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

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Chapter Nineteen

After walking along the main road for three days, sleeping in village inns and living off of hard tack and jerky, they finally made it to Semata. The large, city wall became visible after an entire day of walking down the dusty road, past fields and sweet-smelling orchards with budding white flowers. It all seemed endless, until, as they approached the Matisse Mountains, the towering walls of Semata began to rise over the landscape from their 1,000 year old spot.

“Oh, thank the gods!” Silas groaned loudly when they saw the city walls. “I hate the walk here so much.”

“We know,” Eza said, rolling her eyes. “If I had a dram for every time you’ve mentioned it, I’d be richer than Queen Marion.”

Soon, the two of them found themselves in yet another sibling-like debate again, but Elise hardly noticed; she was too amazed by the fact that she was so close to Semata, a city that, after the many stories she’d heard about it, had become legendary in her mind. Never, in her wildest dreams, had she thought that she would be there.

“What’s it like in Semata?” she asked. Olrick shrugged.

“It’s pretty big,” he said. “I would try and stay away from the docks, though; they smell like rotting fish more than I care to mention.”

“Actually, the entire city smells like rotten fish,” Silas butted in. “It’s that bit by the western wall you want to avoid, unless you want to get robbed, or drunk off your ass.” Olrick, Eza and Polain nodded in agreement.

“I happen to agree with Commander Silas,” Polain said. “The western wall is inhabited only by thieves and cut throats; avoid going there at all costs.” Elise nodded, but the revelation about the western wall did nothing to dim her spirits. Knowing that the city was full of danger didn’t make her less excited to go to Semata. What sort of adventures would she have there? What kind of people would she see there? It was with that line of thought that she approached the city, giddier than she’d ever been in her life.

As they got closer and closer to the city, Elise gained a greater appreciation of just how large the city was. The walls were massive, so tall that they seemed to touch the heavens and so long that they seemed to stretch on forever. To go with the mighty stone wall, there was a massive wooden door, in front of which stood soldiers clad in leather breastplates, leg guards, and swords strapped to their hips. They stopped everyone who tried to enter the city, inspecting their bags and carts to make sure they weren’t trying to take in anything illegal. Guards also walked along the top of the wall, searching the horizon for any danger.

However, when they approached the gate, the guards didn’t search them. The second they saw Polain, they saluted.

“G-general Polain, sir,” they said. Polain saluted back. “Are you travelling alone, today?”

Polain motioned at them. “These people are my guests.” He pulled his bag from his back and held it out to the guards. They looked at him, confused.

“We don’t need to search your bag, sir,” one of them said. “We know that you won’t have anything illegal on you.”

“The law has no exceptions, gentlemen,” Polain said simply. “I know that you may have some reservations about searching me, but I ask that you humor me by doing this.” The guards looked at each other, unsure of what to do; it seemed that a situation like that one was unheard of. Then, one of them took his bag and began going through it, while the other one took Elise’s.

After the guards had finished going through everyone’s bags, they saluted again.

“Welcome back to Semata, sir.” With their packs slung back over their shoulders, the group passed through Semata’s main gate.

To Elise’s amazement, the city seemed to be even bigger than she’d imagined. Large buildings, as well as more people than she'd seen in her entire life, surrounded them. The sights, the sounds, the smells, they were all so overwhelming, she found herself stopping to gawk at everything that surrounded her.

“I take it that you’ve never been here, before.” Olrick’s voice brought her out of her daze. She nodded.

“I’ve never been this far from home, before,” Elise breathed. She and Olrick began to walk together along the cobblestone streets, lagging slightly behind the rest of the group.

“I know how you feel,” Olrick said. “I remember when I first came here, I got lost running errands for my father every day for the first week or so. You’ll get used to it, I promise.” For a few seconds, Elise found that she didn’t believe what he said; how could you get used to a place as big as this?

“Olrick, you know where the army medical school is, right?” Polain asked. Olrick nodded.

“I need you to show her where it is,” he said. “We’ll be at the international district; meet us at the tea shop by that bath house when you’re done.” Olrick nodded and the group split up, Olrick and Elise continuing northward while Polain, Silas, Eza and Kael went down a side street, where some sort of market was set up.

“How long have you lived here?” Elise asked as they continued down the street. Olrick shrugged.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Fourteen years, I think; I was six when we moved here.”

“You weren’t born here?” she asked. He shook his head.

“I was born in Lake Town,” he said. “King Thias asked us to come here after his blacksmith died, since my father was the best one he knew after him.” For a few minutes, they walked in silence as they took in their surroundings. Most people didn’t seem to notice them, but the few of them that did gave them angry glares as they past. While Elise found herself extremely uncomfortable, Olrick didn’t even seem to notice.

“Why are people looking at us like that?” she asked quietly.

“They’re looking at me,” Olrick said without even looking at the people’s glares. “Watchmen aren’t really welcomed here; they think of us as cowards.” Cowards? The thought made her sick. Olrick was one of the bravest people she’d ever met; how could people see him as a coward?

As they continued to walk, Elise began to see a large wall in the distance, one within the city walls. Behind it, she saw tall turrets and towers, ones whose height rivaled even the city wall, rising up to touch the sky. Green vines crawled their way up a few of them, pale, violet flowers blooming on them and turning the dull, gray stone into something beautiful.

“That’s Castle Matisse,” Olrick said, motioning towards the building. Castle Matisse? That was where the royalty of Caitha lived. It was certainly worthy of royalty.

He pointed to another building, one that sat next to the castle wall. Though it certainly wasn’t quite as grand as the castle, it was bigger than most of the buildings around it and had its own, smaller wall surrounding it. “And that’s the army medical core building. You’ll be staying there while you’re getting more formally trained.”

As they approached the building, Elise saw that, like at Semata’s main gate, there was a man standing outside the building’s gate; however, he wasn’t dressed for war. He was dressed simply in a pair of trousers and a light gray tunic with red bands on both forearms, signifying that he was an army medic. He waved at them when he saw them walking towards him.

“What can I do for you two?” he asked. Olrick put a hand on her shoulder.

“You guys are still looking for recruits, right?” The man looked over at Elise. If she hadn’t known better, she would have thought that he was on the verge of tears.

“Oh, thank the gods!” The man rushed over to her and shook her hand vigorously. “We’re so desperate for recruits, it’s a miracle we’re still running. Do you have any medical training, already?”

“A little,” she said.

“She patched me up,” Olrick said. The man looked him over, and his smile broadened.

“You really are an answer to our prayers,” he said. He began to lead her through the gate and into a small courtyard, while Olrick stayed at the gate. “I’ll show you to your room; then, we can discuss your pay and whatnot.” He led her through the courtyard and into the building. The whole time, as he spoke about what she would be doing in the next few weeks, she couldn’t help but wonder what she’d gotten herself into.

The international district of Semata was a strange area, a haphazard mix of all sorts of nationalities. As they walked to Ilsa’s home, Polain, Eza, Silas and Kael walked by Abunaki, Chastians, Giskens, Vercourians, Jotiese, Espish, and even the rare Kuzhian. They saw Jotiese bathhouses, Vercourian wine cellars, Gisken beer houses, and other foreign oddities all intermingled with each other. While Polain, Eza and Silas were quite used to the place (all of them, at one point or another, had lived there,) it became apparent that Kael had never seen anything like it in his life. He gawked at everything: every sign written in a foreign language, every person still dressed in the clothing of their homeland; it served to remind Polain of how little experience Kael had with foreigners, who were kicked out of Gishk after Raul took over.

“What’s wrong, kid?” Commander Silas asked as they walked through a Jotiese market, filled with all sorts of knick-knacks. “They don’t have anything like this in Gishk?” Kael slowly shook his head as he continued to look around.

“All foreigners were expelled after Raul took over,” he said.

“I would hurry up and get used to it,” Commander Eza said as she scanned the crowds. They were giving them – specifically Kael - weird looks as they past. A few, likely members of one of the many crime syndicates in the international district, were looking angry, ready to beat the shit out of them the second they thought he would start causing trouble for them. “Unless you want to make some new friends, of course.”

Polain found himself resting his hand on the hilt of his sword. Commander Eza was right. The fact that there were three members of the military in these people’s presence was bad enough; if Kael didn’t stop looking at everything with such interest, a fight was going to break out, and the crime syndicates there had no qualms about killing innocent civilians if they happen to be in the way.

After that experience in the market, they stuck to the main streets, even though it meant that it took a lot longer to reach Ilsa’s home. Luckily, after awhile, Kael seemed to get used to things; in fact, when a few Abunaki men dressed in ceremonial garb walked by, Kael didn’t even bat at eye.

After about a half an hour of wandering through the crowded streets, they reached their destination: a small building, just off the main road of the main road in the district. It wasn’t a very nice building – a lot of the paint on the wooden exterior was chipping off and every metal surface was rusting – but it was certainly better than a lot of the buildings in that area; most weren’t much better than tall huts.

“Who lives here?” Kael asked as Polain knocked on the door. They could hear footsteps from the other side of the door, lightly padding across the wooden floor towards them.

“You’re about to find out,” Polain said. Before Silas could tell him to “shove his cryptic crap up his ass”, the door creaked open and a young woman – perhaps twenty or twenty one years old - poked her head out of the door. She had dark brown hair, tied behind her head in a tail, brown, weary eyes, and pale, sickly looking skin. It must have been Ilsa’s daughter, though Polain didn’t know her name; he’d known that she had a daughter, but she never talked about her.

“Is Ilsa here?” Polain asked. The girl nodded and opened the door more, allowing them to enter.

The room they found themselves in was just as Polain remembered. It was dark, almost pitch black with the exception of a few, dim candles on the simple table. A wardrobe filled with dishes sat by a rickety table and some chairs, while a hearth with an empty cauldron next to it was on the other side of the room. The one window the main level had was dirty and grimy, just like every other surface, though it wasn’t for lack of trying; a sickly-looking broom was propped up in a corner, next to a water bucket and an old, frayed mop. Floor pillows sat in a circle on a hand woven floor rug, to which the girl directed them.

“My mother is upstairs,” the girl said. “I think she’s taking a nap right now, so it may take awhile.” Polain nodded.

“Please, take your time,” he said. “We’re in no hurry.” Ilsa’s daughter nodded and made her way up the creaky stairs.

“Once again, who’s Ilsa?” Kael asked once Ilsa’s daughter was out of earshot. Silas nodded in agreement.

“And if you start acting like some wise sage and give us some stupidly cryptic answer, I swear on all that’s holy, I’ll-“ Polain held his hand up, cutting him off before he could finish his sentence.

“Yes, Silas, I know exactly what you’ll do if I don’t give you the answer you want,” he said. “Ilsa’s a refugee, back from when they were forcing foreigners out of Gishk under threat of death.”

“Where is she really from?” Polain shrugged.

“She never told me,” he said. “She preferred to keep the details of her life before she came here on a need-to-know basis, and I guess she never thought I needed to know.” Kael looked at him, confused.

“And you never asked about it?” he asked.

“Of course not,” Polain said. “What a person shares about their private life is their business; it was not my place to ask.” Kael still looked confused, but before he could ask any more questions, the girl came back down the stairs, her mother in tow.

Polain stood up. She was just as he remembered, albeit, eleven years older. Her hair was shot through with gray and fell down her back, her brown eyes were tired, and she seemed to sag, as if her very clothes weighed her down. Ilsa had been this way since she learned about the fate of the royal family, what Raul had done to them. Perhaps that visit would bring her some hope again, as well as give some sort of clue as to who Kael really was.

“What are you doing here, Polain?” she asked quietly. She scanned Silas, Eza, and Kael’s faces, the look on her face changing into one of disgust, and her grip on the stairs grew tighter. “And why have you brought them here?”

“We’re here because I need your help,” he said. He looked back at Kael. “Can you stand up, please?” He nodded and slowly stood up.

“I thought that you might appreciate seeing someone from home.” Ilsa took one look at him, and her face lit up in recognition. Tears began to well up in her eyes, but Kael seemed confused as to what was going on.

“P-Prince Kael?” Ilsa slowly approached Kael and held her hand out to him, as if she were seeing a ghost. Then, she reached out and hugged him tightly as tears began to stream down her face.

“Thank the gods, you’re back!” She whispered. Kael slowly wrapped his arms around him, unsure if what he was doing was appropriate for the situation; it seemed that years of being tutored in etiquette hadn’t prepared him for a situation like this.

“I’m afraid that I’m not sure who you are,” he finally said after she’d left his awkward embrace. Ilsa wiped her eyes with her hand. Her cheeks had turned red and glossy from crying.

“I suppose you wouldn’t remember me, your grace,” she said, performing a quick curtsy. “I was a nursemaid in your father’s house. I had to leave when you were young.” Ilsa turned to Polain, shock in her eyes.

“How did you find him?” she asked. “Has he been here all along?”

“He found us, actually,” Polain said. “I’m not sure where he’s been all this time, but it seems that he decided it was time to come back.” He, Kael and Ilsa all sat down on the floor pillows and everybody talked, as if they were all old friends. Through the happy conversations – most of which had to do with what Kael’s return could mean for the war – a thought sat in the back of his mind like an itch waiting to be scratched. Before Raul had killed the royal family, Princess Marion and Kael were to be married when they reached the proper age. After the massacre, that deal had been made void, as Kael was supposed to be dead. It seemed that their marriage would now not only be possible, but mandatory; he was sure that King Thias and King Alberich would still want it to go on.

But how was he supposed to tell them?

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