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Chapter 7: Imperial Scout

 

As satisfying as it had been dealing with the two other men in our family in the moment, after I walked away I couldn’t help but begin to feel somewhat wretched about the whole affair. To say I was disappointed and upset by the whole ordeal would be an understatement. Why did Marcus and that man turn their backs on Catherine and I? Family was supposed to be those people in the world that would stand with you when no one else would, were they not? The ones that you could count on to come together and fight for each other no matter what. That’s what I believed and that’s what I’d done what I could to live up to. It was a bitter pill to swallow that I could only now bring myself to acknowledge that Orlandus and Marcus had spent years not holding up their side of the familial contract. I suppose I wanted to believe so badly in that promise, that after the war going home to your family would lead to a life of happiness and peace, that I did not allow myself to consider the possibility that things would not work out in such a way for me. Twice I berated myself for the fool. Once for failing to see and acknowledge the longstanding cracks in our family even after living it for years. Twice for whatever pain and heartache my inaction and willful ignorance might have caused Catherine.

By the Celestials, Catherine. How was I going to tell her that her father and brother had been perfectly willing to throw her to the wolves?

I made my way upstairs, feeling a bit of nervousness as I approached Catherine’s room. How would she react? Disbelief? Would she call me a liar? Whatever her response however the truth is that I did not for one moment seriously contemplate lying to her. It would be ultimately the crueler option and, as Cat had often told me, I was a completely awful liar and she would likely see through any lies I tried to spin almost immediately.

When I arrived at her door I took a deep breath and then knocked. After a few agonizingly long moments I heard a mumbled and barely audible invitation to come in. A quick prayer to the ancestors later and I let myself in the door.

There were no candles lit in the room but the nearly full moon outside illuminated the bedroom rather well through the room’s large window. Cat sat upright at the head of her bed, hugging her knees and resting her chin on her knees. She didn’t acknowledge me when I entered, instead her gaze stayed morose and fixed firmly ahead. By the light of the moon I could see tear tracks streaking down her face.

I looked at her tear stained face with alarm and confusion before it clicked. I’d extracted a promise from Cat to stay in bed but, well, had I really expected her to keep such a promise? Her next words all but confirmed my worst fears.

“I hate them,” Cat said in a whisper, voice rough and cracked. “Father and Marcus. I hate them. I hate them both.”

I pinched my nose, resisting the urge to slap my forehead instead. “You shouldn’t say such things, Cat.”

“Why not?” asked Cat, and I was taken aback by the venom in her voice. “Marcus never had any time for me. When he’s not complaining he’s always fighting or drinking or whoring. But father’s worse. At least Marcus would humor me and pay attention to me sometimes. The only time father would ever talk to me was to bully me and ‘correct’ me when I’d done something ‘wrong’, before handing me off to a maid or a tutor. He hates me. He resents me for mother dying to give birth to me and it wasn’t even my fault.”

I hesitated before I responded, taking all of what she said in with a troubled frown. “I had no idea you felt that way. Or that things were that bad for you.”

“Yeah well,” Cat said with a one shouldered shrug, sounding incredibly sad. “What could you have done? I don’t blame you. You’ve had your own problems to deal with, anyway.”

I felt my face and neck heat up with embarrassment. It’s true, I couldn’t deny that I’d had some… difficulties adjusting back to civilian life since leaving the legions. However it wasn’t something that I enjoyed other people talking about so overtly, especially not my little sister.

Rubbing the back of my neck self consciously I nevertheless walked up and sat on the bed next to my sister. It worried me that she wouldn’t meet my eyes. However this was a conversation that needed to happen so I pressed on ahead. “So. How much did you manage to overhear?”

She turned her head away from me before answering. “I stayed listening at the top of the stairs until father said your were going to hand me over in the morning for the good of the family,” Cat said miserably. “So is that what’s happening? Am I going to go with the priests in the morning?”

Her question surprised me, but not enough to stop me from answering immediately. “No. Absolutely not. Listen to me, you will notbe taken away by some priests on account of their fake prophecies. Not now, not ever.”

“What? What do you mean? Don’t we have to do what father says?” She asked, bitterness coloring her tone.

I hesitated, debating how much I wanted to say, before deciding to go ahead and tell her everything. “Not really,” I said, affecting a casual shrug. “You know how I’m a knight?”

“Yes…”

“Well, there happens to be a law in the books that would allow me to take over the family if I wanted to force the issue,” I explained, not bothering to hide the satisfaction in my voice. “Basically I threatened to take over the family and completely ruin father if he continued to push the issue. You wouldn’t believe how quickly he backed down after that. However that still leaves the issue of the priests. I basically threatened father into giving us all the valuables we can carry currently on premises. It won’t ruin them since most of the family funds are kept at the bank in the city but it should still be enough to tide us over for a good while. However that’s what I wanted to talk to you about: we can’t stay in Coria. In fact, to be safe we’ll have to leave Iskander all together. You and I will be leaving all of this behind and I’ll be keeping you safe. But that means that we will need to leave. Tonight.”

Cat finally turned to look at me, her eyes big and blue and vulnerable.

“Why would you do that?” she asked in a barely audible whisper. I could hear the last part of her question that left unsaid. For me.

I gave her my best close-lipped smile. “I promised you didn’t I? The only way those filthy priests will get their hands on you will be over my cold dead body. You’re the only family I have left and there is nothing, nothing I won’t do to protect you.”

Her eyes widened and teared up again and for a panicked second I feared that I had said something wrong. Then she was throwing herself at me and she almost knocked me clean off the bed. Cat threw her arms around my neck and hugged me with surprising strength for such a skinny body.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you-” she said over and over again as she wept into my shoulder.

I rubbed little circles on her back and did my best not to come off as too awkward about it. However inside there was a joy and lightness in my heart that I could not remember feeling for a long time. Yes, the times ahead would be anything but easy. But no cause worth fighting for ever was.

 

00000

 

Shortly after, I left Catherine’s room with instructions as to what she should pack. She was a smart girl, and I was fairly certain that she could manage on her own. I needed to make my own preparations before we departed and even though it was still relatively early into the night I still felt the need to hurry. Something was telling me that failing to leave with all haste would be a mistake.

Packing my things didn’t take too long. Most of my worldly belonging fit easily into two sacks, which was a situation that I couldn’t decide if it was to be lamented or celebrated. Changing into traveling gear in dull browns and greys I hesitated before looking at a particular corner of my room. Grabbing hold of a simple knife I went to that corner and pried open the floorboards.

When the Grand Legatus Liang Italus knighted me I received more than just the paperwork that would prove to anyone my new status. As fitting of a knighthood earned in war, I also received a gift to go along with my new status. From where it was hidden under the floorboards I pulled out the sword that was also the symbol of my new status. It was an arming sword, also known as a knight sword, and it was a type of weapon only those of the knight rank or higher were allowed to wield. The sword was nearly identical in shape and length to the spatha used by scouts in the legion, except for one eye catching detail. Knight swords had a distinctive cross shaped guard which all of the other swords wielded by the legions lacked.

Out of habit more than anything I drew the sword from it’s scabbard and used my [Observe] skill on it.

 

Item: [Knight Sword]

Rank: Uncommon

A functional sword that serves as a symbol of nobility and martial might. This weapon will never break or lose sharpness unless affected by a higher ranked item or skill.

 

The sword hummed in my hand, the magic contained within giving me a mild but uncomfortable feeling of pins and needles up the length of my arm and into my chest. [Uncommon] items were all magical in some fashion, with as many varied effects as there existed people to wield them. However [Uncommon] items were not meant for regular people, not really. Those were items that at least in theory could only be properly wielded by those who had consumed four Stones of Apotheosis and had stepped onto the Path of Ascension, breaking the [Level 20] cap that most intelligent beings would never surpass in their lifetimes. I’d come to find out however that wielding [Uncommon] items wasn’t really a matter of levels, but rather a matter of power and will. Should a [Level 1] individual attempt to wield an [Uncommon] item, being painfully shocked unconscious might be the best outcome that they could hope for. At [Level 20], however, I found I could wield the sword with only some moderate discomfort. Not something I would want to subject myself to a protracted battle wielding, but for any short skirmish that we came upon the [Uncommon] sword should serve me well.

It was important that I recovered the weapon. After all, I didn’t expect that we would be able to leave tonight without having to resort to violence.

Returning the sword to it’s scabbard and securing it around my waist, I went downstairs to the backdoor and snuck outside under the cover of darkness. The night was chilly and I regretted not grabbing my cloak before forcing myself to push such useless thoughts aside. It was surprisingly well lit outside due to the moon but as an experienced [Imperial Scout] this was little impediment for me staying hidden. There was only one real road that went anywhere from our property stretching south into the city of Coria and north into a major road network that would take you anywhere in the province and beyond. Staying low to the ground and out of sight I proceeded north along the route Catherine and I would need to take in order to escape.

I took my time and began methodically searching all of the places close by that I knew would give an observer the best views of the road while remaining hidden. However spotting hidden observes at night was tricky and difficult business, even if you had some idea of where they might be. That was where my [Observe] skill once again came in useful. [Observe] as I had found out through experimentation was a far more versatile skill than just about anyone gave it credit for. For example, the skill would only identify the things you wanted it to identify for you. In this case, people. [Observe] could also to a limited degree activate on things within your visual field but that you weren’t necessarily focusing on. Putting those two facts together allowed me scan the side of the road with eyes slightly out of focus. When my eyes would hover over some shape or shadow that was in fact a person attempting to stay camouflaged by the darkness, my [Observe] skill would activate, revealing to me where the enemy was hiding.

It took me nearly half an hour of scouting out likely spots before finding what I had been expecting all along.

 

Level: 12 [9 Guard, 3 Cobbler]

Name: Lucius Carina

Skills: None

Status: Healthy

Stones of Apotheosis: 0/4

 

Level: 15 [8 Guard, 7 Mercenary]

Name: De Silvius

Skills: Heavy Strike I

Status: Healthy

Stones of Apotheosis: 0/4

 

Two men? Using two men to watch the road wasn’t unusual per se, but it was more effort and tactical acumen than I would have expected from a bunch of priests. With a frown I weighed my options. In the end training won out and I decided to scout out all possible enemy positions without being seen before moving on the two in front of me. With that in mind I retreated without being spotted, making a note of their exactly location before making my way to the south side of the road.

On the southern road away from our property I swiftly found the same. A two man team of men with the [Guard] class, positioned to see anyone who might leave our property and head south along the road. I frowned, considering the situation. That these four men were in place to report anyone attempting to spirit away Catherine during the night was beyond question in my mind. It was a threat that would need to be dealt with. However, given how the two teams were positioned there was no way they would be able to see or contact each other in any way. They were on their own for probably the entire night. Two men meant they could rest in shifts. So what was the move here?

I considered only taking out the team staking out the north side before discarding that idea. If both sets of sentries were found to have been eliminated in the morning, any pursuers would not be able to say for certain if we went north or south. That meant taking out four men without letting them make a loud enough ruckus to alert anyone that something was wrong.

For me that shouldn’t be hard at all.

I snuck away and headed north again, to the more isolated group furthest away from the city and further away from any hope of backup. As I snuck around the woods in utter silence I found myself sorely missing the rest of my gear that I had carried with me for years in the legions. Unlike the [Imperial Heavy Infantry] with heavy armor and fighting on the shield wall, [Imperial Scouts] like myself wore leather armor and were armed with a sword, a buckler and three javelins for longer range fighting. We were the scouts, the skirmishers and the screening force of the legions. Perhaps we were not as glorious as the [Imperial Heavy Infantry] fighting large battles on a shield wall head on, but our contributions were just as important. Eliminating enemy scouts and sentries, harrying supply lines, reporting on the movements and disposition of the enemy, our work often ensured that a battle could be nearly won before it ever really began. It was that experience that made hunting men in the dark a well worn experience that I found myself sinking back into with disturbing ease.

When I finally laid eyes on the two men I felt a rush of excitement and satisfaction that I had managed to get close enough to gut them both without either of them having a single clue.

The largest threat, the [Level 15] was sitting with his back against a tree, eyes closed. The [Level 12] stood and watched the road through a break in the foliage, his arms crossed and looking half asleep on his feet himself. Had these men been sentries in the legions this sort of laxity would have seen them publicly whipped, and with damn good reason. As it was it just made my job that much easier.

I’d already drawn my [Knight Sword] and was moving into position to cut down the [Level 15] when I suddenly froze. This wasn’t the war. These were probably just city guards strong armed into playing lookout. They were not barbarians. Was I really going to just kill them in cold blood?

The [Knight Sword]’s pins and needles sensation on my arm was beginning to become distracting and suddenly I could see myself back on a battlefield, the noises and smells and legionnaires and fur clad barbarians butchering each other as far as the eye could see. My grip on my sword tightened and my hands began to shake. Shit. Why? Why now?

“Hey! Who are you?!” a loud and panicked voice cried, snapping me out of it.

The [Level 12] had turned around and spotted me, his hand going for the sword at his hip.

I moved. It wasn’t a conscious decision, instead instincts earned in years of battle and war making me react instantly. I activated [Swift Strike] and cheated, using the increased momentum from my swinging blade to nearly instantly close the ten foot gap between us. His hand was barely on the hilt of his sword when I saw his panicked eyes widen, and my sword completed it’s deadly arc to strike him in the head. At the last possible second some instinct or subconscious desire made me turn my sword sideways, hitting him on his temple with the flat of my blade with a sickening crack. The [Guard] fell bonelessly to the floor like a sack of firewood, his limbs sprawling out everywhere like a broken doll.

There was a rustle of cloth and the sound of drawing steel behind me, and I turned and parried a sword strike from the [Level 15] that would have severed my spine. Undeterred, his eyes wild yet still focused, the [Level 15] brought his sword around for another swing. His predictable move and his lack of any impressive speed were his undoing.

As anyone with any experience with a sword will tell you, a thrust is much faster than a swing. His sword came at me in a wide arc with enough telegraphing and predictability to allow me to step into his swing, thrusting my sword and burying it deep in the shoulder of his sword arm. The [Level 15] yelled in pain and shock and the sword fell from his suddenly useless limb. I took the opening and punched him with my free arm, feeling the delicate cartilage of his nose crunch and break under my fist. The [Level 15] fell to the ground. When he made to move he suddenly found the tip of my sword hovering barely an inch above his throat.

“Surrender now and I will merely restrain you until your compatriots can find you and your partner tied up right here in the morning. I will even give you what basic first aid I can for your injuries,” I said. Then I paused and allowed my voice and eyes to harden before speaking again. “Refuse, however, and I will kill you.”

“What? That’s it?” the [Level 15] spat angrily through his broken nose. “You’ll kill us in cold blood? Just like that?”

“Yes. Just like that,” I said, refusing to give an inch.

Wisely, the [Level 15] decided that it was in his best interests to surrender.

By the time I had given them what little first aid I could and had gagged and tied the both of them to a tree, the [Level 12] still had not regained consciousness. This worried me as I knew head injuries could be unpredictable. I did not think his skull had broken, but I was no healer. As I walked away from the two bound [Guards] I had to make an effort to control my self loathing. I was upset at the possibly of having accidentally killed a man and also at the fact that at the start I had lost control in such a way that had necessitated a crossing of swords. If I had managed to keep it together I could have taken the both of them down quietly and without seriously injuring either of them.

Thankfully I was able to take down the two guards on the south side of the road properly this time, without being seen at all and with nothing worse than the unpleasant experience of suddenly finding yourself being choked unconscious. Still, my loss of control earlier troubled and unsettled me, and I was deep in thought as I made my way back to my family’s home.

When I entered the house the house Orlandus was waiting for me downstairs. There were several packed bags with him which I assumed contained the items I had requested. Orlandus opened his mouth to say something before he took one look at my face and paled. He made up some excuse that he had forgotten to grab a few more things for me and quickly fled.

It wasn’t until I saw myself in the washroom mirror that I understood. Somehow I had gotten blood from the [Guards] all over my face and hadn’t even noticed.

With a sigh I cleaned myself up and went to fetch Catherine. It was high time that we took everything of value that our horses could carry and left this house full of bitter memories behind.

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Alex Savage

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