It was mid-morning on the second day following the battle. The sky was clear and the sun shone brightly down upon the city of Leilaora. For all the violence done within its streets, the city itself had suffered surprisingly little damage. Many houses and palaces had been burned by the fires that had raged during the battle, but few had actually been destroyed. Very little looting had taken place; Tmalion had made certain of that.
The war was over, and the Powers destroyed, but there was little rejoicing. Though the city itself had suffered small damage, the streets were strewn with the bodies of thousands upon thousands of dead men, and it was left to those who had survived to take the bodies outside the walls of the city and destroy them. Great fires burned, spewing smoke and ash into the air. Thankfully, there was a southern wind, which blew most of the stench away from the city.
Aeneas and Nightfall stood in the middle of Tmalion's camp and quietly surveyed that which was around them. Leilaora presented a far different sight from Nolhol, for though Tmalion’s forces had been victorious in both cities, Kozan’s city suffered far greater devastation. Aeneas had left as quickly as possible, and now he stood and looked rather nervously around him.
"How am I supposed to do this?" he moaned.
"Find someone in authority and ask if they know where Orion is," the griffin answered.
Aeneas crossed his arms and glared at Nightfall. "Are you intentionally being difficult?"
Nightfall simply cocked his head and blinked at him.
Aeneas threw his arms up in the air. "You are! How can you be like this? I have to find my brother, who never liked me to begin with and certainly likes me far less now, and I have to tell him the woman he loves was beaten by my father, perhaps raped, and eventually killed, and I did nothing to stop it. And all you can do is stand there and be difficult." He crossed his arms again and turned away from the griffin.
There was a moment of silence.
"Forgive me," Nightfall finally said.
Aeneas sighed and turned back.
"I meant not to be troublesome or flippant," the griffin continued. "What I said was true. If Orion does still live, you’ll have to tell him eventually. Is it not better to do it now rather than later?"
"Why do I have to tell him?" asked Aeneas. "Why don’t you?"
Nightfall cocked his head slightly. "I am not the one seeking forgiveness."
"All right," the young prince growled, trying to steel his nerve. "I’ll tell him."
He looked down and realized he was still wearing Orion's armor. "I suppose I ought to take this off before I do."
He began to unbuckle the sword and, as he did so, started to look around again. "Nightfall, who do you think will know where..." But, even as he spoke, his eyes grew wide as he suddenly saw Orion making his way through the tents and men within Tmalion's camp.
Fear welled up within Aeneas and his heart began to pound.
"I can't tell him," he said, as he suddenly realized that truth. "You tell him." With that, he stepped behind the large, black griffin in an attempt to hide himself from his brother's view.
"Nightfall!" he heard Orion cry.
"No," he groaned.
Nightfall looked at him. "'Tis generally unwise to hide behind the best friend of the one whom you’re trying to hide from."
Orion walked up to them and, for the first time, noticed Aeneas.
Aeneas’ face turned completely pale.
"Orion," he breathed, trying to greet his brother, but further words died in his throat and he started to back away. His legs were weak, and as he stepped back he tripped on a rock. With a sharp cry, he tumbled to the ground where he looked up in terror at his older brother.
Orion regarded him silently, as he took in this sudden and unexpected reunion.
"The armor fits you well," he stated. "Keep it."
Aeneas' mouth fell open and for a moment he could only stare up in surprise at Orion.
"You're not going to kill me?" he finally managed to say weakly.
Orion held his hand out. "No."
Aeneas looked at his brother’s hand for a long moment, then hesitantly took it and let Orion help him to his feet.
Aeneas continued to stare at him. "You’re not angry at me for what I did?"
A look of pain briefly filled Orion's eyes at the memory of what he had endured, but he answered, "No. I have done far worse things than you."
There was an awkward silence. Aeneas held up Orion's sword. "You’ll at least want your sword back."
The warrior looked at it for a moment and his face clouded. "In truth, I should be asking you for forgiveness. Though we are brothers, I do not know you. Our paths crossed for only a short time, but in that brief period I treated you so poorly that you wanted to kill me.” He paused. “I do not know how to make amends for what I did. That armor and that sword are, quite literally, the only possessions I have. So I would like to give them both to you as a token of peace and of penitence.
"The sword is named Ronahrrah. It means 'remembrance'. My father gave it to me so that I would remember him and, hopefully, remember to follow Joretham and not darkness." He took a breath. "I have something else–something far more precious–to remind me of that now."
Aeneas' mind was spinning, and he did not know how to respond. Although is sounded very stupid to him, the only thing he could think to say was, "Are you certain?"
"Yes, I am." Orion gave a slight smile. "Besides that, though it be the less practical of the two weapons, I am rather partial to the axe."
There was another moment of silence, finally broken by Nightfall.
"I apologize for interrupting," he said, "but there’s something you need to know."
Aeneas looked at the griffin then, taking a deep breath, looked back at Orion. "Princess Mystia is..."
The look of pain that filled Orion's face was so great that Aeneas could not go on.
"Dead," Orion finished for him.
Aeneas took a step toward him. "We tried to save her...."
Orion turned away and held his hand to his mouth.
"I had thought as much," he said with a weak voice, "but I had hoped..." He could not continue.
"Excuse me," he whispered then walked quickly away, leaving Aeneas and Nightfall to look sadly after him.
* * *
Eagle sat upon a marble bench in the gardens of the palace. It was the same bench she had sat upon almost every day since she had first come to Leilaora. It was the bench she had sat on the night Tnaka had come and spoken to her while Provenna celebrated Orion's return. She remembered how he had begged her to call him not by titles but by name, how he had given her the Lumellia, how he had said he feared he had neglected her.
Tears welled up in her eyes. "Tnaka, 'twas not you who neglected me, but I you."
She sat there for a long moment, with her hands pressed against her belly, struggling against the tears which threatened to fall. Her whole body seemed to ache along with her spirit. Her long, blonde hair fell down and partially covered her face, but anyone who looked upon her would have been able to see the sorrow which filled her.
Finally, she brushed the tears from her eyes. With a sigh, she rose to her feet and slowly began to make her way back to the palace. The flowers had all begun to bloom, and the garden looked beautiful that warm, spring day, but the young queen saw it not, for she stared at the ground as she made her way along the winding path leading back to the palace.
As she walked, she became aware of someone walking down the path in her direction. She raised her head and stopped when she saw who was before her. It was Gideone.
The prince stopped also, a few feet from her, regarding her silently. He looked very fine, dressed in a blue tunic over a loose-fitting white shirt, his long, black hair pulled behind his head. But he had not emerged unscathed from the war. Beneath his collar, Eagle could see a thin web of black lines, like a tattoo, rising up the left side of his neck and onto his face.
He took a deep breath then began to walk the final steps to her. "Hello, Eagle."
Her heart began to pound.
"What are you doing here?" she asked weakly.
"I wanted to see you."
She turned quickly away from him as tears began to well up in her eyes. She held her hand to her mouth. "Why?"
His brow furrowed. "Why would I not? We were once to be married, after all."
She remained silent, for she could think of nothing to say.
There was sadness in Gideone's voice as he spoke. "I must admit I thought you would be happier to see me."
"Happier," Eagle repeated with a dull laugh. She turned and looked up at him. "We were once to be married, but Tnaka came and took me from you. You didn’t protest with either words or actions, and now, after three years of being his wife, you think I will still love you and be happy to see you?"
A look of pain crossed his face. "You don’t love me then?"
A sob escaped her lips as she turned. "No."
She began to walk away. As Gideone watched her, his eyes suddenly grew wide as realization struck him.
"You love Tnaka!" he cried.
Eagle spun around. Her gray eyes were stormy. "And what of it? You act as though 'tis some sort of sin for me to love my husband."
"How could you?" he demanded, running to her. "Tnaka was a Power, no better than Kozan."
She slapped him across the face. For a moment he looked down at her in shock, one hand held to his cheek.
"You know nothing," Eagle said softly, her eyes still filled with anger. "He could have been a good man, but he was forced to play the villain because he had not the strength to oppose Provenna and Kozan." She turned away. "He was made to be the ruler of one country, not the whole Realm of Earth. He hated war, but he was surrounded by people who followed loyally after Provenna and Kozan. If he had had but one person to stand beside him, he might have had the strength to defy them, but I, that one person, said nothing.
"When I first met him, I hated him. I thought he was like Provenna and Kozan. I should have known from the start a man like that would not have wanted to marry me." Her voice had grown softer and softer until now it was almost a whisper. "I think he married me because he wanted me to oppose him–to give him the extra strength he needed to do what he knew was right. But what did I do? In the guise of being a humble wife, I said nothing. And even after I saw him for what he was, even after I fell in love with him, I said nothing. I was too proud. I told myself that he was still a Power and that I ought to hate him. I was such a fool." With a sob, she began to walk away.
"No, wait," Gideone cried, despair in his voice. "Eagle come back." She did not even pause, but continued to walk away.
"Honoria," he pleaded. At that word, she stopped and slowly turned around.
"Call me not 'Honoria'," she said softly, "for one more noble than you has deigned call me 'honorable woman'."
"Eagle, please," he begged, as he ran to her, "give me another chance. I love you, and, though you do not want to marry me now, perhaps a year from now 'twill be different. I know I can prove myself to you. I do love you."
She regarded him silently for a moment, then said softly, "Why did you not do anything when Tnaka took me from you?"
Gideone looked down at the ground and for a long moment was silent. Finally, he took a breath and began to speak. "Many years ago I ran away from Nor. I was searching for adventure. I wanted to win honor and glory for myself, as the knights of old had done.”
He paused then continued. "I had learned the art of battle from some of the greatest teachers, and, though I was yet young, I was able to defeat all whom I fought. But, about a year into my travels I came upon an elf. He looked to be some sort of noble, and I hoped he’d provide me with some sport." A pained look crossed his face. "I challenged him to a duel, and he defeated me.
"He could have killed me, but instead he let me go. I was shaken, to say the least, but I was not going to give up. I sought out the greatest swordsmen I could and fought them in an effort to hone and increase my skill.
"Several years later, shortly before I traveled to Sha-Lalana and met you, I returned to the place where I’d battled him before. Again I met him and challenged him to another duel." He shook his head in disbelief. "He defeated me again.
"Once again, he could have killed me, but just as before, he didn’t. This time, however, he said that were I to challenge him a third time he wouldn’t be so lenient. The first time he’d spared me because I’d been a boy. This time he’d spared me because he understood why I’d have wanted to challenge him a second time. But now I ought to have been completely convinced he was the better swordsman, and if I ever bothered him again, he’d kill me.”
He was silent for a moment, then said quietly. "As you’ve probably guessed, that elf was Tnaka. When he came to take you, I was at a loss for what to do. If I’d defied him openly he would have probably simply killed me, for he had promised as much when we last met. He would not have been lenient with me as he might have been with any other man." His face filled with agony. "I sought desperately–you know not how much I searched–for some way to keep him from having you, but I could think of nothing. The wedding day came, and it was too late."
He took her hands in his and gazed deep into her eyes. "I love you. I never meant to let you go, but there was nothing I could do."
Eagle looked sadly up at him and slowly pulled her hands from his.
"'Tis a reasonable explanation," she said softly, "but not one which will make me fall into your arms." She stepped back, and a tear trickled down her cheek. "Too much has changed, and I cannot love you as I once did." Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Goodbye, Gideone."
She turned and began to slowly walk away. The prince watched in despair as she went.
"Eagle," he groaned, but she disappeared around a bend in the path and was lost to sight.
* * *
Nightfall lay stretched out upon the grass a short ways from Tmalion's camp. There was nothing he could do to help around the camp or with the cleaning up of the bodies. He had had his first full meal in more days that he cared to count and now was feeling rather sleepy. He did not, however, want to fall asleep; it made him feel guilty, considering just earlier that day Orion had learned of Mystia’s death. He gave a glum sigh and rested his head upon his crossed forelegs. He wished there were some words of comfort he could give his friend, but he could think of nothing.
He had lain there for a long time wrapped up in his own thoughts when he heard someone approaching from behind. He sat up and, looking back, saw Orion. The warrior's face was pale and drawn, and he seemed completely drained of energy.
He came and sat down beside the griffin and, giving a sad smile, said, "Hello, Nightfall."
"Hello, Orion," the griffin answered, not knowing what else to say.
Orion did not speak again, and Nightfall looked him over in concern.
"Orion, are you well?" he finally asked.
The warrior gave another wan smile and nodded his head slightly. "I’ll be fine."
He was silent for a moment then said, "'Tis probably better she died, for now she’s in Lothiel. I doubt I’d have made a good husband anyway; she deserved a far better man than I. And, on top of that, she probably didn’t love me." But he did not sound convinced of his words.
"Orion, say not that," the griffin said. "I admit I am rather lost when it comes to love among you humans, but the more I think of it the more I am convinced she did indeed love you."
He told Orion of the exchange he had with her on their journey to Zenas' house. When he had finished the warrior remained silent for a moment as he thought.
"I know not whether that makes her death harder or easier to bear," he finally murmured.
"Orion, forgive me. I meant not to cause you more pain."
The warrior reached out and put his arm around Nightfall's neck. "Pay no heed to me. It was good that you told me."
For a long moment they sat silently side by side and stared out at the countryside before them. Orion broke the silence.
"I came not here to force you to share in my misery." He paused slightly then continued. "We’ve reached a turning point in our lives, and I was wondering what you will do."
"Stay with you, of course," the griffin answered, with a tone that implied he was surprised Orion would even think of asking such a question.
"Nightfall," Orion said as he turned his face to him, "I once saved your life, and for that you’ve stood by my side and risked your life a hundred times over. You’ve more than paid the small debt you owed."
"But without me whom will you have?"
"By your question, you imply that if you do not follow me we’ll no longer be friends."
Nightfall thought for a moment. "I suppose what you say is true, but still it seems not right to leave you when Mystia has just died."
"Nightfall, just because I have been unlucky in love doesn’t mean you should willingly forsake it."
The griffin cocked his head to the side and stared at him.
"You speak as though you’ve nothing to lose or leave behind if you come with me," Orion continued, "but I’d be willing to wager that’s not the case. You may be blind when it comes to matters of human love, but I do not think I suffer in kind. There’s a certain red griffin with whom I think you’re dreadfully smitten."
"Orion!" If Nightfall could have blushed he would have.
For the first time since they had begun speaking Orion smiled a genuine smile. "Nightfall, I’ll be fine on my own. You have a whole life to live; let it not slip away on my account."
Nightfall was silent for a moment.
"You are certain we shall remain friends?"
"Of course. If you wish, I’ll come and visit you as often as I can."
"And for my part, if you are ever in need of aid, you’ve but to ask and I shall willingly give it."
"'Tis settled then.”
Nightfall nodded his head.
The warm spring breeze blew across their faces, and for a long time after that, the two friends sat silently side-by-side, staring out at all that was before them.
* * *
Gideone sat alone in Provenna's spacious marble throne room. He dared not sit upon the crystal throne itself so instead sat upon the steps leading up to the dais. He looked glumly up at the stained-glass pictures circling the hall. He could still scarcely believe Eagle had truly left him.
He swore under his breath and stood up.
The doors creaked slightly, were pushed open, and Orion walked through. He shut them behind him then turned and walked to Gideone.
He bowed low. "You called for me, Your Highness–or should I say 'Your Majesty'?"
"No," Gideone answered, "'Your Highness' is fine. I’ve yet to be crowned, after all." He hesitated. "Truth to tell, I’d not mind if you called me simply 'Gideone'."
A slight look of surprise crossed Orion's face. He gazed at the prince, waiting for him to speak further.
"I called you here because I have a bit of a confession to make." Gideone took a breath then plunged ahead. "During the battle for Zaren, I saw you and Nightfall fly away. I thought you’d fled the battle, and, because of that, I took you to be one of the greatest cowards I’d ever known. I know now that you did not flee but instead went to rescue Mystia, and I would like to apologize for misjudging you so badly."
"I forgive you, Your Highness, though there is nothing to forgive. 'Tis understandable why you would have thought what you thought."
"Thank you," the prince said.
He paused for a moment then spoke again. "There’s another reason why I called you here....You once swore to serve the Royal Family of Nor." A look of pain filled his face. "Now I’m the only one left, but I know 'twas not because of me you swore thus. I know you loved my sister." His voice grew quiet. "I’m sorry she died; I think you’d have made a good brother." He took another breath. "Now that she’s dead, your reason for serving the Royal Family is gone. I release you from your oath."
Orion bowed his head. "Thank you, Your Highness."
"Please," the prince said, "call me 'Gideone'. If we cannot be brothers through blood, we can still be brothers in spirit."
Orion nodded his head slightly. "Very well, Gideone."
He turned to leave, but he had not gone many steps when he hesitated then turned back. There was a questioning look upon his face. "Before I leave, I’d like to know something."
"The night before Zaren was defeated, you told me you cared nothing for Joretham. You wished to have what you could see and touch, not intangible spirits. Do you still think that now?"
Gideone was silent for a moment, and his brow furrowed in anger.
"I’ve lost my father, my mother, my sister, one of my greatest friends, and my love," he answered bitterly. "Speak not to me of Joretham."
Orion opened his mouth to say something, but Gideone cut him off. "Please–" his face was now filled with pleading–"say nothing more. I wish to part as friends and not in anger."
Orion hesitated for a moment then, bowed his head. "As you wish." He turned and walked away.