Three

December 31, 2008

Three

 

The trip back to the base was long and pointless. As was to be expected, they took much longer returning than they had departing; the sense of rush and the necessity of being quick was never present on their return journeys, but they did not fret over it. After all, it wasn’t like anything would be drastically different when they returned. In top of that, rushing home and wasting their energy completely defeated the purpose of relaxing since they had finished the job.

As was to be expected, Felix rode into the base and the place looked the same as it always did. He still could not stop himself from glancing around the place, expecting some radical change to jump out at him. Leaving Glenn unattended at their base was a good reason to expect such a change, though. In the past they had always made sure that at least one other person remained at the base so that nothing bad would happen to the place.

Just as he finished looking around and was satisfied that nothing had changed, he looked ahead to see the familiar form of Raffin cheerfully coming towards him. Of course, it was only to be expected; Sieker and Glenn couldn’t have been very good company for him, and he and Felix were close friends from all the battles they had been through. Well, this could probably be said for any two members of their group. A close friendship, or at least trust, was only natural when you spent countless battles entrusting your life in the hands of your companions.

“You’re back already, huh? Good, I was getting tired of sitting around the base.” He called to them all, and there were several different responses that he got. After most everyone in the returning group had spoken, he added, “Oh, yeah, Felix… Sorry, but Glenn wasn’t willing to leave until somebody gave him money for at least one drink at the bar, and since my wallet’s a little light compared to yours I leant him a bit of your money.” He shrugged at the end of his sentence, still grinning cheerfully.

Jumping down from his horse, Felix clapped him on the soldier with a grin and said simply, “Please tell me that you’re joking. If not, I guess it was inevitable but I’m never telling you here I keep my gold stashed away again… Why did I tell you in the first place?”

“I promised to get you a date with that one barmaid you saw in whatever village it was, back on one of our jobs together. You told me as a good faith that you’d pay me if I was able to pull it off.”

“You never even did that!”

“It was in good faith, and you were paying for my efforts, not my successes.”

“Yeah, and you were paying for my drinks,” Felix grumbled sarcastically. “Either way, I guess it doesn’t matter now. What’s done is done. Anything new around here?” This question was mostly brought on by his inevitable thoughts that the base had changed in his absence appeared once again.

“Well, I got rid of Glenn a few days back with your unwilling help, but otherwise no. We haven’t received any letters other than some thanks from Prince Aeolus.”

“Do we usually receive letters from royalty thanking us for doing their jobs?” Felix asked curiously. Nobody had ever mentioned them getting such a letter after they eliminated bandits or the like, even the individual lords that hired them thought themselves to be too important to converse with ordinary mercenaries.

“No, but I guess rebellions are getting to be a rather serious problem throughout Elthren. He mentioned in his letter that he’d be willing to hire us if we were able to take out a rather important group of rebels. They had the support of villages across the land and seem to be gaining fame steadily.”

“And he wants to keep out of it so that he can send his soldiers after the mercenaries that got rid of the righteous rebels… That’s what’ll happen in the end, anyway, I bet, I’ve heard about such things before. I don’t doubt that Prince Aeolus would be willing to use it to stir up support again. As of late he’s turned into quite the unpopular ruler,” Inferno commented dryly before continuing into the stables.

“It doesn’t matter; we probably won’t be taking on any more rebels. Arkis died in the last battle, and Atticus was wounded severely. Even with Crystal’s spells he’ll need at least a month to recover. Even if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be too keen on trying to fight these people. We might be mercenaries, but we’re not like most mercenaries. We’re commoners too, and we only take on jobs that we agree with. Perhaps with all these rebellions sparking up everywhere, Aeolus isn’t the right person to have on the throne.”

“Maybe not, but who are we to tell? We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Have you seen my father by any chance?” Felix asked. He wasn’t trying to cut off whatever else Raffin might have been trying to say, but his curiosity about the other job his father had taken on had been building ever since they left the village and made their way back. He had asked Scarlet, but even she had said that his father hadn’t told her much; just that he had another job that he was going to do. Hopefully he had decided to take Aelar with him.

“Only a little, boss and Aelar were on their way out just as me and Sieker got back. Boss said that they had somewhere to be, and we assumed that they were heading out to help you and the others in the battle. If he wasn’t with you, then where is he?”

“That’s what I’m wondering,” Felix said, absentmindedly beginning to walk towards the mess hall. “Scarlet told us that he had another job that he had to do, but she didn’t tell us anything about it. I was hoping that he might have run into you and told you.”

“No luck there either, mate, sorry,” Raffin said. “He didn’t say much, but he looked like he was in a bit of a rush when he left… Who knows, maybe it has something to do with the other rebels that Aeolus offered to pay us to hunt?”

“I doubt it… He would have wanted our assistance.”

“No, he wouldn’t,” Raffin answered. “These rebel groups are mostly small so that they’re able to attack and disappear without much notice. Even the one that Aeolus mentioned in his letter has only about ten members. The commander’s easily one of the greatest warriors I’ve ever seen, and I bet that he could easily take out a group of ragtag rebels.”

“I’ve seen him fight when I’ve been on jobs with him before… It really is a sight to behold,” Felix said. He didn’t mean to sound like a typical stupid admirer, but his father truly was a great warrior. His swordsmanship easily outmatched Felix’s and he trained several times a day against dummies in order to make sure that it stayed that way.

“You might be like him, one day,” Raffin commented. “If you were willing to stop slacking off and put in some work!”

“What do you mean? I put in my fair share.”

“You realize that when you all rode in here heroically, you just left the others behind to care for your horse? You didn’t bother to stick it in the stable or anything.”

“Did I? Whoops…”

“Well doesn’t look like it matters now, Aragon took care of it. He’s a real natural with horses, they seem to listen to whatever he says, it’s almost eerie. Was he a stable boy before he joined us? He could be making good money judging from how well he can take care of these horses…”

“I’m pretty sure he wasn’t, he joined up with us so long ago that I can’t really remember, so it’s entirely possible I guess. That’s not really the job that you tell somebody about; it’s kinda obvious what you do.”

“I was just trying to compliment the man, Felix! Geez,” Raffin responded. “But I gotta say, since we don’t have any jobs right now and winter’s coming we should probably get to work on getting enough firewood and other supplies to last us through the winter. I was already planning on going hunting tomorrow so that we can preserve as much of our food as possible.”

Felix stepped into the mess hall and looked around while taking a deep, relaxing breath. The place looked, as could be predicted, the same as it had when he had left. A single large wooden table was tucked away in a corner of the room, covered with dents and scratches from its many years of use. About halfway down along the wall he had walked in on, an enormous fire still burned, casting off enough heat to warm the place even on cold winter nights. The mess hall had occasionally served as a place for them all to sleep on winter nights when it was too cold to keep their barracks warm. A small distance from the main entrance was a second door that led into the kitchen, where Crystal, Veruka and Lightning often showed their culinary talents.

“Come on Felix, it’s a little bit cold out here. The mess hall hasn’t changed at all since you left,” Raffin said sarcastically, and Felix realized that he had not stepped through the doorway yet. He stepped past the threshold and began to walk towards the worn down table that was tucked away in the corner. Once or twice in the past, his father had been known to leave information about different jobs he was going on here in the rare case that an emergency so drastic occurred that they needed him.

“Sorry about that,” he said as he continued to walk with loud steps. Behind him, Raffin’s softer footsteps barely touched the floor, sounding padded and muted whenever his foot touched the ground. “I just was lost in my thoughts.”

“Yeah, that’s unfamiliar territory for you so I guess it would be easy to get lost,” Inferno said as he stepped in past Raffin, who let out a short laugh at the comment, as did Felix in spite of how serious he meant to be; his father going missing was something that even he was unable to joke around about. “What are you looking for anyway?”

“Father sometimes leaves a paper on the table that tells where he’s gone,” Felix said, scanning the table fruitlessly. Other than dents and scratches and slight discolorations from the ink that Levon used for their financial reports and other documents, the table was completely empty. He began to walk around the table scanning the seats of the chair even though he already knew there was nothing there. His father had never left anything in one of the chairs before.

As he had predicted, when he finished walking around there was nothing left. Though he had already been sure that there wouldn’t be anything, he couldn’t help but feel a terrible sinking feeling as he realized that nothing had been left behind. Scarlet would lead their group as she often did in his father’s absence, but because of the lack of information this one seemed much more permanent than his previous departures which had ranged from a few days to a few months.

“He told me he wouldn’t be able to leave anything behind, that it was too important in case it fell into the wrong hands,” Scarlet said. “He said that he’d be back soon, and that the job might be the most important that he’s ever embarked on.”

“Can it really be that important?” Inferno wondered aloud, “I sure hope that he’s going to be getting a huge payday for all the effort he has to put into this.”

“It wasn’t a real job, Inferno,” Raffin said matter-of-factly, “I think it was more of a personal matter… He mentioned something about a ghost of the past when he left, but he didn’t elaborate. Who knows, though? We definitely don’t, and I’m sure that boss’ll tell us all about it when he gets back. There’s nothing out there that can stand a chance against him.”

“I hope so, at least,” Felix commented, feeling slightly let down. The rest of the night he was in low spirits, even though the others tried everything that they could in order to cheer him up. Even when Robin came back from the village with a slew of women he had no interest, and he stayed similarly uninterested when Diran broke out drinks in an attempt to improve his chances with these same women.

 

The next morning, though, his mood only soured more by the news that they received, but it did break him out of his spell of silence and his perpetual worry about his father and Aelar. A messenger bearing the seal of Aeolus rode to their base early in the morning, just after he awoke. The man was looking for his father, as was to be expected, but he deigned to relay his message to Felix as well. Although several of them told the man that Scarlet was in actuality their leader, at least for the time, the man refused to listen, although he did allow Levon and Scarlet to listen to his message, but prohibited any of the others from hearing it until they had made their decision on it.

They sat around the large dented table of the mess hall, which the messenger looked at distastefully. Every new location that they walked past he seemed to view with disdain, presumably because it did not match up with his standards as a lord. Felix couldn’t care less; the opinions of nobles didn’t matter to him. Even though he was he was a commoner and considered below them, he viewed himself as equals to them and treated them as such whenever he encountered nobles. His behavior seemed to take the messenger back as well, but he had quickly recovered from this.

“So why were you sent here? We’ve already been paid by your general, Valtiel, for our fight with those rebels about a week back.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” the messenger said, his voice oily. Felix was distinctly aware of him moving his hands around under his cloak and was under the impression that Valtiel had not informed Aeolus that the mercenaries had already been paid; apparently this messenger would be keeping the gold he was sent with. “And His Majesty Prince Aeolus is most satisfied with your conduct. That particular band of rebels has been eliminated. However, on the subject of rebels, apparently news of your defeat over the soldiers has spread across Elthren rather quickly. Another group of these rebels are under the impression that you are honorary knights of the prince, or something to that effect, and they have decided that you have to be… taken care of, to use the phrase.”

“Cut to the chase. You want me to take care of them before they can get to us, right? Can’t do that. We’ll get out of fighting them somehow; we’ll just have to talk it over.”

“You would deal with rebels?”

“Why not? We don’t have much to say about who rules and all that, we’re just mercenaries.”

“Exactly, and the pay for killing these rebels would be well worth it. Prince Aeolus has never skimped on your earnings in the past.”

“Besides you trying to get out of paying us right now,” Felix paused to see the messenger’s appalled look, and then continued, “Not in the past he hasn’t, no. But on our last job against these rebels on of our men died. I might not have known him well, but I knew him well enough o be able to say that no amount of gold can get you to risk my companion’s lives again; especially in a cause that we are not fully behind.”

“Your entire job is made up of taking the risks that others refuse to take! If you won’t take them, then how can you call yourselves mercenaries?”

“We do take the risks that others won’t take, you’re right there. Risking our lives and the lives of our comrades is what we do, but usually it is for a cause we can believe in. Killing bandits and thieves is a cause willing to participate, but we know next to nothing about these so-called rebels.” He paused, and then decided that he had gone far enough; this next sentence would have terrible effects, and he knew it, but he said it nonetheless. “Maybe if Prince Aeolus was a very good ruler, you wouldn’t have to deal with these uprisings in the first place.”

The messenger briefly looked as if he had been struck in the face with a heavy object, but then he managed to compose himself and opened his mouth again. “I’m sorry that you feel that way, I assure you that Prince Aeolus does everything he does in order to help out the less fortunate members of his country.” That is such a lie… Felix thought bitterly, If he was doing everything he could than he wouldn’t be eating meat and feasting grandly with every meal while his subjects starve. “However, if you are unwilling to accept a job against a group of ragtag rebels, then His Highness Prince Aeolus has another job he would be interested in you assisting with.”

“What might that be?” Felix asked, feigning interest; the messenger didn’t catch the sarcasm behind his tone, or else chose to ignore it.

“As you might have heard, a month ago Elthren declared war on Altaril.” The messenger said it offhandedly, as if the information was old news. Felix had heard nothing of the sort.

“What? How did you declare war and yet have no one hear about it?” Levon asked. He was piercing the messenger with the one eye that was not covered by hair. The same thought had struck Felix. There had been no rumors, at least none that he had heard, of Elthren preparing for war.

“We might have… declared war a little bit after the fact, but the point remains that we are currently engaged in a war with Altaril. We are winning, but we would be willing to pay well in order for your air. Prince Aeolus thinks quite highly of your abilities.”

“No, I’m fairly certain that we can’t join your cause,” Scarlet said. “We might not currently be affiliated with any countries, but the boss originally hailed from Altaril and won’t betray his own country, I can assure you.”

“For mercenaries you certainly seem unwilling to take on many jobs… Well, in spite of that I must do what I was sent for.” The man drew a sack of gold from within his robes. “I was sent with this by Prince Aeolus to help… convince you to accept our offer. Consider it a good-faith loan that you will help us out soon. And if I were you, I would double the watch on this place.”

“Is that a threat?” Felix asked defensively, instantly sitting up in his chair.

“Not from I, but from the people I have spotted in the village. If my eyes don’t deceive me than I have seen a few members of this group of rebels that wants to fight you in the general area.” The messenger mockingly bowed low, and then swept from the room, slamming the door heavily behind him.

“I’m sure you have,” he muttered in response, standing up to shake hands with the man as he knew he was expected to do. They would accept the gold, but even Felix didn’t try to delude himself into believing that they would be returning to Elthren’s service soon, if ever.

Although he had no particular reason for it, he had had deep misgivings about Aeolus ascending to the throne and had thought from the start that he was the wrong man to rule a country. This surprise invasion only cemented his belief that Aeolus did not belong on the throne, and he knew well enough that his father thought the same thing.

“Well, it looks like we won’t be receiving any more jobs from Aeolus. I’m not sure whether we should be happy or depressed about it, though,” Levon said.

“Don’t be dumb, we couldn’t take on any jobs against Altaril! Like it or not, Levon, most of our group originates from Altaril. Why do you hold such a heavy grudge against Altaril, anyway?”

“I’ll tell you one day, but that day isn’t today.” He looked towards the bag of gold on the table. “We might not be accepting any of Aeolus’ job offers, but I’m glad that we got this still. Like I always say, you can never have too much gold. Still, though, many of your comments today were uncalled for and somewhat out of line, Felix. We’re dealing with a noble here, and one who seems to have a heavy sway with the prince as well. Some of the things you said could potentially lead to a severe punishment from the prince if he saw fit.”

“Sorry, I guess it just slipped my mind. I still don’t see why these nobles always have to play a game of cat and mouse with words. If you’ve got something to say, come out and say it.”

“For some reason I’m not surprised that you would have such a blunt view on it. But Felix, I’ve seen times when you’ve used words to play games of deceit and trickery as well, so can you really criticize them?”

“They play with a lot more important matters on the line, so I’d say yeah, I can still call them on it without being a hypocrite.” He allowed his chair to gently touch the ground and stood up. “I guess you probably don’t need me anymore, right? You only had me here because you needed to satisfy the messenger, so I’ll be going then.” Hesitantly he took a few steps towards the door and when no one called him back he walked much more confidently to the door and strolled out.

He took a deep breath of the fresh air, glad to be out of the room, but his freedom wasn’t to last. Almost as soon as he looked ahead he realized that Crystal was standing directly in front of him, blocking his path. Her blue eyes were sparkling and she had a cheerful smile on her face. She held a sheath in one of her hands, and the ornate hilt stuck out on the other end. “Hey, Felix, I was just looking for you!”

Felix looked at his sister, wondering if it was indeed just a coincidence that she had happened to go to the right place at exactly the right time. “Yeah? What about? I just got out of a meeting with Levon and Scarlet so try to make it a bit short. I want to head back and take a nap before I go to work splitting wood.”

“Well… It might stop you from being able to take a nap before splitting the wood, but I was hoping that you’d teach me some swordsmanship.”

“I guess I could, but why would you want to learn from me? There are plenty of better swordfighters in our group.”

“There might be, but you’re the closest I can get to learning from father. You’re the only person that he ever trained.”

“Okay, let’s go then. Do you have the practice swords? I’m not going to spar with my own sister in case you get hurt.”

“Yes, I asked Atticus to bring them up to the training grounds when he went up there.”

“Got it,” Felix said, and he turned towards these training grounds, taking long, heavy steps. Beside him, Crystal was walking with much smaller and lighter steps, trying to keep pace with his much larger strides. “So how much do you know about fighting with a sword anyway? I know that you keep one on you during battles in case of an emergency, but can you actually use it very well?”

“If I could use it very well do you think I’d have to have a guard with me? No, I can barely use a sword, definitely not enough to actually be able to fight someone off if I had to.”

“Then it looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me today, huh?” He asked, continuing to plow his way towards the training grounds. He passed the gate, where Aragon and Raffin were on watch, looking bored. Raffin was dozing off and barely noticed them pass, while Aragon only nodded silently as they passed. Their training grounds were a small distance from their base, and outside of it as well. Occasionally when they had reasons that made them stay within their walls, they would use the courtyard to train, but it didn’t make maneuvering through the base easy.

Instead, their base was placed in a decent sized clearing that they had found just inside the boundaries of the forest. It was close enough to be safe to leave their equipment there when need be, but far enough that the clatter and occasional shouts of their practicing would not wake anyone up. This did, however, make it difficult to call for help if they ever needed to, but that situation had not yet arose.

Felix stepped past the first tree and looked back at Crystal, who looked somewhat hesitant. Although she did not carry a fear for the place, she had once been attacked by a wolf here. Robin had dispatched the animal easily enough, but she had been hesitant about entering the place ever since. “Come on,” Felix called back. “I’m with you, you’ll be safe.”

She nodded and stepped into the forest, her former hesitation instantly washed away with his words. After a moment when he turned back around to keep an eye on where he was going, however, he heard the unmistakable sound of her drawing the short sword that was kept at her side. I’d be scared of this place if I was attacked, too… It’s only lucky that Robin was able to save her before that wolf was able to do anything.

As could be expected from what Crystal had told him earlier, Atticus was waiting there. A few other members of their mercenary group were there as well, and so was a man that looked younger than him that he didn’t recognize. This was not at all odd to him, because it was common for the villagers to venture out into the forest either for hunting or training, and would often elect to stay with them for a while and talk. Several other villagers that he did recognize were scattered about, some chatting with the mercenaries and others training themselves. Mysteriously, though, Breeze was also there, absentmindedly twirling a dagger. When she caught sight of Felix, she waved cheerfully and walked over.

“Why are you here? I barely ever see you up here.”

“I know, I’m not really a big fan of training until I’m too tired to move, but I have other reasons for being here. That messenger and I have… a past, you would call it. I really didn’t feel up to running into him again. Now that you’re up here, I guess I can head back down, then?”

“I guess if you want to, nobody is going to make you stay up here. It’d be nice to have some company while I’m training Crystal, though.”

“I’m sure it would,” Breeze said, “But you can talk to her better than you’d be able to talk to me.” She walked past him and departed from the training grounds without another word. Felix had never learned why she avoided the place so much, but the fact remained that she stayed away from the place as much as possible. The messenger must have had a terrible past with her if she was willing to come up to the training grounds to avoid him. Of course, due to Anilam having much longer life spans than ordinary people, it was obvious that her encounters with the man were from before she had joined up with their group.

“I’ve never seen her in such a rush before,” Crystal said after she had returned from getting the practice swords from Atticus. They walked to an isolated corner of the clearing, a safe distance away from the other people that filled the clearing.

“I only ever see her in that much of a rush when she has to come up to the training grounds. She hates it up here; she doesn’t like the amount of fighting. She told me once that a battlefield isn’t as bad for her, but she doesn’t know why. Practicing she understands, but she doesn’t like it because she doesn’t like the idea of friends having to fight amongst themselves.”

“You two certainly seem to know a lot about each other,” Crystal said, her voice clearly showing that she thought there was more than he admitted. Felix walked a safe distance across from her and turned around, resting the wooden replica of a sword against the ground with a firm grip.

“We’re pretty close friends, we’ve had to go through a lot together and we’ve helped each other out a lot. Doesn’t matter though, Crystal, we’re only friends so stop overreacting. Now come on, get ready.” He pointed his blade at her, and she lifted her own weapon and pointed it at him. To Felix, the light weight of the wooden sword in his hand made a drastic difference compared to the heavier, bulkier iron weapons that he usually used. I can barely remember when I used to train with these!

“Good. Keep your balance and don’t take risks while you’re fighting. Stay with what you know, I’ve seen several men die because they have tried something new during a battle. It’s a quick way to die. Keep a firm grip on the handle, that’s obvious enough.” He waited a moment for her to digest what he had said, and then he opened up his mouth to speak again. “Now come on, let’s go! Show me what you’ve got!”

Crystal seemed hesitant, and Felix twirled the wooden sword, waiting for her to strike against him. After a moment she seemed to decide that Felix wouldn’t be starting out the battle, so she thrust her blade forward, swinging in a wide arc. Due to the wide arc, she left herself open and Felix easily raised his wooden sword in time to block the weapon. Twisting the stick, he knocked Crystal’s blade to the side and pointed directly forward.

“Yeah, I can see why you wanted me to teach you,” Felix said. The sentence had the effect that he desired. Crystal seemed somewhat angered by the simple sentence, and she leapt forward, swinging again but slightly more wildly. Never strike out in anger, Felix thought, remembering the first principle that his father had taught him. He caught Crystal’s sword once again and knocked it to the side easily. “Okay, stop. Never attack in anger. You have to keep yourself calm and collected in a fight, regardless of what changes might happen.”

“Okay…” Crystal sounded somewhat hesitant, but she was obviously willing to listen to his advice because she was certain that he was trying to help her. “Anything else?”

“Try to avoid pointing your sword straight ahead when you aren’t stabbing; it makes parrying a lot more difficult and leaves you open to attack. Don’t move straight forward, either. Move side to side. If you go straight forward, you’ll walk straight into a blade. Try not to move your arm so far before you go for a swing, too. It leaves your front exposed. Now let’s go again, try to use what I told you.” He stepped back and prepared his blade again, holding it at an angle across his front.

Crystal was nowhere near as hesitant to strike this time. She started off by taking what he had said into consideration, and the wide stroke that she had used before was absent. Her arm hardly moved before she struck, and Felix was almost hit before he realized that she had swung. At the last instant, he flashed the wooden weapon up, glad for how light it was, and parrying his sister’s attack. He knocked it aside and slowly went in to attack her, but she had once again listened to what he had said; her blade was pointed diagonally in front of her to prevent anyone from striking past her defenses, and with his dramatically slow strike she leapt to the side.

Felix finished his strike and leaned against the stick again. “It’s good to try and keep both feet on the ground at once. Jumping out of the way will make you lose your balance. Other than special circumstances that you’ll be able to see, keep at least one foot on the ground at all times.”

“Got it,” Crystal replied, lifting the stick lazily. Felix draped his own over his shoulders, still unsure to do with the blade considering how light it was. She prepared another strike, and Felix dodged it, once again knocking her to one side and striking again, this time quicker. She stepped out of the front of the blow just moments before it would have struck her and made to swing for Felix’s hand, but he tore his weapon back and parried the blow.

“Good… Now I think I’ve taught you enough to train for a while, right? Can you use some of those dummies now? I’ve got to go and chop wood so I might as well get it over with so I can go and do something better with my time.”

“Yeah, thanks a lot Felix!” She said sincerely. “Should I use the wooden sword or should I use a real weapon?”

“Just use the wooden sword for now, you don’t want to destroy those things too bad or we’ll have to pay for a new one.” He turned away from her and caught the strange man from earlier that he could not recognize looking at him, but rather than lingering he walked past without giving the man a second glance.

“Hey, you!” Felix turned at the voice and saw the man walking towards him, and realized that he also had a long blade sheathed at his side. He was about as tall as Felix and wore a long black jacket that almost fell to his feet. His face was sharp and piercing and his sandy brown hair was about as long as Felix’s. Unlike Felix, however, the man had allowed a slight bit of facial hair to grow in on his chin, but there was not even enough there for it to be considered a beard.

“What?” Felix replied, almost unconsciously allowing his hand to drift towards his blade and rest on its hilt. The man didn’t look familiar, and suddenly the warning that he had received from the messenger came drifting back to his mind. It was entirely possible that the man was just one of the villagers and that Felix’s mind was overreacting, but he had the distinct feeling that it wasn’t. He thought that the man was either one of the rebels that they had been offered a payment to kill, or else he was one of the messenger’s men, out for vengeance because of the way his master had been treated. The latter was incredibly unlikely, but he didn’t want to rule anything out.

“I couldn’t help but notice you teaching her over there. You look talented with a blade, care for a match?”

Felix never had been one for turning down a match, and the fact that he thought the man meant him harm only made him want to accept the challenge even more for some strange reason. “Only if you’re not a sore loser,” he responded.

“You’ll be able to judge that for yourself.” The man drew his blade and pointed it at Felix, who nodded and began to walk towards a less crowded area of the clearing. The man caught notice of this and followed him, but his drawn blade convinced Felix to keep his eyes on the man the entire time. When they had reached the secluded section of the clearing, Felix instantly drew his blade and turned to face his opponent. The man had already moved to strike, though, his blade swinging towards Felix’s stomach. Rather than attempt to parry the fast-moving metal, he leapt out of its path as he had so recently told his sister not to do.

Irritated that the man had started their duel without his knowledge, he swung in return at the man’s chest as soon as the swing that he had just avoided passed. In almost inhuman instants, the man was able to get out of the way of the stroke which otherwise would have been his end. Felix struck again, though, and this time the man was unable to sidestep the attack. Instead he raised his own blade, which was considerably thin compared to Felix’s. In the brief moment that their weapons were connected, the two struggled wordlessly for power, straining the blades against one another, and then the other man twirled his blade around, leaving Felix’s front completely exposed to a strike.

The man was eager to strike, and Felix used all the strength he had to lift up his blade in time to block the blow. He had put so much strength behind the blow that it knocked aside the weapon, but his enemy’s front was exposed for a much briefer time before he leapt out of the way. Cursing himself for not taking advantage of the split-second opportunity, Felix braced himself to prevent a barrage of swings from the man. Felix had him beat in terms of raw power, but the man’s agility easily nullified this advantage and evened out the match.

They exchanged several more blows before a few of the other mercenaries began to gather around, interested to see the outcome of the match. This influx of his companions gave Felix the edge he needed; he was not willing to look weak in front of them. He locked swords with the man once again and easily overcame him with his physical advantage. Rather than giving the man the time he needed to recover, Felix quickly kicked him in the chest, taking advantage of his momentary weakness and knocking him to the ground. As soon as the man touched the ground, Felix stepped forward and kicked the man’s sword from his hand before resting the same foot on the man’s chest. The command he gave was a simple one. “Yield.”

“I yield.” The man said, and Felix sheathed his blade, stepping back from the man and the helping him to his feet. “You fight like an animal! I’ve barely lost before. Who trained you to fight the way that you do?”

“My father taught me the basics of swordplay but for most of the rest of what I know I taught myself. You fight pretty well yourself, usually I don’t have a challenge like that. I’m Felix, by the way.”

“Thank you. I’m Lloyd,” he paused and reached forward, shaking hands with Felix before saying. “I believe I’ve heard of your father and his abilities before, but if you’re only his shadow… I’m amazed, I’d have to say.”

“You’ve only heard of him? Aren’t you from around here?”

“Me? No, I’m a part of another group that is visiting the area. The leader of my group and your father are old acquaintances, and I’ve grown up hearing tales of his talent with a blade.”

“Really? I heard a rumor recently about a group in the area, would you happen to be a member of this same group?” Felix knew well enough that the man already knew enough about him, so he decided that there wasn’t anything wrong with attempting to find out whatever he could from the man. If they were the rebels and they really were there for revenge, then getting the man to slip up could prove rather advantageous.

“I don’t know… What’s the rumor that’s going around about this group?”

“Supposedly it’s a group of rebels, here to recruit more people to their cause,” Felix replied. He decided that attempting to act as dense as possible about the group’s motives was better than coming out and potentially provoking another fight. He was uncertain that he would be able to beat Lloyd again if Lloyd were to decide to fight him.

“Hm… Rebels, eh? Well, I guess we could be considered rebels if you wanted to call it that.” Lloyd seemed briefly uncertain, and then he said, “Are you going to tell me that you really know why we’re here or are you going to continue to pretend to be stupid? I can tell you know more than you’re letting off, Felix.”

“Am I that obvious, or are you that good?” Felix asked in return, somewhat surprised by the man’s logic and glad that he was honest about his intentions.

“Why else would you know about us? Somebody warned you, I can tell. Probably that messenger of Aeolus that rode in here earlier. But since you were willing to mention who we are to my face, I’m fairly certain that your group turned down whatever offer it was that Aeolus gave you to kill us.”

“You seem to be able to tell a lot.”

“I pride myself in it.”

“Why are you rebels anyway? Were you affiliated with the group that we had to fight before?”

“Geez, you’re full of questions, aren’t you? Well, yeah, we knew who the group that you fought was, and that’s why we’re here, but chances are that our messenger has arrived by now. The messenger will be able to tell you the rest of what you want to know, they’ll decide whether or not we will make you pay for our deceased allies.”

“You don’t seem to care much.”

“The rebels you fought before… Were not the most honorable of people, even though they were associates of theirs. I guess I just don’t really care much that they’re gone and I don’t feel that people need to suffer when they don’t have a reason to. Your group might have helped us rebels out just as well as you helped out Aeolus back there, that’s probably why he sent you this newest messenger. But I’m just delaying you. The next time I meet up with you, we’ll have more time to talk, I assure you.” Lloyd turned and disappeared into a group of the villagers. His disappearing act was almost as instant as Valtiel’s, albeit not arcane.

I guess I should head back to hear what this messenger of theirs has to say. He glanced at Crystal once to make sure that she was safe, and then cast his eyes around the training grounds until he caught sight of one of the other mercenaries, Joshua, who he was sure would protect her if anything was to happen. Joshua looked up at him and nodded, at which Felix merely gestured towards his sister and then turned away with a nod, hoping that Joshua would understand what he was trying to say.

This done, he turned back to the forest and began to plow his way through the undergrowth, penetrating deep into the woods much faster than he had when he was with his hesitant sister. The time it took him to return to the gate of the base was much shorter than before, but his desire to get there quicker made it seem like it had taken much longer. Aragon and Raffin were still standing guard, looking uninterested as before. Raffin looked like he had begun to sleep, and as he passed him Felix could have sworn that he heard the man snoring. Aragon nodded as he passed, leaning lazily against the wall of the gate.

He passed through the wooden gates and into the courtyard, looking around for anyone who looked out of the ordinary. Breeze was standing in the courtyard, now talking to Lucia and looked slightly worried. When Felix saw the expression on her face, he knew that something was wrong and he hastened to make his way towards her, his urgency to see the rebel messenger gone for the time. Both of the women caught sight of him as he made his way towards them, but neither of them stopped talking and Felix was able to catch bits of their conversation as he neared.

“-don’t think he had any connection to the messenger from earlier, do you?” Breeze was asking Lucia, her worry bleeding through into her voice.

“No, why would that guy send somebody else? According to Levon, Felix was able to piss the messenger off pretty bad so I doubt he’ll be eager to come back here. Besides, did you see the man? He definitely didn’t have the look of somebody who was working for a noble.”

“What are you worried about?” Felix asked, and then added, “And yeah, I guess I might have gone a little over on the messenger, I said some things that usually offend nobles. It’s surprising how easily they can be disgusted by something that we couldn’t care less about.”

“What do you expect?” Lucia answered, “They’re all used to pampered lives and being served blindly, so as soon as somebody says something even remotely out of the ordinary then their false perception of the world is shattered. Breeze was asking about this guy who just came in, though. He said that he was a messenger of some sort, looking for our leader. Unlike that guy from earlier, when we said that Scarlet was in charge for the time he didn’t have a problem with going to her with whatever message he had.”

“Why were you so worried about the messenger from earlier anyway?”

“Well… Felix, you know pretty well about how mistreated the Anilam are throughout most of the continent. Once about a decade ago when I was with a group of other people from my tribe, he attacked. He massacred almost all of us, and I was taken as a prisoner and forced to work as a slave. Then your father and Aelar broke into the man’s lands when Raffin told them that the man took part in the slave trade. The man never knew what happened, but he probably thought it was a rebellion; most of his guards were dead, and all of his slaves had been set free. Most of my friends were dead, though, and I didn’t think I had anywhere to go so I told your father that I would join up with him. Ever since then I’ve been a member of this little group.”

“So you didn’t want him to see you in case he remembered you and made the connection that my father was the one who set all of his slaves free?”

“Something along those lines. My face is a little bit distinct, so I thought I might be easier to recognize than most of the other slaves that are free.”

“But that must have been several years ago by now, and the laws in Elthren say that a slave who has lived free for a year isn’t a slave anymore.” This was one of the few laws of Elthren that he knew, and he could only remember it because he had once helped his father on a job to free a group of slaves. Freeing slaves was one of the only jobs that they weren’t contracted or paid for because they didn’t want their involvement known in case of repercussions. According to his father, and he believed the same, all men were equal, and people did not deserve to be treated as mot slaves were.

“Those laws don’t apply to the Anilam. Like it or not, Felix, Elthren and the rest of the continent are, for the most part, a lot more prejudiced than you would believe. You haven’t encountered much because in all your jobs you almost always play the part of the hero, but… If you ever were to see underneath the façade that the people put on, you would be shocked at how racist and intolerant most people are.”

“I’ll remember that,” Felix said darkly, hoping that the day when he had to look beyond people’s kindness and into their troubled minds would never come. “But for now, where did that messenger that came from the rebels go? I’d like to listen to whatever he has to say.”

“You sound eager,” Lucia observed, “He’s in the mess hall with Scarlet and Levon.”

“Thanks,” Felix said, and turned to make his way towards the mess hall. For a moment he could feel Lucia’s eyes on his back, and then she and Breeze began to talk again. Before he walked under the eave of the mess hall, he thought that he felt a drop of rain and looked up to see that the sky was overcast and gloomy, something that he had not paid much attention to when he had left earlier. He didn’t pay much attention to it then, either, and instead was quick to step under the eave and into the mess hall.

The mess hall was lit by the cheerful crackling of a fire which cast a bright light around the room. Quiet voices indistinctly spoke, and Felix walked towards the silhouettes of Scarlet, Levon, and a third, heavily muscled man. At the sound of footsteps on the ground, the heavily muscled man, who was the only member of the group with his back turned towards Felix, turned around.

The man had a claymore draped across his back, and the long sleeves of his black overcoat were rolled up to his elbows, showing his muscled arms. His hair was slicked back, revealing a cunning but strong face. His tunic was a darker black than that of his obviously more used overcoat and had few stains on it, or at least many less than Felix expected. Although the man looked like a strong warrior, he did not give off the aura of being a very good messenger. The man caught sight of Felix and then simply turned around after ascertaining that he was no harm.

“So, back to the matter at hand,” the man said. “The rebels you killed back under the employment of Aeolus were for our cause, but they were much more barbaric than the rest of us and we were in constant disagreements with them, so I guess it could be considered that you did us just as much of a favor as you did Aeolus. That’s why he’s so eager to pay you off to eliminate us now. We didn’t come here to try and pay you to eliminate his soldiers, and we aren’t here to attempt to extract vengeance, because I’m sure that you were in the right and knew as much. I, and my group, are here to find out what your intentions are and whether you stand opposed to us, whether you intend to side with us or if you simply wish to stay uninvolved.”

Felix slid into his seat next to Levon almost noiselessly and the man made no move to show that he had caught sight of Felix. Scarlet briefly glanced over at him even though she had seen him when he was coming in. Levon seemed to be having a difficult time thinking up a response, one of the few times that he had seen him struggling to formulate a sentence.

Finally, Levon was able to say, “Your side of this story certainly is convincing and explains much about the conduct of Elthren and Aeolus’ running of the country, and so we will revoke any further contracts with the prince on top of the current two jobs that we have already refused. As for joining your rebellion,” He paused and seemed to be struggling to find words again, and then said, “At least for the time being, I believe that our mercenaries will remain neutral in this conflict. If my beliefs are correct, though, it is entirely within reason that Aeolus will take out refusal to take action as aiding your cause and in doing so turn us to your side of the conflict, so we might be seeing you sooner than you might believe.”

“It’s good to know how well ahead you think,” the man said, laughing slightly. “I thought you were going to leave your opinions ambiguous, but your willingness to help us if you’re pushed into the situation is comforting. Rumors of the talent of your group are prevalent, and fighting you might not have turned out well for us in the end.”

“I don’t know if we should take that as a compliment or an insult, Cadoc,” Levon said as the man pushed himself up and out of his chair. “Regardless, I believe that it would be in your best interests to stay with us as you requested. We’ll protect you from Aeolus’ soldiers, but do try to spread rumors amongst the townsfolk that you’ve left the village, alright? Then the soldiers that you say are on the way here will be sent off in the belief that you’ve already left.”

“Just call it a mix like I would and forget about it. Good luck, and I hope to see you soon, as long as it isn’t as enemies. We’ll accept your offer if you’ll take us, but about the soldiers you mentioned… The other messenger that Aeolus brought a small group of soldiers with him as well and there is always the remote possibility that they will attempt to strike at us.” Cadoc pushed his chair in, nodded to each of them in turn and then turned and walked away confidently. When he had exited the room, Scarlet turned towards Felix.

“Why did you come in here?”

“I heard that a messenger was going to be here.”

“From who? I thought that you went to the training grounds with your sister to train her.”

“When I was up there I ran into one of the rebels, a man named Lloyd, and he told me about the rebels being here. Then he said that there was a messenger that they had sent to us and said that if I wanted to find out any more then I should come here and listen to what the messenger had to say. Looks like I might see Lloyd soon and I’ll be able to question him then, huh?”

Scarlet sighed sarcastically and said, “Only you could go out while trying to help your sister and come back after having fought one of the men that we’re attempting to ally ourselves with.”

“What can I say? It comes to me naturally.” Felix laughed and pushed himself out, hoping that neither of them would bother to point out that he really didn’t have any right to be sitting there. He pushed his chair in as Cadoc had so recently done, and began to walk towards the exit. Neither Levon nor Scarlet seemed to notice him, or else they did not care enough to say anything to him.

“Hey, Felix! So what’s the news from the meetings that’ve been going on today?” Inferno asked, walking towards Felix as soon as he walked out of the mess hall. From the expression on his face, it was apparent that he was as bored as Felix was and looking for anything to pass the time, even if it involved as mundane a topic as news from the meetings.

“Nothing much, but I think the rebels that the guy warned us about earlier are coming to rest here for a while. The guy who just left, Cadoc, was a rebel messenger.”

“So we’re officially partnering up with the rebels or what?” Inferno seemed to be genuinely interested in what he had to say now, and Felix could see why. Up until he had heard it with his own ears, he would have doubted it if any of the others had told him that they had partnered up with the rebels. Other than hearsay, Felix knew next to nothing about the rebels and was looking forward to asking some of them about their intentions when they arrived. While he might not know much about the rebels regarding their motivations, though, he did know that rebellions were increasing around Elthren at a frightening rate.

“We’re giving them shelter at least, but I don’t know about much else. Judging from what Levon says, it sounds like Aeolus has a group of soldiers heading our way to find the rebels and kill them. We’re giving them shelter and the villagers are going to claim that they’ve gone so that they’ll be able to survive.”

“Don’t you think that Aeolus’ soldiers would be intelligent enough to try and search the fort?” Breeze asked as she and Lucia walked towards them, obviously having listened to their earlier conversation. “I wouldn’t trust anyone if I was as lousy of a ruler as Aeolus. Nobody really knows much about how he keeps power, even. I wonder how he convinces such a large army to serve him so loyally.”

“It’s probably not that hard. He probably threatens the families of some, offers riches to others… I’d wager that he just bribes them basically. I guess there could be more behind it than Elthren’s royal treasury, but it’s unlikely.”

“What else could there be?” Felix asked, looking at Lucia curiously.

“Well…” She seemed uncomfortable, if only for a moment. “He hires mercenaries to work as soldiers; I’m certain of that as well. But some time ago I served him briefly as a personal guardian. Many of the people that we say seemed to fear each other rather than Aeolus. He pits people against each other and feigns aiding both sides to gain loyalty. Beyond that, there’s certainly a dark aura around him. As far as I know, there are only two of his councilors who I would be willing to trust, and both seem to be good men.”

“Who are these two?”

“Nàrihpes is one of them, he is a very young lord who has only recently been given the title. I don’t know a lot about him other than that he treats all with kindness. He keeps many of his actions quiet from Aeolus, and he is a strong voice for peace rather than war. From what I hear, he threatened to resign recently, but I never heard the reasons why. The other man in Aeolus’ council who I would be willing to trust is much more experienced than Nàrihpes and has served much longer as well. His name is Ryker and he is the leader of the councilors. He is somewhat old, but the people support him. I’m fairly certain that if rebels were to overthrow Elthren he would most likely be placed on the throne because he strikes me as a very good leader.”

“I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of either of them, but how do you know so much about Elthren and the running of the country? I know that you used to serve the royal family as a mercenary, but that was a long time ago.” Felix couldn’t keep the curiosity out of his tone. Lucia had trained to be a mercenary by serving Elthren’s prince, Aeolus, but even after departing still seemed to know a lot about the hidden details of the country.

“I have my sources, but it would be a lot less exciting if I told you, wouldn’t it?” Lucia replied with a slight laugh.

“All right, I’ll give you that, but only ‘cause not telling me really makes me wonder a lot more than I normally would. Do you have a network of spies or something?”

“A network? Come on Felix, even you know that that kind of sneakiness is beyond me, I wouldn’t even be able to have one spy reporting to me without accidentally blowing cover. Nope, sorry to say it but you’re wrong there.”

“Well I’m out of ideas, too, so I guess I’ll just leave the answer shrouded in darkness for now. What else do you know about Aeolus, though?”

“He is a rather crude, unrefined man, similar in some ways to you, Felix. He lives by his own laws and doesn’t really care much about the opinions of others. Honestly, though, that’s all that I ever learned about him. I only spoke to him in person on one occasion, and that occasion was very brief.”

“What he thinks and what he means don’t matter. What actually happens due to his actions does, and that is what has led us to rebel against his tyrannical rule.” Felix turned and saw Lloyd walked towards them with a grin on his face, Crystal walking next to him. “I heard from my brother that your group had agreed to allow us to rest here.” At the curious expression on Felix’s face, he answered by saying, “Cadoc is my brother, believe it or not. We might not look alike, but it’s true.”

“I never would have seen the connection,” Felix said truthfully. A sudden thought struck him unexpectedly and unwanted; he was supposed to be working on cutting wood by now in hopes that he would be able to finish the job early. The arrival of the rebels wouldn’t be a good enough reason for him to have ‘forgotten’ his job, at least not to Scarlet. “I hate to abandon you guys, but we’ve got to go and cut wood. Me and Inferno. We’ll be back soon.”

“I’ll come with,” Lloyd volunteered. “After all, you are giving my group shelter so I might as well try and repay that even if just a little, right?”

“No, you don’t have to if you don’t want to; chopping wood for a few hours will be anything but fun, I’m certain, and since you’re all guests here it doesn’t make sense to have you do it as well.”

“Well if you don’t want me to come along then just tell me, if not I’m coming with,” Lloyd said, and Felix couldn’t think of a response. He hadn’t been meaning to give off the impression that he did not want Lloyd to come along. Lloyd noticed his change in expressions and said calmly, “Okay, then, let’s go! You already got axes up there or do we need to get some before going?”

“No, there should already be some up there. I think that Diran, Sieker and Robin have already been up there and since we’ll be swapping spots with them it’ll be all set,” Inferno said, and Felix couldn’t help but chuckle at the vision of the frail Sieker cutting wood. Felix wondered how much difficulty it took the man to lift the axe, even. Although he was a very kind man and Felix did like him, it couldn’t be denied that he was a rather weak and frail man. His magic, like Levon and Lightning’s was much stronger than that of Atticus’, definitely a force to be reckoned with, but this magical strength unfortunately didn’t carry over to his physical frame.

He was a very thin man, and the monocle that he always wore only reinforced this perception of him. Usually, he wore long, overly large robes to cover his slight frame and this combined with his hair, which was darker than the blackest night, occasionally gave villagers the wrong impression upon seeing him. In spite of his appearance, he was a very kind man who had on more than one occasion donated all of his payment from a job to help repair a village that they were working on or else to help improve the local village.

“Who was honestly mean enough to stick Sieker on wood-splitting duty? I thought that he would be with Scarlet and Levon meeting with whatever messengers were sent out.”

“I don’t know. Raffin told me last night that he was going to be sent out hunting, but he’s watching the gate right now so it looks like the schedule might have been changed up a bit. I haven’t seen Veruka or Lightning around today, though, do you know what happened to them?”

“They’re probably in the village, I saw two people that looked a lot stronger than most of the villagers, or I got that impression from them at least,” Lloyd commented. Inferno quickly added a brief description of the two, and Lloyd confirmed that it sounded like the two people he had seen. This didn’t quell their questions so much as help to bring more up. Usually Lightning and Veruka stayed at the base more than the village, so their motivations for leaving were shrouded in mystery.

Their conversation was very brief as the walk to the location of Robin, Diran and Sieker took much shorter than any of them could have expected. The trio was working when they arrived. Sieker’s arms were shaking with the effort of his exertion, but in spite of his effort the amount of work he had gotten done paled in comparison to that which his two companions had managed to do.

Almost as soon as they stepped into the clearing, Robin embedded his axe deep into a round of wood and turned around. Sieker, who still had his own axe lifted above his head in a precarious and dangerous position, brought the tool down and then retired, shaking in exhaustion. Rather than his usual black robes, we wore an ordinary stained brown tunic that had been further stained with the sweat of his exertion. Diran, the strongest of the three, split the round he was working on and then turned away from it, wiping his forehead as he did so.

“Don’t abandon me or anything Robin. Sieker put in more work than you did and he’s weaker than you too!” Diran didn’t seem to be worried in the slight bit that Sieker would hear him and be offended. It was unlikely that Sieker would take the comment as offensive, though, as he knew it to be true.

“The amount of work he got done compared to the amount of work let me leave before him, regardless of how much effort he put into it,” Robin answered. He usually was abrupt and rude in his comments, but they had learned to ignore this. It would be an overstatement to say that he had a heart of gold, but underneath his gruff exterior he was a good man and his skills with a bow and swords easily made up for his mannerisms. “Now are you coming or not, Diran? I’m gonna try to head into town, if we get there soon enough we might be able to pick up on some of the barmaids and have a good time.”

 This instantly cut off any sarcastic remark Robin’s foster brother was about to say, and he simply nodded. “Let’s go, you can’t go wrong with the bar and the barmaids.”

“My thoughts exactly. Good luck, you three.” Neither Robin nor Diran seemed bothered in the slightest that they hadn’t seen Lloyd before. Their thoughts were already I the village, Felix was sure, with all the women that they constantly chased after, sometimes successfully and sometimes fruitlessly.

“So who were those two?” Lloyd asked, watching the two retreating backs with interest. Inferno had already walked to the axe that Robin had planted in the round and was doing his best to remove the weapon with very little in terms of results.

“The two guys that just left were Robin and Diran. The bigger guy was Diran, the smaller one Robin. They’re best friends and foster brothers and they’ve been with us since about when my father started up this group. Robin’s a little rough, but he’s the best archer you’ll ever meet and Diran is just an animal on the battlefield, we’re all glad that we don’t have to face off against him.”

“They sound like interesting men. Praise for your father came from the head of our group often, but we were told next to nothing about the identities of the rest of your group.”

“Who’s the leader of your group of rebels anyway? You’ve mentioned him a few times, but you’ve never given up a name.”

“Rwaderne is his name. I don’t know if the leader of our group would be the proper title to give him, but he is very important to our group. He was a wandering swordsman before he joined up with us, and he taught me and my friend Hermes in how to use a sword. He’s a very unique man, very strong.”

“I’ve never heard of him. He certainly has an interesting name, though, that can’t be denied,” Felix admitted. He had thought that he might have been one of the many men that his father had mentioned from his past when he had told their group tales on their outings, but this wasn’t the case.

“Yeah, well none of us know very much about him so I couldn’t tell you about it.” Lloyd lifted up the remaining axe and took a swing at a round of wood, digging the metal of the weapon deep into the wood before tugging it out and swinging again and leaving a deep crack in the side of the round. The axe pulled out much easier this time, and on the third strike the round split in two. Felix pulled his eyes away and began to hack at his own round, quickly splitting it just as Lloyd had.

“So you don’t even know very much about your leader? That doesn’t sound like a very good decision,” Inferno commented.

“We don’t really know a lot about my father either, Inferno,” Felix pointed out. “Just look at some of the weird things he does, like this job that he set out on. If we knew much about him we might be able to say why he did it, but we don’t so we can’t.”

Inferno shrugged before swinging again. “Maybe you’re right, I guess I hadn’t given it much thought. I guess I didn’t notice out fault when I pointed out theirs… How many people do that?”

“A lot more than you’d think, actually. Everyone does, it seems like,” Lloyd answered.

“I meant that as a rhetorical question, but thanks for trying to make me feel better Lloyd.”

“No problem, man,” Lloyd answered, either not catching the sarcasm in Inferno’s voice or choosing to ignore it if he had. While the two began to banter back and forth, Felix continued to work on the considerable pile of rounds that lay in front of him. Some of it could be left there for the third group that was to be sent out, but they had a few hours to eliminate the majority of the pile or else suffer punishment.

He had succeeded in finishing chopping up the first round into a group of smaller pieces when the two first noticed that he wasn’t talking. “What’s wrong with you?” Lloyd asked, “You’re being way too quiet, it’s eerie.”

Felix brought his axe down mightily, and split a second round in half. He would need to continue to split it into smaller pieces, but he still looked up from his work briefly, leaning on his axe, and said, “Nothing, just trying to finish this off. We’ve gotta get it done soon so might as well finish it and then talk back at base where it’s easier to relax. Besides, I’d like to get to meet some of the members of your rebel group, from what you’ve saw about Rwaderne the group sounds pretty interesting.”

“I guess you could say that about us, but your group is pretty interesting too, that’s why I came to your base so much sooner than the rest of my companions. I guess it’s inevitable that we think of others lives as more interesting than our own, huh?” Lloyd turned away and waited for a response, chopping another round and bringing the axe up around his shoulders for another strike.

“Not always, but I guess you might be right,” Felix admitted, striking the wood once again with his axe. Slowly, their conversation dwindled as they continued to work. Within minutes, they changed from speaking cheerfully to only grunting as they chopped away at the wood. Each round that they eliminated lessened their workload slightly, but the pile of wood that needed to be chopped never seemed to shrink. Felix was just glad that they weren’t in the third group, who had to finish whatever they didn’t do and then carry it all back to the camp.

“Think we can get away with quitting now and just standing here?” Inferno asked after an hour had passed. It had been so long since they had spoken that Felix had almost forgotten that the other two were also there. The amount of work that they had gotten done in the hour easily paralleled how much the lazier Diran and Robin had done, including the efforts of the diligent Sieker.

“We probably could, but I’m not that much of a jerk,” Felix answered, leaning his axe against another incomplete round and placing his hands against his knees. The sweet scent of sap filled the air, and when he placed his hands against his knees he found that his clothes were covered in the sticky substance. Having his hands stick to something was one of the few things that he could not stand, and he instantly tore them away, first wiping the sap off on a nearby trunk and then washing them off in some of the water from his wineskin. They all carried wineskins, but it was very rare for them to be filled with the expensive liquid they were intended for.

When he had finished, he happily rubbed his hands together to reassure himself that they were no longer sticky, but kept them away from his knees. Once again he hefted his axe above his shoulder. “Besides, we’re going to be out here anyway so we might as well get some of the work done. It’s not as bad as the first time we had to come out here, right, Inferno?”

The first time that he and Inferno had been sent out to chop wood had been a few years back, and they had put in their best efforts in spite of having a dangerous job the next day. When they had returned to camp their hands were covered with popped blisters and splinters, and Felix’s father had been forced to go with Aelar to fill their spots on the job while they waited for their hands to recover.

“I’m hoping to avoid that situation again, which is why I think we should quit while we’re ahead.”

“There’s no way you even have a single blister yet! Besides we don’t have any jobs for a few days at least, easily enough time to recover.”

Inferno shrugged and admitted, “I know, but this just isn’t very fun. I thought that I might be able to convince you out of it, but you have to be all good and do what’s right.” He made a sarcastic face and brought his axe down on a round of wood, indenting the round but otherwise not causing any visible damage. When he brought it down again, the resounding crack was a refreshing noise of success.

“So Lloyd, how long has your group been rebels for? I can’t say that I’ve ever really talked to any rebels before, I only fought those guys back on our last job.”

“I’ve been with the group for about three years I think. I joined with Cadoc back when we first encountered them. Our father joined as well, but he generally doesn’t travel with our group. We joined because of some of the things that we saw innocents being put through, injustices that they didn’t deserve. After we saw their actions, the three of us attacked the soldiers who were inflicting the injustices on the civilians, and after that we didn’t have much of a choice but to go on the run.”

“Our group never really supported Aeolus taking the throne, but it hasn’t affected us or the villagers that live around here either. The closest person we have around here to a soldier is Glenn, the guy who lives in our village as a guard. When we first saw that Aeolus was sending guards to the villages, we thought that it might have been a good sign that he would be a better ruler than we had thought, but it didn’t take him long to prove us wrong there. Even Glenn doesn’t like him, he’s always whining about being underpaid.”

“Aeolus has… many ways of keeping people in his service, regardless of what they believe. We’ve witnessed this before and I’ve fought men before who I didn’t think deserved to die. He promises them riches, or if that doesn’t work then he threatens to kill their family. If that still doesn’t work then he kills a single member of a person’s family daily until the person gives in. It’s a good way to get people to join his cause,” Lloyd said the last line with disgust, making it obvious that he didn’t believe it.

Felix swung again, splitting his round further before saying, “I guess he wasn’t ever suited to be a ruler if he has to resort to such barbaric methods to recruit followers.”

“He doesn’t always have to do it, some men freely pledge their allegiance to him and others only follow him because they see him as a road to power. He takes advantage of it all and uses people for whatever he wants.”

“Eventually he’ll be overthrown; you’re already working on it, after all. He can’t rule through terror forever,” Inferno seemed confident as he said this and brought his axe down on the round again.

“It’s easy to say that, but unless everyone takes action then he’ll be in power for a lot longer than anyone wants to see. He’s even lost the support of the Shaden.”

Felix struck twice more before he allowed his curiosity to overcome him and he asked, “The who? I’ve never heard of them before.”

“You’ve never heard of the Shaden? I guess a lot of people haven’t, their past is enshrouded in darkness. The Shaden were a tribe of shadow-dwellers and assassins who were sworn to protect the Elthren royal family centuries ago. They followed the king’s every whim and did everything necessary in order to protect them, ranging from killing rebels like me to silencing rumors about the rebel family. They were a mighty and unstoppable force, at least in their prime. Over the last few centuries their number has begun to dwindle and now not many still remain. For a long time they attempted to serve Aeolus as they had served his predecessors, but even they were unable to stand his tyrannical rule and they departed the country. Nobody knows what happened to the remainder of the tribe.”

“They just disappeared, huh? They almost sound similar to the Argiaund, but a lot more sinister in nature.” The Argiaund were a rather large group of sorcerer-warriors who were dedicated to bringing peace and order to Injelin. They had long ago been granted an island to the east of Injelin on which to build their order, and that was where they still lived. Felix had never met one, but he had heard rumors of them and knew that they were unstoppable warriors in battle, dedicated to serving what was right. Their powers were a mix of arcane and natural abilities and members of their order were generally trained for many years before being inducted. Rumors claimed that their order included members of every race, ranging from elves to dwarves to goblins and even to lesser known beings.

When he was a child, Felix’s father had told him that he had encountered the Argiaund several times on jobs to eliminate bandits and similar villainous people from the world. Now, though, he said that their affairs had shifted to much larger matters and they were typically involved in larger-scale activities. Perhaps becoming involved with the rebels would bring Felix in contact with these people who he had admired as a child.

“I guess you could say that the two are similar, but the Shaden are so much darker that I never made the connection. I’m not yet entirely certain about the reasons, but they were required to commit mass executions in the past, in a place that had not been the same since. It’s infested with the spirits of the dead that still seek revenge.”

“Mass executions? How long ago was this?” He had never heard rumors of mass executions in the history of the country.

“I don’t know, but a long time ago. If I remember correctly it was because a confidential secret of the royal family was leaked and they killed everyone who had knowledge of it. Shaden could read minds, they say. Most of them could at least, and for those who didn’t they had tools in the temple that gave them the ability.”

“They sound like pretty villainous people.”

“I guess you could say that, but judging from what I’ve learned they didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. Once I met a man named Anarion who was a member of the Shaden. It was he who told me about all of this, and he also told me that he was going to try and enter the temple one day and discover the secrets within. He was traveling with a woman named Wave” Lloyd turned around and split a round a few times while Felix got back to work as well. Lloyd certainly did seem to be full of interesting stories.

“I guess you just got all the luck, Lloyd. Most of us will never get to meet half the people that you have and you’re only a little older than we are!”

“Yeah, I might have run into some interesting people but I bet you guys live lives that are more interesting than mine, regardless of what you say! You’re mercenaries, after all, every day of your lives is probably filled with excitement!”

Inferno laughed a little at his impression and said, “You’d be surprised how many of our days are spent like this, just doing mundane jobs like cutting wood, hunting, or even waiting around for a job to come our way. Of course, usually we have to try and work on finishing up some of the incomplete parts of the base then.”

“What part wasn’t’ done? It looked pretty complete to me.”

“The third barracks is still being worked on, but it isn’t essential so we haven’t worked heavily on finishing it up. We stopped working on it a while back because we didn’t have any use for it, and we’ve only recently started working on it a little bit. It’s more of a side-job. When we’re done with it, it’ll probably be used as a warehouse for our weapons or else a place where we can keep food without fear of it going rotten. Sometimes people who stay with us sleep there, usually acquaintances of my father’s.”

“So I guess that’s where our group will be staying then?”

“If we’re out of space in the rest of the barracks there might not be much of a choice, sorry.”

“It’s not like you have to put up with us staying there, and any shelter is better than being stuck out in the cold like we would be otherwise.”

“Just how large is your group anyway?”

“Not too big, actually. I think there are about thirteen of us. Quite the lucky number of newcomers you have,” he said, laughing slightly when he finished his last sentence.

“Come on, Felix, we’ve done our work here, let’s get back to base now,” Inferno said.

 

This is the most recent chapter, but I’m in need of some reviews to see what I’ve done wrong or right, I’m dying of curiousity here! So please, tell me how it is, what you’d like me to improve on, etc… Thank you again for reading!

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One Response to “Three”

  1. Interesting Read! Very detailed blog.
    Thanks for sharing

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