Courage and Strength - Part VI: Fire Shrine to Cleyra

The spell was already half-formed in his mind, but it unraveled as Fratley caught sight of her, face down in a splash of red snow.

"Freya!" he cried, his voice harsh and terrible. Heedless of his own injuries, he crashed to his knees at her side and turned her over, holding her up with one arm and searching desperately for a pulse with his free hand. As his questing fingers found a faint, thready pulse, pale eyelids twitched once and then fluttered beneath his face. He watched her eyes open, and they seemed to fix upon his own face. She drew in a rattling breath through lips parted as if about to speak, and Fratley's own breath caught in his throat, but she simply sighed. He waited, still holding his breath, still looking into the eyes that weren't quite looking back at him.

He waited until his lungs burned and then drew in just a faint gasp of air, enough to whisper, "Freya?"

No reply. No response at all, in point of fact. He blinked, and then realized that she hadn't done so since opening her eyes. His hands tightened a bit, tensing as if for battle against a fact that he wasn't ready to face, and then he nearly dropped her as he felt another weak pulse against the fingers he still held to her throat.

Not yet. Not yet and not for years, not for decades if he had any say in the matter. Jolted from his shocked stillness, he worked now at a frantic pace. First a life spell to strengthen the fading ties that bound her to this broken body and air breathed carefully into her lungs. Next, he renewed the string of spells that he had been casting minutes ago...precious minutes that should have never been wasted. A spell to knit together delicate tissues, another to mend the cracks in her ribs, and yet another variation to heal the tears in muscle. A restorative spell to replenish fluid and another for all the blood she had lost, and finally two quickening spells to hasten healing and give aid to her laboring heart.

He allowed himself to breathe when she breathed, and checked her pulse in between each spell. Now and then an ice wraith or two, or sometimes a pack of five or more would come shrieking in and out of the cavern not twenty feet away from the two Dragoons, but neither side paid any heed to the other, both intent on the continuation of their lives and way of living. As the minutes ticked by, more and more of the wraiths that had swarmed out towards the nearest shore came winging by, anxious it seemed to regain the safety of their cavern before the lava locked them out and yet reluctant to leave their brief taste of open air.

At least a half hour passed, and with Freya's life now reasonably secure, Fratley spared a moment's thought for their joint safety from the wraiths that had so nearly sent one of them to the grave. Yet after a careful look around, the Dragoon simply sat more comfortably near Freya and did not move. The dangerous creatures were gathering near the cavern entrance, flying in tight circles and swirls. They were packed together in such numbers that it seemed a miracle that they did not constantly crash into one another, but ages and generations of living in cramped confinement had fostered a subtle body language and constant awareness of each other, so that the individual clusters and groups seemed to fly in patterns drawn by one mind. Now and again, one would cling with sharp claws to a boulder or outcropping and fix a beady eye on Fratley or Freya, tilting its head as if trying to remember if these two had been there last year. But other than these brief, curious examinations, none of the wraiths showed any signs of interest in the two strangers, malicious or otherwise. The tearing, biting, clawing fury of the tunnels had simply been a product of the wraiths' need to gain the outside, and hadn't been an attack at all.

And yet...Fratley watched the tunnel entrance and noted the wraiths that still flew in and out, as if enjoying the rare freedom of being able to choose to return and depart again as they wished. The book that had led the Dragoon Knights to this place had mentioned one hour in which one might venture deep into the volcano in relative safety. Though the wraiths might not have any interest in outsiders as either prey or foes, still their clawed wings and single-minded flight made the tunnel a death trap.

He turned most of his attention back to his patient, renewing the string of healing spells. Just as the last sparkles of light faded into Freya's body, a thundering rush of a thousand wings startled Fratley to his feet, lance automatically in his hand and his eyes darting this way and that. In amazement, the Knight watched as every single wraith in sight suddenly rushed upwards to form a swirling cloud of pale leathery wings and then funneled into the tunnel. Within a matter of five minutes, the mountainside had been cleared, with nothing but Freya's blood as proof that there had ever been a single ice wraith about.

The Knight stared at the suddenly empty landscape for a while, and then gave a small shrug and went about setting up a tent in which to shelter Freya more properly, now that it seemed safe to move her. It was a matter of moments to erect the small shelter under a protective overhang of rock, and another minute in which to carefully pick his way over to the tent with Freya cradled carefully in his arms. He wove another series of spells over her and then looked about him, as if the silence was now even more unnerving than the presence of the wraiths.

Fratley watched Freya breathe for a minute and then let his eyes rove absently over their surroundings, thinking over the book that had led them to the Fire Shrine. One last glance at the peacefully slumbering form tucked away in their tent, and the Dragoon stood up, lance in hand.

* * * * *

She woke up suddenly, without any preamble of light striking her closed lids in a red haze, or of sensations and sounds slowly intruding through the thick curtain of unconsciousness. Freya simply opened her eyes and was awake.

The first thing she saw was a bright, watery light streaming in through the open flaps of the tent she had apparently been sleeping in, and Sir Fratley standing guard just outside. Her head felt light, as if she were a bit detached from her usual world, and she attempted to sit up that she might shake her head and look around a bit, and perhaps orient herself better. But her attempt at simply hauling herself upright was interrupted by a sharp stab of pain that seemed to paralyse her left side all the way up to her shoulder, and Freya moaned and fell back onto her blanket. The light filtering into the tent shifted a bit, and Sir Fratley's face was soon peering in at her. He sighed but said nothing, as if not quite surprised that she had tried to get up as soon as she was awake, as if nothing had happened.

As if she'd never been injured.

The events leading up to her loss of consciousness suddenly rushed back at her, and Freya fought with a brief disorientation as she tried to tie her last waking memories with her awakening in this tent. Sir Fratley was seated by her side now, eyes closed and head bent and he wove a spell around her. She felt some of the pain fade, but then frowned as her mind continued to work.

"You..." she said in a sleep-rough voice, and then paused to clear her throat. "You came back for me."

In most circumstances, and with most women, this would have been a statement of joy and of the subtle triumphs of the gentler sex, but then again, Freya was quite unique. A frown still creased her brow, and pain of a different sort than the kind her wounds gave her was evident in her eyes. The man hovering over her gave her a small, lopsided smile, the usually happy expression an ill fit over the lines of worry on his face.

"It occurred to me that you were not overfond of watching me turn and walk away from you," Fratley said, his sober tone making his flippant answer less so.

Freya listened to his attempt at humor and his serious manner but could scarcely give them any weight, with this one thought growing more and more clear in her mind; that she had come between him and his duty. Suddenly wanting to be free of the confining blanket, she made a second, more careful attempt to rise from her makeshift bed. With a supportive arm lent to her by Sir Fratley, soon she was sitting up, and after a few deep breaths in which to try and tamp down the deep ache in her side, she shook her head and said softly, "You should not have turned back. You should have let me die. You would have gained the gem as was your duty and Cleyra would be safe behind the storm as it should. I would live on in your memory, and it would have been enough and more."

At her side, Fratley let out a brief sigh and then countered, "And why should I have gone on, when the gemstone would wait patiently for me and safe inside the mountain and you had only a few minutes left?"

"Because I'm a burden to you!" Freya cried, her voice strained. She looked up at him, her pale blue eyes bright with pain, upset with him and yet even more upset at herself. "I should have never told you I loved you, for now it is ever in your mind, whether you know it or not, and cold though everyone might think you I know better, and you have and will again in your kindness and caring look past your duty in order to keep me from hurt and harm. Some day you will be killed by your concern for me, and it will have been better for me if I had never been born at all than to be the cause of your death!"

She seemed to plead with him to understand, and yet to agree with her would have meant that he would affirm that her life was worthless when compared to his duty. But there was duty, and then there was duty. Although he remained seated, Fratley drew himself up as best he could and replied sternly, "All die, Freya, and every Dragoon has taken oath to lay down their lives for one another. How is it different should I die for you rather than for some other of our order?" She looked back at him with the same expression yet on her face, not understanding this fine difference, this new weighing of values in his life. Exasperation crept into his voice as he continued. This sentimental out of all the times they had spoken was she clinging to the legalistic view of their order, and the older Knight found himself arguing with the more passionate words that she would have usually used.

"No, and it is different, for I would gladly die in your stead out of more than loyalty. You would have my life, Freya, for affection as well, just as I know that you would count it an honor and priviledge to take my place in death's arms. You will lose me someday, Freya, to death, and what better could I hope for than to die in battle, and in saving you as well?"

She shook her head and argued with him further. "And while you live, and hope for that great death, I am yet dragging you down. Were the gem only attainable this once in a lifetime, would you have pressed on, leaving me to my end?"

He glared at her, but she had not been for years that fragile-looking Novice, quailing before his reputation and imposing presence. To his silence she insisted, "Would you?"

Instead of answering, he mimicked her question back at her. "Would you?"

She understood him immediately, but he deliberately took her reluctance to answer as incomprehension, and clarified. "Would you have left me? Knowing that I would die, and needlessly, just for a stone that would still be there next year, and the year after that? Knowing that you would trade haste for my life, when duty did not call with such urgency that such sacrifices were necessary?"

She simply returned his earlier glare, silently but clearly stating that she found this reversal of questions manifestly unfair. He met her eyes more calmly and added, "I wager that you would not have even given ear to my orders, much less gotten up at all to walk away, nor given more than a fleeting thought to the gemstone. And that is not disobedient, nor undutiful, nor at all weak."

When she would have answered, he held up a hand to forestall any further speech. "No more for today, Lady Freya. You are tired out from your injuries. Sleep now."

His more formal tone of voice and use of her title might have served adequately in ending the conversation, but Fratley felt unaccountably tired and worn and little given to taking chances. Before she could protest, he cast a quick spell, and caught her in his arms as she slumped over, fast asleep.

* * * * *

She snapped wide awake, and this time found herself lying in a spacious bunk set deep into a niche in a wall, paneled with polished wood and studded with bright brass nails. Instead of the thin blankets that they had packed for the Journey, there were extravagantly embroidered sheets and comforters piled on top of her from neck to toes, and as she craned her head to look about her, she found that she was absolutely surrounded by downy pillows, all with the crest of the Alexandrian royal house embroidered on it in gold thread. The only thing that she could tie into her last awakening was that Sir Fratley was still close by. But rather than standing guard outside their tent, he was now seated at a table in the middle of what looked to be an excruciatingly expensive airship cabin, busily writing in the book they had liberated from the Daguerro archives.

"Sir Fratley?" she ventured, and the thin scratching of pen on paper halted immediately. After quickly wiping off his pen and capping the inkwell, he brought the tattered book over to her along with a chair. As he strode over, Freya made a few tentative attempts to push herself up from the oversoft bedding without smothering herself. She succeeded after a few moments, and was pleased as well as a bit confused to note that her injury hardly pained her at all. Such a state should only have been possible after at least a week of rest and recovery.

Sir Fratley set his chair down by the bed and then settled into it. "It appears," he began, tapping the book in his hand, "that we misinterpreted a key passage in this tome. Or perhaps more specific information could have been found in the missing pages." Freya blinked at him, both at his words and at his easy tone, as if their brief argument of - a few hours ago? - had never even occurred. Freya noted again the cabin, with the fleecy white clouds flying past the portholes. Along with a sense that she had been asleep for far longer than one sleep spell allowed, there was the puzzle of how in the world she had gone from the frozen wasteland of the Fire Shrine to this airship.

Fratley noted her vague confusion and sat back in his chair. "You have a dozen questions, at least," he noted. "Ask them in what order you wish, and sooner or later we shall come to the matter of this book."

"How have we come to be on this airship?" she asked, simply blurting out the question that rose first to the surface of her mind.

Her companion nodded and replied immediately, "This will also answer, 'how long have I been asleep?' Forgive me, Freya, but I've kept you sleeping for five days." To her wide eyes and loosed jaw he actually smiled and said, "You need to heal, and I wanted to conserve my strength in case you awoke in the mood for another verbal battle."

This pointed remark set Freya blushing to the tips of her ears, but Sir Fratley seemed not to notice and continued his answering. "Your friend, Queen Alexandros, had been on a state visit to Lindblum to see her friends and relatives there. A loyal and caring friend indeed, for she grew anxious over confused reports that we had disappeared from Daguerro and intended to lay siege to the entire continent to the North. She sent not only her own ship but five of Regent Cid's to the Forgotten Continent, there to search us out from the air, with orders from her Majesty's very hand that the crew should lend us what assistance we asked.

They found us the day after I had spelled you to your long rest, and for that I am heartily thankful, not because you are so over heavy, but because flying would be less jarring to your injuries than being carried 'cross mountains and valleys all the way to Daguerro. We are now headed north to Cleyra and should, in fact, reach it this very afternoon."

Freya had by this time fought down her embarassment and assimilated all of the new information. Nodding at the book still in Sir Fratley's hand, she asked next, "And what of this misinterpreted passage that you mentioned? Was the Fire Shrine not our destination after all?"

"It was the place, assuredly," Fratley replied, "but I wish that we had known about the wraiths. The hour of safety in which to do our treasure hunting did not begin as soon as the blood of the wraiths began to cool the tunnel, as we found to our peril. Nor did it begin with their departure from the tunnels."

Tapping the cover of the worn and tattered book with one finger, he continued, "As I have now noted in this journal, the tunnels are only safe once all of the wraiths have returned to their hidden caverns. The corridors remain cool from their passing for a while, and the danger from the wraiths themselves is finally past."

He cast the book aside, onto a sturdy side table where it settled comfortably amidst the clutter of several boxes and pouches already there, and then picked up one intricately carved wooden box. Setting it on the bed next to Freya, he said, "While you were asleep, I went in after the wraiths as they raced back to their home, to retrieve your lance which I had left behind in my haste to treat you of your wounds. I also found this some way further along the passage, and brought it back, thinking that you might find it intruiging."

Freya lifted the lid of the container and then immediately dropped it, crying out, "My God!"

"Such language, Lady Freya," Fratley chided, and then asked, "Do you think it will suit?"

The blood red stone nestled in the silk-lined box was still in its raw form, with thick veins and clumps of mythril still clinging to it, but at first glance it was apparent that even after it was cut down and polished the thing would still be half again as large as an apple.

"I took the liberty of bending my mind towards the thing, to be sure that it indeed held power," the older Dragoon said, and then added ruefully, "The resultant storm nearly sent the airship into a mountain, and I fear I am no longer in the captain's good graces."

Seeing that his companion was still utterly entraced by the glittering stone, Fratley took the opportunity to congratulate themselves. "The Journey was a success after all, Lady Freya. Well done."

With a bit of effort, she tore her eyes away from the treasure before her and then looked up at Sir Fratley. She nodded at him with a small smile, and then sat looking at him for a while, thinking to herself about all that had happened in the past months, and especially the past week. Now that all was over, with the Journey nearly complete and the both of them relatively safe and sound, she found that after all, her anguish over her injury and its results were but scattered leaves to be left for the wind to blow away. Tired and weak and worried...she had simply overreacted.

It was true that if their positions had been reversed, she likely would not have left Sir Fratley to die, even had the King suddenly appeared and commanded her so. And perhaps she had slipped back a little, into the ways of her novitiate. Wanting to fulfil Sir Fratley's expectations of her, both real and imagined, by being all that one could desire or expect in a Dragoon Knight. Freya wondered how she might word an apology to him for her outburst when Sir Fratley spoke instead.

"And if you are wondering as you watch me, whether this gem acts as a soothing salve to my conscience, then the answer is no, because I do not have need of such a thing. Were we flying homeward without any prize except for that journal and the knowledge it contains, I would still be satisfied with the results. The path I chose brings me back to Burmecia with you still alive and at my side, and I do not regret any part of the Journey that ends so."

Freya shook her head and began to protest, "No, I was not going to say..." but just then a knock sounded at the cabin's door.

A sailor came in at Sir Fratley's call to enter, and then reported in a brisk manner, "You asked that I inform you when we crossed the border into Burmecia, Sir Knight. Just wanted to let you know, Sir, that we have, and should land by Cleyra in just another hour." With that, he tipped his hat at them both and bowed his way out.

Fratley replaced the lid to the box, put it back onto the side table, and then said, "Well, now that we are technically in Burmecia once more and you are cheered by the success of our Journey, I have something to ask."

Freya wondered what location had to do with anything, and gave a rueful inner laugh at once more finding herself with no idea where Sir Fratley's words had sprung from, nor where they were leading. Still in a bit of shock from her initial look at the gemstone he had found, she bantered with a light smile, "Ask away, Sir Knight."

He did not return the smile, but instead leaned forward in his chair, with his elbows resting on his knees and his hand clasped as if he were intent over weighty matters at a conference table. Brown eyes looked steadily and with all seriousness at Freya, and he asked, "Do you despise me now?"

Freya stared back at him, caught completely off guard by the question, and not understanding it at all. "What?" she asked incredulously, with an almost offended tone in her voice, as if the suggestion that she should feel such a thing toward him was an undeserved insult.

"From what I have gathered, you quite nearly worshipped me during your novitiate," Fratley said. "And you've made clear how you care for me. But for all the things you've told me, I have no idea how much of your admiration and affection are based upon this idea you have of me as this cool, uncompromising Knight, or whether your opinion of me is formed upon...other things that I can not explain."

He waved one hand vaguely in the air as if half-heartedly grasping for a formless definition, and then added, "It is not so simple a thing for me anymore, to say that my duty is paramount. The form that duty takes - and the results of my choices - now govern my actions, rather than the plain and too-simple list of priorities that were drilled into me so long ago. Perhaps this Ice-hearted Sir Fratley that I was would have made the better Dragoon, but I find the one I am now to be a better person, and I would not regret this change, except that perhaps I have fallen in your eyes. If so, tell me."

Aghast that her words should be taken to mean such things, Freya hurried to reply, her words tumbling out over each other in a rush. "No, and never. You were called ice-hearted but you never were in fact. I told you before we departed Cleyra that you had not changed in your years of absence, and that still holds. I only...I did not expect you to return for me, as I would have for you, because..."

Her speech slowed, and she grimaced at having talked herself into an uncomfortable corner, but then gamely went on, having always given him honesty, at least. "Because I would have chosen to turn aside from my duty for the reason that I could not have born your death...not as easily as I thought you might have withstood mine. But you did come back, and I have some lingering doubts as to whether my heart is yet a burden or blessing to you..."

Before her, Sir Fratley suddenly straightened up in his chair, and Freya cut off her words, wondering suddenly if he desired the conversation to end. But he only shook his head briefly and then asked quietly, "And this love that you fear is a nuisance to me...if it is undiminished as you say, does it now burden you? Would you, if possible, wipe your heart clear of me, as my mind was of you?"

She immediately started to shake her head no, but he went on as if not expecting - or needing - her to answer. "Perhaps it is well that you let me leave Burmecia without speaking your heart and mind all those years ago. For whatever took my memory might well have taken yours as well, and what tragedy if there were neither you nor I to recall one to the other."

Freya frowned at the thought and mused over it for a moment. Then, casting her eyes down, she responded in a low voice as if confessing something to be ashamed of. "No matter if my memory had been lost, nor no matter if it is lost time upon time, I would always love you once we met again," she murmured.

Reaching over to take one of her hands in his, Fratley waited patiently until she raised her head to meet his gaze. After only a moment, her clear blue eyes were lifted to his face once more.

Smiling gently at her, he replied, "As I would you."


"Freya," Fratley repeated, more insistently, and she blinked and seemed to focus directly upon him once more. "What are you thinking of, that you look at me so strangely?"

"I was wondering...what you meant," she said rather blankly. Her heart seemed to have stopped, and she wondered how many more shocks she could take after her injury before passing out entirely.

Her other hand was taken up as well, and both held carfully between Fratley's own. Leaning forward again, he said in quiet, steady tone, "The night before we started this journey you knelt in the sands at the foot of Cleyra and told me something you'd waited eight years to say. I thought to say this to you at the same place, but I find the idea of testing your patience further to be intolerable."

He gripped both of her hands tight, almost crushing her fingers, but she felt it not at all as she listened to him speak.

"I love thee, Freya."

He watched her struggle to blink away tears and draw in steady breaths, and felt a pang that this woman had suffered so much at his hand. Pressing the fingers of one hand against the small lump on his vest where Freya's Novice medal still lay pinned, he said, "And I loved you before, and promise to love you always. Forgive me Freya, for the years that I did not tell you so."

She rubbed at her eyes in an appealingly childish manner for one of her years, nodded until he had to laugh at her, and then suddenly leaned forward and threw her arms around him, sending pillows tumbling to the floor every which way.

A bit of alarm flitted through Sir Fratley'd mind that she could very well be pulling at her wound by clinging to him so, but he firmly ignored it and instead allowed himself the pleasure of doing absolutely nothing but enjoying the moment. He put his arms around Freya quite carefuly at first, mindful of her injuries, but she tightened her own limbs around his neck rather pointedly. And so, reminding himself that this woman of all women was most certainly not made of glass, Fratley gathered her close, dragging her nearly entirely off the bed and onto his knees, and held her tight.

About a minute into the moment, he gradually began to note that there was not a single glimmer of discomfort or embarassment to be found in the very proper and formal Sir Fratley at this unabashed display of affection. He stared at some random spot on the wall across from him and examined his thoughts and feelings rather than his actions for some time, and then closed his eyes, smiling. He felt happy...he felt whole...and he felt as if he had finally returned after a journey of more than the past eight months.

He come back to Burmecia and his duties as a Dragoon Knight over two years ago, but that had been a simple matter of location and vocation. Now, he had finally come Freya.