The night watch of Fort Ferox stood silently atop the parapets, looking out into the dark. It had been quiet in the area for weeks, but reports of Risen were reaching even the cold North, setting everyone on guard. Nobody wanted to get snuck up on by half-rotten corpses.
"What's that?" one of the soldiers on the Western wall asked, pointing at some movement far below in the snow. Another watchman squinted into the dark, trying to see what his companion had seen.
"Looks like a man," he said.
"At this time of night?"
"What are you gawking at?"
A third guard had joined the pair, and the other two hastened to explain. The new arrival nodded to himself as he turned something over in his mind.
"Has anybody seen that Plegian around the South wing recently?" he asked. His companions glanced at one another, then shook their heads. As the figure drew ever nearer, the third guard leaned over the edge of the fortress.
"Hold! Declare yourself!" he called.
"Open the blasted gate!" came the irritable reply. The soldier smiled.
"Let him in."
Far beneath them, ankle deep in the frigid snow, the Mad King of Plegia dashed in through the slowly creaking gate, through the doors and into the dry, snowless fortress. He didn't stay standing there long, resuming his walk and moving deeper into the rooms and corridors, not stopping until he was safe in his quarters.
Gangrel sat on the edge of his bed, rubbing the feeling back into his hands. Thrice-blasted snow! He felt frozen nearly to the core, and more fatigued than he'd ever been in his life. For a moment, the trickster almost wondered if his long errand had been worth all this effort.
Of course it's worth it, he rebuked himself harshly. Even if it doesn't work, it was still worth it.
From his belt, Gangrel brought out his tiny money pouch and set it on the bedside table. It was far lighter than it had been five days ago, but what it now held was more precious than the gold it had replaced. He just hoped it didn't end up worth less than he hoped.
When Gangrel woke up the next day, he wondered for a moment if he hadn't slept for as long as it felt like. It was still dark outside, so why did he feel so rested? The trickster sat up and felt his sore muscles protest a little as they stretched. A faint smell reached him and he looked for the source. There, on his bedside table, was a plate loaded with food. It was then he understood: he'd slept through the rest of the night and straight through the day to night again.
And he was starving. Without hesitation, he dug right in. The dinner was cold, and the bread was a little dry, but it was still better than the strict rationing he'd done on his long journey to and from the village. Gods above, that had been an absolute torture, almost as bad as the snow he'd had to climb through endlessly, hour after hour.
The food vanished in a few minutes, and Gangrel was still hungry. Slightly disappointed, he reset the plate on the bedside table. Something small clattered to the floor and he paused. Dropping from the bed to one knee, he felt across the cold stone until his fingers touched a small piece of paper, taking it up, he blindly searched for a match, striking it to light the candle once he had it in his grasp. In the flickering orange, neat letters came into view and the trickster slowly looked over them, unsure if they were meant to be good or bad.
Gangrel, I know it's been a long hard journey for you these past few days—wherever you went—but whenever you're rested enough, I would like to talk to you about this little vanishing act you've pulled. I'll be waiting in my room as usual. Please come by. Nisha.
The Mad King flipped the paper over to see if there was anything else, but the back was blank. He looked over the note again, trying to read the tone of the words rather than their meaning. It was brisk, official—like a summons to court or something. Perhaps she was angry. Gangrel hoped she wasn't, but he could see how she would be. He read the last lines again: I'll be waiting in my room as usual. Please come by.
His gaze slid to the light money pouch resting beside the candle. Setting the letter aside, he took up the leather bag, holding it tightly. The items he'd travelled for five days through snow and cold for was hidden away inside. Perhaps he should just do it now and save himself the tension of waiting for the perfect moment to arise.
A sudden nausea suddenly struck him. What if his effort went unrewarded? The thought of failure was enough to make him sick. He wouldn't be able to handle it if it all went wrong.
The doubts were not new—he'd been suffering them for his entire journey to and from the village—but the queasiness made him want to back down and keep his true motivations for disappearing a mystery. His heart began to race and he began to feel a little shaky.
"This is pathetic," he told himself, but his heartbeat was so strong and fast his voice trembled in rhythm. "C'mon, grow a spine you dastard."
Though he couldn't stop his hands from shaking, he pulled open the money pouch and tipped a small object into his hand. He felt its cold form pressing into his fist as the trickster forcibly steeled his nerve. He was going to do this tonight, and nothing would stop that—success or failure, pain or relief. All the same, he sent up a small prayer to the gods, begging them to give him the strength to see tonight through.
Nisha was working at her desk when Gangrel silently entered the room. She turned when the door gently shut behind him and set down her pen.
"There you are," she remarked briskly, folding her arms. "Finally awake."
"Tactician, if you want to yell at me, just get it over with," the trickster said, crossing the room and leaning against the desk, determinedly not looking at her. Nisha got to her feet, clearly struggling to conceal her rage. And then, whirling around, her anger exploded out of her.
"What were you THINKING?! You disappeared for an entire week without any warning! I was worried sick! And then I learn from the Fort Guard that you talked about a village where you claim to have business and with your past, how could I not think that-that—! And I couldn't talk to anyone about it! Five days of hearing everyone speculate where you'd gone and why and I couldn't say anything! What is WRONG with you?!"
It was almost physically difficult to just let her shout at him, to not defend himself against these hornet stings to his pride. He tightened his fist around the small object that was getting him in so much trouble, once again doubting the wisdom in bringing it. Nisha paused in her tirade, breathing heavily, then began again.
"Why, Gangrel, why?! What was so important that you would just vanish without telling anyone?!"
The Mad King did not waste any time trying to articulate; in place of the verbal reply she was no doubt expecting, he simply raised his arm and slowly opened his fist. There, in the center of his palm, was a golden ring, shimmering a little in the faint candlelight.
The tactician fell silent. When Gangrel glanced over at her, he saw she had covered her mouth with her hands, her eyes wide.
"Gangrel," she breathed, her voice tiny compared to before. "What is that?"
"You know exactly what it is, tactician," he replied, in the same quiet tone. The dark-haired woman shook her head, closing her eyes. She looked ready to protest, but the Mad King stepped forward and touched her lips with his index finger, halting her words.
"Nisha, just let me say my piece. I'm not sure I could if I wait any longer."
Slowly she nodded and Gangrel looked at the ring in his hand, steadying his nerve—and sending up one final prayer.
"You know my past deeds—and my disposition—and you know perhaps better than anyone that I am not a loving man. No, that's an understatement; I couldn't even be considered a kind man by any standard. But despite my best effort to spare you of my darkness, I cannot resist any longer."
He dared look up again for a moment and saw that the tactician had clasped her hands to her chest, looking uncertain. He swallowed and pressed on, determined not to stop until he had finished.
"You are everything I'm not: kind, respectable, strong, and, above all, able to forgive. I'm a flawed, weak man who can't even face up to the full evil of my actions. Your life and mine should never have even touched, but they have, and I couldn't help being attracted to your light, your purity. At first, I didn't know what was happening, but after we stopped speaking...I wanted to hate you, but I couldn't because I cared too much about you. I wanted you like I've never wanted anything before. It's far too late for me to stop now, and though you deserve a man far more honorable and better than I could ever be, I can only ask that you accept me to stay by your side for the rest of my days—however long that may be."
Gangrel did not dare chance seeing her expression now, and instead dropped to one knee before her, extending his hand, palm up, the golden band glinting against the shadows of his skin. He heard her step forward and felt the tips of her fingers gently press on his shoulders.
"You walked for five days through the snow...for me?" she whispered.
"I would walk through Hell if you asked it of me."
"What have I done to deserve that?" Nisha asked, turning his face upward with the lightest touch imaginable. "I'm no angel; I've made plenty of mistakes—and that's not counting the ones I can't even remember making."
"Does it matter?" Gangrel replied, staring up into her perfect eyes. "You make me a better man just by being there for me. If that didn't earn you my loyalty and respect, then nothing would.
The tactician rested her warm palm against the Mad King's cheek, and he closed his eyes, savoring the contact while preparing his heart for a shattering blow. Nisha didn't speak for a long while, just stroking his face as of in contemplation. And then she rested her unoccupied fingers on the back of Gangrel's upturned palm.
"...If I were to accept," she finally said, a smile in her voice, "I'd need proof you've changed—and will stay changed."
All the doubts—all the fear and worry—fell away as Gangrel's heart swelled with sudden relief. He opened his eyes and gazed at her beautiful face as a smile broke out on his lips.
"I swear it up and down! I will jump through whatever hoops you deem fit! With you at my side, I'll want for nothing... I could never be tempted by the darkness again. You'll make me a better person, my lady; someone who might just make the world a better place. But I won't neglect your happiness, either. Don't you worry! I'll love you like no man has ever dared love a woman in the whole history of the world!"
"And if I don't accept? What would you do then?"
The trickster didn't let the question dampen his wild hope as he replied.
"I'll follow you to the ends of the earth—be your slave until the day I die. Whether or not you deem to be mine, I will be with you always unless you will it otherwise."
The tactician smiled wider as he spoke, her whole face lighting up. Gangrel knew what she was going to say before the words even touched her lips.
"I never imagined this would happen, but now that it has...you don't know how happy you've made me. So...yes. I would be honored to be your wife, for as long as we both live and long after. When this war is over, I will be with you and you alone."
The Mad King couldn't stop the laughter that burst free of his chest, released by a mixture of relief and joy. And once it started, he couldn't stop. Nisha joined him in the mirth as she dropped to her knees and embraced him, which he eagerly returned. They stayed like that for what felt like a very long time, but could have been no time at all: arms around one another, unable to contain the happiness of the moment. Finally, quelling the laughter, Gangrel took the ring and—with her hand in his—slid it up the third finger of her left hand, officially claiming her as his own. He placed his hands on either side of her face and pressed his forehead to hers, gazing into her bottomless eyes.
"Thank you Nisha," he murmured. "My life now belongs to you. Every shattered fragment, every bloodstained inch, all yours."
"And I will do my best to repair those fragments and wash out those stains," she promised right back. "Just, let me have a few days to adjust to the idea of our...engagement before I go out announcing it, alright?"
"As you wish, my lady," Gangrel replied before he brought his mouth down on hers for a long kiss.
Chrom was finding it difficult to focus on the battlefield. Every minute, or so, he kept glancing over his shoulder at the young thief he had just accepted into the Shepherds in the midst of the battle. It wasn't that he was afraid of the boy breaking ranks and fleeing at the oncoming risen—he'd already proven himself a quite competent against the undead armies, actually—but he was concerned all the same. The boy had no memory of where he came from, though all the evidence pointed that he came from the future like Lucina and the others, and all he could remember was the name of his mother—a reputed tactician, he claimed.
As the Exalt turned back to the battle, he saw his son Inigo step up to face the Griffon Rider that had been commanding the attack. As the undead creature looked at the young man, it's red eyes gleamed brighter.
"Must kill...future...child..." it groaned as Inigo readied his sword. Chrom felt a jolt of anxiety as he once again looked at the new thief. If his mother was who he expected it to be, then...who was his father? Who could have possibly given him that bright red hair?
"Chrom, come look at this!" Olivia cried as she ran into the back of the ruins. Glancing over his shoulder once again, the Exalt followed his wife's call.
He would deal with this mystery later. But he certainly would deal with it.