Granvelle was a kingdom ruled by lies before Emperor Arvis ascended, but it was worse afterwards.
I laugh and laugh whenever travelers say that Arvis improved the kingdom's lot before his wife was murdered. If things improved in Granvelle or the southern kingdoms, I couldn't say, but it was after Arvis took power and handed 'stewardship' of Issach over to his sycophant Dannan that my village was sacked. It was in his name that every able-bodied adult was slaughtered to 'root out the remaining rebellion'. His soldiers brutalized and hung my mother, a cleric of Naga, for denouncing his massacre at Belhalla. Days later they burned our village to the ground, leaving my brother and I nothing but father's bow and mother's Silence staff for worldly possessions. All while that man reaped the rewards of our subjugation.
It disturbs me, how much I despise a man I have never met. A man who's son went mad after witnessing the murder of his mother, who's daughter is gone without a trace, a man who's now visible connection to the cult of Loptous has resulted in him being denounced as an abomination against all that is good. I am a cleric. I should pity him in spite of his wrongdoings. I try, by Naga, I swear I do; when I pray for Prince Julius's soul and Princess Julia's life I should pray for mercy upon their father. But he destroyed everything that I loved, and I know that if I were to meet him, tell him the names of my parents and the fact that they are dead because of him, he would not know who I was speaking of.
My parents were not high born, like Lady Brigid of Jungby, Prince Jamke of Verdane, Queen Tailtu of Freege and Sileese or mine own Princess Arya. My mother was not a bishop like Lord Claude, my father not a mercenary of renown such as Beowolf the Steel Hurricane, Eyrnis the Valkyrie or Holyn of Sophera.
Emperor Arivs and his like would not know them from pebbles on the ground, and my loving, devoted, pious parents would be dismissed as though their lives were just as meaningless. Lord Sigurd might have seen their worth, but there are few lords like him, and fewer still after his death.
Lady Edain is one of them. Prince Shannan saved Demnie and I from the side of the road where we begged for scraps and hid from the child hunts, but it was Edain who brought us into her home. She dried our tears, taught us how to read and write, sang our nightmares away, brought us into her broken heart, raised us among the children of her friends as though we came from her own womb. She ensured we remembered our parents, as we aged and those terrible memories were dulled by time and a peaceful existence. I will never have the words for how much I love her for it. Edain is as much my mother as Myra, a cleric who kept her vows.
A few, here and there, crudely implied that she would not be so loving and good had she not been barren. That she was merely playacting at having heirs. Deimne ensued that they never repeated those foul words again. Larcei and Ulster helped with great enthusiasm. Perhaps I should have chastised them, but I cannot bear the thought of the ignorant heaping disdain and humiliation upon a loving woman who has already lost so much.
I barely remember the village I was born in; as I grew, all I can recall are scattered memories of my parents and our burning house; a few frantic nights in which Deimne and I hid from the priests of Loptous as they hunted for children amongst the ruins and roads. There is a feeling of loss, when I dwell on it, but it is muted. Most of my sadness is rooted in my parents. Lady Edain has lost everything I have and more; she was a woman grown when she was forced to flee her ancestral home, knowing it was handed over to Arvis's toadies. She lived through the Belhalla massacre, in which her husband, her sister and her friends were slaughtered like animals. She lives in exile here in this hidden village, far from everything she ever knew...but she smiles for us children, burying her grief to give us happiness. It is the same for Shannan and Oifey...
...And I have nothing to give back to them.
Their grief made me decide, in spite of my mother's fate, to become a cleric. I want to heal people, comfort and council them. I want to bring them words of comfort from Naga and the other gods. I want save lives, to reunite people with their loved ones. I want to be a bringer of hope and happiness, to drive back the despair hanging over those scorned by fate. Larcei and I swore on our eighth birthday that we would save people; Larcei would use her sword to smite the wicked, and I would use my magic to heal their victims.
I worry about Larcei sometimes; anger burns very brightly in her heart. She's a good person at heart, but she's impulsive, and feels so intensely; it's easy for her to make mistakes. Ulster is a bit more practical than her, though he achieves this by burying all his feelings. He's too calm, enforces too much discipline upon himself. Standing next to him...it's like looking down a deep well. Dark, remote, and when you shout down it to see if he's still there, his response is brief and distant. I worry about him too.
Diarmund does his best to keep his spirits up; his natural charm inspires people with little effort on his part. I think Demine is more affected than most, though he tries to hide it. For him, I fear that he may not get the chance to reunite with his father Sir Finn, infamous knight of Leonster, who still lives in spite of everything. For now. He is in my prayers, but even what little information about him and Prince Leif that reaches us is dire.
Shannan and Oifey, each in their own ways the closest I have to a father, have been training my brother and my friends to fight ever since they were old enough to hold weapons. Perhaps their holy blood aides them, but I'm in awe whenever I watch them spar (and tend to the inevitable cuts and bruises). They fight like gods of war.
I...am not sure why I am writing this, now. A strange and dark premonition has been hanging over me as Seliph, lord Sigurd's son and upon who's shoulders rests the hopes and prayers of an entire continent, approaches his nineteenth birthday. More and more refugees are trickling into Tirnanog, sometimes brought here by Shannan, sometimes they arrive alone – beaten, bloody and utterly without hope. The cult of Loptous is getting worse. Their Archbishop exploited Prince Julius's madness to the point of being Emperor in all but name. Taxes increase, child hunts run rampant, anyone who protests is thrown into labor camps to be worked to death. They're preparing for something, and Arvis's puppet lords are either in league with them, sadistic enough to profit off it without a care, or too stupid to understand what is happening right under their nose.
...There's also talk of rebellion. In the Manster District. The son of the deposed Leonster royals, against all odds, has escaped imprisonment and is rallying all who will answer to the banner of Gae Blog and Nojurn. So very little news of it reaches us, it is impossible to tell gossip and fiction from facts. But ever since he's heard of this, Seliph...a change has come over him.
A change. Hah. I can't even be honest with myself in my own journal. Seliph is the son of Empress Deirdre, same as Prince Julius. It is known now that she and Sigurd were legally wed by Lord Claude before she lost her memories and was discovered by the Emperor. By all rights, he can remove his sickly brother from the throne and reclaim Belhalla from Avris and the cult.
Seliph will go to war – not because he believes the throne is his right, but because it is the right thing to do! I know he hates listening to people suffer, unable to do anything to prevent it. He hates surviving at the expense of others. Seliph feels so deeply, loves so much, is so fiercely just that...that I knew, in my heart, that some day he would depart for war.
The mere thought terrifies me. Shannan and Oifey told us many stories so we children would not glorify war or anticipate it eagerly. Death, loss, being unable to save everyone...my heart bleeds knowing that going to war means cutting down conscripts, bringing to the battlefield people who would never return. And of course...going to war means any of us could die. My precious people could die terrible deaths.
But...but if Seliph goes... ...It would break Seliph's heart, to kill. That is why...I need to go with him...
...That is the church bell. Something's happening. Something terrible. '
Murine dropped the quill and didn't bother to cap the ink bottle. Rushing to her closet, the tolling of the bell ringing in her ears, she threw the doors open. First she grabbed the heavy long coat with leather armor sown inside; it was very basic protective gear, designed mainly to protect her from stray arrows and snipers. Putting it on without Edain's help was difficult, and she wasn't sure she'd buckled it properly, but desperation guided her hand to a temporary solution. Then she reached in, grabbing in one hand the slim, plain wooden middle of the Heal staff Edain had gifted to her mere weeks ago for completing her training. She fumbled with the leather strap, winding it around her wrist, then pushed her coat aside to regard her oldest treasure.
Her mother's Silence staff was ornate, with thin streams of gold winding throughout the wood which hummed with magic as she took it out. “Oh Naga, we need your protection now,” She pleaded. “Mother, please intercede for me...even though I may break the vows of clerics in the coming days. This must be done.”
If either had heard her prayers, Murine could not say she knew for certain, but she ran from the room with Silence strapped to her back and Heal in her hand with singular purpose.
When the bell rang twelve times, it told everyone in Tirnagnog to get off the streets. The warning system had existed for as long as the village itself, and twelve tolls meant everyone was in danger. Murine could smell no smoke and heard no crackling on the wind; this was no forest fire. The day had finally come; their home had been discovered. Shannan had warned them that it was a matter of time, since he was so active in resistances efforts against Dannan. Eventually some spy or mole would get lucky and follow him back here. That meant that whoever was coming was looking for the prince, not the 'Light Inheritors', the generation of lost lords and ladies who's names were whispered as prayers among the suffering and downtrodden.
Those men didn't know what to expect. Would that surprise be enough for them to turn the tables?
The streets buzzed with the small fraction of Shannan's militia who remained behind to guard the civilians. Murine ducked past the first few who tried to get ahold of her, weaving between mothers carrying their babies and the elders, who had to lean on their sons and grandsons as they tried to flee. The human tide was orderly despite the panic. The men here were well trained and Shannan had long since previously drilled in contingencies for discovery.
“Lady Murine?” One of the older men gasped when she narrowly dodged around him. She knew him fairly well; he was a knight of Jungby who'd spent years searching for his lost liege lady after being thrown out of his home for not supporting the puppet ruler. When he'd first seen her, clinging to Edain's leg, he'd called her lady, and continued to do so after he was told who she was. “Why aren't you in the abbey? Where's Lady Edain?”
“She is with the children,” Murine replied between gasps. Drawing herself to her full height, she squared her shoulders and tried to inject some of Larcei's burning confidence into her voice. “Where is Seliph? Larcei and Ulster? I have to go to them.”
Sir Domeric gave her a slightly pained look. “They've gone out to hold the gate, my lady. We've few enough men with Prince Shannan out on his mission. Prince Seliph would not hear my attempt to dissuade him, and Princess Larcei...”
“There was nothing you could have done about her,” Murine promised him. Then she gave herself a shake. “Very well. I shall go to the gate as well.” Sir Domeric opened his mouth to argue, so she cut across him for the first time in her life. “Is there any sign of Sir Oifey and his patrol?”
“His messenger bird arrived yesterday. He's close, but you cannot count on them arriving for the battle.”
“Then we shall have to hold the line,” Murine responded. “I shall run no longer. Please, Sir Domeric, go and assist Edain with everything she requires. She will be overburdened.” Her mother could still fight, though her talent with magic tomes had lain dormant in the years after she reached the safety of this small town. But Edain's first priority would be saving the villagers, protecting the small children and the elders and everyone who could not fight. She would need help.
Perhaps Larcei's 'assertiveness' training had borne some fruit, for Sir Domeric stared at her for a moment before bowing his head and following the crowd of villagers to the edge of the town where the abbey loomed. Letting out a shaky breath, Murine turned on her heels and hurried east, toward the gate, toward war and a fight she would either win or die within.
She was out of breath by the time she reached the iron gates. I should have joined Shannan's training from time to time, came the belated realization. There aren't enough horses to go around. Horses were expensive, and jealously guarded by lords and mercenaries alike. Coming to a stop so she could catch her breath, she looked through the gates out into the world. Tirnagnog was surrounded by forest cover that slowly thinned out to the edges of the plain beyond; rumors of people disappearing into the trees and never returning long predated the Empire's reign. Murine hadn't seen any fairies since the day she arrived here, but it was enough to make her wonder... Neither trees nor fairies were on her mind in that moment, however, because she could hear metal crashing and angry shouts (damn it, Larcei!) beyond the trees.
Starting a fight without a healer nearby? Seliph, you should know better! Grunting, Murine put her hands on the gates and shoved as hard as her skinny arms would allow. Lord Sigurd, if you're watching, help me protect your son... Slipping between the iron bars, she adjusted her coat and leather armor, tightening the straps. Then she rushed into the forest, darting between massive ancient trees as she followed the sounds of battle.
Her knees were buckling, she realized dimly. As the racket from the battlefield drew closer, she faltered, chills going down her spine as she peered out from behind a tree, casting her gaze around for her friends.
She found Ulster first, grabbing a horse's bridle mid-stride and hauling himself up onto its back behind its rider even as it galloped forward. Slamming the hilt of his sword into the back of the man's head, he threw the soldier from the saddle and pulled the reigns hard, circling the clearing to her far right and heading back toward the battle. You're horribly intimidated by horses, Ulster! That was so well known it was practically a running joke with Deimne and Diarmund. That's impressive... where's Larcei?
The twins were never far from each other in most things; and sure enough, when Ulster dropped off the horse Larcei appeared seemingly out of nowhere and smacked it in such a way that the animal instinctively lashed out with its hind legs. The knight coming up behind Ulster took the kick to the face, was thrown several feet and didn't get up. Murine couldn't see Larcei's face, but she could almost hear her friend laughing as she petted the horse's mane in apology. In her free hand she held a gleaming serrated blade; her mother's Brave Sword, left with Edain in case she didn't return from Belhalla. It was stained thickly with blood.
They wouldn't let Seliph out of their sight; they considered themselves his bodyguards so long as he fought on foot with them. Seliph was learning to ride, though he was yet to have a horse of his own. So Seliph had to be... Out at the front. Leading his tiny army, putting his life on the line same as any of them. Shannan said a few times that there was a lot of Lord Sigurd in him.
Murine left the tree cover, walking across the battlefield with her head held up, following the flash of blue and silver and trying to ignore the bodies already strewn across the field. No sign of archers, or else Ulster and Larcei would be moving frequently to stay out of range. There were more soldiers on the horizon; apparently they'd expected the first few soldiers to take the village easily. More fool them.
“Seliph!” The blue haired prince was standing admist several bodies, free hand clenched into a fist. There was no one near him at that moment; though even as the thought crossed her mind a horn blast sounded from over the hill. The rest were coming. Mercifully, he did not seem hurt except for an admittedly worrying slash across his right shoulder.
Seliph spun around at her voice. “Murine?! What are you doing out here? You should be in the abbey!”
“Hold still,” she responded, raising her staff and pouring magic through it into the wound. Seliph closed his eyes for a moment, murmuring his thanks, before defaulting right back to confusion and alarm. “Ah, you'll need better armor...” She looked over his shoulder at the distant hill; horses were spilling over it towards them.
“Murine...” Seliph's expression shifted between several emotions too quickly for her to confidently identify all of them. “Go back and help Edain. The battlefield is no place for a cleric. It's too dangerous. You...you aren't a soldier.”
...It is not wholly wrong. I'm trembling. I can't seem to stop.
But...no. She raised her chin and squared her shoulders back. “If Edain were here she would tell you what she told your father; I will not hide while my precious people risk their lives! I am a cleric, yes, but I have more to offer than prayer alone. You need someone to heal the troops and counter enemy mages. Seliph...Prince Seliph...where you go, I go.”
Seliph stared at her, his attempted stern expression softening. Murine swallowed; his beautiful silver eyes are drowning pits for the soul. Those eyes were both a vision of his royal bloodline and his gentle, gallant nature. She'd thought they were beautiful the day she met him, a seven year old girl hiding in Prince Shannan's arms, when romance was an abstract concept and the class divide between them was the minor obstacle conquered in so many songs and poems. Now those eyes seemed more gorgeous than jewels and stars; when she was thirteen she realized she loved him while treating his fever; he'd been looking up at her, calling her an angel.
No matter how laughable it was, a peasant girl in love with Naga's descent.
“I...I see. I'm sorry, Murine.” Seliph bowed to her. “Thank you.”
Laughter rang from behind them. “You're such a dunce, Seliph! Yeah, let's go to war without a healer, that's a great idea! What could possibly go wrong?” Larcei teased, throwing one arm around Murine's shoulders, effectively startling her out of her blushing state.
“Strictly speaking, dear sister, you ran off to fight a war without a healer,” Ulster deadpanned, dodging Larcei's retaliatory swipe with practiced ease. “Seliph at least attempted to strategize before getting into the thick of things.”
“I had a strategy.” Larcei informed him with great dignity, hefting the Brave Sword. “This is my strategy. It went off without a hitch.”
Murine watched the soldiers draw closer, her heart hammering. “What should we do now? They're getting closer.”
“Into the trees,” Seliph responded immediately. “None of the horses can fight well within the tight spaces, and any archers among them will be hampered by the decreased visibility. Mages might be a problem, but it will give us breathing room.” He frowned. “Let them come close enough to see us flee into the trees. Be mindful of our proximity to the village.” He visibly hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I hope that Oifey, Demnie and Diarmund reach us soon.”
“They should be close,” Murine offered. She clutched her mend staff tighter even as she said the words.
“Go!” Seliph ordered, cutting off Larcei's no doubt sarcastic rejoinder. Ulster swore and grabbed his sister, hauling her several steps before she entered the forest on her own free will, the four of them scattering amidst the trees; Ulster and Larcei going in separate directions while Seliph placed a hand on Murine's shoulder and murmured, 'stay close', leading her through the undergrowth. She nodded. She had not learned to use magic for anything other than healing; she had the ability and affinity to use magic the way Edain had in the later years of the war, but she had not started the discipline. It chilled her, the thought of taking lives. I've seen so many corpses in my life, starting with my parents. I remember standing outside the village gates, looking in on burning corpses while the air stank of cooked meat and ash. After that, when I began to my training with Edain, I had to tend to the refugees, the 'serfs' Shannan rescued. Broken bones that had never healed, poisoned blood and rotted flesh...I can't fathom how someone could willingly inflict this on others.
Seliph gave her a worried look, as though he could hear her thoughts. “I will learn,” She told him softly.
“You don't have to,” He said, “We'll have enough men to fight.”
Murine started to respond, but clapped a hand over her mouth when the whistling of horse riders sounded at the edge of the treeline. Seliph grimaced and drew the silver blade that had once belonged to his father. Placing himself between Murine and the direction of the sound, he began to walk forward, shoulders squared and head held high. Murine pressed her hands against her knees, eyes closed. Stop shaking. Straightening up, she took a few steps after her prince, hiding herself within the shade of the undergrowth. There was no point in coming out if she turned herself into a hostage after all.
Screams broke out further down the treeline. Older men, not Larcei or Ulster. Murine winced. She hoped that she'd be able to reach the twins if or when they were injured.
Then it happened. A soldier burst through the thicket, and Seliph reacted in a split second – ramming his sword into the grizzled man's gut. The man let out a sickening choked sound, flailing wildly – Seliph ducked just in time to avoid loosing his head to the ax swing. Then he yanked the blade out, and the man crashed to the ground, twitching a few times before lying still. Murine watched as Seliph froze up and clamped one hand over his mouth, forcing down the bile over his first true battle if not his first kill. Any thought to comfort him was interrupted by shouting close by – Seliph rallied quickly, bringing his sword up.
Murine leaned against the tree, pressing her staff against her chest, both fearing and – much to her surprise – resenting her helplessness. The feeling faded quickly...a cleric is a figure of compassion...but it surprised her. I won't run from this.
“Oh, gods.” Demnie was just glad the forest wasn't on fire. He'd seen enough fire for one lifetime. “They really found us!”
“It was going to happen eventually,” Oifey's voice was stoic except for the smallest hint of anger. It made Demnie's hair stand on end. There were three things in this world that should be universally feared – a red sky at sea, a night without the moon, and the fury of a kind man. Oifey's kindness had long held under the cloud of his depression, but it was consistent, and so open – he'd taken Demnie under his wing and given him the same education and training as the princes and princesses he lived with.
The lingering rage...the old hate....it didn't come out often. Demnie wasn't the best judge of these things, but he thought that Oifey was ashamed of the depths of violent hate he felt toward the Empire. He'd lost everything when the Empire was founded as surely as Demnie himself had lost everything in the wake of the Emperor consolidating power.
“Someone's fighting out front,” Diarmund noted, his usual cheer completely absent. “There are bodies out on the field.”
Demnie rubbed his mare's mane. “I'm sorry, girl. Can you manage one last stretch? We have to hurry.” His faithful mount snorted and stomped her hoof; of course he could only guess what she was really thinking, but he took that as an assent. “Extra sugar cubes tonight. I promise.” Then he took his bow from his shoulder and spurred her forward.
His teeth rattled a bit at the speed. It was only recently that he'd learned to shoot arrows from horseback. The horse had to be extensively trained to respond solely to direction from his legs and he had to keep his balance as she hurtled forward at a canter. It had been grueling work, and more than once he'd fallen from the saddle. It was worth it, though. To be able to fight in the army and bring down the armies that had slaughtered his village and so many others, and place his friends on their rightful thrones.
It would be worth it. Seliph, Shannan...they would both be compassionate, able rulers. Diarmund would face trouble, but unless the Hezul Major miraculously turned out to be alive, his people would have to turn to him. Diarmund wasn't particularly enthused at the thought; but he'd step up if needed, and he would win them over. He was good at that...at winning people's hearts. Even if it means they'll be lost to you? You'd be nothing but their sellsword, or soldier if you are visible and popular with the masses. Nothing more. No one will forget where you were born.
Demnie stomped on that thought with some effort. He made sure not to look over his shoulder at the golden haired heir of Hezul. I have more important things to worry about. Wait...is that – is that Larcei? As he hurtled into the plains, he saw a familiar dark haired figure burst out of the forest, throwing a body to the ground before dropping into a roll, dodging a thrown ax meant to catch her in the back.
Shifting his weight pointedly, Demnie immediately drew an arrow and notched it. As soon as the man in basterdized Neir colors emerged from the woods several dozen yards away, he let it loose and watched it hit the man squarely between the eyes. He dropped like a stone.
Larcei whirled, laughing and waving her sword when she saw him. “You're late!” She yelled at him when he hurtled up to her. “We've basically mopped up here! They should have sent more men!”
“They will send more men,” Deimne said, the mix of relief, exasperation, and lingering fear making him a bit sharp tongued. “Look at this. This is barely an advance force, meant to raze an unresistant village. It will get much worse than this!”
Larcei's expression immediately took on a mulish scowl. “Let them come. It's time to take it back – Issach, Granvelle, everything! Right Seliph?!”
Demnie damn near had a heart attack when a bloody Seliph emerged from the trees, flanked by Ulster and Murine; what the hell was she doing out here? Diarmund trotted up beside him, followed shortly by Oifey, who upon seeing Seliph seemed to age an entire decade in a moment. Demnie swallowed hard, dismounting and hurrying over to his sister and his prince.
“Are you alright, Seliph?” The blue haired royal smiled in a sweet, natural way that was so him it nearly took Deimne back to the day he'd met him. “I'm fine, thank you. Murine healed me, and kept me from some stupid maneuvers.”
“You were at a disadvantage guarding me,” Murine fretted, hovering around his right shoulder. “I had to give you what little backup I could.”
“You came out on the front lines? You can't fight!” Demnie protested.
Murine gave him a Look that he would usually associate with Larcei, not his humble, shy, soft-spoken sister. She didn't even say anything, having clearly spent the words on Seliph already. Despite wanting to rant, rave and plead with her, Demnie knew a loosing battle when he saw one. He was never good at denying her the meager few things she'd wanted, and he knew that if he tried to make her stay behind, she would simply follow behind the army on her own initiative.
“...So you've made your decision,” Oifey murmured, looking at Seliph. Instead of cringing, as he often did when Oifey spoke in such tired tones, Seliph merely raised his head and met his mentor's gaze steadily. “I knew this day would come...though I never gave up hoping for just a little more time.” He let out a breath. “Seliph...return with me to Tirnagnog; show yourself to the soldiers there. We cannot wait for Shannan to return with his men. We must march for Ganeishire now.”
Seliph nodded. He was short of breath, Deimne noted, and his face was flush with adrenaline. He would crash later, he was sure, but now the prince looked like a warrior. “Yes. Larcei...Ulster...”
“Yeah yeah,” Larcei sighed, one hand on her hip. Deimne tried not to stare; she was damned distracting, even when splattered with blood. Damn it. Were all of Od's blood so gorgeous?
“We should go see Edain.” Ulster said softly. “She'll need to know, and we should figure out if she's staying behind or coming with us.”
Diarmund frowned. “We can't leave Tirnagnog unprotected. Not after they hid us for years.”
“We won't,” Seliph promised. “But if we're going to do this...well...Edain should have the offer presented to her. This is her fight as much as ours.”
Murine nodded, though she didn't speak. She kept looking at Seliph, though, in that quietly awed manner that made Demnie wonder if Seliph was the densest man alive, or just quietly trying to discourage her by feigning as much. 'Sister...please, don't'. He thought sadly. 'No matter if we win or loose, peasants only marry princes in the songs.'