What is courage, really? Not long ago, the only context in which this word would be relevant is that of being yelled into my ear, but not anymore. As of now, it’s also Kathanhiel’s gift to me. I couldn’t tell you how it was given, or when it was received, but the moment I decided to speak instead of pretending the heraldry is being held by someone else, it was there in my heart, warm and reassuring.
‘People of the north, calm yourselves! Beset upon us not with rage but piety, for your saviour has come! Cast aside your anger, and behold with eyes unclouded the form of our lady, Kathanhiel, hero of the Realms, slayer of the Elisaad Dragon!’
In her upraised hand Kaishen glows a fiery red, its light effervescing through her crystalline gauntlet and her cuirass of myriad stars until the very dawn is radiating from her skin.
With each step she takes comes a great wave of heat. The puny rain vaporises upon contact with her shoulders, sending up tendrils of steam, and beneath her heels the pavement cracks, web-like and smoking.
In her hand Kaishen is sizzling violently, its red menace shrouded in a sheath of white that rises all around her in a billowing cloud, sheltering what must be a newborn sun cast from the sky, for nothing on this earth could ever hope to be so divine.
Arkai is the first to kneel. Casting his daggers on the ground like pieces of junk, he drops onto one knee and lowers his head. The blood on his mail wash away within seconds.
Then the little giants go to their knees and put their arms across their chests. Oon’Shei hesitates for a moment as the javelin in his hand snaps from the strain; he throws it away, carefully so as to not hit anyone with it.
My turn. Her light is so bright that looking at the ground between my feet is almost a relief.
A gasping silence runs through the crowd, then a soft swooping noise. You don’t have to look to know that thousands have just prostrated themselves before her. Someone’s weeping, and never have I heard anyone weep so happily.
‘Why do you cry, good woman?’ Kathanhiel asks.
A shaky reply. ‘M-my lady Kathanhiel, I cry because you’re here at last, here to save us.’
The crowd murmurs in agreement.
She speaks softly yet her words somehow carry above the rain. ‘I’m sorry I’ve not come sooner. Your disheartened faces, they bring me pain unbearable, for it is I and I alone who should shoulder the consequence of my own tardiness, not you good people of the north. It is right that you’re angry. I am angry at myself.’
Many voices rise up in denial.
‘Though I deserve it not, could this failure of a hero once again ask for your trust? The dragons will fall, and your lands shall be reclaimed; this I swear upon my sword and my life. Do you believe me? Are my words still of worth to you?’
The answer is yes. Men and women whisper it in reverence.
‘Thank you, kind folk. I’ve but one ask. In time many soldiers will come this way, and if you remain here they might render you harm in their haste. Will you continue south, for my sake? The King will provide for you. If he refuses, just tell him that Kathanhiel still has the knife in her boot.
A few laughs. Everyone knows that story.
‘Will you go? Will you help each other along the way, and try your hardest to use reason instead of force?’ More murmured agreements. ‘I am glad, and so very thankful, that despite so many hardships we can yet stand together in times of adversity. Rest easy now, for I am here, and I will not stop until these lands are free of the dragon plague, and your homes returned to you.’
Someone starts cheering, and in seconds everyone is on their feet whooping and clapping with hands possessed. A chant begins in the middle of it, driven by deep-voiced men who have long shouted themselves hoarse, ‘Kathanhiel! Kathanhiel! Kathanhiel!’
She smiles and raises Kaishen above her head. A shower of red sparks fly from its tip.
The bards can never convey such a spectacle no matter how prettily they sing. In two short minutes Kathanhiel has turned the rioting masses into worshipful supporters. Of course she did. She is Kathanhiel.
Although the rain and the cold yet linger, these meagre ills are nothing before the light of our hero. I could’ve announced anything, really, and she would still win over every heart in an instant. Of course she would. She is Kathanhiel.
As the crowd disperses, getting ready to be on their way, many come up to kneel at her feet and kiss her hand. While that happens I stand awkwardly to the side with the heraldry, trying to keep my back straight and the smile on my face not so terrifying.
Arkai joins me, the scarf removed from his face. People still draw a wide berth around him.
‘You did well.’
Was that…a compliment?
‘I don’t think I did anything.’
‘It always feels that way, working with her,’ he says, looking at Kathanhiel with a soft expression, ‘because her brilliance eclipses us all.’
‘Do you think these people will be safe?’
He sighs. ‘My head says no, but my heart...hope is not a concoction someone like me can make for others, but I am not beyond feeling its effects. She’s gotten very good at giving it.’
That seems like a weird thing to say.
Arkai shrugs. ‘It’s her job.’
It takes me a while to process that statement. Why does he sound so dismissive?
Without knowing what I’m doing I say to him, ‘the lady is glad you’re here.’
Arkai looks at me funny. ‘How do you know?’
‘Well…she wouldn’t argue with you so much otherwise. She argues because she cares about your opinion, and thinks it as good as hers.’
‘Kastor, do me a favour.’
‘Keep your thoughts to yourself.’
And here I thought I can grow to like him too.
Neither of us pay attention to the man that was kneeling in front of her. In hindsight this was a big mistake, because I couldn’t recall his face at all; my brain, still reeling from the adrenaline of uttering two short sentences, simply failed to register him.
All I remember is the cloak of olive-green, and a high reedy voice that belongs to someone who would toss defaced coins at blind beggars, then laugh at them as they work out they’ve been toyed with.
Kathanhiel suddenly turns away from the crowd, the light of her cuirass dimming erratically. Arkai frowns, his scouring eyes immediately catching the green cloak slipping away between two elderly women, and his body jolts as if struck by lightning.
Never have I seen anyone move their hands so fast. Before the people around us could find their surprise two knives are already flying through the air, fast as arrows and completely silent, straight at the person’s back. The green cloak, whoever he is, catches them leisurely without turning around, as if eyes grew on the back of his head.
He then raises an index finger and shakes it: “tut-tut, try again”.
A second later the crowd reacts with exhausted panic. Without knowing why he did what he did, I put a hand on Arkai’s arm before he can draw his daggers.
‘Not now! Everyone thinks you’ll hurt them!’
He throws off my hand hard enough to stumble an elephant, let alone a trepid esquire. For two seconds his thumb twitches upon the hilt, obsessively fast.
‘Here, now, of all places,’ he mutters.
People are looking on with open fear; they seem to be one flying knife away from finding their insanity again. That severed finger is still on the ground somewhere, trampled and kicked around by tattered shoes.
Cursing under his breath but conscious of the tension, Arkai chases after Kathanhiel instead. As he walks over a puddle his right foot splashes down right in the middle of it, drenching the tail of his coat.
When I look back at the crowd again the green cloak is nowhere to be seen.
What...what just happened?
I was left alone to dole out assurances that yes, everything’s fine, but the lady’s time is short and we should really be moving on. Don’t think I did too good a job, but it’s hard to smile pointlessly and be cordial when your head is recovering from two waves of shock at once. That finger-shaking – where have I seen that before?
Five minutes later the crowd finally relents, and I hurry inside the coach to find Kathanhiel pacing the room bare-legged, her crystalline greaves tossed carelessly into a corner.
Arkai is examining a man’s broach, one for holding the clasp of a cloak. It’s charcoal black and shaped like a coiled dragon. He stares at it intensely, as if by doing so the little trinket might cease to exist.
‘We both know what it is and whom it belongs to.’ Kathanhiel says as she gulps down one cup of water after another. ‘Talu put that in my hand. Tell me how he came to be here.’
Arkai seems to struggle with speech. ‘We...I...lost track of him three years ago, in the Ranges. I dared not tell you in fear of engendering distraction from your quest –’
‘I knew it,’ she says flatly. ‘All this time I’ve waited for word from you, fooling myself, thinking that you were still hunting him down, that his capture is but an inevitability, but of course I’ve been the fool all along. Is there anything else you want to tell me?’
‘Nothing,’ he replies. ‘The fact that he joined the dragon cult is news to me.’
‘Grand, spymaster Arkai. Simply grand.’
Her sarcastic jibe barely has any sarcasm in it, for it is full of disappointment. She has one hand on her face, and I somehow know that if you gently pry it away, you’ll find an all-too-familiar faraway look in her eyes, the look that means she’s reliving a scene that couldn’t help but be remember.
Arkai’s ponytail is trembling. He stands up. ‘I shall go after him at once.’
‘You’re no match for him alone.’
‘In a duel, but he shan’t see me before his last breath.’
Kathanhiel stops pacing.
‘I remember, Arkai, clear as yesterday, of what you promised me the day I returned with Elisaad’s head: in exchange for my endorsement you are to end Talu’s life. So why is it, after all this time, I’m still asking you to do the one thing I’ve ever asked of you?’
Arkai responds by walking out of the room, his face a twisted red.
I stand in the corner, wading through their exchange as a man drowning in a sea of confusion. Who are they talking about? Who is Talu? What happened? Is the he an enemy? Sure feels like it, but what could he have possibly done to make Kathanhiel sound so...so...