Chapter 7:

6 - Gone with the Rain

The Fallen Diadem

I dreamt of school, of being in a classroom where everyone but the teacher was my own age. It was clean, far cleaner than anything in Vichtstein. I remembered sitting next to the window while staring at an exam paper with only half of the answers. The knot inside me whispered that I hadn’t studied, I hadn’t even known the test was that day because I hadn’t been paying attention and now I would fail and I wouldn’t pass the class so I would be held back a year and-Bookmark here

The thumping I felt wasn’t my own heart, it was rain. Cold drops like an army of pixies were loosing slings at me. The dream slipped between my fingers as I sat up, and where it had been anxiety stayed behind. I tried rolling back over and hiding beneath my cloak, but it was too late. I was up and there was no chance of me going back to sleep.Bookmark here

I could only lay on my back, staring at Neeka’s tail as it dangled above me, for so long. She slept in the rafters of our shoddy campsite, completely comfortable on nothing more than a few beams of timber. She called it the top bunk and slept the best out of the four of us. When her fluffy tail curled up, looping over her ankle so she could shift around, I got up.Bookmark here

Charlie was up, he was usually up before any of us. I found him on the other side of a little hill, doing his best to chop down a tree with his practice sword. That’s what it looked like to me anyways. “Bad dream again, Mark?” He didn’t even stop to look at me.Bookmark here

“Something like that. Feels like I’ve forgotten something.” I crossed my legs and sat down on the slope to watch him practice.Bookmark here

Charlie stopped and picked up a stout stick. It was slender and straight, all the bark already eaten off by insects. He tossed it at my feet. “Come on, spar with me. A man deals with his problems with strength, and you get strength through hard work,” he ordered, jabbing his chest with his thumb.Bookmark here

My stomach growled. I hated exercising on an empty stomach. With it still being night though, and with the storm coming in, the twilight was nice and cool. I groaned, but I got up and stripped my shirt off. I kept my gloves on; I wasn’t going to make the same mistake Neeka had the other day. Charlie tried to give me a lesson as I got ready, talking about how mud and slick footing can make all the difference and having experience with it could save my life. Since he had that dancing dueling blade, he liked to act like he had earned it.Bookmark here

We tapped sticks and went at each other. The practice weapon he had given me was weighted completely differently than the heavy haft of steel I fought with. It actually reacted obeyed me, and could exchange blows and parries with Charlie. He kept using the same few attacks: low and sharp thrusts, a one-two horizontal attack, or whenever he blocked my attack he would spin it around into a head ringing crack down atop me. For such a simplistic foe I should have been able to deal with it; but, each of those techniques had been practiced a thousand times and the tree behind me bore the proof. I was fumbling to ever do the same thing twice.Bookmark here

I thought I had him when I purposefully made a huge vertical attack. He blocked it, stepping around to retaliate like he always did, so I stepped in, jerking my stick into his way as I went low. I wanted to make it a stab right into his face. I could see his surprise.Bookmark here

As soon as I tried to push with my back foot though, the mud gave way. My foot flew backwards and I fell to a knee. Charlie tried to choke back on the swing, but he still cracked me across the ear. I hit the mud hard, blood springing from my ear as the whole world became a screeching more horrid than a swarm of locusts.Bookmark here

Next thing I knew, I could feel fingers brushing through my hair. Neeka leaned over me, using her own head to shelter me from the rain. There was concern in her eyes, I thought. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see as she stuck her tongue out the side of her lips and stared at my ear. She dabbed at it with something that stung like fire. “Ow ow ow stop!” I cried.Bookmark here

Charlie’s hands shoved me back down and I realized my head was in Neeka’s lap as she was trying to stop the bleeding. “Sorry Mark, sorry. It’s not bad, I swear,” he said, putting on a big smile as rain dripped down his face.Bookmark here

I knew it had been an accident, so I didn’t hold it against him. In the end they had it treated with a bit of ointment and overall it wasn’t as bad as the cold porridge and jerky Xon made us for breakfast. Everything was too wet for a fire so we sat eating cold food in cold weather. Going into town to huddle around one of the firepits wasn’t an option either; the army had taken every single free bed and even paid a few people to give up their own houses. There was nowhere else for us to go.Bookmark here

“That’s it, we’re robbing one of the merchants,” Charlie declared as he chewed on a piece of jerky that seemed as tough as his armor.Bookmark here

“How? Mayor Cassius will be forced to run us out of town if they come back complaining. We’re a pretty identifiable group,” Neeka asked.Bookmark here

Charlie swallowed. “Well the way I see it, anyone leaving town on a day like this isn’t welcome back. They woulda been forced out. Plenty of these swindlers are making enemies and running off with their coin. We gotta find one of those.”Bookmark here

And so, the four of us packed our things and headed away from the sun. It had been a week since the army had arrived at Vichtstein and they had done little more than sit around waiting for enough wood to be brought in for their shipbuilding. We couldn’t even explore the city anymore because soldiers would stop us and yell at us about what we were doing. Bookmark here

By mid-day the rain let up and the misery of being wet came to an end while we sat beneath a hilltop oak trying to spot another traveller.Bookmark here

“You think they’ll be done processing the dragon meat by the time we get back? I want that feast. I want juicy, roast meat.” I was daydreaming of it while my cloak dried out in the sun. Neeka let out a forlorn sigh too.Bookmark here

“Got one!” Charlie said, his head popping up from a ravine near us. “Alone, on a horse, let’s go. Xon, put an arrow in the ground ahead of him. Neeka make sure he doesn’t turn back around. Mark, mask up.”Bookmark here

Our doldrum ended with all of us scrambling to get our things. Charlie and I went down through the ravine looking like proper rogues. We both had black ponchos on and cloth masks that only showed our eyes. Here and there the dye had bleached a bit, giving it a clumsy purple hue, but if someone had the wherewithal to laugh about that we were in no position to be robbing them.Bookmark here

Xon’s arrow soared over our heads, plodding into the mud a few paces in front of the horseman. It didn’t startle the horse, but it made the rider stop. “Stop right there!” Charlie bellowed. He tried to deepen his voice, but it was obvious he was faking it. Still, the two of us jumped out next to the traveller with swords drawn.Bookmark here

The man did not look to be a fighter, which took some anxiety off of me. He was a twig of a man hiding beneath a wide-brimmed leather hat and a huge cloak. Most importantly, I could see some thick purses at his waist. Normally people hid their purses within their clothes, in secret pockets and deep within their packs. This idiot had them out in the open like a brazen tax collector. Coppers surely, but even that would be a fortune; enough that we could live easy for months. Xon might even be able to buy his way into the bathhouse. “What is the meaning of this? Do you know who I am?”Bookmark here

Charlie shook his head. “Don’t know, don’t care. You see, there’s a bit of a fee for this road. But don’t worry, for one man it’s only a single gold coin.”Bookmark here

“That’s outrageous. I am a citizen of Throne I’ll have you know! This territory is under the control of the Order of the Broken Concordant, not vagrants like you,” the rider said as he whipped out a sword and lifted it up.Bookmark here

I sighed. “Look; we’ve got archers waiting to put an arrow in you, or at least in your horse here. You really wanna get in a fight?” I asked. I really did not want to get in a fight with him. Fighting the fallen was one thing, a real person another.Bookmark here

He didn’t want to fight either. I could see him looking around for the archers. Neeka could hide herself, but Xon’s bulk was too much. He weighed the options, gauged our distances, and jammed his heels into his horse’s flanks. The animal bolted with a pained whinney.Bookmark here

I froze. I didn’t have it in me to kill someone, not over money. Charlie had no such hold up and he lunged forward, stabbing his sword at the man’s side. It caught in in the cloak as it billowed and then the rider was off down the road screaming, “I’ll remember this you louts! You think you’re safe behind those masks?”Bookmark here

Charlie bent down and picked something up, holding it over his head as he shouted, “Mission complete!” loud enough for Xon to hear. The dragonkin didn’t loose an arrow after the fleeing man. He didn’t have to; Charlie’s wild stab had cut the man’s purse free.Bookmark here

The four of us ran off into the brush, down through the ravine and huddled around the fattest purse any of us had ever seen. Not coppers, but silver. Handful after handful of silver coins. We had a fortune even after splitting it four ways. Bookmark here

“I want a bath, please! I still smell like guts,” Xon said, closing his eyes and turning his head up to the sky.Bookmark here

“I can finally get some real armor!” Neeka said, letting the coins pour between her fingers.Bookmark here

Charlie had the biggest dream of all. “I could get a Druscan war horse. I could get accepted into any army in the world if I had one of those. It’d pave the way to becoming a Blade Master!”Bookmark here

Xon sighed and tried to tactfully explain that even the whole purse wouldn’t be enough to buy one of those, which sent Charlie into a counting frenzy. I had no idea how much a regular horse cost, let alone some kind of trained warhorse.Bookmark here

“What about you, Mark?”Bookmark here

I realized Neeka was looking at me. I was the only one not revelling in the money. I looked back down at it. I wondered what the pay was like in Amaranth’s army. “I don’t know. I’ll have to figure something out I guess. I’m not in a rush. I’m happy just being with all of you.”Bookmark here

The next day, while Xon was soaking his scales and Neeka was arguing with Gerald the blacksmith, we were rounded up one by one and arrested. We had stolen from Amaranth’s army.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.