Title: Luck of the Draw
Characters: Mark, Hector, Others
Notes: Notes are on Livejournal and Dreamwidth at SwayingtheFlame (LJ) and RescueMission (DW). As an aside, leading a 40-man "army" to victory is one thing...but leading hundreds of men to victory is completely different. If any of you have raided on an MMO, imagine trying to coordinate thousands of people during a fight. Guess what? You'd have a lot of Bads...and very little luck.
Valor had changed. Where wagon wheels had carved ruts in the sandy soil, foliage had grown around it. Where the body of Leila had been buried—the only death that truly hurt, for it was unpreventable, inevitable, but for time, and Mark regretted not being able to predict it—sat only a worn white rock and vines.
"Funny," he said to the oddly silent air, "that I got into this mess because I was looking for adventure, and I stumbled through a war that saw not a single loss on the winning side."
But now, he thought, thirty years later, and they're all dead, all but me.
"I just don't understand how I did anyone any good. They all ended up dying anyway. Sain, taken down by common thieves…Kent by despair, Vaida by Bern, Erk to nature… All the others, eventually.
"And Lyn, all alone on the plains." Exactly the way he'd met her.
"What is luck?" he asked Captain Fargus, who was now old and lame yet remained a sailing man at heart. "Is it winning? Losing?"
"Luck's luck," Fargus said, his voice deep and rumbling but hoarse with age. "Ye think ye've got all th' luck in th' world, but then along comes a dragon, and ye realize ye weren't so lucky after all."
"But we killed the dragon."
"Figuratively speakin', pup," he said, and Mark wondered at the term when both of them had lines etched deep into their faces, and his own hair was more grey than brown. "Ye thought all ye had to do was jus' kill one man, but when ye got there, ye realized there was more to it than all that."
"Is that luck?" he wondered aloud, downing the last of his ale. "Nergal was already summoning the dragon when we got there."
"An' he was fixin' to all along, ye see?"
Fargus sighed and winced as he shifted positions. "Now listen close," he said, "when somethin' bad happens, ye'll blame bad luck, and when somethin' good happens, ye'll say it was good luck, so ye see, it's just luck all along."
"And luck is just…"
"Reality." Fargus nodded and grinned, showing his worn, straight teeth. "Maybe ye charged in ter battle and javelins and swords missed ye by a hair, but is that luck? Or is it just how things are? How they were meant to be?"
"I don't know if I believe in fate," Mark said, for he liked to think that people had control over their destiny, over their future, over their own death, if only a little.
"Sure," Fargus said, "but what ye choose to do one day might change fate. If ye hadn't gone after Nergal, we'd be a world flooded with dragonkin by now, now wouldn't we? But would that be bad luck?"
"No," Mark said. "It wouldn't. It would just be…"
"How ye made it through the decisions ye made. If ye'd said, "Rebecca, stand a little to the south of that pillar," the lass'd been dead when it fell, but ye told her to stand to the east of it."
"But isn't that luck?"
Fargus shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "Ye tell me."
Mark paused in thought. "I think," he said at last, "that blaming your successes and failures on luck, good or bad, could be a mistake."
Fargus grinned, "Ye got it," he said, sounding pleasantly surprised. "When a man goes out to hunt him a mighty hart, does he rely on luck?"
"No," said Mark. "Skill."
"An' that's true for a lot of things," he said. "Ye can't just hope ye get lucky and food jus' appears on the table, and ye can't hope that the woman ye love will love ye back, and you can't—"
"—expect to win a war by getting lucky at every turn."
"It takes work," Fargus told him. "Sometimes, little things that aren't skill-related crop up that ye didn't expect, but relying on luck to keep ye alive or to get the things ye want is never going to work."
"So when we fought the dragon…"
"Sheer foolishness," Fargus admitted. "But the reality is that ye had skilled warriors who knew when to get the dragon's attention, when to back off, when to approach, and ye had skilled fliers and sages. Ye weren't relyin' on luck, then, boy. Ye fought because ye had to fight, and ye used all of yer wit and skill, and yer wit and skill was more than the dragon had."
Mark thought for a moment. "Was I more skilled than Lyn? Or Sain? Or Erk?"
With a loud guffaw, Fargus pushed his drink to the side. "Them's just circumstance," he said with a grin. "If ye'd gone to Sacae alone, if ye'd been ambushed by roadside robbers, if ye'd fallen asleep in the library of a house when heat lightning was raining from the sky, maybe ye'd have died, too."
"I didn't, though. So…"
"It's different for everyone. That Hector was a mighty strong lad, but even with your stellar plan, he didn't win that last battle of his at Araphen. Now maybe he was up against too many, or his opponent was too skilled, but it wasn't a stroke of bad luck or good luck that got him killed—'twas just how it ended up."
But Mark wasn't so sure. All of those battles, so many years ago, yet not a single life had been lost. He remembered Priscilla saying that Kent would never have the full use of his left leg again, remembered that Farina had lost two fingers, but nobody had actually been left behind, left for dead.
Could that be skill? Determination?
"It isn't a game," he finally said when the room fell silent, and Fargus nodded his head in agreement.
"Young pups always long for adventure," he said. "A game is something ye play for fun, for sport. When ye lose, ye lose, and when ye win, ye win. It's not like a war."
"Nobody dies when it's a game."
The situation he was in was likely one he would never find his way out of. He was surrounded by four walls, bars, and a gate…not to mention the thirteen or so guards that stood watch.
Escape wasn't really something he bothered to think about, to try. At the end of the day he just assumed his luck had finally run out, had run out when they'd come face to face with a dragon and managed to live to tell about it. It just wasn't possible that luck could extend any further than that. He wondered sometimes if they'd all outrun death somehow, then, because the appearance of the great beast had shaken him to his core, and he'd thought, then, for a long, awful moment, "Nothing can save us now."
Now, death didn't seem so bad, when the best part of his day usually involved some kind of passable sort of food, or maybe the hoarse singing of a bawdy song from someone in the next cell.
He was there three months when his luck turned. A guard dropped a key right outside his cell, and it was, with much twisting and quiet groaning, that Mark managed to grasp it. But guards simply did not drop keys, least of all men trained under the strict rule of Bern, so Mark wondered about it, pondered, thought, and held onto the key for another week before he decided he didn't care anymore about dying or living or anything trivial like that.
What was the worst that could happen? A swift death? He thought that would be on the more favorable side of things as far as outcomes were concerned.
He was halfway down the darkened corridor during the four minute change of the guard when he heard a quiet, weak voice, "Mark," it said, and he turned to find himself staring down at Oswin. Oswin, who looked nothing like his old self at all anymore. "You still have that damnable luck."
"Oswin," he said. "I…" But he realized his key would not fit the lock to Oswin's cell, and there were twelve other keys at least, and—
"Go," he said, and his expression and posture betrayed more than any words he could possibly have spoken in that moment, in that half-minute of time that passed. He was ready to die, had been ready, perhaps, for years and years.
Mark did not have time to wonder why; instead, he did go. Far away.
War was loud and stank. The sounds were deafening, dulling the ears until the screams of friend and foe alike sounded equally unimportant, unnoticeable, and the smell of copper was so thick that Mark swallowed, gagged, closed his eyes against the false feeling that he had swallowed all the blood around him somehow.
But it was over, the battle. Perhaps the war. And they'd lost.
If Lord Hector weren't being led away that very moment, Mark might have gone to find him, might have grabbed the front of his tunic and shaken him vigorously until his teeth rattled. "I was right," he'd say. "I was right, and you were a fool for not listening."
But Lord Hector would not survive his imprisonment. Most of the men were already dead. Those that remained, well, even Mark wasn't sure what might happen to them. If they were lucky, they'd have a death swifter than that granted Lord Hector.
If not, he supposed rotting away in a dungeon somewhere with no privacy and nothing to see except the rats might be better than torture or the sickening sort of hunting game that he'd heard some of the Bernese soldiers liked to do.
"Are you certain?" he asked, the last question he would ever ask Lord Hector.
"It has to be you," Hector told him. "This army marches on your command."
Mark pushed down the bile in his throat through sheer willpower, and bent low over the map spread out before them. "Okay," he said. "This is what we'll do."
"You're good," someone said, and Mark looked up from his game of chess against Oswin to see a face he didn't recognize.
"Years of practice," he answered, capturing one of Oswin's pieces.
"It's supposed to represent an army, right?" The man sat down on the edge of a crate as Oswin contemplated his next move.
"It's nothing like an army," Mark told him, his voice bitter.
He realized he didn't really like the memories, but it didn't physically hurt until he bumped into Oswin a week before what would become their last fight.
The other man was older, thinner, and he looked worn and tired. It was strange, Mark thought, to have one's memories tarnished so, because the Oswin he remembered was stout and strong and had a firm jaw and a strength about him that this older version seemed to lack.
"Whatever happened to Erk?" he found himself asking after they'd had a chance to speak a few words. "And Lyn? And Serra?"
"Dead," Oswin said slowly, after a long moment. "All of them. Along with Sain, and Florina, and Lucius, and Priscilla."
"And others." Oswin's face softened for a moment before he added, "It's hard to look back and realize more of the people you knew twenty years ago are dead than alive."
"But how?" Mark wondered aloud, looking down into the cold coffee left at the bottom of his tin cup. He knew that people died, lots of people, but he'd led them to victory—even if it was a fluke, a lucky day, a…something, but not skill. It was odd to think they'd survived the flames and large scaly tail of a dragon but died due to mundane things.
"Fire, for Erk. He was supposedly asleep in the library when it happened. Speculation is that Lyn died a few years after departing for Sacae, or that's whose body Kent thought it was when he delivered the news. Serra delivered a lot of healthy babies but died giving birth to her—our—own. Sain was killed for his money and his horse on a well-traveled road, Florina took ill and died after a year abed, Lucius was—"
"Enough," Mark interrupted, his voice sounding as brittle as his emotions suddenly felt. He shuddered and lowered his head. "Please, no more."
For he wondered, not for the first time, if they all should have had a quick death at the Dragon's Gate.
"Why?" Mark asked.
Hector gave him a companionable clap on the shoulder, "Because we need you. We need someone who can do what you did for Eliwood and I all those years ago. We need someone who can get us through everything, even when the odds look bad."
"I'm not the right person for this job," he whispered.
"You're the luckiest person I've ever known," Hector said. "Remember when Rebecca was nearly crushed by that old stone column? If you hadn't said—"
"But sometimes," Mark told him, looking pained, "luck runs out."
"I trust you."
And Mark didn't dare speak as Hector walked away, though he wanted to. "You shouldn't," he thought instead, and had to sit down on the edge of a crate to calm his nerves.
When the sound of a person sitting down reached his ears, Mark looked up with bleary eyes and immediately stood. His legs betrayed his state of sobriety more than his voice as he said loudly, firmly, "I shouldn't have come back."
"Wait." A hand reached out and clutched at the edge of his worn traveling cloak, preventing him from doing more than stumble. "Hear me out."
"You don't need me, Lord Hector," he said without turning around, keeping his eyes on the exit. "You don't want me."
The sounds of the tavern pressed around both of them, but then Hector's voice, quieter than Mark remembered it being, reached his ears.
"I haven't forgotten," he said, "how you led us to victory so many years ago."
"Things change," Mark replied, but his mind was sluggish and he could not form the words he meant to. "People change."
"It was a gift," Hector argued. "A talent. You had it. I'll never forget it. I told Eliwood that last day, I said, We're going to die, and he said, Probably, but we thought, well, if there's one cause worth dying for, it's saving the world, even if nobody ever found out about it. But here we are." He paused, as if in thought, and Mark turned to see the lines in Hector's face, the crow's feet at his eyes, eyes that had seen too much too early in life. "Most of us, anyway," he finished lamely, gesturing as he pulled his cloak around himself further.
"Still sneaking out of the castle?" Mark chanced a smile to go with his question.
"When it's necessary."
"You're desperate," Mark said. "Desperate to want me."
"We need you. We need someone who can win a war," Hector told him. "And you brought a group of fools through a war when they all should have died fighting it."
"Things were different," he tried, "back then. They," he swallowed, and stopped, before he threw a glance around him at the crowded dimly-lit room. "They weren't like this."
"Like what?" Hector asked solemnly, his expression and mannerisms so different from how Mark remembered them that he understood, more than felt, his age. "High-risk? Dangerous?"
"On such a large scale," he replied, his voice so quiet he wondered for a moment if he'd even dared to speak it aloud.
"Can you really describe any war as being small-scale?" Hector asked, and for a moment, Mark thought he might see the old lordling of Ostia's broad grin appear, but it never came, and he realized, in an instant, how much older they all were, how much time had changed.
"Well," he said, sounding resigned. "If you've no one else…"
"There is no one else," Hector assured him, the beginnings of a smile twitching at the corner of his mouth. "Nobody at all I'd trust more to lead us to victory."
"Is there such a thing as luck?" Mark wondered aloud to no one in particular.
The man behind him didn't look at him, but he hiccupped as he said, "Yeah d'is. I jus' got the bad kind, uh-huh."
"Oh, shut up."
"Luck's all it takes, sometimes," the man continued, pretending as if he hadn't heard. "Maybe it's just luck that your arrow hit tha' hart and killed it, but you done killed it, uh-huh? And maybe the other army's general woke up sick, or maybe you're just lucky that he did, 'cause now if he fights he'll prolly die 'cause he cain't concentrate, and if he don't, well, the morale of the other side will be low, uh-huh?"
"You think a dragon could be defeated with luck, too?"
"Sure," the man said, and slid down in his seat a bit. "Maybe you don't know where to hit 'im, so you just guess, but you're right. Well, we could call that skill, or we could call it luck, but maybe it's both, uh-huh?"
"I guessed," he said. "I made that plan up. On the spot. I guessed. But it worked. It was luck."
"What?" the man asked, and hiccupped again before laughing. "Oh, you must be drunker'n me, uh-huh? If you're talking nonsense like that."
"What are you going to do?" Lyn asked before they parted ways. "Are you going to ask Hector or Eliwood for a position in the military?"
Mark paused, thought for a moment, and gave Lyn a sad sort of smile. "Lyn," he said, "I've never told anyone this, but I've known you longer than the others, and I don't think you'll think I'm completely mental for saying this." He paused, took a breath, and plowed on, "We won…every battle…by sheer dumb luck."
Lyn raised an eyebrow, but her composure didn't waver, and Mark thought she looked quite noble. "Luck?" she asked.
"Well," Lyn said, "how do you think ten people out of more than a hundred survive a massacre when most of them are children, not trained for combat? Must be luck, I think."
Mark smiled. "I'm glad you understand."
"More than you know," she said, "but it wasn't all luck, not every time. Sometimes Rebecca's aim would be good when it really needed to be, sometimes Hector managed to stop swinging his axe around like a lunatic long enough to take out someone just before they could fire an arrow that might otherwise have killed Florina. But your plans…they were solid most of the time, and it takes more than careful planning to win a battle."
"Still," Mark said, "I was guessing most of the time."
"So were we," she said. "Do you think any of us had extensive first-hand experience on fighting wars?"
The dragon was dead.
Nergal was dead.
They'd won the battle—no, the war.
It felt strange, as if a million heavy burdens were suddenly lifted from his back. Mark looked around, did a headcount, came up with the correct number.
Everyone had lived.
Every last person.
And he marveled at it, because, for all intents and purposes, despite everything, including his careful planning, they had not expected to fight a dragon on this day, and yet they had…and they'd won.
He turned around and gave the nearest person a bone-shattering hug, and Florina, who usually beat a large path around him and most other men, gave him a shaky smile and a squeeze back.
"You did it," she said.
"No, we did it."
Kent approached him, his expression solemn. "Mark," he said by way of greeting, and twisted his hands somewhat anxiously. Mark knew this meant that he was about to ask something difficult, something important.
"What can I do for you?" he asked in order to hurry the process along.
"When we fight Lord Darin," he said, glancing over his shoulder as if he worried that someone might appear there, "I would like to lead the charge."
Mark started. His plans usually involved a lot of sneaking around, and very little direct confrontation. "Why?" he asked, feeling overwhelmed and bewildered.
"Sain," he started, and swallowed, "and myself feel that…we would prefer Lady Lyndis not have to face him, not after what he's done."
Mark suddenly understood, but he sighed and turned away from the other man. "If a charge is necessary," he said, "then I will let you lead it. But no man in this army is expendable, even you."
But Mark knew he didn't, would never understand the weight placed upon his shoulders as the one who came up with attack plans. If someone died, it would be his fault, even if the person he gave the orders to slipped up.
And he wouldn't—couldn't—send a man out to die on purpose, knowing the chance of survival he'd have.
But one week later, Kent led the charge, because it was the best strategy. If Kent and the men going with him could catch the attention of the others for long enough, it would be easy for the rest of them to sneak in and surround them without their even knowing it.
Miraculously, nobody died, and Kent's worst wound was a badly-broken leg.
"Your plan worked flawlessly," Eliwood complimented him, giving him a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder.
"I thought Kent was going to die," Hector said. "I thought it was a done deal. But that javelin just barely missed his face."
And Mark thought that it was terrible that they could speak of it now, with awe in their voices, as if it hadn't almost happened, as if they couldn't possibly be burying Kent or Sain or Oswin or Marcus right now instead of just keeping Kent on bed rest.
And here they were, complimenting his plan as if he'd somehow been the one to move the javelin a quarter-inch away from Kent's face so that he wouldn't lose his head. No, it had been a lucky break.
And Kent, well, his leg would never mend completely, not really. It wasn't as if they had come out of the battle completely unscathed.
"What do you think, about this war we're fighting?"
Mark perked up and turned to see Farina talking to Dorcas.
"I think it's not really a war," he answered after a moment.
"I agree," she said, and sat down beside him. "This isn't an army. We're just a small group of people infiltrating places. Common goals and all that."
"Right," he said.
"Some people think we're a grand army," she offered with a sigh.
"If we were a real army, we wouldn't have Mark making our orders so…precise."
"That's what I told Priscilla," she said. "A real army would just charge in. Hell, a wing of pegasus knights would charge straight in."
"In a real army," interjected Lucius, who Mark had not noticed sitting nearby, "your death would be just another number, nobody would really notice if you'd fallen in battle unless they recognized your corpse when they threw you into a mass grave. Or maybe a few days would pass and people would eventually notice you weren't there."
Mark found himself nodding along. A real army was more like a mass manhunt than anything, where two groups of people met head-on and fought hand-to-hand with men in the back firing volleys and the occasional sage with amazingly honed skills firing powerful spells from the back of a pegasus or a wyvern.
No, they weren't fighting a war, not really.
"What game are you playing?" Wil asked him.
"It's called War," Raven said, sounding bored as Mark took one of his pieces.
"So which piece is what? What is the point of the game?"
"To win, I think," Raven continued with a straight face. "But I might be wrong."
Mark hid a smile. "It's a small-scale battle," he explained. "Each piece can move in a different way. You take pieces off the board who have been defeated, and in the end you must put the other team's King into checkmate."
"I understood about half of that," Wil admitted. "Who's winning?"
"It could go either way at this point."
"So it's just like a real war, then," said Wil, frowning a bit.
"Yes," Raven interrupted, finally moving a knight, but leaving a pawn open and defenseless. As Mark moved to take it, he gave a resolute nod, "Sacrifices must be made."
And Mark said, shaking his head, "I don't make sacrifices. There is always another way."
"Do you regret leaving the plains?" Mark asked Lyn. They were mere weeks from Caelin and he couldn't help but wonder. The others had left things behind to come with them, but it was different for her than for them. She was leaving the only place she'd ever known.
She rolled her ankle as she gave him a tight smile, "Regret? No. But I do miss it."
"What do you miss the most?"
She paused, looking thoughtful. "The smell of the air, the feel of the wind, the knowledge that I'm right where I was meant to be. But at the end of the day, I miss people who are dead. I miss my family. I miss my people. I miss the camaraderie. I miss things that I'll never have back, because it's too late."
"I see," he answered.
"If I hadn't come," Lyn said, "I might have died alone."
"You have friends," Mark said.
"And you as well."
The bandits were long gone, but they'd left him in sorry shape and had taken most of his possessions. He supposed he was grateful he was half-starved when they'd happened upon him or else he might not have looked so close to death after a few kicks to the face.
"Come out here to study tactics from Sacaen tribes, find out they're all dead. Try to go back to Etruria, get jumped by bandits," he mumbled as the world spun around him. "Just my luck."
And then he fainted.