It had been a couple of weeks since Natsu and Gajeel had set out for Draconania. They followed the roads going southeast, stopping occasionally to gather food and supplies. The really didn't know where they were going other than the cardinal direction. The one thing that Natsu had forgotten to bring was a map, and they didn't have any money to buy one. Fortunately, Gajeel managed to swipe one off a rich bureaucrat who happened to be traveling through a small village out in the country.
Now after traveling so long on the country road Natsu found himself in a familiar setting. These woods in particular were very familiar. The bark, the smell, the texture of the leaves, all of it seemed familiar. It wasn't until he came upon a small stream with a little stone bridge that it struck him. The two of them had just arrived in Konvern.
Gajeel hadn't noticed that Natsu had stopped for a brief moment.
"What is it?" Gajeel asked as he looked back at the pink haired teen.
"We're in Konvern," Natsu said with a deep breath.
"I know, we entered Konvern a long time ago," Gajeel told him. "I remember these woods." He looked around at the trees. He knew this site all too well. This is where they had ambushed Lucy and her guard before he had met Natsu. "I've spent a lot of time out here, a lot of time."
Natsu was hesitant about going any further. He knew that this was place was hostile, this land was considered his enemies but that wasn't it; it was the memories of his life here that stopped him. He took a deep breath as he kicked his horse and started moving forward again. At this point, they would have to move east if they wanted to make it Draconia.
Natsu gazed up at those old stonewalls that he had spent so many years of his life behind. It was peculiar; the towers overlooking the gate didn't seem to have anyone on guard. The place almost looked like it was deserted. Natsu thought that perhaps it was. What purpose would it serve now? No king, no princess, and almost no army. A part of him wanted to stop by and see it, to see if anyone was still even there anymore or how much it had changed since he had left. Pay the place one last visit before he left it for good.
The two of them rode along the country road until they came upon a small inn. A dreary place it was. Moss grew along the moldy wooden walls and the dilapidated roof looked like it was about to collapse in itself. Outside was a corral with horses, more like trees that were cut down and then hammered together with rusty nails. This was definitely not a place Natsu was familiar with, but Gajeel seemed to know it. Natsu looked at the other Draconan with a timid star as Gajeel rode towards the entrance.
"What are you doing?" Natsu asked as Gajeel began to tie his horse up.
"I'm grabbing something to eat and drink," told him. "You coming?"
"You sure?" Natus looked the place over skeptically.
"Don't worry," he told him. "I'm more than familiar with this place. It may not look it, but it has good ale and all right food. At least it's better than eating fish and wild berries every day."
"Okay," Natsu sighed as he rode his own horse over.
He met Gajeel inside where the place looked a bit better than it would have appeared. The wooden floors were covered in hay, dirt and grime. There were tables aligned the walls, most of them were lopsided as what residents there had to hold their goblets to prevent them from tipping over. There was a young musician with a lute playing some music. The musician's voice was scratchy and the music without any rhythm. The men dining there appeared to be bandits and highwaymen. No wonder Gajeel was familiar with this place; it was full of the same scum he used to associate with.
"Gajeel is that you?" the bartender, with a thick brogue, asked with a wide, toothless grin. Natsu was curious about this man. He had an accent that the booy never heard before. Clearly he wasn't a native of Konvern. He didn't even sound like he was from any country in Fiore. It was so foreign and strange, thick and lyrical as though each word rolled off the man's tongue like fine scotch. "Aye boy, I ain't seen you in a fortnight. What've you been up to lately? Creating some 'avoc for the rich bastards up in the city eh?" He laughed, but then his face grew serious. "I heard your crew got the axe. Mighty sorry to 'ear that."
"Yeah, but those things happen. More often than not." Gajeel shrugged. "Can I get a pint and something to eat? And something for my companion as well."
Natsu looked around the small pub as a cold draft blew through the building. He found it peculiar since it was sunny and warm outside. Though as his eyes wandered he noticed that all the other eyes in the bar besides his own were focused on him and Gajeel. He began to grow uneasy. The men glared at him with eyes of malice.
Natsu looked down realizing that the reason all the men in the pub were glaring at him; he was wearing Nirvit armor. Whether or not it was because they were confused since Nirvit was sacked and destroyed in the war, or they thought he was an official soldier he could not tell. What he did know is that he did not like their eyes on him. Regardless, it wasn't like they could do anything to harm him or Gajeel, but he didn't want to do anything that would draw attention to them.
"Oi, Gajeel," the bartender said as he stared at the black hair teen's own armor. "Where'd you go and git that? That's some mighty fine looking armor you have on ya."
"Oh this?" Gajeel said as he patted his chest. "Stole it from some dead soldiers out west; Nirvit I think. Don't know who they were, or what they were doing out in the country but heck free armor is hard to come by."
"Where'd you get the money to get them all fixed up then?" The bartender asked skeptically. "They're all prim and proper like they've never been worn into battle. Unless you stole them of course? Cause if ya did I don't want no soldiers coming into my bar causing trouble." He said pointing a threatening finger at the black haired teen. "Or did you happen to enlist in some sort of military since we last seen ya?"
"Their throats were slit," Gajeel answered making the motion across his own neck. "Dipped these things in the river, give them a little scrub and they were as good as new. Hadn't had the need to get them fixed up or anything since I hadn't come across any conflict just yet."
"Aye but that's the problem," the bartender smiled. "Just yet. Trouble will find you soon enough lad, it always does. By the way, who's you're new friend here?" He asked looking over at Natsu. The pink haired teen snapped back to attention as he heard his name.
"Him?" Gajeel said pointing his thumb with a smug smirk on his lips. "He's a former slaved I picked up along my travels." Gajeel leaned in as the bartender turned his ear so the boy could whisper into his ear. "He's a Draconan just like me, so I thought I keep him around."
"Bloody hell," the bartender cackled as his eyes went wide. "I didn't know there was anymore of you! I thought you were all turned to monsters or dead! It ain't often you see a Draconan anymore; let alone two. Never thought I live to see the day. All right what'll you boys be having then? I know!" He spoke up before Gajeel had a chance to interject. "I'll have the misses fix you boys a nice plate of sausage and potatoes and maybe a pint to wash it all down with. Put a nice warm meal in ya bellies, cause the gods know I can't stomach the stuff meself!" He laughed at his own joke before he disappeared into the back.
Natsu looked back at the other men. By now they had returned to what they were doing before they had seen the two of them walk in. They must have heard the entire conversation, and since it seemed like Gajeel was well known around these parts it was clear that they no longer perceived the boys as a threat. Natsu remembered what Gildarts had taught him, and that was always to be vigilant and on his guard no matter what. Especially in hostile territory, and this place was as hostile as the battle field. Only here, he didn't know who was an enemy that was willing to kill him.
Natsu walked over to the bar and took a seat at one of the stools. Gajeel took a seat right next to him, just in time for the bartender to return with two pints of frothy ale. He set the mugs in front of the two teens before returning to the back to see how the food was coming along.
Gajeel grabbed his mug and began guzzling down the liquid within. Natsu brought it up, but noticed that the mug was still a bit dirty. Specks of green and brown covered the outside of the wooden cup. He took a sniff of the ale. It didn't smell all that bad, but there was a aroma about it that he didn't like. It was then out of the corner of his eye that he noticed that the other men in the pub were watching him. Reading his movements. He knew exactly what they were doing, since he knew that he would be doing the same thing if he were in their position.
"Just drink it," Gajeel grumbled as he slammed the mug hard on the wooden bar. "It won't kill you. Maybe make you a bit queasy in the stomach but that's the worse it will do."
Natsu examined the mug again, but he knew that he didn't really have a choice. 'Oh well,' he thought as he brought the tip of the mug to his lips and downed half the mug in one sitting. He let out a deep breath as he too slammed his mug on the hard wood in front of him. He shook his head. He had never had ale that strong before. Then again, he realized that he never had ale before in his life, except for maybe a few times. Those times only came when slaves managed to steal some from the stocks in the cellar or when Bob offered him some when he was older. But this stuff was strong and he could already feel it coursing through his system.
Natsu looked at it again and drained the rest of the mug in one final sitting. He exhaled as he began to feel a bit strange. His body was beginning to feel weightless and sense of drunkenness began to take him even though he didn't know it yet. Gajeel finished his mug as well as the two of them sat there. Just then the bartender returned to the front, this time carrying two plates of steaming mashed potatoes and sausage. He set the plates in front of the boys before grabbing the mugs and returning to the back.
Natsu nostrils filled with the scent of the potatoes. He grabbed his fork and began to shovel in mouthful after mouthful. By the time the bartender returned with the refilled mugs the young man had already finished half the food on his plate.
"Hungry aren't ya?" the man chuckled. "Well it's good to see someone around here actually enjoys me wife's cooking."
Natsu didn't respond. Instead he grabbed the mug and began to chug the contents within before he returned to his meal. Gajeel on the other hand went a bit slower, but he was just as hungry as his compatriot. The food was as bad as he remembered, but it beat eating wild fish that they cooked with their own fire for a change. And they actually had enough food to fill themselves. The last time Gajeel hadn't felt hungry was before the two of them left Magnolia. This was a nice change for once, even if the food itself was sickening.
As soon as they finished the two of them let out a sigh of relief. It may not have been gourmet but it managed to re-nourish them well enough. Though they didn't have much time before the door to the inn wretched open with a loud bang. All eyes inside stared at the entrance to see a young man with long, dark hair and eyes glaring at both Natsu and Gajeel. He wore Magnolian armor and a blue cape. He wasn't alone there were two other, much older men standing behind him dressed in the same attire.
"You two!" Gray shouted as he stormed inside the pub.
"Uh-oh," Gajeel and Natsu both snickered as the enraged Gray stormed up to them. Wakaba and Macao both stood in the doorway. They were a bit more reluctant to just barge in as their younger companion had done.
"Do you have any idea how much trouble the two of you are in?" Gray barked.
"I'm going to guess a lot," Gajeel quipped.
"You committed treason!" Gray exclaimed. "You're facing the death penalty for desertion. You'll be lucky if Gildarts can convince them to show you mercy. Even then you're facing life in prison, at best."
"Well that would be the case if we had actually committed treason," Gajeel said as he sipped from his mug. "As I recall we never swore any oath of allegiance to your commander or your country. We were free to go whenever we pleased."
Gray scowled at him as Natsu hit the counter ordering another drink.
"Well then if I have to take you by force, I will," Gray spat as he unsheathed his sword.
Natsu turned to him, accepting his challenge. Gajeel grabbed his shoulder and shook his head.
"Oi, you listen here boy," the bartender barked as he stumbled over towards the counter, pointing his finger at Gray. "You don't come in here and start up a ruckus. Not in my pub. If you want to take it outside do whatever you like. But either you sheath that sword of yours or I'm personally going to have to beat you something fierce. You understand what I'm saying."
"Gray," Macao called out to his young companion.
Gray and Natsu both glared at one another as Gray shook the sword in his hand thinking about what he was going to do. He could see that the bartender was still leering at him with a frustrated grimace.
"Gray!" This time Macao raised his voice.
"What?" Gray roared as he looked back at Macao and Wakaba. It was then that he noticed that all the other men in the pub were glaring at him with their own weapons drawn. Some had daggers, other had large knives and even a couple had swords of their own. Easily over a dozen men were sitting in that pub; every single one of them, including the musician was armed.
"You see the thing about bandits is that we may not always get along with one another, heck we may even stab one another in the back every once in a while, but the one thing we can all agree on is that we don't like soldiers and authority," Gajeel said. Gray stared at him as Wakaba and Macao were beginning to get worried.
"I think it's best you be leaving boy," the bartender growled.
"I think we should be leaving as well," Gajeel said as he placed the mug down and stood up. "It's good to see you again my friend. I hope you continue to take care of youself"
"Aye and it was good to see you again as well my friend," the bartender said nodding his head. "You have a safe trip; the both of you." He looked over at Natsu as he nodded his head in the boy's direction as well.
"Thank you," Natsu said as he too stood up. He pushed Gray aside as the two of them headed for the exit. The rest of the pub had sheathed their own weapons and taken their seats.
Gray watched as the two of them left. He sighed as he began to follow after them. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder as he looked back to see the bartender leering at him. "What?" Gray asked. The bartender extended his hand as his head motion to the empty plates and mugs. "Oh, you must be joking?" Gray said staring back up. The bartender only shoved his hand closer to Gray's face as the young soldier scoffed and placed the payment in the man's hand. Grunting, Gray turned around to leave as he was followed by a mass of snickers from the men in the pub.
"You are Macao correct?" Natsu asked as he and Gajeel walked over to their horses. "You're son was that boy, the squire back in Magnolia?"
"That was him," Macao laughed. "My boy can act a little over enthusiastic at times. He's heard so much about you. Imagine his surprise and glee when he finds out that I was told to work along side you."
"How are matters back at the front?" Natsu asked as he sat himself on top of his horse.
"Things have been well. We've been looking for you two for the past couple of weeks. Gran Doma was incredibly upset when he found out the two of you left the army and decided to go on your own travels. Especially in the midst of a hamor war," Macao told him. "Though I think that he won't be as harsh on the two of you as Gray says, seeing as how powerful and vital the two of you were in the battle. Though to bring you back he sent the three of us to track you down and bring you back to the camp. Gray because he blames him for allowing you two to leave with the horses, and the two of us because well . . ." He looked over at his partner.
"Because Gildarts knew the two of us were better suited at persuading the two of you to return." Wakaba finished.
"Really? Three men to go out and look for deserters?" Gajeel chuckled as he untied his horse from the corral. "I didn't know we were that important."
"Well if you consider the fact that the two of you incinerated half the opposing army just on your own, you can see why Gran Doma and the other commanders want you back," Macao answered.
"You sons of bitches!" Gray exclaimed as he burst through the doorway and stormed over to them. Both Wakaba and Macao exchanged glances of worry as they saw the infuriated young soldier dash at them.
"Actually we're the sons of dragons," Natsu corrected. "You got the wrong kind of animal."
"I don't care what you are!" Gray roared as he unsheathed his sword. "I'm going to fucking kill the both of you!"
"Gray, relax," Wakaba said as he grabbed the boy from behind. "There's no need to get violent." Gray struggled as he tried to throw Wakaba off. Macao rushed over to help his companion calm the young soldier down.
"Fine," Gray sighed as he realized there was no way that he could win. "But I want you guys to pay me back the money you owe me." Gray said as he re-sheathed his sword and walked over to Natsu and Gajeel and stuck out his hand.
"What?" Gajeel said as he looked at Gray skeptically. "We don't have any money."
Gray's face dropped as he began to grow even more infuriated as his face turned beat red. He reached for his sword but Macao and Wakaba pounced on him before he had the chance to retract it. He tried to shake them off but they managed to hold him firm until he finally relaxed.
"They owe me money," Gray snarled. "You bastards made me pay for your meal!"
"Oh, thank you for that," Gajeel chuckled. "You know it was great catching up and all but we really must be going."
"Oh no, no, no," Gray said as he shook his head. "We have a job to do and that is to bring the two of you back to the war front and to Gran Doma."
"Well we have our own mission to do," Natsu told him. "So we love to stay and chat, but we really must be going." He didn't wait for Gray to reply as Natsu kicked his horse and both he and Gajeel galloped down the dirt road.
"No, you two are not getting off that easy," Gray said as he ran over to his own horse.
"Gray where are you going?" Macao shouted.
"After them of course," Gray called back. He struck his horse and began to gallop after the two Draconans.
Macao sighed as he stared at Wakaba. "It looks like we don't really have a choice do we?" He folded his arms across his chest as they stared down the dirt road.
"No, it looks like we don't," Wakaba sighed as well. The two of them shook their heads as they began to wonder over to their own horses. "Do you think we'll catch up to them before they do anything stupid?" Wakaba asked as he lifted himself onto his horse.
"Nope," Macao answered. "But hopefully, we can get to them before they do too much damage."
"The better question is; do we want to be there when that happens?" Wakaba asked as he looked at his partner. The two of them sat there in silence, hesitating about moving forward.
"I think we should take our time," Macao finally answered.
"I concur," Wakaba said nodding his head.
With that the two of them slowly began to ride down the road.
After his escape from the battle Ivan made his way down south, hoping to finally reach Duke and the rest of the forces. As he made his travels he sent out a messenger pigeon to the South, to a man he had often communicated with known as Brain. He had sent him a letter at the first chance he got, in a small village out in the country. He told him about his travels and how he planned to arrive at a larger town further south and that he expected a response to a certain request that he had. He expected a reply as soon as he arrived. After all, pigeons travel a great deal faster than either man or horse.
When he arrived at the town, nothing more than a rabble of huts, houses and stone buildings surrounded by a tall stonewall. Ivan entered past the large oak wood gates, left open for travelers and merchants. The town's roads were just dirt lined with potholes and ditches. The buildings that lined the main road were just stone buildings that appeared to have been thrown on top of one another and held together with nothing but mud. It wasn't much, but Ivan was thankful that this town was under Junelle's jurisdiction so he would have no problems. In fact, Ivan noticed that apart from raggedy women and children, the only men were either too old or practically handicapped. Obviously the able-bodied men were drafted for the war and taken to the front. Maybe the some of same men that he had lost in battle belonged to this town.
He rode his horse to the nearest inn to see if his message had arrived. He tied his horse to a post outside and wandered in. He walked inside; the place reeked of stale whisky and puke. The moldy wooden floors creaked and the place was dim. Shattered rays of sunlight seeped through the dirty windows and lit up the inside just enough that Ivan could see a frail old woman standing behind the counter. She looked up him and smiled a crooked smile, shining her yellow teeth through wrinkled lips.
"Well, looky here," she coughed. "Looks like we got ourselves some royalty to grace us miserable bumkins." She looked him up and down. Ivan knew he was wearing fine robes and clothing, he didn't exactly have a chance to grab spare garments when he was fleeing from the battle. "What can I do for your highness," the woman teased.
"I'm expecting a letter," Ivan answered as he stared past her. "Under the name Iwan."
"Iwan?" the woman said puzzled. "We ain't got no Iwans up in this town. But hold on let me take a look for you." She made her way to the back room, disappearing into the back room. While she was gone he took the time to look around as he spotted two grimy looking men sitting at a table in the corner of the room; their eyes locked on him.
"Oi," one of them beckoned. Ivan ignored him. "Oi!" The man called again, this time raising his voice. "Are you daft old man? I'm talking to you." Ivan continued to ignore him as the old lady re-emerged from the back room, a letter in hand.
"Well what do you know, there is a letter here for Iwan," she said as she handed the parchment to the old noble. "Now would you be liking a room to spend the night?"
"No, thank you," Ivan said smiling at her as he examined the letter. "I don't require anymore of your services."
He tucked the letter into his pocket as he turned around to leave. If he was going to spend the night, it would have to be in a better place than this. He liked that Brain remembered to go by his staged name, he didn't need anyone knowing his true identity, especially not in these parts. There's a lot of things people would do to get their hands on a noble, let alone the Hand of a King. He knew that it may not always seem like such a drastic change in name, Ivan and Iwan, but he was always able to trick people before, and it allowed older alliances to remember him. Just like Brain. As he took a couple of steps forwards he felt a hand grab his shoulder and pull him to face the man that had been calling to him before.
"Hey old man," the urchin hissed through his gapped teeth. "Don't you ignore me. I just wanted to ask you where you got those nice, fancy clothes." He said eyeing Ivan's wardrobe.
"I had them custom made and tailored by the finest hands in all of Konvern," Ivan said as he shoved the man away from him. "And I really don't want them to be soiled by the likes of you. So, if you wouldn't mind, please don't touch me and return to your drinks gentlemen."
"Well, look who thinks he's just King Duke," the man said as he reached out and pulled a knife from his belt. "You best be apologizing for what you've said sir. You hurt me feelings."
"You really don't want to be doing that," Ivan told him.
"Oh yeah," the man said threateningly as he took a step towards the noble, "why not?"
Ivan grabbed the man's wrist and twisted it. The man yelped in pain as the knife was flung from his hand and landed on the wooden floor. Ivan then pulled out his own knife and slashed the man's wrist. The man cried out in pain as he fell to his knees. He leaned over in pain as his companion backed away in fear holding his hands up indicating to that he meant no harm.
"Now look at what you've done," Ivan said as he pulled out a rag and wiped it off. "You got my knife all dirty." He lifted his foot and kicked the man in the face as he rolled over in pain.
Ivan turned around to leave. He walked out of the inn and breathed in the fresh air. It wasn't any better but at least it was better than the inn. Ivan pulled out the letter and began to read it. His lips curled into a sly smirk as his eyes wondered through the paper. His eyes looked up as he saw a rather thin man standing out front in the street looking in his direction. The man wore a long blue cloak as his face was shrouded behind the cowl.
"Are you Iwan?" the figured asked.
Ivan was satisfied to hear that this man did not know his name. If Brain could be counted on one thing, it was keeping secrets.
"Yes, and you must be the man Brain mentioned in his letter," Ivan said a she reached over and shook the figure's hand. "It is a pleasure to meet you."