Author's Note: Thanks to Rockerduck for editing and Crimmy-taming. More detailed notes at the end.
Crimson Sabatt stroked the neck of her mare absently. Sombra huffed a little, leaning into her hand.
Horse and rider stood at the top of the cliff, looking out over the blue sea. The morning sun warmed her cheek and sent long shadows reaching across the rock. A caravel flying Westerlin colours was anchored in the bay; the Darion Empire's soldiers were grouping on the beach below.
Sabatt glanced behind her. The dozen men still left to her were sheltering in the ruins of an ancient outpost atop the orange clifftops. Appropriate, really. The whole expedition had been a wreck, a shambles. The Red Prince had given orders; she'd followed them; and everything had gone wrong from start to finish.
Well, she had been a little creative with her instructions. But not enough to affect their success. She echoed her horse's sigh bitterly. The campaign in Janub was over. The Red Prince would have to make do without the trinkets or the country.
Not that that was a problem. In fact, quite the opposite. The Southerner was loyal to a fault. He would stay in Janub and ensure that the country was united. With him out of the way, the Darion Empire would be that much easier to defeat – he was easily the most capable of their little band of Knights.
Sabatt swung into the saddle, nudged Sombra's sides and shouted an order. Riaguero, standing in the shadow of the ruins, saluted and barked out instructions to pack up and go.
It was far from the end of the war. There was a hundred ways she could win this. Perhaps, after Gueranna was safe and Westerlin crushed, she'd return to this wasteland and have her revenge on the Southerner. And the bandit. She felt her bruised jaw gingerly. Oh, no, her tale was not over yet.
She was Crimson Sabatt and she would not yield.
Kestral flexed her right hand, glaring at her bruised knuckles as if they were to blame for all of this. A crab scuttled past her feet; she stepped back reflexively.
Boats were putting out from the caravel now as she, Refec, her men, and two half-empty carts waited on the beach. She was about to wipe Janub's dust from her feet forever. Good riddance.
No. No, it wasn't.
She turned to Lieutenant Refec, who was lugging a box full of who-knew-what. "Yes?"
"Pardon me, ma'am, but why aren't we waiting for Lord Hakim?"
She held in a sigh. "'Cause he's not coming."
"Lord Hakim's got a country of his own to fight for." She raised an eyebrow at her subordinate. "He's got to decide where his loyalty lies himself."
Refec opened his mouth, closed it, then nodded. "I see, ma'am." He withdrew respectfully.
Kestral groaned inwardly, staring blankly out at the distant blue horizon.
It sounded so reasonable when she put it that way to Refec. Just a choice. A choice he'd made just as she had all those months ago. Just because he'd made a different one than she had didn't mean he was wrong.
But he'd manipulated her and the rest of the Darion Empire for all they were worth. That – that was ...
A hot wind blew black hair into her face. She adjusted her headscarf, snapped out a warning to a careless soldier about to overturn a cart, and tried to control her whirling thoughts.
The ship's boats beached. Refec barked an order and the soldiers began to load the boats with crates and bags. They'd used less than half the supplies they'd landed with – she'd thought they'd be staying at least a week. So much for that.
One of the bowmen – Felwood, that was his name – led Dutch past her towards the rowboat. The little mare walked suspiciously obediently, head bobbing with every step.
Suddenly, Dutch's head snapped up and she shied sideways, prancing so she was facing the way she came. Kestral rolled her eyes – she'd seen that coming – and stepped forward to assist the hapless Felwood, but halted as her mount let out a shrill whinny.
That was a greeting.
She spun around. Small on the horizon, clouded in dust, was a horse and rider.
A black-clothed rider on a bay horse.
The smile tugged at her lips before she could stop herself; relief welled up inside her chest. A moment later, the grin disappeared as still-raw anger, tempered with a twinge of guilt, mixed in.
She waited as Hakim rode up, halted his stallion and dismounted. He took the reins and approached cautiously, nodding at Refec as the lieutenant saluted.
He looked tired. There was a thickening under his left sleeve that told of the bandages beneath; an ugly bruise marred his jaw.
They stared at each other for a few moments.
"Hello," Kestral said finally.
She grimaced, fingering her own jawbone automatically. "That – that looks like it hurts."
"I deserved it." He took a deep breath, shaking his head. "You were right. Yesterday. I – what I did was wrong. I should have been honest with you from the beginning. All of you."
She remained silent, suddenly finding a broken shell very interesting.
"But I – it's too late now. I'm committed to this charade."
"Do you?" She continued to avoid his gaze. "Kestral."
Eyes locked. "Yes," she whispered. "You have to choose. I see that."
"You still blame me." His tone was matter-of-fact.
"No. Yes." She closed her eyes for a second. "I can't like what you did. But I can understand why." She gestured hopelessly. "We would have helped you without the act. You didn't need to manipulate us."
"I know that. Now." A long pause."I'm sorry."
His eyes were brown wells of guilt. He meant it, and the last pieces of hard anger remaining in her heart melted quietly away.
A throat cleared behind her. She turned to face Refec, who saluted. "Ready when you are, Lady Kestral."
"Okay." She exhaled, then turned back to Hakim. "Well. I suppose this is goodbye."
Hakim raised an eyebrow. It looked so wonderfully normal that her breath caught.
"What do you mean?"
"Aren't you staying here?"
"On that topic." He flushed slightly. "I have been … considering … the wisest course in this situation. For all involved. And the current political circumstances." Was he stammering? "And I have come to the conclusion – on discussion with my officials – that Sahir al-Awan can survive under a regent for a few more months."
It took a moment for it to sink in. "You're coming."
He smiled ruefully. "I'm coming." A brief hesitation. "It is true that I do not take moral advice from bandits. I do, however, take advice from a fellow Knight of Darion."
She threw her arms around him before she realised what she was doing. The stallion threw up his head with a startled snort.
"Applying pressure to a sword wound has a regrettable tendency to cause significant pain."
She released him quickly, a thousand apologies bubbling out. Hakim chuckled, though his face was still twisted in a grimace.
"Forgiven." He met her eyes hesitantly. "Might I ask the same favour?"
She grinned widely. "Forgiven, Wise Boy."
"You're welcome. Now get in the boat already. We've got a war to win!"
He bowed, a distinct twinkle in his eye. "As you wish, Lady Kestral."
Author's Note, Part 2: Well, it's been roughly eight months and almost 23,000 words, and it's been a wild ride. Loyalty and Legend is my longest complete story ever, and it's also the one I've had the most fun writing. The learning curve has been huge – I had to write action scenes – but it's been fantastic.
I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: thanks to Rockerduck for beta-reading and providing hundreds of suggestions when my brain fails. Cookies are owed. Big thanks also to heatherek for convincing certain people that Hakim/Kes works, and for providing advice with regard to said relationship. This story could never have been written without either of you!
And, of course, thanks to the Blue Byte developers who created these characters in the first place. I wonder what you'd think if you read this ...