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LotE: Echoes of Byrn

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Rolliam took a more relaxed position as roland responded to him with the grin. The mocking response came with a welcome breeze of wind, knowingly the man did things right in his way. Behind Roland's grin, there was another part of him that was tired beyond limit. Did they actually get into as much trouble as he thought, things which blurred his vision with worry? He'll find out soon, once the Ebon Knight meets the trio, thus the mission being unfolded to its last bit, checked, rechecked and plans remade, until the group agrees to everything being discussed. He rolled his eyes while thinking about it, the wait would have to get even longer. And knowing how Roland gets into trouble, he'd need a bit of rest, at least.


"... The Wizards sent her off with me. Don't know if they're trying to earn goodwill with the Knight somehow, or just saddling us with a problem they can no longer be bothered with. Either way, she's carrying the stone. So, be nice to her, even if she probably won't show any appreciation for it-" 

Like his brother, he glanced at Lily, his suspicions being confirmed about Roland. Aside from the etiquette (even though both of them were assigned in this safehouse), they came back after a long and excruciating travel, potentially fatal, given the circumstances. He nodded, smiled and pat his shoulder as he made quick steps to where Lily is. "We have a stove, Roland. If you are willing to wait, I'll heat the food for you. If not, that's fine, eat well. And by the way, your winged buddy also came back home safely." he said, turning his head back to him.

Now it is unknown if Roland's hunger was unbearable enough that it forced him to eat the food as cold as it is, but the archer wasn't the fan of cold food of any kind, but his snobby characteristic would only rise when they would be anywhere considered remotely safe. His thought faded, as he approached Lily. He spun his finger slowly and pointed behind her towards a dark, wooden door. "Right there, miss. It's got a tub that I'll have to fill, so give me a few moments. Hot or cold water?"

---
A bit of time had passed, as Rolliam filled in the tub of water with the water she desired and brought in other things, like soap and a towel, what is necessary for her to feel at home. He rubbed his forehead of sweat and put the bucket of water back where it belonged, at the well and came back to Lily, which was waiting at the door. "Well, sorry it took me that long. Getting everything ready's always a lot of work, but now, that it is done..." He took off his gloves and put them into some hidden pockets followed by a stretching of his shoulders, causing a pop to be heard. "My name is Rolliam and I may assume you know I am Roland's brother. Nice to meet you." He held out his hand to her.

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“Hot,” she after a little while. Dimly she wondered what sort of madman took cold baths; then she remembered her company. Soldiers must be accustomed to cold water, if water at all could be spared for bathing rather than drinking. That was in her books, too, depictions of the hard life, frugal accounts of the trivialities. Hardtack and weed soup. Soil too muddy to dig trenches easily, and mud too wet to spread bedrolls over. Joy at finding a cold river to wash away the blood and caked bile beneath their armor. Occasionally, some footnote of blood which decided the course of history. Then ration complaints again.

Rolliam meandered off to draw water for the bath, firing the furnace on his way. Woodsmoke filtered up the chimney but a stray few wisps filled the room with warm coal. Lily watched him go. That one was different than what she’d expected. He seemed more boyish, but yet more domestic. Attentive to detail the same way a housekeeper might have been. He’d had practice these past few weeks. If Roland told true sob stories, maybe Rolliam had had practice for a far longer time than that. Was he much older than she was?

Growing up before their time, she mused. So Roland had said; but that was what she was doing now, wasn’t she? She never stopped feeling like a child, and she hadn’t been anything more than that in the Valley, where they had warm baths and hot food on the nightly, where snow did not fall and people got no closer to danger than what tall tales the mercenaries told on their drunken nights off. The process had been sudden and she felt unchanged, still. Even when she looked back there was no lens at all – every memory the way she remembered them being, the same people and same emotions and same places and same formative events, towering like tombstones of her history. Except, of course, that she felt she did not recognize those memories as her own. But everything else was the same.

The person they belonged to had simply ceased to exist. When she thought of Xander she thought of all the energy that built up in her at that moment and she felt her breathing quicken. Her hands gripped the seat hard enough for her to feel the tell-tale prick of splinters. Pressure built in her head, threatened to explode. The worst bit was that she did not feel so badly about it all, so much later. Of course, she was not complicit in any of it; she did not consent to the decision to kill him, because there had been no decision made to begin with. There had been no choice. There had only been one way out for all the world. And it had been easier than she had thought it might be. After her hand had let go of the dagger she just walked away, ran through blinding light and turned her back on the man. Lily didn’t even need to watch him die. Had he? If he hadn’t…but surely he had. It made no difference to her; she was the one who tried to kill him. That damage was not so easily undone.

But Roland’s dagger had been fine and sharp, and surely the sharper the less it must have hurt on the way in. Surely! It was better than burning, wasn’t it?

Then she started wondering who was next, because even if she knew that she would say, never again, she would have to do it again, and like the flap of a butterfly’s wings, one gust promises another, and another. Was it to be her? Now she was marked, too, just as free to be killed. Nobody was special, she realized, even though she felt as if some innocent armor had been stripped from her. Once upon a time she was invincible.

Lily shivered in her filthy linens. She still had them, the faraway tavern’s spares, because they’d left everything behind in their mad scramble. Not everything, of course, and perhaps even nothing important – her fingers brushed against the hard lump of stone that was the Shard – but all of the trivialities. Lily had lost her clothes, her journal, her books. The spare few things she did bring with her from the Valley, thinking that that was all that was needed to make her home. In their absence there was a stirring in the heart, though maybe not a stirring so big as ‘home’. She had worn that dress for a long time. It was good fabric, from faraway lands, irreplaceable on this side of the desert. The price did not bother her. But she had bought it for herself. Now? At least it was still intact, and maybe it’d make someone else happy to have. But damn if she didn’t want it.

No doubt Roland had lost a fair few things, too. But him, she didn’t know if he cared about anything he could have.

Roland caught her staring. “What?”

Nothing – except, her mind seized on an idea and refused to budge. She fidgeted with her fingers. “Do you have clothes?”

He lifted his sleeve and an eyebrow. Lily sighed. “Not like that. This is a safehouse for you scouts, isn’t it? Surely you must deal in…disguises and somesuch.”

“You want to change.”

“Perhaps a man so tough and rugged as yourself enjoys wallowing, but I want out of this.”

Her petulance dragged on Roland’s attempt to eat his food, but he tried his best to chew and swallow in spite of the girl. “Yeah, maybe we’ve got something like that. I can take a gander.”

After a while, Lily said, “Thanks.”

Rolliam rapped on the wall, casting the girl a look. “Sorry it took so long.” He chuckled. “Getting things ready’s always a lot of work, but now that that’s done with…I’m Roland’s brother. Nice to meet you.”

He approached and offered a hand. Lily stared at it a while. The hand of another scout. Rolliam’s resemblance to his brother pervaded into their shared career; if appearances were only skin deep, then how shallow was a choice of job? How deep would it go? Was he as cavalier as his brother, so hardened, so used to treating war as a frivolity? Was he so loyal to the Knight? A featureless form of man that viewed himself as serving a purpose to some greater power, blind, or at least uncaring, about what it meant to be living an ordinary manner?

What did they believe in?

She took his hand. He led her to the bath room, seemed to be primed to any further need. Earnest, almost. Lily felt ashamed, all of a sudden. The girl snatched her hand away, ducked into the room and closed the door.

“Thank you,” she mumbled.

Lily waited until the man walked away from the door, then began to disrobe. Once she got into the bath, she closed her eyes, took a breath, and plunged into the water. Willing herself to simply dissolve into the hailstorm bubbles that accompanied her descent.

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"Dymbuss made it? Ah, I knew the dumb brute would make me proud. I do hope we can get a deer flank for him, Rolliam, I did promise him one when I sent him off."
...
Just a bit later, Roland begrudgingly accepted the task offered to him by Lily. It was not a matter of mood, though he was indeed tired. No, it was a matter of her having interrupted him in the midst of eating- he didn't like distractions as he sat back and leisurely consumed the food before him. Distractions to that were uniformly met with annoyance, no matter the source thereof. Nonetheless, he finished off his food, then languidly stood up and stretched. Looking around for a moment, he walked down a short hallway and entered into the bedroom of the safehouse.

In the room, he approached the wardrobe against the back wall- it wasn't a particularly esoteric layout, and if the disguising clothes were anywhere in this safehouse, they would certainly be here. He opened the wardrobe, and... several moths flew out. Roland reflexively smashed one against the wall with the back of his hand, but the rest flew out the nearby open window- which the Byrnian scout promptly closed. Turning back to the wardrobe, and seeing what was within, he raised a quizzical eyebrow. Not the variety of disguises he expected, but a single tunic- full of holes eaten through by moths. He stared at it for some long moments, then let out a deep, defeated sigh before closing the wardrobe and returning to the main room.


After Lily would be finished with her bath, and her and Rolliam were back in the main room, Roland would address the both of them.

"Whoever was in charge of this safehouse before Rolliam... did a piss-poor job. The clothes for disguises? Down to one tunic that's been eaten to shit by moths. This is a mess that we're going to have to clean up, we'll leave this place actually usable for the next poor bastards who end up here. If nothing else, I'm certain the Knight will commend us putting in the extra effort. And, well... there's the fact that Lily wants a change of clothes and we don't have any."

He fell silent after that. He didn't know what else to say. But, hopefully, he had gotten his point across. They wouldn't be here overlong, but it was best to make the best of things while they were here. The last leg to the stomping grounds of the Ebon Knight would most likely safe and easy, barring the presence of belligerent highwaymen and bandits- but even then, Roland and Rolliam together would be more than sufficient to take care of him.

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Lightly tapping a wall that was not connected to the bathroom, Rolliam had his own thoughts, related to the two coming back safe and sound. He was lost in the details of time, place and what was next. Maybe taking care too much, preparing anything was too much? Such thought would storm in like a lightning and disappear just like that, knowing it weren't true. Certainly, even though his brother took care of her, she looked like a person who'd take the time to trust someone, no matter the circumstances. But this was a normal thing to do, that some people would forget about. He stopped tapping, only to see the wall, dirty again of the brown filth that was adding up. Dust; anything he'd clean up, dust would come back, like a parasite, destroying beauty, turning objects into antiques and ruining people's work. He had only cleaned it a few days ago, comparatively to other places he had been, this was not so normal. Just like life, it always finds a way to change the perspective of the people whose hearts, souls and minds were not singed by the impurity of the real world. Looking back at it, Lily seemed like that. She was slowly learning to see everything ugly about the world. Slowly, learning everything which she had never hoped to see. Unfortunately, life finds a way, at its worst times.

---

After Lily was done, Rolliam and her came back in the main room, with Roland waiting as a hunter, his eyes showing a slight tint of annoyance. Rolliam noticed it and waited for Roland to say his thoughts, as if a barrage of arrows came out, not actual words. After it was done, Rolliam looked down, into his pockets, only to reveal two gold coins and a gentle placement of those on the table.
"It was that bad you even lost the coins? This is what I have for backup. You might get everything you need with that: food, clothes, fixing gear, whatever." He sat down on the chair, gulping as if he had to swallow another hard truth, the bedroom.
"The bedroom, you say? Hm. I haven't looked there, inside the wardrobe because I thought it would be empty." He sighed, then came back to his sentence, "But well, whatever it is, I guess. Most part of the safehouse is clean, except that wardrobe and... maybe... the chimney..." He instantly regretted mentioning it, but there was no going back now, those words slipped as if another entity drew them out of his mind, wanting to hear them itself. As brutal and horrendous he had imagined, it would be just a perverted excuse. "We will make sure the safehouse will look good after our departure, make sure she is dressed well and... What else. Making sure everything is done correctly, so our body and mind can relax and fare safely to Knight." And with that, he he sat on a chair, comforting himself, even for five seconds, those considered golden for all the work he'd been doing these past days, until they were off to work on the aforementioned.

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The bath had been some taste of civility, but when Lily went for her clothes she was reminded that yesterday didn’t fade so readily as a bad dream, even when it felt like one. Rags lay on the floor. Roland did not find anything after all; this house was all appearances in the end, a soldier’s pretend domesticity. She had hoped for too much.

Lily held up the mud-streaked blouse, wrinkled her nose. If only she could go without – but people and clothing had become inseparable at some distant point in the past. They were held as close as humanity, and counted for more since one wore them nearly every waking moment. What happens to a man when all he’s got are filthy rags? What happens to his humanity?

“This is a mess that we’ll have to clean up,” Roland snarled hastily after she came out into the kitchen wearing the old linens. She sat cross-legged on the sofa and looked between the two brothers. Roland paced back and forth. “If nothing else, I’m certain the Knight will commend us for putting in the effort. And, well…” He cleared his throat. “God, whoever was in charge of this safehouse before Rolliam did a piss poor job.”

Maybe he was embarrassed at having failed her and trying to make excuses. The thought made her giggle. That would make Roland uniquely charming.

More likely, he was starry-eyed with duty, so much so that being out of clothes put him into a real disciplinarian mood.

The younger brother went rummaging, came up with two gold coins. Not the stuff of war chests, but plenty for three people. Lily brightened up.

“Shall we go right away then?” She jumped to her feet and grabbed one of the coins, turning it over in her hands. “Feels like it’s been forever since I’ve seen a gold coin. God, it’s so pretty!”

After her bath, she did forget many of her miseries. That hot water did its damndest to erase the mark of the past weeks on her. Lily was still uneasy with everything but maybe she could put all that away for now.

Where she’d grown up, she counted as an urchin, as well-fed as she’d been; but she didn’t have much in the way of material possessions. She often said that she prided herself on austerity, the way that young undeveloped hearts take moral fancies and live by bouts of fashion. Now? She imagined all the things she could buy. The town was small and its market undoubtedly sparse, but what did she need, anyway?

Lily was sure that whatever it had, she could find a use for.

“Come now, Roland, maybe we could buy some hot food for once. Aren’t you tired of eating cold dried meat?”


It was still early afternoon when they arrived at market, and though their time was better served sleeping – both scout and girl had been up since before the break of dawn to finish the last leg of their journey – Lily found herself possessed by a manic energy that emanated from the two gold pieces she’d convinced Rolliam to let her carry in a bag around her neck. Roland, meanwhile, was animated by resignation, a furious determination to finish the mounting pile of duties he found heaped upon him everywhere he went. Roland wasn’t the sort of fellow who ever expected to rest. Usually, as with now, it helped him cope with the troubling reality that he was surrounded by people with whims bigger than their competence.

Rolliam tagged along behind the two of them as they burned a trail through the various stores. Picking his way across the food stalls that the others ignored, he’d occasionally hold apples or tomatoes up to the light of truth and, nodding with quiet approval, add them to a growing collection of groceries in a burlap sack slung beneath one arm.

She was looking around for the clothier when the sign for the blacksmith caught her eye. Peering through the window was a dazzling array of swords and daggers, ranging from the intricate to the crudely fatal, elegant in their own right.

In the reflection of the glass she thought she saw the flicker of a dagger just like Roland’s, and felt her blood spike hot. She whirled around, tried to find a bench, and sat. Dizziness threatened to overtake her.

After a little while, when her vision cleared up, she saw the brothers making their way over to her with the usual concern. When they came she announced to them her decision:

“I want a sword.”

Her voice was shaky.

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“Come now, Roland, maybe we could buy some hot food for once. Aren’t you tired of eating cold dried meat?”

"Pffft. Speak for yourself! ... That being said, it is starting to get rather bland, honestly. Could go for something different."

He chuckled to himself as he, Lily, and Rolliam made their way out of the safehouse.


It could be said that two things were the primary fuel for Roland's motivation to do, well, anything really. The first was the praise and approval of the Ebon Knight- an idea told not through his actions necessarily, but his words, the ideals interspersed within them. The second was much more tacit through actions, in the here and now especially. The Byrnian scout happily consumed hot food piece by piece, what could have made a veritable platter of delicacies as the trio blazed through the marketplace... or rather, Lily and Roland blazed through whilst Rolliam followed at a calm and leisurely place behind. But eventually, Lily came to a stop in front of the blacksmith. Something within seemed to transfix her for a moment. Then, she turned away and made her way to a bench, seeming on the verge of dizziness. Roland was quick to approach, with Rolliam not far behind.

"I want a sword."

There was shakiness in her voice. Roland turned toward Rolliam, exchanging a glance with his brother. Then, he turned back towards Lily, most of the concern previously in his expression replaced with curiosity.

"A sword, hmm? Doubtless that we can afford it, and I can appreciate the practicality of the idea... but why did the idea just so happen to strike you now?"

He paused for a moment, then waved the question away.

"Ah, never mind that, I'm just being too nosy for my own good. Come on then, and I'll see if we can't find you something suitable. ... Also, I need to replace my dagger anyway. Not your fault the dastard didn't return it, but still."

With that, he would gesture for Lily and Rolliam to follow as he strode forward into the blacksmith.

---

"... are you serious? Even I would struggle to wield that blade, and that would be while I was atop my wyvern, too. Show me the next one."

The blacksmith grumbled, moving away before returning with a well-made rapier. It wasn't the most ornate of that kind of weapon- a noble concerned with aesthetics would scoff at the notion of wielding such a blade. But even so, it showed the care put into its craft. Roland took hold of it, experimentally thrusting it into the air a few times. Then, he gave a pleased nod, and held the weapon out toward Lily, hilt facing her.

"Perhaps I am playing to cliches here. But, nonetheless, I do think this well be a blade well suited to you. It will not weigh you overmuch whatsoever, but also will not sacrifice power when wielded will. I've never used a rapier myself, but I've heard tell that skilled wielders have been capable of taking down heavily armored Isorian Knights and the well-bred horse riders of Dodon with them... in one mere blow."

 

Edited by EpicRome23

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"Phew, he will eat some hot food for once and It's not mine. Or is it?"

He closed the door behind him with a smug smile and made his way to them.



Rolliam was whistling behind them, as he added more and more groceries to make some great food. While he'd be considered the "woman" of the house, considering he finds joy in cleaning, making food, general household chores, he mostly took all this as part of his archery. As one would consider shooting an arrow as easy as, say, cooking, both of these have their little things to manage. Preparing the bow and finding a place to hide, climb a tree was just as beautiful as preparing all the utensils one would need for making a good, long lasting food. Aiming downards, as a ranger would acquire sight, was just as choosing the right way to cut the meat, in order to achieve the best crisp while cooking. All the little things that one would prepare to make the final action, holding the breath, calculating the trajectory would be compared to the required amount of precision you'd need to cut the fruits, if one wants all the cuts to be perfect by centimeter. He found joy in all these. He found joy in all that is difficult. He wouldn't like admitting, due to his brother fighting close ranged, but his thoughts around melee weapons are always... barbaric. He mostly can see it as flinging the lance left, right, above, down, but never doing the swooping, dance-like moves that he would dream of. 
He would see the battles as a certain form of art, where the brutality combines with the skill. He believed bows were fitting to art. The amount of time required to do a clean shot, as so no one would see the bowman. He appreciated art. Cooking was art, house chores were art for him. Bows were art.

And that was why he was stuck into his little, own world, where he'd consider every single fine detail about the grocery he'd pick. And that was filling his own time. He appreciated filling it with something he'd do. He never seemed to lose energy, even if he'd work for hours in a row, with no pause. 


He finally came back to them, greeted by Lily's shaky, shy words, her wish to wield a sword. Defence, self defence or straight up slaughter... She never looked like it, in any way. He kept it hidden, but he was concerned that her innocence was finally giving in, only for the violent nature of battles, the sudden realization of killing a man, the guilt. He went through this, but he managed. He could never forget the face of the first man he had killed, so he'd doubt if Lily will never lay, even if a single tear at only the thought of that. Such is life, though, he thought. If that's what it comes to, he can't say anything against it. After all, they might get in trouble soon. He nodded to Roland, after he made his way on the other side of Lily. It is what it is, anyways.

---

A snort could be heard from the door, as in mockery to the size of the sword. He looked at Roland, then at Lily, as he waited for the blacksmith to come back with another sword. A rapier, while at it. It looked far more different than other swords and could see some... moves with that.

"I agree. You know what I think of swords, Roland, but I like this rapier. While it might take a while to take down those..." He snorted again at the thought of it, "turtles of knights, you'll do just fine. Besides, I like its look. It's simple and well-made."

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A gamut of blades – many looking as if they were to be wielded only by those who expected to be unopposed – ending in the point of a rapier. Roland tested it first, flicked it back and forth, then handed it to her with a satisfied grunt. She whacked it about haphazardly, while the three men made sure to stand well out of reach. It was light, breezy, and made her feel just that much more. As if there was a spirit of adventure in the thing, and by being so imbued she, too, was given over to adventure.

The metal was warm, and blunt save the very tip, which was sharp as a thorn. Not much for killing, she thought. That was her favorite bit. Not unless she tried very hard to.

The two brothers started conferring with one another. “I’ve heard tell that skilled wielders have been capable of taking down heavily armored Isorian Knights and the well-bred horse riders of Dodon with them in a single blow.”

“Well, it might take a while to take down those turtles of knights,” Rolliam replied, “but I like its look.”

“Couldn’t you two just let me have my fun with it,” she said unhappily, “instead of keeping on about…that.”

Roland raised an eyebrow, as if to ask her – well, what was she intending on doing with such a length of metal, then?

But he said nothing. He turned to the blacksmith, handed over a silver coin. “Seems she’s taken a liking to it.”

The three of them headed back, Rolliam with his sack of food – some perishable for them to take away, but most of which was dried and ready to be squirreled away in the cupboards – and Roland with a small wagon piled high with clothing and other toiletries. All this to leave the safehouse better than they found it.

If only people took the same lesson to heart everywhere they went, Lily thought, then maybe she wouldn’t need the sword that now hung over her shoulder. But no, that was a child’s view; there were no real wicked in the world. Just people caught up in different webs, dreaming of different futures.

She turned the sword over and over at her hip, rested her hands on the hilt and touched it to see the way it felt. It was new, exciting, but all the same she couldn’t help but feel glum about it. Deep inside, she felt as if she’d accepted something unpleasant within her and in so doing, consigned another piece of her being to destruction.


The three set off at noon the very next day. Rolliam roused both Lily and his elder brother. The two of them had hit the beds as solidly as bricks, and awoke about just as easily. All the fatigue of the previous days which had built upon them, weighty as limescale, sloughed off in the hot baths and warm beds that the safehouse provided them.

Fresh horses, fresh food, fresh clothing. A fresh accomplice in Roland’s brother. It was a new day, and at last a journey of some weeks was to come to an end. They took the main road, no longer fearful, and made pace towards their destination at an easy trot.

The fortress city appeared a blot on the horizon soon enough. They broke for a late afternoon dinner on a grassy hillside in full view of Isore, all of their attentions held by the silhouette of the city. Some shadow must have passed over her face and remained there, for Rolliam spoke up after a little while. “Something bothering you, Lily?”

“Not in particular.” How long had it been? One month? Two? She couldn’t remember. “Maybe I just didn’t really think about where we were going.”

A little while later, she said, “I can’t believe it’s still there. After all that, and it’s still there. Abandoned by its Exarch.” Her voice sounded morose. “Not that he had much of a choice, I guess.”

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“I can’t believe it’s still there. After all that, and it’s still there. Abandoned by its Exarch.”

Roland looked at over Lily for a moment as she said this. Then, he nodded and turned toward the fortress city himself.

"The Walled City. No Isorians there now. They're all either holed up in Cortia, or fighting against the main forces over by Monzia. Well, and there's a fair few partisans in and around Sparmo who have been a thorn in the Knight's side. Aside from those, there's nobody in the lands of Isore now aside from bandits, highwaymen, and us, the Knight's forces. We rout whatever of those brigands we can in the midst of our duties, but we cannot spare the time and effort to police this entire region."

There was some regret in the tone of the Byrnian scout. He sighed, and then continued.

"We had no right prevailing in that assault, you know. The Knight thought it was ill-advised, that Isore would fall to nothing less than a proper siege backed by monstrous siege engines... which would inevitably lead to being flanked by Glian or Dodonian forces, pressing us between them and the Isorian defenders. But what happened instead, well, it was inexplicable. Somehow, Isore was not prepared for us. Like they somehow had received no word whatsoever of our impending arrival, even though a force of the size we sent could in no way avoid detection by Glia's spy network, if nothing else. The Exarch's elite guard were the only ones able to mount an effective defense. The majority of the regular guard didn't even make it out of their barracks..."

He shook his head after lapsing into silence for a few moments.

"This is all mostly hearsay, of course. As I said to you before, I was assigned to keep watch for incoming relief forces. Regardless, in the end, we felled Isore. The Exarch made his getaway under our noses, and the Ebon Knight holds the reins here now. Won't be very long now until you'll get to meet him in person, instead of just hearing me talk about him."

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The talk about the Walled City took over for the few hours that were passing by. Right after Rolliam had asked what's wrong, he kept his attention to them for a while, only to check on his quiver, pulling it from his back. He took an arrow, gently and spinned it between his fingers a few times, before resting it in his palm. 

"We had no right prevailing in that assault, you know. The Knight thought it was ill-advised, that Isore would fall to nothing less than a proper siege backed by monstrous siege engines... which would inevitably lead to being flanked by Glian or Dodonian forces, pressing us between them and the Isorian defenders. But what happened instead, well, it was inexplicable. Somehow, Isore was not prepared for us." The archer looked up at his brother, then back at the arrow, fiddling with its tip, as if an wooden, harmless toy was the killing product of a state-of-the-art fletcher. Rolliam never feared his arrows, for some reason.
"Since my brother was aiding to spot the incoming relief forces, I was assigned to send the word straight to the one we were under the command. Both of us are good at spotting even the slightest changes of details, but I would have a better advantage to not be caught, while running back to the command. Even though we chose the best available vantage point, we would still be under uncertain conditions, given our positioning. But... as Roland said... nobody came. It was an unfair, cruel, violent assault, where the defenders couldn't stand even the slightest chance. It was a massacre. But this is war for you."

He took a pause, after the long monologue. He showed no expression, outside the words he had spoken, as if he wouldn't care about the result. Truth is, he did. But for one who'd have to see the body of an enemy downed, with an arrow to the head, resting in a crimson pool... He'd have to get used to it. There was never a moment to mourn while putting his archery to work. Not even when he'd have to pull the projectile out of his victim.

"You can have the best spies, but."  "But... Let me rephrase." He straightened his voice in a fashionable manner, "What if the Glian spies saw them? We know there is a spy network and they are able to catch, at least, glimpses of everything. You know where I'm getting?"

"It sounds plausible to me, but it's probably unlikely, since the circumstances of war change all the time. But all I can say is that for one to win the war, he must lose a battle, if he has to. Sacrifice can be hefty, like the Walled City there, but a leader is more important than a thousand soldiers with no orders." He sighed. "I dislike making these comparisons, but that's the truth. This is coming from my perspective as a man. We may be enemies, Isore and Byrn, but I don't think anyone would take the Exarch as a coward, would it? He will, surely, come back to reclaim his land. I feel bad for the regular guards, too, brother."

He put the arrow back in the quiver and laid his back on the grass, exhaling loudly in the process. "Black Knight's squad is a good bunch. That's all I am going to say about them. It's up to you to decide, but they are nice people, Lily."

 

 

Edited by The Fire Heart

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“But this is war for you,” Rolliam shrugged. Resigned? Maybe she could understand. Even now, looking at the Walled City, Lily was filled with a sense of dread, but from far-away, as like thunderclouds on the horizon, or silence at dawn. A feeling that she knew she was supposed to feel, but not really feeling it. It was simply there. A limp corpse from limpid yesterdays.

The two brothers reminisced while they took their lunch, laid out theory and conjecture.

“It was inexplicable. We had no business winning that battle…”

“What if the Glian spies did see them?”

“They had received no word. Completely unprepared.”

“Sacrifice can be hefty…but a leader is more important than a thousand soldiers with no orders…”

If Lily were in sharper mind, if she cared enough to listen to what she heard, there might have been something interesting there. Something like a shadow of politics darkening the sky. But from where she sat, and from this particular vantage, all their words came off as nothing more than trivia. Truths that simply emerged for no reason from the business of war. In chaos, things as improbable as miracle sounded like a simple matter of fact.

The brothers weren’t trying to solve a great mystery of their time, nor were they concerned by the boons that the gods gave them. They only knew that these things happened, sometimes, and they would continue to happen. There was nothing more to do with any of that than pray for more miracles to keep them alive.

“Yeah. Accidents happen. I read – I read plenty of them. In history, I mean.” She watched the shadow of the city move across the plains. “I guess it doesn’t matter how or why it happened. Isore was always going to fall. And it happened, just like I knew it would. Doesn’t matter what anyone did.”

The breeze stirred up the grass. Underneath the only tree for miles, they watched the evening stretch long. Rolliam sighed.

“They’re nice people,” Rolliam said. “Really. The squad is a good bunch. That’s all I’ll say. Though it’s up to you to decide.”

She would decide for herself. Lily didn’t say that aloud.

She wasn’t going to trust the opinion of people like these two. But, as time went on, she wondered if she hadn’t started to understand them.

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"Spy network... Able to catch... glimpses of everything... You know where I'm getting?"

Roland mulled over these statements and the following question in the back of his mind, as he continued to converse with Rolliam. An idea, intriguing and terrifying alike in form, began to take shape as the dots connected in the Byrnian scouts. By the time that the conversation had trailed off, the idea had taken clear shape, a firm thought. And this thought... Roland could only wonder at it's implications. As he pulled the thought to the forefront of his mind for further examination, he turned his attention for a moment to give Rolliam a response.

"Oh, certainly. The Exarch will, in time, return. As like as not, with the support of Glia and Dodon at his back too. Though if I were to speculate, I'd chance that Vlad would recall us and the rest of the Knight's force to Byrn proper if the Exarch were to resurface at the head of such an army."

He took note of Lily's words about Isore, then. About how Isore was always going to fall. Destined, even. He melded this idea into his previous thought, while giving Rolliam's statement about the Knight's squad being a good bunch a supportive nod. He'd have to try to introduce her to Jill if he could- Lily seemed interested in the Exarch, and if Innes' ribbing had any basis in truth, she and Jill could find common ground in that regard.

But that was enough of pleasant, more lighthearted thoughts for the moment. Now, Roland turned his attention to that dark, burgeoning thought of his. Isore had been unprepared for their assault. The Glian spy network had to have caught wind of their advancing force- it would have taken a miracle on Byrn's end for them to have not done so. So how had Isore not been prepared? Judging by the reports from General Ephraim in Cortia, that city was like a porcupine curled up- impermeable, dangerous to try and strike at. And the defense there had been set up by a group that could only be a mere tiny fraction of the main Isorian force. So connecting those dots together...

There was only one conclusion to come to, wasn't there? Glia had to have seen them coming, but word had never reached Isore, somehow. A betrayal of their alliance by Glia? Someone within Isore who had doomed the city to fall? Interference by a third party en-route? The Byrnian scout could only speculate, and to what avail? ... He filed the thought into the back of his mind once again. He would have to bring this up with the Ebon Knight when he had the chance, when his commander wasn't busy with their guest or the affairs of command. That resolution made, he stretched and stood up, his gaze darting between Rolliam and Lily for a moment.

"Alright, I think we've lazed about here long enough. I doubt the Knight is waiting for us with bated breath, but probably best that we don't keep him waiting overlong."


In the scarred and battered Walled City itself, the Ebon Knight sat in the throne room of the Exarch's palace, staring down at reports laid all over the table before him. He sat not on the throne- it was not his, and well, it wasn't in the greatest condition for sitting anyways, after it had been tossed out a window to crush an unfortunate wyvern rider and his mount alike, aided by gravity.  No, he sat in the chair Madon had once favored in his meetings with his advisors and such. Opulent and comfortable alike, the informal equivalent to the throne. Like the rest of the palace, it was in the best condition of what could be found in the city still. The assault had been mainly concentrated upon the lower two tiers, and the forces that had eventually breached the palace had been under his own command, explicitly instructed to proceed carefully.

As he scanned the reports before him, the door to the throne room creaked open. A woman, with eyes the pink of rose quartz and crimson red hair in a ponytail, entered into the room and approached the Knight. He addressed her without looking up.

"Jill. You're later than I expected. Were you, perchance, having a look at the Exarch's personal chambers?"

Jill's expression was scandalized, and her frown deepened as a chuckle echoed from somewhere else in the room. She didn't bother looking for the source, she knew who it was.

"God, has Innes begun to rub off on you now, sir? Nevertheless, we just received word from the front gate. Rolliam has returned with Roland, along with some blue-haired girl."

The Ebon Knight looked up from his report, his gaze rising to meet Jill's.

"Excellent. Go on, then, and escort them here. That is, if you're done fantasizing about seducing the Exarch within his own chambers?"

Jill didn't even muster a response as laughter began to echo again from deeper in the room. Instead, she carefully nodded in response, then turned angrily on her heel and strode out of the throne room. After she had departed, the Ebon Knight threw a glance over his shoulder.

"You know, Innes... you're right, she is fun to tease. But heed my words, if the time ever comes for good relations between Byrn and Isore to be established, she will be the best one to forge that bond."

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Whistling was the first thing you'd notice when around the trio. Rolliam was, according to his experience, just on another simple trip, watching the vista of broken buildings, ruins and chaos with an intricate expression. Recent rain had probably washed most of the blood stains on the walls, ground and rubble, but the immense amount of dust would also play a factor in this. And in this way, Rolliam's view about life didn't change: Everything has a cycle, which involved its birth, the absolute apex and slow or... rather terribly quick downfall. Everyone knew The Walled City would fall in time, but nobody expected such a deep drop in one siege. He shrugged and went on his way, with a few other guards which led them to the Exarch's palace. The ruins were melancholic, along with the beauty of nature, slowly taking what had once belonged in the womb of nature back. 

-----

The Exarch's palace finally was within their lines of sight, from top to bottom. A magnificent look, in the middle of the destroyed city. Rolliam wished it would be taller, though.

"We're here. Magnificent, isn't it?" He said, not looking back at them, as he was slightly busy counting all the soldiers guarding the palace, as if he was going to be assigned to assassinate an important person from within it. But he was just bored, making steps towards the stairs, slowly ascending where one of Ebon Knight's most skilled persons was standing, waiting for them. It was Jill, with a face which would be easy to assume would murder anyone who makes another bad joke at the moment. Another spree of bad jokes coming from Innes? When they used to stay under the same roof with Jill and Innes, these jokes were running from day to night, accompanied with slaps and, probably, stepping on Innes' foot. He slowly smiled and regained his neutral expression back, waving at her slowly. At a close look, her face was red enough to take in consideration the posibility of steam coming out of her ears, in a cartoonish way.
"Yo. I guess you heard the news from the gate." He quickly moved his shoulders to balance the weight of his bag, which was still half full with food. "Roland has some... interesting news, to say the least. I think all of you have been waiting for this... For a while."

And so, Jill lead them to where the Ebon Knight was reading the reports. Rolliam had the same, bored look on his face while looking at the palace from the inside. Now it was up to his brother to explain the whole episode they went through, which he had been waiting for a while to hear. If Roland held out so much not to say much about it, this must have been more important than expected.

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The world can change so very quickly – beyond anyone’s ability to predict.

Who would have expected that upon his first visit to the Walled City, a place so long spoken of with hushed tones – a fixture in the fates and fortunes of every empire in the last thousand years, a city with history – Innes would end up walking up and down the Exarch’s own palace, scuffing dirt and ash down every carpet, stomping on the shattered portraits of an unbroken line of kings, sleeping in his bed?

The man wasn’t at all ashamed to admit that he liked it.

Nobody had dreamed of this, but the gods had seen fit to make it happen, and he should have everything and that some other man, who once had all this, now had nothing to his name. Sometimes, Innes stopped in the middle of a hall just to admire it. The audacity. He even felt bad for the Exarch. It sent a shiver down his spine to think of it. A city brought to its knees, a king put to flight.

So very quickly can the world change.

Once, when the duty of watching over this dead city had become too droll, he had even propositioned Jill to amuse himself.

“Suppose,” he said, squeezing her shoulder and walking his fingers round the nape of her neck, “the two of us went up to the Exarch’s personal chambers and fucked in his bed. Hm?”

Red as smoldering iron, she demanded a duel to the death on the spot.

That had amused him proper. She would have won, of course – so he ran, leaving behind coarse laughter like the braying of a monkey. But that was the way of things. Jill, too, was acutely aware of where now they stood, of how easily they trampled over the Exarch’s belongings both physical and ephemeral. She gave such wonderful reactions because she understood that they were capable, really, of destroying what little dignity remained in this city. They had been the axe that had levelled it; and now they were the rope that restrained its last stroke.

Innes made sport of filling the portraits with arrows. He shot the eyes out every bust. Those hollow holes watched him as he went through these ashen halls. Seeing a bastard. A bastard who was proud of it. That was an illusion. Honesty masquerades as pride to those who search for sin. Innes was nothing more than a man who was honest with himself. Or a bastard who was honest with himself, anyway.

The Ebon Knight may have disapproved, and may even have been disappointed by this tendency in him. But there’s faith in an honest bastard. Innes didn’t hate anyone, nor was he cruel – except perhaps to Jill, on occasion. He was loyal, faithful to his country, zealous in his action, and swift in rising to the occasion. If the next day, they found themselves in reversed positions, fighting alongside the Exarch, he knew that Innes would not have blinked, nor questioned it, nor act any less zealously to support him. If nothing else, you could trust an honest bastard.

Even if the bastard pretended to be obstinate.

“If the time ever comes for good relations between Isore and Byrn, Jill will be the best one to forge that bond.”

Innes sat by the window, watched the two scouts and girl come in. A flicker of familiarity, all too brief; then, forgetting it, he canted his head at the Knight’s gentle rebuke.

“Au contraire, sir, if there ever comes a time when Isore must be sacked, and its throne room turned out, and its people destroyed, and its king slain, she shall be the least prepared of them all,” he replied. “Ah. And I wonder when such a time might come about?”

Innes scuffed the ground with his boot, kicking up a cloud of ash.

He approached the table which the Ebon Knight had appropriated from the war room into the main hall. The man himself had not seemed to move from the table in the past month. Always thinking of war. Always thinking of how to hold the front together while they postured against the Glians in the north, quelled Isorian mainforcers in the south, and established lines in preparation for the great push soon coming. War, day and night. That was the business.

And the man still had the mind to think of impossible futures?

“Besides, there’s a reason they make sure political marriages are loveless. Peace between nations doesn’t come when both parties are thinking with their cocks.” Innes pulled up a chair. “I do wonder if sitting in his seat has made you sentimental. Or, god forbid, sympathetic. I suppose you may call me simple-minded, but the Exarch is at the moment, our enemy. Perhaps he is not the enemy, but he has fled now to that perfidious country, Glia. No doubt, they shall begin aggressive movements soon. I’m certain they will show us no mercy.”

It was all old news. Although the Knight made himself busy, the matters of establishing the front were routine and pedestrian. They all knew when the real uncertainty began to take hold, when the coins were to be tossed. They had been waiting for the day for a long time.

And now, the day drew close. The scouts’ arrivals heralded its approach.

Innes stood as the doors fell open, bringing the trio in.

“Roland. Rolliam.” He nodded to the two scouts. And looked at the third. “Is this the girl spoken of in your reports, Roland?”

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“... Ah. And I wonder when such a time might come about?”

The Ebon Knight shuffled a stack of reports to the side, pulling another one closer and beginning to scan over it before responding to Innes without turning towards him so much as a single inch.

"Three of those have already occurred, yes. And as for the forth, doubtless you hope to have that achieved sooner rather than later. But in any case, has Jill not performed admirably in that time? Do you have a grievance against her that you would like to voice while she is out of earshot?"

Whether he did or not, the Knight turned his attention back to the reports. Not much later, Innes began to speak again, pulling up a chair and sitting down just a bit distant from the Knight. For his part, he tilted his head slightly, his gaze focused on Innes for the moment.

"... No doubt, they shall begin aggressive movements soon. I’m certain they will show us no mercy."

"Of that much, you are absolutely correct about. However, you are focused greatly on the present, Innes, though I don't find that a great flaw. If I did, I might have a mind to send you off under General Ephraim's command. I have need of people like you to stop me from focusing too fully on the matters of the future from time to time. ... That said, there are those in Glia who seek the restoration of their stranglehold over Erasmia, you know. They seek to see their empire at it's greatest extent once more, and perhaps push those borders even further.  The fate of Isore, and her Exarch, is a pivotal facet of their plan, from what I can tell. You spoke of political marriages, Innes. But tell me, who does a pure political marriage benefit most? The most suitable candidates for the Exarch are one of the Princesses of Glia, or the Palatine. Anybody lesser would be an insult to a man of his status. Of the Princesses, Severa..."

There was the briefest flicker in the Knight's tone, that Innes would have to be paying close attention to notice. What had that been? Hesitation? Perhaps even a hint of longing? Whatever, the case, the Ebon Knight continued without missing a further beat.

"... she has certain proclivities, just as the rumors tell. Such a match would be infeasible. Anselm is less certain; perhaps it might work, but the anti-magic zealotry that still has roots in the old guard of Isore would certainly rear its ugly head. Not to mention, certain rumors about her own proclivities as well, though I'm unsure of the veracity of these. That leaves Olivia. Or the Palatine. And both of these, Innes? Play right into the hands of those Glian schemers. The former inextricably ties tight the bond between Isore and Glia, providing a cover that will allow the gradual annexation of Isore to not likely be noticed until it is too late. Similarly, a match with the Palatine ties Isore and Dodon together- a two-for-one deal, if only some time down the line. Now..."

He paused for a moment, letting loose a light chuckle.

"I suppose I should have accompanied my earlier statement with the rationale behind it. But better late than never. You see, Innes, I said that about Jill because that is a marriage that would certainly be unexpected. It would catch them off-guard, leave them scrambling to adjust their plans. It's not something I intend to force, mind you. But you'll see I've been subtly encouraging it, if you think back. It is... fulfilling the last orders Vlad gave to me, before whatever has overcome him as of late took root. To ensure Byrn's glory and prosperity, by whatever means I see fit."

He rapped a guantleted hand against the table for a moment.

"And if that requires pulling the wool over the eyes of Glians lost in delusions of past grandeur, to forcibly re-weave the grand web of Erasmian politics to draw both Byrn and Isore out of the encroaching grasp of Glia? Then that is what I intend to do, Innes."

At this moment, he looked over to the door, to see Jill entering with Roland, Rolliam, and the girl. He inclined his head slightly toward them, saying nothing.


“Is this the girl spoken of in your reports, Roland?”

Roland nodded firmly in response to Innes' question, and then turned his gaze towards the Ebon Knight as he spoke.

"Indeed, she is. I had a hell of a time getting her here, let me tell you. Let me go ahead and fill you in on what transpired after I sent my last report ahead..."

...

"... and that's everything. I apologize for the reports and notes and such I ended up leaving behind. Doubtless the Glians have every word within recorded and distributed by this point."

The Ebon Knight let out a sigh, and then shook his head.

"No, Roland, don't blame yourself overmuch for that. The Glian spy network would have come across that same information soon enough by other methods. All this means is that we'll have to expedite our operations here, and perhaps make our way back to Byrn earlier than expected. You've given me a lot to ponder, I'll call you back here when I have need of you."

With that, the Ebon Knight returned his attention to the reports on the table before him. Roland turned around and looked back toward Rolliam and Lily- only to frown deeply as he saw that she was very fidgety, consciously avoiding look at the two men sat at the table. Was the Ebon Knight so fearful to her? Or was the source of her fear somehow Innes? Whatever the case, Roland turned Rolliam and Jill.

"Rolliam, take her somewhere else in the palace, out of sight of the Knight and Innes. One of them seems to be spooking her, but I have no idea which. Jill, if you're not otherwise busy, could you accompany them? Maybe it's something that another woman needs to help with, can't discount the possibility. I'll come join you in a bit, I just have something I need to ask the Knight."

Jill considered Roland's words for a few moments. She wasn't particularly busy with anything at the moment. So, that considered, her choices at the moment were to stick around, and likely be on the receiving end of more of Innes' ribbing... or accompany Rolliam and this girl. The decision wasn't a particularly hard one, all told. She laid a light hand on Lily's shoulder, and started to steer her out of the the throne room and into the hallway leading off to the right- also the direction of the Exarch's personal chambers. Roland stood somewhat awkwardly, waiting to catch the Ebon Knight's attention. As he stood there, an orange bird flew in from a nearby open window, landing on the Knight's shoulder. It's black, beady eyes seemed to focus on Roland for a few moments, before it let out a pleasant chirp.

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