The sky over Artolia was a bleak, dreary gray, and the only sign of the sun was the light that filtered through the clouds. Lawfer had spent hours staring up at it, ever since daybreak, hoping that the sunlight would eventually break through the clouds. He'd stood at the window of the small guard tower, keeping his eyes on the overcast sky, until he'd finally realized that the clouds were too thick for the sun to show its face. Instead he stood and looked down at the executioner's square, a place rarely visited in these relatively peaceful days. He watched men prepare the guillotine for the first time in almost a year, greasing the slats and cleaning off what rust and grime remained.
All the while, he had been silent, and had kept his face carefully expressionless; he intended to accept his fate stoically, as his mentor would have done. He'd kept his hands down by his side, fighting the urge to run his fingers nervously through his hair or to smooth the coarse black robes he'd been given.
Had he been alone, he might have let his nervousness show - it would have been a relief of sorts. But there were two men with him, two young and inexperienced guards. Their whispered conversations were heavy with fright and dismay. Even now, after all that had happened, he still felt the need to be strong for their sake.
If only things had been different, Lawfer would have turned and tried to comfort them. But there was nothing that he could change about the situation. He was powerless now, and he felt smaller and more insignificant than he'd ever felt before. Nevertheless, he did not regret what he had tried to do; it had been done for the most worthwhile of reasons. If only he had not failed...
He forced his eyes away from the sinister death-machine, and over to the crowd that had already gathered in the square. He had not expected such a large number of people to come for his death. Why should they come to see him?
At least they did not celebrate it. His father had told him of another execution, the death of a man who had murdered many men and betrayed an oath of loyalty to the King himself. That day, laughter had rung throughout the city, and nobles and commoners alike had shared a drink to celebrate his passing. It had been almost like a carnival, he'd said. But here there were no voices raised in celebration. The people whispered, or else they sobbed. In all of his life in Artolia, it was the bleakest sight he'd ever seen.
Lawfer stared down at the crowd, trying to pick out familiar faces - were his friends down there somewhere, or his father? But the distance was too great; he couldn't recognize anyone. Soon he gave up and turned away, closing his eyes.
How had things come to this? It was impossible to believe. He remembered everything, the mad procession of events that had led up to this, a horrible testament to the broken mechanisms of justice.
It had been only a week since he'd learned of Arngrim's death.
"Arngrim did what? But... this must be some sort of mistake!"
He remembered the moment he'd heard of his friend's death with painful clarity. The grim look on his father's face, the unseasonable chill in the air, the laughter of guards as they walked past them... it had all been engraved upon his memory.
"He killed Princess Jelanda, Lord Lombert and thirty of our palace guards, Lawfer. The situation is clear." Sir Warrick, Knight-Captain of Artolia's army, spoke in a flat, unemotional voice, the voice of a man who was fighting against shock with all of his might. He did not look his son in the face. "Please try to understand."
"But... why would he do such a terrible thing? Father, you know Arngrim! It doesn't make any sense!"
"No," he agreed, "it does not. But I saw him with my own eyes. He struck down many of my knights in his attempt to flee the castle..." He closed his eyes.
"Father, please..." But he trailed off, seeing the look on his father's face. If it had been anyone but him he would never have believed him. He would've called him a liar and challenged him then and there, in full view of the palace guard. But his father was known for his honesty and dedication to the truth; it outshone even his courage and his sense of duty to the throne.
Finally Sir Warrick looked back up into his son's face, and paused as he weighed his words. "The King is... he is in despair, as you may well imagine. He has demanded justice for the Princess's death. And since the traitor himself is dead..."
Lawfer looked at him for a moment, watched his jaw tighten. But the youth's puzzlement didn't last for long. There was only one reason that his father could've been so upset. "You mean... they've taken Roland in his place, haven't they? Haven't they?"
"I'm truly sorry, son." His father nervously ran a hand over his thin blonde beard. "We had no choice. The King himself demanded it. I have no intention of executing him... but he has been imprisoned."
"But Roland isn't well! The damp of the prison cells will soon kill him!"
"I know, but... there's nothing I can do. The King himself ordered this, and we must uphold-"
A shout rang out from the other side of the courtyard. "Knight-Captain Warrick! We require your presence, Sir!"
His father sighed in frustration. "We did what we did because we had to, Lawfer. Please try to understand that."
"Very well," Lawfer answered coldly. He bowed slightly, as if his father were a stranger.
Sir Warrick faltered. "We will speak of this later," he said, before turning to join his comrades in the courtyard.
Lawfer, for his part, immediately turned and walked away. His thoughts were chaotic, an endless stream of confusing images. They called up images of Arngrim, memories of things that he'd said and done, trying desperately to find some sort of reason to what he'd just heard. He remembered Arngrim and Roland sitting in the common room of their small home, talking and laughing as Lawfer stood beside them - two men who took care of each other as best they could, and yet could not seem to understand each other at all. Arngrim had once told Lawfer that it was because of how they saw the world - Roland saw it as a base for art, he'd said, for the creation of beauty.
Arngrim, on the other hand...
"What people like Roland don't see," he said as they readied their weapons, "is that art's just a way of denying how things really are. That's why kings and queens like artists so much - it lets them keep ignoring what's really out there. It lets them escape."
"Is that all there is to it? Isn't there some value to the pursuit of beauty in and of itself?" Lawfer responded, picking up his spear and testing its balance. "This world would be dreadfully bleak if no one ever attempted to create beautiful things, I think."
Arngrim smiled. "Beauty isn't that hard to find, is it?" He drew his sword. "But let's not talk about it. C'mon, let's see if you've really been training as much as you told me you had."
Lawfer shivered slightly, even in the slight chill. The sun was just about to set, and a cool breeze blew through the courtyard and ruffled his hair.
There were so many memories. Everything in this courtyard reminded him of Arngrim, somehow. The way that the wind blew, the few snatches of idle chatter that he heard... even the sight of two young knights training in the courtyard. Their practice bouts brought back another vivid memory of him and his mentor training together, not long ago.
"Get up, Lawfer. We're not done yet!"
Lawfer was on his hands and knees in the training yard. His head ached after the long day of training; his body was protesting the beating he'd just taken. They'd been sparring, and... and he didn't remember the rest. He didn't know how Arngrim had won, exactly. The battle had been over too quickly; every move that Lawfer had made had been parried effortlessly, and he'd been powerless to avoid the onslaught.
"Arngrim..." He felt dizzy, too disoriented to move. It had all been too fierce, too draining. He'd never had a chance....
"Damn it, you'd be dead by now if this was a real fight. Get up!"
Lawfer coughed, tasted a bit of blood - he licked his lips and realized that they were cracked and bruised. "Arngrim, I... can't we just stop? Please?"
"I thought you wanted to train." Arngrim snorted. "That you were going to learn to beat me."
"I... I can't beat you," he admitted. "You know that. I'm not a genius like you!"
"Genius? Hah! That's what losers say." Lawfer looked away as Arngrim sneered. "'He's different, he's special! I never had a chance!' It's all a bunch of bullshit made up by people who can't be bothered to learn to succeed."
The younger man said nothing, but closed his eyes in shame. He never should've asked for Arngrim's help. He should've known that he was too weak and untalented for it to be worthwhile. The practice yard was hot; he felt the sun beating down on him, felt it sapping what energy he had left. Gods, but he was dizzy...
"Here," he heard Arngrim say. After a long pause, he glanced up again - and blinked. Arngrim was holding his spear, hilt facing him. "Pick up your spear and fight," the warrior said quietly. "All you can do is your best."
Lawfer had stared for a moment... then, slowly, he'd nodded and pushed himself to his feet, ignoring vertigo and protesting muscles. He took the spear.
"...thank you, Arngrim."
"So," a man said nearby, startling Lawfer out of his trance, "I hear that the genius of the battlefield finally snapped."
"Yeah," another said. "But as many men as he's killed... well, it was bound to happen someday. Can't love fighting the way that man did without payin' for it."
Lawfer stumbled over to one of the pillars near the castle, leaning against it and breathing heavily. He wanted to scream, wanted to grab those guards and tell them that Arngrim wasn't just a butcher. He must've had reasons for doing what he'd done. He always had reasons...
"If this world is hell," he heard Arngrim say, as clear as if he'd suddenly appeared beside him, "then the gods must be kinder than everybody thinks." And he remembered his father's laughter, his mild voice replying to the gruff words of wisdom... although he couldn't remember exactly what he'd said. Just that he was somehow condescending, and that Lawfer had wanted to tell him...
Sir Warrick had respected Arngrim's ability, and the two of them had been a sort of team; Arngrim had been the unofficial spokesman for the army of mercenaries that the King had employed, since he was one of the few men that they would willingly listen to. But he'd never understood Arngrim; he was too set in his highborn ways. He'd never tried like Lawfer had. They'd never spoken about the more important things...
"Have you ever thought about your purpose, Lawfer?"
Lawfer, who had been half-asleep on the hillside, opened his eyes with a guilty start. "I'm sorry?"
"Why you do what you do. Why you believe in what you believe in." Arngrim was standing on the edge of a ledge, looking out over the countryside. "Ever wondered about it?"
Spring had arrived; the land was in full bloom. It was a difficult climb, especially in armor after a difficult training session, but the effort was always well-rewarded. There was a strong breeze that day. Lawfer could feel it ruffling his own hair, thin and fine as it was - like spun gold, his mother had always said. But Arngrim barely seemed affected by it at all; his hair was very short, and his massive, muscular body was as immobile as any statue.
"I don't fully understand, Arngrim. What do you mean?"
Arngrim sat down on the edge of the ledge. "You're a warrior, always training and preparing for war. It's not an easy life, I know that. So why do you do it? What are you fighting for?"
Lawfer shook his head. "That isn't an easy question. I suppose that the simplest answer would be that I fight for... for justice."
"Why?" he repeated. "Because it's important. It needs to be done."
Arngrim shook his head. "Look." He reached down and caught a fistful of grass, then lifted his hand and opened it. The breeze caught the grass and blew them away. They were quickly out of sight, spiraling down into the valley. "Are you just a blade of grass to be blown in the wind? Following ideals is fine, sure. But what happens when things start moving too fast, and you lose control?"
"I've... never considered it," he admitted. "I always assumed that I'd know what was right and wrong when I saw it..."
"It isn't that simple." Arngrim shook his head. "Everybody thinks that until they get caught up. You can't just let any belief control what you do. You have to know what you're fighting for, but in the end, you've gotta fight for yourself." He looked back at Lawfer. "Be like the wind, not the grass."
"I... I see," Lawfer replied, looking at his friend with a new sort of respect. This was one of a very few times that he'd heard Arngrim talk about his personal beliefs. He tended to be silent about such things.
Arngrim nodded and turned back around. "It's not all that important what you fight for, far as I'm concerned," he said offhandedly. "The most important thing is to pick a side, and know why you picked it. The worst thing that a man can betray is his own purpose."
"And what about you?" Lawfer asked on a whim. "What's your purpose?"
Arngrim glanced back at him one more time, smiling grimly. "Remind me," he answered, "and I'll tell you. Someday."
Why would such a man choose to throw his life away? No, it couldn't have been just that. There had to have been something more...
He straightened up and walked away. He was barely thinking about where he intended to go, just that it was important. As he brushed past the two gossiping guards, he at least managed to mumble out an apology; he could feel their eyes on him even after he walked away, staring at him.
Soon he found himself standing outside of Arngrim's old house. He looked at the small building, half in disrepair - Arngrim had done his best to keep it in good shape, but he'd often been away, and the money he'd earned had been given to Roland to purchase food, canvas and paint. Age and neglect had taken its inevitable toll. He pushed against the door, and it creaked as it swung on old brass hinges. Quietly he slipped though, closing it behind him.
He wasn't entirely sure what he'd been expecting to find. But walking into the old house and seeing everything as it had been for so long was a jolt, if a welcomed one. The easel sat near the one clean window, accompanied by a high stool and a collection of pigments. A thick black cloak hung near the door, the one that Roland had worn for braving the elements when the weather began to grow cold. He took a deep breath - the place even smelled the same, paint and canvas and stale bread.
The place had not been burgled. At least the townspeople had that much respect for them, or at least some of them had. There were probably other reasons that the place hadn't been sacked long before then, more superstitious reasons. Perhaps there were men who would claim to have seen Arngrim walking the street in front of his home at night, and they were afraid of his ghost. There were almost always such stories when such tragedies happened in Artolia. The common folk of the city were good men and women, but they were remarkably simple in so many ways.
He walked up to the easel, looked at the half-finished painting on it. It was some massive, one-eyed beast, something that Lawfer was sure he'd read about in legend but couldn't put a name to. The paint was dry, and much of the canvas was still empty save for a few early brushstrokes; Roland liked to work outwards from the center of his paintings, working from a focal point and allowing the rest of the picture to radiate from it. He said that most of the time they seemed to compose themselves, with only minimal help from him.
Lawfer was glad that it was only half-done. Someone might have ended up claiming it as their own in some distant country and selling it - Roland had talent, although he swore otherwise, and it may have well fetched them a good price. But Roland would never have approved of that. He thought that selling art was as much a sin as heresy -
The door swung open behind him, and he spun around, fearing the worst... upon seeing his father's face, he relaxed, if only a little. "Sir," he said formally, bowing his head.
"I thought I might find you here, Lawfer." Sir Warrick closed the door gently behind him, looking around the house. "I hadn't been here for a long time when Arngrim died. Having to come here again under such circumstances was... extremely difficult."
"I'm sure it was." Lawfer couldn't keep the chill out of his voice. "Dragging a sickly man to a dungeon is always a chore. Especially a friend -"
"Yes, it was difficult," he interrupted. "Seeing the look on his face when I told him what had happened... he knew nothing of it, and yet the King..." He shook his head. "I had no more choice than Roland did, Lawfer. Can you at least try to accept that?"
"Forgive my lack of faith, Father. It has been sorely tried, I'm afraid." Lawfer was nearly shaking in his rage. How could his father presume to say such things? He had imprisoned a man who had trusted him completely, and had killed a man who had been like his brother. And he dared to speak of being powerless?
He started to push his way to the door, but Sir Warrick reached out and stopped him, holding him by the shoulder. "Arngrim killed thirty of my best men," he said urgently. "He struck them down before my eyes, and he laughed as they fell. I saw the bodies of Princess Jelanda and Chancellor Lombert, both torn by a massive blade. There's no doubt that he was responsible for this." He shook his head. "I respected him a great deal, but I can't blind myself to the truth. Arngrim betrayed us, Lawfer. All of us."
Lawfer stared back at him, remembering again. "The worst things a man can betray are himself and his own purpose." The words echoed in his head, and for a moment it was as though Arngrim were standing behind him again. "There had to be a reason," he whispered.
"What, then? What could there be? He kidnapped Princess Jelanda and attempted to take her to our enemy. When Lombert discovered this plan, he sent men to rescue her. Arngrim was enraged at the interference, slaughtered the Princess and the men who'd come for her, then returned to the castle to slay Lombert as well. Why else would he have done all of this?"
Lawfer turned his face away, knowing that there was nothing he could say to defend his friend. There was nothing that he could say to make what he'd done sound less damning. All he had were his convictions.
"Lawfer... I know that you two were close friends." He shook his head. "I wish that I could explain."
"I know," he said softly.
"There is still a great deal of work that must be done. Villnore surely knows of this incident. They may soon take advantage of the turmoil and strike against us. We... no, I need your help."
"What can I do that you cannot?" he asked, forcing a smile.
His father turned away, then looked back over his shoulder at the young man. "I'm going back to the castle. I'll be waiting for you to come back."
Lawfer nodded. "I... I understand." But the words were hollow in his ears, and he knew that his father would hear it too.
The Knight-Captain turned back to him for a moment. Then he shook his head. "Lawfer, if you can accept nothing else that I say, please believe this. I did not strike Arngrim down."
"What?" Lawfer stared. "But I thought..."
"No... I never raised arms against Arngrim. I could not bring myself to kill him." He took a deep breath. "I asked him to surrender. I asked if he truly intended to fight me. In response, he threw down his sword. I thought that he truly would surrender... but then he drew a knife and fell upon it."
"He died by his own hand?" the young man whispered. Arngrim... gave up? I can't believe it...
Sir Warrick quietly turned away again and walked out. Lawfer stared after him for a moment, then walked over to the stool near the easel and heavily sat down. He ran his fingers over the edge of the canvas one more time, his gaze finally lingering over the unfinished corners of the painting.
If only he'd been there. If only he hadn't been on that mission in the south, he might've... but no, what could he have done?
He could've at least known why, that was what. His father... how could he know for sure what had truly happened, if all of the witnesses to Arngrim's crime were dead? what if something else had happened, something that would make them all see this in a different light?
He looked again at the painting, its creation so tragically cut short. And suddenly he knew exactly what he had to do, as clearly as if the gods had come down and whispered it to him.
This is not justice, he thought. This is only cruelty. And who will stand against it, if not I?
He stood up, walking back towards the door in a trance.
I cannot save Arngrim... he is beyond our reach. But Roland's work in life is not yet done. No matter what the cost, I must set him free.
Lawfer knew that he didn't have much chance of survival. He didn't care - he was willing to sacrifice himself if it meant that Roland could be free again. But Roland would be very ill, and there would be no safety for him near Artolia; Lawfer was going to have to ask for help, if only for his sake.
So the next day found him standing in the woods near Artolia, waiting for his friends. He'd sent them a message; he knew that they'd come. There was no one else that he could rely on for something like this. Not the other Knights, and certainly not his father.
Father... how could you? How could you turn your back on him like this? Try as he might, Lawfer couldn't fully grasp what had happened. Sir Warrick had trusted Arngrim enough to treat him as liaison between the Knights of Artolia and the army of mercenaries. He must have known that his friend would not betray Artolia; there had to be a reason.
And now he was waiting for Lawfer to come back to the castle and accept the King's orders. And Lawfer would never do that, even if it meant he was a traitor as well.
A rustling in the trees near him made him look up sharply, and he smiled as his friends came into view. "Kashell, Celia," he said softly. "I'm glad that you could come tonight. I had feared that perhaps my message had not reached you."
"What're you talking about? 'Course it did," Kashell said, pulling off his helmet and shaking out his dark blue hair. "You really thought we wouldn't come?"
"I was worried," Lawfer admitted. "I have reason to be."
"Kashell," Celia murmured, cutting off what was surely another reprimand. But she turned to him and said something that hurt him still more. "Lawfer... we heard all about what happened yesterday. We're so sorry. I mean, if there was just something we could do -"
"There is," Lawfer interrupted. "That is why I asked you to come meet with me here." He shook his head. "You heard all of it, did you? As well as Roland's fate?"
"Yes, they told us. He's in the dungeon... the King wanted to have his head cut off-"
"He may as well have done just that!" he said suddenly, his rage spilling over. "Rather than condemn him to a slow, agonizing death, why not kill him now and be done with it?"
"Lawfer!" Celia was staring at him, her pale blue eyes wide. "What..."
"I'm sorry," he apologized, shaking his head. "But I cannot tolerate this. There's no excuse for what the King did to Roland. And there is nothing else that can be done about it."
Understanding was beginning to dawn in Celia's eyes, albeit slowly. She was no fool - far from it - but she was still far more naive than a mercenary had a right to be. "Lawfer... you can't be planning to..."
He turned away. "There's no one else that can do this job. I want you two to take care of Roland for me after I'm... after I'm gone," he managed. He could not bring himself to speak of his own death; the words froze his tongue. "Get him out of Artolia, somewhere he'll be safe... you're the only two I can trust to do this." He closed his eyes, tried to steel himself to say goodbye to them... but he couldn't say it. "I will see you again later," he said instead, and started to walk away.
"Stop it! Stop right there," Celia said, walking up behind him. "This is crazy, Lawfer! Do you really expect your friends to sit by while you go to your death? Are you really expecting to survive this?"
Lawfer looked back over his shoulder at her. Her face was still pale, but two spots of color had appeared high on her cheeks. Kashell was behind her, and had turned away, his eyes closed; he didn't need to speak for Lawfer to see that he agreed.
"Dying for justice and lofty ideas is pointless, Lawfer!" Celia continued, her voice wavering.
"There are many who might agree," Lawfer acknowledged. Then he shook his head, remembering his conversation on the hillside. "But... there are many others who would not."
Kashell turned to him then, staring at him with his piercing blue eyes. Lawfer had expected him to be enraged too, even more than Celia... he was surprised to see him so outwardly calm. "You're talking about Arngrim again, aren't you? About him being special and all?"
"No, you're wrong," he said automatically. "It's not like that. It has nothing to do with..." He trailed off; he knew that it was a lie. It had everything to do with Arngrim.
"Lawfer -" Celia began, reaching out for him.
Kashell pushed past her, speaking before she could get another word in. "Look, I know all about this line of work. I know there are times when you've just got to grit your teeth and look Death right in her ugly face. But that doesn't mean you've gotta just throw your life away!"
"He's right," Celia said, and a mad hope began to dawn in her eyes. Lawfer had seen it before. "Why don't we all go together? We're all friends, right? There's no reason for you to go alone! If we're all together, we might -"
"No," Lawfer stopped her, shaking his head. He had to make them understand! He couldn't risk their lives... he couldn't let anyone else die for this cause. "This... this is my duty, and mine alone. Not yours."
"But why?" Celia asked softly.
"Because... haven't you wondered why Arngrim did what he did? Why he came back?" He looked at his friends in desperation - Kashell's dark, unyielding stare, Celia's open and tear-streaked face. They were supposed to understand this. They had to. He had to make sure that someone understood why he'd done what he'd done, in case he never came back to explain; he didn't want to share Arngrim's fate. "He understood what it would do to Roland, and yet he did it anyway. And it's not only that... when he thought he'd be forced to face my father in combat, he..."
He stopped. He couldn't say it. Doesn't Father understand? If Arngrim had gone mad, he wouldn't have stopped the killing. Father would be dead too. But he's not!
"Lawfer," Celia murmured. "Can't you please...."
"When I think about how he must have felt..." he said, still lost in his trance. I will not run away, he said to himself. No matter what.
"Lawfer, listen to me, please. There must be another way." Celia was babbling. "I mean, I know it's not fair. We all know it's not fair. But going against the King's orders by yourself -"
"Celia," Kashell said quietly. "Let him go. Can't you see he's made up his mind?"
"Kashell, you can't mean that."
"Like hell I can't." He stepped closer to the blonde Knight. "I knew it as soon as I saw the look on his face. Nothin' we say is gonna change that." He stopped, started to say something else, then shook his head. "It's crazy, but I'm gonna try to help. Bring Roland out here if you manage to pull this off, ok? I'll take him to safety."
"You'll take him? But... you think I'm not going to help? Just because..." Celia stopped and shook her head. "I'll be here too."
Lawfer smiled faintly. "Thank you," he said, simply and sincerely. "Thank you both."
"Yeah, yeah," Kashell said, allowing himself a smile too. Celia didn't smile, but then, she hadn't smiled much since Lawfer had met her, back when they'd been children. "Just don't get yourself killed. I wanna buy you a drink sometime if you pull this off."
"I'll survive," he promised, although he had no faith in his ability to keep his word.
Lawfer spent a great deal of time in preparation for his attempt to rescue Roland. Some of it was spent in meditation, of a sort - prayer, perhaps. He had to believe that the gods were on his side, that he was their instrument. That belief had served him well throughout most of his life.
He also prepared his equipment. He quietly obtained magical light-sources that were easier to extinguish and easier to hide than torches. He took food and what medicine he could find for Roland in case his need was dire. He polished and sharpened his sword - as much as he would have preferred to take his fine halberd, the clearance in the tunnels he would need to use would not allow him to use such a thing, if he had to fight. Instead of his full suit of plate armor, he readied only a breastplate and greaves; the less weight he wore, the easier it would be to move undetected. And of course he took his keys, both magical and mundane, that allowed him access to much of the castle and its dungeons and secret passages.
It took him two days to gather everything. He did not feel that he was ready, but he knew that if he didn't hurry, he might lose his nerve. He couldn't afford that, and neither could Roland.
It was a still, quiet evening when he left his home for the last time. The sky was overcast, the clouds stained red with the light from the setting sun. Most of the townspeople had already locked their doors, not daring to go out under such an ominous sky.
Lawfer liked to think that he was above such superstitions, that the will of the gods did not always change with the skies. But at times like that one, he had to wonder. It made no difference, though; he couldn't turn away from what he had to do. He'd made a promise, and he was going to see it through.
As he approached the gates, he heard the guards yell out a challenging cry. "Hail, the castle," he shouted back before they could say anything. "How goes?"
"Sir Lawfer!" One of the guards shouted, his voice reedy and high. A bit of red hair stuck out from below his helmet, and his green eyes were barely visible under his visor.
Lawfer recognized him - his name was Maris. Behind him stood a pale, black-haired youth with nervous eyes named Eustace. Both of their fathers had been Knights under the King. Both of them were obviously trying to follow in their fathers' footsteps... he felt a sudden pang. No doubt their fathers had died when Arngrim had... attacked the castle.
"Have you come back to aid us, Sir Lawfer?" the young knight was saying. Lawfer came back to himself with a start.
"I... yes," he said quickly. "How goes the watch?"
"Nothing to report, Sir Lawfer," Maris answered. "We'll notify your father at once that you've returned. His guest has left, and I'm sure he'll wish to see you -"
"There is no need for that," Lawfer said quickly. "He knows. I spoke to him earlier." He took a deep breath. "He requested that I speak to the prisoner. Is he secure?"
"Of course. He is the only prisoner remaining; all the others have been sent to the mine. Sir Berle is guarding the dungeon tonight."
Lawfer didn't recognize the name. "Good. It would be best for me to speak with him first, then." He nodded to the soldiers. "Keep a sharp eye out. Artolia's enemies are restless."
"Leave it to us, sir," Maris smiled and nodded. Eustace, behind him, did the same as best he could.
Lawfer walked through the gates. The entrance to the dungeon was nearby, with its dark, slippery steps. As he carefully picked his way down, he considered his plans. With any luck his father wouldn't be alerted to his presence; why would they take it upon themselves to tell him when Lawfer already had? As long as his father remained ignorant, he had a decent chance to get Roland to safety. The "guest" that Maris had mentioned did puzzle him for a moment, but surely it was nothing; his father often had noble visitors in troubled times, men who wanted to make sure that their holdings were well-protected. Sir Warrick often allowed them to speak to him, even when he had other things to attend to. It eased their minds, he said, and made them less likely to interfere with his orders when a critical moment came.
"Halt!" someone shouted in the gloom. "Who goes there?"
"Sir Lawfer of Artolia," he answered, squinting as he peered ahead. "Are you Sir Berle?"
There was a silent moment. Then Lawfer saw the dim light of a shaded lantern approach the stairwell. The young man who carried it was stocky, with a shock of brown hair. "Aye," he said. "Sorry for challenging you; I hadn't expected any visitors tonight."
Lawfer nodded. "You do your duty well, as must we all. I must speak with Roland. Is he awake?"
Berle nodded. "He's been restless for the past day and night. I suspect that he's in pain, but he refuses the chirguneon's care."
Lawfer shuddered involuntarily, hoping that Berle hadn't noticed. "Perhaps I can persuade him. Will you lead the way?"
Berle laughed. "Little need of that. He's in the deepest cell, and the other prisoners are gone. He'd be gone too, if his health weren't so poor." He held the lantern out to Lawfer. "Here, I'll go and fetch another while you stand here. There are only a few torches lit tonight."
"I thank you," Lawfer answered, nodding. He turned away and walked into the dungeon, and heard as the young knight climbed the stairs. Good, he thought to himself, if I move quickly he will not return until I have escaped. Plus, if Roland were truly in the deepest cell, he would be close to the secret passage that led off of the castle grounds.
He moved quickly through the dungeon, hoping to hear some sort of call, something to let him know that Roland was well. But there was nothing, only the sounds of dripping water somewhere in the distance. When he arrived at the cell, he saw the man himself, squatting against the bars of his cage. "More guards...? I told you I don't want your help," he murmured. "Just kill me if you want to help me... there's nothing else to do..."
"Roland," Lawfer whispered. "Stop speaking of such things."
"Hm..." He shifted his weight, and opened his eyes. "Wait... is that... you? Lawfer?" he asked numbly.
"Aye, it is indeed," he said. He reached into one of the pouches on his sword belt, pulled out a key. "Be silent. We cannot attract any undue attention if we're to escape here alive." Roland just stared up at him as he slid the key into the lock and turned, then pulled out a small bottle of oil and applied it to the hinges. He opened the door, and it only barely creaked - but still Lawfer was cautious. "Come on, lean against me. We must make haste."
"What... to where?" Roland whispered back as Lawfer pulled him up. He leaned heavily over the young Knight's shoulder, too weak to stand on his own. "The guards..."
"Shhh. Trust me. We must hurry, Sir Berle will be back at any moment." They paused at the door to the next cell, and Lawfer looked around for signs of movement. There was nothing. He pulled out his bottle of oil and saw to the hinges, then unlocked the door and slipped inside. The room was an old torture chamber, with a few long neglected devices. A broken rack sat against one wall, and a rusty old Iron Maiden sat in the corner.
Lawfer pulled a small magical stone out of his pocket as the two walked up to the Iron Maiden. "What are we doing here?" Roland asked quietly, still dazed.
"Escaping," Lawfer whispered shortly as he ran his fingers over the head of the Maiden, searching for a small indentation. He finally found it and pressed the stone into it, and twisted as if it were a key. The front of the device disappeared, and there was a passageway behind it. "Stay close behind me and step carefully."
They moved into a close black passageway; Lawfer reached into his pouch again and produced a wisp-stone, He whispered a few words to it, and it glowed with a brilliant yellow light as they made their way into the darkness. "Move as silently as you can, and do not speak. Those who are above us may hear. The passage was created to move prisoners in secrecy, but it has fallen into disuse," Lawfer whispered. "It widens not far ahead, outside of the castle grounds." He was speaking to reassure both Roland and himself. It had been a long time since he'd traveled this passage, when his father had showed it to him. He'd silently been afraid that it was no longer there, and he honestly hadn't been sure what he would've done then.
Roland was silent, and Lawfer thought at first that he had taken his advice to heart. But shortly after the passage widened and became just wide enough for the two to walk side-by-side, the man fell to the floor. "I... I can't do this, Lawfer," he said, shaking his head. "I can't keep going..."
"Roland!" Lawfer hissed urgently. "Come on, you can't stop now. Hurry! My father knows of this passage. If we're discovered before we can escape, we'll be trapped!"
"I know, I'm sorry... I just can't." He bowed his head. "It's not as easy for me. All those nights in that cold dungeon... I can barely even breathe...."
"But you can't just surrender! What would Arngrim say if he saw you giving in like this?"
"Arngrim..." Roland sat motionless for a moment, and for a second Lawfer was close to despair. Then the frail man stirred. "Lawfer... my brother didn't do what they said he did, did he? He didn't go insane and kill all those people..."
"I..." Lawfer couldn't lie to Roland. He deserved the truth as much as any man. "I do not know. But I know that they did not know the whole truth when they imprisoned you. Not enough to condemn you to this." He reached down and touched Roland's shoulder. "That is why I must save you."
"Save me..." Roland echoed. He pushed himself up as best he could. Lawfer caught him, wrapping an arm around him, supporting his weight. He was surprisingly light, and he could feel the man's bones even though his raggedy clothes.
"There are friends waiting for me out in the forest. They'll see to it that you're taken care of. Once you recover your strength, they'll help you find a safe place." He looked at the older man with pleading eyes. "I beg you, Roland, do not give up."
"All right..." Roland moved as much as he could, trying to walk. Lawfer breathed a sigh of relief. The man must have been very sick... he wondered just how long he'd been refusing medical care.
"Keep a careful eye out," he said, "there are cracks in the stone floor. Falling here wouldn't be pleasant.
They moved ahead in silence, except for the heavy rasping of Roland's breathing. Now that they'd come so far, Lawfer was starting to worry; even when he got Roland away from Artolia, what would he do? He was rapidly growing too sick to care for himself. And he was losing hope... he had been close to his brother, despite their many differences. He probably didn't even know how to go on living by himself.
He forced those thoughts out of his mind. He had to keep going. Roland would recover, with faith, and maybe when he was stronger he'd regain some of his will to live. He had to believe in that.
They soon reached the door to the secret exit. "Stay here," Lawfer said, leaning him against a wall. "This door is sealed shut. There's a secret way to open it..." He reached for the magical stone again and ran his fingers over the stones near the door. Soon he found what he was looking for, a series of five small indentations, and placed his finger into one of them. "There," he murmured to himself. He remembered exploring this place before, remembered his father telling him that only that one would open the door. The others would seal them into the cavern until someone else came along to open it, if ever. He pressed the stone into the indentation and the door above them clicked.
"Come on," Lawfer said, no longer bothering to whisper. "We should be safe now."
They emerged into the forest, the sky lit only by the last traces of the twilight. Lawfer closed his eyes briefly, allowed himself a bit of rest. Celia and Kashell should be there soon, if they were not already waiting for them. He had made it....
"Sir Lawfer," a quavering voice said behind him.
The two men turned as quickly as they could, and Lawfer stared in disbelief. "What?"
Sir Maris and Sir Eustace were standing in front of him, spears held at ready. They both had identical expressions of shock and dismay. "Sir Lawfer..." Sir Eustace began again, even paler than he'd been at the castle gates. "W-we must ask you to surrender."
Lawfer tried to master his sudden fear and shock, but it was difficult, even with all that Arngrim had taught him. His father was the only other man who knew of the existence of this passageway. How had they found him?
He drew his own sword, and held Roland behind him to shield him. "I fear that I cannot," he said, trying his best to sound calm, as if he were not afraid. The two young men were untested. If he could only bluff through this... "I must ask you to move aside and let us pass."
The spearheads wavered, but held firm. "We cannot, Sir Lawfer," Sir Maris responded, his voice too loud. "Your father ordered us to... to bring you and the prisoner back to Artolia by any means necessary."
All hopes of bluffing were dispelled by that statement. So his father truly did know! "And condemn an innocent man to agony and death?" he snapped, holding his sword at the ready. "I refuse!"
"S-sir Lawfer, we cannot question the orders of our Captain, or our King! That would b-be treason!" Sir Eustace blurted.
"Then I am guilty of treason," Lawfer said desperately. "Only do not force me to compromise a higher justice!"
"I should have known." Lawfer turned his head, his sword still held ready, as his father emerged into view. He too carried only a broadsword; he wore a mail shirt, nothing that would have required the aid of his squires to don, and his hair was disheveled. "I knew that you would never accept Roland's imprisonment, but I had not expected something like this..."
"Father," Lawfer whispered. "How did you know?"
Sir Warrick shook his head. "That matters not. Release Roland, Lawfer. Let us tend to his sickness and take him back. There is nothing more that you can do now."
"No," he managed, and a bit of the old strength came back into his voice. He remembered training with the sword with Arngrim, and straightened. "I will not accept that."
"Then what will you do? Throw your life away?" There was real anguish in his father's voice. He drew his own sword. "Or will you strike me down?"
Lawfer stared at him. He relaxed his hold on Roland's arm, preparing to strike. "I do not wish to attack you or your men, Father. But if that is the only way, then I am sorry-"
"No!" Roland screamed. And before Lawfer could stop him - faster than he would've even imagined that someone in his sorry state could move - he had broken away from Lawfer and lunged toward the two young guards. Thankfully Sir Eustace managed to throw his spear aside and catch him; he came within a hand's length of being impaled.
Lawfer stared at him in shock. "Roland... you can't do this!"
"No, Lawfer, listen to me!" Roland said. Tears were running down his cheeks, and his breathing was labored. "I'm not Arngrim. I'll never be as strong as my brother... I'm not a fighter. I know you wanted to save me... I'll always be grateful... but I can't... can't let anyone die for me. I'm not worth that sacrifice. I'm just a worthless painter... just a sick, worthless...."
He broke down completely into sobs, slumping almost to the ground, only supported by the slight young guard who held him up. In all the time that Lawfer had known Roland, through all the tribulations he'd suffered, it was the first time he'd ever seen him cry.
The guards looked at Sir Warrick in obvious confusion. The Knight-Captain nodded. "Take him to the healer," he said slowly. "Have him treat his ills as well as he can. Then we must return him to-"
"Don't hurt him!" Roland blurted out, interrupting him. "Please... don't hurt Lawfer. I don't want him to die for me either!"
Sir Warrick was silent for a long moment. "I cannot promise his safety, Roland," he said gently. "But I wish the same that you do." He nodded to the two guards, who walked off, supporting Roland on their shoulders. The weakened man was still crying softly. "Lawfer," Sir Warrick said, turning back to his son. "Will you surrender to us now?"
The young man stood for a long moment, his sword still ready - though it was trembling slightly. He couldn't stop his hands from shaking. All he could see was Roland being carried away, even though they were really out of sight; all he could hear was his sobs.
"Please," his father said, still holding his own sword. "Do not force me to fight my own son."
"All right." Lawfer sheathed his sword. "I surrender."
Sir Warrick nodded unsteadily, then gestured to a guard behind him. "Take his weapons," he said softly.
They moved quickly in their nervousness. Lawfer made no move to stop them as they took his weapons and supplies; he had given his word that he would not fight. When they were finished, he looked up at his father. "What now?" he asked simply.
Sir Warrick was, for one of the few times Lawfer had known, lost for words. "Back to the castle," he said softly. "I must consider what is to be done with you."
Lawfer looked him calmly in the eye. "I am prepared to accept the consequences of my actions, Father."
"Don't say that," his father said quickly. "There need be nothing so drastic. Roland was recovered and is being cared for. No one but myself and those of us here know of this."
"I can't-" Then something clicked in his mind. How else could he have known about this? Suddenly it made sense. "Celia," he said softly. He looked at his father, who had grown strangely quiet. "Was she the one who told you of... of my intentions?"
Sir Warrick bowed his head. "Yes... that was the name she gave to me, though I knew her not," he finally admitted. "She had no intentions of bringing you to harm. She demanded an audience with me, claimed that she had been in an agony of indecision for days... and she told me that you intended to save Roland." He turned away. "I did not expect you to act so quickly. If she had only come a few hours earlier..."
Lawfer, numb as he was, did not feel any anger. Just a dull sorrow... and perhaps a trace of pity.
"We must return," his father said abruptly. "Let us hurry."
They marched back through the woods in silence. Lawfer stared straight ahead as they walked, not looking at any of the guards behind him... he stared into the darkness, as the twilight had faded as they walked. The stars were out, but he could not see them.
"We must tell no one of what happened here," Sir Warrick said when they were nearly there. "We were only investigating a problem in the forest."
"Yes, Sir," the two guards answered in unison.
He glanced back at Lawfer. "I must ask you to stay in your quarters in the palace until there is a chance for us to speak of this."
Lawfer nodded, but said nothing.
A guard - one of the older ones who had survived Arngrim's rampage - ran out to meet them as they approached the castle grounds. "Knight-Captain! An urgent message for you!"
Sir Warrick walked out in front of the party. His voice wavered only slightly as he spoke. "Yes, Sir Kensic?"
"The King is awake, milord! He demands to see you and Sir Lawfer immediately!"
Sir Warrick paused for a moment. "What is his concern?"
"His servants summoned me. They told me nothing more."
"Then I have no choice," Sir Warrick murmured, very pale. Lawfer still said nothing. "You two," the captain continued, pointing to the two Knights behind him. "Return to your posts. Lawfer and I will speak with His Highness alone."
They walked through the castle to the massive throne room. King Clovis II sat on his throne, disheveled and harried, running an absent hand through his messy black hair. He was a different man from the King Lawfer had known, no longer a composed and arrogant monarch. He looked around the room nervously, and his eyes were full of impotent rage and grief.
"Knight-Captain Warrick," he said, voice wavering, "We are pleased to see you. We do hope that our summons is not an inconvenience to you - after all, we do not doubt that you would have come to us even if not ordered."
"I live to serve, My Liege," Sir Warrick said hastily, bowing.
"Do you?" The King stood up, then nearly fell back down again - a servant had to run to him and support him. He was not completely an invalid but he was close, a wreck of a noble man. His face was pale and flushed, whether from too much drink or too little food Lawfer couldn't know. "We have received some troubling news concerning the palace from our servants. We've asked them to keep an eye on things, after all. Trouble could begin at any moment, even within our own halls. I no longer have my loyal chancellor to rely on, after all. I must be vigilant... yes, vigilant." The King wavered, leaning heavily on his servant before he regained his balance. "I - we have heard of a certain conversation between you and a mercenary woman, a conversation about an attempt at a traitorous act by your own flesh. And that you have left the palace... I assume that you would have come to bring this traitor to justice..."
His father was thunderstruck. "Highness, I..."
Lawfer wasn't sure what he was about to say, but he couldn't allow this deception to go any further. Events had passed out of his father's control and there was nothing left but to tell the truth. He pushed his way past his father. "Yes, Your Highness, he has apprehended me. I am guilty of exactly those crimes."
"Lawfer...!" Sir Warrick whispered in shocked horror.
"What... what madness is this?" The King pointed at him. "Do you now take it upon yourself to usurp the laws of Artolia and fly in the face of its justice?"
"No, never that. I take it upon myself to right a great injustice, as any man should! What justice is it to imprison a man who is innocent of wrongdoing, without even knowing the truth behind the crime?"
"Do not speak to me of justice!" The King abandoned all pretense at formality. The servants clustered around him, holding him up; it seemed that he was ready to leap at Lawfer, despite his weakness. "What justice did my daughter receive when Arngrim slaughtered her? What would you have me do? Forget his crimes and allow them to go unpunished?"
"Highness..." Lawfer bowed his head. "I grieve for her death. But no more innocent blood must be spilt. Roland's death will not return her to this world!"
"Enough!" The King stood, seeming to recover some of his strength and balance. He took a deep breath. "You have confessed to the crime of high treason against the throne of Artolia, Sir Lawfer. You have sealed your own fate! I sentence you to be beheaded in three days' time, when the guillotine can be prepared, in front of all of Artolia -"
"Your Highness!" his father interrupted, approaching him. "Will you kill a man who has served you so well for a few ill-chosen words? Artolia needs strength in these trying times!"
"Will you betray me too, Knight-Captain?" the King demanded, staring at him. "Will you die along with your son?"
"Father," Lawfer said softly. "I will not deny what I have done. I must accept the price."
"Be silent, traitor!" The King breathed heavily, then looked over at his own guards. "Well, what are you waiting for? Seize him and imprison him in the high tower until his execution can be carried out!"
Lawfer was silent as they led him from the court. The King's screams echoed behind him, each one more tortured than the last.
The guillotine was almost ready.
Lawfer stared down at the crowds, trying to prepare himself for what was about to happen. It still felt vaguely unreal, as if it were all a nightmare that he was just about to wake from. But he knew that he would not be so fortunate; this was reality, and the last three days had been spent in a futile attempt to prepare himself for his own death. He'd known all his life that he could die in even an easy battle, but this was a fate he had never foreseen. He'd done the only thing that he could do, and he'd still failed. Roland would still die.
He'd never felt so powerless before... but he had to be strong. Above all he hoped that Roland wouldn't have to watch him die. Surely they wouldn't force a sick prisoner to be present at an execution... but in the state that the King was in, he couldn't be certain.
He heard a sound outside of the door, and turned as it opened. Sir Warrick walked into the tower, followed by another guard. He had changed dramatically in only three days. His face was unbelievably haggard; his eyes were bloodshot, and his usually neat hair and beard were unkempt and poorly trimmed. "Lawfer..."
"Father," he acknowledged with a nod. "I did not expect to be allowed to speak to you again."
"Do you think I would let my only child die without at least speaking to him once more?" His voice was hoarse and strained.
Lawfer was at a loss for words for a moment. Then he bowed. "Thank you."
Sir Warrick shook his head. "There is no time... they are nearly done with the preparations. Soon they will come for you. But I cannot rest until I hear your answer." He looked at his son in supplication. "Why did you do this?"
At first, Lawfer didn't know how to respond. Would he understand? Would anyone? But in the end, he had to say it; if any living man deserved an answer from him, it was his father. "I did what I did in the name of a higher justice. I truly believe that laws beyond those of Artolia must be followed," he said, watching for some sign of reaction from his father. But his face was still worn and haggard. "There is no shame in dying for what is right."
"Lawfer..." His father shook his head. "This country is facing its darkest hour. The King has given up hope... his pain and grief has driven him mad. He never would have ordered you to die if not for that madness. But Artolia will need every good, strong man it has to see it through this crisis." He looked back up. "If it can lose such men so easily, then perhaps there is truly no hope."
The guards near them were staring at them. Soon another guard came through the door, shifting his weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "Sir Warrick, Sir Lawfer... it's time."
Lawfer walked up to his father, put one hand on his shoulder and leaned close to his ear. "Father, as long as the workings of justice are kept in balance, there will always be hope. Trust in that."
"My son, I... " but Sir Warrick's voice seemed to falter, and he turned his head away.
Lawfer backed away and turned to the guards. "I'm ready," he said simply. They nodded, and the two that had been guarding him fell into step behind him as he followed the messenger out.
Lawfer finally emerged from the tower; even the dim light was momentarily dazzling, after the long march down the darkened stairwell. But he quickly regained his bearings. The guard before him was shouting to the crowds, ordering them to make way for the condemned.
The faces of the people were as grim as he had imagined. The soldiers especially were a sorry sight, both the Knights and the few mercenaries who had stayed in Artolia after Arngrim's death. Their eyes were full of shock and fear, and perhaps a trace of anger as well. Lawfer could only nod at them, hoping that he could at least offer a dim, silent sort of support.
He saw Celia and Kashell as he passed them by. Celia was sobbing, her head buried in Kashell's chest as she cried, and Kashell was holding her tightly and looking at Lawfer with haunted, imploring eyes. Lawfer didn't have the chance to say anything to them; he at least wished that he could have apologized to Kashell for breaking his promise, and told Celia that she was forgiven. He couldn't hate her for what she'd done... she'd only tried to save his life. He couldn't expect her to understand that to him, some things were far more important.
The guards behind him faltered as they approached the device itself, but he did not. He went up to the block without hesitation and stood there, watching the crowd. They all looked at him the same way that his father had, haunted and lost eyes, as if they were losing hope as well. He'd had no idea that this would happen. Why should his death have so much impact on them all? If only they'd allowed him to speak. If only he could tell them that he felt no shame over this death....
A herald began reading from his sentence. "Sir Lawfer of Artolia, you have been charged this day with the crime of High Treason against the nation..." His voice was interrupted by a loud wail, an incoherent cry of grief - and Lawfer realized with a start that it was the King.
He looked over the crowd one last time, hoping to find some trace of hope or understanding in the crowd. His gaze paused on the face of a young woman - no one that he had ever seen before. Her elaborate clothing suggested that she was from the north, so that was no surprise... although why a noblewoman from the north would be watching his execution unchallenged was a mystery to him. She was looking up at him, and her face was the last thing he saw before the men behind him covered his head with the black hood and pushed him down to his knees. And all that he remembered clearly about it were her eyes. They had been a clear blue, like ice - and had been very sad, yet somehow kind.
"May the gods..." The herald cleared his throat as he finished reading the sentence. "May the gods have mercy on your soul."
"No!" the King screamed. "Let them have no mercy! Let them torment him for all eternity... let him suffer for denying my child her justice...." His voice trailed off into a loud sob - the servants must have silenced him. Lawfer felt a sudden stab of pity for the old king. His father was right; if he was not already mad beyond recovery, it would not be much longer.
The blade fell, slicing through his neck as if it were mere parchment. At first he only felt the jolt, a hard pressure that shook his entire body. Then the pain started; it felt as if he'd been set aflame, somehow. As his head dropped into the basket, he tried to scream, but he could draw no breath. The pain intensified, and for a moment Lawfer thought that it would never end.
Then something snapped free, and suddenly he could see himself hovering above the square. He saw his body, the blood gushing from his neck in great red rivulets as his heart tried to continue beating. His father was staring at the body as it twitched and died, as if he simply could not look away. The people around him were huddled together, some of them wailing. And he even saw the King, still sobbing, still supported by his servants.
Then, thankfully, the darkness clouded his vision, and the pain finally faded.
Lawfer opened his eyes groggily - then realized with a start that he was awake, and even more amazing, that he could breathe again. He looked down at himself, saw his body beneath him as if nothing had happened. He touched his neck to see if it was still unwounded, felt cold metal against it - it was apparently whole. Then he did a double-take and looked down at himself again - he was no longer wearing the plain black robe he'd worn to his execution. He was in full armor, armor that had been polished so well that it practically shone in the darkness. His halberd was resting beside him, leaning against nothing; he picked it up and took a few practice swings with it. It was unquestionably his; it even felt exactly the same.
What... what is this? he asked himself, looking around through the darkness. But there was nothing there, only the inky blackness that went on and on...
A woman's voice rang out through the darkness. "Are you proud of what you have done, mortal?"
"What?" Lawfer looked around, but saw nothing.
"I shall ask only once more. Are you proud?"
Lawfer bowed his head. There didn't seem to be anything to do but to answer it... "I... I have no reason to be proud," he finally answered. "I only did what was right."
"Perhaps. However, no one else would have attempted to do such a thing. Is that not something to be proud of?"
"Well... perhaps," Lawfer admitted. "But I did not do this only to be praised for it. There was a duty that I had to fulfill, and I could not turn away from it."
"I see." The voice came from behind him, now, and Lawfer turned around. A woman had appeared behind him - no, not a mere woman. His eyes widened in amazement as he realized exactly what she was. Her bright blue armor, her crested helm, the long silver hair that fell in a long, loose braid... she looked every bit the proud battle-maiden that the legends spoke of. She looked down at him, and he realized with a start that her eyes were as blue as ice, that they were sad and yet somehow kind. "Then you are worthy to make the journey to Valhalla."
Valhalla! Lawfer's breath stuck in his throat. He'd dreamed of going to that place ever since he'd read the old legends, but he'd thought that they were all just tales to bolster warriors' spirits. He'd never really believed that they were real. He should have felt elation... but instead the thought filled him with fear. "I... I have oaths to people in this world, Milady," he said suddenly. "Arngrim-"
"Do not worry for him," she interrupted him, and for a moment she almost smiled. "You will see him soon enough."
Thoroughly confused, Lawfer opened his mouth to ask what she meant... but then something more important struck him. "I only have one other request," he said urgently. He knew that this was not the best idea, but he had to try; he had to see if she would allow this of him. "Roland - the man I was fighting to save - can't you help me save him? I can't let what I've done amount to nothing!"
"Have no fear of that, mortal. I fear that I cannot interfere in this, but your actions will not be fruitless. In fact, your bravery has already assured that he shall be free."
"I..." Lawfer started to speak, then shook his head. "I don't understand."
"It is not your place to understand." Her voice was calm, even though her words were harsh; there was no malice in it. "Your role in this battle is over."
"Then... can I at least see him again?" he pressed desperately.
"Yes," she answered, "if that is your wish."
And suddenly, he was standing in the dungeon below Castle Artolia again. No one was there save for Roland, who was leaning against the bars of his cell. He looked exhausted, his eyes closed, his face pressed against the iron bars. But there was a bit more color in his face now, thank the gods.
Lawfer, still wondering if this was all some sort of dream, walked up to Roland and kneeled down. "Roland," he said softly. "Can you hear me, Roland?"
The frail man looked up suddenly, staring at Lawfer, his lips moving without sound for a long moment. Finally he regained his voice. "What... what is this? Are you a ghost? I thought that you were... that they were going to..."
"I..." What could he say? He'd half-hoped that Roland hadn't been told of his fate... how could he explain what had happened to him?
"The guards... they talked about you," Roland continued, still dazed. "They were mourning your death... I didn't believe it at first. I didn't want to believe it. It was my fault..."
"No," Lawfer said, "it was not your doing. I chose to do this." He took a deep breath. "Roland... do you remember the legend of the Valkyries?"
"Of course I do," he answered, staring at him. "Everyone does."
"I was executed this morning. But... but I didn't die. One of the Battle-maidens came for me." He shook his head. "I still don't understand so many things... she said that my time here has ended. But I had to speak with you again."
"Lawfer..." Tear fell from Roland's eyes. He reached out suddenly through the walls and grasped Lawfer's hand. "I'm so glad... so glad. If this is real...."
"It is real," Lawfer assured him. He was not surprised to realize that he was crying as well.
"I... I realized something after you came for me. I was... already giving up hope. I was waiting to die, refusing their efforts to help me... but I realized after you came for me that I was wrong. My brother would never have given up. He would've kept on fighting." He closed his eyes. "Even if he paid a heavy price, he would have kept going. Like you."
"Yes, that is true," Lawfer said quietly.
"I'm not going to give up," Roland said. "I promise. If there's any way to make this worthwhile..."
"I cannot tell you how much your words please me, old friend," Lawfer said, smiling broadly. He remembered the Valkyrie's words, how his sacrifice had ensured that Roland would be free... was this what she had meant? Or would there be something beyond this? Either way, though, he was grateful.
But Lawfer could feel the presence of the Valkyrie, and her impatience. He was running out of time. "I must leave this place, Roland," he said, and pulled away. "Good-bye."
"Good-bye," the young man echoed. "I'll... I'll never forget this."
Lawfer bowed his head. "Father, he said softly, "I am grateful that you chose a name for me that began with Law." The world began to fade around him again.
He smiled wryly, unable to avoid the irony inherent in the thought. "Although... I doubt that this is the sort of Law that you had in mind."
And then he was gone.
Note: I can't believe how long it took me to finish this. Much credit goes to Chalaine, who helped me with the very first draft and to come up with an appropriate title, and to Corvus, who got me past a huge, huge stumbling block in the middle of the story. Thanks, you guys.
I know that there are lots of stories out there involving the death of this particular character, and I know that I've taken a few liberties with the dialogue (although I tried to preserve what was said in the game as best I could.) And I'd originally intended to have Arngrim in the final scene with Lawfer and Valkyrie; I cut him out because my attempts to include him ended up being really awkward, quite frankly.
And that's it. Critique is welcome; I can take criticism as long as people are polite about it. Thanks for reading. (Also, an amusing side note - my spellchecker wanted to turn Valkyries into Bakeries. Heh.)