I had severely underestimated just how large a force of one hundred thousand men would look to the naked eye.
I sat in the foliage, wrapped in one of the brown and green cloaks I had borrowed from one of Alec's scouts and stared out into the emptiness of no man's land that separated Dunwellen from the rest of the world. I was frozen, the sight of the fortress city causing a seed of doubt to worm it's way into my heart.
How the fuck were we going to do this?
Dunwellen was not a large city. It was a quarter the size of Myrin, if that, but the walls that surrounded it were thicker and seemed higher, the sturdy stone pockmarked with holes and some sections even appeared to be burned. Eric and I were only one of several scout bands told to keep an eye on the city, but we were the only ones that sat on it's eastern face. From here we could see the large gates that led into the fortress. They too looked like they had suffered significant damage from repeated assaults. The remains of a battering ram lay off to one side and the wood was ripped and torn in places upon it's uneven face, no doubt a result of the trebuchets I could see dotted around the enemy encampment. Elora had told me a little of the fortress' history as we travelled. Apparently it had once belonged to Venos nearly two hundred years ago, but after a particularly bloody invasion by Dunhold they had claimed it for their own. Renaming and re-purposing it to keep a close eye on their Venosian neighbours. Watching and waiting for the opportunity to strike.
Every single attempt at attack on our borders since that time had been masterminded from within the walls of that city. It's very presence had often forced Venosian Kings and Queens to avoid retaliation. Looking at it now, it seemed almost unassailable and moving an army past the valley in which it sat would be nearly impossible. Promising immediate harassment and destruction from it's tall walls should it even be attempted.
I could definitely see why the King and Queen had tried to take the fortress when the opportunity made itself apparent. After all, it was one of the biggest thorns in their side. If Dunhold was on the back foot all they had to do is retreat behind it's walls and await reinforcements from their capital a few days to the north-west. Remove that option and it would be severely limiting. Still, the King Felman of today was said to be little better than his ancestors, all of them sharing the traits of unpredictability and unbridled madness. Who knows what he would do if that was the case. The situation at hand seemed to prove that he didn't care what he had to sacrifice to finish off this age old conflict between Venos and Dunhold. Even going so far as to recruit peasants with little no experience to make his dream a reality. Unhinged didn't even begin to describe it. He was crippling his economy for the sake of this vendetta. If Dunhold lost this conflict, they would be recovering for years to come. Shit, they might not even come out of it at all. Even if Venos didn't take advantage of their weakness after this then it would be Fero to finish the job. The country was not known to start conflicts, their King a rational man by all accounts. At least, according to the stories I had heard. But Dunhold had attacked Fero's border before in their attempts to make their King the Lord of all Ouros. If I was the Ferosian King, I would want to rid myself of a dangerous enemy and it would be easy to do if they lost this fight and were forced to return home, tail between their legs.
The army that sat at the base of those mighty walls was huge. Even that description doesn't really do it justice. The Dunholdian forces ringed the fortress city and the constant movement even from this far away reminded me of an ant hill, a constant mass of creatures falling over each other as they went about their duties. A veritable sea of enemies.
The further out from the walls one went, the cleaner it became, with men wearing the red armour of their Kingdom milling around. The sounds of laughter and shouting could be heard even from the treeline I hid myself in. As you approached the walls, the quality of the tents dipped significantly and I could only assume that the commoners who had been pressed into service were the closest to the city, and to retaliation should the King and Queen of Venos seek to put up a defence. If that wasn't enough, I saw about two dozen trebuchets loaded and ready to fire, with teams of crimson warriors at their base, and those were only the ones that I could see.
As for the forces of Venos, I saw neither hide nor hair of them. They no doubt knew what fate awaited them should they attempt to leave the walls. Even with the half dozen Masters and with the Queen herself, they would quickly be overwhelmed should they try to escape. Elora had told me once that the Queen was stronger than Vera in combat and I believed her, but even someone as strong as Vera would fall should she have to face so many at once. Knights were powerful, sometimes to the point of being god-like, but they were still mortal and could die if they were injured enough. Even a peasant's pitchfork could topple the Queen should she become weak.
“What you think?” Erik, one of Alec's scouts, whispered to me from my side, his eyes just as glued as mine to the force before us.
“I'm thinking I don't know how we're going to do this,” I replied grimly.
The ghost of a smile lit up the archer's face. “Aye, I get that. We'll just have to wait for Alec and Frode to get back. Hopefully they can give us a weakness.”
I nodded but didn't reply. The doubt inside me was growing by the second. I wanted to help Elora, I wanted to save the Kingdom and prevent the fall of the royal family, but fear for my mercenary band had been growing as the days went by. The chances of us coming out of this with no casualties was zero and while I had known that going in, sitting here put everything into perspective.
I had never seen something like this before. I had been part of a siege in the past, but after seeing this it might as well have been a skirmish. We were eighty swords, what could we do against something like this? I was a Knight, but newly Bonded and with limited powers.
I gritted my teeth and shook my head of these invasive doubts. I would not cower now. I brought them here, if they died then it would be my fault, but I couldn't stop now, couldn't falter. The Brigade were relying on me to help them through this. They were family, they had chosen to follow me into the underworld itself and I wouldn't disrespect them by falling apart on the eve of battle. I wasn't that weak.
A rustle behind us caught my attention and I spun in place, my hand drawing my sword an inch as Eric drew and nocked an arrow in that same time. Thankfully, it was the familiar grinning face of Alec and the far more grim looking Frode who stepped up behind us. They were dressed in ragged old clothes, a disguise to help them slip into the army of Dunhold unnoticed as commoners. They stayed back beyond the treeline to avoid entering the line of sight of Dunholdian scouts.
“Hey, you two,” Alec said, sauntering up to us, “See anything interesting?”
“Nothing of note,” I replied, “Only that there are a lot of them,”
Alec rolled his eyes, “I could have told you that, Orin. Come on, we should get back, let Boldrin know what we found.”
I nodded and pushed myself further into the foliage before jumping to my feet. I handed Alec his cloak which he took with a smile as Frode received his from Eric. I fell into step beside the head of the Brigade scouts and fixed him with a look.
“What did you find out? You were in there for six hours, I was beginning to get worried.”
Alec laughed, “No need for worry, Orin. We've done these sorts of things before. Dressing as commoners was good as it happens, the soldiers didn't give us a second look after we revealed ourselves.”
“One of them kicked me,” Frode grumbled from behind me.
“Well, you shouldn't have gotten 'in his way', Frode,” Alec quipped, “But still, there is a clear divide among the soldiers and the common-folk. I think we might be able to take advantage of that.”
I pushed for more details from my humorous friend but he refused to say any more until we had returned to camp. I could understand why: better to explain something once. I managed to push down my enthusiasm and dread, forcing myself to focus on putting one foot in front of another.
We had decided to camp in a heavily forested area near the border, about three hours at a fast clip through the trees away from Dunwellen. It had been a relief to everyone when we had finally left the plains. Being constantly on the move was never easy and more than one member of the Brigade had gone with very little sleep to keep us all safe. I had offered to do my part in keeping watch but Boldrin had refused and told me to continue work on becoming stronger. He said that my power could be the difference between victory and defeat during the coming conflict. He may have been overestimating my abilities slightly but I had accepted anyway, Elora and I redoubling our efforts to ensure we would be ready to fight when the need arose.
Elora had flourished over the last two days, managing to push down the time it took her to transform by another second. We had also done some work with the Forge. Practising how quickly she could give me the Gift I wanted, or access to all three at once. It strained her mind to do so, much like it did during the fight with Craven, but with the help of a fully fledged Forge she was able to give me small amounts of each Gift instead of everything all at once. We didn't want to be forcefully separated in the middle of a fight like this one. If I couldn't move due to exhaustion then Elora would be vulnerable. It didn't matter what the Bond did: If I couldn't move then I couldn't keep her safe.
My own efforts had been less fruitful than I had hoped. I hadn't managed to contact my Element after that first effort a couple of days ago despite multiple attempts. I had compressed as much as I could but I hadn't managed to bring the flames any closer to their central core. They did look more tame than they did before but that was all I had been able to achieve. I had asked Elora for advice and she had told me to keep pushing, to keep compressing. She said the fact that they look more tame could be a sign that I was gaining more control. Perhaps if Tessa had attacked Elora now I would've been able to control it rather than let it run rampant, nearly causing me to end the life of my friend.
That was another thing that I was still worried about: Tessa. I had seen her multiple times since I had first contacted my Element, but each time was just like before. She would be there for all of second before disappearing into the tents of the band. I had been approached by members of the Brigade who had been asking about her, much like Dumas, Padma and Tacitus did, but I had nothing to tell them. She would show up when she wanted to and that was all I could say. I wasn't worried about her safety, I knew she was nearby. Still, I worried for her state of mind. She revealed something about herself when she attacked Elora, something that she would have much rather stayed hidden away. I didn't know what it was and neither did anyone else, but the mere fact that she did was enough to make her pull away from everyone who cared about her. My concern for her grew by the day, an unwanted distraction from Dunwellen and our plan to save the King and Queen.
It didn't take us long to arrive home and Alec used a series of hand signals and bird calls to let the Brigade know that we weren't an enemy. Despite there being no real need for silence since we were so far away from Dunwellen, a fog of unease had settled over the camp. When we walked back into our temporary home we were greeted by sombre smiles and pats on the back instead of raucous shouting and cheering. The shift in attitude was jarring and uncomfortable, but understandable. Hopefully we wouldn't be here for very long and leaving would allow my mercenary family to return to their usual selves.
We made our way through the village of tents in silence, making for the largest one that stood at the very back of the formation. The followers hadn't been idle in our time away and they had disguised the tents with leaves, bushes and branches to add a level of camouflage to our temporary home. They had done an excellent job of it. If you didn't know where the camp was, you might be able to walk within fifty feet and never know it was there. Of course, no defence was perfect but it was the best we could do with the time we had.
Alec was the first to walk into the war tent and held the flap open for Frode, Eric and I to follow after. We only really used this tent in situations where we required privacy to plan an attack. Mildred had initially bought it for the band leader to use, but Boldrin slept in the same type of tent as everyone else, not liking the separation from his people that a larger one would insinuate.
The large leader of our Brigade stood at the far side of the table, his meaty paws pressed down on either side of a map that covered the space between Dunhold and Venos. So focused was he that I don't even think he heard us come in. Elora did though, her smile lighting up my dreary world as she got off her chair and immediately made her way to my side, touching my hand and nudging my shoulder, a gesture of affection I accepted with a grin.
“Hey, Boss,” Alec said quietly, smiling at Elora in greeting and moving around the table to stand next to Boldrin who looked up at us with bleary eyes for a second before they lit up.
“Hello, boys. You're late. The other scouts got back an hour ago. You got something for me?”
“Orin and I watched the camp from a distance. We got some info on their patrols but I don't see how that will help us. The numbers are very real. A hundred thousand at the very least.” Eric said grimly as he leaned his bow against the back of a chair before sitting down.
“Are you alright?” Elora whispered to me, giving my hand a squeeze, “I felt something through the Bond,”
I smiled at her reassuringly. I wasn't surprised she had felt something. We'd both noticed over the past few days that our ability to sense the state of our Bonded over the connection had increased. It was nothing like the protective instinct I had when Elora was in danger, just a subtle signal that there was something amiss. It was hard to pick up most of time because we had other things occupying our thoughts. But if you concentrate on the Bond hard enough you can get an idea of what the other person is feeling.
“I'm fine, just worried. I always get a little nervous before battle,” I replied, just as quietly.
Boldrin looked up at me. “What do you think, Orin? Agree with Eric?”
I nodded tensely, Elora's hand in mine giving me the strength to keep my unease at bay, “Yeah. They've also got some siege weapons. Trebuchets were all I saw, about two dozen, but there could be more. Alec and Frode will know more than I do.”
Alec nodded and looked to Boldrin for permission to speak which the leader gave with a wave of his hand. “Frode and I went in there early morning, as planned. We sneaked to the front of the army, close to the walls and let ourselves be seen. The soldiers threw some abuse our way and that was about it, didn't even question who we were or who we were assigned to. We did a little looking around while inside. They know what they're doing in there, at least the soldiers do.”
“Any obvious weaknesses? Anything we can exploit?” Boldrin asked professionally, taking a seat at the desk which squeaked dangerously as it bore his great weight.
Alec frowned and shook his head, “Nothing. At least, nothing that we could target with so few warriors. If we had more men then we may be able to attack their supply lines. But even with a thousand more than we have now, it would be a long slog of months, and that's if we manage to avoid being forced into a direct confrontation.”
“We don't have months,” Elora said tightly, her eyes falling to the dirt beneath us.
“Right you are, Princess, Like I said, I would do it different if we had more men, but I do have one idea. It's likely to get us killed, but it could work.” Alec said with a smile.
“What's this plan, Alec?” I asked the man, concerned by the slight gleam in his eye.
“These soldiers are professionals,” Alec said as he jumped to his feet, “They're trained men, frightfully loyal to their King and skilled in battle. They, however, have a couple of weaknesses we can take advantage of. The first is the size of their forces. You can't keep track of everyone and everything entering and leaving camp, it's simply not possible with an army so large. The second is how terrified the commoners are of them.”
“The common-folk being afraid is nothing new, Alec, we both saw how bad it was in there. What's your plan?” Frode grumbled, the grim faced man narrowing his eyes at his friend. “ Make friends with the peasants and lead a revolt against their King?”
Alec grimaced, “No. Like I said, they're scared. They have an army at their back and front and they know that they're nothing but fodder, meant to slow down the Venosian Knights. That won't make them turn on the King either. I mean, most of them have families back home and they'd be at risk if they deserted. I spoke to a few and I know you spoke to more, Frode. They aren't desperate enough to revolt, despite the fact that they vastly outnumber the Dunholdian soldiers. But we might be able to take advantage of their fear.”
“How?” Elora asked. I noticed the smile appear on Boldrin's face as though he had come to the same conclusion as Alec.
“Eric, Orin. What can you tell me about the patrols?”
I was confused but answered anyway, “We noticed them passing on the hour. About thirty or so per group as they circled the encampment.”
“Do any patrol the road out of the valley?”
Eric nodded, “Aye, Orin and I noticed a unit heading that way. Like he said, about thirty men, soldiers all. Not a commoner among them. One goes out and passes another as it comes back in, probably about three hours between them.”
“Then that's the one we hit,” Alec said, leaning over the map and pointing a finger towards Dunwellen, showing the well travelled road that led out of the valley, “We need to hit that patrol and grab their armour and uniforms. I would say we could sneak in as commoners, but they don't let the rabble anywhere near the back of camp. With that we can wander back into camp and hit our targets.”
We all leaned closer to the table as Boldrin asked the obvious, “What targets would they be?”
Alec narrowed his eyes, “Whoever is running the show down there is not an idiot. The army's supply of food, weapons and goods are all spread out pretty thinly across the entire camp. But we don't have to hit all of them. Just those at the eastern wall.”
“Why the eastern wall?” Elora asked,
“The gates,” I replied, “The eastern side is the most heavily defended because if the King and Queen were going to make a play, they'd have to leave via the gates.”
“Only one way into this city and that's the side we're going to hit,” Alec joined in, “We don't even have to hit the supplies, we just need to create chaos. I would say we'd best take out those trebuchets that Orin saw. We can get teams to hit them and set them alight. We don't need to defeat Dunhold, we need to create an opening for the King and Queen to escape, along with their army.”
“I don't see how you're going to involve the peasants in this attack, Alec,” Frode said.
“It's simple: promote panic. The peasants have no training, most of them have never even been in a fight before. If fires are starting left and right and the officers in charge of the show are running about confused, it might make a few of them attempt an escape. A few might even use that confusion to fight back.”
“I don't like hearing the word 'might'.” Boldrin replied, his gaze once more locked on the map, “I wouldn't count on the commoners to help us win this.”
Alec shook his head, “I'm not. If it happens then great, but even if it just gets them running around like headless chickens, I'm sure that and the fires will be enough to get the job done.”
“This plan will limit us,” Eric butted in, his dirty blonde hair falling in front of his eyes, “We'd go from eighty men to thirty and if we're discovered before we're ready it'll be a bloodbath.”
“Granted, it's far from perfect,” Alec replied, “But Orin's been talking about something similar for days. You take a small force and use it to harass and sabotage one much larger than itself. It's just instead of doing it over the course of days and revealing our presence, we're going to do it in a single night... that is, tonight.”
We all looked at him like he was insane, even Elora, despite her being the most vocal for swift action.
“Why the rush?” Boldrin asked, not saying no but allowing Alec to explain his reasoning.
“The longer we wait, the weaker the King and Queen's army, or what's left of it, are going to get in there. This plan kind of hinges on the fact that they're going to storm out of the fortress and save our lives before we all disappear into the forest. I'm hoping that the chaos that follows will allow us to get a head start before the Dunholdians can follow.”
“Why would they do that? The don't know their daughter is here. Some noise and a few fires might not be enough to get them moving. Shit, they might even think it's a trap.” Frode said, leaning back in his chair in thought.
I realised something and my eyes widened as I turned to look at my Smith, “Elora, would the Queen recognise your soul signature? If we were Bonded?”
Elora's eyes opened just as wide as she had a realisation of her own, “Yes. She would be confused that the signature I was mixed with wasn't Cellus, but you can't fake something like that. She would know it was me.”
“What's this now?” Boldrin asked, turning to us.
“When Elora and I Bond, we give off something called a soul signature. It was the reason we didn't Bond for a while after leaving Myrin, to stop Vera and Annabelle from tracking us. But if we Bonded in that camp then the Queen would know Elora was here and she'd leave the fortress to help.”
“Orin's right,” Elora smiled, before it faded slightly, “However... When we Bond, my mother isn't the only Knight who will be able to see us. We'll have a fight on our hands. Every Knight in their army will know where we are. Even if they don't know that we're an enemy, some will still come to investigate a strange signature.”
Boldrin frowned, his eyebrows pulling down thunderously. “Do we have another option? Anyone?”
Everyone was silent as we all looked darkly at the map. I hadn't thought about the fact that other Knights could see us, but of course it made sense. Could Elora and I hold long enough for the Queen to save our lives? I wasn't sure and the thought of risking Elora's life on a maybe filled me with trepidation. The rest of the plan was risky, very doable if everything went perfectly, but the golden thread of the Bond was trembling at the thought of Elora getting hurt.
“Stop,” Elora stated, taking my hand and turning me towards her. Fixing me with those golden eyes. “I'm not a child, Orin. I know this is dangerous, but we can do this. We can save them. We can save everyone.”
The same words she had spoken when we were about to jump over the palace walls. The same conviction was in her voice now, perhaps even stronger than it was before. Even during the brief trip to reach this point she had grown stronger, more independent. I thought of the first time we had met on the stage. A frightened girl had approached me, scared half to death by the things that I took for granted. Now she stood a woman. What I had once seen a glimpse of in the palace of Myrin I now saw fully formed in her eyes. A Queen, a leader of nations.
I smiled, “I'll follow you, Elora. Tell me who to fight and I'll do so happily.”
Elora smirked and turned to face Boldrin, “My Knight and I will fight off the hordes of Dunhold until my mother arrives with the rest of her army, honoured Boldrin. We will not fall.”
Boldrin stared at the two of us intensely, his hands wrapped around the edges of the table so tightly I thought they would give under the strain of his enormous physical strength.
“I don't know if-”
“I'll go with them.” A voice came from the open flap behind me and I turned slowly in place to stare into steely grey eyes.
Tessa looked like she hadn't slept in a while and when she did I doubt it was in a tent. Her hair was a mess of twigs and her face was covered in dirt, her clothes not looking much better. But there was conviction in her eyes as she looked at me. Her hands fingered the hilts of the twin daggers at her waist.
“You are sure?” Boldrin asked quietly. I moved my gaze over to my band leader and saw him stare at Tessa with an expression that I could only interpret as something close to mocking.
Tess gritted her teeth at Boldrin the bold, “Yes.”
The large man nodded firmly and rose to his feet, his chair creaking harder during his ascent. “Then that is our plan. Alec, you will select twenty nine warriors to accompany you to take out that patrol. When the flames start rising. Orin, Elora, Tessa and I will make for the gates. You will join us as soon as you are able and help defend them. Best we split up. It'll be easier if we use a small team to infiltrate during the night and we'll have a few extra bodies in your makeshift patrol without us tagging along.”
Alec, Frode and Eric stood up, Elora and I close behind them. “Wait, you're coming with us?”
Boldrin laughed at me, "Course I am. Tessa and I can help keep the little soldiers off your back while you battle the Knights. I'm sure you'll have a fair few to contend with. I'd go with Alec, but I'll never get into one of those puny suits of armour”
“Don't you think we should take more with us?” I asked Boldrin. “I'm sure a couple more swords wouldn't hurt our chances of sneaking in.”
Boldrin thought for a moment, “Good idea. We'll grab Dumas and Padma. They're strong enough to keep up and they work well as a team. But no more than that. I want us to get in as quietly as possible while Alec causes a distraction. The more attention he can take away from us while we get you to the gates, the better.”
“We have a few hours until nightfall. We can hit the patrol with the sunset but we won't have much time. Like I said, another passes them on the road out of the valley. Even if we hide the bodies they're going to know something is wrong. That gives us a few hours at most before someone raises the alarm. It's going to be close.”
Boldrin grinned, pushing himself to his full height, his head near touching the top of the war tent, “We all knew this wouldn't be easy, but we've got a chance now. That's enough for me.”
This was it. The moment we have been waiting for since Elora and I left the palace. It seemed like months had passed rather than days. The anticipation of this moment hadn't been far from my mind for a while now. I was looking forward to the fight to come, I felt my blood begin to boil and my hand inch towards the hilt of my sword. This would be my first real fight as a Knight. War was different than a duel. It was madness and chaos. Skill mattered little in that press of bodies, the feeling of suffocating as you kept swinging your sword until you felt no resistance and came out the other side, changed and more alive than you had ever felt in your life.
I had always enjoyed the thrill of putting my life on the line, but this wasn't just about me. I was fighting for the fate of the Kingdom of Venos itself. It had been home to me only because of the Sister and the kids. Honestly, before meeting Elora I had no real feeling of patriotism for my homeland. Everything I had hadn't been given, but earned. Often with violence. Myrin was the place where I had become who I am, but that could've happened in any city on Ouros. No, I didn't fight for my Kingdom. I fought for the Sister, for the kids. For Boldrin, for the Brigade. Above all else, I fought for a Princess who wanted to save her family and her people.
I felt it then. The doubts that had clouded my mind upon seeing the city of Dunwellen were banished completely. We could win this fight. We will win this fight.
We made our way out of the tent and into the quiet camp beyond, Boldrin immediately taking off with his enormous strides in search of Dumas and Padma. Eric and Frode also left to gather up the warriors that would be needed for the infiltration.
“Orin,” Alec grabbed my attention, “I need your help with something. Get a hold of old Brin. See how much of his home-brew he has in stock. We're going to need all of it.”
I turned to the archer and we grinned at one another, “Looking to make a bang then, Alec?”
“Oh, you know it!” Alec laughed and made to walk away, “After you help him load it up tell him to meet me just west of camp. I'll assemble the troops there.”
I waved at his disappearing back before turning to the Princess, who stood at my side.
“You alright, Princess? Ready for what's coming?” I asked softly, touching her arm and feeling the Bond shiver in delight.
Elora smiled shakily, “I'm nervous and more than a little afraid. But I meant what I said in there, Orin. I just wanted to say... thank you. Thank you for helping me get this far.”
I chuckled, “Elora, you don't need to thank me. I wasn't doing anything else anyway.”
“Not regretting it, then?” Elora laughed, her eyes meeting mine.
“Not for a second. Reckon I'd follow you anywhere,” I only realised what I had said after I said it and could only stare as red flowed up Elora's neck and over her cheeks.
“You are a fool, my Knight,” Elora said, leaning her head forward to allow her hair to fall in front of her face.
“I don't think that's-”
“Come.” Tessa interrupted our moment and stared at Elora with such intensity I thought the Princess might be cut by the sheer sharpness of it.
Elora turned and stared at Tessa with wide eyes, “I'm sorry?”
“You will be if you don't come with me,” Tess replied, “You can't wear a dress in battle. I'll get you better clothes. Come with me.”
I gave Tess a harsh look but she didn't bother to acknowledge me, focused only on the Princess. I thought for a fraction of a second before I nodded my head. Tess wouldn't try to hurt Elora. At least, I don't think she'd try to hurt Elora again.
“It's fine,” I said, looking down at the Princess, “Tess can give you some of her clothes. Give her a dagger as well, Tess. Something she can defend herself with, just in case we're separated.”
Tess nodded at me without looking and waved her hand at the Princess impatiently. Elora looked like she wanted to be anywhere else at that moment.
“Are you coming?” Elora asked, almost desperately. I very nearly laughed out loud. Sometimes, like in the tent, she looked like she could handle any situation life could throw at her. Now she almost looked like a rabbit backed into a corner by a predator. The shift was so jarring that it almost caused me to break my stoic exterior but I just about managed to contain it.
“Can't at the moment. I have to go and see Brin about something. Don't worry, you're fine.” I whispered the last words into her ear and watched with more than a small amount of mirth on my face as Tessa dragged away a distressed Elora, who stared at me with pleading eyes.
Did this mean that Tess was warming up to the Princess? I hoped so. Maybe she had finally made peace with whatever had happened when the two had brawled. I wanted to speak to Tessa, wanted to pull her aside and ask her why she was following me, why she was watching me. She couldn't think that I hadn't seen her: I had caught her eye too many times for that. But I knew that even if I did ask she would merely deny it and that would be the end of the discussion. I think her helping Elora might be the first step towards her opening up about whatever was going on.
She had also volunteered to help. I would have never questioned her joining me a year ago but now, after everything that had happened on the road, I had to wonder what her reasons were. Stranger still was the look that Boldrin gave her when she first appeared. Almost like he was disappointed.
Now I was even questioning Boldrin's intent. Was this just the paranoia I had nurtured in the palace, coming back to life because of the stress of the coming battle, or were these doubts founded? I didn't know and I didn't care to at the moment. Right now I just had to make sure I did my part to ensure Elora and the band made it through this alive.
I turned and made my way towards where I would find Brin. He should be close by, the man never far from the camp's centre, despite being a warrior. Brin wasn't exactly what one thought of when imagining the ideal mercenary. He was a drunk and had been for as long as I had known him. I remember when I first met him I had thought that perhaps Boldrin's Brigade was not as well respected as I had imagined in my head. It wasn't until I saw Brin fight that I rethought my opinion of the elderly man. Brin may be a drunk, but something changes in him on the eve of battle. The fun-loving, red faced old man falls away to reveal a true warrior, who fought with spear and shield in his steady and capable hands. Brin actually saved my life during a skirmish in Andapa. He pierced a warrior's skull with a single thrust, his action saving me from meeting my end by his sword. I still remember him shouting at me like I was an idiot, his words cutting deeper than the blade of that warrior ever could. I had pushed myself harder after that, using his insults to light a fire under my feet. I had thanked him for it just before I had returned to Myrin. I was not surprised when he said he couldn't remember that fight, nor anything he said during it. He had been drunk, he said.
If he was that proficient while drunk, I would not like to face him sober.
“Brin!” I shouted out to the figure lying next to wagon near to Mildred and Alec's tent, his chin on his chest and eyes closed. Even with everything going on around him, Brin still found the time to take a nap.
His bloodshot eyes snapped open and the old warrior looked around blearily before eventually finding me. “Orin. Good to see you, lad. What you need?”
I smiled at my old friend, “Alec needs some of your goods for the raid tonight. Got much in stock?”
Brin blinked, confused for a moment before his face lit up with understanding, “Ah, so you boys have made a plan. Hope it's a good one. Some of the scouts who came back were near shaking in their boots from the amount of men near that fortress. Aye, I've got some brew for you. A few gallons worth, though I'm ashamed to say I've taken a little myself.”
I chuckled, “No surprise there, Brin. I think you're on this raid tonight. Alec told me to help you get loaded and send you to meet him.”
Brin rose unsteadily to his feet using his wagon to steady himself. “Course I'm on this raid. Someone needs to keep you young'uns in line, or you'll all end up in the grave. Have no fear, papa Brin will keep ya safe.”
With that, I helped him load up his wagon with what little booze he had left. It wasn't much, but it would be enough. Boldrin had a standing order to never allow an open flame near any of Brin's brew and that was for good reason. We had used some of his home-made product in the past for attacks just like this one. But the stakes had been much lower then.
The other members of the band and I often thought of Brin as our resident tavern keeper, selling his wares out of the back of his wagon rather than an alehouse. He never asked for a copper in return for what he gave out, only wanting to get feedback on how good it was as he strove for perfection. I don't really know what he thought of as perfect, but considering how strong his stuff was already I couldn't believe he was far off.
I told him of the plan while we worked, Brin nodding along and listening carefully as I explained what we were going to do. He didn't look uneasy or even slightly afraid at the concept of infiltrating a camp of a hundred thousand men. Another trait I had always admired about Brin were his nerves of steel. The man was not afraid of anything, though I didn't know if that was truly him or the drink he so loved to guzzle.
“Shaky, but doable,” Brin said as I put the last small barrel into the wagon, “Alec knows his stuff and if he thinks it's the best chance we got, then I'll follow. Still, a lot of us are going to die in this fight, Orin.”
I made to reassure him but stopped myself just short of doing so. He was right: people were going to die. It was an inevitable fact about our coming conflict. A part of me still wished it wasn't true, but I had accepted it when I had asked for Boldrin's help.
“Yeah,” I muttered, staring at the barrel with clenched fists, “But it's the right thing, Brin, and I don't plan on giving up on getting you all out safe easily. If I can give my life for one of yours I would do it in a-”
“No!” Brin hissed, grabbing onto my arms and spinning me towards him, “You have to live, sonny. Don't think for a second that any one of us wants you to sacrifice yourself for some noble ideal. Even if it's the last thing I do, you're gonna see the sunrise. You're too important, Orin.”
I raised my eyebrows at the swaying man, his eyes fixed on me intensely, “What are you talking about?”
The warrior sighed and took a step back, keeping himself steady on the wagon once more. “Just the ramblings of an old man, lad. You're the future, Orin. Old men like me, our day has come and gone. I wouldn't be surprised if Alec got all the old timers to help on this raid. We've lived our lives. We're ready to die and what a death it will be!” Brin chuckled and reached for the wineskin at his hip, raising it to his lips and drinking deeply.
“Don't talk like that, Brin. You've still got years to live yet, I guarantee it” I said to the man, causing him to chuckle.
“Maybe so, maybe so. But you need to stay alive for your Princess, Orin. Even if you have to leave us all behind and save yourself, you do it without a second thought.”
I snorted, “You know I wouldn't do that, old man,”
“Aye,” Brin muttered, his eyes looking over my shoulder, “You're loyal to a fault and a fool besides, but I see the way ya look at that girl. I also seen the way she looks at you. You've got something to protect there, Orin.”
“Elora and I are just friends, Brin. We'll be removing the Bond after all this and she'll be marrying Duke Cellus. That's how this ends.” I didn't tell him that the thought of her leaving and the Bond being broken put me in a state of near panic, that was besides the point.
“Who says?” Brin frowned, “I know what I seen, lad. That girl won't let go of you now and I don't think you'll let go of her either. You'll have a choice, Orin, after all this is over. I just hope you make the right one.”
With those final words, Brin walked to the front of his wagon, already hitched up to his old mare. I stood there and stared at the spot he had once occupied, my thoughts a mile a minute as I pondered what he said.
What did I want? I had begrudging accepted the fact that Elora would be gone after all was said and done. There was no way that her father and mother would accept me over Cellus. Shit, I might even end up in a dungeon for kidnapping her, though I reckon Elora would make sure that didn't happen. I had come to the conclusion over the last few days that the best thing I could do for the Princess was not to stand in her way. I would agree to break the Bond and then disappear quietly. It would hurt. Spirit, it might be the hardest thing I ever had to do but if it meant that Elora could be happy with the man she loved, then I would accept it without question. If there was another way, I'd take it but despite my efforts to brainstorm an alternative I was coming up empty.
My feelings were getting stronger and they had nothing to do with the Bond. The thought of keeping our connection, of staying with Elora, was growing by the day. I wondered what I would do if the Princess asked me to choose. If she asked me to continue to be her Knight and perhaps... perhaps more than that.
I shook my head and turned to watch Brin make his way to the western side of camp, his rusty wagon rattling was the loudest sound to be heard in our sombre surroundings. I don't know what Brin thought he saw but it wasn't what he believed it to be. Elora cared about me, I knew that, but not in the way that I so obviously cared for her. Besides, what I felt was just a silly infatuation, nothing more. Our feelings didn't matter either way. She was the Princess of Venos and would one day be it's Queen. I had wondered back when we first left Myrin if Elora would fit in with my new dream of travelling Ouros and beyond. The truth of the matter was that she didn't. She had said it herself when we had first met: The Princess of the realm served the people, there was no time for dreams of her own.
I just wished it wasn't so.
I turned and made my way back to the large tent where we had held our little strategy meeting, nodding and offering smiles of encouragement to those around me. Without fail they were all returned. I even got a few pats on the back and whispered words as I walked. These people were behind me, wholly and completely. They were ready to stand next to me in battle and go to death with a smile on their faces, just like old Brin.
That thought alone was enough to pull me from my moping. I had a job to do and I was never one to be sappy and melancholic about what could and could not be. I knew my place in this world and more than that, I thrived there. This whole experience was just a bump in my scheduled path. A few years from now, when I'm looking back on this time in my life and Elora and Cellus are King and Queen, I'll laugh at how foolish I was. Thinking I had a shot with a Princess. Some dreams just don't come true.
I rounded the corner of a group of tents and found Elora standing a few feet ahead of me, three young followers with her and watching with interest as she proudly showed off her new knife. There was no sign of Tessa. She must be off getting prepared for the long night ahead. I didn't feel her eyes on me at least, which was a positive in my book.
“Do you know how to use it, Princess?” one of the girls asked, watching my Smith stab the air clumsily.
“Not really,” Elora replied sheepishly, “But Tessa did show me some things that I can use to help if Orin needs it.”
“Did she now?” I interrupted the little gathering, smiling at Elora, “Well look at you, Princess. Ready for battle?”
Elora grinned, her new outfit of a dusty doublet, hose and breeches a strange sight to see on the Princess. “I've never worn anything like this before. It's actually quite freeing. Mother always said that it was unladylike to 'dress as a man'. Still, I never saw her wear a dress into battle, so I'm sure she'll be alright with it.”
“I'm sure,” I said, trying to stop myself from examining her new outfit too closely. “You said Tess taught you a little?”
“She did, though I don't know how much I picked up. She showed me how to correctly stab someone, but I'm not sure I'm quite up to something like that yet,” Elora looked slightly queasy at the idea of taking a life.
“Well, if I do my job right, you won't have to,” It was good that Tessa was actually attempting to help Elora. Maybe my earlier assertions were right and she really was past whatever had affected her over the last few days. I was still surprised though. Tessa didn't usually go out of her way to help anyone, even other members of the band. “I knew you two could get along,”
Elora frowned, “I don't think we're quite at that point, but she didn't seem angry with me this time so that's something.”
“That's better than I hoped,” I laughed as Elora rolled her eyes.
“Orin!” I heard Boldrin's mighty shout and winced. I was again reminded of my leader's volume control. Boldrin only had two ways to communicating: Loud and louder. “Come over here, son.”
I turned to see Boldrin approaching. Padma and Dumas not far behind, armed and armoured, their faces grim and ready for battle. I also noticed that Boldrin had been gathering up all the members of the camp. I spotted Chell in the growing crowd and gave her a wave which she returned with a cackling laugh.
I did as Boldrin asked and pushed through the growing circle of people around the band leader, managing to reach the front without much issue. Boldrin grabbed my hand and pulled me close before turning to address the people.
“I know that more than one person here doesn't think we should go through with this. By now, you'll have heard from Alec or one of the others what our plans are and yes, it is dangerous. Some of us are not going to make it back today. In fact, I would all but guarantee it.”
The warriors and followers gathered around us began to mutter amongst themselves and I began to feel uncomfortable. Some of the faces arrayed before me looked scared and miserable beyond measure and I couldn't help but feel some guilt well up in my chest.
“But we came here for a reason. Family. Orin is family and he would follow each and every one of you into the underworld itself if you asked him to. You know that as well as I.”
The muttering turned to nods and clenched jaws, their conviction growing as Boldrin spoke.
“What we're doing here today will save Venos. Shit, we might even be made Nobles,” The crowd laughed at that, “But we're not doing this for the Kingdom. Not for the King, or the Queen, and not even Orin's lovely Princess,” I looked over at Elora in time to see her blush and look anywhere but at bold Boldrin. “No. We're doing this for our Orin. If some of us die, then we go with a smile on a faces and a fire in our hearts. We are the Brigade! The mightiest mercenaries to ever wander Ouros. Lets go and save a fucking Kingdom!”
Boldrin shouted the last of his words and the crowd erupted into cheers and roars of their own. He wanted to get his people ready for the fight to come and nothing got their fire going like their leader's battle-cry. He was called bold for a reason. Boldrin was a towering titan, a man who had stood before armies in the past and laughed as they charged. To me, to us, he was all but invincible and if he said we could do it, then the band would follow.
I joined the throng as they shouted and drew my sword to point it towards the sky. The others joined me, grabbing their weapons and raising them above their heads, ready to defy the odds of fate and fuck some shit up in the process.
It was perfect. We were ready. Let's go save a fucking Kingdom.