What had started as a sputter had become a downpour.
Ivander had a feeling when he woke up this morning in the sea of tents. It was a doubt at the back of his mind that he could neither shake nor define. He just knew that something was about to go horribly wrong.
He was right.
The fires were growing. Whoever had started them had done so efficiently and with a specific purpose. If Ivander had to guess, it was to cause panic among both his men and the peasants, thought the peasants were most likely the primary target. They were untrained and untested with the exception of a few desperate skirmishes by the Venosian Queen. Those who had been involved in those fights were either dead or soon to be, so there was little hope in expecting the experience to help the others. The common-folk of Dunhold watched as their brothers were trampled beneath Venosian boots and cut with Venosian swords. All in the name of a King they did not want, nor need in their lives. They were dying for nothing and that was a fate worse than death itself.
Ivander had been against using the peasants in such a way. In fact, he had felt so strongly about it that he had decided to talk to the King directly. That had ended about as well as to be expected. He had come up with the plan to encircle Dunwellen and trap the Queen within along with her armies. She was powerful, yes, but limited in more ways than one. Her wings were a cause of concern at first but Ivander had spent weeks before the attack studying her abilities as a Knight. Reading testimonies of those who had fought against her in the past, Ivander had discovered that her wings were extremely Aurum intensive. Almost to the point where they were useless unless she was at full power. Raining down Elemental magic while she flew would have only increased her use of Aurum and with the addition of a few Knights specialised for ranged combat, she would not be able to keep up the act for long. This also removed any chance of her escape. If she attempted it, Ivander had his entire army and all his Knights ready to shoot her out of the sky. He may not be able to kill her, but he could draw her Aurum enough for her to retreat. Not that the young Knight thought she would try to escape. She seemed to care for her people far too much. If she landed then she would be much more formidable, but then she would be surrounded and without the aid of the other Masters she counted among her number. That solved the problem of the Queen, but the other Masters and lesser Knights she had were also a concern, one which Ivander didn't have a solution for.
Well, he didn't at the time. Not until the Grand King Felman, father of Dunhold and protector of it's people, suggested a solution. One which turned the stomachs of all those present when he told them of it. Use the peasants as shields for the Knights, saving the strength of our greater warriors. He did not care how many of his people died in the process, only that he won this final fight with Venos, once and for all.
He was a monster beyond words, one that Ivander knew better than he would have liked. But he was the King of Dunhold and the only one who could help the young Knight recover some semblance of honour for his family. He may despise the disgusting old fool, but he needed him, as much as he hated himself for it.
“Sir, your orders?”
That was another thing that Ivander could do without. Command of the armies of Dunhold was what he had been aiming for when he had given his plan of attack to the King, what he didn't expect was how tedious it would be.
“We need to get a handle on this, Captain. Leave the peasants for now, they will be of no use anyway,” Felman's idea had been flimsy at best. What good were untrained peasants in war, even as sacrifices? “The eastern wall. Tell me what we are dealing with.”
The Captain swallowed loudly and stood a little taller. This particular man had been stationed near the gate into Dunwellen. For some reason, he had elected to bring the message that 'things have gone wrong' himself rather than staying and commanding his soldiers. Coward.
“From what I understand, my Lord, the gates have opened and the Venosian army has poured out. They are fighting their way through the encirclement. The peasants are in a panic due to the charge and the rampant fires. I also got word that some of the trebuchets have been damaged, but I couldn't get any more details, sir.”
Not only the peasants are panicking it seems, thought Ivander as he tried to get more comfortable in his chair. Sitting in the damn thing was painful at the best of times but it was only that. His family had to suffer much more at the hands of the Grand King. If they could go through that, then he could put up with a little discomfort.
Ivander couldn't say he hadn't expected some kind of play by the Queen, but how had this happened? How had she gotten men around his encampment, allowing them to wreak havoc among his ranks? He had a suspicion or two, but the mark of a good commander was not how you handled things when they were going well, but how you faced the problems that inevitably arose. Ivander's father had taught him that much before he was executed.
“As I thought..The trebuchets were the real targets then, though I should have expected as much. You are my voice, Captain. Send runners to the western, northern and southern encampments with all due haste. I want them to attack now. We will assault the army's flanks before they can disappear into the trees and be lost forever. After that, I want you to grab what men you can here and go to the eastern wall to provide reinforcements to those under attack. Is my will known?”
The captain paled, his eyes panicked and pinned, “My Lord, forgive me, but I think I would be of better use-”
“No need for modesty, Captain Cole,” Ivander smiled at the older man, “Yes, I know your name. I have heard some rather distinct reports about your courage and valour. I doubt I need to tell this to a man like you, but I will do so anyway. Protocol, you understand. You will do as commanded or I will have you flogged to death by the peasants under your command. I'm sure they will enjoy the gift immensely.”
Cole looked even more terrified if that was possible, but he bowed and left nonetheless. He would follow orders. Fear, Ivander had discovered, was much easier to gain than respect. He didn't even have to act on his threats half the time. The fact that he was given this position by Felman himself was enough.
“They fear you so,” A voice emerged from the shadow at the other end of Ivander's command tent, the voice whispered but still loud enough to reach the young Knight's ear.
A young woman, pale skinned and wearing a crooked smile stepped out from the darkness that hugged the edges of Ivander's crimson tent. She was short of stature, wearing a black dress that fell to her ankles, a colour that matched that of her hair. Her eyes could not be seen, for they were bound with a simple piece of cloth. If one looked closely enough you could see the beginnings of scarring coming down from behind the blindfold. This did not seem to impair her vision however, as she fixed her sightless gaze upon her Knight.
Ivander smiled sadly, “They do. But it is an necessity.”
“You do not seem concerned. Why is that, Ivander?”
“Because this was inevitable,” The young man said, lifting a weak hand to dab at his tired eyes, “The Queen is a woman of action. She would not allow herself to slowing starve to death inside the keep. I have prepared for this, though I did not count on her having outside help. At least, nothing successful. Our information says that the First Knight of Venos has only just left the capital.”
“But she is not the only one who could help the Queen,” Zaina smiled and lifted a slim hand to his face as she approached, “The Princess has left with her new Knight. They could be behind this.”
“I am aware,” Ivander replied, utterly unsurprised by his Smith's line of thinking, “I'm also aware that they beat that snake Hammond in battle. Impressive for a newly Bonded Knight, but who knows how their connection has been changed by Bonding in combat? I hope it is them. Imagine Felman's surprise when I return with the Princess of Venos?”
Zaina laughed, “You are young, my Knight. So very young. You seek to impress Felman out of some misguided sense of honour, of proving your worthiness to a man who is unworthy. The young Knight with the Princess interests me more than the Princess herself. What kind of man sets himself to helping a girl he barely knows.”
Ivander shrugged, “Who knows with peasants. He is common-born and a mercenary, besides. He is no match for a true Knight. He will fall and we can separate them. Maybe then the King's bastard will stop pestering me about his 'beloved Elora'." Ivander sighed and shifted in his chair, the pain in his back growing by the second.
“No, Ivander,” Zaina straddled the young Knight in his wheelchair, wrapping her arms around his neck, “I felt something earlier, something strong, something that scared me. Oh, how it scared me. This Knight is different. I can feel it. Something is coming, my love. Something great and terrifying and beautiful,”
Ivander narrowed his eyes as his hands went to his Smith's hips, “What do you see, Zaina?”
The blind woman smiled, her breath hot on Ivander's cheek as she leaned closer, “Change, Ivander. Orin of Myrin brings change. Your paths will cross soon enough. It will be up to you to decide how that meeting goes. Things are in motion now, my Knight. Ouros is changing and there is nothing you or anyone else can do to stop it.”
Ivander grimaced at Zaina's use of riddles, “You know I hate when you keep secrets from me.”
“But you love me regardless,” Zaina leaned back, his smile greater than it ever was before. It would have unsettled Ivander if he wasn't so used to the strange nature of his Smith. “Our agreement was in exchange for my power, you would not pry too deeply into it's purpose. I serve you with my whole heart, Ivander,but there is some knowledge that is too dangerous to be known. At least, not until it is known to all.”
“Then what would you have me do?” Ivander asked with a frown, “Bring the mercenary on side? I have received some reports on his character and all have said he was loyal. He will not betray the Princess.”
“Oh no, dear one,” Zaina stroked her Knight's cheeks, “He will never betray her. Such pain will follow that choice. Such pain, my love,”
Zaina began to cry, her blindfold becoming soaked in tears as she shivered and leaned against her Knight and trembled in silence, the only sound being the patter of the rain against the canvas.
Ivander didn't always know what his Smith was talking about. Her power was vague at the best of times and it only showed her snippets, pieces of a greater whole, but it never lied to her. Zaina only ever told him what he needed to know and he had long since come to terms with that. He would have to figure the rest out himself but that didn't change his purpose now. He would throw everything he had at Venos and win because lose would welcome something far worse. Zaina's words could not change fate.
* * *
“Orin, we have to get out of here!”
The world around me was one of black fire. The Queen was attacking the Knights of Dunhold and breaking them, one by one, Each of them was throwing their Element at the figure in the sky with everything they had but the Queen had mobility on her side and rocketed around the vast swathes of fire, ice and earth that were propelled at her. The Queen of Venos was letting none of these Knights escape and I could feel her fury permeating the very air around us, charging it with unrestrained wrath. The Knights had forgotten about Elora and I, so caught up were they in the assault of Venos' strongest Knight.
“What about your mother?” I asked, looking up at the shadowy figure as she tried to get closer to us but was held back as more Knights of Dunhold joined the fray. The army of Venos was close and I'm sure they had other Knights among their number, Elora had told me about the eleven other Masters Queen Gida counted under her command.
“She'll be fine. She'll find us if we're Bonded. We would just get in the way if we tried to help her now. Believe me, she's more than capable of holding them for a while.”
“If you say so, Princess,” I replied, slipping the sword into my belt and turning to focus on the team who had followed us into battle.
Tessa and Boldrin looked alright, the wounds superficial, though Tess had a nasty looking cut above her eye, almost an exact replica of my own before Elora healed it. The large leader of the band looked a little pale, but apart from that he was alright, though the grimace on his face spoke to the fact that the fight had been a hard one.
“We done, kid?” Boldrin asked as I ran up to him, noticing for the first time that he was leaning heavily on his axe, his sword nowhere to be seen.
“Elora says so. If we stay then we'll just be a liability. Where's Dumas and-”
“Here!” Came a shout from behind me and I turned to see the large warrior. Tears were running down his cheeks as he carried his sister who whimpered in his arms. “Orin, can you help her? With your healing magic?”
“I'm sorry, Dumas. That's not how it works. How is she?” I asked, placing a hand to Padma's forehead. She was as pale as a ghost, must have lost a lot of blood from the wound she suffered, but she was still breathing.
“I-I can't tell. I don't know what to do,” Dumas looked almost as white as his sister, his eyes glazing over, the shock of her almost dying before his eyes would stay with him for some time to come. We all went into this line of work knowing that you could lose a friend, or family, one day. It didn't prepare you any better for it when that day came.
“She's fine, son,” Boldrin said, coming up to smile at Padma who sneered back up at him, “See? We'll get her back to camp, she'll be up and about in no time.”
“I-I fucking hope so,” Padma groaned, “Getting stabbed is not fun.”
The three of us chuckled darkly at that while Tessa scanned the line of tents around us. The Queen had killed most of the soldiers on the first pass, before she was forced to engage the Knights. I just hoped Elora was right and she could hold out until her army arrived.
“Should we look for Alec?” I asked, my eyes returning to the figure in black as she weaved her way through the night air. I thought about when she had first arrived. She had a look in her eye. It almost felt like a physical force. It was like she wanted to attack me more than the Knights that were arrayed around us.
Boldrin grimaced, “No need. He knows the plan. If we're not near the gates, he'll meet us back at camp if he can. If not... well, you know how it goes, Orin.”
“Yeah, I know,” I gritted my teeth by said nothing more. Alec's part in this raid was a lot more dangerous than ours by quite a bit. I just hoped he managed to get out in one piece. I don't know what I would say to Mildred if he didn't make it out alive.
“Elora, I think we'll need to be Bonded a while longer,” I told the Princess as Boldrin grabbed Dumas and Padma's fallen swords.
“That's fine, Orin. We've only got a small amount of Aurum left though. If we have to fight, it won't last long,” Elora replied grimly.
I grimaced, the Princess confirming my own fears. If we don't get away clean then we might not get away all. Being forcibly separated from using too much Aurum would be disastrous for us and would end with one, or both of us, dying. That was something I needed to avoid all costs.
It was as we went to move away from the battle of Knights when I heard the scream of fury emanating from behind us. We turned as one to see the Queen fighting to reach us, her path blocked by every Element under the sun. Her violet eyes were trained on me once again and my hands shook from the sheer pressure of it.
What the fuck was going on?
“Ah, Elora... Why does your mother look like she wants to tear my head off,” I said, my eyes wide and awed by the power the monarch of Venos displayed.
“Well, I did say it would be strange, me turning up without Cellus,” Elora replied faintly, her tone slightly embarrassed.
“Sure. That's a reasonable response.” I quipped, watching as the Queen literally tore a man in two when she flew into him with her wings extended.
“She's just been held prisoner, Orin,” Elora said, coming to her mother's defence, “She hasn't seen me in months, of course she wants to find out why I'm Bonded to a man who was not my intended.”
That made sense to me. Part of me wanted to stick around and clear up any confusion as to who I was. I should open with telling the Queen that I didn't just try to kidnap her daughter. Something along those lines would help me tremendously.
“Orin, we have to move, now!” Tessa hissed from the front of our column, which had come to a stop when Elora and I had. For some reason, Tess kept throwing glances towards the Queen.
“Sorry,” I said to the mercenary and fell into step as we moved carefully through the sea of tents, retracing our steps as best we could while avoiding being detected. It turns out we didn't have to bother. Almost all the soldiers were making their way towards the gates or the fires that surrounded us. Boldrin and Tess had to deal with two or three who wanted to be heroes, but the others moved around us, aiming for the bigger threat.
“Hey, I wanted to ask you something,” I said to my Smith, whispering under my breath and knowing she could hear me.
“What is it?” Elora asked. She sounded tired and I couldn't blame her, I felt the same way as did the other members of our little troupe. At least I had Elora to keep giving me energy, the others were using their mortal reserves.
“That Smith. The one who came out of the fire Knight,”
“The one you killed?” Elora retorted, slightly sharper than I had expected.
“Yes. Why didn't he die? You told me back at the palace that if someone hurts me, then they hurt you. That Smith wasn't dead when I killed his Knight,”
“You didn't see his soul, Orin,” I felt Elora's soul self shiver, “It wasn't like water any more. It was brittle, like glass. Like it could break with the slightest touch. He survived the death of his Knight, but even if you had let him live he would never be the same again.”
“Could he Bond again? To another Knight?” I asked as I moved, keeping my eyes on Dumas' large back even as I glanced left and right to make sure we weren't flanked.
“Maybe,” Elora said quietly, “But it's not just the soul that was damaged, Orin. His mind will have been broken as well. The lose of something so great, so defining, is crippling even to the strongest of people.”
I nodded, understanding where she was coming from. The thought of losing the Bond with Elora was already one that I rallied against, both in body and spirit. I knew that it was inevitable now. We had found the Queen and Vera was no doubt on her way from Myrin with the reinforcements that Elora said she would bring. Still, to be so close to the end of this journey was a bittersweet thing. We had experienced much together, growing as Knight and Smith. Despite knowing it was the right thing to do, it didn't change how much it would break me when the time came.
“Breaking the Bond. Will it hurt?” I asked, fighting to keep the hitch out of my voice.
“I don't know. The ritual to break the Bond is known only to Masters and only they are trusted to know it's secrets. But yes. I think it will hurt.”
“Not for long, though.” I replied with a shaky smile, trying to reassure her when I couldn't even reassure myself, “Soon this will all be a memory. You and Cellus will go to the Hall and learn to be a Knight and Smith in full. Maybe one day, a long time from now, we could grab lunch together. Talk about old times.”
“I would like that, Orin, more than you know,” I felt a shiver run down my spine as I felt the Princess whisper from within the depths of my being, “And you? What will the brave Orin do after all this is over?”
“Oh, you know, Princess. The life of a mercenary is a treacherous one and filled with adventure. I'll spend some time in Myrin after the Bond is broken and then I'll see where the road takes me. I plan to journey alone for a time, like the great mercenaries in the tales.” I smiled even as I thought about it. Some of the greatest heroes I had ever heard of were not Knights or Smiths, but vagabond travellers who slew dragons with the strength of their arm instead of mystical powers. It was those men and women, whose stories were told around the fire in the camp of Boldrin's Brigade, that I wished to emulate.
“I have never heard of any famous mercenaries. You will have to tell me of them some time,” Elora laughed at the excitement in my voice.
I grinned, “Hey, you know me, don't you? I'm pretty well known in Myrin, or so I'm told. They call me the Scarred Knight.”
“That is a terrible nickname,” Elora snorted, “We'll have to get you a better one.”
“Well, you brainstorm for me when you're in Tyra and by the time you graduate, I'll expect a selection,” I smiled as she laughed.
“You look insane, you know that?” Padma was staring at me over Dumas' shoulder, her dead pan stare causing me to flush slightly, “I mean, I know you're talking to the Princess, but you still look insane.”
“I haven't learnt the silent way, yet.” I blurted out, just in time to hear Elora's laughter erupt and ricochet inside my head, “Great.”
“What?” Padma asked, already getting disinterested with the conversation.
“Elora is laughing at me.” I sighed.
The mercenary's eyebrow rose, “Now the voice in your head is laughing at you? Shit, you might be insane, Orin.”
“Would you all focus?” Tessa snapped form the front of their formation, “We are still deep in enemy territory and surrounded by people who want to chop off our fucking heads.”
I fell silent and didn't respond to Tess, too busy smiling to care for her prickly demeanour. I wasn't sorry for joking with Elora. She had just been involved in her first ever fight to the death, if we don't count Craven's assault of her wedding, and she needed to unwind a little. No doubt worry for her mother was also at the forefront in he mind, despite her promise that she would be fine. The truth of the matter was, we had won. We had beaten the Knights of Dunhold and given the Queen her chance to escape. Now all that needed to be done was to return to the camp and await the arrival of the Queen of Venos after she had gotten away. I hoped everything would go that smoothly, but I still felt like something was off. It had been almost too easy. We had gotten to the gates, let the Queen know we were there and set fire to the camp all within a few hours. I kept thinking that something must go wrong. We had all the luck in the world when we got away free and clear from the palace. No one, in my honest opinion, was that lucky twice.
“Orin! To the right!” Boldrin's roar came from the front and I spun in place, turning to see a fight involving red soldiers. I noticed Brin's jeering face among the red armour, his grin savage and filled with glee. I noticed Eric soon after, as well as three other members of the band, all of them fighting with reckless abandon against six Dunholdian warriors. I was moving before the others, my speed allowing me to outpace them instantly.
“No Gifts, Elora. We need to save our strength. I'll work with the basics.”
“Alright, Orin. I'll let you know if any try to get around you,” Elora replied, already sounding like an experienced blade for hire.
I smiled and drew my blade as I dove into the fray. I instantly killed one guard. My sword didn't pierce his helmet, the metal seemed too sturdy, but a quick rap on the head from a Knight was nothing to dismiss, even when that Knight wasn't using his Gifts.
The man keeled over, his eyes rolling, as I jumped to the next. He must have realised what I was because the terror on his face grew at my approach. He put up a valiant defence and would have been difficult for me to deal with if I had been mortal. Unfortunately for him, the strength of my Smith flowed through me and I put my sword through his eye after parrying his strikes.
As I finished my third by near cutting him in half, the others joined the fray, with Dumas staying back to protect Padma. Between all of us it was over in a second and we stood victorious for the second time today.
“That was something, lad!” Brin grinned, clapping me on the shoulder and laughing loudly, “You and that Princess of yours are fierce.”
“Thanks, old man,” I smiled, “Elora says thank you as well.”
“Eric, where's the rest of you?” Boldrin interrupted Brin and I, his need to know the fate of his men trumping everything else.
Eric and the others looked crestfallen at the question and I felt my heart rise to the back of my throat and my heart seize at their downcast expressions.
“We lost six of our number,” Eric said, his eyes focused on something far away, “Adrian, Grove, Heston, Tadeus, Sabah and Frode.”
I clenched my fists, my teeth grinding and my eyes focusing on the ground in front of me. Guilt. it welled up within my chest and I felt it hold me tight. Sabah had been the first person to ever show me how to hold a sword. Adrian and Grove were an older couple who had never had kids and had always treated me with kindness. They had looked out for all the kids in the band, serving as surrogate grandparents to the young. Tadeus had been another of Alec's archers, often claiming that he could hit the eye out of squirrel's head from a mile away, though no one ever believed him. Heston was the camp cook. A great man with a great heart. When I had first joined the Brigade I had worked with him quite a bit to earn my place.
Brothers and sisters, one and all. Each was older with the exception of Frode, a man I never got to know quite well enough. I knew he was Alec's greatest friend. They had even joined the band together. I knew that he would not let Alec go alone, not when he might be of some use.
“Their ends,” I whispered, the other members of the band looking at me with some expectation in their eyes. This was the question that must be asked and it must be by the one the who set them on their path. “Were they good?”
Brin smiled at me through tear-filled eyes, the others looking just as emotional, “Aye, lad. They died well in battle, under sword and spear.”
“Then tonight we drink to them,” I smiled and looked each member of the band in the eye, letting them see the sadness and the happiness in my eyes, “Tonight we tell stories of their victories and the story of their defeat.”
Each bandmate nodded and smiled at each other, including Tessa, whose soft smile really was quite something to see after it had been absent for so long.
“Well done, Orin,” Boldrin said with a solemn nod before turning to Eric once more, “What about Alec and the rest?”
“On their way back to camp, we assume,” Eric replied, “We saw the Queen of Venos come flying off the top of the wall and start raining her black fire down on the Dunholdian Knights. We retreated then, but we got separated about ten minutes ago. That Venosian army needs to move. We caught sight of Dunhold's forces at the western wall, they're all on their way towards the Queen.”
I felt Elora's concern through the Bond, “I know how you feel, Princess. If it was the Sister out there I would want to turn around right now and go help her. But your mother is the greatest Knight in Venos. She knows what's she's doing. It was like you were saying earlier: We would just get in the way.”
“I know, Orin. You're right. Doesn't make it easy to run away.” Elora said in response.
“We're not running away,” I said as Boldrin nodded at Eric and got on the move again, keeping Dumas and the wounded Padma at the heart of our formation, “We're retreating because our job is done.”
We moved in silence until we reached the very edge of the encampment. The land was still shrouded by night but the light of the fires, flickering and raging in the dark, lit up the ground between us and the treeline.
“When we get to the trees, we stay together. Orin will be in the rear just in case we're chased by a Knight he needs to take care of. Everyone else, eyes on a swivel and protect Padma. Let's move.” Boldrin spoke with confidence before running towards the distant trees, followed closely by his band, who moved like the professionals they were.
My eyes were much better, even in the gloom, and with my enhanced sense of balance it was easy to keep up and check to see we weren't followed. Not that I was worried about that. Elora would be able to sense any souls who approached, Knights being easier for her to spot. I could trust her to keep watch and make sure we weren't attacked without some prior warning.
“Princess. Are you angry with me? For killing that Smith?” I asked, my voice low. I'm sure the others heard me but they ignored it, already used to me talking to myself.
Elora was silent for a second before she sighed, “No. I'm just shocked. He was defenceless and seemed so very sad that he lost his Knight. But what you did was also a mercy, in a way. I wouldn't want to live like that, not with my soul broken.”
“I wasn't being merciful, Elora,” I said grimly, I needed her to understand why I had done what I did. “I just knew that if someone killed you, I would follow them to the end of Ouros and beyond to make sure they suffered for it. If I let that Smith live then he would come back to haunt us. I know, because I would do the same.”
I felt a warmth emanate from within my chest and I interpreted the feeling as happiness, “What you said, when Eric told you what happened to your friends. It meant something, didn't it?”
I nodded, “Yes. It's a tradition. Boldrin once told me he picked it up from his days in the military. The person who sent them to die must ask if they died well. When someone falls, we celebrate instead of mourn. We leave the body where they fell, to honour where they last stood in battle, and talk of their triumphs together as a band.”
“Are you not sad?” Elora asked, quiet and curious.
“Of course we are. But every single member of the band, be they follower or warrior, knows that the time may come when they fall. Our work is dangerous and even in the short time I was with the Brigade, I lost many friends. Frode, Grove and the rest would laugh at us from above if we sat around the fire holding each other and crying. They would want to be remembered with a smile, rather than tears.”
“I'm so sorry, Orin. You shouldn't have asked the question. It should have been me,” I could hear sorrow in her voice.
“Don't shed tears for them, Elora. They wouldn't want that. Before the Queen comes to get you, you'll see exactly what I mean. Though, I don't know if we're going to be able to celebrate so much without some of Brin's booze,” I grinned.
“No worries on that front, lad,” Brin turned and smiled at me from ahead, “I have a little stashed away. We'll drown the honoured dead in my home brew tonight!”
A small cheer rose up from the other members of the band and I smiled at my friends, my family. The guilt I felt at having lost brothers and sisters still held me tight but I had realised long ago that it never really leaves you. It becomes a part of who you are as a person and makes you strive to be better.
We reached the treeline without interruption and all of us counted our lucky stars. The worst was over now. We had escaped Dunhold and now only had to wait for the Queen and her army to escape. Even if she didn't manage to find us, we would find her in time. We had done it.
“Hold,” Boldrin said, after about two minutes of running through the tree's. The dark was invasive, but thankfully Eric lit a torch as soon as we entered. It was a risk, but we counted on the enemy also needing light to follow us and we doubted it would give us away, considering what was happening at the camp. “I thought I heard something. Stay alert.”
Everyone drew their weapons and formed up around Padma, eyes peeled and aimed at the dark forest around us.
“Can't see shit in this darkness,” Boldrin grumbled, his axe grasped in his large hands, “Orin, your Princess sense anything?”
“No, I don't think so,” I replied, not letting my guard down. “It might have been a critter.”
“We can only hope-”
“Orin! It's-” Elora's cry reached me a moment too late before something slammed into my side and I felt arms wrap around my body. I heard the creaking of my strong bones and reacted immediately as we flew through the air. I slammed my elbow down on the head of the cloaked figure who had grabbed me, snarling as I attacked blindly.
The trees whipped past me and I lost whatever sense of direction we had. We were in the air for only a few seconds, my opponent and I grappling for control of each other, before we smashed into a tree, the force of our landing ripping the great trunk in half as we separated and skittered across the ground.
I groaned as I came to a stop. I felt my bones heal as Elora used some of our precious power reserves to patch up whatever she could. The flow of Healing which had been a flood at the beginning of our attack was now a trickle and she stopped before the wounds were fully mended. I didn't blame her. We had obviously been attacked by a Knight and we would need to save whatever Aurum we had left.
“I found you,” A mocking voice crossed the clearing in which I lay. One that I found I recognised.
I tried to push myself to my feet but a kick stopped my ascent, sending me spinning once again and into another tree, which nearly snapped with my impact.
A hand grabbed the back of my neck and pulled me up a second later. A fist slammed into my face and then my stomach, the blows cripplingly strong, before I was thrown like a feather once again. Thankfully, I managed to avoid hitting any more tress. At least I had something to be thankful for.
I didn't wait for him to attack again and jumped up, reaching for my sword, only to find both it and my belt missing. Great. That made four swords in as many weeks that I had lost or destroyed. It seemed my luck had turned.
I prepared for another assault, trying to get my bearings, and noticed the figure at the other end of the clearing, garbed in a black cloak that shrouded his form. I didn't need to see his body, only his eyes, to confirm who he was.
“Craven,” I spat, blood hitting the ground as I met the sickly, yellow orbs of the corrupted Knight, “Didn't I already kill you?”
The man laughed, his arms extending to the sides and face lifted to the starry sky above, “You? Kill me? You got lucky during our last match, peasant. But you and I both know who is superior. Give me the Princess and I won't hurt you too much. If not, then I will enjoy flaying the skin from your bones as I force her out.”
His eyes were manic and filled with a warped glee. He was enjoying himself, that much I could see. Though, that didn't really surprise me.
I gifted the Knight with a bloody grin, “I don't think I will. We both know how this went for you last time. I don't see you as much of a threat,”
The man giggled as he grabbed the edge of his cloak and ripped it from his body, causing my eyes to widen and my jaw to drop in horror as I gazed upon his form.
Craven's body had been burned black by his own fire, a yellow pus that matched his eyes wept from the defiled flesh of his torso. His yellow gauntlet adorned his hand once again, absent the cracks I had put on it during our last battle. The expression on his face was disturbing, his smile was too wide, his eyes too wild. He appeared to be unhinged and his wounds were no doubt causing him immense pain.
“By the Spirit...Orin, he feels stronger than before. I can see his flames, they're almost completely compressed. They look different. Something's wrong.” Elora said, a note of fear in her voice at the return of the man who had set us on our path together.
“Look upon your works, peasant,” Craven sneered, his gauntleted hand twitching as yellow flame flowed across the knuckles. “You cost me everything. Everything I worked for, everything that I could be. All of it gone in an instant. I was destitute and broken by a filthy fucking thing like you!”
Craven summoned his flame and sent it cascading forward, but not towards me. It surrounded us, lighting up the world in a shade of yellow. The clearing was completely encapsulated by his fire. He was attempting to cut off my escape. Or create an arena for what was sure to be our final bout. I might be able to make it through the flames but Elora would not be able to heal me. Jumping over was an option, but again it would use the last our Strength. Either way, he would beat me before the fight began.
“I've beaten you once, asshole. I'll beat you again,” I snarled and ripped my chain mail hauberk and tunic from my shoulders, revealing my scarred body to the world. My armour had done little to defend me against the Knights of Dunhold and I doubted that it would hold up against Craven's fire or Weapon. I needed all the speed I could muster if I was going to win this.
“Strong words from a weakling like you,” Craven replied, his smile still permanently etched upon his face, “I've been watching you since you're little show in front of the gates, peasant. I can feel your weakness. You don't have the strength left to put up any sort of fight against me, not as I am now. I have been blessed again. Blessed by my great Mentor. My strength grows by the day.”
Then the corrupted Knight was enshrouded by his own fire, twisting and turning like an insidious snake as it wound it's way around his body before burning away and revealing his new trick.
Fuck. The prick had Armour.
Craven's warped and deformed body was covered in plate that glowed with the same insidiousness as his eyes. It matched his gauntlet Weapon and black veins crossed it's surface, pumping the same foul liquid.
“You couldn't help yourself, peasant,” Craven mocked as he approached, “Couldn't help being the hero for the damsel. Now you'll pay the price for your hubris. Zelato knew you would come here, knew that bitch in your soul would beg for your aid. All I had to do was wait out of your Smith's range and you walked right into my hands. I'm going to enjoy breaking you!”
“Elora, don't give me any Strength or Thought,” I muttered under my breath, “Focus on keeping me alive.”
“Orin, he's too strong,” Elora whispered, her voice hitched, “You can't fight him. Y-You have to do what he says, I'll find a way to-”
I snarled at her words and leapt forwards. It would be a cold day in the underworld when I willingly gave Elora to this fucking abomination. Even if I'm killed, even if I have no arms and legs and must pull myself forward with my teeth, I would never give my Princess to this corrupted piece of shit.
My fury became boundless at Elora's words. She wanted to save my life, would sacrifice her own for mine, but I would never allow that to happen. Craven thought he was the strong one, thought he was the monster of this tale.
I would fucking show him a monster.
I slammed my fist into his head, the heat much like that of the Fire Knight Elora and I had fought before, but not nearly as strong. My fist was burned but it was manageable. Even if both of my hands burned down to the nubs, I would beat him to death with those instead.
The blow barely rocked the new and improved Craven, who brought his gauntleted fist around and dug the bladed fingers into my side. I roared with pain but didn't back away, throwing an elbow into his head again and again.
“Orin, please stop.” Elora whimpered but I ignored her, my eyes focused only on the bastard in front of me.
Craven moved, using his Gift of Speed to flow around me, his two gauntlets opening great furrows in my flesh that burned and seared, blood bubbling after every strike. It was agony and my vision swam even as the Princess pushed us to the brink to close them. I needed to end this now, I needed to win this fight!
His fist slammed into my chest and I fell to the ground, my strength fleeing my body. I could barely move, the punch causing something in my chest to snap. Elora couldn't heal it. She didn't have the Aurum any more. We were out of options.
No! I couldn't give up!
I pushed myself onto my stomach and crawled forwards, my own eyes ablaze as I scrambled against the grass, my teeth clenched, ready to bite off the bastard' ankles if that was what it took.
“Orin, please.” Elora was openly crying now, her voice shaking and trembling, “Stop fighting.”
“N-never,” I said, my voice weak, my whole body shaking but I wouldn't give up. No, I had promised the Princess that I would protect her. I wasn't going to break it. Not even if it cost me my life.
“Pathetic! Is this the power of the mighty peasant Knight? Protector of Princesses and Kingdoms? You are just a dog!” Craven screamed as he kicked my body from my prone place on the ground, each impact causing more damage, causing more pain.
He launched a kick at my head and it sent me flying once again. I landed heavily, mere inches from the yellow flames that bordered our little arena. I rolled onto my back and stared up at the stars. My body was burnt and blackened from the swift duel, my eyes felt heavy in their sockets. All I wanted to do was sleep, to rest my head. The only thing that kept me going was knowing that I wouldn't wake up again if that happened.
Was this the end? But I wanted to win, I wanted it more than anything in the world. Why did I have to lose here, now? We had come so far, tried to hard. Had this all been for nothing?
“This... this reminds me of when we met, Princess,” I said, throat hoarse from the fumes of Craven's corrupted flames, “Do... do you remember?”
“Orin, you have to let me go. Please let me go,” Elora wept. Her face appeared in my mind's eye, that small smile, so sad and so lonely. I had thought that living in the palace would be such a boon, such a great privilege. But when I first saw her aboard that float I knew that wasn't the case. She had reminded me of the kids when they first got to the orphanage. They believed that nothing could help them, nothing could change their fate.
“I'm glad you don't remember me,” I chuckled as I tried to push myself to my feet and failed, “The Sister thought you would, you know... she thought you would.”
“What are you talking about, Orin?” Elora asked, “Don't close your eyes!”
“The wedding wasn't the first time we met, Elora,” I said, tears spilling down my cheeks, “We were young the first time. You were brought out before Myrin. Our district was the last you visited. The sun had long since set. You looked so sad. I jumped on stage to give you a flower. Pater dared me, said I'd never do it. It was so long ago now,”
Elora was quiet, her emotions a roiling ocean within my soul space.
“It was you? It was you!” Elora cried, her laugh mixing with her tears and surprise in her voice. “Why didn't you tell me?”
“You kissed me on the cheek,” I smiled, a chuckle escaping my lips, “You thanked me and stopped the guards from cutting my hand off for touching you.”
“I didn't know what to do,” Elora laughed, “I had never been around other people before. Not like that. Did you know what the flower meant, Orin? Did you know what it meant?”
“Not until later. But yes, I know what it meant.”
“Do you believe it, my Knight?” Elora whispered, sounding more vulnerable than she ever had before.
“Maybe so, Princess,” I lifted my head enough to see Craven walking towards me at a leisurely pace, flames dripping from his hands like liquid and killing everything they touched. “I'm sorry, Elora. I let you down. You have to run. Get out and run through the flames. Ignore the pain and keep going. Find Boldrin, find Tessa. They'll keep you safe.”
I felt resolve rise within my chest but it was not my own. I could feel Elora's conviction. Whereas before it had flagged in the face of such power, now it almost shined with newly defined purpose.
“No. You are mine, Orin. I won't let him have you.” Elora shouted and I heard something. A ringing. One that reminded me of a hammer striking steel. My soul began to pulsate, the black flames reaching a fever pitch as they rose high. “I let you down. I''ve held back to spare you, to spare myself. Really, I was just being a coward. Never again. This is going to hurt, Orin, but I need you to stand. I need you to fight.”
The sound of the hammer was all I could hear now, new strength flooding my limbs as it grew louder still. I pushed myself up, the words of my Smith enough for me to push forwards. I had given up there for a moment, I had given into and accepted my fate. I had forgotten my promise, forgotten my friends, my family, my own beliefs. I was back at the wedding again, broken and bloodied, with the Princess standing above me, commanding me to rise.
"Orin of Myrin, I choose you as my champion," Elora's words were thunder in my ears, my strength growing with every syllable, "You will be Bound to me, as my Lord and Protector."
I stumbled to my feet, burned and beaten but not defeated. Not yet. Not while I still had breath in my body.
"You will be mine and I will be yours, from this moment until our last. Do you accept?"
I roared my answer, my heart pounding within my chest and my eyes fixed on the man before me. I would destroy him not just for me, but for the Princess and everyone else who has been touched by his disgusting fire.
"Then I name you my Knight."
“I Forge this for you. My Knight.” Elora said, her voice sounding strained, “So you will fight. So you will rage. I Forge this because of what I feel for you, Orin, and I would never see you fall. Her name is Rionna, the sword of stars, and she is your Weapon!”
Light flooded down my right arm, silver and black convulsing and twisting together as they were ignited by each other's touch. I felt a hilt form in my hand, one which seemed made to sit there, felt a heaviness settle as the blade formed and extended, longer and slimmer than any I had seen before. The light dissipated and revealed my Weapon.
Rionna's hilt was was made of silver, or appeared to be. The hilt was made completely of one piece of metal, one that shone with the dim light of my silver element. The image of a woman could be seen faintly, constantly in motion as she swam through the silver as though it was the sea. She smiled up at me before disappearing beneath the surface and I saw her no more.
The blade was long and thin. It was as black as the flames of my soul, the edges looking almost undefined, like they could shift and disappear at any moment. But that was nothing compared to the bright stars that ran it's surface, shining more brightly as I shifted the blade in my hand. It was perfect, it was made for me. Made by my Princess.
“Rionna,” I said faintly, “I think we'll work well together. Thank you, Elora.”
I know what this had cost her. Her future with Cellus, serving as his Smith, would never be. Elora had told me that Forging a Weapon made the Bond permanent, linking our souls together for the rest of our lives. There was no more hesitation now, no more doubts. She was mine and I was hers. Forever.
“Impressive! A Smith Forging a Weapon in battle is not unheard of, but it's rare enough to take note,” Craven grinned at me, not looking troubled by the recent development.
“It's over, Craven,” I said, swinging Rionna at my side and hearing her song as she cut the air, “A Weapon has been Forged. You'll never have the Princess.”
“You seek to lecture me on the Bond? You?!” Craven cackled as he grasped his Armoured sides, “You and your little Princess know nothing, peasant. I will rip her out of you if it is the last thing I do.”
I was weak, I was in pain and I honestly thought that I was about to pass out from the exertion of standing up. But I had a Weapon now and I had Elora behind me. That was all I needed.
“Let's kick his ass, Orin!” Elora shouted. Shit, that might have been the first time I ever heard her swear.
“Come and get me, asshole!” I snarled, raising Rionna and holding her with both hands, “This sword lets me strive for better!”