By Kris Kramer
A Rise of Cithria story
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“Looks like the whole town is running away with their plunder.”
Sevris handed the bronze telescope to his decnar, Joah, who twisted the cylinders, adjusting the focus so he could watch the Breakwall docks on the far side of the river. At least a hundred men, women, and children formed a line – a surprisingly well-mannered line – from the town to the main pier. Each one loaded crates or sacks or chests onto a waiting merchant ship, already sitting low in the water from excess weight. Four boats had already been filled to the brim and set off down river, to a destination Sevris could only guess at. Another five ships waited in line behind the current one. A few he even recognized from the regular stops they made here.
“Can you tell what they’re taking?” Sevris asked. He and Joah stood at the top of Barrow Rise, a tall, tree-covered hill on the west side of the Vitrix River. He kept men here daily, as it provided the best vantage point over Breakwall.
“We’re too far away,” Joah said, scratching the thin beard that covered his square jaw. “But if we’re to attack, then we should do it now, while they’re all distracted with their thieving.”
Sevris took the telescope and looked again, squeezing the focus as tight as he could on one of the men carrying a small chest. He recognized it as an old Anduain treasure box kept by Lord Morgantin. An oak chest, with carvings of birds on the side and a wide tree on the front. It sat on a thin table pushed up against the wall of Lord Morgantin’s chambers, and it held a collection of pocket watches the lord had collected from far away cities.
He looked away, tired of watching an army of refugees looting every last scrap of worth from Breakwall Castle. He understood his men’s zeal for combat. They wanted to fight for their home, and consign these thieves to the justice they so richly deserved. But they were horribly outnumbered, they would be fighting against some of their own kin, and any attack they ventured would either fail, or turn them into wanted men throughout the kingdom, instead of just Breakwall.
So instead they sat here, trapped in the woods on the wrong side of the river, watching helplessly as their home was ransacked.
“Not yet. We’d die on the steps of the castle, surrounded by two hundred of those scum.”
Joah turned back to the river. He said nothing, but there was no mistaking the disappointment on his decnar’s face.
Footsteps crunched on the ground behind them. Sevris turned to see two of his soldiers, Orik and Pait, approaching through the forest’s underbrush.
“Sir,” Orik said with a wave of his hand. “Got some visitors down in the Barrow. The sentinel, Gunnar, and some pretty blonde little thing. They asked for you soon as they showed up.”
“Gunnar?” Sevris repeated, a flitter of excitement in his belly. “He’s here?”
“Aye.” Orik dropped a small pack on the ground, provisions for him and Pait while they scouted Breakwall during the night. “Says it’s important, too.”
Sevris turned to Joah, who raised an eyebrow.
“Guess the old man finally came up for air.”
Sevris nodded. He hadn’t expected to see Gunnar again. At least not alive. If the crafty old sentinel had managed to survive the chaos of the last few weeks, then he could prove useful to Sevris’s band of outlaws. He tossed the telescope to Orik, who caught it easily, then motioned to Joah.
“Let’s go see what he wants.”
A bundle of thick vines covered the narrow cave entrance leading to their hideout, making it hard to spot if you weren’t looking for it, especially in the darkness under the forest canopy. Sevris pushed the vines out of the way and slid sideways into the opening, which wasn’t much more than a large crack in the side of the hill. A short, jagged tunnel edged downward, eventually depositing him and Joah into a small room with carved walls and a broken stone slab lying on the floor. He walked through an opening on the far side and into the passageway leading to his new home these days, a place he feared was all too fitting for him.
Barrow Rise got its name from a series of catacombs built beneath it called Eldritch Barrow. It was carved out by Anduains long ago, in the centuries before the Thandarans even had this island on their maps. The Barrow’s crypts had been looted and desecrated by those same Thandarans, leaving it nothing more than a collection of moss and vine-covered passageways, with depressions in the walls where bodies had once been interred. Stories were told to this day of the ghosts and spirits that wandered the tunnels of the Barrow, seeking vengeance for the disturbance. Not that Sevris paid them any mind. Unfortunately, some of his men did, which made for some harsh convincing when Sevris decided to make the Barrow their new home.
Sevris and Joah walked through the darkened passage, heading for the faint light at the end of the hall. He turned the corner, finding a modestly sized room filled with blankets, packs, armor, and food, along with two dozen of his men, each looking somewhat haggard and dirty. Sitting at the side, in stark contrast to the dirt-covered soldiers, was a young girl with gleaming blond hair, wearing the brown Resurrectionist robes of a war priest, along with white-haired old Gunnar, his lord’s sentinel, sporting his typical gray robes.
The priest turned and smiled at the sight of a familiar face.
“Aron Sevris,” Gunnar said. He stood and reached out a hand as they approached. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”
“You as well, Gunnar Baelson.” They shook. The girl stood up and glanced at Joah before looking away and brushing the dirt from her robes. “I have to say, I’m surprised to see you.”
“Sober,” Joah whispered from behind.
Gunnar’s smile faded at the comment. “I’ve been away for too long. I apologize for that. But I do have a reason for leaving, one that I hope to explain to you now.” He glanced at the other soldiers nearby. “Preferably in private.”
Sevris crossed his arms. “My men can be trusted.”
Gunnar nodded, then leaned in to whisper. “This isn’t about trust, I’m afraid.”
Sevris frowned at his friend. “Explain.”
“I only ask because what I have to say might be unsettling. If you want your men to hear it, then I’d suggest you listen to what my friend Alayna and I have to say first, and then you can choose what to relay to your men. Issues of morale and all that.”
Sevris furrowed his brow. He thought to argue, but the serious look on the sentinel’s face warned him otherwise. He sighed and then motioned Gunnar and the girl to follow him around the corner.
“Speak,” he said, once they were alone.
“You remember Alayna? A former student of mine?”
“The dock master’s daughter,” he said to the girl, who blushed.
“Centnar.” She bowed her head.
“We think we know what’s happening in Breakwall. And,” Gunnar held up a finger to emphasize his point, “we think we know how to stop it.”
Gunner turned to Alayna. “Perhaps you should start at the beginning. That will make this easier, I think.”
She nodded, then swallowed.
“I was assigned to the Esteran Army, under Lord Rondell. We were sent to the Endless Caves, in the Red Hills, to search for enemies that might be hiding there. I was part of a patrol scouting the caves ahead of the army when these strange creatures attacked us. They used magic to put us into dreams, all of us. At least ten of us were completely overtaken in one fell swoop.”
Sevris felt the hairs on his neck stand up. Was this some new Anduain magic he hadn’t heard of?
“When I woke from the dream, I was standing outside the caves, in a field not far from Trenant. I ran to a nearby village–”
“Tell him about the dream,” Gunnar said, nudging her shoulder.
Alayna nodded. “Yes, of course. When I was in that dream, something… spoke to me. Some demon who was testing my will, to see if it could control me. It saw everything in my mind, my training, my childhood, my parents, the castle. It tried to take me, to sway me like some sort of temptation demon, but it failed, and then it left, telling me it had found someone else. I didn’t understand at the time, but I do now.” She glanced at Gunnar and then back at Sevris, her eyes pleading. “It saw Violet in my dream, and it decided to take her instead. Somehow it escaped those caves and came here, to prey on her vanity and greed. That creature is inside her mind now, and it’s turned her into some kind of twisted monster.”
“A demon?” Sevris glanced at Gunnar. “Sounds more like Domination magic.”
“It’s not,” Gunnar said. “I’ve already tested her for that and found nothing. And whatever it is, it’s affected me, too. That’s why I left. It was wriggling its way into my head, trying to take me as well. It wasn’t quite as vociferous with me, but I’m convinced it’s real.”
Sevris frowned. He appreciated that Gunnar had come to him, but his explanation could be the product of ale, and Alayna could just be an excitable young girl.
“An interesting story. I can think of a better one. Lady Violet has always thought of herself as a queen, so she arranged for the deaths of her father and the steward so that she could take over and rule like one.”
Gunnar nodded. “That is the reasonable assumption. But think beyond the death of Lord Morgantin and his steward. Hundreds of refugees appeared here, out of nowhere, almost all at once. No rhyme nor reason as to why, but there is one important clue that no one managed to piece together.” Gunnar’s eyes lit up as he talked. “They all came from the same place.”
Sevris felt his interest in this story spike. “Where?”
“On our way here, we spoke to some of the refugees, subtly of course. They all come from villages or outposts stationed along the Banner Road between Corendar and Trenant. The exact same path Alayna took only a few days ago. If what she says is true, this creature abandoned her and found someone else, then came to Breakwall by that very same road, infecting people as it went.”
“Coincidence. Thousands of people use that road.”
“To travel to Corendar. Not Breakwall. As much as we love our home, Aron, we are but a speck in the shadow of the great city.”
Sevris’ mind raced. Maybe these two really were on to something. “It still doesn’t mean some creature is infecting their minds.”
“What about the boats? Who sent for them? What messengers sped off to contact every merchant ship between here and Norlinn? That is an impressive feat for a girl who only a few months ago couldn’t be bothered to wipe her own arse.”
Instinct took over and Sevris shot Gunnar a look before softening his glare. He had to remind himself that she was the enemy now.
Gunnar raised an eyebrow and looked around the cave. “I heard you were fighting off waves of refugees. Looks pretty quiet to me.”
“They stopped bothering us two days ago. We’ve been using the time to scout the town, but we aren’t learning much. Save for the fact that they’re plundering the castle and then running away downriver.”
“They stopped attacking? All of them?” Sevris nodded. “At the same time?”
Sevris pursed his lips. He knew what Gunnar was getting at, and he was almost inclined to agree with him the more he thought about it.
“A directive from the Lady,” he offered.
“True,” Gunnar said with a thoughtful nod. “It could just be more coincidence.”
Sevris frowned. “Let’s put aside why this is happening. You said you had a plan to stop her?”
“We do. Although it’s slightly unsavory.”
“We sneak into the castle, find Violet, and take her to the church in Corendar. We let the sentinels there determine if she’s… tainted.”
Sevris’ eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “You want to kidnap the Lady of Breakwall?”
“She’s not herself!” Alayna exclaimed before catching herself. “We have to do something.”
“She is the law of this domain. You and I can see the darkness in her eyes, whatever that may be, but without any proof of her corruption, Artoran justice will not be kind to us if we act against her directly.”
“Sevris,” Gunnar said, “I know this is dangerous, and perhaps a tad bit foolhardy, but what else can we do? What are your options, now that you’re relegated to a mausoleum? You’re already acting against the recognized lord of this land simply by being here. You’re a fugitive, and worse, most of the town sees you as the leader of a rebellion against that same lord. If Violet asks for help from Corendar, which she has every right to do, they will send troops, and flush you out of here without a second thought.”
Gunnar pressed a finger into Sevris’ chest, and the centnar raised an eyebrow at the intrusion.
“Your head is already on the chopping block, Aron. The only question is when it gets taken from you. If we can get Violet to the Church, and we can prove that she’s tainted somehow, then we can either cure her, or find a new Lord of Breakwall. Either way, you get to go back to the castle as a free man.”
The words stung Sevris to his core. Gunnar was right. He had held back because of his devotion to Breakwall, its people, and his men. He couldn’t attack without losing some or all of what he held dear. But if Gunnar was right…
“Tell me the rest of your plan.”
Gunnar raised his eyebrows in thought. “Well, it’s only part of a plan. I was hoping you could help me fill in the gaps.”
“Well, a direct attack seems like a waste of men. Especially since I don’t see any siege weapons in your cozy little crypt. So maybe a sneak attack?” He lowered his voice. “Like, perhaps, through the entrances that only a few of us know about?”
Sevris nodded. There were two secret entrances to the keep, one from a drainage gulley leading out from the kitchens and another from an underground tunnel that started in a rarely used storeroom and ended in the basement of a small millhouse on the outskirts of the castle. Only half a dozen people knew about either entrance, and all of them were dead now. Except for Sevris and Gunnar.
“Would Violet’s father have told her about them?”
“So she could sneak out?” Gunnar asked. “I doubt it.”
Sevris nodded to himself as the plan formed in his head. Suddenly, he could act against his enemy, without worrying about his numbers disadvantage.
“We go in at night,” he said, mostly to himself, “when most of the castle is sleeping. We strip ourselves of armor and wear light boots. We move fast and strike without hesitation, making for the Lady’s… ahem… chambers.”
“Then we sneak her out and get her to Corendar as fast as possible,” Gunnar finished for him.
Sevris pursed his lips. “It feels dishonorable.”
“Don’t put the burden on honor only on yourself, Centnar. There are some cases where the ends justify the means.”
Sevris looked away, letting the plan form in his mind. He could finally do something about this tragedy, something that wouldn’t see his men and their families destroyed by open warfare. He turned to Gunnar and nodded, allowing himself a quick smile before returning to the main room. The soldiers under his command all looked over, curious as to what news he might have.
He turned to Joah. “Ready the men.”
Joah got to his feet. “Sir?”
“We go to do what we should have done three weeks ago. We fight to save Breakwall.” He smiled broadly, sharing the excitement welling up on his men’s faces. “And we do it tonight.”
Chapter 6 coming next week!
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