Lucien looked the man in the eye with a smirk spread over his face as he raised his sword over him. He wasn’t afraid of the ranger even with an arrow jutting out of his leg and lying in the mud under him. He had been smart enough to place some of his men with Itzli in the area to cover the retreat. Right on cue, there was sound of steel against steel as Itzli slapped her leg with her metal hand to signal to the rebels hidden in the trees and brush. The possessed armor moved from the shadows and intercepted the Gorgonite’s sword as it swung down at Lucien, and an arrow flew from the brush and struck the other ranger in the chest. Itzli engaged the Gorgonite Ranger as two more rebels came over and heaved Lucien up between them and moved off toward the camp.
The two rebels carried him to the medical tent and set him down on one of the many cots, but this one was slightly separated from the others, especially the rebels stricken with contagious diseases. Lucien lied back despite the fact his men were still out there fighting without him. The stocky man that worked as the rebels’ physician made his way over to Lucien after pouring some sort of medicine for one of the men suffering from disease caught from the night air in the swamps. The physician walked up to Lucien’s cot and began pouring him a mug of ale.
“You’ve been careless again, your grace. You need to be more careful, or you’ll end up dying before you even see the throne again.”
Lucien wore a smirk on his face as he took the mug from the balding physician. He took a swig of the stale swill that passed for ale in the rebel camp. The leader of the rebels noticed his armored companion step through the ten flaps as the physician gripped the little bit of the arrow shaft sticking out of Lucien’s leg and was about to greet her when the man yanked the arrow free of Lucien’s calf. He bit down and slammed his fist down on the cot beneath him; the ale helped but not enough to completely take away the pain of an arrowhead being pulled out of his leg. Once what was left of the arrow was free of his skin, there came a river of blood flowing from the wound it left behind. Lucien could feel the physician’s pudgy hands over the wound to stop the blood and then a slight warmth from the magic he worked to close up the wound. It was an odd sensation to feel his flesh stitching back up instantly.
“My apologies, my Lord, but I am unable to heal it further than that with my level of skill. I’m afraid that the wound will scar, though it won’t take your life,” he heard the physician saying as he rolled back over onto his back to see Itzli coming over to his bed.
“Scars aren’t so bad. I thank you for your efforts and thank the gods for your loyalty,” Lucien said to the physician as he walked away and Itzli walked over.
“I know what you’re going to say, Itzli. I was careless. I should have been the first one in the retreat, but how can I expect my subjects to follow me if I don’t lead? A king should lead his men into battle himself, not just sit back on his chair and command his men die for him.”
As soon as the words left his mouth, five or so arrows tore through the canvas top of the tent and stuck in the ground as well as a few dying men. The sound of swords clashing and bowstrings launching arrows in retaliation followed suit. Lucien jumped up and grabbed his longbow and made for the tent entrance.
“Damn it all! We led them right to us! Itzli, get the sick and civilians and lead them out of here. Take them along the escape route and make for the second camp,” with that Lucien made his way out of the tent and join the battle beyond.
He could hear shouts of, “Find him! Find Lucien,” from the Gorgon soldiers attacking the rebel camp.
Lucien was greeted by the sight of his men dying at the hands of Gorgon soldiers and Rangers. He drew his sword and rushed into the fighting, immediately crossing blades with one of his uncle's men. The two exchanged blow after blow before Lucien managed the get the upperhand and drove the sword through the man's chest, sending him to death's embrace and letting him fall to the ground below in a crumpled heap of armor and flesh. The rebel leader walked over the corpse with as much respect as he could muster and made his way further into the skirmish, his eyes flitting from soldier to soldier until they finally fell upon a cloaked figure on the other side of the battle. He couldn't explain why, but the figure gave him a feeling of dread and seemed to be the one leading the attack on the rebel camp. Lucien fought his way toward the figure with a newfound zeal. He felt that if he eliminated the leader, the Gorgon men would be easily defeated; his mind was too focused on the man leading the Gorgon forces to remember the orders to find and capture him.
Alaric listened very casually as the old man spoke his piece. With nothing but his strength of will, he held his face in the form of a passive observation; in actuality, his inner emotions were beginning to simmer with every word he understood. That the Order had performed such actions on nothing more than a rumor was inexcusable, nothing short of a travesty and a mockery of justice. Were it not for the ever-increasingly angry mob and the Order outnumbering them three to one, he very likely would have engaged them immediately to stop the madness by force. However, as things stood, direct combat was the very last thing they wanted. Moreover, based on what the old man had told them, there was an innocent little girl whose life hung in the balance, and they were her only hope for survival. Open action would only serve to end them and condemn the girl; they would need to employ subterfuge if they wanted to save her and get out alive. And subterfuge would mean they would largely depend on…
A serious of whistles not at all unlike a bird song struck Alaric’s ears. To anybody else, it would’ve been something brushed aside and paid no regard to. But it was far more than a simple mockingbird’s tune to those notes. Kotori and he had devised a variety of codes to communicate between themselves when they were younger, and strengthened the codes further still with multiple sleepless nights at the Tower. To his ears, the melody that flew from her lips was as comprehensible as if she’d stood next to him and spoke plainly in his ear.
Two targets, north of your position. Invading houses. Crowd nearby. Ready to strike, give signal.
Alaric’s mind whirred as he processed what was said. The two targets she mentioned must have been Order members leading the barbaric hunt for the little girl, and the crowd behind them had likely been worked into a frenzy given current evidence. In his head, he went over what needed to happen and how. Firstly, they needed to locate the girl. That alone took absolute precedence. Once they knew her location, they could pick her up and ride away without trouble. That was his preference, as a fruitless search of the town would besmirch the Order’s reputation, possibly even cause the townsfolk to turn on them. However, if a clash with the Order proved inevitable, diversion and misdirection would have to be their greatest allies. And they were far more in Kotori’s employ than his or Tegan’s.
Alaric nodded to the old man and maneuvered his horse more toward the middle of the road, slowly so as to not draw more eyes than he already had. Then, he began to slowly and methodically pick at various hairs, blades of grass, brambles, and other such flora that had stuck itself in his shirt sleeve- or so it appeared. In reality, he was sending his reply to Kotori through another code, this one based on the locations of his pluckings and the hand motions that followed them. Through this, he informed her of the little girl, their goal of locating said girl, and the particular need for her to be ready to engage from nowhere if needed. Then he turned to Tegan and spoke to her.
“Come my friend, let us ensure we do not interfere with the work of these good men.”
As he dismounted and began to lead his horse to a nearby trough, he could only hope his other Guardian was wise enough to read past the sleight of voice. Tegan was a seasoned veteran who had seen combat against Malfear’s barbarians, and Alaric dared not presume to try and direct her; he trusted that she would know what she needed to do when the time came. As he led his horse to water, he employed the noble beast as a screen to hide his actions and dipped both of his hands into the water of the trough. When he withdrew them, rubbing them together like a man washing his hands, he was actually tuning the liquid to his magics and concentrating very hard on the small amount that began to congregate in his palm. With a deep breath, he cast his focus and will toward the tiny puddle.
Construct Magic, he’d been told by Maester Silvius, was only alike to normal manipulation of the elements as forging a sword was like wielding one. If he wished to control the water directly, he need only a simple thought such as “forward,” “up,” or “surround” to project through his magic into the water. For a construct however, he needed to picture a much more vivid thought. He needed a picture of what he wished the construct to do, what he needed it to be capable of, and what shape he wished it to assume. “Detail and purpose,” Silvius had instructed again and again, “are absolute when dealing with constructs. If you are not sure what you wish, your construct will know even less. You are doing more than directing the water; you are imparting a piece of your will to it to act as its will. Therefore, your purpose must be strong and your details beyond question.” And so it was. As the pool began to split into three smaller pools, still in his palms, Alaric began to send his will into each of them.
”There is a girl here, hiding in the town. She is alone, she is afraid, and she needs our help.”
As his thoughts went toward the water, each of the three pools began to take shape, taking the form of small ovular bubble-like objects.
”She must be found before the Order finds her.”
Now small amounts of water began to grow from the ovals, becoming legs, tails, wings, and feet.
”Search every house.”
Now the heads grew, each oval developing an shape that resembled a tiny creature of the earth.
”She MUST be found.”
Alaric felt part of his conscious, three tiny parts of it, fade away briefly as if a string had been attached to them and pulled taught before being cut. When he looked at the pools again, they had taken the forms of a grasshopper, a lizard, and a hummingbird in his hands, all made of water and all less than an inch in height. He closed his hand around the three, so that they were surrounded by his body and his magic, and issued one final word to them through his thoughts.
And with a downward shake of his hands he released the three of them to hunt through the town. The grasshopper coiled its watery legs and leaped from house to house, the lizard slithered its way across the ground and up through the floorboards, and the hummingbird flitted through the air. And Alaric waited as patiently as he could, tending to his steed as if nothing was out of the ordinary as he waited for one of two things to happen; either his constructs would find the girl, report back to him, and they could then decide how to reach her, or the Order would find her and force their hand. Either way, try as he might to stay calm and aloof, he couldn’t help but keep a hand near both the hilt of the sword at his hip and the lid of the water gourd not half a foot from it on his belt…
Those were the words, which echoed lightly in the long wide corridor, where a red rug with a yellow romb pattern covered the stone cold floor and banners with various coats of arms decorated the walls. There, on the upper edge of one of the pillars, leisurely sat Skye and below him had gathered three people, two men and a woman, all of which were responsible for his wardrobe and were currently fighting one of hardest battles in their simple lives - to persuade the young man to dress himself properly.
After the conversation with his adoptive father had ended, the dual-mage had headed to his chambers only to find several people preparing his traveling garment. Ignoring the busy servants, he had merely taken off his coat, put on a black vest, draped the first back on and started walking towards the door. This naturally caused a fuss and one of the more daring men, who had gotten used to the routine, had grabbed one of the prepared pieces, a black fur cloak, and thrown it on the unsuspecting youngster. Skye had the intention of pulling every drop of air out of the person’s lungs, however, when he turned around, he saw his attendants had prepared themselves with mops and other items to knock him unconscious. Albeit using a wind spell to blow them off their balance, the magician had remembered his adoptive mother’s request to stop inflicting damage to the servants inside the building after an unfortunate incident that had ended with several broken bones, fortunately not his. As bothersome as it was, the only people the lad took orders from were his parents, thus he had reluctantly taken his leave and flown down the hallways, until he picked a suitable spot on a small platform at the top of one of the pillars. But the help had no intention of ceasing their assault, not when they had gotten over one of the walls. Indeed, their master had not taken the cloak off, despite his distaste for the few restrictions and weight of it, due to the inside being kind to the touch, but he rejected everything else that was suggested.
“Please, my lord. Spring may be upon us, but the mountain paths are still cold and covered with snow.” pleaded the woman. “Yes, please, think of your health! If you were to become ill, your mother would be struck by worry and the circle of magi will be lacking one of their key members.” the older man of the two reminded. “And what if you’re attacked unexpectedly? You are an excellent mage, your lordship, but surprise is not to be underestimated. Please, at least wear some mail or leather armor.” the other called.
“You’re all so irritating.” Skye sighed whilst staring at the ceiling. He then looked down at the peasants with his icy blue eyes and told them in a simple manner, as if he was having a daily conversation with a friend: “I’m a Ferronian. No cold can freeze me. And it’s not like I’m going to run around naked. The only reason you idiots are dancing around like those stupid jesters in Valeal is because, if I do somehow get ill, your pay will be cut or your sorry excuses for hinds will get kicked out of this place and you’ll be left to shiver in the cold like the sorry muts you are.”
No one could respond to his words in a way other than looking at the ground or to the side, for it was the truth he spoke, harsh as it was. “Now, scurry off before I call the cats to eat you.” he ordered. With the little dignity they still held, the small group walked away from the scene, yet it was not to remain peaceful, for a guard passed them and came to stand under the pillar. “My Lord, your party has gathered and ready to leave. Please, follow me.” “It’s about time!” Skye exclaimed and leapt from his position, in order to fly after the guard as he lead the way.
Five soldiers were awaiting the young mage at the south entrance, one of which was acquainted with Skye. He was Jorah Solberg, a loyal subordinate of house Blaumond and one of the few guardians in the capital above the age of thirty. A man of a muscular build, with bright hazel eyes and hair that was on the border between brown and red, he had survived the War of the Dark Arts and had the experience and scars to prove it. Not a giant among his comrades, but definitely half a head taller than the average foreigner, his voice contrasted his appearance with its soft and calm tone. He had come to know the youngster ever since the ceremony of his adoption into the household and was ofttimes present in the mage’s outings. Out of the many that had attempted to stop the boy from doing anything reckless, Jorah was among the little whose words reached Ryan’s ears. He viewed him as his young lord, who he had to protect just as he had to protect his homeland, for it was this person, who would most likely become the next Archmage. On the other hand, Skye thought of Jorah as a babysitter, as someone meant to supervise and guard him even when there was nothing to fear. Naturally, he was annoyed by his presence, since he couldn’t have his way around him as easily as he could with others, but it can not be denied that there was also a pinch of contentment whenever the guardian was placed by his side. The magus did think of their kind as brainless strenght-lovers, yet he could tell which ones were competent enough to be serviceable. Today, their interactions would be no different than before.
“Welcome, my young lord. We will be leaving immediately.” Jorah greeted by bowing his head as he sat in his saddle atop the back of his steed. “Took you long enough.” was the only comment Skye made, without so much as a bow.
The rest of the team; a spearman, a crossbowman, a bannerman and a woman knight; also bowed their heads in greeting, but he gave them nothing in return. The most useful from the hounds he was given was, obviously, Jorah and the most useless of them all was the third mentioned. In Skye’s opinion, such a position lacked any reasoning whatsoever, unless they were in the middle of a battlefield or declaring peace. To carry a flag above your head in broad daylight, in situations other than the mentioned, was the same as signalling your position to your enemies, according to him at least. The other three were of some value, the crossbowman ranking above the swordsman and woman, for he could hit their feral target from a distance whilst being out of sight, not to mention his armor was made out of leather, light and adequate for quick soundless maneuvering. The rest wore blackened steel plates over chainmail and would come in handy in case of a mindless attack by thieves. Overall, the young master was not too content with this grouping, but what made him even more displeased was their manner of transportation.
Standing at about eighteen hands in height, Ferronian horses were huge in comparison to their lowland brethren. Massive, with a strong musculature to pull or carry any load, their lack of speed did not come in the way of being perfect for journeying through the mountains. With feathered feet, strength and endurance on their side, they succeeded on the trail where other steeds fell. On top of their physical properties, most animals were docile and friendly, so it was uncommon to hear of one biting or kicking its owner. Among these gentle giants Skye not only felt short, but also chained. With the ability to fly he could reach the border much faster than if he were on horseback. There were the storms and winds to consider, but even those negatives did not make the idea appealing. Alas, rules were rules, until they were at a good distance from Snowheart, of course. ‘It better not take forever to get down to the first post. Otherwise, I’m ditching these guys and flying the rest of the way.’ he thought as he climbed onto his black steed.
Once they were assured that everything was packed, the party left through Serpentine gate and went through the many layers of the city, from the prosperous to the poor, and there was not a time when they were not observed by the many eyes of passers by. With their height now doubled, it was as if titans were marching in the streets, the sound of heavy steps of the hooves adding to the impression. The townspeople either bowed or nodded their heads and once or twice a blessing along the lines of “May the brother gods watch over you!” could be heard, namely between the middle and third wall and beyond.
Those people Skye considered to be among the crown fools of the city. The Valean religion had slowly made its way into Ferros and its lore was so outrageous to him that it made him laugh. Allegedly, there was one god, who on a whim decided to split himself in two. From those two parts two new gods were formed and those two gods created the known world. One made the absolutes, like demons and angels, while the other - the land and humanity. But the first god thought humanity was a stupid idea, so he tried to destroy it. The second god sacrificed his eternal life to separate the so called “spiritual” and “physical realms”, in order to save his creations. When that happened, that first god too gave up his immortality to give humans a soul and magic. It was so hilarious that the mage could snicker at it for days and he wasn’t the only one. The majority of Ferronians couldn’t take in this imaginary story seriously enough to accept it as a religion. They had more important things to do in their lives than pray to something they didn’t even know whether or not existed and even their own beliefs they largely took as fairy tales, as part of their culture they were meant to preserve for the sake of their ancestors and the nation’s honor and history. Yet this preposterous belief was setting up roots in the kingdom, mostly among the poorer folk that resided in the capital and bigger cities. ‘Weaklings will believe and take anything.’ was the way Skye put it in his mind. Those, who didn’t have a cause, a desire, inner strength or some common sense would think even the darkest of nights was a bright sunny day.
After exiting the unwalled areas of Snowheart, the group headed upwards on the dirt path, past the grassy hills, where sheep with faces overshadowed by curly wool grazed and shepherd dogs barked and stared at the travelers. With heavy steps the horses stepped on the rocky trail, once or twice kicking a rock backwards. It had rained, yet the ground was not quite muddy, for the earth sucked in the water quickly, which was one of the many inspirations for the Ferronian tales of the snake that could not go to the surface and had to drink from the soil. On the road there were barely any puddles, for there was barely any distance between the stones. It went straight forward for barely a kilometer and from then onwards began the curves and turns, which would be a common sight further ahead. The higher they went, the stronger the winds blew and the few broad-leaved trees that could be seen all but vanished, giving way to the tall pines, the smell of which was just as chilling as the wind. The forest was quiet, the mist crawling on its dry needle leaf floor, but every once or twice the knocking of a woodpecker on the ashy bark could be heard. The serenity here was specific, found nowhere else, other than in the mountains. The cold that reached your very bones had a kind and gentle touch, almost making you think it was warm. The wind was a mere light breeze in the woods, but once the party reached newer levels, where white patches could be seen on the ground, it picked up and messed with the mortals’ hair just as an elder would scratch a child’s head with their long wrinkly fingers. It was in times like these that most travelers reached for their hats or scarves, but not this gathering of six. They had grown up in such conditions and it did not bother them at all. In fact, Skye enjoyed having the wind blow in his face, since he felt as though it was cleaning his eyes and making him see clearly. Gradually a thick white cover tucked in the land and little white stars as cold as ice started falling slowly from the heavens. The group had stumbled on a snow cloud on the upper levels of the mountain, which was no surprise. It was anticipated to meet heavy snow, but even that would not stop the mighty horses for marching forwards under their masters’ demands. Yet the clouds were broken, allowing the sun’s rays to break through and shine upon the valley below, which responded with a vivid violet shimmer from the many plants, which farmers largely grew on their terraced fields. The morning sky was visible in the open patches, its colour a light blue with ginger and pink playfully waltzing through it and staining the clouds in their shades. It was a beautiful parade of light.
The bowman and woman knight halted their horses to admire the view, which prompted the bannerman and warrior to also delay themselves, in order to glance at the hometown they would not see in the days to come, yet Skye did not pull the reins of his horse. He had no reason to turn around and look at the sight he had seen for the greater part of his life. Many times he had flown upwards and seen the valley in the colours of every season and he had grown sick of it. The time had come for a change of view, for a new place he could gaze out and wander. Every bird longs to leave its cage, be it of iron or gold.
"You won't be gone forever, we'll be back in a few months." the bannerman laughed. “It better be a few months.” Skye resonded.
The young mage was still a bit grouchy, even after they had traveled this far. The cloak was warm and cozy, but also heavy. The motion of being on a horse for that long made him feel slightly sick and nothing had happened to spark his interest. This was a Ferronian group, after all. It was unlike them to sing or engage in a conversation for long. Skye was on the verge or freezing the ground below the horses just so he could see what would happen, when Jorah spoke to him:
"There's another soldier waiting for us at Schuyler post. He'll be our guide through the Valarian wilderness." the guardian told him. “Another pest, huh. How annoying. We’re hunting down a feral mage, not a buried treasure. Just listen for the screams of terror.” the magician replied with a smirk at the end. “Without the clashing of swords, though. Those Valarians are killing each other down there, right? Perfect, just the entertainment we need. Once the stronger ones die out we can just move the border west to our liking.”
Genshal trudged after Sir Doyle with all the bad grace he could muster. Apparently in this man's parlance, 'go and get some rest' translated to 'spend several hours telling me everything you know, then follow me around all day so you can repeat it to all interested parties'. The past hours had been spent fielding insightful questions from Elric Grey's commanders such as “why aren't there any cavalry?” and “what do you mean you don't know how many mages?” Genshal had initially tried to explain that horses were not good at climbing over city walls, and that the magic contingent marched under great secrecy, but swiftly fell back on the security of ignorance when the questioning became too tiresome. Part of the code of the sell sword, when in doubt, pretend to be stupid. If you can't pass for stupid, at least be ignorant.
“Tell me again about the siege equipment.” Doyle asked as they walked.
“I didn't see any.”
“Don't light footsoldiers usually toe the artillery?”
“And you were in the only company of light infantry?”
“So if you didn't see any, there probably isn't any.” Doyle concluded.
“And you're sure you saw nothing of the mages?” Said Doyle.
“For the fourth time, no, I saw nothing of the mages.”
“Would you have noticed them if there was a large contingent?”
Doyle clicked his teeth in frustration, but kept walking. By this time in the day they were no longer walking alone. Their path through the city had been joined by a young lady whose name Genshal was neglecting to remember. Genshal enjoyed women, and this one was not unattractive, but he disapproved of their presence in war. Most women, he felt, were prone to breaking down in fits of tears or menstruation at the most inconvenient of times. Those that didn't were invariably a few furlongs north of lunacy, and not to be trusted an inch. This one was babbling to Sir Doyle about some map she had apparently found, and had numerous sharp objects strapped about her person. Genshal had pegged her as fitting into category two and was keeping his distance. For this reason he found himself walking a little apart from the group, and for this reason it was he who noticed the man squatting in the creek.
'Just another peasant' was his first thought; Gods new the city had enough of them. Refugees had clustered from miles around, determined to aid the revolution by eating all their food and getting in the way. A soldier’s eyes however are quick to pick up subtle wrongness with the world. When you live your life one skirmisher’s arrow away from an arrow in the throat, you learn to assess the scenery quickly. The creek was little more than an old tidal inlet, long since dammed and inexpertly drained of water. Now it was home to little more than long grass and an endless supply of mud; there was little reason for anyone to be down there. Someone, however; was, and not only was he where he had no reason to be, but across his back was strung a rather fine longbow. Genshal had seen Elric's army; farm-boys and forge-hands with cheap crossbows and not much else. Such bows as existed were being hoarded atop the walls to repel the impending invaders, not taken out for a pleasant stroll through knee deep bog water. Either the man in the creek was someone too important to stop, or he was dangerously out of place.
Genshal stood atop the ridge, contemplating how much to care about this development. From Dole's droning it was becoming clear that Elric Grey desired nothing more than a glorious and heroic death, but that would render this entire journey a waste of time. On the other hand, a man marching through a river of peat hardly constituted an immediate danger, and Genshal had learned the value of not provoking unnecessary conflict. For one thing, it led to a generally easier life, and for another, you didn't get arrows fired at you. Genshal disliked being shot in the head, so he remained atop the bank, looking down at his quarry just in case it did anything interesting.
“Do you see that?”
Genshal hated when people moved like that. He considered it common courtesy to make some noise when approaching another from behind, but the woman had moved with cat like stealth and was suddenly beside him, whispering in his ear and causing him to flinch sideways and then feel like an idiot.
“No.” He said.
“There's a man down there in the creek.” said the woman.
“He could be a spy.”
“He could be a drunkard.”
Genshal disliked spies. Every element of an army, from the general to the quartermaster, was prone to overestimate its own importance, but spies were the worst of all. Every one of them was convinced that it was only their sneaking keeping the whole army from total annihilation at the hands of some half baked plot they probably invented in the first place. Spies saw other spies behind every tree, and secret plots in every corner. Genshal was quietly convinced that most of them simply made it up in exchange for better rations and not having to get their hands dirty in battle. The woman might be right, but her paranoia coupled with Doyle's droning and his own lack of sleep had left him disinclined to be helpful.
“We should investigate.” she said.
“We? He's not my business. If you've got any sense you won't make him yours.”
Genshal hardly bothered to keep the sneer out of his voice, and at the sound of it the man spun around. He fixed on the pair a look of abject terror, and scuttled off between the rushes out of sight.
“There, problem solved.”
Genshal walked off, not giving the woman a chance to respond. If she wanted to poke about in the mud then she could be his guest, he had no doubt it would do her good to get her hands dirty. He, however, had not been hired for his espionage skills.
Another skill he had not been hired for was his political intrigue, but this did little to deter Doyle from dragging him along to what this rabble probably considered to be a meeting of the high command.
Genshal had seen both pretender kings before. Theron was a little young, Myres and little fat, but both seemed suited for leadership far more than Elric Grey. The man was of near diminutive size and possessing of a face several decades too old for his body. What possessed fools to follow this man was beyond him, idealism or stupidity presumably. The more Genshal saw of this army, the more he began to suspect that he fitted into the later category himself. The man was courteous enough as he interrogated Genshal for what seemed the hundredth time about the opposing army.
“That doesn't seem enough men to take the city.” Grey finally concluded.
“I don't know. Your defenders are contemptible.”
“Watch your tongue, sellsword.” This was Doyle, jumping to his lord's defence, but Elric Grey simply raised a hand and fixed Genshal with a pointed look.
“What is your name, Mercenary?” He asked.
“Well, Hyres, where I come from we speak of our fellow soldiers with a little respect. The people's army numbers 3000 men, each one of whom would gladly lay down his life for the cause.”
“I've seen them,” said Genshal, “Grocers and Farmers. Bravery makes for poor armour. Laying down their lives is what most of them will do.”
From that point on Genshal was excluded from the discussions, and sat bored at the table as a litany of rotating bodies bickered about rationing and troop placement. His eyes wandered round the table, seeking out the traditional hangers on. His eyes rested momentarily on a hulk of a man who seemed better dressed than the rest of the rabble. Grey hair sprouted from his head, and the others treated him with almost the same deference as Elric Grey himself. Genshal didn't recognise him, but a good rule of thumb was to never upset a man who might have fought Malfear. They tended to lack a sense of humour about things.
The men argued tiresomely about whether Theron was going to attack or wait for reinforcements, for all the world as if it mattered. Genshal was sure they would end up standing atop the walls, attack or no, rendering the whole discussion completely pointless. Then the woman, whose name was apparently Raven, chimed in with the unexpected revelation that she'd uncovered a secret Valian fleet sailing on the city. Genshal doubted it.
Since the revolution, Valial held no ports on the shore of the Gilded Ocean. Any fleet sailing on Vespar would have to round the entire Gorgon peninsula and would arrive long after the foot soldiers. It would also have to sail through a long, narrow channel with Theron's army on one side, and Myres' on the other. Either the woman was making it all up, or someone was pulling the wool over her eyes. Genshal doubted that many enemies would leave poorly cyphered copies of their plans lying around – possibly Theron was trying to force Elric Grey into an act of desperate stupidity, though from the sound of it the man would need little encouragement on that front. Three times already he had raised the possibility of throwing his life away to bring down Lord Theron, seemingly convinced that his cause would survive his death. Genshal didn't share his optimism. If Grey fell then his revolution would crumble. Shawn of their charismatic leader the soldiers, if such a word could be used, would break and return to their farms. No, keeping Elric Grey alive was the only was the ensure his continued employment – and that meant stopping him from dying to his own stupidity before he fell to superior numbers. Not an easy task.
It was as Genshal was contemplating how a man desperate to martyr himself could be dissuaded from doing so that there game a commotion from outside, and another figure was escorted into the command tent.
Sir Elric mulled over Nyirr's thoughts for a moment in silence, rocking back in his wooden seat as he rubbed his chin in thought, "You're right, Theron isn't in a position to refuse. An evacuation may buy us enough time to properly fortify the city." Sir Elric then turned to the mage and asked ," You're lucky to have this man as a mentor, I hope you're learning from the experience."
"I am, I've learned he can't cook," Nitia jested and Sir Elric laughed. Nyirr, on a more serious note inquired how far Nitia was prepared to push herself when the battle may come to which she replied ," As far as I can."
It was then did Sir Doyle enter the room, his face flustered with concern. He glanced over at Nitia and Nyirr and a bewildered expression crossed his face, "Nyirr of the tower?"
"Nyirr of the tower," Sir Elric affirmed with a light laugh. He turned to Nyirr and commented, "I expect you're going to get that a lot."
Sir Doyle made an uneasy smile and a small bow to Nyirr before turning to Sir Elric with dire eyes, "We have a serious issue at hand."
"And what would that be, friend?"
Sir Doyle exhaled and turned to look at the door behind him, motioning for Genshal and Raven to enter. Genshal entered first and promptly explained Lord Theron had diverted the majority of his army to deal with the Valeans to the north, and then after a few ill chosen words was thereafter excluded from the conversation. Raven then chimed in with her discovery of the Valean fleet, showing the commanders the cipher she had discovered. Following the light of this recent news, there was brief moment of silence between the party before more talks went underway.
Finally Sir Elric stated, "A Valean fleet sailing on Vespar would not only have to sail around the Gorgon peninsula but through the central channel. By itself the channel is nearly impossible to navigate, but with hostile armies on either shore I can't see any fleet managing this feat," he finished looking to Nyirr with his brow furrowed, shaking his head in disbelief.
"It's possible," Sir Doyle began ," That Lord Theron discovered this and deployed his forces to capture Vespar first. He could have attacked us earlier in the year but he chose now to act, I think because this was a new discovery to him as well. The Valeans countered by mobilizing an army to march on his domain, forcing him to double back. Leaving a small enough detachment to corner us in would fit with both the mercenaries statements and Raven's findings."
"You haven't been wrong yet," Sir Elric murmured in agreement as he looked to the spy. He then stood and wandered to a nearby window which overlooked the docks and the ocean. A storm was approaching, earlier it had been but a glimpse over the ocean but now it covered the horizon and lumbered forward menacingly, the very fient sounds of thunder echoed through the air. He loosed a heavy sigh and turned to the others ,"Begin the evacuation of the city. Prepare the ships in dock to set sail immediately, we may still have time."
Sir Elric looked at Doyle, Nyirr and Nitia respectively, "Follow the coast to the House of the Fallen God, you know the island?" Sir Erlic inquired looking to Doyle, who shook his head in affirmation. "Good. The civilians will be evacuated immediately."
"We don't have enough ships for everyone, even if we pack them to the rim we can't fit everyone," Sir Doyle reminded Elric. "Anyone not on the ships will stay behind with me."
"Are you mad?"
"Not at all," Sir Elric responded with a weak grin, "Lord Theron has no calvalry, remember? We have horses when they don't."
"Pack horses! Not fit to lay your life on!"
"But faster than men on foot. We may be able to escape into the forest if we leave before Theron surrounds the city."
"Then you'll be cut off from your army with enemy forces in every direction, reconsider!"
Sir Elric looked at Nyirr a final time, "This may be fate. If in two weeks time if I do not rejoin you on the island, you'll take the mantle of the republic, and Doyle is here to witness you being pledged my successor," Sir Elric gave a soft laugh, "News that Nyirr of the Tower is leading the faction will do more good for the cause then an old, disgruntled knight leading the cause. If I don't see you again, congratulations, you're a Bannerlord."
Nitia turned to Nyirr who was seated at her side and raised her eyebrows in quiet shock
Then Sir Elric's attention shifted to Raven, he gave her a small reassuring nod , "I trust you."
Either Sir Elric's army would narrowly escape the jaws of death, or he would needlessly abandon the city to his enemies without a fight. Losing Vespar would cost their foothold in Valaria and reestablishing themselves would be nigh impossible, but if Raven's report was true then there was nothing more which could be done. Then, another guest entered the room, a woman.
__________Somewhere in the Valean Countryside__________
Kotori, Alaric and Tegan
Thanks to Kotori's direction the team was able to maneuver around the Order's search party. Alaric's water constructs were fast in their search, with physical barriers doing little to slow them down. They seeped through every crack and crevice and swept from house to house. The grasshopper jumped unto the ledge of a window and pushed its head under the glass, liquefying itself to slide under only to reform on the the inside of the home. The creature searched room to room but found nothing of note, the occupants of the home were gathered by the front window, whispering to one another as they glanced out. One of them turned to look at the floor boards for a moment before redirecting his attention back outside. The grasshopper then promptly allowed itself to seep between the floor boards of the home and found itself in a narrow space under the flooring. Dark and damp the feint sound of breathing could be heard for nestled in the corner, covered in dirt and crying with fear was a little girl. Quickly the grasshopper lifted itself out of the hiding hole and darted back to its master, prepared to lead him to the young girl.
The search party of the Order was drawing near the home, now only a few houses down. They were slow in their search, deliberate and leaving nothing unturned, but they would be upon the girl soon. It was possible for the group to sneak in and grab the girl if they approached the home from the back, but with the ever larger growing number of people wandering to watch the search it was doubtful they would be able to leave with the girl unseen. Once they had the girl they would have to be quick in their escape, for surely the Order would see and pursue. Nine against three, on horseback and escorting a child it would be a task to truly test their steel, the Order after all were men trained and experienced specifically in fighting Mages and their Guardians.
__________Somewhere in the Gorgon Swamplands___________
Lucien and Itzli
"Lucien Blackwater!" Lorian, the Hunstman, announced at the sight of his target, "You've been a hard catch, but now I have you. Make it easy for us both Lucien, and surrender," Lorain said with a wide smile as he opened his arms in a beckoning motion. "Despite being a rebel leader, we're prepared to offer you a swift beheading." The Huntsman removed his black leather gloves and tied them off to his belt, the fire started within the camp was spreading now from tent to tent, and as fighting encircled the two, the ranger and the huntsman, soldiers from both sides did not dare interfere with the quarrel between these two men. Lorian unsheathed his blade, a curved short sword with a dark leather handle. He then began sidestepping to circle Lucien, the embers from the burning tents fell like snow around them and smoke trapped by the dense foliage of the swamp was beginning to cloud the area.
The Huntsman was no trifling foe. Rested and well Lucien stood on even ground with the man, but Lorian was a veteran hunter, having tracked and fought a number of men in single combat he was no matter to take lightly. He swirled his blade about in his right hand in a graceful arc as he slowly approached the ranger, he spoke as he came forward , "You'll be my fourth Blackwater since the war. The other three were... disappointing. What a fuss everyone makes over a simple name. Blackwater. The sooner your kind is a thing of the past the easier my job will be. I must say, the Gorgon's said you could vanish into the swamp, but you so haphazardly left me a trail to follow I question their competence now."
Lucien's forces were holding their own well enough for having been ambushed, but they were dying quickly and would not be able to hold their ground for much longer. If Lucien chose to engage the Hunstman, he had a chance of killing the man, as dismal as it may be, but if the fight took too long his own forces would be defeated and he would find himself surrounded. Lucien could entertain the fight, but if he was unable to defeat the Huntsman quickly he may have to withdraw and collect his forces.
_________Somewhere in the Valarian Wilderness__________
Edessa and Emil
In the glimpse of a moment Edessa caught the site of a man unlike the petty thieves besieging them. Dressed in intricate leather armor and with a fine steel blade at his side he watched the fight from atop his black mare, peering at her as if the fog was no obstacle. When he realized she had seen him, he silently retreated into the fog, vanishing. The fog around the convoy lessened, it was possible Edessa had been right, this fog was no natural fog for as the man retreated this interruption to his concentration caused the fog to visibly alter. He keen perception allowed her to hear the feint sounds of a horse galloping away, the man, whoever he was, was retreating and the fog was quickly dissipating with his retreat. He had not counted on the ranger being among them, and he had not gauged her abilities to navigate past his spell. "It's been a while since i've seen a mage," Gaarth remarked idly to his companion as they waited for the thieves to act.
When the thieves saw the fog begin to lift, and with those that saw the man retreat, they too began to flee. A few were still assaulting the caravan, and those who had encircled the trio of Emil, Edessa and Gaarth did not budge, for they were poised to strike. First came the lunge of a spear, quickly deflected by Gaarth's sword, with a mighty strike Gaarth backhanded the assailant with his gauntlet with a loud crack, knocking a few of the cut throat's teeth from his mouth. The others attacked simultaneously, they were slow and inexperienced however, allowing Emil and Edessa to dodge their attacks with relative ease, but they were numerous. An arrow fired from one in the rear caught Edessa in the shoulder, but shattered as it struck Emil's protective ward, leaving the woman unscathed. Emil himself narrowly dodged a swing at his head, but was caught in the shin by another spear. The blade only skimmed his armor, leaving a scratch, but the wielder reared back and prepared for another lunge.
Lucien cut through the last Gorgon between him and the cloaked man leading the attack on the rebel camp and kicked the body away from him. The Gorgon soldier fell to the mud and lay there motionless as the last Blackwater stepped over him and toward the unknown man, who was beckoning the rebel leader forward, his words cutting through the sounds of battle. Lucien stopped in his tracks a good five feet or so away from the man as he removed his gloves and drew his curved sword. Lucien had only seen swords with curved blades a handful of times, if that. He had read about them in his youth though and the techniques required to use them properly; one must use wide strokes in order for the blade to slice through flesh, as stabbing was not possible with such a blade.
Lucien took notice of the fire spreading as embers rained down and sparked other tents in the camp. Those fighting near Lucien and his cloaked opponent formed a kind of circle around the two, refusing to go near them as they slowly circled one another with swords drawn. A snarl crossed Lucien’s face as the man insulted his bloodline by saying the other Blackwaters he had killed were disappointing to him. It was hard to tell which of his relatives the man had killed. The eldest Blackwater watched the curved sword arch through the air, catching the light of the fire and turning orange with each passing arch. Blood trickled down the blade Lucien’s sword as he raised it slightly, ready for battle.
Lucien was the first to make a move as he broke the circling pattern to lunge forward in a downward slash easily blocked with a graceful arch of the man’s blade. The rebel leader lunged a second time in a stab directed at the enemy leader’s stomach. The cloaked man blocked again with a lazy arch of his curved blade. A soft glow began at Lucien’s fingertips and grew until it lit his palm. With a small wave of his hand, Lucien stepped away from the cloaked man, the fog suddenly becoming impossibly thick and growing darker. Lucien’s footfalls were as silent as a cat’s as he stepped around the man and away a few yards.
“Retreat! Use the fog as cover,” Lucien’s voice came from all sides at once, amplified to a loud rumble akin to thunder.
As his voice echoed and bounced around the trees of the swamp, he stepped silently through the fog, seeing as though he had not cast an illusion. He positioned himself behind the cloaked man and lunged forward, aiming a slash at the man’s back. The enemy leader was able to barely duck under the slash, escaping with nothing but a torn cloak. The man swung his curved blade in the direction Lucien had attacked from, but he had already slipped around to the man’s flank and slashed forward again. The man managed to block the second blow as well, but with less grace than when he could see the attacks coming before they were right upon him; if not for his quick reflexes he would not be able to block the attacks at all. Lucien continued his pattern of lunging forward from the fog and then moving to another position only to lunge again, with no particular pattern to keep the man guessing.
“Am I as disappointing of a fight as my other kin,” again Lucien’s voice thundered from all sides of the man.
The enemy leader looked in each direction, trying as he might to detect the location of Lucien’s voice, but it was impossible. Lucien hoped that his illusions would buy his men enough time to escape along with the civilians as well as the sick. Hopefully they found their way out of the fog surrounding the cloaked men and the Gorgon soldiers. The sounds of sword clashing still penetrated the fog, now accompanied with the sound of fire burning the canvas tents the rebels had called home; as awful as the fires were they were actually helping the illusion by adding more smoke to further thicken the fog around the Gorgon soldiers and their leader.
Itzli nodded in response to Lucien’s words, about to mention that leading men into battle didn’t involve taking unnecessary risks that would more than likely get him killed when several arrows pierced the canvas of the tent, the sound of steel clashing against steel following shortly afterwards. Lucien wasted no time in jumping to his feet and darting out of the tent, almost immediately engaging an enemy.
Though she felt that her skills would be better suited to helping defeat the enemy, Itzli decided to follow Lucien’s wishes. Turning to the balding physician, she said, “Stay here until I return. I’m going to gather some men and we’ll take everyone who can’t fight to safety. Don’t worry about men coming in here. I’ll curse the area to protect you.” And she did, taking a few moments to lay the spell over the area of the tent, creating a nasty curse that would disorient any enemy who crossed into the area. It wouldn’t have nearly as severe an effect as if she had used it on an individual, but it should be enough of a deterrent to keep people from trying, if the fact that it was a medical tent wasn’t enough to make it an unappealing target.
Once the slight protection was set up, Itzli ran out of the tent, heading in the direction of the civilian tents. Most of the fighting hadn’t yet made it past the outer ring of tents, which was rather surprising given the fact that they were ambushed while they were preparing to relax for the night. The civilian tents were inside the camp, but near the edge, so it was unlikely that they had been left entirely untouched, though most soldiers tended to ignore civilians.
Along the way, Itzli ran into a couple pockets of fighting. Her arrival, always a surprise, was enough to tip the tides of the fighting in their favor, and few of the rebels were injured on the way to their destination. As expected, there had been very little fighting taking place in the civilian area. Most of the civilians were still there, huddling in their tents until the fighting was over. The enemy troops had apparently checked the various tents for rebels, or, more than likely, Lucien himself, as the flaps that made their entrances were hacked through and out of the way.
The civilians, recognizing Itzli and the small force of six or seven men she had picked up along the way as allies, were eager to emerge from the tent and follow orders, which meant that it wasn’t difficult for her to explain that they were going to head back to the medical tent and before escaping. Once she was certain that everyone understood, she began leading the way back to the medical tent, taking the most direct path, as it passed through the interior of the camp where the fighting was the least intense.
Incidentally, they only ran into one small group of enemy soldiers that were heading towards where the fighting was the heaviest. Considering the enemy was outnumbered at least three to one, and that the rebels had caught them by surprise, it wasn’t shocking to see that they weren’t an obstacle for very long. Itzli herself had taken out the last man as he tried to run, darting forward with surprising speed and thrusting her sword through his back before yanking it out and wiping the blood off with the man’s cloak.
Regardless, it wasn’t long before they arrived at the medical tent where, fortunately, everyone was still safe and sound. “Ah! Lady Itzli, you’re back!” the physician exclaimed, clearly relieved to see someone he knew could protect them. “I don’t think that any of the enemy soldiers tried to get in here, but I’d rather not wait around to see if they do try.”
Itzli nodded before speaking. “Anybody who can help carry the sick or injured, line up over here,” she said, gesturing to the right side of the tent. The able-bodied men of the group, and even a few of the women, lined up dutifully, ready to help their fellow man escape the enemy. Part of Itzli wondered if it was the fact that they knew what lay in store for them if they were caught that prompted such behavior, though she wasn’t able to grasp it herself.
The process of assigning people to carry others was longer than most would expect. Some of the sick or injured were entirely unable to help support themselves, so it required a very strong man, like the blacksmith, or two men to carry. And then it had to be decided who would be best suited to carrying whom, which itself involved a lot of shuffling around. But eventually everyone was accounted for, and they were able to slip out the back and head towards the escape route. Hopefully, they wouldn’t run into a great deal of opposition. The fighting sounded to be mostly behind them, but there was always the chance that enemy soldiers were among the tents at the edge in front of the escape route.