The feather quill pressed against the parchment sheet, countless thoughts running through the Frigate Lieutenant's head. In the dimming candlelight, the many scratches of the pen waved faintly through the peaceful dorm.
Mother and Father,
I will be home soon.
~ ~ ~
To a child raised in the farming hills, the Morava Arrow would have been envisioned as a monstrous snake. The roar of the engine shook the domed station as it emerged from a shivering horde of mist. Heads turned, eyes widening as the silver train entered the building, its massive drivers screeching along the rails. Radomir looked up from an article he was given by a paperboy, detailing the events of the latest dogfight over the Ciúin border. Plastered on the page was a photograph of a destroyed Sidhe aircraft, a group of Perunis airmen observing the wreckage. Around him, countless conversations were carried over his head, none of them making the least bit of sense. The paper bit between his teeth, he drifted through the cluster of passengers impatiently waiting for their ride to come. Men clad in Air Corps and Kopno uniforms brushed past the officer, medals glimmering in the winter sun. He averted his eyesight from the awards and slumped into a bench, the duffle bag slipping from his grip and plopping onto the cobble floor with a dull thump.
He pulled out his watch and clicked open the cover, the rhythmic clicking of the second hand music to his ears. It was half past eleven; the Arrow was due for Istria County in an hour, stopping for refueling and for the conductors to get a well-deserved break. He clasped it shut and back in his pocket, taking the paper from his mouth and skimming through the story. According to the strategists, the border was a vital region for the Corps, as it lay on the southernmost coast of the Sidhe lands, hundreds of miles away from Perunis. To their luck, a base was constructed close to the battlefield and was easily overrun by the airmen.
A sudden rattle to his left drew Radomir from his reading. A young girl stood beside him, a large can wrapped in paper adorned in their nation's colors in her pudgy hands. She wore a Kopno costume, no doubt one of the many children volunteering for the War Fund Crusade.
"Good officer," she began, smiling and revealing both front teeth missing, "would you be willing to donate to our troops fighting in the foreign land? With your contri... help, we can guarantee every soldier goes to sleep with a full belly and a warm blanket!"
The glow in her hazel eyes could have melted the coldest of ice. Smiling, Radomir reached into his bag, pulling forth a small sack and grabbing a few bronze coins. "Anything for Her Empress's forces." He slipped the coins into the slot carved into the top of the can, patting her on the head. Before setting her off, he took out three more, gently grabbing her hand and putting them in her palm. "And these are for you and your generosity."
"Hvala lepo, gospodin!" her bright cheeks turned a dark pink as she bowed her head and skipped off to her other customers.
A chuckle arose from the officer as he turned his attention back to the paper, his eyes catching the reminder on the upper right corner for Her Empress's sixty-third birthday next month. The rest was merely reports of the staggering inflation from the constant spending on the war.
A cracked voice boomed across the walls. "All aboard for Pomurska County! First call for Pomurska County!"
Radomir pulled out his ticket and schedule, running a finger down the list. A four hour ride to Pomurska, followed by a twelve hour ride through the Skender and Dnipo counties, and a final two hours into Istria before reaching his destination. He shuddered at the thought of sitting and staring out the window until the end of time, feeling his bottom grow sore because of it. He begrudgingly grabbed his bag and stood, labored steps trailing towards the massive machine.
The assistant conductor, a middle-aged man with a glassy eye, smiled upon Radomir. "Good afternoon, sir officer. And where are we headed?"
Istria County," said Radomir, his eyes entranced by the glass orb. He fumbled with taking out his ticket.
The conductor chuckled. "That's on the other side of the country, son. You're in for a long haul."
"Unfortunately so." Radomir coughed, clearing his throat. He handed his bag to a young man, who lugged it off to the luggage car.
"Get on in here, then. We'll be departing in twenty minutes." Chuckling again, he moved aside for Radomir, shepherding him down the aisle. The officer eased himself into a cushioned seat beside the window, the warm leather enveloping around his shoulders and legs. He let out a sigh of relief, setting his elbow on the windowsill and watching people file into the various cars. Amongst the crowd, he spotted the little girl, her tin can outreached towards anyone nearby. She looked to the train and saw Radomir, who offered a smile and waved. The toothy smile reappeared and she waved back, mouthing a 'thank you' in his direction. Within seconds she was off again, rattling the tin.
~ ~ ~
The snowfall in the western part of Skender had been replaced with a dense fog and heavy downpour, bullet-sized raindrops mercilessly pounding the earth. A massive landslide had tumbled onto the tracks, boulders and thick mud preventing any means of travel for hours. To everyone's relief, help came in the form of a passing ferry on the close San River, which allowed all the crew and passengers a free ride until reaching the next town. To Radomir, he would have preferred staying on the train; ferries were a curse placed upon his stomach. Give him an airship flying into a tornado, or even a ship braving against a historic storm! Since childhood, once he stepped onto the boat, his knees turned weak, his head dizzy, and his belly churned like a witch's brew. He buried his face into the goose-down pillow of his small room, weak hands wrapped around his sides, moaning.
An officer of Her Empress's proud navy, falling sick on a simple ferry
what a disgrace, he thought, forcefully swallowing a lump in his throat. He was behind schedule already, his three weeks of leave dwindling down by each passing minute. His home only sat a day and a half away; the thought of returning to the manor sent shivers down his spine as he imagined the blazing fires and hot meals set before him, not to mention a long-awaited reunion with his family. A feeble yet wide smile burst on his lips and he rolled onto his side, green eyes envisioning the story he would tell about his encounter with High Lady Branka and promotion.
The ferry pushed through the remainder of the San River, then north up the wide Mirna River cutting through the Uvs Mountains, its peaks mirroring that of a dragon's claw. This marked the entrance into Istria County, and had Radomir not confined himself to his room he would have leapt overboard and splashed to shore. The land was rich in never-ending hills and titanic trees wrapped in dark green moss along the riverbank. Specks of silvery sunlight reflected across the rippling surface, inviting any to tread into the deep water and seek treasure. Along the shores, black storks poked at the water with their spear-like beaks, keeping a wary eye on the passage boat as it floated down the river. Those not native to Istria gawked in amazement at the strange wildlife, some demanding for an artist to emerge and sketch the creatures.
Radomir was suddenly jolted awake as the ferry slowed to a stop, toppling off his bunk. He moaned, using the bedframe for support as he stood, his buckling legs pressed against each other. His skin was pallid, the back of his neck soaked in cold sweat from the wretched journey. The thought of stepping onto solid earth was enough motivation to throw his bag over his shoulder and wobble out, feigning an injured leg to the passengers in hopes of hiding his weak stomach. It seemed to have done the trick, as they moved out of his way and allowed him to be the first to get off. He nearly fell to his knees and kissed the dirt like it was the most extravagant lady his eyes ever had the grace of seeing. Instead he continued his façade and limped down the road, countless smells of fresh baked goods and meals coiling into his nose. Of all the places in the nation, the fishing town of Balk was the only place to acquire food that would normally be placed before nobility and Her Empress for a reasonable price.
"Looks like the little tadpole finally grew his legs."
Radomir turned, his eyes widening at the tall figure before him. The man was only inches higher than Radomir, sporting a light green uniform decorated in ribbons and two medals. From his shoulder hung a golden aiguillette with green trimmings, and resting on his belt was a rapier, its scabbard wrapped in white leather.
"I should have known it was you on that ferry," said the man, chuckling as he adjusted his shako. "No other man I know waddles like that on a boat!"
Radomir forced a smile. "It's good to see you, too, Yasen
"Come on, try to sound a little happy when your brother greets you!" He slapped a hand on Radomir's back, smacking the air from his lungs. "I haven't seen you for two years; you haven't changed a bit."
"Neither have you, it seems." Radomir covered his gasps for air. He looked up at Yasen. "Are
are you going back to your camp?"
"No, I actually just got here around the same time you did. I finally got my commander to give me about a month's worth of leave. Psh, save his life from the fairy folk twice and the only thing he rewards you with is a pat on the cheek while he gets another medal pinned to his ass." Yasen scowled, his nose scrunching as if he caught the stench of a skunk.
The young officer laughed a bit, covering his mouth. "S-sorry
! I have about
about three weeks of leave, then
" He trailed off, furrowing his brow, then continued. "Oh, I'll tell you and our parents later
! I want it to be a surprise."
"Ah-ha, keeping secrets from your dear brother, I see!" He grinned, ruffling Radomir's hair.
!" Radomir burst into laughter, fighting to pull Yasen's hand away. "That tickles
The brother pulled away, ignoring the stares from the citizens. "It's really good to see you again, Radomir. Come on, I'll rent us some horses for trip home."
~ ~ ~
Radomir gripped the reins tightly, muttering as he felt himself slip left and right from the black mare. The horse snorted and stamped the ground, turning once to bite the young officer's hand for pulling on her mane to stop from falling. Yasen made it look as if it was child's play, mounting his horse with one swift leap without causing his shako to tip forward. Deep down, Radomir envied his brother for joining the Kopno's Calvary; the men there literally lived day and night with the horses, bonding with them as if they were a loved one or the most loyal of hounds.
"Have you heard from the others recently?" Radomir wrapped his feet around the stirrups.
Yasen shrugged his shoulders. "I got a letter from Lasota a month ago; he's been joining the air raids and got promoted again
I haven't heard from Goran for a long time, but that's not surprising, and rumor has it Krastyo will be joining Her Empress's Royal Flight."
Radomir's eyes flickered. "Where did you hear that?"
"The C.O. at my camp; I overheard him talking to that ass-kissing adjutant of his." Yasen tipped his shako back. "Father's going to be ecstatic, if it's true."
"I didn't think Father had such an emotion," chuckled Radomir, "It's been so long since I saw his stone lips turn into a smile."
"I think the last time I saw him even grin was when we were children."
Nodding, Radomir looked to the road ahead, the path and its surrounding remaining the same as if he had never left. "When
do you return to the front?"
"Depends on how well the men do. If the fort is captured, I'll remain here. If not, I'm ordered to lead a brigade and cut through to the country's heart. Their defenses are falling sharply as of late."
Radomir fell silent, eyes falling to his saddle. Of all his brothers, Yasen had seen the most combat thus far, charging headlong into firefights without any regard for his own life. However, such was the life of the cavalry. The oath of the riders rang true in their blood; nor blade nor king shall stand in our way, we fear no man or god, the pounding hooves of our beasts trample the mightiest of fortresses and ride to glory.
"However," Yasen continued, scratching his chin, "Word's been going around that their king is ailing and not long
with any luck, once he'll pass on, they'll surrender."
"What of their prince?" Radomir asked. "He's stated that he will refuse any and all attempts at negotiations, and it sounds like he'd much rather burn his country than give in to us."
"That fat lard with legs? You've been reading too much into our propaganda, dear brother. Prince Ciar's words may be as inflated as he is, but he is by no means loyal to them. He's nothing more than a coward and will sell out his father in exchange for his own head." Yasen scrunched up his nose. "The press here only makes him sound like a challenge."
If his brother wanted to sound annoyed he did a good job of it. Anything concerning the press or propaganda sent him on a rant that would last hours. What stemmed this loathing was a mystery to Radomir and the other siblings, but no smart man would think of asking and risk their ears falling off.
"Ah," said Radomir, shifting on the saddle, "have you heard from that one girl you talk to longingly about? The Duke's daughter?"
"Who, Valda? Pfft, you forget to write to a woman one time and she threatens to have you demoted to a private! I'm done trying my luck with her. There's an Archduke's daughter I have my eyes on, now, though. Great body, perfect smile, soft hair, the list goes on. When I get back I'm going to invite her to Her Empress's ball."
"You're going? I thought only heads of nobility and their first sons could go."
"Well, yes, but that doesn't mean I can't snag an invite myself with her father. Play my cards right, and I'll be asking for her hand, even."
Radomir smirked. "I wish you luck, then."
"What about you and Alicia? Are you two going smooth?"
"O-oh, ah... not anymore..." Radomir flustered, clearing his throat. "She grew bored and impatient of my absences, spouting that she wanted a man who would be at her side in an instant... th-this all happened when I was transferred to the naval yard."
"What a pity." There was a wave of false sympathy in Yasen's tone. "Ah well, she was a witch to begin with. Women who are too clingy shouldn't even be graced with a wave of the hand."
Their horses trotted up the final hill and turned on the dirt path lined with browning pear trees, scarlet leaves falling from the naked branches and fluttering to the ground. Through the gaps of the wooden fence was an elongated wooden house, the servant's quarters, a small billow of smoke puffing from the brick chimney. To their right stretched the plowed fields for the coming spring, the farmers piercing the ground and carving out small ditches to drain away the coming rain. The manor stood at the far end, casting a looming shadow down the road. Vines of ivy and schisandra berries clung to the stone face, arching above the many windows and climbing slowly towards the roof. Above the front door was the seal of their family crest: a black swan spreading its enormous wings, its neck craned down as if challenging any who dared invade.
Yasen smiled. "Isn't that the most beautiful sight you've ever seen, little brother?"
"More beautiful than the fairest of maidens, I think," said Radomir, smiling as well. "I wish we could never leave."
"Hah! If that happened, Father would throw us out and lock the doors. He told Lasota that he adores the silence in the house now that we all left the nest."
"And I'm sure Mother would beg to differ." They rode to the stables and he watched in envy as Yasen slipped off his horse. Show-off. "Ah
do you think
The cavalry soldier grinned, as if reading Radomir's mind. "I'll be with you in a moment." He cooed his horse into the stables, undoing the saddle and taking his time to brush him down. Radomir scowled and Yasen chuckled. "Sorry, couldn't resist
"Oh, just help me
Yasen grabbed his young brother and was about to yank him from the mare's back when a loud voice turned their heads towards the manor, where a portly man now stood, dressed in a black and white doublet and black breeches with light brown stains circling the kneecaps. Before the two could speak, the man hurried over to their side, nimbly leaping across puddles on the tips of his toes, a hand holding down his feathered hat.
!" He halted feet before them, taking a moment to catch his breath and straighten his cover. "Y-you have arrived!"
"Bolelut!" Yasen nearly dropped Radomir. "By God, it feels like forever since we last saw you."
"I feel the same way, my lords." He beamed and brushed off his doublet. "Your mother is in the manor."
"And our father?" asked Radomir.
"I'm afraid he left some time ago, sir, on business. He should be returning tonight, though." His hands were loosely clenched and hanging to his sides. "Here, allow me to take your bags
Yasen held up a hand. "Nonsense, Father would be furious if we treated you like a pack mule. We're perfectly capable to lugging our belongings some hundred feet."
Radomir nodded in agreement. "You've done enough work for us, Bolelut. Let us help ease the load!"
The elder servant's cheeks turned pink. "You are too kind, my lords!"
"Hush, now away with you, and don't announce us to our mother," said Yasen, smirking. "We don't need her running outside and crying a river."
"Y-yes, my lord." Bolelut bowed low, his doublet scrunching over his belly. His face turned red and he quickly pulled it down. "I apologize, but I must be going. I must head to Balk for the dinner tonight."
"Ah, of course. While you're at it, you can take these horses back. We have no more use for them." Yasen handed him the reins. "Be careful of the black mare; Radomir was a brute to the poor girl."
"Of course, my lord, it will be done."
Nodding, the brothers bid farewell to their friend and jogged towards the manor, keeping an eye out for the lurking puddles. Yasen gripped the doorknob and put a finger to his lips, a mischievous glint sparkling in his eyes. The younger brother stifled a giggle and slipped inside first, quietly setting his bag on the stairwell and gesturing Yasen inside. Shutting the door as quiet as possible, Radomir crept to the kitchen, peering from the far corner of the entrance, his eyes catching the back of a tiny woman peeling a stack of vegetables, her silver hair wrapped tightly into a bun. He furiously waved Yasen over, gesturing to the woman with his head. She was humming, shuffling from a large, woven basket to a metal bucket filled with scraps. On the table was a small box with the Kopno emblem on the top and a sealed envelope underneath.
Yasen grinned at his brother, the finger on his lips once again. "Stay right there," he mouthed, sneaking into the kitchen on his tip-toes. He turned and twisted his body, as if passing dangerous traps in an ancient temple, crouching low as he neared the elder. He turned to give one last smirk to his brother, then stood and wrapped his hands around her middle, easily hefting her into the air. Radomir's ears were close to splitting from her shrill scream as she kicked and elbowed her culprit.
"Oof... M-Mother, ow! Mother, please...!" Yasen managed to set her down, jumping back to avoid any other blows. "G-goodness, and they say our men are warriors!"
"Wh... Yasen?! Oh, you fiend!" She glowered and smacked him with a small towel. "You are going to put me in an early grave, you...!"
The older brother held up his hands in defense. "If anyone here is the fiend, I'm looking right at her! You're cruel to your own children, a regular witch." He smirked and yelped as she continued her attack.
Alena Stanislav's face turned brick red. "A witch would know better than to raise a bother like yourself; you're worse than Krastyo and Goran combined."
"Bah, I'm an angel!" Yasen huffed, flicking strings from his shoulder.
"I'd love to see evidence of that
" Alena pushed a lock of hair from her eyes, glancing over to the doorway. Her mouth fell open, the color fading from her wrinkled skin. Yasen saw this and his expression softened, bringing an arm around her shoulders and gently led her to Radomir, reaching a hand towards his brother.
"I brought you a gift." Yasen removed his shako and tucked it under his arm. "A lost little puppy."
Radomir cleared his throat, weakly smiling and stepping forward. "H-hello, Mother," he choked out, hesitant hands raising to hug her. His knees were seconds from giving in when Alena pulled him towards her, embracing him tightly. He returned the action, the urge to bury his face into her shoulder erupting in his head. He shut his eyes, the smile growing stronger on his lips. His mother's heartbeat vibrated against his chest, the flow a melody to his ears.
"Welcome home, my sons