A career soldier is forced to re-evaluate her blind hatred of lawbreakers.
|"Commander Darlon, it's time we did something about the bandits." I feel like I had come to make this request a hundred times. Walking around the garrison in this hulking steel isn't easy, especially given my size. The blacksmith never forged armor for a woman as tall as me. But after ten years of patrolling the streets, I'm used to wearing it. I must admit I'm partial to the red phoenix emblazoned across my chest plate. Its stretched wings and sharp claws give off an intimidating aura, and with my height, the phoenix is practically at eye level for normal-sized people.
"I'm aware of the bandit camp nearby, Caldara," he responded. Anrate had been sacked more times than I care to recount, but we always managed to rebuild, like the red phoenix rising from the ashes. But I can't understand why Darlon won't do anything about the bandits. Do we really need to watch Anrate fall one more time?
"Well, I'm glad you noticed," I wanted to quip. It seems every day some recently mugged civilian shares his plight with me. They should be taking these complaints to Darlon. Then again, it's not like that would do any good. So they instead pester random Lieutenants like me.
"Sir, the bandits robbed three citizens this week alone. They're becoming relentless," I finally responded.
"They're probably just trying to eat." I can't stand when people rationalize crime. A mugging is a mugging, no matter the excuse. If they wanted to eat, they could simply hunt, or maybe they could learn a trade like a normal person. Even begging would be more honorable. "Besides," he continued, "I'd rather not start a war with them unless I have to."
"So we should just let them keep mugging!?" I surprised even myself with my vigor. Normally I stay calm, but I couldn't stand Darlon's inaction anymore. "These wretches need to-"
"That's enough, Caldara! Those are people you're talking about." You're wrong, Darlon. People don't steal, they don't rob, and they don't murder. Those activities are reserved for wretches.
"I get it, but if we do nothing, we'll have a revolt on our hands. People are already losing faith in the Watch. How long before they storm the garrison in protest?" I may have stretched the truth a little bit, but I had to do something, and surely Darlon would appreciate a threat to the garrison itself. He almost has more guards patrolling these halls than the streets of Anrate.
"Well, we can't have that. Do you know where their camp is?"
"It's about an hour west of here," I replied. I spent the past few days collecting rumors about these bandits, hoping one day Darlon would let me pay them a visit. Although I'd never been there before, I felt like I could find it blindfolded.
"Head there when you can," he instructed, "but no killing. I only want you to investigate." It took every ounce of willpower to avoid rolling my eyes. "We need evidence before we can take further action." Evidence? Go outside and talk to any random citizen! You have a 50-50 shot at finding someone the bandits mugged.
"I'll be back with an official report by nightfall," I said as I nodded half-heartedly. A lot of good that report will do. The bandits will have fled halfway across the continent by the time I write the report. Well, at least Darlon might start taking the bandits seriously.
After an uneventful trek, I reached the bandit camp. I removed my helmet, letting the bright sun warm my skin. I have to remember to thank my brother. He convinced me to cut my hair. Normally my helmet leaves my blond hair matted, giving me a bland, exhausted look. But my short hair remained vibrant after all this time. I scanned the area, looking for bandits, but saw only empty tents and scattered pans. I took a few steps, hearing the old, yellow leaves crunch beneath my feet. Suddenly, I had an idea. If these wretches lie, cheat, and steal, then perhaps I'll beat them at their own game.
"I know you're all here," I announced. "Citizens of Anrate have been robbing each other and blaming bandits. Commander Darlon is preparing an assault against this camp to keep the mayor off his back. I'm here to clear your names!" I heard some rustling from nearby trees. Did that actually work?
"Surround her!" a woman shouted. Before I could draw my sword, six bandits sprang from the trees, surrounding me with bows drawn. They all had blue bandanas. Weird. I figured they'd be wearing yellow. No matter. I had them right where I wanted them.
"You need to leave," she told me. I could barely see her through the sun's glare that reflected off her snow-white hair and directly into my eyes. I really ought to polish my armor. It's quite dull compared to her hair's shine. Perhaps I could've given her a taste of her own medicine. Oh, well. I raised my hand over my eyes to block the glare and get a better look at her. For someone so young, she sure had a lot of wrinkles on her face. I suppose I can relate. My face isn't much better. Then again, if it weren't for her bandits robbing people left and right, maybe I wouldn't be so stressed.
"Are you supposed to be the bandit queen?" I asked sarcastically, while dropping the biggest eye roll I could muster.
"I am Hasuni, and you can tell your brutes to stay away." I wish the Watch were brutes. Maybe Darlon would've sent me here sooner.
"I could do that," I countered, "but I'm not about to let you sack Anrate."
"You're here to investigate, right? If you actually did your job, then you'd realize you're in the wrong place," she retorted.
"Let me guess, you're completely innocent. Well I'll just go tell Darlon to send you a nice pumpkin pie to apologize for inconveniencing you." If they think I'm leaving without answers, they're sorely mistaken.
"Send your condescending pie to Yarrin's clan. Maybe then you'll actually solve the case," she said mockingly. Before I could respond, I heard a loud crash behind me. It knocked most of us off our feet. I rose to find the air covered in smoke. Four men, clad in black robes and yellow caps, sprung from the gray fog. As the smoke began to clear, I turned to Hasuni.
"Tell your troops to follow my command," I told her.
"I assure you I'm quite capable of fighting. I'm not a child," she responded, though she nearly looked like one.
"And now you're my soldier. Same goes for the rest of your bandits," I shot back. "Bandits! Form a semi-circle around Hasuni. Keep your bows drawn!" They immediately surrounded me, forming a crescent of arrows pointed outward. The bandits stood perfectly straight and held their bows rock steady. Their discipline impressed me.
"What are you doing?" she whispered in a panicked voice. "I'm trapped in here and my people are completely exposed."
"You're not trapped - you're safe," I assured her, but she was having none of it.
"Who cares about me? They're in danger," she asserted, her voice getting louder. I had to do something before the yellow caps caught us bickering.
"Alright, we'll do it your way. Bandits, step aside and clear the way for me!" After the bandits shifted to the side, I walked toward the yellow caps. I wrapped my fingers around my sword's hilt. "Show me your leader," I demanded. They parted, but I didn't see anyone behind them.
"Down here, you wench!" yelled a voice from below. I tilted my head down. Is he the leader? No wonder Hasuni didn't want to be called a child. I bent my knees a bit, placed my hands on my thighs, and leaned forward.
"Well hey there little buddy! Are you Yarrin? Can I talk to your mommy and daddy for a minute?" I asked in a high-pitched voice suitable for conversing with a baby. I must have struck a nerve, because before I knew it, I had bows aimed right at my head. "I'm a Lieutenant in the Anrate Watch," I responded, this time standing straight and speaking with a serious voice. "You think bows scare me? I put myself in this position for a living! Now tell me what you're doing here." He ordered his men to lower their bows. I told Hasuni's bandits to do the same.
"Yes, I am Yarrin, and you can leave. I've no quarrel with you," he said. He spoke with a surprisingly deep tone. Maybe it's because I was half-expecting a chipmunk's voice.
"Whatever you're planning, you can do it later. I'm not finished with Hasuni."
"Wrong answer," he replied. He leapt back behind his men - and I mean he leapt. He jumped clear over them. "Ready!" he shouted. Four yellow caps drew their bows. I don't like where this is going. "Aim!" They pointed their bows directly at Hasuni. But before he could yell "Fire!" I sprung toward Hasuni. He gave the order just before I shoved Hasuni away and sent both of us to the ground. The force of my steel armor slamming the ground sounded like a booming thunderclap. I looked up and saw four arrows fly over my head.
Now it's my turn. While the yellow caps reached for their quivers, I hopped back up and charged forward. Placing my right hand back on my hilt, I drew my sword, raising it to the sky. In that one sweeping motion, I slashed the first archer, sending him flying back. Keeping the momentum of my swing, I spun around and slashed another archer's neck, nearly lopping his head clean off. With the last bit of momentum, I reached my left hand into my pocket and grabbed my dagger. Reversing direction, I swung my arm to the left, releasing the dagger and sending it straight for a third archer's head. After a thunk, his head snapped back. His legs crumbled and he flopped to the ground like a sack of potatoes. I stood straight, chest puffed out, and glared at the fourth archer, staring her right in the eye.
"Does the little guy really pay you that well?" I asked with a sharp voice. She quivered in fright, shook her head, and fled. Then I turned to Yarrin. He was looking off to the side. Typical. He thinks he's so powerful but he doesn't have the honor to face me after I thoroughly destroyed his pitiful band of wretches.
"I'll leave you to your fate," he said with a confident smirk. Then he raced away. I'd never seen a man run so fast. No matter. I turned to Hasuni, ready to bask in the glow of victory. But before I could unleash my devastating wit upon her, I heard a noise.
"Caldara!" someone shouted from the distance. I squinted my eyes, trying to make out the figure as it grew larger. Is that...Darlon? "I should have known you couldn't be trusted! I specifically told you not to kill!"
"They attacked me," I pleaded. "I had to defend myself!"
"Oh, really," he said dismissively. "Then where are your wounds?" What wounds? The arrows missed!
"What was I supposed to do, stand there and let them hit me?"
"I told you what you were supposed to do: talk to them and don't kill them!"
"The yellow caps aren't even with them!"
"Are you really going to sit here and tell me the bandits organize themselves by color?" Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying, apparently. But it's fine. Don't believe me. At least I removed three wretches from the world. "Now get over here," he ordered. I started walking toward town, but as I passed Darlon, he grabbed my arms. I heard a large click and felt cold metal pressing against my wrists.
"What is this nonsense? Are you arresting me?!" I couldn't believe the audacity of this idiot. I never thought he'd be brazen enough to lock up one of his own.
"You're under arrest for murder." You've got to be kidding me. As soon as the people hear about this, they'll have your head. Don't expect me to stand in their way. I glanced at Hasuni, expecting to see her gloat. Instead, she seemed conflicted. Her mouth was agape. If it weren't for these wrist irons, I'd have shut it myself.
"Let her go!" Hasuni exclaimed. "We have business with her, and you know not of what you speak!" She had more to say, but Darlon wasn't in the mood. He shot his arm to the side - palm wide open - backhanding Hasuni and sending her straight to the floor. The impact was almost as loud as the smoke bomb. Before we left, I looked down at her.
"Thank you," she mouthed.
I spent my entire adult life putting criminals behind bars. Never in a million years did I expect to be in their shoes - or, rather, their shackles. I couldn't even get any rest because of some lady incessantly wailing for the past thirty minutes. At least a lucky guard was having fun interrogating some wretch. After what felt like an eternity of sitting on this cold, depressing slab of concrete, I head footsteps. It was Darlon.
"I'm so sorry, Caldara. I should have listened." Yeah, no kidding.
"Why are you here?" I asked derisively.
"We caught one of the bandits from the camp breaking into the garrison. She was headed for the dungeon. Looks like she came to finish you off." I guess Yarrin has a quarrel with me after all, but instead of coming after me himself, he sent another wretch in his place. He must have given the surviving archer a chance to redeem herself.
"Why are you telling me this?" I asked Darlon.
"I want to make things right," he said as he unlocked my cell. "By breaking into the garrison, she committed a capital offense, and I want you to deliver the sentence." Looks like Darlon finally came to his senses after all. Took him long enough.
"Give me my dagger," I insisted. He obliged. I wonder how long it took to clean the blood from the blade. Darlon walked me to a nearby holding cell. He opened the door to reveal a lady, bound in rope, with a sack draped over her head. I looked forward to finishing what I started. I leaned forward, grabbing the sack and tossing it to the side.
"Hasuni?" I stepped back, shocked. She had bruises all over her face. What did they do to her?
"Yup. She said her name was Hasuni. Took us a good ten minutes just to get that out of her," Darlon boasted. "She went on about how she came to break you out. No doubt she wanted to sneak you back to her camp so her wretches could watch the execution. She's a tough one, alright, but not tough enough for the cold steel of your dagger." I grasped my dagger in my right hand. "Go ahead," he encouraged. "Do it!" Hasuni looked at me. Her eyes practically begged me to put her out of her misery. I had no choice but to grant her wish.
I stood straight. Darlon looked left, shot me a sly smile, and resumed gazing at Hasuni. I lifted the dagger until I held it next to my head. Tightening my grip, I gulped nervously. Then I snapped my arm to my right, plunging the dagger into Darlon's throat. He let out a painful gargle as he flailed his arms wildly. I loosened my grip. Darlon fell to the ground, dead.
"Get out of here before they catch you," I told Hasuni.
"What are you going to do?" Hasuni asked.
"I'll blame it on Yarrin. Then I'll lead the Watch right to him and-"
"Kill him!?" she interrupted. "You already tried killing people, and what came of that? We're just trying to survive, but now you have the Watch hunting us like animals. And your solution is more killing?" She had a point. Even if I killed Yarrin, the citizens would insist on taking care of Hasuni's people and ending the scourge once and for all. As far as everyone will know, a bandit just killed a Watch commander. They'll see no difference between Yarrin's clan and Hasuni's group. The Watch won't relent until they exterminate every bandit in sight. The war had begun.
"We're heading back to your camp," I told Hasuni.
"Why? Are you going to try to finish us off?"
"No, but the Watch will. We need to evacuate your camp before they find out what just happened."
"I...I..." she struggled. She understood her situation. They flee. The Watch pursue. They flee again. And the cycle continues until they eventually give up. "Why are you doing this for them? They're just bandits," she said with a look of sadness. She bowed her head in shame, perhaps resigned to her fate as an outcast in perpetual flight. I placed my hand beneath her chin, lifted her head up, and looked her in her eyes.
"Bandits? Those are people you're talking about. Now let's go save them. We'll head to Longshore. I heard the town was abandoned after a large monster attacked. We can hide there for the time being."