True to Eleanor’s word, the self-styled “Blind Bandit” arrived the next day. He was dressed in his old, obnoxious costume: a black shirt, black trousers, a black cape, and a blindfold (black, of course) covering his sightless eyes. He didn’t look at all nervous about seeing me, which wasn’t good, in my opinion at least. “Hello again, Master,” he remarked, so sincerely that it had to be mocking.
OK, if he wants to mess with my head… “Eleanor arrived yesterday,” I replied. “Not only did she confess to her role in preparing the rebellion in Aster,” (I didn’t know the word for “instigating” yet, so I had to improvise,) “she boasted of it. I handed her over to Aylwyn Shadowbane. You did terrible things during that same rebellion; tell me why I should not immediately do the same to you.”
He cocked his head to the side slightly. “I thought Eleanor and I changed, with the Mistress’s loss, but you… your very voice has changed!” He sounded amazed. “What did she give to you, that you have lost now?”
I was not about to go there. “The only thing I lost at her death was any peace in my life, and asking irrelevant questions does not answer the one I put to you. You have one more chance.”
“Had I not done what I did in Aster, the rebellion would have–”
“Dragon logic, prophesying alternate effects to alternate causes, that is the wrong answer. Aylwyn!”
The meeting tent’s flap opened and the paladin stepped in, and for the first time, the bandit looked shaken. “Is that what you lost? The something? I something something did not know you were her Knight, or I would not have angered you so.”
Wow. Suddenly it dawned on me that he had no idea why I was mad at him. He said he’d talked with Eleanor, but she had apparently neglected to mention to him the most relevant fact of all: the guy that the oh-so-beloved Mistress put in charge had never actually been a member of Team Ryell and had in fact turned down the position when she offered it to him!
And apparently it wasn’t just the tractumil who lost something when Ryell died. Some (all?) of the dracora had special gifts that had vanished. Rogers must feel like he was playing a bizarre game of Party Quirks, trying to figure out what my quirk was. Had my eloquence vanished? Or was it something else that I didn’t understand?
Any other time, I’d have taken that and ran with it. I could have all sorts of fun messing with this guy’s head, especially with Aylwyn here making him nervous. But things were serious right now, lives were at stake. …and besides, Aylwyn was here. Something told me the angel would think less of me for playing mindgames with him.
I just looked over at Aylwyn silently, and she gave a tiny nod. I could only hope we were on something close to the same wavelength. “The only thing I feel like I’m missing is a reason to trust you after you betrayed my trust before, and committed high crimes, destroying granaries and leaving people to starve. The way of Ryell is to protect people, no?”
“Five people starved after what I did,” he said. “I destroyed a granary, a crime so terrible that the ears of all who heard of it turned yellow,” (this was a strange idiom indicating shock and outrage of the highest degree,) “and the folk of White Lake were distracted, hunting me, and not something something for a battle. The rebels arrived without something, and the next day, the King’s Arbiter arrived and put down the rebellion.
“Only five starved for what I did. The battle that did not take place would have slain a hundred or more, and then diseases of rot would have claimed another hundred. That is the way of Ryell.”
More dragon causality. Ugh. That’s easy to say after the fact and make it sound all persuasive, but there’s just no way to verify it. No wonder Ryell had gotten away with her “seeing the future” scam for so long!
“I have heard enough,” Aylwyn said. She held out her hand and her flaming sword appeared in it. “You making claims about what might have happened does not change what did happen.”
So, she knew about Good Cop/Bad Cop? She raised her arm as if to strike, and Rogers tensed. I held up my hand. “Aylwyn. You wait.”
She scowled at me very convincingly. “He is a something murderer and traitor!”
“And a powerful wizard, and almost your equal in a fight. He could be an asset.” I gave Rogers my best glare. “She’s right, though, and I haven’t seen her this angry in a long time. An angel’s not someone you want mad at you! I think the only way to appease her is to help us out somehow. Tell me what you know about our enemy.”
I asked all the newcomers this question. Most of them knew little to nothing, most of the rest knew stuff we already knew, but a very few had some useful information. Rogers kind of shocked me, though: apparently he had been studying them!
His report was very businesslike and to the point. “There are at least six groups of invaders within the kingdom, each twenty to forty men, and a handful of women. There are four something something groups among them, who must come from all corners of the world. And yet, they all speak the same language, a strange tongue that I cannot something, and it does not appear that they know Silva, none of them. This is a mystery: clearly they are no family or something, they must come from far-distant lands, and yet they are united in a common tongue and a common cause. Every one is human that I have seen; there are no other races among them.
“They will kill if opposed directly, but those who do not resist are spared. They raid for food, clothing, and basic needs, and they will steal golden coins, but not silver, and carry them in their clothing rather than in packs or chests. They also have a strange fascination with enchantments; any magical item, no matter how something, the invaders steal and treat as a treasure.
“They dress as soldiers, in something of a strange something, with shapes and colors to distract the eye and hide them among trees. Most have magic, but it is something weak and something, and they also carry strange weapons, that burn some foul-smelling alchemical powder to throw sling bullets at a great speed. The knights of the kingdom have no defense against this weapon, and even magical barriers can only do so much. If we are to withstand them, we must counter this weapon somehow.
“They something their vision with magic, much as I do, but I cannot discern the spells they use. They wear enchanted spectacles contained within some sort of something case with strange materials inside, and a soldier wearing these spectacles can see a man hiding in ambush, or even covered in a spell of invisibility, though they do not pierce illusions.
“Above all, they have slain our Mistress, and for that there is no forgiveness.”
That was… kind of surprising. I had heard of them stealing money, but not about them singling out gold, and the part about enchantments was completely new to me. As much of a sleazeball as he was, apparently Rogers was actually useful as a spy!
I nodded to him. “Two years ago, Ryell called me to be her Knight. She told me that an invasion was coming from another world, a world long forgotten. These men are of the Drift, and that is why they have no familiar speech.”
He gaped. “The Drift? I thought that was nothing but a myth, tales told to frighten children. Ryell truly did say that, Paul Twister?”
I nodded. “It seems the monsters have come out from beneath the beds. And you are correct, the greatest concern is their weapons. Without them, they would be ordinary humans, nothing more, but with them, they are fearsome warriors that we cannot withstand.”
Aylwyn frowned. “This does not make you any less guilty.”
OK, she was overplaying the role a little. “Aylwyn…”
“You heard it, he said it himself. He has the blood of innocents on his hands.”
I looked at her, met her eyes for a moment, and was mortified to realize something: she wasn’t playing Good Cop/Bad Cop here; she was serious! And that really limited my options. We finally had a first-rate scout here, and Aylwyn chooses this moment to go all Lawful? But on the other hand… she was right. If I kept him around because he’s useful, despite the horrible things he had done, was I any better than Ryell moving him around like a chess piece? But on the other other hand, what was I supposed to do? Just tell her “OK, execute him”?
I thought for a moment, and there was really only one thing I could do. And I kind of hated to do it, but… “I think the only way to make up for what you did is to put your talents to good use.”
He turned his head, but not to look at me; he turned it to the side just a little so his ear could face me more clearly. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean?” Aylwyn asked in agreement.
“I mean what you did in Aster. Sow chaos among them. Distract them. Spoil, steal or destroy their food. Lead them to traps and dangers within the forests; this is not their land and they are not familiar with it. If their magic spectacles can’t pierce illusions, use illusion against them. Wear them down, and above all else, find ways to destroy their weapons.
“Perform your task with all your being. Should you die, you will have paid for your crimes. Should you survive to the end of this conflict, you will have paid for your crimes. But should you flee, betray both my trust again and Ryell’s as well, I will help Aylwyn hunt you down. Is that clear?”
He looked very nervous. “I thought you were simply boasting, when you spoke to me of having befriended Shadowbane. But how did you ever bring her around to our cause?”
Aylwyn’s eyes widened a little at that, but I shook my head subtly at her as an answer occurred to me. At first it felt like a glib little remark just to mess with him, but then I realized it might actually be true. Sort of. “Oh, I can’t tell you that,” I said. “The answer is the reason she picked me to lead this effort.”
He looked a bit disappointed at that, but he nodded. “I understand, Master. And I will not disappoint you. Those forests are filled with dangers for the unwary. Wolves, rats, fear-walkers…” I wasn’t sure if I had the translation right. I wondered why I had never heard of such a scary monster! Then he got a creepy grin on his face. “Not to mention nymphs.”
“No nymphs,” I said. Just the thought of turning the sweet, innocent nature spirits into weapons made me shudder a little. And besides, if what the last nymph I’d spoken with had told me was true, the plan he was most likely thinking of wouldn’t work, and would probably put the poor nymphs in more danger than the soldiers!
“But they would–” he started to protest, but I cut him off.
“They would provide entertainment to our enemy, and be more likely to be hurt than to hurt the soldiers. No nymphs.”
“Very well. No nymphs. But I would very much like to see if a fear-walker can withstand their weapons. I think it might, for a time at least,” he mused. “Is there anything else?”
“No. Go, and do not return.”
Rogers nodded solemnly, and headed out.
Aylwyn frowned once he left. “Why did you do that?”
“Because he’s…” Argh, where was April? I didn’t know the word for “motivated”. I bit my lip and spun a finger in circles as I tried to think of how to say this. “He acts on a strong belief that he is doing good, in his own way. I gave him a way to do so.”
“He will betray us,” she scowled.
“He thinks we’re on the same side.”
“And when he learns the truth?”
I shrugged. “I won’t tell him…”
She just sighed. “This will come to a bad end.” Then she walked out too.
For some reason, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I guess I was right: An angel’s not someone you want mad at you.
* * *
I found April putting several of the less physically fit dracora through some drills to build strength and endurance. I stood back and watched, trying not to appear amused as she had them run back and forth over the field, yelling at them to encourage them to greater efforts, or just to belittle their puny exertions so far. It was hard to tell which.
When they were done, I went up to her. “Rogers said something strange to me,” I said in English. “He mentioned fear-walkers that live in the forest. What is that?”
She just laughed a little. “The biggest, toughest, scariest predator around that doesn’t have wings and scales. You’ve got the translation wrong: walking horror.”
I blinked at her. “Wow. Umm… what is this thing?”
“They’re huge monsters, they can grow as big as ten feet tall and 300 pounds, and run far faster than anything that big has any right to. They’re strong, aggressive and fierce, with claws, teeth, and a tough hide that makes them almost immune to most weapons people here know about. They’ve got an intensely powerful sense of smell, which makes them very difficult to hide from, and even climbing a tree won’t help, because they can climb up after you. The best way to deal with them if you don’t have a squad of knights with bows and axes at your disposal is to not run into one in the first place, or to use really powerful magic and try to stun it long enough to flee, because you’re not likely to kill it unless you’ve got Sarah-level energy.”
I let out a low whistle. “That does sound like a walking horror!”
April nodded. “Back home, we called them bears.”
I groaned and rolled my eyes. “You could have just said ‘it’s a bear,’ you know…”
Her eyes twinkled as she grinned at me. “Yes, but what would be the fun in that?”
I wondered if Rogers was right. I’d heard tales of hunters shooting several bullets into a bear with no effect, and then the hunter ends up dead. Of course, the hunters didn’t have assault rifles, but even so… yeah. Almost enough to make you feel sorry for the guys he was about to arrange the encounter with.