Monday, December 28, 2020

A Simple Plan by Ross Hightower

Alar and Ukrit stop in a bustling village while fleeing Imperial soldiers, and witness the arrest of a child witch; by Ross Hightower. 

A mandolin playing the opening notes of a traditional song, soon joined by a woman's high, clear voice, could mean only one thing. Alar remembered right, it was market day in Kartok. As the two boys stepped from the hard pack surface of the Imperial Highway onto the cobbled street at the edge of the village, the festive sounds of the market joined the song. It tugged at Alar's memories of a more innocent time, a time before the Empire stole his life.

Ukrit grabbed Alar's arm, pulling him to a stop. "This is a bad idea."

"You're probably right," Alar said.

"Those Imperials soldiers must be right behind us."

"Nah, I figure we have a couple of hours on them." Alar squinted back the way they came. "Or one anyway. Probably." He grinned at his friend. "Come on, Ukrit, aren't you hungry?"

"We're supposed to be in Richeleau in two days. You know what will happen if we're late." Ukrit peered into the village. "If there are any Imperials here..."

Taking Ukrit by the shoulders, Alar pulled him close. "If we don't get something to eat soon, we won't have to worry about getting to Richeleau. It's been three days." Letting go, he glanced toward the village center. "Besides, Kartok is a big village. People come from miles around for the autumn market, so the village is full of strangers today. No one will notice us."

Ukrit laughed. "Look at yourself."

Alar glanced down. His thin cloak was a patchwork of different colors, though it was hard to tell what colors through the mud and bloodstains. Muck caked his boots and pants. He rubbed his chin, surprised once again by the patchy coarse whiskers that sprouted there recently.

"You look like a beggar," Ukrit said, "and you smell like a goat."

Alar moaned. "Goat!" The smell of smoke and roasting meat wafted in the breeze. "My gods, wouldn't that taste good right now." His stomach grumbled in agreement.

Ukrit snorted, shaking his head.

Alar scowled down at his offending garments, then brightened. "We're just trappers come down to the village for supplies."

"Trappers? With swords? Covered with blood stains? What do we trap?" Ukrit asked. "Besides who would believe two 16-year-olds are up in the mountains by themselves, trapping?"

"Just keep your sword inside your cloak and don't talk to anyone." Alar turned and started walking, calling over his shoulder, "Come on, you worry too much."

As they neared the village square, the sounds of people laughing, haggling and singing grew louder. Soon, the fragrance of freshly baked bread and the earthy odors of animals mingled with the smell of smoke and roasting meat. They turned a corner and the market came into view. Shoppers moved among the stalls, dressed in their best come-to-market clothes. The vendors' stalls were colorfully decorated, and the city festooned the square with bunting and streamers in the traditional colors of Argren. The mandolin, joined now by a fiddle and drum, played a jig that had a group dancing. For a moment, Alar was a child again. These were his people. The Alle'oss. This should have been his life.

They stopped at the edge of the square, peering out of the shadows. Ukrit shuffled behind the older boy, watching the market over his friend's shoulder. "Okay, what do we do now?"

Alar didn't really have a plan. He patted his empty pockets and said, "We will have to steal some food." He heard Ukrit groan. "We need a distraction."

"Uh-uh. Don't look at me. This is all your idea."

Alar looked over his shoulder. "You want to eat, don't you?"

Ukrit frowned, but nodded.

"Okay. Let's see. We should go stand near one of the food stalls and wait for our chance. I'll keep the proprietor occupied, and you steal some food."

Alar reached for that spot behind his eyes, the cool, quiet place in the center of his mind, furrowed his brow, and pulled. He shivered with pleasure, a euphoric rush suffusing his mind. It was like pulling a fizzy breeze through his mind. It happened accidentally the first time, six months ago. He was running for his life, exhausted, in a blind panic. What triggered it, he couldn't say, but it cleared his mind and gave him a boost of energy that saved his life. At first, he thought he imagined it, but he kept returning to that spot in his mind, worrying at it like a missing tooth. Three months later, it happened again, and this time, he remembered how he did it. He didn't know what it was and was afraid to tell anyone about it. Who would believe it, anyway? The feeling of euphoria was intoxicating, but he learned the hard way to be careful with it. Too much left him dreamy and insensible to his surroundings. He used it only when he needed a bit of energy or confidence. Like now.

He peeked once more at Ukrit, then slipped into the crowd, making for a stall selling freshly baked bread. Behind him, Ukrit groaned again, but Alar trusted he would follow.

Ukrit was right about one thing. As he elbowed his way through the crowd, people backed away from them, noses wrinkling. Before they were within 30 feet of the bread seller's stall, the crowd parted before them, giving the proprietor a clear view of them coming. His eyes narrowed when he caught sight of them. Taking a position behind his counter, arms crossed, he watched them approach. This would be difficult.

Alar sauntered up to the stall, a normal customer out shopping in the market. "Morning!" He hooked his thumbs in his belt and gave the man a big smile.

"Morning," the proprietor said slowly.

Alar scanned the table. The freshly baked loaves of the coarse, black bread his mother used to bring home on market day drew his attention, flooding his mouth. "A fine selection you have here, sir."

"It all costs coin."

Alar drew back. "Are you implying what I think you're implying?"

"That's exactly what I'm implying. Now, if you don't have the coin, move along. Your stink is keeping my customers away."

This would be difficult. Ukrit tapped him on his shoulder. Alar ignored him, returning the bread seller's glare. Ukrit tapped him harder and said, "There's something going on down there."

Alar turned to find his partner pointing to the other end of the square. A commotion drew the crowd's attention. He glanced at the bread seller who was, unfortunately, still watching them closely.

A woman's scream, rising above the sounds of the market, quieted the music and hushed the crowd. Another scream punctuated the silence. The festive atmosphere fled in an instant as the orderly movement of the crowd dissolved into chaos. Most surged toward the sound of the scream, but others scattered in every direction.

Alar peeked at the bread seller again. Finding his attention diverted, he snatched a loaf of bread, hiding it inside his cloak, and pulled his friend away from the stall. In his rush to get away, he wasn't paying attention to where he was going.

"Alar, I don't think this is a good idea." Ukrit tried to wrench his arm free, but Alar held tight, pulling harder. They were being pushed along by the flow of people heading toward the commotion when another scream brought the crowd to a halt.

Ukrit, frantic now, tugged harder. Alar, pushing through the crowd, looked back at him and said, "Come on! I got some bre-"

Suddenly, Alar found himself sitting on the cobbles, staring up at a row of angry faces. He'd broken through into a clear space in the crowd, the sudden lack of resistance throwing off his balance. Ukrit, finally free from Alar's grip, fled back through the crowd. Alar leapt to his feet, prepared to follow, when he noticed the crowd directed their ire at something behind him. He spun around and froze. Imperials. Two Imperial soldiers, their swords drawn, circled slowly, keeping the crowd back. A third soldier held the reins of their horses. An Inquisitor of the Empire's Church, wearing the white uniform of his office, loomed over the scene from atop an enormous black horse. Alar stared up into Inquisitor's frowning face. Oh, gods! Alar shuffled backwards, staring at his toes, a mouse pinned beneath the cold, merciless gaze of the cats.

He turned, preparing to follow Ukrit, when he noticed the two figures huddled on the ground at the center of the clearing. A weeping woman knelt, her face buried in the hair of a young girl she held to her breast. A witch. The Inquisitor was here for the girl.

No, not this, I can't... His heart fluttered against his ribs, desperate to escape this memory, but his need to witness the coming tragedy pinned him place.

The Inquisitor's gaze lingered on Alar a moment longer before he addressed the crowd. "This girl is a witch. She is being arrested in accordance with the decree on witchcraft by Emperor Ludwig, first of his name." He lifted his chin slightly. "Be happy we don't burn the village to the ground for harboring her."

An angry murmur rose from the crowd, but no one moved to help. Alar felt the weight of the sword hanging uselessly from his belt. He scanned the crowd, searching for courage, but instead, found more than a few nodding their approval. Behind the Inquisitor, a priest of the Empire's Church stood in the front row wearing a satisfied smile. An amulet depicting their vengeful god, Daga, lay on his breast. Any of the people in the village could have informed on the girl, but Alar felt sure the priest was responsible. He had undoubtedly been busy spreading the Empire's poison among his congregation.

The Inquisitor waved to a soldier, a giant of a man, and said, "Sergeant, bind her." Gray streaked the sergeant's close-cropped hair, and a network of scars on his forearms and hands testified to long years wielding a sword. Sheathing his weapon, he turned toward the pair, his eyes rested momentarily on Alar. Empty eyes. In the short time he fought for the resistance, Alar had become accustomed to violence. What men were willing to inflict on other men no longer shocked him. Or so he thought. The dispassionate brutality in those eyes was somehow worse than the mayhem he'd seen men commit in anger.

The sergeant grasped the mother around the waist and lifted her violently away from the girl. The child tried to follow, but he kicked her away, drawing more murmurs from the crowd. Throwing the woman to the ground at Alar's feet, he turned back toward the girl.

The crowd let out a collective gasp when, in a streak of blue and yellow, the small child launched herself at the sergeant, snarling and dragging shallow furrows down his cheek. The sergeant's only reaction was to turn his head away and grasp her wrists. She struggled uselessly as he casually jerked her off the ground with one hand, wiping the blood from his cheek with the other.

One of the other soldiers laughed, the sound a jarring contrast with the mother's quiet weeping. Alar turned numbly to stare at him. Alarmed, Alar realized that he knew the soldier. Bright red hair, unusual for an Imperial, made this one instantly recognizable. Alar's small band of rebels had encountered this group before. It didn't go well. He turned his face away, but couldn't help watching the scene out of the corner of his eye.

The sergeant kicked the struggling girl's feet out from under her, dropping the child on her back, bouncing her head off the cobbles. The impact forced the air from her lungs, leaving her gasping, her eyes unfocused. He stood over her, gazing down, fingers tracing the scratches on his cheek. When she didn't stir, he retrieved manacles from the saddlebag of his horse, and knelt, knee on her chest while he attached them to her wrists.

Alar let his gaze fall to the woman at his feet. She lay on her side, facing away from her daughter, apparently unable to watch. Glancing around, he noticed the villagers studiously ignoring the woman. Hot prickles climbed his back. She's from this village. Don't they see her pain? He started to lower himself to her side, when a man holding a small, crying boy burst out of the crowd, shoving Alar aside. The man set the boy beside his mother, stood, fists clenched, and took a step toward the sergeant and the girl. Red intercepted him, touched the tip of his sword to the man's chest, wagged a finger and shook his head.

The Inquisitor, a bored expression on his face, said, "Don't worry, you have another," nodding to the boy clutching his mother.

The man hesitated, looking from the Inquisitor to Red. Don't do it. Alar tensed, readying himself to reach for the man if he made the foolish choice. And then the man's shoulders sagged. The moment he said goodbye to his daughter, a moment, Alar knew, he would regret the rest of his life. But at least his son would have a father.

The girl's eyes focused on her father's face as the sergeant, oblivious to the family's anguish, pulled a leather hood over her head. He lifted her to her feet, handed her off to the third soldier and mounted his horse. Once settled, he reached down, grasped the back of the girl's dress and lifted her to sit in front of him. The other soldiers mounted their horses, and the group pushed through the crowd toward the other end of the village.

The Inquisitor waved his hand lazily and said, "May Daga watch you and keep you." Glancing once more in Alar's direction, he turned his horse and followed the others.

Alar stood, stunned, a flood of memories leaving him insensible to his surroundings. People jostled him as they dispersed, but he barely noticed. Agitated conversations broke out all around him, but he heard only the weeping of the family huddled at his feet. Slowly, he became aware of Ukrit shaking him by the arms and saying his name.

"Alar, what's wrong?"

A flush rose on the back of Alar's neck. "Didn't you see what happened?"

Ukrit pulled him into an alley. "Yes, I saw it. What's gotten into you? We've seen the Inquisitors before." He glanced at the entrance to the alley. "I'm pretty sure we've seen that Inquisitor before."

Alar leaned against the building that bordered the alley. "I never told you why I joined the resistance, did I?"

"No, I don't think so."

"When I was ten, an Inquisitor came for my sister."

Ukrit sucked in a breath.

"My father fought back." Alar paused before continuing in a whisper. "They killed both of my parents. The Inquisitor laughed while his soldiers butchered them."

"Oh gods, I'm sorry," Ukrit said. "But we've seen the Inquisitors before. Why was this different?"

Alar shook his head, staring into his memories. "I don't know. It's just... it happened almost the same way. The crowd, my mother... the boy. The only difference was that my father tried to fight." Alar squeezed his eyes shut against the tears threatening to spill over. "For all the good it did."

Ukrit rested his hand on Alar's shoulder.

"I had nowhere to go and, being the brother of a witch, no one would take me in." Alar chuckled bitterly. "I think the Inquisitor thought it was funny, leaving me like that. I nearly died. Sleeping where I could, begging for food. Then, one day, Eadric passed through our village." He glanced at Ukrit, who nodded. "This was before many people thought they could fight back. He had, maybe, ten people with him. For some reason, I followed them. For three days, I followed behind, trying to stay out of sight. Eventually, Eadric found me and sat with me. He asked me who I was and listened to me while I cried. He took me in."

"Eadric's a great man, that's sure."

Alar took a deep breath. "Yes, Eadric is a great man. But what can even a great man do against the Empire?"

Ukrit frowned, and Alar continued before he could speak. "We've been fighting for six years. What good has it done? The Inquisitors can still snatch little girls from their parents right in front of us."

"That's not fair, Alar. It was just the two of us. Those soldiers would have killed us without even trying."

"That's the point," Alar said, shaking his head. "No matter how much we fight, we'll never be the equal of the Imperial soldiers."

Ukrit sighed. "It takes time. More and more people are joining our cause. We're getting stronger every day."

"Look at us, Ukrit. We're filthy... starving. We're stealing bread from our own people. If they wanted to fight back, they would, at least, feed us."

They were both silent for a moment. "You're upset because of what you saw. Give yourself some time to settle down. You'll come around." Ukrit put his hands on his hips, his voice growing firmer as he said, "We have to be in Richeleau in two days. We need to leave now."

Alar clenched his teeth. "No. I'm going to save the girl."

Ukrit burst out laughing. "What? How are you going to do that? There were three soldiers and the Inquisitor. What are you going to do, become an Imperial witch all of a sudden?"

"I don't know what I'll do, but I'm going to save her. I'm tired of fighting for nothing."

"You'll never catch them. They're on horses and have a head start."

Alar studied the thin patch of sky visible in the alley. "It's late in the day, so they'll have to stop for the night soon. They'll probably stop at the top of Eagle Pass. It's too dangerous to go down the other side in the dark. I'll go through the forest and meet them there. I grew up not far from here. I know this country."

"And then what?"

"I don't know, but I'll come up with something." He retrieved the stolen bread from his cloak, tore it in half and offered it to Ukrit. "Here, you take half."

Ukrit's eyes widened. He snatched the bread and took a bite, leaned against the building beside Alar, chewing and moaning. When he opened his eyes, he grinned at Alar. "I've always known you're crazy."

Alar returned his grin and took a bite.

"Okay, you go save the girl. I'll meet you in Richeleau in two days. If you live. If you kill them all, bring their food and horses." They clasped forearms and Ukrit said, "You better get going."

Alar nodded, tucked the rest of the bread into his cloak and wrapped Ukrit into a hug. With one more look at his friend, he turned and walked toward the mouth of the alley.

Ukrit called, "Good luck!"

Reaching the street, Alar broke into a jog. He pulled, welcoming the burst of energy. Nearing the edge of the village, he caught sight of the priest standing with a small group of men. They were laughing, probably congratulating themselves, untouched by the pain they caused. The priest's smile faltered as he turned to watch the angry young man pass.

As the road exited the village, it curved to the south. A mile or so on, it curved back to the west and began a long gradual climb to the top of Eagle Pass. The pass, which cut through a precipitous ridge, was the only way from Kartok to the Imperial capital.

Alar turned off the road onto a path that climbed straight up the ridge. At his best, Alar could easily beat them to the top of the pass, but he was far from his best. The climb was steep and Alar, weakened by hunger and lack of sleep, staggered on wooden legs before he made 100 yards. He stumbled, catching himself against a tree next to the path, leaned over and vomited the bread onto the ground. What a waste. Before he was ready, he stood unsteadily, wiping his mouth on his cloak and peered up the hill through the trees. The top was nowhere in sight.

It had been years since the last time he climbed this hill. It was a day like today. The leaves, wearing their fall colors, rustled in a cool breeze, setting sunlight dapples dancing on the forest floor. His family was returning home after a long day at the autumn festival. Alar smiled, remembering his sister's excited recital of the day's events. His parents listened patiently, exclaiming in the right places, though they had witnessed everything themselves. The young Alar trailed behind, worn out by the day's excitement, complaining bitterly about the climb. Done with her recitation, his sister set to encouraging him. "You can do it, Alar. Think of the great heroes like Sigard, in Papa's stories," she told him. "Sigard overcame all obstacles, even when he didn't think he could."

With his sister's encouragement, he made it to the top, a hero in his own imagination. He was only eight. If he made it then for his sister, he could make it this time for the girl who shared his sister's fate. Groaning, he shambled on.

When he finally reached the top, heart thudding, he fell to his hands and knees. He would have vomited again, but had nothing left to give. Pulling carefully, he allowed his heart to quiet, and his breath to slow. After a moment, he stood unsteadily and examined his surroundings. To the left of the path, an outcrop jutted out above the pass. The vista stretching out before him brought him back to that day years ago, reminding him why he loved his country. A patchwork of blue and green spruces, red maples and yellow aspens cloaked the nearby mountains. The sun dipped toward the horizon, leaving the sky a deep blue, dotted here and there by small puffy clouds. A cool breeze lifted his hair, and raised goose bumps along his arms.

As a child, he had stood on this precipice, a hero having conquered the hill, confident his father's strong arm wouldn't let him fall. Now, his confidence worn away by life's rough handling, he shuffled close to the edge on trembling legs, and leaned out until he could just see the road where it topped the pass. Travelers often used the flat clearing directly beneath him to stop for the night. Opposite the clearing, the road bordered a deep gorge, the reason few descended the far side of the pass at night. The road narrowed on the way down, and a single misstep could send a horse or a person plunging to their death. Alar watched the road in the failing light. Am I too late?



The plaintive song of whip-poor-wills heralded the night, and Alar had nearly given up hope, when the Imperials finally came into sight. "Please stop," he murmured to himself.

As they drew even with the clearing, the Inquisitor pointed, and they turned onto it and dismounted. Alar threw his hands into the air. "Yes!" He watched them for a moment, letting his arms drop limply to his sides. Now what? He needed a plan. A plan that would allow a skinny, barely trained, sixteen-year-old to save a girl from three Imperial soldiers and an Inquisitor. What exactly was I thinking?

The sergeant dismounted, dragged the girl down and dropped her on the ground. Stepping over her, he led his horse to the edge of the clearing where he removed the saddle and begin to brush the animal. Alar pressed his lips together, the fetters of fear and doubt falling away, replaced by a simmering anger. They treat their horses better than they treat the Alle'oss. He pulled, relishing the rush. "Eadric always says a simple plan is the best plan."



A full moon cast a pale blue light over the encampment as he approached. They were preparing to bed down for the night. The Inquisitor was already under his blanket, while the soldiers cleaned their bowls and utensils. The girl lay without a blanket near the horses, her manacles tied to a stake driven into the ground.

Alar crouched behind a tree just off the path, watching the soldiers argue over who would take the first watch. Eventually, the sergeant sat by the fire while the others went to their bedrolls. Alar waited. His plan was simple. He would rush the sergeant from behind and kill him. Quick and silent. Next, he would kill one of the other soldiers in their sleep. If he was quick, he could kill the third soldier before he disentangled himself from his blanket. That would leave the Inquisitor... well, how hard could that be?

It was a feeble plan. More of a hope, really. Alar winced and waited.

When he judged the others were asleep, he removed his cloak and lowered it to the ground. He slipped from his hiding place and edged onto the path so that he could approach silently. Drawing his sword, he pulled, and before second thoughts could intrude, he ran as quietly as he could toward the sentry.

The sergeant sat with his back to Alar. He didn't move as he approached, and he began to think the plan might get off to a good start. He drew his weapon back, closed his eyes and swung with all his strength at the back of the soldier's neck.

He was spinning, carried by the momentum of his swing. His feet tangled on the log the sergeant sat on and he fell with an explosion of sparks into the dying campfire. "Ahhh!" Rolling through the fire, he came to his feet on the other side. How did I miss? The sergeant, a stick in hand, leaned forward, frozen in the act of poking the fire. His shocked expression mirrored the one on Alar's face. So much for quick and silent.

The sergeant smiled, stood and drew his sword, circling the fire. "You just made a big mistake, son."

Alar scrambled backwards, tripping over another log. He tried to assume a ready position, but stumbled again, caught between fight and flight. The soldier laughed and lunged forward, bringing his blade down hard. Alar just got his sword up in time, feeling the shock up to his elbow. It was a near miracle he held onto it. He shuffled back; the soldier following casually. His attack lacked finesse. The sergeant wasn't trying to kill him. At least, not yet. He was playing with him, taking long, hard swings like he was chopping wood. Alar could see them coming from a mile away. Still, it was all he could do to block the blows and hang onto his sword.

Tiring, Alar backed away, using both hands on his weapon. He pulled hard; the rush providing the energy he needed, but the distraction caused him to tangle his feet. The soldier, seeing him trip, swung his sword horizontally at Alar's neck. Alar was dead. He couldn't get his feet to move and he would never get his sword up in time. He closed his eyes, pulled hard, wanting nothing more than to be somewhere else. He felt a small twist behind his eyes... then everything went silent.

When the expected blow didn't land, he eased his eyes open and gaped. The sergeant stood frozen in mid-swing; the sword poised inches from the spot where Alar's neck met his shoulders. Alar jumped back. His opponent didn't move. In fact, nothing was moving.

He glanced around. A thin, roiling mist obscured the scene. Distant wails and moans drifted eerily out of the mist. Am I dead? He walked around behind the guard, considering the situation. He had been about to die, that was sure. He had pulled hard and closed his eyes... and wished that he was somewhere else. Alar turned in place, examining the shifting mist. At least it looked like mist. It wasn't wet like mist. The wails in the distance triggered a memory from his childhood. He knew this place. Every Alle'oss child heard the tales. It was just like the stories of the underworld the lore master told in the tavern on cold, dark winter nights. How often had he sat on his father's lap, clutching his older sister, captivated by the tales of heroes brave or foolish enough to venture into the realm of the dead? If this was the underworld, the wails in the distance were the sjel'and, spirits of the dead, waiting to pass on to the other realms. He peered around nervously.

So... he was dead. No, that wasn't right. He was still Alar, not a spirit. So what then? As young as he was, Alar had seen far more of the ugliness the world offered than anyone should have to. Romantic notions such as heroism and gallant deeds were what adults told children to shield them from harsh realities. Yet, here he was, apparently in the underworld, just like the heroes in the stories. He took in the scene; the sergeant in the midst of his killing blow, the Inquisitor and the other soldiers scrambling out of their bedrolls, and in the middle of it all, the small figure of the girl, manacled and hooded, staked to the ground. Evil forces, impossible odds, and an innocent victim. And a hero. A slow grin played at the corners of his mouth. Maybe the old stories weren't so crazy, after all. Of course, in the stories, the hero always won. Unfortunately, Alar couldn't remember what the heroes were about while in the underworld. Could he...?

Lifting his sword, he thrust it into the sergeant's back. Nothing. It left no mark. Reaching out tentatively, he touched the sergeant. His fingers sank to the second knuckle. Slippery and mildly unsettling. He jerked his hand back, shaking it and wiping it on his tunic.

Now what? He walked around the sergeant until he stood behind him again. He got here by pulling. Maybe...

He pulled carefully. The surge that flooded his mind almost overwhelmed him. Clenching his teeth and squeezing his eyes shut, he wished to be back in the material realm. There was the twisting sensation behind his eyes, followed by gasps and shocked yells behind him, and a grunt of surprise from the sergeant. He opened his eyes to find the world moving again.

The sergeant over-balanced when his target disappeared, but he quickly righted himself, casting about frantically for his missing opponent. Alar chuckled. Alerted by his companion's yells, the soldier whirled to face him, a comical expression on his face. His hands were extended uselessly out to his side, so Alar stepped forward and drove his blade into his unprotected neck. Chagrin would be how Alar would describe the soldier's dying expression. He clutched at his throat and fell to his knees. Alar stepped back, drawing his sword free, and watched him fall. If he was honest with himself, he never expected to get this far. He turned to face the others, a smile stretching his face.

Shock became outrage. The Inquisitor yelled, "Kill him," and the soldiers scrambled for their swords. Alar stepped clear of the body, assuming a much more confident, ready position.

The two remaining soldiers approached him warily. The soldier with the bright red hair took the lead, followed by the largest man Aron had ever seen.

Red motioned the giant behind him, saying, "Watch my back." He stopped two paces from Alar, studying him. His eyes narrowed, peering at the boy's face. "Have we met before?"

Alar swallowed and shook his head. Red shrugged and glanced at his opponent's feet. Alar's eyes flicked down, checking his stance. Red smiled, crouched, lifted his sword into a ready position, paused, then exploded forward.

His strikes were not the unsophisticated hammer blows of the sergeant. He attacked with purpose. Alar barely parried the first thrust, backing away fast, trying to stay out of reach. Unfortunately, he was running out of space, nearing the edge of the gorge. Red thwarted his every attempt to shuffle sideways, displaying the grace and flare that only the truly devoted swordsmen could. Alar, parrying desperately, couldn't focus enough to pull.

And then he was standing on the rim of the gorge, nowhere else to run. Red, no longer smiling, stepped forward and swung down in a hard, overhead chop. Alar blocked it, two hands on his sword, but the blow drove him to one knee and knocked the sword from his hands. His sword pinged off the edge of the road and spun out over the gorge. Red paused, smiling and twirling his sword.

"Say goodbye, little 'oss," he said, lifting his sword for the final blow.

Now or never! Alar reached for the spot behind his eyes, pulled hard, concentrating on being somewhere else. His mind twisted again, and the world went silent. He waited, his entire body clenched against the expected blow, but nothing happened. Slowly, he opened his eyes to find Red frozen in the middle of his downward swing, his face twisted in an angry grimace. Alar shifted carefully to the side. Can you fall into a gorge in the underworld?

When he was clear, he stood, threw his hands up. "Whoop!"

He walked around behind the giant, still standing behind Red, and studied the situation. When he was ready, he pulled carefully, letting the world resume.

Red swung at air, throwing himself off balance. He teetered, his toes at the edge of the gorge. The giant stepped forward and grasped the collar of Red's mail shirt, just as Alar lowered his shoulder and slammed into the giant's back. He might as well have thrown himself at a stone wall. He bounced off, arms flailing, and sat heavily on the road. It didn't feel like the man even noticed he was there, but the giant took the smallest step forward, just enough to push poor Red off balance. He swayed once, rising on his toes, then his feet slipped off the edge and he dropped, feet first, into the gorge.

The giant, his hand still tangled in Red's mail shirt, was yanked forward. He let go before Red's weight dragged him over, but he balanced on the edge, his sword flying into the night, arms windmilling. Alar watched him struggle, grinning. He jumped to his feet, put his foot on his backside and shoved him headfirst after his sword. He stepped up to the edge and looked down in time to see the soldier's disgusted grimace before he disappeared into darkness.

"You're a witch!"

Turning, Alar found the last Imperial pointing at him, his mouth hanging open. Alar sauntered toward him. The Inquisitor drew a knife and glanced down at the girl laying at his feet.

"Uh-uh, I wouldn't do that if I were you," Alar said.

The man hesitated, knife poised above the prisoner, before apparently deciding to take Alar's advice. He dropped the knife and dashed for his horse, yanked the tether free and hauled himself up. Alar started running, but leapt aside as the horse raced past. When they reached the road, the Inquisitor dug his heels in, urging the horse down the far side of the pass. Without a saddle or reins, the horse's abrupt surge left the rider flailing, throwing him backward, his hands flying out to his sides. As he struggled to regain his seat, the horse bucked, sending the Inquisitor cartwheeling out over the gorge.

Alar watched the horse disappearing down the road. "That's unfortunate."

He turned and surveyed the scene. Quiet and still, only the call of an owl joining the rustle of the wind in the trees. Searching the sergeant's body, he was relieved to find a set of keys on a ring attached to his belt. He picked up the sergeant's sword. It was a beautiful weapon. Longer than his own, but lighter, due to a wide fuller cut down both sides of the blade. The edge was pristine, despite the punishment it just endured, and the balance was perfect. How much Alle'oss blood had this sword drunk? Alar shrugged. Good steel was good steel. He cut the keys free and carried them back to the girl. She hadn't made a sound through the entire ordeal, at least not that he heard. She was either brave or unconscious. Kneeling, he retrieved the discarded knife and cut the leather thong that secured the hood. She jumped. Not unconscious then. He gently drew it off, revealing wide, frightened eyes.

"Hello, I'm Alar. What's your name?"

"Ece," she said.

"Ah, that means queen. Did you know that?" he said, unlocking the manacles.

"Yes. My mother named me." She rubbed her wrists, staring around the clearing. "Where did they go?" Alar glanced at the body and said, "They, uh, had to go. Have you ever ridden a horse?" He glanced at the sergeant again, adding, "Willingly?"

"No. I've always wanted to." She sounded a bit detached. Probably in shock.

"Today's your lucky day then."

He stood and set about preparing to leave. They ate their fill of the soup left in the pot by the fire. He dragged the body to the gorge and tipped it over the edge. More Imperials would come searching for the missing party. No need to make it easy for them. Rummaging through the Inquisitor's belongings, he found a warm replacement for his tattered cloak. Red's cloak pooled around Ece's feet, but would keep her warm. There was enough food and money to arm and feed their entire company. Ukrit would be happy.

Ece regained her wits, while Alar saddled the horses. She watched him, asking, "Can I go home?"

Alar frowned and shook his head. "I don't think that would be a good idea. Someone in that village betrayed you to the Inquisition. It won't be safe for you or your family for you to go back now. We'll find a way to send them a message, and maybe, after some time, you can visit." She nodded and he turned back to the horses.

Ece thought for a minute and asked, "Where will we go?"

Alar smiled. "To Richeleau."

Having finished his preparations, he turned to Ece and asked, "Are you ready to go?"

Ece pressed her lips tight and turned toward the only home she had ever known. Alar's heart sank as her shoulders sagged. Then she seemed to gather herself. Straightening her shoulders, she turned back to him and said, "Kartok hasn't felt like home since that new priest arrived. Maybe they'll leave my family alone after I'm gone. I'm ready to go."

Alar smiled. "Well then, little sister, let's go."

2 comments:

  1. Excellent read! I can’t wait for the next installment to find out what happens next!

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  2. I really enjoy when a story describes the supernatural without fanfare. The twist with Alar's powers was nicely done! I, too, am awaiting more of this story. Why are girls considered witches? Who are the Imperials?

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