Michael did not want to open his eyes. He heard voices around him: voices he could not understand, but who seemed familiar and comforting. A face disconnected to those voices drifted by. A round, sweet face, with rich dark eyes… The eyes became shining eyes, or just one, great and fathomless, the eye of a monster, but the other always returned. It was a woman’s face, and he felt in the darkness for it. His visions twisted. A deep laughter, part sardonic and part authentic, rumbled in his heart, echoing a message he could just feel skidding along the inner wall of his skull.
You have come too far to flee back to the dream. There will never be satisfaction for you there. Your spirit must fashion your world, now with your hands and your will, not with your dreams. Go, and embrace it, let your heart beat for what it truly wants.
Michael felt fingers on his face, on his eyelids, prying them open against his will. Blurry, dark swirls of color filled his vision, paining his eyes and head. With great effort he saw a blue light, flickering.
“He’s looking at the fire.”
The blue light moved, and Michael saw a strange face light up before him. It grinned, revealing sharp teeth.
“See, he’s still in there.”
The face moved and was replaced by one of darker eyes, gentler.
“Can you hear me, Michael?”
Michael blinked, finding his eyelids under his control again. He tried to speak, but only a soft breath came out.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said the face. “We’re lucky they didn’t realize I know magic. We’ve only just brought you back from the brink. The cut on your neck was from a poisoned blade that none of us noticed until we were thrown in here. We drew out as much of the poison as we could, but it was potent and already working on your body.”
“Gave me a hell of a numb mouth, too,” said another rough voice.
“I did what healing I can. Alas that my wife stayed behind, for she has more skill than me in the energies of the body. But, you live and see and hear me, which is more than I dared to hope.”
Michael finally put a name to the face – Thokar, the half-orc who… where did he know him? Yes, the mercenary band.
Thokar moved out of Michael’s vision. The light went out, replaced by something growing in a much softer orange. He heard Thokar talk a few paces away.
“The prince is dying. I have a potion that can heal him, but it is in my bag.”
“I have my orders, sorry,” said a voice in return. Michael recognized the voice, but had a hard time placing it.
“None will know you disobeyed them,” Thokar said. “We cannot do more than help your prince. I will even tell you which bottle it is.”
Michael strained his voice. “Roberto?” he finally croaked, matching the voice to an enlisted sergeant he knew from his own legion. What was he doing in the citadel dungeon?
There was silence, then the guard said, “Alright, just a minute.”
Michael closed his eyes, exhausted from the effort of speaking. The next thing he knew, he was being lifted up.
“I need to see if you can drink this,” Thokar said.
Michael felt a bottle touch his lips. Hot, putrid liquid hit his tongue. He almost gagged, but seemed to lack the energy to convulse. He felt a small amount of the potion hit his throat, and he swallowed. It burned all the way down, and hit his stomach like a hot stone.
“Good, he can swallow,” Thokar said.
“Aye, but can he keep it down?” said another voice.
“The first sip will set to work,” Thokar said. “Give him a minute, and we’ll try some more.”
Michael opened his eyes and lay silently, watching the blue light, which had returned, dancing on the stone ceiling above him.
“He returns stronger already,” said a cool voice from outside of Michael’s vision. “His aura glows brighter.”
“It is one of my most valuable potions,” Thokar said. “It will bring a man back from the brink of death, seal his wounds and regenerate his body to a former state. I regret that I have so little of it, for it is a boon in battle.”
“I’m sure. What is it made from?”
“Many things,” Thokar said. “Some mundane, some not so.”
“Not giving away your secrets, eh? At least I can see there is some element of the prim flowing through our employer.”
Thokar chuckled. “Let’s give him some more.”
Michael was held up again and fed more of the liquid. It tasted worse than the first go around, but Michael choked it down, having little choice to but to swallow what he could. He was laid back down, and though his stomach churned with the mixture, he could, as the minutes passed by, feel it working on his body. His senses were sharpening, and he was more aware of his body. He turned his head and saw to whom the voice belonged.
Mondal was sitting cross-legged, naked save for loincloth, his eyes glowing a soft blue in the dark. Michael realized they were sitting in a prison cell. More men were sitting past a wall made of iron bars, equally naked as Mondal, talking softly or lying on heaps of straw.
Michael closed his eyes again and forced himself to recall the fight, and what he saw afterward. The scenes repeated again and again as he lay there. The image of Guissali, thinking to block the magic with his shield, intruded repeatedly as he tried to focus on Julia.
“Ah, Guissali,” Michael sighed, and opened his eyes. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“He can’t hear you.”
Michael turned his head to see Baradict leaning against one of the cell doors.
“I know,” Michael said.
“Good, your speech has returned,” Thokar said.
“Gordon and Peterus,” Baradict said. “But they knew the risks. Peterus was unmarried. We’ll pay out Gordon’s widow double.”
“If we get out, you mean,” Mondal said. “That seems unlikely at this point.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Nit said. “We’ve got Thokar. He’s gotten out of plenty of rough patches.”
“I am exhausted at the moment,” Thokar said. “If we aren’t executed at dawn I may be able to think of something.”
“We will be,” Baradict said. “So we’d best thing of something now.”
“I’ve failed you all,” Michael said. “I was so blind. I’m sorry.”
“Like I said, we knew the risks,” Baradict said.
“You didn’t,” Michael said. “I should have understood. Julia was using me. Sharona warned me.” Michael sighed. “She won’t be saving me this time.”
“Guissali would say his standard line about women here,” Langelo said.
“No, he never thought of women as being treacherous,” Michael said. “He was just as convinced as me by Jula.”
“Time for more,” Thokar said.
Michael groaned as he was sat up, and forced to drink almost all of the potion. Though it made him queasy, he was able to remain in a sitting position.
“Why’d she do it?” Langelo said. “After all that your brother did?”
“She was part of it from the beginning, of course,” Michael said. “Johan’s plan was always to kill Alanrae, in some way, after marrying her. His betrayed her as much as Julia betrayed me. This way, he is now free to claim the kingship of Feralla for himself. And Julia will marry him, and become queen, solidifying the eastern half of Artalland’s allegiance to Johan.”
“There will be resistance from her heirs, no?” Mondal said.
“Undoubtedly, but we already crushed their military. Divided, they will either be conquered or submit to his claim.” Michael rubbed his head. “But I cannot understand the future if I do not understand the past. That has been my failing for a long time, perhaps.”
“Surely your brother did not plan on having you kill his wife,” Mondal said.
“No, no,” Michael said. “That was just another opportunity, he having failed to kill me once. I think he intended for all of you to do the work. Johan knows this citadel as well as I do.”
Thokar handed Michael the small bottle, and Michael downed the contents in one gulp.
“The Band of the Badger always finds a way to collect on its debts,” Thokar said. “Your brother chooses his enemies poorly.”
“Well,” Langelo said. “We’re all in prison now, aren’t we? Hard to collect on a debt behind bars.”
“There’s still a few hundred good men that are free,” Baradict said. “And a few angry wives, as well. If I had my money on anyone, it would be the Badger.”
“Why did you pick that name?” Langelo said. “Badgers aren’t very big or scary, really. They’re homebodies, too. Why not Band of the Lion? Band of the Dragon?”
“You ever seen a real badger in fight?” Nit said. “They’ll fight anything, and win as often as not. We’re like the badger – small, but dangerous.”
“And foolhardy as hell,” Harpa said.
“Aye, that too,” Nit said. “As you can well see, master prince. But we’ll get out.”
“You think they’ll torture us?” Langelo said.
“No,” Michael replied. “We don’t know anything valuable, and Johan, though ambitious, isn’t merely sadistic. He’ll likely just hang us all and be done with it.”
“Put that light out,” Mondal said. “Somebody’s coming.”
The blue flame, burning on bare stone beside Thokar, winked out. Light grew from a dim lamp as several soldiers entered.
Michael heaved his body around to see. The lamp was so bright compared to the dim magical flame it hurt his eyes. When the figure approached, he lurched upward in sudden recognition.
“He’s alive. You lot are lucky,” the old sergeant major said. He was wearing the garb of the guard, a coat of plates over mail, but he had a braided cord around his neck to denote his rank.
“What are you doing here?” Michael said.
Gadero looked down and put a key into the lock. “I’m breaking you out of prison, that’s what.”
“That’s suicide,” Michael said.
“Not when you’re warden,” Gadero said. “I got busted down after you were discharged, probably because I tend to stick up for you. Half the jailers are your old men, as this post was considered punishment by your brother. Especially the long night shift.” The door swung open. Gadero moved down to the next cell.
“Lazing around doing nothing but feeding slop to men doesn’t strike me as too much of a punishment,” Nit said, standing up and stretching.
“You’d understand if you were a warrior,” Harpa said.
“What about the rest?” Michael said. “Can you get them out?”
“It’ll be a bloody jail break in total,” Gadero said. “I’m gonna let everyone out. Why not? It’ll make things harder on Johan and probably cover our tracks a bit.”
“How are we going to get out of here?” Michael said.
Gadero turned to him with an incredulous look on his face as he opened the next cell. “That would be up to you. I figured we’d fight our way out like men. I’ll be with you though whatever you figure out. I already assembled about fifty good fighters. I might have thirty more soon, all men from your legion, or that failing, men who wish they were in your legion.”
“How is this possible?” Michael said. Harpa was helping him to his feet, steadying him.
“You earned quite a bit of goodwill at Ballaco’s End,” Gadero said. “Men love a man who leads from the front, and who won’t turn his back on the enlisted corps when things go poorly. Nobody wants to feel expendable, and you damn sure make sure nobody is.”
“The guards were. Those we killed.”
“Just on the wrong side for the day,” Gadero said, opening another cell. Two hairy men stood up, confused as to what was happening. “You lot are all free. You can follow us and probably survive, or do what you will.” Gadero continued going down the corridor, opening more doors. “None of us liked Alanrae anyway. We’re too set in our ways, loving to think of her as the enemy. Now, let’s get some gear on you all. You can’t go running about in naught but your drawers.”
Michael, still feeling a bit weak in the knees, joined the others in putting their former gear back on. There were a few spare plate coats as well, which they put on thankfully. Michael’s sword was even among the confiscated gear, and he checked the edge in the lamplight before belting it back on.
He took a breath. “We have fifty men?”
“Fifty to eighty,” Gadero said.
“That’s not enough to take the castle, but perhaps we can get out of here. I figure we can head for the temple, which doesn’t have these big courtyards like wards, and since we’re on the inside, we can take the gatehouse and get out that way. We’ll head to the docks, commandeer a few boats and ships, then head downriver to the woods.”
“Better plan than I could think of, likely,” Gadero said. “What will do after all that?”
“Let’s escape first.”
They trudged up the long stair to the entrance hall of the second citadel ward. A company of men stood divided in two and formed into neat lines, awaiting them.
“What did you do with the rest?” Gadero said.
“We tied them up in the kitchens, sir,” said one of the sergeants, who saluted Michael as he talked.
“Good. Sir?” Gadero said, turning to Michael.
“We’re going to head for the temple,” Michael said. “That means crossing the skywalk over the river. The fight ought to be non-existent there, but we’ll have to cross open courtyard to get there, so if you have a shield, try to keep it over your head and one other. The courtyard of the temple is practically a murder-hole to itself, but the gatehouse is small and we’ll take it easily. Squad one, you’ll hold the temple entrance against the guard there. Squad two, you’ll hold take the left side of the gatehouse. Badgers will cover you at range. If you have a crossbow, you’re with the badgers.”
“Badgers, sir?” said the sergeant.
“Band of the Badger, these men and orcs with me.”
Michael nodded. “From there, get out the gate and to the docks as quickly as possible. Don’t worry about holding formation. Nobody is going to be putting up a fight in that part of the city. I expect Johan to turtle up here, thinking it another coup attempt.”
“If he pursues?” Gadero said.
“Then run like hell. If you can’t outrun them, you know how to form ranks, that is if you spent any time under my command. Now, let’s go. Darkness will be a friend to us while it lasts.”
Michael rested his shoulder on his crossbow as he followed the first group of men out the double doors and into the courtyard. His body ached and his eyes felt dry, demanding more rest, but the joy of merely being alive, as well as seeing soldiers in front of him again, invigorated him.
He smiled as he walked out into the starlit night, Flanked by Langelo and Thokar. Baradict and Nit were laughing, along with all the men from the badger.
“Why are they laughing?” Langelo said. “We’re not out of danger yet, are we?”
“It is the thrill of life and death,” Thokar said. “The thrill of battle, some say.”
“You are most alive when you are near death,” Michael said. “Only when your life is at stake can you know whether life is truly worth living. That is the thrill of battle.”
This post was part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a sequel.