Whenever there was joy and hope in a place, Tine von Silesse stood on her toes and waited for the other shoe to drop.
It felt like a trap, wandering through the streets of this seaside town and watching farmers and tradesmen cheerfully interact in a bustling market without a hint of suspicion. It played on her nerves even worse than if they'd woken up in a Loptous Abbey; at least then she would know what to expect. This? This...quiet, happy place? What was she supposed to do here? How could she possibly accept this place as real?
You know, hope is a mistake, Ishtore's had mused once, swirling the wine in his glass idly. If you can't fix what's broken, you'll go insane.
Even now Tine wasn't certain if he'd been talking to her or himself. Either made sense; Ishtar had just helped him ensure a handful of children escaped from the child hunts, after all.
Everything about the town she was in made her anxious. It was bright and warm, full of laughter and music from buskers playing at street corners. Children darted to and fro, utterly unafraid, getting underfoot as they played games of war with sticks and wooden swords. Young couples laughed without a care in the world, waving cheerfully to guards who waved back and called them by name. Vendors and shopkeepers offered discounts and there were carts of fruits and vegetables for sale at what she presumed to be decent prices given how many people were going to and from the carts. There wasn't a cloud in the sky; the sun shone brightly down on them as if the gods themselves were watching with approval. This just couldn't be real.
Yet even as the hours ticked on, she couldn't find a catch. She kept waiting to see what had to be sold for this peace and comfort to exist; even Belhalla, the rich and powerful heart of Judgral, didn't have such a warm and carefree atmosphere.
She couldn't find anything.
Tine was beginning to seriously consider if she was dead.
She fell from that balcony, the light and song had been Naga spiriting her soul away, and this was some sort of strange purgatory that she had to navigate in penance for taking her own life. The fact that she still slept and felt pain were sticking points in this theory, but Tine was at a loss for what else this might be.
“-Finest silk to be found in the Alliance! Wouldn't you agree, young lady?”
Tine's heart jumped into her chest; she twisted to stare over her shoulder at the vendor who had called out to her. The older man waved her over with enthusiasm, which spiked her nerves rather than soothed them out of habit. “Might I have a moment of your time?”
Ishtar squeezed her wrist reassuringly; Tine blew out a small breath. I'm safe as long as she's with me, she reminded herself, before tentatively walking across the road to the vendor's stall. “I wouldn't know, sir,” She said demurely. “We've only just arrived here a little while ago; I haven't gotten to see all it has to offer.”
“Ah, you're a traveler then?” The merchant beamed at her, his expression warm and friendly. His eyes kept to her face as he asked, “Have the sights impressed you so far?”
“It's quite beautiful,” Tine said in all sincerity – the atmosphere and the healthy forest was unlike anything she could remember seeing. “We haven't been here long, but even what little I've seen has left me in awe.”
These people were so happy. Were the people in Belhalla this happy?
“Well, perhaps you can find something here to comfort you through your travels?” The merchant picked up one of the brightly colored scarves from his display and offered it to her. Tine tentatively accepted, marveling at how smooth and soft it was beneath her fingers. It was a remarkable shade of crimson red. “The further north you travel, the cooler it will get. Many colors could play off your hair beautifully, but this one in particular would match your ribbons.”
“It's very fine,” Tine murmured. “I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of local currency...” She and Ishtar both had gold from home, of course, but merchants and innkeepers would likely find coins with Emperor Arvis's head on them odd at the least.
“That's all right; I'll sell it at a discount.”
Tine blinked rapidly. “T-That won't hurt your coffers, will it?” Surely material this fine couldn't be sold short on a whim, even in a comfortable place like this?
“Ah, it's kind of you to be concerned, but it's no trouble! Trade in the Leicester Alliance is rich and fruitful, and the day is still young.” He smiled kindly at her. She couldn't see any deception in him; it was wide-eyed earnestness. Some of the new servants would come to Alster with that look in their eyes; it never stayed long. “Every young woman should feel beautiful. Being able to gift that feeling to a stranger is priceless.”
Tine felt her cheeks turn slightly red; she glanced back at Ishtar, who looked a little taken aback before quickly schooling her face back into friendly neutrality. Her cousin nodded lightly at her, giving her a little smile, and she counted out the coins the abbess had so kindly given them. Thankfully, she did have enough to pay for it without dipping into their gold from home.
Red reminded her of mother. Mother had given her the ribbons...maybe she would have given her a scarf too, if they'd stayed in Silesse...if...if...
She thanked the man profusely as she wrapped the scarf around her neck and started walking away; he seemed surprised by the depths of her reaction, responding warmly if a little confused.
“So the merchants as odd as the priestess...” Ishtar mused as they walked through the square. Two boys playing with wooden swords crashed into her leg; one of them paused long enough to apologize before tearing after his friend, who'd rushed off not out of fear from having contact with Isthar but simply being too absorbed in the game. “I wonder who's protecting this village for it to be so peaceful.”
“Ishtar? ...What do you think happened to us?” Tine glanced up at her from beneath her bangs. She took a deep breath, the cool salty tang of a sea breeze hitting the back of her throat. “They call this place the Leicester Alliance, and this town is under the rule of a local lord who doesn't answer to a king.” They'd done a bit of asking around in the church before stepping outside – awkward questions, to hide how little they truly knew – yet they'd left the building no less confused than when they'd entered it. “Do you think we've been transported across the ocean? They say there's nothing beyond the shores of Judgral, but – but what if they're wrong?”
“...That makes about as much sense as any of my theories,” Ishtar acknowledged, grasping her arm with one hand and tapping her fingers against her elbow. It was a nervous tick of hers that had grown much more pronounced as she spent more and more time leading alongside Hilda and visiting Julius in Belhalla. “I...I have to admit, I'm not certain how to proceed.”
That made Tine's stomach sink a bit. Ishtar and Ishtore had never failed to give her useful advice or come up with some sort of plan to put her in the safest positions possible. Realizing that neither of them, stuck as they were in a completely foreign location with nothing but Thrud's ancestral weapon and the clothes on their backs, knew what to do was alarming.
However, Ishtar also never gave up without a fight. “At least we can count on the church to provide shelter for us,” she murmured, “but I don't know how long sanctuary lasts in these parts. I think the best course of action right now is for me to find work of some kind while we try to plan our next move. To have lands this peaceful, the lord and his local retainers must be hiring mercenaries by the hundreds.”
“I...I can fight too. Shouldn't I also try to sign up?” Tine asked.
“I'd rather you stayed safe,” Ishtar said reluctantly. “Though I suppose if we're to have any hope of securing accommodations outside the church, both of us will need to find jobs. Are you sure you wouldn't first find work as a delivery girl or assistant shopkeeper? I know it's hardly work fit for a princess, but I doubt either of our royal credentials count for much out here.”
“It's worth considering, and I'm hardly too proud to apply for them,” Tine promised her, “I just – I want to stay close to you, Ishtar. Even if you're armed with Mjolnir, mercenary work is dangerous...I...I don't want anything to happen to you...”
The edges of her eyes blurred, much to her distress; it was pathetic how little it took to make her break down. Her spirit was frayed at the edges, so weak compared to Ishtar's, yet the latter never begrudged her for it. She rubbed her eyes on her arm, muttering about sea salt; any weakness had to be suppressed quickly.
“I'm no easy mark, Tine,” Ishtar said, putting an arm around her shoulders as she'd so often done with they were young. “Try not to worry about me.”
“Who will worry if not me?” Tine parroted back. How many times had they had this particular back in forth? The gods know Hilda will not worry; only throw a fit about how her connection to the throne of Belhalla has suddenly vanished. If Bloom even notices, I bet he'll be much the same.
Julius will worry. ...That scares me as much as it gives me some comfort. Maybe more.
Julius hadn't been the same since he started carrying that book around. Tine had no idea what happened to him, but she knew it had something to do with that horrible dark priest who never left court...Manfroy...
Not that there was much of a point of thinking about that as long as they were in this place...the Leicester Alliance... Fodlan...
Ishtar smiled and patted the top of her head.
That's when Tine finally heard a familiar sound – frightened screaming.
It was isolated at first, but then it started to spread, filtering into the market square. Guards, who had been casually leaning against house walls and chatting with merchants and mothers watching their children play, stiffened and went for their weapons.
“Pirates!” The word echoed through the air, cutting across much of the dialogue ongoing between the people of the square. “Pirates are coming! Pirates at the gates!”
Alarm swept through the people like wildfire; merchants scrambled to close their carts, mothers rushed to collect their children and hurried them through the alleyways and into the houses surrounding the area. Yet even this wasn't quite what Tine expected from an invasion; the fear that quickly came over everyone around them was fierce, yes, but it didn't devolve into panic. The civilian retreat was orderly; the guards began to form up with professional and well-practiced precision.
Pirates...yes, that made sense. Finally something did. This was a much better target for plundering than the starving towns of Issach or Silesse; there was actually something worth taking. Tine was almost amused to realize that she didn't feel very scared.
She lived with worse than pirates every day.
“My lady, my lady,” Tine's attention was grabbed by a guard and his partner, who had approached them as they stood in place as opposed to fleeing like the others. “Please, go and take shelter. Almyran pirates won't be kind to women they capture.”
Ishtar, who's hand had fallen onto the pocket that contained Mjolnir, responded exactly as Tine would expect her to after only a moment of thought. “Let me go out with you,” She said. “I've mastered magic. I can fight.”
The guard looked baffled, glancing between her and Tine. “My lady, we can't possibly allow that,” He protested. “Your protection is our responsibility.”
“I can fight,” Ishtar insisted firmly, squaring her shoulders back. She looked regal in her cool composure; fearless and powerful. “I am no helpless wallflower, despite my looks. I want to help; I have a unique family magic I can bring to bear in the town's defense.”
“I can too,” Tine said, summoning her courage and focusing on keeping her voice even. Ishtar would have given her a disapproving look if they weren't presenting a united front; even though she taught her cousin how to fight herself (it wasn't like Hilda or Bloom would waste time or money on a traitor's daughter-) she much preferred for her to hide away when trouble started. “I've fought in battles with brigands before; run of the mill pirates are nothing new.”
The guards exchanged uneasy looks; neither of them looked happy, but they did look contemplative – swayed by the sheer weight of Ishtar's charisma. “The Knights of Serios haven't arrived yet,” the second reminded his friend. “They may be late; cross-country travel hasn't been the smoothest.”
“...” The first blew out a long breath. “It goes against my instincts, but...very well. Just please promise me that you will fall back if you get injured.”
Tine almost snickered at the idea that common vagabonds would even be able to get close to her cousin, but caught herself. It wasn't kind to laugh at sincere concern; such a rare gift should be treasured, not mocked.
“Yes sir,” Ishtar replied politely.
Still not looking quite happy with this decision, but accepting it nonetheless, the two guards led them out of the monastery toward the docks. Villagers were still darting past them; Tine saw guards dragging out wagons and large chunks of stone at the city gates in order to form a barricade to keep the pirates out of the residential area. Her heart was pounding in his chest, acknowledging fear, yet she felt strangely calm – this was familiar. This, she knew what to do about.
And...she also felt something – almost like a spark of defiance. This was a gentle, happy place, and now brigands would destroy even this little pocket of happiness?
No. She wouldn't allow it. If she was going to live long enough to take to a real battlefield, she would acquit herself in a manner that would make her mother, who had slipped away from her father to fight for what she believed in, proud.
Watch over us, mother...intercede with Naga for us, and these people too...
The other guards looked like pole-axed to see them trotting at the heels of their companions; a lot of confused, alarmed and annoyed words flew back and forth between them when they reached the bare ranks that had moved ahead. Tine noticed that, for such a wealthy town, there weren't many people to protect it – a couple dozen at most.
They were expecting reinforcements, these 'Knights of Serios', to reinforce them...but why would any sensible lord leave a thriving port a mere skeleton guard to defend it? What if one of his rivals decided he wanted the commerce that flowed freely through it?
Ishtar maintained her composure, calmly repeating what she'd said before as she removed Mjolnir from her pocket. It was at this point that Tine realized that she had no tome of her own, which left her a bit chagrined; she would have to rely on her innate magic to cast the spells.
The potential threat of magic burnout was less, thanks to her Holy Blood, but it still loomed over her...she would have to make sure that not one spell she cast was wasted.
There was a single long pathway out to a stone pier that most of the ships seemed to dock at. Two small vessels were already burning and sunk; three large ships with makeshift sails with scrabbled, hastily-repainted sails (those were falsified; a feint to hide the identity of the attackers, though perhaps not immediately obvious) and dozens of men standing on the decks, armed with axes and bows and swords. Tine heard the impatient shriek of a wyvern from further back on the ships; they had at least one, possibly more – it wouldn't be easy to keep those large creatures fed in oversea travel.
If they have wyverns on board, they wouldn't have horses – too much risk of the former eating the latter. That was a relief. Wyverns were nothing to trifle with, even if they had a weakness for magic.
Ishtar's hand slipped into hers, squeezing it reassuringly. “Stay close to me,” She murmured.
Tine narrowed her eyes and reached out to the wind.
Those who carried the blood of Forseti had an innate connection to the wind that even the strongest mage without it could not match. Even blessed with only minor blood, Tine could whip up a storm if she poured enough time and magic into it. It would be very taxing, but she could do it – sink each of these ships herself.
And then pass out, sleep for two days, and scare the living hells out of Ishtar. But I would sink them.
She doubted she had the time...but she could whip up a wind strong enough to toss some people overboard.
Sensing what she was winding up to do, Ishtar patted her arm, then pulled her hand back and slid Mjolnir under her arm. Thin flickers of lightning curled around her wrist, filling Tine's nose with the smell of ozone. The pirates were laughing at the small force facing them, taunting and making rude gestures.
“How juvenile,” Her cousin muttered. Then she strode forward, putting herself at the head of the guard, and projected her voice across the waters. “Pirates, rats of the seas, come to prey on innocent and helpless. Turn back from this port! You are not welcome here! We extend you this one chance to leave with your lives; refuse it, persist in this path, and we shall not hold back!”
Tine shivered at the authority in her voice. When Hilda gave orders, she sounded like a child making demands of her parents. When Ishtar delivered commands, she sounded like a princess – no, like a queen.
There was a frozen moment of disbelief; the pirates paused their taunting to stare at her. The guards were staring too, which made Tine wince and duck her head awkwardly.
Then the captain laughed; he pushed his men aside and put his foot up on the railing, pointing at her. “That's a good joke, little girl! Perhaps I'll take you aboard as my personal guest once we've plundered this place properly,” Tine's fingers dug into her palm, fear and anger pulsing through her blood in equal measure at hearing that sort of threat yet again. “I'll teach you manners, real nice. Spare the pretty ones, boys, but go and have your fun!”
The pirates all roared in agreement.
Ishtar sighed in irritation. “Such a grotesque threat. Do they have none other when faced with a woman?” She reached out her hand, pointing one finger at the hull of the ship. “There's nothing more to be said.”
Tine quickly threw up her arm to shield her eyes.
The light of Mjolnir's lightning could render a person blind if they were unlucky. The world around the edges of her arm went pure white; static crackled across her loose clothes, making her hair stand up on end. An earth-shattering impact, the splintering of wood and the crackling of fire burst seconds later, followed quickly by dozens of screams and the alarmed shrieking of the wyvern on board. Tine heard a number of their fellow guards yelp and stumble backwards; she lowered her arm, blinking little blots of light out of her eyes as she examined the results.
A massive hole, bigger than a cannonball impact, had been blasted in the hull of the pirate ship; it was taking water by the gallon, rocking violently and tossing some of her crew overboard. Tine, knowing that this was her moment, let out a long whistle and raised her hand straight up. Warm green light wrapped around her hands and then flew up into the air...
And the wind came. (sometimes the wind made her think of father. It was really the only thing of his that she had)
The howling blast of air tore over the top of the ship, sending dozens of men flying out into the ocean and rocking the ship onto its side – putting the entire hole Ishtar had created entirely underwater. The mast cracked under the pressure, and the wyvern who had been onboard had taken to the sky with its rider on its back. The captain fell into the ocean as his ship turned on its side, only the men who had clambered down the gangplanks onto the pier being ready for battle.
Tine let the wind go, breathing out heavily. “Will need a few minutes before I can do something like that again,” She said to the dumbstruck guards, who were now staring at her and Ishtar as though they were dragons.
“Are...are you Crest-bearers?” One of the men asked tentatively.
Ishtar glanced away from the invaders for a moment, puzzled. “Crest-bearer? I'm not sure what you mean; we both possess Holy Blood.” She frowned. “Ah, but explanations can wait. Tine, keep one eye on the wyvern for me...come, quickly; let us turn the entrance to the pier into a choke point.”
This time, the guards obeyed with only a second of thought and uncertainty.
A town defense was fairly rudimentary when it involved a single pier like this; Ishtar had started off her proper military experience dealing with bandits (and 'bandits') who raided or stole from the towns she visited while traveling Freege. While they were undermanned, and the pirates were better armed than the bandits (starving desperate peasants-) the two of them were used to seeing, the situation now was far from tumultuous. Ishtar was armed with Mjolnir; she could probably kill them all herself, if it came down to it. Hopefully it wouldn't.
The guards formed a choke point, positioning themselves so Ishtar and Tine could cast spells from safety behind them. Despite the display of power, they were seemingly still determined to keep their vow of protection towards the girls.
It was such a strange thing.
The pirates, shaken and furious, charged at the new choke-point. Ishtar removed her hand from Mjolnir and cast a simple Thunder spell, knocking a man off his feet; Tine jumped up and cast Fire, causing the archer who was trying to take point behind a pillar to instead drop to the ground in a panic as his clothes were lit ablaze. The guards leveled their lances and swiped and stabbed at any pirate who managed to get past these attacks to reach them; the second ship began moving around.
Ishtar touched Mjolnir again, stepping out from behind the guards. “I'm sorry,” she muttered, because she wondered if any of these men were just people who had fallen on hard times (they were more that than anyone else at home-) but was steeled to her mission. Tine glanced away as another great crackling thunderbolt blasted across the air and slammed into the side of the ship, throwing it off balance and tearing a hole straight through it.
Tine winced when screaming men fell into the ocean. Hopefully some of them could swim.
The pirates kept coming, throwing themselves uselessly against the choke point. Ishtar cast Thunder again and then swore; Tine blinked and then saw what she'd seen – the third ship had turned about and was heading away. Not out into the ocean, but further down the town; likely intending to land somewhere else and attack from the front of the town.
“Someone has to go and man the other entrance!” Ishtar shouted.
“We can't leave here, my lady, or else the pirates will get past us!” The guard called back.
“Damn,” Ishtar muttered, then gave her head a shake. “Hold the line here, we'll go and ensure it stays secure!”
Tine threw one last fireball and then ran to follow her cousin who was determinedly rushing through the now-empty town. Looking up at the sky, she let out a noise of alarm when she realized she saw that wyvern circling overhead – no, not circling, it was definitely diving!
“Ishtar,” She started to warn her, only to be cut off when an arrow hit the wyvern, causing it to shriek in pain and spiral down to the ground outside of the town. Ishtar paused in her mad dash, a confused noise leaving her throat, before clarity crossed her face.
“I think that must be the Knights of Serios,” She mused before picking up the pace again. “Come, Tine; I believe these are allies of ours.”
Tine let out a relieved sigh. “That's good.” She put her hand on the warm red scarf wrapping securely around her neck. It felt warm, somehow, despite the cool air coming off the ocean.
They rushed to the gates they had all but crashed into the night before (had it truly been so little time-?) and looked outside to see what was happening – carefully, positioning themselves so they could duck to the side and avoid arrows or thrown axes aimed at them.
What they saw...was rather a marvel.
There were a man in white and silver, wielding an ax, roaring about the judgment of the goddess in a loud, bombastic voice. A lithe woman in dark clothes wielding an elegant silver bow was taking aim at someone out of sight. They were the only adults, though – and hardly the most interesting figure.
It was the girl who caught Tine's eye first – her and her sword. The blue-haired teenager (that was her best guess, she radiated youth from the way she moved-) slashed a pirate with a blazing sword as a wyvern circled over her head; instead of calling out for assistance, she stepped backwards and swung her sword up to the sky – and the sword split into several moving parts!; reaching up and piercing the leg of the beast. The wyvern cried out and bucked violently, throwing its rider in its haste to free itself from the blade causing it such pain. It eventually succeeded, and the blue-haired girl let it fly off instead of trying to cut it down.
Tine sort of liked her.
“Teach, be a bit more careful! You could have lost your head there!” That laughing, teasing chastisement seemed to come from a handsome brown-haired boy with tanned bronze skin. He was also dressed as an archer, and he fired arrows with the skill that came from practice from childhood.
“You worry too much about her, Claude!” An orange-haired girl astride a horse darted past him, her lance swung out to catch an enemy. “Since when has anyone ever gotten the jump on our Professor?”
"With how much she worries, it's only fair that someone looks after her in return!" A pink-haired girl laughed, swinging a large ax up onto her shoulder like it weighed nothing at all.
“He's not worried, he's flirting with her.” A white-haired girl – perhaps the same age as Tine herself – trotted after them; she wasn't holding any weapons, so she was probably a mage. “Haven't you noticed?”
“L-Lysithea, you could get them in trouble if you go around yelling stuff like that,” a boy with light green hair protested; he was wielding a sword and also had a bow and quiver strapped over his back. Two weapons, used by someone that young?
“She's right, Ignatz! Don't worry about it; I'm pretty sure everyone has noticed, but no one's made a fuss.” That comment came from a giant of a boy with a mess of blonde hair and – and – what were those things on his wrists? Well, whatever they were, they allowed him to drop a full-grown man with two punches to the face!
“Um...I-I think this is just Claude's way of trying t-to make the Professor laugh,” that stammered remark came from an elegant young woman with blue hair and a dress not unlike what the priestess had given Tine herself to wear. Her hand glowed with gentle white magic.
“He really should stop, it's unseemingly for him to address her so intimately!” A somewhat pompous-sounding purple-haired haired boy complained. “Stay close to me, Marianne, you needn't dirty your hands over bandit scum like this.”
“H-Hey! Don't leave me behind!” A diminutive purple-haired girl armed with a bow protested, scrambling to keep up. She ran after 'Teach', sticking to her side and shooting at something she couldn't see.
“Those are knights?” Ishtar asked in puzzlement. “They're all so young.” She tilted her head. “Well, I suppose that doesn't matter right at this moment – we should go and greet them, so our two forces can coordinate and take care of that last ship.”
Tine nodded, and the two of them pushed open the gates and rushed to meet the people that – though they did not know it yet – walk with them to their new destiny.