This is the burden,
this is the promise,
and this is why we will not fail
-- "Light One Candle"
A good enough place to spend the winter, Viktor had said, noting two out of two of his vital amenities: a warm place to sleep, and beer. Flik was usually a bit more selective, but the journey through the mountains in the failing days of autumn had not been easy. By the time they arrived in the bustling port city, Flik's list was almost as short as Viktor's. The inn was comfortable, the tavern warm and inviting, and Flik had no complaints about the bedding.
Outside was winter in full force. The water in the harbor was choppy gray and opaque, and snow filled the corners of the plate glass windows. The inn was crowded most nights and Viktor was in his element, tankard in one hand and a good story in the other.
Usually, Flik was content to sit in the shadows with a mug of mulled cider to ward off the chill, listening as the number of Neclord's henchmen (and Viktor's free refills) increased with every telling. But some nights, no matter how inviting the fire or icy the wind, Flik could not stay. Viktor knew better than to try and stop him, had known better years ago. They exchanged an understanding glance over the heads of Viktor's audience, and Flik slipped out the door between two self-important oil merchants on their way in.
Cold hit him full in the chest, bitter, uncompromising, and familiar. Ice had coated the ropes blocking off the end of the harbor and they swung heavily in the wind, slippery and cold and heavy under Flik's hands. The masts of moored ships loomed out of the falling snow like threatening derelicts, groaning and bumping with the wind, sails tightly lashed, sailors drinking to Viktor's health in the tavern.
Vinay del Zexay was a good enough town, Flik thought, though not one he cared to settle in. Zexen was a young country, always with something to prove, and Flik found such raw patriotism exhausting, these days. He smiled mirthlessly into the wind. Maybe he was getting old.
Though the country had not yet been around long enough to gather respectable dust, the city of Vinay del Zexay had been a port of Harmonia long before rebel leaders took advantage of the Holy Empire's distraction in the days of the Fire Bringer's truce. Flik found the comfortable, settled-in age of the city far more pleasing company than her rowdy upstart citizens, and the winter silence around him was pleasant walking company.
He had no mind for where he was going, his mind caught up in the memory of other winters and of a smile not yet faded. His thoughts led him down streets far away in time and space, in the company of those long gone. He came to a stop at the bottom of a short flight of stairs, looking up at an ostentatious facade that had obviously been built around a much older building. A church, if Flik guessed correctly, picking out the shadow of a spire in the snowclouds far above.
There should have been guards at the door, but he expected they had taken advantage of the cold night and were the source of raucous laughter from the nearby stables. Shrugging in his cloak, Flik opened the ornate door, and passed into the Zexen council building.
At this hour, in this weather, the building was all but deserted. The shops had closed early and the council members were busy elsewhere, with wine and mistresses. The building had been restored with a surfeit of marble, flaunted excess in lieu of taste, and did little to inspire Flik.
He shook the snow from his boots and crossed to the small doors under the double stairs, carefully carved and weathered by elements that they no longer saw. One door stood slightly open, pouring warm orange candlelight. Flik placed his hand against the shoulder of a goddess in relief, and the door swung silently open at his touch.
The chapel was small, and Flik knew old Harmonian architecture well enough to see it, but the doors and stained glass had been fashioned by other hands. It smelled of incense and the memory of rebellion, and Flik smiled.
"Only a foreigner would have the decency to come to church on a night like this."
Flik started, certain he had been the only person in the small chapel. The man standing in the shadow of the ave displayed empty hands and a wry grin, and Flik relaxed.
"A warrior too," the stranger continued, and Flik could see old scars on his one ungloved hand, a memory of combat. "Well, I think we tend to churches more than men of peace."
"And send more to them, as well." Flik studied the man, noted the stance of one trained in warfare. His brown tunic was trimmed in orange and gold, his orange surcoat was the same as the stained glass knights kneeling at the feet of the goddess in the window behind the altar. A gold signet ring with a star-shaped crest gleamed on his finger. "You are a knight of Zexen."
"I am," the knight said. "But little else besides."
Flik looked at the man's gloved right hand, and did not contest the statement, no matter how much he doubted its truth. "Forgive my intrusion," he said, bowing belatedly. "Is this a private chapel?"
The knight shrugged. "Not technically, but the guards at the front discourage most. Are you wintering in the city? I know most of the local blades."
Flik nodded. "My companion and I are staying at the inn." Still feeling that he had somehow intruded, Flik added, "I only stopped in for the sake of warmth and curiosity; in truth I know very little about Zexen religion. I've only met a handful of people from here."
"You won't find many. Zexen is a hard land to leave." His eyes strayed to the small vestibule of candles, lit and unlit, behind him. "No matter how much one should."
Flik considered commenting on that, but ventured instead onto safer ground. "What are they for? The candles."
"You're from the Toran area, aren't you?" The knight eyed him with keen pale blue eyes. "Or you lived there a long time, enough to pick up the accent. The shrines there are very different than these." The knight lifted an unlit candle and pulled a match from the cup on the shelf. "Prayers," he said, holding the match close to the flame of a burning candle and watching as the sulfured tip burst into light from the mere proximity of the fire. "Hopes, dreams, worries." He lit the candle he held and tipped it back among its brightly glowing fellows in their blown glass holders. The match in his hand dimmed, the flame turned blue and shrank like a tiny sapphire, and then vanished altogether. "Old friends."
Flik watched the smoke tendril winding around the man's gloved fingertips and said, "You are a True Rune Bearer."
He was startled, the charred match breaking in his hand. His expression smoothed quickly, back to that small, self-mocking smile. "It's been a long time since anyone noticed. How could you tell?"
"I've known an uncommon amount of Bearers in my time," Flik said. "My name is Flik."
The knight raised his eyebrows. "I daresay you have. It's not the first time I've heard your name, Flik of the Blue Lightning."
Flik shrugged. "Rumors travel more quickly than truth. I doubt half of what you heard is accurate."
"Even discounting half, it is more than enough to impress me." The knight held out his rune hand to Flik. "Wyatt. Lightfellow."
Flik grasped the other man's hand. There was brief flicker as Flik's old lightning rune met True Water, but quickly conceded to the greater power.
"An Elemental rune, at that." Flik shook his head. "That is rare."
"Rarer than the Soul Eater, and the Black Sword and Bright Shield? I think not." Wyatt shook his head. "No, a simple elemental rune is too much even for me, I am afraid, and more than enough to cause me grief."
Flik glanced at the candle Wyatt had lit, newly burning and struggling to claim its ground. "Are you in danger? Our journey has been long, Sir Wyatt, but our swords are still sharp. If you have need of them--"
Wyatt held up his hands, and shook his pale hair. "And you are as honorable as they say, Sir Flik. But I would not imperil you or your friends." He looked up at the stained glass above the candles. "And my days for such allegiances are long past. I should leave, and leave soon. Besides--" He smiled faintly. "I heard you had retired."
Flik brushed his hand over the hilt of his sword, blue gem glinting in the light. "So long as she is by my side, I will not surrender."
"I once thought as you do," Wyatt answered. "But time changes men, though they may not show it. My mind is set, it is my heart that wavers."
Flik opened his mouth to ask what could stay so noble a warrior in his chosen path, but he was interrupted by a small noise from the door of the chapel. His eyes met a pair of large bright blue ones, peeking shyly at the two men, startled at being caught.
Wyatt followed his gaze and laughed, kneeling and holding out his arms. "What's this, now? A young spy?"
The little girl giggled, rushing in a swirl of flounced skirts to the knight, who picked her up and spun her in his arms. "Papa! Mama said you were taking too long, so I came to see." She wound her small hands in collar of Wyatt's tunic, and blinked at Flik. "Who is that?" she asked her father, leaning in to his ear even though she had not yet learned to master a whisper.
"Ah, I've neglected introductions." Wyatt shifted his daughter's weight against his hip. "This is Sir Flik, a very famous warrior from the Toran Republic."
Flik had never been particularly comfortable around children, but he reached out his hand to take the girl's small gloved one and bow over it. "Miss Lightfellow, is it?"
The little girl nodded seriously, staring openly at Flik's clothes and face and the ends of his headband.
"Destined to break many a heart." Wyatt chuckled. "And head, if she takes after me." Wyatt smoothed his daughter's pale curls. "I expect you to remember him, Chris. It's something you can tell your own children."
"I'm not going to have any," the girl announced. "I'm going to be a knight like you, Papa."
Wyatt shook his head. "But I'm a knight, and I have you."
Chris held out the span of her small arms. "But I'm going to be the most famous Knight in all of Zexen!" she said. "Wait and see."
"well, if you're going to be that famous then you had best get plenty of sleep! Isn't it past your bedtime?"
"Go on now," Wyatt said, lowering his daughter to the floor. "Wait with your mama outside. I'll be along in a minute."
Chris looked very much like she would like to protest, but she drug her booted feet obediently to the door of the chapel. She stopped only once to look back at Flik and call out, "Are you really famous?"
"Well--" Flik began, not sure how to answer that one.
"Would your Papa lie to you?" Wyatt asked, and Chris considered carefully for a long moment.
"I'll remember you then." Chris said. "Just in case I have any children."
"Go on," Wyatt said, waving at her. "Tell your Mama I'll be right out."
Chris took one more hard look at Flik, and then turned and shut the chapel door behind her.
"That is why you can't leave," Flik said, as Wyatt's smile faded and his hand closed wearily around his rune.
"And why I must. Or she and her mother are in grave danger. Wyatt Lightfellow needs to die, and quickly." He lifted his head to the vaulted ceiling. "I had hoped to wait until spring, or at least not this close to Yule..." He closed his eyes. "I love them, and I must do this because I love them, and they will never even know." He paused, shaking his head. "I would offer you the hospitality of my house, but my days in Vinay del Zexay are numbered. Instead I must ask a favor of you."
"You would have me keep your secret, and tell your daughter when she comes of age?" Flik was willing, but surprised the knight had no one else to ask.
"No," Wyatt laughed. "I know better than to ask such a task of a wanderer, one who may never pass this way again." He tugged at his glove, and cool blue light lay glimmering in the palm of his hand. "But you have guided many a true rune bearer in your time. I would ask, if you were to pass by such a place as this again... would you light a candle? For my daughter?"
Flik did not smile, but his expression lightened, his eyebrows not so dark across his brow. "I would be honored," he said, and bowed deeply.
"It is I who am honored, and in your debt." Wyatt smiled. "I cannot say why, since you are only another man, as all men are in spite of deeds, and I am many years your senior. But--" Though the years were not in his face they were in his eyes, and for a moment they vanished, "I am comforted."
"You will leave soon?"
Wyatt shrugged. "Two days, three perhaps, but no more. Lord Keeferson is my confidant, and a young knight I sponsored, Sir Salome, will aid in my demise. They are trustworthy, and sworn to secrecy, even from each other. Chris will be well looked after, and she has her mother as well."
"You have thought this out well." Flik said.
"Because I have waited too long. Every year it only got harder."
"Weaker girls than your daughter have lost fathers and lived, Sir Wyatt. I've known a few myself who were probably better for it." Flik's hand brushed his sword. "One in particular."
"The goddess must have blessed this meeting," Wyatt said, and clasped Flik's hand in his own. "Though I doubt we will meet again, I feel as though I have met a kindred soul. My heart is lighter now than it has been in years."
Flik grasped the Zexen knight's hand with both of his, and from his memory came an old Warrior's Village blessing, one he had not said or even much thought of for fifteen years or more. "'The brightest fire is the flame of the heart.'"
For a moment it seemed as though Wyatt would speak, but instead he nodded, turning on his heel and striding out of the church. Flik watched as the door clicked shut, and the silence of the chapel seeped in from high vaulted corners. The wind howled outside, rushing through empty frozen streets like hungry wolves, but the tiny candle flames held true. All but the one Wyatt had lit, struggling against a tide of beeswax. Flick smiled, tugging his glove free and pressing his fingernail into the soft side of the candle, letting the wax run free and pool in the bottom of the cup. The flame grew stronger, adding its own halo of light.
Always one for the hopeless causes, aren't you, prettyboy? Revolutions and lost children and stray kittens. Come with me, then; I've got them in spades.
Flik smiled as he blew out his match, his newly-lit candle rising like a star next to Wyatt's now brightly-burning flame.
"Freedom," he said, as she would have, and then left the church and Zexen and the candles behind him, going out into the night where his future waited for him beyond the dark unfurling wings of midwinter.
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