The figure kneeling before him seemed nothing like the woman he remembered. How many years had passed since he’d last seen her face? Fifteen? Twenty? How time flew.
“Lyndis,” he said, standing. They’d gone through so much together in their youth that it was odd to feel at a loss for words now. His father’s fate, the coup in Caelin, surviving the fate of the world wrapped in the heat of a thousand suns… All that and they had been reduced to this: near strangers. His tongue felt heavy. “It is good to see you again.”
She lifted her head. Her face had changed, lines creasing skin he remembered being smooth. Grey streaked through her hair. It was longer now and spilled over her shoulder in a loose braid. “I come seeking aid,” she said.
If she was anything like the Lyndis he remembered, asking must have hurt her pride. That she had asked anyway made him want to promise her anything she desired, but he knew better than that, now. He was no longer the dashing young man of his youth with his dragon-girl bride and a lack of foresight. Lyndis could need any number of things, but he only had so much to give. “What do you need?” he asked, careful to keep his tone steady.
She swallowed, lowering her tired eyes to the red carpet for a moment as if trying to gather her thoughts. When she looked up at him again, there was a familiar spark in her eyes. “Lord Eliwood,” she said seriously, “I come seeking aid for my…husband.” The word sounded odd rolling off her tongue—like she wasn’t used to saying it. “He is not well.”
“What sort of aid do you require?” Healers and medicine were in short supply because of the war. The same war, he reminded himself, that his own son was fighting in.
“A bed, clean water, a little food.” She met his gaze, the fire in her own eyes dimming, and shook her head. “Sacae is lost…for now. We will take anything you can spare.”
He didn’t have to wonder if it was the truth. Time could change a lot of things, but it would never make a liar out of Lyndis. She would be happy with a spot in the stables if it was all he could give her.
The thought made his throat feel tight. His son had gone to war; his beloved Ninian was dead ten years now; and Hector…had fallen in battle. Oh, what a miserable world it was, he thought, wherein the former lady of Caelin had to beg some minor assistance from an old, old friend and hope he had scraps left to offer her.
“I’ll do what I can,” he promised, and waved his hand at a servant. “Prepare a room. Make it as comfortable as you can.”
As Lyndis got to her feet, he noticed the trouble she had. It reminded him of himself. Aches and pains never did much care for a person’s age. He offered her something that might have passed for a smile when she looked his way, but he couldn’t maintain it when he saw the unshed tears in her eyes.
Some force in his mind urged him toward her, but he brushed it away again. The carefree days of their youth were long gone, now. What she needed was not his pathetic attempt at comfort, however well-meaning.
“Thank you,” she said to him. “It means the world to—” and she hesitated, as though she wasn’t sure how to phrase it, “—us.”
Eliwood caught glimpses of Lyndis over the next few days, but most of the time she was alone. He remembered the flurry of gossip that had assailed Lycia when she’d abandoned the throne to Ostia. He knew better than to believe everything he heard, but perhaps there had been some truth to the lighter rumors. Hector had wanted to believe them. It was kinder to think that Lyn had eloped with one of her vassals than to imagine that she had been forced out of her position.
He wondered who it was she had married.
Not that it mattered, but it would be nice if it was someone he’d once known.
He decided that when his duties lightened, he would make the effort to see them both. It was the least he could do.
The room he’d prepared for them was empty, but a servant directed him toward the gardens. The two of them were seated on the long bench of a swing. Ninian had loved it. She liked to close her eyes and tip her head back and let the dappled sunlight fall across her face. The prettiest place on the grounds, she’d say. Of course, it wasn’t half as pretty as she was, swinging in the sunlight, waiting for him.
Lyndis and her husband sat straight on the wooden seat, shoulders back. He would have been hard-pressed to not recognize Sir Kent; his hair had dulled a little, and bits of grey peppered it at his temple, but his posture hadn’t changed at all. Lyndis was doing most of the talking.
Eliwood held back, not wanting to interrupt their conversation—she was speaking softly of Hector’s passing as she lifted back onto her toes and gently let the swing bench move. It was how Hector had always wanted to go, Eliwood supposed, but it didn’t make it any easier to bear. It didn’t make it less tragic.
But the conversation didn’t dwell on regrets. They moved on to talk of other, smaller things, and though Eliwood couldn’t hear everything, a smile from Sir Kent felt like an appropriate time to approach.
“Lyndis,” he said when he drew near. “Sir Kent.”
“I am no knight,” Kent said.
But Lyndis smiled at him, something gentle. “Hello, Lord Eliwood.”
The title hadn’t bothered him before, but it felt unfair, now. If not for the grey in their hair and the lines on their faces, he might be fooled into believing they were all young again, staying in Pherae for a night after trekking through the Nabata desert. In a way, those days had been easier.
“Is everything all right?” he asked, and found his eyes drawn toward the ugly scarring that ran down the side of Kent’s neck. He wondered if the shawl wrapped around his shoulders was hiding the worst of it.
“Everything is wonderful,” she answered for both of them, but frowned when she caught Eliwood staring. “Fire,” was her quiet explanation, and she lifted her foot, fingers sweeping into an up motion as if to tell him she had been hurt from it, too. “We hoped the battle would spare our homes, but it spread too fast. We tried, but could not stop it.”
Kent touched her hand, a gesture so subtle that Eliwood nearly missed it. “We escaped with our lives.”
Lyndis looked at him, her expression one that Eliwood felt he knew intimately. It was the kind of sorrow that had been given time to build. Her fingers curled around Kent’s slightly, before she turned toward Eliwood. “I heard about Lady Ninian. I’m so sorry.”
That was all anyone ever said. “Thank you,” he replied, and could not meet her eyes.
They talked for a little while of inconsequential things like food and the weather. It felt safe. Everything else seemed too heavy. Roy was at war, the war had taken Sacae… He couldn’t guess what else it might have taken from them—or what it might yet take.
“Lyn.” Kent’s voice was suddenly full of pain. “Apologies, my lord, but…”
Lyndis moved to steady him immediately, her forehead creased, determination taking hold. She did not explain anything to Eliwood, but she didn’t have to. He watched his old friend reach for a heavy wooden stick and press it into Kent’s white-knuckled hand. A cane, he realized. But even with its assistance, and Lyndis’s help, Kent seemed to scarcely be able to walk on his own.
“It’s okay,” Eliwood said belatedly.
He turned away from the sight of the two of them when it felt like too much and was faced with Ninian’s old swing. It swayed in the gentle breeze, reminding him of all the things he missed. Part of him wished that he and Ninian had been given the chance to grow old and grey together, to face hardships and see one another through them.
The rest of him was glad that Ninian had died ten years ago. He didn’t think he could handle watching her crumble in front of him, in his very hands, the way Lyndis seemed to be watching Kent.
When he saw Lyndis next, over a week later, she was leaning against a pillar, breathing heavily and sweating despite the cool early summer weather. He didn’t know what to make of it except to assume that she not doing as well herself as she had—perhaps unintentionally—led him to believe.
“Are you all right?” he asked, but as he neared, he could see the truth for himself. She was deathly pale.
A flash of guilt flew across her face before she covered it with a smile. “Lord Eliwood,” she said, “I…”
“You are not well.”
She hesitated. “There is nothing you can do.” When a few minutes passed, her coloring began to return, and she mopped up the sweat on her brow with an old handkerchief.
“Are you certain?”
Her smile grew, and he wondered how much of it was forced. “The aid I requested was not for me, if you recall.”
“I recall quite well. It was for Kent.”
“Yes.” She moved the handkerchief to her neck.
“How long has his leg been like that?”
She looked thoughtful. “He injured it when he and Sain came to Sacae to find me on my grandfather’s orders,” she finally answered, her voice wistful. “It seems like so long ago… It always gave him a bit of trouble after that, but…” Her smile faded. “Recently, it started to cause him great pain, and when he tried to stay off of it, it just…stopped.”
Stopped working, he assumed. “A shame.”
“Yes. There are other things, too…” But she did not elaborate. “The fire did not help.”
“It must be difficult.”
“It is never easy for a strong man to become weak.” Lyndis looked sad for a moment, but composed herself and lifted her chin before speaking again. “Or a woman. But I will not go before him.”
Her choice of words did little to soothe his mind…or his heart. “Then…?”
“Sooner or later, we all die. When Mother Earth chooses to take me into her embrace, I will gladly go…but she will not call me until I am ready, and I am not ready yet.”
She was waiting for Kent’s suffering to end. The knowledge felt sticky. Uncomfortable. “How long?” he asked, but wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.
She pushed off from the pillar she was leaning against and shrugged her shoulders—shoulders he didn’t remember as being quite so thin before. “Two, three weeks,” she guessed. “If that. He knows what is coming. It is inevitable. He fights it, so hard… I suppose if I were in his place, I would fight, too. To stay with him.”
Her voice nearly broke, accent thickening.
“Forgive me,” she said. “This is hard.”
He understood, and told her so. He could remember Ninian, at the end of her life, the skin of her face drawn tight with pain. He hadn’t let Roy see, in case it caused him nightmares, in case it tainted the good memories of her. She’d fought, too, for a time. It might have been easier if she hadn’t fought at all. The end result would have been the same.
“He’s fighting for you,” he said. Forever a knight, Eliwood thought, but couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud.
Lyndis’s response sounded wet, like the tears she wasn’t letting fall. “I know.”
But the knowing didn’t make it any easier. She would still have to watch him fade away until one quiet lonely moment in the morning she touched his face to find it lifeless. His heart ached for her, for what was to come, for the way it would hurt her and relieve her all at the same time. It was a terrible conflict of the heart, death. He only wished there were some way to make it softer, gentler.
She started to walk away, but the conversation felt incomplete, unfair.
He stopped her with a question: “What will you do afterward?”
She paused and smiled, slowly, but did not look at him. “I will take care of it.” Her voice was wrapped in everything soft he wanted for her, the gentleness brushing against his own heart, a wave of peace. “He is my husband, and I will take care of him. I will take care of everything.”
Kent held on for eleven days before he passed away. Lyndis said it was in his sleep, but Eliwood knew it had been anything but peaceful.
He arranged for a free moment and all but flew to the stables. Her horse stood still as she struggled to lay Kent’s carefully-wrapped body on the travois. He did not offer to help, certain that this was something deeply personal, and she would refuse him. When she finished, and circled the wooden frame to ensure it was secure, he approached.
“Lyndis,” he said.
She looked up. The hurt in her eyes was so fresh he could almost feel it himself. It hadn’t been so very long ago that he had been the one hurting, weeping openly on a chilly autumn morning as snow collected in his hair, wondering if the weather was Ninian’s way of saying goodbye.
Lyndis swallowed hard. “Lord Eliwood.”
“Just Eliwood,” he said, tears beginning to prick behind his eyes. He’d lost so much, it seemed, but hadn’t she lost more? Her parents, her people, her grandfather… Hector had been her friend, too… He couldn’t begin to imagine what she had lost in this damnable war. And now she’d lost her husband. Sometimes life was cruel.
She smiled, but it looked tired. “We were happy, Eliwood. I know you understand that.”
He did. “Do you need anything?”
“The aid I requested was not for me… I wanted him to be comfortable until the end. If our ger had not burned to the ground…”
She would not have come, he knew.
She hesitated, glancing back at the covered body of her husband before she let her clear eyes rest on Eliwood again. “But if I could ask for…one thing for myself…”
Twenty years of learned self-control be damned! Lyndis was his friend. “Anything,” he said, and meant it.
“A spade would be most helpful.”
He wanted to question it. Did she really intend to drag Kent’s body all the way back to Sacae, and then bury him? In her condition? Did she realize how sick she was? He could see her trembling.
But he remembered her comment about Mother Earth: that when her time came, she would gladly go. Was she hoping that time would be soon?
Would she be digging a grave for two?
The thought almost hurt.
He reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently. “Of course, Lyn. Help yourself.”
“Thank you, Eliwood.” Her arms came around him in an embrace that ended almost before he could respond to it. Or maybe it was just that weak. “For everything. It means a lot to me.”
It saddened him to know that she was leaving and he would never see her again—not in this life. For a brief moment, he thought of offering to bury Kent in Pherae, but it would never work. She would not want to be separated from her husband’s resting place, and she herself would only find peace in Sacae.
She nearly stumbled when she turned to walk away, but he caught her waist and held her steady until she regained her balance. Concerned, he studied her as she pulled out her old handkerchief and wiped at her face. A carefully embroidered letter K in the corner caught his eye.
“Don’t worry about me, Eliwood,” she said. “Kent is my husband. I said I would take care of everything and I will.”
A lone horse slowly made its way from Castle Pherae’s stables. Eliwood watched from the garden swing.
The morning sun beat down on the world as Lyn continued toward Sacae. She sat tall on the back of her horse while the summer breeze teased her hair. For a moment, Eliwood saw her as she had been twenty years ago—
sharp-tongued and witty, brash, proud, beautiful and determined
—but the image faded. The Lyndis leaving Castle Pherae was older, wiser, and perhaps afraid of a few more things, but still beautiful, still full of determination, still very much herself.
And she was braver than anyone he had ever known.
“Goodbye, Lyn,” he murmured, and as he closed his eyes and turned his face to the sky, he wondered if the same thing could be said about him.