Divided We Fall
=== Old Aldoria, many years ago ===
Everyone was on edge, which was exactly what she had expected. The older boys sharpened what weapons they had found or stolen. Some of them only had butcher’s knives, but they looked sharp enough and so did the young men wielding them. Younger members scuttled about the Peach Street house with a speed that always meant danger, delivering messages and running errands in silence. The usual jumble of jokes and pointless squabbles had hushed. It was a house full of young men, silent and serious as the grave. A young girl in a pretty pink dress, Ryla would have seemed out of place except that she shared a certain lean sharpness, a ruthlessness born of wanting, with the rest of the gang. At the rear of the house, in the room he used for an office, she could hear Thomas bellowing at someone.
A small boy in cloths two sizes too big finished a mug of some kind of terrible beer and bounded over to her. “You going to see the boss?”
“That’s the plan. You seem giddy. Not worried about going up against Roger’s boys?”
“Nah. Everybody knows Tom’s the smart one. We’ll wipe the floor with them.” One of the older boys, Ryla thought his name was Rowen, shot him a dirty look. “If Roger’s really the two bit back biter Tommy thinks he is. Which I’m not saying he is. Just. . .”
“It’s okay James. I know what you were saying. Obviously someone’s expecting a fight.” The boy had a tiny knife someone had nicked for him strapped to his belt, as though he would actually know how to use it. He was a decent cut purse, but he’d never killed a flea. And not for a lack of them. “James,” she leaned in and whispered to him, producing a few coins from her purse. “Why don’t you pop over to Old Wallace’s pub and get a bottle of that gut rot Thomas likes. Might calm him down.”
He looked apprehensive. “I have to be here for the brawl.”
“I know, I know. I think you’ve got a little time though.” She pulled out a few more coins. “Probably even enough time to get yourself something sweet on the way back.”
It wasn’t possible, but his eyes grew a size bigger and he snatched the coins from her greedily. “Yes ma’am.” And he was off.
Down the hall, Thomas opened the door screaming. “What in the hell. . . Oh, hi Ryla. Get in here.” He pulled her into his office and set about pacing. “It just keeps getting more and more ridiculous. Marcus, tell her what you told me.”
Thomas’ lieutenant shot Ryla a tortured look. “Roger claims that he found evidence that Thomas ‘took advantage of’ Helen”
“Helen? That girl he keeps around?”
Thomas laughed mirthlessly. “Yeah. Of all the idiotic crap he could accused me of. After everything, all his plotting and scheming he accuses me of . . . of what? Stealing his woman. I swear, my brother is king of the lunatic morons.”
“It might not be what it seems Thomas. Have you tried talking to him? Maybe this has all been a misunderstanding. You know how boys are. They spread rumors, they blow things out of proportion.”
Thomas smiled and stopped for a moment to pat her on the head. “Oh, little Ryla. You always think the best of people. Some day you’re going to have to grow up, or the world is going to eat you alive. But maybe you’re right. Did you get the letter from Gregory? If he has good news, there might still be hope for us all.”
Ryla nodded, lifting it to him reluctantly. He snatched it and read feverishly. Then he read it again. Every second that passed it seemed his face fell further. Finally he collapsed into his broken down desk chair. “No, I think we’re passed talking, little one. The letter confirms everything I suspected of him. I’ll have to kill him for this.” His mind must have been whirling. He was counting his allies and making strategies. The destruction of his brother was to be handled with swiftness, but prudence.
Roger had never been big on planning. There was a racket at the front of the house. As it got closer it was obviously the sounds of battle. Or what a group of wretched street thugs call battle anyway. There was a pounding on the door and a bloodied young man burst into the room. “Roger’s here. He’s brought all his men with him.”
Thomas leaped to his feet and grabbed his long blade. He stopped just short of the door and went back to Ryla. “Here,” he led her to a closet. “Hide. We’ll make short work of him and then I’ll be back.” He gave her a peck on the forehead and was gone.
=== New Aldoria, 262, Winter’s doorstep ===
Ryla suspected the room was supposed to seem simple and rustic. A deer’s head hung over the mantle. The mantle and furnishings were made of some dark rich wood she didn’t know the name of, sanded and polished to an unearthly smoothness. She took a seat in one of the chairs next to the fire. They may have lacked ornamentation, but they were still royal chairs. Deep and soft, they weren’t merely comfortable, they wrapped her in comfort. She actually nodded off for a moment.
“Am I interrupting?” The voice was smooth and unconcerned, with only the slightest hint of disapproval. Her eyes flew open and she shot up, then down again in her best imitation of a curtsey. It must have looked ridiculous in her traveling clothes.
Aylin looked very much at home. His cloths matched the rest of the estate, the richest form of rustic she’d ever seen. His simple hunting clothes could have kept Garrow and his men appointed for a half year.
“Forgive me, Your Highness. It was a long trip back from Onsallas.”
He waved off the honorific and took his own seat next to the fire. “Then you’ve only just now arrived? Nice of you to come straight here. Tea?”
“I’d love some. Your schedule is no doubt fuller than mine. When the Prince has time to see you, you make time to see him.” She settled back down on the edge of the chair.
“And how is the outpost? Did your business there go well?” Aylin produced an intricate pipe—long and silver with an bizarre valve system—and began to pack the bowl.
“Yes, it went very well. Thrand did sort of threaten to cut off my fingers and send me out to the Mordok.” She chuckled, but a deep frown crossed the Prince’s face.
“Barbarous, to treat a guest like that.” He took a few puffs.
“I think that was mostly a misunderstanding. Anyway, I should have your share of the profits to you presently. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to respond to your letter about the lumber.”
The Prince waved the pipe to the side, leaving a rippling trail of smoke behind. “I’m sorry I couldn’t wait for you. There is however still a load if your ship is able to take it.”
“It would be our pleasure. We’re likely going to work Onsallas into our route, at some point.” She looked at him sidelong. He was fiddling with a valve on the pipe. It was at least half ruse though, meant to disarm her. She smiled. “Your Highness’s generosity has been the greatest help to me and my cohorts. Even when we’ve paid you for the ship, I feel as though we will still owe you a debt.” He didn’t rise to the flattery, instead he occupied himself with his tea cup.
“Onsallas was enlightening, though. They may be barbarous, but it seems even the mighty Ulven occasionally need help with trade. I met a woman there as well, named Sorcha. A business woman who’s had trouble finding reliable transport for her goods. It certainly seems I picked the right occupation.” They exchanged a pleasant smile, but before he could comment she continued on. “If we survive the winter I’ll have more opportunities than I know what to do with.”
“If we survive the winter?” He somehow managed to be patronizing, but likable. “That’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I don’t buy into all the hype about the war, either. The peasants ramble on about the Grimward coming for their children at night. Even my own mercenaries blather on about it. You’d think the Grimward were monsters and not just Ulven. I mean, what’s another war, right? Aldoria’s been through worse, it’ll weather this all the same. Perhaps come out better for it, as everyone around us wastes themselves fighting.”
To his credit, Aylin’s face remained pleasant and neutral. “We’ve done what we can to aid our Ulven supporters. We’ve been helping by moving goods to the colony at an extremely fair price and New Aldoria has been a host to numerous soldiers and warriors of the Ulven in their journeys. The gates are always open in New Aldoria, for allies.”
“Naturally, Your Highness. New Aldoria is nothing if not supportive of it’s allies. Surely you’ve done everything within your power. I’d expect nothing less from so great a man…”
“Stop it.” He set the pipe down and looked her in the eye.
“Stop what, Your Highness?”
“This,” he said in a measured tone, so quiet Ryla found herself leaning in to hear. “This double talk. Is that all I’ve earned from you? What exactly did you come here to get from me?”
For a moment he let her consider, they measured each other. Ryla dropped her gaze in deference. “I’d like you to increase your support of the war effort.”
“And you thought you’d do that by talking me around, instead of just asking me?”
“I’m not used to people simply giving me things because I asked for them.” She could feel him watching her, but she kept her eyes down. She tried to seem respectful, maybe even pitiable.
“Who is? Honesty isn’t a virtue because it’s easy, Ryla. I’ve had just about enough plotting for, oh, a lifetime. Best luck to you, Miss Larksfield.” He rose to leave.
“Prince Aylin, please stop.” She put as much command into her voice as she dared, praying it still came off as respectful.
He eased himself back down into his chair and leaned in. “Okay, lets start over. What do you want?”
She sighed, then looked him flatly in the eye. “I want you to commit troops to the war.”
He eased back into his chair, picking up his pipe and regaining some measure of his genial attitude. “Why?”
“Perhaps because if the Grimward win, we’re all doomed.”
“Still being dramatic?”
“Hardly. The Ulven only seem to tolerate us, even our closest allies. I believe the Grimward intend to wipe us off the map, and if they win they’ll rally the rest of the Ulven to their cause. We need to support our allies now, more than ever before. The Stormjarl are poised to make their decision and at this point it looks as though they aren’t going to stick their necks out for us. I can’t even say that I blame them. All I know is, things are coming to a head. This war will be over soon, one way or another.”
He nodded. “You make an excellent point.” The smile was only slightly mocking. “See, was that so hard?”
“So, you’ll commit troops?”
“No, I’m sorry. I can’t commit our troops and leave the farms and families of New Aldoria defenseless. It just isn’t an option.”
“But. . .”
“A second ago I was ‘so great a man’—you might have a little faith. There’s more to fighting a war than how many men you’ve got. You’re Aldorian too, you should know that. There’s some belt tightening we can do around here. I can commit some extra supplies to the men already fighting.” A moment of silence passed while she considered. “Disappointed?”
“It isn’t the sort of aid I came here hoping for. But it will help. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’d been considering the matter for some time. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a solution. I appreciate your input. Don’t give me that look.”
“I’m hardly the sort of person who advises royalty on a regular basis.”
“I’m fairly certain that’s my call to make. Incidentally, there was something else I wanted to ask you about.”
“As you may know I recently funded mercenaries for an expedition into the dirge swamp. It didn’t. . . go well.”
“That’s one way to put it.” The Prince gave her a grim look at the remark and she took a long sip of tea as cover.
He continued, “I believe someone paid them to betray me. If you can give me some clue as to who that might be, I’d gladly make it worth your while.”
“I’d heard a rumor to that effect. It seems the most likely explanation. Unfortunately I don’t have any insight into what kind of a motherless asshole would do such a thing. Pardon my Vandregonian. If I do hear anything, I’ll tell you directly.”
“Thank you. It’s obviously someone of means, perhaps another noble. Who can tell. Politics remains the same ruthless viper’s nest it’s always been.” He gave her another appraising look. “It can be very difficult to tell who has your best interests at heart. But enough of this dreary banter, tell me more about these Ulven to the north.” replied the Prince as a genuine smile crossed his face.
=== Old Aldoria ===
Ryla imagined spending a few hours in a closet was pretty horrible even without a bunch of people killing each other outside. When it grew quiet and two confused looking town guards opened the door it was as near a godsend as anything she’d ever experienced. “What? Who are you?”
“Me? I’m the person your boss sent you to find. Right? Little girl, big mouth, likely hiding in the house somewhere. That’d be me.” When they stared at her stupidly for a minute too long, she coached them further. “You’re boss is looking for me. Translated into idiot that means bring me to Guardsman Wright.”
Wright was the sort of man who looked more frightening than he was. He was big as a house, with fists the size of the hams they served at the Baron’s banquets. Or so Ryla imagined. He was standing in the midst of the carnage that was now the main room, giving his men orders in a calm and almost fatherly tone. The corpses of foolish young men draped over what remained of their poorly kept earthly processions. He started when he saw her.
“Damned fools. This is no place for a little girl. Get her out of here.”
Ryla ducked the quicker of the two fools escorting her and paced to their Captain over her erstwhile comrades. “I trust things went according to plan.”
He frowned, but resigned himself to allowing her to stay. “Just as you said. They nearly wiped each other out. We didn’t lose a man. Never seen anything like it. Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it. Two of the most notorious criminals in the Low Streets, beaten by a little girl.”
She snorted. “They beat themselves. And Thomas?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “Dead. Tried to surrender. Bad business that, but. . .”
“A promise is a promise,” Ryla finished. “I need to see him.”
He looked a bit sick. “That’s no sight for a young lady.”
“If I see one around here, I’ll tell her. Where is he?” He pointed to a corner of the room. Sure enough, Thomas and Marcus lay cold on the floor. Long crimson gashes marked their throats. She closed her eyes, but waited a moment to turn back to Wright.
“Bad business,” he repeated, “even for dogs like them. Must have done something terrible to you.” Ryla supposed good men were always protective of little girls. Part of their nature.
“No,” she picked up a flute one of the boys used to play on boring nights and fiddled with it absently. “Never did me wrong.” She seemed to catch herself and tossed the pipe aside. “And he never will. I meant what I said. Thomas is one of the most brilliant and cruel men in the city.
“Was,” she corrected pointedly. “Would you betray a man like that and let him live to pay you back?
“No, I suppose not.”
“Neither would I.”
He said nothing, shifting uncomfortably. She let the moment drag, enjoying his unease. “Well,” he finally spouted, smiling to hide his discomfort. “It seems the guard should certainly offer you their thanks.”
“Not really. They should forget I exist.” She turned to leave. “That was the whole point, after all.”
=== New Aldoria, 262 ===
The street was very dark and quiet. Few people ventured out at night this time of year. Ryla waited by the front door for a moment. It was a long walk back from the Prince’s estate. She breathed out slowly, watching the cloud of steam rise into the dark. It felt like she’d been holding her breath all day. Her hands shook and it had nothing to do with the cold.
There was laughter from inside. Dishes clinked and the smell of a cooked bird of some kind wafted out to the street. She’d fought for things before. Respect, comfort, power. When she was young and lean and angry she had thought she’d do anything to get ahead. She liked fighting dirty. It had become comfortable for her.
The door opened, enveloping her in warmth and light. Duncan reached out and pulled her into the house. “. . . standing out there like an idiot,” he finished saying to someone else. He took her cloak and put a mug of warm cider in her hand. “So, how was meeting the Prince?”
“We’ve met him before.” Nighen corrected from across the room. She was helping Ty do something with herbs. An occupation he left in her hands so he could meet Ryla at the door and give her a long hug and friendly kiss.
“It was fine, I guess. He won’t commit troops. But he is going to send extra supplies, so that’s something.” She enjoyed the calming weight of Ty’s arms around her shoulders. “He’s clever. I like him.”
Duncan nodded, but the instant he opened his mouth Erin was there with a plate of food for Ryla. “She doesn’t want to hear your political ramblings right now, dear.” She winked at Ryla. “She’s had a long trip, let the girl rest.” Duncan was about to complain until Erin decided to distract him with a kiss. Ryla made her way to a chair next to the fire and began eating quietly.
Nighen continued with a story she’d obviously been telling before Ryla had interupted. “So we’re carrying all this stuff to the Outpost. And these two Mordok show up out of nowhere. Well, Ryla wasn’t about to let them go that easy. She dropped the chest she was carrying and hit them with the highest pitched, girliest scream I have ever heard. It was impressive. You should be so proud of your student Duncan.”
When Duncan could breath again, he gasped, “No, no no. There was this one time outside of New Hope. . .”
“Don’t you dare tell that story,” Ryla warned.
“And there was this farmer and his damned cow.” Ryla resigned herself and sat listening to him recount her most embarrassing moments as a mercenary. Outside the night grew colder and darker.