Chapter 12
The Green Bandit's Revenge

The Road to Scotia, Arma

"Vindictiveness is a tragic character flaw. Revenge only starts and endless cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance. To break the cycle, someone must have the courage to seek not vengeance, but justice."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Mark had always been an early riser. Helping out on his uncle's farm as a boy and the strict daily regimen of a monk made it a necessity. But this morning was different. Mark did not wake up on his own. Rather, it took a vigorous shaking from Sonia to wake him. Even with all that, he got up slowly.
"Are you sick?" Sonia asked. "I've never seen you have so much trouble getting up."
Before he could answer, Mark felt Adrienne's presence looming over him.
"He's fine," she said coldly. "He needs to spend less time writing in that journal of his."
Sonia eyed Adrienne suspiciously, but said nothing. While the group broke down the camp, Mark was having a hard time getting his things in order. His movements were unusually sluggish and he could barely concentrate on what he was doing.
Adrienne had been feeding on him for the past five days. Each day he felt weaker and weaker. It had become all too easy to fall asleep and far too difficult to wake up again. His body would not be able to hold up at this rate, but the only alternative was to leave someone else to suffer the same fate. It was something he could not allow.
His thoughts were making him stray from the task at hand, but he found unexpected help from Jasper. The thief packed and stowed Mark's gear with the nimble dexterity he used to ply his trade.
"Thank you, Jasper," Mark said. "I don't know what's come over me."
Jasper shook his head obligingly. "Fink nuffin o' i', yun' mastah. Ye've gow' tah teyk keyah o' yersel', ye noo. Wi've still gow' a lang weys tah gew."
Once Jill returned from scouting the area, the group set out. The day was uneventful, but they made good progress. In his weakened state, Mark had troubled carrying his side of Catherine's litter without disturbing the usual pace. Although he did not seem to regard it as significant problem, Stefan was sharp enough to notice the difference and even made a few comments about it. Mark realized that it was only a matter of time until it became so bad that everyone would take notice. He had to think of something to do before then.
That night, Adrienne fed on Mark again, and once more it took Sonia's jostling to wake him in the morning. He was now feeling very weak and was barely able to hold up his end of the litter. Sonia had been keeping an eye on him the whole time. The group had not gotten far when the fencer finally intervened.
"Mark, you're not well," she said. "Let me carry the litter for you."
"No, I'm fine," Mark insisted.
No longer content to let him evade the issue any longer, Sonia gripped his pauldrons and looked directly into his eyes.
"You're not fine. You should see how pale you are."
Adrienne suddenly appeared beside Mark. She whispered into his ear.
"You need to regain your strength. Let Sonia carry the litter today. We'll be in town before sundown. I'll have plenty of alternatives there."
Before Mark could protest, she put a finger to his lips and walked off. Sonia took the litter from Mark, but her eyes were fixed on Adrienne. Sonia kept her suspicions to herself, but she did her best to keep Adrienne within eyeshot.
Even without the burden of carrying Catherine, Mark found it difficult to keep up with the group, but he did his best to not make it obvious. Much to his relief, Adrienne was proven correct in her estimate. As the sun touched the horizon, a singular terraced mountain came into view.
Each of the six terraces was a walled city with the castle at the summit. The group scaled the stairs to the first terrace and was stopped at the gate by two soldiers in green armor with large two-handed swords strapped to their backs. The one on the right did all the talking.
"Stat' yer bis'ness," the guard demanded in an unfriendly tone.
The accent was thick, but it was still Bannish. They could communicate at least, and though Mark was still weak, he spoke on the group's behalf.
"We're here to see the magistrate from Porto Sul."
Both guards gripped the hilts of their swords.
"Airmed leke that, ye can gae past this yett, bot no fither. The magistrat is wi' the Keing. Ye micht cotch him on his way oot."
"We don't gain a thing this way," Edward grumbled.
"It will have to do," Mark said.
The guard on the right dropped his hand and spent a moment sizing up the group. He then took a small whistle from around his neck and blew it. A few moments later, the gates creaked open. Although the guards did not take their eyes off them, the group passed without interference.
The lowest level of Scotia was set aside for the poor, refugees and itinerants. Several tenements rose like mountains above the clusters of dilapidated huts and peddler stalls that choked the narrow alleyways.
Because it was summer in this part of the world, there were quite a few travelers passing through. Even so, the group managed to secure lodging at an inn near the main road. The others were waiting for dinner to be served while Mark paid the innkeeper. The food arrived just as Mark sat down, but he did not eat right away. They needed a plan and he wanted to work it out before doing anything else.
"I've been thinking about our options," Mark said. "A few of us could leave our gear behind and see how far up we can go. I don't know how much luck we'll have with the security around here. I doubt they'll let a group of foreigners into the castle unless they're on official business. We can still try it, but I have a better idea.
"I say we stay here and wait for the magistrate to finish his business with the King. We'll have two people on two-hour shifts watching the road until we see the magistrate. I'll be paired with Jasper, Sonia with Jill, Edward with Giles, and Stefan with Adrienne. Ignatiy will be our backup in case someone can't pull their shift." He paused, giving the group a moment to take in his proposal. "How does that sound?"
"What about her?" Edward asked, pointing to Teresa.
"Teresa will be watching Catherine," Mark replied. "I want to have her close by in case there's any change in her condition."
Although it was nothing new, Edward did not seem satisfied. "If you'd only put her and that stick boy on another watch, it'd make things a lot easier."
"You don't have to worry about the schedule. I'm taking care of that. Are there any other complaints?"
No one else had anything to say about Mark's plan. Edward looked rather annoyed that nobody was willing to back him up. He settled for grumbling to himself and stuffing his face. The meal was a quiet one and as soon as they were done eating, Mark and Jasper went out on the first shift.
To ward off restlessness in their off hours, the next day was spent gathering information on Scotia. The language barrier made conversation all but impossible. There were only a few people who knew any Bannish or Imperial, most of them travelers who knew little more about Scotia than they did. There was, however, a particularly helpful merchant from southern Arma who explained how Scotia operated. Each of the six levels housed different levels of society, from the lowliest pauper to the royal family. Access was strictly restricted based on one's class and only the most distinguished guests were permitted into the castle. Even though Mark and Sonia hailed from noble houses and Edward was royalty, they hardly looked the part and given the wares offered by the peddlers, they stood little chance of passing themselves off as such. In the end, they were forced to rely on Mark's strategy of waiting for the magistrate, just as the swordsman predicted.
The negotiations took longer than anyone expected. Once they acquired the information about the city, there was no much else they could do in the meantime. The days crept by at snail's pace without the slightest sign of change. All that changed in the pre-dawn hours of their fifth day in Scotia.
Mark was startled awake by the sound of Adrienne kicking open the door to the room where the men were staying. Though the dhampir's icy demeanor excluded any sense of urgency, she would only be barging in like this if there was trouble.
"We have a situation," she said.
"What is it?" Mark asked, already sliding into his armor.
"You'll have to see for yourself."
Mark buckled on his swordbelt and turned to the others, expecting them to be as far along as he was. "Let's go."
For Edward and Giles, who both wore full suits of armor, it took them a little more time to get ready. With a little help, they were geared up in a couple minutes. As they followed Adrienne out the door, Mark noticed that Stefan stayed behind.
"You're not coming?"
"Whatever's going on out there is none of my concern," Stefan said. "My duty is to protect Lady Catherine."
Since Mark did not know what to expect, he felt better having Stefan there to protect Catherine and Teresa while the others were out. It also meant they could safely leave their provisions at the inn. It was worth overlooking Stefan's willfulness.
Mark nodded. "Then I'll leave you to it."
Once everyone was outside, they could see the cause for alarm. The gates lay wide open in both directions, and when they reached the second gate, they found the guards on both sides laying dead with their throats slit.
Mark ran on ahead of the others to the third gate. It was the same as the one before it. He checked the guards in the off chance that any of them could be saved, but whoever was behind the infiltration was all too thorough. Every single neck was cut from ear to ear. Not only the guards, but even a couple hapless civilians were killed, leaving no witnesses to spread the alarm or identify the culprit.
Crouching by one of the dead civilians, Mark gripped the hilt of his sword. "We have to do something," he said grimly. "We have to stop whoever's done this before any more people are killed."
"Don't be a fool," Edward growled. "We should stay out of it. If they see us here, they'll blame us. I say we get out of here before any more guards show up. There's bound to be another way for us to get a ship."
"The people who killed Felix might've done this," Sonia said, drawing her rapier. "I still have a score to settle with the Dark Knight."
"It's not them," Adrienne said. "This is the work of that bandit."
"How do you know?" the fencer asked.
Adrienne pointed to the second gate. "I caught a glimpse of him as he was finishing off the guards back there."
Sonia looked to her cousin. "You should have let me kill him when we had the chance."
Mark closed the eyelids of the dead man and rose to his feet, seeming to ignore her comment.
"We stop him now," the swordsman said. "I won't let him get away with this."
"This isn't our fight," Edward complained. "There's nothing in it for us."
"We're not mercenaries," Mark countered. "It doesn't matter if we gain or lose. I'm not going to turn my back on these people." He turned and started to walk away. "I can't tell any of you what to do, but I'm going."
Everyone followed except for Edward. As he watched them go, he cursed under his breath and ran after them. The scene at the second gate was repeated over and over again until they found themselves in the main hall of the castle.
A dozen guards were in a semicircle squaring off against a single man. Though his clothes were charred and his face wrapped in bandages, the group could easily recognize the self-proclaimed Green Bandit. He was not alone either. He was holding a girl at knifepoint, the only thing between him and the guards' swords.
The silence was broken by a man at the head of the semicircle. Clad only in a dressing gown, he had clearly jumped out of bed the moment the alarm was raised. Although there was an air desperation about him, his bearing was authoritative and he wielded a more ornate version of the Scotians' distinctive two-handed sword, undoubtedly a sign of leadership.
"Gi'e hir back!" he yelled.
"One step closer and she dies!" Roque snapped. He scanned the guards around him to make sure they kept their distance, then he looked back to the leader. "In six days, you will receive a letter outlining my terms. You will then have six days to fulfill them. If you fail to meet the terms, she dies. If you send your men after me, she dies."
The bandit made a quarter turn and started to make his way out. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mark's group. A savage grin flashed under the bandages.
"You arrived earlier than I expected," he said. "You all are welcome to try to stop me, but you must wait until sunrise. If I see you any sooner than that, I kill her. Now let me pass."
They probably could have stopped him then and there, but Mark did not want to risk hurting the girl. He gestured for everyone to let the bandit through. They parted, allowing Roque and his captive to walk by unmolested. Once the two cleared the castle gates and were out of sight, the leader rushed up to Mark with the guards following close behind.
"Ah dinna ken wha ye are," the man said hastily, "bot Ah dinna ceir. That blaggard wants ye tae gae efter him. If ye bring me dochter back, ye can name yer reward."
"Who are you?" Edward demanded.
One of the guards shouted angrily, "Shew sum rispect! Yer talkin' tae Keing Breandan, Laird o' Scotia!"
Breandan waved to calm his zealous vassal.
"Ye're the anly anes wha can stop him."
Although Breandan maintained the strong facade of a warrior and sovereign, Mark could still see the pain and distress of a parent bereft of his child. There was no question of what had to be done. The Guardian bowed to the King.
"Count on us, Your Majesty," Mark said. "By the name of House Aran, we will bring back your daughter. With your leave, we will make preparations for our pursuit."
The King nodded.
"Aye, guid luck tae ye."
The group then made its way back to the inn where Stefan and Teresa were waiting with Catherine. As they were gathering their supplies, Mark and Stefan moved Catherine from her bed to the litter. Waiting for them in the hallway was Edward, his arms crossed and looking none too pleasant.
"Don't tell me you plan on taking her," he said disapprovingly.
"Of course I do," Mark replied.
Edward slammed his fist against the wall. "She's deadweight! That bandit may be wounded, but we can't afford to be slowed down." The Prince then poked Mark's chest to accentuate the demands that followed. "You got us into this mess and getting us out of it is your responsibility. That woman is only a burden to us. She's not going to wake up. Ever. Leave her behind."
Edward had no idea what he had done. It took every ounce of self-control for Mark to restrain himself. He was more than angry; he was just a half-step from succumbing to the rage that overcame him at Mount Vulcan, the rage that drove him to brutally kill the Inkari Mar Kurin. Mark could feel a hand holding him back and it saved Edward from the Inkari chieftain's fate. Still brimming with anger, the swordsman matched the Prince's glare.
"I won't leave her," Mark said sternly.
Edward snorted, then asked sharply, "You would choose that woman over your rightful lord?"
"I would."
Mark's voice had not wavered and now it was Edward's turn to get angry, though his anger paled in comparison. Instead of one of his usual outbursts, the Prince scowled at Mark as if he was utterly disgusted. He did not raise his voice, but his words were weighted a disdain that Mark had only heard the Prince use when speaking about Randwulf and his cronies.
"I'm not going to let you have your way anymore," he said. "I've put up with your nonsense long enough. You may be the Guardian, but you're worthless to me. This is where we go our separate ways." Edward looked at the others. "Now you have to choose: your rightful lord... or a fool that'll do nothing but get you killed."
Mark looked at the others and closed his eyes in resignation.
"None of you should feel obligated to stay with me," he said. "I have my own responsibility to Catherine. It doesn't involve any of you."
Sonia was the first to step forward.
"You're wrong, Mark. Anything that happens with you does involve us. They say 'blood is thicker than water', but it's more than that. You've earned my trust, and my loyalty. Not because you're my kinsman, not because you're the Guardian, but because you're you. Besides..." Sonia glared at Edward. "I wouldn't follow that drunkard for anything."
"Good riddance!" Edward snapped. "You two deserve each other!"
Jill rested her hand on Sonia's pauldron. "I go where Sis goes."
Ignatiy spoke up next. "Mark's my friend." He looked at Edward and tilted his head. "Which one are you anyway?"
Teresa bowed her head and spoke quietly. "As a healer, I am obligated to help her," she said, nodding to Catherine. Her voice then dropped to little more than a whisper. "Mark vowed to protect me. I trust him to keep that promise..."
Jasper gave a wily grin. "Thay's no wey Oi'd leve moi gel. Mahk's a guhd bloke, too. 'E needs meh tah wotch 'is beck." He shrugged. "Sowry, chum, bu' Oi nevah much loiked ye anywey."
Edward grumbled under his breath, glaring at all of them.
"So you're all against me?"
"That's not true," Giles said, standing beside Edward. "You have a point. We cannot afford to waste time. We need the maximum agility if we are to catch this bandit." He looked at the others. "Won't you consider leaving the woman in the care of physicians here, at least until we complete this mission?"
"That would be one thing," Mark said, knowing Giles bore no malice toward Catherine or anyone else in the group. "But that's not what Edward's asking for."
"You're damn right!" Edward snapped. "Everyone'd be better off if you just got rid of that half-dead wench."
Stefan howled a curse in Byrnan. If he did not know exactly what was being said, he at least knew the Prince was disrespecting his mistress. Mark intervened to keep him from attacking Edward, something he himself had been dangerously close to doing only moments earlier.
Giles was clearly disappointed at the failure of his attempt at diplomacy. "Well then," he sighed, "if we catch the bandit, I will do what I can to see that we don't return to Gladius without you. I'm afraid it's the best I can do."
"Don't bother apologizing," Adrienne said. "You've got the right idea. Time is our enemy. I've got a score to settle back in Gladius and revenge waits for no man." She then walked very close to Mark and whispered in his ear. "Enjoy the break. I've been sober too long."
The lines in the sand were drawn and there was nothing else left to say. With his two companions in tow, Edward headed for the exit. The group was now officially split in two. A few moments of silence passed until Sonia spoke up.
"Let's go."
"No," Mark said, "we leave at dawn. They can have a bit of a head start."
Sonia shook her head. "Soft as usual, but I guess that part of your charm. Let's just hope they don't spook that Roque person and get the girl killed."
It was indeed a risk, but Mark was not too worried. Despite all his airs, Edward was nothing more than a blunt instrument ill-suited for such a delicate operation. If left to his own devices, the Princess' life would probably be forfeit. Fortunately, Adrienne was too calculating and Giles too conscientious to let that happen.
The most important thing was giving Edward this extra time to cool his head. Mark was hurt by the splintering of the group, but he held on to the hope that the rift was only a temporary one. Not only did their prospects of getting out of Arma hang in the balance, but the very future of Gladius as well.