I watch a worker carry an amphorae and bowls to the warriors guarding the Temple’s entrance. The Rykz raise their flat heads and free their trunks. I hear Teva make a disgusted sound next to me.
The worker fills the bowls with the brown liquid contained inside the amphorae and the warriors start eating by sucking while making slurping sounds.
“That’s gross.” Teva mutters with a visible shiver.
“Let’s try to find Celyz.” I propose. “Do you know where the Rykz’ command post is?”
“No, but I know that one of those weird tall things with tails often spotted in the southern outskirts, I’ll take you.” She turns left and starts walking.
“Why did you want to know all that, Elizabeth?” Teva asks.
“Curiosity, I’m not a fan of Nobility and I’ve had an argument or two about whether they’re helping or hindering the Empire.”
“You’re a rebel?” She turns to me with a glimmer in her eyes.
“No, I’m unbound but that should have been resolved.” I admit.
“The only way to find out whether you’re bound or not is to ask the Noble you should be bound to and you need to be there.” Teva shakes her head. “It’s not an issue.”
“And how do you know that? Am I walking with a rebel?” I ask jokingly.
“I’ll admit I dabbled a little in meetings and more since the Rykz. We don’t have many fields so being able to use the Lord’s share of grain has made it a lot easier to handle the sudden shortage of food.”
As we exit the village, I see fifty Rykz scouts hanging around a large granary. Celyz said we could fail to seize the food but I don’t think that would be without consequences here or elsewhere.
Teva guides me along a path that goes between two recently sown wheat fields. It must have taken a tremendous effort to clear the entire area of trees. We keep making our way and after a while we find a large amount of Rykz gathered in the woods to our right.
I take the lead to approach them while she remains a step behind. The mercenaries and bandits emerge from behind a thick spread of bushes and I stop.
“Where’s Celyz?” I ask them.
“In the tunnel.” Hurb replies, points at the bushes. “Where’s the other one?”
“He will meet us at the Tavern later, why?”
“We were supposed to wait for you to meet them before being allowed into the village itself.” Jacub explains.
“Well then, you can go. Be at the Tavern before supper so we can talk.”
“We’re most likely going to be there all afternoon so it won’t be a problem.” Hurb nods. I turn towards Brie but she turns away and starts to leave.
“Brie.” I make my voice resound around in the helmet on purpose and it seems to work since she stops to answer.
“We’d have been there anyway. Don’t need to go all Lordly over us.” She grumbles.
I consider telling the bandits not to cause trouble but they would be liable to take it as a challenge so I keep quiet. I make my way behind the bush and find a tunnel entrance.
“You okay?” I ask Teva because she hasn’t spoken for a while now.
“You look scarier than they do but you don’t seem nearly as dangerous.”
“They’re bandits and mercenaries, I’m a peasant.” I see her raise an eyebrow and look at my equipment. “Gift from the Rykz. Let’s go.”
I assemble a fire construct and leave it to hover over my hand, it’ll consume a lot of flow but I can afford it right now. I enter the tunnel and quickly find a fully armed and armored Fenyz leaning over a table in a room next to Celyz.
“Elizabeth.” Celyz turns to welcome me. “Where is the huntsman?”
“He’ll join us at the Tavern later, did you need to talk to him?”
“Just wanted to know if he’s still on board.” She takes hold of a pouch on the table and throws it to me. I catch it and look inside, finding a large number of silver lion coins.
“That’s a lot of money.” I whisper and tie it to one of my leather armor’s straps at my waist, under my chain-mail.
“Use it however you see fit, but that’s all I have for now.”
“It’s plenty. Do you have spare swords and armor for Teva?” I ask.
“We confiscated some swords, look behind yourself.”
I turn and find a half-dozen swords laying against the wall. I push Teva towards them when she doesn’t go on her own.
“Don’t take the silver pommel one.” I add while staring at the sword.
“The Templar that used it is dead. The beacon is useless without the owner.” Celyz tells me.
“Still, don’t.” I turn my back on the swords to look at Fenyz. “How do you suggest we coordinate with each other once we’re inside the castle?”
“I’ll have four thousand warriors surrounding the walls. I need your demolition expert to breach one of them, we don’t need to communicate specifically since I’ll be ready at all times.”
“What if we decide to abort?” I ask.
“Don’t.” Fenyz replies in a hard vibrating voice.
“If you can’t achieve anything, find a way to escape the castle.” Celyz speaks up. “Warn Fenyz with a loud explosion. Can you do that, Teva?”
“Easily.” She replies in a small voice from behind me.
“We need to take this castle before moving on. If you can’t breach a wall then at least set fire to the inner town.” Fenyz grumbles.
“I’m not going to do that.” I shake my head negatively. “If you hear a loud explosion, just make ladders and I’ll do what I can to help your assault on the walls. Can your Rykz use ladders?”
“They can, it just takes planks instead of bars.” Celyz responds.
“Do you have a plan of the castle?” I ask.
“No, you’ll have to figure it out yourself once inside.” Fenyz waves a tendril armed with a spearhead between us. “Leave, we’re busy.”
I tighten my grip around my hammer and slap the tendril away with the back of my other hand, the one with a hovering fire construct. Fenyz doesn’t seem to care but I hear Teva moving towards the exit behind me.
I nod towards Celyz and turn around to leave. Teva is out of the tunnel a good thirty seconds before I am. I extinguish the fire construct and shrug to tell her that it was no big deal. Teva takes a deep breath and places a hand on the sword at her waist.
“I have no idea how to use this.” She tells me.
“You should ask one of the mercenaries to give you some basics. Just in case you need it.” I take my helmet off just long enough to give her an encouraging smile. “Come on, I need your help to buy some decent clothes and a pair of boots.”
We make our way back to the village and Teva leads me inside a shop.
“Welcome!” An old man with a thick apron walks over to us.
“Hey, Dale.” Teva replies cheerfully.
“What can I do for you?” He asks with open arms.
“I need a pair of boots and some clothes.” I reply.
“She needs a pair of tall boots and some nice clothes.” Teva corrects me.
“Come over here.” Dale points at a wood box and leads me by the arm to make me step on it.
I deposit my hammer on the ground and take both the hard leather armor and the chain-mail off. The old man takes a length of marked string out of his pocket and starts taking my measurements.
I catch Teva staring at the flat expanse on the left side of my chest. I resist the urge to cover it behind my hand and keep my eyes locked on her face. The fact that I only have one breast must be obvious now without the armor hiding my shapes.
“Does it bother you?” I ask her, facing the queasy feeling in my stomach head on.
“No.” Teva shakes her head and raises her gaze to meet my eyes. “It makes me want to hug you even more.”
I look away, her sympathy is only making it hurt more. Dale keeps working in silence, his presence so discreet that I barely notice him moving around me.
“What happened to you?” She asks gently once the old man leaves the room.
“Nothing.” I glare at her and reply sharply.
“Okay.” Teva makes a timid smile. “Sorry, I don’t need to know.”
I laugh but don’t explain. Dale comes back with a pair of fine boots that have thick soles. I try them on and they fit. They even make me a good few centimeters taller, not that I need it.
“That’s perfect. Do you have some clothes of decent quality, underwear, and a small backpack?” I ask him.
“I do, how many outfits do you want?”
He comes back with the clothes soon after, they seem well made with thick string. I nod and Dale points me to a small room to change. I bring all my equipment inside and get fully dressed up.
I throw the old simple clothes that the Rykz gave me into a corner and come out, picking up my hammer in the process.
“I left my old clothes inside if it isn’t a bother, you can keep or throw them.” I tell the old man.
“It’s no problem. It’ll be six silver.” He answers.
“That’s expensive.” I frown and take five silver coins out. “Have a good day, old man.”
“Thank you for coming.” Dale responds while pocketing the coins.
I step outside with Teva. She’s been silent since earlier.
“I’m sorry, I appreciate that you’re trying to help but I don’t want to talk about it.” I force myself to talk and clear the air.
“It’s fine.” Teva makes a bright smile. “Should we go back to the Tavern?”
“Yes, let’s at least make sure they’re behaving.” I follow her as she guides me inside a narrow street. Maybe I should ask about her life, that’s what friends do right? Take an interest. “What’s your plan once you get to the University?”
“I’ll study demolition constructs to get a diploma, once I have that I’ll try to get hired as a researcher.” She says with a dreamy look. “Even if that doesn’t work, I can get any job I want with a diploma.”
“That sounds good, I’m sure you’ll make it.”
“I’ll have to work on the side, the capital is expensive.” Teva tells me with a determined expression. “I just need to get through this and then get off the Izla before it all goes to shit.”
“We won’t take unnecessary risks and cover for you. How long do you need to breach the wall if we get you next to it?”
“It depends on how large it is and whether it’s filled with stone or soil. It could take me up to ten minutes to dig a hole inside or under the wall.” Teva explains.
“We’ll need to plan around the wall guards.” I nod.
“It’ll take a full day to prepare the explosive construct beforehand with the help of your reserves.”
“Do you need anything specific for that?” I ask.
“No, I have my old gear.”
I turn at a corner behind her and find Ulf standing in front of the Tavern. I hear loud laughter coming from inside the building as I approach the huntsman.
“Hey, Ulf.” She says.
“Greetings.” He replies through his beard.
“You’re a quiet guy as usual, huh. How’s Frieda?”
“Energetic.” He speaks quietly but I spot the small smile that he makes.
“You two might want to consider using a fake name.” I tell them.
“Are you?” Ulf asks.
“Yes.” I nod. “I’m going by Elizabeth Vil.”
“I don’t need one.” Teva shakes her head. “As long as we’re not caught in the act, it won’t be possible to find us with just a name. There are at least two other people named Ulf in the general area and five Teva.” Ulf grunts in agreement.
“Let’s go in, then.” I adjust my helmet and push the door open.
I walk inside and follow the voices to a backroom with a large table. Both groups are sitting around it and there is a tall waiter going around with a platter while picking up their empty tankards.
“Let’s get down to business before we’re all too drunk to care.” I lift three fingers when the waiter looks at me, he nods in understanding. “This is Teva and Ulf, the rest of you will introduce yourselves whenever you get the chance.”
“What did the Rykz tell you?” Hurb asks. I wait for the waiter to leave before answering.
“Not much more. They expect us to breach the walls and prevent the defenders from setting their food supplies on fire.” I take a seat, Teva joins me while Ulf moves to the other side of the table and takes two spots on the bench because of his large frame.
“They’ll only do that if the Rykz are already inside the walls, we’ll have to split up.” Brie speaks up.
“Or demolish the walls as close to their main granary as possible.” Hurb shakes his head. “It won’t be easy, our targets will be heavily guarded. Teva, is it? You’re the demolition expert, right?”
The waiter comes back so she simply nods. I grab one of the tankards directly off his platter and lift my helmet just enough to take a gulp of the prickly liquid. It tastes bitter but not as much as the one Father occasionally makes.
“It’s good, thanks.” I tell the waiter.
I swallow another mouthful and feel myself relax a little as the alcohol filters through my body. Teva leans slightly to rest her shoulder against mine. It surprises me a little to feel the touch through my left limb.
“Any ideas?” I ask the group once the waiter is gone.
“We could poison the wells as a distraction.” Jacub suggests. I feel Teva flinch and take a long gulp of her beer.
“No.” I categorically refuse. “What else?”
“Fire always works.” Brie says. “We would only need to make smoke and cry for help if you’re going to be like that.”
“We’re not killing any more than necessary, not at all if we can help it.” I shake my head. “This is also to your benefit, those who survive won’t just let us go if we leave a slaughter in our wake.”
“They’ll look for us anyway.” Brie rolls her eyes.
“Next thought?” I ignore her.
“I can probably isolate their granary by destroying buildings and blocking streets if you can scare everyone out of them.” Teva suggests.
“That’s good, how do we clear a block?” I look at Hurb.
“I’m willing to bet the granary will be in the middle of a warehouse district. We will only have to deal with guards in the streets if we act at night.” He answers.
“The first thing you’ll do is find out if it’s the case once we’re inside the walls then, Hurb.” I drink some more beer and turn to Brie. “No fires unless I give you permission. Your group will scout the walls and find out the patrol timings. We’ll need a window of ten to twenty minutes for Teva to do her thing.”
“Sure, we can do that.” The bandit shrugs.
“Don’t do anything on your own. We meet at sundown along the castle’s sea wall, either the same day or the day after we arrive.” I take my tankard and stand up. “I think the Rykz will want to depart tomorrow morning so be ready at dawn.”
“Agreed.” Hurb nods.
“Yeah, yeah.” Brie swallows a long gulp of beer. “Hey, you!” She throws at Teva. “Relax a little!”
I frown but decide to just go and let them get to know each other. I walk back to the counter and finish my beer while I wait for the waiter.
“Can I get a room for the night?” I ask.
“Sure.” He slips a hand under the counter and holds out a key. “It’s all the way to the left once you’re up the stairs.”
“Do you have a bath?”
“It’s out the back, in the small wooden building.”
“Thanks, if you could also bring enough food for three up to my room and tell me how much I owe you.”
“No problem, I will. It makes two silvers.”
I give him the money and walk up to my room to get rid of my hard leather armor and chain-mail. I bring the hammer along with me outside and leave it next to the bath while I use their well to fill it with water.
I take my new clothes off and lay them carefully over my hammer. The cold water makes me groan when I step inside it but I quickly get used to it and fully lean into the bath.
This is way too stressful. These bandits obviously don’t want to listen to me and the mercenaries aren’t complaining but they don’t seem enthusiastic about it either. I really hope I can keep this under control.
My eyes wander to my the wound on my left chest and I think back to Teva. She didn’t seem bothered to see it missing. Doesn’t mean much, she’s kind and warm so she wouldn’t show it even if it did disturb her.
I quickly finish bathing and dress up. I smile as I put my boots on. I make my way back towards my room and glance at the others when I pass by, Teva and Ulf aren’t there anymore.
Probably for the best, I think while walking up the stairs. Their suggestions were ruthless, our groups won’t get along in the long term. I pull the door to my room open and find Teva waiting for me inside with a platter of food.
Her gentle smile awakens the oppressing void in my heart and I slam the door shut. I quickly turn around and lean my back against it to stop her from coming out. I reflexively bring a hand over my heart when I feel it stumble. It restarts beating but irregularly.
“Elizabeth?” I hear her calling from the other side. No, no, no. I can’t do this again. I feel her try to push the door open. “Elizabeth, I’m just here to eat.”
“You are?” My voice is trembling so much that Teva couldn’t possibly have missed my disarray.
“You are?” I repeat myself like she hadn’t answered at all.
“I.” She pauses. “I just want to share a meal with you.” Teva tells me with a reassuring voice.