"The future is just like that /being it good or bad / we will lose all we had / and may get nothing for it (so sad)"
---Ode to the Present, fourth strophe.
At this moment, Anita, who had been hearing the swords hitting each other, entered the room and instinctively threw her shoe at Hobenrûd, distracting him.
"Hoben, stop that!" Anita cried out, not knowing what else she could do. "She's still Priscilla; the only thing that changed was her name! You will regret slaying her!"
In response, Hobenrûd hit Marin's sword with such power that the kris fell out of her hand, then brought his flamberge in a furious, horizontal sweep. Noticing the attack coming, Marin collapsed flat on the ground, narrowly avoiding the edge of death.
Anita tried to tug Hobenrûd away, and was totally unprepared to be hit in her ribs by Hobenrûd's pommel. She took an involuntary gasp of air before crumbling onto the ground. Hobenrûd whirled around, shouting, "Stay out of this!"
Marin was still lying prostrate on the ground, and Hobenrûd stood over her, holding his sword with both hands, as if he had not decided if he should cleave her or not.
Hobenrûd looked at Marin with surprise, mouth agape and standing still. "What!?" He blinked.
"Hoben, I was going to tell you," Marin tried to explain in a pleading voice.
"Then why didn't you!?" he yelled again, tears on his eyes. "If you had told me earlier, and of your own volition, I--I would've believed you."
"Then believe me now."
"You could've told me earlier!" he yelled once more, his voice faltering, while Anita regained her feet, trying to think on something to do.
"Yes! I could!" replied Marin. "I could've told you when I saved your life, I could've told you in Pulti, I could've told you in Sumdo and I could've told you in Lukavia! I could've told you, but I didn't!... And there's nothing I can do about that. I'm telling you now, please... Believe me," On her knees, Marin supplicated before him, tears streaking down her cheeks.
Hobenrûd stood there looking at Marin a few more seconds, questioning whether or not he really wanted to kill her. After all, she really did seem to be sorry, and she had been such a help on their travels...
Then, Hobenrûd dropped the flamberge, which fell to the floor with a clang. He was immersed in deliberation. "I--I can't do this. Gilbert's going to kill me," and let himself fall to the ground his will exhausted.
A moment of silence.
"Gilbert convinced you to do this?" asked Anita, unbelievingly.
"No...well, I'm not sure. He wanted to get a ransom for you. But he...he said that it was probably you that told the Sardinians and...I think he convinced me to do it while pretending not to," Hobenrûd said, with his face in his hands. Anita and Marin both remained speechless, trying to figure out what the distraught Hobenrûd was saying.
"But why would he..."
"Gilbert has a grudge with your father, and Gilbert takes grudges very seriously. You remember what I told you about that commander in Daor? After everything was over... Gilbert sliced off the commander's head, struck the arrow from his leg into the dead man's eye, and burned the corpse in the fires from one of the villager's houses...Gilbert is not the kind of guy that forgives easily..."
"So you're saying that he'll not accept having Marin with us?"
"I'm saying he's capable of doing anything to her, as long as it'll hurt the king."
"I doubt dad will care much about what happened to me, I betrayed him, you know?" Marin responded.
"Gilbert doesn't believe that, and he probably won't," Hobenrûd insisted.
"What...what will we do with him?" asked Anita, now that she calmed down.
"We can't leave him in Jyptia, so we'll bring him to Ruivoca...then...I don't know, but we should keep an eye on him," he said, then he took his sword again and stood up. He breathed heavily, and knelt, his head bowed and his sword above it, held horizontally. Marin was puzzled.
"Princess Marion of Ruivoca... I, Dur Hobenrûd, leader of the Cherry Wood Knights, offer my sword to you in submission and loyalty," he said. Marin stood up in the proud posture she had so carefully practiced during her years in the court, not sure what to do, then she took the sword, touched his shoulder with it and declared, "Dur Hobenrûd, in thankful recognition of services given to me, I declare you Sir Hobenrûd, knight of Ruivoca."
They looked out a nearby window. A flock of glumbelies flew across the firmament in a circular formation. Recalling the first days on the adventure, Marin remembered the omen of the strange birds...
Hobenrûd nodded, looked up, and smiled. "Don't worry, Princess Marin, I have seen into your soul, and have determined that you deserve the throne, and I will help you get it."
Marin gulped down the last of her fears, and nodded appreciatively. "Thanks, Hoben, for your trust in me. I'll not let you down either. Come, get up." She helped the stalwart back to his feet. Yuri was at his left.
Hobenrûd nodded, "The dragons will probably be ready by tomorrow, we'll use the flying ones to go to Pulti and prepare the final offensive, while the land ones will have to take the longer route through the sea, in three weeks or less they'll reach us, and we'll proceed to liberate the capital. In less than two months, you should be the queen...and Marin..."
She looked at him again.
"I ho...I trust that you'll do your best for the people of Ruivoca."
She let her gaze fall to the floor, "I hope my best is enough."
"The penultimate obstacle is always the hardest to surpass. When you reach the last your thirst of victory is the greatest, and at the earlier ones you were enthusiastic. But at the penultimate, all hope seems lost."
It was already a month since they had departed from Sumdo. Several months since Marin had first met up with the then-called Cherry Wood Knights. This entity was now 'official', Gilbert had declared, ticking off the various forces and notable individuals accompanying them: "...three thousand dragon-riders courtesy of Jyptia, six Ruivocan members of the Freedom Army, Drindell the Arcane... Hobenrûd, Sorceress Anita, and me. On top of that, Cherry Woods should still have over three thousand warriors, courtesy of Lukavia, as well as about fifty of those bandits that have been initiated into our ranks."
At the time of the declaration, Marin didn't protest about her name not being called, she knew Gilbert would take much more time than Hobenrûd to get used to her, but she also knew he would be much less straightforward about it. Instead, she was happy that he didn't try to actively undermine her, and did her best to better their relations, though he usually didn't accept her help in anything. There was between them a cold peace.
Things were indeed starting to look up. The winged corps went ahead, and the rest of their army had already left Jyptia entirely, sailed across the seas to Ruivoca's coastline, and travelled over a hundred miles inland. Along the way, they had marched through several towns and villages as liberators, with nearly another thousand upstart warriors joining them in their campaign. And through it all, they had encountered particularly little resistance, been greeted only as heroes, not as foes. But there were rumours that the king was preparing a counter-revolutionary force with the help of Sardina.
In the last few months, Marin used her spare time to train with the third artefact they had obtained, but magic was even harder than she thought, and she was not able to do much development. Drindell identified the lightning rod as an unique item, that was stolen from Limoverik, the Storm Weaver. The sceptre was known as, among other things, the Stormstick. Anita held on to her magical fan--the Ethereal Ire-- and trained the use of the crystal ball regularly.
That evening, they were about to relieve a siege in another revolting city, known as Tarnish.
Gilbert called Hobenrûd to come to his tent in his afternoon, and Hobenrûd subsequently showed up. "Yeah, seems like we'll have to get sidetracked again," thought Hobenrûd, listening intently as Gilbert told him about the information he had learned from his men. "Maybe it's time we get the others here." Gilbert nodded, lost in thought and planning a strategy for relieving the siege. He still valued his friendship with Hobenrûd, but was colder around him than before.
Hobenrûd was careful, as he has been in the other occasions they met, "So...will there be any problems? I mean, we have the dragons, right? So we can just go over the walls."
Gilbert gave him a piercing stare, and shoved the multicoloured pebbles that represented the troops off the map, "They have a wizard," he said, sighing, "State Magician Filafannel, Drindell can do a lot of damage himself, but he has nothing close to the resources Filafannel have. We can't just send the dragons."
"Dammit!" Hobenrûd cursed, "And I thought it would be an easy ride from Pulti to Bahemet. What will we do?"
Gilbert hesitated for a second, seemingly measuring his words, "I...was thinking assassination."
Hobenrûd was a little shocked, "We can't...we can't do that, it's...not right."
"Just think about it," Gilbert tried again, not looking at Hobenrûd, but outside the window, "he alone will be a major responsible for most deaths in our side, besides, he'll probably die anyway with the battle, in the end, comparing the losses if we do or not do it, we'll have saved lives."
Hobenrûd seemed to be even more shocked, "Look, it's not just a matter of economics, of loss and profit. We both know it's a different thing altogether to kill him if he attacks and murder him on cold blood."
Gilbert groaned, pacing around, fidgeting, "By Jarnia, what's the difference? Look, some of our soldiers can..."
"I will not agree with this!" Hobenrûd told him, loudly, "What kind of message do you think that'll give to the people that believe we are better than the king? I will not do this, and if you want to do this, then I recommend you to leave."
Gilbert's answer was to yell incoherently, stay silent for some time, sigh, and sit on the wooden barrel nearby. He said nothing.
"We couldn't get to here without you," said Hobenrûd, standing up, and preparing to leave, "but we can't do this kind of thing if we want to keep the trust of the people. If we want to be a legitimate answer to the country's problems. We can't do this kind of things just because we are winning."
Gilbert opened his mouth, as if he wanted to say something, but closed it.
Hobenrûd got up from the chair he was sitting on, looked at the dark night sky, and left, without saying another word.
Oblivious to the growing tension in the leadership, Anita and Drindell conversed about irrelevant things, near the nearby Old Keanson Lagoon, the old wizard was curious about her homeland, a place he never saw since he aided Ruivoca in the war.
Suddenly, bushes nearby rustled, and an old woman appeared behind them, panting; the woman was wearing a dress made of silk, but it was many parts of it were torn, and leaves were stuck all over her. She seemed to have walked through most of the woods to their camp, probably coming from the sieged city.
"Are you from the Freedom Army, I need to..." she started to speak, but was interrupted by a "Y-your majesty?" by Drindell.
"I don't have time for this now, where is my daughter? I need to speak to her," the queen told them, with her palm held up, visibly impatient.
"And then light of Truth will illuminate the world, burning the eyes of unbelievers, and it will be good."
---The Book of Sallund
Marin was lying on a mattress on the ground, inside her tent. The wind was whistling through the tree branches outside, and the sun had risen for about an hour already. Last night, longbowmen had climbed a mount and shot flaming arrows into the city, aiming for the makeshift tents of the reinforcements that managed to break the siege earlier that day. Also, last night, her mother had come to the camp.
It was rather shocking actually, to have her suddenly appearing in the night like this. Apparently Eljabé was in the city in the moment of the siege, and that was the reason everyone was so determined to protect it. She bribed the driver of her carriage to take her near the woods where the Freedom Army had set their main camp, and traversed the forest until she found them.
And then she demanded to be brought to Marin.
She recalled it clearly now, but of course, she had been thinking about that since then. Her mother came into the tent and ordered Drindell out, then, with the tent nearly empty and while silence crept in, she hugged Marin, startling the young woman.
Marin tried to ask her where she came from, but the queen silenced her.
"You got skinnier. Are they feeding you well?" she had asked.
Marin had chuckled then, she and chuckled now, again.
"Don't laugh. It's a very important thing. You can't go underfed. And actually getting into the battle, what were you thinking? Yes, he heard about it. He was disappointed, to say the least, but forget him, I think it was a good thing. It was about time anyway. Your father would be proud...But you have to take better care of yourself," she said, while inspecting Marin's arms and legs.
Marin tried to explain to Eljabé that the least of her concerns were how much she was eating lately. And that she didn't care what her father thought about it anyway.
"Oh no, no," Eljabé told her, "I'm not talking about him, I'm talking about your father. I should've told you before, but I couldn't do it with him there...the baby that he declared he killed after your father's murder. That was you. You're not related to that...man."
Marin didn't answer, neither she completely caught the information. Her brain seemed to have turned off after the last third of the sentence.
"What?" she had asked.
Her mother took her hand into hers, and calmly repeated, "He is not your father. Rikerd was your father. So you don't need to worry about him, about what he thinks. He killed your father."
Then she left, saying that Marin needed time to think about it, and Marin thought about it until she slept, but it was only a short break, and she thinking about it now again. She understood what this meant, but would she do about it? "Nothing," was the first answer that came to her head. Because, what should she do? Did it even change anything?
She decided she would think about it later, the siege went on for one week, it was time to finish it, before her fa...the king's forces could come to aid the city.
Marin left her tent, there was a commotion outside, Gilbert was being dragged by two other people. She asked what was happening, "I dunno, I woke up just now, it appears they woke him up by dragging him to prison," a guy answered. Marin looked for Hobenrûd, but she found Anita instead.
"What in Sallund's name is happening!?", she yelled at Anita, to be heard above the cacophony of voices.
"Gilbert was going to kill you," she answered, simply.
"What!? Are you sure? He was sleeping!"
"I've seen it at the crystal ball."
"But that guy..." Marin started, remembering the old wizard's advice "...Zanzoo, he said it couldn't be fully trusted."
"Better to be safe than sorry, Marin."
"Uh huh, and you think Gilbert will just let it go after we release him."
"IF we release, he'll have to let it go, or he will have to go. It's for your own safety, you know? After tonight's attack we'll be able to protect you again, so we'll release him. Now, please, go back to your tent," she ordered, in a pleading tone.
Marin didn't, she went to Hobenrûd's tent instead, "You let Gilbert be arrested?"
He was sitting near a wooden table, a map of the area was open on it, an apple and three rocks holding its corners, little coloured stones were also on the map, representing the troops. Yuri was at his left.
He lifted his gaze from the map, and landed it on Marin's face, "It was my order."
He made a gesture with his hand that Marin couldn't interpret, "Anita saw in the crystal ball that he..."
"I heard that. But the crystal ball can be mistaken, and you know it," Marin said, with a conviction that she did not expect.
Hobenrûd stood up from the chair, "It only confirmed my suspicions. You know it as well as I do that it could happen, sooner or later. At least we'll prevent it."
Yuri held his finger up, trying to speak, "Sir, if you may..."
But was cut short by Marin, "I'm not the king's daughter."
This time, it took some moments to Hobenrûd to speak, "What...do you mean?"
"My mother came here yesterday, remember? She told me that...I'm actually Rikerd's daughter. Gilbert has nothing against me."
Again, it took some time for an answer to come, "As if he would believe that."
"What? You don't believe me now?"
"I do, really, Priss, but Gilbert hates you. He won't let that go so easily...especially not now that we got him arrested," Hobenrûd explained, forgetting to mention just how much that was his fault, "Now go back to your tent, the attack will happen today, we won't be able to protect you."
"One day you wake up and realize that what you thought is not what you think, what you knew is not what you know and that your beloved future is no more."
---Personal understandings on the nature of life, chapter 8
Marin was on her tent, she wasn't overly worried, really, but she felt uneasy. News had circulated that Gilbert escaped the makeshift cell in which he was arrested. The attack was going on for some time now, and the last dragon rider had just finished taking off. Hobenrûd, Anita and Drindell had already gone to the battlefield, and were probably leading the troops and siege machines to invade the city.
Her mother laid back to sleep again, her health wasn't very good for months, and she walked a lot the other day. Marin decided to leave the tent. Down the hills she could see the city, ashes were floating up and away from the burning buildings, but there were balls of bright energy flying toward the little flies that were the dragons. The wizard apparently was doing exactly what they feared.
A blurry sea of people were circling the city, as large siege towers and rams tried to break down the walls and gates, and onagers threw rocks of varied sizes on the buildings. Apart from the aerial battle, the attack seemed to be doing fine.
Then Marin heard a weird noise somewhere from her left, in the woods. It sounded like...clanging metal?
She didn't hesitate before going into her tent taking her sword and leaving to check the source of the noise, but, thinking back at later times, she thought that maybe she should.
She entered the woods, sword on hand, prepared to face any opponent, but the metallic clangs had stopped, she heard another sound now, sounded like scratching.
After walking a little more, she saw a person running through the woods. It was too far, and the trees blocked her sight, but she couldn't mistake that limp for anyone else's, it was Gilbert. She went towards the overall direction he was running from.
There was a corpse there, a short man in dark clothing. One of his hands were lacking. It was the Sardinian assassin, he was pretty close to the camp...could that mean...? Gilbert was going to the battlefield, Marin made a quick decision and jumped on the closest mier she saw.
She was going to the city, even though she was not sure why. As she went, she heard another extremely high-pitched bellow--it felt like a shockwave blasting through the woods, that loud noise--then there was the earth-shattering quake as something monstruous collapsed somewhere out there in the battlefield...
In the battlefield, things were going badly. The royal wizard had already downed five dragons in one hour alone, two times the average battlefield casualties of the dragon corps. Meanwhile, Drindell was nowhere to be seen. Behind the front lines, Anita was getting worried, for there was seemingly little she could do to prevent the wizard Filafannel from steadily working to eliminate--
Is that what he's doing? she thought to herself, as just then another dragon let loose a shriek, flapping its wings helplessly in what seemed to be a vacuum directly underneath it. The war beast began to drop toward the earth, an unearthly sight of a meteorite... Anita felt adrenaline pulse through her, that feeling of the fight and flight starting to kick in at last, as she looked with focused intent at the fan she held in her hand. We can negate vacuum with a burst of wind, she surmised. Looking up toward the gradually dimming sky with renewed vigor, she raised her staff exactly vertically in one hand, grasping it, as if sending her very soul into it. She had known it for so long, it must not fail her now-- The half-doomed dragon was still dropping in its accelerating descent as she tilted her staff clockwise to 2 o'clock and made a clean stroke from right to left.
Emerging horizontally from her enchanted sweep emerged a hyperconcentrated twister of a wind which within moments had reoriented itself and connected with the heavens above, blasting forth with a power never before seen on that battlefield, a storm of swirling air-power spiraling off with a vengeance toward the dragon, rising steadily higher and higher. As Anita watched onward, she saw the unnatural vortex mysteriously dissipate right underneath the flailing dragon as it came within a few hundred yards of the ground. The dragon's wings suddenly had an effect again, helping to work against the down-fall velocity. Anita's eyes opened wide as the dragon seemed to suddenly buckle from the clash of two opposing forces of magic...
But it wasn't enough. The dragon landed head-first into the ground, driving up a wall of dirt and ichor with a resounding boom. Her heart sank.
As the smoke began to clear, she saw the great crater that had been impressed onto the ground. Around it, all was clear, with countless bodies buried and half-unburied in the scattered sand.
Around her, the ground battle was coming to a close. Though Tarnish had a solid defense, it had neither the firepower nor the flexibility of the mass of dragons soaring through the air and breathing blasts of fire down on their hapless opponents. It was only the so far unlocated Filafannel whose actions gave the defenders hope for victory... Sighing, she decided to head onward, past the battles which were raging around the gates and over the curtain wall turrets.
Anita raised her green, leafy fan once more, and fanned it once in a mighty sweep. A raging, concentrated tornado appeared right in front of her, and started hovering around the battlefield at amazing speeds. Amazing even for Anita, she thought that she might have done something wrong, because the whirlwind was out of control. And it was with shocked that she watched it growing and sucking her in.
She was spinning, round and 'round... The blast of air that struck her as she tried to enter was nearly unbearable, but it did not drop her either, and at that point there was only the wind flashing past her. With eyes closed, she maneuvered around in a landscape of torrents, until she reached a calm spot.
She opened her eyes. And was utterly shocked by the scene. The view of the world around her seemed to flicker from the streaking air; she was sailing in relative peace some hundreds of feet in the air; soldiers, victims of the winds, swirled around the outside, already half-dead and buffeted by the winds; she alone was in the eye of the storm, a thin cylinder the length of the tornado and about one meter wide; the mighty gust of wind rapidly progressed toward the walls of the devastated castle. She could barely make out defenders down below, hundreds of feet below her own feet; she knew they were about to shoot at her, such an unmistakable target; then she saw the arrows swirling around along with the bodies of friend and foe alike, and knew that the tornado had now gotten so strong it could shear anything that tried to pass through.
The setting sun was indeed impressive; even more majestic were the soaring dragons, their gouts of fire bursting forth from dozens of mouths; and more graceful still was Anita, standing in an absence, the image of her half obscured by the hundreds of swirling bits of debris still sweeping circles around the twister.
As the gust of wind struck the castle walls, the latter gave away, immense chunks of building blocks and furniture sucked into the giant funnel, to fall hundreds of feet to the ground, lying in utter shambles. There was now yet another immense void in the once imposing and pure-white castle walls.
But now the wind funnel was spent, and the scattering air sent the entrapped weapons, bodies, and objects streaking out of the sky and toward the holocaust below. The gale went several more yards before finally ceasing, leaving an immense, gaping hole in the castle defense, scattered furniture, and an Anita with her knee completely dislodged. In the last moments of her consciousness, she saw several awe-stricken guards walk up to her, standing over her, and speak to each other...
And then, all faded into nil.
"Blood, dust, swords, lances, pikes, miers, fire, walls, rams, smoke. I love the battlefield."
---King Ük, the red.
Marin reached the outskirts of the city seconds after seeing a whirlwind dissipating on the skies and various bodies falling from it. Good, that meant Anita was still alive. She charged through the flanks of the attacking troops, looking, inside the narrow streets of the city, for Gilbert, or Hobenrûd.
The battle was going terribly, for both sides, archers tried to hit the fast-moving dragons, but the few arrows that actually managed to hit the target couldn't penetrate the hard scales of dragonskin. The mier she was riding trampled archers as she navigated the tortuous streets.
The battle raged overheads, with balls of flame and light going in both directions, and falling to the ground with the deafening sound of destruction. The straw roof of various houses burned brightly, and the peasants that hadn't fled the city before, tried desperately to do so now.
But gradually, she noticed that the twisting winds weren't coming any more. Afraid that something might have happened to Anita, she rode her mier to the nearest group of soldiers who weren't actively fighting, and asked them: "Where's Anita?" They didn't know, so she rushed around, asking others of what they had seen of Anita, each time getting more and more desperate. None of them knew, and could only watch on with despair as the royal practitioner sucked down another dragon into the ground with a shockwave.
Then, she saw Hobenrûd, he was leading a band of about twenty armourclad soldiers against the guards of a tower. She rode toward him, slashing at nearby enemies with the sword clutched on her free hand, he was surprised to see her, as her mier assumed a upright position.
"What the hell are you doing here!?" he yelled at her, after telling the other people in his group to halt. He was in horrible conditions, his cuirass was cracked, his face looked like he fell on the mud various times, and there were drops of blood all over his armour.
"Gilbert escaped and came here!" she yelled back, to be heard above the sounds of the battle.
"Dammit! ...but why the hell did you come!?" he asked her again.
"It wasn't Gilbert! He actually killed the assassin that came for me, it was the one-armed thug from Rovias! Where's your mier!?" she asked, only realizing now that the animal wasn't there.
Hobenrûd made a sign with his hand, pointing somewhere behind him, "I don't know! I fell back there and...I guess they got him. Will you...!" a huge boulder fell on a tall building beside then, and rubble started to fall. The soldiers tried to protect themselves as they could, but a particularly large chunk of rock fell on one of their heads.
"Helki! ...dung!" he uttered a silent prayer for the dead man, "I'll attack that tower over there, will you help me, Priss!?" he asked her, pointing to the tower, "It's heavily guarded, so maybe that's where Filafannel is hiding at...we won't be able to win this with Filafannel helping them!"
Marin nodded, and turned her mier in the tower's direction.
She charged ahead of the infantry while the archers' arrows flew above her head. She trampled the fearful soldiers that tried to defend the tower, and struck them down with her blade, they didn't resist for long and soon they were fleeing in panic. Hobenrûd's band of swordsmen got there a while later, to finish with those too courageous or foolish to escape.
Another group of enemies appeared from behind the nearby burning homes and ambushed Marin, they had pikemen, and trying to keep away from them, Marin fell from the mier, and the assailants, with a scream of bloodlust, went after the woman that was crawling away, having lost her sword.
The sky above them flashed, as another magical vortex pushed a dragon to the ground nearby, a man with spear stood there, petrified, looking at the sky, as the huge beast fell to the ground throwing dust and rocks to the air.
Amidst the confusion, the deafening sound, the screams and the dust, Marin tried to get up and run away, but she wasn't sure which direction she should go to. Metal clangs and screams of pain could be heard, until the dust finally subsided.
Hobenrûd was in the middle of six corpses, the others must've fled, his sword was reddened again with fresh blood, he was breathing heavily, and was furiously rubbing his leg with his right arm. Marin ran back and took her sword from the ground, looking at him.
He sheathed his sword, opened the eyes and went to her, to hold her shoulders, "Blood of Kiros! Are you okay? Did they...are you okay? You're not hurt, are you?" he hugged her, but quickly stepped back and unsheathed his sword, "I thought...thank Sallund you're alright," and then to the swordsmen that followed him before, "Go up the tower and see if you find the wizard!"
Marin noticed the clothing of his left leg was shredded, and red, "Your leg," she said, pointing to it.
"It's nothing, I'm not even feeling it. You sure you're okay?" he smiled then, "We'll need a good bath after this one...you said Gilbert came here?"
Marin and Hobenrûd looked at each other in an awkward silence. It was as if something had gone wrong--or was it?