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

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Chapter Two

When Elise woke up the next morning, bright, golden sunlight was drifting through the window; bizarre, considering what the weather had been like the previous night. Olrick had already gotten up, though she didn’t think that he’d been up for long; he was still in Milo’s bed with the covers pulled over his legs. He’d managed to sit up in the bed and had one of his short swords unsheathed and sitting on his lap. He’d found one of her brother’s whetstones and was running along the sword’s blade, making a loud, grating sound.

Elise sat up in her bed and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. Olrick already looked so much better than he had the previous night: his skin had returned to what she assumed was its natural, olive color, he didn’t look to be in as much pain as he had the previous night; it seemed that a night of bed rest had really helped him, as far as his health was concerned.

When Olrick saw that she’d woken up, he stopped sharpening his short sword’s blade and looked over at her, a guilty look on his face.

“Did I wake you?” he asked. Elise shook her head as she stretched her arms above her head.

“You didn’t,” she said, running a hand through her hair. “Did you sleep alright?” Olrick nodded. She almost thought she saw a faint smile on his lips.

“Better than I have in a long time,” he said as Elise stood up. She walked over to the trunk where her dresses were kept and opened it.

“Would you happen to know what happened to my shirt?” Olrick asked as Elise pulled a green dress and pulled it on over her white slip.

“You can wear one of my brother’s,” she said. “I kind of cut yours up trying to get to your burns.” Olrick opened the trunk by the foot of Milo’s bed and pulled out one of his shirts.

As he put on the shirt, Olrick turned his back to her to reveal a set of scars she hadn’t seen the previous night. On his back was a set of long, old, raised scars that cut across his back, coupled with red, fresh cuts. She hadn’t seen marks like them in a long time, not since they’d almost whipped that horse thief to death…

Her stomach began to twist itself into knots. The burns, the crossbow bolt, the lash marks… who was this boy, and what had he done to deserve all of this?

“A-are you hungry?” she asked. He nodded, and the two of them walked outside the bedroom.

Pa was already awake and was sitting at one of the tables, eating some pottage. Since it was towards the end of the month, it consisted of vegetables they’d gotten during the last market day that was starting to go bad. However, Olrick didn’t seem to mind the taste; in fact, he seemed to be enjoying it.

“Did you sleep alright?” Pa asked as they ate. Olrick nodded, swallowing a spoonful of pottage before he spoke.

“Yes, sir,” he said. He took another spoonful of pottage “Thank you for allowing me to stay here; I hope I’m not too much of a burden on you guys.”

“You aren’t, don’t worry,” Pa said. The rest of the meal went along in a similar fashion. They asked Olrick where he was from, where he was going, how long he’d been a Watchman, and he politely answered each of their questions, addressing Pa as “sir” and Elise as “ma’am”. By the time breakfast was over and the dishes were done, they knew him about as well as they knew some of their regulars, but that wasn’t saying much.

The first patrons of the day walked through the tavern doors soon after they’d finished eating breakfast. Normally, they didn’t have anyone come in until noon, when workers from the quarry would come in during the lunch break; however, it was the end of the week, the day they were given to be with their families, or in the case of their customers, to spend the little money they’d earned in the quarry on food and ale. Elise, Pa, and Olrick, who’d insisted on earning his keep, set to work around the tavern. While Olrick swept the floors and cleaned up after their customers had finished eating and drinking, Elise waited on tables and Pa filled tankards with ale and bowls with pottage, per their patrons’ requests. It felt like an average day, until around noon, when he walked in.

Bram was a soldier and the son of a quarry worker and a seamstress, who worked until her fingers bled just so she’d have enough money to keep her family from starving, even with her husband drinking and gambling almost every coin the two of them earned away. He sadly took after his father, harassing most every woman in Thaos who had any sort of physical virtue. Much to Elise’s horror, though, he seemed to take a special interest in her. Only the Gods knew how many times Milo had come to her rescue while he was around. She’d thought that she would be safe from him after he’d started military training and had to leave for Lake Town, but those hopes had been dashed the second she saw him walk through the door of the tavern.

Elise froze in terror when she saw him. It couldn’t be him, could it? But it was; the brown haired, brown eyed, tan soldier who’d tormented her for years had returned.

“P-pa…” she whispered. She couldn’t do it; she couldn’t go through it again. When he saw him, Pa put a hand on her shoulder.

“It’s alright,” he said quietly. “If I catch him harassing you, I’ll kick him out.” That wasn’t very reassuring. If Bram was anything, he was persistent; he’d find some way to make her miserable, even if Pa forbade him from ever walking into the tavern again.

Despite her fears, Elise walked over to the table Bram was sitting at to see what he wanted; if she were to simply ignore him, he’d just find someone else in the tavern to make miserable, which would not only serve to make her feel guilty, but to scare away their customers, too.

“W-what do you need?” she stuttered. Bram smiled when he saw her.

“You’re even prettier than you were when I left,” he said smoothly, slapping a few coins down on the table. A chill went down her spine. “How about some ale and a bowl of pottage?” she took the coins and walked over to the bar where Pa was. She tried to keep from walking too fast; Bram would only be encouraged if he knew just how scared she still was of him.

“Are you alright?” Pa asked once Elise had arrived at the bar. Her face was red hot with embarrassment.

“He wants some ale and a bowl of pottage,” she said quietly. He nodded and filled a tankard with ale and a bowl with pottage.

While he did that, Elise turned around and looked over at where Bram was sitting, across the tavern from the bar. She didn’t want to go back over there; she was too scared of what he would do to her if she resisted his advances. At the same time, she couldn’t act like she was afraid of him. All that had done over the years was empower him.

Pa handed her Bram’s tankard and bowl. She took them and began to walk over to his table, her heart pounding so hard, she was sure that he could hear it.

“Do you need anything else?” Elise asked Bram as she set the tankard of ale and the bowl of pottage down on the table. He leaned forward in his seat. She bit her lip to keep it from shaking.

“I’ve been looking for some female company, actually,” he said. He began to brush his hand up her arm, sending more chills through her. “I’ve been kind of lonely since I enlisted…” Elise backed away from him.

“I-I have to go-“ she turned around to leave, but he wouldn’t let her; he grabbed her by the arm.

“Bram, let me go,” Elise said as panic swelled up in her. When she looked him in the eye, she saw that any trace of human emotion had left him; they were wild, like some sort of animal.

She’d never been so scared in her life.

“Hey!” both Elise and Bram looked to the side, where the voice had come from. Olrick was standing there, his hand resting on one of his short swords, his eyes narrowed in anger. “I do believe she asked you to let her go.”

After a few moments of stunned silence between the three of them, Bram shoved Elise away. She stumbled and would’ve fallen to the ground, if a nearby quarry worker hadn’t caught her.

“What a noble Watchman,” Bram taunted as he approached Olrick, putting his hand on his own sword. The entire tavern had become deadly silent, watching as Olrick stood his ground without even a hint of hesitation. “Tell me: are you always like this, or just when you aren’t feeling too cowardly?”

Olrick’s grip on his sword tightened, but he didn’t say a word; obviously, he was used to the anti-Watchmen sentiment that was so common throughout Caitha, especially amongst soldiers.

“Listen, you two,” Pa said as he came out from behind the bar and walked towards the brewing conflict. His voice filled with nervousness, as it should have been; the last brawl they’d had in the tavern had nearly ended in death. “Break it up, or take it outside-“ Bram turned his poisonous gaze at him and pointed.

“Shut up, old man!” he barked. Pa stepped back, afraid, while Olrick stepped forward, his anger beginning to show though his calm façade.

“Show some respect,” he ordered. “I know Kurzhians with more manners than you.”

Everyone’s jaws dropped when they heard the insult, including Bram’s; Olrick might as well have told him that he was little more than a dog. They were so shocked, nobody seemed to notice the town’s silversmith rush out to warn the sheriff.

That was the last straw for Bram. Without another word, he pulled a dagger from his belt and slashed at Olrick’s neck.

However, Olrick seemed ready for it. He stepped back, the dagger’s blade just barely missing his neck, and grabbed Bram’s knife hand by the wrist. The next thing anyone knew, he had Bram pinned against a nearby table with his arm extended up in the air, the dagger skidding across the room from them. Bram squirmed beneath him, but Olrick’s grip didn’t falter.

“Don’t make me break your arm,” he said. He sounded quite genuine, but Bram didn’t think so. He grabbed a nearby tankard, turned around, and smacked Olrick across the face with it, hard. He stumbled back, putting a hand to his cheek. Bram grabbed him by the shoulders and kneed him in the stomach. Olrick doubled over, his arms wrapped around his stomach, and Bram shoved him to the ground.

That was when Bram’s sadistic side came out; at least, it tried to. He went to go kick Olrick while he was still laying on the ground, but he didn’t let him. Olrick lashed out at Bram’s legs with his foot, knocking him right off his feet. Bram fell to the ground, hard, as Olrick scrambled back to his feet, wincing; it seemed that his injuries from the previous night were coming back to haunt him.

There was a loud crack as the tavern door was thrown open. Everyone, including Bram, looked away from Olrick to see who it was.

“What in the gods’ names is going on here?!” The man who said it was one of the MPs stationed in Thaos to keep their tiny garrison in line. Two more stood behind him with their batons drawn.

Bram got to his feet, a smug look on his face. It looked like he thought he could sweet talk his way out of this.

“Good morning, sirs,” he said cheerfully as Olrick wrapped an arm around his stomach. “We were just settling a little argument-“

“Save it, Bram,” the head MP snapped as the two others walked in. “You’re under arrest for disturbing the peace.”

Elise found herself breathing a sigh of relief. Thank the gods; it looked like Bram would be behind bars for the rest of his time in Thaos. Olrick seemed comforted by the fact, too. He stood up a little straighter and Elise even thought she saw a hint of a smile on his lips.

“Try not to look so smug, Watchman,” the head MP said. “You’re coming with us, too.”

Now it was Bram’s turn to smile as one of the MPs walked towards Olrick, some shackles in his hands. The customers began to mutter under their breaths; it seemed that they didn’t think it was right, either.

“He did nothing wrong, sir,” Pa said, stepping before they could arrest Olrick. The head MP gave him a questioning look and held his hand up. The MP that was going to arrest Olrick stopped, an almost sheepish look on his face.

Pa pointed at Bram. “That man tried to attack my daughter, and when this kind Watchman intervened, he tried to kill him.”

The head MP looked around at the other people in the tavern. “Is that true?” Everyone nodded and muttered their agreement.

The head MP waved his subordinate back and looked over at Olrick.

“So, for once, a Watchman has managed to save the day,” he said, folding his arms over his chest. “What’s your rank? Do I need to charge this bastard with assaulting a superior officer, too?” Olrick nodded as he tried to stand a little straighter, wincing in pain.

“I’m a commander,” he said.

Everyone’s jaws dropped when they heard that, including Elise’s. A commander? Nobody of such a high rank had ever passed through Thaos before; she was under the impression that they all lived in Semata and looked down on tiny towns like this. The fact that one was not only standing right in front of them but had cleaned up after them like some stable boy was mind boggling.

The MP snorted as he looked over at Bram. “You really need to learn to pick your fights better, you little shit.”

“He’s lying!” Bram yelled. “There’s no way in hell he’s a commander!”

“Save it for the court marshal,” the MP said. “Take him away.” The two other MPs dragged Bram out of the tavern, kicking and screaming like a child having a tantrum, as Olrick sat down at one of the tables, running a hand through is hair.

“Are you alright?” Elise asked once they were gone. He nodded.

“I’ll be alright,” he said. One of the customers handed him a mug filled with ale, which he gladly accepted.

“That one’s on me, mate,” the man said. “Anything for a tough bastard like you.”

General Raul hated Caitha.

To his surprise, he hated it even more than he hated Kurzh. Many of his soldiers theorized that it was because he hated Princess Marion Matisse, the ruler of the small island. Others thought it was because of how the Caithians seemed to have already given up; most everyone around him knew that he preferred to win after a long, hard struggle rather than after hardly lifting a finger. While those reasons were certainly among the long list of reasons he detested the island he found himself invading, they weren’t at the top of the list: the reason he hated Caitha the most was because of the damned rain.

He hated the rain: it soaked his clothes and chilled him to the bone that night as he looked through his spyglass at his next target: a small town, similar to the ones his army had already taken in the week they’d been in Caitha. They would take it first thing in the morning, when the residents were still asleep, just like they had with the other towns. Considering the fact that the town didn’t even have a proper garrison defending it, it would take less than an hour to take the town, if that.

“Ready your men,” General Raul ordered the captain behind him, a blonde haired, blue-eyed veteran of the Kurzhian campaign by the name of Finn. “We’ll take the town in the morning.

“Yes sir,” Finn said. “Is that all?”

“Would you happen to know the name of this town, captain?” General Raul asked. He may not have been looking directly at him, but he knew that he would be confused; many of his men found his interest in knowing the names of the towns he’d personally conquered strange.

“I was told that the name of this town is Thaos, sir,” he responded.

“You’re dismissed, captain,” General Raul said. He could hear Finn clicking his heels as he saluted him, then his steady footfalls as he walked away, likely to the safety of his tent.

Thaos. It sounded much too like the name of the previous ruler, the headstrong one he’d killed ten years ago. It would be a pleasure to conquer the town that was, likely named after one of the many rulers of Caitha.

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