Chapter 11 – Out of the tunnel, into the woods.
I RECEIVED YOUR LETTER. YOU CANNOT LIE TO ME CARTIALA. IT HAS BEEN FAR TOO LONG AND THE HASTE IS OBVIOUS IN YOUR WRITING.
JUST KNOW THIS. I AM DOING MY DUTY, WHAT YOU ASKED OF ME. GRUDGINGLY, BUT DOING IT ALL THE SAME.
BUT THE MOMENT THS TASK IS DONE, I AM COMING FOR YOU CARTIALA, AND NOTHING WILL STOP ME.
I WILL START AT THE TOWER YOU WERE BOUND FOR, AND IF –THE GODS UNWILLING- YOU ARE NOT THERE, I WILL SEARCH EVERY TOWER ON TOL… BECAUSE I KNOW IT’S THEM. I KNOW THEY HAVE YOU.
The long trek with Ymaine and three strangers was long, tedious and nerve-wracking for Greyden. Ymaine had long fallen into silence, following the suit of the remainder of his companions. Greyden found the silence both welcoming and yet foreboding. He was not in the mood for idle chatter, but then, at the same time, the silence brought with it a barrage of dark thoughts he’d rather not be pondering. The potential battle that awaited them had him on edge in particular.
There was an obvious lack of trust amongst all, and it poisoned the already thin air. Greyden had never once commanded a troop, big or small, who had such intense mistrust in each other. Back in the day the guardsmen were all well acquainted, friendly and trustworthy. He knew they would have his back, just as they had each other’s. But this group… What was to stop the thief running the second they were all caught in battle? Leaving them to their fates while she took her freedom and went? And the survivalist, Desmond- would he renege on their deal? Would he fight for the group in battle, or just for himself? Greyden didn’t even know anything about Stephen. He looked a measly man though. Could he fight, or would he flee? Even Ymaine, Greyden’s oldest friend, had been giving him shifty looks since the very start of the expedition. It had been a while since they had worked together, and Greyden had to admit, he himself had changed considerably since those days. Though they had only been travelling together for a brief time now, already the tension was beginning to crackle between the two. Though unspoken, it was as evident as ever.
It was some of the decisions he’d made, Greyden determined. That’s what the big man was stewing over. Back in the day, right and wrong had been easy. It had been whatever the council said it was, and the guard had just followed along happily. Since becoming an advisor, Greyden’s perspective on things had changed. Outside the black and white structure of the Carrumdale Guard things were very different. And though Ymaine was much older than Greyden himself, he had served the Guard since he was very young and had done nothing but.
Greyden stopped his train of thought suddenly with a shake of his head. What was he doing? Was he trying to justify himself? Was he trying to measure his opinion as better than that of his old friend?
Perhaps he himself was wrong. Perhaps he had lost his mind, and his decisions were poorly made, pointless and wrong. Was he being radical, as he suspected Ymaine thought?
Probably, Greyden surmised, though perhaps radical steps were what were needed. The message he carried was of the utmost importance after all. And a woman, his woman’s life was in danger…
What did he care really? It was just another action to feed into the many that made up the chaos. He would already be feeding the turmoil just by delivering this note. The politicians would read it, fight over it. Then the nobles would read it, fight over it. And finally the commoners would get to hear what was going on. Of course, they would fight over it too even though nothing they really said would ever matter anyway. The whole event would become a giant, angry, bloodbath of aggression, and then the elves would arrive while everyone was still arguing and kill them all.
Greyden sighed, and pinched his nose.
No, that’s not how it was going to happen. He was catastrophizing things again. He corrected his thoughts, with a deep sigh. He needed to think clearer than this. Decision making was best done when the mind was free of emotional cloud, and decision making was an important part of what made a leader… that, and confidence.
Saying that, Greyden had never felt less confident of his decisions in his life…
Similarly, he hadn’t much confidence in the current group either. He was overly aware of the disadvantage all of them being strangers posed. None of them had never truly fought together, and there was no trust, no knowledge of each other’s abilities. In Greyden’s experience, the team united was the team that triumphed. Though he was not completely hopeless, he worried as to how this group of misaligned strangers would fare in battle.
Greyden sighed again, dragging his thoughts back to the present. He was being overly morose at a critical time, a trait he would have chided any rookie guard for. Now was what was important, his worries could wait. He had to focus on the moment, lest he miss it.
Greyden continued along, rising his torch to better see the tunnel further ahead. Although at first he hadn’t minded the tunnels, he was now starting to agree with Ymaine. As they descended further the moisture increased, making the air sticky and the ground a little slippery. They had even started seeing the formation of stalagmites and stalactites. The air, at least, was getting a little easier to breathe, as they had started to ascend back upwards. This was of no comfort to Ymaine who, although had stopped verbally complaining, still squirmed uncomfortably beside the ex-captain. Greyden was starting to suspect that the man was a little claustrophobic, though he daren’t ask. At times Greyden thought his rather face a dragon than the big man when he was stubbornly defending his pride. Instead, he placed a reassuring hand on his old friend’s shoulder. The motion was approved, as the big man clasped his arm briefly in return.
Then, with a sudden blinking realisation, Greyden stopped. He hissed at the group to follow suit. Then, automatically, he pressed himself up against the dampened wall and extinguished his torch. The cavern was immediately plunged into an eternal blackness.
Another hiss from Greyden had Steven’s words faltering into silence.
Around him Greyden heard the rest of the group scrambling, probably following Greyden’s actions and flattening themselves against the wall – or so he hoped. He waited impatiently for the group to settle, before they all fell into silence. Around them the steady distant drip of the cavern’s moisture echoed off the walls, giving the haunting illusion of residing from every direction. But beyond that there was nothing – absolute silence.
‘What is it?’ Ymaine whispered from beside him, his voice a low growl.
Greyden didn’t reply, still straining his ears. His confidence faltered. Perhaps it had been nothing? Was he becoming too paranoid?
‘I swore I-’
‘Voices,’ Desmond interjected, his voice growing closer in the darkness, ‘ahead.’
Greyden still heard nothing, and once again found himself suspiciously stunned at the Survivalist’s impeccable hearing. There was no time for questions, though Ymaine certainly tried. Another louder, more impatient hiss from Greyden had the big man fall silent with a childish huff.
‘Desmond. What else can you tell?’
There was a moment of silence while the Survivalist pondered.
‘Three or four,’ he said after a while, ‘still a fair distance, though they are moving in our direction. We have time.’
‘Right,’ Greyden said, his mind ticking, ‘we have the upper hand-’
‘Can’t bloody believe they’d come in after us,’ Ymaine interrupted with a scoff, ‘They had the perfect position to ambush us. Why take the fight to us? I think he’s lying.’
‘And I think my sword could easily slice your idiot tongue from your mouth,’ Desmond hissed, ‘shall we see which of us is right?’
Greyden pinched the bridge of his nose with an irritated sigh.
‘They’re probably doing what they think we’re least likely to suspect,’ he said, cutting across Ymaine’s crude reply, ‘the smart thing would be to ambush us, so that’s what we’d be expecting. My guess is they’re hoping to surprise us by meeting us head on. I think we should turn it around. The element of surprise is potentially ours, if we utilise it correctly.’
‘So we ambush them?’ Steven surmised.
‘Shall I scout ahead and stake them out?’
Greyden almost jumped as the voice of Arlyne finally sounded. She had managed to soundlessly position herself in front of him, still invisible in the dark. After recovering from the initial shock, Greyden pondered over her request. She was certainly capable, and obviously confident, though seeing through the dark would be a task and a half. Lighting a torch would be far too risky as she approached their attackers. She’d have to rely heavily on her hearing and touch. Could she do it? Not only that, but could she get close enough to properly determine their outfit and effects?
And what was stopping her from simply sneaking past them and escaping by herself? Leaving the group to their fate and her to her freedom? The answer was clear- absolutely nothing. Yet he had trusted her with a blade so far, and had not yet lived to regret it. And she probably could have doubled back without their notice and snuck back past other possible pursuers. But she hadn’t. So far she had honoured their agreement to the letter. Still… the night was young, right?
No, Greyden thought, they were already a very rocky operation. She had proven herself thus far, and, no matter her past crimes, she had done nothing but assist them. Greyden was still dubious. It would be stupid to trust her so blindly, especially considering how they’d found her. Even if the guards were under the control of the Shadow guild, she’d clearly been involved in some shady dealings. Still, when he was Guard Captain, his one vice was to give everyone a chance, no matter their past or family ties.
Besides, they simply didn’t have the time to question trust.
Arlyne had waited patiently while Greyden pondered over her request. Or… Greyden assumed she had. There really was no telling what was doing on in such complete blackness.
Finally, he responded.
‘Okay go ahead,’ he drew in breath, hoping he’d not regret it, ‘But be careful. Find out as much as you can, but don’t push it. Don’t get caught, or seen. We don’t want to give away our advantage. And above all, come back.’
‘She left,’ Desmond said, a hint of amusement in his voice.
‘Greyden… Should we have sent the possible murderer off to scout?’ Ymaine asked, unable to hide the disapproval from his voice.
‘We are in no position to question our trust in one another now. Tensions are high, and she has yet to cross us yet. There are some things we must sometimes leave to chance.’
Ymaine cleared his throat and raised his voice slightly.
‘Silence your ox Greyden, less they hear us,’ Desmond warned over the big man’s objection.
Greyden could feel his old friend bristle beside him.
‘You! Take those swords of yours, and-’
‘Enough!’ Greyden hissed before Ymaine could reveal what Desmond should do with his swords, ‘we are about to engage in battle. This is no time for petty bickering!’
The four men fell into silence.
‘She’s no murderer,’ Steven said after a while, his voice clearly strained and shaking with anger.
‘Okay, case closed!’ Greyden insisted, cutting off Ymaine for the thousandth time.
Some leadership abilities, he thought bitterly. He couldn’t even keep this group quiet in the wake of an attack. Would they even reach Capita? Or would he successfully run them all into the ground, just as he had himself?
He fingered the bridge of his nose once again in frustration. Damn himself and damn the lot of them! Thank the gods such a travelling arrangement was only temporary. Otherwise they’d all tear each other apart before long.
Silence fell again, while Greyden turned his mind back to their position, trying to determine the best way to set up an ambush. He knelt down, unshouldering his pack. It took a brief scramble in the dark for him to find the necessary tools to relight his torch. He suspected the enemy was still far enough that the light would not give away their position, plus, he really needed to better assess their surroundings. From memory they had been about to step out into another cavern. They’d need that, especially considering their unfamiliarity with each other’s fighting style. Greyden knew that Ymaine alone could accidently lob his head off if confined in such a small fighting space. The big man had always been an ‘attack first, think later’ sort of fighter. And he could just see the irate survivalist taking the opportunity to ‘accidently’ take a swing or two at Ymaine.
Finally Greyden’s torch blazed into life and the walls lit up in succession. Greyden reshouldered his pack, leapt to his feet and took a look around. First he did a quick check on his companions, making sure they hadn’t silently killed one another within the last few minutes. Three relatively grumpy, but alive faces stared back at him. Good.
Greyden then turned to survey their surroundings. Indeed his memory had served him a correct image of their future battlefield. Just a few paces ahead was an opening to what looked like a small cavern. Greyden strode cautiously forward. He had to duck slightly to enter the chamber, as the ceiling dipped sharply before opening out into the vast expanse. Behind him, a loud crack, followed by a string of curses indicated that Ymaine had not been as attentive.
As he strode deeper into the cavern the group splayed out around him. The cavern was large, but small enough that Greyden’s light managed to illuminate the majority of its contents. Over the other side an entranceway just as small and narrow as the one they had just walked though resided.
Desmond raised his arm to point at the tunnel.
‘We strike from there.’
It was more of a statement than a question, but Greyden nodded in agreement anyway.
‘One either side of the entranceway. We’ll use the darkness. Maybe let one of our attackers through a little of the way in before we strike so the other will still follow. Maybe we take two out without alerting the others,’ he added, scratching his stubble thoughtfully.
‘Then back off as to draw the others in,’ Ymaine contributed, ‘the two remaining men should go down easy.’
‘And if the others run instead?’ Desmond challenged.
‘We let them go,’ he said simply.
Desmond raised an incredulous eyebrow.
‘So they can devise another plan of attack? Or go for reinforcements?’ Oh yes. That’s a good idea.’
‘They’d be mad to attack us again. We’d more than double them in numbers by that stage,’ Ymaine argued.
‘Wasn’t it you who said they’d be mad to take the fight to us- and what are they now doing? Never underestimate the power of true stupidity,’ Desmond shot back, ‘I say we give chase, and do not rest until the threat is properly dealt with.’
Greyden shook his head at the Survivalists proposition.
‘Enough blood has been spilt over this. I won’t attack someone who is surrendering or retreating.’
Ymaine made a noise of agreement at his side, but Desmond sneered.
‘Fine, if you wish things harder for yourselves in the long run, so be it.’
He drew both his swords and moved to stalk over to the other side of the cavern, clearly disgruntled and muttering angrily to himself.
‘I think the Survivalist is right,’ Steven said, moving to stand at Greyden’s other side.
Greyden sighed for what seemed like the millionth time that day.
‘So do I- to a degree,’ he said neutrally, ‘then to another degree, I do not.’
Steven did not ask the ex-captain to explain himself further, and so Greyden gladly refrained from doing so. Instead, he proceeded with their makeshift plan.
‘Desmond and I will strike at the first two-’
‘Why is he getting first strike? I still think he’s lying, Greyden. There’s no way he can properly determine exactly how many people there are and how far away they are. It’s impossible. I can’t hear a bloody thing!’
‘He was right before,’ Greyden reasoned, trying to remain even tempered.
‘He was lucky.’
‘We’ll see when Arlyne returns,’ Greyden said, in an attempt to close the subject. He had to admit though, he was becoming increasingly aware of her continued absence.
‘If she returns,’ Ymaine mumbled, mirroring Greyden’s thoughts.
Greyden fought the urge to throttle the man.
‘I chose Desmond for first strike because he seems the most agile,’ Greyden explained, remembering the Survivalist’s acrobatic displays when they had first descended down into the tunnels, ‘while he’s dealing with the first, I’ll go for the second. Once we’ve pulled the first two aside you go down the middle and engage the remainder.’
‘We better tell him that,’ Ymaine said, glaring at the Survivalist, who had already positioned himself next to the tunnel opening on the other side of the cavern.
Greyden looked at him too and their gaze met, though his face was mostly overshadowed by the poor light.
‘I have a feeling he can already hear us,’ Greyden said, not taking his gaze from the man, but starting to frown in thought.
Ymaine simply grunted.
‘I know that he’s questionable,’ Greyden continued, ‘but we’re paying him, and I don’t think he’s the type to break contract and risk not getting paid.’
‘Questionable is one way of putting it,’ Ymaine huffed, folding his arms, ‘But I suppose not.’
Feeling the big man’s anger ebb away Greyden tried at a smile.
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘the quicker we get to Foxwick, the quicker we can drown ourselves in mead and forget about everything.’
‘Here here,’ Ymaine said with a growl of approval.
The two started off towards the other side of the cavern with Steven silently in tow, just as Desmond signalled with a motion of his hand. Greyden hoped that meant the return of Arlyne. He was pleased to see the petit woman appear in the entranceway.
He made his way over to her and she threw a battered looking sword at his feet.
‘It’s as the Survivalist says,’ she began, ‘four guardsmen. All men about your size’ –she nodded directionally at Greyden- ‘All in official uniform- breast plate, and standard weaponry.’
‘Right,’ Greyden nodded, vastly familiar with the standard kit used by the Janwall guard. At least there would be no unfortunate surprises in the way of weaponry.
‘And what’s this?’
Greyden stooped down to pick up the sword. Up close it was steady, balanced and well-made, but had fallen to some series lack of upkeep and neglect. He almost shuddered at the owner’s lack of discipline.
‘A trophy,’ Arlyne said with a sly grin, ‘as is this… this… these…’ From her coin purse she had started pulling out an assortment of coins, rings, gems and other knick-knack type items. ‘And this…’ She motioned towards a dagger which she’d strapped in place against her thigh, counterbalancing Desmond’s dagger which had been strapped to her other leg.
Greyden and Ymaine exchanged incredulous glances.
‘Of course,’ Greyden said dryly, though he felt slightly heartened at the thought that one man now unknowingly had no weapon.
He’d have to watch for that one. He wasn’t about to assault an unarmed man.
When it was clear that Arlyne was done with her report Greyden began to fill her in on their makeshift plan.
Arlyne nodded along, but, like Steven and Desmond had, regarded Greyden quizzically when he mentioned not perusing any fleeing parties.
‘Is that wise?’ She queried, ‘their first call will likely be for reinforcements.’
‘Why not,’ Desmond interjected, ‘let’s invite them all down here. We’ll have tea.’
‘Eugh,’ Greyden grunted, in earnestly the best response he could muster, before continuing.
‘If what you say of the tunnels is true, we are nearing the exit,’ he figured, ‘we should be out before any reinforcements can make it back. If not, we can deal with it.’
Arlyne shrugged, ‘it is an action which potentially poses further risk to us, but I can understand your motives from a moral standpoint. It is good to avoid unnecessary killings.’
Greyden blinked, surprised at her momentarily. Though he had fully doubted that she was some psychotic mass murderer -as Ymaine had been frequently whispering in his ear- he had not seen her as someone who would fully understand and accept his morals. Even Greyden himself had to admit that there were risks involved with just simply letting the enemy run. But those men potentially had friends, wives, children… Those were the people who would really suffer.
Putting it from his mind, Greyden quickly hurried along with the remainder of his plan. He was nearing the end of his explanation when Desmond hissed.
‘Silence! Less they hear us!’
It was a clear indication that the guardsmen were now within listening range, or so Greyden supposed. He let the end of his plan trail off, confident that Arlyne could work out the remainder herself. She and Steven were to back up Ymaine. Greyden had purposely placed them at the back as Steven was clearly the measliest of the men and Arlyne was still noticeably limping from her time in captivity. She accepted his words without question. And Greyden found it almost amusing that, of all of them, she was the one who had unquestioningly accepted his leadership. Was she really operating under the notion that she owed him for freeing her? She did not seem the type. Or maybe, more reasonably, she just figured that there was no time to argue – A lesson Greyden wished she’d teach Ymaine.
Greyden motioned for Ymaine, Arlyne and Steven to flatten themselves against the wall as he and Desmond had. Ymaine hurried over to Greyden’s side, while Arlyne and Steven went to Desmond’s. As if in unison, they all drew their weapons.
They spent the next few moments in silence, their eyes flicking to one another in turn, before the subtle, distant sound of voices finally reached them. Greyden strained his ears, trying to catch snippets of their conversation… trying to gauge their distance…
‘…yeah but th’ quicker we get them guys, th’ quicker we get our coin, so stop ye moaning.’
‘I still think this is stupid,’ another voice complained, ‘stupid idea.’
‘Well I ain’t caring what ye think,’ the first speaker said again.
‘Will all of you shut up?’ A new speaker growled.
Infighting. Good. A possible sign that they were just as ineffective at team work.
Their bickering continued, touching briefly on each other’s appearance, wives and mothers, before doing a full circle back to their situation.
‘Ye know the ropes right? Kill ‘em all but th’ girly.’
‘Yes, yes,’ the another grumbled.
‘Jus’ so I know. I can’t have ye stuffin’ up me reward.’
Their footsteps grew clear and louder, the echo reverberating around the cavern.
Closer… Closer... . Greyden’s sword hand twitched with the anticipation. Closer…
They were very close now, their voices loud and coherent. Greyden shared a brief look with Desmond, looking for a sign that the Survivalist was ready. He gave no other motion other than a piercing glare and an eyebrow raise. That was good enough for Greyden . He quickly smothered his torch, plunging the cavern once more into darkness, and placed it upon the ground out of the way. Then, he changed up his stance for a more comfortable striking position. He stood still, his breath caught in his throat. Watching… Waiting…
The doorway was now emitting a faint glow, illuminated by the guard’s torchlight. They were very close. Greyden could almost hear them breathing. Their conversation had now become bedlam to his ears as his mind conditioned itself, prepared itself. There was the loud, confirming, crunch of boot upon dirt, and the glow erupted into a flame as the torch came through the doorway. A long, plated, arm followed after it.
Greyden drew in a sharp breath.
The first man entered through the doorway, still in a distractingly heated debate with his unseen companion a few steps behind. A split second later the second man followed, within merely inches of the first. It couldn’t have been more perfect. They were still entirely oblivious, to Greyden’s presence, but it wouldn’t last. The darkness worked well to shelter him and his companions, but these guards were not complete fools. They would notice soon enough. It was time to act.
Greyden braced himself, testing his grip on his sword, slowly releasing the build-up of exhale he had forgotten to release.
He exchanged a brief glace with Desmond under the flicker of the enemy’s firelight, unspoken words passing between them.
Then, they struck.