Written for holiday 2002: Suikoden style Yule. Ensemble cast, Ghosts.
but through the din of silence all around you
she stirs within she still knows how
they laid her in the ground
she still comes around
a love that never dies takes you by surprise
heaven couldn't hold her
she'll be by your side when it's your turn
all she's seen without you
to you she'll confide when it's your turn
-Over the Rhine, 'Jacksie'
"I should not think you've been on watch long enough to forget, Marcus."
The sentry exhaled, breath coming white, and the tip of his halberd dipped. "Captain Miklotov." He straightened; relief had made his shoulders fall. "Forgive me, sir. You can't see who's coming up the stairs until they're within sword's breadth, but you hear them a mile off. Damn unnerving."
"It's all right. We have you up here to ask people who they are." The torchlight did not quite reach this corner of the wall, leaving it in shadow. In the moonlight the former commander of the blue knights looked like a spirit blown off the snow, but on closer inspection his ears were red, his cloak drawn tightly. "Have you much more of your watch?"
"What is the hour?" Marcus shivered visibly. "I can't remember how long it's been since the last watch-bell."
Miklotov dipped his hand into his pocket, tilted the watch to the dim sliver of moon. "Quarter of twelve."
"I'm almost done, sir, if old Bernard doesn't oversleep." The point of Marcus's halberd flashed as he shifted the weapon to his other shoulder.
"I'll take the last bit then, you've been on the wall since before ten." Miklotov smiled. "Leona has the pub open still, if you're sharp about it you can get a pint to warm you up."
Marcus started, boots scraping. "Are you certain, Sir? It's devilish cold out, and I think this is the most forlorn corner of the entire castle."
"All the more reason for me to take it over. Come on, now. You're no use to anybody if your fingers fall off." Miklotov's sword-belt rattled as he leaned on the battlement. "No need for me to make it an order, is there?"
"No, sir!" Marcus saluted sharply, and hurried down the stairs, eager for a tankard and a fireplace.
Miklotov chuckled, tilting his face to the sky. He didn't want to admit it to the world at large, but part of him missed doing watch duty. Even on a night like this, snow on thick and wind howling like a starving wolf, there was a kind of solitude to it that he found comforting. It was common knowledge that Camus would prefer danger before discomfort and in no way would volunteer for such a watch, not even as brief a one as Miklotov's. Marcus had not been lying about the misery of his post; every soldier in the barracks dreaded night watch on the northwest tower. Miklotov, having just made the rounds of the sentries, thought perhaps there was some truth to that; it seemed colder here than any other point on the wall. Must have been the wind off the lake.
He paced down to the small coal fire at the corner of the tower, and nodded to the sentry warming his hands there. Kobolds took the night watch without complaint, claiming their thick winter coats left them better suited to the bitter wind, but Miklotov had to admit that the small shape by the brazier looked hunched and miserable. The kobold's back went straight at Miklotov's approach, and he stammered that he was just on his way back to his watch, and hurried off to the west-wall sentry box before the knight could urge him to stay and finish warming up.
The fire gave off heat if not much light, and Miklotov hovered by it until his hands could move again, and walked back to his borrowed post. Time lost meaning there, on the wall, in the darkness. He was just starting to wonder if Bernard was, in fact, going to oversleep as Marcus predicted, when the moon slipped free of the clouds and into open sky like a sleek white horse escaping her dark pursuers.
The lake lay dark and fathomless against the white shoreline, patches of ice moving silent as phantom ships over the black waters. The entire world was pristine and still and Miklotov breathed in the peace of it, not minding the way it stung his lungs. There might as well have been no war, for one perfect moment he could have been the only man in the world, there under the stars. The sound of footsteps startled him, there was a faint rustle at his shoulder, as of a cloak sweeping the snowy wall. He chided himself for minding the scenery and not his watch. Bernard was right on time. Miklotov turned around with a greeting that died on his lips.
It was not that there was anything there. Thinking about it afterwards, he might even have been grateful for something he could see; it was less likely to be dismissed as mere fantasy. Miklotov had, in his lifetime, raised his sword against any number of things: men, monsters, even myths. But as he stood on a dark watch tower with the bells chiming midnight beyond, his sword was undrawn in his scabbard, his hand did not so much as twitch towards it. The empty silence beside him shifted, sighed, and he watched the frosted flagstones as footsteps went by his recent scuffed prints without leaving any of their own.
When Bernard hallooed him a minute later, scraping to the icy top of the tower, he found his commander's sword at his throat.
"Captain Miklotov? Sir? I can't be late enough to warrant execution?"
Miklotov exhaled, and Bernard felt his heart start up again. "Oh. My apologies, Bernard. You-- I was startled."
Bernard forced a small laugh. Had it been one of his equals, he would have cursed him in a friendly manner and told him to lay off the booze, but none of his fellow sentries had swords quite so sharp and eyes so hard. "Quite all right, Sir. A night like this can play on a man's nerves."
Miklotov nodded, his blade slipping back into its sheath. "Of course. Are you reporting for watch?"
Bernard nodded. "Sir." He was an old soldier well past his prime, one of Gilbert's men and not one of the knights Miklotov knew personally, but Miklotov wasn't going to be picky. At that moment he would have been grateful for anyone blooded and breathing, including a Highland general or two.
"Very well." Miklotov tugged his cloak closer; he had not noticed the wind blowing into it until that moment. "Keep a good watch, then."
"As always, sir. And a good night to you." Bernard was just filling his pipe when Miklotov turned on the stairs, a question obvious on his face. "Something else, Sir? I hope you don't mind the pipe, but it keeps my old bones from aching so much."
Miklotov hesitated, then shook his head, smiling tightly. "No, Nothing. Good Night, then."
"Good night, sir." Bernard watched him go, then turned his face to the stars, taking a speculative pull on his pipe. "Saw her, did you?" he tapped his pipe stem against his teeth, and hunched up in his coat. "I hope you didn't, my boy. I hope you didn't."
"Ghosts?" Camus was, without any surprise on Miklotov's part, skeptical. "Really." Skeptical, but to Miklotov's relief, trusting enough of Miklotov that he would give him the benefit of the doubt. "You believe in them?"
"I am not certain of that," Miklotov said, managing considerable dignity for a man up to his shoulders in bathwater. "But something... happened."
Camus leaned his head back on the tile. "You saw something."
"No..." Miklotov frowned down at the surface of the water, spun a little whirlpool in it with one finger. "I didn't see anything. But I heard someone."
"Could it have been the wind?" There was an agitated splash from Miklotov's direction and Camus held up a dripping hand, stalling the retort. "Now, before you take my head off, I'm just trying to weed out possibilities."
Miklotov sank back down, glowering. "No wind I ever knew of sounded like footsteps, or a person breathing. I could swear before I turned that it was the watchman come to relieve me, or you, or Lord Riou, or anyone. And--" He stopped, considered.
"What, man? Something else?"
"Yes. A scent."
Camus's nose wrinkled a bit. "The ghost? How unpleasant."
"It wasn't, I've only just remembered." Miklotov's eyes were dark, troubled. "Flowers."
"Flowers?" Camus thought for a moment. "Like, perfume? One of the ladies', maybe?"
"No," Miklotov wrung out his hand towel with perhaps more force than necessary. "No, like fresh wildflowers. Like a summer field. Impossible, this time of year."
"Hmm." Camus chewed his lip. He disliked things he couldn't explain. "There was nobody at all on the tower?"
"Nobody. The man who came to relive me would have seen them, or at the very least heard them."
Camus sighed, and slicked back wet hair with both hands. "And of course you didn't ask the watchman."
"Of course not. Winter on like it is, no battles to fight, all we need is a good rumor to get the men superstitious. We'd not get anything done, from training to finding men to wait the watch." Miklotov stood and reached for his towel. "They have enough excuses for wanting to get off work, what with the cold and the holiday coming."
"Well that I understand." Camus clambered out of the bath, stripping water of his limbs. "I'm not too keen on working this week, myself. The man after you was one of Gilbert's, you said? He's on reconnaissance until day after tomorrow, but when he gets back we'll go and ask him if his man can be trusted to keep his mouth shut, then we'll ask your sentry if he's seen anything on watch. A few days shouldn't hurt."
Miklotov scowled as Camus toweled his hair. "What makes you so sure Gilbert'll keep his mouth shut?"
Futch had learned a lot of hard lessons in his young life, not the least of which was that he rather distrusted sorcerers. So when he got to the top of the northwest tower and discovered it occupied, he had half a mind to turn right around and go back down, dragon or no dragon. However, while Bright was many things, none of which was telepathic. So when her master spun on his heel to go back down the steps he'd been quite keen to go up half a second previous, she came to a sudden halt in confusion and Futch, tripping, had to clutch the wall or go headfirst downstairs. He twisted his ankle in the process, and swore.
"Do you /mind/?" Luc wanted to know, tilting his head just enough to show he was irritated but not enough to say he had any interest in Futch or his dragonlet. "You'd think there'd be some peace and quiet at this hour."
"I'm so dreadfully sorry," Futch said, with the kind of cheek he'd never show around Humphrey. "I'll just go and break my neck somewhere else, shall I?"
"Hmm." Luc was looking at the stars again, paying no mind to Futch, who was rubbing his ankle and wincing. Bright looked at her master with the faintest touch of reproach, and the click in the back of her throat seemed to imply that it was Futch's own fault.
"Don't you start," Futch grumbled, and tested his weight gingerly.
"What?" Luc asked, sounding bored.
"Nevermind," Futch said. "What are you doing up here?"
"I am," Luc said, as if it was obvious, "watching the stars, as if it's any of your business. What are you doing up here?"
Futch batted at his dragon, who had discovered her master's cloak-hem to be a marvelous toy. "Bright needs the fresh air, and a place to stretch her wings. There's usually nobody up here to fuss if she makes any noise." There was mild accusation there; Futch had not recently felt there was anyplace of his own and he had grown to like the isolated tower.
Luc rolled his staff lightly against his palm, and the starlight flashed over the crystal point. "You can have your tower back soon enough, Dragon knight. I will not be long." His eyes followed the silver path of a meteorite and he frowned. "I dislike the looks of this."
"I never knew anybody who didn't like shooting stars." Futch gathered Bright up in his arms, and stepped over to the sorcerer.
"That isn't what worries me." Luc lifted his staff, and pointed. "That is the star of Discord. And that, there, is the star of Betrayal. Directly in their path there, that blue one, is Tenkai, Lord Riou's star." He glanced at Futch, the dragonrider with a face too serious for his age, and sighed in frustration. "Not that someone like you could possibly be expected to understand."
"I didn't say I didn't understand," Futch said, not as angrily as he might have, as he did not wish to disturb the hatchling dragon that was starting to doze off on his shoulder. "I just didn't know they were called that. The dragon Knights call them by different names, and we use them to navigate."
"They are not called the stars of destiny for no reason." Luc rapped the butt of his staff on the stones. "Men are born under them, and the stars' path dictates the course of their lives. My Lady studies these patterns, and as such can interpret much of the course of mankind."
Futch lifted his face to the cold wind and the sky, considering this. Luc was waiting for skepticism, but Futch only asked, "Where is mine?"
Luc might almost have smiled, quicker even than a falling star, and much more unlikely. "There." He gestured with his staff. "Low on the horizon, above the lake."
"So far down?"
Luc nodded. "This is not the time of year for it. It is higher in the Spring."
Futch leaned on the battlement without batting an eyelash at the ground far below, invisible in the darkness. "What are the stars around it?"
Luc seemed for a moment that he might have finished with being civil; his gifts were rare and not to be wasted like festival fortune-telling. But there was truth on that horizon, and he knew better than to try and dodge it. "Just above it is Tenyu, Sir Humphrey's star. They are close in their paths. The three stars to the left are not Stars of Destiny, but part of the constellation of the Dragon, the shape of Sir Joshua's True Rune. The True Runes are in the sky as well as the earth; it is where they came from."
Futch seemed pleased by this; he stared hard at the dragon constellation as though making sure he could find it again. "And that one right next to mine?"
Luc sighed through his nose, his breath white. "Tenkai." he said. "My star."
Futch blinked at the mage, obviously not expecting this. "Aren't they awfully close?"
"That depends on what you mean by 'awfully'," Luc said coolly, and his eyes narrowed. He had been standing close to the dragon knight in order to accurately point out the celestial bodies, and Futch seemed to realize this all at once, and would have taken a step back, but there was a battlement behind him, followed by a long drop.
"Um," Futch said.
"Are you afraid of me, dragon rider?" Luc smiled, and Futch distinctly wished he hadn't. He had a sudden wild thought that maybe Luc wasn't on anybody's side after all.
"Of course not," Futch said, and wished he'd brought his pike.
Luc's hand was cold against the side of Futch's face. "You are young and you are foolish." He seemed thoughtful. "But you are not entirely without gift, it is probably your blood. You must know what runs in it." His eyes flicked to Bright, who snorted in her sleep and moved her bony head to a better position against Futch's neck. "Why she, monster that she is, obeys you. She will not harm one she knows to be her kin."
All the color went out of Futch's face. "It's just a legend," he said.
Luc flicked his fingers at the stars. "So are those."
"I don't see what that has to do with anything," Futch said, unsubtly scraping the wall with his back as he tried to edge away. He didn't like sorcerers, had never liked sorcerers, and had not forgotten that one had killed his Black. There was something about their eyes that wasn't right. His arm clenched on Bright as if Luc was likely to take her away from him, tightly enough to make her snort awake in protest. "And I'm going to bed."
"Wait." Luc's voice was sharper than Futch had ever heard it, and when Futch turned back to tell Luc what he could go do with himself, he found that the mage was not looking at him, but at the archway opening on the steps. The crystal on his staff glowed faintly. "Don't move, Futch."
Futch was feeling rattled enough, his cheek burning strangely hot where Luc had touched him. He was about to stomp down the stairs anyway, but Bright started suddenly, now wide awake, muscles shivering under her skin. She was still for barely a second, sniffing, and then she squirmed wildly, her eyes rolling, clawing at Futch's shoulder, a frantic keening in her throat. "Ow! /Ow/!" Futch was hard pressed to hold her. "Dammit, Bright, will you calm down? I'm not going to let him hurt you--"
"It's not me she fears." Luc said, perfectly calm, his eyes strangely light. He was still watching the door. "She senses death."
"Will you shut the hell up?" Futch demanded, having to use both arms to keep a grip on his dragon. She struggled to free her wings, even though they were small crumpled things and could not support her weight, and Futch was terrified she would try to fly from the lip of the tower. But even over the panicked dragon noises and his own heartbeat it seemed he heard a rustling, like a small contained breeze. Something washed warm over him with a smell like a field in June; he could almost hear the drone of the bees. Deep contentment warred in his mind with a terror similar to Bright's, something like instinct, scenting the supernatural. Bright shrieked, going absolutely wild. Her powerful rear claws tore long gouges in Futch's tunic and ripped into the skin beneath as well. Pain flared white behind Futch's eyes and he went to his knees. He heard, very far away, Luc's cold, disinterested voice, chanting something harsh, then there was a great roaring in his ears and everything, tower, stars, Luc, seemed pulled away into it. Futch sank into darkness, still clutching his writhing dragon, only one thought in his mind before shadows wrapped him in unconsciousness. He must not let Bright go. He must never, ever let Bright go.
Futch woke with a start in an unfamiliar room. He lurched upright and pain arched hot across his chest like lashes from a whip made of fire, and he fell back, gasping.
"You should stay down. Huan's done all he can do for now. I might not be fond of physicians, but this one is discreet enough."
Futch's eyes focused. The room was small, unpretentious. There were herbs drying on the wall and a small pile of scrolls on the table; Luc's staff rested by the door. Bright was not in her usual place in Futch's armpit, but instead was a small coil of scales and blue eyes at the foot of the bed. She hunkered down in shame when Futch saw her.
"This is your room."
"It is," Luc said. "and before you start thinking me particularly hospitable, I wanted to talk to you before you went yelping to that titan of a guardian of yours, and got him waving his sword at me."
Futch hissed and gingerly prodded the bandages around his ribcage. "Huan, you said? How did I get here? How long has it been?"
"An hour or two," Luc answered. "And I teleported us here, before your dragonlet clawed your heart out in panic. She's marked you for life as it is."
Bright keened softly in apology, and tried to flatten herself against the blanket. Futch did not exactly speak dragon, but he knew the right noises to make, and clicked in the back of his throat, holding out his hand. "It's all right, Bright."
The white dragon swarmed up immediately, and bumped her head--carefully-- against the bandages on Futch's chest. "You were just scared."
"On the contrary, she was terrified, as any beast with sense would be." Luc shook his head. "I wanted to ask you what you sensed, before I took us out."
Futch furrowed his brow, his head feeling strange without the weight of his circlet on his head. "It got warm for a second. And it smelled like flowers."
Luc's mouth was a tight, displeased line.
Futch ran his hand over Bright's crest, soothing her. "why? What was it?"
"I'm not sure." Luc's expression, if possible, got darker. "I don't like it, whatever it is."
Futch hazarded a guess. "A ghost?"
Luc raised an eyebrow. "Not entirely an inaccurate suggestion, but I think it is hardly that simple. I would prefer if you kept this to yourself. I suppose you can tell Sir Humphrey, if only to explain why you have three-foot talon marks on you." He stood, and Futch for the first time noticed an extra bed wedged into the room. "Huan doesn't want you moved, and I haven't the energy to teleport you again. You'll have to sleep here."
"Cheery," Futch mumbled, leaning back against the pillow. It smelled herbal and slightly sharp, like Luc. Not precisely unpleasant. "Thanks, though."
Luc made a derisive noise. "Don't think I like it. You can leave in the morning, and I'd rather you don't wake me."
The lamp went out with a word of magic, and Futch lay on his back in the dark, Bright curled up warm against his side, his wounds throbbing faintly. "What did you mean," he asked, "About me having a gift, and my blood?" He was running the risk of Luc's displeasure, but since almost anything, including saying good morning, could win someone Luc's displeasure, Futch figured it wasn't a very big deal. Luc did not answer and there was no sound from the darkness, so for a long moment Futch figured he had just gone to sleep. But Luc's voice came from the other side of the room, muffled and sleepy, but somehow older than Futch by more than just years, by decades, by eons.
"You'll understand someday, Dragon-rider." The bed creaked as Luc moved, and he sounded much more like himself when he added, "Go to sleep and quit pestering me."
When Futch did finally sleep his dreams were troubled: A young laughing girl with dark hair and her arms full of flowers. But when she looked at him, her eyes were black and endless, cold and deep like the midwinter waters of the lake.
"Bernard?" Gilbert scratched at his beard, and eyed the two knights across his table. The bar was nearly empty, this time of the day, only Gilbert, and Sir Humphrey several tables away, lost in thought over his own tankard. "I'd love to, lads, but I'm afraid I can't."
Camus leaned forward, past Miklotov who was still bristling at being called a lad. "May I ask why not? It's not as if there's some security breach involved."
"Oh no, nothing like that." Gilbert put his tankard down. "But I'm afraid Bernard's not talking to anybody."
"He seemed perfectly capable three nights ago," Miklotov grumbled.
"Aye, my boy," Gilbert said, "He was still alive then."
Miklotov started. "What? He's dead?"
"Sorry to say." Gilbert shook his head. "He didn't come down to breakfast this morning. One of my new boys found him, Ace I think it was."
"What dreadful news." Camus murmured. "I'm so deeply sorry,"
Miklotov was getting more and more uneasy. "What happened?"
"Huan said it was his heart." Gilbert tsked and swirled the dregs of his ale. "He'd been in my company fifteen years. Damn shame, this close to Yuletide. Had to write his daughter this morning. Ah well, comes to us all, I suppose. I'm not surprised."
"We're so sorry to trouble you," Camus said, treading firmly on Miklotov's foot under the table, causing the blue knight to shut his mouth with an audible noise. "We won't disturb you any further. Come on, Miklotov."
They were halfway to the door when Gilbert's voice stopped them, his eyes glinting under heavy brows. "You didn't see her, did you, Captain?"
Miklotov was torn between feigned indifference and his instinctive honesty. "No," he said at last. "No, I didn't see anything."
Gilbert nodded. "Good. I wouldn't worry about it then, if I were you."
"But what about--"
"Not /now/, Miklotov," Camus hissed, taking him firmly by the elbow. "This isn't the place." He lifted his head to the bar, where Leona had been polishing the same glass for a quarter of an hour. "Unless you want it all over the barracks."
Miklotov for a moment looked like he couldn't care less if all his men found out he was a complete loon, but common sense fortunately got the better of him at about the same time Camus got him to the door. They were nearly run over by a young dragon knight in a great hurry, wing circlet askew, who paused only briefly to apologize before making his way to Humphrey's table, an intent look on his face.
"What do you suppose that was about?" Camus wondered, in the main hall.
Miklotov was too hung up in his own thoughts to answer.
Flik had slowly, over the number of years he had known Viktor, come to the conclusion that as long as he continued to associate with the swordsman that he, Flik, was destined to find himself in unsavory situations. While more often than not these situations involved death, money, or embarrassing disguises, he had to admit that being roped into booking entertainment was a first. He had refused point blank, but threats of bodily harm just didn't seem to go very far when it came to saying no to Viktor.
"I don't know that we'll have that much space," he said, again, wondering if there wasn't something stronger Huan could prescribe for headaches. "Can't you juggle them or something?"
"I don't know," Eilie said thoughtfully, frowning. "I've been practicing juggling but I keep drop--"
"Of course I'm sure we can come up with something." Rina interjected, with a quieting glance at her sister. "But really, the knife tossing trick is Eilie's most show-stopping number."
Flik folded his arms over his desk. "While I don't doubt Eilie's skill," he said, in a tone that expressed the opposite, "I really would rather not put our men at any extra risk. An accident, even a small one, could put someone out of commission and we can't afford even that."
"Awww," Eilie said. "I won't hit anybody--"
"That is certain," Flik said, "since you won't be throwing knives at anybody." He had a sudden vivid image of Viktor with a perfect, unblemished melon balanced on his head and one of Eilie's throwing knives protruding from his forehead. Show-stopping, indeed. "Perhaps you could premiere a new act?"
Eilie brightened. "Hey, now that's an idea!"
Rina was still looking uncertain. "Very well," she said. "but she hasn't got much time. If we can't get ready, she'll have to fall back on the throwing trick."
"Fine," Flik said, more than anything wanting to just get this decided. "But if it comes to that, Eilie," he hoped his smile wasn't too vindictive, "Pick Viktor."
The two sisters had just left his office and Flik was crossing "entertainment" off his list when there was a knock on his door. "Come in," he said, without looking up, since he had just remembered he was supposed to ask Hai Yo if he knew a recipe for Toran rice dumplings, and was scribbling a note to himself on the bottom.
"Finish one thing, add three more," he sighed, then blinked at his guests. "...I don't even want to know what kind of act you have in mind."
"Act?" Miklotov echoed dimly, while Camus said, deadpan, "I'm going to dress up in women's clothing and we're performing a famous duet from the great Matilda Rune Cycle opera."
Flik glowered. "Fine then," he said, whipping out a quill like a sword. "Would a seven-thirty slot be too soon?"
"/Camus/!" Miklotov hissed.
"I am not serious, of course," Camus said, settling into the chair Rina had just evacuated. "I wish it was something so frivolous, Sir Flik, as Yuletide festivities. Besides, Miklotov can't sing."
Miklotov snorted. "Will you be serious? Sir Flik, I wish to discuss something with you of rather a private nature."
Flik was unsure what was more private than Camus's sneaking predilection for opera and women's attire, but Miklotov looked deadly serious and even Camus had sobered. "Anything besides these damn festivities to organize."
Miklotov sat down awkwardly, as if he really would rather stand but wanted something to do. "You have an admirable rapport with your men, Sir Flik," he began. "They trust you, confide in you. I was wondering if you had heard anything about strange...happenings around the castle."
Flik lowered his eyebrows. "Strange how, Miklotov? I just had four kobolds in here trying to organize a Morris-dance, but I don't think that's what you mean."
Camus smiled, but Miklotov didn't.
"Miklotov had a most... unsettling encounter three nights past, on the northwest tower," Camus said. "We thought you might have heard a similar tale."
"Viktor would probably be more likely to know," Flik said, with a trace of reluctance. "He would know more about the infantry, anyway, and that's a greater percentage of out troops." He turned to Miklotov. "Unsettling encounter?" he prompted.
"A ghost," Miklotov said, flatly.
A kind of stillness crept over Flik's face. "A ghost?" His expression did not change as Miklotov explained about his night on the watch, the footsteps, the flowers, Bernard's death.
"You may think me mad," Miklotov said, "But I must know if I am alone in this. If so," he looked at his hands, "then I am in no fit state to command troops."
"Do not say anything about this to Viktor," Flik said, rather more sharply than his usual tone. "You are, I think, familiar with the history of this castle?"
"Only that it was a ruin before we claimed it," Camus said. "...I sense by the look on your face that the story is more than that."
"It is," Flik said, "and it is nothing I want to be common knowledge among the men. It would do no good for them to know that this stronghold is on top of countless unmarked graves. There are rumors, as it is."
"You believe me," Miklotov breathed, grateful.
"I don't believe in ghosts," Flik said, "but I trust your integrity." He steepled his hands, thinking. "What do you want me to do?"
"Would it be possible," Camus asked, "to organize a party... rational men, of course, to investigate this?"
Flik thought for a moment. "I can think of a few people. Would the two of you be free tonight? I'd like to get this taken care of as soon as possible, and if we're absent from the feast tomorrow night it might raise some questions."
"Thank you," Miklotov said. "I thought we might have had some trouble convincing you."
"You might have," Flik said, rueful, "If Humphrey and Huan hadn't both been in already this morning. Futch's dragon went berserk last night for some reason, marked him rather badly. Ghosts are fine, but anything that poses a danger to the inhabitants of this castle isn't."
"Is this everyone?" Camus asked, the cold wind making him squint. It had been snowing for most of the afternoon, and the castle looked like some sort of frosted confection, festooned with ice, windows ruddy with the fires built up to keep it warm inside.
"We're still waiting on Kiba and Klaus." Flik was bundled in a deep fur cape; he hated the cold even more than Camus did, having grown up in the much more temperate regions of Toran. Humphrey was with them as well, silent as stone, and Huan who was along out of scientific curiosity. Luc, uninvited and unexpected, had joined them without a word in the great hall. He ignored them now, his eyes on the clouds.
"Shu is not coming?" Miklotov of all of them was perhaps the most edgy, having encountered the apparition once already. It was his sanity they were out to prove, at least to the knight's thinking.
Huan shook his head. "I inquired if he'd like to, but he says he's got too much work to do. Suggested young Klaus come along instead, wanted a detailed report. Seemed rather curious about the entire affair. Ah, here they come."
The former Highland general and his son stepped out of the door of the pub and made their way across the frozen courtyard. Behind them the window's of Leona's tavern glowed with an inviting yellow light, and snatches of song could be heard over the howling of the wind. It would seem some of the men with the night off were getting an early start on the celebrations.
"I'll want a pint of mulled mead when this is over, that's for sure," Kiba said, by way of greeting. He looked formidable, as if the cold did not bother him in the least. Klaus, however, was shivering.
"Are we all here?" he asked, with a glance back at the tavern. Flik was convinced he had only come along because Shu requested it, and was longing for the hearth in his chamber.
"Yes," Flik nodded. "Northwest tower, wasn't it? Let's get along before we're noticed, this can't help but look suspicious."
Luc was already leaving, striding across the ground without a care for the icy-slick paving stones, billowing cloak leaving serpentine patterns in the fresh-fallen snow. They followed him without talking, either too thoughtful or too cold for conversation.
"Here," Luc said, when they had straggled up to the top of the wall, kicking snow from their boots. "Futch and I were on the tower, but there isn't room for all of us there."
"How is he, Sir Humphrey?" Huan asked. "Those were some nasty marks. Dragon wounds can turn ugly, you know, but I'm sure the boy has natural resistance in his blood."
Humphrey said, "He's fine. Told him to stay in."
"This is where I was on watch." Miklotov looked down at the lake far below, but could only see one dim frozen corner, the rest lost in the night and snowfall.
"Damn cold," Kiba bellowed cheerfully. "Any spirit with sense would be having a lie-in by the fire, if you ask me."
"Father, do be serious." Klaus had a charcoal stick and a scrap of parchment; he was busily writing the names of all present. "Sir Miklotov, what was the hour when you encountered the spirit?"
"We haven't established--" Huan began, Luc gave him a disgusted look, and Miklotov said, "Near midnight."
"Ten minutes," Camus said. "Perhaps, Sir Flik, you could fill us in on the history of this castle?"
"I'm not one to tell it," Flik said, shaking his head. The wind was stronger here, the ends of his headband snapped behind him like a blue pennant. "But I don't think you would convince Viktor to. I wouldn't want him to do so, anyway."
"You seemed adamant that he not be aware of our expedition," Camus said, curiosity open in his voice.
"This was where he was born," Flik explained, "then the village of North Window." He gestured to the castle with a gloved hand. "When he was a boy, he was away on some errand to South Window, and returned to find that the town had been attacked in his absence."
"How terrible," Klaus murmured. "Was everyone killed?"
"Yes and no." Flik traced the feathered pattern of frost on the battlement, watching it melt under his fingertip. "It had fallen to Neclord, a rune Vampire."
"I have heard tales of him," Huan said. "I thought them fairy-stories."
"They are not." Everyone turned to Humphrey in surprise; he did not normally initiate conversation. "I have fought him, face to face," the warrior continued. "The horror that had once been this town--" He stopped, shook his head. "Viktor and I often talked, long nights in the early days of the Liberation Army, when Lady Odessa still lived."
Flik looked away, at the invisible lake. His hand, on the stone, curled into a fist.
"You weren't as close to him then, Flik," Humphrey said, more for the benefit of the others. "But I remember when he joined us. Neclord's power is that of the undead. He turned this place into a nightmare, for sport."
"We defeated him," Flik said, as though speaking to the lake, "when our paths crossed during the war in Toran. He must have retreated here."
"Here?" Klaus said, incredulous. "Neclord's castle--"
"Is the one we stand in now." Flik finished. "This place once teemed with walking dead. Once Neclord left, his power did too, and while we transferred the disturbed graves to the cemetery, there is no way of knowing how many are unmarked." There was a long silence except for the wind, and the distant bell tolling the hour.
"Soldiers tend to be superstitious," Huan said, chin in hand. "You were wise to keep this quiet."
"Or strength depends on recruiting as many men as possible." Flik sighed. "If word had spread--" he stopped suddenly, Kiba had made an inarticulate noise, sword scabbard clanking as he straightened. His face, ruddy with cold a moment ago, had gone the color of old porridge.
"Father?" Klaus asked.
Luc brought his staff down on the stone with a noise like a mild thunderclap. "Quiet. It's coming."
The wind had died down a little, and over it, clear in the winter air, was a melody, absent-minded and sweet, such as a young girl might hum while walking. When the wind moved again it was warm against them, warm as the finest summer breeze sweeping off the lake in midsummer, so much so that one could almost hear the peepers in the long grass, the splash of a fish in the shallows. The humming stopped, became a snatch of almost words, and light footsteps clattered over paving stones that were muffled by perfect, unspoiled snow two inches thick. They came to a halt, as though surprised at the party, not two feet from where Kiba stood. His eyes were glassy and, like everyone else's save Luc's, fixed on the empty air in front of him. Luc was watching Kiba instead, his eyes narrowed to slits. The pause lasted a mere handful of seconds, then the steps moved on, untroubled, and vanished along the western rampart. The wind hit them again full force, twice as bitter to make up for the moment of reprieve, and Kiba sagged against his son.
"I'm-- all right boy, no need to panic." He brought a hand to his eyes. "Well, there's your ghost, Miklotov. Sorry I scoffed at you... Quite something, isn't she?"
"She?" Miklotov echoed.
"Didn't you see her?" Kiba said, looking around at the other men. Their expressions were enough to tell him.
"None of us saw her," Luc snapped, more irritable than usual. "I myself only perceived the barest shadow of her, more than any of you should have been able to discern without aid of magic."
"Surely not," Kiba insisted, with a trace of his usual brass. "Saw her plain as day, as you lot standing here. Pretty thing she was, with dark hair. Not unlike your mother," he added, to Klaus. "Had a blue dress on, handful of daisies."
The sound of a sword leaving its scabbard made them all turn. Flik was holding his weapon upright like a warding rood, gloved fingers clenched on the blade. "Swear," he said, his voice colder than the frost-touched steel he held. "You will swear on this sword not to speak of this, ever, to anyone."
Humphrey put his hand out on the hilt, immediately.
Huan began, "Is that really--"
"/Swear!/" Flik thundered, and there was lightning still in his eyes, enough for even Luc to place his fingers on the pommel. "This sword bears the name of a lady more noble, more fine than any of us here. If any should break this vow, in her name, the name of my sword, I will cut the cur's heart out."
"Sir Flik," Klaus stammered, as if expecting to be slit to ribbons on the spot, "Lord Shu will ask for a report of this."
"Then I will have the same vow from him," Flik said evenly. "Your pledge, gentlemen."
They murmured assent, and Flik sheathed his sword again.
"If I might ask," Camus said, with respect, "Why the oath, Sir Flik?"
"He doesn't want Viktor to know," Humphrey answered. "and I agree with him."
"I see." Camus smiled, but still looked a touch disappointed. "Perhaps someday, when we have time to sit by a fire and talk about old wars instead of fighting new ones, you will tell me the story behind all this."
Flik smiled wearily, and he was once again just the cavalry captain, not the Blue Lighting told of in stories in the Toran Republic. "Perhaps I will."
"I think we've seen all we're going to see for tonight," Huan said briskly. "Shall we go in?"
"Yes, let's." Klaus still had a worried line between his eyes. "Father needs a drink."
"Don't baby me, boy." Kiba said, but admitted, gruffly, that a tankard sounded quite good. Huan went with them, prescribing a good herbal tea for shock, and Luc, without a word, teleported away.
"I expect you are convinced?" Flik asked Miklotov, who nodded.
"I am at that, Sir. But I worry for Kiba."
"Why is that?"
Miklotov's dark brows were drawn together. "Something Gilbert said." He shrugged. "But I suppose it's nothing."
"I should see to Futch," Humphrey said, to excuse himself. "Gentlemen. Flik." He bowed, and strode after the others.
"I'd like a drink myself," Camus said. "There's a bottle of Matilda wine I turned up months ago at the trading post, I think this is a suitable occasion. Sir Flik, would you like to join us?"
"Perhaps later," Flik said. "I'd like to think for a bit."
"Don't stay out too long," Camus warned. "Huan will have you swilling some vile concoction if you so much as sneeze twice."
"I'll remember that," Flik said, and watched them go. It had stopped snowing, and the low wooly clouds seemed lit from within, silvery grey. Flik drew his sword and in the dim light the lettering flashed up at him, engraved needle-fine, like cobwebs strung with mist. The edge had sliced his gloves open when he clenched the blade, but the skin on his palms was unscathed. He sat with his back to the battlement, cloak drawn around his body, naked sword across his knees. In the deepening winter silence he listened, straining, for footsteps, for a snatch of song, the sound of a familiar laugh.
Yule dawned bright and clear over the lake, wind cold and sharp like the edge of a knife, but inside the castle it was warm and bustling. The furnaces were kept blazing and the smell of spices and evergreen permeated the air, along with the vats of spiced cider kept on hand in the kitchens, passed regularly in cups to the men on watch. Everyone Flik encountered seemed to be on some desperate mission, but cheerful about it, even when some of the holly decorations turned out to have a sprite infestation, and a team of guards had to be called in to dispatch them.
Night fell somewhat faster than usual even for the season, clouds moving in late in the afternoon, torches lit in the corridors well before when sundown should have happened. There were bits of music wafting through the halls, and Flik tried very hard not to let it remind him of the eerie music on the northwest wall. It was easy enough, since there were supplies to oversee and training schedules to arrange and all the other work that needed doing, Yule or no Yule.
The war didn't stop even for the holiday, no matter how sluggish it was with winter. Troop reviews proceeded as usual and training continued, although it could not be helped if the men had their minds elsewhere. Shu had Lord Riou and the generals in a strategy and supply meeting, but he gave up on them early when Viktor, heartily opposed to any sort of work on Yule, protested by answering everything with "beer".
There was no mention made of the events of the night before.
Flik felt like the moment he sat down at the high table for the feast was the first time he had actually gotten to sit down all day. Dinner took a bit in coming; everybody felt compelled to toast Lord Riou, who was sitting in the middle of the table and looking rather embarrassed at all the attention. If it wasn't for Nanami's beady eye on him, Flik was sure their leader would have slipped off for a quiet meal in his own chamber. The food was enough to draw the entire room into small islands of conversation, interrupted by cries of delight when Eilie preformed a breathtaking feat of juggling, or Bolgan exhaled a brilliant plume of fire in the air.
Kiba, sitting at Flik's elbow and showing no negative effects of his encounter but plenty of effects of a few cups of wassail, drew the warrior into an animated conversation about the strategies employed by the Scarlet Moon Empire. He was using cups and salt cellars and grapes as a makeshift army, but was distracted from his lecture when Klaus, sitting opposite, captured the apricot jam scone infantry he'd been keeping in reserve, and ate it. Flik had been listening with only half an ear anyway, keeping one eye on Eilie as though to make sure she wouldn't start spontaneously throwing knives at people. She caught all her juggled ones with a bow, however, and Flik, glad nobody was going to get skewered, leaned over to tell Viktor how close he had come to being part of the act. The chair on his right was empty.
"--Ate my elite troops! And where's that gravy boat I had in my phalanx?"
"I passed it down to Gilbert, Father. He wanted it for his potatoes, I assume--"
"Did either of you see where Viktor went?"
Kiba stopped trying to reconnoiter the contents of the fruit basket. "Viktor? He was here not ten minutes--"
"He left just before the charge," Klaus said wryly, as his father gestured for a refill, "of that particularly violent unit of pomegranates. Quite some time ago."
Flik frowned down at the bits of apple in his wassail. He couldn't think of any reason for Viktor to leave a gathering of so much free food. He waited until the tumult of applause when Karen took the stage to dance, and slipped quietly from the room.
Away from the feast, the halls of the castle seemed like a different place. His boots echoed hollowly through corridors that seemed twice as empty as usual. The sentries on watch were all on short-shifts, more men working for less time, and probably could not have told Flik if Viktor had passed even if Flik had needed to ask.
The cold hit his chest like a blow, the world silent under a smattering of stars. The moon danced with the clouds like Karen danced inside with her veils, and Flik's shadow came and went as he climbed the steps to the northwest wall. He heard the song ten steps before the landing, but knew the voice that hummed it was no spirit, no specter. Hearing it now he could place it, the melody Viktor would sing to himself over some idle task, sharpening blades or cleaning fish, unaware. He stopped when Flik's boots came to a stop at the top of the wall.
"What's the matter, Flik? Can't run a feast without me?" Viktor turned from the view of moonlight on the frozen lake, and toasted Flik with the tankard he'd brought with him from the hall.
"I thought you might be sick," Flik said, tugging his tunic straight, "to turn down unlimited beer that way."
Viktor laughed. "Sorry to skip out early, but I had a feeling Eilie was gonna ask me to volunteer for her knife trick, and I'm not tired of living, yet."
"What are you doing out here? It's freezing." Flik said this more for himself, as he had not stopped to fetch a warmer cloak. Viktor wasn't wearing one at all, nothing but his tunic sleeves to keep the winter away, and didn't seem chilled in the least.
"Thinking." Viktor swirled the contents of his mug. "How'd the ghost hunt go last night?"
Flik was struck silent for almost a minute, his hand clenching on his sword hilt. "Who dared to--" he began, once he could speak again. "I'll have their--"
"Relax, Flik." Viktor eyed him over the rim of his mug. "Nobody told me. I just would think after all this time that you, at least, would know how little goes down around here without me knowing about it." He grinned. "Although it was awfully sweet of you, going behind my back and all, not wanting to worry me."
"It was nothing of the sort," Flik spat. "If I had known-- you can be certain I won't go to the trouble again, traipsing about in the middle of the night--"
"Well, why did you skulk around last night?" Viktor's eyes narrowed. "You probably went all blue lightning on them and made 'em swear on your sword, didn't you? Klaus was practically terrified to say good morning to me today. Thought you were gonna swoop down and chop him in half."
"I would, if I thought he'd broken his oath." Flik tossed his cloak back, irritably. "I only didn't want word to get to you."
Viktor raised an eyebrow. "How come? You think I couldn't handle it? Thought it would make me snap or something?"
"Of course not." Flik said. "I know you better than that." He sighed, and brushed snow off the top of the battlement. "I didn't want you to get your hopes up, is all."
"My hopes?" Viktor was genuinely surprised. "Why would a ghost get my hopes up?"
Flik continued dusting the battlement, not stopping until he had swept the rough stone surface free of the last traces of snow. "I am not in the habit," Flik said, and it seemed to cost him a great deal of effort to speak, "of being jealous. Most certainly not of you. But when Miklotov said... and Kiba described her, I--" He hit the stone with his fist, scowling. "It's something of her, don't you see? Something you still have, a way she still /is/. I would do anything-- anything for just that much." He put his hand to his face, and closed his eyes against his glove. "I didn't want you to hang on to something gone," he murmured. "If it was me, I would spend all night up here, and you know I would, until I saw her. I didn't want you to do the same."
For a long time Viktor didn't answer, looking up at the sky. "The castle part was a ruin, you know," he said, at last. "Even when I was a kid. We'd climb up on the walls and pretend to be warriors, I remember. She used to like it when we fought dragons to rescue her."
Flik said nothing, his face still in his hand.
"Flik," Viktor said, "They're gone. I know that. I heard some of the guys talking, about a ghost woman on the wall. Bad luck to see her, they say, means your death is coming." He gave a laugh, short and bitter. "Doesn't sound like the kind of thing she'd do."
"Kiba saw her," Flik said.
"I'm not saying it isn't true." Viktor leaned on the battlement next to Flik, and placed the tankard in front of him. "Here, have the rest, looks like you need it-- and if it is true, well, I'm sorry to hear it, Kiba's a hell of a general. But I'll believe it when I see it, and not before. She's dead, Flik, and I've had to tell myself that every night for years now. If she walks here," he gestured to the wall, "then she doesn't do it for me. And I'm glad of that."
"She was singing," Flik said, as if unable to keep silent. "The one you always sing, the one about the flowers."
Viktor's voice was harsh. "...Was she, now. She liked that one." He blinked several times at the lake, and Flik picked up the tankard in both hands but didn't drink it.
"Who was she, Viktor?"
Viktor shrugged. "It doesn't much matter now, does it? She was somebody I loved, that's all that stays." He clapped Flik on the back rather harder than usual, knocking his chin into the tankard. "Come on then, I don't know about you, but I'm all for some seconds. Pudding's probably just coming out, right?" He flung an arm around Flik's shoulders more for the purpose of hauling him bodily towards the stairs than for companionship, and Flik, while he could have protested, did not. They were halfway across the courtyard when Viktor stopped, turning back to look at the moon.
"What is it?" Flik asked, following Viktor's line of sight, to the top of the tower. "You don't--"
"No," Viktor said, and if there was regret in his voice it was lost in the hush of the snow. "Go on then, I'm right behind you."
Flik hesitated, but turned at last to the castle entrance. Viktor stood in the frozen moonlight, watching the empty space of the wall. He smiled at last, shaking his shaggy head, and followed Flik back inside.
And she smiled as she passed me
With her goods and her gear
And that was the last
That I saw of my dear
I dreamt it last night
That my true love came in
So softly she entered
Her feet made no din
She came close beside me
and this she did say
It will not be long love
Till our wedding day