The Fairy Tale Cage

-

Karla can drop fifty men on the battlefield and not blink an eye, but something itches in the line of her vision when she hears distressed peeping from behind a scrubby bush. She flicks her gaze over to the left, and then to her right, before she sheaths her sword and goes looking for the source of the sound. Eventually, she nearly steps on it—a bright blue bird (Karla cannot remember the name) lies with wing crooked on the ground, hopping and so, so terrified. When the sword princess cups her hands to rescue it the bird squawks and pecks at her viciously before, fumbling and awkward, she manages to hold it up to the light.

Broken bone, Karla notices immediately. Still squawking, still pecking (though her hands are callused and hardened from training she winces when the beak digs into the flexible skin between the index and middle finger), Karla manages to straighten the wing out and senses the raw pain emanating--o much so that the bird starts struggling even harder to escape.

"But you cannot escape from me, bird," Karla says, knowing it will do nothing but not sure of what else to say. "I am only trying to help." The bird bites at her so hard that even through a callous she feels blood seeping out. But Karla is a warrior and she stays still in the midst of that distracting hot point of pain.

"Oh, my!" A new voice pokes through Karla's silence. "Now that must hurt you, darling. Is it a bird?" An… archer, Karla notices, with blonde hair and a full-figured smile that radiates good nature; not to mention a sweltering amount of bright pink on her clothes. She does not recognize this woman. So feminine… although the voice…

"Yes, it is a bird. And it does hurt," Karla adds. "Its wing is broken."

"What a dear," the archer remarks. "If you like, I will take you to my husband and he will take care of it for you."

"No, I do not want to bother your husband," Karla begins automatically, thinking of splints and waiting, and more bites and more blood on someone else's hands. She would rather bother herself.

"Nonsense, it will only take a minute. Come, darling—what is your name?"

"Karla," she replies, as the archer takes her free arm and begins gently pulling her to the other side of camp. Very gently; although Karla would not have stumbled over the ground even if it had been pockmarked and rough.

"Well met, Karla. I am the countess of Reglay, but please call me Louise."

"I—will." Karla stumbles as they turn sharply to avoid the walls of a tent and the jerk sends another attack from the bird's furious beak through her hands.

"So sorry, dear—look! There he is. My lord Pent!"

Karla does not know Louise's husband either. A stern-looking magic wielder with staff and tome in hand turns in the midst of a conversation with another magic wielder and… smiles gently, breaking the first impression. "Louise!" The student (for the red-cloaked mage seems young enough to be one) remains silent and stiff until Pent turns to him. "Erk, you may leave now."

"Thank you, Master." And Erk leaves. Pent turns again to his wife.

"What may I do for you, my love?"

Louise smiles before stepping aside and nudging Karla forward. "My lord Pent, I would like to introduce you to Karla."

"The Sword Princess?" Pent's surprised exclamation resounds for a moment, but is quickly muffled by the nearby wall of canvas.

"Hm?" Louise asks. Karla is a bit confused as well.

"If I am correct," Pent replies, "You are the white-clad mistress of the sword, both beautiful and extremely deadly. Arenas empty with one swing from your arm."

Karla is white-clad, and she has not lost a battle yet. She has not heard what people say about her once she leaves the arena, however (or she has simply not bothered to remember). She is only keen-eared in the case of words that describe her brother Karel: words like "sword-demon" and "brown-haired".

The bird twists and flutters furiously, pecking again. "Oh, right!" Louise remembers. "The bird has a broken wing, my lord. We were hoping you would fix it."

"Compassionate as well?" Pent holds his hand out, framed neatly by the canvas square behind him. "Here then, give it to me."

Karla refuses politely. "No, sir. I would not like to inconvenience you further."

One silver eyebrow tilts up, then relaxes back into a slight arch. "Very well." The same hand, gloved with thin purple cloth, moves to hover over the bird's broken wing. "Hmm, and I see it's been straightened already! That makes things much simpler."

Just like Karla sensed the bird's pain and indignance from before, there is a slight tingle of energy spiraling down from Pent's hand. The bird settles suddenly in Karla's grip as the pain falls away, then breaks into vicious flight up and away from the ground. "Oh…" Something strange and vivid wells up inside of her, an unfamiliar emotion that makes her eyes itch and her forehead furrow. She steps back and cranes her head up to follow the flight of the bird as a few feathers trickle back down. "I want to do that."

"Fly?" Pent asks with a wise smile.

"No…" Karla shakes her head and looks down, feeling her chest tighten painfully around her heart. Her left hand drifts across her hips to the sword, in a reflexive gesture that has no place in the safety of the camp. "I want to heal. I want to make things better, like you."

-

Karla does not remember the name of the green-haired magic user who is surely too young to be doing this, but fate has decided to place them side by side on the battlefield. She dispatches of one enemy smoothly and calmly, feeling a bit nervous about protecting the fragile-looking girl. "My brother was a swordmaster, too," the girl says, surprising her. "But gosh, he didn't look as pretty as you did just now. In fact, I don't think men ever look pretty while they do things—although he looked better than Linus, that's for sure!"

"Nino!" Yes, that is her name. Karla feels more jittery than ever when the young mage girl laughs. "Be careful while you speak to me! I do not want you to get hurt."

Nino concentrates as a shadow looms behind her, then dodges the swing of an axe with her youthful energy and at the same time sends fire rushing from her fingers to the warrior's hands. It is enough to make him stop for the moment, but Karla steps in quickly to finish him off.

"You are so pretty," Nino tells her again.

"Thank you, but please… promise me you will be careful, Nino."

"I will! At least… I'll try."

Karla feels nothing but regret as she cuts through another enemy and wishes she could heal, in case Nino's efforts come to nothing. It has been a long time since Karla was young and clumsy, so as she watches the mage girl dodge she feels anxious as well. But Nino is careful and extra alert, so she comes out of the battle with only a cut on the forearm to show for it.

"Ow! Ow!"

Priscilla, another magic user, hears the cries of pain and rides over quickly with staff in hand. A few moments and not even the scratch mars Nino's smooth skin. "There you go, Nino."

"Thanks, Priscilla!" Nino happily strokes the horse's neck as the healer turns to Karla.

"Are there any wounds on you, Karla?"

Karla holds out her hand, feeling unsteady even on the thick, rough grass she is standing on. "Yes, my wrist aches." The pain had begun when she stabbed someone without realizing there was a thick plate of armor underneath the tunic, so of course it would be injured if not entirely broken. Priscilla takes the wrist carefully and straightens it. Karla refuses the urge to fidget as light surrounds her forearm, dulling the pain first and then erasing it altogether.

"I'm done." Priscilla sits up straighter as she lets go. "Any other injuries?"

"No."

-

"Karla."

Karel surprises her by appearing at her side one evening. "Brother!"

"You are not focusing, Karla."

"Well…. You are older and more experienced than myself, Brother. But I will try to be more alert next time."

There is a hard, distant look in his eye; concentration in its purest form, devoid of all emotion. "No," Karel tells her. He is framed by the darkness between two tents, so she cannot read his face clearly if she wanted to. Karla more often feels that she does not want to know what her brother is feeling these days; she has begun to seek him out less and less as a result. "Your swordplay is as beautiful as ever, Karla; however, it no longer pleases me to watch you."

"I am sorry, Brother."

"Do not feel sorry," he says sternly. "I will not fight you like this."

-

They are fighting near the shores of the sea and Karla is half-fascinated by the water. However, the battle comes to them and she ends up fighting near it, mist spraying into her face and coating her cheeks with stinging salt. Some of it gets into her eyes, but misjudging the distance between herself and the water causes her to slip and fall, hair and sword slipping into the slippery mud and half-drowning her instantly. However, when Karla fights her way into a sitting position and coughs the water out of her lungs Karel is standing over the defeated pirate with Wo Dao in hand.

"You are not focusing, Karla."

She knows. She knows. But why…?

Karel waits until after Karla gets to her feet and pulls her own sword out of the mud before he vanishes, as mysteriously as he had come.

-

It turns out the salt water had gotten deeper into Karla's lungs than she had first thought, but by the time she realizes this she is already sick to the very depths of her bones. The cleric Serra declares a lung infection; so Karla remains burning and shivering in her tent while Lyn volunteers to assist her. In this case, that means removing her sash and outer shirt, as well as her boots, since Karla's bones feel like jelly and she suspects that everyone else is too nervous to figure out how her sash can be untied. (It is not as hard as it looks.)

"We're not scared! Heck, no! It's just…" The brown-haired archer's voice is heard clearly through the walls of the tent Karla has been sharing with Priscilla. Before, she shared it with Rebecca, but having a healer by her side is more convenient. "H…how does she get that thing on and off with no one else to help her?"

Lyndis kindly supplies the answer. "She ties the double-bow on the side or front, and then twists it to the back before fastening the cord."

"…Oh. That's a lot simpler than what I'd…"

"It has… a bit loose anyway or else... not be able to fight."

"Right…!"

And after that, Karla doesn't remember a thing.