Author's Note: This is a heavily updated version of my first ever Settlers fanfic; it was also the first fanfic on the site. Thank you to Blue Byte and Ubisoft for creating such a wonderful game. Everything belongs to them, not me.
It is difficult to know at what moment love begins; it is less difficult to know that it has begun.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
"Your pardon, my lords and ladies," stammered the page, shuffling from one foot to another.
His nervousness was justified. The room he was about to enter was filled with the highest military commanders in the Darion Empire. Lord Marcus and Lord Thordal, both in full armour except helmets and gauntlets, were bent over the oak table that dominated the room's centre. They were studying a map as big as the page himself. Lord Elias stood on the other side of the table, sifting through a pile of papers. Lady Kestral, an attractive young woman in a leather jerkin, was curled up in a chair dangerously close to the fireplace. In the room's far corner, Lady Alandra sat at a writing desk, velvet cloak concealing her face.
As the page made his announcement from the doorway, four pairs of eyes immediately snapped to him. The boy bit his lip. First day serving in the castle, and he had been chosen to deliver a message to the supreme commander of Darion's forces. The only thing worse would be royal duty.
"Well?" Lady Kestral raised one black eyebrow.
"I bear a message for Lady Alandra," he mumbled.
Alandra stood gracefully and strode over. "From Her Majesty?" Her tone was one of polite expectancy.
"No, Your Ladyship." He held out the battered envelope he'd been charged with. "It was left at the gate."
Alandra took it, turning it over in her hand. She frowned slightly, then nodded. "Thank you."
The page bowed hastily, then fled in relief.
As Alandra returned to her seat, Marcus indicated a spot on the well-worn and outdated map of Janub. "Hakim's there now, as far as we know, but he's moving east. I think he's trying to get the whole country on our side."
"Not much chance of that," rumbled Thordal, stroking his beard. "It's as divided as ice on a melting pond."
"Bad metaphor," snorted Kestral, stirring the fire with a poker.
Marcus was about to reply, but was halted by a distinctly audible gasp from the corner. Alandra had stood again, and was scanning the letter. Her face, as much of it as could be seen from under the hood, was white.
Without thinking, Marcus bolted over to her. "What is it?"
"Bad news from home?" asked Kestral, sitting up.
"This is home," Alandra said dryly, some colour returning to her cheeks. She handed the letter to Marcus. "It's from Crimson Sabatt."
"What?"It took Kestral only a moment to reach the pair by the writing desk.
"What could she possibly want?" asked Elias, eyes wide.
Marcus continued to scan the page, jaw slackening at every moment. "I don't believe it."
"Don't believe what, boy?" asked Thordal, still standing by the table.
"It must be a trap. There's no way it can be sincere."
"What must be a trap?" Kestral made a grab for the letter, but Alandra snatched it back first.
"She wants an audience with me."
"Why?" snapped Marcus. "What possible reason could she have?"
Alandra hesitated, dropping her eyes to the ground. "You read it. She wishes to defect."
"Now that's just insane," Marcus scoffed. "You know that as well as I do. She'll bring half a legion with her and kill you."
Alandra glanced down at the parchment again. "She says she'll bring no one."
"Of course she will. Have you taken leave of your senses?" Marcus stomped back over to the table.
"Bring your own legion with you. What does she actually say?" asked Kestral sensibly.
Alandra walked over to the lamp and read the letter aloud.
I have long considered the Red Prince's policies to be ill-advised, and recent events in Janub have confirmed my suspicion of his insanity. I feel that it would be beneficial to both sides if I were to aid your cause. Please meet me at the southeast crossroads at the noon of this night, alone, for negotiations to this effect. I will likewise be unaccompanied.
"I suggest we disregard the olive branch." Marcus perched on the table.
She turned to him, quietly fuming. "Why won't you consider that she could be sincere?"
"Because she's not," said Kestral laconically. She raised both eyebrows at Alandra, daring her to contradict. Alandra stepped forward, eyes flashing, opening her mouth to speak.
"If I might be permitted to make an observation?" Elias interposed hastily. "In my experience, a leopard never changes its spots."
"It can happen," said Kestral with a shrug. "Just not in this case."
Alandra's face was a picture of controlled fury. "Lady Kestral, we are supposed to set a standard of honour, decency and compassion. It's a matter of integrity that we accept a fellow knight at her word, whatever her allegiance. I'm not willing to compromise these principles because of personal safety."
Marcus jumped down and walked over to Alandra. "Then at least let me come with you."
"No." Their commander made eye contact with each of them. "That's an order, all of you. I shall not jeopardise our chance of negotiation by breaking the terms of the agreement. Understood?"
Thordal and Kestral mumbled an acquiescence. Alandra turned to Marcus. Two pairs of stubborn blue eyes met.
"Think better of this," Marcus whispered. "I'm begging you."
Alandra raised her eyebrows. "I am perfectly aware of my abilities, Lord Marcus, and I'll thank you not to lecture your commanding officer."
After a long moment, he nodded.
"Good." Alandra strode from the room without a backward glance.
Kestral shook her head. "She's mad."
"Should we inform Her Majesty?" Thordal suggested. "If we could convince the Queen to order her not to try it ..."
"Not enough time," Marcus said tersely. "She'll be on the road in two minutes."
"So what do we do?"
"Trust her not to do anything stupid." Marcus' smile was devoid of mirth. "She is our commanding officer."
Alandra tightened her grip on Daria's reins as they galloped through the darkness, hoof-beats thudding rhythmically on the dirt road. The southwest bridge was some miles ride from Vestholm, deep in the forest and completely unpaved. Tree branches reached out towards her on each side, occasionally bumping against her. One snagged her cloak and she shuddered, pulling the garment closer around her face.
The darkness ahead of her seemed to lessen. She was coming up on the crossroads. Daria slowed to a trot obediently as she tugged gently on the reins. After a moment she halted the mare completely and leaped gracefully from her back, then walked cautiously towards the open crossroads, leaving her steed to graze in the grass behind the road.
A twig cracked. Alandra tensed.
"Who goes there?" she whispered.
"Who were you expecting?" said a mellow female voice. A tall figure stepped out of the shadows in front of her. "I presume that I have the pleasure of addressing Lady Alandra de Westerlin?"
"You presume correctly, Lady Sabatt. You have business with me?"
"That is correct."
The stranger's tone had a faint icy edge. Alandra hesitated before answering. "And that would be?"
A low chuckle emanated from the silhouette. "You are most amusing, Lady Alandra."
Alandra's heart was hammering. She resolutely ignored it. "How so?"
"You are the most trusting knight I've ever had the pleasure to – ahem – negotiate with."
Alandra had barely a second to react as Sabatt's blade slashed out towards her. She dived to one side and rolled away, then scrambled to her feet. She groped for her sword, only to realise she'd left it strapped to her saddle.
"It's a habit you should endeavour to correct," Sabatt sneered, features indistinct in the darkness. "I am surprised your friends did not warn you of the danger tonight."
Alandra made a run for her horse. Sabatt yelled wordlessly with a swing of her sword. Daria flung up her head and bolted northward, leaving the two women alone.
Alandra did not pause. She followed her mount up the road, sprinting as she never had before. She knew full well she had no hope of survival without her weapon. How incredibly, incredibly stupid she had been.
Her breath came in short, panting gasps as she fled. Her armour was slowing her down, but stopping to remove it would be suicide. Sabatt was only moments behind her, unencumbered by her simpler dress.
Hoof-beats, indistinct and eerie in the darkness. Not Daria's; they were coming towards her. This was it. Sabatt was intelligent; she had almost certainly posted others in a perimeter to finish her off should she fail to do it herself. This was undoubtedly one of them now.
The distant horseman coalesced into a visible form. She braced herself as he bore down upon her. Within a minute, she would be dead or a prisoner. She infinitely preferred death.
The figure became discernible in the moonlight. Relief welled up within her as she recognised the rider.
Marcus hauled back on his steed's reins. The stallion skidded to a halt as Alandra sprinted up to them.
"Believe me now?" he managed to gasp out, offering her his hand.
Alandra was too breathless to reply. She grabbed his arm and vaulted up behind him.
"Hang on!" he yelled, whirling his mount and jabbing his heels into the animal's flanks before Alandra was even seated properly. She slipped slightly and only just managed to grab onto Marcus' waist as the stallion bolted forward.
"Fire!" came a scream from behind them. Moments later, an arrow grazed Alandra's cloak. Another narrowly missed Marcus' head.
Marcus kicked his mount again and they redoubled their pace, both leaning low as the projectiles flew around them.
Then the storm was over, and they were charging towards Vestholm, Sabatt and her cohorts far behind.
"Woah," said Marcus softly. The horse eased to a trot. Alandra loosened her death grip on the saddle and looked around stiffly. The forest was thinning; they must be nearing Vestholm, though it was hard to tell in the moonlight.
"Well, now we know Sabatt is hardly a lady of her word," her companion muttered ruefully. "Are you all right?"
"Yes." She swallowed. "Thank you. For – for saving me, I mean."
"So you're not going to haul me over the coals for disobeying a direct order?"
Alandra hesitated. "I should never have given that order. I'm sorry. I was – unbelievably foolish. You were right. I should have listened to you – you and the others."
"Apology accepted. And – I'm sorry too." He glanced over his shoulder and smiled awkwardly. "I am too skeptical. If Sabatt truly been sincere, I would have killed her sooner than negotiate."
Alandra forced a smile. "Are we even, then?"
"I think so," Marcus chuckled. "For the moment, anyhow."