The campfire yet crackled and breathed between us. Mia sat across, bound up in a blanket, but seemingly scarce of the spirit of sleep—not after so wild a wolven invasion.
It was then that she unshrouded herself of the warming cover, and with it in her arms, stepped over to my side.
“…Master…” she said, “…here…”
An offering of her blanket, perhaps out of pity, for my own was unmade in the midst of the struggle. It laid nearby, sundered to shreds, a sight Mia had been fixed upon for some while now.
I shook my head. “That’s yours, Mia.”
Her shoulders drooped. “…all right…”
Never has Mia insisted against my word. The same held true here, and so with a visage veiled in sorrow, she slowly began her way back.
“Mia,” I called to her. “Come.”
On her return, I took the blanket from her arms. Enshrouding my shoulders with it, I then held up Mia herself…
…and sat her down right before me. And after enclosing my arms around her, we watched the fire together.
A rare moment of gladness for the sheer girth of my body, for it well-sheltered her small figure. Comforted by the thought, I then more snugly surrounded us both in the blanket.
“It’s coldest now till dawn. We’ll be warmer this way.”
A murmur of an answer, accompanied with a nod. The fire popped and pittered on, its pall of warmth waxing and waning under the weight of the night sky.
“You were brave there, Mia,” I broached, “saving my waterskin like you did.”
“But you should know. Both it and you are precious to me.” A pause, and a shake of the head. “Nay… You, more so. Be not too reckless from here on, will you Mia?”
“Very good. Still, you have my thanks,” I said, before patting her softly on the head. “A tad thrilling for a night, wasn’t it? Can’t catch a wink now. Not with these frayed nerves.”
With tired intent, we gazed into the fire, our faces aflush from the redness of the rising sparks.
“Say, Mia. You’re attuned to the covenants, yes?” I began again. “Which sort, exactly? I’d like to tell you my name, if its nature permits.”
“…that… I don’t know…”
Indeed. Even now, Mia knew not my name.
The covenantal magicks confer upon their recipients some influence, the manner of which are as myriad as the stars above us. By her words, Mia was not yet wise to what she was able. It follows, then, that controlling it was a forgone conclusion.
“…bad things… might happen…” she went on, “…so… I can’t…”
“Can’t know my name,” I finished for her, sighing. “…Of course not.”
Our little fire sputtered on, spilling up its sparks from time to time.
How quiet the benighted woods were. Quiet enough that had I let my mind drift off for long, I might’ve thought Mia and I were the only ones under the bountiful boughs.
A peaceful moment.
And thus, the perfect moment.
“…Mia,” I said heavy-heartedly. “…I must confess.”
“I’m… I’m a commander in this war. I give orders. I make decisions. It’s my livelihood.”
“Your father, he… he was killed by one of my men,” came the words I dreaded most to air. “…It was during a pursuit. One I well-forsook. But the soldiers lent no ear. So they instead chased down your father and his brethren, and… and…”
“…It’s all my fault, Mia. I couldn’t reign in my own men. I couldn’t stop the killing. I couldn’t save your father.”
“And all that’s happened to your family, your friends, your home—my hands, too, are bloodied with them, I think.”
With those words, I found my fingers clenched in a fist.
“…I came to this land. Took up the post. Turned things ’round. That’s when the war here began to change. Enough to give Men more daring than before. Enough to birth a massacre.”
And then, upon that fist, warmth.
The warmth of Mia’s little hand, alighting upon my own.
“…there is blood… on both sides… everyone… has something precious to protect… that is war…” she spoke at length. “…this… Papa said to me…”
“…He did, did he…”
“…when I saw them… the Men… I knew… they would have come for us anyway… whether next month… or next year… no matter what…”
A point most certain.
Even before Balasthea’s fortunes were turned, the Fiefguard had ventured no few forays into these Nafílim grounds. To attack, to pillage… Indeed, Mia’s village stood well within the path of that flood. It was, perhaps, only a matter of time before its flows would come washing through.
An inevitable tragedy, then. A consolation of rationality. But one that ill-salved what sore misgivings I yet harboured for it all.
Oh, what a fool I am.
Numb-witted. Wasting on with my follies. Fumbling at every turn.
What good does it do? To point the chiding finger? Whether to myself or others? Blood on my hands or no, our beloved lost are forever beyond all finding.
And suppose the fault lies not with me. Suppose the fates had the tragedy jealously scribed into their fell script.
What of it?
Would accepting it prove to me the long-sought salve?
Nay. To those dearly departed, whether from Mia’s violated village or in more massacres to come, these worries—they are all as whispers set the wind, for the dead, though solemn in their silence, see more clearly than the living ever can.
This, I know.
All too well.
But this barb upon my bosom pricked no less painfully.
Had I not come to this land, would Mia and her family have fared a different course?
Would they yet be whole and happy?
A hurting thought.
A haunting woe.
A visitor in all my waking hours.
A gentle voice.
Like a hand, lifting me from the mire of my lamenting mind.
Small, yet strong.
Indeed, there was strength in her little fingers as they held fast my own hand. More strength than I ever knew was in them. And to know it only now was enough to have me taken aback.
“…it’s not your fault… it’s not…” she said softly. “…please… don’t be sad…”
“…Did I seem sad?”
Never have I thought the brand of the ungraced to be a burden.
Never have I let myself sink into sorrow in my time at the Order.
But since coming to this land, since meeting Mia—this entire time, I’ve been in pain.
This entire time…
…I’ve been sad.
Long have I held back the tears. Long have I denied them their due course. On what account but some paper-thin pride.
And yet, I’ve been weeping away this whole time.
Weeping. On and on.
Mia’s hand was upon mine. And so upon it did I place my other. And upon it did Mia do the same.
Our hands—all together.
“…finally… finally… you’ve opened up…”
In her voice was tenderness. Vast, and warm.
“You’re right. I’ve only ever wished to hear more of you… but somewhere along the way, I forgot to return the favour.”
“Rather selfish of me, I admit.”
“…can I hear more…?”
“…Of course, Mia,” I relented. Looking up to the long dark, I let out a deep sigh. “Right. Where to begin… Well. For starters, it was my dream to become a knight.”
There, before the flickering fire, did I begin to tell my tale.
A tale of a cherished childhood.
A tale of an aggrieved ungraced.
A tale of many battles, fraught and hard-fought.
Nothing was hidden in the telling. All was laid bare. Unsung happenings, untold thoughts—these and all were reminisced to Mia in the warmth of a wavering flame.
“…and that’s how I ended up here,” my voice carried through the wood. “An unknighted coistril, exiled to these far reaches.”
“…your… your once-betrothed…” Mia wondered. “…what of her…?”
“I’ve not seen her since. Not once…” My brows fell. “…And perhaps, not ever again.”
Across my arms then rolled a breath from Mia’s lips. A curious sigh, one of sorrowed sympathy, or seeming security.
“…your family, too…?”
“Them, too, sadly enough. Our paths are parted. Blood’s our only bond now, really,” I gave a sigh of my own. “I’m sorry. I must seem the fool to you, Mia. They’re all there, my family. Alive and well. And yet, I…”
“…no… not at all…”
It was the cold truth that in all the five years I’d spent at the Order, not a moment of it was set aside to meet Mother and Father. In fact, these feet had not found Buckmann soil in just as long. For her part, Felicia was quite the contrary, having gone back and forth a few times.
For her, I felt remorse. Despite my circumstance, I played the good brother as best I could. The role was ill-starred; I did naught but betray her hopes in the end. “Heroic performance” indeed. No wonder why she’s now withered of all warmth for me.
“Mother. Father. Thinking on it, neither of them ever had any love for me, really. Of our time together, I scant recall,” I continued. “What about you, Mia? Any outings you’ve had with your own family?”
“…yes…” she answered, tinged with bittersweet brightness. “…Hensen… once a year… we all visited Hensen…”
“Hm. Warm memories, I wager.”
“…there’s lemonade… made only in Hensen… my family… we all loved it…”
With the word echoing in me, I embraced Mia a tad more tightly.
“Let’s have some, then. Together, in Hensen.”
Should it be that the fates have denied Mia’s village of any further survivors, then our next course would indeed be the fólkheimr of Hensen. There would we seek out a wiċċa to unchain the thrallspell binding Mia to me.
Though, entering the Nafílim bastion would prove the greater toil and, perhaps, my bane. I am a kin of Man, after all. The braves there would sooner welcome me with arrows and magicks than open arms.
It must be thought on. I wished not for Mia to remain a slave for a second longer, thus did I dearly hope for a break in the clouds that might shine upon some path forward.
But in the meanwhile, Mia and I continued our conversation well through the night. Of us both did we equally share, at times remembering happiness, and others, recalling sore nostalgia.
The hours sailed on by, and before we knew it, the skies began to brighten.