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

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Chapter Thirty

The town of Marana was small, with barely 1,000 permanent residents. It sat on the northern shore of Lake Thias, and despite its location by a major river, it remained one of the most isolated places in Caitha. It meant that Eza’s arrival was met with a lot of scrutiny, but not enough that anyone caused any trouble for her; thanks to the superstition that ran rampant through Caitha about the figures in black. Rooks were thought to be demonic by some, immortal by most, and assassins for the royal family by all; they were not the sort that you messed with, unless you had a death wish.

This somewhat justified fear of Rooks made Eza’s job a little difficult the night of her arrival. She went to the town’s tavern after getting settled in her room at the small boarding house that would be her home for the next few days. The second she walked in, her black cloak tied over her shoulders, she could feel the eyes of every patron staring at her in fear. Even the tavern’s owner, a burly man who could almost give Silas a run for his money in size, coward behind the bar at the sight of the 16-year-old Rook commander.

Eza pulled back the hood of her cloak, revealing her scarred face, as she walked toward the bar. The tavern’s patrons were beginning to whisper about her, now, about who she was: the Kurzhian, a mystical being that was spoken about in the north of Caitha as reverently as her countrymen spoke about the saints. Thanks to her reputation, not only was she feared because she was a Rook, but she was also feared as the mighty being that she supposedly was. It was said by many that her scar came from a battle with General Raul himself, the same one that he lost his eye in, and that she’d once taken out half of a battalion single-handedly. The only rumor that had some truth to it was the “fact” that she’d started a riot in a Gisken prison and had escaped undetected while the guards tried to handle the prisoners; Mitrius was really the one who started the riot, and the saints know that her escape hadn’t been undetected.

“I-It’s a p-pleasure to have y-you in my tavern, m-ma’am,” the tavern’s owner said as she sat down at the bar with a bow. She could see him shaking with terror.

Eza nodded as she set her staff down on the bar, along with a silver dram. “Get me a bowl of pottage and a tankard of ale, please. You can keep the change.” For a few seconds, the tavern owner simply stared at the silver coin, unsure if she was really going to give it to him. Then, he gently took it, held it close to his chest, and bowed. “Th-thank you, ma’am.” He turned around and began working on her ale and pottage.

As he did, another patron entered and sat down next to her. He was a Watchman, judging by his gray cloak, and had been for a long time; the new ones always walked with a sense of pride with their brand new cloaks. His was frayed and his broad shoulders where hunched from years of being branded sub-human.

The tavern owner came back with Eza’s ale. She swigged it as he went off to get the Watchman a tankard. “You’re a long way from your fort, Watchman; for your sake, I hope that you aren’t a deserter.”

“I’m not, ma’am,” The Watchman said. “The Giskens captured my fort a few weeks ago. I’ve been trying to get to Asfalis for a while, but I haven’t been able to get much farther than here, since nobody seems to want to hire a Watchman.

“Fort Asfalis has fallen, too,” Eza said. The Watchman cursed. “Which one were you stationed at?”

“Fort Matisse,” he said. Eza cursed as the tavern owner came back with the Watchman’s tankard and Eza’s pottage. Fort Matisse was the second largest of the intelligence core’s forts, second only to Fort Asfalis; the fact that it was gone, too, was a huge blow.

The Watchman swigged from his tankard as Eza at her pottage. She discovered that it was ranked second as the worst she’d ever tasted; thank the gods, it didn’t outrank the stuff she’d eaten in Kurzh.

“So, what’s a Rook doing in Marana? I didn’t think that you people like to concern yourselves with tiny fishing villages.”

“We intercepted a report about a northern invasion force getting ready to take Jastan,” Eza said. “I was sent here to investigate.”

The Watchman looked over at her, surprised. “You guys just barely found out about the northern invasion?”

Eza nodded. “This place has been an intelligence black hole for the past few months.”

The Watchman frowned, confused. “So you guys haven’t been getting our intelligence reports?” Eza shook her head.

“I’m fairly certain that the Giskens have been intercepting our messengers,” she said. “They’ve been doing a damned good job at turning our intelligence service useless, and I don’t like it.”

One of the patrons, a burly man with thick brown hair, clapped one of his meaty hands on his shoulder.

The Watchman looked over his shoulder at the man, his eyes narrowed; it seemed that the two knew each other.

“I hope you don’t plan on being a shit to my man, boy,” Eza said before either of them could say anything. They looked over at her, surprised, as she took a few swigs of ale.

The man snorted as he folded his arms over his chest. “This is a man’s business, little girl; I’d suggest that you keep your pretty little head out of it, before I bash it in.”

Everyone in the tavern fell silent when they heard that. It was not only rare to find someone who didn’t believe in the stories, but disbelieved them enough to disrespect a Rook.

“Show some respect!” The Watchman snapped. “She’s worth fifty of you!” Eza turned around to look the man in the eye, holding her hand up. The Watchman shrank back, waiting for Eza to handle the situation.

“I see that you don’t believe in the stories,” Eza said.

“Of course not!” the man scoffed. “I saw one of your comrades get dragged out of Fort Matisse when the Giskens took it. He just begged for his life before they ran the bastard through, and he was older than you; a full-grown man. A little girl like yourself isn’t going to be much braver when her time comes to face her maker.”

“Prove it,” Eza said bluntly. The man stared at her for a few seconds, confused, along with everyone else in the tavern.

“What?” Eza grabbed her staff and sat it on her lap.

“Go get your sword and prove to everyone here that Rooks are just as cowardly as Watchmen,” she said. “Unless you’re worried about your well being, of course; I wouldn’t want to force you into something you’re uncomfortable with, boy.”

That last comment was the last straw for the man. He got red in the face as he yanked his massive broadsword from its sheathe.

“If you insist!” He swung his sword at Eza’s head.

Gods, was this guy a shitty swordsman; Eza actually found herself being offended by the fact that he thought he could take her on. He used his elbows to swing his sword at her rather than his shoulders and he had a very narrow stance. It all managed to not only make his blow less powerful, but make him unstable, as well, two mistakes that even a novice swordsman wouldn’t make. His inexperience almost made her feel guilty about knocking his sword out of the way like a pesky fly, then swiping his leg out from under him, but she didn’t. If the man’s ego hadn’t been so much larger than his real capabilities, then she wouldn’t have to embarrass him in front of his friends like this.

“Would you like to try again?” Eza asked as the man staggered to his feet.

The man stared at her for a few seconds, murder in his eyes. Then, he swung his sword wildly at Eza, trying to avenge himself.

Now, if the man had realized his folly and given up after the first try, Eza might have felt a little sorry for him; however, his ego wouldn’t be denied. The series of blows he’d unleashed on her was wild and ferocious, but horribly predictable. Eza was certain that she would have been able to block the blows with one hand tied behind her back. That time, she’d decided to not be merciful, as she had the first time. It was time to thoroughly humiliate him, the only way she could think of to keep his ego from getting him killed.

Before anyone could get seriously hurt, Eza smacked him on the wrist with her staff, forcing him to drop his sword, and slammed his face against the bar, pinning him to it. He thrashed and squirmed beneath her grip, but he couldn’t wrench himself free; he was stuck, pinned down to the bar by a teen-aged girl.

“You need to learn to control your anger,” Eza said as the man continued to struggle beneath her. “It could get you killed if you were to piss off the wrong person; you’re lucky that I decided to teach you a lesson in humility rather than in pain.”

The man turned his head to look her in the eye. “Damn you; I swear on all that’s holy, I’ll have your head!”

Eza grabbed him by the collar and threw him across the room. He stumbled and fell to the ground in front of her. Gods, she was getting sick of him; when would he learn that a little humility could go a long way?

“Don’t make me change my mind,” she growled, pointing her staff at him. “I can still kill you, and believe me, it won’t be a pleasant experience.”

Finally, the man seemed to understand just how out-matched he was. He slinked away, sword in its sheathe, defeated.

Eza looked around. The people were staring at her, shocked. Even the Watchman seemed surprised.

“Would anyone else like to try and push my man around?” Eza asked. The tavern remained silent; she took that as a no.

“We’ll keep in touch,” she said to the Watchman. “Try and be available tomorrow.”

“Yes ma’am.” Eza walked out of the tavern and into the dark, cold night.

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