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Chapter 5: Brother’s Blood
~ The City Of Belcross ~
Taking in his brother’s precession from the Reed Arms Tavern balcony, Wolgraft watched the rigors of his arrival. Belcross was awash in festive cheer and celebration, raining down flowers and confetti. Wolgraft quipped, “He loves this.” His sister, Ariest, cheered, waving a handkerchief over the balcony railing. Wolgraft shrugged as he glanced over at Mayfare, his sister’s maid, who stood between the two. As Guildred rode on horseback, the crowd separated as he held high the flag of the revolution, the flag of the Azurian mainland – royal blue with a cross interwoven on the left enclosed in a loris reed circlet.
Ariest encircled Wolgraft’s biceps, saying “He is safe.”.
“Well, I would expect no less.” Raising his hand, Wolgraft gestures at Guildred, who noticed the three standing on the balcony. People dropped flowers at his horse’s feet as he nodded and continued his glad-handing. “It is amazing that even though we are rebels, they seem to love us.”
“You are liberators, not rebels. Don’t you ever listen to what people say?” Mayfare added.
“It is just hard to believe,” Wolgraft exclaimed over the celebration. “I mean, think about it, we attacked as invaders a few years ago. We conquered them… we did this. Then when we rebel against the crown, we are heroes? I don’t understand the logic behind it.”
The girlish chuckle of Ariest rings in Wolgraft’s ears. “It is because you overthink things sometimes. It is important to see things from their point of view. The raiders were all wiped out, and there was peace. Under the rule of the crown, they took and supplied nothing to the people. Even I can understand that, Wolgraft.”
“I suppose you are right.”
Putting one hand on Ariest’s back, Mayfare inquires, “So, does that mean he captured Ulfates?”
“I think so. Assuming Guildred failed, I don’t think he would have come back. He would never have allowed himself to be humiliated.” Ariest replied.
Wolgraft smiled when he thought of the large pastures and homes he used to own. “One step closer to home,” Wolgraft said as Ariest lets out a startling scream. “What!?”
“Look at what he has brought back!” Ariest shouted, pointing towards the sea of people cheering.
The look on Mayfare’s face changed. “I have seen those before in Lasandra’s book of drawings.”
Wolgraft looked away from the two girls, gazing out over the crowd. He is captivated by two huge hauls. “What is that?“ he blurted, stroking his chin. Despite their presence, the crowd is too delighted to hear of their safe return to notice them. They are tied together and several horses are pulling each one. “What is that monster?”
“Village Guard,” Lasandra enthused Wolgraft, who stood over the machine looking down at the hulking crab machine. “The idea that it is asleep but alive kind of scares me, to be honest.” She ran her fingertips along the Village Guard’s brown carapace. “I don’t like dealing with things like this.”
“So what exactly are you doing with these?” Wolgraft stared in astonishment. ”It looks like its armor is more durable than stone.”
Nodding her head, Lasandra said, “It’s a lot stronger than I thought. You won’t see these things being penetrated. Because Village Guards are made for war, they must be stronger than stone. A good Vistis cannon hit will take one down though. At least I think it would. Could be wrong though.” Wolgraft raised an eyebrow, shivering from the thought of taking on one of these monsters. In the days after returning from Ulfates, Guildred hadn’t talked to anyone. From the rumor Wolgraft heard, Guildred acquired his grave wounds by defeating Village Guard in single combat.
Lasandra’s voice wakes Wolgraft from his daydream, telling him: “Guildred wants these two ready for battle. Without a codex, reprogramming would be a lengthy process. In other words, I will remove its systems and let it act according to its own nature. Risky but orders are orders. The problem is I got to cut out the system and if the blood thaws I will have one upset Village Guard, now won’t I?” Lasandra chuckled, gazing up at the massive body with blue eyes.
His eyes became wide as the revelation Lasandra had just revealed to him sank in. “So, they would… just go berserk?” he shouted at her.
Nervously, Lasandra ran her fingers along the machine’s cold frame. “Yeah, that is the goal. Sorta, I mean they would not be aggressive without reason, but generally, it does not take much to get them upset.”
As he looked at Lasandra, Wolfgraft folded his arms. “That is crazy and reckless.”
“So do you think I am crazy, Wol?” She is following my orders.” Wolgraft quickly turned his gaze to the entrance of the barn. There Guildred walked down to the bottom of the barn. “Normally, village guards are docile until they receive a threat. They will serve as good workers, plowing the fields using village guards will make it easy to plant fresh crops.” Wolgraft is puzzled. What is this about crops? They were going home, weren’t they? He stares at his brother, not wanting to question him.
“Lasandra, how is my armor?” Guildred asked with a firm voice.
Lasandra jostled her head in disappointment. “I can’t work with it. It’s all torn to hell. It will take me some time to just get the proper materials for it, let alone repair the internal parts. You busted several ligaments in the shoulder. The muscle sinue got torn to ribbons. It will take time to heal, but I can fix it.”
Guildred’s expression faded for a moment. “O’,” he said in a monotone voice. “Well, that is a pity.”
“Talmian alicids are scarce these…”
With a raised hand, Guildred cuts Lasandra off. “You need not lecture me. I understand.”
The two look away from him as he returns to the stairs. Wolgraft called out, “Wait. How is your shoulder doing?”
Guildred paused for a moment before climbing the stairs again. When his shadow reached its peak, he said, “Soldat hasn’t returned. We’d better get out of here before the locals notice.”
Upon hearing the front door open, Ariest turned around. She made a beeline for the entrance, a wide smile covered her face. Wolgraft and Guildred stand at the end of the hall. Guildred walked past them with his head bowed and no expression on his face. She chirped, “Welcome home.” When she turned to Wolgraft, he locked eyes with her and shook his head. Ariest found it hard to maintain a smile. In the dining room, Mayfare was presenting a feast of angels on horseback. There is a delicious scent of salty sea air filling the room as the oysters are fresh from the harbor. Mayfare just put a fresh loaf of yeast bread on the table, which added to the smell in the air.
“Good evening, Lord Guildred,” Mayfare greeted Guildred as he entered the dining room, bowing as he walked past her to the table. His presence alone was enough to draw everyone’s attention without him speaking a word. The four people silently ate their meal. Guildred ate in an official manner as always, while the others ate much more sluggishly, startled, and reservedly. Wolfgraft wished he could compliment Mayfare on her cooking, but held his tongue for fear of breaking the silence. Guildred looked frazzled, but everyone knew he was about to lose it. His expression caused men’s hearts to skip a beat. With every bite, his hands trembled, jittering as he felt the pain coursing through him.
In that way, he looked toward Mayfare and then to Ariest. “This is delicious, Mayfare, Ariest,” he said, and with that, he nodded toward them both. A half smile appeared on Mayfare’s face. However, the rest refrain from commenting. They continue to eat in silence, as they did when they began. As soon as Guildred raised his hand, Mayfare got up from her chair to clear the dishes. “Wolgraft, help your sister clear the table.” Ariest stared at Wolgraft. Mayfare continued to reach for a plate. “Mayfare, let Wol and Ari handle this, come up to the roof with me,” Guildred instructed before leaving the room.
The hapless maid was utterly confused and looked over at Wolgraft pleading eyes. Wolfgraft looked back while mouthing “I don’t know.”
After taking her shoes off, Mayfare climbed out of the third-story window onto the wooden shingles of the arched roof. Putting her foot down on the mossy shingles, her foot slipped. As Guildered lay on his back, his feet were pressed up against the fall bars as he approached the edge of the roof. She looked at him as he extended his hand toward her. “It’s all right. I won’t let you fall.” He stomped on the metal that rattles the bar. “See it’s sturdy. Come sit with me.” Mayfare carefully walked across the shingles, holding onto the rail with her hand. After slipping on the uneven surface, her foot was able to grab the track again and regain her balance. As she sat, Guildered allowed her to stabilize herself by holding her side.
“Why are we on the roof?” Mayfare asked.
A small smile appeared on Guildred’s face. “It’s serene and private here, everything is so clear. If you look closely, you can even observe the ripples of the tides above.” Mayfare glanced up to see the moons hanging in the open air and a glowing orb whose glow was fading. “This is a beautiful place. Don’t you think so?”
Although the sky caught Mayfare’s attention, it was the streets below that she found more interesting. They do little tasks that don’t seem to be important to anyone except themselves. A cart driver on horseback carries various goods along the streets, multiple children play in the streets and a vendor shouts to the crowds. “It is,” she replied softly.
Guildred nods in agreement. “You’ve always been helpful to us, Mayfare. It seems like just yesterday that you were a little girl. It’s a shame you weren’t born a noble.”
A lump forms in Mayfare’s throat, accompanied by an uneasy flood of questions. Instead, she found that it was best to placate as she did in these tense situations. “Thank you, sir.”
“Still. Sir?” Guildred laughed. “I suppose I should expect you to behave that way. I wanted to speak privately with you because Ariest would be upset at this request.” Mayfare’s face is filled with concern. Guidred, however, did not reveal what his response would be. In the dying evening light, his handsome features seemed more prominent. The light from his eyes seemed almost to shine. “You know times will get rough for us.” She nodded her head in agreement. “You are my slave servant, and I think you have completed your service to our family.”
Mayfare’s heart skips a beat as a sense of dread takes hold of her. The blackness of her mind strangled her as her fears grew. She screams inside. “Do you dare Guildred!”
Her eyes grew wide as he continued, “You have repaid your debt more than once. I’m releasing you from your obligation, and you may leave if you like.” Guildred said.
During what seemed like an eternity, Mayfare’s mind was violated by the words he heard. “But I…” she moaned, her eyes streaming. Despite Guildred’s attempt to be affectionate, the words themselves became arrows in her heart. She had served Lady Ariest since she was very young. Her loyalty was unwavering. She couldn’t leave at this time.
Continuing, Guildred states, “I am offering you a new chance at life. The battle is far from over. We have just begun, and I fear things are about to change. We have been fighting new soldiers and retainers. That is the truth of the matter. It won’t be long until Azure sends real soldiers maybe even from the mainland and I have a feeling they are sending them soon. Everyone associated with us will be labeled traitors. I don’t want to see that happen to you.” He pulled out a pouch from his side. “Here are fifty pieces of gold. It could afford you a good plot of land and the price of traveling wherever you wanted. You could even purchase yourself a small workforce to farm for you.”
“No,” she whispered.
A look of admiration crosses Guildred’s face. “Things will get ugly. If I could, I would have you take sister with you, but the empire would find her and you. You’re not an Ashnod; you could deny association with us because of you being a slave.”
“No, I want to stay,” Mayfare said to Guildred.
Guildred takes a deep breath. “This is your last chance to get yourself out of this mess, Mayfair. Think about what you are doing.”
Tears rained from Mayfare’s cheeks. “I won’t go if I have to leave you all behind. You are my only family.”
A smirk spread across Guildred’s face. “They may kill you. You know that, right? They might not but they may kill all of us, and you would be left with nothing.”
Mayfare came to a halt. Guildred’s words were nothing new; all of these thoughts have already run through her head a hundred times. The thought of leaving almost occurred to her. But she was still aware that she would regret it for the rest of her life. Particularly if something happened to Ariest, whom she loved with all her heart. “I know. This is why I don’t want to leave. I can’t do much, and Ariest can’t either, but she needs someone to watch over her because she’s so young.”
Guildred drummed his fingers against the wood. “Well, that’s the problem. As a result of protecting you both, you will wind up being a burden to us if things don’t work out.” Guildred stares at her sternly. “Have you considered that?”
The tears fell from Mayfare’s eyes. “I understand, but I can help.” she pleaded.
Guildred wrapped his arms around Mayfare and half-hugs her. Guildred sat up and got to his feet. “I know.” He said. “I’m glad you are staying. Make sure I don’t regret this.” Mayfair heard on the city’s streets as the hooves clomp. A single rider is rushing towards them. A pouch of gold coins is dropped next to Mayfare’s delicate foot by Guildred. “Last chance,” Guildred said before climbing back into the house, leaving Mayfare on the roof alone. The rider stopped before the bar. As Mayfare picked up the pouch, she kept an eye on the rider. She examined a single gold out of the pouch as it lay flat in the palm of her hand. After inhaling slowly, she released it, placing the coin back inside with a metallic “clink.”
Two cloth blades hit each other back and forth faster than Wolgraft was able to see. Sweat poured from Wolgraft’s forehead. In the tavern’s backyard, Guildred and Wolgraft traded blows with each other. Wolgraft could tell from Guilderd’s posture that he was in perfect shape and did not appear fatigued, while his own felt the opposite. Guildred stabbed through Wolgraft’s strikes just before his face. “You must be faster than a blink.” He said. “Every attack, one step and you are dead.” Wolgraft was forced to back up when the cloth tip of his brother’s sword was just inches from his nose. When Guildred lunged, he strikes with incredible speed. In the space of one strike, Guildred was hitting his blade four or five times, knocking it every which way. “You are not focusing! You are too slow and your grip is too firm.”
“Damn it!” Wolgraft screamed as he made his best effort to keep up. The young man gritted his teeth and let out a growl as he lunged at Guildred, who dodged.
Guildred slams his sword right between Wolgraft’s eyes, knocking him backward. “You’re opponent won’t give you the mercy of back and forth like this.”. Pain penetrates his face as a splash of darkness fills his vision. “They will kill you like this.” When Wolgraft’s vision cleared, he realized Guildred was just looking at him as he stood calmly.
In tears, with blood flowing from his nostrils, Wolgraft shouted, “What the hell was that?” His mouth hung open with surprise.
Guildred firmed his eyes. “Sloppy work like that will kill you.” Wolgraft snorted and wiped the blood off of his hand onto his pants. He lifted his sword and pointed it back at Guildred. “That is the spirit. Come get me.”
With both hands on the grip of his blade, Wolgraft charged at Guildred. The sword swung as fast as he can, but Guildred caught it with his own sword. Wolgraft felt his grip loosening as Guildred twisted and knocked the sword from his grasp. He begins to see an opening before him. The sword was never intended for Wolgraft to grab. In a jerk, Wolgraft pulled Guildred’s sword from his hands and snatched it from his grip. Guildred’s hand slammed into Wolgraft’s face, knocking him off his feet, but Wolgraft didn’t see it. The blow was hard enough to knock him out. The first thing he saw when he awoke was his brother kneeling over him. “You’re done with your training today.”
“Why are you being so hard on me?”, Wolgraft asked in a small voice. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get some liberties in combat with his brother. As well, he was not as experienced as his brother, who was an expert swordsman. Looking into Guildred’s downturned face, he realized something was wrong. “What did that messenger say to you?”
“Soldat has not returned, nor have his scouts. It is doubtful that he will return anytime soon. His group might have been intercepted. In that case, we will lose everything. There is no returning home brother. If everything goes well, I don’t even know if there is a way home. It is time that I stop treating you like a child and see to it that you handle yourself on the field.”
Wolfgraft felt anger boiling within him. “My troops have already fought in several battles. As far as I am concerned, I can handle myself just fine.”
As Guildred rolled his eyes, he frowned. “Can you? Are you aware that you have been fighting bandits and hired soldiers? They are not skilled warriors. A band of Azurian soldiers is enough to handle such rabble. The battle against Azurian knights and lords will become more complex as time passes. They are much more skilled than you.”
“What are you saying?” Wolgraft asked. “Did you lose hope in our cause? Do you think we are not capable of achieving anything more?”
“It isn’t like that. If I thought that you were being trained for no reason, I would not train you. We are fighting to go home but what home is left for us?” Guildred reached out his open palm for Wolgraft. He lifted his brother to his feet. “We are traitors, Wolgraft, deserters, the only leverage we have is our numbers and these cities. Both of which are dwindling like grains of sand through our fingers. We are about to hold an entire kingdom hostage, to get back home. Do you think we get out of this alive?”
There is silence between the two for a short time before Wolgraft weakly asked, “What choice did we have? Go east and die fighting Dalmaskans on some unnamed island.” He spat onto the ground before continuing. “Grandor that bastard. He lied to us all. We need to get word to the Imperator.”
“Any communication with the Imperator must go through Grandor. That is unless we have access to an airship. I doubt we have such a vessel at our disposal. If we send someone, they will be viewed as a traitor,” Guildered sighed as he looked somewhat distressed, Wolgraft thought to himself. “I suppose Grandor would want the entire thing to end too. However, we overplayed our hands. There was no way I expected everyone to revolt. When that happened, Grandor had no choice but to stop it. Thus, we are trapped in this war that no one wants.”
A tightness comes over Wolgraft’s chest. “Is it really that simple?”
“I fear so.” Guildred scuffed his foot against the ground. “This may all be for nothing.” He concludes. In the event that Grandor decides it’s an all-out war and we don’t negotiate a release, then we won’t be able to leave. Though I hope he will not want to stain his legacy.”
Under his breath, Wolgraft remarks, “This is a dangerous game.”
“It is. There is only one way out of this.” Just then the clomping of hooves interrupted the two. As the brothers look up, they notice a messenger riding through the field. He rode his horse up to the group and sat atop the beast upright and gallantly, with a message in hand. Guildred folded his arms looking up at the rider. “My Lord, Soldat is waiting at Ziekden. He has news.” The two brothers look at each other and smirk.
A large map lies spread across the table as Wolgraft sits at a table dressed in an elaborate Azurian uniform. A number of pins were positioned in various locations throughout the map. When he looked at the battle plans he had put together, warmth filled him. As Guildred paced around the table, he played with his facial hair with his hand. From time to time, he looked at the tactical laid before him. One of the guests was an older man with a shaved head, who sat across from Wolgraft, picking his teeth with a knife. The men were wearing gold-trimmed Azurian blue cloaks, and their armor was decorated with gold and silver griffons. Yet all of this had been tarnished by dirt and grit and did not shine as new.
Among Guildred’s trusted advisors was the older man, Soldat. It was true what Wolgraft knew, but he was not enjoying the position Guildred assigned him. As it was, Soldat was a man without a name, and that by itself was enough to upset the Ashnod in Wolgraft. He glanced around the old windmill farmhouse. The two men clad in half sets of armor stood looking out two windows, guarding. Using his fingers, Guildred brushed his golden hair back in a more formal style. “If this is our best option, we must pursue it. In what condition are your invasion armies, Wolgraft?” Guildred inquired.
“They’re on the verge of invading Verst. We’re just waiting for your orders, Lord”, Wolfgraft said, his gaze locked on his map. In spite of Wolgraft’s best efforts, he realizes that this is merely a performance. Guildred had lied to everyone about the operations, knowing that if they halted it would mean death for everyone and that if they survived they’d never look back.
While glancing at the carved wooden pieces representing enemy camps on the map, Guildred smiled. As he does, he pointed at the battle plans. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. “Even if they have the support they need after taking Verst, we could shut down all trade from the south.” Wolgraft knew Guildred operated by a margin so thin that it borders on insanity. It was a struggle they could not win, but also could not avoid.
Soldat points on the map to Elitus. ‘They will bolster their forces in the hold of Amura. Moving north will be impossible from this point on. “If the Freeholds are not onboard, we will be stymied.” Wolgraft thought to himself that Soldat was coming to the same conclusion as he was.
“Neither Lord Rasario nor the Lords of the Brave clan rallied for us. We won’t have any chance of gaining the support of the Freelanders without either of them. As a clan and a kingdom, we don’t have much standing among the people. In fact, we are refugees from a war that began two years ago. Consequently, we have nothing to offer the Freeholds. On top of that, no one wants to shake up the Azure empire. We hold our positions. That is the only choice we have.” Guildred said before looking over at his brother.
As Solat studies the map he tries to figure out what his next move should be. “You are an Ashnod, Guildred, does that not count for anything?”
“Not in Marion. The name Guildred means more to them, and even that garnered no support.” Woolgraft glances up to inspect Guildred’s sudden gaze, which seems to be focused on him. He looked concerned before he said, “allograft, you have been silent.”
An idea or rather a realization struck Wolgraft. His soft smile spread across his face as he realized what Guildred suggested to him earlier. The village guards tilling the land, holding the kingdoms hostage; the plan was never to return home. Because of Grandor, there was no home to go back to. Here, away from the influence of the Azurian kingdoms, was to be their new home. Guildred was obliged by duty, however, not to say such a thing. It would have to come directly from someone close to him. Wolgraft could be that person.
“We will never be able to return. Wolgraft points at the triangle of cities soon to come under his control. “Why not stay here?” he asked. “We can become a nation.” He paused for a moment to look at Guildred whose eyes were not wavering. Seeing this, Wolgraft took it to mean he was on the right track. “After we have formed a sovereign country, we can convince the freeholds to form an alliance with us. Most of them are unhappy with the Azurian invasion. We would welcome Golgotha. They would revolt.”
“…and we will see half of our army desert. The others would withdraw and fight Dalmaska in the east.” At that moment Wolgraft felt like the understanding he had of his brother’s plan was shattered. When he looks up from the map, he fears Guildred is simply going insane due to stress. “We have no alternative but to barter these cities for hostages and cut trade to the north. The provisions we have now are not sufficient to take Elitus, who will port east. There’s no turning back now. We’re embarking on a long, drawn-out war of attrition, whether we like it or not. Though we don’t yet have Verst, I have ready my armies. How about your armies, Soldat?”
Smugly, Solat grinned. Wolfgraft imagined a commoner like himself would quietly enjoy leading soldiers around. “They are,” he replied. “Several new regiments have been constructed. In return for their services, the locals wish to become our squires. We elected only the best and the brightest for this position. In fact, our armies have almost grown by a quarter.”
“I’m ready as well. Unfortunately, I lost a few along the way. During the night, a band of wildlings raided our camp. Despite our best efforts, the lookouts were unable to start fires in time to warn us. Nevertheless, we must continue moving forward. It was my intention to tell you upon your return from Ulfates, but I was unable to do so.” Wolgraft said.
After glancing sternly at Wolgraft, Guildred turned and continued walking. “Fair enough.” He clapped his hands twice. “Good… then three days from now you lead your armies north, Soldat. Wolgraft, march your forces tonight. When you see Soldat attacking outside of the city, you should attack with all your strength. My troops will move by riverway into the sewers on the fourth nightfall and capture the city.”
In the midst of their plans, one guard shrieked, pointing out the window towards the horizon. “Oh, gods! It’s the Azurians!” yelled the other guard by the window.
Guildred sprang to the window in order to observe the force of soldiers. Immediately he thought they seemed to be fairly well positioned. They appeared to be in four waves, each holding four ranks. Then he saw something horrific on the flanks. Among the armies were several large metal vehicles. “I see they have tanks.” Wolgraft’s wide eyes glistened as he peered over the distant field. It was clear from the outset they would be impossible to fight their way off, even though they had just breached the hillside. This was no mere war band, but an entire army. Guildred said, “There’s a traitor among us, brother.” Wolgraft’s hands trembled. “Don’t be afraid.” he said. “Tonight is my night to sacrifice on the altar alone. Soldat, gather your men and depart. Head to Belcross and move your armies to Ulfates.”
A bow of gratitude emanated from Soldat. “Yes my Lord,” he replied as he hurried down the windmill’s spiral staircase, hollering “To arms men.”
Wolgraft stepped up from the table and walked over to Guildred, who was still gazing out the window. “My brother, you must stand tall for me.” Wolgraft nodded approvingly. “Send our sisters to safety and grab Lasandra – she is too valuable to leave behind.”
“Of course.” Wolgraft replied.
“There’s an old tavern along the road. There is a man there named Bram. Get him before you go to your sister. In addition to knowing the wilderness, Bram is an accomplished slayer. Go north past Verst. Go north to Elitus… Soldat will hold the southern lands. Blend in with the people and establish a new base until I return. Keep sister safe. Go as merchants if you must but keep sister and yourself safe.”
“You can’t be serious. We will both leave.” Wolgraft barked.
Taking Wolgraft by the shoulders, Guildred shakes him once. The whites of his eyes resembled water around a small island. “I need you to obey my commands right now,” he said. I leave now, and our troops won’t have any morale, and we won’t hold on long enough to ensure most of our troops escape. I can hold off this group for a few hours.”
Suddenly, Wolgraft breaks Guildred’s grip, throwing his arm up in a wild gesture. “Then I fight with you. The two of us as brothers. Let Soldat take sister!”
“Don’t be stupid!” He roared, setting Wolgraft back. “If both of us die here, there will be no one to carry on the Ashnod family, and then there will be no way to return. Our souls will be forfiet to Naraka!” He walked over to the window and looked out over the field at the approaching forces. “At least, this way I can ensure that some of us make it home. You’re wasting time, get Aerist and get the hell out of here.” Guildred pulled his knife from his side as he ripped off his glove. Squeezing his palm, he cuts into his palm to allow his blood to drip onto the floor. It felt as if Wolgraft’s eyes were about to fall out. Only people who practice witchcraft do things like that. “Go now; that is an order, brother,” Guildred sniffed the air, his iron scent filled his nostrils. Wolgraft figured by now he felt the pain searing in his hand. He placed his glove back on and strolled away from Wolgraft down into the hall while all the knights were heading to their positions.
As he looked out the window again, Wolfgraft glanced back at the door to where his brother went. “Guildred you fool! Do you intend to die after all we been through? He’s right, though. If I die too, there is no telling who will carry the revolt. Our deaths would simply be a stain on a page.” He thought to himself as he walked to the stables.
Silence is broken by the clopping of horse hooves on the calm farmlands. He rides over meadows of green, orange, and yellow, with a gentle breeze ruffling the abundant reeds. Field workers stand, revealing themselves in the harvest columns. The old wooden country tavern draws closer and Wolgraft kicks his feet from the stirrups of his horse. Wolgraft, halting his horse, leaps down from it. After crossing the dusty walkway, he reaches his destination. Wolfgraft avoids tripping over grass patches which poke through the sunken cobblestones. A wooden two-story building stood next to a stable with some oxen tethered to the side. Upon banging his fist on the withered pine door, commotion intrudes from inside.
Upon opening the door, a grit-covered older man is revealed. “I recognize you, but you’re too young to be Guildred; you must be Wolgraft, his brother?”
“I am pressed for time. Get every able man ready. The Azurians, they are coming.” The old man’s gaze turned from concerned to downright anxious. “”Take strategic shots if anyone comes down that road and get the hell out of here. They will be coming from the northeast.” The old man nodded before turning back into the house. As the old man turns away, Wolfgraft grabs his arm. “These orders came from Guildred himself. He also said there was a slayer here by the name of Bram.”
Having hunched over the battle plans, Guildred swings his arm and knocks them all to the ground. Eventually, they stop rolling as they fall to the ground. “It was all for nothing. For nothing!” He bellowed. As he stood up straight, he walked over to the window, placing his hands on the sill. His gaze shifted to their faces and he no longer saw distant figures. At the front, they appear inadequately equipped. However, as he turned his attention to the rear rows, he saw a gradient of more capable soldiers transforming into full-blown knights.
A group of soldiers had gathered beside him, each with a rifle in their hands. Guildred smiled as the long-barreled guns were a welcome sight. “How many shots do we have?”
One man replied, “We have 15 shots between the five of us.”
Guildred exclaimed, “Good, then I expect to see 20 dead officers. You hear me?”
“Take the roof!” Guildred ordered pointing at two of the men. “You three, windows.” As the men trotted to their positions, he yelled, “We’ll give them hell.”
He points to another soldier. “Go gather the men on the bottom floor. Bury a spear in the throats of anyone who dare approach the doors. Today, this is no longer a farmhouse. I’m making this my bloody castle.”
Candlelight dimly illuminated a table in the dank cellar where Wolgraft sat. A grizzled voice said, “So Guildred is asking for my help. Figures, so you want me to smuggle you out of here. Bloody hell, can never have it easy with em heh.”
“Me and my sister and our maid servant. Also the daughter of a mancer named Lasandra.” Wolgraft added.
In the dark, he was silent and just stared off into the distance. After letting out a long sigh, he said, “That sounds quite complicated. Okay, gather your things and meet me outside of Belcross’ northern walls. Take only what you need. Got it.”
Wolgraft nodded. “Thank you, Bram.”
“Yeah yeah, Guildred saved my life once, boy. Ight guess I should save you from that trouble.” Bram said, before motioning for Wolgraft to leave. “Well, go on now, you best hurry and bugger off. I’d like to get a good lead on these Azures. Bloody evil runs in their veins.” He glanced back at Wolgraft whose face was a fallen mess of sunken lips and eyes. A chuckle escapes his lips. “No offense, Sir Ashnod.”
Taking the merchant road through the woods as swiftly as possible, Wolfgraft dodged trees and thick trunks as he rode. He was consumed by the plight of his brother. It was peaceful in the forest as the hollers of warriors melted into the background. His sword rattled as he kicked up dead leaves with his horse’s hooves.
The threshold drew closer as he rode out into open fields. The walls of Belcross loomed in the distance. When he entered the vast expanses of farmlands, he heard his cape flowing behind him. It did not take long for him to attract the attention of everyone working in the fields. As he passed several watchtowers, the Honor Brotherhood guards followed him.
An armed guard caught up to Wolgraft and said “Oh, it is you, sir. Wolgraft, is anything wrong?”
“Invasion, Soldat is coming for you. Prepare yourself now.” You are going to Ulfates. If the empire finds us here, then all our lives are ruined.” Wolgraft composed himself as well as he could, but his face was solemn. “Ulfates, defend her, if we fail there, then our cause is lost.”
Wolgraft’s horror was spelled out in the soldier’s sour eyes as he spoke. “We are not going home to Azure, are we?” During the ride back to the city, Wolgraft said nothing as he rode forward.
The Reed Arms Tavern was a pub-colored building with pub chairs, pub tables, and traditional pub bar stools with all the usual tavern inhabitants. Behind the bar, various liqueurs adorned the walls. The tavern was crowded with people chatting and drinking, barely paying attention to the goings-on. When Wolgraft entered the pub, he headed straight to a hidden door in the back, causing a pair of soldiers to rise from the bar. Without uttering a word, he entered through the door.
Leaving the creaking cellar stairs, Wolgraft approached a small hall that had several doors. After passing the first three, Wolgraft reached for the fourth on his left. When Wolgraft opened the old withered door, his sister along with Mayfare and Lasandra turned to face him, bearing daggers in their hands.
Lasandra stood out with her long pale red hair and pointed nose, but her most noticeable characteristic was her long ears. She looked remarkably like an elf. Evidently, everyone else thought so as well, since she had gained such a moniker as Lasandra the elf. Wolgraft, however, would never utter those words in her presence. The emerald blue of her eyes shone with joy. Putting the knife flat on her chest, she said, “It’s just you.”.
“Brother what are you doing here?” Ariest inquired from her bed next to Mayfare. In an attempt to accentuate Ariest’s royal heritage, Mayfare was in the process of braiding her golden blond hair.
Mayfare dropped the twin ropes of hair from her head getting to her feet, her purple eyes hidden behind lavender locks. This made Ariest bark, “Mayfare!?”
It was so obvious to her,” Wolgraft thought to himself. “Get your things together, ladies. We are leaving.” Wolgraft said. The sound of rushing boots down the stairs prompted Wolgraft to turn to greet the three soldiers.
“Are those claims true?” A man with red hair shouted. “Are we being attacked?”
Wolgraft’s eyes widened. “Attack?” Ariest yelled. She sprung from the bed and rushed towards him.
Wolfgraft stared at the soldiers’ questioning eyes as he closed the door behind him. “Men you have your orders! Gather your things and meet with Soldat.”
A younger soldier, clearly of the three sisters, asked “And where will you go?”
A sigh escaped Wolgraft’s lips. “It would be very inappropriate for you to question me at this time. My Lord Brother has entrusted me with an extremely vital mission. Guildred was very specific about his plans. Soldiers, follow your orders and gather your belongings. Proceed to Ulfates with Soldat. I’ll meet you there later.”
“Yes, sir.” the men said in unison.
Behind Wolgraft, Ariest opened the door. His gaze was fixed on the three men as he nodded. Together they began to walk down the hall. “What is this about, Brother? Where is Guildred?”
A glance over his shoulder caught Aerist off guard. “I need you to get your things ready! I will explain later.” He yanked the door shut once more.
“Lord Guildred is not with you?” asked a soldier from down the hall, causing Wolgraft to turn back to him. “Where is Guildred?”
“He is at the windmill Ziekden,” Wolgraft replied while his eyes shifted back and forth as he realized his brother most likely had been killed in battle by now. “Go!” Wolgraft barked at the soldiers. “You are wasting time.”
A swarm of people surrounded Soldat as he rode into the town gates. From them, pleas for him not to leave with his troops are heard. When Soldat unsheathed his blade from his side, he hollered, “Keep your hands off me.” The crowd backed away a few steps as Soldat rode through. There was widespread panic throughout the city. It was chaos all around, and soldiers are fighting to keep ordinary people from encroaching on them.
An elder man grabbed Soldat from his horse, “Don’t leave, they’ll kill us all.”.
“We have orders,” Soldat growled coldly while seated upright on his horse.
Throughout the town, people barricaded their houses and rushed out of the town, just as the soldiers had done. Within a short period, he had gathered his men outside the city and they were ready. Now he stands in front of more than two thousand soldiers. “We fought hard to get here today; we fought hard yesterday; we will fight harder tomorrow. An army that we have never faced before is coming our way. Defeating them here isn’t possible. We must fall back, but we do not act like cowards. Guildred is fighting right now for us to give us time to unify our armies. Their forces are doing everything they can on this side of the world to defeat us. There is no reason to fear them and we should regroup. To Ulfrates!” he hollered. As the silence and scattered responses continued to envelop him, Soldat felt a lump in his throat. Raising his hand, he directed his horse eastward. Even though the soldiers were reluctant to follow, they did so.
On his horse, Wolfgraft sat with his sister perched on his lap. She and Wolgraft are both wearing brown cloaks. While Bram guided the group, the two maidens rode their horse shared by them. Trotting in a triangular formation, the three horses quickly rode away from the city into open orange fields. “Guildred! Where is Guildred?” yelled Aerist, turning her head to look into her brother’s dead eyes.
As Wolfgraft arches his head back, his body tenses. “He has already departed for the north. He left without us because he feared we would be captured in such a large group.” As they spoke he felt a lump forming in his throat, knowing Guildred was probably fighting for his life. It might even be dead, lying on the ground with a spear piercing his belly. This idea made Wolgraft sick to his stomach. However, as instructed, he tried to keep a smile on his face.
“You think he went north. Where are we going?” Mayfare’s sheepish voice was barely audible above the sound of clopping hooves.
“We are going to Elitus. It is not safe for us in the south anymore.” His younger sister snuggled up against him as he replied pleasantly.
Wolgraft’s words and embrace, however, did not bring her any comfort. “And it is safe in Elitus! Have you two lost your minds?” Ariest asked, struggling to free herself from her brother’s grasp.
“No, it makes perfect sense. The Azurians won’t be looking under their own nose. Instead, they will look for us to the south. Once they cannot find us in the south, they will assume we are hiding in the Freeholds. They won’t go to the Freeholds, the Sparks clan will make sure of that.”
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