Chapter 9
Escape and Aftermath

Outside Corinth, Gladius

"Which is worse, living with your past, and all the pain it brings, or living without it? I went on my fateful journey because I could not live without. Even if I knew all the pain and sorrow that would come with it, I don't think I would have done anything differently."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Because speed and combat skill were critical to the plan to rescue Mark, Teresa had been left behind a short distance from the city with the group's equipment. It did not take them long to reach her. Given her sheltered life, it was little wonder the novice was overcome at the sight of her companions all grim-faced and blood-stained. She held a hand to her mouth when she realized the battered and bleeding body on Jasper's shoulders was the swordsman she was pledged to serve.
"You've got to help him!" Sonia shouted.
In her mind, Teresa acknowledged Sonia's words as something that went without saying. She knew what her responsibilities were, but her body would not respond. She was paralyzed with fear. It was all too much. All this blood, violence and death. It was just too much for her.
Sonia seized her by the shoulders and shook her roughly. "We don't have time for this! Focus! If you don't help him right now, he could die! I'll help you however I can, just do something!"
"Ah, um..." Teresa stammered, struggling to say what she wanted. "Set him, set him down on the ground, but not, ah, not directly on the dirt and grass. Is there a, um, a sheet or something, something to set on the ground?"
Sonia unhooked her cape and spread it out on the ground.
"Will this do?" she asked.
"Um, yes..."
Sonia looked to Jasper. "Okay, let's set him down. Easy now."
With Sonia's help, the thief gently laid his burden on the cape. Because of the wounds on Mark's back, they set him down on his stomach.
Trying not to pass out from the sight of all the blood, Teresa noticed Mark's dislocated shoulder.
"How long has his shoulder been like that?"
Sonia shook her head. "I don't know."
"Sinz b'fo' wi gow' 'im," Jasper replied.
"I have to put his arm back in place first," the novice said. "I need you to turn him over."
"But what about his back?"
"The longer we wait, the greater the risk of him never using that arm again."
Focusing wholly on her patient, Teresa had overcome her fear and was behaving as a professional. This new confidence prompted Sonia to follow her lead. She and Jasper turned Mark over, causing him to cry out when his back made contact with the ungentle ground.
"It's okay," Teresa said softly. "Bear with it for just a little while."
In truth, Mark was barely conscious. The toll of the day on his body and all the blood loss had left him less than lucid. Taking hold of his arm near the shoulder and just above the wrist, Teresa looked up to Sonia.
"Hold him steady please."
Sonia complied, trying to hold him firmly enough that he did not move but not so much that she caused any undue amount of pain. Working carefully and smoothly, Teresa turned Mark's arm so that the palm face upward, sliding his arm back into the socket in the process. Just as she had done this, she heard the clinking of Edward's armor as he approached them.
"We need to get out of here," the Prince said. "That Rowanite girl killed the mayor. The garrison and the Licinians' men both will be after us in no time."
Taking in the new information, Sonia turned to Teresa and asked, "Can we move him?"
"It's dangerous, but I need to stop the bleeding at least."
"Okay," Sonia said. "Get to work." Standing up, she drew her weapons and looked to Edward. "We have to buy some time if they move out anytime soon. Jill and I will slow them down. Edward, go about fifty paces and wait there. You'll be the second line."
"I'll take point," Edward said. "You and the Rowanite can be the second line."
"We can attack from a distance," Sonia countered. "You can't. Stop arguing and just do it."
Edward growled, "Since when do I take orders from a woman?"
"Stowp cumpleynin', ye bi' bluddy fool!" Jasper snapped. "Jes' dew as th' ledy seys fah wonz!"
Before Edward could complain further, Sonia turned her attention to Jasper. "Do what you can to help her," she told him. "If you see us fighting, take Mark and Teresa and run. Find someplace safe. If we live through it, we'll worry about meeting up then. You got it?"
The thief nodded. "Oi gowtcha."
"Good," she said approvingly, shooting a scornful glare at Edward. "At least one person knows to do his part." Before leaving, she looked back to Teresa one last time. The novice could see the resolve in her eyes, the resolve of someone prepared to die. "Take care of him," she said. "Take care of my cousin."
With that she ran to Jill, who was already in position. Sonia did not try to fight Edward for a verbal agreement on the strategy. She correctly judged that the proud man would only do as he was told when no one was paying attention. While Sonia, Jill and Edward were girding themselves for an impending attack, Teresa continued her work.
"Help me raise him to a sitting position," she told Jasper, "but remember not to pull him up by his left arm."
Jasper showed impressive care in executing the request. The dexterity that served him so well as a thief also allowed him to move Mark while inflicting the minimum amount of pain. Teresa wasted no time taking her waterskin and washing out the many open wounds, first the stripes on his back and then the cuts on his head, face and hands. Taking a spool of bandages, she made hasty dressings, nothing she planned on keeping for long but enough to stop the bleeding. She then pulled out a cravat to make a sling for his arm. Once again, it was not meant to last very long, simply an expedient given their short time.
With Teresa's work done for the time being, Jasper hurried out to gather the others. Luckily, the enemy had not yet mobilized and they were able to move out immediately. Wrapping Mark in her cape, Sonia took it upon herself to carry him, directing Jill to take point while Jasper fell back to the rear to keep an eye out for pursuers. Heeding Teresa's warnings, they only went as far as necessity dictated.
After traveling a few miles, they found a tenant plot that had fallen into disrepair with an abandoned farmhouse on the property. It was an ideal refuge for them while Teresa finished treating Mark. Sonia hoped the novice would have enough time to do her work, but she was apprehensive. The delay in a pursuit most likely meant the enemy would be better prepared once it set out and much more formidable. The best she could do was charge Jill and Jasper with keeping watch outside. She was confident that nothing would escape their keen senses, but forewarning might not be enough for them to survive.
While Sonia paced the floor, Teresa tended to her patient. Mark had passed out while they were on the move and Teresa took advantage of the situation. Since he was not awake to feel the pain, she could operate a little more quickly. Unraveling the dressings she had made earlier, she spread salves on the many wounds he had suffered and stitched up the worst of them. As she was wrapping him in fresh bandages, Sonia walked up to her.
"How's he doing?" she asked.
"He's weak from blood loss," Teresa replied. "Besides all the cuts and bruises, he has some broken ribs and a few of the bones in his hands are broken, too. I won't know how badly his shoulder was damaged until it starts to heal. It may never be the same..."
"How long will it take for him to heal?"
"I can probably remove the stitches in about a week. The shallower cuts and the bruising should be healed by then, too. His arm and hands will have to be immobilized for at least three weeks and we'll need another week or two just to regain the most basic mobility. By then his ribs should be healed enough to breathe without too much pain."
"Five weeks, huh?" Sonia replied with a frown. "That's a long time."
"A full two months would be wiser," Teresa said. "Even then he won't have full use of his arm and hands, but at least he'll be fit to travel."
"That's too long!" Edward complained. "We can't stay here for two months!"
"He's right," Sonia admitted. "We'll have to find a better place to lay low while Mark recovers. We don't just have the Guard to worry about either. The Licinius family will be out for blood. They already have plenty of fighters in their service and I'm sure they'll hire more or put a bounty on our heads. Maybe both."
Shrugging off the threat, Edward took a sip from his flask. "The countryside is too big for them to search all of it at once. Surely we can avoid them if we keep moving."
"You're forgetting that we have a wounded man here," Sonia countered. "If we're always moving him around, he's never going to heal, right?"
Although she was busy making a new sling for Mark's arm, Teresa nodded in agreement.
"Plus," the fencer added, "we're going to need more supplies. Medicine, fresh bandages and things like that. We can't get them out in the fields."
"Staying in a town is just begging to be caught," the Prince argued. "Where would we go? Watercress isn't very far."
Sonia shook her head. "No, Watercress wouldn't work. It's too small for one thing, not enough places to hide. Also, I saw that one Guardsman from before, the one called Svenson. I don't think he's dead. Watercress is one of the first places he'd look. Rowan, too."
"Why don't we go to Stormtree then?" Edward suggested. "Siegfried can shelter us."
"No, that won't work either. Darkwall knows old Siegfried is loyal to you."
"How about Cruz? Not only would that abbey hide us, but there would be more experienced healers than this girl. We may not even have to wait as long for him to recover."
Sonia pointed to Mark's cross. "That's why it's a bad idea. They know Mark's a Wayfarer and they'd expect him to go to other Wayfarers for help."
Frustrated at being shot down at every turn, Edward crossed his arms and huffed, "What do you suggest then? Are we to huddle in the ruins of Sandstone?"
"No," Sonia said, "we go to Eagle."
Edward's jaw dropped. "Eagle? Are you insane, woman!? There's more Guardsman there than any other town in the whole kingdom!"
"That's right, but it's also the biggest city in the whole kingdom. We'll have plenty of places to hide. What's more, the city is practically empty whenever the miners are gone, Guardsmen and townspeople both. Less prying eyes."
"And how do you propose we get into the city?" Edward asked. "You can't just kill everyone in the gatehouse like you did back there."
"I'm working on a plan," she said. "I'll have it figured out by the time we get there."
Edward rolled his eyes. "Great."
While Sonia and Edward were talking, Teresa had finished treating Mark. She then waved a small pouch of pungent herbs under Mark's nose. After a brief moment, his eyes slowly opened.
"Good, you're awake," the novice said softly. She put a vial to his lips. "Here, drink this."
Mark grimaced as he swallowed the bitter fluid. Teresa smiled.
"I know it tastes bad, but it will lessen the pain."
Sonia walked up to them.
"Are you okay, Mark?" she asked.
Mark nodded weakly.
"Hang in there, cousin," Sonia said. "You'll be good as new in no time." She looked to Teresa. "Will we be able to move him again soon?"
Teresa looked pensively at her patient. "Well, yes... but we shouldn't go far. You said something about going to Eagle, right?"
"That's right," Sonia replied. "We'll set out at nightfall and we might make it there by morning."
Teresa sighed, clearly dissatisfied with the situation. "I suppose we have no choice."
"Not really," the fencer said grimly. "I don't want to make Mark's injuries any worse, but it'll all be for nothing if they catch us. For now, let's rest and get something to eat. I don't plan on stopping until we reach Eagle."
Their meal was a simple affair, nothing truly worthy of note. Teresa had to improvise for her patient, though. Taking a bowl she used to mix herbs, she crumbled dry bread and mixed it with water to create a sort of cold mush. It was not particularly appetizing, but it was far easier on Mark's weakened body than solid food would have been.
As soon as the sun had set, they were on the move. Once again, Sonia had volunteered to carry Mark on her back. Teresa stuck close to her side, carefully monitoring her patient the whole time. They moved quickly and quietly without rest until daybreak, when the city of Eagle came into view.
While they were resting from the night's relentless march, Sonia began to unbuckle her armor and looked over to Edward.
"Take off your armor," she said brusquely. "I figured out a plan to get us inside the town without catching too much attention, but we can't look like we're armed. Jasper, what does the inside of your cloak look like?"
Jasper parted his cloak to reveal the same pattern as the outside, only with the colors inverted. Sonia frowned.
"Let me see what you look like without your cloak."
Jasper unclasped his cloak and draped it over his arm. This was the first time any of them had ever gotten a good look at him. Scanning him from top to bottom, Sonia squinted critically. His hair was a carefree mop of brown hair with a twisted band of scarlet cloth wrapped around his forehead. His eyes were an odd bluish green with a bit of a lazy aspect to them, his nose short and thin, and his mouth suppressing his usual broad grin. He wore a surprisingly clean white shirt with a high, upturned collar, several rows of ruffles running down the front and flared sleeves bound at the wrists by narrow cords of twine. His baggy maroon pantaloons were held in place by a simple leather belt with his dagger in a scabbard hanging from the left side. His pant legs were bloused at the ankles with twine cords much like his sleeves and on his feet he wore cloth shoes with curled toes.
"We can't have you looking like a damn clown," Sonia grumbled. Looking around, she continued, "I'll figure something out..."
"Yer owf'ly rood, ye noo," Jasper mumbled, donning his cloak once again.
Sonia ignored him and looked back at Edward, who had done nothing except cross his arms.
"What are you waiting around for!?" she demanded. "Take off your armor!"
"I'm not taking orders from a wench," Edward retorted.
Sonia was about to lose her temper, but her concern for Mark's sake made her keep it under control.
"We don't have time to go through this again," she said. "Mark has to get better if you want to find the gear of the Guardians. We need a safe haven and we won't find one in Eagle if the Gladian Guard knows we're here. You don't have to like it, just do it."
Edward grudgingly started to unhook one of his pauldrons, shooting Sonia a severe glare.
"I'm not doing this because you told me to. My own interests are at stake."
"Whatever," Sonia replied indifferently.
She barely managed to stuff the weapons and armor of the group in the Prince's oversized pack. Edward's sword was too big to hide, so she wrapped it in his bedroll (which was made especially with Edward's height in mind) and laid Mark upon it as if it were a litter. She covered the opening of the pack with another bedroll to keep any unwelcome eyes from peeping in.
After handing two other bedrolls to Jill and Jasper to use as cloaks, she took off her more distinctive articles of clothing, namely the tunic she wore over her shirt and the ornament on her forehead, and retied her hair into a tight ponytail at the base of her skull. She then donned the Guardsman gear she had taken in Rowan. She got a critical look from Edward when she had finished.
"This is your plan?" he asked, incredulous as ever. "To pose as a Guardsman?"
"That Svenson mistook me for a man," she said. "I don't see why the gate guards won't."
"You're daft, woman."
"If it doesn't work, you can lord it over me all you want."
Edward scowled. "If it doesn't work, you'll be dead. Maybe us too."
In spite of his complaints, Edward did not have an alternative in mind and had little other option but to follow along. The Prince carried the pack, Jill and Jasper held the litter while Teresa remained at Mark's side, and Sonia took the lead. The others remained a few paces back while she approached the window of the guardhouse.
"Op'n th' geytes," she demanded in a gruff voice. She pointed to Mark. "This man was caught in a cave-in an' we need ta get 'im ta th' doctahs righ' away."
The guard did not seem to doubt the authenticity of her claim or her identity as a fellow Guardsman. He glanced over to Edward.
"Wot's in tha' big pack ovah theyah?" he asked.
"Brok'n tools fer th' blacksmith ta fix," Sonia replied. "We though' 'e could get a 'ead staht on 'is work."
The guard looked at Teresa. "Wot 'bout th' nun?"
Sonia spat on the ground. "Las' roites if'n 'e don' make it. A' course, she won't be needed if yew'd jus' op'n th' damn geytes."
"Olrigh', olrigh'," the guard grumbled in irritation as he gestured for the gates to be opened.
Sonia's scheme had worked exactly as planned and the group passed through the gates without a problem. She had judged the cycle accurately as there was hardly any signs of life in the entire city.
Most of the males in Eagle were miners, from boys of six years to old men of sixty. Each fourteen-day cycle consisted of nine days of work in the mines to the west, three days of rest in the village and a day's travel each way. Occasionally the miners used their days of rest to make a little extra money helping out the farmers, herders and craftsmen who comprised the considerably smaller remainder of the populace. Many of the women went with the miners to maintain the camp, prepare meals, wash clothes, and tend to the injured. The massive flux of people provided an excellent opportunity for a group of strangers to sneak in and out unnoticed, but that was a plan for a later date.
Eagle itself had all the marks of an industrial city scarred by the old war. Almost all the buildings were made of stone, but most of them were dingy and in disrepair. All the roads were paved, but the stones were largely broken and worn. What little plantlife could be seen was almost entirely brown and choked of life. It was a depressing sight with only a faint glimmer of a fallen glory.
Sonia led them to a ruined mansion deep in the heart of the city. Originally a fine estate in the same Imperial design as the mansions of Corinth, it had suffered countless hurts during the war with large sections of the walls and roof missing and anything of value looted long ago. As Mark was laid upon a worn cot in one of the inner chambers, Sonia smiled at him.
"Welcome home, Mark," she said softly. "This was where you used to live, the home of House Aran since the Unification. I've only been back here to Eagle once since the invasion. I couldn't bear to see my own house again, so I brought us here." She paused. "I suppose it was wrong of me to avoid paining myself by inflicting it on you, but..."
"It's... all right..." Mark replied weakly, his voice raspy from disuse. "I'm glad... to be here... but I don't remember... anything..."
"And what memories would you have in this place?" a voice from the shadows asked.
Sonia whirled around, seamlessly drawing her sword out of Edward's pack.
"Who's there?" she demanded.
A little old woman hobbled into the light. She was scarcely taller than a child, clad in a coarse woolen smock with her silvery grey hair tied back in a bun. Taking a few more steps forward, the old woman squinted at the group, prompting Sonia to scowl at her.
"You're dead if you tell anyone you've seen us," she hissed.
"This has been my home for many years," the old woman replied defiantly, "and I won't be threatened by the likes of you."
Edward pulled out his mace. "We can't afford any risks."
The threat was more than enough to alarm Teresa.
"You can't possibly ...!"
"It can't be helped," Sonia said bitterly. "We're dead if the Guard finds out about us."
The cry came from Mark, who was using what little strength he had to sit up. Unable to keep him lying down, Teresa helped support him as he spoke to the old woman.
"You said... you've lived here... a long time... Who are you?"
The old woman heedlessly walked past the others and came close to Mark. Only a few inches from his face, her eyes widened suddenly.
"Can it be?" she gasped. "Master Mark?" As the realization came to her, tears welled in the old woman's eyes. "Oh, young master! What's happened to you?"
"You recognize him?" Sonia asked.
"Why, of course!" she exclaimed, weeping with joy. "He's the spitting image of his father and with his mother's eyes. How I feared for you, young master! To see you alive after all these years!"
A wave of guilt passed over Mark as he was forced to ask, "I'm sorry, but who... who are you?"
The old woman could see his shame and waved her hand dismissively to banish his guilt.
"Oh, I shouldn't have expected you to remember me, young master. You weren't but a wee child of four years when your father took you to Lord Tiberius. My name is Agatha. I am a maidservant of House Aran. Your great-grandsire, Lord Hiram, bought me when I was a still a child and I have served your family ever since."
Mark felt his heart leap. Finally he had found someone who knew his family and could speak about them at length. Finally there was someone who could fully answer many of the questions that had been hounding him these past twenty years. As he looked all around him at the ruins of his home, one question came to the fore.
"Tell me... What happened here... when the invaders came?"
Agatha's features darkened, she bowed her head and was silent. Fresh tears began to roll down her withered cheeks, these born not of joy but sorrow.
"You shouldn't ask about such things, young master. They oughtn't be remembered..."
"Please..." Mark begged. The earnestness of his voice was clear in spite of his strain to speak. "I must know..."
Agatha's words were slow, as if each syllable were a pinprick. "When Lord Luther heard about the coming of the invaders, he was overcome by a premonition. He wanted to take you and Lady Nyssa to Byrn, where your uncle Lord Tiberius had gone. Your mother refused to abandon this place, but finally agreed to send you away to quell his fears.
"When a squire of Lord Julian arrived with news of his master's death, his noble wife Lady Liria tried to convince your mother, who was her sister, to flee with her. Lady Nyssa refused her elder sister the same way she refused her husband. Oh, if your mother knew fear, young master, she did not show it. She truly was a remarkable woman.
"As the invaders were breaching the city gates, Lady Nyssa hid most of the household away in the secret rooms beneath the estate. We pleaded with her to stay with us, but she and a few others had taken up arms against the invaders. We heard the great struggle outside, but there was nothing we could do.
"Blessedly, we were never discovered, though the household of the Leon estate was not so fortunate. When the invaders had moved on, we found the bodies of those who fought with Lady Nyssa. Not one of them had been spared. Only your mother was missing... I do not know whether she was killed or captured. Only that she was taken from us...
"In the days that followed, the others went their separate ways, but I remained, hoping for the day when you or your parents would return. Thank God you've come back in my lifetime, Master Mark."
Mark placed a comforting hand on the old servant's shoulder. He said nothing for some time, ruminating on what he had been told.
"Thank you..." he said at last. "I know those memories must be painful..."
"So that's how it happened..." Sonia mused.
Agatha turned. Getting a good look at the Defender for the first time, her eyes widened in surprise, though not as much as when she had recognized Mark.
"I thought your voice was a touch too soft to be a man's. Young mistress, is it really you?" Agatha gasped softly. "Glory be, and I see you wield Lord Julian's sword. What a world this has become..."
"I remember you now," Sonia said. "You were the one that would watch Mark and I when we played together as kids. And you were there that night... The night when--"
Agatha interrupted her, "Young mistress, we needn't drag out any more painful memories today."
Sonia fell silent, dwelling on whatever had been left unsaid. The gap was filled by Edward, who had heard the last version of what happened twenty years ago that he cared to.
"Are you satisfied yet?" the Prince grumbled. "How much more will it take? These answers you're after, when will it be enough? You've dragged me from one end of my kingdom to the next over this nonsense. When will it end!?"
"Why, Prince Edward!" exclaimed Agatha, who hastily knelt before the Prince, grunting from the resistance of her old joints. "Forgive me, Your Highness! I did not recognize you."
It had been many years since anyone bowed before the deposed Prince. Edward's overinflated pride was immediately buoyed by the old servant's deference.
"At least some people still have their manners," Edward said with a grin that made his thick moustache bristle.
"Let that poor woman up," an annoyed Sonia demanded.
Edward frowned at Sonia's impertinence and then looked down at Agatha with his chin raised aloofly. "Hmph... You may rise."
Agatha obeyed and rose slowly.
"Please stay here while the young master heals," she said. "I can get supplies for you so you don't draw attention to yourselves."
"Thank you," Sonia said. "It'll makes things much easier."
Wasting no time, Agatha drew up a list of requests and made her first supply run. While they waited for her to return, the group settled into their new home. Until Mark recovered, there was not much they could do. They had no choice but to bide their time and hope the Guard did not find them. The coming weeks would tell whether or not their devil's luck would hold.