Here’s the promised second half of this weekend’s double-header. What was originally the second-half of Chapter 4, broken out into its own chapter when that one crossed 10k words, and delivering the first bit of motorcycle-sword-gun-beheading fun that’s been hinted at for so long.
Not much else to say except Happy Easter, and I’ll be back shortly.
He realized, as he led his men out of the narrow valley they called The Well and over the rise that would take them down into Carey’s Bowl, that they hadn’t thought this thing through very well.
It had been nearly 100 years since one of the crown’s scientists had discovered how to refine the dark black sludge into a fuel that would burn steady and constant, which led to the creation of small engines that could power a man-sized machine reliably over long distances. And in that time, there had been no open battles in the kingdom, or at least none that had directly involved the crown. Some of the encounters with the renegade mine operators to the north had turned ugly, with dozens dead and up to three times as many injured, on both sides, but those had been localized affairs, the bandits practicing a hit and run and hide approach to the fighting, and the Northern Watch providing only minimal guidance and material support, leaving most of the dirty work to militias called up from the closest towns. But that was it; the closest any member of the royal family had come to real combat was Joseph’s great-uncle, a famous drunk, who’d started a bar fight against 10 men at once, downing four of them before slipping on the spilled blood and cracking his head on a stone wall on the way down. He’d survived, taking several weeks to recover from all the bruising and cuts, and had never been able to speak quite right again afterwards.
All of that is to say that, since their invention, motorcycles had never been taken into combat before. And Joseph realized that, had anyone with any martial accumen actually sat down and thought through some basic tactics, they never would have allowed what Joseph and his men were about to do.
For one thing–and this was a point that Joseph wasn’t necessarily in favor of, but knew it would have been a critical point that he couldn’t have argued–he was leading his formation, as always. Meaning that the crown prince was several yards in front of his guard, the twelve men who’d sworn their lives and trained ceaselessly to protect him. And another thing: their standard formation was fine for travel, particularly when passing through lesser-traveled areas; Joseph was in front, with eleven of his guard plus Canaan in double-file behind him, with Matthias picking up the rear. They were stretched out, easy targets individually, and collectively in no shape to prevent being broken up in to smaller, more vulnerable groups.
It was too late to do anything about it now. If there was an ambush waiting for them in the valley just up ahead, which Joseph was now convinced to be true, his primary advantage–aside from expecting to be attacked in the first place–was their speed, moving faster than a horse could, even on this dirt road, which was something no one could have prepared properly for. If they were to stop now, gather around and try to figure out a whole new way to approach this on the fly, they’d either find themselves under attack within moments, if their enemy was impatient, or would never be attacked at all, if their enemy was more cautious. And by this point, Joseph’s mind was less concerned with why anyone would be attacking them than it was with who would be attacking them, and if they spooked and disappeared, there’s be no way to find out.
Just before beginning the downslope into the longer, broader valley, Joseph glanced over his shoulder, reinforcing the connection he had with his men. They were still in formation, within a few inches of perfect positioning, and they were alert, heads swiveling, keeping one eye on Joseph and the other constantly scanning the terrain around them.
The road they were on led them through a couple lazy switchbacks before straightening out at the bottom of the valley. It was cooler here, out of the direct light of the sun, and everything was in varying degrees of shadow. To their right was a gentle upslope, mostly medium-sized boulders interspersed with a few small, hardy trees, sufficient for a bit of shade at noon but never receiving enough sunlight or nutrients from the rocky soil to grow large enough to serve any other purpose. To their left was the wide floor of the valley, a sparse forest comprised of larger trees, thriving on the hardier soil, with a dense underbrush covering nearly all the ground in between, and a few scattered glades visible in the distance through the trees as pockets of lighter green. It was near impossible to hear anything over the roar of the engines, and visibility was decent to their right, horrid to their left. Joseph continued to reach outward with his Sight, but kept encountering the same bizarre static just beyond the radius of his formation, and had all but given up on it in favor of just using his eyes.
He banked his bike around a curve, and felt his Sight explode in a cacophony of noise. He had barely a moment to panic–it felt like his Fit was coming on, and this would be the worst possible time for that to happen–before realizing that it wasn’t hit Fit: they were under attack, and the noise assailing his Sight was the anger and quickly-releasing violence of their attackers.
Ahead of him, two men ran out into the road, maybe fifty yards away. There was no time to think through what he should do beyond realizing that if he tried to ride one of them down, the other would have an easy shot at him as he passed. Instead, he let instincts take over. He reached down and pulled his sword free, then yanked his front wheel hard to the left, bringing his rear wheel around in a skid. Once the wheels were turned ninety degrees, perpendicular to the road, he laid his bike down, letting its forward momentum carry it on, taking a controlled fall to the ground behind it. He skidded for a while, his jacket absorbing most of the impact, guiding himself with his elbows (thankfully reinforced with thick leather padding, in case of an accident like this, though he couldn’t remember ever hearing of someone intentionally instigating a fall like he was) until he came to a stop.
The two men had barely a second to realize that their situation had changed and react to it, and it wasn’t enough time. The motorcycle lost very little of its speed by the time it reached them, skidding along on its side, and it bowled into the two men, clipping their legs out from underneath them. Joseph pushed himself to his feet, aware of the burning strain along the underside of his arms from controlling his own skid, and ran towards the two men. He heard yelling behind him, even over the roar of his men’s engines, and then two distinct pops as one or more of them fired their revolvers, but didn’t have a moment to spare to wonder how they were faring; he had his own immediate situation to attend to, and then he could better survey things.
He reached the two men just as they were struggling to their feet. The one on his left had gained his knees, but looked disoriented, and was looking about vaguely, without any weapons in his hands. Joseph didn’t hesitate–he brought his left hand to the pommel of his sword, increasing the power he could put into this swing, and adding the weight of his running forward momentum swept the blade around, taking the man’s head cleanly off. He turned to the man on his right, who was struggling to rise even more–the bike appeared to have injured his legs more seriously than his friend–but he was not disoriented, and had already drawn his swords, a thin short sword in one hand, and an even smaller one, almost a big dagger, in his off hand.
Joseph didn’t wait for him to figure out if he was going to be able to get to his feet or not. He took two balanced steps and kicked the man in the center of his chest, knocking him over onto his back, then reversed his sword in his hands and plunged it into the center of the man’s chest. He felt the blade shiver slightly as it broke through the ribcage, and saw the man’s hands drop his weapons and reach up instinctively to the blade sticking out of his chest, but then Joseph hit something truly vital, and the man’s entire body spasmed, his arms flailing back to his sides, his back arching, and a thick burst of black heart-blood spurted from his mouth.
Joseph pulled his sword free and turned around to see what was happening with his men. There was fighting all along the road for nearly a hundred yards behind him; bikes were scattered, still reminiscent of their original formation, but some were on their sides, others upright but well offset from their original positioning, and it looked like one had actually gone right off the road, overturning in the ditch that ran alongside, one of the wheels sticking up into the air, still spinning.
It was hard to sort out where his men were and how the fight was going: although they road in formation, the members of his guard were trained to fight as loosely-connected individuals, making sure to give each other enough space to work with their swords and guns, and more importantly to take the fight aggressively to the enemy, regardless of the numbers. Joseph could see pockets all along the road where three to five men were fighting, a member of his guard in the middle of several attackers, but things were shifting so quickly that he couldn’t determine even an estimate of the total numbers they were facing, let alone gauge how the fighting was going.
He started to reach for his own revolver, readying himself to rush back into the larger fray, when he saw three more men rushing at him from the side of the road right where the first two had appeared, and suddenly there was no time for anything but he and his sword.
The men attacking him were also using two small swords, one in each hand, and it was all Joseph could do to keep his own weapon dancing and hold them off. An odd doubling began to occur, between the fight as he was seeing it with his eyes, feeling it with his body, and a secondary bubble of awareness immediately around him of possibilities and intent. The bond he had been hoping to forge with his sword was there, stronger than he’d expected, and as his attackers entered into the sphere around him, they became waves of motion, darting into and out of his violent energies. After a few moments, he was no longer paying much attention with his normal senses, relying almost exclusively upon this new awareness, allowing himself to swerve and respond based on where he knew the attack was going to be coming from, where it was intended to go, rather than on the actual movements of the men surrounding him.
He found his first opening this way, noting with his eyes a sword raised high to his left, coming in for an attack at his head, but knew it was a feint, the real violence centering much lower in the man’s off-hand. He ignored the high attack, sweeping his sword around low, deflecting the real lunge before it had even really started, then brought his sword back up quickly, slicing the man with the tip from his stomach to his chin. It was a mortal hit: not only did he see the man fall back, collapsing to the ground, but that entire center of violent intention disappeared from his Sight. He was curious, amazed at what was happening, wondering if anyone else with the Sight had ever reported something like this in the past, wanting to know if it was a unique combination of the intensity of the emotions surrounding him and the nearness of his Fit or if this was something he could learn to control and use…but there was no time. He was just barely able to continue the sweep of his mortal cut back around, deflecting a thrust that was barely an inch from his unprotected side, and the battle continued.
He was able to kill his second attacker with more ease, using his greater weight to bully him back, until he tripped over his feet, stumbling back, then continuing his fall with his throat slit open by Joseph’s blade. His companion didn’t spare a moment for remorse or surprise, and had already begun his next attack before Joseph’s sword had completed its arc, and Joseph knew, instantly, that he had overextended himself. He could sense that both blades were incoming, neither a feint, one aimed high and one low, and there was no way for him to turn and deflect the incoming blades in time. Instead, he let his legs go, trying to fall out of the way, reaching out with his left arm to hopefully deflect the one blade off the bone on the outside edge, hoping that he would drop quickly enough that the high attack would miss him entirely. As to what might come next, with him wounded and on the ground…he’d worry about that in a moment, if he got there.
He felt the blade bite through the leather of his jacket and into his forearm. The pain was immediate and burning, and then came a deeper pain, an ache that shot straight up his arm all the way to his shoulder and down into his chest as the blade’s edge found bone and dug a groove; if it had hit him a slightly more direct angle, it might have sheared right through his bone, taking his entire hand off just below the wrist. As it was, his arm was knocked wildly to the side, blood already beginning to spray, his hand useless before he even hit the ground, hidden beyond a fuzz of pain. His move had worked, though: he saw a blur before his eyes, and felt with his Sight the high attack swing just inches over his head. He hit the ground, trying to roll away, hoping to buy some time before the next attack came, and reached out with his bad arm to support himself as he tried to regain his feet. The arm gave way under him, the pain to great to even allow him to lock it in place to briefly hold his weight, and he fell again, face first, the small, sharp rocks driving into his lip and cheek, more blood flowing.
The next attack was already incoming, and he was now completely helpless. He tried to roll towards his attacker, letting his momentum bring his sword around in a wide sweep, thinking he might be able to delay a killing blow at least one more moment, just a little longer and he could figure out what to do and how he was going to get out of here. As his head rotated and his eyes found his attacker–even closer than he feared–he brought his own sword around, nearly throwing it…and it hit nothing. His attacker’s head suddenly snapped backwards, blood spraying above and behind him, and then he collapsed, a small red hole in his forehead, just over his right eye, a much larger hole in the back of his head, blood and small blood-covered chunks already puddling underneath him. There was no time to wonder which of his men had shot him, nor to thank them; Joseph just spared a moment’s gratitude for his guards’ accuracy with their pistols, used his right arm to boost himself back to his feet, and didn’t wait to gather himself fully before charging back up the road and into the larger battle.
He shook his left arm as he ran, feeling the blood filling his glove, but also some feeling returning to the limb itself. It wouldn’t be good for much, but it also wouldn’t unbalance him, and in a pinch could serve as a fulcrum for his preferred one-and-a-half handed grip.
He closed in on the nearest group, two men attacking one of his guard, and with a single thrust evened the odds, impaling the back through the back, then kicking the body off his sword as it fell. He left the second attacker to his guardsman and charged onward, diving in to help where he could. The remaining attackers proved to be much clumsier than those that had focused on him initially, and in short order most of the fighting was done. Finally, there was only one attacker still standing, and when he realized he was surrounded, the rest of his companions dead, with a dozen different swords and pistols aimed at him, he stopped, his shoulders and head falling, swords dropping limply from his hands, and then he fell to his knees, defeated and awaiting what might come next.
[NEED MORE HERE ABOUT REACTION TO THE BATTLE…NOT SOMETHING THEY FACE EVERY DAY.]
Joseph ran to Matthias, who thankfully didn’t immediately notice his prince’s wound: if he had, Joseph would have been bound up and hurried off, treated like a very expensive, very delicate heirloom, and there were way too many questions he wanted to sort out before allowing his guard to do that to him.
“How are we?”
“Alright. Thomas took the worst of it, he’s a deep gash along his leg, but he’ll live, and no one else looks like they have anything more than cuts and bruises.”
“Can he ride?”
“No, dammit, which is the real problem. We’re too far from Innias to walk it there, and that’s the closest safe haven where I’d feel comfortable stashing you for the night. We’re going to have to leave it.”
Joseph growled unintelligible obscenities under his breath, kicking the dirt in frustration. Their bikes were hand-made, using an enormous amount of the limited rare metals the kingdom was able to gather in the course of a year, not to mention the precious fuel inside…losing one wasn’t as bad as losing a man…but perhaps harder to replace.
“Strip it and burn it.”
“Yes Your Royal Highness.” Matthias looked around, then waved over one of the men. “Letam. Tom can’t ride, so we need his bike stripped and torched, double-time. Siphon off as much fuel as you can into the other bikes, take the wheels and get those strapped on somewhere else…don’t leave anything but the seat and the frame. How long?”
“Two hours, maybe less if I had some help.”
“Take as much as you need, and get it done in half that.”
Letam ran off, grabbing two of the other men, pulling them in the direction of the bike they were going to strip. With multiple sets of tools, one man working on either side and the third overseeing and coordinating their efforts, they could probably get it done as quickly as Matthias was asking.
“I’m going to go talk to our survivor here. You check with Canaan, see how Thomas is doing, and then bring him over as well.”
“You think he’s the only one?”
Joseph paused, tried to calm himself with a few deep breaths, and reached out with his Sight. Whatever interference he’d been experiencing before the attack was gone now, and he was initially surprised at the strength of it, and how far he could see. There, surrounding him, were his men, all of them shaken after the battle, ecstatic that they’d come through their first real combat in defense of their prince and proved themselves so well, and at the same time absolutely shaken by their first taste of real life-and-death combat in defense of their prince. Joseph was feeling much the same, though for different reasons, and it was hard to get a handle on what he could see and feel. He managed to find the surviving attacker, ahead and to his left, and used that presence as an anchor, reaching out to see if there was anything else nearby.
“Just about. One or two of them are still breathing, but only barely. They won’t last the hour.” He took a deep breath, realizing what he was about to ask, and turned to look Matthias directly in the eyes.
“Have someone take care of them. Do you understand?”
Matthias stared back at him for a second, making sure he knew what his prince wanted, then nodded, adding, “I’ll handle it myself.” Joseph nodded back, then began walking slowly towards the surviving, uninjured attacker. He couldn’t watch Matthias, not with his eyes, but was was unable to tune him out completely with his Sight, and eventually stopped trying. He had given the order, he needed to be there, in some way, as the captain of his guard walked amongst their fallen attackers, finding the few who were mortally wounded but–for the moment–still alive, and plunged his sword into their chests, ending their suffering with their lives.
Joseph felt their lives wink out, and it was night and day different from when it had happened when he was in battle against them. There was no more violence surrounding them, the only intent he could feel was a flickering, primal need to try to breath, to continue to survive just a little longer. Watching that disappear, by his word if not his hand, was not easy. He began to feel dizzy, and overheated, and his heart skipped a beat as he found that it was initially impossible for him to distance himself from the Sight, the presences of his men growing brighter, their emotions beginning to overflow, his own identity beginning to disappear within them. It wasn’t his injured arm, or the regret he felt at what he’d ordered Matthias to do…this was the onset of a Fit, and once it reached a certain point, there would be no undoing it, he’d be lost, to himself and others, for days.
He knelt down, quickly, trying to catch his breath. He realized he was still holding his sword out, and used that as an excuse, bringing it up to his bent leg to wipe the worst of the blood and viscera off of it. He’d have to clean and sharpen it later–more likely one of his men would, given how useless his off hand was now, and would be for a bit–but he could at least get the worst of it off. He saw with some disgust clumps of hair, cloth, and other unidentifiable bits, already forming the center of large congealing bits of blood, and felt his gorge rise in his throat. Rather than trying to suppress it, he embraced it, focusing on the gore in front of him, being wiped from his weapon to his pants, the details and the smell, using it to drive back the Sight, bringing himself back to himself and out of the maelstrom of the hidden world around him.
When he felt he had himself under control enough, he got back to his feet, reached to sheath his sword, then remembered it was still on his bike, and continued carrying it in his hand. As much as it had been his center in the fighting, its essence his guide through the swirling violent energies his Sight could perceive, its solid weight and the sight of the blood still remaining on its blade centered him now in the real world. He made his way over to the kneeling prisoner, and bent down in front of him, taking a knee himself a moment later to better look the man in the eye.
He started to reach out with his bad hand, then backed off to re-situate himself. He set his sword down behind him, and used his teeth to pull the glove off his right hand, which he used to push back the man’s hood. He noted that the brown fabric was rough, and thick, but lighter than he’d expected. The man was still holding his head down, eyes focused on the ground, and Joseph could hear that he was mumbling something quietly in a language he couldn’t understand. He did recognize the language, though, and immediately called out over his shoulder for Canaan, his eyes never leaving the prisoner.
“Can you understand me?”
The man did not respond, just continued his mumbling. Joseph was able to pick out a few words which kept repeating. He thought of trying to reach out with the Sight, then remembered how close it had come to overwhelming him just a moment before and decided to hold off. If they were lucky, they’d have days and weeks to fully interrogate this man, but they’d be in a world of trouble if Joseph were overcome right here, far from any safe haven, especially if this wasn’t just an isolated attack but part of something larger.
He heard Canaan crouch down beside him.
“He’s from [badmanland].”
“You’re sure?” Canaan began to ask, but Joseph didn’t bother to answer, as it was clear Canaan could now hear the words the man was mumbling, and had confirmed it for himself.
“Do you understand any of it?”
Canaan listened for a bit more before responding.
“Not much. They have an extensive written language, but we don’t have much contact with them, and there isn’t much in the way of translation.”
“He keeps repeating a few things.”
“I hear. The first bit is something about ‘taking the fire’, I can’t place any more of the words so the intent may be entirely different. The second bit, though…”
“What is it?”
“‘Mashir-Aman.’ I don’t know what the first part means, I’ve never seen or heard that word before, but ‘Aman’…that’s not good news.”
“Are you going to tell me or just sit there acting all mysterious?”
“Aman is a title. If I remember correctly, it’s given to a tribal chieftain who has united all of their tribes under his banner.”
“So they have them selves a warlord. That is bad news.”
“It’s not just bad news…I’m not sure I can fully explain this…it’s impossible to unite the tribes. There’s a rite–they have rites for almost everything–that a chieftain has to go through before he can claim leadership of the other tribes. I only know the word because it’s used in one of their greatest histories.
“This sort of thing doesn’t ever happen. Maybe once every ten generations. And it’s always accompanied by a major war. It changes civilizations. In the history I mentioned, an Aman led them to war against a sea-faring nation based along the eastern rim of the [something] sea. They had no navy, and still wiped them out. Completely. Women, children, razed every single city and town to rubble.”
Joseph thought on this for a moment.
“Any other mention of this ‘Aman’ you can remember?”
“…So…they appear to have one now…and they’re attacking us, here, on our own land.”
“And no idea what ‘Mashir’ means?”
“None. It could be something as simple as his proper name, though I don’t remember the Aman in the history being called anything but Aman.”
“So it could be nothing.”
“Or it could mean something even worse.”
“If that’s possible, yes.”
Joseph looked into the prisoner’s face. There was a peace there, an acceptance that was in contrast to his situation, as though he knew all of his possible fates, having failed, and wasn’t bothered by any of them.
“Alright. I need you to do a few things for me. First, get Matthias. I need to talk this over with him. Second,” at this, Joseph used his teeth to pull the glove off his left hand, wincing at the sharp pain, and then shrugged out of his leather jacket, “get your bandages.” He held up his left arm, the wound evident and looking much worse than Joseph had feared. Blood coated his entire forearm and hand like a second glove, and the gash was split wide, the chipped bone showing through. “And do me the favor of not mentioning this to Matthias just yet. He’ll see it himself soon enough.
“And third…I could use some tea before we get underway.”
Canaan had been concerned when relating what he knew of what the prisoner was saying, and visibly concerned when he saw the injury that Joseph had sustained in the fighting…but at this request, his breath audibly caught in his throat, and he froze in place.
“…How bad is it?”
“Bad enough. I don’t know if the tea will help, but it can’t hurt.”
“Can you make it to Innias?”
“We’ll find out, won’t we.” After a moment’s pause, just as Canaan resumed getting to his feet, he added, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that part to Matthias either.”
Canaan moved off, and while he was gone, Joseph continued to stare into the prisoner’s face, trying to get a sense of him based on sight and instinct alone. He saw that the man occasionally–and just barely–flicked his eyes up to see if Joseph was still opposite him. His demeanor did not change, nor did he stop his mumbling…Joseph was beginning to think that it was a prayer of some kind, a verbal talisman that the man was using to calm himself. Without understanding more of the words, there was no way for him to tell. There was definitely a sense of awe when he said the words “Mashir-Aman”, and everything seemed to center around them.
He heard someone approaching and got to his feet, waiting for his Captain to approach. He tried to subtlety hide his left arm behind him, knowing the deception would only last for so long, but wanting to take advantage of the lack of reaction while he could.
“Has he said anything?”
“He’s from [badmanland]. I can’t make out any of the words, but Canaan was able to parse a few. There’s something about fire, and then a bit that’s starting to concern me more the longer I think on it.
“Seems the [badmanlandpeople] have themselves a warlord, someone’s who’s managed to unite all of their tribes, which Canaan assures me is not an easy thing to do and doesn’t happen very often. And when it does, they tend to go to war, and significantly.”
“And here they are.”
“Do you want to know what’s been bothering me ever since you first suggested that someone might actually attack us?”
“How did they know we were here? We left [name of town two day’s ride south of them] two days ago. We didn’t stop in Azant. Haven’t spoken to a soul in two days. What I’m trying to say is…up until an hour ago, I’d have thought that the only people alive who had a decent idea where we were was us.”
“…That’s a pleasant thought. Want me to make it worse?”
“The five who were at the front, where I was…well, I’m not sure about the first two, my bike did most of the work, but the three who appeared from the brush and pushed me quite a bit more than any of your men have in the training yard? They were good. Very good. If it hadn’t been for a spared shot from one of our guys, I’m not sure I’d be standing here talking to you right now.”
“You sure you’re not just getting lazy?”
“Nope. And I know what you’re thinking. After they were down, when I came back down the road to help clean up…the rest of them weren’t very good, were they?”
“We probably could have taken them at half strength. Tom’s wound was a fluke, a stray caught his attacker in the neck, spinning him around, and his sword spun out completely unintentionally and caught him along the thigh. From what I can tell, there wasn’t a single intentional attack that made its way to its target.”
“And so when I say that the three I faced were as skilled as anyone I’ve ever fought, including you?”
“…You think they set their best at the front?”
“I don’t like where that thought leads me.”
“Neither do I.”
“It’s fairly common knowledge that you lead the formation.”
Joseph nodded, and turned to look back at their prisoner. He was glad for Matthias’s presence; they’d grown up together, and their ability to bounce an idea back and forth, tearing through all the meat to get to the marrow at its center was one of the primary reasons that he’d been chosen as the captain of his guard. But he didn’t want to follow this train of thought any further, not now, while they were exposed, and still had so many things to sort out before they could get to safety.
He unconsciously let his left arm hang loose, forgetting to hide it from Matthias, and was initially surprised–though within moments only regretful–at his reaction.
“Are you kidding me?!?”
Matthias reached out and gingerly grabbed Joseph’s left arm, bringing it up where he could better examine it. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Canaan is coming back soon to patch it up. And I didn’t say anything because of exactly what you’re doing right now.”
“How bad is it?”
“I can sort of feel the hand, if I try to move it.”
Matthias cursed, loudly and repeatedly, focusing on the volume rather than the variety. Finally, he tapered off, and let Joseph’s arm fall gently back to his side.
“Go, sit over there, let me handle this.”
Joseph looked at the prisoner, then at Matthias.
“How do you mean?”
“There aren’t a lot of options.”
“…There are enough.”
“We can’t leave him here. We can’t bring him with us, especially not with Thomas already riding pillion behind me. What else would you have me do?”
Joseph stepped closer to his captain, leaning his face in and dropping his voice to a roaring whisper.
“You will not do this. That’s an order.”
Matthias stepped back. “Alright, my Royal Highness, what would you have me do?” Joseph didn’t like the sudden formality in his captain’s voice, but didn’t have to like it.
“He can ride with me.”
Matthias pointed to Joseph’s left arm. “Seriously? You’ll barely be able to take care of yourself. You want to carry him with you?”
“…I can’t do it, Matt. I can’t let you do it. I know it’s the right thing to do, but I can’t let you do it.”
Matthias stared back at him, his face slowly softening. Finally he replied, abandoning the formality he’d adopted.
“Alright Joe. I won’t argue. But I have a few conditions.”
Joseph chuckled. “Sure.”
“You let me tend to that,” he pointed to the wound on Joseph’s left arm, “not Canaan. I’m not sure he’ll ever really be sober again, and I wouldn’t trust him to darn one of my socks, let alone your arm.” Matthias now pointed to the prisoner. “And I get to secure him on your bike. No arguing; if he’s coming with us, he comes under my conditions. Agreed?”
Matthias walked off, looking for Canaan in order to cut him off and relieve him of his medical supplies before he could get to his prince. Joseph stood and watched him go, glancing back now and again at his prisoner.
He wasn’t sure why he’d put his foot down and refused Matthias. He knew he was making a tactical mistake. Everyone he’d ever learned from, including his father, had told him, repeatedly, “Never leave an enemy alive behind you.” And though they weren’t leaving the prisoner behind in this valley, he was definitely going to be alive when they left. But he couldn’t bring himself to allow it. The mercy killings had been bad enough; Fit or not, this would have pushed him over an edge he didn’t want to contemplate.
Matthias returned with the needle, thread and some loose cloth, and proceeded to stitch Joseph’s arm up, then wrap it, ignoring the steady stream of curses his prince offered at his efforts. Canaan followed soon after, a steaming cup of hiaku tea in hand, and after blowing on it a few times, Joseph downed it in two gulps, praying that it would be enough to hold off his Fit until they could make it to Innias, where they could rest and hole up for a few days, and he could allow the Sight to claim him in safety and privacy.
A bit later, Letam returned and reported that Thomas’s bike was fully stripped and ready for firing. Matthias helped Joseph onto his bike, then helped the prisoner on behind him, binding his hands tightly, making sure there was no way for him to get free and interfere with Joseph as he piloted the motorcycle. There were a few anxious moments when Joseph first kicked his engine to life, the prisoner kicking out, his mumbled words turned to shouted cries of desperation, but Joseph put the bike into gear and tooled around in first gear, weaving through his guard, until the prisoner calmed down, realizing that the roar under his seat wasn’t a threat to him.
And then they pulled out, following the road up and out of the valley, Matthias taking the lead now, with Joseph’s guard hemming him in. Behind them, a tremendous fire, the thermite charge destroying Thomas’s bike, and the resulting inferno consuming the bodies of all the attackers who’d fallen during the fight.
Joseph could smell the melting steel and burning flesh, and did his best to ignore it. Innias was only a few hours away, and he could rest there, take stock…and it would all make sense.