Tales of the Glories

by Tenshi

The power of the Dark was strange, compelling, mysterious, and, as Ashley Riot had cause to know, it was absolutely shite for predicting the weather. An old leg wound he had gotten in the days before LeĆ  Monde was a better weather-vane, but even it did not emit a twinge until it was too late. The clouds racked up in the blue sky with all the ominous precision of a fleet of warships, and he was still miles from the nearest town when the storm began its onslaught. Tiny, knife-edged flakes of snow drove into his face, the wind howled in the crags of ancient stone, and the path in front of his boots became a blur.

Resigned, Ashley began to look for suitable shelter for the night. While the power housed in him would not allow him to die, there had been a time when he fell asleep in a snowdrift and had not woken until thaw. Discomfort was not excluded by immortality either, and his thighs were prickling with the cold by the time he found a sheltered enclave among the rocks.

The fire he conjured threw shadows high upon tilted walls, their carved surfaces betraying the hand of man. Ornate lintels, once level, were tilted and worn with the passage of eons, and in hidden cracks the flicker of mosaic tiles glinted with the memory of civilization. The Dark, sensing history, whispered the names of kingdoms long forgotten, though the mouths that once spoke them and the armies that died for them were all together gone to dust. Ashley blocked off the mournful sigh of the past, wrapped his cloak around his shoulders, and tried to get comfortable on his pack.

Within a minute, however, the voices were back. Annoyed, Ashley pulled down his cloak and glared at the shadows, as though dim ghosts could be silenced by the Heir's annoyance. Belatedly, he realized that the rood on his back was mute and sleeping, and the voices were coming from outside, in the blinding belly of the storm. In a moment, the bedraggled outlines of travelers formed out of the gray blur.

A man stepped down into the cave first, his golden beard aged with a coat of snow, his rangy, broad-shouldered frame that of a powerful man whose strength had been sapped by illness or imprisonment. His eyes met Ashley's, but before there was time to speak, another voice intruded.

"We will find other shelter," she said. She was young, but used to command. Ashley thought her clothing strange, women's fashion more telling than than the practical red leather vest of her swordsman. For he was hers, by the tilt of his head and by his obedient silence when she spoke. Everything in him turned towards her, though Ashley doubted she yet realized or appreciated that fact. "Forgive us," the girl continued. She was ill-attired for the storm, too proud to complain of it. "We meant no intrusion."

"Lady," her guard began. "If we press on, we may not find any other shelter."

She scowled at him, a woman not yet willing to submit to something as immutable as weather. "We cannot risk--"

"There is room for two more," Ashley said, gesturing to the cleft in the ruins.

"We are many," the man replied, apologetic. His politeness allowed Ashley to revoke his invitation, and in doing so to drive the man and his companions out into the storm, and very likely to their deaths, with no hard feelings at all.

"Warmer that way," Ashley said, with a shrug. "Bring them in."

"You have our gratitude," he said, though his lady looked displeased and relieved at once, her mouth a firm line. Ashley sat up to give her a place near the fire, and in the mouth of the shelter her companions followed at last: a boy and a girl, both too young to have seen much of the world and both obviously smarting from the lack, and a dark-haired boychild, younger than both of them, but with ages more wisdom in his eyes. They were followed by dangerous rake in a fancy-cut jerkin, cocky and arrogant and too much aware of himself. With him was a creature out of Ashley's childhood storybooks, a woman tall and slender with dark skin and frost-colored hair, her graceful head topped with the speckled ears of a hare. She was a Viera, and her kind had not been seen in Ivalice since ages past. Some said they had never existed at all; such women were obviously the fanciful imaginings of lonely travelers, not any real species.

"You should start handing out engravings, Fran," the rake said, arching a brow at Ashley. "It might tamp down on the ogling."

"He does not stare for the reasons you think he does," Fran said, with a tiny smile. Ashley felt laid bare beneath her eyes, and the rood upon his back hummed with recognition. "I think you are more lost than we, stranger."

"I think I may be, at that," Ashley replied, shaken.

"Well at any rate," the older boy said, the tan one with sun-white hair, "we're all lost in here together. Thanks for letting us stay. I thought we were going to die out there. I'm from the desert, I'm not used to this."

"Oh, really?" Ashley said, tearing his eyes from the knowing gaze of the Viera and trying to strike up a normal conversation. "Whereabouts?"

"Dalmasca," he said, with a disinterested shrug. Ashley's mind fumbled through half-forgotten histories as he continued. "Most of us are, really. Me and Penelo and Basch, and Ashe is the Queen of--"

"Be silent, Vaan!" the queen hissed at him, for queen she was, stretching her chafed, shivering hands out to the fire. "Have you learned nothing?"

"It's not like it's a big secret anymore," Vaan grumbled, chastised. "I thought we were going to Mount Bur-Omiswhatsits to declare to everyone that you're the Queen."

"In everything an element of timing is necessary," the dark-haired child said. Of all of them, Ashley thought he was the most comfortable with the cold, a notherner. The rake seemed annoyed by any physical inconvenience and the Viera seemed to feel none. The boy bowed to Ashley, small and somber. "And now we must only hope our host is trustworthy."

"I have no interest in your destinies, or in hindering them," Ashley said, honestly enough. "I am something of a vagrant, and I have no plans to linger here."

"A well-armed vagrant," the rake said, with an appraising glance at Ashley's gear. "Nevertheless, you're sharing your fire tonight with the heirs of Archades and Dalmasca, the misapprehended kingslayer Basch fon Ronsenberg, and Balthier the sky-pirate, whose bounty, I might add, has gone up several thousand in the past two weeks alone." He sat down at last, with a moue of distaste for the dirty ledge. "So should you have thoughts of profit, I suggest you draw the inevitable conclusion that we could prevent you from getting it, or from doing anything else, ever again."

"You're all awful," said the younger girl, Penelo she had been called. "This man is nice enough to keep us from freezing to death, and what do you give him? Death threats. Honestly." She turned to Ashley, apologetic as she hugged her damp knees. "I'm sorry. Half of them are blue-bloods and they act like they were raised in a barn. Thanks for letting us stay. We can share some food, if you like."

"I'm fine, thank you," Ashley said, smiling at her. History had not left her name behind for Ashley to hear, and he felt that she deserved his kindness far more than the great and legendary who would not note it. Many strange things had happened to him since he took on the Dark mark, and very little surprised him. But to be sharing his shelter with the ghosts of ancient Ivalice, that was something new.

"Forgive us," Basch said. "We have been ill-used in the past, and we carry urgent hopes. I fear our honor is not as strong as our desperation."

"As I said," Ashley repeated, "I am only a sojourner, I have no need to interfere with you."

"Who now could possibly have no interest in the war?" the boy asked, shrewd. He had not yet been named, but Ashley did not need him to be. The company he kept named him enough. He was Larsa Ferrinas Solidor, the greatest emperor ever in the long history of Archades.

"One who is a stranger here," Fran said for Ashley, her curiously knowing smile still present. Did she sense the power of the Dark sleeping in him? Viera were said to be one with the power of the Wild Wood, in the days when magic was not confined to fetid pools, fenced-in by the fears of mankind. "The storm will not last much beyond midnight," she continued. "We will be on our way by morning."

"I hope it is not for naught," Ashe said, her shoulders bowing under the invisible weight of her burden. Ashley could not tell her that she would succeed in the end, that she would wrest Dalmasca's independence from the jaws of Rozarria and Archades. He could not tell her that she would lose her loyal Basch in the final battle, he could not tell her that she would eventually marry an Archadian Judge, he could not tell her she would rebuild a dynasty out of the ashes of her name. He could not tell her, though he longed to, that centuries after her death a woman in Valnain would be so smitten with her legend that she would name her son after the mighty Queen, and that Ashley Riot was Ashley Riot because of her.

"You never told us your name," Penelo said, as though hearing his thoughts. In truth, she was probably only trying to break the heavy silence.

"It's not really important," Ashley said, and pulled his hood close up around his face. The storm raged on, snow and ice and freezing tempest, but by dawn Paramina Rift lay sparkling and serene under a cloudless sky, and Ashley was alone. Somewhere, in another time, Queen Ashelia and her companions woke, no doubt wondering what had become of the stranger. Balthier would curse him for a rogue, and Basch for days would worry that he was an Archadian spy.

Ashley picked his way down fresh snow on the mountain. The Archadian Highroad was all that remained of that sprawling empire, now incised into the holdings of the Greylands. Ashley followed it, reminded once again that time had no meaning for a man who bore the rood, and while history remained in his shadow, he was never truly alone.


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