April 19th - Abaka
Aoifa sat by her brother's bedside, hands used to wielding axe and sword busying themselves with mopping the sweat from his brow. She marvelled at the heavy scars on his body, usually concealed by the simple black robes and leather breastplate of an Alowcan Templar. He was slimmer than she remembered, wiry and tempered by battle and imprisonment, a hardened warrior.
It was strange the speed with which this youth of barely nineteen years had risen to prominence. At their last meeting he'd been the second-in-command of the Alowcan United Front, touched by a strange fervour that Aoifa had found difficult to square with her memories of a mischievous lad always in trouble with his tutors. So different to the defiant nobleman who this morning had gathered the remains of his army and charged the Oritolon ranks.
What could he possibly have hoped to achieve with such folly? Surely not victory, he'd made that perfectly clear when he addressed his men the night before. Men whom he had excused to leave that field and let him do what must be done alone, and yet who still stayed to fight. These Alowcans to whom he'd wedded his fate were a strange breed, and fearsome in their loyalty.
"Oh Cathal, what news will you have me bear home to our mother. She would be so proud to know that her son had become a Duke and the General of a realm - even but a small realm of these wild Colonies. Will you not live to tell her these things yourself? To tell her of the honour you have brought to the name Dubhaine?"
But Duke Cathal could not hear her. He was deep in swoon, his body wracked with fever, tossing and turning beneath the rough blanket in which he was wrapped.
The previous evening he'd looked so strong, walking from his pavilion with the handful of knights who refused to desert the field. Marshal Denarien followed soon after, his weight heavy on his staff as his personal physician guided him back to his sick bed, wounded and yet indefatigable.
Aoifa would have loved to be a member of that council, to hear first-hand the brave words that held that band together, but Alebad had turned her back on that bloody field leaving her an interloper in what only days before had been her own land.
Later as the army gathered for its evening meal the Duke - for thus Aoifa found herself thinking of that commanding presence - stood in the midst of his men and spoke of the battle to come, his eyes bright in the firelight and his voice swift and passionate.
"Brothers and Sisters in the Faith,"
"When we marched north I promised you a hard battle and one in which our victory would be far from certain. And yet you joined me in honouring our alliance with Alebad without complaint. A hard battle you have had this day, and victory went to the stronger side, but you knew your duty and performed it admirably. As your General and as your Duke I could want for no finer companions in arms."
"I salute you!"
"Tomorrow I will stand and fight again, hopeless though the situation appears, for that is the promise I made to you and to Paladin Vapor. Oritolon has no claim to this land save the right of arms, and though they outnumber me a thousand-fold I will contest that claim as Denariel did in ancient times. I do this for these misguided peasants who yet share our love of mighty Khagistar; for those knights of Alebad who will yet remain for love of their homeland; and for the memory of many fine Alowcan warriors who have laid their bones in this blood-soaked earth."
"You are free to choose whether you will join me or not, and let no man who turns his back be charged with cowardice or dishonour. None may compel a man to stand uncertain against such odds, nor rob wives of their husbands and children of their fathers in a cause so clearly lost. Your duty now is to Alowca and the Trinity, may you perform it as well as you have performed your duty to me."
There were tears on the faces of many who heard those words, and the exultant cheers of that battered and beleaguered force who had marched best part of a hundred leagues to aid their allies filled Aoifa's own heart with shame.
She wanted to reassure them that Alebad valued their sacrifice. To reassure her brother that those in whom she had placed her loyalty would at the last turn and stand with them. But she knew they would not. Their concern was for the City, not for the peasants. Of all the knights of Alebad only she would stand to aid her brother, dying if such be her fate for kinship which is the strongest of all bonds.
One upon a time a kinship had existed between their two realms that had been legendary: the twin cities of the Southern Theocratic Alliance. Two realms. Two religions. One common brotherhood of honour and chivalry. She passed a sleepless night wondering if that were still the case, listening to the prayers of her men as they called on their patron Kami to guide them safely through the coming storm.
As dawn crept across the horizon she was sat by the fire eating what might be her last breakfast. She could see the sombre black-robed Templars mounting their stocky warhorses, lances raised with their dark pennants stiffened by the pre-dawn chill. The rumours said they'd been sent by Denariel herself to guard the Duke, each the shade of a mighty Alowcan hero. They seemed fleshly enough from where she was sat, hawk-nosed riders from the Irdalni badlands with piercing eyes and straggly beards. Why were they so determined to fight? Surely the slaughter they'd suffered the previous day had more than paid any debt of honour to their alliance?
And then she heard the morning prayer of the Trinity, the voices raised in praise of Khagistar who created all things and Denariel who protects his children, and in that moment she saw the truth of that strange southern sect. No man who stood in those unwavering ranks fought for wealth or glory or fame. They fought because not to fight would have been to desert those who could not fight.
What had her countrymen done? To flee this field when they could still fight? When there was yet a chance of victory? Oh how utter must be Alebad's ruin for such a crime! And though she had no reason for shame she had stood in the front rank bearing the banner in which she had taken such pride, and she wept for the devastation which would mark its passing.
Her memory of the battle which followed was hazy. The charge. The clash of steel. The screams of the injured and the dying. Through bloody minded determination she survived the wreck, desperately hacking her way through the melee to where here brother's standard bobbed and fell. There was nothing she could do for his men, but somehow she managed to carry him from that bloody field, and even as she did she uttered a terrible, ill-thought curse.
"Who are you Denariel that you should steal my brother from me! Are there not enough of the dead already? Use them to fight your holy wars and leave my brother in peace!"