Sunday, 16 July 2017

Where the Moonlight Dances - Part II

In part two of Where the Moonlight Dances, the success of the Maedarian rebellion hangs in the balance as Katrina and the western rebels wait for the arrival of the Vidorian army sent to destroy them. Face-to-face with the unstoppable imperial war-machine, blood is spilled, history is made, and the future is determined as steel and bone meet.

Part three will be released on Sunday the 23rd of July.

‘Why aren’t they doing anything?’ Lucien hissed to Katrina.
            The two of them stood at the entrance to the village, where they had been for the last three hours. The imperial force had reached the bottom of the low hill upon which Witherwood stood, and had stopped. They stood in their regiments, indomitable black squares upon the hillside, totally silent. The persistent, rising wind blew their black standards and banners into whipping, rippled shapes. But they were all that moved.
            ‘Mind games,’ Katrina said quietly. ‘They want to scare us before they attack.’
            ‘Or they’re waiting,’ Henry said from the other side of Lucien. The old man’s faraway eyes were fixed on the horizon. ‘Perhaps their commander does not favour the advance up the hill in daylight.’
            ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ Lucien snapped, ‘surely they’re certain in their victory. The Empire are arrogant, and they outnumber us. Why don’t they just charge up the hill and-…’
            ‘Lucien,’ Katrina said, pointing down the hill, ‘look. Someone’s coming.’
            ‘About time too,’ Lucien snarled. ‘I haven’t got all day.’
            Sure enough, four figures rode out from within the lines: a man in a resplendent blue cape and another in the white robe of the Vidorian Inquisition rode forwards, flanked on either side by two heavily-armoured men on horses, both carrying lances. They rode quickly up the hill towards where Katrina, Lucien and Henry stood, their magnificent horses kicking up the dirt as they went.
            ‘Come to mock us, no-doubt,’ Lucien spat. ‘Come to revel in their assured victory, to play more mind games.’
            Lucien,’ Katrina hissed. ‘Are the men in their positions?’
            ‘Of course they are.’
            She had suspected this could be a trap and had asked Lucien to ready the men just in case. They had been reluctant to enter the woods around Witherwood, and the local peasants had been even more intent on stopping them, but when Lucien had yelled about blood and fire, and the Empire raping wives and daughters, the villagers had backed down and let the Maedarian rebels sneak into the thick, dense line of trees around the village.
            As the four mounted figures arrived before the entrance to Witherwood, they stopped. The man in the blue cape was tall, and wore no helmet on his head, dictating his rank, though he still wore the phoenix-emblazoned black breastplate of the Imperial Legion. His hair was golden but greyed at the temples, and Katrina was surprised by how amicable his face was. The inquisitor was of a similar age to the blue cape-wearing figure, though he had a greying beard around his chin and kept his hood raised. The two men either side of him were young, tough-looking and steely-eyed.
            ‘I am Baron Tyvilius of Altmeria,’ the cape-wearing man said in a voice that was respectful and gentle. ‘This is my companion Inquisitor Greyseer. I have come as a messenger from the Empire-…’
            ‘With three-hundred armed soldiers, no-less,’ Lucien spat.
            Baron Tyvilius allowed the interruption with a small smile. ‘You are the commanding officer here, I take it, lad?’
            Lucien bristled. ‘I am Captain Lucien Andorheart,’ he quipped, ‘and I do not make deals with conquering, oppressive imperial scum.’
‘We have no interest in oppressing you, let alone fighting you,’ Baron Tyvilius said in his gentle voice. ‘I know my men and I outnumber you three-to-one, and I know there are dozens of innocent men, women and children in this village.’
            ‘What do you want, then?’ Lucien demanded, stepping forwards and putting a hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword threateningly.
            ‘All I want is no bloodshed,’ Baron Tyvilius said. ‘I know well that should battle be joined between us there would no-doubt be a slaughter on both sides; I have no doubt that I would be victorious as I have the superior force and the numbers, but I ask you to surrender, I would rather end this peacefully.’
            Lucien opened his mouth to respond but Katrina quickly stepped in. ‘That’s it?’ she said. ‘You just want us to go? And you’ll just let us leave?’
‘Your soldiers will be disarmed and you shall be allowed to return to your families, wherever they are,’ Baron Tyvilius said with a solemn nod. ‘I have no doubt that the re-conquest of Westmoor will be a bloody affair, and I do not want to contribute to the sea of blood that some will be eager to shed.’
‘Lies,’ Lucien spat. ‘I know the Empire; you’ll wait until we’ve set down our arms, then you’ll start slaughtering us.’
Both Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer seemed affronted by the notion. The two older men exchanged a glance before the inquisitor spoke for the first time: ‘On our honour, you shall be allowed to return to your families. I have even been given permission to give writs of passage to those who surrender peacefully, allowing them transit through any imperial checkpoints that stand between them and their homes.’
The old medic Henry was the first to speak after a short silence. ‘Lucien, I think we should-…’
‘Quiet,’ the young captain snapped. ‘This is our moment of triumph. The Empire shall not reclaim Westmoor; it has no right to the lands. We shall fight you all here, and you shall all die here.’
‘What?’ Katrina despaired. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Lucien, you can’t gamble-…’
Lucien turned, his face twisted in rage. ‘You forget, Katrina. I am your captain and what I say goes! I say we stand and fight; we cannot simply roll over because the Empire has arrived on our doorstep. Ours, not theirs! They have no right to these lands, and we will defend that with honour!’
‘Our honour,’ Katrina snapped, ‘or yours?’
Lucien visibly seethed. ‘If you don’t be quiet, I’m going to have you strapped to a cartwheel and flogged,’ he hissed. ‘I am your captain, and I-…’
‘I’m sorry,’ Baron Tyvilius interrupted from atop his horse. His face had grown stern – not angry; he looked more like a displeased parent. ‘I’ve fought many battles,’ he said slowly, ‘and it’s clear that Captain Lucien has no interest in peace.’ The baron sighed and shook his head. ‘I shall give you all fair warning: we shall attack at dusk. If we have not heard from you otherwise before then, any blood shed is on you, Captain Lucien.’
The four imperials turned and began to ride away. ‘No, Baron, it’s on you!’ Lucien yelled after them.
Katrina shook her head in disbelief. ‘What, in the name of every Old God bastard-born, do you think you’re doing?’ she said. ‘You’re playing with lives, Lucien! Lives!’
‘It’s my job,’ he sneered as he marched past her. ‘That’s why I’m the captain and not you. I can make the hard decisions.’
Katrina and Henry stood alone for a few moments, sharing an exasperated, hopeless look. Eventually, Katrina broke the silence. ‘What should we do?’ she asked quietly.
Henry paused a moment. He looked tired, defeated even. He closed his eyes and let out a long, slow breath. ‘Assist me in getting all the villagers into the tavern cellar,’ he said eventually. ‘It’s the hardiest structure in Witherwood. They can help me with any injured that are brought in.’
Katrina nodded. ‘I’ll do what I can,’ she said.
Henry nodded. ‘Damn it, Lucien,’ he hissed, ‘we’re all going to suffer because of your pride.’
Katrina had no response, and instead turned and set off back into the village at a run. Damn you, Lucien, she thought angriyly. You always were arrogant and self-absorbed, but now you’ve taken this to the next level.
For a split second, Katrina considered simply finding her horse and leaving. She could ride down to Inquisitor Greyseer herself and secure one of the writs of passage. No-one would notice her leaving in the confusion. But what about Aldem’s body? she thought. And what about the women and children here? Someone needs to protect them.
Within moments she was lost in chaos as Lucien stood atop the well in the middle of the village, yelling orders to the mail-wearing men in their dented pot-helms below. Most were already in their positions in the woods, whilst the last few went around ordering every single fire within the village to be extinguished – even that of the forge. Katrina busied herself frantically running from one low, thatched house to the next, ordering the petrified village-folk to make their way to the tavern’s large, stone cellar. The only building that won’t catch fire easily, she thought as she stopped two young boys in the road and told them to take their mother to the moderate safety of the cellar. The tavern’s the only building made of stone. It’s unlikely to burn.
Slowly, darkness began to fall and the streets of Witherwood emptied. Soon, the only people left out in the village were Lucien and Katrina, both of whom stood by the well, staring down into its shadowy depths.
‘And if they just march up the road?’ Katrina hissed. ‘What then?’
‘They won’t,’ Lucien said through his teeth. ‘That’s not how the Empire do this.’
‘And if they do?’
‘They won’t, Kat,’ Lucien said with a sigh, rubbing his face. ‘Look, can you get this strap for me?’
Muttering under her breath, Katrina walked to Lucien’s side and seized the leather strap beneath his shoulder-plate. ‘You’re a damn fool,’ she hissed. ‘A real damn fool. I swear by every god, Old and New, Elven and Halfling, that if this bright idea of yours goes wrong-…’
‘It won’t,’ Lucien said forcefully. ‘Please, Kat, I know what I’m doing!’
‘Yes, and you’re doing it for your honour!’ Katrina snarled, yanking the strap tight. ‘You’ve put everyone’s lives on the line in the hope you’ll have songs sung about you!’
Lucien took a long, deep breath. ‘Now isn’t the time,’ he said coldly. ‘We have to make ready. They’ll attack soon.’
They had constructed a huge barricade in the middle of the road, blocking the only easy entrance into Witherwood. Old carts, scrap, any old rubbish, old animal carcasses, anything the Maedarians could get their hands on, had been hurled into a gigantic, stinking wall that blocked the natural arch-like formation made by the intertwining boughs of the dense wall of dead trees that ringed the village. With that, all fires had been extinguished and every non-combatant had been moved into the now-packed tavern cellar. Katrina was thankful that Aldem’s body had been allowed to stay, wrapped in its shroud, tucked to one side so it would not upset any of the children.
As soon as they were done, Katrina quietly followed Lucien from the village centre and into the trees that ringed Witherwood. She felt a chill touch her as she passed under the long-dead branches, though she thought it was just the bitter wind that had been blowing all day. Her mind briefly shot back to the shadowy shape she had seen – No, she thought, the crows. Two crows. Above her, the sky had turned dark, the last of the rain-clouds from the previous night were lit an eerie, fiery glow from the setting sun.
Lucien had ordered every one of the men and women at his command to spread out in the woodland, and not to make a single sound. “Show the Empire who’s the quietest of us!” he had jeered, reminding Katrina of the ghostly, utter silence with which the imperial soldiers had stood for hours just that afternoon.
It was so dark, Katrina almost tripped over a twisted, dark root that stuck from the dusty earth like a bone. She put her hand out to steady herself and touched the centuries-dead bark of one of the ancient trees. Again, she felt a chill shoot through her and took her hand away. ‘We’re defending your home,’ Katrina found herself whispering. ‘Please, don’t hurt us; we’re defending your home.’
Moments later, Lucien suddenly stopped and waved for Katrina to crouch. She did so, tucking herself behind the trunk of a nearby tree, though she was careful not to touch it. She could see shapes through the shadowy trees: a dozen or-so of Lucien’s soldiers were hidden within the dense tree-line, squatting behind withered bushes or amongst roots, still behind trees – a few of the more intrepid had even climbed into the boughs of the trees to hide. They were utterly silent, their weapons loose in their sheathes – kept hidden so they would not flash in torchlight and give the plan away.
Katrina waited, her heart in her mouth. After a few minutes, her thighs and calves started to burn. She fiddled with the pommel of her shortsword and adjusted the straps on her belt and cloak a few times, each time being as silent as she could. Then, just as dusk was wearing on, light appeared.
Torches, intermittent yet regimented, appeared through the trees. Still, no sound accompanied them. Katrina gripped the hilt of her sword and slowly, wraith-like figures dressed in pitch-black armour melded through the treeline in front of them.
‘It’s working,’ she heard Lucien whisper from where he was, less than a pace in front of her. ‘Look.’
Slowly, Katrina turned her head. All through the thick knot of dead trees that ringed Witherwood, light was shining. Ghostly-orange and blurred in a thin mist that had swept into the trees with the dusk, unnoticed to Katrina, it heralded the coming of spectral shapes: the Empire’s soldiers, clutching their swords and shields.
            Suddenly, they were only a few paces away. Katrina could see the beard on the grizzled face of the soldier closest to her, his features illuminated by a torch behind him. Their ranks were disorganised and broken, though the Empire was moving slowly, taking care with every step. Katrina watched as more and more of the armoured men slunk through the trees, barely making a sound despite their heavy armour. Then, a single shout sounded from the other side of the village. Katrina felt her heart skip a beat, and with it chaos broke out like wildfire in a dry barn.
            Maedarian rebels leapt from their hiding places. Katrina saw men and women leaping from within the trees, scattering into the Vidorian line. Shouts, screams, and the screech of metal on metal filled the night air and pierced the torchlight-orange fog that swept between the trees.
            Katrina leapt to her feet and whipped her shortsword from its sheath. There was no time for fear now, the battle was joined. One of these men might’ve been the one who shot the fatal arrow that killed Aldem. With a furious cry, she plunged it into the neck of the imperial soldier before her – a fellow with the beard and grizzled face. He tried to swipe her away as she drove the blade through his throat and spine, but instead slumped as Katrina whipped the blade from the wound and quickly span away.
            She was a part of the chaos in seconds, a whirling, torch lit tempest of blood and steel. To look at, she was a fierce sight: fire-red head gleaming in the torchlight, her taught, muscular form moving with ease and grace through the imperial line. She was average height for a woman, but powerfully built – though her form was hidden beneath the mail and tunic she wore. She kicked with her lithe legs, breaking imperial knees or knocking them to the floor with the force of a blow to the stomach, before setting on them with her hardy shortsword.
Katrina never fought with a shield – she preferred to have her left hand free for grabbing and wrestling with those who fought against her. As an imperial figure – dark and ominous in the half-light thrown up by the torches at his back – advanced towards her, his shield raised, Katrina leapt for him, grabbed his shield with her free hand, and, with a heave, hurled him off-balance. Her blade sang again, and the soldier moved no more.
She was separated from Lucien in seconds – not that she cared. She knew well that he was capable of handling himself, and the anger at the death of her brother made her stronger alone. She, like many of the Maedarian soldiers, had learned to fight alone. She had no formal military training, and had picked up knife-fighting and swordplay in the alleys and markets of Palvia. When you stole food to support your family, you had to be able to run or fight. Katrina had decided she would fight.
The imperial soldiers fell in a swathe before her. All around Witherwood, their already fragmented line, broken apart by advancing through the trees, was breaking further. From what Katrina could see through the thick of battle, many of the Maedarian soldiers had already been either behind or inside the line when the shout to fight had gone up. The imperials, staggered by the sudden ambush and kicked down by the ferocity of the attack, were struggling to regain their footing. Their command structure was shattered, and although they fought well, the Maedarian rebels fought with a fury and ferocity that the Empire could not hope to compete with in the wake of the ambush.
As she carved her bloody wound into the Empire’s lines, Katrina saw her brothers and sister-in-arms falling. One man, who had attempted to jump from a tree, mistimed his attack and was impaled in the air by two imperial swords. Two Maedarian women, fighting side-by-side together, were set upon by four imperial soldiers who cut them to pieces.
Katrina had no time to pause, though – she had to carry on. She thought of Aldem, arrows filling his body, and ran into the next soldier she saw, driving her shoulder into his chest and sword into his stomach. ‘These are for you, brother,’ she said as she turned and drove her fist into the throat of a soldier running to attack her. ‘These are for you!’
Through her fury, Katrina fought the disbelief that Lucien’s ridiculous plan was working. Throughtout the woods, the Empire was being slaughtered. Black-armoured bodies lay draped across blood-reddened roots, or propped up against gore-splattered trees. They looked strange in the half-light of the torches that lay scattered amongst them; both integral to the ghastly scene, yet strangely alien to it.
Katrina set off at a run, noticing a pocket of imperial resistance close by that seemed to be acting as a rally-point: a tall phoenix banner, lit by a torch at its end, jutted high above the trees. Imperial soldiers were gathering around it, forming an outward-facing circular wall of shields, driving back the Maedarians who attacked.
Shortsword in hand, Katrina waited for an opening; then, moments later, she saw a limping imperial soldier staggering towards the line and set off after him. As he neared, leaking blood from a stab-wound to his thigh, the shield wall opened to let him in. With a cry, Katrina erupted from the shadows, barrelled the man aside with her free hand, and charged through the gap in the shield wall intended for the wounded soldier.
The small ring of soldiers – Katrina could count fifteen, maybe twenty – suddenly became a disorganised mass. Katrina hurled herself into the closest soldier – he just-so happened to be holding the imperial standard aloft, standing in the centre of the ring – and drove her shortsword through his back. She whipped it out just in time to parry a blow from her left, but need not have worried, for moments later the soldier who had turned his back on the shield-ring to fight her fell, a lance between his shoulders. As the two soldiers fell, so did their torch-lit standard.
The ring of imperial defiance collapsed. The soldiers did not know where to aim their attacks: for those who turned their backs on the wall to attack Katrina left holes in their defences through which a Maedarian soldier would hurl himself. Those who tried to keep formation found themselves stabbed through the back by Katrina’s sword. The small ring broke, and the imperial soldiers were slaughtered.
As Katrina pulled her sword from the last of the ring-defenders, she looked around. The Empire was routed: she could see them fleeing through the long, eerie shadows thrown up by discarded or dropped torches. Black-armoured men cast aside their swords and shields and fled in the face of Maedarian resistance, running back into the ever-darkening night, disappearing into the night-shrouded landscape.
Katrina could not quite believe it. She stopped, panting, as a huge cheer went up from the Maedarians. ‘I don’t believe it,’ she said, unable to stop herself smiling as she stood ankle-deep in blood and corpses. ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Should’ve trusted me!’ Lucien’s voice came from behind Katrina.
She turned around and shook her head, fighting the smile on her lips. Lucien had a cut on his brow and his sword was red with blood, but he was triumphant in his expression. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Don’t do this again.’
Lucien held up his hands. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘It was a gamble, but it paid off, no?’
‘Gambling is a fool’s game,’ Katrina said, wiping the blood from her shortsword on the fallen imperial flag, ‘and I’d rather you not do it again.’
‘And I shan’t,’ Lucien said, stepping through the shadows and carnage. ‘This was an ideological battle – and we won it. We’ve shown that Maedar and the Free Kingdoms won’t simply roll over without a fight – the first battle of the so-called re-conquest, and the Empire lost it! Next time they come here, the Empire will outnumber us ten-to-one, and we cannot beat those numbers. So, when they arrive, they shall find us gone,’ he grinned. ‘Imagine the stories: the Maedarian warriors who slaughtered their fighters then disappeared into the night like smoke! We’ll strike fear into the Empire’s heart.’
Katrina was unconvinced, but she allowed Lucien his imaginings. His gamble did pay off, at least, she thought. He deserves a little complacency. ‘So we’re leaving after all?’ she said.
Lucien nodded. ‘I won’t try my luck any further than we already have. We leave at dawn tomorrow and head south, then east. Hopefully, with a little luck, we’ll be able to skirt behind the Vidorian advance and make it to the city of Mitora before the Empire do.’
‘I see,’ Katrina said. ‘It seems a good enough plan, but why didn’t you just do that in the first place?’
‘Because Baron Tyvilius’ men would’ve followed us,’ he said. ‘We’d have to deal with them at some point. Besides-…’
‘Sir!’ a shout interrupted Lucien. ‘Sir, Sir!’
Both Lucien and Katrina turned. A soldier was hurrying towards them, his mail broken and rusted in places, and his helmet discarded. His hands were bloody, but he seemed otherwise unhurt. ‘Speak,’ Lucien ordered.
‘We’ve prisoners,’ the soldier said through heavy breaths. ‘You should come at once, Sir!’
Lucien nodded. ‘Very well. Come, Kat. It seems this day is not over yet.’
Lucien set off at a jog behind the solider, who led them through the trees and back into the village. Katrina willingly followed, glad to finally be away from the place with its haunting, blood-drenched branches and flickering shadows. As she took a step out of the twisting circle of trees that surrounded the village, she felt a chill come over her and she looked back over her shoulder. For a moment, in amongst the shadows, the fire, the blood, and the bodies, Katrina thought she saw a face looking at her. But then she blinked and watched as two crows left one of the gnarled branches and flew into the shadows.


The moon hung full and high over Witherwood. The last of the imperials had fled into the night, scattered and broken, and the sky had even cleared a little; stars shone down upon the bloodied trees and torch-lit pathways that threaded through the small village – paths that were now clogged with surviving Maedarian soldiers who were not patrolling the edge of the woods, laughing and celebrating their victory.
Not many prisoners had been taken by the Maedarians. Those that had been captured were arranged, arms and legs bound, before the well in the middle of the village. As Katrina and Lucien arrived, following the soldier who had fetched them, they saw a number of Maedarian soldiers standing around them, holding weapons and torches. 
‘Hah!’ Katrina heard Lucien cry. ‘How ironic, here we all are again!’
Katrina stepped to Lucien’s side and looked at the rag-tag group before her. There were five figures in total: a terribly wounded imperial soldier who was losing a huge amount of blood from a neck-wound with each passing moment; two young, black-armoured soldiers who sat either side of him; and the blue-cape wearing Baron Tyvilius and his inquisitorial aide, Greyseer. Neither looked as prim and clean as they had done earlier; their clothing was battered and stained, and Inquisitor Greyseer’s robe had a tear up the leg.
‘Captain Lucien,’ Baron Tyvilius said quietly, his eyes downcast, ‘you have beaten us.’
‘I have,’ the young captain said, standing over the older man. ‘You were foolish enough to think you could win simply with your numbers, hm? Now look where you are. Oh – Lieutenant Delera, how many men have we lost so far?’
‘Eleven fatalities,’ one of the soldiers standing around the prisoners said, ‘and as many wounded at the current count.’
‘And how many men have the Empire lost?’ Lucien asked, a thin smile on his lips.
The Lieutenant, a tall, thin woman with broad shoulders, wearing a well-oiled shirt of mail, shrugged. ‘At least half their number. They’re also scattered into the night. They’ll have trouble regrouping quickly.’
Before them, Baron Tyvilius shook his head. ‘Such a failure,’ he said quietly. ‘Such a tragedy…’
‘For you, yes,’ Captain Lucien sneered. ‘This is on you, Tyvilius.’
The baron lifted his eyes and shook his head. ‘Emperor Lyshir will not let this lie, lad,’ he said. ‘He will send a thousand men to wrest this village from you, just to prove a point. Just to show he can, and that the lives of his men mean little to him. More will be slaughtered, and the Empire will win eventually.’
Lucien shrugged. ‘That’s fine,’ he said. ‘We’re leaving anyway.’
‘What?’ Baron Tyvilius’ eyes widened. ‘you’re just going to-… I don’t understand! This slaughter, this death. Meaningless!’
Lucien stepped forwards and spat into the Baron’s lap. ‘No, Tyvilius,’ he barked, ‘this sends a message. I’m leaving on my own terms, because I want to, not because you forced me to. My men also leave with their weapons, their armour, a great victory under their belts, and their honour intact. And, who knows? Perhaps we’ll ravage the next imperial-controlled settlement we come across.’
Tyvilius sighed and shook his head. ‘So there will be more blood,’ he said sadly. ‘I just wanted peace, for things to go back to how they were without slaughter-…’
‘Slaughter is inevitable,’ Lucien yelled. ‘We fight for our freedom, to not be crushed under the Empire’s yoke paying taxes to an emperor who claims he’s a demi-god and letting our sons, brothers, friends, and fathers be swept up into your armies to be sent to die on some distant border!’ Lucien glared at Baron Tyvilius. ‘And every drop of imperial blood spilled waters the field upon which our future will grow – a future free from the Empire.’
Katrina chewed her lip as she watched the exchange, unsure about how she felt. The Empire is the enemy, she thought, but Baron Tyvilius is no bad man. He is also not the emperor; he simply follows orders, as we do. But they are orders from the mouth of Emperor Lyshir, who has choked us since he first came to the throne. She sighed and rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. And Lucien has let our blood be spilled fighting over this village – and now he plans to just leave anyway! An ideological victory? Why not a strategic victory instead?
‘Empty the cellar under the tavern,’ Lucien said, his voice interrupting Katrina’s thoughts. ‘Tell the peasants they can return to their homes. Throw the prisoners down there with our dead and wounded. We’ll deal with them all at dawn, once I’ve decided what I want to do with them.’
Katrina remained silent as the five prisoners were dragged away, lost in doubt. She remained silent for a long time, not partaking in the spontaneous revelry that sprung up moments later. She sat quietly by one of the campfires as the Maedarian soldiers sang and drank the peasant’s hard-brewed ale, beer and cider, unsure if she was actually on the right side in the war.
Who is actually in the right? she asked herself as, beside her, one of the soldiers began to sing a draft of a song he had written about the victory. Lucien risked us all for an ideological victory. It may dent the Empire’s morale, but so many of our men died for it – even though we won the battle. Yet now he wants us to retreat, to just hand the village over without a fight. But what else can he do?
Katrina had to concede that Lucien was at least right about destroying Baron Tyvilius’ force now. They would have chased us if we had left without first surrendering, she thought. And there’s no way I’m surrendering to the Empire – not yet, at least.
With a sigh, Katrina raised her eyes to the skies above. Sparks flickered from the campfire before her and danced in the cold night air before fading to nothing, paled before the bright firmament above her. Perhaps it will deal the Empire a blow, she thought. Maybe it will make them think twice about trying to reconquer the west.
Katrina found herself immune to the revelry around her. She refused to drink anything that she had not herself paid for, and she recognised well the kegs that were being drunk from: they were the taverns, and they had most certainly not been paid for. Does this make us as bad as the Empire? she asked herself as she watched two Maedarian soldiers refill their battered wooden mugs. We’re taking that which we have no right to.
‘You look miserable.’
Katrina said nothing as Lucien sat down beside her.
‘Come on, Kat, what eats you?’ Lucien said. His breath was heavy with the smell of ale. Katrina found herself repulsed.
‘Did you have to take their booze?’ she asked, glaring at him. ‘They have little enough as it is, you’ve already eaten most of their produce for winter.’
Lucien shrugged. ‘We just saved their hides. I think they owe us-…’
‘But we didn’t!’ Katrina protested. ‘The Empire are going to come back here, and this time no-one will be here!’
Lucien shook his head. ‘That’s where you’re wrong. I’m going to leave these bodies,’ he said, gesturing widely to the trees. ‘And I might leave them the hanged corpses of their baron and inquisitor hanging over the road as a message. Maedar and the Free Kingdoms will not die – least of all not without a fight. We’ll appear and disappear, slaughtering them when we do. We’ll be unpredictable, dangerous, terrifying.’
Katrina shook her head. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘This is supposed to be about freedom, and yet…’ she trailed off, looking at the soldiers swigging stolen ale. ‘We’ve taken far too much from them and-…’
Lucien’s face suddenly grew dark. ‘Do you think I don’t know you’ve been stealing from the stores?’ he said in a low, threatening voice.
The colour drained from Katrina’s face. ‘What?’ she said. ‘Don’t be ridiculous-…’
‘Because the locals are brave enough to, hm? No. Because the locals are stupid enough to walk around with our rations between their teeth in broad daylight, because they don’t realise how different Maedarian breads looks from the pugnacious, tumorous, bulbous and soggy abominations they drag out of their sorry ovens.’
Katrina swallowed. ‘Lucien I-…’
‘No,’ he said, standing. ‘You know what? I’ve had enough of your attitude. I don’t care if we’ve known one-another years, we’re in the army now, and you need to show me some respect. If I ever catch you disobeying me or stealing again – and I don’t care who for – I’ll see you flogged. Do you understand?’
Katrina clenched her teeth together. ‘Lucien, we can’t-…’
Do you understand?’
Katrina gulped. ‘Yes, Sir,’ she said quietly.
She dropped her gaze but could feel Lucien staring down at the top of her head. ‘Perhaps I should punish you anyway,’ he snarled. ‘I’m going to make water on some of those imperial corpses. Maybe I’ll have a clearer head once I come back and I’ll know what to do with you.’
Katrina watched in silence as Lucien walked away through the celebrating Maedarian soldiers towards the woods at the edge of the village. Her heart was hammering in her chest – not with fear, but with anger. She thought of Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer in the tavern cellar – good, honest, kind men with level-heads. She thought of how they had offered them their freedom in exchange for a surrender. She thought of how cruel Lucien could be. Who is really the evil one here? she asked herself.
With a sigh, Katrina got to her feet and walked away from the campfire and towards the tavern. I need some peace, she thought. I should see Henry. The old man had a way of cheering her; he was subtle, down-to-earth, and wise. There was also a goodness in him that reassured her – not the cruelty and selfishness that often escaped Lucien.
As she went, Katrina passed a cart full of Maedarian dead as she went, carefully covered and laid out next to one-another on the road when room had run out in the wooden vehicle. Their shapes, hidden under cloths, looked strange in the moonlight. If it were not for the bloodstains, they could have just been sleeping figures. Katrina shook her head and kept walking. Whilst Lucien is pissing on their dead, Katrina thought and shook her head. She kept walking.
Under the moon and firelight, Katrina could see that there were a few peasants joining in the revelry, including Torrin Twist-Hand and his skinny son, Welf. Both of them laughed and danced with the celebrating Maedarians, and left Katrina wondering just what was right. She had fought before, plenty of times, against thieves, robbers, thugs, soldiers, and guards; she had been in battles both won and lost; but she had never celebrated. For her, victory would be the day the emperor renounced all claims to the west – not when the blood of men and women sent by rulers to die was spilled.
Katrina ducked into the tavern to find the common room deserted; there was the foul smell of blood, vomit, and old flesh in the air, and the faint, harrowing moans and groans of the wounded and dying came through the stones, no-doubt from the makeshift infirmary set up below. She passed through the low stone room and ducked behind the counter, avoiding the ancient, worn and stained tapestry of a half-naked Elven woman hanging there, and went down the narrow steps to the cellar.
The dark stone room was lit by a few torches and lanterns. The floor was covered in perhaps ten makeshift beds comprised of whatever cloth coverings the Maedarians could get their hands on – Katrina did not pay that much heed. Every bed was filled with a figure, either living or dead. In the corner of her eye, Katrina saw the shrouded figure of her brother, tucked carefully to one side and hidden from view by a stack of empty barrels. She felt her heart flutter but quickly looked away.
‘How is it all?’ she asked, approaching where the old man was hunched over a dead Maedarian soldier.
Henry finished muttering the correct rites before closing the corpse’s eyes and looking over his shoulder. ‘Those who can be saved have been saved,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘Those others will slip away in the peace and quiet brought by a bottle of mead.’
‘And the prisoners?’ Katrina asked.
Henry gestured towards the end of the room with a hand. ‘See for yourself.’
In the shadows at the unlit end of the long, cold cellar, Katrina could see five figures. Each one had his wrists shackled by chains that were fastened to the wall. Each was silent. Katrina noticed that the wounded soldier was dead, slumped uselessly against the wall, his face pale and his body slathered in blood.
‘I did what I could,’ Henry said quietly, noticing Katrina’s gaze. ‘Lucien forbade me to treat him. I tried to ease his passing.’
‘Could you have saved him?’ she asked in a whisper.
Henry shrugged. ‘Perhaps. I’ll never know now.’
Katrina turned her green-eyed gaze to Baron Tyvilius and Inquisitor Greyseer and walked towards them. ‘Henry, have these men been fed? And where did you find these shackles?’ Katrina gestured to the chains affixing the men to the walls. Baron Tyvilius looked up as Katrina spoke. Beside him, Inquisitor Greyseer merely sighed, his eyes closed.
‘No,’ Henry said. ‘Again, Lucien would not let me feed them. As for the chains, the local smith – what’s his name? Torrin? – had them. He came down and hammered them into the wall as soon as the all-clear was given and word spread there were prisoners.’
‘Of course he did,’ Katrina sighed and shook her head again. Twist-Hand is just as bad as Lucien, if not worse.
She took another step forwards and crouched down before Baron Tyvilius. ‘I would bring you food if I could,’ she said quietly. ‘You did us a kindness, even if Captain Lucien did throw it in your face.’
Baron Tyvilius let out a choked laugh. ‘I thought it might be honourable to try and bargain with him,’ he said through cracked and broken lips. ‘I looked at him, that captain of yours; he’s my son’s age, give or take a year. I could not condemn him to death there-and-then. I had to-…’ he sighed.
‘I understand,’ Katrina said quietly. ‘You did no wrong.’
‘Folk are dead because of my weak will,’ Tyvilius said with a sigh. ‘I just-…’
‘There’s no point moaning now,’ Inquisitor Greyseer said without opening his eyes. ‘What’s done is done.’
Baron Tyvilius shook his head slowly. ‘He even looks a little like my Olden,’ the baron shook his head. ‘Now I suppose I won’t ever see him again. Do you know what your captain plans to do with us?’
It was Katrina’s turn to sigh. ‘He plans to have the two of you hanged and left above the road into the village; a warning to any imperials who come this way I imagine the same fate awaits the others,’ she said, glancing at the two imperial soldiers who were still alive.
‘Well, at least Karsen avoided that humiliation,’ one of the soldiers muttered, nodding his head at their dead comrade who was still chained to the wall.
‘Why are you not celebrating with your kin-in-arms?’ Inquisitor Greyseer’s voice suddenly cut through the gloom.
Katrina looked to where the inquisitor was chained. His steely eyes were opened and fixed on her, and his hood had been pulled from his head, revealing iron-grey, close-cut hair atop his scalp. His gaze was intense, scrutinising her. Katrina almost expected a trick. ‘Although I slew many in the battle, I do not consider that a thing to celebrate,’ she said slowly. ‘We fought because we had to, not all of us fought because we wanted to.’
‘Then why not desert?’ Greyseer asked, his eyes intense.
Katrina held his gaze. ‘Because I believe in fighting for freedom, and I would not have another die in my place.’
Greyseer nodded his battered head slowly, apparently satisfied with Katrina’s answer.
‘Besides,’ Katrina said and shook her head, ‘this is wrong. I’ll go and find Lucien, see if I can’t get him to at least send you some water.’
‘You have a kind heart, child,’ Baron Tyvilius said with a weak, sad smile. ‘I thank you for trying, at the very least.’
Katrina said nothing as she rose to her feet and walked away. She was too busy trying to avoid looking at the tell-tale cloth-covered thing tucked behind the old barrels.

No comments:

Post a Comment