Courage and Strength Chapter 4

Daguerro to Fire Shrine

By Meriko Robert

Freya breathed out slowly, idly watching her breath form misty clouds in the biting cold air of the Forgotten Continent. She puffed out one quick breath, and watched the rotund cloud drift away, like the snorted smoke from a dragon's nostrils. A few more puffs to amuse herself with the fancy that she was a small, pale blue dragon, and then she pursed her mouth and blew out a thin tendril of breath, watching the vapor trail away from her like a river. She opened her jaw wide to see how large of a breath-cloud she might form, but then clapped her mouth shut once more as Sir Fratley's voice suddenly cut through the air.

"You do these things just to pique my curiosity about yourself, don't you?"

"No, Sir Fratley," she replied pertly as she turned to face him. "I was bored, and as a particularly immature and foolish person unworthy of the uniform of a Dragoon Knight, I chose to play about."

"What did you see while I was gone?" he asked immediately, as if he hadn't heard her flippant reply at all.

Turning and pointing as she recited her watch, Freya replied, "One red dragon wheeling over that mountain a half hour ago, anywhere from eight to fifty-two clusters that I believe are wraiths ranging in and out of the shade along that ridgeline for the entire duration of your absence, the shadow of a Dragoon Knight forty-seven minutes ago on the ledge just above that crevasse, that same shadow twenty-two minutes ago on the snowbank below that cavern, and the shadow yet again falling across the ice sheet below us just ten seconds ago before you leapt up to this lookout point."

Raising an eyebrow, Fratley asked, "How can you be so certain that it was a Dragoon Knight's shadow?"

With a smile, she replied, "I stood in it for years. I know it well." Freya then stooped to pick up her pack and then turned to her fellow Knight that she might hand him back the lance he had left in her keeping, but paused as she found herself being frowned upon.

"Sir Fratley?"

Still frowning at her, he said, "You did not mean that to imply physical proximity."

There was a pause in which she searched for a way to defuse her phrasing without actually lying to him, but gave up and then answered, "No. I meant it in its usual figurative manner. Your reputation was great, Sir Fratley. I was quite lost in it while your Novice."

"Because I am a 'Legendary Knight,'" he said, nodding in a rueful manner. "The Ice-Hearted Dragoon, Sir Frighteningly Formal Fratley, and other such names that people use to refer to me both in jest, and in earnest when I am not within earshot...or so they think."

"You forgot the Merciless Mentor," Freya added, before she could stop her mouth from running ahead of her brain.

But he only raised an eyebrow and asked, "Is that what you called me?"

On the whole rather relieved at his bland response and the wiping away of the frown, although not quite ecstatic at the question, his former Novice answered, "No, it was what the other Novices called you. Most often the name was brought up after I staggered in to our quarters five hours after everyone else had ended their day, or when they visited me in the infirmary after a particularly hard-learned lesson. You were quite the popular mentor to abuse, Sir Fratley."

"Such harshness toward their elder," noted the Merciless Mentor with a mockingly mournful shake of his head. "And you?" he asked, "by what name did you call me, or refer to me, as the case might be?"

Freya shrugged and replied, "Sir Fratley or Sir Knight I called you, and as for referring to you, I always said, 'My Mentor.'"

A thoughtful frown creased that mentor's brow, and he noted, "Quite a formal and serious young Novice you seemed to be, Lady Freya." And before Freya could shrug or nod in reply, he added in a laughing voice, "What happened to you?" Freya blinked at the sudden change from serious to humorous, and nearly loosed her jaw as he actually grinned at her.

She kept her mouth from falling open, however, and smiled in return. After giving an instant's thought to his question, she said by way of explanation, "You left."

Now it was Sir Fratley who looked surprised, and he fell silent for a while. Suddenly he frowned anew and repeated after her, "I left," having apparently been musing over this phrase for a while, and not coming to any solid conclusion.

It was not phrased as a question, but Freya understood that he found her two word answer unsatisfactory. "You left," she said again, and then went on. "And for the first time in years, you were not there for me to rely upon, nor to form my opinions around." With a sigh, she continued, "You molded me too well during my novitiate, Sir Fratley. When I became a Dragoon, I was little better than a slightly shorter copy of you. My standards, morals, likes and dislikes were all mirrors of how I understood yours to be, and I based all of my decisions on what I knew of your character. It is only the fact that you are as dedicated and loyal to the our order's precepts that this mimicry of mine went unnoticed, and all alike applauded the Dragoon you had made of me."

Fratley was watching her with growing upset at this revelation of hers, and finally cut in with, "You make yourself sound utterly without mind or heart of your if I had merely hollowed you out and created of you a doppelganger."

Freya shook her head, closing her eyes against the ends of her hair that whipped around her face as she did so, and remembering the double-agony of losing Sir Fratley's presence in her life, and realizing what an idol she had made of him at her own expense. "No, not you...I," she corrected. "I held you in such high regard that I strove to be all that I thought you wished in a Novice, rather than all that I could be as a Dragoon."

"Then I failed you as a Mentor," came the regretful whisper.

"No, not really." Freya looked across the glaringly white landscape, as if far-seeing all of the lands she had covered while traveling in search of the one near her now, and later on while pursuing Kuja with Zidane and his mis-matched band of adventurers. "When I left Burmecia in search of you, the years of my novitiate served me well in keeping me alive. If I spent my time molding myself after one Dragoon in particular, rather than searching for the Knight I might make, then I could not have chosen a better model, could I?" she asked, smiling at Sir Fratley again. He still looked uneasy, and she added, "Your final lesson to me came years after I became a Dragoon, but I learned it well. You left, and I completed my training by serving my King and kingdom without your constant guidance. I found that the rash impulses and emotions that I had fought to control so often served me well in times of stress and strain, and that there are differences between what is lawful, what is right, and what is Godly."

After taking a deep breath, Freya said decidedly, "I am who I am today, and it is emotional, weak, and downright rude at times, but my foundations are built upon the strength, honor, and morals that I so admired in you. You didn't fail me at all, Sir Fratley. My life has unfolded as it needed to, and only regret is your lost memory, and not the fact that you left in the first place."

She trailed off, there was no reply, and so the two Knights fell into a silent contemplation of the snowy landscape once more. Freya shot random glances at her companion, and wondered wistfully what he was thinking. Not that she had ever had the ability to read his mind, but with all that had happened, she felt as if she had been thrown back to square one - and on an entirely different board at that - and was now more uncertain than ever as to her ability to guess his mood and mind.

During one of her glances, Fratley happened to look sidelong at her as well, and their eyes met. After a brief stare-down, during which Freya began to feel a bit awkward, the older Dragoon said, "Back to the Merciless Mentor subject..."

Freya hastily ran backwards through their conversation until she found the right spot, and then gave him a brief nod as her only reply.

Still gazing into her clear blue eyes, Fratley said, "After what sounds as if it were a hard novitiate, my departure, and my coldness after my return...I suppose I should have expected you to be wary of me." Freya began to protest his words, which gave her a mental vision of herself watching Sir Fratley with the eyes of a bird trapped in a cage with a snake, but he forstalled her by simply going on as if she hadn't begun to speak.

"I've returned to Burmecia to find my heartless reputation intact, and I must admit...I have done nothing to dispell it," Fratley admitted with a shrug. "But there was one person who, from what I know, found me to be quite ordinary and likeable, and even gave me birthday gifts. 'Twould be worth the effort, for me, to be able to have such a relationship again, with such a person, to keep me from being no more than a hard-hearted Knight."

Freya said firmly and with much more contradiction in her tone than was strictly proper, "You never were hard-hearted, nor shall you ever be, and it is likely an illusion of your own that you think all in Burmecia are so afraid of you."

It was a heart-breaking expression, and Freya, for a moment, lost track of her name as he smiled at her...slow, sad, and wistful. So very unlike the First Knight of the King's Guard, but the very image of the man who lived in Freya's heart. He said, "But you are the only one in all of Burmecia who would ever tell me such a thing."

And Freya felt her heart sink a bit, because she knew it was true. Her Sir Fratley was too well hidden behind his reputation and reserve. Upset at it, she said in a low voice, "Well, and it is your own fault."

Rather than follow her mood, Fratley replied, "And I hereby make it your duty to keep me from commiting this fault time and time again once we return to Burmecia and the company of our fellows."

Well pleased with the duty, Freya smiled and said lightly, "And here I thought I was to be chastised for playing about while you were gone, but now you admonish me to try and corrupt you with my childish ways."

With a shrug, Sir Fratley noted, "Well, and continue to play if you wish, as it seems not to affect your attentiveness to your duty. We shall see if you Mentor me in your ways well enough that I should join you some day." He shouldered the pack he had left with her while exploring and pointed northwards with the lance that he finally took from her hand. "None of the caverns in this mountain have such ice-slicked walls as the history indicates. It seems that this Fire Shrine you discovered while traveling with Zidane is our destination after all."

Freya nodded thoughtfully and started down the icy mountain in the direction her companion had indicated, thinking back to the ancient tome that had directed their steps thus far across the frozen continent to the north of Daguerro. A vision of the cracked parchment and tattered leather binding flickered to life in her mind's eye, and the memories associated with it floated back as well.

* * * * *


She jumped to her feet immediately, laying down the book she had been reading so swiftly that it slid along the bench for a good while before tipping entirely off of the smooth wooden surface. A few quick steps brought her out of her aisle and to the railing where she peered upwards to see what Sir Fratley needed. The surprise of suddenly hearing him call out her name was brushed aside by a sudden excitement as she saw him waving a book at her. The gesture in and of itself was nothing extraordinary...he was merely holding up one hand to about the height of his face, and rotating his wrist a bit to draw attention to the tome he was holding. But he had shouted in the middle of a library...and her name, no less...rather than take the few minutes necessary to walk over to where she was, and was now teasing at her with this little waving of a book.

Certain of what this meant, and quite careless of further disturbing the Daguerro archives' other patrons, she suddenly crouched and made two giant leaps over the water running through the library. One jump took her to the circular platform in the center of the main room, and the second vaulted her directly onto the railing upon which Sir Fratley was resting his elbows.

Before the blue fabric of her cloak had even begun to settle around her, she asked with great eagerness, "Is that it?"

"Attend me properly and I shall tell you," came the snorted reply. She obeyed with alacrity, stepping down to the floor and standing at attention within a moment, but her prompt compliance and rigid posture were rather spoilt by the roll of her eyes.

"Impudent woman," Sir Fratley muttered, and then held open the book right before her eyes.

Blue eyes narrowed and scanned the cramped writing before her for a while, and then opened wide as she digested the passages. "This could be the Fire Shrine!" she finally exclaimed after reading further.

Explanations followed, with Freya detailing her brief journey to one of the four Elemental temples while hurriedly reading through the rest of the thin book now in her hands. The pages detailed a hidden volcano whose life ebbed and flowed as a tide, but on a far different schedule. The lava flowed through a certain mountain's inner caverns like hot blood through rocky veins all the year round but for one day between summer and autumn. On that day, the lava receded and the inner caverns took on the same slick, icy coating that characterized the outer passages of the mountain, and even the innermost sanctums of the place could be reached. But the cooling took some time, and the actual window of time in which one might proceed into the deepest parts of the volcano without being singed was little better than an hour.

Freya read through accounts of the wonderous gemstones that grew along the edge of a vein of mythril deep within the mountain, gems that glowed red with their own fire, as if the lava that bathed them all year long had imparted some of its heat and brilliance. Gems that were reputed to hold great power.

Great magic.

The volcano was a hidden heat underneath a great mountain of ice and snow. Freya read through the frustratingly short descriptions of the mountain itself, and the infuriatingly vague sentence about its location, and then grew concerned over the many pages luridly describing the volcano as a fatal and horrible place without giving a single clue as to why it might be either fatal or horrible. And then she put on an expression of absolute insult as she turned the page to find the rest of its brethren missing, their only legacy a few scraps of torn parchment clinging to the binding.

"I see by your disgusted expression that you have finished your reading," Sir Fratley commented.

"I have not," Freya replied immediately. "How could I finish when the book is incomplete?"

Her former Mentor took the offending volume from her and began walking, leading the way to the stairs. "Be that as it may, I believe it to be the information which we seek.

Freya nodded after a quick mental review of all that she had read, and then the two Dragoons left the library - after gaining permission to borrow the precious book - in order to plot their next step back at camp. It was agreed that their time would likely be wasted in trying to find yet more information in digging through the archives, a task which could theoretically take the rest of the year without yielding any more results.

The scanty information detailing the volcano and its location pointed to the Forgotten Continent, with its ice-bound mountains and little-explored expanse. The Fire Shrine that Freya had been reminded of was within the northernmost mountain range, and was only a three-months' journey away. Yet if it proved to be the wrong mountain, that left little time in which to try and discover the true place. So the next morning, the two Knights had struck camp and left for the frozen continent to the north with the intention of scrying out every likely mountain they came across while traveling towards the Fire Shrine. Should they find the fabled volcano before reaching the shrine, so much the better. But if the Fire Shrine ended up being the same volcano they sought, they should still be able to reach it before the first of October even with all of their stops to explore other sites.

* * * * *

They made camp that night at the base of the mountain range that ringed in the crater of lava that was now known as the Fire Shrine to most people. The last day of September. If this mountain proved to be the wrong location after all, or if they could not find the appropriate entrance in time, it would mean another year of searching.

Another possibility suddenly sprang to mind, and Freya looked to Sir Fratley across their campfire and said, "I've just thought of something." Brown eyes looked back at her inquiringly, and she answered, "This volcano only recently erupted a few years back, creating this new crater lake of lava. What if the cavern containing the gems collapsed in this recent upheaval?"

The older Dragoon considered the possibility for a few minutes, and then said rather blandly, "Then we shall return to Daguerro and search the rest of the archives in the hopes that this was merely a false trail. And if it turns out that the deposit of gems is indeed lost to us in this fiery lake, then we shall return to Cleyra and report so to the King."

"You say that so easily," Freya said in a slightly protesting tone, the idea of returning without the asked-for gemstone rather more daunting to her than the task that awaited them the next day.

In his old, "Mentor" tone of voice, Fratley replied, "Not all Journeys end in success. But if one has done their duty by the King, then an unfulfilled mission need not equal failure."

Freya nodded, but then added as a sort of rueful afterthought, "I would rather succeed."

He breathed out a short laugh at her obvious statement and then ordered, "Then go to sleep, and rest well for the coming day. I shall take first watch."

"Yes, Sir Fratley."

Chapter 5

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