Ellarie I

Chapter 1

Ellarie I

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 called 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, for 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 that 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 so as 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.

“I won’t have to be told twice!” Joyce roared back. The guard on his knees sat close by, and Joyce stepped toward him, her axe overhead. In one swing of the weapon, his head rolled free from its shoulders.

His cohort cursed loudly and lunged for Joyce, and he might have stabbed her but for Ellarie slashing at his sword arm. He gasped, looked to his bleeding arm and was cut down when Joyce’s axe was driven between neck and shoulder.

“I’ll guard the front door and keep it clear for anyone trying to get out,” Ellarie commanded as Joyce took her axe back in two hands. “You cover the back door and drive the Biddenhursters away from it.”

“Leave it to me,” Joyce said with a nod. She darted off towards the side of the home, charging headlong towards a throng of guards harrying another member of Ellarie’s band.

More soldiers were coming forth to engage Ellarie, their orders to surrender falling on deaf ears. A rifleman stepped up, levelling his rifle on her and roaring commands as he held the tip of the bayonet mere centimetres from her face. She stepped to the right, closed in and drove the dagger deep into his chest. He gasped, groaned and sputtered as his lungs filled with blood. As he hit the ground, Ellarie lost her grip on her dagger and let it go before his weight could drag them both down.

Unable to pull it from whatever bone it had lodged in, she gave up on the dagger and grabbed the fallen man’s rifle instead. Ellarie had never fired one before and had never desired to do so. There was no turning back now, she knew, for the ambush would force a great many hands this night.

To her left a guard had begun a blind rush at Ellarie and with no time to dodge, she faced him with the rifle held to her side. Her finger felt the trigger and she gave it a squeeze. The roar of the gun rang out painfully loud and kicked backward with such force that Ellarie struggled to hold on. Through the ruckus, the shot had found the soldier’s abdomen and he stumbled and fell to the dirt with a heave and a moan.

A swordsman stepped in from the right and ate the butt of the rifle, and a thrust to the left sent another flinching backward to avoid the bayonet aimed at his face. There seemed to be more coming toward her now, summoned by the blast of her stolen rifle. They were closing in on all sides, armed with a mixture of sabres, pistols and more of the long guns.

“Drop it and lie down on the ground, thief!” one among them demanded of her.

Ellarie swung at him wordlessly and tried to move away from the semicircle they were attempting to form around her.

Three moved as one and converged on Ellarie faster than she anticipated. The rifle was plucked from her grasp by two of them and the third tried to move in close with his sword and grab her with his free hand. In a single swift motion, Ellarie grabbed the sword-carrying arm in both of hers, spun around so that it was over her shoulder, and wrenched it downward. At the sounds of a loud snap, Ellarie pulled the sabre free from the now limp limb and spun once more, flashing the blade into the face of the guard. He shrieked and grabbed at the gash she had made in his cheeks with his able hand, stumbling into his fellow guardsmen in the process.

Armed once more Ellarie began to retreat hastily from the encroaching group, feeling the heat of the fire upon her back as she neared the house.

A blade emerged from the stomachs of one of her attackers and he cried out in horror at its brief appearance, before it was withdrawn back the way it had arrived. When the man fell forward it was Lazlo standing there, clutching the bloody sword that had maimed the soldier. Across his nose and mouth he had tied a bandanna, but Ellarie knew the piercing blue eyes and mop of blond curls and whom they belonged to.

The posse seemed divided for a moment until one among them ordered the group to split in two in order to advance on Ellarie and Lazlo alike.

They’re not trying to kill anyone, she realised as they slowly crept toward her.

“Put the weapon on the ground and lie down with your hands behind your head!” one soldier called out.

To Ellarie’s right, she spotted the cornfield that stretched for half a kilometre. Running crossed Ellarie’s mind, but she knew she could not. It was her duty to stay.

“Where are you going?” a rough voice called out from behind her and Ellarie spun to meet its owner, regretting the decision as fast as she made it.

A single man managed to grab her sword arm from behind and the rest of the group pounced on her as one. The ground rose up to meet her while several bodies held her firmly to it. The sword was pulled from her grasp and despite her struggle, the men above her soon had her arms pinned behind her back. Thick iron bands were clamped over her wrists tightly and Ellarie found out painfully that they were pure, ridged iron, with no chain linking them.

She kicked and screamed for help as they lifted her up and her protestation was rewarded with a swift punch to the face. The blow shook her whole head. Her vision spiralled, the ears rang deafeningly and her legs were suddenly limp and clumsy beneath her.

Things came back to her slowly as she was dragged across the yard and roughly bundled inside a wrought iron cage on wheels. The intensity of the fire emanating from the house continued to wash over her and the bars themselves seemed to radiate with heat. Ellarie’s vision cleared itself enough for her to make out the figures battling one another in front of the mass of flames that once was their hideout.

Joyce Keena was the first she spotted, having returned to the front of the house and turning about in every direction with her reddened axe at the ready. The woman was calling Ellarie’s name frantically and fending off soldiers with long, wide swings. The odds were against Joyce, for though she was tall and strong, the outnumbering Biddenhursters were simply too many.

A man leaped onto the blonde’s back, but she kept her balance. Joyce slashed at the men ahead of her with the axe, connecting with one soldier who cried out as the sharp steel tore through clothing and flesh alike. The blade sliced through the forearm holding the barrel of his musket like tallow and his mouth opened wide for a scream even Ellarie’s ringing ears could hear. Joyce’s swings became more unwieldy as the soldier on her back sapped her strength with his continued chokehold. Other soldiers began to pile on her from all sides and soon she disappeared from Ellarie’s sight in a sea of Biddenhurst uniforms.

The ringing in Ellarie’s ears slowly began to subside and the sound of the wooden home being reduced to ashes and embers dominated the sound spectrum. Competing with it was the shouting and screaming of the Thieves and Biddenhurst soldiers alike. A man to her right with a tall captain’s hat and a breast full of glinting medals was barking orders beside the wagon. Between repeated calls to bring the captured Thieves to the wagon, he bellowed a loud command to spare the women at all costs but kill any man that resisted.

It dawned on Ellarie that she should try to get her hands free of their restraints. These were not the standard shackle and chain restraints she had encountered before, rather, there was no chain at all. Her hands were back to back in solid, unforgiving iron, forged cuff to cuff directly. They offered no movement whatsoever and kept her wrists so tight that she could find no way to slip the arms beneath the legs to get her hands in front. Never had Ellarie felt so utterly helpless to do anything, discovering it be a difficult task to even get into an upright position that wasn’t uncomfortable.

From directly beside the cornfield on the left of her she spotted Lazlo almost immediately. It seemed from what Ellarie could see that he was unarmed, breathing heavy and spattered with blood. Upon tripping in the first Biddenhurst guard Ellarie had slain, she saw him reach down and yank her dagger free. Without a second of hesitation, Lazlo brought it down in an arcing swing on the back of one of the soldiers that had collectively mounted Joyce for an arrest. The man screamed in agony as the life burst from the gaping wound Lazlo had created with the dagger Ellarie had lost. The soldiers broke off from Joyce, now bound at the wrists like Ellarie though still struggling fitfully as a single man dragged her by the legs across the rough ground.

Now the lone member of the Thieves on the front of the burning house, Lazlo was left to fend for himself. Ellarie was certain that the remaining riflemen were going to open fire on him and make an end of it. He was a resisting male fighter after all, and there was no reason for him to be spared. Yet, the soldiers circled him and barked orders to surrender as they had to Ellarie and Joyce and made no attempt to attack.

It became apparent to Ellarie at that moment that the men likely thought Lazlo was a woman. With his face masked, that lithe body, and his hair flowing in luscious, natural, golden blonde ringlets, he certainly looked the part.

Almost directly above Lazlo, a second floor window burst outward, with a spearhead thrusting through glass and knocking off the shards that remained. The slender figure of a female member of the Thieves that Ellarie knew to be Ami Rosia climbed out through the frame and leapt into the night air. Her landing target was one of the men accosting Lazlo and she hit her target with precision and grace. The two went down in a brief struggle, but as the thief had only escape on her mind, she broke free and darted for the tall corn stocks. The soldier took off after her, though Ellarie had no worries. Ami Rosia was the fastest runner in her unit, there was little odds of her being caught now. With a longing glance, Ellarie looked to the window again and was dismayed to see no sign of the spear.

Ellarie scanned her trappings for any weaknesses and it was then she became aware that she was not alone in the wagon. A skinny figure with reddish hair fell in to her sight, lying on her side with iron bonds matching Ellarie’s on her wrists. At first Ellarie had to wonder who this red haired woman was, and if it was indeed her sister, but it was then she realized the hair was wrong. It was not red at all, but blonde and soaked with blood. “Nia?” Ellarie all but shouted, thudding along on her now sore knees to the incapacitated girl. “Nia, can you hear me? Nia, please answer me,” she frantically pleaded while fighting to keep her voice down. The skinny woman from Holliford was given the first watch of the house and Ellarie hadn’t even thought of what became of her in all the chaos. She was the first taken down by the look of it, and barely alive from her ordeal.

Blood caked lips slowly opened, the slightest hint of a whisper emanating between spits of crimson. Nia’s eyes stared at the floorboards of the cart, lids scarcely apart. Ellarie had to put her ear to the girl’s mouth to hear her whisper at all. “They’re coming, they’re coming,” Nia was vainly trying to warn her.

“Stay with me, Nia,” Ellarie begged her friend. She could only assume that Nia had been taken out quietly to avoid alerting the other thieves of the soldiers’ approach. A quick look at the back of the girl’s head showed that blood had matted her braided hair, indicating they’d caught her from behind.

Nia had run, Ellarie deduced. The soldiers couldn’t finish the job with one blow, so they had gone to work on Nia’s bloodied and swollen face to silence her.

“Stay awake, Nia,” Ellarie continued to plead with her. “Stay with me, keep talking.”

Ellarie shifted into a sitting position, her back half turned to Nia. The girl had taken a hard blow to the head and likely was suffering a concussion. As a lieutenant, Ellarie had received basic medical training by the elderly doctor living in the ruins of Phaleayna, an abandoned city inhabited by the Thieves. She had learned that with a serious head wound, a concussion was highly likely and Nia showed every sign that Ellarie had been taught to look for. As best as her restraints would allow, Ellarie started gently shaking Nia to keep her awake, talking to her constantly in a soft voice.

A shape moving in the broken front window on the second floor caught Ellarie‘s eye and in a blink, a wild little thing with hair as red as the fire behind it flew through the flames and dove out. Ellarie’s heart jumped in her chest. She almost screamed her sister’s name as her younger sibling, clad only in trousers and a laced brassiere replicated Rosia’s overhead attack onto a soldier.

Merion had come to fight, as was expected of her as a lieutenant. The spear in her hands plunged deep into a soldier’s chest as Merion descended upon him from above. With a forward roll through the momentum the wild haired woman came to her feet close to the next intended target. The blood covered and masked Lazlo was almost impaled until Merion stopped at the last second, the tip of her spear mere inches from his stomach. The two realized who each were as the soldiers circled around them demanding obedience that they were not likely to get from either lieutenant. The pair went back to back and held their ground, much to the chagrin of the soldiers encircling them.

A roar emanating from Joyce caught the attention of Ellarie in the wagon and Merion in the midst of battle alike. The lone soldier dragging her had made the mistake of trying to stand Joyce up and she had knocked him down with a kick to the midsection.  The soldier called to his unengaged comrades and a pair dropped their muskets to throw themselves atop of her. When it dawned on Merion that her partner was the one being piled upon, she charged through the circle of would-be-arresters. With a mighty thrust, Merion plunged the wooden shafted spear into the first body she saw wrestling her love. Noiselessly, Lazlo went down behind Merion after she broke through, the circle of humanity closing in on him. The last Ellarie saw of her dagger was Lazlo having it wrenched from his hand by a guard who outsized him by about twenty kilos.

The soldier bearing Merion’s spear in his back yelled in an awkward gasping manner as he jolted backward, the point of the spear searing through his flesh and sprouting through his chest on the right side. A lung has been ripped apart for certain, Ellarie deduced. Only death would follow that scream.

A shot rang out behind the house and it gave Ellarie a sickly feeling in the pit of her stomach. The sound of a gun always had for as long as she could remember. Immediately, she began to wonder if it was one of her own had taken the burden of lead, for there was none among her ranks who carried firearms. A loud, single shot weapon was of little use among the stealth tactics of the Thieves, but Ellarie supposed one of them could have stolen one, just as she had done moments before.

Attention of the captors turned away from Joyce, now writhing on the ground to escape her bonds, to Merion, clutching the spear still lodged in the unfortunate soldier’s back. With a thrusting kick, she broke her weapon free and readied another charge. The leader of the ambush shouted out and Ellarie’s eyes locked onto his tall, plumed hat as its feather bobbed along to where the two women were battling with his soldiers.

Ellarie noted the pistol that was in the white gloved hand of the leader, its hammer pulled back and a bead drawn on Merion’s lover on the ground. “Drop the spear missy and reach your hands for the stars,” the man called in a gravelly voice. His uniform was well decorated and immaculate. From the mere sight of it, Ellarie knew that the captain had expended no effort nor collected any dirt this night. A slick, black moustache that curled into two fine tips rested above a square jaw that hoisted his mouth into a stupid grin. Ellarie wanted nothing more in that moment than to rip every last hair of it from his face. Her hands began to clench with anger, until she heard a whimper at her side. Nia, Ellarie realized at once, looking to see that she had dug her fingers into the injured woman’s leg.

The petite blonde’s breathing picked up then, as if she had just come above the surface of the water and taken that first deep breath of air. “Ellarie, Ellarie you need to flee, they’re coming,” she spoke as loud as she could.

“Shh, Nia. I’m here, sweetie, don’t yell,” Ellarie cooed softly.

Hearing her leader’s voice seemed to calm Nia enough to rest her head, though Ellarie resumed shaking the woman’s leg to keep her conscious. Hearing her name said aloud made Ellarie wonder if anyone knew who she was at this point. If she could prevent it, it would be in the best interest of all the women to keep her identity from becoming known. Unlike her fellow lieutenants, Ellarie had the distinction of having no distinction and could blend in with a crowd quite well. Lazlo was nicknamed ‘Pretty Lazlo’ on account of his effeminate good looks, Merion had that head of thick red curls, and Joyce was the tall blonde with shoulders as broad as any mans. Ellarie, by contrast, was an average woman of dark hair, standard height, and a slightly muscled frame, but otherwise bearing no defining features like the others. If the Biddenhurst men wanted all the lieutenants to Orangecloak, it begged to reason that they might only be sparing the other women on account of not knowing which of them was Ellarie. It was on that premise that she would keep her name unspoken.

Ellarie’s attention was drawn back to the fight at hand when she heard her sister address the leader of the ambush. “You have but one shot, you piece of scum,” Merion spat through gritted teeth at this captain. “You put a shot in her and I put my spear through your throat.”

“What, you plan to jab me with your pointy stick?” he mockingly retorted.

“This stick is no stranger to blood,” Merion gave back, lowering herself into a stance to ready a charge. “And I know you won’t kill me, you know who I am.”

The man laughed deeply at that. “That’s where you’re wrong. I have orders, aye, but if ‘The Red Bitch’ of the Three Sisters attacks me, I have the right to defend. Or at least that’s what I’ll say should anyone ask.”

“Then let’s see what that little pistol can do against my spear,” Merion taunted, trying to divert the man’s aim away from Joyce.

“So it comes down to the simple question of which would win: a bullet or a spear?” the Captain asked condescendingly while raising his pistol to Merion. “Here’s your answer, queer.”

Time seemed to slow for Ellarie in that instant and she heard herself and Joyce both shouting a blood curdling ’No!’ in unison. Merion however, was the very face of focus, sidestepping away as the hammer fell forward. A soldier took the shot to the abdomen behind Ellarie’s sister as spear and woman became a blur. A red haired, half naked flash of a woman darted towards the captain as he stood there with nothing but an empty pistol in hand. Too late he realised what was happening and by then Merion was airborne, her spear tearing throat and neck to ruin in a single thrust. Gurgling on his blood, the leader took Merion down with him as he tumbled backwards. The wide brimmed hat flew off his head as the grin he had so proudly worn minutes ago turned into a wide-mouthed look of horror. With a masterful leaping twirl Merion and spear alike danced clear of the soldiers, landing gracefully at the ready to strike once more.

A wave of shock rippled through the soldiers as the red life of the captain pooled onto the dirt before them and their eyes fell solely to Merion. “Which of you is next?”

“She is, if you don’t drop your fucking spear,” all eyes turned to see the thickly built guard that had disarmed Lazlo now pressing Ellarie’s missing dagger to Joyce’s exposed throat.

Merion gasped. “Let her go!”

“I say fuck that,” said the Soldier, letting loose a ball of phlegm on the ground beside him. “Put the spear down and drop to your knees or I open her throat.”

“Do that and you’ll die as your captain did, I promise you,” Merion countered.

The broad fellow looked about quite confidently. “Do you want to risk that? All I have to do is draw the blade across her tender flesh. Meanwhile, you have to fight through all of them to get to me to keep your promise. Best case, you keep your word and I die, either way though, the Big Bitch will bleed out in front of you and the rest of the lads here jump your skinny bones. Weigh your options carefully, but do so quickly, I have no patience anymore.”

“Run, Merion,” Joyce spoke up, offering a third option. “Don’t let them take you.”

“That’s no good. If you run, I’ll still slit her throat,” the big lug answered before Merion could even think about it. “The only way this one lives through the night is if you drop your spear and go to your knees. I’m counting from five.”

“Don’t listen to him, Merion. Run!” Joyce commanded.

“Four.”

“Hurry up and run, Merion!”

“Three.”

“Please, Merion, listen to me!”

“Two.”

The spear clattered to the dirt and Merion followed after it, the very face of defeat. “I’m sorry, Joyce. I can’t watch you die.”

A pair of soldiers approached cautiously and took control of Merion’s arms and forced her to the ground. More joined in needlessly on her limp frame, closing shut those horribly rigid cuffs on her slender wrists in seconds.

Ellarie slumped back against Nia, sighing sombrely as she watched the embers rising into the starry night sky from all corners of the peaceful little farmhouse. In no time at all, the four lieutenants on the mission had been captured. It was such a simple mission, Ellarie thought to herself. Intercept Lady Orangecloak before she reached Atrebell, inform her that her own plans were compromised and return to Rillis Vale to regroup. The Three Sisters had completed similar tasks before. As had Lazlo, on his own in one instance. In one night, somehow, despite all their combined experience, all their work had gone up in flames like the house before her. Now their fate was out of their hands, and the band of Thieves that had gathered to do this job were now prisoners and wards of Biddenhurst. Was it all in vain? Ellarie wondered. And what of Lady Orangecloak, now in greater danger than ever and walking unknown into a trap.

An interruption in her train of thought came when a man’s voice broke through the chaos. “Father, I caught one! Look, Father, her hair is dark as coal. She must be the oldest Sister!” Ellarie’s stomach fluttered as she lowered her eyes to the procession emerging from around the side of the house. The approaching guards dragged and pushed along more Thieves with their hands bound behind their backs. The men were Lazlo’s cousin Donnis and close childhood friend Etcher, his most trusted companions who had followed him as closely as Merion and Joyce followed Ellarie. They were beaten and bloody, but so were the soldiers holding them.

Orangecloak would be quite upset with all of us for fighting and killing, but they tried to burn us alive, what were we to do? Would she be so different were it her in place of me?

There were women too: Jorgia of Prive, Allia and Coramae of Aquas Bay, and lastly Bernadine of Layn, the woman falsely believed to be Ellarie.

“Here she is, Father. Look, she has dark hair, pale skin and a short haircut, it’s the Queen Bitch for sure!” the voice called again, though no one moved forward to answer the call for his father.

With one hand on her arm and another on the back of her neck, Bernadine was marched forward ahead of all the others. The southlander woman had kept her coal black hair cut short, with a long blade to fall over her left eye. Ellarie’s own locks were of the same colour, though her own was normally kept just off the shoulder where it hung with a natural curl. The two also had a similar build and were only a few centimetres different in height. Indeed, to anyone who didn’t know their faces, it would be easy to confuse the two.

The Thieves captured on the rear of the house were all in various stages of undress. It was doubtless that the heat of the fire was the only thing keeping them warm.

The young man who held Bernadine’s bound arms was a scrawny fellow with a curly mop of hair atop a tall, clumsy looking frame in a loosely hanging uniform. The faces of his comrades were silent and sullen and none dared to speak as he unknowingly approached the bloody mess before them. “What is it? Why are you all so quiet? Where’s my father?” he asked nervously just before his eyes fell on the Captain’s body, soaked in blood and lying mere steps from his boots.

“Father, no!” the man cried out, throwing Bernadine haphazardly out of his way. She tripped and tumbled onto her stomach, groaning in pain as the air was driven from lungs. A soldier stepped forth and yanked Bernadine back up to her feet, holding her tight before she could get any ideas.

Tears ran freely down the lanky man’s red cheeks as trembling hands touched the face of the slain captain. His uncontrollable sobbing and shaking quickly turned to seething rage. “Who?!” the Captain’s son shouted atop his lungs. “Who took my father?!”

All remained deathly silent, both soldiers and Thieves alike who had been battling in front of the house just seconds before. Reluctantly, one of the men who held Ellarie’s sister finally spoke up. “Sergeant Hoyt, it was this one,” the soldier said while stepping forward, pushing Merion ahead as he went.

She stumbled and caught herself short of falling in front of the enraged son, now standing tall. Standing so close and facing one another, Ellarie figured that there was no less than a third of a meter in the height difference between her sister and the sergeant. Merion was left entirely vulnerable in her restrained position and she stepped back in a crouch, her head cocked up at her foe, making the offsetting height seem even greater. The fear was plain to read across her face and Sergeant Hoyt stared with pure malice at the slender woman with the red hair.

“You touch her, I swear I will tear you asunder the minute my hands are free of these shackles,” Joyce growled, entirely out of nowhere. Two Biddenhurst men tried their best to hold her by either arm, but the fierce woman was nearly too much to contain in her fury.

“Then you’ll die in them, you dyke,” the big man fumed as he unleashed a massive backhanded blow to the side of Merion’s head. She dropped in a heap and Joyce let out a guttural roar that would strike fear in the bravest heart.

The two men holding her stumbled back, losing their grip as she burst forward. Charging with incredible speed, she took Hoyt unawares with a shoulder to the stomach, sending him to the ground where he lay breathless and gasping beside Merion. The soldiers rushed in to drag Joyce away and began barking orders at the fellow manning the jail cart Ellarie and Nia occupied.

It took five men to carry Joyce, writhing and twisting in their grasp, to the barred wagon. Once she was stuffed inside, she immediately began kicking at the door, even as the key was still turning in the lock.

Ellarie left Nia for a moment, sliding on her bottom to Joyce and nudging the shouting woman with her foot to get her attention. Joyce turned to see her and Ellarie leaned in close. “Don’t say my name, they don’t know who I am, and if they know they have all three of us they may kill the others.”

A look of total defeat crossed Joyce’s face as the recognition hit her. “Not you, how could they get you? When I didn’t see you again I had thought that at least you had gotten away,” she despairingly whispered back.

“That filthy dyke, bring her back out,” the sergeant exclaimed hotly between gasps of air before Ellarie could say anything more. “I’ll kill her right here and now!”

A line of guards appeared from behind the wagons and formed up in front of the burning farm house before any action towards Hoyt’s command could be taken. A thinly bearded fellow with soft, dark ringlets of hair cut just above his ears stood at the front of the pack. Ignoring Hoyt’s ranting, the new man’s cold eyes calmly surveyed the mess that had become of their operation.

“What do you want, you worthless steward? Father’s dead now, no thanks to you,” young Hoyt hissed. He did not seem to appreciate the other man’s presence, but the other hardly seemed to notice or even care, for that matter.

The man, who looked no more than twenty-five or so by Ellarie’s estimate, slowly removed a pair of leather gloves, taking in the flame-engulfed house as he did. Strangely, his uniform and those of his followers were in pristine condition and he seemed to be disturbingly unfazed by, and perhaps, even enjoying, the carnage that lay before him.

Finally, after letting the silence grow unbearably uncomfortable, he addressed the raging Captain’s son. “My orders were to keep the neighbours at bay, to which I followed to the letter. Just as we were instructed by forces higher than Captain Hoyt to bring all the women to Biddenhurst alive. I intend to see that order through as well,” the man spoke with a detached, apathetic demeanour, which seemed to infuriate the sergeant even more.

“Silence, Lance. I’m in charge here now, I’m highest rank,” Sergeant Hoyt shouted.

The man he called Lance seemed entirely unmoved by Hoyt’s outbursts, as if he was entirely accustomed to it. “Furthermore, your grief has rendered your capabilities for making sound decisions nil,” He added in the same monotone voice. “Therefore, as per section fifteen of military code, I am relieving you of your duties until such a time that you may be assessed by our superiors.”

“No!” screamed Sergeant Hoyt, like a child in the midst of a temper tantrum, angrily stomping the ground as he pointed a finger at the man who dared challenge his authority. “You have no right! I call you a traitor to the realm! Men, seize him at once!”

The soldiers looked to one another with uncertainty, none among them daring to move toward one side or another.

All the while, the steward caressed his beard as a derisive smirk came over him. “Well, it would seem that they have disobeyed you, Anders. Now be a good boy and stand down. I have a job for you to do in the meantime while you’re coming to terms with your grief: I’m going to prepare you a letter for you to take to Lord Taves, who is presently in Atrebell. That’s a big job. I should say that it is one fit for a sergeant. You can even say you wrote it. Lord Taves doesn’t know you can‘t read or write. Come now, we will get your horse and some companions and you will be off. I do not want to see you hurt anyone else and I know your father would not either.”

Hoyt was heaving hard, trying vainly to not show weakness. Slowly, the steward stepped forward, offering a bare hand to Anders.

The sergeant seemed like a boy on stilts to Ellarie. It made no wonder that the steward treated him as such and even less surprising that it worked for him. A quick nod over Lance’s shoulder to the others was all it took and command was his. Without needing further orders, the soldiers went to work collecting the captured and cleaning up the dead.

The first order of business for the men of Biddenhurst was to place the remaining women alongside Ellarie, Nia and Joyce in the prisoner wagon. It filled quickly once they were all piled in beside one another, leaving no place for Lazlo, Donnis, and Etcher.

A party of soldiers convened to decide what to make of their predicament before the wagon. Beyond them, Ellarie could see others carrying the soldiers that had fallen in the fight out of sight, while the body of Captain Hoyt was tightly bound in a white, canvas tarp.

Though the fire raged on, the cold, dry autumn air nipped harshly at the huddled women. There was sobbing going on among them and moaning as their arms and wrists became sore and cramped in their restraints.

Beyond the mobile cage, the soldiers were exchanging details of what they had experienced from their various posts. Ellarie was able to overhear some of it, confirming that the assault on the rear of the house resulted in two deaths among the Thieves. It also emerged through several witnesses that a single male was to have fled through the rear of the house and had managed to avoid capture entirely.

After what felt like hours, Ellarie heard horses galloping off in the distance just as the steward returned from whence he came.

“Corporal Cornwall,” bellowed a short, squat, bearded soldier who had been seen earlier accompanying the steward. “We’ve no place for the men, the wagon be full.”

“We have spare horses now, seeing as how we lost a few men,” the corporal surmised. “Lash their men over them like potato sacks. Also, while the fire still burns toss their dead in to it. We will bury all of ours except the Captain here. Bind him up tight in that tarp and we will take him back with us for a proper funeral,” he lifted his head to look at the scarcely clothed women in the wagon before him then. “Get them some blankets or something as well, it will do us no good if they freeze. My orders were to deliver them to Biddenhurst alive. Letting them succumb to death is not an option.”

It was no kindness he offered Ellarie and her companions. His tone said that they were only cargo that had to be kept fresh, like produce on its way to market.

A tarp was thrown to the women and with nothing but their teeth and feet they had to pull it over themselves. It smelled of horses and another indecipherable odour and really did little to aid warmth. Nia, gone unconscious once again, was left to lie in between them all in the motley circle they had formed.

Ellarie heard a moan as one of the Thieves men went over a horse’s back. Just able to see over her shoulder enough, Ellarie espied the corporal approaching the man with the luscious head of hair she knew was Lazlo.

“You, you’re familiar. What’s your name?” Cornwall asked.

“Lazlo Arbor,” he answered with venom, meeting the corporal’s glare with his own as best as his position allowed.

Without a hint of intimidation at the mention of the name, the corporal let out a snort. “Oh, what a treat, it is the famous outlaw: Lazlo Arbor. My word, this raid netted us not only the prized lesbians that are the Three Sisters, but also the girly-man Lazlo,” he paused only long enough to spit on Lazlo. “What a merry band of freaks you all are. I would say the gods will thank us for taking care of such unfortunate mutations.”

Ellarie did not think she could bear more hate for any one person than she did for Cornwall in that moment, but he was not done. “Also, I will lay down one ground rule of utmost importance: If it comes to my attention that these men hear any of you cretins talking I will stop this sorry excuse for a convoy and have the lot of you beaten mercilessly,” Lance instructed them before turning his gaze on the wagon and the women within. “Try my patience further and I may even turn a blind eye should one of the soldiers wish to have his way with you. After all, no one stipulated what condition you were to be in upon delivery, just so long as you were alive.”

No one dared bat him an answer and that seemed to satisfy the shrewd corporal. Without another word he disappeared from sight towards the front of the convoy with a smirk of self-satisfaction.

The corporal might even be thankful for Merion having killed the Captain, Ellarie considered. Lance Cornwall went from lowly steward to commanding the whole convoy in the span of minutes and only the Captain’s simple son had opposed his rule.

The wagon was brought to the center of the convoy, with soldiers on horseback going in front and behind. The horses bearing the three lashed men of the Thieves and the deceased Captain Hoyt were lined up and flanked with mounted soldiers to either side.

As the Biddenhurst men formed up, they talked amongst one another and Ellarie heard one alleging that they had two bodies from the Thieves that were discarded into the burning remnants of the house. From what she picked up from the descriptions of the dead, it seemed likely that one of them was Harris, the short, portly, proudly gay man who looked after the house. A full-fledged member of the Thieves, but no fighter, and certainly not one that would provide anything near what could be called resisting arrest. It broke Ellarie’s heart to think that the kind, soft-spoken fellow was likely killed just for sport.

The other deceased man was one of Lazlo’s crew and his description of having short brown hair and a shaggy beard meant it was either Errol or Bernarian. The Biddenhursters only spoke of having one dead man that matched those descriptors, which meant the other was the escapee they spoke of earlier.

Ami Rosia and either Errol or Bernarian, that’s all that managed to get away. Ellarie realised as the convoy started moving and began pulling away from the collapsing inferno.

Fourteen Thieves had arrived on Harris’ doorstep that evening. That sweet and gentle man had wined and dined them all at his table and given them his roof for the night. Now his home was gone, his life had ended, and all but two of his guests were either dead or captured.

The whole reason we were here was to counter a leak within the Thieves, Ellarie reminded herself. No one within the Elite Merchant Party should have known of the operation to rescue Orangecloak. A sickening thought crept in as she watched the second floor of the farmhouse cave in on the main level below it. Someone is still leaking information to the enemy.

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