When Gangrel had endured the storm during the three-week ocean journey, he thought he knew what cold felt like. But that chill was nothing compared to what he experienced now. They had landed in Regna Ferox a few days previous and the Northern climate had not been kind enough to spare the Shepherds from the usual late-year temperatures.
"It's official," he muttered to himself. "I don't need to die to find what my post-mortem eternity will be like."
"What do you mean by that?"
Flavia's voice rang clearly in the silence that swallowed the marching army. Gangrel's scowl deepened, and for a long moment, the only sound was that of snow crunching underfoot.
"Well?" the East Khan prompted. The trickster huffed in frustration, watching his breath, white and cold, drift away in the frozen air.
"What I mean is that I'm in hell," he snapped. "Fire and brimstone I could handle, but this..."
The trickster kicked up some powder, glaring at it with pure hatred. Basilio started to laugh.
"What? A little Feroxi snow? Wait until you see a blizzard!"
"Who knew the almighty Mad King of Plegia could be so easily defeated?" Flavia remarked. "Just put him somewhere chilly and he'll give anything to leave!"
"I'd like to see you try surviving the Plegian desert for a week," Gangrel snapped, folding his arms to preserve what little warmth he could.
He'd been a bitter mood since their landing in Port Ferox, greeted by a light snowfall and a glacial wind. The daily marches seemed far longer than they actually were, and to top it all off, the Feroxi Shepherds were rubbing it in that they were native to this frozen wasteland: they all still dressed in their light, everyday armor, refusing to bundle up in cloaks or cluster into groups for warmth as the other Shepherds did. For Naga's sake, Basilio was shirtless!
Flavia seemed to find that funny as well.
"Have you forgotten? We already HAVE survived the great Plegian desert!"
"Not at the height of summer," the Mad King snarled. As the Khans roared with laughter again, he returned his gaze to the well-worn snow track at his feet. The silence returned as the two loud Feroxi ceased their guffaws, a silence that was just as still and cold as the frigid air attacked Gangrel from every possible side.
It wasn't just an eon, but several before the crunchy footsteps slowed and stopped at long last. The sky was no longer the dull gray of morning, but the brilliant, wintry white-gray of early afternoon. As the Shepherds gathered into a large circle, Gangrel made his way to a lone pine, standing under its snow-laden branches, arms crossed tightly, waiting for orders.
"We covered some good ground today," Chrom announced, his voice clear in the crisp, quiet air.
What ground? the lone Plegian thought snidely. All I saw was snow.
"We'll set up camp here," the Exalt continued. "By this time tomorrow, Fort Ferox will be in our sights!"
This last proclamation drew a few cheers from the weary crowd, which the Mad King refused to participate in. The Shepherds then split into small groups and hurried off to make camp as fast as humanly possible, a few of the future children pausing to throw chunks of ice at one another.
Suddenly, a small ball of snow slammed against the trunk of his pine, spraying Gangrel's face with frozen slush. He whirled around to find the perpetrator, but was unable to due to a sudden downpour of snow from the branches above his head. Entirely buried, he swore violently. Tiny pieces of ice burned his already frigid skin, half-frozen water seeping into his clothes.
Regna Ferox was, most definitely, hell on earth.
The icy wind swooped down upon the tiny camp, freezing anyone who dared step away from the large campfires the army had lit. Gangrel sat as close as he could to the flames, shivering every time the wind struck his back. Cold was in no way the proper word to describe the sensation the trickster experienced; somehow, the temperatures had dropped even lower than before, and all thoughts of heat were driven away by the merciless chill and the constant feel of snow underfoot.
"Struggling with the climate change?"
The Chon'sin accent heralded Yen'fay's silent arrival to the campfire. The silver-haired swordsmaster seated himself on the log next to the Mad King, staring into the flames rather than the man he addressed. Gangrel scowled, shifting away from the intruder, refusing to reply.
"It is nothing to be ashamed of," Yen'fay continued after a frozen silence that had nothing to do with the snow and ice. "Each traveller must adjust to places unlike his homeland."
"Oh, and I suppose you're referring to yourself, aren't you?" The trickster spat. Yen'fay glanced sideways, his face serious.
"You mock me," he noted softly. Gangrel laughed once, a short, bitter sound.
"Haven't you noticed yet? That's all I'm good for anymore: a humility check for the army that overthrew me." His voice became more heated and he continued, anger and hurt pulsing through his veins in a familiar rhythm. "Not a weapon, a soldier, a person or a king! Just a pathetic imitation of the powerful ruler I once was! A forgotten name in the depths of history!"
Gangrel cut himself off. He tightened the grip around his upper arms, his long nails digging into the skin. He hadn't meant to say so much, but he supposed it was because he had been sharing his tent with the man for a while since they picked him up that he had lost his usual silence. Yen'fay had never voiced a single judgment in all that time, a wordless sentinel, always watching, never commenting.
But that didn't mean he could just tell him anything! Blast it all!
If the former general had any opinions on what Gangrel had just (accidentally) confessed, he kept them to himself.
"Are you not a man?" he asked, though his tone told the Mad King that he already had his own thoughts on the matter. Gangrel rolled his eyes.
"For someone so observant, you're surprisingly obtuse," he muttered.
The new voice, deep, rough, and loud, was a most unwelcome one. Not the most, but close to it.
Walhart the Conqueror stepped into the firelight.
"You may not be the Yen'fay of this world," the giant said to the now silent swordsmaster, "but you seem hardly the appropriate person to be saying such things."
"Oh, like you're any more qualified," Gangrel scoffed. Walhart did not even deign to face him.
"Do not make light of this, madman," the Conqueror replied shortly. "It is not his place to determine the worth of a man."
"Oh wake up, why don't you?" Gangrel snapped. "Chrom defeated you; your empire is in ruins and you have nothing left except your life. You're in the same boat as all the rest of us."
Walhart slowly turned to face the Mad King, his expression dangerous. Gangrel did not flinch. He didn't care that Walhart was a full head taller and clad in thick, heavy armor. It didn't matter: the Conqueror wasn't the one in charge, and he needed to know it.
Unfortunately, he was not very happy to hear it.
"I am not, as you say, 'in the same boat'," the tall Valmese said, his tone harsh. "You are a failure to your country. I lead my people to victory, through a glorious conquest! What have you done? Torn a continent apart, and turned your people against you."
"Can you not hear yourself? That's exactly what you did! Half of Valm wanted to see your head on a pike!"
"That may be, but they would have never had the opportunity to turn their backs upon me!"
Walhart and Gangrel glared at one another. The glacial wind blew harshly, sending sparks and cinders up from the campfire. The crackle of flames filled the air as the chilly breeze died. And still, the two men kept their eyes locked.
"We are not the same," the Conqueror repeated, folding his arms. Gangrel narrowed his eyes.
"No we most certainly aren't," he agreed frostily. "You were a conqueror, building an empire, leaving destruction and chaos in your wake. I was a king; I ruled my people, unlike you who marched ever onward."
"Yes, I dare! We may have been very different when we held our power, but now we are owned by the Ylisseans! We fight their battles, conquer their enemies! No matter how it is said, we are now another one of their dogs of war, because we failed! I failed to unite the Ylissean continent just as you failed to conquer it! We have nothing: no followers, no kingdom, no authority...just nothing!"
The Mad King's chest heaved as he finished his rant. He didn't remember getting to his feet, but Walhart's worn face was much closer than it had been before. The older man regarded Gangrel for a moment, then nodded, as if satisfied.
"I see your legendary rages are as terrible as they say," he commented dryly. "It is small wonder that you were proclaimed to be insane by those who feared you."
And with that blunt observation, Walhart left the fireside, vanishing into a whirl of fresh snowflakes. The trickster watched him go before he became aware of the sudden lack of feeling in his fingers and the rushing cold wind chilling his face. He returned to his seat before the flames, holding his hands out to warm them.
"You are very lucky," Yen'fay murmured, his voice hardly audible between the wind and the popping of logs in the fire. "Very few have faced Conqueror Walhart's
rage and walked away unscathed."
Gangrel snorted derisively.
"Stupid overgrown lobster," he muttered, rubbing the feeling back into his hands. The silver-haired swordsmaster did not reply, keeping his gaze solidly upon the Mad King's profile. Gangrel looked up into the sky, which had shifted from a pale gray to stormy in the past few hours. Little white snowflakes tumbled from the clouds, freezing whatever they touched. The trickster sighed, feeling a pang of longing for the warm sands of Plegia, the omnipresent sunshine that warmed his homeland. He turned his face into shadow as a single icy droplet traced its way down his cheek.
Frosty daggers assaulted him on every side. Every inch of his him shook from half-suppressed tremors that wracked his body every few seconds. There was no escape, despite the irresistible heaviness of his eyelids; the unrest had spread deep inside, chilling his heart with panic and worry.
It did not matter how tightly he curled up under the blanket; it did not matter that no part of him aside from his face were outside his cotton cocoon: he was freezing cold and nothing could change it nor comfort him.
Gangrel rolled over on his sleeping pallet, shivering violently. There was no hope, no rest, no relief from this torture: it was endless, its deliverer unfeeling and merciless. His breath hitched in his throat, and his eyes stung as complete despair washed over him.
And then something touched his freezing body, something thick and soft. The edge of the chill vanished, and he loosened his tight grip on the thin cotton blanket.
Warmth, as certain as a summer morning, spread over Gangrel's body, wiping away all memory of cold and discomfort. His eyelids flickered open for the briefest of moments and he saw a pale hand withdrawing from his blurry sightline. Before he could contemplate what it all could have meant and whom that hand belonged to, his eyes drifted shut of their own accord, sending the Mad King straight straight to sleep.
Wintry morning light filtered through the tent's canvas, so white it was almost pale blue. Gangrel inhaled deeply, stretching lazily under the warm blanket. He was so comfortable, he could have gone back to sleep. But something was off: he shouldn't be this relaxed; it was freezing cold outside...
Gangrel sat bolt upright.
Yen'fay was already awake, seated upon his sleeping pallet, eyes closed in meditation. The trickster looked down at his lap, at the unusually thick pile of blankets. He ran his fingers over the soft wool of a blanket that was not his, curious who was insane or suicidal enough to give up their warmth and comfort to him.
"It belongs to Nisha."
The sudden sound of Yen'fay's voice made Gangrel whip around in surprise, his skin stinging in the cold air. The swordsmaster hadn't moved a muscle, but he seemed able to sense what was around him because he continued.
"When she made her rounds through the camp last night, she looked in on us. You were shaking, so she brought you the extra blanket."
The trickster stared at his tentmate, wondering if he was playing with him. He found nothing with his observations, and glanced down at the blanket again.
The tactician had seen him suffering, had watched him shaking from the cold, and instead of turning away...she had helped him.
Gangrel continued to stare at the blanket; Yen'fay finished his meditation and left the tent without a single word. And still, the Mad King just stayed there. He was stuck on the thought that Nisha, of all people, would continue to help him. Why? He had threatened her, terrified her. Yet she still...
Gangrel's gaze shifted upwards slightly, landing upon the a bundle of fabric in the corner of the tent. That bundle held every earthly possession he owned: his cloak, his two knives, and his tiny money pouch. Or at least, that's what it usually held; ever since the ocean voyage, it had contained something else too: a small, folded piece of paper. He had refused to open that paper, refused to read it, but at the same time had found himself unable to get rid of it. So he had hidden it away, out of sight but never quite out of mind.As if in a trance, the Mad King stood and crossed the tent, kneeling before the small bundle. His hands reached out and extracted the page. He stared at it for a long moment, tracing the edges with his fingertip. Then, he unfolded the creases, exposing the words written there for all the world to see.