Chapter Three: The Message of the Dreams
Christian was pushing his way through the woods, stubbornly trying to find the source of the smoke. He could hear a voice crying out, he could hear the crackling of flames. Then he emerged into the clearing but instead of seeing the cabin in flames, he was in a completely alien landscape. A small city lay before him. A number of carriages were engulfed in flames. People were scurrying all around to try to put the fires out before they reached the nearby houses. Christian ignored them and they ignored him. He continued towards the center of the city, where the voice was calling out to him. It sounded close, but it was coming from high above him. Then he saw the great structure ahead of him, rising up into the night sky, almost disappearing in the darkness. Then he heard the cry again. “Why have you forsaken me?” But now he realized that it was the voice of a young girl crying out to him. A small group of men, dressed in cloaks with swords at their side, ran past him. But his eyes were locked on the girl in the tower. Her eyes were filled with despair and they seemed to stare right through him. Her arms were reaching out to him from the window far above. All he could do was stand there and stare at this anguished beauty. Then, with a sudden rush, he felt himself being pulled away from the tower. He was in the forest once again, tree branches rushed past him, slapping him in the face, but he felt no pain. He stopped near a small lake. A group of men were crouched over something near the shore. One man stood up and turned to face Christian. A look of recognition crossed the old man’s face and then he began to speak. “It is in a high place.” Then he stopped as if the conversation had ended. He turned back towards his men and then paused, as if remembering something. He turned to face Christian once again. “Whatever you do - “ Suddenly Christian felt himself being pulled away once again. the man’s lips continued to move but he could hear nothing. Then the man and everything else faded from view. All was blackness, then all was light.
He awoke on the floor next to his bed. He did not know exactly how to feel. He was torn inside. The anguish of the girl still weighed heavy upon his heart, but there was something else, like a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. A terrible weight he had carried around with him since the day his parents died. The dream had not been a premonition of the fire. He had not failed them. But then there was the girl. She spoke to him, she was asking him for help. Perhaps he could somehow save her. But who was she? And where was she? He quickly dressed and went outside.
Amber caught up to him as he was walking towards the old library. She matched his stride and smiled at him, curious over the happy expression on his face.
“So what makes you so cheerful this morning?”
“I had another dream last night.”
“Usually that puts you in the mood to start hacking away at defenseless trees. So what was special about last night's dream?”
“Normally I wake as soon as I hear the voice crying out, but I didn't last night. I came out of the trees and realized that it wasn't our cabin that was on fire. I was somewhere completely different. But it was the same dream, I only saw more of it. I still think it was a vision of some sort, some kind of premonition or a message sent to me. It was all so vivid. There was this girl.”
“This beautiful girl. I had thought before that it was my mother's voice but it was actually much younger. There was this great tower, so high, if it were in Esria we could see it from here. She was so high up in it, yet I could see her perfectly. She stared right at me, as if this dream was her way of reaching me. Her eyes... I think she wants me to rescue her.”
Amber tried unsuccessfully to hold back a laugh.
“I like this new you Christian. I've never seen you so spontaneous. After all the times I've tried to get you to go adventuring with me, now you decide to go off to rescue some helpless beauty in a tower. So where do you expect to find her?”
“In the library.”
“Oh of course, for years now I've heard this unexplained scratching noise at the back of the poetry cabinet.”
“No silly,” Christian gives her a playful swat to the back of her head, “I want to find the tower. Something that big has got to be in one of those books. You told me before that the place is full of maps.”
“Yeah, and you'd never come check them out with me. Now I don't know if I should even help you.”
“Well I haven't asked for your help. Though I certainly could use it.”
“And you actually think this place is real? That this girl in your dreams exists?”
“These dreams I've been having, they're not like any other dreams I've had before. I feel as if I were actually there. Everything was so real. Look, how's this: if I actually find this tower on one of the maps, we can both go off in search of it.”
“You'll actually allow me to join you? Listen Chris, if this little adventure takes you anywhere further than half a mile from here I'll have to join you. Do you think I'd let the likes of you go trapsing off into the wilderness by yourself? You can't be trusted on your own.”
“Anything to help.”
Christian coughed as he blew a layer of dust from one of the books in the library. “And you say you come in here often? Didn't you ever think to dust?”
“That's woman's work.”
“And what are you?”
Amber grinned and flashed him a mischievous smile.
“Anyway, we've been through every book I can think of. A tower like that would have to be mentioned somewhere if it were real.
“The man said it was in a high place.”
“What, the tower?”
“Maybe he meant the book.”
The two of them looked up and began searching for any books on the upper shelves. On one of the center shelves, partly hanging over the edge, sat an enormous leather bound book. Amber raised an eyebrow to him. She looked around for a chair. Finding none, she offered to hoist him up.
Putting a foot against one of the precarious bookshelves, he placed the other in Amber's cupped hands. As he raised himself up to the top of the shelf, Amber could hear the floorboards groan under their combined weight. Christian grabbed the heavy book from the top. Amber looked down at the floor again.
“That doesn't make sense, why would - “
And then the floorboards gave way. Her left foot broke through, jagged timbers slicing at her leg. Christian toppled and hit the floor next to her, going right through it and disappearing into darkness. The heavy book landed next to the gaping hole left by Christian.
Carefully pulling her bloodied leg from the hole, Amber peered down into the darkness below. “Christian?”
His head poked up through the floor. “I'm in pain, but I think I'm okay. God, look at your leg.”
“Ahh, it's nothing,” she said with a smile. “You sure you're okay? You took quite the fall there.”
“Just don't ask me to sit down for a few days. I think I know exactly which part of me broke the fall.” he paused for a second as he conspicuosly rubbed his rump. “So what are you waiting for, let's take a look at that book. We've paid dearly for it, let's see if it was worth the price.”
Amber finished pulling a splinter out of her thigh, then pulled herself over to the other side of the hole. Opening up the book, she began to flip through it. Then she paused on one page.
“The starlit skies within your eyes, they sing to me of history. And if I find another true, they will not be as dear as you. I've got to hand it to you and your premonitions Chris, I never knew such bad poetry could be found in this library. Oh, check this one out, it's even better. Chris? Hey Chris?”
She leaned over the edge of the hole and peered into the darkness. Seeing nothing, she eased herself down and waited until her eyes adjusted to the darkness. Just as she began to make out the outlines of the rocky walls, Christian leaped at her from out of nowhere. Amber jumped and let out a bit of a cry. As Christian was laughing, she punched him hard in the shoulder.
“Hey, I was just getting you back for making fun of my premonitions. I know I can't explain it, but there was something special about those dreams.”
Amber began looking around the gloomy basement. “I never knew this place existed. See those stairs over there? They just lead up to the solid floor. Someone wanted to seal this place up. Why?”
“Oh great, we've just fallen into the lair of a great beast that has been sealed away to protect the village for hundreds of generations.”
In one corner, they came across an old chest. It was covered in dirt and dust. The lock was almost rusted away to nothing and the bottom had rotted out of it. The smell of must and decay was almost overwhelming.
“Shall we open it?” asked Christian, gesturing Amber towards the chest.
“I thought you were the one wanting to be adventurous today.”
They tried pushing the chest towards the other end of the basement in order to get a better view of it, but the chest didn't want to budge. Chunks of rotten wood came off in their hands as they tried. Giving up on the idea of moving it, Amber reached over to the lid and tied to open it. It practically fell apart in her hands. The rusted lock, rendered useless by countless years, crumbled silently to the floor. Within the chest was another, slightly smaller box. This did not appear to be locked and still seemed sturdy, untouched by the dampness that had destoyed its outer shell.Carefully reaching in, she grabbed hold of the box, slowly lifted it out, and carried it over to where the light streamed down from the section that Christian had fallen through.
Christian crouched next to her as she pried the top off. Inside were a number of very old books of varying styles and quality. The topmost one looked ancient and yet was the sturdiest of the group. Amber pulled out this first book and began to look through its fragile pages, filled with strange symbols and characters. Christian opened the next book. Seeing it filled with rather illegible scribbles in what he assumed were half a dozen different languages, he set it aside and went for the third. It was written in a plain style with a steady hand. Amongst the pages were numerous drawings and keepsakes and maps. Pulling out one ragged paper, he held it up for Amber to see. “So what do you think of my premonitions now?” Drawn in black ink, set against a background of clouded sky, stood a great tower.
Chapter Four: It Begins Once Again
Crance was carrying a large armload of wood towards a wagon. The guards eyed him as he tossed the bundle onto the growing pile. As he left, he passed another man coming with a load, Without looking his way, he whispered "tomorrow night". The other man cleared his throat and continued walking towards the guards. Crance set off towards the woods for another load. It was almost as if they knew their plans and wanted to make certain they were too tired and sore for any action. Crance just gritted his teeth and let the pain build his hatred, something he was going to need if he wanted to kill.
The villagers even took this sort of forced labour for granted. Some fools were even convinced that it was the least they could do to pay the Amberians back for their protection. The Amberians actually had the gawl to say that! Subtle slavery was more the truth of it. Not much longer Crance reminded himself. The time of complacency was about to end.
Later that evening, while he sat in front of a meagre fire, trying to ease his aching shoulders, his father approached, looking pale and uneasy.
"What's wrong father?"
"I beg of you son, do not go through with this plan of yours. You must let things stay the way they are. Don't be so foolish as to bring death and anguish upon yourself and all of us."
"Father, I told you before that my mind was set. There is nothing which you can do to change that. We are going ahead with our plans and we will succeed. We have bowed down to these self-imposed masters for far too long. If you fear for our safety then you and others should join us. Secrecy has forced us to keep our numbers small, but - "
"It is no longer a secret my son."
"What? What do you mean? Who have you told?"
"Please Crance, you must understand that I love you and would never do anything to harm you. I never mentioned your name. Let the others go, just don’t go yourself.”
“You told the Amberians? You bloody traitor! I thought you were my father, I thought I could trust you more than that.”
“See the sense behind it. You will fail. That is a certainty. What do you have? Wooden swords, a few clubs perhaps? Against their sprayers? You would last two minutes at best. Then, once the guards were finished feeding your bodies to their dogs, they would come after the rest of us. By alerting the guards, it will be quick. They won’t suffer any casualties and so they won’t take any vengeance. I have done this for the village.”
“So why do you tell me now?”
“Because I cannot let you be killed with the others.”
“But you would see me send my men to their certain deaths? What kind of a being to you think I am? Are you so heartless that you believe your son is as well? You are worthless. Not only have you betrayed me and my men, you are too weak-minded to stick to your act and keep silent to me. You are a weak old man. I would rather go with my men to certain death than to live in the sick and twisted cowardly world that you reside in. I am ashamed of you.” With that, he left the warmth of the fire and, slinging on his shirt, walked out the door and into the night, holding back an urge to slam it behind him. It was time enough for him to leave anyway, the winds were gathering, the whirlwind would soon begin.
"Alright, listen up everyone, there's been a change of plans. The Amberians know we're going to attack the supply post at Tarth River."
"How? Who told them?"
"I'm afraid it's all my fault. I tried to get some assistance from my father. A foolish thing, but I did it just the same."
"He told our plans to the guards?" exclaimed one of the men. "Well I say we slit the bloody traitor's throat."
"Hey, remember that's still Crance's father your talking about there," whispered Aelix.
"So is that it?" asked another. "Do we just drop everything and head home? I've risked a lot just showing up here this night."
"No," said Crance, "we are still going ahead, only with a change of plans. I sent Rayth and Jaun out early this morning to check out their two posts. From the looks of things, they're taking no chance in their plans of ambushing us. They have sent three quarters of their men over to Tarth River. That leaves about 15 to 20 men at the River Dobern post. I know that's slightly more than we were counting on at Tarth, but they should have at least three times the supplies there. If we can take the Dobern post, perhaps we won't have to grab everyone and run. With that kind of arsenal, we could make a stand. Show those bastards that this is our land and they are the trespassers. What do you all think?"
"I say we do it," one of the men nearly shouted. The others quietly added their agreement.
"All right then. Gather round, grab your gear." Aelix laid out several bedrolls, revealing various wooden swords, sharpened spikes, and clubs. "Sorry about the poor quality but it's the best we could muster without attracting any attention. It's the first real time we've had the whole lot of you together at once so there's a few things I'd like to go over now. How many of you have seen those Amberian sprayers in use?" A few of the men nodded. "Okay, well for those that haven't, they work sort of like this." Crance pulled out a poorly made wooden model of one of the Amberian weapons. "They drop this tube in here. The tube looks like wax but it's a lot harder. Once it's secure inside we press down on this latch here and it fires. It takes the hard wax-like substance and sprays it out in thousands of tiny slivers, thinner than nails. They're sharp enough and fast enough to go right through a person at close range. We've got these wooden plates. Hang them around your neck, drape 'em over your front. Swing it around back if you're running from them. I don't know if it will completely stop them, but it should keep you alive. If you can't escape, drop down, hide behind the shield. Cover your face with your arms. But look, it shouldn't come to that. We're going in silent. They shouldn't be expecting us at Dobern so we'll still have surprise. Once we have taken out the main guards, we should have a few real versions of this weapon. Don't be afraid to use it. Just remember, once this canister is used up, you've got to put in another. The guards should have extra canisters on them. But chances are no one will have a chance to load in more. The guards should have swords as well. Real swords. Don't count on the sprayers. I've never touched one. What I know is just from what I've seen. You're all good with swords, remember that. All right, let's go do it."
Crance and his men silently travelled through the woods, their only light coming from the shimmering moon that occasionally filtered down through the trees. Aelix cautiously approached Crance and began to whisper to him. "When I first decided to go along with your plan the other year, I did so because I believed in the same things you did. But more importantly, I respected you. I respected your judgement. Your common sense has never seemed to falter until today. I cannot believe that you could be so foolhardy as to believe your father would not turn you in. At first I just figured it was a momentary weakness at a crucial moment. But I don't buy that for a moment, I think it's something much deeper. Tell me, have you recently added cunning to your list of attributes? This opportunity of taking the main post is just too good to pass it off as luck. Do you really know your father so well that you could trust that he would turn you in?" Crance walked on silently for the longest time. "I love my father. I cannot abide by his logic and his ideals, but he means the best. The villagers will never leave the village and take off with us into the woods when we return. We need the full arsenal of weapons if we wish to have any chance of making a stand. Besides, do you really think that all our activities have gone unnoticed? I can count on you and myself, but these others? With the Amberians knowing our plans, I knew they'd do nothing to stop us. They want to kill us all at once at Tarth."
"Tell me Crance, would you ever be willing to use me or the others the way you have used your father?"
"I don't believe you would allow me to do that to you."
"That's not an answer."
"I think I already have. I've had this planned all along but kept it to myself. The only way I could truly keep my plan a secret was to tell absolutely no one about it. As is, I still don't know if we'll succeed. There are too many unknowns. What if the Amberians have still managed to catch on somehow and the troop movement from Dobern was just show."
"Relax, you've done all you can do right now. This is not the time to begin doubting yourself."
"Planning is one thing. The actual fight, that's alltogether different. I hardly even know some of these men and some of them will probably die tonight."
Their talking ceased as the sounds of the river came to them. They were only a few minutes away now. In less than half an hour, the outcome of months of planning would finally be decided. No more impatient waiting, no more sitting still and swallowing pride. This was it, good or bad, the results would be decided this night. Crance tried to calm his pounding heart, but was unable to. He wondered if the others were as nervous. He began to quietly guide the men through what was to them unfamiliar surroundings. It would have to become obvious to the men that this was not a spur of the moment decision to take this post. Crance had spent many nights here, watching the activities of the guards, noting where they rested and where they ate, knowing every aspect that he could from his hiding places. The posts proximity to the river was very fortunate. The late remnants of the spring thaw made the water toss and tumble its way over the rocks, easily masking the approach of any intruders. Four guards outside. The others would be in the main room, probably eating, sleeping, or playing Rinju. In essence it was quite simple. Trained men should easily be able to take out the guards without making more than a whimper. Once they had obtained the weapons from these guards, a single man with a sprayer could take out the others before they knew what was going on. But what about hismen? They had all trained with their wooden swords when they had the opportunity, but none of them had killed before. They were armed with carving knives and sharp wooden stakes and an array of lethal but imprecise weapons. Assuming that at least one of the guards would be able to raise a cry, he decided to take the one closest to the main door. In the event of something going wrong, he would take out this guard immediately, grab the sprayer, and do his best to make sure that no one else emerged from the building. He went over all the plans in his head as they carefully circled the post at a distance to move into position.
Crance looked up at the clouds passing across the sliver of moon. Too wispy and transparent to be of any help. The men were all in position now, all waiting on his signal. Nothing left to wait for, no excuses for putting it off. Any delay would be dangerous. From his hiding spot in the bushes he made a slight hand gesture to the unseen lurker in the trees across the river. It was time. He was tempted to remove the wooden plate from his chest. It could interfere with his motions if he had to move quickly. Still, he had seen what the sprayers could do to a man. Not a sight he wished to see again or become himself. The guard at the front door had his eyes on the river. Unless his peripheral vision was acute, he could never see Crance as he emerged from the bushes and moved behind him. Nothing to it, approach from behind, put a firm hand over the victim's mouth and at the same instant drive the blade deep into back of his skull. He tried to summon up the hate inside that would permit him to kill this man in cold blood. He edged closer, thinking of the back breaking work he had been forced to do for them, Kevin's body dangling lifelessly from the gallows, the guards that had spat on him when he was just a child.
He gripped his sword tightly and raised the blade. But before he could strike, the night came alive with the shrill cries of one of the sprayers. It was immediately followed by agonized screams from the nearby trees. Before he could determine whether he recognized the cries, the guard in front of Crance turned and ran into him and was immediately impaled on the outstretched blade in Crance’s hand. The force knocked both of them to the ground. As the guard struggled to grab onto Crance, Crance shoved him away. He wrenched the sprayer from the guard and pulled himself up in time to hear the door open behind him. He whirled around and felt the force of a sword slam into his chest. It embedded in his crude wooden armor and he could feel the sharp point of it cutting into his skin. Taken completely by surprise by the attack and his survival of it, Crance slammed the sprayer into the guard’s face, knocking him to the ground.
Not waiting to see if the guard was getting up, Crance ran through the open door and aimed his newly acquired sprayer at the first room he encountered. Empty. From the corner of his eye he could see movement down the hall. Aiming his sprayer, he pulled the latch but nothing happened. Tossing the weapon aside, he dove into the empty room as he heard the shrill sound once again. He felt something hot cut through his shoulder. Tumbling to the hard floor, he twisted his ankle and then knocked a table down and slid behind it. Immediately the table was riddled with sharp shards from the guard’s sprayer. Crance winced as many of the shards came halfway through the table's thin top. He knew the guard would be upon him any second so he lifted the table up as a shield, driving many of the sharp shards into his palms, and ran at the guard. He slammed into the guard and felt himself tumbling, falling head over heels to the floor. When he looked up, Aelix was standing over him and the dead guard, sword dripping red. He tossed the guard’s sprayer to Crance and then left to explore another room. Crance began to follow him when he heard cries coming from downstairs. Gripping the sprayer tightly in his hands, hoping this one would work, he ran down the steps and flung open the door.
Crance disobeyed his own advice and paused momentarily as he looked into the room. There were perhaps five guards there. Two men were busy removing weapons from a large cabinet while the other guards were trying desperately to hold down a young woman. Her hands were tied behind her back but from the mess of the room it looked as if she had been putting up quite a struggle. She looked up and saw him standing outside the doorway and immediately threw herself to the floor. As if taking that as a sign, Crance pressed the switch and opened fire on the guards before they could have a chance to react. He had to fight to keep his eyes from shutting from the gruesome sight that met them as the soldiers were torn to shreds by the tiny shards. In barely a second he had killed them all. He threw down the hideous weapon in disgust. He wanted to rid himself of the memory of those split seconds but they seemed to be burned upon his eyelids. When he shut his eyes, he saw it over and over again. Who could have made such a repulsive weapon? He looked at the young woman. She appeared to be badly bruised but otherwise was unhurt. He was about to help her up when he heard sounds of fighting above him. Figuring she would be fine for the time being, he left her and headed back up the stairs. The sight of his own men in numbers swarming through the post made him temporarily forget the gruesome deaths he had caused just a few feet away. As he joined them, he found them gathering around a wounded Amberian guard. The guard was unarmed and scrambling into a corner, as far away from the men as he could. One of the men was teasing the guard, aiming a sprayer at him and then taking it away.
"Stop it!" yelled Crance. "What's going on here?"
"He's the last one left Crance, should we waste him?" asked Aelix. "What else can we do?"
"Are you certain he's the last one left? I don't want you all here in one spot, we're sitting ducks for one fool with a sprayer. Spread out, I want the entire area checked. Post a few guards outside. Then I'm going to need the whole lot of you to start packing up the weapons. We're out of here in ten minutes."The men started to head off. Crance paused for a moment and called for their attention again. "Listen up, everybody. This is the first time, in nearly five hundred years that we have scored a victory over the Amberians. You should all be very proud of that fact. You've done a terrific job so far. Just remember, it's not over. It's just beginning."
Crance assigned two men to keep an eye on their prisoner. Aelix approached him. "So what do we do with him? Doesn't seem to want to say anything. Are we going to have to kill him?"
"No, we can't do that. If he'd been killed in the fighting that would have been one thing, but now it would be unnecessary. It would be murder."
One of the men guarding him called out "So what are we supposed to do? Just let him go? He'll head straight on down to Tarth and tell them all what happened."
"We are going to be out of here in ten minutes. It's a good hour's run down there. Probably two hours by the look of this guy. Come first light, they're going to know that something's up anyway. Killing this man would just be for vengeance and I will not have that. Understood?"
"Yeah, sorry Crance. I'm still rather upset over Ethan, he was a good friend." Crance suddenly remembered the cries down by the river... how long ago had that been? Three minutes? Seemed like hours. How many men had been killed? He hadn't even thought to ask when the men were there. How heartless he had been. He heard shouting from downstairs and his thoughts returned to the girl. Coming down the stairs, he found a scene almost identical to the one he had witnessed moments earlier. Several of his men were rooting through the cabinets while the others were trying to pin the girl down. The only difference was the grotesque mess of bodies strewn across the room. How could he have been so cruel as to have left the girl alone in this gore? As the girl saw him, she stopped her struggles and allowed the men to stand her up. Crance approached the girl and untied her. “Are you okay?” he asked. She nodded. “All right guys, we’re out of here in five minutes, make it quick. Grab those sacks over there and just chuck everything in. No time to be neat. We want to get back to the village by sunrise.” He guided the girl up the stairs.
“Why have you done such a foolish act?”
Crance was taken back by the casual tone she used. He had expected her to be shaken up, but she seemed to be perfectly calm. Meanwhile, his heart continued to pound sharply in his chest. Her calmness bothered him. It made him rest his hand on the hilt of his sword only to realize it wasn’t there.“Pardon?” he said.
“You have to realize that any attack by you upon the Amberians can accomplish nothing. She paused in her talk as they passed several men stripping gear from the fallen guards.
As he looked around at the men busily gathering gear together or standing guard, he felt as if he should be helping them out instead of taking a stroll with this woman, but something about her captivated him. He also did not know who she was and figured that simply asking her would not provoke a response. If she were willing, she would tell him when she was ready. They stepped outside and past several fallen guards. Crance noticed his sword, still lying embedded in the first soldier he had killed. The first person he had killed. He couldn't retrieve it now, not in front of her. He had to remember to get it later.
"You do realize that all this is for nought", she repeated, gesturing her hand to take in the various bodies as if they were simple scenery. "You are like a tiny mouse that has just bitten the toe of a great bear. If you are lucky, he will only shoo you away. But more likely, he will simply take a moment out of his time, crush you, and then return to his original business as if nothing happened."
"But this is just the beginning. We have managed to obtain a large supply of weapons. You have seen what we have accomplished with the crude weapons at our disposal. Now we have sprayers and real swords. We know that the Amberians will respond, but we will be ready for them."
She laughed slightly to herself.
"You take me as a fool, don't you!" he growled, insulted by her casual nature.
"On the contrary, I believe you are quite brave and resourceful, but your confidence in your men and these weapons is rather overdone considering what you are preparing to face. Do you have any idea the kind of wrath that the Amberians could unleash upon you. Or are you hoping that they are too busy warring with my people to send more than a token army?"
"Then you are Saysidian?"
"Was it not obvious? Could you not tell by my accent or appearance? But no, I am probably the first you have met. Still, why else would they have been holding me? You must become better at deducing things quickly if you wish to survive for longer than a few moments out in this treacherous place you have entered. You have armed yourself and your men with these weapons and feel that you are a force to be reckoned with now. But do you realize that both armies are now in possession of weapons that would make those sprayers as you call them as petty as those wooden toys that your men considered swords? All it takes is one man with a single weapon to wipe your entire village off the face of the land." She smiled at the astonishment in his eyes. "Perhaps you agree that you are not as well informed as you hoped you were? Do not overly fret upon it, it is unlikely they would waste one of the weapons on such a, you will excuse the term, useless target."
"People once thought our kind were weak fools but we showed them that we were otherwise."
"And when was this?"
"Do you not recall the Tome of Symbols?"
"Ahhh, you speak of ancient history, that was nearly five hundred years ago. Do you feel such stories are still relevant now? You must excuse me if I am a bit vague on the matter. It may have been one of the great moments in the history of your people, but you must understand that we have not spent the last half millenium romanticizing the events of a single night. We have been at war, and war does not allow you to be idle. There have been hundreds of great battles. Cities have fallen, been recaptured, razed to the ground. Countless leaders have come to power, died of old age, been assassinated or been crushed on the battlefield while you folks dance and tell your tales."
One of Crance's men approached them. He stopped a few feet from them. "Your sword sir." He then handed over the old, notched, and freshly cleaned sword that Crance's grandfather had passed down to him.
Crance took the sword and the man nodded slightly and returned to the others. A faint smile crossed Crance's face as he thought of the man calling him sir. Was it from respect of their victory. No, it was probably due to the unfamiliar guest, wanting to look like true soldiers in front of this woman.
"A family heirloom?" she asked, nodded towards the sword. "Surely you will find a much more practical hand weapon amongst the gear of the dead guards."
"It is a symbol of our first victory. With this sword, one of my ancestors helped to steal that Tome of Symbols."
"That would explain the state of it. With our constant warring, it is a miracle if a good weapon lasts long enough to receive even a slight tarnish of rust. You seem to enjoy drawing a link between your battle and that of your forefathers. If this battle can indeed be likened to that of a mouse and a bear, then their's was that of a rat stealing a hunk of cheese while two wolves fought over it. Then the rat drowned in the water as it tried to escape the hungry wolves. Not that we did not appreciate it of course. It saved my people what would have been a very costly war. All our armies were poised on the Amberian borders when we heard news of the book. Ha, back in a time when our people actually believed in such nonsense as magic." Then her tone shifted and she began to eye the surrounding trees.
Crance realized they had carried on their conversation too long. The men would be almost ready. Time was growing short.
"Am I to expect the same treatment as that Amberian guard received?" she asked. "Am I free to leave?" At Crance's confused expression, she added "You were shouting loud enough at the time. Besides, nothing gets past these ears of mine. I can hear well enough to know that your men do not call you sir when I am not present." She paused for a moment as if considering something. "So tell me, how old are you?"
"Old enough. As to your question, you are free to go. We have no reason to hold you here against your will."
The woman drew herself closer to Crance, her face almost touching his. Her eyes seemed to widen slightly and a smile came to her face. Suddenly, a knife appeared from nowhere and was pressed tight against his throat. His hand went down to his sword and met her other hand resting there. "Remember, my naive young Crance, you are still very new to this game called war. We and the Amberians have been perfecting the art since long before that rusty blade of yours was forged. That kind of ignorance can get yourself, and all your men, not to mention your entire race, annihilated. Understand?" Then, just as suddenly, the blade disappeared and she backed away, her left hand sliding casually beneath his as it left the hilt of his sword. Then she smiled at him and turned to leave.
Crance was dumbfounded. Should he call his men? Should he draw his sword? Instead, he just stood there like a gaping fool. He could still feel the impression of her knife at his throat. Had she drawn blood? He refused to put his hand up to check while she was still in sight. She stopped after going only a few paces and then turned around.
"If you're not too proud to tell your men what happened, you might want to tell Regin that he shouldn't be so polite when he searches a woman for weapons." With that, she gave an almost childlike giggle and disappeared into the woods. He was about to put his hand up to his neck when she called out "If you survive the next few days, I'll look forward to the possibility of meeting you again. You've got guts, I'll give that much to you and your troops."
His hand instinctively went up to his throat. No blood, but he was sure there must be a mark. As he rubbed at it, he felt a twinge of pain from his shoulder and suddenly remembered that someone had already drawn some of his blood. He felt at his bleeding shoulder for a moment, could tell that the cut was not deep, and then returned to the post and his men who were hauling the last of the gear outside. Several of the men were watching him, one had a grin on his face.
Rayth slapped him on the back. "Spoils of victory, eh Crance?" That confused Crance. Then, as several of the men began to laugh and make catcalls, he understood. All his men saw was their faces come together, her hand at his side, they thought she had kissed him! Well, let them think what they like he figured, no harm in spoiling their mood... But then he thought about what she had said about him being too proud to mention it to his men and he realized how dramatic an effect her sudden threatening act had had on him. The fighting and the wars had been the last thing on his mind until she made him come face to face with it. He owed his men the same opportunity to learn. He put his hand to his throat again, there seemed to be a raised ridge there, it must have left a mark.
“Do you see this men? “ Some of them nodded in agreement. “This sure the hell is no love bite. That lady over there had a knife to my throat.”
This quickly gave him everyone’s undivided attention. Some of them began to yell, suggesting to go after the ungrateful wench.
“Listen, if she had wanted me dead, I’d be lying over there right now and she would have been long gone before any of you could have reached her. It wasn’t a threat, it was more of a lesson, one I’d like to pass on to you. We’ve had our first minor victory here today, we’ve managed to do what alot of folks thought was impossible. But that doesn’t mean we can start getting confident. I let my guard down with that girl and could have died for my mistake. The day is just beginning and we still have at least one more fight before we can rest. So load up everyone and let’s get the hell out of here.”
As they were about to leave, one of the men approached him. “What about Wilbur and Ethan?”
“Who?” asked Crance.
“They were the two men that were killed uh, sir.” Crance ignored the tacked on formality, chiding himself for forgetting that this minor victory had not been without its casualties. Minor victory? The words echoed in his mind. Just yesterday, it was supposed to be the greatest victory his people had ever seen. What had happened?
“Do we take them with us?”
Crance brought his thoughts back to the man before him. “Are there any men who have nothing to carry?”
“No. In fact it looks as if we’ll have to leave some of it behind.”
“We’ll have to leave them as they are. There's no time to give them the respect they deserve. But once we return to the village we’ll see to it.”
He left the man and made a quick check of the rest of the group. He
could see there were still a number of boxes left untouched. A quick perusal
of the men showed him that many of them were already loaded down more than
should be expected. He loaded up his packs to the same degree and found
he could barely stand. Still, he knew that every extra bit they could carry
now improved their chances of actually surviving the impending Amberian
onslaught which would most certainly be close behind them. He reminded
the men that if they were attacked on the way to drop their packs immediately
since such weight would make fighting or running equally futile. Then,
without any further words, they left the outpost to be guarded only by
the the nineteen lifeless bodies that remained.
Krinn looked down at the dirt floor of the tiny kitchen. His long night of pacing had worn a narrow trail between the window and the front door. He had spent all night waiting for news of the death of his son. He knew it had already happened. Now he only waited to find out when and how. He had done everything he could to convince his son not to head off with the others on their foolish raid. If he could have been certain that the Amberian’s wouldn’t hang him, Krinn would have turned him in to the guards for his own safety. Now he didn’t know what he could have done. As the night passed and the first light of dawn was arriving, he began to wonder if Crance and his men had been able to deal the Amberian’s a tougher blow than anyone had expected. Perhaps the guards were too busy tending to their own injured to come riding into the village with the rebel’s distorted heads on pikes.
But this thought made him feel worse instead of better. If the guards had been dealt a severe blow they would be out for more vengeance. This thought was at the front of his mind when he heard shouts and the sounds of commotion coming from past his doorway. Now, after spending all night preparing for his son’s death, he began to think about the possibility of his own. How would he want to die.
When he began to see fellow villagers running past his front door in the direction of the commotion, curiosity got the better of him and he stepped outside and blindly followed the small crowd. After following their stares, he could see a lone figure running across the open field. The man appeared to be struggling, barely able to walk and yet running out of sheer momentum. Several times he came close to toppling over but somehow managed to stay on his feet. About halfway across the field he stopped by a small shed and leaned his weight against it.
Krinn let out a gasp as he recognized his son, legs wavering beneath him, his chest coated red with blood. "Oh my dear Crance," he whispered, "please die before the guards can reach you."
The guards had gathered near the edge of the field. Several were trying to keep the villagers back while the others stared out at Crance or searched the surrounding trees for the possibility of any others. Crance took several awkward steps away from the building and then collapsed into the grass.
Two guards stayed behind while the rest ran across the field to where he lay. As they approached, Crance slowly pulled himself to his knees. One of the guards placed a sword to his throat, not the first blade to have been placed there in the last few hours. "Speak up fool, tell us what happened."
The words came slowly from Crance's mouth. "They were all over, they must have known we were coming. Someone must have betrayed us."
The guards laughed to themselves over the outcome of the brief rebellion. "And tell me runt, how were you so fortunate to make it away?"
Crance listened to their words but his eyes were fixed on the two guards that remained at the edge of the field. That had been the hardest part of the plan to figure out. How to get all the soldiers in one place, away from all the villagers. He had succeeded in getting six of them out here in the open, more than he had hoped. Now he relied on Aelix to draw the remaining two out. All Aelix had to do was stick his head out from behind the other side of the shed. Out of view of these six but in plain sight of the others. Surely they would not simply shout a warning. Being soldiers they would have to run. As the remaining two guards stood in the distance, Crance tried his best to keep up his part of the facade.
"I had been shot, hit two, maybe three times with those damned sprayers. Everyone was falling around me. The few that remained ran for the woods and were chased by the guards. I -" And then he saw the look of shock on the eyes of one of the distant guards. Without even motioning to his partner, he began to run. The other, looking to the shed, drew his sword and began heading swiftly towards it. As their first cries of warning rang out, Crance screamed out in mock pain and doubled over onto the ground. He could hear the screams of the sprayers mixed with the screams of the guards. He could feel blood spraying across his back, he could feel their bodies as they collapsed upon him. A moment later similar screams came from a short distance away. Then, suddenly, all was silent. Dead silent.
Crance pulled himself up, shaking the limp bodies off of him. Looking at the horror in the eyes of several of his men he realized that they were just experiencing the horror that he had felt in the downstairs guard room. Best not to let them dwell upon it right now. He took a quick glance at the bodies. No need to check to see if any were alive. He vowed to himself that he would never use one of those monstrous devices again.
"All right men, spread out, check out the village, make sure there aren't any other guards. Rayth, you stand guard over here by the field, Jenns, you take up watch down by the river. Jaun, you head up to that spot up on the rocks that we've talked about, and Arin, you go down to the other fields. The rest of you, once you've checked out the village, meet me at the gallows."
Crance's words were met with questionning stares. "We are not hanging anyone, we're dismantling the monstrosity." Fools probably thought he was going to string up his own father. What kind of barbarian did they take him for? He shook his head in frustration. There was still so much to do. He couldn't be sure if the Amberians would arrive within the next hour or whether they would wait until dark. He reminded himself that if the attacks didn't come right away to start allowing the men to sleep in shifts to allow them to be ready for a long night. He knew that the gesture of destroying the gallows would waste precious time for them but he also believed it was necessary to help get the wary villagers on their side right away, and with a little luck, encourage them to help out with the preparations to defend this tiny place.
Still so much to do, he thought. And his plans did not go further than this next battle. Beyond that he was uncertain. What if the Amberians did decide to send all their might his way? What kind of weapon could allow a single man to wipe clear an entire village? The words of the Saysidian woman kept resurfacing in his head. He felt he was capable of fending off this first undermanned attack from the guards, but the prospect of sitting here, waiting for an army to come through those fields was as bleak as the idea of approaching his father once again. But these matters were all later. Secure the village, convince the people to help. Everything else would be useless without that.
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