Story: The Old Empire



Chapter 1, Marcus:

It was the first time Marcus smiled in eight days.
Veo, his seventeen year old daughter, kept shooting little twigs with a miniature bow at Helena. She slept through the assault like a rock. They were riding at leisurely pace on a hardly used road, surrounded by bountiful fields of wheat, to pick up their last fugitive. The day embraced the night, giving the sky a warm orange glow. It was the first time in eight days that Marcus forgot they were running for their lives. It was the first time he wasn’t thinking about how he betrayed his country and ruined the future of his family, two of his best friends and a innocent teacher. It was the first time he made a mistake.
“Marcus,” said Julia.
He immediately knew something was wrong. Julia wasn’t the small talk type. He looked around him and froze. There was a patrol in the distance heading their way and they were not prepared. They didn’t had their stories straight. Just the basics. They were a family of middle class traders escorted by two guards. That’s it. He hoped it was enough.
“They look like a patrol, but they move like highwayman,” said Julia.
“Shit. Shit. Shit.”
Marcus immediately slowed down, forcing the two wagons behind him to do the same. When he looked over his shoulder he saw Laurus, sitting on the first wagon holding the reins, grinning. He was wearing his ‘I told you so’-face. He sees the patrol as a personal triumph. Not a threat to their lives.
Marcus and Julia dismounted and waited till the patrol closed the distance. Four of the six guards dismounted when they got near. Marcus followed their eyes to see who the leader was. It wasn’t the biggest man. It rarely is. It was a tough looking man, probably a former soldier.
“Where are you going?” asked the leader.
“Minerve,” said Marcus.
“For what purpose?”
“Trading. Can we go? It’s getting dark and it’s still a hour ride.”
“No. You can go when I say you can go. And that’s not anytime soon. Let me tell you what I see: I see two wagons with two guards riding on a small farmers road. And that doesn’t make any sense. If you were travelers, there would be no need for guards. Highwayman don’t bother robbing light travellers. If you were rich or traders, you would have used to emperors road. It’s faster and safer. So, that leaves one option: smugglers. ”
“We are not smugglers,” said Marcus.
“So you don’t mind that we inspect your wagons?”
“I do mind.”
The leader sized Marcus up. His sword gained a extra look.
“That’s a captain sword.”
Marcus said nothing. The leader eyed the rest of the group. Julia got a quick glance. He saw a bored looking man on the first wagon, a bookish man, his wife and their daughter on the second wagon. The leader moved his hand slightly to the hilt of his sword.
“So, tell me. Why is a captain guarding a trader with just two wagons? That’s one hell of a downgrade. You know what I think? I think you’re a deserter. Fleeing the country when we’re at war for the first time in a decade. I think you took this smuggling job to get across border. That makes you not only a deserter and a criminal, but a coward as well.”
Marcus watched Julia move slowly to the side, eyeing the two men on the right, positioning herself to strike, one hand already on the dagger in her coat. Marcus stared at the leader, took a step back and repositioned his feet. The leader furrowed his eyebrows. You could see the conflict in his eyes. On one hand, this could be the catch of his life. Catching a deserter will get you two silvers, a promotion when it is a captain. And, they could take all the smuggled ware. On the other hand, they were preparing to fight and captains from Lorn are captains for a reason. They can fight. The leader didn’t doubt that they would win, it’s six against two, but it’s possible that he would lose a few men. Maybe even himself. And he didn’t get paid enough to die.
“I tell you what,” said the leader. “If you drop your weapon right now and walk away, you won’t be harmed by us. We will confiscate the smuggled wares and take our leave. What do you say?”
The silence was tense.
“By Bardic balls!” said Laurus while he jogged to the group. “What’s taking so long?”
“They say we’re smuggler and deserters. They want to confiscate our wares,” said Marcus.
“Deserters? Smugglers? Ha! What did you say to them?” said Laurus. He walked to the leader with both hands up and a great smile on his face.
“Good sir, I want to thank you for your services. Risking your lives to keep even this hardly used road safe. You and your fellow men are heroes. You heard me right, heroes. My name is Lorenzo. May I ask what your name is?”
“Basil, a good name. A strong name. You know what, Basil? Most people, like Marcus here, don’t appreciate what you guys do. They take you for granted. And that is a shame. You make our jobs easy. We haven’t come across a band of highwayman in months. All because of men like you. You deserve to get recognised for your services. Here, I want you to accept this gift,” said Laurus. He handed the leader a little bag of coins.
You could see Basil’s attitude change. He peeked into the little bag and his pupils dilated.
“Yes, five of them,” said Laurus.
“Five? So, you are smugglers?” asked Basil. His greedy eyes, slight smile and voice betrayed that he didn’t care about smuggling, deserters and doing the right thing.
“Ha! No, we are thieves,” said Laurus. He waiting a couple seconds for extra suspension. “Thieves of the wallets of noblemen! That man over there,” Laurus pointed to the anxious man holding the reins of the second wagon. “His name is Leo. And Leo buys custom made silk sashes, dresses and tunics in the now traitorous kingdom of Elos and sells them to rich noblemen and women in our great empire and whatever Floren is these days. For twenty times their true worth. The insane prices attract noblemen like honey attracts bees. I convinced Leo that he needs a guide and at least two experienced guards and pay them twenty silvers each. I offered my humble services and said I would hire the guards for a small, but reasonable, finder’s fee of ten procent. Leo made so much money on his first trip that he thought twenty silvers per person was a reasonable price. Ha! Twenty silvers for two months of easy work. People go blind when they just made a lot of money. Basil, you have a good eye by the way. That is indeed a captain’s sword. And Marcus was indeed a captain. But not a deserter. No. No. They,” Laurus said, pointing at Marcus and Julia,” fought in the same company in the Lighting War, fell in love and left the army seven years ago. Love and the army don’t mix well, you know. So Basil, if you want to inspect some of the silk dresses we sell, I can show them to you. There in the second wagon. It will take a while, but we got plenty of time.”
“No, no, no. That won’t be necessary. Basil tucked his little bag of money away. “You’re a smart man, Lorenzo. I like you. If you ever need more men for this guard business, let me know. It pays better than being a hero.” smirked Basil.
“I will do that. Come to think of it. I think I got some work for you on our way back from Floren. At least, if this war doesn’t escalate”.
“Aye,” said Basil. “If you’re still in Minerve tomorrow, look me up. I’ll buy everyone here a drink. Just ask for me at the Bearpaw Inn in Minerve, they know where to find me. If you make haste you can make Minerve before the sun is down. Safe travels.” said Basil.

They watched the patrol move out of sight.
“It still amazes me how easy you lie,” said Marcus.
“You want to know the secret?” asked Laurus.
“Oh great one. Share your wisdom,” said Julia.
“Coins and compliments. That’s it. Stroke their greed and ego. Blind them by self-interest and self-importance. Make the lie desirable. Make the lie believable.”
“Believable?  Me and Marcus?” Julia laughed and walked to a relieved looking Leo.
“She laughed a bit to hard there,” said Marcus.
“You’re not her type. She likes them smart.”
“I’m not a barbarian. I studied.”
“You went to a military school. You know strategy. You know tactics. You know how to fight. But you’re not book smart, like Leo, or street smart, like me,” said Laurus with a grin, “If it wasn’t for me you would have marched in full armor to the capital to challenge every guilty person to single combat, but would be caught before you even entered the capital. You see the world as it should be, not how it really is.”
“I’m trying to do the right thing.”
“I know. I know. And I love you for that. But it will get us killed one of these days. Come on. Let’s move. Your son is waiting for you. I just hope Max got the brain of Helena and didn’t get himself caught by the guards of the university. I can’t wait to meet him.
“Me neither. It’s been six years. I hope he’s not mad at me.”
“He probably is. This was his final year, right?”
“Yeah,” Marcus face turned somber.
“He will come around,” said Laurus, “He will understand if you explain it to him. You told me Max trained with him. That he was his friend. And now he is dead, betrayed by his younger sister, the new ruler. He will understands why we did what we did. He will understand that it’s not safe to stay in Lorne. We need to get across the border as soon as possible. Once we’re in Floren, we will be safe. What happened is just the beginning.“