The Lion Crushes the Phoenix
Three weeks ago
The bearded old man sighed, leaning back in his high-back velvet chair, the only luxury he had in the barren room of his. The rest of the small room looked poor, with a straw bed by his side, a decrepit wooden table in front of him, and a small window in the wall. If he had stood up and walked around, he would only be able to take three small steps before reaching the door.
It was the best he could afford. All the rest of his wealth had gone elsewhere. Paper, quills and ink did not come cheaply, nor was funding a rebellion.
The man's hand trembled with the ache of writing, even though the quill left his hand hours ago. The letters had gone forth, towards their intended recipients. For a few, he wrote an additional letter, providing more explanation, while a few were attached to letters that w They were all told to meet here in The Mane, in this little inn.
"Milas grant me strength," he stared pleadingly into the window. Snow was falling, and perhaps it seem that the winter in Leona would be the winter of the king. He could still recall the fall of The Mane, and the last determined glance of heroic men, willing to throw themselves towards the Fieux legions to give the king a chance. They were giving the kingdom a chance, they thought.
Who would have thought otherwise, he wondered. Who would have thought that the line of royalty had ended there at The Mane? The three princes of the kingdom, all capable sons of the king, died at The Mane. Prince Leonard, a brave warrior and leader by any standard, led the first defences of the capital, only to be felled by a rock from a catapult. Prince Arthur, a brilliant man who could turn wastelands into wealthy farmlands, was lost in the fires of the palace, The Lion's Pride. Prince Walter, who seemed to see through problems like a seer from the heavens, was done in by an assassin posing as a maid.
There was no more heir to the throne. No long-lost bastard son or daughter, sequestered away in some temple to bless this noble attempt of retaking the kingdom.
"Grant me..." he croaked, "The Steward of the Kingdom of Leona, Lord Conrad Butler, time. A few more days..."
Every second felt like a struggle in his chest, like a battle for him to survive. But his only wish was for them to come in time, before his life ended. The children, of the old friends of the king. They were not royalty, but in his mind, they would have to do. Their loyalties and personalities may have been divided, but he hoped that the king's words would ring true in their hearts.
There was one thing. One of them would have to pretend to be King Edgar's child.
In his heart, the pain of shame throbbed even harder than the pain of age. The gods would not forgive him for wishing to lie to the thousands of Leonians, but he feared the king's disappointment more than the gods'. However, a quote in his memories brought him solace in this time. It was when the Phoenix Empire sent the king a messenger, asking for his peaceful surrender and annexation into the empire. The messenger claimed that the gods would want Leona to live in peace and under the dominion of Fieux.
All King Edgar told him, before hurling a helmet at the messenger to chase him away, was: "The gods will have to fight us for it."
Conrad sighed happily, staring up into the cloudy winter sky of his homeland. His eyes slowly closed, but the smile remained on his lips as his time ended.
It was only a few days later when the innkeeper discovered the man's body, though the cold of the room had protected it from much of decay.
Present day, morning
Livos raised a hand to her mouth and yawned, still holding onto the horse she nicked from the Fieux's stables. Her horse slowly trodded alongside the cart, a bunch of traders who needed a mercenary escort. Between deserting the Fieux Legions and following the instructions on the letter written by King Edgar and her late adoptive father, Livos needed some extra coin in her pocket. A local mercenary middleman put her in touch with a caravan of traders that needed an escort to The Mane, though 'caravan' and 'traders' were generous terms for 5 haggard folks riding a horse cart with a few goods. The pay was bad, but it was the only job she could do that was heading to The Mane.
In her mind, Livos still pondered about the letter. What Magnus wrote stunned her a little, and she had spent hours the previous night, constantly re-reading it. That Magnus was not only opposed to the conquest of Leona, but passively sabotaged the Legions he led in the invasion of Leona. It was only with hours of deliberating the previous night that she decided to go through with it; she had realised, with a grin on her face, that fighting for Leona meant fighting all of Fieux, and the challenge that came with it seemed a lot more entertaining than suppressing Ucala rebels off the lands of the Grand Marrakech.
Livos looked towards the cart. A man, draped in a cold-weather cloak, handled his horse's reins skillfully. The rest of the traders huddled up in the cart with their goods to shield themselves from the cold, though one of the girls, a Fieux young woman perhaps in her twenties, looked towards Livos in the way that made the young lancer sigh mentally. Livos knew what made her handsome with the ladies, but she wasn't that sort of girl to take advantage of that.
"You remind me of my brother," she said wistfully. "He died in the war against Leona."
Livos turned her head back towards the road. The girl was distracting her, she felt. There wasn't a need to entertain that sort of behaviour.
"His name was Marcus. I'm Julia."
These little innocent words struck into Livos's heart like a bolt from the blue. They were names from her real family. Julia's looked just as old as she imagined her elder sister to be. But, she realised, there were only 5 people in the cart, including the carriage driver. Her family consisted of 10 when Livos left them.
"Have the years been tough?" she asked, as vaguely as she could. Livos tried to look away, but her voice betrayed her need to remain aloof.
Julia smiled weakly. "Yes. I lost my sister 12 years ago. Livia was her name. Then, two brothers. Julius and Gaius. Then, Marcus and mom..." The girl sniffed loudly, and a few hands from the other hooded figures extended themselves to comfort her. Livos eased up her horse next to Julia, looking down upon the softly sobbing woman. Even as she was riding a horse facing a woman in the cart, Livos was still a head taller than most women.
"Relax," said Livos, reaching to place a hand of comfort on Julia's shoulder. "Everythi-"
The moment her hand touched her sister's shoulder, she jerked away from Livos. The lancer drew her hand back as well, looking at Julia fearfully. She feared that she had crossed some line. Her sister struggled to draw in proper breaths, before managing a reasonably calm expression towards a confused Livos.
"I-I'm sorry. A soldier... he... I..." She could not spit out the words, but Livos knew enough of war to figure out what had happened to her. A single thought rippled through her mind.
"I'll string up the son of a bitch."
Magnus taught Livos many things.
A warrior shall never show anger.
A warrior shall never show fear.
A warrior shall never show sorrow.
A warrior is a tool of a master, his will is yours.
Concern yourself with only the art of war.
Livos had just broken all of these covenants in the same day. With a sense of resignation in her heart, she shoved aside the thoughts of Magnus's teachings for a moment. Easing her horse a few steps away, Livos returned her hand to her side.
"K-keep your pay. I'll do this for free."
Present day, mid-day
The escort was simple, and Livos headed off on foot to the inn mentioned in the letter. However, dealing with the aftermath of the escort was not as simple as she thought it would have been. Her former family was poor, but pride and stubbornness seemed innate to them. She could hardly think about how to interact with them while assisting a potential rebellion.
The Mane itself still had not recovered from the aftermath of the Phoenix-Lion war, though the western part of the city survived mostly intact. The east was reduced to little but rocks and the occasional ruined house, while the west still had lively marketplaces beaming with trade goods from the Leonian region. It was said that the general leading the defense of the western part of The Mane, convinced that he could not win, surrendered to the Phoenix before killing himself out of disgrace. It may have been disgraceful for a leader of men, but there were more smiles on the faces in here than in the eastern part of the city.
It had to count for something, Livos thought.
She quickly found the inn, called 'the Lion's Den' and stepped in the wooden building. Gleefully expecting at least half a bar-fight in the making, Livos only saw a few sleepy faces sat at the tables. A place where old men sat down to nurse drinks was no place for a bar fight. The inn itself was wooden in just about everything. Wooden chairs, wooden tables, wooden floors and a wooden bar counter. Livos did not fear death, but she feared dying in stupid causes like fires.
"Damn it. Just have to find that Butler and get out of here," cursed Livos. She made her way to the bar counter and planted herself down, drawing the attention of the innkeeper.
"Where's this Conrad Butler?"
The innkeeper looked at her, cocking his head at what seemed to be a Fieux soldier, with a lance strapped on her back, sitting at his bar, asking for the location of a man. He paused for a few seconds, only making a decision to speak once he noticed Livos's impatient glare. Leaning forward to the lancer's ear, he whispered: "Mr. Butler is dead. But I know what he wants. If you're here to help, I can give you his last possessions. I can't help you that much, but I wish you luck."
The innkeeper's hands dipped below the counter, withdrawing a sealed envelope and a small sack of coins, no larger than Livos's fist. He placed both on the table, and looked Livos in the eye with a forced smile.
"My old friend! You can stay here the night for free! If you have any companions, they'll stay here too as well, mister!" shouted the bartender, his forced enthusiasm almost sounding sardonic.