Garen stirred in his very uncomfortable bed, the sunrays hitting him in the face as they found their way inside the tavern top floor through the holes in the roof. His bright blue eyes blinked as he tried to remember exactly where he was, and in the right corner of the room he spotted his ever blood-stained clothes. It all happened, he realized. This wasn’t another tormented dream of his. The Shuriman Elder was dead and he did spend most of the night burying his body.
His heart began to race, and he moved to sit up, only to realize that another body was pinning him down. He turned his head and was met with a mop of red hair. Katarina lied on top of his chest. She was breathing through her mouth, her face looking completely relaxed. Garen let his head fall back on the pillow, and he sighed, closing his eyes.
At first, he had only meant to prove her that Demacian spirit wasn’t only a set of empty words. The Measured Tread was clear, and so were the laws of the Light Caster, the one true God. Demacian tradition and religion were strict when it came to oaths and vows. Victory for their allies, defeat for their enemies… But justice was for all. There was a no-tolerance code among the ranks of the military, and a man who couldn’t honor his promises was no man. Katarina had presented him a situation that put her in the position of a civilian who couldn’t defend herself against her own kin, but there had been no guidelines nor laws to follow since Demacians and Noxians never came down to any sort of agreement. The Demacian knight who laid his sword at the feet of another noble promised his protection and services in exchange of an honorable promise, while it seemed that Noxian women only swore when they would marry. Never before had it occurred to Garen that honor was a two-edged sword.
His eyes lingered on Katarina’s face, when she suddenly pressed the palm of her hand against his cheek and forced him to look away. “Don’t look at me when I sleep,” she mumbled.
“But you’re awake.”
The redhead yawned, stretching her arms and nearly punching him. “Were you thinking of how much you regretted it?” she bluntly asked.
“No,” he genuinely answered.
“But you broke a promise to honor another,” she reminded him, clearly referring to his previous engagement.
“A mother cannot promise anything in the name of her son,” Garen explained, his fingers brushing red strands away from her face. “Or is that how it works in Noxus?”
Katarina smirked. “No one promises anything in the name of anyone in Noxus.” She closed her eyes when he pushed her bangs away from her forehead, then asked, “Were you thinking about the old man?”
“Was it really necessary?”
“Dead men won’t tell.”
Garen nodded to himself, his gaze drifting to the ceiling. They lied in silence, refusing to get up and ride back to Kalamanda. There was only that moment, he told himself. They only had that moment away from their respective camps and city-states. There would never be another one – not in that life, or another.
“Tell me you won’t be resentful,” Katarina whispered against his cheek as she moved closer. “There will never be a place we will call home,” she reminded him. “We will not have any children, and we probably will never hold each other again.”
“You are an impulsive woman,” he whispered back, looking back at her, his arm around her shoulder. “If anyone is at risk of regretting anything, it is you,” Garen retorted, his thumb tracing the scar on her left eye. “I never wanted anything,” he said. “So, I won’t miss out on anything. My entire life,” he elaborated, feeling his throat tightening, “was never about me. It was about Demacia. You said it yourself.”
Katarina brought her own hand to his square jaw, and it looked so tiny against his features. “I lost everything that was about me,” she said against his lips. “Never question me,” she ordered, before closing the gap between them.
Her soft lips felt forceful against his, and Garen fisted the hair at the back of her head, rolling on top of her small figure and pushing her down, his other hand finding her rear. The redhead clawed at his back and bit his lower lip, her bare leg brushing against his side. Katarina’s eyelids were glued as she felt squished between the mattress and the heavy man above her. At the feeling of him parting her legs and pressing against her inner parts, Katarina let out a cry, her sore body aching, feverishly begging.
The ranger of Uwendale had one of the most beautiful houses, in Luxanna’s opinion. It was carved into a rocky mountain, wide nets pinned all around to prevent any rockslide from harming those who lived at its feet. The azurite eagle had built his nest right at the peak, and left his companion as soon as it was in sight. Quinn led her guests inside the moment the sun started setting, and the neighbors living in the nearby stone huts waved at them, offering them food and presents for the sake of conviviality. Luxanna’s arms were full of crag meat and wild flowers since Talon refused to accept anything from Uwendale people, but Quinn didn’t seem to be bothered by his rude demeanor.
Inside was a beautiful fireplace, a large wolf fur mat made for the guests who wished to warm themselves by the fire. Luxanna immediately knew her way around the house. Sauntering to the cooking corner, she carefully set the crag meat on a wooden board. She then looked around for anything that looked like a vase, and opened a water cask by the window to pour some in the container. The blonde woman then placed the wild flowers in it, and set the vase on the large table near the fireplace. The First Ranger smiled at her and thanked her for the help before taking off her helmet, soft dark blonde curls falling down her neck. Luxanna’s jaw dropped as she realized how beautiful the intimidating ranger was, with her honey eyes and chestnut hair that had been bleached by the sun, her fighter figure complimenting her even more.
“You can rest, Luxanna,” Quinn told her while she removed her boots. “I will cook the meat. There are water casks and a lavatory over there,” she explained, pointing at the door on the far left. “Do you need clothes? I imagine you want to wash what you are wearing.”
The younger woman nodded, slinking her way to the lavatory. Locking the door behind her, she was actually surprised to see a large mirror embedded in the stone wall. A small counter with drawers stood on the side, and when she opened it, she spotted several blades and smoothing tools that she figured were for nail care. Luxanna promptly removed her clothes, grimacing at the smell of several weeks of traveling. She grabbed one of the blades in the drawer and stood in front of the mirror completely naked, her fingers brushing through the tangles of her long, blonde hair. She grabbed a chunk of it, and cut her long tresses so that her hair would simply be shoulder-length. Blonde strands fell at her feet, and as they grazed her skin, she felt reborn.
It took about an hour for the young Crownguard to relieve herself and wash off the dirt of an endless journey. She covered herself in Quinn’s homely robes and walked barefoot to the main room, where the smell of sizzling meat caused her stomach to growl.
Talon was already devouring half the meat that Quinn had prepared for them. They had dinner in silence, Quinn casually asking how long they planned on staying in Uwendale, and what they were looking for. Luxanna didn’t dare speak. She had a habit of saying too much, Talon told her many times, and she didn’t feel like fighting over dinner, especially not in front of their host.
“They say you keep records, here in Uwendale. About the men that travel past your lands,” Talon answered, his mouth full.
Quinn scrutinized his face, the many scars that covered it looking familiar to her. “We do,” she replied with a lopsided smile. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Do you often see auburn-haired men around here?” Talon ignored her question. “Out of curiosity.”
“They’re very rare,” Quinn conceded. “But I haven’t seen any redhead around,” she answered, folding her hands in front of her mouth while resting her elbows on the table, her honeyed eyes never leaving his face.
The brown-haired man clicked his tongue against his teeth, looking for the glint of a lie in her eyes.
Luxanna watched their exchange with a weird feeling creeping into her chest, and she stood up. “Forgive me. But I would like to rest.”
Quinn smiled at the young Crownguard, and indicated a fur bed she had set up near the fireplace. “You are more than welcome to sleep, Luxanna. Your brother would have my head if anyone told him I didn’t treat you well enough,” she lightly joked.
“You know my brother,” Luxanna whispered, before curling into a ball on top of the furs.
“Everyone knows your brother,” Quinn simply stated before cleaning up the empty dishes.
Talon left his own chair, still chewing on a piece of black bread, and he kicked his companion’s shin. Angry blue eyes glared at him and he crouched next to her.
“Move. These furs are for two, and you’re taking up space.”
Luxanna stuck out her tongue. “You didn’t even wash.”
“You spent an eternity in there. It will have to wait for tomorrow.”
“I am not your friend,” he reminded her, glaring right back at her. “So watch your fucking mouth.”
Luxanna turned around and shuffled away as he settled facing the fireplace. She faced the other way, her eyes lingering on the bookshelves and then on the small table where Quinn had left a quill pen. Several papers were scattered over what seemed to be her desk. Her place was so cozy, she thought. It somehow led her to miss her own home, even though the Crownguards’ residence was anything but cozy. Their palace was tall, large and cold. More often than not, it was also empty. The only homey memories she ever had were all related to her uncle and brother. Garen would spin her around in the ball room as their uncle pretended to be directing an orchestra, and they both would make her promise she would never waltz with other men. She was their only princess, they would say, and other men were evil. She had been only six.
“What did you do to your hair?” Talon whispered the moment Quinn retreated in her bedroom.
“Long hair gets messy.”
“Gone were her long, jet-black hair and bright red lips,” he recited the tale she had told him.
“There is nothing dark about you,” Talon commented, bending an arm under his head to use it as a pillow, even though it wasn’t comfortable. “You are not some Black Rose only because you’re not reading Illuminator crap anymore.”
A toothy grin lightened her face upon realizing he did listen to her stories. Sometimes. “Talon?”
“Please, wash up tomorrow.”
The second door to the left cracked, but neither of them heard it, as sleep took over their bodies. Quinn tiptoed her way past her guests, her bright eyes examining once more the young man’s face. Several scars marked his forehead, cheeks and chin. Blades would have left more incisive and precise reminders, she thought. Claws had gored this man’s face. The similarities were faint, but they were there. The brown hair, the caramel eyes, the dimple on his chin – but the difference was that Talon was alive, while Caleb was dead. No one survived such a fall, she kept telling herself. She had to stop looking for her brother in every foreigner she met.
Quinn was about to leave when the fire cast a shadow over Talon’s bent arm, and the ranger frowned. A straight line softly curving inwards and surrounded by other curved lines was tattooed on his forearm. She had seen this before. The dark-blonde woman grabbed her boots and left her place, taking advantage of the silence that had fallen upon the town, and whistled.
Valor descended from the skies almost immediately, his wide, azurite wings casting twin shadows around her. His talons curled around her shoulder plates, and Valor lifted Quinn in the skies, the two of them sprinting towards the peaks of the mountain. Quinn’s hair freely slapped against her face as she wore no helmet this time.
“Val,” she whispered as they reached his nest, which was bigger than her own house.
The azurite eagle unfastened his grip when her feet hit the ground, and in a heartbeat, the eagle was gone hunting again.
The ranger walked slowly inside the nest, wood and leaves cracking under her feet, the smell of dried meat and old bones reaching her nostrils. Her amber eyes scanned the area, trying to adjust to the darkness around her, but the sound of a man coughing indicated her the right path. She walked up close, and tossed her water flask at the longhaired man who sat on a mop of azurite feathers.
“You visit me pretty late today,” he said with a smile, his eyes closed as if he had been sleeping.
“It seems I can’t bring you to Demacia City yet,” Quinn told him. “The King left for Kalamanda. And you were right; Talon came all the way up here to find you.”
Her prisoner’s smile widened, shaking his head. He slowly opened his eyes, twin emeralds piercing her soul. “How was it, Quinn?” he asked her. “Was it like staring at yourself in a mirror?”
Her distant look turned into a glare and her nostrils flared. “For the last time, Marcus. Tell me where you stole this,” she ordered him, reaching inside her pocket for a golden pendant. A hooded maiden rising from an altar was carved into it, and Quinn asked him for the umpteenth time, “What is a member of the High Command doing with a pendant that is donated only to the members of the House of our late Queen, Lady Catherine Spiritmight? I will never believe you happened to find it, or that someone gifted it to you.”
Marcus Du Couteau nodded, “You’re right. That was never my gift. Cat’s gift for me,” he whispered, resting his elbows on his bent knees, “was never here with us to begin with.”
Quinn’s frown intensified. “What are you saying?”
“It was only a moment,” he sighed, resting his back against the stones behind him once more. “One moment in the past.” He bent his arms and crossed his wrists behind his head, revealing the same tattoo that marked Talon’s skin.
Where blue collided with red, the Kalamandan skies merged with the horizon. Demacia rose from the Mogron Pass, its blue, white and golden banners sparkling like snow falling on crystal glass. Their white horses followed the pace of the drums, noble house crests following the emblem of those who represented the Light Caster’s will on Runeterra – the Lightshields. Supported by God himself and several major houses that drafted the fate of the kingdom even before it was created, the Lightshields rode to Kalamanda, stomping what was left of their mining consortium, and leaving the villagers in awe.
King Jarvan III crossed the entrance of Kalamanda first, clad in his golden attire from head to toe, his horse one of tallest and most robust that Valoran had ever seen. His crown was longer than the shape of his face, and the scowl that deformed his face revealed his intentions. The Seneschal of Demacia rode at his right, and the Captain of the King’s Guard at his left. His son, the Crown Prince, followed him into the village, his Sun Lance under his arm. High Councilor Vessaria Kolminye rode at Jarvan IV’s left, and if his mother, Lady Catherine Spiritmight, was still alive, she would have been riding at his right. The Crown Prince spotted one of his cousins at what was left of Kalamanda Hall, and he waved.
Mayor Anson Ridley bowed in front of his honorable guests and directed them to the Demacian camp which had been left in a bad state, the King noted. His wrinkled eyes narrowed upon not seeing Garen Crownguard at the entrance of the military camp. The man who was supposed to be the Captain of the Dauntless Vanguard stood next to his squire, his clothes dirtied by blood.
“Your Majesty wants to rest?” Ridley asked humbly, looking as if he was suddenly older than he really was.
“Let our horses rest and our women eat,” the King commanded, gesturing Seneschal Xin Zhao to dismount. “We will now hold a public meeting. You, my son and I, as well as the other representatives. Noxus, Piltover, Zaun – I want them all to be present.”
Ridley didn’t need to be told twice. As the Demacian troops gained possession of the entire village with their carriages, horses and supplies, Ridley and the Village Council helped the villagers set up long, wooden tables that would be adorned with embroidered cloth, the crest of the Lightshields casting a shadow over the Institute of War’s, and over every other city-state’s emblem.
It wasn’t long before King Jarvan III sat at the table like a judge on the Court throne, his son sitting at his right and Ridley grabbing a seat at his left. High Councilor Vessaria Kolminye accompanied the Demacian soldiers who found the corpse of a Noxian right where the fault point of the collapse was estimated. The two Demacian soldiers swore on their honor they were telling the truth, and then dragged what was left of the Noxian before the King and the crowd that had gathered around them.
Garen, who stood only a few feet away from the scene, watched in horror as his men pointed at the Noxian armor the dead man was wearing. His blue eyes immediately scanned the crowd, meeting Katarina’s own startled gaze. Mixed feelings crept inside his chest, his hatred for the Empire coming back full force, and for a moment he wondered if Katarina had heard anything about this umpteenth attack, sending aid only as a cover-up.
Even from her spot, Katarina could hear his thoughts out loud. She didn’t know, she repeated to herself. She never imagined. Her ears blocked out the part where Ridley officially granted the mining contract to Demacia, the summoners of the League of Legends nodding behind him, the journalist Nashahago taking notes of everything that was being said. Katarina fisted the hilt of the dagger she carried inside the sleeve of her jacket. It was ridiculous. No Noxian would dare sabotage the Demacian miners when their position was so favorable. Why wouldn’t anyone realize that, she wondered.
The clunk of an armor ripped her away from her thoughts and Katarina glanced at her left. A tall, large man with his full armor on glared down at her. His black eyes spoke volumes of the negative feelings he harbored for her, and his axe grazed the side of her leg as he dragged it behind him. His black, graying hair made him look even more frightening in the eyes of the average human being, but even Katarina wasn’t feeling at ease.
“Why are you here, Darius?”
General Darius smirked, eyeing the crowd behind them.
The ground shook hard as thousands of horses proceeded through the village of Kalamanda, men clad in emerald and gold brandishing their swords when the villagers wouldn’t move aside to let them pass.
“You fucked up, Katarina,” Darius whispered before halting his men and raising his hands and axe, drawing attention so that the villagers would stop panicking.
Fiora Laurent had already unsheathed her own sword, guarding her King, while Xin Zhao scanned the wave of Noxian troops invade the village and surround them. The Raedsels escorted an iron carriage dragged by large drakehounds that had Kalamandan villagers flee in horror. The dragon-like beasts were twice the size of a horse, and their small wings flapped against their scales. A man who wore the same colors as the Raedsels got off, a purple raven resting on top of his pointed cane. General Jericho Swain motioned two of his guards to open the back of the carriage, and the two Noxian officials dragged a prisoner out. The man was shaking and his right eye was missing. He cried at the sight of Beatrice, and Swain grinned under his collar.
Prince Jarvan IV slammed his hands on the table, standing up. “What do you think you’re doing, Noxian?” he roared. “Are you trying to scare us away, and terrorize the people of Kalamanda?”
The two Noxian officers kicked their prisoner so that he would fall on his knees before the King and his son.
“This man has confessed to the murder of the Noxian citizen in the mines,” Swain replied, “and the attempted framing of Noxus.”
The prisoner sobbed, bringing his hands to his face.
“Who are you?” King Jarvan III asked, raising his hand to have his guards sheath their weapons back in place.
“Thom Garvin, Your Majesty,” the Demacian answered, whining his pain away. “I obeyed the commands of your son, the Prince.”
The entire crowd exploded into chaos, soldiers pushing and punching each other, the long table was lifted off the ground as the King raged at the accusation, and Ridley fell to the ground. The villagers hurried their children into their houses, some others being crushed down the heavy armors of the soldiers that would stumble over them.
Garvin’s high-pitched cry was the only tormented sound that echoed through Kalamanda.