The bandits kept advancing on the main road, heading to the Mountainside.
Most of the people near the tavern were still busy talking about the recent discussion, so even with the overwhelming advantage in numbers nobody dared to move a finger. They were probably too surprised of seeing menacing strangers walking through the plaza like they owned the place right after the elders had dismissed a proposal on the same topic. Gardn motioned for Elise to go inside the tavern. The girl, however, wouldn't obey.
"What do you mean with that?" she complained. "Of course I will stay. If I want to be in the village council, it's my duty to-"
"Please, just for this time... Leave it to the adults. The old man wouldn't like to see you near those people anyway."
Elise glared at the two newcomers again, then gulped and stepped towards the door.
"Fine. I'll let you take care of them. Be careful."
She chose a spot near the entrance of the building, quietly watching the representatives of Fradot as they went forward to meet those who they already assumed to be criminals. The girl could clearly feel the tension in the air, but it was nothing compared to what her friends must have been undergoing at the same moment. Maybe she was still too inexperienced to hold such an important talk, after all.
Damn. I should be there, right in the middle of the action, at least to learn how to deal with those people. If Roric was here, I wouldn't even have to be scared of them...
"Good morning, fellows," yelled one of the men, with a strangely cheery voice. "We come on behalf of the great Khoss, our employer."
"Welcome, strangers," replied Gardn, cautiously. "What kind of business brings you here?"
The two criminals exchanged a look and then the one who had just spoken went on.
"We were tasked with carrying out a diplomatic mission by an important man of the western valley," he explained, spitting out an articulate vocabulary in a noticeably awkward manner. "He who will soon bring all the villages together and provide them with protection."
Funny. I was thinking of doing the exact same thing before coming here, but now I don't like the sound of it.
"Protection? We don't need it," said Jordo. "Fradot is a peaceful village that can stand on its own two legs."
The second outlaw laughed and carried on the conversation before his companion could answer.
"Fertile lands like yours are valuable, in these valleys. A lot of people might want to put their hands on them, sooner or later."
"Is that a threat?" asked Gardn. "We may not be warriors, but trust me when I say-"
"Wait, wait," quickly stepped in the first of the two strangers. "We didn't want to sound offensive, my friend here has just some language issues, right?"
He emphasised that by kicking his companion's leg.
"Right! Right! Stop hitting me," whined the other. "Just tell them what the boss wanted and let's get out of here."
"Alright," exclaimed the first bandit. "As I said, our boss is a powerful man but he is not unreasonable. In his generosity, he entrusted us to bring you folks an offer."
"What kind of offer?"
"You just need to share your provisions for the winter, and hand what we need to us. It's all on this list," replied the stranger, waving around a paper. "Two days from now, at dawn, we'll come and collect the tribute. If all is in order, you'll be free to go on with your lives as usual, otherwise..."
His companion made a gesture that left nothing to the immagination. A slit throat.
They want to... Conquer! Enslave us!
Elise held her breath.
"This is insane!" yelled one of the council members who were standing further from the meeting. "Do you think you can simply walk in here and ask for... These lands aren't under any kingdom, young man, but-"
The two strangers, however, had already turned around and were about to leave.
"Remember, folks. Two days! We trust you will be cooperative."
"Nobody will get hurt if you satisfy our request. See ya."
The girl took a shaky step forward, just as Gardn and Lod turned back to look at her. On their faces there was a mixture of fear and stupor. Surprisingly, it was the timid priest who had the bravery to speak first.
"So, what... What do we do now?"
When Roric came back, he found the village in turmoil.
People were running across the only street like crazed ants, carrying stuff and materials of all kind. As he suspected, the criminals had already visited Fradot. A quick word with some bystanders confirmed the boy's concern. He had to hurry.
They gave us two days, huh? It might be enough to satisfy their request, actually. Those men didn't seem like they were looking for a fight, having to face so many villagers at once. The people of Fradot just need to give them what they want and everything will be alright.
As he went up, however, he noticed something. The male workers weren't actually gathering the provisions for the tribute. A lot of wood and farming equipment, instead, was being brought towards the top of the hill. And furthermore, nobody looked like someone resigned to pay.
As he finally reached the Mountainside, Roric spotted Elise near the people of the city council, who were vigorously arguing. It was a good thing that they were all there, because he had a lot of questions.
"Shut your mouth and listen to me, old man!" yelled Gardn. "The village needs the strength to defend itself, or it will always be the prey of some scum."
"I'm not going to follow the delusions of that girl like you do, carpenter!" replied one of the counselors. "I said we pay the tribute and keep our heads! What could possibly happen?"
"We won't get through the winter, that's what will happen," pointed out the other man. "Makers, I support Elise's idea and I'm not afraid to admit it. We need to show that they can't do as they please."
No, no, no! What's happening? I have to step in before they do something really stupid...
"Roric!" Elise called for him. "Good timing, We were just in the middle of-"
"What did you do?" exclaimed Roric, with a very serious tone. "Tell me that you didn't challenge them. Tell me!"
"We didn't, but if the needs arises we plan to," stepped in the bulky carpenter, excitedly. "We'll build barricades, and hold those scoundrels away from our homes. Elise, my dear, we should have pushed further. You were right since the first moment."
The boy couldn't believe his own ears. The massacre of Spjaldir wasn't fresh in his memories anymore, but over the past few years he had reflected a lot about it. Everything that had happened that day could have been prevented if his father and his friends had simply given the bandits what they wanted, without any complaint. Still, he could clearly remember them stating that they didn't want to be robbed. It was a very grave mistake, in the end.
Elise, meanwhile, came closer to him. Her expression was firm and resolved.
"Roric, we need to do this. They are going to take everything from us."
"Everything? What about your lives? Don't do it. Paying the tribute is the best you could do."
"You of all people shouldn't be saying this," replied the girl, with a very disappointed tone. "You, who have lost everything because of them-"
"Elise! Please listen to me," stepped in the boy, trying to keep his voice down. "We can't fight them. Protecting the entire village would be... Hard. Harder than anything you imagine."
"Isn't it the reason why you agreed on training me?" went on Elise. "Just seeing that filth walking around Fradot creeped me. I promised Dominic I would keep my people safe, and I'm going to do it with or without your help."
Roric felt his heart crushed. For all that time, he had forced himself to believe that the girl had her share of good judgment, but he wasn't so sure about it anymore. How could she not see that resisting was a bad idea?
"Please. If you oppose, you'll just anger them."
I must stop this with force, if necessary. She is about to do something dangerous.
"Let's protect our home," she just said.
"No. This is not protecting. It's going to war."
The girl glared at him, but he didn't waver. The young warrior, however, felt the weight of her will seething through her green eyes.
"Come on, remember what I said!" he pointed out. "Violence isn't the best answer. You can only win the battles you can win."
"I don't care!" she screamed. "I want to keep them away from here."
"And how are we going to do that, exactly? I can't speak for the rest of these gentlemen, but if you have a plan I'm willing to listen."
The two stopped fighting, and turned around. One of the older councilmen was addressing them. His expression, surprisingly, seemed intrigued by Elise's words.
"It's simple. If they bothered to come here and ask us, then their numbers can't exceed ours," she replied. "They know we have our loved ones to defend and won't risk a direct attack. This is a battle that can be won without even fighting. We'll deter them by showing that we aren't scared. Our determination alone will be enough to go back to the place they belong to."
"You know nothing about battles," said Roric. "I already warned you. It won't work."
Elise looked at him with an air of superiority. She was getting overconfident.
"What will you do when they actually come here?" asked the boy. "This is not a game, Elise. What if they refuse to retreat, for starters?"
"They will have to face the entire village," reiterated Elise. "As one."
She took a stand in front of him. Roric looked through the crowd, searching for someone who could help him with that argument. But the incredible will of that girl had already managed to win over Fradot. Her people, as she liked to call them, would have supported her to the end. For that moment, at the very least.
"Do you think you can just scare thm away? Fine, try it. But I'll never agree with this stupid idea."
"Fine to me. Will you train some volunteers, now?"
"Train them yourself. I'm sure you have a crazy plan for that too."
He turned around and started walking back. Nobody called for him, but he could clearly feel the gazes of the entire village as he left the plaza and headed home.
Why isn't anyone stopping her? They are almost like soldiers who blindly obey a general... But they'll see what their choice has brought to them. They aren't ready, nor is Elise.
In that moment, Roric remembered of commander Lowan. The girl was so similar to him that her people believed in her just like the mercenaries back then. Normally, nobody in Fradot would have ever mustered the bravery to fight back, but now they were were so confident in Elise that they would have stood with her. Like she was their general. Even if it meant...
Dying. Just like that time with Rickhart... Except that now I know what an unwinnable battle looks like. I need to find a way to make things right. Maybe there's still time to change their mind... Well, her mind.
The young warrior thought about going to meet the bandits himself, but it would have probably been useless. Unusually, his hands were shaking a bit. He wasn't ready to lose his home once again.
"Good job, Elise" he murmured. "Now we are in a world of trouble."
"We've built barricades along the road. Here, here and here," said Gardn.
"We don't know how many enemies are coming yet," commented Elise. "And there aren't many who are fit enough for a fight."
Lod shook his head.
"This is crazy. Are you seriously asking the people of Fradot to get in a battle? We don't even have weapons."
"We have a couple of spears and our tools," explained the girl. "Roric taught me that they are good, safe weapons that anyone can use. The bandits won't get near if we hold the road together."
The priest didn't dare to answer. Elise almost smiled at his reaction.
Speaking of which, she was really glad of the enthusiasm shown by everyone in the village. The fact that they had listened to her after seeing the danger was predictable, but strangely satisfying. Dominic would have been proud of her.
"We still have a full day, but I'm afraid I'll have to ask everyone to work in shifts overnight. If those bandits are really planning to come here, they might be camping closer than we imagine," said Gardn, the most proactive of them all.
"What about those who can't fight?" asked Elise. "Where are we sheltering them?"
"Lod, the temple has a sturdy portal," exclaimed the carpenter. "Can you find someone to carry supplies in there?"
"S... Sure. Good idea."
Elise went out from the Mountainside for the first time since that morning. Her people had been working painstakingly all day to prepare the defenses, that consisted mainly of wooden boxes and rough, spiky poles.
I won't fail you, Dominic. My promise will be fulfilled.
She went home, searching for Roric, but to her surprise she couldn't find him. The girl lay down on the bed and heard him enter from the main door a couple of hours later, but didn't even bother to call for him.
I'll think of a way to make him see that this is the right way. Anyone would grieve for his own past, yet he shouldn't allow history to repeat itself. He just thinks that we can't do it, and just have to bow down before the invaders. What a fool!
Everything they would have gained from that would have been years of more tributes and domination from those scum of the western valley. And the simple thought of it was enough to make her blood boil.
I'll show you, Roric. I'll save this village with my own hands!