Chapter 7
The Road of Pain

Outside Cruz, Gladius

"My time in bondage made me pity the lot of the slave and the prisoner. It made me more merciful than I might have been otherwise. The scars I bear from my experiences serve as a reminder of the fine line between man and beast."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The nets used by the Guardsmen to catch Mark were made of thick hempen ropes that mostly protected him from being torn to shreds as he was dragged along the road. That did not make it a painless ordeal. He was choked by clouds of dust, showered by loose gravel, struck upturned rocks and bounced roughly along the uneven terrain. For Mark, it seemed like he had been dragged for hours when the three riders finally stopped.
The one with the arrow in his back was promptly tended to. Since Jill's arrows were designed for hunting game instead of piercing armor, the tip had gotten stuck in one of the iron plates of the Guardsman's brigandine and did not penetrate far. Although the wound was minor, the Guardsman made quite a fuss while he was being treated. Mark had a hard time feeling much sympathy for him.
Before his captors set out again, they brought Mark to his feet and compelled him to walk. Between the wear on his body from being dragged so far and the nets hindering his movement, Mark fell down after only a few steps. The Guardsmen had no intention of letting him get back up and spurred their horses onward, dragging Mark along once again. They rode until sunset before setting up camp for the night.
Although Mark's body was already racked with pain from being dragged so far, it did not stop the Guardsmen from venting their anger on him. They savagely kicked him, beat him with the butts of their halberds and cursed him until they exhausted themselves. To reward themselves for their work, the Guardsmen relaxed by a small campfire to eat. Naturally, Mark was kept too far away from the fire to absorb any of its warmth.
"Ah kin't believe they got Leb, Yuri an' Brennah," one of them said dejectedly.
"Don' worry, Kith," another said. "Th' one we got'll get what 'e deserves once we reach Corinth."
"Yeah, but wha' 'bout th' one what shot me an' Yuri?" complained the third.
"Or th' one what got Brennah?" asked Kith.
"We kin't touch th' Drunkard Prince, Kith," the second one said. "Yew know tha'. Bad as Ah'd like ta see 'im suffah, though... Anyway, least yew lived through it, Quid. Once we take care o' this one, we kin tell th' Cap'n 'bout th' othahs an' th' 'ole Guard'll be out lookin' fer 'em."
"Hmph," Quid snorted. "'Ow many'd yew count anyway, Gil?"
"Ah was focusin' on th' gates th' 'ole time," Gil replied. "What 'bout yew, Kith?"
"Ah look't back when Ah hear'd Yuri," Kith said. "Ah saw four at th' cathedral an' then there's th' Drunk'rt Prince an' the one we got. Tha' makes six."
"We'll a' leas' drop th' count ta five in Corinth," Quid said with a snicker.
They continued to talk for a while before finally falling asleep. Mark had been so sorely beaten that he could barely stay conscious. Nevertheless, he fought to stay awake by fixing his will on escape. The Guardsmen had never bothered to search him. Except for his sword, he still had all his equipment, most importantly the Dagger of Eolande. Since the nets were tied to the Guardsmen's mounts, he could not untangle them without disturbing the horses and waking up the Guardsmen. The only option was to cut through the nets, which carried the additional benefit of rendering them unusable.
Drawing the dagger from his boot, he went to work cutting through the ropes. His hands did not want to hold the dagger and his sore muscles were uncooperative, but he persevered nonetheless. He knew that any pain he felt now would pale before whatever lay in store for him. He was making steady progress opening a hole in all three nets when things took a turn for the worst.
One of the Guardsmen had woken up (perhaps he had not fallen asleep in the first place) and was sneaking over to the horses. He appeared to be ransacking the saddlebags of his comrades, ostensibly in search of money and other valuables. Mark was quite content to leave him to his work, but there was a problem. If he continued his escape attempt, he would most likely be caught by the Guardsman and his efforts would be for naught. On the same token, if the Guardsman walked over to him to ensure the secrecy of his theft, he would see the cut ropes and Mark would be no better off.
The hole in the nets was just big enough for him to get through, so Mark opted to take advantage of the Guardsman's distraction and get away. Even without the poor condition of his body, it was a tricky maneuver to get out of the nets without pulling on the horses and drawing unwanted attention. Rather than simply crawling out of the hole, he had to hold the nets in place while he pushed himself through.
Necessity dictated that he move slowly. The Guardsman would not want to be caught and his paranoia would make him more alert than usual. Mark did not let his own anxiety get the better of him. His best chance of success lay with his patience. Inch by agonizing inch, he was making his way out of the nets. He was free from the waist up when his scabbard caught on the net. Feeling the tug on the ropes, one of the horses became agitated and alerted the Guardsman.
He was not expecting the prisoner to be attempting an escape, so he did not move too quickly to investigate. Mark tried pulling on the net to widen the hole, but all the gear on his belt was too big and the ropes did not stretch enough. He had to cut a wider hole, but the Guardsman was almost there. Fueled by a rush of adrenaline, he no longer felt the pain as he hastily sawed at the ropes. By the time he had cut through, the Guardsman stood mere inches from him.
"Wha' th'--?"
Before the Guardsman could finish his sentence, Mark thrust the dagger into his leg, focusing all his energy into the gems. The moment the blade struck, electricity surged through the Guardsman's body. After letting out a tortured scream, he fell unconscious to the ground with wisps of smoke curling from his crumpled form. Unfortunately, the Guardsman's scream woke his companions and unlike their fallen comrade, they would not be taken by surprise.
At this point, there was not much hope of escape. Mark's body had been too thoroughly ravaged to run or fight, but that did not stop him from trying. Pulling himself out of the nets, Mark struggled to his feet and tried to force his unwilling legs to move.
"Stop 'im!" one of the Guardsmen shouted.
The other obliged by throwing his full weight and momentum into tackling Mark. The shock of the blow knocked the dagger out of Mark's hand and it was beyond his reach when he hit the ground. Pinned by the Guardsman who had tackled him, Mark clutched his chest when the other one caught up and delivered a sharp kick to his stomach. The intense pain was so great that he momentarily forgot about his last-ditch defense. Now it was too late. The Guardsman followed through with a kick to the head that robbed him of consciousness. His one best chance to escape was lost.

* * *

The guards in the gatehouse did not stand a chance. Without Mark to stop her, Sonia exacted vengeance with brutal virtuosity. Wielding her powers in combat for the first time, she launched a fireball into the gatehouse and charged headlong into the ensuing explosion. Of the three Guardsmen, two were ran through before they could even draw their swords and the other only succeeded in making a single clumsy swing before Sonia thrust her main gauche up under his chin until the crossguard struck his jawbone.
Emerging from the billowing smoke, she stalked over to the fallen Guardsmen Mark had left unconscious in the street. Seizing him by the collar, she dragged him over to the gate. After propping him up, she then proceeded to revive him with a series of hard slaps. As the Guardsman groggily came to his senses, Sonia slammed him against the wall.
"Your friends made a mistake when they took my cousin," she hissed, drawing the Guardsman's sword.
Using all her might, Sonia drove the Guardsman's own blade through his stomach, pinning him to the gate. The soldier howled in agony, but she was unmoved. Pressing the blade of her main gauche against his neck, she glared at him in cold-blooded ruthlessness.
"Tell me where they're going and I'll put you out of your misery. They're going to Corinth, aren't they?"
Overcome with pain, the Guardsman did not answer right away, prompting Sonia to slam him against the wall once more.
"Tell me!"
The Guardsman had difficulty speaking. "We, ugh... we take all captives to Corinth first. They should get there, ah... oh... get there in two days." With a quaking hand, the Guardsman gripped Sonia's pauldron. "You got what you wanted. Now please... end it."
"You don't deserve it," Sonia growled, "but I'll make an exception this time."
In a single smooth motion, she ran the edge across his throat and returned the main gauche to its sheath without even wiping the blade. Walking over to the place where Mark was captured, she picked up her cousin's sword and held it tight. She then turned to the others.
"Let's go," she said. Noticing Edward did not have his pack, she asked him, "Where's your stuff?"
"At the tavern," the Prince replied lazily, too drunk to fully appreciate everything that had happened.
Unwilling to rely on Edward, she pointed to Jasper. "You, Tricky, go with Jill and get the drunkard's pack."
"Moi neyme's Jespah," protested the thief.
"Whatever. Just do it. It's only a matter of time before someone alerts the garrison. We have to hurry if we want to stop those riders before they bring Mark to Corinth. I'm going to go open the gate. I want you here by the time I get back."
Since he shared Sonia's sentiments about saving Mark, Jasper accompanied Jill to the tavern without a word of complaint while she went to the gatehouse. She pulled the lever inside and the gates slowly creaked open. When she was on her way back, she saw Teresa trying unsuccessfully to draw out the sword stuck in the Guardsman.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
"Let him down," the novice pleaded. "For pity's sake, let him down. It's bad enough that you killed him, but leaving like this... It's, it's barbaric."
"No, he stays like that. It's a message to all the other dogs."
"But--!"
"I said no," Sonia declared, "and that's final. I don't know why you're supposed to be traveling with us and I don't care. Unless you want to go back inside, you'll do as you're told. I don't have time to coddle you. Right now the only thing I'm thinking about is saving Mark. Understand?"
Cowed by Sonia's forcefulness, Teresa simply bowed her head in submission. With that taken care of, the fencer turned her attention to Jill and Jasper, who were busy dragging Edward's pack to the gate.
"It's heavy," Jill commented.
"Ye 'erd 'er," Jasper added. "Oi doan' noo 'ow th' big lug duz i'."
"Good work, you two," Sonia said. She took Mark's sword and put it in the pack, adding, "He'll be needing this once we get him back." Wasting no time, she walked over to Edward and seized him by the pauldrons, refusing to let go in spite his struggling. "Edward, pay attention to me. I know you're drunk right now and I don't care. You're going to pick up your pack and follow us. If you fall behind, we will leave you and you'll have to deal with the Guard all on your own. You got that?"
Still rather inebriated, the Prince grumbled, "I don't take no orders from no woman."
"That's your call," she said, "but remember that you need Mark. You can't get what you want without his help."
"I don't need no one."
"Have it your way." Sonia released Edward and turned to walk away. "The rest of you, let's get moving. We're going to cut across and get to Corinth before those riders. Jill, lead the way. Find me the shortest path."
Acknowledging the direction with a silent tip of her bow, Jill ran on ahead. Sonia passed through the gates with Jasper closeby and Teresa following farther behind. As she had expected, Edward was pulling up the rear and quickly closing the distance.
"Don't think you can leave me!" Edward shouted. "I've decided we're going to save that foreigner and that's what we're going to do!"

* * *

When Mark came to, his attention was not drawn to the pain throughout his body, but a sense of heat at his heels. Although he had trouble seeing straight, he was able to make out the form of his feet dragging along the road. Without their nets, the Guardsman bound their captive by tying each of his wrists to a saddle. The inherent threat lay with their ability to torture him by riding farther apart. One of three things would eventually snap from the stress: the rope, the saddle, or Mark's arms.
Since his feet were the only thing that touched the ground under this new arrangement, Mark was surprised they left his boots on. He did not expect it as an act of kindness. Rather, the Guardsmen knew it would be less trouble if he could still stand on his own feet.
Craning his neck, he saw that they were entering a town he recognized as Eagle. The group had bypassed it on the way to Cruz, but his captors had no need to take the long way around. Before going in, they had a brief exchange with the guards of the gatehouse.
"Wot ye got theyah?" the guard asked.
"Priz'nah," replied the Guardsman Mark identified as Quid. "'E caused some trouble fer us when we was passin' through Cruz. We're takin' 'im ta Corinth."
"'E's some kind a' mercen'ry or somethin'," another whined. It was Kith, the one Mark hand stabbed in his attempt to escape. "We've olready los' half our squad ta him an' his band an' on top a' i' all, this 'oreson managed ta stab me las' nigh' tryin' ta 'scape."
"Ye'd bes' repor' i' ta th' c'mandah since yer passin' through 'eyah," the guard advised. "Ye know 'ow 'e is."
"Yeah," mumbled Gil, the third of his captors, "the tigh'es' black-plume in th' 'ole mother-lovin' Guard. We'll be sure ta stop by."
"Ah wish Ah could see th' show," the guard said.
"Heh," Quid mocked, "it's wha' ye get when yer stuck in garr'son in a no-coun' town like this."
"Yeah, well, leas' me an' my buddies ain't out gettin' themselves killed like yew patrol dogs."
"Rot in 'ell, gate boy."
"Same ta ye, road rat."
With that, the Guardsmen ended their friendly conversation and moved on into the city. Although Eagle was probably the largest of all the towns in Gladius, it seemed largely deserted. Only a handful of people could be seen out in the streets even though it was nearly midday. He did not have much time to think on it, for the garrison barracks were not far from the gate.
The Guardsmen dismounted and while Gil was busy untying Mark from the saddles, he gave orders to his counterparts.
"Kith, wa'er th' 'orses an' get us some fresh s'pplies. We'll be headin' out again once Ah've repor'ed th' priz'nah ta th' c'mandah. Quid, yer comin' wi' me. Keep an 'old on 'im for me."
Lashing Mark's wrists together behind his back, Gil handed Mark over to Quid as Kith led the horses to the stables. Mark was guided to the garrison commander's office, where he found one of the last people in the whole world he wished to see: Harald Svenson.
"You!"
His rage ignited, Harald rushed forward to deliver a stiff punch to Mark's gut. The captive swordsman doubled over from the blow, but his captors kept him on his feet. The commander, taken aback by the sudden disruption, slammed his hands on his desk.
"Svenson," the commander snapped, "what is the meaning of this!?"
"This is the one I was telling you about," Harald sputtered, "the foreign mercenary with the Drunkard Prince!" Turning back to Mark, he puffed up his chest in haughty satisfaction. "So your luck finally ran out, did it? Serves you right." He glanced at Quid. "Where are the others?"
"This one's owl we caught, sah," Quid replied.
"I want an explanation right now!" the commander demanded.
"Well, sah," Gil explained, "me an' my squad was sportin' wi' th' Drunk'rd Prince while we was passin' through Cruz. Then this dog came in an' 'ttacked Yuri an' then th' Drunk'rd Prince killed Brennah. We caught this one an' we was makin' our way out a' the city when one a' 'em killed Leb..." He gestured to Quid. "...and wounded this man 'ere."
"The timing fits," Harald added. "It's been nine days since we lost his gang in Rowan." He turned back to the two Guardsmen. "There was another foreigner, a woman dressed as a man. She had a huntress in green with her. Did you see them in the prisoner's band?"
"Ah don' know, sah," Gil said. "Th' only one who got a good look a' th' othahs was Kith an' Ah sent 'im ta get s'pplies. We figure there were six a' 'em countin' the Drunk'rd Prince an' th' priz'nah. Maybe th' people yer lookin' fer was wi' 'em."
"Perhaps," Harald mused. "I'm taking charge here. You and your men will fall in with my squad. We'll go to Corinth together."
"Sah," Gil said, "tha' ain' necess'ry. I's jus' one priz'nah."
"You don't have a say in the matter," Harald said. "I want to see this dog meet his fate. Besides, you need someone with rank to hand over the prisoner."
Gil was not foolish enough to oppose an officer's will and made no further complaint. Once the garrison commander's adjutant wrote up a brief report, they were dismissed. Kith was waiting for them outside with the horses. Once they had tied Mark to the saddles as before, Harald told them to meet his men at the East Gate.
At the East Gate, Mark noted that Harald's squad was down to three men. It seemed that the two crippled by Jill had to be left behind and Harald had not acquired any replacements yet. The men visibly stirred at the sight of Mark, angering their commander.
"Why are you trembling like women!?" he barked. "Look at him! Beaten, broken, bound. He's no danger. Even if he was geared and ready for battle, I'd have you flogged for cowardice."
Harald's own men and Mark's captors said nothing. Mark could sense the resentment they bore for the overbearing lieutenant. To be sure, he would be in a bad place if military discipline ever broke down.
Once they were on the road, Harald took pleasure in jabbing Mark with the butt of his halberd. He was making the horses skittish, but the riders were not going to say anything. When he got bored with this, he sought new ways to amuse himself at Mark's expense.
"Stretch him," Harald told the riders. "Make him scream."
Although Mark could not appreciate it at the time, the riders took considerable care handling their mounts. It would not have taken much effort to dislocate his shoulders or even rip his arms off. The pain was too great to pay much thought to such things. Nevertheless, he refused to cry out. He would not give Harald the satisfaction. However, it did not stop the lieutenant from badgering him.
"How do you like that, foreigner? This is nothing compared to what you'll get at Punishment Square. If I don't break you, you can be sure they will. I can't wait to see it either." He licked his lips in anticipation. "And when we're done with you, your friends will be next. Especially that swordwench..."
Mark was not afraid to face death and torment. If his journey would come to a painful end in Corinth, he was willing to accept it, but the thought of his companions suffering sparked the will to resist. He could not abandon them and with that thought burning in his mind, he mustered all the strength that was left in his arms. Fighting the pull of the horses, he drew his arms together. The horses and their riders were taken off guard by the new force and did not know how to react to it.
"What are you doing?" Harald barked. "Spur your mounts!"
The Guardsmen obeyed, but Mark fought the pull of the horses with all his might. His muscles did not fail him and it left the harried steeds distressed by the two unpleasant sensations of being pulled in a direction they did not want to go and the spurring of their riders.
Remarkably, the captive swordsman had draw his arms close enough together that the horses were pressing up against his sides. He could almost reach the ropes binding his wrists. If he could get even one hand free...
Had there been no one else but the Guardsman who captured him, Mark might have succeeded. Unfortunately, Harald Svenson was there and if nothing else, his single-mindedness made him quick to act in any situation. He gave Mark a savage thrust to the gut with his halberd. The shock of the sharp, sudden pain was too much for Mark. His arms gave out and the horses flew apart. When his arms were drawn taut, a new wave of pain swept over him. It was more than his body could handle and darkness overcame him once again.

* * *

Sonia knew what awaited Mark if he was delivered to Corinth before they could save him: the dreaded Punishment Square. She had only been to Corinth once since her mother died, but that one visit was enough to see what happened at the Square. She had no intention of leaving Mark to such a fate.
Her sense of urgency prompted her to keep a brutal pace that only Jill could meet. They were not moving as quickly as she would have liked. Unsurprisingly, the new addition was slowing them down more than anyone else. With no traveling experience, Teresa could barely keep up and did not have even half the stamina of the others. It did not help any that they were crossing the open country rather than sticking to the road. Sonia was not entirely unsympathetic to the novice's struggles, but the danger Mark faced held a far greater priority.
In theory at least, it would take the same amount of time to reach Corinth on foot by cutting across as it would to take the roads by horse. Sonia wanted to arrive ahead of Mark's captors, so she was willing to forgo eating and sleeping to achieve her goal. However, her resolve was not universally shared. As much as she hated to admit it, she needed all the help she could get to pull off the rescue. To that end, she had to finally agree to a break after nearly six hours of walking.
While they rested, Jill went off to forage, most likely raiding the fields and gardens of a nearby manor. Sitting around the campfire, Edward nipped at a flask, Sonia cleaned her weapons and Jasper strummed his lute. Sonia noticed that Teresa was sitting by herself some distance away from the others. Pricked by her conscience, she got up to approach the novice. Edward coughed, the sort of cough people give when they want to get your attention.
"Just leave her be," he said.
Ignoring Edward's advice, she walked up to the solitary novice. Sonia rested her hand on Teresa's shoulder and the novice shrank from her touch.
"Hey," Sonia said softly. "I want to apologize for how I treated you earlier. You were only trying to do the decent thing back there, but I was out of sorts. My hatred for the Guard only made it worse." She paused for a moment, unsure of how to continue. "That was a pretty awful sight for someone who's been holed up all her life. Pretty awful for anyone, really... I'm sorry for that, too."
Teresa did not say anything at first, but Sonia could tell there was something she wanted to say. When she made no move to speak her mind, the Defender thought a little prodding might be necessary.
"If there's something you want to say to me, go ahead and say it. It won't do you any good to keep it to yourself."
Even with Sonia's encouragement, Teresa hesitated before finally speaking. "Are you sorry for the men you killed?" she asked. "Are you sorry for spilling blood in a city that's been a sanctuary from needless violence for over a hundred years? I think you should worry about that rather than my feelings."
"Don't get an attitude with me, little missy," the fencer warned. "Don't think you can act all high and mighty just because you're a nun. You don't have any idea about the real world and until you do, you don't have any place to talk. No, I'm not sorry I killed those dogs of the Guard and Cruz's liberation is more important to me than its reputation."
"Only God has the right to take life," Teresa said. "There's no way a human can justify it."
"Sorry, but I don't believe in gods," Sonia said, resting her hand on the hilt of her rapier. "All I believe in is this."
"It is written, 'All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'"
"A warrior can hope for nothing more," Sonia replied, "and expect nothing less."
Teresa was a little put off by Sonia's response and started to clam up again. Fearing the novice might become wholly uncommunicative, Sonia redoubled her efforts to bring things to a resolution.
"Listen, you don't have to agree with me and you don't have to like how I do things, but it looks like we might be together for a while, so we should at least come to an understanding. I'm a warrior. My job is to kill. I've spent my entire life training mind, body and spirit so I can kill any opponent that stands before me. You're a healer and a nun. You save lives, pray for the lost souls, things like that. That's you. Our paths are completely different, but that doesn't mean we can't get along.
"Mark told me to go easy on you and I'm going to try to do just that. I'll take care of you. So will the others. We're really not bad people." Pausing to eye Edward, she added, "Most of us, anyway." She patted the novice's back lightly. "Don't worry. As long as I'm around, nothing's going to happen to you."
Teresa nodded, but said nothing. Seeing that she could do no more, Sonia turned around and went back to the others. Unsurprisingly, an argument soon broke out between her and Edward. Watching the sight in dismay, Teresa sighed.
"What have I gotten into?"
If she knew then what lay in store for her over the course of her travels, she would have ran back to the abbey that instant without any thought of the repercussions that awaited her. It was a fortunate stroke of Providence that the timid novice was not blessed with precognizance.