At the battle of Skipping Gates, that would later be known as Redford, during the third day of siege, the forces of the coalition known as the Silver Accolade managed to break through the first gate of the river fortress, after much blood had been shed in an attempt to overcome the body of water, natural part of the landscape that has been turned into a powerful defensive asset thanks to great feats of engineering.
But despite their breakthrough, the coalition met the impressive resistance of its opposition, the army of the kingdom of Kalistraad, with a division of knights set afoot to guard the second and, in the unlikely case the coalition managed to push that far, even the third gate.
Leading the defensive efforts was a massive ogre, a "tamed" beast the sort that Kalistraad was fond of using for their brutal effectiveness in close combat, to the point of handing letters of marques to monsters that sworn allegiance to the crown, offering pay and welcome within their lands in change of military servitude.
The coalition forces, ill-equipped to deal with such massive opponents and not prepared to face anything bigger than a fully armoured human, were already in a pinch, as the front lines attempted to push back to escape from the melee, while the soldiers in the back, unaware of the situation, pushed forward carried by their accomplishment in pushing through the fortress.
During the stall, a single young lady, barely old enough for the battlefield, left her formation and came out in the open, carrying an axe about as large as she was that someone else had dropped, friend or foe was irrelevant; determination shone through her steeled eyes as she faced the ogre.
The earth shook as the ogre immediately attacked, in an attempt to squash her like a bug using his massive mace, but she deftly moved out of the way as her own axe spun, gathering momentum; she used footwork, intuition and took advantage of the mass of corpses and blood to try and make the monster slip or lose his footing, but his attack did not yield. Until the girl did something unexpected: she threw herself against the monster instead of jumping back, and as her head barely slip past the mace's iron spikes and, with a twist of her hip and the weight of her whole body, she drove her weapon on the side of the ogre's helmeted head.
The blow rung with enough force to make him lose his footing and trip against a wall, but she kept pushing, and with a massive crash his head hit the reinforced stone wall, the axe lodging so far as to slice both his eyes.
After a few stunned moments of silence, the coalition forces rallied past the felled beast and literally trampled over the remaining opposition. It took three more days for the siege to actually finish, but that single battle indeed proved to be an important turning point.
It later turned out the young lady was but an otherwise unremarkable member of a mercenary company, the Wise Crows, who had happened to find that axe someone else dropped during the battle and got an idea on how to deal with the situation, certainly hoping for a reward later on. And a reward she was got indeed: the Silver Accolade has offered to hire her as junior officer to further lead their advance into Kalistraad territory.
" Hello no", was her answer as she took her pay and left, " That's a bother".
The ruffian attempted to cough, but he wasn't even able to do that, forced instead to choke due to his inability to draw breaths; he wavered on his legs a bit before collapsing to his knees, his hand to his neck where a blue bruise with a clear knuckle stamp was beginning to appear.
The rest of the gang was quick to draw their blades, those who didn't have them out at least, and they circled the woman, while also trying to stay out of her arms' reach, especially after her display of strength, " You're in deep trouble now, lass".
The woman remained undeterred, her form barely even attempting to hide that of the cloaked figure behind her, a hand held high and another low and clearly ready to counterattack, " Yes", she agreed, " We're all in deep trouble".
" I don't think you can count well", said another while purposefully licking his blade in the most sick and disgusting way possible, but taking note to only do so when she was looking. But she was unfazed, " Quite the contrary, I can count very well. If you attack me five on one, it's likely you will end up winning".
" However", she added, with a firm tone that commanded patience, " All of you will report broken bones, and at least three will die in the attempt", she also explained, " And I'm confident that the first attacker will take the worst brunt of my retaliation, and will die on the spot".
The ruffians each glanced to their downed companion, whose face was now blue, and ultimately decided that no one felt risking their lives for a person who may or may not possess enough money or be worth enough ransom to pay back for the damage she was going to, without doubt, cause. Veiled and not-so-veiled threats came during their retreat.
" Thank you, you have-", the voice of the young man in distress was cut short as Alteise pulled him away from the street, " Let's get away before they come back with ten more friends".
" W-wait!", his grasp had no chance to actually break the woman's grip on his clothing, but his words made her reconsider her actions, " My father and sister are staying at the Laughing Coin inn, we'll be safe there".
Alteise had to admit that such place was, in fact, in one of the safest-looking areas of the town, but in her worldly experience safe also meant expensive for such cities of that size, which probably explained why the young man was being mugged. As a matter of fact, his platinum blond hair and royal blue eyes were befitting someone of noble birth, at least in this kingdom, and while he had the device of hiding his classy silk clothing beneath his still expensive cloak, he forgot that the clasp keeping it closed was of such a pure gold it glittered even under the meager light of street lamps.
" Thank you for rescuing my son", as Alteise thought, the Laughing Coin certaily wasn't in the same good mood as the person handing it over, this was the sort of inn one would go to celebrate after a victory or a job well done, but only if it brought back a discreet amount of income; for someone to stay for a prolonged period of time, it meant that money was not really a problem. The man talking to her was starting to show his age, his hair having grayed out maybe a bit prematurely, and the cut of his beard and hair made it clear he had a past as a military officer or leader of sorts, and probably some war tales to tell too, judging from his built and, Alteise was sure, some of the scars he surely was hiding beneath the classy clothing.
" It was a mere coincidence", she spoke the simple truth, it was by chance that she was passing by as the young man was being mugged, she just intended to look for an inn that did not try to rip her off, something apparently unheard of in Reistburg.
" Regardless, you risked your life for his sake, this is commendable and must be rewarded", the older man was short and to the point despite the looks, and confident enough to talk about such business in the common hall, albeit admittedly there was nobody with them aside from the young man she rescued, his father and that about ten years old child whose golden locks draped over her white gown as she stared at Alteise while hiding behind her father's chair. " Do you agree, Rondo?".
" Y-yes, father", he was quick to answer, receiving the older man's nod of appreciation, " Allow me to introduce myself. I am Edric Scala, you already met my son Rondo; as you can see, it's easy for people such as ourselves to attract unwanted attention".
Alteise glanced at Rondo at his side, he did appear somewhat nervous, though that was understandable considering the situation he had just been in, " I can understand that", she nodded, " Are you perchance in need of a bodyguard?".
She had taken note of how there appeared to be no servants, let alone guards, to escort Rondo around, and if they were not at the inn they were either relaxing in their rooms or not there at all. But Edric's chuckle made Alteise reconsider her idea, " As expected of the Midnight Flower, you're quick to catch on. But no, that is not what I intend to ask of you".
She blinked once, and then her muscles instinctively stiffed; it's been a while since someone called her by that name, and Rondo seemed to not understand, which made everything even more suspicious. " Our bloodline, you see", Edric explained, " Is running thin. We have been forced to leave our previous arrangements and accommodations for various reasons, but I am old and tired and my heir still needs to make a name for himself".
" Father, I-", with a gesture of his hand, Edric interrupted his son, looking at Alteise instead, " Our family is about to start to rise again now that we reclaimed our fief, and my son could use a strong addition such as you. Would you accept to become his bride?".
" I refuse", both Rondo and the young girl didn't know what shocked them more, whether the sudden marriage proposal or the fact it was shot down without even a thought; but Edric reacted with a hearty laugh, " Well, I can't deny you have some spine".
" Father, that was sudden!", Rondo claimed, almost scared, " I know our previous arrangements were cut all of a sudden, but still...".
" I'm still the head of the house, Rondo", Edric answered, still chuckling, " It's my duty to ensure my children will give me strong and capable grandchildren. But enough of this talk, it's getting late for your younger sister, do me a favour and bring her to bed, will you?".
" Y-yes father", Rondo sighed and took the young girl by hand, and her big round eyes stared at Alteise as if she wanted to glare, but her childlike appearance was preventing her from being convincing enough. It wasn't long before she and Edric were alone again, and she waited until she could not hear the two's footsteps any more before talking.
" Have we met before?", she asked, looking straight in the man's eyes, " I don't believe the head of a noble house makes such proposals so suddenly, unless in jest".
" And why do you think I was not jesting?".
" Because you sent your son away with an excuse", she simply stated, " What could be so important that his ears cannot hear?".
Edric stretched on his chair a little, as if relaxing, and snapped his fingers to get the innkeeper's attention, " A bottle of your favourite red wine. Worry not lady, it's on me"; he then waited for a moment, but Alteise's stare did not ease, " You may not remember me, we have met briefly and you were distracted. Do you remember the campaign of Dead Hollows?".
" They say once you fought the undead on the battlefield, you can never be the same again", and it was true, it took her a while to stop having nightmares and even nowadays she instinctively avoided getting anywhere close a corpse without being certain it was really dead.
" The unit your team was sent to save belonged to me. It was back when we still had a duchy, a castle and my wife was alive and well", Edric explained, " I was impressed by your stalwart leadership, and how you made it a policy to leave no man behind".
" I did not fare as well as you seem to remember", as a matter of fact, about half of the men she was supposed to save had to be chopped to pieces as their corpses were trying to add the rest of the team to their ranks, " Also, I was being paid to do that".
" ", the innkeeper laid a bottle of red wine and two empty glasses on the table, which Edric proceeded to fill, " And yet one day you simply quit being a mercenary, right when I thought I could hire you to help me out Imagine my surprise when you brought back relics from Glennrich castle, and I was told a woman matching your description had recovered them. I first thought it was a coincidence, but it appears you have been adventuring as well".
" An attempt that did not bode too well either".
The man let the wine spread in the glass for a bit, slowly rocking it in a circle and examining its consistency with expert eye, " I was like you, in my younger days. I married late, I avoided responsibility, I preferred to have someone lead me instead of taking the lead", he then proceeded to gulp the whole glass down in one breath, " And today? I am an old man that lost his keep and had to buy what was rightfully his in a pawn shop, with a cowardly weakling as a son and a daughter too young. Say, lady... What is your real name, anyways?".
" Alteise- a westerner, eh? Bah, nevermind. Listen Alteise, you have skill, you have talents, you either choose whom you want to sell them to, or you use them for yourself", he filled his own glass again, Alteise blinked as she had still not touched hers, " You know the town of Lazflamme? Well, Glennrich castle was built there, it belonged to the father of my grandfather's father... And my grandfather's father on top of that; we still weren't known as the Scala, we were still Glennrich back then, with the coat of arms featuring a gold gryphon on field of blue".
" Could you please get to the point?", Alteise did not blink, and instead kept staring intently; it was a brief contest, as Edric conceded immediately.
" I didn't come this far to see vultures pick from the corpse of my incompetent son", Edric muttered, a tone of clear disappointment in his voice, " We have many enemies, and our new duchy will be short lived, as I'm too old and too alone to defend it properly", he gulped another glass before continuing, " I will not blame you if you do not wish to marry my son, but I need your strength and competence. I am making you this once in a lifetime offer because it's the third time you helped me out already. Do you believe in destiny?".
" Well I do", and he filled his glass again, " And your destiny is tied to that of my family. You're the daughter I was supposed to have, you're the daughter I need now. I ask that you become my daughter".
As Edric was about to gulp down another glass, Alteise stood, and succeeded in making him put his glass back down, " Sir, I believe you've been drinking too much, you perhaps are not aware of how ridiculous your claims are".
" And aren't you ridiculous, running away from everything in your life because a friend or two died, or someone tried to hire your sword to murder people you liked, or you didn't save everyone during one mission?".
Alteise stopped, but through conscious effort did not bite her lips, " You forgot the part where my lover ran away with all the money I had put aside and I had to start over from scratch".
" Love doesn't bloom on the battlefield. Big news".
Alteise sighed, " I appreciate the offer, but I am not as stupid as I look, despite my previous relationships. Your children will never agree to this, and I'd already have plenty of knives waiting to stick into my back the very moment I become part of your family, seeing how you're on the run already, and can't even afford guards or servants".
" But we do have property!", Edric smiled, raising his glass.
" If you're talking about the Lazflamme manor, then forgive me if I don't appear impressed".
In the end, Edric still gulped down his third glass of wine, but somehow he looked more sober than before as he talked, " Alteise".
" Is it my money you need, as well?".
" Yes", he sincerely answered, " But I am too old to plot against you, and my children need someone to take care of them even after I'll be gone. I can't think of anyone else other than you", he waved his hands dismissively towards the staircase for the first floor, " Let them hate you all they want, they can't understand why I trust you so much. Even if you don't believe in destiny, then believe in yourself, and in your ability to make the best out of this chance".
Moments of silence passed, and then he shrugged, " Or be a coward and run away again, I don't think we'll ever meet a fourth time, the stars have already been far more lenient to me than with any other man I knew. It's up to you".
Dust was blown halfway across the entire room, partly thanks to her powerful breath, and partly thanks to her masterful use of that rag she should've stopped using a while ago to attempt any form of cleaning. All in all, she was doing little to help, and the more she tried to make the mansion look any less indecent, the more she realized she was going to need to hire a maid or two. Possibly a handful.
" I can't have Clara sleep in a place like this", Rondo commented, shielding his nose and mouth with a handkerchief, " She'll choke to death with all this dust".
" Now you're just complaining. Again", Alteise had just recently become part of the Scala family, but despite the very little time they spent together, she had adapted pretty well already, also thanks to the fact that she could still spot no sign of all of the backstabbing she expected to find around every corner. Apparently, they weren't kidding when they were saying they were left with little to nothing, and that her few accumulated riches had actually been useful in getting a kickstart, also because their mansion just outside Lazflamme needed plenty of renovations.
" I hope father's journey is successful", Rondo commented, looking with poorly hidden disappointment at the spartan layout of the room; there were few decorations, as they had been either sold in the past or stolen from scavengers while the place was abandoned, " We deserve more than this".
" Then we need to fight for it. Meanwhile, we have been given a barony and responsibility over this very town so we might as well begin to study the situation", and she pulled out several stacks of papers from her own bag, laying them on the table that was not as covered in dust as it was a mere moments ago, though calling it clean would've been excessive.
" Can't you call me Alteise?".
Rondo frowned, " Alteise is a westerner name, if we don't want to make the situation even more ridiculous, you need a more fitting name, like the one you've been given".
She blinked, then shook her head, they've been through this several other times and there was no way to beat sense into him; as if a name could do anything to hide her olive skin, her dark hair and amber eyes, which were in such a starking contrast with the typical local appearance that she frequently was stared at, regardless of where she was or what she was doing.
" Regardless, you've been dealing with this sort of thing more than I ever have, give me a hand with the accounting", Alteise, or rather Libaza asked as she tried to put the papers in order. Most of them were about incomes, inventories of what used to be in the mansion while there was still someone running it, and the results of local taxation.
Rondo approached and attempted to be of help, but as Alteise expected already, he wasn't very grounded in reality, being that all he knew about managing a land came from his studies and the examining of theoretical situations. They were clearly going to be helpful, but in terms of practical experience they were about equal, which didn't play in their favour.
" I-I think I'll need more time to study these", he confessed.
" And I need to get out more", she sighed, looking down at her dress: it was a lot simpler compared to what both Rondo and Clara were used to wear, but it was still richer and more ladylike than anything she was used to wear, especially considering she was used to put armour plates on her body, " I'm getting fatter. Look, I think my chest has grown too".
" ". L-libaza!
" It's such a bother, it was too big for my taste already, now it just keeps getting in the way".
" Libaza!", it took her a few moments to realize Rondo still didn't really accept her as his new sister, and talking about chest size was probably inappropriate outside of a fireplace surrounded by action-loving girls.
" Very well", and she left the papers with Rondo, " I'll go out and meet the populace, ask a few questions around town. If we're their new rulers we have to make ourselves known".
Rondo blinked, and gratefully remained behind with the papers, " Just... Don't be inappropriate, okay? Try to behave like a lady, for once".
" Yes, yes", and she left the room, remembering to close the excessively large and dangerously creaking door behind her. The panorama of what used to be a luxurious main hall was off-putting; whatever color used to belong to the wall was gone, and the few frescoes were spoiled due to the crumbled plaster. The air was stale and dust and cobwebs were everywhere; the count of maids needed to put the place back together increased every time Alteise checked the place out.
It took her a while to realize Clara was there, atop the staircase, and while her intention to enter the room Alteise just left was clear, it was the presence of the recently-adopted foreigner that stopped her in her tracks. " Hello", Alteise greeted, staring straight at the ten year old girl whose gold locks were dulled by the lack of proper lighting inside the mansion.
" I said, Hello", Alteise repeated, but Clara just circled past her.
" I heard you", she muttered as she slipped through the door and slammed it behind her. Alteise sighed, she had no idea why Clara hated her so much, aside from the fact it had something to do with her brother; jealousy? Lack of trust? Something she wasn't aware of?
Alteise quickly put the matter aside. It was time to go to town and begin working the populace; no point in being a ruler if no one even knew you were in charge, and considering the awkward situation she was in, she needed to have as much support as possible, even if it only came from the most humble part of the population.
That, and there was no way to know what would've come out of Edric's journey, his attempts to find allies and call in favours were commendable, but one had to wonder how much of his effort was due to sincere worry over the future of his children, and how much was out of what Alteise suspected to be thirst for revenge.