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Chapter 10 Edit

"Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a will, there is a way to fail."
---Two sides of the same proverbial argument

They proceeded through the hallway that ended with an arch (Where the coat-of-arms of the king's family was carved), that marked the entrance hall of the palace. As they passed under the arch, one of the two sword-wielding soldiers stationed at the sides of the entrance started following them. Marin now understood why none of the spies sent to assassinate Lukavia's king returned. The security of this place was amazing.

Once they climbed the main stairs and reached the entrance of the audience room, the guards on both sides of the entrance slowly pushed the massive, beautifully carved mahogany double doors aside and entered in front of them. Then the guards stood by the marble columns on the sides of the room, while two other guards stood beside the man that regally sat on the tall mahogany throne.

The Cherry Wood Knights, upon entering the fabulous room, quickly knelt down before his Majesty, King Hollen, the third, of Lukavia, and his wife, both surrounded by an entourage of well over a dozen golden-trimmed, iron-plated palace knights. King Hollen was already showing signs of age, but still took great care of his appearance. His short sand-coloured hair was perfectly cut. And his royal red mantle cascaded down to the floor.

"Well, who do we have here?" bellowed the King, rubbing his chin--he obviously did not consider Hobenrûd so important as to remember his name and appearance. But, of course, for him, Hobenrûd was just a rebel. A rebel that could help him, but a rebel nonetheless.

"I am Sir Hobenrûd, your majesty," he replied, with his head down, while the others remained silent. Marin had no idea where this conversation would go.

"Ah yes!" the King recalled. "Hm, let's see, last time... you sent a messenger here. You wanted help in overthrowing the Ruivocan king, correct? And we offered to send my entire military to your aid, provided that you would afterward proclaim an oath of fealty to us. Have you arrived at a decision?"

"We hope to settle for at least some of your forces, your majesty. We probably would not need your entire army, and only ask for a regiment or two. And then, provided that we succeed, we'll make a treaty."

The King was not too pleased. "So. You won't accept an oath of fealty. Does that mean--?"

Hobenrûd looked at him "Oh no, your majesty, we still hope to be very strong allies. It's just that it would be impossible for such a revolution to succeed on the terms you desire, as the peasants would simply overthrow us again!"

"Very well." replied the king, leaning towards him a little. "You shall have three regiments, nothing more." which caused the Cherry Wood Knights to glance at the king sideways. Three!? "Of course! You're our allies, and we won't let you fail! And, of course, we will be benefited by this as much as you... but of course you don't expect to win this war with only our forces, do you? As much as we liked your idea... We can't send my people to their certain deaths."

It was Marin that replied this time: "Of course not, your majesty. Actually, we already have a plan that will virtually guarantee our victory. We plan to ask direct assistance from the dragon riders of Jyptia... but the only man that can take us there is under attack by the king's forces in Pulti. So..."

"So you want our men to aid you in this battle, so that you can get more support?" interjected the King, now becoming more interested. "Could work. And it would be the perfect test of your trustworthiness. We have decided." Hollen then nodded to one of his knights.

"Yes, my lord," he whispered, before promptly vanishing out a back entrance on an immediate errand for the royalty.

"I have done all I have been asked. Now it's time for you to comply your part of the deal. Anita will probably be in the barracks, right from the palace's entrance. It's a wide, short building. Tonight you rest, and tomorrow, you depart. I do not easily trust foreigners, don't make me regret it."

Hobenrûd stood back up and bowed, as the others did the same, speaking the classic "Yes, your highness," then they all turned around and left the audience room, escorted by a pair of guards in armor entirely washed in white paint.

"Hmm, I've got to get me one of 'hese!" exclaimed Hobenrûd, scrutinizing the trimmed plate mail on the guard, and imagining himself in that attire. The king took note of this, smiling.

And so, as most of the Cherry Woods Knights betook some sleep, Hobenrûd went to Marin's sleeping bed, woke her up and silently gestured for her to follow him outside. "I haven't been here for some time now. Since we managed to conquer this city in the war. For three days we were stationed here. Pillaging, destroying...some of us raping. It was as if an age worth of hate was allowed to flow freely. But then the counterattack came, and we had to retreat. It's a wonder they managed to rebuild."

"Oh. Can I go back to bed now?" said Marin, unimpressed. Hobenrûd frowned, before saying: "You wanted to know why I'm doing this. I guess I can tell you now." as he sat on a nearby bench. Marin was a little surprised, but that meant he was trusting her more now, and that was what she wanted.

He started speaking, looking at the artificial lake in front of them. "You know that I was a soldier for the King until three months ago, right?" Marin nodded. "At first all we did was conquer foreign lands, but the king needed money to fund his wars. So he raised the taxes. This, coupled with the war stress and the already miserable conditions of most peasants, caused revolts. So we had to stop fighting the other kingdoms and start fighting our countrymen."

Marin sat down beside him, looking at the lake. "And we did. To protect order, to protect the nobles, to protect the king we...we killed many countrymen. Gilbert was on my platoon, by the way. He had been a strategist for the king, but was demoted, because he said our prisoners of war needed a better treatment. I think the king wanted him to die. The man has little to no combat experience. But that was until three months ago, when we were sent to quell a revolt in a small countryside village. Daor."

He paused. Marin looked at him. His voice had faltered for a second. Hesitatingly, he continued: "It was an easy 'battle' The villagers were using pitchforks, and we had longswords. The villagers were wearing ragged clothes, we had plate armour. The villagers were on foot, we had cavalry. After ten minutes, they had given up. But, still, the commander picked ten children and put them in the middle of the village. Under direct orders of the king, I have heard. He told us to kill them, as an example."

"Some of us killed without hesitation, others killed after a little prodding...like Gilbert. He refused to kill the one the commander told him to. The commander took an arrow and pierced his leg with it. He screamed with pain, and, dragging himself while the commander kicked him, he killed the girl. I...I did nothing to stop them. When the commander yelled at me to kill my kid...I turned around and instead stabbed the commander... several times, with my sword."

Marin glanced at him again, doing her best not to appear moved by his story, but increasingly wondering why she was trying to hold it all in. "So you saved the kid? It was him that gave you that bracelet, wasn't he?" "He looked away from her, and spoke, somewhat angrily: "That doesn't matter! You don't understand? I could've killed the commander before, I could've killed the other soldiers, I could've saved the kids and I could've not attacked the village in the first place! I could have saved the kids. But I didn't!"

"Maybe you could. Maybe not. But doesn't matter anymore. It's past, you can't change it." said Marin, trying to console him and his deep guilt.

Hobenrûd looked back at her. His eyes were teary. "It matters. And that's why I'm doing this. That's why I need to save all the other kids that'll die if I do nothing. Anyway... I... I just wanted you to know."

He sighed, got up and went back into the barracks, now partially relieved of all the psychological stress that this had been on his mind for so many years, before waking up again ere the dawning of the first shafts of light, with one of the most fulfilling nights they had had for a long time.

Chapter 11Edit

"A lie is a like a snowball rolling down the snowy hills of time. It will be noticed."
---Wise words of the sages

By morning Hobenrûd had awakened at last, and after ablution, walked out into the sunshine to come face to face with the three promised regiments, which had entirely filled the palatial front court with their dazzling array of scintillating armor. Princess Marin and the other rebel Knights were chatting happily with a beautiful young lady who was holding a meter-long, delicately beautiful, gilded fan.

"Ho there! Who are you?" asked Hobenrûd, as the others took notice.

"She's Miss Anita Andalora, the general." Byon introduced.

Hobenrûd gave him a long stare, mouth wide open. "You mean to tell me--"

"Yes, a woman warrior is leading this army, Hoben."

"Great... Anyways, as long as she knows how to fight, she'll be good enough of a commander--"

"She doesn't know how to fight, Hoben."

"WHAT???" What the heck is a person who doesn't know how to fight doing, leading an army?

"Whatever, you'll soon enough find out why for yourself..." Which left Hobenrûd more than a bit confused.

Byon continued with his introduction. "She and Priscilla are already good friends, judging from their conversation." Hobenrûd took one more glance at the two women and nodded. "I tell you Byon, you put a girl near another and and come back a minute later. They're friends already." He whispered.

One of the lieutenants in the newly formed army, all dressed in shining armor, trotted up to Hobenrûd and offered him a set of silvery armor and a mier. "For you," he indicated, "the king expects that everything is as you wish. Know that these regiments will only aid you liberating Pindul. They will remain stationed there until you do as you said and bring the dragon riders."

Hobenrûd nodded and spent the next ten minutes getting into his armor, while everyone else simply relaxed and wasted away their time.

At long last, he was finished. "All right, well since everyone's here, let's move," Hobenrûd shouted while riding his mier to the three regiments of rank and file troops before them. "Destination: Pulti."

And thus, they departed on what would turn out to be yet another leg of a very long journey.

It didn't take long for Hobenrûd to question if Hollen sent more than three regiments, for it seemed as if there were more than three thousand troops here, and each regiment should have had only one thousand. They had been bloated in number. No doubt these were also very well trained, possibly the best trained that Hollen had. And to think that Hobenrûd might have gotten away with just a thousand troops... The King certainly did know what he wanted to accomplish. But then again, they'd probably need all those extra men to take on the Sardinians.

"So," Hobenrûd began at last, after having spent an hour riding before the army on the road to Pulti. "Are we going to come up with a name for this army?"

"It's the Lukavian Expeditionary Revolutionary Army," said Miss Andalora matter-of-factly. It took several seconds to say. She didn't seem to like the name.

"Uh huh, don't you think that's quite a mouthful?" said Hobenrûd, closing her mier nearer to hers.

"Well I was wondering why not just call it the Cherry Wood Knights." Marin suggested.

"Oh, because they're not from Cherry Wood anymore," Jarek (that thanked the Gods for a mier, since he was still a little affected by the lighting) pointed out.

"Okay, so let's call it something else. And keep it short," returned Anita Andalora.

"All right... Hmm... Could we work with Templar?"

"Why Templars? We don't have anything to do with temples." said Marin.

Jarek came up with one idea "What about 'Righteous Men'?"

Hobenrûd rolled his eyes "The villagers won't even know what that means. 'Freedom Army' and that's final."

The others thought for a moment, then nodded. "It's decided then."

"Now, we need to decide on a chain of command--"

"What!?" exclaimed Miss Andalora. "I'm the general around here!"

"Hmm, well that means you must be good at fighting, right? So let's duel, and see who's more fit to lead--" Hobenrûd replied, remembering what Byon had told him about the new "woman warrior."

"You don't have any right to challenge my position in the first place!" Miss Andalora was red on the cheeks.

"Let's see... Yeah, I do!" retorted Hobenrûd. "I'm the leader of the Cherry Wood Knights, and I had single-handedly defeated an entire army once, I think."

"It still wouldn't be fair to have a duel, just based on genders alone!"

"Tell that to Priscilla," retorted Hobenrûd, recalling how he had lost a match to Princess Marin. Luckily Anita didn't know that.

Miss Andalora was frustrated--she obviously didn't know how to fight, as everyone realized all too quickly. Meanwhile, the other Cherry Wood Knights were looking on with partial disgust at what seemed so clearly to be an unfair attempt to usurp control.

In due time the match began, with both sides using the same wooden swords as those that Marin had used back in the Cherry Woods. This time Hobenrûd wasted no time taunting his foe, but brought his tremendous focus and agility to bear. Within ten seconds of first crossing swords with his opponent, he had managed to trip the young lady "general" and knock her prone onto the ground, bringing his sword right upon her exposed neck. She conceded defeat silently, then got back up, heading back to the sidelines in partial humiliation.

Hobenrûd was cheering himself, though the Cherry Wood Knights did not know what to think of the engagement, when Miss Andalora returned, bearing her large, gilded fan and muttering an incantation.

ArtifactFan

Anita's fan

With a single sweep, as if attempting to blast him with the very air with the fan, the half-defeated young general summoned a transparent twister, one meter in diameter, which landed squarely on Hobenrûd and sucked him upward, spiraling, into the air, higher and higher. The others gasped in surprise as the whirling winds dragged the swashbuckler through the sky into the distant horizon, while he himself cried out in horror.

"You're not very smart, Hoben," Miss Andalora taunted. And turning toward to the others, she stated: "He'll will probably take a few hours to catch up with us, so I'm the general around here."

A few moments later, just as the army was about to get moving again, Hobenrûd was running back, having landed not so far away, sword at the ready.

Miss Andalora spun around in surprise and dismay. "Back already??"

Grinning, Hobenrûd pointed at his golden bracelet. "You're not the only one here with magic stuff. I figured you were a wizard, when I was told you can't fight. I just wanted to know what you could do, exactly." he replied.

Miss Andalora muttered another incantation, made a sweep with her fan, and let fly a much more vicious tornado the size of a house, as everyone ran to get out of its path.

Hobenrûd stood in the middle of the storm, weathering it perfectly and only slightly moving. "Ahhh... More wind, more wind! The air around me is too stale!"

Miss Andalora was getting mad. "You'll soon have more wind than you can stand," she said, and made several more sweeps. The tornado had turned the dismal opaque brown of the earth it was sucking up, and now several more tornadoes joined with it, as a storm cloud rapidly formed overhead. The winds attempting to push him back were bringing with them rocks and earthen soil.

Hobenrûd managed to stood his ground, crawling on the grass, even though Miss Andalora could not see him. "Wow, this breeze feels great! More please!" he taunted, knowing that his bracelet was deflecting most of the the wind energy that touched him.

Miss Andalora heard him, she was getting weak from using so much energy, and knowing that she was out of tricks at the moment, stood still.

The next moment, as the tornado waned, Hobenrûd was actually running forward, going right through the swirling maelstrom as if it were nil. Holding his sword over his head and screaming.

The young sorceress involuntarily gave a high-pitched scream of terror at the sight of him, dropped her fan, and backed away, eyes wide open in fear at a force she did not recognize, but ready to take action.

In the meantime, the storm rapidly dissipated as quickly as it had come...Hobenrûd kept running, the sword over his head, prepared to give a strong blow. He stopped near Anita.

"I suggest that we be co-commanders of the Freedom Army, Anita," Hobenrûd proclaimed.

Miss Andalora was too shocked by his resistance to air that she quickly nodded, saying, "Accepted."

"All right then, titles?" asked Hulleiman, the first to come back out of shelter.

"Hmm, I don't think headmaster works well anymore," Hobenrûd decided finally.

"May I suggest Stalwart?"

"Well, I guess that DOES describe me, doesn't it?" He grinned.

"I guess I'll stick to general," added Anita Andalora.

"Anita, do you think you could teach me about magic?" inquired Princess Marin.

"Well, do you something you can use?"

"As a matter of fact, yes, I do," she replied happily, and showed the general the slender golden rod that she had been bringing.

"That'll do," Anita replied, recognizing the lightning rod. "Indeed, I do know how to work it. But are you up the challenge? Learning how to use it is going to be a lot of work...and take a lot of time."

"Yes, yes, yes!" Marin was eager to learn.

"Well then, let's begin lessons along the road to Pulti, shall we?"

As the stormy skies above faded back into the sunny daylight, the firmament found the army once again on the move, now more surprised than ever.

Chapter 12Edit

"If a person is always aggressive towards you, fear not. Animals, many times, attack prey larger than they are."
---Ranger Riddel

The Freedom Army, over three thousand men strong, entered the Ildrin Forest by evening of their third day of trekking. Progress was slow, as most of the troops had no miers to ride on and thus those that did would have to wait for them. They had brought enough supplies to last them twelve days, and each day new couriers came from Fafner, bringing in much-needed supplies to keep the army well fed. The logistics meant reduced flexibility for the army, Anita well knew, and the army certainly could not sustain itself off the lands they traversed.

Ildrin Forest was beautiful in the evening, with streaks of pinkish, golden light filtering through the leaves of the canopy, rays of light that danced on the ground. Princess Marin took it all in, then, as the troops decided to rest, she decided to go explore--not too far away from the encampment that she would get lost, but not so stiflingly close to them either. Anita, her new friend, went with her, into the forest.

After only a short while they stumbled across a fork in the road, and stepped back, for on both sides of the fork was a group of warriors, seemingly bandits, ready to capture them.

"Hey you! Retreating already from the forces of Boss Smith?" one of their number taunted.

"Erm, no." replied Marin with emphasis, taking out her dagger and preparing for a fight.

"Oh, so you dare challenge the might of Boss Smith?" And with that, the four bandits on the right side of the path stepped forward, as the two ladies stepped forward as well.

"Wait a minute," Anita interrupted, realizing that without her magic she would probably be swiftly defeated in any engagement. "This isn't going to be all that fair of a battle. Four on two? At least give me the first strike."

"Well, we're bandits. We're all about unfairness," one of the bandits declared with a smile.

Anita raised her golden fan, and Marin smiled knowingly. With a chant and a sweep, she brought down another twister, landing squarely on the nearest two bandits, plucking them off the ground much as a child may pull out a weed from the ground, and tossed them into the air. A few moments later there was a crash somewhere in the distance--which Marin believed at first was the two unfortunate souls meeting their death, crashing into the ground or something.

(Though what really happened was that Anita had mercifully landed them back to the ground safely--after which, neither of the two dared to challenge her again.)

The remaining six bandits, stunned by such power, gasped in horror, and took a step back.

Anita knew that now was not the time for any slip-ups of her own self-assurance, and so she determined that she would act as if she were a foe worth reckoning with.

"All right then, now that the playing field is equal, let's have our little match, shall we?" Anita asked the two remaining bandits on the right side of the path.

Eyes wide open, the two hastily shook their heads, taking rapid steps backward, mouth agape and not knowing what to say, so shocked out of their minds were they.

"Oh come on, now you're afraid?" Anita took a menacing step forward, all the while beginning to perspire on her forehead, knowing that she was exceptionally vulnerable to any well-placed attack that any of the bandits could have mustered. "Come on, I'm eager to have a little fight!" she said, smiling.

Panicking, the two bandits fled down the path, one of them falling on his face as he tried to retreat. When he looked back up, he saw Anita (forcing herself into) smiling down at him. "AHHHH!!" he exclaimed, before rapidly breaking into a run and fleeing after the other one.

Anita then walked over to the left road, where the other four bandits stood, stunned by what they supposed as the fate of two of their comrades, sweat dripping down their foreheads.

"I thought you'd have run by now," Anita said, matter-of-factly.

"No, we're not as scared as them, a bandit replied.

"Oh really? So you'll wish to fight me?"

The bandit's mouth dropped wide open, and his eyes opened wide in fear, then he took a step back.

Anita then faced another bandit. "What about you?"

He took two steps back. "I would never want to fight you, miss," he managed to say.

"Oh come on, why, don't you have any courage at all?" Anita taunted, then went on to the third bandit. "So who is this Smith guy?"

"AH! No wait! We weren't here to get you, we were supposed to be lying in wait for someone else!" the bandit lied.

"Really, I would like to meet the Smith guy, show me the way there, and tell him I'm coming, will ya?" Anita continued, bluffing. The bandits walked backward, too scared to challenge her, and soon broke into a run, not daring to look back. Anita followed in hot pursuit, leaving Marin on her own at the fork in the road, waiting.

The two bandits that had retreated from the path to the right, upon returning, were about to hastily retreat in fear when one of them exclaimed, "hey, it's not the sorceress!"

The two bandits jumped out and lunged straight at the princess, who, barely flinching, brought out her golden rod and rapidly parried the attacks of both bandits. After half a minute, the three finally took pause. "My, you're a tough nut to crack," the bandit managed to say at last to Marin.

"You won't be able to crack me at all," she retorted, and charged at the two again, ferociously, beating them back a few steps at a time.

Chapter 13Edit

"Out in the wilds, help is usually in the most unlikely of places."
---Ranger Riddel

The fighting came to an abrupt halt as nearby a twister, swirling with a multitude of rasping leaves, juggernauted towards them. The four bandits that Anita had been pursuing were spinning inside its vortex, shouting in mortified fear.

Anita returned, and as she appeared into view, the twister came to an abrupt halt, and the four aerial prisoners came tumbling to the ground rather abruptly, shouting out in pain as they hit the ground. The two bandits next to Marin gave out an exclamation of surprise, but decided not to retreat.

"What!" exclaimed one of them at last. "You didn't kill us!"

"Yeah, well, no, I won't be killing you, I hope, if you cooperate with us," replied Anita.

At the same time another twister came from the opposite direction, bringing the first two bandits back, aghast, before landing them on the ground.

"But why??" The bandits were thoroughly confused.

Marin sighed, taking over the conversation. "How do you expect us to be able to get support for our revolution if we kill off everyone we meet?"

"Uh,... because we're bandits, maybe?"

"Say that again if you want to die, then," Anita retorted. Obviously none of the bandits was going to risk that.

"Okay now, so see, you've all renounced your association with any bandits, and with that Smith guy," Anita continued. "So now you're with us--the Freedom Army."

The bandits looked at the two ladies, wondering what was going on.

"Oh, it's actually really simple. You come join us, and we'll provide you with food, armor, and miers fit for knights."

It was an offer the bandits couldn't refuse. "Well, that definitely sounds better than the stale biscuits that Boss Smith offered to us... erm, former 'boss'."

"But first, you will have to prove to us that you're on our side," continued Marin.

"Oh, that'll be easy," a bandit replied, rapidly taking out his bow, arming it with an arrow, and pointing it at Anita, who was too surprised to do anything to protect herself and could only gasp in stunned terror. "You could be very good target practice," the bandit noted. "But I shan't kill you now."

Marin squinted at the bandit. "You weren't really afraid of us earlier, were you?"

"Nope, not at all," the bandit replied, returning the bow and arrow to their rightful places on his belt. "But we wanted to find out what you were like. And the best way to do that was to act as if we were afraid and weak, and watch your response. You two behaved admirably."

Marin doubted that the bandit was bluffing, but then, that must have been some good extemporaneous bluffing, so she decided that they had proved themselves after all. "Okay then," she broke the silence. "What's your name?"

"Teridas," the bandit answered. "Freedom Army, eh? We have quite a bone to pick with this new king of Ruivoca..." Marin and Anita both nodded.

And that was how the Freedom Army recruited the eight Ildrin bandits.

"How far away still is Pulti?" Marin asked Anita as they walked back.

"Oh, still another week's distance," was her reply. "I don't know if you've seen the map, Priscilla, but it's not all that close to us. It's near the border between Ruivoca and Yuak. Say, maybe we can get some reinforcements from there as well..." Anita fell into silence as they finished their trip back.

Then she eagerly walked over to another knight, who by the frills and the trim decorations on his armor was a lieutenant of sorts. Marin listened. "Pulti is right next to the Yuakkan kingdom, Ishmael. If we can get some of their knights for the upcoming siege break, then our chances of victory would be greater."

"Yes, madam, I'll see right to it that a battalion is sent to its capital," Ishmael saluted back.

"Thank you. You may remind yourself that every extra soldier you bring back from this side expedition will save another man in the battle to come." Anita gave him a rewarding smile. Princess Marin, watching their conversation, wondered at Anita's ability to strike sympathy and understanding into the hearts of those she talked to. For it seemed that everywhere Anita went, there seemed to follow, an aura of ecstasy.

Early the next morning, the army packed up camp and departed once again, heading further south to the besieged city of Pulti. "Drindell, we're coming for you," remarked Hobenrûd.

As they continued south across the continent, the landscape turned progressively more hilly. Then they came at last back to the Cherry Woods--the Cherry Wood Knights' base of operations, which they had left nearly two weeks ago...

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