Notes: Barring any brainfarts on my end, there should be about three chapters left plus an epilogue. Does this mean we're now at the halfway point? Does this mean LONGER CHAPTERS?
Hmmm. I wonder.
Chapter Three: Winterlight
"Did you know?" she asked in the shadow of the parapets, during one of their rare moments of privacy.
It had been two days since the coming-of-age banquet (Kent, at least, had found it a rather unnecessary affair: he had not thought of her as a girl since the day she first drew the Mani Katti from its sheath, and had almost been surprised that he could pinpoint the date so precisely), but he knew instantly to what she referred. He was, in fact, surprised she had not brought it up sooner, and had barely resisted mentioning the topic first himself, realizing that she needed time to reflect on her own.
"No," he said. "Well, I was aware that Lundgren had a son, but I had thought him..."
"Thought him what? Dead?"
"He and his mother have always preferred to keep a low profile. It's well known that relations between Lundgren and his wife were quite cold. Most people assumed that he had gotten the marriage annulled years ago."
Lyndis chewed her bottom lip. She was playing unconsciously with the tip of her ponytail, a sign that she was deep in thought. Kent recalled that she had told him once about attitudes towards marriage on the plains. There, though marriages were often arranged from early childhood, a wedded woman was free to return to her father and her clan should her husband not treat her with respect, and equally free to wed another after her previous bonds were dissolved. There was none of the stigma against remarriage that existed in Bern and most of Lycia, none of deeply rooted shame associated with annulled joinings. It would be difficult for her to understand the factors that had motivated Torsten and Lady Gudrun to retire into hiding, and what urgency or necessity must have moved them to return now.
"Do you think he was telling the truth?" she said at last.
"About the stripping of his title and lands? Yes. I checked with the chancellor, and he confirmed that he had taken the opportunity to do so as soon as your grandfather was well enough to consult."
"And about his request?"
Kent hesitated. "My lady," he began, then corrected himself instinctively, "Lyndis. In Lycia, inheritance is generally traced through the male line. That is, in most cantons, Lundgren would have been considered heir presumptive until your mother gave birth to a son. If she gave birth to a son. Lord Hausen, however, when he received word of Lady Madelyn's survival, cared not whether her child was male or female. He intended to let rule pass to her blood, and in truth it would not have been an unprecedented move. But if Lord Torsten had chosen to -- if he chooses to contest your claim on the throne even now, he is well within his rights to do so. Indeed, had it not been for Lundgren's crimes against your grandfather, and Lord Hausen's own wish, he might very well have the better claim."
This too was a subject they had touched upon, albeit in the earlier days of their acquaintance, when the laws of the land were still unfamiliar to her. With the exception of the stationary clans, Sacaen tribes allowed chiefs to choose their own successors. Of course, they usually chose their own son, or a brother, whether pledged or blood, or a nephew, though rare exceptions like the Hero Hanon won the position through challenging and defeating the former chief in three tests of skill: archery, wrestling, and horsemanship. The system had seemed strange to Kent when Lyndis first explained it to him, but he had to admit there was a certain straightforward simplicity to it which the convoluted politics of Lycian inheritance lacked.
"I've tried to make sense of it," she said, laughing then. "But... if what you're saying is true, that means he isn't after the throne, right?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "It is true that if he wanted it, he would have acted before now." He did not tell her that he had, just the previous night, awoken from a nightmare in which they had returned to Caelin only to find their charade revealed and Lord Hausen overthrown in a coup during their year-long absence. Even now the memory of it struck him with a sudden, irrational fear. "If he wishes to try anything now, he would find it very difficult. As it stands, he could even be tried in his father's place for the crimes committed against you and your grandfather. Not to mention, the first Lady Lyndis -- your grandmother -- was dearly loved by the people. I think, perhaps, that they see something of her in you, now. It would not be easy to wrest their support from you."
Lyndis frowned, then poked his chest playfully. "But you're still worried, aren't you."
"Yes," he admitted.
She gazed at him intently, as if she could divine the answers from his face. Then she sighed.
"I was thinking I'd take him on as a tutor. I certainly need one, and it's a harmless enough position, isn't it? I can't always be relying on you and Chancellor Reissmann..."
Her suggestion should have surprised him, and yet it did not. "The other nobles may not see such a position to be as harmless as you think. They will accuse him of having undue access to and influence upon you."
"I know. But I can't think of anything better... If I could refuse him, I would."
So she had noticed, after all, that for all Torsten's pretensions toward desiring a private conversation with her, he had actually chosen to accost her in a relatively public venue. Kent was almost certain that it had been a deliberate choice, and not an unconscious one: though in all probability no one else had overheard the contents of their exchange, there had been a few lingering guests who had certainly witnessed the encounter. And that in itself was potential for danger, for though Kent had been unable to recognize the man on sight alone, he was sure there were others who remembered, who were capable of piecing together the truth, and who would wonder.
"Then again," she said now, "my father used to say that it was wise to keep potential enemies close at hand. And since Torsten's already made the first move, we need to do something to take back control of the situation. With both him and the nobles, I suppose."
That, he knew, she had learned from Mark.
And he knew too, intellectuallly, that she was right -- he himself had spent the past two days methodically coming up with all possible alternatives and rejecting them in turn -- though she had probably reached her conclusions in a far less tortuous route than he had. They were conclusions he was still reluctant to accept.
"Just be careful, Lyndis," he said quietly.
"Of course," she murmured, then added with a cheerful grin, "Well, everyone knows that I have strange beliefs since I grew up on the plains. Let's just let them think this is another case of my upbringing. No matter what insults his father may have paid me, he is still of my blood, and we of the plains do not turn away our own blood without good reason!"
He could not help it: his lips quirked into a smile. "I also thought the people of the plains were open and honest."
Her grin grew wider. "I am being honest! They just don't need to know the entire truth, right?"
He wondered if she had learned that from Matthew, and felt his mood lighten considerably for the first time since the banquet had ended.
The village was as small and quiet as he remembered it. To his surprise and relief, no one paid him much heed as he passed through the dusty lanes. Perhaps his movements exuded a familiarity no true stranger would have had; perhaps no one noticed simply because it was harvest season, the busiest time of the year. Or perhaps they did notice him, but simply chose not to show it.
A sudden wind chilled him to the bone, and for the first time he became painfully aware of winter's approach, a stark reminder of the urgency of his situation. For a fleeting moment he took gladness in the fact that even Sain knew nothing, would suspect nothing. Despite all their years of fighting alongside each other -- years, indeed, of friendship and camaraderie -- they had spoken little about their respective pasts.
That simple fact would buy him time. Time that he direly needed.
The first person he approached was an elderly man whose face he could not quite place. The old man looked at him with suspicion in his gaze, but when Kent dropped into the gentle rhythm of the local dialect, his expression cleared.
"Lookin' for Ol' Red, ah? This time o' day, the missus should be in her garden. Down o'er thataways."
Kent nodded his thanks and moved on. A trio of children playing in the streets turned to watch him, then burst into squeals and giggles. A stray cow lumbered into his path, followed by a disheveled young man who bowed and apologized profusely when Kent caught hold of its halter. On the ground ahead, a curling golden leaf, perfectly shaped and shimmering with traces of rain, drew his eye. He bent and picked it up, but on closer examination, it was riddled with small holes. He let it fall from his hand.
In the end, he found her, as expected, in her garden, half-singing, half-humming an old familiar song.
"A dream we had, a dream we shared, beneath those great vast branches, spread against the deep'ning sky..."
A clenching pain seared through his chest, and was gone. He stepped up behind her. "Mother."
She stood and turned, and if she was surprised to see him, she did not show it. Kent was momentarily taken back aback by the traces of gray in her hair, and the faint creases wrinkling about her dark merry eyes, eyes so like his own.
"Why, come back to visit your poor ol' mama after all these years?" Listening to the rise and fall of her intonation, one would never know she had been brought up speaking the standard Lycian of the western territories that any proper lord or lady was taught from birth. "Got yourself inna spot o' trouble again, ah?"
When he did not respond, her teasing smile thinned to a slight frown.
"Come along in, now," she said, accent muted now. "Journey long, warm hearth awaits."
Kent recognized the line as the distorted regional form of a popular welcoming phrase, reflected on how strange it was, hearing it directed at him in what had once been his own home. But the moment passed, as the others had before it, and he stepped over the threshold into the memories of his childhood.
His mother listened quietly in a chair across from him as words spilled from his mouth and tumbled over each other like a rushing stream. When he finished, she shook her head and handed him a mug of warm cider.
"You speak of honor and duty and responsibility," she said, with an air of quiet irony, "like a true hero."
"I am no hero," he said. "A hero is one who protects, one who defends. I failed. Not just once, not just twice --"
"M'boy, what do you think makes a hero?"
"Courage," he said, thinking of Lord Hector. "Conviction," he said, thinking of Lord Eliwood. And at last, thinking of the quiet, unassuming man who had directed them all to victory, "Sacrifice and humility."
His mother snorted. "Spoken like a true man. Sacrifice and humility: what woman knows not those? And yet we are no heroes."
"But..." he began, then hesitated, thinking of Lyndis. "Are not Hanon and Elimine counted among the eight heroes of legend?"
"Few of us will ever be Hanon or Elimine, or even clever Bradamant. The paths that they chose are closed to us. For us there are only the secret paths, the forgotten paths, the paths that go under and around and in between." She spoke without bitterness and without hesitation, and he found that he could not respond.
"My son," she said softly then. "You need'na be a hero. Have I told you the story of the Lady of Tuscana, who bent her knee and her proud neck to save her own brother's life?"
Kent shook his head, dread settling in the pit of his stomach. And when his mother spoke again, it was in the voice of a true highborn noblewoman of Lycia.
"In the years after Princess Valeria of Etruria wed Lord Naimon of Ostia, the territory of Tuscana came to resent the growing power of neighboring Thria. The leader of Tuscana at the time was the young warlord Gerard, who was known for his temper as well as his courage and fierceness in battle. He led a series of attacks against Thria, but in the end was defeated and captured, leaving his older sister as ruler in his place.
"Now cunning old Marquess Thria led a counterattack against Tuscana. Lord Gerard's sister, whose name has been lost to the ages, held out for some time with the remnants of their army: those who had not ridden to war with her brother, and those who had survived the final rout and evaded capture by the enemy. But in the end, they were forced to retreat to their mountain stronghold.
"The men of Tuscana are proud creatures, then even as now, and so even then they would not surrender, nor even consider that possibility. Among Lord Gerard's advisers had been many intelligent and clever men; chief among them was the Lady's own husband. Those advisers who had not yet died in the conflict knew that Marquess Thria would not kill their lord, but had instead kept him alive as a valuable hostage. They knew, too, however, that this would not last; when Thria realized that they and their lord would rather face death than admit defeat, Gerard's fate would be determined. And so they devised a risky plan to send a small contingent of warriors to rescue him and conduct a surprise ambush from behind, thus encircling the Thrian forces. It was a risky plan indeed, but not a foolish one: Their mountain stronghold was protected naturally by the landscape: it would be near impossible to penetrate, even for the most skilled of generals and tacticians. And at warfare there were none better than the men of the mountains.
"All this the Lady of Tuscana knew. But while on the march, she had seen how her people suffered through the years of siege and war. The Thrians had burned as they came, in retaliation for the plundering of their own lands by Lord Gerard. She saw then that even if the advisers' plan succeeded, the war would drag on for years and years to come, only for them to be destroyed utterly in the end by Ostia, who had close ties with Thria.
"The night before the plan was to commence, the Lady of Tuscana prepared a lavish banquet, to which she invited all the remaining generals and advisers. To wish them luck in their venture, she said, but what none of them realized was that she had poisoned the food and drink. And when all the men and the servants had collapsed dead or dying in the hall, she flung open the gates of the keep and rode alone to the enemy camp. There she demanded to meet at once with Marquess Thria.
"Marquess Thria, intrigued by the reports of the arrival of his enemy's sister, came immediately. As soon as he arrived, the Lady threw herself at his feet, weeping.
"'I beg you, great lord. Please spare my brother!' she cried. 'He is young and headstrong and foolish, and thought only of glory and fame. I am only a woman, but I have seen your true strength and power, and know it is folly to have opposed you. Perhaps it is because of my woman's heart, but I have no desire to see this violence and bloodshed continued. And yet I love my brother dearly. He is all I have left. Little as he may deserve it, I cannot help but beg for mercy from you, my lord, whose wisdom and justice is praised all across the land.'
"'So you have come to surrender?" said the marquess.
"'I have,' replied she, tears streaming down her face. 'If only you promise to release my brother unharmed.'
"Naturally, the marquess was incredulous. 'And you think I would agree to such a preposterous demand? Your brother, before his defeat, was the biggest thorn in my side for many a year. With him gone, your keep shall certainly fall within the year. If I release him now, who is to say he shall not raise war against me once more? I have no need of your surrender!'
"'We would not lose so easily,' she said. 'Your men have little experience fighting here, while our men know all the nooks and crannies of the land. They understand the caprices of the mountains. Indeed perhaps you would defeat us in the end, but not without great loss to your own side. How many years have we now been at war? How many years since you saw your homes? If I surrender now, how many the lives and resources that would be spared! My dear little brother has been your prisoner these two years, and well do I know him: headstrong though he is, his will is easily cowed. Though he may put on a defiant facade, his spirit by now has surely been crushed. You need not fear him once he is released. I desire only to see him alive once more! Please, my lord. I beg you. Have mercy on my poor brother.'
"'If you will come to bed with me,' said Marquess Thria, who had been wed near twenty years already.
"And what could she do but agree? Then Marquess Thria summoned Lord Gerard and forced him to watch as he fucked his sister on the spot."
Kent winced. His mother continued speaking without a pause, her voice as cool as ice and hard as stone.
"Gerard was released the very next morning, and returned to his people only to find his most trusted generals and advisers dead. And so what could he do but surrender?
"Thus did Tuscana fall under Thrian rule, and not until Gerard's son Emeric took up arms did they regain their independence once more. To this day the Lady's memory is spat upon. They call her coward, histrionic, weak-willed woman, and curse her blood as traitor's blood."
He shook his head again, buried his face in his hands.
His mother reached over and placed a hand on his shoulder. It was not a comforting gesture. "What is more important, son: a man's life or his honor?"
"But of what value is a life lived without honor?" he asked, and was surprised at the desperation creeping into his voice. "What worth is life gained at the cost of others?"
"Exactly," his mother whispered. Then she stood, walked over to the small chest in the corner where she kept all of her most personal and treasured belongings. When she returned to her seat, she held in her hands a dried flower that must have been kept pressed between a book. Its petals were still as vibrant and red as if it were freshly plucked.
"A rare flower from the plains," she said. "I hear the Etrurians call them peonies."
Kent watched her, confused by her sudden change of topic.
"From Madelyn -- Lady Madelyn, I should say," she explained. "She sent me the seeds, before she -- passed away. It was the first time I'd received word from her in sixteen years. Did'na blame her, o' course. How could I? How ever could I blame her? Planted them soon as I could, but nary a bloom 'til last spring. I think you should have it."
He opened his mouth to protest, but upon seeing the look in her eyes, accepted the flower quietly, twirling it round and around between his fingers.
Despite himself, and the unsettling feeling that was equal parts resentment and resignation, a plan began to form in his head.
"I'd better leave," he said at last, struggling to keep from saying anything more. "Afore the soldiers come a-lookin'."
His mother smiled fondly at him. "Silly child, ah! Therefore did you come? You know I can take care o' myself."
He bowed his head. She clasped his hands in hers and lowered her voice. "Oh, Kent, m'boy. Just remember this: these paths that we take can only be tread alone."
"Thank you. I'm sorry, mama," he whispered in response, and heart set, stood to leave.
But at the door he hesitated. "Why did Lady Madelyn flee to the plains?"
It was a question he had never before dared ask, a topic he had never dared broach.
"Madelyn... Dear, sweet Madelyn." His mother's eyes shuttered. But in the end, she shook her head. "That, I think, is a question better answered by her daughter."
She fought like no one he had seen before.
He had been witness to many styles of swordplay throughout his career as a knight. There was the famed Pheraen style, with its fancy footwork and elegant flourishes, which combined the subtle artifice utilized by most Etrurian schools as well as the disciplined aggressiveness of the Bernese school. The Ostians, despite claiming direct descent from Hero Roland, preferred the lance and spear, drawing their shortswords only as a last resort. Then there were the two Ilian styles, one developed for the pegasus knights and one for the men's brigade, both of which emphasized mobility and precision -- allowing a second chance for any enemy to strike back was discouraged, given the costs of armor and weapon upkeep and the general shortage of supplies and equipment in the north. Tanian swordsmanship, meanwhile, resembled that of the Ilian men's brigade. Tania's light cavalry was renowned -- as were their horses, which were bred from a mix of Sacaen and Etrurian stock, and even rumored to possess a strain of pegasus blood -- their skills had been honed for maximum effectiveness from horseback. And of course, there were the bandits and common outlaws who swung their blades about with no formal training whatsoever, and the arena gladiators whose personal styles were often adapted from a mix of several.
In Caelin, knights were taught to wield, both mounted and on foot, all three of the major weapon types: first the sword, then the lance, and at last the axe. Theirs was a balanced style, deceptively simple patterns of thrust and slash and parry that minimized their movements, conserved their energy as much as possible. As Lord Wallace and General Eagler had drilled into their heads time and time again, it was not skill, but stamina that determined who lived and who died on the battlefield. He who tired first was the loser. The issue was made all the more important by the fact that Caelin was not possessed of a large military force, unlike its more imposing neighbors. Each individual must therefore fight with the might and strength of ten. When placed in highly trained units of three -- one to shield, one to disable, one to kill -- those individuals could then transform into a force equaling fifty of the enemy's.
Kent had never expected that he would one day face them himself: men he had trained and lived alongside for more than half his life, moves and tactics he could read like the back of his hand. He wondered, sometimes, how Sain must feel -- for Sain had been the one who joked and laughed with the others, listened to their woes and complaints, went into town with them to drink the night away. But Kent had never been able to understand the other man and what he thought or felt at any given moment, and sometimes, he thought, perhaps he understood himself even less.
He had never thought he would someday witness an example of Sacaen swordplay.
Indeed he had always been taught that the men of Sacae rarely wielded blades, that they preferred to ambush from a distance with their bows and arrows to weaken the enemy before sending in a small, swift attack force to pick off the remaining survivors. Quick, effective, and not entirely honorable, Kent had always thought, though he knew the men of the borderlands had developed similar techniques in order to counter the frequent raids from the plains.
But now he had seen Lady Lyndis fight. And Mark, her tactician companion, had been employing much the same methods against their enemies, who were many where they were few. Despite himself, Kent could not help but admire the simple, straightforward elegance through which they obtained their victories, even with all odds against them: scatter the enemy from afar. Sow confusion among their ranks. Strike down the unprotected offense; finish off the shielders left behind.
And Lady Lyndis's swordplay was a thing to behold.
He did not quite have the words to describe it, to explain the feelings that rushed through him as he watched her weaving through the enemy ranks, blood spraying in her wake. There was worry for his charge, certainly, but there was admiration as well. She grasped her sword in a position he might have deemed awkward in any other hands, but seemed only natural in hers -- more like an extension of her very body than a weapon. To say that she danced seemed too crude, too inadequate. She bent and swayed like a blade of grass in the wind, untouched by enemy steel, a whirlwind of constant movement. Unwasted movement, he had begun to realize after only their second battle together, though to most eyes, trained or untrained, it must seem haphazard, drunken, nonsensical. But in truth her every motion was fluid and precise, lending her cuts power and deadliness in spite of her slight frame.
It was beautiful, and it was dangerous, and even more dangerous about her, he soon came to realize, was that she could make a man forget. Forget the gruesome violence inherent in her actions, the vague familiarity of the faces of those screaming as they were cut down and trampled underfoot, bodies crushed and broken, lives bleeding into the earth. The quiet finality of death and the feelings of guilt and doubt that lingered long afterwards, in a world turned tospy turvy, devoid of rules or sense or structure.
In all his life, he had only ever met two others with that same terrifying charisma. One was Lord Wallace. The other, a long-dead Ilian mercenary he had once met as a child, when the man had passed through the canton en route to the lands of his employer.
It was because he had known them that he recognized the truth now.
She was a woman who could inspire men to lay down their lives willingly for her, abandoning all rationality, turning their back on everything they knew, or thought they knew. They would follow her into death, into the unknown, based on little more but faith, and perhaps something else that he could not quite name.
And that, perhaps, was the most dangerous of all.
That first winter after their return, there came news of violent bandit raids near the southern border. Santaruz had been left in a disarray after Lord Helman's murder. Helman had been childless in his old age, and had neither seen fit to adopt an heir nor to name one before his death, and now there were no suitable canditates available to take his place. In such situations, the Lycian Council would normally call for a meeting to determine a successor. But with Marquess Ostia's untimely death earlier that year, the new marquess, busy stabilizing his own base of power, had not yet had the time to deal with the affairs of the rest of the land. Meanwhile, Lord Helman's poor loyal steward had attempted to keep the peace, until he had died in an suspicious accident soon after the annual harvest festivities.
In the absence of a proper ruler, chaos reigned.
Chancellor Reissmann spoke to Kent in private of his concerns. "Something must be done, Sir Kent. The timing seems entirely too convenient. With you just barely returned..."
"Yes," said Kent, grasping his meaning easily, but reluctant to theorize on who, if anyone, was behind the recent turn of events. "I know we are in no position to send them direct aid, but the latest reports have originated far too close to the border. Given our own current conditions, our villages will surely make tempting targets. The only issue is of how many men we should send. If we act too openly, Tania may accuse us of attempting a grab for power, or find some other excuse to engage us in war. Marquess Tania is a kind and just man, but I have heard also of his burning ambition. And though the new Marquess Ostia may be well-disposed towards us, I fear his hands are tied; if such a situation were to arise, I doubt he would be able to side openly with us without causing even more complications."
"You are perceptive as usual. A good deed was done, the day you were named Knight Commander."
A year ago, he might have blushed, or denied it vehemently, in light of his failures. But there was no time or place for guilt now, so he said instead, "I thank you for the compliment, Chancellor, and hope that I may someday prove worthy of it."
Reissmann smiled knowingly at him. "So modest." After a moment, he said, in what Kent found to be a strange turn, "I remember your mother well. Lady Cordelia -- she was a proud, stubborn woman. But very intelligent. A great pity it was, the rift between her and her father. I, at least, was pleased to hear that she remarried after that painter died, and that her new husband was Sir Bruce. A good man, Sir Bruce."
"You would do him proud, were he to see you now! How well you have stepped into his shoes. Nay, surpassed him."
"My father was a great knight," murmured Kent. "I dare not presume to such heights."
"Sir Bruce was one of the most loyal and upstanding men I ever knew. But you have grown to become a fine young man yourself, more than worthy of his legacy." Reissmann hesitated again. "Allow me to be frank, m'boy. What are your plans for the future?"
"The future?" he repeated, taken aback.
Reissmann shook his head. "You did not inherit much from your father, I know. You spoke earlier of Marquess Tania's burning ambition. But what about you? Have you no such ambitions for yourself?"
"You were named to the highest military position in all of Caelin at so young an age. You have a bright future ahead of you. Have you given no thought to it at all?"
But of course he had. How could he have not? How many sleepless nights had he spent, dancing around the inevitable, formulating empty plans around questions that could not be answered?
But to Reissmann he said only, "When I became a knight, I swore an oath to serve my liege, our land, and our people, until the end of my life. I have no greater desires, no greater ambitions but my duty."
"I see," said Reissmann, and with that they moved back onto more urgent topics, the brief tangent all but forgotten.