He listened to her story without comment or interruption as they rode deeper into the valleys. The scattered clouds overhead began to clear, driven away by a strong westerly breeze, flying out towards the ashlands. All there was were sounds for the horse's hooves against the stones, the whistling of the winds through the mountains, and the Princess's voice as she told her tale. The tale of her previous taste of death.
It had not been a story Ozragad had heard before. He could understand why, it did not reflect particularly well on Regis, as both father and King. Indeed, the Eorzians would have surely wanted to keep that sordid episode hidden. Rebels when she was thirteen? Were you funding those ones, or could Regis not pay since you were busy invading him that year? Or perhaps both?
It was true, he probably had some sort of hand in it, if you looked deeply enough. He had always been most eager to exploit whatever weaknesses could be found in Eorzia. He had needed to, they were the smaller country, with the smaller army, he had used every underhand tactic to level the playfield in his favour at some point or other. That had included sending money to Eorzian rebels. And even if he had not funded those particular ones, his wars would have taken away soldiers that could have been dealing with such things. Those wars also cost money, money that could have been used to ransom a Princess.
At the time he had never felt guilt about using such tactics. It had been war. But now... now could not help but feel a small pang of regret. It seemed Ozragad had caused this Princess suffering along before they had ever even met.
"I have taken wounds before on the battlefield, some serious. It is not the same though, often you do not even realise how bad the injury is until the fight is almost over. The rush of battle, it numbs the pain, makes you feel invincible at times. I am a martial man, I have never felt helpless in a battle." The King let his words trail off, taken by the wind. For a while he just stared out into the distance, past the Princess, looking back even further, into his own past. "...But I do know the feeling you speak of."
Of course he knew that feeling. Watching your life slip away before you and being absolutely powerless to do anything about it. How else could he describe what he had felt the day she had left him? Liveuta. It had not been him that had died that day, but in some ways Ozragad felt he had never truly lived since then either.
He had felt so helpless then.
A shadow flickered across his face, a mixture of emotions too many to give name to.
"I know how it is to watch your life slip away through your fingers." He did not say anything more, he could not bring himself to.
They rode on in silence for a while longer. Above them hawks wheeled on the air currents, their sharp cries piercing the quiet as they hovered, waiting to dive down and bring death to the small helpless creatures that hid in the meadow grass. The few signs of inhabitation they had seen as they had left Cirith Anyr, a scattering of stone walled fields, the odd herder tending their flock, had long his disappeared. The lands they were in now were empty and wild. In time Ozragad found his tongue again.
"I doubt it means much, coming from a man like myself. But I am truly sorry that you had to feel such a thing. At such a young age." There had once been a time he would wished that despair on every man, woman and child in Eorzia. You still would if you thought it would bring her back. But it would not, he realised that now.
As they rounded the corner of another hillside, the valley below them began to widen out.
It was a place where three different valleys met, and it formed something of a large natural bowl in the landscape, surrounded by dark stony peaks and high desolate moors. The lowlands themselves were a mixture of open grassland and woods, a small lake at its centre. On a grassy knoll overlooking the dark blue waters was a small encampment of pavilions already set up, awaiting their guests.
They had arrived at the where the King would stage his hunt today.
"Ah, here already." The sound of a hunting horn rang off in the distance. "That... that was not a conversation I was expecting to have today. I thank you, Princess, for your sincerity." And with that he spurred his horse, sending it off into a gallop, to race down to the encampment below them.