Compulsory Disclaimer: All credit for characters, settings and everything else related goes to Blue Byte and Ubisoft, designers and distributors respectively.
Except Crimson Sabatt. I claim her as my own. Sue me if you dare!
Author's Note: Another re-upload of a story that's waiting to be rewritten. I figured it couldn't hurt to publish this once again, even though the story is far from finished. Many thank-you cookies go out to ParchmentRose for de-engmushing and going over the same old boring chapters with me as we discussed the rewrite. Love ya, Queensie! :D
The Eastern Realm
"A journey is best measured in friends rather than miles"
The Eastern Realm
Months have passed since the Red Prince was vanquished, and peace and harmony now reign in the kingdom of Westerlin.
Old foes have atoned for their sins and been forgiven.
Much time has passed since the Knights were last summoned to the Vestholm throne room.
Castle Vestholm, Westerlin
"We have received a message from the land of Basa to the south-east. Basa's vital trade route to distant Hidun has been cut off and they have received neither news nor goods from that far-off land. They seek our assistance." The tall, dark-skinned man from the land of Janub gestured towards a figure on the chart that lay on the table.
Grouped around the substantial oaken table in the centre of the room were several of the Darion Empire's trusted Knights.
Lady Kestral, an attractive young woman in leather armour, was comfortably established in a chair near the fireplace.
Lord Marcus, dressed in full battle armour, was bent over the table, studying the chart of Basa.
Lady Alandra, velvet cloak concealing most of her face, was studying the chart over Lord Marcus' shoulder.
And, which may come as a surprise, the rotund Lord of Trade, Lord Elias, was also present. The sturdy man had been released from prison two months ago, when the Queen had decided he had suffered enough for his crimes against Vestholm. The shrewd trader had atoned for the act of high treason he had committed on the Red Prince's behalf – or, more precisely, on behalf of his greed when Crimson Sabatt had offered him all of Westerlin if only he betrayed his Queen in the worst way possible. Though greedy he was, he was also a good and honest person who had once been one of the Knights of Vestholm, thus he was permitted amongst the Knights once more.
Their trust in him was shattered nonetheless, and it would take no small amount of time to undo the damage, if ever.
Their ranks were complete, as Lord Thordal was currently back in the northern realms with his people, claiming the Westerlin winter just wouldn't do for him.
Hakim continued his explanation, a long finger set on the map.
"Within this sparse strip of territory lie the geological expedition at Imapha and the monastery of the Healers of Baklash. Communication with both these places has recently been lost. What's more, there has been no sign of life from Basrima, the village closest to the border with Hidun. According to the latest report from Imapha, mercenaries formerly in the employ of the defeated Red Prince have been sighted in the region."
The chart room was well illuminated by the sunlight of early spring that flooded through the open windows. A pleasant chirping and singing of birds announced winter's end and the trees outside the castle had already begun to sprout leaves of bright green. The air was filled with vibrant life, and the Vestholm Knights were just as eager to shake out the cobwebs. It was time to set out again, to face new challenges and to expand their kingdom.
Marcus nodded thoughtfully as his plate-clad hand rubbed his chin. "More of the Red Prince's men, mh? I didn't think they would go so far to the east. This might just be the explanation for the trouble there. It seems we failed to round up all of them."
"It surprises me." Alandra tore her glance from the chart and looked towards the window, pondering. "However, I do not expect they are prepared for our intervention, it is likely they consider themselves safe from our grasp so far to the east."
"I know this trade route well," said Lord Elias, rubbing his rather impressive belly which had not suffered from his imprisonment, as it seemed. "These people of the east are not prepared for the likes of the Red Prince's mercenaries. Traders, mostly, and a successful bunch at that."
"Shouldn't be too hard to teach them a lesson, huh?" Kestral grinned, slouching in her armchair as she always did. "Truth be told I'm quite looking forward to it. It's been a boring couple of months, really. Plus, I don't enjoy that game of chess as much as our dear Wisey does. I'm more the… practical type, I guess."
Hakim pointed at another mark on the chart, a slight smirk on his keen southern face. "This should interest you then. I suggest we set up camp here and scout the area. Basa is-" The Southerner flung around when Kestral burst into a series of curses, wildly swatting at something that had come through the window.
"Go away, stupid bird! What the heck is wrong with you?" A large black bird viciously battled Kestral for the feathers on her helmet while emitting noisy croaks.
"That bird again!" shouted Marcus, while Alandra was torn between laughing and trying to help Kestral.
The black bird flapped wildly, pecked at Kestral and then let go to hobble across the floor in a fashion that appeared to be sulking.
The crow had become an annoyance for some time now. It had first appeared some odd months ago and grown more daring at every visit, until it had decided that open windows meant an invitation.
Hakim quickly scooped up the bird and tossed it into the direction of the nearest window, where it spread its wings and glided away effortlessly with a final, indignant croak.
"I hope it crashes into a tree!" Kestral scowled. Alandra laughed at Kestral's puffed cheeks.
"Back to the task at hand," said Marcus. He pointed at the map. "I agree, we should set up camp here and learn what this is all about. Basa is a long way from here, I suggest we set out tomorrow morning."
After the plan had been elaborated to everyone's satisfaction, Lady Alandra excused herself to attend to a different matter. She had promised to visit the wife of a fisherman at the outskirts of Vestholm, to check on her health and deliver more medicine if needed.
It wasn't uncommon for the Settlers to suffer through colds and similar illnesses at this time of year, where everyone was tempted into wearing less than they should.
Two hours later, Alandra was on her way back to the castle.
She had found the health of the woman to her satisfaction and reassured her that all she needed was some rest before she returned to her normal amount of chores. It was still pleasantly sunny, and the young woman enjoyed her walk back after the confinement to the castle for most of winter. Alandra looked fondly at the trees of the small forest that she now walked. Westerlin was truly a beautiful country, especially at this time of year where the very air radiated with new life.
Suddenly, a twig cracked. Alandra tensed.
"Who goes there?" she asked.
"Who were you expecting?" said a mellow female voice. A tall figure stepped out from between the trees.
Alandra's eyes widened and she felt drawn into a familiar scene.
She had barely a second to react as Sabatt's blade slashed out towards her. She dived to one side and rolled away; then scrambled to her feet.
"Now, did I not tell you to never-"
"Turn my back? Yes, I learned that lesson." Alandra flung around, her sword at the ready. But not quite in the fashion Crimson Sabatt had expected: Alandra's gloves were firmly clasped around the upper part of her blade as she held her sword upside down, much like a hammer. "Does your arm still hurt?" And just as if it were a hammer she pulled back and delivered a powerful swing towards Sabatt, literally pommelling her left arm.
Sabatt smartly rolled to the side and used her own momentum to leap back to her feet, hissing between clenched teeth. "It does now, thank you very much."
In an instant, the tip of Alandra's sword was at her throat. "You're welcome."
Sabatt chuckled slightly. She seemed to enjoy this unexpected twist. "Someone has been exercising, I see. Since when do the Knights of Vestholm resort to such dirty moves?"
Alandra found it truly difficult to share that particular sense of humour.
"Since we know the likes of you," she retorted and sheathed her sword again, as did Sabatt who then rubbed her arm that had been severely pierced by one of Kestral's arrows some months ago.
"Consider yourself lucky I didn't cut it off! By the heavens, can't you say hello like any normal person, you… terrible, ludicrous woman?"
Alandra shook her head and finally broke into a smile. "Welcome back."
Vestholm's former enemy looked the same as she had always done: clad in exotic Guerannan garments in various shades of red and purple that were in fact a very clever mix of protective leather armour, designed for maximum agility, and sheer elegance. Alandra knew that the outfit also hid a conglomeration of pockets and loops to store various trinkets; she suspected that Sabatt carried an entire armoury of nasty little surprises with her at all times.
She had never been sure about the actual meaning of the black symbol on the chest-piece, but she suspected it was simply a 'CS' for 'Crimson Sabatt' designed to resemble a mock religious symbol, like the rest of her outfit closely resembled a religious uniform.
Alandra inadvertedly narrowed her eyes. She was going to have to reprimand her for such blatant mockery later.
Sabatt chuckled. "But I was never truly gone, Lady Alandra."
Her face had not changed either since Alandra had last seen her six months ago. Cold, calculating, with a deep pride, and more than just a subtle hint towards an expression that was her trademark sneer. If anything, Alandra surmised, she appeared to be a little less stiff, a little more at ease. Which probably meant more incidents of the mischievous kind. Ambushing people seemed to be Sabatt's idea of a great pastime.
No, Crimson Sabatt was definitely not an especially likeable person, but she did have her merits. One of them was that Alandra could safely berate her to her heart's content.
"I should have suspected. You made for Vestholm half a year ago, didn't you? And that crow belongs to you, too."
Alandra had indeed seen a glimpse of someone she had suspected to be Sabatt several times, although she had never been able to confirm her thoughts. In either case, these situations had been entirely strange to begin with, so she had never been sure whether to dismiss her observations as phantasms or not.
"One has to keep in touch. Especially when on a mission in far-away lands."
Both women were walking towards the castle side by side.
"So you are our mystery informant from Basa. Do the others know?"
Again, Sabatt chuckled. It was quite startling, really. Alandra wasn't sure whether a gleeful Crimson Sabatt was an improvement.
"It should come as a pleasant surprise."
"Only to you," Alandra remarked drily.
And indeed she was right.
"Noooooo!" Kestral dramatically passed her hand over her face, sighing.
Lord Elias removed his heavy frame from the armchair by the fire, his expression a mix of curiosity and profound aversion.
Marcus stood at attention, then frowned as he looked at the two women who had just entered the room.
Hakim was, of course, the only one who wasn't surprised. He inclined his head for a respectful greeting and brought his right hand up to his forehead, as was customary in his homeland of Janub.
"Crimson Sabatt," said Marcus. He was torn between the uncanny desire to hurl the woman right out of the nearest window and the reluctant acknowledgement of her return, as much as he personally had hoped for that not to happen so soon.
Kestral continued to rant. "Did you find that in the street? I mean, I have no problem with stray dogs or something, but that doesn't belong in here!"
Alandra's face showed her disapproval of such words, but she was not inclined to interfere this time. They had to come to terms on their own now.
Sabatt's eyebrow rose a sliver and that was the only reaction Kestral would get from her. "My, aren't you charming, Lady Kestral. I am here to stay."
"Dungeon's that way." Kestral pointed her finger.
"Now, now, this is not how we treat our fellow Knights."
Kestral took a sharp breath. "Knock it off already! If you're a Darion Knight, then I'm–"
"A former mercenary leader, perhaps? Indeed, that seems to be the case. It is not my intention to aggravate you, Lady Kestral. I expected you should find it… gratifying that I have finally come to aid your empire after the very disagreeable circumstances of our previous affairs." Sabatt's patronising speech was accented by an elegant use of gestures as she strode further into the room, her eyes briefly fastened on each of the knights. They were locked on Kestral as she continued to gesture with one hand on her back, as she often would.
"I realise this comes as a shock to you. Even if you, Lady Kestral, of all people should understand such a… change of heart."
Kestral rose from her chair and belligerently pointed at their opponent. "Stop right there, Crimmy! You're not actually being serious about this, are you?"
Crimson Sabatt held up both hands in a peaceable manner. "But of course I am. Would I be here, otherwise? There is no point in antagonising Vestholm any longer. I have sworn allegiance to the Queen, and indeed months ago."
It was Marcus who crossed the distance between them and, with a stern look upon his face, accepted Sabatt's alliance through a handshake. "You know that we won't trust you easily. However, your misguided loyalty to the Red Prince was remarkable, and you have already proven a fragment of that loyalty towards Vestholm, I give you that. You could have made your escape and I suspected you had, but you being here shows that you are earnest about this. If Her Majesty and Lady Alandra put their faith in your sincerity, then so do I." He took a deep breath as if he himself had to get used to that thought. "Everyone makes mistakes. Let's make a clean start. How are we to address you now?"
The black-haired woman chuckled slightly in reaction to the unexpected compliment. "You are most welcome to stick with Crimson Sabatt."
Kestral crossed the room to confront the new-arrival face to face. "So, since that Red Prince business is done, there's something I want to hear from you before –I– believe you. Everyone makes mistakes, huh? That doesn't do for me."
Sabatt wrinkled her brow as she looked at the woman in front of her, slightly taken aback.
Marcus and Alandra shared an apprehensive look. "Kestral..." Alandra chided softly.
Sabatt stated slowly but smoothly, fully aware that Kestral wanted to hear something else: "Everyone makes mistakes."
"Yeah, everyone does, but does that include your snooty self, Crimmy? Say it!"
Even Hakim moved in closer now, his footsteps were barely audible as he approached the two women from the side.
For a very brief moment, Crimson Sabatt's face altered in a way that made Marcus grope for his sword, but he let his hand drop when Sabatt seemed to relax again in an instant.
"Why, Lady Kestral, seeing it is obviously of concern to you…" She shrugged in a demonstration of her indifference. "I made a mistake in siding with the Red Prince." That wasn't even a lie – Crimson Sabatt, of course, preferred to be on the winning side.
Kestral squinted one eye, then nodded. "Well then, welcome, I guess. No need to show you 'round, right? And I'm not helping with your stuff!"
The Eastern Realm, Chapter One
updated: 9. Mar. 2012
word count: 2706