Ellarie had dreamt she was lying on the shores of Great Valley Lake, a warm summer breeze flowing over her slender, naked body. Beneath her lay the ripped frame of Lazlo Arbor, his tight chest her pillow as they snoozed in the shade of an elm tree beneath the sun of summer.
The pair of free spirited lovers had taken the day to enjoy a long swim together, away from the prying eyes of the inland island they called home. Alone, in a private, sandy beached alcove on the western shore of the body of water they embraced and loved from noon to dusk. It was a favourite memory of Ellarie’s, a dream she often came back to when she slept soundly enough to dream at all.
The frenzied cry of “Fire!” roused her roughly from the dream, cries that were emanating from the lungs of Joyce Keena, the lover of Ellarie’s sister, Merion. The three were all lieutenants in the rebel faction known as The Thieves. Until now, they had been lodging in a farmhouse in the town of Argesse, south of the nation’s centrally located capital of Atrebell.
Joyce yanked her from the straw-stuffed bed she had sunken so comfortably into and forced her to embrace the madness around them. “Get out! Go! The house is on fire!” Joyce came again, slapping the sleep from Ellarie with an open hand.
Clad only in a tunic, Ellarie took off from the room, grabbing the long, narrow dagger hanging on her belt on the bedpost and forgetting her boots and trousers. She found herself standing in the hallway of the house, half naked and unable to see for the smoke. Bare feet halted at the threshold of the main entrance as her mind went to her sister. Turning toward the stairway, Ellarie shouted for Merion who had been on the second floor in a private room with Joyce, but got no answer.
Seventeen members of the Thieves had been squatting in that farm house, a half of a day’s ride outside the capital city. They were to make for Atrebell to intercept their leader, Lady Orangecloak, and return her to the relative safety of their hidden, underground cavern home known as Rillis Vale. Failure meant that Orangecloak and her bodyguards would walk into a trap within the city walls – one that was to be sprung by an ambitious lord of Grenjin Howland, himself the Lord Master of the nation of Illiastra to which they were in open rebellion of.
The smoke was overpowering Ellarie, but she would not leave until she was sure the others had escaped.
A bronze blur with a flowing golden mane of curls was in front of her from nowhere, shoving her into the night air with strong arms. Lazlo, she knew at once, having descended from the second floor of the burning home. The sinewy framed man drove her out of the house before she could resist, urging her not to remain in the burning husk and to run far away. She wanted to protest – she was Ellarie Dollen after all, the head lieutenant on this task force, there was no option for her to evacuate and leave everyone behind.
He was gone just as quickly, but before Ellarie could step back inside, she was violently tackled to the ground. The shock of the blow jarred her senses and sent her belt with her sheathed blade flying from her hand and out of her sight.
No sooner had she hit the ground than she realized there was a man in a uniform atop her. The soldier grasping for her arms wore a black jacket with gold and white epaulets, an outfit that marked him as a man of the prison city of Biddenhurst.
Soon, another had piled on to Ellarie, and they forced her over onto her stomach in a struggle the numbers made futile. Ellarie yelled, for Lazlo, for Joyce, for Merion, for anyone. Her bare feet kicked at the dirt, looking for purchase while gloved hands wrenched on her arms to try and bring them behind her back.
The next thing Ellarie heard was the roar Joyce let out as she burst forth from the front door of the farm house. The fearsome woman bore her axe in hand, swinging the flat of the blade into the face of one of the Biddenhurst men trying to subdue Ellarie and sending him reeling out of sight. The other abandoned Ellarie and turned his focus to Joyce, brandishing a sword to face off with her.
Ellarie scrambled to her feet and caught sight of her belt a few meters away. She yanked the dagger from its sheath and went to the door of the burning home, sticking her head in long enough to yell, “It’s an ambush! If anyone can hear me, get out and run for the forest!”
For her, running was no option, no more than it was for Joyce, Lazlo or Merion. They were lieutenants, chosen by Lady Orangecloak, Field Commander of the Thieves, to lead their fellow members. Tonight, the duty fell to her to ensure that the others escaped. Nothing else mattered.
The front yard of the house was occupied by several Biddenhurst soldiers. All were armed with either bayonetted rifles or cutlass swords that glowed orange and yellow in the light of the enflamed building behind her. There were other Thieves outside as well, some fighting, some trying to get away, but none properly armed or armoured. “Run!” she called as loud as her lungs would allow. “Run for the forest and don’t stop!”
Nearest to her was Joyce, batting at the brandished sword of a soldier who was ordering her to drop her weapon and lie in the dirt. The one who had taken the flat steel of the axe to the face was kneeling over a growing pool of blood.
As he inspected the state of his nose, he received a running kick to the teeth from Ellarie as she charged past to aid Joyce. “Give them no quarter, Joyce! Tonight we fight!” She declared with a roar.