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

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Chapter Fourteen

Kael was utterly lost.

His plan had seemed so simple, so impossible to screw up. All he had to do was sneak out of Thaos while everyone was asleep, then head in the general direction of Asfalis. Once there, he would reveal his identity to them, pray to the gods that he wouldn’t get thrown into a loony bin or killed, then join the Caithians to help them beat Raul’s army. However, there was one thing he forgot to account for:

He didn’t know a thing about Caitha’s geography.

At first, he thought he was doing well: he’d managed to escape Thaos completely undetected and with his father’s sword, the one that had been wielded by every Gisken king for hundreds of years, and his mother’s dagger, which had been passed on to every first born in her family for countless generations, wearing the Kurzhian garb he’d worn for years while living there. With the combination of hooded Kurzhian clothes, a large sword and a dagger, he looked like some sort of assassin, and he still managed to basically walk out. Even after a few minutes of walking through the dense, Caithian woods, he still felt confident that he’d be able to make it to Asfalis by morning.

Now, he was beginning to wonder if he’d even manage to make it there at all. The woods were black as ink and filled with fog and life. Owls hooted in the trees, twigs cracked as animals walked over them; even the very trees seemed to be alive as their branches snatched at his clothes, trying to hold him back. He found himself berating himself for not bringing a map, a compass, anything that would have helped him navigate the woods.

He eventually stopped doing that, though. It wasn’t like he could turn around and go back to Thaos, now; his clothing would scream, “kill me” to any Gisken that he happened to run into.

After about an hour of wandering aimlessly around the woods, he began to get an eerie feeling, and not just because he was lost. He began to feel like there was someone – or something – watching him. Every time he looked over his shoulders, though, he couldn’t see anyone behind him. All he ever saw standing behind him were the trees, inky black shadows that reached out for him through the ghostly fog. Every time that happened, he would berate himself about it, asking what the rightful king of Gishk had to fear from a few shadows. He was acting like some child who was scared of the dark, for the gods’ sakes!

However, he knew all too well how much he needed to fear the shadows. Not only was he deserting the Gisken army, a crime punishable by hanging, but he was also supposed to be dead and he was dressed like a Kurzhian, something, he knew, was frowned upon almost everywhere but Kurzh and Mirinia; nobody wanted to be associated with a race considered to be savage monsters. If he were to be seen by the wrong person, he would be killed on the spot.

About an hour after he’d deserted the army, a twig snapped behind him. He turned around to face whatever was behind him, but as normal, the only thing that was behind him was inky darkness shrouded in mist.

He put his hand on the pommel of his sword as an ice-cold fist gripped his heart. Something wasn’t right. If it had been an animal, he would’ve seen something: a tail, a leg, something to show him that it was an animal; however, there was nothing there, as if he’d imagined it.

“Who’s there?” he asked the woods. “Show yourself!” There was no reply.

He turned back around. Must’ve just been an animal.

The next thing he knew, his head was whipping to the side as a staff slammed against his jaw.

He staggered back as he drew his sword. Standing in front of him was a boy who came up to his shoulder, holding a staff. Judging by his black cloak, he was a Rook.

Kael almost scoffed at him. He knew of the Rooks; rumors of the assassins had managed to spread to Gishk, and they’d terrified any lords who opposed the old alliance with Caitha, before Raul had taken over everything. This child couldn’t possibly be one of them, could he?

“Who are you?” the child growled, holding his staff at him as if it were a spear. “A Gisken assassin?” Kael drew his sword and swung it at the boy, who stepped just out of his sword’s reach.

“Why the hell do you care?” he asked. With that, the child’s attack began.

Kael had to admit, he was a lot better of a fighter than he thought he would be. The boy was quick and agile, and handled his staff, which was taller than he was, with ease. He knocked Kael’s sword out of the way with his staff, when possible, stepped out of its way, landed painful blows against Kael’s shins, sides, arms; after a few minutes of fighting the small shadow of a boy, he began to wish that he had some sort of armor to keep away the sting of his blows.

Finally, he managed to have some luck. He landed a blow across his cheek with the butt of his sword.

There was a loud, ugly crack, and the child’s head whipped to the side so hard, Kael thought that he might have killed him. That hadn’t been the case, thank the gods. The child simply stumbled back as the hood of his cloak fell off of his head, putting a hand to his cheek. Kael was shocked when he turned his head to face him, again.

His opponent wasn’t, in fact, a boy: it was a girl, one with hair that was black as sin, a large scar on one side of her face from a knife, and an ugly bruise that was starting to form on her cheek where his sword had hit her.

Kael froze, confused. This couldn’t be right-

Pain flared up in his wrist, making him drop his sword, then on the back of his knees. The next thing he knew, he was laying on his back, while the girl held his own sword at his throat.

“I’m going to ask you one more time,” she growled. “Who are you?!”

“Why is it such a big deal for her to leave the fort by herself?” Elise asked. Fort Asfalis was alive with activity as Rooks and Watchmen, alike began to assemble in order to find the commander. Silas was putting them into groups, each with at least one Rook, and giving them a portion of the surrounding area to search.

“It’s a long story,” Doc said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Basically, the Giskens consider refugees to be war criminals; if they were to find her and figure out that she’s a Kurzhian, they’d ship her back to Kurzh, never to be seen again.”

Elise found herself frowning in confusion. Eza would have been six, maybe seven when the Giskens had invaded Kurzh; what could she possibly know about them that was so damaging?

She never got the chance to ask. A Rook, one that looked to be Eza, rode in on a dark brown horse, a sword and a staff in her hands, while someone clad in tanned hides lay across her lap, with his hands tied behind his back.

Silas cursed as Eza hopped off the horse. “What part of ‘don’t go on a ranging by yourself’ did you not understand, you little ass? You could’ve gotten yourself killed, for the gods’ sakes!”

“Well, sorry for going out and stopping a Gisken from killing anyone,” she grumbled. “Don’t worry; I’ll never do it, again.”

After handing the sword to a nearby Watchman, she began walking towards the infirmary, where Elise and Doc were. Elise could see that she had a large, purple bruise that was starting to form on her cheek. The man, who’d been helped off the horse, turned his head and looked at her in disbelief.

When she saw his face, Elise’s blood ran cold: it was Kael, one of the Giskens who’d been in Thaos.

“I’m not a Gisken!” he yelled. “I’m on your side, I swear!” Elise found herself shaking her head.

“He was there.” Doc looked over at her, confused.

“Pardon?” he asked. She looked over at him.

“He’s lying,” she said. “He’s a Gisken soldier. I saw him in Thaos; he helped then beat Olrick.” Doc nodded and looked back at Silas.

“He’s one of them,” Doc called. Silas looked over at them and nodded.

“Get the Gisken to the brig; General Polain will get to him when he can,” he said. He looked over at Eza, anger brewing in his eyes. “Commander Mitriovna: in my study, now.” They all walked into one of the cabins.

Once they were out of sight, Doc snorted and folded his arms across his chest. “I’m not sure who he’s going to kill first: that Gisken or Eza.”

“You wanted to see me, sir?” Silas waited for a few seconds to speak as the Gisken was led down the trap door to the brig. It didn’t take very long, but it seemed like an eternity to him; he was fuming mad at Eza. How could she have been so reckless? Did she want to get sent back in Kurzh in chains? Somehow, he managed to keep it all under control; screaming would just end with her famous stone-cold look and him angry with how emotionless she could seem.

Finally, the Watchman who’d escorted the Gisken came back up from the brig, shut the trapdoor, saluted, then walked out.

Silas took a deep breath. Gods, give him patience.

“What. The hell. Were you thinking?” Eza’s brows furrowed, though whether or not it was because she was angry or confused, he couldn’t tell.

“I was doing what I came here for,” she said. “Sorry for not wanting what’s happened to the rest of the world to happen here.”

“So, you came all the way here to single handedly take down the Gisken army?” Silas asked. “That’s going to work out real well, seeing as they’ve already brought down just about every nation that’s stood against them; what’s going to stop them from taking out you?” Eza didn’t say anything. Her frown just deepened and that all too familiar fire was lit in her eyes.

Silas sighed as he began to relax. He could still remember that scared little kid that first arrived in Semata, clutching his hand like a life line; how the hell did that kid turn into the most reckless, hard-headed person he’d ever met?

“Listen, kid,” he said. “I know how much you want to go in there and knock some heads, but we can’t do that; we have to come up with some sort of strategy, and for that, I need you here, not on a ranging. I can’t have you running around, exacting vigilante revenge on any Gisken bastards that come within a mile of this place; got it?” Eza paused, then nodded.

“I understand,” she said bitterly.

She was going to break those orders soon, according to Silas’ gut, but he didn’t talk on the issue any more. He had more important things to worry about, like what that Gisken was doing so close to Asfalis.

Silas glanced back at the trapdoor that led to the brig. “Now, let’s go see what we’re going to do about our Gisken friend.”

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