“Lord Haurchefant, please, you cannot send me back yet!” Emaile pleaded, clapping her hands on his desk first thing the next morning. She was still weary from her late hours of study, but after all the spells she had attempted to learn, this had been the next item haunting her thoughts. “We require as much help as possible to tend to the wounded, and who knows whether the Dravanians will attack again!”
She had no right to argue this, any of it; what skill did she have in strategy and war? Yet she knew there were knights that needed aid and a castle that needed defending, and she would do what she could as long as she was able!
Lord Haurchefant held out his hand to soothe her. But to her surprise, he smiled and said, “I thought the same.”
Her prepared rebuttal fled immediately; relief rushed into her lungs, and she heaved a deep sigh, dropping into the chair he pulled out from his desk for her.
“Without knowing when or if they’ll return, it is far too dangerous to send you outside the walls,” he explained, taking the seat beside her. He intertwined his fingertips, resting his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward in his chair. “Not until the scouts have had time to survey and confirm there are no other mobilizing forces.” He shook his head. “No, for the time being, you will remain here, Lady Emaile.” He paused, glancing up from his thoughts. “That is, as long as you are so inclined—”
“I am.” She dipped her head.
He too nodded; in truth, both of them had known as much. “Though I should prepare a report for your father and ensure I have his approval…” He rose, circling his desk, on the hunt for something.
“His primary concern has ever been the safety of his family,” Emaile insisted, stretching across his desk and opening the drawer where she’d placed all his fresh parchment. “He will understand.”
Haurchefant gratefully took a slip of of parchment and pulled over his ink well and quill. “A concern he and I both share. And of his understanding, I have no doubt.”
He would send the message out with his best scout when he was certain it was safe to do so, he explained.
In the meantime, Camp Dragonhead remained eerily quiet, closed off from the outside world. All gates were shut; no man, woman, or chocobo ventured outside its walls. Tension rested heavy in the air. No one lingered in the courtyard, each hurrying to their given destination, no one wishing to remain out in the open for long. And, for those who had to go outside, all eyes ever darted to the northern wall. Every patrolling guard was sharper, at greater attention than ever before.
“I’ve taken the liberty of staging an additional training session for the knights,” Haurchefant explained as he escorted Emaile out of his study. “They seem like they could use the diversion to ease their nerves.” They walked arm-in-arm. Emaile could not resist holding his forearm just a bit closer than she normally would. “Would you care to join the drills with me, Lady Emaile?”
As if he had to ask. She squeezed his arm, tempted to never release it. After that battle… It placed a new weight on the frailty of her lord’s situation—and any of their lives.
No, she never wanted to leave him for a moment. “Of course, my Lord Haurchefant.” Though in truth, even without her fear, she would have been more than happy to watch these drills she’d heard about.
And her curiosity was richly rewarded. It was a fascinating thing to see the healthy knights all arrayed for battle in one place. Stern and solemn they were, faces set like stone as Lord Haurchefant rattled off exercises and they performed the commanded combinations. Their movements were precise, calculated: their minds sharply focused even if their training blades were not. She wondered whether they were always this quietly focused or whether yesterday’s battle had a part to play in its intensity today.
She was biased, of course, but Lord Haurchefant’s movements seemed the most mesmerizing of all. His years of practice shone: his motions were fluid like water, but each strike was quick and sharp as a speartip. However, his gaze always seemed… distant from the training dummies he struck, cold and hard, yet reveling in what he did, in his performance and the joy of disciplining his body to such peak physical condition.
She wondered what his cold-eyed stare saw as he worked. It was shocking to see his usual cheer flicker back in his eyes as he suddenly wheeled from the dummy to face her. “Come, join me, Lady Emaile!”
Startled, Emaile cast about, as if he were referring to someone else. “M-me, my lord? But I…”
Every knight’s gaze fixed on her; several of them smiled, amused, chief among them Caprinoille.
“We don’t bite, promise!” Caprinoille shouted encouragement. “Not even if you knock a dummy’s block off!” he teased.
She wrinkled her nose, resisting the urge to stick her tongue out in reply, when Haurchefant leaned close and whispered in her ear: “Thorns do not grow overnight, my lady…” His eyes sparked with mischief. “And you did say you’d join me in the drills…”
Gracious, he’d caught her in his trap, no doubt about it. She couldn’t rightly say no to that. “A-all right, then. I’ll try.”
Haurchefant beamed, leading her over to the armory by the western steps that led up and around the stone arch that bisected Dragonhead’s courtyard. He selected some gear for her: just a blade and a chainmail shirt for now.
Emaile fiddled with the collar of the mail shirt. It was even heavier than she’d expected. How any of the knights managed to move so well in full armor was true testament to their strength and years of diligent training.
“If you do puncture a dummy,” Caprinoille suggested when they returned, “we could always have Lord Haurchefant clean it up!” He grinned like a cheeky child.
“Caprinoille, lead them in another five repetitions, please,” Haurchefant said as he checked Emaile’s mail straps and cinched them snug.
“Aye, my lord!” Caprinoille, all business again, snapped off a salute, though his grin remained. “All right, you lot! Let’s show the young lord how it’s done!”
With the knights engaged in their training regimen, Emaile breathed a sigh of relief; no longer was the focus centered on her.
But relief gave way to more anxiety as Haurchefant said, “Let’s begin with the basics, shall we?”
Over the next hour or two, he taught her the knights’ stance, how to move, and how to hold the sword. However, the weapon proved too heavy for her to hold in one hand as Haurchefant and the other knights did.
“Ordinarily, this hand would hold the shield,” he explained, tapping her left hand. “But with two hands, you defend with your blade and your footwork instead.”
“Footwork?” she asked, glancing up from checking her hand placement on the hilt.
“You’re smaller; naturally lighter on your feet.” He nodded. “You must use that to your advantage on the battlefield. Move often and thwart your enemies’ attacks as they commit to them. Here, I’ll show you.”
They spent more time maneuvering than swinging her blade, but she picked it up well enough. Her instructor explained with exceeding patience and kindness. And his proximity as he guided her by hand how to securely hold and swing the blade… Well, it was no unwelcome intimacy. His cold chainmail brushed against her back with each breath he took, and his arms wrapped around her, his hands holding her stead as he helped her practice the motions of each swing in the set. “Like that,” he said with a smile, glancing down to her, likely to gauge her retention. “See?”
She bobbed her head, hardly trusting her voice—for it would surely betray her shyness and sheer delight at his closeness.
She felt both relief and disappointment when he stepped away. “Now you try.”
Swinging the heavy sword under his unblinking gaze was harrowing, to say the least. Surely she looked an utter fool. But Haurchefant did not so much as crack a grin, only stroking his chin thoughtfully as he offered her helpful suggestions. Now and then he would step in close again, gently adjusting her posture and form, but otherwise he silently observed, slowly circling her.
At length, when her arms felt so heavy she was certain they’d fall off, Haurchefant called, “I believe that’s more than enough for one day’s training.” His eyes finally sparkled again as he relieved her of the sword: a look of his characteristic mischief… and respect. “You did well, my Lady Emaile,” he murmured, smiling with pride… and something else. She couldn’t quite place it, but it was a look full of something akin to a quiet desire.
“Not bad at all for your first time swinging a blade!” Caprinoille piped in. More than a few of the knights smiled and nodded approvingly. A couple cheered her name.
She blushed under the attention.
“And not a single straw out of place!” Caprinoille passed between her and Haurchefant, cocking an eyebrow. “Such respect for the equipment. Some of us could stand to learn a thing or two from you…” He elbowed Haurchefant in the ribs.
Unflinchingly, Haurchefant nodded. “Respect for the equipment is paramount in a knight,” he agreed, clapping Caprinoille on the shoulder. “Which is why it comes as no surprise you would volunteer yourself to clean up after the extra drills. Most good of you, Ser Caprinoille.” Haurchefant helped unstrap Emaile’s equipment, passing it all into Caprinoille’s arms as Caprinoille attempted to protest.
But Haurchefant was already taking Emaile by the arm. “I’m certain you’ve worked up quite the appetite.” He glanced up at the other knights. “What about the rest of you?”
Cheering, the other knights fell in behind Haurchefant as he led the way to the Great Hall.
“Argh, you villain! Lady Emaile,” Caprinoille petitioned, “have mercy! Make him save a plate for me!”
Giggling, she glanced over her shoulder and nodded. “You shall have it, Ser!”
“Fury bless her,” Caprinoille murmured as he began to gather up the equipment to put it away.
Emaile paced the walls, ever staring at the western horizon. The scout was due back any moment, bearing word from her father whether she was allowed to remain. Haurchefant, as ever since the attack’s resolution, stood at her side.
“My lord, it is ill-advised for you both to remain on the walls,” argued Ser Eugennoix, the guard stationed here. He meant well, but he was renowned for his cutting words and ill temper. His silver eyes narrowed as he watched Emaile pace. “Were there to be another attack—”
“I would escort the lady to safety immediately,” Haurchefant replied coolly. “But I doubt our enemies would come from the direction where our allies lie, directly to the west. Don’t you agree, Eugennoix?” He waved his hand. “Give my lady a moment longer, please.”
Pausing, Emaile offered Haurchefant a grateful smile.
He may not have been pacing, but he was watching the horizon just as anxiously as she. He drummed his fingers on a stone parapet, his gaze on the northwest, where the scout would come from.
His gaze wandered, however, over to her. And when he caught her look, they both offered one another a reassuring smile simultaneously.
That, of course, prompted a chuckle from them both.
Eugennoix sighed, rolling his eyes.
Emaile jumped at the sight of a telltale yellow feathered figure rising from the snowy mists in the distance. “There he is!”
Haurchefant had been distracted looking at her, which gave her a head-start as she bolted down the steps to meet the scout at the gate.
However, with his long-legged gait, it took only a few paces to catch up behind her. Waiting breathlessly, they stood side by side in the courtyard until the scout arrived, dismounting and waving a letter over his head.
Haurchefant and Emaile grabbed for it at the same time, but Haurchefant’s superior height granted him victory. He held it down at her eye level and broke the wax seal as Emaile danced at his side. Both of them read eagerly in perfect silence:
“The Honorable Lord Haurchefant,
“Praise the Fury my daughter was in the care of you and the courageous knights of Dragonhead. I am full relieved you are both unharmed, and I mourn with you for your brave soldiers less fortunate.
“I concur with your assessment: my daughter is far safer in your care than anywhere. I beg your forgiveness for our imposition, but if it pleases you, pray allow my dearest Emaile to remain by your side—”
Emaile blushed. Father! To say it in such a brazen way as that…
“—until you judge the roads are safe once more for travel.
“Upon that time, should there be anything I can provide to assist your hold at Dragonhead, please do not hesitate to name it. I shall happily provide.
“Seche de Retois”
Perhaps Emaile had been less confident in her father’s reply than she’d thought. She and Haurchefant both sighed softly with relief at her father’s approval of the affair.
Noticing their simultaneous response, they glanced at one another and, despite the dark times the castle had been through… at least they had one reason to smile.
Though that quickly brought her thoughts to the reason she was so insistent upon remaining: this extended family here that needed her help. “Well. There are patients that await our care. Shall we, Lord Haurchefant?” she asked, offering her arm to him as he had done so often to her.
He chuckled at the gesture, bowing at the waist before taking her arm. Still, he could not resist tucking the arm in the crook of his elbow… tugging her just a bit closer than usual. “I thought you would never ask, my Lady Emaile.”
Arm in arm, they made their way to the infirmary. But as they walked, her father’s words so many nights before flitted through her mind:
“I can’t do much to help them… But by Her grace, I swear I’ll do what little I can.”
I cannot help much… Blinking away tears, Emaile surveyed the injured as she tied on an apron. But I’ll do what I can here, Father.
And so she did. Though the infirmary was less chaotic than it had been during the battle, there was still plenty of work to be done. Bandages to change, patients to assist. Emaile helped Yaelle limp to and from the chamber-pot, the knight leaning on Emaile’s arm for support due to the injuries her legs had sustained. Emaile stuffed more cloth in Arthurioux’s sling to cushion his broken arm. And she played with Stelle and Vieron’s little girl while Vieron rested with Stelle sitting at his bedside.
It wasn’t much, but the knights continually thanked her all the same.
Still, she doubted she brought half as much joy and lifted spirits as Haurchefant did with his mere presence. As with the night prior, he spent time at each knight’s bedside, chatting with them. Together they reminisced about past war stories or told less dangerous anecdotes related to life at the castle.
Soon enough the night had arrived, and once again Emaile found herself sitting by the fire, utterly exhausted but knowing her efforts were well-spent.
And still some time to work in a bit of study. Emaile licked her finger, turning to the next page in her red book of spellcasting.
She was so engrossed in puzzling through a healing incantation that she hardly noticed when someone sat beside her, uttering a tired sigh. “Some light reading before bed?” came Lord Haurchefant’s voice.
Her smile broke out as she rested the book in her lap.
He grinned too, but she could see how worn he was. It had to be a heavy thing, holding the burden of so many lives he cared so deeply about.
He nodded toward her book. “Though that is hardly light reading.”
Chuckling, she slid the book shut, brandishing it in the air. “A rose has the advantage of growing thorns instinctively. I, however, have no such luxury…” She frowned sadly, staring at the book in her hand. Despite her best attempts, she felt she truly was making no progress with her studies. Perhaps Astrology would ever be beyond her…
But she was not ready to give up yet!
Haurchefant weighed her words. “While true,” he nodded, “I doubt roses can produce much of anything without proper watering and care.” He stood with a grunt. “I think the patients will be just fine in Juline’s care tonight. Would you care to join me in a late sup, my lady Emaile?”
She hesitated, not because she did not wish to join him. Quite the contrary: the prospect was too tantalizing. But glancing around the infirmary at all the faces of those she loved, all covered in bandages and salve…
Emaile hugged the red book to her stomach, nibbling on her lip. She could not leave them like this!
“Lady Emaile,” said Haurchefant. His voice was tender, quiet, and with the weight of full understanding.
The tone startled her; she looked up at him even as he knelt before her to speak at eye level.
“Believe me when I say I too understand those haunting desires to protect others,” he said, somber as the grave. He held out his open palm toward her. “But no knight, however strong, can serve others should he wear himself thin. An unfortunate paradox, but no less true: you must take care of yourself to take care of others.”
Emaile stared at him, still startled. But slowly, his words began to sink in. Her gaze flicked from his furrowed brow to his proffered hand.
His tone, his expression: they said it all. He spoke from experience.
I wonder what lesson taught you this? She wondered. Then she slipped her hand in his, allowing him to lift her to her feet.
He smiled, clearly relieved at her choice. “I shall return you to your patients at break of day, I promise you. In the meantime,” he leaned his head close—so close, even resting his forehead against the top of her head to whisper in her ear, “I hope you will allow me this one brief kidnapping.”
She chuckled. And, despite her face growing warm, she wished he would never pull his head away. “Is it a kidnapping if she comes willingly?” she whispered back, simpering.
“Hm. Good point!” He took her hand, gently guiding her to the exit.
Though it was strange: as they crossed the threshold to leave, she could swear she heard a soft chorus of happy sighs. But before she could investigate, the door quietly clacked shut behind them.
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