Percival Fraulein wished he were dead.
Gazing down into the meager offering of a breakfast of gruel, he bowed his head in quiet prayer. The guards had already expressed their disapproval of his earlier devotions and the bruises were now taking on a disturbing array of colors. Still, Sadie had been good to him before, and as he offered thanks for the food, he added a plea for her to just take him from this world and send him to whatever afterlife he had earned. Even Hell would seem to be an improvement over this misbegotten hole.
How had they arrived at this place? He wasn't sure. His recollection of the fight was a jumble of images and shouted curses, as if he had been under a spell or the victim of some drug induced miasma. What few pieces he could recall were all too generic and could have been his imagination trying to fill in the blank holes of his memory. Still, he remembered the ride through the forest and to the city had seemed too uneventful, almost boring in fact. His men had kept their weapons drawn, but even after two hour's march from the meeting place nothing had happened, and he could see some of them starting to relax their guard. His own suspicions had been running high as he tried to find explanations for the abnormally tranquil forest. He remembered thinking that maybe the enemy was just waiting for them inside the city it had seemed like the only rational answer at the time.
A noise above his head had made him look up. It was as shrill call, hauntingly familiar and loud enough to be heard over the clank of his group's armor and horses. At first he had thought it was a bird, but then it came again, and then again from the trees just ahead. He remembered calling the battalion to a halt, and that must have been the opportunity the enemy had been waiting for. Dozens of large, round, objects had pelted them from all directions with an obviously practiced precision, and bounced onto the ground before rolling to a stop. It had taken a moment for the knight to realize that none of his men had actually been struck, and his gaze turned to follow the bouncing and rolling balls. A copious coldness sank into his heart when he saw them continue moving until they formed a circle around his group. At that moment, each had burst open and began spewing a strange, eye-scorching blue smoke that quickly filled the air around his soldiers.
Through the sudden mist he had seen his men falling in their tracks as they gasped for breath under the venomous clouds. Those on horses had tried to fight back, swinging their swords against the smoke, but more enemies had dropped from the trees, ripping them from their mounts. Percival drew his sword and swung it wildly, feeling impacts that told him that it had hit its mark at least four times, despite his inability to see clearly though the ever-increasing blue haze.
More balls came from the trees then, falling at the feet of those still struggling, and claiming those few that were still conscious enough to hold a weapon. Percival had felt himself suddenly smash into something hard and unyielding, realizing as the darkness enfolded him that it could only be the ground, as the mysterious azure mist mercifully obliterated the rest of the battle.
When he was finally able open his eyes, he found himself blindfolded, his armor and weapon gone, his feet bound, and his hands secured to a piece of wood behind him. From the slow, rocking movement and the creakiness of the wheels, he guessed they were being transported in a tumbrel.
They had traveled for a little more than a day, at least he thought they had, since time quickly lost it's meaning without sight to mark its passage. However long it had been, it was clear his captors chose to ignore them, offering their prey neither food nor water during the journey. Finally they arrived at their unseen destination where they were marched into the darkness around a series of twists and turns until they entered what would probably become their tomb. It was only then, when they were secured and the blindfolds removed, that he felt both elation and despair as he realized that he was not the only survivor. I led them to this, was the heart-wrenching thought that still gashed him every time he glanced around their prison.
Their prison wherever they had ended up, it was certainly underground. He guessed it to be an abandoned mine, but he wasn't sure. It was chokingly dusty, yet there was the odd feeling of damp earth at the same time, and sunlight never found it's way into the place. What bit of light that carried through the darkness came in the form of torches held by their captors, during the two brief daily visits when food was thrown at them.
Perhaps it was for the better that he couldn't see much of their prison, since the smell of it alone turned his stomach. It was rough and crudely carved, but he could tell that both the walls and the floor were made naturally rather than with mortar and brick. No straw was provided, no bucket, nothing except an iron collar for each man, which kept him tethered to the wall behind him. All around the perimeter of this large alcove they were tied, the short leash of chain ensuring that they would all remain seated or prone, since there was not enough slack for even the smallest man to stand.
But that wasn't the only thing keeping them here. Every time the men came to feed them, they would lower themselves down on some sort of mechanical lift. Percival finally realized that there was a hole in the center of the room-cut high into it's domed ceiling so even if one could get out of his chains, he would have no way of reaching it. The hole seemed to reach down below their prison as well. The sounds and stenches that came up from the pit filled them all with horror and the promise of an even more painful death that lurked underneath.
And so, since their capture, they lay there day after day, not knowing who had caught them or what their fate would be. There was neither dignity nor humanity in any of it, as they reeked of their own sweat and slept in their own urine or worse. Many times Percival would hear his men moaning and sobbing in the darkness, and he never once blamed them for doing so, especially since he was guilty of it himself.
Lifting the bowl to his mouth, he drank the meal. It tasted like nothing, and lasted for less than a minute. There was no point in savoring it, or saving it. Placing the empty bowl back down to the floor, he watched as the guards made their way around the room. They were quickly dropping a ladleful of slop into the dish in front of each prisoner and tossing in a few hate filled words as well. One man in close proximity to him didn't wake, even after the guards slapped him. Again and again they struck the man, but he still didn't move. They didn't fill his bowl. He was dead. Merciful Sadie had come for him. The men unchained him, and tossed him down the pit in the center of the prison without so much as a word.
It was true that Percival wished the same fate for himself, but it wasn't so much because of these horrendous conditions he was forced to endure, just that he knew his wife too well. Chris wouldn't be sitting at home waiting for him to return or even mourning. She was probably already on her horse, riding the small amount of hope that he was alive and exploiting every lead, calling in every favor, and doing anything and everything to find him.
Chris. Beautiful, intelligent, extraordinary Chris. Thoughts of her and his children were keeping him alive, since the food certainly wasn't. She was an intoxicating mix of impetuousness and impossibility, and he loved her for it. In times past, he'd cheer her on as she tackled a new and imposing task, but now he prayed that she was safely at home with their sons.
It was a futile wish, and he knew it, but he still figured it couldn't hurt. Again he whispered a plea for death--a death that was swift and confirmed. At least then Chris wouldn't need to take any risks. At least then she wouldn't be haunted by the possibility of his return. At least then she could live her life and maybe even enjoy it even if that meant her remarrying.
They had discussed that on occasion. It was never a pleasant conversation for either of them, but it was still something he wanted her to understand. He didn't expect her to live her entire life as a widow, and given this stalemate war, he felt one day that's what she would become. It wouldn't be fair. Each time he'd leave her, he'd whisper that her happiness was all that he cared about, and ever time he wrote one of those accursed letters, he'd reiterate it.
He hoped Borus had already delivered that damn letter and tried to talk some sense into Chris. Maybe it would be enough to convince her not to do anything rash. Maybe she would listen. Maybe since Borus was such a close friend maybe she'd pay him more heed than someone else. He held his breath as a hopeful but still heartrending thought hit him maybe they would find comfort in each other.
He sighed, the small bit of wasted breath pushing itself out of his desiccated mouth as he thought of Chris. Oh how he loved her! But if he had to see her with another man, he prayed it would be Borus. It was no secret that his closest friend had always loved his wife. It was also no secret that his friend had brought the two of them together all those years ago. No, Borus hadn't just given him a bit of friendly advice, but delivered a whole life-changing proposition after tragedy struck nearly eleven years ago...
Following the Second War of the Fire Bringer, a time of great peace finally rested upon the Zexen people. Trade flourished, fortunes were made, but the knights who had so bravely defended their country became little more than enforcers and bodyguards for the Council. It depressed Chris to see her men used as the personal property of the Guildmasters and their friends. It dismayed all of them, but if war was the alternative, then so be it.
During this time Percival wondered daily if he wouldn't be of more use elsewhere. Iksay village was still in shambles from the war, and while he didn't want to abandon Chris and the others, it ate at him that he should be there helping in any measure that he could. A few weeks later the decision to return home was made for him. News came that his mother had been struck with the screaming sickness, a disease that all too often proved fatal in the women who contracted it. He didn't hesitate to ask for leave, and while Chris gave it, he would never forget the conversation or the sorrow in her eyes.
She sat at her desk, dressed in her uniform, her hair up in plaits, but as she read the request he had given her, the official stoicism she normally wore on her face seemed to fade. "Of course I'll grant it, but you will return, won't you?" There was an odd desperation in her voice, one he hadn't heard before.
"I hope to, milady, but I will have to see what happens."
"I understand. My prayers will be with you and your family."
"Thank you, milady." He gave her a quick bow of his head before crossing his arm across his chest.
She returned the salute and added, "If there's anything I can do, Percival "
He smiled before turning to leave. "I appreciate the offer, milady, but please don't trouble yourself with my trivial personal problems. You have more important things that demand your time."
"Percival," she called his name plaintively, causing him to turn and face her once again. "May I ride with you?"
He hesitated, not expecting the question. "I don't want to burden you with this, milady. Besides, I would never forgive myself if you were to catch the disease."
She nodded, although a tiny sigh slipped through her lips. He was right; it was too dangerous for her. For some reason, the sickness only affected females. "Then I'll have Borus and Leo escort you. It's not wise to travel alone."
"Thank you milady, but that isn't necessary."
"Consider it an order, Percival. I regret that I won't be at the gate to see you off. I prefer to offer my farewells in private." She took his hand and smiled up at him, offering a simple prayer. "May the Goddess bless your path. Safe travels, my friend."
He lifted her hand to his lips and gave it a simple kiss, and again offered his gratitude. Then he turned and left, glancing over his shoulder to catch her touching the back of her hand to her cheek.
And so he returned to Iksay, only to learn that his mother had passed on the night before, and now his dear sister had become infected with the screaming sickness. Watching the once vibrant Seline suffer as the disease ravaged her broke his heart. The poor woman was only five years his senior, but here she was, dying like an old hag. She had no strength, no soul in her eyes after it started with just a simple fever, and that fever never broke. She began sweating, so much that the sheets were soaked in a matter of hours and no amount of prayers or medicine would abate it. Then the vomiting started, and eventually the fever caused deliria. Poor Seline started the moaning and screaming which had given this malady its name. Nothing could be done. There was no cure. She howled herself hoarse for four days, and finally, she fell mercifully silent.
Perhaps the worst thing about Seline's tragic death was that her young daughter could not be brought to see her in those final hours for fear of the girl catching this plague. Little Victoria was but ten years old and terrified. Her mother was dead, and her father had been killed years ago defending the town from bandits. The only family she had left was Percival, and so at that moment his temporary leave became a permanent one.
For fifteen months things were the same. He would get up in the morning, take care of the animals, work in the fields, assist with some of the perpetual reconstruction, and then return to the girl in the evening. Torrie did what she could to help, but it wasn't much. She could help plant and harvest, bring water to the men and other such menial tasks, but even though she was determined to pull her weight, she was still just a child.
Then word came that Zexen was at war with Tinto over some nonsense involving trade routes. It didn't surprise Percival when the messages from Brass Castle started arriving, asking him to return. He would always decline, even though the memory of Chris with the hand he had just kissed pressed to her cheek haunted him. Unexpectedly, one October evening, fate again intervened. This time, with the help of Borus.
Percival walked back from the fields just as he did every night. Carrying an empty sack that had held seeds earlier in the day, he glanced up at the still broken skyline formed by the patched-together homes. The harvest had come again, and while this was normally a happy time in Iksay village, his thoughts were as distant as the breezes that combed the windmills. The townspeople were too busy trying to reap their fields in the hopes of a better crop than the last year, when the still scorched fields produced little grain. There had not been enough for reseeding in the spring, let alone enough to fill their bellies during the harsh winter. Eating was definitely a priority here, and the buildings that had taken the wrath of the Lizard Clan still hadn't been fully repaired, rebuilt or replaced. While a bit of progress had been made in the months of summer, the once bustling village still looked much like it did after the night it was set ablaze nearly two years ago.
He trudged back into the town, stopping only at the small shop-the only shop-to trade a pocketful of grape seeds for some vegetables for dinner. Like many of the other villagers, his money had run out months ago. The seeds should have been planted, but when faced with the choice of eating now or eating later, there was no debate. He placed them on the counter and waited for the shopkeeper to fill his bag with whatever she had in stock that day. Life seemed so much easier when it was threatened every day by swords and spears, now it's all I can do to keep us alive better to die from a foe's sword than another harsh winter
"I put a few extra in," the woman said.
"That isn't necessary."
"Yes it is. Take it and be grateful. You've done an awful lot for all of us. It's the least I can do for you."
Percival didn't meet her eyes as he nodded solemnly; being reminded of his old life was never a pleasant experience. "Thank you," he said as he pulled his bag onto his shoulder and left the store. He started walking towards his home, being careful to keep his eyes on the ground in a juvenile attempt to prevent his thoughts from wandering too far from his surroundings.
He was only fifteen strides from the door to his home when a voice he had long forgotten called to him. "Percival!" He closed his eyes, and whispered a wish that the sound he was hearing was just his tired body and empty stomach playing tricks on him.
He didn't turn around as he gave a curt response, "Didn't you get the note I sent with the last messenger, Borus? I am not leaving. I'm sorry, but I have things to do here."
Borus circled around him, delivering his response as he brushed a hand through his blonde hair and adjusted the large pack he carried on his back. "I understand that, and I can respect that, but I still need to talk to you."
Percival shrugged. "I have to make dinner. Feel free to join us. It won't be much, but its something." Without looking back to see if the other was following, he walked up to the door of the tiny house and went inside.
He always made a show of putting dinner together for Torrie. She would giggle and clap as he flipped the vegetables into the air and then chopped them quickly as they landed, often in mid-bounce. Normally he would drag out these moments to entertain the girl, but given the unwanted presence of his visitor, he hurried through the process and fed everyone. With almost no comment, he picked up the dishes, cleaned them, kissed Torrie good night and tucked her in.
When he was finally satisfied that the girl was asleep, he took a seat at the crude wooden table, and faced his comrade. "So you came all this way. What do you need to talk to me about?"
"Chris," was the soft reply.
That one syllable caused Percival to close his dark eyes for a moment. Was she dead? Is that why Borus had ridden all the way here by himself? That had to it. He felt a lump form in his throat as he asked the dreaded question. "What about her?"
"She wants you to come back."
"She sent you?" He asked, finding solace in the fact that she was indeed alive.
"No. She doesn't know I'm here."
"I see," he replied, even though he still didn't understand. "But you know I can't come back. I can't leave the village or Torrie. Look around this place, Borus. It's going to die. There's no money to repair what the Lizards did, the disease killed off nearly half the population, and we're all just trying to get something out of the fields so we can eat. Goddess knows what we'll use for seed come planting time. There won't be anything left."
"I know. I read your last letter. That's another reason I'm here."
"Oh? Please tell me the Council has finally decided to help us."
"I didn't think so. I know we're not what they consider a priority."
"But I have some good news," Borus said as he reached into his pack.
Percival raised an eyebrow as his friend produced four scrolls of parchment and a bottle of wine. "Good news?"
"How about a drink? I brought one of my best vintages with me. Besides, we'll be celebrating here in a few moments, I hope."
Percival grinned at his friend, shaking his head in disbelief. Borus was up to something-- that was certain. Wine was a rare and welcomed luxury, and the smile on his friend's face had always been infectious. "I'll get some mugs. We don't have glasses, so they'll have to do."
The wine was poured and it was indeed something special. It had just the right flavor, aroma and bite that wine should have, but Borus did know his wines. It was almost a gift that he had-knowing exactly what spirits to have for what occasion. This time, it was a soft red that smelled of times past and old friendship, with a hint of good-natured rivalry.
Percival kept his eyes on the scrolls, waiting for his companion to unfurl at least one of them. They looked rather official, the kind of documents only used for the most serious of declarations and usually not bearing good news.
Borus picked up his glass and nervously swirled the liquid within as he leaned back as nonchalantly as possible. "Did you forget the oath you made to Chris when we were stuck in that hellhole?"
Percival frowned, shaking his head and giving a short and unexplained response. "No."
"You swore, just as I did, to fight by her side no matter what, did you not?"
"I did. But circumstances change. I could not in good faith leave the only family I have and my home here to perish while off fighting another war."
"I understand that, as does Chris, but-"
Percival leaned forward, almost sneering at the blonde as he interrupted him. "Besides, I'm surprised you're not ecstatic that I'm gone. It was fun being your rival for her affections, but it did get old after awhile."
Borus grinned, trying to make light of the situation. "Well I did have some inside help. Salome always rallied to my cause."
"And I noticed how she would smile when you would tease her. No one else could make fun of her and survive with his hide intact, but you always could--and get away with it."
Percival smirked as he took a sip of wine, knowing that his friend spoke the truth on that fact. "Regardless, I've dropped out of the race. I'm surprised you haven't wed her yet." He smiled broadly as he teased the other knight and gestured to the scrolls, "Or is that the real reason for your visit? You've come to gloat and invite me to the wedding."
"No," the blonde man said as he shook his head morosely. "No, I haven't wed her. I tried to court her, but-"
"Chris isn't in love at least not with me," Borus said quietly, his tone paining on the reality he was admitting out loud. He poured some more wine and then drank a sip quickly before giving the balance of his statement. "It's impossible to have a relationship with a woman when she is in love with another man."
Percival didn't know what to say, so he just stared at his friend with incredulity. The mighty Borus, the man who feared nothing, was here admitting his defeat in the race of races.
Borus looked straight into the dark eyes of his comrade. "Now don't get me wrong. I still love her, I will always love her, and that is why I am here doing this for her. She has been miserable since you left. She claims that without you, we can't win now that we're back at war, and I think some of the truth of it is that she doesn't have the will to win without you. She needs you now, so I am here to bring you back to her."
He turned away, not wanting to hear the other knight's rhetoric, no matter how gratifying it might have been. "That's utter crap."
"You know I would be the last person to admit this, but its true. She's happy when you're around. You keep her laughing even when things are looking grim. You help her keep that spark, that drive, that self assurance that she needs."
"You know the predicament I am in," was the clipped retort.
The blonde knight slammed his fist into the table at the other's stubbornness. "You can't just abandon her! Circumstances may have changed but your pledge to Chris and your love for her has not! I'll bet you sit here every night and wonder what is going on in our part of the world. You curse the bad hand that life has dealt you but you don't trade in your cards just because you don't like them. Life isn't a game, and even if it were you've won it, Percival! Don't you hear me? You won and I concede defeat!"
"And what cards should I draw? Life or game, I can only play the hand given to me!" He spat. "I have a responsibility here, and I will honor it."
"Don't double talk me! Are you saying that you don't care for her?" Borus asked, his voice becoming irate and acidic.
It was a passionate and aggravated reply: "Of course not! I would go to hell and back for her! I would slay a hundred Grassies in her name! I would-"
Borus cut him off. "Then prove it. Stop moping around feeling sorry for yourself and get back to her."
Percival shook his head. "I don't feel sorry for myself. I'm doing the right thing even if it isn't my first choice. Besides, what am I do with Torrie? Put her in a convent!? What about the village? They need every pair of hands they can get."
"No," was calm reply. "I have a solution."
Percival waved his hand dismissively. "This should be good. But if it involves a brothel then you'd best start running now."
"Of course not! I would never insult your family. Insinuating I would is disgraceful."
"Sorry. Let's hear it."
The blonde knight took a deep breath and held up one of the scrolls. "These are contracts with various Guilds from Vinay del Zexay. In two week's time you will have brick masons, glaziers, carpenters and thatchers here to repair your village."
"Borus, we can't afford them," he said as his hand froze, the mug raised halfway to his lips to take another sip of the wine.
"They've already been paid. You will only have to provide them with shelter and food."
He nearly choked on the drink. "Where did you-"
"Get the money for this? All of these Guilds owe my father considerable sums and were all too eager to enter into these contracts to work off their debts."
"I can't accept this. It's too much," he said, his tone hesitant with astonishment.
"Consider it a wedding present," Borus replied with a wink as he finished his glass.
Percival felt his face pale at the word 'wedding' although blind hope filled his soul. "That's quite generous and I'm sure the villagers will be thrilled, but it doesn't solve the problem of my niece. I can't just leave her in the castle wondering if I'll be coming home that night."
"Let her go live with my parents. She'll be educated by some of the finest scholars, and raised in the life of a gentlewoman."
"I'll have to ask her. I don't want to force something like this upon her." He said, staring down into his glass in thought. "But she would be safe and never know hunger again."
The next morning he extended Borus's offer to Torrie without divulging any of his own desires. It was only fair that way. He didn't want to pressure her to leave the only home she'd ever known. Surprisingly, she was all too eager to go along with the plan. Indeed, from the moment it was first discussed until they left, she talked constantly about the things she wanted to do in the city, and how she wanted to learn the lessons taught to women of privilege.
And so it happened that fate was changed once again, this time by the grace of Borus's infinite generosity. The Guildsmen arrived as scheduled, Torrie went to live with the Redrum family, and Percival rejoined the knights. Though he would never claim credit for what followed, it was nonetheless true that the war with Tinto turned in their favor only weeks after his return, and less than three months later an armistice was signed.
This made Chris happy, but that quickly changed into disappointment when the Army was once again turned into the strong arm for the Council. In those months of both war and peace, of triumph and frustration, the two of them grew closer. Their relationship was not one that was kept in secret, but still exercised with discretion.
Some six months or so later it happened--the inevitable outcome of such a romance. He found Chris sitting in her quarters that evening, staring out the window. She didn't even turn around when he opened the door. He called her name, but still no response. Approaching her, he heard something he thought would never come from the Silver Maiden-the sound of her crying.
Only when he put his hand on her shoulder did she face him, and the tears were still fresh on her delicate cheeks. He pulled her into an embrace, and let her cry on him. Although Percival was known for his ability with words, at this moment he just couldn't find any to comfort her.
It was no mystery to him why she was upset. There they had been, just that afternoon, escorting an important merchant and his family across the plains. She and Leo had been at the back guarding the family in their carriage, while he was at the front with the goods. Bandits attacked him, and rather than hold her position, she rode to his rescue. Leo had done his best to hold off the thieves on his own when they went for the coach, but her error had already been made. Emotions had taken over the mechanical thinking she had been taught for so many years, and now she hated herself for it.
Finally she spoke, the words smothered against his chest. "I made a terrible mistake."
"No one was hurt, my dear."
"Someone could have been."
"True, but they weren't."
"If I hadn't If Leo hadn't been as fast as he was, one of those children could have been killed."
"But Leo wasn't too slow. He's never been too slow and you knew that when you made your decision." When she didn't respond, he desperately tried to make light of the situation. "You know, my dear, I've always said that experience is the worst teacher. She gives the test first and lesson afterwards."
Chris wasn't in the mood for his witty wisdom. "Please, Percy. Be serious. I did what no knight worth his armor should--I let my emotions get the best of me."
"So learn from it. Don't assign yourself on missions with me if you think my presence will affect your objectivity."
She shook her head and pulled away from him. The tears had stopped, but he could tell that this was devouring her. "I don't think that will help. I'd drive myself crazy wondering if you were all right."
He frowned. "What are you thinking, my love?"
There was a long, eerie pause, until finally she gave the answer he dreaded. "I'm thinking that I have come to realize that I can't have it both ways. I can't ride in front of you as your superior during the day and sleep next to you at night as your lover."
"I understand, milady," he said simply, desperately trying to mask the agony her words were causing him.
She turned to him, a small smile growing on her anguished features. "I don't believe you do. I'm retiring. I will ride to Vinay del Zexay tomorrow and tell the Council in person. Salome will replace me. I've already asked him."
He stared at her, dumbfounded. "Chris-"
She interrupted him and held up her hand that bore the True Water Rune. "Don't argue with me. I'm tired of this, and this life. I still have nightmares about that child I killed in Karaya. I still feel like his soul haunts me, even after all these years."
He nodded solemnly. The rune and its curse of immortality was something that had been troubling her but there was a solution. With a gentle kiss to her cheek, he took her blighted hand. "We'll have to go to Alma Kinan, but I'm sure they can seal it."
"Yes. They did once before. The Council won't be happy, though."
"Do you really care what the Council wants?" He asked quietly.
"I suppose not, although they might accuse me of treason."
"No one in this country would ever believe something like that. They'd be stupid to try it." He chuckled for a moment. "They could be accused of arrogance and greed with impunity, but never stupidity."
"True." She smiled at him, a splash of color spreading on her cheeks. "There's one other thing I want, but by tradition, you should be the one to bring it up."
Although what she was implying had crossed his mind many times, he never was sure if he should mention it. "As if tradition has stopped you before," he said with a smirk, that was poorly hiding his blissful anxiety.
"Well, there is some romanticism in this tradition, and I wouldn't want to be the one to spoil it."
He was still in elated shock. "Chris, are you sure you want to throw your career away for me?"
"Don't flatter yourself," she teased. "I've been looking for an excuse to retire, and you're as good as any, I suppose. Besides, what is it that you said to me when we were still just cadets? 'Any man with a rank above lieutenant is a horse's ass.' Maybe I'm just tired of being a horse's ass."
He laughed and then gave a facetious defense. "Any man, yes. I didn't say any woman."
"Hair splitting, my dear. Hair splitting." She said as she pulled the stray lock that always fell in his face out of his eyes.
He grinned at her, but there was one complication he wanted to be sure she understood. "You do know they'll strip you of your title and land if-"
She placed a finger to his lips. "Let them. I don't give a damn."
It started as a fairytale they both resigned and the rune was sealed. It was going to be perfect, it was perfect. They enjoyed the quiet life Chris had wanted in the newly built Iksay and had a child.
But it was short-lived bliss.
Two years later, the treaty was dissolved, the war with Tinto had started again, and duty was something neither of them could deny. They talked about it, debated it, slept on it, but there was only one answer-he would have to go back. Seven years from that day, when he returned to Brass Castle the second time, seven years, another child, countless lonely nights, and they were still at war with no end in sight.
Chris His mind was about to find pleasure in thinking of how perfectly his hand fit on the curve of her hip, when a noise from above rudely yanked him back into the reality of the prison.
The platform in the center was dropping, but it was too early for another meal. He peered off into the darkness, trying to see who had bothered to descend into this place. Torches were quickly produced and carried to the two people on the lift. Although weakness and distance clouded his vision, he could make out that one was short and thin, with a black beard and long, black hair. The other was fat, blonde, clean-shaven, and wore a bright red bandana. Both were well dressed-too well dressed to be in a hole like this.
His men noticed this change, and all of them grew gravely silent. The young blonde man who was chained next to him whispered in fright. "Sir? Sir, do you think they are here to ransom us or kill us?"
Percival shook his head as much as his collar allowed. "I don't know. Have faith, Shamus."
"Yes sir," was the faltering reply.
The echoes of the chamber carried the conversation of the two new men louder than they had probably anticipated, and Percival listened intently.
The fat man spoke to one of the guards, his voice scratchy and grating. "How many have you lost?"
The short man scowled, but the answer came from the fat man's lips. "That's ten too many. I trust that for your sake the one we want wasn't one of them."
"I think they want to kill you sir," Shamus said.
"Perhaps, but we'll just have to see."
Turning to address the captive audience, the fat man bellowed in his annoying, gloating voice as he tossed his hands into the air for dramatic effect. "Lo! But it seems we have caught some of Zexen's finest knights in our web! Listen to me, you miserable bastards! You have the honor of being in the presence of our esteemed Captain, so do nothing that would raise his ire." He motioned to the bearded man, who only gave a silent nod. "The Captain would like to speak with your commanding officer. If you are this man, speak now."
Before Percival could open his mouth, Shamus called out, "I am the one you seek."
He whispered to the young man, "What the hell are you doing?"
"It is an honor to be your decoy, sir."
Three guards moved quickly towards the young idealist. They took his collar off, and held their blades to his throat as they walked him towards the platform, forcing him to kneel before the now-sneering Captain.
The fat man gave a malicious smile. "We know the man we seek has dark hair, but your loyalty is admirable. However, your dishonesty displeases the Captain."
At little more than finger's gesture from the fat one and a guard behind the youth responded faster than the eye could follow. A flash of steel, and Shamus doubled over. The blade was pulled from his gut, and he was unceremoniously tossed into the pit.
"Now," the Captain's Voice called into the silence. "Who is your commanding officer?"
"Here!" Percival shouted.
A moment later he was free of the iron grip around his neck, the sores it caused still weeping, and standing in the place that Shamus had just occupied. His legs were tingling from the sudden ability to stand, and he winced in pain as he was forced back to his knees. One of the guards grabbed his hair and pulled his head up, forcing his eyes to meet those of the mute Captain. There was something strange about him. His clothing seemed too large for his thin frame, and the beard was set too low on his fragile cheeks.
The Captain raised an eyebrow at the fat man, who again spoke. "For every answer you give us that is correct, we will release one man. If you are to answer wrong, we will kill a man. Do you understand? We will not tolerate any more trickery."
"Give us your name, and before you answer, we know that Zexens carry three names."
"Percival Ryan Fraulein."
"The place you reside."
The Captain grinned, approval written all over his dainty face. Kneeling in front of his man, Percival noticed something rather peculiar. The man's beard didn't follow the contorted expressions his skin was pulled into. As he smiled at his Voice, it remained in the same place. The fat man nodded, and began the next round of questions.
"The name of your wife."
Percival was defiant. "What the hell does she have to do with this?"
A guard smacked him in the small of his back, forcing him to gasp for air. The Captain's Voice spoke again, his tone now infuriated. "I will not repeat this question. I expect an answer or I will be forced to kill one of your men."
"Christine Anna Lightfellow," the knight said after regaining his breath.
"The name of your eldest child."
"He has the same name as I do."
"The name of your younger child."
The Captain nodded his authorization, and the fat man gave the next order. "Take this man to the Desdemona."
Percival growled, "You said you'd release a man for each question. I expect six to be freed."
"Ah," the fat man said with a twisted smirk. "So I did. Take six men to the surface and release them."
Tormented and incensed cries spread through the prison as Percival was hauled to his feet. He turned to face his men, and they grew silent. One of them shouted, "For Zexen!" He returned the call as vigorously as he could just as something cracked on the back of his head, knocking him into pleasant unconsciousness.