Chapter 1: Doubt
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.
Chapter 2: Breathe
Chapter 2: Breathe
“I hear the sound, echoes beneath
Angels and skylines meet
And I'm straining to reach
The light on the surface, light on the other side
I feel the pages turning
I see the candle burning down
Before my eyes, before my wild eyes
I feel you holding me, tighter I cannot see
When will we finally
Before Lucy opened her eyes she could rather feel than see it. She was lying on something large, hard. Its powerful muscles slowly moved under her body and his legs, pushing forward and shifting her weight with each step. When her eyelids fluttered and slowly opened, a sharp, white light clouded her vision and she needed a couple of seconds until her sight focused.
Lucy narrowed her eyes, lifting up her head a little. The sun had been long risen up and she could easily see the tall, massive pines that were surrounding her. And under her… she was riding. More specifically she was lying on a brown stallion and had probably been on it for a long time because she could hardly feel the inner parts of her hips. Lucy tried standing up but something prevented her legs and hands from moving. Her ankles and wrists were tied to the horse’s saddle.
The unknown voice, croaky and deep, made her jump as far as the ropes were letting her. She turned her head on the other side but again couldn’t see the man, because of her golden hair dropping down like a curtain in front of her face.
The unknown man laughed hoarsely and rough hands pushed her locks away.
Lucy stared at her kidnapper in surprise.
Beside her, riding another horse was a middle-aged man with oily, dark hair and stubbly beard. His black eyes lightened up with slyness when he saw her startling.
“Oh, what an honor. You know who I am.”
Lucy couldn’t actually remember his name. But she was sure he was one of the royal guards, one of Gray’s most trusted men. He had been keeping the prince and the royal family safe for years. Lucy couldn’t imagine that he would ever betray them but the facts pointed other.
“Why?” she asked quietly. One of her first memories from the palace included this man too. He would always stay near Gray and her while they had been playing in the gardens. She could even remember how once she had given him an apple and he had taken it with a warm smile.
To her shock his face now formed an ugly grimace.
“Ha, and you’re even asking?! I will tell you something, missy…I lost twenty years of my life to guard WHO exactly? The king’s good for nothing pricks. ” The laugh that followed after didn’t have even a drop of humor. “I thought the king knew how much I’ve sacrificed in order to keep doing my job as a guard. After all, I’ve also kept HIM save too! But do you know what that fucking bastard said to me a couple of months ago?”
While he was talking his words kept coming out more and more furious, his mouth sputtered and foamed with rage.
“I jumped in front of him because I thought the men behind him were being suspicious and you know what the king told me? How dare insignificant worm like you cross the path of those above it! Know your place the next time or I’ll have you thrown in prison for disrespect! ”
“That’s when I found out how vile you all are.”
Lucy’s original shock disappeared after she heard his story. She knew at firsthand what kind of man Gray’s father was. To crush someone else’s dignity was a child’s play for him.
“And when they offered me money” continued the man with a hideous smile, “to obtain information about the kingdom, well, I could not turn that down. It was the perfect job for me. ”
Lucy was now hearing him with only one ear. She focused her whole mind on the situation she was in. After a short observation of the environment she reached to a conclusion. They were traveling through the pine forests, which were stretching out south of Dräntah, and most probably, they were near Gang, because she could hear the river’s raging sounds in the distance. Immediately in her head a few scenarios came to live and no one of them made her feel relaxed. Lucy needed more information to be sure of her doubts.
“So… someone paid you to kidnap me?”
“Will pay me, to be more accurate. And just wait to see who that is.” His hold on the bridle tightened up. “The pregrands stand no nonsense, when they want something to be taken care of; I’ll tell you that, girl.”
Lucy’s eyes widened. That was the worst possible version and it seemed it was real. She was going to fall into the Empire’s hands. If she had to judge them by the arrow from the other day, then her stay would not be pleasant at all.
“Got scared yet?” laughed the man. “You should be.”
Lucy ignored his mockery.
“Where are you taking me? The river’s too wild for us to cross it. ”
The guard opened his mouth, likely to respond with another sharp comment, but then hesitated. He threw her a mistrustful look.
“Don’t you dare try to exercise your witchy tricks on me. Won’t be telling you more, so shut your mouth before I make you.” He licked his lips. “Well… when we arrive at the appointed place, we’ll have some time for ourselves… Maybe we can have some fun then. ”
Creepy chills went down her spine. The man saw her terror, written clearly on her face, and roared with laughter, focusing his attention on the road. Regardless of everything, one of the things he had said inspired hope in Lucy. Right now they were travelling to the appointed place, where the pregrands were going to meet them. Lucy had to find a way to escape in this gap of time.
She didn’t know with punctuality the time, in which they had been travelling, but from the position of the sun, she was sure there were only a couple of hours until sunset. They didn’t change the direction even for once, she knew that, because she could still hear the river, and that only confused her. How would they cross the river exactly without killing themselves?
They reached a small meadow, formed between the pine-trees and the man took down the saddlebags from the horse. He began unbinding the sleeping bags and making sure everything was settled, which meant only one thing. They were probably going to be waiting for the pregrands the whole night.
That was good.
Lucy had never been the fighting type but she knew she would do anything to not fall into the enemies’ hands. She absolutely had to find a way to escape.
In the next thirty minutes her kidnapper was building their camp for the night. Lucy was still sitting on the horse and that didn’t make her situation any better. A sharp pain was cutting through her spine, pins and needles had been crawling down her legs and she couldn’t feel her hips. Lucy knew she was in a bad shape and escaping would be a hard task right now.
The sun had long since set down, when the kidnapper finally finished with the camp. In the center he had build a small fire, which threw creepy gleams to his face. When he lifted his head and their eyes met, Lucy understood. There was just something disgusting, sickening in the animal glimmer that seized his eyes.
Now. He was going to hurt her now, when it was dark and no one would hear her screams.
While he was standing up and slowly coming towards her, Lucy tried to calm her heart down. Panic would not do her good. She couldn’t miss this chance for anything in the world. It was her only chance at escape. That is why she asked, “What is your name?”
For a moment the man stopped, although there wasn’t even a slight surprise on his face. Then his features curved in an ugly grimace.
“Of course you don’t know my name!” he hissed, moving a few steps forward. “I’ve been guarding you since you were a small brat and you don’t even know my name!”
Suddenly he rushed to her, his fingers painfully digging into her skin and he pulled her from the horse towards his body.
“Jose. Jose Porla.” He wheezed in her ear. His breath, stinking of poor alcohol, hit her with full power. “You’ll remember it well. I promise you.”
He pulled out a knife from the inside pocket of his shirt and with a few swings cut the ropes that had been binding her. Then he dragged her on the ground.
Everything was happening fast. It was too fast.
Lucy tried to concentrate her mind, to make her limbs move, to do something. Anything.
Jose kept drawing her towards one of the sleeping bags.
Heavens. It was really going to happen.
Her kidnapper threw her on the cloth and began sitting above her. He wanted to press her against the ground, to rob her of freedom.
Something tightened up in her stomach; it rolled up strenuously in a ball and even started pulsing.
Real, terrifying fear crawled in her veins.
It was her old acquaintance. She had been feeling it every night, while sleeping and traveling to other dimensions, other times, her past, maybe.
However, this fear… it was different.
Lucy had never hit someone before, had never hurt someone with her own hands.
But now, while she was watching Jose, coming closer and removing his belt, something clicked inside of her. Something, woken up by the fear and the terror.
At the moment when Jose began lowering his body above hers, Lucy stretched her hand to one side, grabbed as much soil as she could and then send it flying towards his eyes.
Jose screamed painfully and pulled away with a jerk, fiercely rubbing his eyes.
Here it was her chance.
Lucy strained every nerve and crawled forward, escaping from the trap of his body. She stood up and went as fast as she could to the hide-away of the forest, where she hoped would lose the man in the darkness.
Lucy managed to reach the end of the meadow and for a moment truly believed she could escape… until something grabbed her ankle and pulled her, dragging her down on the grass.
“Come here, you witch!” Jose growled behind her.
He tried to completely cover her, which made Lucy fight even more. She desperately tried to move her legs, her hands.
To shake him off. She had to shake him off.
But he was stronger. After all, he was not only a man, but a soldier and she… She was just a girl with some strategic knowledge and connection to the heavens. Mentally she might surpass him but physically he was way ahead of her.
Jose finally positioned himself above her. His legs squeezed her hips tightly, his palms gripped her shoulders. “There’s no place you can run to.” He laughed dryly, while his hands darted down to the bare neckline of her night dress. Tears started welled up in her eyes. The terror of what was to come hit her with full force.
When his fingers slid down her breasts, a piercing scream tore out of her mouth.
“God dammit… ”Jose cursed, while Lucy used her last drops of power to try and shake him off. She kicked, and hit, and raged as if something had possessed her spirit. Jose tried to silence her, but when his hand dropped to her face, she lifted her head and her teeth hammered sharply into his skin.
Jose roared in pain and jerked back. Lucy’s eyes gleamed with hope but before she could anything else, something loud snapped her right cheek. She needed a couple of seconds to realize what exactly had happened… and to feel the pulsing pain in her face.
He had hit her.
Everything swam before her eyes and her whole energy disappeared, as if it drained from her body and absorbed in the earth. The priestess collapsed and could only watch how Jose massaged his bitten hand, how his malicious eyes darkened and how he fell upon her like a hungry predator, knowing he beat his prey.
Lucy squeezed her eyelids and got ready for the worst. She felt his hands freely, roughly taking off her mantel, which only last night she had put on because of her nightmares. The previous day seemed so far away now, so unreachable.
With two sudden moves Jose ripped her low-necked, revealing her underclothes. Cold shivers creep over her skin, the first tears fell from her eyes.
When the hot breath of the kidnapper hit the skin above her breasts, Lucy braced herself.
And then, an unknown voice came from the forest.
“What, in the name of Helios, is going on here?”
Jose got startled, his palms stopped in the mid-air. He slowly turned his head and after he saw the source of the new voice, he laughed. “Ah, it’s just you. I expected you’d come later but oh, well… come ‘ere, come ‘ere.”
The strangers came closer, their footsteps were loud on the soft grass, but Lucy still couldn’t see them, because Jose’s body covered everything.
“You didn’t specify in what condition I can bring you the strategist, so I was fully entitled to do everything I want with her.”
“Her?” asked the stranger with a deep-toned voice, male voice.
Then Jose stood up, revealing Lucy.
Four men towered above the fire, whose tongues threw orange reflections on their dark armors. One of the men had the more detailed, more beautiful workmanship of his helmet, under which pink curls were coming out.
The same man now was staring right at her.
“This is Icenberg’s strategist?!”
Jose gave her torn dress a lustful look and nodded, “With all her charms. She is not only a smartass, but also a pretty head, more than good enough for the bed. I was just about to try her, when you came.”
Lucy absorbed his words with disgust, that didn’t stay hidden on her face. She finally found strength to move, so she pulled the remains of her low-necked closer, to cover as much as she could of her skin.
“Oh, come on.” Jose grabbed her shoulder and harshly shook her, making her groan in pain. “Your clothes are going to disappear anyway.”
The shook he gave her suddenly stop. She opened her eyes and saw that the pink haired man had grabbed Jose’s hand.
“Move away.” The stranger’s voice was low, guttural as if… as if he really couldn’t bear watching this violence towards her. He shoved Jose, who staggered and fell on his ass in pure surprise.
While Lucy was watching, her mind managed to fight the panic and to chain the events together. Gray had been talking so often about his number one enemy, that even she knew how he looked like.
And now, as she was staring at the deep, green eyes of Natsu Dragneel, Lucy was really surprise to see just how young he looked. She knew that he was the same age as Gray, but he was the fierce, well known general… so young and already a leader of thousand armies.
Her amazement lasted seconds because she remembered the terrific situation she was in.
“We’re here anyway, why don’t we have some fun with her. We can take turns with her.” He insisted, while watching in disbelief as Natsu took off his red mantle and gave it to the priestess.
General Dragneel threw Jose a freezing the veins stare. “I swear in all the gods-” he began with a cold tone,” that if you lied to me and this woman is not Icenberg’s strategist, you’d wish you hadn’t bothered stepping into mortal lands.”
Jose visibly shivered and stepped aside. His eyes were filled not only with fear, but also with resentment. Lucy understood what went through his head. Another higher-up was telling him what to do and was being arrogant. Jose was a lot more than a deluded man; he was vicious and disgusting to the marrow of his bones. But he also valued his life.
That’s why Lucy wasn’t surprised when he bowed his head and with a steady tone explained, “That is the person you’re looking for, sir. I put at stake my head. I am telling you the truth. Now I will ask you to give me the promised payment. I did my job here. ”
Natsu held his stare for some time then nodded to one of his men, who tossed a leather purse to Jose.
When her kidnapper checked the contents of the purse, he laid down on the sleeping bag, on which he almost had hurt Lucy.
“Witch, here our paths get separated. Unfortunately.” He winked at her.
Lucy didn’t want to be resentful. She really didn’t want to. But the thing that he almost did to her…
She knew it was too stupid of her to say these next words, but she did it nevertheless.
“Jose Porla.” At the sound of his full name, coming out of her mouth, he startled. “This time I will remember you just how you wanted and I won’t forget anything you shared with me. Everything you did.”
His eyebrows knitted.
Lucy continued with the same insidious voice, “And you can be sure that the stars won’t ever forget either. Ever.”
The corners of her mouth raised in the most dangerous smile she was capable of right now. Even from the other side of the camp she was glad to see the fear, shining in his eyes.
While she was passing through the bushes and the tall grasses, being helped by the General’s two guards, Lucy still managed to hear the broken, drunk singing of Jose. The man was roaring like an animal as he was reciting Icenberg’s royal hymn. There was something really off with that man and something in Lucy told her that she was about to meet him in the future again. And her instincts were never wrong.
The red mantle, which General gave her, was still thrown on her shoulders, protecting her from the cold night air. She didn’t know how to interpret his actions. In the last few years she had been hearing only bad things about him. Really bad things… For example, that he was a brutal beast, on the battlefield no one could find a man scarier than him, wild, fierce like a dragon, his name was the synonym for war.
But giving her the mantle… That was a kind gesture. Gentle even.
Lucy but her lips so hard, it hurt. This kind of weak, emotional bullshit wouldn’t do her any good. Not now. Not when the pregrand’s army was knocking on the brink and was waiting for the opportunity to attack.
That’s right. A war was on its way.
And she had promised herself that she would not be captured by the enemies’ hands.But that was exactly what was happening right now…
The guard with the light blond and the other with the short tar colored hair were holding her on both sides not so much to keep her from escaping but because she could hardly walk. Her fight with Jose completely enervated her legs. She didn’t have energy. In front of her were Natsu Dragneel and the third guard with the long black hair, curling like dark waterfalls on his back.
It was impossible to escape.
If not by physical way, she had to try with bluffing.
“Jose lied to you. I am not Icenebrg’s strategist.”
Their footsteps immediately stopped. The men all stared at her and the guard, standing next to Dragneel, sneered. “Yeah, I can’t believe it either, but am pretty sure that bastard wouldn’t lie to us.”
His voice was rough, hoarse as if he hadn’t been drinking water for a long time.
“But he did it.”She said. “I am just one of the ladies-in-waiting of priestess Lucy Heartfilia. I cannot help you with anything.”
“Then why didn’t you say something earlier?” asked the guard on her left side, the one with the tar colored hair and the cool look. He seemed like a level-headed person unlike the others.
Lucy could feel the General’s piercing stare, waiting for her answer. She would not look him in the eyes. Not yet.
“Because I thought it would be safer for me if I go with you.”
A dark shadow appeared in the men’s eyes. Interesting. So not only their leader didn’t approve of violence over women.
“I am just an orphan.” She continued in the hopes that maybe she’ll succeed in convincing them. “I don’t have powerful parents, who would pay to bring me back. The royal court would also not give even one golden coin for me. I am useless.”
A sudden silence fell for some time, disturbed only by the sharp sounds of the owls.
“We’ll see what the truth is…” The General suddenly said. Lucy lifted her head surprised and met his stare, which was full of amusement. He knew. “…When we go back home.”
Their home. That thought wringed her heart.
After a couple more steps they came out of the forest and its dark embrace, only to be shined brightly by the moon eye.
They were standing on a deserted waterside, which was being splashed by the meek waves of the river Gang. Lucy couldn’t believe her eyes. The river was subsided and was rather peaceful, nothing compared to the water beast near Dräntah the other day. That was because… Lucy wanted to hit herself for not thinking about that kind of possibility. They were a few kilometers away from the fortress and the river just lost its power as it got further east. The place they were now could be easily crossed over.
The wooden boat, which the men probably had come with, was situated on the waterside only a few meters away from them. The guards began to push the boat forward and Lucy couldn’t do anything else except to sit in the boat and to watch how everyone else followed her.
With each paddle, her land, Icenberg, got further and even further. There was no going back.
Lucy concentrated on the men. The guards, who had been holding her on the way, now had to control the boat. Beside her sat the third guard and in front of her was Dragneel. Only he was staring at her carefully… no, he was examining her.
Lucy realized that he saw how she had scanned the others, looking for a way to do something.
She took her eyes off of him and turned them towards the sky above her. The stars were shining somewhat brighter than usual as if they were trying to tell her a secret. She could easily distinguish a lot of her favorite constellations. What kind of advice would they give her now?
Icenberg counted on her. Gray counted on her.
There was war. And during wars a lot of people could lose their lives in order to protect the others, the weaker, those who could not fight.
Lucy threw a glance at the men.
No one was holding her. Her arms and legs were free.
She gave herself some time to look at the million diamonds on the endless dark-blue sky for the last time, for them to give her courage for what she was about to do. Then she made her choice.
She took deep breaths and looked at the General, whose eyes widened as his whole body rushed to her.
“NO!” he shouted, but it was too late.
Lucy fell into the river’s cold embrace, which welcomed the priestess with open arms. Muted, harmonic silence filled her consciousness, when the waters above covered her head, capturing her completely and irreversibly.
She tried to move her legs, to wave hands, to do something, in order to get back to the shore, but her body didn’t listen to her, her limbs were too heavy. The deep vivid red, the color of the blood, spread around her, swirling smoothly in circles. She needed a couple of seconds to realize that the General’s mantle had bloomed like a rose and was slowly floating in the water. Lucy stopped moving and just let herself be carried by the stream. She didn’t have any strength. Her eyelids were slowly opening and closing, allowing the last images of her life to pass through her mind. Even in the afterlife Lucy knew she would never forget the deep, infinite darkness of the river and the only light, the moonlight ray, cutting through the same place, where Lucy now slowly faded away.
That was the fatality of the stars and she would accept it.
Some kind of movement of the water caught the dizzy attention of her mind. A few consecutively, underwater waves hit her body, as if something was coming closer to her. Suddenly something powerful took hold of her waist, wrapped around her body and…started pulling her…up. Her eyes were still closed, but she could feel every push, every impact of the water.
Lucy and the thing, wrapped around her, pierced through the water surface with a loud splash. Air rushed into her nostrils, filling her with life. She began coughing and spewing water, with her eyes still closed.
“Shit!” Someone next to her swore.
She vaguely realized that the thing around her was a body, another human. His hands lifted her waist and somebody else’s palms picked her up from above. Lucy couldn’t stop vomiting water and breathing heavily. When she finally opened her eyes, she was again on the boat, lying at the bottom and surrounded by startled faces.
“I can’t believe it…” a voice murmured, which sounded a lot like the long-haired guard.
Lucy wiped her mouth with hand and leaned against the boat’s wall. The General was sitting a few steps in front of her as wet and out of breath as her and his eyes were gazing at her somehow strange. She couldn’t really define the feelings that were dripping from him.
“What did you think you’d do?” He asked with strained tone.
Lucy looked up at the sky. She hadn’t believed would see it again and the fact that she did, made her really happy and filled her with the beginnings of hope. So death wasn’t coming for her yet.
The long-haired guard grabbed her shoulder in a tight, but not painful hold as he growled, “Don’t you dare jump again.”
But Lucy didn’t pay attention to him; however she took notice of the General. He had removed his armor and was left with only white shirt and dark pants. His pink curls, which were dripping with water, were squashed on his wet forehead.
“I was going to escape.” She simply said, as if the answer was obvious.
His eyebrows furrowed. “Yeah.” He said. “In death.”
“Better in death than stepping on your territory.” She proudly lifted her chin, which earned her the shocked faces of the other men.
Dragneel’s stare was kind of dizzy, as if he was thinking really hard about something. Then, to her surprise, his lips formed into a dangerous smirk. “Oh,” he said. “You are definitely Icenberg’s strategist.”
Lucy casted him an angry look but that seemed to amuse him even more.
“Keep paddling.” Dragneel ordered his men, the ghost of a smile still visible on his face. “We don’t have the whole night. And-”he turned his amused eyes to her. “You never know what she’ll try to do next.”
Lucy was left with nothing else to do but to stare desperately at the stars and silently ask them what, in the name of the gods, they had planned for her. The only answer she received was the constant cheerful sparkling of their light.
And although they seemed to find her situation funny, she wanted to throw herself into the freezing waters of Gang. Again.
What a petty really, that during the whole journey to the other shore, the guard didn’t let go of her arms for even a moment this time.
Chapter 3: Conversations and Threats
“The first ingredient in conversation is truth, the next good sense, the third good humor, and the fourth wit. “
After crossing of the river, the pregrands took her to the horses, which had been waiting further in the forest. As soon as the men stepped on their land, Lucy noticed the change in the behavior. It was truly amazing how easily the General talked to his subordinates and how they treated him. When they had to decide who Lucy will ride with, the blond guard, whose name she found was Sting, playfully asked her, while rising his eyebrows in what seemed to be a flirty gesture, „Madam, would you like to get on my horse? I can assure you that I will be the most pleasant ride you’ve ever had. ”
He was obviously joking and nobody expected her to answer seriously. That was precisely why they got surprised, when she lifted her tied wrists and pointed at the dark haired guard.
“What the hell? Why Rogue?” Sting started blinking, confused by her choice.
Lucy smiled lightly in that cold manner, which had always managed to infuriate the King of Icenberg and which had frightened Jose earlier.
“Because I prefer quiet and well-mannered people than… hmmm...” she shrugged and casually stared at the trees as if she didn’t just insult her capturers.
Ah. Crap. Her temper got the best of her again.
Usually Lucy tried to maintain a calm demeanor, tried to hold the leash on her emotions tightly as it was becoming for a priestess, a strategist and above all for a high-class lady. But there were moments, when on the surface emerged her hidden nasty behavior, which loved to make use of sarcasm and irony. She knew it was too childish to act in this way, but that sudden shift of emotions always happened when someone had greatly annoyed her.
Now was definitely not the time for her pride to rise, though.
“Then what?” Sting angrily shook his head, demanding for her to finish the sentence.
Gajeel, the guard with the long, wild hair, came closer to her and threateningly leaned over her head.
“Oi, dollface, did also include me in Sting’s group?”
Oh, gods. Someone needed to learn how to control his anger.
Beside her Rogue cleared his throat and the rest could see a growing smile, hidden behind his hand.
There something naïve and sweet in their relations. Lucy understood that the guards were really good friends and for a moment they even seemed likable to her.
“Hey, the strategist.” Natsu said, attracting the attention of the fighting men. Lucy tensed like a cord, ready to move. “Aren’t you acting a little bit too comfortable for a person, who just got kidnapped?”
His eyes were serious; there wasn’t even a hint of humor on his face. Maybe his question was meant to frighten her, to remind her that her live was in his hands and to feel the same emptiness in her stomach, which had ruled over her during her time with Jose. Instead she read in his eyes something else. Their brightness was different, it was more persistent and slightly curious, and as if he was wondering what she would do in this kind of situation.
The General was challenging her.
Lucy felt the need to properly answer to his challenge. She truly wanted to do that.
However she got easily carried away in stupid arguments. Right now she had to stay focused, well composed and to avoid all questions, no matter how insignificant they might look.
That’s why she shifted her head and stared at the muzzle of the nearest horse, which was sweetly champing a blade of grass.
“You are going to ignore me, aren’t you? Is that your magnificent plan?” his amused tone came back.
So, he was testing her, to see how she will react to the hidden threat in his words. That only confirmed her theory. The smaller number of people knew her character, the better for her it would be.
“Just accept it, Natsu.” Sting suddenly said. “You’ve never been good with women. “
“Sting, Sting, Sting…You wanna fight? Cause you know who’s gonna kick your ass, so save yourself the defeat.”
Both men continued to shout perky words at each other even after they had mounted the horses, and at times Gajeel also joined their quarrels. It was amazing how friendly acted the General with his subordinates. Even though the men threw insults, swore, and threatened each other with fights; their words were still light and their intention was harmless. Maybe these men were Dragneel’s most trusted men, his closest friends, who he took with himself to every battlefield and when he wanted to kidnap a maiden from the neighboring country. Lucy couldn’t really know what the truth was until she saw how General acted towards the other soldiers. It was essential to understand the relations to his army.
This was the best thing she could do at a situation like that. She could only analyze, find and absorb every bit of information, which could be helpful in the future.
“Fucking trees!” barked Gajeel, when a pine branch suddenly bashed his face, while he was passing beside it.
The General turned his head back and burst out laughing.
“Gajeel,” he said, while wiping tears from laughter “you looked as if you just had a quarrel with your Levy and she nicely punched you in the ugly face.”
Lucy mentally noted to memorize the name of this unknown person. Whoever this Levy was, it was obvious by the reddened cheeks of Gajeel that she was an important person to him. His mouth opened and closed continuously like a fish in the open air and finally he exclaimed, “Shut up, Salamander! And she is not my Levy! And I’ll fucking kick your ass!”
“Ha, you wish you could!”
They didn’t stop anywhere to rest and Lucy truly thought of herself as a hero, because she didn’t complain even once to her kidnapers. Not only she had to stay on the back of a horse for hours when she was with Jose, but she had to do that again and this time she had to share the saddle with someone else. But on the other side she was glad of her choice for a co-rider. Rogue, just as she had expected, didn’t participate in stupid arguments, on the contrary actually, the only thing he made as a noise was his breathing. Although it was uncomfortable to have someone behind her, she was grateful for the warmth his body provided, because her clothes and hair were still wet from the jump in the river and the cold north wind didn’t make her feel any better. But his body protected her back really well.
After some time the night started to change. The darkness gradually faded away, revealing more clearly the vegetation surrounding them. The small parts of sky, which Lucy could notice through the tangled branches above their heads, were lightening up.
A new day was coming.
That made her think about the time she spent away from Gray and her people. But also about the fact that she hadn’t drank or eaten anything. Realizing this, her stomach fiercely growled, desperately trying to draw her attention. Her dry throat made its protests too. Lucy was wondering if she tried to open her mouth and say something, would even a single sound come out. She just got prepared to lay down her wishes to the men, when Sting lifted his arms and sighed happily, “Fucking finally!”
The three men were just a couple of feet in front of Lucy and Rogue and were looking down at something, as if they were standing on the edge of a precipice. When Lucy and Rogue neared them, before her a frightening sight revealed. Hundreds, no, thousands of military tents were spread throughout an even field, at the end of which a high, wooden tower was rising. From a couple of places thin, gray jet of smoke was spiraling from the ground to the sky, a proof for a burning fire.
So many warriors, so much blood would be spilled…
Lucy’s eyebrows furrowed and she unconsciously bit her lips. She had to do something, had to find a way to warn Gray…
“For the great strategist of Isenberg to make that kind of worried face because of my army” Dragneel interrupted her thoughts,” it seems we have a high chance of crushing then north.”
Lucy threw him an angry look and turned her head on the other side, though that didn’t prevent her from hearing his loud laugh.
Going downhill from the mound took them quite a lot of time, but the horses were being faster than what it could have been if they were on foot. The sun was right above their heads, when they finally neared the beginning of the military camp. Soldiers, dressed in Pregrand armors, turned their faces to their General and his comrades. In their eyes Lucy could read pride and unreserved support.
“General! General! ” screamed some of them with bright smiles. Most of the soldiers were young and middle-aged people and at first anyone would think that the adoration they all showed for their leader, was all because he was almost as old of them, but had already achieved so much. No. That wasn’t the reason. Among the excited faces Lucy could also identify those, which time hadn’t passed, with wrinkles and weak, but wiry figures, true war veterans. Their stares weren’t filled with childish idolization as the rest, but their eyes shined with pride and calmness, caused by the safety returning of their trustworthy general.
Natsu Dragneel was considered reputable by all of his people. It was another reason, for which he was a dangerous enemy to Icenberg and to Gray.
Lucy knew that an army could be small, but if it was ready to give its heart and soul for its leader, then it became ten times powerful. And Pregrande, with fear noticed Lucy, had the two ingredients, which made a mighty force – a large number of soldiers and absolute fate in the general.
While passing through the tents the soldiers didn’t miss her out either. Some glanced at her curiously, others got even more excited when they saw her.
“General” they shouted “You captured the strategist!”
“But she is a woman!”
“She is nice for the eyes, though!”
“General, who is the beauty?”
Some of them, realized Lucy, dropped their eyes most shamelessly down, focusing on her still wet and pressed to her body clothes, and she tensed. The almost incident with Jose from the previous night had left behind repulsive traces in her mind, and she guessed that the memories of his rude hands on her skin would hunt her for a long time. That was why, this attention, which she attracted to herself and which before yesterday would not have bothered so much, made her grip the corners of Dragneel’s mantle and to tuck it around her body even more, not caring that it was still pretty wet and that it brought her cold chills.
Suddenly her instincts called her and she lifted head only to see the General in front of her, half-turned and observing her. He immediately showed her the nape of his neck and kicking the horse lightly, he moved forward as if nothing had happened.
A little bit later, while they were still passing through the camp and soldiers kept throwing all kinds of comments to her, General Dragneel suddenly raised his voice.
“Oi, bastards!” his harsh tone cut the valley, probably reaching every part of the camp. “If you have so much free time that you keep circling around us like noisy hens, then I can quickly make some work for you!”
At first his men froze and Lucy was sure that she would read many disgruntled faces, even if they followed the order. To her surprise their faces beamed with smiles as if they were used to the General and his whims. The warriors quickly scattered, each person owning a different task, and neither of them looked at the General and his comrades. Nobody seemed to care about Lucy too.
She squinted her eyes baffled by all this. Did he just save her from the uncomfortable thirsty stares of his men? That was strange, but also… kind of nice.
Lucy mentally shook her head. No! Dragneel again offered a suspicious gallant gesture, just like when he gave her his mantle. It was all just to predispose her. It must have been part of his wicked plan for worming out of her the secrets of Icenberg.
Even so, a tiny voice peeping in her mind, recollecting all of the information she knew about the General, each fought battle, his strategies, his relations to the higher-ups, each detail, no matter if it was just a rumor or not. Lucy could easily draw a conclusion about the way he took decisions and on what basis he did it. She was certain that deceiving and fawning a captive was not his style.
The fire dragon. That’s what they called him on the battlefield. Because of his bellicosity, might, but also because of his rebellious spirit, his inability to hide the wildness and the instincts. He was a man of actions, not of the secret plans.
But Lucy still didn’t want think twice about the reason he helped her. The only explanation, which she could give herself, was that maybe someone in the past had beaten into him gentlemanly manners, which were casually showing up from time to time. That was the most logical thing that came to her mind.
And even though he was displaying sympathy right now that didn’t mean that a few hours later he wouldn’t be pulling her nails out.
Whether it was because of the last thought, or because she hadn’t eaten anything for almost two day that her stomach growled, she didn’t know.
Soon they reached the tower, which she had previously seen from above. Now, while standing in the base, and above her head was the first terrace, the building looked even more striking and massive. Four terraces interrupted the stone walls of the tower and above each terrace a scarlet tiled roof with curved edges, rested directly on vertical structural beams and keeping safe from rain and sun. The architecture style itself was somewhat similar to the one of Icenberg, because of the curved roofs, but it was also more dynamic, more colorful and detailed, a magnificent work of art. And it was just a tower in the outlying parts of the Empire. Lucy truly admired the pregrand’s craftsmen. They were after all for a reason one of the most wanted and talented people in the all Fiore.
The wooden door, through which they got in, was covered in beautiful ornaments, portraying different animals and plants. The first floor was a large chamber and even Lucy, who was used to richness of royal castle, was astonished by the luxury. The paneled with dark wood walls were being separated by golden strips. The ceiling was also wooden and different ornaments and figures, resembling the zodiac signs, were coming down from it. Richly decorated carpet was laying spilled on the floor and on top of it stood small, wooden table and five armchairs. On the lacy tea cloth someone had left a bluish tea-pot.
When Lucy saw the armchairs, she almost cried. Although she controlled her body to behave better, she did make a few steps forward, which didn’t go unnoticed.
“You must be very tired.” Sting noted. “Let’s just sit here, Natsu.”
“No.” He was immediately cut by the General, who was already climbing up the stairs.
Sting sighed and shrugged shoulders in defeat, glancing at her with pity.
“When Salamander sets his mind on something, nothing will ever convince him.” remarked Gajeel and followed his general.
The second floor was a bedroom which was also rich and colorful. From the huge windows was coming a bright day light. The bed was similar to the one she had in the defence tower in Dränta, it was huge and at least three people could probably sleep on it. Fluffy, pink blankets were laid on top the bed, which also had its own wooden sailing, from which white, silky hangings were falling down. Next to the bed stood a huge wardrobe and in front of it – a wooden sofa with feathery pillows, two armchairs, tea table, similar to the ones on the first floor.
Natsu Dragneel sat on one of the armchairs. The rest of them also took their places. When lucy sat on the sofa, her body sinking in the softness of the pillows, her eyes swelled with tears and she almost cried in happiness. It felt like ages since the last time she was in the civilization. The pain in her back and waist loudly sighed in relief as Lucy got more comfortable.
“So,” started Dragneel. “What do you think about this place?”
Lucy needed some time but she realized that he was asking her. She wondered if the question was even worth answering it of if it was better to just keep her mouth shut. She was apparently too slow with the decision, because the General interrupted her thoughts.
“If I hadn’t had heard you talking, I would have assumed you were mute. Have you decided not to talk with everyone, or am I just the black sheep, because you seem to dislike me in a way.” His eyes twinkled with mischief.
Lucy noticed the amused faces of the other men, who were openly laughing at their General for being ignored by her.
“Look, tell us your name for a start.” The quiet voice of Rogue suggested.
Lucy couldn’t wrap her head around the situation she was in. This was some kind of interrogation but without the torture and the threats, which was weird. This whole nice-guy behavior was making her feel all on the edge. She decided it was best to say something this time.
That was why she pulled her shoulders back, lifted her chin and confidently looked Natsu Dragneel in the eyes.
“I am hungry.”
A sudden silence fell for a moment. Dragneel and Sting shared a glance and then burst in laughter.
“You want food, girl?” Gajeel’s eyebrows rose in disbelief.
“Aren’t you scared?” asked Rogue, who was also blinking in surprise.
That question stirred something in her.
Lucy snorted without a drop of humor, which immediately stopped the loud laughs of the men.
“Of course I’m scared,” her tone was low, too low. She hoped they would give up the trembling in her voice to fear and not to the actual thing it was - anger. “But I haven’t eaten or drank anything in almost two days and no matter how many times I explain that I am not Icenberg’s strategist, you just won’t believe me. Until I’ve put some food in my mouth we can’t talk for any kind of conversations.”
That was too insolent, too risky and could cost her too much.
She had to play the role of a frightened maiden, acting high and mighty would not do her any good. She would now raise even more suspicions towards her.
Lucy knew all of that. But…
But she couldn’t swallow her pride. Fear or not, in her chest there was a burning ball of anger, which wanted to blow everyone and everything. Those damned pregrands were sitting and chatting sweetly, they had kidnapped her, when there were more urgent matters for her. Gray could be in danger, her land was on the brink of a war and she… She was doing absolutely nothing.
No. It was actually worse than that. The Empire wanted to use Icenberg’s own strategist against the north kingdom.
“Fine.” Dragneel sighed, while getting up. “I understand. I have a pretty bad temper myself when I’m hungry. ”
“So I’ll do you a favor and play it nice by giving you food. After that it’s your turn.”
In the next hour two soldiers brought her a bowl of white rice and well roasted steak, and she polished off the whole dish, completely forgetting all about table manners. They had probably given her the same thing the soldiers got as food and it was definitely different from the rich and tasty receipts Icenberg’s royal cook made for her in the palace, but nevertheless she ate as if her life depended on that. The priestess was filling her mouth with large bites and was quickly chewing like a hungry rabbit, wholly aware of Dragneel’s surprised glare. He has stayed with her in the room, while the rest had went out, probably going to eat too.
“You must have lived with the army. I guess Icenberg doesn’t really offer luxury even for their best strategist.” Dragneel stated, while nodding as if he was sure he had guessed it right.
Lucy was just licking the inner walls of the bowl, on which there was still some rice, when she lifthed her head and squinted her eyes in annoyance. What did he expect her reaction to be exactly when she hadn’t eaten anything for so long, to swallow small bites and to swallow slowly as if she were in a royal banquet?
“So, I gave you food, I gave you water. Now it’s your turn to do something for me.”
He folded his arms and leaned back. His expression was cheerful, calm as if he was sure she would spill everything about Icenberg.
Lucy put the bowl carefully down and stared at him. The General seemed to have accepted that for an agreement, because he smiled widely.
“Well, I am pretty sure you know why you’re here.” His eyebrows lifted. “You do know why you’re here, right?”
Lucy wrinkled her nose. Was he serious?
“I have no idea. As I said before, I am just an ordinary lady, serving to the priestess.”
Natsu clicked his tongue and shook his head.
“Oh, no. We already went through this and agreed you are exactly the person I need. I am asking if you know why you are in this gorgeous room and not tied on a tree somewhere in the forest and held as a real hostage.”
Lucy took a sharp breath. She almost took her eyes off him because of his wolfish smile.
“Look, I don’t have interest in threatening helpless women, so please do me this favor and just tell me the number of soldiers Icenberg has.”
“I can tell you the number of ladies, serving the priestess.”
The General pursed his lips, which made her shuddered. Now she felt a slight fear coursing through her veins.
“Why are you complicating you life so much?” he asked, slightly moving his shoulders, looking suddenly surprisingly uncomfortable. As if he had understood her fright and somehow that made him uneasy.
“The gods have already planned my destiny. I am their mercy, only their humble follower.”
Lucy answered almost mechanically, the heaviness in her chest tightening even more. She had been repeating this sentence so many times in her life that is seemed like a prayer, not so much as something, read in one of her secular books.
The blazing fire in his eyes shocked her.
“People decide what path their destiny will take.” His voice was firm, unyielding. He wasn’t saying it just to make her talk. Oh, no. A deep emotion flashed in his stare. There was no doubt that he believed in his words, truly. “Your life doesn’t depend on some god’s power. It is in your hands and only yours alone.”
That, Lucy figured, was probably his own version of a prayer, sent not to the heavens, but to him himself.
“I can neither convince you to believe in my religion, nor in my words. But I can assure you I haven’t lied to you about a single thing.”
Natsu Dragneel weighed her up and on his face appeared a lazy smile.
“So, you want to play the cat and the mouse game, huh?” He murmured.
Lucy blinked. What nonsense was he sprouting now?
The General suddenly stood up and a few steps later he was right in front of her. Lucy pulled back, with rising panic. Her back was leaning on the sofa, leaving her body between the man and the pillows.
“Let me share something with you.” His head lowered so much that she could actually see the green threads in his irises. His confident smile now seemed scary. “I love playing games. A lot. Unfortunately for you, I am also pretty good at them.”
His eyes became emerald slits, expressing amusement but also excitement.
“I hate losing and it doesn’t happen often.” He got silent for a second, carefully watching her reaction. “In this game you started, there is absolutely no chance of you winning. So, tell me what I want to know.”
Lucy felt paralyzed; she didn’t dare move with an inch. Some distant, animalistic instinct of self-preservation was blocking her nerves and its voice was whispering cowardly words to her ear. Do not move, the voice said, you’ve been marked down by a predator, whose teeth are only a one bite away from your neck. Where did that surge of energy go, which had taken down Jose? Where did the hunger for fight disappear?
It was all replaced with the thirst for survival.
However… However she didn’t take her eyes off his, she didn’t lowered her head in defeat.
“You haven’t…you haven’t stood against me before. I won’t lose either.” Her voice as shaky, but her eyes were shining with a new wave of adamant will.
Dragneel raised one eyebrow in surprise and then moved back as fast as he had invaded her personal space. As soon as his heavily built body moved away, it felt as if someone pushed in all the air in her lungs. Lucy couldn’t believe how just this action brought down the tension in her veins. What kind of demon magic had the Pregrande’s General used against her?!
The fear, which had controlled her body wasn’t the same as the pure terror caused by Jose. It was something totally different, something, which made her fighting instinct freeze. It was as if she didn’t have any control over her body, over her actions.
Natsu Dragneel circled round his armchair, obviously in deep thought. Suddenly he stopped, his eyes contacting hers, and Lucy understood that he had reached a decision.
“Tell me everything you know about Icenberg’s defence force.” He blurted out.
Lucy dogged her nails in her skin. ”I know nothing and even if I did I would never tell you!”
The General just nodded like he had already known her answer.
“Look around this room really well and notice the comfort it gives you, the luxury. Because I’m a good person I will give you one day to happily stay in it. Use this time to think about the situation you are in and carefully, and I mean really carefully think about your choice because your life depends on it. Tomorrow morning I expect to hear if you are going to talk or not.”
Natsu Dragneel turned his back on her and with confident steps left the room, leaving the priestess with her chaotic thoughts.
Chapter 4: Despite the stakes
“With open hearts, despite the stakes we take a chance on our mistakes”
Being in panic was nasty. Even if a person had been training for years not to succumb to it, there was always that first moment, when it completely devoured the conscience and didn’t let anything else to be in control. Lucy should had overcome this problem by now. During the years spend on the battlefield, she had to make quick decisions, which affected not only her, but also Icenberg’s men. Thousands of lives depended on her. It wasn’t much different now. True, she was surrounded by the enemy, she was completely alone, without a single ally on her side, but she was the strategist and the priestess of Icenberg. Her power was exactly in finding ways out of the most difficult situations.
In the next hour Lucy looked around the room. She went through the cupboards, checked every corner, every hidden place. She tried to go downstairs and see what she could find there, but on the first floor was stopped by the two guards, who ordered her to go back. When Lucy went to the terrace, she observed the perimeter around the tower more accurately. Comfort passed through her body as she found, that there weren’t many tents in this part of the military camp. The reason for that was probably, because the tower was not in the outlying parts of the camp and behind it was the vast lands of Pregrande. That’s why the General had wisely ordered more warriors to stay in the outskirt in case someone from the No Man’s land attacked.
The No Man’s land. Territories, ruled by no country in particular, but for some reason most wanted by everyone. Pregrande and Icenberg’s hatred towards one another had been born because of the No Man’s land. It wasn’t that the territories were fertile. On the contrary, the earth was actually plain, hard and only pines grew there. But for decades the land was considered to be holy. There were a lot of ruins, ancient stones and half-destroyed sanctuaries, remained from times when the gods and the stars had been still properly honored. When the prayers and the rituals were part of everyone’s life, not just of the priests and priestesses like now. Still, according to Lucy, it wasn’t a logical enough reason for this brutal conflict between the countries. Sometimes she wondered if the King of Icenberg, Gray’s father, had truly lost his mind. She knew he was cruel and cold, but he wasn’t a stupid man. Oh, no. He was cunning like a snake. And dangerous too.
Lucy shook her head to push away her thoughts. She had to concentrate on the important thing, which was the fact that around the tower there was a small number of tents and the warriors, who were walking around, were more relaxed and wouldn’t expect something to happen in their part of the camp, like for example a prisoner to escape.
Lucy went back to her room to think over everything she learned and then she made a plan in her head, which could go wrong in so many different ways, but still… it was a plan. She felt like these days she had to depend on such imperfect strategies but whatever. Maybe the heavens wanted to challenge her.
The only thing that she needed for her to put the plan in action, was a weapon. Where, in the name of the moon goddess, could she find a weapon in this room, where there wasn’t a single sharp object?
Lucy looked again around the room. What could she possibly use?
There was almost nothing except for the cupboards, the bed, the vase on the wooden table, the wardrobe…
Lucy rushed to the table, grabbed the vase and lifted it in the air. It was made of glass.
She sat on the armchair, putting the vase in her lap and shifted her gaze to the ceiling.
She had everything she needed. The success of her plan now depended on her and on how much luck the stars were willing to give her.
Natsu felt as if his body was a sack of potatoes, sluggish and heavy. It didn’t just suck, but it was also quite surprising, because he could usually fight for days without a stop and even then he hardly ever got so tired.
The General opened the mantle and went in his tent, which he had been using since they had made the camp two weeks ago. Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t sleep in luxurious bedroom of the tower, but he used a normal tent like his subordinates. It had the same conveniences, a sleeping bag, short wooden table and a place for his weapons. The only difference was that the ceiling was a lot higher than a normal tent and Natsu could easily stay up in his full form without stooping.
He untied his belt with the sword, left it on one side and then undressed the armor pieces one after another. The sudden fleetness made him feel a little better, so he decided to remove his linen shirt. He felt hot, tired and in desperate need of a cold bath.
What the hell was wrong with him today?
Natsu sank down on the pillows half-naked and spread his arms, staring at the ceiling. The last two days had been so fucking weird. From the moment that huge wave appeared and killed his men to the meeting of the strategist and her peculiar behavior. For the first time in a while Natsu felt as if he was floating in the endless sky without direction or a purpose, which was just plainly stupid. He always had a goal set in mind. A kingdom for conquering, princes for killing and towns for seizing were all waiting for him.
Then why did he have this feeling, that with the kidnapping of the strategist he had set the beginning of a chain of events, which would radically change his life?
A soldier from the group of the maintaining the weapons went in the tent and left a bowl of icy water and a towel on the table. After Natsu thanked him and sent him away, he dipped his palms in the cold liquid and splashed his face and neck.
Thank the Deity of the Sun! It wasn’t enough to cool his fiery blood, but it still dulled the heat and calmed his thumping heart.
Natsu had to be used to the storm of fire, raging in his body every time he was burned by a stronger emotion. It was just a side effect from the blessing of the Zhulong, the Torch Dragon, the God of the Day and the Night. But why did Natsu’s body react like that today?
The strategist had managed to get under his skin, that was for sure.
Natsu put his hands on both sides of the bowl, staring at the water, while drops were falling down his nose and wet hair. He sighed loudly, “This will be harder than I thought.”
Natsu clenched his teeth. He couldn’t get a single minute alone, could he…
Gajeel Redfox, his first cousin and Lieutenant General, second in command after Natsu, came inside the tent with crossed arms, filling the place with his huge body.
Gajeel was now without his armor, standing only in a dark shirt and trousers, bit was still keeping the belt with the sword on his waist. Natsu shook head, besprinkling the table with water, then grabbed one of the pillows and hurled it at him.
“Who gave you permission to come in as you please?” growled Natsu when his cousin easily dodged the blow.
Gajeel lifted his eyebrows.
“Salamander, do we know each other? When have I ever needed permission to do something that would annoy you? Thought that for fifteen years you would have learned.”
Natsu dropped his body on the sleeping bag.
“I am so kicking your arrogant ass.” He tried to sound intimidating, but it came out quite weak.
“Keep lying like that, looking like a desperate wreck, and that kicking will happen only in your dreams. We already kidnapped the strategist, didn’t we? Why the pouting?”
Gajeel’s tone was cold, but his eyes gave him away. They were wary and considerate. Gajeel was worrying about him.
Natsu pursed lips.
“I am not pouting.”
Gajeel came closer and lightly kicked Natsu’s leg, ignoring his glare.
“Come on, Salamander, spill the beans.”
Natsu’s nostrils flared and he deeply signed. Suddenly he rose in a sitting position, resting his elbows on his knees. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to share his troubles with someone he trusted.
“This whole situation with the strategist and Icenberg…It’s just not right. I can smell the coming problems in the air.”
“What problems? The strategist seems tough, but you’ve managed to claw information out of even more stubborn enemies.” Gajeel fixed at him with careful awareness. “You just don’t want to hurt a woman, do you?”
Natsu threw him a bored look.
“Sex doesn’t have anything to do with it.” He shifted his gaze away, knitting eyebrows. “She withstood my intimidation attack.”
“What?” Gajeel barked.
“I was literally millimeters away from her and she looked me straight in the eyes and declared in my goddamn face that she would not lose to me.” Natsu laughed but not in that confident way. He laughed in confusion and wonder. “Do you have any idea how many people have managed to oppose me when I am intimidating them?”
He lifted a hand, bended his thumb and forefinger together, making a circle.
“That’s… that’s not possible…” insisted Gajeel, surprise written on his face. “That would mean, that…”
“The strategist isn’t a normal human. She is something more.”
Gajeel shook head as if he still couldn’t believe it.
“Do you think she is, you know, like you?”
“Blessed by a Celestial God?” Natsu stretched his arms and loudly yawned. His lips formed a confident smile. “Nah, no one’s like me.”
“Moron. The Torch Dragon isn’t the only Celestial Being that can grant blesses.”
“Even if she is actually blessed, it doesn’t matter. The only thing that concerns us right now is to figure out a way to make her talk.”
“Well, there is one really fast way I can think of.”
Gajeel pulled out a knife and pointedly cleaned the sharp part with edge of his shirt.
Natsu clicked with teeth.
“I doubt that a knife would scare her. You saw her on the boat. That woman was ready give up on life because she didn’t want to step on Pregrande’s land.”
“Nobody is capable of enduring a strong pain, no matter how strong the will is.”
Natsu shook his head.
“You haven’t seen the look she gave me. I think that she will bring us more problems than we can imagine.”
Gajeel signed heavily, throwing a skeptical look at his cousin.
“And I think that you are totally whipped.”
The General hurled the second pillow so fast and suddenly, that it made contact with its target this time. Gajeel lifted his eyebrows and Natsu could almost hear the unspoken words in his head. Are you fucking kidding me, Salamander? Brat. So seemed to say Gajeel with his famous angry glare.
“I suggest you stop thinking then, because you don’t seem to be particularly good at it. We are in war, Gajeel, and you know me. Winning is always the goal for me and I don’t let anyone to stand in my way. But I can’t just ignore the fact that there is something strange with that woman.”
“Hmph. Whatever you say. Then why did you give her time until the morning if you knew she would not agree so easily?”
“That time is not for her, but for me. I needed to figure out what I would do when she refuses to cooperate.”
Gajeel opened his palms expectantly, “And? What did your great mind think of?” He closed his mouth, because of the stare he received. Natsu’s eyes were two glowing green spheres, promising mischief and danger. The eyes of a predator.
“It’s quite simple, cousin.” Natsu started. “I will beat her in her own game she started.”
“What are you blabbing?”
Natsu stood up, a terrifying flame roaming his eyes.“I will use whatever’s necessary to make her talk. Whatever it is. I’ll have to try everything. From physical torture to the goddamn shaman magic of Kingdom Fiore, if I have to. Let’s then who will give up first, me or her.”
Something flickered across Gajeel’s face, an emotion close to worry. It also expressed in his tone.
“Look, Natsu…You haven’t tortured women before. It’s completely different especially when your prisoner isn’t really a fighter either. Completely different.” For a moment a dark shadow of shame and fear conquered his eyes. “Are you certain that you can do this?. If you want, I…I can…”
Gajeel couldn’t finish the sentence, so he left the unspoken suggestion to fly in the air, as if he wasn’t sure about what he had been about to offer.
Natsu understood what that suggestion meant for Gajeel, who in the last few months had drastically change his views on women and torturing as a whole. The General’s heart overflew with a warm, pleasant feeling of gratitude. On the outside he just shook head.
“No. I am in charge, so the responsibility rests on my shoulders. And cut the bullshit with the strategist being a woman. I have eyes and can perfectly well recognize the distinctive features of the female gender. In the first place she is the enemy. And what do I do with enemies?” Natsu opened his palm and suddenly closed it tightly into a fist. “I destroy them. That is what will happen this time too.”
“Now, why the hell, do you look so excited?! Five minutes ago you were being so fucking miserable.”
“You’ve seen her in action. She isn’t physically strong as Erza for example but she stands proudly in front of a danger.” Both of them evidently shivered when they heard the name of the fearsome General of Fiore Kingdom. “She is interesting. And unpredictable. Would be a total delight for me to win our little game.”
He winked with the glint of a predator.
Gajeel signed again for a hundredth time, turned strong but before the exit he stopped.
“You know…” he started. “Your father was right about you being obsessed with winning.”
Those words reached a deep, hidden place in Natsu’s chest, a place, he thought was long forgotten. He certainly wasn’t pleased to feel the things he felt right now because of his cousin’s way of showing concern. So he did what he always did when being shaken up. He acted as if he didn’t have a single care in the worlds, being too awesome for actual feeling and all that deep shit.
“Don’t really see anything bad in that, metal head. If my memory isn’t failing me, I would say that you’d been the same as me. Remember that? Or you’ve forgotten about it already?” And now Natsu was acting like a goddamn asshole. Great. He knew that he shouldn’t open this topic, shouldn’t open Gajeel’s wounds so soon, but it seemed his tongue had a mind of its own and stupid words spew out of his mouth. “Now that I think about you’ve changed quite a lot for the past few months, cos. Since the time you came back from that mission in Fiore, to more precise. And then you say I am whipped, heh.”
That laugh at the end was too bitter even for his own taste. But it was too late for taking everything back, so he would just have to suck it up. After all, Natsu Dragneel never ever apologized.
Gajeel’s nostrils flared, his eyebrows curved and his large body stood even straighter, filling with the new-come anger.
“Shut the fuck up, Natsu. You have no idea what yer talking about.” He grunted. “That…thing, me, before was nothing more than empty shell. A monster, who didn’t live, just existed. I despise what I had become and I’m thousand times grateful to the Emperor for sending me on that mission in Fiore. Let me tell ya something. You need a solid change too, Salamander. And you need it desperately. You’ve been acting like an arrogant brat, crying for victories for as long as I know you, and that is a very long time.”
He closed his lips as he was met with Natsu’s steel glare.
“Careful with the rubbish that comes out of that mouth of yours, you metal bastard.” Natsu’s voice went down with a couple of octaves, which usually meant that he was really pissed, not just annoyed. “You don’t want me to show you who’s the brat when I kick your ass.”
Gajeel snorted. “Tche. I am done lecturing you.” He opened the exit of the tent and before completely disappearing managed to say another infuriating bullshit.” I hope the strategist wins in your little game so that I get to see your pouting face afterwards.”
“Hope is all you’ll ever get.” barked Natsu after him, but Gajeel was already outside. Still, the General couldn’t stop himself, so he also yelled, “Don’t you come back here until the morning! I need a huge dose of sleep and your ugly face will give me nightmares!”
After pouring out his frustration, Natsu Dragneel, The General of one of the biggest armies on the continent and a twenty-five-year-old man, dropped his body on the sleeping bag and with a dissatisfied murmuring nestled in the coverings.
It was a common knowledge that best time for running out of prison was during the night. You didn’t have to be a strategist to figure that out. Still, it was easier said than done. The sun hadn’t set down yet but was scarcely burning out at the end of the horizon, throwing muddled orange rays onto the warrior’s tents.
Lucy deeply took breath.
It was now or never.
She took the vase and with a swing splashed it on the floor, thousands of glass pieces flying in different directions. The noise was too loud and as Lucy guessed, she heard the rushing steps of the guards, going upstairs.
She grabbed two bigger pieces of glass and involuntarily pressed the edges to her skin, sharp pain building up her veins. Lucy hid her bloody palms in the General’s mantle, which was still on her shoulders, and waited.
The two guards appeared at the doorstep and Lucy suddenly bended her body, as if someone had kicked her in the stomach.
“I feel unwell.” She cawed and for an even bigger effect crouched to the ground, her knees almost touching the glass pieces. “Help.”
The guards rushed to her, one of them even dropped his weapon, to catch her right side with both hands. They didn’t doubt her ridiculous acting, not until they helped her get up and saw something shining in her hands. The second guard widened his eyes but before he could get the chance to do something, Lucy lifted palms and drove the glass pieces in the hollow of their knees. A painful cry tore from the guards’ mouths and they dropped to the floor.
“The strategist is running! The strategist is run-…” started one of the guards, but Lucy grabbed the sword by its blade, ignoring the stinging pain in her palms, and stroke their faces with the blunt part of the hilt.
Everything happened for less than a minute but to her it felt like ages. The guard, lay unconscious on the broken glass and Lucy stood above them, breathing heavily and with bloodied hands.
There was no time to waste. Lucy went to the staircase, looked downstairs and signed with relief when she saw no other men to check on her. Nobody had heard the noises.
Lucy went back to one of the guards and began removing his armor. It took her quite some time until she figured how to do that but finally she managed to take off all of the armor parts. Alhough, her hands hurt as hell. She didn’t let herself open them and to see the damage, knowing it would make her feel sick if she did that. At least the blood has stopped flowing.
Lucy tore the skirts of her nightdress in a couple of bands, then tied each around her ankles, so it became as some sort of weird shalwars. The dress would only make things harder for her, so she needed the practicableness of the pants. She managed to put on the armor considerably fast, knowing already where and how the different parts worked. The helmet on her head was the last part and the only thing that was visible now was her face. From afar and in the darkness, ruling outside, would be hard for anyone to recognize her.
Lucy threw a last glance at the bodies on the floor, the guilt clouding her mind for some seconds. She shook her head. She couldn't allow herself such weakness. That’s why she gripped the sword, sheathed it and with a confident step went outside.
At first she startled, when a couple of warriors passed around her, laughing at something. They’d passed just centimeters away from her, but no one turned their attention to her. Lucy blinked and tried to focus on her expression. She had to seem calm.
Looking around, she saw that there wasn’t a single man who suspected her, so she kept moving.
She knew where the best place to go right now was because she had an amazing view from the terrace in her room. She couldn’t just go straight for Icenberg, not if she wanted to go pass thousands of tents. No, she had to go south. It would be a lot quicker, moving around the camp and then going to the No Man’s land.
Lucy was walking through the camp with steady, rhythmical steps. The only thing, shining over the path were the torches, sticking in the ground. She was now in the outskirts, where the tents were a lot more, there were also more awaken men, who were guarding the end of the camp. Lucy hoped they wouldn’t watch out for those who were exiting.
She was now passing through one of the darker places, where there weren’t so many torches and there weren’t any people, so she became calmer.
“Where are you going?”
Lucy froze. Her heart pounded loudly against her ribs so hard, they would break. She turned around and was left surprised. The warrior, who had called her, was at least a head smaller than her and wasn’t wearing a helmet, so she could easily see his face. He was a boy, no more than fifteen years old. His jaw and cheeks were still soft, his eyes filled with childish innocence.
“If you continue down this path, it will lead you outside the camp.” The boy said, with wrinkled eyebrows. “Don’t you know that?”
Lucy frowned and tried to give herself more manly pose by trusting forward her chest.
“Gotta take a leak. I’m kind of the shy type.” Her voice was lowered.” And what are toy doing here, kid? Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Would these questions worry him? Because she was pretty sure that in Pregrande the Emperor forbid men under seventeen years old to participate in battles, even if they were volunteers. That led her to hope that the kid probably broke the law.
The boy opened and closed his mouth like fish on land. Bingo!
“I’m a soldier like you.” He answered, but his legs, stepping on one foot to another, gave the lie away.
Lucy laughed rudely, “Whatever you say, kid.”
She turned again and kept walking as calm as possible.
“Hey, wait! Your hands… they are…” he went after her, but stopped when she stomped with her foot. “…bleeding.”
The gods must laugh at her.
“Well, yes.” She replied. “That’s what happens when I drink a little bit too much. I broke the bottle on the ground, thinking that I was fighting the damn Icenbergs.” Her lips formed an arrogant smile and she winked.” You shouldn’t become a drunken moron like me.”
Drunken she may not be, but a moron who let herself be captured…
The boy moved his eyes from her palms to her face. Distrust was coming from his whole body but he nodded. Lucy smiled, “Be right back, kid.”
She coughed, her throat too sour from making lower voice. But the boy didn’t stop her this time and soon she was in the forest, without a single soldier from, guarding the end of the camp, stopping her. She had just told them the same thing she’d told the boy about her desperate need of a private toilet, so they let her go, snickering at her.
The forests in Pregrande weren’t the same as in Icenberg. Lucy knew the danger, lurking in the deep, wild places of her kingdom. The climate was conductive to frost giants, the river nymphs, the wolf changers and many other creatures to roam the ice vacant land of the north territories. They were truly terrifying but at least she knew what could be expected from them.
Pregrande was a large empire, filled with mountains, lakes, lowlands and valleys. The climate was different in the different places, which meant that the richness of the dangers also grew.
Naturaly, Lucy had read books about creatures living in Pregrande but her knowledge couldn’t capture even half the things and the creatures she had read about… well, she didn’t want to meet them. Like, at all.
At least she had a sword. She could try to protect herself.
It wouldn’t help her much, but still it was something.
She didn’t know how much time she’d walked and after a while she lost her sense of direction too.
Just what she needed right now. Getting lost was something she hadn’t done before but after getting kidnapped and assaulted she figured there was a first time for everything. The moon as full enough to clearly see where she was going, but it didn’t do much good. After some time, she decided to lean against the trunk of a large tree. She couldn’t keep going this way. Lucy had to know at least where exactly she as heading if she wanted to get out of there alive.
Maybe she could climb a tree… but she’d never done that before…
Lucy jumped and without thinking pulled her sword out, pointing it at the newcomer. When she saw who that was, she didn’t know whether to be relieved or worried.
The boy from earlier stood a few steps away with a spear in his hand. His hands were visibly shaking, the spear moving unstably in the air.
“Put the weapon down, kid. You’re barely holding it.” Lucy lifted her hand in a careful way, as if trying to calm an injured animal.
“They are looking for you in the camp!” the boy shouted, a nervious smile on his face. “I immediately understood who you are, when they said Icenberg’s strategist had escaped. Now I will catch you.”
“Let’s calm down and put the weapons down, okay? You’ll hurt yourself.” Her voice was quiet, reserved.
“I am a warrior of Pregrande.” He stepped forward, anger written on his features. The spear was now barely reaching her chest. “I know what I am doing, so if you don’t want to get hurt, put the sword down! Now!”
Lucy raised her sword, “Alright, alright.”
She carefully put down the weapon, not letting his eyes out of hers. “What’s your name?”
“Romeo. Now go towards me! I want to see you in front of me!”
She followed his order, but with slow steps, while talking to him.
“Romeo. If I stay in the camp, your General will most likely torture me to get information. Is that what you want?”
His face twisted in a shocked grimace. Doubt crept in his eyes.
“N-no.” The boy stuttered. “Natsu wouldn’t do that. But…even so…Even so! You are an enemy to Pregrande!”
Lucy realized at this moment that this boy worshipped the General. She saw it in his stare, felt it in the way he familiarly pronounced the General’s first name.
The stars were totally laughing at her now.
“Are really going to let them…” she was cut off by a sharp sound, coming somewhere above them. They both listened and looked around.
A complete silence followed after that.
Lucy and Romeo casted a glance at each other.
Suddenly something fell with a lightning speed in front of Romeo’s feet. The boy forgot about the priestess and pointed the spear upwards.
“Who’s there? I am from Pregrande’s army! Attack me, and you attack the Empire!” the boy shouted, desperately looking at the tree’s branches. Lucy tried doing the same, but the darkness was too thick for her to see anything.
Then two bright spheres. Then another two, and another two, and another…
A dozens of eyes appeared on the trees, surrounding both Romeo and Lucy from all over the place.
Romeo took a step back, his own eyes widened and filled with fear.
“The Forest people…” he whispered, terror ruling over his voice. He shouted, “We are not your enemies! We just want to leave you territory with peace.”
Lucy bit her lip. The Forest people were one of the little creatures that weren’t afraid of the humans. On the contrary. They did everything possible to embitter their lives, and sometimes even attacked battalions. Two warriors on their territory weren’t any kind of authority to them.
This wouldn’t end well. Romeo was kind of stupid and naïve child, but he was simply that. A child.
He was going to die if she didn’t do something.
While Romeo was busy talking to the Forest people, she kept coming closer to him until she almost touched him.
She felt it, then. The stirring of the wind, killing intention, dripping in the air and promising death… The gods were whispering her to move away from the boy, to run in the opposite direction.
Seconds later from the branches above them shined a light and a wooden stake flew straight for him. The boy had no idea what was to happen, but Lucy was already on the move. She threw her body in front of Romeo, his eyes widening, and a powerful wave of pain hit her in the back.
Her mouth opened widely, but she barely even registered her scream. The agonizing tearing of her skin was the only thing, roaring in her head, as if someone spilled molten gold on her back. She was drowning in pain, but never reaching the point of dying. An endless torture. Somewhere far away in the fogginess of her consciousness she addressed her body crashing down on the ground, heard familiar voices, but nothing more. Her sight bleared and the pain weakened its cruel hold on her, giving the path to the darkness, which consumed her thoughts.
The last thing she sensed, as her mind slowly faded, was the smell of burned skin and smoke.
Chapter 5: Instinct
"There is no instinct like that of a heart."
Natsu was moving through the trees as fast as the forest let him. His men were far behind him but right now he couldn’t afford to wait for them. Fucking hell! That little witch had been giving him a massive headache for a while now. He seriously hadn’t needed Romeo to magically show up in the middle of the battle camp and put himself in danger like that. What was even going through the kid’s brain? Hey, I see a suspicious person walking into one of the most dangerous places in the empire. I’ll mention this to the nearest soldier and then indulge myself in an epic adventure following said suspicious person in the woods. Brilliant, Romeo. Just fucking brilliant.
Natsu stopped for a moment to sniff the air. The witch’s scent was anything but witch-like. Soft and clean, the smell of spring. It was too vivid, too strong. She and Romeo were close. He sprinted following their trails. There. Just behind those bushes. He could distinguish their voices now with his ultra-hearing. They sounded frightened. Then he felt the presence of other creatures. Shit! He quickly moved through the bushes and found them.
Just in time to see the deadly spear flying in the air straight towards Romeo. For one terrifying second he just froze, unable to say or do something. His eyes widened as he watched the strategists body blocking the spear’s path. A horrible, blood-chilling scream tore from her mouth as she crashed on the ground. He registered in the distance of his mind that the forest people were turning their attention to him, ready to take him down as well. He didn’t care. His vision was pure red. The usually calm and quiet fire in his chest was now blazing furiously. Red markings covered both his arms, neck and cheeks. His skin glowered in a faint gold color and he knew what his eyes looked like, what kind of effect they had on the enemies. The forest people screeched in despair, trying to quickly get away from him. He won’t let them. The white hot fire covered his hands. Burn, motherfuckers.
The first thing Lucy noticed when she woke was that it was nice and warm. She strained her muscles in order to move but every single nerve in her back screamed in pain. Holy gods! What in the world was this pain?! She had been laying on her stomach probably for hours if she had to judge from the missing sensitivity in her arms and legs. She realized with horror that she was back in the tower. She was a prisoner again. Then she remembered the forest people and the hit she took. Ah. That’s why her shoulder hurt so much.
She had to get up. Lucy clenched her teeth and slowly, so very slowly pushed her body up. Gods, someone was tearing her skin apart! Piece by piece! Her arms trembled, too weak to do this kind of physical activity. She groaned as the pain became unbearable.
“No. no. Stop.” Big, warm palms dropped on her lower back and gently pushed her to the bed. “Stop.”
“I want to get up.” Her voice was rusty. It sounded too exhausted like she’d been screaming for a long time. Maybe she had but she couldn’t remember a single thing since she got unconscious in the forest.
“You need to lay down.” The male voice was coming somewhere above her head. The palm moved slightly up her spine, leaving behind a nice hot feeling.
“Please.” Lucy whispered. She didn’t really have the energy to explain how awful her limbs were feeling or how she wanted to at least see what was happening around her and not have her head on one side, leaving her defenseless.
For a moment he didn’t say anything so she thought he was ignoring her request but then strong arms wrapped around her stomach, his head briefly touched hers and he softly breathed out in her ear, “This is gonna hurt.”
He carefully started lifting her body while she desperately tried not to cry out. He helped her turn herself over and after another five agonizing minutes Lucy was finally sitting in her bed. She was panting, her eyes full of tears and her shoulder burning in agony but she was at least seeing the room.
She couldn’t believe it.
It was Dragneel who helped her. There was something different in his stare. A newfound spark she hadn’t seen before.
“What happened?” she asked.
“The forest people hit your shoulder with a wooden spear. You’re lucky they didn’t manage to hit your lungs or you’d be dead by now.”
“The boy… Romeo, is he okay?” The fear was evident in her voice.
He was contemplating her, sizing her up with his stare. “He’s fine. Just shaken up.”
Lucy exhaled shakily and closed her eyes.
“Pretty good idea, by the way.”
Her nose wrinkled. “What do you mean?”
“Saving a kid from my camp in hopes of getting away from torture.”
“What?” She asked flatly. Surely he wasn’t implying that…
“I’m just saying it’s a good strategy. You knew I was going to find you so you decided to put the boy in harm, then getting injured while saving him. We both know I can’t afford to torture you right now cause there’s I high chance you’ll die in the process. It was reckless but in the end a pretty good idea that actually worked.”
She gaped. Was this guy for real? Oh, gods, he was. He was for real! Her anger bottled up in her throat. She wanted to smash his thick pink head with a table so hard!
“Wow. Are you that amazed that I found you out?”
He laughed but there was a certain stillness to it. His whole body was tense. His eyes didn’t sparkle with their usual humor.
“How could you be so… aggh!” The sharp pain from her wound stop her from punching him in the face.
“Hey, be careful.”
His hands flew towards her, probably to help her, but she was so done with him. Lucy smacked his palms and he blinked caught in surprise. Good. Let him be surprised.
“I had no idea where that bloody spear would hit me! I could have died on the spot! Yes, I would have done almost anything to get away from here, to not betray my country but I would never -”, she was panting now. Her shoulder was killing her and she was pretty sure her wound opened up but she was so angry. “I would never bet the life of an innocent person just to save my own! For you to think I would do that to a little kid is beyond me! Making up that kind of twisted story truly tells terrible things but just not about me. It’s about you! Don’t you dare say such bullshit like that again to my face!”
And she was even swearing now. She hadn’t done that in years. He really pissed her off.
Warm streaks of blood fell down her back. Suddenly her head felt too heavy and dizzy. Dragneel, who’d been in total shock until now, quickly shook off his mixed feelings and called for the doctor. Seconds later a middle aged man came in, saw her condition and heavily scolded the General. While the doctor started changing the bandage he asked why the wound opened up again. For the first time since Lucy knew him Natsu Dragneel kept his mouth shut and didn’t fire with a smartass comment. Well, then she’ll answer it.
“He was being a jerk.”
From the corner of her eye she saw his body cringe. Dull, unpleasant pain hit her head and she groaned I pain. Her forehead and neck were sweaty. She couldn’t even keep her eyelids open any longer. She was just so, so tired. Everything hurt.
“What’s wrong with her?”
Did she imagine it or Dragneel sounded genuinely concerned?
Ah, never mind. She just wanted to sleep.
“A fever, I believe.” The doctor almost growled. “Her body is weakened not only because of the blood loss but also because of the intense pain she feels. Opening up her wound isn’t helping her either, General! I will give her some strong herbs but would keep her dizzy. General, with all due respect, I will ask you to leave the girl alone for some time, at least until she recovers from the fever.”
Natsu nodded. He couldn’t tear his gaze from her tormented expression. He thought about her stubbornness and wills to fight, how brave and strong she’d been. Now she was laying completely powerless and shaken up by the pain. Something sickening curled up in his chest. It was awful, this feeling, whatever it was. His eyes traced the sensual shape of her eyebrows down to her feverish cheeks and stopped at the sight of her slightly opened lips, out of which painful sounds were coming. Her shoulder and half her back were completely exposed to him, revealing soft milky skin, delicate curves. She was so small, so fragile. Why the hell would he think about torturing this creature which was about to break any moment?
“General! You are only making my job harder! Please, leave immediately!”
The shout broke the strange trance Natsu had fallen into. He sharply turned and flew out of the room before he did something. Before he did what exactly?! Godsdammit, he was such a mess. That woman was truly a witch. What had she done to him?
“Why are you frowning at the air?”
Natsu almost jumped. Almost. Gajeel always showed up at the best of moments. He hadn’t heard him approach which was kind of strange. But this whole day was just fucking over the scale of strangeness.
“How is the strategist?” He just had to ask about her, didn’t he.
“She is…” Natsu clenched his fists, then deeply exhaled. Hot gray smoke came out of his nostrils and that glowing, heavy feeling in his chest started fading. His rhythm slowed down until only the familiar quiet but tense fire in his heart was left.
“That thing with the smoke is still as freaky as I remember it.”
Gajeel was giving him one of his worried stares again. He knew something was off. But Natsu would never admit to anyone how thrown off he felt so he just passed by him and said in a nonchalant voice, “The strategist has a fever so I left her with my personal doctor to look after her. We’ll have to wait for her to get better.”
Yeah, Gajeel was seeing right through his bullshit but thank the gods, he wasn’t feeling asshol-ish enough to mention it. Natsu would take what he can get. He needed some time, to cool his head and heart down. So he forced himself to smirk lazily at his cousin and walked away.