A test of honor, p.6
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       A Test of Honor, p.6

           Justin Hebert
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  Chapter 6

  "Never agree to a treaty with impossible conditions. In times of peace, it is good to reflect on which conditions you would find impossible, whether for moral or practical reasons."

  - Troy Franklin, 10 Augesti, 1787 AC

  The Guard who had pronounced his arrest, whom Aidan believed was the commanding officer, punched him repeatedly in his gut, and he helplessly grunted with each strike of his gauntleted fist. Again and again it smashed into his chest and face, and Aidan felt his teeth crack and spit some of the fragments feebly from his bleeding mouth.

  Initially, this beating fed his rage, but each blow was transforming it by degrees into shame. Perhaps they are right. Maybe this is justice. He had discharged a deadly weapon in the presence of the King's Deputy, an office that any right and proper Knight should respect regardless of who held it. Hit by hit, strike by strike, his spirit was gradually crushed under the weight of mistakes he'd made since returning home, his mind chanted one cruel chorus that he could not bring himself to deny. I deserve this.

  A red blur filled his vision, and he was overtaken by confusion when the air suddenly erupted in cold vapors and the Guard who had been so sorely abusing him jumped back screaming as though covered in hot tar. Aidan heaped onto the ground as the other Guards released him. One of his abusers fell beside him, his Kannitick helm spewing sparks as though angry at the intrusion of a black steel bolt from a crossbow sticking through his left eyelet. Aidan shook his head to clear his vision. One eye now able to focus, he saw the other Guard put a knee to the ground and fold his pike into its Musket form, a glowing bolt of unexpended Plaz pointing into the forest, where neither rustling of bushes nor flight of bird revealed their attackers' position.

  With a muted thrum and a whistle, a cloudy-white bolt struck the still-hunting Guard, who shrieked briefly and fell over perfectly frozen in place. The last two Guards discharged their Plaz pikes into a nearby thicket of Manzanita, which exploded in flames and thorns, but revealed no assailant.

  "We won't chase you if you flee!" a voice called. Still delirious from his beating, Aidan wondered if the trees themselves spoke, as if he truly had slipped into a minstrel's song. Instead, Rodrig emerged from behind a red, furry-barked adolescent sequoia, his face taking on a menacing glow from his crossbow's deadly swirling white bolt. The remaining two Guards dropped their pikes and mounted their horses for the fastest retreat Aidan had ever seen.

  "Rodrig ..." Aidan looked around, his head throbbing with flame. Around him, bandits emerged from their thickets or from behind trees and went about their grim work removing the armor from the dead.

  "I'm here, M'Lord. Sorry about shooting that bugger with you so close. Apart from the thrashing, you don't look overly damaged, though."

  "Your bolts strike true." Aidan tried to rise on his own, but Rodrig helped him nonetheless. "I thank you for the rescue."

  "Not all the bolts were mine. Three-Eyed Laney had a hand in it."

  A woman emerged from a large thicket between two oaks, her head bearing a contraption that strapped around her head and held a scope that was currently propped over her left eye. Despite her cloak, Aidan could tell she was thick-armed and hardy. She smiled and lifted the faceplate of a frozen Guard, whose armor was still white and frosted from the elemental bolt that killed him.

  "You didn't have to get this one through the eye, Laney," the voice came from Aidan's other side, "you could have gone for his throat. He was looking up when you made the shot, his apple was exposed!"

  "Aye, that it was," Laney replied, her voice as dark as her midnight skin, "but I wasn't about to line up another shot just to have the bastard bring his chin down at the last moment. Not all of us can afford the fancy bolts, you know."

  "I'll lend you mine next time," the other man said, looking with disgust at the helmet he'd removed, its viewscreen shattered completely. "Hell, from this haul, we'll all have enough to buy whatever bolts we like! I been meaning to try out the fire variety - I hear it melts right through the shitheads' precious armor!"

  Rodrig shuffled Aidan to his black mount who had stood by like a loyal Soldier. "Feel up for walking, Sir Aidan?"

  "I don't, but I will. No good riding in the dark."

  "We'd better be movin' on, Rodrig," Three-Eyed Laney busily tied bits of scavenged Guard armor together with some sequoiavine and stacked them on one of the leftover horse's saddles. "The runaways are likely calling for reinforcements at Wishon as we speak. It's one thing to avoid them, but if the Deumars get involved, we're sunk. They know these woods."

  Rodrig looked at Aidan as if asking him about the Deumars and their intentions. Aidan shook his head, a deep hollowness spreading through his heart at the thought of Marke hunting him down with his House Guards. He didn't want to think that it could happen, but he knew now that he couldn't count on anything or anyone. The Deumars would hunt him if it suited their purposes, it was time for him to stop living in some chivalric fantasy where the righteous always triumph and the evil are always exposed. Such a world may exist somewhere, but Caledonia wasn't it.

  "Perhaps one of the nearby hamlets would shelter us, Gordonsville or Cordoba," Rodrig said, Aidan sensing the anxiety in his voice. "We have friends there-"

  "Friends who would hand us over for a bounty," the other man said, struggling to remove his Guard's breastplate. "Make no mistake. They're happy to eat our bread when times are good, but that's been awhile."

  "Perhaps we-"

  "The hollow," Aidan said, still feeling like his body was full of the melting fire the young man had mentioned earlier, but finally able to speak without sputtering or gasping, "where you found me. They won't find us there."

  "That hollow," Rodrig's tone was low, the same way it sounded when he would warn Aidan of a particularly difficult horse in their former days, "is too far. We'll be caught along the way."

  "It's not too far." Aidan said. "I can walk on my own, but we need to leave now."

  Rodrig looked as if he had a rebuttal, but seemed to think better of it.

  "Woodsen!" he yelled, peering out from the trees into the meadow where the Guards had spotted Aidan in the first place. "You done?"

  "Just a few more minutes, I should have-"

  "Take what you can," Rodrig disarmed and shouldered his crossbow, placing the deadly freeze arrow into its own soft, padded pouch at his hip, "we're leaving now."

  "But I'm almost-"

  "You can't enjoy your spoils if you're dead, now sling what you have on a horse and fall in line!"

  Woodsen made a sour face but did as he was told. The four of them lined up their horses single file, all following Aidan. He tried to ignore the white heat that began emanating from each injury, trying to take peace in the strange heavenly magic that was already knitting his broken bones and lacerations back together. It can't slow us down, no matter what. We need to move quickly.

  Shaking his head against his pain, he walked Midnight along the overgrown trail he'd found. Each member of their party lit one of the torches Rodrig had brought with him, small-handled but thick with pitch-soaked wrappings at the head, which drew heat away from the hands. The path was still easy to find in the dark, if you knew what you were looking for, and Aidan found it easy to push down his pain as long as he focused completely on the simple act of walking, one foot in front of the other.

  They heard shouts and saw light spitting through the thick distant darkness, confirming their fears. Woodsen dropped the tip of his crossbow to the ground and shoved his foot through its flat-sided front loop. He began pulling the bowstring back when Rodrig ordered him to put the blasted thing away, and they began to argue.

  "We're nearly there." Aidan said. "They won't reach us as long as we remain quiet."

  The two men kept their peace, and Aidan limped on, close enough to a huge sequoia to wave his torch around a bit to spot the telltale tree cluster and his family's Tulip Crest. Aidan led them through the deep darkness into the heart of the five conjoined trees. Placi
ng his torch in a sconce his brother, Troy, had installed so that he could come to the hollow to read, Aidan collapsed. The last thing he remembered hearing was Rodrig shouting at him to wake up and Woodsen declaring flatly, "He's done for."

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