The wait was finally over, and for that, Roland felt morbidly relieved. When
having to be the bearer of such horrible news, the elf felt it was best to
just get it over with. He was afraid there might be a delay, given the short
time theyd had to move the army, but Salome was never late, and today
was no exception.
Sitting bareback on his horse, he looked down the hill and saw the Zexen Army approach. The animal started to prance with excitement as it heard the familiar sound of clanking armor and smelled other horses. Roland took a firmer contact with its mouth as he prepared for what he would have to do. The horse tossed its head as it felt the pressure, and curiously flicked its ears back, clearly sensing its riders agitation.
In the distance, the knights looked like shiny beetles as they marched in ranks with their armor glinting in the sun. A few of the higher ranking ones sat atop their steeds, flanking the men on the ground. From the direction of the noise they made, he could tell they were heading straight towards the point where he was supposed to meet them. Drawing his reins in tighter, he knew it was time.
These few days he had spent scouting the terrain with the women had taken their toll on him. Between their travel and their grizzly discovery inside the city the day prior, no one in the group seemed to have any shred of morale left. Many whispered of a plague or curse, and although he was usually not prone to the superstition of humans, Roland tended to agree with them on this one instance.
A tall dark haired woman pulled her horse alongside his and asked, What are we going to do?
That is for the Captain to decide, he replied as his eyes followed the movement of the arriving army.
Shall I fetch him for you, milord?
No. Ill go myself, he said as his horse began to paw the ground. Keep everyone here, Beatrice. And not a word of this until I say otherwise.
Ill be back soon.
Milord? If I may be so bold?
Preoccupied with the gruesome task he was about to execute, the reply came more annoyed than he had intended. What is it?
Shouldnt you change, milord? She asked cautiously, motioning to the costume the elf had donned as part of their ruse. They had dressed him as a slave in rough burlap clothing that had been rubbed extensively in the dirt and even removed his shoes and jewelry to make the outfit more believable. It was unattractive and demeaning, but still very plausible, since many members of his race had been sold into such a life in other parts of the world.
Turning his horse to leave, he shook his head, As much as I despise these trappings, there isnt time for that.
His bare heels found the flank of his mount, and the two of them disappeared into the forest at a gallop. Twenty minutes or so he rode in the direction of the army, his weight shifted forward and off the horses back for more speed as they darted in between the trees with the agility of a cat on the hunt.
Finally he came upon his fellow Zexens. Despite some confused looks, no one said anything as the filthy elf headed straight towards the captain.
After a greeting over the noise of the marching men, Roland spoke in his native language. I regret to inform you that we have a problem.
Few humans ever bothered to learn the language of the elves, but Salome was one of them. He wouldnt consider himself fluent, and Roland had told him numerous times that his accent was horrible, but something had to be said for the effort. What is it? Salome asked, keeping the discussion in the tongue his comrade had chosen, knowing that if Roland was using the language, something was definitely amiss.
Come with me.
Yes. Now. Roland said, his normal monotonous voice twitching with anxiety that he fought to control.
Salome looked quickly around the clearing the army was entering, his curiosity piqued by Rolands uncharacteristic apprehension. Is it safe to make camp?
Yes, was the reply, in a tenor more agitated than before. The forest is fine, too.
Salome glanced sideways at the generally unflappable elf, and then shouted a command in the common language to Leo to stop and make camp. After receiving a nod from the huge knight, he called over four men.
We dont need an escort, Roland said as the knights approached, again using the tongue that few, if any of them, would understand.
Are you sure?
Yes, the elf responded, strained emotion growing in his normally austere eyes. There is no one to fight.
The Captain dismissed the four soldiers and then rode a good hundred yards into the woods with his trusted friend. Finally away from the rest of his men, his eyes narrowed pensively as he asked the question that had been bothering him since first laying eyes upon the elf in rags. What is going on, Roland?
I have to show you because I cant describe it, Roland said as he pointed his horse in the direction of Dubios. His eyes trained off at the top of the massive wall that peeked portentously out from behind the few leagues of forest they would have to traverse in order to enter it. The whole macabre situation ate at him now as he caught sight of a few buzzards flying in the direction of the city. Glancing back to Salome, he said somberly, Its in the square.
Torrie had just finished cleaning up from lunch when she heard a knock on the door. It was hardly suspicious, a light, feminine tap, but still she peeked out the keyhole to be sure the visitor was friendly. Satisfied, albeit puzzled, she lifted the latch to invite her unexpected guest in as the boys looked up from the game they were playing on the floor.
Lady Harras, she said as she pulled the door open. This is a pleasant surprise.
I hope Im not disturbing you, the older woman replied as she entered the small flat, carrying a basket on her arm. But I brought something for you and the children.
Torrie smiled as she accepted the gift. No, of course not. Please, come have a seat and Ill put some tea on. Looking at down at Chriss children, she asked, You remember Ryan and Geoffrey?
Of course, although the last time I saw them was a few years ago at the Harvest Festival. Ardeth lowered herself to the couch as Torrie gave a quick bow and then stepped out of the room. With a smile towards the boys, she added, You two have grown quite a bit since then.
Geoffrey tilted his head in curiosity at the woman as he gazed at the brace on her right leg that the hem of her dress didnt cover. Frowning at his brothers ill-mannered curiosity, Ryan stood up and gave a slight bow of his head. Hello, milady. Is Jael with you?
Ah, not this time, Im afraid. But maybe Torrie can bring you over to the house to see him.
Id like that.
Im sure he would as well.
I wish youd come to the Festival again. It was a lot of fun when Uncle Borus taught us how to play Hazard.
Ardeths smile faded just a bit, recalling the incident that had caused Borus a much deserved scolding by both boys fathers. It was certainly an interesting lesson for children, thats for sure.
I hope you can come this year. I want to show him the fort Geoff and I built out behind the barn.
Oh that sounds like fun. What do you do in the fort?
Lots of stuff, but we spend a lot of time keeping Charlotte out. Shes the girl from down the street that always wants to play. Shes annoying. Mother makes me let her play anyway, though.
Ardeth grinned at the boys as she envisioned Chris chiding them for ostracizing the little girl. You may not think that shes annoying when youre older.
Ryans dark eyes grew sad and he looked down at the ground. Thats what Father says.
Before Ardeth could offer her condolences, Geoffrey grabbed his older brothers arm. Giving a suspicious look at the look at the woman, he whispered, rather loudly, into a cupped hand meant for Ryans ear. Who is she?
Ryan shoved him off. Dont be rude, Geoff! Turning back to the woman he bowed again. Im sorry, milady. My brother is too young to remember you.
The woman smiled pitifully at the two children, and gently reintroduced herself to the younger child. A moment later, Torrie returned with the tea, and Ryan quickly moved the game to the spare bedroom, knowing the adults probably wanted some privacy.
Thank you so much for the bread and cheese, Torrie said as she sat down and then began to pour the tea. It smells delicious and well have it tonight at supper.
Youre welcome, Ardeth answered as she accepted the cup. Its least I could do. Is there anything else you need?
After taking a sip Torrie, smiled, a harried blush on her face. Ah, not at the moment, but I appreciate the offer, milady.
Well if you do, just send word, Ardeth said. Wanting to avoid any further embarrassment on the part of the younger woman, she changed the subject. I just came from the store, and I must say, Lord Robert seems lost without you.
A slight grin crossed Torries face as she thought of her good-natured but occasionally absent-minded employer. I hope he hasnt lost his keys in the wine cellar again.
No, but he did tell me to remind you that hed love for you to bring the children to the house and come back to work if youd like.
I do miss the store, Torrie said quietly as she took another sip of the tea. Although I think that being away from there is a good thing for the time being. You wouldnt imagine the rumors I hear about myself when Im at work.
Oh? Ardeth gave a kindly smirk as she placed her cup down on the table. I can only guess the scandal of a common woman being courted by a Councilor!
Torrie laughed at the feigned surprise the woman put on her predicament. Yes, thats it.
Ardeth grinned. Ive been there. You should have heard the stories that the people during the war produced about Salome and I. Can you imagine, a titled, wealthy knight being interested in a poor, common, and crippled woman? The shame of it all!
Torrie chuckled. Although she didnt know Lady Harras that well, she was definitely enjoying her company. Indeed. Last I heard, I was too pretty for a broken down useless man. She sighed as she replaced her teacup on the saucer. I think it bothers me the most to hear others slight Louis. It would be one thing if they were just calling me a moneygrubber or something equally as ridiculous, but I take it to heart when some idiot friend of Jareds insults him right in front of me.
And that shows that you really love him
Torrie felt her face flush. Yes, I suppose it does, but I wish I had the courage to say something to those people who are always in the store. Louis says to ignore it, thats just petty gossip, but--
You are insulted, the woman finished for her. I know how you feel. Looking back, I think the thing that hurt me most was hearing some of the people at Brass Castle actually say that Salome didnt deserve to marry because he was too boring. Thats because they only see him in his official capacity, and when hes working, he can be boring.
Victoria laughed, I guess were all boring at work, though.
Indeed, Ardeth said with a smile. Taking a more serious tone she offered the young woman some advice. Torrie, whatever you do, dont listen to those people. Many are quick to judge from a distance, but few know the truth behind anyone elses relationships.
Ill remember that, Torrie replied. And thank you.
Before Ardeth could offer any more advice, a loud, thunderous rap fell upon the door to the flat. Torrie rose to answer it, but she hadnt even taken a step or two, when it came again, threatening to smash the door from its hinges.
Who is it? She called, now terrified of whomever it could be.
Marshals, maam. Open the door.
Trying to hide her fear, for she knew that Marshals banging on the door as if they were human battering rams did not bode well, she pulled it open. There stood not one, not two, but six members of the Councils private guard. They were immense men, made only to look larger by the full suits of armor they wore. The one who seemed to be in command lifted the facemask of his helmet and addressed her. Victoria Maserdon?
Yes, thats me, she said, her voice feeling suddenly tiny, as her mind prayed that nothing had happened to Louis.
Step outside, please, maam and keep your hands out in front of you.
She did as she was told, despite the growing dread in her heart.
At seeing this, Ardeth stood up and ambled towards the group. Glaring at the Marshals, she asked tersely, What do you people want?
The leader bowed to the Captains wife, his expression that of surprise at finding such a distinguished member of society in the flat. Lady Harras, forgive the intrusion
She cut him off with quick retort. Youll earn my forgiveness if you go find some criminals and leave decent people alone.
The large man almost seemed intimidated by the small woman. But milady, Im afraid this woman is a criminal.
What?! Torrie said, nearly falling to her knees.
This is ridiculous, get out of here! Ardeth commanded, desperately trying to imitate the way shed seen her husband command his knights.
The one in charge spoke with only utmost deference to the woman. Milady, shes wanted by the Council for treason.
Treason!? Torrie gasped as one of the men forced a pair of shackles over her wrists. Ive done nothing, I swear it! I swear it to Loa!
Show me the warrant, Ardeth demanded as she held out her hand. Now.
A man in the back of the group placed the document into the womans palm and she read it quickly. Justin Plasser and Keith Drever signed this? This cant be right. Theyre two of the most moderate people on the Council. It must be a joke--a very sick joke.
Its not a joke, milady, the leader replied as he gave a bow to her. We have to go now.
Torrie started to sob as she saw two pairs of terrified eyes in the doorway appear just as the gaggle of men pulled her away. The children
Dont worry about them, Ardeth shouted, silently cursing the fact she could not keep up with the Marshals.
Louis, Torrie plaintively called over her shoulder, her hands so weighted under the irons that she could not lift them above her waist. Please, find Louis!
It was the smell that hit Salome first. Before his eyes could even focus upon the ghastly sight in the small square of the city, the stench nearly knocked him from his horse. Death, warmed and rotten forced the knight to pull his scarf up around his nose as he gazed at the landscape that could have easily risen from Hell itself.
The cracks in between the paving stones had filled with blood, giving the illusion that the streets were floating on it. The source for most of this was a pile in the center of the square. There lay scores of bodies, naked, headless, and twisted into a contorted heap of flesh. Around the perimeter, a few dozen heads were impaled upon pikes, their faces frozen into fearsome masks of death. Salome recognized a few of them immediatelythey were Percivals men.
But these poor souls ordeal had not ended with their deaths. No, the indignity of not being buried had attracted scavenger animals and insects. Rats scurried around the bodies, flies buzzed and vultures bold enough to brave the gore perched atop the pile, as if guarding their find.
Many words came to the Captains mind as he finally began to realize this wasnt a nightmare. But, before he could speak of the inhumane, despicable, treatment of these soldiers, his stomach expressed its own disgust at the sight and stench. While the aftermath of battle generally didnt bother the man hardened by nearly thirty years in the army, this time, it reached far beyond the realm of ordinary. Embarrassed at the sudden loss of control and composure, he leaned far over the side of his horses neck.
If it is any consolation, Roland said gently, his eyes fixed firmly ahead. The same thing happened to me when I first saw it.
Wiping his mouth, and recovering his nose with the scarf, Salome sat back on his mount. I cannot even fathom what sort of people we are dealing with now.
The elf pointed towards something that shouldnt have blended into the background as well as it did. Perhaps not, but I believe that is one of their weapons, and what caused our friends to meet a quick death.
They rode a few yards closer to the simple structure as it seemed to smirk at them from above, its metallic lip still stained with the ruddy remnants of its last meal. Closer they went, ever so slowly, holding the horses in a near-stilted walk, as if afraid the device would suddenly come alive and strike them dead.
Still, morbid curiosity called them towards it. When he was just a few feet away, Salome glanced up at the enormous blade with its rope tethers and then down at the stockade. Its a mechanical butchers block, he said fury rising within him. There was no battle. This was an execution!
Roland just nodded. Hed already struggled against the salvo of emotions that his friend was now fighting, and knew it was best to just let it run its course. His eyes caught sight of an arrow that had been shot into the far timber that supported the blade. Resting just at eye level, it pinned a piece of paper to the disgusting contraption. The elf rode over to it, leaned up, and grabbed it, nearly dropping a small metal ring that adorned the shaft of the bolt.
Frowning upon closer inspection of the items, he trotted his horse around to the other side of the machine and offered them to Salome, who took the ring and held it in his gloved palm. It was slim, silver, and definitely cut to fit a mans finger. With a heavy sigh he rolled it onto its edge for the confirmation he feared. Inscribed on the inside of the simple ring, as expected, were the initials PRF.
After a moment, he put the ring into a tiny pocket on his sleeve and said despondently to the elf, When we get back to camp, send someone for Lady Chris. Her mission is pointless now.
Roland shook his head, concern and worry showing on his face. She wont come back. Shell want revenge.
Then Ill get it for her, he said, the anger flooding him again as he grit his teeth. I told her once to use my life as she saw fit. If she wants revenge, its hers.
And what shall I tell Ardeth when you sacrifice yourself for Chris?
That I died fulfilling an oath.
Very well, Roland replied, knowing arguing with Salome at this point was futile. When they were back at camp and the demons that infested this hell behind them, he was sure the man would be back to his calculating and rational self.
Lets go, Salome said as he turned his horse around.
What about this? The elf held out the peculiar parchment that had been pinned with the arrow.
Halfheartedly, as his thoughts were now with Chris and what hed say to her this time, Salome drew his horse to a stop. Taking the paper from the other, he opened it, read it, and his desire for revenge returned ten-fold. As if the scene before them wasnt horrible enough, the enemy had now taken to deriding them. The paper that had been so carefully placed contained a terrible, inane rhyme that was sickeningly reminiscent of a Zexen cradlesong. Written in a left-tilted hand, and signed only with the symbol of a bulls-eye, it contained the following verse:
Long ago and far away
There was an Army from Zexay
Fought they did and fought they might
But lost some men one spring night
Two hundred and one heads did fall
But thats not the saddest part of all
When given a choice to live or die
All of those soldiers chose to defy
Many screamed and many cried
A few lost control as they died
This didnt stop me from chopping heads
Ive left you their bodies, so bury your dead
You wont hear me repent for this crime
So place the blame for this on Fraulein
For had he accepted my gracious bid
His men might not ended up as they did
Salome crumpled the paper with one hand and threw it to the ground in disgust, cursing aloud at the audacity of the note and its author. He was still infuriated by it all and eager to find these disgusting excuses for human beings that had murdered Percivals group. That would have to wait for a few days, though for there was a pressing matter before him that had to be dealt with immediately., Setting a steely gaze set upon the pile of bodies, he gave an order, even if Roland was the only one there to hear it. We will bury our men and offer the proper rites. This is Zexen land now, and we must keep it so in their honor.
Louis cursed as he nearly fell down the staircase that led to the caliginous underground dungeons encased in the citys wall. The stairs were stone, steep, and twisted into a convoluted spiral that wound down one of the fortifications towers. He tried to count, remembering that every eleventh was an extra short trip step but couldnt get his mind to focus on the task as his body teetered on each uneven, slippery tread. All he cared about was getting down the blasted thing, and he was determined to do so, despite its attempts to hamper his progress.
Gripping the rope that hung down the center of the staircase shaft with one hand, and trying to balance himself with just one crutch, he made some progress, but it was still taking too long. With less than six steps to go, he paused and rested against the wall for a moment, the thought of Torrie trapped in this place strengthening him to finish the chore of getting down the horribly crafted stairs.
Once he made it to the bottom, he took a minute to catch his breath. The air was dank, and what little light was provided came from a few oily torches hung on the wall. Straw was thrown on the floor, and this provided just another obstacle for the young Councilor. A large wooden door flanked by two guards consumed most of the landing, so he cautiously navigated his way over it, and addressed neither of them in particular. Ive come to see a prisoner.
The one on the left was a dark haired man with a face full of boils. He sneered at Louis. Whats a fancy man like you doing down here?
Ill try this one more time, Louis said with no trace of patience left in his voice. I am Councilman Keeferson. Open the damn door.
The shorter man, of stout build and fair hair, was still greasy, if not a bit more respectful to his superiors. Yes, milord, he said as he obeyed the order.
Dragging himself down the small corridor of iron barred cells, he glanced around at some of the disgusting people that Zexen had chosen to confine to the place while they were forgotten, or in some cases, until they were executed. In the cell nearest the door was a man who had slain his wife in a jealous rage. Louis remembered that one well, for he had been one of the two councilors to sign the arrest warrant. As he walked past more miscreants towards the pitiful sobs that tore at his heart, they glared, shouted, and one even threw something at him.
A few more steps, another barrage of insults from one of the men down there, and he saw her. Sitting on the narrow, rough plank of wood that was chained from the wall and constituted her bed, she had curled her legs up under her dress and defensively drawn them to her chest. Leaning on the bars, he called her name and she looked up with fresh tears on her face.
She dashed across the tiny space to reach for him. Louis! Oh, Louis!
Holding her as best he could through the barrier, he whispered, Thank the Goddesses youre all right.
Theyre trying to accuse me of treason! She said, her voice faltering over the words.
I know. Lady Ardeth told me.
Her eyes opened wide as she realized in her terror that she had forgotten her most important charge. The children!
Theyre fine, he whispered as he touched her cheek and shot a nasty look to the man in the cell next to her who was making an obscene gesture at them. She took them to her house.
She didnt fight her tears as she held his hand to her face, but to her surprise he pulled back. Turning away, he called, Guard!
Louis? She whispered, completely confused at the sudden rejection.
The chubby blond man appeared and started walking towards them. Louis called him again, and the man actually tried to move his large body a bit faster. Yes, milord?
Open the cell, the councilor commanded.
I cannot let the prisoner out, milord.
Dont let her out, Louis said with a green-eyed glare of irritation. Let me in.
Not even a second later, a much relieved Torrie all but threw herself into his arms as the cell door clicked and locked behind them. I was afraid
Afraid of what, my dear? He asked with a grin as he led her to the wooden plank and sat down, thankful for a moment to rest.
Never mind, she whispered as she nestled into his arms. Never mind.
He ran his fingers her hair soothingly, and then brought the conversation into hushed tones. I tried to convene an emergency meeting, but no one would second the motion. Im sorry. I tried
She put a finger to his lips. Its not your fault, but Im not surprised. Did Lady Harras tell you who signed the warrant?
No, he said as he withdrew from her touch just long enough to remove his wooden leg. Who was it?
Plasser and Drever.
That cant be right. They are two of my closest allies.
She rubbed her forehead wearily. I know.
Louis pulled her closer to him and kissed her wet cheek. The only two men left on the Council that he had respected were now quickly becoming his worst enemies. Only cowards use tactics such as this one to convince a man, he thought. The question rising within him now was what did they want from him?
Laying her head on his shoulder she asked a somber question. So, Im in here until the beginning of next week then?
Yes, but you wont be alone.
What do you mean by that?
He took off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. Im staying with you. Theres no way in hell that Im leaving my lady in this place alone.