Author's Notes

Hey everyone, it's been a while!

I'll start off by saying that I last updated this story on June 17th 2018, fourteen months ago. In that time, it wouldn't surprise me at all if it turned out that a lot of readers have forgotten about this story, moved on, drifted away from RWBY, and/or chosen to drop this story altogether because of its notoriously inconsistent update schedule. And I fully admit, I never thought I'd let this much time pass by in between chapters. It really hurts to think about honestly, when I fondly remember a moment in my life when I was releasing a new chapter every month, or better yet, every two weeks. Those were some of the best times of my life in recent years.

A lot has happened since my last published chapter. I got my car fixed after the accident, I taught my second and final year as a teacher to a small private school, continued my primary work as a film freelancer, moved out and got a place with a roommate, and took a month off this past July to do some traveling and soul searching. I realized that as I grew older and began to pick up more responsibilities, I rationalized that spending less time on writing this story, something I didn't get paid to do, was a choice I had to make. But even though I didn't decide to drop it entirely, the priority to write started to get pushed farther and farther away from the things I deemed "important."

But the truth is, spending time away from writing this story has actually made me really sad. I loved staying up late into the night pouring my soul and passion into writing a story from a piece of media that was my first fandom. I loved that it allowed me to meet so many other people who loved it just as much as I did. And I loved publishing a chapter right before going to bed, excitedly listening to the notifications on my phone ring out as people began to leave reviews.

So. I'm choosing to steer my life back to a place where I continue to write this story. Even if it doesn't pay the bills, who cares!? It's my passion and I could never abandon it. From me to you, I am happy to announce that I'm back and that I will no longer push this story off to the side and behind me. Kuribayashi is back!

To celebrate this joyous occasion, I want to do a Q&A/AMA on Youtube that I'll publish the same time I publish the next chapter. Please feel free to submit questions to my TWRoV Tumblr, which you can find the username for on my profile. Questions can be about anything or about the story—as long as they're not something that would be a spoiler in future chapters. Once again, please leave your questions on tumblr as to not inflate the amount of reviews here.

Please leave a review. Your feedback is both greatly appreciated and crucial; anything and everything can help!

Now without further ado, please sit back, relax, and enjoy your reading of The White Rose of Vermilion Arc II, Chapter Twenty-Six.

Always and Forever

True to her word, Velvet did her absolute best to make up for how she and the others, Coco in particular, treated Ruby—by volunteering to cook what would be her first meal of the day. Shown to a private dining room only for the inn's owners, the young spy listened closely as the innkeeper went over all the dishes from the menu that she could choose from. While they all sounded delicious, she asked out of curiosity if there really was an actual dish named the Eisenstark Special, to which Velvet replied with an enthusiastic nod. Sensing something unique due to it not being brought up with the other options, and also it being a secret password, Ruby decided to order it. She did however, asked that it not be prepared "cold as ice." To this, the innkeeper giggled and flashed a warm smile before disappearing into the kitchen.

As she patiently waited for her food, she made friendly conversation with Yatsuhashi and Fox, who decided to take a moment out of their days to keep her company. Although regretful about Coco's behavior and refusal to apologize, they were however optimistic in that she only needed a bit more time and would surely come around before the day's end. While Ruby found herself wanting to trust the men, she knew better than to wholeheartedly expect the apology to come. Life had taught her this lesson in recent months.

A little while later, Velvet reemerged from the kitchen carrying a tray. Surprised but not unhappy to see Yatsuhashi and Fox conversing with her, the innkeeper took a moment to smile at the sight before affectionately motioning with her head to the two men, as if to remind them to return to work. There was something in the air in that moment, unspoken, that struck a chord within Ruby's heart.

Her attention soon turned to the tray Velvet laid down before her, specifically the massive steaming bowl of mashed potatoes. So much secrecy for this? she thought to herself, even though she loved the dish ever since she was a child. Doing her best to hide her slight confusion, she still glanced up at the innkeeper for a possible explanation. When Velvet's only response was to seat herself on the opposite side of the table and wait, Ruby immediately picked up her spoon and eagerly took a bite, not wanting to be appear any ruder. Instantly, she felt her eyes almost close on their own from the incredibly rich taste and creamy texture. It also shocked her when she realized that it was even better than Nora's cooking—something she didn't think was possible. A few bites later, at the bottom of the most recent hole her spoon left behind, she noticed a small brownish patch. Velvet's expression, which had been innocent since she sat down, began to slip into a sly one.

Ruby narrowed her eyes. Most suspicious!

Velvet rolled hers playfully. I don't know what you're talking about.

Digging deeper this time, she lifted up a spoonful of not mashed potatoes, but a mouthwatering assortment of braised beef, diced carrots, and peas. Upon biting down, her eyes drifted fully closed as the ingredients melted in her mouth without even having to put much effort into chewing. Savoring the rich flavor for a moment before swallowing, she then opened her eyes to see Velvet, now beaming with pride, clasp her hands together.

"And that's the Eisenstark Special," she said proudly, finally breaking her silence, "Seeing reactions like yours never gets old."

"THIS IS SO GOOD," Ruby cried out happily, her face flush with pure bliss.

Quickly stabbing her spoon back into the bowl until it hit the bottom, she lifted up the biggest scoop of both layers she could, as if it were her last, and crammed them into her mouth. With her cheeks close to bursting like a squirrel before hibernation and loudly gasping for breath to cool down the still relatively hot food, Ruby suddenly realized that she had unconsciously thrown her table manners to the wind. Raised at an early age to eat her food very slowly, to enjoy it more and make it last longer, the sudden freedom to eat whatever she wanted and as much as she wanted was something she had never had the privilege to experience before. As such, she felt that she let herself get carried away in the moment and put on an embarrassing display in front of her host.

But when she looked at Velvet, expecting a light lecture, she found relief in seeing that the innkeeper's smile was still there—and that it had actually grown. Just like before, Velvet managed to convey that she didn't mind and actually found it quite endearing without uttering a single word. Nonetheless, Ruby composed herself and finished her meal while asking a very pleased Velvet how she had made her new favorite dish.

With a meal big enough to be both breakfast and lunch now resting in her belly, she was promptly shown to where she'd stay during her time at the inn. Off-limits to general customers, it was revealed by Velvet to be one of several rooms on the fifth floor reserved for personal friends or family who were either visiting or passing by. Ruby was immediately struck by how large the room was, which boasted enough space to not only house a bed much larger than she'd ever seen, but various types of furniture including a dresser, a desk and chair, and a couch placed neatly in front of a small fireplace.

After placing her belongings on the nearby dresser, Ruby made the casual decision to sit down on the bed to see how it felt. A grave mistake. The soft touch of clean sheets instead of scratchy hay felt like heaven, and her responses to Velvet soon became slurred as her eyelids became heavy with fatigue. Her first meal of the day, curse her curiosity, was incredibly heavy. As it settled, the sheer exhaustion she managed to lock away thanks to the cold weather and her morning hike from the Southern Fortress soon flooded beyond her grasp—the result of only a few hours of sleep after a backbreaking march.

So tired was she that even when a hand lightly squeezed her shoulder, it wasn't enough to bring her back to her senses. Nodding heavily now, she caught quick glimpses of her surroundings every time her mind did its best to bring her out of the heavy sleep she was spiraling down into; two strong arms guided her feet to the foot of the bed, a blanket pulled out beneath her, and it being tucked neatly below her chin. The sensation of a hand running through her hair came soon after, and she felt her head lifted just high enough for a pillow to snugly catch her fall. Finally, a warm palm caressed her cheek.

The last time she managed to open her eyes, the huntress could have sworn she caught glimpse of golden hair and jeweled purple eyes. Ruby gently leaned against the palm before closing her eyes.

She missed this.

Roused by the sound of a door opening, Ruby sleepily opened her eyes and turned to see Coco looking back at her, tray in hand. After a quick glance back to her body tucked neatly beneath the sheets, her blood ran cold.

"No, no, no!" Ruby cried while forcefully pulling herself out of the warm cocoon, her sore body crying out in protest as she did. As if the realization that she had mistakenly fallen asleep made her heart feel as it were about to leap out of her chest, Coco's presence made her feel like a mouse trapped in tar.

"Wh-What's the matter?" Coco sputtered as she forced a polite smile.

Ruby's entire body reeled from the cold as she sloppily hopped off the bed, just barely managing to find her balance before tripping. "How long was I asleep?" she almost shouted as she looked curiously down at her bare feet.

"A little over an hour I believe. Why the rush exactly?"

"I'm not here to sleep, I'm here to follow Weiss Schnee's orders." Letting out an anxious groan after the distaste of such rehearsed words settled in, she then began to slip on her socks which had been placed on a nearby dresser. "I wished she would have woken me."

"I'm sure she did try."

"Not hard enough," Ruby said absentmindedly.

The loud clack of metal being laid down onto wood forcefully quickly followed, and Ruby turned around to see the tray Coco was holding now on the table beside her. In the hand where it had been was now an accusatory finger pointing right at her.

"Listen to yourself," the woman said sternly as she took off her hat with her other hand, "you don't come into our home, soldier or not, and say something so inconsiderate to Velvet. Would you rather she Shook you? Slapped you? Poured cold water over you? Do you honestly expect a soul as kind, sweet, and loving as hers to do such a thing? She let you sleep because she thought you needed it."

The sheer authority behind Coco's voice cut through her like butter. It didn't terrify her as much as Weiss's voice did, even though the innkeeper was older, but it wasn't that far off. Despite the fact that she held a position of higher power, an escalating argument could very well be reported back to Weiss with or without her knowing—potentially damaging her barely recovering reputation. Ruby bit down on her lip. No, she shouldn't have thought of it like that. Through it all, she was their guest and while her unintentional rudeness might have been tolerated by Velvet, Coco was different.

Ruby wrestled back the urge to sigh and instead looked the woman in the eye and nodded. "You're right. I was wrong to say those things. You, Velvet, Fox, and Yatsuhashi have treated me far better than I deserve. I'm sorry." The knot in her throat still made her feel pathetic, as if months of harsh and brutal training as a soldier of Weischandel hadn't changed her habit of being emotional one bit. Ruby sniffed and lowered her head instinctively. "I…I'm scared of how this'll look to the heiress."

Footsteps. The pace quickened as they approached her, and Ruby braced her cheeks for what she thought would be a slap—but instead the hands went for her shoulders.

"I accept your apology. But I too, need to apologize" Coco said softly as she lifted Ruby's chin up so that their gazes met. "I imagine we're both in…" Her voice trailed off as she struggled to find the word, ultimately casting a disdainful look off to side away from Ruby. "…peculiar relationships with the Schnees—us tied to Eisenstark, you to Vermilion; just as how you have your mission, so do we. Which is why I treated you so suspiciously earlier. Even though you were the one sent directly to us by the heiress, I didn't know and let my fear get the better of me. I began to think what would happen to our standing with the Schnees if somehow an outsider made their way into a Weischandelian reconnaissance hub. A den for spies," she then added when Ruby tilted her head at the word 'reconnaissance.' Coco's arms fell to her side and her voice dropped to a whisper, "It would ruin us."

Just as how Ruby had been dragged into being a dog for Weiss, it was the same for the Adelina Inn, the kennel to house her. Really, they were both on the same side and hostility towards each other was the last thing they needed.

Ruby reached out and touched Coco's arm. "I'm sorry to hear that. I really am."

The innkeeper placed a hand over hers and laughed. "But we're adults! Whatever could happen to us I'm positive the four of us could overcome it, just like we always have. And I know that Velvet would say that she'd gladly bear that burden for a child."

A pout easing its way onto her face, Ruby raised an eyebrow, "I'm not a child though."

"Oh really?" Coco replied as she suddenly straightened her posture and looked down at Ruby, "How old are you?"


"Mm. Still a child."

"H-Hey!" Ruby managed to get out before being pulled into a more playful embrace and having her hair ruffled. Initially wary of such outright friendliness, she quickly accepted it happily. Perhaps the height difference made her think of Yang.

"Okay, okay," Coco said as she let go and took a step back. "I'm glad we were able to talk about this Ruby. And please believe me when I say that an hour nap isn't going to stain your progress here in the slightest. Velvet, I, and the others will feed you, house you, even point you in some directions we'd think would benefit you. Can you expect to deliver good reports to Lady Schnee if you're starving and exhausted?"

Ruby fiddled with her hands momentarily. "No…"

"That's what I thought." With a big smile, Coco put her hat back on and walked to the door before gesturing to her amicably. "Now go get ready, little spy. There's some tea and toast here if you wanted a quick bite before heading back out. Come ring for us in the main hall and we'll tell you everything you need to know about Delenier and more."

Straightening her posture, Ruby snapped a quick salute.

Lutolf Schnee made another round through the small garden. Abundant with lush and beautiful flowers, the heart of it all was an old Yggdago tree. Rooted in the middle of the garden, its vast age could easily be distinguished by the massive sprawling roots that led to where younger trees had sprouted. A species native only to the forests of Duodon, they were as culturally important to its people as were the Leidbaum trees of Forever Fall to the people of Weischandel. Circling the old tree, he sadly regarded the numerous ribbons tied to branches. Written on them were poems and prayers—left there to remember and honor the dead.

Leaving Vermilion a week and a half after Weiss did, he, Pyrrha, and a small escort of four sentinels rode for two days until they reached a small outpost along the eastern border where they were quickly intercepted by a dozen rangers—Duodonian mounted archers.

Like all adults from the barbarian province, they donned animal pelts and bones, which had been incorporated into their clothing. It was the reward of passing a ritualistic trial in their culture where in order to ascend into adulthood, youths ventured deep into the wilderness armed with nothing but a knife—and were only allowed to return with the slain corpse of an animal killed by that very knife.

It was a sacred trial, requiring that they could not eat the flesh of any animal while hunting and could make one and only one kill—the one that they would join in union. Only after fully consuming the animal alone and incorporating its non-edible remains into their clothing did one become an adult and functioning member of society. The traits associated with the animal would also go on to dictate how others would view and treat them, with the more regal and powerful animals earning greater respect. But it also carried significant spiritual weight, as they believed it meant becoming one with their chosen animal and closer to their god: nature herself.

As such, many of the rangers wore the remains of birds and deer, carrying their animals' embodiment of precision and speed into their military roles.

Under their escort, they rode for Valassia, the province's hidden capital. To travel through dense forests and be outnumbered so heavily made for an anxious ride, but Lutolf fought hard to believe that his dear friend and ally was still exactly that. It was a faith that was tested ever since his letter to meet with Lord Dhago was granted only if he agreed to a number of conditions—the first being that he brought "no more than four men." Commander Pyrrha, ever persuasive and fearless, argued that her presence didn't void the lord's request. Interestingly enough, the rangers didn't question her being there, an instance she smugly rubbed in his face to lift everyone's spirits.

Presumably to avoid contact with the locals, the rangers led them through a series of hidden paths that only soldiers were privy to. It was a gesture that Lutolf took to heart, even if it meant Lord Dhago wanted him alive for a very, very specific reason.

When they finally arrived, he had to fulfill one last condition, and that was for him to "leave his men behind." Such a suspicious order horrified his loyal sentinels, who vehemently protested the idea. Even the cerberi issuing the command were noticeably regretful in their duty to uphold something so damning. After all, they were Duodon's most elite troops and revered the protection and safety of their lord as did sentinels to their warden. However, perhaps as either an olive branch or another technicality through language, they consented to Pyrrha being let through as well. But in holding only. When it came time that Lord Dhago would meet with Warden Schnee, it would be only the two of them.

Now in one of the villa's presumably many gardens, he patiently waited to be summoned. Amidst the sing song of birds, he suddenly caught one tune that stood out from the rest. To anyone less aware, it wouldn't even have been noticed, but he knew it to be artificial, a summoning call. He then turned to the lone cerberus stationed in the garden to monitor him and was surprised to catch her staring at Pyrrha with a captivated look in her eyes. Visibly caught off guard, she quickly blinked herself free and perked her head towards the source of the call, the boar tusks attached to her head piece accentuating her movement. Only taking a heartbeat to decipher the message, she turned to face him—and blushed deeply when she realized he had been watching the entire time.

Eyes bouncing between him and Pyrrha, her voice trembling like that of a shy child, she ultimately settled with keeping her eyes on him. "Uh…Warden Schnee, my Lord Dhago will see you now."

Finding great humor in this, Lutolf beckoned for Pyrrha, who was standing further away from the both of them, to come closer. Watching the cerberus grab at her spear like a skirt as the commander stepped to his side filled him with the urge to chuckle, but he was managed to bring it down to an amused smile.

"Thank you. First, a quick word with my commander if I may."

"Of course," she replied, smiling awkwardly at Pyrrha.

Either impatient or unaware of the situation before her, the commander quickly stepped behind him, forcing him to face his back towards the cerberus and effectively blinding her from reading either of their lips.

"My lord, you can't possibly think this is anything other than a trap. You must see it now!" she said emphatically in a hushed tone.

As he looked into her green eyes, it suddenly brought him two years into the past when she joyously accepted his offer of a position in the army. The memory soon faded away, leaving him looking into those same jeweled eyes, only now filled with fear.

"Even now as we speak," Lutolf said urgently, "Avarus plots and courts our allies away from us. I hope it doesn't lead to war, but if it does, Weischandel can't hope to win against four provinces. It'd take a miracle for Renoir to forgive us after what I did. Bruyenne I can only pray will resist the temptation. That leaves only Duodon, who have been our closest allies since the beginning. We must stand together, whatever the cost."

"I understand, but there has to be another way!"

"Commander," he said as he placed his hands on her shoulders and squeezed, "I've come to terms with whatever lies ahead. If I am to fall, I will do so knowing that I did my best for Weischandel and that she still remains in capable hands. Weiss…" he whispered with a strained voice, "If it comes to it, deliver the letter I left in my study room to my daughter and tell her that her father loved her so very much. Always and forever. Can you do that for me?"

Pyrrha looked into his eyes as if to strengthen the next words that came from her mouth, but only silence followed. "It shall be done my lord," she finally replied.

"And you, Pyrrha Nikos," he said as he took her hands into his own, "When you've completed your pilgrimage, know that you have always have a home in Weischandel. You may not hail from our land or even share our name or blood, but I'd warmly welcome the day my daughter can have a sister again."

With one last smile, he gently took her hand and kissed it before walking over to the waiting cerberus. Spear in hand, she used it to lift up the low-hanging branches to her side to reveal another hidden path. After he stepped through, she lowered the branches and Pyrrha watched in crippling agony with her hands over her mouth as the man she considered a father she never had disappear.

Having visited the villa many times through the years, it didn't take long for Lutolf to realize where exactly he was headed. The path took him to the entrance of a courtyard he knew very well. Designed to be as flexible as it was beautiful, it could be transformed to fit whatever the situation demanded. A training ground for villa cerberi to spar with one another, an open-air theater where plays and poems were performed around a large bonfire, a garden for children to play with dogs while their parents talked politics.

But as he passed through the unguarded gates, his heart sank as he took in a sight he had never seen before. Ribbons festooned every branch of every tree, flags stood at attention at every corner, and a sapling surrounded by a sea of flowers, gifts, and incense. At the heart of it all, on his knees and head pressed to the ground in prayer, was Lord Dhago Forstner, the Barbarian Baron of Duodon.

It was a grave.

With the pelt of a bear on his back, Lutolf swallowed as he watched him straighten his back and look halfway towards him, revealing two sets of lifeless eyes. "So you've come."

"I have," he answered as he scanned his surroundings—it really was just the two of them. "I wish to discuss what I wrote to y-."

"Do you remember my late son's name?" Dhago asked flatly as he turned his attention back to the shrine, showing Lutolf his back again.

Lutolf nodded sadly. "Landulf Forstner."

"An uncommon name. Not of Duodonian ancestry. Yet one I chose because of its resemblance to the name of my closest ally, friend, and brother." His tone then grew close to a guttural growl as he stood up. "A man named Lutolf Schnee."

Lutolf fought the urge to step back as the barbarian lord's famous battle axe came into sight, previously hidden underneath the pelt over his back. Monstrous in size, it's double-sided blades and spike added to its deadliness. Keeping it steady in one hand, Dhago then began to pace slowly towards him.

"In the beginning, we were one of the Twelve Great Houses of Vale that joined forces to fight the Grimm. But even when under the same banner, there were those who looked down at us. Called us barbarians for our appearances and way of life. Our brave warriors who gave their lives gladly viewed as nothing but a culling!"

Now only a few paces away, Dhago stopped to look him dead in the eye. "But your ancestor, the first Schnee, was different from the rest. Even though his people were civilized, he stood up for my ancestor and her people. He scorned the others and praised our unbreakable spirit. And when the war was finally won and the others squabbled over the most desirable lands to the south, us less fortunate houses were given the devasted and barren north. But even then, he was more than happy to share a border with us." Dhago pursed his lips and flashed a brief smile, becoming emotional. "It is a timeless tale of compassion and camaraderie that has been passed down for generations. One that I hoped to honor and celebrate by naming my son after the head of the family that truly treated us as equals."

On and on the grieving lord went, beginning to circle him. Every word thereafter sharper and sharper like a blade to a whetstone.

"Landulf was a miracle in every sense. For years, Johanna and I tried to have a child to the point where it seemed the creation of life was forever out of our reach. But finally, our spring came and Johanna gave birth to a healthy baby boy with the most beautiful eyes—just like his mother's. I knew the moment he first opened them that I couldn't wait to spend the rest of my days with him. Lutolf," Dhago said as tears began to well up in his eyes, "he was my Winter."

With just those few spoken words, Lutolf felt his guts spill out onto the cold floor. Yet he felt no retaliatory anger, for the comparison was all but true. Landulf and Winter truly were their golden children. Humble, brave, beautiful—their fathers never tired from singing their praises and constantly dreamt of the day they'd succeed as the new lords of Duodon and Weischandel.

"Then came the fire," Dhago whispered as he froze in place in front of Lutolf again. The look in his eyes had turned to one of pure dread and the whites of his eyes clearly visible, as if he were seeing those terrible flames again. "It was unlike anything we'd ever seen in our entire history—a fire that consumed all in its path, spreading with impossible speed. By the time we finally managed to defeat it by breaking our dams and flooding the land, our losses were staggering; thousands of acres of our most fertile farmlands and forests scorched and thousands more dead, missing, and misplaced. There were almost no injured—my people either escaped or they didn't."

Dhago returned back to the sapling and placed a trembling palm against it.

"My son had left home just a few days earlier to travel through Duodon. To better know the land and the people of the province he'd one day lead." He let out a quiet chuckle. "How could I have argued against something so noble? I was later told by a survivor from a village on the Eastern border that he was last seen riding horses out to villagers struggling to escape on foot. His last words were to the cerberi I sent to escort him: 'I won't leave them behind.'" Dhago's shoulders tensed up and he put a hand over his face as he then began to weep loudly. "A sacrifice worthy of only the truest of Duodonians! I'd have his body blessed and buried like the great leaders that came before us. But… there was nothing to bury."

The great barbarian leader then let out an anguished roar unlike Lutolf had ever heard, sending chills through his body and rocking him to his very core. With the ferocity of a war cry and the torment of a bear's death throes, Dhago pivoted back to face him before lunging at him with his battle axe's raised to the heavens.

"Dhago, wait!" Lutolf shouted as he drew his own rapier and just narrowly managed to parry the devastating blow to the side. Retreating a few paces back to create space, he slowly tightened his grip in fear as his hand began to throb with pain from the powerful contact between their two weapons. Had the blow found its mark, he would been killed—instantly.

For a dozen more moves, Lutolf struggled to hold his ground against Dhago's wild fighting style with wide yet focused swings and highly aggressive footwork. If under a clearer mind and not facing his best friend, then perhaps he could have ended the fight within half the amount of moves. But with his friend's blazing grief choking at his lungs, he felt woefully outclassed. For a brief moment, his hesitation and fear made him think of what Ruby Rose must have felt during their fight on the gallows.

"Tell me, Lutolf! Tell me what it is I have done to have deserved such suffering! Was it an issue with my people at our border? Did I not send enough soldiers to The Northern Wall? Had I done something to anger you so!?"

"None of that could ever possibly be true!" Lutolf shouted heartbrokenly as he sidestepped another attack. "I came to give you the name of who I believe to be the one responsible for the deaths of your son and people! To give you a chance for justice!"

"You lie!" Dhago spat as he then gripped his battle axe with both hands. "How else would the fire have only burned deep into our lands and not into yours even with a strong westward wind? Admit it! You infiltrated Duodon and laced our lands with something monstrous from those mines of yours!"

Lutolf paused at the thought, never once considering the idea of a highly flammable mineral or ore that could have been the reason for the fire's highly unnatural speed and nature. His attention diverted away from the fight for just a second, it was all Dhago needed to successfully knock Lutolf's rapier to the side and punch him in the face, bringing him down to both knees. Bleeding profusely from his nose, Lutolf pulled himself back from the edge of unconsciousness and desperately raised up his blade to defend himself—only to have it caught bare-handed. Even with his hand cut and blood flowing freely down the blade, Lutolf watched in astonishment as Dhago managed to stop the blade dead in its tracks with his left hand and, with his right hand, leveled the blade of his battle axe against Lutolf's bare neck. All but defeated, Lutolf ceased his struggling.

"As much as it hurts me to admit, I know you could have killed me many times in this fight. But it hurts more, brother, knowing that even though you have spared me, I fear that you are still hiding the truth from me."

Refusing to spit in front of Dhago, Lutolf simply let his blood run its course—into his mouth and down his chin. "I am at your mercy. How can I lie to you, now of all times?"

The response clearly resonated within him as Lutolf felt the opposing grip on his rapier loosen considerably. "…I don't know!" Dhago blurted out conflictedly, "But I intend to find out the truth once and for all." With his left hand, he tightened his grip on the blade and lifted it up so that it rested against his heart. With only a layer of animal hide for protection, Dhago had willingly put himself on the same gallows.

"What are you doing!?"

"No more secrets, no more lies," he said in between choked cries. "I will ask you one last time and if you do not confess, I will cleave your head from its shoulders and feed your body to the boars! If you wish to avoid such a fate, you are free to pierce my heart—ensuring that our provinces go to war."

Lutolf shook his head vehemently. "I stand with my ancestors and honor the bond our provinces have shared since the very beginning. As such, I'd rather die than to kill a Forstner! If it's my head you want, then it shall be what you'll have. My daughter Weiss stands tall and prepared for whatever comes afterward."

Dhago gritted his teeth and shook his head in mixed flattery and disbelief. Yet still his rage and sorrow drove him onwards. "I, Dhago of House Forstner, Baron of Duodon, demand your confession: were you in any way responsible for the Great Duodonian Fire?" he roared.

"No! But I wrote you and have come here before you, now on my knees, to tell you what my heart tells me. That I finally believe to have found the culprit you've been seeking!"

"You never did say who in your letter. Who did this to my people then? Who killed my poor Landulf?"

"Count Darius Urbana of Avarus" said Lutolf with the strongest conviction he could muster. "I know it sounds impossible, to accuse a fellow northerner of such a crime, but if you would just listen to what I have to say, I believe you too can come to see what I see!"

Dhago's eyes lost focus momentarily as he digested the information before sharpening them back on him. "Are those your final words?"

This is it, Lutolf thought to himself as he let his weight sink fully into the ground. The long and heartfelt letter he had written Weiss, as incomplete and imperfect as it was, despite eleven previous drafts, would be his last words to his beloved daughter. What he had said earlier about her being prepared for whatever came after his death wasn't a lie—he was proud of her and knew her to have matured considerably within the last year since becoming involved with Ruby Rose. With her now as Heiress of Weischandel, he knew that Pyrrha and his other most trusted would be right at her side, advising and guiding her, and that she would keep moving forward.

He just wished that he could be at her side.

"Yes," Lutolf said sadly as he looked up into the eyes of his executioner, "Be at peace if you can find it, brother."

Pulling the tip of the rapier against his breast one last time, Dhago shifted his left hand over to join his right in carrying the battle axe. Even for a man of his build and strength, his emotional turmoil visibly left him fatigued. He needed this to be over.

Channeling the rest of his entire being into one last cry, the lord drew his weapon back and swung it at lightning speed at Lutolf's throat. As he did so, Lutolf thought back to one particular sunny afternoon when Weiss had gotten her first bullseye in archery. As the entire family and even their sentinels burst into wild and jubilant applause, it was Winter who lifted her dear little sister high up onto her shoulders out of pure joy. And Weiss' resulting smile was the loveliest he had ever seen her show.

In that moment, the four of them as a family couldn't have been any happier.

…Yet the memory continued.

Lutolf slowly opened his eyes to see Dhago's battle axe just a hair away from his bare throat, and beyond it on the wielder's face, a pair of eyes as if they'd seen a hundred years of war.

"O' Great Mother of us all!" Dhago cried out in horror as he pulled his weapon away from Lutolf. "You really are telling the truth!" His legs soon gave out beneath him and he tossed the battle axe aside a moment before he dropped down to his knees like a felled tree. His eyes thick with forming tears again, he blinked them away and stared at his bloody hands before slowly turning his attention to Lutolf. "What have I done?"

"I too have been blinded by grief and anger once. And it took a moment not too different than this to make me to finally see past it." With his free hand, he reached out and touched Dhago's shoulder. "Nothing that you have done today can't be forgiven."

Dhago laughed pitifully. "Typical Schnee. You are too kind." With a burst of speed, he reached for the rapier and pulled it towards his heart. Reacting quickly, Lutolf pulled back with all of his as well, and didn't hold back this time. The brief struggle quickly ended when he threw the blade back away from him—the rapier, still covered in fresh blood, simply slipped out of Dhago's grasp. Still refusing to yield however, he grabbed Lutolf by the collar and shook him strongly. "Lutolf, I must die for this! I betrayed your trust—almost killed you! I…I could have turned our people into enemies!"

"And yet here we are. All of it avoided with just one bloody nose and one bloody hand," he jested lightly by pointing to his nose and scrunching it before pointing to Dhago's hand. To his surprise and relief, the faintest of smiles appeared briefly on Dhago's face, despite everything. "Brother," he then said softly, "our people have stood at each other's sides for hundreds of years. And I pray to my God in heaven above us as I do to your Great Mother in the earth beneath us that this proud tradition may never be broken. May it last today, tomorrow, always and forever."

The Barbarian Lord let out an uneven, exhausted sigh before standing up and motioning for Lutolf to do the same. Taking a moment to look at every tree in the courtyard, as if looking for strength from all the departed souls represented by every ribbon, he finally settled on the shrine.

"Landulf…my dear son. I promise to continue your fight for the Duodon you were born to lead." He then turned back to Lutolf and extended his right hand, to which Lutolf shook firmly before pulling him into a tight embrace.

"Always and forever."