H A T R E D S
Written on December 28, 2020 (♑)
Content Warning: There's some descriptions of undeath and injury, although none of it is terribly graphic. Also, the events of this fic may contain an inaccurate depiction of in-game battle mechanics.
Author's Notes: Written for Minunlike; contains War of the Lions names
Ramza had tried many times over the past five years to find the thread that still tethered him to the boy at Ziekden. He knew he was still regarded as childish in some ways; even his companions still perceived some halo of innocence clinging to him. Agrias had once joked as to how he had a face nobody could take for a heretic’s: how they’d probably have to kill another cardinal—in front of the examiners this time—if they were to ever take an interest in him again. He had smiled, but he had not laughed.
It was good to dwell on other things, he thought. He was almost grateful at times that all his anxieties kept him from too much introspection. There was the war; there was the church; there was Alma. He drove himself to extremes of worry about her often, even when he determined there were battles more pressing than those that might secure her rescue. When her birthday passed and she was still gone from Lesalia and from Igros, he caught himself nearly weeping on the ride south. Nobody noticed. It was the stupidest instants that recalled her to him: her mispronunciation of old names she’d only read in books, the coil of her long s’s in letters from Orbonne, her chin red from late summer currants as though with blood.
As the long shimmer of a gray lake came into sight, however, he knew they were in Limberry, and suddenly Alma fled him.
Ramza thought with sudden clarity: “This is his home.”
Perhaps that was it, perhaps it was hate that had transformed him? He recalled to himself all those false hatreds he’d nursed as a boy: how he hated his playmates for slandering his mother, how he hated his mother for refusing him an almond cake, how he had hated almond cakes for making him ill. When a thought of Alma stabbed at him again it was of her laughing as she cut off his hair to make a moustache of it—of all his oaths of vengeance and bloodshed that followed.
Ramza had seen an embarrassing number of years before he realized his naivete. Even when he was squired, he had dwelt in an uncomprehending optimism that could not see hurts deeper than these. He had no understanding of what drives men to violence beyond some little confusion between them that should be righted. Even having been granted the name “Beoulve,” Ramza did not think he should ever be a knight sent to war. The Romandans and the Ordallians would all die first or else recognize the truth that he was not a wicked creature and they should not fight him.
He did move beyond it though. His hair grew long again. He was given a sword to cut down rebels on Gariland’s streets, and he learned that some boys were wicked.
It had been such a different time when they first had a chance to rest under the blue-bannered towers of Igros. He had thought Argath a harsh person then; he had perhaps even found in him some cause for irritation. However, that Ramza of sixteen had little capacity to feel anything but warmth for a creature who had been so hunted. Even then—even with Delita’s clear unease—it felt as though there were a common bond that united them. He had considered at the time that they might all become friends.
In those memories, he called to mind more faults than perhaps there had been. He remembered more offenses than perhaps had been made. Those instances of camaraderie were faint—effaced by all that followed—but he knew they must have occurred. They had all been innocents after a fashion. What cruelty could he imagine from a boy rubbing at the marks on his wrists, eyes cast upward as he tried to keep his tears caught within the cups of his eyes?
Delita had been the first to try to tend him, and he had flinched. Neither boy wanted to ask who had bound him before he escaped the fray.
Argath had claimed he could nurse his own hurts. It wasn’t until Ramza touched him, speaking in low tones the healing cantrip that the Heirals had taught him when they came out of the half-heathen countryside, that Argath had turned his head and gave one convulsive sob.
There was something that unnerved him about that sob for a long time after. It was as though he had betrayed the boy in hearing it. He remembered with clarity how Argath had glowered at Delita and Delita alone in the aftermath, as though the boy’s presence in that moment of pain was its own sort of affront.
Ramza nursed his memories and their accompanying hatred all along the road to the castle, and he felt terrible for it. Everything in Limberry seemed ugly—a mishmash of blight and fenland—and there was a nausea that swept over him as he finally approached the dark-walled edifice that towered over it all.
When Argath was before him again, it was a mistake.
He could not countenance it. It could not be real. The colorless husk of a boy before him seemed so alien to all his memories, that it seemed that some fiend or another must have summoned up some shape to plague him. He saw Argath Thadalfus, cold and grey, and he could not reckon him as the boy who had died in Gallione: not until he spoke.
“The way is shut.”
Even under the bitter dryness of a voice unused to speaking, Ramza felt as though the creature before him had stepped out of the hills of Mandalia in those winter months of his youth. Even as clearly dead as the thing before him was, it had that youthful arrogance of a child not yet aware of what soldiery would mean to them.
And perhaps, it was in that recollection—that moment that took him back to before the arrow and the fire—that made him hesitate. However, he had learned by then to push through hesitation. He had learned when battles were necessary. He knew better than to hesitate in a nest full of devils.
He charged forward shouting and Argath mocked him for it—of course he did. Ramza supposed that it might well be spite that animated his bones. In that first unwieldy lunge he felt fired with all the indignity of that long battle in the snow, of the resounding burst of flame and wood that had sundered him from his illusions and his family.
Agrias looked to him in the midst of the melee. She had been present for one revelation regarding him, and even though the clash of blades and talons cut off anything she might have to say to him, it was clear that she was waiting for another. Mustadio asked what in the Saint’s name was wrong with him.
Ramza continued to run the length of the undercroft, cutting himself off from any pause that might invite an explanation.
When he stabbed the boy in front of him this time, it was not like before. It was like cutting through the canvas of a quintain dummy wanting stuff. It did not balk and did not bleed. It was as if it were a ghost upon his blade.
He had wished he would have been wounded. He had wished to see him in pain. Even when things began to go sour—Ramza had wondered ofttimes where the wound in Argath had been, like a child who worries its injuries and makes them worse. His notion of the world back then was that nothing in nature stings or bites unless it is in pain, and perhaps he had wanted to feel that pain out for himself: to probe Argath’s injuries and know they were real.
It was never explained to him why Gallione did not return to Limberry its squire. Had he been asked to stay? Or had he been left behind? In the tumult of dragging a lost Marquis back to the castle gates, Ramza had never really considered that Argath should go home. The boy would doubtlessly have gone if bid to do so. Why had neither his brothers nor Argath’s liege saw fit to send him back to his homeland and his family?
Every sympathy Ramza had felt with Argath was long past, but he knew that Argath had had a family—that he had had a mother at some point. It had been the cause of that one instant of grief between them where Ramza knew he was in the wrong.
It had been at Igros, when the girls had been giggling over their brother’s first victories and there had been fresh persimmons come out of Warjilis. Somebody was singing a long ballad by Mamecco in the great hall, and the youngest members of the house and their companions had departed elsewhere to talk about whatever it is young people talk about.
It was then that Argath had asked after Lady Beoulve.
And Ramza, when he told him she had died, said it was years ago and not decades. He did not tell him as he sat softly beside him, quiet in that strange sympathy of somebody who knows better than to speak, that Lady Beoulve was not his mother.
They had been together there on the marble stairs outside the southern hall, and Ramza had looked at the floor the whole time, tracing with his eyes the endless, chaotic whorls of the cut stone.
“I’m sure she would have been proud of you—after these past few days for certain.”
Ramza had nodded. Both boys had smiled.
He had not realized, in the aftermath, that something had wounded him then—that there was a cut Argath had left unknowing. He had not felt the growing weight of disdain within his breast.
“So, your soul is bartered as well. Your grandsire would be proud.”
Ramza knew nothing of the elder Thadalfas. Until this past month, Limberry had been one of those mysteries on the western edges of the map: something he had asked after as a boy and come to regard as a place half out of the realm of fairy stories. How could he know whether a family here had rotted through? How could he even accuse?
Argath deserved to feel every twist of the knife that his dead body could not. There was a debt between them that one could never repay, he told himself—there was no way to make one creature suffer as greatly as all the suffering it had caused.
When Argath fell, eyes still full of wild, clouded-over loathing, Ramza kicked him off the edge of his sword and watched him crumple. It was only when the corpse hit the white limestone that Ramza saw what was and was not a scar upon it. Argath hissed—brown, dead blood bubbling up from his lips. As the animal shriek of one of the creatures falling about him drowned out the his shouts, Ramza fell to his knees beside him.
He could see the cut that Delita had once made, jutting into the side of his throat like a second mouth and clotted over with rot. He could see the remnants of his own lows, preserved in his flesh half a decade that he might confront them again.
He wanted still to rend him to pieces, to tear apart his wreck of a body and let his mocking tongue feed the crows somewhere. He did not. Ramza looked to all those inscriptions on his flesh, staring at him in accusation, and he thought himself pathetic.
Some memory etched in his muscles made him kneel and bade him whisper that same ancient prayer of all those years prior—when they were children not yet used to killing. He did not think at the time as to what he was doing, but the gesture—the wish, the chant—was not unkind.
There was something that thrilled through his soul—alternately triumphant and mortified by turns, when the life that drifted from him to Argath did nothing but burn away what animating force remained in his poor frame. The boy howled as he died again.
Ramza knelt over the ashes, and for the first time since the winter that had set an end to his childhood, he cried in that ugly way one does without regard for onlookers. When somebody finally asked him what was wrong, he said nothing, save that they had best push onto the center of the keep.