Heath felt the speaker sitting on the log next to him before he even had a chance to look up and see who it was. When he did, he found himself short on breath; his gaze fixated on a tall woman with light blue hair and a gentle smile. She sat next to him, keeping enough distance that he didn't feel the need to scoot away, but close enough that he knew she wasn't intimidated or shy of him at all.
"I hope you don't mind me sitting here," she said, brushing some of her hair out of her face. "But I noticed you had a polishing rag, and I was hoping I could borrow it once you're finished. I seem to have misplaced mine."
Heath blinked uncomprehendingly at her before suddenly realizing what she meant. He looked down; in his left hand was his bloodied lance, and in his right was a freshly cleaned polishing cloth. He had been holding them both, sitting still for well over five minutes. Giving his head a quick shake to try and clear it, he set the lance down and held out the cloth. "Go ahead," he said, trying to keep his voice neutral. "I'm finished."
She raised her eyebrows. "Are you sure? Your lance is still..."
"I'm sure," he said, lowering his eyes slightly. "Here, take it."
The young woman hesitated, but took the cloth, offering a small smile in return. "Thanks," she said, as she set to polishing her own lance.
Heath examined the weapon as she cleaned it. While he felt odd sitting next to her, she was the one who had approached him, and sitting here in silence was growing more and more uncomfortable; it would probably be a good idea to try and make conversation. "That's a fine weapon," he said. "Steel?"
She looked at him, eyebrows raised once again. "You have a good eye," she replied. "Yes, it is. It's a tad bulky for my tastes, to be perfectly honest. I have to admit, I'm not the strongest person around, so an iron lance is easier to carry. Still, I'm skilled enough that I can still make this work. I just wish it was a little lighter."
Heath nodded. "I can respect that."
"Your own weapon seems rather heavy, though," she said, glancing at Heath's own lance. "An axereaver, unless I miss my guess?"
He smiled. "You don't. I've had this particular one for a while now. It's probably well on its way to breaking, but it's served me well so far."
"I heard," she said. "From what I understand, you engaged the enemy commander, right? Eubans, his name was..."
The young knight lowered his eyes. "...That's right. It was a tough battle; he was far more skilled than I. But I got a lucky hit, and now he's gone."
She looked over his shoulder at another weapon laying on the ground, this one a light spear. "Was that his?"
"Yes. He dropped it when he fell. I wanted to leave it, but Hector said it might be useful."
"It's a fine weapon," she said, nodding her assent. "Spears are rather strong, yet still light enough that you can still maneuver well with them."
Heath shrugged. "A lighter weapon is nice, yeah, but you need to have a little weight if you want to do any damage."
"Oh? Do you?"
"Do I... what?"
"Want to do damage."
He smiled humorlessly. "I'd better, hadn't I? We're warriors, and this is a war."
The girl paused a moment before shaking her head. "You're partly right. Yes, we have to do as we're told, and we must do it as well as we can. But you'll learn quickly that around here, you're not just considered a weapon, or even an arm to wield one." She turned toward the fortress in front of which they were sitting. "Everyone here has been touched by this conflict, but not all in a bad way. This army has brought together so many people from different walks of life, and yet so many of us have become fast friends." She smiled at her companion. "Give it time, and they'll warm up to you, too."
Heath lowered his eyes. "Maybe... I suppose mercenaries need to be able to adjust to a new group easily, huh?"
"It's a good skill to have, yes," the woman sighed. "I've taken so many jobs with so many different people, it's hard to remember them all." She peered at him. "But you're no mercenary, are you?"
He stiffened up. "...What do you mean?"
"Well, it's obvious you're a knight of Bern."
He blinked. "How did you..."
"It was pretty obvious. Your armor, your fighting style, your mannerisms..." a small smile crossed her face. "Oh, and the wyvern was a bit of a tip-off."
He lowered his eyes. "I guess I can't expect that to be much of a secret."
"Why would you want to keep it secret? I have nothing but respect for the knights of Bern."
The mirthless smile returned to his face. "You may want to rethink that position," he said. "Some of the things that happened there... I just couldn't stand it anymore. I left."
She blinked. "You... what?"
"You heard me," he said, turning away. "I left. I deserted. I ran like a coward, from the army, from Bern... from everything."
She was silent, but he could feel her gazing at him even as he kept his back to her. "I see," she said at last, her voice soft. "That's why you were sitting here alone..."
He shut his eyes. "You should go. You don't want to be seen with a deserter like me."
There was another brief silence before he felt her hand on his shoulder. "Look at me," she said.
He didn't move.
"Look at me," she repeated, this time with a commanding tone Heath was surprised she could produce. While her voice was still gentle, he found himself compelled to obey, turning to meet her gaze. She stared straight at him, looking deep into his eyes, before shaking her head. "You're not telling me everything," she sighed. "You didn't do what you did out of cowardice. Someone as honorable as you wouldn't just desert without a good reason."
He snorted. "What makes you think I'm so honorable?"
"You defected," she said. "When Eubans ordered you to attack us, and you saw we had an unconscious child with us and women among our ranks, you refused. You surrendered yourself to us, ready to lay down your arms only to be asked to take them up against the people you'd just been fighting with. And you did so without hesitation, even taking on someone far more skilled and powerful than you because he'd been willing to kill innocents. Or is that blood you're so hesitant to wipe off your lance from another enemy?"
Heath looked down at his lance, then back up at her, eyes wide. "You saw all that?"
"I'm good at spotting things," she said. "You have to be, when you're a pegasus knight."
It was his turn to lift his eyebrows. "You're a pegasus knight?"
"Yes," she said. "So you and I are going to be flying together from now on. I figured it was a good idea to get to know the man who's going to be my new wingmate."
He looked away, then smiled. "...Yes, I suppose it is. I'm sorry for my behavior; it's been a trying time for me."
"I imagine so," she sighed, smiling. "But I hope it gets better from now on."
He returned her grin. "Thanks to you, it already has."
She looked a little taken aback, and a light blush crossed her face, but she nodded nevertheless. "I'm glad to hear that," she said. She extended her hand "I'm Fiora, by the way."
"I'm Heath," he replied, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. "It's nice to meet you, Dame Fiora."
"You, too." She released his hand and rose to go. "I'd best get going now, but I hope we can talk again sometime. Oh, and before I forget..." She held out her hand, the polishing cloth clutched within it. "Sometimes, it's a good idea to let the past go. Wipe your slate clean, so to speak."
Heath hesitated a moment before taking the cloth from her. She flashed him another smile as she left. He watched her go for a few seconds before looking down at his lance again. He paused a moment before putting the cloth to the blade, and, after taking a breath, began wiping away Eubans's blood.
The memory of that first meeting faded with the night as the sun rose over the horizon, the choppy waves flashing light up at Heath. He let the sea breeze waft over him, accompanied by the wind from Hyperion's gently beating wings. With the ship cruising along leisurely below him, most of the crew barely awake as they moved about in their various morning rituals, Heath cast one glance backwards at the main continent of Elibe. He couldn't see the mainland anymore; they had long since left Badon, and been sailing most of the night, so it was no surprise that the horizon held only water.
Looking ahead, though, he could just make out the coast of Valor. Though he had not seen the Dread Isle himself, many of his new comrades in Eliwood's army told him of the events that had occurred there shortly after he joined up. He couldn't imagine the grief Eliwood felt at seeing his father die like that, or the rage that now pulsed through him. But he did have an idea of grief, dark memories carried over from his days as a soldier that he'd rather not revisit, yet he couldn't stop recalling them.
But his reminiscing was interrupted as a call of "Hey, Heath!" suddenly reached his ears. Startled, he jerked up and looked around, but it was only when he glanced downward that he saw the pirate—Dart was his name—waving at him from the crow's nest. It was closer than he'd expected; apparently he and Hyperion had been losing altitude, getting closer and closer to the ship.
"You all right up there?" Dart called. "You seem a little out of it! Don't want you flying into the rigging!"
Heath smiled. "I'm not so dumb as to do something like that," he called back. "But thanks. I guess I haven't been paying much attention. I was lost in thought."
"Well, be careful," Dart replied, "Or thought ain't the only thing you'll be lost in."
The pirate began to lift himself down onto the ropes leading to the deck, but Heath started slowly descending and called to him. "Hey, Dart?"
The pirate looked up at Heath as the wyvern rider came level with the crow's nest, careful not to get too close to any of the myriad ropes hanging above the ship. "Yeah?"
"You were here earlier, right? The first time the group came to the Dread Isle?"
Dart hesitated. "Yeah, I was. I joined 'em right before they set out to the ruins. Why?"
"I'm just wondering," Heath replied, lowering his eyes. "The others… there seem to be a lot of memories of this place, mostly bad."
"Mostly?" Dart let out a laugh. "I've gotta tell you, Heath, that's quite the understatement. Lessee, now… Eliwood, of course, lost his father, and Matthew, the spy? We found his love's body while moving out for the Dragon's Gate. Even Lyn had to kill one of her own countrymen without knowing why. And then there's the pegasus knight…"
Heath looked up. "What's that? Which pegasus knight?"
"The eldest," Dart explained. "I… er… well, maybe I shouldn't be saying this…"
"The eldest..." Heath echoed. He nodded. "You're probably right. If she wanted me to know, I'm sure she'd have told me."
"Well, I'm not entirely sure what happened myself," Dart admitted. "So I can't really help you either way."
"That's fine," Heath said. "Thanks for looking out for me, Dart. Don't worry too much about the rigging."
"Just keep your distance," the pirate admonished, once again starting down towards the deck.
Heath pulled back on the reigns, and Hyperion responded by rising higher into the air. It wasn't long enough before Heath found himself lost in thought once again, but this time his mind was concerned with a very different subject. He believed what he'd said; it was her choice whether or not she wanted to tell him what had happened.
But he couldn't say he wasn't hoping she would choose to do so.
Hyperion's mighty wings beat over the desert sands faster than any of their comrades could travel. Heath leveled his lance at the enemy archer. The man was notching another arrow to his bow when he heard the sound of approaching wings, and turned just in time to see Heath's weapon plunging toward him.
Hyperion collided with the ground in an explosion of sand; the grit still hung in the air as Heath leaped off the wyvern, leaving his lance buried in the archer and sprinting across the sand toward Fiora. She glanced up at him, still clutching her arm where the arrow had hit. "Heath, no! I'm fine! Get back in the battle!"
Heath kept running until he slid to a halt right beside her. He already had a vulnerary in his hand, and began treating her wound.
Fiora's face grew earnest. "Heath, please! Stop wasting time! You need to help Pent!"
Heath looked at her, confused. "Pent? Who…" He suddenly turned and looked out across the sand dunes, where a sage was fighting off a number of enemy units. "That man? You mean you know him?"
"I…" Fiora lowered her eyes. "He… he was my employer, for the mission when..." She shook her head. "I need to speak with him, Heath! Besides, we were tasked with protecting him! Go! Make sure he's all right!"
The sage in question was dispatching enemies left and right quite easily on his own. He was outnumbered, but those numbers were shrinking rapidly. Heath returned to his work, shaking his head. "This 'Pent' fellow seems to be holding his own just fine. Hold still; this will only take a second to patch."
Fiora's mouth opened to voice another protest, but instead her words came out in a panicked scream. "Heath, look out!"
She shoved him out of the way just as a bolt of dark magic rose out of the ground and struck the air in front of him. He whirled around to see an enemy shaman cursing and preparing another attack. Heath's hand immediately went to the spear at his side; he flung the shaft through the air, but the mage dodged it easily. Heath had never expected him to be that agile. But the wyvern rider was running forward again almost before he knew it, his larger and heavier lance in hand. Another spell clipped him, and he nearly fell, but he managed to make it far enough to thrust forward, ending the threat of the shaman, before collapsing to the ground.
The next thing he saw was Fiora rolling him over, her face wearing a mix of concern and anger. "I told you to go help Pent!" She picked up the vulnerary he had been using, still mostly full despite treating her wound, and began dressing his own.
Heath shook his head as he tried to blink his eyes into focus against the bright sun. "If he didn't come after me, he would have come after you…"
"I could have handled it," Fiora fumed. "Pegasus knights do better against magic than wyvern riders. You know that. It was foolish to come after me like that!" She looked around. "At least it looks like we're out of danger, for now. But we need to get to Pent." She pulled him up and started toward her pegasus.
As he looked after her, he felt his cheeks turn red. "I'm sorry," he muttered.
She looked back at him, her eyes still showing anger, although not as much. "You can't just risk yourself and the mission like that, Heath," she said sternly. "You've been a knight long enough to know what can happen when you disobey orders." She gazed at him for a moment before mounting up and flying away.
He pulled himself up as he watched her leave. "Yes," he said softly. "Yes, I have."
He staggered toward Hyperion, hoping to rejoin the battle quickly. He shook his head and chastised himself silently. Fiora was right; he'd made a mistake, risking his own life to help her. But he couldn't help it, and if it happened again, he wasn't sure he'd do anything differently. After what happened before, he was determined to protect his comrades—no matter the cost.
Fiora didn't like being cooped up indoors. She was, after all, a pegasus knight; her home was the sky, and to be separated from it for too long made her feel ill. Although, to be honest, most of her current illness was due to the constant rocking of the boat. The perpetual back-and-forth motion, combined with the inescapable saline-smelling air, was doing her stomach no favors. Still, it could have been worse. At least she could still stand. If she wanted to, that is.
A knocking sound drew her attention to where Farina was standing. "Can I come in?" the blue-haired knight asked.
Fiora managed a smirk. "Very funny." The deck was one large open area; it wasn't a door Farina was knocking on, but a post near the bench that Fiora had sat herself down on hours before. "Sure, why not? Make sure to close the door behind you."
Farina walked over, sitting on the bench next to her sister. "Are you ok? You're looking pretty green."
"I'm fine," the older sister replied. "It's just the poor light in here making me look that way."
In response, Farina took a lantern from a nearby post and held it up to her sister's face. "Hm... nope, you're green."
"Oh, hush," Fiora said, smirking, as she pushed the lantern away.
Farina replaced it on the post before giving her sister a worried look. "Maybe you should go above decks?"
"Yes, because the only thing better than feeling the ocean moving is seeing the ocean moving."
Farina rolled her eyes. "No, really. I've heard it helps. Look, if you want to get off the boat, why don't you just go for a flight? I'm sure your pegasus would appreciate the exercise. After all, he's been cooped up just as long as you have."
Fiora shook her head. "No thanks, I'm fine."
"Fiora, I really think it would help."
"I'm fine!" she said emphatically, a little too much so, she realized. Farina drew away; Fiora looked up at her and did her best to smile. "Sorry. I just... I don't really feel like going out for a flight right now."
"Why not?" Farina asked. "It'd make you feel better."
Fiora hesitated a moment. "...We're almost to Valor, right?"
"Yeah, I think so. I overheard Fargus telling Hector that we should be there within an hour."
"I'll stay down here, thanks."
Farina was silent for a moment, then she let out a sigh and shook her head. "Well, if you say so." She rose to go before looking down at her sister one more time. "Hey, sis?"
The younger knight hesitated before speaking. "You... you know that you can talk to us, right? Florina and I, I mean. We're here for you." She paused. "...You're not alone."
Fiora smiled. "Sometimes I feel like I am. But I know I shouldn't. You two have done a lot for me these past few months. Reconnecting with Florina, reconciling with you... I'm happy we were finally able to come together as a family again, after all this time."
Farina studied her sister. "But that's not what's bothering you, is it?"
"No," she admitted. "It's not."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
A moment's pause. "...Did Florina tell you? About what happened here before?"
"She... may have mentioned it, yes."
"Then I hope you can understand why I actually don't want to talk about it. Not now, at least."
Farina nodded after a brief hesitation. "I do. But remember, you can talk to us."
Fiora smiled. "Of course."
As Farina started up the steps to the upper deck, Fiora called out to her one last time "Hey, Farina?"
"Have you... have you seen Heath lately?"
"Actually, he's got his wyvern out for a flight right now. Almost flew into the rigging before Dart yelled at him. I guess he's got a lot on his mind, too." She looked at her sister for a moment. "You want me to tell him anything?"
"No," Fiora said quickly, "That's all right. I was just asking."
Farina smirked a little, but not so little that Fiora didn't see it. The older pegasus knight felt herself blushing as her sister continued up the steps.
A few minutes later, Fiora rose herself. She'd been able to deal with the seasickness so far, but it seemed to have become downright unbearable in the last few minutes. Besides, she did want to see the sky again—even if it was the sky above the Dread Isle.
Perhaps she'd take that flight after all.
So simple a word—only four letters, one syllable. Yet the meanings it held for Heath defied description. It had been his home for his entire life, his home that he'd served it proudly as a soldier when he was old enough. And then, one day… it wasn't. In the space of a few minutes, they had made a decision that had irrevocably changed all their lives.
His life, anyway. The others…
"You know," Sain called, interrupting his thoughts, "If those flowers are meant for a woman, I think you may have more luck with something a little… fuller."
Heath glanced over at the Caelin knight. He hadn't even noticed Sain standing there as he'd walked past on his way to Hyperion. Looking down at the flowers clutched in his hand, the wyvern rider had to smirk. They were a bit… scraggly, to be sure. But in the rocky terrain of Bern's mountains, they were the best he could do. He should know, after all; he'd flown over these mountains more times than he could count.
"They're not for a woman," he replied. "They're for… some friends."
"I see," Sain said, sidling up closer to the knight and looking entirely unconvinced. "Tell me, Heath… these friends wouldn't happen to be named Fiora, would they?"
The humor vanished from Heath's smile. "No. They… their names are—were—entirely different."
Sain wore a look of confusion briefly, before it gave way to one of understanding. "Oh… I-I apologize, I had no idea…"
"It's all right," Heath sighed. "It's only about a mile away from here. I'll be back soon."
The horseman nodded. "Take care, then."
Heath didn't bother prolonging the conversation any further as he mounted Hyperion and the two of them took to the air. He did smile to himself, though. Sain could be a bit… meddlesome, but his intentions were good enough. Heath had found both him and Kent to be valuable allies and good friends in the short time he'd been with the group. It was good to have comrades again.
Although nothing would compare to flying alongside them… but that couldn't be helped.
Before he knew it, they'd arrived. Hyperion seemed to know the spot well, even though they'd only been there once. Heath wondered if it still bore the scent of the three other wyverns; Hyperion had known all of them well, especially Theia. He found himself wondering what had become of them. He'd heard tales about beasts that would stay at their master's graves, loyal even in death, until they, too, passed on.
It was a discomforting thought. He pushed it aside; he'd have more than enough of those in the next few minutes.
The three makeshift grave markers were right where he had left them when he'd buried Isaac, Lachius, and—he found a lump forming in his throat as he thought the name—Belminade. Apparently, nobody had found them in the intervening months—or, if they had, they'd left the graves alone. The riders' names were nowhere to be seen, but their helms were there, each carrying the symbol of their group: a curled wyvern's tale, wreathed in flame and ready to strike. He held three of the small mountain flowers in his hand, that being all he could find, and so he left only one at each grave, one for each of his fallen comrades. The flowers looked stark and pathetic, their scraggly nature only amplified by the bleakness of the scene… and yet, in spite of that, Heath was glad they were there. Even that little bit of color, that little splash of life, seemed to help. At the very least, it was helping him.
He spun around, surprised, to find Fiora watching him from a short distance away. Her hands were clasped together and her head was bowed, her eyes peering up at him from under her light blue bangs. He was shocked that he hadn't heard her approach; looking around, he couldn't see her pegasus, and realized she must have come on foot to minimize the noise she made. More shocking, though, was the expression on her face. If he'd known she was there, he may have expected pity from her, or maybe guilt for what she had said earlier. But he didn't expect her face to be contorted with sadness, looking like she were about to cry, as if those graves didn't hold his comrades, but her own.
"Fiora?" He moved to block her view of the grave markers, then stopped, realizing it was pointless to try and hide all three. "What are you doing here?"
"I… Sain told me I should check on you, and…" She trailed off, her eyes fixed on the markers. "Heath, what happened here?"
Heath didn't say anything. He didn't know what to say, to be honest. It was clear enough what the three markers were, and the emblems on the helmets were exactly the same as the one on his. It wasn't much of an intuitive leap for Fiora to figure out what this place was. What she couldn't figure out, he didn't exactly want to tell her just yet.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I can understand why you wouldn't want to talk about it."
He nodded. "I appreciate that. Thanks."
Fiora lowered her eyes, letting silence hang in the air for a long time before speaking again. "…I guess this is why you were so worried about me the other day?"
He paused for a moment. "…Maybe."
"I'm sorry, Heath," she said. "I've been meaning to talk to you about that. I guess we just haven't really had a chance lately…"
He smiled, only partially forcing it. "Meeting a millennia-old sage and being teleported halfway across the continent does kind of take precedence."
She smiled as well, but quickly suppressed it.
"I wasn't about to abandon you when you were injured," he said, trying to draw attention away from his fallen wingmates. "But I let myself get too distracted, and I wound up getting hurt myself because of it. I'm sorry I overreacted."
"I did, too," Fiora sighed. "I'm sorry, Heath. At the time, I just... when I realized Pent was there, I knew I needed to talk to him. I let my emotions take control of me, and when you tried to help me, I spoke too harshly."
Heath blinked. "Does... does Pent really mean that much to you?"
Fiora shook her head. "I don't know him very well, to be honest. But as I said, he's the one who hired me for the last mission, and..." She bit her lip. "I..."
Heath took a step towards her. This was the second time she'd mentioned that mission... and been unable to go on. He opened his mouth to speak, but thought better of it and closed it again. He'd wanted to prompt her to tell him more, but he knew he couldn't reasonably expect her to do so when he wouldn't tell her about the three graves mere inches away.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"Me too." She was holding back tears, he noticed.
Heath wanted to say something more, but again, didn't know what. Eventually, he cleared his throat. "We should probably go back to camp," he said. "Don't want to worry the others."
She nodded her assent after a moment's pause. "You go ahead," she said. "I left my pegasus over that ridge. I'll have to walk over and get him before I return."
"OK," Heath said. He turned towards Hyperion and started to mount up, then stopped. He looked over his shoulder at Fiora. "Actually... I think I'd rather walk with you."
She looked up at him, surprised. "What? You... you would?"
He paused for a moment. "...Yeah, I would. As long as you don't mind, that is," he added quickly.
She, too, hesitated before speaking. "Actually... I'd like that. Thank you, Heath."
Despite the somber mood, he couldn't help but smile. "No, thank you. Come on, Hyperion."
A snort from the wyvern.
"Oh, be quiet," Heath sighed. "You need to work on your leg strength anyway."