Vira sets out from home on her desperate search for Knight-Captain Fortis.
|We lived in the last house on the highest level of the Mountain, and as I drifted up the stone stairway leading me home, I felt like a ghost. A spirit from some other world, out of place and detached from my body, as if I no longer belonged to the village in which I had lived for most my life. Would it be my last night in Imputa? Would it be my last night with my parents? Granted, they weren't my real parents, and Danus wasn't my real brother, but they were the closest thing to family I had ever known.
I was born in Radix, a mining town at the foot of the Obex Mountains, in April of the year 712. Legends were told about the city's wealth as its lords owned the countless mines surrounding it, amassing their fortunes from the ore and rare jewels pulled from the depths of the mountains. My father work those mines. Long, grueling days for very little pay. He was up before the sun and often returned home long after I had gone to bed, paying a heavy price to keep his family fed. As my mother died in childbirth, I spent most of my early years in the care of Uncle Tansis, who was far too frail for the mines. My father's hard work kept his brother off the streets. In return, Tansis watched over me.
We were peasants. A whole family surviving on my father's measly pay; and he would have worked the mines until his body failed and he died without a gold piece to his name. I would have grown up and done the same, my father's fate my own, but he did not die working those mines and I never once stepped foot in them.
Spring of the year 715 saw the coming of the Mist-men. The cities of Acta and Media fell within the first week; only rubble and ash remained as the Esormian army began their march toward the City of Light. My father was among the thousands of men and women called away from their homes to defend the Queen. All this time later, I can still remember holding Tansis's hand, crying as I waved goodbye. I never saw him again.
A week after he left, Lord Talso received an urgent message from a dark rider. In a thin, ragged script on a small strip of paper, the following words were written:
The city has fallen. The Queen is dead. Flee.
Talso sprang into action, ordering his people, who had grown so close to the mountains they lived in the shadow of, to follow him farther and higher into their valleys. Some followed their lord; some remained behind, either too scared or too proud to abandon their homes.
Tansis received word of the evacuation from a friend. He took me in one hand, and as much as he could carry in the other, then hobbled into the streets. Chaos filled the city. Loved ones searched for their loved ones. People who on any other day were neighbors and friends, even eating their meals and spending holidays together, fought in the streets, taking what they could whether it belonged to them or not. A group of rioters pushed between Tansis and me. I felt my hands slip through his fingers and the world around me crumbled. Terrified, I sat in the street as tears streamed down my face. I called for him as loudly as my tiny voice could, but we were two people in a city of thousands. One a cripple, one a child.
As the streets cleared out, a man I had never before met picked me up and carried me away from the city. Alongside several thousand frightened people, we fled to the mountains. Farther and farther we went, the air growing thinner and colder with each passing hour. Many fell behind; some did so for good. Darkness eventually came and we were halted. Some made camp; most slept where they fell. The next morning, a horn sounded and the march continued.
At the end of the third day, when we could flee no more, we entered a small valley and Talso stopped us for the final time. He ordered camp made once more then told us we would be safe here; this was to be our new home. It sure didn't look like home, but Talso went to work, carving the mountainside into rows of houses; we had founded the village of Imputa.
Fortunately, the man who rescued me from the streets of Radix was a kind and gentle man, and he had a kind and gentle wife. His name was Maxus. Hers was Mina. They took me in and raised me as their own. Eventually, I grew to call them Mother and Father and they called me their daughter. When I was nine, Maxus and Mina had a child of their own and named him Danus. They loved Danus with all their hearts, but in no way did they ever love me less. And just to prove it, Father bought me a horse on my next birthday. I named him Gaeus and we took our lumps together as we grew up side-by-side.
Living in Imputa was much like living anywhere in tough times. Comfort was scarce, life endured, love flourished. The surviving people of Radix had much to be grateful for; we were free. I had much to be grateful for, too; I had a home, a family, and a best friend I loved very much.
"Vira met with Lord Talso today," Danus told our parents. The sun had long since sank behind the Mountain, covering the village in dusk, and Mother and Father had returned from a long day working in the fields. It was dinner time, and the four of us were sitting around our small square table. The sound of clinking silverware filled the room as we enjoyed yet another of Mother's delicious dinners. This time chicken and roasted potatoes.
"Did she?" asked Mother. She was short and plump, had a rosy face, and always wore her dark hair in a bun.
"Oh?" Father asked without looking up from his plate. He was tall and lean, had a soft, friendly face, and his short gray hair was rapidly thinning. "What did the old rock want?"
"Oh, it was nothing...he just had a...small task for me," I said quietly, trailing off, hoping I wouldn't have to explain further.
"Is that so?" asked Mother. "That sounds exciting. What kind of task was it, dear?"
Might as well tell them, I thought, sighing out loud. They'll find out soon enough. Looking away from the table, I mumbled, "I've been packing all evening."
"What's that? Packing? Packing for what?" asked Father, glancing curiously at me. "Where are you going?"
"I'm leaving," I blurted out. "And I have no idea how long I'll be gone." I told them everything Talso had said to me. Mother wore a look of horror. Danus one of excitement, at one point nearly climbing onto the table. Father, however, remained stone-faced from beginning to end. And when I finished, a long silence hung over the room.
"You're not going," Mother said. Her whole face had gone flush. "There's too much to be done around here."
"You can't be serious!" I scoffed, throwing my hands in the air. "Father?"
"It's a very important task, dear," Father said to Mother. "If this...Captain Fortis really is alive, then someone needs to seek him out. We should be honored Talso thinks our Vira is the best person for the task."
"You're taking her side?" asked Mother, scowling across the table.
"I'm not taking any sides," said Father, his voice still steady.
"Good--then--it's settled," Mother said in an unusually sweet voice. "You can go unpack your stuff, dear."
"I'm not unpacking! I want to go!" I yelled, jumping from my chair as it toppled over behind me.
"Pick up your chair and sit back down, young lady," Father said, his voice rising for the first time. "And don't yell at your mother--but you don't have to unpack--"
"She's not going," Mother said again, as if repeating it made it truer.
"If she wants to--then yes...she is," said Father.
"I will not have our daughter marching off to her death!" screamed Mother, pounding her fist on the table. "Why does it have to be her?"
"Because Lord Talso is right!" Father said. There was suddenly a passion, an intensity in his voice I had heard only a few times before. "You've seen her with the other guards! She's the best this village has! If anyone is up to the task, it's our Vira!"
"But--but she's so young..."
"--I'm not that young, Mother. I'm nineteen," I reminded her.
"No, she's not that young, Mina," Father agreed. "She's old enough to have become a Knight in the days before the capital fell. Vira's 'of age' and Talso knows what's best. He has yet to lead us astray in sixteen years; I trust he won't begin doing so now."
Mother sat silently in her chair, arms folded, a protesting look across her face. She seemed to be thinking it over, but just when she looked as if she may give in, she jumped to her feet and yelled, "I won't have it! And I can't believe you're going along with this, Maxus! You should be looking out for Vira, not sending her on some death march!" And Mother stomped from the room, leaving silence behind her.
"She'll come around," Father said after a deep sigh. "She always does. Your mother loves you very much. We're your parents, Vira. And we're always here for you--both of us. No matter how much either of us might disagree with whatever you're doing."
"Thank you, Father," I said. His ability to stay calm always put me at ease.
"What can we do to help?" he asked a short while later.
"Well, I'm not sure....For the most part I'm ready. Talso had Impetus bake me a few loaves of bread. If I ration it properly, it should be enough to last me a week or so...." I thought hard. "There is one thing you can do."
"Come and see me off. I'm meeting Talso and Commander Cusio at the fort by the twin bluffs tomorrow morning. Gaeus and I leave at sunup."
"Of course I'll be there," Father said, beaming at me, and in that moment I realized just how lucky I had been all those years ago when he was the one to carry me from the streets of Radix. "I would walk you all the way there if I could."
"I know, Father," I said softly, my heart melting before his proud gaze.
Later that night, I lay in bed unable to sleep. Each time I closed my eyes images of tangled forests, powerful knights riding tall on horseback, and pale, blue-skinned, white-bearded warriors danced across my mind.
"Danus," I whispered. I could see his silhouette lying in bed across the room. "You still awake?"
"Yeah," he whispered back. "You can't sleep, either, huh?"
"I'm scared," I said, feeling the tremble in my voice.
"I'm really going to miss you, Danus."
"I'm really going to miss you, too, Sis."
"You'll be good for Mother and Father, won't you?" I asked, sitting up in bed. "Especially for Mother. She's going to need your help while I'm gone."
"Promise?" I asked, pretty sure he had just lied to me.
But I knew he couldn't promise that. "When will you be back?" he asked.
"I don't know--but I promise I will," I said, wondering if I had just lied, too.
"I love you, Sis."
"I love you, too, Danus," I said, laying back down. I closed my eyes and felt a lone tear roll down my cheek.
I hardly slept that night. Tossing, turning, dreading the moment when sunlight would finally creep across the floor. Something in my head telling me that morning couldn’t come if I refused to fall asleep. But it came nonetheless and I rolled out of bed with fear weighing me down. I skipped breakfast--I couldn't have held any food down anyway--and walked outside. Ten flights of stairs to the ground into the village square. It was deserted. The inn might as well have been boarded up. Not even the bakery was awake. They must know what's going on, I thought. I wonder how many of them are still here.
Gaeus was waiting when I reached the stables. He greeted me with an uneasy nicker, as if he somehow understood what we were setting out to do. "Time to go," I said, patting his side as I tied off my pack. It weighed twice as much as I had hoped, but who knew how long I'd be gone.
A few minutes later we were walking side-by-side along the main road. The fog was so thick you could pour it into a cup; my blood turned to ice; dread tried to steer me back home. But the clouds suddenly parted, and for the first time in weeks, sunshine burned the fog away, raining down on the valley as if Concil himself were sending me off. The warmth on my skin melted away my angst, restoring the courage I couldn't quite find the night before.
After a quick stop in the armory I was ready. A strong bow draped across my back. A quiver full of arrows slung over my shoulder. My two best swords hanging from my belt. And as always, the sheath on my ankle kept safe my favorite dagger.
Wondering where Talso might be, I grabbed Gaeus's reigns and led him between the bluffs. I heard the buzz of countless voices up ahead and quickened my pace. When I stepped into the meadow, I heard their cheers. The whole village was there. Waiting...for me. A thousand curious faces, all searching for some glimmer of hope. They started calling my name and I felt my cheeks go flush. What am I doing here, I wondered. I'm no hero. Not me.
I even saw Gracila and Enerva, and tried not to notice the small group of girls gathered around them, snickering as I walked by; part of me wanted to hide. The other wanted to turn and run. But there would be no going back, not this time, so I climbed onto Gaeus's back and patted his proud head.
"Ready?" I asked.
He looked at the crowd and snorted as he shook his head.
"Yeah, me neither," I said, "but we don't really have a say in the matter. Let's get this over with."
And Gaeus ambled down the road.
I passed the crowd and a little boy broke free of his mother's grasp, ran up to me, and tugged on my leg. "You're so brave!" he cried, squinting in the sunlight as he looked up in awe. I looked down, swallowed the lump in my throat, and forced a smile as his mother reeled him back in.
Then I saw my family. Father had pushed his way to the very front of the crowd, standing upright, shoulders back, chest out, looking prouder than I had ever seen him; Mother wept by his side. "I'm so sorry, Vira," she said, wiping away her tears and rubbing her puffy, red eyes.
"Please...don't be," I said. "I'm just glad you're here. You don't know how much this means to me." Danus looked at me with cold fear in his eyes. I tried to smile, but the tension in my face held it back. My insides knotted. I forced myself to look away, refusing to let the whole village see me cry. "I love you all so much," I quietly said. "I'll see you when I get back." And on I rode.
Commander Cusio and Lord Talso were waiting at the far end. Cusio had a stern look on his face, falling halfway between proud and worried. Talso beamed at me, his brown eyes twinkling in the morning light.
"We have sent out scouts all night and all morning long," said Cusio. "There have been no sightings of the enemy within ten leagues of here in any direction. The road is clear, Vira; it's all yours."
"Thank you, Commander."
"Look around you, my child," said Talso. "Concil smiles upon you. Today, he smiles upon us all. You are embarking on the journey of your life--a journey in which you will do great things, of that much I'm sure. The men of the mist will be no match for our Vira."
"I'll do my best, Sir."
"I know...I know. And remember, Vira, you go now into the wilds. Sixteen years have passed since the heirs of Concil last patrolled them. You must remain always vigilant. There's no telling what sorts of evils may have resurfaced."
"I'm--" I swallowed "--I'm ready, my Lord."
"You are ready, indeed. I will be closing the pass behind you and we will begin preparing our defenses at once. The winter will buy us some time; pray we can hold out until you return. Go now, Vira. Make haste, and do your people proud. Our fate lies in your hands."