I sat thin there, thin lipped as the doctor pushed the ballista bolt through the pauldron and out the back. He whipped thick beads of sweat from his brow and let out a satisfied sigh one might make after a hard day's work. Taking off the pauldron for him I let him have a look. He thought for about one second slapped some odd looking cream in the wound and stitched it closed.
“Missed your bone.” he said standing to pack up his tools.
“Thanks.” I grunted.
The doctor took one last look at the wound, his eyes scanning the oddly-colored veins and armor dubiously but he said nothing, leaving with a heavy coin purse. I rolled my shoulder and while it still stung at least I could move it now. Getting up I took a deep breath feeling out the wound just beneath my armpit, it felt better already scarring over. I left the backroom and entered the tavern dining area where Reji was pacing back and forth.
Ignoring him I went up to the server and asked for a few plates of whatever he was cooking. “This isn’t good, Brutus.” I heard Reji say. I said nothing grabbing the plates the server gave me sitting at a table, for once my armor was all off and while the chair groaned it held. It was nice to sit in a chair, I felt civilized. I even used a knife and fork to eat, at least at the start. Reji took the opportunity to sit down opposite to me, his knee bouncing.
“The Ironhides are keeping her and besieging anything they own is a bad bet.” he said “And the palace guard is tougher than we expected, how many did you manage to take out?” he asked.
I paused mid chew thinking “A dozen or so.” I said.
I looked back at Reji and saw the worry lines creasing his forehead. He was trying to come up with a plan. I finished my meal and drank a vial of Brute's Brew, the last vial Anna had left sitting around. The clock was ticking for both of us. I put down my fork, leaning back into my chair. "What about that servant you captured? Why not offer a trade?" I asked. Reji nodded in agreement, his eyes wandering the room as if consulting some unknown advisor "Just some previous slave servant, a brutal woman like Azeal wouldn't bat an eye at him dying." he said, sighing.
I remembered the cold face she had put on that day, remembered how it had cracked as she saw her men dying. “Let me see him.” I said. Reji waved his hand, eyes lost in thought “He’s in the cellar, knock yourself out.”
I went down to the cellar, the cool air felt nice stilling the things within, soothing the constant itch. When we arrived at the bottom I saw a middle-aged man, his hands tied in his lap and his face bruised and swollen, a blindfold covering his eyes. He sat stiffly and as respectably as one could in his situation.
I reached out pulling down his blindfold, he blinked as the torchlight struck him but soon enough his eyes focused on me. "Always better to talk to a prisoner face to face." I said.
He glanced me over eyes , scanning my odd complexion, face and most interestingly, my wounds.
"So you can scare them with your size?" he asked in a calm dry voice.
"That's part of it." I said.
His face locked up and somehow he scowled at me without changing his face one bit “You’ll learn nothing from me brute.” I nodded sitting down in front of him cross legged. “When I was just a fledgling mercenary we had this one contract for handling ransoms.” It had been early on in the mercenary wars, when contracts paid well and the dangers low. “Five times out of ten the blokes don't get ransomed, either they talked themselves up big or were so disillusioned they didn't realize their Lord’s or Ladie’s gave less than a rats ass about them. We kept them around for a bit, sold some of them as slaves, most went to the chopping block.”
He raised an eyebrow at me “Is this your big plan, try to loosen my tongue with the promise of freedom and threat of death?” he chuckled mockingly “You’ll get nothing from me.”
I nodded continuing my story “The other four times out of ten they did get ransomed. Lucky bastards. You know what they all had in common?” I asked. He didn’t respond. “They all said something akin to what you just said.” He stared at me blankly. I got up rubbing off my shins “I saw your Queen first hand and despite what they call her I can tell she cares, she’ll ransom you I know it.” I looked at him, his face gone sour. “I suspect you do too. You can keep your secrets, you’ll need them.”
I began walking up the stairs, each board groaning in protest, when I was halfway up he spoke “The other one tenth, what happened to them?” I paused leaning my head back into the cellar “They escaped.” I said and gave him a shit eating grin “Wouldn’t recommend that though, we broke the legs of the ones we caught.”
The man in the cellar gave me a long hard look, not giving an inch. I could tell he was evaluating my words, running the risk of what I said against what he knew to be true about his queen. I gave him a moment before continuing, "If you do think of trying let me know, I'll break your legs then and there and we can skip all the running." he scoffed, closed his eyes and said nothing more.
I headed back up the stairs and out of the cellar, leaving the man with his thoughts. Reji was still at the table lost in thought.
"She'll trade for him." I said, he looked up disrupted from his trance "What? Why would she?"
I looked at Reji, at the man who had betrayed me not once but twice, the man who would’ve traded me for a mountain of gold without a second thought, the man who ruined me and her.
“Cuz’ he’s loyal and she is too.” I said.
A rare thing these days.
The Great Canyon was a place that made men feel small, even me. Stretching for miles like a gaping wound in the earth. The flowing sands of the desert just stop, drop off into an abyss. I peered over the edge staring into the darkness. Rough and jagged sandstone walls, seemingly carved out by some immense force.
“She must be deranged, why on earth would she trade for a slave?” Reji asked, still in disbelief.
I glanced at him but said nothing, I doubted he would ever understand. Moving away from the cliff edge I studied our meeting place. Reji had scrounged together a handful of men recruited from his various contacts, all the grisly type who had no better work to turn to than treason. Camels and getaway carriages stood at the ready if the sentries detected a larger than expected force coming our way. The Queen was loyal but as I had seen she was also conniving, I wouldn’t put it past her to try something, would myself.
It had taken some convincing but eventually Reji had sent the letter to the palace, describing our desire to trade and the subtle threat of execution. She had responded within the hour describing a time and place to carry out the trade, meeting with equal forces. It was a place where we could easily escape should we need to, evidently she was trying to make us feel as safe as possible.
I walked over to where the prisoner, whom I now knew was named Chunnly, was being held by a couple grisled mercenaries. One who wore an eye patch and hook for a hand flashed me a disgusting smile “Ready for a fight Brutus?” he asked. I nodded “Always. I’ll watch over the prisoner you two can go.” I said. They looked at each other “What should we do?” he asked “Fuck eachother for all I care.” I said and they chuckled walking away, most likely to drink by the smell of them.
Chunnly sighed as I stood beside him “Not sure if this is better or worse.”
I shrugged, “Think I smell better at least.”
His face scrunched up in thought “Marginally” he said and I laughed patting him on the back making him stumble a bit “That’s the spirit.” He flashed me an annoyed look but went back to looking out over the desert.
“She’ll come.” I said.
“I know.” he sighed, forcing his eyes away from the City that lay in the distance, he looked instead to the Canyon.
“Thinking of jumping?” I asked.
“Pushing you off.” he replied without missing a heartbeat.
I whistled “That’d take me out for sure, wouldn’t be more than mush inside my armor when I hit the bottom I expect.” he looked at me dubiously eyes scanning over the pauldron which had taken the ballista bolt, already the hole was nearly closed, self-repairing runes Reji had suggested. “Your armor is nothing simple, God knows why something so great landed in your hands.” he said.
If only you knew what it took for me to stand here in the armor at all, if only you knew what it took to not scream at the constant itch, hunger and pain. “Who knows.” I agreed.
“If the fall didn’t kill me the sand walkers would.” I continued. He looked surprised. “You believe in those things?” I laughed “I don’t believe in fairy tales usually. But if there's one thing I believe it’s dead men. Not one party sent into the Canyon has ever made it back.” The Ourlous company had been offered a contract to explore the canyon once, luckily Reji always did his research and the risks came out to be too great for what was offered.
“Rumors call them sand walkers but the name doesn't matter much, what do is that you wind up dead.” I said, catching a glimpse of metal glinting in the distance. “It’s your lucky day Chunnly, your Queen has come.”
Chunnly sighed like a man who was being forced to drink poison. I watched as the entourage approached, a dark carriage at its center. Palace guard on camel back surrounded it and a battalion of Ironhide troops followed up the rear. As they reached us Chunnly stood, his jaw set and a determined glint in his eyes.
The entourage stopped some fifty feet from us and the carriage door opened. Queen Azeal stepped out, tight fitting black uniform and crown of cold iron. She might have looked young and beautiful, I could almost see it if I squinted real hard. But the times hadn’t been kind to her, her left eye was glossy and her face marred by ugly burns. She walked slowly with a limp, dragging her cane forward and foot after. Her mouth was twisted into an ever present smirk, as if she knew some joke we didn’t. Her good eye glanced over us cold and burning with fury, only softening once she saw Chunnly alive and well.
Reji stepped up beside me scowling at the Queen like she had killed his mother. “We’ve got your man here, have you got mine?” he shouted.
Azeal's smirk stretched wider, her good eye twinkled as she spoke. "You mean your little Empire agent? She's here." Reji stiffened at her words. Queen Azeal glanced back gesturing and one Ironhide disappeared behind the carriage and returned a few moments later leading one sorry looking Anna by a rope.
It brought me great joy to see Anna's bruised burned skin, although it irked me to see how she still smiled. “Then we trade.” Reji called out, he gestured for me to step forward and I patted Chunnly on the back forcing him to walk forward. A handful of palace guards and Ironhides stepped forward from their end. The walk took moments but it felt longer as these things do.
“Why do you fight her?” Chunnly asked as we walked.
I grunted “Don’t got a choice in it.” He looked at me like I was some sort of fool, looking my armor up and down. “That might be the biggest lie I’ve ever heard.” I frowned. What did he know? Did he think I wanted to grow up hungry? Think I wanted to fight dirty wars? Think I wanted to starve out that city? Think I wanted to betray her!?
The memory of the crying Mother flashed in my mind. Did he think I wanted to kill her son? That I wanted to be a slave? “You know nothing.” was all I said. He glanced at the Queen who stared at us from far away. “Her Father was a monster, burned and beat her almost every other day. He too told me that he had no choice.” I blinked, wanting to say more but we had reached the other party. The other guards looked at me nervously, white knuckles gripping their blades, I snorted and pushed Chunnly forward. They checked him as if he might somehow be a fake, I rolled my eyes but they eventually pushed Anna towards me. I looked at her messy hair, prisoner garb and missing fingernails.
“Have a good time did you?” I asked untying her.
“The best.” she said grinning in a way that sent a shiver down my spine, we began waking back. “The guards kept bragging that their captain stabbed you dead.” she stated.
“He tried.” I grunted and she nodded in what I suspect was egotistical self-gloat that something she made had withstood a thirty man trap. We got back to Reji and she instantly whispered something into his ear, Reji’s eyes widened then grew sharp. He went off to speak to the rough band of our mercenaries standing around. “You may want to get ready to fight.” Anna said.
“Fighting here wouldn’t be wise. We’re dead even in men and the Ironhide’s have finished setting up a ballista.” I said pointing out the armed and ready siege armament. I didn’t want to take another bolt through the shoulder, or head for that matter.
“Exactly.” was all that she said in response.
A moment later Reji commanded the mercenary troops to attack, charging the palace guard with a deafening roar. The palace guards were surprised by the reckless attack but proved more than capable of holding their ground. Chopping through chainmail with artifact blades. Things would only get worse once the Ironhide's in the back started shooting the ballista and joined the fray. I saw them take aim and shoot... right into the backs of unsuspecting palace guards.
I looked to see Anna smiling smugly, her grin evil. “Lady Ironhide has a love for money. The Empire's coffers are large.” she said.
The Ironhides quickly advanced, pincering the palace guard from the back, while the mercenaries and their makeshift army assailed them from the front. The situation quickly turned from a mere skirmish to a full-scale slaughter. The equipment and skill of the palace guard were unmatched but they were outnumbered and those ballista bolts would run a man through. Arrows whizzed past, ballista bolts flew through the air and blades clashed as soldiers fought for their lives.
I saw the Queen shouting a string of vivid insults at the Ironhide captain but he only responded by shooting more of her men. Chunnly was at her side and seemed to be urging her back to the carriage. But how would she get through such a melee?
The answer came soon enough as the palace guard split its forces into two, one holding off the makeshift army and the other the Ironhides. Opening up a path that the crippled Queen began to limp down, Chunnly at her side.
The Queen's escape appeared to be successful for a moment. Her guards were taking heavy losses but holding. However, this was not to be, as one of the Ironhide captains took aim with the ballista and fired. The bolt flew through the air and would have slammed into the Queen's back if Chunnly had not pushed her aside. The bolt instead took him in the back, sending him flying and pinning him to the ground. The Queen screamed out in rage and horror as she realized what had happened.
The palace guard spurred on by their Queen's fury went about the grim duty of advancing on the ballista drawing its attention in full. The Queen knelt by Chunnly's body as if she could somehow save him. "We mustn't let her escape. Kill her Brutus." Anna said, in a tone that told me she was enjoying this. I began to lumber forward picking up speed slowly, my feet sank into the sand deeply making running laborious but I trudged on. A few mercenaries looked back and yelped, jumping out of the way. The others weren’t so lucky. I slammed into mercenaries and Palace Guard alike, sending them tumbling as I broke into the open path between the carriage and the Queen.
There she was, ruler of the City. Patting Chunnly attempting to rouse him oblivious that I was approaching her. I stood before her, a leader who wept for her subject, who walked into a trap for him and I felt angry.
“He’s dead," I said.
The Queen ignored me and continued to pat Chunnly, trying to revive him. She was in denial, desperately clinging to the hope that she could somehow save him. For some reason I grew furious and grabbed the bolt stuck in him and pushed it in deeper "He's dead!" I shouted. Chunnly didn't rouse but the Queen cried out in half despair, half fury. She got up scrambling to support herself with her cane, her crown tumbled off her head letting disheveled black hair flow. She looked at me, eyes teary and angry. “I KNOW!” she screamed back. “I know.” she said again more quietly.
“Just- just finish it. I was never monster enough to be Queen.” she said. I looked at the dead body of her faithful servant and was surprised to find myself grabbing her by the scruff of her uniform picking her up to eye level. I was even more surprised by the words I screamed “What was he to you!?” she blinked in confusion and discomfort at being held “Was he just a slave? Just some life to be used?” I continued and she grew furious “FUCK NO! He was- he was Chunnly.” she said with fury them simmering remembrance. “THEN FIGHT!” I screamed, shaking her out of self-pity “Fight tooth and nail, scrape by and stab, bite and spit in their eye, whatever you got to do to live.” I said putting her down “Otherwise you might as well have killed him yourself.”
I bent down picking up the cane she had dropped with a bloody gauntlet handing it to her, she looked at me then back to Chunnly’s body. Her face flashed with emotion, grief, fury, despair and finally nothing. It all fell off and all that remained was a slight smirk as she pulled out a dagger with her free hand.
“Strike me down if you can.” she said. I said nothing while looking at her, wondering why I wasn’t doing what I had been told. Why wasn't I killing her? If I killed her I could have it all, Reji would rule and I’d get every luxury under the sun. She flashed in my mind, eyes scanning me then walking away.
Is this worth fighting for? She said disappearing.
A few mercenaries broke through the palace guard line and rushed towards the Queen, spurred on by greed and hunger for more. I saw myself in them. Azeal only laughed madly as they came, surprising me and them. She lunged at the first one dagger dancing out and taking the man in the throat, she fell with a pained gasp as her crippled leg gave out.
The other mercenary’s eyes flashed with fear but seeing the struggling Queen he moved in. Chunnly you fool, your choice got you killed and look at her, she’ll still probably lose. I felt the squirming within me, the hunger and pain at the edge of my mind and as the mercenary was coming up going for the kill and I swatted him aside sending him crumpling into the ground.
Azeal looked up at me, eyes surprised.
“Get up.” I said absently looking at my hand. She did, struggling to her feet.
“Brutus! What are you doing!? Kill her!” I heard Reji shout and saw him at the other end of the space between the palace guards, he had his scimitar out and it was dripping with blood. I stepped in front of Azeal, facing off against Reji with no weapons. His eyes were full of rage and his expression twisted with hatred, at me, at her, maybe at the world.
“Brutus, you're supposed to kill her!” he shouted.
“No.” I said firmly. “I choose not to.”
Reji snarled, stepping closer with each word. “We almost have everything, would you throw it all away?” he hissed.
Ah Reji you fool, how could you not see it? I can hardly even taste the food anymore, feel the touch of a woman or enjoy the rays of sun without being called a monster. I shook my head slowly, gazing into his eyes. “All I have left is the fight, and I wish to fight for her." I looked back to Azeal and saw her eyes wide with disbelief. "We back off slowly to the carriage." I said. She nodded after some time, beginning to limp back to safety.
Reji had seen what I could do first hand and wasn’t a fool. He didn’t charge at me blindly but instead started chopping down the palace guard from behind, one on each front they went down swiftly and without a fight. As each one went down Ironhide’s and mercenaries began to pour in around the edges surrounding the quickly shrinking lines. I urged Azeal to go faster. “Do I look like a speedy woman?” she snapped back but started going faster with pained grunts for each step.
“What about my men?” she asked through ragged breaths.
“Your men are dying so you can escape. They can’t.” I replied.
“But-” she tried and I cut her off. “They are going to die and it’s your fault. Next time do better. Enough talk, hurry!”
Azeal and I were almost making it back to the carriage when it was shot by a ballista bolt in the last second. She screamed, crumpling to the ground as splinters of wood flew about us. I looked back and saw Reji had managed to position himself behind the ballistas and ordered them to destroy our last escape route. With a maniacal laugh he shouted "I won't let this slip by Brutus, I cannot lose now!" I stood up, my eyes blazing. I picked up Queen Azeal by the scruff of her uniform placing her on her feet, she had gotten a splinter impaled in her left arm and it was bleeding. “We must fight.” I said. She looked exhausted and pained but nodded, gripping her knife, good.
Already a swath of Ironhide’s and mercenaries were streaming down the middle finishing off what little palace guard remained. I felt the blood in my ears begin to thump and the things inside me begin to rage. “Stay behind me.” I said and made a beeline to the right, pushing in front of the remaining Palace Guard and quickly dispatching the deadlocked mercenaries there, freeing up men to fight for her Queen. The palace guard looked surprised and unsure of whether to thank me or attack me, luckily their Queen directed them accordingly, setting them against the flanking horde of enemies. They would hold, but not for long.
I made my way through the remaining mercenary line with savage violence. The clonk and scrape of metal on metal. Thud and grunt and weapons and limbs bounce off armor. The beat of my breath and pounding heart, my body warming up, no burning! I let loose a savage scream grabbing discarded weapons and beating down the foes that stood before me catching faces of angry and more often fearful faces through the slits in my great helm. Sometime later I was breathing heavy and Queen Azeal was beside me, her dagger and face bloodier than I remembered, in front of us a handful of palace guards held off the remaining large amount of forces but we were giving ground at an alarming rate, backing off towards the canyon edge. Worse yet there was the constant periodic thrum of a ballista bolt firing, the most recent one taking out a mercenary and palace guard alike, vicious tactics to fire upon your own troops.
Queen Azeal looked up at me breathing heavily “Are you here now?” she asked. “Aye.” I said. She nudged a two handed ax that was nearby a fallen mercenary. “Can you do what you did before, break the ballista?” she asked.
I picked up the two handed ax, felt its weight and shape and nodded, she grinned back like a wolf. I gripped the ax spinning like a sand storm and hurled it with all my might, it flung over the heads of the clashing foot soldiers and flew soundly slamming into the ballista smashing it apart. “Gods, it’s much better to be on this side of that throw.” Azeal said from beside me.
This would help but I looked at the remaining combined forces of the mercenaries and the Ironhide’s and counted over forty remaining, worse yet some were picking up the artifact weapons dropped by the dead palace guard. Well all we could do was fight, as long as me and the few palace guards in front of me could rotate we might be able-
Two palace guards went down at the edges of their front, the one on the left had his head hacked off by Reji’s artifact scimitar and the one on the right had a blade driving into his neck by one smirking Anna. “I thought you were done with your rebellious phase.” Anna said smiling at me “Perhaps we need another session together, I’ve thought up so many new things we can try!” she continued and I felt my breathing go ragged as I remembered my time on the operating table “No thanks.” I spat and she pouted at me. I roared flinging myself at her but she danced away, the mercenaries took my attention and out of the corner of my eye I saw Anna and Reji making short work of the remaining guards.
Soon enough they were all dead and we were surrounded, the cliff edge at our backs Queen Azeal was behind me and I smashed any mercenary or Ironhide who was foolish enough to approach. Queen Azeal looked at them beside me, spitting on the ground. “To think you’d sell out your own people”. Reji laughed “There are no people in the City, there's only you and them.” Reji and Anna were holding back the troops from an all out assault knowing I might still be able to push them back. It wouldn’t be enough though, they could keep us here all day, go fetch another ballista and while I may be able to escape Queen Azeal wouldn’t.
Reji started speaking, realizing exactly what I had “What’s it gonna be, Brutus, us-” I cut him off “Fuck you Reji” and felt immense joy as his face grew furious.
I grabbed Queen Azeal, turned and looked down the Canyon, into its deep dark depths. "What are you doing?" Azeal asked from my grip. I thought back to Chunnly for a moment, of the small man who made a big choice, one that got him killed. A smaller man in some ways, bigger in others. "I wonder if it will hurt when we hit the bottom." I said and jumped. The world slowed and for just a moment all eyes were on us, every mercenary, Ironhide and I even suspect a God or two were watching.
Reji was stunned, Anna screamed, the Queen gasped and me?
I fucking laughed.