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

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Chapter Fifteen

To say the least, Kael’s attempt to join the Caithians wasn’t quite going as he’d planned it.

He’d known that they probably wouldn’t accept him at first (he was, after all, a Gisken,) but he hadn’t expected to get his ass handed to him by a young girl, even after years of him training, then to get dragged to Asfalis and thrown into a dungeon, chained to a wall. It wasn’t the most dignified existence on the planet, but in all honesty, it certainly wasn’t the worst one he’d experienced: he wasn’t sleeping in the filthy streets of the Gisken capital of Lügenburg, praying that Raul’s men wouldn’t find him, he wasn’t in the cold basement of a loyalist, hardly daring to breathe in case Raul’s men were nearby, he wasn’t starving to death in some Gisken prison, he wasn’t decomposing in some ditch; he was in the Caithians' hands, an arrangement that wasn’t all that bad.

Yes, the brig wasn’t the most comfortable place he’d been in, but it had to be the most comfortable prison he’d ever been in. There was a straw bed with a somewhat thick blanket, and light that drifted in through a small peephole in the wooden door, meaning that he wasn’t left in total darkness, they’d let him keep his clothes, and there either weren’t any guards by his cell or they were much more pleasant in Caitha, because nobody spat at him or beat him up for the hell of it. It may have passed as a sort of hell there, but to him, it was like the paradise of prisons.

After a few minutes of him sitting in his cell, unsure of how to pass the time to keep himself from going insane, he had his first visitor. It was the huge tree of a man that had gotten angry with the girl that brought him to the fort. He sat down on the floor in front of him, giving him the same look a farmer would to a cow he was considering buying.

“Now, my commander claims that you’re a Gisken assassin, here to kill anyone of much importance,” the man said. “Before I end up having to execute you for espionage, I thought I may as well hear it from you. If I were you, I’d tell me exactly why you’re here, before I get out the ax.” Kael took a deep breath; looks like the stakes had just been raised.

“I need to talk to the general,” he said, trying to keep his voice from quivering. Please, gods, don’t let this sound too suspicious!

“Sorry, pal, but I’m not letting you loose so you can tell that bastard you Giskens call a general everything about our defenses,” the man said. “I certainly hope that wasn’t the only card you have to play, because that was kind of pathetic.”

“I’m not talking about General Raul,” he said. To his surprise, the man began to laugh.

“And why the hell should I bring him into this?” he asked.

“Because he knows who I am,” Kael said.

“And who is that, Mitrius of Kurzh?” the man asked. “I hate to break it to you, boy, but General Polain doesn’t know any Gisken gutter shits like you.”

Kael could feel anger rising in him. He’d been called all sorts of things in the ten years since Raul usurped the throne; however, gutter shit was the only insult that still managed to piss him off. It reminded him that, no matter how much he may want to, he couldn’t just tell people who he was. A gutter shit was the one thing he knew he wasn’t, but it was the thing he’d had to be in order to stay alive.

Well, not anymore.

“You don’t have the right to speak to me like that,” he snapped, his fists clenched in anger. The man raised an eyebrow, though whether or not it was amusement or surprise, Kael wasn’t sure.

“And who are you, exactly?” the man asked, leaning against the cell wall. “Let me guess: you’re the god of justice incarnate, coming here to kill me for my crimes against human kind or something equally stupid.”

“I’m Prince Kael Althaus, heir to the Gisken throne.” For a few seconds, the cell was silent, as if the man were trying to digest the information. Then, he burst out in a fit of laughter.

“What?” Kael asked quickly. “What’s so funny?” The man held up one finger as tears welled up in his eyes. He couldn’t breathe, he was laughing so hard.

“Nothing,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes with one finger. “It’s just that I could’ve sworn you just said that you’re the prince of Gishk.”

“But I am!” The man simply kept laughing as he stood back up.

“Yeah, sure you are,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I’ll be back in a minute; hell, maybe I’ll even get Polain down here. The man could use a laugh.” With that, he left Kael’s cell.

Kael looked up at the ceiling and sighed. He supposed that that could have gone a lot better.

Then again, it could’ve been a lot worse, too.

The practice field was void of any people, other than a few officers who were drinking and laughing near the mess hall. Thank the gods, they were nowhere near the part of the training field that Watch recruits were using for archery practice. It meant that Elise didn’t have to be too sneaky when she went to the field to try and learn how to use a bow.

The day was a tad on the chilly side, but after being cooped up in the infirmary, reading from the medical book and practicing new healing techniques with Doc, it felt good to be outside. In the past few hours, she’d developed so much as a healer, more than she had in years, but, after talking with Eza about what had happened to her and Olrick in Thaos, a guilty feeling had started to eat at her. Olrick had done everything in his power to keep her safe; even after she’d tried to save him, he’d had to carry her to Asfalis. When she thought about it, it made her feel sick at how many times she could’ve gotten him killed because she couldn’t defend herself. She didn’t want to put anyone else through that again.

Sadly, her plan hit a snag almost the second she stepped onto the archery range: she physically wasn’t strong enough to use a bow.

Elise had known that she would struggle with the bow, but she wasn’t prepared for how much she would struggle. She couldn’t even pull the bow all the way back, let alone shoot. She was preoccupied enough with attempting to pull the bow to full draw that she didn’t even notice when Eza walked out and began to watch.

“Fancy yourself an archer, do you?” Elise turned around to see Eza, sitting with her legs crossed on the table where she’d gotten her bow, her staff resting across her lap. Her face was its usual stony self, something that made Elise even more nervous than she would have been if Eza had looked angry; only the Gods knew exactly how she felt about this.

“How long have you been sitting there?” Elise asked.

“Long enough to know that you don’t know what you’re doing,” Eza said. Her voice was calm and steady, without a hint of anger, bitterness, or, well, anything. “What made you want to come out here and attempt to shoot?” Elise looked down at her feet.

“I-I just…” she began, but stopped. Why couldn’t she find the right words? It made her even more embarrassed than her attempts to shoot did.

“You just what?” Eza asked. To Elise’s surprise, she sounded curious. Was she not angry with her?

Elise sighed. “I just want don’t want anyone else to get themselves hurt, trying to keep me safe.” Eza considered the statement for a few seconds, then stood up, set her staff down on the table, then walked toward her.

“Give me the bow,” she said. Elise handed her the bow. It looked like she wouldn’t be doing any more archery.

Rather than putting it back on the table and ushering her inside like Elise expected her to do, Eza began inspecting the bow, running her hand along the wood, pulling the string back with much more ease than Elise had. Even so, she noticed how her arms shook slightly with the strain.

“That’s why you couldn’t pull it back,” Eza said. “You’ve managed to pick the bow with one of the highest draw weights we have; I don’t think many people beyond Silas have been able to use it for an extended amount of time.” She set the bow down on the table and picked up an odd-looking one, with the tips curved away from Eza. She handed it to Elise. “Try this one. I think this one will be about right for you.”

Elise took the bow in her hands. It was a little shorter than the bow she’d been attempting to use, though not by much, and felt like it weighed about the same. However, when she pulled back the string, she found that it gave much easier than the other bow had; she even managed to pull it all the way back.

“How is that?” Eza asked. Elise looked over at her.

“Much better, thank you,” she said. “I-I should probably get back inside; Doc told me that he might need my help with all the people who were injured during training, today.” She went to set the bow back on the table, but Eza stopped her.

“Keep it,” she said. “We hardly have anyone who needs something as light as that, anymore.” Elise dropped her arm to her side.

“Thank you,” she said. Eza picked up her staff and began to walk toward the mess hall, where those assigned to Fort Asfalis were having supper.

“Why are you helping me with this?” Elise blurted out. Eza stopped walking and looked over her shoulder at her. Elise found her cheeks beginning to burn red, embarrassed about her outburst; however, Eza didn’t seem to mind, though she wouldn’t have showed it if she did. In fact, Elise could’ve sworn that her stone hard face softened just a little.

“You know what you said about not wanting others to get hurt on your behalf?” she asked. Elise nodded.

“I know how you feel,” Eza said. “I felt that way every day when I first came here.”
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