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Leif had no idea where he was or how long he had been running. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop.

He and Asbel had been separated several blocks ago when an Empire mage casts a fire spell that accidentally caused an older house to collapse. He hadn’t seen Finn or Nanna since they fled the Duke of Tahra’s mansion. A group of Empire soldiers had been waiting for them by the exit of their escape route and tried to grab Nanna. Finn stopped to fight them off, telling the boys to run, and Leif hadn’t stopped since.

After losing Asbel and the mage who had been chasing them, he had been darting from alley to alley, trying to avoid being out in the open as much as possible. The rows of houses were narrow enough he could touch both sides without fully extending his arms so at least there was little chance of any soldier who did see him following him through here. Still, he didn’t slow down, desperate to get out of the city. The houses around him were becoming shabbier, a sign, Leif hoped, he was close to the edge of Tahra. Once he was there, he could find a place to hide and wait for everyone else. If he made it out, they would make it out as well. He couldn’t think otherwise.

Just as he was approaching the end of the alley, he heard voices. Skidding to a halt, he frantically looked around for something to hide behind. Seeing nothing, he backed into the shadows and pressed himself against the wall facing away from the direction the voices were coming from. Holding his breath, he prayed for whoever was out there to not look down the alley as they passed.

“Do you think we’ll actually catch the brat this time?” a man asked. It didn’t take much to guess the man was an Empire soldier and by brat he meant Leif. His heart was racing so fast he couldn’t count the beats as each footstep brought the men hunting for him closer.

“Probably not. He’s a slippery one. But at least we finally had an excuse to take Tahra so can’t say the kid doesn’t have his uses,” his companion answered.

The first soldier huffed. “Do you really think the people of Tahra will take the execution of their duke well? From what I’ve heard, he and his family are well liked.”

“It doesn’t matter how well liked you are if you’re caught harboring a known fugitive. And even if we don’t catch him, we have the testimony of two guards and a maid that the prince was here. That’s more than enough to sign his death sentence,” the second replied nonchalantly. The pair continued their conversation but were too far away for Leif to make out what they were saying. Not that he could have paid attention to anything else they said after that last remark.

Even after the soldiers were far enough away for Leif to continue on, he found himself unable to. Instead, he slid down the wall, coming to rest with his knees against his chest, head bowed. He was shaking, whether with fear, anger, or something else, he didn’t know. The soldiers’ words repeated mercilessly in his head. The Duke of Tahra was going to die. Linoan’s father, a kind man who told terrible jokes and bought flowers for Nanna, who instead of getting mad, laughed when Asbel accidentally set a curtain on fire, who showed off for Leif the swordplay techniques he learned in Isaach. This man was going to be executed. Just because he helped Leif.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened either. The King of Alster had also been executed after the Empire learned he had taken in Leif, as had Asbel’s father, a simple priest whose people turned on him for harboring the prince. When Leif asked Finn if this was his fault, Finn had denied it. But Leif had a hard time believing him back then. Now, it seemed undeniable.

Everywhere he went, whoever helped him ended up facing the wrath of the Empire, a trail of corpses and ruined lives left behind so he could escape unscathed. Asbel was an orphan, Linoan would be too, if she wasn’t killed along with her father. He had no idea what had happened to Miranda, the Princess of Alster. Even Finn had fought and bled more times than Leif likely knew just to keep him alive. Leif couldn’t think of a single person who had offered him aid and not paid the price for it.

That ended now.

Clenching his fists, he tried to will his shaking to stop. As he did, he made himself a promise. He would never again let someone else die for his sake. No one else would ever give their life in exchange for his. Even Finn, the unwaveringly loyal retainer he had inherited from his father. Finn had always been there for him for as long as Leif could remember. His first memory was of Finn carrying him away from a burning Castle Leonster. In a way, he was more of a father to Leif than the man whose face and voice he had long forgotten, if he had ever known them at all. He would not watch Finn throw his life away for something as pointless as him, an unworthy prince with no Major Holy Blood.

With this resolution in mind, Leif finally managed to stand. The shaking hadn’t gone away but he could ignore it as he ran. So he took off, running toward the edge of Tahra. But when he arrived, he didn’t stop, running straight into the trees lining the road. Away from the burning city, the darkness of night hid what lay ahead of him, each step a risk Leif didn’t consider. Leif had no idea where he was going or how long he would keep running. All he knew was that he couldn’t stop.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure about this Sir Ced?” Brighton asked, not for the first time, eyeing the forest around them suspiciously. The light from his torch took away from some of the eeriness of the unfamiliar woods, but not much. A glance from Machyua showed she shared his concern.

“Whoever this is has been going after those involved in the child hunts, just like us,” Ced repeated the point he’d made every time Brighton had questioned him. “Manster needs all the help it can get. It’s at least worth a shot.”

“That may be true, but their methods are a bit extreme,” Machyua countered. “More so that many in Manster would likely be comfortable with.”

“Then perhaps we can offer them a better way of dealing with the Empire,” Ced responded, undeterred. Whoever this mystery resistor was, he was determined to meet them. He needed to, not just to satisfy his curiosity.

“Sir,” Brighton hissed sharply. Ced stopped and looked in the direction Brighton was glaring. It was hard to see but something was moving slowly towards them. Now that none of them were talking, he could hear soft whispers and the rustling of movement.

Ced slowly stepped forward, being careful to remain in the light of the torch. He heard Machyua draw her sword and shook his head at her. She looked confused but obeyed, slowly lowering her weapon. Asbel shifted nervously next to him, standing on the tips of his toes as he tried to look over Ced’s shoulder into the darkness.

A shape gradually made its way into the outskirts of the torchlight. As Ced suspected, it wasn’t a person but a group of people, children to be exact. Five of them were huddled together, wide eyed and trembling. He had been in Northern Thracia long enough to tell they were definitely victims of the child hunts. But leading them wasn’t one of the Loptrian cultists or Empire soldiers.

The leader was hardly much bigger than the children but was definitely not one of them. His clothes were oversized and shredded, still wet with blood. His head was lowered, long brown hair obscuring his face, yet Ced swore he could feel the piercing glare underneath. One hand was clenched tightly around a sword and the other hovered near the tomes attached to his waist.

“We’re not here to stop you, we want to return the children to their homes just as much as you do,” Ced called out, slowly taking a step forward. The leader showed no visible reaction, which Ced chose to view as a positive. He wasn’t attacking or fleeing so maybe he could be reasoned with.

A sharp inhale from behind him momentarily distracted Ced as he turned to see Asbel, pale as a sheet. “Lord-” he began to say in breathy disbelief, but before he could finish, the leader finally spoke, cutting him off.

“Don’t.” The voice that came from the bloody figure caught Ced off guard. It was quiet yet sharp with authority and definitely not an adult’s voice. The thought had crossed his mind after seeing his small stature, but the confirmation was still unsettling. Add to that Asbel’s reaction and there was no chance Ced was letting whoever this was get away.

“Lord or not, you’re responsible for these children’s rescue and for that, you have my gratitude. Please, allow us to accompany you back to the village. It’ll be safer for the children if they travel with all of us,” Ced offered.

“Take them yourselves.” With that curt remark, the boy turned around and began walking away, back into the dark of the forest.

The now abandoned children all looked nervously at the Magi Squad. Ced sighed, frustrated but not surprised.

“Machyua, Brighton, Lara, take the children back to the village and make sure they find their way home. Asbel, come with me,” Ced ordered as he headed after the boy, not wanting to lose him in the dark. Any complaints from the others were ignored as he and Asbel plunged forward.

The boy didn’t have much of a head start on them nor was he running but he knew the area better than they did, making it easier for him to avoid them if he wanted. Ced hurried, looking for any sign of their potential ally. Asbel was struggling not to rush ahead, something about the other boy having agitated him greatly.

They finally caught up with him in a less dense section of the forest. He stood with his back still to them, as if reluctantly waiting. Ced had to put out his arm to prevent Asbel from running forward. The poor boy looked about ready to burst yet held his tongue as he fidgeted anxiously.

“I was hoping we could talk,” Ced began. “I’m the leader of a resistance group called the Magi Squad, we’ve been opposing and trying to end the child hunts in Manster. Word of what you’ve been doing has gotten around so we sought you out, hoping you would join with-”

“No.” The boy interrupted Ced’s speech then gave no indication of elaborating.

“No we can’t talk or no you won’t join us?”

“Take your pick.” Ced fought the urge to outwardly groan. Time for a different approach.

“If you won’t talk to me, will you at least talk to him?” Ced turned to Asbel, who looked at his teacher with surprised hope.

The other boy turned his head slightly, enough to confirm who Ced meant, before turning away again. “Just him,” he agreed, posture slightly less tense. Whether because he was resigned to this agreement or because of whatever connection he had with Asbel, Ced didn’t care. Progress was progress.

“Just him,” Ced confirmed. “I’ll go make sure the others made it to the village alright and find some supplies to take care of your injuries.” Ced released Asbel and began heading back the way they had come. Part of him was tempted to hang back and eavesdrop but that part was balanced out by the part that wanted to prove he was trustworthy and the part that was slightly afraid of the other boy.

As Ced’s footsteps gradually faded away, Asbel continued staring, still struggling to believe what was going on. The spark of hope that had ignited when he first saw the boy had grown, consuming any other thoughts until his belief in his recognition of who the boy was felt like a fact. Still, it was a fragile hope, giving Asbel pause before finally finishing his question from before. “Lord Leif?”

To Asbel, the silence seemed to go on for ages before the boy finally turned around. “Yeah,” he confirmed softly.

With his face no longer hidden in shadow or obscured by his hair, Asbel couldn’t help letting out a gasp as he approached his old friend. There was a scar under and alarmingly close to his right eye, another from the corner of his jaw across his cheek, a third along the side of his neck and those were only the ones he noticed in the dim moonlight. His lip was cut and blood from a slash across his forehead spilled down half his face. The other half was colored by a newly darkening bruise over a sharp cheekbone.

“Lord Leif,” Asbel whispered this time, a wave of emotions crashing over him at once. Leif attempted what Asbel suspected was supposed to be a smile.

“I’m glad you’re alright,” Leif said. “I didn’t know who else made it out of Tahra.”

A panic began to set in as realization dawned on Asbel. “You never found Finn and Nanna?” Leif shook his head. “Are you saying you’ve been on your own all this time? Lord Leif, it’s been five years since the Empire invaded Tahra!”

Any softness in Leif’s face vanished, replaced by an emptiness that frightened Asbel. “It’s better this way,” he said, complete belief in his statement.

Of all the things Leif could have said, Asbel had not expected that. His head hurt trying to make sense of it.

“Better this way?” Asbel repeated. “Better this- how is this better than anything?!”

“I’m only putting myself in danger,” Leif offered as his explanation. Unfortunately for Leif, this was not the answer Asbel wanted to hear.

“That the problem! You’ve been putting yourself in danger this whole time and no one was there for you! You didn’t have anyone to watch out for you or protect you!” Leif bristled at this but Asbel was just getting started. “There are stories about what you’ve been doing and it’s all really dangerous stuff! What about our promise? We said we were going to take back Thracia together. How could we do that if you’d died out here?”

“Forget that promise,” Leif said, the harsh undertone letting Asbel know this wasn’t a suggestion. “You shouldn’t be dragged down with me.”

“I don’t want to forget!” Asbel shouted back. “I spent the last five years looking for you so we could keep that promise! I joined Sir Ced so I could learn magic strong enough to fight beside you! And you’re telling me that was all for nothing?”

Despite his cold expression, Leif’s eyes were fiery as he answered. “Yes.”

Anger won out over fear and Asbel pressed on. “Well you don’t get to decide that! It’s my magic and I’ll use it however I want! So good luck getting rid of me because I am not going to leave your side ever again!”

Neither of them had any doubt Leif could easily get away from Asbel, right now if he wanted to. But he didn’t. Asbel was desperately looking for a sign that his friend was still in there behind the blood and bruises. He decided to take this as one, or at least the beginnings of one, and pulled on this string with all his might.

“I once told you there was nothing we couldn’t do together and I still believe that, even more now. I’ll leave the Magi Squad and fight the Empire with you. The Loptrians, camps of soldiers, even Raydrik himself or-”

“Raydrik?” Asbel’s impassioned speech was cut off as Leif straightened, and for the first time that night, there was an easily identifiable emotion on his face. “That bastard who double crossed Travant for the Empire?”

“Y-yes,” Asbel answered. His earlier boldness was quickly waning as his anger died and the fear it had been suppressing started to dig its claws in. “He’s been running the child hunts in Manster.”

“I know what he’s done. At least some of it. Enough to want to kill that man with my own hands,” Leif growled. Asbel almost believed he could.

“Then come with us.” Both Leif and Asbel were surprised at Asbel’s suggestion, Leif because Asbel had just said he would leave the Magi Squad and Asbel because he wasn’t sure he should be encouraging his former friend’s murderous urges. But there was a chance, a slight chance, he could use this to his advantage.

“We came looking for you because we were getting ready to make a move on Raydrik and we need all the help we can get,” Asbel explained. “You don’t have to join us, just help us free the children and take down Raydrik.”

Before Leif could respond, the snap of a twig caught his attention. Without thinking, he dashed behind Asbel and raised his sword, a shield between the boy and whatever was approaching them.

What was approaching them was Ced, returning with a staff and some cloth wrappings. He stopped when saw Leif’s hostile stance but what surprised him was Asbel, staring at Leif with complete adoration.

When Leif had placed himself between Asbel and their potential attacker, Asbel noticed a still bleeding gash on Leif’s shoulder. It had to make moving his arm painful yet he lifted his sword in Asbel’s defense without hesitation. Never wincing or letting his grip falter, Leif had been prepared to fight to protect Asbel without sparing a thought for his own well-being. It was reckless and impulsive and the most Leif thing he could possibly think of.

He’d found his sign.

Chapter Text

New ally reluctantly recruited, Ced led the return to Manster, a typically five day journey shortened to three by their ally’s dislike of stopping or resting and Ced’s own eagerness to hurry back to the province.

While Ced wouldn’t say he was fond of Manster, he had grown rather attached to it during his time there. You could tell it had once been a beautiful, lively place and the older citizens he spoke to remembered it with fondness. The stories they told of the open markets and seasonal festivals that went on well into the night made him long to see the land restored. Perhaps if Prince Leif were to rise up, the people would rally behind him and he could gather a force strong enough to take back Manster. But no one had seen or heard anything about the prince since the Empire’s invasion of Tahra. Some believed him to be dead, perished in the chaos. For the sake of Northern Thracia, Ced hoped they were wrong.

His hope for Prince Leif’s survival was another motivation for breaking into Raydrik’s castle, having heard one of the prisoners knew something about Prince Leif. He hadn’t told the other Magi about this but he had told Lugh the night before they reached the outskirts of Manster.

Lugh, as the boy claimed to be called, seemed surprised by this information.

“I thought you should know the truth behind why I sought you out,” Ced admitted. “They may have increased their defenses or set some sort of trap. It was only recently I took command of the Magi Squad, after their first leader and many other members were killed. We’re still trying to get back on our feet so I thought it would be better to have someone else with experience on our side.”

Lugh said nothing, staring blankly at the embers of their campfire. Ced knew Lugh wasn’t his real name, the look on Asbel’s face when he first gave it proof enough. But he let it pass. It would be hypocritical of him to call someone else out on hiding their identity. That didn’t mean he wasn’t curious. Asbel had called him Lord when he first saw the boy and had almost done so again several times since. Was he perhaps a noble with some connection to the prince? It seemed far fetched but then again, here was Ced.

“Do you really think they know something about the prince?” Lugh finally asked. There was something in his tone Ced couldn’t quite place so he watched carefully as he continued their conversation.

“It’s the closest thing anyone’s had to a lead on the prince in years,” he said. “If Northern Thracia is going to have any chance at liberation, they need their prince to return. A country can’t stand without its ruler.”

It was Lugh’s turn to be suspicious. “You’re speaking from experience,” he said. Ced cursed himself as he wondered how much he could tell his temporary ally. He was keeping his past a secret as well, so Ced saw no need to say more than was necessary.

“I’m from Silesse,” Ced revealed. “One day, our king just left us, disappeared without a word. Queen Erinys is trying her best to rule in his stead, but her health has been declining and the Empire’s attacks are relentless. The prince left to find the king but he’s been gone for over a year now as well. If anything happens, Princess Fee would have to take the throne but she’s so young, she shouldn’t have to rule a struggling country by herself.”

Lugh listened quietly to Ced’s explanation, expression unreadable throughout. When Ced finished, he didn’t say anything, causing Ced to worry he’d perhaps said too much. If this boy truly was a noble, perhaps he had put the pieces together as to who Ced really was. Maybe he should have used an alias as well.

Fortunately for Ced, Lugh didn’t question his story or past, instead turning to look as Asbel. The younger boy was curled up a few feet from them, sound asleep. Ever since their reunion, he had been Lugh’s shadow, following the boy with the same starry-eyed admiration he’d had on his face when Ced found them. Lugh seemed uncomfortable having someone so close to him but never voiced a complaint.

“He told me you came looking for me because you were going to fight Raydrik,” Lugh said. Ced almost laughed.

“Gods no, we’d die if we did that,” he said. “I long for the day he’s removed from Manster for good but right now, all we can do is intervene in the child hunts and make his life a little harder. I have a plan but it will take some time and even if Manster is liberated, the rest of Thracia will still be under the Empire’s control. That’s why we need Prince Leif.”

“You may regret putting faith in a stranger,” Lugh warned.

“I’ve put my faith in you,” Ced countered. “I don’t believe I’ll regret that.”

Lugh huffed, the sound almost a laugh. After a moment, he turned and looked Ced dead in the eye. He wasn’t trying to be intimidating but Ced’s heart still jumped from the intensity.

“There is nothing I hate more than how the people of Thracia are being treated. I won’t stop until the child hunts are over and every Empire force occupying this country is crushed.” His vow was unrealistic for a single boy but Ced couldn’t bring himself to point this out. There was such anger and sincerity behind him words, Ced could see how he managed to garner his reputation. It was both reassuring and terrifying.

“What I’d give to hear the prince say that,” Ced sighed, barely managing to suppress a yawn. The lateness is the night was finally catching up with him. “We’ll be in Manster tomorrow morning. We’d best get some rest. Good night Lugh.”

Lugh said nothing in response, having returned to staring at the embers. When Ced woke, he was still in the same position, gazing pensively at the long dead fire.

As the group approached the Gate of Kelves, Ced noticed the pensive look had returned to Lugh’s face. He hadn’t spoken a word all morning. Originally, Ced hadn’t thought much of it; he wasn’t a very talkative person to begin with. But now, he couldn’t help but ponder what was going through the other boy’s head.

The Gate of Kelves was rather small for a stronghold but he knew the horrors it held inside, serving as the area’s main holding point for children awaiting their delivery to the Loptyr Cult. If Raydrik was expecting them to attack, he apparently didn’t think it necessary to increase the number of guards defending the fortress as only the normal pair was on duty. This gave Ced hope the rest of Manster’s defenses hadn’t been raised and they would be able to get in and out without too much hassle. He signaled for the others to stop. The Magi Squad did. Lugh did not.

Using the trees to hide himself from view, Lugh silently made his way toward the guards, picking up speed as he went. When the tree line ended, he dashed out, stabbing the nearest guard in the stomach. The quick, deep jab brought him down as Lugh yanked his sword out and swung his arm in the direction of the second guard. Before the other guard could react, a bolt of thunder magic struck his chest. Lugh swung his outstretched arm back down and finished off the first guard with a slice across the neck, head barely still attached.

Ced hadn’t seen Lugh grab his thunder tome until after he’d struck the second guard, too distracted by the attack on the first. Only now did he realize that had been the point.

Lugh bent down and started rummaging through the guards’ pockets as the Magi Squad approached. When they reached him, he stood up and handed Ced a set of keys. Ced noticed he’d taken the second guard’s arrows as well and slipped something small into his pocket before the others were close enough to see what it was. He also handed a vulnerary to Asbel, who beamed at the little bottle as if sharing a secret with it. Lugh didn’t leave time for the younger boy to express his thanks to him as he turned to Ced with an expectant look, already armed with a wind tome. Ced nodded in return and opened the gate.

The two guards who were stationed in front of a heavily fortified door across from the entrance were knocked back by a burst of wind from Lugh’s tome as soon as the door was opened. The impact of their heads against the stone wall dazed them, giving Lugh enough time to close the space between them and stab the nearest guard before he could realize what was going on.

The second at least had a chance to take a swing at Lugh with his axe. He saw the axe coming and shoved the first guard in front of him, using the man as a shield. The axe plunged into the guard’s back, causing him to cry out before going limp as his partner stared in horror at what he had just done. Lugh pushed the dead guard onto his partner, causing him to stumble under the sudden weight. It was only a second but that was all Lugh needed. As soon as the second guard pushed the first off of him, Lugh plunged his sword into him, twisting the blade before pulling it across his torso, guts spilling from the vertical slash. He fell as soon as the blade left his body, dead before he hit the floor.

The fight was over almost as soon as it began, the Magi barely having enough time to register what was going on, let alone assist. Ced had only just having opened Forseti when the second guard fell. Feeling a bit embarrassed, Ced closed and replaced his tome before joining Lugh, who kneeling in front of the door.

“I do have keys,” Ced reminded him but Lugh continued working with a worn lockpick.

“You were across the room,” Lugh gave as his reasoning. While Ced could understand his desire to free the children as quickly as possible, his commitment to doing everything himself was getting a bit excessive. But Lugh unlocked the door faster than Ced would have just guessing which key would work, so for now he could overlook it.

Four children sat huddled inside, squinting from the sudden bright light being let into their cell. The oldest boy, barely ten if that, stood in front of a younger boy and girl while a third boy glared hateful out at whomever had opened the door, likely thinking Lugh and Ced were guards.

Lugh slowly rose, shocking Ced with the almost melancholy look on his face. It was a terrible sight they were faced with but one the boy was certainly well accustomed to by now. Perhaps he was seeing something Ced could not, a feeling only strengthened when Lugh spoke first.

“Come on, you’re going home,” Lugh said, the soft look Ced had briefly glimpsed gone from his face yet his tone was gentler than it had ever been with the Magi. He moved away from the door, as if demonstrating his honesty by leaving their exit wide open. His approach seemed to work as a relieved look spread across the oldest boy’s face. The boy who had glared at them still looked wary but there was little time for him to argue before the sounds of battle broke out behind them.

Lugh and Ced quickly turned, Lugh drawing his sword as Ced reached for his tome. Outside the cell, more soldiers had appeared, coming from both sides of the fortress. The Magi had split up to fight them, Asbel and Machyua on the right, Brighton and Lara on the left.

“Help your men. I’ll get them out,” Lugh ordered. Ced was shocked by the sudden command but when he turned in confusion, Lugh simply scowled back. “Unless you think you can get all of them out of here alive.”

Ced honestly didn’t know if he could. Every other time he had freed captured children, there had been much less fighting and at least one other Magi member to help him protect the children as they escaped. He might be able to do it but if he didn’t have to try, he would prefer not to.

Ced nodded in agreement and ran off to join Lara and Brighton, pulling out his Forseti tome as he readied a spell.

As soon as Ced took off, Leif turned back to the children in the cell, each face a different mixture of hope and fear. Four was a manageable number, it was almost straight shot out the door and the Magi were keeping the soldiers at bay for now so he should be able to get outside without any issue. It was the half mile between here and the nearest village that posed the biggest potential danger.

“Nod if you can walk,” he said. Fortunately, they all did. “Follow me and stay close. Be quiet unless you see someone coming towards us. Then speak, scream, anything to let me know.”

The two youngest children held the oldest boy’s hands as he followed Leif, the last boy close behind them. If he also took one of the girl’s hands when he saw one of the guards laying in his own intestines, Leif pretended he didn’t see as he led the small group towards the door, gaze constantly darting around the room to ensure no soldiers had slipped past the Magi.

Getting outside the fortress was as easy as Leif thought, but they had barely left the grounds when there was a muffled shriek behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a group of cavaliers approaching. Letting out a low growl, Leif lifted his sword, aiming a bolt of lightning at the trio. He barely missed one of the men but it was enough to briefly unnerve the horses. Leif allowed himself a small smirk. No matter how well you trained your horse, it would never be completely calm around lightning. While the knights tried to regain control, Leif turned to the children with a new set of commands.

“Into the trees,” he said, looking from them to the wooded area not far from the road to make clear where he meant. “Hide. Stay together, stay low, and stay quiet.”

As the children scurried to follow his orders, Leif turned back to watch the soldiers as he slowly retreated into the forest. The horses would have a hard time moving through the densely packed trees, making the cavalier’s best options either to attack from a distance or to dismount.

When the cavaliers approached, they tried to dismount as quickly as possible but Leif still had time to fire off two arrows. The first hit one of the men in the shoulder, causing him to drop his sword. The other hit the upper left side of his chest, causing him to drop. The other soldiers wasted no time charging Leif, who quickly threw his bow aside and redrew his sword.

Both were much larger than Leif but as soon as they took a swing at him, it became clear they were much slower. He easily dodged both of their attacks but had no opportunity to counterattack as they took turns attacking him, covering each other when they left an opening Leif was about to exploit. He was forced on the defensive but he could work with that. He stopped trying to land a hit and focused on avoiding theirs, letting them tire themselves out and get sloppy.

Just when he thought he saw an opportunity, one of the soldiers tried to move around Leif. The frightened gasp behind him confirmed his fears, not needing to look behind himself to know at least one of the children had been spotted. He’d wasted too much time trying to be cautious but all caution was going out the window now.

Leif lunged at the soldier, not caring where he struck him as long as he got his attention. He managed to land a decent hit under his arm but it was far from lethal. It was enough for his to turn and swing at Leif, blade missing his chest by barely an inch. Leif took advantage of their height difference to swing low enough his foe had to move awkwardly to attempt to block his hit. At the last second, Leif swung his sword up, the man’s unnatural positioning making it hard for him to react quickly to Leif’s shift. There wasn’t as much power behind the attack, due to the upward swing, but there was still enough to slice through his chest, a warm spray of blood spattering both of them.

A sharp pain flared across Leif’s back, bringing him to his knees. He had been so focused on the soldier going after the children, he had left himself vulnerable to the other. With a low growl, he spun around, barely managing parry the soldier’s second blow. Pushing back as hard as he could, as soon as he saw the other soldier struggling to hold him back, he stopped and dove to the side. The soldier lost his balance at the sudden loss of opposing force and Leif quickly rose to his feet, thrusting his sword down into the now exposed back of the man’s neck. It went through completely, tip poking out the other side before Leif pulled the sword out and let the man fall, the slivers of muscle and skin keeping his head attached finally snapping as his head rolled away.

A rustle of movement caught Leif’s attention and he quickly lifted his head. The angry looking boy from before stood frozen midstep, spooked by the sudden movement. That wasn’t the only thing that had spooked him, judging by how his expression had now turned to one of terror. He waited for the boy to say anything, to react in anyway, but he remained frozen. “Let’s go,” Leif finally said, causing the other three children to pop their heads up. None of them had seen what had happened, looking only nervous, not disturbed. They didn’t hesitate to approach him while the last boy didn’t move until the little girl tugged on his hand. Even then, he refused to look at anything besides his feet.

As they left the woods, there was a weak moan. The soldier Leif had shot lay on the ground, breaths short and ragged. Approaching the man, Leif eyed his second arrow, the likely cause of the man’s current state if he was right about where it had hit. There was a chance he’d survive, very slim, but still possible. Leif grabbed the arrow and pulled it out, evoking a pained wheeze from the man as blood began to flow from the wound, freely and steadily. Leif looked back at the children, the oldest of whom had a pained expression on his face. He knew what was going on but said nothing, silently leading the other children back down the road. Leif followed suit, keeping his sword drawn.

Fortunately they made it to the village without another attack. The previously angry boy quickly dashed away from Leif and into the nearest house.

“You should do the same,” Leif advised the other children. The oldest boy let go of the younger children’s hands and gave them a reassuring smile, nodding that it was alright for them to listen to Leif. Briefly glancing at him as they passed, they scampered away, calling for their parents.

The last boy stared at Leif, trying to look strong as he worked up the nerve to say something but before he could, a frantic voice interrupted them.

“Master Coirpre! Thank the gods you’re all right! I was sick with worry,” a finely dressed man cried as he ran over to the pair. He jumped slightly when he looked from Coipre to Leif but quickly schooled his expression to replace his shock with gratitude.

“The young master is a nobleman's ward-,” the man started explaining but Leif cut him off, impatient to get back to the Magi.

“I don’t give a damn who he is,” Leif said bluntly. “Never let this happen again. There won’t always be someone there to save him.” Leif turned to leave when a high pitched voice cried out. “Wait!”

The little girl was running back towards him, something clutched tightly to her chest. She stopped in front of Leif, panting slightly as she held out what appeared to be some sort of scroll.

“Momma said to give this to you to say thank you for saving me,” she explained. “She said it’s really old and has special powers.”

When she held out the scroll, a familiar looking symbol stared back at Leif, the mark of the Crusader Baldr. His Holy Blood, albeit only minor, flowed through his veins, just like his mother.

He hated the thing instantly.

Before he could say anything, the boy who had run into the nearest house emerged from it, a determined look on his face as he and his mother approached the group. He also held out something to Leif, a small gold ring with five red stones set in it.

“Thank ye fer bringing me boy back single-handedly. Yer barely more’n a boy yerself,” the woman remarked, country accent almost as thick as the concern in her tone. “This here’s an enchanted ring, it’s been in me family fer as long as I ken remember. It’s enchanted to protect ye. I insist, take it.”

This was why Leif never went into villages with the children he freed. All this attention made his skin crawl and the thought of accepting gifts for his actions was repulsive. “No.”

Coirpre’s servant raised an eyebrow. “For a humble village such as this, these are rather impressive rewards. It would be rude to decline such offerings.”

“I didn’t do it for a reward,” Leif growled, glaring at the man.

“N-no, of course not, that wasn’t what I was implying at all! I merely hoped you would see this as adequate compensation-” the man tried to explain.

“Compensation?” Leif repeated, “As if this was unpleasant for me? I’m not the one who suffered, they’re the ones who suffered because of this!” He gestured at the children but kept his glare fixed on the servant.

“B-but you’re injured...” he replied weakly.

“I’ll live,” Leif snarled. “Make sure they will too.”

Before the man could get his wits together and form a reply, their conversation was interrupted by the whooping of barbarians. Four of them had appeared just outside the village, waving their axes wildly.

While the adults clung protectively to the children, Leif welcomed the distraction. He’d much rather deal with these thugs than continue the previous conversation. Ignoring the protests of the villagers, he dashed towards the barbarians, not yet drawing a weapon. The group saw him running at them and responded in kind, lumbering towards him as they let out their battle roars.

Leif still hadn’t drawn a weapon, even as he stopped and planted his feet, making a stand far enough from the village he’d have time to react if one of the villagers tried to interfere and wouldn’t have to worry about any collateral damage. The barbarians continued charging, the distance between them rapidly decreasing as Leif stared them down. Just a little closer, he thought as they continued their charge, all clumped together like a human stampede.

Once they were less than a javelin’s throw away, Leif whipped out his Elfire tome, incantation already on his lips as he reached towards the approaching hoard. Too late and too close to dodge, they were caught in the eruption of flames. The smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the air as they fell to the ground, desperately trying to shield themselves from the temporary inferno.

While a gruesome display, it was less lethal than Leif would have liked. Three shakily tried to reorient themselves but Leif wasn’t waiting for that. He charged at the nearest, slashing his blade across the newly raw skin. The barbarian cried out in mad agony and took a wild swing at Leif. He leapt back out of range then dove back in to attack again. This time he cut through the man’s arm, severing his hand and part of his forearm from his body. Instinctively curling in to cradle his stump, his exposed neck was quickly exploited with a powerful swing and his head joined his hand on the ground.

The second barbarian rushed at Leif, his first swing missing by a wide margin, but the second barely did, ripping through the thin fabric of Leif’s shirt and some of the skin beneath it. Although he could feel the blood trickling down his chest, Leif ignored it as he attacked, blade making contact with the handle of the axe, causing the barbarian to drop it. Before Leif could strike his now disarmed opponent, the third barbarian slammed into him, having forgone a weapon in favor of brute strength.

Leif landed roughly on his back, his still open wound sending a sharp pain through him. His knuckles scraped the ground as he held tightly to his sword but there was no chance to use it as the barbarian held down his sword arm with one hand, his other hand balled into a fist and raised over his head. But before he could release his punch, Leif slammed his knee into the man’s crotch. He howled in pain as Leif used his other leg to kick the barbarian’s knee, causing it to give out as he fell on his side.

With his companion out of the way, the barbarian Leif had initially attacked charged at him, axe back in hand and lifted high, ready to strike. The second barbarian’s grip on Leif’s arm had loosened but not enough he could free it and keep hold of his sword. Releasing his weapon, Leif slid his arm out and rose to a crouch, launching himself at the charging barbarian’s legs. They went tumbling down, the barbarian losing his grip on the axe once again as he was slammed into the ground.

Quickly rising, Leif dug his knees in just below the barbarian’s ribs to keep him in place as he drew his fist back to his chest before smashing it into the barbarian’s nose. There was a sickening crunch as his eyes unfocused and Leif took his second shot, this time to the temple. The barbarian’s head twisted violently from the impact but before Leif could strike again, a thick arm wrapped around his neck. Just as it was about to tighten and squeeze, Leif bit down as hard as he could, tightening his jaw when the barbarian tried to pull his arm away. A metallic taste filled Leif’s mouth as the barbarian finally managed to rip his arm out, or at least most of it. Spinning around to make eye contact, Leif glared as he spit out the chunk of flesh he had bitten off.

No longer wanting anything to do with this fight, the barbarian turned and started running away. He didn’t make it very far before a bolt of lightning struck him, body crumpling into a slightly smoking heap. Leif lowered his outstretched hand and replaced his tome while slowly rising to his feet. A soft moan drew his attention back to the last barbarian, on the edge of consciousness. Looking around, Leif found the axe the barbarian had been having a tough time holding onto. He picked it up and with one swift swing, buried it in the barbarian’s head.

Battle finally over, the only thing on Leif’s mind was getting back to the Magi. But as he retrieved his sword, he heard someone approaching him. The mother from the village, wearing a similar look of determination as her son had, was walking towards him, undeterred by his scowl. She stopped before him, scroll and ring in hand. As soon as Leif saw them, he prepared to object but she spoke before he could.

“We’re not askin’, we’re tellin’,” the woman said, taking another step closer before holding out the trinkets. “Ye need ‘em more’n us.

Leif didn’t need anything but he remembered her claim of the ring having a protection enchantment. He thought of Asbel back in Kelves, even smaller than Leif and armed with nothing more than a wind tome, yet determined to stand by Leif’s side. All it would take to end him was a single sword stroke. That couldn’t happen.

“Fine,” Leif agreed, confused when she seemed relieved by this. Had she expected him to hurt her? He wouldn’t but could understand why she might think that if she had watched him fight. Her parting words only mystified him further.

“May the gods bless ye on yer path. And let ye leave it soon,” she said as he took the gifts, a melancholic note in her words and on her face. Leif gave no response, simply walking past her to the road, quickening his step into a run once on it. There were more pressing matters to be concerned with at the moment than the cryptic words of a stranger.

He arrived at the Gates to find the main hall empty, save for a few bodies. A quick glance confirmed none were the Magi but there was no indication of where they had gone either. The door to the right of the room where the children had been held was ajar, something Leif didn’t recall it being before. Suppressing a wince as he drew his sword, Leif headed through it, the sounds of fighting became louder as he approached. Slipping inside, he stayed pressed against the wall as he silently approached the corner. Moving away just enough to peer around it, one glance was all it took for Leif to leap into action.

Machyua was engaging a sword knight on the far end of the room while Brighton was facing a general guarding the room’s throne but what had ensnared Leif’s attention was Asbel, ten feet away, trying to take on another sword knight by himself. His wind spells were mostly keeping the knight at bay but all it wouldn’t last forever. One stroke...

“Down!” Leif shouted. Asbel jumped but obeyed, ducking in time to miss the bolt of lightning from Leif’s sword. It struck the sword knight square in the chest, knocking him back into the wall.

Asbel turned to face Leif, excited expression quickly morphing into one of horror when he saw the state Leif was in. This was the second time he’s managed to evoke this kind of reaction from Asbel just by showing his face. Rather than continue the recreation of their reunion, Leif dashed past Asbel, heading towards the throne where Brighton and the general were fighting.

Neither noticed Leif until his bolt of lightning struck the general while he was drawing his bow back. He let out a cry as he stumbled backwards, dropping both bow and arrow. Brighton wasted no time swinging his axe down across the general’s hunched over form. Asbel, getting over his initial shock, joined in as well, firing off a gust of wind that cut through the general, bringing him to his knees.

“Ugh… You fools… This doesn’t end with me...” he warned as the three surrounded him.

“That’s why Raydrik’s next,” Leif said as he plunged his sword into the general’s back. There was a brief flash of something on the man’s face before his eyes glossed over and his body went limp.

“Brighton, Asbel, are you all right?” Machyua called as she ran over to the trio. Brighton’s expression softened as he placed a hand on her arm, reassuring her with just a smile. She returned it with her own look of relief, leaning into his touch for a moment, before remembering they weren’t alone. Turning to Asbel and Leif, her calmness evaporated as she noticed Leif’s condition and Asbel, practically vibrating with pent up emotions as he stared at Leif. She turned back to Brighton and nodded her head towards the hallway behind the throne. Brighton nodded in agreement and the pair left, leaving Leif and Asbel alone together.

As soon as the couple was out of sight, Asbel let loose.

“Lord Leif, what happened out there? You were just supposed to be taking the children back to their village weren’t you? Are they alright? Are you alright? Oh gods, you’re still bleeding, why did you keep fighting? Here, I still have the vulnerary you gave me, you should take it.” Asbel spoke rapidly, giving Leif no time to answer one question before he was asking another. When he pulled out his vulnerary, Leif shook his head.

“Keep it. You may need it later,” he said. Asbel frowned at the refusal.

“But you need it now,” Asbel insisted, thrusting the bottle out again. Still, Leif made no move to take it. Instead he reached into his pocket and pulled out the woman’s ring. Curiosity distracted Asbel and he lowered the potion, stepping closer to examine the shiny new object.

“The children are safe. One of their mothers gave this. It has a protection enchantment,” Leif said as Asbel admired the ring. Leif turned his hand over so he was holding out the ring and Asbel cupped his free hand beneath it. The ring softly dropped onto his palm and Asbel lifted his hand to his face, staring in disbelief at the little gold circle. “You should have it.”

“Lord Leif,” Asbel said, barely louder than a whisper. When he looked up, Leif was alarmed to see he was almost in tears. And yet, there was also a smile on his face. Leif tried to smile back but it had been so long since he had done so naturally, the attempt felt wrong.

Asbel’s smile faded as did some of the color in his face when he noticed something on part of Leif’s torso. Before he could ask or look more closely, Leif quickly walked past Asbel, careful to hide his left side from view. If he had seen what Leif suspected he had, Leif needed to get out of there before he started asking questions. Their conversation had ended well enough, bringing this up would only sour things.

“Was that Lugh?” Leif heard Ced ask as he turned the corner. He would have continued on if Ced hadn’t then added. “There was something I wanted to- Asbel! What’s wrong? Did something happen between the two of you?”

Leif paused, just out of sight of the pair as he waited for Asbel’s response. The shaky voice that responded gave away the tears Asbel had been trying to hold back had finally started to fall.

“After this mission, I’m leaving the Magi. I don’t care if he doesn’t want me to, I’ll follow him through Thracia for the rest of my life. He can’t leave me behind again,” Asbel said.

“He really is quite important to you.” There was something in Ced’s voice that made Leif want to turn around and pull Asbel away from him. But he refrained, listening with dread for Asbel’s reply.

“We promised to fight and die together. He told me to forget that but I never will,” Asbel said. “He just, he makes me so angry and scared and-” the rest of Asbel’s impassioned rant was muffled as his tears picked up. Unable to listen anymore, Leif finally left, chest aching from more than just his wound.

He and Asbel should have never met again. He’d been a plague on the boy’s life ever since he came into it, as he had been to everyone he’d ever met. Asbel had lost his home, his friends, his father, all because of Leif, yet he was still happy to see Leif again. He still wanted to stay beside him, despite all Leif having ever done for him was cause him pain. Even now, when he kept his distance and tried to protect Asbel, he was still hurting him. He really was the worst boy in all of Thracia.

It may be the opposite of what Asbel wanted, but there was no chance Leif was letting Asbel stay with him. He’d be much happier and live much longer with the Magi than he would if he stayed with Leif. Maybe leaving him behind would be the turning point to make Asbel realize he should hate Leif and give up his ridiculous hero worship. Leif wasn’t a hero, so far from being one the notion was laughable. As if he could ever worthy of a title like that.

Chapter Text

While not on the coast, Manster was still close enough for a cool mist to fill the early morning air, blanketing the woods around the camp in a wispy haze. Ced has insisted they rest before attempting to break into Manster Prison, much to Leif’s initial displeasure. This would cost them the advantages of night, but he placated himself by considering the advantages of an early morning attack. Not only were less expected, the guards would be at their least attentive as they neared the end of the night watch. That also meant the group would put themselves at risk of facing twice the number of soldiers if they weren’t out of there before the guards traded off. But if they were fast enough and timed it just right, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Of course, none of this would matter if the Magi Squad slept through the entire day.

Leif had only agreed to not go straight to the prison after Ced promised they would attack first thing in the morning. But when morning came, everyone else was still fast asleep. He tried to occupy himself while he waited, walking Brighton’s horse to a clearing to let it graze, drilling with and cleaning each of his weapons, and even climbing a tree to check the surrounding area, but when he returned, the Magi still hadn’t stirred. The sun would be up in an hour while Leif was starting to doubt any of them would.

At least the time alone gave him an opportunity to come up with a plan for after Manster. Leif looked down at the letter he’d found when searching the Gate for a less ripped shirt to steal. The letter not only confirmed but had more details on the Empire’s plans to finally take Tahra than the note he’d taken off the guard outside Kelves. The city had been putting up enough of a resistance to hold back the Empire but with this incoming wave of troops, there was little hope of that remaining the case.

Seeing Linoan’s name in the letter made Leif feel odd, similar to how he felt when he saw Asbel again. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to keep looking at it or cross it out so he wouldn’t have to. Linoan was alive but in danger, just as she had been when Leif abandoned her five years ago. He couldn’t let her fall to the same fate as her father. After all the damage he’d done, all the good people the city had lost because of him, he owed it to Tahra to protect both the city and Linoan with all that he had.

Carefully, he created a small flame in the hand holding the letter, watching it blacken and curl in on itself. Now there would be no way for anyone to know where he was going. Ced had to care enough about Asbel to not let him blindly chase after Leif and he had avoided cities for so long, neither would think to look to Tahra. He would disappear from their lives just as quickly as he had entered it, without ceremony and without the chance of meeting again.

The feathery remnants of the letter floated listlessly to the ground, too insubstantial to hold anymore. As he watched them fall, Leif’s eye was caught by a small cluster of flowers. They were mostly purple, although a few white blooms were speckled throughout. Perhaps it was because he had just been thinking of Asbel, but a memory from long ago slowly resurfaced.


Frest, 768

Something softly fell on Leif’s head, encircling it lightly and filling the air with a sweet smell. Looking up from the book he’d been reading, he reached for whatever this thing was. His fingers brushed against the delicate petals of the flowers that grew in the woods. When he lifted the flowers off his head, he expected them to fall apart and cover him but surprisingly, they stayed together. He lowered the ring of flowers to eye level, curiously admiring it before turning around to look for where it had come from.

It didn’t take long to find the source as standing behind Leif, grinning widely, was Asbel. His smile faltered slightly when Leif turned around, only now considering Leif may not like it.

“Did you make this?” Leif asked, genuine curiosity allowing Asbel to relax slightly. He nodded in confirmation.

“It’s a flower crown,” he explained. “Princes are supposed to have a crown, aren’t they?”

Leif said nothing, turning his gaze back to the flower crown Asbel has given him. It was simple but pretty, a chain of white blossoms woven together. It was sturdy enough to show no signs of falling apart as he turned it around in his hands, no weak links giving way at the movement either.

“Can you show me how to make them?” Leif asked, lifting his gaze back to Asbel. The smaller boy’s eyebrows rose in surprise but he nodded enthusiastically.

“I’d be happy to, Lord Leif!” Asbel said, excitment raising the pitch of his voice to almost a squeak as he scrambled to sit beside the prince.

The pair had spent the rest of the day crafting crowns, only getting up to go find more flowers. Leif hadn’t noticed the time going by, barely paying attention to Asbel either as he became engrossed in the simple craft.



Leif’s head snapped towards the voice, the single word pulling him from the memory. The sudden movement didn’t seem to startle Lara, who was watching him from a few feet away. He cursed himself for not being more aware of his surroundings but said nothing aloud.

“Those flowers, they mean remembrance and sympathy,” Lara explained. She wore a wistful expression as she went on. “They can also mean success. Maybe they’re a sign our mission will go well.”

“Flowers have meanings?” Leif asked. This was the first time he had spoken to her but Lara quickly got over her surprise and nodded.

“I probably don’t know all of them, but I know a lot,” Lara admitted. “Any others you’d like to know?”

He was about to refuse then hesitated. “Are there any for leaving? For telling someone you’re gone.”

Melancholy filled her body language and words as she responded. “A good-bye flower,” Lara said. “Yeah, there is.” Her smile was bittersweet and her eyes miles away. “Although that’s a terrible way to say goodbye. And I doubt you’ll have time to get some for Asbel.”

Although he didn’t respond, Lara seemed to regret her last statement as her smile dropped and her forehead creased. But she had a point, it had been a ridiculous idea. Why had he even considered it? Being around people was messing with his head. The sooner he was alone again, the better.

“Why are you here?” he asked, wanting to steer the conversation towards something else. Lara frowned but acquiesced, answering his question rather than trying to pursue the conversation further.

“Everyone else is starting to get up so I figured I’d go look for you. You were the one who was so eager to get going last night,” Lara said, Leif heading towards camp as soon as he heard the others were waking up. “And apparently still are,” she added as she hurried to follow him.

Leif slowed his normally brisk pace to allow Lara to catch up but resumed it once she had. Fortunately she could keep up. Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to want to let their conversation drop.

“I’m surprised you’re so raring to go when you were so against Ced’s plan,” Lara said, not trying to hide that she was watching him. Leif appreciated her openness, especially compared to Ced’s attempts to be subtle. A rock to the face had more subtlety than the leader of the Magi Squad.

“It’s a shit plan,” Leif said bluntly. Lara let out a light laugh.

“I don’t know what he’s thinking either. But he’s the reason the Magi Squad’s still here. He just came in outta nowhere with these crazy plans that somehow always worked. We’ve been able to rescue so many children because of him. Figure it’s worth trusting him on this too,” Lara explained.

Leif’s only response was a scowl, which seemed to amuse Lara even more. With a remarkably graceful twirl, she spun in front of Leif, forcing him to halt.

“He trusts you, enough to put you in charge of our group,” Lara said. “So that means I can trust you too, can’t I?”

Apparently she wasn’t being as straightforward as he thought, hearing the underlying question in the simple one she presented. Ced had chosen him to lead the group freeing the prisoners, meaning Machyua, Brighton, and Lara would all be relying on him for guidance. He tried to reject the position but the other Magi were just as enamored with Ced as Lara. None of them were willing to argue with him, although Asbel looked deflated when he heard he would be with Ced and Brighton didn’t seem too keen on following Leif either. Lara hadn’t shown any concern at the time but it turns out she had just been better at hiding it.

It wouldn’t assuage her worries but Leif figured she would appreciate the honesty more. “You shouldn’t,” he said. “I’ll get the job done and get everyone out alive. But that’s it. I’m not a friend or ally. After today, we should never meet again.”

As he suspected, Lara seemed content with the response, nodding before spinning around to continue forward, although she didn’t right away. Instead she gave one last remark.

“It’s a little flower, five petals, usually pink or purple or white, looks like a butterfly,” she described. “It’s about the right time of year for them so there might be a few around. I’ll keep an eye out for you.” She turned after her last sentence, making sure he understood what she meant before dashing ahead.

If Leif’s eyes seemed to be searching the ground as he returned to the camp, there were none around to see it. He didn’t see any of the Magi beside Lara until he reached the smoldering campfire. Asbel was curled up beside, soft breathing indicating he was still asleep. He had always loved sleeping in, slow to rouse without threat of being doused with a bucket of water, a threat his father had been more than willing to follow through on. But with no priest to threaten him here, Asbel slept peacefully on.

“Oh Lugh, hello,” Ced yawned, as he approached, hair sticking up in every direction. “How are your injuries? I didn’t have the chance to look at them yesterday but if you’d like-”

The rest of his sentence was cut off by a glare from Leif as the other boy’s voice caused Asbel to stir. He blinked blearily as he slowly rose to a sitting position. “Lord Le-” he started saying before noticing who else was with them. His expression contorted comically into one of horror, as if this was the first time he had almost given Leif’s identity away.

Leif sighed and turned to Ced who was attempting to appear as if he hadn’t heard anything. It was as convincing as Asbel’s ability to keep a secret.

“Yes, I was born a noble. But that doesn’t matter. Who I am doesn’t matter,” Leif said. He shot Asbel a warning glare when the smaller boy opened his mouth. “That’s not why I’m here.”

Ced’s posture relaxed as he nodded, expression too understanding to just be sympathy. “I had suspected as much but it’s not my place to inquire about your past,” he said. “All that matters to me is your willingness to help us, something we’re all very grateful for.”

His last remark was unnecessary and likely an attempt to placate Leif after last night. He still wasn’t happy with the plan or how long they had delayed their attack but it was hardly worth holding a grudge over.

“We should leave,” Leif said. Ced nodded in agreement. “Now.”

That gave Ced pause. “Now? Most of us just woke up,” he pointed out.

“You said we would leave first thing in the morning,” Leif reminded him.

“I did and we will. The sun isn’t even fully up yet.” A thought occurred to Ced. “What do you consider morning?”

Leif decided not to answer that question.

“How long have you been awake?” Ced asked, eyebrows furrowing in concern.

Leif decided not to answer this question either.

Ced sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Of all of us, you’re the one who needed rest the most,” he said. “I’ll talk to the others and try to get everyone moving but I make no promises on any of them being ready soon.”

“I’m ready!” Asbel said, scrambling to his feet. He fumbled as he untangled himself from his blanket and his hair was just as much of a mess as Ced’s, but his eyes shown with an eagerness to back up his claim.

“At least have something to eat first,” Ced advised, giving the younger boy a fond look. “I suppose you already have, Sir Lugh?”

Now seemed like a good time to end the conversation to Leif.

“I’d prefer to take that as him simply being petulant,” he heard Ced say as he walked away from the pair, “But I somehow doubt that’s the case.”

The sun had completely risen as the Magi Squad entered the Manster Prison. The outside had, unsurprisingly, been unguarded, as there was little concern about who came in compared to who came out.

The dark stone halls were also suspiciously empty, the group encountering no soldiers as they proceeded forward. The lack of activity put Leif on edge. This was a prison, there had to be guards here. The less that were upstairs, the more there would be in the dungeons with the prisoners and children.

There were two levels to the dungeons, the higher one smaller and used for holding the children. Ced and Asbel separated from the group here, Ced wishing his men good luck. Leif tried to avoid looking at Asbel but could feel the boy’s gaze boring into him as he descended further into the dungeons with the rest of the Magi. This was the last chance he would have to say something to his former friend but he refrained. No one else had a chance to say goodbye so why should he?

“Here,” Brighton said, indicating a heavy wooden door. It too was unguarded, doing nothing to soothe Leif’s unease as he knelt before the door. The sooner they found a foe to fight, the better.

Making quick work of the lock, Leif opened the door just enough to slip inside and survey the area. There was a dull green light illuminating the dungeon just enough to make the room not entirely dark but just barely. It was still nicer than most dungeons, even taking into account its small size. Finally spotting guards, close by not enough to engage, Leif slowly pulled the door behind him open enough for the others to enter.

“Orders?” Machyua asked, hand hovering over the hilt of her sword. It seemed she shared Leif’s eagerness to begin the battle.

“Protect Lara as she opens the cells. Check every door you see, there may be men inside,” Leif warned. Machyua nodded and gave Brighton a quick smile. He returned it with a quick squeeze of the hand before Machyua pulled back and headed down the corridor with Lara.

“And us?” Brighton asked, almost managing to mask his displeasure.

“Distract. Don’t let anyone be captured or killed,” Leif said.

“I had no intention to,” Brighton agreed, lifting his axe. Leif drew his sword as well and the pair charged down the corridor.

The first guard Leif rushed tried to parry the incoming blade but Leif swung slightly lower, feeling his sword make contact with the guard’s ribs. Quickly withdrawing his blade, he struck again, this time plunging his blade into the man’s not unguarded chest. Blood spattered from his choked cry as he dropped his sword, Leif yanking his own out to let the man fall.

A crack of thunder barely missed Leif’s shoulder. He quickly spun around, firing a burst of light magic back in retaliation. Brighton squinted slightly as the spell flew past him, reminding Leif of the dangers of using magic is such close quarters. But at least the spell hit it’s mark, sending the enemy mage flying backwards and disorienting him long enough for Leif to sprint over, finishing him off with a swing of his sword.

Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Lara sprint by, a small group of prisoners following behind her. A guard made to attack them and Leif lunged, knocking the guard's head into the wall in the process. A red trail was left as they slumped to the ground but Leif gave their throat a quick slice, just to be safe.

No sooner had he done so than a boot came down hard on the side of his face. Turning his fall into a roll, he looked up to see a furious guard about to thrust their lance down on him. He rolled out of the way, barely avoiding being impaled, and thrust his sword into the gut of the now leaning forward guard. As he quickly stood, he pulled the blade with his as well, leaving a wide slash through the guard’s torso, the guts that spilled from it cushioning the body’s fall.

“Sir Lugh!”

Leif looked up at the call to see Machyua standing in a now open doorway with a javelin in hand. She tossed it to him and with his free hand, he caught it, although he didn’t keep it for long as he saw more soldiers coming from the other end of the hall. Launching the javelin as hard as he could, he managed to fell one of them but their companions simply clambered over the body to continue their charge.

Leif cast a wind spell to slow them down, allowing Machyua to run in and take the first shot. While she and the soldier exchanged strikes, Leif kept the other soldiers at bay by hurling a bolt of lightning from his sword as he ran in to engage. The soldier he’d struck fell into a singed heap while the one behind him swung his sword at Machyua, too focused on landing the killing blow on her opponent to notice or have time to react. Leif managed to parry the blade just in time and the favor was quickly repaid as Machyua blocked the axe being swung towards him. Both had their opponents against a wall and took full advantage of their positioning, giving their opponents no time to do anything but attempt to block their blows. Leif’s soldier managed to withstand three while Machyua’s was down after two.

Corridor now clear, Machyua turned to Leif, detaching an axe from her belt. “I found these in one of the rooms. Can you use it?” she asked, holding the weapon out.

Leif nodded and took the axe, Machyua turning to run back down the corridor, likely to aid Brighton, once he had. As soon as he held it, he felt the same sick twist in his stomach he always did when he held a brave weapon. Forcing himself not to think about why, he peered around the corner toward the far left cell.

For a moment, he saw Lara, crouched beside the far cell as she worked on unlocking it. Then a trio of guards came down the stairs, separating them. If they saw Lara first, she wouldn’t have time to react, even if Leif called out a warning. He had a second to get their attention and without thinking through what he was about to do, he acted.

As a general rule, casting a fire spell in a small, enclosed space is a very bad idea. But Leif justified doing so anyway by the fact they were in a stone building and stone wouldn’t burn, just become very hot. He didn’t need to cast a powerful spell either, just enough to at least catch the guards attention and make them feel threatened. Which this seemed to do as all three immediately turned toward him, weapons drawn, already taking defensive stances.

He had their attention, now he had to draw them away from Lara.

“Child murdering cowards have no place in Thracia,” Leif snarled. “Come join the rest of your friends where you belong!”

“We haven’t killed any of the children,” one guard protested. “But I’m willing to make an exception for you!” He charged at Leif, his companions following close behind.

Leif leaned forward, as if about to attack, but as soon as the first guard was close enough to swing at Leif, Leif lept back, out of range of the attack. His right foot connected with the wall and he pushed off, launching himself at his attacker. He swung his right elbow up for a swift strike to jaw and a cover to keep the guard from noticing the knee aimed for just above his hip. The impact from two opposing directions caused the man to fold in on himself, Leif landing in a crouch in front of him. He dove for the man’s sword but rather than grabbing it, grabbed the man’s arm and shoved it upwards, forcing it to shove the sword through the man’s forehead. He pushed the body backwards, letting the other soldiers see the look of horror frozen on their companion’s face.

They had only a moment to process it before a sword was swung across their knees, downing them as well. As Leif rose to look down on them, one made a desperate lunge for him, underestimating the distance and falling flat on his stomach. Before he could rise, Leif stomped a foot on his spine and grabbed the soldier’s hair, yanking his head back as hard as he could. There was a sickening snap as the head almost made contact with the man’s back and Leif released his hold, letting the soldier’s head crash into the ground.

Leif turned his attention to the last man, who was visibly shaking. He thrust his spear up as Leif approached, only managing to graze his side. Leif looked from the cut to the man, who seemed to be getting paler by the second. Pulling the spear from his grasp, he slammed the butt of it down onto the bridge of the man’s nose. As he recoiled in pain, Leif slammed the lance down again, this time bringing it down onto the man’s forehead. He did this twice more, until he finally broke through the skull and the end of the lance sunk into the squishy tissue of the brain.

With a tug, he pulled the lance out and turned to look for Lara. She had opened the cell and was now accompanied by four boys a few years older than Leif and a girl about his age that vaguely reminded him of Ced.

“At least you’re in better shape than last time,” Lara remarked as she approached with the freed prisoners.

“Is this everyone?” Leif asked, ignoring all the stares, ranging from curious to wary.

Lara shook her head. “One to go. You want to get it or do you want to lead them out of here?” she asked.

“Hey, we can fight too!” one of the boys interjected. “Me and Halvan are part of the Freeblades, our home’s militia. And this girl here says she’s a Silessian pegasus knight!”

“In training,” she corrected. “But I can still fight. I’m not the best but I’ll give it my all!”

“Geez, and you called me a moron,” a blonde haired man sighed. “Guess I’d better stick around as well to keep an eye on you kids.”

“Hey, who are you calling a kid?” the first boy snapped.

“Calm down Orsin, you’re only proving his point,” an exhausted looking boy chided. “Sorry about him but he is right about us wanting to help. The whole reason we came here to rescue our friends. They should still be here somewhere, our Commander was taken away to see them when we arrived. You wouldn’t have happened to see two girls about your age here, have you?”

Leif looked to Lara who shook her head. The boy sighed but seemed unsurprised.

“We’ll just have to look for them once we get out of here. Until then, let us help. They took our weapons but if you have any you can lend us, we’ll prove our worth,” he promised. “Oh, and the name’s Halvan by the way.”

“What can you use?” Leif asked.

“Got any axes?” Halvan answered with a question of his own.

Leif was more than willing to hand over the Brave Axe Machyua had given him, although Halvan seemed surprised when he did.

“Looks like I’m still on lock duty,” Lara said, slipping past Leif towards the last cell. She gracefully hopped over the corpses of the guards and knelt in front of the door to get to work.

“Well, what about us? Got anymore of those?” Orsin asked, eyeing Halvan’s axe.

“On the floor around the corner,” Leif said. His gaze drifted over to the closed door, slightly behind him. There could be something in there. There could also be a trap, soldiers waiting for them to open the door. He had another armed fighter with him but too many unarmed, likely uncooperative too. There was also the prisoners Lara was freeing. Who knew what condition any of them would be in or how many there were. But there was also the mention of the missing girls. There was a chance, a slim chance, but still a chance they could be there. He shouldn’t get invested, if they weren’t in the prison, there was nothing he could do. But he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone being let to rot in a dark, barren cell.

“Wait here,” Leif said, warning them with a look this was non-negotiable, before approaching the room. Just as he was about to open the door, he noticed movement to his right. Lara was rising to open the now unlocked cell and down the hall, a sniper was drawing back their bowstring.

There was no time for Lara to react but there was for Leif. He dove across the hall, grabbing Lara’s right shoulder to push her down into a hunched position and using himself as a shield between her and the arrow aimed for her head. It instead sunk into Leif’s shoulder. As soon as he felt it go in, he spun around and fired a bolt of lightning from Light Brand at the sniper. It pushed them back a few feet as Leif raced down the hall to attack up close. The sniper tried to nock another arrow and fire before Leif reached him but he wasn’t fast enough. Leif grabbed the lower limb of the bow and shoved it upward, arrow falling harmlessly to the ground beside them. Now in possession of the bow, he struck the sniper across the face with it then pivoted behind him. A kick to the back on the knees made the sniper fall to them. Holding onto the end of each limb, Leif looped the bow around the sniper’s neck and pulled upwards. He heard garbled choking for several seconds before Lara, having given escort duty to Halvan so she could approach the pair, unsheathed her sword and sent it through the sniper’s eye.

Leif removed the bow and Lara had to step back to avoid having a body fall on her. She looked from it to Leif, an oddly wistful expression on her face. She reached down for her pouch and held it out to Leif. “Before you reject it, this isn’t to heal you,” she said, the weak attempt at a tease failing to make even herself smile. “It’s goodbye butterflies. You should use them.”

Machyua and Brighton turned the corner as Leif attached Lara’s pouch to his own belt. Halvan and the others rejoined them as well, Orsin and another boy now armed as well, door Leif had intended to open now widely so. Apparently caution wasn’t their strong suit. No wonder they were captured.

“Who are you?” Brighton asked the group.

“Help,” Leif answered for them. He saw Orsin had been about to speak and would prefer he didn’t. If he could come off as brash and hot headed after just one interaction, it would be in everyone’s best interest to keep conversations with him to a minimal.

“We’re looking for our friends. And Karin is searching for Prince Ced,” Halvan explained.

At the last sentence, the pieces clicked into place for Leif. That bastard, Leif thought, remembering their conversation the night before taking the Gate of Kelves. He left his country, his people, while they were struggling and in need of strong guidance to go play rebel leader in Thracia and he had the nerve to talk about Prince Leif needing to return. He should have become a jester instead because that was the funniest joke Leif had heard in a long time.

“We’ll help you search for them when we get out of here,” Lara said, looking to Leif to see if he had reached the same conclusion as her. She didn’t seem to find her answer as she turned away after looking at him for a bit too long to be dismissed as casual.

“Thank you,” Halvan said. “Until then, we’re yours to command.”

“For that, you have our gratitude as well,” Brighton said. “Especially seeing as we’re about to walk into an ambush.”

Everyone followed Brighton’s gaze to the last set of closed doors, the only ones at the end of a corridor. Even if Brighton hadn’t pointed them out, they would have set Leif on edge with how out of place they were. Every other set of stairs had been unblocked and yet the main stairs were. It was such a blatant trap, it had to be either devised by an idiot or someone confident enough to believe they had no reason to hide their intentions. Leif knew which of the two Raydrik was.

“Sir Lugh, your shoulder,” Machyua said as Leif drew his sword and made to move towards the door. Remembering the arrow embedded in it, Leif reached back and snapped the shaft, leaving a small portion of it and the tip behind. It was better than trying to pull it out from such an awkward angle or asking someone else to remove it. Besides, if there was still more fighting ahead, it would likely come out eventually.

Backed by Machyua and Brighton, Leif approached the doors. A small tug confirmed they were locked and he knelt before them. “Last chance to leave,” he said, pulling out his lockpick.

“We ain’t goin’ nowhere!” Orsin replied “Time to make the Empire pay for what they’ve done!”

Leif felt the lock click and rose, pausing for a moment to give an order. “You escape first. I’ll hold them off.”

“Hah! Yer gonna make me cry, junior,” the blonde man joked. “Seems like I’m gonna owe you fer this so you better make it outta here too.”

“You owe me nothing,” Leif said and pushed the door open.

There were a dozen men inside, six on each side of the room. The nearest to Leif was an armored knight with an axe, but before he could strike, Brighton stepped forward.

“Dalshin!” he called to the knight. The knight looked surprised for a moment before a scowl settled upon his face.

“Brighton, you traitor. You gotta a lotta nerve comin’ back here!” Dalshin snapped.

“I defected because the child hunts are wrong. Everything the Empire has been doing is wrong. How can you stand behind a country that’s willing to sacrifice its people to a dark god?” Brighton argued.

“You wouldn’ get it. You don’t have a family, do ya? I got kids livin’ just outside the Gate. They promised they’d spare ‘em long as I went along with ‘em,” Dalshin said.

Brighton’s eyebrows shot up at that. “Outside the Gate of Kelves? My friend, I’m afraid you’ve been deceived.”

“W-What? What’re you?” Dalshin struggled to get his question out, terrified by the implication.

“Don’t listen to him! He’s a filthy traitor, he’s just trying to get you on his side!” the knight beside Dalshin said.

“Shut yer trap!” Dalshin snapped back. He turned back to Brighton. “What d’ya mean by that?”

“We had to come through the Gate to get here. There were several children being held inside, all from the village just outside the Gate,” Brighton said.

Dalshin shook his head in disbelief. “They wouldn’, they couldn’ have! They gave their word! Got any proof yer tellin’ the truth?”

“This,” Leif said, pulling out the scroll the little girl from the village had given him. He hadn’t told the others about it, although he wasn’t quite sure why. He had no intentions of keeping the thing but every time he held it, he felt this strange warmth, like holding a cup of tea in winter. Was it because of his Holy Blood or was there some unfamiliar magic imbued in the scroll? Perhaps he should hold onto it until he figured it out.

“That old bat’s weird scroll. She wouldn’ve given it away for no reason,” Dalshin said. “Bastards! Damn Raydrik and damn the Empire! I’ve no love left for any of ‘em! I defect! Me life is in yer hands!”

“Idiots, the both of you!” another knight cried out. “You won’t live to regret this!”

“Neither will you!” Dalshin cried as he spun around and swung his axe at his former comrade. With that, the battle began.

Leif hurled a bolt of lightning from his sword at the bow knight beside Dalshin, finishing him off with a second. The now unprotected priest tried to back away behind the protection of a mage but Leif ran him through before he had the chance.

No sooner had he withdrawn his sword from the priest’s body than he was hit with a thunder spell from the mage, pushing Leif back and down into a crouch. As the mage readied a second spell, Leif dove for the bow knight’s abandoned bow. Snatching an arrow from the dropped quiver, he nocked and released the arrow just before the mage could cast another spell. He quickly followed it with another before the mage could recover. As they limply collapsed, Leif turned to check on the others.

Machyua was finishing off an axe knight. Judging by the gash on her forearm and favoring of her left side, it hadn’t been an easy battle. Brighton seemed similarly worn, breathing heavily as he finally got the upper hand on the lance knight he had been fighting. Dalshin grimaced as he took an arrow in the arm but Osian was quick to rush in and smash his axe down on the bow knight’s head. The priest on the other side of the room fell to Karin’s sword as the blonde man took a hit from the mage. Leif grabbed another arrow and fired it across the room, hitting the mage in the head, swaying for a moment before falling. Turning to look for the source of the arrow, he grinned when he saw Leif.

“Now I hafta owe you one,” he called out.

The others were nowhere to be seen, hopefully having escaped during the fighting. Now that the rest of the knights had been defeated, everyone else should be able to as well.

“Fergus, you alright?” Osian asked, noticing the other man wincing.

“It’ll take more’n a single mage to kill me,” Fergus replied. “But it does sting something fierce.”

“Don’t move,” Leif said, grabbing the priest’s heal staff. He approached the older man and held out the staff, a white glow slowly emanating from it as he healed Fergus.

Fergus watched with raised eyebrows then chuckled heartily. “Yer just fulla surprises, kid. Anything you can’t do?”

Rather than answer his question, Leif gave his attention to Machyua, who was leaning against Brighton with half-lidded eyes. She shook her head, tapping the pouch at her side, and Leif nodded in return. Brighton seemed a bit disconcerted by their silent conversation but that was quickly replaced by surprise when Leif looked to him next. Before he could reply to the silent question, the sound of heavy footsteps and multiple voices came from back within the dungeon. Leif straightened, grip unconsciously tightening on the staff as he realised what was going on.

“It’s the guard change,” Brighton said, reaching the same conclusion. “Already? Have we been here that long?”

It didn’t matter if they had, what mattered was that they were about to be swarmed by a mass of soldiers, each one armed, angry, and not coming off of their fifth fight of the morning. This was why Leif wanted to attack earlier, to avoid being cornered and disadvantaged like this. Trying to stand their ground would turn into a one sided battle of attrition. Their only option was to escape but first, they needed to stop the soldiers from following them or at least buy themselves a little more time.

“Orders still stand,” Leif said, standing in the doorway to the corridor, facing away from everyone. “Go. Find the others.”

“Are you mad? You can’t take all of them on your own!” Brighton argued.

“No. But I can slow them down,” Leif said. He turned to glare at Brighton. “Get out. Now.”

Brighton opened his mouth to argue again but Machyua pulled hard on his sleeve, tugging him towards the stairs. “Listen to him,” Machyua said. “We need you to get us out of here.”

“Damn shameful,” he sighed as he gave in, following Machyua out of the dungeon.

Leif turned his attention back to the corridor as the new guards began to appear, breaking into a run when they saw Leif. There were at least a dozen charging him but that couldn’t be all of them. Still, it was enough for now. Leif waited until all the guards were within range then for the second time that day, broke the rule about casting fire spells in small spaces.

In the dull light of the dungeon, Leif’s fire was almost blinding. There was even less room here than in the hall when he attacked the trio, leaving no room for anyone to escape the flames. The screams soon filled the air along with the smell of charred flesh, smoke threatening to choke Leif. Even after he stopped, the corridor was still bright with flames as the bodies of the guards continued to burn.

Any other guards in the prison would soon be here but Leif had more time than before. Stepping out of the doorway, he pulled the doors closed to separate the main staircase from the rest of the prison once more. Relocking it was simple enough, but that would hardly be enough to hold them back for long. Grabbing the closest corpse by the feet, Leif dragged it over and placed it in front of the door. There were eleven corpses, seven of which were heavily armored, making them even more useful as building blocks for a barricade. He stacked them first, both to make a solid base and to avoid having to lift them too much. Usually his small size didn’t bother him, being quite useful in many situations, but right now, he felt acutely aware of how weak he was.

Just as he had dragged the last knight over, he heard shouts on the other side of the door. The rest of the guards were here. Ignoring how it made him muscles ache, he lifted up the knight and dumped him on top of the pile, hurrying to finish it off with the thankfully lighter mages and priests. The final product was crude but would hold better than just a lock.

As he ran up the stairs, he felt Lara’s pouch bouncing against his hip. He thought back to what she had said, that he should use the goodbye flowers. She understood. The sooner he left, the better off everyone else would be, Asbel most of all. He knew this. It was obvious enough for an outsider to see this. Then why couldn’t he bring himself to open that damned pouch?

Brighton and Lara were waiting for him on the nearest landing. Brighton visibly relaxed when he saw Leif while Lara simply watched him with that same odd expression as when she had given the pouch to him. He ran by both of them, hearing Brighton’s sigh as he did but their footsteps indicating they were close behind. It felt strange to have people that weren’t children following him, or perhaps it was more accurate to say it felt strange how not strange it felt. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t really leading them, so it wasn’t as if they were actually following him. He was too weak to be a leader but he made a decent tool with his experience with places like this. That must be it, they saw him as their tool and he was more than willing to fill that role. Whatever he had to be to get everyone out alive, he would be for them; shield, sword, diversion, ghoul. As long as everyone else survived, what happened to him was of little consequence.

Chapter Text

Machyua’s solemn look as she stood beside the door Asbel and Ced should be behind felt foreboding as Leif and the remaining Magi made their way up the rest of the stairs. 

“They’re gone. Both them and the children. There are signs of a fight but I didn’t see their bodies,” she said as a greeting.

“They’re not dead,” Leif said. “Keep moving.”

A lack of a body wasn’t proof but no one seemed willing to question him as they continued running up the stairs. Their expanded group, having more than doubled in size, seemed to be moving more slowly than when they had entered, despite the caution they had almost completely abandoned to reach their destination quicker. Brighton and Dalshin took the rear, waiting for Leif’s temporary obstacle to be broken through and any surviving soldiers to come charging up, while Machyua and Leif took point, swords drawn in case any soldiers should be waiting ahead to ambush them.

While Leif was certain Asbel and Ced weren’t dead, captured was always a possibility. Lara could physically overpower Asbel and Ced didn’t seem much stronger either. Not to mention, both of them could only use magic. The other Magi could praise his tactical ability all they wanted, it was things like this that made Leif question if he truly was clever or if the Magi Squad had just been so desperate for guidance anything would seem brilliant to them.

The thought of Asbel captured made Leif’s skin crawl and he fought the urge to reach for his wrists. He ignored the grumbled complaints as he sped up.

Similar to the bottom of the stairs, the landing above the stairs to the dungeon ended in a closed door but the people before it weren’t Empire soldiers. They were idiots who seemed far too happy when they saw who was coming up the stairs. Neither of them had even drawn their tomes to attack.

“Lord Le- Lugh!” Asbel called, rushing over to them. He paused and stared at Leif’s shirt, causing Leif to look down as well. It was covered in blood, most of it dried by now. It must have gotten there when he was moving the bodies to create his barricade.

“It’s not mine,” he said. This seemed to be enough for Asbel as he relaxed, smile returning now he was assured Leif wasn’t seriously injured. Ced didn’t seem as pleased with Leif’s response but had little time to be concerned about it as Karin stepped forward.

“I knew it,” she said, words an odd mixture of anger and relief. “It is you Lord Ced.”

“Karin? What are you doing here?” Ced asked, surprise distracting him from the stares of the Magi at their leader’s reveal.

“Looking for you, you dolt of a prince!” Karin said, Ced’s calm oblivion causing her anger to win out. 

The last word turned all eyes to Ced as he finally realized he’d been given away. He pulled his gaze away from Karin to see the Magi’s reactions. Lara didn’t give away she had already guessed but Leif made no effort to hide his contempt as he scowled at Ced.

“Seems both of our secrets have gotten out,” he said, perhaps hoping to elicit sympathy from Leif by likening their situations. If that had been his intention, he was sorely mistaken. This seemed to dawn on him as he took a step back.

“Piece of shit,” Leif growled. “You abandoned your country, let your people suffer and fall to the Empire. You’re just like your father.”

The last comment landed with its desired effect, bringing a frown to Ced’s face as well. “I am nothing like him, I intended to come back! But after seeing Manster, how could I?” Ced asked.

“So it’s alright to let one group of people suffer as long as you help another?” Leif challenged, rage raising the volume of his voice. “You’ll help whoever you chose and the rest can just die?”

“You’re talking as if I’m all Silesse has,” Ced argued, failing to control his own irritation at questions that he couldn’t answer without invoking greater fury from the unstable boy before him. “My mother is still queen and-”

“Queen Erinys is dead,” Karin interrupted, voice staying strong until the last word. Ced froze, a look of horror on his face as he processed her words. “It’s been two months since...” She trailed off, unable to choke out the rest of her sentence.

Her anguished expression was mirrored by Ced. “It can’t be. Mother… she’s… she’s gone? I was too late… Father… She wanted to see you one last time.” His lamentations became softer until his voice was barely a whisper. He lowered his head, covering his face with steepled hands as if that would be enough to hide his tears.

Everyone watched the grieving prince with pity, sympathizing with him in one way or another. Everyone except Leif. Expression betraying nothing, he approached Ced, stopping before him.

“This is what happens when you leave people behind. You’re not there when they need you. They die and you can feel their blood on your hands because you did nothing for them. You lose them the moment you abandon them,” he said.

Ced slowly raised his head, regarding Leif with confusion. “Who are you?” he asked.

“No one,” Leif said.

“But you’re not.” Ced straightened to take advantage of the several inches between them. “You’re a noble, a noble of Northern Thracia. I have no idea of your rank but your name must hold enough influence to rally the people behind you, otherwise you would have no reason to hide it. Why aren’t you out there leading them?”

“My house is dead, the way it should be,” Leif said. Asbel looked horrified at his statement but miraculously kept his quiet, perhaps being too stunned to respond. “And I’m no leader.”

“I gave you three of my men and you returned from a successful mission with all of them as well as recruiting others,” Ced pointed out with a glance at the freed prisoners. Leif glared.

“Were you testing me?” he asked. Either Ced was more clever or he was more pathetic that he thought if he had been manipulated so easily.

“Confirming a suspicion. You’re not just some random rebel or minor noble. There’s more to you than you’re letting on. But if you won’t talk, I can always ask someone else.” Ced turned to Asbel. “Asbel, who is he?”

“Leave him out of this,” Leif warned before Asbel could speak. Ced raised an eyebrow at his defensiveness.

“Why do you care about him so much?” Ced asked. “Or do you really care at all? You’re the one who said you shouldn't leave people behind and yet you’re so eager to leave him. Did that sage piece of advice come from experience? Have you only treated him so kindly out of some sense of obli-”

The rest of Ced’s accusation was cut off as Leif, not wanting to hear anymore, punched him in the gut as hard as he could. As he doubled over, Leif grabbed the neck of his shirt and forced his head up so they could look each other in the eye.

“I have wronged him in a thousand ways but not like this,” Leif hissed.

“Then why would you leave him behind?” Ced asked through gritted teeth

“Because he doesn’t deserve to die because of me!” Leif snarled. “I am not you, I am not a beloved prince or hero of the people. You said you heard what I’ve done. Then you’ve heard what the Empire says about me. I am all that and worse.” He shoved Ced backwards as he let go of his shirt, causing him to stumble backwards. “What I said applies to people. I am not a person, I am a poison.”

“You can’t mean that,” Asbel said, shaking as he stared at Leif. “Why do you keep saying such awful things?”

Leif was saved from having to answer his question by the sound of men shouting further down the staircase. The guards had made it to where the children had been held. It wouldn’t be long until they reached the top of the stairs. 

Lara rushed past the boys toward the lock. “It’s already unlocked. But it’s barred on the other side,” Ced said as she started to kneel down.

“How do you know that?” she asked, voice only cracking when she began the question. A similar nervousness seemed to be spreading through the others as everyone exchanged glances.

“We found the key to here in one of the chests and Ced had me lock it to stop more reinforcements from getting in. But once I did, there was this thud on the other side and when I tried opening the door, it wouldn’t budge,” Asbel explained.

So this had been a trap. Leif knew there was something suspicious about how easily they had been able to break into the prison. Did that also mean the rumor Ced heard was a lie, just an elaborate ruse to lure in the Magi Squad and finish them off once and for all? But why a rumor about Leif of all people, unless they knew about Ced’s desire to see him raise an army and retake Thracia. The Magi didn’t even know this, they hadn’t even heard the rumor as far as Ced believed. Something about this wasn’t adding up but there was one thing Leif was certain about; the sooner they were out of here, the better.

“Does anyone have something we can slip between the doors? Maybe we could use it to push the bar up,” Lara asked.

“Even if we did, it’s too heavy for anything that thin to lift it, not to mention all you would be able to do is lift the bar, not move it out of the way. It’s dangerous to use magic with so many people in such close quarters but perhaps a few well placed bolts of thunder magic could crack it? I’m not sure if it’s worth the risk though,” Ced pondered.

“We don’t have time for this,” Leif growled, shoving past Lara and Ced. He held his hand over the crack between door where the bar would be on the other side. “Stay back.”

Everyone winced from the searing heat as Leif focused his spell on the crack in the door. There were several shouts behind him and he could see Asbel struggling against Ced’s grip on his arm but he kept going. The crack was too narrow for most of the flames, causing a majority to climb the inside of the door, close enough to reach back to Leif, enveloping his outstretched arm and uncomfortably warming his face. But he could ignore it and continue on, even pushing harder when he heard the crackling sound he was hoping for.

To everyone’s relief, one spell was all it took. Once finished Leif gave the door a hard kick where the bar was. The charred wood gave way and the door swung open, revealing several surprised guards on the other side. The Magi and the freed prisoners charged forward just as a group of guards approached the landing from the other side. Leif had barely begun to turn when a gust of wind blew the guards back, pushing them down the stairs and onto their unseen companions.

Asbel spun around, face red from more than just the heat. “Why do you keep being so stupid?” he shouted.

Leif stared blankly at Asbel. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“No I’m not alright! You keep scaring me half to death. I thought you and Sir Ced were gonna start fighting each other then you went and let yourself get hurt again and now you’re asking me if I’m alright? You’re the one who’s not alright!” Asbel stalked over to Leif and tried to reach for his arm. Leif quickly pulled it away before Asbel could see it, earning his a glare from the younger boy. He pulled out the vulnerary Leif had given him the day before.

“Take it,” Asbel said. “Take it right now or I’m gonna throw it on the floor.”

Slowly, Leif reached out and took the vulnerary. Asbel tried to keep his glare on Leif but couldn’t help glancing down at Leif’s hand as it wrapped around the top of the vulnerary to lift it from Asbel’s grasp. The skin was a shiny red and had already begun to blister. Something about his singed sleeve seemed to catch Asbel’s eye but Leif pulled his arm back before he could look too closely.

He stared down at the little bottle in his hand that he had no intention of using. It was too precious of a resource especially when only two of them could use staves. He had also been the one to give Asbel the potion, it was him it was supposed to help, not Leif. Yet Asbel seemed intent on him using it, even after what he had just witnessed.

“What he said, about how I treat you, it’s not true,” Leif said, still looking at the vulnerary. When he did look up, Asbel was watching him hopefully, waiting to hear more. “It’s not- you’re not an obligation.”

“I know. I didn’t believe it for a second,” Asbel said, surprising Leif by somehow managing to smile. “And that’s why I’m going with you.” Before Leif could argue, he raced through the open door to join the fray. A moment later, Leif followed his lead, Lara’s pouch feeling heavy as he passed Asbel.

Leif didn’t encounter anyone else until the end of the hall where Halvan was dispatching a lance fighter and Orsin threw his axe at an archer. He was about to continue on when he noticed the arena gate behind him. There was torchlight and metal clangs coming from within. Someone was fighting which meant someone else was watching.

Raydrik. Raydrik was in there, he had to be. That sadistic bastard was in the same building as Leif, practically within his reach. All other thoughts were pushed aside as Leif pulled out his lockpick and set to work on the door. It was open within seconds, revealing a woman’s voice.

“I’ll rip that lying tongue right out of your mouth!”

“That’s the Commander!” Orsin said, hurrying to join Leif, Halvan right behind him. Leif paused only long enough to grab the bow and quiver from the archer Orsin felled and ran down the stairs to the arena.

A blonde woman and girl, both with their backs to the boys, stood in the arena, four pitfighters before them. One of the fighters was a girl about as old as Leif, who the woman was trying to talk to.

“Mareeta, look at me! Snap out of it!” the Commander implored.

“Gods, what did they do to her?” Halvan asked softly. Leif glared past the girls to the upper room Raydrik and a bishop were seated in, too amused watching the display to have noticed the intruders yet. But that changed as soon as a pitfighter with a lance tried to take advantage of the Commander’s distracted state to charge the woman. Leif nocked an arrow and let it fly, striking the man in the neck. That got the arena’s attention.

“What’s the meaning of this? Who are these whelps?” Raydrik asked, voice echoing through the arena.

"Calm yourself Raydrik. I believe you'll enjoy what's about to come," the bishop said amusedly.

“Halvan! Orsin! Take Little Nan and get out of here!” the Commander ordered. As she did, Mareeta lunged at her. The Commander managed to block her attack but didn’t retaliate. The other pitfighters seemed encouraged by this and charged her at the same time.

As much as he wanted to run Raydrik through right then and there, the girl beside the Commander made no move to help her, seemingly frozen in place. Leif needed to get closer to attack anyway, might as well take out a few more thugs along the way.

The Commander switched from engaging Mareeta to attacking the other two pitfighters and was holding her own quite well. Mareeta, no longer having an opponent to face, looked wildly around the arena before her gaze landed on the other girl. She looked from her to Leif then charged Leif, despite the other girl holding only a staff. It seemed strange but her strange behavior worked in Leif’s favor, all her attention on him.

She was fast, Leif barely able to parry her attack before she swung again. He dodged, moving behind her to strike but she spun just in time to block his attack. He pushed back, slowly gaining ground as she glared back with pupils blown wide and teeth gritted. It felt as if he were fighting something wild. Her friends seemed to think something had been done to her. If so, conventional fighting wouldn’t be enough.

He gave one last push then disengaged only for her to try and lunge at him. He dropped low and swung his leg out at her legs. She fell forward and Leif grabbed her wrist, twisting her arm as he pressed it against her back. Mareeta thrashed furiously, yelling about killing and demanding to be let go as he swung his leg around and delivered a kick to her temple. She stilled but the gentle rising of her shoulders gave away she wasn’t yet dead.

Mareeta subdued, Leif stood and noticed the other girl staring at him. He hadn’t taken a good look at her and had no intention to. The Commander had taken care of the other pitfighters, so there was nothing more stopping him from going after Raydrik. But just as he was about to turn, she spoke.

“Lord Leif?”

The two words echoed through the arena, causing Leif to pause at the voice reminiscent of one he had known well for so long. He turned, knowing what he would see yet still hoping he wouldn’t. But there, staring back at him in disbelief, was Nanna.

“Lord Leif,” she said again, as if repeating it would make the truth any easier to accept. They had grown up together then spent a third of their lives apart. But he recognized her as soon as he saw her face, just as she had with him. Five years had changed them both but not enough to forget. “Oh gods, what’s happened to you?”

“This is Prince Leif?” Raydrik said, seeming almost gleeful. “The Prince of Leonster, reduced to nothing more than a savage beast. How fitting.”

“Raydrik,” Leif growled, glaring back at him.

“You’ve fallen far little prince,” he said mockingly. “But your miserable existence ends here.”

“Then I’ll take you with me!” Leif snarled.

“Ha! You think you can kill me?” Raydrik challenged. The taunt meant to accompany it was never released as before he finished speaking, an arrow flew straight at him. It never had a chance to hit its mark as the bishop beside Raydrik teleported both of them away.

Leif lowered his bow, hateful glare still fixed on where the pair had just been. He had been so close to killing one of the worst men in Thracia, only for him to slip through his fingers. It was infuriating.

“Prince Leif?” Damn it.

Leif turned to see not only Ced, but the rest of the Magi and everyone else from the dungeon as well. Everyone’s eyes were on him as they tried to reconcile this new revelation with the boy they thought they knew.

“We need to leave. Now,” Leif said, hoping the firmness in his voice would be enough for them to listen and focus on escaping rather than him.

It was enough to shake Ced from his shock. He nodded in agreement and turned away from the arena. “Let’s go!” he called, jolting him men into action as he hurried back up the stairs. Asbel looked regretfully at Leif before following the group. 

Leif began to move as well when a sudden warmth enveloped him. He looked at Nanna to see the glow from her staff as she watched him, expression making it seem as if she was the one in pain. A glance at his hand confirmed the redness had faded, no trace of blisters remaining.

“You shouldn’t waste resources,” he said as he turned towards the stairs to the exit, leaving Nanna with the Commander, Halvan, and Orsin. Both boys’ eyes followed Leif as he passed, Orsin’s mouth hanging open while Halvan seemed concerned.

“That’s Prince Leif? But we saw him-”

“Orsin, shut up,” Halvan hissed. “Don’t say another word. Not in front of Nanna.”

“Oh, right. Damn. Can’t imagine how Finn’s gonna take this,” Orsin said.

Finn. He hadn’t realized how painful it would be to hear that name again, almost missing a step with how it struck him. Not only was Finn alive, he was near as well. If he was still anything like the man Leif knew, he would stop at nothing to hunt him down as soon as he got word of Leif’s reappearance. If he was close enough, he might actually manage it.

Asbel stood at the gate, waiting for Leif with a guilty look. “I’m sorry Lord Leif, I saw you run into the arena and thought you might need help, I didn’t know Nanna was gonna be there or that she’d give you away,” Asbel said as Leif walked past. He spun around, hurrying to catch up. “But I’m glad I can call you by your real name now. And if Nanna’s here then Finn must be as well!” His face paled after he said this as a reason why Finn might not be here dawned on him.

“Alive, not here,” Leif said as he drew his sword, hearing Asbel’s sigh of relief as he turned the corner.

“But if he’s not here then he’s probably in trouble! He wouldn’t just leave Nanna behind. We have to help her find him!” Leif has walked into enough traps today, he was not falling for this one.

“She has people to help her find him. You can go with them if you’re worried,” he said, thankful the conversation could end when they turned the corner and found more soldiers to fight. Still, he heard Asbel call out one last time as he rushed a lance fighter.

“I told you, I’m going with you!”

Leif tried to focus on fighting but the lancer left his right wide open, a quick slash through his side downed him and one more across the throat ensured he would stay down. The lack of a challenge made his mind start to wander back to the arena, back to Nanna. Digging his nails into his palm to try and force the thoughts out, he redrew his bow and ran down the hall, firing arrow after arrow at the cluster of mages Ced was battling, paying no mind to the bolts of thunder and bursts of fire flying past him as he did. It was hardly a hard fight but seeing Ced kept his thoughts in front of him rather than behind.

There was no way he’d allow Leif to leave on his own now that he knew who he was. He had told Leif he believed the best hope for liberating Thracia was for Prince Leif to return. But did he still believe that now that he knew the truth? Knowing what Leif had been doing, seeing him fight, trying to talk with him like a person, was his disappointment so great he had given up any hope for Thracia?

Ced was breathing heavily, a light sheen of sweat on his brow as they finished off the mages. He turned to look at Leif then winced painfully, blood spattering from a cough. Suddenly Leif’s mind was very focused again.

“You’re poisoned. But none of them are dark mages,” Leif said, eyes searching over the corpses in hopes he was wrong.

“I didn’t see who cast it,” Ced admitted. “Must have come from behind. I’ll be fine, we’re almost out of here. All that’s left are us, Asbel, and everyone in the are-” Ced’s words were cut off by another pained wince as he doubled over, bracing himself against the wall to keep from falling completely.

“Sir Ced!” Asbel ran to join the pair, panic from his cry etched on his face. Leif quickly turned and shoved the vulnerary at Asbel.

“Don’t give it to him unless he starts to lose consciousness or I come back,” Leif warned. Asbel nodded solemnly and the two traced positions, Asbel rushing to Ced’s side as Leif hurried to find the dark mage responsible for this.

Leif had said he was done walking into traps today but the pair of slightly ajar doors just to his left seemed like just that. There was no one else around and the only other door was the exit from the prison. Cautiously approaching the door, he moved just close enough to peer in the crack and see the familiar long robes of the Loptrian dark mages. He only saw one, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be more just out of sight. They only had the one vulnerary and neither Ced nor Leif had a Restore staff with them. He needed to do this as quickly and carefully as possible.

Throwing the door open, Leif immediately hurled a bolt of lightning from his sword at the dark mage. They crumbled to the ground as the mage beside him cast a spell at Leif in retaliation. He felt the familiar nauseating chill as it flew by, just missing as Leif dashed across the room to dodge it.

Voices could be heard in the hall on the other side of the wall the dark mage stood beside. Everyone from the arena had finally left. The mage looked from Leif to the wall, as if deciding which they should attack. Leif was out of his range, but that meant he was out of Leif’s as well. He would have to get closer if he wanted to stop the mage, which would put him at greater risk of being hit. But he couldn’t let Nanna or any of the people with her be poisoned either.

Charging at the dark mage, they began casting their spell when Leif threw his sword at them. The mage paused mid chant to let out a squeak and duck, running to the side. Leif tackled him while they were still hunched over, the two falling to the ground just inches from the wall. The mage tried to begin their spell again but Leif ripped the tome from their hands and brought it down as hard as he could on their face. Jormungand tomes were incredibly heavy for a tome and it came down with a hard crunch as the mage’s nose was smashed in. Ignoring the prickling feeling in his hands, he slammed the book down on the mage’s head until they went limp. Leif lifted the tome as high as he could before bringing it down right under the mage’s jaw, giving it a hard strike with his palm for good measure.

Tossing the bloodied tome aside, Leif rose to his feet and glanced at the closed door the mages had been in front of. No one had come out of it and he needed to get back to Ced so he turned towards the exit, only to see the Commander standing in the doorway, sword out but lowered.

“Seems you don’t need a hand after all,” she said, gaze never leaving him. He didn’t respond, picking up his sword before approaching the exit. She moved out of the way, her eyes staying on him as he walked past, refraining from hurrying to Ced and Asbel as he wanted to.

Ced was seated on the floor now, leaning against the wall as Asbel clung to his other arm, squirming nervously. When he looked up and saw Leif, he immediately spun back to Ced and practically shoved the vulnerary down his throat. Nanna, Halvan, and Orsin were hovering around the pair and all turned as Leif approached. Leif kept his attention on Ced and Asbel, despite the temptation to do otherwise.

Slowly, Ced rose to his feet, still slightly pale but otherwise seemingly fine. He gave Leif a grateful smile but before he could speak, Leif did.

“Did the others escape?” he asked.

Ced nodded. “I stayed behind to wait for you,” he said. “Looks like it was a good thing I did.”

“We’re here now let’s leave. Raydrik will bring as many reinforcements as he can as soon as he can,” Leif said. Ced’s face darkened as he nodded in agreement.

“It’s going to be difficult to get through the city with such a large group. Some of us could stay back and be a distra-”

“No.” Leif cut off Ced’s suggestion with a glare. “Everyone will escape. No one is being left behind.”

Ced regarded Leif with fascination as the Commander rejoined the group.

“Found these in the other room,” she said, holding up a set of lockpicks. “Got anyone who can use them?”

“Lord Leif can!” Asbel said, almost sounding excited. More likely he was just excited to be able to use Leif’s name and would be taking advantage of every opportunity he could. Leif sincerely hoped the novelty would wear off soon.

“Lara should get them. Hers need to be replaced soon,” Leif said.

The Commander gave him a bemused look. “I’m afraid I don’t know who that is. Mind giving these to her for me?” she asked, holding them out. Leif nodded and took the lockpicks, trying not to show his annoyance when Ced seemed surprised by this. He didn’t do a very good job as Ced immediately tried to school his expression into something more neutral as he addressed the Commander

“Raydrik will soon be back, this time with the knights of Manster at his side. My men and I will do all that we can to ensure your escape but I’m afraid you may have to fight a bit more.”

The Commander chuckled. “I think we can handle that, Sir-?”

“Prince Ced of Silesse,” Leif said before Ced could speak. It was petty but if he didn’t get to keep his identity a secret anymore, neither did Ced.

The Commander raised her eyebrows at this. “You’re a long way from home, Prince Ced. But thank you for freeing my men. I’m Eyvel, mistress of Fiana. If there’s anything I can do to repay you, just say the word.”

“I’ll get back to you on that.” He glanced over at Leif in what he imagined was supposed to be a subtle gesture. If so, he had failed miserably. “But first, we should regroup.”

Eyvel nodded in agreement and looked to her men, gesturing for them to follow her. Orsin and Halvan quickly did so but Nanna paused as she passed Leif. He knew he shouldn’t but he couldn’t resist looking back at her. They were almost the same height now. She was as pretty as Lady Lachesis had been but her eyes were Finns, bright in color but dulled in feeling, reminding him of the nightmare he had put their family through.

Nanna began to open her mouth to say something, but hesitated, choosing instead to hurry after the others. Ced also seemed like he wanted to say something after watching the lack of exchange, but Asbel pulled him toward the exit. As Leif followed, his thoughts once again wandered to what to do next. 

Slipping away while all of Manster’s knights were on alert would have been challenging enough without so many people closely watching him. Now that Raydrik had seen him, knew where he was, he wouldn’t just let Leif walk away. He would be hunted down, chased by as many men as loyalty or gold could motivate. Not just him as well, everyone Raydrik had seen with him now had a price on their head. If any one of them were caught, they would be killed or tortured for information and then killed, just like before. Leif had gone off on his own so this would never happen again. No one else was supposed to die because of him.

They wouldn’t die. He refused to let this be like before. He would get everyone out of Manster then Ced and Eyvel would protect their people as he kept the Empire focused on him. They may object at first but Leif was just one boy compared to all the people depending on them, one boy who had only made their lives worse in the brief time he entered it. They would come to the same conclusion as the people of Frest and protect the people that mattered.

This would be his apology, a meager but fitting one as he had been the cause of their situation in the first place. All he could hope was for this to be enough for everyone else to survive.

Chapter Text

From the way everyone was gathered behind the prison’s wall, it didn’t take much to guess if Ced peeked around the side, there would be soldiers waiting for them. He hoped the children he and Asbel had released had made it home safely.

“Sir- er, Lord Ced, what should we do?” Brighton asked. He wasn’t the only one struggling to adjust to the reveals they’d witnessed in the prison. No one seemed to know where to look, eyes shifting between him and Prince Leif.

Prince Leif. Ced had to keep himself from glancing at him. How could he have missed it? All the clues to who he was were right there, his age, his odd behavior when he mentioned the prince, Asbel’s almost slips, his strong reaction to learning who Ced was. Why hadn’t he put it together or even considered the possibility? Perhaps it was because he never imagined a prince could become this.

“I’ll handle the soldiers, the rest of you escape,” Leif said, holding out to Lara the lockpick Eyvel had given him. She took it with a questioning look but no voiced complaint.

“Prince Leif, you can’t be serious! You more than any of us has to escape,” Ced argued. Leif scowled at the use of his title, a look that only darkened as Ced continued talking.

“I’m the one they want. If I attack, they’ll be too focused on me to go after you,” Leif said. “Raydrik was focused on me in the arena, he doesn’t know about you yet. You can still escape and won’t be hunted down.”

Loathe as he was to admit it, Leif had a point. If Raydrik saw him, he’d lose his anonymity, making running the Magi even harder. The people might even turn against him if Raydrik increased his cruelty in an attempt to capture him. Or worse, he could bring in the Schwarze Rosen and let them raze Manster to find him. It wasn’t just his life he would be risking, or even just the lives of the Magi Squad, all of Manster was on the line.

Fortunately, Eyvel spoke up. “You’re not the only one Raydrik’s seen, Prince Leif. He knows all the Freeblades’ faces so if you’re going in, let us help you. You’re right about being hunted, we won’t be able to return to Fiana even if we escape. For that and for what they did to my daughter, I’d like to make these bastards pay.”

This was perfect, Ced could use this. Of course they had to survive and escape Manster first, but once they did, he had a plan.

“We’ll split up then. Prince Leif and the Freeblades will make a direct attack while the rest of us make our way to the eastern side-gate. There’s a gate to our left, it’ll take us into the town. From there, any one of the Magi can easily get through the streets without being seen. Once the soldiers are dealt with, make your way through town, the gate should be a straight shot,” Ced explained. He turned to Leif, who had only stared blankly through his entire plan. “I get my distraction and everyone escapes, we both win.”

“A group of eight is still quite large to try and smuggle through town, even one we know well,” Brighton said.

“I have Hermes!” Karin said, stroking the pegasus beside her. “I can fly folks over the town one by one - no chance of being seen that way!”

“Pegasi will only let women touch them so-” Ced started adjusting his plan when Karin shook her head.

“Hermes is willing to give everyone a chance, I can tell,” Karin said. “Even the jerk he kicked for pulling his feathers where he was a foal.”

She just had to stick that little barb in. Why couldn’t he have a childhood friend like Asbel? “Alright then, how many trips can he manage?” Ced asked.

“How many do you need?” Karin asked in return, more confident that he’d ever remembered her being when they were children. After what she must have gone through in Silesse, he couldn’t keep thinking of her as a child, even if she was barely fourteen.

“Ronan, go with her,” Eyvel said, turning to the archer from the dungeon.

“But Commander!” he protested.

“You’re not a Freeblade so I can’t ask you to do this. You joined us to protect your village, not to get tangled up in our mess. Besides, your mother would never forgive me if you didn’t make it home in one piece,” Eyvel said.

Ronan deflated at the mention of his mother, reluctantly giving in to Eyvel’s order. “You should go as well,” Ced said to Lara. “Karin may claim Hermes is fine with men but I’d rather not test him too much.” Karin glared at him as if offended on Hermes’ behalf.

“I’ll go,” Fergus offered. “I’m the only one left that don’t know Manster well enough to sneak around. Rather not get in yer way.”

“Take Nanna,” Leif said. Not only was Ced surprised by this, but Nanna seemed so as well.

“If you’re going to be fighting, you should have someone who can heal with you,” Nanna said, voice soft. She kept her gaze on Leif the entire time as if trying to make him look back at her, something he seemed unwilling to do.

“I can,” Leif said.

Nanna seemed taken aback. “You can?” she repeated. Ced glanced at Nanna, intrigued by the confusion in her voice. She had known Leif before, like Asbel, and yet she didn’t know he could use staves. Was this a newly learned ability? If so, why? She could offer some valuable insight into what had happened to Prince Leif.

Ced noticed Leif glaring at him again, although he wasn’t sure why this time, he had been subtle about looking at Nanna. Perhaps he was waiting for backing on the proposal. He was certainly protective of these old friends, which made Ced wonder what had caused them to part in the first place. Might as well get into his good graces and avoid another punch. For someone so small, he hit hard.

“I’d prefer not to send another male, for Hermes’ sake,” he said, glancing at Karin. She rolled her eyes at him, either seeing through his words or annoyed at his underestimation of her steed. But she thankfully didn’t contest his point.

“If Lord Leif can heal, then you should go Little Nan,” Eyvel said, a soft motherly tone to her voice and expression. Nanna was giving her a pitiful pout but Eyvel didn’t crack, smiling sorrowfully back. “I’ve already lost one daughter today, I’m not losing another. Your father’s waiting for you as well.”

The mention of her father sobered her expression and she nodded, suddenly completely on board with Leif’s suggestion. Passengers decided, Karin mounted Hermes and waited as Ronan did the same. Like she said, Hermes made no fuss about a male sitting on, even just touching him. Although Ced swore he glared at him when he approached.

“Be safe, Karin,” he said. She smiled back, amazing him with how calmly she was handling their situation.

“You too, Prince Ced.” With that she took off, soaring into the skies like she was made of the wind itself.

As soon as she had, Leif turned the corner to charge the soldiers, the Freeblades quick to follow. Nanna seemed uneasy at staying behind but Lara was at her side with a sympathetic smile in seconds. Ensured she was in good hands, Ced hurried toward the backgate into the town.

“Master Ced, thank the gods you’re alright!” the old man at the gate said as they approached, pushing the gate open for them. “I’ve heard the news. You’d better escape while you still can.”

“Thank you friend. Is there anything in the town we should be prepared for?” Ced asked.

“ ‘spect there’ll be soldiers searching for you. Best be ready for a fight,” the man warned.

Ced nodded, already having suspected as much and followed his men, Forseti tome in hand.

As the man had warned, there were two soldiers at the end of the street. Thankfully, both had their backs turned so there would be no fighting just yet. Ced was about to turn left, planning to sneak down between the gates of the houses and the city’s walls when he noticed an old man beckoning them from the second house down. The fences around the houses weren’t very high but by crouching down as low as he could, he could use them as a shield to hide himself from view. Ced quickly approached the old man who, upon being reached, pressed a slim, lightweight sword in his hands.

“If anybody asks, ya didn’t get this from me,” he said, giving Ced a conspiratory wink before shuffling back into the house and slamming the door. Ced looked down at the rapier. He wasn’t very good with physical weapons.The last time he had tried to use one, Fee and Karin had ended up on the floor, laughing so hard they were in tears. He had stuck to magic from then on.

The others were waiting for Ced on the other side of the fence, the alley between houses offering a clear path to the east wall. He handed the rapier over to Machyua, who expressed her gratitude with a nod.

“It may be best to continue towards the center of town rather than go back and work our way around the edge,” Ced mused. “There will likely be more soldiers but we’ll meet up with the others sooner. We’ll also have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”

“Brighton! Dalshin! Over here!” A voice behind the men caused both to turn in surprise. A knight with an axe stood on the other side of the fence around the next block of houses.

“Hicks?” Brighton called back, just loud enough to be heard.

“I’ve been waiting for you guys. I heard you saved my son, Maphy. Thanks to you, I was able to hide him in a safe place, along with the other children,” he said.

“I’m glad to hear that but we can’t take all the credit,” Ced said. The other Magi looked at their leader in confusion but he kept his gaze on Hicks, trusting them to go along with him.

“What do you mean? Wasn’t it the Magi Squad that rescued everyone?” Hicks asked.

“We did help but we were not the ones responsible for everyone’s escape. That was the work of Prince Leif.” Hicks straightened at the mention of the prince, expression turning to one of awe. “He led the Magi in the freeing of those being unjustly held by Raydrik and even faced the Twofold Traitor himself, having the upperhand before the coward ran away.”

“Can it be true? After so long, the prince has finally taken a stand?” Hicks asked in breathy disbelief. If he had been stunned before, Ced’s words had only further stoked his amazement. For a moment, Ced worried he might pass out until he lifted his head, revealing the determination in his eyes that Ced had hoped to see.

“It’s about time someone taught Raydrik a lesson. If the prince is fighting back then so will I!” Hicks declared. Ced smiled, relieved his plan had worked.

“I’m sure he’ll be glad to have you. But first, we need to get out of here before this town turns into a battlefield,” Ced advised. A crack of thunder magic from the end of the street interrupted their conversation.

“Seems we’re just about there,” Hicks said as he and Ced peered around the corner. The armored knight was down, a dark hole in his chest where the spell had hit. The remaining soldier thrust his lance at someone, only for a small figure to duck under it, slicing the man’s thigh as he did. As he leaned over to grab it, his attacker quickly spun around and stood, swinging his sword into the man’s now unprotected side as far as he could. Even from here Ced could see the blood on the sword as the soldier fell off of it.

It wasn’t his most gruesome kill but still a poor introduction for a prince. As if sensing someone was thinking about him, Leif looked over at them. It was hard to make out his expression from this distance and with his hair falling in his face. He really should do something about that Ced thought to himself, Maybe Machyua can show him how to tie it back, her hair is about the same length.

“Are you alright?” Ced called.

Leif nodded. “Where are the others?” he asked.

“We’re all here, everyone’s fine,” he assured him, motioning for the others to join him. He started to make his way towards Leif. “Are there many more soldiers left between us and the gate?”

“I’ll handle them. Get to the gate and escape,” Leif said, already turning to leave.

“Wait!” Hicks called. Ced felt his heart speed up as Leif paused and both waited for Hicks to continue.

“There’s some folks on the other side you should visit. They told me to send you their way if you came by,” he said.

Ced didn’t have to see Leif’s face to know he had no intention of visiting these people. “Why don’t you take the two of us to them? It’ll go faster than if we wandered around by ourselves,” Ced suggested.

“Fine by me,” Hicks said at the same time Leif said, “No.” Hicks looked at him in confusion but Leif was focused on Ced.

“We’re the only ones who can heal. One of us needs to stay with the others,” Leif said.

“Nanna’s just outside the gate, she can take care of anyone who’s injured. Everyone can make it until then,” Ced said. Leif didn’t seem to like his answer and Ced couldn’t blame him. It was a risk but he needed to go with them.

As he tried to think of a rebuttal to any counter arguments Leif might make, he surprised Ced by bending down next to the armored knight. When he stood, he had a vulnerary in his hand, which he held out to Asbel.

“Most knights have these. Check for a pocket under their tassets,” Leif said. Asbel nodded as he took the vulnerary, clutching it to his chest like a precious gem.

“All armor knights ‘re told t’ carry ‘em there. How’d you know about that?” Dalshin asked, surprised at Leif’s knowledge.

“Experience. If you want to do this, we need to go now,” Leif said to Ced. Ced nodded in agreement and turned to Hicks who headed for the trees dividing the town, Ced and Leif close behind.

Hicks stuck out his arm to make them stop just before they moved past the treeline. Ced bumped into it but Leif jumped back, avoiding running into Ced. An armored knight was guarding the street before them. Hicks softly swore.

“I take it that’s the street we need?” Ced asked. As soon as Hicks nodded, Leif slipped around the pair, darting towards the tree right beside the knight. Fortunately the branches were thick enough and Leif small enough he could use them for cover, disappearing into them with only a slight sway of the branches. For several moments, Ced couldn’t see or hear him. Then Leif reappeared, leaping down from the tree onto the knight, foot making contact with the knight’s neck. As he fell, the space between cuirass and tassets became wide enough for Leif to plunge his sword in, a motion Ced almost missed with how quickly it was performed.

Rolling into a kneeling position, Leif stood and approached the body. As he pulled his sword out, he pulled it through the knight’s torso rather than simply pulling it out of the wound he had already created. This caused a greater blood flow from the wound and a bit of flesh clung to the sword, but Leif seemed unbothered, turning to look back in the direction of the prison before dashing off again. 

Path now clear, Ced hurried forward, slowing briefly to let Hicks take the lead again. He gave a brief glance down the direction Leif had ran, seeing him about to engage another armored knight. “Quite the fighter, that one,” Hicks said, stopping in front of the door to the first house. Ced hummed in agreement as Hicks knocked a couple times in a pattern likely meant to be a code.

A woman opened the door, nervousness fading at Hicks’ smile and Ced beside him. “We don’t really have much time left so whatever you’ve gotta do, do it fast,” Hicks said. The woman nodded.

“Words are wind, anyway. Here, folks who read this get some kinda strange power. It’ll help you more’n it’ll ever help us!” she said, pressing a book into Ced’s hands then quickly retreating back inside and slamming the door shut.

Hicks and Ced made their way back towards the center of town, Ced hiding the manual so Leif wouldn’t see it. “I’m grateful for everyone’s generosity, as I’m sure Prince Leif will-” Ced paused mid sentence when he turned back towards where Leif had been fighting the lance knight. Reinforcements had arrived, four cavaliers all charging towards Leif. With all the fighting he had done, he must be nearing his limit, Ced himself starting to feel weary. Yet he showed no signs of exhaustion as he raised his blade, prepared for another fight.

Ced frowned at his choice of weapon. He had to know using a sword would make the battle more difficult and last longer than if he went with one of his other weapons. What happened to his eagerness to escape quickly?

Even if he hadn’t chosen such an ill suited weapon, Ced had no intentions of just sitting back and doing nothing. Forseti in hand, he ran towards Leif, hoping he could get close enough in time.

Fortunately, Leif created an opening for him, sending a bolt of lightning from his sword and spooking the horses. As they reared and stomped, Ced caught up to Leif and cast his spell, knocking the cavaliers and their mounts back completely, leaving them either unconscious or dead. As long as they wouldn’t get back up anytime soon, Ced didn’t care which.

Leif didn’t seem pleased with Ced’s assistance but said nothing as he followed the other boy back towards Hicks. He did stay a few steps behind the pair as they ran, Ced constantly looking back to make sure he was still there. 

Hicks stopped at the last street before the wall, the gate mere feet away and wide open. It was the most relieving sight Ced had seen all day, slightly reluctant to look away as he joined Hicks at the home’s door, Leif staying by the fence to keep watch. After performing the same knock he had on the woman’s door, a man around Hick’s age threw it wide open.

“We’re running short on time, friend. Say your piece and we’re hightailing it out of here,” Hicks said.

“You’re leavin’ too, Hicks? Can’t say I don’t get why. Don’t worry bout Maphy, after what you did, no one here’d let anythin’ happen to ‘im,” he said. Hicks smiled gratefully at the guarantee of his son’s safety in his absence as the other man turned his attention to Ced. “It’s not much but found this tryin’ to uproot a tree from me backyard. Looks like a page outta some history book or somethin’ so figure it’s gotta be somethin’ good.”

To Ced’s amazement, the man handed him a Crusader Scroll, that of the Crusader Od if he wasn’t mistaken. He had one of his own, that of his namesake the Crusader Ced. It was supposed to be a gift to his betrothed as had been the tradition in his family for generations. But marriage seemed a long off, unlikely thing and he could think of a far better use for it.

“Thank you, truly. Your kindness will be of great help to the Liberation Army,” Ced promised. It was the first time he said the words out loud, testing their effect. He was not disappointed as the man’s face lit up with a hopeful smile.

“So it’s true, it’s finally gonna happen,” he said, smile getting wider with every word. “Things’re finally changin’ fer good.” With that optimistic prediction, he closed his door, leaving Ced with a hopeful feeling as well.

Leif was still by the gate, expression blank as expected but posture tense. Ced wondered again why he had agreed to do this when he so obviously had no interest in the people’s tokens of gratitude. Speaking of which, Ced rolled the Od Scroll tighter to hide what it was and held it out to Leif. “Could you hold onto this for me? My bag is rather full,” he lied. It wasn’t his best lie, Leif not looking convinced at all, but he took the scroll without question.

The trio made their way to the open gate, although Leif was lagging behind again. Was he trying to hide an injury? He didn’t look to be in pain but then again, he had kept a straight face as he burned his own hand. The first thing Ced would do once they were out of Manster would be a forced inspection to make sure Leif wasn’t hiding any serious injuries from them.

“Don’t let them escape!” 

The shout startled Ced just as he was about to go through the gate. Spinning around, he saw four more cavaliers charging from the opposite side of the town and Leif already having drawn his sword for a fight.

“Escape. Now,” he said.

“Not without you. We’ll fight them off together,” Ced argued. He began to take a step forward when Leif swung his sword around and pointed it at him. Ced froze, confused and a bit frightened about what might come next.

Although his sword was pointed at Ced, he looked at Hicks as he spoke. “Prince Ced is not allowed to die in Thracia,” Leif said, words sounding like a command. Hicks looked in surprise from Leif to Ced then nodded in understanding. Before Ced could stop him, Hicks grabbed him from behind and lifted him so he could only writhe fruitlessly as he tried to break free.

“Sorry about this, your highness,” Hicks apologized as they slowly neared the gate. The cavaliers were almost upon Leif, who had lost his tenseness from before, as if he were more at ease now he was about to enter an unfavorable battle. “But your people need their prince.”

“And what about your prince?” Ced asked. Hicks briefly paused as he realized what Ced meant. But his grip didn’t loosen enough for Ced to break free and he regained his resolve quickly.

“He wanted me to protect you so that’s what I’ll do,” Hicks said, although it sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as well. “He believes he can do this so I’ll believe in him too. It’s not like he’s trying to stay behind.”

Ced stilled in horror, causing Hicks to stop as well, concerned by the sudden lack of movement.

“That’s exactly what he’s trying to do. That’s been his intention to entire time,” he said, everything finally starting to make sense. “You have to let me go right now! If we escape, he won’t!”

“What? Why wouldn’t he escape if we did?” Hicks asked, already lowering Ced. 

“Ask him that!” Ced shouted as he watched Leif narrowly dodge two cavaliers’ lances at the same time. He had taken the defensive and was fighting with almost every disadvantage. Now that Ced knew what he was planning, it was obvious he was stalling for time to let them escape. That was not going to happen, not without him.

Whether it was the panic in Ced’s voice or seeing Leif fight, something convinced Hicks to release Ced. “What should we do?” he asked, hand already going to his axe as if he had read Ced’s mind.

“Finish this fight. We’re getting Prince Leif out of here if we have to drag him out ourselves,” Ced declared, grabbing his Forseti tome. Hicks nodded in agreement and both ran to engage the cavaliers.

Noticing the men coming to join the fight, one of the cavaliers tried to go around Leif, only for him to swing his sword through the man’s thigh, causing the soldier to fall just after his leg did. Another of the cavaliers tried to take advantage of Leif’s distraction by plunging their lance down towards him but Ced shoved him back with a gust from Forseti. Hicks swung his axe clean through the neck of a third cavalier’s horse as the fourth began to retreat. Leif made to move after him but Ced grabbed his arm to stop him. Suddenly, there was a burst of pain as Leif’s arm slipped out of his grasp and his own arm was quickly and harshly twisted, bringing him to his knees. A snapping sound made him feel sick as he looked up at Leif. His pupils were blown wide, staring at Ced but not seeing him. The knuckles of the hand squeezing his arm were white and Ced almost swore the hand was shaking. It was almost as if he was afraid; but of what?

“Prince Leif,” Ced managed to choke out his name, trying and failing to keep the pain he was in from his voice. The grip on his arm disappeared almost as soon as it appeared, leaving behind only a painful throbbing. Leif had turned his face away from Ced, hair hanging over it like a curtain separating them, but made no move to pursue the cavalier.

Ced got to his feet as Hicks approached, holding the reigns of a horse. “We’re not leaving without you. Come with us. Please,” Ced said to Leif. Wordlessly, he began walking towards the gate, slower than usual but at a pace Ced and Hicks could keep up with. As he walked beside him, Ced noticed a tear towards the bottom of his shirt, a small patch of still wet blood blossoming out from it. Apparently he hadn’t been fast enough to stop the cavalier. But he refrained from saying anything.

At the gate, Leif turned, face finally visible once more as he waited for the other men to go through. No one would have known only moments before, it was as wild as a cornered animal from the emptiness displayed now. Ced wasn’t sure which one was more frightening.

Hicks looked to Ced for reassurance, placated by the nod he received. “Your papa’s gonna do the best he can, Maphy,” he said softly, words likely not meant for others to hear. Neither Leif nor Ced commented on them as Hicks left, Ced following just behind. He didn’t feel the need to check if Leif was following, somehow knowing he would be.

The first sight they were greeted with upon leaving the town was Karin and Asbel waiting nervously outside the gate. That nervousness quickly went away upon seeing the trio.

“Took you long enough!” Karin said, trying not to hurry as she approached Ced. As she looked him over, she frowned. “Why are you holding your arm like that?”

Ced tried not to wince as he attempted to move his arm. “I was a bit careless as we were leaving,” he said, giving what he hoped looked like an embarrassed smile. Karin seemed to buy it, looking only concerned and not suspicious.

“We can take care of it when we meet up with the others. There’s a stable not far from here that everyone’s hiding in. Eyvel said it’d be better to regroup somewhere not in the open and there’s some horses for the folks that can ride,” Karin said as she started leading the way. Ced gave Leif one last look. He almost seemed to be curling in on himself, shoulders hunched and head lowered, hands balled into fists. Asbel started to move towards him but Ced reached out with his good arm, holding him back. He looked confused and hurt but went along with Ced as he followed Karin, although he kept looking back at Leif.

The stable was decently sized and a fair distance away. They would have some time before any knights sent from Manster would find them. The knights may even overlook the stable but that probably wasn’t a good idea to test. They should agree on a plan of where to go and leave as soon as possible. But first, he needed to speak with the Magi.

He was about to call them together when he noticed Leif still standing outside the stable. Ced was suddenly reminded of how young he was, almost two years younger than Ced, born mere weeks before the Yied Massacre. Despite everything he had seen the boy do, he was still just that, a boy. “You should join us, Prince Leif. It’s safer inside,” he said, unsurprised by how his voice had softened. Judging by how Leif’s fists clenched, it had surprised him.

“Why?” he asked, “Why didn’t you let me stay behind? You would be safe, all of you would be safe if they knew I wasn’t with you.”

There was a twisted logic to his words, an echo of the sentiment he’d expressed when they’d first left the prison. “But you wouldn’t. You’d be trapped by yourself with Raydrik and all his men,” Ced pointed out.

“There’s always more than one way out,” Leif said, finally looking up at Ced. “And I’ve been through worse.”

Ced couldn’t help glancing at the scar just under his right eye. A little higher and he wouldn’t have an eye. “I don’t doubt that. But that doesn’t make it alright for you to go through more terrible situations.”

“Why not? The rest of you could have gone back to your lives, your homes, your families,” Leif argued. “I took all of that away from you the moment I escaped.”

“You’re not the one who did that,” Eyvel said, stepping forward to join Ced. The motherly look from before had returned. “The Empire is the one stopping us from going back.”

“The Empire is only after you because of me. Everything they do to you is because of me,” Leif said emphatically. There was more to his words than he was saying yet Ced couldn’t quite figure out what. Eyvel was holding herself back from approaching him but Ced could see how much it pained her not to comfort the prince. It was frustrating for Ced as well to be able to do nothing.

“You’re only here because of me,” Ced countered. “I asked for your help so I’m as much to blame as you are in this.”

“You didn’t know who I was.”

“You didn’t know we would find out. You tried to stop anyone from finding out.” Both Nanna and Asbel looked down at this, Asbel from embarrassment, Nanna from shame.

Leif stared at Ced in confusion, although Ced had no idea why. His logic made about as much sense as Leif’s. Slowly, he approached Ced, stopping just out of arm’s reach. Ced waited for him to respond but instead, he withdrew his staff. A white glow gently emanated out as the pain in Ced’s arm dulled. He moved it gingerly to test how it felt. It wasn’t perfect but tolerable. 

“None of this is your fault,” Leif said quietly as the glow began to fade.

“It’s not yours either,” Ced replied but Leif shook his head as he stepped back, eyes wide with the same terror as when Ced had grabbed him. He retreated back outside the stable, leaving the air heavy with the weight of his words.

Asbel tried to go after him but Ced reached out to hold him back, freshly healed arm twinging as he did. Asbel fought back, a mixture of anger and pain on his face as he did.

“Now’s not a good time, Asbel,” Ced advised.

“I don’t care! I’m sick of hearing him say all this awful stuff. It’s not true and he acts like it is and I hate it!” Asbel shouted. He pushed hard enough to break Ced’s hold but before he could go running after his lord, Eyvel put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back slightly. He glared up at her, although it more closely resembled a pout.

“Trying to talk to him while you’re all fired up like this won’t do either of you any good. How about this, I’ll go keep an eye on him and you and Lord Ced come up with a plan for the long term,” Eyvel suggested. Ced swore this woman was a goddess as Asbel nodded solemnly. She gave him a slight smile and pat on the head before heading outside of the stable to join Leif. Asbel turned to Ced expectantly.

“I did want to talk to you and the other Magi about something along those lines,” he said, looking at the members of their group.

“The stablehands’ room is this way,” Brighton said, walking towards the back. The others followed, coming to a small room barely big enough for the five of them. Lara and Asbel sat on the bed while Machyua leaned against the wall across from the door, Brighton in the corner between the bed and the door. Ced took the seat at the small desk, no space to walk between the bed and desk once he had. The others watched him expectantly as they waited for him to begin.

“There’s something I want to ask of you but before that, there are some things I need to know,” he said. “First, those of you who accompanied Prince Leif, what happened down in the dungeon?”

“He gave simple orders; Lara in charge of prisoners, me in charge of Lara, he and Brighton take down anyone who tried to stop us. Simple but made sense,” Machyua said. “We fought together, briefly. Never said a word, just knew he had my back. He saved my life and I saved his as well.”

“He saved me too,” Lara said. “I didn’t see an archer but he did so he used himself as a shield.”

“That seems to be a habit of his,” Brighton added. “The guard change happened while we were still down there. He ordered everyone to escape while he stayed behind to buy us some time. I don’t know what he did but when he came back, he was covered in blood and the guards were stalled.”

Ced nodded. “I remember, he said it wasn’t his. I don’t think I want to know where it came from or how it got there,” he said.

“What does it matter how it got there? Lord Leif held them back all by himself, course there’s gonna be blood for a fight like that!” Asbel said, voice raising slightly.

Ced smiled at his defensiveness. “I wasn’t criticizing him. What I meant was his methods are a bit intense. But I can’t say they aren’t effective. The two of you did save my life, after all.”

Asbel flushed. “I just did what Lord Leif told me to do,” he said, although he looked quite pleased with himself. Ced allowed himself a moment to look fondly at his pupil before returning to the conversation they needed to have.

“Having fought alongside Prince Leif, if you were asked to again, would you?” Ced asked.

Asbel nodded vigorously, without a second’s hesitation. Machyua gave a single nod, as did Lara. Brighton was the only one who hesitated but the conviction in his gaze as he gave a firm nod made up for it.

“If you were asked to, would you follow him again?” Ced asked, earning him suspicious and confused looks from everyone but Asbel, who was already nodding. The others slowly did as well in a similar fashion as before.

“Good. Because that is exactly what I’m doing,” he said. Expecting a surge of questions and arguments, he quickly continued, hoping to cover all of them.

“Before meeting Prince Leif, I believed his return was the best chance Thracia had of becoming free of the Empire, that he could be the symbol of hope the people rally behind. Now that I have, I’m certain of it. Just mentioning him to the people of Manster lifted their spirits and even encouraged one of them to join us. It won’t be as simple as I had hoped but I do believe he can become the prince Thracia needs. You’ve all seen how much he cares for the people, how much he’s willing to give for them. But if he’s going to liberate Thracia and take the throne, he’s going to need a great deal of assistance. That’s what I’m asking of you. If Thracia is ever to be free, it needs Prince Leif and Prince Leif needs all the help he can get.”

There was silence after Ced’s speech. Before anyone could fill it with a refusal or acceptance, the door slammed open, revealing a panicked Karin.

“The Knights of Manster are approaching, fast. We need to leave now!” she said, not waiting for a response as she dashed back into the stables. The Magi were quick to follow, Ced leaving last.

Eyvel and Leif had rejoined the others in the stables, similar solemn expressions on their faces.

“We need to decide where we’re going now,” Eyvel said, looking between the princes. “East isn’t an option, we’ll be on the coast in a day.”

“North means running back at them so that’s out as well,” Ced added, trying to remember Thracia’s geography. “Alster is to the west but they’ve sworn fealty to the Empire, not to mention Bloom has made the place his base of operations.”

“So we head south into Thracia proper,” said Leif, ignoring the looks of surprise on both of their faces. “I can get us through the mountains but it will be hard to take horses.”

An idea came to Ced. It was a risk but if it worked… “If we’re headed to Thracia, I think there’s someone who could take care of the knights for us.”

Chapter Text

While not fond of Thracia’s geography, Finn had to admit the rocky terrain did have its’ benefits. From his position along the craggy mountain side, he could see much of the valley both to the north and south while being out of range of any attacks that may come from below. And with all the commotion going on, that seemed something to be genuinely concerned about.

A group of mercenaries had gathered just outside the border of Thracia, a wall of swordsmen preventing someone from getting to Castle Meath. Why they were there and who they were expecting was a mystery, one Finn had no desire to investigate. There was only one task that mattered and that was breaking into Manster to rescue Nanna.

When Raydrik had caught the Freeblades trying to break into the Gate of Kelves, he had been the only one to get away. Eyvel and the others had been captured, likely taken to the prison where Mareeta and Nanna were being held. If that was the case, perhaps he would come across them along the way and be able to free them as well. If not, there was nothing he could do for them.

While he could recognize the thought was callous, he couldn’t bring himself to care. He had come to Manster to get Nanna back and as long as he got her back alive, he didn’t care what else happened. The Freeblades were good people but Nanna was all he had left. If it hadn’t been for her, he wouldn’t have made it through the last five years. Even with her, he barely had.

“Nothing spurs men to action like coin,” August said as a way of greeting. Unlike Finn, the former priest had been curious about the movement below and had gone down into the valley to ask around. “There are several brigands on this side of the mountains as well, just north of here and this likely won’t be all there is.”

“Must be some bounty,” Finn said, not bothering to feign interest. If anything, the bloodbath to come was an annoyance, forcing them to wait until it ended before heading to Manster. Hopefully all the mercenaries and brigands would kill their prey quickly and Finn could resume his journey.

August glanced at Finn, as if trying to predict his reaction before revealing additional information. “Apparently you’re not the only one who wanted to break into Manster. A group of rebels caused a bit of a stir and are now headed this way. They claim the leader is… someone rather important. It’s a farfetched claim but the bounty is absurd enough any sellsword between here and Manster would be a fool not to take up arms.”

“Should I as well?” Finn asked, trying to guess what August wasn’t saying. He wasn’t keen on hurting down rebels but neither of them had any money. The rebels’ cause was an admirable one, one Finn had once supported, but any hope he had for it died the day he lost his second lord.

Finn had gone through a lot of terrible days. The day Lord Quan and Lady Ethlyn died in the desert, his grief and shame made it impossible for him to leave their newly born son’s side, irrationally terrified of losing him as well. When Leonster fell, his tears dried up, no longer capable of capturing the sadness he felt. When Lachesis left and never returned, he tried to accept she was gone for good yet his thoughts only drifted to her more. But none of that compared to leaving Tahra without Leif.

To Finn’s surprise, August looked momentarily alarmed at his suggestion before schooling his expression into something calmer and joining him in looking out over the valley. “No, although we should keep an eye on the battle. If they’re coming from Manster, perhaps Nanna and the others will be with them,” he said.

If he was worried about getting Finn’s hopes up, there was no need. Finn knew better by now than to have hope for anything. The world was rarely so kind.

“It seems they’ve arrived,” Finn said, spotting a small group making their way through the valley. It was hard to make out more than just general outlines at this distance, but there seemed to be four mounted and ten on foot. A pegasus soared overhead, a rare sight in Thracia but likely an ally to the rebels as they didn’t attack them.

Not long after they had appeared, a group of knights did as well. One, mostly likely their commander, stayed behind while the other three pursued the party.

“Raydrik really doesn’t want them to escape,” August said. He frowned as he looked at the fast approaching group. “Were the rumors true? Could he really be down there?” he asked quietly, as if his questions were not meant for Finn to hear. Finn sighed in frustration.

“Enough with the vagueness, August. What are you thinking?” August didn’t respond, watching as three more knights appeared, the first trio having almost closed the distance between them and the rebels.

“You should get down there,” August advised. When Finn kept looking expectantly at him, he elaborated. “At the very least, they’ll know how to get in and out of Manster. But there’s a good chance your daughter is already with them. And… and perhaps someone else.”

The continued cryptic answers annoyed Finn but at least he now had something to do. Slowly, he lead his horse down the mountain but before he could reach the bottom, fighting broke out as some of the knights caught up with the group. Rather than charge in blindly, he mounted and steered his horse to the top of a small rise to get a better sense of the battle.

The group had split, most of them heading towards Thracia and the mercenaries while a handful were trying to sneak back through the forest. A single boy faced the three knights. It seemed a terrible decision to Finn until the boy attacked. 

A torrent of flames was unleashed upon them, driving the knights back several feet. The boy ran through the flames, darting between the two closest knights and grabbing the reins of their horses, yanking them down to force the steeds’ heads to collide. Pivoting behind them, he grabbed the lance from the knight on his right and promptly impaled them with it, dragging it down and out in time to spin around and block the jab of the other knight. The third rushed in with a rapier and the boy disengaged to leap out of the way, moving behind the remainder of his fire. As the knights charged, a gust of wind magic pushed the flames back towards them, spooking the horses enough for their riders to be thrown. The soldier closest to the boy tried to quickly rise but a kick to the face brought the soldier back to the ground.

Finn could have joined the fight but his help seemed unnecessary. This must be the rebel with the impressive bounty on his head, the one everyone in the valley seemed eager to kill. Judging by this display, that would be easier said than done. He was a tempest of a boy, quickly and violently ripping through his pursuers, seemingly nothing off the table. Magic, weapons, his own bare hands, one way or another, he would get the kill.

“Father?” The call immediately captured Finn’s attention and he turned towards it, relieved to see it was indeed Nanna. He spurred his horse towards hers, joining her at the edge of the forest. Once he had, he was instantly concerned by her somber expression.

“Are you alright? You weren’t hurt, were you?” he asked, instantly searching for any injuries.

“I’m fine, Eyvel protected me. But Mareeta…” Nanna trailed off, the topic clearly painful for her. The girls had been very close back in Fiana, Mareeta being the only friend Nanna had made since Tahra. She had been the first person to make Nanna laugh and smile after two of the most miserable years of her life. Finn had never expressed his gratitude for that, something he now would never have the chance to.

“Is Eyvel with you?” Finn asked. If Nanna was taking Mareeta’s loss hard, Eyvel would be much worse. Mareeta may not have been her daughter by blood but she loved her as if she was. The pain of a loss like that was not something Finn wanted to think about.

“Yes. The rest of the Freeblades are as well,” Nanna said. She still seemed agitated but Finn decided not to press her at the moment. There were better places to have personal discussions than on the edge of a battlefield.

“We’ll let August know and meet up with the others wherever you had agreed to regroup. Stay close, there’s no shortage of danger here,” Finn warned. But just as he had turned his horse towards the path he had come down, Nanna’s next words stopped everything.

“He’s here.” It was a vague statement but not to Finn, not when Nanna said it as if the words were choking her. They were choking him, stopping him from doing anything as, for the first time in five years, hope tried to claw its way back into his chest.

“Are you certain?” Finn finally managed to ask. Nanna’s nod was all the proof he needed. Both of them had wanted to find Leif so desperately, she had to be telling the truth. Suddenly he went from unable to move to desperate to do so. He looked towards Meath then back the way the party had come from, wondering which group Leif had gone with.

“Something happened to him,” Nanna said. Finn’s blood ran cold.

“What do you mean? What’s happened to him?” Finn asked, trying not to sound panicked. He knew something unpleasant happening to Leif was a likely possibility, Thracia was a harsh place especially to the young. But that didn’t make it any easier to hear.

Nanna’s response didn’t do anything to ease his worry either. She had to lower her gaze before she admitted, “I don’t know. I don’t think I want to know.”

“Where is he?” Finn asked. At first, Finn thought Nanna was avoiding answering the question by gazing back at where the boy Finn had been watching was now fighting off the second trio of knights. Then it struck him. That was his answer. As if to confirm his thought, Leif raised his mother’s sword to send a bolt of lightning at one of the knights. It hit his mark, striking the knight’s chest, but Leif had been too preoccupied to see, narrowly avoiding a stab from another knight’s rapier. The knight’s outstretched arm was severed before it could be retracted, any cries of pain silenced as this was quickly followed by a stab through the side up into the torso.

Could this boy really be Leif? If so, where had he learned to fight like this? When had he learned magic or how to wield a lance? What about him had frightened Nanna so? Finn needed answers but more than that, he needed to see Leif up close. He directed his horse towards the fighting when a rumbling came from the border as Thracian armor knights, led by General Hannibal himself, approached.

“Men of the Panzerritter, sortie and engage the knights! We’ll show them the wrath of Meath!” Hannibal ordered. The last cavalier Leif had been about to engage took off, galloping away from the knights as fast as they could.

As the Thracian knights stormed across the path between them, Finn dismounted and approached as close as he could, watching Leif through the wave of knights. There was too much movement to see him clearly but he was certain Leif was watching him as well. 

After what felt like an eternity, the knights passed, leaving nothing between them but the trampled grass that passed for a road. A small group was approaching from the same direction as the knights, likely members of the Freeblades and others who had helped with the escape from Manster, but Finn barely registered them. His heart had come to a complete stop. The whole world seemed to stop as well as Finn’s only wish for the past five years was granted.

“Lord Leif,” he breathed, barely able to get the words out. Finn didn’t know how to feel as he took in the sight before him. Ever since Leif disappeared, he held on desperately to the belief his young lord was still alive, that belief and Nanna being the only things that kept him going. He had prayed to the gods he stopped believing in long ago that Leif was safe and he would one day find him again. 

He should have remembered the gods had a cruel sense of humor.

Finn slowly stepped forward; eyes fixed on Leif. He didn’t move nor did his expression give any indication of what he was thinking as he returned Finn’s gaze. Something in Finn’s chest tightened at this. Ever since he was a child, Leif had been expressive and emotional, unable to hide anything he felt. He had never realized how much he relied on that until now, when he wanted to know more than anything and was given nothing, eyes as lifeless as the corpses at his feet.

He stopped a few paces from Leif, throat having constricted to the point he could barely breathe. There were too many things he wanted to say, apologies, questions, promises. But his throat was too tight for any of that to slip out.

“Finn.” That one word was the most glorious sound Finn had ever heard. The voice may have been lower than before and tone softer but Finn would know it anywhere. Although everything was still far from fine, Finn couldn’t help his small smile. “I’m glad you’re alright.”

“I am now,” Finn finally managed to say. As much as he wanted to savor this moment, his conscience caught up with him and his expression sobered. “Lord Leif, I will never forgive myself for failing you back in Tahra. I swore to protect you with my life but when you disappeared, I was unable to find you. On my honor, I swear I will never again fail you. I will atone for these past five years by remaining by your side from this day forward. You will never be abandoned or unprotected ever again.”

“No.” Leif’s blunt answer came out like a knife, his angry intensity twisting the blade. The hurt must have shown on Finn’s face as after a pause, Leif went on. “You don’t need to atone for anything. You never failed me; you did more for me than I knew until I was on my own. You are not to blame for anything.”

Finn blinked in surprise at Leif’s fierce insistence of everything he never could have hoped to hear. It was especially hard to believe when he looked at the young boy in front of him, bloodstained clothes, boyish face bruised and scarred. The past five years had not been kind to him, something Finn couldn’t help but feel he could have prevented.

“I’m sorry to interrupt-”

Both turned to see Eyvel, August and a boy bearing a strong resemblance to Lewyn standing a few feet back, waiting to get their attention before joining. Finn noticed Leif take a defensive stance, hand on the hilt of his sword as soon as the boy had spoken. Even after seeing who had interrupted, he remained tense, gaze resembling a glare.

“General Hannibal has agreed to offer us sanctuary. He may be driving off the knights of Manster but there are still countless mercenaries lurking about,” he said.

“What did you tell him?” Leif asked. The other boy seemed to understand what he meant as he shook his head.

“Your secret’s safe, as is mine,” he said, underlying deal clear and accepted with a nod from Leif. He tried to seem authoritative as he addressed Finn. “I’m Ced, the leader of the Magi Squad. It’s thanks to Prince Leif we were able to both break in and escape from Manster with everyone.”

So this was Lewyn’s son. Apparently running away and pretending to be something else was a family trait. At least he’d chosen something nobler than a bard. Or perhaps not, judging by how Leif was scowling at him.

“Stop saying that,” Leif said. “These were your plans. You led your men, not me.”

“You’re being too humble, Prince Leif,” Ced argued, a familiar glint in his eye Finn had come to dread the sight of with his father. But there was no smug smirk accompanying this one, leaving Finn unsure how the conversation would proceed. “The leadership and resilience you displayed were quite impressive. I can think of no one better to lead the Liberation Army.”

“What the hell are you playing at?” Leif growled.

Ced took his anger in stride, meeting his glare unflinchingly. “You said you wouldn’t stop until the child hunts are over and every Empire force occupying your country was crushed, correct? The way I see it, the best way to do that is by fighting them head on, by raising an army and retaking your homeland. The people need someone to give them hope, someone to inspire them to take a stand and who better than the heir of House Leonster?”

“Literally anyone else,” Leif answered, knowing full well the question was rhetorical.

Not only did Ced seem to be expecting this reaction, he seemed rather pleased by it. “Why do you think Hicks joined us?” he asked.

“You saved his son, Maphy,” Leif said.

“He joined because I told him you were there, that you had taken a stand against Raydrik. He said if you were willing to fight back then so was he,” Ced corrected. Leif looked confused by the response. Ced took advantage of his lack of rebuttal to continue his argument.

“Stop me if I say anything untrue,” he said, no longer bothering to hide his confidence as he and Leif stared each other down. “When I found you, you were taking a group of children you rescued from the child hunts back to their village.” He paused, waiting to see if Leif would try to dispute his statement. To Finn’s surprise, Leif said nothing and Ced continued on.

“You had no intention of going to Manster but after we asked for your help, you agreed to come along. You broke the children out of their cell at the Gate of Kelves and brought all of them safely back to their homes. You led the Magi in the freeing of the prisoners in Manster and stayed behind to ensure they could escape. You broke us out of Raydrik’s trap, knowing you would injure yourself in the process. You assisted Eyvel in the arena, not knowing who she was. You gave Asbel directions on how to cure me and stopped the dark mages who poisoned me before they could poison anyone else. You were not only willing but did everything in your power to stay behind in Manster to allow the rest of us to escape unfollowed. And just now, you insisted on taking on the knights pursuing us by yourself to cover those of us heading to Meath.”

Ced finished his list and turned to Eyvel. “Would you and your men follow someone like that?” he asked.

Eyvel let out an amused huff, impressed by his game. “We would,” she said.

“Would the people of Fiana be inspired by someone like that?” he asked.

“We would,” she said again.

Ced turned to Finn but before he could continue Leif finally spoke up. “You left a lot out.”

“But I didn’t lie,” Ced pointed out.

“You know what I’ve done.” For the first time, Ced’s confidence wavered, his expression turning solemn. With just one sentence, Leif had taken control of Ced’s game, a thought that concerned Finn.

“Only rumors.”

“They were probably close to the truth. And they can’t have covered everything.”

The concern Finn felt only heightened as Ced struggled to come up with a counterargument. Finn’s mind tried to fill in the blanks of the question he couldn’t bring himself to ask but came up with nothing. Perhaps it was for the best for now. The way Leif fought, acted, looked; like his daughter, Finn wasn’t sure he was ready to hear that story yet.

“There’s only one thing you were right about,” Leif said, “When I told you I wanted to end the child hunts and the bastards from the Empire, I meant it. I intend to keep fighting until all of Thracia is free with someone ruling who actually gives a damn about the people.”

“Then why not lead the Liberation Army?” Ced asked, frustration breaking through to his voice.

“Because I am sick of people dying to protect me. I am not worth it and I will never let that happen again!” For the first time that day, Finn saw an emotion in Leif’s eyes, one of pure anger. It was almost as unnerving as his words but before he could contest them, Ced beat him to it.

“You may believe that but the rest of us do not. Any one of the Magi would-” Ced never finished his sentence as he was knocked back by a punch to the face.

“Lord Leif!” Finn was alarmed by his lord’s violent outburst but Leif didn’t react to his call, furious gaze focused on the other prince.

“Next time I’ll carve it into you,” he snarled. “Never again will I let anyone give their life in exchange for mine!”

Ced clutched his cheek as he straightened, the rumbling of the returning Panzerritter ending any further conversation. But from his determined glare, this wasn’t the last time the topic would be brought up.

“Sir Ced, are these more of your companions?” Hannibal asked, breaking away from his men to approach the group. “I remember you mentioning one staying behind to fight the knights but I don’t recall seeing either of you at Meath.”

“I stayed,” Leif said, anger dissolving back into blankness so fast Finn missed the change. “He’s just a villager that saw me fighting and came to help. Figured three on one wasn’t fair.”

“Since when have those dastards ever fought fair,” Hannibal grumbled. “For one so young, you don’t seem to bend easily. What’s your name, lad?”

“Lugh,” Leif said as easily as if it were the truth. Despite this, Hannibal frowned as he kept looking at Leif.

“Hm… you almost,” Hannibal muttered a half thought, as if still forming it in his mind. Leif cocked his head to the side, an innocent, childish gesture that caught Finn off guard. For a moment, he could almost see the child he remembered again.

“Ah, forgive me, it’s nothing. What is important is what you intend to do next. I’m afraid I cannot offer you shelter for longer than a day and this is a dangerous area to be traveling through,” Hannibal said, addressing the entire group now. From the glance Ced and Eyvel exchanged, this wasn’t a question they had an answer for. Even if they did, Finn wasn’t sure how much they could trust Hannibal. He was the most loyal general in Thracia and a close friend of Travant. With positioning like that, there was a chance he was part of the Yied Massacre. Finn had to force himself not to show his disgust at the thought of accepting help from a man involved with that.


Everyone looked at Leif in surprise. “Tahra, the city under siege for rebelling against the child hunts?” Hannibal repeated. Leif nodded.

“More Imperial forces are being sent to finish the city off. We can’t abandon the people of Tahra now,” Leif said. Hannibal was fortunately focused on Leif and missed the flash of surprise across Ced’s face as Leif revealed the situation in Tahra. Apparently this was the first any of them were hearing about this as well.

“Hm, the fastest route to Tahra would likely be through the mountains although there are a great number of bandits there. It won’t be a simple journey,” Hannibal warned. “I have something back at the castle that could be of- Coirpre, what are you doing out here? I told you to stay inside!”

A small boy clutching a staff to his chest was running towards them. “I’m sorry Father,” he panted as he stopped before them. He turned towards Leif. “I heard you were here and was afraid you would leave before I could see you.”

“How did you know I was here?” Leif asked, unbothered by the questioning looks as to why he was acting so familiar with General Hannibal’s son.

“Well, I didn’t actually know, I just hoped it was you. One of the soldiers said Father was talking with a boy with a scar by his eye and I remembered you had one there too,” Coirpre said, unintentionally drawing Finn’s attention to said scar. It was a few years old, a thought that made his stomach knot. All six of the scars he could see were at least a year old.

Coirpre turned to General Hannibal. “He’s the one I told you about, the one who rescued me,” he said. An odd look crossed Hannibal’s face as he glanced at Leif, his inability to tell if it was positive or negative making Finn all the more curious as to what had happened with Leif and Coirpre.

“Thank you, Sir Lugh. And I assure you, it won’t happen again,” Hannibal said, emphasis on his last words puzzling to all but who they were directed at.

“It better not. Once is already too many,” Leif said. It was as if they were speaking in code, their vagaries maddening. From their tones, this was a serious matter, but only Ced seemed to have an idea of what they were discussing.

“We should head to the castle. It’ll be dark before long,” Hannibal advised. He began walking back, Leif following him for a few steps then pausing.

“You know where I’m going,” he said, still facing away from them. “I won’t lead you but I will fight with you. On one condition. Don’t try to protect me. Swear you won’t throw your lives away for something so pointless.”

“So you’re allowed to protect us but we’re not allowed to protect you?” Ced asked.

Leif turned to face them, eyes narrowed. “Yes.”

“You can’t ask us to agree to that,” Finn protested.

“Then I’ll do this myself,” Leif snapped, glare fixed on Finn. Leif’s words had been meant for him more than anyone else. Even after all this time, Finn wouldn’t hesitate to give everything he had for Leif and Leif knew that. He was asking of Finn an impossible thing but losing Leif again wasn’t an option.

Not waiting for their responses, Leif returned to following Hannibal. Ced let out a sigh of frustration while Eyvel watched sadly.

“So that’s Prince Leif,” August said, shifting his gaze from Leif to Finn. “Not quite how you described him.”

Finn wanted to defend Leif but there was something he needed to know first. “Prince Ced, you know what happened to Lord Leif. Please, tell me,” he implored.

Ced ran a hand down his face, suddenly looking very tired. “He should be the one to tell you that, when he’s ready to talk about it. It won’t be a pleasant conversation. It may even be better off not being had.”

Ced’s ominous words had the opposite effect, convincing Finn he had to know. The thought still filled his with dread and guilt but that was nothing compared to the ache he felt seeing Leif staring dully back at him, as if as empty inside as Finn had felt before today.

A tug at Finn’s sleeve caught his attention. Coirpre held out the staff he had brought with him.

“I know he wouldn’t take it if I give this to him so please, accept this on his behalf. It’s a very powerful staff imbued with Warp magic,” he explained.

Ced raised his eyebrows as Finn accepted the staff. “This is a very generous gift. Thank you, I’m sure we can find a way to give it to him,” he said. Coirpre smiled then dashed back toward Castle Meath. 

The others followed him at a more reasonable pace. Finn was about to as well when he noticed a small pouch a few feet away. It must have fallen off one of the cavaliers or Leif while they were fighting. In case it was Leif’s, Finn walked over and picked it up. As he did, the damaged cord holding the pouch close broke, small pink flowers spilling out along with an old memory.

Frest 768

“Lord Leif?”

The boy in question jumped at the call. He had been sitting on the ground, back to Finn. When he turned around and saw who had called, his face lit up and he scrambled to his feet.

“Finn, look!” Leif said excitedly, running over to the knight. “Asbel showed me how to make these!”

Finn looked down at the ring of pink flowers carefully woven together. It was such a simple item yet Leif seemed immensely pleased by it, something Finn was glad to see. His smiles were becoming rarer as he grew older, worrying Finn that one day they’d disappear completely. But not today as he beamed with pride over his creation.

“It’s called a flower crown. Asbel made one for me because he said princes are supposed to have a crown but it wouldn’t be fair if I was the only one with one,” Leif explained. While the logic behind it didn’t make much sense, Finn understood the intention.

“You’d best give them out before they wilt,” Finn advised. Leif nodded in agreement and held the crown in his hands up to Finn.

“This one’s for you,” Leif said. “I used pink ones because you like Lady Lachesis and that’s her favorite color.”

Finn couldn’t help smiling at the reasoning. Rather than simply accepting the crown and putting it on himself, he bent down on one knee and leaned slightly forward. Even then Leif had to stand on the tips of his toes to reach but he didn’t seem to mind, smiling broadly as he crowned Finn.

“I’ll go get the rest!” Leif said, dashing off as Finn rose to a standing position. When he returned his arms were filled with crowns of every color flower, babbling away cheerfully as he explained who each one was for.



One of the flowers lay limply on the back of his hand. His worry about Leif seemed to have come true, the little boy excited about making gifts for his loved ones unapparent in the boy he’d become. So much about his lord had changed, he almost felt as if he was staring at a stranger. 

Almost. Because no matter what he had been through, what had changed, this was still Leif. He was rougher and untamed but he still cared about Thracia and its people. It was in a harsh, fierce way but he did care. If that was true then there was a chance more of the lord he knew was still there, buried beneath the glares and aggression.

Finn knew it was foolish to hope, to optimistically wish for something out of your control. But as the feeling took root in his chest for the first time in years, he could understand the appeal.

Chapter Text

Ced’s cheek was bruising nicely when he addressed the group.

“As much as I would like to accompany you, I must return to Manster,” he said. “The people still need someone to protect them from Raydrik and I need to be there if I’m to put my plan into motion. If everything works out, Manster will be liberated within the year.”

“Raydrik will be pissed I got away,” Leif said, causing Ced to smile back at him.

“All the more reason to leave, in case he decides to direct his frustration towards them,” Ced explained. Leif said nothing in response but his gaze shifted from Ced to the ground beside him. Ced’s smile morphed into something more melancholic as he approached Leif and held out a scroll.

“I want you to have this.”  Seeing Leif about to protest, Ced added, “Think of it as a promise we’ll meet again. It’s a family heirloom that’s, well, never mind how it’s supposed to be used. My point is that I’m going to need it back, so I’m expecting you to return it once Thracia is reclaimed.”

“You’ll be waiting a long time,” Leif said, still not taking the scroll.

“No, I don’t think I will.” Ced took a step closer, almost pressing the scroll to Leif’s chest then thinking better of it.

Leif was silent for several moments, staring at the scroll as if reading an invisible riddle. Slowly, he took the closer end, holding it in both hands after Ced let go. He kept looking at it a bit longer before raising his head to look Ced in the eye.

“Protect the people of Manster. But don’t be stupid. Silesse needs you,” Leif said. Ced’s smile returned as he nodded in agreement, a gesture missed by Leif as he was already walking away, down the path marked on Hannibal’s map.

“Well that was almost civil,” August muttered dryly, walking at the back of the group with Eyvel and Finn.

Eyvel gave August a warning look. “That’s enough, August,” she chided, glancing at Finn. He had managed to hold his tongue but doubted that would be the case if the former priest continued on. For some reason, August seemed to have taken a strong disliking to Leif and made no effort to hide it.

“You’re the one who insisted I give him a chance. Compared to their last conversation, this was perfectly polite.” August lowered his voice as he added the next part, as if he thought Finn wouldn’t catch it. “The only time he’s been anywhere near that.”

Although it frustrated him, Finn couldn’t deny what August was saying. Leif refused both General Hannibal’s offer of a room to rest in and to join everyone in a meal. He had outright ignored Ced’s offer to heal any injuries he’d received and Nanna said he hadn’t come to see her either, although apparently he knew how to use healing magic now. Lady Ethlyn’s smile as she teasingly scolded her husband and brother for being so reckless drifted through his memory. He wondered what she would say if she could see her son now.

“If you don’t want to come, then don’t. I’m sure Prince Ced would appreciate the help in Manster,” Eyvel said, surprising both men with the anger behind her words. She had known Leif for less than a week and yet she was already becoming as protective of him as she was of her girls.

August regained his composure and shook his head. “No, someone who can actually give objective advice should come along. You two will just coddle that thing.”

“That thing? August, he’s a boy not a dog!” Eyvel scolded.

“Boys don’t beat men’s heads in with the end of a lance,” August argued.

“He did what?” Finn hadn’t seen any bodies with their heads beaten in back in the canyon. One had his arm cut off and another’s neck was severed but nothing as violent as what August was claiming. “When was this?”

Although he was speaking to Finn, August continued his glare down with Eyvel. “Down in the dungeon when the prisoners were being rescued, it was the first thing Orsin saw when he was freed from his cell. Made quite the first impression.”

“You manipulated my men to investigate Prince Leif?” Eyvel sounded outraged. “You could have just asked me, I was in the prison too!”

“You’re already soft on him, gods know why. And I didn’t manipulate anyone, he was very keen to talk about it.” August was getting riled up as well now.

“Did he say anything else?” Finn asked, almost regretting the words as soon as he said them. Eyvel turned her glare towards him and answered before August could.

“Ced told the truth about him helping me in the arena. When Mareeta came out of that gate, under that cursed sword’s control, I couldn’t bring myself to fight her. She attacked me but all I could do was block her attack. I couldn’t strike back. I would rather take on every pitfighter Raydrik had at once than point my blade at my own daughter. Since I wouldn’t fight her, she attacked Prince Leif instead. I didn’t see what happened but he somehow won without killing her,” Eyvel said.

“Are you sure about that?” August asked, making no effort to hide his skepticism. This time Finn couldn’t hold back his annoyance at August’s insistence on assuming the worst of Leif. He held up surprisingly well under the heat of both their glares.

“I checked myself,” Eyvel said, silencing August. Any satisfaction from this was short lived as her face fell when she continued on. “Leaving Mareeta behind was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but we didn’t know what she would be like when she woke, if she’d be my Mareeta or if she’d still be under that wretched sword’s curse. While we were trying to decide what to do, a man came and claimed he could help her. I pray I made the right choice in trusting him.”

“It was the best option at the time,” Finn said. “She’ll be alright. We’ll find her again.”

Eyvel’s smile and nod felt as hollow as Finn’s words. He wasn’t as good at this as she had been when their roles were reversed. Perhaps it was because she believed her words while Finn said them out of a sense of obligation, returning the favor of offering comfort after a loss.

“I had a moment to thank him for not killing Mareeta. He didn’t know what but he could tell something wasn’t right with her. He told me he didn’t kill her because she shouldn’t die for something that wasn’t her fault,” Eyvel said.

August snorted. “What a simplistic way of thinking. Rarely are those responsible for atrocities the ones who suffer for them.”

“Perhaps that’s how he wishes the world to be,” Finn suggested, watching Leif look up at Mount Violdrake. Was he remembering something or taking in a new view? Finn doubted he would say if asked, another think it ached to admit. Leif had been a quiet, almost shy child but Finn had always been the one person Leif felt comfortable talking to. Perhaps part of that came from him being the one to teach him to talk.

Leif turned his gaze from the mountain forward and stopped. Finn noticed his hand go back to his bow and reached for his own lance instinctively. August was saying something but Finn had heard enough out of him. He left his companions behind to approach Leif, stopping a few feet away. He was about to speak when Leif startled him by throwing his hand behind his back to signal for him to be silent, something Finn had done with Leif and Nanna dozens of times.

Finn looked out at where Leif was staring. There were a few sparse trees, enough to obscure the village a short ways off but not enough to hide the men mulling around outside in what they likely thought was an inconspicuous way. Perhaps they did look like that but after years of seeing more men than he could count act the same, it was blatantly obvious what they were really doing here.

“If there are bandits out here, there will be more in the village,” Finn reasoned. “Is there another route we can take?”

“Does it matter?” Leif threw Hannibal’s map back at Finn as he hurried toward the village, taking advantage of what trees there were to hide his approach.

“What’s going on?” Brighton asked, the other Magi quick to join him.

Finn sighed as with just a glance at the map, he could tell their route didn’t even go through the village. There was no reason they had to fight the bandits, they might have overlooked them altogether if Leif hadn’t decided to go rushing in. “Seems we’re making a detour. The village ahead has been invaded by bandits. Help Lord Leif drive them out.”

“But this land is under Dagdar’s protection, no common thug would be foolish enough to attack here,” Eyvel said. “Unless, could something have happened while we were gone?”

Finn frowned, not liking where her thought was going. “We should hurry.” The others nodded in agreement and he turned, heading towards the village with the others close behind.

The two bandits Finn and Leif had seen were dead, arrows riddling one, the other facedown, a pool of blood spreading out beneath him. Leif wasn’t there so he must have gone into the village by himself, not knowing what was in there. Finn tried to focus on anything but how his heart raced at the thought, telling himself what he felt was irritation at the recklessness, especially after that damned promise he forced them to make. Running head first into danger or not accepting protection, Leif would have to pick one because Finn was not letting him have both.

As soon as he entered the village, a brigand with an axe came charging at him. A sharp tug on the reigns and Finn was able to steer his horse out of the way in time. He quickly circled back and plunged his lance down through the brigand’s shoulder, pulling it out and striking once more before the brigand could counter. The second hit landed on his unprotected chest, easily tearing through the flimsy fabric of his shirt and into the flesh underneath. 

Armor was a rarity on both sides of Thracia, even among the nobility. It made fights quicker as killing your opponent was quite easy. Although, this brigand seemed to have a backup plan, the eerie purple glow on the axe’s edge a warning not to touch. If these bandits were all part of the same group, this wouldn’t be the only poisoned weapon around. General Hannibal had given them a few vulneraries but other than that, they would have to rely on Nanna and Leif. All the more reason to find Leif as soon as possible.

While he handled the brigand, everyone else seemed to have found a bandit of their own to engage. As he rode through the fighting, he noticed Marty, one of Dagdar’s men, lying dead on the ground. It wasn’t clear how he had died, at the hands of the bandits or one of their group who was unfamiliar with the timid, childish man. If he had been killed by one of their own, he must have been working with the bandits, something he wouldn’t choose to do of his own volition. But if he was coerced, it would have to have been by someone he knew who disliked Dagdar and the only people Marty knew were the people of Fiana and the rest of the former bandits Dagdar led.

If this wasn’t a random bandit attack, it was a rebellion, which would make it even more likely if Dagdar and Tanya were alive, that wouldn’t be true for much longer. Once Dagdar died, all his men would return to banditry and without the Freeblades to stop them, would wreak just as much havoc as the pirates sailing around the coast. Caught between the two, the chances of survival for any village seemed grim.

He spurred his horse to a gallop, hastening toward the river Dagdar’s mansion was on the other side of. But he wasn’t the only one to have this idea as outside the mansion, standing over a blonde man on his knees, was Leif.

“Just take my head and be done with it,” the man said defeatedly. He didn’t look like a typical bandit, clothes far too clean and well made. He even had light armor, raising Finn’s suspicions even further. Was he a spy sent by Hannibal or Raydrik? Had he masterminded this rebellion to distract the group and take them by surprise? Finn’s gaze swept across the area, looking for signs of a potential ambush but all he saw was Asbel, Eyvel, and Brighton making their way across the river and Karin circling above as she looked for a place to safely land.

“No. The state of Thracia isn’t your fault. You don’t deserve to die for that. Go home and never pillage again,” Leif said.

“Oh, that’s a cruel joke! If I accepted mercy from an enemy, I’d bring shame to the Dracoknights!” the man protested. So he was a Thracian soldier but he was here by choice? Had Thracia fallen so far their own soldiers had to turn to banditry?

“I don’t know who you are or what your station is and I don’t care. No one will know what you did today,” Leif promised. Something softened in his face, sympathy or sadness Finn couldn’t tell but it seemed painful all the same. “You know this is wrong but still did it. So it’s not for yourself. A family, children probably. I can kill you if you want but they’ll be worse off if I do.”

The flash of pain on the Dracoknight’s face proved Leif had been correct in his assumption. Finn felt that familiar twinge of guilt he always did when thinking about Northern and Southern Thracia’s relationship for the past hundred years. He loved his country but even he could admit they had not always been in the right.

“... What do you want?” the Dracoknight asked reluctantly.

“To get inside,” Leif said. The man nodded and stood, moving to unblock the door. As he did, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a vulnerary.

“Sorry for the trouble, for what it’s worth,” he muttered, unable to look anyone in the eye as he placed the vulnerary on the ground and began to walk away as fast as he could.

“Take it,” Leif said, back to Finn as he tested the door. It opened easily and he slipped inside before Finn had finished dismounting. He tried not to sigh as he picked up the vulnerary and followed Leif inside, Eyvel, Asbel, Brighton, and Karin right behind him.

As soon as the door closed, the room was enveloped in darkness. Finn stayed still to avoid bumping into anyone but Asbel ran into him, muttering a soft apology as he did. The quiet whispers of each others name to try and orient themselves did little good and were quickly silenced by the flare of fire back by the door. Everyone turned to see Leif, fire tome in one hand, small flames above the other.

“Whoever has a torch, bring it,” he said. Brighton and Eyvel quickly came forward and after their torches were lit, Leif’s fire went out, though there was now enough light to see the entire fouyer.

“How do you do that?” Asbel asked, the look of awe on his face amplified by the shadows the torches cast. “Isn’t there always supposed to be a big burst of flames? How do you make them so small? Sir Ced never showed me anything like that!”

“Steal a fire tome and I’ll show you,” Leif said, already moving towards the hall. Asbel pouted at the response but still rushed to follow Leif, who stood just within the cover of the fouyer’s wall. Both boys paused, uncannily similar looks of concentration on their faces.

“The fight is probably there,” he said, pointing at the wall in front of them. Finn was confused but as he joined the boys, he could hear faint shouts and clangs of metal. There was no way to tell for certain who was fighting but Finn was certain that was where Dagdar would be.

“That doesn’t mean the path will be clear,” Eyvel warned, joining them. “No one’s come running at our torches to they’re likely waiting for us, hoping they can catch us by surprise. The only way into there is to go all the way around either side so both are likely to have thugs waiting for us.”

Leif nodded in understanding. “We’ll split up. You and Brighton lead. Take who you want but not Asbel and I together,” he said.

“What, that’s not fair Lord Leif! Why am I the only one that can’t go with you?” Asbel immediately protested.

“Decide,” he said to Brighton and Eyvel as he motioned for Asbel to follow him. The pair moved back by the door as Leif began speaking in a hushed tone. Asbel went from angry to surprised to eager as he listened to whatever Leif was saying.

Eyvel was the first to turn away from the pair, looking up at Brighton. “Any preference? You and Asbel know each other, do you want to take him?” she asked.

“I would be fine either way. Sir Finn, Karin, do you have an opinion on the matter?” Brighton asked.

“You want to go with the prince, don’t you?” Karin said, giving Finn a knowing look. She smiled sympathetically. “I know I would if it was Prince Ced.”

It was a bit embarrassing to be called out by a child and felt slightly unfair to take the decision from her. But she was correct and unlike Brighton, Finn was less willing to let Leif out of his sight. “I would, if that is alright with you,” he said, more out of politeness than sincerity.

“Then I’ll take Leif and Finn, you take Asbel and Karin,” Eyvel said. The others nodded in agreement as Leif and Asbel rejoined them. Asbel’s giddy expression was a bit unsettling, especially next to Leif’s blank one.

“You and Finn are with me, Little Lord,” Eyvel said. The nickname caught Finn off guard but if Leif was bothered by it, he hid it well. The groups bade each other good luck as Brighton led his group to the left and Eyvel led her group to the right.

“Lower your torch,” Leif said. Eyvel looked confused by the order but obeyed, dropping it from eye level to chest level. “Hold it further out.” Eyvel did so and quickly understood why when a gust of wind blew the fire forward, revealing and hitting a bandit in the face. The hall was momentarily illuminated enough for Finn to see the archer trying to hide around the corner and confirm no one else was in this part of the hall.

The burned bandit groaned, silenced by a swift strike from Finn. Now aware he was no longer hidden, the archer took a shot at him, only for Eyvel to quickly retaliate with fire magic of her own from her sword. It was enough to knock him back and for Leif to finish him off with a strike of his own, the deep slice through his abdomen spilling more than just blood. Finn couldn’t help feeling uneasy at the unnecessary brutality of it, thinking back to August’s claim. He would have to speak to Orsin himself about what he’d seen in the dungeon.

“Again at the corner,” Leif said, not needing to elaborate. Eyvel hurried forward and the pair waited behind the corner for a moment before she held out the torch and Leif repeated the same trick as before, pushing the flame forward to light up the hall and burn anyone close to them. A bandit fell after a face full of flames and Finn spotted another at the far end of the hall. Rather than attack like the archer, this bandit turned and ran, leaving the hall clear for them to continue down.

As Eyvel and Leif prepared to repeat the wind trick at the final corner, arrows came flying from the cracks between the wall. Leif and Eyvel were quick to retaliate, sending a strike of light magic and fire magic from their respective swords, but from this side they couldn’t tell if their attacks had been successful, making staying by the wall a risky option.

Leif darted around the corner, Finn and Eyvel close behind. The bandit who had run was waiting and swung at Leif as soon as he appeared, hammer coming down hard on his shoulder, force flinging him into the opposite wall. Finn wasted no time driving his sword through the bandit’s chest as Eyvel ran past them towards something Finn should care about more than he did. But all he could think about was the boy next to him, blood running down the right side of his head yet lifting his sword to rejoin the fight. There was a thin slice across his chest from where one of the arrows must have grazed him yet he had said nothing, hadn’t reacted or if he had, so minutely Finn had missed it. 

He ran past Eyvel and the bandit she was fighting, slamming the shoulder that had been hit against the door to where the archers had been. Might still be, Finn reminded himself, rushing after his lord. He entered the room in time to see Leif cut the throat of one of the archers, the other already dead on the floor. Judging by the lack of blood, he had likely been killed by Leif and Eyvel’s blind attack. The door across the room remained shut, either a trap or empty.

“I’ll check the other room,” Finn said, causing the boy to look up at him.

“Were you shot?” Leif asked, the urgency in his voice catching Finn off guard.

“No.” There was more Finn wanted to say but as soon as he confirmed he hadn’t been hit, Leif raced out the door. His odd behavior puzzled Finn until he remembered the bandit he fought in the village. He quickly searched the archers for their quivers and found their arrows were indeed poisoned. His relief over not being hit was quickly replaced with panic when he remembered Leif had. It was only a graze but even that was enough.

Finn took back his earlier thought. Leif was not getting a choice, he was getting full time supervision and plate armor, Finn would steal it himself if he had to.

Finn hurried to the door and almost ran right into August. He took a moment to register the former priest before his thoughts returned to the reason for his panic. “Have you seen Leif?” he asked, a similar urgency in his voice as there had been in Leif's.

“He ran the other way.” As soon as he had his answer, Finn took off, hearing August say something but not paying attention to it. As he passed the main hall, he saw Dagdar, Tanya, and Eyvel fighting more of Dagdar’s men. Leif wasn’t with them though so he continued on. If August was here, the others would be as well. They could help take care of the bandits, he needed to get to Leif.

The warm, white glow of a staff being used gave away where Leif was, his face lit up by it as he concentrated on Brighton, who was holding his arm in a way that suggested it had been injured. While he still had a clear view, Finn hurried towards the pair, but was still several feet away when the light died out.

“I asked if you needed a torch. Looks like the answer is yes.” August came up behind Finn with said item, attempting to not look smug as he held it out. Finn accepted wordlessly and turned back towards Leif and Brighton. Brighton nodded at the men as he went to join the fight but Leif stayed where he was, possibly because he knew Finn wouldn’t let him pass or because the poison’s effect was past the point of ignoring.

As soon as Finn thought this, Leif’s shoulders shook as he tried to suppress a cough, a trickle of blood running down the side of his mouth. He swayed slightly and Finn quickly stepped forward to steady him but as soon as he reached out, Leif dropped his staff and darted back, moving several feet away faster than Finn thought he would be able to in this state. He lowered his head, hair falling forward to hide his face from view but there was nothing he could do to hide the tension in his body.

August knelt down to pick up the staff and slowly approached Leif. He didn’t move nor did he react when the staff began to dimly glow before him. The silence was becoming suffocating but Finn didn’t know how to put his question into words. He wanted to understand what had just happened, to know what he had done wrong, to fix whatever this was. But every word died in his throat as he thought of the brief glimpse he had of Leif’s face before he had moved as far away from Finn as he could.

The light from the staff died down as August finished removing the poison. But even after he had finished, he remained in front of Leif.

“I cured you now you owe me answers,” August said. “I passed a Thracian Dracoknight leaving the village who claimed a young boy had let him go, despite being involved in the pillaging. Why?”

To Finn’s surprise, Leif answered right away. “It’s not the Thracian’s fault their country is like this. It’s not their fault they have to steal to survive. They don’t deserve to die for that.”

“Why spare him and not the others?”

“The bandits attacked the village intending to kill. He guarded the mansion to make money for his family. The people of Thracia can’t support themselves through honest work alone.”

“Why do you think that?” August seemed intrigued by his answer, gaze going from scrutinizing to curious.

“I know that. The land here is barren. The only way to feed the people is through trade with other countries.” Leif finally looked up but not at August, at Finn. “And the nearest country is full of selfish bastards.”

A sick feeling washed over Finn as he realised what Leif was referring to. “Who told you?” he asked softly.

“Not you. It never would have been you,” Leif growled, the anger he had when he punched Ced back in full force. “You glorified my father when he was nothing more than a callous piece of shit.”

“Lord Quan was nothing like that,” Finn argued, anger creeping into his voice as well. “He was the most loyal and honorable man I’ve ever known. I couldn't ask for a better lord.”

“How can you say that when his dream was to conquer Thracia, a country whose people he didn’t give a damn about?” Leif asked, voice rising with his anger. “If he wanted to unify Thracia, he should have ended that damn trade prohibition so the whole country doesn’t starve to death!”

It was a fortunate thing August spoke up as Finn wasn’t sure how he would have responded. He was furious to hear the things Leif was saying about Lord Quan but he was making arguments Finn couldn’t think of counters to. Lord Quan’s dream of a unified Thracia had been good intentioned, but his actions, or more accurately lack of action, didn’t paint him in the best light.

“You never answered the question. How did you find out about all this?” August asked.

“Found a letter from General Largo. I looked into it and there was ever more than what he mentioned,” Leif said, voice back to normal volume but still brimming with contempt.

“General Largo?” Finn felt his stomach drop at the name. Leif must have seen the next question written on his face as he decided he was done answering questions and left the pair, waiting until he was a good distance away before conjuring a flame to light his way.

“You may have been on to something about how he wishes the world to be,” August said, watching Leif as he spoke. “Not quite as simplistic as I thought. Perhaps there’s something to work with…”

“August.” Finn’s call pulled the former priest from his musings. As he turned towards Finn, his expression turned grave as he realized where this was going.

“General Largo was murdered two years ago, along with a number of his men. The culprit was never found but a servant claimed a boy had been brought to his office just before it happened.”

“Perhaps that’s why the general never took a wife,” August impassively suggested.

Finn’s glare was sharper than his lance. “Never speak like that again,” he warned, cold anger enough to shake even August. What he was implying, Finn didn’t want to consider. He never wanted another thought anywhere near that in his head again.

“What do you want to hear? Did he kill Largo, I don’t know. Do I think he could have done it, yes,” August said, “If he did, I have a hunch I know what he and Prince Ced were referring to. For once, I sincerely hope I’m wrong.”


General Largo's Castle, 774

There was a knocking sound as the guards came to a halt outside a large wooden door. As soon as they heard the man inside beckon them, the door was opened and both tightened their already firm grip on Leif’s arms as they pushed him forward into the room.

Leif continued to let his head hang but tried to subtly examine the room. It seemed to be an office, an ornate fireplace and several large bookshelves to his left, a curtain covered window and marked map of Thracia to his right. He caught a glimpse of the desk in front of him before he was roughly shoved into a chair, although compared to how they had handled him up to now, this was downright gentle.

“Leave us,” the general said, the clacking of boots signaling the guards’ obedience. It wasn’t loud enough for Leif to hide the sound of breaking his thumb so the shackles would have to stay on for now.

The general didn’t speak again until the door closed. “Most swords are hard to tell apart. So many are made the same way with the same materials, so simplistically bland you forget them as soon as you look away. But this,” there was a loud clunk as something metal was dropped on the desk. “This isn’t a sword you see everyday. This was Lady Ethlyn’s sword, I saw her wield it myself almost fifteen years ago. A sword, I heard, that wasn’t with her when she traveled to the desert. A sword, rumor has it, that was passed on to her son, the last living member of House Leonster, the lost little Prince Leif.”

There was a pause, the general likely watching for Leif’s reaction. But he gave none, remaining still and not saying a word. There was the scraping of chair legs against the floor and the creak of a chair being emptied as the general stood.

“When I saw that sword, I knew I couldn’t let my men execute you, no matter what you’d done to them. I thought I would just be interrogating a simple street rat before I got a good look at you,” he explained, beginning to slowly walk around. Leif felt like a half-dead animal waiting for a vulture to swoop down on him. “Not only did you have Lady Ethlyn’s sword, but you bore a striking resemblance to her husband, Prince Quan. Those two things couldn’t possibly be a coincidence.”

Again he paused. Either he enjoyed his dramatics far too much or he was waiting for Leif to react and confirm his unspoken speculation. Leif refused to give him the satisfaction of a response, remaining motionless as the man continued to circle him.

“But what was the prince of Leonster doing out here by himself and in such a sorry state? Besides your sword, you had two tomes, five knives, a lockpick, an axe, a half empty quiver of arrows, and a bloodied rag on you. What in the world could you be planning to do with all that?” the general asked. This time Leif knew the pause was meant to be filled with his answer. He was half tempted to tell him, just to see the look on his face. But as soon as he spoke, he’d be agreeing to play this man’s game when he had every advantage over Leif. His silence was his only weapon for now.

“I saved your life, the least you could do is give me some answers,” the general said. Leif almost smirked at the irritation creeping into his voice. There wasn’t much he could do at the moment but he could still make this as frustrating as possible for his captor. That may eventually have violent repercussions but he seemed to want Leif alive so they wouldn’t be anything lethal.

“Your childish obstinance is not amusing.” His words sounded like a warning now. Would he call back his men and try to make Leif talk in the dungeon or would he just start hitting him here? Leif’s wrists may be shackled but the rest of him was free, he could move at any time although there was nowhere to go. “Or were my men perhaps too rough with you? I can understand where they’re coming from but still, that’s no excuse to behave like savages.”

The concern in his voice surprised Leif. The general approached, likely having noticed one of the freshly drying bloodstains on his shirt, but paused a step away from Leif’s chair.

“Those marks, could it be?” he wondered aloud. Leif knew what he was referring to and fought not to look at them as well. He hated doing so yet still did far too much. “But you’re so young, how could you manage that by yourself? It would explain how you managed to survive this long. And you did bite two fingers off one of my men. But the brutality, could you possibly be capable of that?”

Leif only understood part of what this man was saying but he could see where the conversation was going. He was getting closer to the truth than anyone had before yet Leif felt oddly calm, watching the general’s feet as he slowly moved in front of Leif, putting himself between Leif and the desk.

“Could it be? Are you Thracia’s little ghoul?” he asked, finally taking the step forward Leif had been waiting for.

Now within reach, Leif launched himself forward, knocking the man onto his desk as he dug his thumbs into the man’s eyes. He shouted in pain, that and the shock from the sudden lunge stunning him momentarily. But he was quick to recover, easily pushing Leif off of him. Before Leif could make another move, the general backhanded him, his powerful swing sending Leif down, skidding across the floor to lay sprawled in front of the fireplace. 

“I’ll take that as a yes,” the general spat. When Leif didn’t move for several moments, he slowly began moving toward him, the clack of his boot heel with each step revealing how close he was. He had learned from last time, nudging Leif’s ribs with the tip of his boot rather than get too close. But even that was enough of an opening.

Leif grabbed the iron poker and stabbed it into the general’s foot. The general cried out as he fell to his knee, grabbing his impaled foot. Leif darted behind him before he could react, clasping his hands together before slamming his elbows down on the back of his neck. The general fell forward, face inches from the crackling flames.

He tried to rise but Leif dug his knees into the general's sides, squeezing them towards each other to prevent him from moving. The only thing he could lift up was his neck and as soon as he did, cold metal wrapped under his chin and began to pull upward.

Leif wasn’t sure how long he could hold the general as he started choking and gasping, arms flailing wildly as he tried to decide if he should try and remove the chain or reach back for Leif. When he tried to push himself up against Leif, Leif tightened the chain, crossing his arms and pulling them back to let the chain connecting his shackles dig deeper into the man’s throat. The general let out a garbled noise as his face began to turn purple, making a final desperate attempt to claw at the chain. His efforts proved fruitless as his head fell limply over the chain, body going slack beneath Leif.

Even thought he stopped moving, Leif pulled the chain as tight as he could for several more seconds. When nothing happened, Leif slowly loosened the chain, unwrapping it so he could move away from the body.

A quick search of his pockets revealed no keys or anything of interest so he would have to search the desk. He wasn’t sure how much time he had left before the guards came back so he’d have to work fast.

His mother’s sword lay across the messiest pile of papers he’d ever seen, if it could even be called a pile. They were spread across the surface, completely covering it from view, overlapping with no discernable order. It was almost impossible to tell what the general had actually been working on, were it not for the quill resting next to an unfinished sentence.

He didn’t find any keys but he did find his lockpicks in one of the drawers. After unshackling himself, he picked up his sword, trying to remember what floor they were on as he debated trying to escape through the window, when the unfinished letter caught his eye again, specifically the word Leonster. Was it a letter about him? If so, he needed to destroy it. The general seemed to be the only one who suspected Leif’s identity and didn’t seem to want others to know, perhaps because he wasn’t certain. As long as he was the only one who had known, Leif could disappear without anyone discovering the prince of Leonster had been here. Letter in hand, he began to read.


    We’ve known each other for going on thirty years now, there’s no need to refer to me as General Largo in our letters. Or are you still scarred from the scolding you received at the Academy from Professor Ernst? Gods, that man was a nightmare, I’m surprised his morning training regimen didn’t kill one of us. As much as I’d love to continue to reminisce about ancient history, we should save that for when you come down to visit. There are unfortunately some pressing matters we must discuss.
    Tensions with Southern Thracia have risen because of that bastard, Raydrik. Do you remember the trade deal Bloom had been trying to negotiate with Travant? He refused to agree with it, claiming it was only beneficial to Southern Thracia and would be a waste of resources for the North. And he got away with it because he knows Travant cares too much for his people to break off his alliance with the Empire! It’s the closest thing Southern Thracia has had to aid in years, thanks to House Leonster. You’d think anything would be better after their trade prohibitions but Raydrik seems to be endeavoring to find a way to be even worse. Every time I come across one of those tiny corpses of an abandoned child, all I can think about is how much I want to wring that devil’s neck. Isn’t that why he betrayed King Calf, because he disagreed with their policies? Apparently oppressing your neighbor wasn’t one of those. Does he want to hostilities to return to what they were where Quan was alive? Because I’ve half a mind to let those poor bastards invade!

There was more written but Leif had to stop reading. What was he reading? This couldn’t be true, his father and grandfather had been good, honorable men. They wouldn’t let a whole country starve while they had such an excess.

But Leif had been to Southern Thracia. He’d seen the corpses the letter talked about, walked across the rocky land, seen men kill each other over a piece of bread. The people were suffering and his family had not only ignored it, they were responsible for it?

“Damn you,” he growled, hands shaking as his grip on the letter tightened. He began to tear the letter apart. “Damn Prince Quan. Damn King Calf. Damn all of House Leonster!” The shreds of paper listly floating down weren’t enough to satisfy his anger. With one large sweep, he threw all the papers off the desk, a lamp smashing and pot of ink spilling as well. “You deserved what you got! You deserved worse!” Desk now bare, it was easier to shove over, smashing the chair he had been placed in when he arrived. “I hate you!”

The loud crash would definitely alert the guards something was wrong but Leif didn’t care. The man he’d admired all his life, the person he had once striven to be a worthy successor to, was nothing more than a heartless monster. Finn claimed his father had wanted to unify Thracia, Leif was now sincerely glad he hadn’t been able to do that.

The thundering of footsteps and muffled shouts outside the door revealed his time was almost up. He could try to escape but as he turned towards the window, he noticed a bow just behind him. The bookshelves were tall but didn’t quite reach the ceiling. There wasn’t enough room for an adult up there but a boy on the small side could fit just fine.

What was it the general had called him? Thracia’s ghoul? If that’s what they wanted him to be, so be it. After all, being a monster ran in the family.

Chapter Text

Leif hadn’t taken the map back from Finn so Eyvel claimed it and joined Leif at the front of the group. Finn hadn’t seemed to mind or notice, he and August had been engaging in heated, quiet conversations ever since they left Mount Violdrake. Normally she would have wanted to join in their discussion but the more time she spent around August, the harder it became to fight the urge to punch him. He may care about the people but when it came to individuals, he was unbearably callous.

Joined may have been too generous of a term as although he also was walking in the front of the group, Leif kept a good deal of distance between himself and everyone else. Asbel and Nanna lingered around Eyvel, also wanting to be near their old friend but respecting his desire for space. That or they knew better by now.

Every night after Eyvel suggested they set up camp, he would nod, disappear, and return with directions to a suitable location. After everyone arrived, he would disappear again, this time not reappearing until morning, awake and ready to go before everyone else. Finn had tried the first few nights to find him when they sat down to eat but came back alone and frustrated every time. Talking to Leif about it hadn’t gone well either.

“If you were in trouble, none of us would know,” Finn argued.

“You wouldn’t need to,” Leif said. “I won’t let anyone near you.”

“That’s not my point. Lord Leif, it’s safer for you to stay with everyone else.”

“But not for you.” Leif had decided that was the end of the conversation and walked away from a conflicted Finn.

Finn meant well but he had no idea what he was doing. He was treating Leif like the child he remembered, almost as oblivious as August to what the past five years had done to that child. Eyvel remembered that night at the stable, his small figure curled in on itself as he reacted to kindness and compassion with confusion and fear. He needed someone but neither Finn nor August knew how be that person.

Eyvel took broader strides to walk closer to Leif, close enough to be able to speak in a normal voice but keeping enough distance between them he could get away if he felt threatened. “There’s a villa marked on the map here, Little Lord, just between those mountains. If there's nothing in our way, why don’t we head there to rest and resupply? Some of us could really use the break.”

“You called me that before. At the mansion,” he said.

Eyvel smiled to herself. So he had picked up on that. “I did. Prince Leif feels a bit too formal. Would you like me to stop?” she asked. He didn’t respond, which she took as permission to continue using the name.

Leif sudden paused, head tilted as he looked at something along the cliff face. Eyvel followed his gaze and found, to her surprise, the source of his fascination was a bunch of tiny white flowers growing on a patch of moss.

“Thracia is supposed to be barren,” Leif said, confusion laced with something else.

“It is, essentially. One in every thousand seeds planted will even sprout,” Eyvel said. She looked down at the little flowers. “But as long as there’s dirt and sun, some little plant will be stubborn enough to grow.”

“Then there’s a chance…” Leif didn’t finish his thought, spoken so softly he may not have intended to say it aloud. Eyvel wasn’t quite sure how that sentence was supposed to end but the direction it was headed in intrigued her.

“Want to know what these mean?” Lara asked, startling Eyvel. She hadn’t noticed Lara approach them but then again, she was a thief. Asbel and Nanna were with her and going by their expressions, understood the question as well as Eyvel. It must have been meant for Leif then but by the time she turned back to him, he was gone.

“I’ll take that as a no then,” Lara said, almost sounding amused. She joined Eyvel in looking at the little white flowers. “Shame, I had the perfect line to tease him.”

Eyvel eyed her curiously. “Were you referring to these?”

Lara nodded. “I found him looking at some flowers before we attacked the prison and we talked about it a bit. He seemed interested, maybe? He asked two questions, that’s talkative for him.”

“Does he like flowers?” Eyvel suggested, directing the question at Nanna and Asbel.

Asbel looked confused but Nanna seemed sadder than usual at the question. At Eyvel’s questioning look, she shared her thoughts. “A week before we were driven out of Frest, he made flower crowns for all of us. That was the last time he seemed genuinely happy.”

“I taught him to do that!” Asbel said proudly before his expression likewise fell. “It was supposed to be a present for him since he never got to go to the spring festival but I didn’t know he’d never seen one before. I thought he just wanted to know how to make them, not that he’d make them for us.”

This explained something Eyvel had almost forgotten.


Fiana, 773

“I see you’re finally awake,” Eyvel greeted as she entered her bedroom. Her house was a small one, what was originally a guest room being turned into Mareeta’s room years ago, so this had been the only place she could put the injured man after his and his daughter’s unexpected arrival.

He didn’t respond, sitting up and staring out the window at where Mareeta was pulling his daughter away to show her something. Mareeta had taken it upon herself to look after the other girl, trying to lift her spirits after she had arrived in Fiana in tears, begging Eyvel to save her father.

“Don’t worry, Nanna’s in good hands. The other one’s my girl, Mareeta,” Eyvel said. The little girl had claimed her name was Nanna and her father was Finn but when on the run, it was wise to go by a fake name. Then again, considering how forthcoming she’d been with other information, Eyvel was inclined to believe her. “You’re both welcome to stay here as long as you’d like. If you’d prefer to live somewhere else, the Freeblades would be more than happy to help you build a house of your own.”

“We’re not staying,” he said, finally turning away from the window. Even though he was awake, he hardly looked more alive than before, dark circles under dull eyes, in need of a shave and a few decent meals.

“Because of Prince Leif?” His flinch proved her guess right, making her certain everything Nanna had told her was true. “Nanna told me he had been under your protection until he disappeared a few years ago and that the two of you have been looking for him ever since.”

He didn’t respond verbally but Eyvel couldn’t recall having ever seen a sadder man. This wasn’t just a retainer who’d lost his young lord. “What was he like, Prince Leif? He’d be around Nanna and Mareeta’s age wouldn’t he, thirteen or so?”

“Twelve. He turns thirteen in the autumn, after the harvest season.” Eyvel noticed he used the present tense but made no comment, hoping he’d continue. After a moment, he did. “He’s small for his age, he’s always been. I worry he isn’t eating enough but he never complains about hunger. He never complains, only asked too many questions I can’t answer then sulks about it. He has a temper but he’s more prone to sulking than throwing tantrums.”

Once he started, it all came pouring out, stories, descriptions, everything he knew and some things he suspected about Prince Leif. By the time he finished, the sun was going down and Eyvel felt as if she had known them for years.

“We’ll find Prince Leif,” she said, putting as much conviction into her words as possible. “Any news, any rumors, any information at all will come here and we’ll look into it. In return, you and Nanna will stay in Fiana.”

Finn frowned. “What do you get out of this?” he asked.

“Knowing that little girl is safe and happy,” Eyvel said, hearing the door to the house open. “And I’d like a chance to meet Prince Leif.”

“Nanna, your father’s awake!” Mareeta said, dashing back into the house to grab the other girl, dragging her to the bedroom doorway. “Go on, give it to him!”

Nanna somehow managed to make the five steps it took to cross the room last longer than it had taken Mareeta to pull her through the house. Once she was beside the bed, she placed a ring of flowers on her father’s lap, not looking up as she did so. She stepped back hesitantly lifting her eyes from her crown to her father as if now questioning her action.

Finn missed this look as he gently lifted the crown from his lap. “It wouldn’t be fair,” he said softly. Eyvel decided it would be best to pretend she hadn’t heard him, stepping back to shoo Mareeta out of the room to give the pair some privacy.


It wouldn’t be fair. Those had been Leif’s words to him, his reasoning for giving everyone a crown. It seemed he’d always been concerned with what was fair or deserved. Although now it was almost an obsession.

“What do they mean?” Eyvel asked, gesturing to the flowers.

Lara grinned. “Affection. I was going to suggest he give them to Asbel to prove Lord Ced wrong.”

“He doesn’t have to!” Asbel said, perking up to an almost smugness surprisingly fast. “I didn’t believe Sir Ced for a second. And Lord Leif already told me himself!”

“Where did you learn about all this?” Eyvel asked, distracting Lara from whatever was causing that mirthful glint in her eye. As amusing the following conversation would have likely been, the others were catching up and Eyvel would prefer to keep the conversation between them.

“I used to dance in a travelling entertainer troupe. I had a friend who would bring me a different flower every night before our performance and tell me what it meant,” Lara said, sounding almost nostalgic despite talking about something that had a rather unpleasant reputation.

“Perhaps you could dance for us sometime. Halvan and Tanya are pretty good with a flute if you need music. And we could certainly use something to brighten our spirits,” Eyvel said. Lara nodded enthusiastically at the suggestion as the rest of the group joined them.

“Why have we stopped? Where’s Lord Leif?” Finn asked, immediately becoming concerned.

As if on cue, Leif reappeared, dashing out from a narrow path between two rocks. Finn’s question or reprimand was silenced by Leif’s report. “Soldiers are heading for the villa. Dracoknights as well.”

“Then we’ll keep moving. There’s plenty of places to take cover in the mountains, it’ll be slower but we’re less likely to be caught,” August said.

“Wait,” Eyvel interjected, “If these are General Hannibal’s men, then they would have no reason to attack us. He gave us a map with his villa marked for a reason, he wanted us to go there. We need the supplies and rest as well.”

“But if they’re not Hannibal’s men we’ll have to fight,” Finn pointed out. “We can’t just walk in there.”

August turned to Leif. “Prince Leif, you came up which quite the clever strategy last time, what would you suggest we do?” he asked. There was no sincerity to his words and his gaze made it seem more like he wanted to cut the prince open to take a look inside than genuinely desiring to hear his opinion. 

Leif didn’t respond right away, instead looking at the mountains. When he did turn back, he ignored August and looked at the rest of the group. “How low can you fly?” he asked.

“You want me to take you through those?” Karin asked, looking at the mountains to their left. After a moment, she nodded, expression not as confident as her words. “Alright, just tell me where to go.”

“Fly as low as you can and land behind the villa. Don’t engage, listen, watch, come back. Someone should go with you, an archer or mage,” he instructed.

“It should be you, Prince Leif. She’ll need someone to direct her and you’re the only one who’s seen the villa so far,” August said. Eyvel scowled as Leif’s shoulders stiffened. Either August was blind or cruel but Eyvel was saved from saying something she would regret by Nanna speaking up.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” she said, voice soft at first but picking up strength as she continued on. “Pegasi prefer women. We’re already asking a lot of Hermes, it would be best to make him as comfortable as possible.”

“Besides, I don’t need anyone to direct me! As long as I know where I’m supposed to end up, getting there is no problem!” Karin said with pride. Eyvel wasn’t sure how much of that was an act or the truth but regardless, she was grateful for it.

“I’ll go with. I’ll shoot down any Dracoknight that even tries to come near us!” Tanya said, joining Karin by Hermes. Karin smiled gratefully as she helped the other girl mount and the two took off.

“And what are we to do in the meantime?” August asked, looking again to Leif. “We may not know what actions we’ll be taking but this would be a good time to prepare for battle.”

“There might not be time,” Leif said, attention turned to the narrow valley ahead to their left.

“Then we’ll make some fer ya,” Fergus said, spurring his horse toward the valley. “I do owe you one.”

“I’ll help!” Asbel said, running off before anyone could tell him no. Leif made to follow but was cut off by Hicks riding in front of him.

“I’ll look after the kid, make sure he makes it out of there,” he promised in an attempt to ease Leif’s glare. “We all will. But we’re gonna need you to get us out of here.”

Leif nodded in understanding and Hicks rode off, scooping up Asbel as he caught up to the boy. Together they continued on to join Fergus in hiding in wait for their potential attackers.

“If that area’s taken care of, it would make sense to move towards the villa. That will be where the majority of the troops will go,” August advised. Leif gave one last glance down the valley before taking the lead, heading around the foot of the ridge, Eyvel close behind.

Nestled into a corner created by the staggered rises was a small village, an old man standing outside a house catching Eyvel’s eye.

“Little Lord,” she said, jogging to fall into step next to him. “Let’s make for the village. We can resupply and wait for Karin. The villagers will likely know something about the villa as well.”

Leif didn’t answer but shifted course. The old man Eyvel had seen walked out to his gate. She was right, he did want them to come, now she had to hope she wasn’t leading all of them into a trap.

“To the village! Gather the supplies you need, quickly!” Eyvel called.

“Less than a quarter of us have any money,” August said.

“Then make every coin count. Focus on torches and medicine, we can take weapons from the enemy but there’s no guarantee of finding these on the battlefield,” Eyvel instructed before lowering her voice to speak only to Leif. “There’s a man over there I want to speak to. Will you cover for me?”

Leif nodded and let her take the lead, the pair breaking off from the group to approach the old man. Eyvel felt Finn watching them but warned him to stay back with a quick look. He hesitated but thankfully chose to stay with Nanna and Asbel as they entered the shop.

“You folks friends of the people in that villa?” the man asked when Eyvel approached.

How much to reveal? It was hard to tell what he thought of them so playing it neutral seemed best. “General Hannibal sent us to assist although I’m afraid he didn’t give many details on who would be at the villa,” she said.

“Buncha well-to-do folk livin up there. I found this while hunting, figure it’s gotta have something to do with ‘em since it’s covered in all this calligraphy,” he said, holding out a scroll. “Since you’re helping ‘em already, could you see that it gets back to them?”

Eyvel took the scroll, taking a minute to look at the Crusader ward on it. Dagdar had one of these, he’d shown it to her once when she had visited his mansion. It felt strange to hold, as if it were trying to reach out to her. They’d tried to read the writing on it but all they got for their trouble was a headache trying to decipher all those overly fancy squiggles.

Perhaps someone of higher birth would have better luck than them. Eyvel glanced back to Leif, his gaze shifting from outside the town to the sky, preparing for an attack from either. Ced had given him a scroll before he left, was that one of these as well? If so, maybe there was a chance he could make use of this thing.

She felt even more certain of this when she rejoined him and as soon as he saw the scroll, he scowled but not from confusion. This was enough for Eyvel and she held it out to him. “The villa is home to some well off people, probably highborn. The man here thinks this is theirs but I can’t read a thing. Mind taking a look for me?” she asked.

Leif accepted the scroll and unrolled it. After a moment, it was clear he had become engrossed in whatever was written there, eyes darting across the page as he unconsciously brought the scroll closer. She was curious to know what had captivated his attention but refrained from asking, enjoying the brief glimpse at the prince Finn had described, the curious boy so easily amazed.

The glimpse vanished at the sound of flapping wings, Karin taking Hermes down to land just outside the village. Leif quickly stowed the scroll as Tanya hopped off and hurried toward them.

“It doesn’t sound good, Commander,” Tanya said, getting straight to the point. “Those folks in the villa are nobles and none of them have been in battle before. The lord in charge said they don’t stand a chance against the Thracian army unless General Hannibal’s reinforcements come. I’m guessing he means us.”

“Nobles under General Hannibal’s protection being attacked by the Thracian army?” Eyvel repeated, trying to make sense of this new information.

“Maybe they’re not Thracian nobles?” Tanya suggested. “They mentioned someone named Glade being in Tahra.”

“Glade.” Both women turned to Leif as the soft utterance. Before either of them could say anything, he dashed off toward the villa, confirming Eyvel’s suspicion he knew whoever this Glade was. If he knew one of them, there was a chance more people he knew would be at the villa, that the people there were the remaining nobles of Northern Thracia. 

“Tell everyone to get to the villa right away,” Eyvel ordered, waiting long enough to see Tanya nod before she ran off after Leif.

She had to sprint to keep up with Leif, desperation and panic fueling his steps. Even then, by the time the villa was in sight, the soldiers were practically on their doorstep.

With a swift, fluid movement, Leif scooped up a rock and threw it as hard as he could at one of the soldiers. As the man stumbled, the rest of the squadron’s attention was directed towards Leif and Eyvel. While that may have been Leif’s intention, eight on two were not odds Eyvel liked. At least she could attack first.

With a swipe of her sword, Eyvel unleashed a wave of flames upon the soldiers. Leif took advantage of their temporary blindness, dashing through the flames to slash the nearest soldier across the middle, nearly severing the man in two. Before he fell Leif grabbed his shield and swung it back to block a jab from another soldier, slamming it down on the soldier’s arm to make him drop his shield. He took another stab at Leif only to be blocked again, this time receiving a shield under the chin in retaliation. His lance was taken and the blunt end brought down on his pelvis to stall him while Leif focused the two soldiers that had tried to attack him from behind.

Eyvel put the man out of his misery with a stab through the back, quick to withdraw her sword to move on to the next closest soldier. She locked eyes with one and both were about to engage when an arrow flew between them. The soldier turned to see where it came from, giving Eyvel the opportunity to strike first, driving her sword up through the soldier’s chest. Another arrow flew by, this one going through the soldier’s head, finishing him off if he wasn’t already dead.

She took this to mean the archer was on their side, something she hoped to be true as she barely managed to parry another soldier’s attack. Fortunately, the soldier was using a javelin, an ill suited weapon for close combat like this. The long shaft made it easy to move out of range of the tip unless the soldier started moving back, surrendering more ground to Eyvel. Keeping the distance between them small, she only had to take one hit from the shaft. It would leave a nasty bruise but it was better than bleeding. Her first strike was blocked by the soldier’s shield but on her next, she feinted left, attacking from the opposite direction as soon as he moved his shield. His instinctive bend toward his wounded side left his neck exposed to be quickly exploited.

Only one soldier remained and Leif was already charging him. The soldier thrust his lance at Leif who ducked and slammed the stolen shield into the soldier’s legs, knocking him backwards. He managed to grab the back of Leif’s shirt as he fell, dragging the boy down with him. The two tumbled to the ground, Leif turning his fall into a roll and landing in a crouch behind the man. Without giving the soldier a chance to recover, Leif grabbed a rock and brought it down hard onto the man’s face. The crunch of breaking bone was almost covered by the soldier’s scream. The rock was brought down again, the blood spattering across his face not phasing Leif in the slightest, eyes wide and distant.

The worst thing about this scene was that look, the same one she had seen on Mareeta several times after rescuing her from the slavers, the same one Nanna had when she first appeared outside Fiana, a dozen strangers approaching her and her half dead father. It was a look no child should ever have and she would be damned if she didn’t do anything about it.

She raised her sword over the soldier and set him alight, driving Leif back. He was less startled than he should have been but seemed to be with her again. Rather than looking at Eyvel, he continued to stare at the burning body, expression closed off once more. While she couldn’t be sure where his head was at, she could at least try to make sure there was one place it didn’t go.

“Are you alright, Little Lord? I may not be able to heal but I do know a thing or two about bandaging scrapes,” Eyvel offered, keeping her tone as normal as possible, as if there wasn’t a burning corpse with a beaten in head between them. Leif finally looked at her, saying nothing but even that was enough for her. She offered him a smile and a hand, knowing they would neither be accepted or returned. That was a long time off but until then, she would keep offering, letting him know the option was there.

As he stood, the thundering of hooves could be heard coming from the direction of the villa. A female arch knight rode up to them, three more knights waiting several feet away. If Eyvel had to guess, she was the one who fired at the soldier earlier. Eyvel noticed Leif shift his sword out of view as the knight drew near.

“I take it you’re part of General Hannibal’s reinforcements? Thank you for your aid, my lord father will be relieved to hear you came,” she said, “I am Selfina, daughter of Duke Dorias of Leonster.”

“You’re alive.” Both women looked at Leif, gazing up at Selfina as blankly as usual. But he had said those words with the same breathy disbelief as he had said Glade’s name. So these people were old acquaintances as well. Eyvel wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

“Have we met before?” Selfina asked, brow scrunching as she looked more closely at Leif. “You seem familiar…” Leif turned his head, hiding his face from view. Whether this was from not being recognized or to prevent that Eyvel couldn’t tell. 

“We’ll have time to talk later. For now, we should focus on the battlefield,” Eyvel said. As if to reinforce her point, a Dracoknight flew into sight, too far to reach from where they stood and clearly heading towards the villa.

“I agree but I would ask that you go to the villa instead. The nobles there are inexperienced with battle, save for my father,” Selfina explained.

“No one will touch them,” Leif promised, sudden determination surprising Selfina. He didn’t wait for her response and neither did Eyvel, both racing towards the villa with an eye on the Dracoknight who was soon joined by a second.

Several yards from the villa, Leif stopped and turned, choosing this spot to make his stand. Eyvel noticed a man emerge from the villa but as long as he stayed back, he could be ignored for now as the Dracoknights started circling Leif. But matters were only complicated further as Finn arrived at the end of the path, horror at the sight noticeable even at a distance.

The first Dracoknight swooped, killer lance being pulled back to plunge with as much force as possible into its target. But before it could reach, Leif sent him flying back with a gust of wind magic. The second barely managed to avoid being crashed into, the rider of the first unable to control his wyvern now its wings were tattered. Instead of moving to attack, the second Dracoknight kept his distance, not wanting to risk the same fate as his companion.

As much as Eyvel wanted to join the fight, she ran down the path towards Finn. She stopped before they met, throwing her arms out in hopes he would stop and not run her over. He didn’t but he did try to go around, Eyvel grabbing his cape and pulling him off his horse as he did. The two fell into an unceremonious heap, scrambling over each other to get up. Finn struggled against Eyvel’s grip but she only held on tighter, trying to pull him back.

“Let go!” he snapped, eyes never leaving Leif and the Dracoknight. Eyvel could feel him shaking.

“Not until you calm down!” she said through gritted teeth. “You’ll get yourself killed if you run in there like this. You gave him your word you wouldn’t die for him!”

“Like hell I won’t,” Finn protested, “It can’t happen again. Not to Leif. Not him too.” Fear cracked his voice at the end as his mind wandered to a desert on the other side of Thracia. He may not have been at Yied but he bore the scars from it.

“It won’t!” Eyvel insisted. The Dracoknight dove low enough to enter Leif’s range. But before Leif could cast a spell, the Dracoknight threw his javelin down and flew back out of reach. Eyvel had to squeeze as tight as she could to keep Finn from breaking away as the javelin made contact with Leif’s shoulder.

The Dracoknight had equipped a killer lance now, believing his attack to have weakened Leif enough to not have to worry about his wind magic. But Leif simply ripped the javelin from his shoulder and threw it back, impaling the wyvern through the neck. The creature let out a shriek as it fell from the sky, rider and mount landing roughly near the base of the mountains.

Even though the Dracoknights were gone and he had stopped fighting back, Finn remained pale and tense. Slowly, Eyvel released her hold on him, taking a step back to more carefully watch him. For a moment, she wasn’t sure if he’d be able to stand.

“If you had run in there to protect him, one of you would have gotten seriously hurt. There’s a good chance both of you would have,” Eyvel said, watching Finn closely in case he still wasn’t all the way with her again. “He’s not helpless, he’s faced worse than two wyvern riders.”

“He is hurt,” Finn said, eyes still on Leif as he ran over to check the bodies.

“But it’s not serious.” That got Finn to turn and look at her, although she could do without the glare. “This wasn’t Yied. He knew there would be a fight and did so on his terms. He was in control the entire time.”

The reminder came while the wound was still too fresh, Finn having to look away from Eyvel as he tried to keep his thoughts in the present. “He let the first one get so close. He could have attacked much sooner but waited until the last second. I didn’t see his tome, I didn’t know, I thought…” Finn closed his eyes as he stopped trying to say aloud the thoughts that were painful enough to think. 

“Finn.” Finn lifted his head to see Leif standing in front of him, holding a vulnerary he must have taken off the corpse of the Dracoknight. Finn’s eyes locked onto the bloodsoaked right shoulder of Leif’s shirt. It wasn’t clear how deep the javelin had gone in but Eyvel hoped the ease with which Leif pulled it out was because it hadn’t gone in very far rather than a high pain tolerance.

“Finn.” There was more force behind the name this time, drawing Finn’s eyes away from Leif’s injury to the boy himself. He finally noticed the vulnerary, emotions flitting across his face so fast each could have been imagined. Eventually he settled into a neutral look as he answered.

“I’m fine Lord Leif,” he said, straightening to prove this was the truth, at least physically. Leif wasn’t convinced, still holding out the vulnerary as looked over Finn for signs of injury. “Please, take care of your own injuries. If you require assist-”

“The others are coming,” Leif said, cutting off Finn’s offer and turning the attention away from himself. There was the pounding of hooves as the knight Eyvel and Leif had seen earlier rode by with the rest of their party, those who stayed behind in the valley included. Asbel was grinning excitedly about something but Hicks rode by too fast for him to say what.

“We should go as well,” Eyvel said, not waiting for any agreement or protest as she began heading towards the villa. Leif followed but Finn had to find his horse first. Perhaps she should feel bad about it but Eyvel found Leif’s confusion and Finn’s attempt to hide his embarrassment rather amusing. At least it made the walk to the villa less tense, the silence not suffocating for once.

The man Eyvel had seen leave the villa was speaking to Selfina when the trio arrived. When he noticed their arrival, he paid no attention to Eyvel and Leif as he approached Finn. “Sir Finn, is that really you? Gods, it’s been a decade since we last met.”

“Duke Dorias? I heard you perished in the battle for Alster,” Finn said, just as surprised to see his old acquaintance. The duke let out a laugh.

“The Empire wishes I had! Glade helped me escape after I lost my arm and we’ve been here training up knights to rebuild Leonster’s army ever since,” Dorias said proudly. “I couldn’t ask for a better son-in-law.”

“Son-in-law, then…” Finn’s gaze wandered to Selfina who beamed with the same pride as her father. “It seems we’ve much catching up to do. Where is he? Has he escaped with the rest of the knights?”

“I sent him ahead to Tahra which, if I’m correct, is where you’re headed as well. It seems your reunion was destined to be. At least now you get to be the one to surprise him!” Dorias chuckled. It was strange seeing Finn excited, even simply  interested in seeing another person. He made no attempt to make friends in Fiana and those who offered him friendship, like Dagdar, were given cold receptions. It was even worse for any woman who showed interest in him.

Leif, on the other hand, was closing off as he had that night at the stable. Ever since Dorias mentioned losing his arm, the life seemed to be slowly draining from him as he curled in on himself, as if trying to make himself as small as possible. He couldn’t possibly blame himself for that, he was barely old enough to read when it happened. But he believed he was responsible for the Empire chasing them, it wasn’t much of a stretch to think he could believe this was his fault as well.

“I take it this is Lady Nanna?” Dorias said, turning toward Nanna and Asbel. The pair had been trying to sneak around the adults and Asbel seemed rather annoyed to have been caught, eyes constantly darting over to Leif as he clutched something to his chest.

Nanna nodded and Dorias smiled back warmly. “You’re just as beautiful as your mother. I’m sure she would be proud to see the lady you’ve become.” He sniffed and cleared his throat before continuing. “Ah, forgive me, it seems I’ve become sentimental in my old age.”

“I’m glad to see you as well, Duke Dorias,” Nanna said. The duke regarded the father and daughter warmly before his smile slowly slipped into a grave expression. Eyvel’s stomach dropped at what she knew would come next, instinctively moving to block Leif from view.

“I didn’t see Prince Leif with the rest of your men nor did Hannibal mention he was coming. Finn, don’t tell me...” Dorias didn’t want to finish that sentence, sounding pained enough saying this much.

Finn turned to Eyvel for guidance, Dorias following suit. The poor duke seemed so distraught before his gaze shifted to Eyvel’s side, the look being replaced with one of shock. Eyvel glanced over and saw Leif had moved from behind her, appearing composed enough but his usual neutral expression had a softness to it, as if he couldn’t quite push everything back down.

“I’m sorry for everything that happened to Alster. You and Queen Ethnia sheltered me, treated me with a kindness I didn’t deserve, and you suffered because of that. I will never be able to repay all the sacrifices you made for me. That will never happen again, I swear, you will never sacrifice anything for my sake ever again,” Leif said, solemn sincerity tearing away at Eyvel’s chest. She wanted more than anything to be able to hug the boy, to drive away his feelings of guilt. But all she could do was stand beside him.

She wasn’t the only one moved by Leif’s words. The shock on Duke Dorias’ face softened into a fond, bittersweet smile. “Don’t let an old dotard like me weigh heavily on your heart, Prince Leif. Even supposing I wasn’t injured, I would hardly be of any use to you now.” He had to pause as the tears he’d let slip before threatened to come back. “To be able to see you again, after all this time. You’ve become quite the young man.”

“If you’re quite finished, we really must be going,” August interrupted, manners as abysmal as ever, “For some reason, the troops have ceased attacking.”

“They have?” Dorias asked, incredulous. As he followed August to see for himself, Leif started to draw back in on himself. Eyvel tried to think of what to say to draw him out when Asbel dashed over and thrust out the object he had been holding. It was a tome, a rather heavy one judging by how his arms shook from the simple act. Leif blinked owlishly at the unexpected object.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“From a bishop. I made Fergus steal it from him then I stole it from Fergus so technically I still stole it,” Asbel explained, quite pleased with himself. “You said you’d teach me if I stole a fire tome. I stole one, now show me how to make a small fire like the one you did in the mansion!”

Leif took the tome and examined it. Eyvel didn’t know much about magic so she had no idea what he was looking for. After a moment he looked up at Asbel, the smaller boy fidgeting as his patience was already wearing out.

“You can’t use this,” Leif said.

Asbel lifted his chin defiantly. “You never said I had to be able to use the tome, just that I had to steal one,” he argued. It was hard not to smile at the glaring flaw in his plan he was blatantly ignoring. He was certainly stubborn, Eyvel had to give him that.

Leif looked back at the tome for a moment then held it back out to Asbel. “We’ll practice with a wind tome.” Although it seems less interesting to Eyvel, Asbel somehow became even more excited at Leif’s answer.

“You can do it with wind magic too?” he asked, voice rising to practically a squeak.

“You can do it with any type of magic,” Leif said. “Wind is the safest and what you’re best at.”

Asbel nodded in agreement and followed Leif as he started walking away, reminding Eyvel of an excited pup. Nanna began following as well, causing Leif to stop and turn around.

“Asbel’s never done this before, someone who can heal should go with in case you get hurt,” she said before Leif could say anything. She shifted her gaze to Asbel. "You do have a history of property damage.”

“The curtains don’t count!” Asbel protested.

“Then the bushes and rocking chair do,” Nanna countered. While Asbel pouted, she turned back to Leif.

“You could get hurt as well,” he said.

“Then you’ll heal me,” Nanna replied. She let her determined act waver for a moment. “Please, Lord Leif, for me. I’ll feel better if I go with you.”

Eyvel smiled to herself as the three of them continued on together. August and Finn may be clueless and it was too soon to tell anything about Dorias or Selfina but these two had figured it out. Asbel perhaps unintentionally but Nanna knew what she was doing. It took her long enough to reach out but Eyvel was just glad she had at all. They both needed that, all three of them likely did.

“I apologize for before,” Finn said, joining Eyvel in watching the trio, “ You were right, I shouldn’t have tried to charge in back there. All I could see was Lord Quan and Lady Ethlyn’s bodies when they were brought back from Yied. Lady Altena was never found, some claimed because she was fed to the wyverns. The aftermath was hard enough, if I had to watch Lord Leif, after he just came back.” The sentence was left unfinished but Eyvel could fill in the blanks. Finn had been constantly plagued by the fear of Leif’s death for the past five years. It had been proved false but that only meant Finn may now be around to see his nightmare realized.

“We all have something we can’t quite shake,” Eyvel said, hoping he would understand she was talking about more than just him. Mareeta’s unconscious body at the feet of a stranger flashed through her mind. “Some of us, several things.”

Finn looked out at the three small forms beside the villa, Nanna leaning against it as she watched Asbel talk and gesture rapidly at a dispassionate Leif. It was almost a familiar scene for him, an echo of a simpler, happier time.

“Is there anyway to be rid these things?” Finn asked. Eyvel was unsure who he was asking for but she knew her answer wasn’t what he wanted to hear. And yet it was also what he needed to hear.


Chapter Text

“I’ve almost got it, I know it Lord Leif! Just one more time!” Asbel insisted, for the fifth time that morning.

For the first time in as long as Leif had known him, Asbel willingly woke before the sun was up. The night before he had asked Nanna to wake him up early as he wouldn’t have been able to rouse himself otherwise and the two had snuck away from camp to find Leif for Asbel’s training. They had been at it for almost an hour now.

“You’re thinking too much,” Leif said. He had no idea what he was doing. He had never taught someone else before, he hadn’t even been taught himself. Whatever he knew came from instinct, practice, and desperate risk taking. Asbel had been studying magic for years, he probably understood what Leif did better than Leif. “Just draw out a little, focus on that.”

“Just a little,” Asbel repeated, extending his arm out in preparation. “A small gust, spring breeze.” His chant sounded strange but if Asbel thought it helped, he could say whatever he wanted.

It didn’t as the spell Asbel cast was closer to a gale than a breeze. A branch snapped off a tree several feet away, to be added to Nanna’s collection of kindling for tonight’s fire. At this rate there would be enough for tomorrow’s fire as well.

Asbel groaned, dropping to his knees. “Why isn’t it working? I keep doing what Sir Ced taught me but it’s always too much!”

“Maybe that’s your problem,” Nanna suggested, returning from gathering the branches Asbel broke. She turned to Leif. “Lord Leif, how do you cast a spell?”

“Draw the magic out from the tome and direct it,” he answered. Asbel frowned in confusion at his response.

“No, you’re supposed to pull from yourself through the tome,” Asbel said, “You use your affinity to amplify the tome as much as possib- oh! Oh, I get it! I get it now, that’s gotta be it!” He hopped to his feet and pulled out his tome one more time, face scrunched in concentration. For a moment nothing happened. Then a gust of wind blew across the field, strong enough to rustle the leaves but not enough to sway the branches.

“I did it! That was smaller!” Asbel said gleefully, spinning around with a giddy grin. It only lasted a moment as a look of intense contemplation replaced it. “But that might just be ‘cause of this way of using magic. It feels different, like… like… I don’t know but I’m gonna keep practicing ‘til I figure it out!”

His enthusiasm was infectious, bringing a soft smile to Nanna’s face. Seeing it up close made Leif realize he hadn’t seen her smile since they met again. She had never been the happiest person, especially after her mother left, but Leif still felt a twinge of guilt that this was all she could manage.

Nanna realized he was watching her and turned to face him. “Lord Leif?” she asked. It still felt strange, going from never being addressed by his name to being called by it and his title. It felt foreign now, as if everyone was trying to talk to him in another language. Except, oddly, Eyvel. He’d never had a nickname before. Hers wasn't unpleasant.

Nanna was still looking at him, waiting for an answer. This used to be so easy, they had told each other everything when they were growing up together. But now there was too much Leif couldn’t say. They would never have that old closeness back. They shouldn’t, it wouldn’t be fair to her.

Perhaps she understood that as she gave up on waiting for his response and moved to the branch pile. “We should head back to camp before the others wake and wonder where we are. Could you help me carry these?” she asked. Leif nodded and took an armful of branches. Nanna grabbed the rest and turned back to Asbel, about to cast another spell. “Asbel!”

The boy jumped, concentration broken. He spun around, seeing Nanna and Leif carrying the branches and ran over to them. “I’ll carry some! I'm the one who knocked them down,” he said. Leif stepped back as Nanna stepped forward, holding out her bundle to let Asbel take part of it. They all knew he had been talking to Leif but no one said anything about it as he and Nanna split her branches and made for the camp.

“How did you learn to use magic, Lord Leif?” Asbel asked, Leif slowing his pace so Asbel could keep up with him.

“On accident,” he said. Asbel stared back at him, waiting for an elaboration. But Leif wouldn’t give one. Asbel may know some of the rumors but he didn’t need to know the beginning.

Asbel took Leif’s silence surprisingly well. “I bet you know a lot more stuff Sir Ced doesn’t. He just taught me how to use Grafcalibur but I gotta learn more. I want to learn how to use light magic and staffs too! Now there’s even more of us, we’re gonna need more than just you and Nanna to heal everyone.” He looked up at Leif and smiled, as if he hadn’t been blatant enough with his intentions. “If you could teach me how to cast smaller spells, then you could definitely teach me this!”

“I didn’t teach you anything. You did it yourself,” Leif said. Asbel beamed even brighter at this, taking it as praise. It was, in a way. Although it still felt wrong, Leif made an attempt to return his smile.

“You really should call him Prince Ced,” Nanna said, “Or at least Lord Ced. He is the Prince of Silesse.”

“Well we’re not in Silesse so he’s not prince here,” Asbel argued. Nanna made a small sound that was almost a laugh, amused expression complemented by another smile, a bit wider than last time. Leif would fumble through teaching Asbel anything he wanted if it made both of them this happy.

Seeing the two of them like this gave Leif a strange sense of relief. While he still believed they would have been better off if he had stayed behind in Manster, at least now he knew they were alive and could keep them safe. He should keep his distance but, as selfish as it was, he liked watching how happy they were together.

Eyvel and Dagdar were sitting around the smoldering campfire nursing mugs of coffee when they arrived. Eyvel took one look at them and chuckled. “Guess that’s one less thing to do tonight,” she said amusedly, “And just what inspired this generous act?”

“Lord Leif is teaching me how to do magic like him!” Asbel answered excitedly. “We actually use different methods and it changes how the spell comes out. When I do what Sir Ced taught me-” Asbel started rambling on as Eyvel listened, resting her chin on her fist. Leif wasn’t sure how much she actually understood but she only smiled fondly and gave Asbel her full attention, as if enjoying the conversation simply because it was happening. He briefly wondered if this was what mothers were like.

“Sounds like the two of you will be quite busy,” Eyvel said once Asbel stopped for breath. “Three if Nanna’s going to supervise.”

“Someone needs to,” Nanna said, shifting the branches in her arms to emphasize her point. Eyvel and Dagdar laughed as Asbel made a face at Nanna and she returned the look with raised eyebrows, daring him to try and argue. Despite the years, they had fallen into their old rapport with ease, the sight not far from one Leif had seen dozens of times in Tahra and Frest.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed Finn watching but making no indication of intending to approach. Ever since he had told Finn he knew the truth about his father, he had been keeping his distance from Leif. Was he that bothered by what Leif said? None of it was a lie and Finn hadn’t denied or given any arguments or proof that the things Leif learned were wrong. Was he really that blindly devoted that he couldn’t stand hearing how despicable Prince Quan had been?

Or was this because he’d figured out Leif had killed General Largo? The only reason Leif had given them Largo’s name was because he didn’t expect Finn or August to know who he was. But going by Finn’s reaction, he did or at least he knew about his death. It hadn’t been a noble killing on the battlefield, Leif had murdered him in his own home. Finn was the most honorable knight in Thracia, it wouldn’t be hard to believe he was so repulsed by this he only stayed out of some sense of obligation to Leif’s father. Leif couldn’t blame him if that was the case.

Dorias emerged from the planning tent with three soldiers, one holding out a map for him to study. Intrigued, Leif set down his branches and approached the group from behind, wanting to know what they were discussing before deciding if he would join in.

“Their garrison may be small but those ballistae, those will be a problem. Destroying them should be our top priority, otherwise capturing Fort Noel will be impossible,” Dorias said.

“You sent men to scout the fortress?” Leif’s question startled all four of them, Dorias quickly turning around and letting out a sigh when he saw Leif standing there.

“Prince Leif, I didn’t realize you were there,” Dorias said, “Well, at least this saves us some time later. To answer your question, yes, I sent some of my men-”

“You shouldn’t have,” Leif interrupted. Dorias seemed taken aback, either by Leif’s interruption or his scowl, perhaps both. “I can do it myself.”

Dorias frowned. “Absolutely not. Reconnaissance is far too great a risk for you."

“Then don’t send your men. If it’s too great a risk for me, it’s too great a risk for them,” Leif said. He hated relying on second hand information and none of Dorias’ men had been near a battlefield before. He could give the most thorough directions and their inexperience could cause them to overlook vital information or fall victim to a trap.

“If we don’t send anyone, we won’t know what to expect when we go into battle,” Dorias pointed out.

“Then leave it to me,” Leif said firmly, “Either I go or no one does.”

Dorias sighed again, this time out of frustration. “Finn was right, you really are stubborn. We can discuss this again before the next battle. What’s done is done, no sense arguing now. There are more pressing matters at hand.” He gestured for the soldier holding the map to show it to Leif. “I take it you heard us discussing the ballistae, each of them are marked by an X on the map. They’re a sort of giant bow that can fire across great distances. They’re tremendously powerful so any plan we devise should prioritize destroying them.”

Leif studied the map for a moment. “I can take out these,” he said, pointing out three of the ballistae.

Dorias raised his eyebrows in surprise. “And just how do you intend on doing this?” he asked.

“I’ll need to get over here,” Leif said, pointing to the mountain near the closest ballistae. “August can warp me there and it shouldn’t take long to take it out.”

“You can’t go in there by yourself to fight that thing!” Dorias objected.

“I won’t,” Leif said. He looked up from the map to look Dorias in the eye. “There will be no fighting, none of your men’s lives will be put at risk, if you can’t think of a plan that does the same, stop arguing so we can get started.”

Dorias had agreed on the condition another soldier was sent with Leif. Unsurprisingly, he suggested Finn who immediately agreed. Even if he hated Leif, he was still willing to fight with him, either that or he only agreed because Dorias asked, ever loyal to any remnant of Leonster. Or perhaps he wasn’t sure Leif could be trusted and wanted to keep an eye on him. Whatever his reasoning may be, he would be coming along to get a better sense of the battlefield and to protect Leif if need be. That last one would not be happening.

Leif was warped over first and gave the mountain before him a quick assessment. It was tall enough, the rock as weather beaten and jagged as Leif had expected. As Finn arrived, he was taking off his shoes and starting his climb.

“Lord Leif, wha-”

“Better grip,” Leif answered before the question was asked. “Don’t follow me. Stay right there.” Leif would bet anything Finn was frowning at these orders but he didn’t have time to go into detail. He needed to concentrate if this was going to go better than before.


Thracian Border, 772

“Come on! That brat can’t have gotten far. Catch him and make him pay!”

The soldier’s shout warned Leif he was running out of time. He couldn’t keep running forward, the soldiers would catch up with him before long. Hiding might work but there were so many, they had a better chance of finding him than he did of being overlooked. He needed to get as far away as possible, find someway to escape their reach.

He had been running alongside the cliff face for awhile now and noticed how uneven it was, small protrusions staggered throughout. Maybe he could use that, climb to the top and defend himself from there, able to rain down on the enemy with little chance of a counterattack unless they could make it to the top as well. It was the closest thing he had to a plan and if he wanted to try it, he needed to act now, while he still had a head start.

Pushing himself to run faster, he leapt up to grab a ledge above his head. His feet scrabbled against the side of the mountain until he managed to push himself up and grab another ledge. He pulled himself up, replacing him first hand with his foot as he reached for another handhold. 

The rocks were jagged and even after only climbing a short while, he could feel his fingers start to bleed. His shoes offered slightly better protection but they did little more than dull the jab of each step. But he had to ignore it and keep going, he could see torches getting closer and he was only a fourth of the way up.

Not more than a minute later, Leif heard a soldier call out beneath him. “I found him! Little bastard’s trying to climb the mountain!”

“Well what are you waiting for, go after him!” someone shouted back.

“Are you crazy? With this rain? Might as well wait for him to fall rather than risk breaking my own neck,” the first soldier argued. He had a point. Leif had almost lost his grip several times with how slick the rocks were. At least now he knew he wasn’t going to be followed. But that didn’t mean he could slow down.

More torches made their way to where Leif was climbing, making it feel as if there was a fire burning beneath him, waiting to consume him. An arrow flew by his head, impact sending fragments of rock flying in his face. An archer had joined the group, hopefully the only one. He was more than halfway up, it would be getting harder for them to aim well, especially in the dark and rain.

As Leif tried to step onto the next ledge, his foot slipped, shoe soaked to the point it couldn’t grip well. He bit back a cry as the outside of his calf was sliced open and the soldiers below started tittering, expecting his fall. He tightened his grip with both hands to the point he could feel the rocks pierce his skin but he managed to hold on. Slowly, he lifted his leg and using a jagged protrusion, slid his boot off, letting it fall into the soldiers below. He tried to gently place his now bare foot down on the rock but it still poked him painfully.

Everything hurt. His arms and legs were sore, his hands shredded and numb. He had been soaked long ago and the near winter winds bit into him mercilessly. But he couldn’t stop. Shakily, he reached for the next protrusion and pushed up with his injured leg, warm blood mixing with cold rain as it slid down his leg.

As he finally pulled himself up to the top, Leif collapsed onto all fours, barely able to manage even that. So much for defending himself, his arms were shaking so much he doubted he could lift his sword, even if his hands weren’t bloody pulps.

“Damn it, he actually made it! Get your asses up there right now! We can’t let him cross the border,” a soldier yelled from the bottom. Leif wanted to cry. There was little he could do like this, he couldn’t run or put up much of a fight. As soon as one of them reached the top, he was dead.

A flash of lightning far off, followed several seconds later by a roll of thunder gave Leif an idea. It was desperate and he had no idea if it would work but it was the only idea he had. After struggling for a few moments, he managed to pull out his thunder tome, letting it fall open in front of him. Placing his thumbs on the top of either page, he pressed the rest of his hand against the rock over one of the cracks near the edge.

Thunder magic could travel through some things, hopefully these rocks were one of them. If this worked, it would probably only take out one or two soldiers but it should be enough to make them go away. Concentrating on the spell rather than how hard it was getting to hold himself up, Leif sent his spell through the rock.

There was a muffled boom and Leif had to quickly jump back as the rock beneath him fell away. He stared in shock as the sound of tumbling rock mixed with several panicked shouts and expletives. The faint glow of torches died out until nothing was left but the sound of the rain.

Slowly, Leif approached the newly created edge and peered over. The chunk that had broken off had fallen down the side, breaking off more rock until the giant pile of rubble down at the bottom was created. It was too dark to be sure but Leif doubted any of the soldiers climbing the mountain had time to get out of the way. The lack of torches retreating didn’t bode well for anyone at the bottom either.

The sight was terrifying, not because of the destruction, but because he hadn’t meant to do this, he didn’t even know this might happen. But at least if all the soldiers were dead, he wouldn’t have to worry about being attacked again anytime soon. As close to safe as he could be, Leif let his arms give out and collapsed, unable to do anything but feel the cold stone beneath him and the patter of rain above him.


The climb was easier now, more used to physical exertion like this than when he was twelve. But being older also meant there were less ledges he could easily grip. There were a few times he could only curl his first few toes around a protrusion, making balancing as he moved his other foot more challenging but it would have been harder if he had kept his shoes on.

His hands and feet were raw when he made it to the top but what was more important was his limbs weren’t aching. He could do this two more times, maybe fight as well. But first, he had to make sure this would work.

Placing his thunder tome in front of him, Leif placed his thumbs on each corner and spread the rest of his hand against the rock. Before he cast the spell, he thought back to what Asbel had said, about how they used magic differently. He had thought his last attempt may not have been as strong because he used Leif’s method. If that was the case, what if Leif used his? Closing his eyes, Leif tried to picturing pushing out through himself into the tome.

He felt the impact under him, shaking the mountain with a muted boom and quickly moved away as the rock began to crumble, tumbling down the mountain toward the ballista. More of the mountain was added along the way as it slid with increasing speed until it crashed into the ballista with enough force to smash it to pieces.

Dorias had told Leif to signal them when the ballista was destroyed. This seemed good enough.

It would be easier to go down the newly created slope than to try and climb back down the other side. Leif began his descent as fast as he dared, not wanting to tumble down the steep slope. It wasn’t doing any favors to his feet but this wasn’t the worst he’d walked through or even the longest he’d done so barefoot.

Once at the bottom, he saw Finn come around the side of the ridge. A look of alarm flashed across his face as he saw the destroyed ballista. He was so distracted he didn’t notice Leif until he had almost reached him.

“Lord Leif!” Relief briefly flashed across his face before transforming to concern. “Are you alright?”

“We should get to the next ballista. The others will be starting the battle soon,” Leif said, wanting to continue but being blocked from doing so by Finn.

“Hold on, was this your doing?” Finn asked, look of alarm returning. Leif nodded and tried to move around Finn, only for the knight to block him again. Leif scowled.

“None of our men were put in danger and the ballista was taken care of, what does it matter what I did? I know what I’m doing and there are two more I need to get to,” Leif said irritably. The longer they spent talking, the less time he’d have to get to the other two ballistae before their men started advancing. As soon as they crossed the bridge, they would be within the second ballista’s range and Dorias hadn’t over exaggerated, ballistae were incredibly deadly.

“What does it matter?” Finn repeated, voice raising slightly. His gaze suddenly dropped. “Your hands…”

Leif lifted and turned over his hands, looking down at his raw, bloody palms for the first time. “They’ve been worse. I can still do this,” he insisted, looking up at Finn.

Finn was silent for a moment, brow furrowed as he continued looking at Leif’s hands. “You did the same when you were learning swordplay. You’d keep going until your hands blistered and bled, no matter how many times I scolded you.”

“I needed to get stronger. Just like I need to do this,” Leif said. Finn finally looked up at Leif who glared back to get his point across. He was going to do this whether Finn approved or not.

Something dark flitted across Finn’s face, brief but notable for how uncharacteristic it was. Had Leif crossed the line, gone too far for Finn to continue tolerating him, even with his loyalty to Prince Quan? The stern look his expression settled on didn’t do anything to dissuade Leif from his line of thought.

“Forgive me for not taking you at your word, Lord Leif, but if you’re going to continue doing this, I must insist on accompanying you,” he said. So he didn’t trust Leif, that was reasonable. At least if he was nearby, Leif could be sure of his safety. He nodded in agreement and Finn finally moved out of the way, letting Leif run by before following close behind.

At the bridge, Tanya engaged a knight with a flame sword to cover for her father as Dagdar ran in and brought his hammer down on the knight’s breastplate. It caved in just as his helmet did on the second strike. Dagdar caught the body as it fell and began rummaging through his belongings.

“Botha you use swords, don't ya? Catch,” Dagdar said, tossing the sword toward Finn and Leif. Leif caught it, blade still warm from the fire magic. Finn frowned as they ran across the bridge.

“Wait!” Dagdar called out one more time. Finn could handle him, Leif needed to get to the next ballista before more men started crossing the bridge. Fortunately, the rise hiding the next ballista was just to his right. Attaching the sword to his belt, Leif ran at the mountain, jumping to reach the highest handhold he could and beginning his ascent.

This rise was less steep and shorter than the first, making it easier to climb but also meaning there was a greater chance of his plan not working this time. Instead of climbing to the top, Leif stopped slightly before it, pulling out the thunder tome and holding it against a decent sized crack a few feet below the peak. It was a much larger chunk that he had tried to break off before but he had been right about the way Asbel used magic. It created stronger spells, although they were harder to control, coming out as a large burst rather than a directed beam.

Just as before, he focused on pushing out through the tome and felt the rumble of impact. The peak broke off, causing Leif to briefly lose his balance. He jumped back, grabbing one of the ledges he had been standing on and bracing his feet against the side of the mountain. He pulled himself up to look over the edge, remaining until he saw the ballista destroyed. As soon as it was, he turned around to descend and noticed Finn, wide eyed and pale, a few feet from the base of the ridge. He looked terrified. He had seen Leif bring down part of the mountain this time and now he was scared of him. The thought twisted something in Leif’s chest and he avoided looking at Finn as he came down.

Not waiting for Finn to say anything, Leif started running towards the last ridge. The closest bridge was guarded on the other side by several knights with a ballistae not far behind them so he’d have to run down to the bridge by the village. At least it was closer to the next ballista.

Maybe they knew he was coming or maybe the soldiers had done this before they arrived but when Leif arrived at the bridge, it had been broken, both sides lifted to prevent anyone from crossing. There wasn’t anything he could use to climb it to try and jump from one side to another. He could try swimming across but the soldier on the other side could easily kill him while he was in the water and unable to fight back. Looking around, he noticed a winch with a keyhole underneath. The winch refused to move when he pulled it so he knelt down by the keyhole and got to work with his lockpicks.

Finn arrived just after Leif unlocked the winch and had begun turning it. His arms were finally starting to ache, his palms stinging against the rough wood but he could keep going. All he had to do was take out one more ballista and half of the biggest threats to their men would be gone.

“Lord Leif, that’s enough,” Finn said, an odd strain to his voice.

“It’s almost there,” Leif said, ashamed of how he struggled to get the words out. But true to his word, it was only a few more turns before the bridge was completely lowered. Finn immediately rushed across as Leif slowly dropped his arms. His hands were throbbing but he reached for his sword as he ran across the bridge as well.

On the other side of the river, Finn had already taken care of the soldier. He lifted his head from the corpse to Leif, a thinly veiled anger piercing him as the soldier had been. He would have preferred Finn stab him than look at him like this. He tried to clear his head by focusing on the last rise.

It was steeper than the last but not as great as the first. Despite how each movement deepened the ache in his limbs, he couldn’t afford to slow down, trying to go as fast as he could. It still took longer than he would have liked to reach the top. Finding a good spot to put down his thunder tome, he gave one last push as he sent the spell through the rock and watched the third ballista fall.

When he lifted his head, taking a moment to feel the throb of each limb, something on the battlefield caught his eye. Two of the remaining ballistae were quite close to each other. They were giant bows meaning they needed ammunition to work. If he could get between them, he could force them to use it up on him, then all but one ballista would be taken care of and the last one could be easily avoided.

Standing, Leif started running along the top of the hill, ignoring the shout from Finn below. The two ballistae would be able to see him but he was counting on that. The sooner he got their attention, the better.

A bolt struck the rock several feet below him, almost throwing him off balance. He managed to catch himself and continue running. The next bolt was an even closer call, Leif only being able to avoid it by dropping down onto a lower ledge, almost back to the ground.

The second ballistae joined the fight, its bolt striking the rock beneath Leif, breaking it and sending him flying. He reached forward to land on his palms and push himself into a roll, coming to rest in a crouch. Quickly, he ran to the riverbank, putting himself directly between the ballistae.

“Lord Leif!” Finn’s cry alerted Leif to his approach but he had no chance to look for him as the ballistae continued their assault. Leif ducked beneath one bolt then quickly spun out of the way of another. The bolts were quite large, a single hit may be enough to kill him but their size also worked to his advantage. Their blatancy made their path obvious and dodging them easier than a regular arrow.

He did this twice more before the soldier manning one of the ballistae fell, impaled by an absolutely furious Finn. At almost the same time, the soldier on the other ballistae was attacked by Dagdar and Tanya and quickly taken down. Eyvel ran towards Leif as most of their remaining men ran over the bridge behind the ballista Dagdar and Tanya had taken.

“What the hell was that?” Finn wasn’t just furious, he was livid. Leif couldn’t remember ever seeing him this angry before.

“Finn,” Eyvel said, warning in her voice doing nothing to ease his anger. She turned to Leif, frowning as she looked him over. “Mind explaining what you were thinking, Little Lord?”

“Ballistae are giant bows. Use up their arrows and they’re useless,” Leif said, looking at Finn as he spoke. Unfortunately his reasoning didn’t seem to have any effect either.

“And you think that makes it alright for you to throw yourself in front of two of them?” Finn asked, voice raised by the end of it.

“Yes.” That was not the answer Finn wanted to hear, fist clenching around his lance once Leif said it. “Their bolts are easier to dodge than arrows or spells. And if they focused on me, no one else would be in danger.”

“But you were,” Finn said, trying to keep from raising his voice again. “Lord Leif, you can’t keep doing this.”

Leif bit back his response. Finn didn’t need to know that, especially not right now. By the way Finn’s eyes narrowed and scowl deepened, he had noticed but was prevented from interrogating Leif as Eyvel spoke up.

“Little Lord, your hands.” Leif turned them over like before. Both them and his arms were shaking as he examined the mess they had become. He definitely would have trouble wielding a sword while they were like this. Out of curiosity, he lifted one of his feet as well. It was harder to tell what condition they were in with how dark the dirt had made them. At least if he could balance on one foot they couldn’t be too bad.

“They’re fine,” Leif said, lowering his hands and foot. Eyvel gave him a questioning look as Dagdar and Tanya joined them.

“Battle’s just 'bout over, ev'ryone’s stormin' the fort now,” Dagdar reported to Eyvel before turning to Leif. “Not sure I wanna know how ya brought down those ballistae but can’t say I ain't impressed.”

“Don’t encourage him,” Finn snapped, glowering at the group. “Take him off the field, now.”

Leif turned back to Finn, his own anger starting to rise. “I’m not leaving until everyone else does.”

“You are and you will not fight again until I say so,” Finn said. Eyvel and Dagdar exchanged uneasy glances as Leif returned Finn’s glare with one of his own.

“You can't stop me.”

“I can and I am. You won’t pick up a sword again until you can convince me you can be trusted on the battlefield.”

The sting of his last comment was the final push for Leif. Finn could hate and distrust Leif as much as he wanted but he would not keep Leif under constant watch and control. That was never happening again. Leif pulled out his mother’s sword and the sword from Dagdar. Finn’s glare shifted to a look of alarm but Leif didn’t care as long as he got his point across.

“Like hell I will,” he growled, ending the conversation on his terms. He turned around, Eyvel and Dagdar giving him a wide berth as he stormed past, heading for Fort Noel.

As he walked, his anger slowly waned as did his racing heartbeat. In its place an all too familiar nauseating chill set in. He had been getting better at dealing with this but being around so many people again was making everything harder. Gripping the hilts of each sword more tightly, he reminded himself all of this was for Tahra, for Linoan. The people of Tahra needed all the help they could get if they were to have any chance of surviving and Leif owed it to them to do all he could to ensure they did.

There was a good chance the city would fall but their resistance was large enough to help the citizens of Tahra survive, the thing that mattered most. But what after that? He doubted they would disband and he knew they wouldn't let him leave. Even if he could, that selfish part of him that liked being around Asbel and Nanna wanted to stay. With this many people wanting and willing to work together for the sake of Thracia, they could accomplish much more than Leif could on his own. Ced claimed he could have Manster liberated within the year, perhaps the rest of Thracia could be free by then as well.

All of his life, he'd only brought suffering to the people around him but he would do everything he could to make this time different. He wanted to stay, to teach and learn from Asbel, to be teased by Lara, to be called Little Lord by Eyvel, to see Nanna smile. But at the same time, he was terrified everything would go wrong again, that he'd have to watch everyone die because of him. If he wanted to stay, he needed to be able to stop that from happening, to protect everyone so they wouldn't try to protect him. They called him their prince, if he wanted to earn that title, he needed to fulfill his duty and give all he could for them. He had little more than his body and life but he would make the most of them for as long as he could.

Chapter Text

The fort had been taken when Leif arrived. Asbel and Nanna were mulling around outside, both perking up when they saw him, but were cut off by August approaching Leif first.

“Welcome back, Prince Leif,” August said, “Your handling of the ballistae was unorthodox but effective. You seem to have a knack for plans like that.” Leif could hear his question, the wheels turning as he tried to piece together every bit of information he gathered on Leif. August knew he was being obvious and wasn’t trying to manipulate him like Ced, letting Leif act on his own before trying to pick him apart, so he was usually tolerable. But right now, he was making Leif’s skin crawl.

“Is everyone alright?” Leif asked, August making an odd half-smile at the question.

“We are. With the ballistae taken care of, the battle was rather simple. We had the advantage in numbers, surprise, and the commotion and disorganization your little stunts caused,” August said, pausing a moment to watch Leif’s reaction. Leif refused to give him anything, waiting for August to continue his report. After a slight frown, he did. “We captured two soldiers who were trying to escape, likely to bring reinforcements. Duke Dorias tried speaking with them but they refuse to cooperate. Perhaps you’ll have better luck with them.”

Leif didn’t like the way he said that last sentence but followed to where the soldiers were being held. A man and woman were being forced to kneel in front of some of Dorias’ men, arms tied as lances were pointed at them.

“Stand down,” Leif growled, causing both men to jump. They quickly obeyed when they turned and saw the glare he was leveling at them, scampering away as he passed. They were likely going to report to Dorias. Leif wanted to speak with Dorias as well about this taking prisoners business.

Despite being the younger of the two, it was the woman who met Leif’s eye, glaring hatefully at him.

“We don’t want your sympathy, invader,” she spat.

“You invaded first,” Leif said, annoyed at her choice of insult. She was older than him, there was no chance she could have been born in Northern Thracia and yet she had the nerve to call the land hers, act like she had a right to it?

“So you’re rebels,” she said with a sneer, “That explains why you fight without honor.”

“What does the Empire know about honor? You hunt children,” Leif snarled. Her look of confusion only stirred his anger further.

“Child hunts? You can’t seriously believe that absurd propaganda! It’s utter nonsense-”

Leif temper snapped. “Nonsense? You think this is a lie?! How can you not know what your own men are doing, the army you’re part of! How sheltered have you been or do you care that little for the people you oppress you ignore their existence unless they’re in your way?”

His shouting had caught her off guard but he wasn’t finished. If she didn’t know about the child hunts, there was no one better to educate her. 

“Ever since House Friege took over, their soldiers have been rounding up every child between seven and thirteen. They’re torn from their loved ones and thrown in cages, sometimes in chains, sometimes with only the threat of violence to keep them in line, a threat they will follow through on. The only thing that matters is the children are alive to deliver to the Loptyrians so everything else is fair game. Some of the children know what’s about to happen, having lost friends or siblings before, and are resigned to their deaths. Most have no idea and beg for their parents, brothers, sisters, anyone to come save them, apologizing for whatever they did wrong and promising to behave. Every night, at least one child cries and any who can sleep have nightmares. Even if they’re freed, they’ll never be the same. They can never forget being thrown in the dark and left to rot!”

Her face slowly drained of color as he went on, look of horror deepening. Even August seemed disturbed at how much detail Leif gave.

“This can’t be true. How could anyone be capable of such cruelty? It can’t be, Fred tell me it’s not true!” the female soldier turned to her companion who kept his head bowed. Her look of horror turned to disgust. “Unbelievable. How could you go along with this?!”

“I don’t support them but there’s nothing I can do. I’m just a soldier, I have to follow orders, even the ones I know are wrong,” Fred said. Judging by her expression, the female soldier felt the same way Leif did about Fred’s defense.

“I believed in the Empire, I trusted House Friege, and this is what they’ve been doing all along?!” she looked up at Leif. “Sir, if you can forgive my past choice of allegiance, I would like to join you. Please, allow me to right the wrongs my country has done, starting with that embarrassment of a man who leads Dandrum Fortress.”

Leif straightened when he heard where they were from. “We leave now. August, untie them.”

“Most of our men are exhausted,” August pointed out yet still moved to follow Leif’s order.

“Then I’ll storm it myself! The Empire thinks their fortresses are too well protected to be attacked so they love keeping children in them,” Leif said, surprising everyone for different reasons. “I’ve done this before, I’ll do it again until there are no more caged children in Thracia.”

“You won’t be doing this yourself,” the female soldier said as she stood. “Fred and I will fight alongside you. Return my tome to me and I’ll strike down anyone who stands in our way!”

Her word choice gave Leif an idea. “What kind of tome do you have?”

“Thunder.” Just as Leif had hoped. He turned to August.

“Stall everyone as long as you can. Find their weapons and give me your dagger,” Leif said before turning to address their former captives. “We’re going to free the children and take Dandrum Fortress."

“Olwen, what’s the meaning of this? You were supposed to be doing reconnaissance, not picking up strays,” Kempf said as he approached the Olwen and Leif. The pair stood in the entranceway to Dandrum Fortress, Leif keeping his head lowered and hands behind his back to give the appearance of being captured. Fred had gone inside ahead of them to alert Kempf to their arrival and now stood just off to the side of the soldiers guarding the main doors. “You took your sweet time as well, perhaps getting acquainted with your new pet? You really do take after your brother.”

Olwen’s fist tightened at her side but she refrained from lashing out. “Forgive me, General Kempf, but this boy is related to my assignment. I noticed him when I was leaving Fort Noel and Fred helped me chase him down when he tried to run away. He put up quite a fight, killing both of our horses. When I demanded he identify himself, he made an outlandish claim. I knew I had to bring him to you but I’m hesitant to bring him inside. If what he says is true, everyone could be endangered by bringing him into the fortress.” 

Kempf sneered. “Can you do nothing on your own that you were almost bested by a child and are now so scared of him you refuse to bring him inside? Everyday I’m more and more surprised you made it through Belhalla’s military academy. Did Reinhardt hold your hand the entire way or did he just ‘persuade’ the entire academy to let you through?”

Olwen glared murderously at Kempf but once again managed to hold herself back. It was still enough of a reaction to amuse Kempf as his sneer became the smuggest look Leif had ever seen.

“But, since I’m such a generous commanding officer, I’ll indulge you and question the runt,” Kempf said, finally turning his attention to Leif. He moved closer so he could look down on him as he spoke. “Well then, out with it. Identify yourself.”

“Identify me yourself,” Leif said as he lifted his head to look Kempf in the eye. “You’re the ones who named me.”

It only took a moment for Kempf's confusion to morph into disbelief but before he could react further, Leif slid the August’s dagger into his hand and threw it into Kempf’s thigh. As he cried out and bent over to grab it, Leif withdrew the dagger he’d gotten from Olwen and held it to Kempf’s throat. The general quickly quieted, eyes wide with fear. Leif turned him around to face the fort, pulling his hair to tilt Kempf's head back and expose more of his throat.

“Dastard! Release him at once!” Olwen shouted, convincingly feigning her anger was at Leif.

“Release the children you’re holding captive and I’ll release your commander.” Leif said. Olwen ran to the soldiers at the door to give them Leif’s demands and her side of the story. Once she finished, none of the soldiers made to move, looking back and forth between each other.

“D-Don’t just stand there! Do as he says, that’s an order!” Kempf cried, fear and anger plain in his voice. Finally the soldiers started to act, three rushing inside while the others stayed behind, weapons pointed at Leif. Leif ignored them as he disarmed Kempf, pressing the dagger in a little deeper to discourage any escape attempts.

Kempf was quiet for so long, Leif hadn’t expected him to say anything. Olwen had described him as a posturing coward, among other things, so Leif had hoped he would stay silent and make this less painful for all of them. But eventually he worked up the nerve to say something.

“You’re not really the ghoul. That was just a ruse to trick Olwen into letting you in here,” he accused, “You didn’t have to go that far, that naive girl would have fallen for any story you came up with. But I won't be so easily fooled. The ghoul has never been caught or seen in broad daylight. It doesn’t take hostages either, especially not ones as prestigious as myself. There have been rumors about several generals' deaths being caused by the ghoul but them were either incompetent like Barat or past their prime like Largo.”

“Do you have a point?” Leif asked, wanting to soldiers to hurry up and bring the children so he could stop listening to Kempf’s ramblings. For someone being held at knifepoint, he was certainly outspoken.

“My point is I can recognize potential when I see it. You may be an amateur but you were clever enough to use a fake identity that couldn’t be disproven and would guarantee you were captured and brought to me rather than thrown straight in the dungeon. I bet you don't even care about the children, you only demanded their release to keep up your act. Work with me and you’ll go much farther in a much more comfortable position than you could achieve as a lone vagrant. I’ll be needing a replacement soon for that wench who brought you here. Release me and we can talk over the details inside,” Kempf offered.

If Kempf had been right about him, the offer would have been tempting. There wasn't much in the way of work for someone Leif's age besides becoming a soldier or selling yourself. But Leif wasn't a vagrant who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, so he could see Kempf's trap for what it was. Loathing the man more by the second, Leif shifted his hold on the dagger at Kempf's throat. The movement caused Kempf looked down and going by how quickly his face drained of color, he saw what Leif wanted him to. “I’ve killed more Imperial soldiers than your fortress can hold. The only reason I won’t kill you is someone else deserves to more. But keep talking and I will.”

Kempf remained silent as a soldier returned from the fortress with three children, chains keeping them together. It took all of Leif’s willpower not to throw one of the daggers at the soldier.

“Unchain them,” he growled. The soldier looked to Kempf for approval then obeyed. Even unchained, none of the children attempted to run, looking between the three of them with terrified expressions. Leif pulled August’s dagger out of Kempf’s thigh and pointed it at the soldier as he walked forward. The soldier walked back until the children were behind Leif and the soldier was halfway back to the main door.

Leif quickly lowered the dagger at Kempf’s throat to cut his cloak and pull it off him as he kicked the general forward. Kempf fell ungracefully, sputtering as he took in a mouthful of dirt. “You will not pursue us as we leave. Return to cowering behind your walls and never take part in the child hunts again. Next time you won’t be spared,” Leif warned.

Kempf scoffed as he rose, glaring loathfully at Leif. “You... You’ll pay for this, for all of this! You’re the one who won’t be spared,” he snarled, backing up towards the fortress. “Men, kill the boy! Bring out the ballistae and fire at will! I don’t give a damn if you hit the children, a lordship to whoever kills the ghoul!”

“You really are an embarrassment of a man,” Leif said. Kempf’s glare deepened with outrage but just as he was about to speak, there was a loud cracking sound behind him as dirt and debris flew at them. Leif turned and used the cape he had torn from Kempf to shield the children who were already huddled together.

Once the dust cleared, Leif looked back to see the collapsed Dandrum Fortress, roof caved in after thunder magic had been applied to two large cracks in the outer wall. The other soldiers stared at the fortress in disbelief until Kempf realized who had caused this, mad fury filling his expression as Olwen with her thunder tome and Fred with his thunder sword stared defiantly back.

“Traitors! I’ll have your heads for this!” Kempf shouted.

“Not if I take yours first!” Olwen replied, drawing her sword and charging forward. The soldier who had brought the children out ran to meet her as Fred cut down the soldier nearest to him. There were only five soldiers besides Kempf outside when the fortress collapsed so Leif doubted they would need his help, allowing him to stay with the children.

Kempf turned to find his weapons and was met with a punch in the gut. He groaned, staggering backwards as he doubled over in pain before another fist connected with his temple. For the second time that day he was left sprawled on the ground.

“Stay down,” Leif said.

Kempf growled, grabbing one of the girls by the arm. She shrieked as Kempf pulled her in front of him, using her as a shield as he reached for one of his swords. As soon as he dared to lift his head, Leif threw one of his dagger, hitting Kempf dead in the eye. He collapsed with an anguished shout, the girl he had grabbed jumping as she tried not to cry.

“Prince Leif!” Olwen called, running over to join them. Kempf’s good eye locked on Leif as he realized what this meant for his earlier revelation. He let out a deranged laugh as Leif walked over and pulled out the dagger, eye coming along with it. Yanking him up by his hair and keeping him in place by pressing the other dagger against his spine, Leif stepped out of the way to let Olwen confront her former commanding officer.

“Traitorous.. wench,” Kempf spat out as he and Olwen exchanged glares.

“I’d rather betray my country than my ideals,” Olwen said contemptuously, “The child hunts are wrong and I will fight beside Prince Leif to bring them to an end.”

“The child hunts? That’s what this is for?” Kempf laughed again, the mad sound making Leif tighten his grip. “Oh that’s rich! Reinhardt’s own sister betraying House Friege for the very thing that earned him his position. Even I couldn’t come up with something this perfect!”

“You’re lying,” Olwen said, anger rising, “My brother would nev-”

“He would,” Kempf interrupted, earlier malicious glee gone from his voice, replaced with an unsettling coldness, “No one gets to the position of general without being involved in the child hunts. And no one could be the princess’ adjutant without being heavily involved.”

Olwen’s anger briefly gave into distress before returning as she plunged her sword into Kempf’s chest. Her hand shook as she slowly retracted it, letting her sword hang by her side. Leif let go of Kempf’s hair, the general’s body falling to the ground between them.

A whimper from the children drew Leif’s attention. The girl Kempf had grabbed was holding her arm, pained expression on her face. Leif immediately knelt over Kempf’s body, searching his pockets until he found a vulnerary. Expecting the worst, he ran over and knelt in front of the girl.

“Let me see.” Shakily, she held out her arm, revealing a gash across her forearm with a dull purple tinge to it. Leif pulled out the vulnerary and she quickly retracted her arm, holding it protectively to her chest.

“It’s alright, look,” he said, holding out one of his torn up palms. He let a few drops from the vulnerary fall on it and both watched as the skin slowly began to repair itself. Once it had, Leif wiggled his fingers and turned his hand over a few times to show it worked just fine.

Hesitantly, the girl offered her arm out again and Leif slowly poured part of the vulnerary over it. The cut lost its purple tinge and closed but a red, raised line was left behind. Any cut from a poisoned weapon would scar, no matter how small. While Leif was well aware and fine with this, he was reminded that not everyone was as the girl kept looking at her arm, lip trembling.

“Hey.” After a moment, she looked up at him, eyes shining as she tried to hold back tears. He pulled down the neck of his shirt to show her a scar under his collarbone, parallel but slightly higher than his heart. Her gaze traveled from this to the scar on the side of his neck, Leif brushing his hair back to give her a better look. She stared at the one under his eye for a moment, before meeting his gaze once more. Her eyes were still shiny but her lip had stopped trembling. “You’re not the only one.”

Olwen crouched down next to them and removed one of her gloves, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a long white line across her forearm as well. “I got mine from a sword too."

“You all got yours by being brave,” Fred said, taking off his boot and pulling up his pant leg to show off the scar on his knee. “I got mine falling down the stairs.”

This got a small giggle from the girl, the sound bringing a smile to Olwen’s face. “Scars show you were strong at a time when you shouldn’t have had to be. And you were very strong today, these past couple days,” she said, the girl’s full attention on her. “What’s your name, little one?”

“R-Rosa." Olwen gave her the warmest smile she could.

“That’s a very pretty name for a very pretty girl,” she said. Her expression sobered but sympathy kept it from being cold. “Rosa, I am so sorry for everything you’ve had to go through. We’re going to take you home, back to your parents. I promise, I will never let this happen again, not to you or anyone else. I swear on my life, we’ll keep you safe so you never have to be this strong again.”

The tears she had been holding back finally started to fall as Rosa threw herself at Olwen, wrapping her in an embrace. Olwen returned it, clutching the small girl closely. She seemed near tears as well.

Leif turned his head to give his attention to the other two children. “Are either of you injured? You won’t be in trouble if you say yes,” he assured them. Both shook their heads but the boy wouldn’t meet Leif’s eyes. Having a feeling he knew why, Leif held out the last of the vulnerary. “Then could you hold onto this for me? I can use staves so I don’t need it. I bet you can find someone else who does.” The boy nodded and took the offered end of the bottle.

“What happened to your hand?” the boy asked.

“It’s from touching the general. This is why your parents tell you not to play with trash.” Fred snorted, giving Leif an approving smirk.

“Prince Leif.” Leif lifted his head. Everyone else had arrived and had been watching from just outside the fortress’ entrance. He wasn’t sure when they arrived or how much they had seen but he was guessing it wasn’t very long from their lack of intervention and the way Finn was staring at the collapsed fort.

“I didn’t do that,” Leif said, drawing Finn’s attention down to him, strange look on his face.

“I… know. I saw you shield the children,” Finn said, sounding somewhere between confused and frustrated. So they had been here awhile. Why hadn’t any of them spoken up sooner?

“How exactly did you get the children out of there? How did you even know they would be here?” Dorias asked, “And why are our prisoners with you? Who allowed this?” He glanced at August who managed to keep a neutral expression quite well.

“They’re not prisoners, they’re allies,” Leif said, choosing the question he wanted to answer. “And we won’t take prisoners again.”

“Wha- Prince Leif, I must object! Showing mercy is what-” Dorias started to protest before Leif interrupted.

“Have you ever been held captive?”

“No, but-”

“Then you don’t get to have a say,” Leif snapped. He turned to the rest of the group. “Anyone who has have any objections?”

Several people shook their heads but the first to speak wasn’t any of them. It was Finn.

“Lord Leif… have you been held captive?”

This is why Leif didn’t want to tell Finn anything. He didn’t want to see that look of guilt as Finn blamed himself for Leif’s mistakes. Leif was his obligation, his last order from Prince Quan, no matter what he felt towards Leif, he would give anything to fulfill his duty. Leif had hoped he would find a better purpose during these last five years but the moment he saw Finn, he knew that hadn’t happened. Everything would be easier for both of them if he had.

“Yeah,” Leif answered, Finn’s reaction still hard to watch, even knowing it was coming.

“You have?” Leif turned to Rosa, staring at him in awe. She had stopped crying but was still clinging to Olwen.

Leif nodded, giving all his attention to Rosa as he spoke, slowly and gently. “I told you, didn’t I? You’re not the only one. Soldiers took me but I got away, just like you. And I’m okay. So you’ll be okay too.” Rosa looked like she might cry again but this time she was smiling.

“You’re quite good at this,” Eyvel remarked.

“Of course he is, Lord Leif has been doing this longer than any of us!” Asbel said.

“Has he really?” Dorias asked, surprised, “And how long exactly would that be?”

“Longer than you’ve been doing anything! While you were sittin’ around in your villa, Lord Leif was out there standing against the child hunts by himself. He’s braver than all you stupid nobles put together!”

“Asbel, calm yourself,” Brighton said.

“You didn’t hear what he was saying! He was getting all upset about how Lord Leif was taking out the ballistae, saying he wasn’t fighting honorably and didn’t have knightly pride. Who cares about that dumb stuff? Lord Leif was out there protecting everyone, just as he’s been doing ever since we found him! He’s risking his life for us while he’s goin’ around whining ‘bout how he does it, ungrateful dastard!” Asbel shouted, surprising everyone who had never seen him angry before.

“Don’t misunderstand me, Asbel. I agree with you, I simply want to prevent you from saying something you may regret,” Brighton said before leveling a glare at Dorias.

“You don’t have to defend me,” Leif said, standing and stepping forward to address Dorias, “You’re right, I have no honor or pride. What I do have is people to protect and I will do whatever it takes to do that. The people of Thracia have suffered for too long and I intend to make amends for that by doing all that I can to give them the lives they deserve, free of oppression and constant fear.”

His response seemed to agitate Dorias. “I meant no disrespect Prince Leif, but if you’re to lead us, you need to set a better example. I understand these past few years haven’t been pleasant for you, but they’re over now. It’s time for you to start acting like a prince, not some common rebel.”

“And I mean no disrespect when I say I completely disagree with you,” Eyvel said, stern look making her claim of meaning no disrespect questionable. “How much of a better example do you want than what we just saw? And as a prince, I’d say he’s doing a fine job. Little Lord’s dedicated himself to protecting the people, I can’t think of anything more I’d ask for in a prince. But what do I know, I’m just a common rebel.”

“There is more to being a prince than simply protecting the people,” Selfina argued, not taking the thinly veiled insult to her father well. “In order for a ruler to earn the people’s respect and loyalty and bring glory to their country, they must be of noble character, a paragon of chivalric values.”

“I dunno what 'paragon of chivalric values' mean but th’ lad’s got my respect. He’s tougher’n most, more’n you lot. I’d like t’ see ya jump in fronta two ballistae,” Dagdar added.

“I know what that mean and I still respect Prince Leif. Prince Ced isn’t even that and all of Silesse loves him and wants him to return home,” Karin said.

“You nobles are far from that as well,” August said, a cold eye sweeping over those in question. “I can’t count how many of you I’ve heard talking about how you can’t wait to retake Leonster to have your positions and comfortable lives back. You may fight in a manner you believe to be honorable but your motivation is pitiful.”

“You would shame us for wanting to take back our home?” Dorias asked, enraged, “Who wouldn’t long for that? But just because we care about that does not mean we can’t care about the people as well! We want to see them thrive and prosper under the banner of House Leonster once more, as they did in the days of King Calf and Prince Quan.”

“Enough.” Leif didn’t raise his voice but spoke with enough force to silence Dorias. “If that’s the only reason you’re following me, I will continue to disappoint you. I refuse to restore House Leonster to what it was. Any house that could cause and ignore the suffering of others deserves to burn.”

From the look on Dorias’ face, he was about to raise his voice. Leif wondered what insults he would use, if he’d been called them before or if he’d be called something new. But he wouldn’t find out today as Nanna spoke before Dorias could.

“You’ll build something new, make House Leonster the way you want it to be,” she said, paying no mind to the stares she was getting from Dorias and Finn as she took a step towards Leif. “You’re the last one left, you get to decide what your house becomes. Leave the old House Leonster in the ashes where it belongs. I know the new one will be far better for all of Thracia.”

Leif stared at her. He hadn’t thought about rebuilding House Leonster, he hadn’t even thought about what he would do after Northern Thracia was liberated. But now the idea was there, it was hard to let go of. It felt strange, wanting so much all of a sudden, but it was such a warm feeling, almost burning him up inside. For the first time in years, he had a wish for the future that was more than just destruction. He wanted to make something, to build something good. Was that even possible? Could someone like him even be capable of that?

“If Lord Leif makes it, of course it will!” Asbel said, joining Nanna. Leif dropped his gaze to him and received an enthusiastic smile in return. “He’s gonna make Thracia the best nation in all of Jugdral!”

“Asbel…” How could they have this much faith in him? All his life, he’d done nothing but ruin everything he touched, causing everything to fall apart wherever he went. He didn’t create things and certainly not good things, but they believed he could. Their belief made him want to believe.

“That’s a pretty tall order. Why don’t we just stick with making the best Thracia for now?” Eyvel said, joining the pair. She had that same smile as when she had been listening to Asbel earlier this morning, this time directed at Leif. “That shouldn’t be a problem for you, Little Lord.”

“It most certainly won’t be,” Brighton said, walking forward as well, Machyua and Lara quick to follow. Their movement sparked a flow of people over towards Leif. Soon no one way left outside Dandrum Fortress' entrance except Dorias, Selfina, their men, and Finn.

All these people believed in Leif? They accepted him as he was, despite everything they'd seen him do? The Magi knew what he had been doing before they met, he insulted and punched Karin’s prince in front of her, Eyvel watched him beat a man to death with a tome. He didn’t understand this. He didn’t deserve this.

August was the last to cross, stopping slightly before so he could stand in front of the group as he stared down Dorias.

“What was that about needing to be of noble character to earn the people’s loyalty and respect?” he asked, feigned innocent tone driving the nail in a little deeper.

After several moments of seething and failing to come up with a response, Dorias turned to leave. “If Fort Dandrum has fallen, there’s nothing left for us here. We should make for Tahra on the double,” he said, leading his men away.

“We’ve made better time than we expected but we should still get to Tahra as soon as possible,” August said. Everyone remaining began to leave besides Finn, Olwen, and Fred. As Fred gathered the children, letting one of the girls climb on his back, Olwen approached August.

“If we’re headed to Tahra, then we’re in luck,” Olwen said, pulling a letter from inside her tome and handing it over to August. “It’s from my lord brother, Reinhardt, the leader of the Gelben Ritter. He says the incident in Manster shook Bloom and he rescinded his order for them to go to Tahra. Apparently, he believes he will be Prince Leif’s next target and has been focusing on fortifying Alster.” Olwen turned to Leif. “Whatever you did spooked Raydrik enough to worry Bloom as well.”

“The worst I did was try to shoot him,” Leif said, then realized that wasn’t entirely true. That was the worst thing he knew Raydrik knew about. When Raydrik returned to the prison, how much of what he saw would he think Leif was responsible for? He didn’t know who else had broken into the prison so Leif may be blamed for all of it. He was responsible for the worst of it, the hall of burning soldiers coming to mind.

“Nanna said your hand was burned when you arrived in the arena,” Finn said, voice oddly distant. Despite speaking to Leif, his gaze was on the fallen fortress. “And you didn’t deny it when Prince Ced claimed you injured yourself freeing them from Raydrik’s trap.”

“I fail to see how this is relevant,” August said, earning himself a glare from Finn, warning him to stay out of the conversation.

Finn finally looked at Leif. “They’re the same. It wasn’t serious or the worst I’ve had,” Leif said.

The dark look from before returned, this time more than a flicker. Why was he so bothered by this? Before Leif had thought it was because Finn was mad at him for going too far but now he wasn’t so sure. Both times Finn had mentioned Leif being injured just before. He wasn’t blaming himself for that, was he?

“It’s not your fault,” Leif insisted as emphatically as he could. “Nothing that happened to me is your fault.”

It took Finn a minute to get over his surprise and respond. “I don’t even know what happened to you.”

“I stopped running and chose to fight.” That wasn’t the answer Finn was looking for but that was all he was going to get. “These are my decisions and I don’t regret them.”

His words did little to placate Finn but rather than yell at him again, he turned his horse around and left. Olwen and Fred followed but as Leif made to leave as well, August spoke up to stop him.

“Don’t think of this as a victory. This is a lesson,” he said, graveness ensuring Leif paused to listen. “Your intentions are in the right place but it’s your actions that will be judged. Everyone is here because they want something from you and not all of their intentions are as pure as your old friends. If you truly intend to dedicate yourself to the people, you’ll need to be able to meet their expectations and fulfill their desires.”

“But you don’t agree with Dorias."

August made a noise of derision. “Knights are hopeless, ignorant creatures, putting far too much stock in tradition and fame. You’re better off not taking up their flawed ideals. But he was right about one thing. Your time alone is over. The people here want to follow a prince not a ghoul.”

Of course August had figured it out. Dorias and Finn were too distracted being disappointed in him and Eyvel and Nanna didn’t press him on his past but August had done nothing but observe Leif since they met, trying to unravel him. Now it seemed he had. Leif remained silent as he waited for August to continue, to see how he would use his leverage.

“I don’t agree with your methods but I understand your actions, moreso after this little display. But many will not. You’ve shown some restraint but it’s not enough. Learn to control yourself or all of this will be for nothing,” August warned, “Being willing to do anything for your people is admirable but there are lines you shouldn’t cross. And you’ve crossed quite a lot.”

“If you’re worried about the people abandoning me because they hate me, they already do,” Leif said, lack of change in his tone bothering August. “Finn certainly does.”

August’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Apparently more than just your manners have deteriorated,” he said bemusedly, “Finn is the one person who will never abandon you, except perhaps a certain little mage who thinks he’s so well hidden because he's behind a rock that's taller than him.”

“Asbel.” Leif didn’t turn around, his call enough to bring the boy out and to their side, looking slightly sheepish. He started his explanation of why he’d come back but barely made it through the first sentence when Leif interrupted.

“You were right about them being different. I used a spell your way on the mountains,” Leif said. Asbel paused, lighting up with excitement.

“I knew it! I knew they felt different. Your way's not less powerful but more like it’s bein’ directed elsewhere instead of just all comin' out in one big burst. It’s like-” Asbel chattered on, so engrossed in the one-sided conversation he didn’t notice they had begun walking away from Dandrum Fortress. It was oddly soothing to listen to, Leif remaining silent to let it continue as long as possible.

“How come you never mentioned being a dancer before?” Asbel asked.

“You never asked,” Lara said, adjusting the strange ribbons she was wearing around her arms.

In high spirits after the successful battle, rescue of the children, and good news on Tahra’s situation, Lara had decided to take Eyvel up on her suggestion of dancing for everyone. Halvan had agreed to play for her and now night had fallen, everyone was gathered around the fire to watch. Everyone except Leif.

Asbel couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed that he wasn’t there but Leif had promised to start teaching him to use staves in the morning. It was tempting to sneak away to go to sleep so tomorrow could get here faster. But he’d never seen a dancer before, his curiosity keeping him from leaving for now. Once he understood what all the fuss was about, he’d leave and try to sleep so he could get up without Nanna’s help and practice even longer with Leif.

Lara turned to Halvan, who nodded and began to play a few soft notes. As Lara began swaying with the tune, Asbel found his attention being drawn in. As the song picked up, so did her movements, fast and fluid as she added more twists and twirls. It was like watching her practice swordplay without a sword. Asbel had never been any good with swords but he loved watching other use them, having sat in on as many of Leif's practices as he could when they were kids.

The first song had barely finished before Halvan started another, this one more lively than the last. Lara pranced around the fire, clearly enjoying herself. She wasn’t the only one. Machyua and Brighton were smiling softly as they watched, Machyua lounging against Brighton as they intertwined their hands and legs. Karin swayed and tapped her feet as if wanting to get up and join in. Fergus started singing along, accented voice loud and strong. Eyvel and Tanya joined in and soon almost everyone was singing along, the chorus simple enough for Asbel to learn and be able to sing as well.

Asbel was so caught up in the liveliness, he almost didn’t notice something gently encircle on his head. He reached up, straightening so fast he made Orsin jump as he felt the delicate yet sturdy weave of stems he’d done himself eight years ago. Asbel quickly turned around and found only trees behind him. He would have been more surprised if he hadn’t. Leif wasn't ready to join them yet but at least he wasn't shutting them out either.

Lara grinned at Asbel as she twirled by. "Gratitude," she said before gliding away, an equally wide grin spreading across his face. Asbel didn't care what else happened tonight, no one could possibly be happier than him.

Chapter Text

When they arrived at the edge of Dakia Forest, twilight was fast fading. With three children to return to three different villages, it had been agreed that the best course of action would be to split up and regroup in the village across the river, the farthest from the forest and the closest to Tahra. Leif had insisted the groups be decided by the children, letting them pick someone to lead while the rest would come along to keep them safe. Both Dorias and August had questioned the practically of this arrangement but were silenced by glares from Leif, the Magi Squad, and Eyvel.

Rosa held Olwen’s hand as she led them through the forest, the young woman smiling as she listened to Rosa’s stories of the adventures she’d had in these woods. It was a sweet scene but tainted with melancholy for Eyvel, reminding her too acutely of being in a similar situation years ago. That weight in her chest came back as she tried to push down the pain she’d been carrying since Manster.

“Was this really necessary? It seems rather excessive lengths to go to for simply returning children to their homes,” Selfina said, voice slightly softer than a normal to keep the question between herself and Eyvel.

Eyvel smiled wryly, the heaviness in her chest growing. “It is but it’s for their sake. Letting them make choices, especially ones concerning themselves, and going along with what they ask for makes them feel like they’re in control. If they’re in control, they won’t be hurt again and can start to trust again, open up instead of letting the memories trap them in that dark place.”

Selfina’s expression softened. “You sound as if you have experience with this.”

“Too much,” Eyvel agreed, “The boy behind us, Halvan, he and his little sister showed up in Fiana after their parents were killed. They spent a month wandering until they found their way to us. Little Nan cried every day and wouldn’t leave her father’s side when I first took them in. And Ma-” Eyvel had to pause, her daughter’s name getting caught in her throat. She thought it would get easier with time but it was the opposite. She could understand too well why it had taken Finn so long to say Leif’s name back in Fiana.

“Mareeta had been taken by slavers, about to be sold off when I found her. She could barely say more than her name after I freed her and brought her back to Fiana. It took half a year of treating her just like we’re treating these children before she was smiling and laughing like a little girl should,” Eyvel continued.

“Is Mareeta your daughter?” Selfina asked gently, sensing this was a sensitive subject.

Eyvel nodded. “Not by blood but that didn’t matter to either of us. It didn’t matter with Nanna or Halvan either. I have no memories from before a decade ago but everytime I look at a child like them, I can feel I went through something similar. Maybe that has something to do with my memories, maybe not. All I know is I can’t stand to see such hollow eyes on such small faces.”

“When I was little, I idolized Lady Ethlyn,” Selfina said, “She seemed like the perfect mother, still doting on Princess Altena even while carrying Prince Leif, handling everything for tantrums to bad dreams. Princess Altena was quite jealous when Prince Leif came along and took up so much of her mother’s time but Lady Ethlyn handled that with ease as well.” It seemed Eyvel wasn’t the only one struggling with reliving past memories as Selfina paused to clear her throat. “When Prince Leif came to Alster, I tried to fill the hole Lady Ethlyn had left but I don’t think I did a very good job. I lost my patience with him constantly and it was always Finn he’d run to for anything.”

“It’s not easy, being a mother. But it’s the most rewarding thing in the world to watch a child grow up happy and strong,” Eyvel said, “And you must have done well enough for him to come running as soon as he heard who was at the villa.”

Selfina had a look of pride as she blushed, the look only lasting a moment before concern replaced it. Following her gaze, Eyvel found the bridge to the other side of the river was lifted. Remembering what Finn told her about the one in Noel Canyon, she hurried over to the side to look for a keyhole.

“Lara,” she called, the girl already pulling out her lockpicks as she ran to Eyvel’s side. She made quick work of it, fingers dancing through the motions as gracefully as she had last night. Once finished, she twirled the lockpicks around her finger, letting Eyvel see they were the ones she had found in the prison. Smiling softly, Eyvel gave her a pat on the head, apparently the desired response as Lara beamed back.

“I’m starting to think you’re trying to adopt the entire army,” Selfina said as she turned the winch.

Eyvel chuckled. “Maybe I will,” she said, teasingly eyeing Lara. Selfina let out a breathy laugh as both sides of the bridge connected and Olwen and Rosa started leading the group across. Eyvel waited for Selfina before crossing. “Most folks here don’t have a mother anyway and gods know they need one.”

“I have a mother.” The women turned around to see Ronan staring solemnly at the ground.

“And a father too, both of whom love you very much,” Eyvel said, expression softening to sympathy. “That’s more than anyone else here can say. You’re probably the luckiest boy in the army.”

“Lucky,” Ronan repeated, frowning. “I never thought it was anything special, they were always just there.”

“We rarely know how lucky we are until we lose what we had,” Selfina said, tone making Eyvel want to reach out and comfort the other woman. She settled for a light squeeze of her arm and sympathetic smile.

“Ma didn’t want me to even fight Lifis and his thugs, she’d probably be crying if she knew where I was, what I’ve been doing. If I’m lucky to have her and Pa then I spit all over that when I walked away without sparing a thought for them,” Ronan said, regret written all over his face.

“You can always go home, no one will blame you if you do,” Eyvel assured him.

Ronan shook his head. “I- No, I can’t go home, not now, not when I know what the Empire’s doing. They need to be stopped. I just- I feel like I’m the most ungrateful son for leaving my parents like that.”

“Then make it up to them by coming home alive,” Eyvel said, “There’s nothing that could make them hap-” 

“Lady Eyvel? Is something wrong?” Selfina asked, concerned by her unfinished sentence but Eyvel had no attention to spare for anything besides the most unexpected, wonderful sight she’d ever seen. Begging for this to be real, she called out.

“Mareeta?” That weight in her chest disappeared as her daughter turned and looked at her, surprise and joy lighting up her face as she ran towards Eyvel.

“Mother!” Eyvel met her daughter halfway, pulling her into an embrace that was perhaps too tight. But Mareeta voiced no complaint as she held on just as tightly, shoulders shaking as she hid her tears in her mother’s shoulder. Eyvel let hers fall freely, too grateful for their reunion to care what anyone thought.

“M-Mother, I’m so sorry… I… I…” Mareeta tried to apologize, struggling to get the words out around her tears.

Eyvel shook her head, rubbing small circles against Mareeta’s back to try and calm her down, just as she had when she was little and plagued by nightmares of being put in chains again. “Shhh, it’s alright, sweet pea, it’s alright. You have nothing to be sorry for, you hear me? You did nothing wrong and nothing that happened back there was your fault. Anyone would have fallen under that damn sword’s curse. But it’s over now, we’re far away from Raydrik and I’ll never let him or anyone else take you away again!” she promised.

Mareeta lifted her head to look at her mother, lip trembling as she smiled, regretful and adoring at the same time. Eyvel cupped her face, wiping away her daughter’s tears with her thumbs. “I thought I’d never see you again. When I woke up, I had no idea where I was, where you were, what had happened to you and Nanna,” Mareeta said. She suddenly looked around, as if just realizing they weren’t alone. “Where is Nanna? And who are these people? How are you even here?”

“It’s quite the story,” Eyvel chuckled, “I’ll tell you as much as I can before the others arrive.”

“Others?” Mareeta repeated, “There’s more?”

“There are. There’s one in particular I think you’ll be very eager to meet,” Eyvel said with a smile, breaking the hug but keeping one arm wrapped around her daughter’s waist as they walked to the village together

The little boy, Peter, was still carrying the vulnerary Leif had given him, although it was now empty. While Leif hated that he had been right, at least Peter had taken it instead of trying to tough it out. Still, Leif kept an eye on him as they walked, in case it hadn’t been enough.

“You only answered one of my questions back in the canyon,” Dorias said, eyeing Leif expectantly, “Don’t think I’ve forgotten simply because our conversation was derailed.”

“That’s a funny way t’ say you got yer ass handed t’ ya by that little lad,” Dagdar said.

“Papa! Peter’s right there,” Tanya scolded, glancing at the little boy.

“Oh right, uh, now don’t go ‘round sayin’ that word I just said, ya hear me lad?”

“Which word?” Peter asked. Dagdar paled as Tanya snickered.

“Uh, second thought, best ya forget anythin’ I say. Gone a bit funny in th’ head in my old age,” Dagdar said. Peter looked confused but nodded.

“No one allowed us to go,” Leif said. “It was my order, the only one you should be mad at is me.”

Tanya scowled. “You’d better not be mad at him! What’s so wrong about saving children and taking out an enemy fort without risking a single soldier? With that and the ballistae, he probably saved half the army’s lives!”

“What’s so wrong about that, young lady, is Prince Leif is supposed to be our leader. We need him to lead, not run off on these self-appointed missions in the shadows,” Dorias said, narrowing his eyes to a glare. “And he did risk a single soldier, himself.”

“It’s better this way,” Leif said, barely able to pay attention to the conversation. These may not have been the woods he ran through when he fled Tahra but they were the same kind of tree, just as close together, roots making similar obstacles across the path. He’d tripped several times in the dark but kept getting back up to continue running, determined to get as far away as he could from everyone he cared about. Now he was coming back with all of them by his side again. Almost all of them. That strange feeling he’d had when he read Linoan’s name, heard Nanna call his name, saw Finn standing on the other side of the road came back.

“Better this way?” Dorias repeated. “How can you say such a thing!? Your survival is paramount, without you, this army is nothing! All hope of reclaiming our homeland would be lost! Besides, what of House Leonster? You said you wanted to rebuild it, turn it into a house more inline with your own priorities.”

“I never said that, Nanna did,” Leif corrected, “I hadn’t thought of it before. I hadn’t thought about anything that far ahead. All I wanted to do was destroy the Empire. I never thought about anything beyond that.”

Silence fell over the group, all three adopting similar solemn expressions. Tanya was the first to speak, moving between Dorias and Leif as if to shut the adults out of their conversation. The closeness made Leif tense, evidently a visible reaction as Tanya moved slightly ahead to give him more space.

“Papa was the same when I was little, never coming up with a plan for anything more than a week ahead. He was too focused on surviving and not getting caught to think about the future. Then Eyvel came along and beat some sense into his. I remember her shouting at him for doing all this while dragging along a child, asking him if this was the sort of life he wanted for his daughter. That was the first time I saw him cry,” Tanya said, Dagdar turning his head away in shame.

“But he took her words to heart. He gave up being a bandit and started trying to find a better way to support our men. It’s harder but I couldn’t be prouder of him,” Tanya said, turning to her father. He pulled Tanya into his side, face red as he squeezed her shoulder and she wrapped her arms around him.

“Your friend mentioned you’ve been doing this longer than anyone else. How long is that?” Dorias asked, tone gentler now.

“Since I found out about the child hunts.” Dorias frowned at the vague answer but recognized it was as good as he was going to get.

“You can’t have been very old. You’re still so young,” Dorias said, the setting sun making him look very old. “This is no way for the prince of House Leonster to live.”

“It’s no way for anyone to live,” Leif said, the village coming into view. He watched Peter run towards it, calling for his mother. “That’s why I had to do it.”

“Fer being Finn’s boy, yer not bad. I half ‘spected you to be some bratty little snot ‘fore I met ya,” Dagdar said.

Dorias chuckled. “Sir Finn has never been the most approachable person but I’m curious to hear what he did to give you that impression.”

Dagdar grinned wickedly, about to launch into what would most likely be unflattering stories about Finn, when a voice called out from back in the woods.

“Look alive, lads! Seems some fresh game ‘ave wandered our way!”

“Bandits,” Dorias said distastefully.

“I’ve got them.” Leif drew his sword and tried to make his way back into the forest when Dorias held out his arm to stop him.

“Let someone else handle this. That boy’s parents should meet their son’s savior,” Dorias said. His expression softened. “I know I would want to if that was Selfina.”

“They will. Whatever I’ve accomplished, I owe to you and Finn. I wouldn’t be here without your sacrifices,” Leif said.

Dorias’ eyes started to glisten as he cleared his throat. “Finn doesn’t want you in battle. But he never said anything about taking out vermin. Go on, but take care. The rest of us are exhausted. We’ll send some of the others to assist when we see them so until then, try not to act too rashly, milord.”

Leif nodded and took off, leaving the path to hide his approach. That would likely be where the bandits were as well.

He was proven right when he noticed a bandit with his back to a tree, peering around the side to check the road. Before he could turn back around, Leif stabbed him in the gut, twisting his blade before pulling it down as far as he could. The bandit slid down the tree before flopping forward, Leif stepping back just enough to avoid the bandit’s face falling on his foot.

The bandits were annoyingly spread out, Leif having to go further into the forest to find the rest of them. By the time he’d taken out five of them, night had fallen, making the forest feel even more like the one Leif had run through when he escaped Tahra. He could almost smell the smoke, hear the tolling bells warning of an invasion, a desperate attempt to keep people out of the streets as a city was torn apart in search of one boy. How well had it worked? How many people had he killed by bringing the Empire to their city then running away, leaving them to deal with the fall out?

He was pulled from his thoughts by an arrow sinking into his shoulder. Before he could turn around, a malice filled voice stopped him.

“This is certainly a welcome surprise. It’s been too long, Prince Leif.” The last sentence was punctuated with another arrow to Leif’s opposite shoulder. Each left a light itch, alerting Leif to their poison. One more landed in Leif’s side before he turned around to look at his attacker. A hateful glare consumed the once kindly face of Gunna, the former bishop of Frest who stepped down to let his son take the position, the same son that had taken in Leif and whose own son was wandering these same woods.

“You look like shit,” he spat.

“Gunna,” Leif said, struggling to understand what was going on. What was Gunna doing here and why was he being shot by him? He was a good hunter but preferred magic in a fight.

“So you do recognize me, good. I must admit, I hardly recognized you. But at least you finally look like the beast you are,” he snapped, firing another arrow at Leif. Leif dove out of the way but the poison and his confusion disoriented him, losing his balance and landing on all fours. As he tried to stop the world spinning, he was grabbed by the back of his shirt and forced up, onto his knees.

“What…Frest,” Leif tried to ask but his head was still spinning. Gunna seemed to know what he was trying to ask as his scowl deepened.

“When you got away, the Empire took it out on us! They occupied Frest and made each of us pay compensation for wasting their time. They took our children, dozens of innocents carted off to be sacrificed to their dark god. You were their age yet you got to run off without a scratch while they all died. How the hell is that fair?!”

So that’s what happened to Frest. Finn refused to tell Leif or Asbel after they left, no matter how many times they asked. Now he knew why. His chest tightened at the thought of all the children he’d killed by running away, by coming to Frest at all.

“With Bloom’s rule and all the memories, it was too painful to stay in Frest. I left and joined with these bandits. They were in need of a healer so they welcomed me. I’ve spent these past eight years learning from them, dreaming of the day I could hunt down the beast that destroyed my family and home,” he said, “You should have never come to Frest, none of this would have happened if you hadn’t! My son would still be alive, I’d know where my grandson is, and Frest would still be free!”

There was the sound of a knife being unsheathed, appearing in front of Leif a few seconds later. Gunna let it linger a moment so Leif could see the faint purple tinge.

“Don’t worry, it’s not enough to kill you, don’t want you getting out of this easy. You don’t deserve that,” he hissed. He raised the knife beyond Leif’s eyeline, the cold metal making contact with his temple. “What was that Asbel said? Princes are supposed to have a crown? I’ll give you a crown.”

The blade began to move across Leif’s forehead. He closed his eyes as the blood fell down his face. He was right, Leif deserved this. Not just for Frest, for Alster and Tahra and Leonster as well. Everywhere he’d gone had suffered because of him. How could he be so naive to believe he could build something good when all he’d made so far was people like this, places like Frest?

“G-Grandf-father? W-What are you d-doing?”

No. Not here, not now. Leif wanted to shout, tell Asbel to run, to get as far away from here as he could. But nothing could get past the lump in his throat.

“Asbel? You’re alive?” Gunna said, joy sounding odd. “Oh thank the gods, I’ve been worrying about you for years! None of us knew what happened to you after you disappeared with this cowardly parasite.”

“He’s not- Lord Leif protected me, he’s not a coward! Let him go! Why are you doing this?” Although there was still a tremble of fear in his voice, Asbel’s anger had taken over.

“Why? Do you know all the suffering he’s caused? Your father, my son is dead because of him! He was charged with treason and beheaded! They hung his corpse outside the gates for weeks to remind all of us what happens when you help the prince. You should hate him just as much as the rest of us!”

Asbel didn’t need to hear this. He knew his father had died so Leif could escape, he didn’t need to know what happened to him afterwards. But Gunna was right, Asbel should hate Leif. He’d cost him everything, just because he wanted to be friends. Asbel had just as much of a right to be the one holding the knife.

“Asbel, what’s all that shouting?”

No. No. Not him too. Not Finn, anyone but him. Leif tried to move but his body wouldn’t cooperate, the poison rooting him in place. He couldn’t even open his eyes to silently beg for them to leave him.

“What’s- What the hell is this? Unhand Lord Leif at once!” Finn sounded furious, as mad as he’d been when Leif jumped in front of the ballistae. 

“Finn, you of all people should understand. You’ve dragged this worthless brat across Thracia for years, no one’s lost more because of him! You and your daughter deserve better than lugging this trash around to whoever’s stupidly sympathetic enough to take him in.”

He was right, Finn and Nanna did deserve better. They deserved to have a home, to still be with Lady Lachesis. They should have gone with her to Isaach, found Nanna’s brother and been a family. Instead she left on her own because Finn was obligated to take care of Leif. He’d torn their family apart, they all deserved to hate him.

“I won’t repeat myself. Unhand Lord Leif at once,” Finn growled. 

There was a sigh and the knife at Leif’s temple was removed. “Your loyalty is truly remarkable. If only you’d given it to someone who deserves it.”

“There is no one more deserving than Lord Leif.”

“You can’t seriously believe that. This kid has been the Empire’s free pass to walk all over us! They burned Leonster, occupied Frest, invaded Tahra, Alster is being armed to the teeth right now because he popped up in Manster! How can you call him your prince when he’s done nothing for Thracia?!”

“Frest’s occupation is your own fault,” Finn snarled, “The Empire would have never come if you hadn’t told them we were there.”

“We wouldn’t have had to if he didn’t come in the first place! We only informed them because we thought it would be better to hand him over than to get caught and punished. But because he got away, we suffered anyway. They took our children, they killed my son! I told him he was a fool for taking you in and I was right. I’ll never forget having to walk under his headless corpse everytime I left the village.”

“You deserve it,” Finn said, tone as cold as his words. Leif felt the fist holding the back of his shirt tighten.

“I was gonna let you walk away. You’re a good man Finn, I don’t want to fight you. But you’re giving me no choice,” Gunna sighed, “Asbel, get out of here. You don’t need to see this.”

“N-Not without Lord Leif! Grandfather, please, d-don’t do this!” Asbel begged, sounding near tears.

Leif was roughly tossed aside, the arrow in his side snapping as he landed. His head was pounding, the poison filling it with a haze. He tried to find something, anything to focus on.

A bowstring was pulled back and Leif’s heart started racing. His arrows were poisoned. If he hit either of them, they wouldn’t be able to fight back for very long. They shouldn’t be hit with anything, poisoned or not. This wasn’t their fight, they shouldn’t be here. They were not going to die because of Leif. 

It felt as if he were pushing against a boulder as he forced himself to stand, eyelids like lead as he forced them open. “Don’t… touch them.”

Everyone turned to look at him, horrified looks on all their faces but there was only one Leif cared about. He lunged at Gunna, knocking him down. Barely able to keep himself up, Leif wrapped his hands around the man’s neck and squeezed as hard as he could. He had no idea if it was even enough to be felt but he had to do something. He couldn’t let him hurt Finn and Asbel.

“They did nothing... They don’t deserve this... It’s my fault, do what you want to me but don’t touch them!” Leif managed to force the words out as spots began to fill his vision. He wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer. He tried to squeeze harder, kill him while he still could. But he couldn’t feel his arms, he couldn’t feel anything. The world was becoming a blur as the haze in his mind consumed everything except his need to protect them. He had to protect them. He had to.

But he couldn’t. His arms gave out as he fell to the side, arrows going in deeper as he landed on his back. The world had gone dark before his eyes closed, leaving him with a single thought before he lost consciousness.

I failed you.

As soon as Leif’s eyes shut, so did something in Finn. He’d been accused of being single minded before and that had never been more true than now.

The man from Frest, Finn didn’t remember or care who the hell he was, shakily sat up, staring at Leif in horror. “Mad ba-” he started to say but never had a chance to finish as Finn slammed the end of his lance down on the man’s forehead. He cried out in pain as he rolled to the side. It would be easy to kill him right now. But Finn didn’t want this to be easy.

Tossing his lance aside, he grabbed the man by the collar of his shirt and forced him up. He staggered to his feet, only remaining on them for a moment before Finn did something he had never done before. With as much force as he could, he punched the man, fist making contact just above his jaw. This wasn’t knightly behavior but he didn’t care. He had never been angrier in his entire life and this man represented everything that had made him that way. He had been trying to keep it down for weeks but he couldn’t take it anymore.

Ever since Leif had come back, he’d shown no care for his own wellbeing. He threw his life around without a care, taking risks that terrified Finn and pushing himself past the point he needed to. Yet he refused to let anyone else do the same, rejecting protection or help with the claims he didn’t need or deserve it. Something had convinced him this was right and Finn wanted to strangle whatever that was.

For now, he’d settle for the man who reinforced those thoughts.

How many times had Leif heard people make the same claims? Wasn’t it enough for them to expect him to liberate an entire country, they had to blame him for everything that happened in the meantime as well? What the hell did they think a prince was? He was a boy, a boy with no parents and no home and the people expected him to do everything for them. If they thought leading a resistance was so easy, why didn’t they get up off their asses and do it themselves!?

Don’t try to protect me. Swear you won’t throw your life away for something so pointless.

Damn everyone who had convinced him his life wasn’t worth protecting.

If they were focused on me, no one else would be in danger.

Damn everyone who wanted him to put his life on the line for them.

It wasn’t serious or the worst I’ve had.

Damn anyone who’d ever hurt him, everyone responsible for the scars he was covered in.

Do what you want to me but don’t touch them!

Damn everyone that had ever touched him, whoever had made him so afraid to be touched that Leif ran from him.

“F-Finn… Finn!”

Hearing Asbel’s panicked call snapped Finn back. The man he was holding was bloodied and wheezing. Startled by what he’d done, Finn let go, letting the man fall to the ground as he turned toward Asbel.

Asbel was kneeling over Leif, clutching his staff with a terrified look. “I-I can’t… I don’t…” he choked out. A chill ran through Finn as he realized what Asbel was trying to say.

Rushing over as quickly as he could, Finn knelt down on the other side of Leif. His face was completely covered in blood, his own blood. It almost hid the faint purple tinge to the cut across his forehead. His stomach knotted. They needed to get him out of here right now.

Arms shaking, Finn reached under Leif’s shoulders to lift him up, throat constricting when his arm fell limply. Asbel made a small whimper as Finn steeled himself and slid his other arm behind Leif’s knees. He stood slowly, pulling Leif in tighter to his chest. If he was conscious, he’d be pushing himself away, trying to get as far away from Finn as he could. Finn had never wanted that more than right now.

As fast as he dared, Finn took off, paying no attention to how far or close behind Asbel was. The only thing that mattered was getting across the river before he lost Leif for good this time. He couldn’t tell if his chest was moving and didn’t dare move his hands to check for a heartbeat. Leif had to be alive. He had to be. He’d just come back.

As they neared the mansion, he noticed Eyvel and Mareeta sitting on the steps. Eyvel looked up, expression quickly turning to horror as she leapt to her feet. She said something to Mareeta who nodded and ran towards the village.

“Salem,” she said, turning to a man in the mansion doorway. Finn pulled Leif closer when he saw the black robes of a Loptyrian. But the man didn’t attack, nodding at Eyvel before motioning for them to follow.

“My tent is in the back. Trust me, you don’t want to bring him inside,” he said as he started running around the mansion. With no better options and having wasted enough time, Finn followed.

The tent was barely big enough to fit the three of them but there were already healing supplies, someone clearly having been taken care of not long ago. For a moment, Finn didn’t want to let Leif go. He wasn’t heavy and as long as Finn had him, no one else could hurt him. But Finn knew even less about healing than Asbel. Gently as he could, he lay Leif down on the cot as August joined them.

“Gods above,” he breathed, taking a moment to take in the sight before recovering and pushing past to Leif’s side. As soon as he noticed the purple tinge around the cut on his forehead, he pulled out his staff and started working on removing the poison. It felt like an eternity before the purple tinge slowly began to recede, leaving an angry red line across his forehead.

“Where else?” August asked. When he received no response, August repeated the question with more force, “Finn, where else?”

“He was shot twice in the back. And his right side. That’s all I know about but…” Finn didn’t have to finish as August nodded and carefully began to turn Leif over. 

“Finn, what happened?” Eyvel asked in a small voice. She looked just as terrified as he felt. Finn didn’t know where to begin. He barely understood what had gone on. All he could think about was Leif standing there, blood running down his face as he demanded Finn and Asbel be left alone.

“Can’t see a damn thing,” August grumbled as he reached for his dagger to cut Leif’s shirt off. He paused as he began pulling it off, a disgusted shock spreading across his face before he quickly rose and turned around. “Get out. Now.”

“What? Why- What the hell are those?!” Finn demanded, catching a glimpse at what had agitated August. 

“I told you to get out. Eyvel,-”

“Answer the damn question! What the hell-”

Both men were silenced as Eyvel pulled them down by their ears, glaring furiously at them.

“This isn’t helping!” she snapped. She focused her glare on Finn first. “Finn, you need to calm down. But I’m guessing you won’t be able to until August gives us some answers.” With that, her glare shifted to the former priest. 

“You are going to answer all of my questions after you finish taking care of Lord Leif. No more of this ‘it’s best you don’t know’ bullshit!” she snarled when August tried to speak, “Finn’s already seen whatever this is, you may as well explain it.”

Both men nodded and were released. August went back to Leif’s side, trying to remove the arrows as delicately as he could. Salem watched gravely before kneeling by Leif’s side to remove the remainder of the arrow there. Finn heard him muttering something, panicked at the thought of what the Loptyrian could be doing to Leif but as he listened closer, realized he was apologizing.

After the arrows were removed, August grabbed his staff to heal Leif, closing his wounds but unable to do anything about the small yet wide scars each left behind. Finn felt sick thinking of how much poison must have been running through Leif. How had he even been able to move?

As August worked on Leif, Salem turned to Finn. He looked down at his bloodied knuckles and his shirt darkened with blood. How much of it was Leif’s and how much was the other mans? He wasn’t sure but none of it was his own. A shake of his head sent Salem away as August finished and carefully turned Leif over onto his back.

“Start talking. Now,” Eyvel said, command soft but forceful.

August sighed. “I’ll start with the worst,” he said, slowly pulling Leif’s arm out of his sleeve.

Running down his arms from just below his wrists to the edge of his shoulder were deep red lines branching out like roots of a plant. These weren’t normal scars, they seemed as if they were part of his skin, as if they had been caused by something inside him.

“That smaller magic method he’s been teaching Asbel? This is what that looks like when you hold onto someone and use it with thunder magic,” August explained, “It’s rarely done, thunder magic is the most finicky and even if you’re good at it, you could easily use too much and stop their heart or lock them inside their own minds.”

“Did this happen tonight?” Eyvel asked, force gone but voice still soft.

Although the question was addressed to Finn, August answered it. “No, they’re old. They’ve grown with him. A fair bit too.” 

Every word that came out of August’s mouth was worse than the last. It was becoming hard to stay standing. Finn stared at Leif’s arms. No one had said the word but they all knew what August meant. 

“This was from magic as well, although it may not be as bad,” August said, indicating the large burn along Leif’s left side.

“May not be as bad?” Finn repeated, anger from before stirring again. “What the hell makes you say that?”

“It may have been self-inflicted.” At Finn’s glare he quickly added. “Look, there’s another scar right at the center. He may not have had a staff or didn’t know how to use them yet and this was the best he could do. It was this or bleed out.”

“It was.” Everyone turned to see Salem back at the entrance to the tent, a bowl of water and clean rag in his hands. “I saw him, at least, I’m fairly sure it was him. It was several years ago.”

“You saw him do this?” Eyvel asked.

Salem shook his head. “I saw him after he had. I was travelling with some other members of the Loptyrian cult to… to collect the children that were being held for us. We were passing a valley and when I looked down, I noticed a boy lying on the ground, a fresh burn on his side, bloodied arrow and fire tome next to him. He wasn’t moving so I thought the burn had killed him. I remember thinking what a waste then being horrified at myself for doing so.”

If he was trying to earn their sympathy, it wasn’t working on Finn. Eyvel saved him from acting on his anger by stepping forward to take the bowl and rag.

“Is that why you left?”

“... Among other things, yes. This is not the way the cult of Loptyr should be,” he said.

August raised an eyebrow at this. “I believe Loptyr would disagree.”

“If you allow me to join you, I’ll have plenty of time to explain it to you,” Salem offered. His expression fell before he continued. “Please, allow me to atone for my years of complicity and cowardice.”

“No,” Finn said, glaring at the man.

“We’ll leave that up to Prince Leif,” Eyvel said, scolding Finn with a look before returning her attention to Salem. “He has some strong feelings on the child hunts so I can’t make any promises. But he’s made allies of enemies before.”

Salem nodded, glancing warily at Finn again. “I should inform Perne I may be leaving his company. If you’ll excuse me,” he said, trying to appear as if he wasn’t intimidated as he hurried away.

Eyvel sighed as she set the bowl down on a table within arm’s reach of the cot. “You really are tougher than most, Little Lord,” she said, pulling the chair away from the table to place it by the cot. “But no one should have to be this tough.”

“I’ll do it,” Finn said as Eyvel reached back to wet the rag. From her expression, she had been expecting this as she stood and handed him the rag. He took her seat as Eyvel dragged August out with her.

“Mareeta, can you come here for a moment?” He heard Eyvel call out to her daughter, almost hiding how shaken she was.

Finn dipped the rag in the bowl of water, some of the blood coming off his own hand. He had almost beaten a man to death tonight. He hadn’t even thought about it. What’s more, he couldn’t even say he regretted it or that he was ashamed of his actions. Maybe he should be but that part of him that had closed still hadn’t opened up again.

Gently as he could, Finn began wiping the blood from Leif’s face, the water becoming murky before he was halfway done. The light rise and fall of his chest assured Finn that Leif was still here but he would breathe much easier when Leif finally woke. He’d wait up all night if he had to, just as he had before.

Outside Alster, 765

It was the third night and Leif’s fever still hadn’t broken.

They had left Alster barely a week ago and Finn had no idea what to do. Lachesis wasn’t with them anymore and there were no towns around to ask for help. Even if there were, tensions were high after the Leonster nobles’ plan to assassinate Bloom was uncovered. House Friege wanted retribution and what better could they get than killing Leonster’s prince?

Finn replaced the wet rag on Leif’s forehead with a new one. Lady Ethlyn had done something similar when Altena was sick, he hoped it would help or at least make Leif feel a little better. Leif had spent the past three days shivering despite being burning to the touch, so exhausted he could barely keep his eyes open and struggled for breath. He was absolutely miserable and Finn felt awful not being able to do anything about it.

Finn buried his head in his hands, exhaustion threatening to keep his eyes shut if he closed them. This was not something he’d ever expected to be asked to do when he became a knight. He was supposed to be aiding Lord Quan and Lady Ethlyn, not raising their child. Leif should be properly taken care of in his home by his parents, not laying on the ground in the middle of nowhere with only Finn’s flimsy attempts at care.


Finn’s head shot up. Leif was staring blearily back at him, trying to push himself up into a sitting position. Quickly, Finn reached out to help him, catching the rag as it fell from Leif’s forehead.

“How are you feeling, Lord Leif?” he asked, raising a hand to Leif’s forehead. His cheeks were still rosy and his skin warm to the touch but this was the first time he’d been lucid in days.

“You look funny,” Leif said. Finn’s momentary relief quickly vanished. Had his fever gotten worse and he’d gone delirious? How would Finn explain to him the things he was seeing weren’t really there? 

As Finn silently panicked, Leif reached up and touched under Finn’s eye. “You have these weird things under your eyes."

Finn couldn’t help smiling, Leif tilting his head in confusion at his reaction. “They’re nothing. They merely mean I’m tired," he explained.

“Then why are you still awake?” 

He must be feeling better if he was already asking questions. “I wanted to make sure you were alright."

“I’m fine, now go to sleep Finn!” Leif said, trying to imitate Finn’s stern expression and tone. It didn’t work but Finn played along.

“Very well,” Finn agreed, amused by how Leif’s face lit up at his agreement. Leif laid back down, still smiling as he snuggled into his blanket. Finn stared at Leif for a moment, his content expression as he curled towards Finn. He may not know what he was doing but if he could be responsible for that smile, he must be doing something right.

Leif opened his eyes again, blinking owlishly at Finn. Finn had never expected to be in this position but he had to admit, there were times when it wasn’t so bad.

“Good night Lord Leif,” Finn said, letting Leif’s smile back be the last thing he saw before he closed his eyes. Just before he drifted off, he felt a small, warm body curl up against his chest. Smiling softly, he wrapped his arm around it.

"Good night Finn," Leif whispered back as Finn fell into his most peaceful sleep in weeks.


Blood wiped away, this was the most peaceful Leif had looked in weeks, not glaring or staring with dead eyes. He was only ever angry or empty anymore and Finn was finally starting to understand why.

He didn’t need August to explain any of the other scars to him, he had enough of his own. The one under Leif’s collarbone, the one he’d shown to that little girl, that was a lance wound if Finn had ever seen one. It went through his chest, the entrance wound a little lower on the other side of his back. Someone had tried to impale Leif in the heart. They were barely an inch from succeeding. How many more times had Leif almost died that he didn’t know about?

He shouldn’t do this. Leif would not be okay with it if he was conscious. But Finn needed this. He reached out, gently lifting Leif into a sitting position before wrapping his arms around him in an embrace.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Chapter Text

At dawn, Eyvel forced Finn to leave Leif’s side.

“Do you really want him to wake up to you looking like this?” she asked, glancing at his bloodstained clothes, “Come back after you’ve washed up and found something a bit cleaner to wear. You should probably have something to eat as well.”

When Finn hesitated, Eyvel’s expression softened. “He’s not going anywhere,” she promised, “Asbel said the last thing he did was try to protect you. I’d bet there’s nothing he wants more than to know both of you are safe.”

Loathe as he was to admit it, she had a point. He didn’t want the first thing Leif saw to be his blood all over Finn. Reluctantly Finn went to the village to find someone to borrow a shirt from before heading to the lake to wash the now dried blood off himself.

As he changed, he couldn't help staring at his own scars. He had been a knight longer than Leif had been alive and his body wasn’t nearly as wrecked as Leif’s. What would he look like when he was Finn’s age? For a horrible moment, he wondered if Leif would even reach his age.

This had to stop. He was the Prince of Leonster, the Liberation Army needed him to live if they were going to succeed. Thracia needed him to live if they were going to be free of the Empire. Finn needed him to live for a slightly selfish reason.

Eyvel had suggested he have something to eat but Leif had missed supper last night as well. Come to think of it, he hadn’t joined them for a meal since returning. Perhaps Finn could use this as a sort of peace offering, a way to begin bridging the gap that had grown between them. It was only leftover soup but they had to start somewhere.

His idea received Eyvel's approval as she smiled at the bowls when she saw him approach the tent. Nudging the half-awake Mareeta leaning against her fully awake, she stood to open the tent and let Finn through. "Asbel and August went to find your lance and his sword. They should be back with them soon but I'll tell them to leave you two be," she said. Finn nodded gratefully and entered the tent.

Leif was awake, sitting on the cot with his knees pulled into his chest, head tilted downward to let his hair hide his face. He admitted to having been held captive before and Finn could almost see it, the defensiveness of his posture screaming of someone expecting to be hurt. Finn couldn’t help looking at his arms again, remembering those angry red marks covering them, proof his expectation wasn't unreasonable.

“I won’t talk about it.” Leif’s sudden statement caught Finn by surprise. He hadn’t realized Leif knew he was there, let alone knew what he was thinking about.

“August explained what they are,” Finn said, setting the bowls down on the table beside the cot. Leif seemed to curl in on himself even more at Finn's words.

“He shouldn’t have,” Leif said bitterly, “You don’t need to know that.”

Finn frowned. “I want to know this, I want to know as much as I can. Lord Leif, I know next to nothing about what you’ve been through. If I understood, I'd be better able to assist you. Please-”

“No,” Leif said, putting as much force behind the blunt word as possible. “All you'll do is blame yourself more.” He lifted his head to glare at Finn. “None of this is your fault. These are my choices, my mistakes. There is nothing you could have done.”

“I could have found you,” Finn said, guilt finally creeping into his words. “I should have found you, I never should have left Tahra without you.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Leif said, anger creeping into his, “I left. I didn’t want you to find me.”

“You what?” Of all the things Leif could have said, Finn never expected this. The shock left him numb, unsure how to feel or react to this revelation.

Just as quickly as it had come, Leif’s anger faded, leaving his eyes dull as he explained himself. “Soldiers mentioned the Duke was going to be executed for sheltering me and I- I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t watch anyone else sacrifice themself for me. Especially you.” Leif’s voice suddenly became very small as he dropped his gaze. “You’ve already given up so much for me, I couldn’t let you give your life as well. I’d rather go through everything again than let that happen.”

“I haven’t given up anything. Everything I did, I did because I believed it was the right thing to do,” Finn said, “These are my decisions and I don’t regret them.”

“That’s different. You had to, I was your obligation, your last order from Prince Quan. You only look after me to fulfill your duty."

He wasn’t entirely wrong. Finn had only been entrusted with Leif because of Quan and he had sworn to honor his fallen lord by raising Leif so he could one day fulfill his father’s dream. But that was only part of it, a part that had become smaller than Finn would like to admit. “Do you really think that’s all you are? After you left, I did nothing but look for you. Finding you was the only thing I wanted, the only thing I cared about. The only reason I stayed in Fiana was Eyvel promised the entire village would help look for you. Do you think I would do all that for something I thought was just an obligation?”

“Yes,” Leif's sincerity was made all the worse by meeting Finn’s eye as he spoke. “Why else would you put up with someone you hate?”

“... You think I hate you?” Finn barely managed to get the question out. Leif’s words were like a punch to the gut. He would have preferred that, he would have preferred being stabbed to how honestly Leif had said that. His confusion at Finn’s reaction only made it worse. He hadn’t even considered otherwise. “Lord Leif… I could never.”

“You wouldn’t come near me after Mount Violdrake. And back in the canyon, everything I did made you angry.”

It seemed both of them had misunderstood each other. Of course they had, they'd done almost nothing but fight since Leif came back. This was the closest they'd had to a civil conversation and even this started with arguing. There was no telling how long this momentary calm would last so Finn would have to make the most of it. “I thought you wanted me to stay away."

Leif frowned, looking down at the cot. “What I... I don’t-,” he struggled to find the words but he didn’t need them. Finn had seen this look a hundred times, one Leif had started making when he was learning to read and came across a word he hadn’t seen before. He was amazed such a childish thing remained.

“As for the canyon, I wasn’t angry at you, I was terrified by what you were doing. All the risks you took, how much you were trying to take on by yourself, I kept waiting for it to be too much,” Finn admitted. “That’s why I don’t want you in battle. You show so little care for your life, I worry you don’t care at all.”

“I know I could die,” Leif said, cutting right to what Finn didn’t want to say, “But I’ve been prepared for that since before I left. I don’t want to but I won’t let it stop me. I couldn’t protect anyone if I did.”

“You’d protect yourself.” Finn tried to keep his voice level, both because of how volatile Leif was and to hide how much he hated having to say this, that what was common sense to him was treated as the opposite by Leif.

“Too many people wasted their lives trying to protect me. I didn’t deserve it but if I can use my life to protect the people who do, at least their deaths won’t be completely pointless,” Leif reasoned.

Finn wanted to argue their deaths hadn’t been pointless but Leif had punched the last person who tried that. He wanted to make things better with Leif, not give him more reasons to push Finn away. It would be awhile before Finn could change his mind on this but perhaps he could convince him of something else.

“You tried to do that last night. Despite being injured and poisoned, you did everything you could to protect Asbel and myself. Allow me to express my gratitude," Finn said. He bent down on one knee and bowed his head, placing his right hand over his chest.

“When I became a knight, I swore fealty to your father. But I’ve never done that to you,” Finn explained, “Prince Leif, as long as there is breath left in my body, I will do all in my power to aid you in the pursuit of your ambitions, to uphold your beliefs and ideals, and to follow your every command. From this day forward, I shall always be at your side. My life, my loyalty, and my lance are yours. I pray they serve you well.”

“Finn.” Finn lifted his head at Leif’s voice, shocked by the profound sadness he was met with. “Don’t die.”

His first order was unsurprising but still sparked something warm in Finn. “Gladly, milord."

Despite Finn’s agreement, his sorrow didn’t fade. “I don’t deserve you.”

“There is no one more deserving than you,” Finn insisted.

Leif looked away, sadness disappearing as he started to retreat back into himself. “Dorias is right about me, I’m not a good leader or prince. And August is right about how I’ve gone too far-”

The entrance to the tent flew open and Leif quickly shifted himself into a crouch, raising a dagger Finn didn’t realize he had. A furious Asbel and startled August were revealed, the former priest glaring at the younger boy as he stalked over to Leif and Finn.

“I told you to stop being so stupid!” Asbel snapped at Leif as he lowered the dagger and relaxed into a kneeling position. His face gave nothing away as he opened his mouth but Asbel apparently knew what was coming as he cut Leif off. “And stop asking me if I’m alright! How can I be alright when you keep saying all this awful stuff about yourself? You’re the bravest an’ kindest an’ best person I know and you’ve never done anything wrong so stop acting like it!”

“You know that’s not true.”

“It is true and no one’s ever gonna change my mind!”

“Not even Gunna?” Asbel deflated slightly, gaze dropping to the ground. "I'm sorry about last night."

“He tried to kill you... and you’re the one apologizing? You shouldn’t be sorry, I’m the one who’s sorry. When I saw you I-I didn’t know what to do. I shoulda tried harder to stop him, tried to help you, I just- I don’t understand how he could say all that. The Empire’s the one that did all those awful things so why’d he keep blaming you?” Asbel asked.

Finn was very grateful August spoke before Leif could as he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what Leif thought of Gunna’s opinions. “Just as the nobility rarely understand the hardships of their people, the people rarely see nobility as more than their title. Nobles are the ones with power and the people expect that power to be used for their sake. The higher a noble’s rank, the more that is expected of them and Prince Leif is the highest ranking Thracian noble left. Just as the people expect he will be their salvation, until their suffering ends they will lay part of the blame with him.”

“Wha- But that’s not fair! How can they be so- so-” As Asbel strained to find the right word, the tent opened again.

“Because humans are inferior, flawed creatures by nature,” Salem answered.

Leif raised the dagger again, positioning himself as if about to pounce. He glared so hatefully at Salem, Asbel took a step back. “Get the hell away,” he growled.

“Prince Leif, I believe it would be worth your time to at least hear him out. He did help save your life,” August said, giving Leif a pointed look. After a moment, Leif resumed his kneeling position but still glared at Salem, white knuckled grip on the dagger.

“Your distaste is understandable. What the Loptyrian Cult has become is a disgrace, nothing like the one I was raised by,” Salem said, “The Loptyrian Cult was inspired by Loptyr for his unwavering pride and determination, refusing to surrender to an inferior species and proving himself to be correct when he so easily manipulated humanity for centuries. He is a reminder of humanity’s weakness as it took the intervention of the other gods to defeat him. We of the Loptyrian Cult believe humanity is born impure and pathetic but by following the teaching of Loptous, can prevent ourselves from falling victim to these flaws.”

“Is that why you take children?” Leif asked, “To remove the flaws as soon as possible?” The absolute anger in his words worried Finn he’d try to attack Salem if he didn’t like his answer.

“I… I told myself something along those lines when the child hunts started,” Salem admitted, “I would see the children brought to the temple and tell myself they were new disciples being brought to see the truth. Occasionally I would see a child again in the robes of Loptous, which allowed me to deceive myself longer. But it couldn’t last forever, I could either keep the lie or myself. I chose myself. And now, I offer myself to you.”

Throughout Salem’s entire explanation, Leif had remained completely still, making it impossible to tell what he was thinking when Salem finished. Silence fell as everyone waited for Leif’s response.

“You saved my life, I’ll spare yours,” he finally said, “But I want you to tell me everything about the Loptyrian Cult. I need to know as much as I can so I can finally crush them.”

Salem nodded, “Though it was once my home, I no longer understand the Order. They’ve become a corruption that must be purged from this world.”

“And get rid of those damn robes,” Leif snapped.

Salem chuckled softly as he looked down at himself. “Yes, I suppose my attire is no longer fitting. Perne should have some clothes I can borrow. Oh, speaking of,” Salem reached behind and unattached a scabbard from his belt. “When he heard you were here, he asked that I give you this. He says it’s a sword worthy of a king.”

“I’m not a king,” Leif said, eyeing the sword distastefully.

“Not yet,” August corrected, accepting the sword and laying it on the bed beside Leif. “Think of it as another expectation.”

Leif stared at the sword as Salem left. There seemed to be more to August’s words than Finn understood as Leif nodded and took the sword.

“At least you listen. That was better than expected but still far from acceptable,” August said, speaking as if Finn and Asbel weren’t there. “Remember what I told you about your actions. That is absolutely critical right now. This is your reintroduction to your people, if you do not earn their support now, we will have nothing. Our cause will fade into history, forgotten."

"You don't think I can," Leif deduced. His calm acceptance of August's lack of faith bothered Finn. He hated how easy it was to believe Leif might agree with him.

"I prefer to keep my expectations low in general. But you have surprised me before," August conceded. He glanced over at Finn. "Several times, in fact."

Although Finn was unsure what August was referring to, the first thing that came to his mind was the children at Dandrum Fortress. From the moment he arrived and watched Leif use the general's cape to shield them from the debris, he'd been amazed at how gentle Leif was with them, how vulnerable he was willing to be. That was more like the Leif he remembered, the boy he wished would come back. He had come back, Finn had just been too distracted by what was different to see what was still the same.

"I believe you'll be surprised again," Finn predicted, looking at Leif as he spoke, "Though I doubt I'll be."

There was a shift, a small change in Leif's expression that Finn realized was an attempt at a smile. It was far from one but even just a glimpse was enough for Finn. It was a start and certainly a better one than leftover soup. 

“My prince, take a gander just over those mountains. The road has been long, but may I present the city of Tahra!” Dorias said, practically preening. He was clearly enjoying being back in his homeland, the Leonster army and Leif at his side. But Leif couldn't share his excitement. Something about their surroundings was bothering him.

“Is that ballista abandoned?” Dorias tore his gaze away from the city to observe the ballista closest to them.

“That woman from the Empire mentioned the reinforcements called to Tahra had been cancelled. Have more been called back? But why in blazes would they do that?” Dorias wondered aloud.

Something was wrong. The Empire wouldn’t just give up on Tahra, not when they were so close to finishing off the city. This was the last city not under Empire control, the last large resistance left in Northern Thracia. The letter Leif had found at Kelves said they wanted to make an example of Tahra, to ensure no one ever rose up again. So why were there barely any soldiers left?

“We need to get to Tahra now,” Leif said, making to head for the city.

“I share your eagerness to reach Tahra but most of our men are not here yet! We should wait-” Dorias argued until Leif cut him off.

We don’t have time to wait, Leif wanted to snap. But he had to work on his manners. “If this is a trap, it would be better to take less people,” Leif reasoned. Dorias tried to speak again and Leif tried to only look forceful, not glare as he silenced him. “You want me to lead, so let me.”

August was giving him a bemused look but Dorias paused a moment before nodding in agreement. “Very well. We’ll bring the others as soon as they arrive. Hurry, we mustn’t let Tahra fall!”

Leif nodded and turned to the soldiers there. Seven may seem small to Dorias but it was the most Leif had led that were over the age of twelve. Hopefully they would be as cooperative. “Come on!” he called as he turned and ran for the field.

The ballista on the hill was indeed abandoned. What’s more, another ballista on the hill behind it had been abandoned as well. Their positioning would have trapped the army between the two, both too high up to be avoided or easily taken down. The setup was perfect, so why wasn't it being used? Everything about this was putting Leif on edge.

“If you see anything, say something!” he called back. It only took a moment for the sound of hooves to pick up and soon Selfina was by his side.

“Milord, over the city,” she said, looking towards Tahra. Leif followed her gaze to see several Dracoknights flying over Tahra. “In his last letter, Glade mentioned two Dracoknights joining him but from what I can see, there’s at least three.”

What were Dracoknights doing in Northern Thracia? They wouldn’t willingly assist the Empire, the two may be allies but they did not get along. Unless, some new agreement had been made while they had been travelling? The Empire had a lot to offer Southern Thracia and the Thracian Dracoknights were renowned mercenaries. Perhaps they’d be willing to set aside their pride in exchange for resources or even Tahra itself.

Speculation would have to wait for later as they had finally come across soldiers and a manned ballista next to one of the bridges to Tahra. The other bridge was only guarded by one armor knight and closer to the city but Leif had an idea for the former.

“Dagdar, Tanya, with me. Everyone else, get to Tahra.” He broke from the group as he headed toward the bridge by the ballista. It was pointed away from Tahra so they would have a little time after being noticed before they would be fired at. But they had to make sure it fired at them and not the others.

Dorias wouldn’t approve. But Dorias wasn’t here. Leif grabbed a rock, tossed it in the air, and sent it flying forward with a wind spell. It didn’t hit anyone but it startled the knights around the ballista as it smashed into a tree behind them.

“What the hell!? Shit, bandits! Hurry, turn that thing around!” one of the knights barked at the ballistician.

“Dagdar,” Leif said, turning to the man. He nodded and charged ahead of Leif and Tanya to engage the knight blocking the bridge. Guardian distracted, Leif and Tanya were able to cross and immediately had to dodge as they were fired on at almost point blank range. Leif heard Tanya cry out and quickly looked towards her. She hadn’t been directly hit but a large chunk of skin and a bit of flesh from her left arm had been taken off. Still, she drew her bow and fired at the nearest knight as he tried to approach.

The ballistician was trying to load the next bolt as quickly as he could. Leif ran forward, jumping on top of the ballista, much to the fright of the ballistician. He dropped his bolt and was promptly stabbed through the face as Leif leapt down onto him.

Grabbing the dropped bolt, Leif loaded it and tried to turn the ballista. It was heavy and hard to aim. He wasn’t sure he could hit the ballista by the mountains from here so instead, he aimed higher, striking the side of the mountain and letting the falling rock take care of it for him.

“Tanya, ya alright?” Dagdar called, tone thick with concern.

“Yeah,” Tanya said, though her voice was strained. She joined Leif by the ballista, clutching her bloodied arm and almost convincingly hiding how much pain she was in. Leif held out his staff, looking to her for permission before healing the wound. She smiled gratefully as she gingerly moved her arm.

“Thanks Leif,” she said. It took Leif a moment to process what she said before nodding and stepping aside.

“It’s yours.” Tanya’s surprise was quickly replaced with excitement as she approached the ballista, testing its movement.

“Best git back t’ th’ field. Looks like yer men ‘re gonna need ya soon,” Dagdar advice, drawing Leif’s attention to the road to Tahra. The Empire force stationed down the road had begun to move. “I’ll watch out fer Tanya. Go show ‘em where they can shove their ‘chivalric values’.”

Leif had the feeling Dagdar still didn’t know what that meant but nodded in agreement before taking off, heading for the road. He would have liked to run for the rise and use the height advantage to take the Imperial soldiers by surprise, but he had a feeling that wouldn't be approved of either. A knight's way of fighting was irritatingly restrictive.

He reached the road right before the foot of the slope leading to Tahra and stopped, taking note of the ballista on the hill across the road. As long as he stayed over here, he’d be out of range but if he went any further down the road, there would be no avoiding it. He had to keep the fighting up here but stop if from getting to Tahra.

“Prince Leif!” Selfina joined him, Nanna, Eyvel and Orsin at her side. “I’m glad you made it back in time! The others have just passed the mountains so it seems we’ll have to make due without them for a little longer. What are your orders?”

Leif paused a moment. “We need them to charge us. If they can be led away from Tahra, we can easily take them out.”

“And how do you intend to lead them away from Tahra?” Selfina asked suspiciously. “Prince Leif, you shouldn’t take any unnecessary risks.”

“It’s not unnecessary if it protects Tahra,” Leif argued, not allowing her to argue back before turning to Eyvel.

“After we lead the Imperial army away, bring down everyone else. Stay at the foot of Tahra unless any Imperial soldier tries to retreat,” Leif ordered. Eyvel nodded and hurried back towards Tahra. He turned towards those remaining. “When I come back, head left, toward the bridge you didn't cross.”

“Prince Leif-” Selfina tried to call out to him but he was already running towards the approaching battalion. He stopped several feet away and stood in the middle of the road.

“Get out of the way, boy!” a general snarled.

“Get out of my country, bastard,” Leif snapped, drawing his mother’s sword and lifting his chin to give the general a good look at him.

“No, you’re not- you are, aren’t you? Just like Raydrik said,” the general said in wonder. A maliciously gleeful grin split his face. “Forget Tahra, the glory I would get for bringing Bloom your head… I’d be the most respected officer in Friege! Men, seize Prince Leif!”

Leif ran, only looking back once to make sure they were following. That had worked even better than expected. At least all their soldiers were on foot so he didn’t have to worry about them catching up.

Selfina didn’t look pleased as he approached but followed his order and spurred her horse toward the bridge, Nanna following suit. Orsin waited for Leif to run beside him.

“Where’s Tanya?” he asked as they ran. “You took her with you but didn’t bring her back! She didn’t get into trouble, did she? Stupid kid’s always stickin’ her nose where it don’t belong!”

“Get down!” Orsin jumped at Tanya’s voice but quickly followed her order. A bolt flew out of the forest and right into the Imperial soldiers, impaling at least one and knocking several back.

“Holy shit,” Orsin whispered. A few seconds later a second bolt flew by, scattering the soldiers even more. Orsin was shaken from his shock when a mage raised their hand to cast a spell in the direction of the ballista. Despite the awkward angle, he managed to throw his axe and hit the mage square in the chest.

A burst of light magic bringing another soldier to his knees and two arrows quickly landing in the chest of another signaled Nanna and Selfina had joined the fight. Leif’s fire spell caught the next bolt on fire, eliciting a terrified shriek from one of the soldiers. He saw a few try to run away but Hicks and one of the knights from Tahra blocked their path. Dark magic from Salem made the general crumple.

“Damn… Raydrik. Your plan… cost me the glory…” the general wheezed.

Just the mention of Raydrik would have been enough to bring back Leif’s unease. He ran at the battalion, the final bolt flying close enough for the gust its’ trail created to blow his hair into his face. There were barely any soldiers left standing, three of whom ran into Leif’s path. Drawing the sword from Salem in his free hand, he stabbed two of them and pulled the swords through them into the third. They all fell, the middle soldier in two directions, as Leif hurried to the general's corpse and started going through his pockets.

“Prince Leif, what are you doing?” He ignored Selfina’s disapproving question as he cut open the general’s tunic to check the inner pocket. Just as he thought, there was a letter inside. It was brief but said enough to send Leif racing for Tahra, ignoring any of the calls behind him.

Raydrik was coming. And he would be leading the Schwarze Rosen.

Thracia, 773

The village was already on fire when Leif arrived.

He stopped, the children with him halting as well as they watched their home burn before their eyes. Dark robed figures chanted, adding a sickly haze to the air that choked anyone it touched, bringing them to their knees as they cried out in agony. Their cries that became even louder once the figures lowered their torches and set the people aflame.

“Mama,” one of the boys said softly, “She’s still in there. Mama!”

Leif barely had time to reach out and pull the boy back as he tried to run into the village. Even once he had, the boy kept struggling, making Leif's already sore body ache more. When he tried to call for his mother again, Leif covered his mouth as he kept trying to pull him back. The boy kept screaming into his hand and even tried to bite him but Leif didn't let go. He felt horrible for doing this but he couldn't let the boy run to his death as well.

Slowly, he pulled the boy several feet back into the forest as his muffled screams became sobs. As Leif released him, he fell to the ground, sobs mingling with the cries of the villagers. The other boy and girl joined their friend as Leif looked back to the village. A woman tried to shield a toddler and was forced to watch as he was burned alive. An old man choking on poison clung to the robes of one of the sorcerers as he begged for mercy. The cries of an infant picked up then were abruptly silenced.

Leif couldn't keep watching. As he was about to look away, he spotted a man standing several feet away from the village. He had a content smile on his face as he watched the slaughter, as if enjoying the scene. Leif had no idea who he was but he hated him instantly.

When he rejoined the children, the boy was standing again, tears still streaming down his face but no longer loudly sobbing. He glared up at Leif but said nothing. He didn't need to, Leif knew what he'd just done was unforgiveable.

“Where’s the nearest village?” Leif asked, looking at the other children. The girl pointed to the left with one hand as she took the crying boy’s hand in the other. Leif nodded and let her start leading the way. The other little boy grabbed Leif’s sleeve, sniffling as he tried to keep from bursting into tears as well.

They arrived at the village just as dawn was breaking. A large man carrying a load of firewood saw the four of them and sighed.

“That damned fool,” he muttered, “Whole town told ‘im t’ keep his mouth shut. Well, come along. Got a place fer ya.”

They followed the man to the back of an inn. A woman answered his knock, expression falling as she looked from him to the children. She crouched down to embrace the boy and girl.

“You poor things,” she said, sounding almost in tears herself. Neither returned the embrace but the boy’s shoulders started to shake.

Leif gently pulled his sleeve out of the other boy’s grasp and began to leave. “Hey, boy!” the man called but Leif ignored him. He needed to see what became of the children’s village, what had been the result of these strange sorcerers’ attack.

It was much worse in the daylight.

The bodies had been laying out long enough for crows to start pecking at them. Any that did fell dead seconds later from how poisoned the bodies were, tinged purple and contorted unnaturally. Each face was twisted and frozen in an expression of pain and fear, screaming at Leif as he passed. Lingering remnants of the massive amount of dark magic used last night still clung to the air, making Leif feel sick. But he kept walking towards the center of the village, towards a soft moan that filled him with dread as he approached.

A man was tied to the stake in the center of the village. He was still alive, only because this had been done to his recently, blood still wet and slowly dripping. His intestines were removed and coiled around him like a snake. A rose had been placed in his mouth and the symbol of Loptous carved into his forehead, giving a hint to who these sorcerers had been.

These were the people behind the child hunts and this is what they did to those who so much as spoke against them.

Leif shoved open the door to what had once been Linoan’s bedroom, the slam interrupting the conversation going on inside.

“Lord Leif?!” Linoan asked, surprise melting into a happy relief. She quickly crossed the room, Leif taking a step back and hunching his shoulders forward on instinct, hating himself for reacting this way. Linoan made no comment as she stopped and continued looking at him with that same relief. “I can scarcely believe it. Your return is the most welcome surprise I’ve had in ages.”

“The Schwarze Rosen are coming."

Her relief quickly vanished. “I know, Lord Arion just informed me,” she said, turning back to the man in the room. Southern Thracia's prince stared dumbfounded at Leif, at a loss on how to handle the situation.

“How long do we have?” Leif asked. Arion seemed taken aback, likely not expecting Leif to not react at all to his presence. Glaring seemed to help as Arion composed himself enough to answer Leif’s question.

“They’ll be here shortly after midday, which is right now,” Arion said gravely. “When they arrive, they'll slaughter every single man, woman, and child in Tahra. It will be a genocide.”

“Lord Arion wants Tahra to surrender itself to Southern Thracia. He’s offered to protect the city while one of his men takes me to safety. But now that you’re here…” Linoan trailed off, looking between the two princes. Arion clearly hadn’t wanted Leif to know about his plan to occupy Tahra, hand going to his lance as he watched him warily. What little patience Leif had was quickly running out.

"My father was an asshole. I understand why Travant killed him but he's a piece of shit for everything else," Leif snapped, "If you want to kill me, go ahead and try. But I don't give a shit about you unless you're going to help defend Tahra."

Whether it was the bluntness or unexpectedness of Leif's words, something surprised Arion enough to let go of his lance. Suspicion replaced with curiosity, Arion no longer mattered to Leif as he gave Linoan his full attention.

“Now that I’m here, my men are yours,” Leif promised, “This is your city. We’ll do what you want.”

Linoan’s gaze briefly flitted up to Leif’s forehead. “What I want,” she repeated softly, before lowering her gaze back to meet Leif’s. What she was looking for wasn’t clear but she seemed to have found something as her expression hardened and she looked back at Arion.

“The people chose me to lead them and I will continue to do so. Just as my people have stood by me, I will continue to stand by them. My father died for something he believed in and if I must as well, I will.”

“Linoan, even with Prince Leif’s men, you don’t stand a chance against the Schwarze Rosen. If Tahra is put under Thracian occupation, the Empire won’t be able to touch it. You won’t have to participate in the child hunts either. Isn’t that the whole reason for your revolt to begin with? Please, I refuse to let you throw your life away so carelessly,” Arion argued.

“And I refuse to leave my people,” Linoan countered. She turned back to Leif. “A great number of Imperial troops were recalled from Tahra recently. Do you know anything about that?”

“Bloom's paranoid because I broke into Manster and tried to kill Raydrik. They may also know I’ve been freeing children from the child hunts,” Leif said. 

Linoan’s eyes widened in surprise as Arion straightened. “A city standing against the child hunts is one thing, but if word got out that the prince himself was intervening, there’s little more that could inspire the people to resist,” Arion said, glancing over Leif. “Especially considering your age. Imagine if the people heard your story, the prince saving children barely younger than himself. How weak the Empire would look.”

How horrifying I would look, Leif silently corrected. Linoan walked over to the table Arion was standing beside, motioning for Leif to follow. A map of Tahra was laid out before them, several small figurines used to represent troops.

“If that's true, then the Schwarze Rosen is the Empire’s last push to take Tahra so they can focus on Lord Leif. They likely don’t want to waste any more resources on us,” Linoan said, taking a few figurines from beside the map and placing them behind Tahra. “When the Schwarze Rosen arrives, they'll kill anyone still in the city. So we'll need to start an evacuation but not leave until the Schwarze Rosen arrive, to avoid being seen. They're Veld's personal force so they won't stay long. After they’ve left, we’ll bring everyone back and Arion can claim Tahra is under Thracia’s protection as part of our marriage.”

“But we’re not married yet,” Arion pointed out.

“I have a priest,” Leif offered.

Linoan shook her head. “I’d rather wait until the Empire is destroyed to get married, then I could be a truly happy bride. Lord Arion and I's engagement is well known so our claim won't be scrutinized too closely, especially if his sister agrees to vouch for us.”

“Alright, but how will we stop the Schwarzen Rosen from attacking the people as we evacuate them?” Arion asked.

“We may not be able to stop them, but we can hold them off. At least, some of us can,” Leif said, hand going to his sword as he heard footsteps fast approaching. He shifted himself to the other side of the table so he could face whoever came in. Arion seemed startled to have Leif so close to him but said nothing as he watched Leif's hand move across the map. “We don’t want to get near them so no one with close range weapons. We could try to attack them before they enter but if we let them inside the southern gate, we can use the houses to keep them contained for awhile.”

“Lord Leif!” Leif looked up to see Nanna and Eyvel, both slightly short of breath. Nanna glanced over at Linoan and gave her a nod. “Lady Linoan.”

Linoan smiled warmly. “It’s good to see you, Nanna,” she said before returning to the map. “Any magic besides light or dark won’t work as well on them so only those who can use those two would be of any use. How many do you have in your company, Lord Leif?”

“Just Salem and myself,” Leif said as the thunder of many more approaching footsteps filled the air. The rest of the army must have arrived.

Linoan only looked briefly surprised before nodding and placing three small figures in the area Leif had pointed out. “With me, that makes three.”

“Four,” Nanna corrected, drawing the table’s attention back to her. “My Earth Sword uses light magic. Whatever you’re planning, let me help.”

“We could bring five,” Leif said, unsheathing his mother’s sword. “Someone can use this.”

“I’ll do it, if that’s alright with you, Little Lord,” Eyvel offered. Leif nodded and held out the hilt to her. She accepted with an oddly warm smile.

Arion frowned at the map. “Five isn’t nearly enough. And I don’t like the idea of you being one of those five, Linoan. But if you can keep the Schwarzen Rosen’s attention on you, Dean, Eda, and I can attack from above. If only we had some javelins, then we wouldn’t have to get close.”

“Lord Leif, wh-” Finn stopped even before Leif looked up to silence him. From his expression, he had recognized Arion. He gave Leif an uncertain look, clearly not liking this, but stayed silent. Trusting him to stay that way, Leif returned his attention to Arion.

“Can your wyverns carry another person?” Leif asked. Arion gave Leif an odd look before nodding. It took only a moment more before he realized what Leif was thinking and he gave a stronger nod. “As long as your men are fine with it, each of you can take one of my archers.”

“I’ll go with Karin!” Tanya volunteered, turning to the pegasus rider for support.

Karin nodded. “I think Hermes is taking a real liking to you,” she said, sharing a grin with Tanya.

“Can’t let ya have all th’ fun,” Dagdar said, playfully ribbing Tanya. “I’ll go with one of yer men.”

“I gotta start pulling my weight sometime,” Ronan said, “Send me too, Prince Leif!”

“Prince Leif, would you mind explaining to the rest of us precisely what is going on?” August asked, slight irritation in his tone. 

“The Liberation Army will be evacuating Tahra. Get everyone to the northern gate but don’t leave until the Schwarze Rosen breaches the southern gate,” Leif ordered.

August paled. “Gods above,” he said barely louder than a whisper. “You can’t seriously be intending to fight them. You must have a death wish to try and take on the Schwarze Rosen!”

“Just stall, long enough for everyone to get out,” Leif said. Finn’s frown had gone from wary to worried at August’s accusation. He more than anyone disliked Leif taking risks but they had to do this. This was their best chance of saving Tahra.

“We’ll come back.” Leif’s promise made Finn look at him. For a moment, that worry depended but it quickly shifted into a neutral solemness, taking with it whatever he had been about to say. A single nod marked his acceptance.

“We don't have much time. We need to start the evacuation now,” Linoan said, straightening to look at the now full room. Raising her voice slightly, she addressed the room. “Prince Leif has promised me your cooperation in the defense of Tahra. Everyone not in the rearguard, gather the people and head to the northern gate of Tahra. Protect them until the Schwarze Rosen have left. With your help, Tahra will not fall today!”

Chapter Text

The southern gate's residential area was the first to be evacuated in order to prepare for the rearguard to make their stand. To ensure the Schwarze Rosen did as they wanted, a few obstacles needed to be set up, a job Halvan, Orsin, and Fergus volunteered to do. Olwen and Asbel assisted by demolishing a few vacant houses to supply the materials needed. When the Schwarze Rosen arrived, Asbel and Olwen would be staying to play a small role before escaping. Fred had originally volunteered for the position but Asbel had managed to intimidate him into conceding the role.

“Although the circumstances are far from ideal, it is good to see the two of you again,” Linoan said to Leif and Nanna.

Nanna managed to return Linoan's smile but Leif could barely meet her eye. “I should have come sooner. What happened to Tahra, your father, you, I’m to blame for all of it,” Leif said.

Linoan shook her head. “From the moment he met you, my father knew what sheltering you in Tahra would mean... He was prepared for the consequences. I am proud of my father and I stand by his decision - despite the grief it brought me personally. As for myself, I endured two years of that wretched governor’s interrogations before Lord Arion sent Dean to save me. It was horrid and thinking about that disgusting man still stops my heart, but none of the blame for that lies with you.”

But it did. They had interrogated her to try to find Leif. If he had let them take him, she never would have had to go through any of this. He might have even been able to save her father, offering himself to the soldiers in exchange for the duke being pardoned. But instead he’d run away, too weak and selfish to help anyone.

“The Empire certainly has a strange definition of interrogation,” Nanna said bitterly. Linoan glanced at her before mirroring her contemptuous look.

“They certainly do,” she agreed, eyes briefly flickering to Leif. “At least the governor thought I was too pretty to scar. Bruises on the other hand, those were perfectly acceptable. A little bleeding as well.”

“It’s never a little,” Leif said, returning her gaze. Linoan held it for several seconds then nodded in agreement. Neither of them needed to elaborate further, not to each other.

“Every day, I’m more and more grateful I met you, Little Lord,” Eyvel said, expression dark, “Everything I learn makes me want to crush those Empire dastards even more.” Her frown turned to one of concern. “Little Nan, are you alright?”

Her bitter glare had deepened, staring at her mother’s sword. “No, I- is someone singing?” Nanna turned toward the sound distracting her from whatever had been darkening her thoughts. She walked away from the group, approaching the homes to the left and disappearing into one. For a moment, nothing happened.

“What are you thinking?!”

Nanna’s cry was soon followed by her emergence from the house, pulling along a man by his ponytail.

“Lord Leif, Lady Linoan, this man has graciously volunteered to join us,” Nanna said, calm tone and cold gaze a thin veil for her anger. The man began protesting but was quickly silenced when Nanna turned her gaze on him. “You said you’d clear your whole schedule to make time for me. Well, this is what I’m doing today, darling.”

“H-Hey, come on now, I didn’t mean any harm. I was just-”

“Just trying to find any easy lay while the rest of us risked our lives to hold off the Schwarze Rosen? Have you no shame?!” Nanna scolded, giving the man’s ponytail a yank before releasing him.

The man stumbled, frightened by more than just the reveal of who was coming. “I thought it was just another attack from the Empire. You’re all insane if you think you can take them!”

“The Loptyr Cult controls the Empire so you are correct. And we know we can’t take them, we aren’t trying to. We just need to hold them back long enough for everyone else to get away,” Nanna explained, “And you’re going to help us. You’re carrying a light tome, I’m assuming you can use it. So use it to make up for your pitiful behavior.”

The man sighed. “Hell really do hath no fury,” he muttered, “This is insane, I should have left with Shannam when I could. Serves me right for trying to push my luck.” With another sigh, he turned to Leif and Linoan. “Your highness, duchess, allow me to assist you. I am but a simple bard but I will do all that I can to aid you.”

Linoan faked a gracious smile. “Thank you, Sir-?”

The bard made a face. “Just Homer will do.”

“Very well, Homer. Salem can explain everything to you,” Linoan said, gesturing towards the dark mage. Homer nodded and went to join him, walking away a little faster than necessary.

Once he was out of range, Eyvel turned to Nanna. “What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you this worked up before.”

“I can’t stand how powerless I feel.” Nanna looked to Leif and Linoan. “The two of you, Mareeta, Father, everyone I care about has been hurt in ways I can’t heal. I learned to use staves so I wouldn’t have to watch the people dear to me suffer. But that’s all I’ve done because I don’t know how to help you.”

“You do help.” Nanna stared at Leif, waiting for him to go on but he didn’t know how. He wasn’t sure there were words to describe what she did, the strange calm he felt around her, the warmth she brought.

Fortunately, Linoan was better with expressing her thoughts. “Knowing you escaped situations like ours is a great comfort. After you escaped, I prayed every day that all of you had gotten away safely. Several soldiers mentioned seeing a knight and young girl wandering around Tahra and I was terrified one of them would come back with you and Sir Finn. With how bleak everything else was becoming, I clung to any small comfort I could find. Your safety was the greatest one I had.”

“I don’t want to just be a comfort, I want to do something,” Nanna insisted in frustration.

The flapping of wings and dark shadows overhead abruptly ended their conversation as Arion, his Dracoknights, and Karin landed. The Schwarze Rosen had arrived.

“Everyone, stop what you’re doing and get out of here!” Eyvel called. Halvan and Orsin nodded, laying down the beam they were holding and running towards them, Fergus following shortly after.

Halvan paused when he reached Eyvel. “We’ll keep an eye on Mareeta until you get back,” he promised. Though it was also pained, Eyvel's smile was grateful.

“Because you’re coming back, all of you are!” Orsin insisted, “That old coot made a fuss for nothing, these guys are chumps! You’ll have no problem holding them off. You and Prince Leif have gotta be two of the best fighters I know. It’ll take more than a couple dark mages to stop you!”

Both boys were pulled into a hug they returned without hesitation. Tanya watched, almost longingly before Dagdar clapped a hand on her shoulder.

“You take care of yerself up there, ya here?”

“I’m the one who’s actually flown before, I should be the one worrying about you,” Tanya countered, “Besides, you’re flying on some giant lizard with a stranger. I get to fly with Karin and Hermes, there’s nowhere safer than that.”

“Of course not! Hermes is the best pegasus a girl could ask for!” Karin declared, “Don’t you worry, we’ll keep Tanya safe.”

Dagdar chuckled and ruffled her hair. “Course ya will.”

“Lord Leif?” Leif turned to Asbel, brow furrowed in concern. “Is the Schwarze Rosen really as bad as August was sayin’?”

“Yes.” Asbel flinched at the confirmation, silently pleading as he stared up at Leif. “Which is why you need to get back in position. You can’t let them see you. As soon as you and Olwen are done, get out of Tahra as fast as you can. Don’t wait for us.”

From his frown, Leif had been right about Asbel’s intentions. Last time they were in Tahra, he had also been separated from everyone, left to wander on his own until he found his way to Manster and the Magi. He was probably just as afraid of a repeat of five years ago as Finn.

Asbel suddenly launched himself forward and hugged Nanna. “You’re coming back!” he said, staring at Leif as he spoke. “You promised Finn, so you gotta. An’ you still need to teach me light magic and staves and we gotta see Sir Ced again an-”

“Asbel.” The younger boy stopped rambling but held on tighter to Nanna as he waited for Leif to continue. “We will.”

“But only if you follow the plan,” Nanna said, peeling Asbel off of her. He pouted, clearly wanting to linger as long as he could. To Leif’s surprise, Nanna took Asbel’s hand and started walking back to the gate with him. She must have been saying something because after a moment, he looked up at her in shock then back at Leif then back to Nanna again, nodding solemnly this time. Nanna released his hand and he ran back without her.

“If you mean that, you won’t take any unnecessary risks this time. I mean it,” Selfina warned. Their reluctant fourth archer had volunteered herself when several of the bow knights in training began offering to be the last archer for the mission. She argued her experience made her the best choice but Leif had seen her panicked look when one of the bow knights had stammered out his petition to join them. “My lord father and August are right, you and Lady Linoan shouldn’t be out here at all. They’re your advisors, you should consult with them before making battle plans.”

“This was Linoan’s plan. She wanted to protect her city and I offered her our men. I’m one of them so I’ll do as she asks,” Leif said. “August said I need to earn the people’s support. I can’t do that if I don’t act.”

“There are better ways to do that than by risking your life. You won’t be of any use to the people dead.” Selfina’s stern tone sounded similar to Dorias’. “Prove you mean what you say by accepting what Olwen is offering you.”

Leif turned to see Olwen behind him, holding out her hand. In it was a silver ring with a small green stone set in it. His mind immediately went to the ring he gave Asbel in Kelves.

“It’s from Rosa’s mother, a thank you for saving her daughter. According to her, its’ enchantment strengthens magic. Since you’re going to be using a lot, I figured this might help one of you,” Olwen explained, “And to be honest, I’d rather you take it than anyone else. After all you did for Rosa, I think she’d want that too.”

Leif wanted to refuse, he didn’t even want to touch that thing. He hated how people thought they had to give something in return for their child being brought back to them. He recalled Hannibal’s servant calling it compensation and his disgust must have shown as Olwen’s lowered her hand slightly.

"It's too big for me," he claimed, "Give it to Linoan."

Nanna took the ring from Olwen’s palm and with her free hand, pulled the chord of her necklace. Once off her neck, she slid the small stone off of it and the ring on. 

“Problem solved," Nanna said, thrusting the ring at Leif. It took a moment but Leif reluctantly took it, seeing no way out of doing so besides an argument they didn't have time for. As Leif tied it around his neck, Olwen ran back towards the gate and Eda took her place.

“We need to go,” she said, looking at Selfina. Selfina nodded and followed Eda to her wyvern. Tanya was pulling out of a final embrace with Dagdar as Arion gave Linoan a kiss on the forehead. “Stay safe,” he said, giving her hand a final squeeze. Linoan nodded as he stepped back to help Dagdar onto his wyvern.

“You leavin’ too, friend?” Fergus asked Homer, mounting his horse. Homer huffed.

“Gods I wish. But I’m afraid a certain little lady won’t let that happen,” he said, glancing at Nanna.

Fergus laughed. “Then besta luck to ya. Hope’ll see ya on the other side.”

Homer eyed Fergus for a moment. “Yes, I hope so too.”

“Orsin, are you an idiot? What are you still doing here?” Tanya scolded from atop Hermes.

“I’m the idiot? You’re the one about to go flying into battle against some crazy mages!” Orsin snapped.

“To keep your sorry ass safe! So get out of here before they get here!”

“I’m not the one who needs protecting. You’re the one who’s always getting into trouble!”

“I can take care of myself!” Tanya nudged Karin to take off.

“I-I know that!” Orsin admitted, causing Karin to pause, “Just- these aren’t the thugs we fought back in Fiana. These guys are serious. S-so don’t be so reckless this time. I won’t be there to bail you out if you are.”

Tanya softened into an almost smile. “What are you talking about? I’m the one who’s always bailing you out. Stay out of trouble until I get back.” This time when she nudged Karin, the pair took off, Orsin watching as they disappeared into the clouds.

“Stupid kid,” he said fondly before finally running to join the evacuation.

Dagdar and Arion took off next, Eda and Selfina following close behind. As Ronan settled himself onto Dean’s wyvern, Linoan approached the pair.

“Please, take care, Dean,” she said, goodbye almost sounding like a plea. While composed in her goodbye with Arion, fear had managed to break through in her goodbye with the Dracoknight.

“You as well, Duchess.” Linoan broke out in a watery eyed smile as she stepped back and let the last pair fly off, watching them for as long as possible. Once they were out of sight, she closed her eyes, taking a deep breath to calm herself. Composure regained, she rejoined the remaining five. They all stared at the southern gate, knowing it would only stay standing for a few moments more.

“You sure this will work? I’ve never heard of magic being used like this before,” Homer questioned, glancing at Leif and Linoan as he joined them as the front line.

“It’s an old technique developed during the Loptyrian Empire and first used in the Massacre of Edda. By having a large number of dark mages continually cast a combination of Hel and Jormungand spells without focusing on specific targets, they were able to turn the air itself against the people and kill everyone without being touched. For its’ role in such an atrocity, the technique is shunned by the public,” Salem explained, “I’m surprised you’d heard of it, Prince Leif.”

“I watched the Scwarze Rosen use it.” Everyone looked at him, perhaps waiting for elaboration but now was not the time for stories, a loud splintering at the gate signaling their time was up. It was followed closely by a second, the gate visibly caving inward now. Linoan took out a staff, a strange warmth spreading over all of them. The scars on Leif’s arm tingled and the burn on his side heated.

“It’s only temporary but any little boost helps,” Linoan said as she traded her staff for a light tome.

There was one more crack and the gate finally gave way. A hoard of dark robed figures slowly entered the city. Seeing the small group standing further down the street in front of them, they began moving towards them, beginning their chant. That same sickly haze Leif remembered from the village began to form. Homer shifted nervously, fighting the desire to bolt. Nanna holding a sword behind him likely helped with that.

As soon as the mages passed the first row of houses, the crack of thunder magic brought down the two behind them down, blocking the way they had come. Their chant halted as they looked back then to the sides, now able to see the debris piled between the houses, not very high but enough it would take a minute to try and climb over it, longer with their robes.

Taking advantage of their distraction, Leif, Linoan, and Homer began their incantation, light magic forming a softer haze than the dark magic. It filled the air, stopping against the dark magic as it nullified its effects. But it had still gotten close enough to the group that Leif felt light headed. From the nauseous look on Homer’s face and Linoan’s pinched expression, he wasn’t alone. The feeling didn’t last long as Salem and Nanna removed the effects with their staves.

Their equal footing lasted barely more than a moment as the Schwarze Rosen began their spell again. Even with Linoan’s boost, three mages was hardly enough to hold back their entire force, the dark magic creeping forward and slowly gaining ground. As Leif tried to focus, Asbel’s rambling about the differences in the ways they used magic came to mind.

“The way Sir Ced taught me, it’s like pushing a rock down a hill, you make it start going but that’s it. The way you do it’s like throwing a rock, first you gotta pick it up then you chuck it however you want. That’s why you can do more with the spell, you got a lot more control over throwin’ a rock than pushing one. The size, the direction, how hard you throw, that’s all up to you.”

He’d never thought about the spells he cast in battle, just focusing on hitting his target. But without a target to focus on, what if he focused on something else? What if he focused on the amount, tried to use as much as possible? It was the opposite of the smaller spells he was teaching Asbel so it should work, in theory. Maybe. He’d gone on less before. 

The scars on his arm prickled the way they always did when he used a lot of magic in a short period of time but it seemed to be working, the approach of the dark magic slowed noticeably. Linoan gave him a curious look but neither could stop their incantation loop to talk. That was one of the biggest downsides to their plan, those casting couldn’t communicate with anyone beyond glances.

One of the dark mages fell to their knees as light magic from Nanna’s sword sapped the life force from them. Eyvel’s strikes did less damage but interrupted the flow of the spell, momentarily taking out a mage at random. That and Salem’s surprise attacks with his sleep staff disrupted the spell enough to for Leif, Linoan, and Homer’s light magic to keep it at bay. Salem even took Linoan’s magic boosting staff, recasting its’ effect when it waned completely.

But their advantage didn’t last long. The light magic in Leif’s tome was draining faster than usual. He’d become quite good at quickly switching between tomes but his spell’s absence was long enough for the dark magic to encroach closer. Homer choked and staggered, Salem quick to restore him but Eyvel had to call for the group to retreat several steps to avoid all of them falling under the spell’s effect. They were being overpowered faster than expected. Salem would use up a staff soon as well. Leif had given him his staff but if they kept going like this, they would run out soon. Hopefully August could handle anyone who was injured in the evacuation party.

A sudden reprieve came as arrows rained down from above, striking several of the dark mages. The surprise broke their spell long enough for Linoan to drop her used up tome and switch to another. The burst of light magic from this was brighter than before, the effect enough to push the front line of the Schwarze Rosen back a step.

Then the Schwarze Rosen retaliated. Finally taking them seriously, they decided to divide and conquer. Those closest resumed the chant while several mages behind them sent spells at them. The mages furthest away aimed for the fliers. As much as he wanted to, Leif couldn’t look up to see what was going on. It was hard enough to focus on keeping the spell going and avoid being hit. He could feel this tome draining as well.

“Dean!” Linoan’s shout was quickly followed by a cry of pain. Homer and Leif quickly backed up but the break in their spell was too much to recover. It felt as if a fist had wrapped around Leif’s chest and was trying to crush it as their light magic barrier was steadily overtaken. A groan from Homer confirmed he felt the same.

“Fall back!” Eyvel shouted as the warmth of a restore staff loosened the grip on Leif’s chest. Homer and Leif started moving back as quickly as they could. There was another cry of pain as Salem was hit, Homer tripping over his body and landing behind the last row of houses. Had they already been forced back this far?

They needed to run. But first, they had to keep the Schwarze Rosen from following them. Salem was supposed to help Leif with this part but that wasn’t an option. Giving one last push, Leif dropped the used up light tome and without thinking, reached out to the houses on either side of the street and sent thunder magic through the cracks he had carved earlier. The houses began to collapse as one final spell flew beneath Leif’s outstretched arm, missing by inches. But a cry from behind him revealed it had found another target.

Quickly turning, Leif saw Nanna lying on the ground, face contorted in pain. Running to her side, he did the first thing that came to mind, grabbing the end of her sword and plunging it into himself.

It was a strange sensation, his life force slowly being drained from him. But it was worth it as the color began to return to Nanna and her breathing steadied. Her eyelids slowly fluttered open, looking up at him in confusion until she realised what was going on. Horror took its place as she quickly pulled her sword out, almost dropping it as her healing abruptly stopped.

“Can you move?” Leif asked, momentarily unsure if he could. He hadn’t stabbed himself too deeply, at least he didn’t think he had. The blood wasn’t flowing too heavily through his fingers as he pressed down on the wound. He should be able to make it out without losing consciousness.

Shakily, Nanna got to her feet. She looked as if she wanted to say something but whatever that might have been was cut off by the sound of their temporary wall being attacked.

“This way,” Linoan said, leading them to the stairs to the inner city. Rather than going up them however, Linoan lifted a small trapdoor hidden beneath them and slipped inside, followed by Homer, Nanna, and Eyvel carrying an unconscious Salem. Leif closed the door behind him, encasing them in darkness for just a moment before Linoan lit her torch staff and Leif conjured a small flame, earning himself a glare from Eyvel.

“Dean and I are the only ones who know our way around these tunnels but we should still hurry,” Linoan said. Seeing everyone was in agreement, she turned and started running forward, everyone staying as close as they could.

Linoan had to recast her staff’s spell twice more before they finally reached an exit, coming out next to the forest on the west side of Tahra. As soon as she was out of the tunnel, Eyvel tossed Salem at Homer, the bard stumbling as he caught him.

“Nanna, give me your sword!” she demanded. Nanna held out the sword, Eyvel taking it by the blade and shoving the hilt against Leif’s chest. She squeezed the blade, blood dripping from her palm as the wound in Leif’s chest and pounding in his head began fade. He stepped back before either fully disappeared, Eyvel dropping the blade once he had.

“Don’t ever do something like that again,” she scolded, barely managing to keep from raising her voice. She kept her glare on Leif as he went over to Salem’s body and removed his last two staffs. One was used up, the other still had a small amount of healing magic left. Approaching Eyvel with the last working staff, her glare softened and she let out a sigh. “I’ll be fine, Little Lord, just exhausted. Save it for someone who needs it.”

Leif immediately looked at Nanna. “You shouldn’t waste resources,” she said bitterly. Leif wanted to argue it wasn’t a waste, she was still pale and breathing heavily. But she wasn’t the only one not doing well. Sweat ran down Linoan’s reddened face and darkened her dress and Homer’s limbs shook as he struggled to hold Salem, blood trickling from a wound on the side of his head. All of them were barely holding themselves together.

“We need to get Salem to August,” Eyvel said, wrapping one of Salem’s arms around her neck as Homer did the same. “Lead the way, Lady Linoan.”

Linoan nodded but hesitated, turning to Leif. “Lord Leif, Dean’s wyvern was hit during the battle and fell somewhere around here. Could you make sure he’s alright?” she asked, quickly adding, “Your archer as well.”

When Leif nodded, a relieved smile spread across her face, shoulders relaxing as if released from a tremendous weight. “Thank you,” she said before turning to lead the others to their rendezvous point. Only Nanna remained behind, following Leif as he headed for the forest.

It was hard to miss a downed wyvern, especially with the trail of broken trees from its landing. But who Leif and Nanna found wasn’t Dean and Ronan. Eda lay on her back, arms spread wide as she stared at the sky. Her wyvern lay on its side, Karin and Tanya trying to shift it off of Selfina’s leg.

“Prince Leif! Lady Nanna!” Selfina breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the approaching pair. “Oh thank the gods. Did everyone else make it out as well?”

“They’ve gone to regroup with the others,” Nanna said as Leif checked over Eda, “Linoan asked us to make sure Dean and Ronan were okay.”

“Dean…” Eda said, blinking slowly, “He… Right before Arion.” Eda sat up quickly then made a face as if she regretted it. After a few steadying breaths, she looked up at Leif. “Prince Arion was struck by a spell and crashed into the wall. It… it didn’t look. Please, find him. I want to help but right now I'm seeing two of you.”

Leif looked to Selfina. She managed a slight smile when Leif looked from the wyvern back to her. “I’ll be alright, Prince Leif. Now go, find Prince Arion.”

“And my papa,” Tanya added. She relaxed at Leif’s nod as he ran back toward Tahra. If Arion had hit the wall, he’d likely have landed close to it as well. At the very least, he’d be able to find where the wyvern had hit and work from there.

He had barely left the forest when he spotted Arion lying on the ground. His wyvern and Dagdar were nowhere in sight but they would have to wait. Sticking out of Arion’s chest was a chunk of stone, likely from one of the ramparts. Blood had plastered his hair to his face and his arm was twisted at such an unnatural angle, it was a miracle it was still attached.

Kneeling beside him, Leif carefully placed his hands on the stone in his chest. It was impossible to tell how far it had gone in but he needed to remove it before he could start healing him. As quickly as he could, Leif pulled the stone straight up and tossed it aside, switching to Salem’s staff and concentrating on pulling the last lingering healing magic out to heal the wound. More slowly than usual, the wound began to close, Arion’s face becoming less ashen. His arm untwisted to only an odd angle. It wouldn’t be perfect, staves didn’t work as well on broken bones, but it would be less painful and the recovery time much shorter.

“Arion!” Just as the last of the healing magic left the staff, a woman called out to the prince. Leif waited to make sure Arion’s breathing was normal before looking up to see another Dracoknight standing beside them.

“What did you do to my brother?” she demanded.

So this was Princess Altena. It was strange Travant would give her the same name as his sister but they were about the same age, or Leif’s sister would have been around her age. It could have been a coincidence. But it was the strangest coincidence he’d heard of, two men who hated each other giving the same name to their daughters born around the same time. But Travant didn’t have a wife so it could have been her mother’s choice, perhaps chosen to spite Travant.

Her gaze dropped to the staff in his hands. “You… were healing him?” When Leif nodded she at least had the decency to look slightly embarrassed. “My apologies. When I saw some strange boy beside my brother’s body, I feared the worst. I can’t bear the thought of losing him.” 

She paused for a moment to look over Arion herself, brow creasing at the tear in his coat where he had been impaled, smoothing again when she reached his face. Her gaze lingered for a few moments before she remembered Leif was still there. Clearing her throat, she turned back to him.

“Thank you, for saving my brother’s life. I’d like to know who it is I’m thanking,” she said, “What’s your name?”

“Leif.” The word was light on his tongue, flowing so easily as if he hadn't abandoned and almost forgotten it.

“Leif,” she repeated, staring down at him strangely. She shifted her grip on her lance, making him wonder if she would try to kill him. She was definitely considering it. If she was going to try, she could at least wait until they weren’t overtop of Arion. That would be an unpleasant sight for him to wake to.

“Well this is certainly an unexpected reunion. You continue to prove interesting, Prince Leif.”

Leif was wondering when he would show his face. He stood and turned, glaring at the man he now recognized from the village the Schwarze Rosen attacked three years ago. “Raydrik.”

Raydrik smirked back, pressing his sword into Nanna’s neck to ensure Leif didn’t move. She didn’t look at Leif, eyes instead on Raydrik’s sword, hands clasped together over her chest.

“I thought you’d be here. Bloom was convinced you’d go for him next but you’ve been targeting the child hunts, not nobles, not before myself anyway and I was likely just a bonus.” Raydrik paused, watching Leif closely. So he wasn’t certain but he had guessed. Leif could pretend he had no idea what Raydrik was talking about but then Nanna would hear everything from Raydrik. Even if he managed to convince Raydrik he was wrong, Nanna would put it together. If she had to hear this from anyone, it should be from Leif. But he didn’t want to say it here, not like this. So he remained silent, continuing to glare at Raydrik. From how his smirk grew, he correctly interpreted Leif’s silence as confirmation.

“You certainly have fallen low. If Prince Quan could see his spawn, would he be more disgusted or horrified at what you’ve become?”

“I’d gladly be both to that bastard,” Leif growled. Raydrik was momentarily frozen in surprise before he burst out laughing.

“Of all people, to hear you say that.” Raydrik let his amusement fade before continuing. “Your father, your uncle as well, were arrogant fools who would have plunged Jugdral deeper into war. Killing them was the greatest favor the Loptyr Cult did for Jugdral.”

“My father, I knew about. I’ll have to take your word on my uncle.” Leif noticed Arion stirring behind him, Altena kneeling by his side. Arion may be mostly healed but he was unarmed, his chest wound could reopen if he moved too much and he only had one good arm. He’d go down quickly if he tried to get involved. If Leif could keep Raydrik distracted long enough, Altena could get Arion out of here before he turned his attention to them. She clearly cared deeply for her brother, she’d keep him safe.

“He invaded and subjugated Verdane on a whim, then was surprised this upset Agustria.”

“Sounds like you're right about him," Leif agreed, trying to subtly move away from Arion and Altena.

“How strange it is to hear someone not worship the ground they walked on,” Raydrik said, regarding Leif with fascination, “Gods know how those stories about Sigurd seeing through the Emperor’s plans started up. He walked his army straight into a trap because he thought Emperor Arvis was his friend.” He sneered. “Such naivete deserved to be put down.”

Raydrik could be lying. But what would be the point of that? Leif didn’t know his uncle, he had no opinion on him until now. Raydrik wasn’t painting him as a monster either, just an idiot. Could he be telling the truth? Leif shouldn’t be getting invested, this was just supposed to be a distraction, but if people glorified his uncle like they did his father, this may be his only chance to hear the truth.

“Then why did the Emperor kill him?” Leif asked.

“Because he had too much power and too little sense,” Raydrik snarled, “That’s the problem with Jugdral, all these Holy Blooded bastards running around, thinking they have the right to do whatever the hell they want! Your father was the worst of them, especially once he was given the Gae Bolg. His incessant prattling about how he couldn’t lose with it, how unifying Thracia was his birthright and justified those disgraceful invasions all the other countries of the Manster District alliance opposed. You’re lucky I didn’t strangle him before he could have you.”

“I wish I could,” Leif said, scowl no longer just for Raydrik.

Raydrik chuckled. “You really are a fascinating beast. It’s almo-” 

The rest of Raydrik’s sentence was cut off as Nanna grabbed the blade of his sword and pulled it out of his grip, tossing it across the field. Raydrik stared dumbfoundedly at her before rage took over. He raised his arm to strike her when an arrow went through his open palm, giving Nanna enough time to move out of reach as he pulled his injured hand into his chest, grimacing.

“Don't even think about it,” Tanya snapped. She joined Leif with Dean and Ronan right behind her. “Karin's taking Selfina and Eda back to the others. What do you want to bet some concerned folks are gonna turn up any minute now?” she asked with a smirk at Nanna and Leif. If there was one thing they could count on, it was for Finn to come running at the slightest chance either of them could be in trouble.

“It’s over, Raydrik,” Arion said, stepping forward to stand ahead of Leif. “Today you’ll pay for your treachery and cowardice.”

“On the contrary, your highness, now we can move to my plan,” a bishop in the robes of Loptyr said, stepping out of the forest to reveal himself. In his hands was a tome Leif had never seen before. The bishop noticed him eyeing it warily and smiled coldly.

“Now that Raydrik’s suspicion has been confirmed, the bounty on Prince Leif has increased tenfold,” he announced, “With a sum that great, every mercenary, every soldier short of coin in Jugdral will flock to Thracia. And of course, King Travant will be first in line to collect that reward." His smile became downright sadistic. "If the prize of killing Quan’s son isn’t enough, I’m sure he’ll be more than willing to obey our every command to have his son returned to him.” He opened his hand and a burst of dark magic shot at Arion. At the same moment Arion was pulled back by Leif and stepped in front of by Dean. The spell made contact with Dean and immediately, his body began to gray and harden until it was completely stone.

The bishop frowned at the petrified Dean. “Not quite what I was looking for. I don’t think I’ll add this one to my collection.” As he spoke, he switched tomes so this time, when he attacked Dean, his stone form cracked and crumbled into rubble.

“Dean!” Linoan’s cry announced the arrival of reinforcements. The bishop glared at them, warping himself and Raydrik away before anyone could get close. Threats gone, Leif turned to see who was approaching. Linoan rode with Finn while Eyvel, Orsin, Halvan, and Lara followed on foot.

Nanna walked over to Raydrik’s sword, picking it up. She made a face as she held it before turning back to Leif. Seeing his curiosity, she answered his unasked question.

“The more invested Raydrik was in your conversation, the more his grip would loosen, especially when he laughed,” she explained, attaching the sword to her waist. When she looked up, her eyes weren’t dull like back in the dungeon, they were as clear and captivating as the ocean.

Both wanted to say more but decided against it. Linoan quickly dismounted and ran by, falling to her knees beside the crumbled remains of Dean. With shaky hands, she reached out to touch the pile, as if needing to confirm it was actually there. Arion knelt beside her, stopping her by taking her hand in his. She turned to him, finally giving into tears as he pulled her into his chest.

“He saved me,” she shakily said, “He rescued me… protected me… m-made me smile. My spirit would have broken without him. I never told him, I never had the chance…”

“He knew,” Arion assured her. “He knew how grateful you were, how much his actions meant to both of us. I was terrified for your safety but sending him eased my worries. I only wish I could have repaid him, made up for all I asked him to sacrifice for my sake.”

Nanna approached the pair, Leif close but keeping a distance. Scared children he could deal with, but grief, that clawed away at him. He’d brought Raydrik to Tahra, he’d suggested some of them stay to hold off the Schwarze Rosen, he hadn’t bought Arion enough time to escape, he’d tried to pull Arion away rather than trying to take the hit himself. How could he comfort them when he was the cause of their grief?

Nanna reached out to gently take Linoan’s hand. Linoan tried to force a smile as she gave it a squeeze. Nanna had said she didn’t want to be just a comfort, but she was a great one effortlessly, whatever soft words she was saying making Linoan’s smile less forced.

“I’m sorry,” Leif said, knowing his words were far from enough. Linoan looked up at him and after a moment, an odd sympathy replaced it.

“What happened to the person who saved you?” she asked. She was hoping they could relate to this as well, looking for comfort from someone who had shared her sorrow. But he would have to disappoint again.

“No one saved me.” Her sympathy shifted from confusion to sorrow before returning to sympathy as she stood.

“Is that why you do it, save the children that no one else will?” she asked, not waiting for a response before continuing. “There are more than just children that need saving. All of Thracia is suffering. Please, Lord Leif, save them as well.”

“I’ve just done the opposite,” Leif said, “The Empire increased the bounty on me. Thracia is about to be flooded with soldiers and mercenaries.”

“So we’ll close off Thracia.” Leif blinked, surprised at Linoan’s suggestion. But her resolve seemed to be returning as she turned to Arion. “This will only work if you help us.”

“Of course,” Arion agreed, rising to stand with them. “If this will take out Raydrik, I’ll gladly to lend you my aid.”

“Arion, are you sure about this?” Altena asked, joining the trio, “We haven’t even heard Linoan’s plan.” She glanced at Leif but didn’t openly voice her distrust.

“If Lord Leif can take Melgln, we can control who comes in and out of Thracia. That will hold off the sellswords trying to get in and prevent the Empire from sending reinforcements,” Linoan explained.

“With Melgln under our control, Bloom will be backed into a corner,” Arion added, “But he’ll still have the all four territories of the former Manster District.”

“Unless I take one,” Leif suggested, surprising even himself. But Nanna was watching him, eyes still clear and bright. That burning he felt when she suggested he remake House Leonster returned. “Alster is closer and Bloom is there, but he’s been fortifying the city, expecting me to attack him next. He may lower his guard after hearing I came here instead, but it would be safer to go for Leonster. If I can take it,” Leif looked to Arion and Altena, “Would your father be willing to meet with me?”

“Meet with you?” Altena repeated, “You think you can convince our father to work with you? You’re the son of his sworn enemy, what reason would he have to trust you?”

“I’ll vouch for him,” Arion offered, strange excitement in his eye as he looked at Leif. “Once you take Melgln, I’ll send some of my men to help hold it. For now, I’ll tell my father it’s a secret mission, one to aid a potential ally. If you can take Leonster, I’ll reveal everything. Your achievements should be enough to prove you’re a competent ally and if he is still distrustful, he can meet with you himself.”

“We’ll need all of Southern Thracia, not just your men if we’re to succeed, so you must get King Travant to agree,” Linoan warned, “We won’t be able to hold Melgln forever, especially once the Empire gets word of what’s happening. Northern Thracia has to be liberated as soon as possible.”

“I have an ally in Manster who believes he can free it within the year,” Leif said.

Linoan nodded. “Then that’s our deadline. We have just over half a year left so we must act fast.”

“I’ll leave as soon as I find Dagdar,” Leif said. He didn’t like Arion’s frown at the mention of the man he’d flown with.

“I’m afraid I can’t be of much help,” he admitted, “I lost consciousness while we were still in the sky. The last thing I remember is his arm around me, pulling me up as I’d started to fall.”

Trying to ignore the stirring dread as his mind came up with answers for the blanks in Arion’s story, Leif glanced over the ramparts before he found a broken one. Picturing the fall in his head, Leif ran toward where the wyvern likely landed, hearing Eyvel ask where Tanya was a moment later. Tanya was a good hunter with a good eye, if she noticed the broken rampart, she likely followed the same path, like tracking a downed bird. At least if Dagdar was injured, she knew how to comfort him and could bandage wounds.

He’d been correct about both where the wyvern had landed and Tanya being there. Leif didn’t have any more staves so he had to hope whatever Tanya was doing as she knelt beside him was enough. He hurried to join her, hearing more people following behind him. They would need them if Dagdar couldn’t move, too large for both Tanya and Leif to carry very far.

It didn’t matter that Leif didn’t have a staff. No staff could it heal a wound that large in your chest.

When Dagdar and Arion hit the wall, Dagdar must have been impaled first. From the red marks around his wrist, he’d wrapped the wyvern’s reigns around it, perhaps trying to control their fall or even fly it after Arion was knocked out. That was why his body was here and not by the wall. It had at least given Tanya a moment alone with him but was that really a kindness? Leif wasn’t sure as he watched her shoulders shake as she held a hand over the hole in his chest.

“Tanya.” She didn’t look up right away, blinking rapidly to clear her vision. Once she did, it was clear she had been crying for awhile. Leif had caused this too. He had suggested the flier take archers with them. Dagdar had been kind to him, he said he respected Leif, believed in him, and that killed him. “I’m sorry.”

Tanya shook her head, sniffling. “N-no, it’s okay… Papa did what he thought was right. If he died for something, he must’ve really believed in it. I-” She had to stop, sniffling again as she took a deep breath, “I couldn’t be prouder of him, f-for everything, for how f-far he’s come.”

It was taking everything she had to keep talking. Standing by, watching Tanya try to hold herself together, Leif understood Nanna’s earlier frustrations painfully well. It wasn’t much but Leif knelt down next to her and pulled at the rip in his shirt until he had a decent sized piece, tearing if off and ripping off the bloodstained part with his teeth before offering it to her. She gave a choked laugh as she accepted it.

“T-thanks,” she said but rather than use it, she lowered her hands into her lap and stared at it. “Would it be alright… if I stayed here? I want to honor Papa by protecting the city he died for.”

“Yes,” Leif said, without hesitation. She looked up just as quickly, smile grateful even if she still looked moments away from sobbing.

“What?! You can’t be serious!” Orsin interrupted, “Don't say stu-”

“Orsin, for once in your life, could you try to be nice?” Tanya snapped, anger causing him to take a step back.

“I didn’t mean- Tanya, I’m- I just,” Orsin tried and failed to find the right words.

“You can stay too.” Orsin’s head snapped over to Leif, eyes wide in disbelief. Leif stood and faced everyone else.

“I promised our aid to Tahra. The city may be safe but it will need help rebuilding. Anyone who wants to stay in Tahra can stay,” he announced. Most of them looked stunned by this but after a moment, Ronan stepped forward.

“I’d like to stay, Prince Leif,” he said, sounding slightly guilty as he did. After seeing Leif’s nod, he turned back to Eyvel. “It’ll be easier to let Ma know I’m safe if I’m in one place.” Eyvel pulled him in to a hug, whispering something into his ear that made him hug her back.

Once they ended the embrace, Eyvel turned to Linoan. “There’s a group of bandits in Dakia Forest. They only go after nobles allied with the Empire, so I’d reckon they wouldn’t mind lending you a hand. They’re led by a man named Perne.”

“Perne?” Lara perked up at the name. “He’s here? I...”

“Do you want to stay?” Halvan guessed. 

For a moment, Lara didn't respond. Then she shook her head. “No. Perne freed me but then he sent me away. Here you, everyone wants me to stay.”

Halvan gave her a small smile, hearing the slight uncertainty in her last sentence. "Of course we do." He was rewarded with a relieved smile, making his own grow.

Leif turned to Nanna, the only person whose answer he was uncertain of. “Do you want to stay?” he asked.

She blinked, gaping at him. After a moment, she closed her mouth, corners lifting up slightly. “I want to go with you, Lord Leif."

“It'll be dark soon, Little Lord. We should join the others before they get too worried,” Eyvel advised, although she cast a remorseful look at Dagdar. Leif nodded and moved to join the group.


Leif turned around, halfway back. Tanya slowly got to her feet, tears stopped for now but still shaky.

“It’s harder,” she paused, needing to take a steadying breath, “But we won’t be prouder.”

That warmth, that want from back in the canyon threatened to reignite but the memory of Gunna’s icy stare, the blade across his forehead, kept it at bay. How could he believe in creating something good for Thracia when he’d done nothing but cause it suffering so far? It was achingly tempting but at the same time absolutely terrifying. What if he made things worse? What if he wasn’t good enough?

His hesitation must have been evident as Tanya shook her head. “Come on, don’t make me beat it into you too,” she tried to sound teasing but Leif could hear the plea underneath. “It doesn’t even have to be House Leonster. Just… find something.”

“I want it to be,” Leif said, not thinking about what he was saying until he had said it. But once he had, it felt real, like saying his name again. He wanted this. He wanted to believe he could do this.

Tanya smiled back, a few more tears slipping out. Orsin awkwardly reached his arm around her shoulder, relaxing when she leaned into him. “Was that really so hard?” she asked as she buried her head against his chest. If he gave her an answer, only she heard it as he wrapped his other arm around her and lowered his head to rest his forehead against hers.

Leif turned back to everyone else, none of whom understood the conversation that had just gone on. Despite that, one looked back at him with a soft smile, one he couldn’t look away from. If him chasing what felt like an impossible ambition made Nanna happy, that was more than enough of a reason to try.

Chapter Text

As no one had survived an encounter with the Schwarze Rosen before, August insisted everyone exposed to their spell remain separated and under observation for the night, in case there were any after effects. It seemed an odd concern, restore staves completely removed poison, but this wasn’t a typical spell. Only Salem and Leif even knew about it before Tahra and the lack of familiarity made everyone else uneasy enough to not argue. That and it forced Leif to stay in camp for the night.

After August confirmed she was fine, Nanna returned to the tent they had spent the night in to find Leif was sitting across from Salem, several pieces of paper laid out between them. With his head tilted down like this, face hidden, it was impossible to tell what he was thinking or how he felt. When they first met again, Nanna had thought doing either was impossible, unsure if he felt anything besides rage anymore, so closed off the rest of the time there may as well have been nothing inside. But she was learning to see the cracks. Even if she wasn’t, yesterday had shown there was more than that, expression as he apologized to Linoan and Tanya so sorrowful you would have thought he was the one who had just lost a loved one.

Unable to assess the situation by reading Leif, Nanna checked Salem to see if it was safe to approach. His relaxed posture as he also examined the papers seemed reassuring enough. Slowly she made her way over to their pushed together cots. Leif made no indication of having noticed her but she’d be more surprised if he hadn’t. Now able to see the papers that had them so absorbed, she realized they were scrolls, ancient and each marked with a symbol of one of the Twelve Crusaders.

“Sera’s mother gave us a scroll like that,” Nanna said, taking out the gift from the rescued girl’s mother. She had meant to tell Leif about it but then Gunna happened and she’d forgotten all about it until now. Her scroll bore the symbol of Crusader Heim and an odd sensation, like a spring breeze running through her veins, filled her when she held it in her hands, cool yet comforting.

“It’s blood magic.”

That sensation was suddenly much less comforting. Nanna glanced at Leif, waiting for him to say more, but he didn’t even move. As usual, if she wanted to have an actual conversation, she would have to push it forward herself. Kneeling at the end of the two cots, Nanna laid her scroll down with the others.

“What are they exactly?” she asked, keeping her gaze on the scrolls so either had a chance to answer.

“You call them Crusader Scrolls,” Salem answered, “The Crusaders imbued them with part of their power to give them as symbols of their protection and devotion to the recipient. Maera made one as well, Emperor Galle the Seventeenth took it from his retainer’s body after slaying both of them. I was able to hold it once, as part of my initiation ceremony. At the time, it was the greatest honor I could imagine, feeling the blood of Loptous reach out, his power embracing me. For a moment, I felt like more than an impure, pathetic creature.”

While it may have been an honor for Salem, it made Nanna slightly nauseous. “How do you know so much about this?”

Salem tried to force a smile. “There was little else to do besides read back at the Yied Shrine.”

“That’s where they hid,” Leif said, finally lifting his head. Nanna still couldn’t see his face but his tone was enough to go on. “The Loptyr Cult had to hide under the Yied Shrine just to survive.” The bitterness in his voice may have seemed strange to anyone else but Nanna was starting to understand where his anger came from.

Salem nodded. “I still remember the first time I stepped out into the sun. It was so bright and my robes quickly became uncomfortable. But the air was so crisp and pure, the sky and desert so vast, I couldn’t bring myself to care. For the first time, I was allowed to be part of the world. Under Emperor Arvis, I believed we could even be accepted.”

“You knew the Emperor?” Nanna asked.

“I didn’t know him personally but news spreads fast in such a small place. His alliance with us and plan to rise to power was the best news we’d had in decades as well,” Salem recalled. He turned to Leif. “To go back to your earlier question, I’m afraid I don’t remember hearing anything about the Loptyr Cult’s involvement with your father’s death. But I certainly remember your uncle. I could never forget the man who was once my greatest fear.”

“Why?” Leif asked.

“One day he came out of nowhere and completely destroyed everything my old teacher had established in Verdane. He didn’t even mean to, he only came to rescue a kidnapped priestess but ended up taking control of the entire country. The thought of a man powerful enough to do that, I was terrified he would come to wipe out the rest of us. It was a relief to hear Emperor Arvis had decided he was causing too much trouble and had to die,” Salem said, “Er, apologies for that last part.”

Leif shook his head. “I want to hear this. I asked you to tell me everything about the Loptyr Cult.” He looked down at the Baldr scroll in front of him. “And I want to know how much of what Raydrik said is true. Everyone hid the truth about my father from me, how can I trust them to be honest about this?”

A flicker of pride danced across Salem’s face. “Raydrik was at least correct about the stories being false. The rest about his character may just have been Raydrik's hatred of Holy Blood speaking.”

“That I understand,” Leif growled, glaring at the scrolls.

That was unexpected. But he didn’t hate without reason and Nanna wanted to hear this one, giving Salem a look to be silent to encourage Leif to elaborate. After a moment, he did.

“Why, if Holy Blood is so great, do so many assholes have it? Why are they worthy enough to wield a Holy Weapon?” Leif asked bitterly, “I thought because I didn't, I was worthless, that I could never be good enough. But what it did to my father, to all of House Leonster, their arrogance and entitlement, if that's what being worthy is then I'm glad I'm worthless.”

Nanna hadn’t known this, about how he had felt about himself. They had grown up together, he had been her brother, best friend, everything, and even then he had secrets she didn’t know, was hurting in ways she didn’t see. But perhaps she could heal this hurt.

“All it means is you can wield one weapon and what good is that? Sure, it’s a strong weapon but if that’s all there is to you, you may as well be nothing at all,” Nanna said, trying to sound disdainful. Both Salem and Leif stared at her, Leif’s curiosity encouraging her to go on. “Just because the Crusaders were great doesn’t mean anyone who inherits their Holy Blood will be. Who you’re descended from, related to, says nothing about you. The Crusaders were no one before they accomplished their great deeds.” She focused her gaze on Leif to make sure her next words reached him. “Being great isn’t something a person is, it’s something they become. Being worthy of a weapon doesn’t make you worthy of anything else.”

Salem looked as if he wanted to say something, most likely a counter to her statements, but he refrained after Nanna pinched his leg, keeping her gaze locked with Leif’s. She knew her argument wasn’t perfect but that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was the way Leif was looking at her, just as he had when she suggested he remake House Leonster. She had gotten through to him then, she hoped she could this time as well.

Perhaps it was rash but it may also be the final push he needed. Breaking their gaze, she took the Heim scroll and tore it in half, continuing to tear until the pieces were too small to continue. An odd satisfaction stirred as she lifted her head from the pile of scraps she’d created. “We don’t need it.”

Watching Leif snatch up the Baldr scroll and start ripping it apart was the most gratifying sight she’d seen in ages. It was as if he was coming alive, an intensity besides anger in his eyes for once, actions smooth and sure. When he looked up from the remains of the scroll, it was exhilarating. She hadn’t completely believed what she was saying but Leif more than believed her words, he was going to prove them right. That was how Leif worked, give him a spark and he'd start an inferno.

“What’s going on here?” Eyvel asked, entering the tent and looking upon the odd scene with amused curiosity.

“Just getting rid of something frivolous.” Eyvel gave Nanna a suspicious look as she eyed the remaining scrolls.

“You sure about that? You seemed pretty interested in these before, Little Lord,” Eyvel said, picking up the Od scroll.

“I was wrong.” Eyvel must have noticed the change in Leif’s demeanor, straightening as her attention became ensnared. “They mean nothing.”

A smile slowly spread across Eyvel’s face. She may not understand what was going on but there was something infectious about Leif’s conviction. “If that’s the case,” she said before tearing the scroll in her hands in half.

“Mind if I?” Salem asked, hand hovering over the Fjalar scroll. Leif shook his head and the dark mage smiled as he began slowly tearing long strips, clearly savoring the act.

Nanna reached for the last one. “Wait,” Leif said, causing her to pause. “That’s Ced’s. I’m supposed to give it back.”

"Doesn't he count as one of the Major Holy Blood assholes?"

"Ced's… mostly tolerable."

Eyvel chuckled, moving out of the way to let Salem leave to meet with August. Once he was gone, her expression sobered. “Is this about your father, Little Lord?” she asked gently, as if trying to keep from breaking the spell had brought Leif to life.

“Not just him. Raydrik was right about many of them having too much power and too little sense.”

“Like my uncle,” Nanna added, catching both of them by surprise. But if Leif was sharing thoughts he’d kept hidden, so could she. “My mother loved telling stories about him. She said he was the finest of men, the embodiment of knightly ideals who was tragically killed by his foolish king. But I started to think he was the fool for being so unwaveringly loyal. That may have made him a great knight, but what good is that when you're dead? How can anyone call such a preventable death honorable? That kind of loyalty is dangerous and destructive and there are days I think there's nothing I could hate more.”

She could see the same thought passing through their minds, addressing it before either could voice it. “I love my father, but there are times I hate how devoted he is to his duty. When Lord Leif disappeared, Father was lost. He devoted his entire life to protecting Lord Leif and without him, he had nothing. We had nothing; no home, no money, no allies. Father was determined to find Lord Leif but as time went on, never finding a single hint, it became harder for him to have hope. All his guilt, fear, desperation, it was killing him. There were days it felt like I was dragging around a corpse. If we hadn’t made it to Fiana, I would have been.”

Nanna had to pause to take a deep breath, Eyvel rubbing her back comfortingly. The memory of before they reached Fiana, no idea where she was or if anyone was around as her father lay unconscious on his horse, still haunted her. That had to be the worst day of her life, the day she was convinced she was going to be left alone in the world.

Although finally admitting these thoughts out loud was freeing for Nanna, they seemed to be slowly draining the life from Leif. “I’m sorry," he apologized, guilt almost making her regret sharing. She quickly shook her head.

“It’s not your fault, you didn't ask for him to be like this. And of all the things he could devote himself to, I'm grateful it's you. I know you won't take advantage of him. Your order for him to not die was the second greatest thing you've done for me." 

“The second?" Nanna barely managed to suppress her sigh of relief at having distracted him from falling too deeply into self-blame.

“The first was when you asked me what I wanted to do, stay in Tahra with Linoan or stay in the Liberation Army with you,” Nanna explained, “All my life, I’ve never had a say in where I go, been able to choose what I want to do with myself. But choosing this, for the first time I felt I was in control of my own life. From now on, I get to decide what I do and right now, I'm going to fight with the Liberation Army.”

“And after that?” Leif asked. Nanna couldn’t tell if there were more to his words than simple curiosity, mask having slid into place so easily it may as well have never left. But she’d proven it was a mask and not a husk. That was enough for now.

“I want to find out what happened to my mother,” Nanna said, “I want to know where she went, if she found my brother, why she didn’t come back. She was supposed to head to Isaach so I’ll start there.”

Whatever Leif felt about this, he hid well, giving only a single nod. Eyvel on the other hand, was open about her understanding, wrapping her arm around Nanna’s shoulders and giving her a light squeeze.

“That reminds me,” Eyvel said, reaching back and unattaching Leif’s sword from her belt. She sat on the edge of his cot, laying the sword between them. “I can tell you’ve taken very good care of it. It’s been repaired a lot but the repairs are well done.”

"It's u-" Leif paused, glancing at Nanna before restarting. "It's all I have of my mother. I don't know much more about her."

Irritation briefly flashed across Eyvel's face before she shifted it into something warmer. "From what I've heard, Lady Ethlyn was a wonderful mother. I can't say what else she was like but I can say what mothers are like, give you something to go on." She pulled a small leather band out of her pocket and held it out to him. “One thing about mothers is we fuss. I noticed your hair get in your face during the battle outside Tahra. Mind trying this for me, Little Leif?”

Pausing a moment to take in the change in nickname, Leif accepted the band but made no move to do anything with it, staring at it for a moment before looking back to Eyvel. She pulled the band out of her own hair and turned to the side so Leif could watch.

“Mareeta has the same problem, don’t you sweet pea?” Eyvel raised her voice to ask her question. The tent opened and Mareeta entered, slightly sheepish. She'd never been good as eavesdropping, either lacking the patience or ability to stay quiet for too long, but she was still better than Asbel.

“It’s not a problem,” Mareeta argued, Eyvel scooching over to make room for her as she finished retying her hair. “And I don’t like tying it back. I don’t see why you always want me to.”

“Honey, it’s practical. Or do you like constantly getting your hair in your mouth?”

Mareeta made a face. “But it feels so weird! And I look weird.”

“It only feels weird because you pull too tightly,” Eyvel said, “And you don’t look weird, you look absolutely lovely.”

“You always say that.”

“And I’m always right.”

Mareeta tried to subtly glance back but quickly gave up on subtlety, turning completely. “Oh. Huh.”

Nanna followed her example and was reminded they really weren’t children anymore. When she saw Leif in the arena, she had noticed he looked older but seeing his face clearly for the first time, that became much more obvious. He almost felt less familiar now, sharper features more pronounced, scars more striking. Had he felt similarly the first time he saw her again?

“Y’know, the way Nanna talked about you, I was expecting some sort of prince like the ones in the festival plays,” Mareeta said, “Polite and pretty, the people’s savior who nobly rides in to stop the evil people and save the princess."

“Sorry to disappoint,” Leif said, not sounding sorry at all.

Mareeta shook her head. “Those princes are boring, I’d hate to be stuck with them. There’s nothing boring about you, which is why I’m looking forward to our rematch.”

“Rematch?” Leif repeated.

“Last time, in the arena, that wasn’t a fair fight. I want you to see what I can do, not that sword,” Mareeta said.

“I don’t know how to fight fair." Leif's warning was met with a smirk.

“Good. Now I don't have to either.”

Leif glanced at Eyvel as if asking permission. After a nod from her, he turned back to Mareeta. "You initiate every time. I won't counterattack either."

"We'll only be using practice swords. You can't hurt someone that bad with a giant stick," Mareeta said, sounding oddly sympathetic.

"You can." Mareeta's surprise became an eager excitement far too fast for Nanna and Eyvel's liking. Fortunately, Salem returned, leaving Leif the only one left to be cleared. August had insisted on seeing him last for some reason. Maybe just to keep him in camp longer but Eyvel had been quick to back him up and Leif agreed without protest, making Nanna suspect there was something more. She hated being left out again but her patience with Leif had been rewarded before.

Once Leif had left the tent, Mareeta picked up the leather band he'd taken out and left on the cot. "He may not be polite, but he is kind of pretty," she said teasingly, glancing up at Nanna.

"I was nine and it was him or Asbel," Nanna said in her defense, "He's changed a lot since then."

"So have you." Had she? She had felt so stagnant in Fiana, uneventful monotony blissful after the uncertainty of the two years before. She hadn't learned any new skills besides household chores, Mareeta was her only friend, and she only left Fiana when Eyvel invited her out. Fiana had felt like a haven cut off from the rest of the world, its own little world that asked nothing of her so she did nothing more than needed.

The scraps of scrolls scattered across the cots caught her eye. That had been brazen, denouncing Holy Blood and Weapons. But she couldn't stand the thought of Leif believing he was worthless, that the men he hated were better than him. She wanted to change that and she had, her words strong enough to draw out the Leif she remembered, passionate and captivating. No one else had done that, no one else had even come close.

She hadn't changed, not yet, but she was working on it. She was done being stagnant and powerless. The people she loved needed more than just a comfort, they needed a guide, someone outside the suffering to reach out their hand. Nanna had always been the one on the outside, so there was no one better for the role.

A piece of the Heim symbol looked up at her. She could almost feel Leif's inferno as she tore it in two.

“You’ve got a bit of explaining to do, Finn.”

Finn had been expecting this since they arrived in Tahra. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze away from the front of their procession where Nanna and Mareeta were tossing small rocks in the air for Asbel to try and blow away, Leif keeping those hit too hard or missed from hitting anyone. Glade and Selfina had ridden up next to Finn, the former staring at him expectantly.

“I don’t know much myself,” Finn confessed, “When Tahra was invaded, we were separated and he chose to leave on his own. He won’t talk about what happened after that, but from little I know, it… it wasn’t pleasant.” That was an understatement and Glade could tell, expression sympathetic at his friend’s thinly veiled pain. “I apologize for not being able to keep our pact, especially when you did so well with your end.”

Glade shook his head. “I had the easy part, training knights is nothing compared to raising a child. It’s not your fault, my friend. Prince Leif made his own choice, though I’m curious as to why. I can’t fathom what could possibly send him running from you.”

“He told me he couldn’t watch anyone else sacrifice themselves for him,” Finn explained, something twisting in his chest as he added, “Especially me.”

Glade frowned. “His survival is imperative if we’re to have any chance of liberating Thracia. All those sacrifices were made willingly and proudly, nothing is too great to give to ensure his safety. Surely he must understand that.”

“I don’t think he does,” Finn said, gaze wandering back to Leif. Since reuniting, Leif had given him two orders, to not protect him and to not die. Those weren't things a knight should prioritize. Protecting your lord was supposed to come before all else and death was a possibility all knights accepted, one they would gladly embrace for the sake of their country and lord. What Leif was asking of Finn went against common sense, went against the core of Finn's beliefs. He'd promised to do both but if it came down to his life or Leif's, did his word stand a chance against what he knew was right?

“That’s not the only thing he doesn’t understand,” Dorias said gravely, “What was he thinking, asking everyone if they would rather stay in Tahra? We could have lost our entire army!”

“But we didn’t,” Eyvel pointed out, “At least now we know everyone here wants to be here. And the soldiers know their prince cares about them and what they want.”

“He shouldn’t,” August said, “I can’t believe I’m saying this but he’s too soft. He’s not herding children anymore, he’s leading an army. Seeing them as people will only make their deaths harder to deal with. That thing is enough of a mess without losing it’s mind over the dead.”

“August,” Eyvel warned, clenching her fist around a leather band similar to the one in her hair.

August ignored Eyvel and continued. “We were quite lucky in Tahra. None of the people saw him, they only heard he was part of the rearguard defending the city. He managed to make a good impression without having to interact with people. Perhaps we should build our strategies around that until he’s better trained.”

“He’s not an animal,” Finn snapped, anger starting to rise as well. August had gotten over his initial dislike of Leif but a different kind of disdain had replaced it. More than once, Finn had caught him watching Leif with an irritated look for seemingly no reason. It almost felt as if he found Leif’s existence an annoyance. The thought only stirred Finn’s anger further.

“No, he’s worse than that,” August muttered before returning his voice to a normal level to redirect the conversation. “Do you think we can trust Southern Thracia to ally with us? If we go through with our current plan, we could be closing ourselves in with two much larger and stronger foes with no chance of reinforcements coming to our aid.”

“What reinforcements? We don’t have the money to hire mercenaries and even if we did, the price on Little Leif’s head is far too enticing for them to pass up,” Eyvel reasoned. The change in nickname caught Finn by surprise, Dorias as well going by his frown.

“We may be able to trust Arion but it’s Travant I’m worried about. He still hates Prince Quan and wants to take Northern Thracia. The question is, how much does he hate the Empire? Will that be enough to even consider working with Prince Leif?” Selfina asked.

“His daughter may be an issue as well,” Finn added, recalling how strangely the princess had stared at Leif, hand tight on her lance the entire time. She had given him an odd look as well but he hadn’t paid her much mind at the time, too focused on following Leif. Thinking back now, there was something about her, something almost familiar. Perhaps he should have given her more attention.

“There’s always General Hannibal,” Eyvel suggested. “He sheltered all of you and his son did say Little Leif rescued him. If we can find a way to get in contact with Hannibal and convince him to vouch for us along with Arion, Travant may be more willing to listen. It could also help that Arion knows Little Leif’s feelings on his father, even seeing his reaction to Prince Quan’s invasions.”

Finn flinched at the mention of Quan's invasions. He had hoped once things were better between them and Leif was a bit more stable, he could convince him to think more highly of his father. But the invasions, even Finn had to admit those had been poor choices.

Glade and Dorias seemed to be thinking something similar as they exchanged conflicted glances. Their behavior didn't go unnoticed by Eyvel, frowning as she looked between them. “Why are all of you so loyal to Prince Quan? From what I know, Little Leif has every right to take issue with his father. The trade prohibitions, invasions, how do you justify his actions?”

“The invasions, those were rash,” Dorias reluctantly admitted, “But his intentions were admirable, to bring peace to Thracia by unifying it.”

“Through conquering.” It was an ugly word but no one could think of another name for it.

“What other other option was there if Thracia was to be unified? The North and South have hated each other since their separation.”

Eyvel shook her head. “You’re the only ones that care about that. Us common folk just want a ruler who will treat us well, we don’t care if Thracia is unified.”

“But you do care about peace,” August said, “Ever since the province of Manster declared independence from the rest of Thracia, the two sides have considered each other enemies and hostilities persist because both sides have been mutually unwilling to communicate. That is, they were before now.”

“Which may be why this will work,” Selfina said, “If Prince Leif and Prince Arion can work together, perhaps Thracia will finally have peace through better means.”

“But Travant is still king,” Finn reminded her, “His daughter seemed to think he wouldn’t trust Lord Leif and she doesn't trust him either. How do we know if Travant agrees that he won’t betray us?”

“We don’t,” August said bluntly, “We’ll have to trust him.”

Trust Travant. The thought made Finn’s skin crawl. This was the man who had murdered Quan, Ethlyn, and Altena and Finn was being asked to trust him with Leif? He barely trusted August with Leif. Of all the risks Leif was willing to take, this had to be the one that terrified Finn the most.

The silence that had fallen over the group was broken by a sigh from Eyvel. “Well, at least Little Leif escaped that hate. If only it hadn’t come at the cost of his father.”

“He’s missing so much,” Glade agreed, “Aside from Southern Thracia, Lord Quan wasn’t a hateful man. He was quite good-natured and charismatic with close friends across Jugdral.”

“All of whom he was a loyal ally to,” Finn added, “I never knew a more honorable man. I couldn’t be prouder to have called him my lord.”

Glade chuckled, giving Finn a slightly teasing look. “You always used to say you couldn’t ask for a better lord. Finally has some competition?”

“I-” Finn paused, looking back to Leif at the front of the group. For years he had believed those words wholeheartedly, he still believed Quan to be the best man he'd ever known. Quan hadn't fallen in Finn's eyes, yet it felt wrong to say he was better than Leif. Comparing them at all felt wrong.

“Lord Leif and Lord Quan are both fine lords, in different ways," Finn finally said. He admired Quan, he... was impressed by Leif. The word didn't feel quite right but he didn't know how to explain what made him as devoted to Leif as he was to his father.

“Different in every way," August muttered before turning to Eyvel, cold gaze making her tighten her fist around that leather band again. "We all know why Finn's attached to that thing, why are you so fond of your Little Lord?"

“Because all of you see him as a prince, the key to your castle you need to mold,” Eyvel said, turning to watch Leif and the others. A smile softly spread as she watched Asbel try to copy Leif, Mareeta whispering something to Nanna that made her go red. “But when I look at him, I see a boy who doesn’t know what it means to have a mother or a home or feel safe or at peace. But he wants to, so I want to do all I can to help him.”

Sympathy colored Selfina’s expression as she steered her horse to Eyvel's side. “I may not have done a very good job but I’m sure you’ll make Lady Ethlyn proud.” The two exchanged smiles.

“Speaking of, there’s a favor I’d like to ask you, when we set up camp tonight,” Eyvel said, glancing back at the men with an almost disdainful look. “Maybe Finn as well.”

“Trying to show it what a father and sister are like as well?” August asked, somehow managing to not burst into flames under the heat of their combined glares.

"Princess Miranda already took care of half of that," Glade chuckled, glancing at Finn to see if he remembered. He unfortunately did and he didn't find the memory anywhere near as amusing as his old friend did.

Alster, 764

“Lord Leif, please come out of there.”


Finn sighed. Leif had developed the habit of climbing into any small space he could find, sending Finn on more than a few panicked searches through Alster Castle. Finding him was usually the hard part as he’d always come out when called. But today was the opposite.

“Why can’t I call you Papa? Aren't you my papa?” Leif asked, voice raised in frustration.

“No, Lord Leif, I'm not,” Finn said. It had caught him completely by off guard when Leif had called him that, unable to react for long enough to worry Leif. When he recovered, he and Dorias had tried to correct him but Leif had only gotten upset and run off. Leif knew about Quan, which made his behavior all the more concerning to Finn.

“Then where is my papa?”

Why did he have to have this conversation? He didn’t even know how to have this conversation. Leif was three, he didn’t understand what death was. “He’s gone, somewhere far away, somewhere he can’t come back from.”

“So I can’t have a papa,” Leif mumbled dejectedly. Finn could practically hear him pouting. The pitiful sniff on the other side on the bush was the final straw for Finn. The tunnel in the bushes Leif had gone through was not meant for grown men but Finn was not about to let a shrub keep him from Leif.

Several jabs and scratches from twigs and a dozen mud stains later, Finn reached the other side where Leif sat, hugging his knees into his chest, face buried against them. Leif jumped when Finn gently put a hand on his back but upon seeing who it was, threw himself at the knight, clinging to his shirt to try and hide his tears. Carefully, Finn shifted Leif into his lap, Leif unconsciously curling into him.

“Finn? If my papa can’t come back, can I have a new papa?” Leif asked, staring pleadingly up at him. Just the thought of telling him no felt cruel.

“No one could ever replace your father. He was the greatest man in all of Thracia,” Finn said.

Leif frowned, tilting his head to the side as he looked up at Finn. “I know that. But what about my papa?”

“Papa is another word for father.” Under better circumstances, Finn would have been amused at how Leif’s mouth dropped slightly, surprised by this revelation. “What did you think a papa was?”

“Miranda said papas are the best and strongest people in the whole world. They’ll always keep you safe and take care of you and play with you and love you and forgive you when you’re bad and want to make you happy cause you’re the most special person ever to them,” Leif explained. Once he finished, he frowned again. “You’re Nanna’s father?”

“I am,” Finn confirmed, relieved Leif had been distracted. “But father is a bit hard for her to say, so she calls me papa instead.”

“Then what Miranda said about papas, that’s what fathers are too?” Leif asked.

Finn nodded. “Your father most of all. He was the best and strongest man I’ve ever met.”

“Even bester and stronger than you?”

“Far more than me.” The look of awe on Leif’s face warmed something in Finn. Quan may be gone but he could still be part of Leif’s life. Leif deserved to know his father, Quan deserved to have his dream realized and Finn would do all he could to make both happen.


Glade had always been good at reading at his friend, reaching his foot out to nudge Finn before he could begin brooding. "I told you, it's not your fault. And Prince Leif is still here. You can still honor our pact by doing all you can to protect him now. Though I doubt anyone needs to tell you to do that."

"Say that around the prince and we'll learn how penmanship translates into knifework," August warned. Picturing that disturbed Glade into silence.

There was that question again, his word to Leif against his duty as a knight. He had vowed to Leif to do all in his power to follow his every command but he had made that vow after Leif had demanded no one protect him. It was a flimsy excuse and the memory of how sorrowful he had looked when he ordered Finn not to die gave him pause. He didn't want to but he was a knight, it was his duty to obey his lord. But what of his duty to his country? Leif held the hopes of the people, that was more than enough reason to put his life above everything else.

Leif didn't understand just yet but one day he would see all of this was for the greater good. Finn was just a retainer, the best thing he could do with his life was give it in service of his lord. He would do his best to obey Leif's order not to die but in the end, what happens to him doesn't matter. Everything he did was for Leif. If that included giving his life, he would die knowing he’d done the right thing.

The army finished setting up camp with enough of the sun’s light left for August to go off by himself without being questioned. He needed a break from the headache brought on by these arrogant nobles, brash rebels, and that thing they called their prince.

As he was leaving, the noise of a small group caught his attention. The bard they had picked up in Tahra was singing a drinking song with Fergus to accompany Halvan's flute as Lara tried to teach Karin to dance. Several other young soldiers were gathered around to watch, including Finn’s daughter. A wreath of purple flowers sat on her head, though the likely craftsman of it was nowhere to be seen. August hoped they wouldn’t run into each other out here.

The scenery was a vast change from Southern Thracia, thick trees with lush leaves overlapping like a giant green blanket shielding him from the sky. As August continued on, he lost track of how many new plants he saw, how many tiny buds were popping out of rich, almost black soil. There was never complete silence, yet the small noises of unseen creatures and wind rustled plants was somehow more peaceful. He may not be Thracian but he could understand why this land was so loved and desired.

“I thought Prince Leif had disappeared. Good job finding him.”

August silently cursed. It looked like he'd traded a pounding head for a pounding heart. “It was Prince Ced that found him,” he said without turning around, as if this would make his benefactor go away.

“Huh. Good for Ced,” Lewyn said, unsurprised to hear of his son’s presence in Thracia. Either that or he didn’t care, both were equally likely.

“He’s still here, in Manster. He says he has a plan to free it within the year.” August glanced back at Lewyn. His impassive expression was even less revealing than Leif’s scowls.

“That would be helpful. Of course, it would be better if Leif were there to help but we’ll take what we can get.” Lewyn shrugged. “At least he kept Tahra from falling. I honestly didn’t think you could but I’m guessing that’s also why the Empire is ready to empty their vaults for his head.”

“Among other things,” August said, quick to change the subject, “How are things going with Lord Seliph?”

Lewyn sighed. “He still hasn’t taken a stand, it’s getting a bit frustrating, honestly. He’s seventeen and still letting Shannan and Oifey do everything. I’m starting to think they’re spoiling the boy.”

If Eyvel were here, she’d be glaring at Lewyn for that last remark. Picturing that helped August gather the nerve to bring up what they needed to talk about. “Your Highness, have you heard of the Ghoul of Thracia?”

“The Ghoul… Drawn in by the child hunts, so named as everywhere he goes becomes an Imperial graveyard, bodies mutilated and picked over. The kindest deaths among his victims are those burned alive or crushed by debris. Savage enough to bite yet clever enough to avoid every trap, there's nothing he can't use to kill and nowhere that can keep him out. They say he’s killed so many his arms are stained with trails of blood,” Lewyn recalled, “That ghoul?”

This was why August hated bards. “Yes.”

“I wouldn’t recommend him as an ally but if you’re truly desperate, at least he’ll be effective,” Lewyn advised.

“Would you say the same to Seliph?”

“No, he’s far too radical a figure. The Liberation Army is supposed to be a beacon of hope, hard to do when you're bathing in blood. I doubt Seliph would want to join forces with him either, he loathes unnecessary violence.”

These were the hardest five words August had ever tried to say, dreading the reaction they would bring. “The Ghoul is Prince Leif.”

“... Well that complicates things.” Though still appearing calm, the icy edge of irritation had crept into Lewyn's tone.

“There’s more." There was that glare he was dreading. August was starting to wish he had never left the camp. "He hates Prince Quan, all of House Leonster. He's sympathetic to Southern Thracia to the point he's trying to make an alliance with Travant. I overheard a conversation today where he decided Holy Blood means nothing.” August finally met Lewyn's eye, holding his gaze as he said what neither of them wanted to hear. “He won’t go along with your plan.”

Lewyn frowned, silent for a moment as he took everything in. “Is Finn still with you?”

“He pledged fealty to that thing, he adores it. Eyvel’s practically adopted him as well,” August said, “Dorias might be convinced to help but I doubt it would do any good. He barely listens to us and even the advice he tries to follow he fails miserably at. He’s far too impulsive, especially with that temper of his.”

“What if you emphasized stopping the child hunts? Would that be enough to make him cooperate?” Lewyn suggested.

“Cooperate, perhaps. Behave, no. He's more likely to run in and take on everything himself than follow another's lead."

"How about to make a good impression on his cousin, the only family he has left? Could the shame of his cousin's disgust be enough to make him compliant?"

"He doesn't care if he's hated and doesn't regret what he's done. He may even throw it in Lord Seliph's face to shame him for taking so long to act."

A dark look had come over Lewyn’s face as he tried to think of some way to salvage the situation. August couldn’t but Lewyn was the one orchestrating this, positioning all the pieces into places only he could see. He had to have some sort of contingency plan for if one of those pieces moved out of place.

Finally Lewyn sighed, having reached a conclusion. “If he’s not going to cooperate, we may be better off without him.”

August’s stomach dropped. “Your Highness, you can’t seriously be suggesting-”

“We’ve been through much together, you know how hard it was to get this far. It took years to convince people Sigurd was a martyr who saw through Arvis' schemes and tried to save the world from him, especially considering how well Arvis did before the Loptyr Cult took control. There are still some who won’t accept it, even a few who still believe he’s Sigurd the Traitor,” Lewyn reminded him.

“Raydrik told Prince Leif the truth,” August admitted. “And he confirmed it with a former Loptyr cultist. Our entire army knows now and it's likely spreading through Tahra.”

“Fucking fantastic! Is there anything this boy is useful for besides as an attack dog?” Lewyn snapped. His glare wasn’t meant for August but he still felt nervous under it, rebuttal dying in his throat. 

August frowned. Why had he almost defended Leif? He didn’t like him, that boy- thing was unsociable, ill mannered, and bad tempered, dealing with him was maddening. August still couldn’t understand what set his temper off, not reacting to August’s attempts to provoke him yet flying into a rage at Olwen’s denial of the child hunts and Ced’s attempt to argue Leif's life was worth protecting. He was full of contradictions, perspective childish yet nuanced, hateful yet sympathetic, swinging from violent to gentle in a heartbeat. If he was trying to be the most frustrating person August had met, he had succeeded.

“If Jugdral is to be liberated, we need Seliph to lead this generation’s crusaders, he’ll be quickly loved and accepted as their Hero of Light, making it easier for him to take the throne. I wanted Ares and Leif beside him to invoke their father’s friendship but we still don’t know where Ares is and with Leif like this, we may as well scrap that idea,” Lewyn summarized, talking more to himself than August, “We don’t need Leif but we need Thracia freed. Perhaps Arion would be a better ally, he can actually use a Holy Weapon as well. But we’d need to find a way to turn him against Travant-”

“Prince Leif saved Prince Arion’s life in Tahra and is a close friend of his fiance, I doubt he would be willing to work with us if we kill Prince Leif.” From Lewyn’s narrowed eyes, this wasn’t the answer he was looking for. It wasn’t the answer August expected to give. “That’s even considering he can be killed. I certainly can’t, he’d overpower me instantly.”

“You said he’s impulsive, so let him be. Let him make bad decisions until one bites him back,” Lewyn instructed, “If you take the east path toward Melgln, you'll come across a group of mercenaries escorting some Loptyr cultists to Manster. They have something for Raydrik so it's likely in your best interest to intercept them anyway. Among the mercenaries is a young man known as the Black Knight, said to be a demon with a blade. Perhaps a demon is enough to kill a ghoul.”

August’s displeasure must have shown as Lewyn sighed, running a hand over his face. “Look, I don’t want to do this either. I was Quan's friend, something awful must have happened for his son to turn out like this. But there is too much at stake here. Either get him in line or get rid of him.”

Both felt impossible. But if there was a third option, neither of them could see it. “Very well, your highness. I will ensure when you return, Thracia will be ready for Lord Seliph's Liberation Army, with or without Prince Leif."

Chapter Text

Practicing with Mareeta felt a lot like teaching Asbel. Both were obviously very good but their eagerness to impress made them sloppy, their thought process was obvious, and they had glaring weak spots that could easily be exploited for a quick kill. Or maybe Leif was just used to looking for this.

Mareeta lunged again, thrust easily deflected, but she was trying to build momentum. Leif had meant what he said about staying on the defensive and she was taking advantage of that to be as aggressive as possible. She slid easily from her first attack into her second, taking a step forward as she tried to swing towards his unprotected side, predictability of the attack making it another simple block. This seemed to only encourage her, swiftly transitioning again to attack from the other side, relying on her speed to try and land a hit. As fast as she was, it wasn’t enough, being blocked once again, the same happening when she swung for the first side again.

Thinking she had made him complacent, she lifted her sword higher as she lunged forward, using that and her downward stroke to hit harder, hoping it would be strong enough to disarm him if he blocked. She didn’t have a chance to find out as he pivoted to the side, avoiding the hit altogether. The momentum she had built up caused her to stumble, landing on her knee. 

Turning her head to the side to look at his legs, if that hadn’t been enough her little smirk made it clear what her next move would be. Sure enough, she swung her leg out as his legs. He jumped over it and swung one leg forward, kicking her jaw hard enough to knock her down.

“I’m sorry,” Leif apologized as she pushed herself back up. He hadn’t meant to attack, it was just instinct by now to defend himself whenever someone came too close, no matter who they were. August was right, he needed to learn to control himself. But this instinct had kept him alive for years, able to react faster and quickly raise his guard. It was the best defense he had.

“Don’t be,” Mareeta said, trying to be subtle about glancing at his practice sword before jabbing hers up, trying to hit his hand and break his grip. Leif raised his arm out of the way, but Mareeta pushed herself forward, grabbing his sleeve to try and pull him down with her. He barely registered the ripping sound as he pulled his arm back and with his now free arm, grabbed and twisted hers. Pain briefly flashed across her face before an even more determined look replaced it. Before she could attack, Leif let go and backed away, throwing down the practice sword.

“No more.” Mareeta frowned, opening her mouth to argue before her gaze shifted to his shoulder, expression confused. 

“Are you bleeding?” Her question caused Asbel to perk up, running over with a staff in hand. Nanna followed behind at a more reasonable pace, puzzled frown as she tried to figure out how that could be possible. He wished anyone but them were here. He knew the scars on his arms disturbed and frightened people. He’d tried to avoid showing them to the army, a choice that seemed to have been the right one going by how often people would stare at his forehead after Gunna. He hadn’t looked himself, he hadn’t looked at his reflection in years, but he doubted they stared because it looked nice.

But there was no way out of this, not with all three of them staring expectantly at him. Leif sighed. “It’s not blood,” he said, pushing up his sleeves. All three moved closer, shocked and disturbed looks on their faces. “Just some scars.”

“Wha- How?” Asbel tried to ask. He and Nanna were not hearing this story, Leif didn’t want to upset them any more than they already were.

“House Friege thought I needed a demonstration of their power,” Leif said, hearing the knight’s voice in his head as he’d wrapped his hand around Leif’s wrists.

“You shouldn't hide them,” Mareeta said, looking up at Leif with the same determination as during their fight. “They’re just like my sword, the one Raydrik gave me. It hurts to look at but there’s nothing more satisfying than turning it on the Empire. When we take down House Friege, you should let them see these, let them know their power wasn’t enough to stop you.”

“House Friege?” All four turned to see Olwen and Fred at the edge of the woods, just returning from a morning walk. Olwen pulled her hand out of Fred’s and approached, staring at Leif’s arm with the same horrified disbelief as when he had described the child hunts to her. “They... did this? Just when I thought they couldn’t be any crueler. How does my brother, how does anyone go along with this!?” She turned back to Fred, anger making her overlook the suspicious frown Fred was giving Leif. “Did you know about this too? Is this another thing you didn’t support but there was nothing you could do about!?”

“What, no! I didn’t know about this!” Fred insisted, snapping out of his thoughts now Olwen’s anger was directed at him. “And that’s not fair, you know how the army works! Whatever the higher ups do, the rest of us have no power to stop. We pledged our loyalty to House Friege, we couldn’t disobey their orders. We could dislike them and complain to each other but that’s it. You can’t have forgotten how Kempf terrorized you. How come you never did anything about that?”

“Because he was being petty, not torturing me!” Olwen countered, “If I knew half the inhumane things House Friege was involved with, I would have defected sooner! Why did you, if you’re still so quick to defend them?”

“I’m not defending them,” Fred argued. “What they’re doing is wrong. What I’m trying to say is I understand why so many soldiers go along with this even when they don’t like it. You were just saying you want to return to Friege after the war, weren’t you? You still love your country, you’re just brave enough to turn against them for doing what you know is wrong. Most of us aren’t. I wasn’t before you.”

Olwen’s anger lessened at his confession. “Is it really that hard?”

Fred gave a dry laugh. “Sure is easier to just keep following orders. Tell yourself you’re doing the right thing by being loyal to your country and you may even be able to sleep at night.”

“I wouldn’t,” Olwen said, shaking her head. A frown formed as a thought occurred to her, turning to Leif with reluctance. Whatever she was about to say, she was clearly dreading the response. “Prince Leif, is what Kempf said true? Are all of House Friege’s generals involved in the child hunts?”

“Yes.” She flinched at his answer. “This is about your brother.”

“Reinhardt has always been very kind, he... he’s a good person. I don’t understand how he could be involved in something so horrible,” Olwen confessed.

“I believe Fred already gave you your answer,” Nanna said coolly. Leif glanced at her, remembering her confession about hating this sort of unwavering loyalty. She almost managed to keep her expression neutral. But the cold edge to her eyes gave away her distaste.

The thought seemed to pain Olwen, leaning her head against Fred as he pulled her into his side. It wasn't much but Leif had been wanting to do this since they left Tahra. Untying the cord around his neck, Leif approached the pair and held out the ring. “If House Leonster can be remade, so can House Friege.”

For a moment, Olwen simply stared at the ring, running Leif’s words through her head. Finally, the beginnings of a smile began to form as she accepted it. Her resolve faltered slightly as she reached up to touch the stone already around her neck but quickly returned as she yanked it off, letting it fall to the ground as she replaced it with the ring.

“How did you know about these?” Leif asked as he covered his arms again.

“My brother. When I was learning magic, I thought it was fun to use wind spells on myself to go flying back into a pile of cushions. When Reinhardt found out, he gave me a very detailed lecture about the dangers of using magic on yourself. I was scared to touch a tome for a week.” Her fond smile slowly faded as the memory became tainted. It would be this way for a long time, any happy or cherished memory of her brother now painful to recall. It had been for Leif and all he had were stories.

Olwen and Fred left first, hands interlaced once again. Leif went to find his practice sword and follow but was stopped by Asbel, holding the sword to his chest with a concerned look on his face.

“Lord Leif, Olwen said she wasn’t tortured but… it sounded like she was saying- were you- are those...” Asbel didn’t want to ask this question as much as Leif didn’t want to answer it.

“It was over fast,” Leif said. “They weren’t trying to kill me, just make me behave.”

“Doesn’t seem to have worked,” Mareeta remarked.

“No,” Leif agreed, “It made me worse.” She was the only one who seemed to like his answer.

When August had first brought the news of a party of Loptyrians nearby being escorted to deliver something to Raydrik, Leif had wanted to question him on where this information came from. He claimed it was from an ally but no one had seen him meet with anyone and it was strange someone had been able to find them out here without knowing their plans. But Leif refrained from bringing up his concerns. He needed to start trusting more. August was his advisor, he was trying to help Leif. He at least deserved the benefit of the doubt.

Upon reaching the outskirts of the town the Loptyrians were supposedly in, August had suggested they break off into smaller groups, to avoid drawing too much attention to themselves and to cover more ground. Two larger groups would stay in the woods around the east and west side of town and go around it while a smaller group would go into town and the smallest group would check the mansion just outside of town. Leif had volunteered to lead the last group. It may have just been his past with places like these but there was something that felt almost familiar about the mansion.

“Lord Leif, is something the matter?” It seemed his preoccupation hadn’t escaped Finn’s notice. The knight had ridden up beside Leif, expression concerned. He would be walking a very fine line with what he could say to Finn but Finn would only worry more if he said nothing. He had told Leif he wanted to know as much as he could so Leif would give him what he could handle.

“I think I was here before,” Leif admitted, feeling Finn start to watch him more closely. Now that he knew Finn didn’t hate him, that he actually had faith in him, he dreaded that changing. Leif wanted to keep both for as long as he could, but once Finn knew everything he'd done, he knew he'd lose them. Finn claimed he could never hate him but there had to be a limit to what he was willing to forgive.

“Would a place like this have something to do with the child hunts?” Finn asked.

“Abandoned manors like this were used when the villages the children were taken from were too far from forts. The Empire preferred not to move the children too far and risk something happening on the road and no one would think to look here. The soldiers also liked how comfortable they were compared to forts and prisons,” Leif explained.

“But not anymore.”

“They were easier to attack. Less soldiers, less defenses, cellars instead of dungeons. The rooms the children were kept in were worse than cells but the locks easier to pick.”

“Is this what you started with?” Finn asked, unsurprised by Leif’s nod. He hesitated before asking his next question, more softly than the first. “Why did you even start? You had to know how dangerous it was, especially by yourself.”

“Nothing changes if you do nothing and no one else would act. If I wanted to end the child hunts, I had to do it myself,” Leif said, “All my life I’d only run away. But I couldn’t let this go unchallenged, I won’t abandon anyone ever again.”

His answer bothered Finn but he wasn’t angry, he seemed closer to sad. Had Leif made him feel guilty by mentioning running away, something Finn had been forced to do because Leif had been too weak to protect anything, needing to be the one protected himself? Finn surely would have preferred to be fighting on the front lines with Glade and Dorias than fleeing with Leif. But he would never have to again. Leif would be enough to protect both of them, to keep Finn from having to give up anything else for him.

“There are good reasons why no one else acted,” Finn said.

“I know,” Leif said. The trees were starting to thin, the mansion almost within reach. "But not for me." Not waiting for Finn to respond, Leif left the road, using the remaining trees and dense bushes to hide his approach.

The mansion’s entrance was guarded by two knights, both atop horses and discussing something. Keeping low, Leif snuck as close as he could to try and listen.

“I know but they still give me the creeps. I keep expecting to wake up covered in animal blood or missing my tongue as part of their weird rituals.”

“We were headed to Thracia anyway, may as well earn some extra coin along the way. Raydrik can also give us information to help hunt down Prince Leif, like what the boy looks like.”

“Ha, extra coin! After we kill the prince, we’ll never need extra coin again. We’ll never need to work again! As long as your boy’s with us, that bounty’s as good as ours.”

“You're right but don't you dare say that in front of him. He was fine when he was little, then he grew up and got a big head. So what if his father was a lord, he’s a mercenary just like the rest of us. He can’t keep going around pointing his sword at anyone who pisses him off, especially our employers! You think he’d at least have some respect for them.”

The first mercenary snorted. “The Black Knight, respect someone besides himself and his father? Sure you haven’t started drinking already?”

“Gods that fucking title.” Whatever complaint the mercenary was about to make was cut off by a snapping sound as Mareeta tried to approach Leif, not watching her steps. Both knights immediately turned towards where the pair were hidden.

“Who’s there? Show yourself!” one of the mercenaries called.

“Rustle the bush,” Leif whispered to Mareeta, moving a few steps away from her. Although confused, she followed his order, rustling the bushes around her. The mercenaries began to cautiously approach as Leif moved further from Mareeta.

Just as she was about to draw her sword, both almost able to peer into her hiding place, Leif hit the closest one with a thunder spell, knocking him from his horse and spooking both horses as Mareeta charged. Trying to calm his horse distracted the still mounted mercenary long enough for Mareeta to land a hit before he was even aware she was there, turning in time to take her second strike to his chest.

The sound of hoofbeats approaching announced Hicks and Fergus’ arrival, Asbel hopping off Hicks’ horse while he was still slowing down. Hicks took a moment to frown disapprovingly before turning to Leif. “Another one saw the commotion and started riding off, probably to get reinforcements. Finn’s taking care of it.”

So most of the mercenaries weren’t here but this place was still important enough to be guarded. Leif was almost certain Raydrik’s delivery was here, which would mean Loptyrians as well. They had no idea how many would be inside, August had described it only as a small party, but who knew how long it would take Finn to gather the others, if he even went to get reinforcements.

The question of what to do was answered by Mareeta as she ran for the front door, making Leif suddenly very sympathetic for the panic he caused Finn as she threw the door open without hesitation. Fortunately, there was no one in the foyer and she waited once inside, looking around in slight awe at the ornate room larger than her house. Fergus and Hicks followed after dismounting, Leif waiting for Asbel to enter before going to do so as well.

“Halt, you scoundrels.”

Leif paused in the doorway, Asbel meeting his eye with alarm. “Stay on the ground floor, stay together,” Leif said softly. Asbel nodded, though reluctant, and hurried to tell the others as Leif turned to see who this newcomer was.

A scowling blonde haired man glared down at Leif from atop his horse, a dancer watching with concern from back by the trees. Leif wondered if this was the Black Knight the other mercenaries had mentioned. He certainly looked like he was trying to be with that extravagant coat of his.

“Which of you bastards killed Javarro?” he demanded, anger giving away how upset he was.

If he had to guess, Javarro was probably one of the mercenaries that had been guarding the mansion. “I did,” Leif said, slowly moving out of the doorway. If there was going to be a fight, he’d rather have it away from where the others were and where he had more room to work with. He’d rather not leave a corpse on the doorstep as well.

“You’ll pay for that with your life,” the Black Knight snarled, unsheathing his sword and pointing it at Leif. “The demon sword craves blood and tonight, you shall sate it’s thirst.”

The demon sword, why did that sound familiar? Hopefully that wasn’t too important as Leif didn’t have time to think about it. His anger gave the Black Knight another advantage over Leif but if he could provoke him a little more, he may be able to use it instead, distract him enough to make a big enough blind spot to exploit.

“Is this supposed to be intimidating?” he asked, making it very clear he wasn’t impressed. The narrow eyed glare he was fixed with gave away he was on the right track. “Feels more like overcompensation.”

“It appears you are unaware of who you face,” the Black Knight said gravely, “I-”

“The Black Knight,” Leif interrupted, irritation evident on his opponent’s face, “You’re just another arrogant mercenary, there are thousands of you all over Jugdral. Why would anyone be intimidated by you?”

How quickly he was becoming enraged, you would think no one had ever stood up to him before. Perhaps no one had, going by what the other mercenaries said.

“You will be, right before you become a stain on Mystletainn!” he snapped before charging. 

Everything suddenly clicked into place as Leif realized he'd just made a terrible mistake. This was Ares, Lord Eldigan’s son, Nanna’s cousin and Finn’s nephew. Leif couldn’t kill him. But it was too late to talk Ares down. Just as Ares was about to reach him, Mystletainn aimed for his chest, Leif quickly dashed to the right, giving Ares no time to react before giving his coat a hard tug. It wasn’t enough for him to fall off his horse but hanging off the side as it continued to gallop on wasn’t very dignified either. It wasn’t a permanent solution but it gave Leif time to come up with a new plan.

He couldn’t kill Ares, but Ares wanted to kill him and after Leif provoked and embarrassed him, he wouldn’t want to listen to anything Leif said. What would he even say? Ares would only want to kill Leif more if he knew who he was. He wouldn't know about Nanna, he had disappeared before she was born, before Lady Lachesis and Finn were even married. Talking wasn't an option, he didn't know the area so he couldn't think of a way to trap Ares, it really was looking like fighting was the only option.

Ares managed to release himself from his saddle, falling ungracefully on the ground. He lifted his head to glare at Leif, not taking his eyes off him as he stood. The foyer was empty now, if he could lure Ares in there, he’d take away one of Ares’ advantages and give himself one. Leif waited until Ares was standing to turn around and walk to the front door, counting on this to further insult Ares into running into the mansion rather than getting back on his horse.

It was, Ares running at the mansion with a look of absolute rage. Leif had thought provoking him would make him an easier kill, but with Mystletainn, a Holy Weapon said to be one of the greatest blades ever forged, it may not matter. Leif may only be ensuring his death would be as painful as possible.

No, Nanna was right and he was going to prove it. He could do this, he could hold his own against Ares, even with Mystletainn. He had to be, or else Ares would kill everyone else in the mansion and any reinforcements Finn brought back. A cold feeling washed over him as it occurred to him what Ares being here might mean about Finn. But he couldn't think about that now, as Ares was running across the room, Mystletainn drawn back to run through him. Leif dodged the blow and their fight began.

Although nowhere near as fast, Ares was just as relentlessly aggressive as Mareeta, more strength behind his swings as well. Each stroke flowed into the next, making countering a near impossible task. But Leif hadn’t drawn his blade, instead slipping effortlessly back into the thoughts that had once been his guide in every fight.

Anything that tries to touch you wants to kill you. Once you start moving, don't stop. Don’t act until you have to, figure out what they’re thinking but don’t let them know what you are. Look for openings, look for anything you can take advantage of. No one is coming to help you. You're on your own, you're the only one who wants you to survive. Do whatever it takes to do that.

Despite being quite dramatic when they talked, Ares was very straightforward with his swordplay, no fancy moves or tricks. He didn’t need them, not with how powerful Mystletainn was. But that and his increasing anger and exhaustion as Leif continued to evade his attacks only made him easier to predict, every dodge further increasing his frustration. “Stop moving and fight back!” he snarled as Leif ducked beneath a wild swing intended for his neck, quickly turning on the balls of his feet and sliding back before Mystletainn could be thrust forward into his chest.

He had tired and angered Ares enough for him to be getting sloppy but even with that, it was too much of a risk to both of them if Leif armed himself. The stairs were just to the right of Leif, giving him an idea. Moving as if to run to the left, as soon as Ares lunged, Leif turned and ran at the stairs, hopping on the banister and running up it.

Once he reached the top of the banister, Leif leaped onto the balustrade around the edge of the second floor, Ares following not too far behind. He needed to time this just right, pausing a moment before running for the pillar at the corner. As soon as he reached it, he wrapped his arm around it and swung himself around, kicking Ares in the face and sending him into the wall. He let go of the pillar, momentum pushing him forward to land beside Ares. 

Ares tried to thrust Mystletainn forward to stab Leif but Leif was close enough to only need to move slightly before grabbing and twisting his wrist, following closely with a knee to the groin. It was a cheap shot but it did the trick, Ares losing his grip on Mystletainn. Leif shoved Ares back as he released the hold on his wrist and kicked Mystletainn as far away from them as he could, placing himself between it and Ares.

“I won’t kill you,” Leif said, “But I won’t lose to you either.”

Ares glared, breathing heavily. “Too scared of the demon blade to fight fair?”

“Not confident enough to fight without it?” Leif countered. “If all you are is that sword, then you’re nothing at all.”

Enraged, Ares charged Leif and was met with a punch to the face, another striking his jaw before he could retaliate. A kick made contact with his ribs, throwing him into the balustrade, the marble connecting painfully with his side. Using the balustrade to push off, he took a swing at Leif, missing and taking a blow to the side of his head, suddenly being thrown off balance. While Ares was disoriented, Leif landed another punch, feeling Ares’ nose snap as it began to bleed steadily, then a kick to the knee, bringing Ares down to a kneeling position. He made a grab for Leif’s waist, Leif twisting out of the way to kick his arms away before driving his knee under Ares’ chin. Ares landed on his back with a grimace.

“Stay down,” Leif warned, receiving a murderous glare in response. Before either could do anything further, there was a muted boom and a shake of the building, the chandelier creaking as it swayed. Someone had just used thunder magic on the mansion and although Leif had a good idea who, the reason why is what worried him.

Running to the stairs, Leif found Mareeta, Fergus, and Hicks in the foyer, Fergus with a long cloth bundle under his arm. As Leif hurried down, he tried to ask about Asbel but was cut off by a panicked Mareeta.

“Behind you!” Leif didn’t need to turn around to know what he would see, jumping over the railing to get away from Ares. Landing in a crouch, he looked up to see the livid mercenary, Mystletainn back in hand, standing at the top of the stairs. Ares started running down as Leif raced to the foot of the stairs, pulling the carpet runner and sending Ares falling backwards, crying out as his head hit the stairs.

“Get out. Now,” Leif ordered, Fergus and Hicks quickly obeying as Ares got back on his feet and charged at Leif again. He was intercepted halfway by Mareeta, parrying her first swing but barely managing to do so with her next, or the one after that. Her speed and persistence forced him on the defensive, no time to counterattack when he was struggling to keep up.

But while Mareeta was faster, Ares was stronger. At her next swing, he swung his sword to meet hers with enough force to knock her blade back. Mareeta tried to recover and attack again but Ares was two steps above her on the stairs, force of his downward swing almost too much for her to block. Once he raised his sword to attack again, she jumped back, landing at the foot of the stairs and quickly moving backwards as Ares pursued. As soon as he was on the ground, Mareeta tried to go in again but Ares was ready for her this time, parrying her strike hard enough to almost knock her sword from her hands. She tried to lift her sword as he brought his down, a pained cry filling the room as Mystletainn cut through her arm.

Opponent distracted and unable to continue, Ares drew back Mystletainn to finish her off and immediately let out his own cry of pain as an arrow sunk into his eye. He lifted his head to look around for the culprit, not needing long to find Leif glaring back, hand clenched around his bow. Upon seeing who had shot him, Ares growled and tried to charge again, only to be thrown into the wall across the room by a wind spell. 

Keeping an eye on Ares to make sure he didn’t get up, Leif ran to Mareeta’s side, bow and tome switched for a staff. Linoan had been very generous with the supplies she had given their army, even giving them some rescue and rewarp staves. But the most that could be done for a lost limb was to stop the bleeding and ease the pain. It was still better than nothing, Leif kneeling beside Mareeta as he did just that.

“You kids o- gods!” Hicks gaped as he quickly knelt beside the pair. The bleeding had stopped but Mareeta’s face was still scrunched in pain, holding the stump to her chest. Across the room, Ares staggered to his feet.

“Get her out of here,” Leif said to Hicks, who nodded and scooped Mareeta up in his arms before dashing for the door. Ares starting trying to run forward and Leif grabbed his wind tome again, throwing him into one of the pillars supporting the second floor. If Leif remembered correctly, Mystletainn increased Ares’ immunity to magic, meaning he wasn’t being thrown with as much force as Leif would like and the most damage he would take was from whatever he was being thrown into. He needed a better solution to keep Ares away from everyone else.

“Lord Leif!” Asbel called, relieving one of Leif’s worries as he appeared, thunder tome drawn. He looked up at the ceiling as Ares steadied himself to prepare to attack again. Leif followed Asbel's gaze, quickly understanding his idea. Switching to a thunder tome as well, Leif ran to the other side of the room, turning and lifting his hand to cast a thunder spell at the base of the chandelier at the same time Asbel did. Their spells hit on opposite sides, the force breaking the hook holding it up and sending the chandelier plummeting towards the middle of the foyer. Ares noticed in time and managed to dive out of the way but there was now a large, fiery obstacle between him and the others, one Asbel and Leif could use to keep him at bay.

That is, they could have if the ceiling hadn’t started to crack. Already unstable from Asbel’s earlier spell, the force of the chandelier being ripped from the ceiling was too much for the old mansion to take. As debris started to fall, Leif threw up his hands, trying to use as much wind magic as possible to hold the debris back.

“But you're-” Asbel started to say something but quickly stopped and followed suit, stowing his thunder tome and throwing his hands up as well, expression furrowed in concentration. It held the debris at bay, not as well as Leif’s, but enough for him to slowly make his way over to meet Leif in the middle of the room, their spells enough together to make a shield over them, although it would do nothing about the fire the fallen chandelier had started. Leif shifted himself in front of Asbel to make sure he left first.

This wasn't like trying to hold back the Schwarze Rosen, this was physical objects they were pushing against. They had to increase how much they used just to balance out the force and weight of the debris. Asbel's face was red and Leif's arms stung as they slowly made their way to the front doors, thankfully left wide open. Asbel quickly escaped as Leif heard an angry noise from the foyer. Glancing forward, he watched Ares stumbling through the rubble, grip still tight on Mystletainn. A beam falling behind him knocked him to the ground but he looked just as murderous as before when he looked up at Leif. Then he noticed what Leif was doing. That familiar look of fear was the last thing Leif saw as he stopped his spell and escaped.

More of their men were outside, staring at the mansion, but Leif’s attention immediately turned to Mareeta. Looking around, she spotted her on the ground, being supported by Hicks as Nanna held her arm, examining the stump. As he approached, he heard Nanna speaking softly and paused, not wanting to interrupt.

“Gods, starting to think really ain’t nothing you can’t do,” Fergus said, still staring at the destroyed mansion in disbelief. He shook his head and turned to Leif. “Reckon this is what we came fer. Buncha those mages guarding it so prolly something special at least.”

Leif pulled back the cloth to find a sword wrapped inside. Was this meant to replace the one Nanna had taken from Raydrik? That sword was imbued with some sort of dark magic although Salem had assured them it wasn’t dangerous to the wielder, actually offering them protection. This sword didn’t seem to have any dark magic, it just seemed like an old blade in need of care after several years of disuse. There was some insignia on the hilt but it was too dark to make it out with just the fire's light.

“Mareeta? Little Nan? What’s wrong- oh gods.” Eyvel ran past Leif and Fergus, kneeling by her girls. She stared at the remainder of Mareeta’s arm for a moment, horrified expression becoming heartbroken as she wrapped her daughter in her arms, as if shielding her from any more harm.

Mareeta shook a little as she leaned into her mother, unable to fully return the embrace. “I’m sorry Mother, I should have listened. But I saw Lord Leif take him without a weapon and I thought I could take him too. It’s my fault, it’s all my fault.”

“Now you stop that, young lady. This isn’t your fault. The only one responsible is the dastard who did this,” Eyvel said, trying to sound less shaken then she actually was. The scene was hard to watch, the guilt choking Leif as he realized everything he’d done.

“I’m sorry,” Leif finally managed to choke out, “I should have stopped Ares, kept Mystletainn away from him.”

“Ares?” Nanna repeated, looking up with a shocked expression. “He’s here?”

“I-,” Leif couldn’t say he tried not to kill him. After Ares cut off Mareeta’s arm, Leif forgot all about sparing him. He was Nanna’s cousin, one of the few family members she had left, and Leif was responsible for his death.

For a moment, Nanna seemed pained, looking at the burning remains of the mansion. When she turned back, her expression was firm, just as it had been when she tore up the Crusader Scrolls. “Better him than either of you,” she said, staring at Leif as if trying to force him to believe her words. She was forcing herself, she had to be. She couldn’t forgive Leif for something like this.

As if reading his thoughts, she added, “What if it was your cousin? What if Seliph tried to kill Asbel and I? Would you rather he live?”

Leif barely remembered he had a cousin. He’d never met him, he likely never would unless he decided the bounty on Leif was tempting enough to seek him out. Leif knew nothing about Seliph, he was probably a decent person, but the thought of losing Nanna and Asbel. “Not you. Never you.”

“And never you,” Nanna said, rising to her feet. She had to lift her chin slightly to make eye contact, forcing him to pay attention. “You and Mareeta mean the world to me and I never want to lose anyone dear to me ever again. As long as that doesn’t happen, I don’t care what else does.”

There was a small, pained noise as Mareeta pulled out of her mother’s embrace before rising to stand with them. “Then we won’t disappoint, Little Nan,” Mareeta promised. She looked down at her arm. “I was too eager to fight, to prove to myself I was stronger, that I was the one in control now. But I’m just as weak as before.”

“You’re not weak, you’re just terrible at picking your battles,” Nanna said, trying to give a small smile, “Even back in Fiana, you were always the one I had to patch up the most when you went out with the Freeblades.”

Mareeta gave a small sheepish grin before returning to her previous solemn expression. “I’ll have to learn how to now.”

“You’re still going to fight?” Nanna asked, surprised. Mareeta tried to look confident as she nodded.

“I still want to be as great a swordmaster as my mother,” Mareeta said, “This is just one more challenge I need to overcome.”

“And I know you will,” Eyvel said, joining them with a pained but proud expression. “You’ll be an even better swordmaster than me.” Mareeta smiled gratefully at her mother’s confidence in her, letting her uncertainty show for a moment.

“Aren’t you swordmasters always goin’ on about being one with yer swords? Why not just stick a blade on there, bet that’ll really help yer swing,” Fergus suggested with a lopsided grin.

Mareeta mirrored his expression. “Bet it would. Wouldn’t have to worry about losing my grip either.” She eyed the sword Leif was holding. “That one even has a nice curve. Break it in the middle and it’d be the right size.”

“I can,” Leif offered. Fergus laughed as Eyvel shook her head, smiling fondly.

“You three know there’s a dozen things wrong with that idea,” she chided lightheartedly.

“Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break it,” Asbel said, angry suggestion and sudden arrival surprising most of the group.

“Like the mansion?” Leif guessed. He wasn’t sure how the two were related but something had set off a destructive streak in Asbel.

“Just like the mansion,” Asbel angrily agreed, “All the awful stuff that happened ‘cause of places like this, there’s nothin’ I can do about it now ‘cept take these places away from them so they can’t hurt anyone anymore!”

He’d heard and going by his expression, he’d figured out more than that. Of course he had, he was one of the smartest people here. He wouldn’t say anything in front of the others but he was going to corner Leif as soon as he could. Leif wished there was a way he could comfort him, apologize for the pain this new knowledge was putting him in. It wasn’t much, but maybe this would do for now.

Leif held the hilt of the sword with one hand as he stepped on the tip, bending the blade as much as he could. Holding his other hand slightly below the hilt, he sent a light magic spell at the blade, the strike sending sparks as it struck and snapped the blade from the hilt.

“I meant it,” Leif said, looking up from the blade to Asbel. “I’m grateful. For everything.” That finally managed to bring a smile to Asbel’s face as he picked up the now hiltless end of the blade, bending it as Leif pressed down on the tip. He was still getting used to light magic so it took a few hits but the blade snapped again, Asbel grinning as he held the forte of the sword in his hands.

“Sure it’s alright to break that thing? Isn’t that the whole reason we came here?” Hicks asked.

“We came here to stop Raydrik from getting it,” Mareeta corrected, “Now he’ll never be able to use it.” The thought made her smirk although her eyes still burned with hatred for the man.

“It may not be usable but it’s still sharp which is why you really shouldn’t be holding it like that, Asbel,” Eyvel scolded, “Those gloves don’t cover your fingers and will not stop you from being cut.”

“It’s not even that sharp,” Asbel protested but still handed the blade over when Eyvel held out her hand. Leif offered him the hilt in consolation.

“Lord Leif, are you alright? What happened to the mansion?"

Leif quickly turned, even more relieved to see Finn that he had been to see Asbel. A quick glance confirmed he was uninjured as well, although understandably quite confused. Leif started to answer his question before the guilt tugged at his throat, remembering why he had been worried about Finn in the first place.

“I’m sorry-” Leif began but was quickly cut off by Asbel, Mareeta, and Nanna all speaking at once.

“I’m the one who collapsed the mansion! It was my idea to bring down the chandelier too!”

“That dastard would have killed all of us! His sword was so strong and he was furious, he wouldn’t stop fighting!”

“Father, please don’t be mad. He was with the mercenaries, he would have come for Lord Leif anyway.”

If Finn was confused before, all three of them talking over each other did not help. He looked to Eyvel, the swordswoman handing over the pieces of the blade to Hicks and signaling for him and Fergus to leave before stepping in.

“That’s enough,” Eyvel chided, voice raised enough to be heard over the others without becoming a shout, sternness making all three of them immediately obey. A quick warning look at each of them ensured they would not interrupt before she went on. “Mareeta, you need to see August so he can have a proper look at you. Nanna, find Dorias and bring him as well. Asbel, you and I are going to have a little talk about why it’s important to share your ideas with people before acting on them.”

All three nodded in agreement and dispersed to follow her commands. Before leaving, Eyvel gave Finn a pointed look then Leif an encouraging smile. Out of everyone he’d met since Manster, Eyvel amazed Leif the most.

Finally turning back to Finn, Leif waited for him to ask a question. He wasn’t sure what he had made from the other three had said but he would have to address all of it eventually.

Finn seemed equally at a loss where to begin before his gaze dropped to Leif’s hand. Leif also looked down at the hilt, holding it out for Finn to get a better look. Finn moved his torch closer, surprise coloring his expression as the insignia became clearer, although it only seemed vaguely familiar to Leif.

“Where did you get this?” Finn asked, shaken tone worrying Leif.

“The sword meant for Raydrik. Asbel and I broke it." This only seemed to alarm Finn more.

“Lord Leif, this is the insignia of Isaach,” Finn said slowly, as if still trying to understand this information himself. “That sword was most likely the holy sword Balmung. You... broke a Holy Weapon?”

“I’m sorry?” Leif offered, not sure how to feel about this information either. He was surprised at what he’d done but there was something more concerning about the sword now. “What would Raydrik want with Balmung? He can't use it, he doesn't have Od Holy Blood.”

It took a second for Finn to register the question but once he did, he seemed as concerned as Leif felt. “Glade mentioned Prince Shannan being in Tahra, although he refused to help defend the city and disappeared during the evacuation. Raydrik was in Tahra at the same time, all of this seems too perfect to be just a coincidence. I knew Prince Shannan as a boy, I never would have thought he’d work with Raydrik. But from how Glade described him, he’s become quite deplorable.”

If anyone deserved to be called that, it was Leif. Finn must have noticed something was amiss as he slowly approached. “Lord Leif, wh-”

“I killed Ares,” Leif interrupted, “He was with the mercenaries. We fought and after he cut off Mareeta’s arm I wanted to kill him. I let the mansion fall on him and-”

“Lord Leif, please, calm yourself,” Finn said, stopping Leif’s confession, “One thing at a time. You’re upset because you killed Lord Ares, Lord Eldigan’s son?”

“He’s your nephew,” Leif said, “And now you’ll never meet him. Because of me.”

There was something strange about Finn’s sadness, almost as if he were sympathetic, as if he had been in Leif’s position. It took him a moment to push that aside before addressing Leif. “It is regrettable things turned out this way. Your f- Er, Lord Ares’ mother, Lady Grahnye, was from Leonster and returned there after Lord Eldigan’s death. Lady Lachesis hoped to find them before Leonster fell. Perhaps if she had, things would have turned out better for both of you.”

“If Leonster hadn’t fallen, she would have.”

“I believe so. She was certainly determined to,” Finn agreed. “But Leonster did fall and you met tonight as enemies. The outcome wasn’t ideal but I will never be angry at you for surviving a fight. No matter who you face, I’d rather you live. That’s all I ask, just as you did of me.”

It was terrifying, getting close to Finn again, knowing he was here not because of an obligation to Leif’s father, but that he actually believed in Leif, cared about him, thought Leif deserved him. He didn’t, Finn was the best knight in Thracia, he deserved a far better lord than Leif. He was nowhere near good enough to deserve any of this.

But he could be. Leif looked down at the hilt in his hand. He’d always thought it was impossible to be as great as people said his father was, that he was a failure of a prince because he didn’t have enough Holy Blood. But Ares did and without Mystletainn, Leif had easily beaten him. And Balmung broke just like any other sword. Nanna was right, they really were just people and weapons. He wasn’t inherently worse without Holy Blood. He was still awful but he could change that. He could make himself good enough to deserve the Liberation Army’s support, the people’s faith, Finn’s loyalty. It was going to be very hard but it wasn’t impossible. He could do this. He would be strong enough to protect everyone, to never have to abandon anyone again.

“Lord Leif, are you alright?” Finn asked, bringing Leif out of his thoughts. This time, when he looked up at Finn, it almost felt right when he tried to give a small smile.

“I will be. I'll be better than alright,” Leif promised. It wasn’t an answer to the question Finn was asking but it was enough for Finn to return Leif’s attempt with a small smile of his own.

August's knock was answered almost immediately, the dancer he'd met the night before opening the door just enough to see who it was before moving aside to let him in.

“We’re just about to leave. You should too, as soon as you can,” August instructed as he entered the small room in the inn. “We won’t be on the main road so you should take it, it'll be safer and faster. Get to Melgln as fast as you can and once you’ve left Thracia, head for Tirnanog. The Isaachian Liberation Army will gladly shelter you.”

“I can’t thank you enough for this,” Lene said, quickly closing the door behide him. “How is he?”

August was quiet for a moment as he examined Ares. “Apart from his eye, he should be fine. Sore, he had a broken nose, cheekbone, dislocated shoulder and jaw, several cracked ribs, and going by Prince Leif’s bruised knuckles, those weren’t all caused by the collapse. It’s a good thing I found you before the mansion had its turn with him.”

“It’s a good thing you had that rescue staff,” Lene corrected. “But I gotta ask, why are you helping us? I’m not complaining but there's gotta be something in this for you.”

“When one is surrounded by powerful foes, it’s wise to have a powerful person in your debt,” August explained. Lene frowned at his answer so he amended it. “I won’t make him my puppet, dealing with one mad prince is more than enough. He owes me a favor for saving his life and he should be grateful it’s only one. I’m risking quite a lot to do this.”

“Then I’ll make sure he pays you back,” Lene promised. August nodded in thanks as he lifted the bandage from Ares’ now empty eye socket. The eye had been completely unsalvageable but the arrow fortunately hadn’t gone in any further. He wouldn’t be here if it had.

“There’s one more thing I’d like to ask of you. Tell no one about Prince Leif, not even Ares. As far as either of you know, we were just a group of thieves that attacked you. I only helped because I took pity on you or you paid me, whatever story you think he’ll buy.”

“Of course,” Lene nodded, “Last thing he needs is another reason to want to kill Prince Leif. He’s ridiculous about holding grudges. We all gotta do what we gotta do to get by in life. Prince Leif wanted to live, Ares wanted to kill him, of course something like this was going to happen.”

August looked at Lene curiously. “That’s a surprisingly refreshing outlook. I almost wish you were coming with us.”

Lene chuckled softly. “Not usually why men say that,” she tried to joke, smile too forced for it to work.

“It’s the only reason they should.” That made her smile less forced.

August reached into his bag and pulled out a small package wrapped in cloth, offering it to Lene. “When you meet Prince Shannan, give him this. He likely won’t react well so it would be best to do so in private. If he has any sense, this and Prince Ares should be enough to convince him to steer clear of Thracia.”

“Aren’t both of you fighting for the same thing? Why wouldn’t you want your allies to help?” Lene asked as she accepted the package.

“Having the same foe doesn’t make you allies. Nor does being allies mean you fight for the same thing,” August warned. “The disparity between methods, beliefs, priorities, if we’re not careful, this could turn from a simple matter of the light of the Crusaders beating back the dark reign of Loptous once more to a three sided conflict where no one is in the right and everyone suffers. I hope when we meet again, it will be as allies, but at the moment, the Isaachian Liberation Army and the Thracian Liberation Army are most certainly not.”

Chapter Text

While the rest of the army was starting to rouse themselves, Leif and August were in the planning tent, maps of Melgln laid out in front of them. It had been odd to watch Leif take such care in placing them, as if it was terribly important to have them neat and orderly. Another quirk to add to August's ever growing list.

“I don’t believe I need to tell you of all people what Melgln being an Imperial fortress means,” August said, watching Leif pour over the maps. “We’ll be at Melgln within two days but if you leave when we stop to set up camp, you can make it before nightfall. It took quite a lot of convincing but Dorias agreed to go along with this.”

“Finn won’t,” Leif said, glancing up from the maps. He wasn’t glaring but his neutral expression was hardly more pleasant.

“I’ll let Dorias handle whatever fit he throws,” August said, “Sending you alone is the most efficient method. You’re the most experienced, undoubtedly reliable, and this avoids an unnecessary battle. I would even go as far as to say this doesn’t risk a single life.”

To August’s surprise, Leif didn’t immediately agree and as he was not currently in a rage, August was left clueless as to what was going through his head. Those were becoming less frequent, the last time August could remember being snapped at was when Leif argued with August and Dorias about being part of the rearguard in Tahra. But August tried to spend as little time as necessary around that thing so perhaps he simply avoided being the victim of his wrath.

Finally Leif looked up from the maps again. “You were the one who told me I need to control myself, start being a prince. So why are you letting me do this?”

“That is precisely why I’m letting you do this. This will be the last time you fight as the ghoul then I want you to put all of this behind you,” August said sternly, “After Melgln, we head to Leonster, the kingdom and the house you intend to rebuild. You’ll be able to do neither if you continue to run around as a bloodthirsty savage.”

Leif nodded, unbothered by August’s insult as usual. He took insults better than compliments, as if he preferred being treated poorly. If only Finn and Eyvel would accept that reasoning and stop glaring at him when he did so. But they were too busy cooing over how he almost smiled and was having conversations and all his other almost human moments. But those were hardly enough to overshadow the pile of corpses he was responsible for.

“It’ll be harder to get the children out with all the mercenaries in the area,” Leif pointed out. “And everyone will go inside the fort once it’s taken. I… I have to be better.” He clenched his fist as he continued to stare at the maps, although his gaze was now unfocused. August couldn’t help being intrigued by what he meant.

“Then what do you propose instead?” August asked before he could stop himself, curiosity getting the better of him. As much as he disliked Leif, he had to admit he was often impressed with his approach to battles. He completely disregarded the straightforward methods of knights in favor of tricks, traps, and creative surprises, whatever he could think of to prevent as many casualties as possible. August shouldn’t be surprised, he could never have accomplished what he had following a knightly code, but he couldn’t help that little spark of intrigue whenever Leif took charge.

“The Magi Squad knows about me and have experience with the child hunts. They’ll make sure the children escape safely while I secure the fort,” Leif said, "It may not work, but I owe it to them to try."

What he meant by his last statement was a mystery but August would rather wait and see the results than form any expectations. “Very well, but make sure this plan stays between you. The last thing we need is another overeager soldier tagging along and getting themselves killed,” August warned, Leif’s expression hidden as he tilted his head towards the table. “I’ll come up with an excuse as to the Magi’s absence tonight. Everything else will be left up to you. Enjoy your last outing but try not to have too much fun.”

There was that glare, again for seemingly no reason. If he wanted to keep taking politeness as an insult, August had no qualms about treating him like the beast he was.

It was closing in on nightfall when the Magi and Leif approached Fort Melgln. While the others waited, Leif and Lara snuck as close to the fort as they dared to survey the perimeter, Lara to judge what the Magi could handle, Leif to work this information into his plan. A party of travelers approached the fort just as the two were reconvening and they chose to take advantage of the opportunity and stay to see how the front gate operated.

“I owe you an apology,” Lara said softly, neither taking their eyes from the gate, “For giving you those flowers, saying you should give them to Asbel and leave him behind.”

“I agreed with you,” Leif said just as quietly. There were no soldiers anywhere near them but caution became a habit when you were a thief. “He would be safer with Ced.”

“You kidding? Nowhere in the world safer for him than by your side. Partially ‘cause whenever he’s not, getting back there's all he cares about,” Lara teased, allowing herself a moment to sneak a glance at Leif. He was harder to get a reaction out of than Ced, the challenge making it more fun. Ced made great faces and was quick to blush if you mentioned something inappropriate but Lara had yet to get Leif to make a single expression except confusion at one of her more suggestive remarks. But Nanna and Asbel had both gone red and started almost shouting so she still counted it as a win.

As usual, she’d failed to ruffle him. “Then why did you want me to?” he asked, still not looking at her.

“I didn’t think being around you would be good for him, that he’d end up miserable and hurting,” Lara confessed, “But I’ve never seen him happier or more excited and that’s saying something.”

“You seem happier,” Leif said, surprising Lara. She hadn’t thought he paid her much attention after Manster, especially with how large their group had gotten. She was one of dozens of people, and just a common thief at that. But he was right, so this was either a lucky guess, a feeble attempt at conversation, or he had been paying attention.

“The Magi Squad was nice, most folks at least, but I never really felt noticed, y’know? Not that I was ignored but that they only saw me as the group’s thief and not Lara,” she admitted.

“You were needed, not wanted.”

It hurt to hear out loud but he summed it up perfectly. “Yeah,” Lara agreed. “Needed, not wanted.”

The soldier talking to the travelers backed away and signaled up to a window above the gate. After a moment, the gate was slowly lowered, falling similarly to the bridge she had unlocked the winch for, which likely meant this one worked the same.

“We’ll need someone inside to lower the gate,” she said.

“I've got it,” Leif said, “How well do you remember the map of the inside?”

“Enough to find the dungeon without it,” Lara said as the gate finally was fully lowered. It had taken about a minute but if it was lowered by a winch like the bridge, that may depend on the person turning it. They stayed to watch the gate rise a few moments after the party had gone inside, taking the same amount of time to rise as it had to lower. Nothing else they hadn’t already seen and little time left before dark, the pair began to make their way back to the rest of the Magi.

It took several minutes before Leif broke the silence. “Halvan was right. Everyone wants you here. As Lara.”

That was the third time since joining the Liberation Army Lara felt a hitch in her chest. When Eyvel had joked about adopting her, it may have been a tease but her eyes were so fond, as if all Lara had to do was say she wanted that and Eyvel would. Then Halvan back in Tahra, he was so calm and sure when he spoke as if there wasn’t a doubt in his mind. And now Leif, the prince himself. She had gone her whole life without this, it was hard to believe it was true. But even considering it was the sweetest feeling she’d ever had.

“I’ve always wondered what it’s like, having a home with people back there waiting for you. Halvan talks about Fiana and his little sister all the time, how he knows she’s being looked after by the village but still can’t help worrying about her. He said I could come back with him after this is over, stay with them if I’ve nowhere else to go,” Lara said, lifting her head to watch a flock of birds fly by. “It doesn’t feel real. Homes and families were always just dreams to me, as real as fairies or ghosts. I never thought I’d have the chance to have one.” She paused, wondering if her next question was too personal before asking, “Is it the same for you?”

He didn’t answer immediately but his silence revealed just as much. Spying a little yellow flower, an idea came to her. Reaching down, she plucked it and spun in front of Leif, walking backwards as she talked.

“These grow all over the place so most people don’t even spare them a second thought, unless they’re being annoyed by them. But these have some of the best meanings of all,” she quoted, remembering the crooked grin of her fellow performer as he held out a bunch of what she had thought were just weeds at the time. “Even how they look, like little suns, should be enough to give away their something special. Cause who couldn’t use a little more light in their life?”

“What do they mean?” Leif asked. Lara grinned, twirling the stem between her fingers as she turned around.

“Can’t tell you just yet,” she said, tossing the flower back at him. He frowned as he caught it, staring at the bloom as if doing so could make the answer clear. “Ask me again when you’ve taken back Thracia. Got a feeling it'll fit better then.”

Once night had fallen, Leif and Asbel prepared for their infiltration of the fort which, for a reason Leif hadn't explained, involved climbing a large tree near the fort's western corner. It had been years since Asbel had climbed a tree and never one this tall and when there was this little light. But if Leif was, then so would Asbel.

Brighton had to give Asbel a boost to reach the lowest branch, staying underneath with a worried expression as Asbel began climbing. It reminded Asbel slightly of Finn, although he never helped, always finding Leif, Asbel, and Nanna after they had already climbed as high as they could, which was always too high for the knight’s liking. Asbel had no idea how Leif had gotten away with climbing three mountains in front of him.

Leif had disappeared from sight quickly, the dark and inability to carry a torch making it hard to tell how far ahead he was. He had always been better at physical activities than Asbel but Asbel knew he wouldn’t be too far ahead. If he needed help, if a branch broke or he lost his grip, Leif would be there to save him as soon as it happened. Thinking about that made the climb easier, although it was still tiring, his arms aching before he reached the top. But catching a glimpse of Leif perched on the last branch still under the cover of the higher branches' leaves was enough motivation to push on, panting slightly as he pulled himself onto the branch beside Leif.

The fort was just out of reach for an archer but close enough a ballista or Meteor or Bolting tome could still hit them. If there were any dark mages here, poison spells could be an issue as well. But the clouds moving over the sliver of moon in the sky and few branches above them hid them well enough for Asbel to relax and spare a moment to admire the view. Or he tried to, before his thoughts drifted back to what he saw at the mansion.

“Lord Leif?” Asbel quietly called. Leif didn’t look away from the fort but Asbel wasn’t sure he could bring this up if he did. “Back at the mansion, we found the mages in the cellar an’ after we took 'em out, I-I remembered what you said, ‘bout them keeping children in rooms worse’n cells. I didn’t think that was possible, b-but…”

Asbel would never forget opening that door in the cellar. Even before he could see inside, the smell hit him, like something had died in a latrine. The reason became obvious once his eyes adjusted to the dark. The floor and walls were stained with everything that could come from a person, from blood to vomit, some in pertified chunks as if the room was never cleaned. There were no windows, closing the door made the room darker than night, and no mats, the only place to sleep being the uneven stone floor. One corner was littered with scratches, a small bloodstained fingernail underneath, and another wall had a large scorch mark at chest level for Asbel. Just thinking about staying in that room had made it hard for Asbel to sleep.

“How long were they kept in there?” Asbel asked.

“Same as in jails or forts, until the cultists came for them,” Leif answered, keeping his voice soft as well. “Could be a week, could be several. The children don’t know, they can’t go by when they’re fed to judge the time of day either.”

Asbel tried to suppress a shudder. “How can anyone be this awful?”

“Most aren’t. But no one will stop the ones who are. They can’t, they can’t show any kindness to the children they take, not knowing what they’re about to do to them,” Leif explained, too calmly for Asbel’s liking. “It’s easier on them if they treat the children as less than human, ignore them as much as they can, yell and hit them when they won’t stop crying or start to lose their minds.”

“Why does it sound like you understand them?” Asbel asked.

“I do,” Leif said bitterly, “A lot are like Fred, more willing to give up their morals than risk their lives. Some are like Dalshin, only going along to prevent this happening to their family. They’re still bastards but they don’t think they have another option.”

“Do they?” Asbel looked at Leif as he asked his question, unsure what he was thinking. Out of everyone, he never expected Leif to be the one saying this. He had more reason than anyone to want to kill everyone taking part in the child hunts. But he was the kindest person Asbel knew, he’d always been, even when they were children.

Outside Frest, 768

After a few days had passed, the reality of what Frest’s invasion meant was finally hitting Asbel. His father had stayed behind saying he would buy them time to escape but he hadn’t said anything about where he’d meet them. He’d told Finn to go to Tahra but hadn’t said anything about going there himself, only smiling sadly as he embraced Asbel, which he only ever did when something bad happened. At the time, Asbel had thought that was just because of the invasion. But the further away from Frest they went, the clearer it became it was more than that.

While everyone else was still starting to wake and get their things together to continue their journey, Asbel snuck off to find a large tree to hide behind as he cried. His home was gone, his father was gone, his grandfather, he had no idea what happened to his grandfather. He and Asbel’s father had been fighting a lot so Asbel didn’t see him as much as before. The last time he had was when he went to give him the flower crown Leif had made for him, as Leif wasn’t allowed to wander that far into town. Grandfather had been happy at first but made a strange face when Asbel told him Leif had made it, giving it back and asking Asbel if he’d like to stay with him for a few days, even offering to take him on a trip. He almost wished he had said yes.


Asbel turned quickly, trying to wipe his eyes and hide he had been crying as he faced Leif. He wanted to respond but there was still a large lump in his throat. 

Leif looked as if he was about to start crying as well. “I’m sorry, I’m so... so sorry.”

Leif’s apology was too much, bringing Asbel back to tears. Leif ran over, kneeling next to him and wrapping his arms around Asbel, just as his father had. Thinking about this only made Asbel cry harder.

“W-what’s gonna h-happen to me? Wh-where am I g-gonna go? My h-home… m-my father…” Asbel tried to get out as much as he could but each word only threatened to turn his tears into sobs.

“You’re coming with us, to Tahra,” Leif said, “Finn said the Duke will take us in so we’ll stay with him and I’ll protect you from now on, I promise.”

“B-but what if he won’t let me stay? I’m n-not a prince or a knight, I’m not-”

“If you can’t stay, I won’t stay either!” Leif declared, pulling Asbel in tighter, “We’ll run away and find somewhere we can both stay and get stronger and take back Frest and all of Thracia together. I’m not going to let anyone send you away or hurt you ever again! And I’m not leaving while you’re still sad.”

“P-promise?” Asbel asked. He knew he shouldn't be acting like this, he was eight and crying was for little kids. But Leif, Nanna, and Finn were all he had left. The thought of losing them too, of being sent away by himself, was the most terrifying thing he could think of.

“I swear it.” Asbel inhaled sharply. Swearing was an adult thing, for serious promises you couldn’t ever break. They were something a person would give their life to do. "We'll stay together and I'll look out for you and you'll never be this sad again. I swear it."

He’d meant every word. If Asbel started to feel upset, Leif would be by his side in seconds and wouldn’t leave it for the rest of the day. When they met the Duke of Tahra, Leif had walked up to him, holding Asbel’s hand, and introduced him as his best friend, saying he would only stay if Asbel could too. The duke had laughed at this but agreed, even allowing Asbel and Leif to share a room as they had in Frest when Leif seemed upset at having separate rooms here. They had spent their first night in Tahra on the balcony, looking down at the city. It was the highest Asbel had ever been before tonight, the view just as impressive.

“You’re smiling.” Leif’s statement pulled Asbel from his thoughts. He’d lost track of their previous conversation but thinking about Tahra reminded Asbel of something he’d been wondering since Kelves.

“Lord Leif, why didn’t you ever practice magic with me, back in Frest an’ Tahra?” Asbel asked.

“No one thought I’d be able to use magic. No one from House Leonster ever has,” Leif said. “I was supposed to learn swordplay first, then lances when I was older.”

Something about that bothered Asbel. He remembered how proud he felt at Leif’s excitement when he showed off a spell for him back in Tahra. Leif always asked to see whatever new thing Asbel learned, genuinely interested and enthusiastic. Now that he used magic himself, he did so often and in ways Asbel wouldn’t have thought of. He liked magic, so why hadn’t anyone even let him try? Affinity for magic was often passed down but anyone could have it so saying he couldn’t because no one in his family ever had felt like a poor excuse.

“Maybe it’s better you got to teach yourself,” Asbel suggested, “This isn’t somethin’ House Leonster can do, it’s your power an’ you got to make it even more your own by learnin’ like you did. You know stuff Sir Ced ‘n Gunna don’t and can do lotsa things the resta us never dreamed of tryin’. Like not takin’ outta tome when castin’ a spell.”

“I act on impulse. You figured out how that worked by yourself,” Leif pointed out.

Asbel straightened, feeling slightly pleased with himself as he explained. “The way you use magic, pulling from the tome first, I figured as long as you got the tome on you, you should be able to cast a spell from it.” He perked up as an idea occurred to him. “If that’s how it works then you should be able to switch between magics like this. How fast d’ya think you can? Would you be faster’n me ‘cause you don’t hafta think ‘bout it or would you hafta for this? Does-”

“Asbel.” Asbel quieted, looking back at the fort to see the soldiers on patrol approaching. They were still far enough off they wouldn’t have heard their conversation but Asbel did tend to unintentionally raise his voice when excited. Sheepishly, he moved back towards the trunk as Leif moved slightly forward, slipping something small out of his pocket.

Once the soldiers were almost directly in front of them, Leif lightly threw the small object from his pocket into the air. Asbel barely had enough time to see it was a rock before Leif cast a wind spell to send it flying at the guards. It struck one, knocking him down and panicking the other guard. As he leaned over his companion, Leif pulled another small rock out, eyes never leaving the remaining guard. The moment he stood, Leif sent the second rock flying at him, taking him down as well.

“Why didn’t you just use a spell or shoot them?” Asbel asked as Leif rose.

“Quieter, doesn’t give away where you are,” he said as he took the few steps to the end of the branch as quick as he could before leaping at the fortress. The distance wasn’t that great and they were a few feet above it, but it still felt daunting to consider following suit. But Leif landed silently and with ease. Encouraged, Asbel made his way to the edge of his branch and leapt for the fortress.

His landing wasn’t as graceful, falling on his hands and knees. Leif immediately knelt beside him to make sure he was alright, but the worst he had was scraped knees and palms. Leif still seemed bothered but they needed to get moving.

With a wind spell, Leif put out the torches before they hurried towards the tower at the corner. Once there, he put out the torch inside as well. With only the moon and light from the torches below the fortress, a sense of unease began stirring in Asbel. But Leif seemed unbothered, unlocking the door to the fortress just as fast as usual before slowly pulling it open, blocking Asbel’s view of the inside for a moment as he checked for any soldiers before slipping inside.

Closing the door behind him as quietly as he could, Asbel turned to find Leif had drawn his blade and was slowly descending the staircase. He hurried to catch up, leaving two steps between them to keep Leif from feeling uncomfortable. 

The winding staircase made it impossible for him to tell what was ahead until Leif threw his hand back to tell him to stop, just like Finn used to. Looking for a reason why, Asbel noticed the torchlight near the last visible stairs was partially blocked by a shadow. Staying as close to the wall as he could, Leif cautiously took one step down, then another, tilting his head slightly to look a little further then suddenly disappeared from sight. Asbel immediately followed, arriving in time to see Leif remove his hand from a soldier’s mouth and slowly lower the body to the floor, head lolling back from the deep slit across the neck.

After a quick search of the body, Leif took a pair of keys and a note. When he found a bottle of antidote, he offered it to Asbel. Asbel felt that pleased little leap in his chest he always did when Leif gave him something to keep his safe. At first it had been from relief to see a side of Leif he was more familiar with, reassurance that despite all that had changed, his friend was still there and could come back. Now, it assured Asbel he was still important to Leif, still being offered these things despite how many more people were with them.

Trading his sword for the soldier’s axe, Leif cautiously stepped into the hallway. There were no soldiers in sight, likely the only ones still awake would be those on guard duty. But rather than make his way to the ground floor, Leif went to the left, turning down a small passage. Asbel followed, quickly stopping when he saw the ballista, taking up most of a small room looking down on the gatehouse passageway. If anyone was manning this when the rest of the Magi entered, there was a good chance at least one of them would be hit.

“Get the other side,” Leif said, as he approached one arm and began untying the bowstring.

Asbel did as Leif asked, although he found the direction strange. “Why not just break it? It’s mostly wood, it’ll burn easy.”

“This place is going to have to hold off a lot of mercenaries and soldiers. They’ll need all the weapons they can get,” Leif explained as he finished untying the bowstring, coiling it up once Asbel finished as well. “And a fire would let them know we’re here.”

Returning to the hall, the two quickly made their way to the small passage leading to a room identical to the one they had just left. Removing and coiling the bowstring from this one as well, Leif gave one last look over the inside of the gatehouse to check for anything else that could pose a danger to the Magi. Seeing nothing, he led Asbel back into the hall and towards the nearest staircase.

There was no guard at the bottom of these stairs nor were there any by the portcullis. But whatever device that was used to lift it was nowhere in sight. Peeking down the hall to the left to make sure no soldiers were coming before dashing out, Leif made his way to a door by the portcullis, Asbel close behind. Leif gave the handle a small tug to see if it was locked, slowly opening it once he found it wasn’t. The staircase was narrow, no torches lining the walls, but it was smaller than the others, taking the pair less than a half a minute to climb. There was no door at the end, the guardroom plainly visible and appearing oddly empty. Leif paused a few steps from the top, waiting a few moments before the sound of creaking floorboards gave away someone was approaching them. Leif pressed himself against the wall, waiting for the guard to walk by before stepping behind him and swinging the soldier’s axe, cutting off the guard’s head. Body and head both fell with dull thuds.

Asbel entered the room as Leif gave the windlass a tug to see if it was unlocked. Upon finding it was, Asbel hurried to the window, sending a burst of wind magic at the trees where the Magi were waiting, pausing and doing it again to signal they could approach. He watched them engage the guards, Brighton quickly striking down a soldier with a lance as Machyua hopped off the back of his horse to block a strike from a swordsman. He blocked her next attack but she quickly followed it up with a feint he fell for and landed a blow to knock him down. She finished him off with another strike to the chest before he could retaliate. Once done, she looked up at Asbel, holding up her thumb to indicate there was no one else around and they could lift the gate. As soon as Asbel turned around, Leif began turning the windlass and Asbel left to guard the portcullis as it rose.

By the time he made it to the ground floor, the portcullis had begun to lift and the gate to lower, both moving at the same rate. It wasn’t very fast and the jangling of chains was loud enough to make his heartbeat pick up, but no one appeared, keep too far to alert the sleeping soldiers, floor too thick for the dungeon guards to hear.

As soon as the bridge was lowered, the Magi ran inside, reaching Asbel shortly before Leif did. “Lots of mercenaries camping out in the woods. Most are sleeping though, so they won’t be a problem,” Machyua reported.

“They will,” Leif said, handing the coiled ropes to her. “Machyua and Brighton, raise the bridge. Lara, go to the bell tower and ring the bells. Once all the soldiers are in the main hall, lock the door and make sure no one can get out before going to the dungeon. Before you escape, unlock the main hall doors.”

The three Magi nodded and hurried to do as directed, Leif and Asbel hurrying to the main hall. Leif unlocked the door to let them in then locked it again once inside.

The main hall was just across from the entrance and currently empty aside from the general’s throne and two long tables with benches on either side. Leif held out the keys he'd taken from the soldier. “Lock the side doors, back by the throne,” he instructed. Asbel nodded and hurried to do so as Leif started moving one of the tables to the side of the room. After locking both doors, Asbel joined him, finishing just as the bells started ringing.

“If something goes wrong, unlock one of the side doors and get out of here,” Leif said.

“What? No, I’m not leaving you!” Asbel insisted, “An’ what do you mean ‘if something goes wrong’? Aren’t we just gonna fight them?”

“If this works, no. But… I don’t know if it will, if I can do this,” Leif admitted, uncertainty worrying and silencing Asbel. “The things I did, what I was like, I can’t be that anymore or everyone will think I’m some mindless monster like August does.”

Asbel had the sudden urge to punch August. “He's the only one who thinks that 'cause his ego's too big t' see past the end of his nose,” Asbel said, quoting what he heard Eyvel mutter under her breath about the former priest.

“I’ve still given him plenty of reason to believe he’s right,” Leif said, calmness bothering Asbel almost as much. “I need to be better, but I can’t be on my own. I need people who are already good to help.” Leif paused to look at Asbel. “Which is why I wanted you here.”

Asbel was almost too stunned to respond. “You think I’m… better than you?”

“You are,” Leif said, “I know it’s selfish to ask-”

“It’s not,” Asbel interrupted, “I want to help you, any way I can.”

Leif was getting better at trying to smile but it was still more sad than anything else. “Thank you,” he said, just as the main doors shook, signalling the soldiers had arrived. Leif dove behind the throne, Asbel following, trying to keep as much distance as possible while still staying hidden.

The ruckus began to pick up as soldiers filled the room, all wondering what the emergency was that had caused the bells to be rung. There was no way to tell how many were in the room and Asbel didn’t dare look.

“Stay behind here as long as you can,” Leif instructed, untying the leather band around his wrist. “If I start to go too far, stop me.”

“Whad’ya mean by that?” Asbel asked, not liking the implications. But the sound of the doors closing and soldiers shouting blocked Leif’s reply. As the shouting picked up, accusations and threats getting more aggressive, Leif moved out from behind the throne to stand in front of it.

“Fort Melgln is under the control of the Liberation Army,” Leif announced, every soldier silencing as they turned towards him. “Lay down your weapons and agree to work with us or get out of Thracia.”

“The Liberation Army? Then you’re-” the soldier speaking paused, putting together who Leif was. “You’ve got a lot of nerve walking in here and ordering us around, especially with that price on your head. Locking yourself in here with us was beyond idiotic, you'd have to be a fool to think you'll make it out of here alive.”

“I am. Whether you do depends on how much of a bastard you are."

“Bastard? You’re the arrogant brat that wants to take our land and overthrow our king!"

“This is not your land,” Leif snapped, anger edging into his voice, “And your king’s a tyrant. He lets the child hunts go on, public executes anyone who speak against him, forces people to be loyal to him by imprisoning their families, he let his wife abuse his sister then left her body hanging for everyone to see after she killed herself. How can you want him to be your king?”

“It’s the people’s fault they're treated like this. King Bloom had to do all this to get you stubborn Thracians in line.” Asbel glanced at Leif. His hands were curled as he glared venomously, as if he’d forgotten everything he said to Asbel. “They deserved it.”

“Lord Leif,” Asbel called, barely louder than a whisper.

“Shut up!” Leif snarled, Asbel unsure who he was speaking to, glare still on the soldier but definitely having heard him. “No one deserves to suffer, no matter who they are or what they've done. What if that was you and your families Bloom tormented? Would you still be loyal to him then?”

“If we turn against him, it will be,” another soldier spoke up.

“If you’re only loyal to him out of fear, he doesn’t deserve to be your king,” Leif said.

“And you do?” the first soldier asked, question laced with contempt.

“I don’t want your loyalty,” Leif responded, equally contemptuous. “As soon as Thracia is reclaimed, I never want to see you again. Go back to Friege or find somewhere else, but child murderers have no place in Thracia.”

“We don’t murder the children,” a soldier argued, regretful tone making their argument less convincing.

“You took them and handed them over knowing exactly what would happen to them,” Leif said, anger replaced with bitterness. Then, to Asbel’s surprise, both disappeared when he spoke again. “But you didn't think you had a choice. You'd risk not only your own life but your family's as well. That's too much to ask."

"Then what are you asking us?"

"Continue to defend Fort Melgln. But let no one enter Thracia," Leif instructed, "You don't have to openly rebel, we'll spread the story the fort was taken by force and you're all captured or dead and keep up the ruse by having some of our own men and reinforcements from Southern Thracia help defend the fort. Bloom will have no reason to hurt your families. You won't be fighting for the Liberation Army so you won't have to betray your country either."

"You're asking us to turn against King Bloom, how is that not betraying our country?" a soldier asked.

"The people are the most important part of a country, protecting and looking out for them should always come first. If that means turning on your king because he's a threat to them, that's not betraying your country, that's protecting it," Leif reasoned. Asbel peeked out to look at Leif. He seemed so different, hair pulled back to reveal his face, the same intensity to his gaze as when he'd made his promise to Asbel all those years ago, absolute conviction in his words making his beliefs feel like a facts. It was captivating, reminding Asbel of why he spent the five years after Tahra searching for Leif.

"A king is the most important part of a country," the first soldier countered. Now that Asbel could see him, he guessed this was the commander, going by his age and fancier uniform. "He's our leader, the embodiment of our country's power and strength, following and protecting him is more important than anything else. There are thousands of people and there'll always be more."

"So it's fine if thousands die as long as one person lives?" Leif's anger was coming back. The man was too far away to punch, worrying Asbel as to what Leif would do if this continued. "How the hell is that fair? How can you think that's reasonable?"

"You're leading any army, aren't you? Would you rather die than your men?" the soldier asked.

"Yes." Asbel felt a chill at how fiercely he said that. Even knowing this before, hearing Leif say it made the thought heavier, leaving a sour taste in his mouth. "Better me than anyone else."

"Then you're an even sorrier excuse for a prince than I thought," the soldier sneered, "Fortunately, you will never be a king. Men, bring me Prince Leif's head!" The sound of unsheathing swords filled the room but even from his hiding place, Asbel could see not everyone had armed themselves.

"General Baldack, wait-"

"Was I not clear!?" Baldack snarled at the man, "I gave you an order, now follow it!"

"I got a kid back home. He's too young to take now but those Loptyr creeps are gonna want him once he's not," the soldier said, "I'm sorry General, but if this'll keep my son safe, I gotta do it. Nothin's more important than that."

"You'll make him the son of a traitor," Baldack warned.

"Not if Prince Leif's telling the truth!" a soldier in the back added, raising his voice to be heard in the front, "No one'll know what we did until it's over, then we can just go home and serve whoever's ruling Friege then!"

"Whoever's ruling Friege?" Baldack repeated furiously, "Do you care that little about King Bloom and Prince Ishtore?"

"I don't give a damn who's ruling me, long as they don't treat me like King Bloom's been treating the Thracians!" the soldier called back, "Seeing that scared the hell out of me and if his son's anything like him, I say put a sword through both of them."

"I should put my sword through you for saying that!" another soldier in the back snapped.

"Go ahead and try!" Almost everyone had a weapon out now, although few were focused on Leif. Even if he wanted to avoid a fight, it looked as if one might happen anyway. Leif seemed to be thinking along the same lines as he threw his hand up, casting a smaller fire spell, just large enough to get everyone's attention. A hush momentarily fell over the room.

"If you're going to try to put a sword through anyone, try for me," Leif said, glare not hateful but still intense, "Anyone who wants to go along with the Empire, I'll gladly end you."

"I thought no one deserves to suffer," Baldack said, clearly wanting to take Leif up on his challenge.

"They don't. But some deserve to die," Leif said, leveling his gaze at the general, implication clear. Was this going too far? Maybe, but at the same time, Asbel didn't think this was wrong. Remembering how traumatized the children he'd rescued from Manster had been, seeing that room, everything Leif had said about how the children were treated, anyone who was willing to keep doing this when they were given another option didn't deserve mercy or forgiveness. But if Leif wanted Asbel to stop him, he would.

As soon as Baldack was away from the other soldiers, lance drawn to attack Leif, Asbel rose from his hiding place, casting a wind spell to send the general flying across the room. It might not have killed him, he still wasn't used to Leif's method of magic and his spells weren't as strong with it, but hitting the wall would definitely hurt.

"What the hell!? Where'd that kid come from?" a soldier asked.

"From Frest, until you invaded it!" Asbel shouted back, "You took my home an' my father from me, you tortured my best friend! All of Thracia hates you yet Lord Leif's willin' t' give you a chance! Anyone who doesn't take it's a coward or monster!"

"Asbel, it's alright," Leif said, soft enough to keep the conversation between them, "I can do this."

"Doesn't mean you hafta do it alone," Asbel said, "You swore we'd fight together, so let me fight by your side."

The corner of Leif's mouth rose slightly before he narrowed his gaze at the soldiers. "The offer still stands to all you cowards and monsters. Try to put your sword through me in the name of your bastard of a king," he challenged.

A javelin flew at them in response, followed shortly by another. Asbel hoped his aiming practice paid off as he cast a wind spell at the first javelin. He grinned as it flew back into the second, soldiers scattering as both fell to the ground.

The two waited but a second attack never came and Asbel had a good idea why. There were no archers in the room and any mages were likely intimidated by neither of them taking out their tomes to cast spells, something that wasn't possible using magic the normal way. He'd easily taken out two javelins so there was no point throwing more weapons at them. The only option left was to charge them and that meant giving them the advantage of range and attacking first. There were likely still soldiers that wanted to kill Leif but Fred was right, most people valued their own lives more than anything else.

No more attacks coming, Leif approached the soldiers, Asbel following close behind. The soldiers moved out of the way as he approached but walking through them would give many of the soldiers a chance to attack. To discourage this, Asbel conjured a small flame and tried to imitate Leif's glare, feeling slightly pleased at the wider berth the soldiers gave them when he did. He may not be intimidating physically but he'd still gotten his message across; as long as he was here, no one would touch Leif.

They made it to the main door without incident, Asbel turning to stare down the soldiers as Leif opened the doors. Hushed voices picked up as the soldiers wondered what had stopped the doors from opening for them, their intrigue and fear likely making them compliant as Leif turned around to give his order. "Follow me."

The portcullis was lifted and bridge lowered, revealing dawn was starting to break. Once outside, they were greeted by the bodies of multiple mercenaries and the rest of their army, minus the Magi Squad. Unsurprisingly, Finn was the first to approach them, although he seemed unsure how to react.

"Lord Leif, what-"

"Excellent work, Prince Leif," August interrupted, attempt to keep his expression neutral ruined by the intense curiosity in his gaze. "It seems I was right to trust your judgement. Given your opposition to taking prisoners, I take it these men have agreed to join us?"

"Not join, just help," Leif corrected, "They're still loyal to Friege but not to Bloom. They've agreed to defend Fort Melgln until Thracia is freed."

Finn frowned, clearly not liking this arrangement. But before he could speak, August cut him off again. "Then what was the point of this? Why go to the trouble for men that won't be loyal to you?" He paused as something seemed to occur to him. "Is this who you owe?"

Leif looked at their army, finding Fred and holding his gaze on him as he answered. "I've killed hundreds of Imperial soldiers who only went along with the child hunts because they thought they didn't have another choice. They didn't want to be involved and didn't deserve to die. Doing this doesn't make up for what I've done, nothing can. But I had the chance to give them a choice. I owed it to them to try."

Fred kept his expression neutral but nodded, accepting what Asbel now realized was an apology. Asbel continued to be amazed at how much Leif found to feel guilty about.

"Well, at least it's more soldiers to defend the fort. We'll have to wait and see how many men Prince Arion sends but we may not have to leave many of our own men behind," August mused, looking over the soldiers from the fortress. "Speaking of, we should send word to Prince Arion right away. The sooner we continue on, the better." As if to emphasize his point, he quickly walked away, heading into the fortress.

"Thank you," Leif said softly, surprising Asbel. "I was only able to do this because of you."

"I hardly did anythin'," Asbel said.

"I would have lost my temper and killed Baldack if you weren't there. If I'd done that, killing someone for saying something I didn't like, I'd be no better than Bloom."

"What he was sayin', how people deserve t' suffer, I woulda wanted t' attack him too! An' that's nothin' like killin' people 'cause they oppose you for bein' a tyrant," Asbel argued, Leif's self-deprecation upsetting him. "You're a million times better'n Bloom, better'n anyone and I'm gonna show you!" Asbel turned to Finn. "Finn, who's the best person you know? If you don't say Lord Leif, you're wrong and I'll prove it!"

"Asbel, please-"

"I'm not stoppin' 'til you stop saying all this awful stuff 'bout yourself!" Asbel insisted. "You're not a poison an' you've never wronged me an' your a great prince an' leader an'-"

"Asbel, calm yourself," Finn warned, the interruption giving Asbel a chance to catch his breath. As he did, Finn turned his attention to Leif. "He does have a point, Lord Leif. You are quite hard on yourself."

"Because I'm not good enough, nowhere near it," Leif said, "I need to work harder if I want to have a chance at meeting your expectations."

Why was it so hard for Leif to believe anything good about himself? He easily accepted August's insults and criticisms and August was practically a stranger. Finn and Asbel knew Leif far better than August yet his opinion was the one Leif believed. What made his words easier to accept? Every reason Asbel could come up with was worse than the last.

Asbel told Leif he wanted to help him in anyway he could. He wasn't sure how but he'd find a way to make Leif see he was already more than good enough, even if it took the rest of his life. The only thing that would be a better accomplishment than that would be making his best friend smile properly again.

Ever since Tahra, something had been bothering Altena. She didn't know what but she knew it had something to do with Prince Leif.

When she first saw him, she never would have guessed that was Prince Leif, the small, scarred boy more closely resembling the a waif than someone of noble birth. She'd thought that was what he was, some homeless child picking over her brother's body in search of coin or valuables to sell. But he had been healing Arion, the son of his parents' killer. He'd tried to save him from the Loptyrian mage's spell as well and asked to meet their father. As much as this didn't make sense, it wasn't the most confusing thing about him.

When he'd looked up at her, his face was like a doll's, expressionless and empty eyed. But despite the blankness, there was something warm in his gaze, an almost familiar feeling stirring in her, tugging at something in the back of her mind. But she'd never met the prince before, how could he be familiar?

Raydrik had said something strange as well. An unexpected reunion, what had he meant by that? He was expecting Prince Leif so he wasn't talking to him. She hadn't met Raydrik before and even if Arion had, he had been unconscious at the time, so he wasn't been talking to either of them. Perhaps he simply meant the circumstances of their meeting. But why call it a reunion?

Altena, come say hello to your little brother.

He's so small!

He is. Good thing he has his big sister to look out for him.

Look, he's reaching for you! If you give him your hand, I bet he'll grab it.

He did! He's holding my finger!

He is, he must be very excited to meet you.

What was that? A memory? But she didn't have a younger brother, just Arion. And that man, his voice wasn't her father's. She didn't know who the woman was either. If this wasn't a memory then what was it?

"Altena, is everything alright?" Arion's question brought her back to the present. She forced a smile, rubbing her temple as she tried to push these thoughts away.

"It's nothing, just a headache," she said, pausing a moment to pay closer attention to Arion. "You seem in good spirits. Has something happened?"

Arion nodded, smile returning now he was assured she was alright. "I've just received word that Prince Leif has taken Fort Melgln. He even convinced some Imperial soldiers to help defend it. He's certainly an impressive figure for someone his age. Hopefully Father will think so as well."

Those thoughts began to creep back at the mention of the prince. Those wide, blank eyes, unnerving yet familiar. She almost felt as if she were being haunted.

"I've gathered all the men I can spare without looking suspicious. It'll take awhile to get to Fort Melgln so I was hoping- Altena, are you sure you're alright?" Arion paused, taking a step closer to look over Altena, brow furrowed with concern.

"Arion, I'm fine," Altena insisted, quickly changing the topic "You're going with your men to Melgln?"

"Yes, I'd like to speak with Prince Leif again," Arion said, "I know you don't trust him but from what I saw, he's a strong ally and a good person. He was willing to work with me the moment he saw me, knowing full well who I was, that's more than I can say. His manners are a bit rough and his appearance shocking but he's been fighting the child hunts by himself and volunteered to be part of the rearguard protecting Tahra, I think that more than speaks for his character. Not to mention he saved my life."

"I know," Altena said, a bit too irritably to be casual. Catching herself, she cleared her throat and tried again. "Brother, let me go instead. I want a chance to speak with Prince Leif, properly. You spent plenty of time with him in Tahra, enough for him to earn your trust, so give me a chance to do the same. Please, it'll help put my mind at ease."

Arion paused for a moment, considering her words, then nodded. "Very well, I'll let you lead the squadron to Melgln. When you see Prince Leif, give him my regards." He hesitated before adding, "Could you check in Linoan on your way there? I was intending to myself but if you're going instead, I'd greatly appreciate it."

"You saw her less than a month ago," Altena pointed out, trying to ignore how Arion's concern for Linoan bothered her.

"I know but she took Dean's death quite hard. Even with Eda there with her, I still worry," Arion confessed, "I'm planning on talking to Father about relocating there, under the guise of keeping a closer eye on the city. It'll be beneficial to the Liberation Army, being quickly able to assist when needed and I'll be able to watch over Linoan myself, what I wish I could have from the start."

"You're becoming quite attached to the Northern Thracians," Altena remarked, not hiding her disapproval.

"They're our allies and they're not all cruel people, certainly not Linoan or Prince Leif," Arion argued, "Once the Empire has been wiped from Northern Thracia and replaced with Prince Leif, all of Thracia might finally have peace."

Altena didn't share her brother's optimism, his faith in Prince Leif seemed excessive and unwarranted. He was the son of Prince Quan, their father's sworn enemy, why wouldn't he want revenge for his parents' deaths and to continue his father's attempt to conquer them? He had claimed to hate his father to Raydrik but why in the world would he? It seemed more likely he'd simply said that to earn Arion's trust, convince him he was on their side.

The more she thought about Prince Leif, the more than lie about a headache became true. She'd have the chance to question him when she arrived at Melgln, perhaps find answers to some of her questions and form a better opinion on him but right now, she'd rather put her lance through him than be his ally.

Chapter Text

There was still a gentle mist in the air as Altena led the squadron of Dracoknights to Fort Melgln. Fourteen years ago, the Empire had defeated her father here after he had finally reclaimed Northern Thracia. Now, this was the site of the Empire’s first defeat and Northern Thracia’s first step towards reclaiming their land, a task Southern Thracia was aiding. It was almost poetic.

It was still hard to believe they were helping Prince Leif take back his land. Altena had been told of all the noble houses, House Leonster had been the worst. After Prince Quan's attempts to invade Southern Thracia and the house's history of selfishness and arrogance, they deserved to lose their land. Or so she'd told herself for years. Something felt hollow about those words now.

Her father dreamed of a unified Thracia but her brother did not. He wanted Thracia to stay divided but become allies, work with the prince who should be their greatest enemy, trust him even though he had every reason to hate them. How could something like that possibly work?

Arion believed it could. Linoan did as well, although she may be biased by being engaged to Arion and a childhood friend of Prince Leif. Prince Leif, Altena had no idea what he believed, what he thought about anything. But perhaps she’d soon find out as she spied a small figure on the allure. Even at this distance, she was certain it was the prince.

“Land outside and wait for General Dorias and Lady Selfina,” Altena instructed, breaking away from the squad to head for the battlements. If she surprised Prince Leif, he gave no indication, that uncomfortably blank stare watching her approach.

She slowed to let her wyvern land and perch on the parapet. Even standing on the other side of the walkway, Prince Leif had to lift his head to look at her, hair out of his face for once.

Look what father got for you, isn’t it pretty? It’ll help keep your hair back so everyone can see your lovely face. Here, come sit on my lap and I’ll tie it for you.

That woman again. Her voice was so sweet and gentle, Altena ached to know who she was. But she didn’t have time for this, especially not in front of Prince Leif. Pushing these thoughts down, she focused on the scar across his forehead rather than his eyes as she spoke. “My brother and Lady Linoan send their regards.”

“How are they?” he asked, unintentionally cutting off her report about the squadron.

“My brother is well, he is attempting to persuade our father into letting him relocate to Tahra, so he may be closer to Linoan. Lady Linoan has made great progress with Tahra. Reconstruction of the damaged areas is under way and those displaced or orphaned are being allowed to stay in the manor. She was quite pleased to hear about Arion’s intentions and your victory here.”

She had thought he’d be glad to hear of Tahra’s progress but strangely, he seemed upset by it, lowering his head to look her wyvern in the eye instead of her.

“I should have stayed to help. It was my idea to destroy buildings to corner the Schwarze Rosen. I even knocked down two myself,” Leif said. He felt guilty about what he’d done? Linoan said he’d done this to prevent the Schwarze Rosen from following them as they escaped. She hadn’t seen how but it had likely been with some sort of magic. This and Linoan’s retelling of the battle made him out to be quite a formidable mage. Mages had always been Altena’s bane, even worse than archers. Both could attack first but spells hurt more when they hit.

“If you had stayed, you wouldn’t have been able to take Fort Melgln so soon,” Altena pointed out, “Is there any damage to the fort?”

Her question at least managed to raise his head. “No, the holes were added for defense.”

“For defense? How does putting holes in a fort add protection?” Altena asked.

“They’re to shoot or fire spells through,” Leif explained. “You can drop rocks or oil through the ones in the gatehouses’ ceiling.”

“You expect us to use such dishonorable methods?” Altena snapped before she could stop herself. Using such cowardly and cruel methods, Altena found herself agreeing with Raydrik, Prince Leif was a beast.

“If the Empire doesn’t care about being dishonorable, then why should I? They’ve used these against me enough times, figured it was only fair they see what it’s like to be on the other end,” Leif said, calmness an unsettling contrast to his words. It was made even worse as another thought occurred to her.

“Did they do this to stop you while you were fighting the child hunts?” she asked, anger having quickly faded into dread.

“Yes,” he said, softer tone answering the question she didn’t want to ask, regret even clearer now. She was reminded of the strange exchange he’d had with Linoan, about being saved. Altena didn’t know everything Linoan had been through but she remembered Dean’s story of what she had been like when he found her, pale and bruised, shaking as she stared defiantly back at him. When he’d told her he was there to rescue her, she’d burst into tears and he’d had to carry her as they fled. For months afterwards, she had constant nightmares and ordinary things would send her into a panic, made worse if Dean tried to touch her before she calmed down. But Dean had found ways to deal with this and Linoan credited him with her ability to handle everything today. If Prince Leif had gone through something similar but no one saved him, how did he handle it?

“My apologies for my rudeness,” she said, “I’m sure my men will follow any order given.”

“You weren’t wrong,” Leif said, “If they’re not comfortable with this, the Friege soldiers are."

“My brother mentioned you convinced some of them to help defend the fort,” Altena recalled, “How did you manage that?”

“Most of them only go along with the child hunts because they don’t think they have another choice,” Leif explained. “So I gave them one.”

Altena had to take a moment to process what he had just said. “These men were involved in the child hunts and you’re willing to work with them? They’ve handed hundreds, thousands of children over to the Loptyr Cult, they tried to kill you for stopping them, and you’re willing to forgive them?”

“Never,” Leif said, sudden, intense anger surprising her, “I may understand them but I’ll never forgive them. They don’t deserve to die for being forced into this position but I still hate them for what they did. Just like Travant.”

“That’s rather bold of you to admit,” Altena said, hand instinctively reaching for her lance.

“I told Arion as much. I understand why he killed my father, he was an arrogant, entitled piece of shit who made your people suffer. But I hate Travant for everything else he did, invading my country, burning my home, killing my grandmother, mother, and sister.”

The last part made Altena’s stomach churn. “I didn’t know you had a sister.”

“She was three when Travant killed her at the Yied Massacre,” Leif said, “Her name was Altena too.”

It was such a strange coincidence it made Altena’s head hurt. Why had she never heard of this before? Her father wasn’t ashamed of what he’d done at Yied, he even laughed when he heard a bard had written a song about it. But why had she never heard about this? Not just from her father, from Arion or Hannibal or anyone else. Why had no one else pointed out how odd it was she shared the same name as the daughter of her father’s sworn enemy?

“Are you alright?” Altena was pulled from her thoughts to find Prince Leif next to the parapet, looking up at her. He was too close, unable to look away from his wide, hollow eyes. She could almost feel a tender touch, strong yet gentle arms holding her. For a moment, she swore she could almost see the woman, smiling warmly as she called Altena’s name. Altena wanted nothing more to reach out to her.

Instead, she closed her eyes and tried to force these thoughts away. When she opened them, the woman was gone, a concerned Prince Leif having taken her place.

“I’m fine, merely a headache,” Altena claimed, avoiding looking him in the eye.

“Tea helps,” Leif offered, surprising Altena, “Staves only help if you have an injury as well but I can make you a cup of tea. Or ask someone else to since you don’t trust me.”

So he had picked up on that. Either he was quite observant or she’d been more obvious than she thought. Before she could think of a response, he added, “I don’t care if you hate and distrust me. But if you want to kill me, wait until we’ve taken out the Empire.”

His bluntness was startling but made it easier for her to be direct. “How do I know you won’t try to kill my father if he agrees to help you?”

“Because he’s like the men here,” Leif said, “Everything he did, he felt he had to, to end his people’s suffering. Northern Thracia was in the wrong and he had every right to fight back. I hate what he did but no one deserves to die for trying to end their people’s suffering.”

He had offered to let her try to kill him but how could she after hearing his reasoning for not killing her father? Prince Leif was doing the same thing he had, trying to end his people’s suffering by fighting back against their oppressors. Her father had even allied with a Northern Thracian noble, although this alliance had been his undoing. This could be Prince Leif’s as well, Southern Thracia could easily crush his meager force. But they were better than that, her father would never stoop to the level of Raydrik. He may dream of a united Thracia but if he met Prince Leif, saw how similar they were, perhaps that would be enough to settle for an allied Thracia. He wanted what was best for Thracia and surely this was better than another war.

Altena chuckled softly, making Prince Leif tilt his head like a curious child. “Very well, I’ll take your actions here as proof of your words. You seem honest but no doubt you understand why I’m reluctant to trust you.”

He nodded, seemingly unaffected by her admittance. He must be truly desperate to ally with people he knew distrusted him. Oddly, this made her want to trust him more, though she would never tell him that. His desperation gave her power over him, and she would not give that up, not when it could protect those dear to her.

“I’ll give your regards to my brother,” Altena said, about to nudge her wyvern into taking off when Prince Leif pulled out a letter.

“Could you give this to General Hannibal?” Leif asked, holding the letter out to her.

“You know General Hannibal?” Altena asked, curiosity getting the better of her as she took the letter. It was sealed, although the seal wasn’t that of House Leonster.

“We’ve met. But he doesn’t know that.”

It was such a strange meeting, Altena wanted to hear the story behind it. But it would be best to hear it from Hannibal. The longer she stayed around Prince Leif, the more that strangely familiar feeling tugged at her. No matter how inviting it felt, she couldn’t give into it. If this alliance didn’t work out, the less attachment she had to Prince Leif, the better.

“Prince Leif, a moment, if I may?”

Eyvel turned around to glare at Dorias for interrupting Salem’s story of how he had learned magic. When Asbel had explained Leif’s method to the other mages in their army, Salem revealed this wasn’t a new technique, being used even before the days of the Loptyrian Empire.

“The technique used in Jugdral today was considered battle magic. But your method was considered common magic,” Salem explained, “It produces weaker spells but the control over them allows for greater uses, as you’ve obviously discovered. Mages would use common magic to start fires without a flint, move boats when there was no wind, they would even use it to put on performances at festivals. It’s odd it’s not taught anymore. I honestly think this method is far more useful.”

Upon learning this, Leif had asked Salem to tell him everything he could about how magic was used in the past, silent but obviously interested in everything Salem was saying, even his tangents into personal stories. Salem seemed to be enjoying this as well, more animated than Eyvel had ever seen him. Although he’d grown up in a miserable place and had almost been killed for leaving the Loptyr Cult, he still had fond memories of his past and was grateful for an outlet to share them.

Dorias was taken aback by Eyvel’s glare but Glade ignored her and pressed on. “We’ll be arriving in Solwood Pass soon. I know your plan is to take the eastern path through the woodland but I’d suggest taking the western path instead. You’re taking back your kingdom, surely it would be best to approach directly, fight where the masses can see our victory and be inspired.”

“It’s safer. We’ll be less exposed and the Empire won’t be expecting us," Leif reasoned.

“They won’t be expecting us because this isn’t the way battles are fought,” Dorias pointed out, “I know you’re more accustomed to these less conventional methods but all of Thracia- no, all of Jugdral will be watching our battle. This is about more than victory! We cannot merely win, we must win in a way that gives inspiration and hope to the masses oppressed by the Empire!”

“We’re already at a disadvantage in numbers, experience, training, and supplies. If we attack directly, we’ll have nothing over the Empire,” Leif argued. He managed to keep his voice calm but Eyvel could see him worrying the leather band she’d given him.

“We’ll have our pride,” Dorias said, “If our victory requires some of our own to perish, then let them die an honorable death worthy of a knight of Leonster.”

“Death isn’t honorable,” Leif snapped. Dorias began to respond but refrained when Finn shook his head, preventing the duke from setting off Leif’s temper.

“Forgive me, Prince Leif, what I meant was this would be a more honorable way of fighting, one more appropriate for your status,” Dorias amended, “I know you claim to have no honor or pride but it’s not too late to change that, to bring glory to your title and name. If you truly desire to meet our expectations, cast aside your old ways and lead us into battle like a true prince.”

As soon as Dorias mentioned meeting expectations, Leif seemed to curl in on himself, life slowly draining into hollowness. Not liking where this was going, Eyvel moved as close to Leif as she could without making him uncomfortable and lowered her voice to keep their conversation between them. “This is your decision, no one else’s, Little Leif. You don’t have to do what Dorias or anyone else wants,” Eyvel assured him, “Personally, I’d rather fight your way. I’m not a knight and neither are my men. Hell, most folks here aren’t knights so they’ll be more than happy to go east.”

It was strange to see him so hesitant. Usually once he had an idea he stuck stubbornly by it, refusing to back down when opposed. It wasn’t the best approach either but Eyvel far preferred that confidence to this reluctant submission. Where had it even come from? The last time she had seen him act like this was when he discovered Dorias had lost an arm in Alster. Was it guilt? Or was this related to what he told Finn and Asbel about not being good enough? Possibly both? Whatever it was, Eyvel wanted to stomp it out before it consumed that spark she’d seen after Tahra.

When he and Nanna had ripped up the Crusader scrolls, that may have been the closest to happy she’d seen him. For a moment there was life in his eyes and strength in his words, as if he’d broken free from whatever was haunting him. It hadn’t lasted long but she hadn’t expected it to. But now she’d seen it once, she wanted to keep seeing it, to keep bringing that part of him out until that was simply how he was.

“If I want to be a good prince I have to listen to Dorias,” Leif said, tone flat with resignation, “He know how a noble is supposed to act, I need to-”

“You don’t need to do anything you don’t want to,” Eyvel interrupted, raising her voice as she turned to glare at the knights, “You’ll be a wonderful prince without acting like a knight. August and I approve of your decision, they're the only ones pitching a fit.” When Leif didn’t respond, Eyvel caught Finn’s eye and nodded her head at Leif. He hadn’t shared his thoughts but he was in a similar position, caught between the expectations of tradition and the practicality of caution. If anyone could get through to Leif, he would.

“I will abide by Lord Leif’s judgement.” It wasn’t direct approval but close enough to mean something to Leif, turning away from Eyvel to look back at Finn. For a moment, a fond look broke through his normal composed expression before being quickly covered as he added, “If going through Millefeuille Forest is the safer option, then I would prefer to take that route as well.”

Glade and Dorias didn’t seem pleased with Finn’s decision but he hadn’t noticed, that fond look having broken through again as he held Leif’s gaze. This was the happiest Finn had been in the three years she’d known him, smiling more in the past month than he ever had in Fiana. He deserved it, they both did. If she thought her weeks after leaving Mareeta were hard, they were nothing compared to the five years Finn had gone through. Just watching it had been painful.


Fiana, 773

Eyvel knew this day was coming. The harvest festival had ended almost two weeks ago and Finn was becoming even more withdrawn with every passing day. Nanna was quieter too but Mareeta had noticed and taken it upon herself to cheer her friend up. The closest thing Finn had to a friend was Eyvel.

When Eyvel woke, he was already gone. The days were becoming colder yet he hadn’t taken a coat or blanket with him. Quietly as she could, she began to heat the kettle, throwing in a few dried chamomile flowers. As she waited for the tea to brew, she folded two blankets and wrote a note for the girls. Once ready, she strained the tea into a mug and carefully balanced it atop the blankets as she headed out the backdoor.

This wasn’t the first time Eyvel had gone looking for someone trying to grieve by themselves and Finn was a simple man, he wouldn’t wander far or try to hide. He was right where Eyvel expected, where Halvan had come on his parent’s anniversary and Orsin on his mother’s birthday. There was just something about the river that made it a good place to remember lost loved ones.

Setting the mug down for a moment, Eyvel unfolded one of the blankets and gently threw it across Finn’s shoulders. He didn’t react, still staring at the lance in his lap. It had been given to him by Leif’s father and was the closest thing he had to something of Leif’s.

Wrapping the other blanket around herself, she grabbed the mug of tea and sat down next to him, holding out the mug in an attempt to get some reaction out of him. It took a few moments but he accepted it, now staring down at the drink rather than his lance.

“He missed his fifth birthday. His eighth as well,” Finn said, “He knew it was sometime between when the leaves started falling and the first snow but even if we knew the date, there was nothing we could do to celebrate it.”

This was far from the first time he hadn’t been able to celebrate Leif’s birthday, but this was the first time he had to face that, to go through the day knowing what it was. Eyvel wished she knew what to say. Would he want empty assurances Leif was having a wonderful day wherever he was or would he want Eyvel to just listen as he rambled like before? The only thing she knew he wanted was something she couldn't give him.

“He would like it here,” Finn said.

“That’s high praise,” Eyvel said, hoping to keep the mood from becoming too somber, “Fiana would be happy to have him too. When we find him, he can stay as long as he likes.”

“He shouldn’t,” Finn said, “He should be able to go back to Leonster, his home. He should be somewhere he can be protected and taken care of by people who are actually competent.”

Eyvel ignored the unintentional insult to her village. “Finn, you did a wonderful job protecting and caring for him. I have no doubt he’d agree with me.”

“Then why isn’t he here?” Finn asked, unable to muster the anger to snap, “Why has no one heard anything about him in almost three years?”

“You can still be protecting him even if you’re not with him,” Eyvel said, “You said he’s smart, he’s probably lying low, keeping from drawing too much attention to himself, just like he learned from you.”

“But there’s so much he doesn’t know. He's never handled money or had to find food. He can use swords but all he has is Lady Ethlyn’s and that’s a bit too heavy for him to use properly. He doesn’t even have a change of clothes or a map.” From how his gaze shifted to the blanket around his shoulders, there was a much longer list of things he wished Leif had.

She wished he would just cry already. He was the most miserable man she’d ever met but he refused to let himself grieve properly. That had nearly killed him once, she wouldn’t let that happen again. If that meant using a little emotional manipulation, not her fault he was easy.

Eyvel reached over, nudging him slightly with her elbow. “Prince Leif wouldn’t want you to be sad on his birthday.”

It worked like a charm, Finn straightening and nodding seriously. Eyvel barely managed to suppress a smile. Even miles away and years later, Prince Leif still had Finn wrapped around his finger.

“I should-” Finn’s attempt to leave was stopped by Eyvel grabbing his shoulder and forcing him to stay seated.

“You should finish your tea before it goes cold,” Eyvel corrected, “No one’s expecting you to do anything today so take all the time you need.”

Finn looked down at the tea again. “Thank you,” he said softly, gratitude sounding sincere for the first time.

Eyvel gave him a small smile before turning towards the river. “Happy birthday, Prince Leif. Let’s try to celebrate the next one together.”

“Millefeuille Forest… There’s a Loptyr monastery there. They have a fair number of our, er the Loptyr Cult’s books there, perhaps even Galle the First’s journal,” Salem mused, “It was my favorite book, although not for the reason the bishops wanted. I believe you’d find it a fascinating read, Prince Leif.”

“Why did you like it?” Leif asked.

“It was supposed to be a lesson on man’s greed and ambition but I was more interested in the stories of his travels. The sea, clouds, trees, I tried to imagine them even though there weren’t many descriptions. There were some drawings but Galle was more interested in dragons than scenery,” Salem explained.

“Dragons,” Leif repeated, hiding whatever surprise or disbelief he might have felt well. “Galle the First traveled to find dragons?”

Salem seemed confused. “Yes, that’s how he found Loptous and what led to their blood pact. I thought this was common knowledge.”

Eyvel pinched the bridge of her nose. “Salem, from now on don’t assume anything you know is common knowledge.”

Salem nodded, turning slightly red.

“Why isn’t this common knowledge?” Leif asked, turning back to Dorias, “Why does the Loptyr Cult know so much the rest of Jugdral doesn’t?” He paused as a thought occurred to him. “If Loptous is a dragon, does that mean-”

“We don’t know if any of this is true,” Dorias interrupted, clearly uncomfortable discussing this topic. “There’s no proof beyond the word of a former Loptyr cultist.”

“That’s enough for me,” Leif snapped, just missing how Salem perked up at this before he turned back to him, “Can you lead us to the monastery?”

“Once we’re in the forest, I should,” Salem said, “I hadn’t told Perne but once I was fully healed, I wanted to offer my services to the Dandelion Gang as more than just a healer and mage. My mentor praised me for having one of the best memories of any student he’d had and if it became dark or a fog came in when we were travelling back from… collecting children, I was always tasked with leading us back. No matter what’s in that forest, as soon as I find something familiar, I’m certain I can find the monastery.”

Leif was frowning but said nothing. It couldn’t be about the mention of the child hunts, Leif had been more than willing to overlook Salem’s involvement after learning of his past. His eyes were wandering along the side of the path, finally stopping on something several feet ahead. Eyvel followed his gaze to find it had landed on a patch of dandelions. Once they were closer, Eyvel reached down to pluck one, holding it out to see if her hunch was right. From how amusingly intensely he stared at it, she probably was.

“Did Lara tell you what these mean?” Eyvel asked.

“She said they have some of the best meanings but wouldn’t tell me what they were,” Leif said. He dropped the frown when he looked up at her, intensely curious stare incredibly endearing. “Do you know?”

“I’m afraid not Little Leif,” Eyvel admitted, looking down at the weed, “But I do know some other things about these. Did you know the entire plant is edible? Everything from flower to root.”

“Yes.” That shouldn’t have surprised her as much as it did. If he’d been living outdoors for several years, that may have been his only option, especially when he was younger and knew nothing about hunting. Eyvel risked a glance back and couldn’t help herself as she burst out laughing.

“No, no, this isn’t at you, Little Leif,” Eyvel reassured him when he turned to her. She looked back to the knights. “You’re more shocked about this than dragons.”

“They don’t taste bad,” Leif offered, turning back as well. This didn’t seem to comfort the men but it gave Eyvel an idea. Maybe it was too much of a dig but if they wanted to force him to act as they wanted, she was going to encourage him to do the opposite.

“That’s a fair point. You know, this could really help our army, definitely cut down on expenses,” Eyvel said. She looked out at the grassy area on the side of the road. “Anything you’d suggest?”

Leif looked along the side of the road before pointing out a patch of chickweed. “All of that,” he said. He pointed out a patch of plantains next. “Just the leaves.” He moved to a clover patch next. “The leaves and flowers.”

“We will not be eating weeds!” Dorias interrupted, “Neither should you, Prince Leif.”

“And why not? They’re plants, just like apples or grapes,” Eyvel countered. Dorias frowned at her but she just stared back, daring him to say this was beneath them. It was desperate but it was resourceful and what hundreds of common folk had done to get by. Halvan and Patricia did it before they reached Fiana, Dagdar and his men did it when their crops were struggling. Until these nobles could put aside their pride and see what life for their people was really like, she doubted any of them could give Leif good advice.

Perhaps her message had gotten across as Dorias refrained from saying anything more. Smiling from her victory, she turned back to Leif. “These also make a pretty good tea. We can brew some together, if you’d like,” she offered, “You don’t have to come into camp, I’ll come out to meet you. What do you think, Little Leif?”

Eyvel felt a swell of pride at how quickly he nodded in agreement. She couldn’t reach out to show him so she would have to settle for this. She held out the dandelion again but when he reached for it, she pulled it back, lightly tapping him on the nose with it instead. She did so slow enough he could stop her but he didn't, instead giving her that attempt at a smile Finn was so fond of. It was a nice start but she'd really like to see a full one.

The flapping of wings gave away Karin’s arrival before she touched down, landing several feet in front of them. Her concerned expression brought Leif to her side in seconds.

“A bunch of mercenaries heading towards a village on the other side of the mountains,” she reported, “There’s a break in the mountains over to the east but I think I might’ve seen a quicker path.”

“Show me,” Leif said, taking out one of the rewarp staves Linoan had given them. A second later, he was gone and Karin took off again.

Glade signaled for the march to halt as they waited for Leif and Karin to return. “It seems going east is inevitable,” he sighed before glancing over at Finn. “Are you truly fine with this? You’ve always been lenient with Lord Leif but wouldn’t it have been better to encourage him to take the more honorable path, help him be the better prince he wants to be?”

As many problems as she had with his question, Eyvel held her tongue to let Finn respond. “You and Dorias are right, any good knight would choose the western path. Perhaps I should have as well,” Finn admitted, “But I stand by my decision. Lord Leif’s safety comes first.”

Glade shook his head but was smiling amusedly. “I always knew you were soft on the prince, but I had no idea it was this bad,” he teased, although Finn seemed almost ashamed.

“At least you know how to treat a prince,” Dorias said coldly, glare fixed on Eyvel, “You’re being far too familiar with him. He’s not some stray orphan you picked up off the streets. He’s your prince and both of you need to start acting like it.”

“Father, please, Prince Leif doesn’t seem to mind it,” Selfina argued.

“Prince Leif doesn’t mind eating weeds and being stabbed,” Dorias countered, “It’s not proper-”

“Not proper?” Eyvel repeated, cutting him off. “I’m treating him like a boy, like a person rather than a title. I’m the only one trying to give him the help he needs. If that makes my behavior improper your priorities are even worse than I thought.”

“And how, pray tell, are you giving him the help he needs?” Dorias asked, narrowing his eyes as he repeated Eyvel’s words.

“By supporting him rather than trying to force my ideals onto him,” Eyvel said, “He’s not Prince Quan and he doesn’t want to be, nor should he be. Is it that hard to just accept him as he is?”

“Yes,” Dorias said, “I believe he can retake Leonster. Hell, I believe he can retake all of Northern Thracia. But what then? Do you honestly think he can rule as he is? Thracia will take the title of barbarian kingdom from Verdane under him!”

“Thracia’s people will be protected and taken care of under him, far better than they would have under Prince Quan,” Eyvel said, anger rising, “If you don’t believe he can rule, why are you following him? Because he’s your only option, out of loyalty to his father? Do you genuinely care about him at all!?”

“Of course I do!” Dorias snapped, “I’ve known Prince Leif since he was an infant, I want nothing more than to see him live up to his title and become a true prince. But he never will if he continues down your path.”

“You mean if he doesn’t follow your path,” Eyvel said, “I’m not trying to shape him like you because he doesn’t need to be. He needs to be cared for and supported so he can cope with everything he’s been through.”

“We don’t know what he’s been through,” Finn said, momentarily interrupting their argument.

“He’ll talk when he’s ready,” Eyvel assured him, anger waning as she thought of the difficult position she was putting him in, “But does it really matter? You know he’s hurting, with how much he means to you, I thought that'd be more than enough reason to want to help.”

“I-,” Finn hesitated, glancing over at his fellow knights. Eyvel felt slightly guilty about forcing him to side against his old friends, but it wasn’t his fault he was the only one who could see Leif as more than just his prince. “I only want what’s best for Lord Leif.

She’d settle for noncommittal as Hermes’ shadow crossed over them, warning of Karin’s landing. Leif hadn’t reappeared but rewarp staves had very few uses, he may have decided it would be best to conserve them. Hopefully that was it and he wasn’t running off to handle the mercenaries himself.

“There’s a passage straight ahead but it’s too narrow for horses. Prince Leif’s going to meet everyone on foot there and everyone else is to go to the opening to the east,” Karin relayed.

“Where’s Prince Leif now?” Selfina asked.

“Climbing down the mountain.” Eyvel smirked when she heard Finn sigh behind her but made a mental note to check Leif’s hands and feet when she saw him. He better have his shoes this time.

Eyvel turned around, raising her voice as she called back to the army. “Infantry! We’re to advance forward to meet Prince Leif!”

Unsurprisingly, Asbel was the first to rush forward, Eyvel only waiting long enough to see Halvan and Mareeta before following him. The cavalry would have to wait until the rest of them were out of the way but that would stagger their attacks, the infantry being able to attack first and the cavalry arriving in time to prevent their escape.

They arrived at the mountains before Leif. Karin was right, it was a very narrow passage. Dagdar would’ve had trouble slipping through here. She felt a slight pang at the thought of her old friend, briefly allowing her thoughts to wander to Tanya and Orsin.

“Where’s Lord Leif?” Asbel asked, looking down the passage as if expecting Leif to already be on the other side.

“Here.” Everyone turned around to see Leif behind them and parting as he moved forward, shoes thankfully on this time. “There’s a group of mercenaries heading out of the forest towards the village. Two people are defending them, one mounted, one on foot. I saw someone outside the church as well so there’s likely something important in there.”

“I’ll take the church,” Homer offered, “Being a meat shield once is more than enough for me.”

“I’ll accompany him, in case anyone needs healing,” Salem added. 

Leif nodded in approval. When no one else spoke up, he dashed through the passage, Asbel close behind.

It was narrow enough they had to run single file but they were a small enough group that wasn’t a problem. Once on the other side, she could make out a female knight on the other side of the pond. She was holding her own for now but an arrow narrowly missing her warned that wouldn’t last forever.

The boys were both faster than her but Eyvel managed to keep close as they ran towards the woman. Just after they passed the pond, Asbel broke away, heading for the village, likely at the suggestion of Leif. The woman had dispatched of two mercenaries but the archer had managed to land a hit to her shoulder and another mercenary was charging, sword raised.

“This way!” Eyvel called, startling the woman. But she complied, steering her horse back to give Eyvel and Leif a clear path to the mercenary. Eyvel rushed him, swinging her sword up to knock his back and following with a slice up through his side. The mercenary fell as Eyvel watched Leif heal the woman from the corner of her eye. But there was no time to talk as an arrow flew by from the earlier archer.

The archer was somewhere in the trees but hidden well enough Eyvel couldn’t spot him. Retaliating with her Flame Sword was too much of a risk. She could wait until he fired again but then she would have to hope he didn’t kill her. Bows had a limited range, so if the archer had been able to hit the woman from here, he had to be close.

Aiming carefully, Eyvel set the grass near the forest on fire. There was a surprised shout to her left, which was enough to go on for now. She ran towards it, entering several feet away from the archer, sitting on the ground after having likely leapt back from his hiding spot among the bushes. He scrambled to nock an arrow but Eyvel was faster, running her sword through his chest before he could pull back the bowstring. She knelt down by the body to look for any signs of more archers but all she saw was another mercenary trying to stealthily make his way towards the village. She kept low, letting the bushes continue to hide her from view until he was almost beside her. He had no time to defend himself as she lunged, driving her sword through his chest.

As she left the forest, she noticed Asbel, Machyua, and Lara defending the far houses and Mareeta and Halvan defending the next furthest. Trusting Leif and the woman to take care of the rest, Eyvel ran to join Halvan and Mareeta as they engaged several warriors with axes.

Eyvel intercepted the nearest, her strike being blocked allowing for Mareeta to cut through his side. As soon as the man’s axe was lowered, Eyvel landed a blow when his neck and shoulder met.

“I thought we agreed, just the Flame Sword for now,” Eyvel chided as she turned to face the next approaching mercenary.

“You said I was doing well!” Mareeta argued as Eyvel parried the mercenary’s attack.

“You are,” Eyvel said as she pressed the mercenary, forcing him to disengage. She charged forward, the mercenary only managing to block her attack for a moment. As soon as she overpowered him, she quickly finished him off with a stab through the chest. “But you’re still getting used to fighting like this. I don’t want you taking on too much too soon.”

“I-I know. I’m sorry, Mother,” Mareeta apologized, “I just don’t want to be a burden.”

Eyvel spared a moment to smile warmly at her daughter, brushing her hair behind her ear. “Never,” she said, just as three more mercenaries appeared. Before they could get close enough to engage, a wave of flames engulfed them, giving Eyvel time to step back and join her daughter. Sending her own burst of fire magic, the trio of mercenaries were given no opening to counter as Mareeta attacked once more. The smell of them burning was unpleasant but the determined look on her daughter’s face more than made up for that.

“We should fall back to the village, less risk of burning down the forest,” Eyvel advised. Mareeta nodded in agreement and the pair quickly made their way back to the village where Lara, Asbel, and Machyua had joined Halvan.

“One of the townsfolk said some mercenaries showed up awhile ago and started terrorizing them. A sellsword chased them out and offered to keep defending the village. But the mercenaries brought the local bandits with them this time,” Machyua said, “He held them off as long as he could.”

“Now it’s our turn,” Eyvel said, watching as at least a dozen more mercenaries emerged from the forest, “We just have to hold out until the rest of the army arrives. That shouldn’t be too much longer.”

“It will,” Leif said, finally joining them. “Karin said they’re being ambushed by bandits. Can't tell how many because of the trees.”

“Even if it’s only a few, it seems the mercenaries want this to be over soon too,” Halvan said, drawing Eyvel’s attention back to the forest. There were at twice as many men as before. A man stepped forward to address them.

“Our business with the village has got nothin’ to do with you,” he called out, “Get lost and we won’t come after you.”

“Yes you will,” Leif called back, “You came to Thracia for me.”

“Asbel, Mareeta, stay back as much as you can,” Eyvel whispered, anticipating where this was going, “Asbel, only use staves. Mareeta, aim for the men furthest away.” Eyvel gave Machyua a grateful smile as she attached her rapier to Mareeta’s belt. It wasn’t the strongest sword but it was light enough for Mareeta to lift and swing with ease if things became desperate.

“We- then you’re,” the mercenary leader slowly put what Leif was saying together, “Forget the children, the reward for you is much greater. You’re a real idiot for admitting who you are.”

“You’re the idiot for coming here,” Leif said, drawing his blade, “You’re not taking the children or me.”

“We’ll see about that,” the mercenary sneered. He lifted his hand, all the other men drawing their weapons. With a flick of his wrist, they charged.

They may just be mercenaries and bandits but two dozen on seven weren’t numbers Eyvel liked, especially when two couldn’t join in the fight. Rushing forward to join Leif, they tried to take out any men they could in the few seconds before the men would reach them. Eyvel’s flames did buy them a few more seconds and Leif managed to strike one of the mercenaries with a light spell but that was all they could do before they were forced to engage.

Eyvel was immediately set upon by two mercenaries. They were much better fighters than the bandits, both attacking relentlessly, trying to take advantage of their greater strength. She barely had time to block one blow before the other was attacking, saved only by being faster. Going on the offensive wasn’t an option, she had to wait for them to give her an opening.

It felt like ages before one became impatient and tried to lunge to force her to give up ground. His partner wasn’t expecting this and tried to do the same a second too late. By dodging the first, Eyvel moved right into the path of the second, already swinging her sword to meet his. He moved to block her but it was too late, her blade slicing through his chest as she quickly turned to parry the blow of the mercenary who lunged. He had swung upward, making their battle of strength slightly more equal as she pressed as hard as she could, trying to knock his blade back. They stayed like this for a moment before he began to get the upper hand. Disengaging before she was completely overpowered, she ducked low to swing at his legs, her blade cutting through his thigh. When he knelt to grab the wound, he swung his sword wildly forward in a feeble attempt to fend her off. She easily dodged and drove her blade through his face to bring him down.

A moment free, she noticed Leif taking on three mercenaries but she had no time to help as two more came at her. An arrow flew by as well, Eyvel having to run at the mercenaries charging her to avoid being hit. There was nothing they could do about the archer for now but at least Asbel and Mareeta were out of range and depending on where the archer was, Leif and Lara's height might make them too hard to hit.

Eyvel was beginning to feel fatigue setting in as she took on these next mercenaries. They weren’t as strong as the last two but they were faster, leaving even less time for Eyvel to react. The few hits they landed didn’t cut deeply but they were certainly taking their toll.

It was dangerous and desperate but it was the only trick Eyvel had. Holding out her sword she sent a burst of fire magic at the mercenaries, wincing as the flames brushed her as well. But it had startled the mercenaries, giving her a chance to attack while they were still recovering. A quick slash finished off the first and the second had enough time to block but the raw skin on his hands stung too much to keep a hold on the blade. Disarmed, he stood no chance against Eyvel’s next strike.

An arrow finally hit, sinking into Eyvel’s bicep. She grimaced, looking to see how many mercenaries were left. Five had been hanging back, likely the leader and his favorite goons, but they were now drawing their swords to join in. Eyvel tried to lift hers and let out a pained cry, the arrow making it hard to lift her arm. With this and how exhausted she was, there was little she’d be able to do. Retreating wasn’t an option and reinforcements were unlikely. Was this what Dorias would call on honorable death? If so, she had a few thoughts on where he could shove his honor.

The men were suddenly pushed back by a burst of wind magic. Eyvel looked to her right in time to see Leif rush at them, sword left behind in a corpse. But he didn’t seem to care, casting a bolt of thunder magic at the two closest mercenaries as he headed for their leader. Eyvel made to follow when the warmth of a staff enveloped her. She pulled out the arrow to let the wound close and turned to thank Asbel, only to find a blonde priest instead. She nodded her thanks as he finished before hurrying after Leif.

The final two goons were charging him, just far enough away from the trees Eyvel was willing to risk using her sword on the one furthest from Leif. It didn’t kill the mercenary but at least slowed him down enough for Leif to only have to deal with one.

At the last second, Leif dove low, tripping the mercenary. As he was falling, Leif rose and sent a bolt of thunder magic through the back of the man’s head. There was a sick sound as it cracked but Leif didn’t react as it spattered back onto him, simply turning to the burned mercenary and finishing him off with a bolt of thunder magic to the chest. A startled cry was followed by an arrow flying pitifully, landing mere feet from the forest. Hopefully that was the only archer, making the captain the only one left.

The captain had backed into the trees, giving himself plenty of obstacles to hide from Leif’s spells behind. But he also couldn’t attack, carrying only a killing edge. Leif had another sword but instead conjured a flame, making Eyvel and the mercenary captain take a step back.

“You wouldn’t,” the captain said, although his expression betrayed his fear.

“Try me.” His tone chilled Eyvel, convincing her this wasn’t a bluff. It seemed to convince the captain too as he dropped his sword and held up his hands.

“I won’t come after you. I won’t touch the village either, I swear!” he said, stepping forward to show he had no other weapons. For a moment, Leif did nothing, worrying Eyvel he would burn the forest anyway. But he put out the flame. As soon as he did, the mercenary pointed towards Leif, an arrow quickly following.

Eyvel and Leif moved at the same time, Eyvel trying to get to Leif, Leif charging the mercenary. With a hard swing of his elbow, Leif knocked the captain in the arrow’s path, the purple tinged arrow landing in his skull. He swayed a moment before collapsing, leaving Leif an open target, although no more arrows came.

She wasn’t sure if it was safe to approach, his eyes wide and distant as his hands shook slightly. But she couldn’t let him keep going. Before he could run in to find the archer, Eyvel called out to him. “Little Leif.”

He paused, still far away when he turned to her. Rather than look at her, his eyes went to her bicep where she’d been shot. “You’re alright.”

Eyvel nodded. “A priest from the village healed me. You should see him too,” she said gently, now able to see the gash across his chest. There was a tear in the side of his shirt as well, although it was too loose to see how deep the wound underneath was.

“The others first,” he said, not waiting for a response before running back to the village. Eyvel had to take a moment to calm herself before following after.

The priest who had healed Eyvel had joined Asbel in kneeling next to Halvan and Lara, the pair leaning against each other. Both moved when Leif arrived, letting him look over them. Asbel spoke rapidly, expression filled with guilt. The priest’s calmness was almost eerie in comparison, watching Leif as he listened to Asbel’s account.

“Poison swords,” Machyua said, answering Eyvel’s question before she could ask. “Some bandits had them. Got Halvan and me. Asbel realized we were poisoned just as Lara took a bad hit. Mareeta and Father Sleuf are the only reason we’re not dead.”

“Just with the Flame Sword,” Mareeta added, as if that mattered at the moment, “All I did was keep them back until Father Sleuf could restore you and Halvan.”

“Better than running in,” Machyua said, “We needed a defender more than a fighter. And Asbel wouldn’t have been able to handle healing four people, even with Father Sleuf.”

“Defender more than a fighter,” Mareeta repeated to herself, frowning as she went over Machyua’s words.

“Stop apologizin’!” Asbel’s shout drew their attention back to the small group, “I’m the one that messed up!”

“I should have helped, this was too much to ask you to take on by yourself,” Leif reasoned, “It’s my fault the mercenaries are here. I’m the reason they came to Thracia, so I’m responsible for the problems and suffering they cause, including this fight.”

Asbel stared dumbfounded at Leif as the sound of approaching horses gave away the arrival of the rest of their army. Unsurprisingly, Finn was the first to arrive, looking as if the bandits had been rather nasty.

“Lord Leif, are you alright?” he asked, stopping beside him. Leif quickly rose but ignored Finn’s question, noticing his injuries and focusing on healing him instead.

“Is anyone else injured?” Leif asked, once he’d finished.

“You are,” Finn said with a frown, “Lord Leif-”

Finn never finished his sentence as Leif dashed off, having spotted someone else in need of healing. Nanna had been with the party but she was the only healer and if the nobles had insisted on pressing forward, it would have been hard to heal anyone let alone everyone who was injured. Trying to heal while moving also increased the chance of a staff missing.

“Let him go,” Eyvel said, stopping Finn from going after his lord, “It’ll calm him.

Finn looked around at their small party and the corpses around them before staring at something towards the forest. Eyvel looked back to see the female knight from before making her way towards them.

“All the archers in the forest are taken care of,” she reported, “Thank you for your assistance in protecting the village but I must- Olwen!?”

Olwen turned at her name. “General Amalda!” she called back, steering her horse over to join them.

“We all thought you’d perished in the collapse of Fort Dandrum! Reinhardt will be overjoyed to hear you’re alive,” Amalda said, tone giving away she was just as glad.

Olwen’s expression hardened at the mention of her brother. “Only to be horrified to hear I was the one who collapsed the fort and now fight for the Liberation Army,” she said, “But then he’ll know how I felt, learning he’s involved in child hunts.”

Amalda sighed. “I understand your anger. Every time His Majesty grants me an audience, I try to convince him going along with these child hunts is a grave mistake. But time and time again, he simply refuses to listen to reason. All I can do is rescue a few children in secret.”

“Then follow a prince who despises and has fought against the child hunts for years,” Olwen said, “Let’s rebuild House Friege as the honorable house it should be.”

Amalda hesitated. “House Friege is in the wrong, but this isn’t as easy a choice for me as it was for you. What of my troops back in Leonster? If I defect, they’ll be branded as traitors and punished for my betrayal.”

“Then return to them. Give them the choice the Liberation Army has given you,” Father Sleuf suggested, joining them, “They can decide for themselves. But your foremost duty is to your country - follow your heart.”

Amalda paused, mulling over the priest’s words. “Thank you for your counsel, Father Sleuf,” she said, nodding to the priest. He smiled warmly back as she took off.

“Will you be joining us, Father?” Eyvel asked.

“Of course,” he said, “Father Claud asked me to do what he cannot: to be his eyes, to look upon the world, and tell him what it has become.”

Finn frowned. “Father Claud died at the Battle of Belhalla.”

“Father Sleuf claims he can commune with Father Claud’s spirit,” August answered for the priest, giving him a disdainful look. Despite this, Sleuf seemed happy to see him.

“It’s been too long, Brother August,” he said, either ignoring or unphased by August’s skepticism, “I’ve received many messages from Father Claud at the Tower of Bragi. That’s why I came to Thracia, I was granted a vision of the youth bearing the Light of Zwei and knew I must come to him aid.”

August scoffed. “You can’t be serious. Him?” He hadn’t said who but the contempt in his voice gave away who he was referring to.

Sleuf nodded. “I’m certain of it,” he said, looking back at the army where Leif was healing one of Selfina’s knights in training, Cain if Eyvel remembered correctly. “It’s just as I foresaw… such strong power… such great potential he carries. Surely you can see it too.”

August frowned but said nothing as he stared at Leif. “What is this Light of Zwei?” Eyvel asked.

“The name was created by the followers of Maera but it’s based on an old belief, the hope that kept people going through the cruelty of the Loptyrian Empire,” Sleuf explained, “They told themselves one day, a person would come along with a light so bright no darkness could overcome it. All of the Crusaders were suspected of being it, especially Fjalar, Heim, and Bragi. Some now believe it to be Prince Shannan or Lord Seliph. But I'm certain it's him. It must be.”

His explanation didn’t help Eyvel understand any better. But he seemed to think Leif was someone strong enough to survive and beat the worst of the world. She sincerely hoped that was true.

Chapter Text

The village bishop offered to teleport everyone to Millefeuille Forest. It shortened their journey significantly but gave those exhausted no time to recover. The bandits who attacked their main army had been more annoying than threatening, easy to take down but good at hiding. Almost everyone had taken a hit but nothing serious. Everyone who defended the village, however, looked as if they were barely holding together. Half of them had significant injuries, Asbel was shaken, and besides their new priest, only Salem, Homer, and Leif weren’t fatigued. But even though he said he could fight, there was definitely something bothering Leif.

All Nanna could see were trees, stretching on seemingly endlessly before them. There were so few gaps in the leaves overhead, the path was darkened as if it was much later than midday. Not that there was much of a path, just areas where the trees weren’t so thick as to prevent cavalry from going through them.

“Do you know where we are?” Leif asked Salem, following the dark mage as he approached several trees.

“I… believe so. If we keep heading north, a ridge should come up on our left. After that, it’s only a short distance forward to the monastery,” Salem said. “Although I doubt getting there will be so simple. There’s a crystal ball at the monastery that reveals whenever someone is approaching. If there’s anyone at the monastery, then they already know we’re here.”

“Get a restore staff from the convoy,” Leif directed, looking at both of them.

Salem nodded and hurried to do as Leif said. Although the instruction had been directed at her as well, Leif made no complaint when Nanna stayed behind.

“Have you been to a Loptyr monastery before?” Nanna asked.

Leif shook his head. “I didn’t know there were any in Thracia.”

“It’s likely new. Until the Loptyr Cult returned, everyone believed every trace of the Loptyrian Empire to be eradicated.”

“Even the truth,” Leif said, intensity surprising her. When he looked up, she had a sick feeling what he was about to say would be more unsettling than the forest. “Loptous was a dragon.”

“If Loptous is a dragon,” Nanna began slowly, “Then what about the other gods, the ones the Crusaders made their blood pact with?”

“It makes sense,” Leif said. “What doesn’t is why only the Loptyr Cult knows this.”

“Maybe it’s like House Leonster and House Friege,” Nanna suggested, “You and Olwen were upset and turned against them when you found out the truth, perhaps the people would do the same if they learned the truth about the gods.”

“There has to be more than that,” Leif insisted, “We turned against our houses for what they were doing. What could the dragons have done that would make the people turn on them?”

Nanna hated the thought as soon as she had it. “The only thing we know they’ve done is their blood pact with the Crusaders and granting them Holy Weapons. C-could it have something to do with that?”

She and Leif may not have enough Holy Blood to wield Holy Weapons but they were still descended from Crusaders, two in Leif’s case. Holy Blood has always been prized in Jugdral, seen as a sign of nobility and worth and their continuation considered essential. Was that what the dragons wanted? But why? The more she thought about it, the more she was starting to agree with Leif and Raydrik’s dislike of Holy Blood.

Salem returned with restore staves for himself and Nanna, followed by Dorias and August. “This is certainly deserving of the name ‘Mirage Forest’,” Dorias remarked, clearly uncomfortable in the forest as well.

“Indeed. It’s easy to see how so many have gotten lost in these woods,” August said, “Bringing our entire army through here will be a challenge. I’d suggest taking only a small party to take the monastery. You’ll make better time and be able to take those at the monastery by surprise.”

“They already know we’re here,” Leif said, “But a smaller party is better.”

“I’ll come,” Nanna immediately offered, “The mages will focus on us but if any do come after the army, August and Father Sleuf can restore them.”

Leif nodded. “If Selfina comes as well, all of us will be able to counter any mages we come across.”

“You should have some knights with you in case there are more than mages out there, seeing as only two of you can use close range weapons,” Dorias advised, “Finn and Glade will be more than willing to accompany you, although I’d prefer if you had at least two more. I’ll see if Cain and Alva are willing to come along.”

As soon as Leif and Dorias went off to gather the knights, Asbel hurried over to Nanna. When he reached her, he pulled out a small silvery ring and held it out to her.

“It’s from the villagers. I was gonna give it to Lord Leif but…” Asbel didn’t finish his explanation, dropping his gaze guiltily.

“What happened, back in the village?” Nanna asked as she took the ring.

“I-I messed up real bad. There was so many of ‘em an’ everyone was gettin’ hurt an’ I missed Lara when she was hurt bad an’ I-I panicked,” Asbel confessed, seeming close to panicking again.

“You didn’t mess up, you were put in a situation you weren’t prepared for. None of you were,” Nanna said, “The only thing that matters is everyone made it out alive. That wouldn’t have happened without you.”

Asbel gave her a grateful smile, at least partially soothed by her words. “I’ll make up for this time. I’m gettin’ real good with light magic, even better than staves!”

“You should stay here,” Nanna said, Asbel instantly deflating, “There are already three of us who can use staves going. If mages do decide to target the army, they’ll need you here more than we would.”

“If they target the army,” Asbel argued, “They’re gonna be targeting you for sure.”

“But it’s a situation we should be prepared for,” Nanna said. It was slightly underhanded to use his guilt like this but she was willing to overlook that as she got the results she desired, Asbel nodding solemnly.

Asbel hesitated a moment, looking around to make sure no one would overhear their conversation. “What you said, back in Tahra.”

“Still applies,” Nanna confirmed, lowering her voice as well. “Salem has his sleep staff and I still have the warp staff. Since Father won’t be here, use Eyvel instead.”

Asbel nodded as Leif and the knights arrived. His attempt not to look guilty was miserable at best but fortunately he ran off before anyone could speak to him. Asbel had never been very good at keeping secrets and this wasn’t one they could afford to let slip.

Leif joined Salem by the treeline. “Which way?”

“Wait Prince Leif,” Glade called, just as Salem was pointing out the direction they would be heading, “Let us knights take the lead, in case there's any danger.”

“You don’t know where you’re going,” Leif said irritably, glare giving away how hard he was trying not to snap. “And we’ll be fighting mages. Selfina’s the only knight who can counter them.”

“Salem can still see if we leave enough space between us,” Glade said, “Trust us, Prince Leif, it’s safer than putting the most important people in front.”

“Sir Glade is right, Prince Leif,” Alva said, “We can’t protect you from the rear!”

“You don’t need to,” Leif said, entire body tense.

“It’ll be helpful for the party,” Cain said, cutting off Alva’s reply in an attempt to diffuse Leif’s anger, “We have a higher vantage point, we’re able to see further and notice threats sooner.”

“But if they're mages, you can’t do anything about them,” Leif argued, frustration finally breaking his control over his temper as he started walking into the forest.

“Lord Leif, what are you doing? You don’t know where you’re going!” Finn called.

“I’d rather get lost than go along with this!” he snapped.

“You’re better than this, Lord Leif.” Finn’s words stopped Leif though he was still tense. When he didn’t turn around or respond, Glade took advantage of this to motion to Cain to follow him, the pair riding over to wait in front of Leif. Alva and Finn followed close behind, stopping on either side of Leif. Salem seemed reluctant to join but did so anyway, taking the space beside Leif that Alva had left for him. No other options, Nanna joined Selfina in the back, the group setting off once they had joined.

“Boy is it great to see so much green again after all that gray in Thracia,” Alva said cheerily, looking around the forest. “The air feels cleaner too. It’s almost like being in a different world.”

“You should keep chatter to only the essential,” Cain scolded softly, only sparing a moment to glance back disapprovingly at his friend. “We don’t want the Loptyrians to know we’re here.”

“Weren’t you listening to Duke Dorias? They already know we’re here,” Alva said, "All being quiet's going to do is make this mission awful solemn. I know that's your natural state but the rest of us actually like smiling."

“Cain has a point, Alva. The Loptyrians may know we’re in the forest but they may not know where yet,” Selfina softly chided.

Alva turned red as he nodded. “Right. My apologies, Lady Selfina,” he said, voice much softer than before.

“It’s alright. I suppose there’s no harm in speaking if you keep your voice down,” Selfina suggested. Her smile as the young knight perked up reminded Nanna of the way Eyvel looked at the Freeblades.

“Understood!” Alva said, slightly louder than a whisper. His grin slipped as he looked at Leif. “Something wrong, your highness?”

Leif didn’t give any indication he’d heard Alva’s question. He was still tense, head lowered to hide his face from all of them. A small trail of blood ran down his fist from how deeply he was digging his nails into his palm. Nanna was starting to think this wasn’t just from anger. She wasn’t the only one, Finn not having looked away from Leif since they left.

“Is that a girl?” Cain’s quiet question drew everyone’s attention from Leif toward what had caught the knight’s eye. Their party moved closer to the ridge as they looked up at the girl standing on top

“No, can it be?” Salem said breathlessly, “Lady Sara!?”

“Who’s Lady Sara?” Selfina asked.

“She’s- Ah!” Salem’s explanation was cut off as Alva stabbed his lance through the mage. He pulled it out and turned to swing it at Selfina, only to be blocked by Cain.

“Alva, what are you doing?” Selfina called as Cain blocked another thrust from Alva. The knight didn’t respond, only growling as Cain blocked a third swing before attacking himself, jabbing his lance toward Alva’s side. Alva didn’t try to defend himself, trying to attack Cain at the same time. Alva’s jab scratched Cain’s cheekbone and impaled his ear but Cain managed to land his hit right above Alva’s hip.

Despite being injured, Alva drew back his lance to try and attack Cain again. But just as he thrust it forward, he blinked wildly, pausing mid-action. But it was too late for Cain to stop, lance piercing through Alva’s torso. He let out a choked cough, giving his friend a look of hurt confusion before he fell from his horse.

“What just happened?” Selfina asked, voice shaking. She looked torn between grief and disbelief.

“Rinecok’s having fun with his Berserk staff,” Sara said, reminding everyone she was still there, restore staff in her hands supporting her claim. "Too bad for him it only has two uses left."

Leif had been kneeling beside Salem but quickly lifted his head when he heard what had caused Alva to attack them. He stood and turned to Nanna and Selfina. “Take my weapons. All of them.”

“We’re not leaving you unarmed!” Finn protested, “This staff is a threat to all of us, not just you. All disarming yourself will do is leave you unable to defend yourself.”

“I can still kill all of you without a weapon,” Leif said, directness unsettling, “It’ll be harder but that just means you’ll be safer.”

“But if one of us is berserked, you won’t be able to defend yourself,” Finn argued.

“I beat Ares without taking out a weapon. I killed Largo while in chains,” Leif said, “I am never not a threat. Take my weapons or I’m leaving them here.”

Leif had been acting strangely all day and seemed near panicked now. Finn was right about the staff being a threat to all of them but Nanna dreaded Leif being berserked more than anyone else. “We’ll take your tomes and swords but you should keep your staves,” Nanna suggested. “Yes, you can hurt us with those but it’ll be hard to kill us, especially since we're mounted.”

To her relief, Leif nodded and took out his tomes, holding the thick stack of books out to her. Nanna split them between herself and Selfina as he began unattaching his swords. Suddenly, he unsheathed his mother's sword and sent a strike of light magic behind Selfina and Nanna. Both turned around to see three dark mages had appeared behind them, the middle one staggering after Leif’s strike.

Drawing her sword, Nanna followed Leif’s lead in sending a burst of light magic at the mages, the warmth she felt assuring her she’d hit at least one before she saw the mage fall as his life force drained away. Selfina landed two hits to the mage on the other end, making him take a step back and before her next shot finished him off. Leif charged the middle one, stabbing him through then quickly switching to a restore staff as he looked back at Selfina and Nanna.

The worst thing about Jormungand tomes was not being able to tell they had hit until the poison set in. While Nanna currently felt fine, that could change at any moment, point proved by Selfina gripping her reins more tightly. Nanna switched to a restore staff herself and restored Selfina as Leif rejoined them.

“Why did they wait until now to attack? If they were nearby, why not attack while we were distracted by Alva?” Glade asked

“I don’t think they were,” Leif said, “They all had rewarp staves. They probably came down from the monastery because they saw us in the crystal ball.”

“So they only found us because we stopped moving,” Cain reasoned.

“Then we can’t stop again,” Glade said, pausing to frown, “But we don’t even know where we’re going anymore. We just lost our guide.”

Nanna looked down at Salem’s body. It had happened so fast, she hadn’t even realized he was dead until Leif rose and Salem didn’t.

Selfina rode closer to the ridge. “Lady Sara, did you come from the monastery?”

“It’s boring there. Rinecok always tells me to stay in my chambers and that other girl yells at me and calls me creepy,” Sara complained.

“Is that why you left?” Selfina asked, voice having taken on a sympathetic tone. Sara shook her head.

“I came to find that voice,” she said, closing her eyes and smiling dreamily, “It’s such a beautiful voice… and it’s calling out to me for help…”

“We’ll help you find it,” Leif promised.

Sara laughed, smile widening. “I already did,” she said, looking directly at Leif, “You’re perfect, just like I expected. I’ll help you.”

“I’m not. And I didn’t call out for help,” Leif said.

“Yes you are and yes you did,” Sara said, “It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard but I can see why. Fifty two-”

“Stop talking,” Leif suddenly interrupted, urgency alarming, “How the hell do you know that?”

“I know everything about you,” she said, “I know your Prince Leif of House Leonster but the Empire calls you-”

“Enough,” Leif interrupted again, Sara making an annoyed face this time. “That’s enough. Don’t say anything else about me. Please.”

Leif’s behavior was worrying everyone but if staying in one place made them easier to find, they needed to keep moving. Nanna joined Selfina and Leif by the ridge to speak to Sara without shouting. “You said you would help Lord Leif. He’s trying to find the monastery. Can you take us there?”

Sara nodded. “This way,” she said, pointing down the ridge. She started walking, Leif the first to follow, staying as close to the ridge as possible. Formation already broken, Finn directed his horse over to Leif’s side, concern painfully clear.

“Lord Leif-”

“No,” Leif cut him off, still not looking at him. “Forget this happened.”

“I can’t, not when whatever that was is clearly upsetting you,” Finn argued.

“I’m fine,” Leif snapped, insistence not convincing in the slightest.

“You haven’t been fine since we found you,” Finn said, concern starting to turn into anger, “You avoid people whenever possible, disparage yourself constantly, you said you don’t want to die but you certainly don’t act like it.”

“As if you’re much better,” Leif snarled, finally looking at Finn, “I had to order you to give a damn about your life.”

“And yet you refuse to do the same, no matter how many times we tell you how important your life is,” Finn countered, barely managing to keep from raising his voice, “Why won’t you believe protecting your life is more important than anything else?”

“Because it’s not true. I refuse to believe it and there’s nothing you can do about it. Go ahead and try! Yell at me, hit me, do whatever the hell you want to me, I will never put my life before others!"

A fight was the last thing they needed right now and theirs had escalated further than Nanna could take. Spurring her horse, Nanna rode between them and turned to Leif. “You still have your swords. I can take them but I’ll have to give someone else your tomes.”

Leif pulled a knife from each sleeve and handed them over with his swords. Deciding it was best not to ask, Nanna put the knives in her bag and turned to her father to give him Leif’s tomes, purposely fumbling with them to give Leif more time to get ahead.

“Why would he think I would hit him?” Finn asked softly, horrified by the idea.

“He knows you wouldn’t, but he was already unsettled before Sara,” Nanna assured him, “He’ll apologize once he’s calmed down.”

Finn sighed. “I don’t know how you and Eyvel do it. You haven’t fought with him once despite spending more time around him.”

“We’re willing to wait,” Nanna said, “And I’m still not sure I want to know everything.”

Finn’s concern turned to her. “What do you mean?”

“It’s bad enough seeing him like this, do I really want the details? Do I want to know why he doesn’t want to be touched or fifty two what? When I learned where the scars on his arms came from, I wanted to cry, and that was something he was willing to share. Thinking about what could be worse than that…” Nanna trailed off, dread tightening her throat. Finn let her lean against him as she calmed herself. This wasn’t the time or place for this but she had the feeling he needed this too.

“I wish terrible things would stop happening to everyone I care about,” Nanna said.

“So do I,” Finn said, lowering his voice before adding, “Please, stay safe.”

“You as well, Father,” Nanna said, “Please, keep your word to Lord Leif.”

Finn didn’t respond, only staying a moment longer before slowly pulling away to see why Glade was motioning to him. It was a good thing he did as for a moment, Nanna was incredibly angry at him, knowing what his silence meant. His secret had better stay that or she may never be able to forgive him.

Sara reached the bottom of the ridge just before Leif did and continued walking. But rather than going right, where Salem had said the monastery would be, she started heading left.

“Lady Sara, I don’t mean to be rude, but are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?” Nanna asked, riding up slightly behind her and Leif.

“We can’t go through there, that’s where Rinecok tries his new spells,” Sara said, pointing at what looked like an innocuous section of forest.

“What sort of spells are these?” Nanna asked.

“Mostly traps. Warp traps, berserk traps, sleep traps. He wants something that doesn’t miss like staves can,” Sara said, “Can you go get Lord Leif’s tomes from that lady and knight for me?”

“Why do you know everything about me and not the others?” Leif asked.

“Because you’re so loud, I can’t hear anyone else,” Sara said, “But that’s alright because I really like your voice.”

All these comments about Leif’s voice were starting to irritate Nanna. Sara was right but she didn’t have to keep bringing it up. It wasn’t as if complimenting Leif would make him like her, even if he showed interest in anyone like that. He couldn’t even hug her or hold her hand, like he used to. He used to love holding hands, pulling people along to show them whatever had excited him or taking theirs when she or Asbel were scared. Even back then they were calloused.

No, this was the wrong time to be having those thoughts. Hoping Sara hadn’t heard them, she led her horse back to Selfina first, her father still deep in a hushed conversation with Glade, expression regretful. Selfina was speaking with Cain as well but going by his gloomy expression, an interruption would be welcome.

“Lady Sara requested Lord Leif’s tomes,” Nanna explained in response to Selfina’s curious look. Selfina nodded and handed them over, although she looked as if she was questioning her actions.

“She's awfully young, no more than twelve or thirteen. Should we really be asking her to fight?” Selfina asked.

“Without Salem and Leif, we’re the only ones who can attack at range,” Nanna reasoned, “Unless…” She looked to Cain who shook his head.

“I’m not very good with swords, even if I could use them while mounted,” he said, “Alva might have been able to. He was better with swords than me.”

“Cain, please stop blaming yourself,” Selfina said, once again reminding Nanna of Eyvel, “What happened was horrible but not your fault. None of us knew what was going on but you stepped up to protect us. Alva wouldn’t blame you for this either.”

“I still killed my best friend,” Cain said, “He didn’t deserve this, he was the one of us who wanted to be a knight. I only became one because it felt like my only option. I want my country to be restored but I hate fighting. Once this war is over, I never want to pick up a lance again.”

“There are other ways you can help your country,” Nanna offered, “Lord Leif won’t mind your decision either.”

Cain looked at her with hesitant hope. “You and Prince Leif spoke of remaking House Leonster. I’ve done some reading on its politics and you may have the right idea. If it’s not too impertinent, I’d like to suggest a few changes Prince Leif could implement if he wants to focus on restoring relations with Southern Thracia.”

Nanna gave him a small smile. “It’s not impertinent at all. I’m sure he’ll be quite grateful for your input.”

“Just make sure you don’t mention this around Sir Glade or my lord father,” Selfina advised, briefly glancing over at Glade and Finn. “You best watch yourself around your father as well, Lady Nanna.”

Before Nanna could respond, she noticed Leif run forward, away from Sara. Nanna quickly rode over to see a group of sellswords in a clearing, feeling her heartbeat pick up when she remembered Leif was unarmed except for staves.

The closest sellsword ran to meet Leif but just as he swung for where Leif’s chest was, Leif ducked to swing a staff across the sellsword’s knees. The sellsword fell with a cry of pain as Leif rose behind him and swung the staff at his head, hitting his temple. Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to let Leif keep his staves.

An archer tried to fire a shot at Leif, Nanna noticing just in time to hurl a burst of light magic from her sword at him, feeling the warmth of his life force draining as her hit landed. The knights rushed by, Glade jabbing his lance through the archer to finish him before noticing a sellsword behind the others and charging at him. Cain engaged the closest mercenary, having the upper hand until he suddenly fell forward and then off of his horse. The sellsword tried to get around the horse to kill Cain but a shot from Selfina took him down and another finished him off.

Cain hadn’t taken a hit serious enough to kill him and Nanna could see his chest rising slowly from here, leaving her confused at to what had happened. Sara held out her restore staff and after a moment, Cain opened his eyes, blinking blearily as he pushed himself up.

“Wha-” he started to ask before a lance was impaled through his chest. Nanna looked up as it was withdrawn to see Glade pull it out. She and Sara both tried to use their restore staves but ended up missing as he spurred his horse around Cain and the sellsword's bodies before charging for Sara. Just as they were about to try again, two arrows flew at him, one missing but the other landing in his upper arm. Turning towards his attacker, Glade changed course to rush for Selfina. Nanna dropped her staff as she took out her sword but still took too long as Glade’s lance pierced Selfina’s side. She grabbed onto his hand, forcing him to stay as Sara finally managed to hit him with her restore staff before dropping it, magic used up.

“Selfina, oh gods,” Glade said in horror, looking down at his lance.

Selfina managed a weak smile as she reached up to cup her husband’s cheek. “It’s alright, my dearest, I’ll be alright. Just… do it quickly.”

With a pained look, Glade pulled the lance from Selfina’s side. She gripped her reins tightly for a moment before losing her balance and falling just as Leif ran over to her. Kneeling on the ground beside her, he pulled out a not bloodied staff and started healing the wound.

“Finn, no!” Glade quickly rode past Sara and Nanna to block Finn just as he was about to impale Sara. She jumped back with a shriek. She only had a silence staff on her and although she claimed she could use tomes, she was spooked and so small Nanna doubted she would survive a single hit.

“This way. Sara,” Nanna said, nodding back towards the trees. Unable to watch the fight, she ushered Sara away from the clearing, going partially into the trees with her. “Stay here until he’s restored. If you feel unsafe, move further in.” She waited for Sara to nod in understanding before turning back to the clearing.

She was just in time to see her father strike Glade, knocking him off his horse. She wasn’t sure if Glade was dead or not but that hardly mattered when the only people left on the field were Selfina and Leif. Even if Selfina was healed, she’d lost a fair deal of blood and may not be conscious. That left only Leif and herself to fight her father, unless Leif could restore him. But Leif didn’t take out a restore staff as her father charged at them, the scene even worse than her father fighting Glade.

She had to do something. His horse was moving too fast for her to hit with her sword but she could still do something. She sent a bolt of light magic at the ground between her father and Leif. It landed near enough his horse to make it rear, throwing him. Leif quickly ran at Finn before he could rise as Nanna hurried out of the woods to join them.

Leif grabbed Finn’s lance and threw it as far from them as he could as Finn unsheathed his sword. Leif dodged his swing and made a grab for Finn’s wrist, squeezing and twisting it to try and make him drop the sword. He did but Leif took a punch to the side of his face for this. Whether from the punch or on purpose, Leif dropped to the ground and grabbed the sword, also throwing it as far as he could. This cost him a kick to the ribs, rolling himself onto his back so he could see whatever attack was coming next.

Dismounting as quickly as she could, Nanna ran to the sellsword Cain had fought, grabbing his sword before running towards Leif and her father. She hadn’t seen how but Leif had managed to get her father on the ground, both arms twisted against his back similar to what he’d done with Mareeta. But her father was much larger and stronger than Mareeta, Leif having to put all his weight into keeping Finn down. It wasn’t enough and Finn threw Leif off, quickly turning and grabbing him by the throat. Leif pulled his legs into his chest and kicked Finn, the force enough to push him back and give Nanna the opening she needed to slash the blade across his back. He immediately fell forward, Leif pushing himself out of the way just in time to avoid Finn landing on him.

Leif quickly rose, Nanna unable to see his expression before he hurried to check on Glade. Kneeling down beside her father, Nanna carefully turned him over onto his back, folding his cape so the thin scratch she'd made wouldn’t be in the dirt. There was no way to prevent him from being appalled by what he'd done while berserked but she could at least give him a moment of comfort when he woke.

Her staff was just past Glade but she wanted to put off waking her father a little longer. Kneeling on the other side of Glade, she could see the remainder of his wound as Leif finished healing him. He would live but he would be far from fine when he woke.

Sara slowly left the forest and helped Selfina sit up. Selfina took one look at the scene before her and sighed, pained look not just from her freshly healed wound.

“How are they?” she asked, miraculously managing to keep her voice neutral.

“Alive,” Leif answered. Selfina let out a breath of relief as she slowly stood and joined them beside Glade, who was starting to stir.

“ ‘Fina?” he asked, wincing as he tried to push himself up. Leif moved away to let Selfina take his place and help her husband into a sitting position.

“I’m here, my beloved. The rest of us are, thanks to you,” Selfina said, managing a small smile as she let her arm slide down to his waist. He leaned into it for a moment before straightening and looking around, eyes first landing on Cain.

“Did I?” he asked, guilt keeping him from finishing his question.

“Not you,” Selfina said firmly, turning his head to make him look at her. “This is not your fault. Everything that happened here was because of that staff.”

“Cain and Alva were your men. You trained them yourself. And I- Selfina, I’m so sorry,” Glade apologized again, words choked by his regret.

Selfina quickly embraced him. “I’m sorry this happened to you. And Finn.” She looked over Glade’s shoulder at Nanna, concern slightly lessened when she saw she was uninjured. Then she turned to look at Leif. “Gods no.”

A bruise was already starting to form on Leif’s cheekbone and the red marks around his neck were clearly from a grown man's hands. Glade took one look at him and was instantly horrified. “Don’t tell Finn,” Leif said, “He’ll never forgive himself.”

“He’s going to see,” Glade pointed out.

“If we restored him now, he’d figure it out. But if we let him wake up on his own, there’s plenty of time for someone else to have done it,” Leif explained, “We need to conserve our last restore staff anyway.”

Glade nodded, breaking Selfina’s embrace to gingerly rise to his feet. “I’ll take him with me. It’ll be safer if he rides with someone else and it allows us to travel faster.”

As Glade coaxed his horse back into the clearing, Nanna unattached Leif’s swords and tomes to return them to him. “Father will be angry if he finds out we lied to him."

“Better he be mad at me than at himself,” Leif said as he took the weapons.

With Selfina’s help, Glade managed to get Finn onto his horse before climbing on behind him. Nanna and Selfina mounted as well as Leif gathered Finn’s lance and sword. He gave them to Glade as Selfina returned the rest of his tomes to him. After taking the restore staff from Leif, Sara began leading them again, this time towards the right.

“Prince Shannan was back there,” Glade said, keeping his voice down either to not wake Finn or wary as they could now see the tip of the monastery peeking up over the trees. “The last thing I remember before being berserked was how easy it was to strike him down. I’m not sure even Balmung could have made him a threat.”

“He wouldn’t have had a chance to find out,” Leif said, “Asbel used half of the blade for light magic practice and turned the pieces into a wind chime."

“A wind chime,” Glade repeated, shaking slightly as he tried not to laugh. Finn made a soft noise as if starting to stir and Glade quickly composed himself, although an amused smile remained on his face. “Rest, old friend, you deserve it. I’ll even ignore what a perfect opportunity this is to poke fun at you.”

“Are you sure you’re alright with this? You won’t be able to fight well,” Selfina pointed out, riding closer to her husband.

“There’s only mages at the monastery,” Sara said before making a face, “Even that rude girl.”

“You mentioned a girl before. Do you know anything about her?” Selfina asked.

“She’s mean and grumpy and boring,” Sara said petulantly, “Rinecok doesn’t let her leave her chambers either.”

“So she’s a prisoner but what girl would be important enough for the Loptyr Cult to keep prisoner?” Glade wondered.

“If she’s being kept alive, then they must have a use for her,” Selfina reasoned, “A hostage maybe, to force someone’s obedience?”

“But to be kept all the way out here in a Loptyr mo-” Glade's sentence was cut off as he suddenly disappeared, Selfina’s horse whinnying as it veered away from the spot where his had vanished.

“Glade!” Selfina called, looking around in a panic. She tried to approach where they had just been but Sara tugged on her cape.

“Wait!” she said, Selfina reluctantly obeying. Sara took a step closer then crouched down, staring at the ground. “Huh, Rinecok really did it. There’s a warp trap here.”

“A warp trap? Where were they warped too?” Selfina asked.

Sara shrugged. “Ask Rinecok, he’s the one that made it.”

Selfina turned to look at the monastery, on a rise a short distance ahead of them. “Gladly,” she said, nocking an arrow in the bow Glade had given her at their reunion.

Three dark mages were guarding the back of the monastery, waiting for their arrival. As soon as they were within range, everyone attacked, the three mages casting poison spells as Selfina fired her bow and Leif and Nanna sent light magic strikes from their swords. Only Nanna missed but two more arrows from Selfina finished off the last mage. 

Sara and Leif led the way to the front of the monastery. Sara used the end of her staff to mark a trap near the right of the monastery but otherwise their path was clear. Leif threw his hand back to signal for them to wait behind the tower, moving forward to peek around the edge to get an idea of what they would be facing.

“At least five, likely more,” he reported before turning to Sara. “How are you with light magic?”

“It’s my best. Grandfather hates it,” she said proudly, snatching the light tome Leif offered her.

After a quick glance at Selfina and Nanna to ensure they were ready, Leif turned and ran around the tower, Selfina close behind. Nanna spurred her horse around but rather than take out her mother’s sword, her hand went back to the sword she’d taken from Raydrik. Salem had said the Loptyrian Cult had cursed it to protect the wielder. Time to see how well that curse worked.

The first mage she saw, she swung the sword down at, cutting through him with ease. Another mage fired a spell at her just before being stabbed by Leif. She didn’t feel a thing, either the spell having missed or the sword’s curse working. Regardless, there was nothing to stop her from running through the next closest mage.

There were more than five but none stood a chance against Selfina’s anger and Leif. A bishop had backed against the doors to the monastery, as if he could be enough to stop them from getting inside. He opened his mouth but no words came out, a panic flashing across his face as he realized he was defenseless. He tried to quickly turn around and run inside but Leif grabbed the back of his robes and yanked him back, a knee to the back of his bringing the bishop into a kneeling position.

“This is better,” Sara said, holding her silence staff to her chest with a cheery grin. “Oh wait, Selfina had a question for you.” She switched to the restore staff and undid the silence spell.

“Where do the warp traps send people?” Selfina demanded.

“I’ve nothing to say to you,” he said coldly, trying to raise his chin haughtily. He turned his gaze to Sara. “Lady Sara, you wou-” the rest of his sentence was cut off by Sara silencing him again.

“If you have nothing to say then we’ve no use for you,” Nanna said before plunging the Loptous Sword into Rinecok. His eyes grew wider from what she hoped was horror at having one of the Loptyr Cult's weapons turned against him. This was the man who berserked her father, who was responsible for the bruises on Leif's throat. His last moments deserved to be as horrid as him.

The monastery was unlocked and although it was made to worship Loptous, Nanna had to admit it was rather beautiful. Tall doric columns lined the aisle, rising up to the vaulted ceiling. Light poured in between each, making the room bright enough to not need a torch. Red silk pillow were laid out between the columns, several still indented from where mages had been praying before going out to attack them. The altar at the far end of the room was made of finely cut marble, the symbol of Loptous carved on the front and painted silver. The window behind it had the curtains pulled back, revealing stained glass, though if it was meant to depict anything, Nanna couldn’t figure it out. But what she could tell was Salem hadn't been the only one excited to see the sun.

“Where’s the girl?” Leif asked. Sara pointed to a spiral staircase going up the tower to their left. Blade in hand once again, he started to ascend, Nanna quick to follow.

No more mages appeared as they made their way to the door at the top. Trading his blade for lockpicks, he set to work on the lock, giving Nanna a moment to once again wonder how he’d learned this. His hands moved through the actions so smoothly and swiftly, like Lara when she danced. It was much shorter than her dances, however, as he rose after a few seconds, pushing the now unlocked door open.

“Stay back, you unsightly lout!” a pillow flew at them, Leif letting it hit him without reacting.

“We’re not going to hurt you, you’re free to go back wherever you were taken from,” Leif said, taking a similar tone as when he'd spoken to the children from Dandrum.

“Oh that’s a laugh. Do you know who I am?” the girl asked angrily, only being infuriated further when neither answered, “I am Miranda of Alster and I can’t go home because my home has been taken from me!”

“Miranda?” Leif repeated, “You’re alive?”

“We’ve met?” Miranda asked, making a face that made Nanna want to shut and lock the door again.

“It… was a long time ago,” Leif said, turning his face away, preventing her from getting a better look. But Miranda didn’t seem to get the hint, stalking across the room and stopping in front of him, staring with a frown.

“I haven’t been around people my own age since before Alster was invaded by the Empire. Before that, the only boy I knew well… Prince Leif?!”

Leif turned back to face Miranda, who took a step back once he did, looking him up and down in horror. “Yeah.”

“Gods… you look wretched,” she said in disgust as anger filled her glare, “But you deserve it after everything you did. All of this is your fault, Prince!”

“How is any of this Lord Leif’s fault?” Nanna asked, barely keeping from snapping.

“All of this began when Leonster fell. My lord father was a gentle man, who hadn’t the heart for battle- and he knew there was little sense in fighting the Empire. But nevertheless, he took you in, sheltered you from the Empire- and in doing so, invited their wrath! He had to turn me over to them as a hostage and forfeit his own right to the throne! And in the end, he departed the world in a state of utter misery… I cannot forgive you, Prince! If you’d never come to Alster, things wouldn’t be like this…”

Nanna had never liked Miranda. She had been very timid as a child and Miranda took advantage of this, constantly bossing her around and yelling at her for being so easily scared and quiet. But right now, Nanna absolutely hated her.

“How dare-”

“You’re right,” Leif said, monotone making Nanna’s stomach sink, “I can never be forgiven for what I’ve done. Your father, Alster, you, I’m responsible for all of it. I’m sorry... for everything.”

“As if your apologies mean anything,” Miranda said coldly.

“No, they don’t,” Leif agreed, “Nothing can ever make up for the suffering I’ve caused.”

Nanna didn’t know who she wanted to slap more. Before she could decide, Selfina came up the stairs. “Is everything alright up there? Is the girl alright?”

“Selfina?” Miranda asked, perking up as the woman entered the room.

“Princess Miranda?! Oh thank the gods you’re alive!” Selfina said, crossing the room and taking Leif’s place as he slipped out of the room. Selfina hadn’t noticed, still taking Miranda in. “You’re becoming just as beautiful as your mother.”

“I look like a common wretch after being imprisoned in this dreary monastery for the last year,” Miranda said.

“Nonsense, you’re the most wonderful thing I’ve seen all day and I know a few more people whose days will be brightened when they see you," Selfina insisted, earning a smile from the princess

“Who else is coming?” Miranda asked, “Is Conomor with you?”

Selfina shook her head. “I’m sorry Princess but we know nothing of Count Conomor. Most of us have only just returned to Northern Thracia.”

“If you weren’t here, then where were you?” Miranda asked.

Selfina smiled softly. “We can share stories tonight. Right now there’s an army that needs to be led here,” she said. She gave a small chuckle at Miranda’s slight pout. “It’s good to see you again, Princess,” she said before heading down the stairs.

Nanna walked to the doorway, watching to make sure Selfina was too far away to hear before addressing Miranda. “Never speak to Lord Leif like that again.”

“You’re not still following him around like a duckling, are you?” Miranda asked.

“It’s called being friends. But you don’t know what friends are, do you?” Nanna countered, turning around to stare Miranda down. “Lord Leif is not responsible for anything you blamed him for, the Empire is. He was just the excuse they used.”

“That still makes it his fault. If my father hadn’t taken Prince Leif in, the Empire wouldn’t have had a reason to invade Alster. To me, that makes him just as guilty as them!” Miranda argued.

“Lord Leif thinks the same way you do. And do you know what he did because of that? He spent the last five years alone, fighting off Empire soldiers, risking his life to save children taken in the child hunts, being beaten, tortured, and not expecting or wanting to be saved because he thinks like you. He would rather die than see someone else hurt because of him, he almost has! Don’t you dare blame him for this or anything else the Empire's done to Thracia. I don’t care if you’re a princess, I won’t let you or anyone else treat him like you just did."

“Are you threatening me?” Miranda asked.

“Yes,” Nanna said, glaring at the princess before leaving the room. She would definitely be in trouble if anyone found out about this. But even if her father told her to apologize she wouldn’t. She would never apologize for defending those dear to her, even if that meant making enemies of powerful people. The people she cared for came first, always.

While everyone else was settling in for dinner, Eyvel took a kettle and two cups and headed behind the monastery, ignoring the disapproving look from Dorias. After what Nanna had told her, she wasn’t letting anything stop her from doing this, least of all some backwards duke.

Once she reached the treeline, she paused, looking for any sign Leif was around. He had gone out to find any remaining mercenaries or dark mages to make moving the army safer. Either they were the only ones out here or Leif had gotten everyone as although it had taken awhile to lead the entire army to the monastery, they hadn't run into any trouble along the way.

“You there, Little Leif? I was thinking now might be a good time to make good on my offer,” Eyvel called. After a minute of silence, she was about to call again when she noticed someone moving towards the monastery. Going by their pace and slight figure, it was who she was looking for.

Leif left the forest carrying a blood stained cloak with several swords and axes in it. Eyvel thought she might have spied a bow in there as well but he didn’t stop when he approached her, continuing to the back of the monastery where their supplies were being kept.

Now she was certain he could hear, she tried again. “I’m not asking you to join us but you ought to take a break, Little Leif. It doesn’t have to be long, just enough to catch you up on a few things.”

Finished putting away the weapons, Leif hesitated a moment before giving a small nod and walking back into the forest. Eyvel sighed softly then followed. He had been doing so well. But they were due for a set back. She only hoped it wasn’t as bad as she thought.

Leif stopped by a fallen tree, the trunk making a decent bench and stump not too off putting either. As he began making a campfire, Eyvel spied a familiar plant that gave her a new idea.

“What do you think of this instead?” Eyvel asked, holding up the sprig of mint she’d found. Mint tea had always helped Mareeta calm down after one of her nightmares so perhaps it could help here as well. Leif turned to look and gave another nod before returning to building the fire. It looked like she would have to push the conversation forward even more than usual.

“Finn’s awake,” she said as she continued gathering sprigs, “The first thing he did was ask about you. When he heard you were still out here, it took three of us to keep him from going after you. But I’d bet anything he’ll be out here first thing in the morning.”

“Why?” Eyvel knew what he was asking. After Glade and Finn had suddenly appeared behind their army, everyone had been confused. Glade explained everything he knew, including the berserk staff. Glade had claimed Finn had only fought him while berserked, being quickly taken out by Nanna sneaking up on him with the sleep sword but that didn’t explain the large bruise on Finn’s chest. And Eyvel had seen the marks around Leif’s neck. They were already starting to darken so they hadn’t happened too recently. By tomorrow morning, he should be able to pass them off as caused by someone else.

“He’s worried about you, especially since you two apparently had another fight right before,” Eyvel said, glancing up at Leif. He’d finished the fire and turned to her for the kettle. Accepting this wasn’t a topic she was going to hear more about, Eyvel walked over and put the kettle on the end of a long stick, laying the opposite side across the fallen tree. Leif stepped over the tree to find another large branch to anchor the one hanging over the fire. The kettle ended up dangling a little higher than Eyvel would have liked but if the water took longer to boil, that just meant more time watching over Leif.

“Apparently, Glade didn’t kill Prince Shannan. That was actually a mercenary called Shannam. He and Homer met back in Tahra,” Eyvel said, taking the cups out of her bag. She put half her bundle of mint in one cup and handed it to Leif, handle facing him. He accepted and watched as she tore the leaves off her sprigs before following suit. “He was only impersonating the prince to impress women and be treated better than a common mercenary.”

If Leif had any thoughts on this, he didn’t share them, staring into his cup blankly. Eyvel had wanted to put off bringing up Salem for as long as possible but she didn’t know how long she could actually make him stay. He might just drink the tea while it was still only boiling hot water so he could be alone again as soon as possible.

“We found the library under the monastery. Asbel was quite disappointed when we told him we couldn’t take it with us. I think he’s still down there trying to read as much as he can."

“You should check on him,” Leif said, “He falls asleep if he reads too much in dim light.”

Eyvel had to chuckle. “I’ll be sure to do that,” she promised. She paused for a moment before reaching into her bag again and pulling out a very old journal. “I found this down there. Figured you should be the first one to read it.”

Leif stared at the book so long Eyvel wasn’t sure he would actually take it. When he did, he still seemed reluctant, looking at the journal as if he needed to apologize to it.

“Salem said he thought you'd like it. He’d want you to have it,” Eyvel said.

“He wanted to be part of the world, to be accepted,” Leif said, setting the journal between them.

“What happened to him wasn’t your fault. There was no way you could have known about that staff,” Eyvel insisted.

“It is my fault. I chose to go here, even though Dorias and Glade advised against it. I should have listened to them,” Leif said.

“If you had, Princess Miranda would have never been rescued,” Eyvel pointed out.

“It’s my fault she needed to be rescued at all,” Leif countered, “She spent most of her life as a hostage because of me. She suffered just because she was around me, just like everyone else. Everyone here would be better off if Ced never found me.”

“Even you? Do you really want to go back to always being alone, trying to survive everything you were doing by yourself?”

“This is my way to survive, always being alone. I'm used to it. It's better for everyone else as well. I'm the one the Empire wants dead, the rest of you shouldn't be dragged into this.”

The kettle began to boil, giving Eyvel a chance to calm herself before answering. She wanted nothing more than to comfort him and drive these thoughts away. But they were so deeply ingrained, nothing she could say would change his mind, at least not right now. Hopefully the day where someone could would come soon, before he was crushed by the weight of these imagined sins.

If there was nothing she could do about those thoughts, she’d focus as hard as she could on comfort. “Well, I haven’t suffered for being around you. Like I said, everyday I’m more and more grateful I met you,” Eyvel said as she poured water into his cup then her own. “Even if I knew I was going to, I’d still choose to stay. Not even the gods themselves could make me abandon you.”

Leif frowned at the leaves floating around his cup. “Why?”

Eyvel tried to give him a small smile. “Because that’s how mothers are. We’ll always stay and support our children because we love them, no matter what.”

“I’m not your son.”

“Not by blood, but Mareeta and Nanna aren’t my daughters by blood either,” Eyvel said, “Doesn’t mean I can’t love them as deeply as if they were.”

This only seemed to confuse Leif even more, puzzled expression as if trying to decipher a foreign language. Under better circumstances, Eyvel would have found it amusing. “You’re acting like this is the first time anyone has ever told you they love you."

Leif looked blankly at her and she suddenly felt very cold. “This... is the first time,” she said slowly, the words even worse out loud than in her head. He had gone his entire life, almost sixteen years, without ever once being told he was loved? How? How could this have happened?

Very easily. Dorias had scolded her for being too familiar with Leif just for not using his title and suggesting they make tea together. All these noble knights cared about was tradition and propriety. They didn’t care about Leif himself, all they cared about was his title and turning him into the next Quan. But not even Finn? He loved this boy more than anything-

Or did he? All the times he'd talked about Leif, he’d never once said how he felt about his prince. From how sorrowful he seemed, Eyvel had assumed Leif had been his Mareeta but had she just been projecting onto him? This would explain why Leif had thought Finn hated him and why Finn was still so distant with Leif instead of reaching out to help him like Nanna and Asbel did. Maybe he was just as bad as the rest, only seeing Leif as his last link to his precious Prince Quan, the best man he’d ever known.

She didn’t want to believe this. But she didn’t know what to believe anymore. All she knew for certain was she wanted to tell the knights of Leonster to go fuck themselves and take Leif back to Fiana with her. If they wanted Leonster back so bad, they could free it themselves. Let someone else lead their army instead of forcing the role onto a boy who was already trying to carry too much.

“I’m sorry.” Eyvel was pulled from her thoughts by Leif’s apology, wondering what he’d seen on her face as she took all of this in.

"You're the last person that needs to be apologizing right now," Eyvel said, voice coming out rougher than she intended. He wouldn't believe her words but she needed him to hear them. She needed him to hear every kind word he could to make up for fifteen years of believing he was unloved.

Chapter Text

Of course the first day Miranda was allowed outside in a year it would rain.

It was better than being stuck in that awful monastery. She hadn’t been allowed to leave her room and the only people she ever saw were those creepy Loptyr priests when they came to bring her food or take her dishes away. They never spoke to her when they did, the first person to speak to her in almost a year had been that weird little girl who started talking about her dead parents. Every day had dragged on, left with only her thoughts and the view of a forest she could never enter.

But it wasn’t better by much. She had been rescued by Prince Leif after all. Prince Leif, even thinking his name made her angry. Her father had selflessly taken him in, risking everything he had for the prince. Her mother had doted on him, giving more of her time to him than her own daughter. And when the Empire came, Prince Leif repaid their kindness by running away. His escape had cost her mother her life and her father had been executed shortly after, once he’d forfeit his kingdom and daughter. She would never forget how regretful he looked before his head was cut off.

Her parents’ deaths were his fault. Alster falling was his fault. Miranda being held hostage in her own kingdom for a decade before being dragged out to this hovel was his fault. She hadn’t felt anything as satisfying as being able to express her hatred to his face and reject his apology. He was right, nothing could ever make up for the suffering he caused her. He deserved every drop of guilt he felt.

But when she woke this morning, it wasn’t the memory of telling him off, but Nanna’s contemptuous glare that came to mind. It's called being friends. But you don't know what friends are, do you?  And whose fault was that? Nanna had the chance to be her friend back in Alster but she preferred to cling to Prince Leif and Lady Lachesis. After Alster fell, Miranda hadn't been around another person her age until yesterday. It wasn't Miranda's fault she didn't have friends, Prince Leif had taken her chance to make them from her, just like he'd taken everything else.

At least Selfina had been right about her rescue brightening others' days. All the Knights of Leonster were overjoyed to see her, Duke Dorias especially. Prince Leif's other advisor seemed to have taken an interest in her as well, joining in her and Selfina's conversation at dinner to add his own questions about her time in Alster. His questions were strange; how she'd spent her days, who she saw, how she got news, her thoughts on Bloom and her father. But it had been ages since she'd been able to talk this long to anyone, so she gladly indulged his odd inquiries.

Then there were the rebels. For whatever reason, none of them seemed to share the knights' enthusiasm, almost acting as if they didn't care who she was. One girl even claimed not to know Alster had a princess.

“You have Prince Leif to thank for that. Because of him, I was a hostage in my own country for most of my life,” Miranda explained to her, not holding back her contempt.

“Oh, sorry to hear that,” the girl said, sounding uninterested as she looked around Miranda. “These the staff trap instructions, Prince Leif?”

“It's going to rain soon. Are you sure Hermes should be flying in a storm?” Leif asked, joining them to hand over a satchel. The girl took it with a confident grin.

“This is nothing compared to the blizzards in Silesse. Don’t worry about me and Hermes, Princess Fee wouldn’t have let her best friend travel across Jugdral by herself if she didn’t think we could handle it,” the pegasus rider assured him. “Just a shame we won’t be here to help you liberate your home.”

“Bolstering the defenses of Fort Melgln is more important. We won’t be able to help them until we’ve retaken Northern Thracia.”

The girl nodded then asked hesitantly, “Would it be alright if I swung down to Tahra afterwards? The plan is to attack Alster from two sides and with the Dracoknights there-”

“Did you just say Dracoknights?” Miranda interrupted, turning to look accusingly at Prince Leif, “You’ve allied with South Thracia?”

“Just Prince Arion for now,” Leif said, “But he thinks if we retake Alster together, Travant may be willing to help.”

“You’re completely mad,” Miranda said incredulously, “King Travant killed your parents, he burned and conquered Leonster. How can you forgive him for that?”

“I don’t but I understand why he did it. He’s also the only option we have and benefits from this as well,” Leif explained, “Just like you agreeing to ally with me.”

The pegasus knight snorted but said nothing. “If you’re going to Tahra, could you give something to Tanya or Ronan?” Leif asked.

“Is it a bow?” she guessed, grinning playfully, “Sure thing. I was hoping to see Tanya while I was there. Hermes has really missed her.”

As soon as Leif disappeared around the side of the monastery, the pegasus knight dropped her grin. “He’s wrong about you.”

“And what do you mean by that?” Miranda asked.

“Him and Travant, that’s nothing like the two of you,” she said, glancing at Miranda out of the corner of her eye. “You’re nowhere near being the same.”

Miranda frowned, about to demand an explanation when Leif returned with a bow and quiver of arrows. The pegasus rider let out a low whistle.

“You’re really going to give away a Master Bow?” she asked.

“None of Selfina’s bow knights can use it and Selfina prefers her Brave Bow,” Leif explained.

“What about you?”

“It would be better off with someone who only uses bows.”

The girl smirked as she took the bow and quiver. “Of course, Prince Leif. I know you don't need it but good luck retaking Leonster. I'm looking forward to hearing all about it when I see you next." With one last grin, she left the pair for her pegasus, taking off towards the dark, foreboding clouds.

The lack of an explanation to her assessment bothered Miranda through their march to Leonster. Why did she think they were nowhere near being the same, their situations were exactly the same! She and Prince Leif were both being forced to ally with the person who took their home and parents from them. Did she think Miranda didn’t understand why Leif did it? She’d spent the last year doing nothing but thinking about why this had happened to her. It happened because Prince Leif was a selfish coward who only cared about himself. He brought the Empire to Alster's doors then abandoned them to suffer the Empire's wrath in his place. He’d as good as admitted it when he agreed with her.

But then, how could she explain his entire conversation with the pegasus rider? Or why the commoners in their army seemed so fond of him? The female swordmaster currently walking behind him had stopped Finn from scolding him after he saw the bruises on Prince Leif’s face and neck. And as soon as Finn left, the mage boy now beside Prince Leif had run over to him, expression excited as he talked rapidly. Whatever Prince Leif had said in response had caused him to smile wider than anyone Miranda had ever seen, staring at the prince as if he’d hung the stars in the sky. Why did he deserve a look like that?

“Princess Miranda?” Miranda was pulled from her pondering by Selfina’s call, turning to face the bow knight. She’d pulled up the hood of her cloak, making Miranda aware the rain was finally starting to fall. As she pulled up her hood as well, Selfina continued. “We’ll be holding a quick strategy meeting to factor in the rain and any added defenses spotted.”

Miranda nodded and was about to dismiss her when she realized Selfina was expecting her to come along. Miranda knew nothing of war strategy but this did give her a chance to observe Prince Leif more closely.

“Very well, lead the way,” Miranda instructed, following Selfina in breaking away from the now halted army. They joined the small group that had gathered under the almost cover of several trees, August holding a map of Castle Leonster’s southern gate against the trunk of a tree.

“I didn’t foresee the enemy preparing so many ballistae. Yet if we go about things too slowly, we’ll lose the element of surprise,” he said. An X marked where each ballista was, Miranda counting nine in total. Five of them were guarding the only accessible entrance.

“It would be easier to get in through the main gate but the only way to reach it would require scaling the cliffs,” Leif said, pointing out the gate closer to the castle. He was the only one without a hood up, likely because he was the only one not wearing a cloak. Finn hadn't been too happy about that either.

“Which none of us will be doing,” Dorias said forcefully, as if he had to emphasis how ridiculous of an idea that was.

“Then we have to deal with the ballistae over here and our only way of doing that is with the Bolting tome,” Leif said, “Which means Olwen and I have to be the ones to do this.”

“Can’t we just collapse the walls, like back in Tahra?” the mage boy asked.

“Prince Leif will not be destroying his own castle,” Dorias said.

“And those were houses, not an entire wall,” Leif added, “We’d only be able to break down a small part at a time. The ballistae are also positioned behind bastions so even if we knocked down the wall beside them, there’s a chance they could be unaffected. All we’d do is make ourselves better targets and give away our only trick.”

After staring at the map for a moment, Prince Leif pointed out a ballista. “The Bolting tome only has five uses. We’ll have to use it on the two by the side gate but if I can take this one, I can take out the other two inside here. That leaves three uses but once we’re inside, we’ll have more options for taking them out.”

“You’d have to be inside to do that,” August pointed out.

“It’s a door with a lock. Getting in won’t be a problem.”

“But what’s on the other side will be,” Selfina said, “If there aren’t already soldiers on the other side of the wall, there will be once you attack the ballistae.”

“If Olwen takes the tome, I can unlock the door while she handles the ballistae. That’ll buy us a little more time but we will have to do this quickly,” Leif admitted. When he looked at his advisors, he didn’t seem surprised by their displeasure. He didn’t seem anything at all. “I know you don’t like me taking risks or being on the front lines but this is our only option. And this is my kingdom, I owe it to the people to do everything I can right now.”

Dorias stared at the map for a few moments more, as if searching for an overlooked option. Finally he sighed, forced to admit there were no others. “You’ll approach with several soldiers who will wait in the trees here for you to take out the ballistae. Once you have, you are to wait for them to join you.” Prince Leif nodded and Dorias sighed again. “What miserable conditions to be taking back your kingdom under.”

“They’re better than I remember,” Leif said, looking at the map rather than anyone else.

“What do you remember, milord?”

“The night that Castle Leonster fell… The flames burned so brightly, I thought it was already sunrise. I remember looking up at the sky from Finn’s arms… At first, I didn’t understand what was happening. But when I saw the look on Finn’s face, I knew something terrible had happened, and I was filled with this… deep sorrow. It was the first time I felt such profound sadness.”

“I forced Finn into a tough role, I admit,” Dorias said, “But he was the only man for the job - the only man I could trust with your life. “As long as the prince is safe, the day will come when Leonster rises again.” That’s what I told him. And off he rode, clutching you to his chest, away from the flames consuming the castle…”

“I thought by leaving Tahra alone, I’d protect everyone. But I was only being selfish. What I put Finn through, what I put everyone through... I’m sorry, Dorias, for disrespecting all the sacrifices made for me and for failing as your prince."

This didn’t make sense at all to Miranda. Had he changed so much in a decade not only his face but everything about him was unrecognizable? Something had made Prince Leif regret his actions and she wanted to know what that was. And she wanted to know why everyone but August was looking at him so sorrowfully.

“I wish to speak alone with Prince Leif,” Miranda said, cutting off whatever Dorias was about to say. Dorias nodded and headed back to the army with August to tell everyone the plan, Selfina making her way towards the woman who had argued with Finn that morning. The mage remained by Leif’s side, glaring at Miranda.

“Tell your guard dog to stand down,” Miranda snapped.

“I'm right here."

“Yet you clearly didn't hear me when I said I wished to speak alone with Prince Leif.”

"I don't hafta listen to you. And I'm not leaving Lord Leif alone with you!"

“Asbel.” The mage stopped glaring at Miranda long enough to turn to Prince Leif. “It’s alright, Miranda hasn’t done anything wrong.”

“Yes, she has,” Asbel muttered, returning to glowering. It was the opposite of the look she’d seen him give Leif earlier.

Doing her best to ignore Asbel, Miranda addressed Prince Leif. “You said you thought you were protecting people by leaving Tahra. Was it the same for Alster?”

“No. I left Tahra to stop what happened to you and your parents from happening to anyone else. I’d already done the same to Asbel and his father and Linoan and hers, I couldn't let it happen again. I had to stop making the people around me suffer.”

“That wasn’t your fault,” Asbel objected, “The Empire’s the ones who did all that, not you!”

“The Empire only did everything because of me. If I hadn’t come to Frest, you’d still have your father and Gunna and Frest would still be free,” Leif reasoned before turning back to Miranda, “I realized too late leaving did no good. If I wanted everyone to be safe, I shouldn’t come to begin with. I had to stay away.”

“So what happened to me, to my parents and Alster, if you had known what would happen to us you wouldn’t have come?” Miranda asked.

“Never,” Leif said, a firm insistence to the word making it hit harder than it should, “If I knew what would happen, I never would have left Leonster. Your parents didn’t deserve to lose their lives so I could keep mine. And you didn’t deserve to spend yours as a hostage.”

“An’ you didn’t deserve any of the things that happened to you!” Asbel added, voice barely below a shout. “She didn’t go through anythin’ near as bad as you. Bein’ stuck in a tower is nothing-”

“Being held captive is not nothing. That’s why our army doesn’t take prisoners.”

How would he know that unless… had he been held captive as well? Is that where all his scars came from? Back in Alster, no one dared touch her. And out here, she had been mostly ignored by the Loptyrians, too obsessed with their dark god to spare a thought for their captive princess. Her mind may have been in anguish, endlessly bored, angry, and lonely, but her body had never been harmed. Although her kingdom was taken, she was still a princess and her status had protected her from any physical damage. But apparently being a prince didn't offer the same protection.

“In light of this information, I’ve come to a new conclusion,” Miranda said, “I must reclaim Alster and if you help me achieve this, I… will consider forgiving you.”

“I swear I will. But I don’t deserve your forgiveness,” Leif said.

“Then be grateful I’m so generous.” She thought that would at least get a small smile out of him but he remained as solemn as before.

“You’re not generous, you’re still blaming Lord Leif for stuff he didn’t do!” Asbel argued, rounding on Leif next, “An’ don’t ever say you don’t deserve bein’ forgiven ever again! You could never be that awful an’ don’t say you are! You’re my best friend, I know you better’n anyone else. You’re the one who’s generous an’ selfless an’-”

“I’m not,” Leif interrupted, “You can yell at me all you want after we retake Leonster but right now we need to get going. The rain will pick up soon and the longer we wait, the greater the risk of being found.”

Asbel remained silent as they walked but watched Prince Leif so pitifully, Miranda half expected him to start crying. Why was he so bothered by Prince Leif disagreeing with his opinions? How could he even have these opinions anyway? He’d lost his family and home because of Prince Leif as well yet he didn’t even hold a grudge against the prince. He should hate Prince Leif just as much as she did but instead, he called him his best friend. Oddly, that was the part that bothered her the most.

Although neither Asbel nor Miranda had been asked, both joined the soldiers gathering at the front to lead the charge. It had been a long time since Miranda had been allowed to even touch a tome and what she was best at, fire magic, wouldn’t be as effective in the rain. But she refused to return to Alster and perform pitifully, especially considering Prince Leif was apparently one of the best thunder mages and archers in their army.

After a nod from Olwen, Prince Leif ran out of the woods, leading them towards the grove of trees between them and the side gate. A small lake separated them from the village but even from here Miranda could make out several soldiers patrolling the streets.

Being towards the back of the group, by the time Miranda entered the grove, the fighting had already broken out. One archer was already dead and Olwen was finishing off another with her second strike of thunder magic. Miranda cast a wind spell at the archer nearest her but he was barely knocked back by it. This did give another knight the opportunity to finish him off with an axe so it wasn’t entirely pointless but still frustrating nonetheless.

Archers out of the way, the rest of the party watched as Olwen and Prince Leif continued towards the gate. Three armor knights stood between them and the gate but both had stowed their weapons. Miranda’s horror turned to amazement as both cast wind spells at the knights, sending all three back into the wall.

“But they don’t have tomes. How are they doing that?” Miranda asked.

“Lord Leif taught us that,” Asbel said proudly, beaming at his best friend, “He taught himself magic so he knows a lot more’n all of us.”

Of course he did. Miranda had the sudden urge to throw her tome at something.

“As soon as the front two ballistae are taken care of, join them,” Dorias instructed.

“Weren’t we supposed to wait until Prince Leif took out the other ballistae?” a rebel with an axe asked.

“I’ve no qualms,” the knight with the thunder sword said, “The sooner I can help Olwen, the better.”

“Good man,” Dorias said with a nod to the knight, “Hicks, Father Sleuf, Robert, with me to the village.” Those four broke away, heading along the edge of the lake.

“If you wish, you can ride with me, Princess Miranda,” the thunder sword knight offered, “The mud will slow down anyone on foot.”

“Then I accept your offer,” she said. The knight smiled as he extended his hand to help her up, the axe fighter quickly coming to her side to aid as well. It had been years since Miranda had ridden a horse and she had always ridden with someone else, first her father then Conomor. This knight was smaller than both of them but there was still something comforting about feeling another person's chest against her back.

Once settled in, Miranda turned her attention back to the gate in time to see a bolt be fired at Leif. He dove out of the way, landing on his hands and pushing himself into a roll, landing smoothly despite the mud. Even though Olwen had the Bolting tome, both ballistae seemed to be focusing on Prince Leif, the second firing a bolt at him before he could rise. He pushed himself backwards, swinging his legs over his head to land in a standing position and start running towards the gate again. As he did, Olwen landed a hit on the ballista, the crack of splintering wood audible even from their distance. The first ballista fired at Prince Leif again. Using the momentum he'd built up, he slid on the mud, pushing himself out of the bolt's path and to the gate faster than the ballistician had been expecting. The first ballista tried to get off a third shot but was struck by Olwen before it could.

“Alright, let’s go,” the thunder sword knight said, “Hold on tightly, your highness.”

Leif had the gate unlocked before they were halfway across the field. But even from their distance, Miranda could see there were knights already inside. Her knight spurred his horse faster, the mud splashing onto her calves.

“Ballisticians, hold your fire! Men, do not engage!”

“General Amalda, what are you doing?”

The two of them stopped just outside the gate, waiting to see what this General Amalda would do.

“Something I should have done a long time ago. I believed in Emperor Arvis, so much I became a knight in order to serve under him. But I should have realized my faith was misplaced the day he instituted the child hunts. I refuse to watch this nightmare continue. I defect to join Prince Leif’s Liberation Army!”

One of the ballisticians fired at General Amalda but the bolt had barely left the ballista when Leif hit in the middle with a strike of thunder magic. The bolt snapped in two as it flew away from the general. The ballista itself was taken out a second later with a strike from Olwen’s Bolting tome. The knight Miranda was riding with took advantage of the distraction to go through the gate.

“Fred? You as well?” one of the soldiers called out.

“I as well,” Fred confirmed, momentarily alarming Miranda that she was riding with a knight of House Friege. “We all know what the Empire is doing is wrong but never thought there was anything we could do about it. Well here’s something we can do! Prince Leif is the greatest opponent to the child hunts in all of Thracia, perhaps all of Jugdral. Join us to overthrow King Bloom so we will never be forced to follow another immoral order again.”

“And once this war is over, we can rebuild Friege as the honorable country we believed it to be,” Olwen added, “A country isn’t the plaything of a king or nobleman. If a country has lost its way, it’s a knight’s duty to lead it back. Will you stand idly by and allow evil to consume your home, all out of the fear of being called a traitor?”

Amalda chuckled. “You sound like Father Sleuf.”

“I… may have gotten that from him,” Olwen confessed, “After we met at Solwood Pass, I asked his advice on how to convince you to join us if you were still hesitant. Back at the Academy, you and my brother were the knights I looked up to the most, my inspirations for becoming one myself. I’ve already turned on my brother, I’d hate to have to turn my blade on you as well.”

“You’re the one who should be an inspiration," Amalda said, "You were brave enough to turn against your country the moment you learned the truth. Not even I was strong enough to do that.”

“You’re incredibly brave!" Olwen insisted, "You rescued children in secret, risking your position and life to do so!”

“I was only able to save a handful. So many more were taken to Belhalla…”

“That’s better than all of them,” Leif said, an empathy in his voice that made Miranda pay attention, “It’s not as many as you’d like but you did as much as you could. You were there for them when no one else was, took a risk no one else was willing to take. For that, you have my deepest gratitude."

Miranda wasn’t the only one who’d been entranced as all eyes seemed to be on the prince. Amalda’s shock softened into an understanding smile as she approached Prince Leif. “Lady Olwen said you’ve been fighting against the child hunts for years. It’s never enough, is it?”

“Never,” Leif agreed, “It will never be enough until the child hunts are over.”

“Then, please, allow me to fight by your side until they are.”

“Gladly,” Leif said before turning to the rest of the knights, “Anyone who does not wish to join the Liberation Army, head to Fort Melgln and ask for General Dalshin. Tell him what happened here and he’ll let you join them in holding the fort. All you’ll be asked to do is keep out the mercenaries and Empire soldiers trying to enter the country, not openly rebel.”

Several soldiers visibly relaxed but the rest were resolved to fight. Amalda herself seemed to be sitting up straighter, still smiling. “Now then, shall we retake your castle, Prince Leif?”

Leif nodded and ran to the door to the back courtyard, Asbel running past everyone to get to Leif’s side first. He slipped in the mud, the side of his leg becoming coated but he didn’t seem to care as he got right back up and ran through the door right after Leif.

Fred and Miranda entered the back courtyard in time to see Asbel and Leif take down a ballista together, the ballistician diving out of the way to avoid being hit as well. He grabbed one of the bolts as he rose and charged at them. Leif drew his sword and ran to meet him. A swing of his blade against the bolt’s tip knocked it out of the way and threw the ballistician off balance. Leif cut through the wood shaft with ease and the ballistician retaliated by swinging what remained into Leif’s side. He was knocked into a kneeling position as Asbel threw the ballistician back into the wall with a wind spell.

Leif stood as a crack signaled the destruction of another ballista by the Bolting tome. That left only the two by the main gate and then there would be no more obstacles to prevent their army from entering. But rather than head towards them, Leif hurried towards a small patch of trees by the castle. Miranda was slightly frustrated when Fred headed in the opposite direction but at least that gave her a shot at the ballistae.

Fred spurred his horse to go as fast as it could, trying to get within attacking range of the nearest ballista before it could turn around and shoot them. Miranda took out her thunder tome and as soon as they were close enough, cast a spell. It missed and hit the wall, throwing chunks of stone into the ballistician. Fred had better luck, hitting the ballista with the first strike from his thunder sword.

The last ballista fired at them, Fred barely steering his horse out of the way in time. Olwen rode quickly past, striking the ballista with thunder magic twice and finishing it off.

“What’s all that ruckus in there?” Fred and Miranda turned towards the voice by the southern gate entrance. They could only make out the vague outlines of soldiers in the rain but there were clearly three heading towards them. By how slowly they were approaching, they were likely armor knights.

“They’re all yours,” Fred said, making Miranda’s face burn from embarrassment. But taking out two in a row soothed that slightly. She missed the third on her first try, the knight almost close enough to attack now. But being close also made him easier to hit, taking him out with one last thunder spell.

“Excellent work, Princess,” Fred said encouragingly although it felt more humiliating than anything else. She tried to compose her expression as he turned his horse around to head towards the castle. Two dead priest lay behind Amalda and Leif as they stood before the general guarding the castle.

“Stand aside, Palman. You’ve been a good friend, I don’t wish to fight you,” Amalda said.

“Nor do I. Amalda, think about what you’re doing. Are you really willing to betray your country, the entire Empire, for these rebels? Is your hatred of the child hunts that much greater than your loyalty?” the general asked.

“My morality is that much greater than my loyalty. You said you understood how I felt, if you truly meant that then join us. Or is your loyalty that great you would continue to commit yourself to a country you knew had lost its way?”

“Understanding is not the same as agreeing. Nothing matters more to me than my country and nothing will make me turn against it, not even child hunts.”

Amalda sighed. “Then I’ll waste no more words on you and let Prince Leif retake his home.” Palman turned his gaze to Leif but before he could speak, a bolt of light magic shot through his throat. His head fell first, the body falling on top as Leif lowered his hand.

“What should we expect, when we go inside?” Leif asked, eyes still on the castle entrance.

“Marquess Gustav commands the castle, a loathsome man and pitiful leader but strong fighter,” Amalda reported, “I expect we’ll also face General Xavier and his adjutants as well.”

“Xavier?! Ngh… a thousand deaths wouldn’t be enough for that traitor!”

Miranda turned around to see not only Dorias and the rest of the army but what looked like civilians as well. Glade had a similarly dark look on his face and Finn, Finn also seemed upset but he was focused on Leif, as usual.

“I… take it you know him, Dorias?” Leif asked.

“Hah… ashamed as I am to admit it, Xavier was once an esteemed general of Leonster. He was known for his sense of justice, and had everyone’s utmost trust. But the instant Leonster fell, he betrayed us, and defected to the invaders! The shameless cur… I cannot forgive him! No force in all the heavens will keep my blade from his throat!”

“It’s not what you think, Duke Dorias!” an old man objected.

“The village elder is right, General Xavier is not the monster you believe him to be! He helped me free the children Gustav took from the village,” Amalda added, “When I asked him why, he said he didn’t want the villagers to suffer any more under Gustav’s damnable reign.”

“Everything General Xavier does is for our sake,” the village elder said, “He joined the invaders out of necessity, to help guarantee our safety. Leonster was in chaos after being defeated, and we common folks were abandoned - left to the enemy’s mercy. The general showed us pity, and traded his own honor for our lives. Had he not intervened, myself and all the other villages wouldn’t be alive today.”

“Then I have to free him from this servitude,” Leif said, catching the village elder’s eye for the first time.

“Prince… Leif?” the village elder said, shock seeming to spread through the villagers as they laid eyes on their prince for the first time in fifteen years.

“I owe him a great debt for all he did for you. This doesn’t come close to repaying it but it’s a good enough place to start.”

“It won’t be that simple,” Amalda warned, turning Leif’s attention back to her, “Gustav wanted to ensure not only the loyalty of Xavier, but of his adjutants as well. He’s holding the loved ones of each hostage in the castle. As long as they’re still captive, Xavier’s adjutants won’t betray Gustav and as long as they’re still loyal, Xavier will be as well.”

“Then we’ll rescue the hostages as well,” Leif said, “Whatever it takes, Xavier and his men will be freed.”

“If you’re going to help General Xavier, then let us fight as well," the village elder offered

Dorias frowned, looking over the villagers. “With respect, Elder, such a poorly-armed militia like yourself stands little chance against the foes we’re about to face.”

“We know that,” the village elder said, “None of us expect to make it back alive. Al-”

“Out of the question,” Leif interrupted, a sudden intensity in his voice and expression, “I will not sacrifice anyone.”

“Lord Leif… Do you have any idea just how much pain we’ve endured over these past ten years? Marquess Gustav took our women. The Loptyrian Order took our children. The few who tried to resist were killed in the most brutal ways imaginable, and then their families were killed too - as an example. My prince, my sovereign lord… This is the only home we’ve ever known. Simple folk like us can’t live without our home. So if it means regaining that home, we’ll do whatever it takes. We offer you our lives, and we have no regrets.”

There was a moment of silence as everyone looked at Prince Leif, waiting for his response. Some like Dorias seemed worried, while others like August seemed curious. Miranda wasn’t sure where she landed but she also had no idea what his answer might be.

“I do have an idea,” he said finally, “I watched the Schwarze Rosen attack a village with children whose parents were still in there. I’ve seen more caged children than I can count and more mangled corpses than people in the past five years. I may not know the pain you personally have endured, but I know the pain Thracia has endured. You don't deserve this, no one does. Whatever it takes, I swear I'll end this nightmare. I will do everything I can to give you back your home, a life without fear and oppression, a ruler who will care for and protect you. So don’t you dare throw your lives away. Live, and be there to have that home when it's regained for it would be nothing without you!”

“My prince…” the village elder said with awe. A similar feeling seemed to be spreading through everyone, the crowd now a sea of admiring faces. Even Amalda, their enemy less than an hour ago, had been moved by his declaration.

Miranda looked at Prince Leif. He was drenched, hair plastered to his face and neck, but not enough to hide all his bruises and scars. His shirt clung to his thin frame and he was covered in blood and mud. And yet, everyone was looking at him with such reverence, like moths drawn to the night's last flickering flame.

Miranda had never hated Prince Leif more.

“Your Highness!”

Altena couldn’t help smiling as Coirpre ran out to meet her as soon as she landed. “Hello Coirpre,” Altena said as she dismounted, “I'm glad I was able to see you before meeting with your father. A friend in Tahra lent me a book I think you’d enjoy. Why don't you take a look at it?”

“This is a welcome surprise. What brings you to Meath, Princess?” Hannibal asked, joining them after Altena handed the book over. She took a moment to exchange smiles with Coirpre and watch him race inside before answering Hannibal.

“It’s… a rather sensitive matter, something I'd rather discuss in private." Hannibal nodded solemnly and gestured for her to follow. Once inside his study, Hannibal closed the door behind him.

Altena pulled out the letter Prince Leif had given her and held it out to him. Hannibal accepted the letter, frowning at the lack of house crest on the seal but opened it anyway, sitting down to read it. Altena took the seat across from him, watching his expression closely as he read. Several times his eyebrows rose in surprise and Altena had to fight the urge to ask what was in the letter. It had been hard enough not to open it on her way here.

After a few minutes, Hannibal set the letter down. "So, you've met Prince Leif."

"He claims to have met you as well, although you were apparently unaware of it."

To Altena's surprise, Hannibal laughed. "I was. He used a fake name, Lugh I think it was. Clever boy. I never would have guessed..."

"How did you meet him?" Altena asked, Hannibal's reaction only making her want to hear this story more.

"He actually met Coirpre first. I'd send him on an errand and he ended up being taken in one of those wretched child hunts," Hannibal explained, pausing at Altena's sharp inhale, "Fortunately, Prince Leif found him and the other children shortly after and he returned them to the village. I met Prince Leif a few days after that, while he was being chased by the Knights of Manster for breaking into their prison and attempting to kill Raydrik. When he told me he was going to Tahra, I directed him towards the villa where the remaining Leonster nobles were hiding, hoping he'd be of some use to them. Looks like I was more than right."

"How did you know about this villa? And why didn't you say anything to my father? House Leonster has been our sworn enemy since Thracia's separation, Father wouldn't stand for them living on our land!"

"That's exactly why," Hannibal said calmly, Altena feeling slightly embarrassed for getting heated so quickly, "These people had already lost their country, their king and prince, many had lost some, if not all, of their family. They shouldn't have to lose their lives as well. So I protected them, gave them somewhere safe to recover and regain their strength."

"If Father knew, you'd be charged with treason."

"Do you intend to tell him?"

"... No, just... be careful, General," Altena warned, "I admire your empathy and generosity but not everyone will see your actions as such."

"Then do you think I should refuse the Liberation Army's request for support?" Hannibal asked, looking down at the letter again, "Duke Dorias claims Prince Arion has offered to vouch for Prince Leif but there's no mention of you in this."

"I... still don't know what to think of Prince Leif," Altena admitted, "He saved Arion's life and Linoan insists he's a good person but there's something about him that bothers me. That's why I wanted to hear your opinion as well."

Hannibal watched Altena closely for a moment before answering. "From what I saw, he's not the most social or well-mannered of people but he's unquestionably brave with a strong sense of justice. He wouldn't be my first choice of prince but he may be what Northern Thracia needs right now. And I must admit, the idea of an alliance is tempting. There's nothing I want more than those Imperial dastards out of Thracia for good. And the thought of an allied Thracia... I never imagined the day would come when the descendants of Njorun and Dain would choose to work together once more."

"My father believes Thracia needs both sides to be independent, the fertile land in the north and the resources in the southern mountains."

"Both sides compliment each other and coming together would make Thracia the most prosperous land in Jugdral. But that does not have to be through one side conquering the other. I'd argue that's the worst option. Look at Prince Quan and King Travant's attempts. Prince Quan brought the ruin of his house and country and King Travant, forgive me for my impertinence, forced us into this damned alliance with the Empire and turned the whole country into villains in the eyes of Jugdral."

"Are we really?" Altena asked, unable to keep the slight hurt from her voice.

Hannibal gave her a sympathetic look, voice softer when he spoke again. "King Travant has never cared about his poor reputation, only about his dream of a united Thracia. It's consumed him so much, I believed the man I once called my dear friend died to that obsession. But if anything has the chance to change that, seeing Prince Arion and Prince Leif united as allies could. At least I hope it can."

"And if it can't?"

"Then House Leonster will die out for good." For some reason, the thought now made her sick. Why? She'd seen Prince Leif wasn't an awful person but she didn't care about him as a person, just as a useful and loyal ally to Arion. And yet, when she thought of him staring up at her from the allure as he asked if she was alright, of him lowering his head regretfully when he recalled the children he hadn't been able to save, her chest tightened uncomfortably.

"Milady, is everything alright?"

"Yes, it's- no, it isn't," Altena admitted, "General Hannibal, did I ever have a younger brother?"

Hannibal was silent for a moment but the brief flicker of alarm gave him away. "What's brought this on?"

"I keep having these... I don't know what they are. I thought they couldn't be memories because the man in them wasn't my father and I don't have a little brother. But... if I did, then what does that mean about that man? Does this have something to do with why no one told me I share the same name as Prince Leif's dead sister?"

Hannibal glanced at the door to his study before leaning in. "What I'm about to say does not leave this room. I haven't agreed with a single decision King Travant has made in almost twenty years. I want this alliance to work but I doubt it will. You said it yourself, House Leonster has been his house's sworn enemy for years. There's a good chance King Travant will kill Prince Leif on sight, no matter what Prince Arion or I think of him."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I need to know where you stand. How far does your loyalty to King Travant go?"

Altena hesitated, unsure herself. She was already going behind her father's back to help Arion and Prince Leif and now to hide Hannibal's secrets as well. "I will support him as long as he continues to act in our people's best interest."

"Act in the people's best interest... How many times has that line been used to excuse atrocities?" Hannibal muttered darkly, "Does it excuse the Yied Massacre in your eyes? It took out our country's greatest threat, along with his unarmed wife who'd barely recovered from giving birth."

"Are you trying to turn me against my father, General?" Altena accused, "Yes, my father has done cruel, horrid things but he is not an evil man!"

"What I'm about to tell you may change your mind on that. However you react, you won't see the world and many people in it the same again. So before I say this, you must swear not to tell anyone, not while all of this is still going on."

"Fine, I swear it. Now tell me, what did my father do and how does it involve my younger brother?" Altena demanded, Hannibal's behavior worrying her.

Hannibal got up from his chair and knocked on his study door. A few seconds later a servant opened it. "Lock the door. Do not open it until I tell you to, no exceptions. Not even for the princess." The servant nodded and shut the door again.

Hannibal turned around, grave expression silencing Altena's questions. "This is going to be a very unpleasant conversation and I do not want you storming out of here in a rage. We are going to talk through this until I'm sure you're calm enough to not do anything rash." He took her silence as understanding and crossed the room, stopping beside the chair he had previously been sitting in.

"King Travant is not your father. He killed your parents, grandparents, and wants to kill your younger brother as well. You share the same name as Prince Leif's sister because you are Prince Leif's sister. You are Princess Altena of Leonster, daughter of Prince Quan and inheritor of the Gae Bolg."

Chapter Text

The last time he had been in Castle Leonster, it had been on fire. Finn had carried Leif through the burning castle, forced to leave the fighting to everyone else in order to get Leif out alive. The shame he’d felt in not defending his home and queen had been offset by the feeling of the prince’s small body pressed against his chest, two tiny fists clinging to his mantle just as Finn had instructed. His country’s fall was inevitable but if he could keep Leif alive, there would still be hope for its restoration. All that mattered was that Leif lived.

He’d dreamed of returning to Leonster almost from the moment he left, of seeing Leif take the throne as his grandfather had, as his father should have. Even when Leif was gone, that dream still remained, although now he used it to keep his fear at bay. He thought of Leif finding a place like Fiana, the villagers keeping him safe and hidden. Somehow, he’d hear about the people searching for him in Fiana or someone from Fiana would meet one of the villagers hiding Leif and Finn would be able to reunite with his lord. He’d apologize for his failing and swear to atone for it, hopefully being given a chance to do so though he didn’t deserve one. If only their reunion had been as pleasant.

Finn glanced across the room to where Leif and Amalda were standing, Amalda quietly explaining the hostage situation. Leif was about to retake his kingdom, his home, this should be one of the greatest days of his life. And yet, he was as solemn as he’d been all day, reminding Finn more of how he’d been when they first reunited than how he’d been more recently. The regression worried Finn, especially after his behavior yesterday even before learning about the Berserk staff. Between that and someone attempting to strangle him, Finn was starting to agree with Dorias about restricting how much free rein they gave him.

One hand on the door, the other on an axe he’d gotten from one of the mercenaries in the forest yesterday, Leif’s gaze swept over the other six soldiers in the room before returning to Amalda. She took the handle of the other door and although neither spoke, both threw their door open at the same time and ran through. Two armor knights were on the other side of the hall across from the doors, one with an axe and the other a lance. Leif and Amalda quickly switched which armor knight they were running at, Amalda taking on the axe knight while Leif handled the lance knight. Catching the shaft of the lance thrust at him in the corner of the beard and handle of his axe, Leif forced it down and quickly exploited the knight’s extended neck with a burst of light magic.

Grabbing the knight’s shield, Leif held it out in front of him and cast a wind spell with his other hand as he let go. The shield flew at the axe knight down the hall, who raised his own to block it. Leif had been counting on this as he took the opportunity to run at the knight, moving from behind the shield at the last moment and swinging his axe through the exposed area between the knight’s cuirass and tassets. Once the knight dropped his shield, Leif pulled his axe out and swung it swiftly through the knight’s neck. A thief peeking around the corner yelped and quickly ran away. Leif ignored him, turning and running the other way, towards the hall to the hostages’ quarter.

“I’ll get him,” Fred said, running after the thief. He was supposed to head that way to block the northwestern stairs anyway so Finn had no problem turning and following Leif.

Hicks was already at the end of the hall, blocking the lunge of the soldier at the top of the stairs and retaliating with a strike that sent the soldier falling back down. Leif joined him, casting a fire spell down after the soldier. The sound of screams rang out as the reinforcements trying to come up were caught in the blast. For a moment, Finn was back to fourteen years ago, his fellow knights the ones crying out. Deep down, all of them knew defending the castle was a doomed endeavor and yet they all remained, fighting their hardest to prolong the inevitable. Burning alive was a quick death at the hands of adept fire mages but to simply fire itself, the pain could be long and agonizing, the latter on display that night. But there was nothing he could do to help them. He had to save Leif, Leif’s survival was the only thing that mattered.

The screaming stopped and so did the memories. His damp gloves and sleeves reminded him this wasn’t the same, Leonster was being regained, not lost. He wasn’t running away, he was fighting back. He didn’t have to save Leif, but ensuring Leif survived was still the most important thing.

Olwen traded places with Leif as he ran to the door to pick the lock. The fire spell had dried him slightly, shirt now hanging loosely and hair no longer clinging to his face and neck. His slightly flushed cheeks were hopefully just from the heat. The last thing he needed was to fall sick right after retaking his kingdom. Although perhaps bed rest would be good for him. It would at least give Finn the chance to talk with him without Leif being able to leave whenever he decided he was done with the conversation.

But Leif seemed fine as he unlocked the doors with an efficiency that made Finn wonder how many times he’d done this. Pulling both open, he stayed outside the room, letting all the hostages turn to look at them. A young girl stood closest to them, two older girls across the room both moving to stand in front of a young boy. Another girl held the arm of an older woman on the left side of the room and an older man and woman’s resigned looks turned to ones of hope as they looked over from the right side of the room.

“It’s alright, you’re safe now. We aren’t going to hurt you, we just want to bring you back to your families,” Leif said, taking the same tone he had when he spoke to the children from Dandrum. This was probably similar to rescuing children from the child hunts to him. While Finn was glad to see Leif’s gentleness and what he’d done was undeniably a good thing for the children and their families, Finn couldn’t help but hate any reminder of how much danger Leif had put his life in for years.

His words worked in easing the hostages’ fear, all quickly making their way to the now empty doorway as Leif moved out of the way.

“We can’t thank you enough for this,” one of the women said, “If there’s any way we can repay you-”

“Just stay close and stay behind us.” The woman nodded as the little girl looked up at Leif.

“Is my papa here?” she asked.

He nodded. “He is but he needs to be freed too. We could use your help with that.” The little girl nodded then looked at Leif’s hand, clearly wanting to take it despite the dried mud.

“I’ll do you one better,” Hicks said, scooping the little girl up. She settled into the crook of his elbow, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Now you and your papa’ll be able to see each other right away.”

“Ah!” Olwen’s shout drew everyone’s attention to her as she was thrown into the wall by a burst of thunder magic. The caster didn’t appear, either unsure if anyone else was there or waiting for them to come to him so he could have the advantage of being able to attack first and from the dark. As long as the mage was down there, they couldn’t approach the stairs but they couldn’t just leave either. Even with someone guarding the back, a mage could easily kill one of the hostages. Their best option would be to block the stairs but they had nothing to do it with.

“Milord, might I ask just what you think you’re doing?” Dorias asked, slight irritation in his voice immediately concerning Finn. He turned to see Leif standing on the tips of his toes to reach for the higher hinge on the left door, the lower hinge already broken at his feet. Finn took one look at the large, iron door and knew exactly what Leif was thinking.

“Lord Leif, you can’t lift that,” Finn warned as Leif used a small amount of thunder magic to break the higher hinge. The door teetered towards him and Finn immediately grabbed the edge to steady it.

“I don’t need to lift it,” Leif said, putting both hands against the door, “Let go.”

As soon as Finn did, the door flew across the room, hitting the wall with a clang before falling on the entrance to the stairs. Now blocked, Amalda rushed to Olwen’s side, ignoring the other woman’s insistence she was fine as she checked the back of her head.

“Prince Leif?” The old man repeated, looking down at Leif as he started detaching the second door. “I thought you looked familiar. You bear a striking resemblance to your father in his youth.”

The old man couldn’t see but Finn saw Leif scowl at the mention of his father. He’d have to get used to it, the people of Leonster had nothing but fond memories of Quan. Perhaps being around them would soften his opinion of his father. If not, the good impression he’d made on his people would fade fast.

“He certainly does. I could scarcely believe it myself when I saw him,” Dorias said, looking at Leif as he spoke, “But Prince Leif shares more than just his appearance with his father. He has the same drive and dedication to his cause. Prince Quan would be proud of the young man his son has become.”

The next door hit the wall with a louder clang before falling on top of the first. Amalda had finished healing a small wound on the back of Olwen’s head and the pair rejoined the group, Amalda and Leif taking the lead as they headed towards the throne room. Finn kept to the back to speak with Dorias.

“Do you really think it's wise to bring up Lord Quan right now?” Finn asked.

“He needs to get over his hatred of his father. Prince Quan is the only reason the people are glad he’s here,” Dorias said, keeping his voice low, “August had a point about keeping him away from the people until he’s better trained, which is why I’d like an answer on my suggestion. If you back this, he’ll go along with it.”

Both Dorias and Glade had been urging Finn to agree to Dorias’ plan to help Leif readjust to his position as prince. Dorias wanted to keep him confined to the Great Chamber while they reeducated him on what he’d forgotten or had let decline in the last five years along with guiding him through his new duties. The three of them, August, and perhaps Xavier would be the only ones allowed to see him, with visits from Asbel and Nanna being allowed for good behavior.

“It’s for his own good,” Dorias said when Finn didn’t answer right away, “Look at him. He’s taking back his kingdom looking like he just crawled out of the gutter, wielding an axe he looted from a corpse. Do you really want this to be how he’s remembered?”

He didn’t. Leif deserved better than this, he deserved to be just as admired as his father was. “If this is what’s best for Lord Leif...”

“It is,” Dorias assured him, “It’s what he wants as well. By following our direction, he can still become a respectable prince. He’s shown hints of that potential, like that speech he gave to talk down the villagers, but he needs us to keep that potential from being lost, you most of all. You’ve always been important to him, no one has more sway over the prince. With your support, he’ll truly become a young man Prince Quan could be proud of.”

Could he really? Finn had been forced to accept he would never convince Leif to fulfill Quan’s dream of a unified Thracia after Prince Arion kept his word to send troops to Melgln and the princess had a conversation with Leif without attempting to kill him. She had reached for her lance at one point but in the end she accepted the letter for General Hannibal and left without harming Leif. But there were other ways Leif could honor his father. Restoring Leonster was one, reaching out to his cousin and forming a friendship as their fathers had could be another. He had been more open to suggestions lately, considering Dorias’ advice instead of stubbornly sticking to his own ideas.

Before Finn could give his answer, they reached the end of the hallway and Olwen broke away from the group, casting a thunder spell at the soldier Fred was struggling against. Even from across the room, Finn could see he looked worn, shoulders rising and falling heavily. They’d misjudged how many reinforcements would try and enter this way but at least Fred had held out this long.

“We’ll back him up. The throne room is just to the right, Prince Leif,” Amalda said, waiting for Leif to nod before taking out her staff again and hurrying to heal Fred. Leif followed Amalda’s direction and turned the corner, the throne room doors just to the right.

Leif paused a moment before testing the door to see if it was locked. Finding it was, he knelt down and took out his lockpick again. It took longer than before, motions slower, as if reluctant to unlock the door. Was he nervous? Finn wished he knew, wished for once he could do something to lift Leif’s spirits. Dorias was right, these were miserable conditions to be retaking his kingdom under but this still deserved to be a wonderful day for Leif.

Leif finally stood and opened the door slowly to avoid drawing attention. The movement still managed to catch the eye of one of the young soldiers guarding the door. He turned and threw his javelin, Leif moving to block the rescued hostages as Finn moved in front of Leif. Both were unnecessary as the javelin missed by a large margin, flying out of the door and falling pitifully to the ground before it even hit the wall. His companion noticed the commotion and tried charging them with his javelin instead. These soldiers were either horribly trained or very green. Whichever it was didn’t matter as Finn easily blocked the soldier’s jab and stabbed him through the stomach before he could lift his shield.

The unarmed first soldier opened his mouth to shout and alert the others they were there. Finn quickly withdrew his blade from the second soldier and pointed it at the first soldier’s neck, silencing him. He was silenced for good by Leif throwing his axe into the man’s head, striking right between the eyes. Finn could feel Dorias’ gaze on the back of his head as he allowed himself a frown. Either Leif didn't notice or didn't care as he pulled the axe out of the soldier's head and gestured for the hostages to enter.

Once everyone was inside the room, Leif gestured for them to stay back in the corner as he assessed the situation. Four rows of three knights were stationed in the front of the room, half with lances, half with axes. Behind them, on the path to the throne, was General Xavier, axe in hand and bow on his back. The throne itself wasn’t visible from where they were standing but Gustav was almost certainly on it. Amalda had warned he had a Master Lance and was skilled with thunder magic, making him dangerous to approach. The only ones left in their group who could actually counter his attacks were Eyvel and Leif and Finn knew which would try to fight Gustav. Finn sincerely hoped Amalda had over exaggerated Gustav’s prowess as a fighter.

“Which ones are your family members?” Leif asked as he turned to the hostages. Each hostage pointed out their loved one, all on the end of one of the rows.

“Gustav’s keeping them apart to prevent them from plotting against him. Clever,” Dorias appraised.

“No, this arrangement is stupid,” Leif said, motioning for the hostages to come forward, stopping them when they were still out of range of Xavier and out of Gustav’s line of sight. Leif moved behind them and looked up at Hicks who turned to the little girl in his arms.

“Alright Little Miss, time to help your Papa out,” he said. The little girl nodded and cupped her hands around her mouth.

“Papa!” All the knights turned at the little girl’s call.

“Nira?!” an armor knight on the other side of the room called back. “You’re alright!”

“We all are!” one of the women called, “You don’t have to fight anymore!”

“You’re damned right we don’t!” the nearest knight said.

“Traitorous scum!” the Friege knight next to him snarled, drawing his lance back to attack. But before he could, the lance knight on his other side impaled him. The other Friege knights fared no better, the now free Leonster knights on either side of them all too happy to take them out. As they did, Finn noticed Asbel, Nanna, and August enter the throne room from the entrance on the other side of the throne. The soldiers that were supposed to be watching that door had been distracted by the scene and Asbel and Nanna quickly killed both before they could turn around.

The knights all made their way over to their loved ones, quickly leading them out of the room as the soldiers of the Liberation Army took their place, facing the throne. Leif walked to the beginning of the path to the throne and faced Xavier. Finn hadn’t noticed when but he’d tied his hair back, like it was when he came out of Melgln with the Friege soldiers.

“General Xavier, lower your weapon. You don’t have to fight for the Empire any longer," Leif said.

Xavier took a moment to take in Leif, shock turning into a melancholic smile, “Prince Leif… Mm, good. This is how it’s supposed to be. I wanted to see you one last time. I’ve no regrets left now.”

“What are you saying?” Leif asked.

“Ah… need I spell it out? Regardless of my reasons, I betrayed the crown. I owe the kingdom a terrible debt, and that cannot be changed. But the guilt rests on my shoulders and mine alone. My adjutants are innocent, and merely followed my orders. Their only crime was placing their trust in me. Spare them from your justice, I beg you…” Xavier pleaded, head lowered in shame. In doing so, he missed how Leif’s expression softened into a sadness to rival the general’s own. But Finn didn’t, remembering seeing that same look when he ordered Finn not to die. Having seen it before didn’t make seeing it a second time any easier.

“General… The way you’ve had to live… Please, raise your head. I’m the one that owes you a terrible debt. I fled the castle thinking it would protect the people, but really all I did was abandon them. I failed the highest duty as a ruler, and left you to shoulder the burden. For years, you’ve carried this weight alone…”

“What did he just say?” Eyvel hissed, Finn barely catching her words despite her being right next to him.

“Eyvel, it's not-”

“Finn, shut up. Shut up right now,” Eyvel warned, glaring lividly at him. She’d been angry with him all day, snapping at him for trying to scold Leif this morning and glaring whenever he tried to approach them during the march. He had no idea what he’d done to upset her this much but he knew from experience he did not want to be on the receiving end of her wrath.

Xavier took Leif’s words better, shock returned as he lifted his head again. “Prince Leif… Ah… I… I… I’m glad I lived to see this day.”

“Xavier, I too must offer you my sincerest apologies,” Dorias said, Xavier turning from Leif to look at who had once been his old friend. “I had… erred in my judgement.”

“Duke Dorias… Your words are more than I deserve,” Xavier said, attempt not to shed tears finally failing. “I… I’m…”

“Prince Leif needs men like you, Xavier. It’s time to come home. Serve him once again.”

Xavier choked out a watery laugh. “Hah… If these old bones can do you any good, they’re yours. To fight against the Empire is all I could want!”

“I take it you’ll be starting with me then?” Gustav asked, interrupting Xavier and Dorias’ reconciliation. He finally stood from the throne, Master Lance in hand as he glared at his former subordinate. “After that pitiful display, I’ve no doubt this will be a short fight.” 

“Then fight me instead,” Leif challenged, meeting Gustav’s glare with one of his own. “Winner keeps the throne.”

Gustav seemed to like this proposition, smirking at the prince. “So you’re the famous Prince Leif. I can’t believe King Bloom is afraid of a runt like you.”

“Want to see why?” Leif asked as he approached the throne. “Tyrants like you and Bloom don’t deserve to rule, you deserve to die. For what you put the people of Leonster through, for the years of suffering you caused, I’ll gladly take your head.”

Leif stopped just out of range for either of them to attack. For a moment, neither did anything, Gustav sizing Leif up while Leif surveyed the area around the throne. Finally, his gaze returned to Gustav as he bent his knees as if about to charge him. But instead, he lifted his arm and cast the last Bolting spell at him.

Gustav was thrown back into the throne, grunting as his head hit the back. Now Leif charged him, taking out his axe as he did. He reached Gustav before he could rise but that didn’t stop him from blocking Leif’s swing with a jab of his lance, ducking low in the throne to avoid the next swing hitting his throat. Pushing himself up, he thrust his lance up as well to impale Leif. Leif dodged to the side and dropped low, swinging his axe down as he did. Gustav let out a cry as the axe embedded itself in his knee but retaliated a second later by thrusting his lance down at Leif, hitting him under his left collarbone, to the side of where he already had a lance scar.

Grabbing the lance with both hands, Leif gave it a hard tug as he stepped back. Gustav let go of the lance to steady himself against the throne, unable to put weight on his left foot anymore. Pulling the lance out of his shoulder, Leif tossed it aside and moved in to attack Gustav again. Gustav pulled the axe from his knee and threw it rather poorly. Leif dodged easily but as soon as he did, was hit with a Thoron spell in his wound, bringing him down on all fours.

“You think I deserve to die, I think you should have died here fourteen years ago. Or better yet, with your parents in Yied!” Gustav snarled. Finn couldn’t just watch, he needed to do something. But the path was too long, Gustav would see him coming and could kill him before he was able to do anything. Or worse, Leif would try to protect him, like he had with Gunna.

Finn tore his gaze away from Leif for a moment to see if there was any other way to reach the throne when he noticed the Master Lance, lying next to the reflecting pool. The pool encircled the path and throne, narrowing around the throne to make room for the platform it was on. With Leif on the other side, Gustav would have no reason to turn around. Silently pleading with Leif to hold out a few moments more, Finn ran back the way they had come.

As if having heard Finn’s plea, Leif lifted his arm and shot a burst of light magic at Gustav. Then, after less than a second’s pause a fire spell followed, Asbel’s excited gasp audible even from almost across the room. Gustav’s shock, as well as the impact of the spells, left him sprawled on the ground.

“I… will not lose… to a runt... like you!” Gustav wheezed as he used the seat of the throne to pull himself into an almost seated position. He sent another spell at Leif who dove out of the way. The spell hit a pillar and sent chunks of marble flying, one hitting the bruises on his neck. Leif gasped then coughed from the dust in the air, hair fallen loose from his band falling in his face. Having reached the narrowest section of the pool, Finn crossed onto the platform and grabbed the Master Lance as quick as he could.

Gustav noticed the movement and turned. Seeing it was another person, he lifted his hand as Finn drew the lance back. Even though Gustav was badly injured, Finn’s resistance to magic was very poor. If he was hit, it would be incredibly painful. If Gustav was a strong enough mage, it may even be enough to kill him. But Finn didn't even consider defending himself. He had a perfect shot and as long as he killed Gustav, what happened to him didn’t matter. Leif would be safe and Leonster would be his once more. That was more than worth dying for.

Just before Gustav cast his spell, Leif pulled his arm down. The incomplete spell backfired and both recoiled as the thunder magic coursed through them. Leif let go of Gustav’s arm and curled over his knees, arms pulled into his chest. Gustav flopped against the throne, barely able to keep his eyes open. A quick stab through his heart closed them for good.

Dropping the lance, Finn knelt beside Leif. Dark magic may be the preferred magic of the Loptyrians and fire of any kind was destructive but thunder magic was the most dangerous by far. The damage it did was internal, sometimes leading to strange effects on people, such as losing memories or entering a death-like state, alive but unable to do anything. Even the most inexperienced of thunder mages could stop a person’s heart with a single spell. Leif had already had one horrible experience with thunder magic, he didn’t need another.

“Lord Leif?” Finn asked, barely managing to keep his voice steady.

“Don’t… touch me.” Hearing Leif speak eased one worry but his words gave Finn several more. It took him a moment more to sit up, although his eyes were closed and he still clutched his arms, holding them tight to his chest. His expression was pinched as if holding something back and for a moment, Finn wanted nothing more than to ignore what Leif had just said.

A soft glow enveloped Leif as the wound on his shoulder began to close. Finn turned to see both Nanna and Asbel beside him, Nanna with her staff in hand as Asbel kept his eyes on Leif. One of his hands was fisted around the bottom of Leif’s pant leg, as if he too wanted to ignore Leif’s command.

As the wound closed, Leif’s expression softened and he slowly let go of his arms, letting them lie in his lap. His sleeves were singed, the beginning of his scars visible. Perhaps it was just the lighting but they looked darker than before.

Once Nanna had finished healing him, Leif turned to Asbel. “I had to think about it.”

“That’s really what you wanna talk about right now?” Asbel asked.

“I thought you’d want to know.”

“Well, I do...” Asbel admitted before giving into his excitement. “Was that the first time you tried it? Couldya feel it changin’ like how each type of magic feels? Did you pick light ‘nd fire for a reason? D’ya think you could do it even faster? What about two at once? Can-”

“Asbel, breathe,” Nanna interrupted, the mage pausing his questioning to do as she suggested.

“First time, I could, I thought they would hurt the most, I do, maybe?” Leif answered, somehow managing to excite Asbel even more. Asbel’s bright grin and Nanna’s light laugh brought out the smallest of smiles from Leif but it was still the closest to happy than he’d been all day. Even though he had been right beside them, Finn had no idea how they’d done it.

“I hate to break up this happy celebration but many of our men are in need of healing,” August said, not even attempting to sound sincere. All three of them nodded and got to their feet, Finn following suit a moment after. Nanna and Asbel were allowed to pass but Dorias held out his arm to stop Leif.

“Let the other healers handle this, Prince Leif,” Dorias said, “The castle is ours! After fourteen long years, Leonster has returned to its rightful ruler! For once, rest and celebrate our victory.”

“I’m afraid that will have to wait,” Miranda said, drawing everyone’s attention to her and the nervous looking woman behind her. “Prince, I insist you live up to your word!”

“Alster,” Leif said, any trace of earlier happiness gone, “Something’s happened.”

Miranda nodded. “This woman came from Alster to beg for your aid. The citizens are plotting a rebellion - but they don’t stand a chance on their own. Help them, Prince Leif! Save the people of Alster as they once saved you!”

“I’ll leave at once,” Leif said, trying once again to leave. Finn quickly moved around him to help Dorias block his path, earning both of them a scowl.

“Prince Leif, we should discuss this! I share your feelings, but we simply don’t have the manpower to aid Alster!” Dorias argued.

“Then who will? We’re the only ones who can and if we do nothing, hundreds will die! What sort of allies would that make us then?” Leif countered.

“The people of Alster will understand.”

“The people of Alster will be dead. Any who aren’t won’t forget they were abandoned again.”

“Again?” Eyvel repeated, “What happened to Alster wasn’t your fault!”

“It was, just like Leonster. But I saved one, I can save the other. I have to,” Leif insisted.

“Our men are exhausted,” August pointed out, “They’d be no use in a fight. All you’d be doing is sending more men to their deaths.”

“Then I’ll go alone! Now get out of my damn way!” Leif snarled, glaring at Dorias and Finn. Sensing things were about to take a turn for the worse, Miranda ushered the woman out of the throne room, leaving only August, Dorias, Eyvel, and Finn with Leif.

“Lord Leif, you cannot go to Alster,” Finn stressed, “Their rebellion will not succeed and there’s nothing you can do to change that.”

“You apologized for disrespecting our sacrifices and failing as our prince. If you go, you’ll be doing both again,” Dorias warned.

“You shouldn’t have made those sacrifices to begin with! You should have abandoned me when I abandoned my people!” Leif shouted, everyone taking a step back as sparks danced around his fingers. “How could you expect anything good to come from a prince who did nothing but run away?!”

“That wasn’t your choice!” Eyvel argued, bold enough to step forward, “And you were a child, how could you be expected to do anything else?”

“It’s my responsibility to protect my people, it’s been since the day my father died. His duties became mine and I failed every one of them! I abandoned the people of Leonster, I gave Alster over to the Empire, I can’t even repay the people who sheltered me because they’re all dead! Everyone who helps me suffers for it and I swore I’d never let that happen again. That’s why I have to go to Alster! I can’t take anyone else dying because of me!”

“Lord Leif, calm yourself!” Finn warned, the desperate look in Leif’s eye worrying him. Leif never thought his actions through when he panicked and from how he was shaking, he was on the verge of it.

“We can send men to Alster if you insist on doing something, but as I said before, you’d just be sending your own men to their deaths,” August said, something in his tone putting Finn on edge, “But you certainly won’t be going.”

“Am I just supposed to let the people of Alster die then?!” Leif asked.

“Yes,” August answered, bluntness unnerving everyone else, “They brought this on themselves.”

The way Leif stared at August, Finn was certain he’d attack him. But as his expression twisted in anger, he turned around and threw a thunder spell at the throne instead of the former priest. It cracked in half, Gustav’s body flopping to the floor before it.

“They didn’t bring it on themselves. I brought it on them,” Leif said, back still to them. Something sounded strange about Leif’s voice, Finn taking a minute to realize it was because he was crying. “Everything the Empire’s done to them... Everything they’ve done to Thracia... I may as well have done it myself.”

Eyvel slowly approached Leif, pausing a few steps behind him. “It doesn’t matter that you’re the prince or the last of House Leonster. You’re not responsible for the Empire’s actions.”

“I am. They invaded Alster because I was there, they killed Miranda’s parents for sheltering me. Everywhere I went was the same. If I was there, that was more than enough reason to invade and the kinder you were to me, the worse your punishment.”

“You had no control over that.”

“I still caused it.”

“So it’s your fault because you exist?” August suggested.

“Yes,” Leif said, finally turning around to face them again. He'd stopped crying but his eyes were still red, “My existence is a mistake. All it’s done is bring suffering to others.”

“Then why haven’t you killed yourself?”

“August!” Eyvel was beyond livid as she spun around. It was a miracle she hadn’t drawn her sword.

“What good would that do? I’ve already ruined so much, I’d be crueler than Bloom if I left everyone else to deal with the mess I made. At least I could make what I ruined things that deserved it instead of your lives.” Leif looked at Finn as he said that last part.

Finn didn’t know how to respond. He’d barely been able to take in what Leif was saying. How could his thoughts have become so twisted? This wasn’t something Dorias’ plan could fix, he had no idea what could fix this. 

“Lord Leif… you haven’t ruined anything, least of all our lives,” Finn insisted.

“You lost your home and family because of me. You nearly died trying to find me! Everything you did to keep me safe... Everything you gave up for my sake... And I repaid you by running away! Now all I do is make you angry and disappoint you. How can you think I’m worth it? Why don’t you hate me?!”

Approaching Leif while he was like this wasn’t safe but Finn didn’t care. He’d started to cry again and even if it meant being lashed out at, Finn had to stop this. He couldn’t stand seeing Leif so distraught. But the moment he took a step forward, Leif’s eyes closed and he started to fall. Finn barely managed to catch him before he hit the ground, lowering himself to his knees to look for the cause of this.

The sound of a staff clattering to the ground followed by the thud of a person gave him his answer. “What the hell made you think that was alright?! We’ll be lucky if he trusts any of us again after that!” Eyvel shouted.

“I did all of us a favor,” August argued, “No wonder he’s so eager to jump in any fire he can find. This isn't instability, this is insanity! He’s not another orphan you pulled off the streets, you can’t fix everything wrong with it by being nice to it.”

“I’m starting to think you’re not even human, going by how little you understand about people. He doesn’t need to be fixed, he needs support so he can heal!”

“You think I’m inhuman? Do you know what that thing has done, how many men he’s murdered? He’s taken out forts in a night, leaving behind corpses you can barely tell were once people! He’s a vicious mon-”

The sound of unsheathed steel cut off his remark about Leif. “One more word August, and I fucking swear…” Eyvel warned.

Finn looked down at Leif, still unconscious in his arms. He could be excessively violent, but what August was saying… No, August didn’t know Leif, Finn did. Leif wasn’t a monster, he could never be. But if he was awake, he’d probably agree with everything August was saying. The thought made Finn pull Leif in closer to him. The former priest wasn’t coming anywhere near Leif for a long time.

“Eyvel, calm yourself,” Dorias chided, “Finn, take him to the Great Chamber. We’ll… we’ll talk to Glade and-”

“Oh no you don’t,” Eyvel interrupted, taking a step back towards Leif and Finn, “You’re just as bad, trying to use and shape him without caring about him beyond his title. You’re a father yourself Dorias, how could you treat a child like that?”

“It seems you still fail to understand the importance of a prince,” Dorias said, “The only way we could even have a chance at taking Leonster back was if he led us. The sooner he was ready for that, the sooner we could end the people of Leonster’s suffering and reclaim our home. I didn't treat him like my child because he's not, he's my prince."

“So being a prince is more important than being a person?”

“Being our prince is the most important thing, the only thing that matters about him. It’s the only reason the Knights of Leonster follow him and the only thing ensuring our loyalty. We certainly haven’t supported his decisions or found him pleasant to be around.”

“Then you won’t be around him, not until I say so!”

“You have no right to stop us-”

“I’m his mother, I have every right to stop you from coming near him.”

Dorias scowled. “You are not Lady Ethlyn.”

“But I’m the first person to love him since!” Eyvel’s voice echoed through the throne room as her words twisted something in Finn’s chest with how wrong they felt. “If she could see how you’ve treated her son, she’d agree with this.”

“If she could see her son she’d be ashamed of him.”

“No mother would be ashamed of her child, even if he’d done something wrong.”

“He’s done quite a lot wrong,” August said, having gotten to his feet while Dorias and Eyvel were arguing, although he was an extra step behind Dorias now.

Eyvel laughed. “That’s rich coming from you, August. What was it you were excommunicated for again? Torture, I believe?”

August narrowed his eyes as he glared at Eyvel. “How many years of your life can you remember? Ten? Who knows what you did in those other twenty some. You could be the worst of all of us.”

“I could,” Eyvel agreed, “Or perhaps I’m some lost noble who outranks all of you or a pirate who the villagers of Ith were willing to give a second chance. I may never know who I was then but I know who I am now. In the past ten years, the people of Fiana chose me to be their leader, I formed the Freeblades, reformed and befriended the leader of the largest bandit crew in the area, and took in two wonderful daughters and one barely functional man. I’m a better person than both of you and I’ll continue to be by actually helping Leif instead of making things worse!”

“Can you?” Finn asked without thinking, bringing everyone’s attention to him. Dorias’ gaze was cold, warning him not to side with Eyvel. But going along with his plan became less and less appealing as their argument had gone on. And thinking back to how Eyvel and Mareeta had made Nanna happy again, how Eyvel helped her overcome the panic she had felt whenever she was left alone, of the kindness she had shown both Nanna and Finn, Finn wanted that for Leif as well. He needed someone to care about Leif and she was the only one offering.

Eyvel’s expression was oddly hard to make out as she looked at Leif and Finn. But her nod was enough for him, shifting his hold on Leif to lift his as gently as he could as he stood up.

“Finn…” Dorias’ gaze was sharper now, a silent order to not go along with this. But Leif’s head resting against his chest, tear tracks down his cheeks still not dry, resolved his conviction.

“Lord Quan wouldn’t want his son to think he shouldn’t exist,” Finn said. Eyvel stiffened but said nothing. Dorias was silent as well but moved out of their way to let Eyvel and Finn pass. August did as well, although more likely out of self-preservation than acceptance. His nose was still bleeding rather heavily.

“Apparently his method of magic works on staves as well,” August said as they walked by, “He should be out for at least two days.” Eyvel gave no indication she’d heard beyond a slight sigh as she continued.

As soon as they left the throne room, they found Xavier waiting outside, quickly becoming alarmed at what he saw. “Finn, what’s happened? Is Prince Leif alright?!”

“He’s fine, just pushed himself a bit too far,” Eyvel lied with ease, “Is there somewhere we can take him, preferably somewhere he can have a little privacy?”

Xavier nodded, sparing a moment to look fondly at the sleeping prince. “I can’t remember how many times I saw you walking around the castle carrying the prince. Looks like some things never change.”

If only that were more true. He wished holding Leif now was more like holding Leif back then.

Leonster Castle, 761

“You’ll be a good boy for Finn, now won’t you?” Ethlyn asked the small infant in her arms. Leif reached for her hair in response. Ethlyn laughed as she brushed it out of his reach.

“Ethlyn, we really must be going,” Quan said as he entered the room, Ethlyn’s cloak hanging over his arm.

“I know,” Ethlyn said, although she was still smiling at Leif, “I’ll be back soon but I’ll miss you and Altena very much.”

“You could always stay here,” Quan suggested, not for the first time. And just as before, he was met with a fiercely stubborn look.

“It’s hard enough not being able to go with you. At least let me go part way,” Ethlyn insisted, “Who knows how long it will be before we’ll see each other again.”

Quan softened at her plea, the same thought no doubt having crossed his mind a hundred times since deciding to leave to aid Sigurd. His brief glance at Leif gave away this wasn’t a thought he had only about his wife. “Only part way,” Quan agreed, unfolding her cloak.

Ethlyn turned back to Finn and held Leif out to him. He had gotten better about being less nervous holding Leif but he still tried to be as delicate as possible as he shifted Leif into his arms. Leif stared up at the new person holding him, making a small, happy sound as he recognized who it was.

“He’s already quite fond of you,” Quan chuckled as he held out Ethlyn’s cloak for her. Finn felt his cheeks warm from embarrassment but Quan only smiled. “I’m glad he is. There’s no one I’d trust more to protect him while I’m gone and now I have the added reassurance he’ll be happy as well.”

“I will do all I can to ensure both while you're away, milord,” Finn promised.

Quan joined Finn and Leif, looking down at the infant now sucking his thumb as he leaned against Finn. “Try not to grow too much while I’m gone,” Quan said, sadness creeping into his voice at the end. No one knew how long Sigurd’s battle to clear his name would last but it was doubtful it would be a short one. Even if it was only a few months, he would miss a great deal of his son's growth.

“You don’t have to go,” Ethlyn said in a small voice as she came to Quan’s side, “Your father is so ill right now, Sigurd would understand…”

“Sigurd and I pledged to aid each other in times of need and that’s a vow I intend to keep. My father agrees with my decision and is more than willing to spare the Lance Ritter for this. And you need not worry about me. So long as I have the Gae Bolg, I will not lose. I will help Sigurd prove his innocence and return to Leonster as soon as I have.”

Ethlyn sighed, nodding in understanding before turning to Leif one last time. “I’ll see you soon,” she said, giving him a gentle kiss on the forehead. Leif took the chance to reach for her hair again, Ethlyn laughing as she carefully pulled her hair from his grip.

“I wish I could say the same,” Quan said, cradling his son’s head. Leif pulled his thumb out of his mouth to make another cheerful sound and reach for his father. Quan took Leif’s tiny hand in his own, not minding the spit wet thumb at all.

“Altena, sweetheart, calm down. I’m right here,” Ethlyn called as she hurried out of the room, the sounds of the tantrum outside impressively loud. Quan winced sympathetically.

“I should tell the men it may be a bit longer,” he said, releasing Leif’s hand before leaving as well. Now alone, Finn looked down at Leif, the prince meeting his gaze and smiling, oblivious to everything beyond who was holding him. There was something oddly calming about how innocently he looked at Finn, unaware of how important he was or the danger his father would be in or how Leonster now looked like a prime target to attack. For a moment, Finn’s anxiety faded as he returned Leif’s smile. He had been given a lot of responsibilities but protecting his lord’s son while he was away, this tiny wide-eyed child, that didn't feel too daunting of a task.

Xavier stopped outside the door to what had once been Leif’s room, glancing back at Finn to see if he’d realized what it was.

“I asked Gustav not to touch this room. He thought my sentimentality was amusing so he agreed,” Xavier explained as he unlocked the door, “I had always hoped one day Prince Leif would return and when he did, I wanted him to have somewhere pleasant to stay instead of that pigsty Gustav has made the Great Chamber. It’s a bit bare but it should be comfortable enough.”

The room was hardly more than empty. There was a bed across from the fireplace, two chairs by the window, a dresser in the far corner, and a desk opposite it. The banners of Njorun and House Leonster hung above the fireplace and their was a mirror on the wall by the door but otherwise, there were no decorations. It was sparse but Finn had the feeling it was nicer than anywhere Leif had stayed in years.

“I’ll be back with some water and a cloth,” Xavier said as Finn laid Leif down on the bed. Eyvel unattached his tomes, sword, and staves, laying them on the end of the bed for Finn to take care of. Figuring it was best to keep them out of sight, Finn hid the swords and staves inside the dresser and tomes inside the desk. When he returned to Leif's side, Eyvel was kneeling next to the bed, brushing his hair out of his face.

"It's going to be rough when he wakes. He'll be panicked and scared, angry after he realized what happened. Of all the times for this to happen..." Eyvel sighed, "At least you won't dream, Little Leif. So sleep as long as you can."

"I'll stay with him," Finn offered. But Eyvel didn't move, keeping her eyes on Leif.

“Finn, what is he to you?” she asked.

Finn frowned, not sure he understood the question. “He’s my lord.”

“Just your lord? Nothing else?” she pressed.

He hesitated, unsure what answer Eyvel was looking for. “If you’re referring to what Dorias said earlier, being a prince is important but he's important too."

"But why? Why is he important to you?" Eyvel asked, finally looking at Finn, "I thought I knew but now... I'm not sure I do."

Finn wasn't sure himself how to answer that. "He's... my lord. I pledged myself to him because I want to serve and support him."

Eyvel sighed again, giving Finn a disappointed look before turning back to Leif. "Then get out."

She couldn't be serious. She wanted to keep him from Leif as well? "I'm not leaving Lord Leif."

"He doesn't need servants, he needs people who actually care about him as a person," Eyvel said.

"I do! That's why he's here right now, I'm concerned about him and want him to get help!"

"So you can make him into the next Prince Quan! Was his father really so great a man his son doesn't get to be his own person?" Eyvel asked, rising to stare down Finn, "I asked Selfina about your pact with Glade and your half was to raise Leif so one day he'd fulfill his father's dream. He already doesn't get to choose his own future, now he can't have his own dreams as well?"

"Lord Quan wanted to bring peace-"

"It doesn't matter what Prince Quan's dream would do, Leif should still have the option to choose," Eyvel cut him off, "Leif and Prince Quan are not the same and until you can accept that, don't come anywhere near him."

"I know they're not the same," Finn insisted but it wasn't enough to make Eyvel relent. He'd never admitted this to out loud but after what Dorias had said, this may be the only way he was allowed to stay with Leif. "I don't care about his just because he's Lord Quan's son. After Yied, King Calf knew Northern Thracia's chances of surviving Southern Thracia's invasion were slim and began preparing me for the possibility I'd have to flee Leonster with Lord Leif. Being solely responsible for protecting him, for ensuring House Leonster and Njorun's lineage did not die out... that duty felt too much. I'd been a knight in service of House Leonster for a mere five years and now I would be the only thing keeping it from being destroyed? This was too important, too much for me to take. But then I'd look at Lord Leif, this small child who'd already lost so much and would lose even more if this were to happen. Despite this, he could still laugh and smile so easily and favored me over the other servants, over everyone it seemed. I don't know what I did to deserve such an attachment, but it made my duty easier and over time, I... though less of it as for the sake of House Leonster or Njorun's holy line or even Lord Quan and Lady Ethlyn. I was protecting Lord Leif because... because I wanted to."

What had once been a noble duty became more selfish as time went on, especially after losing Leif. The fear of Leif's death plagued him not because of what it would mean for Leonster, but because it would mean Leif was gone. Finn thought being around Glade and Dorias again would change that but all it took was one attempted smile from Leif and he was willing to go along with whatever he wanted. He cared more about Leif smiling than about him behaving more like a prince should. What a sorry excuse for a knight he was.

Eyvel looked just as torn up as he felt. "Why wasn't that enough?" Her question was vague but he knew what she was asking, the same twist in his chest and feeling of wrongness from the throne room returning. When he remained silent, Eyvel continued. "Dorias made it very clear why the other knights couldn't but you, you were by his side for as long as he could remember. He adores you, always has from the sounds of it. Was it really too much to ask for you to return that? You were practically his father already."

"I could never replace his father."

"Then does Lady Ethlyn matter that little I can replace her? Or do you have a problem with me being his mother now as well?"

"Comparing Lady Ethlyn to you wouldn't be an insult to her."

Eyvel's shoulders dropped. "And neither would comparing Prince Quan to you be," she said, voice softened, "It would be the opposite to Leif."

Finn shook his head. "It shouldn't be. Lord Quan was a great man and deserves to be loved by his son. He should be the one Lord Leif adores."

Eyvel buried her face in her hands, letting out her longest sigh of the day. "And what about you?"

"I am merely Lord Leif's retainer."

Eyvel gave him one last frustrated look before kneeling beside Leif again. "Then go retain somewhere else. It won't do him any good for the first person he sees when he wakes to be the one who choked him."

"I what?" Although he'd asked, Finn knew exactly what she was saying.

"You tried to strangle him while you were berserked. Probably punched him too, going by the bruise on his cheek. He didn't want you to know because he knew you'd feel guilty about it. But I am not that kind, not today!" Eyvel snapped at the end, glaring at him, "I won't tell you again. Get. Out."

Finn obeyed, barely noticing Xavier as he left, barely paying attention to where he was going at all. He had hurt Leif. He had hurt Leif and Leif had tried to hide it from him, just like he hid everything else. He stood there and let Finn berate him until Eyvel intervened. He took the blame for something he didn't do, a habit of his apparently. But for how long? He'd told Finn he left Tahra because he couldn't watch anyone else sacrifice themselves for him. Had he started thinking like this even before he left? Had he been like this for years and Finn just hadn't seen it? If he had, could he have done something?

Leif had been right, Finn did feel guilty, but for much more than what he'd done while berserked. He hadn't cried in fourteen years but right now, he was very close to it.

"Princess Miranda, what are you doing out here?"

The princess was standing by the main entrance, staring at the doors as if waiting for them to open. Judging by her cloak, she was at least considering going outside.

"Prince Leif, he's a complete disaster, isn't he? All that crying and shouting about how he ruins everything... What a sorry excuse for a prince he is," Miranda said, although her words lacked any heat. She sounded almost scared. Selfina hadn't seen Prince Leif's breakdown herself but from what her father had said, she was glad she hadn't.

"But he was right, the people of Alster won't forget being abandoned again," Miranda continued, "The highest duty of a ruler is to protect their people, Duke Dorias told Prince Leif and I that himself. If a disaster like Prince Leif can save his, then I should have no problem saving mine."

"Princess Miranda, I understand your feelings but you mustn't do this," Selfina insisted, "You know Alster's rebellion stands no chance!"

"I do, that's why I'll talk them down, like Prince Leif did with the villagers. If I tell them your plan, that Leonster and Southern Thracia will be coming to free the city soon, that should be enough to convince them to hold off," Miranda said, although it sounded as if she was trying to convince herself of this as well, "Besides, they're my people, I should be the one to save them, not him."

The possessiveness at the end reminded Selfina of when Princess Miranda was little. She hated sharing her toys at first but every time she did, Selfina praised her. Soon she would not only share but offer to let Leif and Nanna play with them, proudly telling Selfina after she had. She had been much easier to handle than Leif, something that seemed not to have changed over the years.

Selfina walked down the hall to join Miranda at the door. "This is a very brave thing you're offering to do and I'm sure your presence would bring great joy to your people. But if something goes wrong, there will be no one who can bring you back here safely. Your life is too important to risk."

"So my people must lose theirs? How could I even call them my people if I turned my back on them when they're begging for help?" she asked, lower lip trembling, "If I did that, I'd be the selfish coward."

It broke Selfina's heart to see how upset Miranda was about not being able to help her people. It wasn't as if she wanted to fight like Prince Leif, just talk. It was still a risk but the last thing they needed was another guilt ridden ruler. "You could never be a selfish coward. But if you truly wish to go then please, allow me to accompany you. We'll make better time by horse and if anything happens, I'll be there to protect you."

Miranda quickly looked up at her with a grateful expression, resolving Selfina's conviction to go through with this. Miranda reached for the door but hesitated again.

"What Prince Leif said about Alster and my parents... I said the same thing to him yesterday," Miranda confessed.

"What happened in the throne room wasn't your fault, Princess. Prince Leif is a deeply troubled person, he's likely had these thoughts for a long time," Selfina assured her, "But I'm afraid I must disagree with both of you on this."

"Then whose fault is it? Why did my father have to be executed, why did I have to spend my life as a hostage?" Miranda asked.

"There's no simple answer for that. You could blame Southern Thracia for weakening Northern Thracia then handing us over to the Empire, leaving no allies to aid Alster. Or you could blame the Empire or House Friege for being the ones to invade and conquer Alster, something they planned to do as soon as their peace treaty with Southern Thracia was signed. Or you could blame the Leonster nobles who tried and failed to assassinate Bloom, giving House Friege an excuse to invade and try to kill Prince Leif that wouldn't seem dishonorable. If you truly believe Prince Leif's presence in Alster is the cause, you could blame Sir Finn for taking Prince Leif to Alster or Queen Alfiona for directing him to, although I'd prefer if you didn't. They were only trying to keep Prince Leif alive, just as your father was with you when he surrendered and swore Alster's fealty to the Empire."

"He was?" Miranda looked up incredulously at Selfina.

"Your father knew better than to try fighting the Empire, so he did the most important thing he could instead. He ensured both House Leonster and House Alster would have a future. Although the days to come would be bleak, he knew the people would still have hope that things would get better, that one day their suffering would end. Your father died to give Northern Thracia a chance to rise again."

Miranda returned to looking at the door, a more determined look than before. "Then I cannot let my father's sacrifice go to waste. I may not understand why my people suffered but I know I must be the one to end it." With that declaration, she pushed open the door and stepped outside.

"Selfina, my dearest, what are you doing?" Selfina turned to see her husband at the end of the hall. She gave what she hoped would be a reassuring smile.

"I thought I'd go for a walk to clear my head, get some fresh air now the rain has stopped," she lied. If he knew what she and Miranda were about to do, he'd stop them from going. "You should rest, my love, you look exhausted."

"Still better than Finn," he grumbled, barely holding back a yawn.

Selfina forced a light laugh. "That's not saying much." She paused to look at him one last time. "I'll see you soon."

"Mm," he agreed, hopefully going to follow her advice. Once he'd left the hall, she turned to follow Miranda. She wasn't sure if the princess's plan would work and even if it did, her father would be furious with her for going behind his back to do this. But it was a chance to give some small comfort to both Miranda and Prince Leif. She wasn't Queen Ethnia or Lady Ethlyn or even Eyvel, but she still wanted to do something about the holes left in these too young rulers with too heavy crowns.

Chapter Text

The first thing Leif realized was there was something soft underneath him that wasn’t grass. The next thing was that he was unarmed. Both of those were enough to make him wide awake and on edge.

Sitting up quickly, he looked around the room he'd woken in. He didn’t recognize this place or the clothes he was wearing. The thought of people touching him while he was unconscious made his throat tighten. He didn’t know where he was, how he’d gotten here, how much time he’d lost, or what had been done to him and that was far too much to not know. He needed to get away from here right now.

There was a door to his right and window to his left. Outside was safer, no one controlled outside. Quickly making his way to the window, he cautiously peered out and saw he wasn’t on the ground floor. But he also wasn’t so high up jumping out would kill him. After a quick sweep of the ground to make sure no one would see him, Leif pushed open the window and climbed on the ledge, leaping down onto the ground below and crouching close to the building to keep from being seen by anyone inside.

There was a tree by the stables he could use to get over the wall to avoid going for one of the gates and risk being caught by anyone in the gatehouse or going through the gate as well. He sprinted towards the tree, trying to get out of the open as soon as possible. When he reached it, he kicked off the stable to give himself a boost and reach the lowest branch, wrapping his legs around it as well as his arms. No one would be able to see him unless they walked under the tree but he couldn’t stop, not until he was somewhere safer. Reaching for the branch closest to the wall, he pulled himself up and over, and began climbing towards the wall, trying to disturb the branches as little as possible.

Once able to reach the inner parapet, Leif pulled himself up onto the allure, not pausing for a moment before climbing on the outer parapet and throwing himself toward the trees on the other side. He didn’t make it very far into them but enough to take several hits from smaller branches before grabbing one large enough to hold him. Letting himself dangle for a moment, he swung his legs a few times before letting go and letting himself fall towards the ground, covering his head as he curled himself up. He landed on his knees, uncurling and falling onto his front. Scrambling into a crouch, he grabbed a rock to defend himself before turning to look at where he had just come from.

Leonster. He had been in Castle Leonster. The memories of yesterday came flooding back; Amalda defecting to join the Liberation Army, the villagers offering to give their lives to end their suffering, Xavier begging for his men to be spared, Gustav trying to kill Finn, Miranda demanding he go to Alster.

Alster. The people of Alster were staging a rebellion because they couldn’t stand the torment Bloom put them through. That he put them through. He had to get to Alster, he had to save them. Quickly looking around to find the road, once he had he ran towards it as fast as he could.

How much time had he lost? It looked like it was daytime but days could have passed since the people of Alster asked for his aid. They wouldn’t survive if they rebelled by themselves. It would be a massacre, just like eleven years ago. He should have gone to Alster after Melgln, not Leonster. But he was selfish, he wanted to take Leonster back more. Bloom had raised the defenses in Alster but his fear also meant he’d be harsher to the people. No wonder the people couldn’t take his tyranny anymore, Leif had made it even worse by revealing who he was to Raydrik.

As he crossed the bridge, he noticed some villages ahead to his left. He only had the rock he’d grabbed for a weapon and they may be able to tell him what had happened while he was out but he didn’t have time to stop. Why had he lost time? The last thing he remembered was being in the throne room. There had been no one behind him and his head didn’t hurt as if he’d been hit. Was there something wrong with him? Would this happen again? He wouldn’t be allowed to fight if it did. He’d have to watch everyone else risk their lives to fix his mistakes, dying because he was too weak to protect anyone, to protect anything. The fear from that thought pushed him to run faster.

Dread joined that fear as he noticed a knight approaching fast from the south. The only place he could be headed was Castle Leonster. Either he hadn’t noticed Leif or thought he was just another vagrant as he showed no signs of slowing, focused on the castle as he approached. But his focus meant he didn’t see the rock aimed for him until it was too late, knocking him from his horse as it continued to gallop forward. Before he could get up, Leif grabbed the man by the front of his coat, forcing the knight to look up at him.

“What happened to Alster?” Leif demanded.

“Th-the princess returned! With her there, Count Conomor finally agreed to let the Knights of Alster join the rebellion. We took out Bloom’s magi squad b-but then the pegasus knights came from behind, with dark bishops. They burned the city, it was still burning when I escaped!”

“What about Miranda?”

“I-I don’t know! Count Conomor and a bow knight were protecting her b-but we were surrounded and- and... oh Gods,” the knight suddenly stopped, staring back towards Alster. Leif turned to look as well. A group was approaching, too far to make anyone out yet but there was no mistaking that damned white thunderbolt on their banner.

“Get out of here,” Leif said, letting go of the knight.


“Get the hell away from here!” Leif snarled, turning back to the knight. Whatever look he had on his face made the knight scrambled backwards. Leif followed to take his dagger and grabbed his rock again before turning back to face the approaching force.

If Friege knights were coming to Leonster, then they weren’t needed in Alster. All those rebels, Count Conomor, Miranda, maybe there was a chance some of them survived. But they had been surrounded and even if some made it out, hundreds more were dead. He should have been the one who went to Alster. When Dorias refused to let him go, he should have pretended to agree then snuck out the first chance he had. But he’d lost his temper again. He couldn’t control it, he couldn’t control anything about himself. He couldn’t control anything anymore. All those years of fighting and death and cages, after everything he did, he was still powerless to protect anyone.

He’d tried to be a prince, he really had. He wanted to be worthy of his title and live up to Dorias and Finn’s expectations but every decision he made only disappointed them more. They hadn’t liked Leif’s alliance with Arion or the deal he made with the soldiers at Fort Melgln. Finn still didn’t like Leif going off by himself when they set up camp and more times than he could count he’d heard Dorias compare him unfavorably to his father when he thought Leif couldn't hear. It also didn’t help that every suggestion Dorias made, every instinct Leif had told him to reject it. Fighting out in the open, taking on the Empire head on, letting others take the lead, that went against everything Leif knew, everything he’d built himself around. Maybe that was how a prince should fight but he wasn’t comfortable fighting like that. He wasn’t strong enough to fight like that. Just more proof he didn’t deserve to be their prince.

He said he would put this behind him, that he was done with this. He wanted to be done being this. But it was the only thing he knew how to be, the only thing he could do right. He’d let everyone else down, he may as well let August and himself down too.

Heading for the trees to his right, he climbed the nearest one and crouched among the branches, rock in hand again.  Ten cavaliers were approaching, three by three with one in the back, most likely their commander. None had drawn their weapons yet so counterattacks wouldn’t be immediate. Slowly, he shifted to a branch on the tree behind him, trunk of the first hiding him from view. Moving his head out as little as needed to see, he leaned forward, preparing to strike.

The first row of knights passed then the second. As the third went by he drew the rock back and released just in time to hit the last knight in the temple. He jerked his reins to the side as he was knocked out, giving Leif more room to land. The first weapon he saw was a Thoron tome which he quickly grabbed, hitting the nearest knight with a spell before he could turn around. The unexpected crack of thunder magic spooked the horses, breaking up their formation and giving him time to dart back into trees, crouching low in the undergrowth.

“Where the hell did that come from?”

“Commander Ilios! Is he dead?”

“You have a staff, you check him!”

“Do you see anyone in the trees? There’s nowhere else they could be hiding.”

One of the knights steered his horse near Leif, looking into the trees. He’d taken out his lance, the tip of the Knight Killer almost close enough to touch. But Leif couldn’t take it yet. After several moments of searching and neither seeing anything or being attacked, the knight turned to report his findings to the other knights.

“I don’t see an- ah!” The knight was cut off as Leif ran under the horse, dragging his dagger through its stomach as he did. As soon as he was on the other side he shot a spell at the nearest knight, knocking him off his horse. While the other knights were still shocked at his sudden appearance, he quickly looked them over. Four to his left, three with Sleep Sword, one with another Knight Killer. Bow knight and paladin to his right, along with their unconscious commander. He should focus on the left first, one scratch of a Sleep Sword and he was out.

The knight whose horse he’d gutted was trapped beneath it. Leaping back over it, he knelt down to slit the knight’s throat before pulling the Knight Killer from his hand. The bow knight fired at him, arrow grazing his cheek as he stood to run towards knights to the left, staying just within the tree line as he approached.

Once he was across from the knights, he stood between two trees, putting his hands on the side facing him as he sent a burst of thunder magic through each. Splinters flew back at him as the trees crashed down on the knights trying to charge him. Two managed to get out of the way, one was caught under one of the fallen trees, and the fourth had been close enough to avoid being hit. All it took was a quick lunge forward for Leif to reach him, Knight Killer living up to its name as it pierced his horse’s chest with ease, rider barely managing to jump off before his horse fell over dead. As soon as the knight was on the ground, Leif impaled him with the lance as well, pulling it down through his torso before pulling it out. The knight fell backwards as Leif ran forward to take his Sleep Sword.

The last lance knight took the chance to charge him, Leif raising the Sleep Sword just in time to block his jab. The other sword knight came around from the other side, trying to get in a strike from behind. Since Leif was still crouched over the other knight’s corpse, he had to lean over further to try and reach him. Leif pressed himself down lower at the last minute before launching himself up, grabbing the knight’s arm and pulling him down to the ground with him, knight dropping his sword as he did. The lance knight tried another jab while Leif’s back was mostly turned but Leif twisted the arm of the knight he’d grabbed behind his back as he forced him up to use as a shield. The knight’s strike wasn’t enough to kill his companion so Leif pushed him further onto the lance until the tip came out the other side. His horror at killing his fellow knight gave Leif time to grab the Sleep Sword and slash it at the knight. He only scratched his calf but that was enough for the Sleep spell to knock him out, falling forward to rest against the neck of his horse.

The lance knight falling over gave the bow knight a clear shot at Leif, landing a hit in his left shoulder. Leif raised his hand as if about to cast a spell and the bow knight quickly spurred his horse out of the way, heading to the left where he’d be out in the open. Grabbing the lance knight by the hair, Leif pulled him down to cut off his head before throwing it at the bow knight. It didn’t hit him but his shock distracted him enough for Leif to start charging him. By the time he noticed and tried to nock an arrow, Leif was close enough to throw the dagger at him, hitting his cheek. He recoiled, lowering his bow for a moment, but a moment was all Leif needed. He swung the Sleep Sword through at the knight’s arm, the gash knocking him out and falling onto Leif's raised blade finishing him off.

Before Leif could pull the sword out of the knight, the tip of a rapier was thrust into his side between his ribs. The paladin had traded her staff for a rapier and waited for an opening to attack. Rapiers weren’t very good against foot soldiers so she had to make her attack count before quickly retreating out of range of a thunder spell. He’d find out soon enough if it had.

She’d have to move in close to attack again but she knew better than to do that while his attention was still on her. She’d only attack if she thought he was distracted or perhaps… Leif glanced back at the unconscious commander, propped against a tree. The way she stiffened confirmed his suspicion and he raced toward the commander, followed by the sound of hoofbeats as she hurried to try and defend her commanding officer. She tried to stop or at least slow him with a slash to the back with her rapier but as soon as he knew she was there, he threw a Thoron spell at her. She flew back from being hit in the face, falling dead as her horse raced away.

Leif slowed as he approached the unconscious commander, crouching next to him to look over his weapons. As he was taking the commander’s Bolting tome, he stirred. He blinked slowly, surprised to see someone so close to him and to be on the ground. But that quickly became the least of his worries as he noticed everything else around him. He turned back to Leif in time to make that familiar fearful expression before being stabbed in the throat, the blade not quite wide enough to take his head off completely.

It was hard to breathe but he didn’t have time to stop and heal himself. Another group was approaching, three armor knights in the front preventing him from seeing exactly how many soldiers were behind them. They were far enough away he could take them out with the Bolting tome without having to worry about a counterattack. But it only had five uses which he doubted would be enough. But maybe one of the Thoron tome could.

The knights in front all had battle axes so he wouldn’t have to worry about being attacked first as he let them approach. The closer they were, the more of their group that would be affected, hopefully. If this even worked. He’d controlled the amount of magic a spell used hundreds of times before but he’d never tried using almost an entire tome at once and with a Thoron tome no less. Along with Tornado tomes, they were the deadliest tomes that weren’t Holy Weapons. You needed at least decent resistance to magic to survive even one hit from them. That deadliness was what gave him the idea and why he was willing to risk trying it.

Just as the soldiers behind the armored knights moved into range, armor knights less than five feet from him, Leif drew all the magic he could out of the tome and threw out his hands to cast the spell.

The force of the spell pushed him back, falling backwards over one of the trees he’d downed. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. The scars on his arms felt like they were being ripped open and the burn on his side stung as if it were on fire once more. His ears were ringing, muting the whole world as sparks danced across his vision. His body didn’t feel like his own as he tried to move it. But he had to get up, he had to keep fighting.

Before he could stand, he was suddenly warped away, finding himself at the feet of a Loptyrian bishop. Before he could cast a spell, Leif swung his leg into the bishops, knocking him backwards onto the ground as well. Leif pushed himself up to try and pin the bishop, but as soon as he’d raised himself up, a poison spell hit him in the chest. It would take a few moments for its effect to kick in so he’d have to make the most of them, lunging forward as he dug his thumbs into the bishop’s eyes. He started screaming, reaching his arms up to try and push Leif away. Leif bit down on his hand to make him stop, his screams getting louder until there was a crunch as Leif’s thumbs sank into his eye sockets. Both his screams and movement stopped as he went limp.

Climbing off the bishop’s body, Leif stayed down on his hands and knees. The poison should have set in by now but he didn’t feel it. He hadn’t felt the usual twinge when the spell hit him as well. He waited a few more moments but still nothing happened. First blacking out now not being affected by poison? What was happening to him?

But more importantly, where was he? Leif turned around to see the field where the soldiers had been several yards away. The dark bishop must have been just out of range of the spell or warped himself closer after it was cast. Going by the bodies of the soldiers that had been in the approaching group, that was the only way he could have survived.

This wasn’t the first time he’d seen a scene like this or even the worst he’d seen or been responsible for but for some reason, this time it made him sick. Maybe it was because it was out in the open in the daylight rather than the halls of wherever he'd infiltrated in the dead of night. Or maybe it was the shape of Castle Leonster in the distance, looking down at what he’d done with the disapproval of everyone inside, every past generation of his family looking down at him with disgust, ashamed at how he’d disgraced House Leonster and Crusader Njorun. They could go ahead and hate him, everyone else already did.

Except they didn’t. Asbel and Nanna, they thought he was a good person, called him their best friend. Finn had said he could never hate him. And Eyvel, Eyvel loved him. There was someone back in the castle who loved him.

He had to get away from them. They weren’t safe around him. The longer they were around him, the more miserable he’d make their lives again. Leonster was liberated, they could stay here and be safe while he went back to how he'd been before and took out Bloom and Raydrik and all the rest of the Imperial bastards oppressing Thracia himself.

He’d only taken a few steps when he realized he couldn’t do that either. That was what started this mess to begin with. It’s why Ced went looking for him and why Bloom was terrified of him. Even when he wasn’t with them, they still suffered the repercussions of his actions. All he’d really be doing would be selfishly abandoning them again, just like he had in Tahra.

It was even harder to breathe now. He slowly lowered himself back to his knees as he tried to steady his breath, keeping himself low to make himself a smaller target if more soldiers came. He should heal himself, but he stayed rooted in place, staring at the blood on his hands. Miranda's. Salem's. Ares's. Dagdar's. The people of Alster and Leonster and Tahra and Frest. All the children he'd failed to save.

He wanted to be good enough. But it was feeling more and more as if he'd been right as a child.

“Sara, what’s wrong?”

Sara was standing in the middle of a hallway, clutching her head, face scrunched in a pained expression. Eyvel set down the teapot she’d been carrying to crouch down to eye level and gently grasp Sara’s shoulders. “Talk to me, sweetheart. What can I do for you? What do you need?”

“Make him stop,” she said, sounding as if she were about to start crying. “He’s too loud!”

“Make who-” Eyvel cut herself off, remembering how Nanna had said Sara found them. Begging to be wrong, she ran through the castle until she reached Leif’s room and threw open the door.

He was gone. The window was open and he was gone. So much for being out for at least two days.

She had to find him before anyone else. It wasn’t hard to guess where he’d go but she had no idea how much of a head start he had. Even on foot, he was fast enough to make it pretty far in a short time. But the villagers had said this area was full of thieves and there could still be Empire soldiers or Loptyrian mages around or even mercenaries trying to collect the bounty on him. He was unarmed, alone, and Sara's reaction didn’t bode well for where his mind was at either.

Quickly turning around, she jumped just as Mareeta and Nanna did as well, startled by her sudden action. Her run through the castle had probably caught quite a few people’s attention but at least only her girls had followed her.

“Nanna, grab your staff and meet me at the front gate. Mareeta, don’t let anyone follow us. Make sure Sara’s alright as well,” Eyvel ordered.

“Asbel’s already grabbing his. I’ll get my horse,” Nanna said as Asbel appeared at the end of the hall. Eyvel nodded and Nanna ran down the hall to the concerned mage, Eyvel heading in the opposite direction.

The main entrance was open but there was a small group of people gathered by it, all of whom were the last people she wanted to see right now. Dorias and August were speaking with a shaken man as Finn and Glade hovering in the back like two gloomy storm clouds. Finn was still brooding over what had happened yesterday and Glade had joined his friend after Selfina’s disappearance. Even though she didn’t want to, she couldn’t help feeling slight pity for both men. That still didn’t stop her from pushing through them to get past.

“Eyvel! What in the blazes is going on?!” Dorias demanded. She ignored him to race to the main gate, hoping Nanna and Asbel weren’t too far behind. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, she heard someone following her.

Just as she made it to the front gate, there was a loud crack, like a bolt of thunder had landed beside her, the flash of accompanying lightning revealing the source on the other side of the river. She’d never seen anything like this, brightness almost too much to look at even from this distance. While she wasn’t sure what had caused this, she had a very good idea who, the look on Finn’s face revealing he was thinking the same thing.

Nanna and Asbel rode quickly by, heading straight for where the spell had been cast. Eyvel followed as quickly as she could. She wouldn’t be able to keep up but at least if he was injured, he would have two healers with him first and there was no one else she would trust more with Leif than those two.

She swore as she heard someone approaching from behind her by horse. Finn cut in front of her and stopped, forcing her to as well. “Get on.”


“You may not believe it but I do care for Lord Leif,” he said irritably, not wanting to waste time with a fight, “Now get on. We’ll get there faster this way.”

Eyvel climbed on behind Finn and he took off, fast enough Eyvel had to tighten her hold to keep from falling off.

“I know you care about him,” she said as they crossed the bridge, “I just wish you did a little more.”

He was silent a moment. When he finally spoke, he didn't sound as if he wanted an answer to his question. “Would it have changed anything if I did?”

Both the truth and a lie would hurt him but Eyvel was saved from giving either as Finn slowed. They’d reached where the fighting had likely started and it wasn’t a sight Eyvel would forget any time soon.

Two trees had been knocked down, one had fallen onto a horse and its rider. One knight on the ground had been impaled by his fellow knight who was missing his head and another dead horse lay next to them. The missing head was several feet away by an impaled bow knight with a dagger in his cheek. Three had been killed by thunder spells and another lay under a gutted horse, his own throat slit. The knight against the tree's head was barely still attached.

But that was nothing compared to the corpses after them, the victims of the spell they’d seen from the castle. The soldiers’ bodies were scattered across the field, twisted and torn apart. Their skin was blackened and raw and the features of the armor knights were impossible to make out. One even had a gaping hole through his torso from the spell's impact point. Their weapons were unusable and armor beyond repair. Even the air felt wrong, a strange sting to it and the smell of a storm and burnt people not mixing together.

“Lord Leif… did this?” Finn looked so lost, he hadn’t even noticed Nanna and Asbel on the other side of the field, having left their horse behind to approach Leif. Dismounting herself, she slowly made her way to join them, trying not to think about what she was stepping in as she walked across the field.

Asbel had put his staff away by the time Eyvel reached them but the bloodstain across the back and on the side of his shirt remained. The bottoms of his feet were almost black from having come all this way barefoot. As Eyvel walked around him to join Nanna and Asbel, he didn’t move. He remained motionless as she knelt down behind Nanna and Asbel, hung head and slumped shoulders making it hard for her to stay back.

“Little Leif?” Eyvel called softly.

“More soldiers from Alster could be coming," he said without looking up, "I'll handle them. Go back to the castle."

“Only if you come with us,” Nanna said. Leif curled in on himself.

“I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t be anywhere near you,” he insisted, voice smaller as he continued, “I shouldn’t be here at all.”

“Wherever you go we’re comin’ too," Asbel said "I told you, I’m not gonna leave your side ever again."

“Why? How can you stand being around me? How many more times do I have to fail, how many more people have to die because of me before you realize I’m not worth it and give up on me?” Leif asked.

“I’ll never give up on you ‘cause you’ll always be worth believin’ in.”

Leif shook his head. “I’m not, I’ve never been. Too many people have suffered because of me, for as little as being in the same city. All those deaths and sacrifices, and I’ve done nothing to prove I was worth it. I swore I’d never let anyone else die because of me, that I’d protect everyone, but I keep failing at both. The only thing I do is hurt people and let down anyone who expects anything from me. I’ll never be a good leader or good prince or even a good person. I don’t deserve to be your prince. I don’t deserve any of this.”

His anger and desperation from the throne room were gone. He wasn’t even sad or remorseful. Alster had been the final push and if he kept going now, it would only be out of instinct and his desire to protect, just as he had for the past five years. They were supposed to help him move away from that, not trap him in a slightly nicer version.

“You’re right,” Nanna said, “You don’t deserve this. You don’t deserve to have to fight alone. You don’t deserve to be asked to save an entire country. And you don’t deserve any of the blame for anything the Empire’s done to Thracia. They were going to invade no matter what, they only used you as an excuse to do so sooner.”

“If I wasn’t here, they wouldn’t have had an excuse.”

“If you weren’t here Thracia would be much worse off. The Liberation Army wouldn’t have made it this far, if it even formed at all. Southern Thracia would still be our enemy as well. Just seeing you is enough to inspire the people of Thracia. Because you’re alive, the people have hope."

“The only reason anyone cares about me is because I’m the prince of Leonster. They want me to rule instead of Bloom but once they actually know me, they’ll be just as disappointed as Finn and Dorias. They’ll lose any hope they have when they see what a failure of a prince I am. The ones that already have hate me for it.”

Eyvel hoped he only meant Gunna and Miranda but she doubted that was the case. Everyone in Thracia was miserable and wanted things to return to how they were in the days of the Manster Coalition, the country led and protected by House Leonster. He was the only one who could make that happen and while that did enable him to bring hope just by being alive, the longer that hope went unfulfilled, the more likely it would turn bitter, withering into resentment and blame.

“What about Sir Ced?” Asbel suggested. “He went lookin’ for you not knowin’ you were Prince Leif, just that you were fighting the child hunts an’ you could help us break into Manster Prison. An’ after he knew who you were, he took us Magi aside an’ asked us to join you. He said now he’d met you he was certain you could free Thracia an’ be the prince Thracia needs. An’ he’d know what makes a good prince better than Dorias or Finn since he’s one too!”

“Ced left his country while his people were being oppressed by the Empire, his mother was sick, and his sister was too young to take the throne.”

“Prince Ced may not be a good prince but he knows what a prince is supposed to be like. But if his approval isn’t enough, what about Prince Arion’s? He saw you as an enemy before you met and now he trusts you enough to ally with you,” Nanna countered, “And while Prince Ced may not prove you're a good prince, he does prove you’re a good person. He didn’t go looking for you because you’re a prince, he went looking for you because of what you were doing.”

“What I was doing wasn’t good,” Leif argued.

“But why you did it is,” Nanna said, “You haven’t only hurt people or let them down. All you’ve done, all you’ve ever done, is care. No one asked you to save the children taken in the child hunts, yet you were willing to spend the rest of your life doing just that, without reward or recognition. Everything you’ve done, from denouncing your father to going off on your own, has been because you care so much about everyone else. So please, let someone care for you for once.”

“I-” Leif hesitated but Nanna didn’t give him a chance to retreat into himself. Leaning in closer, she remained unfazed as he instinctively recoiled. “You won’t hurt us. The only time you do is when you’re hurting and there’s nothing we can do to help you. I chose to stay with the Liberation Army rather than in Tahra because the five people I care about are all here and I want to stay by their sides as long as I can, to protect and help them. That includes you, not because you’re a prince, but because you’re my best friend. I’ve already lost you once, I don’t want to lose you again.”

Leif said nothing, silence stretching on so long Eyvel started to worry. Then she noticed the smallest of movements on the ground. Slowly, so uncertain she half expected him to retract and change his mind, he reached for Nanna’s hand. They barely touched, tips of his fingers only slightly covering the tips of hers but it was still contact.

“I don’t want to lose you either!” Asbel said, very blatantly moving his hand closer to Leif. “You swore I’d never be as sad as I was after Frest again an’ the only thing that’d make me that sad is losin’ you. So we hafta stay together and I still hafta show you how you’re a million times better’n Bloom or anyone else! I’ll prove it to you even if it takes the resta my life!”

“That’s a terrible way to spend your life,” Leif warned.

“No it’s not ‘cause I’ll get to spend it with you,” Asbel said, “All I want is to be your strength, just like you are for me.”

“Asbel…” Leif paused before hesitantly reaching for his hand as well. Asbel looked halfway between ecstatic and crying.

“Little Leif?” Leif looked up at Eyvel, hesitance even more evident in his eyes. She almost changed her mind about asking this of him but even though it’d hurt, it would help everyone a great deal more. “I know you don’t like talking about it but we’d like to know what happened before the Magi found you. It won’t make us think any less of you, no matter what you’ve done. These two have made it very clear where they stand and there’s not a thing in the world that could make me stop loving you. Not what happened in the field, not some stuck up nobles and knights, and certainly not what you did to stand against the child hunts.”

His hesitation softened into relief just as Eyvel had hoped. No matter how much he tried to distance himself or said it was better for everyone if he stayed away, he was just like any other boy.  Eyvel gave him the warmest smile she could as she stood. “If we’re going to have this talk, let’s have it somewhere more comfortable, after you’ve cleaned up,” she suggested. She held out her hand, feeling a swell of pride as he accepted it. It was an incredibly gentle touch, as if he didn’t trust himself to put any strength in it, but they could get there. For now, this was enough.

“You can’t tell Finn,” Leif said after he stood, “He’ll blame himself for what happened after Tahra, for not finding me before he could stop anything. And… I don’t want to be even more of a disappointment to him.”

“You’re not.” Finn finally spoke up, after having hovered behind them for several minutes. Leif let go of Eyvel's hand to turn and face Finn. “I’m not disappointed by you. I just… I don’t want you to be like this for the rest of your life. Whatever happened to you, whatever made you like this, I want to know about. Please, Lord Leif, I only want to understand.”

“If I tell you, you can’t blame yourself. Everything that happened to me is my own fault,” Leif said, “I brought this on myself when I chose to run away.”

Eyvel knew how badly Finn wanted to know what happened to Leif, forcing him to nod in acceptance although he clearly disliked Leif's terms. “Very well. I will not hold myself accountable for anything that happened to you after leaving Tahra.”

Finn’s agreement seemed to make the situation real for Leif, expression closing off. He didn’t want to do this. He was dreading this. But Nanna and Asbel walking on either side of him as he headed back to Castle Leonster seemed to ease that dread a bit.

Eyvel took the reins of Nanna’s horse to guide it back as Finn did the same with his, following a short distance behind the trio.

“Dorias and August will want to hear this as well,” Finn said.

“Maybe they should. Might do them some good to see him in a different light,” Eyvel said, “But that’s his decision. We’re making him talk about something he doesn’t even want to think about so he gets to call the shots here. If he does agree to let them listen, I will physically throw either of them out if they make this any harder on him than it already is.”

Finn nodded, gaze stuck on Leif’s tense form with a look that gave away he’d already broken his word. Eyvel was frustrated enough to slap him and sympathetic enough to comfort him. This was going to be a hard conversation for everyone.

Leif agreed to let August and Dorias listen. The two of them, Finn, and Eyvel sat in the council room in silence as they waited for Leif to join them.

The knight from Alster’s report had put Dorias in a somber mood, realizing what Selfina’s disappearance meant. Finn hadn’t seen Glade since returning but he doubted his friend was taking the news any better. It felt as if a dark cloud were hanging over all of Castle Leonster. Even August seemed affected by it, brow furrowed as he stared silently at the table.

When Leif finally arrived, he was followed closely by Nanna and Asbel. Finn doubted they had left his side since returning to the castle. Although she had admitted to being unsure if she wanted to know what happened, Nanna seemed resolved to stay, if only for Leif's sake. She was reminding him more of Lachesis every day.

“Are your arms alright?” Eyvel asked, starting the conversation off on the safest topic she could. Finn had heard Asbel’s frightened cry when Leif was changing but Eyvel had stopped him from rushing in to see what had caused his alarm.

“Yeah,” Leif said, pushing up his sleeves enough for them to see the darkened scars. “This just happens when I use a lot of magic.”

“Trails of blood indeed,” August muttered before raising his voice to speaking level to ask his own question. “What exactly did you do out there?”

“I used most of a Thoron tome at once.”

August paled. “So any mage who knows your method of magic could do that?” When Leif nodded, he looked even more alarmed. “I’m beginning to see why this method isn’t taught anymore.”

“Why would you even try something like that?” Dorias asked.

“I thought it might be able to take out all the soldiers at once," Leif said

“You thought?” Finn repeated, his turn to feel alarmed, “Lord Leif, none of us knew you were there. If that hadn’t worked, you would have had to take them all on by yourself.” Leif had taken out all the knights by himself but he clearly hadn’t been fighting them head on, as he would have had to with the soldiers. Perhaps he could have, but Finn didn't want to think about the gruesome scene that fight would have left behind.

"That's how I'm used to fighting," Leif explained, "Before now, I always fought by myself, outnumbered without anyone coming to help. Taking risks was the only way I could survive and protect everyone else."

"By before now, you mean during your time as the Ghoul," August said, earning himself a glare from Asbel. Finn glanced at Eyvel to see if she had any idea what August was talking about but she looked just as confused as he was.

"The Ghoul?" Dorias asked, looking to Leif for elaboration. Leif didn't meet his eyes as he answered.

"When the Empire realized the same person was attacking the forts and safe houses where they kept the children they'd taken, they decided to give me a name. A ghoul was the closest monster they could think of to compare me to."

"Not unaptly," August added.

Eyvel glared at the former priest. "Out."

"No, he's- he's not wrong," Leif admitted, "I'd break in at night, kill every soldier inside, and go through the corpses for weapons and letters with information on the Empire's plans or any other developments in Thracia. There was nothing I wouldn't do to win a fight and make sure my opponent was dead from collapsing part of the building we were in to biting and clawing them. The only thing I cared about was freeing the children and killing any Empire soldier I could get my hands on and this was the only way I had left to do that."

August frowned, the last part of Leif's statement bothering him as well. "Rumors of the ghoul only started about two, three years ago. Were you fighting... before that?"

Finn silently pleaded for Leif to say no. Thirteen was already too young to be doing this. But Leif silently nodded his head.

"You told me you've been doing this since you found out about the child hunts," Dorias said, sounding hoarse, "How long did that take?"

"Not long," Leif said before finally answering the question Finn was both dreading and desperate to have answered.

Chapter Text

Outside Tahra, 771

It was midday before Leif came across other people. Hearing a group of men talking, he followed their voices to see who it was and perhaps ask for directions to the nearest village. Now he’d gotten away from Tahra, he realized just how poorly prepared he was for being on his own, having nothing more than his mother’s sword and the clothes on his back. Finn had always been the one to handle getting supplies and food when they were on the run so Leif had never spared them a thought until now. Thinking about how little he could do on his own, he felt rather pathetic.

Leif froze when he approached the clearing where the men were and saw they all wore the uniform of House Friege. Were they out here looking for him? If they were, then why were they so far from Tahra? Were they here to prevent anyone from escaping? He hoped he was wrong as he thought of Finn, Asbel, and Nanna.

He was just about to back away and find somewhere to hide until the soldiers went away when he noticed four children huddled behind them. But even odder, all of them were in chains. Chains were supposed to be for prisoners, for people who had done something wrong and were being taken away for punishment. Why would a bunch of children be wearing them?

“Is that a boy?”

Leif quickly turned to see one of the soldiers pointing at him. He’d gotten so caught up looking at the other children, he hadn’t paid any attention to the soldiers. Now that they’d seen him, he couldn’t back away and hide. He could try running but they were more likely faster than him and he already ran all of last night. They hadn’t recognized him but if they came closer, they might. If they did, they’d kill him. He needed to make them stay away from him. Pulling out his mother’s sword, he held it out in front of him and tried to look intimidating.

“Don’t come any closer!” Leif called. He’d never used his mother’s sword before, only using practice swords with the Duke in Tahra and by himself in Frest. This was slightly heavier than both of those but he held it as steadily as he could. All he needed was for them to believe he could use it so they’d leave him alone.

“What’s a boy doing with a sword that fancy?”

“Maybe he’s a noble’s son? Dressed nice enough to be.”

“No noble’s stupid enough to let their child wander off alone unless they really hate ‘em.”

The knight in charge of the group got off his horse and walked past his tittering subordinates, slowly approaching Leif. “You’re rather young to be using a sword like that. You ought to put it away before someone gets hurt,” he said, underlying threat emphasized by the knight putting a hand on his own sword.

“Stay away from me,” Leif warned, starting to panic. He knew the Empire was evil but their soldiers couldn’t be so cruel they’d attack a ten-year-old. But they did have a group of children in chains with them. None of them looked injured but they all looked as terrified as Leif felt.

The knight ignored his warning and kept approaching. “I said stay back!” Leif said, swinging his sword when the knight was within striking distance. He stopped, looking down at the scratch on the back of his glove with irritation. Before Leif could swing again or run away, the knight pulled out his sword and struck Leif’s, knocking it from his hands. His first strike was quickly followed by a second across Leif’s chest, the force bringing him to his knees. It hurt much more than a hit from a practice sword and the cut left behind, although shallow, started to bleed.

“You’ll live, for now. But let’s not have a repeat of this,” the knight said, sheathing his sword before kneeling beside Leif. “Bravery is an admirable trait but useless without the power to back it up. Allow me to demonstrate the power of House Friege to dissuade you from any further attempts at resistance.”  He looped his left hand around Leif’s wrists just as Leif noticed the thunder tome in his right. Before he could try to pull away, the spell hit.

His entire body locked up as the worst pain he’d ever felt coursed through him. He’d opened his mouth but he couldn’t scream. He wasn’t even sure he was breathing. The world turned white as he lost track of everything except the intense sting in his arms. Although the spell lasted less than a second, it felt like an eternity.

Leif barely felt the knight remove his hand, the throbbing in his arms almost as bad as the spell itself. Slowly, his vision cleared and he was greeted by a horrifying sight. Dark red lines were running up his arms, branching out like roots. They weren’t bleeding like the cut on his chest, they looked like they were part of his skin now. He was scared to touch them but he couldn’t look away from them either.

“I think you went a bit too far, Sir.”

“He won’t die from this, but he will behave now,” the knight said, rising as he spoke, “And the Loptyrians don’t mind what condition the children are in. They’re just going to be sacrificed anyway.”

Loptyrians? Sacrificed? This couldn’t be real; they were just trying to scare him. But a few seconds later, a soldier approached him with a set of shackles small enough for a child. He couldn’t help crying out as the knight grabbed his arm to force the shackles on him, the marks left from the spell sending a new surge of pain through him every time they were touched. Once they were on, he led Leif over to the other children, all in similar shackles and all cowering with the same fearful expression. Seeing them up close made the reality of their situation finally hit.

This was real. These soldiers were conducting a child hunt for the Loptyrians. The Loptyrians had returned and all the children here were going to be sacrificed by them. He was going to be sacrificed by them. He had thought he might die trying to escape Tahra but not like this.

Another knight arrived with a wagon and the children were led inside, two soldiers walking behind to prevent any of them from trying to escape. But by now not even Leif was willing to try that. As the wagon began to move, Leif looked back at Tahra, small trails of smoke still rising from the fire the night before. He’d never know if Finn and Nanna made it out or if they met up with Asbel once they did. He knew the Duke was going to die but what about Linoan? Would she disappear like Princess Miranda or would she be killed too? Was this his punishment for bringing the Empire to Tahra? For a moment, he felt like he deserved it.

The wagon headed away from Tahra, deeper into the forest. When they eventually stopped and the children were led out, there was nothing around except trees and an old manor. Were the Loptyrians in here, waiting to sacrifice them? It was frightening to think they were so close to Tahra, in the same woods Finn had taken them through to reach the city. He needed to stop thinking about Finn so much. The more he did, the more he wished the knight was here.

Fortunately, there were no Loptyrians inside. There was no one inside before they entered, at least in the small part Leif saw before they were led down into the cellar. One soldier led them towards a small door across from the stairs and another unlocked their shackles before pushing each of them inside. Leif was the last one to be shoved in and once he had, the door closed behind them, the sound of a key turning in the lock the last sound from the outside they’d hear for a long time.

It was so dark Leif though his vision had gone again. He tried closing his eyes and reopening them but nothing changed. He knew the door was behind him but he couldn’t tell how far away it was or where the walls or other children were. In the brief moment he had seen the room, it looked small but in the dark, it felt massive, as if he could reach out and never touch the walls no matter how far he walked in any direction. Being unable to see anything made the pain in his arms the only thing he could focus on. The pain and disorientation kept his rooted in place, not even daring to sit down until his legs were too sore to keep standing. Even then, he lowered himself to the ground as slowly as he could, keeping his knees pulled into his chest as he sat.

It was hard to tell if his eyes were open or closed. It was even harder to tell when he was awake or asleep. The only thing he had to go on was the sounds the other children made, their sniffling and crying the only sound in the room. Occasionally one of them would start screaming from a nightmare, calling out for their parents to save them or to not be killed by whoever haunted their dreams. But no one talked to each other. There was no point in making friends if they were all going to die and there was nothing they could say to comfort each other.

Eventually the door opened again, the light from the torch outside blinding. But it gave Leif a chance to see the wall and move over to it, avoiding being hit in the head by a stale loaf of bread by doing so. Once the bread was in the cell, the guard closed and locked the door again, his job of feeding the children done as far as he was concerned. There was no way to tell how much time had passed since they were taken so Leif had no idea how long it had been since he’d had something to eat. But the sound of the frenzy as the other children fought over the bread discouraged him from attempting to take some. He would be fine; he was small for his age so he probably didn’t need to eat much anyway.

Apart from a soldier coming to throw stale food in for them, the door never opened. There was nothing to do but try to sleep, something you could only tell you did if you had a nightmare. Leif hadn’t had one yet but his thoughts when he was awake were hardly pleasant. All the stories he’d read about what the Loptyrians did to their victims; burning them alive, flaying them, cutting them open while they were still alive and pulling out their hearts, every horrible death ran through his head along with the thought that would be him soon. That would be everyone in this room soon.

No, he wouldn’t let that happen. He refused to die like this. There had to be some way out, something he could do. Anything was worth trying.

His spot against the wall was close to the door but the soldier who brought them food never came in. If Leif could make him come inside, maybe he’d be able to sneak past him and escape. But how could he lure the soldier inside? If he pretended to be dead, the soldier might just think he’s sleeping and ignore him. He could pretend to faint but then the soldier’s attention would be on him and he wouldn’t be able to sneak out. He didn’t have his sword anymore so he couldn’t attack him. Or maybe he could. Leif reached down and pulled off his shoe. It wouldn’t hurt but it would at least be enough to get his attention. All he had to do was make sure the soldier didn’t know who threw it.

Time seemed to move even more slowly as he waited for the next soldier to come and open the door. While he was waiting, he took off his other shoe as well, so the soldier wouldn’t be able to tell right away he was the one who threw it. Then the soldier would have to come into the room to look at all their feet. He remembered one other child had been barefoot so this wouldn't give him away instantly either.

The next time the door opened, one of the girls had just woken from a nightmare and was still crying loudly.

“Shut it brat,” the soldier snapped, glaring from the doorway. This was the first time any of the soldiers had spoken to them since they arrived. Either from the surprise at this or still disoriented from waking up, the girl turned towards the soldier.

“I-I wanna go home. Pl-please, I’ll b-be good, I pr-promise. I just wanna go ho-ome,” the girl begged.

“I said shut it,” the soldier said, dropping the bag he’d been carrying outside the room before he stalked in to silence her.

This was Leif’s chance. He would have a few seconds to run out and get as far as he could but that was more than he’d expected. But as he stood, he noticed the soldier had his mother’s sword attached to his belt. That sword was the only thing he had left of his family. It was the only thing he had left in the world. As the soldier swung his arm down to slap the girl, Leif lunged for the sword, pulling it out of the scabbard and accidentally slicing the soldier’s arm as he tried to turn to stop him. The soldier let out a cry as he grabbed his arm, giving Leif time to run for the door. He slammed it shut behind him, accidentally kicking the bag of apples open and spilling them across the floor.

The door wasn’t locked so it wouldn’t stop the soldier but it still gave Leif an extra second to get as far away as he could. The stairs were a straight shot from the room so he didn’t have to stop as he ran for them. The sound of swearing as the soldier tripped over the apples let Leif know he was coming. He had just reached the bottom of the stairs and pushed himself to start climbing as fast as he could.

The stairs wound around, making him dizzy as he climbed, but he could make out a light several feet above him. Focusing on that, he made his way up, hoping no one would be on the other side. If there was, he wouldn’t be able to do much but he was not going back in that room. He’d rather be killed right now than become a sacrifice for the Loptyrians.

There was a slightly ajar door at the end of the stairs. Leif pushed it open and ran through, not stopping until he entered the long hallway with windows to his left and paintings to his right. Somehow he’d missed the door to the ground floor and was on a higher one. Unable to escape just yet, he pressed himself into the small space between the corner and doorframe to try and think of how to get away from the soldier. He probably wasn’t faster than him and he couldn’t beat him in a fight. Before he could come up with any other ideas, the soldier entered the hallway.

Leif didn’t move, he didn’t even breathe as the soldier walked past, looking at the windows to see if any had been opened. Slowly, Leif tried to back out of the hallway before the soldier turned around and noticed him. But the soldier caught his movement in the corner of his eye and began to turn. Without thinking, Leif lunged forward, driving his sword up through the man’s chest. He quickly pulled it out and stepped back, the man clutching the wound as he staggered back before falling to the ground.

“Hey, you alright up there? You didn’t answer me when you ran by!” Another soldier’s call echoed up the stairs. When the other soldier didn't reply, the soldier in the staircase would probably come up to check on him. Leif had to get out right now. He ran to the closest window, only to find it was merely decorative. He couldn’t open it but if he could get rid of the glass and metal lattice, he could escape through the opening. He knew his mother’s sword could cast light magic spells but he’d never tried it before. He’d watched Asbel cast spells before but he’d never used magic himself. Asbel talked about being able to sense the magic inside a tome when he held it so Leif tried to do the same as he held his sword out in front of the window. A strange warmth ran through him before a burst of light shot from his sword, sending bits of metal and glass flying outwards.

The thundering of footsteps on the stairs warned of the approaching soldier. He hadn’t broken the window perfectly, bits of jagged metal and glass clinging around the edges of the window but it was good enough to climb through. He wasn’t sure how high up he was but he didn’t remember the manor being that tall. Ignoring any of the jabs to his hands and feet, he climbed on the ledge and jumped out.

He landed on top of more glass and metal but he was outside. He’d made it out of the manor but he hadn’t gotten away yet. The soldier he’d heard running up the stairs had made it to the window and was looking down at him as he got to his feet. The manor was in the middle of a forest so he had plenty of places to hide and think of a plan before the soldier came after him. Choosing the trees to the right, he ran into them, waiting until he was almost out of breath before dropping down to hide behind a large enough tree.

It was late at night so the soldier wouldn’t have been able to see him well as he escaped but he had probably been able to see which direction Leif ran. He wouldn’t be able to hide long and he had no idea where to run. There had to be a village somewhere nearby that the other children had come from but it could be in any direction and going near the road wasn't safe. Thinking about the children back in the cell brought on an overwhelming feeling of guilt. He may have escaped but they were still back in that room. This wasn’t fair. They didn’t deserve to be sacrificed either.

An approaching light made him sink down lower against the trunk of the tree. The soldier was coming towards him but at least he didn’t know where Leif was. Leif didn’t know where the soldier was either but the soldier’s shadow crossing into the torchlight gave him an idea. For a few moments, he had an advantage he could use. Keeping his gaze on the steadily growing shadow, Leif shifted into a crouch. He waited until the soldier was almost at the tree before rising and turning around the corner, thrusting his sword up just as he’d done to the soldier in the mansion. The soldier dropped his torch in surprise as Leif withdrew his sword and watched the soldier fall.

The fire from the torch was starting to spread. Grabbing the soldier’s cloak to try and stamp it out before the entire woods caught, there was a strange thump as something fell from the soldier. As he reached around to find what it was, the light of another torch caught his eye.

“What’s going on over there? Is something wrong?”

Another soldier was making his way towards Leif. Before he could move, his hand landed on a book. It hadn’t been in the torch but it was warm, like holding his hand over a fire. The light of the other soldier’s torch swept over him and he threw his other hand up at the soldier. To the surprise of both of them, a burst of fire magic hit the soldier in the chest, knocking him down.

Leif stared at his outstretched hand. He’d just used magic. He’d always wanted to try but the one time he asked, he’d been told it was unlikely he’d be able to and it would be better to learn swordplay since he already had his mother’s sword. But he’d just done it without meaning to. Maybe he’d connected the feeling of the tome with what Asbel had said about sensing magic unconsciously but he certainly hadn’t cast the spell on purpose.

A groan from the soldier brought Leif’s attention back. Picking up the tome, he slowly approached. Holding out his hand, he tried to cast another spell, focusing on pulling that warm feeling from the tome out to send at the soldier. The soldier let out a cry as the second spell hit, falling silent and motionless once it ended. It wasn’t a fluke. He could do magic. It felt strange to be excited about something after the past however many days.

But they were over, he was out. There were no more torches around so the other soldiers either didn’t know he escaped or were looking in the wrong place. With no one else chasing him, if he kept going all night, he should be able to get far enough away for them to not be able to find him if they went looking in the morning.

But what about the other children? He didn’t know where the nearest village was to ask for help. Even if he did, the Loptyrians could come while he was gone. They weren’t here now but they would come eventually. If the others were going to be free as well, they had to be freed now. But no one was coming. Most likely, no one knew they were here.

He’d freed himself, so why couldn’t he free them as well?

Returning to the soldier he’d taken the fire tome from, Leif picked up his sword then paused. He wasn’t as good with a sword as the soldiers, trying to fight them head on would only end up with him being hurt again or possibly even killed this time. If he wanted to get himself and the other children out of here alive, he had to be smarter about how he handled this.

He was weaker, so he should avoid fighting as much as he could. He wasn’t sure how many soldiers there were but there was only one of him and four other children he needed to protect, he couldn’t let himself be cornered or outnumbered. He needed to be fast, getting everyone out before the soldiers realized what was going on and stopped him. Maybe he should have more of a plan than this but it was good enough for now.

Staying just within the tree line, Leif hurried back to the mansion, keeping an eye out for any torches of approaching soldiers. Once he’d almost reached the end, he crouched down among the undergrowth to check for any soldiers outside or by the windows who might see him as he ran for the door. After seeing no one and checking several more times just to be sure, he sprinted for the main entrance. He paused under the arch for a moment to check behind him before reaching for the handle. Cautiously, he pushed the door in enough to peek inside. From what he could see it was empty. Still, he only opened it enough to slip inside before closing it as quietly as possible and dashing down the hall to the stairs to the cellar.

He started descending the staircase only to realize if there was anyone down there, they would see him before he saw them. They could block him from reaching the bottom and trap him on the staircase. But he wouldn’t be trapped, he could use magic and they didn’t know that. Maybe he could be the one to trap them. As long as there weren’t too many, he could do this. Probably.

Once he was near the bottom, Leif peeked around the corner of the stairs to see how many soldiers were down there. There were two on either side of the room, both looking exhausted and bored. That changed when one looked up and saw him watching them.

“The little bastard came back!” he said, nudging his companion before charging at Leif, companion quick to follow suit. Neither had drawn their weapons but they likely thought they didn’t need to. He had been taken down easily when they captured him.

Leif backed up a few steps so they’d have to come onto the staircase. As soon as both were on, he swung his mother’s sword out, trying to think of the same warmth he’d felt the first time he used it. A burst of light magic hit the soldier in the chest, stumbling back into his partner. His partner just managed to keep the first soldier from falling on him but while he was steading him, Leif switched to the fire tome and cast a spell at both of them. The soldier didn’t manage to hold back his partner this time and the two fell at the bottom of the stairs.

While the first was at least unconscious, the second was just being crushed. As he pushed the other soldier off of him, Leif hurried down the stairs, sword in hand again. He reached the foot of the stairs just as the soldier sat up. Leif thrust his sword forward like a lance, shoving it through the soldier’s chest. He gave Leif a horrified look as he fell back down to the ground.

Stepping around the body, Leif ran for the room. It opened when he pulled the handle, to both his relief and surprise. The four children inside cowered until one of them looked up and saw who had opened the door.

“You came back!?” the boy said, the other children turning to look.

“We’re all getting out of here,” Leif said, trying to sound more confident than he felt. It didn’t help that his voice was hoarse from not being used in so long.

“One of the soldiers said he’d beat us if we left,” one of the girls said nervously.

“He won’t. None of them will touch us ever again,” Leif promised, words coming out stronger this time. They were at least enough to convince the children to get up and follow him.

Leif went first as they went up the stairs, fire tome clutched to his chest the entire time. But their climb was thankfully uninterrupted and they made it to the ground floor entrance to the staircase without being seen. After making sure there was no one in the foyer, Leif motioned for the other children to join him. Once they were out, he closed the staircase door, his arms catching his eye as he did. The marks on them had stopped hurting a while ago and they weren’t as dark as before but they still made him sick to look at. The knight who'd done it had been so calm about it, Leif wouldn't be surprised if he'd done it before. He thought there had to be some limit to the Empire’s evil but apparently, there was nothing they weren’t above doing. He’d never hated anything as much as he hated the Empire right now.

Leif stepped away from the door. Then he set it on fire.

“Come on,” Leif said, urging the other children towards the front entrance. As they escaped, he sent a fire spell down the other hall, not caring what it hit as long as something burned. He cast another at the bottom of the main staircase then one at the carpet in front of the main entrance just before escaping, slamming the door shut behind himself.

The other children were huddled together several feet away from the manor as they watched the flames spreading through the windows. It was entrancing, watching as this horrible place burned. Who knew how many children had been kept here in that miserable room but they would be the last. The thought made watching the fire grow even more satisfying.

Their attention was drawn away by a sudden thud as a soldier jumped through the window Leif had broken, coughing as he landed on his front. He managed to push himself up to his knees as Leif approached. When he looked up, his expression twisted to one of fear, opening his mouth to say something but never getting the chance as Leif swung his sword at the soldier’s neck. He fell to the side, cut not enough to take his head off but deep enough he wouldn't get back up, blood already pooling around his head.

Leif turned back to the other children who all looked terrified now as well. He tried not to let it bother him. “Do any of you know how where the nearest village is?” he asked.

It took a minute but one of the girls nodded and began leading the way. The other three stayed close to her as if trying to keep as much space as they could between themselves and Leif. He couldn’t blame them for that. They had just watched him kill a man.

He’d killed a man. He’d killed six men tonight, maybe more if there were other soldiers inside the manor when he set it on fire. He hadn’t even considered that; he hadn’t thought about the fact he was killing people until now. Killing people was wrong unless it was in battle or self-defense as a last resort. Could you call this self-defense? Most of the men weren’t armed when he killed them and he attacked first. But that was the only way he’d survived and been able to free the other children as well. He couldn’t take the soldiers in a fair fight and if he hadn’t fought, he’d still be locked in that room, waiting to become a sacrifice. Maybe what he’d done was wrong but it didn’t feel that way to him. Did that make him a bad person?

Morning was breaking by the time they made it to the children’s village, each running off towards their respective homes. A woman getting water from the well watched with dumbfounded shock before making a beeline for Leif, still hovering just outside of town.

“Has this happened before?” Leif asked when she stopped a few feet from him. He could feel her staring at his arms and had to fight the urge to hide them behind his back. This was going to be happening a lot now. Either he’d have to get used to it or only wear long sleeves from now on.

The woman huffed. “Where’ve you been living?” she asked, “The child hunts have been going on for far too long now.”

“Then why hasn’t anyone done anything?” he asked. She gave him another suspicious look, making him feel both nervous and embarrassed. How much did he not know about what was going on in his own country?

“None of us like this but we don’t want to die either,” the woman explained, “The Loptyr Cult has a use for the children, they don’t for the rest of us. You’d have to have a death wish and hate your family and friends to even talk about opposing the child hunts.”

Were things this bad everywhere? Why hadn’t anyone told him about this? He was a prince, he was supposed to end the people's suffering by taking back Leonster and unifying Thracia but he didn’t even know what the Empire was doing to the people, how much they'd suffered and lost while he'd been hiding. How could he be a good prince if he didn’t understand his people’s pain?

“Um,” the woman interrupted his thoughts, pointing under her eye, “You have a… piece of…”

Leif reached up and felt something under his right eye. Carefully as he could, he pulled it out and stared at the piece of glass in his palm. The half that had been in his cheek was stained with blood, the other innocently clear.

He didn’t want to hide anymore, he couldn’t. He had nowhere to go and no one to protect him. He would be the one doing the protecting now. The people couldn’t oppose the child hunts or they'd risk not only their own lives but the lives of their loved ones as well. But Leif would only be risking his own life, the only one who’d be punished if he failed was himself. That was fine with him. Besides, protecting the people was the highest duty of a ruler. Putting his life in danger to free the children taken in the child hunts was what any good prince would do. This was what he should do and what he wanted to do. He refused to run away anymore. It was time he started fighting back.

But how? The scars on his arm reminded him how disastrously trying to take on Empire soldier head on had gone. He wasn’t strong enough to do that, not yet. But the soldiers knew that as well. They didn’t see him as a threat. Every soldier he’d killed had been by taking them by surprise or tricking them. If he was going to have any chance of succeeding, that was how he had to fight. And there was only one way he could do that.

He had to be taken again.

"You let yourself be taken!?"

Finn sounded angry. Leif continued to stare at the table. Looking at it had made recounting the first time he was captured easier to talk about. He also didn't want to see their disgust and anger at hearing how quickly he'd turned to the underhanded fighting they disapproved of and how little he regretted doing so, both then and now.

"I'd escaped once, I figured I could do it again, as many times as I could until I was out of the age range for them to take me," Leif explained.

"How many was that?" Eyvel asked.

"Fifty-two," Finn correctly guessed, sounding horrified as he realized what Leif had stopped Sara from saying in the forest. Leif nodded.

"Little Leif... You got really lucky that first time," Eyvel said, also sounding disturbed.

"I know," Leif agreed, "But now I knew what to expect so I wouldn't have to rely on luck too much. I knew they wouldn't search me so I could sneak in small weapons, knives and wind tomes, lock picks once I started using them. They would underestimate me and think they could recapture me easily so many wouldn't even draw their weapon. They'd also avoid killing me for as long as they could."

"You mentioned to Olwen the only thing that mattered was the children were alive but the soldiers could do anything else to the children," August recalled, "What did they do?"

"Whatever they wanted." Eyvel would be willing to let his answer go but not Finn. As much as he hated doing this, he had to say more. "Most would only hit or kick us if we cried in front of them, tried to talk to them, or didn't like the way we looked at them. They'd be a bit rougher if you tried to interfere but it distracted them from their original target. Some... were worse. They either wanted to make you cry or would be encouraged to keep going when you did. You couldn't tell which they were until they'd knocked you around a bit so it was safest to not react until you saw how they did."

"Was this the advice you gave the other children?"

"They were already scared and miserable, it was easier to just take it myself. I was usually their target anyway," Leif said, remembering the sneers and vicious stares that warned of what was about to come. He's already damaged goods, what does it matter if we rough him up a bit more?

"Why would you do this to yourself?" Dorias asked, "The way the soldiers treated you, how you described that room, why would you want to go back to that?"

"I didn't. I hated every minute of it. As soon as I was strong enough to fight another way, I did. But until then, this was the only way I could fight back."

"You shouldn't have been fighting at all," Finn said, "You were a child. Every one of those soldiers was stronger than you and you barely knew what you were doing! This was more than reckless, it's the worst thing you could have done!"

"I could have died, if I did nothing the other children would," Leif said, finally looking up at Finn. It was easier to argue than to keep talking about what it had been like. "No one else could do anything or they'd risk bringing the Empire's wrath on everyone around them. All I was risking was my own life. I know you think that's wrong but I don't. I'd do it again, I'll do anything I can to stop the child hunts and weaken the Empire. I don't care what it costs me."

"You should," Dorias said, "You're the heir to House Leonster, the only male heir in all of Northern Thracia. Your country needs you to live if it's to have any chance of being restored."

"The people are the most important part of the country, protecting them comes before everything else. Rulers can be replaced. My grandfather was, Bloom will be. But people's lives can't be," Leif argued, "And I gave up on being a prince after I learned the truth about House Leonster."

"What do you mean by that?"

"When I learned about how my family treated the Southern Thracians, how they contributed to and ignored their suffering, I didn't want to be any part of that," Leif explained, "I gave up any thoughts I had about retaking Leonster and accepted this was what my life would be from now on, fighting the child hunts and Empire until they were gone. If I had to be a monster, I'd rather be one to the Empire than the Southern Thracians."

"Your father wasn't a monster and neither are you," Finn argued.

"My father and Travant wanted to do the same thing but Travant's the only one looked down on for it. Why is he the aggressive invader when my father did the same to the country he'd already been oppressing? How do you think the Southern Thracians saw him, the man whose family was already preventing them from getting food now wanting to take over their land and be their king?"

August gave him a curious look, leaning forward. "Why are you looking at this from the people of Southern Thracia's perspective?"

"The people's perspective is the most important, they're the ones who pay for any decision a ruler makes. How can you protect and do what's best for them if you don't consider it?"

"For someone who claims to have given up on being a ruler, you certainly don't speak like it."

Leif blinked. "I-," he tried to respond but didn't know what to say. After killing Largo and his men, he stopped thinking of himself as a prince and embraced the Empire's view of him as a monster. But besides now hating House Leonster, nothing else about his way of thinking had changed. It wasn't intentional, it was just the perspective that made the most sense.

August was staring at him intensely now, something on his mind he wasn't saying. "You've mentioned quite a lot how you hate seeing people suffer yet you kill so violently. Does that not apply to your enemies?"

"It applies to everyone," Leif said, "I try to kill as quickly as I can but I have to be sure they're dead, that they won't get back up and try to kill me when my back is turned. The worse condition they're in, the less likely that is to happen."

"But you didn't-" August paused, "That lance scar through your chest."

Leif glanced down at where the scar was. "One of the soldiers I thought I'd killed came up behind me and tried to stab me through the heart. He missed, but it was close enough to scare me. I turned around and cut his throat, but when he didn't fall right away, it scared me even more. This time when I stabbed him, I cut him open so his insides would fall out. It killed him but now I was afraid any of the other soldiers could still be alive and would try to kill me as this soldier had. I cut open every soldier I'd already killed that night to make sure they were truly dead. They were but I felt safer after doing this. So I started doing it whenever I killed someone. Maybe it's excessive but no one was looking out for me. I had to protect myself however I could."

"If you wanted to protect yourself, you shouldn't have gone anywhere near another Empire soldier after you escaped," Finn said.

"I protected myself in order to protect the other children. Their safety came first but I couldn't do anything if I was dead," Leif reasoned, "You were the same with me."

"Because you're my ward, protecting you is my responsibility. I was also an adult who could protect myself without having to resort to such drastic measures and knew better than to put myself in unnecessary danger to begin with!" Finn said, "I never should have let you leave my side that night."

"You said you wouldn't blame yourself!"

"How can I not after hearing what happened? You never should have been taken in the child hunts, you never should have been so scared for your life you thought you had to mutilate everyone you killed! You shouldn't have been killing anyone at all!"

"You shouldn't have been hiding this from me! I should have known what was going on in Thracia, just like I should have known about my father!"

"That's enough, both of you," Eyvel warned.

"No, let them go on," August said, glancing between the two with detached curiosity.

Permission from one of his advisors was enough for Leif and he continued. "If you had come anywhere near me that night, I would have run as far away from you as I could. You fought for me, protected me, let Lachesis leave and left everyone else behind because of me. The only thing you hadn't done was give your life for me and I refuse to let that happen. I know you only did all of that because it was your obligation but you were still the best thing I had. All my life, you were always there for me. I didn't have a home or family but I always had you. I'd rather never see you again than watch you sacrifice anything else for me."

Finn looked so startled, Leif started to regret what he'd said. He was only Prince Quan's son to Finn but Finn had never been just a knight to him. He had been Leif's favorite person growing up and even now, his opinion mattered more than anyone else's.

"Lord Leif..." Finn stopped, looking unsure how to continue. Leif shouldn't have said what he did, he should have just stopped and left when Eyvel scolded them. But as soon as Leif looked away, Finn went on. "You have your home back now. And you still have family. Your cousin, Lord Seliph-"

"Finn," Eyvel interrupted, sounding strangely exhausted. Finn was silent for a moment before trying again.

"You're not an obligation. You're... my lord." Finn said, sounding as if he was still forming his thoughts as he said them, "I didn't pledge myself to you because you're Lord Quan's son. I did it because... I wanted to. I want to support and aid you, to help you realize your vision for Northern Thracia. I have faith you'll rule it well."

"How can you say that after how I spent the last five years? Aren't you angry with me?" Leif asked.

"I am, I'm furious. You never should have taken the risks you did and you will never do anything that dangerous with your life ever again. It doesn't matter how well you can protect yourself now, your death is the worst thing that could happen to Thracia," Finn said, "But August was right, you don't act as if you've given up on ruling."

"After Tahra, I started trying to be a good prince," Leif admitted, "But it hasn't been going well."

"You've made it obvious why tonight," August said, "With this and the development in Alster, Dorias and I have a lot to discuss... Eyvel as well."

"You want me to join you?" Eyvel asked suspiciously.

"No," August said, with a look of distaste, "But unfortunately we need you to. And after your little stunt in the throne room, I doubt you'd let us have this discussion without you."

The mention of the throne room reminded Leif of his latest concern. "What happened to me in the throne room? Why did I pass out?"

"You didn't. I used a Sleep Staff on you before you completely lost your mind and hurt someone," August explained.

"Oh." So there wasn't something else wrong with him. There was still the poison but that could have been an accident. Maybe the tome was used up or the dark mage had somehow missed. People didn't just become immune to poison and he'd been poisoned plenty of times before, even as recently as back in Tahra-

Leif turned back to Nanna and Asbel. "Can you help me with something?"

"Of course!" Asbel agreed without hesitation. Nanna nodded as well.

"It's rather late, you three should get some sleep," Eyvel advised.

"Not after this." Even if he wanted to, Leif doubted he'd be able to. Eyvel seemed to realize this as her expression softened sympathetically.

"Just don't stay up all night." Leif nodded and led Nanna and Asbel out of the room.

"What did you want us to help you with?" Asbel asked.

Leif waited until the door was closed before answering. "There's something I want to try. Do you know if there's any poison in the castle?"

Asbel looked oddly excited by his question. "I've got somethin' I wanna try too. I gotta grab somethin' then I'll meet you in the kitchen. We're gonna need a lotta cups of water."

Chapter Text

“How many books did you take from the monastery?” Nanna asked, eyeing the bag Asbel was struggling to carry.

“Only seven,” he said, dropping the bag with a loud thud. “Lord Leif said after ev’rything we’d come back an’ I could have any of the books I wanted so I thought it’d be fine if I took a few now. There’s lotsa stuff in ‘em that could really help us!” After rummaging around in his bag for a bit, Asbel pulled out a large dark grey book and set it on the opposite end of the table as the cups.

As Asbel flipped through, Leif came around to the other side of the table, looking down curiously at the book despite the pages being upside down to him. Nanna couldn’t help being reminded of all the times Leif and Asbel had snuck books into their room to stay up and read together back in Frest. They probably did the same in Tahra. It would have been easier to get away with it as well, given the much larger size of the mansion.

“There’s a buncha spells in here, from simple stuff like ward spells to castin’ enchantments like the one on the ring you gave me,” Asbel explained.

“Why would we need this to make poison? If we wanted a poison spell, couldn’t we just use a Jormungand tome?” Nanna asked.

Asbel shook his head. “This isn’t for castin’ a poison spell, it’s for makin’ the poison people put on their weapons,” he explained, “Ever notice how if you take a poison weapon, by the time you try ‘nd use it, it’s not poisoned anymore? That’s ‘cause the poison used on weapons is made through a status magic spell so it’ll wear off like those do.”

“Status magic?” Nanna repeated, unfamiliar with the term.

“Callin’ the magic from a Silence or Berserk Staff healing magic doesn’t feel right, seein' as it's not healin' you. So I'm callin' it status magic,” Asbel said. He stopped turning the pages, ending on one with a picture of an axe with a purple glow around it. Leif leaned in closer to read the paragraph Asbel was pointing to. “The spell makes the water thicker so if we mess it up, we’ll hafta use a different cup while we wait for it to wear off.”

“We don’t all have to try this,” Leif said, “I only need a little.”

“Well I wanna try this an’ so do you,” Asbel said, glancing at Nanna to see what her opinion was. While she wasn’t as interested in this as either of them, she had a feeling she knew what Asbel was trying to do and was more than willing to go along.

“It would be useful to know,” she said. Asbel slid the book closer to her to let her read the directions for the spell as well. It was simple enough but she’d never tried anything like this before. She handed a cup to Asbel and took one for herself as Leif did the same, each of them placing their hands on either side of their cups as they concentrated on casting the spell.

It wasn’t as simple as the book made it seem. The water in Nanna’s cup did condense slightly and Asbel and Leif’s were a very light purple but none of their attempts looked like how the book described it. Nanna passed down two more cups before taking another for herself as they tried again. It felt odd doing magic without a staff or sword. Both of those already contained magic and all she had to do was direct it out. But this magic she had to create herself, use what little affinity she had for magic. Maybe that’s why Asbel and Leif’s attempts were turning out better than hers, they had enough to do actual magic.

She shook her head. Self-pity would get her nowhere. Asbel had said this was status magic so she could do just as well as they could. They were just more used to using magic this way than she was. Taking a cup for her third attempt, she tried to remember everything Asbel had said about pulling from magic affinity as she cast the spell again. The water turned lavender as it condensed this time. Not perfect but much closer.

“How’re we gonna know if we got it right?” Asbel asked, looking down at the violet substance in his cup. Leif pulled out a knife Nanna hadn’t seen him take then frowned at it.

“We’ll have to test it but it can’t be on Nanna or me,” he said.

Asbel frowned as well before quickly perking up in excitement. “Is this what you wanted to test? Do you think it’s gonna work differently on you? But you’d hafta have a reason t’ think that… Did somethin’ happen with the dark bishop out in the field?”

Leif hesitated for a moment before nodding. “His poison spell didn’t work on me,” he admitted. Asbel’s mouth dropped before he eagerly stuck out his hand for the knife. Leif glanced at Nanna, waiting until she pulled out her restore staff before reluctantly putting the knife on the table. Asbel had to push himself onto the tips of his toes to reach across and grab it, too eager to try this to realize it would have been easier to walk around the table.

They all watched closely as Asbel dipped the blade in his cup. After letting it soak for a few seconds, he pulled it out and let it hover a few inches above the rim as the excess poison dripped off. The dull purple tinge left on the blade was a promising sign and as carefully as he could, Asbel made a quick slice across the back of his hand. They waited in silence for several moments before Asbel made a soft sound of discomfort and Nanna immediately restored him. As she did, Leif took the knife and cut the back of his hand.

“Why don’t you think it will work on me?” Nanna asked, “I’ve been poisoned before.”

“Have you been since Tahra?” Leif asked.

“No...” Nanna said, pausing for a moment to try and figure out where Leif was going with this. “The Schwarze Rosen’s spell… You think being exposed to that made us immune?”

“They were surrounded by it as well and it didn’t affect them. They can walk through it for hours and be fine. Maybe this is how they gained their immunity,” Leif reasoned, “When August checked us the day after, he only looked for negative effects. No one considered being exposed may have done something good to us.”

“Then if we did the same thing next time we fight the Schwarze Rosen, more of us could become immune too!” Asbel said excitedly.

Leif shook his head. “We were only trying to stall them and we barely held them back last time. There are only four of us who can use light magic, five once Linoan is with us, six if we’ve met up with Ced by then. The Schwarze Rosen knows we can counter this spell so they’ll either modify it or won’t use it next time we fight them. If they’re indoors this time, probably the latter. Unless they’re the only ones inside and are warned we’re coming in advance, then they could start the spell before we arrive so we’re hit with the spell’s effects as soon as we open the doors. If they also had soldiers hiding outside, that would be a good way to trap us, anyone by the open doors succumbing to the spell and soldier attacking from behind preventing anyone in the back from running away. It’d be a quick, effective slaughter.”

The color from Asbel’s face drained as Leif calmly explained this to them. Seeing how he’d frightened his friend, Leif turned away, looking at the floor as he apologized. “Sorry. It’s not likely, just the worst situation I could think of.”

“Even if it’s not likely, we should still know about it,” Nanna said, “The Loptyrians approach to fighting is different from what most of Jugdral is familiar with and they know more than us. If we’re going to win, we’ll need to be careful about how we handle them.”

“Why do they know more?” Asbel asked, looking down at his bag of books, “Not all this stuff’s dangerous an’ most of it’s not even about Loptous or the Loptyr Cult. It’s like someone didn’t want people to use magic any other way than their way.”

“Maybe they did,” Leif suggested, lifting his head to look at the book on the table. “According to Salem, the members of the Loptyr Cult who hid under the Yied Shrine weren’t devout to Loptous like they are now. All of those followers were killed trying to protect Galle or trying to strike back after he was killed to avenge Loptous. The ones who hid only agreed with the belief Loptous was superior to humans and served out of respect and in admittance of inferiority. Once the Loptyrian Empire was being wiped out, they were persecuted and burned at the stake so those left went into hiding. Maybe they knew more than just the Empire would be destroyed and that’s why they took all these books with them.”

“Then was it the Crusaders who wanted this hidden? But why?” Nanna asked, “Salem said common magic existed before the Loptyrian Empire.”

“Maybe ‘cause of how they used it?” Asbel suggested, “If it’s used like Salem talked ‘bout it’s fine, but maybe the Loptyrians were the first to turn it around, try makin’ bigger spells like Lord Leif did today. They hid the technique the Schwarze Rosen uses for a similar reason. Usin’ magic this way also makes fights harder to predict. Mages don’t hafta have their tome out an’ their spell can be any size. We got a lotta advantages over whoever we’re fightin’ when we use magic like this.”

“That’s probably part of it as well. This method of magic isn’t as fair as the one that’s taught,” Leif said, “It’s not honorable.”

“Fuck being honorable!” Asbel’s sudden exclamation startled both of them. “Why do we gotta fight a certain way when that way’s stupid? If we got advantages fightin' another way, we should fight that way 'nstead! We’re fightin’ to save Thracia, why shouldn’t we do ev’rything we can to win? The Empire an’ Loptyrians do, so why can’t we?”

“Because we’re supposed to be better than them,” Leif said bitterly, “Or at least it helps us believe we are.”

Even though she had a good idea of what he meant, Nanna asked to try and provoke a reaction. “What do you mean? We are better than them. We don’t hunt children or kill civilians.”

It worked as he scowled, anger becoming more visible the longer he spoke. “But how many of those soldiers actually want to be doing that? How many are just cowards like Fred or being forced to fight like Dalshin or Xavier? How many are like Amalda and Brighton, opposed to their orders but won’t defect until a group they believe stands a chance comes along? What about the Loptyrians? They only became like this because they were so desperate for freedom they believed only Loptous’ return could save them! Salem wasn’t like that and who knows if there are more Loptyrians like him. How can killing people like this be a good thing? How can killing people who don’t deserve it be honorable?”

“They’re supporting the side that’s doing these evil deeds, whether it’s willingly or not doesn’t matter. Killing them is honorable because they’re part of something evil, even if they themselves aren’t,” Nanna reasoned, knowing this would only anger Leif further.

“But it’s not their fault! They shouldn’t have to die just because the people with power over them are bastards,” Leif argued.

“You’re right,” Nanna agreed. Leif’s anger disappeared into a blank expression as he stared back at her, confused by what was going on. “We aren't instantly in the right or good people just because our cause is. But as long as we don't lower ourselves to depravity and cruelty, that shouldn't matter. The only thing that matters is ending the truly evil things and people causing this and protecting everyone else from them. Asbel’s right, we shouldn't hold ourselves back, we should do everything we can to win.”

“I… I agree but Finn and Dorias don’t,” Leif said. Nanna tried not to smile at how well this was working. At least, she hoped this would work the way she wanted. She never wanted to come as close to losing him as she had in the field.

“They want you to be like your father. Is that what you want?” Nanna asked. From the surprised look Asbel gave her, he’d either picked up on what she was doing or had no idea and was worried about Leif’s reaction.

Leif’s frown returned, although there was a surprising lack of anger to it. “He may have been a bastard to Southern Thracia but that doesn’t mean he was a bad prince to Northern Thracia. There has to be some reason so many people still think so highly of him.”

Nanna wasn’t expecting that answer but thankfully Asbel jumped in. “But don’t you hate ‘im? Why would you think there’d be anythin’ good about ‘im?”

Now there was anger to Leif’s expression, although it was more irritation than anything else. “I don’t want to but that keeps happening. The more I understand about something I hate, the less angry I can be at it. I grew up believing Travant was a monster I needed to kill to get revenge for my parents and sister's deaths but once I understood why he did everything, I still hated him but I didn't want him dead. After talking with Salem, I can't hate the Loptyr Cult as much as I did before either. They're responsible for the child hunts and I feel sorry for them! I wish I could just hate them like everyone else but I can't. Maybe that's just part of being horrible as well."

“You’re not horrible,” Asbel and Nanna said at the same time, startling Leif into grabbing the knife again. Before Asbel could speak again, Nanna continued, wanting to direct the conversation back the way she’d intended. “It’s like you pointed out, there are very few truly evil people, most are just in horrible situations. You may hate empathizing with them but I like that you do, that you’re willing to give a chance to the people you were told to hate. Your time alone was awful and I wish it hadn’t happened, but at least something good came from it. Just like something good came from our encounter with the Schwarze Rosen.”

The reminder of the poisoned cut made Leif look down at his hand. There was no purple tinge to the cut and it was long past when he should have started showing symptoms. Nanna walked around Asbel and held out her hand for the knife. Leif offered her the hilt and she took it, making a quick cut along the back of her right hand. Leif tilted his head curiously but refrained from asking why she hadn’t used her dominant hand.

“Maybe your father was a good prince but he didn’t have to deal with everything you do. It’s not fair or reasonable to expect you to be the same. You shouldn’t have to try and be. I don’t want you to be… I like you as Leif.”

This was the first time she hadn’t used his title but he didn’t mind when Tanya and Eyvel didn’t and she hoped it would help her point hit harder. He didn’t seem to mind but she wasn't sure if it had the effect she wanted as he stared blankly at her.

“I just told you I’ve been killing men since I was ten. How can you still like me after that?” Leif asked. It was disturbing to think about but thinking about it made Nanna sad more than anything else. She agreed with her father, Leif never should have let himself be taken again, but she knew as soon as he escaped the first time he’d do it again. That’s just who Leif was. She hated it just as much as she admired it.

“Why would we stop likin’ you for savin’ children?” Asbel asked. Guessing what Leif was going to say next, he cut him off to continue. “I don’t think ‘bout the Empire soldiers like you. Hunting children’s a good enough reason to kill 'em for me. When you talked to the soldiers in Melgln, givin’ them a chance after everythin’, I couldn’t think of another person that’d do that. That’s why I went lookin’ for you as soon as I got outta Tahra an’ why I wanna stay by your side.”

“I was only able to do it because you were at my side,” Leif said, “You said you want to be my strength but you already are. You’re the reason I’m here now and less of a monster than I was when you found me.”

Asbel turned bright red, unable to meet Leif’s eyes anymore. “You weren’t a monster, just kinda scary and really angry. But even then you kept protectin' me.”

“I’ll always protect you. I promised.” Asbel looked up at him, face still red but smiling fondly.

“You told me t' forget that.”

“I treated you awfully back then. I’m sorry.”

A sudden lightheadedness hit Nanna. She gripped the table as she waited for it to pass, staring down at the cut on her hand. There was no purple tinge to it and this didn’t feel like when she had been poisoned in the past. It was less intense and hit later than it should have. But as the warmth of the restore staff enveloped her, the feeling quickly dissipated. Once it ended, she lifted her head to find Leif and Asbel both staring at her with concern.

“It seems like I’m not completely immune,” she said, “But high tolerance isn’t bad.”

“How high d’ya think it is? Enough bein’ poisoned once won’t kill you or will it just take longer to?” Asbel asked.

“I’d rather not test that,” Nanna said, although she was a bit curious herself. Someone had to be the responsible one and it certainly wasn’t going to be either of them.

“You’re probably not completely immune because you weren’t exposed to as much,” Leif reasoned, “So Eyvel should be the same as you and Homer and Linoan should be immune like me.”

“Then we have more good news to send to Tahra,” Nanna said, unable to help smiling a little. She wasn’t as close to Linoan as she was to Mareeta or Asbel but they had still been friends for the two years they stayed in Tahra. After hearing hints of what she’d suffered since then, Nanna wanted as many good things as possible to happen to her. She hoped Arion was one but she’d seen how Linoan looked at the Dracoknight who died. It was the same way Fred and Olwen looked at each other when they thought no one else could see.

The mention of Tahra must have reminded Leif of Alster as his expression sobered, staring blankly at the table. Before his thoughts could spiral too deep, she placed her hand on the table, close enough to make him instinctively flinch back. But it drew him from his thoughts, albeit with a look of shame.

“We’ll find Selfina and Princess Miranda,” Nanna promised, “We’ll tell Lady Linoan and Prince Arion that we want to take Alster as soon as possible, before Bloom can recover from the rebellion. I know the plan was to wait and gather information on the city’s defenses before our joint attack but that doesn’t seem feasible with the current state of Alster.”

Leif nodded but still looked guilty. “I should have gone. I owed it to Queen Ethnia for sheltering me, Miranda for all she suffered because of me, and the people for bringing the Empire to Alster. But I failed all of them again.”

“If you had gone, how would that look to Prince Arion?” Nanna asked, “Even if the rebellion succeeded, going against your agreement would make it seem as if you didn’t trust him. He may even think we don’t need Southern Thracia’s help and withdraw his men.”

Leif took a moment to consider what she’d said. “Was there really nothing I could do?” When Nanna shook her head, his shoulders slumped. “I acted like a selfish child back in the throne room.”

She hadn't been there and her father and Eyvel both looked so serious and distressed that evening, Nanna hadn't asked either what had happened. But from what August had said about why he used his Sleep Staff on Leif, she had a good guess. This time she moved her hand only slightly closer to his, letting him decide if he wanted to take it. After hesitating for a moment, he accepted, touch just as gentle as before.

“You do help," Leif said, "You make things clearer, better. You're... safe. With you, I know I'm safe."

Nanna tried to keep her expression composed as Leif finally elaborated on what he'd said in Tahra but she felt her cheeks warm. At least it wasn’t too noticeable as Leif made no comment on it as he faced them again. Or maybe he was just too distracted by whatever thought had led to his determined look.

“There was nothing I could do about Alster this time, but I can ensure there will never be a next time. I need to take responsibility for my failures, starting with ending Bloom's tyranny. I won't let my people suffer under the Empire anymore. I'll kill Bloom and Raydrik and anyone the Empire sends to reclaim Thracia. None of them will even make it past Mel-”

Leif’s sudden pause would have worried her if it wasn’t for the look in his eye, the same one he had after he tore up the Baldr scroll.

“Once Thracia is liberated... What if we extended our blockade? What if we took control of the Yied Desert and used that to keep the Empire out?” Leif suggested, “The desert is already hard to cross, adding staff traps will only make it worse. Pegasi are only in Silesse and wyverns in Southern Thracia so we’ll have control of the skies as well. There's only one castle we'd have to take as well, which is on the way to Silesse.”

“If we help Sir Ced take back Silesse, then Isaach’ll be the only country on this side of the desert left under the Empire’s control an’ they won’t be able to get reinforcements,” Asbel added excitedly, “An’ Homer said Prince Shannan was leadin’ his own rebellion so we got allies there too!”

“If all three kingdoms are liberated, together we should be enough to oppose the Empire,” Nanna said, her own excitement growing as she followed their line of thought.

“We won’t just oppose it, we’ll destroy it,” Leif said, “And if Loptous has returned, we'll kill him for good this time so there will never be another child hunt ever again."

It was a daunting idea but a tempting one as well. The Empire made the lives of everyone she loved miserable and after hearing what Leif had gone through because of them, nothing sounded sweeter than the Empire’s destruction and nothing felt more right than helping Leif tear it down.

“But how're we gonna kill Loptous?” Asbel asked. “How d’ya kill a dragon?”

“Galle’s journal might have something about that,” Leif said. “Salem did say there was a lot in it about dragons. If it’s not in my room, it should be in Eyvel’s.”

“Then let’s get it an’ start readin’ it!” Asbel said, looking about ready to run off by himself.

“We should do something about these first,” Nanna said, nodding at the cups.

Asbel frowned at them. “We can get rid of the water but what about the poison?”

“I could drink it,” Leif offered.

“I’m not sure your resistance to poison goes that far,” Nanna warned.

“We won’t know unless I try.”

“... I kinda wanna know,” Asbel admitted.

“We’ll take it with us and wait for the spell to wear off,” Nanna said, taking the cup with Asbel’s successful attempt before either of the boys could touch it. One of Leif’s cups also looked rather dark so she took that as well. The boys followed her lead, taking the cups with the less successful attempts.

“I know what you’re doing,” Leif said, causing Nanna to pause. “You don’t have to distract me.”

“Maybe we need this too,” Asbel said, gaze lingering on Leif’s wrist for a moment, “Besides, that’s only half of it!” He looked at Nanna and she knew he had not only figured out what she wanted to do, he wanted to as well. She gave him a small smile to show she’d understood.

“What’s the other half?” Leif asked as Asbel returned her look.

“Can’t tell you. Won’t work if we do,” Asbel said, quickly adding, “So don’t try an’ figure it out!”

Doubting a warning would be enough, Nanna decided to take a page from Lara's book to distract him. “You know, it won’t be easy for three people to read a book at once. Perhaps it would be better if you read it aloud, Lord Leif. Lady Sara did say you have a beautiful voice and I completely agree. Our whole group must have, seeing as no one disagreed with her.”

“'Cause she's right. It's the most beautiful voice in the entire army!” Asbel enthusiastically added, impish look daring Leif to disagree. Either remembering the times they'd teamed up to tease him in the past or more easily flustered than he used to be, Leif quickly left the room, although not before Nanna caught a glimpse of a blush. Satisfied with the results, Nanna set down her cups to put away Asbel’s book and slide the bag over her shoulder. For only having seven books, it was very heavy.

“Thanks,” Asbel said, talking about more than just the bag.

“I should be saying that to you,” Nanna said, taking her cups again. Out of the three of them, he’d changed the least but she was glad he hadn’t. She’d never met anyone as infectiously bright as him, something they could all use right now.

He proved her point by offering one last smile before hurrying to follow Leif. As Nanna joined, she stayed slightly behind to watch them as Asbel went on about more things in his books he wanted to try and several ideas they'd given him. When Leif turned to respond to a question, there was the slightest of smiles on his face.

Asbel had been right, she needed this too.

Finn shouldn’t have been surprised to find Glade at the old training grounds.

He hadn’t been intending to find his friend but perhaps it was a good thing he had. He needed something to take his mind off of what he had just learned and Glade likely needed a similar distraction from worrying about Selfina. He wasn’t very good at comforting people but at least he could make sure his friend wasn’t alone.

“It feels like a lifetime ago we were knights in training here,” Glade said, looking at the grounds rather than Finn. “Almost as if it happened in another world.”

“The world’s changed a great deal in two decades,” Finn agreed.

“And not in a way any of us would have guessed," Glade added. "If you had asked me, I would have said we’d be serving under King Quan with Thracia unified under him. Instead we’ve had Leonster back for all of a day, the rest of Northern Thracia is controlled by House Friege, except for Tahra but that’s being protected by Prince Arion… Gods, it’s still hard to believe we’re allies with Southern Thracia after decades of being enemies. It doesn’t make sense. Barely anything makes sense anymore.”

Finn had never seen Glade upset before. He had always been able to find some reason to have hope and stay calm before Leonster fell and even back in Alster. But this was a more personal grief than either of those, one Finn was all too familiar with. “Selfina knew the risk of going to Alster but likely went for Princess Miranda’s sake. The two were quite close back in Alster.”

“Of course she did. Selfina’s always loved children,” Glade said, “She used to want nothing more than to be a mother, we talked about it several times. But we always came to the conclusion we likely never would. Why would anyone want to bring a child into a world where there are child hunts?”

The mention of the child hunts was too soon, Leif’s words on what had been done to him flooding back. He had been on his own for less than a day when he was taken and given those scars covering his arms. Finn had done everything he could to keep Leif from suffering when they were on the run, going without food to ensure the children didn’t and sleeping as little as possible in case any bandits came across them in the night. Leif's life was already hard enough, Finn wanted to spare him any additional hardship as well. But all his effort was undone in a day because Leif cared for him more than he should.

You'd already given up so much for me, I couldn't let you give your life as well. I’d rather go through everything again than let that happen.

“Finn, what’s the matter?” Glade’s question pulled Finn from his thoughts.

“It’s nothing,” Finn insisted but Glade seemed unimpressed.

“Two decades may have passed but I’m still your best friend, you can’t get anything past me. Something’s clearly bothering you, more so than this morning.” Glade paused to think before lowering his voice to a gentler tone. “Did something happen with Prince Leif?”

Denying it wouldn’t work with Glade but Finn wasn’t ready to talk about it either. “I came out here to check on you, not the other way around.”

Glade scoffed but looked more amused than anything. “Not sure comforting is your area of expertise, you brooding bastard.”

“Then I at least owe you for putting up with me being a brooding bastard.”

Glade laughed properly this time. “You made up for it by being a good training partner and easy to talk to. And tease, you were almost too easy back then, so earnest and awkward. Gods know how you managed to talk to Lady Lachesis, let alone marry her.”

“Lord Quan asked that I keep an eye on her, worried how Lord Eldigan’s situation would affect her. The situation did weigh heavily on her and she was often angry but it also drove her to fight harder, to better herself in honor of her brother. She seemed in better spirits when she did so I offered to assist however I could,” Finn recalled. His relationship with Lachesis had been a strange one. Although he’d deeply admired her strength and beauty, he hadn’t considered being in a relationship with her until she asked him why he hadn’t. They only had a short time together before Finn had to return to Leonster but she accepted his rather embarrassing, blurted out proposal the day before he left. But he was glad he had as they both needed each other after the Battle of Belhalla and Yied Massacre.

“What is it with you and the angry, scarily powerful types?” Glade asked jokingly.

“I hope you’re not including yourself in that,” Finn said, relieved to see Glade smile again.

“If I was, I would’ve left your heavy ass behind after you knocked me out while berserked,” Glade said, "Gods, you hit hard. Pretty sure I'll have bruises for the rest of the month."

He may not be very good at comforting others but he’d at least managed to lighten Glade’s mood. But his mention of being berserked had reminded Finn of something else that had been bothering him.

“Why didn’t you tell me I attacked Lord Leif while berserked?” he asked.

“He told us not to. He knew how you’d feel, as did I,” Glade said, expression giving away how true that was. “It may not be our faults but it was still our hands that did it.”

Literally in Finn’s case. Leif knew Finn had been the one to carry him back after Gunna but the first time he’d been conscious when Finn touched him, Finn had been beating him. Just like the soldiers who’d taken in the child hunts had, just as he’d said Finn could do to try and change his mind. That was how he was used to being treated. The thought made Finn feel sick.

“Enough tangents Finn, tell me what’s wrong,” Glade demanded, “This is more than brooding, you look completely distraught. I haven’t seen you like this since… Did something happen to Prince Leif?”

Something felt like an understatement. Finn couldn’t think of anything worse that could have happened beyond dying and even death was only worse because it would mean Leif was gone. Finn could understand why he hadn’t wanted to talk about everything as it hurt to even think about. But Glade was starting to worry so he had to say something. “Lord Leif told us what… what he’s been through since Tahra.”

Glade’s worry shifted to sympathy as he waited for Finn to say more. He didn’t want to but Glade would keep him here all night if he didn’t. “He was taken... in the child hunts. He escaped and freed the other children as well… and then he let himself be taken fifty-two more times.”

“He what?” Glade looked as horrified as Finn had felt hearing this. “Why would he let it happen again?”

“So he could save more children,” Finn said, anger returning with each word, “He wanted to fight the child hunts despite being a child himself. He thought because he’d escaped once he could do it again! If a single thing had gone wrong, he would have been sacrificed by the Loptyrians and we’d never know. Leonster would never rise again, we wouldn’t liberate Thracia, and I…” Finn caught himself before he said something he would regret. But pausing made his anger give in to the feelings he’d been trying to keep down, “I would have failed all of House Leonster as well as you.”

“You haven’t failed House Leonster, you’re the most loyal of us all,” Glade insisted, “Prince Quan chose you to be his personal squire not just because you were the most skilled of us, but because he knew he could rely on you for anything.”

“But I wasn’t there for him at Yied,” Finn argued, “Nor was I there for King Calf at the Battle of River Thracia. I fled while Queen Alfiona made her final stand defending Castle Leonster.”

“Because you had a far more important task; protecting Prince Leif,” Glade countered, “And don’t say you failed him or me. He chose to run away and you did all you could to find him. Selfina shared Eyvel’s stories of what you were like in Fiana. You had two villages searching for any clue to his whereabouts and never stopped believing he was out there. Even now, you’re the only knight who pledged himself to Prince Leif specifically, something you didn’t have to do. You’re already sworn to House Leonster which makes you sworn to him.”

“It was the only way I could think of to show him he was more than just an obligation to me,” Finn said, “Although perhaps he should have been.”

“What are you saying?”

“You’re right, I was soft on him. When he was under my care, I’d do things that served no purpose other than making him happy and acted more familiar with him than I had any right to. If I’d been less lenient, kept myself more distant, perhaps he wouldn’t have run away.”

“Are,” Glade corrected, “You are soft on him. As I said, I’m your best friend, you can’t get anything past me. You still try to make him happy but it’s not only for his sake. You’re happiest when he’s doing well, when he’s calm and taking an interest in something. This isn’t a one-sided affection, he’s important to you as well.”

“He’s my lord, of course he’s important,” Finn said. Glade muttered something under his breath Finn couldn’t make out but he could feel Glade rolling his eyes.

“He’s my lord too and hearing what he did isn’t so painful to think about I won’t be able to sleep tonight,” Glade said. When Finn was silent, he went on. “I’ll never forget the time you crawled through a bush to retrieve him after he'd run off almost in tears. You returned covered in mud and grass stains, twigs in your hair but Prince Leif was in your arms, smiling and excited to tell me how papa and father meant the same thing. At the time I thought it was amusing but looking back now, it’s rather disturbing.”

“How so?”

“Prince Leif was distraught to think he’d lost his papa but once he found out that was his father, he calmed down. He was three and he’d not only accepted his father was gone, he was numb to how horrible that loss was. It was just a fact, something we made sure he knew so we could tell him all about his parents and ensure he grew up wanting to honor and avenge them. We did it for Prince Quan and Lady Ethlyn but after the past two days, I’m not sure that was the right thing to do.”

“Lord Quan and Lady Ethlyn deserve both,” Finn argued.

“They do, I’m not trying to say otherwise,” Glade said, “But did we have to ask that of a toddler, a child who didn’t even reach our waists? The sooner we liberated Leonster and the rest of Northern Thracia, the better but… maybe we were a bit too eager. Maybe we rushed things a bit with Prince Leif.”

Finn thought back to the throne room, Leif blaming himself for the Empire’s actions, seeing every sacrifice made for him as him failing to do his duty as their prince. Was this how it started? Did they do this to him? Eyvel’s reaction to Leif’s apology to Xavier suddenly made a lot more sense.

“Prince Leif letting himself be taken in the child hunts… Princess Miranda going to Alster to join her people’s rebellion… Duchess Linoan insisting on leading the rearguard to distract the Schwarze Rosen… Prince Ced leading the Magi Squad... all of them think protecting the people is worth their lives. Why can’t any of them see how important their lives are? Why don’t they understand they’ll do more for their people by protecting themselves so they can live and rule?” Glade asked.

Finn didn’t like considering those questions. Any answer he could think of only making him feel worse. Glade must have noticed as he reached over and nudged Finn with his elbow.

“We made quite a few mistakes. But trusting you with Prince Leif wasn’t one of them. It’s an insult to King Calf, Prince Quan, and Prince Leif to say otherwise,” he said, “He needed someone to be soft on him, to care about him as more than just a prince. You did that without being asked. I had to look at everything through Selfina’s point of view to even realize all of this.”

“Do you do that often?” Finn asked.

“It helped with missing her when I was stationed in Tahra. I’d watch the people wandering the market and try to think about what would catch her eye, what would she comment on, what she’d want to try. I wanted to take her there after the war was over,” Glade admitted.

“We don’t know what’s happened to her yet,” Finn said.

Glade shook his head. “I’m not like you, I can’t blindly believe the people I care for will return to me once they've left.”

“I accepted there was little chance I’d see Lachesis again after fleeing Alster,” Finn said, knowing Glade hadn’t been talking about her.

Glade sighed. “Gods, you’re the worst.” He began to leave then paused, giving Finn a parting question he wouldn't be able to answer in a night. He wasn't sure he could answer it at all.

“You said you see Prince Leif as a lord on par with Prince Quan. If Prince Quan is the best man you’ve ever known, then what does that make Prince Leif?"

“I take it since you wanted me here, this isn’t a strategy meeting,” Eyvel guessed.

“Oh no, it is,” August said, “But in order for this to work, we need someone with your area of expertise and relationship to the prince.”

“If you’re asking me to help you manipulate Little Leif, I’ll save you the trouble of this meeting and leave now,” Eyvel said, glaring at August, “He’s not a tool and if you keep treating him like it, we’re just going to keep repeating these past two days until he’s beyond reaching.”

“Princes are the most important tools we have. We can’t win this war without them,” August said, “But you are correct, we can’t have a repeat of the past two days. You’re so fond of fixing broken people, so fix him.”

Eyvel had never met a more punchable person. “You need to stop thinking of him as a thing. People can’t be fixed, they can learn to cope and deal with most of it but what he’s been through is part of him now.” She gave Dorias a pointed look. “Which is why you need to stop trying to make him Prince Quan.”

“I’m trying to help him be a good prince and respectable person,” Dorias argued. “You may find him tolerable to be around but most nobles will not. The only thing currently protecting him is being the last of Njorun’s holy line. But if another option comes along, they will turn on him. They may even sooner if they adopt his belief of Holy Blood being unimportant. No one wants someone as unstable as him in charge of anything.”

“He does need a great deal of work if he’s ever to rule Northern Thracia. At least your groundwork is still there, the tawdry devotion and utter resignation to die of a knight,” August said, “And he just revealed how far he’s willing to go to fulfill the highest duty of a ruler.”

Dorias almost seemed as if he was upset. “He shouldn’t have gone that far. No duty is greater than protecting his life.”

“Did you ever tell him that?” Eyvel asked.

“I had no reason to think I had to. Those of us who survived Leonster were there to protect him in Alster and even when he fled the city, he had Finn. His life couldn’t have been safer. I never thought he’d have the chance to risk it,” Dorias admitted.

“You have to tell your tools their lives matter if you want them to protect themselves,” Eyvel said bitterly. “It also didn’t help that you knights were setting a pretty poor example.”

“Are you blaming us?” Dorias accused, glaring at her.

“Yes,” Eyvel said, “You’re all so willing to risk your lives to fulfill your duty of protecting him, why shouldn’t he risk his to fulfill his duty of protecting the people?”

“Because his life matters more than ours. This is war, people are going to die. The least we can do is ensure the people whose lives matter less die first.”

“That’s how knights fight wars, not us common folk. If we want our rebellions to succeed, we have to protect every life we can. We know some of us will die but no one wants to throw themselves on their sword so we look for other options. Honor, glory, pride, those are luxuries we can't afford."

“And this is the approach I’d like to suggest the Liberation Army takes from now on,” August interjected, “Your knightly code may help boost your ego but this is far more important. We must succeed in liberating Thracia and once we have, Thracia needs to at least seem strong to the rest of Jugdral.”

Dorias narrowed his eyes. “What are you hiding, August? You speak as if you know something we don’t.”

Surprisingly, August didn’t answer immediately, his uncharacteristic behavior worrying Eyvel and Dorias. Finally he let out a long sigh. “It seems Prince Leif isn’t the only one confessing tonight,” he said, taking another pause before going on. “I was sent to Thracia by my benefactor to ensure Prince Leif became a usable pawn for Lord Seliph. We were supposed to weaken the Empire’s hold in Thracia as much as possible before Lord Seliph arrived to truly liberate it then give our forces over to him and support his campaign to liberate Jugdral.”

Yet another person was trying to use and control Leif for their own goals? Liberating Jugdral was a great cause but again it was being forced on him. It was starting to feel as if the rest of the world had forgotten he was a person as well as a prince.

“But, the last time I spoke with my benefactor, I informed them of Prince Leif’s condition and voiced my doubts he would follow their plan. Because of this, I was ordered to either get him in line or get rid of him.”

The room was silent as Eyvel and Dorias took in August’s revelation. If he was admitting this to them then he wasn’t going to try to kill Leif, was he? They’d know it was him unless he arranged it in a way he wouldn’t be directly or obviously involved. If that was the case, he could have been trying to get Leif killed for weeks.

Dorias seemed to be thinking along the same lines. “Did this happen after Tahra?” He sighed when August nodded. “I thought there was something strange about his sudden decision to take Melgln with just the Magi Squad. That was your idea wasn’t it?”

“Not entirely. I did suggest he break into Melgln at night, but he was the one who wanted to bring the Magi and decided how to handle Melgln.”

“But you said he’s taken out forts in a night. If you knew he could take Melgln, why did you send him?” Eyvel asked.

“Because I wanted him to take it as the Ghoul, for the army to see him as the bloodthirsty monster I believed him to be,” August explained, “I didn’t understand until now why he chose to spare the soldiers. In hindsight, a lot of his actions make more sense now.”

Eyvel fought the urge to roll her eyes. Even before Leif had told them what happened to him, it was very clear what motivated his actions. But August had always been a terrible judge of character. “What did you think of him before now?” she asked.

“I thought he killed so brutally because he liked it. That was the only explanation I could think of for why he’d do what he did without stopping for several years. I'll admit I misjudged him but I still stand by my assessment of his sanity. Fortunately, it’s more workable than I thought.”

“Do you honestly think you’ll still be allowed to advise Prince Leif? You just admitted to conspiring to kill him,” Dorias pointed out, “Give me one reason we shouldn’t hang you for treason.”

“Because you need me. I’m the only one who can convince my benefactor not to kill Prince Leif despite him not conforming to their plan. If you want your prince to live, you’ll work with me," August said. His defense wasn't worded as a threat but it certainly felt like one.

Eyvel frowned. “Why would you go against your benefactor? Your opinion on Little Leif can’t have changed that much so there has to be something in this for you.”

Again, August hesitated. Whoever his benefactor was, they had to be someone powerful if he was this reluctant to speak against them even when there was no chance they would hear.

“I wasn’t just excommunicated, I was supposed to be executed. But my benefactor prevented that and in return I’ve helped them carry out their plan. Those stories about Lord Sigurd, my benefactor’s the one who spread them. They're also the one who revealed Lord Seliph is Empress Deirdre's son to the people. Everything they've done has been to pave the way for Lord Seliph to be Jugdral’s savior. People are so blinded by hope they wouldn’t hesitate to die for our cause. We’ve crafted an almost perfect opportunity. There’s just one weak spot which could turn the people against us or even cause Lord Seliph’s liberation army to crumble from within. A weak spot, which Prince Leif accidentally stumbled across and has already exploited in Tahra.”

“All of this is built on a lie,” Eyvel said, seeing where August was going with this, “If the people find out they’ve been lied to, they won’t want to support Lord Seliph’s liberation army anymore. He won’t be the son of a hero, he’ll be the son of a man tricked into leading his men to their deaths.”

“They may even doubt the claim Lord Seliph is the son of Empress Deirdre and the rightful heir to the throne,” Dorias added, “After all, there are only a handful of people who can vouch for this.”

“And few of them would appear trustworthy after this,” August said, “Prince Shannan was only a boy at the time, Lord Oifey is Lord Seliph’s relative so he would look as if he had an ulterior motive, King Lewyn disappeared years ago, and Emperor Arvis has no reason to support Lord Seliph. That leaves only Finn and what are the chances he’ll want anything to do with the Liberation Army once he learns they ordered Prince Leif’s death?”

“None,” Eyvel said. "Which means we have leverage over your benefactor. If he tries to kill Little Leif, we can tear down everything they've built. If they've put this much effort into setting all of this up, that's a risk they won't be willing to take."

"Which is why Thracia needs to be liberated and strong when Lord Seliph's army arrives," August stressed. "The plan is for Lord Seliph to come to Thracia after liberating Isaach. If we appear weaker, we could easily be taken out to keep the lie alive. My benefactor could use Prince Leif being the Ghoul to turn Lord Seliph against his cousin. From what I know about Lord Seliph, he would find Prince Leif's actions abhorrent."

"What do you know about Lord Seliph?" Dorias asked.

"I've never met him but from what I've heard, he's a rather soft boy, dislikes violence and has been kept as safe and sheltered as possible. He hasn't started fighting in Prince Shannan's rebellion yet which is good news for us. The longer he stalls, the longer we have to prepare. I even sent a warning to Prince Shannan that will hopefully make him steer clear of Thracia for as long as possible."

Eyvel frowned, something about August's tone not sitting well with her. "Do you think Lord Seliph can liberate all of Jugdral?"

"He will, whether he wants to or not," August said. "He'll have his ego inflated to the size of the sun, his eyes covered from what he can't handle, his every action assured to be the right one, every victory overly glorified, everyone in his way vilified, whatever has to be done to get him on the throne will be done. Maybe he'll only need light guidance and a few pushes, maybe he'll need his hand held all the way to Belhalla. It doesn't matter if he's capable of liberating Jugdral, too much effort has been put into this for him not to."

For a moment, Eyvel wished Seliph wouldn't, just to spite August's benefactor. She'd love nothing more than to hear he'd put his foot down and insisted someone older and more experienced led the Liberation Army, like Prince Shannan. But if he was Empress Deirdre's son, they'd at least make him their figurehead. There was no way out for him. The best she could hope for was Prince Shannan and whoever else he had grown up around had given him the happiest childhood they could manage before he was thrust into all of this.

"To answer your original question, I'm going against my benefactor's plan because he sees Prince Leif as just another pawn for Lord Seliph. All he was supposed to do was assist in liberating Thracia then it didn't matter what happened to him. It didn't even have to be Prince Leif; once my benefactor heard Prince Arion was willing to work with us he considered trying to ally with him instead. But after hearing what he's done and understanding why, I think making him a pawn is a serious mistake. I have no idea of Lord Seliph's abilities but I have a very good idea of Prince Leif's. The only thing that matters to me is liberating Jugdral and despite not adhering to my benefactor's plan, I believe Prince Leif would be incredibly useful in accomplishing this goal, too useful to let die."

It wasn't the best reasoning but if some powerful person wanted Leif dead, Eyvel would go along with whatever August asked of her to prevent that. "What do we need to do before Lord Seliph's liberation army arrives?" Eyvel asked.

"The first is obvious, we need to liberate Northern Thracia as soon as possible, but also with as few casualties as possible," August said, "We'll need every man we can get to have a chance of matching the Isaach Liberation Army's numbers. This brings me to the second thing; Southern Thracia has to be our loyal ally."

As usual, Dorias seemed displeased at the mention of their alliance with Southern Thracia but it seemed more out of concern than distaste this time. "Prince Arion may have agreed to this alliance and for now I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but we also need the allegiance of Travant, the princess, and General Hannibal."

"Travant is not on our side, if Prince Arion's kept his word he doesn't even know we're who his son is working with," August said.

"General Hannibal likely is, he was willing to aid us in the past and Prince Leif earned his favor by saving his son," Dorias mused, "But he's not called the Shield of Thracia without reason. He's the most loyal Thracian general and loves his country more than anything. If Travant does not join our side, General Hannibal will not either."

"That depends," Eyvel interjected, "If he believes like you that the most important part of a country is its king, he won't. But if he believes the people are the most important like Little Leif does, he'd be willing to turn on Travant if he believed this alliance is the better choice for the people."

"That would only happen if Travant were to do something truly heinous again. We shouldn't count on that so for now, we'll take Dorias' perspective," August suggested, "Which leaves us with the princess."

"She doesn't like Prince Leif. She wanted to kill him as soon as she knew who he was, even though she had just seen him taking care of Prince Arion while he was unconscious and gravely injured," Dorias said, "My greatest concern about Travant is that he'll react similarly. If he also sees Prince Leif only as Prince Quan's son, he'll never ally with us."

"Not necessarily. If we have both his children on our side, King Travant will have to ally with us," Eyvel said.

August made an unamused expression. "Not everyone loves their children as much as you do."

Eyvel returned the look. "That's not the only reason. If he cares as much about Holy Blood as most people in Jugdral do, it's too much of a risk to side against them. At least one of them has to live for Dainn's holy line to continue so the sooner we have both on our side, the better."

Dorias almost looked impressed at her reasoning before returning to frowning. "But how are we going to earn the princess's trust?"

"Prince Leif will have to do that," August said before turning to Eyvel, "So you need to do whatever it is you do to people to make them less of a wreck. We cannot have a repeat of the throne room or what he did in the field today. His role as the Ghoul must stay secret as well. Yes he was rescuing children but a boy committing mass murder multiple times is still a disturbing thought."

A strange look passed across August's face but he said nothing, keeping his thought to himself. But Eyvel was starting to form an idea of her own she'd rather keep secret so she stayed silent as he pretended it hadn't happened and addressed Dorias.

"Along with changing your approach to battle, I'd also ask that you only guide Prince Leif in learning his responsibilities. He does need to straighten out his behavior but we should wait until after Eyvel's done with him to see where he is." Dorias nodded before shifting forward in his chair, expression dark.

"You did a fair job of keeping your benefactor's identity a secret. But you made one mistake that gave away who he is," Dorias said. To Eyvel's alarm, August looked frightened, staying silent as he waited for Dorias to continue. After rising from his chair, he did.

"Whoever set this up had to know about Lord Seliph's mother and you named all five men. Finn would never want Prince Leif dead, Prince Shannan was only a boy when this began, and Emperor Arvis wouldn't plot his own downfall. Which leaves only Oifey and King Lewyn. But mentioning these men wasn't your mistake," Dorias said, putting his hand on the table as he leaned down towards August, "You told us your benefactor was the one who spread the lie about Lord Sigurd through stories and the best way to spread stories is through a bard."

From how pale August had gone, Dorias was correct. Eyvel tried to remember everything Finn had told her about Oifey and King Lewyn. "It's King Lewyn, isn't it?" she guessed. "The first time he abandoned his kingdom he traveled Jugdral pretending to be a bard. This would explain why he abandoned his kingdom this time as well."

"You can't go after him," August insisted.

"We won't," Dorias assured him. "Not yet at least. Jugdral's liberation is important and I will gladly aid in it but not at the cost of Prince Leif's life. As long as King Lewyn doesn't go after Prince Leif, we won't go after him. But I will not let anyone else harm my prince again, not even a king."

Hearing what Leif had been through must have affected Dorias more than he'd let on as Eyvel had never seen him in such a cold anger before. That along with the news about Selfina were weighing heavily on the duke. The lives of the two most important people to him were in danger and there was nothing he could do about one of them. Even though she didn't like the man, Eyvel couldn't help feeling sorry for him.

"Then I'll need your help," Eyvel said, standing as well to look Dorias in the eye. "I need to ask some things of you and you can't say no. We can negotiate but changes have to be made, by all of us. None of this will work if we keep fighting amongst ourselves."

Dorias nodded in agreement, making Eyvel feel strange. Just yesterday she'd pulled a sword on them and now they were working together. She still didn't like either of them and she doubted they'd grown any fonder of her but that didn't feel important any more. They all had the same goal, albeit for different reasons, and there was a high price for all of them if they failed. For some reason, this felt familiar, as if she'd been part of a group fighting for something this important before. Had she been part of a rebellion against the Empire before? Was that how she'd lost her memories? Perhaps continuing down this path would help her remember. But until then, she was fine with just being Eyvel.

Chapter Text

Having his own bedroom was strange.

Having more than just weapons was strange but having his own bedroom felt particularly odd considering he hadn’t had one since Alster. The bishop’s home in Frest was too small for everyone to have their own room so Leif had shared with Asbel and the duke allowed Leif and Asbel to share a room again in Tahra. The privacy was nice but being alone in a closed room bothered him more than he’d like to admit. Fortunately, that hadn’t been the case last night as both Nanna and Asbel had accidentally ended up staying the night when they fell asleep while reading Galle’s journal. He wasn't sure it was entirely accidental but either way, he'd been grateful for their presence.

Asbel was still asleep when there was a knock on the door so only Nanna saw Leif instinctively pull out a knife in response. He had to stop doing this, no one here wanted to hurt him. This was his home, as strange as the thought felt. He’d grown up hearing so many stories about the beauty and magnificence of Castle Leonster, he’d ached to one day return. But he’d given up on ever seeing it when he gave up on being a prince. Maybe that was why being here didn't feel like being home.

At least he wasn’t the only one to react strangely to the knock as Nanna’s face turned bright red, made worse when Mareeta opened the door to let herself in. Her surprise at seeing Nanna and Asbel quickly turned into a grin.

“Well that was easier than I thought,” Mareeta said amusedly, “Almost wish I had gotten Mother or Finn first.”

“We were just reading,” Nanna insisted, making Mareeta’s grin widen.

“Of course you were. What else would you be doing with the pre-” Mareeta’s question was cut off by a pillow flying at her. She easily dodged, laughing as Nanna tried to glare at her.

“We were,” Leif said, picking up Galle’s journal. There had to be some sort of enchantment on it to survive over 300 years in such good condition. The ink wasn’t even faded although the pages were worn from being turned so many times. He gingerly opened it to the last entry, the unfinished story having kept him up all night.

Mareeta came over to take a look at the journal. “I’ve never seen a book this old before. What’s it about?” Leif turned to a page with one of Galle’s sketches to answer her question. “Dragons?!”

“It’s like Salem said, Galle left Jugdral to search for dragons. He thought if he had the blood of one, he could use its power and become immortal,” Leif explained, staring at the sketch. Galle had only drawn Loptous’s head and part of his neck but even that was unpleasant to look at, covered in spikes and sharp scales. He could see where the inspiration for the symbol of the Loptyr Cult came from.

Asbel made a small whine as he pushed himself into a seated position, still slowly waking up. “Lord Leif, I gotta-” Asbel paused as he noticed Mareeta, suddenly very awake. He practically lept at her, eyes wide. “What d’ya remember ‘bout bein’ possessed?”

“Asbel!” Nanna scolded but Asbel ignored her, continuing to stare expectantly at Mareeta. She frowned at the question, not wanting to remember what had happened, but still answered him.

“As soon as I touched that sword, it was like there was another person in my head, whispering to me. It wanted me to kill everyone and mocked me for caring about Mother and Nanna and for trying to fight against it. I couldn’t let go of the sword, I could barely control my body. All I could do were small things like attacking Prince Leif instead of Nanna or holding back against my mother,” Mareeta recalled, “The voice disappeared when I was unconscious but when Bishop Saias started curing me, it started screaming and cursing at him. I couldn't hear what the bishop was saying but I could hear a woman calling out to me. It reminded me of my mother so focused on it, and the other voice grew weaker until it disappeared and I could feel my body was under my control again.”

Once Mareeta finished, Asbel climbed off the bed and started rummaging through his bag. He pulled out a large black book and started quickly flipping through it until he reached a page almost at the end. “Like this?” he asked, shoving the book up at them.

Nanna took the book from him to bring closer to Mareeta. “Enforce will on others… Weak to bonds… Corrupt… Are you saying there was a soul inside my sword!?” Mareeta asked, looking horrified.

“If this is the curse on it,” Asbel said, “It’s s’ppose t’ be the most effective way to control others, t’ have your soul ripped out an’ placed in somethin’. Then as soon as someone touches it, your soul gets inside them an’ your will fights theirs for control.”

Mareeta looked away from the book. “So I could have beaten it. It is my fault.”

Asbel shook his head. “It’s a s’prise attack, you got no way of knowin’ it’s gonna happen ‘fore it overwhelms you. Even after, you're tryin’ t’ fight the will of someone crazy ‘nough to wanna seal their soul in somethin’. That’s how they exist forever after that, as a curse.”

“Why would anyone choose to do that?” Nanna asked, looking slightly disturbed. Asbel grinned as he climbed back on the bed and pointed to an additional sentence beneath the description of what the spell did.

“This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the Loptyr Cult, the closest we have come to recreating the Blessing of Galle,” Nanna read aloud. She frowned. “I still don’t understand what you’re trying to say.”

“Galle in his journal didn’t sound like a bad person. He just wanted t’ be more powerful an’ immortal,” Asbel explained, “His plan was t’ use the dragon’s power to help Jugdral, not take it over. He didn’t hate people.”

“Loptous did,” Leif said, seeing where Asbel was going with this. “You think the Blessing of Galle is being possessed by Loptous?”

“All the Loptyrians think Loptous is better’n us so bein’ possessed by him’d probably be a good thing to 'em,” Asbel reasoned.

“It would be,” Nanna said, turning to Leif. “Salem said just feeling Loptous’s power reach out to him through the Loptous Scroll was the greatest honor he could imagine, that it made him feel as if he wasn’t an impure, pathetic creature anymore.”

“But wouldn’t actually being possessed by Loptous be an even greater honor than just feeling part of his power?” Mareeta asked.

“Maybe they think it’s even better t’ see an’ serve Loptous than to be ‘im?” Asbel suggested, although even he didn’t look satisfied with that answer.

The question that had been bothering Leif all night suddenly made sense. “They can’t be,” he said, “It bothered me how one-sided the blood pact seemed. Loptous had to be getting something out of this, he wouldn’t let an inferior creature like Galle have his powers for free. There had to be something in it for him.”

“The degeneration!” Asbel said, quick to follow as always. “Loptous told Galle the other dragons in his tribe were gone ‘cause they started degeneratin’ an attackin’ people so other dragons went t' war with 'em. He claimed t’ have a way ‘round degeneratin’ but didn’t say what.”

“Would possessing Galle be enough?” Nanna asked. “Maybe controlling another person can slow it but nothing about Loptous would change. Unless... Asbel, what else does your book say about that curse?”

“Just that the soul ‘nside’s preserved an’ can’t die…” Asbel suddenly straightened. “That could hold off degeneration! An’ would explain what happened t’ Loptous after the last emperor died, he just went back inside whatever he sealed himself in.”

“Then how can he possess someone now?” Mareeta asked. “The Loptyrians who went into hiding probably had whatever Loptous was inside but how were they able to find someone for Loptous to possess if there was no one left with Loptous' blood?”

“Maybe the Loptyrians saved a child of Galle the Seventeenth an’ once they started becomin’ devout t’ Loptous, they gave ‘em whatever Loptous is sealed inside to bring ‘im back?” Asbel suggested.

It almost made sense. But if that was true, then why didn’t Salem mention any of this to him? Not for the first time, Leif wished the dark mage was still here, that he’d been able to save him from Alva or that he’d been the one beside Alva when he was berserked. Maybe then he would have seen it happen and been able to react before anyone was hurt. Then Cain wouldn’t have spent his last moments feeling guilty about killing his best friend as well.

“If Loptous can possess people through his blood pact, what about the dragons the Crusaders made their blood pacts with?” Mareeta asked, eyeing Leif and Nanna with concern.

“If it’s th’ same as Loptous’s pact with Galle, then Lord Leif and Nanna should be fine,” Asbel said, looking at Leif expectantly. It only took Leif a moment to realize what he was implying.

“Holy Weapons. That’s what the other dragons sealed themselves inside,” Leif said, suddenly recalling something. “Ares claimed Mystletainn craved blood. At the time I thought he was just being dramatic but maybe he was serious.”

“Then what about Sir Ced? Is he possessed too?” Asbel asked worriedly. “He didn’t seem like he was. He was nice an’ helpful an’ cried when he heard his mother died. W-was that all fake?”

“We don’t know if the Crusader made the exact same pact with the dragons as Galle made with Loptous. And these dragons wanted to stop Loptous so they can't have been as bad as him,” Nanna said calmly, trying to soothe Asbel. “But Lord Leif is right, these pacts can’t be one-sided. The dragons have to be getting something out of this as well. When we see Karin again, we can ask her if Prince Ced started acting differently after he was given the Forseti tome.”

Asbel nodded but still looked worried. Leif walked around to the other side of the bed to be closer to Asbel as he tried to ease his concern. “Ced's not possessed, he wouldn't have come here looking for his father or let me get away with punching him twice if he was. Besides, do you really think a dragon would have gone looking for, let alone put up with someone as disrespectful and unpleasant as me?”

“You’re not unpleasant,” Asbel argued although he seemed more relaxed as he looked up at Leif.

“I’m certainly not pleasant to be around,” Leif countered. The further away from Manster he got, the worse he felt about how he had treated Asbel. He ignored him when they were traveling to Kelves, was curt the few times he spoke to him, and made Asbel cry at least once. Yet he’d stayed by his side, smile the brightest thing Leif had seen in years, bafflingly loyal and happy to be around him. Asbel should hate him just as much as Miranda did but instead he smiled at him. He didn’t deserve such a wonderful person calling him his best friend or for his selfish wish to have him stay to be returned. But it was so Leif had to make up for all the ways he wronged him.

Asbel frowned but his lack of immediate answer gave Mareeta a chance to change the subject. “What happens to the soul if the object it’s inside is destroyed?”

“Well, their body’s dead so it’s got nowhere to go,” Asbel said. “I guess that counts as bein’ dead?”

“Would the same apply to the Holy Weapons?”

It was hard to decipher Asbel’s expression after Mareeta’s second question but Leif had a good idea of how he was feeling. “We didn’t destroy Balmung, it can still be fixed,” Leif said. “You’d just have to find all the pieces. And the hilt.”

“R-right,” Asbel said. “An’ nothin’ special happened when we broke it… But it was dark an’ I was upset so I wasn’t payin’ a lotta attention...”

“Neither was I,” Mareeta admitted. “I could barely see what you two were doing.”

“I could try again,” Leif said without thinking. All eyes went to him as an idea started to form to go along with what he'd just suggested. “If we want to know what happens when a Holy Weapon is destroyed, it’d be easier to try and destroy a tome. They’re just books after all, they can burn, have their pages ripped out, be stabbed and cut apart.”

Nanna was the first to figure out what he was thinking. “You want to destroy Mjolnir. Lord Leif, House Friege will be furious if you do that!”

“It’s a fucking thunder tome that only two people alive can use. Losing that is nothing compared to what they did to my people,” Leif snapped. “And for all we know, Holy Weapons allow dragons to possess their wielder! Why the hell would anyone want to use a weapon that takes away their free will?”

He shouldn’t be getting this riled up but all this talk of possession was causing the same fear he’d felt when they learned of the Berserk Staff to creep in again. He had done horrible things while in control of his actions, he was terrified of what he might do when he wasn’t. He’d tried to make himself as strong as possible from learning how to use every weapon he could get his hands on to learning how to make anything he could get his hands on a weapon. His first instinct when he looked at people was to look for threats and find weak spots. Before being found, he'd fought every battle following that instinct, focusing only on doing everything he could to stay alive. The results earned him his reputation and if something else took control of him, would be what happened to anyone around him. Even if he wasn't the one in control, he'd never forgive himself if that happened. He was the one who'd made himself the monster he was.

“No amount of power is worth that,” Mareeta agreed, dark expression giving away he wasn’t the only one aff