The First and the Last
In a mostly empty tent, one of many erected on the field right outside Castle Araphen, sat Lord Hector, Marquess of Ostia and leader of the Lycian League. He had led the league's combined army to this border fortress to defend his country against the invading forces of Bern, ready to show the warlike kingdom that its smaller neighbor was not to be underestimated. Or at least that was what he was going to do; for the moment, however, he was merely sitting around.
Bern's invasion army had been spotted ten miles east of Araphen, moving slowly but surely toward their destination, until they had stopped beyond a riverbank and set up camp there, still four miles away from the castle. Hector had sent out scouts to determine their troop strength, and until they returned, he was hesitant to take any action. He had spent the time talking to the commanders of the Lycian detachments and reviewing their troops, and they were as ready as they were going to get. The battle plans had been mostly finished as well, so there was nothing to do for him now but wait – and waiting usually made Hector ill-tempered.
"Damn Bern and her king," he muttered to himself. "Couldn't they have invaded at another time? Lilina's not in Ostia, and Eliwood is sick, and I've had better days myself. Blast these blackhearts!"
"It pleases me to find you in such high spirits, Lord Hector," a voice came from the tent's entrance. It belonged to a tall, gray-haired man in heavy Ostian armor, and Hector rose from his chair to greet him.
"Oswin! Well met."
"We have already 'well met' five or six times today, if memory serves," the aged commander of Ostia's knights replied with a hint of a smile. "One might think that would be enough."
"Bah. When I was young, everybody always told me to be more polite and considerate, and now that I am, I'm criticized for it?"
"Criticizing you is my highest calling in life," Oswin replied. "And I like to think that it has had a positive effect over the years."
"By all means keep thinking that," Hector grumbled. "So, have the scouts returned?"
"They just finished delivering their report to me," Oswin said. "First of all, they confirmed the enemy strength as reported by the advance party. I am afraid we are somewhat outnumbered."
"'Somewhat' doesn't sound too bad," Hector said. "Continue."
"About one fourth of the enemy army consists of wyvern riders."
"We are prepared for those. What about mages?"
"Almost none. However, there were about a dozen strange figures in red robes among the enemy, each of them at the core of a unit. They might be commanders, or clerics, or mages – the scouts were unable to tell for certain."
"As long as they're only wearing robes they shouldn't be too hard to kill, no matter what they are." Hector nodded to himself. "So much about their forces. So what are they doing? Are they preparing to attack?"
"No," Oswin replied. "They finished setting up their camp and posted quite a number of sentinels, but the bulk of the soldiers was not battle-ready. They must have marched the whole day and probably want to spend a night resting before attacking us. Also, their wyverns have terrible eyesight at night – another reason to wait until tomorrow morning at least."
"I'd be of a mind to attack them right now," Hector said, "but it'll be sunset within an hour. Darkness would engulf us before we even reached the enemy encampment."
"There is the possibility of an attack under the cover of dark," Oswin pointed out.
"It's an option I've considered, even though I dislike sneak attacks," Hector replied. "But Ostia's armored knights aren't exactly stealthy, and they form the backbone of our army."
"I'm afraid I must agree," Oswin nodded and looked down his own heavy armor suit which bore countless scratches from decades of service. "We happen to be rather noisy while we walk."
"And besides, fighting in the dark is always a huge mess. You often can't tell friend from foe until it's too late... or you make a mistake and attack your own. No, I'll have none of that. We'll attack Bern tomorrow first thing in the morning and send them scurrying back home."
"Do you truly think it'll be that easy?" Oswin's tone was full of doubt.
"Easy?" Hector shook his head. "No. They outnumber us by a third, and their martial prowess can't be underestimated. But they're led by General Narshen, whose incompetence is only matched by his narcissism."
"His reputation is that of a self-absorbed fop," Oswin agreed. "Which makes me wonder... why would a man like King Zephiel entrust such a large force to an incompetent?"
"You look like you already have an answer to that question, so I don't feel like straining my brain," Hector said. "Out with it."
"Bern may have a trump card that we are not aware of."
"And that would be?"
"If would tell you if I knew," Oswin said. "Ah... but perhaps I'm just being overly cautious."
"And wouldn't that be like you," Hector muttered into his beard.
"What was that?"
"Oh, nothing." Hector sighed. "It's no use to second-guess ourselves now. Our tacticians have drawn up a battle plan and we'll execute it to the best of our abilities. The only thing we can do today is go to bed early so our old bones won't fail us tomorrow."
"Unusually sage advice for you, Lord Hector," Oswin quipped. "I think I'll take it... after making a last patrol around the camp's perimeter. Good night."
"Until tomorrow," Hector replied and watched the old general leave his tent. His hair was gray, but his back still straight, and he carried the heavy Ostian armor without visible effort. It seemed that even age could not find a chink in his defense.
"I guess I should take my own advice, then," Hector said to himself, but for some reason, he was not ready to go to sleep yet. No, not some reason – one reason. One very specific reason.
"Oh, who am I kidding," he chided himself. "He's not going to come." In spite of his words, he turned one of the two chairs around to face the tent's entrance, sat down and folded his arms over his chest. He waited like that for a good while, trying not to let his thoughts stray away from the coming battle too much. Then, perhaps half an hour after Oswin's departure, the tent's flap was drawn back and a middle-aged man entered.
He was a man for whom the word 'inconspicious' might have been invented: He was of medium height and average build and wore an unadorned robe of dark green. Its hood had been thrown back to reveal a plain face with small eyes that bespoke a cunning intellect, to be dismissed at one's own peril. Had he carried a tome, he could easily have passed for a mage, but his thin, unblemished hands were empty. He closed the tent's flap behind him, made a few steps toward Hector, and looked at him without saying a word. The Marquess of Ostia looked straight back at him, scanning the new arrival with suspicious eyes, surprised how little he had changed since their last meeting several years ago.
"You are late," he finally said, his tone as far removed from cordial as could be.
"Not too late to devise a winning strategy," the other man replied in a calm, even tone, ignoring the unfriendly greeting. "Assuming that's why you sent for me, of course."
"I sent for you all right," Hector replied non-committally. "But I was just beginning to think you wouldn't come."
"Have I ever failed to aid one of my old comrades?" he asked, his voice slightly irritable.
"What's that supposed to mean?" the man asked with increased irritation. Then he sighed and shook his head in realization. "Ah, I see. You are referring to those tragic events in Sacae three years ago." He made another step toward Hector, who had not risen to greet him, and looked at him with a dead serious expression that seemed very natural to him.
"What Lyn was planning to do was madness, and I told her as much," he said earnestly. "Do you think it pleased me to see her rush off toward her doom?"
"I do not know what kind of things please you, tactician," Hector said coldly. "What's going on in that head of yours is an enigma to all decent people."
"I tried to stop her, damn it!" the robed man exclaimed, his already strained composure giving way to anger, or grief, or both. He made another step forward, and another, until he was standing right in front of Hector, towering over the marquess only because he was still seated. "But she wouldn't listen!"
"You could have accompanied her," Hector said. "You could have ensured her victory." He was in no hurry to get up, nor was he at all fazed by the angry glare directed at him. No matter how angry he might be, his visitor knew better than to offer the ruler of Ostia any violence.
"I do not pick battles I cannot win. And there was no way Lyn could wipe out all the Taliver bandits with only Rath and half a dozen fighters, not on their home turf in the caves of the Bern mountains!"
"With your guidance, she could have–"
"I cannot perform miracles, you know! I'm telling you, as I told her, it was suicide from the beginning! But she wasn't acting rationally!"
"Her daughter was killed," Hector barked, "by the same people who had already murdered her parents, along with her entire clan! It was only natural for her to want revenge this time!" Hector stomped on the ground with an armored boot. "If my daughter was murdered by bandit scum, I would do exactly the same thing!"
"Well, then why didn't you help her, o mighty marquess," the robed man snarled. "Surely you could have spared her a couple of dozen men! Surely, you could have been of more use than my humble self!"
"It it because I am marquess that I couldn't help her," Hector said in a grim tone. "Tensions with Bern were already running high back then, and sending soldiers from Lycia into Bern territory would have been considered an act of war!"
"Well, it doesn't seem like your restraint bore any fruit, seeing as there's a large Bern army encamped less than five miles from here!"
"We managed to maintain peace with Bern for three more years," Hector snapped back, very nearly shouting. "Though I can see how that might seem worthless for a man whose trade is war."
"I did not hurry all the way here from Illia to be insulted by you, Lord Hector." The robed man turned around on the spot and walked toward the tent's exit. "Good luck with your battle."
"Hold!" Hector rose from his chair, his armor clanging, his face suddenly red. "Mark, hold!"
"Oh my." The tactician had reached the exit, but now he stopped and turned his head. "And there I thought you had forgotten my name."
"I'm sorry," the Marquess of Ostia said firmly. "I did not mean to insult you. And..." He hesitated for an instant. "And I need your help."
"Yes, that's usually why people call for me," Mark replied, but his voice had lost its sting. "You really haven't changed a bit, Lord Hector," he said while shaking his head. "Quick to anger, quick to calm down."
"Oh no, I've changed a great deal," Hector disagreed, "and it's not just that my beard is thicker." The two men stood there for several seconds, silently looking at each other, until Hector pointed at the two chairs. "Let's sit down and talk."
"Sitting down sounds good," Mark agreed. "I've been in quite a rush to travel here, and though my horse did most of the rushing, I'm a bit exhausted myself." The two men moved the chairs opposite to each other and seated themselves.
"To be honest," Hector began, "I already knew what you were going to say. About Lyn, I mean. Eliwood has spoken to me on your behalf several times, telling me the same things you said just now. But... I guess I wanted to hear it from you before I believed it."
"So you believe me now? That there was nothing I could do to save her life?"
"To be honest, I wasn't even angry because she died... I mean, not especially." Hector shrugged, a feat made more difficult by his shoulder armor. "People die. My brother, my wife, Lyn..." He rubbed his temples for a moment. "I know I must be sounding terribly heartless, but... I'm used to it by now."
"I understand," Mark said. By now, he had completely regained his composure. "So... why were you angry, then?"
"Because I felt that you had abandoned Lyn."
"And to the Lord Hector, there's no greater crime than abandoning one's friends."
"Then I'm glad that we could bury that particular hatchet," Mark said with a smile. "Now, about you needing my help..."
"Ah, yes. As you have seen, King Zephiel has set his eyes on Lycia."
"You would think that after conquering Sacae and Illia, he'd be satisfied," Mark said with a hint of bitterness, and though he was not exactly a man of subtlety, Hector picked it up.
"You've been living in Illia for a while, haven't you?"
"Almost a decade now," Mark replied. "The land of mercenaries seemed like a fitting place for me to take up residence."
"I don't know how it feels to have your country occupied by a foreign nation, though I'm sure it can't be pleasant," Hector said. "That is why I'm here. Why the army of the Lycian League is here. We won't allow Zephiel to continue his mad plans of world conquest."
"It makes you wish we wouldn't have saved him all those years ago," Mark said with a deep scowl. "We should have let the Black Fang kill him instead."
"We did what we thought was best at the time, as all men do," Hector dismissed his friend's words with a wave of his hand. "Agonizing over past mistakes is pointless... and besides, there was no way for us to know how he'd turn out!"
"Agonizing over past mistakes is human nature," Mark disagreed. "Then again, you always were a bit... superhuman."
"I don't enjoy being complimented," Hector said curtly. "At least save it for after we defeat Bern."
"Which is where I come in?"
"Yes." Hector nodded. "I don't want to disparage the tacticians of Ostia, nor the strategy they've come up with, but..." He shrugged. "When you can work with the best, then that's what you do."
"I, too, do not enjoy being complimented," Mark said with a grin, though he did not deny that he had gained quite a reputation over the past two decades. "You want me to look over your battle plan?"
"It's a sound plan," Hector said, "but even if everything works out perfectly, our army will take heavy losses... as much as thirty, perhaps fourty percent." Mark visibly shuddered when he heard this estimate. "That... will not do," he said.
"I see you're still the same," Hector remarked. "You dislike casualties."
"That's one way to put it, I guess," Mark replied reluctantly.
"There's no need to be ashamed," Hector told him. "Your obsession with avoiding losses is what makes you... well, you. And it also makes the people who follow you trust you." He let out a short laugh. "I still remember that time you had us wait in a forest for hours until the enemy had run out of arrows. I was so fed up with waiting I almost–"
"We can reminisce about the past at another time," Mark interrupted him. "I should talk to your tacticians as soon as possible."
"They aren't in camp right now," Hector said. "They're surveying tomorrow's battlefield in the hope of finding a terrain advantage. They're bound to return soon after sunset, though. But until then," he grinned, "we can continue to reminisce."
"You could also tell me about the number and composition of your forces," Mark suggested. "I need to know these sort of things."
"You're not fooling me," Hector said and laughed. "It probably took you all of a single sweeping glance over this camp to tell you everything you need to know about this army. Don't sell your genius short, tactician."
"It pleases me to have the Lord Hector's trust," Mark sighed. "And, well, yes, I did take a peek at your army before I entered this tent. Lots of armor knights and cavaliers. Few mages. A good number of archers."
"Most of them are from Pherae, trained by Wil and Rebecca – you remember those two? Of course you do. At any rate, they'll make Bern's wyvern riders afraid to so much as flap their wings, let alone take to the sky. Well, at least in theory."
"Pherae..." Mark let his gaze wander conspiciously throughout the tent's interior. "Shouldn't Lord Eliwood be here then, at your side?"
"I'd trade a dozen foot soldiers to have him and his sword arm here," Hector growled and raised his fist, as if to bring it down on a non-existent table. "But he's fallen sick and is in no condition to fight. Sir Lowen is leading Pherae's detachment in his stead."
"Sick? At a time like this?" Mark raised an eyebrow. "You don't think he's making up excuses?"
"Don't be ridiculous!" Hector spat. "You know Eliwood as well as I do. The fact that he isn't coming must mean that he can barely stand, let alone hold a sword. He would not... 'make up excuses'."
"I am aware of that," Mark replied indignantly. "I was mostly joking."
"I hope the quality of your strategies hasn't degenerated as much as that of your jokes," Hector said, but Mark did not even deign to respond to his jeer. "Speaking of Eliwood," he said instead, "what about his son, Roy? It's been years since I last visited Pherae, but isn't he old enough to fight by now?"
"The boy has inherited his father's skills with the sword," Hector said, "and he may well surpass him one day. But this is too soon. This battle is ours to fight – the old guard, if you will. Our children shouldn't have to go to war yet." He shook his head resolutely, no doubt thinking of his daughter Lilina as well as Roy. "Not as long as I draw breath."
"You value your family highly," Mark commented.
"True. So what about you? You said you settled down in Illia – did you take a wife?"
"Heh." Mark smirked and evaded Hector's gaze for a moment. "Do I look like a man who fights for his family?"
"Don't say it like it's not a worthy cause," Hector grumbled. "Then what are you fighting for?"
"Can't you guess?"
"I already told you I can't even begin to guess what's going on in that head of yours."
"It's quite simple." Mark closed his eyes and seemed to reminisce. "Ever since I began my career as a tactician... ever since that day upon the plains of Sacae where I met Lyn... defeat has been a foreign concept to me." He opened his eyes again and looked earnestly at Hector. "I have never lost. Not a single engagement. An unblemished record."
"Is that what you're fighting for?" the lord of Ostia asked skeptically. "Your record?"
"I guess I do."
Mark laughed. "You were always rather frank, Lord Hector."
"Were?" Hector said and made an undignified face. "Don't talk about me in the past tense!"
"I consider myself thoroughly chastised," Mark said and performed a short bow.
"Oh stop the curtsying," Hector complained, "you know I don't like it." He hesitated for a moment, then returned to their previous subject. "So you still haven't founded a family?"
"No," Mark replied. "I am not what you would call a family man."
"I used to think the same way, but I turned out to be a good father. That is, I hope I did."
"I'm sure you are at least adequate to the task."
"I'd better be," Hector grumbled. "Jokes aside, it is not too late. You're not that old."
"Why, thank you."
"A man of your caliber should have no trouble finding a good wife," Hector continued, "and the rest... well, it kind of... it follows, you know."
"I'm sure it does," Mark said with a smile. "But I doubt your words can change my mind about this issue."
"Do you not wish to leave something or someone behind after you die?" Hector asked.
"I do not plan on dying anytime soon," came Mark's cocky reply.
"Nor do I. But no one lives forever. Everybody's time comes."
"Oh, yes." Hector nodded gravely. "I have it on good authority that I will... 'die in the savage garden of war's bloody delight'." He stared into space, absorbed in sudden contemplation. "I wonder whether that day will come tomorrow..."
"I must warn you," Mark said sternly, "that I won't tolerate defeatism on the eve of battle." He sighed. "Although it will certainly be bloody. Savage, too. A delight... ah, that depends on your personal preferences."
"I'll have you know that I've never enjoyed war," Hector said brusquely. "Fighting, yes... but not war."
"To me, these are merely two different points on a sliding scale," Mark replied. "One against one, or ten thousand against ten thousand: The underlying principle is the same."
"That sounds like something a tactician would say."
"I try to live up to my reputation," Mark smiled. "At any rate, I hereby forbid you to think morbid thoughts until the battle is won."
"Nobody gets to forbid me anything," Hector growled. "Except maybe Lilina," he added under his breath. "But I'll take your advice to heart."
"As a youth you were merely an unmannered lout," Mark said, "but it seems that age has turned you into a veritable curmudgeon."
"Must be the beard."
"If you think it makes you look more wise and stately, I have bad news for you."
"Your wit definitely has seen better days," Hector remarked. "It's getting dark, so the other tacticians should return soon. Let's go outside and wait for them." He rose from his chair and Mark followed suit a moment later. "Lead the way, my lord."
"That's what we lords do," Hector said, making his friend chuckle. "I'm glad I heeded your call and came all the way here," he said as they stepped outside the tent. "Tomorrow's battle will be one for the history books."
"You could write a history of your own when you retire one day," Hector suggested. "That way, you could leave something behind after you die." He grinned wryly. "And even if you lose a battle or two down the line, you could just re-write it to make it seem that you won."
"You may think you're joking," Mark said, "but that's pretty close to the actual process of writing history."
"Is it?" Hector made a critical expression as he overlooked the rows and rows of tents around him. "I wouldn't know. I never learned to write more than my own name."
"Perhaps you should," Mark suggested innocently. "The quill is mightier than the axe, after all."
"I wouldn't put that theory to the test if I were you," Hector said. "You might get your skull cleaved in two before you know it."
"That wouldn't do at all," Mark said with a scowl. "Let's both try to survive into old age."
"Yes," Hector said and nodded gravely. "Let's try."
The next morning came, and with it the battle, and with the battle came fiery death spewn from the maws of dragons. Where men had once scoured dragons from the earth, dragons now scoured men, though men also fought on their side. Faced with the sudden resurgence of mankind's ancient enemy, the fighters of Lycia perished by the thousands, and those who evaded the flames of the dragons and the steel of Bern fled in panic across the plains toward Castle Araphen. It was not an orderly retreat, but every man for himself, for it seemed that the dragon fire had not only burned flesh and bone, but also the bonds between comrades: Those who had been wounded were left behind, and those who were dying died alone on a barren field littered with charred and broken bodies.
One of the wounded, however, had no intention to just lie down to die; he was simply not that sort of man. He knew he was only alive and free because the forces of Bern had moved on toward Castle Araphen, eager to seize or destroy it while slaughtering the retreating Lycians on the way, and had left no troops behind to capture or slay the wounded that remained on the battlefield. The other Lycian survivors fled due south, avoiding both Araphen and the Bern encampment, hobbling or crawling as fast as they could, praising Elimine for preserving their lives. But not him. Not that one man who dragged his bleeding, ravaged body slowly toward Araphen, yard by painful yard, as though the sight of the red-scaled behemoths had shattered his mind and launched him on a suicidal pursuit of Bern's army and its infernal war beasts.
Nothing could have been farther from the truth, of course, for the Lord Hector's mind was of such a constitution that even the end of the world might not have unhinged it. He knew perfectly well where he was going and what was awaiting him there, but that knowledge did not deter him. His fate had been decided, and he would rather meet it on his own terms than meekly hide from the inescapable. He would not live to see the sun set on Lycia again, that much was certain: A wyvern rider's heavy spear had hit him from behind during his futile attempts to rally the panicked survivors into an orderly retreat, leaving behind a deep wound through which his life bled out slowly, but surely. Not even a healing staff could save him at this point, he knew; not that any of Lycia's clerics had survived the massacre.
The knowledge of his certain death, however, meant little to Hector: He was going back to Castle Araphen, even though there was no hope that the garrison would be able to withstand the dragons' fury. But no matter what happened and how little he could do to affect it, he had an obligation to at least be there. When Bern's general announced his victory, or if perhaps King Zephiel himself arrived to claim his conquest, he had to face him and ask: "Why?"
Why attack the peaceful nations of Elibe? Why unleash mankind's oldest enemy on this world again? Why threaten to engulf the entire continent in a mad crusade of steel and fire?
Hector was nothing if not a realist, and he doubted that he would get an answer that would satisfy him. After all, the victor had no need to justify himself, and the defeated had no means to compel him. But that knowledge did not stop him, either: As long as his legs still obeyed him, he would continue on his way. It took him several hours to cross the distance of a few miles, but not once did he stop and rest, fearing that he might not get up again if he sat down on the ground.
The dark clouds of billowing smoke came into Hector's sight long before the castle itself, and he prepared himself for the worst. But when he was in eyeshot of Araphen, he realized that it was not the castle which had been burned down, but the encampment where the Lycian army had spent the previous night. None of the numberless tents had been spared by the conflagration, and the camp was now nothing more than a field of ash and glowing embers littered with the bodies of those who had been too slow to flee.
Araphen castle itself was still standing and largely undamaged, though it was surrounded from all directions by the Bern army. The dragons were nowhere to be seen; they must have transformed back into their human forms. A fight for possession of the castle was probably going on right now within its halls and corridors, and though the small garrison was hopelessly outnumbered, Hector noted with grim satisfaction that the Lycian flag was still flying on the highest tower. He had always been a vengeful man, and it pleased him to know that Bern was paying a high price in blood for her conquest.
Reinvigorated by this knowledge, Hector pressed on, heedless of the pain that seemed to increase with every step, and soon reached the burnt-out remnants of the defunct encampment. The attackers were utterly focused on the castle, no doubt under orders not to let a single defender escape, and nobody seemed to take notice of the single armored figure approaching behind them. Hector was of a mind to simply continue dragging himself forward, if only to see how far he would come before finally being noticed, and perhaps bash in a skull or two if he somehow managed to reach the rear of the besieging army without being spotted at all. However, the sound of a familiar voice stopped him dead in his tracks.
"Mark?" Only now did Hector notice the man lying prone on the ground just outside of the burnt-down camp, most of his body concealed by his green cloak. "What are you doing here?"
"That should be obvious... even to you," the tactician said, his words interrupted by a short coughing fit that sprayed the ground before him with blood. "I'm dying."
"Like hell you are dying," Hector snarled. "You're not even supposed to be here!" He trudged toward his motionless friend who seemed unable to get up and stand. "Now let me take a look..." He dropped to one knee next to Mark and turned his body on his back as gently as he could, though the tactician still groaned in pain when he moved him. A deep cut extended across his waist, right below the ribs, and the green cloth of his shirt was dripping red with his blood.
"Damn it," Hector roared. "Damn it all!"
"I assume it looks as bad as it hurts?" Mask asked, his voice heavy with barely-controlled pain. "I think I could lift my head high enough to see for myself, but I'm actually not that curious."
"It's looking very bad," Hector said honestly; he rarely ever lied, and never to a dying man. "A powerful healer might be able to help, but..." He shrugged.
"All our healers are dead," Mark completed his sentence. "Just my luck. What about you?"
"I'm not going to make it, either," Hector replied. "Cowards got me in the back."
"Figures," Mark said and looked at the sky. "That was just about the only way anyone would ever fell the Lord Hector."
"Enough about me!" Hector almost seized and shook Mark in a fit of anger, but restrained himself. "Why did you stay here just to get yourself killed? Why didn't you flee? You... you watched the battle with that stupid spyglass of yours! When you saw that we were being routed, you should have escaped!"
"I... I guess I froze," Mark admitted. "When I saw the dragons transform... all I could do was watch in shock." He looked at Hector again, his eyes wide with remembered fear. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing! Twenty years ago, there were only three of them, and only one for us to fight... but there were more than a dozen out there!" He raised his palms above his head as if he was pleading with someone. "And they were even bigger!"
"I know," Hector said. "I was a lot closer to them than you were." His curt remark brought Mark back from his fearful recollection.
"You are right," he said and coughed up blood. "I had no good reason to be paralyzed by fear... at least not compared to you. And yet... I only snapped out of it when Bern had reached the castle and the camp was burning down around me. That's when I tried to escape, but I ran into a group of swordsmen waiting outside. One of them cut me up and left me for dead." He breathed out deeply. "That is all."
"Damn Bern and damn Zephiel," Hector growled, feeling a resurgence of pain from his back wound. "Where on earth did he find so many dragons to fight for him? He can't have opened the Dragon's Gate... I've had sentinels stationed on Valor for the past twenty years! And they can't have come from Arcadia, either – none of the dragons there would ever fight against humans. So where did these monsters come from?"
"I... have absolutely... no idea," Mark coughed. "Somebody else will have to solve that mystery."
"If only I'd still had Armads," Hector contemplated, "I would have at least taken one of them with me!"
"Yes, the divine weapons will be the key to dealing with this new threat," Mark agreed. "A whole new strategy must be formulated around them... a pity I won't be able to do it anymore."
"I'm sorry for involving you with this," Hector said remorsefully. "I shouldn't have dragged you in this battle."
"Oh, nonsense," Mark placated him, his breath growing more irregular by the minute. "You were right yesterday... even though you spoke in anger: My trade is war. And one day or another... I had to pay war... its due."
"Don't make it sound like you deserved it," Hector growled. "You don't have to spend your last moments putting yourself down."
"I'm not wallowing in emotions," Mark defended himself, "I have a thoroughly professional reason to be displeased with myself. My vaunted 'winning strategy' went up in smoke the instant those dragons appeared " He closed his eyes and sighed. "I lost."
"Nobody could have predicted that Bern had dragons," Hector pointed out. "I won't hold our loss against you."
"That's very gracious of you, but the fact remains that we... that I lost," Mark sighed. "My first defeat..." He groaned in pain. "...and my last."
"Listen to yourself, man," Hector grumbled. "Lycia's army was annihilated. Many of our old friends and comrades died. We are dying. Worst of all, the dragons have returned to this world... and you are complaining about your ruined win record." He slowly shook his head, although there was a hint of a grin on his bruised face. "You're actually pretty self-absorbed, aren't you?"
"The Lord Hector is an excellent judge of character," Mark said, only to have another bloody coughing fit. "I'd love to annoy you more with my whining, but... I guess this is goodbye."
"I won't outlive you by long, my friend," Hector replied earnestly.
"Then you should savor every moment left to you... because moments are all we have."
"I used to think like that," Hector nodded, "but it changed once I had a family. After that, it became less about the moment and more about the future."
"There is no future for us," Mark rasped.
"Not for us, but for Elibe, perhaps," Hector countered. "Remember what Graybeard said before he died? 'Once again, Lycia brings hope.'"
"Yes, I remember it clearly," Mark replied, his eyes turned skyward again. "But to tell you the truth, I don't put much stock in prophecies... even ones made by the Archsage."
"Indeed." Hector nodded sagely. "That would be out of character for you. You're far too rational to believe in such things."
"It is said that a man would rather die than act out of character," Mark said with a smile. "I guess... it's true..." The last words were almost inaudible.
"Well, I still believe," Hector said defiantly. "The fight against Bern doesn't end here. If I could just pass on the torch to the next generation... then I could die content!"
If he expected Mark to say something in response, Hector waited in vain. The defeated tactician lay perfectly still, neither breathing nor blinking, and after several minutes of quickly waning hope, the Marquess of Ostia accepted the undeniable. With a pained groan, he bent over Mark's body and closed the eyes of his friend.
"Goodbye, Mark," he said. "I'll follow you before the day is out." Though he was far from the most pious man in Lycia, Hector spoke a prayer to St. Elimine and asked her to watch over his fallen comrade. Then he pulled himself up to his full height and looked at Araphen Castle.
On top of the highest tower, the flag of Bern was flying in the wind.
"Damn you!" Hector roared. "Damn you to the deepest pits of hell, you treacherous dogs!" All the pain and rage and fury that he had suppressed during the past few hours overcame him and carried his voice across the ruined camp to the army at the castle.
"You think you have defeated Lycia today?" he yelled. "You think you can conquer all of Elibe now for your master? You have no idea what's in store for you!"
Prompted by his thunderous words, several wyvern riders took to the sky and darted toward him, but Hector paid them no more heed than he would a swarm of gadflies.
"People are not so quick to submit to tyranny, no matter what horrors you unleash against them! The mere sight of what you called up today will stir their ancient memories, and remind them what it's like to fight against dragons! Before a year has come and gone, the entire continent will rise in arms and re-enact the Scouring against your pet monsters, and wipe the kingdom of Bern off the face of the earth!"
Out of breath and out of words, Hector staggered backward; his little harangue had cost him a great deal of strength. "I have no idea what got into me," he said hoarsely. "I guess that was my prophecy." Struggling to stay on his legs, he watched half a dozen wyverns land a stone's throw away from his position, their riders eyeing him cautiously before they approached with their lances drawn. There was no doubt they had recognized him, and rather than being killed outright, he would probably be captured and dragged before Narshen or even Zephiel.
"Looks like your prophecy was off by a little bit, Durban," he said to himself. "I didn't die on the battlefield... though I suppose that's just splitting hairs."
Drawing on what was left of his strength, Hector managed to keep standing on his feet during his last moments of freedom as he watched the approach of Zephiel's henchmen with an expression of utter contempt.