Genre: adventure, drama
Fandom: Fire Emblem 8
Characters/pairings: eventual Knoll/Natasha, Amelia, Duessel, Cormag, mentions of numerous others.
Summary/prompt: Grado lies in ruin, and a small band of its expatriates sets out to rebuild. In the face of horrors both past and present, they must complete their duties and somehow survive.
Chapter notes: OH HEY that looks like plot movement. Also - this fic was on a very brief hiatus due to the disasters in Japan. After putting some thought into it, I decided there would never really be a right time to put this out, so I've merely shifted the focus a bit, as was originally planned. All my thoughts and prayers go out to those suffering due to the disaster and its aftereffects.
“. . .and though the body might perish and fall to rot, let it not be said that the end of this life is the end of all things. For the gods did so love Saint Latona that they showed her a ladder of light on her last night in this world, and bid her climb and join them eternally in their hallowed halls. Thus, surely, shall all their worthy children follow at the end of their days, and ever after face neither pain, nor fear, nor suffering.”
It was a verse Natasha knew all too well, the same one she had recited from memory at every city, village, and backwater waypost on their journey. She had repeated it over solitary unmarked graves, over hastily half-covered pits, over long-abandoned markers for the dead. The sun filtered through the branches Cormag had fashioned into a funeral pyre as she finished the verse, sending patches of light dancing across her eyes and leaving spots in her vision. She prayed, futile though it was, that this might be the last time she spoke the verse for some time.
Neither pain, nor fear, nor suffering. As she stepped back and recalled the sweat-stained face of the boy she'd tended to, whose shriveled body would rest in the embrace of dry wood and leaves in a few moments' time, she recalled those words again and again.
“It is a mercy,” she heard, as the rites continued without her. She looked up and found Knoll at her side, his fingers subtly pressing at his wounded shoulder. He did not meet her gaze, staring instead at the harsh streaks of red and violet sunrise beyond her as he spoke. “Forgive me if sound callous, Sister, but these are not times for any child.”
“That's true,” she murmured hesitantly. She tried to catch his gaze, but he seemed to purposefully avoid looking at her at all. “He is, of course, in a better place now.”
“Of course he is,” Knoll replied quietly, and for a moment he met her gaze out of the corner of his narrowed eyes. “'The worthy shall be lifted into the arms of the gods, while the sinful shall be cast into the fires of hell,' isn't that how the verse goes?”
It was Natasha who flinched away from meeting his eyes as she gave a slight nod.
“I see,” Knoll said. “That is. . . .” He turned away again, and Natasha glanced up to see him narrowing his eyes at the rising sun. She could never quite discern what he was thinking. He seemed to fluctuate between slight pensiveness and outright melancholy, neither of which were particularly endearing.
“That is what?” she asked, hardening her quivering voice.
“That is. . . exactly how I thought it went.” Knoll's lips quirked slightly as he spoke. Natasha couldn't decide if it was the beginnings of a deeper-than-usual frown, or the faint, cynical smile he sometimes met her with. Perhaps it was just a flinch at the pain in his shoulder. “Excuse me, Sister.” Before she could object, he had set off back in the direction of the village, paying no mind to the lighting of the funeral fires.
Selfish, Natasha thought, as the rich smell of burning wood crept into the air. The man acted as if he were the only one to ever taste grief, as if he were the only one who'd lost something dear in the chaos that had swallowed Magvel. He hadn't known for himself the collapse of the palace order, the slow disappearance of dissenters, the quiet talk of executions and exiles leading up to heads displayed on fences to prove the might of the emperor's will. He might have suffered in that dank little cell they'd found him in, but it was hardly the horror she knew herself.
“Natasha?” She looked up at the sound of her name to see Cormag at her side. “Is something wrong?”
She answered with only a silent shake of her head, and reminded herself that pettiness was not fit for a woman in her position. Anger serves no one, she recalled her mentor saying once, his hands steadying her own quaking fingers. She had forgotten the offense that had nearly sent her flying into sinful rage, and she doubted she would ever remember it, but she would always remember his warm smile and quiet reminders, almost as clearly as she would remember hearing later how his legs twitched when he was hanged.
She felt Cormag's hand tighten on her shoulder, though when he'd put it there at all was beyond her. “You don't need to lie to me.” She caught remnants of his south Grado accent slipping into his words, in the way he curled his lips around “don't” and nearly skipped over “to”. The way he spoke was almost entrancing, so different from Knoll's quiet, measured diction and Duessel's rowdy banter. She couldn't help but notice how easily he said her name.
“It's really nothing,” she replied, though she suspected Cormag might understand better than anyone. She pulled away from his comforting grip and glanced back toward the village. “We should head back. There's more work to be done.”
“Isn't there always?” he said in return, his voice flat, and Natasha almost smiled.
“The fever should pass within a few days. Keep cold cloths on her face, and make certain she drinks enough water. This is dried willow bark; brew it in a tea for her once or twice a day if she's able to keep it down, but do not force it on her if she cannot.”
As he spoke, Knoll was sure he sounded too cold and impersonal, but he couldn't quite capture the warmth and kindness he still desperately wanted to emulate. It had been easier working with Natasha; he could tend to the basic matters of curing whatever it was that ailed his patients without having to worry about keeping his voice gentle or reassuring families that things would be all right. As it was, Natasha wouldn't approve of him working at all in his condition, and so he worked alone, hoping she wouldn't go back to the house and notice he was gone.
Despite his utter failure at emulating a bedside manner, the woman Knoll was speaking to smiled up at him as she stroked her daughter's heated face. She had kind eyes, Knoll thought, though they were lined with red from lack of sleep and worry. “Thank you,” she murmured, taking the packet of dried bark he offered her. Unlike so many others, she didn't recoil from his touch as their hands brushed together. She actually took his hand in her own and gave it a small, almost motherly squeeze.
Accustomed to the vague hostility most villagers seemed to meet him with, Knoll found himself struggling to respond. He managed to smile back, though he was sure it was obviously false. After a moment, he remembered the proper response to the mother's sentiments. “Y-you're welcome,” he stammered through his own uncertainty, before pulling his hand away and reaching for his satchel of supplies.
“Be careful,” the woman called as he turned away. It was a strange warning, one he didn't think he'd heard from anyone before on their travels. He stopped at the door and looked over his shoulder.
“What do you mean?”
The woman laid a kiss on her daughter's forehead before leaving the bedside and going to the door. Perhaps she had noticed that Knoll hadn't moved his left arm at all, for it was the right shoulder she grabbed and not the wounded one. He resisted the immediate urge to squirm away from the unfamiliar touch and stood his ground.
“My husband left the village only last week,” she said, keeping her voice low enough that there was no way the child in the other room could possibly hear her.
“But why is that a concern?” Knoll felt his stomach lurch, though he couldn't say just why. It was almost like the sense of foreboding he'd felt only once before, deep in the Keep as he watched the life leave his emperor's eyes.
The woman chewed her lip and gave a small shake of her head. “He wasn't the only one. There's been talk, for a while now, of war.”
“War?” Knoll nearly dropped the collection of supplies he had bundled under his arm. “Th-that's not possible. Why would anyone possibly. . . .” Had the country learned nothing? It had been barely three years since the near-cataclysmic conclusion of the previous fight, and only six months since the country had been wracked by the disaster its prince had tried so desperately to prevent.
“I can't say, only that they were heading to the capital.” Knoll was barely aware of swaying slightly and leaning up against the doorway to keep his balance. He wasn't sure whether he was going to laugh, cry, or simply be sick. “Are you all right?” He felt the woman grab at him again, this time touching his face and hair in ways that made him long for more and cringe at the same time. “You look ill. Here, sit down.”
He pulled out of her grip and gave a wild shake of his head. This can't be happening. It can't be. Not again. “No. I'm fine.” He caught her staring at him and wondered what it was she was looking at so intently. Whatever it was, he hated it. “I have other business to attend to. My apologies.” Before he could be delayed again, he slipped out the door and rushed straight for the training fields at the outskirts of the village. Surely, if such a thing was happening, Duessel would know.
The familiar weight of the lance in Duessel's hand was a small comfort as he demonstrated, again, how to thrust and twist in a way that was sure to demolish any revenant or bandit that stood in a villager's path. The townspeople seemed to be catching on quickly, between his own lessons and Cormag's. It was a welcome relief. They would have to move on soon, and if the people could not protect themselves on their own, all their efforts to heal, to rebuild, would be for naught.
He lifted his spear and called out the instructions – “Put all your might into it; don't be timid!” – as the rabble assembled mimicked him with their weapons. Only a few had spears or blades; the rest mimed the motions with pitchforks or farm scythes. A few even attempted it with mops or brooms or crudely pointed branches. It was a far cry from the way he once trained knights and princes, but somehow, it was just as fulfilling.
Duessel lifted his gaze as he noticed a familiar figure, clad in an oversized jerkin and too-tight hose, trampling down the hill at the edge of the village with a speed he had never seen before. There was something frantic in the way he moved, an uncharacteristic panic that immediately set Duessel on edge. He set his lance down and called for his students to keep practicing, before pulling away from the crowd to meet Knoll at the edge of the fields. The younger man was flushed and breathless, and his eyes were wild with the sort of dread Duessel had not seen from him in years.
“Calm down, lad.” There wasn't even the quirk of annoyance at the edge of Knoll's lips, as there might usually be. Don't speak to me as you would a child, he'd grumble on most days, in his roundabout, too-formal way. It was the only thing he ever objected to. “What's the matter?” He watched as Knoll attempted to catch his breath, and finally reached out to steady him.
“I heard. . . from the village. . . people. . . talking about going back to war,” Knoll answered between ragged gasps. “It's not true. . . is it?”
Duessel set his jaw, trying to find the words. It would have been nice to answer no, but the rumors were rife in every tavern and inn they'd visited. He'd heard nothing of actual actions, but the sense of unrest was undeniable.
“I can't say,” he answered at last, grimacing as Knoll jerked away from his touch.
“How could anyone want that again?” the younger man asked, and Duessel couldn't say if it was despair or quiet rage slipping into the edges of his shaking voice.
“Dissatisfaction. Confusion. Fear. Grief. A million things drive people to jump to fighting. You know that by now.” Knoll flinched at “grief”, but Duessel made no motion to try to touch him again. “Of course, there's been unrest since the regent was named – no Grado blood, and all of that, but. . . .”
“Do the people expect a 'legitimate' heir to just fall from the sky?” There was no question that it was rage at that point, the same subtle, aimless anger that slipped into his voice on the rare occasions the late prince was brought up. “After everything, how could anyone –”
“I know.” Knoll fell silent at Duessel's words and let his balled fists loose. “It isn't right. We'll do what we can here, and then. . . perhaps we should visit the capital, eh? I'm sure they'll have heard, but if we can help somehow, it's worth something.”
Knoll glanced back at the village behind him, biting his lip and fiddling with the edges of his sleeve. “Perhaps it is,” he said finally. “I believe. . . I believe it is what the prince would want.”
“He wouldn't want another war, would he?”
“He would not. I am sure of it.”
Duessel only faintly recalled his emperor's son as he had once been – small, quiet, often ill, with a hesitant smile, one Knoll seemed to eerily mimic on the few occasions that he laughed. More vividly, he recalled the thing that wore the same skin, grinning freely at the haggard group huddled in the darkness and mocking their efforts. It was near impossible to separate them now, at least in his own mind, a fact that made him wish he'd paid more attention through those years. He wondered, as he watched his companion stare off into the distance, if even Knoll could tell the difference anymore.