I split the warrior’s ranks and step out, walking past Edusa to pick up my hammer at Yvonne’s feet. Lance glances at the drones who follow my every move by turning their flat heads.
“They have strict orders to keep me alive.” I tell her monotonously.
“Never mind that. Are you okay, Elizabeth?” She questions, concerned.
“I didn’t… expect that you would choose me over…” I reply.
“You made it difficult.” She comments with a corner smile. Not enough, apparently.
“Are you truly set on this?” I ask.
“I am.” Lance responds, brushing a strand of straight black hair.
The alarm bells sounding in the castle as joined by more, originating west. Lance turns to look, setting her helmet back on. I throw a glance at the stables. Her followers are walking out with a dozen horses in tow.
The warriors turn to the animals, shields set. The Nobles fall into wary stances, stopping just short of unsheathing their swords. I raise my hand, telling the drones to hold position.
“The Rykz are attacking the wall.” Edusa speaks up. “We need to go, now.”
“We still have some time until their towers reach the rampart, but not much.” Lance replies. “Come with us, Elizabeth.”
“I’m not leaving them behind.” I tell her, pointing at the drones with a nod. “And I have other matters to attend to.”
“Are you sure?” She asks worriedly.
“I’ll be fine.” I reply. They won’t be though. “Go.”
“You’re strong, but don’t get overconfident.” Lance says, extending her hand out.
I take hold of her vambrace while she grips my wrist. We hold for a moment before splitting up. She walks up to her large black warhorse and climbs on, avoiding to use her broken left hand.
“The Rykz have been ordered not to attack anyone who lays down their weapons.” I speak up. “And remember, you cannot change Nobility without spilling human blood.”
“I know.” She replies.
Her followers help Yvonne and Edusa mount up and they depart north. I watch them go, caressing a warrior’s flat carapaced head. Once they leave my field of sight, I turn back to the keep.
I head back inside, making my way through the corridors back to the throne room. I find the traces of blood I’m looking for, on the ground just outside. I follow the bright trail to the east wing until it disappears under a closed door.
I approach, inspecting the inside of the room with my limb’s sense. I find no men at arms as the only metal worn by the ten people inside, apart from jewelry, are the swords at their side. Nobles. Two of them are guarding either side of the door while the one that must be Marec is laying down on a table with a tall woman attending to his wound.
I bring my hammer back and slam it against the lock. Crack. I step hurriedly step aside to let my warriors force the heavy oak door open the rest of the way. The first Rykz that enters is attacked from both sides, blocking one strike with his shield while parrying the second with his saber.
Unfortunately, he fails to keep up with the attacks that follow and falls. Yet, he bought enough time for three more Rykz to slip in. The Lady on the left overextends with a stabbing attack and I take the opportunity to step inside and seize her by the throat, disarming her with a quick hammer blow.
“No, n, no, the Red Dwarf! She came back for me!” Marec exclaims fearfully.
“You‘re going to atone for what you did on the plains, Marec.” I utter coldly.
“Such arrogance! You’re but a peasant, know your place!” A Lord wearing a blue tunic responds harshly.
He charges the Rykz with the other Nobles. They bring their swords down on their shields with so much power that my warriors buckle and are forced to take a few steps back to hold, which makes them block the doorway and prevents the rest from entering.
I lift the Lady and throw her on the Lord. He drops his weapon to catch her. I step in the spot she held, making space to allow more Rykz in. I swing my hammer at the two Nobles, forcing them to jump back.
My warriors immediately pour into the gap in their line, locking shields to form a wall in front of me. I throw a wide swing over the Rykz’ heads, making use of my long reach to force the Nobles back even more.
The spikes emerging from the top of the hammerhead catch only one Lord, ripping through his throat. Most jump away to avoid the attack, but three duck and that costs them their lives because the warriors make use of the opening to strike them down.
“Lay down your weapons, I will only say it once.” I threaten the five Nobles.
They’re struggling to hold their ground against the advancing Rykz, and it’s only getting worse for them as more and more rush in the room. My words visibly affect them as they decide to retreat, lowering their swords as take positions to either side of the table Marec is on.
“I want a guarantee that you’ll spare our lives.” The woman who took care of him says.
“Don’t! She’ll kill us all!” Marec yelps.
He tries to sit up but the movements compress his stomach’s wound and he drops back down with a cry. I raise my hand and my warriors hold position. I ponder for a moment.
“I will make no such promise.” I reply.
“I.” Cough. “Told you.” Marec says, coughing.
They pale and look upon me and the Rykz, an overwhelming force that they can’t hope to defeat. It takes them a minute but they do reach the conclusion that some hope is better than none, dropping their swords.
I walk up to the Nobles, dragging my hammer behind me and letting it scrape on the stone floor. I stare them in the eye as I advance, not slowing down as I near them. They move away, letting me approach Marec.
“P, ple…” Marec starts but I lay my left hand on his wound, pressing. “Arrrh!” He yells as my limb absorbs the blood that seeps out.
“I’ll tell you a story.” I say. “Once upon a time a peasant family was hanged, essentially because they had a bad harvest.” I pause. “The end. Did you like it?” I ask. They remain silent so I grab Marec by the throat and lift him off the table. “I’m going to need an answer.” I tell them casually. “Because, you see, your only role is to protect the Izla. Yet, when presented with the possibility to negotiate a surrender, you decided to draft peasantry and force them to fight on threat of execution. Now, what should I do? Apply your logic? Or be… reasonable?”
“We aren’t officers, we don’t have any sway in Court. We aren’t responsible for what’s happening.” The Lady argues stiffly.
“That is why you still live while Marec will soon die.” I reply, tightening my grip on the Noble’s throat to prevent him from speaking. He faints within seconds. “I take it you want a chance.”
“What do you want?” She asks.
“Your flow to begin with. Next you’ll help me end this, with your lives at stake if necessary.” I respond, dragging Marec to drop him on one of my warrior’s shoulder.
I don’t bother looking at the Nobles, I simply open my palm and present it to them. They gather their energy and send it out, cutting their links to it. I take hold of the flow, absorbing it. It fills barely a third of my reserves.
“Now, kneel.” I order.
“We did what you said.” The Lady says as they take a step back.
“You see now.” I laugh. They flinch. “You begin to comprehend what life is for your subjects. At the mercy of fickle rulers. People who care not about justice, who hold whim as law.” I close my left fist, making the leather crack. “Kneel or face the certainty of death.”
Four obey. Two Ladies and two Lords, bending their knees with grit teeth. Yet the fifth remains standing, his back straight, visibly frightened but resolved.
“I won’t kneel for a low-born. I refuse to make it easy for you!” He exclaims.
He doesn’t move for a moment, apparently waiting for my reaction. I stand there, letting him make his choice. He suddenly runs, passing by me to throw himself on the warrior’s shield wall, trying to split them apart. I turn and watch.
“Let me pass!” He yells. Does he actually think they’ll yield because he wills it?
I seize his shirt and throw him down to the ground. His back impacts the stone, expelling all the air out of his lungs. His mouth gapes as he tries to catch his breath.
“Are you so weak that you cannot face the same trial that peasants do so often?” I comment. “I am simply presenting you with the other side of the power you’ve exerted your whole life.” I kick his stomach. “This is what you are to your subjects, unpredictable. Always wanting more even when your demands are met.”
I grab him by the shoulder and force him to kneel next to the others. I carefully deposit the bladed part of my hammer’s handle on the back of his neck and wait patiently for him to catch his breath.
“You revolted, yet didn’t take arms and only tried to escape. I’ve put you down as a peasant would be. Now you only have to decide whether you remain like this, or stand in defiance.” I tell him. “Choose.”
The Lord’s eyes seem filled with terror as he faces his own mortality. I wonder if he’ll put his life on the line. If he does, I don’t think it would be out of pride but conviction. I await. A moment passes. Another goes by. I pull my hammer away from his neck and set in on my shoulder.
“You’re not so different from a low-born after all, are you?” I ask. His tongue remains still. “Answer me or stand to prove that you would die before kneeling like we have for so long.”
“I, I don’t, w, want to die.” He stutters. I nod and turn my back on them.
“Then shut up and follow me.” I say.
I wave my hand at the Nobles and the warriors break their shield wall to encircle us. I walk out of the room and guide us through the hallways towards the west of the keep.
We reach large double doors, a huge wooden beam is laid against the wall next to it. There are two men at arms guarding it but they run away when they see us. I push the doors open, finding a long paved road leading to a closed portcullis.
I keep going, undeterred by the fact that there are probably as many soldiers guarding it as I have Rykz. As we approach, my warriors raise their shields and bare their weapons. Probably detected something I’m not. Either through smell or because their heat sense extends further than mine.
I assemble a construct to enhance my eyesight and inspect the bulky fortification built around the portcullis. Through the arrowslits, I can see soldiers holding taut bows and preparing to fire on us. I slow down and grab the Lord that tried to escape.
“Soldiers!” I shout. “Open the gate or watch them be executed.”
“We can’t do that!” An officer responds, showing her face at the window.
I recognize her as the captain I met the first day I arrived in Meria, when I infiltrated the castle for our first dance.
“You don’t have much of a choice.” I say. “If you don’t, you’ll all face charges of rebellion!”
“We have strict orders from the Duke.” She replies.
“And how much do you trust him to pardon you for their deaths?” I ask. She remains silent. “Do you hear those bells? Those announce Meria’s fall, both Duke and City. Are you going to make me come up there?”
I receive no answer but I can see that the soldiers inside are agitated. I take the lead and force the Lord in front of me, using him as a shield. I advance slowly, step by step, as I keep an eye on the arrows pointed at me.
Two warriors quicken their pace to cover my left and right with their shields while a third raises his above my head. A feat only possible because I’m so damn short.
“I order you not to shoot!” The Lord screams.
“Say please.” I say, shaking him.
“Please don’t!” He adds.
I hear the captain arguing with her soldiers inside the stone fortification. I redirect the flow enhancing my eyes and adjust the segments to boost my hearing instead.
“I just told you that’s the Duke’s cousin, and the other one looks like Count Marec!” A panicked voice says. “There’s no way he’ll let it go if we get them killed. We’re screwed if we shoot, either Duke Meria or the Rykz will take revenge on us!”
“Who’ll know if we just let them go, Captain?” Another one argues.
“They will!” The captain replies.
I dismantle the construct and inject the energy into the healing construct anchored to my legs. I then lift my ‘Noble shield’ ahead and break into a full run, taking both the archers and the prisoners behind me by surprise. My warriors, on the other hand, don’t mark a single pause and match my speed, pushing the Lords and Ladies with their shields to force them to keep up.
We cross the approximately seventy meters without a single missile being shot, the archers appear too afraid to shoot and the captain seems unwilling to give the order because of the dissent among them.
I pass under the gate’s stone arc, stopping in front of the portcullis. I detect people above me, when I shouldn’t be because of the thick stone. I glance up, finding a number of murder-holes above our heads, used to pour oil or shoot arrows on attackers trying to cross. So much for getting out of their firing arcs.
“Open up.” I yell.
The captain’s head appears through one of the openings, looking down at me with a baleful expression. She doesn’t say anything, she doesn’t have to. Her soldiers are already operating the gate’s pulleys, rattling the chains.
“Elizabeth Vil.” She suddenly calls out.
“What?” I ask.
“Leave him behind.” She says. “I’ll be able to justify letting you go if you do. It will at least give my soldiers a way out.”
“Fine.” I nod.
“Thank you.” She then moves away. “Raise the portcullis!”
Clank. Crick. Clank. Crick. Clank. The gears turn and the heavy metal grid rises up to two meters. I wait for a few seconds before suddenly crossing over. I’d rather not have that thing fall on my back.
I grab my human shield, the Duke’s cousin apparently, and drag him away. I wait until my warriors are through with the prisoners and make my way to the other side of the street before releasing him. He runs back towards the gate, running like his life depends on it.
Which it does, considering I would kill him first. I inspect the area. There are no soldiers patrolling around the walls, no doubt called to reinforce the walls. I take the west avenue, sustaining a quick pace.
I don’t think there’s much time left until the Rykz assault the rampart, there might be none at all. We reach a crossing and I turn to take a street that heads south-west.
I freeze and bring my hammer around, moving to hug the wall next to the entrance to an alleyway. I focus on the sounds, trying to pierce the loud alarm bells to get a clue of what alarmed my warriors.
There are sounds of battle coming from a nearby street. I engage in the alley, and take a look around the corner. I find a patrol of a dozen city guards battling it out with two harvesters, and winning because they’re using their spears and the Rykz are injured to a devastating point.
Their blades are all broken, they’re using their arms as clubs. At least those that aren’t broken or torn off. I slam my hammer against the wall and rush them, half my warriors detach to stay with me while the others follow but remain in formation around the prisoners.
The city guards facing us warn the others and they break their encirclement around the harvesters to regroup. Their officer calls for a retreat shortly after. They fall back, using their spears to keep the two Rykz at a distance.
Might as well let them go, we won’t be able to catch up while dragging the Nobles along. I walk up to the injured harvesters, patting their flanks. They lean into the touch, their breathing cries weak and whiny. I smile and make soothing sounds while waiting for my warriors catch up.
We sadly don’t have time to let them rest so we depart as soon as we reform, the harvesters joining the formation’s rear-guard. I slow down to match their pace as they each have a broken leg and are bleeding from several gashes in their carapace armor.
As I navigate the streets, looking for a specific one that will lead us to the meeting point I set with Cecil, I spot a huge golden cloud floating above the roofs. The mass of… of flow, is slowly moving towards the west wall. Fuck, is that Meria?
Peeking above the rampart is the top of an advancing siege tower, its bridge still closed but I am certain that it’ll be lowered as soon as it comes close enough to the crenelation, releasing the Rykz held inside.
Someone throws a torch at the wooden tower but the fire sizzles out before it even hits. The hatch on the topmost portion of it opens and a ballista bolt flashes out. It flies a small distance and impacts the wall walk.
Defenders scream out, in pain and grief. One of them, a woman, falls off while holding her leg, severed at the thigh. I don’t see her land, die, as she disappears behind a roof.
At last, I find the street and make my way to the rendezvous point. I keep an eye on the golden cloud more than on my surroundings. The Rykz should warn me ahead of time if there’s a problem, besides the area is the one that Odo‘s men took over so there’s no one here right now. What is Meria doing dispersing the flow like that?
I finally arrive at the crossing. Cecil and Aisha are on the second floor of an inn, waving me over from a window with relieved but impatient expressions. I step inside, noticing that very few of the three hundred Rykz they departed with are left. Only eight harvesters and about fifty scouts made it here.
The two women walk down the stairs while my warriors and two harvesters escort the Nobles in.
“You’re late.” Cecil says in a voice full of reproach.