catbox_fics: (kh; i have literature)
[personal profile] catbox_fics
Title: Shadow of the Dragon
Fandom: Vision of Escaflowne
Rating: T for Teen
Spoilers?: Spoilers through end of series, some movie elements may also be spoiled
Notes: post-series, minor retconning of events in the last two episodes (doesn't substantially change the ending, sorry kids)

Four of Birds

Truce. Solitude. Stagnation. Recovering from illness. Exile. Retreat.

Whickering softly, the black mare lipped at Celena's curls. She sighed, turning her attention back to currying the poor horse's coat after the ride around the Schezar estate. She could hear Allen in the stall next door, humming something that she was mostly certain was a sea shanty as he groomed his own horse, Cymry, whose pure white coat was about as ridiculously difficult to manage as most other things involving Allen Crusade Schezar the eighth.

"Do you need any help, Celena?" Allen asked pleasantly, peering over the wall as she ran the brush over warm flanks.

Like that. If I have to put up with his white knight routine much longer, he's going to end up missing a head before I'm gone, Celena thought sourly, shaking her head. She'd learned from an overheard conversation that she hadn't spoken since the end of the war-- hadn't much of anything, moving on autopilot, walking when led, eating when something was put in front of her-- and it was no trouble to make sure that she didn't speak again, at least around Allen or the servants or the crew. It was harder than she'd first thought, since someone was always there and it had apparently become common practice to hold one-sided conversations with her in the two months since the final battle in Cesario. But better to put up with the trouble of holding her tongue. It meant that her well-meaning jailers would underestimate her.

Allen shook his own head, clucking a little to Cymry so she'd turn. "I still can't believe you got Hellbane to like you. I wish you'd let me in on the secret."

Celena snorted quietly, tapping Hellbane's shoulder in a silent command to turn so that she could curry the other side. Hellbane had been caught in the first place nosing around the apple orchard for fallen fruit, still half-saddled from whatever battle her original rider had been killed in-- and whoever her previous owner was, the name stamped on the bridle had been accurate. Still, it didn't take a strategic genius to figure out that judicious use of apple slices would get Hellbane to sweeten her temper. Celena half-suspected that they had been instrumental in Hellbane's original cavalry training.

"We should get moving. You don't want to be late for tea with the crew, do you?" Allen said, grinning at her now from his spot propped against the stall's door.

Something of a daily routine had started in the weeks since Celena had awakened. Training in the morning, which mostly meant pretending to be playing with a practice sword while Allen did his more structured sword drills, followed by lunch and an interminable few hours spent with one or more of the princesses while Allen was in the capital doing.. knight stuff. About the only good that had come of that was Millerna's calmly practical support, between the necessary crash-course in owning a grown female body and the minor war the princess had fought on her behalf to let her into practical clothes. Almost against her will, Celena had found herself growing fond of the princess and the prince-regent, Dryden, who was happy enough to let her nose around his library as long as none of the books were lit on fire. Probably because he recognized a kindred spirit-- she had the impression he was being held in Asturia against his will almost as much as she was. Afternoons were spent at the estate, with Allen generally tugging her into tagging along with him on his various errands and duties. Like riding the borders of the estate to check the fences and make sure there weren't any more homeless horses or other refugees hiding on the grounds.

Sighing, Celena finally set the brush aside, petting Hellbane's nose before letting herself out of the stall. Twenty minutes.. if I can get twenty minutes alone, escaping this place would be trivial. She forced herself not to look at the third feed bin, where she had stashed her reclaimed sword and a couple of packs of provisions under sweet-smelling summer hay.

"Are you all right?" Allen asked, his arm coming up around Celena's shoulders. She couldn't help flinching away a little, still not accustomed to Allen's assumed familiarity. Just because they were related didn't mean she was obligated to feel it. "You're so tense.. and half the time I wonder if you're really still here with us or halfway back into your head again."

Celena looked at Allen sideways as they walked to the main house, snorting softly. Wouldn't you like to know.

"Still not talking, hmm? I guess it's a step up from name, rank, and so on," Allen said, pulling her closer for an instant before letting her walk alone. Celena tossed her head, running her hand back through curls that were growing out of their original boy-short cut into something softer, more feminine looking. She wasn't sure if she liked it or not, but cutting it would have to wait until she wasn't being watched so closely. She didn't think that her keepers would care too much to find her hacking at her hair with the dull paper scissors in the study or a knife filched from the kitchens.

"You should be careful, you know. All that silent mysteriousness will probably bring the lordlings by in droves eventually. I'd hate to have to maim anyone on your behalf too soon," Allen teased as they slipped into the cool shadows of the house, headed for the study where Gaddes and the rest of Allen's officers were likely waiting already with tea. Celena just heaved a sigh, escaping to a chair in the corner near the windows and accepting a steaming cup from Gaddes, who flashed her a sympathetic grin before launching into the recitation of the latest news.

I have to leave soon. Sooner the better, Celena mused, taking a cautious sip and feeling a faint pang of homesickness. Afternoon tea was a Zaibach tradition, a daily ritual that Dilandau had made some effort to keep through even the war, though the free-ranging conversations with Folken over the Strategos's books and experiments had given way to strategy meetings over tactical maps of Gaea, with just the Slayers for company more often than not. Watching Allen and his crew discussing rebuilding efforts and politics just emphasized the disjointed out-of-place feeling that told Celena more firmly than any evil-eyed maids or irritable princesses that whatever Asturia was to her, it wasn't home.


Rain hissed against the windows, gurgled in the gutters, and formed a shallow river in the streets. Esther made a face at it from her place firmly ensconced in the kitchen of Kessandru House, wondering if it was ever going to let up. The pervading damp was playing hell on the provisions left in the root cellar, anything left open to the damp air quickly turning with mold. Esther was washing Dr. Abernathy's apothecary's canisters, hoping to use some of them to salvage what was left of the flour, sugar, and salt before the wet got to the stores still closed in bags. It wasn't as though the doctor needed them-- the wet had ruined the herbs that had been drying in the attic for medicines, and like most apothecaries in the city, Dr. Abernathy had most of her supplies of powders and pills and syrups confiscated for the war effort. What was left was being carefully doled out, the lion's share going to Folken to keep the pain bearable and the infection that had settled into his shattered wings down.

I bet there's a trove of stuff in the palace. Medicine at least.. I bet the Sorcerers kept their own supplies. And I bet the looters didn't dare set foot in the Sorcerers' Wing, Esther thought, wiping the last of the big canisters dry after sniffing it experimentally to make sure all traces of the original medicine was gone. No need to contaminate what was left.

"Is it ever going to stop raining?" Arian asked, with a long-suffering whine for good measure. The little girl was settled at the table, drawing with some of Mr. Abernathy's drafting supplies. At least with Folken lucid again she could be persuaded out of the Strategos's bedroom to let him have some quiet.

"Doubt it. There were rumors that the Sorcerers were using the Fate Alteration Engines to control the weather over the capital. Guess the rumors were true," Esther said, crossing the kitchen to peer out the window. The watery sunlight showed the deserted streets of what had once been a relatively properous borough, some of the houses fallen into disrepair as those who could flee the city had fled and those who had stayed had run through taking whatever they could use. What little movement she spotted was from the tent city that had taken over the park, refugees from the countryside moving listlessly among the half-sunken carts and dirty canvas, too many to fit even the abandoned houses, though they were overflowing with people. Dr. Abernathy had drafted Esther as a nurse and did what she could, but after the looting there just wasn't enough to go around the borough. She didn't want to think what the rest of the city was like.

The horrible night when the news of the Emperor's death broke and martial law had finally broken down still stood out in Esther's memory, when she'd waited tense on the second floor landing armed with a kitchen knife in case the fighting in the streets spilled into the house and past Mr. Abernathy and Duv. Duv who had spent the night sleepless in the foyer, pacing between door and front windows in the armor he'd been fitted for but never officially permitted to wear. Maybe it had been the shadow of Duv's Dragonslayer armor that had kept the looters from coming near Kessandru house. Maybe it had been whatever Mr. Abernathy and Dr. Abernathy had been doing in the kitchen with the pillowcase full of Folken's shed feathers and Esther's last couple of bronze farthings. That was a mystery Esther was happy to let lie for the moment.

"That's boring. I hate rain. Snow's better. You can play in snow," Arian said, making faces at Esther and drawing her out of her reverie.

"Yeah, but snow means cold. We barely have enough energist power to run the stove, and the gas lines are out, so no radiator," Esther said, dropping into the chair next to Arian with a sigh. "I guess we'll find out if the fireplace is for show or not."

"Can we cook marshmallows in the fireplace?" Arian said, looking thoughtful. "We'll have to have marshmallows for Yule!"

Esther shrugged. "I don't see why not. We'll just have to make sure we have plenty of wood and stuff."

The stairs creaked, and Esther turned to see Dr. Abernathy descending, sighing as she pulled her hair free of its loose chignon. The doctor crossed into the kitchen to dig in the cupboards, frowning.

"Are we out of tea already?" Dr. Abernathy asked, finally seeming to notice the girls sitting at the table.

"There's a tin left, but Mr. Abernathy told us to save it. He's expecting guests," Esther said apologetically. "There might be some dried mint left.. that makes an all right tea if you don't mind your tongue tingling." She got up, ready to put the kettle on to boil, but Dr. Abernathy shook her head, stopping Esther with a hand on her arm.

"Don't bother on my account. I think I can hold out until our guests arrive. They'll hopefully be coming with supplies from the countryside," Dr. Abernathy said, "Besides, I should start my rounds in the camp.. dark's coming on faster and faster these days and I'd like to conserve the lamp oil if we can."

Esther sighed. "Let me get my cloak."

"No need to hurry, dear," Dr. Abernathy said, joining Arian at the table while Esther headed to the foyer, where her cloak had hopefully dried from yesterday's rounds.

"How's Folken?" Arian asked, her voice carrying easily from the kitchen.

"Improving. The fever ought to break in the next day or two, and fate willing the splints will be off within a week. I imagine he'll be up to teaching you before too long," Dr. Abernathy said.

"Good. It's not good being sick," Arian said. "I didn't know altering fate would make Folken sick! I'm just glad he's not mad."

"No, dear. Not mad," Dr. Abernathy said with a dry chuckle as Esther came back, her cloak warm around her shoulders and the doctor's cloak draped over her arms. Both were still a bit damp, but a bit of damp had become so commonplace it was easy to ignore.

"Can I go upstairs and see him?" Arian said, picking up the picture she had been coloring. "I want to show him my picture."

"Of course, dear. But remember what I said. Let him sleep if he gets tired out, and mind the wings," Dr. Abernathy said, ruffling Arian's hair before the little terror sprinted up the stairs. Esther shook her head and handed off the cloak. Dr. Abernathy put it on with practiced ease, picking up her black bag from its place next to the door, and the two of them headed into the wet without another word.

While anyone in the borough was able to call on Dr. Abernathy's services, she made a special point of making rounds in the camp daily. There was always a cough or sniffle going around among the refugees, and always patients to check to make sure that the cough wasn't developing into something more deadly. A few refugees were even pregnant, one of whom was close to her time and confined to the cart that her family was calling home.

It was to the cart that Dr. Abernathy went last, though as they drew closer the groans coming from within prompted the doctor and her reluctant nurse into a sprint. Esther slipped in the mud but scrambled to her feet, worried that something was seriously going wrong. Even in Zaibach giving birth carried risk, risks that Esther was all too aware of given her mother's death in childbed before she and Duv were even a day old.

The interior of the cart was dim, lit by a single smoky oil lamp. Settled into a nest of pillows and blankets, the soon-to-be mother was gasping and groaning around breathless answers to Dr. Abernathy's questions. Esther moved forward to help but was stopped by Dr. Abernathy's hand in her face.

"Go clean up before you touch anything. At least your hands. I'm going to need hot water ready, a sharp knife, and some blankets," she said, shaking Esther back to reality.

"Is something wrong?" Esther asked anxiously, grateful for the bucket and the sliver of soap rescued from Dr. Abernathy's bag. She scrubbed the dirt out from under her fingernails furiously, trying to be ready for whatever Dr. Abernathy needed.

"No, dear. But let's not take any chances, shall we?" Dr. Abernathy said, smiling serenely. "Yvonne, dear, I need you to calm down and take deep breaths. Look at me. There you go. You have three lovely children already so I know you know what to do, but we need to get you pushing with your body instead of against it."

Esther ducked back into the rain to fill the bucket with fresh water, looking around for a possible heat source. It would take too long to hike back to the house, boil water on the stove, and get it back to the camp. But it was too wet for a normal fire, and last she checked energist stoves weren't portable.

"Mrs. Greene ready to pop?" a gangly teenager a few years younger than Esther chirped amicably from his place on the driver's bench of the wagon sunk in the dirt next door. That gives me an idea.

"Yeah.. and I need hot water for the delivery. Do you think your master would have anything that could suit?" Esther asked, favoring him with big eyes. The tinker's apprentice flashed her a jaunty grin.

"So happens we have a little coal stove back here. I think we can find room to boil some water.. but what'll you give me? Coal's not easy to come by these days," he said. Esther scowled a little. Twerp is probably angling for a date. Or a look in Mr. Abernathy's workshop. Could be the same to him.

"Arde, what's all this commotion?" the tinker, Mr. Tuesti, poked his head out of the back of the wagon, frizzy gray hair undaunted by the rain. "Oh, hello Miss Lavariel. Dr. Abernathy need something?"

"Hot water, sir," Esther said, ignoring Arde. "Mrs. Greene is having her baby."

"Pass me the bucket. It's a little cramped in here, but the kettle's already on. No trouble to let you have first shot at it," Mr. Tuesti said, smiling indulgently. Esther silently handed it over, smirking at Arde once Mr. Tuesti's back was turned. She could hear the kettle whistling inside, and soon enough both bucket and tinker reappeared, the former full to the brim with steaming water.

"Careful now. You tell Dr. Abernathy if she needs anything heated or sterilized to give me a call. It's the least I can do after she gave me that tea for the arthritis," Mr. Tuesti said. Esther nodded, heading back to the cart, where the groaning had escalated into screeching.

Esther peered inside to see Dr. Abernathy crouched at Mrs. Greene's feet, murmuring encouragement as the younger woman arched and shrieked. Before Esther could even announce her presence, Mrs. Greene slumped to the makeshift bed and a piercing cry went through the cart.

"Looks like you have another boy, Yvonne. I'm sure Martin will be thrilled," Dr. Abernathy said, turning to Esther. "Ah, Esther. Come on in with the water. You might as well watch this, since I would be willing to lay odds you might have to handle a delivery or two before things settle down."

Nodding numbly, Esther settled next to the doctor, self-consciously straightening her muddy dress, and watched, spellbound, as Dr. Abernathy cut the baby's cord. Esther was left with the bundle of squirming and shrieking baby while Dr. Abernathy dealt with the afterbirth, and after a moment of panic, she scrubbed him off as best she could and handed him off to his beaming mother.

"I don't know how we can ever repay you, doctor," Mrs. Greene said, tearing her eyes away from her new son. "I know we don't have much, but--"

"No need for that. I'm sure you'll find a way to pay me back later," Dr. Abernathy said, a common ritual since Esther had started accompanying her on rounds, the doctor choosing to collect favors rather than take even a slim portion of the meager possessions of the refugees. "Right now, taking good care of yourself and your new armful of trouble will be payment enough for me."

Both the sliver of soap and the sun were nearly gone by the time Dr. Abernathy finished scrubbing and Esther had helped clean up the mess from the birth. The watery sky had deepened to a dark, almost angry hue as the reddened sun shone through the clouds. Esther sighed, huddling down into her cloak. The rain was getting steadily colder.

"You did good today, Esther," Dr. Abernathy said as they walked down the street, hurrying to make it back to Kessandru House before night fell completely.

"I didn't do much of anything," Esther said with a snort.

"No.. but sometimes it's the small things that make a difference," Dr. Abernathy said, chuckling.

"Whatever you say, Dr. Abernathy," Esther said, rolling her eyes. I hate it when she starts with her I-know-something-you-don't routine.

"I think you've earned the right to call me by my first name, you know," the doctor said, stil half-smiling. "It's twenty-first Brown, isn't it? You and Duv are adults now." Esther blinked, mentally going back through what she remembered of the last time she'd seen a calendar. It is. Our fifteenth birthday and I didn't even remember. I wonder if Duv did.

"Ah.. sure. Hazel," Esther said, smiling uncertainly and hesitating a little on the name. The doctor just laughed as they reached the front steps of the house.

"Let's get out of these cloaks and see if we can't find something sweet hidden away. It might not be a proper fifteenth, but we ought to celebrate a little. After all, it's good luck sharing a birthday with a new baby."

"You can't hide in here forever, you know."

Folken turned from his distracted contemplation of the rain to see Kade lurking in the doorway, looking unusually serious.

"I wasn't aware recovering could be considered hiding," Folken said dryly, watching as his former teacher invited himself in, taking the unused desk chair and straddling it, chin on chair back. Kade had never been one for formalities, even after Folken's promotion to Strategos and the increasing rarity of their meetings.

"You know what I mean. You've been lurking up here ever since Hazel proclaimed you fit enough to walk 'round the place," Kade said, "Kessandru House has enough resident ghosts without the living to start adding to the atmosphere. You're worse than when you were fifteen and dropped on our doorstep."

"My failings seem to have multiplied since I was fifteen," Folken said with a faint snort, closing the book that had lain, forgotten, in his lap for some time. "And this time you can't attempt to lay the responsibility anywhere but at my feet."

"And I suppose paying for your mistakes with your life doesn't count, does it?" Kade said, shaking his head.

"From all accounts, my death made things worse," Folken said, turning away from those too-knowing eyes to look out the window. "And it seems I couldn't get that right, either," he added softly, a faint shiver going through him, the movement betrayed by his still coal-black wings, which twinged against the splints cradling the nearly-knitted bones.

"Oh, stop. You picked life, no sense in moping about it now," Kade said, almost conversationally but with a hint of steel, well-remembered from other times the old Sorcerer had rebuked his apprentice. "And you are moping. Being subtle about it doesn't change the facts."

"I had no choice. I've been a traitor twice over, and this is my fault," Folken said, meeting Kade's gaze steel for steel. "If by my life or death I can put right what I let be destroyed, then so be it. My wishes no longer matter."

A moment passed tensely before Kade broke the stalemate by laughing, almost helplessly as he slapped the back of the chair. Folken eyed him, bemused, as Kade slowly regained his composure.

"And you honestly wonder why people would gladly follow you into hell," Kade said, still snorting a little.

"While it is your right to prevaricate, I would appreciate it if you got to the point," Folken said icily, bristling a little. I've already led far too many people into hell. I'd rather not know if I have a knack for it. Kade huffed on another chuckle, pushing thick glasses out of the way to wipe at his eyes.

"Folken, eventually you're going to learn that if you want to survive in this unjust world of ours, you have to laugh at it," Kade said, his expression softening a little. "Though as you so succinctly put it, I do have a point for my visit aside from needling you."

At this, Kade fished a small silk bag out of his pocket, offering it to Folken by the cord holding it closed. Curious, Folken accepted the bag and peered inside to see a familiar pair of slightly tarnished silver hoops, the metal unblemished and unbroken since the night five years before when Folken had returned them to his teacher. "Kade..."

"What? You've already promised to take young Mistress Swann as an apprentice. You're going to need those," Kade said, wagging a finger at Folken's expression. "Don't think Hazel and I are going to let you out of that particular task, no matter how addicted to responsibility you seem to have gotten. There have been precious few of the Order since Dornkirk came to power and handed his skeleton key to fate to those ridiculous Sorcerers of his. Bad enough you almost passed from us without a trained replacement already."

"You speak as if your Order is any different from the Sorcerers," Folken said, taking one of the hoops from the bag and running his thumb over the metal.

"Our Order. And you know damn well that a madoushi is not the same as a Sorcerer. Or have your years as Strategos affected your mind as well as made you broodier than a mama dragon?" Kade said.

"I believe the Atlantean means 'follower of the evil path.' Not exactly inspiring," Folken said.

"Follower of the magic path. Modern dialect is biased," Kade said with a sniff, though he was beginning to smile. "Any word related to magic has had a negative cast since the destruction of Atlantis. And I note that you haven't surrendered your master's gold just yet."

"I've had... other things to deal with," Folken said quietly, good hand reaching to touch one of the unadorned gold hoops in his ears, twin to the slightly incongruous ones Kade wore. Like the apprentice's silver cupped in his hand, the hoops were an unbroken circle of gold, set in place by a minor act of will and magic. None of the Sorcerers in Dornkirk's employ had sported anything like the odd earrings, though Folken had always assumed that the other Sorcerers had simply removed them at the end of the rite marking the transition from apprentice to master.

"I imagine so," Kade said. For a long moment, neither said a word, Folken examining the silver earrings mutely. They were a reminder of happier times... maybe not the idyllic days of his childhood, but the last time he had let his guard down. Experiencing without analyzing.

"I can't do this," Folken blurted, returning the silver hoop to the little bag, feeling his feathers trying to spread in agitation. Something formless and agonizing was trying to rise past what was left of the practiced aloofness of the war, and he nearly choked on the words.

"Why not?"

"Have you not been paying attention the last few months?" The words broke nearly hysterical around phantom pain in his chest, where he should have been run through the heart. "I've become a monster. I send children to slaughter and murder innocents in the name of a world at peace. Because of me whole nations lie in ruins. I am no better than Dornkirk.. perhaps worse. I was Strategos.. I could have found a way without war. I should have. But I believed him."

"I suppose it's all about you now, then," Kade said, his icy tone like a dash of cold water to the face. Folken looked up at him, up since Kade had stood, looming now, and tried to breathe around the knot in his throat.

"Is that it? Would you prefer if we tossed you out now so you can go suffer in a gutter somewhere? Because your personal mistakes are somehow greater than the sum total of all the stupidity that went into this war? I'm sure with your overwhelming charisma you could have diverted the entire Zaibach war machine and single-handedly foiled a plan that's been in motion for three hundred years. A single sparrow could certainly alter the course of a wing of Alseides in flight. You flatter yourself, Folken, if you really believe you were that key to Dornkirk's plans.

"I realize that you've been laboring under the delusion that your failures have some sort of cosmic significance since the dragon got your arm," Kade said, rapping the metal plate covering Folken's right shoulder hard enough to make the whole artificial arm vibrate uncomfortably for a moment. "And perhaps letting that continue as long as it has is my great failure. Stopping the war would have been like stopping a landslide with a wooden shield. Impossible. And flagellating yourself over it for the rest of your life is, frankly, a complete waste of both time and the gift you have been granted by Fate.

"Yes, you will have to live with it now. And yes, it will be neither comfortable nor pleasant. There is a world of people out there who will also have to live with it to one degree or another. Because we are all responsible for this, Folken, no matter how much you'd like to think otherwise. We madoushi could have stopped this three hundred years ago. Or one hundred. Or ten. And we likewise didn't. And it goes on and on, from the tinkers who could have chosen not to share their inventions to the soldiers who could have chosen not to enlist. All of Zaibach has paid for this mistake, just as all of Zaibach was responsible for it. The country's in ashes; the empire died with the Emperor. Let death erase the debt to the dead. It's the living we owe our allegience to now. As you do, for having picked life over death when the choice was offered you."

Kade sighed, suddenly looking years older, and crossed to the door, looking back at Folken. "I'm going to let you alone now. But I'm sending Arian up tomorrow morning at nine, and you will start her education as your apprentice. As you are my apprentice."

With that, Kade left, closing the door quietly behind him. Folken could hear vague voices in the hall, but they dimmed as they moved away through the house. For long moments, he stared at the abandoned apprentice's silver, waiting for the phantom pain to finish easing from his chest. Slowly, half-mantled wings settled back into the splints, flight muscles complaining at the unnatural position they'd been forced to hold for weeks.

After a few moments, Folken picked up the hoops, cradled in his good hand, and unsteadily got to his feet. His sense of balance was off without his wings free to move, but he managed to reach the door without tipping, leaning his forehead against the wood worn smooth by Kessandru House's centuries of occupation. If he listened carefully, he could hear faint whispers like ghosts, gently murmuring the first principles of magic to unseen apprentices as though the generations of madoushi who had lived in these rooms had somehow soaked their presence into the very stones themselves.

It seems I must continue on, Folken thought, the idea making its way through the almost-pleasant numbness of his mind after Kade's fierce dressing-down. Oddly, the sheer vehemence of the lecture was reassuring. His-- mentors?-- fellow madoushi had not cast him out, despite everything and his own willful blindness.

I think I deserved that.

Folken was relatively sure he knew where his apprentice texts had been stored when he moved out of Kessandru House. It would take time to shuffle through the narrow halls with his wings awkward behind him and search through the boxes hidden in the attic.

Time was, however, something he had.


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