Disclaimer: I do not make money off of Fire Emblem.
Summary: FE7. One-shot. The first thing Isadora does upon joining the clergy is to take a vow of silence.
Pairings: mostly Harken/Isadora.
Rating: T for violence & implied sex.
Notes: This fic combines all three of Isadora's paired endings. 'Nuff said. Also gonna warn for a lot of haphazard jumping around in time and wacko tense shifting. And serious lack of editing. And notes are posted at the usual place.
White Storks at Dawn
"But there are dreams that cannot be/And there are storms we cannot weather"
- "I Dreamed a Dream", Les Miserables
The first thing Isadora did after joining the convent in Etruria was to take a vow of silence. When one of her fellow novices asked her why, she wrote, black ink spilling across parchment in sturdy classical script: So that I might better hear the voice of God.
It was not a lie.
But it was the last time she wrote in reply. For words, even unspoken, intruded upon the silence she had sworn.
Of all the duties she was assigned, her favorite was the garden. Spring in Pherae, nestled between mountain and sea at the foothills of Bolm, had always passed too swiftly into summer. But here, the weeks stretched on as color bloomed across the land, filling the convent with green and light. Isadora liked the smell of wet horses and rich, dark earth crumbling between her fingers; she delighted in watching the tall, awkward storks who had taken up temporary residence on the convent grounds, nesting on the rooftop, wading in the nearby ponds - a gentle reminder of the marshlands of Lycia and the home she had left behind. The work gave her some measure of peace, much as fighting had always stimulated her spirit. But here at least she could find comfort in the knowledge that the seeds she so lovingly planted would someday bear fruit and provide sustenance for her and her fellow sisters.
Perhaps she should have been born a farmer's daughter. Instead she had been born the youngest child of a minor country noble, with no prospects and no future but that which she carved with her own hands. It was one of the first things her parents taught her as a little girl. Her family had lost favor with the previous lord, and by then her mother had already married off two daughters, and what little lands her father possessed would be divided among her older brothers upon his death. For her there was nothing left but the cloister.
Isadora chose knighthood not because she desired to live a life in service to her lord, nor because she dreamed of glory and adventure: all of that came later. She chose the knighthood, because she would choose no other path.
They left on a fine clear morning, Lord Elbert and his knights. Years later, Isadora could still remember: their horses' tossing heads, their spears glittering in the sun, the bright banners streaming in the sky. They rode not to war, but to an urgent meeting with Lord Uther of Ostia, a journey of roughly half a year to and back. In those days, half a year seemed an eternity, and parting so final.
He had leaned down from his mount to whisper his farewells, and she had said, Be safe.
I will, he had replied. I promise. I will return to you unharmed.
Lycia was then still at peace after the succession dispute in Caelin the previous spring; the greatest danger on the road would be bandits. But still his smile reassured her, sweeping away that nameless fear in her heart.
Then he had said, Isadora, when I come back - will you marry me?
She no longer remembered what she had said in reply.
Most of the novices were young, and many were unused to manual labor, as was evidenced by the copious grumbling among the girls before they turned in each night.
In truth, neither was Isadora, but by then she had spent almost thirty years of her life training alongside men and fellow knights. She had been seven, she recalled now, when she first declared her intentions to the rest of the family. How her mother had wept. How her two eldest brothers had laughed. But her father had looked her solemnly in her eye and said only, It will be difficult, daughter.
Bruises, scraped knees, palms blistered and bleeding, muscles screaming in pain: these were the memories of her childhood. But it paid off, in the end. When her third brother was knighted three years later, Isadora joined him at Castle Pherae as his page.
It was the spring she became a squire, after another four years had passed, when a stranger arrived at the castle.
He was a young knight from a neighboring canton. Nemea to the south, whose infamously cruel marquess had long been at odds with Lord Elbert and had most recently sent troops to the border in an overt act of aggression. But now came news that Nemea's highest ranking general was dead, betrayed by one of the knights who had served under him.
It was that very knight who had ridden now to their canton, begging judgment from Lord Elbert. Lord Elbert, however, in a daring but not altogether unexpected move, granted him mercy, refuge, and a place among the knights of Pherae.
Isadora found herself quite curious about this newcomer. She heard from the gossip of her fellow squires that he had singlehandedly ridden into the Nemean camp to slay his own general. What terrifying skill he must possess, thought Isadora. What sheer nerve.
Her brother only snorted at the speculation. Could such a man be trusted? he asked. For surely a man who had betrayed once, would no doubt betray again.
She remembered the first time she met him with particular clarity because it had been the first anniversary of her squirehood. Just weeks before, Lord Elbert and his young son had ridden off with a handful of men, including her brother, leaving Lady Eleanora in charge. They were headed to Ostia, not only to discuss what ought to be done about Nemea - which was swiftly becoming embroiled in civil war after their marquess too had fallen in battle - but more importantly to participate in the oath rites that took place only once every quarter of a century. Isadora, unfortunately, had been recovering from a serious fever when they left. And after the fever broke, and the greatest danger had passed, she could not quite erase the disappointment she felt at being left behind.
She had been sulking in the gardens after training that day, Isadora recalled. The newly promoted General Marcus was a harsh taskmaster, who cared not that she was female, and physically weaker than her peers - and though Isadora appreciated his strictness and sense of equality, she often felt singled out nonetheless. It was not enough for her to be just as good as the boys; always she had to be faster. Smarter. Better.
The lilies had bloomed early that year, pale and pretty in the shaded courtyard. The stone fountain at the center was overgrown with ivy; it had been smashed during some long ago battle, and water no longer burbled through it. Isadora hopped onto the outer rim and began to walk, placing one foot carefully after the other.
A sudden rustling noise startled her, and when she turned to look, she slipped. She closed her eyes, readying herself for impact, reminding herself desperately of her training.
But the impact never came. A pair of warm, sturdy arms embraced her as she fell, steadying her. Isadora opened her eyes, blushing, and shoved her savior away.
"Are you okay?" It was a man's voice, with an accent closer to that of Bern than of eastern Lycia, and in that moment Isadora knew who he must be.
They'd said he was young, but she hadn't realized just how young. She had seen him only from a distance before, but up close she saw that the man could only be a few years her senior, only recently knighted at best. His hair was the sandy blond of an easterner rather than the rich gold of an Etrurian; his gray eyes were unexpectedly gentle and kind for one who had murdered his commanding officer in cold blood.
"Yes," she said, and cleared her throat when her voice came out high and quavering, like a girl's. "Thank you."
"You're one of the squires, aren't you?" There was no ridicule or condemnation in his tone, only mild curiosity.
She nodded, and before she could consider her next response properly, blurted out, "I'm squired to my brother, but he left with the others. To Ostia, I mean. I would have gone with them, but I was sick."
"I see," he said, and for a brief moment Isadora thought she caught an inexplicable glimpse of sorrow flash across his face before it was replaced by a smile. "I've seen you training. You're very good. You would have made a worthy addition to their party."
Isadora hated that she blushed with undisguised pleasure at his praise. "Thank you," she said again. Carried away by a sudden buoyant boldness, she added, "You are very kind, Sir-?"
She regretted it almost as soon as her words left her mouth; the young knight must be appalled at her forwardness, mere squire that she was, and a girl to boot.
But Harken laughed, the sound low and surprising in the stillness. "My name is Harken," he said. "And you?"
She told him, and this time she did not regret.
When summer visited the convent at last, Isadora took to waking before dawn, before all the others, to clear the weeds from their little garden. Only when the first rays of light began to bleed into the horizon did she return to join her sisters at the communal baths - a luxury for one born and raised in distant Pherae, but a fact of life for any Etrurian. After bathing, they broke morning fast, then gathered in the main hall for morning prayers.
Her eighteen year old self would have laughed to see her now. That was the year her brother had died, in a skirmish in the foothills. The year she had been formally knighted by Lord Elbert himself, and assigned to the royal guard. An honorable position, though perhaps less exciting than riding with the patrols who secured the border.
She supposed she had always believed in God, in some higher power, found comfort in the teachings of Elimine. But in those days, Isadora had spared no time or interest for such trivialities, though her father had been a staunch follower of the old ways, and Lady Eleanora, whom she respected and admired even now, was a devout adherent of the Church. In those days, faith in her lord and in her own skills had been all the faith she required.
When had she begun to doubt, to question? Even now, looking back, she could not say.
She remembered only turning eighteen, and coming to two distinct and yet not unrelated conclusions.
The first was that Harken was no traitor: rather, he was a man who had chosen to uphold his sense of honor rather than his loyalty to a corrupt lord.
The second was that she was in love with him.
Isadora would forever remember that summer as the summer of waiting, of hot listless days stretching into a few brief hours of darkness.
They received word from Lord Elbert exactly sixteen days after his departure; the letter dated to a few days before. He and his men had reached the border, he wrote, and would write them next when they arrived at Castle Santaruz. But a week passed, and then another, and no messenger arrived from sky, earth, or sea.
"One must allow for a few days," said General Marcus, "if they were not lucky enough to find an Ilian knight for hire."
On horse, after all, it was about a fortnight's ride from Castle Pherae to Castle Santaruz at the fastest, unless the message was urgent, and the rider pushed himself to his utmost limits.
Another week passed, and even General Marcus began to worry. Young Lord Eliwood began to make plans to set off after his father.
"Perhaps my lord husband was delayed," said Lady Eleanora, but Isadora could hear the doubt in her voice. Santaruz was a peaceful canton, long allied with Pherae. Whatever dangers Isadora had feared for Lord Elbert and his men, they did not lie on the road to Santaruz.
After yet another week of silence - one month since Lord Elbert's last correspondence, and forty-seven days since he rode out with his knights - a letter came at last. Lady Eleanora tore the note open with trembling hands despite the practiced calm of her expression.
It was from Lord Helman of Santaruz. He had neither seen nor heard from Lord Elbert and his men ever since they were sighted on the border.
There were times she wondered, as she toiled alongside the other novices, sweeping the floors, laundering their clothes, if she had not been running away after all. It was the usual explanation for a woman her age. Widowhood, spinsterhood, annulment, all of them shameful but the first.
The worst of it was knowing that perhaps their marriage had not yet been unsalvageable. Perhaps there was something she could have said, something she could have done. Should have said, should have done.
Perhaps she should have retired as a knight, borne a child for him. Hadn't he confided in her once, before everything changed, how he longed for a family to call his own? But what now could make up for years of words unsaid, years of all the things she had never heard, could not hear, refused to hear? Was it not her fault, for not forgiving him? For being blind to his pain, so consumed by her own hurt as she was? For holding him to promises he could no longer keep?
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, chanted the voices in her head as Isadora ripped the weeds from the earth so viciously that her skin tore and her fingers bled.
There was a time she could still remember, when she had felt with all her heart that it would be better to die than live a life without him. Not just felt: she had known. The castle walls shrunk in about her; food turned bland and tasteless; the world was seeped of color and joy. Such a life could not possibly be worth living. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Waiting aimlessly for the end was sure to come. Or perhaps the end had already come, and left her behind.
In the end, even sleep had been no respite.
As she gathered weeds in her apron, Isadora relived that distant summer: all the empty days, and nights filled with distorted memories of the first man she had ever killed. In her dreams she had been twenty again, escorting Lady Eleanora and her son on a quiet outing to the sea, when suddenly a raving madman jumped out from the roadside, waving an axe around, screaming nonsense and bitter insults. Little Eliwood, still young but already possessed of the courage of a true lord, leaped down from his horse and threw himself before his mother. But what could a child do with a mere hunting knife, against a creature who knew neither fear nor pain?
Lady Eleanora, ever quick of mind, dismounted and pushed her son to the side. Both of them stumbled to the ground. Isadora took advantage of the distraction to charge.
Her blade ran through the madman's back, but to her horror, he did not fall or drop his axe, continuing instead to totter towards her fallen liege lady. Again Isadora stabbed him. He sank to his kness, still crawling. Again and again she stabbed, until at last she screamed, blinded by tears, and sliced through his neck in a single clean stroke.
His head, still stubborn in death, rolled a few feet before stopping at Lady Eleanora's feet.
Isadora screamed again, but this time no sound escaped her throat.
The madman's face belonged to Harken.
As summer faded to fall, Isadora found herself holing away in the library more and more often when she had finished her chores and the daily worship. Though she had received the standard noblewoman's tutoring alongside her formal knight's education, she had never had much time or energy to indulge in reading. And though it was true that Pherae possessed one of the few extensive collections of non-magical tomes in all of Lycia, theirs was nothing compared to Araphen's, or Ostia's, or even that of this little Etrurian convent.
Best of all, the library remained cool and silent even on the hottest afternoon, and even when the days began to grow shorter and crisper, it provided shelter from the winds.
The silence was something Isadora appreciated in particular. She had listened, at first, but the idle chitchat of the other sisters grew tiresome at times, like so many little pebbles battering at the wall she had constructed around herself.
And yet humans were not meant to be silent, she thought. Even the voiceless storks she had grown so fond of communicated to each other through the clattering of their bills.
I am not the woman you think I am, she longed to shout.
What a joke her words seemed.
How she longed to laugh, these days, when all she had left to laugh at was herself.
She never asked about his past; he never told her. It had never seemed necessary before, and after Nergal's fall it seemed even less so. Why bother bringing such darkness into their lives, after all they had lived through already? Enough people whispered about it even now, more than a decade after Nemea's collapse. Let bygones be bygones, as her mother used to say. The important thing was that he had returned to her safely, against all hope, still the gentle man she had fallen in love with all those years ago.
They were wed the autumn after their return, with the blessings of Lady Eleanora and Lord Eliwood, and to the joy of all.
Married life changed little between them, Isadora found. During the day they returned to their respective duties, and at night they returned to each other and their shared bed. So gentle he was. So slow, so careful, as if afraid he would break her beneath him. Neither of them ever spoke, as if weaving a spell of silence to bind their very essence together.
The spell broke always at daybreak, as spells are wont to. Sometimes he left first; sometimes she did. It did not bother her at first; after all, now that he was with her again, they had all the time in the world. And in the aftermath of Lord Elbert's tragic passing and the threat of war that had almost come to pass, there was much to be done, much to be fixed and rebuilt.
Now, surrounded by shadows and musty tomes, Isadora wondered when it was that she had first noticed, that Harken no longer smiled.
The last time Isadora remembered hearing his laughter was that long ago afternoon in the woods, some months before Lord Elbert left on his final doomed journey. She had forgotten her cloak, and he was teasing her in his quiet way about her pink cheeks, flushed for reasons other than the chill. In the end he'd relented and taken off his own cloak, wrapping it carefully around her shoulders.
Then he'd kissed her.
Even now the memory of that miraculous moment still stole her breath away.
One thing Isadora knew for certain: half a year after their wedding, she was woken one night by his incoherent cries at her side. She rolled out of bed, suddenly frightened. As if sensing her absence, he began to thrash about in his sleep, muttering and screaming in turn, as she watched on, helpless.
She called for him, called his name in the hope that her voice would reach him. She pleaded with him, with her father's spirits, with Elimine and the distant God in whom she had always placed her faith, screamed at him to wake up wake up wake up please.
The only thing she could make out from his wild rambling and through her own uncontrollable sobbing was the name of the long-deceased lord of Nemea.
It was not the first time she'd lost him, but neither would it be the last.
Sometimes she caught him staring, looking at her as if from far away. Once her heart might have sung with joy at his attention; now, only fear, vague and distant, seized hold of her.
She shoved aside that fear, ignoring it, burying it deep down inside, where it would never be able to rear its ugly head once more. It was easier to do than she expected. Among his men, consulting with General Marcus, chastising Lowen, Harken seemed little changed from the memory of the man she had loved. And when he looked at young Lord Eliwood, his gaze was ever clear and unclouded.
When Lord Eliwood announced, some years later, that his wife was expecting, all of Pherae rejoiced.
But Harken disappeared in the midst of the celebrations that very night. Isadora remembered searching for him, searching everywhere. Through the courtyards, the raucous streets, the silent woods. The scent of smoke and pine and cider. How odd, the things one remembered.
In the end she found him sitting on the floor of their quarters, gazing at the dying fire.
He looked up at her approach.
I couldn't save him, he said, in simple, matter-of-fact tone.
Isadora knelt and gathered him into her arms, whispering meaningless words of consolation in his ear, knowing not what it was that he saw, unable to guess even at whom he referred to. In the darkness then arose strange, troubling thoughts, half-truths hissing temptation to her heart.
How easy it would be to end it all here, end it all now.
I love you, he murmured. I love you.
But his eyes were watching the shadows in the fireplace behind her.
In the ninth year of their marriage, news came of strange things afoot in the mountains bordering Bern and Pherae. The past two years had brought nothing but ominous tidings from the east; conflicting reports flew here and there about the death of King Desmond of Bern, of the death of his heir Prince Zephiel, the death of both, the death of neither. Not even the citizens of Bern themselves seemed to know the truth. And yet things continued on as they always had, no hint of instability, no hint of unrest but for a slight increase in bandit activity on the border.
A decade now had passed since the last royal assassination attempt. The infamous Black Fang of old was scattered, destroyed. Those who still remembered the unusual circumstances surrounding that previous incident had been wary at first, but by now even the most suspicious had been forced to quell their concerns, for no further developments had occurred.
Still, something had to be done about those bandits. Poor Lord Eliwood, weary and aged ever since his wife's death in childbirth, ordered a small squadron of knights to flush them out, root out their leader.
When Isadora volunteered to take her husband's place as the captain of the squadron, Lord Eliwood looked at her with sad and all-too-knowing eyes. But he said nothing, and the next morning, Isadora rode into the misty hills where her brother had met his end all those years ago, a company of proud young knights at her back.
Despite all their caution, they were ambushed almost immediately. The hills blazed with colors yet, and the bandits took advantage of fog and leaf cover and tangled foliage to hide from her and her men.
Dismount! she had yelled. Everyone, dismount!
But Isadora remembered the doubt growing in the back of her mind, even then: surely these enemies were too organized to be mere bandits.
It was then that she saw him, a flash of wind between the trees.
That silvery mane, that lazy smirk, that confident stance. Despite all the years that had passed, there was no doubt in her mind as to who he was.
"Legault!" she cried out. "What are you -"
He turned. Winked at her. Flickered out of sight.
Without thinking, she followed.
He led her on a merry chase through the thicket, dancing in and out of her vision, like a ghost or some illusion, or shadows in the mist. Isadora, despite her unwieldy armor, despite knowing that he meant to draw her away from the battle, to separate her men from their commander, gritted her teeth and slogged after him.
In the end, they stumbled into a clearing, both of them gasping for breath. Isadora drew her sword, pointed the blade at his neck. Strangely, he made no move to flee.
As if he had wanted her to catch him, she thought.
Instead, he turned and shrugged, hands held high in surrender. "Your win this time, Dame Knight. Looks like age has finally caught up with me." When she did not respond, he tilted his head, still grinning. "Are you going to kill me now?"
She slowly lowered her blade. Sheathed it. "I... I can't."
Now he frowned. "Now, don't you go taking pity on me all of a sudden. We may have been allies back then, but that's certainly no longer the case. You're a proud knight of Pherae, and I'm nothing but a lowly sellsword."
She thought and thought about what she ought to tell him - after so many years, like miles of treacherous sea between them - but no words came to her, and in the end all she could say was, "Don't flatter yourself, Master Legault. I just... I just wanted to know. Why?"
"A man's gotta live somehow, Dame Knight." He was grinning again, as if he could see right through all of her lies, her pitiful excuses.
Isadora watched him in turn, but his expression did not falter. "You could come back with me. Lord Eliwood, he'd take you in. You could come work with us -"
"Cute," said Legault, and the sudden edge in his tone made her shrink back despite herself. But he was back to his usual breezy manner in no time. "But no thanks. Even the generous and ever-forgiving Marquess Pherae would think twice about hiring me if he knew what I've done. At least, I doubt he'll be wanting to go to war with his best friend over silly ol' me."
"What do you mean?" she asked desperately.
"I'm telling you that an old assassin just can't be trusted. Once a killer, always a killer."
"That's not what I -"
This time, his face did soften, if only slightly. "You're still as beautiful as I remember, you know. You and your man doing well?"
Isadora said, "Legault, please."
He jumped back, out of her reach. "Well, I guess it was nice seeing you again."
"Watch your blade!" he called out, instead of bidding her farewell. He had never liked good-byes, she remembered. Too final, he'd said, the night they'd found Harken wandering through a snowy battlefield high in the mountains of Bern, like a man possessed, a monster seeking only blood and death.
Then Legault's actual words hit her, and she glanced down.
He had fixed her scabbard again.
She did not know whether to laugh, or to weep.
In the cold hours before dawn, Isadora dreamed:
It seems my very existence is a dark weight upon your heart.
No, no, she whispered.
Since you left, all I have thought of is you.
"What were you thinking? You could have been killed!"
It was the first time ever since he'd returned to her that Isadora had seen him angry. She remembered taking strange comfort in his fury, in the flame that blazed within him yet.
"Did you think me incapable of leading my own mission?" she'd shouted back at him, well aware of her own hypocrisy. "I am not so weak that I would let myself be killed so easily!"
But the flame sputtered out as swiftly as it had burst into being.
I'm sorry, he had said. Forgive me.
What had she said in reply? What had he? Perhaps then it had already been too late, and no matter what they said, it would have made no difference.
It is I who am unworthy, she thought he might have said.
But that wasn't it. Had never been it.
Your heart does not lie with me anymore. It hasn't, not since...
How can you say that? I love you. I -
In the end their talk had turned to Zephiel.
Do you think he's still alive? she'd asked him, or some other useless, inane question like it.
For some time he had not answered. There was a time, he said at last, I thought I would rather die a knight than live in shame.
She did not ask what his words had to do with the prince: knew only that they must have some relevance that perhaps she would never comprehend, thought only that she was already married to a dead man.
What does it mean, to die as a knight? she had demanded.
What does it mean to live as one? she did not ask.
If there was one thing she regretted, Isadora thought, it was not the question she had asked, but the ones that she had not.
If only she had asked.
Winter in Etruria, Isadora soon found, was colder, though less abrupt, than winter in Pherae. The sisters huddled under their furs at night, singing songs of praise to while away the hours. Outside, snow powdered the frozen earth in glistening white, and the dark boughs of the trees weighed heavy with frost. The produce from the garden had long been harvested and stored in the cellars. The storks had long since departed for gentler climates; perhaps, somewhere, even at that very moment, Harken was watching the same pair of birds that had accompanied Isadora in her work through the seasons.
It had been one year now since she left him. One year since she walked away.
That pale winter morning she had handed Lord Eliwood and Lady Eleanora her formal resignation in person. Good old General Marcus, who had by then been babbling about retirement for years, accepted her sword and shield gravely, expressing his regret at her departure. And to Sir Lowen, whom she found in the kitchens with his grinning redheaded squire, she bid an awkward but fond farewell.
But for Harken she left only a brief note of apology. She could not bear to face him. Meeting him would only test her resolve, perhaps convince her that her decision was all just one big mistake.
And yet she could not bear to think that her last memory of Harken would be of him as he stood by the window the other day, watching her, lost and confused, his face worn and gray in the dimming light. Oh, for a memory as he had been! As they had been, before the twilight of their lives together.
But try as she might, all she could think of was a similar winter day, years before - her brother freshly buried, and she shivering as she knelt on the floor of the great hall before her lord and lady after a long night's vigil. Cold steel kissed her shoulders: once, twice.
When she rose, he had been waiting, smiling, in the crowd.
But now that memory was marred. What must he have thought, watching her go through the exact same ceremony he himself had endured just years before? Before the awakening, before the horror, before the betrayal.
She would never know.
Are you certain? General Marcus had asked. Are you truly ready to leave all this behind?
What he did not say: You are a woman, and no longer young. Where now can you go? Who now will take you?
And what she did not reply: I can no longer take up the sword. No longer. Never again.
As a girl Isadora had lost sleep once over this seeming contradiction: Elimine herself had fought as a Hero in the Scouring, and yet in her later years she had begun to preach nonviolence. What had happened? What had changed? If the elderly Elimine were to be sent back to her youth, at the height of bloodshed between man and dragon, would she still uphold her lofty principles of peace and understanding? Or did nonviolence apply only to mortal men? Only to creatures of light and goodness? Were exceptions allowed for those so villainous that surely only their deaths could ease the suffering of their numerous victims? Or were the pitiful oppressed then doomed to lifetimes of injustice upon injustice?
As she grew older she had cast aside those questions as the silly wonderings of a child. But now, in her self-imposed silence, they crept back to her like so many old friends.
Once a killer, always a killer, Legault had said. And though Isadora knew that to be false, still she could not help but doubt.
How could she atone for the lives she had stolen, the happiness she had taken for granted and destroyed with her own hands?
For me, there are no answers, she remembered another man saying, once, long ago.
Perhaps for her there were no answers either.
When she thought of their marriage, their relationship, it was hard not to think of it all as a failure. But what then of those nine long years? And the years, still longer, that she had loved him?
Even now she loved him.
One year stretched to two, and then to five. Silence became more a habit than a chore. The new novices, young Etrurian girls and the occasional highborn Lycian daughter, giggled and gossiped about Isadora behind the Mother Superior's back, thinking that Isadora did not understand Etrurian, or that she had been born a deaf-mute. Isadora only smiled and paid them little heed.
She had been wedded to her life at the convent as long as she had been to Harken, when Bern made a move at long last. Only four years had passed since Zephiel at last confirmed his father's death and openly declared himself king. And now he had sent invading troops into Sacae and Ilia, disrupting the informally kept balance of the continent. Soon, it would be Lycia, or so the rumors went.
Isadora listened, but did nothing. The affairs of Lycia and the wider world were no longer of her concern; she prayed for the innocent lives lost to a single man's ambition, but knew there was little else she could accomplish aside from her humble work.
One of the personal tasks she had eventually been assigned was the organization of the Mother Superior's correspondence. After years of silent observation Isadora had learned that the Mother Superior was a key figure in the Church's extensive information network, an open secret among those of the cloth. It was due to her silence, perhaps, that she alone was entrusted with this special duty. Or perhaps the Mother Superior had seen some other trustworthy quality in her all those years ago, when Isadora had arrived at the doorstep of the convent, penniless and lost. But whatever that quality must be, Isadora could not say.
She was sifting through the usual pile of paper and parchment one day when she stumbled across a particular letter, dated to several months before. It was penned in classical script in a clean, neat hand, but it was not the penmanship that drew her attention, but the name signed at the bottom: Lucius.
She had known a Lucius, once.
Once, though only distantly, in some dusty, half-forgotten passage of time. But how could she forget, after all. How could she forget - the joy and the pain of that single year.
Isadora scanned through the contents of the letter, seized by an urgency she had not felt in years. When she finished, she headed immediately to the Mother Superior's personal study, letter in hand, and knocked.
"Come in, Sister Isadora," said the Mother Superior.
Isadora bowed and entered, and the old abbess looked up to greet her.
"Well, what is it, child?"
In that moment, she came to a decision.
"Reverend Mother," said Isadora, and nearly jumped at the hoarse croak that forced its way out of her throat. After nine long years, her voice was that of a stranger's.
The abbess watched her with interest now, her gaze sharp despite her deceptively harmless visage.
Isadora took a deep breath, and tried again. "Reverend Mother, I found this letter at the bottom of the stack, where it has been wasting away for months. It is about a matter I believe particularly pressing."
She held out the letter, and the abbess accepted it with gnarled hands.
"I see," said the abbess. "A request for aid from a Brother Lucius in Araphen. Unfortunately, Sister Isadora, in times such as these, such sad plights are not uncommon. Soon enough, I am afraid, the streets shall be overrun with orphans, and the coffers of all the land shall grow empty"
"But for what purpose?" said Isadora, gaining confidence with every word. "For violence, for meaningless bloodshed? Does that not go against every teaching the Lady Elimine ever held dear? Surely the lives of innocent children are a far worthier cause than death and warfare!"
The abbess gave her a long, considering look. At last, she sighed. "How the years pass!" she said. "I still remember the day you came to me begging sanctuary. I had never seen anything like it. A lady knight, and a beauty, at that! I wondered what could have driven her to come all the way here, so far away from her home. Was she running from some terrible battle, perhaps? But no, that could not be, for she carried no sword or lance, no tools of war. It was then that I decided to accept her. Perhaps, I thought, given time, she would come to peace with her ghosts, and with the woman she was."
"Yes," said Isadora. "It has been a long time."
"What will you do now?" asked the Mother Superior.
Isadora smiled, understanding the true question behind those words.
She said, "I have my own battles to fight here, now."
Bishop Renault had been a strange man, so strange and mysterious that even now Isadora was unsure if Renault were even his true name. He had borne the scars of a lifelong warrior, carried the grief of a man who had seen far too much for a single lifetime. And yet she had trusted him, in a way she had been unable to trust even in herself.
Isadora often thought of him, in the silent hours before dawn.
He had disappeared after Nergal's fall, little more than a passing shadow in their collective memories. But Isadora remembered. She remembered what he had told her, that long dark night as they awaited their doom before the Dragon's Gate.
"Whether you will ever find answers, I do not know. But you must live with your doubt until then. If you can, then all of the joy and sorrow you experience... will truly belong to you."
After her meeting with the Mother Superior, Isadora drifted outdoors. It had just rained the previous day, and the world still smelled fresh and new. A pair of storks were fishing in the nearby pond, jabbing long bills at the water's surface.
Exhaustion set over her. In truth, she knew that the old abbess was right. Lucius - if it was indeed that same Lucius she had once known - could hardly be the only one who had written for help. His could not be the only orphanage in need of funds, in need of clothing and rations.
But what little she could offer in aid, what few lives she could save - surely, surely it was only the least that she could do.
She could not save the world. She had not even been able to save the man she loved from himself. That was a regret she would carry with her to the end of her life.
Killing, not killing. Either way it was not enough, in the end. One could not remain forever fixated on the dead.
Isadora laughed to herself, more for the thrill of hearing her own voice again than from any true amusement. The sudden noise startled the storks, who took to wing in a flurry of feathers. She watched them glide through the air, towards the safety of their rooftop nests.
For her there were no answers, no more than there were answers for the birds who soared freely across the sky.
Heart full of love, she turned, gathering up all her joy and all her sorrow, and walked slowly, steadily, back to the hearth where her sisters awaited.