Chapter 5
The Sleeping Lion

Outside Rowan, Gladius

"I knew very little about my family. The more I discovered, the more I suffered. Still, I had little choice but to keep following the path I had chosen for myself. Fortunately, I met people who were strong enough to help me through the worst of times. Bearing witness to their own suffering, I found more strength in myself than I ever imagined."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

They reached Rowan the next day. Little more than a handful of ramshackle houses at the edge of the forest, it could hardly be called a town, much less one of the original seven city-states of Gladius.
Mark knocked on a couple doors, requesting to see the headman, but there was no reply. Beginning to doubt the information he had been given, he turned to Edward.
"Siegfried told us to speak with the headman, didn't he?"
Edward crossed his arms. "What reason does he have to talk to you? We Gladians don't take kindly to foreigners, so it's only natural that the people are going to avoid you."
Holding up the letter of introduction from Siegfried, Mark said, "This is the reason he has to talk to me. Besides, I'm a Gladian, too."
Bluffing past the obvious foolishness of his first comment, Edward focused on the second and insisted, "You sound like a foreigner, and as far as I'm concerned, you are a foreigner."
Mark was in no mood for another argument, so he let it go. While he was trying to figure out his next move, a portly middle-aged man approached them.
"I'm the mayor of Rowan," he said. "Can I be of any service to you travelers?"
"We would like to speak to the headman," Mark replied. "Is that you?"
"I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about."
"Siegfried Martel told us to speak with the headman, a Master Ridley. Are you sure you don't know anything?"
The mayor averted his eyes and shifted uncomfortably. Mark knew he was hiding something, but did not know how wise it would be to press him any further. It would probably be better to stay in town a while, observe the locals and gather information at a more gradual pace. The plan, however, was not given a chance to come to pass.
His inquiries had apparently caught someone's attention, for out of the forest strode a woman clad in ornate armor--brilliant silver plating with gold filigree about the edges--embedded with blazing red gems. A dark blue cape billowed behind her as she walked. She was tall for a woman, sturdily built, with long blonde hair tied back below her shoulders. Her bangs were parted to display an ornament tied about her forehead. A buckler was on her forearm and two blades at her waist, a slender rapier and a main gauche. All had the same bright red gems as her armor, gems that resonated with a power Mark could sense as that of an Elemental Knight. The woman glared at the intruders.
"So," she said disdainfully, "Randwulf's stooped to hiring mercenaries, I see." Drawing her rapier with a flourish, she shouted, "Hear this, intruders! I am Sonia the Defender, the protector of this village. Leave now if you value your lives."
"Oi, hoo'd need summun tah pr'tek' sum 'ovels loike thays?" Jasper scoffed.
Mark held up a hand and said, "Sheathe your sword, please. We weren't sent here by Randwulf and we're not mercenaries either. We've come to speak with the headman. We were sent here by--"
"Don't think I'm a fool just because I'm a woman," Sonia growled. "Prepare yourselves!"
Sonia drew her weapons and charged at Mark. He parried her lunge with the draw of his sword and dodged the swipe of her main gauche that immediately followed. She fought with incredible speed, but Mark was narrowly able to defend himself. Ever since the days he had trained with his uncle as a boy, he had not faced anyone so skilled with a blade. He could feel the rush of excitement a warrior only knows when facing a worthy opponent. It would be easy to get carried away by the feeling, but he kept his wits about him. He still wanted to try to reason with her before the fight got out of hand.
The villagers came out of the houses and circled around at a good distance, watching in awe at the pitched duel between the local heroine and the inquisitive stranger, but Mark's companions were not so willing to sit idly by. Edward stepped forward, gripping for the hilt of his sword, but Mark noticed the Prince's movements out of the corner of his eye.
"Don't!" Mark cried out. "This is just a misunderstanding! Let me handle this!"
"Fool!" Edward roared. "Don't expect me to mourn you!"
Against someone as skilled as Sonia, Mark could not afford to divert his attention elsewhere for even a moment and dodged a thrust at his face by barest possible margin. He slashed at the guard of her rapier and they locked blades. Sonia stabbed at his stomach with her main gauche, but he grasped her wrist just before it could reach its mark. As they held an unsteady equilibrium, their gazes locked in the same manner as their blades. He looked deeply into her eyes, a deep blue that burned with a warrior's fire. There was something strangely familiar about her eyes, something that made his heart ache when he looked at them. As if similar thoughts were flitting through her own mind, Sonia's fierce expression suddenly melted into a look of bewildered surprise.
"Those eyes..." she said, her voice distant, like one in a trance. "Aunt Nyssa?"
Sonia broke away from Mark and stepped back. Assuming a defensive stance, the confusion and doubt could be clearly read on her face. It was as if she did not believe her own eyes.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"That name..." Mark trailed. The distant memories welled up inside of him. "Nyssa was my mother's name."
Maintaining her defensive posture, Sonia cautiously inched forward for a closer look and squinted her eyes. "It can't be... Can it? Can it really be you? Mark?"
Now it was Mark's turn to be thrown on the defensive. Even though he had been developing a trend of being recognized by people he did not know, it remained as disarming as the first time.
"How do you know my name?" he asked warily.
Before he could react, Sonia planted her weapons in the earth, rushed up to Mark and embraced him. After giving him a good squeeze, she held him by the shoulders and shook him lightly.
"Don't you recognize me, Mark?" she asked excitedly. The tone of her voice had changed completely, the hard-edged fencer now seemed warm and genial. "My mother and your mother were sisters. Mark, I'm your cousin."
The villagers were as stricken with awe by the sight before them as the demonstration of expert swordplay that preceded it. Edward was completely dumbfounded, and soon broke into muttering a stream of curses and grumbling under his breath. Jasper, on the other hand, found the entire situation greatly amusing and was laughing out loud.
With the threat having passed, Mark sheathed his sword and Sonia went to retrieve her weapons, wiping the dirt from the points before returning them to their sheathes.
"How long has it been, Mark?" Sonia asked. "Twenty years? Uncle Luther took you away before the war, didn't he?"
"Yes," Mark replied. "I was left in the care of my uncle in Byrn."
"When did you get back to Gladius?"
"I arrived in Stormtree four days ago."
Sonia looked like she had many more questions to ask him, but she shook her head and said, "We can catch up later. You said you wanted to see the headman. I'll take you too him." Running her fingers through her hair, she gave a sigh of relief. "Thank heavens you're not one of Randwulf's lackeys. When I heard someone was asking around for the headman, I was afraid those animals had gotten to old Siegfried somehow." As she was about to turn around to guide Mark to his destination, she glanced at the Prince and the thief and asked, "Are they with you?"
"They're Edward and Jasper," Mark replied, "my traveling companions."
"The Drunkard Prince and the Tricky Lutist," she said with a chuckle. "Odd company you keep, cousin."
"How dare you, wench!" Edward bellowed. "Do you realize who you're speaking to!?"
"Of course," Sonia replied curtly. "The Tricky Lutist is that buffoon over there."
Edward's face pinched and flushed with anger. The veins began to rise in his forehead. Sonia only laughed at his simmering rage, which did nothing to help the situation.
As a man of a less intemperate disposition, Jasper simply sighed and mumbled to himself, "Woi kin' Oi gi' a be'ah nikneyme thahn thah'?"
"We're wasting time," Sonia said. "Let's get going."
They followed Sonia into the forest. When they reached a clearing, she stopped and looked up to the canopy. The three others looked around in bewilderment, but they could not see anything. Edward immediately took hold of the hilt of his sword.
"What is this? Are you leading us into a trap, wench?"
"How can I possibly trap the famed Drunkard Prince?" she asked coldly. "You're already caught up in the twin snares called the Bottle and Stupidity."
"Impudent wench!"
As Edward began to draw his sword, Mark hastily intervened.
"Stop now, both of you! This is no time for fighting."
"Alright, alright," Sonia replied in a mildly conciliatory tone. "As you wish, cousin. Anyway, look a little harder and you'll see."
Once Edward had taken his hand away from the hilt, Mark concentrated and looked carefully at his surroundings. Unexpected shapes began to take form and he saw that the canopy was a great network of treetop houses and bridges hidden with masterful camouflage. In addition to the houses, he could see dozens of archers surrounding them with arrows notched and bowstrings drawn taut. Sonia waved to the archers.
"It's all right, everyone. These people are with me. They're not enemies."
The archers relaxed their bowstrings and dispersed. One of them jumped to the ground and ran to Sonia. She was a young woman with short brown hair dressed in leather jerkin dyed green to blend in with the foliage with a feathered cap of the same forest green on her head. She had a quiver slung over her shoulder, a hunting knife thrust in her belt and a well-constructed bow in her hand.
"Sis, are you okay?" she asked. "It's not like you to bring outsiders here."
"I'll explain when we get to the house," Sonia replied. "Is Papa in?"
"He's out checking on the border sentries. He'll be back soon."
"Good, we'll wait for him to come back."
Springing from branch to branch, the archer was soon back in the treetops and a platform was lowered from the canopy. Sonia got on the platform and motioned for the others to follow. As Edward approached, she held her hand up to stop him.
"You're too heavy. She'll get you on the next trip."
Edward glared at her and muttered something unintelligible but undoubtedly vulgar. The platform was slowly raised and the passengers disembarked. After Edward had been brought up, the archer returned and led them to one of the larger houses. The houses of Rowan were very simple, made of a thick, coarse fabric wrapped around a wooden frame with heavy curtains to divide the interior into rooms. Upon entering the main room, they approached a low table.
"Take a seat wherever you like," Sonia said, "but not at the ends."
The archer sat by Sonia on right side while Mark, Edward and Jasper sat on the left. An elderly maidservant brought out cups of a pungent herbal tea. She set cups in front of each of them and one at each end.
Mark looked at the two empty places and asked, "Why are cups there?"
Looking to the front end, Sonia replied, "The end facing the interior is for the head of the house. He'll be here soon and he likes to have his tea waiting for him." She looked at the other end and continued, "The one facing the exit is a ceremonial offering to those who are no longer with us, the dead and our people abroad."
"Am I right in saying the headman and the mayor are two different people?" Mark asked. "What's the difference?"
"As you've seen, the true Rowan is hidden from outsiders. The village you saw beyond the forest is a decoy. The mayor is the same, a decoy leader of the village to deal with outsiders and divert their attention from our real leader. The people who can't serve as hunters or archers live in the decoy village. Rather than living in dishonor elsewhere, they serve Rowan in their own way by protecting her secrets and hiding her true numbers."
"I see," Mark said. "Well then..." He looked at the archer and spoke haltingly. "She, ah, she called you sister and you called the headman father..."
Sonia laughed at her cousin's awkwardness and explained, "Jill's the headman's trueborn daughter. You see, the headman took me in after my mother died, so we're like family."
"And you've proven to be quite the troublesome child," a voice said.
"Welcome home, Papa," Sonia replied with a wry grin.
A sinewy man with streaks of grey in his wild hair ducked in through the door flap and took his place at the head of the table. He was garbed and equipped much like the other archers of the village, but he did not wear a cap. From his hard, leathery face, he appeared to be a stern man but from his eyes, it was clear that he not incapable of showing kindness.
"This is Ridley, the headman of Rowan," Sonia said. "Papa, this is my cousin Mark and the two with him are none other than the Drunkard Prince and the Tricky Lutist."
Resigned to Sonia's use of it, Jasper merely groaned at his nickname, but the hated label struck a nerve with Edward. His short temper flared and launched him into his latest rage.
"Stop calling me that, you hussy! I am the rightful lord of Gladius! Don't think I won't forget your insolence when I take back the throne."
"Forgive her, milord," Ridley said. "Insolence is in her nature. She has all the brashness of her firebrand of an aunt, the late Lady Nyssa, and that vagrant Killian combined."
Neither Edward nor Sonia seemed too pleased with the headman's interference, but it at least provided a temporary reprieve. It gave Ridley the time to finally realize what Sonia had said and he quickly turned to her.
"Did you say Mark?" Ridley asked in disbelief. "You can't possibly mean Lord Luther's son!"
"It's him, all right," Sonia replied confidently. "I'm sure of it."
"How like a woman to let her emotions cloud her judgment," Edward sneered.
"You would know all about clouded judgment, wouldn't you?" Sonia retorted. "If you ever sober enough to tell the difference, that is."
"Silence, wench!" Edward roared, banging his fist on the table.
"Enough!" yelled Ridley. "Bear it well in mind, milord, that the throne is not yet yours and that this is my domain. If the two of you continue to squabble, you can do it outside my forest."
The chastisement was enough to silence Sonia and though Edward mumbled to himself, he was adequately subdued. After allowing things to settle down for a moment, Mark decided to continue the conversation.
"I have been abroad for many years, "he told Ridley. "I came back to Gladius in search of my kin. Siegfried Martel told me to visit you. What can you tell me about what happened here twenty years ago?"
"I don't know what Sonia has told you about us," the headman said, "but as you can see, we Rowanites remain largely free because we keep our true numbers secret. The village at the edge of the forest has been our decoy since old Arcadia was burned to the ground by King Rorik over two hundred years ago. We boast the finest hunters, trackers, scouts, and archers in the whole kingdom and we would almost certainly be wiped out by our enemies if they knew the truth.
"I was with the levy of our people in the service of King Edgar. Our mission was to patrol the western border and as such, I was among the first to learn of the coming of the barbarians, but foreknowledge alone couldn't save the King and his men. When it became clear that the battle was lost, my brothers and I returned to Rowan to warn our people. When the Marauders came here, many sacrificed themselves to give the invaders a convincing conquest. Thanks to that sacrifice, to this day, the existence of our true village remains secret.
"Before the invaders got this far, Lady Liria, the wife of Lord Julian, had taken refuge with us after fleeing from Eagle with her young daughter. She spoke of how your mother, Lady Nyssa, stayed behind to help defend the city. Although I was no acquaintance of your family's, I was familiar with your mother's reputation. I doubt she let them take her or the city alive. As for Lady Liria, sadly she fell ill shortly after arriving here and suffered for several years before Death granted her release.
"As the only direct descendant of the Defender's bloodline, Sonia's survival was imperative and I personally took her into my household. By unknown means, the Defender's gear found its way here, but Sonia couldn't master it on her own. Then came the wandering fencer Killian. He was a distant relative of Sonia's, the grandson of Celo, sister of Sonia's great-grandsire Lord Percival. His knowledge, both of swordsmanship and the unique powers of the Elemental Knights, forged Sonia into the warrior she is today. Would that he were with us today... He gave his life to protect Sonia from a hunter-killer squad dispatched by Randwulf after she had performed the Rite of Succession.
"They say the warlock sees the future and I've heard that a 'Sleeping Lion' is in the visions of Randwulf's downfall. I believe Sonia is this Sleeping Lion. Though she is remarkably skilled, the greater part of her power remains untapped. And that is where you come in.
"I have also heard that the visions mention an 'Eagle in the East'. There were rumors that the son of Lord Luther had been taken to Byrn for safekeeping. If this is true and you are truly Lord Luther's son, then the 'Eagle in the East' is you. In other words, together you and Sonia will bring Randwulf's reign to an end. Now tell me, what is it that you seek?"
Mark stared at his reflection in the tea. "All my life, I've lived without knowing the fate of my parents, my household and my homeland. I came from far away to find answers and there is much I've learned. I've come across people like Edward who want to use me for their revolution and soldiers of the Gladian Guard who want to kill me, but this isn't my fight. There is still so much I don't know and I can't stop until I've learned more. I have to keep following this path I'm on until I find all the answers."
Ridley closed his eyes and nodded. "Something tells me your quest for truth will lead you to much greater things, but for now, keep going forward. Find the answers you seek." He looked at his daughters and then at Mark. "Take Jill and Sonia with you. They will be a great help to you on the way."
"But what about the village?" Sonia asked, her words weighted with concern.
"Don't worry about us, Sonia," Ridley replied with a smile. "We've defended ourselves for many generations before you arrived and will continue to do so many generations after you've gone. Don't misunderstand me, though, my daughter. We all appreciate your strength and your zeal for our sake, but you're meant for a higher purpose. The blood in your veins calls on you to defend a kingdom, even the whole world, not just one tiny woodland village." Eyeing Jill, he added, "And I know Jill would only sneak out if I didn't volunteer her, so I'd rather she have my blessing."
Accepting the intentions of her adoptive father, Sonia cast her reservations aside and turned to Mark. "I will go with you, cousin. If it's answers you seek, I'll see that you find them."
Mark and Sonia clasped wrists, a gesture of unity and camaraderie among warriors throughout the Continent, binding their fates together. She did not offer the same courtesy to Edward, a slight the Prince did not fail to notice. With the insult added to his contempt for women in general and Sonia in particular, Edward scowled in displeasure at the new additions to the group, but said nothing.
It was not even midday yet, so there was hope of them reaching Watercress by nightfall. Mark was anxious to move on to Cruz and the incident with the Gladian Guard the day before gave him incentive not to stay in any one place for long. Once they had descended from the treetops, two Rowanite hunters were waiting for them. Ridley gestured to the small bundles they were carrying.
"This is the traveling food we prepare for our long patrols. It'll keep for a month at least, so I urge you to save it until all other supplies run out. You shouldn't have much to worry about, though. Jill is a fine huntress and if there's any game to be had, she'll find it. I've trained both of my girls to survive in the wild, so they can manage in even the worst of times."
"Thank you for everything," Mark replied. "I won't forget all you've done for us."
"No," Ridley countered, "I'm the one who needs to thank you. After all these long years, Sonia will finally be able to pursue her true path in life." He looked to his foster daughter. "You've been waiting a long time, Sonia. Now you and your cousin will meet your destiny."
Sonia embraced Ridley. "Nine years..." she whispered. "I have been waiting a long time. Now I can finally have my revenge. This is goodbye for now, Papa."
"Be careful, Sonia," the headman warned. "Living for revenge is no life at all."
"His spirit won't rest until I avenge him."
"But he'll find no comfort in it if you don't abandon this obsession. Remember my words. I'll say no more on it."
Sonia nodded quietly and left him go. Ridley turned his attention to Jill. Since Rowanites were not known for open displays of physical affection or any overabundance of words, the parting of father and daughter was kept simple and short. They crossed bows and tapped them together, silently wishing each other a good hunt. With that, the group set out to on the next leg of their journey.
They had barely cleared the forest when they saw one of the last things they needed to see: a group of soldiers from the Gladian Guard accosting the townsmen of the decoy village. Mark motioned for the others to assess the situation before acting. Much as he had done with Mark, Edward and Jasper, the mayor was attempting to draw the attention of the unwelcome visitors.
"What brings the Gladian Guard to our humble village?" he asked. "I'm the mayor. Can I be of any assistance?"
The reply came from an officer Mark recognized from his encounter in Watercress, Harald Svenson. The Guardsman's earlier experience had not improved his temperament any.
"We're pursuing three men and we have reason to believe they're hiding in this village," Harald said. "One of them is the Drunkard Prince, Edward, son of Edgar. Big man, black hair, mustache, plate armor. Sound familiar?"
"I've heard of him, of course," the mayor replied, "but I know nothing of him passing through here."
"Oh, really?" Harald said, making no attempt to hide his suspiciousness. "Perhaps your memory will improve if I describe his companions. One of them looked like a traveling performer. He wore a cloak of many colors and carried a lute with him. We suspect he's the criminal known by such names as the Tricky Lutist, the Minstrel Thief, the Pickpocket Player, the Singing Bandit, and so on and so forth."
"Owl neymes Oi'd ruvah no' cleym," Jasper whispered.
Mark did not pay much attention to the comment, his attention fixed on Harald's interrogation of the mayor. The Guardsman was maintaining his composure, but it was clear that his patience was quickly wearing thin.
"The third one is the most dangerous of the lot," Harald said. "He's a young man, not much older than me, wears a blue jerkin, carries a shortsword. He calls himself Mark, son of Luther, and speaks with a foreign accent. We believe he's some sort of mercenary the Drunkard Prince hired to incite a rebellion." The lieutenant leaned forward to further intimidate the mayor. "If you know where they are, I advise you to turn them over immediately. I'm sure Captain Terentius would agree to increasing the size of the garrison here if there's suspicion of rebel activity. You wouldn't want that, now would you?"
"We are faithful servants to the Crown," the mayor insisted. "Why would we hide anything from the Gladian Guard?"
"That's a fine question," Harald replied. "Why would you hide anything from us? Maybe this whole village has turned traitor. I wonder what a thorough search of the area would turn up."
Mark could not allow Harald to harass the mayor and the other villagers any further, but if he went out to challenge them, he would only prove that the Rowanites had been sheltering the group. Even if he repelled Harald and his men, it could bring future reprisals against the village. As if she could read his thoughts, Sonia rested her hand on his shoulder to reassure him.
"Let Jill and I handle this," she said. "After all, there's only six of them." (Apparently the Guardsman who fled from Mark at Watercress had either deserted or was being punished for cowardice, thus leaving Harald with one less man in his squad.)
"Are you sure?" Mark asked.
"Yeah, we can handle it," Sonia replied nonchalantly. She rubbed her hands together. "Besides, I've been itching to take on the Guard for a long time now."
"Be careful," Mark warned. "Their leader, Svenson, is the best of the lot, but he's no match for you. Don't get careless, though. Even with Jill helping you, you're still outnumbered three-to-one."
"I've sparred ten-to-one," Sonia boasted.
"This isn't a sparring match."
"I know, I know. I'll keep my wits about me."
Before she strode out, Mark took hold of her sleeve. "One more thing. I have a request of you. Try not to kill them."
"What?"
"Not this again," Edward groaned.
"I don't want you to put your own life at needless risk," the swordsman said, "but I don't want any needless killing either."
Sonia frowned for a moment as she thought on his request. In the end, she simply shrugged. "Sure, why not? I could use the challenge. Also," she added with an uncharacteristically girlish wink, "I'd hate to have you dislike me after we've finally been reunited."
Mark smiled. "Thank you, Sonia. If you get into trouble, I'll be there to back you up."
"I appreciate it," the fencer replied. With a mock salute, she readied herself to set out. "Watch this little performance, boys. Come on, Jill, let's go."
The two women marched out to meet the Guardsmen while Mark, Edward and Jasper remained out of sight. At first, Harald and his cronies did not notice their approach, but the mayor did. This gave Sonia the chance to flash a quick hand signal, a cue that the mayor and nearby villagers all seemed to recognize.
"What's going on here?" Sonia demanded, drawing the attention of Harald and his men.
Mark noted that Sonia was using the Bannish tongue to hide the fact that she was a native Gladian. Bannish, also known as Isardian, was the common tongue of the united humanity during the Great War. Even though more than two centuries had passed since the war's end, Bannish was still widely known to one degree or another, especially among the nobility, the merchant class and soldiers. She had correctly judged Harald as one of that number, for he replied in the same tongue.
"Who are you?" he demanded in return. "What business do you have here?"
"I comes here an' see a tree ripe fer th' pickin'," Sonia replied, adopting an uncouth dialect, "an' yew an' yer gang think yew kin get yer pick afore me?"
"Me and my gang?" Harald balked. "You take us for bandits? We're men of the Gladian Guard, sworn to uphold the law of this land." He drew his sword and his men did the same. "You're not the ones we're looking for, but at least I won't come out of this empty-handed. Surrender now if you want to live."
"A lot a' bark fer a mere pup," Sonia sneered. "What's th' madder, liddle dawg? Too scared ta hunt widout yer pack?"
The insult, combined with the embarrassing defeat of the previous day, sparked a frenzied expression that swept over Harald's face as he drew his sword without a moment's pause.
"How dare you!" he howled in seething ferocity.
Sonia grinned boldly. "Come at me then, liddle dawg," she challenged, drawing her own weapons to agitate him further.
Her ploy worked flawlessly. Already on edge from the shame of his earlier defeat, Harald was easily provoked by the attack on his pride and was so angry that he could not think clearly. He was so blinded by rage that he did not even seem to realize that Sonia was a woman.
"Before I send you to Hell, know that I am Harald Svenson, son of Sven Skull-splitter!"
"Enough a' yer barkin', liddle dawg!" Sonia snapped. "Come if yew have th' courage!"
Spurred by her provocation, Harald charged forward with a shout, but Sonia effortlessly sidestepped his opening swipe. Before he could raise his blade, she stabbed him in his unprotected shoulder with her main gauche as Harald's cuirass did not have any pauldrons. The blood not only soaked his sleeve where she struck but also a couple inches down because the wound Mark had inflicted yesterday was reopened by Harald's wild swing.
While Harald was holding his injured shoulder and grunting in pain, a couple of the more zealous soldiers came to his aid. Sonia engaged one while the other was surprised by Jill, who came up behind him and used her bow as an arm bar to render him unconscious. At the same time, Sonia brutally smashed her opponent in the face with her buckler, dropping him to the ground. This prompted the other three to join in the fray.
Jill dodged the swing of one soldier by somersaulting under the blade, slashing open his heel with her hunting knife the moment she emerged from the roll. When the body hit the ground, she stabbed both his hands, twisting the blade to keep the wound from closing and effectively putting him out of the fight.
Taking on two men at once, Sonia blocked a high swing from one and quickly ran her rapier through his arm, causing him to drop his sword with a shriek before his companion could take advantage of the opening. Just as the wounded soldier was staggering away, Harald rejoined the fight. Jill drew away the last of Harald's able-bodied subordinates by shooting him in the leg with an arrow, leaving Sonia to contend with the lieutenant alone. Because of his wounds, Harald was forced to rely on his left arm, although he still attempted to wield his sword two-handed. His clumsy strikes were all too easy for Sonia to block and parry.
"Yew kin't use that arm, liddle dawg," Sonia commented, referring to the inability of his right arm to bear the usual burden of his fighting style. "An' yer no southpaw neider. Yew ain't givin' me much a challenge."
"You'll fight me to the end!" he screamed bitterly.
As much as Sonia hated the Gladian Guard and everyone else who willingly served Randwulf, she was feeling generous that day. She sheathed her weapons and shifted her buckler from her forearm to the more conventional position over the fist. She then held up her buckler as a challenge to him.
"I'm gonna beat yew wit' me shield alone, liddle dawg," she said. "How's that fer a deal?"
"Draw your sword!" Harald shouted. "There's no honor in the fight otherwise!"
"Yew wanna fight an' I wanna challenge. These're me terms, liddle dawg. Take it or leave it."
Harald hesitated briefly, but apparently decided that there was less dishonor in an unbalanced fight than another defeat. He gave up trying to use his right arm, using only his left when he charged forward. Under normal circumstances he would be stronger than Sonia, but the advantage was lessened by his injuries and his unfamiliarity with left-handed fighting. Sonia countered his strikes essentially by punching at Harald's sword. The unorthodox technique threw Harald off balance, leaving him vulnerable to body shots that quickly drained his stamina. He was soon so wearied by the string of failed attacks and the repeated blows to his torso that he could barely hold up his sword. Sonia brought the duel to an end by throwing all her weight into a punch that slammed her buckler upside Harald's head.
Sonia stood over the sprawled form of her opponent. Although he was not quite unconscious, there was no way he could continue the fight. Drawing her rapier, Sonia leveled the point at Harald's throat. Despite looking somewhat dazed, a faint defiance flashed in the lieutenant's eyes.
"Finish it if you be a man," he growled.
"There's nothing I'd like more than to run this point straight through your heart," Sonia replied coolly, slipping out of character, "but I promised not to kill any of you scum... this time at least." Keeping her rapier steady, she went down on one knee to bring her face closer to his. "And you eyes avail you no better than your blade, little dog, because I'm a woman, though I may be more man than you."
Harald's eyes widened as the realization hit him. "A woman? I was beaten... by a woman?"
It was now beyond a shadow of a doubt that in his anger he had not realized Sonia was in fact a woman. While her armor hid the curves of her body, her voice and face could scarcely be confused for those of a man or youth. Sonia had no sympathy for him and only grinned scornfully.
"It's 'bout ta git worse, liddle dawg," she said, getting back into her character. "Now I'm gonna claim me spoils." Standing up, she waved her sword at the villagers in a menacing display. "Yew've seen me skills in combat, yew worms! If yew don' wanna taste me steel, yew'll dew as I say!"
Although her performance was fairly transparent to anyone in their right mind, Harald was in no state to see through her act. The mayor was at least as good an actor as Sonia, which did not say much.
"Please, don't hurt the villagers," he pleaded. "We'll do whatever you ask of us. We have very little, but we'll give you all we have."
"What could this mis'rable village possibly give me?" she scoffed. Mark thought she was going dangerously over the top, but Harald did not seem to catch on. "No, there's nothin' yew kin give me, but there is somethin' yew kin dew fer me, somethin' yew will dew fer me."
"We are at your command. Just don't hurt us!"
"Stop yer blubberin'," Sonia growled. "Dew as I say an' I'll spare yer wretched lives." She looked down at Harald with a cruel smile that was no act. "Strip these men," she ordered, "naked as th' day they were born, bind 'em wrist ta wrist an' march 'em ta th' garr'son post."
"But the Gladian Guard will punish us for such an outrage!"
The fear in the mayor's voice was largely sincere. Sonia tried to assuage his concern while remaining in character.
"These dawgs know bedder'n that," she said. She stepped on Harald's wounded shoulder, causing him to cry out in pain despite his best efforts to maintain a stoic facade. "Don't yew, liddle dawg?" She twisted her heel and made him cry out more. "If yew or any a' th' other dawgs thinks 'bout hurtin' these people, I'll find out 'bout it an' there'll be a reckonin', rest assured a' that." She took her foot off his shoulder. "Remember that there're fates far worse than death. Remember it well." To mask her true loyalties, she turned to the villagers and shouted, "That goes fer all yew worms, too! Get ta work!"
The villagers immediately fell upon the Guardsmen, stripping them of their arms, armor and clothing. Their wrists were bound and they were strung together like fish on a line. The unconscious ones were revived and brought to their feet. The soldier whose heel had been cut stood only with incredible pain and difficulty. Four villagers were elected to lead the naked captives to the garrison post and they marched off without ceremony. Once they were out of earshot, Sonia and the mayor were able to drop their act.
"Not a bad start if I say so myself," Sonia said, sounding particularly pleased with her work. "Today it's wounds and humiliation, tomorrow death and defeat."
The mayor was not so impressed. "You've put our village in danger, Miss Sonia," he scolded. "What will we do when the Guard comes back for revenge?"
"Not that guy," Sonia assured the mayor. "I can't speak for the garrison, but that guy won't waste his time here. He'll want to chase me down, just like he was chasing Mark. He might come here to question you, but that'll be it. Just tell him the truth if he does. You don't know where we're going, so you won't have to lie. You'll have a direction, though. That should be enough for him."
"What about all this?" the mayor asked, gesturing to the pile of the Guardsmen's gear.
While Sonia was considering what to do with her spoils, Mark, Edward and Jasper had come forward. After glancing at Jasper, she decided to put the thief's skills to use.
"Have at it," she invited. "Find us anything of value. Two shares for me and one share for the mayor. Deal square and I'll let you have a fifth part of my share."
Jasper happily obliged, rummaging through the pile with the speed, efficiency and thoroughness of a seasoned professional. While he was seeking out hidden pockets and whatnot, Sonia eyed Edward's pack.
"How much room do you have in that thing?"
"What difference does it make to you?" the Prince asked bluntly.
"Just answer the question."
"About a quarter or so. Why?"
"It might be enough," Sonia mused. "I have an idea."
Stooping over the pile, Sonia gathered up all the gear a single Guardsman would need: a helmet, brigandine, vambraces, greaves, swordbelt, sword and scabbard. She looked back to Edward.
"Set your pack down. This stuff might come in handy later."
"Why should I have to lug around the gear of one of those dogs?"
"Just do it, Edward," Mark insisted. "If the load is too heavy for you, I'll carry some of it."
"Hmph," Edward sneered. "The last thing I need is your help. I never said I couldn't carry it."
Taking advantage of Edward's pride and his stubbornness, they got him to do exactly what they wanted. Sonia stuffed the gear into Edward's pack. It was a tight fit, but not so bad that it threatened to bust any seams. When that was done, Jasper finished scavenging any valuables from the pile. He set it all at Sonia's feet so she could divide the spoils herself. She first divided out the share for the mayor and of her two shares, she gave a fifth part to Jasper, another fifth to Mark and kept the rest for herself and Jill. Edward was notably excluded. If he did not already have a considerable sum given to him by Siegfried, he would have most certainly complained. Instead he silently added the new insult to his building grudge against the lady fencer.
Before they set out, Sonia gave some final instructions to the mayor.
"Give all this to the headman," she said, pointing to the pile of gear. "Let him do with it as he sees fit. If he gives you any of it, don't feel the need to hesitate. It's yours. Let him know about the Guard, too. We won't let them hurt any of you. If we have to wipe out the whole damn garrison, so be it."
"Miss Sonia! Do you realize what that would mean?"
"War," she replied in a deadly serious tone. "It's coming. It's just a matter of time." Sensing the mayor's unease, she rested a hand on his shoulder to reassure him. "Don't worry. I don't think anything will happen too soon. Remember that you're still a Rowanite and we protect our own."
The mayor shook his head and sighed. In spite of himself, he smiled. He could not help but smile at Sonia's display of boldness.
"Take care, Miss Sonia. We'll manage somehow."
The other nearby villagers cried out farewells to their champion and Sonia waved to them as the group walked down the road. The villagers continued to clamor until they were little more than specks in the distance. Their devotion to her impressed Mark deeply. It was such a stark contrast to his own quiet departure from Byrn. Only a few people even knew that he had left, not that he had an especially large circle of acquaintances to begin with. The point was that Sonia had a true home and was well loved there. More than anything else, that was what made the deepest impression on him. Ultimately, it was what he was searching for, his true home. Perhaps he would come one step closer to finding it when they reached their next destination in Cruz, the city of monks.