taken their toll on him. On all of us." He hesitated, took her hands into his own. Up close, she realized that his eyes were pale and milky. "Your survival is like the light of dawn after a long winter night. Words cannot express how glad the Kingdom of Aurelis is to have you here, Princess Nyna."
In the days that followed, life settled once more into some semblance of order and routine. Duke Hardin, though he must have certainly been quite busy, came often to speak to her, to ensure that she was doing well, to give her updates on the situation outside. They could not stay at the fortress for long, he explained, hence the lack of servants. Should Dolhr or Macedon choose to attack, their numbers were too few to coordinate a proper defense. Instead, they moved from camp to camp, fortress to fortress, Duke Hardin and his elite Wolfsguard launching carefully planned attacks where they were least expected.
The high esteem and love Duke Hardin held among his men soon became apparent to her. Though it was said he held the Wolfsguard to strict standards, she could see clearly that they were standards that he himself made certain to abide by. His men rode and worked and fought with the easy, understated trust of old comrades; they numbered few, but they moved with an ordered efficiency she had never before seen. The few who crossed her path spoke to her with courtesy and respect.
It became obvious to her, too, where the true power of the kingdom lay. The king of Aurelis was not yet completely blind, but by all accounts, his eyesight was steadily failing. Hardin spoke little of the matter if at all, out of respect for his brother, but he did not need to. The king had never wed. Everyone had expected that he would name Hardin his heir, before the onset of the war drove all such concerns from their minds.
"But I have never desired to be king," confided Hardin once, and only once. "My brother - ever since I was young, he has sacrificed everything for me and for the kingdom: love, happiness, health. It is for that reason that I must fight to support him. To pay back this profound, boundless debt that I owe... He is a far greater man than I shall ever be."
These things she learned and more. Yet she could not be rid of the feeling, in the end, that she was nothing but a hungry ghost parading about in someone else's skin.
"It is the duty of a knight to protect the people during times of peace."
Who was it whom he had been speaking to? Who was it who had sat across from him, young, earnest, kind, listening to his every word with intent respect? ("I thought the only things knights cared about were fighting and killing. But you, you're different.")
"Would that we could have crossed swords in better days..."
Who had said those words to him? Dying, dying, a bloody mask, whispering the names of his daughter, his wife, his young son.
"I have no love for traitors," he had said, once, when? ("You would have lost had we not turned!" And he had not deigned to reply. Or had he?)
"These are no times for loyal men." Michalis, crown prince of Macedon, brilliant and sardonic. Dark wine in his goblet, the same vivid shade of his hair. A starry night. High in the mountains, the entire kingdom at their feet.
"You should know this as well as I. Don't you?"
He remembered. An invitation to drink, after a long day of ceremony and diplomacy.
"Do you remember the great famine? No, of course you do. You and I are of the same age. Then you must remember, too, the crimes of Archanea."
"You were a great king, an honorable man, a worthy opponent." But that had not been Michalis, but himself. Speaking to - speaking to whom? "I, too, regret that we did not meet under different circumstances."
"I won't marry him," she had said.
"He is not a bad man. He will treat you well."
"I know." She hesitated. "Camus, they say he killed his father."
"Those are only rumors." But he sounded unconvinced even to himself. "He cares truly for his people. He will be a good king."
"I know. I can tell. But I cannot agree with his ways. And they say he is a proud, stubborn man. He - he told me that he respected my wisdom. But I know what he truly seeks is my lord father's alliance. And so even if I agree to wed him... I do not think he will listen to me."
"I understand. But what do you plan to do? Your refusal will cause a great upheaval in the Macedonian court. Especially with the recent death of their king, and the resurrection of Medeus... In such circumstances, do you truly wish to risk his ire?"
She shook her head. "No, but I think he will understand. And as for the court... I do not intend to stay in Macedon."
"Just wait and watch. One by one the old alliances shall crumble. First will be Jiol, who holds little love for Cornelius. Next will be -"
"I know it won't be easy. But it's just as you told me, back in Grust. I live for the sake of the people. I will do anything that is in my power to help them... even if it means sacrificing myself."
"The world as we know it will be shaken to its very core. And when that time comes, I -"
"But not as their queen. That will accomplish nothing but more suffering. Prince Michalis walks the path he deems right, but I shall walk a path of my own choosing. And I..."
She dreamed of a limpid mountain pool, its surface dark and smooth as glass, but the waters were murky, and when she looked into it she could see nothing.
A council was held a little more than a month after her first meeting with the king. Those in attendance included Hardin, his brother the king, a handful of loyal advisers, and the lone surviving general of Aurelis's regular army. To her surprise, she was invited as well.
"It's been too quiet," declared the general, after the various parties had finished their reports on supplies, on morale, and other logistical matters. "Macedon is planning something."
"Perhaps," said one of the advisers. "Or perhaps it is a sign of internal turmoil. Have not our spies reported dissatisfaction among a certain segment of the Macedonian troops?"
"Either way," said yet another adviser. "Is this not the perfect opportunity to make a move? The princess of Archanea is now with us. When news of her survival spreads to the others who would make a stand against Dolhr, will they not rally around us? That, then, will be the chance we have waited for all these long years."
"Indeed. And does she not have in her possession the Fire Emblem, the royal insignia of Archanea, with which Artemis and Cartas once united all the land? All she has to do is present our own Duke Hardin with the Emblem, and it will be as the great liberation army of old come again!"
Hardin held up a hand. "Princess Nyna, what do you say?"
She looked around at the other members of the council. They looked back at her, watching her intently.
"Will they truly ride to our aid?" she said softly. "Is not the reason no help has come because no help can come? They are caught up in their own fear and greed, or in matters of survival. They may rejoice at the news of my survival. Or they may weep, knowing that they must now face their cowardice and inaction. It may well be that even then they will not act, but live on instead with their shame. After all, even I, the princess, have done nothing but escape. And who now remains with the loyalty to sacrifice themselves for the royal family? Or do they all sit by thinking, 'All lines must be extinguished, in the end. If the gods look well upon them no longer, what business is it of ours?'"
Voices of protest rose throughout the room. A few looks of scorn flashed in her direction. A few even laughed. The king alone remained silent.
Hardin waved his hand again and said, "What Princess Nyna speaks is true. All this time, we have fought and struggled alone against the encroaching armies of Macedon and Dolhr. Have any of the other nobles ever lifted a finger to help? Have all the defeated generals and captains who have gone into hiding come to seek us?"
"But the Fire Emblem -"
"What can the Fire Emblem accomplish that a thousand broken oaths could not?"
The discussion continued on much in the same way through the rest of the day, in bursts of impassioned yelling and calmer interludes. She did not speak again. In the end it was decided that they would send messengers all across the continent with letters containing their proposals, and wait to see the response. As the men dispersed, Hardin took her aside.
"Pardon me if I am overstepping my bounds, Your Highness," he said quietly. "But why do you hesitate?"
When she did not respond, he continued, "I do not disagree with what you said today. But I think you underestimate the power of hope. You do not understand the inspiration your very existence engenders in the people."
"No, I do understand," she said. "That is why... I am afraid."
"Even Cartas and Anri could not maintain the unity of the people, once the war had ended. Bad blood has lain ever between Archanea and Grust, and between Gra and Altea. It has been passed down through my family that a terrible curse lies upon the Fire Emblem. It is no harbinger of hope, but of great loss."
"Sacrifices must always be made in the name of peace."
"I know. And yet - I am not Artemis."
He hesitated. "Nor am I Cartas."
"But," she said, "can we ever truly escape the shackles of the past, the crimes and transgressions of our ancestors? No matter what we do, history bears down relentlessly upon our shoulders. To simply deny all of this - is it not to deny myself, who I am?"
He was silent again for some time. At last he said, "I met with Minerva, the princess of Macedon, on the battlefield once. She was beautiful, and strong. But she was also kind, noble. Could such a woman have killed her own father? And yet did not her brother commit that very deed? As I see it, it is our own choices that make us who we are, not our blood."
"If it were not for our blood," she said, "we would not be here today."
When she looked away from the pool in her dreams, cold tendrils rose from the water, dragging her in.
She could not breathe.
The pool turned crimson in the darkness.
He had never seen a more sorrowful woman. She seemed to exist in a world of her own, fragile and ethereal, beauty captured in elusive memory and fleeting glimpses.
"You must hate Dolhr very much," he said to her once.
She looked at him with a strange, distant regard. "Hate?" she replied, slowly, as if lost in thought. "Yes, I suppose I do." And to that there was nothing to be said.
He was drawn, perhaps, to her melancholy. It weighted her down, cast a mortal earthliness upon her very being, granted form to the otherwise intangible. From the rumors that had run rampant even before her arrival and what little she herself had spoken of her ordeal, and perhaps even more from the things she did not say, he thought he could guess at the nature of her sorrow. It troubled him that this should be the source of her grief, but he could not begrudge her for it.
More than anything, he realized, he wanted to see her smile.
He dreamed of her among the rats in brief, fleeting images that faded all too soon. He clung to those images. If he reached out he thought he could touch her, smell her, taste her. Then all was swept away again by pain and madness and memory.
He was not surprised when they released him. He knew it could mean only one thing: they were losing.
The first man he met upon his release was Belf.
"Still alive, I see," he said wryly.
"Captain! I had heard of your capture, but -" Belf's expression mingled sorrow with cautious joy.
"Tell me what has happened during my absence."
Belf bowed his head. "Prince Marth of Altea raised an army and rode to the aid of Duke Hardin and Princess Nyna. They say the princess presented him with the royal Fire Emblem as proof of his loyalty. Pales was retaken; Archanea and Aurelis are freed. Hollstadt holds Altea under Morzas still, but they will surely march there soon. There is no guarantee that Hollstadt's men will be able to stand against them. Captain - what do you intend to do? We would follow you to the end. But if you so chose -"
"I did not think," he said, more sharply than he had intended, "that you were that kind of man."
"Forgive me, Captain," said Belf, his eyes burning with a passion that belied his usual understated gentility. "But Dolhr - Dolhr is unforgivable. Medeus uses us like dogs for his own ill ends, and meanwhile our kingdom is crumbling, our people dying. They are no better than those Archanean curs who starved our people to death all those years ago; indeed, just as bad, if not worse! Surely even King Ludwik can see this for himself. And now that Prince Marth has arisen, there is hope. There is a chance - for Dolhr to be defeated for good!"
"Tell me, Belf," he said, countering the other man's quiet, dogged determination with his own unyielding will. "If we were to turn traitor now - would we be any better than Jiol of Gra? Would you be able to live with yourself? This is the path I chose long ago. And I cannot, shall not stray from it. If there is no justice in this world, then I shall forge my own."
In truth, he realized, he played but a small role in the annals of history. Nothing he had done or did now could change the river's course. A poison festered within all their hearts. Until that poison was expunged, nothing would ever change.
But only his own heart could he transform. Against the senseless currents of fate, there could be no victory, but even so, he would live what remained of his life with meaning and with purpose. Even if Belf could not understand, if no one else understood - This much, at least, he could do.
For his kingdom, for the world.
And for her.
She no longer dreamed. Yet still there was no peace to be found in slumber. A gnawing emptiness lingered, lurked. Spread creeping. Consumed her.
She had, in the end, given the Fire Emblem to the blood of Anri, the young Prince Marth of Altea. Anri had been the chosen hero of the gods - much good that it had done him, in the end. But who could deny the call of destiny? And perhaps the Emblem had always been meant for Anri's line after all. Perhaps the regret of Artemis lingered on through the ages, influencing even now their very lives and fates.
But I am not Artemis, she whispered to herself.
Sweet Linde was alive, and Midia was alive, and Boah, and Jeorge of Menedy as well. Pales was liberated.
Shortly thereafter, she received the news of his release.
In a village of Gra, Prince Marth met a stranger who returned Boah's tome to him with curious parting words.
At the strait of Chiasmir, they encountered and defeated a great host of Grust's Sable Order. He was not among them.
Before long they reached Grust itself. The land was rocky and thickly forested, but possessed of a wild, bleak beauty. The earth was strewn with salt, moistened with blood. So this was the land where he had been born and raised, she thought. This was the land he called home.
He was thinner, more gaunt than he had been, when she had last seen him. So far, so distant.
She knew even before she opened her mouth that words would be no use. The words that escaped were not the ones she had intended.
His eyes were soft and sad as he gazed back upon her. Unconsciously, she raised her arm, reaching out towards him. Then her arm dropped. She did not look away.
The battle raged on about them.
She did not look away.
It was Belf who found him, in the end, lying among the dead in a fevered dream.
"Do not weep," he murmured. "I have remained true to myself and to my kingdom. I will be forgotten by time and tide, but even so, even so -"
"But Captain, I will not forget," whispered Belf. "Nor will she."
"Better that she does," he said. "I wish her... all the happiness in the world."
"Allow me to go for a healer," Belf insisted.
He raised a limp hand. "No. Send my body out to sea."
"From the sea we came; to the sea must we return." He sighed. Closed his eyes. The distant roar of the waves and the smell of salt in the air beckoned to him.
Of all his regrets only one remained. But he believed in her, if not in fate. She would not break. She would never break -
Cold comfort in the encroaching darkness.
She stayed awake long after Prince Marth and most of the army had retired for the night. Their victory had been hard-won; even in the darkness she thought she could make out the shapes of carcasses strewn across the battlefield.
Indeed, as she had told the prince, she had long known this day would come. She wondered if that was why she could not bring herself to grieve. Perhaps her tears had run dry long ago.
He had told her once, something of the islanders' ways. But now she wished that he had not.
One of the mercenaries who had joined them in Altea saw her gazing out towards the sea the next morning.
"I don't know what they taught you in those temples of yours, Princess," he said, gruff, almost kind. "But the dead do not rise from the sea."
She said, "I know."
And to the waves, she whispered, Mother, Father - you are avenged!
But if the voices of the dead whispered back from those dark depths, she did not hear.