“Saturday.” Bace whispered the moment he woke. He sat up and signed ‘good morning’ to his roommate. Nick was deaf and mute. He had been since childbirth so when Bace knew he would be rooming with him for the next eleven years he took the time to learn the silent man’s language. They were both quite fluent in it and Bace had always appreciated the quiet company. At first the thought of learning the complicated motions with his hands and fingers seemed a daunting task but after a year of engrossing himself in the study it didn’t take long before he was able to have a conversation with Nick. He had learned the language in a year where it had taken Nick nearly four times longer. Nick looked at him, excitement drawing his features taught. Nick hated running and Saturday was the only day of the week when they didn’t have to. Bace looked forward to Sunday more as they were free to roam wherever they wished as long as they could make it back by sundown. Most of the Academy went into the city to visit family or flit about with their girls. The younger boys were usually found ambling about the streets, visiting shops and flirting with the local girls. Bace had neither a family nor a girl but he always went along, not knowing what else he should do. Leaving the academy was refreshing though he spent his day with his head hung and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible. He took his duty very seriously; for once the boys were in their final year they were required to police on Sunday if they met any trouble. Bace looked for trouble while most boys dealt with it if it came or snuck away from it. He tried to catch the thieves and cheats in action because he felt it as his duty and wanted to practice as much as he could before he graduated into a Knight. He occasionally stopped for a bite to eat or a drink but the markets rarely drew him in. He didn’t care much for the attention that the women seemed to expect from the young trainees. In fact, Bace avoided women as much as he could. They were too flighty for him. Too unpredictable.
Bace stepped out of their room as he finished pulling a thick wool sweater onto his sturdy frame and then shook his head to settle his hair. The morning air brought on new smells and he took great pleasure in the heady scent of the frochen berries that grew between the trees when he entered the forest. The thick smell of pine cleared his nose as he stirred their needles when he passed over. He loved the Pine Trail for its thick layer of needles on the ground that let him be perfectly silent as he ran. Most believed that a mouse wouldn’t even stir in its knoll when he passed by on the early mornings. When he broke through the tree line again an hour later he could see everyone gathered outside already. As he drew closer he caught sight of Kale who awkwardly glanced over. Bace pulled himself together and started towards the young man. Kale turned himself away from everyone. They shook hands when they met.
“Bace, I’ve had a chat with the Headmaster this morning already.” Bace raised his eyebrows, a brief form of facial expression rarely seen on him. “I’ve heard so much about you. I’m really very pleased.”
“Careful, rumors are terribly twisted creatures.” Bace warned lightly.
“But still, I’m immensely happy. In truth, I was starting to get rather bored.” Kale replied and laughed.
“Good?” Kale asked, trying to keep up with the man he never expected to be shaking hands with.
“That means I can help you. Your first lesson starts today.” Bace replied, glancing over at the ever-growing group of boys and men.
“Today, Sir?” Kale asked.
“Bace would be fine, I’m not a Sir yet and yes, just do your best in the games today. Wouldn’t want that beast in the wrong hands.” As if in reply the crowd roared and the head of the mighty animal rose above the crowd and then sank down again. Bace turned back again. Kale watched, mesmerized as the horse squealed and rose again, this time lashing out with its hooves. The crowd hooted and hollered, ducking and moving as the Horsemaster struggled to control the beast.
“Are you kidding me? I’ve got a horse and do you know how many older boys will be fighting with all they’ve got today for that thing?” Kale struggled with his side of the argument as Bace appeared perfectly calm. Kale swallowed.
“Well, you and... other people. This isn’t my first war, Kale. Just do the best you can.”
“But I like my mount. He’s a fine breed.”
“Yes, I know but he’s also showing lame in his front hooves. You take him on one more ride that’s further than the city boundaries and you’ll be stuck walking.”
“I know.” Kale sniffed.
“I know you know. You’re not a moron.”
“You two sound like my mom and sister when they’re arguing.” Stephen suddenly emerged from the crowd and grinned.
“Who’s mum?” Bace asked.
“I call the sister.” Kale smirked.
“Have you seen the prize today?” Stephen stepped in front of them, wide eyed like he’d just been peeking under a lady’s skirt. His voice was loud with excitement.
“It’s kind of hard to miss, Stephen.” Bace grinned down at the boy. Kale smiled but then looked around at the young men who stood sweating over the Saturday winnings and sizing each other up like a heap of meat on their plate at the end of a hard day. Stephen swatted Kale on the shoulder for Bace.
“You’ll be fine. You’re a natural.” Bace said before walking away. Stephen started backing away to follow but grinned at Kale.
“You’ll be fine. You’re a natural!” He exclaimed in the best Aribani accent he could muster. Kale grinned again and shook his head as Stephen took to his heels most likely with the sole intentions of irritating Bace in the lunch room.
“READY. DRAW. RELEASE!” Bace released the seventh arrow with all the other boys who had wanted to participate. The hum of a few dozen arrows whistled through the air and bit into their targets a second later. Most men loved the thrill of shooting in unison. It was one thing to practice alone but when you had a few dozen men on either side of you with the same stinging skills all releasing at the same time it certainly sent a surge of adrenaline through your veins and into your skull. Bace was managing to keep up his own skills as he quietly gave instructions to Kale and occasionally to Stephen behind him. He caught a taunting grin from Mash down the line but then refocused his attention to his own task. The crowd seemed to be visibly drooping. The ‘prize’ had been stabled as the Horsemaster decided he’d like to have the animal to himself and then release it into another set of eager hands when he deemed it ready. Everyone was disappointed and now fought only for a European truffle collected from the local market.
“Raise and draw further. Feel the pull across your chest and let the draw weight tighten your back.” He told the young man. He watched the corrections in the corner of his eye as the man adjusted and then fired as their instructor yelled ‘RELEASE’. They followed the same pattern, being forced to keep up with the steady pulse of the instructor. Kale suddenly fumbled and fired a beat behind everyone else as he tried to sneak it in and recover.
“Relax and remember to draw with your back and aim with your eyes, not the tip of your arrow.” Bace quietly taught. Kale nodded and rolled his neck and shoulders to release the tension as he nocked another arrow. Kale seemed to have an undeterred stamina but an unpredictable shot. His form would keep his points up enough. The points were based on age. The younger you were, the bigger the points were, making it manageable for the younger ones to win occasionally too. Bace slowly started to withdraw his accuracy as the final shots were made and he knew that his points would slowly begin to deteriorate, bringing him back down to average. Nobody can make every shot. He thought to himself as he aimed for the outer ring of the target. When they finally set down their bows to let the next group in Kale turned to him.
“You did that on purpose.” He said quietly. The two of them stood back to watch the second group, both crossing their arms at the same time without realizing. They were shortly joined by a group of young ladies who eyed them mischievously and twirled pastel colored scarves through their fingers. Kale flushed but Bace brought him back.
“What?” Bace asked, though he knew what was coming.
“Your shots were all perfect until the last few.” Kale continued, flushing again as the ladies let the scarves flow in the breeze.
“Guess I messed up. My muscles were getting tired.” Kale looked over at him, forgetting about the girls.
“Your muscles were tired?” His words dripped with fake sympathy.
“Yeah, I’m allowed to mess up too, aren’t I?” Bace shrugged.
“No.” Kale whispered as the ladies rolled their eyes and shifted their attention over to another group of men. Bace walked over to the score tables. Kale and Stephen were doing well. In fact, everyone seemed to be doing remarkably well. For the first time that day Bace thought it might not be so easy to win this after all. He walked back over and received a questioning glance from both Kale and Stephen.
“Relax.” He said quietly. Kale tried his best to nonchalantly shake out his tension but ended up looking like a turkey on Thanksgiving morning. Stephen looked at him with an honest look of concern on his face.
“Time to saddle up.” Bace said only moments before their Battlemaster shouted the same thing. As they saddled Bace suddenly became aware of movement at the barn doors. He stopped what he was doing and shushed Kale who was talking to his horse. They both turned to face the colorfully dressed Messenger. He drew a scroll open and started yelling out a few choice names. Bace was among them. When he heard his full name called so loudly into the open air he immediately felt exposed but forced himself to step forward. The Messenger continued yelling the names of every man Bace had come close to over the years.
“You are to report to the main field immediately with weapons at hand.” Bace stepped forward again down the hallway between the stalls.
“What’s this about?” He asked and he heard a few others voice support behind him. He heard all the other names that had been called step forward. A dagger was slid into its sheath.
“I have no further instructions except that you are to report armed and ready on your charges.” A few of the men glanced at Bace and mounted as the Messenger disappeared. Bace walked over to Kale who watched the six others that had been called.
“They’re all either in their second last or final year.” He said.
“They’re all the best.” That answered every question Kale had running through his head. Bace suddenly understood and turned to Kale as he grabbed his last few things and secured them either to himself or his mount. “Something’s happened. See you around.” He grunted as he mounted. Kale nodded up at him and offered a half grin.
“Be careful.” He said as the seven men rode out of the building one after another. A few of the younger students that were left behind glanced nervously at each other. A few of them shrugged and the boldest of them began belting out a hymn that Kale could recall singing along with his father’s violin.
The group rode towards the only possible destination they could pick out at the edge of the field where their Headmaster sat on his mount. Bace felt his spirits rise at the thought of having their Master come with them but the feeling sank when he saw no leather or weapons on the man. When they reached their Master, they settled their mounts in a row before him and saluted in unison. Their mounts, that had by now sensed a change in their master’s moods, stamped nervously and shifted into one another. Bace’s mount remained stock ready, listening intently to his master’s every wish and ignoring the nervous rumps that bumped into them.
“There has been a mass killing in the city today and multiple citizens are still being held hostage on the scene with a price on their heads.”
“Ransom?” Destre interrupted.
“But what about the Knights?” Mash asked. “Isn’t this their job?”
“All but those who were left behind to guard the King were sent to aid our brothers further north where the Pari’s recently devoured a few coastal cities to which the reason remains unknown.” Bace barked. The Headmaster held up a hand to settle them.
“The Parish attacked because they thought we had taken their beloved Princess which is when she showed up at their doorstep with burrs in her hair and tired feet.” The Headmaster tried to hide a grin.
“Bet she got lost on her way home from the tea shop.” Keel tossed a coin in the air which Destre caught and then pulled his hood over his head and held it shut like an old maid.
“Oh, I have so much tea in my tummy I think I must go walk it off. Oh wait, is that a pastry?” He said in the worst Parish accent Bace had ever heard but all the men hooted with laughter.
“Don’t get your hose in a knot.” Keel joined in with an equally terrible accent.
“I bet she was looking for Aribani.” Destre tossed a coin in the air this time and Keel almost dropped it as he doubled over in laughter but kept up the conversation.
“Arid, oh Arid! You naughty thief. Kiss me one more time, won’t you?” He said in a high-pitched voice. The group’s laughter rolled away and soon they had heads peeking out of the stables wondering what they were hearing. The Headmaster was wiping tears from his eyes but he finally managed to quiet the group of howling Pari’s.
“I want the seven of you to ride to the city and put an end to this massacre. As far as we know the offenders are small in numbers. The message stated there could be no more than three men on the scene.” Mash snorted but the Headmaster glared as he was interrupted again. Mash nodded an apology and grew quiet. “I trust all of you to do the best you can.” The Headmaster hesitated for the first time since they arrived. “I have chosen you personally for this task. Be safe and look out for one another. Work together.” He finished and saluted heartily to the seven men. They returned the salute and then turned towards the city.
“He looked worried. He doesn’t think we can do this.” Shag said, suddenly beside Bace. The men looked at each other.
“I guess we better prove him wrong then.” Bace shrugged and the men turned to the comfort of their own thoughts until they reached the city.
“Looks like everyone’s taken to the Palace.” Mash pointed up the hill to where the Palace gate was closing the last person in. Bace had always understood that the city had the best of Kings and it always baffled him that, like a mother bird, he took his people under the safety of his own wings when they were in danger. It only took a minute or so to ride into the city and it didn’t take them long to find the first body. The group dismounted and Mash sent Scale over to check the woman’s pulse as they took cover in between the buildings. They each signaled their horses to remain where they stood unless summoned and then turned back to the task at hand. All horses at the Academy were trained for such a task. Scale looked up at Mash and shook his head. Bace was crouched behind a large barrel when he heard a loud sob from within as if the small body could see the declaration that his mother was dead. Bace lifted the barrel lid and pulled a small boy out. He could have only been three, maybe four. The men around him shook their heads. The boy groped for Bace’s neck and pulled himself in. Bace wrapped his arms around the boy to steady him and keep the weight off his neck. He looked at Mash as the boy cried into his shoulder. Mash shrugged.
“Get rid of him.” Mash whispered. It sounded harsh but they needed every man they had. Bace turned into the nearest house and shut the door behind him. He walked into the kitchen and found what he was looking for. He opened the cellar latch and climbed down.
“Hey little man. You’re safe now.” Bace whispered and lowered the boy to the ground. The boy was covered with dirt and his mother’s blood but he looked Bace right in the eyes. “Alright.” Bace looked around and found a lamp upstairs still burning. He brought it down and hung it on the ceiling. A voice yelled at him from above. Bace looked up but then down at the boy again. It felt so wrong to leave him.
“I have to go now. You stay here and I’ll come get you as soon as I can.” Bace said all he could before another holler sounded from above. The boy grabbed at his pant leg as he started climbing the ladder.
“What’s your name kid?” Bace asked.
“Mel.” Called the small voice.
“Good, Mel, you have to be brave now. I need you to be brave for me, okay. I have to go stop the bad guys now.” The boy hesitated but then let go of Bace’s leg. Bace finished climbing and then closed the trap door. He exited the building and looked back at it to memorize its position so he could indeed come back for the boy.
“Did you have a nice picnic?” Mash asked.
“Sorry.” Bace suddenly became aware of the killers yelling at each other further down the street. They ran forward together, as quietly as they could and finally came to the original City Square which was much smaller than the new one that had recently developed as the city grew. A well sat in the center and a hotel wrapped around three sides with a balcony on the first and second floor joining the sides. The men positioned themselves at one corner of the fourth side of the Square. They stopped, still in the shadows. Mash turned to them.
“Split up. Make a perimeter and remember there are two floors here. Find out as much as you can and then report back here. I’ll be waiting.” He whispered quietly. The men had been right to turn to him for leadership. He was at the top of the logistics and managing tactics class. They split up evenly, spreading out around the building and gathering the layout of the area as quietly as they could. A few of them stopped and stared at the bodies littering the square. Bace peeled his gaze away, trying to focus on finding the hostages. Bace climbed to the upper floor of the surrounding motel and quietly crept along the deck that connected all the rooms from the outside. He explored every room one by one discovered all six positions of the offenders below each with their own four or five hostages. Everything had grown quiet, every man knowing that he was probably being watched by another that he couldn’t see. By the time Scale caught sight of the hidden archer on the roof it was too late. The arrow was loose and he had already chosen his target. The only target directly available from the higher perch. The only target not shaded by the deck and lower floors of the building.
Scale’s training told him not to shout out. It would give away his position but the moment he realized what was happening he signaled to the other men that they had an archer above and a man down. When Bace’s initial cry from the impact sounded in the square a series of shuffling and nervous gasps came from inside the buildings. All were silenced with a soft ‘thud’ from their captors who suddenly started calling out to each other again. Scale had sprung into motion like a cat. He crept briskly, pulling a helper with him on his way.
Chaos started the moment the two started scaling the stairwell. Chaos was exactly what Bace had wanted but he hadn’t hoped it would come at such a cost. The moment he felt the arrow slam into his body he fell to the floor boards and broke off a sleek arrow shaft that protruded from his shoulder. He quickly drew and took aim before the archer could take another step. He heard the hard thud of the body hit the ground below and then he heard the bandits strike out in panic as their comrade hit the ground in the middle of the square with a thick arrow protruding from his head. Bace picked out the voice of the enemy commander in an instant. They were orders to kill. He heard the clash of steel as his friends below him took up the fight but he dared not take his eyes off the rooftops in fear of another attack from above. Numbers were in their favor until Bace heard the cries of at least a dozen more men come crashing up from the cellars. Bace new he only had seconds before his arm would go numb with the pain. He quickly surrendered his bow and the pain hit him like a brick wall. He wasn’t able to take cover before a second archer suddenly crested the rooftop. Their eyes met for a second as the archer let another arrow loose towards him. Bace rolled to the side and heard the arrow sink into the wood. He quickly rolled again to his back and then felt a slight pressure in his stomach. He looked down and watched a thin arrow quiver in his flesh. His clothes were matted with blood and he felt as if his blood was on fire yet he felt as if he were plastered with ice.
Bace managed to crawl into a small motel room just as Scale and Keviin breached the top of the stairs. Keviin quickly grabbed Scale by the arm and pulled him back just as an arrow sank into the wood over his previous position. Scale looked at Keviin, could see him calculating. The moment a warning arrow hit the wood in front of them Scale stepped out, let two arrows fly skillfully one after the other and watched as both found their mark. He then turned and started back down the stairs, pulling Scale with him. Scale restrained.
“Whoa, whoa. What about Bace?” He asked.
“There are too many for us to handle out there. Never mind Bace being down and the two of us doctoring him. Bace can look after himself.” Scale looked back up the stairs hesitantly but then bounded down after Keviin. They entered the square one after another and each ran in with an inhuman calm spreading over them. They felt like they belonged. They had been training for something like this their entire lives. Four men were down, none belonged to the Academy. Keviin had another down in a second but he felt the powerful blow of a wooden club hit him in the gut a moment later. He collapsed to the ground and felt another blow of a boot hit him in the gut and then a club cracked him in the back. He collapsed, expecting another blow to the head but suddenly felt a man standing over him. Scale was screaming with rage and slashed his sword across the big man’s chest. The man fell and convulsed on the ground.
“Up and at’em, pretty Susan. You’re not tired already, are you?” Scale pulled Keviin to his feet with his good arm and then quickly turned back, his sword now in his left hand. Keviin grabbed his sword, turning to meet his new opponent. Keel wasn’t doing much better, he couldn’t see through one eye and his head was throbbing like never before. He could feel the pressure of trouble around him and he couldn’t help but realize that he was hopelessly flanked. He could feel the breath of the blades around him as he struggled to stay out of their reach. The men smelled horrible and as he stumbled over a body and landed in their blood all he could remember was the stench of the dead man’s urine. The sun was blotted out momentarily as two men came at him but both suddenly collapsed, one a split second after another. He would have seen the arrows had he not been scrambling to his feet already. He looked back at the two on the ground and then followed the direction the arrows had come from.
“I thought you said the archer was dead!” Came the opposing commander’s voice. A man tried to explain but was cut off as he fell to the ground with an arrow in his neck, blood gurgling in the back of his throat. There came a crash from above and part of the railing tumbled to the ground. A few managed to look up and smile at Bace who kicked another part of the railing down and then swung his legs over the side. He wearily leaned against the railing to his right as he nocked another arrow. When he was ready, he drew and released quickly letting out a short moan before taking a short rest and nocking another arrow. He released again and then briskly applied pressure to his wounds before reloading and taking aim again. With Bace above and six highly skilled fighters below it only took a few more minutes before they realized it was only the six of them still standing with Bace sitting above.
“Why didn’t they surrender?” They all turned to Destre. Keel took a step towards the trembling man who pushed him. “Why didn’t they run?”
“Des, calm down.” Keel held a hand in front of him like he was keeping a wild beast at bay. “Des, put your blade away and we’ll talk.” Keel spoke calmly. The rule that had always been taught to them was to sheath any weapons at hand after a battle to signify a full surrender and ensure that no more blood was to be spilled. Destre gripped his sword firmly, tears in his eyes. Bace moaned from above but Destre stood before the only stairs that led to the second floor. Keviin took a step forward and held up both hands.
“Come on, Destre.” He said. “Bace is in trouble and I need to get to him.” Destre looked up at Bace who had lowered his back onto the boardwalk with his legs still dangling.
“Bace, you okay?” Mash called up. None of the men were aware of the second arrow that had pierced Bace’s stomach. ‘One arrow makes a man but two destroys one’ was the saying they had all been taught in medical class.
“I’m seriously dizzy but if I close my eyes-” Came his muffled reply which trailed off till it was inaudible. The men looked at each other.
“How many, Bace?” Mash yelled up again. It took a moment for Bace to pull himself together. He held up two fingers. Scale didn’t wait a moment longer. He quickly turned, jumped at the wall and climbed to Bace with all intentions of meeting haste.
“How is he?” Mash called up. Scale leaned over him a moment too long. “Ben!” It was Scale’s real name. He leaned back over to look at them.
“I don’t think he has much longer.” As the men focused on calming Destre below Scale intently tried to make sense of where exactly the wounds were. There was so much blood. Bace started slipping in and out of consciousness when Scale cut his leather armor and shirt free. He threw the sticky clothes away and pressed the wounds.
“The sun is very bright.” Bace mumbled and then covered his face with his arms, focusing on breathing deeply. Scale noticed his efforts.
“Good job old boy. Keep that up and we’ll have you better in no time.” Bace was trying to let his mind focus on how serious the situation was but something kept pulling him away. He needed to remember something. He became aware of Scale talking to him calmly and then it hit him. He opened his eyes and lowered his arms. He could barely speak above a whisper.
“Scale, the boy, I have to get Mel.” He choked and spat blood onto the boardwalk.
“Keep your mouth shut, Bace. I’ll take care of the boy.” It was the last thing Bace heard before his memory faded into a black hole and his body focused everything it had on healing him.