Fallen empire, p.4
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       Fallen Empire, p.4

           L. D. Dailey
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  Chapter Three ~ Negotiations

  Wooden chariots, destroyed by their ogre captors, formed an open cylinder around Riri's beleaguered forces. Although primitive, the bulky prison proved difficult to penetrate and escape. A handful of attempts left ten men dead. Every few hours, a platoon of beasts pulled five or six victims from the two hundred or so archers and spearmen and charioteers still alive. Screams echoing through the autumn night soon followed, and with it, an orgy of noisy feasting by their jailors.

  Behind the mercenary captain, the colossal arch of reinforced wood securing the entrance to the city of Libaias dominated the landscape. The Black Knight, in his devilish genius, left the prison open, clearing a path to the capitol of the Libaian Empire. Spears and short bows formed neat piles beyond the confines of the open cell, a fool's temptation she possessed no desire to indulge. The taking of arms so near the city would sandwich her beleaguered forces between two packs of wolves, with the Asniums' playing the sheep. The quandary threatened to madden her. To the front lay an eventual death in the cook pots of former allies, to the rear, certain death in the hands of Asnium's mortal enemies.

  The mercenary captain sat, legs crossed, elbows resting on knees, mind puzzling over a problem with no solution. The mute spearman, a third of her chariot team, obscured her view with his height and long limbs while staring through charcoal eyes of disdain. Unflinching, Riri met the glare. The silent one possessed enough decency and honor to lower his eyes. He does not understand. Every choice leads to death.

  She surveyed the cramped quarters once more out of habit. A cluster of chariot teams huddled near the end of the crescent. No doubt conspiring their escape, the fools. One archer, his leather armor shredded beyond use, prayed with head bowed against the remnants of a chariot, pale lips mouthing the short hymn to the Secret Gods.

  {quote}Secret Gods protect and guide us in all things. Show us the meanings of your teachings and make us whole.{/quote}

  Riri felt a tear trickle down one cheek and wiped it away. Prayers will not help us against- him. Fear to think the Black Knight's name filled her with shame, a shame expounded and worsened by the persistent aching to feel his touch once more.

  The rattling of metal accompanied a chorus of grunts as her tormentors pried the primitive gates of their community jail apart. Five times this day; thirty-five men, maybe more, maybe less. She sighed, a weak release of hopelessness and despair. Secret Gods let them take me. I no longer wish to endure this. Eyes watered again, but Riri lost the strength to combat them.

  An ogre, half as tall as a man and twice as wide, squeezed through the opening. Its leather apron adorned with spikes scraped against metal as it entered. Overlarge canines sprouted from its mouth like two tusks. It greeted the helpless captives with a smile, a sloppy wetting of bulbous lips, and a gleam of hunger within beady eyes. Massive hands, the hue of moss before the winter, gripped a long chain. It stepped toward the prayer, the nearest victim, and proceeded to bind the man in a makeshift noose.

  The archer appeared unafraid, standing and lowering his head, giving the creature easier access. The ogre paused with a look of uncertainty creasing its brow as thick eyebrows met above a wide nose. The prisoner filled the inaction with his own, striking the beast in the throat.

  Riri blinked in shock as the giant staggered backward, clutching the arrowhead lodged in his windpipe. "What have you-"

  The soldier sprinted away, screaming incomprehensible words while making a run for the weapon cache. In the blink of an eye, this unknown assailant stole the impossible decision from her in an act of madness. His dash prompted similar responses from the rest of the unit as soldiers raced for the tantalizing stash well within range of Libaian archers, sweeping Riri away in the avalanche.

  She picked up a spear, useless with a missing appendage, but the security of the wooden staff spiked with iron calmed frayed nerves. She turned to face the inevitable charge as ogres rushed to fill the gap. Ten brutes lined the prison wall, waiting, taunting her forces in their harsh dialect of grunts.

  A low whistle screamed from behind. A grunt of pain accompanying the sure sound of steel piercing flesh followed. The mercenaries huddled at the sound of bodies dropping. Riri found no voice to order dispersion against the arrows. She waited for a storm of arrows, certain that death guaranteed an end to the inner turmoil, and twisted to view the city when none came. Odd.

  "No archers?" A toothless veteran to her right looked down at her. "Your orders, Captain?"

  The stray hope empowered her as the leader took the first step toward Libaias. "To the city gates, but spread out!" A mad dash followed the order. Arrows zipped past her and a handful of soldiers faltered under the attack. Expressions by those closest to her mirrored the private query. Why so few arrows? As she neared the battlements, the silhouette of a dozen archers outlining the sky provided an answer.

  Before deliberating the reasons why Libaias would leave a skeleton garrison during a siege, the massive archway of oak creaked open. Instinct rippled through the mercenaries as spearheads and bows targeted the opening. Riri shook her head, motioning for them to lower their arms with a hand gesture.

  A gorgeous woman marched from the gate, golden locks curled to armored shoulders, accentuating a heart shaped face. She wore the golden cloak of a Legatus, the fabled commanders of the One Hundred Legions. Riri knew in an instant that the woman's azure eyes and pale features marked her foreigner. A foreigner wearing the clothes of a Legatus? She spoke in the tongue of her enemies, words with long syllables holding no meaning to Riri's ears. The leader felt the eyes of her army watching for a response. Riri stepped forward with a sigh. "I don't understand you."

  The stranger turned and shouted. A citizen, with the dark hair and olive complexion of a Libaian, garbed in ivory robes peeked through the crack in the double doors before stumbling forward. The Libaian spun about in obvious anger, but retreated as a behemoth of a man in the armor matching the first stranger exited the city. The Legatus surveyed Riri's troops, a frown of displeasure plain on his weathered face as he waved the younger man onward with an imperial gesture.

  The citizen cleared his throat. "I am Senator Cormidus. To my left and right are Legatus Marrinae," he nodded toward the female warrior tapping her feet with arms crossed, "and Legatus Horatius."

  Riri stared at the woman and tried to imagine this diminutive figure as Bellemarr's antithesis. Cormidus' expertise with the Asnium language caught Riri unawares. "You speak our language?"

  Cormidus stepped forward with smoldering eyes of unfeigned fury. "I house many Asnium slaves. I make it my business to know the tongue of my enemies. Now, why are you here?"

  Murmurs from her men filled the tense silence. Riri eyed them all with a turn of her head. The mute to her left coughed while lowering a spear, eyes followed the weapon in embarrassment.

  The female spoke in a foreign tongue. Riri strained to comprehend but caught a sole word- Bellemarr. Shocked, Riri pointed in the distance with her spear. Legatus Marrinae tilted her chin up, as if seeking the Black Knight in the darkness. She stroked an ancient sword hilt secured beneath her belt, and Riri blinked in confusion upon noticing the lack of a blade.

  Snapping fingers obscured the view as Cormidus demanded attention. "Why- are- you- here?" The translator almost stepped back before discovering some hidden well of courage.

  Riri schooled her features, cursing herself for showing annoyance. "The Black Knight betrayed us." Cormidus translated as she spoke. "He trapped us between his men and the city. His ogres took us in groups and cooked my men to eat." She blinked away the tears. She would not fail her people by weeping in front of their enemies. She would not! "We had no choice but to chance a flight to the city. We ask for sanctuary."

  The large one, Horatius, opened his mouth, but his colleague overrode him with her own request. Cormidus spied Riri, then Marrinae, and back once more, his face paling with each turn. A debate ensued between them, with Cormidus punching the flat of his palm wi
th each word. The female Legatus shook her head and smiled while Horatius glowered in silence.

  Marrinae seemed victorious as Cormidus faced Riri with a sneer. "Do you give oath to defend Libaias with all your strength until this siege is ended?" He held up a hand, cutting off any reply. "You will follow our laws, and you will," the senator sighed in defeat, "take orders from the Legati. After the siege, you are free to return home. These are our terms. They are not open to negotiation."

  Riri absorbed the words for a moment. The terms seemed more than fair to an invading army, but something about the senator sparked a hint of mistrust. Her mother's word echoed from the past. A Libaian is good for two things; inventing better ways to kill people and lying about it. Old prejudices proved hard to surmount, even with a horde of carnivores at one's back. Captain Riri stared over Cormidus' shoulder toward Marrinae. The Legatus returned the look, azure eyes betraying nothing. In that instant, Riri decided to accept the offer. She stepped around an affronted Cormidus to approach Marrinae and kneeled at her feet. "I pledge my service and the service of my men to the defense of your city against the Black Knight."

  Two hands pulled Riri to her feet. Marrinae nodded and smiled before embracing the captain. Her new benefactor murmured incomprehensible words. The comfort and affirmation behind them was not lost to Riri, or her men. A chorus of shouts and cheers sparked life into a night filled with death. For the first time in the history of the empire, a foreign army entered the capital of Libaias under arms.

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