Chapter 15
Amor Omnia Vincit

Eagle, Gladius; Gladian Year 598

"How could I have known what a difference the years could make? If you told me even a year ago that I would fall for that bratty tomboy, I would have called you a drunkard or a madman. If you had told me I would be willing to give my life for that love, I'd have called you a fool. It's a funny thing... the insight of fools..."
- Excerpt from the journal of Luther the Guardian

As days became weeks and weeks became months, Luther came to fully understand what had begun on that fateful night. He and Nyssa were truly and deeply in love. He would never have imagined such a thing and he knew she felt the same way.
Enough time had passed for them to be certain of their feelings and they were ready to take the next step. Although the two of them would have been content to run off and elope in Cruz, Julian and Liria insisted that they do things the proper way. To that end, Luther found himself at Nyssa's house to seek her father's blessing.
He had not dealt with her father much, but the vice magistrate was the kind of man who liked to put on airs. It was hardly a likable trait in Luther's eyes. Through Liria's marriage to Julian, Erasmus had been elevated to the rank of baron. Luther would think the achievement of nobility would satisfy the man, but nobles had a tendency of always wanting more.
For being Erasmus' superior, he felt he was kept in the waiting room entirely too long. After being escorted into the room where Erasmus was waiting, he declined the offer to have a cup of tea, something that seemed to mildly upset the vice magistrate. Erasmus took a sip of his tea before speaking.
"I take it that you are not here on a matter concerning the mines, my lord. Quite nostalgic, really... It seems like just the other day when a warrior youth came with similar business. Am I wrong?"
Luther fidgeted in his seat before answering. Why did more expensive chairs have to be less comfortable?
"Uh, I believe so, yes... Me and Nyssa are in love and we want to have your blessing."
Erasmus took another sip of his tea.
"I thought as much," he said, running his finger along the brim of the cup. "Well, Lord Luther, my answer..." He paused to take another sip. " no."
Luther sprang out of his chair.
Without showing slightest loss of composure, Erasmus continued.
"I have already chosen a fiancé for Nyssa. She will be wed to Baron Crassus Vitellius."
Luther could not believe what he was hearing.
"You won't gain any rank out of him if that's what you're after! I'm one of the Twelve Stewards!"
Erasmus took yet another sip of his tea without even batting an eyelash.
"I already enjoy a high position in your service, Lord Luther," he said. "What more could I possibly gain by marrying into your house? I need to look elsewhere for advantage. The Baron will give me a foot in the court. You must understand that marriage is strictly political. Daughters are not good for much else." Eyeing Luther, he added, "Besides, if House Leon and House Aran started fighting again, my family would be torn in two. Do you really want to turn my only daughters against each other?"
Luther swiped at the air in anger. How dare he, the insolent wretch. The hot-blooded swordsman could have killed him right there for the insult, for having the gall to belittle the truce. Fortunately, his passions did not completely overrun his better judgment.
"The feud is over!" he snapped. "Were you even there when me and Julian ended it!? Do you have any idea how many people died!? How dare you even think about it starting again!"
Dispassionate in the face of Luther's rage, Erasmus replied, "Your temper does not reassure me, my lord. Lord Julian was far more composed when he made his request and he was much younger then than you are now. With that sort of temper, how do you expect to convince me that you are a suitable husband for my daughter? I have made my decision and it will not change."
Barely thinking straight, Luther snapped, "I challenge your man to duel! If he's a man at all, he'll accept!"
Erasmus gave him a dismissive wave of the hand.
"It is no use, my lord. I will not allow it."
"I'm not going to marry him."
Luther and Erasmus both turned to the new voice. It was Nyssa with the usual rebelliousness in her eyes. Her hair was cut short, her own handiwork by the looks of it, no doubt in protest of her arranged marriage.
"I refuse to marry the Baron," she said. "I love Luther and we'll get married with or without your permission. Do you think anyone will care if you object? Even if you took it to the King himself, you'd be wasting your time."
Luther had not anticipated Nyssa to come forward with her support, but he welcomed it wholeheartedly. Erasmus had not expected his daughter's intervention either and his composure was beginning to weaken. Finishing the contents of his cup in a single draught, the vice magistrate rose to face Luther.
"If it will put an end to this nonsense, you shall have your duel," he said. "The town square, three days from now at sunrise. To show your sincerity, you will fast from this moment, neither eating nor drinking, till the conclusion of the duel."
"Agreed," Luther said.
"But how will I know you abide by the terms?" Erasmus asked.
"My word is all you need."
"I wonder about that."
The new insult inflamed Luther yet again, but this time he was calmed by Nyssa touching his arm. She was just as hot-headed as he was, but if she could keep her cool, so could he. He could not give the vice magistrate any excuse to worm out of the deal.
"Fine," Luther said. "Have your men follow me around, as many as you need. I can handle three days." He then pointed angrily at Erasmus, adding, "And you would do well not to impugn my honor again."
Giving Nyssa one last look, Luther turned and left. He would meet Erasmus' terms and earn the woman he loved. Only one man in all the kingdom stood a chance against him in combat and he was already married to one of Erasmus' daughters. Even three days without food or drink would hardly be enough to level the playing field. How skilled could some pandering fop be anyway?

* * *

Luther arrived early at the designated place. Though he had missed a meal or two before, it hardly prepared him for a three-day fast. More problematic was going without anything to drink, but he persevered all the same. Even without the half dozen of Erasmus' men following his every step, Luther's sense of honor was all that was needed to abide by the rules.
It did not take long for the others to make their appearance. Erasmus was obviously going to be the judge, while Nyssa seemed to be an unwelcome addition. This would be the first time Luther laid eyes on Baron Crassus Vitellius.
His appearance told the whole story of the decadence of court. He had a powdered face and delicately styled hair. He wore a bejeweled doublet, sheer hose and velvet shoes with pointy toes.
It disgusted the swordsman how someone could dress like that when most people could only afford to go barefoot with a coarse woolen smock for cover. Luther could not save the peasants from their poverty, nor did he mean to try, but at least he made sure his workers had decent clothes on their backs and sturdy leather boots on their feet. An extended family of three generations would have easily been provided for with the cost of the Baron's fancy clothes.
With all the attention the Baron paid to himself and the rest no doubt spent flattering the King, what place would there by for Nyssa? Luther did not like it at all. At least he would try to make Nyssa happy. The Baron would be no challenge, on any front.
Nyssa carried a longsword, obviously meant to be Luther's weapon, but Erasmus stopped her when she tried to give it to him.
"I have added a condition," he said. "Your opponent will choose your weapon."
The Baron tossed Luther a piece of a quarterstaff that could not have been more than a span in length. He rested one hand on the pommel of the gilded rapier at his side and held a handkerchief over his mouth with the other, giving a short chuckle.
"If you wish to give up, I would understand," he said in a soft, effeminate voice.
Luther tightened his grip on the pathetic little stick he was given for a weapon. He gave the Baron a predatory grin.
"This is more than enough."
The Baron only raised his handkerchief to chuckle again. Erasmus raised his hand for silence and motioned for them to step away from each other.
"The first one to draw blood will have my daughter's hand in marriage," he said, holding his hand high. "Draw your weapons."
It was a pointless command for Luther, but the Baron drew his rapier, the sunlight gleaming off the blade's golden surface. Erasmus took a moment to evaluate the two combatants before dropping his hand.
The Baron began with a lunging thrust that Luther batted aside. Moving forward to get inside his defenses, Luther had to make an inverted block for an unexpected swipe. Straightening out his wrist, he beat the blade back and switched directions to give the Baron a crack in the ribs.
It seemed all too easy at first, but then Luther felt his heart flutter. It had happened a couple times before the duel, one of the unpleasant consequences of the fast. He underestimated the effects and now it could put him at risk. He almost failed to block the Baron's next attack.
Knocked slightly off-balance by the parry, the Baron made an overhead chop, a ridiculous move for someone armed with a rapier. Luther blocked the blade, sidestepped and struck the Baron sharply on the head. The Baron fell to his knees, apparently defeated. Luther turned to Erasmus.
"I guess that's it," the swordsman said, glad for the match to be over.
In an unexpected move, the Baron made an upward swipe with his blade, the tip raking the length of Luther's arm. Luther angrily grabbed the blade of the rapier, yanked it from the Baron's hand, broke the thin blade over his knee, and threw the pieces aside.
Erasmus glanced at the red-stained sleeve of Luther's shirt and said, "So it is. Baron Crassus Vitellius is the victor."
Luther seized the head of the unsuspecting Baron, fingering through the waxed hair until he exposed a break in the skin where he hit him. Holding the Baron's head in place, he looked back to Erasmus.
"See? I drew blood first!"
Erasmus shook his head.
"It was the Baron I saw draw blood first. I am the judge and my call is final. Those are the rules."
"You can't be serious!"
Before Luther could protest any further, Nyssa brandished the longsword she was carrying and ran over to the Baron, steadying the point between his shoulder blades. She glared at her father.
"If I kill him, you won't have a choice, Father. Now say Luther was the winner."
"For God's sake, Nyssa, put that thing away!" Erasmus demanded.
Nyssa slowly ran the point down the Baron's doublet, easily cutting the delicate fabric.
"Say Luther was the winner," she insisted.
"If you do not put away that sword this instant..."
The Baron squeaked as Nyssa gave him a soft poke with the tip of her sword.
"I'm getting impatient, Father. You could sic the whole army on Luther and he'd best them all."
"I will not bend to your whim, you petulant child," Erasmus said sternly. "Now drop the sword."
The Baron started to squeal as Nyssa carved shallow cuts in his back. Realizing that the situation could quickly spiral out of control, Luther took a step forward.
"You don't have to do this," he told Nyssa. "We don't need his approval."
"I want it!" Nyssa snapped. She looked back to her father. "Liria was always your favorite, so dainty and ladylike. You had no problem giving her the love of her life. Why can't you give me the same thing!?"
"I will do with you as I see fit!" Erasmus snapped back, now red-faced in anger. "It is my prerogative as your father. You have no right to make demands of me! You are a shame to both me and your mother. You have no right to call yourself a lady, you worthless hussy!"
"How dare you!" Nyssa screamed.
She raised her sword and was about to run the Baron though just to spite her hateful father when Luther intervened, grabbing her arms.
"Let me go, Luther!" she shouted. "I'll show him! He can't say thing like that to me! Let me go!"
Luther brought her arms down with one hand, placed the other behind her head and kissed her. After a few moments, her grip relaxed and the sword fell to the ground.
When he brought his head back, he saw Nyssa's eyes welling up with tears. She embraced him with all her strength and burst into sobs. Luther returned the embrace, simply holding her in silence for a few moments. He looked at the cowering Baron.
"Get out of here," he growled.
The Baron scrambled to his feet.
"Th-there is no way I would marry that madwoman!" he stammered, almost in tears himself. "I will not forget this insult, Baron Erasmus!"
He ran away, not even bothering to pick up his broken rapier. Luther looked over his shoulder at Erasmus.
"I've been holding it in all this time," he said. "You may think you're smarter or more refined than me because I'm just a swordsman. I don't like using my rank, but there's no excuse for your insolence. You work for me, at my sufferance. It was out of respect for you as Nyssa's father that I came to you as I did. And you spit in my face. You've shown what sort of man you are, so I'm done asking. Now I'm ordering you as the lord of House Aran. Tell your daughter what she wants to hear or you'll find yourself working in the mines instead of tallying the profits."
The threat seemed to be more than even the vice magistrate's pride could handle, but even then, he could not simply give them what they wanted. Refusing to face them any longer, he turned his back to them.
"Because the Baron has forfeited, the match goes to you, Lord Luther," he said. "I will not stop you, but I do not give my blessing. From this day forward, she is no longer my daughter. Whatever happens to her, it is no concern of mine."
Erasmus walked away. Apparently he thought he had preserved his pride, but Luther could not think of a more craven way to act. Nyssa was still weeping in his arms. He gently caressed her head, running his fingers through her golden locks.
"It's over," he whispered in her ear. "I wish it hadn't turned out this way, but we have each other. That's all that matters."
Luther held her for quite a while that day. He wondered why the force that brings hearts together also tears them apart. No, he knew better than that. If Erasmus truly loved his daughter, he would have wanted to make her happy. Luther vowed that day that he would fulfill the duty her father had ignored.