Chapter Thirty-Nine: Under the Stars

Simon Liberthine walked over to the centre of the campsite, joining the pensive Miguel, wrapped in a blanket in his chair as he gazed up at the stars.
‘No matter how depressed I’m feeling, no matter how hopeless everything seems, I can look at the stars and there seems to be just a little less darkness in the world.’ He sighed longingly. ‘Quite a day you have ahead of you tomorrow Simon.’ he remarked, not looking back.
‘How did you know it was me? I didn’t make a sound.’
‘Precisely.’ Miguel smiled, and a little of the old twinkle came into his eyes. He turned around in his chair.
‘Where’s Eduardo?’
‘Gone for a walk. I never thought I’d envy him for that.’ There was an awkward silence before he added: ‘Won’t you sit down? There are some chairs around here somewhere…’
He gestured to a seat a little way from him. Simon reached into his coat and extended his arm, causing a shooting stick to appear from his sleeve. He pegged it into the grass beside his comrade and caused the seat to unfold with a flick of his wrist.
‘Very impressive.’
Simon sat down on the seat and sighed heavily.
‘Why did he let you go Miguel?’
‘I told you… so that I could inform you where the battle will be tomorrow.’
‘He could have sent an avatar to do that.’
Miguel sank back in his chair.
‘To honour a last request. William Griffon is many things, but he has always been a man of his word.’
‘Whose last request?’
‘Thomas Marshall’s.’
It took every ounce of strength and every last inch of his famed resolve to stop Simon from gasping in shock. He knew it was unlikely his mentor was still alive, but to have it confirmed dealt him a blow greater than any earthly weapon could deliver.
‘How did he die?’
‘He survived the attack on the headquarters…. Griffon wanted him alive to provide information. His methods of persuasion remain very… effective. Thomas talked, and then…’ He faltered, and Simon impatiently pressed on.
‘What?’
‘He couldn’t live with himself. Whether Griffon would have killed him or not, I don’t know.’
‘And his last request?’
‘He left a message for you.’ Miguel leant in closer and his voice lowered. ‘Simon… you parents weren’t killed by raiders so many years ago. Evanna Rosemunde was your mother… and Thomas was your father.’

The two men were silent for a long time. Simon was speechless. He had his head rested in his hands, and he stared at the floor through his fingers.
‘Simon…’
‘It’s fine Miguel. Just fine.’

Jason Fortuno awoke with a start and sat up. He looked to his right. Bianca had not stirred, she still slumbered on peacefully. Trying not to wake her, he slipped on his jacket and left the tent. In the centre of the campsite, Simon sat with Miguel, the stranger, who was the first to notice Jason’s arrival. His cub familiar, Eduardo, padded up to the chair at Miguel’s side, looked up at the boy, and tried to smile, but only succeeded in baring his teeth oddly. Simon seemed lost in thought, but upon Jason’s arrival, he stiffened and tried to smile encouragingly.
‘Jason. Couldn’t sleep?’ Miguel asked, offering him a seat.
‘Just a little… well, petrified.’ Jason laughed nervously. Simon smiled knowingly.
‘So am I.’
‘But you… you were the Arbiter… you fought hundreds of battles during the war…’
Simon winced and Miguel smiled a little at his fellow sorcerer’s discomfort.
‘Well… I may have exaggerated the truth a little… you see… the moment the war ended, I took up the Arbiter position so I would never have to fight again.’
Miguel put his hand on Jason’s arm and spoke to him in a paternal tone.
‘But that doesn’t make him a coward, and to be afraid of fighting tomorrow doesn’t make you a coward either. Sometimes, it’s the braver man who walks away.’

‘Ah… before I forget.’ Miguel sighed wearily and placed his hand inside his pocket, bringing it out again with a silver necklace clasped in his palm. It held a locket in the shape of a heart on a fine thin silver chain.
‘This was given to your mother by your grandmother… for when she got married… I acquired it from Griffon during my time in captivity.’ He opened the locket, and there was a picture on either side. Jason realised that they were images of his parents. He recognised Alexander from his visions, and saw that his father’s eyes were as his own, while Miranda Warwick had the coffee brown hair, slender neck and cheekbones of her son.
‘’I’m sure she would have wanted you to have it… to give to your young lady.’ He winked, handing the locket over.
‘Thank you.’ Jason replied, his voice catching slightly. ‘What were they like… my parents?’
‘Your father could be a difficult man sometimes. He was stubborn, and an unrelenting cynic, but I loved him, and I never doubted that he cared. Your mother got him out of his shell; he fell for her at first sight. Perhaps they fell too quickly. But he’d been very depressed with life, perhaps he saw her as a beacon of light in his life. Maybe that’s why he fought for her so fiercely. As for your mother, my wife… my wife tells me that although she’d never admit it, she was quite the romantic, and your father came along when she had given up hope on love. She was a bold woman, she wouldn’t take any of his nonsense, and perhaps why that’s why they were perfect for each other.’ Miguel’s eyes had grown misty, and he had to stop himself. Simon saw this, and tried to cover up for the older sorcerer’s show of emotion.
‘You’d better get ready for tomorrow Jason. Give my best to Bianca.’ he added, conspiratorially raising an eyebrow. Jason blushed. Miguel wheeled himself over to him and placed an arm on his shoulder.
‘And remember this; there isn’t a man or woman in this army who isn’t shivering at the thought of facing Griffon tomorrow. But they fight because they know it’s the right thing, no matter how scared they are.’
‘And although he doesn’t want to admit it, he’s just as scared as you. Even if he won’t be fighting.’ Added Eduardo, cleaning his paws.
‘Yes… thank you Eduardo.’ Sighed Miguel. ‘You spent too much time with that…’ he froze mid-sentence and smiled up at Jason. ‘Well anyway, time to get some sleep. Tomorrow is the big day.’

The two old sorcerers sat silently for the rest of the night, each knowing what the other was thinking. Simon thought of his father, and Miguel… his thoughts turned inwards. It had been Simon who had broken the news of Fortuno’s death to Miguel one cold night all those years ago. The former sorcerer had nodded, before numbly disappearing into the house. Rosemary and Simon had sat quietly downstairs with Rosemary’s son Luke, only a toddler, and tried to block out the sound of Miguel’s haunting sobs. They found Miguel’s crucifix, which he had always worn around his neck, cast aside in the road the following day. None of them had spoken of that night since. Only once before had Simon seen Miguel so vulnerable and wracked with guilt, and that was after a mission in France, where he had began an affair with an abused, married woman. Upon discovering the affair, the husband had stabbed them both. Miguel had of course recovered and taken revenge, but that the lady was lost and he would not speak of it to anyone, not even Alexander, confessing his sins to Simon and trying to forget about it. But this had been worse, Fortuno’s death had broken his carefree spirit, despite his best efforts to return to normal following his argument with Rosemary, the toll it had taken was evident.

When dawn broke the next morning, Simon rose unsteadily from his chair and embraced Miguel.
‘Well this is it. I’d hoped my fighting days were over.’ He paused. ‘I was always a coward.’
‘No, you were simply… sensible.’
Simon straightened up, and looked up at the rising sun.
‘I promise I’ll make him proud of us.’
‘I know you will.’

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