Cecelia was far, far from Reason, and she hated it.
She had her plate, at least, enchanted with the same heating runes that kept her warm in Central Sylvania's chilly spring, and a covered wagon to ride in to spare her legs and back, but she really, really wanted to be inside a ton of steel and more esoteric components forged by her own hand.
“You've got that look again,” Morris said, grabbing the wagon's tailboard and hopping up into it, moving easily in his own armor. “That look like you just sat on a hedgehog. Why the resting bitchface?”
The bastard had hit level 25 recently, and loved showing off one of his top skills that let him move around like his armor was weightless. Cecelia ignored that, and answered his question. “I miss my Steam Knight suit.”
“Fff. No way you'd get that to the front in one piece. Even if you had the coal to make the trip, the rangers would be on it like Zara on a cute noble boy. Better to let them ship it piece by piece with the waystoners.”
“Like they could do anything to me while I was wearing it.” She muttered.
“They can, Dame Ragandor.”
Cecelia sat bolt upright, twisted around and snapped her fist to her chest with a CLANG as gauntlet met breastplate. “Sergeant Sir!”
“At ease.” Out of his helm, Sergeant Tane's face was solid and square, with a crooked nose broken long ago and never set right. Framed with blonde hair, rapidly receding from a high forehead, the man resembled nothing so much as an old lion. His eyes flickered as he glanced around the four trainees, now full knights, that rode in the back of the wagon.
Behind him, the cloth separating the teamsters from their human cargo was loose, and Cecelia could see the horses, and between them, the road ahead, misty and muddy from the rain that had been falling for the last two days.
“They don't hit you where you're strong,” he said, keeping his voice low so they had to strain to hear over the raindrops. “They come in the night, or in weather like this. When you're sleeping, or exhausted from slogging through mud, or out taking a shit just past the perimeter. That's when the arrows come, or the blades flash, and if you're a soft target you're dead, and then they're gone as quickly as they came. You can't touch them in the woods, you can't find them when they want to hide, and they would love to bring home the head and helm of one of His Majesty's Knights.”
Next to Cecelia, Lana tensed up. “Don't we have scouts? I thought they were good in the woods.”
“Yeah. Which is why you have to be a top scout to be a ranger, along with some other stuff nobody knows except for them.” Kayin spoke up. “That's the rumor I heard, anyway.”
“And none of our scouts are at the top of their field anymore,” Tane confirmed. “When the traitor Jericho deserted almost five years back, he took our best and brightest assets in that job with him. The ones we've trained up since get targeted by his resistance. So never assume that you're safe, not here in the wilds, not in camp, not until you're at the front. Keep your eyes open, keep a buddy in sight at all times, and whenever you're out of armor I want Always In Uniform up.”
“I've got some scout training, sir.” Cecelia offered. “I could take an extra shift, borrow a horse and ride perimeter-”
“Absolutely not,” Tane said.
Cecelia blinked. “It wouldn't be any-”
“Did I stutter, Dame?” His eyes bored into her. Cecelia met them...
...and managed to keep from looking away.
“You know why, Dame Ragandor,” Tane said, his voice barely audible enough to hear.
She did. It was because she was her father's heir. “Yes sir. Doesn't mean I like it.”
He smiled then, grudging respect in his eyes. “I do. Have patience, your time will come at the front. As you were, knights.” He returned to the front of the wagon, buttoning up the cloth separator as he went.
As it turned out, her time came way sooner than that.
Cecelia's eyes snapped open, and she didn't know why. Then training kicked in. “Always in Uniform.” She sat up, feeling the air solidify around her, and peered around the tent. Firelight shown through the walls of it, flickering in the glow, and for the second, all seemed still.
But the flap was open. It hadn't been, when she went to sleep. She sat up, sliding a dagger into her hand as she went-
-and her face brushed against something crinkly.
She froze, as it rustled against her face, then felt with her free hand, groping into she had it. A tug pulled it away from the thread it was tied to. Cecelia could just make it out in the firelight, a crumpled wad of parchment.
“Appraise,” she hissed. No traps showed up. It was a simple parchment note. She tucked into her sleeping bag, taking the note with her, and said “Glowgleam.” It took a bit to dial down the light to where it shouldn't be visible from her tent. (And also to keep it from blinding her too badly.)
The note was very simple. It said
GO SOUTH TO PADS VILLAGE IF YOU WANT TO SEE THE TRUTH OF YOUR KINGDOM, DAME RAGANDOR
Cecelia's breath whistled between her teeth. She read it again, just to make sure she was understanding it correctly, then killed the glowgleam.
Wide awake now, she pushed out of the tent, dagger in hand, peering around-
-and then the screaming started.
Three of the wagons burst into flames, and for a second there were glowing red stars falling out of the night...
Mordecai had told her about those, once. An archer skill. Fire arrows coming out of the woods meant-
“Rangers!” She shouted. “We're under attack! Able bodies get those fires out! Noncombatants take shelter! Go go go!” She didn't know where the officer in charge was, and it didn't matter. They'd order the same thing, she was sure.
Then the horses screamed, as the falling arrows swept toward them, and she gasped as she saw the caravan's steeds fleeing for all they were worth. But how? They'd been tied earlier, she'd even helped-
She thought back to the paper in her tent. That was how. She shut up and helped with the bucket brigade, until Sergeant Tane relieved her, and told her to go suit up. “We're keeping watch until dawn. You can sleep in the wagon.”
Unquestioning, she headed out to the perimeter, whispering “Keen Eye” as she went. Which is why she spotted the body first.
In the morning, the tally was final, and devastating. A third of the horses had been lost in the night. The two wagons worth of food had been mostly burned, doused with oil before the flaming arrows fell, less than a quarter of their ration boxes could be salvaged.
And of the seven scouts and three mercenary guards who had been tasked to keep the perimeter, two were corpses and the rest were gone like they'd never been.
“Haven't you slept yet?” Graves asked, concerned. He was the oldest of her squad besides Sergeant Tane, a thickly-built man in his early thirties. He kept a white-streaked goatee, a neatly-trimmed mustache, and a friendly smile on his face at all times. “You really should turn in, it's bad for your pools.”
It was easy to forget he'd transferred in from the necromancer corps, after some hushed-up-but- probably horrible scandal. But he was a knight now, and he'd sweated harder than Celia to get into shape and survived the proportionately-harder tests that Tane threw at him, so none of that mattered to the squad. It was pretty certain that Graves wasn't his real name, too.
“I've got a scout skill that helps me not sleep,” Celia replied, scanning the road to both sides as she tucked the little metal device back into her pouch. The rain was still falling, but it had slowed. So had they, though. Most of the remaining wagons were down to one horse apiece.
“Must be nice. I could do all sorts of training if I never had to worry about sleep.” He smiled. “Figured I'd end like that eventually, I suppose. I thought I'd be a lich someday. If they exist, I mean. I was going to be the one to discover it.”
“It's not perfect,” she confessed, leaning against the backboard, feeling her armor settle against her spine. “Every extra hour I spend awake now I pay for later. Going to crash hard.”
“Does the Sergeant know you're doing this?”
“I cleared it through him first,” she sighed. This wasn't the first time one of the Squad had asked her this question, and she found their lack of faith disturbing. She ran her fingers along her black plate helm, before sliding it back onto her head. The rain pattered against it, instead of her sodden hair. It'd take a fair amount of polishing, when she was finally out of it.
“Mm,” Graves grunted. He coughed, spat into the mud. “Listen. I've... asked the others. Now I'll ask you.”
“Ask me what?”
He nodded toward the back of the wagon, and she followed, unbuttoning the blanket and leaving the weary teamster to do his job.
“I've got a skill. From my old job,” Graves said, stretching out his hand, palm up. “Soulstone.” A solid black crystal materialized.
Cecilia nodded. “Me too. Appraise.”
“Enchanter, right? I was going to learn that one at some point.”
“Among other things.” She looked it over. “It's empty. Level one crystal? Huh, Gemcutters could get some use out of it, but...”
“Yeah. It shatters if it's used in crafting, unless it's full.”
“So what-” The answer came to her. “It holds souls. Of course it does. Why are you offering it to me?”
“Well...” Graves chewed on his lip. “I was going to pitch this to the squad at the front, before we went into battle. But we've got rangers after us now, so... look. We might die here. If they're serious about killing us and we slip up, we're dead.”
She thought of her tent, slit open in the night, and a piece of parchment that had been left behind.
They don't want me dead, she knew. But she didn't know why.
Then the second part of the answer came to her. “Wait. You want to catch our souls in those if we die?”
Graves nodded. “I do.”
“I've got another spell that lets me and anyone around me speak to spirits. It'd give you a chance to say goodbye to people, and wrap up any last-minute business you've got unfinished.” He shrugged. “Not everyone gets that opportunity. I've spoken with a lot of undead that got themselves ghosted because of dying regrets. I don't want to see that happen to any of you. Let's be honest, we may not entirely be friends, but you're the closest thing I've got these days.” He smiled.
“What are soulstones really used for?”
“I know enough about necromancy to know most of it isn't very nice. They've got to have other uses.”
He sighed. “They do. In a pinch, if there's a corpse or remains but no spirit hanging around, I could use a soulstoned spirit to power it instead. That would use up the spirit, put it in the undead.”
“Would it be me in there? If that happened?”
“If it were a wight or a mummy, maybe, but I'm only twelfth level. You'd be stuck in a lesser undead's body, unable to control it or do anything.” He blinked. “If I did that. Which I wouldn't.”
His eyes flicked to the side as he said that.
“Did you tell the others about that part of it?” Cecelia asked, staring into his eyes, leaning in closer. “Or did that little bit get left out?”
Graves blinked. “They... they didn't ask. Look, if you don't want to, okay-”
“How many accepted?”
“Half the squad.”
“Go tell them.”
“Go tell them about this part of it. See if they're still okay with it then.”
“What? Why? I wouldn't use them as zombie fodder, that's just... you don't...”
“Tell them. I'll go with you.”
He hesitated, and sweat rolled down his face, a drop at a time.
“We tell them now, or I tell the Sergeant,” She guessed, fishing for a reaction.
She got one. The man blanched. “Fine.” Graves said, his smile long gone. “Come on, let's get this over with.”
They did, going from Renick, to Lana, to Morris. Lana blanched, then thought it over. "Sure, okay. Just promise me it won't come to that." Graves did.
Morris shrugged and laughed. “If you zombify me just put me outta my misery quick, okay old man? Dead's dead.”
Renick just smiled, and patted Graves' shoulder. “It's fine. I trust you.”
That had almost floored the older man. He simply nodded, and his mouth worked a bit, before he thanked Renick.
As Graves walked away, Cecelia walked with him. “I didn't expect that,” Graves finally managed.
“Yeah. And my answer's yes.”
“Yes, you can soulstone me.”
He stared at her. “I thought you wouldn't... why did you...”
“You're used to not being trusted, I get that. It's why you left out some of the details that would make your suggestion sound sinister. I know you're not going to torment us or do something stupid like that. I trust you. But I wanted to make sure you trusted the others enough to give them the full story. This doesn't work if we don't all trust each other, if we don't have each other's backs, Sir Graves. And now they know you have theirs, and more importantly, you know they've got yours.”
Besides, the cynical part of her added, If you stick me in a zombie my father will fucking kill you.
But that part she didn't share with him. Graves smiled, and thumped his chest with a clang that made the nearest drovers jump. “You're going to be a hell of a queen someday. I look forward to serving you, milady.”
And that drove it in.
She WOULD be Queen someday, if she didn't die first.
All this, all these people, all this land... she'd have to worry about it. Rule it.
Her father had unlocked Ruler for her, recognized her as his heir, but asked her to refrain from taking the job just yet. And she had obeyed, as she'd sworn to. She'd thought it was because he didn't trust her with it yet. Because he thought she couldn't handle the responsibility.
But what if it was because he was sparing her from the full weight of it? What if he was giving her what time he could? What if it was his version of mercy?
Her thoughts a whirl, she gave Grave's pauldron a light punch, smiled, and headed back to watch the perimeter while they settled in to secure the camp for the night.
She woke in the back of the wagon, feeling like she'd just been through winter as a bear. The aftermath of Wakeful Wandering was always like that.
In the distance she heard Tane's voice rising through the rain. Stretching out the kinks, feeling like she'd been tumbled down a hill, she slid down from the wagon and waddled her way through the mud. The Sergeant nodded at her as she joined the rest of the squad, and saluted. The others didn't spare her a glance, which told her right away it was serious.
“To sum up, for our late riser, we've got five days of travel and one day of food left. We're out in the middle of nowhere and we aren't far away from the last ranger ambush to risk foraging. They haven't hit us since, but the Captain's assessment is that they won't pass up a chance to pick off more personnel if split up and try to hunt. Which leaves requisitioning food from the local villages. The rangers don't involve civilians in their treason or put them at risk, so that should be safe. It'll delay us, but there's no help for that. Dame Ragandor, are you rested well enough to lead a three-man task force?”
That surprised her. Then her stomach growled. Loudly. Morris fought to keep from laughing, and Zara failed completely, snickering through her visor. “Yes sir. I ah, could use a ration beforehand. If we can spare one.”
“Very good. You've got the Northern road then.” Tane's face was stonier than usual. Was he trying to keep from laughing? “I'll take the other three south-”
South, the parchment had said. “Actually, sir, do you mind if I take the southern route?”
Tane raised an eyebrow. “The hell difference does it make?”
“I think I might know someone down that way. If we're where I think we are.”
“And where do you think we are, Dame?” Tane's voice gave warning. He hadn't liked being interrupted.
So she gambled. “If we're north of Pads village, then we're where I think we are.”
That surprised him. “Who the hell do you know- nevermind. Yes, you've got south then. I'll be taking Renick and Lana and Zara. The rest of you are under your acting commander. Go saddle up.”
The Knight's horses had been battle trained, and spared the worst of the stampede. Cecelia, who didn't have one, got the loan of one of the more steady draft horses, a stout loaf of bread baked with dried meat and vegetables, a waterskin, and a couple of minutes to eat her ration bar before they departed. She used the rain to soften the tough comestible, and chased it down with slugs of water. The stuff was horrible, but eventually the hungry condition evaporated from her status screen, and that was all she asked of it.
“Horsemanship,” she muttered, as she vaulted up into the draft horse's saddle. It stamped and trotted uneasily, unused to being directly mounted. She soothed it as she could, as it bucked and turned, trying to convince her to get back down. “Oh stop that. Here... Favored Mount.” It felt weird to be saying that when she wasn't riding Reason, but it did the trick well enough, and the horse settled as her buff rolled over it.
No skill up this time, which was a pity. She really needed more practice with this one. It was a level 15 skill and she'd only been that level for a few months.
Once she was sure of it, she dismounted and lead it over to the other knights, already kneeling in a circle, the old ritual, the familiar custom. Without saying a word she knelt, until Tane nodded. Eight blades hissed free from sheathes, and eight helms pressed against the hilts as they held the swords out, points down before them.
“Our Code to mind, our foes to fall,” Tane said, as the rain slicked down his armor.
“To Gods, King, and Crown, we owe our all,” the rest of the Knights chorused in unison.
“Obey royal decrees of the land, against the loyal raise no hand,” Tane spoke, as thunder rolled in the distance.
“Obey the King, shield the weak. Let no treason our lips speak.” The rest finished, Cecelia joining in happily.
This was truly what separated them from other warrior jobs... the Knight's skill, Code of Chivalry. Other jobs could fight, sure, but knights always fought for something. And whatever code they chose when they began their career, the longer they kept to it, the more it gave them.
In Cecelia's case, what it gave her was a nice round buff of thirty to all her defenses. Most of the other trainees had more, thanks to higher levels in the class. But all it took was one slip, and the skill reset back down to one, and her buff fell to nothing.
Graves and Kayin and Morris fell in behind her as she left the camp, riding down the swampy, well-used road south.
“So who the hell do you know in Pads?” Kayin said, finally. “That's the sticks, the middle of nowhere.”
“I'd rather not say,” Cecelia said. “It's possible they're not there anymore. And uh, they might not be... on the right side of things. We might have to fight them.”
If this was Mordecai trying to get back in contact with her, then he definitely wasn't on the right side. But she didn't want him captured and tortured again. This was... complicated.
She couldn't let the opportunity pass by, though. Someone had risked a lot to deliver that message to her. What did they want her to see?
The rain slackened as they rode, but the sky remained soggy gray, wet wool gray, and the road twisted, taking them past stockaded farmsteads.
“So how does this work?” Kayin asked, after they passed the third steading. “Should we be going up and knocking on doors?”
“No,” Cecelia shook her head. “Per the Articles of the Cylvanian accord, any order of military requisition must be presented to the local lord. This place will have a Baron, or something. We'll talk to him.”
“Really?” Morris said, sneering as they passed a field full of serfs digging in loose rows, muddy faces brown and open mouths pink as they stared at the passing knights. “And how will we know which one's the Baron?”
“He'll be the one who isn't totally covered in shit,” Graves said, and the Knights laughed. Celia didn't.
The fields were big, and looked well-kept. But everyone in that field was scrawny and thin. Most of them were moving slowly, and a few looked far, far too old to be out there.
Sure, it was Spring and they'd just gotten through a long winter, but... a farm that size should be able to provide for everyone there.
Something was off.
Three hours down the muddy road, they finally came to Pads. It was little more than a collection of a few dozen huts, on the edge of a forest. Smoke billowed up from smokeholes, all save for five chimneys, all on the same house. It squatted on the highest hill, the only building in the village made of stone, sprawling and painted, with high walls around a grove of carefully-kept trees.
“There's the noble,” Cecelia said. “Has to be.”
“Those are peach trees,” Kayin said, frowning. “Weird choice.”
“Why's that?” Morris asked.
“They don't grow well in this part of the valley. They must take a wicked amount of care to get that big.”
“Eh, maybe they've got a Kossite cleric running the show or something,” Morris shrugged. “More for us to take back for the convoy, then, if that's the case. Come on, let's get this over with.”
“I'm sorry, it's simply out of the question,” Baron Colm Comfort said. “We have no reserves left after the winter. We simply cannot spare enough to make a difference.”
“I see.” Cecelia turned from the portly man to look over the sitting room, adorned with a random assortment of fine goods. Mismatched candlesticks of gold and silver clashed next to chairs and couches of all makes, each of them made with the finest cloth and craftsmanship. Paintings of everything from flowers to landscapes to people adorned the walls.
It didn't match, and Cecelia thought she knew why. “Why don't you tell us how much you can spare, and we'll decide if it's enough to make a difference.”
The Baron rubbed his face, sending his three chins wobbling. “Well, I, er, I'd have to consult my ledger. Check the storehouse. That would take some time, and I don't know if I'd want to delay you so long-”
“Oh, it's no trouble,” Cecelia said. “The convoy's not going anywhere without food. But they can last a day or two without us. I trust you have no problem with us staying the night while you check.”
Oh, he didn't like that at all. But nonetheless, he offered a smile that showed rotten teeth. “I'll see what I can do. Yes, certainly.”
“We'll go hunting while you do that, see if we can scrape up something so you don't have to stretch as far. I trust you've a spare room or something we can store our armor in? It's hard to sneak up on game in full plate, after all.”
Kayin inhaled sharply, next to her. She heard Morris shift, felt the intensity of his gaze on her.
The Baron's mouth closed, and the older man stared at her, gears turning behind his eyes. “Of course. Would you like me to send my huntsman along with you?”
“Absolutely. Just give us some privacy to shuck out of our armor, and we'll be happy to follow your man into the woods.”
“Of course, of course. Right this way!”
The Baron's basement was full of kegs and racks full of wine and ale.
“Cecelia?” Morris asked. “Do you know what you're doing here?”
“Mostly.” Cecelia frowned. “Did you ever see that much gold in your life?”
“No way he's come by that honestly,” Kayin said, “but is it any business of ours?”
“He was trying to get us out of here pretty quickly,” Graves rubbed his goatee. “Why?”
“Hiding food, obviously,” Morris snickered. “Probably in his gut.”
“That's part of it. I need to see his ledger.” Cecelia nodded. “And I want to give him a chance to try to kill us.”
Silence fell over the basement.
“Wait, what?” Morris asked.
Kayin grinned. “I like it.”
“How loud are we going, here?” Graves asked.
“Depends on how he plays it,” Cecelia decided.
Morris looked between the other three knights, confused. “Did I miss something?”
Cecelia grinned. “Not really. Here's the plan...”
Baron Colm Comfort hadn't gotten to the age he was by taking chances. But this one... this one was less of a chance, and more of a free meal.
They'd come right to him. And then they'd even taken off their armor...
Pity about the horses, but he couldn't risk anyone checking after them, now could he? He'd wait until nightfall and send four of the lads south into the woods, wearing their armor and riding their horses. The mouthbreathing serfs wouldn't know any different. Then the lads could come back with the armor, and the horses would be set free to roam.
Armor could be disenchanted and sold. Horses couldn't.
He stretched out a hand to touch it... and drew it back. It was a little too neat. He had to be sure.
Up to the top of the house then, peering through the spyglass he'd gotten, watching the woods. He wasn't lying when he told them his huntsman Jacob was the best at his job. They just hadn't asked what Jacob's job was. Not that Colm would have told them it anyway. Bandit was a much-maligned profession.
Twelve minutes later, he saw glass wink against the sun, from one of the tallest trees in the eastern forest. He smiled, fanning himself with a fine silken fan, before closing it with a “Snap.” Knights out of armor versus two dozen well-trained bandits, striking from ambush. It had ended in the only way possible.
Hells, the best of them were up to level seven. Against four unarmored young knights? No chance for the youths at all.
Then he started in surprise. There were forms moving out of the forest. Stepping from the shadows of the trees, heading toward the hill, toward the manner. “What the devils?” Colm said, bringing the spyglass around and focusing in on the oncoming group.
And his heart fluttered, as he recognized them.
Those were Jacob's band. Only they were moving slowly, drunkenly...
...and, as the Baron watched blood ooze down from one's face, to fall down slack lips, he realized that they were pretty beaten up. In fact, given their visible injuries, they looked, well, dead.
Realization struck him, and he bolted to his feet, hurried downstairs, wheezing all the way. A trap! It had been bait, and he'd fallen for it! They had backup out of town, somewhere, and the ambush had been ambushed!
He got down to the basement, locking the door behind him, and went to the wine rack, pulling a bottle out of a certain spot, and hearing the mechanism groan and shudder, before the wall opened up. Beyond lay the darkness of his escape route, and the choicest of his treasures.
But, then... he could get some small measure of vengeance before he went, and get a few more reagents and crystals for his trip, now couldn't he?
He turned back to the suits of armor piled in the corner, smiling-
-and found them standing, swords leveled at him.
“What? What is this?” He bellowed, stepping backwards toward the tunnel.
A mouth formed on one of the helms. “Before I was a knight, I was an animator,” Cecelia spoke. “I animated these before we left the basement. Then it was Dollseye to let me see through my animi and Magic Mouth to tell you exactly how screwed you are.”
“I see! You've animated all four of them. And one of you's a necromancer too, to raise my men!”
“Obvious, really. You've been working with the local bandits, preying on the trade routes,” Cecelia's voice filled the room, as the armor advanced in unison, slowly. The fat Baron backed up, step by step as they came. “What sort of man does that? Not one that pays his honest taxes, or looks after his serfs. You've been stealing, stealing from the crown, and stealing from your own people.”
“I did what I had to!” The Baron roared. “The Crown? Don't make me laugh! The Crown takes its taxes and leaves us to our own devices! Everything goes to the war effort now, and nobody guards the roads or the settlements! They don't care if monsters attack us, or if bandits prey on us. There is no help for the weak! The only way to survive is to be strong ourselves, and everything this village has, every day it survives it owes to me and to my friends... who you just slaughtered.” Colm sneered. “But you won't take me! I know animi. Animi can fight, but they're not great at it.” He stopped walking, sneering now, feeling his confidence return. “I can get to them, and all it'll take is one touch to disenchant each one. I'll survive and they'll be dust. What of your precious armor then, hm?”
“They might be slow, yes,” Cecilia spoke as the armor clanked on with endless patience, “but I've got a friend, and she's quick as death. That's the name for it, right?”
“Fast as Death,” spoke a voice behind the Baron and he jumped, whirled to see Kayin behind him, a pair of knives in her hands and a mad grin on her face. “Got you, fat boy.”
“What? How... I saw you leave!”
“Yeah. And you didn't see me sneak back after we beat the shit out of your huntsman. He spilled your plans. You saw the mirror, right? He was really eager to cooperate after Cecelia animated his pants and started up the nutcracker special.”
Feet upstairs, thumping on the door. A distant groaning, that he knew from experience in his younger adventuring days. Zombies.
“You've met our assassin. She's the least of your worries. Before he was a knight, Graves was a necromancer,” Cecelia continued. “If you don't surrender we'll kill you, he'll tuck your soul into something horrible, and you'll be trapped in a rotting shell forever.”
“Animator, Necromancer, Assassin... Who the hell are you people?” Colm shrieked. “Next you'll be telling me that dopey-looking youth with you was a goddamn model!”
“No, he's just a knight. Twenty-five levels worth,” Cecelia said. “Unfortunately for your bandits.”
The Baron's mouth shut. He hastily reassessed the odds.
“Good boy,” said Cecelia. “Now let's talk about food again...”
Sergeant Tane blinked, as he watched the four wagons roll in from the south. Yoked to the fattest oxen he'd ever seen, each one of them was laden to the brim with bags, and each one had a grinning Knight sitting on the buckboard, guiding them in.
“You're late,” he said, glancing up to the darkening sky... then down to the bound, fat figure in the last wagon. “Who the fuck is that?”
“The former Baron of Pads,” Cecelia said. “Guilty by his own admission, and his own records, of theft, treason against the crown, and preying upon the weak. His own people told me everything. Ah, they've got an alderman now, until the Crown can appoint someone new out there.”
“Might take a while.” Tane said. “He confessed willingly?”
“Yes, after he tried to kill us.”
“Oh. Well that's simple, then.” He nodded to Renick. “Take Lana and go execute this son of a bitch. Behind the latrines, I'm thinking.”
“Yes sir.” Renick nodded to Lana, and the two moved forward.
Tane watched Cecelia's face turn pale, as the man shrieked and screamed behind her. “Wait, what? We don't have the authority to do that!”
“We're a military convoy to the front,” Tane explained. “We can't spare the guards to bring this man back to Castle Cylvania for a trial, and I don't see any witnesses, which means you can't go back to profess his guilt. I'm not going to feed a traitor food we can take to the front instead. So he dies.”
Cecelia looked back to her companions. Kayin shook her head. “He tried to kill us, Cecelia.”
Graves nodded to support Kayin. “He's horrible. Coming from me, that means a lot, right?”
But it was Morris who seemed to shake her the most. “Yeah, it's not exactly in accordance with the old laws, but... we've got field authority, right? And our Code of Chivalry doesn't say we have to follow the laws, just the King and the Crown. So it's okay if we do this.”
“We...” Cecelia licked her lips. “We should follow the laws, too.” She whispered, as Renick and Lana hauled the shrieking Baron away, avoiding her eyes. “If we don't, who will?”
“He got stupid and he got caught,” Tane shrugged. “If it wasn't us, then someone else would have got him anyway. Really, he brought this on himself. And that's the end of it, Dame Ragandor.”
She watched him go, watched them drag him off into the treeline, and only closed her eyes as the fat man's screams rose up, then fell silent.
When she looked back, Tane was next to her, his eyes understanding. “Come on then,” he murmured, hopping up next to her and taking the reigns. “You did good. Don't let that trouble you.”
“He was supposed to get a trial,” Cecelia said. “He should have gotten a trial.”
“He did, more or less. He had it when he tried to kill you and failed. The truth of it...” Tane said, looking away. “The truth of it is that things are messy right now. Chaos everywhere, rebels and traitors all around us. They know the law. They try to use it against us. The King's way is a hard way, but it's the only way to us. And if you don't like it, milady, then you're welcome to return your armor. And go back to the castle, while we sort it out.”
Cecelia took a deep breath. She raised her gauntlet to her face, and stared at it. Then closed it into a fist. “No. I did something today. Something good. That village is better off in charge of themselves. And I'm not going to run out on my friends. I can help them. I can help everyone.”
Tane nodded. “Good. Then I've got news for you. Messenger imp came by today, checking on us. Your Steam Knight suit's arrived at Fort Bronze.”
“That's the last stop before the front, right?”
“Yeah. We'll drop the food off there. Then it's into action. But not against the dwarves.”
“I'll tell the others when we're together, but I might as well tell you now. There's been a rebel uprising, just southeast of the Fort, in another shitty frontier village. Some little fishing town called Outsmouth...”