Chapter 4
The Young Rebel

On the Road to Corinth, Gladius

"It's part of the nature of youth to rebel against authority. Most times, it is nothing more than petty disobedience to parents, but occasionally it is something more, something greater. The cares and weariness that come with age often keep people from doing what's right in the face of tyranny and oppression. In such times, the brashness of youth can be a tool of righteousness."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

It was colder that morning than the last few days had been and the fire had gone out without anyone to tend to it. The three companions broke their fast with few words exchanged. Edward was still in a foul mood from last night and the other two were disinclined to start a new argument with him.
When they were eating, Edward did not share from his generous supply of provisions, regardless of what old Siegfried may have intended. Never getting the chance to purchase provisions of his own while he was in Stormtree, there was hardly anything left in Mark's haversack. Even so, he offered some to Jasper, but the thief had enough food for himself tucked away somewhere and ended up giving Mark a fresh apple, one of the last of the season. After a week of hardtack and dried meat, the swordsman savored every bite. When he thanked Jasper for his generosity, the thief simply smiled and shrugged it off.
"Yer a guhd chap," he said. "'Tis th' lees' Oi kin dew."
It was a little after dawn when they set out and they reached a town after walking for several hours. Even from a distance, it appeared much wealthier than Stormtree. Remarkable attention was paid to the maintenance of the city walls, which were covered with clean white plaster and lined with silver-plated spikes along the top. The gates were made of a fine lacquered wood imported from abroad in spite of the laws barring foreign trade. Mark was impressed by the display of splendor, but Edward and Jasper both held him back.
"There are no friends in Corinth," Edward said grimly. "We should go around."
Jasper chimed in, "'Tis a roi' owf'l ples, 'tis. She's a plahmp ol' 'en, bu' thay's a proice ta 'er, i' ye noo wo' Oi meen."
It was a rare occasion indeed when the Prince and the thief agreed on anything. They knew the land better than he did, so Mark did not question their judgment. That night, they camped by the roadside again without incident and resumed their journey at daybreak. It was around noon when they reached the Crystal Brook, a tributary of the Glass River.
Across the stream was a small milling village called Watercress. The banks of the Crystal Brook were lined with several waterwheels which provided the crux of the local economy, the modest returns of the outlying farms and the fisherman operating downriver accounted for the rest. While Stormtree was not a particularly wealthy city, it was densely populated and Watercress was a sharp contrast with its relatively few and scattered residences.
Edward led Mark and Jasper to the only inn in town. Like the town itself, the inn was rather small with only a few rooms and the tavern could hold little more than thirty people. Fortunately for them, visitors to Watercress were rare and a room was easily acquired. Mark did not particularly want to waste time by staying in town all day, but he knew he would not get anywhere trying to impose his pace on the willful Edward. He decided to make the best of things. He had not had a decent meal ever since he left Byrn, nor had he slept with a roof over his head in all that time. His provisions were also woefully close to running out, so it would be a good opportunity to restock.
While they were waiting for their meal, Mark noticed a handful of soldiers sitting at a nearby table. Most of them wore the same armor as the gatekeeper Mark had encountered in Stormtree and he identified them as members of the Gladian Guard. One stood out from the rest, though. The others were clad in brigandines and wore open-faced helmets capped with plumes of brown horsehair, but this one wore a cuirass of iron plate and his helmet sported a visor and a black plume. Mark took it to be a sign of rank, probably an officer, but he had no idea of the degree.
Mark hoped the soldiers would overlook them, but it was not to be. With Edward's full plate armor and Jasper's brightly colored cloak, they could not hope to be inconspicuous. Led by their officer, the soldiers left their drinks and encircled the table of Mark and his company. The three companions said nothing, but the soldiers had no intention of leaving them alone.
"What's this?" the officer piped, his voice revealing him to be far younger than Mark expected. "What brings the Drunkard Prince to Watercress?" He looked at Mark and Jasper. "I see you've gotten some new recruits to your little band of miscreants." He grinned viciously. "What's wrong? Those broken old men can't get out of the tavern to join you on your rampages anymore? Or did they finally realize they were fighting for a lost cause?"
Restraint was among the many virtues Edward did not possess. To be honest, Mark was surprised to see the Prince bear the taunts of the young officer as long as he did. Nevertheless, trouble loomed when his patience was worn out. Rising from his chair, Edward towered over the officer. Crossing his arms, the Prince glared down at him.
"You've got some gall to speak to your rightful lord like that, whelp."
The officer was not cowed by Edward's imposing stature. In fact, he seemed to be emboldened by the threatening display.
"There is no king but Randwulf the Conqueror."
The incendiary remark was the last straw. Edward reached for his mace and probably would have bashed in the officer's head if Mark had not sprung from his chair and forced himself between the two men.
"Edward," Mark said, "don't. Fighting here won't change anything." He turned to the officer. "You, sir, your rank?"
The officer was so taken off guard by Mark's directness that he could not help answering. "Lieutenant," he said.
Taking advantage of the momentum, Mark continued to press the officer. "Lieutenant, have we done anything against the law?"
"Not that I know of," the officer sniffed. "Not yet at least."
"Well then, why are you paying us this special attention? Surely you have more important duties to attend to and if not, your drinks are far safer recreation."
Although he had been taken off balance at first, the officer fixed his attention on the one who interfered with his sport. "I've never heard an accent like yours before," he said suspiciously. "A foreigner, here?" He frowned. "I don't like it. What's your business in this land? Why are you in the company of the Drunkard Prince?"
Mark remained calm. He had to choose his words carefully. He did not intend to lie outright, but there was no reason for him to disclose the whole truth. If he told them just enough to sate their curiosity, perhaps they would leave the three travelers alone.
"My business is nothing to warrant the attention of the Gladian Guard. I've come from the East to find kinsmen living in this country. I met this man along the way and we both agreed it would be safer to travel together. I don't want any trouble."
"If you don't want trouble," the officer replied, "you made a poor choice of traveling companions. That man is a known rebel and anyone who associates with him warrants our attention."
"If he's a rebel, why don't you arrest him?" Mark asked.
The question startled Edward, but Mark was taking a calculated risk. He did not think there was any serious threat to Edward and figured he could learn a little more about the political maneuverings within the kingdom. Thankfully, the officer did not see Mark posing any danger and was rather forthcoming in his answers.
"Unfortunately," the officer grumbled, "we aren't allowed to take his freedom or his life no matter what he does. I don't know why we've been handed such a decree, but I'm not privy to the mind of His Majesty." He spat on the ground. "We've more important matters to attend to and since you've spoiled our fun, we might as well get to it." Glancing to his men, he barked, "Move out! Assemble outside and we'll begin our search."
The other soldiers filed out of the tavern, all appearing disgruntled to be denied both their drinks and the amusement of tormenting Edward. Before following his subordinates, the officer turned his attention back to Mark.
"We'll be watching you, foreigner. Keep in mind that the protection offered to the Drunkard Prince doesn't apply to his companions. Stay out of trouble if you don't want to find yourself in the dungeon... or worse."
"I'll keep it in mind," Mark replied.
Once the officer had left, they were all able to breathe easier, but Edward did not miss the opportunity to complain.
"I didn't ask for your help," he growled. "If you wanted to get involved, you should've used that sword on your hip and cut down some of those dogs."
"And then what?" Mark challenged. "There were seven of them and only three of us. Even if we beat them, there's surely a garrison in this town. They'd press the locals for information and then we'd have the Guard chasing us all over Gladius. If they caught us, you might get off, but Jasper and I would either be dead or in prison." His tone became harsher. "Tell me, how does that accomplish anything? If you're pinning your hopes on me proving myself as my father's heir, you need me alive."
Edward scowled. "Don't get cocky. What makes you think I need you?"
"If you didn't need me, you wouldn't be here."
Mark realized he had probably said too much, but it was too late to take it back. Given the Prince's short temper, Mark was not especially surprised to see Edward already boiling over with anger. Raising a gauntleted fist, the Prince shouted, "Why you--! Treating me like child!"
Had it connected, the punch could have easily shattered Mark's jaw, but the swing was slow and clumsy and Mark sidestepped the attack with little effort. Because of his sloppiness, Edward lost his balance and would have landed flat on his face if Mark did not catch him and soften the fall.
"This is neither the time nor the place for a fight," Mark said calmly. He extended his hand. "How about we call a truce? Let's eat, get some rest, and if you've still got a complaint by tomorrow morning, we'll settle it then."
Edward did not return the gesture of good will, turning up his nose in haughty stubbornness.
"Have it your way," he growled, "but don't think this is over."
It may not have been the most amicable resolution, but it defused Edward's hostility for a little while at least. Jasper had been keeping a low profile the entire time and finally found an occasion to speak as their meal was being served.
"Thahnk ye koin'ly, yun' mahstah," he said to Mark. "I' ye 'a'n' drawn th' 'tenshun o' thim Gadsmin, thay moi've teyk'n notice o' meh. Oi owlmos' tho' Oi'd 'ave ta teyk moi leve o' ye win thay gevahd 'rownd thah' bi' oaf."
"We were just lucky they had more important business than tormenting Edward," Mark said. "I wonder what they were up to."
"I've heard rumors about new rebel factions popping up in the countryside," Edward said, looking away from Mark. "Those Guardsmen are probably part of a special detachment sent to hunt them down."
If even half of what he had heard about Randwulf was true, Mark sympathized with the native Gladians who wanted to restore their homeland, but as he had told Siegfried, he did not come to Gladius for revolution. He did not want to get involved, but perhaps it was inevitable. The more he thought on it, the more he realized there was nothing he could do about it for the time being. He finally decided to push the more distant worries aside in favor of more immediate concerns.
It was already growing dark outside by the time they finished eating their meal, a simple but satisfying offering of barley bread and river trout. They decided to retire for the evening and get an early start the next day. The room they had purchased had only a single straw mattress which Edward claimed without the slightest thought of offering it to either of his companions. Not wanting to start a new fight with the irascible Prince, Mark and Jasper slept on the floor, which was little better than sleeping outside. It was nevertheless an improvement, so neither one complained. They would be back on the road tomorrow and had to be thankful for even the smallest comforts.

* * *

A warm breakfast was the last indulgence the three companions could enjoy before their journey resumed. Edward insisted on having a drink before they set out, so Mark left him there while he went out to refill his haversack. From the grocer he acquired some salted fish and the barley bread Watercress was known for. It is said that good salted fish can keep for a year, but the bread would not last as long as the hardtack he had brought from Byrn. Since he could always replenish his supplies when they got to Rowan, he was not too worried about it.
As Mark was heading back to the inn to pick up Edward and Jasper, a youth ran into him and nearly knocked him off his feet. The youth did not bother to apologize and continued to run the moment he regained his bearings. In spite of his haste, his flight was thwarted in short order when four men of the Gladian Guard appeared in front of him. The youth turned on his heels to run back the way he came when three more appeared from the other direction. Among them was the officer Mark had encountered the day before. Apparently the youth was counted among the rebels they were seeking out.
The youth was frozen in place only a few feet from Mark as the Guardsmen fanned out to surround him. It was clear that Mark was going to be dragged into the middle of the impending struggle. He had to decide where he stood before it was decided for him.
"What have you done, boy?" he demanded of the youth.
"I ain't done nothin'!" the youth exclaimed.
He would have inquired further, but the officer cut off any further conversation between Mark and the youth.
"Well, well, what have we here? Why am I not surprised to find you here, foreigner?"
"Tell me what this boy has done."
"As if you didn't know!" the officer sneered. "He's a member of a rebel band we've been hunting for three weeks."
"He says he's done nothing."
"What criminal admits to his crimes? Surely you can't be that naive! Now stand aside if you don't want to share his fate!"
"What do you intend to do to him?"
"We'll take him to Corinth and he'll spend some time at Punishment Square. Maybe he'll go to Darkwall after that. It all depends on how long he survives."
Mark took a deep breath. The moment of truth had come.
"I'm afraid I can't let you do that," he said in a firm voice. "He's little more than a child. I can't abandon him to suffering and death at your hands."
The die was cast.
"Who are you to question our laws?" the officer growled. "Even a child can be a rebel and I won't sacrifice the security of this kingdom out of pity for my enemies." Drawing himself up, the officer crossed his arm and drew in a long breath before taking a softer yet no less threatening tone. "Because we've found this rebel, I'm in an unusually generous mood. This is your last chance, foreigner. Stand aside or you'll be counted among our enemies."
It was too late for Mark to turn back and even if he could, his conscience would never allow it. There was only one path left before him. Resting his hand on the pommel of his sword, he leveled his gaze at the officer.
"You must go through me first."
"You've got guts, foreigner," the officer replied with a grin, "I'll grant you that. For your boldness, I'll privilege you with a duel."
One of his subordinates stirred uncomfortably. "But, sir..."
"Shut up!" the officer snapped. "He's mine! You lot, make sure the boy doesn't escape. Once I've bested this foreigner, we'll head for Corinth. You got that?"
The soldiers all sounded off in unison, "Yes, sir!"
The officer turned his attention back to Mark.
"I want you to know who's sending you the abyss."
He raised his visor to reveal his face. He was a young man, younger than Mark by a few years at least, with fair skin and shaggy brown hair that nearly extended down to his eyes. By his facial features, Mark guessed he was of a different stock than most of the Gladians he had encountered. The officer grinned broadly in pride that nearly rivaled Edward's.
"I am Harald Svenson! My father broke through the enemy lines at Greystone and now he commands the Marauders' Axeman Division! Today I hunt rebel villains, but one day I shall follow in his mighty footsteps and lead men in battle in distant lands!" He drew his sword. "Now, foreigner, tell me whose blood I'm about to spill, even though you're no one of merit."
Mark did not draw his sword yet, weighing his options instead. Indeed, Mark had a far longer and prouder lineage to boast of, but he did not see much wisdom in revealing his full identity to the Gladian Guard. He would tell the officer nothing more than the bare minimum demanded by the warrior's code.
"I am Mark, son of Luther," he declared. "For eleven generations, my family has fought against the wicked. My ancestors and my God call out to me to protect the weak from evil men. If you intend to meet my blade, then come!"
Harald gave Mark a scornful look as he leveled the point of his sword at his opponent.
"From what I've seen, your mouth is your only weapon. We'll see how well you can wield a blade!"
Mark gripped the hilt of his sword as Harald charged forward, but he did not draw yet. Apparently sensing some sort of advantage, the Guardsman quickened his pace. Only when Harald raised his sword for the deathblow did Mark draw, deflecting his opponent's blade with far greater speed and dexterity than expected. Harald was noticeably shaken by Mark's parry and the swordsman gave him a moment to regain his bearings, a courtesy Mark knew the Guardsman would not have given him.
"You just got lucky!" Harald blustered. "You can only use that trick once. How long will you hold up in real fight?"
Mark did not say anything in return. Harald seemed to be the sort who liked to talk while he fought, hardly a virtue for a professional soldier. Although it did not seem too difficult to best Harald, Mark doubted his ability to defeat the other six Guardsmen all at once. He could not expect help to come, but he had no idea what to do. Until he could think of something, he would have to prolong the duel.
Mark opted to stay on the defensive, fighting with only one hand even though Harald's blade was heavier than his own. The Guardsman's strikes were easy to block and Mark was not afraid for his own well-being, but he worried about the youth encircled with him. There was no guarantee Harald's subordinates would stand fast while he fought with Mark.
"What's wrong?" Harald taunted. "Are you only capable of a flashy start? You've been defending the whole time! Are you that afraid of me?"
It would not be long before Harald saw through Mark's strategy, he was sure of that much. He was still no closer to a satisfactory answer, though. What should he do? If he fought at his full potential, he might be able to defeat all of them, but there would be a cost. He had sworn to himself never to cross that line again. Could he live with the consequences if he did?
Providence spared him the burden of making that decision. With a great roar, Edward bounded onto the scene swinging his massive sword with a powerful overhead chop that nearly split one of the Guardsmen down the middle. Hearing the noise beforehand, the soldier narrowly dodged the attack so that Edward's sword rent the earth rather than flesh and bone.
"The Drunkard Prince!" one of the men shouted.
"Stop him!" Harald ordered. "Do whatever it takes to get him under control, but don't kill him!" Quickly looking to two soldiers near the youth, he shouted, "Grab the kid! Don't let him escape!"
Edward twisted his sword free and spun into a broad swipe aimed at the nearest Guardsman. Knowing the Guardsman would be unable to dodge or parry the attack, Mark turned his sword around, struck Harald in the face with the pommel, then rushed forward to block Edward's swing with the flat of his blade. Only by throwing all his weight into the charge was he able to stop the Prince's sword and even then he was pushed back a couple feet.
"What the hell are you doing!?" Edward exclaimed in a blend of anger, shock and confusion.
"Don't kill them!" Mark insisted, striking the Guardsman he had just saved with the pommel of his sword.
"You're a madman!"
"Jes' dew as 'e sehs," a voice interrupted.
One of the soldiers collapsed to reveal Jasper wielding his knife still in its sheath. The thief immediately jumped back to avoid another Guardsman swinging wildly at him, then wove around to strike him in the back of the neck using the same technique that felled his comrade. At the same time, Mark moved around Edward and stunned another Guardsman by smacking him upside the head with the flat of his sword, following through with a strike to the face with the pommel.
All that remained were the two charged with capturing the youth. The young man took advantage of the confusion, loading a sling with a smooth riverstone and loosing it before his would-be captors could react. He struck one squarely on the forehead in spite of the close range and haste of the throw. The Guardsman's iron helmet saved his life, but it did not offer protection enough to prevent the blow from overwhelming his senses. The youth could attack quickly, but he was not fast enough to strike the remaining Guardsman, who grabbed him by the arm and held his blade at the youth's throat.
The three companions stood still while the panicked Guardsman tightened his grip on the youth, his sword shaking visibly even from a distance. Showing more tenacity than his subordinates, Harald rose from the ground, wiped away some of the blood trickling from his nose and made a brief survey of the situation.
"Good work," he said to the Guardsman holding the youth. "Hold him fast and leave the others to me." Facing Mark, Harald pointed his sword at him. "I knew you were trouble, foreigner. From the moment I saw you, I knew you were trouble, but I took pity on you and let you be. See how you repay me?"
"If the milk of human kindness guided your actions, you would have my sympathy," Mark said, "but the only reason you let me go is because I wasn't a threat to you. Now tell your man to let the boy go."
"We'll finish our duel first!"
With a slight bow, Mark replied, "As you wish."
Mark wasted no time. He charged at the lieutenant, who was taken off guard by the sudden shift in aggressiveness, and crossed blades with him. Allowing no chance for attack, he twisted his sword around until he wrenched the weapon out of Harald's hand and knocked the lieutenant to the ground. Before Harald could rise, Mark steadied the point at the Guardsman's throat.
"Let the boy go."
Harald grinned smugly. "You won't do it. I saw it earlier. You don't have the stomach for killing."
"It's not a matter of stomach," Mark said, "but heart."
He then made a quick jab at Harald's bicep, not a serious wound by any account (as Mark had intended it to be) but it would keep Harald from wielding a sword for a while and, more importantly, the pain distracted him while Mark turned his sword around to bash Harald on the head. For good measure, he gave the lieutenant two stiff blows to ensure he stayed down.
All that remained was the one soldier holding the youth, but his dwindling courage collapsed along with his superior. Dropping his sword, he fled into the river without even thinking about the weight of his armor. With much floundering, he somehow managed to reach the opposite bank and continued his flight without a moment's pause.
"He's probably going to the garrison for help," Edward commented.
"Then we need to get moving," Mark replied. Before leaving, he first approached the youth. "Are you okay? You're not hurt, are you?"
"I'm fine," the youth said. "You said your name was Mark, right? I'm Conrad. The Sons of Greystone thank you."
"What?"
"We're a brotherhood of native sons who seek to overthrow the yoke of the foreign oppressors. If there's anything we can do for you, don't be afraid to ask."
Mark frowned. "So you're a rebel after all..."
Mark could not help feeling a little disappointed. Although he did not oppose the goals of those who wanted to be free of Randwulf's dominion, he thought he risked his life and jeopardized his journey for the sake of an uninvolved innocent. Still, there was no changing what had already been done.
The youth knelt by the nearest Guardsman and drew a knife from his belt. As he tilted the soldier's head to expose his neck, Conrad looked back to the three companions.
"Now's your chance to get away," he said. "I'll take care of Randwulf's dogs."
He was surprised to find his wrist in Mark's grip. The swordsman gave him a stern look.
"I didn't save you so you could take the lives I spared. Get out of here before they catch you."
Conrad frowned at Mark's intervention, but did not argue with him. He was not eager to cross the swordsman after his display of skill and the time could be better spent evading capture by the garrison. He returned his knife to its sheath and rose to his feet.
"Your big friend is right," Conrad said. "You are a madman, but you did save my life and I won't forget it."
The youth dove into the river and unlike the Guardsman who had fled earlier, he swam downstream with all the natural grace of an otter. Although Mark did not want to see the Guardsmen dead, he thought it wise to limit the threat they could pose. He gathered up the seven swords lying on the ground and tossed them into the river. At the very least, it would be a nuisance to recover or replace the lost weapons.
Hearing a noise in the distance they feared to be the garrison, the three companions hastily made their way out of town. They did not get far before Edward began to complain.
"I can't believe you let them live," the Prince grumbled. "That boy has more sense than you."
"There's enough death in this world as it is," Mark said. "I don't see why I have to add to it."
Jasper chuckled in bemusement. "Oi loike th' weh ye thin', yun' mahstah. Yer a rare sor', ye noo, a byoo'if'l fin' i' fis deh an' ehj."
"That foolishness of his is only going to get him killed," Edward argued, "along with anyone unfortunate enough to be caught with him. I can't believe Luther the Guardian would have such a son."
"Believe what you will," Mark said, "but ask yourself this: If you doubt that I'm the son of Luther so much, why are you traveling with me? Even if we find the gear of the Guardians, it'll be worthless if I'm not the heir to its power."
"If we find the gear," Edward said, "and you're not really the son of Luther, I'll have at least one piece of the puzzle." He unhooked the axe from his belt and slowly ran his thumb along the edge. "More importantly, I'll be able to cut you down for all the trouble you've caused me."
Jasper patted Mark on the back. "Doan' wurry, yun' mahstah. No ma'ah hoo ye ar', Oi'll pr'tek' ye frum thah' bligh'ah."
"Thank you, Jasper," Mark said, "but there's nothing to fear."
"Heh," Edward sneered. "It means my blade gets to cut through two necks instead of one."
Mark raised his hand to keep Jasper from launching a full-scale argument with the Prince. As disagreeable as Edward could be, Mark did not fail to note that he had come to help in the fight with the Guardsmen. Even if the Prince was guided by self-interest and hatred for Randwulf's servants, it still meant something. Perhaps he was not quite as bad as he appeared. Time would tell.
His thoughts then turned to the youth he had saved. It seemed that revolution was bubbling everywhere in the kingdom. Mark was already mixed up in the conflict and the longer he stayed in Gladius, the more entangled he would become. Indeed, the die had been cast.