Chapter 1: Doubt
“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.”
Icenberg kingdom, near town Dräntah
The eyes of Lucy Heartfilia could see everything from the highest platform of Icenberg’s defence but the scene, unfolding before her, made her lips tighten even more. Besides the dark yellow of the dry earth another color was also ruling the lands south from Dräntah. The enemy forces, all dressed in black armors were standing only a few kilometers away. In some places Lucy could even distinguish red spots – Pregrande Empire’s battle flags. The enemy was just too powerful for a small border town like Dräntah. The Empire's sudden decision to attack was not typicall for them but the facts were real. In the distance the army looked like an enormous, dark fog, like an ancient heavenly power, ready to slay the mortal humans. What unnerved her was that they were waiting for orders and were dangerously close to the borders of Icenberg. If they decided to attack the town there was no one who could stop them.
This year the signs from the stars hadn’t been so good. Even at the beginning of the spring there had been small warnings of the great drought that would follow. A couple of months later and even a single drop of water hadn’t fallen from the sky. The earth, cracked and aged, was suffering from the lack of life. All of that reflected on the citizens as well. Icenberg was famous with its vast and cold territory. It was completely normal when there were snowfalls for six months and the other six months were ruled by the rain and the fog. The people had been living in this kind of weather their whole lives. They were used to it and had found the perfect ways not only to survive but to thrive in such a deadly environment. The plants, which they were growing, were also used to the harsh conditions. These last weeks though all the vegetation was destroyed by the constant heat and drought.
Even the usually deep river Guang, which had taken the role of the south border between Pregrande and Icenberg, was completely dried, leaving the boundary defence without protection.
Pregrande and Icenberg had been having conflicts for years now because of some territories. These conflicts sometimes grew into small battles but never something so serious as to attack directly. Until now.
Lucy moved her stare to the small table in front of her. She stirred the mineral stones in her hand and threw them on the wooden surface. The stones fell one after another in a straight line. Lucy drew a sign of relief at what the heavens told her.
Someone knocked on the door and she turned her head.
Prince Gray Fullbaster, the son of Icenberg’s king and first heir to the throne, was standing next to the wooden pillar with his usual serious expression. His dark raven hair was almost beautifully contrasting to the silver-white armor, protecting his body. He looked powerful and in control.
“When will the reinforcement be here?” He asked, not a muscle on his cheeks moving.
Lucy opened her mouth to answer but stopped herself when she saw that her prince wasn’t alone. Behind him stood three of his most trusted men . Even so she couldn’t risk telling them the truth.
“Soon. They’ll be here in a couple of hours. ”
She saw how much the soldier’s eyes lightened, full of hope.
Gray remained serious.
“That’s good.” he said and then ordered his men to leave.
When only the two of them were left on the platform, he moved closer. If she hadn’t known him for years, she wouldn’t have noticed his worry. But they had grown together. She could easily tell apart every single one emotion on his seemingly impassive face.
“There aren’t coming, are they.” he stated with a barely noticable bitterness.
“No.” Lucy grabbed the mineral stones and showed them to him. “But I have a plan.”
She told him about her discoveries and what she had in mind. It was a precarious plan. A plan, which could go wrong in at least ten different ways and which endangered his life. Even so, when Lucy was done with the explaining, his eyes had that knowing spark. Grays put his hands on her shoulders and bowed his head until their eyes were on the same level.
“I trust you. Not only because as our strategist and priestess you’ve never failed us but because you are like my sister. My family. I know we’ll be victorious today. ”
The prince then kissed her forehead and only seconds later he was leaving through the door.
Lucy took a deep breath. She had to concentrate and not think about the possible failures that could occur. She had a task to do. Lucy had to believe that her prince would come back alive and well.
Plus… the stars were on her side today.
That’s why she confidently lifted the skirts of her silk, blue dress and sat in front of her favorite musical instrument – the guzheng.
Her fingers gently brushed three of the strings and stopped. Waiting.
Lucy closed her eyes and heaved a sigh.
Her heart started thrumming with the rhythm of the upcoming melody.
When she opened her eyes, a dark shadow had fallen above the whole earth. A gray cloud had covered the sun and for the first time in many days the blazing rays couldn’t reach the ground.
Her fingers trembled and the first sounds tore away. Slowly, lightly at first, as if the notes were only now learning to walk. Suddenly the sound bended and curved in the most sensual way. Lucy’s palms moved on the strings, fast as lightning. A fierce, dynamic melody spread through the whole valley. The wind carried it off like it was its own child above the cracked earth, which began to quiver and in its turn passed the passionate sounds further.
Until the melody reached the first lines of the enemy forces.
The music was coming from Iceneberg’s defence and for some reason it worried Natsu. That was stupid of him, really, but there was something inside of him that told him it wasn’t a simple song for lifting up the spirits. Maybe it was the notes or the way the melody was being played. He could sense the offensiveness. The person, sitting behind the guzheng, was dangerous.
Natsu tightened his grip around his sword. His instincts were never wrong. But he was going to deal with this uncomfortable feeling later because the defence’s gates began to open. Natsu naturally expected an army, that’s why he was surprised to see that towards him was coming a single warrior on a horse. The warrior stopped at the beginning of the red bridge, which went over the empty river bed.
“General! What are we going to do?” One of his lieutenants asked.
Natsu just smirked. “Well, it’s obvious I’ve been invited to a duel. How can I say no to such a direct request?”
He put on his onyx helmet, which was covered in beautiful ornaments, then jumped on his own horse and turned to the bridge.
When both warriors faced each other the air between them flickered with tension.
“Why am I not surprised that you are the one, leading the attack.” stated the prince of Icenberg with a mockery, dripping from his voice.
“Oh, Gray, do tell me why I’m also not surprised that your dear father threw you away in this godforsaken place.” Natsu smiled devilishly, showing his sharp teeth. Gray Fullbaster was the most annoying person to ever exist. Maybe the gods were finally giving Natsu a chance to kick his ass once and for all. He would accept this gift from the heavens with open arms.
Gray’s jaw clenched tightly. Natsu could barely contain his laugh. So… that topic still remained a tender spot for the prince.
“Enough talking.” Gray lifted his sword. “I challenge you to a fight, Natsu Dragneel. ”
Natsu pulled his own sword out and took a fighting stance.
“I know that, princeling. Why do you think I came here without my army following. ”
After that there was a sudden silence, filled with tension. Both of the warrior’s bodies were as taut as a bow string, ready to move as soon as the other makes the first step.
Above them the clouds gathered even more. Only for a couple of minutes the whole earth darkened and that didn’t go unnoticed by Natsu. Something wasn’t right. He could feel it in his bones.
Gray, who caught that his enemy was distracted, took action first. Natsu easily blocked the attack and so the fight started.
Ten minutes passed and it was obvious that the General of Pregrande’s army was stronger. No matter how much he didn’t want to admit that, Gray realized that Dragneel was faster, more skilled and had better instincts. Gray wasn’t going to win this fight and this kind of thought bugged him. But… he had to focus.
Lucy’s music was still carrying around with full might and that gave him hope. No, not just hope. That guided him.
“What’s wrong, princeling?” asked Natsu with amused flame, sparkling in his eyes. Even if he was tired, he didn’t show it. On the contrary, actually. He looked as if he was enjoying the fight, as if he was feeding on it.
Gray shook his head. General Dragneel had always been like this. Even a couple of years ago, when they had met for the first time on one of the royal meetings, Natsu had received all the attention. He had been wild, young and full of thirst for greatness. But back then he had been just a fifteen year old boy. They both had been just two boys, who hadn't understood fully at the time how politics and war worked. Now it was different. Ten years later, with their friendship long gone, only the enmity was left.
“I am thinking about how you haven’t changed at all. You’re still the same churl, who wants to prove himself to… actually who exactly do you want to prove yourself to? ” asked Gray with a tired smile.
The prince immediately understood that it was wrong of him to say this. Natsu’s eyes flashed angrily and he resumed the attack with full force. Gray could barely even counter his blows and kept getting pushed back. The prince knew he wouldn’t hold out for too long.
And then… Gray realized he couldn’t hear the guzheng anymore. Lucy had stopped playing.
That meant only one thing…
Gray clenched his teeth, then took a step forward, surprising Natsu, and hit his sword with all the strength he had. Before Natsu could recover, Gray kicked him in the chest and the general staggered back. Gray turned around, got on his horse and rode at full speed to the defence’s gates.
Natsu blinked a couple of times, confused by the situation. He was still standing with a sword pulled out, ready to finish the fight but the screaming sound of the closing gates and the prince’s back disappearing behind them left Natsu pretty fucking confused.
What the hell?
Gray Fullbaster just ran away from a battle?
That couldn’t be happening.
Natsu wrinkled his nose in disgust. So with the years Gray had turned into a complete coward and a liar. Well, that was it. Whatever doubts Natsu might have had before that, they were completely gone now.
He would kill the bastard with his own hand.
Natsu went back to his army. He didn’t bother alighting from the horse; he just lifted his sword above his head and shouted, “The prince of Icenberg ran away from his battle! That, men, proves what cowards all the Icenbergs are! Let’s show them what material we are made of! Let’s show them Pregrande’s power! Attack! ”
His army shouted victoriously and moments later hundreds of warriors rushed forward. Natsu had seen many battles to know how his men looked from the defence they were attacking. He was sure they resembled an unearthly power, which was passing through everything that got in its way. That made Natsu smile. Icenberg didn’t have a chance.
When they reached the bridge, Natsu ordered his men to just cross the riverbed. The general stayed at the end of the bridge and watched as his army was crossing the great river Guang.
Suddenly that strange feeling went through Natsu’s body again. Something just wasn’t right.
Natsu looked around. What worried him so much? What exactly…
The music had stopped. The general’s eyes darted in every possible direction. No, it wasn’t just the music. It was something else.
He turned his head towards mountain Morrat, from which Guang took its source from. The mountain was wrapped in a white, heavy fog, above which tempestuous clouds were weaving.
Fog, which only thirty minutes ago didn’t exist… The whole weather changed in that time, actually. It had become dark, cold and… rainy since the start of that melody.
Something under the mountain moved. It looked as if the fog itself was dashing towards them.
Natsu’s breath stopped when he understood what exactly was coming closer to his army.
“Warriors! Withdraw at once! IMMEDIATELY! ” he shouted as loud as he could, “Withdraw!”
Some of his men around him heard him and casted a glance at the mountain. Their eyes widened terrified, when they saw the danger and rushed back. The panic seemed to spread around them like a disease until it reached even the first lines, which were almost on the other side of the river. They just needed a little more time.
Time, which they didn’t have, because from the mountain a large four meters tall wave was making its way through the riverbed. It was too fast, it appeared too suddenly.
Half of the warriors managed to reach the other end and to climb on the safe zone but the other half…
Natsu observed from above how the river was wiping out his men, how some of them desperately tried to run away in the other direction, but it was without success and soon they were all swallowed by the powerful, water monster.
Beside him the ones who managed to save themselves were bowing their heads and kissing the ground in gratitude.
Natsu focused his stare on the tallest terrace of the defense. The general squinted. He pulled out his bow and an arrow, then aimed.
He let go of the bow string and the arrow whizzed through the air, rushing straight to its aim.
If that arrow didn’t kill the goddamn musician, Natsu Dragneel swore he would never leave these lands before he avenged his men because whatever just happened it wasn't merely a coincidence. It was that musician's doing.
Lucy watched as the powerful river destroyed the bridge, the only thing that led to the defense. This time the stars had been on her side. But she couldn’t relax. Next time Icenberg might not have the same luck.
She pushed the guzheng away and started rising up when a light breeze hit her face. Her eyes widened. Lucy moved her head a little to the right before something slammed in the wooden column behind her, just millimeters away from her neck.
Her lips opened soundlessly as pure shock trembled trembled through her body . She pulled away and examined the long arrow, the end of which was covered with red feathers – a Pregrande’s arrow.
Something warm slid down her neckline. When she shakily lifted her fingers in front of her face, there was blood on them.
“Lucy? What happened?”
Gray ran to her. He saw her wound and didn’t waste any time. The prince ripped away a part of her dress and wrapped the piece of cloth around her neck. After that he helped her stand up and together moved to the door.
She could hear his angry murmurs. “I am going to kill him. That bastard is dead.”
“Don’t get angry.” Her face was back to its normal color and she felt a lot calmer. That arrow really freaked her out for a second but she could again think straight. “He has the right to wish for my death. His men were drowned because of me.”
Gray shook his head, still pissed.
“At least for now his army will withdraw and we’ll have a few weeks to take rest.”
Lucy immediately froze.
“You don’t really believe that, do you?” She asked wildly surpised. “Gray, you know well enough that Natsu Dragneel is not someone who just gives up. The nature may have been on our side today but that doesn’t mean that he won’t find some other way to cross the river tomorrow. He is still dangerous. We can’t relax just because we won the battle today and…”
“Lucy.” Gray’s fingers touched her cheek. “Everything’s fine. Even Natsu isn’t so crazy as to cross Guang. You saw how wild the river has become. It would be suicide. And I also…” Gray smiled proudly, “I received a letter from my father. Just a minute ago they brought it to me. He wants me to immediately return in the capital.”
“Gray, this is a really bad idea.”
“Look, if you are so worried then stay here for a few days to calm yourself down and to see that the situation is under control.”
Lucy grabbed his hand and gently pushed it away.
“But a lot of our soldiers will go with you! We need people here. If something happens…”
“Lucy.” He shot her one of his serious stares. The one, which told her, that he wouldn’t change his mind.
Lucy sighed deeply.
“Pray to the heavens that the bad feeling I’ve got is only in result of me almost getting an arrow through my head.”
Gray frowned. “I am still thinking of ways to kill him because of that.”
And Lucy still remained with a bad feeling. But everyone was always thinking about their own worries.
The next day Lucy sent the prince’s carriage with unhidden dissatisfaction. Gray usually listened to her advices. Well, he tried. At least when he didn’t act as a stupid know-it-all or when the king didn’t decide suddenly to act like a father. Lucy knew that she shouldn’t blame Gray. She just really hoped he was right.
Later that night she woke up in her bed, broken out in sweat.
She got up, slipped her purple mantle on her shoulders and with quiet steps went to the guzheng, which always stayed near her. It was her favorite instrument. Lucy gently caressed the wooden vessel.
The only thing she could remember before her life in the castle, before the prince and his family took her in as theirs, were the sounds of the guzheng. Maybe her real parents once played on the instrument when she was small. She couldn’t know. But she knew one thing. The guzheng always made her stronger, it gave her power and assurance, it made her think of home.
Suddenly a loud crash was heard somewhere behind her. The next couple of seconds everything happened too fast. Lucy tried turning her head but someone grabbed her forehead and didn’t let her see the attacker’s face. Before she could scream the stranger gagged her mouth and nose with a cloth and the aroma, which penetrate into her made her lose consciousness.