Chapter Fifty-Two – Coward

Gideon let them bury Ana. Jandar’s army made short work of the orcs, and the bulk of the knights and soulborgs chased after them, soon disappearing to the south. The dragons had fled the instant the demon had died.

A few kyrie of Jandar’s army stayed behind, and together, they laid Ana to rest just within the forest. No one did more work than Dan, who scraped out the hole with his gloves, the metal digging through the dirt without pause. Ana had been the only one who hadn’t turned her back on him. She had clung to the hope that he wouldn’t betray them. And in the end, she had been the first – and possibly the only – one to forgive him. Dan owed her a proper burial.

Once the earth had closed back over Ana, and the dirt had been pressed down into a firm mound, Dan stood back, and found Laelia standing nearby. She hadn’t helped, but Dan had a feeling that she had been watching the whole time. Looking at her now, he saw that her face held confusion. Confusion and something else… something Dan had never seen on Laelia’s face before: regret.

“I was wrong,” she said, perhaps to herself.

“About what?” Dan asked.

Laelia glanced at him, then back at Ana’s grave. “About her,” she said. “I knew she was Mordril once, and I assumed she could never change. But… I was wrong. What Ana did was selfless.” She shook her head. “No Mordril would ever do that.”

Selfless. Ana had lived for others, that much was certain. She had practiced what she had yelled at Dan on the pine hills. It seemed years ago now.

‘She was right,’ Dan thought. ‘She was right about everything, and I was wrong.’ He remembered what Ana had said before she cast her shield: “It’s a cost I’m willing to pay.” Hadn’t he told himself the exact opposite in Valkrill’s tunnels? Confronted with a choice between Heleer and his newfound friends, hadn’t he said that the cost of having Heleer was too great? That he could never live with it?

Looking down at Ana’s grave, Dan was suddenly sickened by his own actions. He couldn’t live with it? And he had thought that his decision had been a selfless one. Instead, it had been the most selfish decision of his life: he hadn’t freed his friends because they would die; no, he had freed them because he couldn’t live with their deaths on his conscience. Dan looked away, unable to face Ana’s grave any longer. What twisted form of morality did he possess?

His eyes now stinging with shame, Dan saw Gideon nearby, his arm around Laelia. He saw the knights and ninjas talking together in low voices. He saw the kyrie, about ten in all, nearby in a group. They were clearly exhausted from the battle, and several of them were wounded. But they were alive. Alive because of Ana. Without her, Dan had no trouble in believing that the demon would have destroyed them all. Without her, none of them would be here.

Dan looked past the trees, to the battlefield. Many of Jandar’s warriors lay there, dead where the shadow-beasts had left them. More kyrie were busy, collecting the bodies and burying them. Among the dead were several burned out husks of soulborgs.

Looking at the soulborgs, Dan remembered what NT9 had told him, back in Vydar’s Citadel, right after he had been summoned: “In time, your use will become apparent. Suffice it to say that all those who Vydar has summoned have proven their worth in some way. You will be no different.”

No one knew why Dan had been summoned, not even Vydar. But if what NT9 had said was true, then there was a reason. He had some part to play in this war, something to contribute to Valhalla. There was some change which, without him, would never happen.

“If I’m supposed to have an effect on this war,” Dan told himself, watching the battlefield, “on this land and its people… I want it to be that.” He glanced back at Ana’s grave. “I want to be like Ana. I want to save lives.

“She was right. A life lived for oneself… is no life at all.”

As the sun neared the western horizon, they helped the kyrie find and bury the soldiers of Jandar who had died. The swath of death left by the shadow-beasts had been wide before Ana had cast her shield, and the orcs had left more dead, so they had to cover a lot of ground, looking for anyone who had been trapped beneath a fallen Ghidan, or hidden under a collapsed tent.

It was Dan who spotted what seemed like the hundredth cart, looked under it, and found someone he knew. Francois had stuck close to Dan (Dan assumed because he still didn’t trust him completely), and came up beside him, staring at the figure curled up on the ground.

“Jaseff!” Francois bellowed.

Jaseff looked up, blinking at the both of them.

“What are you doing here?” Dan asked.

“Hiding,” Jaseff said miserably. “I ducked under here the moment the dragons appeared.” Dan helped him up. “Where did you all come from?” he asked. “Where did that shield come from?”

“That was Ana,” Dan said, an amount of disgust for Jaseff finding its way into his voice. “That was Ana standing up to Utgar, and paying the price.”  

“You mean… she’s…?”

Dan nodded.

“You’re a coward, Jaseff,” Francois said, his anger evident. “Hiding under a cart during the battle? Do you have no honor?”

“No,” Jaseff said. He sounded defeated.

Francois glared at him, then grabbed him by the arm and marched him away from the cart. “Gideon will want to see you,” he said. Walking behind them, Dan had the distinct impression that Jaseff had been dreading this moment.

Gideon was displeased, but in the end there was very little he could do to Jaseff aside from remind him how cowardly his actions had been. He eventually decided to let him stay with them. He said it seemed only fair since they were letting a traitor stay as well.

Dan had wondered when he would crop up. Jaseff looked at him in shock, but as Gideon recounted what he had done, Dan saw Jaseff’s surprise subside. When Gideon related what Dan had told him about Heleer, Jaseff nodded in understanding. “I would have done nothing different,” he said.

“But… But he’s a traitor!” Francois protested.

“He made the right choice in the end,” Jaseff said wearily. “That’s all that matters in my book.”

As the sun began to set, and the kyrie began to fill in the mass grave they had dug, Gideon and the others met up with one of the captains: a tall kyrie with brown hair which fell down her back, and blue eyes which seemed to shine with a light of their own in the twilight.

“What news do you have?” Gideon asked her. “We’ve heard nothing except that Vydar’s betrayed the alliance, and that he has two amulets.”

“He has two now?” the captain repeated.  “Eir save us; that must mean Ullar has fallen.”

“What happened?” Gideon asked. “How did it start?”

“It started before you left,” the kyrie said. “When Aquilla went silent, we assumed it was the marro blocking communications again, but it was much worse. Utgar had attacked her at her own wellspring. She wasn’t ready; the kyrie who made it back to us say that her forces fell under a surprise marro attack – apparently the beasts had been multiplying in the swamp, preparing for this.

“Once you left, Utgar’s fleet sailed up from the Volcarren. Ullar mobilized his forces to the coast, and then Vydar, who had been moving his army steadily deeper into Ekstrom the whole time, claiming they were hunting the orcs, turned and attacked Ullar in the back. They took several of his cities before anyone knew what was happening. The last I heard, Ullar’s forces were wedged between Vydar and Utgar, still fighting. But if Ullar has fallen, then…”

“What about Jandar?” Gideon asked. “And Einar?”

“Vydar has even more of his army in Nastralund; I can only assume they’ve attacked as well. I haven’t heard anything else. Einar was smart, and kept his borders closed to all. He’ll be the last if Vydar means to destroy the alliance.

“We don’t have enough information,” she sighed. “We have no idea where anyone else’s armies are. We ran into this force by pure accident.”

“What about Hyleran?” Gideon asked tensely. “We can’t lose it.”

“We haven’t heard anything from it for a few days now,” the kyrie said. “We’re in the dark. That’s why some of us elected to go back to Hyleran, and find out what’s happened. If it has fallen, then Jandar’s forces need to know.”

Gideon nodded. “Take us with you,” he said. “We need to get back to Hyleran as well.”

The kyrie were apparently much stronger than they looked, because they were able to pick Dan and the others up, and fly them northwards, towards Hyleran. What would have taken hours of trekking through the forest below took mere minutes, as the kyrie skimmed the tops of the trees. The night fell as they flew, but Dan wasn’t the least bit tired. Very soon, they would know the whole story. The answers would be at Hyleran. From there… Dan didn’t know.

The kyrie had to rest their wings halfway to Hyleran. They circled down, slipping smoothly between the trees until they landed on the dark ground below. Here they crouched down on the ground, folded their wings over their heads, and went to sleep. Dan thought they looked like giant, misshapen birds, devoid of a nest.

He saw something out of the corner of his eye as he watched the kyrie sleep: something or someone was running through the forest, away from them. Dan quickly switched on his night vision. It was Jaseff. Seriously? Dan ran after him.

Jaseff was no match for Dan’s speed, even with his armor. Dan caught up to him quickly and grabbed his arm, pulling him to a stop. “What are you doing?” he hissed, though he knew the answer perfectly well: he was running away again. He couldn’t face the war.

“It’s no use,” Jaseff said, trying ineffectually to pull away from Dan. “Let me go. I won’t be any help to anyone when I’m hiding behind a rock. I’m not a soldier, Dan. I’m not like Trela.” He stopped struggling as he said her name.

“You can be,” Dan said, unable to keep a trace of disgust from his voice.

Jaseff sagged against a tree trunk. “Not without her,” he said. “With her I could tell myself I was brave. I could pretend. But without her, I know it’s not true.” He looked up at Dan. “It’s no use.”

“Bravery is a choice, Jaseff,” Dan said, loosening his grip slightly.

Jaseff sighed resignedly, and then smiled faintly at Dan. “A choice? Certainly it’s a choice. That’s not the problem. The problem comes with sticking to what you choose. That’s what I can’t do.”

“Of course you can,” Dan said, a trace of disgust still unwilling to leave him. Hadn’t he chosen to be patient for Heleer? Hadn’t he stuck with that choice for six years?

“Do you know why I loved Trela?” Jaseff suddenly asked.

Dan couldn’t see how this was relevant, but Jaseff seemed to be broken, speaking in a defeated tone.

“I loved her because she represented what I wanted to become,” Jaseff said. His voice sounded harder, like he was determined to finish speaking. “She was the daughter of a priestess, training under the wisest masters of the arcane. I was the son of farmers, thrown out on the streets because they couldn’t afford to feed another mouth. I joined a group of other young beggars and thieves. When we were young, I would always tempt her to join us – me and the other street-boys I had joined. We would steal food and the like, mostly just to survive, but she never gave in and joined us. She was above that.

“Then one day she changed her mind. She decided one adventure wouldn’t hurt. She went with us, and we waylaid a cart on the road to the city. The cart was full of food, there was only one farmer driving it… I guess some of the boys got a little excited. I didn’t see what happened, but I saw the farmer on the ground, unconscious, his head bleeding from a cut.

“We ran. Trela too. We ran back to the city. We were so stupid. We figured that since the guards hadn’t seen anything, we were free. But they knew it was us. The farmer had seen us. He hadn’t seen Trela, but he had seen me and several others.

“The next day the guards rounded up the ones they knew about. We were fined for the stolen food, the damage to the cart, and the injuries to the farmer. None of us had any money of course, so the guards went to our families. They barely had enough money to live off of. They tried to pay the fine with food and livestock. The guards wouldn’t accept it.

“Trela had lied. She hadn’t told her parents where she had been. She was there though. She watched as the guards rounded us all up, and prepared to take our families to the prisons. Then she did something I’ll never forget: she took the blame.

“Not just for what she had done, but for all of us. She said she would pay the price. Her family was rich, being well-known mages, and were plenty able to pay the fine. They wanted to do so, too, once they knew that Trela had taken part in it.

“She knew she wouldn’t get off that easy, and she was right. The masters of the arcane were very strict. They couldn’t afford to teach magic to a student who lied or stole, no matter if she had come forward in the end. Eventually, they agreed to keep teaching her, but at a price: she would be marked as a liar and a thief for the rest of her life, both as a reminder of what she had done, and a warning to any who met her.

“They branded her, right on the side of her neck. Trela never tried to hide it. She had made a mistake once, and she had paid the price. I didn’t see it that way though. All I saw was that she had stepped forward, knowing full well that she could be expelled. Her life as a mage would be over. That took bravery. That took courage. I told myself then that I wanted to be like that. I stayed close to her, trying to be like her.

Jaseff paused for a moment. “I think she had been hoping she would rub off on me. She convinced her masters to train me as a mage. She tried to teach me all she could. She tried to get me to stand up for myself.  

“It never worked though.” Jaseff sighed. “Whenever we were ambushed by drow, or the city was attacked, I was always the first to run. The first to hide. I tried to be like Trela. I did. But it never happened. She was brave, and I… never was.”

Jaseff finished with a sigh, and let himself slide down the tree trunk, until he was sitting on the ground. Looking at him, Dan saw nothing but misery incarnate.

He knelt down in front of Jaseff. “You’re right,” he said.

Jaseff looked up, his eyes showing nothing.

“You weren’t brave when she was here,” Dan said. “You used her as a shield, and hid behind her whenever there was a fight. She would never have made you braver.”

“What’s your point, Dan?” Jaseff asked dully.

“No one can make you stand up and fight, Jaseff,” Dan said earnestly. “No one but you yourself. Trela could never make you brave. That’s something only you can do.” Dan stood. “And it’s something I believe you can do,” he added. “Run away if you want. I won’t stop you. But if you really want to be brave like Trela, then you have to stop waiting for it to happen. You have to make it happen. And you’ll never do that sitting here.”

Dan wasn’t sure what made him say those things. Somehow, he saw himself in Jaseff. Before all this, before Ana’s words, before Trela’s death, and before Vydar’s betrayal, Dan had been like Jaseff. He had been waiting for the war to end, trying to find a way to cheat Vydar into letting him see Heleer again. This war was bigger than him. It was bigger than Heleer even. It mattered. And if Dan wanted it to end, if he wanted to see Heleer and finally reach his horizon, then he would have to do his part to end it, not try and get around it by blackmail. And Jaseff was no different. Neither one of them could afford to wait for what they wanted any longer.

Dan couldn’t tell if Jaseff believed him or not. His face remained blank, his eyes dull. But he got up, and slowly walked back to where the kyrie slept.

Soon, they would have answers. And once they did, they could make a plan to end the war on their own terms.

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