Partly for pride and partly for fatigue, Miluda didn't bother looking up when the third soldier walked over. His heavy boots thudded over the warped wooden planks and came to rest a few inches from her splayed fingers. He cleared his throat and mumbled his greetings to the other two. They spoke quietly, she couldn't catch their words, but it bought her some time nevertheless. She couldn't face them on her knees, but she knew her legs weren't trustworthy quite yet. She needed a few minutes for her strength to return, although she recognized the futility in it; the battle had been quick, decisive and bloody, and they hadn't stood a chance from the beginning. Every one of her Knights had been slaughtered, while half of their force still milled about behind them. All that remained was for the nobles to finish them off: they wouldn't bother capturing anyone they couldn't ransom, and any mercy they might have had certainly would not extend to Death Corps knights.
She ignored their continued, inaudible conversation over her, and looked past the knights to one of the bodies. He was on his back, with wicked burns up his chest and throat, along his arms, his tunic burnt straight through; she could smell the melted flesh from there. Her mind was hazy, muddled from blood loss and the gauntlet she had taken to the side of her head, but she thought the corpse was one of hers, one of the freshly-recruited kids whose name she couldn't recall at the moment. His eyes still stared blankly upwards, his back arched painfully, his jaw muscles were locked open. Rain water filled his mouth; he had probably died screaming. She had told the archers to hang back, to keep down. She shut her eyes tight for a moment, trying to get her thoughts to focus. It was becoming easier. She opened her eyes and the body was still there, and she was positive it was him. Stupid, careless child. But no, no use blaming him now. Collin, that was his name. Far too young to be fighting.
Her head was clearing, although it still ached, throbbing in tune with her heartbeat. She kept her hand pressed firmly to her side, covering the long gash, a fresh sword-wound from minute earlier. It was bleeding her dry, but her attempts to stem the flow were doing little. She looked up at her captors through rain-sodden hair- she hadn't remembered it coming loose. One of them stood a pace in front of the two others; she assumed their captain. He rested the palm of his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword, but not as if he was about to draw it. He was just staring back at her as the knights to either side of him spoke to him in hushed tones, in their sluggish, rounded aristocrat accents. She still couldn't make out their words over the gargled hush of the rain. She straightened herself out, feeling suddenly better, despite having had no real luck in stemming the blood flow. She couldn't make out his face very well, it was too far into the evening and the storm-clouds were too thick, and his bangs shaded his eyes, but she could tell enough at a glance. His hair was cut in that ruffled style she'd seen on a few young nobles in Zeltennia the summer before; he was strong, she could tell that from the battle, but still too thin to be fully grown. He was young, without question. She looked at the other two Hokuten. All three of them were. Her brother wouldn't be happy that she'd been killed by cadets.
They had not stopped their conversation; it simply didn't make sense that she was still alive. Still talking, still talking. What are you talking about? Her only thought was that they would torture her for information. They would not, of course, get a thing.
Miluda cleared her throat deliberately. "What are you waiting for?" Her voice was quiet and cracked, weaker-sounding than she had expected. She tried again, louder and steadier this time. "Just do it." Better.
The one to the left of the captain nodded curtly with a tight-lipped little grin. His neatly-parted blonde hair gleamed wet, and he looked ultimately satisfied. The captain, though, crossed his arms and glanced to the dark-haired cadet to his side. He looked confused. The dark-haired cadet shook his head a little, resting his hand on the back of his neck and looked over Miluda's shoulder. "The battle's over. I don't see why-"
The blonde cadet huffed loudly and glared at the dark-haired one. He spoke to the captain with impatience and familiarity, sounding petulant and angry. "Kill her, Ramza, she's Death Corps. She's a criminal. You know that. We cannot risk letting her stay alive." He glanced skyward before his eyes swiveled back down to Miluda. He stared, like he was trying to intimidate her, but her expression didn't change. His lips thinned in annoyance. He looked back to the captain- Ramza, she had heard- and spoke with a forced air of carelessness. "Come, I want to make it back to Igros by morning. We shouldn't be wasting so much time on peasants to begin with, but I suppose suffering dirty work is unavoidable." Dirty work.
The captain, Ramza, shook his head a little. "I think Delita has a point. She's an officer, and no longer a threat. We don't have to kill her."
Miluda forced herself to stand, wishing she had her sword to lean on. She braced her hand against the gash along her side, biting down hard on her tongue to stop from groaning, just barely managing not to draw blood. A dizzying light-headedness hit her once she was straightened out. Her vision paled and she thought she would fall again; but it passed in a moment. She felt less dizzy, her thoughts more focused. The sword-wound still burned like fire, but she could handle it.
The Hokuten all looked ready to draw, the dark-haired one with his sword half-way unsheathed; but it was obvious that she couldn't fight them in her condition, swordless and half-gutted. She had some thoughts of grabbing the thin stiletto knife sheathed along her forearm, hidden by her sleeve, planting it in one of their throats, escaping over the water and trying to make contact with what was left of her unit. The blond one would be tempting, although taking out the captain would be most prudent. But, no. She'd be cut down before she was halfway to the rowboats; she'd have to wait until one of them got closer.
The smarmy blond one looked enraged and took a step towards her. She hazarded a stumbling step backwards. "No one told you to stand, you worthless-" he snarled, arm cocked back to striker her, but the dark-haired one grabbed his arm at the elbow, and the blond cadet stopped, . The thought that he was trying to protect her seemed infinitely more insulting than if they had just killed her right away. "What are you doing, Delita?" He yanked his arm from Delita's grip. "She's an animal, nothing more. She deserves as much mercy as a slaughterhouse pig."
Miluda spat on the weather-warped boards at their feet, both out of disgust and to check for blood; there was none.
"We're not your beasts," she said with a slight angry quaver to her voice that she tried to swallow away.
The blonde cadet waved her off with a little snort, sharing an eye-roll with the captain. "Of course you are; you have been since the day you were born."
Miluda let out a laugh, brief and mirthless. She felt nauseous. "Only because you nobles decided it should be this way. It's no excuse."
"Nonsense, this is simply the will of God. All beings have their place; yours is as a flower-peddler or a stable-worker," he said in a parent's patient tone. "You should never have tried playing soldier in the first place. Leave that to your betters."
"God did this?" Miluda strangled out, feeling her throat tighten in rage and the wound at her side clench painfully. "Don't you dare blame your sins on God! It's not because of Him that you live rich lives off of our suffering, why you celebrate while we starve." She looked up to the grey sky, broiling with thick storm clouds and slowly soaking her through. She silently prayed for heavenly intervention. She spoke again, calmer now, soothed by the epithet dimly ringing in her head. "All are equal in God's eyes."
Her eyes snapped back down from the shrouded sky to that blonde cadet as he said, with bitter contempt and a hint of warped amusement, "Oh, you silly little girl. Animals have no god." She breathed deep.
"Well go ahead and do it then!" she shouted, swiping at the air in front of her, almost as enraged over what he had said as over her own inability to do anything about it; for all her anger, her strength was still slowly seeping out of her side. "If we're just animals, kill me and have it over with!"
"Well, you see?" said the blonde one, clasping his hands together and smiling falsely at the other two, although the dark-haired one didn't look back. "Even she gets it. Now, Ramza?"
"That's not true." The dark-haired one looked up, his voice loud and clear. "She's not an animal, Algus. She's human, just like.." his eyes flicked to the captain, then back to the blonde one, Algus. "Just like us." Algus looked livid. "She's not an animal," he repeated.
"That is betrayal," snarled Algus, turning on the dark-haired one, Delita, with a deeper rage that he had not shown her. "I expected better of you. Ramza, do it now, we've wasted enough time already."
The captain glanced over at Delita, drew a deep breath, and spoke. "We've done what we meant to do here. We're going home. We've killed enough today, I think." The blonde one, Algus, stared at the captain disbelievingly and whispered harshly words that Miluda could not make out, incredulity quickly turning to anger. The captain looked a bit troubled, by what exactly she did not know, but shook his head at Algus' words and turned to shout back to the rest of the Hokuten, telling them they were done and to prepare to move out. They set to motion.
"I won't take your pity, you cowards!" Miluda slipped the stiletto dagger from the sheath just below her wrist. She could at least die fighting; she thought it must be better than being condescended like this. The captain, though, had turned away, was walking back to their boats with the rest. He didn't look back; that Algus was still jabbering angrily at him, throwing angry little glances back at her. The Hokuten dragged their casualties with them, while some carried away handfuls of her soldiers' weapons and armor. "This doesn't change a thing!" she yelled after them, clutching the dagger in a white-knuckled grip. "As long as you follow the Beoulves, we are enemies. Don't forget that!"
The captain-Ramza- was stepping into one of the small boats that had brought them there, but paused with one foot still on the platform to look back at her. He shouted back, over the irritable rumbling of thunder, "Do you really hate us that much?"
Miluda was caught off guard by the naiveté of his question, by the confusion in his voice. She responded after a second's pause, though, nodded sharply, keeping her eyes on his. He looked back at her for a few long seconds, his expression unreadable in the dark. Then, he stepped fully onto the boat and sat, staring forward as they sailed away over the black sea, leaving Miluda alone with only the littered corpses of her soldiers and the stiletto grasped uselessly in her slowly loosening fingers.
"There we are," said Marcion, her raspy whisper of a voice touched with self-satisfaction as she removed her hands from Miluda's side. Miluda glanced down; the sword-gash had, over an hour of Marcion's healing, closed and healed completely leaving only a thick line of white scar tissue. The scar, of course, would be there to stay. "It will be stiff for a few days, but you should be well enough by morning". Marcion flexed her fingers as she rose from her knees, and mechanically touched the dark-green scarf wound tightly around her throat before handing Miluda her tunic. The room was cold, the boards of the floor and wall too uneven and poorly-placed to keep heat in or cold out. The floors were caked with mud, and the walls were scarcely cleaner. Marcion, always extremely clean right down to the precise neatness of her fingernails, looked terribly out of place in the ramshackle, filthy old cottage they were hiding out in. She was without doubt an attentive and talented healer, meticulous in the care she took, and rarely even leaving scars. But, Miluda had always felt uncomfortable under her ministrations; there was just something about Marcion that made her uneasy, something unstable that she could not quite put her finger on.
She stood, pulled her wool tunic back on, straightening it before sitting back down on the straw-stuffed mattress. She pressed at her side gently; the skin and muscle felt unnaturally stiff, but it was otherwise painless. Marcion was standing by the bed, watching Miluda's movements silently, arms folded behind her back; she seemed to be waiting. "Thank you," she said. "It feels perfect. Check on Ingram, and then get some rest yourself. I fear we won't have much time to sleep tonight." Marcion nodded sharply, and gave Miluda a loose salute before leaving through the door.
Miluda lay down on the mattress, sighed deeply and rubbed her hand over her eyes; it must have been nearing midnight, and the healing, combined with the earlier battle and her flight to this rickety safe-house, had left her bone tired. Her personal effects lay in a pile on the floor beside her, including her armor, but with the irritating exception of her sword; that was back at the fort, broken and abandoned. She had asked Ingram to find her a new one before they left, but that was proving difficult; there was nothing much left to spare anymore, and what few supplies they had ditched there did not include any useable weapons.
She heard a door slam open down the hall, and the sound of dozens pounding through into the house, an audial jumble of clinking armor and indecipherable shouted orders. Miluda stumbled out of bed, her stomach dropping in dread, her mind whirling frantically, trying to figure out if they could fight their way out, if she could escape out the window without being captured, if the others were still alive. She was halfway to the door, set to barricade herself inside for as long as she could manage, before Ingram shouted from outside, "Captain Folles! Captain Levine has arrived!" She paused mid-step, slowly letting her muscles untense, and breathed a deep, measured breath before drawing herself up. Ingram should have told her Golagros had arrived before he came in, of course, but she was so relieved she decided not raise the point when she spoke to him; most likely, Golagros burst in without warning, and Ingram could not, and would not stop him. Given the current state of their rebellion, she could not really fault Golagros for discourtesy; the fact that he had- apparently- returned from the raid on Igros at all was a small miracle. She very calmly made her way to the table, plunking down into one of the hard wooden chairs.
Ingram knocked perfunctorily and pushed in the door; Miluda straightened herself in the chair, knowing no good would come from looking tired in front of him. Ingram was another one of the younger recruits, barely 15, and had been lucky enough to have been absent during the raid at Thieves Fort earlier. A pair of long, curved knives were still buckled on at his waist, and he rest his hand on the left hilt as he spoke. "Captain Folles," he repeated, "Captain Levine has just arrived with his company. The captain informed me he would be staying the night."
Miluda tilted her head in assent. "Of course. Send him in when he gets a free moment, will you? I'd like to have a word with him." Ingram clicked his heels together and saluted, a motion that still looked awkward on him. He closed the door behind him as he left. If Golagros had brought as many soldiers as she thought he had, she could say goodbye to her own room for the night. It was for the best, really; she wasn't used to sleeping alone, it made her uncomfortable.
Golagros came a few minutes later, once the clattering din had died down to a softer rumble of conversation and laughter. He was still fully dressed for battle, only now as he walked over to the table unlacing his leather gauntlets. Miluda began to rise at his entrance, but he waved her down. "Please, don't. You know formalities embarrass me, Miluda." She smiled for the first time in days; Golagros was one of the only people that she could act like an equal around; even her brother had been even more distant in the last few months. He took the seat opposite her, slumping forward with his forearms resting on the tabletop. "One of your men told me you were injured."
She shook her head. "I'm fine now." Golagros did not hide his skeptical look at her assurances, although it was very much the truth; she felt more tired than wounded.
"What happened at Thieves Fort? I can't help but notice the majority of your unit isn't here."
Miluda rubbed her hand over her mouth and stared at the table in front of her for a silent moment, before speaking. "Igros had been closing in on us for months; it was inevitable that they would find us at the fort. There was no way we would be safe there. So I sent Ingram to the mainland to await further orders from Wiegraf. That was four days ago, I think."
Golagros continued removing his battle-gear, now unbuckling his sword, although he did not look away as they spoke. "Wiegraf had to relocate himself, and messages are getting harder and harder to transport. I doubt he ever got it."
"I know he never got it," she replied, not missing a beat; if Wiegraf had given them a better escape route to begin with, she might have been able to salvage something from their position. She breathed deep and continued. "In any case, they sent a few dozen after us. We were out-numbered, there's no room to maneuver on the island; half of them must have still been cadets, but even then-"
"-You were out-numbered and trapped. You don't need to make excuses to me, I understand." She looked up from the table to Golagros as he calmly undid the clasp holding his cloak on. She felt somewhat shamed to admit such a sweeping defeat, but at least Golagros understood-unlike, regrettably, many of her own soldiers-that victories were not always assured, and that the best you can hope for sometimes is to just escape with your life.
She looked away again, eyes training on the flame bobbing gently in the oil lamp between them. "Marcion managed to hide; everyone else there is dead."
Golagros' lips thinned and he glanced past Miluda for a moment. She thought he was going to ask how she had lived, a question she didn't want to answer; but he asked something entirely different. "Hokuten cadets.. do you know who they were?" The unasked question of why Igros would send cadets- albeit richly-equipped and numerous- against them had been bothering her as well.
"I can't remember any names except for the captain." It had been only a few hours since her confrontation with their captain, and although the details of his face were vague, she remembered what his soldiers had called him. "Ramza, I think. Yes, Ramza."
Golagros leaned forward, scratching the fingernails across the back of his hand in that manner of his. "Well, that's interesting."
"Balbanes Beoulve had a son named Ramza, if I remember correctly." Golagros ran a thumb along his jaw line. "I can't think of his age off-hand, but it's likely to be him." She touched her fingers to the cloth above her newest scar. She had guessed that he was serving under the Beoulves, but she had no idea he was a Beoulve himself.
"So he's Dycedarg's brother. That explains why they sent him after us. They sent him to sharpen his teeth on us." It was all a matter of their house's name, for the nobility; best to start early gaining victories in battle. They always treated war like a game. "But that's done with," she said before Golagros could speak again. It was most certainly was not done with, not at all, but she was too tired at the moment to continue talking about the details of that particular slaughter. "What about you? What happened at Igros?" She was rather curious as to what had lead to him being there. If it had gone well, the Hokuten would be out for blood right now and he would have the leisure time to sit down here with her; and if it had not gone well, he would most probably not be alive.
Golagros rubbed the back of his neck. "We more or less walked right in; they've sent so many soldiers off to round up us and the brigands that they didn't have their usual contingent of soldiers. We fought our way through to Dycedarg, but we didn't get him, but just barely. It was a near-miss. Farshaw caught him in the shoulder; eight inches lower and he would be dead." He smiled, very slightly. "At least he has something to brag about. We lost a few, but they lost as many."
"So where are they?" Miluda asked quietly.
"Where are who?"
"The Hokuten. Even if they are spread thin, there should have been at least a squadron on top of you before you had made it to the city gates. And if you did fight through, they would still be on your trail now. But you wouldn't have stopped to rest if they were."
Golagros grinned widely, although it was touched with fatigue and the melancholy that was unavoidable in the present days of the rebellion. He stated confidently, "We have insurance." He glanced at the door, past which the soldiers were still talking, probably drinking by this point. "I grabbed a Beoulve girl during out retreat; otherwise, yes, we wouldn't have even made it out of the manor."
With his easy escape and personal satisfaction made so obvious, Miluda wondered how she had ever missed it. "A hostage." Golagros nodded slightly, his smile uncurling and his air minimal contentment falling into grimness.
"I told you, it was the only way we could escape. We'd have died without her as a deterrent." She glanced at the doorframe and ran her fingers up over her ear, shifting aside a few still-damp locks of straw-blonde hair. "We need to take any advantage we can."
"But you didn't let her go, did you." He was being too defensive, too roundabout to not be hiding something. He looked at her impassively for a few moments before nodding, not breaking eye contact. "A hostage." Her lips thinned. "You know Wiegraf's policy on kidnapping."
Golagros swiped at the air in front of him as if to bat away her statement, leaning forward, his cool suddenly lost. "Damn Wiegraf's policy! Without the girl, we'd all be dead right now. Without a hostage the Hokuten would be swarming like locusts; they won't touch us while she's here. But no! No, we should let ourselves be hanged by our virtues."
Miluda gripped the edge of the table, her stomach clenching her jaw tight as she spoke, her words quiet and sharp. "I didn't expect you to betray him, too. If you want to turn us into brigands, you should ask Gustav how it's done."
Golagros glared, was about to say something, but a heavy knock on the door interrupted him. He kept his eyes locked to Miluda's for a moment before looking over his shoulder and shouting out. "Enter." Miluda smoothed her features- it would not pay to let the Knights know they were arguing- before the knight, a large man in his thirties with a thick, wild black beard and long hair pushed the door open.
"Captain Levine," he mumbled, making a short bow to them, "Captain Folles. We were wondering, captain," he said to Golagros in a voice too kind and too reserved for his feral appearance, "What we should do with the Beoulve girl."
"Bring her here," Miluda said immediately, without even being sure why; curiosity, she supposed, or perhaps just the impulse to control a situation that was already very much out of her hands.
The knight- Cavendish, she thought his name was- looked to Golagros, who looked over to Miluda before nodding his assent. "Agreed," said Golagros without looking at Miluda. "We should keep an eye on her personally." Cavendish bowed himself out, leaving the door ajar, and returning soon after with a dark-haired girl, no older than fifteen. Her hands were bound in front of her at the wrists, forcing her arms rigidly straight. She looked terrified and tried half-heartedly to escape Cavendish's grip on her upper arm; he did not seem to notice. A few other soldiers had crowded around the door, Marcion included. She kept thumbing her scarf near the base of her neck, scowling at the Beoulve girl.
"Please let me go," she breathed, her voice shaky. She looked like she was about to cry, with a white-knuckle grip on the skirts of her deep-purple dress. She wasn't speaking to any of them in particular, Miluda thought, just looking around for anyone who would listen. "Please. I'm not a noble, I'm a commoner just like you." There was a rumble of laughter behind her, and one of the Knights placed his hand on Cavendish's shoulder, whispering something in the large man's ear that made the large man chuckle.
"Apologies, Beoulve, but you're worth too much to us. You'll go free as soon as your family gives us what we want. However," Golagros said patiently. "You won't be hurt as long as you behave yourself." Golagros motioned with a flick of his wrist for Cavendish to let her go; she had no idea why he was acting so tolerant towards her. She was a Beoulve, after all; she didn't deserve much in the way of explanation.
Cavendish released her, and the second he did the girl ran, trying to escape; with the doorway behind her blocked off, she sprinted into the room, hands still bound tightly in front of her. What her plan was, Miluda couldn't guess; the room only had one door, her hands were bound and she was surrounded by at least a dozen soldiers. She barely made it three steps. Cavendish took a step forward to catch her, but Marcion was already ahead of him, lunging through the others crowded around the door, cleanly pouncing on the girl's back, arms lashing around her, one hand clapping over the noble girl's mouth, stifling a terrified scream. She tried pulling away, but couldn't, as Marcion, despite being a healer, was hardly a weakling. The lantern-light reflected off of Marcion's eyes, filling them with burning orange and yellow, like a wolf's; she had a sick, angry smile on her face as the noble girl's struggle went silent, limbs went lax, and eyes finally closed. Her neck slumped forward, and Marcion released her. She tumbled to the floor in a heap.
No one spoke for a moment; then, Marcion rasped, "She's alive." She straightened her plain robes, and surreptitiously touched a thumb to her scarf, and turned to leave, not looking at the unconscious girl on the floor. "Just sleeping."
"Put her on the mat in the corner, keep her hands tied," barked Golagros. Cavendish hefted her limp body off the ground with little effort, and carried her over, laying her down on her side. She almost looked as if she had fallen asleep naturally.
Golagros and Miluda did not speak, even after the others had left. Then he sighed and spoke, his words softer than before. "This " he said, motioning to the girl, sagging into his seat, "This isn't betrayal. I love you brother, you know that. He's one of the best men I've ever known; I joined the Death Corps because I knew he was worth following. But he's too idealistic, Miluda." He sounded beaten, almost sad. Miluda throat tightened. She tried to swallow it away, but that didn't work. "It's over. The fifty I brought with me are about a fifth of our remaining strength, and not even that will be left by winter's end. It breaks my heart, but the Death Corps is done with."
"We're not done until Wiegraf says we are," she said heatlessly, not having much energy to argue Golagros out of saying what she knew was true.
"Your brother won't ever give up; he'd see us all martyred before surrendering."
Miluda closed her eyes, not wanting to look at anything for a moment. She opened them slowly, looking straight at Golagros, and said, "I know. We're finished, Golagros, I know that. But what do you want us to do? We'll be caught, and we'll be killed; fighting to the last might be the best we can hope for."
"We don't have to die, though. We have her." He motioned to the unmoving Beoulve girl.
"You think she can get us out of this?"
"I do. We can't win, you know that. Your brother wanted to make a difference; so did all of us. But we failed, and right now we need to cut our losses. Get out with our lives and whatever else we can manage."
"I can't abandon my brother," Miluda said quietly. "I'll stay with him to the end. I owe him too much." She looked up. "And you're right; he won't ever give up."
"So that's it, then?" Golagros exhaled sharply in frustration. "Just going to go down with the ship?"
She nodded. "If that's what I have to do. I won't give up, either."
Golagros leaned forward, his right hand pressed against the table-top. "What about them, then?" He paused, and Miluda heard hushed conversation leaking through from the hallway and from the ceiling above them. Most of the soldiers still thought they could win; reluctantly, Miluda admitted to herself that they had been listening to her brother too much instead of looking at things as they really were. "We can't abandon them, either. They're our responsibility. Even if you're willing to die for your virtue, I won't let them go down with you." Miluda didn't respond, ignoring the challenge in Golagros's words. "Are you with me, or do we send ourselves to the gallows?"
She cast her eyes away, giving herself a moment to think it over; but there was nothing to think about, really. She was irrevocably stuck; she couldn't abandon her brother, wouldn't abandon the cause and let the aristocracy win. But Golagros was right. He had been damnably right the entire conversation. The noose was growing tighter; it would be a miracle if they lasted another month. She crossed her arms, suddenly feeling very alone. She felt like crying, but she hadn't done that in years. "We shouldn't have gotten them involved, old friend." Golagros's expression did not change. "The young ones, I mean." Too many of her men were closer in age to the Beoulve girl they kidnapped than to herself. She smiled sadly at Golagros. "I don't think Ingram has even had his first kiss." Her smile deepened slightly, but then fell. "I don't want him to die."
"I'm no Gustav. I won't turn against Wiegraf, no matter what. If you came with me, though- he'd listen to you."
Miluda was not so sure of that; her brother was a tough man to convince, and not prone to hasty sentiment. But it seemed to be their only option. "Alright. I'll come. When do we leave?"
"Tomorrow, at sunrise. The Hokuten won't sit still for long, regardless of who we're carrying." He pushed back his chair and stood, pulled off his gloves and tucked them behind his belt. "You look exhausted. Try to get some rest." His boots thudded loudly over the floorboards as he walked to the door.
"Where are you going?" She asked.
He stopped with his hand resting on the door knob and looked back at her. "To set up the guard. I'll be back in a few minutes, along with a few others; I'm afraid there's no space for private rooms this evening, captain." He grinned in a way that was supposed to be reassuring, and let himself out.
Miluda slowly set about preparing herself for bed, setting her personal effects aside, and made sure the Beoulve girl was still asleep before extinguishing the small oil lamp; knowing Marcion, the girl would probably be knocked out until morning, at the least. She laid down on one of the lumpy, crinkly hay-stuffed mattresses, and pulled the thin wool blanket up underneath her chin. She had not said so to Golagros, but she sincerely doubted any of them would survive what was going to come. The thought faded away only when overpowering exhaustion set in, and she fell into undisturbed sleep, her mind and body too weary for dreams.
Although the windows had been boarded shut ages before, blocking any light from coming in, Miluda could tell it how early it was when Marcion woke her, pressing a hand firmly to her shoulder. She doubted she had slept for more than four or five hours; ideally, she should have stayed in bed the entire day, to rest the sword-wound Marcion had healed the night before, and to recover her strength. But she was off the lumpy mattress almost immediately, pulling on what clothes she hadn't slept in before her eyes were fully open, buckling on her armor with quick fingers. The room was bustling, a half-dozen people dressing and arming themselves, Golagros talking to Cavendish quietly, gesturing to the Beoulve girl. She was slumped against the wall, hands still bound in front of her. She kept squeezing her fingers together, probably to keep her hands from going numb. Miluda double-checked her greaves, tugging on them to make sure they weren't loose and watched the girl out of the corner of her eye. It was the first time since she had fought in the war- what they were now calling The Fifty Year War- that she had seen a noble up close that wasn't trying to kill her. Whatever fight that had been in her the night before was gone now; she was now just watching them with wide, scared eyes, her bound arms squeezed between her knees. Marcion was standing by the door, arms crossed, looking at no one for more than a few seconds, although her eyes always came back to the Beoulve girl. Although they had fought together for more than a year, she did not really know much about Marcion; but whatever wound she was hiding beneath that tightly-wound scarf, it was obvious exactly who she blamed for it. She was faultlessly loyal to the Death Corps and to Miluda; that loyalty, she was sure, the only reason the Beoulve girl had not been murdered on the spot the night before.
Golagros dismissed Cavendish with a sharp not and a thumb jerked at the Beoulve girl. She didn't struggle when Cavendish threw her over his shoulder, but simply closed her eyes and went limp. Miluda was glad she had at least learned that much.
He turned to Miluda, then, picking up a long hand-and-a-half sword leaning against the table. He held it in front of her, parallel to the floor. She took it without a word. He spoke crisply and simply: "One of your men said you needed a weapon."
She nodded slightly and thanked him; he walked off without delay, ordering loudly that their mounts were to be prepared. Miluda unsheathed the sword, letting it spin in her hand, testing its heft, its weight and balance, letting it pass from one hand to the other, slicing it experimentally through the air before replacing it in its scabbard. It was very obviously made for someone four or five inches taller than her, from the center of balance and hilt-length, but it would do just fine. She buckled it at her side and walked out, with Marcion following in tow, as ever obedient and silent.
The sky was pale blue and the ground was soaked in the tenuous, washed-out light of the early morning, just after dawn. The company of fifty-odd Death Corps Knights rode to the east, into the rising sun they knew was there, hidden behind the thick trees. Their last real stronghold, Fort Zeakden, lay three days to the northeast. A last stand, of sorts, could be made there. Wiegraf, according to Golagros' information, was stationed nearby; if they could only convince him to cut their losses, maybe they could yet find a way out. They rode in a long column, three-by-three, two or three soldiers riding on the same saddle. There were two scouts to the front and two to the rear, all four of them Galagros's. Miluda rode with Marcion and Ingram to either side of her. Neither of them really fit to be soldiers, Ingram for his inexperience, Marcion for her derangement, but those two were all she had left of her unit, and she would hang on to that for as long as she could. Golagros rode ahead of them, the girl, belly-down, tied to the back of his saddle. They rode for three hours in silence, and the sun slowly rose, almost reaching the tops of the trees, but not quite. It was surprisingly warm for winter, but that wouldn't last.
The top curve of the sun was just scraping over the treetops when one of the rear scouts galloped frantically up the line, crying out as they did, "Hokuten! A half-mile back and gaining! Sixty or seventy!"
And, barely hearing Golagros's shouted order for speed, the company kicked their mounts into a gallop, a desperate, near-frenzied sprint along the worn old trade road, the deafening clatter blocking out any other sound. Miluda glanced back ever few seconds, much as the others were doing, and within two minutes a single, small mounted figure appeared over a small incline behind them; far away, still, but less than a half-mile, much less. Either the scout was wrong, or they were gaining.
There was no way to escape them on the main road, Miluda thought, it was a straight-away and they couldn't keep up this pace for long. Golagros seemed to have the same idea, because after a few hectic minutes of dead galloping, he started waving to the right, steering them off into the woods. They had to slow slightly, weaving around trees and through a sea of dead leaves; Golagros directed them, pushing them harder than their mounts could handle, acting as if he knew where they were going. She hated this feeling of helplessness as Golagros lead them and she just followed; but there was no space to think about what they were doing, just to do it. They were the smaller force, if the scout was right, so they had a slight advantage through the underbrush. But it wouldn't be enough, a few minutes' advantage at most. Something had to be done.
The Beoulve girl had moved. She was trying to look back, suddenly as alive as she had been the night before. The sound of her rescuers grew louder and louder behind them, although they were still lost from sight in the forest. They needed to speed up, to disappear. They needed to make it to Zeakden in one piece, and their hostage was not enough to bank on. They had to drop weight. There was a sharp rise ahead, curving off to the north along a small stream.
She shouted out to Golagros, grabbing his attention immediately despite the heavy clatter around them. He looked back, and she shouted, enunciating deliberately: "We need to split up! We'll meet at Zeakden!"
He looked at her, his face expressionless, before nodding slightly and riding out ahead of the company, rapidly signaling for them to stop. They clattered to a halt in front of him; he spoke quickly and loudly. "First eight rows go with captain Folles, last eight rows ride with me! Now!"
Golagros rode up to Miluda, spoke rapidly and quietly as the troops scrambled into their separate formations. "Wiegraf is supposed to be at that windmill on Fovoham Plains, but could be at Zeakden by now. Go south from here and you'll hit high cliffs. Find a pass, cut through and run. Cakewalk to Dorter from there." Golagros gripped her shoulder and smiled faintly. "We'll make it." Miluda nodded, returning the smile as best she could, and they rode, Golagros to the north, Miluda to the south, with two-dozen soldiers each trailing after them.
Their short pause, although of only a few seconds, had apparently closed the gap, to the point where they could see the Hokuten force behind them. Miluda rode her men across the small stream, up and over the rise. Although she did not look back, didn't have the luxury of it, she could hear the Hokuten turning towards them, galloping afterwards. Miluda cursed underneath her breath and leaned forward in her saddle. They were following her, not Golagros. He may have been the one they really wanted, but so much the better if they were following her instead. The short limestone cliffs came into view over the next rise, a quarter-mile ahead across a scraggly grass plain, unscalable but riddled with fissures. She picked one ahead of them at random- wide enough for a person to walk through, but just barely- and angled herself at it, letting it consume her vision. She kicked her mount sharply in the sides, and she screamed commands back to them, to speed up, speed up, speed up. They burst out of the woods, tore across the dying, patchy grass, the cliff growing closer and closer as her mount heaved with exhaustion. The seconds stretched, and their pursuers never slowed, and slowly, very slowly, the cliffs came up to them. She pulled them to a halt and dismounted quickly, half-falling to the ground, shouting for the others to follow; the small path, two feet wide and cut through limestone, wouldn't allow them through mounted. They poured into the fissure, armor rattling as they pounded up the path. She could hear the Hokuten dismounting behind them, but kept pushing, holding her sword so it didn't trip her up as she ran. She hoped all of the Knights were still with her.
The passageway opened on top of the cliffs. She looked around frantically as she came out running, her men pooling onto the cliff top. She realized, then, that a terrible mistake had been made, by either Golagros or herself; they had reached the top of the plateau, but a rocky outcropping circled the thirty-yard clearing and fenced them in. Miluda's mind froze for a single second before she spun, eyes running quickly over her soldiers, to face the path they had come from. She breathed a shaky breath; they were trapped. The only way out was the way they had came, and even as she turned the Hokuten knights were pouring out, too quickly to hold them at the passageway. "Form up!" She shouted to her soldiers. Most pulled into a semblance of proper formation, but some, the younger ones mostly, the inexperienced, scrambled to the rocks behind them, trying to climb, or squeeze around them, or to push their way through. She couldn't blame them. Many of those that stood to fight were quavering as well, some praying or swearing behind her. She stood at the front, as she should; she saw Ingram off to her right, at the front of the line, his long knives unsheathed. He, at least, looked ready to fight. Miluda knew Marcion stood behind her without turning to check.
There was a metallic hiss as swords and knives were unsheathed behind her, and as the Hokuten came out from the pathway, with a seemingly-endless line behind them, pouring in quickly, she heard from behind her, "Captain, we can't win. We can surrender!" He sounded desperate. There was twenty feet between the Hokuten battle line and themselves. They seemed to all be out, now, and their numbers, easily three times her own, did not embolden her.
Miluda spoke without hiding the scorn in her voice. "You should know what nobles do to their captives. Better we die here than be taken prisoner." The rest quieted some, but it was not a peaceful silence.
Two figured pushed through the Hokuten line. They were the nobles from the night before; the captain, Ramza Beoulve, if Golagros had been correct, and the dark-haired one, the pitying one. They did not look as clean and unmussed as they had before, though; neither looked like they had slept the night before. The dark-haired one, Delita, she thought it might have been, was obviously incensed; and it was not a dignified anger, but animal rage, his lip curled back to show his teeth clenched tightly, eyebrows drawn down. His sword was already unsheathed, and he gripped it far too tightly. He spoke bitterly, with his anger just barely kept in check. "Give Teta back! Give her back now!"
She could find some satisfaction, at least, in the fact that they had picked the wrong squad. "That Beoulve girl, you mean? That wasn't me. She's long gone by now." A lie, but a believable lie.
"She's not a Beoulve," he said. What was he talking about? "She's my sister. She's a commoner." He said the last word like a slur. "Just tell me where she is."
He must have been lying. Or, at least, she hoped he was. Most probably it was an excuse to hunt and slaughter them. Not that they had ever needed an excuse before. "Well. That would be an unfortunate mistake, if it were true." She slid her sword a half-inch from its scabbard. Delita's expression did not change, and Ramza just watched on, looking unsettled, his hand unmoving on his sword's hilt. "But I won't tell you a thing. Go back to your castle and wait for a ransom note, if you care so much about her staying alive."
Delita's eyes flicked to his captain for just a moment before he said, "Dycedarg won't pay ransom on a peasant." Ramza looked at him warily, but said nothing. "She's of no use to you. You have to give her back to me." He paused, licked his lips. "Please."
"We have to do no such thing." He sounded serious, but it didn't add up; why would the Hokuten go through so much trouble for a supposedly-common girl? His sister, he had said; she had trouble believing that he was a commoner either. His armor was of too expensive quality, and the apparent companionship of Balbanes Beoulve's son did not paint the picture of a commoner. "Will you give us what we've been fighting for if we give you back the girl? Will you give us back the land and food you've been taking from us all our lives?"
"I don't give a damn about your revolution!" His sword flew from his scabbard, and he pointed it at her threateningly. Both battle lines tensed, but neither moved. "I just want my sister back!"
Miluda unsheathed her sword calmly. She rested the flat of the blade on her
shoulder. "All we want is our freedom; you've never allowed us that. So why should we free her? The girl's as good as dead, and you can only blame yourselves."
Delita's eyes burned and he took a deliberate step forward, but Ramza moved, finally, placing a hand on Delita's shoulder, moving ahead of him with an air of authority; but his words sounded desperate. "Please, stop this. I'll go to my brother, Lord Dycedarg, we can reach an agreement. You can't achieve anything by fighting here. Put down your weapons and surrender. We can work this through."
Miluda couldn't help but smile, a wide, humorless smile. A liar or a fool, one was not much better than the other. "Save your little deceptions for someone stupider than me, Beoulve."
"It's not a lie! I'll go to Prince Larg himself if I have to. We can solve this."
"No, we can't. You honestly, you honestly expect me to believe that Dycedarg would mediate with the Death Corps? The only thing your darling brother would have for us is the gallows." She grasped the hilt of her sword with both hands, sliding her feet into position, sword held at her side, pointing at an angle to the ground behind her. "Walk away now, or fight us here. Because I won't listen to your silly lies any longer."
Delita charged forward before Ramza could stop him, sword held high, the skill she knew he had blinded by fury. Miluda stepped to the right as he approached, pivoted her body out of his line of attack. She cut up with her sword and caught him beneath the jaw before he could react, ripping a shallow gash along his jaw line. He stumbled to the ground, gurgling and pressing a hand to his face. The battle lines lurched forward with too much momentum to stop.
Delita jumped back to his own line, bleeding profusely, disappearing into the sea of soldiers. Miluda charged forward, leading the Death Knights forward in a tidal wave of steel and iron. As the lines rushed together to meet each other with horrifying speed, the only two things in Miluda's mind were fighting, and the reiterating mantra, I don't want to die here.
She saw Ingram charging off to her right, his long knives held menacingly above his head, the fear she so often saw on his face now palpably missing, and a few steps before the lines collided, she saw the crossbow bolt slam into his throat, saw him collapse bonelessly to the ground. The lines hit each other with a thundering crash.
There was never any way to tell what was going on from the middle of a battle, no way really to tell who was winning or what the best strategy was. There was too much muddle, too many people being killed all around, too much sound to make anything out. So Miluda did not look back, to where she knew her Knights were, but pushed forward, parrying and striking, cutting through whoever got in her way, not thinking about the poor odds, about how the soldiers following her were slowly becoming fewer and fewer the farther into the mob she pushed. Battle lines had turned to liquid; friends and foes mingled around her, tearing one another to pieces.
Her side, now, that stiffness from yesterday's wound was coming back, tugging at her muscles and throbbing with soft, terrible pain that she had no choice but to ignore.
And she found herself suddenly near the back of the Hokuten , her sword and arms stained with blood of however many she had killed to get there-two or four or five, she never counted- and two ranks away was Ramza Beoulve, dirty and blood-splattered, shouting orders and waving his sword above his head passionately. She sprinted as best she could in her heavy armor, smashing her way through the soldiers separating them. She burst through the line and charged, sword held at waist-level, with the point trained at the gap in his armor at the waist. If she could take out their captain, they might just stand a chance.
He saw her, though, turned her blade aside, struck back with a thrust for her face that she was just able to knock away. He jumped back, and she followed, shadowing him, fending off the strikes of a cadet that was now giving her more trouble than any of the others had. He was quick, striking with short thrust and whirling slashes that kept missing their target, but not by enough. Miluda was slashing viciously at his neck, his shoulders and arms, his legs, keeping him off balance, but never getting in a clean shot. They were drawn away from the main battle, separated by a hedgerow of corpses a few feet thick. She was too focused on their duel to see what was happening around her, but it was doubtful they were winning.
She caught a quick slash for her shoulder on the hand-guard, turning his sword to the side and bringing the pommel up quickly, smashing his nose with leather-wrapped steel. He leapt back, putting a few feet between them, his back to a large limestone boulder. He kept his sword held on guard, hastily wiping the seeping blood from his broken nose with his sleeve, never taking his hands off the hilt. She brought her sword up above her head, angled backward. Her breathing was coming heavy; he was too quick in his light-crafted armor and expensively-forged blade, but she could end it all now, she knew she could.
"Why revolution?" Ramza asked, suddenly, his stance unwavering, his expression cold and strong, but his tone confused, desperate for an answer. "Why, why all this? Are we really the ones who make you suffer?"
And with dozens of men and women murdering each other around them, both of them coated with the blood of Lord knows how many victims, with swords set for each other's throats, Miluda came to a terrible realization: he was being serious. He was being utterly serious. She could have laughed, or cried, but she did neither. She didn't move at all.
"You mean that, don't you? About talking to Prince Larg, about letting us go. About having no idea what the nobles are doing to us."
He didn't respond, apparently didn't know how he would respond, but just looked back at her, blank and befuddled. Finally, he nodded slightly. His sword never wavered.
"I'm sorry then, Ramza. I'm sorry for you. I'm sorry that you're that sheltered and ignorant."
He wiped blood from face, wincing in pain as his hand rubbed against his broken nose. "For God's sake, just lay down your sword, tell your soldiers to surrender. I'm not your enemy." He was almost pleading, not out of fear for his life, but just desperate to figure out the reason for why they fought. "I'm not the one making you suffer."
She took a deep breath. She wanted to lower her arms, to rejoin the fray, to pull her Knights out and retreat, to do anything but stand here and fight Ramza. "You're right." He looked hopeful, for one painful moment. "You're not the one making us suffer. But as long as you're a Beoulve, as long as you threaten the Knights, you are my enemy. Nothing changes that."
He locked his eyes to hers, tightened his grip. He no longer sounded sad. Now he just sounded resigned. "I never wanted to kill anyone."
She licked her lips. "Neither did I. But, here we are."
Ranmza paused for just a heartbeat before he lunged forward, sparing nothing. Miluda came down with a hard slash to split his head open, but he moved too fast, moving aside the strike, sword raising, and she could feel a thousand miles of vulnerable space between one shoulder and the other. He drove in his sword.
In a single, terrifying pulse of thought, she felt steel slip through her armor and into her chest, piercing deep, and she knew without hesitation that her life was over. Her own sword clattered from her hand; the pain was exquisite, unimaginably terrible. The blade buried in her pulled out.
She fell a helpless eternity to the ground, curled up into a ball involuntarily. She wished her armor was off, she wished her brother was there, she wished her parents were still alive, she wished she was still at the farm she was born at. She felt someone's hand gripping her own, and she held on tight. "I'm so sorry, brother," she whispered, too softly for anyone to hear, and let her eyes close.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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