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 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 everyone he loved. It was the first time he made a mistake.
“Marcus,” called 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.
“Shit.”
“They look like local soldiers, but they ride 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 soldiers closed the distance. When they were near, five soldiers dismounted. 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. 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, frequently patrolled 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’s sword.”
Marcus said nothing. The leader eyed the rest of the group. He saw a stoic looking man on the first wagon, and bookish man who was definitely nerveus, 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 minor trader? 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 five against two, but it’s possible that he would lose a few men. Maybe even himself. And a possible promotion isn’t worth dying for.
“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 with a low and angry voice.
“Deserters? Smugglers? Ha! What did you say to them?” said Laurus. He walked to the leader with both hands up and a confident smile on his face.
“Good sir, I want to thank you for your services. Risking your lives to keep even this little 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,” said the leader, easing up a little.
“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.
“Silvers?”
“Yes, six of them,” said Laurus.
“Six? 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 twenty 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,” Laurus let a comfortable silence linger, “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 you are the law.”
“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 guarding 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, 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? Lovers? Ha!” 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 and killed 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. Max trained with him. He was his friend. And now he is dead, betrayed by his younger sister, the new emperor. 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.“

 

 

Chapter 2: Helena

Minerve wasn’t a big town by any measure. It was barely on the map. A tiny dot, three days ride from the border. But Helena loved it. She loved the chaotic nature of cities. She loved fixing their problems, creating order out of chaos. In minutes she had a mental shortlist of several problems she could fix in no time. The guards were slacking off, they just glanced at us and continued playing cards. The streets were filthy. And there was barely any light. No wonder people scattered their trash. There was nobody to judge them. Except her, of course. They walked past the Bearpaw Inn. After hearing the patrol mentioning the inn they knew it attracted the wrong crowds. The only problem, her son was staying there. She discussed the problem with Marcus, Julia and Laurus. Laurus immediately volunteered to go there alone and look for their son. Nobody questioned it. The rest would attract to much attention and Laurus can assimilate in every crowd and talk his way out off most problems. They continued down the street, looking for the next inn. The stumbled upon Smiling Tree Inn. They could hear muffled music spilling out of the door. Helena was looking forward to sleep on a normal bed. Sure, she could sleep anywhere, but it always takes a toll on her back.
Marcus talked to the stableboy. He handed him a silver coin and pointed at the horses and wagons. The boy nodded eagerly holding the silver coin firmly in his hand. We should stop giving people so much money. Sure, it stops questions now, but it creates attention in the long run. What is his father going to think when his son comes home with a whole silver? I hope greed is gonna stop the boy telling his father about this exchange. Marcus beckoned Julia and Laurus after the boy took the reins of a horse and they talked for a short minute. Julia nodded and left, probably to scout the area. Laurus was preparing to leave when Marcus grabbed Laurus shoulder firmly and spoke to him with his captain voice: “I’m serious. Don’t linger. Don’t get noticed. Get in. Get out.“ Laurus nodded wand left. Marcus took a deep sigh, spilling out his worries. His eyes  landed on Helena. She showed him her most reassuring smile. He nodded and they entered the inn, wondering if she still got it.
She still got it. She still had the power to freeze a whole room. Time changes everything, except the nature of man. She knew the drill. Long stares, whispers, a glance at Marcus, followed by a disappointed face, a grunt and sometimes a calculating face – wondering if they can take Marcus. She used to hate the stares, but decades can change a lot. This time it was different. She got stares, but they weren’t long stares. It wasn’t a surprise. Twenty years ago she could freeze a inn for minutes, now not even five seconds. This time the long stares were for somebody else. Not for Marcus, nor Leo. They stared at Veo. She looked at her with a new light. Before this moment she saw Veo as a young girl, running with a big smile and eager eyes to smiths, woodcutters and glassmakers questioning them about their methods, hoping they would spill their trade secrets. Most did. Not many people could resist her enthusiasm. But she’s not that girl anymore. Her attitude is still the same, her body is not. A dangerous combo. She should talk to her one of these days. She needs to know how to handle and divert the attention of men. And what to do when that fails. She saw Veo looking up with a curious glaze, wondering why people stopped talking. When she saw the stares, her faced changed to shock. She took a small step back, trying to figure out what was happening. She’s not used to it. Most people at the military camps, where they stayed for the last six years, knew her since she was a child. They didn’t stare. At least, most of them didn’t. Some young soldiers did, but when they heard Marcus was her father the staring stoped.
Leo coughed loudly and pulled attention away from Veo to him. That seemed to break the spell and slowly people started to pick up their old conversations, while some kept stealing short glances of Veo. Leo put his hand softly on the back of Veo ushering her to a empty table in the corner.
“Thanks”, said Helena.
“Like mother, like daughter,” said Leo with a smile.
Marcus approached the innkeeper and asked for one family room, two small rooms and something to eat and drink for seven people. The innkeeper nodded and disappeared in the back.
“I don’t like this”, confessed Marcus.
“What?” asked Helena.
“The not knowing. Consistently wondering what to do next.
“We will rise above it. Like we alway do. Like you promised me, twenty-eight years ago. We were in the same position then. We were on the run. We didn’t knew where we would go. And we didn’t have anything. And we rose above it.”
“But it’s not us alone anymore, Helena. We got Veo, Max, Julia, Leo and Laurus. Maybe even Andrina will suffer the consequences of my actions. Wherever she is.
“Don’t worry about Andrina. Our daughter can handle herself, you know that. You’ve trained her. And she’s not even in Lorne. The last time we heard from her she was in Floren, looking for some lost treasure. We can’t even reach her, and why hired the best. Why do you think the army can find her? If she’s ready, she will find us.”
“That doesn’t change the rest. I keep thinking: if I just followed orders, it would just effect me. I could have carried the shame. I could have lived a lie if that means my family is safe.”
“You did what was right. Never feel sorry for that. And you couldn’t have carried that shame. It would have broken you. Slowly. And that would have broken me. Julia and Laurus chose to go with us. It was their decision, they could have stayed with the company. They didn’t even think about it. They would follow you anywhere. You need to stop worrying for all of us. In three days we will be at the border. We will be safe. We can start over. You can build that little farm you always talk about.” said Helena. She grabbed Marcus his hand and giving a small squeeze. The tension left his face. They walked to the table where Veo was interrogating Leo about stuff only Leo seems to know.
Helena positioned herself so she could watch the door. It has been three years since she saw Max. It would have been six years if he didn’t sneak out that one time. The university doesn’t allow you to leave while you’re a student. They want you all for themselves. She knows that. She studied there for one year, but those restrictions was one of the two reasons she left. Marcus was the other.
But three years ago Max sneaked away when he joined a professor on a trip to the capital. It was a surprise when he knocked on our door. It would have been the perfect night if Marcus was there. But he was on a assignment. She told Marcus everything what happend that night, but it’s never the same as meeting him in flesh and blood. That was the second them she saw tears on Marcus his cheek. Helena and Max talked till deep in the night. They talked about the classes he took, the training he got, the competitions and she talked about Marcus, about Veo and everything else she could come up with. They did write. In the first three years she received a letter, consisting of multiply pages, every month. The fourth year it changed. The letters got shorter, more irregular. She responded by asking more questions, to no avail. The last letter she got was six month ago and consistent of a couple of lines. Mostly saying he’s fine and that she shouldn’t worry about it.
She watched Julia enter the inn, take a quick glance and walked straight to us. She nodded to Marcus, indication everything seems to be safe. A young man, who had a couple beers to many, walked to Julia with a confident smile. Julia saw him and sneered, she moved one hand to the hilt of her dagger and she made sure he saw it. The man staggered and took a step back. He put his hands up and walked back to his friends. Julia can have that effect on people. And if her sneer didn’t stop the approach, her dagger wil. She once stabbed a man in the leg, who had put a hand on her leg, while she was ordering some drinks.Word got around quickly and that was the first and last time somebody of the army approached her. Maybe she needs to talk to Veo. Helena smiled at that thought and returned her gaze to the door. What is taking so long?

 

Chapter 3: Laurus

Language is strange.
Deserters.
It doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t sound so bad. Deserters eat dessert in the desert. Laurens smirked at the thought.
“I would kill for some ice cream”, mumbled Laurens when he headed to the Bearpaw Inn.
Literally. He has killed for less. He once killed a man who took a sip of his beer. Sure, that was a long time ago and he was payed to kill the man anyway, but if that man didn’t take a sip of his beer, he would have lived a couple hours longer. That man was a bad gambler and Laurus loved winning. Every summer his thoughts returned to that magical day, fifteen years ago. It was the first and only time Laurus tasted ice cream. He had a job escorting some rich noblemen’s son to the university and when he got there, some man was selling strawberry ice cream from a cart. It was unheard of. Ice with flavour? In the summer? How do they get ice in the summer? Do they toll it from the icecaps to the south? That doesn’t make sense. The scope of ice cream costed  a bronze coin and if they took it from the icecaps, a scope would have cost at least two silver. That would be no problem for Laurus, he was willing to spend his only gold on some more, but must people don’t think the same. He questioned the man selling the ice cream, but he just said that they make in the university, but doesn’t know how. He traveled the next year to the universe, but wasn’t allowed to enter the University grounds without permission. It’s one of the most heavily guarded places in the world. He tried getting a similar job, but most students had guards of their own. Others didn’t trust someone who’s bagging for a specific job and was willing to work for free. The last time he tried, he messed up. Five years ago he forged some acceptance papers and traveled cloaked, posing as a student, to the university. He even hired a carriage and two guards. He was caught at the gate and thrown into the university’s jail. He was sentenced to ten years of imprisonment. Marcus needed to cast in his favour from Lorne’s emperor- earned by quelling a rebellion in the north. They university reluctantly complied. The university is strange place. Not by the looks of it, it looks quite boring.  It consist of ten large round buildings, all the same size. But the rest is strange. The university doesn’t belong to any country. It’s a small, but independent region. The top layer of the society from Lorne, Floren and Elos consists of students from the university. They accept just over a hundred student each year and the battle for a place is fierce. One noblemen once offered to donate ten ships, a large mansion and a massive plot of land for a spot for his son. They denied him. Not because of the donation, the university doesn’t have any problem accepting those, but because his son wasn’t bright enough. They only want the best of the best or the best of the mightiest. Like Helena, the smartest woman Laurus knows and daughter to a rich merchant. She’s a bit uptight, but incredible smart. And Max, of couse. Son of Helena and one of the most accomplished captains in Lorne’s army, the instructor of the old emperor and the hero of the Lighting War. Their first and only son. Their prodigy. While Laurus has never met Max, he has heard a lot of him.
Marcus is the must virtuous person he knows, but being humble about his son and daughters isn’t one of those virtues. He brags, sometimes daily, about how his son used to beat veteran soldiers twice his age in duals, how Veo outsmarted her teacher when she was 12 and could skip some boring subjectes and how Andrina single-handedly found the entrance to the mythical tombe of the first emporer when she was barely twenty years old. The University confiscated the scrolls she found – the first know writing from that era and got twenty gold coins for her service. Or twenty gold for her silence. Same thing. Marcus doesn’t talk a lot about Andrina. It’s a touchy subject. She left after a big fight and Marcus blames himself.
But flavored ice cream, the complete independence, the immersive wealth or the importance students don’t make the university a mysterious place. It’s the age of the members of the university’s counsel. The youngest member of the counsel is a hundred and twenty years old, the oldest hundred and seventy. They are the only people in the known world that make it over a hundred.
But nobody knows how do they do it. Students vowed to solve te secret, rich and sick merchants offered to pay insane amounts of gold, dying kings and emperor’s threatened to invade the university, the underworld tried to infiltrate the university. Nothing worked.
Laurens arrived at the Bearpaw Inn and entered. He donned a exhausted face and walked to the bar looking like every step could be has last. He sat down, sighed and eyed the innkeeper with a small smile. He wasn’t going to listen to Marcus. Get it, get out? He knew nothing.
“Hard day?” asked the innkeeper when he spotted Laurens.
“I thought it would be easier,” said Laurens “I used to work for a brewer in Domer, hauling big casks to innkeepers. I thought working on a farm would be easier. Working in the sun sounds relaxing. It’s not. There is no downtime, just a continues flow of menial labor.
“A farmhand? I could have guessed that by the looks of you. You work for the Backers? They always hire a lot of hands.
“I don’t know. I started this morning. I just know they don’t pay me enough for this type of work.”
“That would be the Backers. They are a greedy bunch. They always hire out of towners, so they can pay them less without upsetting their surroundings. So, let me guess. A large beer and something to eat?”
“Just a large beer, thanks”.
The innkeeper nodded, drew a beer out of the cask and put it in front of Laurens.
“Enjoy. Let me know when I can get you something else.”
“Thanks, will do”, mumbled Laurens before he downed the half of his beer.
The key to not getting noticed is by being some who isn’t interesting. Someone who doesn’t have a story to tell. Marcus doesn’t get that. His idea of stealth comes from stories. He probably imagines a man wearing a big black cloak, covering half of his face, sitting alone in the corner, staring at people. But everyone notices that guy. Especially in a small town like Minerve. Maybe they don’t stare at him, but they are watching every move he makes.
Laurens turned and watched the room with bored eyes. He was looking for Max, but a conversation got his attention. Four soldiers were talking about Elos. He started at a old painting on the wall to their right, but studied the soldiers from the corners of his eyes. And he listened. Laurens recognised places and names. Their names. We should leave at first light.
He focused on finding Max. He scanned the room earlier, but he didn’t noticed anyone who matched the description of him. He should stand out. He expected to find Max sitting in the middle of the inn, surrounded by laughing women and nodding men, hoping to get some of his scraps. But he was not there.
“Sir”, said Laurens to the innkeeper.
“Yes? Another beer?”
“No, maybe later. I was wondering, is someone called Max staying in this inn?”
“Why do you want to know that?”
“He’s the one who said I could find work here”.
“I don’t want no trouble in my inn”.
“Oh, no, no,” laughed Laurus “I worked with him back in Domer. He’s a good friend. I was just going to ask if he know some other job, something lighter. My back can’t take this kind of labor. I’m not that young anymore.”.
“I see” nodded the innkeeper empathetically “Yes, Max is staying here. But he barely leaves his room. Not for work anyway.”
“Is he allright?”
“I don’t know. He’s not a talker. And I don’t ask a lot of private questions to men who pay with silver.”
“Which room is he in?”
“He doesn’t want to be disturbed. He asked me that specifically.”
“I get that. He’s probably sick or something. I just wanna check on him. Maybe he does need my help. If he doesn’t answer, I’ll leave him. I promise.”
“Allright. He’s staying in room 5, the door on the far left”.
Laurus nodded, finished his beer, left two bronze coins on the counter and headed upstairs. He knocked on the fifth door.
“Who is there?” said a frail voice.
“I was wondering if you brought some strawberry ice cream from the University?”
“Laurus?”
“Haha, yeah. How did you know?” laughed Laurus.
“Well, the story about a thirty year old man posing as as student is well know in the University. Most people don’t believe it really happend, but my mother confirmed it was true and it was you. Is she here?”
“Not here, but close. We are staying in the Smiling Tree Inn. Can you open the door?”,
“Oh, yes. Sorry”, mumbled Max when the removed the bolt from the door and opened the door.
Max didn’t look like the images Marcus painted of him. His shoulders were slumbed, his eyes unfocused and he looked pale – almost as pale as a Maurus barbarian. He reacted so slowly, that it would be impossible to image him beating a veteran soldier. You couldn’t see these realisations in Laurens face. He looked friendly, even a little bit excited. He knew how to hide his thoughts. Useful for gambling and these kinds of situations. And he knew fathers lied about their sons. His father did. According to his father, Laurens was a wealthy hog trader in Floren. So rich and busy that he can’t find to time to visit his family and the curious friends of his father.
“Nice to finally meet you Max, you have your mothers eyes.”
“And nice to finally meet the living legend of the ice cream infiltrator.”
They both laughed. He did have the wits of his mother.
“Ready to meet your parents?”
“I guess. How are they?” said Max, looking uncertain.
“Good, good. Except this running for our lives business, of course”.
“So, it’s started?” said Max with a grave and knowing face.
“What do you mean? What do you know?”
“I just know the basics of the world outside the university. The murder of the emperor by the schemes of Lord Alaric. The retribution. The army invading the northern region, the siege and fall of Oswin. But there must be more. My father served the army loyally for more than twenty years. He quelled rebellions. Fought against Maurus. He killed hundreds of men to save tens of thousands. He was even chosen to train the emperor himself. And now, the most loyal person I know is fleeing the nation he served for so many years. It must be big.”
Laurens nodded.
“I knew something was coming. The University functions as a neutral zone, it never takes sides. But this time it is different. A lot of things are happening. The first murder of a counse..” whispered Max.
“Let’s talk about this later, okay?” interrupted Laurus. “It’s not safe to talk about us or affairs concerning the University. Let’s grab your stuff and head to Smiling Tree. We need to leave at first light”
“Is it that bad?”
“It’s not good”.
Max nodded and started gathering his things. He grabbed some cloths, scattered around the floor, and some frail looking books and tucked them away in his bag. He was ready in a minute.
When they descended the stairs Laurens asked if Max could wait for him outside. Max nodded and left the inn. Laurus went to the innkeeper, who was watching them with a curious face.
“I think I know the cure for what happend to him.” said Laurens.
“So, he’s sick?” said the innkeeper.
“His heart is sick. His girlfriend left him a week ago and he’s broken up about it. But I know the cure. Have you heard about the a establishment called the Golden Rose up north?
“Yeah, that would fix him up.” laughed the innkeeper.
The started to walk toward the Smiling Tree Inn. It took longer than Laurens hoped. It look like Max didn’t have the strength to put one feet in front of his other. Maybe he was sick. Or maybe just afraid to meet his parents. He kept his head down, looking at a old ring on his right hand. Was it a gift from his father? Or a girlfriend he left at the university? Maybe he did had a broken heart.
They entered the Smiling Tree inn and saw the group. They were drinking, eating and laughing. Laurens smiled. Time for bigger smiles. Time to introduce their lost son. Helena noticed them first, but it wasn’t a smile Laurens saw, it was shock. After a couple seconds she recovered, smiled and poked Marcus with her elbow. He looked up and again: shock. It took him longer to recover.
“Max!” shouted Veo when she saw him.
Veo ran to him with a big smile and hugged him.
“I missed you so much, Max. It’s been too long.”
“I missed you too, little sister.”
“Mother. Father. Good to see you.” said Max stoically.
Helena embraced him, holding him tight and whispered. You could see a small tear flowing down Helena’s check.
Max nodded while Helena whispered and granted her a smile when she released him.
Marcus followed
Son. Good to see you. I missed you. How was the journey? ” hoping

Max tried his best. He tried to eat something. He tried to answer some questions. But you could see how much effort it took him.

After a little while Max excused himself, saying that he still tired, and left to their room. Shortly after Veo followed.

I got some bad news” said Laurus with a grave voice
The talking stopped at everybody stared Laurus
“They know. Lord
didn’t flee. He rode to the western cities, gathered his forces and fortified . And word got out how he escaped. They know we smuggled him out of the burning city. They know we fled. They say we’re traitors. They don’t know where we’re heading. Some say the captial of Elos, some say Floren. Everyone is searching for us. There five gold on your head, Marcus. And one gold on Julia’s and mine. Onfair, I’m definitely worth two” joked Laurus with a unconvincing smile.
Nobody laught. They looked at each other.
“Can we make it?” asked Helena.
“Maybe” said Marcus “the border is close. If we ride hard… yes, probably.”
“So, first light tomorrow?” asked Julia. Laurus and Marcus nodded.
Julia stood up, grabbed Leo’s hand and they left to their room. She looked resolved to make to most of their last night together in relative privacy. Laurus looked at Marcus and Helena who were whispering comforting words to each other while holding hands beneath the table. This was the first time Laurus felt true loneliness.

 

Chapter 4: Marcus

You can’t outrun news, especially when it’s bad news. But you can get a head start. Maybe enough to get to a place where the consequences from your actions won’t be visible.

Laurus did his best to give us more time. After we betrayed the empire he invited the four soldiers who saw what we did for a debriefing. We told them that we did what we did on secret orders of the empress herself. She wanted to give him a slow death, and if we caught him out in the open, he would have gone to the empire’s court and would be beheaded the next day. We told them it was strictly confidential, they couldn’t even talk about what happened to their own company. The men understood.

After the debriefing Laurens forced Marcus to give a speech. He insisted on acting like it was business as usual. So Marcus congratulated the company on playing a vital rol in conquering the traitorous city. Because of their actions, they city surrendered and prevented a long siege and the death of hundreds, probably thousands, of soldiers and civilians.

It was the hardest speech Marcus ever gave. Marcus lied to people who loved him, killed for him en would give their life for him. He lied to his company. One of his greatest achievement. A hundred men and women whom he handpicked from the best of the best. A group carefully recruited over a six year period. He still sees their faces every night, harassing him in his dreams with one burning question: why?

He wanted to tell the truth to his company. They deserved it. They would understand why he did what he did. They would follow him. But then what?

So Marcus lied. Not because he didn’t trust them. Most of them would follow him anywhere, without question. They were loyal to the company, not the empire. The strength of the loyalty is build over a six year period of hard fighting, training, celebrating, laughing and mourning dead friends.

But he couldn’t know for sure. And it took just one man or woman to ruin them all. Even if everyone was on his side, what then? You can’t just run with one of the most famous companies of the world? You can’t be stealthy. And what about their family’s? What about Helena, Veo and Max?

So he didn’t tell them. He even tried to convince Laurus and Julia to stay with the company and put the blame on him. Laurus laughed and Julia was offended.

Laurus owed his position and his life to Marcus. And Julia would followed him anywhere, even if he decided to bring the empress herself to justice. It takes ages to earn her trust, but once you gain it, you have a friend and ally for life. Julia was one of the first he chose for his company. She was one of the most famous scouts in Lorne. There are songs writen about her. She was the reason a lot of veterans left their own company to join theirs. Julia prevented the sacking of the northern provinces of Lorne nine years ago. She and two other scouts were mapping the mountains of Maurus when she spotted more then a hundred barbarians marching to the border. It was the biggest raid in fifty years. Normally the barbarians attack in small groups of ten to twenty men. They would attack small villages and farms, raid their food stores and disappear before a garrison could dispatch a company to fight them. But that time it was different. Julia spotted them before they were near the border. Julia left one scout to shadow the group and left with the other scout the warn the garrison. They traveled hard and light. They got spotted on the second day by a barbarian scouting party of three man. It’s hard to be stealthy when you’re traveling hard. They barbarian scouts immediately attacked, fought bravely and died. But not without cost. The other scout received a fatal wound in his stomach and Julia got stabbed in the shoulder. She bandaged it up and continued to travel hard to the border, leaving the other scout to die alone. Normally it would take four days to travel from where she was through the rugged terrain and small mountain passes to get to the border. She made it in two and a half. The garrison immediately spilled out four hundred soldiers, all eager to fight the barbarians and get their revenge. They let the raiders raid a couple already evacuated farms to make them overconfident and they ambushed them at the first village. The soldiers rained arrows from rooftops and the barbarians fell like wheats, dozens of them charged the lines and fought fiercely, but got overwhelmed by the organisation and discipline of the soldiers. After the barbarians saw it was a lost cause, more then thirty men tried to run. But the calvary was waiting behind a small hill. They slammed into them and slaughtered them. None of the barbarians survived and just two soldiers died. Will they still sing songs about Julia after what we did?

But Marcus his company didn’t betray him. The man whom they saved did. Lord Alaric didn’t hide, like they told him to. He would have been safe. We would be safe. Lord Alaric traveled west and stopped at every city under his domain to round up forces and supplies and then he fortified himself in the Bion fortress, a old but easily defended castle in the far west of Elos, near the border of Floren. He was determined to hold out, gather more troops, make alliances and launch a counter attack to push back the invading army. He send letters to the king of Elos, to the Seat of Lords of Floren and to every Lord and noblemen he knew in Elos, explaining his actions and requesting troops, food and support. Nobody did. And why would they? Why would you run if you have nothing to hide? Why not go to the capital Lorne volantarly and let the law do his work?

The empress immediately spread the word that everyone who helped Lord Alaric is a enemy of the empire. The kingdom of Elos agreed. They were negotiating with Lorne, hoping to get the enemy troops out of their lands as fast as possible in exchange for some of Lord Alaric lands up north. A full-on war with Lorne would be too costly and likely to be lost.

The threat from the empress generated a lot of rumours, some about Marcus. Connections were made and we changed from deserters to traitors to the empire.

Before first light the whole group was ready to go. Julia woke the stable hand and asked him to prepare their horses. Hoping for another big pay day he went to work immediately. Laurus went to the general store and knocked on the door till the door was opened by a grumpy man. A few extra coins convinced the shopkeeper to open early. They were already on the road when the village was starting to come alive. The journey was tense and exhausting. They were constantly looking for possible signs of danger. They barely talked. At sundown they camped, ate a little and fell to their beds. The next day it was a little bit easier. The border crept closer and the number of farms they encountered diminished. Conversations started to pop up and you could see the tension slowly ebb away.

Marcus looked at his son and felt sorrow. Max isn’t the same since he left for the University. In every single way. He looked pale and thin. He spend the whole journey in the wagon. Reacting slow to questions. Mumbling. Writing. Reading some old book. Fumbling a odd ring with some strange symbols on it.

Marcus tried talking to him. He apologised. He told the whole truth about what happend. But Max just nodded and found the shortest answer for question that demanded a answer. It looked like he didn’t even care that they were on the run. It looked like he already gave up.

Marcus blamed himself. He took Max out of the university. His home for the last six years.  And six years is a lifetime  when you’re barely twenty two. And Marcus made him leave his home, his friends and his future. He robbed him from the most prestige education in the world.

Laurus and Helena say he will come around eventually. That all he needed was time. They were probably right. Like most of the time.
Still, Marcus missed the quick witted boy he was with a burning heart. Max had the mind and looks from his Helena and the strength and sense of honor from Marcus. He was strong, handsome and smart. He could have become one of the greats.

But not anymore. He’s a shimmer of what he was. No, a shimmer of what I wish him to be. Marcus felt a stab of shame. Not for Max. Of course not. Never. He was ashamed of himself. Of his thoughts. It doesn’t matter who he is, was or will be. He is mine. My son. My blood. And he is safe.

They camped near a creek at dusk. They made good time. The border was a little bit more than a half day ride away. They would reach the first village in Florens the next day before sundown.

Marcus started a fire and everybody sat down, glad to be off their feet.

“It’s time to talk about tomorrow,” said Marcus, “Where are we going when we arrive in Floren? Does anyone have ideas?”
“We could go to the capital. Tell the Seat of Lords what we know. Maybe they can help?” said Helena.

“Too dangerous,” said Laurus, “Everyone will know exactly where we are then. They will send soldiers, assassins or mercenaries. And what makes you think the Seat will listen to us? Or that they agree to our point of view? Floren never takes a side. They only act when provoked. For them it’s probably just one of the many conflicts between Lorne and Elos. Why should they interfere? They prosper because of they don’t care.
“So, you want to act like nothing happend?” asked Marcus
What can we do? We have nothing. No power, no money, no connections and no army. We can’t fight the whole empire. We’re not responsible for the world. Nobody will expect us to fight.

“We need to get somewhere safe,” said Helena, “A place where Veo, Max and Leo don’t suffer the consequenties of what we did and what are next plans will be. After we find a safe place, we can analyse the situation and choose what we do next. We can make contact with the local lord, try to gain a ally and a entrance to the Seat of Lords. We can contact people in Lorne, we have contacts.

“I got some family up north,” said Julia, “Two brothers and a cousin. It’s near the border to Maurus. It’s a quite place. We can rebuild there. We will be safe.

“Aye. Let’s do that. Get to safety and after we found our barrings we will figure out what to do next.”.

Marcus woke first, but let everybody sleep. They deserved the rest after what they went through. And more importantly, a couple hours more sleep can fix a lot of problem. Julia and Laurens woke up next. The strict sleeping schedule for the army was still ingrained in their brain. The prepared some food and the smell woke the rest. They ate and headed out.

After a couple hours of riding, Marcus spotted something he didn’t like at all. They were being followed. At first he thought it was another patrol, but the four riders didn’t approach the group, they shadowed them.

Marcus whistled. Their company developed a communication method based on whistling. It wasn’t a complex language, but simple information can be communicated over multiply kilometers. The whistling would be heard by Julia, who was scouting far ahead. He whistled the sounds that represented the four words: enemy, four, scout, east. The order of the words were really important. A different order could mean different information or be interpreted as such, like scout to the east for enemies. A little while later Julia returned and rode to Marcus and Laurus, while eyeing the four scouts.

“Do you think they know who we are?”
“Probably, they have been following us for a while now. Why else would they keep following us and not approach us.”
“Just four? Or more?”
“Could be. They might have send a rider for reinforcements. But the nearest garrison is more than a three hour ride away. We would reach the border before the reinforcement would arrive.
“Do you think they will follow us into Floren? Nobody would probably stop them. This side of Floren is barely guarded. ”
“What if they haven’t send someone back yet? We could attack them now, they are just four of them.”
“With what? We have two horses, and both aren’t horses bred for speed. Neither are we skilled cavalry. They may beat us.”
“We can”
The sound of a horn silenced them.
“Fuck” cursed Laurus.
“Allright, let’s focus. What do we know?” said Marcus.
“We know they are caval…”
They heard a distant horn from up north. A couple seconds later another distant horn for the south. They stared at each other, all aware of the situation. A little bit later they barely heard another distant horn. They waited for more horn sounds, but none came.
“So four groups of four?.”
“Probably. We can’t fight that. Three against sixteen”.
“Max had a couple years of training” said Marcus
They both looked at Marcus, but they saw a face that knew what they thought.
“Allright, four people,” said Laurus, “That makes it sixteen against four. And they are cavalry. They can just charge us and run us down.
“What if we ride hard to the border?” asked Marcus
“That’s more that four hours away. They will arrive before that. And even if we made it and a Floren patrol spotted them, they won’t attack sixteen soldiers.” said Julia.
So?

There is nothing else we can do. We fight. We make the best of what we have. Try to fight them on our terms. They rode to a small hill, it was the only hill in the area, but it’s better than flat terrain. They parked their wagons in a wide V shape, leaving enough open space in the back to move through. One person at the time.
They unloaded the two wagons and put all the stuf in front of the open area. The most important objects were three large and sturdy chests. They put the biggest chest in the middle and the other two chests to the sides. Hopefully it would force the calvary to dismount and make it impossible to surround them.
The calvary stopped a couple hundred meters from them. They dismounted and blew their horn again. This time they did not receive a answer. It was a horn to let the other groups know of their location. Laurus chopped down two small trees near their camp to make some stakes. When he went to a third tree further away from the camp, two soldiers mounted up and rode to him, forcing Laurus to retreat quickly.
“I can give you two whole gold coins if you leave us alone,” shouted Laursus to the soldiers, “Easy riches. Nobody has to die.”
“Good to know. Thanks. But we will take those two coins from your corpse and receive another gold coin for that. “
“Fine, I’ll swallow the coins.”
“I would like to see you try. There big coins. Don’t you think we would cut you open for two gold coins? Smelly gold buys the same amount of ale and woman as clean gold.”

Laurus made a handfull of imperfect stakes from the two trees he cut down. The real effectiveness was less important than posing as a threat to the horses. After he planted the stakes, Laurus gathered all the big stones in the area that would make the terrain unrideable. The first group of reinforcement appeared. The four soldiers rode to the other soldiers, while watching their make-shift camp. Julia grabbed all their spare weapons from the carts and spread them out on the grass. There were different kind of swords, spears, shields and a single bow. She gave her own spear to Helena and her other spear to Veo. She gave Leo a big shield and a small sword. She showed him how to hold the shield and how to do a basic but strong thrust. They looked scared, but determined. They all realised the gravity of the situation Julia explained that the goal for Veo, Helena and Leo is not to attack or kill, but to hold their ground. Max and Leo, both with a shield, should defend against swings and push them back when they try to cross the chests. And Veo and Helena should try to keep them at a distance with their spears.The second group of reinforcement appears. The plan was simple. Force them to dismount, spread them out as much as possible, funnel the attackers and try to fight them one by one. It was the only way they would have a chance. Julia was positioned in the back, blocking the small space between the two wagons. She excelled in close combat and the small space prevented the bigger soldiers to use all their weight and strength. The three big chests created two paths. These paths were guarded by Marcus and Laurus. Veo and Max would team up and be positioned on the left side, near Marcus, just behind one chest. And Leo and Helena on the right side, near Laurus, also behind a chest. When Marcus walked to Max he saw he already grabbed a sword and shield and was practising some thrusts and swings. The technique was there, the strength not. Marcus complimented Max on his technique and gave him a pat on his shoulder.
“Son. I just wanted you to know that i’m sorry for getting you into this mess. And i want you know that I’m proud of you. I’m glad you’re here next to my side. I just wish Andrina was here. We should be together in the end. In the end only family and good friends matters.
Max nodded and gave Marcus the best smile he could muster. His eyes turned to his ring on his sword hand. Marcus watched his eyes and looked at the odd ring.
“That ring is important to you. Can I know who gave it to you? A woman?” asked Marcus
“No. I got it from a good friend at the University. He died last year,” said Max with a grave face.
“I’m sorry.”
Max nodded and continued practising his trusts. The last group of reinforcement appeared. Not four riders, but six. They riders dismounted, sat down, drank a little bit and listened to the instruction of their captain. The eighteen soldiers didn’t look tense. They probably have heard stories about us, else they wouldn’t wait for reinforcements. But their sheer number sparked their confidence. Marcus could only hope it was overconfidence and would cause them to make mistakes. Marcus spent the lasts minutes with Helena, Marcus and Veo. They huddled together, whispering softly. Leo and Julia did the same. Marcus could see the face of Leo change. From anxious to determination. Marcus spotted Laurus standing alone, watching the soldiers, and walked to him, “Thanks for being here”
“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else”.
Marcus nodded. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t find any words. Laurus saw Marcus was struggling and gave him grin and a pat on his shoulder.
“We will be fine. We dealt with worse. I’ll let nothing happen to your family. I swear.”
“They are coming!” said Julia.

The soldiers were on foot. They saw the stakes and didn’t want to horses the rout. They wore light armour, swords and shields. Gear for scouting, not war. Marcus just wished he had brought his full combat armor. They solders walked shoulder to shoulder to their camp. Marcus gave everybody a quick glance, looking for gaps and faults in their position. There were none. Max looked different. He looked longer, healthier and stronger. He looked like his old self. Julia grabbed the bow and leaped on the biggest crate. She pulled, aimed and shot. It all happened in seconds. One of the largest soldiers fell down, a arrow sticking out of is throat. The other soldiers flinched and quickly put their shield up. Julia shot again and hit a shield. They soldiers marched on. Twenty meters. Julia shot again and hit the leg of a man. The man let out a scream, but kept walking. Ten meters. Julia tossed her bow away and took her position in the back. Five meters.

The chests confused the soldiers. Some stood before the chests on the left and the right, looking for a opening, but the spears kept them at the distance. Five men circled the wagons spotting the gap in the back. The rest funnelled through the two path, barely large enough for two men to move through. They filed up. The plan seems to work perfectly. A soldier lunged at Marcus. He parried the attack and stabbed him in his belly. The second soldier slashed and Marcus had just enough time to deflect the attack with his shield. The soldiers in front of Laurus doubted for a second too long and Laurus took the initiative. He launched himself forward, slamming one soldier with his shield. The man stumbled and Laurus finished him with a quick trust. Laurus was in front of the chests now and out in the open. Three soldiers saw the advantage and slashed at the same time. Laurus took a quick step back. One sword came short, the other sword he blocked with his shield and the last sword slashed his shoulder. Laurus grunted and stabbed the attacker in his side. The chaos distracted Helena and she didn’t saw the man slamming her spear away and stepping on the chest. Leo threw all his force behind his shield and pushed the attacker of the chest. Leo lost his balance and stumbled over the chest. A soldier rushed forward. Before he could attack he stopped, looked down and saw a spear in his chest. The soldier looked up and saw Helena with a shocked face, holding the spear firmly with both hands. Julia was holding her ground. In the small space she excelled and quickly finished two soldiers with her short sword and dagger. The two other soldiers saw this, stepped back with fear in their eyes and hold their ground, blocking their escape. The soldiers in the front kept coming, but they acted more cautiously and more organised. One soldier slashed at Marcus while a other waited till he committed to the defence before he attacked. It took everything in Marcus to keep up his defence. There wasn’t any time to get on the offensive. The whole line kept exchanging blows in turns, waiting till one of them made mistake. A minute felt like a hour. Everyone was so focused on the enemy in front off them that they didn’t look what was happening behind them, except Leo. He heard a grunt behind him, looked back and saw a soldier behind him. He had climbed on one of the wagons and jumped off. The soldier was heading to Julia, she had her back exposed and didn’t noticed a thing. Leo turned and roared so hard that the soldier turned around. Leo exploded forward and slammed his sword in his chest. The action broke the defensive formation. Two soldiers poured over the chest where Helena stood, she backed up, but it was to late. The soldier slammed a shield into her and she fell. Laurus immediately reacted and threw himself in front of Helena blocking the incoming attack. It left one path empty. Two soldiers poured through the chest and attacked Laurus. Laurus was fighting three men at once. For every two swings he blocked or parried, he accepted the least damaging one. His was slashed, stabbed and cut at his chest, shoulder and leg. But he continueed to fight tirelessly.

Leo pulled Helena back and positioned himself in front of her, giving Laurus a little bit protection at his left flank. Marcus shouted to Max and Veo to pull back, but it was to late. They were cornered. One soldier went for Veo and Marcus reacted. He rammed his sword into the soldier. Marcus looked at Veo and heard her screaming, looking shocked at something behind him. Marcus was turning before he felt the stab of a sword in his back. He staggered and looked at the soldier. He parried the next attack from the soldier with luck, before another soldier stabbed him in his belly. He fell to the ground.

Max exploded forward and took both soldiers down with two quick and perfect swings. He immediately turned around and sidestepped a soldier who lunged, slapping his sword out of his hand with his shield and stabbed him in his chest. It was the most clean and effective fighting Marcus has ever saw.

The diminishing number of remaining soldiers noticed it too. They took a step back and appeared to realise the losing battle and the carnage around them. The two soldiers in front of Julia stepped back and ran. Max didn’t care for their change in attitude and rushed for the next soldier. The soldier tried to back away. Max dropped his shield. He faked a thrust, the soldier responded and Max took the opportunity to stab him with a dagger. The man fell on the ground, still holding his shield and Max finished him with a trust to the throat.

One soldier dropped his sword and shield and ran as fast as he could to his horse. The other soldier backed away slowly, staring at Max with fearful eyes. Max walked to the soldier. The soldier threw away his sword and dropped to his knees, begging for mercy. Max kicked him to the ground and finished him.

Max stared at the dead man in front of him and then at his ring. He removed the ring and seemed to come to his senses. Reality rushed in. The turned to the group ran to his father with fear in his eyes.

Marcus knew which wounds are fatal. That’s something you learn after being in a army for a while. And Marcus knew he wasn’t gonna make the end of the day. The world around him looked silent, but he saw his wife, daughter, son and friends shouting and crying. He didn’t feel a lot, no pain at least. He did feel a light pressure on his right hand, when he looked he saw his wife holding his hand firmly with both hands. Veo was crying, he wanted to say that he was sorry. That he will be okay. But no words came out.
Laurus stood over him, with a knowing and sorrowful face. He knew death. He knew what was coming. Leo kept working on the wounds, he kept trying to stem the bleeding, but Marcus knew it was useless. It was hard to keep his eyes open. He kept dipping away. He saw his son fumbling with his left hand. Something ice cold slipt on his finger. The last words he heard before everything went dark were begging him, someone, something: “Please. Please. Please”.