I do not own Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon or the characters therein. No money has been made from this endeavor.

The End of Love

***

They burst into the throne room of the Shadow Dragon after Michalis, protected by the legendary Iote Shield, felled the final sniper with a hand axe. Camus, borne on his destrier, slew one manakete after another with Gradivus; anything he left alive fell to Caeda and her arsenal of lances. Marth charged along the path they cleared for him, Falchion in his grip, hurtling without fear or regret into the all-or-nothing confrontation with the Shadow Dragon....

So Marth dreamed, or daydreamed, in the days and nights of the long march back to Archanea. He envisioned not the battle that was, the one that even now old Malledeus was scribbling down for the annals of history, but the battle that should have been. A war that should have been, wherein General Camus allied himself to the League, and Michalis of Macedon atoned for his support of Dolhr, and every friend and ally who died instead lived to celebrate victory.

"Caeda."

On their return to the ancient capital of Archanea, Princess Nyna asked to have a word with Marth, alone.

"Well done, Marth," she said in her low, lilting voice. "Our struggle is finally over."

"Not just me," he said at once. "Many fought at my side... and many died."

Frey, sacrificing himself so the rest could escape to Talys. Matthis, anxious to prove his new loyalty to Marth, riding full-tilt against an enemy armed with a Ridersbane. Caesar and Radd, throwing themselves against cavalier reinforcements at Port Warren. Macellan, taking a ballista shot meant for Midia as she rushed across the field calling Astram's name. Those were moments that Marth's memory captured indelibly-- the sounds, the colors, the awful reek of death. He let those memories flow through his mind in a terrible parade, breaking free only when Nyna spoke again.

"Marth... you loved her, didn't you? Caeda."

"She was the one I most wanted to keep safe. But I failed, and now I have lost her forever." Despite every strategy session, every round of battle preparation, every conference, one careless oversight cost him too much for anyone to reckon. Marth continued, speaking to himself more than Nyna. "It occurs to me that perhaps she was the one protecting me all along. Caeda... why did you take up arms with a fool like me?"

They were prepared for the mages and manaketes that swarmed through Dolhr. They expected a handful of dragoons, Macedonian troops unaware that Michalis was defeated. Marth and his tacticians were by then used to the extraordinary-- mage-dragons, shape-shifters, traps and illusions. It took a sniper at the base of a cliff to remind them all that some of their enemies were terribly ordinary people armed with weapons from an ordinary armory. Dark magic didn't kill Caeda. Poor planning killed her-- and the planning, the strategy, the oversight was entirely Marth's.

And Marth, exuberant over how easy it was to take down manaketes with Falchion, at how Falchion fit in his hand as though he truly were born to wield it, didn't even have that memory in his parade of grief. It was only after he turned away from dispatching the mage-dragon Xemcel that Merric pulled him aside and broke the unfathomable news.

Nyna, again, took him out of his reverie.

"Marth, do not blame yourself. Remember Anri and Artemis. We are their descendants; perhaps we were always meant to share their curse as well as their blood. And... perhaps only once the curse had exacted its price could our battle with the Shadow Dragon be won. This peace we have made... we must cherish it, Marth. We have both paid so dearly for it. Let us work together to ensure none must endure a tragedy like ours again."

"It comes as little comfort to me to imagine that Caeda's existence amounts to bit support in a foreordained tragedy, Nyna."

Nyna stepped back from him; a shadow crossed her face.

"It does not comfort, does it? But the truth is not always kind. The truth can be as harsh as the breath of an ice-dragon."

"Or a blast of Thoron," he agreed. He did not wish to argue with Nyna, but she of all people ought to understand that this topic was... painful. And Nyna returned to the theme that they were but actors-- or puppets-- pantomiming the continuing saga of Anri and Artemis.

"The emblem... perhaps it truly is the end of love."

"Let us hope it does prove to be the end of war, this time," he said, and took leave of her. He hurried along the gallery, his reserve was strong and well-practiced, and it was not until he reached his own chambers that he allowed himself his tears.

Caeda fell to earth at a moment when victory, so implausible when they were but half a dozen rebels at the outskirts of the empire, seemed entirely possible. With Altea liberated, Elice freed, Falchion obtained, and a score of minor moral victories settled, the Archanean League already had blazed a trail of justice across the dark continent. True, some of that justice was not exactly tempered with mercy. Minerva cut down her brother Michalis with two blows from her axe Hauteclere, then stripped the Iote Shield from his body and wore it as her badge of leadership. Given that Michalis had murdered their father, no one sought to challenge Minerva-- except the youngest sister, Maria, who wept. When Maria learned that Princess Elice had the power to resurrect one person from the grave using the Aum Staff, she instantly thought of her brother. Marth and Elice both counseled the little healer, telling her that, as Aum could only be used once, it had to be used with the utmost caution. Everyone had somebody they wanted back, after all, and so the user of Aum couldn't be selfish. They had to do what was best for the world-- what would rectify the greatest injustice, or counterbalance the greatest harm. Marth and Elice would have preferred to have their mother back, but the life of Queen Liza mattered mostly to her two children, and as the user of Aum was accountable to the gods and all of the world.

When Merric led Marth to the shadow of the cliff, where Elice, Maria, and Bishop Lena all crouched around a fallen Pegasus and its rider, Marth knew what the three healers had in mind. When Elice, Aum in hand, rose to receive her brother's orders, Marth knew what they expected him to say.

"We do not yet know the full cost of this war. It would be irresponsible to make such a decision now."

He shocked them all. Tears welled in Maria's eyes; Lena bowed her head and prayed-- whether for Caeda's spirit or his own, Marth wasn't sure. Elice held out the Aum Staff for Marth to collect and place in the convoy. And then, a shadow passed before the sun-- another pegasus knight, descending fast upon them. Merric drew out his tome Excalibur to blast this dragoon onto the field of Dolhr, but Marth had already recognized Catria the White, one of Minerva's best knights. Catria had a small body slung over the back of her pegasus.

"She got too excited, went too far ahead of us," Catria explained breathlessly. "Got hit on a counterattack."

Marth felt as cold as the victim of a Blizzard spell. Merric and Lena collected the child from Catria, and Marth stood by while the Sage and Bishop checked the little girl over. Elice remained at his side, the Aum Staff in her grasp. Marth had already made up his mind by the time Lena told him that Tiki was beyond any healing Lena could provide, and that only Elice could save her now. Caeda, first princess of Talys, was the person Marth cared most for besides his sister-- perhaps more so than Elice, after years in which Caeda fought by his side while Elice remained a goal and a memory. Tiki, princess of the Divine Dragons, was the survivor of a dead race, the heir to power beyond imagining, the League's secret weapon in the war against Dolhr. Marth did not especially want to live in a world without Caeda. The League would most likely lose the war, and the world, without Tiki. It had nothing to do with sentiment over a charming and lovable child; Marth's order to Elice was sound battle strategy. When the Aum Staff shattered, Marth felt as though a piece somehow worked its way beneath his breastplate to lodge in his heart.

And so Tiki scampered behind him as Marth charged into the throne room of the Shadow Dragon, Falchion in hand. Alongside them was Abel, finest of the young Altean paladins; Abel was armed that day with the same Gradivus lance that fell from the lifeless hand of Camus the Sable. Abel, not Camus, left the floor strewn with the blood of mage-dragons. Tiki, not Caeda, cleared the path to the throne. And if Nyna felt grief every time she saw that mighty and unmistakable weapon, Marth felt a little stab each time Tiki lifted her appealing face to his and called him "Mar-Mar." At least the dragon princess was too innocent to fully comprehend the enormity of the choice made on the fields of Dolhr; Tiki loved the world, was not surprised when people loved her back, and was very happy not to be in the cold and dark anymore. Her greatest confusion was over why the hero Ogma had done such terrible things to the body of the enemy sniper. Tiki's friends weren't supposed to do things like that, were they?

The Archanean League remained a while in the capital of Pales for a homecoming and celebration. Formal banquets, stately temple services, and raucous street festivals filled each day; it was a fine enough situation for soldiers who found themselves with no more battles on the horizon, but the young leaders of Altea, Macedon, and Archanea had other duties that pressed upon them, celebrations or no. Some duties were less solemn than others. Abel asked the prince his blessing for marriage to Est. The youngest of the Whitewings did not take part in the final battles with Medeus and his dragon horde; Palla and Catria asked Est to sit that battle out, that one of the three might survive a final disaster. And so Est, fresh as an opening rose, her large eyes filled with ecstatic tears, greeted Abel on his return from Dolhr as though Abel had single-handedly downed the Shadow Dragon with Gradivus. As though Able and his horse might ascend to the skies on a rainbow and gallop through the fields of stars. Marth professed himself happy for them both and agreed the marriage was ideal. So Est would be returning with the Altean contingent back to their homeland, while Palla and Catria flew south to Macedon with their princess.

Nyna came to see him again, this time when Marth was in his own chamber, working on correspondence.

"Marth, will you be departing soon for Altea? I'm sure your people are most anxious to see their prince."

"I have a mission to Talys. The king of Talys treated me as a son when I showed up on his shores as a forlorn exile, and I must pay him the respects that one owes a father."

Marth left it at that; a grave silence hung between them.

"Your 'father' did well by you," Nyna said at last. "After all you have seen, your heart still holds such kindness."

"Mm." Marth might have reminded her of an earlier conversation, in which he confided to Nyna the hatred he cherished for Gra and Grust. That hatred, like so many of the feelings that sustained Marth through his campaign, had burned itself out, leaving a void and cold ashes, so it was not worth the discussion.

"Marth...."

"Yes, Nyna?" he answered, not looking at her.

"Now that the war has ended, I am expected to marry. Archanea will need a strong king to heal and restore it; a queen by herself would not be enough."

"Mm," he replied. He tried to imagine Minerva of Macedon being offered that same option; the idea was almost amusing. But delicate Nyna was as far from the axe-wielding dracoknight as a crescent moon was from the noontide sun.

"Bishop Boah tells me there are but two suitable candidates. Lord Hardin, and...." She turned her bright eyes upon him, and Marth understood.

"The Star of Altea?" The words came easily, and he felt his face settle into to the glib mask he wore so often around Nyna.

Nyna showed a relief that almost was tangible. Her shoulders slumped, and she offered a tremulous smile. It was, apparently, up to Marth to make the next conversational move.

"Lord Hardin holds you in the greatest esteem. He cares for you very much." Even as he spoke, Marth knew this was precisely why marriage to Hardin would be disastrous. The duke's feelings for Nyna were known to many in the League; he loved the princess with the same ferocity he brought to battle, would lay down his life to her without hesitation. But that did not make him love's fool; the proud Coyote of Aurelis would never settle for taking second place to a dead man. And again, Marth doubted that Hardin had in fact seen Nyna's despair on the field where Camus fell. Hardin had not been asked to promise safety for Camus, Hardin had never been in a position to refuse that promise, Hardin hadn't landed the fatal blow. Hardin hadn't been kept awake that night by Nyna's cries. The image of Princess Nyna that Lord Hardin fashioned for himself didn't allow for such... disorder.

"It is the most difficult choice." Nyna sounded as though she were forced to choose between two sweets at a banquet. Marth caught himself and forced the spiteful thoughts out of his dead. This was Nyna, who witnessed the bloated and disfigured corpses of her parents strung up like bandits. Nyna, who was spared the sword herself only through the intervention of General Camus. Nyna, who watched in silent horror as Camus was repaid for his mercy, repaid for his honor, with a rapier blade through his chest.

Surely they had all suffered enough already without this.

"Isn't the haste unseemly? There are still many mourning their dead. A royal wedding could not be so grand that people could simply forget the horrors of the last five years."

"I have asked for more time to consider, but Boah and the ambassadors say I must make up my mind immediately." Nyna's slender fingers-- pale soft things that had never held a lance or plucked a bowstring-- moved convulsively, as though she could grasp ahold of the air.

"And have you made up your mind?" The mask didn't falter, his voice didn't waver, even as Marth felt a cold gray fog settle over him, like a wet woolen blanket.

"I would never have considered it under other circumstances." Nyna was not looking at him; she stared out the window, and he in turn stared at the elaborate coils of her hair. "Caeda... I would not have wanted to hurt her."

"She cannot be hurt now," he said, and finally harshness broke through in his voice.

Nyna looked directly at him then, and he saw in her eyes such sympathy, such compassion, that Marth knew all too well why men like Lord Hardin would throw themselves upon an enemy sword for the sake of the princess. If she did not have flawless self-control, Nyna did at least understand pain.

"They cannot be hurt now," she echoed him.

Sweet little Caeda was past being hurt. As was General Camus, and King Cornelius and Queen Liza, and the Archanean royal family, and sainted Anri and accursed Artemis. All of them slept safely in the care of the gods, and the miserable living, the bearers of the fire emblem, were left to trudge along in the blood and the filth and the ashes.

"Shall I tell Bishop Boah that I have my answer?"

"Mm." Marth nodded. He had an answer prepared about how Nyna might tell the good bishop that the prince of Altea would serve the holy empire in whatever capacity Princess Nyna might choose, but he did not trust himself to speak.

The gray fog closed around him, smothering any impulse to shout, to call Nyna back, to tell her Bishop Boah and the ambassadors could take a trip to Dolhr and rot. He understood more with each day what it truly meant to be the "chosen one" of the gods. To be chosen meant that one had terribly few choices to make. Marth would advance through life on the path fate prepared for him, a path lined with the sacrifices of others, until the gods decided it was time for that path to end.

*Fin*