Her next visit to Camp Dragonhead could not come soon enough, and it fortunately passed with just as much delight as the one before—if not moreso, as Haurchefant, naturally true to his word, had far fewer business trips and was able to spend far more time with Emaile. Whether it was walks around the castle grounds, quiet times in his study hard at work, or patrolling with the guard, they spent most of their waking moments together. Talking, laughing, and simply enjoying the other’s company. And, of course, plenty of chocobo rides all over Coerthas—at least, as far as Lord Haurchefant would dare allow them to ride.
Emaile spent many nights flopping in bed, wishing the night would pass quicker than it had the evening before to do it all again.
Many nights it did just that; so many times, in fact, that soon this second trip was over. The castle hung with an air of melancholy on the day of her departure, but Lord Haurchefant stood against the somber atmosphere, proclaiming they would simply have to have her again soon.
And so he did. Many times, over the course of the next many months. Each time was an equally joyous delight; each farewell that much harder. Each time she would return home to the thrilled Illie and her father, and even Jean would curiously listen in while Emaile regaled them of her most recent adventures—in hushed tones. For the courtship was still secret; it would cause far too great a stir, publicity neither Count Edmont nor her father were in particular need nor desire for.
Especially not her father.
In between journeys, there were still many nights Emaile found herself accompanying her father home after he’d gotten into another quarrel with the other lords. Judging from the looks they received now and then in the Pillars, she was beginning to suspect the status of their house was somewhat… lacking, even compared to their small status only half a generation before.
It worried her. If she slept poorly in Dragonhead for want of more waking time stealing giggles over paperwork with Lord Haurchefant, she slept worse in Ishgard, ever fearing the looming knock of a frowning Inquisitor on their doorstep, asking for her father.
Though her concern was appreciated by her father, he still cautioned her not to worry on his account; he was more than capable of taking care of himself, he said, and he wanted her to focus on herself. On her own desires. On Lord Haurchefant.
Indeed, she found herself being torn between the two: love and concern for her father, and a growing… well, no, surely not love for Lord Haurchefant. Not so soon. But an attraction to him, certainly. She could not deny that. Not when her heart skipped a beat every time she returned to Dragonhead and caught her first glimpse of that blue-eyed smile she’d seen in weeks.
Of course, it wasn’t only Lord Haurchefant that Emaile missed each time she was forced to say goodbye to Camp Dragonhead. Breakfasts with Elisabet, chatting with the cooks and the soldiers stationed on the wall. Greeting Travois good morn each time she visited Lord Haurchefant’s study (there were fewer books on the floor each time she visited). Stories with amicable Caprinnoile or cheerful Aneul. And, of course, her apprenticeship at the stables. Olivier would always glow each day she arrived at the stables before they’d set to work with new gusto, cleaning stalls and feeding chocobos.
“My, my. Hard at work as always,” Lord Haurchefant commented one day as he popped in on their work, as he was wont to do when he had a moment to spare from his own duties running the castle. He glanced around the tidy stables. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say there were three of you apiece. I’d say you’ve earned a respite, wouldn’t you?”
Olivier nearly dropped his broom in his excitement to race over and saddle up a chocobo. Emaile resisted the urge to giggle at the sweet young squire.
Once more they rode out into the white snow, freshly-fallen and crisp. The whole world was quiet and soft; Emaile could not even hear the soft baaing of the karakul in the distance.
But Lord Haurchefant seemed ill at ease. Ordinarily he was perfectly still and steady in the saddle, but today he kept shifting, tilting his ears and gaze from one side to the other, often glancing northward. While his alert senses were not unusual, the obviousness of his vigil—and the concerned, focused frown on his face—were quite out of the ordinary for their rides.
“Is something the matter?” Emaile asked, leaning forward in her saddle to get a better view of his face as he once again inclined his ear to the north. Her black chocobo, Albeyr, peeped softly.
Lord Haurchefant glanced to her, forcing a grim smile. “Rein in a moment, Lady Emaile.”
Sensing something was indeed out of the ordinary—and from his sober gaze, nothing particularly good—Emaile did as instructed, and Albeyr was quick to obey. She heard Olivier do the same several yalms behind.
Still gazing northward, Lord Haurchefant instinctively reached out his hand, unseeing, toward her mount. His hands touched the reins… and then brushed against her fingers lightly, resting on her hand for a breathless moment.
They waited in the silence, none of them daring to speak. Lord Haurchefant concentrating, Olivier watching with wide, concerned eyes, and Emaile eyeing Lord Haurchefant for any signs of what had him so worried.
And then, Lord Haurchefant stiffened. His hand clapped tightly over hers. “Return to the castle,” he murmured in a tone she had never heard him use before: cool and calm… but commanding. Urgent.
Whatever questions she held would wait; she gathered the reins as his hand slipped away, preparing to turn about. Whatever had cut their ride short—
And then she saw it: a plume of smoke, black as night, rising from the northern horizon.
Her eyes widened. No… It cannot be…!
Lord Haurchefant clicked his tongue, twirling his finger in a circle. Albeyr performed an about-face. “Go!” Haurchefant commanded. “Olivier, do not look back, do you hear? Get the lady to safety, and do not leave the walls. Those are your orders!”
Olivier was turning his chocobo too, even as Albeyr trotted toward him, back in the direction of the castle. “Y-yes, m’lord!” The boy spurred his chocobo, flicking the reins. “Hyah!”
Emaile’s heart thudded in her chest as she mimicked Olivier’s gesture, urging Albeyr into a gallop. It can’t be. It surely can’t. These lands are safe, protected by Lord Haurchefant himself! The Dravanians… They would never dare…
At this pace, the castle loomed into view quickly. Emaile shot a look over her shoulder, scanning the way they’d come, desperately searching for signs of Lord Haurchefant returning…
There he was! Rounding the corner, his chocobo nearly flying down the mountainside. She heard his shout, but for a moment her terrified mind failed to register the word he was bellowing at the top of his lungs.
Because she saw them. Saw their big black scaled bodies; saw their leathery, bat-like wings waddling as they lumbered down the mountainside high above, crawling on all fours, with maws snapping and belching black smoke.
“DRAGONS!” Lord Haurchefant shouted as he galloped down the hill.
Her heart raced as fast as the chocobos. Hurry! You must hurry! She opened her mouth, every fiber of her screaming speed to his mount. But just before she could cry out, Albeyr jerked beneath her, listing to the left.
Instinctively she clung to his neck to stabilize herself. Poor riding, yes, but it quickly showed her the cause of Albeyr’s abrupt shift in direction: Olivier had grabbed the reins and was pulling them along.
“Eyes forward, m’lady!” Olivier said without turning to face her; his gaze was locked on the castle, obeying Lord Haurchefant’s word to the letter. “We need t’ get t’ safety so he can focus on the beasts!”
He was right. Of course he was, the wise youth. But it was torture to resist another glance over her shoulder. Her whole mind and being were focused on Haurchefant.
What if he—?!
No, she dared not even think it!
As the castle walls loomed, she could hear the shouts of the knights within Dragonhead, see their gleaming armor as they raced across the top of the northern wall. Behind her, she could hear the muffled thunder of the shuffling Dravanians… and, bless the Fury, the approaching footfalls of Lord Haurchefant’s galloping chocobo, swiftly gaining on her and Olivier.
The gate—that blessed haven; it had never before looked so beautiful—yawned wide open ahead, though it would not for long.
Olivier and she raced beneath the gates, only a few birds’ necks ahead of Lord Haurchefant himself. No sooner had they cleared the walls, she heard Haurchefant’s voice, which seemed like it was nearly at her shoulder: “Close the gate!”
Olivier quickly pulled Albeyr to the side as Lord Haurchefant came thundering past: standing in the saddle, his hair streaming in the wind.
“Man the northern wall!” Haurchefant commanded as he ducked, disappearing beneath the stone archway. Still, his voice carried even here: “Prepare for battle!”
Emaile spun in the saddle, gazing up at the northern wall’s ramparts. A knight stood behind every parapet. There were shields in every hand save the archers, whose bows were strung, arrows already nocked. Orders were being shouted back and forth.
The great gate rattled as it quickly slammed shut, shaking the ground and making the chocobos claw the ground restlessly.
Fear slammed against her chest, making it hard to breathe. Her whole body began to shake. Dravanians. We are under attack.
More babbling reached her ears, and Emaile turned to see servants streaming from each building, all being guided by Caprinoille under the arch.
“Elders, women, and children to the Great Hall!” Caprinoille shouted over the confused din. “No exceptions! Single-file; quickly, now!”
“That includes us, m’lady. Down y’ go,” said Olivier as he stood by her foot, holding out his arms to help her dismount.
Emaile risked one last glance over her shoulder through the gate as she swung herself out of the saddle with a bit of assistance from Olivier.
She could see the black horde, like a fell storm cloud descending from the mountain to meet them. Mesmerising. Inescapable. A living nightmare. It chilled her to the bone, and she shivered.
Olivier took her by the elbow then, tugging her gently. “Come on now. Lord Haurchefant’s orders, after all. Gotta stay safe for him, eh?”
Haurchefant. As Olivier led her toward the arch, Emaile’s gaze whipped back and forth, desperately searching—
There he was; mounting the northern wall from the east tower, pulling a helmet on even as he slung a shield onto his free arm.
Stay safe, my lord, Emaile’s heart prayed with each drumbeat as she and Olivier passed under the archway—and Lord Haurchefant passed out of view.
“My lady!” shouted Elisabet’s relieved voice as they approached the Great Hall. The distraught woman raced toward them, her hands upraised. Emaile soon found herself engulfed in her embrace. “You’re unharmed?” Elisabet breathed, giving her and Olivier a quick glance-over. “Oh, to think, you all could have been—” Her lip quavered.
Before she could finish the thought, Travois approached, interrupting. “Get them inside, Elisabet. We’ll need you on triage in the servants’ quarters.”
Triage? Emaile’s eyes widened. The sorting of patients based on the levels of their injuries… She’d seen mentions of it in her book from the Observatorium. “But what of the infirmary?”
Travois glanced to her, frowning grimly. “Better to be prepared, Lady Emaile. War often fills more beds than the infirmary can provide.”
Emaile felt the color drain from her face. All those brave knights, Lord Haurchefant included, were about to risk their lives. A scene she would have relished reading in a storybook—how different it felt, to live out the terror and danger. No Romantic notions here. These warriors were about to lay their lives on the line for she and all the other helpless ones. How long would they be able to defend the walls? How many were about to fight?
And how many would sacrifice themselves to protect the castle?
She could not stand by and do nothing.
Even as Olivier was tugging her toward the Great Hall, Emaile pulled back, latching onto Elisabet’s sleeve. “Take me with you,” Emaile insisted.
Elisabet glanced down at Emaile’s hand, confused, shocked. Unwilling to allow it. “M-my lady!”
Travois broke in gently. “It won’t make for a pretty sight, Lady Emaile…”
But she would not be deterred. “I want to help.”
Elisabet’s eyes flicked to Travois. The knight offered no further rebuttal, but Olivier piped in: “Then I’m comin’ with! I promised m’lord I’d keep ya safe!”
“Best be quick about it!” Travois urged, “Before the—”
But the sounds of battle finally ringing out cut off his last few words. Shouts mingled with the ringing of steel as blades were drawn on the northern ramparts. But above it all, Emaile could hear a scrabbling, clawing sound from outside the walls.
Are they…? Emaile’s eyes widened as she watched the knights release arrows down onto the enemy. It wasn’t long, however, before her suspicions were confirmed:
Black wings like a bat’s wriggled over the parapets, followed by dark-scaled faces belching black smoke.
They were trying to scale the walls!
She watched the Dravanians appear over the defenses in equal parts horror and awe. One by one, the full din of battle and all its facets assaulted her senses in an instant: plunging swords and screaming voices as Dravanians clamped down on knights. The smell of singed flesh and smoke that poured down from the wall, already stinging her eyes.
“C’mon, m’lady!” urged Olivier, who grabbed her with one hand and Elisabet with the other, dragging them across the courtyard, under the arch, back to the servants’ quarters.
As Olivier pulled them along, Emaile caught a glimpse of blue hair: Lord Haurchefant led two knights to a Dravanian attempting to scale the parapets. Two swift thrusts and the creature was clawing at its eyes, shrieking in pain—a fatal error, as it released the wall and tumbled backward to its doom.
So these Dravanians cannot fly, Emaile noted. I cannot help you defend it, but I will do all I can to help! Quickly returning to her senses, Emaile shook her hand free, running the rest of the way side-by-side with Olivier and Elisabet. No sooner had they crossed the threshold of the makeshift infirmary, the door slammed shut behind them.
Already the quarters were a madhouse. Servants were carrying moaning knights covered in blood down the stairs on stretchers. Emaile’s heart quailed at all the familiar faces contorted in pain. Arthurioux. Vieron. Yaelle. Already this many, and the fighting had only just begun!
“Elisabet! Thank the Fury you’re here,” breathed a blond-haired servant girl named Juline. “Here, we need more bandages for the top floor. It’s where they want to put the worst ones.” Distracted, Juline handed a bundle of bandages to Elisabet, Olivier, and Emaile.
Without a word, Emaile took the bandages and headed upstairs. It took a moment for Juline to realize what she’d just done.
But Emaile was already marching up the stairs determinedly. Let anyone try to keep her from doing her part! She was no wall-flower to sit demurely as others risked their lives to defend the castle!
Though there were few patients here initially, it hardly took long before the gravely injured were lowered into this upper floor from the trap-door above.
Sights and smells unlike anything Emaile had experienced shocked her every sense. Missing limbs, so much blood, and stitches to sew. Bodies scarred crimson and purple from the scalding smoke of the Dravanians’ breath. Emaile could hardly process as she followed Elisabet’s instructions, washing wounds and dabbing blood and changing bandages.
She worked and worked and worked. The new injuries seemed endless, and it hurt her heart with every new face brought down. She knew each fighter by name. Recognized their faces. Could tell stories about more than half of them that she had seen herself or heard from others. It broke her heart so much that as time wore on, she felt numb all over.
Eventually, Emaile found herself hunched over a bucket of soaking bandages, to rest her assaulted senses and regain her scattered mind a moment. She hadn’t stopped like this for–it had to have been hours, judging from the lighting. And all those hours had caught up to her the instant she’d sat down. She felt as though she could never rise again; hadn’t the energy to spare for it.
But as she rested her chin on the lip of the bucket, she realized just how still and quiet the castle had fallen. Had the nightmarish battle finally come to an end?
And at what cost?
In the silence, the ponderous thud of heavy, tired footsteps and the gentle clanking of armor sounded sharp and loud. But all the knights here were either fast asleep or otherwise bedridden; who should be marching up the stairs now?
Either way, it was likely someone who needed her attention. Emaile stood, making her way over to the stairwell. “Please, take this seat here—” she said, motioning to her stool as she rounded the corner to greet her next patient.
Only to find it was no wounded warrior who met her gaze.
“No rest for me just yet, Lady Emaile,” sighed Lord Haurchefant with a weary smile as he mounted the last step with great effort.
She nearly collapsed at the weight of relief that crashed upon her. “My lord!” she breathed, clapping her hand on the top of the rail for support.
Despite his clear exhaustion, he rested a heavy but gentle hand on her forearm to support her.
She felt so light-headed. Had she been holding her breath all this time? You’re alive!
But his armor was crusted in black blood.
“Theirs, not mine,” he said, following her wandering gaze. “We’ve won; the beasts are destroyed, every one.” His grip on her arm tightened for just an instant. “I am…” he swallowed, paused a moment to collect himself, and then tried again. “I am most relieved to see you are unharmed, my lady.”
And I you. Despite her fluttering heart, she allowed herself a soft chuckle. “Thanks in no small part to your squire.” She loosely gestured to a chair beside one of the wounded knights, where Olivier sat, snoring quietly, his head leaned back against the wall.
Haurchefant shared in her chuckle, shaking his head. But the smile quickly faded as his hand slipped from her arm and his gaze panned across his injured soldiers that filled the room.
It was a heavy silence. In the quiet infirmary, it felt deafening.
So many emotions mingled in her heart, which hammered inside its cage seeking to flee. Anguish and sorrow for her friends who had been wounded. Fear for the unknown: how would things ever be the same here again? The supreme relief that Lord Haurchefant was standing before her unharmed, and guilt and shame that she felt so happy when so many others lay hurt.
And, most of all, anger at the Dravanian monsters who would do such a thing to these good people, her family; rage at the wanton violence.
Lord Haurchefant’s gaze seemed just as weighted with emotion: the same sorrow, a hint of guilt too. But also a glow: pride at the courage of his knights. “Thank you for caring for them in my stead,” he murmured.
She followed his gaze, glanced from one knight to the next lying in sick beds and on the floor when there’d been no more room. Caring for them? What had she truly been able to do, in the end? What good had changing bandages done for those who had lost so much?
“I wish I could have done more,” she confessed. She plucked at the bloodstains on her skirt. “They were all so brave… But I could only…” Tears came before she could think to withhold them.
Some of her friends here would never see or never walk again. What good could she do for them?
If only… “I wish I could have fought too,” she whispered, hanging her head. For once, she was grateful for the curled tress that dangled across her forehead, for it covered her teary eyes.
Haurchefant regarded her silently. A moment stretched into many. When he finally did speak, it was in a quiet and gentle but firm voice: one that had weighed its words carefully. “And I would have welcomed your valor were you trained in the martial arts.” He paused, smiling as he brushed her curl behind her ear. “But should a rose be unprepared for winter, it withers under frost’s knife.” He shook his head. “I could never allow such a tragedy.”
Unprepared. He was right, of course. Without any training, she would only become a liability. Her mind flickered back to their mad race to escape the Dravanians, how Olivier had been forced to pull her out of the way.
She snatched up fistfuls of her skirt, hands shaking in frustration. “Less than a rose,” she bitterly muttered.
Haurchefant’s smile faded into concern.
“A rose at least has its thorns…” she finished. Unable to meet his gaze, she glared at the floor.
Slowly, gently, his hands wrapped around hers, prying her trembling knuckles from her dress and holding them securely. Squeezing reassuringly. “Thorns are grown over time, Lady Emaile,” he reminded her gently.
She glanced up, hope flickering in her heart. He did not say she could not fight, nor that she could not—or worse, should not—learn.
Only that it would take time.
He lowered his head, so close their foreheads nearly touched. “We will speak more later,” he whispered, squeezing her hands once more before planting a quick kiss upon them.
And then his hands slipped away, and he was stumping over to the bedside of his injured soldiers.
She watched as Haurchefant moved among them, speaking with those who were awake, encouraging them with his words and thanking them for their deeds. If the patients were sleeping, he took time to glean details of their condition from Elisabet and Juline.
It was touching. Admirable. But she had to confess, part of her mind was malms away.
She could do more.
She had to do more.
As evening’s shadows grew longer, Elisabet and Juline all but begged Emaile to retire to her room and rest. Night and a deeper quiet had settled upon the infirmary, and together the women had stabilized many of the patients.
Perhaps anticipating resistance, Elisabet reassured Emaile: “We’ll alert you the moment there’s any change,” she whispered as she tucked a blanket to Olivier’s chin.
Surely she had dismissed Emaile hoping the young lady would go to rest. But in truth, the moment Emaile arrived at her room, she had thrown open a certain red-covered book and began to read like never before.
Spells to aid others in combat. Spells to heal. They had never taken on as much meaning as now. Alas! With her novice’s understanding of magic, there was still so much beyond her ken. Still, undeterred, she studied long into the night.
I can do more. I can help.
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