Louis Keeferson stared at the handwritten list the courier had placed into
his grasp. His finger slowly traced down the page, touching each name; some
he knew, many he didnt. It was a ritual he was used to performing,
one he had learned early in his career to despise. But it was his job, and
more importantly it was his duty, so there was no true choice for him. There
were more than usual this time, but one name in particular stood out.
He glanced up at the knight who had delivered the dreaded information. Are you sure about this? Are you sure that Percival Fraulein is missing?
Yes, milord. The Lieutenant and his men were among those we could not account for.
The chestnut-haired councilman sat back in his chair and closed his eyes for a moment, but the knight remained at attention. Has anyone told Lady Chris yet?
The Captain went himself, milord. He left this morning. He should be there by now.
Goddess the young man said as he ran his hand over his face.
The soldier spoke in a clipped voice that Louis had quickly grown to hate in the few minutes he had spent with the man. Milord, I need your seal. Then I will be on my way.
The councilman was only too willing to speed this supercilious knight from his office. He took a stick of wax out of the desk drawer and heated it over a candle. A moment later it was pooled on the parchment and his seal stamped into it. Done, he said as he placed it into the others hand. You are dismissed.
The knight placed his free hand over his heart in a salute and left the room, leaving Louis to stare at the four walls that had become his life. There was a time when he had held a position envied by all young boyshe was the attendant and squire to Lady Chris, the Silver Maiden, the White Hero, the most beautiful and deadly woman to ever live. He would travel with her to strange places, embark on exciting adventures, and learn the skills of a knight from her and the other revered members of The Mighty Six. He couldnt have asked for a better life. It was interesting, exhilarating, and dare he say fun?
But that was then, and this was now. Time passes, things change, and even if one didnt want to grow up, life forced him to do just that. Its a simple fact, a simple sequence, a nicely predetermined ideal. Squires become knights. Knights go into battle. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, and sometimes they get wounded. Some wounds heal, others dont. Some leave permanent problemslike the one that took most of his left leg. He frowned as he looked down at the wooden replacement and his crutches that were leaning against his desk. They would help him stand and walk for short periods of time, but served as a constant and unpleasant reminder of what he used to be.
Five years ago he had been reckless in a particularly chaotic battle. After watching too many of his men meet their ends, he charged forward on his horse, determined to kill the leader of the battalion they were fighting. He didnt see a Tinto soldier ride up alongside him. Before he knew it, the enemy had knocked him from his horse, and while he was still dazed, an axe sliced right through his thigh, severing the flesh and shattering the bone just above his knee. He remembered the pain, the excruciating pain that had him screaming in agony and hoping for a higher power to put him out of his misery. He didnt remember much of what he was saying, or even if he was forming words at all, but he knew one thing at that momenthe wanted to die.
He was lucky, although his prayers were not answered in the manner he had expected. Lord Leo had been only a few horse-lengths behind him, and by some miracle was able to come to his rescue. The huge knight pulled Louis onto his horse and took him to a field medic. Still in shock, he was thankfully unaware of the medics cauterization of his wound. But that was just the beginning an infection ravaged him for a week, and once he survived that, old things--such as walking--became new challenges.
While confined to a bed in the infirmary of Brass Castle and awaiting his expected discharge, Louis found himself in a terrible depression. Everything he had trained for, everything he had dreamed of being was ripped from him with the loss of his leg. Goddess, he was but twenty-one years old! He didnt know what to do or how to feel now that he was confined to the life of a cripple. And while anger was an easy emotion, it just didnt suit him. He wanted to be thankful to be alive, but the doubt of his purpose kept bothering him.
His friends would try to cheer him up, making a concerted effort to stop by every morning before breakfast to see how he was doing. Nothing was really said; it was just a small formality and he knew it, although it did make him feel a bit better. Normally it started with a greeting, then an empty how are you? and then they would stand about looking awkward prior to muttering an apology before they departed to fulfill their daily duties. In those moments he felt the most lost, the most useless to himself and his nation. He would sit on the bed, trying to find some justification for his life to continue and praying to either find it or to look up and be face to face with an angel--one that would take him from this horrible, crippled existence.
But one morning, about three weeks after his injury, everything seemed different. It was too quiet. While the infirmary was far inside the depths of the massive structure that neither natural light nor news permeated it at all, he could tell something was definitely amiss. The usual hustling clank of armor couldnt be heard in the hallway outside, nor was the scent of breakfast in the air. He called out, hoping the medics were still around, but they were not. Not a soul lurked down in this dungeon except some of the other patients, and they were all sedated or asleep. He held his breath, praying that the castle had not been attacked in the middle of the night while he had slept.
Determined to discover what had happened, he pulled himself up to the edge of the bed and reached for the crutches that leaned near the wall. Laboriously, he dragged his body upright, standing as best he could on his one leg. He still wasnt used to walking with the aid of the uncomfortable props, but right now there seemed no better time to practice and adjust.
He hadnt gone more than a few, halting steps when he heard a commotion from the hallway. It sounded like a mob, and it was moving towards him--fast! Panic consumed his heart and he dropped back down onto the bed, the crutches slipping from his hands and crashing onto the hard stone floor. He cursed himself, knowing that the noise would attract their attention, attention he didnt want, especially at this moment. He held his breath as the door swung open. At that moment, he saw that his prayers had been answered, in a most unexpected way. An angel had indeed come for himin the form of Lady Chris.
She stood in the door, framed by the dark timbers, flanked by Percival and followed by a curious crowd. Louis could see that her husband was holding back some sort of well meaning anger as he fixed a stern glare on her. Whether she noticed this or not, he didnt know, but she passed the child she held in her arms to him and then turned to the people who were trailing. Please, stop treating me like a celebrity. I am here to see a friend. Please respect that.
Reluctantly the group dispersed, save the medics who were pitifully sneaking around her to resume their duties. As she stepped into the room, Louis quickly pulled the sheets over his bandaged stump. He didnt want her to see him like this; it was beyond humiliating. He was no longer a knight and he knew it, and perhaps he was no longer even a man.
She smiled as she sat down next to him, and then she took his hands. He couldnt help but stare at her; she was radiant even dressed in traveling clothes. The loose braid that secured her hair was draped over one of her shoulders, its striking silver color a vibrant contrast to her red shirt. Her exotic appearance had always captivated him, but now it made her seem purely ethereal. He had to force himself to stop gawking when she offered a sympathetic greeting.
Hello, Louis. I heard that you had a nasty fall.
I was careless, milady. Butwhy have you come?
Am I not allowed to be concerned for a friend? she asked with a wink.
He felt his cheeks begin to burn. Of course, milady, butnever mind. It is good to see you.
The same, Louis, although I wish it had been under better circumstances. I came as soon as I heard about what happened. Im sorry I wasnt here sooner, but sometimes word doesnt reach me as fast as it should, she said, directing a nasty glare over her shoulder to Percival.
I should have delayed it longer, was the tired and rather frustrated reply from the knight. Or just told you on my next leave.
Louis glanced nervously between the two of them, hoping for something to crush the tension. At a loss for anything else to say, he offered a quick regret. Im sorry if this has caused you any inconvenience--
No, Percival said as he shifted Ryan in his arms. Its not your fault. Some people just need to think twice before deciding to travel alone at night with a three-year-old on their lap.
Louis looked at Chris. She wasnt happy, and he could tell that she was feeling a tinge of guilt for worrying everyone, but she stubbornly defended her position. The messenger said it was dire. I thought he was on his deathbed. If I had waited until dawn for an escort, or for you to come home--
Never mind, Percival said resignedly. Its done now. But I pray youll be more careful in the future.
Indeed, she replied, a bit of contempt still in her voice.
Louis watched as the two of them shook their heads, probably cursing the others stubbornness. He grinned nervously, hoping that they would make this more pleasant for him, but the stagnant silence held until Ryan let out a yawn.
Chris, Percival said gently. He needs to rest, and you probably should as well.
She nodded and then touched Louiss shoulder. I am tired, but Ill be back. I have a feeling there are things we need to talk about.
Yes, milady, Louis said with a growing smile. But beware of the gossip that is no doubt already spreading. Im sure by the time you get back upstairs theyll have your reenlistment papers ready.
She gave a tiny, almost pained laugh at his attempt at a joke and then rose to her feet. He felt he had said something wrong but wasnt sure what it was. Everyone always hoped Lady Chris would return. And even if she didnt, what was so bad about playfully asking about it? He was starting to think of an appropriate apology when he glanced up to see her watching her family with delicate, maternal eyes. The scene she was regarding was something very ordinary, but it was clearly filling her heart with warmth. Ryan was trying to sleep amidst all of the noise and unfriendly walls of the fortress. As Percival held him and brushed his hair soothingly, the little boy nestled himself tighter against his fathers chest, a peaceful smile resting on his tiny lips.
In that second Louis knew, or rather, he finally accepted the simple truth. Lady Chris didnt want to ever live the life of a knight again. She had told him that once, but he didnt believe her. Now he did, but most importantly, he understood why she had made such a decision--and he couldnt say that he blamed her.
She remained at Brass Castle for a week, most of the time spent at his bedside, trying to convince him that all was not lost. She told him that he could be quite valuable to the knights as a councilman. It would be a fresh change from the usual idiots who ran the Federation. Too many times their actions made little sense and put too many lives in danger. She held his hands and implored him to make them understand that their Army was not an entity to be used and abused, but soldiers to be respected. She all but begged him to run for office in the upcoming election and convey that message to the rest of the Council. He never could refuse her, and so now, for the fourth year straight, he prayed every night that he had not failed the indestructible Lady Chris.
Lady Chris every time her name passed through his thoughts, a smile would cross his lips. He had been one of her many admirers, and although he was seven years her junior, he had been infatuated with her. It had been a common feeling among the people back then--everyone loved her. She was the woman that men would go into battle prepared to give their lives for and the hero that children would idolize. In the days that she had led the Army, it was strong, morale was high, and her soldiers were unfailingly loyal.
She had been the first and only woman to command (or serve in) the Zexen Army, although her success had since inspired many young girls to skip their classical lessons and begin military training. This did not surprise him. She had motivated an entire army, captured the hearts of the country, but most importantly, she had believed in him.
To call his feelings for her anything but love would be an insult. Yes, everyone loved her, and shed had many suitors, but she never forgot Louis. The kind words or small bits of advice shed offer, along with his standard training were all fond memories. He laughed as he thought of the men whod tried to court her. Theyd all offer her pathetic tokens of flowers, jewels, or some other meaningless object. To this day he still found it humorous that some men were stupid enough to try to give such trivial gifts to a woman who could kill them with one slash of her sword.
Louis! a voice called, breaking into his thoughts.
He looked up to see one of the elder Council members, a white-haired and lifetime functionary named Stephan Zelowik who, as usual, hadnt bothered to even knock before entering his office.
The man scowled at him from behind his glasses. I assume you have nothing to add to tomorrows agenda?
Actually, I do, Louis said sternly. Your presumption that I dont is more than a bit irritating.
Stephan coughed, clearly annoyed that the younger man had put him in his place. It was with an obvious and theatrical sigh that he rolled his eyes towards the ceiling before continuing; theyd played this game many times. And what great words of wisdom, pray tell, do you have to bestow upon us this time?
Put me on the agenda for Military Affairs.
Military Affairs such as? Zelowick asked, taking a seat on the sofa in front of Louis desk.
Louis glared at him. What does it matter to you? Unless you intend to defeat my motion before it even gets to the table.
It matters plenty since I just saw your seal on the Allotment Declaration, Stephan said, as he casually leaned back into the cushions of the sofa. We cant keep paying five thousand potch to the families of lost soldiers. Were going to defeat our treasury before we defeat our enemy.
Searching through the papers on his desk, Louis replied in an annoyed tone. As I recall, you voted for that resolution when it passed four years ago. Regardless, if we had been able to agree to negotiate a treaty, we wouldnt have to be paying the widows and orphans of our soldiers.
So you are moving to end the war? the bespectacled man asked with a laugh. Thats a bold move even for you, Louis.
I didnt say that, but if I could do it with a simple vote, I would, the younger man said, firmly meeting the eyes of his adversary.
Youd do what? a grating voice interjected, as its owner appeared in the room.
Both Louis and Stephan bowed their heads towards Chairman Sohort. The Chairman gave a small nod in acknowledgment of their sign of respect before he began chastising the former knight. Are you still babbling about ending the border skirmish? Are you still deluded by the dream that we will all unite under a common hero and live in peace?
Louis raised his head to look directly back at Sohort. Respect of station was one thing, groveling subservience quite another. Yes sir, I am. I learned my lessons on the battlefield from nothing short of a hero, and I intend to teach those lessons to the Council, Louis replied with thinning patience and then reached for his wooden leg to strap it on. It would be much easier if more of them were apt and willing pupils.
The Chairman snorted at him in abhorrence and disdain and then ran a hand through his dark hair before smirking at the former knight. Ah yes, Young Keeferson. The visionary. The man who trained under the Mighty Six. The man who still believes in heroes and the greater good! Let me tell you something about heroes, boy, since your romantic notions are almost as unbearable as your incessantly whining voice. Heroes defend their cause to the end. They die a glorious death on a battlefield while fighting their enemies and rallying their troops. They certainly dont throw away their career to marry one of their skirt-chasing subordinates!
Louis green eyes flared with rage as he held back the words he truly wished to say. In a brusque and acidic tone he spoke, his glower fixed upon Sohort. It would do you well to show some respect for those who have given life and limb to allow you the freedoms you take for granted. His voice paused for a moment before adding the required, and sarcastic, Sir.
The Chairman leaned over the desk, nearly pressing his nose to Louis as he delivered his next dose of poison, And it will do you well to let go of things pastespecially adolescent first loves. Such emotions arent becoming for a man in your position.
I beg your pardon, sir, but with all due respect that is none of your business. I expect to be on the agenda tomorrow, gentlemen. And now, if youll excuse me, its been a long tiring day and Id like to go home. Reaching for his crutches he pulled himself up. A moment later, he stepped out from behind his desk, his wooden leg forcing him to an odd and noisy gait.
The two men scoffed at him, but finally left. It was something that he could almost consider a daily ritualolder, more corrupt members of the Council harassing him about his ideals. He was used to it, even amused by it, but between Sohorts venture into unfair territory and the news of the day, he couldnt even find the strength to break a smile. A single thought hung in his mind. Lady Chris I hope you find comfort in thoughts of your husband I will be praying for you, milady.
Chris was still looking out the window in frustrated anguish. I was involved eleven years ago, and despite my resignation, I am still involved.
Salome spoke in his usual soft, even voice. I never said I was going to try to stop you, milady. However, I believe that you should probably sleep on this before you make your decision.
How could you expect me to sleep when you deliver such news to me? She spun around to face him as half-formed tears smoldered in the corners of her eyes.
He didnt answer the obviously rhetorical question. She made a point there, and a rather good one. A moment of silence danced between them before he forced a crow-footed grin at her. Then perhaps you should retire and consider your next actions carefully. I know I always taught you to prepare thoroughly for battle.
Chris lowered herself back onto the small bench next to him, and stared into the fire. Salome was right. He was always right, damn him. She took a breath, and then replied, doing her best to keep her voice gentle. Yes, you did. Im sorry for my misguided rage. Im afraid Ive been needlessly nasty to you, my friend.
Salome placed his hand on her shoulder. No apology necessary, milady. This is not easy news to receive.
She nodded solemnly and then stated, rather than questioned, Many men have been lost in this war, havent they.
Yes. And our Army is dwindling in size. Its not glamorous to be a knight anymore.
It never was, she said flatly.
I suppose not, although we never had trouble recruiting when you were with us.
I doubt I had anything to do with it, Chris said with a slight shake of her head. We were winning then. The war against the Grasslanders meant somethingwe had spoils and land to show for our efforts. What have we from this so-called border clash? A failed treaty, tens of thousands dead, and maps that have been redrawn a dozen times in a decade. No, Salome, I had nothing to do with itits just human nature that people dont want to jump onto a sinking ship.
Drawing away from her, he sighed. I know I have failed.
No, you havent! She snapped back at him before regaining her composure. I didnt mean that you had. It isnt the leadership thats in question here; its the decision to continue an insane war without clear goals or purpose. Reaching for his hands, she said gently, Besides, you should have been Captain a long time ago.
Unfortunately a captain needs the charisma that I so desperately lack. I might be able to hold my own on the battlefield, or design a defense with the best of them. But when it comes to inspiring men to fight, to lay down their lives for a cause they only half understand? No, thats not in me and I know it.
Dont say that, my friend, she sighed, tightening the grip on his calloused hands. It isnt true.
He gave a slight shake of his head and then sighed with a bit of relief. Its kind of you to say, milady. But it is I who should be comforting you at this moment.
A tiny smile touched her lips as she glanced down at the sword that still rested on the table. Percival is too obstinate to be dead. Hes probably charming his captors with one of his witty tales while picking their pockets for the keys to his cell.
I pray that is so, Chris, he said, putting an arm around her. For both your sakes.
For the next hour or so, the two of them sat in front of the keeping room fire, holding back words. What was there really to say? Her decision had been made, and he would accept it. Many times before the knights had tried to convince her to return, to lead them into battle as she once had, and to bring them the luck they attributed to her presence. Every time the subject came up, she had refused. Her life was simple, and that was what she wanted. She wanted to live in the country with her children. She wanted to watch them grow and enjoy them while she could.
But now things were different. Something had to be done. Something had to stop this war. Someone had to take charge. And if that meant she would have to do something she swore shed never do again, then so be it.
Finally, she stood up and walked out of the room towards the stairs. Salome asked where she was going, and the simple response of to bed was enough to appease him. He said something she couldnt quite hear, but she knew he would stay downstairs, should she need anything.
She pushed open the door to her bedchamber, its weight seeming heavier than usual. Inside the room, the drapes hung perfectly still on the large ornate bed in the center, a stark contrast to the rough, rustic walls. His house, her furniture it was a bizarre combination of simplicity and luxury, but it worked.
Chris closed the door behind her and leaned against it. Alone at last, she could finally drop the façade of strength she had put on for Salome. She had held the tears back down there, but now she let them come. What if Percival was really dead? She didnt want to think about that possibility, but still it flickered in her mind. She knew she should have been prepared for this, but how does one really get ready for such terrible news about someone he or she cares so greatly about?
She muffled her sobs with her hand as she slid down to the floor. The children didnt need to hear her crying. They didnt need to know that while she wanted to hope for the best, she really feared the worst. And so, a good bit of time passed as she wept, the grief finally devouring her.
At the sound of small footsteps in the hallway, she snapped her head up and wiped away the tears. There would be a time for mourning, but it was not now. Now was the time to plan. Getting to her feet, she brushed off her slacks and then sat on the draped bed, a new resolve burning within her to think things through, to plan her strategy, and to devise what exactly she was going to say to the children. She wouldnt tell them that their father was dead, nor would she say that he might not be dead. False hopes were horrible things to give to children, or to anyone for that matter. She had learned that herself all those years ago when her own father disappeared. Just as she came to accept him as having been killed in battle, a rumor spread of his whereabouts, and she had to endure the pain all over again.
No. Not until something was definite would the children be told. Lying to her sons would kill her, as would leaving them in the care of someone else, but it was for the best. It had to be donethere was no other choice.
She shook her head, a list of needed goods and supplies forming in her mind. Just as she was about to open a closet long forgotten, she heard her elder son at the door. Mother? Mother, are you all right?
Chris smiled to herself; he was incredibly compassionate for a child his age. She pulled the door open and let him in. He stood at her feet looking up at her. It was amazing how tall he was gettinghe was nearly past her waist. The uncanny resemblance he had to his father made her heart grow heavy again. It wasnt just his dark hair or his charismatic brown eyes; it was his smile, his voice, and even the way he carried himself. It was everything.
With damp cheeks, she kneeled down and took him into her arms. The boy returned the embrace and rested his head on her shoulder as she heard him choke back a sob. Despite her own sorrow, she found some words to comfort him with. We dont know what happened, Ryan. But Im going to find out.
He whispered, So, youre going then? I knew you would. He looked up at her. Can I come, too?
No, she said, holding him closer to her. Youll have to go stay with Torrie for a while.
If he was disappointed, he didnt let it show. Its fine. You have to go. You have to go get him, Mother.
So much for not saying anything... She should have known that Ryan would listen to the conversation downstairs. He had a nasty habit of eavesdropping, something he picked up from his father, no doubt.
Yes, I do, she said as she wiped the freckling tears from his cheeks.
Dont worry about Geoffrey. I wont tell him. Ill just tell him that you had to go see a friend. His small face contorted before he asked, Thats not a lie, is it?
No, not really, she said, giving him a nod of reassurance. Her younger child wouldnt understand this situation. It would be best to fib a little.
Ryan slipped out of her embrace and looked her sternly in the eyes. You should sleep, Mother, since were leaving early tomorrow morning.
Again his selflessness impressed her, and she nodded to him. So should you.
Yeah, Im going to bed as soon as you do.
Had she been in better spirits, his ultimatum would have caused her to chuckle, but tonight, she simply obliged him. She walked over to her bed and lay down, still in her day clothes. She looked up at the ceiling, but saw that he was still watching her, so she closed her eyes. She heard him back towards the door, pull it behind him, and then go to keep his end of the bargain.
The large, creaky timbers that made up the roof sang a gentle lullaby as she worked out the rest of the plan in her mind. She knew where she had to go, whom she had to see, and that they would be leaving in the morning. They would go to Brass Castle first and then to see a relative in Vinay del Zexay. That would all take a couple of days. Then then she wasnt sure. As she examined each aspect of the journey she had planned, each one opened new questions, new options, and new doors.
She closed her eyes and held her breath at the sudden memory of something Percival had once told her. She could hear his voice as if he was sitting right there, giving her a mischievous grin and imparting this bit of wisdom shed always remember: Answers are the easy part, my dear. Its questions that raise the doubts.
She almost gave a response to his sentiment out loud but forced it back down her throat. How right you are, my love