Love is Not A Victory March
Tangled threads of love and duty tie Palla's heart into knots as the great war draws to a close. Palla + Abel and other pairings. FEDS endgame, contains spoilers for FEDS and FE3. Rated T for language.
Disclaimer: I do not own Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon, Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo, or any of the characters therein.
Part One: The Great Parade
Flower Moon, 605
Her teeth jolted with every step, the bones in her back felt as though they rattled together, and her muscles ached from the strain of holding herself upright. The creature beneath her sensed its rider's discomfort-- its large ears twitched in annoyance and it tossed its head, eyes rolling and great yellowing teeth snapping hard upon the bit. Skylark-- so ironic a name for such a terrible beast-- acted as though its rider were a particularly irritating fly, something to be brushed off at the first overhanging branch. This disdain on the horse's part was a challenge to Palla, filled her with a surge of desire to master it. By the time she gave the horse back to its true rider, Skylark might not love her, but would at least be reconciled to her.
"Can anyone possibly enjoy this?" Catria gritted her teeth as she steered the massive war-horse under her own command. Firebird at least behaved more stoically than did Skylark, but he balked at Catria's directions. "He's as stubborn as his master."
War-horses were not simply pegasi without the wings. They were far larger; Skylark stood sixteen hands high, and despite his airy name, the beast was all bone and muscle. Firebird was perhaps a finger less in height, but more muscular still. Palla's old pegasus, faithful Enyo, only reached fourteen hands and was large for her breed. Pegasi stepped with grace on dainty hooves; the brief run before taking flight felt like a delightful bounce. Abel's destrier, weighed down by its trappings and Abel's personal goods, clanked like an armored general. Skylark's hooves could split a man's skull in battle; his teeth could rend flesh from bone-- and had done so. He was as much a weapon as Abel's sword and lance.
"Gods!" Catria swore. "Firebird, you're more of a rock." The horse snorted, and bolted forward as though equally disgusted with his rider. Palla smiled to herself as her younger sister yelped and jerked back the reins of the chestnut destrier. Firebird reared, but Catria's instincts and skill as a dragon-rider kept her seated.
"He did move that time," Palla observed.
"Funny, sis. Ha. Ha."
Palla and Catria gained true control over the horses eventually-- not through caresses and lumps of sugar, as a trainee knight might soften up her first pegasus, but through firm words, steady hands, and the indefinable sense of authority that separated a true rider from one who is merely slung atop a horse like a sack of grain. Skylark and Firebird moved at a steady trot, and Palla and Catria were gaining ground on the young men who'd made off with their dragons.
"They must be having a fine time," commented Catria.
"I hope so. It wasn't the intention to get either of them killed."
Two shadows passed over the ground in front of them; Palla looked up to see her dragon Megaera wheeling in slow circles, borne on a spiraling draft of air. Catria's own Alecto did likewise, and from the ground, the two dragons seemed to be locked in a helical dance. Catria shaded her eyes from the sun to take a closer look at the fliers.
"Abel's hanging on for dear life. And I think Cain might be sick in another couple of spins."
To the experienced flier, to play upon updrafts was perhaps the most perfect sensation of their lives. To not merely fly, but to soar-- that was magic beyond the spells in any dusty vellum tome. To a novice, it was a short route to being sky-sick. That Cain and Abel had maintained composure for this long was actually impressive. Palla watched Megaera spiral above her. It was a strange thing to see one's own dragon so far above, a dark silhouette against a deep blue sky. Palla felt a strange sense of apprehension, a shadow of the feeling any cavalier might experience when the shadow of a dragon passed overhead. Under ordinary circumstances, a Macedonian dragoon would never know that feeling. Lost in that strange sensation, Palla watched as Megaera's silhouette grew small, then smaller still.
"Um, we have a ways to go to catch up with them," Catria pointed out.
"Quite right. Let's make good time, then."
Skylark broke into a run as the sisters went dragon-chasing. Palla forgot the ache in her back and her chattering teeth as the air whipped past her face. Each breath of air felt cold and pure, and she let out a shout of sheer excitement, a war-cry without the hate behind it. When Skylark cleared a gully in one bound, Palla could almost believe they were flying.
Cain and Abel managed to land their borrowed dragons without incident. When Catria and Palla drew up to them, the young men had both assumed a casual air, as though they rode dragons every day of their lives.
"Well, you didn't end up in a ditch," said Cain, as though he'd entertained grave doubts that a pair of slender maidens could have survived a brief trip a-horseback.
"Not bad for a pair of pony riders," Abel said to his companion. He winked at Palla to show he didn't intend offense by using the common pejorative for the winged soldiers of Macedon.
"Not bad for a couple of leadfooted Alteans." The kingdom of Altea produced fine swordfighters and cavaliers, but was not renowned for aerial prowess. The common slur ran that Altean girls were too well-fed to keep airborne on a pegasus, though the bite had gone out of that joke in the last few years. Abel's tall, lean figure put the lie to the general impression of his homeland, though Cain did look as though he might fit the image of a stout beef-eating Altean if he lived to be fifty.
Palla reclaimed her place on Megaera. Dragons had their own way of showing affection, quite apart from horses or pegasi, and Megaera's ear-frills blossomed with color upon being rejoined with her rider.
"Shall we head back, then?"
"May as well." Abel shaded his eyes and peered into the distance, at the glittering train marching to their west. "It'll be supper time before we get back, I think."
A great parade of warriors, the colors of six kingdoms united under the banner of Nyna, Princess of Archanea, marched along the road north to Pales. As they rode in closer, Palla saw the fierce destriers of cavaliers, paladins, and mounted bowmen, and the gentle mares and geldings used by sages, bishops, and those less inclined to plunge into a melee atop a living weapon like Skylark. One horse broke free of the main column, headed their direction. Palla recognized the white mare at once; Aurora was one-quarter pegasus, and it showed in her steps. Aurora's rider had his own distinction-- a gold circlet, turned to a halo of light beneath the sun. Catria put up her hand to wave, but caught herself midway.
"He doesn't look terribly pleased," she said in a small voice.
The four knights held position as they waited for the high commander of the Archanean League to approach. Palla saw that Catria was quite right; the Prince of Altea wore the grim expression of a man riding into a duel. He had somewhat delicate features-- a small straight nose and pointed chin-- but was more than capable of looking fierce. Right now, the set of his brows suggested that that he was anything but "pleased." As he drew Aurora to a halt in front of them, Prince Marth did not look at either Catria or Palla. Instead, he focused on his own paladins.
"Quite a scouting mission you ran there, Cain. Broadening your skills, Abel?"
Palla felt Catria shrink away. The sarcasm was restrained compared with the sharp tongues of other rulers the Whitewings had known, but a displeased monarch posed a grave danger nonetheless. The four knights remained mute, waiting for Marth to exercise his anger.
"Did you see any stray enemy forces from that vantage point? No? Did you see anyone at all?" Marth gave them only a second or so to reply before pressing the next question. "Were you looking?"
Palla looked from the prince's stern face to those of his knights. Abel's lips parted slightly, but he closed his mouth again and tilted his head, as though trying to gauge how angered the prince truly was. Cain, though, responded in a low, slightly hoarse voice.
"No, sire. We were not on the lookout. We saw nothing."
Palla looked down at her hands, at the reins, in the tense quiet that followed. It was, she thought, improper of them to go tearing off as though on holiday. The war was not officially ended until the Princess of Archanea was enthroned at Pales. This last journey was no victory march. Prince Marth's words fell like cold rain upon their sunny afternoon.
"Don't get complacent. If wars simply ended with the fall of a tyrant, not a one of us would be here." With that, the prince snapped the reins and rejoined the main column of the army, leaving four errant knights silent and abashed by the roadside.
Ice Moon, 605
The body of the late king lay on an open bier, stripped to the waist, that all might see him in death. The same subjects that hailed Michalis as the second coming of the hero-king Iote now filed past his corpse; some left offerings of honey-cakes or flowers, some muttered prayers, others walked by silently, red-eyed and grim. Princess Maria knelt by the head of the bier, her Heal staff in hand. She'd used the staff to close her brother's wounds, but there was nothing she could do to bring the sacred spark of life back to his body.
Those in the League from outside Macedon did not know what to make to this tradition.
"Handsome lad, but put some clothes on 'im," one of the artillerymen said. "It's not decent."
This wasn't just the commoners' response. Palla thought she heard the Princess Nyna murmur, "How barbaric!" before slipping away. Prince Marth, though, lingered at the bier for a while. He did not offer prayer-- rather, he stared at the slain king as though in study.
"What a waste," the prince muttered to himself. Palla was not sure of his meaning.
In other realms, a bishop would consecrate a new ruler. In Macedon, from the time of Iote, a new king was acclaimed instead by his fellow soldiers, and presented to the populace by the highest-ranking officer. The divide between the royal siblings set the military hierarchy out of order, and as the Whitewings served Minerva directly, that left Palla in effect the Captain of the Guard. Palla would rather the duty fall to Catria; the middle sister enjoyed addressing a crowd, and often served as the default spokeswoman for the Whitewings. Palla preferred to leave the speeches aside and get on with her work, but this was an honor that could not be laid aside. Macedon's future might well depend on how well Palla acquitted herself. When the sun reached its zenith on the sixteenth day of the Ice Moon, she stood upon the balcony of the Royal Palace before a throng of the people she'd betrayed and waged war upon. Her throat felt as dry as the Khadein desert as she began to speak.
"People of Macedon! I, Palla the White, address you. Your king, Michalis son of Osmond, has fallen honorably in battle. You see his body before you. His lance is broken and his dragon mourns its rider."
The words were not Palla's own-- these were formal phrases, handed down through the last century. There was a way to announce that a king died properly on the field, that the king died in his bed, that the king had been murdered by assassins, that the king fled battle and was struck down as a craven. There was not precisely a way to convey that the king, the slayer of his own father, had been in turn defeated by his younger sister.
"King Michalis left no heirs of his body, but we of Macedon are not a people to be governed by a child!" Some cheered at that, and Palla found the heart to smile. Others took the message differently.
"We won't take the Altean brat!" shrieked one woman.
"Or the bitch of Archanea, either!" a deep-voiced man added. Still more voices howled from all corners of the crowd-- damning Archanea, damning Altea, damning Dolhr for good measure. Palla drew in her breath; she was on the verge of losing this crowd. Her voice rang out, louder than she had intended.
"I do not come to you to place a foreigner on the throne of Macedon!" Cheers drowned out the spite and hatefulness, then, lending Palla the support she needed to finish. "We will accept only a true leader, a proven warrior who has shed blood for Macedon and tasted the blood of Macedon's enemies. Such a warrior flies among us now, a knight descended from the line of Iote and worthy of his shield. I present to you the victor of the battle, the guardian of Macedon, the true daughter of King Osmond of recent memory. I present your commander and queen, Minerva the Red!"
Minerva stepped forward-- Hauteclere in hand, Iote's Shield across her back. The catcalls then turned to cheers to genuine acclaim. The Red Knight had returned to Macedon. The people grieved for their lost hero, but they forgave, and loved, their wayward heroine. Palla felt the thunder of the crowd vibrate through her light armor, and sensed that perhaps the perverted path of fate was beginning to untangle, and the wheels of heaven's fortune spinning free again.
Flower Moon, 605
Cain took even the mild rebuke from his prince as though it were a death sentence. He passed the rest of the journey to Pales on his guard, ready to cut down any man who might wish ill to the League. Abel, though, wasn't much troubled by Marth's displeasure.
"Of course he's upset," Abel remarked. His low-key, pleasant voice sounded so very sensible. "If you think he's bad now, you should have seen him when we first went to Talys. I thought he was never going to forgive Malledeus for the tactics we used to get out of Altea."
Palla nodded in sympathy; more than once she'd had to leave a wounded comrade on the field, abandoning them to certain death, when every impulse in her heart screamed to go back and rescue them. Cynthia, Roxane, Olympias... friends of her youth, not as dear to her as sisters, but dear nonetheless. Perhaps worse was the situation after Palla and her sisters joined the League; she'd seen dragoons she served with, even recruits she trained, dying on the arrows and javelins of her new companions. She'd held silence while Sedgar of Aurelis raised his bow to take down one young pegasus rider, a girl no older than Est, with the same bright smile and great potential of Est. The young dragoon-- Atalanta-- tumbled into the surf off the coast of Gra, leaving white feathers to float on the green water. And Palla dove forward, not to rescue the girl, but to aim her own javelin at the heart the next dragoon sent up from Macedon. Her choice to join the Archanean league was written in the blood of her countrywomen. The Whitewings of Macedon hadn't merely sacrificed one comrade to the greater good-- they'd sent dozens, even hundreds, to cold unmarked graves. And if Catria let out her grief and frustration, beating her fists to her forehead and screaming "Why?" at the close of battle, Palla swallowed that same grief until she imagined herself icing over, as a pond in winter turns to untroubled stillness.
"You look so deeply sad. It makes my heart ache to see you so."
Palla, startled, looked down to see Abel regarding her with intent green eyes. His hair, shaggy and unkempt after long months on the march, was tossed about in the wind, revealing a slanting scar above one eye. His mouth turned up in a smile that was almost... pleading.
"Ah, there's a smile," he said. That Altean accent was effortlessly charming. Even the simplest words came out so beautifully. Palla looked down and away, hoping Abel wouldn't think she was playing silent games with him through her eyelashes.
"I was thinking of your prince... he must be terribly lonely. Staying around Cain all day would drag anyone's soul down. I think perhaps you could ease that loneliness a little."
"Ah, he has those dunderheads Gordin and Draug for amusement." The way his hair tumbled across his forehead....
"Oh, Abel," she sighed. She perhaps sounded a little exasperated, though that wasn't what she was feeling. Abel tapped his chin; his lips pursed into a serious line, but his eyes still sparkled with light humor.
"No, you're right. If Cain's determined to supplant old Mally as the court advisor, I should step up and take my place as court jester. Hyah!"
And away he went, handling Skylark as though the warhorse were as pliable as the most gentle mare. Some minutes later, Palla saw the high commander's face brighten in response to one of Abel's comments; it was a salve to her conscience.
Ice Moon, 605
"Palla, I will speak with you alone."
"Yes, Commander." Palla concealed her surprise; she nodded goodbye to her sisters and followed Minerva down the hall to the royal apartments. Minerva passed her first night as Macedon's ruler in the same room she'd used all her life; items of Minerva's girlhood-- a miniature axe, a small carved pegasus-- lurked in the corners. Palla stood awaiting her orders while Minerva sat in a girl-sized chair carved with dragons. The gilt had flaked away from the wood in places, and the chair showed damage that a young princess might have inflicted with her small knife in moments of idleness. Minerva of Macedon did not say anything for a while. She closed her eyes, and the sharp lines of her face seemed to soften in the flickering light.
"Dress my hair, Palla." Though phrased as a request, the tones were those of a friend, not a sovereign. Palla took up a brush and comb and began to work on her commander's thick auburn hair. The untameable hair added greatly to the conception that the Princess of Macedon was a wild spirit, a bolt of lighting arcing from cloud to cloud. Palla struggled with it until it lay smooth and flat, like a sheet of hammered copper. She then retrieved a hand-mirror so Minerva might see herself changed.
Minerva touched her fingers to her hair, then touched the face reflected in the mirror.
"Michalis. There was a time when I would have gladly traded my hair for yours, my face for yours, my soul...."
Palla had enough discretion to pretend she was temporarily deaf. The late king had been, as the scandalized artilleryman said, a handsome man. Beautiful, even. No surprise his coltish younger sister often felt plain and awkward in comparison. Yes, Palla agreed to pretend this one-sided conversation was entirely about Michalis' fine silken hair and arresting eyes. Still, it was quite a relief when Minerva laid aside the mirror. Palla anticipated her next command.
"Princess," Minerva corrected her, her voice quick and authoritative again. "We are under the aegis of Archanea; Macedon has no queen-- or king-- until a bishop of Archanea gives his blessing."
With the throne of Archanea itself still technically unclaimed, no new sovereign could be crowned in any nation. Gra, Altea and Macedon all had empty thrones. Still, Palla suspected that Minerva was using protocol as a shelter.
"Commander," Palla said instead, using the inarguable title as a compromise. Prince Marth might command the Archanean host, but Princess Minerva was the commander to whom Palla-- and Catria and Est-- answered in their hearts.
"What shall I do?" Again, spoken as warrior to warrior, friend to friend.
"Commander, if you asked us to, the Whitewings would follow you away across the seas until we reached a land that has never heard of Macedon or holy Archanea."
"I could disappear," Minerva said as though giving it serious thought. "Not to sea, perhaps... I might lay down my axe and enter a convent, spend the rest of my days praying for the souls of my father and brother." Minerva's expressive voice was strangely guarded, and Palla could not tell what was a sincere wish and what was theatrical sarcasm.
"If that be your wish, Commander."
"Had I not seen with my own eyes today...." Minerva shook her head, sending her unruly locks of hair back into disarray. "Macedon will truly not accept a foreigner."
It considerable effort not to gasp.
"A foreigner?" Surely the princess did not contemplate ceding control entirely to Archanea. That would provoke another war before this great war was even finished.
"Palla, if I should fall... Maria must not be brought into this. Take her out of the kingdom entirely. Khadein might be a safe refuge now, or take her to Pales if you must. Even Altea will do. But do not let the farce of queenship fall upon my sister."
"As you wish, Commander." Protect Maria. This was an order Palla the White could take without reservation. "What of the Macedonian succession?"
"I will see to that," Minerva said, her eyes veiled. The new queen would keep her own counsel on this matter.
That seemed to end the night's business, and Palla expected to be dismissed. Instead, Minerva switched courses again, launching into a stream of thoughts and words that formed a frightening soliloquy on one subject: Brother. Palla felt a rising sense of claustrophobia as Minerva summoned one vivid ghost after another into the room. Young Minerva, striving to match her brother's every feat in the playroom, the training course, the battlefield. Michalis and Minerva, soaring upon their matched dragons Balios and Xanthos. Minerva, Michalis, and small Maria all together, secure in bonds of love as strong as those that bound the Whitewings. A love so deep, so intense, so awful that in the end it could only be expressed through metal kissing flesh.
The victor of the battle closed her eyes again, too late to keep the tears from spilling down her pale cheeks. She folded up her arms, drawing into herself, clawing at her rich armbands as though she could tear apart the stones and metal.
"Misheil," crooned Minerva, using the childhood name for her brother as she rocked back and forth in her chair. "Misheil, you fool, you bloody fool."
Palla shut the door. She could have gone back to her apartments then, could have unwound herself by talking with Catria and Est, but she felt the need to be alone, to process all the upheavals of the day. Palla made her way again to the balcony, now a place of near-silence instead of mad clamor. The courtyard below was nearly empty; its white stone looked ghostly in the light of a rising crescent moon. She was not alone, though. Prince Marth, too, stood at the balcony, near where Palla had made her proclamation. He noticed Palla, surely, but did not at first acknowledge her. Palla rested her hands on the carved railing, and its chill surface soothed the hot palms of her hands. The official calendar of Archanea called this the Ice Moon, but in Macedon the first month of spring brought clear, cool nights, a respite between the New Rains of winter and the Old Rain of late spring. The skies of the Ice Moon were especially clear, the stars especially brilliant, so that the vault of heaven seemed inlaid with glittering gems.
When Palla had her fill of the stars, she began to covertly examine her silent companion. Prince Marth seemed troubled; Palla watched him bite his lower lip and sweep his long bangs out of his eyes in agitation. The prince of Altea was becoming known for his fair looks as well as his swordsmanship, and Palla could see why Prince Marth had won the heart of young Princess Maria on sight. But while the silvery moonlight made the most of the prince's smooth features and graceful figure, it also made apparent that the high commander of the Archanean League was so terribly young-- younger than Palla, who had quietly passed her seventeenth birthday a few days before. In a nation like Macedon, where girls picked up wooden lances at the age of seven and every fourteen-year-old was expected to hold her own in combat, seventeen was not too young hold Palla's position. But for the nations that valued gray hairs and counsel over valor in combat to entrust such sweeping authority, such ability to play games with the lives of knights and clerics, into the hands of one so young was, as Palla understood it, odd. Extremely odd.
The Starlord blazed across the continent like a comet, overturning the order of things wherever he passed. The Dark Pontifex and Dolhr bore the greatest blame for the destruction, of course, but the rise of Prince Marth and the League had increased the chaos tenfold. Now, Gra and Grust both lay in utter ruin to the north of them. Palla could only hope that Prince Marth had as much energy for rebuilding as he did for knocking things over. Still, if the fate of Macedon was to be any indication, the prince had an interest in justice. Setting Minerva on the throne-- much as the princess seemed to be of mixed feelings about it-- was the only course Palla could imagine that would see Macedon secure. Princess Maria was too young, and would be seen as a puppet of Archanea. Leaving the issue of succession unresolved entirely before marching elsewhere would lead to civil war as every living noble and officer competed in a bloodstained melee. Only Queen Minerva could keep the people of Macedon unified under her shield; surely the princess, despite her grief, did know that in her deepest heart.
The light of the world was turning something over in his hand, something that looked like a shard of glass. Palla's curiosity overcame her silence.
"Sire, what is it that you're holding?"
"This? It's a fragment of the Starsphere-- one of the orbs we found in Raman." Marth turned the shard over. "The Starsphere shattered when Gotoh created Starlight for us."
"We have the Starlight tome, then?" Palla had nearly forgotten their other objective in Macedon.
"Yes. We can move on Thabes once things have settled down here." Thabes, the stronghold of the fearsome Dark Pontifex, the ambition-mad creature who unleashed this war on the continent. Macedon in all its turmoil was but a stepping stone to Prince Marth's true goals: Thabes, and the dark empire of Dolhr itself.
"I don't know if you ever saw it up close," said Prince Marth, "but the Starsphere was decorated with all the constellations of the ecliptic. It was rather pretty. A shame that it broke."
"Ah." Palla had not seen the treasure for more than a glimpse; Marth now passed to her what remained of it.
"This fragment has most of one constellation-- the Desert Scorpion."
Palla examined the pattern engraved on the orb fragment. She knew the constellation by another name-- the Fire Dragon. Every summer, the dragon ruled the sky above Macedon, bringing scorching heat. Only when the Fire Dragon, wounded by a Centaur's arrow, slid down the western slope of the sky would Macedon know the relief of cool breezes and rain. During the winter months, the Fire Dragon slumbered beneath the earth, and great Iote with his lance and shield dominated the heavens. Iote reigned above them now; Palla tipped her head back to take in the whole of his figure, the greatest constellation in the sky.
"They call it Anri in Altea. Anri with Falchion." Marth indicated the row of stars before the sky-hero's belt that did, in fact, suggest a sword. "When I was a child, my nursemaid would tell me that when King Anri died, the gods placed him in the sky to watch over Altea. Once I learned to read, I found an old book of sky-maps that dated to before the founding of Altea, and of course the constellation was there. The stars have always been there... only the stories change."
"Only the stories...." And Palla felt a premonitory shiver. Perhaps the wheels of fate were grinding some new tale out of their own lives. The piece of the Starsphere lay cold in her hand, and Palla wondered if its destruction might not be a portent of doom.
***End Chapter One***
This story will jump backward and forward in time; the idea is not to convey a sense of "OMG what comes next!?!" but to detail the significance of what goes on in any given moment. Other things that warrant explanation--
Ice Moon, Flower Moon: I didn't feel comfortable using a Latinate calendar, so I made my own based off various traditions. Ice Moon = February, Flower Moon = May, and the solstices and equinoces mark the mid-point of seasons rather than the beginning.
Creepy Macedonian Siblings: My starting point was the FEDS script, OK?
Well-fed Alteans: Altea has rich soil per FEDS, while Macedon and some of the other kingdoms, according to notes on Serenes Forest, do not.
Macedonian Warrior Culture: Shades of Ancient Sparta, but with little girls. I took my cues from the Greek myth names and Macedon's gladiator-based origins.
Constellations: Iote/Anri = Orion, The Fire Dragon = Scorpius. There really is a Scorpius fragment of the Starsphere in FE3. Macedon is at a lower latitude than Altea, so Scorpius rises much higher in the sky instead of scuttling along the horizon.
Character ages derived from the FE3 novelization as posted on Serenes Forest. Imperfect, but it's the semi-quasi official source.
Oh, and the dragons and Macedonian pegasi have Greek-myth names, while the Altean horses have names with a different common thread. :)
Finally, the title comes from the John Cale adaptation of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." I listened to prodigious (read: scary) amounts of Leonard Cohen whilst writing this.