There was no trail to follow.
Rose had set out almost immediately after she visited Aliz to find the lost Hero. Her instincts had told her that the Princess had sought to connect with the Resistance, and she tried her level best to pay citizens of Bowerstone Industrial to give her clues to its location, but no one was willing to talk. Objectively speaking, Rose couldn't blame them; she herself was choosing not to live under Logan's tyrannical rule, only she was choosing to make a deal with the devil himself to secure her freedom. Rather than fight Logan head-on, Rose had chosen instead to use his weaknesses against him until he let her go of his own accord. This had seemed like a very smart plan three years ago when Logan first found her. Feeling no closer to her goal after all that time, both in terms of her freedom or capturing Aurora, Rose's mood grew sour.
She graduated from bribery to threats, but still no one knew where she could locate the center of the Resistance. When Rose saw a small brigade of elite soldiers marching into the center of Industrial, she decided she had overstayed her welcome.
It stood to reason that the Hero would leave Bowerstone to get as far away from Logan and his allies as possible. Rose bought some supplies and hurried east, towards Millfields. There she could go on to Brightwood, then if the Princess was not there Rose would be forced to search Brightwall and the Mistpeak Mountains. As Rose made her way out of Bowerstone, she considered whether the Princess would have gone somewhere more unsavory to hide, like Bloodstone in the south, or perhaps Silverpines, where few outsiders were welcomed and the roads treacherous. Perhaps the Princess would seek a murkier shadow to cast over herself like a cloak, rather than walk in places of light and life, where she might be more easily spotted.
As Rose curved around the path hugging the hills that descended into Millfields, her eyes found the turrets of Castle Fairfax, thrusting proudly over the skyline with its glittering windows for eyes that stared down imperiously upon its people. With a grim set of her jaw, Rose decided she could not imagine anyone in Logan's family descending to hide in such places, and without further doubt she set off for those parts of Albion associated with beauty and comfort to find her quarry.
For surely, all royalty could be counted the same; Princess Aurora may be a Hero, but Rose could not believe she would behave any differently than her King.
After finishing his pint, Walter left the pub with Aurora to find Ben and Samuel. Aurora had an idea.
Feeling more confident following her encounter with Theresa, Aurora lead the way uphill, Walter puffing irritably behind her as he fought to keep up.
"These hills are steep, Aurora. Have a heart."
Aurora could not slow down; her mind was whirring, filling with pictures that flowed like water over someone's hands, one exchanged over the other as she imagined how to execute the last two of Sabine's tasks.
Roosevelt sensed her excitement and bounded ahead, turning tail every so often to ensure his mistress kept pace. He controlled himself enough not to bark, but could not repress the occasional whine of happiness when he saw the light in Aurora's eyes.
The gained the top of the hill in record time – Walter was quite red and breathing heavily, despite years of marching – and Aurora once again bent open the bars to admit them before hurrying across the lawn to the Academy's entrance.
Samuel had lit some candles to chase away the shadows, and Aurora followed their trail to find him and Ben over a modest meal, chatting quietly.
"There you are," Ben said, raising his voice slightly. He and Samuel had pulled some of the squashy armchairs together around a small table, where they had laid out sandwiches. "Samuel offered to feed us and I thought; who am I to refuse?" Ben grinned.
Aurora thanked Samuel automatically before sitting down and launching into her plan, barely drawing a breath in her enthusiasm. Walter had been prepared to make social niceties and was about to cut across Aurora for manners' sake, but as he listened to Aurora lay out her strategy, he could not bring himself to interrupt the first sign of confidence in the Princess he had seen in over two years.
"What do you think?" Aurora finished, her face eager under the wide brim of her hat. The men all regarded each other in silence, smiling in varying degrees, before Walter answered.
"I think," Walter told her quietly, "You're going to make a wonderful Queen."
"And a devious one," Ben added, alight with mischief. "That's so squirrelly, it might actually work."
It was the closest to praise Ben had ever come, but even so Aurora gave him a dry look that he rejoined with a shameless grin.
"We should go speak with Sabine," Walter said, putting aside his napkin as he finished his meal.
"Yes, indeed," Samuel agreed, assessing the Princess keenly. "I should think this series of solutions will address our restricted access to resources rather nicely."
"So the elite soldiers guard all of Brightwall's supplies?" Ben asked.
"Yes, I am afraid so. You can purchase necessities from local merchants of course, but the bulk of stock is controlled by the elite soldiers. They monitor trade to ensure enough local profit is separated from the people to go back to the coffers in Fairfax."
Aurora shook her head; "Not for much longer, at least not in Brightwall."
"No," Samuel agreed, eyes twinkling. "I should think not."
Night had fallen, and so they resolved to rest for now and visit Sabine in the morning. Despite understanding the logic of this decision, Aurora was restless to get started. Samuel found them some bedrolls which they laid out in one of the abandoned common rooms so that they could sleep by a fire. Aurora was stiff at first, then began to toss and turn, sighing with frustration that they were not moving yet. When Roosevelt finally grumbled a sleepy protest, she got out of bed altogether and moved to stare out one of the windows, allowing herself some time to think and to enjoy the cool moonlight on her skin.
Both Walter and Ben were fast asleep, with Walter gently snoring. Ben looked even more boyish than he did awake, his face softened; if Aurora hadn't know any better, she might have even said he looked innocent.
There were a few shelves in this room and Samuel had kept books on them; none of the books had collected dust or been left to crack at the spines, and once again Aurora felt a pang of admiration for Samuel's efforts to preserve that which was good and worth keeping. She read the titles idly, scanning each spine and admiring their leather and gilded stamping. When one title in particular caught her eye, Aurora stopped and stared at it before ripping it off the shelf in a combination of curiosity and disgust.
Reaver on Reaver: an Autobiography.
This was a first edition copy; A rare privilege indeed, Aurora thought with revulsion. She opened the book and began flipping through it, unable to imagine that this pirate in dandy's clothing could have anything worthwhile to say for himself. When she realized she could not make sense of what was happening without first reading the beginning chapters, Aurora turned back to the first page, which read Prologue:
Dear devotees, you hold in your hands a slice of history. An unadulterated and adult-rated account on one of the longest, fullest and most scandalous lives ever lived. Mine. For the intellectually-challenged amongst you- and I can say with some certitude that such a definition includes most of you, my dear, dear readers- I present here a brief, abridged extract of one my least demanding chapters. I do hope you can keep up. Who knows? Perhaps your dim little minds will be encouraged to consume the entire volume. Not that I care a jot. I have your money already. And should you have shoplifted a copy, or far worse borrowed one from those appalling institutions known as libraries, be warned that I will find you and perform many of the acts described in chapter twelve upon your person. Now read on, my loves.
Aurora snorted, then looked quickly over her shoulder to ensure she had not woken the others. Roosevelt was now on his back, his legs pointed up with all four paws bent in complete relaxation, his head lolling to one side with his tongue pinkly loose in his jaw. Walter guttered a breath from beneath his mustache and sighed, and Ben was merely a tuft of straw-colored hair peeking over the edge of his blanket. Aurora returned her attention to Reaver's book.
The first chapter began with Reaver's birth, which Aurora skimmed over ("And on this particularly spectacular summer day, an event of prodigious importance took place: my birth;") then went on to describe his exploits as a small boy, including his already deft command of skill with the opposite sex at the age of five, as well as his hunger for adventure and incredible aim which marked him as the Hero of Skill he would one day become.
It was halfway through Reaver's detailed description of the loss of his virginity to the town's prettiest maiden at the age of thirteen that he said something Aurora actually thought worthy of noting:
It was a rather fitting beginning for my insatiable appetite for the opposite sex, which has been - quite predictably - answered in kind for the entirety of my considerable lifespan. I suppose that it was a taste of the excess I would be allowed to enjoy in all areas of my life, which has been allowed to me as it has been to others of outstanding character. Once so equipped to fully grasp at the skirt tails of pleasure and plunder, I cannot say I was sorry to see the end of my home village, stodgy and backward as it was. The feeble people from which my brilliance had sprung had never understood my importance, but their miserable lives did serve me in the end, and I suppose I shall remember them with a modicum of gratitude for their noble, if involuntary, sacrifice.
Aurora read this again, wondering what Reaver meant by this. She noticed with interest that Reaver never mentioned the name of his home village, and that although his ego seemed to be straining at the seams with the effort to contain itself, he also seemed frightened even as a silent voice on the page to fully disclose the details of whatever had happened there.
Deciding this might be important, Aurora took the volume for herself and stowed it in her pack, resolving to read more at a later time when it had not already so churned her stomach. Finally beginning to tire, Aurora snuggled back underneath her blanket, briefly disturbing Roosevelt, but soothing him with a soft arm wrapped around his body which she used to cuddle him close. As Roosevelt licked her sleepily and once again drifted off, Aurora thought hopefully again of tomorrow, and let the light of her optimism guide her to a night free of dreams.
Aurora was the first to waken in the morning and made use of this by fetching the others breakfast so they wouldn't grumble as much when she roused them out of bed.
There was a stall selling hot pies down in the cobbled square near the furniture shop, and Aurora bought four of them, inhaling the sweet scent of fresh dough right out of the oven. There was no way for her to transport tea for them, but she was able to refill her water flask at a well on the hill and she capped it with satisfaction, hurrying back so that her peace offering would not grow cold.
As expected, the men were not appreciative of the early hour, but they liked their pies well enough to overlook it. They all dressed and, leery of testing their luck further with the town guards, Aurora transported them all to the Sanctuary where they took her personal cullis gate to the one in the Dweller camp.
Aurora had the presence of mind to bring her mother's music box with her, knowing Sabine might not be enamored with the idea of assisting her in completing the tasks he had set for her to prove both her intentions and her skill. The guards admitted them more easily this time, although they seemed surprised to see her back so soon. She, Ben and Walter made quick work of the hill leading to Sabine's tent and found him there, already risen and bright-eyed, waiting for them expectantly.
"You have returned rather quickly, Princess," it sounded like an admonishment, and Aurora thought of that phrase he had warned her with the day before; Well-begun, half-done. Beside Sabine stood his personal guard Boulder, as well as Nicu, who was smiling at her crookedly. Jaelle and Aishe were there too, the latter of whom looked as sour as Nicu was sweet. Aurora ignored her, sparing a fleeting smile for Nicu. Ben noticed this and raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the other man, wondering what he had done to win that much of the princess's approval.
"I have news, and a plan," she told Sabine. Without further ceremony, she held up the music box for his inspection. While the others gasped and gaped, Sabine froze, eyes widening.
"You got it," he said, slightly incredulous. A smile began to slowly light up his face from within, transforming him into a much more light-hearted man. Aurora grinned in response.
"I did indeed and, if you're willing to give me a few minutes, I can tell you how we're going to get everything else."
Sabine gestured for Aurora to come closer; she obeyed, allowing him to take the box from her so that he could study it more closely. When he was done, Sabine handed it back to her, glowing with approval.
"Let us talk," he agreed, and they all followed him into his tent, where Besnik and Fonso once again stood guard. Once they were settled on their cushions, Aurora outlined her plans and Sabine listened intently, his wizened little face sharply intelligent.
"You have an interesting mind, Princess," he granted a few moments later as Aurora finished and paused to catch her breath. "It is comforting to know you can think so clearly for yourself and do not merely rely on the council of others."
"But?" Walter prompted, sensing the other man's hesitation. Sabine glanced at him before gazing again at Aurora, his expression calculating.
"I cannot say that it pleases me to think of my best men being put at risk for this endeavor. Our agreement was that we would lend you our help once you had met these demands and now you are asking me to help you in securing what we ask of you. What would you do, in my place?"
Aurora considered this carefully, knowing much hung on her answer. She sensed that Sabine was not as resentful as he may pretend, but was testing her in some way, just as he had the day before. She stole a look at Nicu who, though appearing perfectly at ease, gave her a wary nod as though to confirm her suspicions. Aurora took a deep breath and hoped she knew the right answer.
"I think," she replied cautiously, "That I would realize, even as a Hero, I cannot stand alone and that we will be strongest against my brother when we can all work together. I understand that you want reassurance of my abilities. You have that." Aurora indicated the music box beside her; "But now you are asking for things that require real change in the way things are done around here, and I cannot possibly make all of that happen on my own."
There was a tense pause in which all eyes swung to Sabine, awaiting his reaction. A few moments later, he broke it by offering his most brilliant smile yet and one, short nod of approval.
"You are right, my dear, and your mother's daughter after all. We will help you."
They all breathed a collective sigh of relief, save Aishe; Nicu grinned openly at Aurora now, holding his hand out to her in a sign of congratulation.
"So," he said with a waggle of his eyebrows, "Where do you need me?"
The suggestive undertone in his words was not lost on Aurora; she smirked at him and replied smartly, "Wherever you won't get into my line of fire. We're going to take those bastards down today, if you're up to it."
"I'm up to anything," he promised, not the least bit deterred and boldly staring at her. Aurora snorted, not willing to admit that she was mildly amused in front of him. Nicu winked, and Aurora shook her head, turning her attention to Sabine.
"So, we will need to replace the two guards at the gate first then take out the rest of the Elites in Brightwall."
"How many are there?" Ben asked; Walter was able to answer him, having calculated this information yesterday by watching the guard rotation.
"I would say twenty, at most. There are two guards at the gate; four for the city's stock of supplies; one at the Ye Quill and Quandry; and thirteen more to trade shifts and walk through the rest of town to settle any unrest."
"So, what time do the next guards take over at the gates?" Aurora asked.
"Yesterday, they changed over around teatime, at three o'clock."
Besnik, who was standing closest to the tent opening, squinted at the sun in the sky.
"We've got about five hours until then," he grunted. Walter nodded.
"Then we need replacements, weapons, and gunpowder."
"I can take care of the last two," Aurora offered; Sabine smoothly picked up her thread.
"And I the first. Besnik, Fonso, fancy a bit of guard work?"
The dweller men nodded shortly, prepared to do Sabine's bidding, and Sabine nodded back with satisfaction.
"I shall help with the fighting," Nicu volunteered; glancing at Aurora, he added. "It will be nice to see a bit of action."
This time, Ben and Walter's heads both swiveled round at the innuendo, but Walter was the one who got his retort in first.
"You'd best watch yourself in this company, boy," he growled. "We take no prisoners."
Nicu smirked, but acknowledged the warning graciously. "I promise not to get in your way."
"Nay, you won't," Sabine agreed, sparing a censorious look for his son. "I can't stop you from going, I know, but I'll send Boulder with you to keep you out of trouble."
Sabine's severity was transferred from Nicu to Walter and Ben, as if letting them know he would not see his son come to harm – and not just from Logan's soldiers. Aurora, who was aware of that special brand of male tension that did not dissipate until someone surrendered the stand-off, was nonetheless unable to follow the subtlety of this warning. Thankfully, both Ben and Walter understood; they relented with jerks of their stubborn chins, but still watched Nicu warily, disliking his cavalier flirting with the Princess.
"Then let us begin preparations," Sabine declared. "Princess?"
"Be right back," Aurora responded obligingly, and closed her eyes to go to the Sanctuary.
When Aurora returned, she was laden with blades, guns, bullets and gunpowder sufficient to outfit a small army. She distributed them generously, enjoying the look of excitement in the normally quiet face of Besnik as he accepted one of her mother's particularly handsome hammers. That he could lift it at all guaranteed his entitlement to it. Thankfully, Walter and Ben were already equipped, but did take from the stock of bullets and gunpowder so they would have enough fire to cover Aurora.
"Now, remember," Aurora emphasized as they went to lie in wait for the guard rotation to change. "Let ME take the brunt of the fire; I heal out bullets in a few hours and if one of you gets hurt you could be out of commission for weeks. No unnecessary heroics for me just because I'm a girl, or I'll punch you blind."
Walter, despite himself, was forced to chuckle at that. "A very rousing speech, Your Highness."
"I certainly won't forget it," Nicu told her with a twinkle. Ben, who was growing unaccountably irritated by the swarthy man's presence, replied cuttingly.
"Mind you keep an eye on your enemies as well as her arse, will you? I don't fancy getting shot because you've more in your pants than in your head."
Thankfully, Aurora was far ahead enough not to hear this; Walter, accustomed to protecting her from such vulgarity, clipped Ben over the head.
"Be courteous!" he barked, appalled. Ben protested the mistreatment with an oath, rubbing his head.
"You know you were thinking it too, Walter!" he retorted. Walter's eyebrows were especially bushy and severe as he looked at him and issued his reply in a dramatic whisper.
"But she doesn't need to hear it! Now behave yourselves, both of you!"
He marched ahead of them in a huff and kept pace at Aurora's side. Boulder, who was making up the rear to keep an eye on Nicu, grunted disapprovingly as though agreeing with Walter.
"Alright," Nicu sighed. "Just trying to have a bit of fun after months of starvation and boredom. Heaven forbid we cast off our chains of despair for even a moment."
Ben, who secretly agreed with this sentiment, cast Nicu a superior look meant to hide their similar natures. Given the chance, Ben Finn would be rolling around the streets of Bloodstone, enjoying its best ale and most skilled, professional company. As it was, he was here, and did not like Nicu making eyes at the princess, so he did nothing to encourage further conversation and Nicu fell silent.
The hours spent watching the guards were stiff and uneventful. When they finally went to make the exchange, Aurora rushed to alert the others.
"It's time," she murmured. The men came to their feet and drew their weapons, cocking the guns now so the guards wouldn't hear their metallic warning.
The premise they would use to approach the gate was a delivery. Sabine had lent them a cart upon which they had heaped sacks of straw, which they had then covered with a cloth and strapped down with rope to make it look like they had traveled some distance. Even though they made a motley crew in appearance, they hoped their ruse would give the guards enough pause to at least try and check the cart's contents, giving them an opening to kill them and replace them with Besnik and Fonso who, fortunately, would not need to worry about being identified by other soldiers coming to take over the gate. Hopefully, by the time their shift would be over, all of the soldiers in Brightwall would be dead.
The group crossed the Brightwall Bridge, keeping their weapons hidden, but at the ready. They would prefer to avoid a gunfight, but if other guards came out to check them, they couldn't be unprepared for the possibility. As they drew near to the entrance into Brightwall, a voice called out to them from the watchtower at its top.
"Halt! What business do you bring to Brightwall?"
"We have product for the stalls!" Aurora called back, keeping her face hidden underneath her hat. The guard peered down at them suspiciously.
"Deliveries aren't until Friday; why are you early?" Looking at them more closely, he asked, "Where are your guards?"
Aurora had an excuse ready for why there were no elite soldiers with them from Bowerstone; "A criminal is loose in the city this week and none could be spared. I have hired some help of my own. And I left early," she added, just now thinking of it, "Because of the furor in the city. It was safer to come east then to stay there."
While he was still cautious, the guard seemed to accept this excuse at face-value and agreed to come down and check her cart. "Remain where you are, citizen. I will be there shortly."
They all waited in edgy silence as the guard came to them. He exited town through a smaller, locked door etched out within one of the gates. His keys jangled as he stepped over the threshold and shut the door behind him with a creak. The guard was tall, but reedy, and Aurora could not see his face behind the elaborate helmet that was signature of her brother's military uniform. The helm was shaped like an upside-down bullet with wings at the top, with only a spare grate allowed for the guard to breath and see, but not to be seen by others. The result of this effect was to make all Elite soldiers seem inhuman and therefore untouchable. Aurora flexed her hand, willing to test the theory herself of just how untouchable they really were.
As he clutched his gun and leered over the cart behind Aurora, she stood perfectly still, keeping her head down in a sign of conciliation. The guard ordered them all to step back; Aurora could see his hands tightening on his rifle with nerves. He must have realized his disadvantage against a group this size with no other soldiers to support him. He turned back to the gate and whistled loud enough to draw his partner out from behind the gate.
The door from which the first Elite had exited opened partway and his fellow stuck his head out, shouting, "What?!"
"Get out here and help me inspect this cart!" the other man barked. His partner, clearly not intimidated, took his time reaching them and did not even bother to draw his gun.
"Looks like a bunch of flour," he complained. "Why are you being so persnickety?"
"They're early," the first one replied, still suspicious. "And they said they didn't get any guards sent with them because Bowerstone is under siege from a wanted criminal."
"Well, it is," the second Elite shot back, speaking as if Aurora and the others weren't there. "The blasted traitor princess is back, didn't you hear?"
Aurora's head jerked up in spite of herself, surprised the news had already traveled this far.
"The King is supposed to send sketches of her to all the towns, in case she tries to go into hiding."
The first guard contemplated this, before saying, "Oh," and going to lift the cloth on the cart as if to confirm his worries were unnecessary.
At the moment he leaned in to look at their product more closely, the second guard turned around to face Aurora and stopped suddenly, as though recognizing her. Before he could even breathe, they acted.
Aurora had him by the throat just as the first soldier swung around with a cry, having seen the sacks of straw. Ben caught him from behind and disarmed him, while Walter assisted by putting a blade in the man's neck. Aurora, with her strength to aid her, made her own quarry's end quick with an efficient twitch of her wrist. His neck snapped, the soldier went limp and Aurora lowered him to the ground regretfully.
"Get them undressed," she whispered. "Hurry!"
Besnik and Fonso, with the help of Ben and Nicu, took the bodies off to one side of the bridge and stripped them before dumping them in the river, where they would be sure to float quickly south towards the ocean. Walter and Boulder stayed close to Aurora, just in case, and a few moments later the men were back. Besnik and Fonso had not yet put on their helmets.
"Are we clear on what to do?" Aurora asked everyone. They all nodded, so Aurora moved to cover the cart once more and Besnik and Fonso slid on their helms, taking the soldier's guns and slinging them over their shoulders while Aurora quickly took the weapons she had lent them back to the Sanctuary for safe-keeping.
Aurora allowed herself a moment once she got there, still shocked by death even after two years of killing to survive. With a shake of her head, she did her best to clear it and went back, feeling overstimulated by the sudden rush of color and sound that Brightwall was compared to her mother's Sanctuary.
Taking the lead once again, Aurora indicated they should move and Besnik and Fonso went to unlock the door to the gate, sliding in with care. Now, came the most terrifying moment for them all, when their allies would be tested to pass as enemies. A few moments ticked by in silence, and then the gates began to creak open; with a deep breath of relief and preparation, Aurora and her comrades marched in.
The gates closed behind them with a resounding groan; Aurora looked around in the beautiful afternoon light and tried not to tremble. She counted six guards in the square beside Besnik and Fonso, who had taken up their posts with admirable alacrity. If Walter was correct, there were eighteen more guards at the town's disposal, and at least two of them would be posted at the city's warehouse.
The previous evening, Samuel had outlined the town on a rather detailed map and showed them where the warehouse would be. Unfortunately, it was set off behind the Elite barracks at the top of one of Brightwall's hills, affording the guards a bottleneck should they descend on Aurora and the others during their heist. But that was a risk they had to take.
Slowly, they ambled upwards with their cart, avoiding the gazes of those elite soldiers on guard and being careful to hide their weapons. When they reached the warehouse, Aurora noted that the barracks were elaborate for their purpose; there was a sparring yard in the back with expensive-looking equipment, and a fountain out front. It looked like an old mansion that had been converted. Hopefully, if their plan worked, the local militia they would rally could use it to train themselves so they would be ready for any outsiders that might try and unseat them.
When they reached the front gate of the warehouse, there was a soldier there who stopped them and requested their papers. Aurora looked behind him to see how far back his comrades were and was glad that they were mostly hidden by the fencing and gate, as well as distance. With a smile, she reached into her pocket and leaned forward, only to snap out her other hand and grasp him by the throat.
Careful not to singe his uniform, Aurora killed him, then dropped him to the ground. Ben collected his weapons and turned him over so that he lay under a bush, keeping him obscured from passerby.
"Almost there," Aurora muttered, her heart pounding in her chest. They used the soldier's keys to unlock the gate and, with some difficulty, navigated their cart over the uneven cobblestones.
As Walter had predicted, there were two soldiers on duty at the warehouse entrance. They were busy marching back and forth, rifles drawn and pointed upward. This time, Aurora hung back to let Ben do the talking.
"Hello Gents!" he called amicably as the rest of them rolled to a stop. "Where do I park my goods?"
Both soldiers ceased their marching and came to stand in front of Ben; he was taller than them and smiled slightly, clearly enjoying the advantage.
"What's this?" one of them barked, his demeanor suggesting he was a senior officer.
"Flour," Ben replied easily. "We're delivering early on account of the princess; Industrial's in an uproar, with all the soldiers turning over every nook and cranny to find her."
"So we've heard," the guard grunted, the position of his helm suggesting he was staring at Ben and studying him. "They didn't send any guard with you?"
"Nah," Ben shrugged, throwing up one hand to indicate the group behind him. "I hired myself some help, what with all the qualified authorities busy working for the King."
The guard leaned to one side as he looked at each of them in turn; Aurora kept her eyes downcast, knowing from her nerves they could glow at any moment and give her away for what she was. Walter, on the other side of the cart, was trying to appear bored while assessing their surroundings to determine whether there were more soldiers out of sight and, if so, how many there might be.
"I'm sorry," the senior officer sneered, clearly not. "But unless you can produce the necessary documentation, I cannot admit you. With all the uproar, as you put it, we are to be on our most alert guard, you understand."
Ben sighed and shook his head, still seeming at ease. "I thought you might say that."
As quickly as they could, the group drew their guns and fired, Aurora rushing to the front in a blur of speed as she ripped open the warehouse door. The younger of the two soldiers crumpled, but the senior officer rallied despite his injuries and tried to shoot Ben.
Walter moved decisively, taking out the senior officer without fuss. Already the sounds of shouting and gunfire were echoing out from the warehouse.
"Aurora!" Walter tore after her, Ben trying and failing to stop him from rushing in.
The men clattered into the warehouse together, guns raised defensively in front of them, only to find that Aurora had done good work. There were three men on the floor, all dead, and just as Ben was swinging his eyes upward there was a horrified scream as another guard was tipped over the railing of a catwalk high above them, from which he plummeted to his death.
Suddenly, Aurora appeared in front of them as if out of thin air; Ben was impressed against his will. She was fast!
"Eleven," Aurora said; it took a moment for the rest of them to catch up.
"What?" Walter asked, confused. Aurora repeated herself, "Eleven. There are eleven left."
As she said this, there was a sonic boom from outside the warehouse; they all ducked to take cover as one of the walls splintered from the impact of mortar being fired.
"Bloody fools!" Walter swore, squinting to protect his eyes. "They'll destroy all the supplies!"
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Aurora muttered angrily. With a flash of blue in her eyes, she was gone.
"Come on, let's back her up!" Ben cried, scrambling to get a clear line of fire.
The firefight was vicious; Aurora quickly put the mortar to bed, along with a few Elites, but the remaining soldiers shot her from a distance and she was forced to retreat. Their distraction with her, however, was their undoing, allowing Ben, Walter, Nicu and Boulder to take them out. Fortunately, Besnik and Fonso had removed their helms and taken position higher up on the hill, from which they were able to fire upon the Elites until all that was left of them were their broken bodies piled underneath the clearing gun smoke.
"Aurora!" Walter shouted, casting aside his gun and going to her. The Princess was not on her knees yet, but she was bent down on one with her hand bracing against the ground, breathing heavily.
"I'm fine," she said faintly, but her face was pale. Ben was astonished to see several blood stains growing underneath her coat; she must have been shot at least five times.
"You're not," Walter retorted, bending to pick her up. Besnik and Fonso came running down the hill at that moment, skittering to a halt beside them.
"That's all of them," Fonso panted; "We killed those we could from behind on our way up when no one was looking."
"Good work; there were more of them than I thought." Walter complimented them. Aurora was trying to protest.
"Walter, put me down." Her voice held little conviction and as she struggled to raise her head, the dwellers studied her injuries with amazement, barely believing she was still alive.
"We need a healer," Walter told them, worried as Aurora finally fainted. Her hand fell down, limp, at Walter's arm. "Quickly."
Ben and Boulder had also sustained some injuries; fortunately, the mutt was back at the Dweller camp. Ben loathed to imagine what harm Roosevelt might have come to had he accompanied them.
They hurried into the village, Walter taking point with Aurora in his arms. Samuel had warned as many villagers as he could ahead of time, so most of them had been sensible enough to stay indoors. Now that the gunfire had ceased, people were peering out their windows through curtains, trying to ascertain if the threat had passed.
Samuel was the first to reach them, having taken refuge in the Quill and Quandry below in the main square. He saw Aurora bleeding and unconscious and sprung to action, ordering a younger man to run and fetch the village alchemist and healer.
"Is it very serious?" he asked Walter, scanning the Princess with apprehension. Walter was terse in his reply.
"Let's hope not."
Ben was clutching his left arm, which had been grazed by a bullet. Blood seeped out between his fingers; the pain was hot, as though he had been burned, and he gritted his teeth to bear it as best he could. Aurora was growing paler by the second and he, like the others, was anxious to see her tended to first.
Boulder seemed as unaffected as usual, even though he had two bullet wounds – one in his shoulder, and the other in his leg. He stood almost casually in the center of the square with them, favoring the injured leg and watching as citizens of Brightwall began to exit their houses, whispering to each other.
"My goodness!" The healer was there, clutching her bag; her hand had flown up to her mouth in horror at the state of Aurora. Walter nodded briefly at her, asking where they could go to put Aurora down.
"In here," Samuel offered, leading them to pub, which also had an attached inn. Walter did not seem the least bit strained by Aurora's weight; he followed the healer carefully into the first available room, laying Aurora down on the bed with a tenderness that made Ben feel awkward, as though he were witnessing something private. Nicu had also followed them in, his forehead creased with worry for the princess.
"I hope to the Gods that she pulls through," he whispered, clearly concerned. Ben, once again, fought the impulse to like him.
"She's a bloody Hero," he replied dismissively. "She'll be fine." But neither of them moved, still watching her.
"She's stronger than she looks, lads," Walter told them reassuringly. The deep gravel of his voice was comforting, but Ben could still see the stress in his eyes. None of the three men spoke while the alchemist was working, applying healing potions to Aurora's skin.
"Get out, all of you," she flapped her hands in their general direction. "I have to undress her."
They shuffled out with a clatter, meeting Samuel in the lobby, where he was holding a small leather bag.
"Here," he murmured, drawing out more healing potions. Ben took one gratefully and drank, feeling his pain ease as the gash in his bicep knitted itself together.
Boulder was going to be more complicated to heal; Nicu helped Besnik dig out the two bullets, while Fonso did his best to ease Boulder's pain with a leather piece stuck between Boulder's teeth and a reassuring hand on his shoulder. When the small metal pieces were out, Boulder was given a draught of whisky and potion, sighing in relief as his injuries finally closed. Ben knew from experience that the wounds would probably ache for several hours; magic could only do so much, in the end.
In what seemed like an interminable wait, but was more likely as little as fifteen minutes, the men sat in silence as the alchemist administered healing to Aurora. When the woman finally came out to see them, she was smiling.
"She's already awake," she told them, beaming. "And crotchety about being put to bed."
"She always was," Walter replied hoarsely; his movements were swift and before anyone else could react he was up and walking into the room where the princess rested. The others hung back, not keen to intrude.
"Walter!" Aurora's voice was audible a few moments later; it sounded like a protest.
"No, you stay in bed!" Walter shot back. There were the sounds of a scuffle; glancing at each other, Ben and Nicu rose in tandem and went to see what was happening.
The princess was trying to rise without success; she would have been naked from above the waist had it not been for the complicated weave of bandages that encased her and Ben stopped in his tracks, not sure she would appreciate being seen like this. Her gauntlets remained and her hair was down, falling in messy waves. It occurred to Ben that she had not worn her hair like that since they first met; he shook himself, deciding not to focus on her too closely.
"Stop. It. Aurora!" Walter panted, pushing her down. Nicu looked amused at the pair of them.
"I'm fine," Aurora snapped, glaring up at him. To their surprise, she looked to the two other men and implored them to assist her. "Would you please tell him to back off?"
Even if Walter hadn't given him the Eye of Death, Ben wouldn't have interfered in this argument. "No, he's right. Lie down and stop complaining."
"But I'm fine -" Aurora tried to outmaneuver Walter and hissed, buckling from pain. Walter chided her.
"See? I told you, now lie down."
Relenting, Aurora did as she was bid and Walter covered her with the blanket, sparing a moment to smooth back her hair with his hand.
"Now sleep; you said yourself you heal best when you've slept and at the rate you're going you'll be up and causing me headaches in no time."
"Chicken," she challenged, but the princess was smiling.
Walter chuckled; "If I were do you think I could keep up with you?" he asked her.
"Who said you are?" Aurora parried, and Walter pretended she had struck him in the heart.
"You wound me!" he groaned, but his mustache gave him away with its tell-tale twitch. Aurora sighed.
"Just imagine," Ben said to Nicu, deadpan, "How much worse she will be once she's slept."
"Alright, that's enough." Walter decided. He shooed the laughing men out of the room. "Let her rest."
Looking over Walter's shoulder, Ben tried to smile at Aurora so she would know he was joking, but she had already closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.
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