Prince Leo chewed his lip. It was a nasty habit, one that had stuck with him through thick and thin alike, much to his disgust. It was childish, especially when he would emerge from his room (or tent, as it so happened to be lately) with a bloody lip, causing more fret than he ever deemed necessary. Add Niles’ constant tutting about how adorable he looked and it was enough to make Leo overly conscious of the act in an attempt to break the pattern.
Now, though, waiting in the dark and quiet woods for a retainer that should have been here long ago, even awareness of the act couldn’t stop him from gnawing on his lower lip as he waited with Niles in silence. He could feel Niles’ one blue eye staring him down, boring a hole into him, waiting for his liege to say something, to give a command.
“He wasn’t far behind us to begin with,” was what Leo settled on instead.
Taking this as his cue to speak, Niles replied easily, “No, m’lord, not this far behind.” It was just a quick scouting mission that Corrin and Xander had decided to send the youngest prince and his retainers on. It was a common maneuver for the Nohrian army, to send a small troop a half day’s march behind the rest of the group to ensure they weren’t being tailed; Niles ahead of Leo, Leo ahead of Odin, Odin bringing up the rear, ten minutes apart from each other. They were to rendezvous here, where the road split a few miles north of the boarder. They had done it before. They all knew the spot well. Odin wouldn’t have gotten lost.
It had certainly been more than ten minutes, right? It had been at least three times that long. Yes, certainly, much too long to not worry, really. Leo scanned Niles’ face for an answer to this, not wanting to voice it, too busy still chewing on his bottom lip, but Niles told him nothing, gave nothing away. Something clenched in Leo’s chest, memories of his eldest sibling, younger then, holding back tears when he received news of the fate of his first two retainers. The way Xander’s breath had hitched and his voice had cracked, the way he’d been shattered in a moment, the way he moved a bit more carefully after that day, watched more carefully, breathed more carefully. The way Leo promised himself he would never lose a retainer as his brother did, would never look so weak. Wordlessly, Leo stepped back up onto his horse’s left stirrup and flung his other leg over, adjusting the reigns as the horse shuffled at the sudden mounting. “I will go back along the road to search.”
Niles barely let his liege finish his sentence before he spoke up against it. “M’lord, please, allow me. It would be my honor to—”
But Leo was shaking his head, hastily wiping his bleeding lower lip with the back of his hand. “No, I need you to stay here at the rendezvous point. We’re still half a day’s march from my sibling’s army and I don’t want us to lose any ground.”
The look on Niles’ face told Leo clear as day that he knew the plan made no sense, but he still begrudgingly complied, nodding his head low. “Yes, m’lord.”
“If I’m not back in an hour, go on ahead and tell my sibling, and I’ve no doubt they’ll send a party back to assist.”
“My lord, I respect your command, but wouldn’t it make more sense if I alone went searching first, to save time?”
Xander’s voice cracking that day, a tightening in Leo’s chest back in the present. “I’m sorry, but what I said is an order. Is that clear?”
Niles frowned, but bowed his head again without hesitation. “Yes, m’lord Leo.”
Leo shortened his reigns, dug his heels into his horse’s sides, and took off.
The road was clear enough and fairly easy to navigate, and though they were going faster than they had been before, it had helped that his horse had navigated this trail once already this night, and there were few hiccups. All the while, Prince Leo scanned the sides of the road for any sign of a struggle, listened closely for a rustling, the sound of swords, yelling, anything. Odin wasn’t quiet in anything he did; everyone knew that. But he was also an expert fighter, one of the best Leo had ever seen, which always seemed to surprise people based on Odin’s dramatic and occasionally childish disposition. He had clearly seen battles beyond his years, though whenever Leo brought up the point, Odin was always quick to change the subject, dropping his act for a mere second. A mere second was always enough for Leo to see something behind those fiery green eyes, though, something hardened and cold, like hot steel plunged into water.
Leo suddenly found himself out of the woods as he came to a halt in a grassy meadow. The grassy meadow, he remembered, dropped off suddenly hundreds of feet into a canyon that spanned at least eighty feet across. And there was—ah, yes, there it was—a rickety rope bridge, just barely wide enough for Leo to have guided his horse over earlier that night. In the light of the moon, now high and bright in the sky, the hanging bridge seemed to glow silver, swinging idly in an unheard wind.
And a figure, standing on the other side of the bridge across the canyon. Silver, tall, slim, so still that for a moment, upon seeing it, Leo found himself thinking back to the ghost stories that his maid used to tell him before bed, ones he demanded to hear but then regretted later when he lay awake in bed for hours, swept up in images of appearing and disappearing silver men in tattered clothes with empty eyes. But, no, no, this was Odin, no doubt about it. Leo could see that ridiculous cape of his billowing from here.
As Leo dismounted his horse, though, it was clear that something was wrong. The man on the other side of the bridge stood perfectly still, and though it was dark and Leo was a good distance away, he could see that Odin had had no reaction to his liege’s presence, focused instead on, presumably, the bridge in front of him. Guiding his horse forward a few steps, Leo called out unsurely, “Odin?”
It was so uncharacteristic that Leo felt another pang of fear, and struggled not to start chewing on his already-mangled lip again. “I’m coming over there,” he called, not expecting a response this time as he busied himself with throwing his horse’s reigns over a nearby tree branch. His horse grazed lazily as Leo started though the meadow to the bridge. He reached it quickly and did not pause before starting over it. As the wooden planks beneath him began to creak, only then did Odin move; Leo saw him take a few panicked steps backwards, nearly falling. His mouth was moving but Leo couldn’t hear what he was saying. The prince kept pushing forward. Half way, three quarters, and then there, stepping off the bridge mere feet away from his retainer. And, still, no response. His forged eyes were distant, unseeing, and his mouth was moving quickly but no words escaped. In a different context, this would definitely pass as some sort of “trance state” of Odin’s, who would remark loudly, “Fear not, my Lord, for through years of training, I have mastered the art of summoning and then dispatching these dark trances that sometimes behest me. Through them I learn the darkest secrets the universe has to offer, which I will now relay to you!” Only this was not that. This was something very real.
“Odin,” Leo started in a leveled voice. Nothing. “Odin, I’m going to touch you now, is that alright?” Nothing. What else was there to do? Prince Leo reached out and carefully placed both his hands on his retainer’s shoulders.
Instantly Odin seemed to return, though maybe it was only a part of Odin that did, the same part of him that was steely-eyed and hardened and now very much afraid. He looked at his liege in panic, going rigid under Leo’s hands. “My Lord! I—I—I—” It turned into a series of stutters off a tongue that was customarily so elegant.
“It’s alright,” Leo prompted, not removing his hands yet. “You don’t need to speak. Just—are you alright?”
A silly question, and Odin had no idea how to answer it, opening and closing his mouth several times.
“Are there enemies nearby?”
This time, Odin shook his head, though his eyes did begin darting around. They settled over Leo’s shoulder. The bridge. Leo turned slightly to also look back at it when suddenly it clicked. He turned back to Odin. “You can’t cross it?”
Odin closed his eyes tightly and shook his head.
Leo resisted the urge to let out a sigh: one of relief, mostly, that there was no real danger, though he worried it would come across as a sigh of exasperation if he let it go. He tried to withhold judgements for the time being, seeing how this was affecting his retainer, though some small, critical part of him wondered in awe how this fear could have possibly escalated so far and so dramatically, what exactly had happened to this mysterious dark mage from another land. Was it heights? The way the bridge swung? The possibility of falling? It wasn’t like it was an uncommon fear; Leo himself had been nervous when he led his horse over it earlier that night, but for Odin to shut down like this…
“Well, there’s no other way across,” Leo started slowly, trying to work out the pieces of a plan, arrange them in his head into some semblance of an acceptable course of action. Odin took another step back on instinct, growing tense again, but Leo’s grip on his shoulders held him near. “It this alright?” Leo asked suddenly, nodding to his hands on his shoulders.
Odin nodded, gaze on the ground now, standing still and tall again.
Leo realized he was chewing on his lip again and stopped, settling for the inside of his cheek instead. “Let’s try something, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll think of something else. Grab onto my shoulders, as well.” And with that, as soon as Odin had placed his hands on Leo’s shoulders, Leo took one big step backwards. His hands never left Odin’s shoulders. Odin was forced to take a step forward.
“Don’t let your eyes leave mine,” Leo told him, noticing Odin’s gaze dart around when he realized what they were doing. “Focus on nothing but me.” He took another step back. He was on the bridge now. Odin seemed to notice this quickly and tried to pull back, but stopped immediately when he realized his liege’s grip was still on his shoulders, and his grip was on his liege’s. “Eyes on me,” Leo reminded him, and he complied.
Another step. Odin stepped onto the bridge. Fear etched his eyes and contorted his features but he did not look away from Leo. Leo took another step backwards. Odin forwards. Backwards. Forwards.
“Can you talk to me?” Leo asked after a few steps and the quick realization that Odin would collapse with anxiety if nothing was done to distract him. Odin stared back at him, which looked like it was becoming more and more difficult to do. “About, about anything, really, or, hm,” Leo could think of nothing. The weather? The stars? Would both force him to think about the world around him? Nothing but eyes. Focus on nothing but eyes. Focus on— “Did your father have green eyes, or was it your mother?”
Leo was surprised that was the question that escaped; though he was occasionally accused of being nosy for the sake of furthering his know-it-all status (not the words he would use, granted, but used nonetheless,) he often resisted this urge when it came to people he cared about, especially those he knew had reasons for their secrets. Now, he was the one having trouble maintaining eye contact as he took another step backwards, embarrassed by his own behavior.
But Odin answered. Granted, not in a steady voice, nor devoid of fear quite yet, but he answered and he looked at nothing but Leo’s eyes and tightened his already-vice-like grip on Leo’s shoulders. “My mother,” he breathed out.
“The very same green?” Another step backwards.
“Yeah, that’s what people say.” Another step forwards.
“They’re lovely. What was she like?” Backwards.
The bridge creaked loudly beneath them and for a moment Odin’s grip went slack, his eyes went blank, and Leo worried the man’s knees would buckle. He didn’t know if he’d be able to carry the taller man across. But then he answered. “She was— she was the most— the most wonderful woman in the entire world,” forwards.
“Tell me more about her, Odin,” backwards.
“Her hair was blond, and she was a, a healer,” forwards.
“You learned magic from her, then?” Backwards.
“No, not from her,” forwards, “but father taught me the sword.”
“I’ve never seen you with a sword, I don’t believe,” backwards. They must have been almost halfway, now.
“My friends and I,” he blurted loudly, louder than their conversation had been thus far. He didn’t take a step forward. “we were, they had, they crossed already. And—and—and— we couldn’t cross yet, we had to stay to fight but then, then the bridge, it got cut,” he was speaking quickly now, and Leo could tell it was taking all of his energy to keep his gaze on Leo’s, to stay present. “And we had to tell them to leave, and they thought, they thought we were going to die!” His voice rose, cracked once, eyes fell for a moment, only a few inches down Leo’s face, before they darted in a panic back to Leo’s eyes. “I thought we were, I thought we were too but we had cut the rope, see, and—”
“—and there were so many of them and we should have seen them coming sooner but we had to get back because she was waiting for us and now it was only me, and him, and all of them, but Brady had the gemstone so we didn’t matter, we didn’t matter and they were all dead anyways and none of it mattered, none of it—”
The dark mage stopped, staring wildly at Leo, not seeming to know what they were doing, where they were. Leo took a deep, purposeful breath. “Do you feel my shoulders moving?”
A pause. A nod.
“Breathe with me, at the same time. Match your shoulders with mine.” It was something Camilla had said to him before, when the stress of being pushed about by his mother, by the nobles, by his rival half-siblings, all became a bit too much. He remembered the way her hands, long and beautiful even then, would rest on his shoulders, grounding him, and he would place his on hers, and there they would sit and breathe together until Leo could breathe evenly again. Such weakness, he used to think to himself later, mirroring his mother’s tone perfectly. Still, though, that grounded feeling stuck.
It seemed to work for Odin too who, after a few seconds of more erratic breathing, finally seemed to be able to match Leo’s own deep breathes; each of Odin’s breaths was longer than the next one, then the next, then the next. Leo slowly took a step back. Odin took a step forward.
“Stay with me and don’t look away from my eyes,” Leo reminded him. “Tell me about your friends from home.” Backwards.
Odin had reeled himself back in, and though the grasp on Leo’s shoulders was still like iron, he was breathing slowly and deeply. “Brady,” he repeated the name he had mentioned before. “Tallest, scariest looking guy you’ll meet… damn, though, wouldn’t hurt a fly, cried when, when he saw anything cute.” Odin let out one bark of a breathy laugh, still dazed but at least present. “One time I caught him crying while cutting potatoes because he felt bad for them!” Forwards. Leo smiled with him. Backwards. “Yarne, scared of everything, even though he’s one of the toughest guys I know! Or, uh, bunnies I know?” Forwards. “Cynthia and I were always close; we used to always make up all sorts of fun stories.” Backwards. “Gerome would never admit it, but he thought I was pretty funny.” Forwards. “Severa…. oh, um, I bet you’d like her.” Backwards. “Laurent always took good care of everybody.” Forwards. “Kjelle made me run until my feet bled once.” Backwards. “Nah would have been so much fun to play with if she didn’t always have her nose in a book.”
“Oh, that’s fine if you don’t want to tell me.”
“No, her name was—you know what, never mind.” Forwards. “Let’s see— Inigo—uh—Inigo was alright, I guess,” Backwards. “Noire could be really scary but she was always real strong, like a flower that grows in mud.” Forwards. “And then there was Lu—uh, my cousin. Cousin… Lu.”
Leo offered up another smile. They were nearly there. “They sound lovely. What fun, to have so many friends to grow up with.” Backwards.
“It wasn’t always fun,” Odin responded, his never-wavering eyes seeming more and more present by the second. “Sometimes it was… really, really bad.” Forwards. He seemed lost for a minute but returned, blinking at his liege. “But we’re still here.” Forwards.
“We’re still here.” Backwards. Leo felt his step hit solid ground.
Feeling his heart begin to race again, he tugged on Odin’s shoulders who, blinking quickly at what was happening, was pulled forward several steps, stumbling as rickety wooden planks were replaced by solid, green ground underfoot. Prince and retainer wordlessly released each other’s shoulders, both turning to look back at the bridge they had just crossed together, one step at a time. And before Leo could say a word, Odin fell to his knees in hysterical laughter. For a millisecond Leo panicked, mistaking it for hysteric sobbing instead, though he was even more confused by the laughing, if not a bit less uncomfortable.
It seemed his retainer couldn’t stop, doubled over, clutching his gut and laughing into the dirt. He continued that way until it faded slowly, like a balloon with a leak running out of helium. He was soon reduced to a giggling pile of extravagant fabric and shivering form, and still Leo waited patiently until Odin had completely run out and gone silent again, staring back at the bridge. Then, out of nowhere, he leapt up, spinning to face his liege with wide eyes and a reddening face. “My lord Leo!” he exclaimed, as if he were greeting him at a gathering after not seeing him for some time. He sunk into an over-the-top bow, which was a common occurrence but lacked the grace it usually possessed. “My lord, please forgive me for my recent behavior! It was extremely inappropriate and completely unfitting of one of your two retainers, and I gladly accept any and all retribution for this heinous crime!”
Ah, back to that act, then. The fire was back. Leo knew Odin well enough, though, to still detect a slight shaking in the back of the dark mage’s throat. Leo smiled softly. “Rise, Odin.” Odin quickly did as he was told, face now almost as red as Leo’s favorite food. “There’s absolutely no reason to be apologizing.” Leo stood up a bit straighter, putting his hands behind his back and looking back to the bridge behind Odin. “I am no stranger to anxiety,” he started, sensing that Odin was listening carefully. “Growing up in my situation made sure of that.” He looked back at Odin, met his steely green gaze which was beginning to ignite once again. He offered one more half-smile. “That was not under your control, but what is under your control is your continued, valued service to me.”
Odin puffed out his chest; Leo saw his eyes spark like flint being struck. “My liege, nothing would please me more than continuing to serve you for as long as I am able!”
"Good, then,” Leo turned, heading back to his horse. “Then if you’re ready, we can go meet back with Niles. I’m sure he’s beginning to worry.” Leo glanced back over his shoulder, adding hastily, “and if you’d like, this event needn’t leave the two of us.”
Odin’s grin turned sheepish as he fell into step behind Prince Leo. “That would be greatly appreciated, my lord.”
Leo hummed, nodding. He took his horse’s reigns and together, they led her down the path towards the forked road, where Niles was waiting. They walked in silence, side by side. Leo was thinking of what Odin had said in his moment of pure panic, about nothing mattering, about how certain death was guaranteed on another bridge in another land with another group of lost children. Owain was thinking about home.
Their trust in each other increased tenfold that night. And what a beautiful thing, the trust between Royal and Retainer.