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Short Story: The Gallant Ones

Holbeck, Essear -- Winter, 1312 AE

Vaughn Gallant and his younger brother, Rhys, were in Holbeck, Essear when the Indasian army laid siege to the city during the Second Utopian War. Their commander, Nehemiah Johnston, had been holding out for reinforcements from the closest Essearean regiment, but the Indasians had brought in the big artillery, and there was no more waiting to be had. They'd started out with two hundred soldiers, but by the time Johnston called Vaughn and Rhys into his tent, they were down to a little more than fifty.

Vaughn and Rhys stood at attention, waiting for their commander to speak.

"How familiar are you with the terrain here?"

"The mountains?" Vaughn asked for clarification.

Johnston nodded.

"Reasonably familiar. If you need men to carry a message through the mountains, we can do it."

"Are you volunteering, Gallant?"

"Do you need a volunteer?"

"I need two volunteers. It seems there will be no help coming from the east, so I need to get a message to Jerónimo Barreto in Madaii."

"We can take your message," Rhys said at once.

"You know the way?"

Rhys nodded. "I've been there many times."

"The quickest way is through the Northern Pass. Have you ever been through there?"

Rhys' eyes opened wide.

Vaughn spoke up. "I've been through there twice, but not during the winter. I'll need a guide."

"Are you both willing to risk it? I can trust no one else to carry this message to Barreto."

"If my brother's willing, then so am I," Rhys said with an air of finality.

"Alright," Johnston said. He turned back to his desk and picked up a note. It was sealed with wax and with the seal of the Arconian military on it. He handed the message to Vaughn. "Get what food and supplies you need. I'll send the guide to your tent."

"Very good," Vaughn said, taking the message.

Johnston didn't let go immediately. "Make sure you give this to no one but Barreto. It's for his eyes only."

"Yes, sir." Vaughn tucked the message into his coat, gave Johnston the customary salute, then he and Rhys turned and exited the tent.

"Do you think we can make it through the Pass at this time of year?" Rhys asked when they got far enough away that the commander wouldn't hear them.

"It will depend on how well his guide knows the territory. Whatever happens, I plan to see that I get it to Madaii."

"I'm with you, Brother," Rhys said.

"Good. Gear up and meet me in my tent."

They parted, and each man went to his own tent. Vaughn shared his tent with another man of equal rank, while Rhys shared a tent with several other common soldiers. They each packed only what they knew they needed and could carry, then they met in Vaughn's tent.

Another man was talking to Vaughn when Rhys arrived. They were going over a map.

"This will be the most dangerous part of the trip. You'll need good strong ropes and iron hooks to hold you. You'll have to climb down, and it's a sheer drop if you should fall, so take every precaution."

"I'm always prepared," Vaughn said. "Which is why you're here."

"And your brother?"

Rhys cleared his throat and stepped forward. "What about me?"

"Can you climb?"

"I can climb as well as Vaughn."

"Better, actually," Vaughn said, giving his brother a small smile.

"Good, you'll have to. And there's no telling what dangers from nature we'll meet up there. Most bears are hibernating right now, but there's one kind that will be out and about."

"Yes, the Northern White Bear. I know, and I'll be prepared for that eventuality."

"Anything else we can expect?" Rhys asked.

"Snow and ice, and lots of it. The nights will be extremely cold, so make sure you dress warm. Wear layers. The farther up the mountains we go, the colder it will get, but once we get over the top and start heading down the other side, it will start to get warmer again."

"We weren't born yesterday," Rhys said with a frown.

The guide, Sean Griffiths, ignored Rhys' protestation. "Make sure you're well armed. We could meet more than wild animals out there."

"We'll be prepared," Vaughn said before his brother could say anything further. "When and where do you want to meet?"

"At Johnston's tent in ten minutes."

"We'll be there."

Vaughn opened the tent flap for Griffiths, and when he let it fall again, he turned to Rhys. "You'll need to have patience with this man if you want him to work with us."

"He's treating us like children, Vaughn. What do you expect me to do?"

"I expect you to keep your mouth shut. Let him talk. He's the expert."

"Fine, whatever. But he'd better stay out of my face and off my back, or I won't be responsible for what happens."

"Grow up, Rhys," Vaughn ordered. "You don't like something he says or does, you bring your concerns to me. You don't take matters into your own hands. Do you understand?"

Rhys growled. "I understand."

"Good. Let's get moving."

They went to the armory tent and gathered up a few weapons they would need. Knives, swords, bows and arrows, a war axe, a blade sharpener, a lance. They would be well armed, and what they carried was relatively light.

They went to saddle their horses, and they loaded their equipment onto their mounts. Soon, they met up with Griffiths in Commander Johnston's tent. Minutes after that, they set out on their journey.

Indasian Army Camp, Outside the Walls of Holbeck, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

Commander Ravi Dhibar watched as three men left Holbeck's main gate. He was certain the Essearean commander was sending them to get help.

"Chabert!" he called out.

A moment later, a man appeared at attention by his side. "Yes, sir."

"I have a job for you and one more man."

"What do you need?"

Dhibar pointed toward the men in the distance. "See those men?"

"Yes, sir."

"I suspect they are going for help. Take them out before they carry out that mission. I don't care how you do it, just do it."

"I have just the man. We'll head out at once."

"Very good. If you're successful, I'll see that you get promoted."

"Yes, sir!" Charles De Saint-Chabert said, giving Dhibar a salute. "Commander."

"God speed, Chabert."

True to his word, Charles and his young companion, Cyrus Payne, formerly from Arcona, set out to stop the enemy from carrying out their mission.

Somewhere In the Indun Mountains, East of the Northern Pass, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

"So, Rhys, how is it with you and Tatiana?" Vaughn asked as they gave their horses their lead.

"Ah, Vaughn, do you have any idea what it's like to win the heart of a woman so fair? She is everything to me. She makes me want to do great things with my life."

"So, I take it things are well between you," Vaughn said, smiling.

"Couldn't be better. And her uncle has approved it!"

"Commander Baretto has approved it? Really?"


"And what of Cyrus Payne?"

"What of him?" Rhys asked, then he spat.

"Wasn't he her suitor before?"

"He was, but he abused her. A woman like Tatiana should not be manhandled by the man she loves. He took no care with her. He handled her roughly. He spoke down to her. He tried to control her, but she didn't like it."

"And you treat her better?"

"Of course I do, Brother!"

Vaughn laughed. "I know you do, Rhys. You're the perfect gentleman with the ladies."

"There's only one lady for me, and her name is Tatiana Alcantara."

"I can see you love her very much. I'm happy for you, Rhys."

"When will you find a good woman, I wonder?"

"I don't know. I'm not really looking. I'm currently married to the military."

"You're a good soldier, Vaughn, but you need a woman, too."

"I'll find one when I'm ready. Right now, I have other concerns."

"You've never known the tender touch of a woman, have you?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" Vaughn asked, feigning embarrassment.

"Oh, come now, Brother. You have never loved a woman, have you? You can be honest with me."

"I loved a lady once. It didn't work out. And I refuse to talk about it. I would much rather hear about your lady."

"Oh, Brother, I could talk about her for hours. Are you sure you wish me to continue?" Rhys laughed.

"Please, oblige me. In matters of love, I currently must live vicariously through you."

"All right, then," Rhys said, and he continued to tell Vaughn about the virtues of his lady love until it was time to stop to eat and rest the horses.

"It grows late," Griffiths said. "We should tether the horses and build camp."

"If you think it's best," Vaughn said.

"We'll get an early start in the morning."

They tethered and fed the horses, and set up their tents. Rhys built a fire, and Vaughn boiled some snow for quava. They shared some dried meat and bread and told stories to kill some time, then they turned in for the night.

Griffiths took the first watch. Two hours later, he woke Rhys so he could take over. Vaughn took the final watch.

- - - - - -

With great stealth, Charles De Saint-Chabert and Cyrus Payne slipped into the camp of their enemies.

Cyrus drew his knife, but Charles stopped him. He leaned in close to his young companion. "No. You'll wake the others."

Cyrus slipped his knife back, then followed Charles to the horses. There, they released the beasts and quietly led them away from camp. Once they were far enough away, they released them.

"If nothing else, we've slowed them down a bit," Charles said. "We'll continue following them. If they continue to be a problem, we'll take more drastic measures."

"When it gets to that point, I want the younger one."

"What have you got against him?" Charles asked.

"It's personal."

Charles shrugged and walked away, back toward their own camp.

Cyrus followed, murderous thoughts on his mind.

- - - - - -

When Rhys went to feed the horses, he found them gone. He went to the others.

"The horses! They're gone!"

"They can't be. We tethered them," Vaughn said, following Rhys to where they'd left their steeds. There, they found no horses, but a lot of horse prints in the snow. They also found the footprints of two men.

"How do you know it's two men?" Rhys asked.

"The tread on these is deeper and the overall prints are wider and longer, while these others are a little smaller, and the treads are more shallow."

"I concur," Griffiths said. "I think it's safe to say that we're being followed. The Indasians must have seen us leave, and they sent two men to stop you."

"We won't let them. We must get this message to Barreto no matter what the cost."

"Right," Rhys agreed. "At least we know they're out there. We can be prepared."

"Take only what's absolutely necessary," Vaughn said. "We'll have to travel very light."

"All right," Griffiths said. "I'll fix the grub, and we'll head out as soon as we're done eating."

With that, he tromped back to their camp and set to work.

Somewhere In the Indun Mountains, East of the Northern Pass, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

The next couple of days were uneventful. The brothers and their guide kept watch for trouble as they continued on their way. They saw no signs of their pursuers. Nevertheless, they kept their guard up, and on the third morning, when Vaughn rose from his slumber, he found Griffiths leaning against a tree, his throat slashed.

"What happened?" Rhys asked when he came upon Vaughn inspecting the dead body.

"It seems our pursuers are still out there and more serious than we first thought."

"What do you want to do?"

"There's only one thing we can do, and that's get the message to Barreto."

Rhys looked out over the distant horizon. "We'll need to be more vigilant."

"Yes, we will," Vaughn said. He stood and put a hand on his brother's shoulder. "I know you have it in you to finish it. If I should fall, you'll have to—"

"Don't say it, Brother. Don't even imply it. We're both going to make it. You hear me?"

"Yes, but in case something happens, I need you to promise you'll—"

"I promise, all right? Let us talk no more about it. We don't want to tempt the Fates."

"Pack up. We need to move out."

They gathered their things, keeping their chosen weapons where they could easily draw them if trouble were to arrive, and they moved onward.

Northern Pass, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

The Northern Pass grew larger the further they traveled until they stood at the foot of it.

"Are you sure we can cross it?" Rhys asked.

"We have to."

Most of it was an expansive cliff many meters wide. At either end were steep, forested areas. They had rope and iron hooks, but both men doubted their abilities to climb the cliff. That left the steep forest.

"It will be a tough climb, but we can manage it. We only need to work together," Vaughn said.

Rhys laughed, despite his nervousness. "Good thing I like you, Brother, or working together would be impossible."

"Are you ready?"

"I'm about as ready as I'll ever be. Let's get on with it. The sooner we reach the top, the sooner we'll be finished."

Neither man mentioned the fact that they would also have to make it down the other side. That was a given. For now, they put all their focus on reaching the summit of the Pass.

Using their ropes and their iron hooks, they scaled the forested south side with a great deal of effort. They used the trees as anchors and pulled themselves up with the ropes, which they wrapped through the hooks. Hand over hand, foot over foot, they made their way up the Pass. Their efforts went slowly, and they took a break for sleep and food about halfway up, but by the following day at noon, they finally reached the top.

- - - - -

Neither man saw the giant, hairy stranger watching them. His amber eyes held both curiosity and fear. He'd seen humans before, but he'd rarely interacted with them. They spoke a language other than his own. He knew some basic words and phrases, but he'd never been able to shake his people's superstitions about these people.

He'd heard the stories about what had happened between the humans of the lower lands and his own people, but he chose to reserve judgment for himself. He didn't want to assume that all humans were evil and out to destroy his people. But he didn't have a good enough grasp of their language to communicate with them, either.

So he spent his time observing them to see if he could figure out what they were all about. Hopefully, he'd learn enough to interact with them soon.

- - - - -

As Rhys stood looking down the way they'd come, he spotted movement at around the area where they'd stopped for the night. He pointed. "Look! There! Could those be the men pursuing us?"

Vaughn watched and nodded. "They could very well be. With any luck, they'll fall and save us the trouble of having to fight them."

"We could put an end to them now," Rhys said, pulling an arrow from the quiver at his back and fitting it to his bow.

Vaughn put a hand up to stop him. "No, let them come. If we're to fight them, let it be a fair fight."

"But we can put an end to them now!" Rhys protested.

"No, we're not murderers. If we have to kill them in self-defense, so be it. We will not slaughter them like helpless animals on the side of the mountain."

"Very well," Rhys said, frowning. "We'll do it your way, but I don't like it. Our chances are better if we end them now."

"I understand how you feel, Rhys, but I'm no murderer. And neither are you."

"No, but they are. Surely, they mean to kill us like they killed Griffiths."

"Yes, but we'll be ready for them. Come, let us start down the other side."

They crossed the top of the pass and looked down at the drop before them. It was much the same as what they'd just climbed. They would scale it, but in reverse.

"All right, we do just as before," Vaughn said. "The only difference is that we'll be descending. Be careful not to go too fast. You don't want to lose control of your rope."

"Right," Rhys said as he attached his rope to the first tree. "Last one to the bottom is a rotten dragon's egg."

He disappeared over the edge, and Vaughn hurried to tie his rope, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.

Northern Pass, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

Charles De Saint-Chabert and Cyrus Payne reached the pinnacle of the Pass several hours later. As they readied to descend the other side, Payne pointed off toward the northwest. "Storm!"

De Saint-Chabert studied the horizon. "It looks to be a bad one. We must hurry lest we lose them."

"It's moving in fast!" Payne argued. "We should make camp and wait it out."

"Our mission is clear. Stop them at all cost. We move out now."

Payne grumbled, but he obeyed the orders of his superior. He turned his mind to how it would feel to choke the life out of Rhys Gallant with his bare hands. To watch the life drain from the man who had stolen Tatiana Alcantara from him would be the ultimate satisfaction—short of winning her heart back from the brute. Thoughts of revenge kept him moving as the storm moved closer and closer.

Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

As the stranger continued to watch, he sniffed the air. The storm was drawing ever nearer. He would need to alert the others in the area to the plight of the men he currently watched.

Secure in the knowledge that the humans couldn't see him, he threw his head back and howled. The sound carried on the breeze, and he knew the other natives would hear him and understand. Not only his own folk, but the Little People, as well.

- - - - -

Rhys' eyes opened wide. "What was that?"

"I don't know. Whatever it was, it didn't sound very inviting. We'd better find shelter."

Vaughn moved off and Rhys followed closely.

The winds picked up and fat flurries began to fall, alerting them to the storm that was moving in. They'd reached the bottom of the Pass and were now making their way west through the Indun Mountains. There was nowhere to take shelter at the moment, so they pressed onward, toward the forest ahead.

"The border between Essear and Madaii is about twenty miles ahead," Vaughn told his brother. "The forest lay about three miles ahead. We must reach the forest if we're to find shelter."

"We must hurry," Rhys said, glancing toward the northwest. "It's moving in fast."

"Agreed, but we can only move as fast as our legs will carry us."

The snow was rather shallow where they walked, as others had recently tramped through the area, so travel went quickly. Not quickly enough to find shelter before the storm hit, however, and soon, the brothers were caught in a whiteout.

They tied a rope between them so they would stay together, and they attempted to continue in a straight line, but eventually, they veered a little toward the north.

And this was when they heard a sound on the wind, as if an otherworldly being was calling out an alarm through a great horn. Then they heard a deep rumbling, and things grew exponentially stranger.

"Avalanche!" Vaughn cried.

Rhys just stood rooted to the spot. He'd seen something small up on the mountain. Whatever it was, it was moving fast. It kept ahead of the snow and ice that was crashing down, and he was transfixed by it.

Vaughn grabbed hold of his brother. "Come on, Rhys! We have to move. Now!"

Rhys pointed. "What is that?"

Vaughn followed his brother's gaze and spotted the object. It had moved closer, and it appeared to be a small creature of some kind. He stepped forward, trying to get a better view. As he did so, he thought he noticed a certain detail.

"A— beard?" He murmured.

"What?" Rhys asked.

"I think it's a dwarf." Vaughn launched himself into action again. "We can't do anything for him. We have to find shelter now."

The brothers frantically searched for anything they could use as a shelter from the snow and ice quickly rumbling toward them. When Vaughn spotted a dark spot about 75 feet ahead, he urged his brother toward it.

Rhys slipped and fell.

65 feet.

The avalanche line was about three hundred feet above them.

Vaughn hauled his brother to his feet and pushed him forward. There was no need for words as the brothers desperately ran for the cave.

55 feet.

The avalanche line was about two-hundred feet above them.

Vaughn glanced up. He could make out the creature. It was now riding the avalanche! He resisted the urge to stop and stare, and he pushed himself harder.

"Run!" He cried. "Run!"

Together, the brothers barreled onward.

45 feet from the cave.

The avalanche line was about one-hundred feet above them.

"We're not going to make it!" Rhys cried, even as he pushed himself harder.

"Move!" Vaughn cried out again. He glanced up, and he knew his brother was right, but he forced himself to put every ounce of strength he had into running toward the cave.

40 feet from the cave.

The avalanche line was fifty feet above them.

They weren't going to make it. That much was clear.

Vaughn tackled his brother and covered him as the snow and ice first reached them. For several moments, the rumble was deafening as snow and ice covered them, building up several feet as the avalanche continued to dump more of its contents further down the mountainside.

Then all grew quiet.

Barbegazi Cave, Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

Vaughn lost track of how long he lay there covering Rhys. Had he blacked out? He couldn't say. All he knew was that some indeterminable amount of time had passed before he began to hear the sound of picks and axes chipping away at the snow and ice.

Hope grew within him, and he tried to cry out, only to get a mouthful of snow.

He relaxed and trusted that whoever was out there would dig him and Rhys free before they suffocated or died of exposure. His fingers and toes were numb, and the rest of him felt frozen to the bone. He had serious doubts that he'd survive, but he told himself otherwise.

"We'll make it." He murmured. "We've survived worse."

Finally, light broke through, and a hand reached down. Fingers ran over the back of Vaughn's head, then Vaughn heard a whoop and words he couldn't understand.

The sound of picks and axes surrounded him again until the weight upon his back lightened up enough for him to move. He gathered what little strength he had left and shoved himself into a seated position.

Snow and ice fell away as he sat up and squinted at his surroundings. What he saw made him pause, as three short stout men in white fur coats and hats and with beards trailing to their large, hairy feet stood leaning upon digging tools, their beady, black little eyes all staring at him.

He didn't dare to move for fear they'd attack him with those nasty looking tools, and so he spoke two words, instead.

"Thank you."

The oldest of the three little men broke into a smile. "Shucks! 'Tis nothing! 'N' what're ye doing here in the midst of a snow drive?"

"Snow drive?" Vaughn asked. "Oh, you mean the avalanche?"

The little man nodded, his eyes twinkling with merriment.

"We didn't know there would be an avalanche. We're on a dangerous mission, made all the more dangerous by your snow drive."

"'N' yer friend? Do he survive, 's well?"

Vaughn reached down and gently shook his brother. "Rhys? Rhys, it's all right. We've been saved."

There was a grumble as Rhys moved slightly. Vaughn moved away a little, and Rhys sat up. He shook the snow and ice from his hair, then stopped when he saw the three little men. "Of all the—" He glanced at Vaughn. "What are they?"

"I was about to get to that," Vaughn said. He turned back to the oldest of the three little bearded men. "Who are you? Do you live nearby? Do you know where we can find shelter?"

The little man smiled. "Me be Nodrick Icehelm, and these be me sons, Glimoki and Deggun." He turned slightly and pointed up toward the cave, its entrance now covered with snow and ice. "We abide up there."

Vaughn and Rhys glanced at each other, then Vaughn continued. "We were trying to get to that cave when the avalanche hit."

"That be our home, 'n' ye're welcome to stay the night if ye'll help us clear the snow away."

"How are you feeling, Rhys?" Vaughn asked. "Think you've got it in you to help?"

"I can manage," Rhys said, brushing snow off of himself.

"You've got yourself a deal, Nodrick Icehelm," Vaughn said.

Nodrick handed Vaughn a pick, and one of the others handed Rhys a shovel, then they led the way up to where the cave's entrance had been buried. The humans and the small creatures worked side by side for over an hour until the entrance was finally cleared, then Nodrick gathered up the tools and set them inside.

"Come in! Come in! There be food 'n' fresh water 'n' a warm wood fire inside. Ye've worked hard 'n' deserve to share in our bounty. Come!"

He motioned for them to follow him, and his sons took up the rear. They went down one corridor, then another, until at last, they came to a great cavern. In the center was a wood fire, and two females worked near it.

"Befrana! Wahilda! Come 'n' meet our guests."

Vaughn guessed that these two were Nodrick's wife and daughter, but he couldn't be sure of which was which until Nodrick told him.

"This be me wife, Befrana," the little man said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. She was as chubby as he, and her hair was equally as white, but longer. The only way he would have known she was a female was the absence of a beard. They all wore white fur coats, and he wondered if they slept in them, as well. "Befrana, meet—me didn't catch yer name, Mr.—"

"Vaughn Gallant. Call me Vaughn. And this is my brother, Rhys."

Befrana held out her hand. "We're right pleased to meet ye," she said, giving him a little curtsy. At least he thought it was a curtsy. It was hard to tell.

"Pleased to meet you too, Mrs. Icehelm," Vaughn said.

"Befrana, please, Vaughn."

"Very well, Befrana."

She held her hand out to Rhys, and he took it gently, giving her a bow. "It is an honor, Befrana."

Befrana giggled like a schoolgirl, and Nodrick pulled the other woman close. "Meet me daughter, Wahilda. Wahilda, these be Vaughn and Rhys Gallant."

She repeated her mother's actions, first extending a hand to Vaughn, then to Rhys.

Rhys repeated his bow. "It is good to meet you, Wahilda," he said.

Her fair face turned red as a beet, and she cast her gaze downward. "Likewise, Mr. Rhys."

"Call me Rhys. All my friends do," he said, giving her a warm smile.

"All right, Rhys."

Nodrick whispered something to his wife, and she nodded.

"Supper be ready. Please, seat yerselves by the fire," he said.

Vaughn and Rhys did as the little man bid, and soon, stone plates full of meat and root vegetables were brought to them, along with tankards of something like ale. The others joined them, and the group got to know each other better.

"We've never met anyone like you," Vaughn said. "What do you call your race?"

"Our race?"

"Yes, your people. What do you call yourselves."

Nodrick scratched his head and mumbled something about having gone over this already. He pointed to himself and spoke more slowly. "Me be Nodrick Icehelm."

Vaughn shook his head. "No, I don't mean your names. I mean your people as a whole. What are you known as?"

Understanding dawned in the little man's eyes. "Ah, we be the Barbegazi of Niw Mountain."

"Barbegazi. Are you related to the dwarfs? Or the gnomes, perhaps?"

"What be dwarfs? What be gnomes? Me not know these names."

"They could be your distant cousins many times removed."

"Me 'n' me people, we know naught of these creatures ye mention. If ye must compare barbegazi to any people, yer guess of bhakul would be more true."

"The bhakul?"

Glimoki and Deggun spoke up in unison. "Sasquatch!"

"Sasquatch?" Vaughn and Rhys looked at each other, then back at the young barbegazi men. "Explain?"

Glimoki began. "Giants. Taller than ye, even—"

Deggun continued. "Hairy, too! More hair than anyone in this cave!"

"I don't understand," Vaughn said.

Nodrick smiled. "These bhakul, they be tall like ye, but hairy like bear. Their hair be white or brown or grey. They talk as ye and me, but have their own language, their own religion, their own culture."

"Have you ever met these bhakul?" Rhys asked.

"No, but me see them sometimes. Not often, mind, but sometimes when me be out and about on the hunt." He began to laugh. "But we could never be mistaken for bhakul. They be much greater than we. They be much taller. They stand out against the snow. Well...except the white ones."

"Yes, I suppose they would," Vaughn said, smiling.

"They not well fed," Befrana said with a frown. "It appears that ye suffer the same affliction. Eat up, friends! Let it ne'er be said that Befrana Icehelm sends her guests away hungry!"

Vaughn and Rhys returned their focus to the food. They found it very much to their liking, and like the smaller, chubbier men in the room, they went back for seconds and thirds.

"Ye will eat no more?" Befrana asked of Rhys when he finally set his plate aside.

"I cannot," he said, rubbing his belly. "It is delicious, but I haven't the appetite your men do. I do not mean to offend you."

"Ye will eat more in the morning, aye? To break yer fast. Maybe yer appetite will have grown by then."

She smiled at him, letting him know that she wasn't offended, then she gathered up his dishes and Vaughn's.

Nodrick settled himself between the brothers, a pipe full of rich tobacco in hand. He lit it, then began puffing on it as he leaned back on one elbow. He pointed the pipe toward his daughter. "Tell me, Vaughn. Is me Wahilda not the most beautiful woman ye have e'er set eyes upon?"

"She is very beautiful," Vaughn said. Though the young woman wasn't his type, he could see why young barbegazi men could be smitten with her. She had a grace and charm which belied her short, sturdy stature. Her voice was soft and melodic and could easily mesmerize others.

"As happens, we be seeking out a mate fer her. I believe ye would be a fine match fer me daughter. What do ye say to that?"

"I say—" Vaughn began, suddenly nervous. He glanced at Rhys, who was silently laughing, his face covered with his hands as he feigned exhaustion. "I say I would be honored if I weren't already engaged to another."

"Oh, that be too bad," Nodrick said, frowning. In the next moment, his expression brightened, and he turned to Rhys. "And what of ye? Ye're a fine, strapping lad. Won't ye take me Wahilda's hand in marriage?"

"I'm sorry, Nodrick. We're on our way to Santiado, Madaii. There, my lady love awaits me. I plan to marry her as soon as possible, for I can't stand to be apart from her for any amount of time."


"If I weren't already in love, I would seriously consider it, Nodrick. Really, I would. As I'm sure Vaughn would, as well. But we have already found love elsewhere, and there's no changing the heart once it's decided who it loves."

"Me suppose ye're right. Where will me find a husband for me sweet Wahilda? She deserves the very best!"

"Yes, she does." Vaughn agreed. "Maybe we can help you, once our mission is through."

"If ye do that, we will be in yer debt forever, me good man. The other barbegazi are beginning to talk."

"Well, we can't have that, now, can we?" Rhys said, smiling as he draped an arm around the small man's shoulders. "I know some dwarfs over in Gaelgaret who would kill to marry a woman like your Wahilda. I might not get back that way for a few months to come, but when I do, I'll put in a good word. Maybe I'll find her a good dwarf husband. What do you say to that?"

"Me don't know," Nodrick said thoughtfully, his eyes on his daughter. "Tell me 'bout these dwarf people. Be they good, hardworking, honest folk?"

"They are some of the best. A little taller than your people, and instead of white hair, they usually have red or brown or yellow hair."

"But could their men make me Wahilda happy?"

"I've no doubt that some of them could, yes. They're robust. They love life. They never pass up a good meal or a tankard of ale. They sing and dance and tell stories 'round the fire. They work hard and play harder. They love life with every ounce of strength they have in them."

"They sound like me kind of people," Nodrick said with a twinkle in his eye. "If ye can find me Wahilda a mate among these—distant cousins of ours, me would be eternally grateful."

"I shall endeavor to try," Rhys said. "It is never good for one so young to be lonely."

"Truer words have ne'er been spoken. Me thank ye, Rhys Gallant. Ye give this father hope."

They talked for a bit longer, and after three more mugs of ale each, Vaughn and Rhys began to grow sleepy.

Befrana and Wahilda made them beds by the fire, and the barbegazi all made their beds nearby. Soon, they all slept soundly.

Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Essear

Winter, 1312 AE

As Befrana had promised, Vaughn and Rhys had plenty to eat the following morning. And when the brothers set out for the next leg of their journey, their new friends made sure they carried some extra stew and bread and ale with them. Not enough to weigh them down and make travel difficult, but enough to keep them from going hungry.

For the next several days, they had plenty to eat. They hunted small game, and when they caught nothing, they would settle down with stew and bread and ale, and it satisfied them. They slept well because of this.

Eventually, they came to a sheer a drop, and they had to stop. As Vaughn studied the chasm before them, he realized that there used to be a bridge crossing this great divide.

He pointed down beneath them. "See those vines? They are not vines, but ropes. There used to be a bridge here. For some reason, it has been cut down."

"You don't suppose our pursuers did it, do you?" Rhys asked.

"I don't think so, but we can't rule it out. We'll have to find another way across. Keep your eyes open. They could be lying in wait to ambush us."

First, they traveled north along the edge of the chasm. The divide grew wider the farther they traveled, so they turned back toward the south. This way eventually grew to be only about thirty feet wide at one section. Here, Vaughn decided that they should try to chop down a tree along its edge.

They had one axe between them, so they took turns so as to conserve their energy. It was winter, so the tree was very hard and difficult to cut down, but eventually, cut it down they did, and it fell across the chasm, giving them a natural bridge on which to cross.

As they went, they hacked off the tree's limbs that hindered their passage. Soon, they reached the other end. By then, the sun was dropping fast, so they made camp and settled in for the night. They ate the last of their stew and bread and drank the last of the ale the barbegazi had given them.

Vaughn took the first watch, then he woke Rhys so he could relieve him. Halfway through, he was awakened by his brother's cry. He jumped up to find that Rhys was fighting another young man. This man looked familiar.

"This is for Tatiana!" The young man shouted, and he ran at Rhys.

Rhys barely had enough time to bring his sword up and deflect the blow when the other man turned and ran at him again. He wasn't so lucky this time, as his enemy's blade sliced into the side of his torso. Blood soaked his shirt, but he kept fighting.

Vaughn ran to help, but as he did, Rhys ran the other man through with his own blade, killing him almost immediately.

When Vaughn reached his brother, Rhys fell to his knees. He began to fall forward, and Vaughn caught and held Rhys to him.

"It's okay, Little Brother. I'm here."


Vaughn smoothed the dark hair back from his brother's forehead. The full moon illuminated the perspiration on Rhys' face making it look like glitter. Vaughn wiped it away with the back of his hand.

"Hang in there, Rhys. Don't give up."


"Yes you can. Stay with me, Rhys. You have promises to keep. We have a mission to fulfill."

"Vaughn, I—" Rhys began, then he coughed. Blood came up and ran down the side of his face and into the snow.

Vaughn laid a hand on the side of his brother's face. "Don't leave me out here alone, Rhys. Do you hear me? Don't leave me out here!"

Rhys reached up and gripped Vaughn's shoulder. "I'm—sorry—"

Vaughn wept openly now. His brother was dying, and all he could do was watch.

"Rhys, I—"

"I know—"

"I love you, brother. And I'm proud of you. I'll never forget you."

"Tell Tatiana I—"

"I'll tell her you love her. I promise."

"And find—"

"Find what?" Vaughn asked, confused.

"Find Wahilda—" Rhys' breathing became shallow. He shuddered, then lay still.

"What are you trying to tell me, Rhys? Please, clarify!" Vaughn cried, shaking his brother lightly. "Rhys, what is it you want from me?"

Rhys didn't respond as his lifeless eyes stared, unseeing, up at the moon.

Vaughn held his brother so tight that, had he been alive, he would have suffocated. Silently, he wept for a long time, and when he'd finally cried all the tears he had to shed, he laid his brother's body in the snow.

He went back to camp to get the shovel, but then he remembered that some Madaiians didn't bury their dead in the ground. He went in search of good sturdy tree limbs and vines he could use, and he built a frame on which he could lay his brother's body. Then he wrapped Rhys in his blankets and tied him to the frame. This he hefted it into a tall, strong oak tree and fastened it securely to two thick branches. Once done, he said a prayer over Rhys' body and climbed back down.

He stayed in camp for the next two days. In his grief, he forgot about the mission he and his brother had been on. All he could think about was his brother and how lost he'd be without him.

Finally, on the third day, he remembered the mission, and he forced himself to continue on, despite his grief.

Somewhere West of the Northern Pass, Indun Mountains, Madaii

Winter, 1312 AE

Light snow fell all around Vaughn as he made his way through the snow, but he barely noticed. His focus was on putting one foot in front of the other. He had to reach Santiado. He needed to get help.

Because he was so focused on the ground before him, he didn't see Charles De Saint-Chabert's approach until it was almost too late. He heard the whisper of a blade being drawn, and he glanced up.

He got his own sword out just in time to avoid being skewered, but the tip of the blade sliced through the front of his coat.

Another swing of his opponent's sword, and this time, he blocked easily. He struck out several times, driving Chabert back several yards.

"You won't stop me," he said at last during a break in the fighting.

"Overconfidence will be your undoing." Chabert spat.

"You're from Gaelgaret?" Vaughn asked.

"That I am."

Chabert attacked again.

Vaughn dodged the blow, then struck out with the flat of his blade, knocking his opponent into the snow. He waited, allowing Chabert to regain his footing.

"Why do you fight with the Indasian army? Your country is an ally to Essear."

"I shan't explain myself to you, a lonely foot soldier," Chabert said, moving in with another strike that nicked the back of Vaughn's hand, drawing blood.

Vaughn ignored the sting and switched his sword to the other hand. "You're a fool. A traitor to your own people."

"You know nothing about me."

"I know you're a fool and a traitor, and that is enough."

Vaughn struck out, and Chabert blocked, then came back with a counter strike.

Their swords locked, and Vaughn snarled at the Gaelgaren soldier. "We will win this war, but you will not live to see it. You will die this day."

"It matters not what happens to me." Chabert snarled back. "Give me the message and I may yet allow you to walk away from this fight."


"Then die like the dog you are."

Chabert struck out. Vaughn blocked, then countered.

"You are on the losing side, Traitor. I look forward to killing you."

"You may kill me, but others will take my place. You will never be rid of us. We are like an infection you can't see. We'll take you down before you know what's happening."

"What are you talking about?"

"That's for me to know and for you to find out."

Vaughn found an opening and took it, slicing Chabert's gut open with one sweep of his blade. In the next moment, he was kneeling over his opponent, holding him by his coat collar. "What are you talking about?" he cried.

"This war—isn't about land. It's about much—more. It has—been orchestrated by—men of great—power and—influence."

"What do you mean?" Vaughn asked. "What men?"

"Invisible men. Boogeymen. You'll never—see them coming. They—will wipe you out before—before you can—do anything about it—and they'll do it—as subtly as—a soft breeze."

Vaughn tightened his grip around Chabert's collar. "Who are they? Why are they doing this?"

Chabert smiled, blood dribbling from his mouth. He said nothing more as his eyes rolled back and he went still.

Vaughn practically slammed the man back to the ground. He wiped his blade on Chabert's coat, then stood to his feet and sheathed it. He searched the body of his opponent, but found nothing to support the man's claims. He chalked it up to intimidation. His opponent was trying to trick him.

He went and gathered up his belongings and continued on his way.

Santiado, Madaii

Winter, 1312 AE

Sleet and freezing rain mixed in with the snow as Vaughn approached the main gate to the city of Santiado. The city was as quiet as death, and when he stepped past the barrier, he saw why.

The bodies of dead soldiers littered the ground around him. It appeared there had been more than just a battle. It had been a massacre. Some soldiers had been killed before they'd been able to draw their weapons, which meant they hadn't had much warning before the enemy had struck.

Vaughn walked farther into the city. He began to find the bodies of murdered civilians, as well. Women and children, mutilated and bloody, lay in the streets where they'd been cut down, some tortured for no apparent reason.

He sank to his knees, the reality of what had happened hitting him hard. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't think clearly. All he could do was kneel and vomit as he imagined the carnage as it had happened.

He threw his head back and roared as much from pain as anger. Had the enemy still been lurking about, they could have cut him down on the spot. But they had departed long ago, evidenced by flies and maggots that had already begun to consume the bodies of the innocent victims of this senseless slaughter.

He searched the city for any sign of life. Nothing and no one had been spared. Even the horses and dogs had been killed.

Chabert's words came back to haunt him now: "This war isn't about land. It's about much more. It has been orchestrated by men of great power and influence...Invisible men. Boogeymen. You'll never see them coming. They will wipe you out before you can do anything about it, and they'll do it as subtly as a soft breeze."

Vaughn looked around one last time. His enemy had been right. The people of Santiado had not seen this coming. They'd been cut down with no warning. Slaughtered like pigs.

He rose to his feet. A new determination took hold as he strode toward the main gate. He would move on to the next town, then the next until he found one untouched by the enemy. He would tell them what had happened here in Santiado, and he would bring back an army to wipe the Indasians from Essearean lands.

Then he would turn his attention toward those orchestrating this senseless war. He would find out who they were. He would gather evidence of their existence, their purpose, their means and methods. And he would bring them down once and for all. For his brother, for his fellow soldiers, for the innocent victims of Santiado, he would put an end to the tyranny.

"He who would travel happily must travel light."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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