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

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Chapter Twenty-Three

Elise stared at the page, watching the tip of her quill etch the shapes of different letters. She’d spent three days working on nothing but her reading and her writing, and it was really starting to pay off. She’d been able to read a passage from one of the massive volumes in the library (it was one about the origins of the royal family), thus completing her reading exam, and she then found herself completing her writing exam by writing journal entries; she would have to right three with minimal errors in order to become a private in the medical core.

Mathis nodded as he examined the journal entry. “Excellent; if you keep writing like this, you’ll be a full member by the end of the week.

Elise found pride swelling in her chest. It excited her, to know that she would soon be able to help in the war.

Before she could respond, there was a quiet knock at the door.

“Come in.” The door to the study opened and, to her surprise, Olrick stepped through the door. Elise was glad to see that he no longer needed a sling to support his shoulder and he was walking with a lot more strength than he had, before.

Mathis stood up when he saw him, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Why, Commander Olrick; to what do we owe the pleasure?”

Olrick began to rub the back of his neck. “You know that little piece of information we got at the war meeting?” Mathis got tense, his face taking on a look of worry.

“What about it?” Mathis asked the question hesitantly, as if he weren’t sure if he wanted the answer or not.

“We’ve come up with a solution,” Olrick said. Mathis looked down at Elise, and his face softened.

“Would you excuse us for a moment, please?” he asked. She nodded as she stood up.

“Actually, Elise should probably stay,” Olrick said. “She’s part of it.” Elise found herself wrapping her arms around herself, suddenly uncomfortable. She trusted Olrick with her life, but she had a very bad feeling about this.

She got the impression that Mathis, too, wasn’t so sure about what Olrick was about to say. His brows were furrowed and his arms were folded over his chest.

“Does General Polain know about this?” he asked. Olrick began to rub the back of his neck and looked to the side.

“Probably not,” he admitted. He looked back at them. “Silas was worried that he’d say no if we gave him the chance to.”

Mathis sighed as he shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. “One of these days, he’s going to have you all lashed for going over his head like this.” He looked back up at Olrick. “What genius plan has the commander come up with, now?”

“Well, we kind of need her to figure out what Raul wants,” he said. Mathis bit his bottom lip.

“So, you need her as a spy?” he asked. Olrick nodded.

A thousand objections rose in Elise’s mind as a pit began to grow in her stomach. She remembered General Raul all too well from when she met him back in Thaos: his massive, tree-like build, his cold, calculating eye, his eerily calm voice and demeanor, the large sword on his back, possibly the same one that had killed Milo; she couldn’t go back to that, no matter how much her country needed her to.

Elise looked down at her feet as she began to rub her arm. “I-I’m sorry, Olrick. I can’t go back to Thaos.”

“And you won’t have to,” Olrick said. “Raul’s coming to us; a messenger came a few days ago to tell us. He’s supposedly coming to negotiate peace.”

Elise felt as though she’d been punched in the gut. For the past few days, she’d been convinced that she’d managed to escape the war for a month or so; knowing that General Raul – the very cause of all the pain and devastation she’d been subjected to for weeks – would be coming to her supposed safe haven scared her.

“Dear gods.” She sat back down, staring at the far wall.

“Olrick, this is insane,” Mathis said. “If Raul is actually here to negotiate and he finds out about this, you could ruin any chance we might have of getting a peaceful end to all this.”

“You and I both know that there is no peaceful solution to this,” Olrick said. “If this plan ends up working, the solution might end up in our favor.” The two were silent for a few seconds, then Mathis sighed.

“You have a minute to convince me that this won’t end horribly wrong, or you can save yourself the trouble and find someone else to do Silas’ work for him,” he said. Olrick nodded.

“Elise will come to the castle before General Raul to pose as a new maidservant,” he said. “This will give her a way to eavesdrop on him, maybe even take something from his room while he’s gone. If he ends up catching her, she can use the fact that she’s new to the castle as a reason why she stumbled into his room. She’s innocent enough that he might believe her.”

“And why wouldn’t the current castle staff work, or a Watchman or a Rook?” Mathis asked. “Are you presuming that they can’t act like a new servant?”

“I’m sure they can, but it’ll be much to hard to get that confident little walk of theirs knocked out of their head in time,” Olrick said. “Besides, Watchmen and Rooks are trained to act as if they belong in a certain situation, not to stick out like a sore thumb; Raul wouldn’t believe they’d gotten lost in the castle for a second.” Mathis raised an eyebrow.

“Confident little walk of theirs?” he asked.

“What if General Raul finds me out?” Elise asked. The boys looked over at her; it seemed that they’d managed to forget that she was in the room with them. “He’ll kill me, or worse.”

“He won’t find you out,” Olrick said confidently. “We’ll make sure he doesn’t, I promise.” His confidence didn’t do much to calm her fears.

“Safety aside, how is she supposed to continue her training?” Mathis said. “She’s nearly a private; it would be a shame to stop, now.”

“Where is she at?” Olrick asked.

“She’ll be done with her written exams in a few days,” Mathis said. “She has a bow and a sword, as you already know, but she has yet to begin training in either one.”

“Then the solution is really quite simple,” Olrick said. “We can do her weapons training.”

“And how will you do that without Raul noticing?” Mathis countered. “I might not be an expert in Gisken culture, but I think he’ll find it really strange if he sees you training a maidservant in swordsmanship and archery.” Olrick began rubbing the back of his neck as he tried to think of a solution.

Finally, he sighed, defeated. “I don’t know. We can figure something out, though.”

Mathis closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Olrick, but I don’t feel comfortable sending Elise into a possible death sentence. You’ll have to find someone else to do this.” Olrick almost seemed to deflate when he heard it, but he didn’t argue with him.

Elise looked down at her feet and wrapped her arms tighter around herself. “I’ll do it.”

To her surprise, Mathis and Olrick looked over at her; she hadn’t thought that she’d said it loud enough for them to hear.

“Are you sure, Elise?” Mathis asked. “If you feel uncomfortable doing this, don’t feel obligated to; I’m sure that they can find someone else in time for Raul’s arrival.”

Elise shook her head as she tucked a stray chunk of hair behind her ear. “I-I’m sure.” Mathis didn’t seem entirely convinced by her answer, but he didn’t argue, thank the gods; if he had, she didn’t think that her resolve would hold out enough to say she was sure, again.

“Well, I guess there isn’t much I can do if you agree with this, too,” he said. “We’ll finish up with your writing exams, then we’ll send you off to the castle.”

The tavern Olrick, Eza and Silas found themselves in after Marion and Kael had gone to sleep wasn’t the kind of place Olrick would normally go to. It was by the west wall, where the black market and most of Semata’s criminal element was located. That bar was where the worst of it was, too: in fact, there was a sort of betting pool going on between the cut throats there on organized fist fights, in which almost all the patrons participated in. It definitely wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was the only place they could come up with where they knew Polain – or anyone else - wouldn’t walk in on them.

“How did you two find this place?” Olrick asked, trying to keep his eyes on Silas. Even so, he found himself stealing quick glances at the criminals around them. They glared at him and Silas, recognizing them not only as members of the military, but as strangers, as well. However, they hardly gave Eza a second glance.

“In all honesty, I had no clue that this place existed until a few hours ago,” he said. He nodded over to Eza, who was sitting with her legs propped up on the table, a tankard filled with ale in hand. “She’s the regular, if you can’t tell, already.”

“Why do you come here so often?” Olrick asked. “I’d think that you prefer a place with a more potent ale, like one of those places up by the northern wall.”

Before Eza could respond, one of the men in charge of the betting pool walked up to her and whispered something in her ear. She smirked, making alarm bells ring in Olrick’s head; a smile from Eza was hardly ever a good sign.

“You’re about to find out.” She said. With that, she stood up, put her tankard down on the table, and took off her cloak.

Olrick and Silas looked over at each other, unsure if they should stop her from doing whatever it was she was planning, then back at Eza. She’d walked to the makeshift ring, along with a brute of a man, who was gnashing tobacco to a green pulp between rotting teeth.

The man laughed when he saw who his opponent was. “Is this some sort of joke? I feel a bit conflicted about beating up a child.” Some of the men in the tavern chuckled.

“I wouldn’t,” Eza said. “Having a woman and a child fight each other isn’t as frowned upon as you think.” The confident smirk on the man’s face went away, replaced with an angry sneer.

He spat the tobacco out at Eza’s feet and raised his fists. “Don’t expect me to go easy on you, child.”

Eza took her hands out of her pockets, but didn’t raise her fists. “Likewise, princess.”

That was the last straw for the man. He began swinging his fists wildly, aiming mostly for her head.

He might as well have been trying to hit a ghost: Eza dodged every blow with ease, using his own momentum to throw him at the surrounding tables. The fight went on like that for about a minute, until Eza grew tired of toying with him.

From that point, she began a barrage of her own attacks. Knees, stomach, chest; she landed quick, hard jabs on every inch of the man’s body. Just as he would react to one punch, another would strike him. By the time she was done with him, the man was on the ground, moaning in pain. Most of the patrons began cheering, even those who lost a significant amount of money because of the number she did on their champion. By the time Eza made it back to their table, she was a hundred or two drams richer.

“Supplementing your military pension, are we?” Silas asked as Eza dumped her mass of coins on the table.

She shrugged as she took a swig from her tankard of ale. “Ten drams a week isn’t quite cutting it for me. I like this tavern, but I sure as hell don’t want to live in this part of town.” Silas shook his head with a nervous chuckle.

“You greedy little shit,” he said as Eza literally filled her pockets with money. He took a swig of ale, then slammed his tankard down on the table.

“Now, to business,” Silas said. “How have preparations for our little plan gone?”

“Polain’s set which room in the castle will be Raul’s,” Eza said. “I’ll see if I can’t get myself a room by where he’ll be staying and get some spy holes installed, if there aren’t any, already.” Silas nodded.

“Speaking of spies, how did your meeting with your lady friend go, Olrick?” he asked. Olrick could feel his cheeks beginning to burn red.

“I-it’s not like that!” Silas smirked.

“Sure, it isn’t,” he said. “Will she be joining us, or will she be staying out of this?” Olrick sighed and took a sip of ale, the liquid scorching his throat.

“She’s in,” he said.

“Good,” Silas said. “Now, take a manly swig of ale.”

Olrick frowned, confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Everything, actually,” Silas said. “If you don’t have the cock on you to take a proper swig of ale, then how can I trust you to have the balls to defy your general? Now, take a manly swig of ale before I shove that tankard down your damned throat.”

Olrick looked over at Eza. She nodded, a serious look on her face. “Do it.”

He sighed and swigged some ale-

Then coughed it up, right into the faces of Silas and Eza when his throat seemed to catch fire.

However, they didn’t seem to care; in fact, Silas began to laugh so hard, he couldn’t breathe.

Olrick could feel his cheeks beginning to burn red as Eza began wiping the ale off of herself. “S-sorry; I-I don’t think I’ve ever drank ale like that before.” Silas began shaking his head as he tried to get enough air in him to talk.

“Ah, kid,” he said as he wiped tears from his eyes. He smacked him on the back, hard. “You’re so damned innocent, sometimes, you know that?” Olrick began to rub the back of his neck.

“We should probably get this cleaned up,” Eza said as she wiped the table down with her cloth napkin. “I don’t think they’d appreciate it if we were to leave this behind.”

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