Chapter 8
The Daring Rescue

Near Dragova, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"When I think about it, no rational man would have done half the things I have done in my time. Was I brave? Reckless? Or simply a fool? Given the way things turned out, it's probably best that I'm not very a rational man. Some of the best things I've done fly in the face of reason."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

The sun had already set by the time Mark and Ignatiy reached Dragova. As they approached the watchtowers guarding the way into the city, Mark was overcome by a strange sense of foreboding. With unknown figures appearing in the distance, he hurried to the side of the road, dragging Ignatiy with him. He lay low in the tall grass, waiting to identify the figures.
"You know," Ignatiy commented, "you're acting awfully sneaky for someone who's supposed to be turning in a 'threat to the kingdom'."
Mark gestured for him to be quiet. True, he had no real reason to be hiding, but something was not right. He had been taught to trust his gut instinct and this was where it led him.
The figures were soldiers of the Dragon Guard. They were carrying a body. Placing the corpse on the ground, one of the soldiers drew his sword and hacked off the head with a couple clumsy strokes. The severed head was handed over to other soldier, who forced it onto the tip of a spear. The spear was then thrust into the ground and secured in place by a mound of earth.
It was at that moment Mark realized the reason for his earlier sense of foreboding. The road was lined with spears and each one was capped with a human head. Because they were upwind, he had not realized it, but it was the stench of death and decay that had warned him. It disturbed Mark all the more. The practice of putting the heads of criminals on display had been banned ages ago, so why were they doing it now?
The soldiers picked up the headless body and tossed it to the side of the road. Thankfully, it was not side where Mark and Ignatiy were hiding. As the soldiers walked away, Mark could hear them muttering to each other.
"That's the sixth one in only two days..."
"Do you think they're members of the household?" the other asked. "Are they out to avenge their lord... or are they trying to save the girl?"
"Who knows? Hopefully this'll keep any more fools away."
"At this rate, we may have to line the whole road from here to Arita..."
The conversation became unintelligible after that. Was the girl they spoke of the same one who contacted Mark in his dream? He had to find out, but he knew it would be dangerous. The Dragon Guard did not hesitate to attack his uncle, the man who had taught most of them how to wield a sword, and now they were putting severed heads on spears to scare people away from the city. They would think nothing of adding Mark's head to the collection.
"You saw what they did to that guy!" Ignatiy cried in hushed exclamation. "My head'll be right next to his if you turn me in!"
Ignatiy was echoing Mark's own fears, but before he could reply, a voice spoke in his head. It was the same voice from the night before.
Please turn back, the voice pleaded. Too many have already died because of me. I cannot bear to see another perish for my sake.
"Are you the girl the soldiers spoke of?" Mark asked.
I am... and I regret calling for help. I do not want you to die. Please leave this place.
"You said they intend to use you for some dark plot."
I have no other choice. I will take my life before I allow them to use me for evil.
"You can't! Please, let me try. I won't just stand by and let you... Help me save you."
It is too late for me. Please go, before they discover you.
"I'm going to look for you no matter what," Mark insisted, his resolve iron-clad. "I stand a better chance of surviving if you help me."
Very well... I see I cannot sway you... I am in the prison on the east side of the town square. Keep your mind open and I will try to warn you of any danger. Good luck.
"What's wrong with you?" Ignatiy asked, looking around in bewilderment. "You've just been lying there mumbling to yourself. What's going on?"
Mark looked at him. "Stay here. There's something I have to do. I'll deal with you later."
"Untie me!" Ignatiy demanded. "Whatever you're up to, I'll help. Anything's better than getting handed over to those animals. Two're better than one, right?"
His captive had a point. Mark weighed his options and realized that unreliable help was better than no help at all. He drew his dagger and, against his better judgment, cut the cords that bound Ignatiy. The firebug rubbed his wrists briefly and his face lit up with mischievous glee.
"Any tricks and I'll cut you down where you stand," Mark warned.
"No need for threats," Ignatiy said with a grin. "They won't treat me any nicer if I back-stab you. So where are we headed?"
"The prison on the east side of the town square."
"What!? You can't be serious!"
"Someone's in trouble."
"Yeah," the firebug replied sardonically, "me." Ignatiy sighed. "You're more dangerous than a wildfire, you know that?"
Mark opted to ignore the comment. "Let's go."
Staying low, they moved quickly through the grass until they cleared the watchtowers. They darted from shadow to shadow, avoiding all the soldiers roving the streets. As they drew closer to the town square, they found the prison to be well-guarded. Two men stood outside the main door, three groups of two patrolled the perimeter and many others were certain to be stationed inside. The situation did not look promising.
"This won't be easy," Mark said. "Especially with you unarmed... Here's the plan: I'll draw the guards' attention and you make your way into the prison." The young swordsman paused. This part would be difficult to explain. "I know this is going to sound weird, but you'll hear a voice in your head. It's the person we're trying to rescue. Pay attention and she'll lead you to her cell."
Ignatiy cocked his head in curiosity. "'She', huh? Sounds like a job for the hero." He thumped his chest. "You deal with the voices in your head and leave the diversion to me. This sort of thing's my specialty."
Before Mark could protest, Ignatiy had scurried off. Within moments, he could hear alarm being raised as fires began to crop up all around the town square. The roving guards had rushed off to help put out the fires, leaving only the two men at the door.
Mark drew his sword and rushed at the door. The guards drew their weapons upon sighting him, but it was not fast enough. Taking hold of the blade of his sword, Mark thrust the pommel into the throat of the guard on his right and swung forcefully upside the head of the guard on his left.
With both the guards down, Mark took a deep breath before going in. Once he was inside, there was no telling how many guards he would have to face. Fortunately for him, the door was neither barred nor locked, so his entry would not draw much attention. The poorly lit interior was another stroke of luck. As long as he moved quietly, he could probably avoid detection.
Naturally, it was important for him not to get caught by the guards, but there was not much point if he could not find the person he was looking for. Just when he was starting to worry about what to do and where to go, the voice contacted him once again.
Stairwell... on your left... Go down... bottom level...
It was the same voice Mark had heard before, but it sounded much weaker. Whatever was going on, things were getting worse. There was no time to lose. Sacrificing caution for speed, he quickly made his way to the stairwell.
When he reached the bottom level, he was overcome with the pungent odor of incense. Something told him to follow the smell. The fumes grew thicker and thicker until they became a choking, blinding mist. His eyes watered so much that he could barely make out the shapes of three guards several fathoms in front of him.
The guards noticed him as well, but seemed equally impaired by the cloud of incense. With his senses failing him, Mark relied on his instincts as a swordsman. He did not hesitate. Blindly rushing at the guards, he drove his blade under the chest plate of the first, drawing it out in time to parry a slash from the second. The third loosed a crossbow bolt, but Mark jumped to the side to avoid it. Missing its mark, the bolt stuck in the armor of the second guard. He cursed at his counterpart, an opening Mark exploited to drive his blade up under the guard's jawbone. Before the last one had readied another bolt, Mark threw his dagger, which plunged into the guard's eye socket. Luckily, the blade went in at such an angle that it killed him on the spot, sparing Mark the trouble of finishing him off.
The moment Mark recovered his dagger, his instinctual drive left him. The sight of the dead bodies weighed on him like a millstone around his neck. It filled him with the same sick feeling that overcame him after he had saved his uncle. The incense did not help any either. His stomach churned and he was seized by a fit of vomiting. Much as his uncle had tried to calm him, the voice mustered its strength to speak to him.
Get ahold of yourself, it said. I still need your help.
Struggling to regain control, Mark looked to the nearest cell. He could see someone inside, but was unable to make out any details. He heard a voice from the cell cry out.
"Break the censers!"
It was the voice he had heard in his mind, only now it was speaking aloud. Mark stumbled upon three bronze censers along the wall, the source of the noxious mist. He was more than happy to overturn them, stamping out the burning incense under his boot. The mist began to slowly dissipate and the air cleared.
For the first time, Mark got a good look at the owner of the mysterious voice. It was a girl just a little older than him with long brown hair woven into a single braid. She was clad in a simple frock girded about her narrow waist with a thin leather belt. Offhand, he would have guessed she just was an ordinary villager, but there was something different about her bearing.
"Thank you for saving me," she said weakly, her soft eyes glimmering in the torchlight.
"You're not saved yet," Mark said. "Where are the keys to the cell?"
"Leave it to me," she replied.
The girl closed her eyes and stretched out her hand to the door. Mark heard a dull click and watched the door slide open with a loud creak. Dumbfounded, the young swordsman stared at her blankly.
"If you could do that, why didn't you escape on your own?"
The girl returned his blank stare. "Do I look like someone who could best three professional soldiers?" she asked. "Besides, the incense kept me from concentrating," she said, holding her head as if she were suffering from a migraine. "I will explain later. Now we must go."
Mark did not press the issue. The urgency of the situation took precedence over his curiosity. As he passed the slain guards, the girl picked up the crossbow from one of them, took his spanning belt and fastened it around her waist.
"I can use this," she said, slinging the crossbow over her shoulder.
Mark did not argue. If she could use the crossbow, she was welcome to it. It was probably better that both of them were armed anyway.
As they moved up the stairwell, she told him, "Do not worry about any more guards. I will keep them away from us." She extended her hand to him. "Take my hand and guide me. I need to concentrate."
Mark blushed and hesitated briefly before complying. His trust in her proved well-placed, for he did not encounter any more guards. Almost as soon as they had made it out of the prison, Ignatiy sprang from the shadows to join them. Upon seeing Mark and the girl walking hand in hand, he paused to appraise the latest addition to the group.
"At least you have good taste," he mused, "but is she really worth risking our necks over?"
Mark did not say anything. He most certainly had not embarked on this rescue mission because she was pretty, but Ignatiy's question gnawed at him. He had been taking incredible risks lately and had no way to explain it. Was it truly in his nature to be so reckless or was there something else behind it?