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Fantasy Winter's Betrayal

Sub Genres
Adventure

Sha

Doth thou even Liftith?
Sia Sia
---

The moon bid farewell and left them in darkness. Beneath the boundless shroud of smoke which billowed ever the more quickly toward the stars, Leena’s people were felled.

The riders had approached noiselessly upon their horses, the gates had been hung open and swept through before the hooves could be heard. The night guard had already been hung from the outer walls to signal the attack while all mercy was left unbegotten by the truce-breaking invaders.

Almost musically, the yells of the raiding soldiers now filled the air as great flames began to rise and cackle. The cold winds took their revenge upon the wooden walls which once held them at bay, fanning and spreading the fires within the city walls which forced the denizens onto the streets where their blood was swiftly spilled.

All garrisons that could be mustered from within the inner walls made haste to ready themselves. Half-buckled belts fell loosely over ringing chainmail and untied tunics as the rousted soldiers made their way into the darkness held alight by the fires of burning homes. The citizenry fought beside them. Their naked toes bitten by the cold, crunching into the quickly reddening, blackening, and melting snow as the Princes and Royal Guardsmen strode from the inner sanctum to stand beside them.

Even the snow of pure white which fell from the sky beyond the smoke and managed its way through fire was quickly turned black with soot and red with blood as it landed upon the roads. Leena did not see them fight, but knew of their bravery because their were no screams. Only turmoil. Only cries of anger. Cries of valor - cries of those with nowhere to run and whose families were on the brink of destruction.

It was the last she would see of her brothers and the noble, stalwart men who had looked over their kin for so long. She looked upon their backs as they ran from the castle and into the streets. Her eldest brother, Edwin, had turned to smile at her, but as his eyes reflected her fear, she averted her gaze, before being pulled staunchly by Herman, “We must fly, my lady,” He whispered coarsely and with an urgency she had never before heard uttered.

Herman was a grayed man, an old soldier nearing sixty and eldest of the Royal Guard who was now tasked solely with the Princess’ protection until the city might be safe for her return. His white tabard fell loosely and untied round his waist, projecting their crest of a golden hawk with a blue fish clenched in its talons. His thick, gray, braided beard contrasted the hair which remained on the rims of his head; trimmed short. He wore no armor, as there was no time for it, but a heavy, clean and furred leather coat not dissimilar to the one which hung around the Princess’ shoulders.

The braid of her red hair clung to her back. Her white silken shirt was thrown hastily over her nightwear but beneath the heavy, darkened-brown coat upon her back which covered it. Her gray-blue eyes looked worriedly at her protector, albeit with an absolution which brought the older man some small sense of comfort. She nodded shallowly, her pale skin splintering the blazing firelight which shown in through the left-open doors to their castle. She had wanted to stay, to utilize her remedies and learned medicine to aid those who fell but still had breath. She was, in spite of her youth, clever enough to know the folly of tarrying; for she had seen from the higher windows of the castle the sheer number of violent forces which itself wasted no time in ransacking all that it could.

And so they flew.

Beneath the castle and through the creaking, thick wooden doors lay the secret caverns leading beyond the outer walls of the city. So thick with dust were they, that when they were pushed or pulled upon it was as if the smoke from above had carried down to spite them for fleeing. The stones at their feet were cracked from use but had by now filled with, and were covered by, a thin layer of dirt that held their footprints well.

The only light was that of the torch which Herman held. Even the torch holders fastened upon the walls sat empty, cobwebbed and stricken with dust but unable to rust in such a dry, tomb-like place. It took near an hour at a brisk pace to reach the end and climb the ladder carved in stone. Should it have been made of wood and rope, they may have found themselves trapped. Luckily for them, the divots which were struck into the sunken boulder were sturdy and, though worn, remained unbroken. The two rose from the cavern and pushed through the brush which hid the exit. There they stood, sunken in snow beneath the great clouds of smoke which hid the winter night’s sky.

Leena was quick to push through the frozen brush and peer down at the valley below. The smell of smoke was pungent and made ever the more unbearable by her knowing of what burned. The sweat upon her brow frosted quickly, but she could hardly feel the cold. Herman towered behind her. His shadow cast backwards as they witnessed the invaders still riding against a dwindling resistance. Whether it was the cold of night or the cold realization of what was occurring before their eyes, they remained still as statues frozen in the snow for but a moment.

A scream reached their ears. One of pain, of surrender and death.

Leena tilted her head towards the last of her Royal Guard while her eyes remained fixed on the catastrophe below, “We must make haste. The morning will not come shortly,” She paused, grimacing at the steam which left her lungs, “Should we tarry long, we will die not to fire, but to frost.” Her voice was soft; a shiver began to run through every word as the cold became unavoidable.

“The town of Ardwen lays not far up the mountain. It is fortified well-enough and should hold until the other Lords can rally their garrisons. Shouldn’t take us more than an hour, maybe two given this snow.”

Without a word she turned from her dying countrymen; as she did, so too did Herman, who led the way through the deep snow. The gorges left behind with each step of his heavy boots built the path upon which Leena walked. At times she found herself hopping between them when the footprints would sink her down to her thigh. The cold became biting the further up they went. Herman, who trudged along with the strength and will of a man not yet forty, and in order to ensure the closeness of his ward, would glance back to his Princess with a regularity that, should Leena have had the constitution to notice, she might well speak of in reprimand.

“Sir Herman?”

“Yes, my lady?” He turned to see that she did not stop as she spoke, and upon seeing her continued step, faced and pressed onward with perked ears.

“How long ought it take our Lords to ready their men to mount a defense?” She asked, almost plainly.

Herman took a sharp breath in through his nose - now was not the time for half-truths and placation. “It should take only days, but without the rivers to carry our ships,” He paused to feel a shiver run down his spine. “A defense cannot be launched without them. The horses may well ride upon our frozen waterways and cannot be met without our natural defenses. They may have to hold out until the ice melts, but now that war is known, the other castles will not fall so easily. Tomorrow, we can ride for Lord Balkor’s Keep.”

After a short, quiet contemplation and a few steps taken she spoke quietly, “Onward, then,” In a tone soiled in a sad acceptance.

The cold seeped through the silken pants thinly veiling her legs and began to pain her calves as time dragged on. The second hour since rising from the tunnel passed, and although the princess was young and far from frail, such a trek was beyond her experience. With each new step she felt her legs weakening despite the numbness which had long ago consumed them.

The journey was mostly a quiet one save for the sparse and distant howls of wolves and man. There wasn’t much to say, after all. Words, if they could even be formed through bluing lips, would pale in comparison to the sinking in their hearts. The wind was soft amid the trees, rustling softly about them in tune with the crunching of snow. At last, before them, a calming firelight welcomed them from atop the waterfall. A great mill turned at the falling water’s behest, sat beside a once tilled but now snowed over field at the base of the waterfall. Another mill stood tall from within the town which nestled itself comfortably on the cliffs edge, enclosed in tall wooden walls and ran through by a now unseen, thick river of still-flowing water.

A spring merged with the cascading river not far above the town which kept their mills turning and their bellies full. The fish though it had to be caught sparingly in these seasons, could be found here in fair abundance while the snow rose halfway up the tall fortifications. The waterfall itself, which spilled from town through which the river ran, breathed steam as it fell into the thinly iced, shallow, and quickly splintering creeks below.

Herman’s strides quickened at the sight and Leena found it not hard to quicken beside him, a new wind filling her lungs and pressing them onward for these last steps. Upon their approach, they were met with a closed gates, blazing torches atop tall walls, and men readied to fend off that which set fire to the lands below. Behind them towered watchposts and the local Lord’s home pressed against the rising mountainside at the far end of the large, fortified town. Soft steam and smoke from stewing pots and hearth fires rose and danced with the winds before merging with the tumultuous, sickening smoke which had managed to follow the Princess here.

“Name yourselves!” The voice echoed from atop the sharpened walls.

“We come from the capital,” Herman spoke with heavy breath, “I am Sir Herman Coriandr of the Royal Guard. With me, The Princess Leena Haraldr of Irovirr, my ward, and I seek shelter from the cold of this night and the fires below!” His voice picked up, not in desperation, but with a commanding tone more akin to a man of his position.

Signals were given, muffled words floated over their ears against the wind, and the gates were dragged open. The warmth of the town could be felt as the thick wood was parted to reveal a small contingent of soldiers and their Captain, the local Lord, who was so marked by the eagle stitched atop his gray-furred cap. The gates were quick to shut behind the travelers as they entered this new domain. The Lord nodded worriedly to Herman, who returned the gesture, before approaching the frigid but unwavering princess who found not the strength to shiver.

“Greetings, my Lady, I am Lord Marcus Gregoria of Ardwen - it has been a great while since I have seen you,” He began with a worried eye, recognizing Leena through her pale yet reddened cheeks and steaming lips. “Come, comfort yourself from this cold night.” He stepped to the side with a short bow of his head. At this indication, Leena proceed forward upon the hard dirt of the town which lay a great distance beneath the heavy, packed snow from whence they came. Herman now followed her as they were led to this Lord’s home.

Lord Marcus had been awoken by his people as the smoke from below had risen passed them to shroud the starlight. Those who were held in his service made haste in dressing to welcome the refugee Princess. They were greeted with courtesy, and while Leena stood poised, tall, and stalwart in spite of herself, her weakened being was not to go unnoticed. The pleasantries were brief, what they knew was spoken in short, and she was led to baths and to beds. Comforted by warmth and tired legs she was quick to sleep, unworried by what tomorrow may hold.
 
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"Your Majesty!"

The words, which likely weren't the first time the voice had said them, shattered his dream. Bear stirred from his hibernation, though the heaviness of sleep threatened to claim him once more.

"Majesty!" Repeated the voice, and Bear sucked in a lungful of chilly air, consciousness surfacing enough to recognize the urgency. Jorian. Rolling over to face the servant and hooking an arm underneath his pillow, he cracked an eye open and shivered. The light that had danced behind his lids came from a candle clutched in the intruder's hands, not the window.

"It's pitch dark, boy. What's happened?" He asked, clenching his teeth and pulling away the fur coverlets. Despite the protest in his bones, Bear chilled his feet on the ground and sat up, leaning over his knees as he rubbed the sleep from his face.

Jorian's breath hitched in hesitancy, but to his credit, he replied as directly as the order he'd received. "The watch has spotted movements in the southeast, Sire. Lots of horses and men, riding fast over the plains. Sir Luca reckons that the Daisan are launching an attack on Irovirr. He awaits for your command."

At once, Bear swore, the sleepiness leaving him, and he reached for his boots, shoving his wool-clad feet into the soles. Jorian moved to light the candle sitting at his bedside table. "Go, tell him we ride," Bear said, "Then come back as quick as you can and aid with my armor."

Jorian, having lit the candle, nodded. "Aye, sir," he said, and with that, the boy withdrew from the bedchamber. Guessing that he had ten, possibly fifteen minutes, Bear washed and dressed quickly, not caring which woolen shirt he tugged from the shelf of his wardrobe. Then, with most of his time to spare, Bear took his candle and ducked underneath the doorway of his room, headed for the bedchamber across from his.

Sir Cassian DeRoe stood watch outside, his arms folded around his sheathed sword. Upon the sight of his sovereign, the graying man stood tall, reaching for the door to grant him entry. "I'll keep watch over her while you're away, Sire," the knight offered, speaking softly.

"Thank you," Bear said, clasping arms with the man before his attention was once more pulled into the room. Though peace blanketed his spirit at the sentiment, his heart lurched as the rustle of fur and quilts caught his ear.

"Papa?" A small voice ventured, and there, the candlelight just barely illuminated a pair of big, brown eyes and a mass of straw-colored curls.

Trying to smile, Bear approached the bed and sat down, reaching for the girl tucked away. "I'm here, princess." Though true, the title seemed more of endearment coming from his lips. Disregarding the chill of the room, she slipped from underneath the blankets.

"Ooh!" Bear protested, knowing what was coming, but the child knew it was a false objection and jumped into his arms anyways, dragging by the arm a rag doll, too. "Watch the candle!" He warned, fearing for a moment that she might catch her hair aflame, but the danger passed and she wrapped her small arms around his neck.

"You're leaving again?" she complained. "But tomorrow's my birthday. You promised that when I turned five, you would take me and Penelope riding."

"Penelope and I, sweetheart," Bear corrected gently, which earned him an enormous pout and a puppy-like whine. He plucked at her lower lip with a finger. "Careful there, Nora. If you stick out your lip any more, you'll trip on it."

That earned him an enormous smile, and she laughed, the sound happy like bells. "I won't trip!" She insisted, bouncing restlessly on his knee. But her face fell again. "Why do you have to go?" She asked, her voice choked with brimming emotion, "Is it because I put a dead mouse in Sir DeRoe's soup yesterday?"

Now, it was his turn to grin. So, that was how it got there. But Nora remained wide-eyed and serious, playing with the loose ties on his tunic, as if fearing the answer.

"No, little cub," he replied, tugging her braid, "There are just some bad men who might want to hurt the lady who might be your new mama. I need to go take care of them to make sure that she stays safe, and that you stay safe, and that Miss Agnes stays safe, and Sir DeRoe, and your uncle Luca, and Bree, and even grumpy Mr. Garnes. Everyone who counts on me."

"Even Penelope?" She asked, hugging her doll close.

"Especially Penelope. Give her to me for a minute, would you?"

Bear took the doll and tucked it underneath the woolen neckline of his tunic. The toy was soft and worn from love, darned in some places and the painted smile nearly washed away. Still, he took great care with it. "This way," he explained, "If you ever miss me or need a big Papa Bear hug, Penelope can give you one of these." He gave the doll a big squeeze.

"What if she runs out?" Asked Nora, skeptical of the notion.

Bear shook his head, thinking fast. "She won't run out, don't worry," he assured matter-of-factly, "See, if she ever needs more, she'll use her magical powers to fetch enough hugs for the next day and night. She can reach me no matter where I am, you know. That's how she's been doing it all this time."

"Truly?" She asked, now mesmerized by the raggedy lump of fabric.

"Yes, truly," Bear replied. Picking her up and tucking her back underneath her blankets, He gave Penelope one last squeeze before returning her to Nora. Pain sharp as a knife pierced him, and his goodbyes died on his tongue. Instead, he smoothed her hair and planted a kiss on her forehead. Oh, he wondered, the knot in his throat rising, how can I leave her?

Song transcended what words could not, and it was Nora who began the short tune he'd written for her, interjecting his name where he'd sung hers countless times, as well as switching up the last line.

"You are my papa,
My wonderful papa.
You make me happy,
every day.
You are so special,
I love you so much.
Please come back soon,
safe, and sound."

Bear's nose tingled, and he blinked away the moisture that threatened to dampen his eyes. "Many thanks for that, Princess," he said, heart swelling, "I will come back. I love you. Be good. Now you go to sleep."

After kissing her one last time, Bear took up his candle, stacked a few pieces of wood onto the embers of her fire, and said his goodbyes. Then, he withdrew, back into the tapestried halls of Castle Stoneheathe.

By the time Bear reached the courtyard, the stronghold was alive with the sounds of metal, men, and horses clad in pine greens and the snarling brown bear insignia. At his heels, Jorian jogged, carrying a fur-lined helmet under one arm. It had been awhile since a proper war party had gathered here, but by the number of men already most of the way prepared, the urgency of the practice had not left them.

At the steps, Luca stood gathered with several captains, discussing over a map under the light of a torch. Though Nora referred to the man as uncle, Luca was in truth his cousin. Just the same, the strong, McCullum features had won the war of genetics; however, on his cousin, the square jawline and mane of ashy-blonde hair seemed regal alongside his friendly, upturned eyes. Bear's were small and muddy brown, inherited from his mother, which did not distract at all from the harsh lines or the long, ugly scar that spanned from temple to jaw.

"King Rhys. Your Majesty," Sir Percival greeted, calling attention to his presence. The other men straightened and turned his direction.

Bear held out a hand to Jorian, who relinquished the helmet and scampered off into the stables to ready the horses. Then, he nodded once to each of the men in turn, muttering a greeting. "Carry on, please," he told them, joining their circle. "You were saying, Luca?"

Bowing his head once in respect, Luca pointed to a painted cluster of mills. "My prediction is that the Daisan will ride for Ardwen after Irovirr. The rivers are frozen, and it's a critical position to take if the Daisan wish to cut us off. Cormack has already sent a bird to our men stationed at the mines, and another two to Irovirr with a warning. It's cold and Daisan bows are accurate, but with any luck, the birds will survive. We must make haste if we are to succeed."

As Luca described their strategy, Bear's eyes followed the familiar curves of the rivers on the map. He could see the logic Luca was following. Though most of their southern border was shared with the Daisan plains, the cliffs between the two kingdoms were nigh impassible for an army. The closest access point was indeed the route up from Ardwen, and the fact that the Daisan were actually trying for it after five years of tentative peace, well, the chill wasn't only from the cold.

"As soon as your own men are ready, ride for Ardwen. Don't wait for me," Bear ordered, "Cormack, I reckon that your scouts are prepared? Make sure that Lord Gregoria knows which side of the border to shoot at."

"Aye Sire," came the reply, "There won't be any accidental casualties."

With that, the meeting adjourned and the front gates opened, splitting for Cormack and ten of his best scouts. The group blended into the white mountainside, dressed in snow-colored furs. Even the horses were blanketed in white, so they almost seemed to disappear like ghosts.

If he would've had time, Bear might have climbed up to the ramparts to watch their departure, but he didn't, so instead he entered the stable. Bree would now receive his attentions. As expected, Jorian was now struggling to tighten up the girth to Bree's saddle at one of the tacking poles. Stubbornly, the animal held a stomach full of air, attempting to trick the boy into keeping the saddle comfortably loose.

"You won't make any progress like that," he commented. At the sound of his voice, Bree tossed her head and snuffled at the hay, releasing her breath. Exasperated, the boy pulled at the slack, but Bear came up behind him. "I'll finish her up. Get your own horse ready."

Once he was more or less alone, Bear took the girth and tightened it, looping the tail around the D-ring and tying it off. "You should be nicer to Jorian, you know," he scolded conversationally, but the shaggy mountain horse merely flicked her ears back. Retrieving her bridle and reigns, he lifted Bree's head and slipped off her halter, feeding her the bit and buckling the bridle securely.

"Serve me well today, you little rascal," he told her, smacking her neck with an affectionate palm.

Luca's men were the next to depart, and Bear accompanied them, eager to begin on the long, twisting journey before the sun rose. Beyond the castle's walls, the wind magnified the temperature. Gratefully, Bear rearranged the thick scarf that protected his nose against frostbite, tucking the tails under the strap that held his bow and quiver of gray-feathered arrows.

Sheathed at his hip was his longsword, and strapped to Bree's saddle was a shorter one, an axe, a round shield, and a pack of provisions. Each man was equipped like this, and they rode out by threes. In this way, their journey down the mountain began, past villages of sturdy stone, through forest and steep ravines and ridges. Though it would reveal their location, it was necessary to ride by torchlight since the moon had decided to leave them.

When the knights of Stoneheathe could at last see the mills of Ardwen, the sun had turned a cycle and the burning of Irovirr smoked in the night. As Bear watched, one of the smoldering towers collapsed and sent rubble crumbling over the town. The destruction stole his breath. How many people would die tonight?

Amazed at the morbid beauty of the devastation, Luca let out a low whistle. "Remember when we tried to take out that tower?" His cousin asked, reminiscing on war-days past. Bear scoffed. Tried was an overstatement. During that time of year, the rivers had swum full of vessels, and their war party had barely crossed the border before overwhelming adversary came to meet them. "Now, I'd say we're about a half day too late to save it."

Not far below, over the snow-blanketed falls, the opening gates of Ardwen signaled that Cormack had arrived. Even farther down the falls, torches flickered behind the line of trees. As they watched, the forefront riders curved around the banks, crossing ice where it was safe and riding towards the gates of the fortress. The telltale curved swords of their enemy flashed orange in the torchlight.

"Saints alive," breathed Luca, "They're here already." The man wheeled his horse, kicking it into a canter.

"On me!" the knight bellowed, and once he was in the lead, he turned his horse down the slope, intending to circle around the fort and meet them on the other side. If he'd been any less of a rider, Bear might have fallen off of Bree once the horse began to pick up speed, but he sat low and held on, letting Bree navigate her own way. Jorian was not as adept and hit the snow, but that was well enough.

With the advantage of high ground, the stretch of land that would be their battlefield approached quickly. Excitement thumped through Bear to the rhythm of Bree's hooves, and he pulled ahead several horse-lengths, his face stinging from the cold. The Daisan, clad in crimson, whooped their warcries below, their mounts wide-eyed and frothing from the previous battle and the climb.

Though he, too, was tired from the journey, Bear had won battles in worse condition. Additionally, Cormack and his scouts had evidently claimed the lookout points of Ardwen, aiming their volleys of arrows while the knights in red were isolated and in-range. Snowballing with courage, Bear drew his sword and raised it high, roaring a cry of his own down the incline, his men howling with equal verve beside him.
 
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Sha

Doth thou even Liftith?
Leena slumbered restlessly until dawn did bid her to rise. Dusty streaks of light split through the cracks of a heavy, closed curtain which hung across the room from the foot of her bed. She woke without hesitation nor grogginess despite the restlessness of her sleep. Her mind was as empty and cold as her lips had been the night before. She felt neither grogginess behind her eyes nor strain upon her body until she placed her feet upon the carpeted ground and stood.

“Wonderful,” She whispered sarcastically to the empty room, her mind turning to herself. The legs which now held her upright at once commanded her to return to rest. Her cheeks still felt cold upon her face, and colder still when graced with the warmth of her hands which had spent the night nestled snugly within the crevice of her neck. She leaned over and reached for the ground with a groan; a muted half-whimper of annoyance. The tension which had built in her lower body slowly released as she did so, allowing herself to bend lower and lower until the blood sat too heavily in her head.

She straightened herself slowly and stretched upwards with a noise befitting the movement. From the pitcher beside her bed she poured for herself a glass of water and made her way slowly towards the large, draping blue curtains opposite her. She passed a mirror upon a desk which reflected the awkwardness of these morning steps. Pictures of fishermen and net-weavers hung in wood-carved and darkly stained frames hung imposingly beside large furs and woven rugs which did well to retain the room’s heat during the months of winter and fall.

Her stomach turned silently, patiently, while she pulled back the curtain an arms length apart and embraced the encompassing sunshine. The air in the room felt stale after the fresh, frigid air which filled her lungs the night before, but this light brought her levity and comfort. There were soldiers, or perhaps levied citizens clad in metal and thick leathers, who stood upon the walls in small groups, looking away from her. Behind them there was a black smoke smoldering from -

A creaking door startled her eyes from the foreign town. Her arm fell and the curtain rolled shut. Her eyes met those of a maid. The woman’s eyes were lined with time though her hair was a bright chestnut tied ever-too-tightly into a bun beneath a white mob cap. In her arms, as well as the arms of those behind her, there hung soft clothing of blues and whites. They, almost in unison, curtsied, “My lady,” The woman at the front whispered just loudly enough for the Princess to hear.

Leena drunk the rest of her glass and, holding the empty vessel now gently between too fingers from its cusp, meandered towards her bed to where the maids would follow. The morning then passed in a haze. She forewent another bath, asked for quiet, and dressed herself in casual, warm garb from the selections placed upon her unmade bed. Her pants were lined with silk stitched to a heavy tanned leather while her equally drab-colored shirt flowed almost dress-like past her hip. She appeared not regal but neither common, pulling over herself now a fur scarf of pure, unadulterated white carved from a winter fox.

A hearty breakfast of egg, milk, and bread returned to her her senses as she ate in silence, alone save for the equally silent servants who stood awkwardly by the doorways.

As she finished and stood Lord Gregoria entered the bedroom, almost as if he were waiting for the moment. He bowed his head wordlessly. She smiled and returned the gesture with graceful melancholy. Herman entered at his back, his eyes dulled and tormented.

“What of the Capital?” She asked plainly before further greetings could be made.

Gregoria’s eyes shifted nervously to the now uncovered windows of the room, “You and your guardsman are the only survivors we have seen,” His voice broke and he paused, unsure of how to continue.

“What of the eyes of your scouts?” Her stance was strong, tall and regal. “Have they not yet looked upon the destruction and brought word?” Her voice commanded an answer despite the softness of her natural voice.

“Destruction is the word. Fire and ash,” He startled himself with the words which escaped him so easily at her behest.

“Then it was wise for us to flee,” She spoke firmly and with a slow blink. Herman’s eyes fell to the floor - it would be nigh impossible to convince a veteran soldier of such a thing. The Princess knew not what force held back her sadness from revealing itself as it strangled her - but she was glad for this strength of which she had been previously unaware.

“Wise, indeed,” Gregoria spoke, “Though, I fear,” He continued, taking her cue to speak forwardly, “The Daisan have already risen halfway up the mountain. It would unwise to flee again, we have sent the birds to our Lords and let them know of your arrival and the fate of our capital. We have also just now received word from the birds of Stoneheathe which tell of their coming.”

“And you would trust them?”

“I fear we will have no choice - should the River Lords come not soon enough. Though, upon their arrival, we need not admit them, my lady.”

The words startled her eyes to widen, “You ask me?”

“You are,” The Lord turned a concerned, knowing glance to Herman before looking back to Leena, “Uncrowned. But Queen.”

Her questions were driven by a simple curiosity, for she was until now unaware that it was she who now sat upon a burning throne and her questions were that of a ruler. So it was true, then. They were all dead or soon-to-be.

--

The day passed on slowly. Her mind never truly leaving the haze of the morning, her legs never regaining fully their strength, nor her face ever becoming warm. Refugees would trickle in, bloodied and downtrodden. Leena would spend her day in this destructive haze, surrounded by the dying in the warehouses-turned-sickbays amid remedies of herb and bandages of linen. She was more comfortable here, at this time, for those who were dying reflected the feelings of her soul. Just as well, the new Queen knew not of warfare, nor siege defense and so took no liberties over Lord Gregoria and his men who would spend their day reinforcing the walls and preparing for the inevitable. Lord Gregoria had spoken briefly of the strategic position Ardwen held upon the mountain and their inevitable clash, to which she would nod gracefully, almost uncaring in her ignorance.

Even when the rider, Cormack, as Herman informed her of his name, and his small troop of ten arrived with news of The Bear’s continued allegiance to Irovirr, she took no quarter with him, and continued in her production of salves. Speaking to Herman: “If Lord Gregoria is to trust them, then let him. I am but a fish in a shallow stream surrounded by beak and talon. I may be soon titled as Queen, but I am not of fit mind to lead those who fly - not from my short waters. I might only hope to be un-impaled and uneaten when it is to end.”

Dusk came with the sounds of hollering ravagers and echoing hooves and horseshoe clanging against stone. No more refugees nor worn, battled soldiers would come from the Capital. Now, they would come from the walls which surrounded her, and the night would not end swiftly. Calls were made and arrows were freed. The Daisan could not yet approach the walls upon their horses and so they set amid the crags of icy stones of the mountain their balistas and catapults. The tall trees were a great boon at this time, preventing great trebuchets from flying stones from unreachable distances. At least, here, they could be slowed and fired upon until reinforcements might relieve them.

The skirmishes were short but loud. Leena, from atop the northernmost watchtower, peered over the slowly ensuing battle. Over the northern hill, toward Stoneheathe, there came further cries of war echoing down upon them. A great many shadows approached beneath the light of torches, led by a man she could not recognize but new, though she knew not how, was Bear. The knights took no time upon their approach before driving their way down the hill and Leena spoke to Herman, in a quiet whisper, "You may go to fight, if you wish," And made her way past him, returning to there where the wounded would be tended. Herman, clad in great armor and cloth befitting his status and position, said nothing, followed her to the base of the tower, and upon her entering the sick-bay which was soon to fill, he turned and made his way for the wall.
 
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Sha Sha
______

As the battle progressed, it proved to be as exhausting as ever. Bear sustained a graze to the forehead from a blow that had taken his helmet but otherwise remained unscathed as he and his men surged onwards.

At one point, a band of them had forced the enemy to fall back, steering them into ice thinned by the swift passage of water. The frozen river had given a terrible, other-worldly crack, and the black depths did not discriminate against horse nor man. In another instance, a knight in green had thrown a torch into the coiled ropes of a catapult. Flame soon licked up to the structure, shedding a new brand of light to the battle. Soon, others suffered the same fate, becoming beacons instead of tools of destruction. The enemy, however, fought with vigor, and their numbers intensified.

Bear pushed on, working in tandem with Bree and the three other men who fought closest. Just to his left, Sir Stephan slashed at a Daisan warrior from the height of his mount, and to his right, Sir Wallace was vigorously sawing through the string of a giant crossbow with Sir Brent guarding him. Bear raised his bow, sending an arrow slamming into the skull of an archer aiming their way. The man toppled off of his mount.

Just a little ways farther, Luca and four others plowed through the next window of opportunity given to them. With his forty men divided into five groups of eight, each with their own leader and a second, his band of warriors could be divided into as many as ten autonomous groups at one time, each completely independent and unpredictable to the enemy. Luca could join any one of them and take command, as he chose to now. Across the frozen field, his group converged with another to slice up the main contingent only to divide again and reform. Sir Percival had done the same when he and his men swooped down the hillside, followed closely by the soldiers and some volunteers from the mines.

Bear couldn't remember a time when he'd been prouder, but his father would have been appalled at the degree of fragmentation if he'd been alive to see it. Stupid boy, giving so much power to mere subordinates, he'd say, the only way to win is to take control yourself. You can't trust others to do what must be done. Despite the words echoing in his mind, a smug grin spread across Bear's face. He reached for an arrow, slipping it onto the bowstring and aiming for a bearded plainsman who was raising a rallying arm up high. The arrowhead followed the man for a half-second, and then it hit him cleanly in the exposed underarm. Even from here, the cries echoed.

Though he did not turn from his next target, who, to avoid the arrow, tripped over a pile grappling hooks, he heard the crunch of Sir Wallace's feet flattening snow as the man climbed down from the large weapon, picked up his sword, and mounted his shaggy beast.

"Onward!" Sir Stephan shouted, but Bear didn't move except to mop up the wetness from his face, distracted. There, up ahead, was a warrior with long, grimy black hair and war paint astride a horse of midnight. Their eyes met and the monster grinned, flicking Valkor blood from his weapon. Sir Stephen circled around, waiting for Bear, but the sovereign shouted them off to their next mission. Heise was likely not to let another man steal the glory of killing a king. Sure enough, his brother-in-law waved back the several pairs of men who jumped to aid their leader.

“We meet again, Bear," The man hollered in grating tones, "I wonder what my brother would do to your sister if he knew of your treachery?"

"It was your people who broke the treaty first, Heise. Honestly, refusing to give your princess to Irovirr after all that talk of intermarriage?" Bear shook his head and scoffed, exchanging his bow for the sword. "You won't dare make an enemy of me, too."

Heise dismounted, and Bear followed his example, preferring hand-to-hand over passes on mounts.

"Then you truly don't know my King brother. Are you aware of what he did to your sister when she was reluctant at the altar?" Heise sneered the words, boasting even as his men were dying nearby. The suspense nearly tangible, the man inspected the shade of his curved sword. "He caged sweet Annalise like the little songbird she is and hung her over a bottomless pit. Not a scrap of food or drink for three days. Needless to say, she was a willing bride after that. The change was absolutely astounding."

Rage itched over Bear's skin, tension coiling beneath his muscles like a viper waiting to strike. No. Not Annalise. He raised his weapon, the point aimed at Heise's throat. The edge shook. "You will die today." When Bear charged, Heise met his overhand with an arm-jarring defense, then hooked his cross guard with Bear's, trapping him into a battle of strength. "I wonder," his enemy grunted, trying to keep a steady footing in the snow as Bear pushed, "I wonder if your sister will cry when I gift her your head."

Like a bull, steam shot from Bear's nostrils, and Heise's feet slid roads into the soiled ground. Metal shook, panic flashed, and sparks flew as the painted warrior released Bear's weapon, stumbling out of the way as his enemy's sword clanged viciously against his armor.

On the next pass, Heise made no taunts. Blinded by his hatred, Bear placed too much strength into his thrust, so when Heise shielded himself with his weapon, the man was able to use the force to his advantage, running his curved blade down Bear's straight one, aiming a sharp edge directly towards his throat. Realizing his mistake, Bear displaced the weapon, changing position so the curve pointed towards the ground.

But Heise wasn't done.

The plainsman let Bear's blade side off of his into the snow, and with a quick step, Bear's side was exposed and his enemy's blade was free. Wasting no time, Heise pushed forwards, sticking the point through the layers of toughened leather and padded jacket that protected his side.

Having found his mark, Heise sneered, but the layers did not stain as red as he might've hoped on account of a dulled weapon. Though it was too late to escape injury, Bear retreated a step, ignoring the ache of his side as he used the curve to the man's disadvantage. With a snap of the wrist, he trapped the man's sword, then delivered a savage kick that sent Heise blundering into the cold, filthy earth.

Bear's anger still lingered, though this time, he harnessed it, striding towards the plainsman with the swift intent to kill. After batting away Heise's attempts to fend him off, Bear punched his sword through the metal plating protecting his enemy's heart with a powerful stab of the point. Blood froze in the snow, and Heise's hand grappled around the blade that pinned him down.

"Y-You'll regret this, Bear," he stammered, eyes hazy with pain, "My br-brothers will retaliate."

Bear spit on the man beneath him. "I'd like to see them try," he growled, and with not another word, he left his sword with the man to die. Let them all see the crest on the hilt and know who did it, he thought, and whistled for Bree, who came up beside him from where she dodged the hands of the enemy. With his better arm, he hauled himself up into the saddle and located Luca nearby. Joining the fight with the spare sword strapped to Bree's saddle, he aided Luca and his men in successfully fending off another wave before the battle lulled enough for the two to converse.

"You should take a moment in Ardwen." Luca suggested, dropping the pretense of titles, "It's high time Gregoria paid his respects to you."

Reading between the lines, Bear swung his blade experimentally, demonstrating his wellbeing. The ache intensified. "I'm not injured badly, cousin. Don't you try and put me away."

Luca laughed grimly, but there was no joy. "You lost your temper again. I can tell by the crease between your eyes. Don't make me remind you of your duty."

Bear held back what would have been a loathing scowl, but Luca was right. Much would be lost today if he became reckless and died in his wrath. Besides, Luca had also given him the perfect excuse in Lord Gregoria. So, he yielded, kicking Bree up the hill. Away from the battle, he took several calming breaths, but the thought of Annalise plagued him, trapped and suffering the whims of an enemy sovereign. But instead of riding to the gates, he turned the horse back up the war-strewn path to where a boy lay in the snow, his arm wrenched at a crooked angle.

"I'm glad you're alive," Bear mused darkly, "It would have been an inconvenience to replace you."

"Your Majesty!" Jorian cried, turning his head in an effort to see who approached, "Y-You're bleeding!"

Bear disregarded his servant's observation. Instead, he dismounted and crept close, dripping red from his bow. From this distance, he could see tears mostly frozen on the boy's face, his nose running wildly. "Let's take a look at that arm of yours, shall we?" He asked, tones gravelly as he kneeled beside the mangled limb. In a moment, he paused. If the elbow had merely dislocated, he might've been able to do something. But his arm had also snapped on the way down.

"It's bad, isn't it?" the boy squeaked, searching Bear's face apprehensively as several fresh drops slipped down the sides of his face. But he shook his head. "No, it's not bad at all. You'll live. It's just a bit beyond my capacity. Luckily, we should be able to find a healer within the walls of Ardwen. Can you undertake the pain until then?"

Jorian nodded tentatively, and Bear reached up, tugging at the thick scarf around his neck, which had, in some places, frozen over where his breath had penetrated. Carefully, but quickly as to not prolong the pain, he tucked the arm in against the boy's chest, using the cloth to tie it securely. Then, Bear helped him stand. Jorian wobbled a little, but remained on his feet, supported by the older man.

"My mother's going to kill me," he lamented, genuine terror filling his voice as the pair picked their way down the mountainside.

Bear smiled grimly and ruffled the boy's hair, freeing the powder trapped between the blonde locks. "It's my head on the chopping block, not yours," he replied, shivering not only from the cold, "You're definitely receiving more training once we're back home."

On the way to the fortress, the Bear picked up another two injured men, these from the mines, and hoisted them up onto Bree and Jorian's horse. Then, laden with their loads, and his wound throbbing and stinging considerably afterwards, the lot of them finally approached the gates, which parted just enough to let them in on account of their green colors.

The compound was naught more than a cluster of buildings, the floor dirt and snow. Bear asked around for wherever he might find medical attention for himself and those under his care, and he was directed to a warehouse packed with the dead and dying. Servants and healers bobbed like sparrows hopping from one man to the next, and the two men from the mines were placed in empty spaces against the closest wall. Bear waited, but no nurse came immediately to look over them.

Once he'd done all he could, Bear glowered. One minute expired, then five. Ten. With each minute that passed, the tension in his shoulders intensified as he watched his two men slowly bleed out, one from a gut wound and another from a serious-looking gash in the shoulder. Just as when his father had sent Annalise to fulfill her duty, the underlying guilt lingered. I can do nothing, he thought bitterly, remembering the lengthy letter he'd received in his sister's best cursive all those years ago. It had spoken well of the Daisan, but now, especially now, how could he trust it? And how could he have been so stupid to believe it?!

Unable to help himself, he subconsciously connected these two soldier's fates to that of his sister's, and, temper flaming to combat the degree of helplessness, he only lasted about a minute more before he confronted a brown-smocked maid who was ladling out water to the injured several beds over. At least here, he could do something. "Excuse me," he said tensely, "I've arrived a quarter hour ago with the two knights there and the boy. They require medical attention immediately."

"I'm sorry, sir," she replied, attempting to placate him, "The healers will try to service everyone in good time. We're a bit understaffed, and--"

Irritated further by the shard of metal that had been stuck into him, he grabbed the lip of the girl's water pail, glaring down at her from his towering height with all the condemnation he could muster. "Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. I am King Rhys McCullum, Bear of Stoneheathe, and you're going to fetch somebody to examine these men. Understand?"

"Sir, I--" She stammered uncomprehending, trying to pull the bucket from his grasp. Water sloshed over their shoes. "Let go!"
 
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Sha

Doth thou even Liftith?
Herman felt bloated with rage as he moved towards the thin ramparts upon the walls. He felt simultaneously light and heavy, as though he were submerged in water - a weight all around him. The sides of his vision blurred red. Nothing entered his mind but for the death of those brothers with whom he could not die beside. In the face of his rage, the aging man did not forget his duty to the princess, and so did not stumble brazenly and alone onto the battlefield as a younger man who lost as much might have done. He stayed within the walls, seething, almost hoping that the raiders might break through the skirmishes and seek to lay waste to the town.

----

The sounds of war could be heard from beyond the logged walls of the sickbay, reverberating against them and coalescing with moans of the bloodied and torn. Though Leena had put her salves and gauze to good use before, never had she been so close to noises such as these. Had she not lost so much so quickly, she may well have not been able to bear it.

An arrow would be pulled not-so-gently from its fleshy home, a wound splashed with alcohol and stitched while the poor fishermen-turned-soldier might wince before readily demanding he return to the wall and beyond. Leena understood their conviction, though she could not herself feel it.

A leg trampled beneath great hooves could not be set as the puzzle lay hidden beneath the skin.

“We must remove it if he is to live,” A nurse said to Leena who had now found herself at the helm of these operations, owing to her medicinal studies.

“The break will not kill him shortly, leave him in the corner, there are those whose time dwindles as we speak,” Leena spoke in a cold plainness which contrasted so heavily with the emotional, bloodied state of things that the nurse felt as though the room paused for but a moment. Her head bowed instinctively and the man was moved.

Time was rendered obsolete - Leena knew not of past or future, only of the now. One man at a time, one stitch, one wound covered, one arrow pulled. She wiped her hands with the wet, red cloth which by now served only to spread it about her hands and so she tossed it into a nearby bucket filled with others like it. The muffled words of an angering soldier floated past her as she tied the final wrapping about a soldier’s forearm which had been split from the wrist to the crease of his elbow.

Her autonomic reactions to the injured broke when, not a moment later, a nurse with a shake in her voice interrupted without warning, “The King requires aid,” She blurted, not knowing how else to say it.

Leena gave her a glance and, without a word, looked past her and saw he who had come upon the hill only hours before, an emptied pale sideways at his feet. She stood and pulled the clean rag from the distraught woman who may well have never seen a fishhook plunged into flesh let alone an arrow. Leena had only seen such things half-a-dozen or so times herself, having tended to the victims of raids and accidents while in her studies. Now, though, in the face of it with an empty mind, it was as though it was all she knew.

“Find another pale, then, if he has commandeered your old one,” Leena said before walking towards Bear and his men. If the woman knew not the ways of medicine, let her help as she could - a recurring annoyance Leena was learning. She grimaced.

Time returned to her as she walked the short distance before standing stalwartly beneath the imposing figure with a bloodied shoulder. The blood was dry about the leather padding of the only wound she could see. It did not penetrate the thick layers but crusted about the hole which had been torn crudely against a dull blade. She could not see the wound itself as the difference in their height would not allow it, but she knew it required little save for a salve or alcohol, and stitchings.

Her cold lips made no words.

She glanced from the wound to the eyes of Bear, unimpressed. Her eyes moved quickly from there onto a young boy tried heavily to hide the pain of a contorted arm beside two knights who did a better job of it. One had a wound upon his belly which bled thickly and the other with a similar wound upon his shoulder. Her assessment was brief - her studies had taught her well.

She approached the former and knelt where he sat. She opened the wound to the knight’s dismay with a pair of crude metal forceps and peered into the darkness where she saw that the intestine had split. The chance of his dying from blood loss was slim, but to die of infection was almost inevitable, she thought. Her eyes remained placid. From a pouch at the waist she pulled a cloth tube tipped with a metal funnel. Leena pressed a watery, moss-colored thin paste into the wound which might dull the pain and increase what little chance the knight had. Her instinct was to tell him of this inevitability, as she would have told her teachers for praise of the truth, but now thought better of it, “Claire, come,” She said to a passing girl, “Help him to a bed and cover the wound.”

The girl nervously obliged and the knight, in his suffering, made no protest.

Leena stood as they left and looked back to Bear. The plainly dressed princess made no attempt at courteousness nor grace as would befit both her and to he who she spoke, “Has the battle ended? I will set the boy’s arm, he can fight no more, but if the battle ensues and your wish is to return, then I will not stitch what will be quick to rip. I will cleanse you of the green curse and you may go.”
 
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Sha Sha
_______

The servant pulled once more in an attempt to free her bucket, but Bear's grip did not fail him. Exasperated, she simply let the thing go, huffing something under her breath about entitled bullies. A vein in his neck twitched at being so disrespected, but he watched, hawk-like, as the servant weaved through the pallets to another young lady who was attending a man with a split arm.

The undertaking had left this new woman's hands stained, but she rubbed them methodically into the fibers of a rag as she approached, mannerisms decidedly stoic though the many hours had taken a toll on that sweet face of hers. She was dressed plainly, befitting a woman of toil, except for the fur scarf about her neck. Without a word, she looked him over, passed him by, and began work on his knights. Though this woman disregarded him, Bear upturned the pail beside the knight and sat upon it, knowing that he could not simply sit by and watch her.

"Please," he offered, reaching out, "Allow me to hold the forceps."

She handed over the metal prongs, and Bear, after receiving minor instructions, settled into his new duty as she worked to do what she could for the split intestine. It didn't seem to be much, but she funneled a green substance down into the man with a great amount of care. His approval won, Bear found himself not minding the blatant ignorance of his identity once she was finished.

"The battle yet rages," he informed her, matching her frankness, "Daren't waste your thread on me, though I would appreciate the attention to my wound, miss."

Immediately, he began working at the buckles of his breastplate and the ties of the padded jacket, leaving them in a pile at his feet. The tunic underneath was the next to go, the damp cloth peeled away from his tough, scarred skin and taught muscles. The cloth was stained with blood and sweat, both prizes of exertion that Bear paid no mind to other than to muse slightly at the stench.

"Do what you are able to," he said without apology, turning so that she might have the most optimal vantage.
 
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