Chapter 25
Old Enemies and New Allies

Near North Crimson Forest, Gladius

"What can the hunted do when it is snared? What hope is there for the prey that is already in the predator's jaws? A cornered mouse will attack the cat. A trapped wolf will bite off his own leg. Desperation is all the hunted has left."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

When Mark opened his eyes, the first thing he saw was a crossbowman of the Gladian Guard aiming directly at him. The crossbowman was not alone. Quickly glancing around, Mark estimated about twoscore, most in front of him, some behind and a few on the sides. As he was looking around, he got a better idea of his condition and that of his companions.
The swordsman had been stripped of his gear and was bound in chains. The others were no better off. While the group's combatants were all lined up on the ground, Teresa, Ignatiy and Catherine had been loaded on to one of three wagons. Posing little physical threat to their captives, the three were only bound at the wrists with common rope.
The Guardsmen were far more cautious with the rest of them. They had been propped up on their knees while they were still unconscious and wrapped in heavy chains with shackles on their ankles and wrists. Their necks sported iron collars connected by a length of chain that left little more than a couple yards between each of them. There was not much hope of them getting loose.
Restrained as they were, they did not seem to have suffered any significant hurt, a small comfort. Catherine seemed to have the worst of it. With glassy eyes, she stared blankly into the distance, obviously drugged heavily to rein in her powers. Whoever organized this had left nothing to chance.
It must have been painfully easy, taking them captive while they were helpless and vulnerable from Brenok's spell. Speaking of Brenok, the cocksure apprentice strutted in front of them, not bothering to fly as he was wont to do. Apparently he thought his swaggering steps accented his triumph and made it all the more bitter for his rivals. He looked at Mark with sinister satisfaction, tapping the swordsman's head with his rod.
"I see you've gone and woken up on me." He glanced briefly at Catherine. "I swear, I can't take my eyes off that mindwalker for an instant. That spell was supposed to tide you over until I presented you to Old Randwulf. Once I saw your merry little band waking up, I had to put our trip on hold so I could pay my respects."
Brenok was momentarily distracted by the sound of Adrienne rattling her chains. Mark noted that unlike everyone else, her chains were made of silver. As an added touch, they had taken off her gloves and boots so the manacles could burn the exposed skin. The treacherous apprentice pointed his rod at her.
"Don't try anything foolish, Darkling," he warned. "You see those men around you? I had their halberds plated with silver just for you. You'll remember it if they stick you." Brenok ran his finger down his cheek, mimicking the path of Adrienne's scar. "You should know all about that." He grinned evilly. "Give me any trouble and I'll have you stripped naked to bake in this lovely sun we're having today."
If looks could kill, the dhampir would have murdered the haughty apprentice a hundred times over. For now, all she could do was glare. It was enough to put the Guardsmen on edge, but Brenok was completely immune to her intimidating presence. The apprentice was about to say something when Edward spoke up, more to himself than to anyone in particular.
"Silver, iron, what difference does it make?" he muttered.
Brenok cocked his head in curiosity. "You mean you don't know?" He looked around at the others. "None of you know? You didn't even suspect it?"
Brenok gaze stopped on Mark. A chill ran down the swordsman's spine. He knew his expression betrayed him, and Adrienne.
A sly grin crossed the apprentice's lips. "Ah, but you know." The apprentice chuckled to himself. "What conspiracy is this?" He wagged his finger. "You shouldn't be keeping secrets from your comrades. It destroys the bonds of trust, you know."
Brenok let it set in. Edward and Sonia, the ones who trusted Adrienne the least, were the ones most affected. In Edward's case, it was simply the fruit of his distrustful nature, but Sonia's suspicions were largely rooted in Mark's episodes of anemia on the road to Scotia. She looked to her cousin with a mix of concern and confusion.
"Mark, what's going on?" she asked.
Mark looked away. Even now, he did not want to betray Adrienne's secret, even though it could be revealed at any moment depending on Brenok's whims. Seeing Mark's reluctance to speak and the effect it was having on the others in the group, the apprentice laughed.
"Ah, well," he said, "as fun as this is, I almost forgot something. I have a special friend who's been dying to see you."
The 'special friend' Brenok spoke of greeted Mark with a swift kick to the gut. The swordsman doubled over in pain. When he had recovered enough to straighten up again, he saw the most unwelcome face of Lieutenant Harald Svenson. In the close contest between the lieutenant and Brenok, it was difficult to say who exuded the most arrogance at the moment.
"We meet again, foreigner," Harald sneered. "Oh, but I guess you're not a foreigner after all. Son of the late, great Lord Luther the Guardian." He spat on the ground. "Vermin all the same. This is the second time you've fallen into my hands. Once the King is done with you, I intend to pay you back tenfold for all the humiliation you've heaped on me."
The lieutenant gave Mark a stiff backhand that would have knocked him over were it not for the pull of the chain at his neck. Harald stalked over to Edward, who was chained next to Mark.
"How now, princeling?" he asked contemptuously. "It looks like your little rebellion is over."
Edward did not say anything. He simply reared back and delivered a crushing headbutt to Harald's groin. As the lieutenant was hunched over, one of his subordinates failed to suppress a laugh. Harald's fiery temper delivered him from the pain and sent him flying at the hapless Guardsman. He cold-cocked the man, possibly breaking his jaw, and sent him sprawling on the ground. While the Guardsman was down, Harald began to kick him fiercely until about eight men clustered around to pull the lieutenant away, eagerly entreating him to cool his rage. Any other day, he might have lashed out at all of them, but today he managed to bring his anger to a low simmer.
Leaving the beaten subordinate to his comrades, Harald went back to Edward, punching the Prince with such force that the big man fell backwards, taking Mark and Sonia with him. Mark saw that Edward's nose was bleeding, but it could have easily been much worse.
"Such a violent creature," Brenok commented, "isn't he?"
Harald moved on to Sonia. Apparently he was planning to go all the way down the line. The fencer had already gotten back up and engaged the lieutenant in a contest of who could glare with the most contempt. It was too close to call.
"What's the matter, Svenson," Sonia taunted, "couldn't take us yourself?" She nodded to Brenok. "Had to hide behind the skirts of that conjurer, did you?"
Harald scowled. "You've got a smart mouth, wench." He noted her nearly healed black eye from the encounter with the rogue crewmen. "Is that how you got that shiner? Let me balance it out for you."
The lieutenant gave her a swift jab to the other eye. The fencer took the blow in stride.
"Big man," Sonia jeered, "hitting me while I'm all tied up like this. Why don't you take these chains off me so I can give you another thrashing?"
Before he could be suckered into taking her up on the challenge, Brenok touched Harald with his rod, saying, "There'll be plenty of time for a reckoning later, Lieutenant. Finish up your greetings so we can get moving again."
Brushing off Brenok's rod, Harald turned to Jill. "I remember you. You're the one who killed Lord Publius. I should thank you for getting that fat slug out of my way before he took all the credit for my quarry, but then again, I have yet to pay you back for helping that cross-dressing hussy humiliate my men in Rowan."
He delivered a right hook to the archer's jaw, but she recovered faster than he expected and before he could draw his hand back, she bit him with all her might, clamping down and refusing to let go. Harald howled in pain and frantically tried to yank his hand free, but to no avail. He rapped on her head with his other hand, but he was too panicked to put much force into the blows.
The lieutenant only became more desperate, finally screaming to him men, "Kill her! Kill her!"
Just as the crossbowmen took aim, Sonia shouted, "Jill, let go!"
The archer obeyed, releasing Harald. She spit out some blood, but it was not hers. Her teeth had cut deeply, nearly to the bone. One of Harald's subordinates rushed forward to bind the wound. The crossbowman were still fixed on Jill when Brenok intervened.
"Hold," the apprentice commanded. He got a fierce look from Harald, prompting him to say, "Don't be hasty, Lieutenant. The forest girl is going to lose her head for killing the Count, you can be sure of that. Why spare her the pain of torture or the humiliating spectacle of her death?"
Although he was far from happy about it, Harald saw the merit of the apprentice's point and nodded for the crossbowmen to stand down. Once his hand was properly bandaged, he went back to Jill to even the score a little. He moved to kick her in the stomach, but the archer surprised him by doubling over suddenly and intercepting his foot with her shoulder. Although it could not have been good for Jill, Harald stubbed his toe in the exchange, the new pain making him all the angrier.
Indeed, he would have certainly flown into a blind rage had not Brenok subtly enchanted him to make that anger dissipate. Harald realized what had happened and shot the apprentice a threatening look.
"I warned you not to work your crafts on me, witch-man," the lieutenant growled.
Brenok held up his hands. "I only wanted to keep you from spoiling the prize," he said, his voice slick as oil. "We have to bring these creatures to Old Randwulf with as little damage as possible. There will be a time for the real fun later. You just have to be a little patient."
Before Harald could make another threat on Brenok's well-being for his condescending words, a voice interrupted him. "I see you're every bit the beast your father is," the voice said, "only he doesn't cling to the warlock's apprentices to do his job."
It was Giles. He must have spoken up to draw Harald's attention to himself. If that was his plan, it worked like a charm. With his temper cooled by Brenok's influence, the lieutenant was able to respond with a more dispassionate strain of contempt than he was known for.
"I'd hit you," Harald said coolly, "but I wouldn't even soil my boot with traitor scum like you."
"That apprentice is using you, Svenson," Giles warned. "Ask him what happened to his fellow Stalkers."
Brenok shrugged. "I can't help it if Marcella and Algernon got sloppy. It's their own fault they're dead."
"I don't know what you think you're going to get out of this," the pikeman continued, "but he'll betray you the first chance he gets."
"You can't play us against each other," Brenok said. "The good lieutenant doesn't trust me to begin with, so nothing you say can sour his opinion of me."
Harald ignored all this and walked to Jasper. He grabbed the thief by the hair and forced him to meet his eyes.
"You gave me a lot of trouble in Eagle, thief," he growled. "I was so close to catching the lot of you."
Jasper grinned wryly. "Oi tho' ye an' yer men cood use th' fresh eyah. Strich yer legs a bi', ye noo."
Harald met Jasper's grin with one of his own, but his had an entirely sinister nature. He let go of the thief and walked over to the wagon loaded with the group's gear. He pulled out Jasper's lute and walked back to where the captives were lined up. In plain view, he threw the lute on the ground and savagely stomped it to pieces.
When he was done, Harald taunted the thief, "Play your tunes now, Singing Bandit."
A little stunned at first, Jasper silently glowered at the lieutenant for smashing his beloved instrument. Several of the Guardsmen laughed and Brenok clapped in approval.
"Good show," the apprentice said, "but if you want to really stir him, you've got to target something a little closer to his heart."
"And what would that be?" Harald asked.
Brenok tilted his head to the wagon where the noncombatants were being held. The look of fear on Teresa's face told Harald all he needed to know. He walked slowly to the wagon so his captives could feel each step he took toward the defenseless novice. Jasper struggled vainly against his chains, wild-eyed in rare anger.
"Stey awey frum 'er!" he snapped savagely. "Doan' ye deyah tech 'er! Oi'll rip yer bloody lahngs owt!"
Brenok cackled at Jasper's anger. "You'll only egg him on like that, friend, but please, by all means, carry on. It makes the show all the more entertaining."
Harald was not paying attention of this. He was fixed on his prey. Teresa was paralyzed in fear like a cornered rabbit facing down a hungry wolf. The first thing Harald did was yank off the novice's shawl. As he was running his fingers through her hair, the light glanced off the crucifix hanging from her neck. He scowled at the sight of it, tore it away and cast it aside. He then grabbed the rope knotted around her wrists and pulled her off the wagon, letting her fall roughly on the ground.
Either as a sign of amazing forbearance or abject fear, Teresa did not cry out. Kneeling down beside her, he rolled the novice onto her back. Defensively, Teresa held her arms close to her chest, prompting Harald to take hold of the rope and hold up the loose end.
"One of you take this," he said.
A Guardsman hastily complied, taking the rope and pulling it back to stretch Teresa's arms over her head. Jasper rattled his chains fiercely, struggling in vain against his bindings. Mark had seen more than he could stand.
"Svenson, stop!" the swordsman shouted. "Leave her alone!"
"You're wasting your time," Brenok said. "The more you shout, the more you'll encourage him."
Harald began to fight with the knot of Teresa's cincture. Mark did not know what he could do for her, but he was not just going to just sit around and watch. Balancing on the balls of his feet, Mark stood up, drawing the attention of the entire detachment. He ignored all the halberds and crossbows fixed on him as Jasper and Sonia stood up as well, followed by Giles and Jill. As Harald was too preoccupied to give orders, Brenok motioned for the Guardsmen to hold. Clearly he wanted to see what they would try to do.
The five companions moved like they intended to rush at Harald, but they were nearly strangled by the iron collars around their necks. Chained together as they were, they could not go far unless all the links were in accord. Edward, Stefan and Adrienne remained on their knees and would not move.
"Get up!" Sonia snapped at Edward.
Edward only glared at her. "Are you trying to get us all killed, woman? It's not like that dog Svenson's going to kill her."
Enraged at his callous disregard for Teresa, Sonia kneed him in the chin with all her might. It was a move that would hardly win him over, but Mark was on the verge of hitting the Prince himself. Trying to keep a clear head, he turned his attention to Stefan.
"Please stand up, Stefan," he pleaded. "We've got to do something."
Keeping his eyes squarely on the Guardsmen, Stefan replied, "You need to pick your battles. There's nothing to gain dying here."
Anticipating Mark's pleas to be directed at her next, Adrienne told him, "There's nothing you can do. Don't make it any worse."
"I may not be able to do anything," Mark replied, "but you can do something. Those chains aren't enough to hold you, I know it." He paused. "Adrienne, are you going let this happen? Are you going to let someone else suffer as you did?"
Adrienne was quiet. Time seemed to slow. Almost imperceptibly, she crossed her arms over her chest. Brenok noticed it too late. Spreading her arms out wide, the chains snapped apart.
As she rose, Brenok screamed to the Guardsmen, "Shoot the Darkling! Attack!"
At least a dozen bolts and five halberds pierced Adrienne. Her body slumped, held up only by the halberds stuck in her. Everyone, from the Guardsmen to Mark and his companions, fell silent and did not move. All were so transfixed by the sight of Adrienne that no one noticed that Brenok was hastily chanting in a low voice.
Because all eyes were on Adrienne, no one failed to notice her right hand grip one of the halberds lodged in her stomach, followed by her left hand taking hold of the other. She drew out the points and then broke off the heads of both weapons. After throwing the halberd heads to the ground, she proceeded to remove the halberds stuck in her side and lower back. The Guardsmen were too stunned to do anything but watch dumbly. After breaking off the heads of the other two halberds, the owner of the fifth halberd pulled it out of her shoulder of his own accord, before she could render his weapon useless as well.
With the two heads still in her hands, she sprang forward, thrusting the points into the necks of the two Guardsmen in front of her. Leaving the heads stuck in her dying victims, she turned just in time to intercept the Guardsman to her left, who had the presence of mind to cast aside his ruined halberd and draw his sword. He swung at the dhampir, but she caught his blade with her bare hand and, to the Guardsman's horror, bent the iron blade as if it were a spoon.
While Adrienne was still holding the sword, the axe blade of a halberd came down on her arm, severing it just below the elbow. As if nothing had happened, Adrienne grabbed the halberd with her remaining hand, yanked it from the owner and then brought the pick down on his head, punching through skull and helmet both. Seeing his comrade fall over dead, the Guardsman with the bent sword threw away his useless weapon and fled.
Now nothing stood between the dhampir and her prey. She snatched up Harald by the plume on his helmet and lifted him off Teresa. In the face of such horrifying impossibility, it would have been understandable if the lieutenant succumbed to fear, but he apparently still had some fight left in him. He drew the knife at his belt a swiped across Adrienne's eyes. Unfazed, the dhampir jabbed him in the face with the bloody stump of her right arm. She punched him three more times in quick succession before drawing her arm back for a more forceful blow. However, her arm stopped short of Harald's face.
Adrienne's body had suddenly turned to stone, as if she had looked into the eyes of the legendary Medusa. Brenok glared irritably at the stone figure, his rod still pointed at her.
"That's quite enough, Darkling," he said.
Harald unbuckled the chin strap to his helmet and was freed of Adrienne's grip. Forgetting all about what he was doing earlier, he stared at the implacable face of the petrified dhampir.
"What in Redbeard's name is this monster?" the lieutenant asked.
"A great nuisance," Brenok sniffed.
Harald walked over to the wagon with the group's gear and pulled out Edward's mace. "I'll smash it to pieces," he said.
Brenok shook his head. "You'll do nothing of the sort. My master doesn't want his prize specimen to be permanently damaged." He hovered over to Adrienne and tapped her with his rod, adding, "Besides, that's just a shell. You'd only break her out, and I don't think you want that."
The look on Harald's face showed that he did not like the thought too much. He wiped Adrienne's blood off his face and tossed the mace back in the wagon. For a moment, he did not seem to know what to do, then he noticed all the crossbowmen with their empty weapons.
"What are you louts waiting for?" he snapped. "Reload!"
The men hastily complied, readying fresh bolts to be used against Mark and his companions. The two surviving Guardsmen whose halberds had been broken drew their swords. With their captors regrouping, the group had to weigh its options. The heat of the moment had passed, and they were made all too aware of their stark disadvantage.
No one seemed to know what to do. This left them at the mercy of Brenok's ever fertile and wholly devious mind. He disappeared, instantly reappearing right next to Harald. The lieutenant jumped slightly, and then gave Brenok a dirty look for startling him.
"The prisoners tried to revolt," the apprentice said. "You don't intend to let them get away with it, do you?"
"You have something in mind?" Harald asked.
"Well, think back to your misadventures in Rowan."
In a flush of embarrassment and outrage, Harald cried, "How do you know about that!?"
"I have my ways," the apprentice replied coyly, "but that's not importing right now." He grinned in usual malevolent, serpentine manner. "Why don't you return the favor? Make them feel adequately subdued when you present them to Old Randwulf. March them into Darkwall the same way they made you and your men march to the garrison post."
Harald clearly liked the idea and grinned in similar malice. He held up his knife as a signal for his men.
"I want six men front and center," he ordered. When the six men were assembled with knives drawn, he continued, "Take your pick, men. Cut off those rags." He pointed to Sonia. "But not that one. That one's mine." He scowled at the group. "If one of them causes any trouble, jerks around or tries to hit you, we take a finger from each of them, each time one of them tries something. Is that clear?"
"Yes, sir!" the men replied in unison.
The Guardsmen approached their grim-faced captives. Even with the chains and the cover of Harald's threat, they were far from bold. The sole exception was Harald himself. He swaggered toward Sonia with no small amount of cruel satisfaction.
"I'm going to enjoy this," he said.
The fencer was defiantly sarcastic. "You really need to find yourself a wench."
"And what do you think you are?"
"More man than you."
Brenok cackled in delight at the exchange. "Oh, this is great! More fun than I've had in ages! And it's just getting started! Ah, somebody stop me!"
"Very well!" an unknown voice boomed.
The apprentice barely dodged a fireball that incinerated the two Guardsmen standing next to him. Everyone looked up to see an old man in a grey cloak and a wide-brimmed hat. He pointed a gnarled staff at Brenok, who scowled at the intruder for spoiling his fun. Mark instantly recognized him as the same old man he had met way back when he first arrived in Gladius. Glancing over at the Guardian, the old man grinned before turning attention back to Brenok.
"Back down, stripling," he said coolly. "You are no match for me."
"You're quite right," Brenok replied angrily. "This isn't over!"
"Tell your master that we are coming."
Brenok vanished, abandoning Harald and his men. The old man descended to the ground, lightly touching down on the grass. Harald, confused and angry, pointed his knife at the old man.
"Fire!" he shouted.
The crossbowmen took aim and loosed their bolts. The missiles erupted in splinters against the shimmering barrier the old man raised around him. Before Harald could issue new orders, the Guardsmen were caught in a hail of arrows that easily killed half their number and wounded many of the rest. The horses were thrown into a panic and blindly ran off. This included the ones hitched to the three wagons, which now had no one at the reins. All the group's gear and Ignatiy and Catherine were taken away in different directions.
Remarkably, the arrows landed nowhere near the group, which left Harald and the six volunteers similarly unharmed. The lieutenant threw down his knife and drew his sword. The others followed in suit. The arrows had come from the north, and the Guardsmen sought to used Mark and his companions as human shields, a difficult thing because they were facing the wrong way.
Mark looked past the Guardsman trying to use him as cover. He saw the arrows sticking out of the slain crossbowmen and recognized the fletching. They were Rowanite arrows.
The swordsman looked over his shoulder and could see them in the distance. Not ten or twenty, but scores of archers clad in forest green with arrows notched in their bows. The Guardsmen pressed themselves closer to their captives to avoid being made into a target. The old man laughed.
"I think you are forgetting something," he said.
Indeed, Harald had forgotten to account for the old man. When he looked back, he saw that the old man was not alone. Approaching from the south were even more people: swordsmen in green lacquered armor, bearded spearmen and warlike women clad in animal hides. Still more came from the west. These seemed to be Gladians, some arrayed as proper soldiers, but most wielding pitchforks, mattocks and other tools. They were surrounded.
The Guardsmen saw that they had no chance, dropped their weapons and held up their hands in surrender. All except Harald.
"What's wrong with you!?" he howled to his men. "Pick up your weapons! If we have to die, we die fighting! For the Guard!" When none of his men obeyed, he was livid. "Cowards!" he screamed. "You call yourselves Guardsmen!?"
Before Harald could do any harm, the old man pointed his staff at the lieutenant's sword. In an instant, it glowed red-hot, causing him to drop it with a yelp. Then, with a twirl of the old man's staff, the manacles were unlocked and the group's chains clattered to the ground.
Holding his burnt hand, Harald felt a tapping on his shoulder. He turned to face a newly freed Sonia. The fencer grinned and returned the jab he had given her earlier. While he was off-balance, she paid back the interest, delivering a combination of three successive hits that sent the lieutenant sprawling. Sonia, Edward and Giles then picked up the Guardsmen's swords to keep the captors turned captives in line.
While this was going on, Stefan had already run off to follow the wagon carrying Catherine. Mark would later find his single-mindedness enviable. For the time being, however, simply too much had happened for him to process it all.
"What's going on?" the swordsman asked.
"I did not like how the odds were stacked," the old man replied, "so I decided to even the score."
Before Mark could ask any more questions, his ears were pricked by dull cracking sound. He looked over to the stone form Adrienne and the cracks spreading through it. He remembered Brenok's comment about the stone form being a shell and remembering the terrible wounds Adrienne had suffered, he hurried over to help. Jasper was already close by, checking on Teresa and untying her ropes.
Pausing briefly for the novice, Mark asked her, "Are you okay?"
Teresa nodded weakly, still dazed from what she had been through. However, more than thinking of her own plight, her thoughts quickly turned to others.
"What about her?" she asked, referring to Adrienne.
"She's still alive," Mark said. "She's trying to get out right now."
"How can that be? No one could have survived all that."
Awkwardly, Mark replied, "Let's call it a miracle for now." To the thief, he said, "Jasper, can you help me?"
"Shoah."
Carefully tapping at the shell with the pommels of two fallen Guardsmen's swords, Mark and Jasper went to work aiding Adrienne in her efforts to break free. Teresa came to help as well, clearing loose pieces wherever she could find them, taking especial care around the bolts sticking out of the dhampir's body.
Within a matter of minutes, Adrienne was completely free of the shell and shaking off the last few bits of stone clinging to her cloak. Then Mark saw the full extent of her injuries. Her wounds were still bleeding; the slash from Harald that had put out both her eyes, the stump of her right arm, the stabs from the halberd, and those dozen crossbow bolts. Even knowing she was a dhampir, Mark was astounded at how little the damage seemed to affect her. Teresa, understandably, was speechless.
"You have seen better days, Cadmia Adriana," the old man said.
Even without her eyes, Adrienne seemed to recognize the old man. "I don't suppose you could've showed up any sooner, wizard. It would've spared me a lot of trouble."
The old man's mention of Adrienne's true name instantly caught Edward's attention. "Cadmia? As in Cadmus? She's a Cadmus!?"
Sonia gave him a funny look, clearly not seeing why he was getting so worked up. "Am I missing something?"
"You fool!" the Prince howled. "Cadmus, as in Cadmus Martial, the commander of the Marauders, the man who betrayed the King's men during the Battle of Greystone, one of the greatest enemies of all Gladius! That Cadmus!"
"Thank you, wizard," Adrienne said sarcastically. "I was trying to avoid this."
"Well, there is not much point hiding it now," the old man said. "The time for secrets has passed."
Adrienne did not seem too terribly pleased with the notion, but she had more pressing concerns at the moment. She pulled out a bolt lodged in her chest. It had been embedded in her breastbone, but it did not punch all the way through. She took a moment to appreciate it, acting as if her eyes were still intact.
"That one hit pretty close to the mark," she said. She then looked down at all the bolts bristling from her body and then to Teresa. "Give me a hand."
The novice stared at the daunting task before her. There were three bolts in the dhampir's abdomen, one in her hip and another in her ribs several inches below her arm. And that was just the front. Still, she could not simply leave them in Adrienne's body and resolved herself to pulling them out.
Adrienne felt Teresa handling one of the bolts gingerly and told her, "No need to be gentle. Just get them out."
With some reservation, Teresa pulled the bolt out in a single clean, quick motion. Adrienne could not help wincing. At least the novice had the sense to pull it out straight. With Teresa helping her pull out the ones in the front and Mark and Jasper taking care of the ones in her back, she was soon free of all the unpleasant invaders.
Now that the bolts were gone, there was one more thing to attend to. Adrienne stooped down to pick up her severed forearm and lined it up with her stump. She held her arm up to Teresa.
"Bind it tight," she said.
Teresa looked at her incredulously. "What good can that possibly do? We should cauterize the wound."
"Just trust me."
The simple fact that Adrienne continued to draw breath in spite of her many wounds was enough to leave the novice inclined to take her at her word. She crouched down by one of the dead Guardsmen and took the field dressing out of a pouch on his belt. She then tightly wrapped the dhampir's arm, but still was not entirely convinced of the virtue of her work.
"You could get an infection," she said.
"That's no concern for me," Adrienne replied.
"I should at least immobilize it. It'll just fall off if you move your arm around."
"Go ahead."
Teresa looked at the many cuts and holes in Adrienne's body and the long slash that had taken her eyes. "What about your other wounds?"
The dhampir furrowed her brow. "I guess I'll have to let you dress them. I can't do it myself one-handed." She looked over to the west, in the direction of the sun. "But let's go where there's some shade first."
Teresa looked around uncertainly. "I don't have my supplies. They must have been on one of those wagons."
As chance would have it, the wagons she spoke of were heading back their way, along with the multitude that had prompted the Guardsmen's surrender. There were plenty of familiar faces to be seen, all quite unexpected. In addition to native Gladians from Rowan, Eagle and Stormtree, there were also people the group had encountered in Arma: Scotians, Amazons and Ziphites. It was truly a sight to behold.
Arrayed in polished armor with a greatsword strapped to his back, Siegfried Martel led the group from Stormtree, both veterans of the old war and a number of volunteers from the younger generation. The young rebel Conrad was seen amongst his comrades of the Sons of Greystone and other fighters from Watercress. Ridley stood with the archers of Rowan, in whose ranks was a sulking figure Mark recognized as Jill's husband Lovel. Miners and other citizens of Eagle were headed by none other than the aged maidservant Agatha. On the Arman side, there was King Breandan and his green-armored swordsmen, Nicoma with her Amazons and Rabbi Ben-Ezra with a small group of his town militia and the unlikely addition of the bandit Roque. All in all, over two hundred people gathered around them, the leaders all eager to speak to the group.
"Your Highness!" Siegfried beamed. "Welcome home! I see we arrived just in the nick of time. You can thank our wizard friend, my Prince. He has brought our comrades together and new allies besides. The day of reckoning is close at hand!"
Edward was mightily pleased to see the old loyalists rallied together, but he had to ask, "How did you gain our old comrades' trust after all these years?"
Stepping into the conversation, Ridley said, "He had some help, my lord. I vouched for the Captain's loyalty along with several other leaders of the resistance. They've agreed to give him a chance to prove himself."
"And the fact that Your Highness receives him as a friend says much for him," a grizzled spearman said. He was apparently a leader among the old veterans. "He's passed the first test. The next one will be on the battlefield."
"There is still strength enough in these arms to pass that test, Sergeant," Siegfried told the spearman.
"If that's so, I'll be the first to admit being wrong," the spearman replied.
While they were exchanging this banter, Ridley went over to his two daughters. "Sonia, Jill," he said, "you've done well for yourselves. The people of Rowan have hidden for too long. Now it's time for us to reveal our true strength."
"We're going to need it, Papa," Sonia said, patting her adoptive father's shoulder.
Agatha, that ever faithful servant of House Aran, shuffled over to Mark, taking hold of his hand and kissing his fingers.
"You've finally returned to us, Master Mark." She kissed his hand again before looking up to him. "Are you well? Did those villains hurt you?"
Mark got down on one knee and embraced the little old servant, telling her, "I'll be fine." Standing back up, he asked, "Why did you come here? This place is dangerous."
The old servant thumped her chest proudly. "Who do you think rallied the people who still remember the good name of House Aran, young master? I've got as much a right to be here as anyone. I want to be there to see the invaders fall."
Mark smiled. "You've got a stout enough heart for it, I'll give you that."
Agatha did not get to say anything more. She had to quickly shuffle out of the way to avoid being squished when King Breandan bounded forward to give Mark a hearty bear hug.
Vigorously slapping the swordsman on the back, the King exclaimed, "'Tis guid tae se ye agane, braw knicht!" He waved to the wizard. "Ah'm obleig'd tae Gutcher Greybaird fra tillin' me aboot this. Ah ga'e ye a schip, bot it isna eneuch tae repey ye fra me dochter's life." He clasped wrists with Mark in a show of solidarity. "Me men an' Ah are swarn tae yer cause. Th' Hoos o' Bruis wul fecht alangside th' Echt Staurns ance mair. Thae blaggards wul gust cald Scotian steil, ye kin be sure."
Breandan went on to clasp wrists with Mark's companions, pledging his troth to each of them. As he was busily going from one person to the next, Nicoma stepped forward.
Before saying her own part, the Amazon Queen bowed deferentially to the old wizard. "Aged One tells us all we need to know." She nodded to Teresa. "For bond-sister's sake, we fight."
"My people, too, will fight by your side," Rabbi Josiah added, "in Amonai's name. We are indebted to you for slaying the foul beast Wilde. Look, even Ben-Oni has joined us to atone for his transgressions."
Roque crossed his arms, putting on an air of indifference. "Don't get the wrong idea. You did not see me at my best. I cannot have you under the impression that the dreaded Green Bandit of Arma is so easily defeated. Your enemies will see my true skills."
"Thank you, all of you," Mark said to the crowd. "Thank you for saving us. Thank you for coming together for this, the final battle. As Siegfried said, the day of reckoning is at hand."
There was a hearty roar of assent from the crowd. The mood was vibrant, but not all people were so quick to be carried away in the levity of the moment.
"You have done well to bring so many people together for the cause," Giles said to the old man, "but it won't be nearly enough to challenge the Marauders."
The wizard laughed. "This is hardly the breadth and scope of my preparations, General. I only brought enough to properly subdue your captors. There are many more where they came from."
The whole group looked at him in amazement. Could it be? Did they really have an army with which to challenge Randwulf and the Marauders?
Answering the silent question, the old man nodded and said, "Now, come with me. There is much we must do."