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

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Chapter Forty-One

Olrick lay on the straw mat of his cell, doing his best to get some sleep. They didn’t take any chances with their newly recaptured prisoner, this time: the second they got him into his cell and shackled his wrists behind his back, chaining him to the wall, they stripped him of all of his weapons and anything else he could possibly use to escape and shackled his ankles together. They left him lying like that, barely able to move around the small cell. Already, he was dreading the next time he’d have to pee; he either had to figure out how to get his pants off with shackles on, or he would have to ask one of the Giskens to do it for him.

After he’d been laying there for what felt like hours, he could hear the sound of someone walking towards his cell, accompanied by what sounded like an argument.

Olrick lay still, listening to what was going on outside.

“-In all honesty, I don’t think you should be telling me what is and isn’t respectable in a time of war.” That voice was that of General Raul. “Your men deliberately stole information from my room during a peace conference. As you already know, this is against the rules of engagement.”

“You’ve also broken those rules, General.” Olrick could hardly believe it. Had Polain really come down here? He was pretty sure that was the first time he’d ever come down there. “We caught one of your men trying to break into my room, tonight.” The footsteps stopped just a few feet from his cell.

Olrick rolled onto his stomach and sat up on his knees, straining to hear what was going on outside his cell. Never in a million years had he thought that Polain would come to get him from the Giskens.

“What do you want me to do, Polain?” Raul asked. “I’m not going to just let a saboteur free.”

“I want a prisoner exchange,” Polain said. “I’ll give you back your spy, you’ll give me back mine.” For a few seconds, there was silence outside the cell. Then, Raul began to laugh.

“You must be joking,” he said. “What makes you think I’d give you back a commander so I could get a corporal back?”

“Because that isn’t the only thing I have to hold over your head, believe me,” Polain said. The poison in his voice surprised Olrick. “That corporal has told us some very interesting things to try and save his skin. I’m afraid that this particular corporal is a bit of a coward; you may want to take a closer look at the men you send to do your dirty work the next time you try to do something like this. If I don’t get Commander Olrick back, I’ll tell my friends in Mirinia, and you’ll never get so much as a butter knife from them, again.”

Once again, there was silence in the prison corridor. Olrick could almost see the shocked look on Raul’s face in his mind’s eye as his mind raced to think of what secrets his captured corporal could’ve mentioned to his Caithian interrogators.

Apparently, whatever the corporal had mentioned was pretty damning, because Olrick’s cell was opening a few seconds later.

Olrick had to squint against the lantern light for a few seconds as a Gisken soldier walked into his cell. He pulled him to his feet and began taking the shackles off.

“I must say, I’m surprised by his condition,” Polain said. Gods, he was pissed; Olrick actually found himself wondering if he’d be safer in Gisken hands. “I thought you guys would have roughed him up, by now.”

“No, this isn’t the spy we interrogated,” Raul said. He was holding all the things they took from him when they first arrested him. “I’m afraid this one helped her escape.”

Olrick found himself growing tense. Those bastards interrogated her?! He swore on all that’s holy, he was going to kill them!

He decided that that wouldn’t be the best thing to do right then. He was damned lucky to be getting out of this mess as it was; might as well not ruin it by strangling one of the Giskens.

The Gisken soldier shoved him out of the cell, right into Polain. Raul handed him his things back.

“Try not to get too comfortable,” Raul said. “I swear on all that’s holy, if I find you in the city when I come, I’ll kill you.”

“Same to you,” Olrick said.

Polain grabbed his arm and pulled him away. “Let’s go; we have a lot to discuss.” The two of then walked away from Raul and his soldiers as Olrick put his weapons back on their proper places.

“What in the names of the gods were you thinking?” Polain asked once they were out of earshot of Raul and his men. He was tense; his posture was stiff and his Jotiese accent was thicker than usual. “Do you want to be sent to Kurzh in chains?”

“I didn’t want Elise to be sent there,” Olrick said. “Sorry for taking responsibility for what we did.”

“Admitting what you did is taking responsibility,” Polain said. “Smashing a window, killing ten soldiers, putting a knife in the knee of another and getting yourself arrested for sabotage is just reckless.” He pulled a knife out from his robe and handed it to him. “The one you threw this knife at gave this back, by the way. He said you were planning on coming back for it.”

Olrick put the knife back in the sheathe on his leg. “So what did that corporal say?”

“He didn’t say anything,” Polain said. “We never got the chance to interrogate him, thanks to your little stunt.”

Olrick had to admit, that impressed him. Polain had only warmed up to the idea of an intelligence service during the past few years. The fact that he’d done his own double cross, even one as simple as that, was a first.

He decided to not mention it, though. Polain was close enough to killing him, and he didn’t think he would appreciate it if he were to talk about it.

“What’s the plan, then?” Olrick asked. They began to walk up the stairs of the dungeon

“Well, we don’t have much of a choice in that, thanks to your little operation,” Polain said. “We have to prepare our men for battle.” They came out of the dungeons and into one of the many long corridors of Castle Matisse. “General Raul’s armies are just a few days march from here; odds are, they’ll be here to lay siege by the end of the week.”

Olrick sighed running a hand through his hair. They weren’t ready for that; even with the intelligence lag, he was well aware of that. They’d be outnumbered nearly five to one, even if they drafted the Rooks and the Watchmen into the fight and if Kylar’s ships managed to keep the Jotiese navy out of the river. The only way they could possibly win this battle was through a miracle.

“Olrick, I hope your gods are in a good mood,” Polain said. “The only way we can possibly come out on top is with their intervention.”

The entire castle was tense the next morning, enough that Elise felt like she was drowning in it. She heard her fellow servants whispering about what had happened the previous night everywhere she went: she heard rumors about why Raul was suddenly packing up to leave that were as simple as Raul simply deciding that a negotiated peace wasn’t the kind he wanted to something as scandalous as one of the serving girls having an affair with him, and Raul wanting to get out dodge now that said serving girl was with his bastard child. Of course, none of them were quite accurate, and nobody seemed to think she had anything to do with the previous night’s incident, or that Raul was leaving because of a breach of some sort of international military treatise. At least, that’s what Polain kept raving about to Silas and Eza. It all hung over the castle like the executioner’s axe, and it made everyone – especially Elise – extremely uncomfortable.

The tension in the castle wasn’t even the worst part of her day. That came while she was sitting in her room that afternoon, eating a humble lunch that consisted of the same thing her meal in the dungeon did: rice with some meat, covered in sauce, with a roll on the side. She was halfway done with her lunch when there was a gentle knock at the door.

Elise put her food down on her bed and walked over to the door, confused. She’d kept a low enough profile that day that most people in the castle didn’t realize she was still around; who would be knocking on her door?

When she opened her door, her heart stopped. Finn was standing there, his lips creased in a frown.

Elise opened the door wider and stood to the side, looking down at her feet. “Come in.” The second he stepped through the door, she shut the door behind him.

For a few seconds, they didn’t say anything. Finally, Finn cleared his throat. “So, you’re a spy for General Polain?”

“Used to be,” Elise said quietly. “I’m going back to the medical core to finish my training tomorrow.” Finn swallowed hard and nodded. He was upset, that was obvious, and how could she blame him? She couldn’t even imagine how it must feel to know that someone you cared about had gone against everything you stood for.

“I know that you probably don’t have the best opinion about me, now, and that you probably don’t want to see me again after this,” Elise said. Already, she could feel a lump beginning to form in her throat. In the past few months, everybody she’d ever known and cared about had started leaving her: Milo, Papa, Olrick… she just couldn’t stomach the thought of losing Finn in this mess, too. “I just want you to know that I’m so sorry about all this. I swear, I wasn’t using you to get information.”

“I know,” Finn said. “Olrick told me that last night, before he went to get you.” He looked up at her. “And you’re wrong about that first part. I still love you, Elise, and I want nothing more than to see you after all this.”

Elise could feel tears beginning to brew in her eyes. How could he forgive her so easily, without question? She couldn’t help but feel like she didn’t deserve that, not so soon after she’d betrayed him so.

She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his coat. “I love you.”

He wrapped his arms around her. His embrace was warm and comforting, like a blanket. “I love you, too.”

For a few seconds, the two of them just stood there, taking in the moment. Elise allowed the hug to comfort her, to silence the fears that had been brewing in her for the past day. In that moment, the world seemed to dissolve around them. There were no General Raul, no war, no pain or sadness; there was just the two of them in that humble little room, realizing just how much they’d fallen for each other.

After a few minutes, they left the embrace. Now that Elise was away from Finn’s chest, she could see that she’d left a big wet spot on his shirt from her tears.

“I’m sorry about your shirt,” she said quietly, wiping her eyes. Finn looked down at the wet spot on his shirt.

“It’s alright,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out what looked to be a handkerchief. The second it came out, Finn became more nervous; it seemed that, whatever it was for, it was significant enough to make him antsy.

“So, in Gishk, when you really like a girl, it’s tradition to give her a handkerchief to show her how you feel,” Finn said as he looked down at the handkerchief. When he handed it to her, she saw that had been hand embroidered on the hem with what looked to be flowers. While it certainly wasn’t the best embroidery job she’d ever seen, it was surprisingly good, considering that it was a man who did it. In fact, she didn’t think she could do much better.

“I know that my mother would probably die of horror if she were to see that embroidery,” Finn said. “But it isn’t too bad, is it?”

“It’s just fine,” Elise said, wiping her still teary eyes on the handkerchief.

“Are you sure?” Finn asked. He looked to the side and began to rub the back of his neck. “I mean, is this sort of thing acceptable in Caitha? I don’t exactly know that much about how you guys do this kind of thing-“

“It’s fine, really,” Elise said, smiling. “I don’t know how people do this here, either.” For a few seconds, they stood there in an awkward silence, until Finn cleared his throat.

“Well, I guess I should get going,” Finn said. “We’re supposed to be out of here this afternoon, and I haven’t finished packing.”

Elise nodded. “I’ll see you soon?” Finn nodded.

“See you soon.” The two of them hugged, again.

When Finn left and Elise began to eat her lunch, again, she started to get a nervous feeling in her stomach. With the peace negotiations in the chamber pot, the next time Finn would be in the city, he would be there as a conquering soldier. What if he got hurt in the upcoming battle, or – gods forbid – killed? She didn’t think she would be able to handle that very well.

She prayed to the gods that the next time she saw him, he would be alive and well.

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