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6thday of the 4th moon, year 312 of Taion’s era.

Five days since the fall of Maredin.

The ancient city of Althine, spreading from the harbour in the south all the way to the Bethine river in the north, guarded on the east side by the great fortress on the end of the Khine, the spur of land that curves almost right around the harbour, and on the west side by the wall, and by the barracks nestled in its shadow. Never taken since the day Taion crushed the Elders and established his unquestioned rule over the world.

The wide crescent of the moon hung over the city, seeming almost close enough to reach out and touch from the twin towers of the temple, piercing the skyline from the centre of the city, towering high over the largest merchants houses, the spires of the many smaller temples, the new and old palaces, certainly higher than the crowded buildings of the lower districts, between the hills and the harbour. Once a small fishing village in the shadow of a mighty castle, now long since crumbled to dust, Althine had risen to become the centre of a great empire, the hub around which the wheel of the world turns to her fans, heart of the dark shadow that lay across the world to others.

Theandar was one of the former. Captain of the 29th squad of the 7th legion, he was back in his home city on a three week leave. The captain stood on his balcony looking out over the city, a view he had grown up with, it seemed barely changed. More ships in the harbour, perhaps, the warren of narrow streets in the lower city had shifted a bit, a couple of fires responsible for most of that, other than that, everything was just a few years older. He had spent much of his childhood sitting and drawing such views, a part of him suspected he was trying to recapture that lost youth, the morning before, he had found himself considering climbing to the top of the east tower, visible then just to his left. But that part of his life was gone now. He remembered, almost as though it had happened minutes before rather than nearly a week gone, the day he had been made captain. Young Raes, his former squad’s newest recruit, had come to him that evening.

He had given a slightly hesitant salute, something he was still getting used to, and launched straight in.

I was sent to bring you a message, se… sir. From the Tribune.” He held the sealed letter up as proof.

Not a sir, Raes, just Sergeant.”

Not any more sir, the message. You are to be made captain of the 29th, effective immediately, and once your leave is over, you are to take a ship to Galdine Province.”

The 29th already has a captain.”

Captain Melthet was lost at the battle of Gelric’s ford, along with much of the 7th legion.”

Give me that letter.” he had nearly torn it out of Raes’ hand, broken the seal and read.

What the former captain had been doing at Gelric’s ford, he was  still unsure, or why a young sergeant on leave from the southern provinces had been brought in as his replacement in the Northern war. His leave had been shortened to just the minimum three weeks. Just like that he was taken from the men he had served with his entire career and given command of people he had never met. The next morning he had gone over to the barracks to meet his new squad.

He had arrived to find only a few there, relaxing and talking amongst themselves. They barely looked up as he came in.

This must be our new captain. Come in kid, make yourself at home.”

He had no idea how to respond to that, just stood there watching them.

Kid doesn’t say much, does he.”

I am not a kid, I am your captain. You should show some respect.”

You want respect, you’ve got to earn it, prove yourself.”

I had thought the fact I have been made a captain would be enough for you to start with at least some courtesy.”

It should, obviously discipline is a word these excuses for men have never heard before.”

Kithan? I didn’t expect to see you here too.”

I had myself transferred as soon as I heard, thought you might need some help here. Captain.”

Perhaps we should leave, clearly we aren’t wanted here.”

He had left, and not gone back since. If he kept on like this, he would barely even know the men’s names before they set sail for Galdine. He had had a few days to plan though, when he went back, he was going to turn this disrespectful rabble into a proper unit, loyal men he would be able to trust.

Chapter 4 part a

Twenty two days since the fall of Maredin.

Leuan had not been best pleased with his companions, though few would have known it from his reaction, he simply didn’t bother making the fact known, but the fat man and the girl seemed to him not the best people for a three day walk into enemy territory searching for survivors of a battle.
He would go with them, of course, almost certainly not leave them behind if they were too slow. Though he did have his suspicions about such unassuming people, he had himself cultivated an image as a man not worth worrying about. Was it too unlikely many others of the boy’s chosen agents were the same.
They had left before dawn the very next day, suggesting that this Kalen cared a lot more about such things than the Alchemist had. He wondered vaguely what had happened between them to put the boy in charge of whatever he could get, while the old man worked away at whatever else it was he did. A man of many secrets, and even he knew few of them.
The route they would take would be the same as the two survivors had, perhaps there would be some sign of what had happened to them along the way, and perhaps within the very towns they had passed through, the details of the story might be less corrupted by rumour. It was a simple route for much of its length, along a road, through some towns, a couple of hills along the way, that was about it, though it did pass out of the Imperial border a little short of the river, and the only hills he knew of out there were also some way into hostile land.
Not that he was afraid of the soldiers there, not really, though if there were as many as in some claims, and he had trouble talking his way out, there might be a rather worrying situation. Still, he hadn’t died yet, so why start now? That was the worst that could happen, and it would at some time, though not for a long while, if he had any say in it. He had better be paid well for this.
Almost at once the fat man had started moaning about the distance, and why couldn’t they hire a cart or something. He was even using a long stick to help him walk. The girl meanwhile had hardly let up chatting about nothing the whole way. It was going to be a long walk.
The first town was on a crossing over the Bethine river, some few miles down from the city. Here the fat man wanted to rest a moment, maybe have something to eat, and perhaps by then it would be lunchtime and they might as well stay a bit longer, he had joked. Leuan just continued walking, and soon he had gotten up and followed after. The girl seemed immaturely impressed with everything, the mountains in the distance, the fish in the river, as if she had never eaten fish before, a forest of old, gnarled trees she seemed to think must be haunted. It was a struggle not to tell them both to shut up, though that wouldn’t be in keeping with his usual character. Maybe that was what they wanted, people had tried to crack him like that before. It hadn’t worked then, and wouldn’t this time.
Ahead there was another town, which this time they did reach in time for lunch. Leuan made as if to continue without again, and the other two barely protested. Slightly satisfied, he found a place for them to sit and waited to see what they had brought with them.
Not much, it turns out, both had been confident of buying what they needed most of the way, though at least they had sensible biscuits and bread and cheese and such like, not jars of jam or a big cream cake as he had feared. Well, never mind, they could try to buy something in the town, and if they managed to run out before getting home, that was a useful lesson for the both of them. For himself, Leuan had a nice sandwich and a little meat and pastry thing he had brought knowing it wouldn’t last much more than that day, still it was rather nice. Apparently the town was more bountiful than he had hoped, the girl had a nice looking chicken salad, while the fat man had a mountain of pancakes and doughnuts and fruit, and a coffee, as though they weren’t walking into the wilderness, he was treating this like a day trip just down the road and back. Well, they would soon learn, or he would have to show them.
The rest of the day went much the same, though by the end, he was starting to believe they could make it all the way there and back. They even didn’t seem to mind when he insisted on sleeping outside that night, rather than renting rooms at an inn. And that they would be off again before dawn, providing the fat man had finished breakfast by then, or he could let him catch up, it looked like the exercise would do him good.

part-i

Even after a couple of days in her new home, Cathan couldn’t get used to it, particularly not sneaking in and out all the time, trying not to be noticed by any of the people living around there, that would only raise too many difficult questions. At least, it might be useful, practicing her skills and such like.
They were going to find another source of money, since she hadn’t been paid for her last job yet, and it didn’t seem she would be, she would have to turn to a different source of income. Every day she met with Masra and they began to plan, rather than the assassin’s guild, they would target one of the rich merchant’s houses, it should be a lot easier, and probably more productive, there wasn’t likely to be much in the guild offices unless someone was working on a really big job, and they could somehow gain access to wherever the business office stored the money, incredibly unlikely. They both took it in turns to watch the chosen house, try to work out what was where, what the people did each day, how to get in and out, they were building up quite a reasonable map of the property, ready for the big day.
She had also tried to keep up with what was happening in the guild, but it was difficult, since she couldn’t trust anyone from there, frustrating, not knowing anything about the situation, whether it had broken out into war or had all been calmed down and the real murderer caught. It hadn’t been an assassination, no assassin used poison, that made it murder, whoever had done it. Masra wasn’t so sure, she even pointed out that Tylis had mentioned poison, though most likely he was talking of how things had been done back where he came from.

part-h

“The men were surrounded, enemy soldiers on all sides and the bulk of their force still part way across the surging river. They never stood a chance, though they gave as good as they got. The water ran red with blood long after the fighting had stopped. No reason was ever given for their being there, or for such a large enemy force happening to be in the same area. Few men survived the battle on either side, those that did all fled the site as fast as they could, some may have been taken prisoner, but for those men that managed to fight their way through the opposing horde, there was no time to find out, they could only run. Most were camped in the hills some distance from the river, though a couple did try to make it back to safety. They passed through a few towns on their way back, but after a while they just disappeared, nothing was ever heard from them again. As far as anyone knows, the survivors, if any are still alive, are still there in the hills.”
Kalen had to admit, the man was rather good at tracking down bits of information that someone didn’t want anyone to know. These two men had seemingly just walked half way from Gelric’s ford to Althine, before disappearing, and yet the news of their travel had trickled in to the city over the following days, merchants had heard tales passing through some of the towns on the route, villagers had talked to each other, the story had spread via inns and taverns from one to the next, farmers bringing crops into the city had carries some parts with them, gradually, inexorably the survivors’ account of the battle was spreading across the empire, and somehow this man had picked out all the details and pieced them together in just two days.
When Leuan volunteered to head over there himself, of course he had agreed, if anyone could find the truth hidden in those hills, he was the one. He wouldn’t be alone, of course, three other agents would travel the route. He had started picking them out even as they were still talking in the White Goose.
Marice seemed a nice young woman, and had used peoples expectations of her to their advantage more than once. She was also one he was certain he could trust, unlike Leuan.
Belam may have been rather large around the middle and disinclined to do much in the way of work, but he was certainly smart, resourceful and a useful strategist.
Then there was Yulis, the tracker would follow the others from a little way behind, unknown to any of the party. Just in case something didn’t go the way he hoped. At times like this, it always paid to make sure.
He would let them all know as much as they needed to that afternoon, and sent them on their way with the dawn. It was some way to Gelric’s ford, a little into hostile territory too, if the war was still going as slowly as before. He would also have to release Leuan from his next couple of meetings, he seemed the sort to insist on going back even when he knew he would never get anywhere like that. Three days there and three back, perhaps seven or even eight in all, the new moon might come before they returned. Any longer than that, though, and he might worry. They shouldn’t be, he thought, he would have to learn to trust these people more if he was to work with them.

part-g

Dawn in the far north came complete with a cold wind and thick white clouds, but captain Theandar did his best to ignore the adverse weather, at least it wasn’t raining, yet. He had a new plan worked out. He led the men north to the ruined city of Hathuil, not far from the camp. All the men went, he had taken Raes aside, told him his worst fears about conditions in the city and offered him a chance to stay there, or go back and let their commander know what they were doing. The boy had seemed quite determined to go with them, and the captain had enough sense not to press the issue too much. His fears were confirmed when they arrived, the city was a burnt out ruin, the wall around it had been torn down in places, and the enemy dead had been left lying where they fell, eaten by wild animals, it seemed. He had only ever heard of that before, after particularly terrible battles, when there were not enough men left to bury their dead, or as punishment for the stubborn defenders. Which it was here, he couldn’t guess, though the size of the mound over the mass grave of the imperial soldiers suggested the latter. The men left quickly, there was nothing left there for them, but beyond the city they entered hostile territory. Anywhere there could be an enemy army, who would take any excuse to get revenge on the people that had done such to their cities.
A high, snow capped mountain range lay across the entire northern horizon then, broken by two deep passes, in between were scattered hills, forests, a few fortified towns and some unfortified villages and farms, where, in some of the closest at least, it seemed people were still working to feed the enemy. Creeping closer, under cover of a patch of trees, they watched. A cluster of houses surrounded by fields being tended, tall crops almost as high as their farmers in many. Many were still being harvested this late in autumn. Then they saw a cart, surrounded by armed guards, arrive. Already laden with boxes and sacks, more were piled in and it set off along the road again.
The captain gestured for the men to follow, and they crept after it, under cover of the dense vegetation much of the way, until the cart and its escort stopped again at the next farm.
While the men were busy carrying whatever it was across to the cart, Theandar gave the order, and immediately four of the guards were struck with arrows. In the following panic the squad charged out of their cover and quickly took out the rest, finished loading the cart and turned it, soon they were heading back along the road as fast as they could. Not slowing until they were almost back at Hathuil, they walked the rest of the way back to the camp. A quick check of the contents showed most of them to be food, most likely supplies for the city. They drove the cart through the camp, dropped off some of its provisions, then set off again, hoping to reach the middle camp by nightfall. It was just getting dark when they arrived, they stayed only long enough to leave half their remaining supplies then headed for the hills.
The following dawn found them just arriving at the awakening camp, welcomed back, particularly when the men realised what they had brought. The squad were congratulated for their success, then the commander added “There are over two hundred thousand men in this army, how long do you think we could feed them on the contents of one cart. Your men did well, but this is only a tiny part of a much larger conflict, not the major victory some people are making it out to be.”
“With all due respect, sir, I am only one captain, a tiny part of the much larger army. I never claimed it as anything more, or less, than what it is. Though I also note that the enemy seems to be much better fed than we are.”
“As you say, you are only a captain, such matters are for more senior officers to decide. Was there any news from the other camps?”
“General Arlan suggested that we should move further north and join the rest of the army.”
“He said that, did he?”
“Well, words to that effect.”
“I’ll pass the message on. Well, you seem to have made yourself more popular with the men, at least. I hear there were fresh vegetables in some of those crates.”

part-f

Of course an assassin could sneak into the thieves guild, it wouldn’t be easy for one that hadn’t made a habit of it for years, and might cause trouble between the two societies, but having gotten that far away, Cathan had been able to slip out the back of the building, almost the way she had come, and disappear off into the city before anyone had a chance to follow her. First place she went was back to the apartment, noone would think to look there. Well, of course they would, they would expect her to think it was too obvious, unless they thought she would realise that too. Either way, she had to go there, and if anyone at the guild knew where it was, almost certainly someone did, they might come looking for her at any time. There was noone there when she first arrived, sneaking in through a window the floor above, just in case. She packed everything she would need, particularly anything that would say she had been there, and left again, disappearing into the crowded city. With nowhere else to go that she could be sure was safe, she ended up setting up a base camp in Tylis’ abandoned house, sneaking in, hiding everything there, then sneaking back out, she would have to avoid the place as much as possible, in case someone followed her back. Next problem was money, of course she hadn’t been paid for her last job, and didn’t think she could get another for a while. Of course if the guild descended into war, maybe she could find someone willing to pay her to kill the assassins hunting her.
At some point she would have to explain everything to Masra, maybe she could help somehow, it would have to be useful having a friend that wasn’t being hunted, at least as long as she didn’t draw any attention to herself.
She couldn’t go back to the apartment, but she could at least wait outside and watch for her partner to get back from wherever she was. The girl returned with their lunch a little later, and soon she had led her away to relative safety in the corridor of a neighbouring building, talking through what had happened.
Masra didn’t take it seriously for a while, but then realised the assassin wasn’t trying to tell some sort of joke. Her first thought was that they should get far away from there, and once she had been assured that was already sorted out, they discussed money.
Masra suggested stealing from the assassins guild, not really meaning it, she was worried when her partner seemed to consider it as a real possibility for a while. Wherever they went, they could soon adjust to life as a pair of thieves again, the real question was how to prove Cathan innocent, such that they could return almost to normal, at some point. That or admit to it, and help whatever faction would accept her gain control of the guild and set up a new council. Which would be almost impossible. And would mean claiming to be a much better killer than she could live up to, and to having used poison, which no proper assassin would do.
They might soon have attracted attention standing there, so the two partners decided to gather anything more they could from the apartment and leave. Before they could, though, the assassins arrived and entered their building from all sides, they watched them through the window. As soon as they were all in, the two girls could slip out the back and run as far as they could, hoping they had left nothing that could lead someone to them.

part-e

That morning, Captain Theandar asked his commander for permission to take his men out on a quick scouting trip of the surrounding area, as they hadn’t gotten much chance to get used to it so far, and offered to run down to the other camps on the way round, see if there were any messages to bring back. Surprisingly the permission was granted and they gathered on the edge of the camp, taking few provisions with them, most likely they could gather more from the land than there was left behind them.
The army was surrounded on three sides by hills, so the obvious thing to do was head north and climb to the top, look out over the landscape beyond. In theory they should see the other armies camped near the ruins of the three kingdoms, just across the border. The rest of the squad didn’t seem to mind getting out for a bit, particularly when the captain, in private, suggested they might get to meet some of the enemy. Up on top of the hills, which marked the northern edge of the empire, for then, were two watch towers, long since abandoned, now that there was little beyond to watch. Even so, the men climbed up one to have a look out over their surroundings.
The three captured cities were visible, two as spots in the distance and one a little closer, enough that they could see the half burnt ruins of its buildings, the gap torn through the wall and the mound where the fallen had been buried. Imperial solders at least, from there it almost looked as though the people of Kilistar had just been left where they fell days before.
Between was a barren landscape, hills and mountains and a single narrow river, two white dots would be the army camps, though the green smudge on the far horizon looked like enemy farmland, though it was too far away to be sure. Planning a route around rather than right across the mountains, the captain led his men toward one of the other camps. The far side of the hills the wind was much worse, the captain seemed to be feeling the cold rather more than his men, though perhaps they were just trying to act tough. Not expecting to see any enemies that far south they didn’t bother trying to stay hidden, not that there was much to hide in around there.
Walking fast, they reached the second camp quite late in the day, some among the men seemed to have about walked as far and as fast as they could away from that terrible place, and here he had brought them to another that seemed just as bad. They rested a while and continued on their way, hoping to reach the third camp that night, maybe they would have a spare place for them all to sleep. He hoped so, otherwise they would sleep on the ground in the middle of the camp, until some felt ashamed enough to offer them their beds. As soldiers, most of the men were used to walking a long way occasionally, though surprisingly Raes was doing about as well as the more experienced veterans. Strange to think, the boy’s family home could be just as far from their camp, maybe even in that burned out town they had passed on the way in. It was full night before they reached the third camp, they followed the lights of the fires and the smell of camp cooking the rest of the way, under a dark, star filled sky, such as they had rarely seen whilst in he city.
As they approached a couple of arrows flew out of the camp, landing just in front of the men. They stopped, watching as a row of soldiers, weapons at the ready, appeared out of the darkness ahead of them. Theandar raised his hands and took a step forward.
“This is the 29th squad, 7th legion, we just arrived from Althine. Few of us have ever been this far north, so I volunteered to lead a reconnaissance mission, rather than sit around waiting. I commend the dedication of your guard, but we are not an enemy army sneaking up.”
“And you must be the new captain. Eager to see some action, are you?”
Theandar looked over at the man that had just appeared unnoticed among the guard. Apparently having just left his bed, and with an age lined face framed with pure white hair and beard barely as high as the shortest of the guard, without even doing anything he clearly dominated the situation.
“General Arlan, it’s a… I mean yes, sir. That’s me. Captain Theandar, sir.”
“Theandar, can’t say I recognise the name. Where was your last posting?”
“43rd legion sir, in Jasereth.”
“Under General Raulit? Must be quite a change for you, coming all the way up here. You’ll be with Krelthet’s lot now. When you get back, you can ask him when he’ll be bringing his legions into the war with the men. Well, don’t just stand there, bring your men into the camp, we’ll see what we can do.”
General Arlan’s camp was more neatly set out, with everything lined up just so, but the men were still the same. Nearer the centre they were met by a legion commander, while the general walked off, most likely returning to bed.
“You and your men can sleep in some of the spare tents tonight, if you wish, there aren’t as many men here as we once had, though the camp is already struggling for food, I’m afraid we can’t spare you anything.”
“That’s alright, I’m sure we can live off what we can find, we’ll be heading north in the morning.”
The commander didn’t seem to get the subtle hint that their enemy was seemingly eating much better than the army, or perhaps chose to ignore it. They were shown to a small cluster of tents on the very edge of the camp, and left to sort themselves out.
“Well that was nice of them. And you got to meet General Arlan himself.”
“And made a great first impression.”
“It wasn’t that bad. Are you going to take his message back?”
“Of course. Though maybe not word for word.”
“We have a busy day tomorrow, perhaps it would be best if we got some sleep at some time?”

part-d

Cathan had not gone in until the next morning, hoping the building would be almost empty a little after dawn, when everyone would be done for the night and back home or out in the city working. There were few people around when she arrived and walked the short trip to the business office to collect her fee. Giving her name and the number of her contract, she waited for them to search through the records, check the details and give her the money, then she would be out as soon as she could. Standing and waiting, she was rather surprised when half a dozen men and women walked through the door. Particularly since there was meant to be a rule against going around with drawn weapons within guild property.
“There she is, don’t let her get away this time.”
“What?”
“You know very well what, miss. Poisoning the guild council. Once we find out how you did it and why, then we’ll see you punished.”
“…”
“Did you not arrange a private meeting with the council yesterday?”
“Yes, I did. And they were still alive when I left.”
“Well they would have been, had you stayed you would have poisoned yourself too.”
“Then I had a lucky escape. I only just graduated, I haven’t even killed five people yet, never mind all trained assassins and all at the same time.”
“You went to talk to them about some plot to kill assassins?”
“Yes, there are these men, you see, and they…”
“Yes, I know. We went round the address you supplied yesterday, there were no bodies in the attic, the house looked like it had been deserted for days.”
“Are you sure you got the right place?”
“We made sure. Now, come quietly, don’t make a fuss, we don’t want to leave too much of a mess for the cleaners do we.”
One thing to remember is not to spend too long talking, it gives you opponent a chance to plan their escape. Cathan jumped out through the window behind her, glass shattering all around, she swung off a passing roof, climbed round and dropped into a flowerbed. Within seconds she was over the far wall, through the gap between two buildings and on her way down to the thieves guild, where, she hoped, no assassin could enter without permission, which should give her long enough to escape.