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

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Chapter Seventeen

There wasn’t much for Elise to pack the next morning, when she was supposed to leave for Semata with General Polain and everyone else. She hadn’t brought anything with her other than the clothes on her back, and the things she’d gotten while in Asfalis amounted to the bow and quiver Eza had given her and Milo’s sword. Everyone else packed equally as sparse; the only one she even saw with a bag packed was General Polain, and even his only had a change of clothes, a teapot, and some green tea. Everyone else just brought a blanket, food, and a change of socks. Olrick was looking a lot better than he was before, though his arm was now in a sling, per Doc’s instructions. Everything seemed to be in order, until she saw Kael walking toward them.

The second they saw him coming, everybody grew tense. Olrick seemed uncomfortable around him, Eza kept a tight hold on her staff, Silas seemed annoyed at his presence; only Polain seemed positive about Kael.

“What the hell is that Gisken doing out here?” Eza growled. Her voice was ice cold; it sent chills right up Elise’s spine. “Shouldn’t he be dead by now?” Silas scoffed.

“You see, that’s just the thing,” he said. “The bastard claims he’s Prince Kael Althaus, and Polain believes him.” Eza gave him a look.

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked.

“I wish I was.” Silas said. Eza cursed in a harsh, guttural language Elise assumed was Kurzhian.

“Sometimes, I wonder if all that herbal tea is messing with his mind,” she muttered to herself.

Elise frowned in confusion. “Kael Althaus?”

“He was the heir to the Gisken throne, before Raul took over and killed the royal family,” Silas said. “There’ve been rumors that one of the family members survived going around since it happened, but this is the first time anyone’s ever claimed they were any member of the royal family, let alone the one person who’d be able to challenge him for the throne.”

Elise looked down at the bow in her hands. After meeting General Raul, she knew that he wasn’t the kind of person who would leave such a large loose end; there was no way that the heir to the Gisken throne could have been in such close proximity to him without him knowing.

“Do you have something you would like to share with the class, Olrick?” Eza asked. Elise looked up from her bow and Olrick looked up from sharpening his sword at the sound of Silas’ voice. When he saw everyone’s eyes on him, he looked back down at his sword and continued sharpening it, the sound of the whetstone against the sword grating against Elise’s ears.

“No,” he said quietly. Silas raised an eyebrow and smirked.

“Well, aren’t you a rotten liar?” he asked. “The least you can do is try to not look so guilty.”

“Spit it out, Olrick.” This time, it was Eza. “You know something about this Gisken, something you don’t seem keen on telling us.” Olrick stopped sharpening his sword and sighed.

“This Gisken is just a little different from the others, is all,” he said. “He was in Thaos while I was; he told me that he was Prince Kael and that he wanted to take down Raul.”

“And why did he tell you that?” Silas asked.

Before Olrick could answer his question, Polain began to walk toward them. He had his pack slung over his shoulder and Kael, who was, for whatever reason, dressed all in furs like some sort of barbarian, at his side. While Silas and Olrick tried to act a little more pleasant toward him, Eza still gave him an icy glare, one that he made a point to avoid looking at. All of them stood up and stood at attention, while Elise stood with her hands clasped in front of her and her head bowed.

“Are you all ready to go?” Polain asked.

“Yes, sir,” Silas said. With that, the small party walked out of Fort Asfalis and onto Thias’ Road.

Much to her surprise, Elise found that she was nervous – scared, even – to be leaving Asfalis, and not because she was worried about the highwaymen that supposedly plagued Thias’ Road. She’d never been much farther away from Thaos than a few miles in her whole life, and the thought that she would be days away from it made her homesick. She began to think of how everything had been before the Gisken invasion: how Milo used to make her, Papa, and everyone who visited the tavern laugh with his stupid jokes, Papa’s warm, bright smile, the warm, nearly-forgotten embrace of her mother. Part of her wished that everything could go back to the way life was before the invasion, but another, much smaller part didn’t; if it hadn’t been for the Giskens, she probably wouldn’t have met Olrick, and she certainly wouldn’t have met Eza, Silas, or Polain.

“Are you alright?” Elise looked up to see Olrick looking at her, a look of concern on his face. She nodded as she took her right forearm into her left hand.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Why do you ask?” He shrugged.

“You just look like you’re deep in thought, is all.” It was around that time that Silas turned around to look at them. When he saw that Olrick and Elise were talking with each other and walking next to each other, he smirked and began making kissing noises.

Olrick’s face turned bright red as Elise’s cheeks began to burn. “Th-that’s not how it is! We’re just friends.” Silas laughed at Olrick’s attempt to back track.

“Uh-huh, sure,” he said, a wide grin on his face. “That’s how it always starts. Then, you start holding hands, kissing, getting pissed off your asses, and before you know it, you’re married with kids and an extra twenty pounds to lug around, wondering where the hell your life went.” Silas looked back at the road ahead of him. “Believe me, Olrick, love is a slippery slope; right Eza?”

“It was very entertaining to hear you give love advice, Silas,” Eza said, her voice its usual, monotone self. “The fact that you’re asking me about it is just pathetic.”

As the two of them launched into a sibling-like debate, Polain looked over at her, looking even more mortified than Olrick did.

“I’m terribly sorry about those two, miss,” he said. He glared at Silas, who was too busy informing Eza that he was, in fact, quite the ladies man back home to notice. “I’m afraid that Commander Silas is very quick to forget his courtesies and the fact that he’s no longer a child.” He looked back at her, his face softened. “He didn’t offend you, did he?”

Elise shook her head. “No, not at all.” Polain relaxed and looked forward again.

As everyone began to quiet down, Elise began to look around at the woods that surrounded them. The day turned out to be bright and sunny, with many of the clouds that had covered the skies the previous night. The dark brown trees were tall and thin, with thick, green leaves that turned the sun a bright green. In fact, all the foliage around them were various shades of green, with the exception of a few flowers that were beginning to bloom in hues of purple, white, and other vibrant colors. It was beautiful enough that Elise even managed to forget about how the wet, muddy road snatched at her feet, soaked her old, worn shoes, and gave the air an earthy smell. Everything was just so beautiful; Elise couldn’t quite fathom how such beauty could exist just down the road from something so ugly.

After a few hours of walking, Polain announced that it was time for a break for lunch. Everyone sat down on the road, looking for a spot that was less muddy than the rest of the road, pulled out their rations, and began eating.

Army rations, as Elise learned that day, were even simpler than the food peasants like herself ate. They consisted of items that wouldn’t need to be cooked: crackers hard enough that they had to soak them in water before they could eat them (she was fairly certain that Silas called it hard tack), salted meats, some nuts; most of it was quite bland, but she didn’t complain, and Silas, Eza and Olrick certainly didn’t; in fact, they almost seemed excited, saying that there weren’t even any maggots in the hard tack, an event that was unheard of.

As everyone ate, Elise couldn’t help but notice that Olrick seemed to be in pain. He kept rubbing the shoulder he’d dislocated in Thaos, wincing when he did.

“Is your shoulder doing okay?” Elise asked as he began rubbing his shoulder again. He nodded.

“Just a little sore, is all,” Olrick said. “I don’t suppose that you have anything to help that, do you?” Elise opened her pack and pulled out a small pouch; a parting gift from Doc. Inside it were small, green leaves: Cocca leaves, a standard pain killer that, according to Doc, every doctor worth their salt, carried with them wherever they went. She took a few leaves out of the pouch and handed them to him.

“Thanks.” Olrick popped the leaves into his mouth and began chewing on the leaves.

With Olrick’s shoulder taken care of, Elise looked around at everyone else. Any pains that they were feeling seemed normal enough: Polain seemed to be the only one in any pains, and his seemed to be foot related, something that she expected after a few hours of walking.

That certainly wasn’t what was making her concerned: somehow, Eza and Kael ended up sitting next to each other, and the tension between them was palpable. She looked tense, as if waiting for Kael to pull out his sword and try and hack them all up, while he kept adjusting himself and avoided looking at her, obviously uncomfortable. While Silas seemed oblivious to it, Elise could tell that Polain and Olrick noticed that the two were a powder keg, one that was ready to blow with a single spark.

That spark came in the form of hard tack.

While everyone else was soaking their hard tack in water and choking it down, Kael was setting his aside, seemingly avoiding eating them. That did not sit well with Eza.

“What’s the matter with your hard tack?” she asked, her voice ice cold. Kael looked up from his jerky, but didn’t say anything. “Is it below you to eat like some sort of commoner?”

“Commander Eza, I would appreciate it if you didn’t speak to him like that,” Polain said.

“It’s alright, General,” Kael said. He looked over at Eza, who was giving him an ice-cold stare, again. “I guess I’m just not sure what to do with it, is all; we never had anything like this in the Gisken army.” His attempt to diffuse the situation didn’t quite work. In fact, his courtesy in answering her question may have actually made things worse.

“Spare me your courtesies, Gisken,” she snapped. “I know how your army rations are oh-so-fancy; you guys just love flaunting them in front of us.”

While Kael got a confused look on his face, Polain bit his lip as his face darkened, while Olrick and Silas glanced over at each other, a look of understanding on their faces. It seemed that everyone but Kael and Elise knew what Eza was talking about.

Polain set his rations down on his pack, which was lying on the road in front of him, and stood up. “Commander Eza, may I speak to you in private?” Without a word, Eza set her food down, stood up, and followed Polain farther down the road and out of earshot, fuming mad.

“What is it about me that she doesn’t like?” Kael asked to no one in particular. Silas began to scratch the back of his head like a dog with fleas.

“You’re a Gisken, for starters,” he said. “You also happened to be a soldier; to her, you might as well be the devil in man’s clothing with that combination.” Kael looked down at the road as he bit into his jerky, again.

“I didn’t know that you Caithians felt so strongly about us,” he said.

“She’s Kurzhian.” Kael turned red with embarrassment, then looked back down at his food.

“Dear gods,” he said quietly. “No wonder she hates me.” Silas snorted, then swigged water from his canteen.

“In all honesty, I’m surprised that she didn’t kill you when she first found you.”

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