Disclaimer: I don't own anything!
Author's Note: Been in Spain the past four days. It was such a beautiful country, very different from home. I was both sorry and glad to go. Mostly because I was missing my bed and predictably unpredictable Florida weather.
Started college. Officially. So far, not so bad. I actually kind of enjoy being in classes again.
My brother and I's first book, an original alternate history/fantasy series titled The Sanctum Files can now be read on authonomy. I'd very much appreciate it if you guys would take a look and say what you think. The link is on my profile. I'm also putting it here, without spaces, naturally.
authonomy books / 47917 / sanctum-files-the-dragon-scroll / read-book / #chapter
Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other thing.
The news came in the early morning.
"On your feet! We got refugees!"
It was automatic to scramble to their feet. Since Lyrion's orders to not allow them outside the city walls were still in effect, the four of them had been helping the city in whatever ways they could. Rebuilding homes and helping Martel in the clinic. Delivering food and helping the farmers out with the planting.
"Where're these guys from?" Yuan asked as he belted on a sword. None of them went anywhere unarmed anymore and perhaps that wouldn't help much with terrified refugees, but they were doing it anyway.
Myra looked back at them, her steps sharp and precise. "The humans got over the North-East Pass."
"What? But, the frost?"
"Melted. Spring's nearly done up there. Go down there and help those people. Afterwards, the four of you find me. I have something to discuss."
The refugees were blood-splattered and burned, exhausted and still half-terrified. Kratos and Mithos took care of the children; they were trusted easier by them.
Some of the children looked at Kratos fearfully, drawing behind some of the older ones, but Mithos assured them, with his sweet smile and quiet voice, that Kratos was safe, that he was here to help them. The boys were more mistrustful, but the girls warily drew closer.
Mithos and Kratos cleaned and bandaged them up, finding a few loaves of hard bread around to share with them. One of the girls was very much attached to Kratos and was refusing to let go of his hand.
He knelt so he could see her face. She had very big green eyes, slanted and she had an elf's high cheekbones, but a human's broad brows. "I can't find papa."
"I'll help you look for him. What's your name?"
"Mariya? That's a pretty name. C'mon, let's go see if we can't find him." Her hands were tiny and Kratos half-feared they would break if he squeezed too hard.
He wandered with her through the camp and, after a bit, hoisted her onto his shoulders so that she could see better and so she wouldn't get lost in the chaos. Tents had been put up, but there were still a lot of people roaming and not all of them were safe.
"I don't see 'im," she said, leaning down to speak in his ear. Her hair was a mixture of brown and blonde that, if the fire or witchlight hit it at a good angle, made it shine.
"I know one more place we can look."
Martel glanced up as he came in, right in the middle of healing a bad gash in someone's arm. "Kratos? Is everything okay?"
He heard the question she was really asking. "Mithos is fine, he's with the kids. I was hoping you'd seen Mariya's dad around here."
Martel looked up at Mariya. "Do you know your papa's name?"
Kratos saw the news in Martel's eyes before she said anything. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but there hasn't been anyone by that name here."
Kratos felt Mariya stiffen, could feel the tears coming. He jostled her gently to get her attention. "Maybe he hasn't gotten here yet. He could be on his way and he'll be saying to everyone he meets 'I'm looking for my daughter, the prettiest girl in the world. Have you seen her?'"
"You think so?" Kratos heard the watery smile.
"Absolutely." He looked at Martel for help. She held up her arms to Mariya.
"C'mon. You can rest here for the night and we'll see if we can't find your papa in the morning."
Mariya clung tighter to Kratos. "Why can't I stay with you?"
Kratos could feel some of the patients' eyes on him, could imagine their thoughts. The human with a half-elven child and the half-elven Healer. "Because…I have to go do something very important," Kratos lied. "A grown-up thing."
Mariya's nose wrinkled. "And I can't come, right? Papa used to say that too."
Kratos helped her down from his shoulders. "It's okay, I'll be back in the morning."
He smiled at her. "Promise."
Yuan met them outside of Myra's office. He was looking dirty and a bit dusty, but he was smiling through the tiredness. "Hey," he greeted before he frowned. "Where's Martel?"
"She won't leave the clinic," Mithos sighed. "I tried to tell her to take a break."
"Which she won't. Stubborn woman."
Myra stalked up to them, all elven grace and tired ferocity. "Inside, boys. Now."
"What's happened?" Mithos asked as he obeyed. "You seem…upset."
She gave him a look. "Thank you for putting it so delicately. And I've just come from a meeting with Alstan and the generals."
"A meeting about what?"
"This attack was deliberate. It didn't benefit them much—or so their intelligence should have told them. That village was part of a major supply line to our troops."
Yuan felt ice slip down his spine as he started to put the pieces together. "Wait—so…how would the humans have found out? Unless…"
"Unless there's a traitor, yes."
"Do we have any suspects?"
"We," Myra gestured at the four of them. "Don't. Not a serious one. Lyrion, however—"
"Lemme guess. It's me," Mithos said.
"Or me," Kratos pointed out. "He wasn't very happy after our 'talk'. As a human, I would be the logical choice to leak information."
"He seems to think that the lot of you are suspects. Or at least accomplices."
"That's ridiculous!" Yuan said.
"I agree. He doesn't know you guys like the rest of us do, but we told him that it was absurd. You guys and Martel are some of the most loyal people in the army. But there is very likely a traitor among us."
"And how exactly do you plan to find him? Or her?"
"That's the part we don't know. Our army is too large and too unorganized to even begin to suspect much. It could even be a group of people."
"If it's a group, wouldn't it be more obvious?"
"Not necessarily. They could cover for each other."
The four of them looked up when the door opened. Viren and Zaren entered and bowed a little to Myra in an automatic show of respect. "Sorry we're late," Viren said. "It's chaos down there."
"Is that why you weren't at the meeting?"
"That's exactly why." Viren's eyes darted between Kratos, Mithos, Yuan and Myra. "What's happened?"
"I believe we have a traitor."
"And so does Lyrion, am I right?" Zaren said, sitting in one of the chairs across from her desk. "And he suspects them." A gesture towards the others.
"Which is utter horseshit," Viren said. "He's looking for enemies where there aren't any and he's going to miss the people who are actually out to get him."
"Then find a way to convince him otherwise. In the meantime, we have to search for the actual traitor."
"Or traitors," Yuan reminded her.
"Or traitors," she agreed.
"I can't help you," Zaren spoke up.
Myra stared him down and Yuan had to admire his brother for his courage. Myra's temper was legendary, even if when it snapped, it burned cold rather than hot. "And why is that, pray tell?"
"This attack was too close to the village where my family is. I can't leave them there when the humans are so close. I'm going to go and bring them here."
"And you think the capital is safer than their little village?"
"At least if they're here, I can protect them."
Yuan still found it difficult to think of his brother with a wife and child. (In truth, much of the time, he has difficulties thinking of Zaren as his brother at all. Over time, Zaren had become much as Dehua and Kail had been, little more than a face and snatches of memories. Kratos is his real brother) "It's dangerous out there."
Zaren looked over at his little brother—the brother he hardly recognized much of the time. The little brother who was so brave now, so smart and strong and proud. (He doesn't really know how to handle it, if he's being honest. He remembers Mama telling him to watch over his brother, to protect him and that's what he'd done. At least, he had until the humans attacked. He'd failed his little brother that day and he hasn't been able to do anything for him since. Yuan is grown up now and he doesn't know how to fit that into the picture of the gap-tooth smiling boy in his memories) "If I head out tonight, I can make it."
"Oh really? On what? Eagles' wings?" Myra asked, folding her arms across her stomach. "Because that's what you'll need to get there without getting killed by the humans."
"The humans ain't so far out yet, or so the scouts're telling us. I can make it before the humans spread out to conquer more territory."
Myra let out a long breath and looked at Viren, who shrugged. "It's his decision."
"Go then. Go and be done with you." Zaren bowed quickly to Myra before leaving the room. Myra looked at Viren. "You're not going with him?" Oftentimes, it felt like the two were attached at the hip.
Viren shook his head, beads clacking. "No. My place is here. And it's going to be difficult enough for him to reach the village by himself. With two people, it's near suicide."
"And with three?" Myra pointed out. "His son is, what, three years old? Less?"
"He's turning four in the spring."
"And his wife is…fragile."
Yuan was surprised to see temper flash across Viren's face. He'd never seen that temper directed at Myra. "She's stronger than you think she is."
"Maybe so. But she's not strong enough to survive being taken again. Are you absolutely sure he can get them back safely? Because if he can't…" She didn't need to finish off that sentence. Yuan saw the way the blood started draining from Viren's face.
"He won't let it happen."
"The humans won't give him a choice in the matter, boyo."
"We can't let him go alone," Yuan protested.
Viren gave him a sharp look. "You really think he'll let us go with him?"
"Not us, maybe, but you? Absolutely." (Yuan thinks that he should be hurt by that fact, but in truth, he isn't. Perhaps blood isn't thicker than water and perhaps real family is what you make for yourself)
Viren leaned his head back, raking stray hairs back. "…I'll talk to him. I don't think he'll listen, but I'll try."
"Don't even try to stop me."
Viren had hardly stepped into Zaren's quarters. "…I wasn't going to. I was going to ask if you wanted me to come along. It'll be easier to protect them on the way back."
Zaren hesitated, before shaking his head even as he filled his pack with provisions. "No. Your place is here."
"You're my brother. If you need me—" He would what? Go with him? Abandon all his duties, abandon the entire city and its newest batch of refugees? All for one man? He couldn't deny that it was likely.
"I don't. I'll be fine."
Viren frowned. "Are you sure? Lauryl…she can only take so much. And the boy—well."
"I told you, I can handle it. And so can they."
There was a special brand of stubbornness in Zaren, Viren had learned. (He wants to laugh the first time he sees it in Yuan because some things do run in the family)
"…If you say so."
Mithos could hear the argument through the door. He hadn't come for this, had only come to ask Viren if he wanted to join them for supper, but he couldn't just leave now.
"You're too soft-hearted. Do you know what you're risking for this army?"
Viren's voice snapped back, "Yes, I do and I trust him. If he says he can do it without endangering the rest of us, then I believe him."
"You're a fool."
"It's his family, Lyrion. You can't expect him to just leave them out there when the human army is that close to their borders."
"These are times of war. We can't afford sentimentality."
"Sentimentality? Do you even hear yourself? The hell're we fighting for if it's not for keeping our families safe? Our homes? Or are you about to tell me that you went into this for the 'honor' of it all? Because lemme tell you, there's no honor in this. Honor can't be won through war because all it does is hurt people. We should be trying to find a way to stop the fighting."
"…You've been listening to Alstan again. He told me of a plan hatched by those traitors to be peace ambassadors." Lyrion scoffed at the very idea.
Mithos found himself bursting in without thinking. "He's not wrong."
They both stared at him. "What?"
"Viren—you're not wrong. We can't just keep fighting. It'll never end."
Lyrion had seen this boy around, had heard the mages talk about him, about his unnatural skill and strength. Had seen him get into blazing arguments with Aurion and Yuan, arguments that would end, at some point, with either or both sides in laughter. Had seen him helping Martel in the clinic, good at following her orders and brightening up the children with his stories and his smiles.
But this boy was rebellious, didn't know when he should speak and when to stay silent. He was dangerous, too good at inspiring people. Too much like Aurion.
"Would you have us surrender?"
The boy—Mithos Yggdrasill, his mind supplied. The deserter, the prodigious mage—looked affronted by the very idea. He had a great deal of pride, elven pride, and a human's stubbornness, though whether the latter was learned from Aurion or inherited, was difficult to tell. "Of course not. But if we keep fighting, we'll go around in circles. It's what war does. Something sparked it and someone wanted revenge and when they got their vengeance, someone else wanted revenge on them and it'll never stop. We have to take measures to try and stop this peacefully because the other way isn't working. It never worked or this war would've been over a long time ago."
"Any ambassadors we send will be slaughtered in the streets. The humans won't let them anywhere near. And the only human on our side is a wanted man."
"Not if you do it right," Mithos said slowly, struck by a sudden inspiration.
"Their king knows his people. Or he should. No one wants war. All we have to do is be able to talk to their king."
"Mithos," Viren started slowly. "I don't think you get it. That's next to impossible."
Mithos' eyes blazed. "If we keep thinking like that, it really will be!"
"Do you have a plan then?"
"How much is the price on Kratos' head?" Mithos asked Lyrion.
"I don't know, a good couple thousand gald, at the very least. The human army wants him badly."
"A couple thousand glad is enough that the humans can believe we'd turn him in for it," Mithos said. "Think about it—we fake being bounty hunters and bring him in."
"And how do you see the king?" Viren asked.
"…Do we know anything about how the humans' army works?"
"A bit. Mostly from what Kratos and Yuan have told us. And Alstan's information."
"The generals have to meet for the big strategies, right? All of them?" Viren and Lyrion nodded, not entirely sure of where Mithos was going with this. "And they're closing in on us, they know they are. We can't get retreat out of this valley until the frost melts, which won't be for another few weeks at least. They're going to come for the capital and they're going to want to strategize beforehand and if they're going to strategize for something that important, the king'll be there too."
"So you want to pretend to take Kratos prisoner over to them and then what?" Lyrion asked. "They'd likely just toss him in the dungeon."
Viren tapped his fingers thoughtfully on the desk he was leaning on. "…Not necessarily. I don't know very much about Kratos' situation with his father, but I know that General Aurion believes his son is a serious problem and he'll probably want to deal with it personally and as quickly as possible."
"Therefore, they would take the lot of you up to the war room,"
"And we can speak our piece, at the very least," Mithos said.
"General Aurion is too ruthless," Lyrion disagreed. "He won't be willing to work for peace."
"Do you have a better suggestion?" Mithos demanded. "Because Viren's right—the more we go around in circles like this, the more people die for nothing."
"For nothing?" Lyrion repeated.
"Yes. We aren't fighting for a cause. Hell, we don't even know what we're fighting for. We didn't start this. Our parents and grandparents did and we're keeping it going because we don't know any different! That has to change. War is not all there is. And I bet the humans understand that better than you do because they don't have decades to waste. They live, what, sixty years? Maybe? It's even less worth it for them."
"Why do you care about them?"
"The honest truth? I wish I couldn't. I wish I could believe that they were the monsters that I heard people say they were. But I've seen different. Read different. We can fight for our freedom from the humans' oppression of us all we like, but if we don't try to change it here, in our remaining cities and villages and teach the kids better, then all that we've fought and died for will be for nothing. Those kids will still grow up learning what we keep thinking. We have to change the way we think. It's not enough anymore. We have to teach people to read and write and think for themselves. That way, there won't only be human and elven books to read. Or dwarven. We can share things with each other and with other races, we can communicate across borders. Hell, we can communicate with ourselves."
"And you think this'll work?" Lyrion said skeptically.
"…I do," Viren said suddenly. (He is tired of not believing. He is tired of constantly fighting and not seeing an end. He wants to see the world that Mithos is describing, that he'd described to Kratos. He wants it badly enough and he is tired of simply dreaming)
"It won't work. You'll get killed."
"It's worth trying, isn't it?"
Lyrion laced his fingers together. "…Who do you plan to act as bounty hunters? No one will believe that a child did it and we aren't risking a general on this."
Viren and Mithos glanced at each other. "…Yuan could do it, couldn't he?"
Kratos-and-Yuan shook their heads. "Too risky," Kratos said.
"General Aurion has seen my face before and, even worse, he has reason to remember my face now. He probably won't remember it, but it's likely he does," Yuan explained.
Mithos gave them a look. "Don't act like you wouldn't go, Yuan. With Kratos as the bait? We'd have to knock you unconscious to not have you come along."
"Oh, I'm coming along. But I can't be a bounty hunter. I'll tail you guys through the city."
Scowling at the pointed look Viren was giving him, Yuan smoothed his loose bangs of blue hair back. "I can go in disguise."
"You got some kind of dye or a hood? 'Cause blue is hard to hide."
"Y'know what, let me worry about that. What about you, boyo?" Yuan asked Mithos. "Martel's not gonna let you go off by yourself. Not to human territory. And she's about as easy to blend into humans as I am."
Biting his lip a little, Mithos said, "I…haven't gotten around to telling her."
Yuan's eyes sharpened. "What, were you going to run off again?"
"No," Mithos snapped. "I was gonna tell her…later."
"Tell me what?"
Mithos winced a little and turned to look behind him. Martel didn't usually eat with them, working too hard with her patients. Often, Mithos or Yuan would volunteer to bring her food and sometimes Kratos would do it.
Martel had one hand braced on the back of Mithos' chair, the other propped on her hip. Her braid was beginning to come undone, with lots of loose strands and few tangles. There were the beginnings of dark circles beneath her eyes, Yuan noted. The hems of her threadbare dress were fraying and there was a hole by her collar. It was her only dress and she worked hard to keep it clean of stains from blood and worse.
Seeing the look on Mithos' face, Kratos decided to step in. "We think he's found a way to get to the human king so that we can try for a peace treaty."
"To the human lands?" Martel took a seat at the corner of the square table in between Viren and Kratos. "I hope you weren't planning to go without me."
"It's too dangerous," Mithos started, but Martel cut him off with a sweet smile that had a poisonous edge. (They are alike in that respect. Neither of them likes being told what to do. Particularly what they couldn't do)
"I'm so glad you agree. So you won't be going either."
"Martel, someone has to go."
"Yes, they do," she agreed. "But not twelve year old boys."
"I'll be thirteen in three months' time!" Mithos protested.
"No good. You're not yet of age and you shouldn't be fighting in this war to begin with."
Shoving back his chair, Mithos stood. He was not quite tall enough yet to reach Martel's shoulder, but the tilt of his head was defiant. "But I have been fighting in it, Martel! You can't just act like I haven't been a part of this."
Martel's eyes hardened. She wasn't a soft woman by anyone's standards, despite her compassion. "You're my brother and like it or not, I'll do what I have to to protect you."
Mithos opened his mouth, about to say something, but he bit it back and left the room in a rush of temper.
(It terrifies her a little, this stubbornness and rebelliousness. Her little brother is growing up too fast, as war makes people grow up. She doesn't want him to grow up like this. She wants Mithos to play and laugh with other children, to enjoy life and not know the stench of blood and the cries of dying men. She wants a better life for him)
Kratos glanced at Martel. "I'll talk to him."
Mithos could travel rather quickly when he wanted to. Kratos found him in a part of the city that still hadn't been rebuilt, the buildings blasted apart and the rubble in piles higher than Kratos' head. He was shooting fireballs at the rubble, scorching and melting the stone. Noishe was perched atop a precarious looking mass of debris, but the protozoan was perfectly balanced. The protozoan was ever watchful and mindful of its charges.
Kratos took a seat on some of the debris and waited until Mithos seemed to have run out his temper temporarily. Mithos pushed his hair out of his face as he turned to Kratos. "She send you after me?"
"No. I volunteered."
"I—I'm not mad at her."
"I know." Kratos paused, eyes on the ground. He hardly noticed the scorched smell of the air; it was something he'd gotten used to with explosions and magic on every battlefield. "…It's terrible, isn't it?"
Mithos blinked at him. "What?"
"Feeling helpless. Wanting to help, but not being able to. Not being strong enough."
The half-elf rubbed his arm, unsure of what to do. "…I'm afraid for Martel."
Kratos frowned in concern. He'd noticed, over the couple of years he'd known Mithos, that the kid sometimes had something like premonitions when it came to Martel. "Is it because of something specific?"
Shaking his head, Mithos took a seat beside Kratos. "No. Just—I'm getting sick of being stuck in this city while others are out there fighting. I can help and-and Martel is overworked. The other day, when I was helping her out there was—there was this woman, she'd gone to fight. Her husband and brothers had died in the war and she wanted to keep fighting, so she did, but…she came back and she was missing an arm and she looked…I won't lie, Kratos, she looked a little insane. Like, she was going crazy. She just kept talking about her brothers and husband, how she saw them and she kept talking to them—she actually thought I was one of them. I guess one of her brothers was younger than her—and she looked so small there and I just—"
"You…saw Martel," Kratos guessed.
Mithos looked up at him, blue eyes looking almost too big for his face. "I can't let that happen to her, Kratos. I can't."
"I know." (He still sees the man he killed, still sees the half a face, the burns and exposed bone. Sometimes, he still sees Yuan in that ruin of a face, with only one of those blue eyes left, staring) "But she's seen kids your age in there too. You think she doesn't think the exact same thing? That she doesn't see your face in those kids? She'll do what she has to do to protect you because she loves you."
"I love her too, Kratos. She's my sister."
"I know. And, I think, that you two can't keep fighting each other on this. You gotta let her protect you if you wanna protect her."
"But this war needs to end, Kratos. And she's trying to stop me from going, which I can't just not do."
"Let her calm down—"
"Or let Yuan calm her down," Mithos interrupted.
A hum of agreement. "And then we can talk to her and see if we can't convince her."
"We," Kratos affirmed.
"He's got a point, y'know," Yuan said, drawing absentmindedly in the dirt with the toe of his boot. "He's a part of it all, Martel. A key part. You can't just set that aside."
"Are you going to tell me it's for 'the greater good'?" she half-snarled, still wound up from the argument.
"Not in those words, but basically."
"I'm tired of this, Yuan. I'm tired of seeing people—half-elves and humans and dwarves and elves—all dying everywhere. I'm tired of watching people suffer for something no one can remember. I'm tired of sacrificing everything." Martel looked at him, hazel eyes wide and a little desperate. "He's all I have left. Our parents are dead. We were exiled out of our home—people we had known for years shouting these things and throwing stones and spells—and we're asked to put our lives on the line for people who don't believe what we believe. And now you're asking me to willingly put my brother in the line of fire?"
Yuan rubbed her upper arms before gently drawing her into a hug, one she didn't quite accept, still riled. "…Yes. That's what I'm asking. And it's a lot. We're all being asked a lot of. But think about it. For a little more sacrifice—okay, a lot more, I won't lie to you—for more sacrifice, we can have this world that we dream about. A place where things like this don't have to happen. Not ever again."
She finally relented into the embrace, resting her forehead on his collarbone, which was becoming more prominent as the abundance of food waned. "…Wouldn't it just be easier to run? Run and hide away from the war? I mean, are those dreams even possible? Or are we just being children about it?"
"Hey, sweetheart, listen to me. Dreams are what you make them. They always have been. It's just—I think that…over time…people have forgotten how." He tilted her face up to look at him. "And honestly, when have you ever been the kind of person to run from a fight?"
"…You kind of suck, being all logical."
Yuan laughed, the sound vibrating through Martel, warming her. "You love it."
She smiled at him, a smile that was worn and tired, but it was real. "…Yeah, I kind of do."