The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Eleven

The room Elise found herself in was small, with only a dirty window on one of the walls to let light from outside in. She was lying in a small cot with a large, thick quilt over her to keep her warm and a pounding headache, worse than any she’d ever had before. A man sat on a stool next to her, monitoring the patient in the bed on her left. He had dark, neatly trimmed hair; olive skin and was dressed in a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up past his elbows and light brown dress pants. He looked extremely wealthy, like the very few nobles that lived in Thaos, but judging by their surroundings, he wasn’t.

Elise tried to sit up, but immediately stopped and lay back down: her head hurt too much for that.

“Why, look who’s awake?” the man asked as he turned around. He had a soft face and warm, brown eyes. “How are you feeling?” Elise began to rub her head, hoping that it might help the headache, but it didn’t work.

“My head hurts,” she said as she kept rubbing her head. “Do you have anything for that?” the man nodded.

“Of course,” he said. He opened the small bureau in between her cot and the other patients’ and began digging through it.

While he did, Elise began to look around at her new surroundings. The building she was in was long, with beds along the white walls and under each small, gritty window, and small, wooden bureaus in between them. There was enough filtered sunlight coming in that they didn’t need to light the candles in the candelabras between the windows, but some were still lit from the previous night, making the room very well lit. Once colorful floor rugs were spread out on the floor in an attempt to brighten the room up, but it didn’t work very well.

“Where am I?” Elise asked as she looked back at the man. He was still rifling though the drawer, looking for the right medicine for her.

“You’re in Asfalis,” he said. “Olrick carried you here; nearly ran himself to death, but he’ll be alright.” He pulled out a few small, oval leaves that she recognized as cocca and handed them to her. “Chew these up; it’ll help with the headache.”

Elise put them in her mouth and began to chew on them, just as the doctor told her to. Her face twisted up in disgust; it tasted like vomit, just as many of her patients over the past few years had told her.

“I know, it tastes awful,” the man said. “I’m afraid that that’s all we have for headaches as of right now, though; we’ll be getting some better-tasting things from Semata later today if you get another migraine by then.” He shut the drawer and looked back at her.

“I suppose I should introduce myself,” the man said, holding out his hand. She shook it. “Dr. Peter Carpenter, though nobody’s called me anything other than Doc in ten years.”

“Elise,” she said. He repeated the name to himself before they let go of each other’s hands.

“That’s a beautiful name,” he said. For a few seconds, neither of them spoke, seemingly run out of conversation topics.

“How much do you remember from last night?” he asked. Elise looked down at her hands as memories of the previous night returned. The splashing of mud as they ran, the clanging of swords as Olrick fought of Gisken after Gisken in order to give her some extra seconds to escape, Blair’s eerie voice just before he tried to kill Olrick, the heat of flames as they rushed from her fingers; it all came back.

“The Giskens are here,” she said quietly. She could feel tears beginning to well up in her eyes as she thought about all the things she’d seen while living under Gisken rule, all the things they’d done in Thaos; how had she managed to survive that hell? “Th-they beat up Olrick.” Doc cursed under his breath.

“I was really hoping you wouldn’t say that,” he said quietly. “We figured as much when he didn’t come back from his patrol, but most everyone here was praying that he’d just gotten beat up by a few of our own soldiers or had taken a liking to a particular prostitute somewhere and had run off to marry her, like most of our boys who disappear. We knew Olrick would never do that, but we still hoped…” he sighed. “I guess it’s a little hard to think that it’s finally our turn to be invaded, even though we’ve known that it was coming for a few years.” Elise nodded in understanding; she’d lived in Gisken-occupied territory for nearly a week, and she was just now coming to terms with it, herself.

“Where’s my son?” the voice was panicked, followed by the voice of a man, telling her that she shouldn’t be there. “Why are you keeping me from him?” When Elise looked in the direction of the voice, she saw a woman, standing in a doorway, being blocked by a Watchman. She was older and very thin, with dark brown hair streaked with gray that was put into a bun, wide, worried brown eyes on the verge of tears, and pale, sick-looking skin.

“Who is that?” Elise asked. Doc looked over his shoulder.

“Olrick’s ma.” He stood up and walked over to the guard

“Let her through,” he said. The guard looked at him, confused, but he stepped to the side, allowing the woman through

“Where’s my son?” she repeated. “Is he alright? Oh, gods, please tell me he isn’t dead!”

“He’s roughed up a bit, but he’ll be just fine, ma’am,” Doc said. “He’s sleeping right now, but he’ll be awake soon.” Olrick’s mom nodded as he led her to the bed next to Elise’s, where a Watchman, fast asleep, was laying. It took her a few seconds to realize it was Olrick: he was so beat up and pale, she hardly recognized him. Unlike her, his mother knew who it was the second she saw him: she collapsed by his bedside and began sobbing.

“Why did they do this to him?” she kept asking. “He didn’t do anything wrong.” Elise could see the wheels turning in Doc’s head as he tried to figure out what to tell her. Then, he sighed.

“He knew the Giskens had begun their invasion,” he said carefully. “They didn’t want him going off and telling anyone.” Olrick’s mother looked up at him, a confused look on her face.

“Th-they’re here?” she asked. Doc nodded. Olrick’s mother’s eyes got even wider.

“Is my son going to war?” Doc began to rub the back of his neck, unsure of how to answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That all depends on how much General Polain needs him. He’ll probably just end up doing more work at headquarters than out in the field.” The answer didn’t seem to satisfy her. Then again, Elise didn’t know of any mother that would be.

Olrick’s mother spent the following hour or so in silence as she sat on a stool, waiting for her son to wake up. She refused any service that was offered to her: food, water, blankets; everything that Doc offered to her to make her bedside vigil more comfortable, she shook her head to. She insisted that she not eat or drink until Olrick was awake. And, finally, when a few nurses came around with lunch, he did.

He began to stir in his bed right about the time when they began to bring some stew around to everyone who was in the infirmary. They were just ladling some into a small bowl for Elise when he began to groan, sitting up in his bed and looked up at his mother. For a few seconds, he didn’t talk; he just stared up at her and tried to figure out if she were really there, or if the cocca was making him hallucinate. She gave him the same look.

“Mom?” He asked. Without a word, Olrick’s mother wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly. She began to sob again, but this time, they weren’t tears of sadness: they were tears of joy.

“I thought you were dead,” she whispered. “Don’t you dare do that to me again!” Olrick slowly hugged her, tears welling up in his eyes. Even though she’d been there with him during what she was sure was the worst few days of their lives, that was the first time she’d seen him come close to crying.

“I’m alright, mom,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about me, anymore.” The exchange broke Elise’s heart. For almost a week, she’d seen him as this man who only had himself to worry about, just like many of the people who joined the Watch; if that hadn’t been the case, he wouldn’t have been so willing to risk his life for them as much as he had. That hug between mother and son had reminded her that he, too, had a family. He had parents who wanted him home safe, possibly siblings, maybe even a sweetheart somewhere, all of whom would be devastated if he were to be killed by the Giskens.

It made her wonder about him, his reasons for putting his life on the line for her and her father. When the Giskens had allowed her to visit him in his makeshift prison, he’d told her that he’d done all this for her because of a promise he’d made to Milo before he died. In Elise’s mind, that couldn’t be the only reason; people simply didn’t defend people they hardly knew because of something told to them by a friend in their dying moments.

It didn’t make any sense. Nobody was that good inside; at least, that’s what her experiences those last few days told her.

For an hour or so, Olrick and his mother simply talked, discussing all the things that were happening in Semata, where they lived. From their talk, Elise was able to put together a picture of what his life beyond the Watch was like. His family consisted of his parents and two younger sisters. His blacksmith father didn’t want anything to do with him, and didn’t want his family to have anything to do with him, either. In fact, that had been the first time in almost two years that anyone in his family had seen him. It was a story common for many men who decided to join the Watch. They didn’t fight in grand battles like the army or the navy, they weren’t trained in assassinations, as it was rumored the Rooks, their feared sister organization, was; most thought that they were just a band of orphans and bastards, looking more at filling their stomachs on a soldier’s ration rather than doing… whatever it was their job was. Nobody quite knew what they did in the army, which made anti-Watchmen sentiment as bad as it was.

Soon after Olrick’s mother had left (his father expected her to be back in Semata before nightfall, and the trip would take her most of the day if she rode hard enough,) and the two of them had finished up their lunch, two more visitors walked into the room. Both were wearing the black cloak that signified they were Rooks, but that was where the similarities ended. The first one was large beast of a man with muddy blonde hair that was tied in a short tail behind his head, dull blue eyes, and pale skin. A shirt with the sleeves rolled past his elbows covered a broad chest and revealed large, meaty hands and arms, brown trousers covered his legs, large, brown boots covered his feet, and a broadsword taller than Elise was strapped to his back, completing the highly intimidating look of this man.

His companion, however, stood in stark contrast to him. It was a short, thin girl, one with short hair as black as the cloak she was wearing, calculating brown eyes, and skin the color of milk, other than the thin, rosy scar that ran from the corner of her right eye and curved down to the middle of her chin, narrowly missing the corner of her mouth. She was wearing a baggy, long-sleeved shirt, with the sleeves tucked into two leather armguards, baggy pants tucked into large, heavy boots, and she held a long, slender staff that was taller than she was in one hand. The two of them had to have been the most unlikely pairing Elise had ever seen; it was hard to believe that both of them were master assassins, as the rumors that had run rampant in Caitha about them for years claimed they were.

The two split up and the girl walked over to her. She plopped down on the stool, sitting on it with her legs crossed and the staff on her lap, and studied her with those brown eyes of hers the way one might study a cow before buying it. Meanwhile, the man was embracing Olrick in a massive bear hug, asking him “where the hell he’s been”. Olrick had a pained look on his face, but didn’t say anything to try and get him off of him.

“You look tense,” the girl said simply. “Try to relax; I’m only here to talk to you, not to interrogate you.” Elise nodded, but she simply couldn’t seem to shake off her fear of being around a Rook. The girl held her hand out to her, just as Doc had when he’d introduced himself to her.

“Commander Eza Mitriovna, at your service,” she said. Elise wasn’t sure what surprised her more: the fact that the tiny girl that sat next to her was a commander in the most feared branch of the military in Caitha, or that, judging by her surname, she was Kurzhian. She decided not to address either issue; even if the rumors about Rooks weren’t true, she wasn’t looking to insult a Kurzhian. She’d heard stories about them snapping people’s necks with their bare hands for doing things as minor as spilling their drink.

“I take it by the look on your face that you’ve never met a Kurzhian, before,” Eza said. “From what I’ve heard, I don’t exactly live up to the expectation.” Elise nodded, then found herself shaking her head. Eza simply sighed, as if that reaction was the one she was used to.

“Shall we begin?” she asked. Elise nodded.

“A-alright,” she said, sitting up. Her headache had gone away for the most part by then, just as Doc said it would. “What do you want to talk about?”

“What happened to you two over the past week,” Eza said. “As of right now, you and Olrick are the only people that we know of to make it out of occupied territory alive. Tell me anything you can think of, whether or not you think it’s relevant.” Elise looked down at her hands, unsure of what to say. What kind of information could she possibly give them that they could use?

“General Raul’s in Thaos,” she said quietly. She, then, proceeded to tell Eza everything that had happened to her over the past few days, starting from when Thaos’ blacksmith carried Olrick through their door when that spring storm hit, skipping the part where Bram tried to assault her, going all the way to the last thing she remembered before waking up in Asfalis: when she’d burned Blair just before he would’ve killed Olrick. Eza listened to it all quite intently, never interrupting her unless it was to ask a quick question. When Elise had finished, Eza climbed off the stool and performed a quick bow, her staff in hand.

“Thank you for your time,” she said simply. “I know how hard these can be.” Elise frowned as she began to put the pieces together in her head. Eza would’ve been six, maybe seven when the Giskens invaded Kurzh; certainly not old enough to have been a soldier in that war, but certainly old enough to have been a scout, or maybe a courier in the army. It would definitely explain the scar on her cheek.

“You were in Kurzh when the invasion started, weren’t you?” Elise asked. Eza nodded.

A chill went down her spine. That would make her one of the very few – or only – people who knew exactly what had happened there; even after ten years, very few people outside of Kurzh knew anything about the invasion of Gishk’s snowy neighbor, other than the fact that it was the first country to fall to the Gisken army and that the Kurzhian army and the legendary General Mitrius seemed to have disappeared off the face of the planet after the invasion.

“What happened to the Kurzhian army?” Elise asked. For the first time since Eza entered the room, she began to show some hints of emotion. She looked down at her feet, she bit her lip, her brows furrowed; she almost looked guilty. Then, she looked up with a fire in her eyes.

“General Mitrius is still alive,” she said. “I don’t know about the rest of them.”

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