The Hero's Shadow
Manfred sat on his bed reading, though he had trouble absorbing the words of the book in his lap for a number of reasons. He had picked up one of Graham’s obscure texts about archaeological mysteries out of curiosity about the man’s passion, but he quickly learned that he cared little for the topic. More than that, he found it difficult to concentrate as the sun set and the eight o’clock hour drew near. However, worst of all was Roland’s incessant pacing near the door.
Ever since he had relayed Volta’s message to his roommate, the young man had grown more excited by the day. Now, on Saturday, he seemed fit to explode from nervous energy. Roland had barely spoken all day, but had the look of someone who might at any moment unleash a hurricane of words. Wherever they went, the giant peered over the heads of their peers, searching every room and crowd intently. No doubt he hoped to catch sight of the elusive Volta.
The final distraction causing Graham’s writings to bounce off his eyes was the matter of next week’s duel. When they had gone to check the posted matchups on the previous day, he had been shocked to discover his name paired with that of his cousin, Siegfried Fehl. It strained credulity once more, the coincidence that they should happen to be selected together from among all the first years at just this time. But this time Manfred didn’t care. It was a pleasant surprise and if his estranged family had pulled strings to arrange for this feud then he was thankful.
He had tried to let go of the animosity that Siegfried nourished, but seeing that he would have the opportunity to crush that arrogant brat immediately filled him with dark joy. The seed of antipathy his cousin had planted would bloom into his own humiliation; Manfred was now sure of it.
He was not yet sure how he would overcome Siegfried though. In terms of raw power, they were likely to be evenly matched. Siegfried’s ergaleion was versatile and dangerous, allowing him to control the earth as long as his mace was in contact with it. He was known for launching stone projectiles and raising walls of soil to obstruct opponents.
As Manfred daydreamed about how delighted his mentor would be to have access to Siegfried’s ability to shift dirt and what the old knight would do with such a tool, a soft knock sounded on their dorm room door. Before even a second strike could land on the door, Roland rushed over and flung it open. Volta stood in the hall outside with her fist still raised, an eyebrow raising to take its place as her arm fell to her side.
“Well at least you’re ready,” she said with the guarded voice of her male disguise. “We will go in haste, try not to attract attention.”
When she had finished speaking, Roland turned to look back at Manfred. Volta peered past him into the room. He set aside his book and stood up from the bed. Without a word, Manfred joined his roommate at the door. He could have sworn that Volta mumbled something under her breath as she turned to lead them away.
Despite what she had pointed out about his disinterest, he ultimately could not let such an opportunity pass him by. This might be the only time he was invited to meet someone of royal blood, even if her family had been thrown from their throne. He couldn’t help thinking about what Graham would say if he ever learned that he had skipped this excursion.
They left the dormitory and headed out into the deepening darkness an hour after sunset. Volta struck out at a fast pace, leading them into the forest at the edge of the property after checking to make sure that no one was observing them. Shortly, they left the path and their guide stopped to retrieve a bundle of clothes from under a nearby tree. She handed out two cloaks to the young men, donning a third herself.
The trio stole through the woods with relative ease, Volta and Manfred at least being skilled enough to enhance their sight with virya. Roland followed behind at a slight distance, picking his way carefully over root and around bush. After a short journey, they arrived at the edge of another large clearing occupied by a number of buildings rather similar in construction to those at their school. There was even another replica Colosseum. This was the campus of the National Women’s Knight Academy.
The glaring difference between this campus and their own was the great tower which loomed nearby. It grew from the back of a palatial structure that sat somewhat removed from the rest of the school. Volta pointed down the treeline, leading the others around the edge of the clearing to get closer to that lone mansion before they broke cover and dashed toward a doorway at the back of the building. The doors were unlocked and they slipped inside unnoticed.
“Camilla is waiting in her study. Leave your cloaks by the door here and follow me,” Volta ordered in a hushed tone. Though the interior of the mansion was lit by electrical lamps, the place was gloomy and had a feeling of emptiness. Manfred was reminded of the desolate tomb he had explored with Graham the previous winter.
If it was a tomb, it was one which had yet to be plundered by grave robbers. Everywhere he looked, he spied fancy art pieces, elegant rugs, and other signs of an opulent, forgotten era. Volta guided them through a small maze of rooms and up a grand central staircase. Finally, they stood before a darkly stained oak door at the end of a long hallway. She knocked twice and a woman’s voice called out from within, beckoning them to enter.
The room was surprisingly small, or perhaps it had once been large but now seemed so much smaller because of the massive bookcases lining the walls. These were filled to bursting not only with books, but also all sorts of oddities such as a stuffed weasel, a small anchor, and an arrangement of carved stones. Opposite the door, a young lady sat behind a massive wooden desk. She was their age, but looked like a child next to the oversized piece of furniture and framed by the high-backed leather chair in which she lounged.
She spoke in a cheery voice devoid of pretension, greeting them by saying, “I’m glad that we can finally meet. My name is Camilla Alessandra di Verona. Please, sit down.” She motioned toward three chairs set out in front of the desk.
Camilla sat sunk down in her huge chair, relaxed. She had long black hair which she wore in a solid braid that was draped over her right shoulder. Her face bore sharply defined features and spoke of vitality and intelligence, an impression bolstered by the fierce light in her green eyes. A dark green dress covered much of her body, but her exposed arms and shoulders were clad instead in a layer of well defined muscle.
Manfred could tell at once that she was a genuine product of a royal bloodline; despite that she was suppressing the flow of her virya, he could still feel a dense power before him as though her mere existence was collapsing space and pulling them toward her.
He realized suddenly that he had little idea of how to act in front of a royal heir, or even if such considerations mattered in this case. Roland was slowed by no hesitation of this kind and stepped up to the desk. He placed his right hand over his heart in the form of that archaic salute and announced, “Roland Ward, at your service. It is an honor to stand before you.” She smiled and bowed her head graciously.
“Good evening, miss. Thanks for having us,” Manfred said as he sat down. Roland took his seat after and Volta joined them last.
Camilla beamed at him and said, “I’m happy you joined us this evening. I’ve been wondering what sort of person you are since it’s rare to hear dear Volta praise someone’s skill as a warrior.”
“Excuse my asking, but what is the relationship between Volta and yourself anyway,” Roland asked.
“She is my adorable childhood friend.” Manfred noted a slight twitch from the older girl.
“You didn’t tell him?”
Manfred shrugged. “You told me not to go around blabbing about that.” Camilla and Volta took a few minutes to explain to Roland what Manfred had found out a few nights ago about the infiltrator. When they finished, he spoke up again to say, “Now you’ll have to excuse my asking, but just what in Cernunnos’ name is going on around here? We’ve got this guy pledging himself to a disgraced monarchy and now I find that the heiress to that family is set up in a castle over here with someone spying on our school.”
“What you’re asking, essentially, is if I lay claim to the throne of my ancestors and intend to take it for myself, right?” she responded. He shrugged again, not even entirely sure of what he was asking for other than some kind of clarity. She continued in an even voice, “Well, let me put it like this. My great grandfather was an unpopular ruler. When the governors rose up in rebellion against him, the masses stood by idly without much interest in helping either side. That being the case, I consider his overthrow legitimate.
“I don’t have any right to rule over this nation. My family lost that generations ago. Beyond that, I have no intent to force my way to the throne. What sort of tyrant would I be if I started another war just to do that?
“However, there are people out there who want me to do just that. They’ve wanted my family to do that ever since the Civil War. On the other side, the governors’ faction harbors individuals who want to eradicate my bloodline in order to prevent that possibility. The continued existence of the loyalist faction makes them feel that their fears are reasonable.
“From the moment I was born, I’ve been marked for assassination, and only because I can rely on a network of Loyalists who want to restore my family to the throne have I lived this long. In all likelihood, my father was killed by our enemies, rather than having died in an accidental plane crash as the records state. Do you begin to see where I’m coming from?”
He ruminated on what she was saying for some time. “So what you’re trying to say is that even if you have no intent to be some special person, a bunch of other people have already decided that you are. If you turn your back on those who support you, those who fear you will be waiting with daggers drawn.” He sighed. “What a crap hand to be dealt.”
Camilla burst out into bright laughter. “I don’t think it’s so bad, after all, I get to meet some interesting characters. Besides, I really do care for those who have remained loyal to my family generation after generation. Since they’re entrusting themselves to me, the least I can do is try to help them.
“There are some other perks too. This residence still belongs to our family, for instance. You know, one of my ancestors founded these schools and, originally, the queen was the grandmaster of the Women’s Academy with her own little castle here.”
“Do you even care about this stuff?” Volta asked him. “In fact I’m not sure why you came along anyway.” He shrugged and explained his curiosity. She still looked to disapprove of his choice, but that was nothing compared to the near constant glare she leveled at Roland.
His roommate, who had been quiet thus far, now asked, “Then, what would you have me do? Whether you are queen or nobody, I am yours to command.”
“I command you to drop all the formality!” she ordered with mock severity. “I collect friends, not servants.”
“By your will, m’lady,” he returned, his attitude now sarcastic.
“I would, however, like to know how you came by one of my ancestor’s oath-swords, and how you came to decide to use it.”
Roland turned serious again, starting his story with a hint of bitterness behind his voice. “One of my forefathers fought on the British side during the Revolutionary War. When the Verona dynasty began, he was awarded that sword as recognition of his service. Instead of using it, seeing as how the war was over, he kept it as an heirloom to be handed down to his son, and from him to his son.
“Thus it passed to my own great grandfather, who possessed it during the Civil War. By that point, our family had become farmers, no longer being strong enough to become knights. When the king put out the call for loyalists to rally to the capital, my great grandfather hid that sword and kept his head buried in the fields.
“Eventually, I came along and found where it had been hidden, bothered my folks until I had the entire story. After learning about what my great grandfather had done, I couldn’t stop thinking about what a coward he was and how he had brought shame onto our family. When I became aware that your family was still around, it was just sort of like ‘ah, this is how I can restore our honor.’”
Volta huffed and poisonously said, “But of course you didn’t spare a thought for what sort of trouble you might stir up for her by showing off in front of everyone.”
“I’m not concerned about that at all,” Camilla reassured Roland, who alternated his gaze between the two women. She fixed Volta with a firm stare. “Why don’t you give Mr. Fehl a tour of the library? I would like to speak with Roland alone for a time, then we’ll rejoin you before we say goodbye.”
Without a word, Volta stood and began to leave. Manfred followed her from the room, walking behind her in silence as they turned this way and that in the mansion. The detour brought them out onto the second floor of a large library. The center of the room was open above and below, allowing him to see the first floor beneath them and several more floors above which formed the base of the circular tower.
Volta cast her arms wide in a lackluster gesture toward the space around them. “There, it’s a library. Shall I explain what a book is for you?”
“I think I can figure it out,” he replied as he drifted toward a nearby display case. Several such glass enclosures ringed the central shaft of the library. Inside there were a number of artifacts, old pottery and arrowheads and the like. What caught his eye was a metal axehead that looked identical to one Graham had shown him months earlier.
She called softly after him, “Are you interested in these sorts of things?”
“No, I was just wondering if Graham had seen this stuff.”
Her reply came with a chuckle. “Who do you think donated half this junk?”
This took him by surprise. He asked, “Is that old man connected to the House of Verona somehow?”
“Only Apollo knows. He certainly hangs around this camp, but calling him an actual Loyalist would probably be taking it too far.” Volta flashed a smirk. “You know how mercurial he can be.”
He shifted the topic slightly, inquiring, “Actually I have been wondering how you got involved with him.”
Laughter rang out in the dimly lit library. “I demanded that he train me and give me a recommendation so that I could get into the academy with my disguise.”
“He knows about your secret? Damn, he never even gave me a hint, or any help preparing for our duel.” Manfred shook his head. “How did he react to your demand?”
“Very nearly killed me. The arrangement I proposed was that he’d do it if I could beat him, but he left me burnt, bloody and half dead. He blasted off most of what I was wearing, so he saw the mark on my chest and that was that. He forfeited on the spot and gave in to my demands.”
Manfred had been thinking about that mark for a few days. He had to ask, “That mark, does that mean you’ve also fused with one of those swords?”
Volta nodded, then began to wander off through the rows of bookshelves. After hesitating for only an instant, he set off after her and started to walk by her side. She quietly declared, “You know, you’re spiraling dangerously close to us. Roland, Camilla, myself. It’d be far better if you kept your distance. If you’re labelled a Loyalist, even tangentially, it could mean no end to the troubles you’ll face.”
He considered her warning. There seemed to be no anger, such as she had for Roland, behind the words. What she said was logical, and he had no trouble believing that there were still people so obsessed with the past that they would fight a sort of secret war in the shadows over these matters.
Still, what he felt was a compulsion to learn more about these people. He put on an apologetic tone as he said, “I think it’s probably too late for me. Would you mind if I asked why you have that sun splashed across your chest? I get the feeling your reason is quite a bit different from his.”
Volta stopped for a minute, turning to look deep into his eyes. Whatever it was she was looking for there, she began walking again when she had found it. “The two of us grew up in the same town. Little place out in the mountains where the royal family had a summer palace. After the Civil War, it became quite trendy among the other aristocrats living out there to antagonize them.
“In our time, that meant Camilla was bullied from the day she was old enough to set foot outside. I was just a neighbor from a minor noble family, but eventually I got tired of seeing it. I started to fight everyone that crossed her. That’s how we became friends.”
“It’s hard to imagine her getting bullied. I’d be terrified taking her on even with a gang of others.”
She laughed again. “She was very timid when we were young.”
“And so, eventually you got one of those swords.”
“I stole it, actually. She wasn’t really keen on the idea of me making myself such a marked target. But for me there was no question. I didn’t have what it takes to use my ergaleion and I would have just been deadweight to her.”
“Really?” he exclaimed, remembering what Roland had said about his own inability to use his ergaleion. “But what about the infiltration of the Men’s Academy?”
She chuckled, speaking with a measure of self-derision. “I knew she’d be coming to this school a year later and we have allies here, but we didn’t have any among the students of that school. I took it upon myself to be a spy, to look out for any plots against her hatching over there. There are a number of her enemies sending sons there. Another decision she wasn’t too happy about, but here we are.”
They continued up to the third floor, chatting as they wandered the quiet library. He told her of his own life, having realized that he had some commonalities with the two women. The two were fast coming to a sort of understanding and even started to joke with each other.
“You’re quite a bit different from my initial impression of an aloof loner,” he said to her.
“That’s funny, I had the same impression about you. I mean, I’m the academy’s darling warrior, but I thought you were just some dour fellow whose only friend is his roommate.”
He raised his hands in surrender to her sharp tongue, but let slip a counter anyway. “Not that the popularity does you any good, hiding as a man.”
“Eh, what do you mean? I can say the word and have girls flocking to my call!” She said with a cruel, teasing smile while spreading her arms out to wrap around the imaginary harem. He sighed and slumped his shoulders in defeat.
They had been alone, but suddenly they came across an older woman standing at a tall bookshelf. She swiveled on her heels to greet them as they turned the corner, showing an amused grin toward Volta. With a gentle, but mischievous voice, she remarked, “You seem to be enjoying yourself, little miss.”
Here, Manfred thought, was Camilla’s mother. She was recognizable instantly, having so many of the same features as her daughter. He bowed his head to show his respect as Volta replied, embarrassed, “Good evening ma’am.”
“Then, you are Manfred? Oh but of course you are, I’d recognize your mother’s eyes anywhere.”
“You know my mother?” he asked in surprise.
The woman nodded her black haired head vigorously. “Indeed, she and I were classmates before she, well you know.”
He was amazed by yet another new discovery about his parents. Timidly, Manfred asked, “Did you know my father too?”
“I met him a few times, but that’s all. He and my husband were friends…” she replied with a lingering sadness creeping into her words. “In any case, it’s nice to see her cute son after all these years. It’s dangerous for me to send mail out to people, so I’d be grateful if you said hello for me next time you speak with her.”
They said their goodbyes to the woman and retraced their path toward where they had entered the library. As they walked, Manfred tried to piece together his thoughts and feelings regarding all of these people he’d met. He decided that he didn’t really care if Camilla was planning some grand conspiracy or not, he felt pity for her, hunted since birth and fighting the world.
He felt an odd camaraderie with Volta. She was not motivated by some obscure sense of honor or idealism; she just wanted to protect the friend for whom she cared so much. Manfred wondered how his parents had felt about the Veronas, but as far as he could tell they were simply friends to Camilla’s parents. He thought that maybe one day he would ask Camilla’s mother to tell him what his own mother had been like in those far gone days.
Roland and Camilla were waiting for them on the second floor when they returned. It was clear that their talk had gone well; both wore pleasant smiles and stood beside each other at ease. Camilla waved as they approached and declared, “I’ve enjoyed this visit, but let’s get the three of you back home before it gets too late.” She turned to address Manfred. “If you’d like, I’d love to call on you again as a friend.”
He took the hand that she offered and firmly shook on it. “I don’t care about the Loyalist cause or whatever, but I don’t think you’re a bad person, so I will be your friend for now.”
“I should mention, I have lots of things to offer my friends. Let me know if you ever need anything.”
It took him a moment, but an idea formed in his mind. In a conspiratorial tone, he asked, “Does your castle here happen to have an armory?”
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