The Last Red Shoulder
7: To the Isles!
"My word, Barim. I'm impressed!"
That was high praise coming from the usually terse Mage General. Khyron knew it, and he knew that Barim knew too. And much to his satisfaction, his staff officer responded graciously, bowing his head before raising it again to brush aside a few pale, grey-blue locks of hair from his eyes. "Thank you, milord. Truth be told, though, this was not too much of a challenge. I thought we would be setting for the Western Isles by the time we took Nerinheit, and we already had many experienced soldiers as well. It was not at all difficult for me to organize an expeditionary force and amass a fleet to ferry them across the Shield of Durbans."
Khyron nodded as he looked over the massive fleet of 50 ships floating in Nerinheit's harbor. All large three-masted sailing ships, they were filled with the 6000 battle-hardened elite troops sent to reinforce the Royalists remaining on the Western Isles.
"Seems like we've got everything ready," said Knight General Wayland, who was standing next to his colleague Khyron, having accompanied him to Nerinheit. "We should be ready to depart. Excellent job indeed, Barim." The Sage offered another bow at the compliment. "So is there anything we're waiting for? The sooner we get to the Isles, the better."
"Hmm," said Khyron. "There is, actually. Before we left Aquleia, I was told there would be an emissary from the Church waiting for us. Perhaps to bless our expedition. Yet I've seen no-one waiting for me and Wayland since we arrived at these docks!"
Fortunately, Khyron wouldn't have to find anyone—that 'emissary' had managed to find him, at long last, at least.
"Lord Khyron," came a loud cry from the other end of the docks. "Lord Khyron~!"
"Eh?" Khyron, Barim, and Wayland all turned to see two men walking up to them. Well, one man walking and another one scampering hastily at them. None of them recognized the walking man, but Khyron, at least, knew his companion.
"Eh? Aren't you..." Khyron squinted as the shorter youth jogged up to him, huffing and puffing. He was dressed in a modest brown cassock, the type favored by traveling Eliminean mendicants. His face was bright and cheery, but seemed somewhat thin, though not haggard. It was as if he was once somewhat chubby, but had lost some of that fat over a hard year of travel. His brown hair was clean but unkempt, as if he couldn't be bothered to mind it.
"You, aren't…weren't you Renault's little friend?" Khyron said, with a mixture of amusement and (very) slight distaste. "What was your name, Seraphim, Sarah…"
"Serapino, m'lord!" he chirped merrily. "I'm sure glad to see you! The Bishop of Nerinheit—he was just reinstated, y'know—told me to expect you, and that I had to come meet you as soon as you arrived!" He looked down. "But…but I'm still new to this city, and, um, I sort of…got lost." He brightened up as he looked at his companion, who had caught up to him. "Elimine's favors were upon me, though, 'cause I was blessed by this kindhearted rescuer! I ran into him and he happened to know where the docks were! Or…remembered where they were. I'm so grateful! To both of you, m'lords!"
The gentleman laughed bashfully and brought a hand to scratch the back of his head. "That's…a little too much, friend. I'm not a devout believer, but I just thought you needed some help and wanted to provide. We travelers have to look out for one another, after all."
"Indeed?" Khyron glanced at this second man. He didn't seem to be lying, as he was outfitted as a traveler might conceivably be. However, he did not look like any traveler Khyron had yet seen. It wasn't because he was dressed strangely—thick brown leather boots and traveling pants below a weathered white doubloon with cheap copper buttons. He also seemed as if he might have been Bernese, for his skin was a bit more tan than Khyron's (not as dark as Dougram's had been, though), and he was wearing a traveler's rucksack. In his right hand he carried an odd case the type of which Khyron had never seen before. That wasn't the oddest thing about him. No, what really marked him out was his height. This traveler was tall. Very tall. He would have come just up to Braddock's chest, which meant he was a head taller than the Mage General. He was nowhere near as muscular as Braddock was, but he wasn't frail either; his frame and the way he carried himself made it seem as if he could have been a Swordmaster.
Rather suspicious, all in all, yet for some reason Khyron couldn't bring himself to distrust this man. It was his face. This fellow seemed as if he could have been an older version of Renault. He was clean-shaven, with an angular nose and prominent cheekbones, yet his face wasn't wrinkled at all—only his bushy grey eyebrows indicated his age. His short grey hair was just barely visible underneath the wide-brimmed hat which kept the afternoon sun out of his eyes. Those eyes were calm, warm, and hazel, twinkling with an inner light that seemed to match the reassuring smile on his face.
"Indeed, indeed," he laughed, and then he bowed. "I travel a lot, m'lord. In fact, I make my living as a wandering musician, as you might be able to tell from this!" He opened up the case he was carrying, revealing a strange six-stringed instrument his audience recognized as a guitar.
"A guitar?" asked Khyron, his suspicions reappearing. "Are you a Bernite?"
"No, no. I was actually born and raised in Aquleia. I just happened to take a liking to Bern's music as a youth and never quite lost it. My name's as Etrurian as your blood, Lord Khyron. Call me Levin!"
"Levin? A bard named Levin?" Wayland brought a hand up to his chin thoughtfully. "That's a very fitting name. One of the oldest surviving histories from the Scouring speaks of a prince called Levin, who lived on a land separated from Elibe by a gate crossing space and time. It's said he lived as bard for some time before taking the throne."
Levin was quite surprised by Wayland's display of knowledge, and as it turned out, Khyron and Barim were as well. "Exactly right, lad! I thought you were a Paladin by the looks of you, but you're well versed in the ancient texts. Are you a Sage?"
"Not at all," came his reply, smiling genuinely. "I'm actually Wayland, the Knight General. I almost wasn't, though. When I grew up I wanted to be a historian. I didn't come from a rich family, though, and I didn't have any magic talent, so none of the great academies in Aquleia would take me. I managed to get myself apprenticed to a priest, though, and he had a really great collection of books." His expression grew a bit sad. "Wasn't much time for that when the war came, though. I was drafted, and it turned out I was as good with horses and blades as I was with books. So here I am."
"Aye, war," said Levin, sympathy on his face. "Never an age where it wasn't a terrible thing. But—ah! You're a knight general! Forgive me, Lord!" He bent down to one knee. "I meant no disrespect."
"Don't worry about it."
Barim, who had been listening to Wayland's story intently, now saw fit to speak. "Wayland, I never knew you were a scholar of the ancient texts as well. Did you know Khyron's brother, Exedol?"
"The former mage general? I wish I did, but not personally. I've read some of his translations before the war, though." He nodded to Khyron, swelling with pride. "Your brother was truly a great man."
"You…ah, out of curiosity," began Barim, and there was almost something that might have been called hope in his voice, "you've never read his translation of Amuro's Lament, have you?"
"I have, actually!"
"Really?! Wonderful!" Everyone in the vicinity was taken aback by the sudden enthusiasm in Barim's voice. "Dragon's blood, what a blessing! There's been no-one I could talk good books with for ages, not since Exedol died!"
"Hah-ha! I thought I was the only man in miles with an appreciation for the classics!" Grinning as widely as Khyron had ever seen him, Wayland clapped Barim on the back. "You can read High Imperial too, right? What did you think of Exedol's translation? I can understand a bit of it, but not enough to judge. Was his choice of a country dialect for Amuro accurate?"
Barim was about to respond before Khyron cut him off. "I'm glad you two found each other, but we've also responsibilities to attend to. You can discuss your books later." He turned back to Levin. "The Church assigned this mendicant to us. You have our thanks for delivering him. Now, Serapino, what is it the Church needs from me? Are you to give us Elimine's blessings before we set forth?" A note of irritation entered into Khyron's voice. "Surely the Bishop himself would have come to see us! An Expeditionary Force like this deserves a more proper send-off than something from a no-name mendicant!"
"Well, um actually, Lord Khyron," Serapino stammered, aware he was being insulted but not dumb enough to make a scene of it, "I was actually supposed to give you this!"
"Give me what?"
"Oh, um…" Serapino began fumbling around in his robes, growing ever more frantic when he saw he couldn't find it. "Oh, no…oh, no! Where did I put it! Oh God, help me! That was such an expensive artifact! Oh, they'll excommunicate me for sure, I know it!"
Levin chuckled warmly. "Again, I'm not devout, but I'm quite sure the Church does not excommunicate its members for honest mistakes. In any case, though, I believe you were looking for this?"
He reached into a pocket and drew out what was indeed an expensive magical artifact. Specifically, it was a scrying crystal, of the sort used by magicians (be they Light, Dark, or Anima-users) to speak with one another across long distances.
Serapino squealed happily. "Yes, yes, that's it, exactly! Oh, you are truly a gift from the Saint! But how did you find it?"
"You dropped it when you bumped into me, my friend."
"Oh, curse my clumsiness! But, ah, thank you, thank you!" He reached out, took the crystal, and presented it to Khyron. "Lord Khyron, this crystal ball is bound to His Excellency Archbishop Gosterro himself!"
"I see—wait, wait! Did you say the Archbishop himself?!"
Serapino nodded proudly. "His Holiness says it's absolutely imperative that your quest meets with success, and the Red Shoulders are suppressed. He's very concerned for your well-being! So he wants to keep an eye on you at all times!"
"I'm…very grateful for his concern," said Wayland skeptically, "but is he offering anything to us besides surveillance? Money, men, supplies…anything?"
"Hmm, that's, uh…" Serapino shuffled his feet. "I…actually don't think so."
It seemed as if Wayland would have said something sarcastic in response, but Khyron cut him off. "Remember, Knight General, this is our fight, not the Church's. It may have been nice to have their assistance, but if their blessings are all they'll give, that is enough. I've triumphed under worse odds with less help before!"
"Alright." Wayland took the crystal ball from Serapino's hands. "Give our thanks to the Church, Serapino. God be with you."
"Ah…wait a moment," said Levin, who hadn't left and had heard the entire conversation. "Serapino…out of curiosity, what are you planning to do now?"
"Huh?" The wandering mendicant blinked. "I hadn't thought of that before…I was just told to give this crystal ball to Lord Khyron and go on my way."
"And where would your way be?"
"I want to go where the people need me…there's so much war and violence on the Western Isles. I think God is calling me to go there and spread His love, and alleviate the pain of the people."
Levin chuckled. "It seems you might be in luck, then. Lord Khyron, do you think you could take this young man along with you?"
"What? Take him with us?" Khyron repeated incredulously "Is this an order from the Church?"
"N-no," stammered Serapino. "They didn't say anything about me going anywhere…"
"Then I must refuse. The Western Isles are not fit for a civilian clergyman. We're going to war, not pilgrimage, and will not be able to keep you safe."
"Are you sure?" Levin asked. "This youth has been traveling alone for quite a while, and managed to keep himself safe despite his, er, lack of dexterity. And if he is truly being called by God, who are we to deny his request?"
"We do have more than enough space," said Barim, seeing the wisdom in Levin's words. "Our ships could carry sixty-five hundred men at the most. And this mendicant may prove useful. Tell me, lad, can you use magic?"
"Oh, um…they haven't taught me to use that yet…"
"A pity…it would have come in very handy against the Red Shoulders. Still, another staffman couldn't hurt. I say we take him along, Khyron."
"Well, you were Renault's little friend…and Dougram's, too. You weren't completely useless back then…tch, fine. Come along." Khyron cast a suspicious gaze at Levin. "And you, what are you still doing here!? Why were you even bothering to stick up for this wanderer? Shouldn't you have left a long time ago?"
"Ah…well, that's the thing," said Levin, looking somewhat embarrassed. "See, I actually wanted to go to the Western Isles myself."
"Well, for the same reason young Serapino did. I figured the people there could use a bit of music. God knows they've got enough war as it is. But nobody's willing to take a trip over there, not with the Red Shoulders causing all this chaos. So I was hoping to catch a trip with the only people heading there right now."
"We're supposed to be fighters, not ferrymen," Khyron grumbled. "Must we bring every random misfit we find along with us? And besides, we've never seen you before. How do we know this isn't some nefarious Rebel plot, hmm?"
"That's a good point," said Wayland, "but disguising an agent as an old traveling bard is something I've never heard the Red Shoulders do. Also, most of the rebel die-hards are on the Western Isles. We haven't seen any hidden cells or concealed agents around in weeks. It'd be a good idea to keep this fellow under watch, but I doubt it could do us much harm to do a good deed for a traveler. Besides, a bit of music might go a long way in maintaining our morale."
"Hmm…bah, fine! But keep in mind I'll expect you to compose songs praising my generosity, Sir Bard," grumbled Khyron. Levin grinned and nodded, unsure of whether or not Khyron was being sarcastic (he wasn't). "In any case, we'll set sail on the morrow! Levin, Serapino, get your things ready and your cabins set up on one of the boats. Tell the troops the Mage General's given you passage. Just remember to stay out of our way!"
"Yes, m'lord!" Both Levin and Serapino bowed deeply before heading to one of the nearby ships still docked, leaving Khyron alone with the Knight General and his staff officer.
"Well? What are we standing around for? We've more work to do as well, yes? Let's begin our inspection of the ships and the men before we depart!"
Wayland and Barim heartily agreed. They followed their Mage General to prepare for their journey, certain he would not lead them astray.
Not much to say here, except Levin is indeed a reference to FE4 :D And as always, please check out my other fics, The Confessor and Wayward Son, and my blog at gunlord500 dot wordpress dot com! :D